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The Bowman[1]


Once upon a time, Savatthi-town residing.
There, to the beggars gathered round, Bhagava said:

"Imagine, beggars, the situation in which there were four bowmen[2] of surpassing strength, training, and experience standing together in a square ['squared to the compass'] with their backs to each other.
And here comes some beggar saying:

'I will catch and bring back the shafts released into the four directions by these bowmen of surpassing strength, training, and experience even before they are able to penetrate the earth'.

What do you think, beggars?
Could we say the speed of this man was exceedingly fast?"

"Catching and bringing back even just one shaft released by a bowman of such surpassing strength, training, and experience would be sufficient, broke tooth, to say that the speed of this man was exceedingly fast! There is no need to speak of the shafts released by four bowmen of such surpassing strength, training and experience", said the beggars in response.

"In the same way, beggars," he said,
"as fast as is that man,
swifter still is the speed of moon and sun;
as much faster as is the speed of moon and sun than is the speed of that man,
swifter still is the speed of the gods that race the sun;[3]
as much faster as is the speed of the gods that race the moon and sun than the speed of the moon and sun,
swifter still do the confounded things of this world up and fly away.

Therefore, beggars, train yourselves This Way:

'We will live avoiding carelessness![4]'

This is how you must train yourselves!"



A: First I must say that I did like your description of words as having or carrying memory. I had never thought of them in that way. But it clarifies some things for me. One thing that is clearer for me is how our experiences get into our words, and how the experiences that are being carried by the words, not necessarily our experiences, are taken over by us, whether we are conscious of the process or not.

Well this business of words carrying memory is something I thought I first heard from you when you were first studying Vedanta or Theosophy![5] At the time I was not sure what it meant. Then, when using "appamāda" as a manta it became crystal clear what it meant, but only in a way that could be understood by someone who had made that word a manta. Here, in this term, "dhanu" the idea of the word carrying, through its successive meanings, the memory of the times through which it passed, is both clear, and comprehensible on the face of it.

A: You say that though there are four archers there is but one bowman. This is not stated this way in this sutta; what is your meaning?

I take it that the bowman stands for Time, the passing of life — this is experienced by all of us as being the same.

The archers stand for the individual experiences of that life, and how we all grasp for making it permanent as householders, housefathers (house — Beta, Beth, the "second sound" we make after experiencing the "a" (ah) sound, the life sound).[6] We want to contain it, possess it, make a home for it, create a tree as sturdy as the oak, and from this "safe" place grasp our bow, swell our life with the things of life, fill our lives with them. Is this the run-around (not getting to the core of what it is all about) that you say Mara is putting us through?

And is this the story of Man from the beginning of time?

This is correct. I am drawing a distinction between the bowman and the archers where there is none in the text, and the meaning of the bowman is approximately as you describe it: otherwise known as Mara, Death, being bound to Time.

You also describe the meaning of the archers in approximately the same way as I hear it (although my meaning was that though they appeared as individual archers, they were all only aspects of Mara). The varieties of things that are thrown at us and which we run after, in Time.

Your description of the attempt to possess and build is the "memory" I see in that word "dhanu"; that history of Man (not exactly from the beginning of time, but from pretty early on). And this is for sure Mara's run-around.

A: We don't see the true nature of Time and Memory, and as a consequence we ignore what should be obvious. We can not catch the arrows of time, no matter how hard we try, and we keep trying, but not even the most skilled of us can succeed, because the things of the world do "up and fly away."


A: Live without carelessness (appamatta) The Buddha says, as the answer to this situation, as the answer to dukkha. I agree, but is the Buddhist way the only one that addresses this reality? There seem to be other ways out there.

First, "live without carelessness" has a special meaning in Buddhism: it means live constantly generating effort to live according to the Four Truths and 8-Fold Path.

Naturally every religion/philosophy/psychology/self-improvement course out there makes its claim to be the solution to the problem of dukkha in one form or another. The two issues are: "What dukkha?" and "Does the solution work? — and as to the latter, is the solution a matter of faith or experience which can be seen for one's self?"

In this system the idea of dukkha is spelled out absolutely clearly:

Birth is dukkha,
Aging is dukkha,
Sickness is dukkha,
Death is dukkha,
Grief and Lamentation are dukkha
Pain and Misery are dukkha
Despair is dukkha;
Not getting what is wished for is dukkha,
— And what is not getting what is wished for?
In beings subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery, and despair the wish arises
"O,O,O! If only we were not subject to birth, aging, sickness and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery, and despair!"
But such things are not to be had by wishing.
This is the meaning of "Not getting what is wished for is dukkha,"
Getting what is not wished for is dukkha,
In a word:
Every component part of existence is dukkha.

