23 March 2012

The Pañña Sutta: Discernment

I recently came across The Pañña Sutta: Discernment. The sutra lists eight requisite conditions that "lead to the acquiring of the as-yet-unacquired discernment that is basic to the holy life, and to the increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of that which has already been acquired:"
1. One lives in apprenticeship to the Teacher or to a respectable comrade in the holy life in whom he has established a strong sense of conscience, fear of blame, love, & respect.

2. One approaches him at the appropriate times to ask & question him: 'What, venerable sir, is the meaning of this statement?' [The teacher or respectable comrade] reveals what is hidden, makes plain what is obscure, and dispels perplexity in many kinds of perplexing things.

3. One, having heard the Dharma, achieves a twofold seclusion: seclusion in body & seclusion in mind.

4. One is virtuous, dwelling restrained in accordance with the Patimokkha, consummate in his behavior & sphere of activity. He trains himself, having undertaken the training rules, seeing danger in the slightest faults.

5. One has heard much, has retained what he has heard, has stored what he has heard. Whatever teachings are admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, admirable in the end, that — in their meaning & expression — proclaim the holy life that is entirely complete & pure: those he has listened to often, retained, discussed, accumulated, examined with his mind, & well-penetrated in terms of his views.

6. One keeps his persistence aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and for taking on skillful mental qualities. He is steadfast, solid in his effort, not shirking his duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.

7. One, when he is in the midst of the Sangha, doesn't talk on & on about a variety of things. Either he speaks Dharma himself or he invites another to do so, and he feels no disdain for noble silence.

8. One remains focused on arising & passing away with regard to the five aggregates: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance. Such is feeling... Such is perception... Such are fabrications... Such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'
Of course, pañña here is good ol' prajñā, but here I find none of the – what's the word – mystique that surrounds prajñā in most Mahāyāna contexts.  The Heart Sutra, for example, takes us straight to number eight (the Bodhisattva of Compassion sees the emptiness of all five skandhas, all right) but it's as though that insight came from nowhere without any back story.  There's always a back story.

It's not that we don't hear about the importance of a teacher in the course of practice, either, but there's a lot of mystique there, too, with teachers fond of saying, "I have nothing to give you, and you have nothing to get from me."  On one level that's perfectly true; on another, that "nothing" is not to be had by chatting with just anyone, and even if it were, it takes a great degree of trust and openness to develop that "strong sense of conscience, fear of blame, love, & respect" with the teacher that we just heard of.  The "nothing" of the teacher-student relationship is most certainly a kind of "something," otherwise it wouldn't be worth the bother.

It strikes me that much of 2-7 above is unnecessarily understated (maybe even ignored), at least in my experience.  That might have as much to do with the fact that what we've got going these days is for the most part a lay practice as with anything else.  I don't know. 

Once again, though, I find rich food for the nourishment of my practice in the Pāli canon, and I'm grateful that something once upon a time prompted me to open it up and start poking around in it. 

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