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What makes a person foolish or wise? Find examples from your own experience.


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19. The Logic of Awakening



My life as a theologian.  While there is no “theos” in Buddhism, I find the language of theologians closer to what I am doing than that of philosophers or Biblical scholars — and certainly that of Buddhist Studies.


Buddhist Studies might reveal a great deal about the history of the tradition, the evolution of texts, the debates that occurred between different schools, but it is unlikely to generate a new way of configuring the dharma to speak to another culture.


As a result, I find myself standing between traditional Buddhists, on the one hand, and those who study Buddhism in the academy, on the other.


The Great Discussion [Mahāvedalla Sutta M. 43.] consists of a dialogue between the intellectual Koṭṭhita and Sāriputta, whom Gotama considered the “mother” of his community, because of his skill in leading people into the stream of the eightfold path.


Koṭṭhita: What makes a person foolish or wise? 

Sāriputta: People are said to be foolish because they do not understand the [four        paths]. They are said to be wise when they do understand them.


Wisdom is about how to live: how to embrace the situation in which you find yourself, how to let go of the reactive patterns that hinder you from responding appropriately, how to dwell in a non-reactive emptiness, and how to behave with care in all areas of your life. For Sāriputta, the fool is someone who has not yet understood how to flourish in this world through practicing the tasks associated with these four paths.


            Koṭṭhita then asks Sāriputta how the wisdom he has just spoken of is related to consciousness. In Pali, “wisdom” is paññā and “consciousness” viññāṇa. Etymologically, the two words are similar. Both contain the root -ññā, which means “to know,” and are prefixed by pa- and vi- respectively, both of which add emphasis. How are these two ways of knowing, which sound so alike, connected to each other? Sāriputta tells him that paññā and viññāṇa are not two separate things but are “mixed up” in such a way that “you cannot dissect them finely enough to understand the difference between them.”  Koṭṭhita is puzzled and frustrated by this answer. He persists with the same line of enquiry:


            Koṭṭhita: Wisdom and consciousness — what is the difference                                                     between these two mixed up things?

            Sāriputta: Wisdom, Koṭṭhita, is to be cultivated, while consciousness                                          is to be embraced.


Sāriputta’s strategy is now clear. He wants to rescue Koṭṭhita from getting bogged down in questions of ontology. In terms of human flourishing, what matters is not what wisdom or consciousness is, but what is to be done with it. Sāriputta is employing the language of the four tasks. As something to be cultivated, wisdom belongs to the fourth task (cultivating a path); as something to be embraced, consciousness belongs to the first (embracing life).


            Koṭṭhita has no idea what is wrong with the way he asks questions. Bewitched by language, he is oblivious to being under the spell of “is” and “isn’t.” In his eagerness to analyse wisdom, he does not register how foolish he must appear to Sāriputta. When told that a fool is one who does not understand the four paths, he fails to take the hint and blunders on with his endless quest for definitions. Sāriputta plays along by offering Koṭṭhita joke definitions. “Perception is called perception,” he tells him, “because it perceives.” Asked to define feeling, he replies: “Feeling is called feeling because it feels.” In the end, he brings the dialogue to a halt by shifting to the language four tasks. He bluntly tells Koṭṭhita that he ought to cultivate wisdom and embrace consciousness rather than endlessly speculate about what they are.


            This ethical turn in the conversation from is to ought forces Koṭṭhita to recognise that he already understands enough about wisdom and consciousness to practice the tasks associated with them. His ability to participate in this conversation shows that he knows perfectly well how to use the words paññā and viññāṇa in the language game known as Pali (or one of its demotic cousins). To keep on analysing these terms might be useful for a philologist or psychologist, but only serves as a delaying tactic for one who supposedly aspires to practice the dharma. Koṭṭhita seems reluctant, perhaps afraid, to abandon the quest for certainty and set foot on the path itself. He behaves like the man wounded by a poisoned arrow, who refuses to have it removed until he knows whether the feathers of the arrow’s fletch belonged to a vulture, a crow, a peacock or a stork.


            Sāriputta wants Koṭṭhita to stop prevaricating and going off at tangents. He encourages him to embrace fully the fact of being a conscious being who suffers, and to cultivate the kind of wisdom that could free him from the entanglements of reactivity that prevent him from responding wisely to life. This is demanding work, which will push against many of the instinctive inclinations and habit patterns that drive him. If Koṭṭhita is to engage wholeheartedly in the ethical practice of the four tasks, he needs to put aside his intellectual obsessions and risk embarking on a new relationship with life itself.


             Consciousness is part of the givenness of life, an inevitable consequence of being an embodied creature with feelings, perceptions and inclinations. Such consciousness is not to be expanded, cultivated or transformed: it just happens. It comes with the raw fact of being human. You have no control over it. For Gotama, to embrace the experience of being conscious means to comprehend it in a way that is no longer coloured by your habitual wants, dislikes and opinions. Such comprehension is a generous, loving, lucid and ironic openness to your being an empathetic and thoughtful person, a fragile harbour of memories anticipating a tentative future. To embrace your life in this way is to radically accept yourself for who and what you are. It is the foundation of care, both for yourself and other sentient beings.


