MN 117 Take Two

August 31st, 2010

It’s been a while since I posted, and nearly a year since I had my first good look at “The Great Forty“* and in that time I’ve done a lot more reading of other suttas, and spent some time focused on certain sections of this particular one. I’ve listened to Bhikkhu Bodhi talk about it, all the while feeling that the places where he seems a little puzzled are the pieces best explained by a better understanding of its place in the culture it came out of. I’ve discussed it with a few different people and groups to try to clarify the perspective. Now I’d like to take a moment to take another look and bring up a few new pieces I’ve found.

The first is that the “Wrong Views” listed in MN 117.5 are views that were held by a certain set of the more extreme heretics of the time (our Gotama was a heretic, too). The particular phrasing of this section:

“Nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father, no beings who are reborn spontaneously, no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.” [Majjhima Nikaya, Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, p. 934]

is used often in series with other sets of views that are just as bad or worse, all describing doctrines that were refutations of the more common views of the day. Notice that these are all negative phrases; this is because they are negations of accepted positive views. The worst of those seem to be the fellows (not listed in the above) who believe that slipping a knife into someone merely moves aside their molecules and has no moral effect at all. The Buddha roundly condemned such views, not based on the physics involved, but based on the increase in suffering such views bring into the world — he is focused primarily on moral behavior.

While the Buddha was refuting the views of every extremist out there, if we think about it, we must realize that those amoral heretics did not spend all their time refuting the Buddha — the texts we have being very Buddha-centric seem to take it for granted that he was the only one worth arguing with (and that he won every argument) — but when those with these negative views were stating them, it was not just the Buddha’s views they argued against. Assuming that these wrong views were specifically negations of the Buddha’s view is the main mistake made by those who translate this sutta as “The Buddha taught rebirth as necessary to his teaching.”

We can see how this misunderstanding comes about — a few generations away from Gotama’s times, those crazy heretics may not even have been remembered, much less who they argued with, so it would be logical for Buddha-adoring followers to assume those wrong views were all about their hero’s right views. But a wider look at the canon, and the context in which the above set of views is presented show that these were much wider arguments.

So when the discussion flips from the totally negative Wrong Views to the positive Right Views (but with taints) those Buddha-centric monastics who had lost the context assumed that those Right Views have to be the Buddha’s — he does after all talk about karma quite a lot — and they came up with interpretations of “given, offered, sacrifice” that might be reasonable, saying that monks who give up the householder’s life are sacrificing (though I note young Gotama didn’t feel it was a sacrifice); that he mentions honoring and caring for one’s mother and father; those “spontaneously reborn beings” might be a bit of stretch since the Buddha says nothing comes without a cause, but we can say what he really meant was “not born of woman” — apparently he just misspoke when he used that word for “spontaneously”. And he sometimes tells stories of going to the Brahma world, so that explains “this world and the other”. I hear tap dancing when I hear all this, but it is so well-rehearsed that it draws attention away from the much simpler explanation that the reason the text says this is a tainted view is because none of these things are specifically Gotama’s, so there is no need to dance to make them fit the rest of his teaching.

As a way of trying to prove myself wrong about this, I gave a very close look at the word translated as “sacrificed” in this sutta. I expected to find that it occurred in several texts in which the Buddha talked about a monk’s sacrifice in giving up the luxuries of household life; or in the gifts of all those laypersons — especially for the poorest it could be quite a sacrifice. But every version I found of “hutam” as such was used in exactly the above paragraph or its positive opposite, nowhere else. As for variants of “hutam” — different declensions, or in combination with other words, all but two that I found were in discussions with Brahmins, some very specifically with a Brahmin saying, “I want to do a sacrifice — how should I go about it?” Out of about 100 appearances that I checked, I found two which might be support for “sacrifice” having something to do with giving alms or giving up the householder’s life. But really, think about it, when those negative heretics were saying “Nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed” do you think they were reacting to the Buddha’s rarely-used twist of “sacrifice” to mean something else? Or would they be refuting the main obsession of the day, Brahmins and their rites?

