Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ryonosuke's "The Spider's Thread"


"The Spider's Thread" is a short fantasy tale that aims to impart a moral lesson on compassion and salvation. It is told within the framework of the Buddha in the garden of Paradise, but at the core of the story is a robber, Kandata. In the story, Kandata is suffering in Hell, but a small kindness he performed in life earns him a chance at redemption. The Buddha lowers a spider's thread into Hell and Kandata uses this to ascend. Miraculously, the thin thread supports not only Kandata but several other souls also attempting escape. In a fit of selfishness, Kandata scolds the souls behind him. At that moment, the thread breaks.

"Spider's Thread" is clearly meant to be just a story, not a canonical piece of religious text. Because of its theme and the elements that it uses, however, framing the text within a religious and philosophical structure would not be altogether inappropriate.

What does the story say? Kandata's chance at salvation comes because of the mercy that he showed a spider. He is ultimately damned because he refused to share that salvation with others. The central message of this story follows a variation of the Golden Rule: "It will be done unto you as you would do unto others." In the absence of a more concrete theology, the measure of morality all comes down to natural law.


There is something disturbing in the text, however, and it pertains to the utter lack of passion in the Buddha. Is the Buddha compassionate? He lowers the spider's thread for Kandata, yes, but this act stems from a desire for harmony and balance. Just as Kandata permitted a spider to live, Buddha offers Kandata an opportunity. When Kandata falls, that is that. There is no more effort to save Kandata, or any other soul. He returns to the contemplation of harmony in the garden of Paradise, sparing no more thought for the suffering souls. The Buddha is detached, yes, because the Buddha is cold. His ultimate goal is harmony.

This world-view underscores the deficiencies of Oriental philosophy vis-a-vis the seemingly more aggressive Western philosophy. It espouses passivity, and passivity leads to stagnation. Contentment is the primary virtue, and thus, there is no more will nor drive to move forward. This is the malaise that struck China and Japan up until the 19th century, thereby exposing them to European invasion.

Moreover, it is an unrealistic stance: Oriental philosophy optimistically hopes that the universe is intrinsically harmonious (as typified by the garden of Paradise in the story), with man being the disruptive force. But that is not the case: quite the opposite, the universe tends toward entropy, and it is man that establishes harmony and order because he can think and he can act.

With this in mind, we can deconstruct this story. We can see the Buddha not as a benevolent mystic but as a cruel tyrant, content to meditate and wander in his walled garden while the world outside is in chaos and his fellow men are in suffering. Buddha has the opportunity to save them, but does so only once, more out of a sense of obligation to the balance in the universe than any real compassion. We might say that the failure was Kandata's own fault, but what really are we supposed to expect? Kandata is a brigand, most likely ignorant (and we might ask, what of the factors that caused Kandata to follow that twisted path). Kandata acts according to his own upbringing. Buddha, supposedly the more enlightened one, should have and could have done more. Instead, he is content to once more shut himself from the world, meditate on his own goodness, and say: "I have done my part."

What is clearly lacking in the philosophy presented in this story is the virtue of forgiveness, specifically the forgiveness espoused in Christian philosophy. "How many times must I forgive my brother?" "Not seven times, but seventy times seven times." It is a latitude that Kandata would have appreciated. While Christians are capable of great sins, they are also capable of great repentance and greater forgivness.



13 comments:

  1. Hi Dom,
    You post entries faster than I can leave comments!
    Very interesting commentary. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with an old friend. He believed himself to be a Buddhist (although he never practiced meditation or the precepts...but that's another story)He told me of a book that asked "what kind of husband would the Buddha be?" I told him that we didn't need to ask...we already know. The historical Buddha abandoned his wife and child to search for enlightenment.

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  2. For me, Oriental and Western philosophy overlap in certain areas as well as go against each other.

    Here's the good (and bad thing) about Buddhism:

    Salvation is in your hands. On one hand, you're more independent and pro-active. Salvation comes from your actions, not from anyone else's. There's no "Bahala Na" statements. On one extreme, that can also be extremely limiting because as humans, we all have limits and there is only so much one person can do.

    On Christianity:

    Here, it's the opposite. Salvation comes from an external source--God. Which is a good thing because of our acknowledgment of something greater than us. On one extreme however, it leads to over reliance on the external and doesn't necessarily spur one to action. One can make an excuse that we'll always have another chance.

