Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University
Whether we experience confusion, frustration, or enjoyment, such experiences take place through the mind. Thus, whether our interests are psychological, scientific, or religious in nature, it would seem important for us to understand the workings of the brain. If the ego or "self" (interchangeable words in Buddhist philosophy) plays a role in these experiences as well as abnormal development, as some psychologies would propose, we should more carefully examine what part they play in our psychological well being. An examination of some basic tenets concerning the ego, "self," or "I" from a Buddhist perspective reveals a very different view from traditional Western personality theories.
The Western Self
The importance of the ego or "self" which emanates from Western psychology is explicitly extensive. Ego Psychology, typified by Freud, emphasizes the development of the capabilities of the ego (Muzika, 1990). Cognitive-behavioural therapy deals, in part, with inappropriate self-ideas and fosters changes in attitudes we hold about the "self" (Muzika, 1990). Allport lists a strong ego identity as a descriptor of maturity while Erikson adds ego-integrity to his psychosocial stages of the life cycle (Goleman, 1981). Generally speaking, a wide-spread Western assumption suggests that the ego, "self," or "I" is thought of as a separate system, apart from such aspects as the body, spirit, or even matter in some cases (Welwood, 1976).
While Eastern perspectives of psychology may agree with some Western views of development and treatment (De Silva, 1985), there is a fundamental disagreement as to whether the ego is necessary for normal psychological functioning (Nitis, 1989). In fact, in regarding the conception of "self" as the main source of all suffering, putting an end to the "self" is a key focus of Buddhist psychology. While there are more than 200 varieties of psychotherapy, few of these would suggest that the "self" is an illusion (Muzika, 1990). Most would, in fact, attempt to strengthen such aspects of the person, making them more capable of bearing the pain of one's experience. Since Western traditions would highlight the disappearance of self-other boundaries in major psychoses and borderline cases, it is understandable that the idea of transcending the "self" or ego might be dismissed as regressive psychopathology (Walsh, 1988). However, some of the greatest Buddhist scholars maintain that Western science has yet to learn enough about the brain to appreciate the Eastern understanding of the mind and its implications (Komito, 1983). An examination of general Buddhist views of the "self" leaves the West with much to think about.
An Eastern View of Self
Some Eastern scholars would agree with Freud and others that ego formation is an essential process for the self preservation and protection of the developing organism initially (Nitis, 1989). However, one of the most perniciously false views which is explicitly criticized by Buddhism has been the belief in a fixed-self or ego (Goleman, 1981). Buddhists would suggest that as the ego begins to turn back on itself, exploring its own creation, it provides the intellect with the capacity to identify and classify, thus initiating the attempt to establish itself as a real and solid entity (Nitis, 1989). In other words, the ego or "self" is nothing more than a process of self-deception attempting to provide a basis for security. As a result we begin to use words like "self," and "I." Buddhists would warn us, however, that such words do not actually refer to something concrete but are simply grammatical devices (Giles, 1993).
The Dalai Lama, among others, suggests two kinds of truths for consideration: conventional and ultimate. The words "self" and "I" are used by convention and are necessary in building a strong sense-of-self initially so we can function properly in the world, but these words are not grounded in ultimate reality (Rahula, 1974; Komito, 1984). It is the exaggeration of the conventional designations which is the cause of pain and suffering (Kalff, 1983). The exaggeration of importance results in our trying to make ourselves real; if the sense-of-self is simply a construct, it can try to make itself real by objectifying itself in some fashion, but leads to a perpetual failure and underlying sense of lack in the end (Loy, 1992b). Why do we refrain from examining this possibility?
Intellectually, nondifferentiation seems much too painful to accept, so a state of ignorance is activated, thus causing people to neglect their original state of egolessness or selflessness. Yet Buddhists would suggest we transcend conventional designations and explore our true nature, for the personal "self" or "I" is considered pathological (Muzika, 1990).
According to Buddhist theory, a person is simply an aggregation of five elements: physical form, perceptions, feelings, motives, and consciousness (Giles, 1993). Yet none of these elements when considered separately or in combination can be identified with the "self." Since the inherently existing "self" can neither be found as one with the aggregates or different from them, it cannot logically exist (Kalff, 1983). Thus the illusion of having a self arises because we do not examine our experience closely enough. Instead we look only superficially at our feelings, desires, and beliefs, and become identified with them by convention (Muzika, 1990). Walsh (1988) suggests a closer examination reveals that our continuous sense-of-self is selectively constructed from a myriad of mental contents. In fact the experience of "I" is a constantly changing impersonal process and is seen to be increasingly insubstantial the more closely we look at it (Epstein, 1988). This examination reveals an ongoing, overlapping sequence of different mind-moments, as though they were objects in an environment. Looking closely, it becomes clear that each differentiated moment of perception or thought takes on its specific nature or quality by virtue of the spaces that surround them (Welwood, 1976). Thus, distinct thoughts can be isolated as separate moments, as though they are figures against the ground of some larger mind-landscape, fragmenting the notion of a continuous "self." The human personality could therefore be described as "a river that keeps a constant form, seemingly a single identity, though not a single drop is the same as a moment ago" (Hall & Lindzey, 1978, p. 359). The trouble with overlooking these open spaces within the mind-environment and equating thought-events with a "self" is the anxiety that is connected with the defenses of these beliefs. In addition to this error, a sense of consistency in interpersonal interactions and recognition by others of temporal and interpersonal consistency confirms falsely for us that we remain the same (Engler, 1984).
One concept related to the above argument is dependent origination. The "self" that is refuted above is one that is seen as permanent and independent, as most Westerners would posit. However, this notion of self is negated by virtue of the fact that all phenomena arise together in dependence and are thus void of independent existence. This interdependence is referred to as dependent origination (Kalff, 1983). Just as Hume implied that diversity means no identity can exist (Giles, 1993), Buddhists would suggest that the interdependent diversity of elements that make up a person point to no existing "self." Interdependent factors diametrically oppose the Western conception of autonomous, self-grounded consciousness (Loy, 1992b).
A second related concept is the Buddhist notion of emptiness. Emptiness has been a term used to describe many psychological states in the West including the confusing numbness of the psychotic, incomplete feelings of the personality disorders, identity diffusion and existential meaninglessness (Epstein, 1989). Buddhists, however, refer to emptiness as ultimate reality. Emptiness assumes a defining role in the notion of "self"; it is the experience of emptiness that destroys the idea of a continuous, independent individual nature. Unlike many Western misconceptions, emptiness is not an end in itself nor is emptiness considered real in a concrete sense but merely a specific negative of inherent existence (Epstein, 1988). While the ordinary consciousness perceives things as permanent and independent, Buddhists would counter that perceived phenomena are interdependent and thus empty of permanence and without an identity based on their own assumed nature (Komito, 1984). In relation to the sense-of-self, emptiness does not imply (as Westerners have often interpreted) the abandonment or annihilation of the ego, "self," or "I" but simply a recognition that this "self" actually never existed at all (Epstein, 1989).
Buddhism is not an escape from the world but simply a refusal to extend or exaggerate the importance of conventional reality. In so doing, the mind becomes empty of struggle, allowing us to see things as they are in an ultimate sense. Thus, in Buddhist psychology, the empty quality of the mind is regarded as the true nature of a person. To continue to ignore such propositions in the West, however, can have far reaching and possibly deleterious effects.
