Shopping for a Spiritual Teacher

One day the Buddha suddenly pops this on his disciples:  “Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an inquirer, not knowing how to gauge another’s mind, should make an investigation of the Tathāgata in order to find out whether or not he is fully enlightened.” (Vimamsaka Sutta, Middle Length Discourses 47, tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) How do you know if a teacher is the “real thing” or not? If you’re serious, you’ll try to find out, and not just swallow what you’re told. The problem is, since you’re not enlightened yourself and cannot see into the mind of anyone else, how will you ever know if your guru is everything he is cracked up to be? If you’re a real inquirer, and not just somebody who wants comfortable or pleasant states of mind, you will investigate — and the Buddha tells you how to go about it. The list of criteria that follows is further proof of the Buddha’s common sense and mental clarity, and it also implicitly contains a profound challenge to the seeker who wants to find the truth and not just to be told.

Are there found in the Tathāgata or not any defiled states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? First, when you watch this prospective teacher carefully, does anything strike you as wrong or “off”? — not only the obvious defilements like greed or lust, but subtle attachments, lying, deviousness, narcissism? “Cognizable through the eye or the ear” seems to cover everything done or said, but also gestures and facial expressions. Second,  Are there found in the Tathāgata or not any mixed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? This can be interpreted in at least two ways: Is the teacher’s conduct consistently good, or is there unsteadiness and inconsistency — for example, often loving but sometimes choleric and spiteful? Or is his action sometimes ambivalent in quality — for instance, showering one disciple with so much praise and affection that the disciple is blinded by this excess of welcome attention? I once witnessed how a revered swami, all sweet and chuckly to his audience, viciously scolding and slapping the small boy who brought him his tea because it wasn’t warm enough. This may indicate a “mixed state” at best, a “defiled state” at worst.

Supposing you don’t see mixed or defiled states: Are there found in the Tathāgata or not cleansed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? There is a bright, loving energy about this teacher, no obsessiveness or insecurity, nothing unhinged, nothing off — but it is not enough just to notice this:  Has this venerable one attained this wholesome state over a long time or did he attain it recently? One has to observe the teacher carefully over a long time to know that his goodness of character is well and deeply established. The assumption is that no one is simply born spiritually realized; we all have to put in work and effort over time, and it takes time for virtue to become rooted.

When you have found someone impressive and are certain that the admirable character is firmly settled in virtue, examine how fame and prestige have affected him. Has this venerable one acquired renown and attained fame, so that the dangers connected with renown and fame are found in him? We have seen in our own time many instances of the corruption of gurus through adulation and the absence of critical scrutiny: sex scandals, money scandals, and drug abuse. If the character of the teacher has blind spots and immaturities, fame and adoration will manifest and magnify them.  Does the teacher, for instance, consider himself immune to sin and error, and does he listen well to other people or assume that he knows? When contradicted or disagreed with, how does he react? The Buddha is asking us to watch carefully. I wonder if there is even one other ancient sage with the courage and foresight to point out the liabilities of spiritual celebrity.

Is this venerable one restrained without fear, not restrained by fear, and does he avoid indulging in sensual pleasures because he is without lust through the destruction of lust? That is to say, how is his behavior in private, when he is not constrained by fear of the law or social pressure? The Buddha is in fact asking us to pry: it is not enough to know that the teacher is trustworthy on the surface, because we need to know that he is thoroughly trustworthy — that he is good because he is good, and not because he is afraid of getting caught.  We should not take this on faith, and obviously, to know such things we need to observe for a long time. We also need to see if the teacher is partial to people, if he is fair, if he treats all disciples equally: Whether that venerable one dwells in the Sangha or alone, while some there are well behaved and some are ill behaved and some there teach a group, while some here are seen concerned about material things and some are unsullied by material things, still that venerable one does not despise anyone because of that. Disciples are going to be flawed and needing guidance, and if you are going to be one of them you need to know that the teacher will give you the same attention as everyone else and not have favorites. The teacher does not despise imperfect people.

When you strike lucky and find a teacher you can trust, you develop “faith” in the teacher only as you progress in your learning through his instruction:  The Teacher teaches him the Dhamma with its higher and higher levels, with its more and more sublime levels, with its dark and bright counterparts. As the Teacher teaches the Dhamma to a bhikkhu in this way, through direct knowledge of a certain teaching here in that Dhamma, the bhikkhu comes to a conclusion about the teachings. He places confidence in the Teacher. It will have taken years to get to this point. Only now, Bhikkhus, when anyone’s faith has been planted, rooted, and established in the Tathāgata through these reasons, terms, and phrases, his faith is said to be supported by reasons, rooted in vision, first. “Reasons, rooted in vision” means “reasons that emerge from the depths of our direct experience”: finding your teacher is not about blind faith, surrender to charismatic authority, or trust in someone else’s revealed truth. It requires careful and thorough scrutiny, in which you don’t just “believe” but verify for yourself that this person is worthy to guide you in the search for the most important things.

I can imagine that a spiritual seeker’s first reaction on hearing this would be shock: It’s going to take me so much time and so much work to find a spiritual teacher! Just thinking about the Buddha’s criteria, it seems unlikely that there could be anyone who could satisfy all of them — and even if such a person were to exist, would I ever meet him, would I be fortunate enough to live in the same century or on the same continent? The disciples are being provoked: how indeed do they know their teacher is the real thing? In an age of upheaval, when old interpretations are threatened and everyone is confused, it is natural for a person to want certainty, and to crave a “still point in a turning world.” This is no less true of the Buddha’s time as of ours. For us the certainty might come in the form of one of the many churches or scientific dogmas; for his disciples the truth had to be found in one of the sixty-two or more views of life that were being vigorously promulgated. His culture was one where a view usually centered upon a teacher, and students were then drawn to this teacher if they wanted the key to the door of their lives. The Vimamsaka Sutta is utterly characteristic of the Buddha in that it gives his students no easy answer, that it throws them back upon their own seeing and hearing. Throughout the Pali Nikayas the emphasis is on knowing for yourselves: there is no shortcut to experiencing for ourselves, thinking for ourselves, and seeing from where we actually are. This involves painstaking, frustrating, risky attentiveness. A teacher may tell us something, but until we see it for ourselves we do not really know it — and when we look into our own lives, trying to see, we cannot pre-know what we will see. The Buddha is deeply aware of the terrible temptations of authority. Because we are afraid of our own solitude, and are insecure about what we see for ourselves, we crave the reassurance and support of a teacher. This makes it all too easy for us to replace our own insight with the words of the teacher, to triangulate our own experience against the fixed points of those words, and never to stray too far from them. The disciple’s anxiety about how her own experience meshes with the teachings becomes a screen that eventually separates her from her own insight, which is no longer anything more than the shadow cast by the teacher. The Buddha’s project requires us to meet our own experience head on and to stare it in the face; for this reason, in sutta after sutta, he has to undermine his disciples’ dogged efforts to squeeze a “view” out of him that they can cling to for safety. He wants us to become spiritually adult, capable of self-reflection and self-correction. It is not that the Buddha’s guidance should count for nothing with us, but that that guidance can speak to us only if we are truly engaged, from moment to moment, with our own awareness. Fearful impatience drives us toward quick answers and clear teachings, but we need to look at that impatience too and ask what it really is.
Vimamsaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 47, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Is the Buddha Anti-Intellectual?