    Strangely enough, for me it's Christianity which is the more passive of the two religions.

    Where the two intersect I think is the fact that both acknowledge human frailties. Buddhism seeks to solve this dilemma by transcending the body while Christianity seeks an external source to overcome this limitation.

    As for the entropic paradigm of the world, for me either the harmonious or entropic justification can be used depending on how you see the world. In many ways, Buddhism also sees the world of man as entropic which causes the endless cycle of karmic retribution. But at the same time it also recognizes the established order in the world (which can be justified that we have a universe to begin with).

    Christianity in the past used to hold the belief that the world was entropic (division between spirit and body and favoring the former more than the latter) but depending on your current religion (since Christianity has many sects), modern belief is anywhere from the world is okay (synthesis of body and spirit rather than exclusivity of the latter) or the old belief that the world is entropic. But then again, there are some scientists who see the world as "order" which explains how the universe came to be.

    RTS: That's certainly one point of view but you must understand the perspective of Buddha at the time. He saw human attachment as an evil and transcendence the good. Put it another way, given the chance, would you save your the world at the cost of your family or vice versa? In his mind, he chose the common good over the individual good.

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  3. To Charles,
    If Buddha "chose the common good over the individual good" by abandoning his family in order to save the world, he would have been equally guilty have being "attached" to the world. The fact is, his quest was not to save the world but to reach "enlightenment" which could be looked upon as a form of self indulgence.
    "would you save your the world at the cost of your family or vice versa?" it isn't very likely that I'd ever be put in a position to save the world....though it's entirely possible that I could be called upon to save the life of my wife and/or son. I'd certainly sacrifice my own life for theirs.

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  4. RTS: Not that I'm defending Buddha's actions but the way he saw it, attaining enlightenment was his way of saving the world. Whether seeking enlightenment is indulgent depends on your paradigm. I'm sure Buddhists don't see the action as indulgent.

    And you didn't answer my question. I don't think I'll be put in the same position either of saving the world but that as far as Buddha's world view is, that was the choice he had to make. It's a purely hypothetical question. Or if you don't like that question, then think of it: under what circumstance, without physical coercion (i.e. somebody dragging you away in chains) would you choose to "abandon" your family over something else? Is there nothing absolutely at all?

    In the Bible, Abraham certainly had to make that choice. Never mind the fact that God in the end prevented him from sacrificing his son. What was important was that at that vital moment, he made a decision and chose God over his son. Again, not that such a situation will happen and God will come down to you and your family and force you to make a decision but it is something one should deliberate upon. (And if you choose your family over religion, that's perfectly fine. But remember that Christianity can be as demanding as the search for "Enlightenment".)

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  5. To Dom,
    I hope you don't mind Charles and I taking over your blog.

    To Charles,
    "Whether seeking enlightenment is indulgent depends on your paradigm. I'm sure Buddhists don't see the action as indulgent."
    This is just another way of saying that there are no absolutes. One could defend any unspeakable crime with that argument.

    "And you didn't answer my question."
    Your question, "would you save your the world at the cost of your family" isn't a realistic question to ask because that situation would never come up. there really isn't any point in answering a hypothetical question....you may as well ask, "Could Spiderman beat Batman in a fight?"

    "Or if you don't like that question, then think of it: under what circumstance, without physical coercion (i.e. somebody dragging you away in chains) would you choose to "abandon" your family over something else? Is there nothing absolutely at all?"
    My son is two years old. He is my responsibility and my top priority. That's my job There are no circumstances where I would voluntarily abandon my family.

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  6. To Robert: not at all, feel free to indulge yourselves ;-) You two are among my favorite bloggers after all.

    To Charles: my quick reading of Siddharta's life leads me to think that he abandoned his previous life more out of shock of suffering from a desire to save the world. It seems to have been a quest for personal meaning.

    Regarding the passivity of Christianity vis-a-vis Buddhism: I think history will bear out that Christianity is a more active (perhaps aggressive) philosophy. I would guess (correct me if I'm wrong) that the passivity you see in Christianity stems out of the Philippine experience. It arises more from the syncretism with local culture that we have adopted.

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  7. To Dom,
    I agree with your assessment as to Siddharta's motives.
    Also,feeling a bit lazy today, I posted this.
    Robert

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  8. RTS:

    This is just another way of saying that there are no absolutes. One could defend any unspeakable crime with that argument.

