the fetter

[Citta, a lay follower of Buddha, said,] “Suppose there was a black ox and a white ox yoked by a single harness or yoke. Would it be right to say that the black ox is the yoke of the white ox, or the white ox is the yoke of the black ox?”

[Several senior monks said,] “No, householder. The black ox is not the yoke of the white ox, nor is the white ox the yoke of the black ox. The yoke there is the single harness or yoke that they’re yoked by.”

[Citta replied,] “In the same way, the eye is not the fetter of sights, nor are sights the fetter of the eye. The fetter there is the desire and greed that arises from the pair of them.

“The ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is not the fetter of ideas, nor are ideas the fetter of the mind. The fetter there is the desire and greed that arises from the pair of them.”

“You’re fortunate, householder, so very fortunate, to traverse the Buddha’s deep teachings with the eye of wisdom.”

Samyuttanikaya, 41.1

Citta is a rich man, the treasurer of a town and the owner of estates. As a “householder,” he probably has a wife and family. He chooses not to renounce property, power, or intimate love. In several discourses, he receives instruction from monks, people who have renounced all these things. Here–meeting them in a wild mango grove that he has donated to their order–Citta instructs the monks.

Given Citta’s worldly way of life, his main risk is to treat the things of this world as ends and to strive to obtain or retain them. That is no path to happiness, because there is always more to want, and everything is fragile. It is certainly no way to help others.

But the monks face dangers, too, and one of them is to disparage the things that give meaning to human life and to derive pleasure from shunning those things. That is no better path to happiness, for oneself or others. As the story suggests, the monks have as much to learn from a wise layperson as he can learn from them.

Here is a 21st century gloss or response to this very ancient text. …

Evolution has equipped human beings with highly sensitive nervous systems that generate a vast range of feelings that matter to us–not just doses of pleasure and pain, but complex assemblages composed of such feelings as curiosity, concentration, attraction, aversion, fascination, awe, anxiety, distraction, horror, and almost infinitely more. We cannot talk about things mattering except by invoking these affective words.

Feelings differ according to the person and the objective situation, but they are also relative to the design of our species. A dog relishes urine smells that we are simply not designed to appreciate. It is not that sunsets are really beautiful and fire hydrants are actually stinky but that humans have positive reactions to some things, just as other creatures gain satisfaction from other things.

Therefore, beauty is not in the world or in us, but in the interaction. One ox is the world, the other is the mind, and what matters is the fetter.

Natural selection promotes survival, not happiness. Although the variations in people’s dispositions and life circumstances yield a range of results, from happiness to despair, suffering is an inevitable consequence of being designed for sensitivity. Bacteria survive by reproducing rapidly, but that is not why we have proliferated.

Trying to shun the things of the world is no use–the other ox must still be there. What deserves our attention is the way we relate to it.

I would add a point that I don’t think is likely to be found in the Pali Canon. We are not just natural creatures with nervous systems designed in certain ways. We are also profoundly historical creatures. We think in languages that previous human beings have developed over millennia. We assess natural objects using words and concepts that other people have made. And we live surrounded by things that people have fashioned on purpose. There are sunsets to watch but also paintings of sunsets. It’s impossible to watch the sun move behind the rotating earth without having learned how human beings have named and represented and explained and enjoyed “sunsets.”

That means that the yoke is not the relationship between my mind and the world. It is the accumulated history of all the minds and the world, where the world includes the products of all the other minds.

Much suffering and alienation is built into the fetters that we inherit. Improving them cannot be a task for individuals alone but must be accomplished together.

The advice of the Pali Canon would be to form affective communities that conduct rituals together, like the monks in the mango grove that Citta gave them. It’s an important question whether politics can also help–for example, whether making the earth literally more peaceful can create a better environment for our minds. (Citta devotes some of his time to political leadership.) I would also argue that the arts and humanities contribute by giving us new links between mind and world in the form of representations, interpretations, and objects that we can behold and use.

See also the sublime and other people;  the I and the we: the sublime is social; a Hegelian meditation; “Verdant mountains usually walk“; thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; Montaigne the bodhisattva?; Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; and nature includes our inner lives

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.