Eel Wrigglers and Buddhist Practice

They say the oldest profession in the book is… Well, you know. But if you had to put a bet on what the second oldest is, you would do well to guess that the title would be something like “smooth talkin’ salesman.” (or perhaps pretty-talkin’ product pimps)

And salesmen aren’t always selling stuff. They’re often peddling views and spiritualities and hopes of this sort or that. Their particular manifestations are many: some are showy, some are cunning, some are charming, and some have a bit of each of these traits. I would guess that psychologically speaking, they are amongst the most narcissistic people out there: they know that what they have is good and it will solve your problem.

If you ask them a question and they don’t know the answer, they’ll simply answer another question.  If they’re good at what you do, and you’re not on the ball, you might not even notice their clever change of subject. If they’re not so good, as we’ve seen in a couple instances in the political arena of late (that’s just ‘gotcha’ reporter questions… you ask the questions you want, and I get to answer the questions I want…), they look look like exactly what they are.

The Buddha labeled such people “Eel wrigglers” in the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1). There he identifies four types of Eel wrigglers. The first does not know whether something is good or bad. But when asked he doesn’t want to seem ignorant, and he doesn’t want to lie – for fear of the distress it would cause (so at least he has a conscience), so “he resorts to evasive statements and wriggles like an eel: I don’t say this. I don’t say that. I don’t say it is otherwise. I don’t say it is not. I don’t not say it is not.”

It sounds a bit cartoonish – but I’ve encountered such people. I’m sure you have too.

The next is likewise ignorant and wriggles like an eel in just the same way. But this time his motivation is fear of the underlying feelings that might arise should he admit as much or lie: namely lust or aversion. He perhaps has experienced the joys of equanimity and doesn’t want to upset them, but he still hasn’t gotten anywhere in terms of knowledge and thus wriggles around when asked about good and bad.

Sounds a bit like certain “blissed out” practitioners I’ve heard about and met. You?

The third is likewise ignorant but in this case he fears the distress of perhaps encountering a better debater and losing. So he wriggles too.

And the fourth is the Buddha being about as blunt as I can recall: “Here an ascetic or Brahmin is dull and stupid. Because of his dullness and stupidity” he wriggles as well.

All of this because they were a) ignorant of right and wrong and b) unwilling to simply say so.

Now, as a practitioner and scholar, I certainly don’t know much. But I can say I know some of the simpler points of what is beneficial or good: generosity, patience, moral restraint and so on and that their opposites are bad. On particular questions all I can do is appeal to these basic traits – perhaps thinking of the Buddha’s discourse to the Kalamas: does the action give rise to greed, hatred, and aversion? If so, it is bad. If an act dissipates these qualities, it is good. It’s perhaps painfully simple, but when applied it means a lot. It means that a lot of what we justify in our lives: excessive consumption, rudeness to strangers, lack of care for those far away, cannot go on. And it means that we must actively cultivate attitudes that simplify our lives, maintain mindfulness in daily life, and open up to the whole world of suffering out there.

Christopher Titmus, one contemporary and well-respected Dharma teacher, writes in an article subtitled “keeping your eye on the goal”:

The eel wrigglers have little faith in complete enlightenment, in total realisation of the Non-Dual and a pervasive seeing of the emptiness of all ego-making activities. Eel wrigglers usually experience inner doubts, if not angst, and assume it is the same for everybody else. ‘It could be like this or it could be like that’ is one of their common views. They replace Right View, the first link in the Noble Eightfold Path, with Right Unconducive View. (link)

‎As a philosopher, literally a lover of wisdom, I know I fall into my fair share of eel wriggling over particular matters. But, as a practitioner, or simply as a human being trying to do good in the world, I hope my particular instances of eel wriggling are always within faith or trust or confidence in complete enlightenment and the rest that Christopher Titmus mentioned and not out of angst. Perhaps a youthful angst helped drive me toward philosophy and religion (and sociology, politics, and anthropology) as topics of study, but for now and at least the last several years, I can confidently say that I’ve outgrown that particular emotion or motivation.

But I do read plenty of ‘angsty’ people’s blogs, see them on other social media and in real life. And I often see that they can draw quite an audience (misery loves company?). I wonder if or to what extent this kind of attitude might come to dominate Western Buddhism. Might Western Buddhism begin to shed its ‘lovey-dovey’ peaceful image in favor of something more like an angry flame-war of name-calling and finger-pointing? Might the most popular Buddhist teachers of the next generation be the angriest and the loudest, or simply the most argumentative? And where will questions of practice, or simple good and bad fit in to all of this?

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