A Handful of Simsapa Leaves

Monday October 31, 2005

autumn leaves

Whilst down in Devon last week and spending my days meditating – no internet, no e-mail, no telephones, no books, just me and my mind and a bunch of fellow practitioners and a deep and lovely silence – it occurred to me how simple Buddhism is.

Whilst outside in the blustery weather and doing walking meditation I spent a lot of time looking down at the autumn leaves on the grass. Frequently, the following text from the Samyutta Nikaya came to mind:

Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the Simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few Simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few Simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the Simsapa forest?”
“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the forest are far more numerous.”
“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
(Source: Access to Insight)

This is often taken to be a way of talking about vastness of the esoteric forests of the Buddha’s wisdom in comparison to the puny little groves of our own minds, as if the Buddha only lifted up the leaves with this simple gesture to show off, to demonstrate his own greatness.

This seems to me to be a misreading, and looking more closely at the text, the Buddha seems to say something rather different. Sure, he says, he knows a whole load of stuff; but (and this is the crucial bit) most of it is really not relevant to the liberation of heart and mind. So he doesn’t talk about it. If he did spend his time talking indiscriminately about the objects of knowledge that occupied his mind he would never come to the end of them, not because he is particularly great or knows more than anyone else, but because this is what our minds, as human minds, are like.

Now I come to think about it, there are innumerable things of which I have direct knowledge as well. I have direct knowledge of how to make pretty delicious flapjack. I have direct knowledge of the not unmixed pleasures of travelling by bus in Birmingham. I have direct knowledge of what I had for breakfast this morning. I have direct knowledge of the colour of my socks. I could go on and on and on, without ever ceasing… Direct knowledge is nothing special. We all have it, endless forests of it. And yet, in these enormous forests of knowledge there are a very few, very simple things that we know and that lead to the liberation of heart and mind. The teachings are not obscure. They are not difficult. They amount to very little: a handful of leaves.

So what are these things, this handful of leaves? Here is one possible handful: knowledge of the richness that comes from attentiveness; knowledge of the passing of all conditioned things; knowledge of the fact of suffering; knowledge of the importance of human kindness in the softening of all that hardens us each to the other.

These are indeed teachings that could be fit into the palm of a single hand. Even if, in this handful of leaves, there is sufficient for a lifetime’s investigation and practice.

Image courtesy of Patricia from morguefile.

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#1 · pumpkin pie

1 November 2005

I agree with everything you said. As I was reading this I understood exactly the meaning of his knowing many things but not teaching them. I think that many times in life we are distracted by things that are not really important and these things can sometimes lead us down a wrong path. I would like to study more about this way of thinking. I am very interested in Buddhism. I am happy to have found your site.

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