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We provide transcribed talks by 35 different speakers
Coleen, FBA Team
Vajradarshini, Valderrobres, Spain
Sanghajivini, Newcastle, UK
Eric, FBA Team
Mary, FBA Team
Coleen, FBA Team
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
... shed our old self just by
growing older. Though perhaps we do to a very slight extent. As we grow older we do to
some extent just by the sheer friction of experience, the sheer sort of stress of experience. We
do change somewhat, but not nearly enough.
Voice: Can you say that we mature?
S: You can say that we mature yes that's putting it in a positive rather than in negative terms,
we do mature. But even that maturity which we achieve, and it's a definite achievement
simply by growing a bit older, that is if we are just even, moderately thoughtful, moderately
reflective, and if we do learn a little bit from experience, even that isn't nearly enough. We've
got to shed our skins and shed ourselves in a very much more radical sense than that. So we
mustn't press the comparison too closely or too far. So we shouldn't think simply in terms of
what is given up. Not just in terms of the old skin that is shed, but of the new 'snake' that
emerges, the new man that emerges. This is implicit, is not brought out very clearly here. I
mean, very  often in Buddhism at this stage, the positive side is not brought out so clearly,
or so explicitly. It may be simply because people felt it so much they didn't need to. We don't
feel it so much, for various reasons. So we need to bring it out more explicitly and more fully
even to emphasize even to place a stress on it. So that we don't get a purely negative
impression, certainly isn't intended. So you're supposed to be like a reborn snake, as I said,
bright and shining, golden and glistening. And of course we know that in Pali, the Pali texts
in the Theravada scriptures, the Arahant is sometimes called the Naga. The serpent is a
synonym for the Arahant.
Voice: It also gives the impression that these things, these more negative things are sort of
eternal that it also comes off when your done, like warts ...
S: Yes, they're adventitious
Voice: (?) we intend to think of our negative feelings (?) deeply rooted inside us that we can't
S: Well in a sense it is, perhaps you know, in psychological terms it goes very deep. But
perhaps in spiritual terms it doesn't go very deep at all.
Voice: Not really original sin.
S: It's not original sin. Or not in that precise Christian theological sense.
Voice: It gives quite a positive counter balance to that psychological viewpoint.
S: Right, yes. That you shouldn't think only in terms of the outworn skin. But as I said you
know, in terms of the new snake that emerges, the reborn snake that emerges. But the text
itself doesn't say very much about that. The new born snake isn't described in any other terms
except to say that he leaves behind his old skin. In a way this illustrates very well a certain
approach of, for want of a better term, the whole Theravada, or even the whole Hinayana
tradition. It is negative in its terminology. It does speak in terms of giving up, does speak in
terms of checking and overcoming. It does speak terms of renunciation but we have to see
what is implicit in that. We have to remember it's just like getting rid of the old skin of the
snake. But there is a new snake underneath. There is a new snake emerging. This is not
brought out explicitly, but its certainly intended. So in a way it's a bit characteristic that, or a
bit significant, that this particular Sutta, 'The Snake' comes right at the beginning. As if to say
that in the course of the Sutta Nipata you'll have quite a few negative descriptions.
Descriptions of the spiritual life in terms of giving up this and giving up that, and getting rid
of this and getting rid of that. But don't think that that is really the last word. Don't forget the
snake. You may see a whole series of skins which have been shed, one by one lying all over
the place. But there is a snake that has emerged from underneath all this. That snake, as it
were, goes on. The snake is the Arahant, the snake is the Buddha, the snake is the new man.
 But the Pali scriptures don't go in much for positive straight-forward descriptions of that
new man. They leave you more to infer what he is like from what he has left behind. They
don't say, 'Oh he's abounding in love' they say he has given up hate.
Voice: Why do you think that was?
Another Voice: I was just going to say surely that is very often a method in which one speaks
anyway. I mean one refutes very often. Though it doesn't mean to say that that is
psychologically negative. I think maybe we confuse it with that. I mean this is only a method
of refuting which is just a method of seeking.