One remarkable feature of spiritual practice today in both East and West is widespread anti-intellectualism: thoughts are only creations “of the mind” and have nothing to do with the things that matter, so one must let go of the mind and find ways to still the thinking process. Obviously –so goes the dogma — it is futile to think about or verbally express God, the Dao, and Enlightenment. Doubts and skepticism are only the mind’s wheels cranking away, and the generating of questions and opinions is simply what the mind does, automatically. One hears this in dojos, ashrams, and churches all over the world. This version of anti-intellectualism is cognate with the normal moral and political anti-intellectualism we encounter every day: We don’t need any of your learning or evidence, you’re just experts unnecessarily complicating things that are simple and obvious, you think you’re so smart…In all cases, vehement anti-intellectualism results in obedience to strong leaders and in social cohesion through the nourishing of passions like fear and anger. 

   Occasionally in the Pali Suttas the Buddha comes across as anti-intellectual. He can seem dismissive of speculative activity and uninterested in philosophical “big questions” — but does he in fact believe that thinking is in itself worthless? In the Middle Length Discourses, we meet the earnest monk Malunkyaputta, who suddenly finds himself stirred up and riled by metaphysical questions:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then, as Ven. Malunkyaputta was alone in seclusion, this train of thought arose in his awareness: “These positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One — ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’ — I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not declared them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he declares to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ that ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ that ‘The cosmos is finite,’ that ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ that ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ that ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ that ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ then I will live the holy life under him. If he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ then I will renounce the training and return to the lower life.”

Questions of this sort preoccupied the philosophers of the orthodox Hindu schools to such a degree that they would write lengthy tracts arguing for their own views and refuting, with vigorous logical fisticuffs, the views of all opponents. In a few of his discourses, the Buddha himself engages such questions directly — for example, in the great Brahmajala Sutta, where he lays out sixty-two different speculative views. Thus, for a man of his time and place, to be concerned with metaphysical questions would not have been thought unreasonable; nor would Malunkyaputta have been seen as blameworthy for abandoning a guru who couldn’t answer his pressing life-questions.  How does the Buddha respond?

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?

Answering questions of this kind was never part of the deal, he says: I never promised to, and you never requested it of me — so why are you suddenly so insistent? Clearly the disciple has been seized by a philosophical anxiety attack, in which he feels that he can’t go on, can’t breathe, can’t find any sense in things, unless the Buddha delivers conclusive answers that can give meaning and direction to his spiritual life. People commonly go to gurus with questions about eternity, infinity, and immortality, and feel soothed when an answer is given that they can understand. The Buddha’s refusal to give Malunkyaputta any answer to these is a deliberate denial of intellectual comfort; this disciple is not allowed the great speculative safety-nets that will rescue him from his fall into meaninglessness. Why not? 

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

Like all of us, Malunkyaputta is in trouble: he is unhappy, dissatisfied, not getting what he wants and getting instead what he doesn’t want, and secretly in dread of debilitating illness and mortality. His pursuit of grand speculative answers is a distraction from the urgency of his real plight, which involves the removal of the poisoned arrow of his suffering. What he needs to do is to continue practicing mindfulness and to understand the true causes of his discontent, and not waste time with enthralling intellectual puzzles that go nowhere. 

   Can Malunkyaputta be satisfied with a response like this? The Buddha’s advice at first sounds similar to the typical anti-intellectual’s exhortation to “do, don’t think,” and the active man’s preference for real work as opposed to mere thought or study. Yet such a view rests in a false separation of thought and action; after all, is there any human action that does not depend on a thought concerning how things are and what is worth doing? All our actions stem from some opinion or assumption about ends. Furthermore, do our views about ends not depend on our thoughts about matters like eternity and the nature of the soul? How can a thoughtful human being not think about such matters and not try to seek answers to them? The mind cannot just stop — especially if it thinks it has good reason to keep thinking.  A person of nobility and integrity would never just take someone’s word that speculative thinking is a wasteful distraction — because how could you know, without actually taking the effort to know, that a clear and definite conclusion could not be reached? Malunkyaputta himself seems more eager to have someone “declare” the truth to him than to struggle for the light himself, and this may be why the Buddha is intentionally thwarting and provoking him. His next statement deserves careful chewing.

“Malunkyaputta, it’s not the case that when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ there is the living of the holy life. And it’s not the case that when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ there is the living of the holy life. When there is the view, ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ and when there is the view, ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ there is still the birth, there is the aging, there is the death, there is the sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, & distress whose destruction I make known right in the here & now.”

This looks like the kind of thing a classical Skeptic would say. For one thing, whenever we convince ourselves of the truth of one of these positions, our minds still doubt and cannot avoid considering arguments to the contrary — unless of course we forcefully suppress the thought that we could be wrong, in which case the act of suppression requires more energy than would have been spent on the doubting. Whether doubting or suppressing doubt, the mind is not at peace and therefore cannot offer intellectual foundation for a good life. Moreover, would thinking that the cosmos is eternal or non-eternal have any effect on your decisions in this life? Does the thought that the soul is the same as the body make you more or less likely to lead a good life? — after all, if it dies with the body, you might make this short life the best and most beautiful possible, or you might become callous and indifferent to good or bad and simply seek pleasure. And if the soul is different from the body and does not die with it, you might become a better person in order to nurture the long-term good of the soul, or you might not be too concerned with how you live this tiny life because “deserts of vast eternity” stretch out before you. More empirically, we also know very good people who believe the soul to be different from the body, and very bad people who believe the same thing. A cocaine addict, even when convinced of what perfect health might look like, might still sink deeper in his addiction — not because he doesn’t have the correct view of health, but because the correct view of health is irrelevant to the decisions he is capable of taking at the moment. Therefore the particular lives we lead seem to have very little to do with our speculative views, which have power to fascinate with the lure of distant possibilities but very little power to touch us where we live. 

“And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.
“And what is declared by me? ‘This is dukkha (suffering),’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.”
Such views have no practical effect on the state of our soul: whichever speculative view we hold, the decisions that affect our happiness or unhappiness do not depend on them, and it is those decisions that are undertaken on the Buddha’s path. It is not an anti-intellectual path, because the decisions that genuinely affect us require careful thought and a good deal of insight into the workings of heart and mind — but it is also not a path that has much patience for abstract theorizing and speculative “play.” In many cultures the opposition to speculative thinking springs from materialistic assumptions that only physical things are real and that financial realities are physical, but the Buddha is not a materialist. All practical activity comes from ways of thinking and prior states of the soul, and these have to be perceived, understood, and addressed if we wish to free ourselves from agitation and distress. This is not anti-intellectual, but it is pragmatic in a way that involves a comprehension of intellectual activity.

