• THE DANGER OF MISUNDERSTANDING THE TEACHINGS

    “Arittha must have heard the Buddha talk about the joy and happiness of a mind at peace, but he seems not to have understood the difference between indulging in sense pleasures and the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind. We shouldn’t think Bhikshu Arittha was unique in this misunderstanding. It is probably the case that a number of other monks also did not see the difference between the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind and indulging in sense pleasures, although most of the others probably erred in the opposite direction, being afraid of both sense pleasures and the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind. Today there are still practitioners of Buddhism who are afraid of joy and happiness, who do not dare to appreciate the beautiful and wonderful things of life because they have heard that all things are impermanent and contain suffering. They are even afraid to appreciate the beauty of a newly blossomed flower or a magnificent sunset, although they could do so in the full awareness that things are impermanent, subject to suffering, and without a separate self. Bhikshu Arittha must have come into contact with monks who had attitudes like this, and, unable to draw the line between indulging in sense pleasures and the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind, he went to the other extreme, saying that sense pleasures are not an obstacle to the practice. Because he went too far, the Buddha had to correct him.

    The Buddha taught, “Monks, it is important to understand my teachings thoroughly before you teach or put them into practice. If you have not understood the meaning of any teaching I give, please ask me or one of the elder brothers in the Dharma or one of the others who is excellent in the practice about it.” “Elder brothers in the Dharma” are those who have realized the practice and not those who simply have a vast store of knowledge. “Excellent in the practice” is a translation of brahmacarya, and it means those whose lives are exemplary, pure, and clear. It does not mean those who live a harsh, austere life.

    There are two reasons why someone might understand a teaching of the Buddha in the opposite way to which it was intended. One is the lack of insight or skillfulness due to inaccurately perceiving the letter or the spirit of the teachings. The other is a motivation that focuses on being able to win disputes or enhance one’s reputation. Those who study the sutras in order to win arguments have lost sight that the practice is intended to be liberating. But this is not to suggest that all who study the sutras with a view to liberation are on the right path. They may be going in the right direction, but they still need insight and skillfulness if they are to understand the meaning of the sutra. Without insight and skill, they too will “endure difficulties that are not of much benefit, and eventually exhaust themselves”. The Buddha taught, “If you practice intelligently, you will understand both the letter and the spirit of the teachings and will be able to explain them correctly. Do not practice just to show off or argue with others. Practice to attain liberation, and if you do, you will have little pain or exhaustion”.

    Skillfulness in receiving the letter and the spirit of the teachings without distorting the meaning is the correct way to study the Dharma. Here skillfulness is accompanied by intelligence, and the meaning of intelligence is understanding. Without skill and intelligence, we can easily misunderstand the teachings.

    CATCHING A SNAKE

    At this point, the Buddha presents the simile of catching a snake. He says that a skillful, intelligent snake catcher always uses a forked stick to pin the snake just below the head so that the snake cannot turn around and bite him. This comparison is extremely apt:
    “Bhikshus, a person who studies that way can be compared to a man trying to catch a poisonous snake in the wild. If he reaches out his hand, the snake may bite his hand, leg, or some other part of his body. Trying to catch a snake that way has no advantage and can only create suffering.
    “Bhikshus, understanding my teaching in the wrong way is the same. If you do not practice the Dharma correctly, you may come to understand it as the opposite of what was intended. But if you practice intelligently, you will understand both the letter and the spirit of the teachings and will be able to explain them correctly. Do not practice just to show off or argue with others. Practice to attain liberation, and if you do, you will have little pain or exhaustion.”