illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
"Going against the flow" is sometimes worn as a "badge of honour" by buddhists.
According to the legend, after the future Buddha broke his years of asceticism following an offering by Sujātā, he took the bowl to the river bank and set it on the river saying, "If today I shall be able to became a Buddha, let this bowl go up stream" and it floated up-stream…
Ayacana sutta (SN 6.1) — "The Request"
After his Enlightenment, the Buddha pondered about teaching the Dharma, initially tending towards not teaching:
❝ This Dhamma is not easily realised by those overcome with aversion & passion. What is abstruse, subtle, deep, hard to see, going against the flow — those delighting in passion, cloaked in the mass of darkness, won't see. ❞
In the narrative following, Brahma will intervene, thus endorsing the Buddha's teachings.
Since then, "going against the flow" is sometimes worn as a "badge of honour" by buddhists.
Unfortunately, "going against the flow" often becomes an 'engagement' within the world in the form of righteous conflict, opposition, revolution, "doing the right thing" (i.e. ignoring the opinion of 'ignorant' others), etc.
It may be seen e.g. when buddhists imagine themselves to be on the 'right' path merely by going against the flow of consumerism, without enquiring into the wholesomeness of their intention when doing so.
"Spiritual materialism" is often manifest, and the supposed validity of the path followed is merely a means for the ego to reinforce itself rather than to open up to the world.
Anusota sutta (AN 4.5) — "With the Flow"
This sutta is often seen as a reminder that the popular advice to "just go with the flow" is not particularly supported by Buddhism. One would expect as much after the Kālāma sutta (AN 3.65, gplus.wallez.name/PUQ2AeReGEM). But the Anusota sutta also puts "going against the flow" in its right place:
❝ Bhikkhus, these four types of individuals exist in the world. Which four? The one going with the flow, the one going against the flow, the one self controlled and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: the brahmin.
Which individual goes with the flow? Here, bhikkhus, a certain person indulges in sensual pleasures and does demeritorious actions. Bhikkhus, (s)he goes with the flow.
Which individual goes against the flow? Here, bhikkhus, a certain person does not indulge in sensual pleasures and does no demeritorious action. Even though it may be painful, sorrowful or unpleasant to tears, (s)he leads the complete and pure holy life. Bhikkhus, (s)he goes against the stream.
Which individual is self controlled? Here, bhikkhus, a certain person exhausting the first five fetters binding him/her to the sensual world takes rebirth in the Pure Abodes, there to be totally unbound, never reborn again. Bhikkhus, (s)he is the self controlled person.
Which individual crossed over, stands on hard ground, a brahmin? Here, bhikkhus, a certain person, destroying desires and releasing the mind from mental fabrications and discriminations, released through wisdom, embodying the release in the here and now. Bhikkhus, this is the person who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground, a brahmin.
Sentient beings partaking sensual pleasures unrestrained, come to birth and decay again and again, they are the victims of craving, going with the stream.
Therefore the wise with aroused mindfulness, does not practise sensuality or demerit, giving up sensual pleasures regardless of hardships, and goes against the stream.
Giving up the five lower bonds, having perfected one's training, not falling again, skilled in awareness, with faculties composed, (s)he is the self controlled one.
Seeing the bottom of things, (s)he gives up on the essence of all things and all qualities, (s)he knows it completely and has fulfilled the holy life. It is said (s)he has gone to the world's end, gone beyond. ❞
In such context, the 'flow' is a manifestation of perpetual tendencies and of their consequences.
Getting out of the flow
Indeed, in order to get free from the cyclical perpetuation of tendencies, one needs to stand up and face the flow: this is required to study the flow, to enquire into the tendencies and their consequences! This is also required to prevent the tendencies (habits) from deciding our life for us, i.e. it is required for us to reclaim our freedom.
But we shouldn't lose sight of the intention and motivation behind "going against the flow": nirvāṇa is freedom from lust, aversion and ignorance. Opposing the flow for the sake of it is merely developing an aversion (i.e. a new tendency, a new 'automatic' response) rather than cultivating freedom.
The five fetters an anāgāmi ('non-returner') gets free from, are:
• sakkāya-diṭṭhi: belief in a 'self';
• vicikicchā: doubt or uncertainty (about the Dharma);
• śīlabbata-parāmāso: attachment to rites and rituals;
• kāmacchando: sensory desire;
• vyāpādo: sensory aversion (ill will, anger and rejection…)
and absence of effort (to respond appropriately).
It is to be noted that associating "going against the flow" to nirvāṇa itself, or to Buddhism itself, would be a case of attachment to rites and rituals, a case of clinging to a particular "Dharma recipe" and to a belief in the inherent, intrinsic efficiency of said recipe.
