Monday, April 15, 2019

Bestial Topics of Conversation

Relief from the Sanchi Stupa in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, representing the three favored residences of the Buddha at Jeta's Grove, photo by Anandajoti Bhikku, Photo Dharma of Sadao, Thailand via Wikipedia.

From the Kathavatthu Sutta, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu; I landed on this text when I was looking for something else:
on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi at Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Now at that time a large number of monks, after the meal, on returning from their alms round, had gathered at the meeting hall and were engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.
Then the Blessed One, emerging from his seclusion in the late afternoon, went to the meeting hall and, on arrival, sat down on a seat made ready. As he was sitting there, he addressed the monks: "For what topic of conversation are you gathered together here? In the midst of what topic of conversation have you been interrupted?"
Short story shorter—this is a kind of shaggy dog story which gets bulked up by repeating the list of bestial topics three or four times—the Buddha reproaches the monks for their foolish preoccupations and urges them to talk about things that are worth talking about;
"It isn't right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation.... There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful — to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects."
It's a little disappointing that he ends up motivating them with the thought of competition with rival monks instead of just being better people and liberating themselves from the endless cycle of rebirth, but that initial list is a beautiful summary of what idle everyday talk really consists of, two and a half millennia later, and what we call punditry as well (a pandit is a Sanskrit scholar, of course, and the kind of self-satisfied thinker against whom the Buddha was originally protesting).

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