Well, “exactly the same wording” suggests to me that this is something that those who passed the texts down used to: 1. Convey the meaning as they had it passed down to them and as they believed it to be. 2. make it easier for them to remember and recite and pass it down to others in order to preserve the texts.
However, let’s assume that the Buddha did actually say that both these monastics were “the best”…perhaps using different phrases and words in each situation even. And now let’s assume that “the best” - in whatever actual words were really used - was more idiomatic than literal.
That is, whatever words of praise were actually used, they weren’t intended to mean that the person being praised was literally the very, best ever and deserved medals and such like… Perhaps they weren’t, as the songs says, “better than all the rest”…perhaps they were just pretty amazing and extraordinary. Perhaps the Buddha could actually, being the Buddha, work out who actually deserved to be called “the best” - and maybe sometimes he did this. But maybe sometimes he was using language figuratively.
Sometimes when I wish to convey my admiration or respect for something or someone, I will actually say the words, “you’re the best!” I don’t mean it literally and adults I say this to, I’m assuming, understand that I mean this figuratively. The phrase, “you’re the best” can’t possibly, logically be accurate as I use it for almost anyone depending on the circumstance/context! But it represents a very specific meaning that I wish to convey - and that is that I consider what these people have done to be worthy of extremely high praise.
When I work with children it is a little different. They take it quite literally. I have to be very careful that I don’t give them a false sense of themselves in relation to the world. But sometimes, they need to feel a greater sense of confidence so they can move on to a different place emotionally. Children, especially very young children, visibly swell up with pride and a heightened sense of confidence and self worth. They then use this emotional space, without even realising it, to become joyful and therefore more effective at learning; they become more open, more relaxed in their curiosity and the application of their imaginations; they become risk takers when it comes to their learning and display a fearlessness and are unfraid to make mistakes and move on easily from them.
The Buddha was a Teacher and his disciples would sometimes have needed encouragement. Perhaps sometimes this is all the words, “the best” are about.
Surely we can see how our texts were not only preserved by human beings (as opposed to robots), but are also being read now by human beings (as opposed to robots). None of this occurs in a vacuum. We’re all conditioned to read and perceive and interpret in certain ways. It really does make you see why Practise is sometimes akin to eating your own head!!
Which is why it’s so necessary to have to encourage those with different views to ours to put forth their points. You never know when you’re going to suddenly read/listen to someone else and have your world challenged in an awesome, beautiful and useful way!
We must read/view/listen to our texts through the light of our own Practise and that of - to some extent and with caution - the Practise of others too. And if our Practise is rooted in the 8 Fold Path - then it’s rooted in kindness/sila, deepening clarity/peace and extraordinary, life altering, radical wisdom. For all of us that wisdom is, at least in the very beginning, borrowed from another - especially as long as it remains a theory that doesn’t inform how kind we can be, how loving, how equanimous, how truthful…etc. Our lived, felt experiences become the testing ground. But we can still imagine, still be open to learning; no matter where this learning may be offered from.
So currently, my particular conditioned experience of reading our texts is that I assume that they should be read through the eyes of someone who can imagine (if not fully experience) boundless compassion and ultimate empathy. I aim to view our texts as being composed by someone who sees that we’re all a bunch of khandas interacting with ourselves and each other - but certainly, at the same time, composed by someone who sees this and is also moved to compassion, not coldness.
I also try to remember to temper this - because they may have originated in such awesomeness, but they weren’t necessarily compiled or passed down or edited through such extraordinary compassion and understanding. This is why I have to bring my own Practise and that of contemporary Teachers/Practitioners who have earned - if not my complete trust - a great deal of it, to the reading party. Surely this is what is, at least partially, meant by testing things out for ourselves? And certainly this is part of what is meant by seeing things in the light of the Dhamma.
In the end, we have to trust something outside of our own thoughts, views and ego. But we are not followers of the Buddha if we don’t follow his instructions to the letter. And that includes testing out what we receive from those we may trust in the spirit of fearless openness.
In the end, perhaps we should not be aiming to be a gold medalist in Buddhism.
Perhaps we should emulate the athlete who seeks to be content with surpassing their “personal best”? And perhaps it’s these sort of people who we should be seeking out as teachers and friends to inspire and guide us in our own journeys.
The Buddha, said he was the best, but I don’t think he meant it like a boxer might mean it as he thumps himself on his chest whilst his opponent lyes at his feet. I think the Buddha, perhaps it seems ironic to us, meant this both literally and humbly. Not a martyred sort of “humbly” - but the kind that comes from finally being freed forever from the shackles and blinders of carting around a view infused by a sense of self.
He achieved his “personal best” and I believe he encouraged us to do the same and to only seek out those who do the same in order to have some help, guidance, love, laughter, lightness, inspiration and friendship (kalyana mitta) a long what can sometimes seem like a very challenging journey. Seeing things in the light of the Dhamma - right now, I am asking myself what that is? And at the moment, it’s about going inward and being honest and letting my views and perceptions be easily - relaxed-ly - be influenced by the recorded teachings of someone I perceive to have possessed extraordinary compassion and wisdom and to seek out others who value such perceptions. And at the same time, to be open to listening (and yes, sometimes disagree - because part of this path is discernment, and being unafraid to make mistakes and to admit them and learn from them too) to anyone who is also seeking honesty and truth and kindness and peace; to anyone who can help me to live these things in my life right now; to be the best I can be, not the best I can be in relation to, or in comparison with, someone else.
We all need, “the words of another” , but we also all need to do our own work, and go back to the very truth of who/what we are. That’s what our texts are for. And our debates should never be for reinforcing our own egos, or for putting someone else’s down. The inclusivity we aim for on D & D is not for the promotion of kindness or learning in a general sense, though that is a lovely and certain side effect - it’s for promoting our own silent, inner path to Awakening.
It’s ironic that a Path and a Teaching that enourages non-measurement and boundlessness should still suggest that one can be better than another. But when we perceive such ironies we don’t ask ourselves, “better in relation to what?” But when we do, the answer is always, better in relation to not being swayed by greed, hatred or delusion.
Perhaps the journey to experiencing the measureless, to living an experience of boundlessness, is bounded on all sides. A Path, afterall is a road with borders. Can we be “the best” at staying within these borders? The 8 Fold Path has 8 defining lines that we are told we should not cross if we want to follow the instructions accurately. Our most basic boundaries are our precepts. Then we get a bit more refined and become kinder. And a bit more refined… And a bit more refined. Funny how trying to become the best means you end up accepting more and more of yourself and others - warts and all - truth/honesty just end up being a peace inducing experience. You end up - more and more, though slowly - not being afraid to speak or to listen. You end up, gradually, unafraid to disagree or to be disagreed with. You end up trusting those boundaries that end up making you feel freer than you used to feel.
I don’t really know if these reflections will be of any use to anyone. But anyway…here they are. May we all find what we need and those we need, to help us be the best we can be right now, until the day (or night!) when we finally don’t need much of anything anymore and we finally know for ourselves the meaning of true contentment.
But in the meantime, acceptance and love and simple encouragement help us all - honestly, I don’t think I could live without these things. So right now, whatever that right now is, “you’re the best”!
From someone that is still asking, still learning, still searching