Implications of Having a Self
The implications of believing in and thus defending a "self" are wide and far reaching. The suffering, pain, discomfort, and frustration we experience from day to day is a result of our delusive sense-of-self (Loy, 1992b). Buddhist psychology has long insisted that the result of the illusive ego necessarily is fear, jealousy, desire, and despair (Nitis, 1989). One basic difficulty we face is the inevitable insecurity we experience: as long as people are convinced they are separate, self-existing, or autonomous, the more uncomfortable they will feel in the world since separation is an insecure position (Loy, 1992b). These experiences of suffering are maintained by the sense of self we entertain. This does not suggest that the feelings of frustration, fear, or discomfort are not real, but that they are born out of, and are held in place by, the false "self" (Tulku, 1974). It is proposed by some psychologies in the East that such problems as self-esteem, depression, fragmentation, worthlessness, and loneliness, are all considered subsets of the more enveloping problem of having this "self" when examined as a clinical condition (Muzika, 1990). Essentially our constant clinging to this false sense-of-self opposes a universe in which all things are in constant flux, where events last no more than a brief moment.
The belief that we have a "self," according to Loy (1992a), can explain several twentieth century obsessions that, while widely accepted in our society, are merely attempts to real-ize the ego, "self," or "I." The first obsession is fame. It seems the "real" world has been captured more and more by newspapers, television and other forms of mass media. Having been conditioned by others that we are real, the tendency to reassure our "being" by capturing the attention of others will escalate. It has been suggested that many people seek fame as an end in itself because of some reality they believe it confers, a reality they somehow lack (Loy, 1992a).
Another pursuit is monetary gain. While money is an effective and necessary medium of exchange, the excessive and relentless pursuit of wealth witnessed in modern times may actually reduce the quality of life one experiences (Loy, 1992a). It seems that money has become the most popular way of accumulating the feeling of being real. Loy states that people used to go to temples and churches to real-ize themselves but with the decline of religious influence over the past several decades, people now real-ize themselves with such substitutes as wealth. A similar argument can be made for technological advancement. Technological achievements appears to be an attempt to create the ultimate security, but is necessarily doomed to failure in a world that ceaselessly changes (Loy, 1992a). The paradox of all of these pursuits surfaces when one considers that the attempt to "get away from something" is disguised as an attempt to "get to somewhere." A consciousness which attempts to make itself real by fixating on, or objectifying, something is subject to constant dissatisfaction, for it is an underlying sense of lack (or wanting) which cannot be fulfilled which propels us (Loy, 1992b).
The Buddhist solution, what some may consider a radical resolution, to all psychological illnesses is bringing an end to the source of suffering. In other words, bringing an end to the "self" and expanding one's consciousness toward a greater, interdependent identification with reality eliminates the suffering brought about by a sense of lack (Muzika, 1990). For such experiences as pride, embarrassment, envy, etc., which are easily brought about by clinging to an illusive "self," cannot occur when one is selfless, so to speak: how can I feel pride if there is no "I" (Giles, 1993)? The correct position then is to see things as they are in an objective fashion without mental projections, to see that no "self" can be identified with the five aggregates, to recognize the reality of emptiness, and lose one's being in the dependent origination of life (Rahula, 1974). To achieve such a state requires the practice of mindfulness meditation.
The Buddhist Theory of Cure
One can only develop excessive attachments or the need to cling to other things and people if one has misinterpreted their own nature. Thus knowledge of one's true nature would serve as an antidote for this misinterpretation. The true nature of impermanence, emptiness, and dependent origination can be realized through meditation, the Buddhist approach to cure. Mindfulness meditation is simply a continuous attempt to retrain attention (Goleman, 1981). Some have described meditation as the path to forgetting the sense-of-self, thereby becoming nothing (Loy, 1992a). The ultimate purpose of Buddhist meditation is not withdrawal from the illusion of "self" but simply a recognition of one's conditioned and erroneous interpretation (Epstein, 1989). In so doing, the influence of the false belief is weakened.
In meditation, we are investigating the "I" which is felt to be permanent and seems to be self-sufficient. Through examining the natural process of the mind, the inherent existence of the "I" is eventually exposed as a delusion (Epstein, 1989). With careful introspection, each successive mental state is seen to be interspersed with innumerable other feelings, all separated by gaps of space, sometimes described as brief flashes of non-personal awareness or spaces without self-interest (Welwood, 1976).
In meditation there is no appeal to some mystical, other world but merely a need to come out from behind the delusion of the "self" which is the root of our trouble. In the end, the result of meditation is a negation of the belief of a permanent individual nature, rather than attachment to emptiness as though it were something in itself (a view the West often assumes) (Epstein, 1989). The "self" is finally seen for what it really is - a collection of fleeting elements (Giles, 1993). Meditation is a necessary response to the bipolar dualism of the "self" being either real or not real. To resolve this dualism, according to Buddhist psychology, one must become nothing if nothing is what the sense-of-self fears (Loy, 1992b). What one fears cannot be resolved if it is not explored.
As you begin to explore this fear through meditation, you begin to see there are discrete units, these very small chunks of consciousness, and you begin to see that they're always changing. Perceiving these units reveals three basic insights of Buddhism...that everything is impermanent...that there's no abiding self...that seeking and clinging to satisfaction is actually the source of suffering (Goleman, 1981, p. 131).
In an ideal situation then, meditation allows the practitioner to experience these three cognitive insights. With continual practice of meditation, we sufficiently refine our attention process so we can observe our true nature, overcoming our previous inability to perceive the more microscopic level of mind-events (Engler, 1988). This refined attention reveals a continuously changing flux of images, thoughts, and emotions; the mind is deconstructed (Walsh, 1988). There is, however, one warning that accompanies the practice of meditation.
What the Buddhist system at the outset presupposes is a fairly intact or "normal" ego in the individual (Engler, 1984). Thus there are many for whom meditation may not be a viable practice, including schizophrenics, psychotics, borderline, and other personality disorder patients. Aside from this, it can be simply stated that Buddhism assumes the usual sense-of-self which people harbour is an illusion and that this claim can be tested directly by any person who diligently and minutely examines mental processes through meditative practices.
It would seem, in studying Buddhist literature, that there is little concern with the every day problems which lead many people to seek psychotherapy (Muzika, 1990). Buddhism lacks a developmental theory of self and seldom dwells on such symptoms as depression, shame, worthlessness, loneliness, hypochondria and more. The one exception to this disregard for feelings is the deep concern that Buddhism has for the general pain associated with becoming attached to other people and objects. Western science must examine more carefully the role that the ego, "self," or "I" plays in psychopathology, something Buddhism has done for more than 2000 years with the long standing conclusion that the desire to become somebody may not be as important as the wisdom of becoming nobody.
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Engler, J. (1984). Therapeutic aims in psychotherapy and meditation: Developmental stages in the representation of self. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 25-61.
Epstein, M. (1988). The deconstruction of the self: Ego and "egolessness" in Buddhist insight meditation. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20(1), 61-69.
Epstein, M. (1989). Forms of emptiness: Psychodynamic, meditative and clinical perspectives. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 21(1), 61-71.
