The Buddha comes to brahmin Ranmaka’s hermitage where he finds some mendicants (bhikkus) ready to hear his discourse. It’s called “The Noble Search” (MD 26).
Listen, he tells them, for there are two kinds of searches: one is noble, the other ignoble.
“And what is the ignoble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth seeks what is also subject to birth; being himself subject to ageing, he seeks what is also subject to ageing; being himself subject to sickness, he seeks what is also subject to sickness; being himself subject to death, he seeks what is also subject to death; being himself subject to sorrow, he seeks what is also subject to sorrow; being himself subject to defilement, he seeks what is also subject to defilement (my emphasis).
Notice what is happening here: the seeker is (a) essentially asking not only the wrong question but also the wrong kind of question. By asking the wrong kind of question, (b) he ends up seeking for salvation among temporal objects. He seeks more of what he already knows.
Worse than ignoble, I might say, is the futility of this kind of search. In no uncertain terms and with great pith, the Buddha is saying that you cannot find abiding happiness in or among anything temporal. Not in success or familial love or wealth or status or friendship. In short, you can’t find genuine happiness in secular modernity.
What, then, is the noble search? Observe the Buddha’s breakthrough in thought and in practice both:
Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna [or nirvana–AT]; being himself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, he seeks the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna (my emphasis).
This is stunningly remarkable. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how remarkable is the Buddha’s insight. Essentially, the noble seeker learns to (a) ask not just the right question but also the right kind of question and, in so doing, (b) learns to seek not what he is subject to but rather what is not at all subject to (call it) the human condition. He seeks not the temporal but the ultimate; not the born, aging, ill, or dying but the unborn, unaging, un-ill, and deathless; not more of what he knows but what he does not know.
Two things will make what he is inviting us to see more concrete. In the first place, secular modernity rejects a priori the very inquiry he wishes us to embark upon. In effect, only the ignoble search is bequeathed to us (unless we call secular modernity into question). In the second place, when we are in seated meditation, we often to continue to default to the ignoble search. How so?
Sit down and close your eyes. Notice–to use one schematization–that thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations begin to arise. Now here’s the ignobility: we indulge those thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations as if inquiring into them could bring us abiding happiness. Yet such is folly! It is only when we begin to trace our way home “beneath,” “behind,” or “in back of” thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions that the noble search truly gets underway.
To be even more concrete: suppose you’re having trouble in your relationship. Don’t you find yourself indulgently thinking about the objective or phenomenal contents of that relationship? Your attention is “caught” by the content of thinking and thus is deeply involved in the objective content. Thus is the mind swept away on a current whose aim might be to ascertain what’s the matter with the relationship and how to “sort it all out.” And this is but one example from one small time slice. Do you see how this exemplifies the ignoble search? You will never end your suffering (nibbana or nirvana) by this means, no matter how hard you try.
Instead, you have to first posit that there is an unborn (some Zen Buddhists have said you need to have Great Faith or Great Trust), and you have to surmise that you, essentially, are the unborn you seek. Of course, you do not directly know this, but Great Faith (there is the unborn) and Great Doubt (I inquire deeply with a view to knowing the unborn as myself) are your guides. Or as my Rinzai Zen teacher put it to me recently, “Let your genuine need to know [the ultimate Truth of things] be your guide.”
Out of lovingkindness and gentleness, the Buddha was showing us how to turn ourselves around and find our way home. After his awakening, he worried that most who heard his dharma, or teaching, would have “dust in their eyes” and would lack “ears to hear.” Let us, dear reader, open our ears and hear his words and begin our inquiry into our true nature today.
To do so, we need, I’m afraid, to forget almost everything we have learned because almost none of it will help us. What we’ll need is a complete reorientation, a radical “wheeling around in body and soul” (Plato, Republic). What we’ll need, to put it poetically, is conversion (metanoia): a complete change of heart.