   In other discourses, the Buddha or one of his close disciples will amplify on why it is that many thinkers cling to broad speculative views and why they are wrong to do so — for example, when the monk Moggallana replies to the Brahmin ascetic Vacchagotta with the exact words the Buddha has used elsewhere:

“Now, Master Moggallana, what is the cause, what is the reason why — when wanderers of other sects are asked in this way, they answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is finite’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite’ or ‘The body is the same as the soul’ or ‘The body is one thing and the soul another’ or ‘The Tathagata exists after death’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’ or ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death” or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death,’ yet when Gotama the contemplative is asked in this way, he does not answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal’ or ‘The cosmos is finite’ or  ‘The cosmos is infinite’ or ‘The body is the same as the soul’ or ‘The body is one thing and the soul another’ or ‘The Tathagata exists after death’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’ or ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death” or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’?”
   “Vaccha, the members of other sects assume of the eye that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ They assume of the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the intellect that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ That is why, when asked in this way, they answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’… or that ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.’ But the Tathagata, worthy and rightly self-awakened, does not assume of the eye that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ He does not assume of the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the intellect that ‘This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.’ That is why, when asked in this way, he does not answer that ‘The cosmos is eternal’… or that ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.'”

(Moggallana Sutta, SN 44:7, tr.Thanissaro, 2004)

In other words, these thinkers crave certainty with regard to speculative views because each one of them has in some way identified themselves with their aggregates, the fundamental constituents of what they take to be “who they are,” and are so powerfully invested in their identification that they unconsciously project it onto the larger-than-life screen of speculation. Thus the “solving of great questions” is often a form of spiritual ambition, which originates in habit and compulsion. If we could see into the activity through which a self and its projections are continuously made, our passion for far-flung speculation would naturally dissipate, like steam. 

The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya (MN 63, tr.Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1998)

Moggallana Sutta (SN 44:7, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2004)

Tolkien’s Subtlety

The Lord of the Rings, with its sweeping Manichaean conflict and monochrome heroism, would not be an obvious candidate for the adjective “subtle” — but at his best, Tolkien is indeed a subtle writer capable of moments of concise, suggestive power. Before going to two passages in The Two Towers that demonstrate this, I want to start with a section from Jane Eyre, which for me sets the gold standard for “concise, suggestive power.” Here we find ourselves at a girls’ boarding school, where punitive sadism masquerades as moral discipline. The supervisor of this school, Mr.Brocklehurst, is holding forth to the sympathetic Ms.Temple:

“Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralised by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under temporary privation. A brief address on those occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord Himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to His divine consolations, “If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.” Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”

Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity.
Meantime, Mr. Brocklehurst, standing on the hearth with his hands behind his back, majestically surveyed the whole school. Suddenly his eye gave a blink, as if it had met something that either dazzled or shocked its pupil; turning, he said in more rapid accents than he had hitherto used —

“Miss Temple, Miss Temple, what — what is that girl with curled hair? Red hair, ma’am, curled — curled all over?” And extending his cane he pointed to the awful object, his hand shaking as he did so.
“It is Julia Severn,” replied Miss Temple, very quietly.

(Jane Eyre, ch.7)

This writing is a little miracle. To begin with, Brocklehurst’s speech is the kind of self-righteous harangue that Victorian novelists excelled at: it is calm and plausible on the surface, almost rational — yet we can sense that it is coming from a place in the heart that is cold, cruel, insane. The speaker appears to himself to be absolutely sane and reasonable as well as pious and full of good intentions. But is there any reader who could take him at his own valuation? It is the mark of a healthy soul to respond to such a speech with hatred of religious hypocrisy and tyranny, but the author doesn’t need to tell us how to react: she respects our moral capacity to respond with anger where anger is deserved, and to see accurately through the foul smoke of righteousness. Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings: it is the perhaps that makes this so damning, because if he is really “overcome by his feelings” at this moment it would be an unmistakeable sign of derangement, and if he is not, then the speech has been crafted for effect. The perhaps indicates that Brocklehurst would be unable to tell the difference between these two — just as all morally manipulative people are blind to their own contrivances — and therein lies the true wickedness: the obscuring of any difference between love and control.

   Charlotte Bronte does not have Ms.Temple respond with words or with thoughts, but instead gives us a description of her facial movements so clear and so precise that we are in no doubt that Ms.Temple is on our side. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity. If you have ever tried to describe how a face moves you will recognize immediately what a marvel this sentence is. Ms.Temple cannot express her true feelings to this petty dictator. Her very silence is evidence of tyranny, but it goes even further than biting her lip: Brocklehurst’s moral sadism does not merit a response dignified by words because sense cannot penetrate such hardness of heart. It cannot be dignified even by eye contact, since that would acknowledge mutual humanity. Because the reaction is wordless, we can feel almost physically Ms.Temple’s scorn and revulsion. And because we are not told in words what to feel, we are left to find in ourselves the right reaction to Brocklehurst. This is why writers like Charlotte Bronte are so morally nourishing: they let us reconnect to some core of goodness in ourselves that is undeceived by the whited sepulchres around us. Part of the miraculous in this writing is that it seems to be what the narrator is observing, but in fact the author has created a dramatic scene as well as a narrator who observes what Brocklehurst is oblivious to — thus further enphasizing the self-blindness of the Pharisee.

   While Charlotte Bronte is relentlessly perceptive most of the time, Tolkien is often capable of such craft and insight. 

Gollum disappeared. He was away some time, and Frodo after a few mouthfuls of lembas settled deep into the brown fern and went to sleep. Sam looked at him. The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam came to him a moment later and found him chewing something and muttering to himself. On the ground beside him lay two small rabbits, which he was beginning to eye greedily.
‘Sméagol always helps,’ he said. `He has brought rabbits, nice rabbits. But master has gone to sleep, and perhaps Sam wants to sleep. Doesn’t want rabbits now? Sméagol tries to help, but he can’t catch things all in a minute.‘ (260)

Two aspects of this passage are striking to me. The first is how lovingly Tolkien renders Sam’s absorption in Frodo, fusing memory and perception in a few sentences, such that we get a picture of Frodo’s transformation over time as well as Sam’s own deepening of character, which comes about through his deepening love. The narrator makes himself explicit: Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself — as if Sam’s reaction actually consists of two voices working together. The narrator has stepped into Sam, recognizing that only through Sam can Frodo be seen. What Sam thinks to himself is: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ It is the kind of sentence that Charlotte Bronte — nearly always clear-headed and strong-minded — would never be sentimental enough to write, but it captures Sam’s capacity to brim over with a devotion so uncontainable and mysterious that it can burst words open: He’s like that... somehow…whether or no. 

   Tolkien’s triumph in this passage is what he does in the next sentence: Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam, in his devotion to Frodo, is blind to Gollum, as he often is. Tolkien lets us see Gollum, but doesn’t describe the facial expression — only that he shut his eyes and crawled away. The secret of Gollum’s soul is in these words, and Tolkien trusts us to imagine it. Does Gollum see in Frodo what Sam sees, and is he moved by the gently radiant beauty of the sleeping hobbit? — does he even feel something of what Sam feels? If he does, then the act of shutting his eyes might signify either a great refusal or a resignation to the eternal loss of his own peace. Peering over Sam’s shoulder, he might feel himself excluded from companionship — thus the shutting of the eyes might be sadness or anger or both together. The phrase crawled away is abject and also sinister: is it the crawling of a broken being, or the crawling of stealthy malice? — or both? Tolkien’s reticence suggests a state of soul that cannot be described unequivocally because it is ambiguous and conflicted — probably even to Gollum himself.