Giles, J. (1993). The no-self theory: Hume, Buddhism, and personal identity. Philosophy East and West, 43(2), 175-200.
Goleman, D. (1981). Buddhist and Western psychology: Some commonalities and differences. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 13(2), 125-136. Hall, C. S., and Lindzey, G. (1978). Theories of Personality (3rd edition). Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.
Kalff, M. (1983). The negation of ego in Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian psychology. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 15(2), 103-124.
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Komito, D. R. (1984). Tibetan Buddhism and psychotherapy: Further conversations with the Dalai Lama. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 1-24.
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Loy, D. (1992b). Avoiding the void: The lack of self in psychotherapy and Buddhism. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(2), 151-180.
Muzika, E. G.. (1990). Object relations theory, Buddhism, and the self: Synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches. International Philosophical Quarterly, 30(4), 59-74.
Nitis, T. (1989). Ego differentiation: Eastern and Western perspectives. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49(4), 339-346.
Rahula, W. (1974). What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press.
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Walsh, R. (1988). Two Asian psychologies and their implications for Western psychotherapists. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 42(4), 543-560.
Welwood, J. (1976). Exploring mind: Form, emptiness, and beyond. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(2), 89-99.
Bodhi Leaves No. B 92
Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka
comes West as a vast body of teaching, and we who receive it are often awed by
its abundance, its complexity, and its subtlety. Where is the center, the real
thing we should fix on? Or is there a real thing at all to be apprehended? History
shows that Buddhism can and will accommodate itself to new cultures, and will
flourish according to the perceptiveness and energy of its new adherents. Now
in the West our perceptiveness and energy are put to the test to grasp the "real
thing" by which this religion lives -- its radicalism.
The Buddhas only point the way, and the way they point is a difficult one through the perfection of morality, concentration, and wisdom to the freedom from suffering called Nibbana. It is a way of action. A path is useless without the will to follow it, and good intentions alone are futile. To make the journey, the roots of mental defilement must be torn out entirely; the old illusions we live by must be shattered; the mind must seek the light. It is a radical way, because the Buddha enjoins us to give up what is before, give up what is behind, and give up what is in between. Then and only then will the wheel of birth-and-death be knocked from its axis.
Those of us in the jaded and desperate West who hear the resonance of truth in the teachings of the Buddha must hear also that urging to //act//, to start an inner rebellion against our ancient sloth and stupidity. Yet the more we ponder the more we recognize the enormity of the task, and an understandable reaction is to set about re-defining just what has to be done and just how prudent it might be to fling ourselves into action. The danger here -- so typical in our comfortable and seductive society -- is to forget the radical imperative of suffering and try to make over Buddhism into a tame amalgam of platitudes suitable for pleasant contemplation --praising it in order to avoid practicing it. Indeed, Buddhism is rational, patient, deep in wisdom, but should we then just bask in its reflected light?
Complacency is death. If, out of custom and timidity, Western Buddhists turn their religion into a museum piece, or worse, a hobby, they lose the essence. It is easy enough to settle for an undemanding status quo, a modicum of calm, a pleasant sense of harmonious living, and it is easy enough to postpone or forget any effort to break the shackles of old delusion, believing that one need not strain when the road will likely be long. But in accommodating too much to personal or societal expediency we cheapen our ideals and slide further from the disturbing implications of the Noble Truth of Suffering. We may even take the Buddhist vision of kamma as an indication that "everything is as it should be." But everything is //not// as it should be. Everything is in fact miserable. If we are complacent we blind ourselves, and there is no safety in blindness.
In the radical view of the Buddha, Samsara is no cosmic merry-go-round, but a terrible juggernaut of birth and death dragging beings through endless cycles of woe. "Free yourselves!" says the Buddha. All lives and events are variations on the theme of suffering. All are without substance, endurance, permanence -- merely a web of emptiness, void upon void. The "self" that everyone spends so much time defending and nurturing is pure fiction. Dismiss it, says the Buddha. The world will not conform to our wishes and to presume otherwise is folly; the disciple must cease clinging to it and proceed along the path to the end of suffering. The root problem is craving, and the radical solution is the destruction of craving through wisdom.
The sober truths taught by the Buddha, squarely faced, present us with problems and choices. Are we to assume that every Buddhist ought to be off grunting in a cave, sweating his way toward enlightenment? Is this the radical conclusion? Actually, the dilemma is not so formidable. The Buddha taught //gradually//, according to the capacity of his hearers to understand and practice. Every person should devote himself to the teaching as far as he is able. The goal is ultimately the same for all, though progress along the path depends on the individual. The Dhamma of the Buddha will lead us to the safety of Nibbana, and it will also sustain us along the way. What matters is always to bear in mind where we are and where we are headed.
The radicalism of the Buddha is probably no more difficult for Westerners to comprehend than for anyone else, yet we are especially concerned with it now, because the teaching is only just now settling into our culture and its future direction is uncertain. It is a critical time for the religion. The fundamental teachings must not be neglected, lest we take to wearing our religion like warm slippers and doze into mediocrity. Understood rightly, the Noble Truths are profoundly disturbing. They compel us to act, to pursue the ideal of emancipation no matter how difficult the journey appears. Buddhism truly goes against the stream of the world and demands an uncommon vigor of the disciple. How well we respond depends on individual choice and ability, but what matters most is the recognition that a response is called for, that a path does exist, and that the goal //can// be achieved.
Understanding the basic teachings, Western Buddhists should be wary of tendencies to turn Buddhism into an instrument of secular reform, or a philosophical playground, or an esoteric hobby. Before all else, there is suffering and the path to the end of suffering. There is no safety in faddishness, complacency, or the compulsive intellectualism that hungers for truth but eats the menu instead of the dinner.
To reach the truth, to reach deliverance, we are told to give up what is before, give up what is behind, and give up what is in between. The essence of Buddhism is to let go of everything, to cease clinging desperately to transient, woeful, empty phenomena. The disciple who acts on this breathtaking advice may find the bottom dropping out of this fictitious world. So be it! Thus begins the journey.
Though seldom stated in so many words, a cherished belief of all human beings is that happiness lies in the satisfaction of our desires. All our actions are usually predicated on this seemingly self-evident fact. We are devoted to obtaining the objects of our desire; we consider it our right, our duty, and indeed our highest aspiration to get what we want, to obtain what we think will bring us enjoyment, satisfaction, or "fulfillment." We are accustomed to asking one another, "What do you want out of life?" believing that if we can settle on some clear vision of happiness, and go after it, then all will be well.
Unfortunately, experience has a way of overturning our theories. Those manifold objects we yearn for prove troublesome to capture; when captured they yield less pleasure than expected; when held onto they decay and cause us grief. Then we are driven to turn for relief toward other enticements and thereby renew the cycle. Somehow we believe that if only this search for gratification is conducted correctly, if only the right objects are selected, if only we can have a little luck to add to our efforts, then we can certainly attain that permanent happiness that now eludes us. Badly thumped by fortune, we doggedly tell ourselves, "Yes, it's worth all the pain," and turn a swollen eye toward fresh delights.
