Essential Teachings – The Second Arrow


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There are teachings in the Pali Canon that are so useful and so illuminating that they are fundamental to my practice, they show me both how to be a Buddhist and how to understand other more complex teachings.

The Arrow is one of those key teachings and it’s not too terribly long, you can read it here:

What can we learn from this sutra?

Although it doesn’t say it, this sutra is obviously part of the eightfold path element of Right Effort, which includes preventing the arising of unskillful thoughts and abandoning them when they do arise.  Right Effort is one of the three folds of the path related to meditation or mental cultivation (bhavana).  Right Mindfulness and Right Samadhi are the other two.

The Buddha is giving two examples using two different characters:  the uninstructed person and the well-instructed disciple.  What happens to the uninstructed person?

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.  Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”

He feels two arrows.  The first arrow is the unavoidable pain that results from being a human being.  The second arrow that hits him is his own reaction to the first arrow.  Ajahn Sumedho often points out that we cannot avoid pain, we are sensitive beings.  It’s unnatural for us not to feel.  Being a Buddhist has nothing to do with avoiding feelings.  Buddhism is not anesthesia.  How then is this teaching helpful?

What we learn when we practice watching for that second arrow is that the first arrow is usually quite bearable.  It’s just pain, and when we accept a painful feeling as just that, and we stop fighting it, we find that we can bear it quite easily.  The pains of life by themselves are usually quite endurable.  What is it about the second arrow, our reaction, that is so much worse?

This brings us to a key teaching about dukkha.  Once again, Ajahn Sumedho has a very helpful viewpoint — a working definition of dukkha is the psychological experience of being unable to bear something.  What do we say when we respond to physical or emotional pain?  “This is so unfair.”  “This is completely unacceptable.”  “I can’t stand this.”  If we listen to our reaction, the second arrow, we find that we ourselves are creating this sense that we cannot bear it.  While in some contexts dukkha does refer to all pain and suffering, to both arrows, for the practicing Buddhist eliminating dukkha in our daily life is primarily about not firing the second arrow at ourselves.  When we do, we turn a nuisance into a crisis.  And, we do this constantly.  Many times a day.

If we realize what we are doing and decide for ourselves to accept the situation as it is, painful as it may be, the pain immediately becomes more manageable.  We are no longer identifying with it or feeding ourselves with an emotional reaction.  Instead we are treating it as a temporary phenomena that arose from causes and conditions, like anything else.

One thing to note is that pain comes in all sorts of flavors.  Aside from straight physical pain, there are things like the grief of losing something or someone we love, the resentfulness of being taken advantage of, the shame of failing to meet our own or other’s expectations, or the sense of envy and injustice of seeing someone else get what we believe is ours.  Any of these can arise reflexively, before we realize what’s happening. I consider unskillful responses that we can’t (yet) avoid as first arrows.  More about those in a minute.  Once these uncomfortable feelings arise, they can cause us to consciously and deliberately shoot that second arrow and create an intolerable feeling of suffering.

This is not the only lesson in this Sutra however.  As the uninstructed person’s response progresses, he has another reaction:

“Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.”

This is really important.  Our typical reaction to pain is to seek out something pleasurable or self-justifying to distract us from the pain.  This is the genesis of most of the cruelty, foolishness, and delusion in the world — people doing anything they can think of to avoid the pain they feel, much of which isn’t even external, it’s a result of their own reaction.

When you feel challenged, threatened, or hurt physically or emotionally, what is your response?  I know what my response often is, an emotional reaction pushing against that feeling followed by grasping for something to make the pain stop – not the original pain, but the pain of my response.  Catching this chain of events in ourselves provides deep insight into how everyday dukkha works.

So, how does the well-instructed disciple react?

“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.

As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is not resistant. No resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not delight in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns an escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure….”

So the correct course of action is simple in concept, but surprisingly difficult in practice.  The well-instructed disciple doesn’t react.  He or she leaves the pain alone.  Instead of prolonging and intensifying the pain, the pain is allowed to naturally cease.  Hence there is no need to seek something pleasurable to distract or cover the pain of dukkha.

This teaching directly relates to teachings like the four noble truths, the chain of dependent origination, guarding the senses, and mindfulness practice.  Good stuff.

Obvious question:  does Buddhism provide a way to avoid the first arrow?  There are two aspects to that.  One is to minimize our unskillful emotional reactions like anger, shame, and envy.  Sati (mindfulness), samadhi, and the four Brahma abodes (metta practice) help with that, these techniques allow us to see and transform unskillful automatic reactions into wiser, more compassionate, more deliberate responses.  They help us turn first arrows of automatic anger and shame into avoidable second arrows.  The second aspect of avoiding first arrows is to minimize the initial painful experiences themselves, so that we feel fewer first arrows from the external events of our life.  That is a question about karma….  An excellent topic for another day.