   It is one of Tolkien’s weaknesses that he will attempt the same thing more than once, because he doesn’t completely trust us to get it. A few chapters later, he gives us the same configuration, with some revealing variations:

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum – `pawing at master,’ as he thought.

`Hey you!’ he said roughly. `What are you up to?’

‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. `Nice Master!’

`I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to – sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain? ‘

Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall. (323-24)

In this version, both Sam and Frodo are asleep, but we get to observe the motions of Gollum’s face. This may be the only time in the whole book when we are allowed intimacy with Gollum, but overtly mediated by the narrator, who, unhelpfully, calls his expression “strange”: in what way strange, and what are we supposed to be imagining? The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him: if what he sees is their love and peacefulness, then the twisting pain would seem to express both agony at a world that is closed to him as well as remorse for what he has planned. “Twisting” suggests spiritual convulsion, for what is being twisted is not only “his face” but him, his being; and it also suggests moral torsion or distortion, as if the pain of his fate is forcing him into impossble positions. As he turns away, shaking his head is a powerful expression of both self-disagreement and also disapproving rejection of the hobbits’ innocence: he is torn and angry, at himself and them. Tolkien, not trusting us, errs momentarily by adding as if engaged in some interior debate — but then he tells us, Then he came back — as if for a few seconds Gollum had left, gone somewhere. This emphasizes the narrator’s intense presence in the scene, such that he can notice a character’s wandering attention. What is the meaning of Gollum’s touch? — helpless love, a yearning for contact, even if it be with something as lowly as a knee? And why “almost” a caress? — does it not dare to be a caress, or does it refuse to be a caress? Gollum wants but doesn’t want, dares but doesn’t dare, loves and doesn’t love, hates and doesn’t hate: it is the fused opposition of extreme emotions that puts him beyond the pale in a no-man’s-land where nothing is clear or whole any more. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. The passage carries overtones of a banished Cain as well as Milton’s Satan as he beholds the happiness of Adam and Eve, happiness from which he has exiled himself, secretly wants, and has vowed to destroy. Tolkien wisely refrains fom unpacking what is going on inside Gollum because he knows it cannot be unpacked: it is a storm at night, a raging ocean, unintelligible to the being experiencing it. 

  “I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?

  “Gollum!” he called. “Would you lke to be the hero? — now where’s he got to again?” (Frodo to Sam, 322)

   In a book that tends towards crude black-and-white moralism, in which it is clear to everyone what is good and what is bad, it is the character of Gollum that takes us into the confused depths of the soul, where all things are possible. Without these depths, The Lord of the Rings would be two-dimensional and soulless. Tolkien’s description of Gollum in these passages is careful, crafty, fascinated: he couldn’t have succeeded if he didn’t somehow love Gollum, and respect him.

When Tolkien Is Bad

Books you love, like people you love, can sometimes get on your nerves; sometimes they can annoy you so much that you avoid them for months, even years. In this essay I will let myself vent one last time on what I find deeply bothersome about Tolkien, before turning to the passages in which he shines as a great writer.

   Bluntly put — Tolkien’s warriors are cardboard. Their two-dimensional quality shows in interactions like his one, in which Aragorn and the other heroes approach King Theoden’s throne room and are addressed by the guard at the door:

‘I   Doorward of Théoden,’ he said. ‘Háma is my name. Here I must bid you lay aside your weapons before you enter.’

Then Legolas gave into his hand his silver-hafted knife, his quiver and his bow. ‘Keep these well,’ he said, ‘for they come from the Golden Wood and the Lady of Lothlórien gave them to me.’

Wonder came into the man’s eyes, and he laid the weapons hastily by the wall, as if he feared to handle them. ‘No man will touch them I promise you,’ he said.

Aragorn stood a while hesitating. ‘It is not my will,’ he said, ‘to put aside my sword or to deliver Andúril to the hand of any other man.’

‘It is the will of Théoden,’ said Háma.

‘It is not clear to me that the will of Théoden son of Thengel even though he be lord of the Mark, should prevail over the will of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir of Gondor.’

‘This is the house of Théoden, not of Aragorn, even were he King of Gondor in the seat of Denethor,’ said Háma, stepping swiftly before the doors and barring the way. His sword was now in his hand and the point towards the strangers.

‘This is idle talk,’ said Gandalf. ‘Needless is Théoden’s demand, but it is useless to refuse. A king will have his way in his own hall, be it folly or wisdom.’

‘Truly,’ said Aragorn. ‘And I would do as the master of the house bade me, were this only a woodman’s cot, if I bore now any sword but Andúril.’

‘Whatever its name may be,’ said Háma, ‘here you shall lay it, if you would not fight alone against all the men in Edoras.’

‘Not alone!’ said Gimli, fingering the blade of his axe, and looking darkly up at the guard, as if he were a young tree that Gimli had a mind to fell. ‘Not alone!’

‘Come, come!’ said Gandalf. ‘We are all friends here. Or should be; for the laughter of Mordor will be our only reward, if we quarrel. My errand is pressing. Here at least is my sword, goodman Háma. Keep it well. Glamdring it is called, for the Elves made it long ago. Now let me pass. Come, Aragorn!’

(The Two Towers, p.115)

This childish spasm of heroic truculence would automatically disqualify Aragorn from any claim to statesmanship: 88 years old, and still engaging in manly chest-bumping about givng up his weapon? Gandalf’s comments are the cooling words of an adult to fiery children. Does Aragorn really not comprehend the normal courtesy required in an audience with another king in that king’s castle, and does he have no gracious sympathy and respect for the guard who has to demand this? Does his sense of majesty also not come with an understanding  that true kings ennoble their swords but do not need them to assert nobility? Legolas’ immediate compliance is a useful foil to Aragorn’s posturing, but Gimli’s hot-headed defiance is simply ludicrous. Who would go on a difficult journey with heroes who lose their self-control and wits so easily? I think that in his heart of hearts Tolkien knows that Aragorn is wiser than this, but here he cannot help lapsing into the rhetoric of a martial epic and can’t see, at this moment, how sadly pubescent it all sounds. 

   How does he do when he describes male-female interactions between members of the warrior class?

The woman turned and went slowly into the house. As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone. (119)

“Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings.” These sentences could have been fan-fiction written by a twelve-year-old. The inversions of syntax (“strong she seemed and stern as steel”) are vain attempts to elevate drab and lifeless emotions. The overall effect is pictorial, Pre-Raphaelite, a rendering of expressive gesture but without genuine expressiveness.  

