This is the first in a series of my distillations of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya), the Buddha’s original teachings shortened for easy reading.
In the first of the Long Discourses, the Brahmajala Sutta (The Supreme Net), the Buddha is traveling with 500 monks from town to town, and unwittingly followed by Suppiya, a teacher who criticizes the Buddha, and Brahmadatta, Suppiya’s student who praises the Buddha. It seems that positive and negative opinions and arguments about the Buddha follow him and his followers wherever they go. They all stop for a night at a park with shade and water provided by royalty and guarded with a wall for travelers to rest along their way. In the morning, followers of the Buddha were talking about how wonderful it is for the Buddha to be aware of the varied opinions that follow him.
The Buddha hears them and says that they should not be angry with anyone who criticizes him, his teachings or his followers, as this will hold them back and prevent them from seeing if the criticism is right or wrong. Rather, they should explain what is wrong with the criticism. Similarly, they should not be pleased by those who give praise, as that will also hold them back. Rather, they should explain what is right with the praise. The Buddha says that only foolish, worldly people praise him for abandoning violence, sex, lies, entertainment, luxury, property, and servants, for doing the right thing and saying the right thing at the right time and to the right extent. Only foolish, worldly people criticize his opponents, such as the Hindu Brahmins, for acting in ways that lead to addiction and destruction, speaking about useless things, claiming to know what others do not in debate, running errands for those in power or misleading others with expert advice and fortune telling.
Rather, there are other things that are hard to see and beyond ordinary thought that the wise can know that do deserve praise. Neither discipline nor reason can reveal these things. The particular knowledge that these practices reveal leads to further birth and death, but being unattached to this itself is to know true peace and freedom. Each time the world is reborn, God (Brahma) becomes lonely and creates the other gods and beings. Later, those who seek wisdom beyond the home discover that things are impermanent, pleasure is addictive and logical reasoning gives stability to the ideas of the mind, and they split into those who believe that the self and world are permanent and those who do not (“Eternalists and Non-Eternalists”, also the “Infinitists and Finitists”).
Some argue that things are permanent, others that things are impermanent, others that things are both permanent one way but impermanent another, and others that things are neither in any particular way. (These are the Catuskoti of Nagarjuna.) Similarly there are those who debate whether we know what is good or bad, those who debate whether or not there is life after death in another world beyond this one, those who debate whether things happen by chance or necessity, and those who debate whether enlightenment and freedom are here now or somewhere else.
These “wriggly eels” on each side evade questions in debate that they can’t answer. Those who take one side against the other do not see the fear and chaos that makes them and the other cling to one side, nor do they see that clinging to one side will not bring them peace or safety, but merely trap them in a vast, intricate net, like a fish too large to swim between the knots. When anyone sees what is beyond all these sides, they see what only the wise can see, the supreme net of all possibly viewpoints and the superior victory over all battles.
I could be telling you to bring the chair here, or to go sit in the other room, or to bring the chair here and sit in it, or to bring the chair here so I can sit in it, or to bring the chair here and leave it empty for someone important, or clean it in the other room to keep an important person happy. Depending on our understandings, it could be a simple prescription for any of these things without either of us speaking any other words out loud or silently to ourselves in thought.
However, it doesn’t have to be a prescription for immediate action. I could simply be describing the other room, though it would be odd for me to do this for no understandable purpose, without intending anything be done in the future. Wittgenstein said that if someone said, “That is certainly a tree,” we could say to a stranger overhearing this, “This person is not insane, but merely engaged in philosophy!” If you asked me what there is to do right now, and I tell you there’s a chair in the other room, it would be odd for you to say, “Things do temporarily exist, as the Buddha told us thousands of years ago, but philosophically speaking…” We don’t talk philosophically to do particular things as we’ve already done them, but to think about all the possible ways we could do or change things before or after we’ve done them, including call particular things trees and chairs for particular purposes in particular situations.
Suppose I open a blog post saying “Suppose that I tell you, ‘There’s a chair in the other room.’” You would hopefully understand that I’m talking philosophically, abstractly in ways about truth and meaning that do apply to life but not in particular immediate ways, but if I told you this as a complete stranger on the bus you would think I’m a strange narcissistic exhibitionist who is wasting your time and everyone else’s showing off, which you may or may not think at this point in the blog post. Similarly, if I said “There’s a chair in the other room,” to a complete stranger on the bus, it would not be clear at all what I meant. It wouldn’t even be clear that it was a trustworthy description but without purpose.
We can describe things without prescribing immediate action, much as I could tell you about the chair and mean we could always sit in it next week, but we don’t describe things without any understandable intentions, saying “That is a chair, that is a chair, and that is a table’ to ourselves or anyone else. We would if truth were more important than meaning. Truth is centrally important to everything, but without meaning it isn’t important. We can prescribe things without describing things much at all, as I do when I simply tell you of the chair’s existence and expect you to act, but we can’t prescribe things without informing others about our situation. If I inarticulately cry out, this informs you in some way about your circumstances even if I’m not intending to describe anything or prescribe action for you.
We can speak more or less descriptively or prescriptively in the same way that we can speak more or less philosophically, more or less abstractly about what to do over all compared to particular commands intertwined with immediate actions. Reading philosophy online or sitting in a classroom talking about trees, chairs, buses and strangers, none of which concretely exist but rather are entirely imaginary, is an action, but it isn’t much action which allows for much thinking to go on relatively undisturbed by attention to many of the things that surround us.