But is it worth all the pain? Consider a succulent worm bobbing just below the surface of a pond, attracting the attention of a hungry fish. In a flash the fish swallows the worm, only to discover the hidden hook, the barb that rips into its innards and causes it terror, suffering, and ultimately death. The worm is attractive, but it delivers little satisfaction to the fish. Such is the nature of sense-pleasures. Those objects of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind that we find so alluring are more likely to cause us misery than happiness, and the surprising truth is that it is not so much our choice of objects that is at fault, but the mere act of choosing in the first place, since all phenomena of this world are in reality flawed, connected to suffering, and unreliable.
According to the Buddha, true happiness is not to be found in the deceptive sense-pleasures of the world -- not in wine or wealth or roses. No matter how hard we try, we can never reach security as long as we persist in wrong views of the desirability of this or that sensual object. Without a clear understanding of the nature of phenomena our search is doomed from the outset. Our first task must be to confront the facts that the universe does not exist for our amusement and that such pleasures as we customarily derive from it are false, impermanent, and unworthy of our interest. While the Buddha does not deny the existence of enjoyment in world, he points out that all worldly pleasure is bound up with suffering, inseparable from suffering, and sure to give way to suffering. Therefore in embracing the pleasant we cannot help but embrace the unpleasant. Our craving prevents us from realizing these facts by continually projecting a false appearance on the world, convincing us that the tempting objects around us can actually be possessed and squeezed dry of some satisfying essence. Without the intervention of wisdom, craving will keep us running from one disappointment to another. Though we have many times taken the bait of sense-pleasure and suffered the inevitable pull of the hook, each new worm that comes wiggling through the water excites the heedless man.
The Buddha teaches that the solution to the terrible union of pleasure and pain is not to struggle hopelessly to split them apart, but to view the whole contaminated mass with detachment. All phenomena share the same characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and unsubstantiality, so it is futile to single out some objects for liking and others for loathing. The whole cast of mind that sees things in terms of liking-and-loathing must be abandoned in favor of the detached observation called "mindfulness." Clearly, if the bait hides a hook we do best to curb our appetites.
Forsaking attachment to sense-pleasures is a logical application of the Four Noble Truths, yet even among those who subscribe to the teachings of the Buddha there can be found a deep-seated reluctance to move from theory to practice. The hold which craving has over our minds is so tenacious that we tend to straddle the abyss between truth arid illusion, hoping to live in both with some fast philosophical footwork. For example, may we not propose that sense-pleasures are not in themselves harmful and may therefore be enjoyed in moderation? We may propose it, but we are apt to justify thereby any craving that enters our heads. As long as one regards any experience as personal or desirable, one remains mired in ignorance. There are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings arising in the mind; they come and they go; they are to be observed, not sought after, because it is such seeking or craving that sustains the round of suffering. Another common notion is that Buddhism may be employed to beautify life by making the individual more appreciative of the "harmony" of the universe. This is false on two counts. The Buddha did not aim to put a pleasing, comforting face on things, but to educate the individual to the ultimate worthlessness of suffering-dominated, conditioned existence. Also, the only "harmony" discernible here and now is the implacable and impersonal law of cause and effect -- not the blissful oneness beloved of poets.
A third erroneous notion is that sense-pleasures may be pursued full speed if they are part of worthy efforts and worthy goals. This is a self-serving rationalization. While mundane aspirations may be quite wholesome in conception, as long as they provide a surreptitious vehicle for craving they are flawed. For the proper development of insight one needs to get rid of the idea of an an ego or self that enjoys, possesses, and appropriates. The noble-minded man is detached from both ego and world. He acts for the welfare of himself and others without thought of reward or gratification. He is indifferent to results; he is not swayed by the pleasant and the unpleasant..
In considering the lure and danger of sense-pleasures, it is not difficult to see that most of us will ultimately defend our indulgences, not from logic but from the blind urge, "I //want//." What harm, we reason, can there be in a little innocent delight? To clarify: the harm lies not in the //sensation// but in the deluded //mind// that fastens onto the sensation and clings to it obsessively. What behooves the diligent Buddhist is to get beyond the whole idea of liking and disliking, to set it aside, to cease entertaining it -- in order to advance to the fruitful fields of direct insight.
Suppose then, that we acknowledge the danger of the baited hook and agree that the restless, craving mind is a source of suffering. What do we do about it? Often we complain, "I can't help myself! I know it's dangerous but I can't help it." Anyone who has tried to oppose his own ravenous appetites for pleasure, amusement, or gratification knows this sense of helplessness. A mind long accustomed to grasping is not dissuaded by mere rational arguments; it goes its own way, chewing up one experience after another in a hopeless search for happiness. So what is to be done? The trouble here, as is so often the case, is one of self-deception. Although we may say we understand the danger of sensual obsession and the advantage of restraint, our weakness shows that in fact we do not. Wisdom is simply incompatible with defilement. As long as we are willing to compromise with our obsessions we have not fully understood the Buddha's teaching about the nature of reality. We may-recognize intellectually that craving and clinging lead to suffering, but we have not penetrated to a direct experience of the truth. Much work remains to be done: we can't simply throw up our hands and plead weakness.
If we truly recognize the hazards of succumbing to the baited hook, we must resist its enticements. Yet the Buddha does not recommend a stubborn, stoical self-abnegation. The disciple must deal with the problem intelligently. Escape from suffering does not depend on obliterating or denying sense-pleasures but on seeing them for what they are through the systematic practice of mindfulness. In ordinary life we are generally too caught up in gaining and losing to give sufficient attention to the elements and dynamics or the process. We are borne along on these ancient waves only because of compulsive habit. To stop our headlong career it is essential to develop and apply mindfulness, to cultivate scrupulous attention toward even the most mundane habits and desires. Steady mindfulness, intensified in meditation, reveals that the mind is a ceaseless torrent of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and mental impressions -- never still for an instant, never stable enough to be considered substantial or enduring. What we loosely term the "external" world is likewise a blur of evanescent phenomena, all changing with incredible speed, arising and vanishing with no beginning or end in sight. Where then is the object that is truly desirable? Gone! Lost to view in the instant. Where is the one who desires? Gone! Thought succeeds thought, effect succeeds cause in a tumble of empty foam, with a desiring "self" nowhere to be found. Mindfulness discerns these truths directly, examining and breaking down experience until the "permanent" is understood as impermanent, until the "pleasant" is understood as unsatisfactory, until the "self" is understood as empty and unreal.
As with all of the truths taught by the Buddha, these three characteristics of existence must be realized through direct insight -- not just through the ruminations of the intellect. The practice of mindfulness can lead us to such insight if we undertake the task with patience and impartiality. One who luxuriates in craving will remain twisting between misunderstood suffering and imagined pleasure, but one who recognizes danger will shun the baited hook and seek the bare facts of reality beneath the dazzling magic show of the senses.
By avoiding the baited hook of sense-pleasures we do not, as is sometimes maintained, rob life of all its joy. On the contrary, we abandon false satisfaction and approach the true happiness that is born of freedom. We take worldly enjoyment in moderation keeping it in perspective. The wise disciple does not dwell in gloom and try to see the bad side of every experience. If it is pleasant, he notes it as pleasant; if it is unpleasant, he notes it as unpleasant; if it is neutral, he notes it as neutral. Whatever its appearance, he regards it with mindfulness and does not cling to it. He enjoys life simply as he finds it. In so doing, he escapes the peril of hook and line and sails freely toward the end of suffering.
