Why We Fail Miserably at Learning Languages

If you have spent time in other cultures or traveled a lot, not in cars by yourself, but on trains, buses, and ferries where you are compelled into human interaction, or better still, on foot through bustling cities or from village to village, then you will have experienced several times the delight of having intelligent conversations with people who barely share a language with you. Solely from recognizing a few words, from being able to interpret facial expressions and gestures, and above all from being intensely interested in your interlocutor and her world, it is possible to communicate quite deeply with a stranger. I have fond menories of almost falling in love with a German girl I sat next to on a ferry; we talked for four hours in an almost nonsensical mash of German and English. When I taught in China, I noticed that many longtime students of the English language could hold only faltering, fearful conversations in English — whereas some businessmen and scientists who had never formally studied English could have interesting conversations with me about politics or philosophy, because their English had expanded through their curiosity in favorite subject areas. Their English would be far from perfect and always thickly accented, but they were capable of understanding and making themselves understood in discussions of deep, significant matters. In traveling, you also enounter shopkeepers and food-vendors who can conduct their daily business effectively in multiple languages; they have an urgent practical interest in doing so, and while they may not be able to discuss philosophical notions in all those languages, it is probably fair to claim that many of them are more confident and effective linguists than many people who have studied one of those languages formally for years.

Most people in the world are comfortably functional in two or three languages or dialects. In polyglot societies, it is common to hear multiple tongues simultaneously going at a single restaurant table. In Malaysia, among my own family, I have heard one person asking something in Cantonese to two other people who replied in Hakka and English, while interacting with the waiter in Malay; and I have also heard a sentence that began in Cantonese, continued in Hokkien, and ended in English. In such a society there is an astonishing ease and freedom with languages, a lack of anxiety coupled with a willingness to improvise. One of my uncles, who is proficient in four languages and functional in about six others, has told me his secret to learning a new language: just write down the fifty words that are most useful to you, look up how to use them, go out there and spend a few days using them, and over the weeks add to this store. This really works — but it requires not so much courage as recklessness, a deliberate abandonment of caution and an enjoyment of learning through failing.

In contrast, I think of the many years I have spent studying a language academically, through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and vetbs, drills, exercises, and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker — or able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation. This paralysis results from an excessive sense of responsibility to the language, a feeling that I have to be correct all the time and make only complete, well formed utterances. Experienced this way, a language is a thing, a defined object with fixed rules and standards that have to be conformed to; and its thingness is embodied in the grammar book and dictionary, which purport to contain the entire language. Now, there is an undeniable power to this view of a language. In the case of dead languages, which are “complete” in the sense that they are no longer evolving and are therefore “done,” it might be compelling and attractive to condense all the patterns of a language in one book; for example, it is a miracle that the whole of Sanskrit can be summarized in the 150 pages of Gonda’s Sanskrit grammar, and downright unbelievable that the great ancient grammarian Panini gave us the essential generative grammar of Sanskrit in fewer than 20 pages. Any grammar textbook of a language aims at doing something similar: grasping and presenting the underlying essence of a language in a way that makes it efficient to master, because the entire structure can be conceived theoretically by one who has studied the whole book. Classical linguists are so familiar with the deep structures of a group of languages that when faced with a new one, they can find their way quickly because they already have a map. It is like a zoologist who has spent decades working with the anatomy of rodents and mustelids: when given a cat to dissect, he will know where to find the heart or liver.

I myself am very good at the analytical study of language, but I know that only relatively few people have the aptitude for this kind of study. It requires the capacity for long hours of mental focus and retention, and an abstract, rational turn of mind that quickly and rigorously seizes underlying structures and is skilled at memorizing. People who excel in learning languages in this way pay a price for it; they tend to be socially shy or awkward, happier at desks than at human gatherings, and consequently not at ease with the flexible, fluid ways of living languages in spontaneous human interaction. The problem is that people who have advanced credentials with languages and who are good at the scholarly approach tend to be the ones who write language-learning materials. Moreover, an expert in a language generally teaches others the way he was taught (after all, why change the winning team?), and this way usually presupposes that the language is a thing with a fixed structure that can be taught through books and a classroom, independently of a living context.

