Of Fish and Sacred Truths

Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

The above is an exchange between two of the characters in the wonderful film, “A Fish Called Wanda.” I happen to adore that movie, the writing, and all the performances in it. It’s a gem of a flick. That quote especially sticks in my head because of my long career as a spiritual seeker, and my admiration for Buddhism.

I recall laughing at this scene in particular. I was in full agreement with Wanda (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) when she railed at Otto (as portrayed by Kevin Kline) in this relationship defining exchange. Wanda was right, Otto had missed the point of Buddhism entirely. Or so I thought…

You see, aS I studied Buddhism, and the life of the Buddha, I came to realize that Otto might not be as far off as Wanda thought. There’s a funny little thing about what the Buddha taught. People often associate him with achieving enlightenment. The odd thing is, he didn’t speak about enlightenment all that much. Not in a direct way anyways. He spoke a lot about Nirvana (which is often what people sort of mean when they use the word ‘enlightenment’), in the sense that he spoke about how someone who had achieved nirvana might comport themselves. He spoke a lot about suffering, and a way to end suffering (with the eight fold path) but it’s not altogether clear whether the end of suffering is nirvana, or whether the end of suffering is something that those who have arrived at nirvana happen to have. He also was fairly clear that his offering to humanity as a way to end suffering was an offering, not a cure all. Many times he stressed that those who followed him needed to test his assertions in their own experience, and he specifically admonished his followers to never take what someone else said as true if it didn’t prove true in their own lives. Lastly, the last words of the Buddha were for his followers to work very hard towards their liberation, and that they should each be a “light onto yourself.”

Another distinction that I think supports Otto’s claim has to do with the concepts in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva and the Arhat. The former is much more familiar to most Buddhists. Especially those lay Buddhists who are mostly exposed to the Dharma through “coffee table books” on the subject (like I was for many years.) The Bodhisattva is a Buddhist who defers the last step in the achievement of Nirvana so that they can stay on the Wheel of Reincarnation and help all other sentient beings achieve Nirvana first. For that type of Buddhist, Otto’s idea is a far stretch. The other type, the Arhat, actually pre-dates the concept of being a Bodhisattva by several centuries. The Arhat achieves Nirvana as quickly as possible, and then leaves the wheel. They don’t stick around to help others. They might help spread the dharma of the Buddha in their current life, but once that is over they do not return. (This is all a bit of a simplification, and these two poles are more like ends of the spectrum of how a particular Buddhist might be.) In the light of the Arhat path, Otto’s “central message of Buddhism” makes much more sense.

I am not saying that I am certain that Otto was right, and that Wanda (and all the Buddhists who agree with her) was wrong. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to look at part of the teaching of the Buddha that exhorts to a radical self-reliance. Time, and again, he urged those who would study his philosophy and practices to prove them in their own experience, and to accept the authority of no others.

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