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Majjhima Nikāya 2 — All the Effluents

As I begin to explore the Tipiṭaka (the Pāli Canon, the Buddhist scriptures that began to be written maybe about 400 years after Gotama’s death), I find that I need to further translate the scholarly renditions (from Bikkhus Ñanamoli, Bodhi, Ṭhānissaro, etc), into an every-day English that I can more readily access.

This seems to serve several functions. Most obviously, I am simply reading the texts and becoming familiar with the material. But what is better, I find that this re-translation to modern English idioms involves a deep turning-towards and exploration of that material. It is one thing to be able to parrot a concept. It is another to de-frag and re-frag the material, expressing it in a way that incorporates the history and understanding of the individual into the new expression. I am spending days and days with a sutta. I am learning about the paucities of psychological concepts in my own language… paucities which reveal the pscyhological immaturity of my culture. One blatant example is this “bhavāsava”. Frequently translated “desire for being”, I have found this “bhavā” very poorly articulated or understood by practitioners. On a recent retreat, Akincano phrased it in a way that, for the first time, I understood. (Or think I understand, anyway). Glossing it, he said that kāmāsava means “sense-desire”. Desire for objects pleasant to the senses. So we desire nice things to see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and experience with the mind (can we please turn “cognate” into a verb?). Fine. Sense-Desire. We’re well acquainted with this in English. Bhavāsava, he said, is desire for things that are not sense-related. Desire to be loved, to be respected, desire for respect, status, for hope. Desire for abstract concepts.

Wow! How do I not know a word for this? How is this portion of my experience thus-far uncategorized? Doesn’t this absence of category show, in a rather too-bright and unflattering light, the immaturity of my culture and my own understanding… that I do not know a word for this enormous category of my experience?

So. With great vulnerability, and recognition of the immensity of my shortcomings, I offer below an unfolding rendition of MN2. Ṭhānissaro Bikkhu translates the title as All the Effluents. Bhikkhus Ñaṇamoli and Bodhi use All the Taints. Bikkhu Sujato uses All the Defilements. Wikipedia has an article on the translation of this word, “Āsava”. I am using “effluents” in large part because of the series of talks given by John Peacock: Buddhism Before the Theravāda.

I would be thrilled to receive feedback, so please comment or reach out.

MN2 — All the Effluents

Thus have I heard. Siddhattha Gotama was living at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. He addressed the mendicants:

I will teach you about how to end the effluents. Listen and attend closely.

(Summary)

It is possible to end the effluents only when you understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate attention:

1. When you pay attention in an inappropriate way, un-arisen effluents (ie, effluents that are not yet arisen in you) begin to flow and effluents that were already flowing increase. [For ease of reading this will be abbreviated: “effluents arise and/or increase”.]

2. But when you pay attention appropriately, un-arisen effluents do not begin to flow and any effluents that were already flowing taper off and cease. [For ease of reading this will be abbreviated: “effluents do not arise and/or they taper off and cease”.]

The effluents can be ended in different ways; the most appropriate technique depends on the particular object to which we are paying attention. The techniques include discernment, restraint, use, enduring, avoiding, removing, and developing.

(Effluents to Be Ended with Discernment)

How can effluents be ended with discernment?

Imagine an ordinary person who does not respect wisdom, who is untaught, unskilled, and undisciplined in the Dhamma. That person will not discern what things are fit for attention and what things are unfit for attention. Because they cannot discern appropriately, they will allow their attention to be taken by things that are unskillful, and they will not properly attend to things that are skillful.

How do we know something is unskillful? Because we notice that when we pay attention to it, the three effluents arise and/or increase.

1. Effluents of sensual desire arise and/or increase.

2. Effluents of “desire for being” (that is, desire for non-somatic, non-sensual, abstract concepts like love, respect, status, hope, etc), these effluents of desire for being arise and/or increase.

3. Effluents of ignorance arise and/or increase.

Conversely, how do we know that something is skillful? Because we notice that when we pay attention to it, the three effluents do not arise and/or they taper off and cease.

1. Effluents of sensual desire do not arise and/or they taper off and cease.

2. Effluents of desire for being do not arise and/or they taper off and cease.

3. Effluents of ignorance do not arise and/or they taper off and cease.

To sum up: by attending to unskillful things rather than to skillful things, the three effluents arise and/or increase.

[Unskillful thoughts can be metaphysical, ie we can ask “did I exist in the past?”, or they can be common place, “was I a good student in high school?”.] In any case, unskillful thoughts such as these cause the three effluents to arise and/or increase:

– Worrying about the past:

. Did I exist in the past?

. Did I not exist in the past?

. What was I in the past?

. How was I in the past?

. Having been what, what did I become in the past?

– Worrying about the future:

. Will I exist in the future?

. Will I not exist in the future?

. What will I be in the future?

. How will I be in the future?

. Having been what, what will I become in the future?

– Being perplexed about the present:

. Am I?

. Am I not?

. What am I?

. How am I?

. Where has this being come from?

. Where will this being go?

When we attend attend unwisely in this way, some of six views arise and are believed to be true:

1. I have a self.

2. I have no self.

3. It is by means of self that I perceive self.

4. It is by means of self that I perceive not-self.

5. It is by means of not-self that I perceive self.

6. This self of mine is what speaks and feels and experiences the results of good and bad deeds. This self is permanent and eternal.

These views are fallacious. They could be likened to a thicket of views. These views fetter us. If we believe these views, we will not be free from Dukkha.

Imagine, instead, a person who respects wisdom, who is well instructed, skilled, and disciplined in the Dhamma. That person will be able to discern what things are fit for attention and what things are unfit for attention. Because they can discern appropriately, this person does not attend to things that are unskillful. They know that if they should do so, the three effluents would arise and/or increase. Instead, they attend to things that are skillful. In so doing the three effluents do not arise and/or they taper off and cease.

The wise person attends appropriately: This is dukkha. This is the origin of dukkha. This is the cessation of dukkha. This is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha.

When they attend appropriately in this way, that person is able to abandon three fetters: self-identification, doubt, and grasping at habits and customs.

That’s as far as I’ve made it. Will keep updating until it’s finished. Thanks for reading!

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