The Ball of Honey and Peeling Paint

Madhupindika Sutta: The Ball of Honey translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Irreverent adaptation by Bruce Cantwell

In the first week of January, we played "hold that thought" to take a freeze frame of where our minds were at a specific moment during meditation. In week two, Tod discussed competitive sports and competitive mindfulness. Jocelyn shared a reading on email in a distracted age in week three. So, to close the month, I'd like to share my favorite story from the Pali Canon that ties up all three topics.

The story goes that a Brahman who was skeptical of Siddhartha Gautama's teachings approached him and his students and asked him what his deal was, what his spiel was. Sid, sensing the Brahman's skepticism, answered truthfully, but sarcastically.

"The sort of deal, friend, where one does not keep quarreling with anyone in the cosmos: with its devas, Maras, and Brahmas, with its contemplatives and brahmans, its royalty and commonfolk; the sort of deal where perceptions no longer obsess the brahman who remains dissociated from sensuality, free from perplexity, his uncertainty cut away, devoid of craving for becoming and non-becoming. Such is my deal, such is my spiel."

The Brahman shook his head, wagged his tongue, raised his eyebrows so that his forehead wrinkled in three furrows and walked away, but Sid's students were just as baffled as the Brahman.

A brave student asked Sid what he meant, and he replied, "If, friends, with regard to the cause whereby the perceptions and categories of objectification assail a person, there is nothing there to relish, welcome, or remain fastened to, then that is the end of the obsessions of passion, of resistance, of views, of uncertainty, of conceit, of passion for becoming, and of ignorance. That is the end of taking up rods and bladed weapons, of arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing, and false speech. That is where these evil, unskillful things cease without remainder."

Then Sid excused himself, got up, and called it a night. And his students said, "Wait, what?"

They decided to seek clarification from Big K, one of Sid's teaching assistants. They repeated the whole story, Big K thought for a moment, then described our sensory experience in regard to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. But, since we only have fifty minutes, and Lan brought snacks, I'll stick to what he said about sight.

"Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one labels in the mind. What one labels, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what one objectifies, the perceptions and categories of objectification proliferate with regard to past, present, and future forms cognizable via the eye."

This was somewhat more straightforward, but one of the students named Bruce still wasn't getting it, so he asked for an example.

Big K replied, "Dependent on Rosemary's eye and the paint on the baseboard beneath the table, her eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, Rosemary feels dissatisfaction. What Rosemary feels, she objectifies: there's a baseboard that needs a coat of paint. Based on perceiving a baseboard that needs a coat of paint, thoughts of the chore of house painting past, home maintenance projects on her to-do list today, and the rebuilding she'll have to do after the earthquake proliferate."

"Whoa," said Bruce. "I get caught up in those thought spirals, too. What do we do about it?"

Referring back to what Sid said, Big K continued.

"If, with regard to the contact with peeling paint there is nothing there to despise, shun, or push away, then that is the end of uneasiness, of resistance, of opinions, of uncertainty, of conceit, of maintenance versus disrepair, of striving to preserve. That is the end of taking up paint brushes, of arguments over color, quarrels over types of paint, disputes over when to paint, accusations of who's turn it is to paint, divisive tale bearing about who let the task go undone in the first place and false speech shading the tale to make ourselves look reasonable. That is where these evil, unskillful things cease without remainder' — this is how I understand the detailed meaning. Now, friends, if you wish, have Sid fact-check what I said. However he answers is how you should remember it."

The following morning, the students approached Sid and repeated what Big K had said.

Sid thought for a moment, then said, "Sounds about right. If anyone's looking for me, I'll be painting the baseboard."

"Madhupindika Sutta: The Ball of Honey" (MN 18), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.018.than.html .

LaVeta Gilmore