Name of Māluṅkyāputta is well known in the Pāli Canon, admittedly not first and foremost for meditative reasons. Namely, he was Buddha’s interlocutor in the famous Cuḷa-Māluṅkyāputta Sutta (MN 63), where he requested answers from the Teacher related to some of the burning metaphysical questions of his time in ancient India: is the world eternal or not, is it limited or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or not, and finally what happens with the Tathāgatha after death. Considering these questions as wrongly defined and irrelevant for the spiritual practice of the samaṇa, the Buddha refused to answer them. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Māluṅkyāputta is the one who poses these highly metaphysical questions, knowing that he comes from a brahminical, highly learned family on his mother’s side.
Māluṅkyāputta also appears in several other suttas, like Mahā-Māluṅkyāputta Sutta (MN 64), Māluṅkyāputta sutta (AN 4:257), his verses are in Theragatha and he is even mentioned in the Milindapañha. But for this occasion we are interested in the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta (SN 35:95), where he is already “old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life, come to the last stage”. Probably feeling kind of saṃvega that comes with knowing that the end is coming closer and closer and not being sure how to practice for the highest attainment, he approaches the Buddha for the advice. In response, he receives probably one of the most remarkable and the most enigmatic meditation instruction in the whole Canon1:
“Here, Māluṅkyāputta, regarding things seen, heard, sensed and cognized by you: in the seen there will be merely the seen; in the heard there will be merely the heard; in the sensed there will be merely the sensed; in the cognized there will be merely the cognized.
When, Māluṅkyāputta, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and cognized by you, in the seen there will be merely the seen, in the heard there will be merely the heard, in the sensed there will be merely the sensed, in the cognized there will be merely the cognized, then, Māluṅkyāputta, you will not be ‘by that.’ When, Māluṅkyāputta, you are not ‘by that,’ then you will not be ‘therein.’ When, Māluṅkyāputta, you are not ‘therein,’ then you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. This itself is the end of suffering.”2
Inspired by Master’s advice, Māluṅkyāputta expressed his understanding in verse, which the Buddha at the end of the sutta confirms as correct, by simply repeating what Māluṅkyāputta already said. Later, by practicing according to these instructions, Māluṅkyāputta became one of the arahants.
As we see, the advice received by Māluṅkyāputta can lead meditator to the final goal. Therefore it is worth investigating what is the detailed meaning of it and how it can be transformed into a sustained practice. In unpacking that meaning we may start from the Saṃyutta Nikāya commentary, which says that Māluṅkyāputta in his young age was very negligent, attached to possessions and sense pleasures. Now, in his old age, probably disillusioned with what gave him the most pleasure in life, he is looking for some more secure ways to permanent peace and happiness. Knowing his previous history, obsession with the sense pleasures, it can be expected that the Buddha directed him exactly towards six sense realms as a field for the practice and purification of the mind.
As we know, in Buddhism we talk about five physical sense faculties and the mind as a mental. Therefore, all in all, we operate with six sense-doors. Here it should be noted that in the sutta senses of smell, taste and touch are, for the sake of brevity, grouped under one category – thought or cognition (mutta).
Now, it would be helpful first to briefly explain what is, in Buddhist theory, considered as “seeing” (the same applies to other senses). This process is interaction between three components: eye itself, visible object and the consciousness about what is seen (cakkhuviññāṇa). Meeting of these three is called “contact” (phassa). The task of every meditator is to observe each of these three factors of the process and to understand their real nature. Classical example of this kind of practice is given in the Mahā-satipatthāna sutta (MN 22), in the section on the contemplation of dhammas, more specifically the six sense bases:
“And how does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the six internal and external bases? Here a bhikkhu understands the eye, he understands forms, and he understands the fetter that arises dependent on both; and he also understands how there comes to be the arising of the unarisen fetter, and how there comes to be the abandoning of the arisen fetter, and how there comes to be the future non-arising of the abandoned fetter.”
Here, besides eye and visible object, the Buddha speaks about the fetters arising dependent on these two. And that’s the goal of our practice. To see how in this process, through distorted cognitions, we misapprehend the reality and thus fundamentally change our whole experience of the world we live in. In what is impermanent, not satisfactory and not substantial we see the opposite. Secondly, to understand how this process unavoidably leads to suffering.
