I've been going down a little bit of a rabbit-hole recently. Now to be clear, I love rabbit-holes. Any opportunity to learn a little bit more about an obscure or eclectic subject is a lot of fun for me. Whether it is a technical subject related to my work, or a new genre of music, music theory or some historical trivia - I just love diving into the research, and then trying to bring it all together again in a coherent way as I 'resurface.'
One of my recent rabbit-holes has been trying to get a better understanding of the Buddha's teachings to householders. Now, 'householder' is a bit of a catch-all term for the people the Buddha spoke with who were not monks, who had not renounced their daily lives and who were still living with jobs, spouses, children and 'worldly' duties. Some of these people were very rich, some had political power, some were simply tradespeople or business-people. I suspect that most of us reading this would fall into the bucket of 'householder' one way or another.
The thing that is fascinating is that in the Pali writings the level, subjects and even goals of the teachings vary depending on the person receiving the teaching. Often we look at the teachings one-by-one and assume that they are all homogeneous, but they are clearly not so. Conversely, there is often an assumption that teachings for monks are fully appropriate for those of us who are householders - and I think that when we do that we miss a lot of nuance in the teachings.
So that is my current rabbit hole ('subject of enquiry' sounds way too grand!). And it has been quite illuminating. And I was going to write about some of what I was learning in this letter.
The key word there is 'was.' As I started to sketch out what I was going to say I couldn't quite put it together. I feel I have learned a lot, but I can't - at a high level - put that into words, at least not into words that I would feel confident in sharing.
In the Sangaravo Sutta we are told that the Brahman Sangaarava asked the Buddha the following question:
...how does it come about that sometimes sacred words I have long studied are not clear to me, not to mention those I have not studied? And how is it too that sometimes other sacred words that I have not so studied are clear to me, not to mention those I have studied?
I really resonate with this question, and I can feel the frustration in the poor Brahmin's words. In many ways my inability to summarize the learning from my own personal 'rabbit-hole' is a symptom of the above. Some things have resonated and are clear, other things are still opaque. So what was the lesson for the Brahmin?
The Buddha replies by describing a number of imperfect mirrors - a bowl with water that has been dyed with strong colors, a bowl of boiling water, a bowl with moss and plants in it, a bowl with the wind blowing ripples on it, and a bowl of muddy water in a dark room. All of these, we are told, would not allow someone with good eyesight to see the reflection of their own face, as it really was. The simile is that the imperfections in the bowls are like how it is when we hear or read teachings with imperfections in our own hearts. In particular, when our hearts are overwhelmed by any of the five 'hindrances' of sense-desires, ill-will, sloth-and-torpor, worry-and-flurry, and doubt-and-wavering. If, instead we come to teachings with clear hearts it is like we now look at our reflection in clear, still water:
But, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart not possessed, not overwhelmed by sense-desires... ill-will... sloth-and-torpor... worry-and-flurry... doubt-and-wavering... [now with bowls full of water that is 'clear, limpid, pellucid, set in the open']... then he knows and sees, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has not long studied are clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.
So what do I take away from this? Clearly there are aspects of the studies that I have been doing that are still opaque to me, and what this is saying is that I should examine my own heart, my own motivations and what I am bringing to the words I am reading. So that is what I plan to do. I may in the future write more about what I have learned about the teachings to householders, but for today the message is that our hearts dictate the clarity of the 'mirrors' of the teachings we receive.
P.S. I'd love to know if this subject of the specific teachings for householders is of interest to you. Is this something you would like me to write more on (assuming I can get my bowl clear enough!)?
I have linked below a meditation on 'Not Trying' - it seemed an appropriate choice as a meditation to clear our hearts and re-align out motivations. Feel free to use it in any way that helps you in your practice.
"Sangaravo Sutta: Sangarava" (SN 46.55), translated from the Pali by Maurice O'Connell Walshe.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.055.wlsh.html .