This is the dukkha the ending of which is the stated goal of this system.

I ask you, is there any other system out there that makes what it is that is its goal as clear and as all-encompassing as this?

The solution is also given.
It is:

Understand the situation and put into practice the solution from the point of view of the following hypothetical position:

A. Take the above description of dukkha as the truth concerning what is dukkha.

B. Understand that the proposition here is that all this dukkha has it's origination in thirst, desire, wanting.

C. Understand that to end that thirst, desire, and wanting is to end that dukkha.

D. Understand and put into practice the ending of that thirst, desire, wanting in the following Way:

High Point of View: That is, adopt steps A-D just above as your working hypothesis.

High Principles: Based on that point of view, set your aims, principles, motives, intentions in accordance: that is:

1. Let Go! If its all shit, isn't letting go a natural first principle?

2. Do no mental or physical harm. Isn't this a broad encompassing principle which cuts off right from the get go any action which might emanate from wanting, thirst, or desire that would, given the reality of kamma, result in being harmed mentally or physically?

High Talk: Abstain from lies, slander, harsh or idle talk. Cutting off any kamma that might be made by voice that would result in being deceived, slandered, spoken to harshly or bored by time-wasting babble.

High Works: Abstain from taking what is not given, injury, or neglecting one's high ethical standards while under the influence of lust. Cutting off bad kamma of body.

High Lifestyle: Make a lifestyle of observing in one's self what brings about bad conditions and getting rid of them. Let the rest go; what remains is called "High Lifestyle." High Lifestyle is a description of the process, the method.

High Self-Control: Putting forth energy to get rid of bad conditions that are present,
prevent bad conditions that are not present from arising,
keeping good conditions, and
acquiring new good conditions.
Bad conditions being defined as whatever gives rise to thirst, desire, and wanting;
good conditions being defined as whatever is without thirst, desire, and wanting.

High Mind: Living in the body, sensations, emotions, and the Word,
seeing how things come to be and
how they come to pass away, and
by living above it all,
without carelessness,
reviewing and calming down,
one cultivates the mind to such penetrating knowledge of things the way they really are
(that is, as changeable, painful, and not belonging to one),
that one is able to release one's thirst, desire and wanting and
rise up,
downbound to nothing at all in the world.

High Getting High: By letting go of those things which characterize being bound up in the world:
wanting, anger, lazy ways and inertia, fear and trembling, doubt,
turn to the experience of the peace and calm of solitude.
This is called "The First Burning"
Here one has achieved a position of perspective.
From here one can see the din and clamor of the crowd and the advantages of being above it all.
Pressing this experience further and
into more subtle realms
is all that the rest of the journey entails.

Now I ask you:
Where else do you see even the problem stated this clearly,
let alone both the problem and its solution.

And then let me ask you:
Does any of this.
Any of it!
Require faith to see the sense of it?
To see that this is far and away the most sensible statement of the problem and its solution anywhere out there in the whole wide world?
Can you show me even one other system that even compares?

But here we start out with a solution that is more encompassing than anything else out there, and then we say:
this is just the beginning:
The deep meaning of this,
the actual experience of freedom from dukkha
is not something that can be seen or experienced by one who does not live appamatta in the Buddha's Way of Living appamatta.


[1] SN 2 20 6

[2] Dhanu: oak; gaho: grasp > house > gahapati: patter (master; pasha, raja) - grasp = householder, housefather; oak-grasper; bow-grasper;[i] here in this simile think of Mara giving one the run-around. Though there may be four archers here, there is only one Bowman.

[3] They are so swift as to sometimes appear to be ahead of the sun sometimes to be behind it.

[4] Appamatta. This word has been changed here from 'be careful' to 'don't be careless,' to more accurately convey the original Pāḷi.

[i] Think of that whenever you hear someone say that words have or carry memory! This is the story of Man from the time he first used a stick as a weapon to the time he put timbers together to make a shelter; from the time he took up the bow to the time he wielded the scepter as king.

[5] A notes: "It was Vedanta, aka Practical Philosophy Foundation, guided by Shantinanda, now dead, of India, though I also would attend lectures at the Theosphical Society Center on, I believe, 54 St, near 2nd Avenue. The difference being, I was an initiated member of the Foundation — receiving a mantra, etc., very much like the Maharishi's TM (they were both disciples of the same guru). My interest in Sanskrit originated there. See for some information on Vedanta (I could not find anything on the net on the particular branch mentioned):; and here is something on Theosophy: The Theosophical Society

[6] Well as I learned it, the second sound is the "Pa" sound and that "Ba" comes after and is a softening of this sound. a - pa - ma - a - da is the order.


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