   Here at least Tolkien is trying to render some inner conflict and nuanced emotion through bodily movements; and he is being a novelist rather than a teller of tales in seeking to convey the meeting of two perspectives. I suspect that he fails not because he can’t write, but because he doesn’t really understand the electricity of romance. Besides, what electricity can possibly crackle in bosoms that are incapable of betrayal or self-betrayal? 

   No writer can do everything; with so many passages of great beauty in a large book, he can be forgiven his inability to write women and sexuality. But even when he tries to capture the transformation of a heroic soul, the result is simplistc and cartoonish:

Will you not take the sword?’ said Gandalf.

Slowly Théoden stretched forth his hand. As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.

Arise now, arise, Riders of Théoden!

Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.

Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!

Forth Eorlingas!

The guards, thinking that they were summoned, sprang up the stair. They looked at their lord in amazement, and then as one man they drew their swords and laid them at his feet. ‘Command us!’ they said. (122)

I find it hard to read passages like this aloud with a straight face. It is not the mythic imagery that I object to, but the fact that Tolkien tries too hard and says too much — as if he himself needs to be convinced. If he had ended at “Then he gave a great cry,” the passage would have been eloquent — more powerful through trusting the reader’s ability to imagine the magnificent. But Tolkien does not trust the reader’s capacity, so he has to put in the dreadful poetic call to arms as well as the reaction of the guards to make sure that we do not miss the full glory of the transfiguration. The prose suffers from lack of tact, which in this care involves lack of respect for the reader’s sensitivity and intelligence. This tactlessness, as I intend to show in my next essay, is not at all characteristic of Tolkien except when he is straining to write nobly.

   I do not skim or speedread, which is probably what I need to do to swallow this pap. After taking in every word for whole chapters at a stretch, I find myself mildly nauseated and yearning for a literary emetic, something harsh and a little bit poisonous, such as Balzac’s Cousin Bette:

Monsieur Hulot junior was in every respect the young Frenchman, as he has been moulded by the Revolution of 1830; his mind infatuated with politics, respectful of his own hopes, and concealing them under an affectation of gravity, very envious of successful men, making sententiousness do the duty of witty rejoinders—the gems of the French language—with a high sense of importance, and mistaking arrogance for dignity.

Such men are walking coffins, each containing a Frenchman of the past; now and again the Frenchman wakes up and kicks against his English-made casing; but ambition stifles him, and he submits to be smothered. The coffin is always covered with black cloth.

Every word, even in translation, is to be savored. The description succeeds in catching the difference between how someone sees himself and how he really appears, what he aspires to be and what he is; it exposes the layers of a soul, its vulnerabilities and self-protection. “Mistaking arrogance for dignity” is a concise expression of what Aragorn does in the quarrel about his sword, but it is not the kind of distinction that Tolkien ever articulates. “The coffin is always covered with a black cloth” is a richly hyperbolic observation about the deadliness of confusing solemnity for seriousness. The irony of a passage like this depends on tremendous intellectual and emotional quickness: see how it moves from sentence to sentence, so different from Tolkien’s pompous stiffness. Balzac’s writing has vitality because it has critical insight into the human heart and its myriad ways of self-deception. 

   Or take this, from Austen’s Mansfield Park:

As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends. Having married on a narrower income than she had been used to look forward to, she had, from the first, fancied a very strict line of economy necessary; and what was begun as a matter of prudence, soon grew into a matter of choice, as an object of that needful solicitude which there were no children to supply. Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality, or lessen the comfort of making a yearly addition to an income which they had never lived up to. Under this infatuating principle, counteracted by no real affection for her sister, it was impossible for her to aim at more than the credit of projecting and arranging so expensive a charity; though perhaps she might so little know herself as to walk home to the Parsonage, after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.

Austen, like Balzac, has no mercy for self-deluded righteousness. Such prose cannot be skimmed, indeed every word must be relished and weighed — and only then might we perceive that Austen’s Mrs.Norris is in every way an embodiment of wickedness much more serious than Sauron, who is blandly monochrome in comparison. But in reading such prose we have to be alert, just as we have to be alert in our lives to perceive the real flickerings of good and evil around us, and not just the grossly obvious manifestations of Good and Evil in Manichaean fantasy. Writers like Balzac and Austen trust us to notice these things and respect us enough to let us be free to make our own wholes from them; writers like Tolkien don’t trust us as much, and have to make sure that we do not misunderstand. Lest I be accused of an unfair bias towards realism in my fictional tastes that blinds me to the unearthly grandeur possible only in fantasy, I will insist that my predilection is for shrewdness and sensitivity in whatever genre they may be found — and also the kind of lively, intelligent relationship between writer and reader in which both wholeheartedly enjoy the other’s intelligence. As we shall see, Tolkien also has his moments.

Which Religion? The Discourse to the Kalamas

[Kesariya Stupa, Bihar, built supposedly on the site where the Kalama Sutta took place. Coincidentally, about 25 miles from the birthplace of George Orwell.]

When the refined Kalamas of Kesaputta hear that the Buddha has come to town, they immediately go to check him out. They have heard good things about him, but have grown wary of religious teachers and philosophers preaching their own views and denigrating those of others. Not all of them approach the new guru with reverence:

On arrival, some of them bowed down to him and sat to one side. Some of them exchanged courteous greetings with him and, after an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, sat to one side. Some of them sat to one side having saluted him with their hands palm-to-palm over their hearts. Some of them sat to one side having announced their name and clan. Some of them sat to one side in silence.

The reception ranges from respect, through courtesy and chilly politeness, to a silence either critical or openly hostile. They go straight to the point: 

“Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

The Kalamas have rightly become nauseated by vehement pontification, by the smug self-certainty of spiritual know-it-alls, by fundamentalism in its various forms. They have stepped back from the furnace of belief and are looking for some way to cut through the blinding heat. Confronted with this challenge as soon as he sets foot in town, the Buddha — who sometimes comes across as one of those annoying men who have it all figured out — cannot now put forth his own dharma and criticize other views as mistaken; nor will he tell them — as he has told certain opinionated Brahmins elsewhere — that his path is not based on speculative views but on the understanding of suffering and the escape from it. He doesn’t answer their question directly, but instead gives them a succinct list that deserves to be chewed on slowly. He begins, “Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born.” In all the big questions of life and death, how could there possibly be certainty? One can always think of coherent alternatives to one’s own beliefs, and even for the loudest fanatic the teeth of doubt can always be heard in the background, nibbling.  So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

   Reports, legends, traditions, scripture: in other words, don’t just believe what you’ve been told, what is affirmed through common opinion, what has been handed down through the generations, what is claimed to be revealed truth, or what you find in a book. This set broadly includes testimony, authority, and everything written or posted on the Internet. In ordinary life, we rely upon such sources all the time — newspapers, word of mouth, science documentaries, textbooks, what our friends tell us — but in matters of real importance to us, we need more rigorous standards. For example, if we are diagnosed with cancer, will we not also want to see the evidence and not just believe the experts?