“The presence of such unrealistic elements within cognition is due to the habitual projection of one’s own mistaken notions onto cognized sense data, a process of which one is usually unaware. These habitual projections underlying the perceptual process are responsible for unrealistic expectations and thereby for frustration and conflict.”3
Knowing that cognition are outcome of the mental habits, we can conclude that they are possible to train. Cognitive training establishes new patterns and gradually changes our previous, habits-based cognition. One of the key tools in this training is vipassana instruction of guarding one’s own senses, which makes also for the first part of the Buddha’s instruction to Māluṅkyāputta. This part of the advice is deceptively simple and can be summarized as: “Do not daydream, but really see what you are looking at”. This means catching the moment between sensing the bare image and recognition, staying with that moment and its reality, instead of following the well trodden path described in the paṭicca-samuppāda formula: contact → feeling → thirst → attachment… and we are already hooked! So, catching that moment of “bare seeing” and staying with it makes are safe. The only catch, but the huge one, is that our mindfulness must be quick enough to sport that fleeting, elusive split second. For untrained person that looks absolutely impossible. But the testimonies of the experienced meditators show the opposite. This is what Venerable Nananada calls “stopping short, at the level of sense data”.
That’s also the point where we can skillfully apply the teachings of two truths: ultimate and conventional. By staying with the bare seeing we are actually looking directly into the ultimate truth, which doesn’t know about labels and concepts we so diligently attach to everything we sense, trying to rationalize and create new meaning to our experience.
With bare seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching constantly and repeatedly, first of all, we abstain of habitual liking and disliking, evaluation and proliferation based on raw sensory data. Also, we gradually begin to understand the real nature of the phenomena we register, their impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. And finally, we recognize the hard fact that these processes are not ours, but impersonal events happening due to causes and conditions, on which we do not exert much influence. Instead of “my” seeing, in that box called “I” we found only aggregate of constituent parts, which themselves are just collection of new aggregates of unsubstantial constituents and so on ad infinitum. But for each of these phenomena we created a separate name, label, idea. We also diligently weaved the whole net of mutual inter-relations. And this connection between object of seeing and its corresponding label is so tight and seems somehow so natural in the world of conventional truth. But I still remember how one day I was keeping book in my hand and suddenly the word “book” and the object in my hand started to part away. Connection between two broke and I was surprised how strange and arbitrary was this sequence of sounds b-o-o-k. What does it really have with the object I’m keeping in my hand? B-o-o-k, b-o-o-k… How meaningless, absurd group of sounds! Why not k-o-o-b, k-o-o-b or anything else? Later I tried the same with other words and it was enough to repeat any of them slowly, mindfully just several times to see it dissolving right in front of my eyes, to see its total arbitrarity and superficiality, which hide what is always available to be seen. A performance of innumerable impersonal phenomena endlessly arising and ceasing.
And what about the second part of the Buddha’s instruction? This cryptic and confusing pointing to somewhere outside of the three lines that encompass out whole world as we usually know it: here, there and in between. If we understand the Buddha is here talking about nibbāna, than the choice of words and metaphors is little bit more understandable, since this is similar strategy the Buddha uses when talking about this topic. And with the reason, since everyday language is not capable of expressing what is not part of everyday experience. So, “When, Māluṅkyāputta, you are not ‘by that,’ then you will not be ‘therein’”, seems to mean, firstly, that if Māluṅkyāputta is not poisoned by lust, hatred or delusion, if he is not deceived by “I”, “me” and “mine”, he will see clearly that there is not any “doer” or “knower” behind any sensory experience. And if clearly seeing in this way, he will not see any permanent essence, but mere experiences. This is the stepping stone to leaving behind any attachment, to final liberation. Since being “therein” means staying in the endless round of saṃsāra. Coming to this point of non-attachment means not being reborn anywhere: “neither here nor beyond nor in between the two”. And only there is a place where all suffering stops. This is place of all arahants:
“…who are no longer influenced by subjective biases and who cognize phenomena without self-reference. Free from craving and proliferation, they are not identified with either ‘here’ (senses), or ‘there’ (objects), or ‘in between’ (consciousness), resulting in freedom from any type of becoming [existence], whether it be ‘here’, or ‘there’, or ‘in between’.4
1 The same teaching the Buddha gave also to Bāhiya Dārućīriya (“bark-clothed ascetic”) in Bāhiya sutta (Udāna 1:10).
2 The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Transl. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000, p. 1175-1176.
3 Analayo Bhikkhu, Satipatthana, The Direct Path to Realization. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2003, p. 227.
4 Analayo Bhikkhu, Ibid, p. 232.