The True Boston Brahmans

As I write this it is 3 days since the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I used to live in Boston, and I still go back there at least once a year. It’s a great city, like one, big small town with lots of traffic. Copley Square, where the bombings took place, is iconic. It is the site of the Boston Public Library, an architectural and cultural monument, and the Trinity Church, which is likewise. Copley Square is named for John Singleton Copley, a painter who lived during the American Revolution. He painted one of my favorite portraits – the one of Paul Revere – that now hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts just up the street.

I also used to be a runner, of sorts. I have never been particularly athletic. I have bad joints and a bad back, and had to give up running some time ago. But one of the things that surprised me when I took up running is how positive and supportive the running community is. In almost every other physical sphere of life – including some surprising ones like hiking – people tend to be pretty competitive. Runners aren’t like that. If you run, you are part of the community. I never got anything but encouragement for my slothful 9½ minute miles.

So you can imagine that it was pretty painful for me to see two of my families torn apart by those bombs.

However, as widely reported, the image that I am left with is the extraordinarily humane response to what happened, even in the seconds that followed the blasts. I think everyone has heard about them, so I won’t list them here. And so despite the tragedy that occurred, I am left with a deep feeling of gratitude for – as Jon Stewart put it – uplifting my faith in humanity.

I take some pride in the path that I have chosen for my life. Perhaps “pride” is the wrong word, but I certainly feel gratitude for finding a path. It speaks to my inherent belief in basic goodness, and that the way to happiness is not through fear and anger and self-centeredness, but in generosity and kindness and altruism.

But sometimes – just sometimes – it is easy for a little arrogance to creep into your mind. You can begin to think that your club gives you some superiority over members of some other club. And then I see someone, or a lot of someones, do things that make me feel humble, that makes me wonder how I would respond in a situation like that, and I am brought back down to earth.

The Buddha spoke to this issue often, especially with his teachings on karma. At the time of the Buddha, there were lots of theories about how the law of karma works. The word “karma” literally means “action”, and the Buddha had two things to say about it. One was that it is the quality of your actions that determines the karmic affect of what you do. The other is that it is the intention behind the act that determines the skill of the action.

In other words, two different people can do the same thing, and the act of one person would have a negative karmic impact, and the action of the other person can have a positive karmic impact.

A simple example is giving a donation to a charity. One person may be giving in order to achieve notoriety; another person may give completely anonymously, purely out of the goodness of their heart. There is even a practice in Buddhism to commit an act of charity without letting anyone find out about it. Try it sometime. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. When we do something nice, we like people to know about it. We like to get something out of it other than the pure satisfaction of doing a good thing.

This teaching flies in the face of what I was always taught. I suppose it’s a western thing; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But I think how the Buddha would define “good” is different than the way “good” is used in that saying. In Buddhism something that is “good” is selfless and skillful. It comes from generosity, compassion, love, kindness. It isn’t a misguided attempt to boost our own ego.

The upshot of all this is that whatever you choose to call yourself, that label doesn’t really buy you anything. I don’t get special karma points just because I call myself “Buddhist.”

There is a wonderful discourse in the Digha Nikāya that speaks to just this issue. It is the Soṇadaṇḍa Sutta: The Qualities of a True Brahman (DN 4). The discourse itself is full of lovely little tidbits about Soṇadaṇḍa, his son, his friends, and the town where they lived. It reads like a good TV script.

Soṇadaṇḍa was a prominent Brahman. Brahmanism was the predominant religion of that part of India at the time. (It was pre-Hinduism.) But Soṇadaṇḍa must have been quite an interesting fellow, someone with an open, inquisitive mind. He would have been at home among the philosophers of Greece. He clearly respected good minds and clear thinking.

He goes to see the Buddha, who happens to be in town, despite the fact that Soṇadaṇḍa’s buddies think that is beneath him. They think that the Buddha ought to come to him. But Soṇadaṇḍa really wants to meet this person who has achieved some fame.

Soṇadaṇḍa is a little timid about asking the Buddha a question, because he is afraid that he will say something that will embarrass him. The Buddha bails him out by asking him about what he knows about the Three Vedas, a topic on which Soṇadaṇḍa is well versed. The Buddha says to him:

“By how many qualities do Brahmans recognize a Brahman? How would one declare truthfully and without falling into falsehood: ‘I am a Brahman?’” [DN 4, 11]

Soṇadaṇḍa replies as follows:

“Reverend Gotama, there are five such qualities… What are they? A Brahman is well-born on both the mother’s and the father’s side, of pure descent to the seventh generation,… he is a scholar versed in the mantras,… he is handsome, pleasing,… he is virtuous,… he is learned and wise, and is the first or second to hold the sacrificial ladle. These are the five qualities of a true Brahman.” [DN 4, 13]

The Buddha than says to him, well, if you were to leave out one of those qualities, could someone still be a true Brahman? To which Soṇadaṇḍa  replies:

“It is possible, Gotmama, We could leave out appearance, for what does that matter? If a Brahman had the other four qualities, he could be recognized as a true Brahman.”

The Buddha then says, OK, how about any others?

“It is possible, Gotama. We could leave out birth, for what does that matter?”

You can see where this is all going. The Buddha eventually gets Soṇadaṇḍa down to two qualities, those of wisdom and virtue. And those are the qualities of the true Brahman.

The Buddha was a wonderful linguist. He is using the word “Brahman” here to his own advantage. He often did this. He took a word’s conventional usage and rephrased it to take on a new meaning. The word “Brahman” – in its usual case – refers to someone’s social status. But the word “brahma” also means “divine” or “sublime”; it is sometimes translated as “noble”. In this context the Buddha is defining how to tell if someone is noble.

Nominally I define myself as a “Buddhist”. It’s a shorthand, a way of communicating something without having to give my own discourse. But ultimately my own future happiness, and my usefulness to those around me, will be defined not by a word, but by the amount of love, compassion, kindness and generosity that I am able to cultivate. And I really hope that if I am ever in a situation like that at the marathon last Monday that I have the skill and courage of the people who were there.

Note 1. The phrase “Boston Brahmins” usually refers to the the people of Boston’s upper class, especially those who are descended from the Plymouth colony and the early Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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