   At this point the Cartesian modern will say: So the Buddha is telling us to use our own minds and think for ourselves! But he includes “our own minds” in the next set: logical conjecture, inference, analogies, “pondering views,” and probability. What are these five things? By “logical conjecture” he means surmise, speculation — as when we employ arresting imagery to picture the origin of the universe or the features of heaven and hell. “Inference” encompasses syllogistic reasoning — as it is used, for example, in Anselm’s beautifully solid proof for the existence of God. Who, after studying Anselm’s ontological argument, is ever convinced by it, and who does not vaguely feel that he is being tricked either by Anselm or by the rules of the mind? “Analogies” can also be compelling enough to make us think we know — for instance, when scientists talk about the idea of “gravity” using analogies like “attraction” and “repulsion,” do they see clearly the figurative side of such language? “Agreement through pondering views” would include the body of what we call “knowledge” that has been arrived at through deliberate collective activity over time — such as academic consensus in a given field, or “science” (as when opinion pieces use the phrase “according to science”). “Probability” is also to be doubted, for there are many occasions when what really happens is improbable, and when what should be so according to common sense is in fact not so either because many things are not commonsensical or because our own common sense is not what it seems to us to be. In sum, we are being asked not to believe our own minds simply. With the first set of sources, the Buddha is urging us to question everything we see and hear; with the second, to question ourselves. It is an insincere learner who will question everyone and everything but not himself. 

   So what is left? Do we have no certain ground to stand upon? What about the guru? No, says the Buddha, we cannot rely on “this contemplative is my teacher”: there is no external source of truth who will solve everything for us, just as we have no “equipment” or resource, material or immaterial, that will infallibly give us access to the truth. Because the Kalamas already suspect this, they are suspicious of anybody who claims to know the truth about important matters. The Buddha, brilliant teacher as he is, begins this dialogue by making explicit what they already know but do not ncessarily want. If the discourse ended here, we would be left with a counsel of thoroughgoing skepticism, and probably be  resigned to not knowing anything. Instead, what the Buddha does is to adjust the focus.

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

This seems at first a strange statement to follow the list of possible sources of cognition. The conversation moves to a consideration of greed, aversion, and delusion, not as abstract ideas, but experiences: when we experience these, what do we find? The Buddha is always an empiricist: look at your experience and study it — what do you see there? All the keys we need to hold are within our own experience, so it is with our experience that we need to start. When you know for yourselves is the crucial clause (to which the opinion of “the wise” is important but subordinate), and if we know nothing for ourselves we can have no touchstone for what we know through the conventional sources of knowledge previously enumerated. Our own experience has to be digested and understood first. This is not an “anything goes” view; rather, we will know some important things if we patiently and thoroughly examine our lives.

“What do you think, Kalamas? When greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this greedy person, overcome by greed, his mind possessed by greed, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When aversion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this aversive person, overcome by aversion, his mind possessed by aversion, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this deluded person, overcome by delusion, his mind possessed by delusion, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”
“Unskillful, lord.”
“Blameworthy or blameless?”
“Blameworthy, lord.”
“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Criticized by the wise, lord.”
“When adopted and carried out, do they lead to harm and to suffering, or not?”

This exchange seems glib and unconvincing if it is read swiftly, but if we take each question as followed by a long pause, perhaps even a pause lasting days, as we go through particular instances of greed and its effects in our lives, only then will the Buddha’s exhortation to know for yourselves make sense. The idea is to think about it, reflect on what really happens and on the nature of consequences. This one page about greed, aversion, and delusion may point to everything we need to know about the causes of suffering, but the reflection is something that we need to do. To read the Sutta, we have to learn to read ourselves. We might end up not agreeing with the Buddha in all details, but at least our disagreement will be grounded in our own experience and subject to continued investigation.                  

    The Buddha will go on in the rest of this discourse to talk about positive states of mind and how good, how pleasant, they are in themselves: even if there is no reward for being good in this life or in the afterlife, it will have been good for its own sake. This is no “speculative view”; the entire drift of this discourse is that we can know this is so by rigorously examining our own experience. Here there is no description of advanced mental states, no teachings about non-self or dependent origination, no analysis of craving and attachment. The Buddha has not answered the Kalamas’ question; instead, he has “reset” it, bringing it down to earth or, as Confucius puts it, “near at hand.” He has taught them what to do to answer, for themselves, their own question. 

“Kalama Sutta,” Anguttara Nikaya, 3.65 (tr. Thanissaro)

The World Is Gnawed By Nameless Things

It is always risky for a writer to drag characters back from the dead. When George R.R. Martin does it in the Game of Thrones series I lose interest in the story, because if that can happen, the world no longer has inviolable rules or a nature; nothing is definitive, no action matters, if death has been overruled. This might be acceptable in the New Testament, which asserts  the rule of a higher intelligence than nature; but if a novelist resurrects dead characters, it smells of cheating, and is a betrayal of the cogency of the world that he has taken such pains to create. In The Fellowship of the Ring, every reader gasps with shock when the Balrog takes Gandalf into the abyss, and together with his companions we grieve for him. What are we to think of his return to life in The Two Towers? The “death” of Gandalf  in the first volume was as momentous a turning-point as Virgil’s departure in Dante’s Purgatorio: suddenly the protagonists are “on their own” and have to become their own lights. So when he reappears, it is impossible not to ask why, how, and what it all means.

He himself says that he is not the same person and that “Gandalf” did die — but he is willing to be called Gandalf if that is how everyone thinks of him. He is now virtually interchangeable with Saruman, as if he is now in fact no particular person but an impersonal distillation of the ideal wizard: ‘Yes, I am white now,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been… I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.’ (98) The others point out that light shines through the new Gandalf; he is translucent, as if the gross body has evaporated and dissolved in “fire and deep water.” Is this a ghost, a spirit? Is he dead? What exactly happened with the Balrog, what was that fight really about? Cleverly, Tolkien the narrator refrains from giving us the answer: he knows we are all bursting to know how Gandalf escaped, but he also knows that trying to describe it objectively will both stretch credulity and render nearly everything that follows anticlimactic — for what could follow a detailed account of Gandalf’s vanquishing of the Balrog? Yet if he is going to resurrect Gandalf, he must give a plausible account. If Gandalf himself were to give the account, he would give us “what happened” from his point of view, but that point of view will be dazed, confused, shell-shocked, unremembering — convincingly so. Thus Tolkien the author would be absolved from working out all the details. The narrative will not be a recounting of a causal sequence of physical events, but will follow some other kind of logic.

It begins awkwardly:

Then tell us what you will, and time allows!’ said Gimli. ‘Come, Gandalf, tell us how you fared with the Balrog!’

‘Name him not!’ said Gandalf, and for a moment it seemed that a cloud of pain passed over his face, and he sat silent, looking old as death. ‘Long time I fell,’ he said at last, slowly, as if thinking back with difficulty. ‘Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart.’

The sentence beginning “Name him not!” is a lapse into the histrionically portentous epic style that mars Tolkien’s writing when he tries to elevate the narrative to the mythic. “Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart”: the syntactical inversion also strains at sounding archaic, sage-like, and otherworldly. This is the kind of language that Yoda’s speech patterns affectionately parody: “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.” Gandalf’s language here lacks Yoda’s wry humor and manages to be both vague and pedantic: why “almost it froze my heart”?

