Saturday, November 10, 2007

Reluctant rhetor

I love the story of the Buddha’s reluctance to teach after his enlightenment. (It’s recorded in the sutta called “The Noble Search.”)

He recognized that his experience was subtle, and would be hard to understand, especially among people “delighting in attachment,” and that teaching it to others, consequently, would be difficult:
if I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me

So he leaned toward avoiding the trouble that sharing his teaching might bring to him:
my mind inclined to dwelling at ease, not to teaching the Dhamma

Then, the story goes, a heavenly being came down to him and told him the world would be lost if he didn’t teach. He appealed to the Buddha’s sense of compassion, and he assured him that “There are beings with little dust in their eyes” who would be able to understand the Dhamma.

So the Buddha was persuaded, through what we might (if we move west to ancient Greece, which would, in the following century or so, produce Aristotle) call pathos.

There’s also what we might call propriety or even kairos. Sure, the heavenly being said, it might be that everyone won’t understand. But some will. There are those with little dust in their eyes.

Something like kairos became important to the Buddha’s teachings on right speech. One should speak only that which is “factual, true, beneficial, and endearing.” And even then, one must have “a sense of the proper time for saying them.”

Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings. (MN 58)

There’s something dynamic about pathos and kairos, compassion and timing in the suttas. Speech isn’t a contest; it isn’t about winning. So the attention to timing isn’t strategic so much as it’s simply thoughtful.

But what I love, really love, is the humanity of the Buddha. That initial reluctance. The inclination to avoid the difficulty of addressing an audience that just isn’t ready for you. Then the change of mind, the realization of the benefit that could come from giving words to what he knows, to teaching.


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