However, it doesn’t work for most people. The effect of our conventional methods of learning languages is to create a monoglot — someone who is only comfortable in one language and is terrified at the prospect of having to be functional in more than one. Perhaps it is more than an effect; perhaps the intention is to create a society of monoglots. After all, the idea of a national language grew with the development of print culture, which enforced a standard range of prose for published texts. The culmination of this was the great age of philology and lexicography in the 19th century, in which authoritative reference books set down the official standards for a language. If a word isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t English; and if you are unsure of a point of grammar, you will consult one of the standard references in grammar and usage, such as the Oxford Guide to English Grammar. The essence of a language is thus treated as something that lies outside and beyond its particular speakers in particular times and places, and that is contained in books that have authority to declare if any given utterance is English or not. When we speak English we have to be obedient to such centers of authority; and when we attempt to learn French we have to be obedient to other centers. No wonder we are paralyzed with anxiety when we are called to speak. We have been shackled by shadowy, artificial authorities. We are lucky to have learned one language as children, before we received the gift of viewing languages as things outside of us.

Official languages are nation-makers, hence also monoglot-makers. The many rules of a language — all those inflections, and then idioms and exceptions — are meant to make it hard for outsiders to join the group. If languages were solely for communication, they would have the simplicity and malleability of Esperanto. Instead, languages as we know it are used to create Us and Other, and the thorniness of the Other is reflected in the fearsome difficulty of speaking the Other language. Thus, we have succeeded in making the learning of languages hard and unpleasant. We have reified our languages, turned them into intimidating objects outside of ourselves that we now have to struggle with, instead of what they really are in our lived experience of them — dynamic, changing, growing, intimate aspects of our particular being in history.

In a recent essay in the Scientific American (“Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” September 7, 2016), Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello argue that over the last few decades evidence has been mounting that our capacity for language does not emanate from an underlying “universal grammar” that we all have inside us. In other words, language may not be fundamentally a thing that precedes and causes all individual instances of speech. Just as the capacity for language itself may not need a hypostatized universal language, a Platonic form of language, in the same way a given language does not require a substratum or essence that stands apart from particular utterances. Uninhibited by ideas about language, children learn languages by freely engaging them with multiple parts of the mind, which in approaching languages is like a Swiss Army Knife: a “set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.” However, as we grow up, we abandon the Swiss Army Knife and strive to rely on a single tool for everything.

We are living in an age of more complex relationships with different cultures and languages, but also of more vehement resistance to difference — hence the bigotry that manifests as nationalism, of which one face is rigid monoglottism. Listening to a group of people speaking an exotic language in a public space, how many people now become disturbed, uneasy, suspicious? — how many become even angry and indignant, and would consider reporting these strangers to the authorities? If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers. Reification always cripples the ability to relate.

There is a place for the scholarly approach to a language through formal grammar and lexicon; it can give a valuable analytical account of a language, but does not necessarily express what the language is. Consider Chaucer’s dazzling creation of English through the audacious assimilation of French words and syntax, Shakespeare’s many shatterings and reforgings of the language, the King James Bible’s weird and beautiful Hebrew-English, Milton’s even weirder Latinate Hebrew-English: fortunately for us, our greatest writers never experienced their language as a thing, but as a process of formation boiling with possibilities, including the possibility of being wholly permeated by other languages. This is how we should be experiencing language, and the way we learn languages should reflect this dangerous, thrilling play at the limits of expression. Can we transform the way we study languages and become more open, more creative, more free? It seems that we are already beginning to, in the various new digital language-learning programs that emphasize living interaction; many of these start from an insight that the conventional approach is “boring” and ineffectual to most people, but do not go so far as to say that they fail because they are built on fallacious ideas about language. I hope nonetheless that the new “hands-on” approaches will percolate into our classrooms and shake us up.

When we find ourselves on that train trying to explain ourselves to the attractive and interesting stranger, and reaching into the unknown to fathom what he is telling us, we find ourselves working at the very borders of what we know — and enjoying it, fuller for it. All language study should be like this — maybe even all study. A bilingual friend — who is not bilingual in the way a George Steiner is bilingual, namely as a superman-scholar type who can write polished prose in four languages, but rather is bilingual like my Malaysian relatives are multilingual, capable of rapidly ricocheting between several languages with easy functionality and no commitment to formal correctness — once remarked to me that being bilingual is “a bit like making out in the dark”: not everything is lit and seen, we struggle tentatively across spaces to make contact, and we learn to be bold and trusting in the unknown. This is indeed how we do language — venturing perilously into the new, not just memorizing and applying predetermined patterns in a safe, warm web approved by the best scholars.


