In this second part of lesson 3, Stephen reflects on the topic of truth [#add text].
Talk ‘The True Person’ [Download this audio file here]
Chapter 6. The True Person
Rather than treating “truth” (sacca) as a propositional term, synonymous with “reality” — as in four noble truths or two truths — the texts frequently speak of it as a virtue: truthfulness or honesty. It is included among the ten perfections of Theravada Buddhism, the parami, in this sense.
The Great Discourse on the Passing (Mahaparanibbana Sutta) opens with Gotama, aged 80, seated on Vulture’s Peak being fanned by Ananda. Chief minister Brahmin Vassakara, dispatched by King Ajatasattu of Magadha, climbs up the hill and asks Gotama’s advice about attacking the neighbouring country of the Vajjians. He has been instructed by the king to do this since the king believes that “true persons do not lie.” [D. 16]
True person is “tathagata,” which literally means: “one who is just so.”
As the true person speaks, so he acts; as he acts, so he speaks. Since he does as he speaks and speaks as he acts, therefore he is called a true person. [A: IV:23]
Bhikkhus, possessing six qualities, the householder Mahānāma has found fulfillment in the true person, become a seer of the deathless, goes about having beheld the deathless. What six? Lucid confidence in the Buddha, lucid confidence in the dharma, lucid confidence in the sangha, noble virtue, noble understanding and noble liberation.” [Selected text, 11. A: 6:119-139]
The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi lived in the fourth century BCE, about a hundred years after Gotama (and Socrates). A central term in his philosophy is also the True Person (zhenren) — a term used in the first Buddhist translations from Sanskrit to Chinese to render the term “arahant”.
“The true person of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud of plenty, and did not plan his affairs. Being like this, he could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show. Being like this he could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet, could enter the fire and not get burned…
“The true person of ancient times slept without dreaming and woke without care; he ate without savouring and his breath came from deep inside. The true person breathes with his heels; the mass of people breathe with their throats. Crushed and bound down, they gasp out their words as though they were retching. Deep in their passions and desires, they are shallow in the workings of heaven.
“The true person of ancient times knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death. He emerged without delight; he went back in without a fuss. He came briskly, he went briskly, and that was all. He didn’t forget where he began; he didn’t try to find out where he would end. He received something and took pleasure in it; he forget about it and handed it back again…”
[Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), Tr. Burton Watson, chapter 6]
Note that Gotama describes mindfulness of breathing as the dwelling of a true person (tathagatavihara).
The Satipatthana Sutta describes the situational awareness of such a person:
She is one who acts with full awareness when leaving and returning, when looking ahead and looking back, when flexing and extending her limbs, when wearing her clothes and carrying her bag, when eating, drinking, consuming and tasting, when shitting and pissing, when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent… [M.10]
The person who practices mindfulness, for example, knows that when breathing in a long breath, she is breathing in a long breath etc. There is no discrepancy between what is being done and the idea one has of what is being done. This is a way of talking about authenticity.
The Satipatthana Sutta compares this person to a skilled wood turner, who knows when he is making a long turn that he is making a long turn etc. Mindfulness is not a state of pure detachment but allows another kind of engagement with the materials of the world through the refinement of skills.
The Satipatthana Sutta also compares the practitioner of mindfulness to a butcher:
Just as though a skilled butcher or his apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at a crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too, a practitioner reviews this same body as consisting of elements thus: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element.’ [M.10]
This example also allows a glimpse into Gotama’s world of the fifth century BCE where there were no sacred cows. It would be inconceivable to come across such a scene in India today.
The same metaphor is found in the writings of Zhuangzi. He expands on the idea of the true person by providing the example of a cook called Ting:
“Cook Ting laid down his knife and said: ‘What I care about is the functioning of things (the Way), which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the whole ox but only its parts. And today — now I find it air (energy) (qì) and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and air/energy moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it just came from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play around in.”
[Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), Tr. Burton Watson, chapter 3.]
(Qì or chī literally means “air” but figuratively “material energy”, “life force” or “energy flow.”)
The Satipatthana Sutta and the Zhuangzi have different perspectives on this metaphor. The Buddhist focus on how the cut-up carcass illustrates how the body is made of parts, elements, suggesting how it can breakdown, disintegrate and die. The parts are contemplated with detachment and equanimity, leading to a deeper insight into the true nature of the body, of what it is.
Zhuangzi, by contrast, focuses on the skill of the cook or butcher in working with his materials. He celebrates the way the person engages with the tools and materials of his vocation. He is not drawing conclusions about what the body “is” but what can be done with it, how it can be transformed in accordance with the Way — the dharma. It leads to the values of work and survival.
The Buddhist approach is one of an aloof monastic reflecting on the world, while the Taoist approach is one of a craftsperson, artisan, engaging with the world.
The former is more religious (truth-based) — looking at the truth or reality of the body, while the latter is more secular (task-based)— looking at what is to be done with the body — in orientation.
The Buddhist and Chinese approaches come together in the work of the ninth century Chan/Zen master Lin-chi (Rinzai), author of the notorious statement: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
“Here in this lump of red flesh,” says Lin-chi to his audience, “there is a true person of no rank. Constantly he goes in and out the gates of your face. If there are any of you who don’t know this for a fact, then look! Look!’
A monk came forward and asked, ‘What is he like – the true person of no rank?’
The master got down from his chair, seized hold of the monk and said: ‘Speak! Speak!
The monk hesitated, whereupon the master let go of him, shoved him away, and said, ‘true person of no rank – what a dried up piece of shit!’”
[The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, Tr. Burton Watson, p. 13].
Here too we see the tension between truths (“What is he like?”) and tasks (Speak!), between a theoretical stance (aridity) and engaged agency (flourishing), between hesitancy and spontaneity.