In The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Samuttya Nikaya, Chapter IV, 625, in the Brahmana-samyutta (p.259), edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
A Brahmin asks the Buddha:
“A tangle inside, a tangle outside
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama
Who can disentangle the tangle?”
This is a question that we could ask about the generation of our own day, in our own country, right now. But, before we can answer such a question, which is framed in a simile, let’s begin by explicating the imagery of the verse, line by line, just as students of literature might do with a stanza of poetry: first, attempting to clarify the words in the lines, before going on to explain what they mean within the broader context of society and culture and the wider world.
The straightforward paraphrase would be that, because there is something wrong with our way of thinking and behaving in our own day, we need to figure out why the problem has arisen and who can help us see to the root of the problem and tell us how to solve it.
The central image in the Buddha’s words is a “tangle,” in the sense of a tangled ball of string, twine, or line, which may be compared to the mental tangle within the mind and what is going on in there. Our thoughts may also be likened to the tangled web of a predatory creature, as a web in which we have been caught up and enmeshed and from which there seems to be little hope of escape, especially as the constrictive force of the tangle keeps getting tighter and tighter.
In a broader sense, the tangle, both inside and outside, can be likened to our being lost in a jungle where everything within it is grasping upwards, reaching for light and life and striving for nourishment, while being entangled from all sides and grappled at by invasive creepers and vines. Awareness of such a jungle may be figuratively described as an acute consciousness fraught with mental anxiety, exasperation, and anguish, arising out of a compulsive need for continuing existence.
The implication is horrendous—it is as if nothing in this world can continue to exist except through the starkest struggle, just to keep one’s head above those of others or cease to survive. We may feel that we are facing such a struggle to maintain existence, today in our own generation too.
In this generation, almost everyone seems to be seeking to satisfy his or her own desires. Almost everybody seems to be in conflict with everyone else, struggling anxiously to get what each one thinks he or she wants and needs to fulfill their wishes and expectations.
Because such needs and desires for self-nourishment conflict even with each other, the struggle of life becomes like a tangle of creepers, reaching for light within a dark jungle, where even the strongest and highest of trees are in competition, with encroaching vines and creepers arising on every side, seeking any and every advantage, so it requires an unrelenting, striving force of energy for organisms and forms of growth, like insects, plants and people, to continue contending to survive—just stay alive.
This is an extreme but apt comparison.
There is no letup in the personal, interpersonal, and cultural jungle. Everything seems to be getting further enmeshed and interlaced within the tangle of the tangle; becoming so totally entwined with mental images—continually arising and ceasing—until, with exasperation, we feel that there is no apparent way we would ever be able to untangle the tension and confusion continually grasping at and almost overwhelming our minds. Our thoughts become snagged, knotted, and intertwined, with conflicting intentions assaulting the mind from both inside and outside the mind-body.
Contradictory motivations and wishes keep pulling us one way and then another, in a mental process yanking and jerking at our perceptions and conceptions, a chaotic pushing and pulling between poles with no realistic prospect of our ever being capable of doing anything about it other than desperately clutching to the drive to stay alive and survive—as long as our mental energy outlasts the mental anguish.
Similarly, in interpersonal relations, while people will invariably be brought together by mutual needs, they will often have conflicting needs and greeds, which they blindly follow, even to the verge of absurdity and insanity.
Moreover, in society at large we want to be one thing, and we are told to be another. We are presented with a palette of conflicting ideals and goals to achieve, and either we fit in with such mass insanity of wrong view of the world, or we are shut out, punished, and made to suffer in one way or another.
Furthermore, as a result of our vain hope of escape, alternative sets of escape plans arise within our minds (or somehow sneak in furtively from outside), giving us false expectations so that we continue to pursue our self-delusive goals and imagined means of flight, even though we may know, inwardly, that our hopes are wholly unrealistic. The mind is a trickster and it loves to trick itself. This is the way the conventional mind works within the everyday world.
In the stanza cited above, the Brahmin is not putting a foolish question to the Buddha. Rather, he is requesting Buddha’s help, asking about the root of existence, exhorting the Buddha to explain the pain at the core of existence and how to avoid it.
Before the Buddha’s time, there was no answer to such a question, which was why the Buddha left his former teachers and continued to strive on alone in seeking the cause of suffering. The Buddha’s answer, in the stanza below is a formula based on his understanding of the Dhamma for healing such mental pain and anguish.
The Buddha’s reply begins with a reference to virtue and wisdom and then goes on to take apart existence, explaining in stages how to alleviate pain in a permanent way. First, he says:
“A man established in virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet
He can disentangle the tangle.”
Paraphrased, this means that one who has learned the path, an ardent bhikkhu established in virtue and wisdom knows the way to disentangle the tangle. In other words, there are many bhikkhus, besides himself, who have managed disentangle the tangle.
“Those for whom lust and hatred
Along with ignorance has been expunged,
The arahants with taints destroyed:
For them the tangle is disentangled.”
Those who are freed from greed, hate, and delusion are the ones who become liberated from stress and anxiety. But the process of unravelling greed (lust), hate (aversion), and delusion (ignorance) will have to be the subject of subsequent articles on “how a bhikkhu ardent and discreet can disentangle the tangle.”