The Buddhist politician should abandon all arguments?


This article is another attempt to give a perspective on the justification in Pali Canonical Buddhism for overt political action. At the outset one could justifiably critique the use of such material simply on the grounds that the Pali Canon, in general, deals with ascetics who have renounced the world and are striving for liberation from existence itself – they therefore don’t have any need to form any opinions, political or other. However, one could counter this by suggesting that this is precisely the dilemma that lies at the heart of Buddhist political engagement. On these grounds it is worth examining the psychological problems of holding and obstinately clinging to views, opinions and beliefs. Indeed, if we look at the ‘fourteen principles of Engaged Buddhism’ devised by Thich Nhat Hanh the first three clearly point to the dangers of holding to views and opinions and Thich Nhat Hanh clearly sees this as both a problem  and, when grasping to views and opinions is overcome, the perspective that makes Buddhist political engagement ‘Buddhist’. Hence the idea that the slightly unreasonable idea that the Buddhist politician should abandon all arguments.

The Dīghanakha-sutta

I would like to look at three views from the Majjhima-nikāya that might shed some light on these ideas. These views are the following:

micchā-diṭṭhi: Everything is acceptable to me.

micchā-diṭṭhi/sammā-diṭṭhi: Nothing is acceptable to me.

micchā-diṭṭhi: Something is acceptable to me, something is not acceptable to me.[1].

These positions can be understood as saying:

a. ‘I agree with every view’,

b. ‘I agree with no view’

c. ‘I agree with some views, and disagree with other views’.[2]

Over the years I have shown these views to students at various universities and asked them which view they think best expresses the Buddhist position. Invariably they will answer that it is the first view, ‘I agree with every view’, that best encompasses the spirit of Buddhism.

The Dīghanakhasutta has Dīghanakha[3], a disciple of the Buddha, announcing his view to the Buddha.

Upon hearing it, the Buddha asks Dīghanakha: ‘This view of yours, Aggivessana (a polite form of address for Dīghanakha), “Nothing is acceptable to me” is not at least that view acceptable to you?’[4] Dīghanakha replies: ‘If this view of mine were acceptable to me, Master Gotama, it too would be all the same, it too would be all the same.’[5] The Buddha is attempting to find out how this view is being held. Is Dīghanakha’s view a non-position, its aim to overcome all cognitive standpoints, or is Dīghanakha holding to his view? As the sutta continues, there are many who would reply in the same fashion as Dīghanakha, ‘yet they do not abandon that view and they still take up another view’.[6] However, there are few, adopting Dīghanakha’s view, and replying as he did ‘who abandon that view and do not take up some other view’.[7]

It is at this point that the other two views ‘everything is acceptable to me’ and ‘something is acceptable to me, something is not acceptable to me’ are introduced into the sutta. Then is found the following:

‘The view of those recluses and brahmins who hold the doctrine and view ‘Everything is acceptable to me’ [the same evaluation is given to the third view] is close to lust, close to bondage, close to delighting, close to holding, close to attachment. The view of those recluses and brahmins who hold the doctrine and view ‘Nothing is acceptable to me’ is close to non-lust, close to non-bondage, close to non-delighting, close to non-holding, close to non-attachment.’[8]

Dīghanakha is delighted and shows his delight, ‘Master Gotama commends my point of view’.[9] However, Dīghanakha’s view is only ‘right’, the sutta suggests, if the view is abandoned, and another not adopted. If it accomplishes a turning away from all views, it could be a right-view, a sammā-diṭṭhi. The text continues that none of these three views should be ‘obstinately adhered to’ [10] with the thought ‘only this is true, anything else is wrong’.[11] Holding any of the views in this way would cause ‘dispute’ (viggaho) with the holders of the other two views. This dispute would lead to ‘quarrels’ (vivāda) ‘trouble’ (vighāta) and ‘vexation’ (vihesa). All three views are condemned in the following way:

‘Foreseeing for himself dispute, quarrels, trouble and vexation, he abandons that view and does not take up some other view. This is how there comes to be the abandoning of these views; this is how there comes to be the relinquishing of these views.’[12]

It is in this context that Dīghanakha hears the dhamma, and has the knowledge that, ‘all that is subject to arising is subject to cessation’.[13] Dīghanakha is advised to let go of the view that ‘I agree with no-views’, and transcend views, through the realisation of right-view. The view, ‘I agree with no-views’ is a wrong-view, because this view can cause craving and attachment – and disputes with others.  To achieve the abandonment of views, there must be a transformation of thought and action which overcomes all attachment to views.