If in “Wrong View” the “giving, offering, sacrificing” we’re talking about is the Brahmins’, what basis is there for defining it as something else when we get to “Right View, with Taints”?  There is no basis *in* the sutta — unless we assume what’s being said and then bend it to fit — and I did not find any solid basis for it in the rest of the canon either.

I did find that there is at least one other word for sacrifice — which is the one used in DN 5 “A Bloodless Sacrifice”. And there, and in other suttas, I found that the Buddha does not rail against sacrifice in every form. Instead, he uses his very sly methods,  saying, -“Oh, sacrifice is fine, as long as you approach it from the right moral standpoint… and don’t kill anything.”- Here again, it is the morality of those involved that is the key, not so much the rite in itself. For me this was a surprise — I had understood the Buddha was always hard on sacrifice — but here he was preaching in a very mild-mannered way, with great tolerance, and just a small, sharp twist to get the practitioners to line up with his thinking.

Which, really, supports what’s going on in “The Great Forty” — he does not condemn, outright, sacrifice, offerings, and gifts to the Brahmins. He does not condemn any of the views as long as they result in less suffering/greater morality in their adherents and those they interact with. But they are still tainted — because they are not part of his path.

In the debates I’ve had with steadfast traditionalists and even those who think of themselves as non-traditionalists and rebels, I am given to understand that what’s meant by “tainted” here is “not yet liberated”. Until you’re an arahant you’re always tainted, right? Yes but the text isn’t saying those holding the views are tainted, it says the views — the views and views alone — are tainted. Of course they are! They’re views!

To further point this out, in the middle of The Great Forty, the Buddha sets up a series contrasting “wrong” with “tainted right view” and comparing “tainted right view” to “untainted, supramundane”. He does this for intention, speech, actions, and livelihood, and they have a basic pattern of “wrong” being bad behavior, “right with taints” being behavior that is the opposite of “wrong”, and “right supramundane” being pretty much the same as “right with taints” — the essential difference between the two “rights” being that the “untainted, supramundane” is listed as “a factor of the path” (while “tainted” is not), and the mental attitude of the disciple of the supramundane path — “noble, taintless, possessing and developing the path”.

Since this middle section reinforces the importance of taintlessness, I will refer to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s discussion of what exactly this “taint” is:

Now we come to right view. This is where it becomes more interesting. We see this distinction, “Right view, I say, is two-fold. There is right view that is affected by taints…” Here the Pali expression is simpler, “sasava” that is literally, “with the asavas”, with these (I don’t like “taints”) “with these influxes” or “corruptions”. “Partaking of merit.” Now we have an expression a little obscure, the translation is “ripening in the acquisitions”: “upadhivepakkà”. What is meant here by “the acquisitions”, that is the word “upadhi”, [which] has several shades of meaning, but the relevant meaning here would be “the five aggregates that constitute personal existence”. And so meritorious right view, ripens in the acquisitions, in that it leads to acquiring a new set of five aggregates in the future, that is it’s still, you could call it “right view which is still bound up with samsaric existence”. It’s still a mundane right view. [Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Discussion of MN 117, From the MP3 recorded on 2004.09.28 this “clip” beginning at 20:58]

I note he calls this “meritorious right view” but that is not the way it is referred to in the sutta — it is a right view tainted by its involvement with merit — which is a bad thing — but the phrase Bhikkhu Bodhi uses makes it sound like a good thing, no doubt because his understanding is that it is, and he believes that the text has the Buddha saying that it is a good thing.

However, if we put all of this together, it is easy to see what the Buddha is saying:

  1. These are views that are affected by taints/influxes/corruptions (not good)
  2. These are views that result (ripen) in the five aggregates (samsaric existence) (not good)
  3. They are not described as factors of the path
  4. The same good behavior is listed in the tainted and the supramundane views, the difference being in the mindset of one doing the deeds