Again and again the Buddha exhorts his followers to be mindful, because the world is burning with greed, hatred, and delusion. Freedom can be won, but not by the careless, infatuated person. The one who attains freedom will be the one who has mindfulness, energy, and the courage to see the canker in the rose.
the Buddha, Alone, on the Empty Shore
A veneer of credulity and feeble optimism covers the dark preoccupations of our lives. In an age marked everywhere with signs of spiritual decay, we somehow remain ever entranced by new toys, ever receptive to the latest balderdash from noisy charlatans, and ever ready to abandon the present moment for the lure of the next. Let it be rumored that "self-fulfillment" has been glimpsed in somebody's book or therapy or religion, and immediately a cloud of dust obscures the sun as we stampede into the new territory -- only to find ourselves, puzzlingly, still in the same dull company. Do we really want happiness, or only titillation? It's hard to say, because we rarely sit still long enough to examine the matter. Suspecting dimly that life is treacherous, we keep moving fast to avoid calamity.
If we are credulous, we are no less skeptical. We are quick to believe but find belief intolerable. We topple today's idols and from their fragments eagerly assemble tomorrow's. We pace up and down the shores of doubt, rousing one another with shouts of encouragement, but stepping into the river we find the water cold, and promptly conclude there's a better crossing further down.
The water is always cold. Somebody sees a vision over the horizon, and the chilled troops waste no more time at //this// spot. In our solitary reflections we may notice our inconstancy and regretfully wonder, "Has it always been thus?" If we are Buddhists we are bound to answer, "Yes." This endlessly mutable landscape of disappointment, this lurch and halt of conviction, is called Samsara.
We are accustomed to regarding the "cycle of birth" and death as a remote, cosmic scheme of creation and dissolution. In fact, Samsara whirls with cyclonic force here in the prosaic moment, here in the wavering and furtive mind. If //this// is, //that// is. Out of ignorance rises craving; out of craving rises the whole mass of anxiety and suffering. We deceive ourselves even in our desire for happiness. Our pursuit of pleasure or "self-fulfillment" is also a flight from despair. Uneasy with the deteriorating present, we leap with unseemly greed toward the future, which, fictitious creature that it is, soon fails us and leaves us exactly where we were. The great wheel turns, and has turned, and will turn again.
Freedom from Samsara does not spring from finding the right teacher or the right temple or the right style of meditations. We must instead begin by discarding false expedients, brief enthusiasms, fashions, platitudes, and most of all, excuses. Self-excuse is just grease for the wheel. Ah, we sigh, if only we had met the Buddha in person! Vain foolishness, this. The Buddha was never to be found in six feet of flesh. In his time and in ours he is only seen in the destruction of the defilements, in the giving up of excuses, evasions, and willful blindness. If we earnestly strive to distinguish between the false and the true, the shallow and the profound, the path of the Buddha takes shape before us.
But after so many years of quick credulity and quicker doubt, of lukewarm and ambivalent effort, how can we make it across that cold, lonely river of ignorance? If we divest ourselves of false and trivial comforts shall we not be left naked? Indeed we shall. And it is in precisely that condition that we may encounter the Buddha. Buddhism is, after all, a religion of renunciation -- renunciation of wrong thoughts, wrong speech, and wrong deeds. When we give up our shabby illusions and the manifold hiding places of the mind we find ourselves naked and ready for the first time to see the world without distortion. Whereas before we may have nominally accepted the reality of impermanence, suffering, and non-self, now we may begin to discern these truths directly and realize our predicament. The old cliche, "The Buddhas only point the way," strikes us with fresh significance. Buddhism demands that we help ourselves, and here on the long, empty shore where we have so often wandered we may at last appreciate the task ahead.
The world around us may be crass and wicked, but not so crass and wicked as our own deluded minds. We feast on the bones of cynicism and are not satisfied. We give new names to iniquity and pursue it in shadows. We mistake the pleasant for the good and perennially follow the easiest course. Then in our accidental nights of fear we stare in bafflement at the four walls and ask ourselves, "Haven't I tried?" Silence replies with silence, and there's nothing left for us but to blunder after a new ghost of happiness, and thereby give the wheel of Samsara another spin.
Credulity is not faith, nor is skepticism wisdom. The noble follower of the Buddha proceeds with a balanced mind, considering the world as he finds it, shunning the harmful and welcoming the useful. He crosses the flood of Samsara on the raft of Dhamma, knowing that nobody will make the effort for him. What distinguishes such a person from; his fellows is not necessarily brilliance of mind, but plain and simple perseverance, the resolve to follow the true course no matter how long it may take. We can do likewise if we set ourselves firmly on the path.
Delay is the luxury of ignorance. We commonly suppose Nibbana, the ultimate purity and freedom, to be something infinitely far away and terrifically difficult to reach. We think of the Buddha as long departed. But Nibbana is near for those who would have it near, and the Buddha is as close as true Dhamma truly observed. What is required of us is to let go of our crumbling, mortal toys and to come down, alone, to the long shore of renunciation. In that exhilarating solitude we may meet the Buddha, whose body is wisdom, whose face is compassion, and whose hand points out the waypoints directly to the deep and hidden purity in our hearts.
Early spring is a fitting time to consider death, though few of us, alas, appreciate this healthy practice. When the first crocuses and skunk cabbage blunder into the sunshine the conventional mind waxes bold and brave and salutes the regeneration of the world. We have won through once more, we've got another chance, we shall dawdle barefooted in gardens. Gone is the dark time, the emphatically dead winter of land and heart. We are, surely, about to participate in the general leafiness of things. The gurgling pigeons in the park -- formerly wretched pests -- excite our fine feelings of sympathy. We are magnanimous at seventy degrees. We have great expectations.
Legions of us swarm the sidewalks with uplifted chins, celebrating what we had no part in making. But there's a certain self-deception here. If the sun burns more beneficently these days is it any of our doing? If it shut down altogether would we be consulted? We may fancy ourselves philosophers improvising on the rhapsody of spring, but we display, in the main, scarcely more independence than the pigeons. We are seduced by the flowers April throws our way and esteem ourselves wise for having noted they are pretty. We find in the loveliness of the season not a theme for true reflection but only a license for yearning. We indulge without compunction, believing that we are in accord with the sacred law of the moment, when really we continue to //flee// the present moment and lust for the unborn fixture -- some garden of promise yet to bloom.
Better we should turn our minds to dissolution and death -- right now in the brilliant season. Any fellow of sound faculties can stroll through late November and remark the transience of vital forces. Ah, withered grass, leaden skies, brief span of happiness! He is moved -- having, as he thinks, come to terms with mortality. The same fellow, come the daffodils, is warbling about youth and beauty. But where is the brave heart who sees deeply in spring the bud dying to the flower, the flower to the fruit? Where is he who at close of the year regards the snow-bitten rose and is not cast down? Where is he who lives serenely in fair times and foul? All things shall pass not only in black November but in pastel April as well -- a lapsing without pause, a continual perishing of the dear, the unlovely, and the indifferent. Nature suffers no moratorium on decay; it unrolls itself in seasons that, we, with our predilections for warmth and light, habitually misunderstand, finding gloom this month and gaiety in that.
