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Don't trust yourself
January 11th, 2016

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Don't trust yourself

   I posted yesterday about « Don't trust anyone » ( and it included a section on not trusting yourself.  As this might sound counter-intuitive, given that our practice requires strong determination/willingness, I suggest to look at the Pāḷi Canon for another illustration.

   As you know, Māra  (aka. the lord of death) in the Pāḷi Canon might be interpreted as our subconscious impulses (primal / unexamined thoughts, pushing us to act ignorantly rather than wisely… and therefore pushing us to perpetuate saṃsāra  and its repeated cycle of life-and-death).
   It is correct that Māra  might also  be seen as a 'real' god, but the mind always interferes in Buddhism… so, whatever Māra  does, the veils of his "victim" 's mind get in the way, and what the person perceives often says more about himself/herself than about Māra.  The psychological dimension cannot be dropped.

   With this in mind, let's look at the Soma sutta  (SN 5.2):
   The nun Soma  has entered Andhavana  (Blind Man's Grove) near Savatthi  to practice meditation. Māra,  the embodiment of delusion, sees her there and desires to make her waver and abandon her concentration. He addresses her with a verse:
      That which can be attained by seers
      — The place so hard to arrive at —
      Women are not able to reach,
      Since they lack sufficient wisdom.
[ Soma  replies: ]
      What difference does being a woman make
      When the mind is well-composed,
      When knowledge is proceeding on,
      When one rightly sees into Dhamma?
      Indeed for whom the question arises:
      "Am I a man or a woman?"
      Or, "Am I even something at all?"
      To them alone is Māra fit to talk!
[translation by Andrew Olendzki,]

   Interpreted in psychological terms, the story tells of Soma 's doubts about the ability of women, doubts she has appropriated from her education, from her social and cultural context (in India, 26 centuries ago… not the most "men and women are equal"  feminist context).
   The doubt is an example of unexamined thought: a thought based on habits, on hearsay, on dubious over-generalisations, on logical fallacies (e.g. the call to the crowd: "everybody knows that…").
   And Soma 's "reply" is the result of her examining this thought.

   Note that she responds to the doubt, she doesn't merely ignore it; her approach is to consider the thought, to examine it, to assess its veracity (or lack thereof)… In short, her approach is to 'engage' with the thought and arrive at valid cognition, not merely to suppress the thought by force (of concentration) but to cease its very cause!
   The sutta doesn't describe the whole mental process of Soma,  only her conclusion, only her attainment of true knowledge, which makes ignorance / Māra  lose its power (Mara  might propose wrong views to cling to, but if you don't grasp such a view, then Māra  has no pull on you!).

   In relation to the previous post, this sutta is an example of not trusting oneself:  not trusting one's own biases, one's own ignorant thoughts, one's own fears… solely because they're one's own.
   You might note that, to attain the truth, Soma  takes a step back, refrains from taking the doubt personally!  She basically doesn't frame the question in terms of 'persons' anymore, but goes right down to the core, or the heart, of the issue.
   In this case, the issue is some prejudice about gender. So she questions the phenomenon of gender in and of itself, without confusing  it with people  (people 'having' a body with said gender, but —as per the analysis of the five aggregates— the body is not the self, is not the owner of the self, nor is it owned by a self existing outside of it…). And once she isolates the core of the doubt, then the vacuity of the view which serves as its basis, the stupidity of considering that a mind would inherently be limited by a gender (irrespectively of how  the mind relates to gender) appears in plain sight.
   BTW, she's not denying that women might face different difficulties than men, from experiencing different circumstances; she's just rejecting the unexamined view that a mind 'inherently' is limited by a gender irrespectively  of how  the mind relates to gender. She simply becomes clear that this 'irrespective'-ness, this independence, this separateness, the 'self', is empty of essence: phenomena (including limitations) are dependently co-arising, or inter-dependent! The different difficulties than men and women meet on the way depend on the context, on circumstances, etc. but also on how one relates to this context, to this circumstances, etc! And it is possible to cultivate different ways to relate, e.g. ways endowed with equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, ways endowed with patience, perseverance, wisdom!

   In this sutta, Soma  trusts neither Māra (although a very wise and powerful god) nor herself (projecting her unexamined doubt in the form of Māra):  she trusts no one. She doesn't trust what her society culturally holds as truth about genders, either. She trusts nothing, not what she knows, not what is told, not what is thought, not observations of the past (which would amount to forgetting that her circumstances now are not the same!): nothing and no one! But she engages with the difficulty, she enquires, she looks into it… she responds, she doesn't ignore.
   In the end, the clearing of the difficulty is not based on "my teacher told me that women could make it too"  (even though her teacher is the Buddha himself), but on her directly discerning the stupidity of an assertion that women inherently cannot attain nibbāna. And the cessation of doubt (required for stream entry) is therefore linked to dropping a view, more than to clinging to any certainty: her 'trust' is tied to considering potentials and possibilities, instead of considering 'definitive' answers; it is tied to 'iterating' and 'engaging'!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
Image: « Buddha's temptations » (1921) by Eduardo Chicharro y Aguera  (1873–1949).
   Another famous episode with Māra  is, of course, when Māra and his daughters assail the Buddha-to-be when he's on the verge of breaking through his last veils of ignorance, in the last hours preceding his awakening. Usually, this is represented in a very politically-correct way, as if it was no much of a threat to Gotama, as if he was already beyond temptations somehow, already awakened…
   There's an alternative interpretation though: in Seon (Korean Zen), there's a saying which goes "Great doubt, great awakening. Small doubt, small awakening. No doubt, no awakening."  Great doubt might mean questioning everything, trusting nothing! Small doubt would for example mean questioning the self, but not all phenomena. No doubt is sticking to prejudiced answers (even if Buddhist: without questioning, without testing, without —at the end of the day— actually trying them out!).
   With such a perspective, maybe the temptations of Gotama on his last night before awakening were not innocuous, but on the contrary were the most extreme. Gradually seeing most preconceived truths and certainties break down before his eyes, Gotama might have been seized, for a moment, by the groundlessness he was now (not) standing on… He might have been shocked, in some sense, by the extent of the 'loss' that was about to unfold (virtually the loss of everything most people hold dear, hold somehow important, hold worthy-of-effort: money, knowledge, security, reputation, pleasures, sex…).
   So, at the risk of disturbing, I'll illustrate today's post with a European rendering of Māra  and his daughters assailing the Buddha-to-be. The painter being Spanish, the painting doesn't come with the Asian 'respect' and desire to present the not-yet-Buddha as buddha-already. It might thus represent better the sheer magnitude of the temptation, or the associated fear of losing 'everything'… It might represent better the importance of not  listening  to all these unexamined temptations a man (in this particular case) holds, of not trusting one's feelings and desires and views and certainties about what's worthy and what's not, what's valuable and what's not, what's pleasant and what's not… and the importance of relentlessly enquiring into these instead!