Part II How Middle is the Path of Liberation of the Buddha

Part II

How Middle is the Path of Liberation of the Buddha

It is wonderful, Lord! It is wonderful, Lord! It is as if, Lord, one might set
upright what had been upturned, or might reveal what was hidden, or might point
out the path to one who had gone astray, or might bring an oil-lamp into the
darkness so that those with eyes might see material shapes. (Ud 48)

This newly acquired vision had a
number of profound effects. With his brain now washed of attachment to
sense-pleasures, he may be considered to have undergone a spiritual rebirth,
subsequent to which he is no longer slave to Mara and his bait in the form of
sense-pleasures. A good many of such converts, though not all, elected at this
point to take refuge in the Buddha and to go forth into the homeless life of a

With this rebirth, old values, once dearly held in common with the world, are
now rejected in favor of a completely new set. Former attachment to the
pleasures of the senses in all their various forms is now renounced in favor of
the cessation of phenomenal existence altogether:

For those still fantasizing about the Asian way of life  then and now …

Sights, sounds, tastes, odors, things touched, and objects of the mind are,
without exception, pleasing, delightful and charming—(at least) so long as they
continue to exist;

These are considered a source of happiness by the world with its gods—and when
they cease this is by them considered suffering.

The cessation of phenomenal existence is seen as a source of happiness by [us] ariyans—this [insight] of those who can see is the
reverse of that of the whole world:

What others say is a source of happiness, that [we] ariyans say is
suffering, what others say is suffering, that [we]
ariyans know as a
source of happiness. Behold this doctrine, hard to understand, wherein the
ignorant are bewildered. (S IV 127)

It is clear that things could not go
on as they had hitherto for those who had undergone such a radical and profound
change in their personality, identity, and outlook. It was now incumbent upon
them to take the Buddha’s advice and renounce their former way of life, his
converts invariably reflecting that:

The household life is confined and dusty, going forth is in the open; it is not
easy for one who lives in a house to live the holy life wholly fulfilled,
wholly pure, polished like a conch-shell. Suppose now that I, having cut off hair
and beard, having put on saffron robes, should go forth from home into
homelessness? (M I 179)

whereupon they would then cut off
hair and beard and go forth into homelessness, as soon as they had disposed of
their wealth and relatives:

Now, sir, I had four wives, young girls, and I went and spoke to them thus:
"Sisters, I have embraced the five rules of training in the holy life. Who
wishes may enjoy the wealth of this place, or may do deeds of merit, or may go
to her own relations and family; or is there some man you desire to whom I may
give you?" And when I stopped speaking, the eldest wife said to me:
"Sir, give me to such and such a man!" Then I had that man sent for,
and, taking my wife by the left hand and holding the waterpot in my right, I cleansed
that man [by an act of dedication]. Yet I was not a whit discomfited at parting
with my wife. (A IV 210)


That is to say, the radical change
in personality induced by the Buddha’s progressive talk inevitably led to
broken homes and the abandonment of family responsibilities. The domestic
problems caused by householders opting out of their social responsibilities
must surely have been immense, and not all wives who were disposed of in the
above way took matters so placidly. Indeed, we are told that on one occasion
some former wife is reported as having sought out her ex-husband monk, placed
their young son on the ground before him and demanded that he support her and
his child. The monk, however, completely ignored them both, and following her
departure, the Buddha, who had "beheld her rudeness from afar,"
uttered a verse in praise of the monk’s steadfast detachment. (Ud 5f)

As the Buddha’s following increased, the fear of the social upheaval to which
this was giving rise quickly spread:

Now at that time very distinguished young men belonging to respectable families
in Magadha were living the holy life under the Lord. People looked down upon,
criticized, spread it about, saying: "The recluse Gautama gets along by
making [us] childless, the recluse Gautama gets along by making [us] widows,
the recluse Gautama gets along by breaking up families . . . Who
now will be led away by him?" (Vin I 43)

Parental opposition to their sons
becoming followers was equally intense and we shall have occasion later to
consider one such instance. Moreover, it is stated on several occasions that:

Although his parents were unwilling and tears poured down their cheeks, [so and
so], having cut off hair and beard and donned saffron robes, went forth from
home into homelessness. (D I 115; M I 163; II 166)

For those who did go forth, however,
beside the real—or at least envisaged—soteriological dangers that were thought
to stem from the failure to embark on the spiritual quest, such petty social
consideration paled into insignificance.

