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Disputation In the Dhamma

December 13, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

It is a great pleasure to manage the Yahoo groups for the Great Western Vehicle because of the many enthusiastic contributions people make.  I enjoy being in the company of such brilliant minds, because I learn so much.  In our brilliance, though, sometime we forget to avoid harmful speech and to embrace kind, thoughtful and generous speech. 

While we may feel our opponent in the dialog is deeply deluded, I believe the job of a dhamma/dharma teacher is to gently and compassionately draw people to enlightenment, not goad them with the whip as if they are cattle to be herded.

Recent conflict on the GWV listservs has occasionally silenced dialog.  Thus I composed this article to remind people of our journey here, which is dialog for the purpose of learning the contemplative way (dhamma/dharma).  Enthusiastic dialog can unfortunately arouse anger and hostility if we are not mindful. 

I thought that perhaps we could dialog on the art of dialog here.  Thus I believe we should also keep in mind appropriate conduct during disputation.  Since the Noble Eightfold Path suggests right speech, action and thought, and the precepts suggest avoiding harmful thought, speech and action, then we should assume that disputation in the dhamma/dharma should avoid aggressive, or abusive language while one endeavors to put forth one's premises. 

As you may know some vehicles of Buddhism have rather formal structures within which disputation is an accepted form of the training.  Other vehicles of Buddhism do not provide a framework for disputation.  And, finally some vehicles of Buddhism find disputation offensive. 

I am unaware of a Theravadan tradition of dialectical inquiry, however, I am familiar with the Tibetan forms of dialog, which I find a bit too formal for my taste, but nonetheless a worthy model from which Western dharmic dialog can find inspiration.  Unfortunately, dialog does not seem to be characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism as it is expressed in the West. 

From reading the Discourses of the Buddha, it seems clear that dialog was indeed a central feature of the early Buddhist community (sangha).  Western thought is based upon Socratic dialog, which is not unlike the kind of dialog we see in the Discourses of the Buddha.

When I put forth my premises, I am often simply pursuing a line of logic that necessitates placing the practice of disputation within the rhetorical framework of the Buddha's teaching system.  This necessitates providing the boundaries for disputation as well.

To quote Angelique, from another GWV list, "without a dialogue we simply have dogma."  So, I believe disputation is a necessary aspect of learning the dhamma. And, I believe a dhamma center that does not provide a vehicle for dialog runs the risk of failing as a vehicle for the dhamma.  This is in part why The GWV has focused so much of its efforts on Yahoo dialog groups.

We should also keep in mind an argument (dispute) depends upon knowing where a quote comes from, because otherwise I believe it becomes too easy to pawn off one's own thoughts, beliefs and opinions as the Buddha's dhamma.  Therefore, I do not believe we can continue to accept that a saying comes from the Buddha just because someone says it does.

While leading a local sutta study group I was recently reminded that the first sutta in the Digha Nikaya, the Brahmajala Sutta, deals with "What the Teaching is not."   And, one of the things that the Buddha's teaching is not is addiction to disputation.

"What the Teaching is not"

Brahmajala Sutta, DN 1.1.18

"Whereas some contemplatives remain addicted to disputation such as: 'You do not understand this doctrine and discipline -- I do! 'How could you understand this doctrine and discipline?' 'Your way is all wrong -- mine is right! 'I am consistent -- you are not!' 'You said last what you should have said first, and you said first what you should have said last!' 'What you took so long to think up has been refuted!' 'You argument has been over thrown, you are defeated!' 'Go on save your doctrine -- get out of that if you can!' the ascetic Gotama refrains from such disputation."
"This, monks, the Tathagata understands: These view points thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such destinations in another world.  This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge.  And being thus unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of (sensations), their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathagata is liberated without remainder."

And what are these matters? (he enumerates 62 belief systems, opinions and concepts).

"There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathagata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge (abinna), proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathagata would rightly speak."
"With regard too all of these...they experience these (sensations) by repeated contact through the six sense bases; (sensation) conditions craving, craving conditions clinging; clinging conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, sadness and {(dissatisfaction) dukkha}.
"When a monk understands as they really are (vipassana) the arising and passing away of the six bases of contact, there attraction and peril, and the deliverance from them, he knows that which goes beyond all of these views.
(Digha Nikaya trans. Maurice Walshe, Wisdom, 1987)
Kinti Sutta, MN 103
"What do you think about me?"
What in the Dhamma Should be expounded

MN 103.2

"We do not think thus about the Blessed One" 'The recluse Gotama teachers the Dhamma for the sake of robes, or the sake of almsfood, or the sake of a resting place, or for the sake of some better state of being."
"venerable sir, we think thus about the blessed one: 'The Blessed One is compassionate and seeks our welfare; he teaches the Dhamma out of compassion."
3. "So, bhikkhus, these things that I have taught you after directly knowing them -- that is, the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right kinds of striving, four bases for spiritual power, five faculties, the five powers, the seven enlightenment factors, the Noble Eight Fold Path -- in these things you should all train in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing.
4. "While you are training in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, two bhikkhus might make different assertions about the higher dhamma.
5. "Now if you should think thus: 'These venerable ones differ about the meaning"...(or) "the phrasing, then whichever bhikkhu you think is the more reasonable should be approached and addressed thus: 'The venerable ones differ about the meaning"...(or) "the phrasing.  The venerable ones should know that it is for this reason that there is a difference about the meaning or phrasing; let them not fall into a dispute'...So what has been wrongly grasped should be borne in mind as wrongly grasped...What is Dhamma and what is Discipline should be expounded.
10. "Now, bhikkhus, you should not hurry to reprove him; rather, the person should be examined thus: 'I shall not be troubled and the other person will not be hurt; for the other person is not given to anger and resentment, he is not firmly attached to his views and he relinquishes easily, and I can make that person emerge from unwholesomeness and establish him in wholesomeness.' If such occurs to you bhikkhus, it is proper to speak.
13. "Then it may occur to you, bhikkhus, 'I shall be troubled and the other person will be hurt; for the other person is given to anger and resentment, and he is firmly attached to his views and he relinquishes with difficulty, yet I can make that person emerge from the unwholesome and establish him in the wholesome.  It is a mere trifle that I shall be troubles and the other person hurt, but it is a much greater thing that I can make that person emerge from the unwholesome and establish him in the wholesome.' If such occurs to you, bhikkhus, it is proper to speak.
14. "Then it may occur to you, bhikkhus: 'I shall be troubled and the other person will be hurt; for the other person is given to anger and resentment, and he is firmly attached to his view and he relinquishes with difficulty; and I cannot make that person emerge from the unwholesome and establish him in the wholesome.' One should not underrate equanimity towards such a person.
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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