Untangling the Tangle

A while back I highlighted some of the keywords and search terms that cause people to stumble upon The Endless Further, and I provided some answers. I know that most of those folks probably found what they were looking for, either here or elsewhere, but it’s interesting to deal with them anyway. Here’s another one:

“what does it mean to untangle the tangle buddhaghosa”

“Untangle the tangle” is a well-known phrase found in the the Jata Sutta (“Samyutta Nikaya”, Chapter 7, Sutta 6). Buddhaghosa was the Indian Buddhist scholar who stands out as the pre-eminent commentator on Theravada understanding. His Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, believed written in Ceylon in the beginning of the fifth century CE, is a comprehensive study of Buddhist doctrine and meditation technique. In his introduction to this work, Buddhaghosa quotes, and then comments on the Jata Sutta passage:

The sutta tells how a Brahman named Jata (“Tangle”) Bharadvaja visiting the Buddha at Savatthi posed  this question :

‘Tangle within, tangle without,
Sentient things are entangled in a tangle.
And I would ask of you, Gotama, this:
Who can untangle this tangle?’

Buddhaghosa comments:

By ‘tangle” is meant the net of craving. For craving is like the tangle of the network of branches of bamboo-bushes and the like, in the sense of an intertwining, because it arises again and again, repeatedly in connection with such objects as visible things. And it is said to be a ‘tangle within and a tangle without,’ because it arises as craving for one’s own needs and others’, for one’s own person and others’, and for consciousness subjective and objective. Sentient beings are entangled in such a tangle. Just as bamboos and the like are entangled by such tangles as bamboo-bushes, so all living beings, are entangled, enmeshed, embroiled, in that tangle of craving, this is the meaning.

And because of such entanglement, the meaning of, ‘I would ask of you, Gotama, this,’ is to be understood in this way: So I ask you, addressing the Awakened One by his family name, Gotama, ‘Who can untangle this tangle?’ means: Who is able to untangle this tangle which has entangled existence?

Tangled up, in blue.
Tangled up, in blue.

We are the only ones who can untangle the tangle, for the entanglement is our own doing. It is no good looking outside of ourselves for the solutions to problems created within. From the Buddhist perspective, relying on external beings (whether immortal or mortal) and forces can only bring temporary solutions. Lasting change must come from our own inner being.

When questioned in this way, the Awakened One, walking in unobstructed knowledge of all things, confident with the Four Confidences, bearer of the Tenfold Strength, possessor of unimpeded knowledge and the all-seeing eye, spoke this stanza in answer:

‘When a wise person, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a seeker with concentration  and insight,
That person may untangle this tangle.’

Buddhaghosa defines virtue as a state present in a person who refrains from killing living things, etc. Another word for virtue is ethics. It has long been held in the West that ethics or moral behavior is only possible through belief in a supreme being. Without belief and without fear of the creator, humans would be free to make up their own moral standards and it would be a case of “anything goes”. Therefore, consequence is what determines virtue and leads to a system of ethics.

Buddhist ethics are entirely different, and based on two sets of principles: hri & apatrapa, and prajna & karuna.

Hri is “self-respect” or “conscientiousness,” although it is can translated as a “sense of shame.” Apatrappa can also mean “shame”, as well as “decorum” or “consideration”. Put together they mean that a person should avoid committing unwholesome acts out of respect for one’s own being (striving to keep the mind pure) and out of consideration for others.

Prajna is wisdom, having a clear understanding of what harm oneself, and karuna, compassion, is recognition of what harms others.

The goal of Buddhist ethics is simply to provide knowledge of what should or should not be done to insure the highest good and avoidance of evil. This, in essence, is also what is meant by “pure.” Buddhaghosa gives “purification” a threefold meaning. One is the purity of virtue. Secondly, refining the mind, having thoughts free of discrimination, a non-dual mind that sees all things equally without prejudice. And thirdly, Buddhaghosa equates purity with nibbana (nirvana), “which is free from all stains and is exceedingly pure.” In this sense, ethics and nirvana are identical.

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1 Comment for “Untangling the Tangle”


One challenge in establishing a Buddhist university is convincing reviewers that it’s okay not to have a faith statement. In America we are accustomed to religious education requiring indoctrination — but Buddhist education is just the disentangling of views, with virtue as both the path and the result.

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