“Common Sense” in the Inquiry of Ugra


by Adam Miller

Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

While reading Jan Nattier’s translation of The Inquiry of Ugra (Skt. Ugraparipṛcchā), a work most all scholars associate with the early Mahāyāna, I came across three apparently common sayings in the turn-of-the-Common-Era Buddhist world (Nattier calls them “well-known sayings”). I’m not quite sure what to make of them, but phrases that are passed off as common sense tend to be good places to look for ideology, so I figured I’d write something about them.

They are: (1) “Do not despise the unlearned,” (2) “One person should not evaluate another, for if one person evaluates another, harm will result,” and (3) “The Tathāgata knows, and I do not.”

These three pieces of “common sense” appear toward the end of the first half of the Inquiry  (which is addressed to the lay bodhisattva) in a section to which Nattier gives the heading: When Monks Violate the Precepts. Standing alone, however, they do not mean much. In the interest of good scholarly practice, then, here is the full section as Nattier translates it (261-264):

Moreover, O Eminent Householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should undertake the eight-fold abstinence. He should wait upon, serve, and honor those brāhmaṇas and śramaṇas who keep the precepts, possess good qualities, and possess virtuous attributes. And while waiting upon them, serving them, and honoring them faithfully, he should recognize his own offenses. And if he sees a monk who has fallen away from the conduct of a śramaṇa, he should not disrespect him even in the slightest. Rather, he should think to himself:

The reddish-brown robe of the Blessed One, the Tathāgata, the Arhat, the Samyaksaṁbuddha–who is without stain and who is free from any stain of the defilements–is permeated by morality; it is permeated by meditative absorption, wisdom, liberation, and the vision of the cognition of liberation. This being the case, it is the banner-of-sages of the Noble Ones.

And having brought forth respect toward them, he should bring forth compassion toward that monk.

And he should think,

This sinful conduct is not good. This defiled conduct is not good. That monk wears the banner-of-sages of the Blessed One, the Tathāgata, the Arhat, the Samyaksaṁbuddha–who is disciplined, calmed, restrained, and well bred–but he himself is not purified, not calmed, not restrained, not disciplined, and he acts in a way that is not well bred. Since the Blessed One has said, ‘Do not despise the unlearned,’ it is not he who has committed the offense; rather, it is whatever defilements there are in him that have manifested this unvirtuousness. Since he has access to the teaching of the Buddhas, the Blessed Ones, if he fully comprehends whatever defilements he has and examines them carefully, he will be able to obtain the first fruit, and he will attain the status of one who is assured of Supreme Perfect Enlightenment.

And why? Thinking about the fact that defilements are removed by knowledge, and the Blessed One has also said “One person should not evaluate another, for if one person evaluates another, harm will result,” and since “the Tathāgata knows, and I do not,” he should bring forth no ill will, hatred, anger, or animosity toward that bhikṣu.

There is good reason to think that male monastics produced this text in order to entice a wealthy male lay audience to adopt their form of life–the authors of the Inquiry take every chance they can get to denigrate household life and praise the monastic life (or the household life mimicking to a large degree that of monastics), and this rhetoric persuades Ugra (the main character of the work, who happens to be a gṛhapati, a high status member of the non-monastic community) to the extent that he gets ordained (either in the middle or at the end, depending on which textual variant). (To be fair, the text is not entirely consistent in this regard. Right before the text concludes with the stock discussion of title, the text describes Ugra as a householder who will “mature a great many beings” [318]. But this description occurs after his ordination [in both textual variants]. This inconsistency is fascinating, to be sure, but I won’t address it at present.)

In addition to promoting renunciation over householder life, this piece of literature reflects and reinforces both the distinction between householder and monastic life and the privileged status of the latter over and above the former. This is where the pieces of common sense come into play.

Taking authorship, audience, and context into account, our common sense wisdom might read as follows:

“Hey householder, don’t despise the unlearned monk. Don’t come down on him in judgment when he messes up. His misunderstandings and misdeeds are not his fault. Rather, they are the result of some bad karmic seeds he planted long ago. So says the Tathāgata Śākyamuni. You may think you ‘get it’ more than he does, you may think your actions are better than his, but he has more immediate access to the teachings of the Blessed One. Therefore, you should respect such a monk just as much as you respect those monks you think keep the precepts adequately and so forth. If you don’t do this, bad things will happen to you.”

What we have here are authors using “common sense” in a particular context for particular ends. These pieces of common sense may have circulated in other contexts for other ends, but in this case it seems they’re being employed to legitimate a certain (but not entirely surprising) relationship of power between ordained and lay Buddhists.

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