The Way in to the Fortress

I have been working my way through all of the books that I have written, reviewing what I wrote, double checking everything with what the Buddha taught, making minor stylistic changes to make everything uniform, and making occasional content changes to reflect a slightly better understanding or to express things in a way that I hope will be clearer. And as I have been doing this, I ran across a passage that quite struck me. The following rendering is from the “Sampasādanīya Sutta: Serene Faith” [DN 28].

The situation is a conversation between the Buddha and one of his chief disciples, Sāriputta. It begins with Sāriputta making this declaration:

“It is clear to me, Lord, that there never has been, never will be and is not now another ascetic or Brahmin who is better or more enlightened than the Lord.”

Sāriputta is trying to pay the Buddha a compliment. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buddha challenges Sāriputta, and he does it quite aggressively. He asks Sāriputta rather pointedly, “How do you know? How can you make such an assertion?”

“You have spoken boldly with a bull’s voice, Sāriputta, you have roared the lion’s roar of certainty. How is this? Have all the Arahant Buddhas of the past appeared to you, and were the minds of all those Lords open to you, so as to say: ‘These Lords were of such virtue, such was their teaching, such their wisdom, such their way, such their liberation?’”

“No, Lord.”

“And have you perceived all the Arahant Buddhas who will appear in the future?”

“No, Lord.”

“Well then, Sāriputta, you know me as the Arahant Buddha, and do you know: ‘The Lord is of such virtue, such his teaching, such his wisdom, such his way, such his liberation?’”

“No, Lord.”

“So, Sāriputta, you do not have knowledge of the minds of the Buddhas of the past, the future or the present. Then, Sāriputta, have you not spoken boldly with a bull’s voice and roared the lion’s roar of certainty with your declaration?”

I mean, wow. Sāriputta was an arahant. He had attained a full awakening. The Buddha named him as one of his two chief disciples. In the sutta “Foremost,” the Buddha declared, “Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples with great wisdom is Sāriputta” [AN 1.189]. This seems like pretty harsh treatment for someone who was trying to say something nice.

But Sāriputta was unfazed. Given that he was an arahant, this is not surprising. He gave this poetic, extraordinary reply:

“Lord, the minds of the Arahant Buddhas of the past, future and present are not open to me. But I know the drift of the Dhamma. Lord, it is as if there were a royal frontier city, with mighty bastions and a mighty encircling wall in which was a single gate, at which was a gatekeeper, wise, skilled and clever, who kept out strangers and let in those he knew. And he, constantly patrolling and following along a path, might not see the joins and clefts in the bastion, even such as a cat might creep through. But whatever larger creatures entered or left the city, must all go through this very gate. And it seems to me, Lord, that the drift of the Dhamma is the same. All those Arahant Buddhas of the past attained to supreme enlightenment by abandoning the five hindrances, defilements of mind which weaken understanding, having firmly established the four foundations of mindfulness in their minds, and realized the seven factors of enlightenment as they really are. All the Arahant Buddhas of the future will do likewise, and you, Lord, who are now the Arahant, fully-enlightened Buddha, have done the same.”

There are so many lovely phrases here. He began by saying that he knew “the drift of the Dhamma.” “Drift” indicates “flow.” He knew how and where the Dhamma flows. He understood its properties and characteristics. He knew where it came from and where it goes.

And then he said that understanding the flow of the Dhamma, he knew that anyone who became a Buddha, must become a Buddha by using the same path. His comparison was to a fortress with only one entrance. He knew that anyone who came into the fortress must come that way.

I am pointing out this passage, because as you either know now or may discover, when I write about the Dharma, it is rooted in the Buddha’s original teachings. And that is not because of some ideological approach or scholastic approach or rigid orthodoxy. The Buddha himself would not have a very high opinion of that.

It is because through many years of study and practice, I have come to have a deep faith and trust in what he taught. As the scholars like to say, the Pāli Canon is “coherent and cogent.” It is compelling in its breadth and depth. But it is not just the words, it is when they are put into practice that such powerful and sometimes astonishing results can happen. And the more you read, and the more you understand, and the more you practice, the deeper your understanding grows. And the more that happens, the more you appreciate the priceless gift that is the Buddha’s teachings.

But what this passage in particular says to me is that to gain entry to the fortress, to attain awakening and to be free from stress and suffering, there is only one way to get there, and that is the Dhamma and Discipline that the Buddha taught. Accept no substitutes.

To be sure, the Buddha never told anyone that they had to do anything. But what he did say was that if you want a certain result, this is how to get it. The Mettā Sutta [AN 11.15] famously begins:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace.

I heard a story about a retreat on the Mettā Sutta where they spent the whole morning hung up on the word “should” in this passage. Now, the Buddha didn’t say “you have to do this.” But what he said is that this is what you should do if you want to be “skilled in goodness and know the path of peace.”

If you want to run a marathon, you can’t sit around and watch TV all day. And the Buddha didn’t say that if you do sit around and watch TV all day that you are a bad person, or you will go to hell, or anything like that. He was simply saying that if you want to run a marathon, there are some things you have to do. And in this case, if you want to be happier and more skillful and eventually to become free from stress and suffering, here is what you should do.

But it is also implied in this simile to be wary of con artists and revisionists, of snake oil salesmen (and presumably women as well) who are selling you a cheap facsimile. Sadly there are many of them in the Buddhist world today. If you follow any of them too closely, you are never going to get into the fortress. There is only one way in. You may wander quite happily in the forest for a while, but inevitably some gazelle will have you for lunch. Something will go wrong in your life or in your practice, and it will all fall apart. Or you will realize that you have been going to retreats and spending time and effort and money for years, and you really have not gotten anywhere at all.

The good news is that with diligence and sincerity, the instructons are all there. OK, so it’s a big instruction guide. That just means that you won’t run out of things to do. There is always more to learn. You won’t get bored. And the really, really good news is that there is a way in. The Buddha has gotten in, he knows how to get there, and he left us a map of how to do it for ourselves.

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