            Wisdom, by contrast, does not just happen by itself. It needs to be cultivated and refined over a lifetime. At the beginning of their dialogue, Sāriputta explained to Koṭṭhita how wisdom emerges from the practice of four paths. Elsewhere, he describes wisdom as the result of three distinct human activities: learning, thinking, and cultivation. Wisdom is nurtured over time through listening to what wise people say, by reading and rereading the works enshrined in the canon of your culture, by absorbing the insights of poetry, art, theatre and music. It is refined by continually reflecting on what you hear and read, struggling to resolve apparent contradictions, discussing and debating ideas with others. As an integral dimension of your humanity, it is matured by training your mind to be more still and attentive, in finding your own voice, and through acquiring the know-how developed in the course of your work.


            In the version of the dialogue between Sāriputta and Koṭṭhita found in the Pali Canon, the text does not mention the four paths. Instead, Sāriputta describes the wise person as one who understands the Four Noble Truths:


He knows: this is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the                         cessation of suffering; this is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.


Here Sāriputta employs the language of is rather than ought, of ontology rather than ethics. The wise are those who have achieved certainty about four propositions of fact, irrespective of whatever else life might have taught them. The potency of the dialogue is lost. By removing the dramatic tension in the encounter between the two men, their conversation is reduced to a monotonous series of questions and answers.


            Sāriputta and Koṭṭhita embody conflicting perspectives on the practice of the dharma. Sāriputta is the authority to whom Koṭṭhita looks for answers to his questions. Yet when Sāriputta tells Koṭṭhita that the wise person is one who understands how to perform a set of interrelated tasks, Koṭṭhita fails to grasp what this implies, and persists in his quest for ever more exact definitions of terms. The tension between these perspectives is resolved when Sāriputta states: “Wisdom is to be cultivated, while consciousness is to be embraced,” thereby returning to his initial contention that a person is wise not because of any factual knowledge she might possess, but because of how she leads her life with integrity. Through reverting to the language of the four tasks, Sāriputta achieves dramatic closure with an answer that is both surprising and inevitable. As soon as you replace the four tasks with the Four Noble Truths the dialogue falls flat. For the habit of thinking in terms of truths (what is) rather than tasks (what ought to be done) is precisely what Sāriputta is seeking to expunge from Koṭṭhita’s mind.


            Reading this dialogue as literature rather than doctrine allows you to recover a narrative that has been buried and forgotten. Such an archaeology of texts may yield only a handful of fragments, but when patiently re-assembled these excavated words and phrases begin to reveal the contours of another vision of Gotama’s dharma.


             The dialogue between Sāriputta and Koṭṭhita is another piece of the puzzle, which confirms my hunch that Gotama taught a task-based ethics that  came to be overshadowed and supplanted by a truth-based metaphysics. At the conclusion of his first discourse, Gotama declared that he only considered himself to be fully awake because he had recognised, performed and mastered the four tasks. We then hear virtually nothing more about these tasks in the hundreds of discourses that have been preserved in the canons of the different schools of Buddhism. Indeed, the very term “four tasks” does not appear a single time. It is as though an entire narrative has been erased, of which only fragments — like this dialogue between Sāriputta and Koṭṭhita — now survive like barnacle encrusted amphoras in a sunken ship.




            To study logic is to study how language users make sense to each other. Formal logic dissects everyday speech in order to show in technical terms how it works. Anyone who can engage in a rational conversation knows intuitively whether the other person is making sense or not. But unless you are a logician, you might find it hard to explain exactly how and why. Through studying Buddhist logic, I became aware for the first time of the inner workings of thought and language. Training in logic was an exercise in critical thinking. It was designed to sharpen my ability to analyse Buddhist doctrines. As a result, I started paying greater attention how Buddhists think. 


            Soteriology is the logic (logos) of salvation (soter), or what Buddhists call “awakening.” The five Buddhist paths to awakening presented in the Indo-Tibetan traditions  — those of formation, unification, vision, meditation and no-more-learning — are a logical sequence of causes and effects. The path of formation is the cause of the path of unification; the path of unification is the cause of the path of vision, and so on. Or in logical terms:


if a, then b; if b, then c; if c, then d; if d, then e.


The sequence of steps involved in the process of awakening is derived from Gotama’s foundational insight into conditioned arising. In its most pithy formulation, conditioned arising is also presented in logical terms:


if this is, that arises; if this is not, that does not arise.


Sāriputta quotes Gotama as saying: “one who sees conditioned arising sees the dharma; and one who sees the dharma sees conditioned arising.” The dharma — literally the “law” — is thus equated with the natural unfolding of life itself as well as the intentional unfolding of the stages of the path over time. Gotama’s vision of both life and how optimally to live it is rational and temporal, founded on the simple logic of “if p, then q.”


            When I began to study in earnest the early discourses of Gotama in the Pali Canon, I approached them with a mind steeped in the soteriology of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. I was therefore surprised not to find anything in the Pali texts that corresponded to these five paths with which I was familiar. No account of the path in the Pali discourses appears to proceed through the phases of formation, unification, vision, meditation and no-more-learning. Yet I had been repeatedly taught by my Tibetan teachers that the five paths are common to all Hinayana and Mahayana schools. Seminal Indian texts of Hinayana Buddhism, such as Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, take the five paths for granted. Above all, the five paths are an essential feature of Sutrist philosophy — a Hinayana school that explicitly relied on the teachings of the early tradition. Where, then, did this doctrine come from?