    Errr, yes.

    I mean every religion has justifications for its own actions.

    It's just that based on your original statement that "The historical Buddha abandoned his wife and child to search for enlightenment.", that's not really an argument for claiming that Buddhism is superior to Christianity because I think each religion will ask its members to make a sacrifice for the -ahem- greater good. (The proactive vs passivity, on the other hand, is a good argument to the superiority of one religion since this looks like where it is going).

    Oh, another example I have in the Bible is in Matthew 4: 18-22. The Call of the First Disciples. Basically this is where Jesus gets Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John as his disciples.

    Matthew 4: 19 - 20: He said to them, Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.

    Now I'm using the New American Bible and here's the footnote on verse verses 18 - 22. "The call of the first disciples promises them a share in Jesus' work and entails abandonment of family and former way of life."

    Now this has also been discussed in my Sunday School (Born Again) and in my regular school (which was Catholic). Now your mileage may vary depending on how deep you want to delve into the text, which scholars you believe, and what sect you're part of. But that is one the theories, that when Jesus came and called his first disciples, they immediately abandoned their stations and joined him. Did they have children and wives? I don't know, probably not. But they definitely had families, whether parents or siblings, most likely which they are, at the very least, partially supporting with their income as fishermen. Did they think they're saving the world (for Dom), probably not. It's easily a quest for personal meaning.

    And ultimately I think every religion (not just Buddhism or Christianity) asks this kind of commitment from its congregation although obviously, not everyone is going to be put in such a situation.

    Dom:

    my quick reading of Siddharta's life leads me to think that he abandoned his previous life more out of shock of suffering from a desire to save the world. It seems to have been a quest for personal meaning.

    Perhaps. (And that's a perhaps of my ignorance.) I honestly haven't read Siddharta so his honest-to-goodness motivations, I don't know. Let's call it a search for enlightenment. Did he want it for himself more than for the world? Perhaps. But I think on some level, he was also doing it for other people (not for the world) or else he wouldn't have spread his belief. It's like, uh, rallyists here. I'm sure first and foremost, they want change for themselves. Change for everyone else is second but still a priority nonetheless.

    Regarding the passivity of Christianity vis-a-vis Buddhism: I think history will bear out that Christianity is a more active (perhaps aggressive) philosophy. I would guess (correct me if I'm wrong) that the passivity you see in Christianity stems out of the Philippine experience. It arises more from the syncretism with local culture that we have adopted.

    More active depends on the context. If you by active you mean converting other people into the same belief, yes, Christianity has been more proactive. That's not going to happen in Buddhism however because of the belief that salvation comes from within, not from without. That's why we have the phrase "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

    Is the passivity I see in Christianity part of my exposure to the Philippines? Yes. But I'd like to make a distinction that any religion, including Buddhism, will have lax members or believers that are members in name only. So yes I see passivity in Christian Filipinos. But I also see passivity in Buddhists (or perhaps RTS's example of his friend who never practiced the meditations).

    However, in my first comment, I did take the core concepts of each religion. In Christianity, it's believing in God. For Buddhism, it's striving to attain enlightenment. Taken to a negative extreme, both beliefs are detrimental, Christianity for being too passive, Buddhism for placing too much burden on one member. Don't get me wrong, both religions are usually "good" when taken/utilized in the appropriate dose. Christianity has done a lot of good and so has Buddhism. But that does not mean both religions do not have their own weaknesses or flaws.

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  9. Sorry, I forgot to include this in my previous comment:

    RTS:

    "And you didn't answer my question."
    Your question, "would you save your the world at the cost of your family" isn't a realistic question to ask because that situation would never come up. there really isn't any point in answering a hypothetical question...


    First off, on hypothetical questions, in my opinion, hypothetical questions are important because in many ways, they govern our way of life. They're not practical per se but they are vital. Philosophy and Science Fiction are asking hypothetical questions all the time so your mileage may vary.

    My hypothetical question is really asking this: which is the biggest priority in your life? Your religion or your family? Now it's perfectly human and understandable to choose the latter, and for my part I wouldn't blame anyone if they chose the latter. But I'd like to point out that in Christian doctrine (as well as in many other religions), you're supposed to place God ahead of your family.

