Squirrel Part 1
You will probably have noticed that this letter bears the suffix 'Part 1,' and as such you are probably expecting that there will be - at least - a Part 2 to follow. And you would be correct. As I was doing some background reading for this letter I realized that there were several points I wanted to cover, and that to do them justice I would be best separating them out. And so we have the first two-part Metta Letter. My goal is to cover the rest of the subject in hand next week. And the rules of dramatic tension say that I should end this letter on some kind of a cliff-hanger. Let's see how I do.
This week I have been reading the Bhumija Sutta, or the Sutta To Bhumija. This is quite a well-known sutta where the Buddha gives some instruction to the monk Bhumija on right view. In the process of doing this he uses some powerful similes on what it is like to act without right view, and how that contrasts with the same actions with right view. These similes are often quoted, which is why the sutta may be familiar to you. I will cover these similes and their lesson next week.
For this letter, however, I am going to take a quick look at the context that the teaching was given in. Now this is something I like to do, to try and understand as best I can the overall picture of what is being described. When I was a kid at Sunday School one of my teachers suggested that when looking at a Bible story you should imagine how you would turn it into a play. That way, he argued, you have to understand the full context of what is going on and not just focus on the familiar bits. Now, I am quite sure he would not have approved of me using his advice to better understand Buddhist suttas, but none the less I find it is a very powerful way to approach them.
Let me start by quoting the first line of the sutta:
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels' Sanctuary.
Now, if you are like me, you will now take fifteen minutes to process the concept of a 'Squirrel Sanctuary.'
While I am sure that this is an artifact of translation, and it really just means the part of the Bamboo Grove where the squirrels liked to hang out, I'm going all in on the notion of a squirrel sanctuary. My play will definitely have some stuffed animals and friendly signs saying 'you are safe here,' and squirrels happily limping about with their legs in casts. If it's a movie, then surely some really cute CGI squirrels caring for each other while listening to the words of the Buddha are appropriate.
Anyway, I digress, and much as I love the idea of a squirrel chorus they probably don't add much to the context here. Or maybe they do, if you have ideas let me know.
The context that is important however is the background to why the Buddha gave his teaching to Bhumija in the first place.
The Venerable Bhumija, we are told, was a monk studying with the Buddha. One day he went out to Prince Jayasena's palace to meet with him (it is possible that Bhumija was Prince Jayasena's uncle). Prince Jayasena had been given some teaching by some Brahmans, and was somewhat confused by it. So, he asked for Bhumija's advice:
Master Bhumija, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who espouse this teaching, espouse this view: 'If one follows the holy life, even when having made a wish for results, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when both having made a wish and having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results.' With regard to that, what does Master Bhumija's teacher say, what is his view, what does he declare?
What the prince had been told was that regardless of whether one has a desire for results from a spiritual practice or not, there is no way to actually achieve anything. I am sure that the teachers who told him this were a bundle of fun and joy. Interestingly the prince doesn't ask Bhumija for his view on this, but instead asks what his teacher (the Buddha) would say about it.
Now I love Bhumija's reply. In reality he does not know exactly what the Buddha would reply, and rather than just make a guess or mislead, he answers in the most honest way possible. He says (i) that he hasn't heard the Buddha speak on this particular subject, but that (ii) based on his own understanding of the Buddha's teaching this is what the response might be.
I haven't heard this face to face with the Blessed One, prince, I haven't received this face to face with the Blessed One, but there is the possibility that the Blessed One would answer in this way: 'If one follows the holy life inappropriately, even when having made a wish for results, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life inappropriately, even when having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. But if one follows the holy life appropriately, even when having made a wish, one is capable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life appropriately, even when having made no wish... both having made a wish and having made no wish... neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is capable of obtaining results.' I haven't heard this face to face with the Blessed One, I haven't received this face to face with the Blessed One, but there is the possibility that the Blessed One would answer in this way.
To me this is an incredibly honest and humble reply. He does his best to provide an answer to the philosophical question without claiming to speak to matters he doesn't fully understand, while still being helpful to the prince in his own search.
I find there is much to learn from Bhumija's approach here, and specifically in his openness when things were outside of his direct experience. I think that many of us sometimes have a bit of a 'fake it till you make it' approach - I know I do - and while there are times that is good, we need to be careful not to claim authority when we have no right to do so. Unfortunately our society often values certainty over truth, when sometimes some good, honest, uncertainty - like Bhumija's - is what is most helpful. Never be afraid to admit to uncertainty.
Which brings us to the big question: was Bhumija's answer correct? Well, you will have to wait until next week's letter to find out...
P.S. I'm not very good at this dramatic tension thing. You can of course read the whole sutta yourself for the details, but what Bhumija said was correct, and the Buddha endorses Bhumija's answer. What the Buddha then says is a vivid clarification of what leading a holy life 'inappropriately' and 'appropriately' really mean. I will cover this next week.
P.P.S. I am still giggling about the squirrels.
P.P.P.S. I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on right view, feel free to use it in whichever way helps you in your practice.
"Bhumija Sutta: To Bhumija" (MN 126), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,