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.