The tainted right views — of brahminical rites (gifts, offerings, sacrifice); meritorious actions (fruits or results of good and bad actions); and concerns with this world and the other (and so on) — all result in corruptions that *ripen* in self view. Not “are bound up with” (passively) but *result in* (actively). And again I ask you to think about what’s actually going on: What are you focused on when you are making offerings and gifts and sacrifices? What is your concern if you are thinking about the fruits and results of good and bad actions? Who are you thinking about if you are concerned with whether or not you get to the next world? What attitude are you holding, there, if those are what you are considering when you become a renunciant, when you refrain from false speech, when you abstain from killing, when you don’t bilk people in your job — all so that you gain favor with the gods, bank some merit, get to that other world? Don’t those things foster a concern with self ? Isn’t that exactly what the sutta is saying? That tainted right view is being described as tainted precisely because the attitude of the person doing all “the right things” is that they are doing it for a better future for their own selves? That’s not noble.

And did you notice that in the middle of that list of things that make the lower of the two Right Views problematic:

  1. asavas/taints/influxes/corruptions
  2. partaking of merit
  3. ripening in the acquisitions/aggregates

In the middle of that list of less-than-ideal stuff we have “partaking of merit”? If the Buddha is teaching that the karmic/merit system is part of his path, why is it in there with corruptions and the aggregates?

I’d enjoy hearing what you think.

* the Mahacattarisaka Sutta, Sutta #117 in the Majjhima Nikaya

5 Responses to “MN 117 Take Two”

  1. […] evidence of how this is all about self, there is “ripening in the acquisitions” which Bhikkhu Bodhi has said is about “the five aggregates that constitute personal existence… in that it leads to […]

  2. […] this clear in his discussion of “mundane and transcendent” right view, about which our own Linda Blanchard has written.  He refers to suttas in which mundane right view is associated with the attachment to codes of […]

  3. DarkDream says:

    Interesting to see this so many years ago. I wrote something along these lines on my blog. The stock passage of wrong view is definitely referring to the Vedic sacrifice. I contend that “no fruit or result of good and bad actions” is most likely referring to good and bad *ritual* actions.

    In short, the whole wrong view passage is criticizing Vedic world view. The passage, “no mother, no father, no beings who are reborn spontaneously” is most likely referring to the mother god Aditi (or something like that) and Brahma (sometimes referred to the father god of everything), where “beings who are reborn spontaneously” to the pantheon of other Vedic gods. Also the mention of “this world and the other world” is the simple binary cosmology of the Vedas which talks about this world and the other world being the world of the ancestors or svarga loka.

    The view espoused by a non-Brahmin heretic is essentially saying this about the Vedic relgion: sacrifices are useless, no one gains anything from them, there are no higher gods and no gods as well, and there is no afterlife to be gained from such practices as no one as ever seen it.

  4. star says:

    Hey DarkDream, great to see you here. I just revisited your blog and found I’d commented there, four years ago.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying above except the “mother and father” I tend to think is about the Vedic worldview in which sons are so necessary to perform sacrifices which help support “fathers” (ancestors) in their afterlife. I’ve actually found several links in the Upaniṣads to phrasing that I believe matches the pericope here. My first attempt at an official paper for Prof. Gombrich had this paragraph in it:

    “The three key acts (giving, offering, sacrificing) that indicate that what’s being described is the Brahmin’s way of life, are found together in the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, where the great sage Yājñavalkya is answering the questions of another sage, Gārgī, about ‘the imperishable’ which cannot be described except by negatives, ‘the imperishable’ for the sake of which ‘people flatter donors’ (who are the givers of gifts), ‘gods are dependent on patrons of sacrifices, and forefathers, on ancestral offerings.'”

    I’m quite convinced that the pericope of “Nothing given, offered, sacrificed” was not the Buddha’s invention, but that he was simply repeating popular phrasing that was used to represent, largely, the atman-brahman view of the universe that was, then, opposed to the karma-rebirth view. In this way of seeing things, the two worldviews that later became one (in which one does cyclic rebirth *until* one realizes brahman and then is liberated from it) were as yet somewhat antagonistic in the Buddha’s day, and so the pericope is the atman-brahman believers, followers of Yājñavalkya, denying the efficacy of the practices of the karma-rebirth folk as well as the binary-cosmology believers.

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