The Buddha Contemplates Milk

 

One of the Buddha’s most memorable analogies is given in the “Potthapada Sutta,” and it is so powerful that it causes Citta the son of an elephant trainer to leap for joy, and then renounce everything to join the Buddha. The context for this analogy is a sometimes abstruse conversation  with Potthapada, a Brahmin of highly scholastic inclinations  who seems to share a more general Hindu anxiety about the persistence of Atman (Self/Soul) and about elevated spiritual states. Citta has accompanied Potthapada in the second half of the Sutta, and has just asked a question about whether there is any underlying continuity of the Self from one stage to another of a person’s development. Startlingly, the Buddha responds with this analogy:

Just as in the case of cow’s milk — from the milk come curds, from the curds come butter, from the butter comes ghee, and from the ghee comes the cream of ghee. Whenever there is milk, at that time, one does not refer to it as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “milk.” And whenever there are curds, at that time, one does not refer to them as “milk,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to them only as “curds.” Whenever there is butter, at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “butter.” Whenever there is ghee, at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “ghee.” Whenever there is the “cream of ghee,” at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee.” Ath that time, one refers to it only as the “cream of ghee.” (“Potthapada Sutta,” tr.Holder, Early Buddhist Discourses, 2006, p.148)

The repetitiveness of the style is not mere pedantry: we are being asked to slow down and behold with our mind’s eye milk, curds, butter, ghee, and cream of ghee, and not rush to a theoretical summation. Contemplate these: the taste, color, texture, smell — how interestingly different they are (such that a person can love milk but dislike curds), how each is its own delicious dish, yet how each so astonishingly comes from the white liquid produced by a cow for her calf. This contemplation becomes even more vivid if one brings in the vast range of things we call “cheese.” The common manner of referring to curds and butter as “curds” and “butter” rather than “the curd phase of milk” or “the butter phase of milk” (“buttermilk” is different!) points to something true: there is no such thing as “milk” that persists through all of these, and if you look you will not be able to show it to me. The curds came from milk, and now curds are simply what they are: curds, not milk. Looking closely, you will not find a particle that is in between curds and milk, but it will be curds or milk. If there is an inbetween, it will be its own thing, such as kefir; and it might be possible to make an inbetween by, say, mixing butter and milk, but that too will be its own thing, not just a form of milk. In the realm of natural transformation, change occurs over time and is conditioned by such things as temperature, microbial life, light, oxygen. The thing changing cannot be pulled out and separated from these conditions, which are in fact infinite ( including the conditions for there to be a planet with microbial life), and because of this inseparability it may be fundamentally non-different from these conditions. This does not mean they are the same as their conditions, because obviously butter is not simply the same as its conditions. Each change is thoroughgoing from one moment to the next, and there is never any thing that can be shown to underlie the different moments. Curds, butter, ghee are different moments of what was once milk, but not different manifestations of milk. They are also not really fixed things themselves, because the conditions that make them up are in constant flux; yet the fact that they are in flux doesn’t necessarily make them unintelligible, because there are clearly patterns and regularities to this change. The analogy doesn’t deny the validity of calling these moments milk, curds, butter, and so on, or the validity of saying that they come from cow’s milk: from a conventional standpoint, it is correct to do so, and incorrect to claim that because everything is in flux there is really nothing present. But such as these are only popular expressions, ordinary language, common ways of speaking, common designations, which the Tathagatha uses without being led astray. (149) The constant process of transformation, amid infinite conditions, is the way in which curds and butter can come to be from milk; and indeed if there were no ceaseless transformation there would be no curds or butter. Even if we strive to halt the process by killing all the microbes in the milk, sooner or later even sterilized milk will change; indeed, sterilized milk is itself a moment of what was once milk, conditioned by sterilizing and sterilizers. At each moment there is something that comes to be through and in transformation, because nothing in our experience remains static and immune to change. The universe flows — or, as Dogen likes to put it, the mountains are walking.