To dote on April is to despise November. We are caught up in liking and disliking, taking a sip of truth when we can't avoid it and spitting it out at the first opportunity, living tentatively like wine-tasters. We ride the seasons on and ever on to the sweet, cruel music of hope, while the world burns because of //us//, because we've lit it with the torch of delusion. Should we not now starve the fire to coolness and let be the race of forms we call our life? Change sweeps all forms away, and no one can find peace in his time who does not attend to this universal moving-on.
So then, it is spring and the bluebirds are twittering. Shall we pick our scabs and visit graveyards? Of course not. Let us go on breathing; if the air is sweet, why then, it is sweet. If the rain blows off and the sun slants warm through the willow tree, so be it. Let us sit on the porch and be alive. No need to scourge ourselves or sleep on gravel. No need to curse winter or praise spring. They come and go independently of us: dead grass, dragonflies, thunderstorms, and snow -- what scene should we prefer when all are flowing? Reality cannot be seized; it arises when the mind stops grasping. He who lets go is he who is established. He lives in all seasons but serves none.
Bodhi Leaves No. B 92
Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka
by No Ajahn Chah
from Reflections, Compiled and Edited by Dhamma Garden
A visiting Zen student asked Ajahn Chah, "How old are you? Do you live here all year round?" "I live nowhere," he replied. "There is no place you can find me. I have no age. To have age, you must exist, and to think you exist is already a problem. Don't make problems; then the world has none either. Don't make a self. There's nothing more to say."
Once there was a layman who came to Ajahn Chah and asked him who Ajahn Chah was. Ajahn Chah, seeing that the spiritual development of the individual was not very advanced, pointed to himself and said, "This, this is Ajahn Chah."
On another occasion, Ajahn Chah was asked the same question by someone else. This time, however, seeing that the questioner's capacity to understand the Dhamma was higher, Ajahn Chah answered by saying, "Ajahn Chah? There is NO Ajahn Chah."
The "One Who Knows" clearly knows that all conditioned phenomena are unsubstantial. So this "One Who Knows" does not become happy or sad, for it does not follow changing conditions. To become glad is to be born; to become dejected is to die. Having died, we are born again; having been born, we die again. This birth and death from one moment to the next is the endless spinning wheel of samsara.
Conditions don't belong to us. They follow their own natural course. We can't do anything about the way the body is. We can beautify it a little, make it look attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everyone is in the same boat. That is the way the body is. We can't make it any other way. But, what we can improve and beautify is the mind.
If your mind is happy, then you are happy anywhere you go. When wisdom awakens within you, you will see Truth wherever you look. Truth is all there is. It's like when you've learned how to read - you can then read anywhere you go.
Because people don't see themselves, they can commit all sorts of bad deeds. They don't look at their own minds. When people are going to do something bad, they have to look around first to see if anyone is looking: "Will my mother see me?" "Will my husband see me?" "Will the children see me?" Will my wife see me?' If there's no one watching, then they go right ahead and do it. This is insulting themselves. They say no one is watching, so they quickly finish their bad deed before anyone will see. And what about themselves? Aren't they a "somebody" watching?
Strengthening the mind is not done by making it move around as is done to strengthen the body, but by bringing the mind to a halt, bringing it to rest.
Where does rain come from? It comes from all the dirty water that evaporates from the earth, like urine and the water you throw out after washing your feet. Isn't it wonderful how the sky can take that dirty water and change it into pure, clean water? Your mind can do the same with your defilements if you let it.
Any speech which ignores uncertainty is not the speech of a sage.
If you really see uncertainty clearly, you will see that which is certain. The certainty is that things must inevitably be uncertain and that they cannot be otherwise. Do you understand? Knowing just this much, you can know the Buddha, you can rightly do reverence to him.
If your mind tries to tell you it has already attained the level of sotapanna, go and bow to a sotapanna. He'll tell you himself it's all uncertain. If you meet a sakadagami, go and pay respects to him. When he sees you, he'll simply say, "Not a sure thing!" If there's an anagami, go and bow to him. He'll tell you only one thing. "Uncertain!" If you meet even an arahant, go and bow to him. He'll tell you even more firmly, "It's all even more uncertain!" You'll hear the words of the Noble Ones: "Everything is uncertain. Don't cling to anything!"
Sometimes I'd go to see old religious sites with ancient temples. In some places they would be cracked. Maybe one of my friends would remark, "Such a shame, isn't it? It's cracked." I'd answer, "If they weren't cracked there'd be no such thing as the Buddha. There'd be no Dhamma. It's cracked like this because it's perfectly in line with the Buddha's teaching."
Some of you have come from thousands of miles away, from Europe and America and other far-off places, to listen to the Dhamma here at Nong Pah Pong Monastery. To think that you've come from so far and gone through so much trouble to get here. Then we have these people who live just outside the wall of the monastery but who have yet to enter through its gate. It makes you appreciate good kamma more, doesn't it?
Don't think that only sitting with the eyes closed is practice. If you do think this way, then quickly change your thinking. Steady practice is keeping mindful in every posture, whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down. When coming out of sitting, don't think that you're coming out of meditation, but that you are only changing postures. If you reflect in this way, you will have peace. Wherever you are, you will have this attitude of practice with you constantly. You will have a steady awareness within yourself.
I went all over looking for places to meditate. I didn't realize it was already there, in my heart. All the meditation is right there inside you. Birth, old age, sickness, and death are right there within you. I travelled all over until I was ready to drop dead from exhaustion. Only then, when I stopped, did I find what I was looking for ... inside me.
Whatever we do, we should see ourselves. Reading books doesn't ever give rise to anything. The days pass by, but we don't see ourselves. Knowing about practice is practicing in order to know.
The basics in our practice should be first, to be honest and upright; second, to be wary of wrongdoing; and third, to be humble within one's heart, to be aloof and content with little. If we are content with little in regards to speech and in all other things, we will see ourselves, we won't be distracted. The mind will have a foundation of virtue, concentration, and wisdom.
Of course there are dozens of meditation techniques, but it all comes down to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. Why not give it a try?
Regardless of time and place, the whole practice of Dhamma comes to completion at the place where there is nothing. It's the place of surrender, of emptiness, of laying down the burden. This is the finish.
The Dhamma is not far away. It's right with us. The Dhamma isn't about angels in the sky or anything like that. It's simply about us, about what we are doing right now. Observe yourself. Sometimes there is happiness, sometimes suffering, sometimes comfort, sometimes pain... this is Dhamma. Do you see it? To know this Dhamma, you have to read your experiences.
The Buddha taught us that whatever makes the mind distressed in our practice hits home. Defilements are distressed. It's not that the mind is distressed! We don't know what our mind and defilements are. Whatever we aren't satisfied with, we just don't want anything to do with. Our way of life is not difficult. What's difficult is not being satisfied, not agreeing with it. Our defilements are the difficulty.
We don't become monks or nuns to eat well, sleep well, and be very comfortable, but to know suffering: -how to accept it...-how to get rid of it... -how not to cause it. So don't do that which causes suffering, like indulging in greed, or it will never leave you.
People have suffering in one place, so they go somewhere else. When suffering arises there, they run off again. They think they're running away from suffering, but they're not. Suffering goes with them. They carry suffering around without knowing it. If we don't know suffering then we can't know the cause of suffering. If we don't know the cause of suffering then we can't know the cessation of suffering. There's no way we can escape it.
