The Simile of the Saw

Honestly pondering the implications of this Sutta (MN21), let me ask you the following:

I am standing at a tram stop and I see this careless somebody who is about to get hit by a tram.

I could jump in and pull him out, possibly without getting hurt myself.

Do I do it? Does a Bhikkhu do it?

You appear to be asking for categorical answers to hypothetical questions.

Depending on the circumstances and many real-time factors, one may or may not jump onto the tracks.
Trying to put ourselves into the mind of an arahant, so to speak, is dubious and in the end, impossible. Some folks try to imagine this.
But we can only work with where we’re at.

It seems the best we can do is embrace and manifest the precepts and teachings as best we can, knowing the responses will change for the better as our practice deepens.

The less self-view, greed, anger, and ignorance in the mind, the more beneficial our actions and choices will be, being grounded more in the Brahmaviharas and wisdom than in the defilements.
Within that clarity and openness of heart, we may jump on the tracks. Or not.

The Simile of the Saw MN21 example does not say one should get in line to be sawed next or to necessarily take another’s place. The Buddha said one should not allow such an event to produce a mind filled with anger and hatred.

"Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train. "

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Thank you for this answer Jasudho, I recognize it to be very wise.

I just came across this video of a talk by Bhikkhu Bodhi in which he states the following:

Instead he derives certain moral obligations from the dhamma as a whole.

I think this view could also be applied to my hypothetical dilemma.

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Please check this thread, as well, on a similar question.

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Thank you Ric. The trolley problem is a well known dilemma in philosophy and is basically unsolvable. It is, as such, more like a perfect proof of the first noble truth.

But what I am interested in in this context is how to act in a situation that would look like a “no-brainer” to the ignorant (?) mind. Could I really be that steadfast in emptiness to just watch a situation like that unfold?

A less dramatic, but similar situation is: Do I block the door of a bus or train if I see that somebody comes running?

This is when I get myself in trouble.

Are you asking me would I really do it, either jump or not jump? It’s against the law to enter a subway track, at least it is here, and for good reason. If it’s bad for me and I shouldn’t do it, it’s bad for another person and s/he shouldn’t do it. And If s/he shouldn’t do it, I shouldn’t do it.

So, unless that person were someone who could not reasonably be held to the standard of a reasonable person, such as a toddler (to even consider the idea of a toddler being careless, shame), the answer is no, I would not enter the tracks. And I would be extremely alarmed to see another person put themselves at risk to do so.

We have security personnel in our stations, we have emergency buttons both in the stations and on the vehicles, and we have a responsibility to report troublesome activity as soon as we see it, precisely because it could be a lead up to something much worse, and we’re not interested in seeing things going too far.

BTW, I can’t count the number of times I took a hard right, looking at the Harbour Front Centre in downtown Vancouver, and trucked through the DTES to Chinatown Station, because someone had thrown themselves in front of the skytrain at Harbour Front or done something equivalently hideous and every station in downtown Vancouver had been shut down and things were going to be that way for hours. Oh, and the DTES. Just stay out. Don’t be going in there philosophizing as to whether to interrupt knife fights that could very likely explode in front of you or anything like that.

Bikkhu Bodhi is an elder and personally involved in some Mahayana activities, and the stage of practice has a bearing ( “The Raft,” Majjhima Nikaya 22). However this does not alter the fact the Theravada dhamma teaches individual awakening as the priority.

  1. “Cunda, it is impossible that one who is himself sunk in the mire[23] should pull out another who is sunk in the mire. But it is possible, Cunda, that one not sunk in the mire himself should pull out another who is sunk in the mire.”

—Majjhima Nikaya 8

This relates to the second factor of the noble eightfold path right intention, seen in the Buddha-to-be’s pre-awakening method, where he was not performing compassionate acts, but meditating:

"The Blessed One said, “Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.”

—Majjhima Nikaya 19

Regarding action, of these three the Theravada emphasis is on renunciation as seen from the sila group which follows right intention. Of the factors of the noble eightfold path, five of them are mental showing the intended balance is oriented towards mind activities.

it’s about intention - there’s the intention for self-preservation, and the intention for goodwill and loving kindness (“just as a mother would protect her only son with her life”).

buddhism doesn’t dictate our response but there’s karma associated with any intentional choice. the buddha as a bodhisattva would have most likely jumped down and grabbed the person out of harm’s way, at great risk to themselves.

on the other hand, a person who values their own life and their own suffering (and opportunity here in this life to end that suffering with the dhamma) might do what they can, but not place themselves at risk.

even amongst arahants there would be differences between their level of concern for the suffering of others, depending on the perfections / traits they have developed previously.

there’s no one answer, but from a buddhist perspective, i think what matters is that you’re developing your mind regardless of what choice you make.

Ooh. Love that. Thanks!