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Tam Hunt: Buddha and the Arrow — What Are the Merits of Philosophy?

What is philosophy worth? Some would say “not much.” We’ve heard from a number of well-known scientists in recent years denigrating the value of philosophy, such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss. I addressed Krauss’ critiques in an earlier essay.

Less well-known is the Buddha’s disregard for philosophy. A parable attributed to the Buddha’s oral teachings recounts the Buddha’s response to a persistent disciple eager to learn the Buddha’s answers to the big philosophical questions, such as: Is the cosmos eternal or not, finite or not? Is there a soul? Is there existence after death? And many other questions. The Buddha’s response goes like this:

"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me ... until I know whether he was tall, medium or short ... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored ... until I know his home village, town or city ... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow ... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp or bark ... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated ... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock or another bird ... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed or an oleander arrow.' (If he insisted on asking these questions and waiting to receive the answers) the man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him." (From the Pali text Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1998.)

The Buddha’s point was that we don’t need to know the answers to abstract questions about the bigger picture in order to wake up, to attain enlightenment. We are all in a sense dying of a poisoned arrow because we are all dying the moment we are born. What then is the use of philosophy if it does not focus solely on tools and techniques for achieving an end to suffering, achieving enlightenment, rather than on deeper questions about the arrow’s origins?

The Buddha suggests in this parable that we should indeed dispense with philosophical distractions and focus only on questions and answers, and techniques and practices, that help us to end suffering and achieve enlightenment.

Is this good advice today? This essay will examine how helpful this parable is in our world of nonstop information and ever-advancing scientific understandings of how we came to be where we are.

I suggest that while, of course, there is some validity to this parable’s message even today, we are better off not ignoring philosophy and the big cosmological questions about the universe, life and our place in it; we are, rather, in our actual lives dying very slowly from a metaphorical poisoned arrow. We are not dying quickly from a literal poisoned arrow.

The parable makes perfect sense in its literal sense: Yes, a man dying of a poisoned arrow would be foolish to insist on answers to the questions that the man in the parable asks. The important thing is to remove the arrow and to do what we can to mitigate the effects of the poison. That’s good sense if we care about saving the man’s life.

But death in the modern era is not a question of a quick and imminent death, at least not for the vast majority of us. It’s a slow, dragged-out affair in which anxiety and the knowledge of one’s coming death at some distant point in the future, along with the knowledge of our loved ones also dying before too long, does indeed slow us down and produce ongoing anxiety for many of us. (Knowledge of one’s coming death should, of course, also lead to a greater appreciation for life.)

For me, the fear of death is not an active fear. It’s more of a day-to-day annoyance as I recognize the myriad small ways in which death is creeping up on me, the ways in which my aging body and mind are slowing down, healing more slowly (or not at all), sagging, wrinkling, etc. I’m still a summer chicken as I stare at 50 coming my way in just a few years, but my spring chicken days are surely behind me.

More than the fear of death, I (and most people) struggle with generalized anxiety and dissatisfaction about our current conditions. We’re always wanting more, different, better. When can we just be happy?

The crux of my concerns about Buddha’s parable is that understanding how we came to our current condition — the human condition, with all of the joys and anxieties that this condition entails — does indeed require a sustained interest in science and philosophy, what the Buddha would have dismissed as mere philosophy. In short, understanding our modern anxieties and spiritual angst does benefit from a deep understanding of evolutionary theory, of psychology, of philosophy of various kinds, and even of cosmology.

We are not going to die today or tomorrow. We have time to understand our ailment, to understand the metaphorical poisoned arrow that has pierced us. And the difference between the metaphorical and the literal in this case is an important one because in reality we have a good span of time to consider how the arrow got stuck in us, where it came from, who made it, etc. These questions make sense in the context of understanding how to remove the arrow safely and how to avoid getting stuck by future similar arrows.

For example, understanding anxiety as a general condition, and accepting it as a general background of our emotional landscape, can come from looking to biological evolution. It makes good sense that evolution would have led us to be dissatisfied with normal life, because those humans who are satisfied with the bare minimum will easily be outcompeted (and eventually wiped out) by other humans who are always looking for better ways to grow crops, better ways to hunt game, better ways to store food for the winter, better ways to win the mate of their choice, better ways to create catchy songs around the campfire in order to gain higher social status, etc.

We don’t need to agree with these objectives in order to understand why evolutionary pressures would lead most of us in these directions. We are the descendants of literally countless previous generations of humans and pre-humans that have been born into, lived and died, in a world of evolutionary pressures to survive and thrive. This history extends many millions of years backwards in time. It is our heritage. Our full evolutionary history extends back at least 3.7 billion years to the origins of life itself.

A large part of the Buddha’s message that should still resonate with us today is the notion that we can identify desire itself as the cause of our suffering. This ever-present desire for more, for better, is indeed the cause of most of our suffering because it stops us from being happy in the present, even when we otherwise have what we need right here, right now. So the Buddha himself offered a simpler version of what evolutionary biology tells us today about how we came to be as we are.

The simpler version of our evolutionary history that is contained in Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (the second of which is that desire is the cause of suffering) may be enough insight and wisdom for many of us to work on transcending these patterns, on transcending our biological history — as much as is possible — by recognizing that we are basically programmed to be dissatisfied, to be anxious, to be mildly depressed when we aren’t engaged in something exciting, in new love, in sex, in adventure. And knowing what is possible to transcend, as opposed to what is pretty much an inevitable part of our 3.7 billion-year biological heritage, is aided greatly through a good understanding of evolutionary theory.

We are not dying so fast that we should dispense with all thoughts of how we evolved to be the way we are. In fact, many of us do have time to cultivate this and similar understandings. I would go a bit further and suggest that for those of us who are seeking not only our own awakening, but also the awakening of other beings on this planet, it is imperative to cultivate this and similar understandings.

Where is the line between biological inevitability and social norms? We can’t know the answer with any certainty in any particular situation, but good scientific inquiry should be able to shed some light on such questions. The Buddha’s parable would suggest that such inquiries are beside the point.

More generally, taking an evolutionary view means doing our best to understand how things came to be as they are now. There is no certainty in this endeavor, only more or less convincing narratives based on the best evidence we can gather at this time. Science probes; it does not prove. Understanding how things came to be, based on the best available evidence and theory, gives us more options for addressing issues that arise in the present.

Just as we would be a pretty poor mechanic if we didn’t understand how engines work at a basic level, just as we would be a pretty poor doctor if we didn’t understand the basics of metabolism or nutrition or infection, we are also less than optimal spiritual seekers if we don’t understand how our own bodies and brains came to be as they are.

— Tam Hunt is a writer and lawyer based in Hawaii.

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