Some people get bored, fed up, tired of the practice and lazy. They can't seem to keep the Dhamma in mind. Yet, if you go and scold them, they'll never forget that. Some may remember it for the rest of their lives and never forgive you for it. But when it comes to the Buddha's teaching, telling us to practise conscientiously, why do they keep forgetting these things? Why don't people take these things to heart?
It was Christmas and the foreign monks had decided to celebrate it. They invited some laypeople as well as Ajahn Chah to join them. The laypeople were generally upset and skeptical. Why, they asked, were Buddhists celebrating Christmas? Ajahn Chah then gave a talk on religion in which he said, "As far as I understand, Christianity teaches people to do good and avoid evil, just as Buddhism does, so what is the problem? However, if people are upset by the idea of celebrating Christmas, that can be easily remedied. We won't call it Christmas. Let's call it 'Christ-Buddhamas.' Anything that inspires us to see what is true and do what is good is proper practice. You may call it any name you like."
Once you understand non-self, then the burden of life is gone. You'll be at peace with the world. When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness and we can truly be happy. Learn to let go without struggle, simply let go, to be just as you are - no holding on, no attachment, free.
All bodies are composed of the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire. When they come together and form a body we say it's a male, a female, give it names, and so on, so that we can identify each other more easily. But actually there isn't anyone there - only earth, water, wind and fire. Don't get excited over it or infatuated by it. If you really look into it, you will not find anyone there.
Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will have complete peace.
Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught us that sort of home is not our real home. It's a home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace.
Virtue, concentration, and wisdom together make up the Path. But this Path is not yet the true teaching, not merely the Path that will take you there. For example, say you traveled the road from Bangkok to Wat Pah Pong; the road was necessary for your journey, but you were seeking Wat Pah Pong, the monastery, not the road. In the same way we can say that virtue, concentration, and wisdom are outside the truth of the Buddha but are the road that leads to this truth. When you have developed these three factors, the result is the most wonderful peace.
Someone once asked Ajahn Chah about the way he taught meditation: "Do you use the method of daily interviewing to examine the mind-state of a person?" Ajahn Chah responded by saying, "Here I teach disciples to examine their own mind-states, to interview themselves. Maybe a monk is angry today, or maybe he has some desire in his mind. I don't know it but he should. He doesn't have to come and ask me about it, does he?"
A devout elderly lady from a nearby province came on a pilgrimage to Wat Pah Pong. She told Ajahn Chah she could stay only a short time, as she had to return to take care of her grandchildren, and since she was an old lady, she asked if he could please give her a brief dhamma talk. Ajahn Chah replied with great force, "Hey, listen! There's no one here, just this! No owner, no one to be old, to be young, to be good or bad, weak or strong. Just this, that's all - just various elements of nature going their own way, all empty. No one born and no one to die! Those who speak of birth and death are speaking the language of ignorant children. In the language of the heart, of Dhamma, there are no such things as birth and death."
The heart of the path is quite easy. There's no need to explain anything at length. Let go of love and hate and let things be. That's all that I do in my own practice.
Sunyata is another one of those chronically misunderstood and misinterpreted words that shows up so often in Buddhism and things-Zen. The primary reason is because Sunyata is so intertwined in both Mahayana and the generally accepted Buddhist concept of the "middle way" it is taken to mean the "middle way." There is as well, the word Samsara which is taken to mean, and I borrow a direct quote from the paper on Te Shan, "the typical run-in-the-mill everyday garden variety type general population living in Samsara person" as meaning just that...the day-to-day world of those whose attainment is unrealized. It is taken to be directly opposite of Nirvana, or the considered by some, Enlightened state. As the "middle way" Sunyata is thus taken as being in the middle, half-way between the two because it is the "middle way." Sunyata ends up being pictured, for example, like the fulcrum in the middle of say a teeter-totter, with everyday common Samsara balanced at one end, Sunyata in the middle, and Enlightened Nirvana on the other end. The problem with such an anology, besides being patently not so, is that it creates a dualism that isn't there...Samsara being at one end, Nirvana at the other. Sunyata is NOT the fulcrum balancing both equally, Sunyata is the WHOLE, encompassing, encompassed and THE encompassing. Enlightenment is NOT Nirvana, Nirvana is NOT Enlightenment. Sunyata, on the other one hand clapping, is...is what? Well read on:
Whatever can be conceptualized is therefore relative, and whatever is relative is Sunya, empty. Since absolute inconceivable truth is also Sunya, Sunyata or the void is shared by both Samsara and Nirvana. Ultimately, Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood.
I.Sunyata, an Overview
Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha was able to realize "Emptiness" (s. sunyata). By doing so he freed himself from unsatisfactoriness (s. dukkha). From the standpoint of Enlightenment, Sunyata is the reality of all worldly existences (s. dharma). It is the realization of Bodhi - Prajna. From the standpoint of liberation, Sunyata is the skilful means that disentangle oneself from defilement and unsatisfactoriness. The realization of Sunyata leads one to no attachment and clinging. It is the skilful means towards Enlightenment and also the fruit of Enlightenment.
There are two ways for us to understand this concept of Sunyata in the Mahayana context. One way is to try to understand the explanation about its true nature. The other way is the realization through practice. What we are going to discuss now is about its true nature.
Mahayana teachings have always considered that the understanding of Sunyata is an attainment which is extremely difficult and extraordinarily profound.
For example, in the Prajna Sutra it says "That which is profound, has Sunyata and non-attachment as its significance. No form nor deeds, no rising nor falling, are its implications."
Again in the Dvadasanikaya Sastra (composed by Nagarjuna, translated to Chinese by Kumarajiva, A.D. 408) it says: "The greatest wisdom is the so-called Sunyata."
This Sunyata, no creation, calmness and extinction (s. nirvana) is of a profound significance in the Mahayana teachings. Why do we see it as the most profound teaching? This is because there is no worldly knowledge, be it general studies, science or philosophy, that can lead to the attainment of the state of Sunyata. The only path to its realization is via the supreme wisdom of an impassionate and discriminating mind. It is beyond the common worldly understanding.
II. The Significance of Sunyata and Cessation
The Buddha always used the terms void, no rising and falling, calmness and extinction to explain the profound meaning of Sunyata and cessation. The teachings of the Buddha that were described in words are generally common to worldly understandings. If one interprets the teachings superficially from the words and languages used, one will only gain worldly knowledge and not the deeper implication of the teachings. For more in a similar vein see David Hume, who said knowledge is not attained by reasoning a priori, but arises ENTIRELY from experience, when we find that any particular objects (or phenomenon) are constantly conjoined with each other. The teachings of the Buddha and What the Buddha Said have their supra-mundane contexts that are beyond the worldly knowledge.
For example, Sunyata and the state of Nirvana where there is no rising nor falling, are interpreted by most people as a state of non-existence and gloom. They fail to realize that quite the opposite, Sunyata is of substantial and positive significance.
sutras often use the word "great void" to explain the significance of
Sunyata. In general, we understand the "great void" as something that
contains absolutely nothing. However, from a Buddhist perspective, the nature
of the "great void" implies something which does not obstruct other
things, in which all matters perform their own functions. Materials are form,
which by their nature, imply obstruction. The special characteristic of the "great
void" is non-obstruction. The "great void" therefore, does not
serve as an obstacle to them. Since the "great void" exhibits no obstructive
tendencies, it serves as the foundation for matter to function. In other words,
if there was no "great void" nor characteristic of non-obstruction,
it would be impossible for the material world to exist and function.
