Three Sectarian Standpoints

Venue: TIMS

In Sutta #62 of Anguttara Nikaya’s Book of Threes (or AN III.61, according to Access to Insight) the Buddha spoke to a gathering of his disciples about 3 sectarian standpoints as held by cer-tain ascetics and brahmins. Such standpoints, if closely examined, will end up in a doctrine of non-action. In other words, such doctrines do not motivate the follower to do anything. These beliefs are:

  1. Whatever a person experiences, may it be pleasant, unpleasant or neither, are all due to past actions.

    If this were true, then it follows to say that people kill living beings because of past actions. The same too would apply to those who steal, are unchaste, lie, speak to divide, speak harsh words, in-dulge in idle talk, have ill will, are covetous, hold wrong views; such unwholesome deeds are all due to past actions.

    Then, for those who essentially recourse to past actions, there would be no motivation or effort to do anything good or not do anything bad; since our experiences are all fated or predetermined by past actions. The Buddha said that in this case, when what is to be done and not to be done is not being truly and rightfully determined by them, the term “ascetic” (samana = one who is com-posed, who tranquillises evil states) does not rightly apply to those who live devoid of mindfulness and without self-control.

    We see that such a view implies that there is nothing we can do or not do to change things and thus no point trying to improve ourselves. With such a view, even a renunciate will not be moti-vated to strive for spiritual progress.

    While it is true that our past actions do affect our present state, it does not mean that whatever happens to us is all due to them. What we do, or not do, now has a greater influence in our present living. So, let us not resort to past actions as the determining factor for everything that happens to us.

  2. Whatever a person experiences, may it be pleasant, unpleasant or neither, are all due to God’s making.

    If this were true, then it follows to say that people kill living beings and commit other unwholesome deeds because of God’s making. Just as in the earlier case, when this standpoint is taken, there would be no motivation for those who resort to God’s making to do this or not do that.

    Then we can whack somebody and say, “I know it hurts, but don’t blame me. I’m just an instrument of God.” Then we may commit crime, end up in prison and still say, “It’s God’s fault.” Such arguments may seem laughable but if we attributed all pleasure or pain to God’s making, we would have to accept them too, wouldn’t we?

    Holding such a view, and being without mindfulness and self-control, one cannot rightly regard oneself as an ascetic. Since supposedly our experiences are essentially caused by God’s making, who are we to try to make any difference? It would then be meaningless to renounce the world and strive for enlightenment.

    Most religions nowadays have a theistic base and the belief in a Creator helps in trying to rationalise a lot of things. The Buddha’s teaching is different. Instead of using God as a vehicle to explain things, it speaks of the natural law of kamma and the four noble truths.

    It is easy to give all credit or blame to an external being. It lifts the burden of responsibility off our shoulders onto someone else’s. Buddhism is one of the rare religions that tell people that they themselves are responsible, and that each individual has to put in the effort to improve them-selves. Somehow, many people are not willing to swallow the bitter truth. As such, we can under-stand why it is often easy to convert a Buddhist who does not have a good understanding or practice of the Dhamma. On the other hand, one who understands the Dhamma and experiences the true benefits of its practice would be unlikely to be influenced, though it is still possible unless one has attained the stage of sotapatti (stream-entry).

  3. Whatever a person experiences, may it be pleasant, unpleasant or neither, are all uncaused and unconditioned.

    In other words, they come about by themselves. If this were true, we can also say that there is no reason whatsoever as to why people commit unwholesome deeds. Such a belief justifies living without taking any responsibility for anything because whatever happens, just happens! Just as in the earlier cases, it implies that there is no need to make any effort for doing this or not doing that. Also, an ascetic with such a belief will not need to make any effort to strive for enlightenment because enlightenment is supposed to occur without any cause!

    A lot of modern people subscribe to this belief. While they often call themselves free-thinkers, Ven K Sri Dhammananda says that they are just too lazy to think!

All of these three standpoints are still being held these days by different sections of our present soci-ety. Some people may accept such views because they find it logical, some because it accords to their religious beliefs, and some perhaps because it is generally and traditionally regarded by their community. But regardless of the reasons to accept them, all of them have been shown by the Buddha to be seriously flawed; for they all suggest that there is nothing whatsoever that we can do to improve our lot.

Instead of falling back on these mistaken ideas about what determines our lives, we should have a good understanding of kamma, knowing what is wholesome and unwholesome. Let us make effort in doing what is wholesome and refraining from what is unwholesome. Let us live by the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha.

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