The Great Teenage Refusal: A Buddhist Comedy (Ratthapala, Pt.2)

Who is this Ratthapala who cannot be intimidated by a mighty king and who sets this king a new standard of strength and mastery? 

   He is introduced as a scion of a wealthy Brahmin family from the once great kingdom of the Kurus, at the foot of the Himalayas. When the Buddha wanders into town, Ratthapala accompanies the other brahmin householders to hear this famous guru teach and is at once so moved by the teaching that he asks the Buddha if he can leave everything and join him. The Buddha replies: “Raṭṭhapāla, Tathāgatas do not give the going forth to anyone who does not have his parents’ permission.” This might be read as disingenuous, since the Buddha himself simply left his family without anyone’s permission — but he is probably telling this to Ratthapala because he knows that youthful impetuousness and shallow zeal are best tested by parental disapproval and obstruction. 

   The young man’s reply is evidence of a strong-willed child used to getting his way with his parents: “Venerable sir, I shall see to it that my parents permit me to go forth from the home life into homelessness.” When he asks his parents he is told, predictably, 

“ Raṭṭhapāla, you are our only son, dear and beloved. You have been raised in comfort, brought up in comfort; you know nothing of suffering, dear Raṭṭhapāla. Even in case of your death we would lose you unwillingly, so how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?”

To Ratthapala, this appeal is impotent because he despises the way his family lives and cannot imagine any satisfaction for himself from their coarse materialistic existence. To his parents, he is being typically willful and impulsive, and needs to see that they are acting only out of love for him and care for his best interests. Of course these parents do not understand the Buddha’s teachings; to them, the guru provided interesting entertainment with some instruction, but did not inspire them with a wish to emulate. Besides, how could any parent envision with equanimity their child living as a homeless person, begging for food and sleeping on the ground wherever he can? — especially a boy brought up with every comfort. The exchange between them is repeated three times, as if to enact in prose the repetitive intransigence between mutually uncomprehending family members. The conflict has no middle ground and therefore no satisfactory solution for both sides.

Then, not receiving his parents’ permission to go forth, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla lay down there on the bare floor, saying: “Right here I shall either die or receive the going forth.”

Taken out of context this reaction looks like a tantrum, but taken in the context of many years spent living with these people Ratthapala’s action is an expression of desperate yearning. We have all been in a situation when we know with every cell in our being that if we continue the life we have been living our souls will wither and die, and when we see a path out of this horrible living-death we are only too happy to cast off everything that we have known and are used to. “I have go, or I am going to die here.” The usual effect on those around us is consternation. Something in them must recognize some truth in our reaction, and this provokes a more vehement counter-action against the rejection of their cherished way of life. There is a redoubled effort to win the boy back to the attractions of comfort and pleasure:

Then the clansman Raṭṭhapāla’s parents said to him: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla, you are our only son, dear and beloved. You have been raised in comfort, brought up in comfort; you know nothing of suffering, dear Raṭṭhapāla. Get up, dear Raṭṭhapāla, eat, drink, and amuse yourself. While eating, drinking, and amusing yourself, you can be happy enjoying sensual pleasures and making merit. We do not permit you to go forth from the home life into homelessness. Even in the case of your death we would lose you unwillingly, so how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?” 

And making merit: You can lead a good life and enjoy yourself, Ratthapala, it doesn’t have to be either/or.  You don’t have to give up all the comforts that a reasonable human being lives for! Ratthapala of course hears this as a soul-killing compromise: “By these I would not care to die, / Half convention and half lie.” (Dylan Thomas) His family cannot grasp not only that he has no interest whatsoever in comfort, pleasure, amusement, and the accumulation of merit that results in prolonged comfort, pleasure, and amusement — but that he is actually repelled by the sheer meaninglessness of the round of porcine contentment. Most people want nothing more than this: a comfortable life with as few inconveniences and troubles as possible. It takes an intelligent teenager to perceive that even when people have all of this they are still peevish and unhappy, and none of the “good things” of life have any power to make them better or happier. But to them, Ratthapala’s refusal is unintelligible, and he knows that nothing he can say will have any persuasive impact. So, when this was said, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla was silent. The exchange is repeated: For the second time…For the third time his parents said to him: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla…how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?” For the third time the clansman Raṭṭhapāla was silent.

