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The Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta, in the early Pali Buddhist sutta texts, opens with the Buddhist monk Māluṅkyaputta meditating and thinking as follows:

These positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One [the Buddha] — ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul and the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’ — I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not declared them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. [Majjhima Nikāya i.426, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]

The absence of answers to these questions frustrates Māluṅkyaputta enough that he is ready to leave the monkhood and become a layman if the Buddha doesn’t answer him. The Buddha responds, not by answering any of the questions, but by chiding Māluṅkyaputta with his famous parable of the arrow:

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short…” (Majjhima Nikāya i.428)

In the classically repetitive style of the Pali suttas (designed for memorization) the Buddha goes on with a long list of similar questions about the shooter, the bow, the shaft and the arrow, all in the same form: look, Māluṅkyaputta, you’ve got a misplaced sense of priorities here. You are trapped in the terrible cycle of suffering, and as a human being you’ve got a shot at getting out of it. That needs to be your priority. These questions of cosmology are not going to help. They are not connected with the goal (atthasaṃhitaṃ); they do not lead to a pure life (nādibrahmacariyakaṃ). In English scholarship on Buddhism it has been commonplace, at least since Henry Clarke Warren used the phrase in his 19th-century Buddhism in Translation, to refer to them as “questions which tend not to edification”. In discouraging Māluṅkyaputta from asking such questions, the Buddha is showing a strong single-mindedness: everything should be focused on one goal. But it is more than that: it is a practical single-mindedness, where theoretical reflection is irrelevant compared to a practical goal. (Yavanayāna Buddhists should take note that the practice in question is not meditation, but monkhood.)

The pragmatic spirit of the Buddha in this sutta is shared above all by none other than Karl Marx. One of Marx’s most memorable phrases — so well remembered that it is carved on his gravestone — is the eleventh and last of the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” [emphases in original] For Marx as for the Buddha, the worthy questions to ask are the ones that edify, that lead to change in something more than knowledge alone. If your questions only interpret without changing, they will tend not to edification. For Marx it is a matter of edifying the world rather than individual people, but the basic practical orientation remains.

Throughout my own education, I held steadfast to this practical orientation. I suppose that may sound strange coming from someone who has devoted his life to studying philosophy, but it is the case. In my undergraduate and master’s degrees in sociology, I looked down on those who would stand on the sidelines and analyze society without any practical orientation. The point of studying society was to change it. And then while studying Asian philosophy and “religion”, I always looked for ethical thought that would offer us guidance here and now – I had interest neither in studying the past as antiquity, nor in questions of metaphysics that did not relate directly to a life better lived.

Now, however, I am softening on this orientation. For one thing, the questions of practical philosophy keep leading me back to the questions of theoretical philosophy, in various ways, and this is hugely important. But it goes deeper. The disparaging of “questions which tend not to edification” turns out not to go very far, in either Buddhism or Marxism.

Once during my Master’s degree, the Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch came to give a talk. In a social evening afterwards, one of my student colleagues asked Panitch why he had turned to Marxism, and Panitch replied that it was the framework that most helped him understand the functioning of society as a whole. My colleague noted: “It always comes down to that!” Indeed it does: I have yet to meet a Marxist who claimed to have become a Marxist because it was the best way to bring about social change. It has always been about understanding the world. And well it should be. To date, Marxists have proved inept or worse at actually changing the world. The experience of all the sovereign states and revolutions that adopted Marx’s thought as an official ideology is painfully instructive: after committing millions of grisly murders in an attempt to change the world, a few decades later they ended up in a form of capitalism more authoritarian than the ones they had fought against.

In spite of all of this, Marxism abides in intellectual circles, and this too for good reason. I’ve noted before just how valuable I find Marx’s thought for interpreting the world, and I’m not alone in this. The trendiness of the old postmodern trinity – Foucault, Derrida, Lacan – is inevitably fading. And the names that are increasingly bandied about to replace them as current heroes of “continental” philosophy (in Speculative Realist circles, for example) are Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – each one of whom, as far as I know, considers himself to be in some respect Marxist.

So too, the context of the Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta is critical to the Buddha’s instructions. The Buddha never says that cosmological questions are unworthy of study or examination. Rather, he is saying that Māluṅkya is making a grave mistake to abandon his monastic practice on the grounds that the Buddha does not answer those questions. The practice is essential – but there’s nothing wrong with seeking the theory, even when the theory is not essential to liberation, as long as the theory-seeking doesn’t interfere. We must still act, even in the face of doubt.

What’s more, theoretical reflection always surfaces one way or another. People will always be curious about unanswered questions. And there is usually good reason to encourage that curiosity. Much of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, which I discussed before in a different context, is a plea to encourage basic research in the sciences with no clear technological application – on the grounds that those applications will often be found after that research has been done. Similarly, once we know more about theoretical questions in philosophy, we often understand the practical questions better. We may well want to extend the Buddha’s parable. Yes, removing an arrow in us may well be more important than figuring out who put the arrow there and how. But if the arrow stands for the suffering we are enmeshed in – as it certainly seems to – then everybody has that arrow in them. And if everybody in the world has been shot with an arrow, we would be crazy not to try to learn who is doing the shooting.