So far he has given us the conventional fire-water imagery of death before rebirth, but then he hits his stride, and the account becomes both interesting and original:

‘Deep is the abyss that is spanned by Durin’s Bridge, and none has measured it,’ said Gimli.

‘Yet it has a bottom, beyond light and knowledge,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.

‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Glóin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair.’

In a previous essay I wondered if the Balrog expresses the dread-beyond-meaning in the face of which all heroism is pointless. Gandalf sacrifices himself to quell the meaningless beast and restore the possibility of the war of good against evil in the many pages to follow. This passage, however, recasts the Balrog as still firmly within the realm of meaningful polarity. They descend beneath the living earth to where time is not counted, a world gnawed by nameless things older than Sauron and unknown to him. It is a world that precedes meaning, and does not know good and evil, light and dark. The “nameless things” cannot be imagined. Is it the world there that is gnawed, or is it the foundation of our own world? “Gnawed” is a word choice of genius, suggesting futility, the eternal sound of teeth against bone or rock: we hear it and feel it, because we know what it is to gnaw. We also know what it is to be gnawed. The word carries emotional connotations: gnawing anguish, gnawing anxiety, gnawing thoughts — all expressing persistent misery and a concealed wearing down. “Gnawing” does not invoke worms chomping on dead things, but teeth that can bite yet have no power to eat. It is a hell of craving and endless starvation. When Gandalf calls it “that despair,” he might simply mean “that place of despair” — but more probably what he means is a state of soul without hope, a spiritual agony “gnawed by nameless things.” Gandalf’s experience is of the underneath of our world, the foundations of sentient life. It turns out that even the Balrog cannot endure this and has to flee, taking Gandalf with him. Thus both Gandalf and his enemy need their enmity; paradoxically, it is the Balrog that saves Gandalf, because it too cannot bear the hell of meaninglessness. And when it flees, it takes an upward path from abyss to heights, uncharacteristically seeking the light.

‘Long has that been lost,’ said Gimli. ‘Many have said that it was never made save in legend, but others say that it was destroyed.’

‘It was made, and it had not been destroyed,’ said Gandalf. ‘From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed. ascending in unbroken spiral in many thousand steps, until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirak-zigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine.

‘There upon Celebdil was a lonely window in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame. There was none to see, or perhaps in after ages songs would still be sung of the Battle of the Peak.’ Suddenly Gandalf laughed. ‘But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain.’

It was made. Gimli’s musing and Gandalf’s response bring the narrative back to tangible materiality — an actual staircase, built by historical Dwarves. But immediately after this the description takes on cinematic special effects as Gandalf tries to render a fight that occurs on an impossible scale and in fire and smoke as well as ice: it cannot be seen, so how could it be sung? He gives up describing it. His language then suddenly takes on the register of the King James Bible: I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. The diction of this single sentence veils Gandalf’s account in sacred speech, and this allows a transition into mythopoeic language to convey an experience beyond life and death:

Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.

‘Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.’

This new location mirrors the place “far below the deepest delving”: the “slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone” echoes the uttermost foundations of stone and the “gnawing of nameless things,” and “each day was as long as a life-age of the earth” balances the depth “where time is not counted.” Gandalf has experienced both poles of meaninglessness, one beneath the world and one above it — and from the one above, the realm of human endeavor and song feel faint, irrelevant. That realm occupies an edge between these two inhospitable eternities. Gandalf, having experienced both, has to return to the world of human time to complete the plot, but he is happy to. Gandalf, the White, is resolutely cheerful to be an actor again; the war against Sauron is far better than the two forms of living death he has just experienced.

This is partly why the first half of The Two Towers feels lighter than the rest, more optimistic. There are some things worse than losing to Sauron, and a long destructive war against an evil enemy gives at least a comforting frame of meaning: even if you die, it will have been alright. The Enemy will have saved you.

How to Live a Good Human Life: The Buddha’s Advice to Sigala

(Bamboo Grove. Photo credit: Patricia Sauthoff, Nalanda University)

“Do I have to give up chocolate?” In any serious discussion of the Buddha’s Pali Suttas among people who are not Buddhists, there will always be one person who will get annoyed, even outraged, by the idea that the elmination of craving might be the first crucial step in the removal of the conditions for suffering: Must I do without all my pleasures, like chocolate — or movies — or sexual relationships? At first it can seem that the Buddha is confronting us with the necessity of getting rid of all the things that make us happy, and that instead of giving us a way out of suffering he would be causing much more. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction. 

    The Buddha never asks a layperson, new to Buddhism, to give up their attachments — because how would they understand the reasons if the attachments seem good to them? To request them to do so would only make them angry and drive them further into attachment. Most of the Pali Suttas are discourses with bhikkhus, who have already been converted: to them, the Buddha can go deeply into craving and attachment. Even when he is talking with Brahmin ascetics he can refer more freely to the discipline of renunciation. When he is talking with a layperson, however, he doesn’t go directly to dependent origination, not-self, or the aggregates, because it wouldn’t be constructive or compassionate to do so. How then would he speak to the concerns of someone like me, a person interested in living well but unable yet to fathom the deep meaning of suffering itself, let alone the extinction of it?

   In the Digha Nikaya, the “basket” of longer discourses, we meet a young scion of the royal family:

This is what I heard.
1. On one occasion, the Buddha was living near the town of Rajagaha at a spot in the Bamboo Grove called the Squirrel’s Feeding Place.
At that time a young householder named Sigalaka arose early and set out from Rajagaha with freshly washed clothes and hair. With palms together held up in reverence, he was paying respect towards the six directions: that is east, south, west, north, lower and upper.
2. Meanwhile the Buddha dressed himself in the early morning, took his bowl and robe and went in to Rajagaha on alms round. On the way, he saw Sigalaka worshipping the six directions. Seeing this, the Buddha said to him: “Young man, why have you risen in the early morning and set out from Rajagaha to worship in such a way?”
“Dear sir, my father on his deathbed urged me, ‘My son, you must worship the directions’. So, dear sir, realizing, honoring, respecting, and holding sacred my father’s request, I have risen in the early morning and set out from Rajagaha to worship in this way.”
“But, young man, that is not how the six directions should be worshipped according to the discipline of the noble ones.”

Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31, tr. Kelly/Sawyer/Yareham, 2005)

In a body of work that eschews literary devices and elegance, the “meanwhile” is noteworthy: at the same time as Sigalaka is doing x, the Buddha is doing y. Usually the Suttas  begin with the Buddha, but this one pointedly begins with his interlocutor, who is from the beginning placed in the foreground — as if to indicate from the start that the Buddha will enter into his life but not take it over. This Sigalaka is clearly a dutiful son who takes his deceased father’s wish seriously. I imagine this scene taking place just before dawn, before most people are up; and Sigalaka has already prepared hmself for his devotions “with freshly washed clothes and hair.” The Buddha watches, notices the young man’s punctilious energy and reverence, gently questions him, and offers instruction. He does not tell him he is wrong, or ty to convert him by teaching philosophical profundities; indeed, no attempt is made to change his view of things. After reviewing the usual basic moral precepts, the Buddha gives him a way to deepen the “worship of the six directions.” Now this is not a new approach: even in the Upanishads the six directions are interpreted allegorically, because “worship” of them cannot consist of the meaningless positioning of the body towards an abstraction like “north” or “south.” The understanding has to be engaged, and the “effectiveness” of the ritual is not in some magic transformation whereby a few movements of the limbs brings prosperity, but in a careful awareness of the meaning in things that brings about better focus and perceptiveness in everyday life. 