The Buddhist politician should abandon all arguments?

Are there lessons to be learned from the Dīghanakhasutta for Buddhist inspired political rhetoric? The text clearly does not suggest that the abandonment of all views and beliefs is the correct attitude, for this in itself can become an object of attachment – as can any conviction that ‘only this is true, anything else is wrong’. This leads to ‘dispute’ ‘quarrels’, ‘trouble’ and ‘vexation’. This vain conviction  that ‘only this is true, anything else is wrong’ and the Buddhist critique of it offers a Buddhist theme that it stresses in its social and political engagement.

[1] sabbaṃ me khamati, M I 497, sabbaṃ me na khamatī ti, M I 497, ekaccaṃ me khamati, ekaccaṃ me na khamati, M I 498.

[2] Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p. 213. Collins makes some slightly different comments on Dīganakha’s view (Selfless Persons, p. 122).

[3] The text tells us that Dīghanakha was a ‘wanderer’ (paribbājaka, M I 497). Tradition tells us that he was the nephew of Sāriputta and that Sāriputta, before joining the Buddha had been a student of Saṭjaya Belaṭṭhiputta. He is then loosely associated with the sceptical tradition; see G. P. Malasekera, Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names, Vol. I (New Delhi, 1995), pp. 1081-82.

[4] yā pi kho te esā Aggivessana diṭṭhi: sabbaṃ me na khamatī ti, esā pi te diṭṭhi na khamatī ti, M I 497.

[5] esā ce me bho Gotama diṭṭhi khameyya taṃ p’ assa tādisam eva, taṃ p’ assa tādisam evā ti, M I 497-98.

[6] te taṭ c’ eva diṭṭhiṃ na ppajahanti aṭṭaṭ ca diṭṭhiṃ upādiyanti, M I 498.

[7] te taṭ c’ eva diṭṭhiṃ pajahanti aṭṭaṭ ca diṭṭhiṃ na upādiyanti, M I 498. Of some interest is Jayatilleke’s argument (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p. 92), that in the view of Dīghanakha we find a precursor of JayarāŚi. As is well known, JayarāŚi’s Tattvopaplavasiṃha caused some excitement when it was first edited in the early part of the century, scholars at first believing it to be a ‘lost Lokāyata text’. The text in fact rejects all means of knowledge, and so, in principle, can be compared to the view which agrees with no-view. For more on these ideas see Eli Franco, Perception, Knowledge and Disbelief: A Study of JayarāŚi’s Scepticism (Stuttgart, 1987).

[8] ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: sabbaṃ me khamatī ti, tesam ayaṃ diṭṭhi sārāgāya santike saṃyogāya santike abhinandanāya santike ajjhosānāya santike upādānāya santike […] ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: sabbaṃ me na kkhamatī ti, tesam ayaṃ diṭṭhi asārāgāya santike asaṃyogāya santike anabhinandanāya santike anajjhosānāya santike anupādānāya santike, M I 498.

[9] ukkaṃsati me bhavaṃ Gotamo diṭṭhi-gataṃ, samukkaṃseti me bhavaṃ Gotamo diṭṭhi-gatan ti, M I 498.

[10] thāmasā parāmāsā abhinivissa, M I 498, 499. The same terms we met in chapter four and the discussion of the Paṭisambhidāmagga.

[11] idam eva saccaṃ, moggam aṭṭan ti, M I 498, 499.

[12] iti so viggahaṭ ca vivādaṭ ca vighātaṭ ca vihesaṭ ca attani sampassamāno taṭ c’ eva diṭṭhiṃ pajahati aṭṭaṭ ca diṭṭhiṃ na upādiyati ; evam etāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ pahānaṃ hoti, evam etāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ paṭinissaggo hoti, M I 499.

[13] yaṃ kiṭci samudayadhammaṃ sabban taṃ nirodhadhamman ti, M I 501.

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