Spiritual success is therefore not without its price—and one may feel that the
price demanded by the Buddha far exceeds the so-called austerities that some
maintain is demanded of the followers of present-day modern cults. As we have
seen, it is sense-pleasures and attachment to them that presents the major
stumbling-block to liberation. They are likened to a pit of glowing embers and
an impaling stake (M I 132) and:

Indeed, that Prince Jayasena, living as he does in the midst of
sense-pleasures, enjoying sense-pleasures, being consumed by thoughts of
sense-pleasures, burning with the fever of sense-pleasures, eager in the search
for sense-pleasures, should know, see, attain or realize that which can be
known . . . realized by renunciation—such a situation does not exist. (M III

This is, as already stated, because
sense-pleasures are the sphere of Mara:

The man who lives contemplating pleasure, with senses unrestrained, in food immoderate,
lazy, inert—him, verily, Mara overthrows as a wind a weak tree. (Dhp 7)

There is, then, the need, as some
more contemporary religious movements might put it, to "smash out
Mara"—and the principal way in which this can be accomplished is by regulating,
and minimizing, sensory experiences. Delight in worldly activity, chatter and
gossip, sleep, in keeping company with others, being with the senses unguarded,
and lack of moderation in eating all lead to the downfall of a monk. (A III
116, 173, 292f, 309f; IV 22; It 71) Such failure can be prevented only through
the adoption of a lifestyle of excessive sensory deprivation. One must, as we
have seen, sever all connections with family and friends, dispose of all
possessions, and embark upon a solitary and nomadic existence in the jungle,
living at the feet of trees and clad only in robes made up from rags gathered
from rubbish-heaps, and sustaining oneself on whatever scraps are to be gained
by begging on the streets. Monks are expected, except when discussing matters
of doctrine, to observe the "ariyan silence" (Ud 11); they
must practice strict chastity and sleep as little as possible. (It 41) They
are, in addition, required to frequent funerary grounds, meditating on the
rotten, bloated, and stinking corpses in an attempt at freeing themselves from
all lust and attachment for the human body—a practice which, on occasion,
apparently had disastrous consequences:

So those monks, saying: "The Lord has in diverse ways spoken on the
subject of the foul . . . has spoken in praise of meditation on
the foul," spent their time given to meditation on the foul in all its
varied applications. As to this body, they worried about it, felt shame and
loathing for it, and sought for a weapon to slay themselves. Nay, as many as
ten monks did so in a single day; even twenty, thirty of them slew themselves
in a single day, (S V 320; cp S IV 62)

despite the fact that the Buddha
always spoke disapprovingly, except in the case of those already enlightened,
of taking one’s own life.

The fiercely austere and isolated lifestyle of the solitary monk was devoid of
any comforts, and was thus one designed to smash out Mara by means of almost
total sensory deprivation. Having spent the entire night in the jungle engaged
in meditational exercises aimed at lifting him out of sensory consciousness
altogether, he would, in the morning, emerge, with senses guarded against the
possibility of being entranced by the sight of women with disheveled clothing
(M I 462; A III 95), and enter the villages in search of the alms that would
constitute his sole meal for the day, which usually took the form of the
leftovers in the cooking-pot that remained after the family had finished its
morning meal. Some, it is true, elected to take on additional hardships, such
as dwelling under a given tree and sustaining themselves entirely on windfalls
that fell within their reach. But this should not be allowed to obscure the
fact that, apart from these additional, and voluntary, hardships, all
else—every aspect of daily life—was strictly dictated by the Buddha.

So strict were the rules, that a good many monks did not make it, falling by
the wayside, or even, as we have seen, committing suicide as a result of having
to meditate in the cemeteries on rotting corpses in various stages of
decomposition. And it is therefore little wonder that, immediately following
the death of the Buddha, at least one monk is recorded as having expressed his
relief, saying:

Enough, friends! Don’t weep, don’t lament! Well rid are we of the Great
Recluse—we, who were oppressed with his "This befits you, this befits you
not," may now do what we wish and not have to do what we do not wish. (D
II 162)

It is quite clear that, in the
Buddha’s day, it was only the select few who could cope with the lifestyle
demanded of them, yet such a lifestyle had to be adhered to if liberation were
to ensue. Liberation does not, after all, come easily. Perhaps it is not
surprising if, since the Buddha’s day, there has been a decreasing number of
those able to endure such rigor, and the history of Buddhism is such that, over
the centuries, it has tended to become so relaxed that it is today difficult to
find any monk whose lifestyle even approximates to the former ideal, most
having abandoned the middle way in favor of a lifestyle more akin to that of
the materially minded religious elite against whom the Buddha and his
contemporaries had been protesting.