   They attempt to break the impasse by enlisting his friends, who reiterate the temptation but see more quickly than the parents do that their friend is obdurate:   

Then the clansman Raṭṭhapāla’s friends went to his parents and said to them: “Mother and father, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla is lying down there on the bare floor, having said: ‘Right here I shall either die or receive the going forth.’ Now if you do not give him your permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness, he will die there. But if you give him your permission, you will see him after he has gone forth. And if he does not enjoy the going forth, what else can he do then but return here? So give him your permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness.”

“Then, dears, we give the clansman Raṭṭhapāla permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness. But when he has gone forth, he must visit his parents.”

This seems to be an entirely sensible solution; after all, most young people smitten with spiritual ideals are quite likely to give up after some experience of the difficulties of living up to them. Once again, Ratthapala’s parents demonstrate that they simply do not know their child; indeed, this may itself be a significant reason for his anger at them — that they are so blinded by the life of material luxury that they are unable to see the unhappiness of the individuals closest to them. 

   Against their hopes and expectations, Ratthapala blossoms under spiritual cultivation. He is a “natural”:

Before long, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla, by realising for himself with direct knowledge, here and now entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. He directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” And the venerable Raṭṭhapāla became one of the arahants.

At this point he asks the Buddha if he can visit his parents, and the Buddha, seeing that the young arahant has passed beyond all susceptibility to familial seduction, says yes. Now why does Ratthapala want to go back? Is it solely because he has promised to do so, and a noble spirit will keep his vows? If so, it must be a task that he will now discharge with cold efficiency and some distaste. Or is it as many of us have experienced going home after many years away in a new life: we have to return just once, to verify for ourselves that the old life was exactly as oppressive as we remember it to have been, and we have indeed freed ourselves for good as well as for the good of all? 

Now on that occasion the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father was sitting in the hall of the central door having his hair dressed. When he saw the venerable Raṭṭhapāla coming in the distance, he said: “Our only son, dear and beloved, was made to go forth by these bald-pated recluses.” Then at his own father’s house the venerable Raṭṭhapāla received neither alms nor a polite refusal; instead, he received only abuse.

The detail of his father sitting in the hall of the central door having his hair dressed is a wonderful image of the life of indolent and ostentatious luxury, and in this life, once again, he fails to recognize his son. It takes a maid from whom Ratthapala begs cold leftover porridge to recognize him, and now the mortified father comes running out:

Just then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla was eating the old porridge by the wall of a certain shelter. His father went to him and said: “Raṭṭhapāla, my dear, surely there is…and you will be eating old porridge! Is there not your own house to go to?”

“How could we have a house, householder, when we have gone forth from the home life into homelessness? We are homeless, householder. We went to your house, but we received neither alms nor a polite refusal there; instead we received only abuse.” 

“Come, dear Raṭṭhapāla, let us go to the house.”

“Enough, householder, my meal for today is finished.”

In other words: I don’t need you and don’t want you. Ratthapala’s coldness of speech verges on aggression; the word “householder” functions as a high barbed wire fence, which not only keeps intruders out but looks bristly enough that they won’t even think of coming in. Shouldn’t Ratthapala have been softer, friendlier, to his dear father who cannot help loving him in the only way he knows how? Why does he have to be so harsh, since the harshness in this case can deliver only wounds but no comprehension? When a young person insists on eating leftover porridge on the street while his father pleads with him in vain to come home and have a decent meal, he obviously intends to upset, humiliate, and cause pain. While the Buddha knows that there is no possibility of Ratthapala’s reversion to the old life, he must also see that the young arahant needs to return home one more time to make the definite violent cut — in this case by forcefully putting his father in his place and demonstrating, for himself as well as his father, that the filial relationship no longer exists. 

   Later that day, when Ratthapala reluctantly goes to a feast arranged for him by his father, he is shown two heaps of gold and told that they are all his, to be used in a life that any mortal would envy. Instead of polite refusal, he rejects it all with contempt: 

“Householder, if you would follow my advice, then have this pile of gold coins and bullion loaded on carts and carried away to be dumped midstream in the river Ganges. Why is that? Because, householder, on account of this there will arise for you sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

— as if his father were capable of understanding this admonition!

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives clasped his feet and said to him: “What are they like, my lord’s son, the nymphs for whose sake you lead the holy life?”

“We do not lead the holy life for the sake of nymphs, sisters.”

“Our lord’s son Raṭṭhapāla calls us ‘sisters,’” they cried and right there they fainted.

Every conceivable attempt is made to win him back to the life of comfort, until Ratthapala cuts it short with a comically cruel command:

 “Householder, if there is a meal to be given, then give it. Do not harass us.”

“Eat then, dear Raṭṭhapāla, the meal is ready.”

Then, with his own hands, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father served and satisfied him with the various kinds of good food. 

From the point of view of most Asian traditions, the inversion of filiality in the image of the aged father serving the renegade son would be both touching and shocking. Moreover, the son lets himself be served by his father, and eats without pleasure or gratitude; the drama is simultaneously perverse, unnatural, and cruel. The father has been reduced to silence, and he must know that this will be his last opportunity to serve his own son at home. Then, with his own hands, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father served and satisfied him with the various kinds of good food. The meal has now turned into a sacred valediction, ritually and perhaps tenderly — with his own hands — administered by the father. 

   Is Ratthapala at all moved by this?

When the venerable Raṭṭhapāla had eaten and had put his bowl aside, he stood up and uttered these stanzas:

 “Behold a puppet here pranked out,
A body built up out of sores,
Sick, an object for concern,
Where no stability abides.

Behold a figure here pranked out
With jewellery and earrings too,
A skeleton wrapped up in skin,
Made attractive by its clothes.

Its feet adorned with henna dye
And powder smeared upon its face:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

Its hair is dressed in eightfold plaits
And unguent smeared upon its eyes:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

A filthy body well adorned
Like a new-painted unguent pot:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

The deer-hunter set out the snare
But the deer did not spring the trap;
We ate the bait and now depart
Leaving the hunters to lament.”

The stanzas are an expression of disgust and triumph, with some element of cold rage; they feel like a parting curse. There is no way that the king could understand why his son is saying these things, and Ratthapala must know that. Thus the stanzas are intended to inflict a painful rejection, as well as to fortify a final relinquishing of the old life: Nice try, but you failed to trap me. What Ratthapala fails to see is the ambivalence of his father’s attempt: yes, it was a trap, but not merely a trap; the father is trying to love in the way that he knows how. It may be that love of this kind is really nothing more than a trap, a device to possess and control — but what would it take for a person to notice this confusion in himself? If he errs, it is more from ignorance than from malice, and what he needs is to be instructed. Ratthapala also doesn’t see the ambivalence of his own reaction: yes, the noble soul has succeeded in holding out against the seductions of pleasure and the soft life of mortals with no higher aspirations, but the vexed haughtiness of the noble soul betrays a certain neediness — for what? For understanding and respect? A helpless and unreasonable demand that those closest to him be better and wiser than they are?  Why can’t his family just be like him? The accusation of the parting stanzas barely conceal a raging disappointment in the failings of ordinary people. 

   At this point Ratthapala leaves his father’s house and settles down for the day in King Koravya’s Megacira Garden — either completely satisfied that he now no longer needs to think of his family again, or to still his furious, grieving heart. The arahant who asserts his mastery in instructing the king has revealed himself to us as a young man of iron will and truculent pride — not a humane, compassionate Buddha or one with skill in saying to people what they need to hear. His summaries of the Buddha’s teachings express the vision of a fierce but rigid spirit, one who bends to no one, and who lets it be known that he bends to no one. Perhaps it takes such a character to command the attention of the Kuru king.

I have longed to move away
From the hissing of the spent lie
And the old terror’s continual cry
Growing more terrible as the day
Goes over the hill and into the deep sea;
I have longed to move away
From the repetition of salutes,
For there are ghosts in the air
And ghostly echoes on paper,
And the thunder of calls and notes.

I have longed to move away but am afraid;
Some life, yet unspent, might explode
Out of the old lie burning on the ground,
And, crackling into the air, leave me half-blind.
Neither by night’s ancient fear,
The parting of hat from hair,
Lips pursed at the receiver,
Shall I fall to death’s feather.
By these I would not care to die,
Half convention and half lie.

(Dylan Thomas)

The Ratthapala Sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, can be found here:


A Summary of the Buddha’s Teachings: Ratthapala, Part 1

The Pali Discourses of the Buddha are, in general, strikingly barren of literary beauty and poetic subtlety. The language tends to be plodding, methodical, dry, uniform, and repetitive — as if the writers of this vast body of work had deliberately vowed to reject all possibility of verbal pleasure and seduction, presenting the student instead with something that often feels like a relentless instruction manual. The foundational books of other traditions abound with passages of poetic richness: for example, the Upanishads, the Bible, Confucius and Mencius, and the Daoists. Charismatic teachers owe much of their attraction and influence to a gift for memorable expression; it is unlikely that the Buddha would have attracted such a large and devoted following if his characteristic manner of speaking were as stern, abstract, and desiccated as it is portrayed in the Pali Canon. The writers of the Suttas ruthlessly defoliated the words of the Buddha of all grace and charm, and created a sort of anti-literature that has a strange power to delight and shock even through its austere avoidance of stylistic beautification and emotional appeals. As with the 17th century Haiku writings, the Buddha’s discourses are beautiful because they strenuously shun the beautiful — just as deserts are beautiful because they are deserts. Among the Suttas, however, there are two remarkable literary masterpieces: “Fruits of the Homeless Life,” which is almost a Greek tragedy; and “On Ratthapala,” which is almost a dark comedy of manners. In this essay and the next I’ll be discussing “On Ratthapala.”

   The Sutta falls into two halves, of which the first gives the rich dramatic context to the second, where ostensibly the main teaching occurs. I’ll begin with the “teaching” half and then swing back to the narration of the first half to see how it both enlivens and deepens the insights of the second.

   The young disciple Ratthapala went to King Koravya’s Migācīra garden and sat down at the root of a tree for the day’s abiding. This could mean that he intends to meditate, or that he is planning to spend the rest of the day there without anything in particular to do, since such an advanced practitioner is in no need to distraction or busy-work. When news gets out that he is there, the king of the land puts an immediate stop to his afternoon’s entertainments and decides to visit the holy man. He takes his entire court with him — like a wealthy CEO of a great company flying to a spiritual retreat in his private jet and bringing with him all the accessories of status and luxury. Ratthapala at once sees that the visit is a demonstration of power, and gently puts the king in his place:

King Koravya had a number of state carriages prepared, and mounting one of them, accompanied by the other carriages, he drove out from Thullakoṭṭhita with the full pomp of royalty to see the venerable Raṭṭhapāla. He drove thus as far as the road was passable for carriages, and then he dismounted from his carriage and went forward on foot with a following of the most eminent officials to where the venerable Raṭṭhapāla was. He exchanged greetings with the venerable Raṭṭhapāla, and when this courteous and amiable talk was finished, he stood at one side and said: 

“Here is an elephant rug. Let Master Raṭṭhapāla be seated on it.”

“There is no need, great king. Sit down. I am sitting on my own mat.”

As anyone who has had dealings with strong-willed successful people will instantly recognize , the king’s offer of a luxury rug is not in fact a courtesy, but an imposition masquerading as a courtesy — an attempt to start the discussion on his own terms and to have Ratthapala demonstrate to everyone present who the master is here. Ratthapala quietly refuses the offer, orders the king to sit, and suggests that he needs nothing that the king can offer. It turns out that the king does not have a question concerning his own plight, but has come to marvel at the oddity of a healthy young nobleman becoming a mendicant:

““Master Raṭṭhapāla, there are four kinds of loss. Because they have undergone these four kinds of loss, some people here shave off their hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness. What are the four? They are loss through ageing, loss through sickness, loss of wealth, and loss of relatives…What has he known or seen or heard that he has gone forth from the home life into homelessness?”

In a society where it is customary only for those who are close to the end of their lives to renounce everything and take to wandering, this is a reasonable question. Why else would a sane person to choose to be homeless? It is a natural choice in the face of losing everything that is dear to one — the ability to live and function for oneself and others, health, financial means, and close relationships, including friends. When these are all gone, then it makes sense to cast oneself out onto the mercy of the world; but when strength, health, wealth, and love are all still available, it makes no sense at all. 

   Ratthapala’s answer is simple and profound, the essence of what he has learned from the Buddha:

“Great king, there are four summaries of the Dhamma that have been taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened. Knowing and seeing and hearing them, I went forth from the home life into homelessness. What are the four?

(1) “‘Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away’: this is the first summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened. Knowing and seeing and hearing this, I went forth from the home life into homelessness.
(2) “‘Life in any world has no shelter and no protector’: this is the second summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…
(3) “‘Life in any world has nothing of its own; one has to leave all and pass on’: this is the third summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…
(4) “‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving’: this is the fourth summary of the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One who knows and sees…”

It is important both to know and to see — that is, to experience for ourselves. When he explains these teachings in detail, Ratthapala will bring them down to earth by drawing the king’s attention to his own life. For example, with the first teaching, after the king has described the almost superhuman physical prowess of his youth —

“What do you think, great king? Are you now as strong in thighs and arms, as sturdy and as capable in battle?”

“No, Master Raṭṭhapāla. Now I am old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life, come to the last stage; my years have turned eighty. Sometimes I mean to put my foot here and I put my foot somewhere else.”

This is a simple but resonant image for all the effects of ageing, not least the perplexing disconnections between desires, thoughts, the body’s abilities, and physical location: Sometimes I mean to put my foot here and I put my foot somewhere else. When the king realizes the potent relevance to himself of this first teaching, he becomes enthusiastic about the accurate conciseness of the Buddha’s words, which seemed so abstract and general at first:

“It is wonderful, Master Raṭṭhapāla, it is marvellous how well that has been expressed by the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened: ‘Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away.’ It is indeed so!”

At eighty, he can feel that the teaching is speaking directly to him. Nonetheless, for a king, how could the second teaching be true? 

“Master Raṭṭhapāla, there exist in this court elephant troops and cavalry and chariot troops and infantry, which will serve to subdue any threats to us. Now Master Raṭṭhapāla said: ‘Life in any world has no shelter and no protector.’ How should the meaning of that statement be understood?”

We can substitute his terms with the terms that express our own accumulated securities: the mortgage and health insurance, the systems of defence and laws that guarantee our peace, the retirement plans and extra savings…The teacher then unobtrusively shifts the terms of the question away from material protections and towards a different kind of vulnerability:

“What do you think, great king? Do you have any chronic ailment?”
“I have a chronic wind ailment, Master Raṭṭhapāla. Sometimes my friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives, stand around me, thinking: ‘Now King Koravya is about to die, now King Koravya is about to die!’”
“What do you think, great king? Can you command your friends and companions, your kinsmen and relatives: ‘Come, my good friends and companions, my kinsmen and relatives. All of you present share this painful feeling so that I may feel less pain’? Or do you have to feel that pain yourself alone?”
“I cannot command my friends and companions, my kinsmen and relatives thus, Master Raṭṭhapāla. I have to feel that pain alone.”

At this point in the dialogue Ratthapala forces the king to confront the disagreeable but fundamental fact of our solitude: no one can fully understand what it is like to be us, no one can really feel our joys and sorrows with us, no one can participate in our experience and by so doing dilute our pain. What we suffer, we suffer alone — and no other person, not even in a small way, can live our lives for us. In our day to day social interactions it is easy to distract ourselves with the sweet balm of company, but in life’s profound crises we always know that we are alone — not physically, not socially, but alone in our experiencing. Other religions answer the aloneness with God, as in prayers or in Psalms, but in the world of the Buddha there is no transcendent solution to solitude. This may be one of the toughest sticking-points in the Buddha’s vision of life; most of us yearn so intensely for companionship, either of friends or of lovers or of a divine being, that a philosophical starting-point of utter aloneness seems impossibly bleak and repellent. How could our yearning for companionship be nothing more than craving after an illusion? It takes an unusually strong spirit to be able to swallow this and continue the work, or a spirit that sees with absolute clarity that the alternatives lead nowhere.

   After reminding the king of ageing and solitude, Ratthapala then ties both threads together into an account of ineluctable dispossession, in which everything we have is left behind as we find ourselves impelled onwards in the rushing river made up of the antecedents and consequences of actions. 

“What do you think, great king? You now enjoy yourself provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure, but will you be able to have it of the life to come: ‘Let me likewise enjoy myself provided and endowed with these same five cords of sensual pleasure’? Or will others take over this property, while you will have to pass on according to your actions?”

“I cannot have it thus of the life to come, Master Raṭṭhapāla. On the contrary, others will take over this property while I shall have to pass on according to my actions.”

On a physical level, this seems obvious: when we die, we have to say goodbye to everything and everyone, and nothing that we held to be “ours” can come with us. But this “everything” includes the contents of our consciousness, our perceptions, and our feelings; even these are not things that we can “possess” and take with us. Indeed, even the sense of “us” does not persist down this raging river. 

   What is left to us then but this present moment? Can we not be satisfied with what we have in the Now? Ratthapala engages this with a simple practical question, which the king to his credit answers honestly:

“Now Master Raṭṭhapāla said: ‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving.’ How should the meaning of that statement be understood?”

“What do you think, great king? Do you reign over the rich Kuru country?”

“Yes, Master Raṭṭhapāla, I do.”

“What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man came to you from the east and said: ‘Please know, great king, that I have come from the east, and there I saw a large country, powerful and rich, very populous and crowded with people. There are plenty of elephant troops there, plenty of cavalry, chariot troops and infantry; there is plenty of ivory there, and plenty of gold coins and bullion both unworked and worked, and plenty of women for wives. With your present forces you can conquer it. Conquer it then, great king.’ What would you do?”

“We would conquer it and reign over it, Master Raṭṭhapāla.”

The exchange is repeated verbatim with regard to the other three directions: even the king of the Kurus, who has everything we can imagine having and more, is not satisfied with his magnificent lot — and he admits it. 

“Great king, it was on account of this that the Blessed One who knows and sees, accomplished and fully enlightened, said: ‘Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving’; and when I knew and saw and heard this, I went forth from the home life into homelessness.”

Reading this, it is tempting for an ordinary person to wonder if only power-hungry egomaniacs are susceptible to this state of constant insatiability, but Ratthapala wants us to look into our own hearts and see for ourselves. For instance, I enjoy the variety of food I eat and have no shortage both of nutrition and of taste — but I am nonetheless always interested in new recipes and fascinated by new foods. I have hundreds of books at home and on my e-reader, and of those there may be a hundred I haven’t yet read staring me in the face every day — yet if I were to browse the shelves of a bookshop or scroll through the bargains on Amazon, I will almost certainly be adding at least one more book to my collection.  The insatiability extends to far more than physical possessions, and a few minutes of self-examination will show that with our thoughts and experiences, our hobbies and employments, our friendships and romantic involvements, it is very hard to accept that we have enough. I know the dictionary definition of enough, but it is evident that I haven’t understood the meaning of the word. We each seem to have a hole in our heart that nothing is big enough to fill. To many religions, such a thought would be a tragic heresy — how could it be true that we have a yearning that cannot be satisfied? Or is this yearning infinite, such that it can be satisfied only by an infinite being? The infinite being therefore has to exist, otherwise we are doomed to ceaseless agitation and despair. However, Ratthapala spurns this consolation; he has recognized and accepted the truth of insatiable craving as a basic condition of life, just as ageing, flux, and solitude are. “Yearning for the infinite” is only a pretty euphemism for the suffering that comes from craving, and, seeing clearly that life is an agitation that cannot be stilled, he will have none of it. 

   King Koravya is obviously impressed by the young man’s austere strength of mind and mastery of desire; a powerful king can respect such nobluty of aspiration and unbending resolve. Ratthapala, on the other hand, does not present the king with difficult teachings about the nature of the soul and dependent origination, but instead gives him four handles that he can easily grasp — and that open doors to some very deep insights if the king should choose to contemplate them further. Ratthapala’s claim is not that these insights are the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, but that they are summaries, sketches, that need to be fleshed out and filled in by reflection on our own experience. They encapsulate our condition, and if we understand this condition we will find ourselves no longer able to stomach the normal run of things and unwilling to continue slowly drowning in the sea of dissatisfaction. Ratthapala seems to have understood all of this the first time he heard the Buddha, as a mere boy. What kind of person is this, who can hear so deeply the first time? 

   To answer this we have to turn to the first half of the sutta, which describes in bleak comic detail Ratthapala’s great battle against temptation.