  “Six directions” — the usual four, plus vertically above and beneath — conjures up a cosmic whole. In a different religion they might be six gods, six elemental powers, six dimensions of the life-force — but here the Buddha demystifies them into the six fundamental relationships. In what follows, the Buddha sounds surprisingly like a Confucian philosopher.

27. “And how, young man, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six directions should be known: mother and father as the east, teachers as the south, spouse and family as the west, friends and colleagues as the north, workers and servants as the lower direction, and ascetics and Brahmans as the upper direction.
28. “In five ways should a mother and father as the eastern direction be respected by a child: ‘I will support them who supported me; I will do my duty to them; I will maintain the family lineage and tradition; I will be worthy of my inheritance; and I will make donations on behalf of dead ancestors.’
“And, the mother and father so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, training you in a profession, supporting the choice of a suitable spouse, and in due time, handing over the inheritance.
“In this way, the eastern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
29. “In five ways should teachers as the southern direction be respected by a student: by rising for them, regularly attending lessons, eagerly desiring to learn, duly serving them, and receiving instruction.
“And, teachers so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by training in self-discipline, ensuring the teachings are well-grasped, instructing in every branch of knowledge, introducing their friends and colleagues, and providing safeguards in every direction.
“In this way, the southern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
30. “In five ways should a wife as the western direction be respected by a husband: by honoring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and by giving [adornments].
“And, the wife so respected reciprocates with compassion in five ways: by being well-organized, being kindly disposed to the in-laws and household workers, being faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skillful and diligent in all duties.
In this way, the western direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
31. “In five ways should friends and colleagues as the northern direction be respected: by generosity, kind words, acting for their welfare, impartiality, and honesty.
“And, friends and colleagues so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, not abandoning you in misfortunes, and honoring all your descendants.
“In this way, the northern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
32. “In five ways should workers and servants as the lower direction be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.
“And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation.
“In this way, the lower direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
33. “In five ways should ascetics and Brahmans as the upper direction be respected: by kindly actions, speech, and thoughts, having an open door, and providing material needs.
“And, ascetics and Brahmans so respected reciprocate with compassion in six ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you to good actions, thinking compassionately, telling you what you ought to know, clarifying what you already know, and showing you the path to heaven.
“In this way, the upper direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.”

Parents, children, teachers, students, husband, wife, friends, colleagues, employees, subordinates, spiritual mentors: we all have them, each relationship has its unique problems and provocations, and at any given moment there is work to be done in each “direction.” And the six directions make a whole: if even one of them is missing or messy, our contentment will be marred. 

   No other ancient text offers instruction on relationships as concise, complete, moderate, and feasible as this. We make allowances, as the Buddha would have, for changes in time and place: for example, “husband” and “wife” might be altered to a different form of conjugal relationship; “giving adornments” can be interpreted to include any act of generosity that makes the other person feel like a woman, a man, or just human. Throughout these, the mutuality is remarkable. In the Hindu tradition, for example, there is a lot about what wife owes to husband, but barely anything on what husband owes to wife; or what responsibilities people in charge have towards employees (we might translate this to our responsibility to people who make our clothes or grow our food); or what spiritual teachers owe to their students. Even in the Confucian tradition, there is something excessive and one-way  about the duties of child to parent. In how many ancient traditions will we find a husband giving honor, respect, and authority to his wife? — or laborers and servants being treated with care and considerateness? Each “direction” is a balanced set — not as formal obligations or “laws,” but as foundational considerations or “dharmas.” If the dharma is missing, the relationship will not work; this is not about obeying laws, but about being realistic. 

   Pervasive in these instructions is the call for kindness, that neglected virtue. “Kindly actions” and “kindly words” are easy enough to practice, and are the key to harmonious and pleasant daily relationships. The “six directions” concern social harmony as well as individual peace of mind; the latter is, for most of us, dependent on the former. But it goes beyond kindliness: in each case, the group of people in relation to us are asked to respond “with compassion.” It is as if we are being asked to look beneath the surface of our social interactions and see the struggling human being, the one who is having a hard time — and this means all of us. Even workers and servants are asked to treat their masters with compassion. Without this exhortation to compassion, the Buddha’s instructions to Sigalaka  offer nothing more than an efficacious, respectful way to “manage” our relationships — but the need for compassion broadens the teaching to embrace the unmanageable, and the barely manageable, heart. Compassion requires understanding and empathy, a risky giving over of ourselves to the other person.  

   The compassion of friends includes “being a refuge when you are afraid” — another extraordinary recommendation, both for ancient and for modern times, in which people are generally reluctant to confess fears to one another. These fears may be specific — of enemies, of the law, of creditors — but they can also be deeply existential: fear of living, fear of hardship, fear of mortality, fear of the loss of meaning. In all of these respects friends have been known to give comfort. It’s striking that the Buddha places this responsibility firmly in the bosom of friends — not of parents, teachers, or spouse — perhaps because our friendships are uncomplicated by other tasks, such as running a household together. The “six directions” have to encompass all the ways in which we genuinely need, and need to open to, one another. 

   All six directions have to be understood and practiced, both ways: this, says the Buddha, is what it means to worship the six directions. Each direction is difficult enough to “do” and provides enough work for a lifetime, but what is even more astonishing is that a human being has somehow to juggle all six, in such a way that each direction is fulfilled and no one direction swallows the whole — which can easily happen, for example, when attention to a troubled family member becomes all-consuming. We need to fulfill all six directions to be  happy; the neglect of just one will result in a niggling of the mind and perturbation of the heart. The Buddha refrains from adding more to Sigalaka’s plate because it is already quite full. He could have said that the worship of the six directions is a way of developing character and disciplining the mind, to make it ready for a “higher” practice — but he doesn’t. The cultivation of the six directions, with attention and with compassion, might be enough work for a lifetime, and more than most people are willing to do. As with Confucius, we can learn from what the Buddha doesn’t say.

What a thing is relationship, and how easily we fall into that habit of a particular relationship, things are taken for granted, the situation accepted and no variation tolerated; no movement towards uncertainty, even for a second, entertained. Everything is so well regulated, so made secure, so tied down, that there is no chance for any freshness, for a clear reviving breath of the spring. This and more is called relationship. If we closely observe, relationship is much more subtle, more swift than lightning, more vast than the earth, for relationship is life. Life is conflict. We want to make relationship crude, hard, and manageable. So it loses its fragrance, its beauty. All this arises because one does not love, and that of course is the greatest thing of all, for in it there has to be the complete abandonment of oneself. (J.Krishnamurti)


The Sigalaka Sutta can be found at: