The Alagaddupama Sutta as a Scriptural Source for Understanding the Distinctive Philosophical Standpoint of Early Buddhism
Keywords:simile of the snake, simile of the raft, dogmatic clinging, speculative reason, craving for metaphysics, avyākata, Eternalism, Annihilationism, Teaching in the Middle
The Alagaddupama Sutta is the 22nd discourse of the Majjhima-nikaya of the Pali canon. In the sutta itself it is mentioned that the Buddha’s delivery of this discourse was necessitated by the need to refute a wrong view held by one of his disciples named Arittha. Parallel versions of the sutta are found preserved in the Chinese agamas. The two main similes used in the sutta, those of the snake and of the raft, are referred to in the scriptures of a number of non-Theravada Buddhist traditions as well, showing that the Buddhist doctrine represented in it is early and authentic and the message contained in the sutta was considered to be extremely significant by many early Buddhist traditions. The Alagaddupama Sutta shows the Buddha’s role as one of the earliest thinkers in the history of philosophy who engaged in a critique of the craving for metaphysics and dogma frequently exhibited in those who propound worldviews. The Buddha did not value a belief or a worldview on grounds of the logical skill with which it was constructed but on grounds of the transformative effect it could have on the character of an individual and the sense of wellbeing it could promote. There are several discourses of the Pali canon which give prominence to this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. Among them the Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha-nikaya and the Atthakavagga of the Suttanipata need special mention. The Buddha is seen to have consistently avoided engagement in speculative metaphysics, pointing out that the goal of his teaching goes beyond all such engagement. The Buddha himself distinguished his own worldview as a Teaching in the Middle (majjhena) avoiding the common tendency of humankind to be trapped by either of the two extremes, Eternalism or Annihilationism. These distinctive standpoints of the Buddha are all seen to be amply represented in the Alagaddupama Sutta.
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