S: Not even refuting, dealing with what is actually there.
Voice: So it's not the same as psychologically negative, or hang-ups or anything of that kind?
S: No, because, I mean the skin goes far beyond anything of that sort. It includes for instance
the five nivaranas.
Voice: I mean I often get the feeling that you know by saying something in this negative way
I feel very free.
Voice: I mean I've only to say well not that, not that, feel better, feel better.
S: This is one or has been one of the complaints against the Pali scriptures and in a way the
Theravada teaching, that it is very negative. But it's only negative if you just direct your
attention to the form of the terminology or the way in which things are put, but the underlying
intention is completely positive.
Voice: But I think one feels that from it.
S: Well, not everybody seems to have done in the past, or we may do so but, what I hope are
obvious reasons that you know, quite a few other people in the past, people writing about
Buddhism, seem not to have felt the underlying positivity as all, and have complained that
Buddhism is very negative.
Voice: Could it be that they were just so keen on getting rid of this idea of a self?
S: You mean, the Buddhists were so keen?
Voice: Yes. Or that might be a modern interpretation. I mean the idea is sort of, smells of self,
sinking in somewhere.
S: I don't think they were over-afraid of that, because if you take this particular image of the
snake literally it suggests a self. But they seem not to be bothered by that.
Voice: Is that quite a modern thing?
S: Yes. Some of the, especially Sinhalese Buddhists seem to have quite a thing about the self
and about the non-self. They're always insisting that Buddhism teaches the non-self, which is
quite true. But they insist in it in such a way they seem to be unduly worried about it and
afraid to use any other terminology or mode of expression even when it would be quite
helpful and not open to misunderstanding.
Voice: Wasn't this the result in present day?
S: I don't really think so. I think in their case its more on account of their, themselves, losing
touch with what that whole sort of way of thinking and speaking really spiritually signifies.
Voice: Like almost Western emotions.
S: Yes almost that yes. They approach it almost as a Westerner would but with their
traditional loyalty to Buddhism so they really press this Anatta thing without really asking
themselves what it signifies or without any feeling for it in fact any more. This is what I felt
myself quite often when I've been talking to them. They hit you over the head with Anatta. I
remember, you know, a very amusing instance when I was in Sarnath on a certain festival
occasion two young Indians were ordained as Samaneras. So after the ordination there was a
feast for the bhikkhus. So about an hour after the ordination in the midst of this feast we had a
terrific sort of uproar coming from just a few yards away. The samaneras of course hadn't
been given their meals because bhikkhus were served first and they were served afterwards.
We heard the voice of the samaneras raised in argument, or one of them. Well his voice was
raised in argument and he'd seized hold of the nearest Brahmin, and he was shouting at him
about Anatta. He was saying 'what is the Atta, show it to me, where is it? Come on, what is
its work?' and he was sort of shouting at him in this highly aggressive way. And all the older
monks that were smiling amongst themselves, 'well, he's really sort of trying to show the
Brahmin that he's a real Buddhist now.' But the whole way, his whole way of doing it was,
you could say, quite assertive, not to say egoistic. The way he'd seized hold of this
unfortunate Brahmin almost collared him, as it were, and was almost shaking him and asking
him to produce the atma and show it, it did in fact really exist. But you know this is the
attitude of many of the 'good' Theravada Buddhists. But the way in which they speak about
anatta and the way in which they support and defend anatta, so they're not in touch with what
that really spiritually represents. There's no selflessness in their attitude at all. So it doesn't
matter if you use the language of selfhood provided you use it in a selfless way, and your
feeling communicates something of selflessness - that's much more important.
Voice: Is there not a general tendency for Sanskrit and maybe Pali as well, I don't know, to
express quite positive ideas with negative words?
S: It does seem that there is this and the connotation is positive. For instance a mention in
connection with English we sometimes have this 'immortal' not 'mortal'. But when we just say
immortal, we don't think of it as a negative expression  at all. Many of the grammatically
negative Pali expressions are rather like this. Like they were 'anatta' ...