Johannes Bronkhorst (2019): "What can we learn from Musīla and Nārada?"

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A fascinating article by Johannes Bronkhorst was just uploaded to Academia.

In the Kosambī-sutta we find a conversation with Venerables Musīla and Nārada. Though they both realized the same knowledge and insight, only one of them was a perfected one. In this article, originally given at the conference “Śamatha-vipaśyanā in the context of Indo-Sinitic Buddhism, Statics and Dynamics” at Fudan University in Shanghai (Sept 2017) and subsequently as the “Lingyin Lecture” at Oxford University (June 2018), distinguished Buddhist scholar Johannes Bronkhorst uses the Kosambī episode as a stepping stone to an analysis of the early Buddhist path to awakening.


In his paper, Bronkhorst writes (pp. 11-12):

One of the practices [the early Buddhist texts] emphasize is mindfulness (Skt. smṛti / Pali sati) and I do not need to remind you that this practice consists in becoming consciously aware of activities of which we are normally not consciously aware. In other words, it aims at extending the explicit system of mental functioning at the expense of the implicit system.* This may not seem of much use as long as ordinary activities are concerned: our ability to walk without falling over, our ability to speak, ride a bicycle, and much else. But it suggests that the aim of the exercise, that is, the aim of the Buddha’s path, is to get at the knots in the system, at the sources of the habits and compulsions that make us prisoners of our character.

Mindfulness by itself cannot disentangle those knots; it only paves the way by expanding the realm of conscious access. Absorption expands this realm even further, eventually giving conscious access to those knots. Disentangling those knots—which means: facing the emotions associated with fixed habits and compulsions without giving in to them as one has before — is, I propose, what is meant by destroying the influxes (āsravas).

* Note

Two paragraphs before the quoted passage, Bronkhorst defined the terms explicit and implicit mental functioning:

The former concerns conscious activities, the latter numerous unconscious activities on which we depend in our daily lives, and which consist largely of acquired habits.

The reason I wanted to highlight this passage is because it evoked an image in me. It’s by all the effort of cultivating the eightfold path that we arrive at states of mindfulness and absorption powerful enough to disentangle these knots. One possible analogy would be that of an astronaut, who after many years of training develops enough skill to dwell in the International Space Station—analogous to a mendicant who develops enough skill to dwell in samādhi. Subsequently, just as a mendicant uses “super mindfulness” to untangle the knots of her own mind. the astronaut uses mindfulness to repair the International Space Station itself:

Image source

Christina Koch and Jessica Meir complete the first female-only spacewalk.

And how are those pesky knots untangled? This is what the mesmorizing verses from the Jaṭā-sutta have to say:

“Tangled within, tangled without:
these people are tangled in tangles.
I ask you this, Gotama:
Who can untangle this tangle?”

“A wise person grounded in ethics,
developing the mind and wisdom,
a keen and alert mendicant,
they can untangle this tangle.

Those who have discarded
greed, hate, and ignorance—
the perfected ones with defilements ended—
they have untangled the tangle.

And where name and form
cease with nothing left over;
as well as impingement and perception of form:
it’s there that the tangle is cut.” SN 1.23

I find it especially interesting how a wise mendicant skilled in the threefold training only *can* “untangle this tangle”, as opposed to the perfected ones who, by virtue of ending the defilements (āsava), have actually done it. This supports the thesis that early Buddhism, unlike later forms, didn’t regard wisdom as the soteriological goal—wisdom is just another stepping stone to reach liberation.

I must mention my debt to Bhante Sujato in using this analogy, who compared astronauts with mendicants before I did in one of his talks at the recent retreat in Belgium.