Friday, March 04, 2011

sutta-nipata: the worn-out skin

The Worn-out Skin - Reflections on the Uraga Sutta by
Nyanaponika Thera


The Sutta Nipata, in its oldest and most characteristic parts, is a deeply stirring Song of Freedom. The verses of this ancient book are a challenging call to us to leave behind the narrow confines of our imprisoned existence with its ever-growing walls of accumulated habits of life and thought. They beckon us to free ourselves from the enslavement to our passions and to our thousand little whims and wishes. A call to freedom is always timely because in our lives we constantly bind ourselves to this and that, or let ourselves be bound in various ways by others and by circumstances. To some extent, normal life cannot entirely escape from such a situation. In fact, "binding" oneself to a worthy task and duty or to an ennobling human relationship is an indispensable antidote to the opposite tendency: the dissipation of our energies. The physical act of walking consists not only in the "freeing" action of lifting and stretching the foot, but also in the "binding" function of lowering it and placing it firmly on the ground. Analogously, in mental movement, there is the same need for support as well as for uplift and forward advancement.

But, having the comfort of a "secure footing" in life, we too easily forget to walk on. Instead, we prefer to "strengthen our position," to improve and embellish the little cage we build for ourselves out of habits, ideas and beliefs. Once we have settled down in our habitual ways of living and thinking, we feel less and less inclined to give them up for the sake of risky ventures into a freedom of life and thought full of dangers and uncertainties. True freedom places on us the uncomfortable burden of ever-fresh responsible decisions, which have to be guided by mindfulness, wisdom and human sympathy. Few are willing to accept the full weight of such a burden. Instead, they prefer to be led and bound by the rules given by others, and by habits mainly dominated by self-interest and social conventions. With the habituation to a life of inner and outer bondage, there grows what Erich Fromm calls a "fear of freedom." Such fear, if allowed to persist and take root, inevitably leads to a stagnation of our inner growth and creativeness as well as to a stagnant society and culture. In a state of stagnation, toxic elements will endanger mankind's healthy progress — physical and mental, social and spiritual. Then William Blake's words will prove true: "Expect poison from stagnant water."

Those too who say "Yes" to life and wish to protect mankind from decline by its self-produced toxins — biological and psychological — will also have to shed that "fear of freedom" and enter freedom's arduous way. It is an arduous way because it demands of us that we break the self-forged fetters of our lusts and hates, our prejudices and dogmas — fetters we foolishly cherish as ornaments. But once we see them for what they really are, obstacles to true freedom, the hard task of discarding them will become at the same time a joyous experience.

The Sutta Nipata, however, warns repeatedly of false ideas of freedom. He is not truly free who only follows his self-willed whims and desires (chandagu, v.913), who is carried along by them (chandanunito, v.731). Nor can true freedom be found by those who only seek to exchange one bondage for another.

Continue reading: Access to Insight

Other writings by Nyanaponka Thera: More articles at Access to Insight

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