Much of the blame for this, no doubt, lies at the feet of those who have seized
upon a very short, and somewhat obscure sutta, known as the Kalama
Sutta, in which the Buddha admonishes his followers to reject evil and
unwholesome states only when they themselves know them to be such, and not to
be misled in such matters by hearsay or tradition, or by the status of whoever
is speaking of them. Though nothing of the sort, this little sutta has
been seized upon, almost as a godsend, by modern lay Buddhists in the West, who
have seen in it a charter for rejecting whatever aspects of the Buddha’s
teaching they do not personally approve of. Thus we find such
"Buddhists" these days claiming that there is no need to believe in
rebirth, despite the fact that it is central to the Buddha’s whole teaching, or
to adhere to any of the rules which do not appeal to them. This is, of course,
not merely a modern phenomenon, for even in the Buddha’s day, some monks, it
seems, took to eating in the evening as well as in the morning and during the
day, maintaining that they had not seemed to have suffered any disadvantage
thereby. (M I 474) At this the Buddha is somewhat outraged—if such an
enlightened and passionless being can be—and insists that it is simply not open
to the monk to decide that he will or will not do this or that aspect of the
teaching as and whether it suits him:

For a disciple who has faith in the Teacher’s instruction and lives in unison
with it, monks, it is a principle that: "The Teacher is the Lord, a disciple
am I, the Lord knows, I do not know." (M I 480f)

And whilst monasticism is still
prominent in many Asian societies, Buddhism has, at least in the West, become
not only by and large an essentially lay movement, in which practice, which
once used to occupy every waking moment, is now relegated to a part-time hobby,
but also one in which its practitioners feel justified in picking and choosing
out of the Buddha’s teachings only those with which they feel comfortable.

If the price of liberation was so high, even during the lifetime of a living
Buddha, one can only wonder to what degree of spiritual success such
watered-down practices are capable of leading. For in another sutta,
when asked whether the whole world, one-half, or one-third of it will escape
the perils of samsara, Ananda, the Buddha’s constant companion, replies
that it is not a matter of urgent concern to the Buddha as to how many will
escape the perils of samsara; what he says is simply that all who have
done so, are doing so, or will do so, do so only by following all of the
practices that make up the path he has laid down for them. (A V 194f)

Back in the fifth century B.C.E., however, most of the Buddha’s converts
were more resolute in their determination to secure for themselves the supreme
prize, of which they had already had a preview, or foretaste, during the course
of the progressive talk. For these there could be little fear of backsliding
and reverting to the lay life, with all its attendant ills, however great the
temptation. And in some cases that temptation was one of great magnitude. We
are told, for instance, that Ratthapala (M II 55ff), a young man of good
family, encounters the Buddha, comes under his spell by means of his
progressive talk, and, as a result, judges the household life too restricting
for living the holy life and so decides to shave off his hair and beard and go
forth into the homeless life of the monk. However, he is told by the Buddha
that he must first secure the consent of his parents. This they refuse to give
and, moreover, not only try to dissuade him, extolling the virtues of a life
given over to sensual pursuits, but also attempt emotional blackmail:

You, dear Ratthapala, are our only child, dear and beloved, you live in comfort
and are well cared for; you, dear Ratthapala, do not know anything of
suffering. Get up, dear Ratthapala, eat and drink and amuse yourself; eating,
drinking, amusing yourself you can enjoy diverting yourself with
sense-pleasures and doing meritorious things. We do not consent that you should
go forth from home into homelessness. If you were to die we should be desolate
without you. How could we, while you are living, consent to your going forth
from home into homelessness?

Ratthapala is, however, quite
unimpressed, and:

Not receiving his parents’ consent, lay down there on the bare ground and said:
"Here there will be death for me or going forth."

At this, his parents solicit the
help of his friends, who at first also seek to discourage him but, in the
process, realize the obstinacy of his resolve and successfully persuade his
parents to allow him his wish—which they do on the condition that he come back
and visit them at a later date.

Ratthapala goes forth and in the course of time attains liberation. Then,
remembering his parents’ former stipulation, he asks leave of the Buddha to
visit his parents, whereupon:

The Lord with his mind carefully reflected on the venerable Ratthapala’s
reasoning of mind. When the Lord knew that it was impossible for the venerable
Ratthapala, throwing off the training, to return to the secular life, then the
Lord spoke thus to the venerable Ratthapala: "Do now, Ratthapala, that for
which you think it is the right time."