A classic case for buddhists is when they start projecting 'buddhist' expectations onto themselves: 'engaged' (social) causes, 'compulsory' compassion or even vegetarianism (gplus.wallez.name/TGBUJMuqewF) i.e. "rites and rituals" (without an arbitrary limitation to a narrow understanding).
In karmic terms, these heightened expectations might be extremely wholesome tendencies, or "`good' karma"… but they still are karma, they still manifest the cyclical perpetuation of tendencies.
"Going against the flow" is a necessary practice, akin to taking a step back, but it is not freedom yet: it still is wholly dependent on the flow, a response fully conditioned by the context…
Following precepts is a more wholesome response than ignorantly going with the flow, like a bubble of foam floating around until it bursts, but it is not a free response.
The goal of the "holy life"
The ultimate goal of the "holy life" is not to 'fight' the flow or to 'oppose' the flow, it is not even to 'stand' in the flow (which already requires active cancellation of the flow, i.e. an automatic reaction to the action of the flow), but to step out of the flow.
The goal is the cessation of cyclical perpetuation, the cessation of automatic self-reinforcing responses, i.e. the cessation of moment-to-moment 'rebirth' and of life-to-life rebirth (i.e. the legacy we leave in our environment: doctrines, values, traditions… all 'controlling' memes, regardless of how wholesome they might be).
Releasing the mind from mental fabrications is not the 'suppression' of discernments and discriminations: it is the cessation of the tendency of the mind to 'anchor' itself to changing ideas (an anchor leading to the control of the mind by these elements, i.e. to the loss of freedom).
Buddhism formalised this concept as "unmovable wisdom", a wisdom which does not tie itself down to other phenomena and thus cannot be moved by them (unless it is an appropriate choice in the context at hand).
Discernment and discrimination are the roots of ignorance (when permanency or independence are associated to the phenomena labelled and identified) but they also are the roots of wisdom.
The anchoring / clinging is the root cause of dissatisfaction and the loss of freedom.
Mental fabrications are not the issue (hence the Buddha could teach for 45 years, using 'labels', 'views' and 'doctrines'…), clinging is.
One form of clinging is 'proliferation': apparently not clinging to an initial thought, moving on to other thoughts, but nonetheless staying in the deterministic consequences of the initial idea i.e. "staying in the flow" directly dependent on only one source.
The appropriation of "unmovable wisdom" —the "firm ground" in the sutta— is the appropriation of an 'observer' stance, who can decide to respond but might not be pulled by force into doing so. If it sounds familiar with "non-reactive noting" in meditation, it is because meditation is an appropriate training to cultivate such a stance!
The goal in relation to the Eightfold Path
The goal is to step out of the Eightfold Path as an automatic reaction we have (trying to avoid suffering, trying to escape stress and dissatisfactions…) in favour of embodying the Eightfold Path as a choice.
If the 'reactive' Eightfold Path can indeed be associated to "going against the flow", the goal is to step out of the spiritual materialism that leads us to think that vegetarianism, or following the precepts, or cultivating a pāramitā (or a few) will improve us, will make us better people.
The goal is to realise / embody the 'free' Eightfold Path, the Eightfold Path by choice, neither by desire (for bliss) nor by aversion (towards suffering) nor by ignorance (reifying it, seeing it as leading to the unconditioned nirvāṇa in spite of the clarity that 'unconditioned' precisely means nirvāṇa is not attained by clinging to anything, be it a wholesome Path).
This is why it helps to see the "four noble truths" as the "four tasks of the Noble One" (gplus.wallez.name/eVFH1vmfz3g): the Eightfold Path as the embodiment of accumulated wisdom, not as a recipe to satisfy a quest driven by aversion vis-à-vis suffering.
"Pay attention" is my injunction to guide you to take an 'observer' stance.
This is not about stepping out of the world! This is not about stepping out of causality, not about considering wholesome and unwholesome intentions equivalent!
This is about stepping out of automatic, prejudiced, predefined answers (stepping out of the flow of proliferating mental fabrications); it is about reclaiming a choice.
It is about reclaiming a choice to 'use' causality (thus gain actual influence), not just be constrained by it!
It is about "seeing things as they are" (gplus.wallez.name/LTBVNToYR9U) and responding not only appropriately (i.e. according to constraints) but also creatively (i.e. according to what you choose to causally influence!).
Post Scriptum: the translation above of the Anusota sutta (AN 4.5) is my personal adaptation, which I think is more readable than the more 'classical' translations I came across. You might however want to check out other translations, as I am not a Pāḷi expert!
Image: self-portrait "Questioning the 'buddhist monk' look (shaved head and robes) which seems compulsory for Dharma teachers", part of my "Attachment and Self" photo project.