What The Dharma Is For

One of the books I picked up recently from our family trip in Portland at Powell’s City of Books was a book titled Thundering Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a commentary on a Buddhist sutra called the Arittha Sutra which is sutra 220 in the Madhyama Agama, or No 26 in the Taisho Tripitaka. The Pali Canon equivalent in Theravada Buddhism is the Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22) or “Water Snake Simile Sutta”.

Both versions of this sutra, Mahayana and Theravada, are famous for two analogies:

  1. Comprehending the Dharma is like grasping a venomous snake. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and don’t approach cautiously, you will get bitten.
  2. Buddhist teachings and sutras are like rafts to help you cross a river. It does not good to cling to them once you’ve crossed over.

I don’t read a lot of books by Thich Nhat Hanh, but I do enjoy his sutra commentaries quite a bit.1 This book was no exception. I knew of this sutra before (the Pali Canon version, which isn’t very different), but I never really picked up on some of the important points in there until after reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation.

Anyhow, regarding the second analogy above, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The Buddha teaches impermanence, no-self, emptiness, and nirvana not as theories, but as skillful means to help us in our practice. If we take these teachings and use them as theories, we will be trapped. In the time of the Buddha and also today, many people study Buddhism only in view of satisfying the thirst of their intellect. They pride themselves on their understanding of Buddhist systems of thought and use them in debates and discussions as a kind of game or amusement. It is quite different from a Dharma discussion, when we discuss the teachings with co-practitioners in order to shed light on the path of practice. (pg 31)

This statement hit home for me. I know I’ve been guilty (even nowadays) of studying Buddhism for intellectual curiosity and not always for the expressed purpose of helping and liberating myself and others. It’s a bit humbling to be reminded what it’s really about.

That’s not to say that the blog, and some of the other work I’ve done wasn’t without value, but it’s nice to get a sober reminder what it’s all about.

Sometimes we all need such reminders. 🙂

1 His commentary on the Lotus Sutra really helped me a lot. Can’t recommend it enough.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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