The Buddha doesn’t interpret the analogy to mean that there is no Self/Soul. Rather, while there may be no thing underlying these various conditioned forms that started as milk, there is a phenomenal continuity that enables us to categorize them as moments of what was once milk. These moments are what it means to be milk, for only milk can change into curds, butter, and ghee. The implications are momentous.

What am I? Do I even need to be preoccupied with a what that I must be? When I am with my parents, I am all child; with my children, I am all parent; with my spouse, all spouse — and at work, wholly absorbed in the work. When I go to the gym, I work out to win and play with all my heart; and after the gym, I can be swept away by a piano sonata and moved to tears. Of course this is on a good day; on a bad day, I am thinking about work while playing with the kids, or worried about my ageing parents while at work. Yet even on a bad day, I am whole in my division; that is to say, sitting at my desk and worrying anout my parents is itself a whole distractedness, and I am occupying the distraction wholly. In each activity I become a different moment of what at the beginning of the day was a groggy person stumbling to the bathroom. It is amazing how thoroughgoing the transformations are. My children would be surprised at how I am with my parents, and vice versa; neither parents nor children can imagine me studying the “Potthapada Sutta,” and people who study such texts with me cannot really picture me climbing playground equipment with my daughter. All these transformations would be impossible if we had an unchanging underlying self that we hauled around like a boulder in the belly. We can live as if we had a boulder in the belly, and sadly we usually do — but what a miracle it is that I can flow so wholeheartedly and seamlessly into each one of these moments of myself. It is a miracle that from the teat of a cow there comes milk that can transform into curds, butter, ghee, and cream of ghee — and into me when I digest it. This is why the elephant trainer’s son jumps for joy when he understands the analogy: the boulder of Atman has been rolled away.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “The Buddha Contemplates Milk

  1. Krishnan,
    Very well written.

    There is another Sutta or Sutra which uses the forms of water – steam, snow and ice. But the transformation of milk to butter is more readily grasped in rural ancient India, given the sacred and santified status of the cow and the God’s nectar in milk. It is as intimate to one’s understanding of life as one’s own body.

    Thus, the ideal ‘vehicle’ to explain ‘Atman’, although I suspect the Indus Indians, like ancient Chinese, do not interpret it as ‘soul’ as the White-men.

    I might suggest ‘consciousness of a self’ or ‘thinking there is a self’. Once we express it that way, it is easier to understand why it might be easier for the Buddha to deal with the issue as false thinking or figment of one’s imagination.

    Take the plebeian Citta here. The Buddha trundles a whole lot of trawling details down his throat or mind, but Citta’s mental acumen is only fast enough to see flashes of picture cards of milk, curd, cream and butter.

    Imagine prodding Citta incessantly – don’t tell me that you see ‘Atman’ there going from milk to the ….. butter?

    Look again, this is milk right? This is curd right? This is cream right? This is butter right? Tell me where is ‘Atman’? Where do you see ‘Atman’?

    As a lawyer, I can see the obvious disparity in mental capacity and ability. It is an uneven sparring discussion.

    It would be unconscionable therefore to conclude that Citta was in a position to properly understand the discourse and sensibly make his own unfettered judgment.

    Just because we too as a matter of our own mental deduction would agree with the Buddha’s logic does not really matter on the point of us presumptuously assuming that Citta truly understood and was then blindly (pun) exhilarated with joy.

    So, we might perhaps balance the presentation by comparative or contrasting illustration i.e. compare it with how the Buddha discoursed about ‘Atman’ to a sage.

    Good to be able to have a friendly banter with an erudite mind in you.

    Vince

    • Great comment. Thank you. Actually I think Citta was very intelligent, and it may have been from his occupation as mahout: constant mindfulness is needed in being around animals big enough to squish you. He is not an intellectual like Potthapada, and I think that in asking a question like the one he asks (an ” advanced” question in terms of the Hindu darshanas) he might actually be testing Gautama. This is also why he just watches for a while. Handling elephants should make one cautious! “Self-sense” (Sanskrit: ahamkara) might be right; I have to chew on it. I’m grateful for your wise and perceptive thoughts.

