Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Noble Search

I have been in a bit of a funk lately as I navigate through the cross-currents of what I need to attend to simply to be able to function within this world, what I would like to attend to in terms of my own goals as well as my desires, and what others profess I ought to attend to because they assert they know what I need.

With the first, I do my best to plod along, searching for that Right Resolve to stay focused on the mundane responsibilities required to function in a world that is driven by concepts and perceptions that are complete fabrications. If I don’t do this, then I will have a hard time eating and keeping a roof over my head. That’s not to say I find no satisfaction in what I do. In fact, I like my job and feel very fortunate to have one, particularly now. But ever since I was a teenager I’ve had this attitude of “What’s the point?” I have heard many high-brow and noble things said along the way, but so far the only conclusion I can reach is that we do all this stuff just so we can acquire things.

There’s a line in the Iggy Pop song “Main Street Eyes,” from the CD Brick By Brick that captures this feeling very well for me:

“This whole country is scared of failure.
My head keeps trying to sell me ambition,
but in my heart, I want self-respect.
There’s a conflict.”

Then there are my goals and aspirations, which are continually frustrated by forces beyond my control, or by my own fear of moving forward. I’m still struggling with my separation from Benny. While it is true that he had to leave and return to Hong Kong because with the current economy, he was unable to find an employer to sponsor him for a green card, I also struggle with the knowledge that he was relieved to be returning to Hong Kong. He felt that pull of his homeland and family, things he believes he still knows even after living seven years in the U.S. And I struggle with a part of me that tells me to move on, find someone else, while concurrently hearing that other voice that suggests there can be no one else.

Thinking of another Iggy Pop song from the same CD:

“And you’re gonna know how fine you are,
gonna write your name on a violet star,
if I don’t crap out.”

And there are those who profess to know what is good for me without having spent any time with me at all. They say, “Here, do this, you don’t need to do that anymore.” I smile and think to myself, “How the fuck would you know?”

It was with these thoughts and feelings that this morning I read the next chapter I was up to in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, The Noble Search (MN 26). And what really struck me was a repeated passage in which the Buddha describes how he studied and learned other Dhammas:

“It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others.”

This passage struck me like a hammer on a bell. I was immediately aware of how so many people spend so much time studying what the Buddha said, become expert on the text and what it means, can recite it without hesitation, and yet have no clue as to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s as if I were to take a map of a foreign country, study the map closely and create images in my mind of that map, first tracing it with my hand and then precisely drawing it free-hand using the exact same colors, and perhaps I even read a lot of books about that country and its history and as a result, behave like an expert. And yet, I never go to that country to see it for myself, to meet its people, to see its sites, to smell its smells.

So the Buddha goes back to these teachers and tells them that he’s studied everything they’ve taught him and knows it inside and out, but could they show him how they reached the conclusions that they reached? They agreed to and the Buddha experienced precisely what they experienced, realizing that they had reached some very exalted planes of consciousness – in fact he recognized them as levels of jhana – but what they had achieved was not the end, was not the ultimate goal of unbinding.

He abandoned these teachers to continue his search, which eventually led him to sit beneath the bodhi tree. While that all may be some very tasty meat within this Dhamma sandwich, the real delectable lesson in this sutta comes from the bread, from the opening and closing sections.

At the start, the Buddha describes the two types of searches we face in life: the Ignoble Search and the Noble Search.

“And what is ignoble search? There is the case where a person, being subject himself to birth, seeks [happiness in] what is likewise subject to birth. Being subject himself to aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, he seeks [happiness in] what is likewise subject to illness... death... sorrow... defilement.

“And what is the noble search? There is the case where a person, himself being subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeks the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Himself being subject to aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, seeks the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. This is the noble search.”

That is the first slice of bread, which is followed by the meat of this Dhamma sandwich. At the end comes the second slice of bread, when the Buddha tells the monks that simply being a monk does not equate with understanding the fruits of his teachings, let alone experiencing those fruits and attaining release. Someone becoming “learned” in the Dhamma does not mean that he or she has abandoned the Ignoble Search; rather, he or she in fact may still be quite mired in the Ignoble Search.

I recognize that I continue to be ensnared by the trap of the Ignoble Search, that despite recognizing that all things must pass, I continue to search for and cling to things that pass. But gradually I am becoming more aware of the Noble Search, in spite of how others may attempt to direct me.

I love to look at and study maps, picturing the terrain in my mind that is depicted by lines and letters on a piece of paper. But invariably, I have either followed through in traveling to the locations on the maps I peruse, or I am preparing to make such a journey as soon as possible. And when I’ve returned from these journeys, those maps that I studied prior to the trip have an entire new meaning and value for me.


  1. ah, yes, the "wise" advice of others - a smile is a good response in my book. and "what the fuck do they know?" seems an apt thought as well.

    i'm finding more wisdom in the everyday lately, and even though I can spin a quality academic yarn about some piece of dharma, i feel less impressed by all that than i used to. not that it isn't valuable because we need buddhist scholarship too. but that if that's all someone is doing, then who cares? actually being present for my own footsteps has more value than a thousand well researched pages ever will.

  2. A smiling wise monk once said to me,
    "Throw out all the books and just sit!"