    And this doesn't extend to just religions. It can be a cause. I mean we have our National Heroes Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, etc. who strove for reform. Even today, we have people striving for reform in the country. But in doing so, they're also placing their family in danger because their opponents don't necessarily attack just them but their families as well. Does that mean they should give up their cause?

    It's also a choice I think people who leave/stay in the country make. A parent might ask I want to support my country which is why I'm staying here no matter what the political/economic situation might turn out. Another parent might say I want something better for my family so we're moving to -insert other country here-. At the root of this practice is the original hypothetical question, or so I'd like to think.

    Of course for me, what we do with that knowledge is the most important. Knowing people's motivations and their paradigm helps me understand them and not blindly hate or loathe or antagonize them. And at the end of the day, the people we might dislike the most aren't necessarily the people who've coerced us (whether physically or emotionally) but rather the people who have different paradigms from ours.

    My son is two years old. He is my responsibility and my top priority. That's my job There are no circumstances where I would voluntarily abandon my family.

    That's great to hear. It's nice to know you care for your family.

    That makes you a great father/parent, but not necessarily the greatest patriot or believer (not that it should matter since I don't think you're aiming to be either a patriot or a saint). But that just goes to show that you have different goals from Siddharta or -insert religious figure here- hence their actions and decisions will appear abominable to you. If I was a religious zealot, I'd also find your actions abominable. (But I don't and my previous paragraph was sincere.)

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  10. Dom: Sorry, it's difficult to type in a small window in what otherwise would have been a blog entry in of itself. Allow me to clarify why my stance in Christianity is that it's passive.

    Here's the way to achieve salvation in the two (three) religions:

    Catholic = Faith + Works
    Protestants = Faith
    Buddhism = Works (which leads to Enlightenment)

    The common denominator in Christianity is that in order to attain salvation, one must believe in God. All the good works that you do will not save you. So theoretically, if you take out the good works, but have genuine faith, you'll go to Heaven. That is why this leads me to the conclusion that taken to one extreme, Christianity is passive via its philosophy.

    Buddhism, on the other hand, revolves around the process of enlightenment which one achieves via their actions and behavior rather than a simple acceptance of an external savior. In other words, if you don't act or change the way you live, no nirvana. Hence taken to one extreme, I consider it active.

    RTS: Also on the hypothetical question side, we're talking about religions here so one can't help talk about hypothetical scenarios. At the end of the day, we cannot empirically prove that salvation exists (or there is an afterlife or reincarnation) and thus via the very nature of discussing all of this, we are treading into the realm of hypothetical questions. Even the said narratives of either the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Siddharta are simply hypotheses (albeit the most likely ones).

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  11. Charles,
    You've brought up several points......actually, too many to comment on properly in this format.
    I do want to address the topic of "abandonment". Maybe I can touch on some of your other points later.
    Unfortunately,we can't look to the Gospels to learn anything regarding the families of the apostles. I vaguely recall something about two of the apostles being brothers and there being something mentioned about their father.At any rate, assuming the parent is not an invalid, it is the natural sequence of life for a child to leave the parent. Provided that he was not leaving his parent in dire straits, there would have been no sin in an apostle leaving his parents or siblings to follow Jesus.We can be certain that Jesus and John the Baptist had no children, so it would be logical to assume that Jesus would have chosen men who did not have children, but this is only an assumption.In the case of the historical Buddha (Siddharta Gautama) we know that he did leave his pregnant wife to search for enlightenment.As I pointed out in my blog, he named his son Rāhula from the Pali word rāhu which means fetter -a chain or shackle for the feet-.
    When one brings a child into the world,it becomes your responsibility to raise that child into adulthood.A child needs the love of a mother and a father. It is not enough to provide for the child's material welfare.I understand that are times when a parent may have to temporarily leave the family (as in the case of Filipinos who have to go overseas for employment). When Siddharta Gautama left behind his family, however, he had no idea where he was going or if he would ever return.He was off on his "excellent adventure" to escape his "chains and shackles".
    Perhaps I am being too harsh in my view of the Buddha, but I take fatherhood seriously.

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  12. For your information, in case you didn't know. Ryonosuke cribbed the story from the fabel "The Onion Broke" found in Dostoievski's "The Brother's Karamazov" where it is God Almighty who "should have and could have done more".

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