  2. Krishnan,

    We are in comity.

    We only have a small scintilla of a difference of opinion at the mundane worldly level concerning Citta the elephant mahout’ s perspicacity for metaphysics.

    Thus, my suggestion about putting the article in a comparative context by setting it up together with the same discourse but to a Sage instead if a plebeian.

    What I was intending to imprest at the metaphysical discussion level is the potential danger for not clearly defining or delineating the meaning of ‘Atman’ for the audience. There is a danger it might be taken as a ‘noun’ as in ‘Soul’ rather than as a ‘verb’ as in ‘thinking there is a Soul’.

    There is a modern propensity to make a noun a verb or conversely a verb into a noun. That itself is neither good or bad, for it allows dexterity and flexibility in the use and flow of language, (and from my own observation, you are an expert exponent of that), to give language a chameleon characteristic, adding colour, innuendo, pun, word play, allegory, metaphor and so on.

    Nevertheless, we cannot escape from the responsibility to prevent misrepresentation, to prevent the possibility that something or idea or saying might be taken out of context.

    The proper context of the Buddha’s discourses is that it is all about ‘thinking’, about man’s thinking; but about ‘thinking’ as a ‘verb’ not as a ‘noun’.

    The Buddha is not really trying to explain that there is no noun of a Soul of an Atman, but rather the verb in Atman of a ‘thinking’, the ‘thinking or the consciousness of a noun of a Soul of an Atman or the apparent knowing that there is somehow a conceivable noun of a Soul of an Atman’ ; and in this respect whether that is a false thinking.

    For beyond the verb of the ‘thinking’ there is no noun of a ‘thinking’!

    It is about the fallacy of thinking (verb) that there is anything beyond the reality conjured by the illusion that is the thinking (noun).

    And that is the Zen of the school of ‘No Mind’.

    Metta.

    Vince

    • Yes! I totally agree. One of the great things about the Potthapada Sutta is its analysis of the Hindu obsession with Atman-noun (hence in Hindu logic there can be heavy emphasis on classifying Atman as “substance”) — which creates the general anxiety manifesting as buzzing gossip in the hall of Brahmins. Got to go to work now. I hope you’re having some serene days.

  3. Krishnan,

    I should have added that –

    Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He should have continued ‘Therefore if I do not think, I am not!’. Therfore there is nothing conceivable beyond the verb of thinking.

    Rumi said – ‘If I can fly for in the sky like a butterfly, why do I choose to crawl attached to the ground like a caterpillar.’ Therfore if the caterpillar thinks it is a caterpillar and the butterfly thinks it is a butterfly, the one who knows that it is a butterfly who was yet a caterpillar before that is neither the caterpillar of the butterfly, but something inconceivable outside both their respective thinking. That is why the Buddha hinted that it was futile and served no purpose for a human, let alone a caterpillar or a butterfly to indulge in a discussion of the inconceivable that is beyond human thinking or consciousness.

    I trust as a layman and an ignoramus in philosophy (for having no formal training beyond ‘the law’) you will excuse my temerity and imprudence.

    Vince

  4. Krishnan,

    I just got back from a matinee movie (discount for pensioners) – ‘Revenant’ starring Leonardo Di Caprio. The best movie I have seen in years, in terms of – cinema photography, acting, scenery, intensity, human psyche and psychology and sociology amongst other things.

    As to Mulamadhyamikakarika, the Nagarjuna’s Middle Way thesis, you have me in a pique (wounded pride) as well as pickle (quandary) for these reasons.

    1. The Chinese Zen Mahayana is a syncretic amalgamation of Nagarjuna’s (or was it Mansjuri’s or Avalokitesvara’s) ‘Emptiness’ philosophy and Asanga or was it Matreiya Buddha’s ‘(It is all in the) Mind Only’ philosophy. So, you are asking a ‘Rojak’ like me what thesis on or translation of the Mulamadhyamikakarika is the best? What I know of Buddhism is directly or should that be indirectly through the eclectic Zen, which as you know is sort of ‘campur’ or ‘caplang’ with Taoist epistemology.