It is perhaps worthy of note that
such permission was granted only when it was clear that the proposed return
visit to the family circle would not result in Ratthapala’s defection.
Ratthapala arrives outside his former home and is seen by his father. But his
father seemingly does not recognize him as his former son and, clearly still
smarting with disaffection for the Buddha and his followers, not only refuses
him any almsfood but also abuses him saying, "Our only son, dear and
beloved, has gone forth amongst these shaveling recluses"—which must call
to mind the negative connotations of such expressions noted earlier. At this
point the family slavewoman emerges from the house intending to throw out the
previous evening’s barley-gruel; but at Ratthapala’s suggestion (which in fact
contravenes the rule of silence during an almsround—cp PS 159) she instead tips
it into his almsbowl—and as she does so, she recognizes his hands and feet and
voice. She informs his mother of his return and so overjoyed is his mother that
she renders the slave a freed woman. Ratthapala is subsequently approached by
his father saying:

Can it be, dear Ratthapala, that you are eating last evening’s barley-gruel?
Surely, dear Ratthapala, you should come into your own home?

Ratthapala replies:

Where, householder, is there a home for us who have gone forth from home into
homelessness? We are houseless ones, householder. I did come to your home,
householder, but I received neither alms there nor a refusal, all I received
was abuse,

adding that in any case he has done
with eating for the day. Ratthapala’s reply may strike us as both somewhat
haughty and unnecessarily cold-hearted, but we should not forget that, in his
eyes, he is no longer the man’s son. That son died on the day he was reborn a
spiritual son of the Buddha, and he is, like the traditional Hindu sannyasin
[renunciate], breaking the rules by returning to his former home. Or
perhaps it is because he foresees that his father is already plotting an
attempt at "deprogramming" him, for having invited Ratthapala for a
meal on the following day, he both hides a huge pile of gold behind screens and
also summons Ratthapala’s former wives, charging them to adorn themselves with
things once liked by him.

In due course Ratthapala enters and seats himself in readiness for the meal,
whereupon his father draws back the screens and says:

This, dear Ratthapala, is your mother’s wealth, the other is your father’s, the
other your paternal grandfather’s. It is possible, dear Ratthapala, both to
enjoy riches and do meritorious things. Come you, dear Ratthapala, throwing off
the training and returning to the secular life, enjoy riches and do meritorious

a suggestion that demonstrates that
he is completely unaware of there being anything to the Buddha’s teaching other
than its exoteric form [with its focus on the accumulation of merit through
doing good works] and thus why it is impossible that Ratthapala, no longer his
son, can revert to his former identity. Ratthapala responds by stating that his
father would be best advised to dump the whole lot in the river Ganges.
Unwilling to concede defeat, his father then brings in his former wives, who
take him by the feet and ask him what kind of nymphs he hopes to secure by
living the holy life. Ratthapala, in denying this to be the goal that he seeks,
addresses them as "sisters," at which they fall down fainting. He
then turns to his father saying:

If you would give food, householder, then give it—but do not annoy us!

and then finally, following the
meal—and just to show that the attempted deprogramming has failed—he utters the
following verses:

See the pranked-out puppet-shape, a mass of sores, a congeries,
afflicted, much thought of, for which there is never stability.
See the pranked-out form with jewels and rings,
the bones sheathed in skin, resplendent with the clothes,
The feet dyed with lac, the face with powder smeared—
enough for delusion of a fool, but not for the quester of the Beyond.
Hair braided eightfold, eyes with collyrium smeared—
enough for delusion of a fool, but not for the quester of the Beyond.
Like a new collyrium-box, embossed, is the foul body, adorned—
enough for delusion of a fool, but not for the quester of the Beyond.
The trapper set the snare; the deer touched not the net.
Having eaten the crop, we go while the deer-catchers lament,"

before fleeing to resume his preferred lifestyle of dwelling
in solitude in the depths of the jungle.

Peter Masefield graduated in philosophy and religious studies at the
University of Lancaster in 1972 and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1980 for his work on
oral initiation in the Pali Canon. He has spent considerable periods of time in
Sri Lanka and India. He currently teaches at the University of Sydney.

May the ambrosia of the genuine dharma remove the dream like torments of all beings clinging to impermanent phenomena as inherently existent !

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