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.