    2. The set of books or articles I had or have on Nagarjuna’s logic and expositions are in my ‘garage’ somewhere. You have to take a raincheck as to what publications I read years ago now. I will look them up as soon as I can. Hope they are not all gobbled up by silverfish by now! However from memory at that time I was besotted with the writings by Peter Della Santina, a Buddhist Scholar of the Vajrayana Tradition, and I am certain I also read his books or academic writings on the Mulamadhyamikakarika as well. Do look or search these up, as you have better access as a Professor.

    It just occurred to me that when I used to frequent the Theosophical Society Bookshop, it had a series or collection of books called ‘Classics of Indian Buddhism’ by Wisdom Books or was it Wisdom Publications. I have browsed through them, and I think they have translations of various books by Nagarjuna. On a budget, I only bought books that I was directly interested in, which were in a collection called ‘Classics of East Asian Buddhism’. Obviously, being Chinese!

    I apologise if I should not turn out helpful.

    Vince

    • Thanks — and no worries. I’m fairly content with the editions I have. Councidentally, I also just saw Revenant — a beautiful film. The spirituality in that film was very Russian, and whole shots were in fact copied from a favorite director of mine, Tarkovsky. But Inarritu put it together in a distinctive and powerful way. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with copying Tarkovsky.
      You have actually thought more deeply about the central Buddhist questions than I have, so I enjoy learning from you. I have the good fortune to “teach” in an odd college that doesn’t believe in professors or departments, but in learning from the great souls of the past by reading and rereading their books. The students who come here are the best of the best, and my colleagues all could have been famous and successful in their fields — but we relinquished all that for the sake of the greater work. I’m truly lucky. We also engage with these texts as human beings, sitting at their feet and listening to them and each other carefully. I know that I know nothing, and “knowing stuff” isn’t important to me any more. The only area in which I might once have considered myself fairly learned is English and American literature, but over the last twenty years or so I have turned into a strange blend of interests. I’m not a scholar, not a professor, just a very good student. My entry into Zen was martial arts practice, aided by Qigong standing meditation and Vipassana — so very physical, embodied practices. The study of Buddhist texts has been an adventure of the last 20 years. I include Laozi and Zhuangzi.

  5. Krishnan,

    You have blessed me by enabling me the opportunity to read this early gem by Dogen.

    I cannot describe the spiritual ecstasy that it sparked in me. It simply brought me to tears. It brought back memories of my humble simple minded assiduous illiterate father and his simple logic that a man must do what is his duty to do, with total effort and dedication, without complaining or feeling shame.

    I cried in shame years later, when he was gone, that I looked down on his being a plebeian, that after all the education that I had, nothing came close to a scintilla of what he taught me without through the formality of actually teaching me. It was at that point of penance that I found redemption in his awakening to me of Zen.

    You brought my father spiritually home to me once again.

    Krishnan, we must have had an affinity in an earlier existence.

    I hope to repay this debt I now owe you.

    Vince

  6. Krishnan,

    You have blessed me by enabling me the opportunity to read this early gem by Dogen.

    I cannot describe the spiritual ecstasy that it sparked in me. It simply brought me to tears. It brought back memories of my humble simple minded assiduous illiterate father and his simple logic that a man must do what is his duty to do, with total effort and dedication, without complaining or feeling shame.

    I cried in shame years later, when he was gone, that I looked down on his being a plebeian, that after all the education that I had, nothing came close to a scintilla of what he taught me without through the formality of actually teaching me. It was at that point of penance that I found redemption in his awakening to me of Zen.

    You brought my father spiritually home to me once again.

    Krishnan, we must have had an affinity in an earlier existence.

    I hope to repay this debt I now owe you.

    Vince

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s