The Sallatha Sutta – The Two Arrows

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The Sallatha Sutta – The Two Arrows, is a key teaching as it clearly explains what for many is a confusing aspect of the Dhamma. In the teachings on what it means to awaken to The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha states that awakening is “understanding stress and unhappiness, abandoning the cause of stress and unhappiness, experiencing the cessation of stress and unhappiness, and developing the Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of stress and unhappiness.”

Understanding the First Noble Truth means understanding that as a consequence of living in the phenomenal world there will be stress and unhappiness, there will be suffering. Understanding suffering is understanding that suffering is part of the experience of being alive. Attempting to negate stress is aversion to what is simply present. Creating beliefs of a better life after physical death as compensation for the suffering present in life creates more confusion and delusion and arises due to clinging, or wanting any experience to be different than it happens to be. Due to anicca, impermanence, and uncertainty, there is an underlying unsatisfactory nature to human life. There is stress and unhappiness in life.

In the Sallatha Sutta, a question is put to the Buddha as to what is the distinguishing factor between a well-instructed and well-informed dhamma practitioner and those that have no understanding of the Four Noble Truths. (Contextual Translation my own.)

The Buddha responds: “Friends, an ordinary uninformed person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and neutral feelings. One well-informed of the Four Noble Truths also feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and neutral feelings. When through the six-sense base an uninformed person experiences a feeling of pain they are sorrowful, they grieve, they become distraught and irate. The uninformed feels two pains: the pain of the experience and the pain caused by the reaction arising from clinging. This would be like being hit with an arrow and then, by request, being hit again by an arrow. (The six-sense base are the five physical senses discriminated through consciousness)

As the person is experiencing pain resistance occurs leading to resistance-obsession. As the person experiences, pleasure delight in pleasure occurs leading to pleasure-obsession. Reaction (feelings) bring obsession as the uninformed does not discern what is actually present: the origination, the allure, the drawback, or the passing away of the feeling.”

The first arrow is simply the stress and unhappiness that occurs in the phenomenal world. The second arrow is the stress and unhappiness caused by ignorance giving rise to clinging, craving, desire, and aversion. In other words wanting the people and experiences of life to be different than what occurs compounds the initial pain of an experience.

The Buddha continues: “Sensing pleasure or pain the uninformed joins with it. The uninformed is joined to birth, aging, sickness, death and joined with sorrows, grief, pain and despair. Through reaction to experience, the uninformed furthers their confusion and suffering.”

Now the Buddha teaches how a person well-informed of The Four Noble Truths and understanding stress and unhappiness responds to the unfolding of dukkha: “The well-informed person, when stress arises, has no resistance. With no resistance, no resistance-obsession is formed. With no delight in sensual pleasure, no pleasure obsession occurs. The well-informed person discerns what is actually present and understands its origination, its allure, its drawbacks and its passing away. He remains disjoined from pleasure and pain. This is the distinction between those uninformed and those well-informed of the Four Noble Truths.”

The Four Noble Truths bring an understanding of life as it is and the cause of furthering stress, unhappiness, and confusion. The Buddha’s direct teachings are not salvific offering the promise of a better life as a reward for proper behavior. The Buddha’s direct teachings develop the experience of lasting peace and happiness to this human life. This understanding is the key difference between what the Buddha taught and the beliefs of his time arising from the Vedas and later the Upanishads. The Upanishads are a rejection of the Vedas but both develop the notion of a better life after this one as compensation for the suffering in this world.

The Four Noble Truths bring lasting peace and happiness in this present life through the understanding of life in the ever-changing phenomenal world. There will be stress and unhappiness, disenchantment and disappointment. Stress is simply part of life. By radical acceptance of things as they are, with no passionate desire that the events of life be any different than what occurs, despite impermanence and uncertainty, the mindful experience of life remains stress-free, purposeful and peaceful.

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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