The "great void" is not separated from the material world. The latter depends on the former. We can state that the profound significance of Sunyata and the nature of Sunyata in Buddhism highlights the "great void's" non-obstructive nature.
Sunyata does not imply the "great void". Instead, it is the foundation of all phenomena (form and mind). It is the true nature of all phenomena, and it is the basic principle of all existence. In other words, if the universe's existence was not empty nor impermanent, then all resulting phenomena could not have arisen due to the co-existence of various causes and there would be no rising nor falling. The nature of Sunyata is of positive significance!
Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.
Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this "state of existence", everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.
The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this "state of cessation". This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.
III. Contemplating the Implications of Sunyata and Stillness (Nirvana) by Observing Worldly Phenomena
All existences exhibit Void-nature and Nirvana-nature. These natures are the reality of all existence. To realise the truth, we have to contemplate and observe our worldly existence. We cannot realize the former without observing the latter. Consider this Heart Sutra extract, "Only when Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practised the deep course of wisdom of Prajna Paramita did he come to realise that the five skandhas (aggregates, and material and mental objects) were void."
Profound wisdom leads us to the realization that all existences are of void-nature. The sutras demonstrate that the profound principle can be understood by contemplating and observing the five skandhas. We cannot realise the truth by seeking something beyond the material and mental world. The Buddha, using his perfect wisdom, observed worldly existence from various implications and aspects, and came to understand all existences.
In summary, there are three paths to this observation:
a) We should observe the preceding state and the current state of conditions. i.e., Observation according to the concept of time.
b) We should observe existences according to their interrelationships. i.e., Observation via the concept of space (either two or three-dimensions).
c) We should observe the true nature of all myriad beings. This is like observing the worldly existences of a point, a line and an area. Those with supreme wisdom understand the true nature of all worldly existences by observing vertically the relationships between the preceding and current conditions, and horizontally the interrelationships. Then we can understand the true meaning of void-nature and Nirvana-nature.
III.1 By observing the preceding-stage and the current-stage conditions, we can verify the Law of Impermanence of all worldly existences. All existences, be they material or mental, be they the material world, or the physical or mental states of sentient beings, are subject to continuous change.
The world may have certain states of beings where they stay static or are in equilibrium on a temporary basis (for example hibernation). But when we observe them with supreme wisdom, we will find that not only do they keep changing on a yearly basis, but also that this change applies to even every briefest moment. After the current state of conditions have ceased to exist, the newly-formed state materialises. This is the state of rising and falling. The rising and falling of each small moment reveals that all existences are ever-moving and ever-changing.
Conventional scholars have a very good explanation of these ever-changing worldly conditions. However they, including the practitioners of Dharma, try to make sense of the reality from the ever-changing worldly existences. That is, they are fooled by the material existences and are not able to understand the deeper truth of all existences.
Only those with the supreme wisdom of the Buddha and Mahabodhisattvas realize and understand that all existences are illusions. They understand that existences are not real from the observation of the flow of changing existences. The numerous illusionary existences may well be diverse and confusing, arising and decaying. But when we look into their true nature, we will find them void and of Nirvana-nature.
On the other hand, since all existences are of Nirvana-nature, they appear from the perspective of time, to be ever-changing. They never stay the same even for the briefest moment. Impermanence implies existences do not have a permanent entity. This is another implication of the nature of Sunyata and stillness.
From observations of existence via inter-relationships, we can conclude that nothing
is independent of the Law of Causation, and that everything is without ego. For
example, the Buddha explains that the individual sentient being is composed of
physical, physiological and psychological phenomena. The so called ego is a deluded
illusion which does not exist in reality. The dissipation of that deluded illusion
is conjectured forth as the Death of the Ego. Its existence depends on the combination
of both physical and mental factors. It is a union of organic phenomena. Thus
we call it the empirical ego. It is a mistake to cling to it as an infatuated
The Indian concept of the supreme spirit implies someone who rules. The spirit is the ruler who is independent of is self-dependent and all causes. In other words, the spirit is the one who is free from all primary and secondary causes (for physical and mental aspects). The spirit is the one who has the soul of his own body and mind. This is the ego or supreme spirit that the theologists cling to. From their view point, the only way to avoid physical and mental decay is to be self-determined and self-sovereign. In this way, the supreme being can stay permanent in the cycle of reincarnation, and return to the absolute reality by liberating himself from life and death.
But from the profound contemplation and wisdom of the Buddha and Mahabodhisattvas, we know there is no such reality. Instead, egolessness (Anatta, the Concept of No-self in Buddhism) is the only path to understand the reality of the deluded life. All existences are subject to the Law of Causes and Conditions. These include the smallest particles, the relationship between the particles, the planets, and the relationship between them, up to and including the whole universe! From the smallest particles to the biggest matter, there exists no absolute independent identity.
Egolessness (non-self) implies the void characteristics of all existence. Egolessness (non-self) signifies the non-existence of permanent identity for self and existence (Dharma). Sunyata stresses the voidness characteristic of self and existence (Dharma). Sunyata and egolessness possess similar attributes. As we have discussed before, we can observe the profound significance of Sunyata from the perspective of inter-dependent relationships. Considering Dharma-nature and the condition of Nirvana, all existences are immaterial and of a Void-nature. Then we see each existence as independent of each other. But then we cannot find any material that does exist independent of everything else. So egolessness also implies Void-nature!
III.3 From the observation of all existences, we can infer the theory of Nirvana and the complete cessation of all phenomena. From the viewpoint of phenomena, all existences are so different from each other, that they may contradict each other. They are so Chaotic (Hun-Tun). In reality, their existence is illusionary and arises from conditional causation. They seem to exist on one hand, and yet do not exist on the other. They seem to be united, but yet they are so different to one another. They seem to exist and yet they do cease! Ultimately everything will return to harmony and complete calmness. This is the nature of all existence. It is the final resting place for all. If we can understand this reality and remove our illusions, we can find this state of harmony and complete calmness.
All our contradictions, impediments and confusion will be converted to equanimity. Free from illusion, complete calmness will be the result of attaining Nirvana. The Buddha emphasized the significance of this attainment and encouraged the direct and profound contemplation on Void-nature. He said, "Since there is no absolute self-nature thus every existence exhibits Void-nature. Because it is void, there is no rising nor falling. Since there is no rising nor falling, thus everything was originally in complete calmness. Its self-nature is nirvana."
From the viewpoint of time and space, we can surmise that all existences are impermanent, all existences have no permanent self, and Nirvana is the result of the cessation of all existences - the Three Universal Characteristics. But there are not three different truths. Instead, they are the characteristics of the only absolute truth and the ultimate reality. This is the explanation of Dharma-nature and the condition of Nirvana. The three characteristics are the one characteristic, and vice versa!
We may cultivate our meditation, contemplating the impersonality of all existences. This will lead us to Enlightenment via the path of voidness. Contemplating Nirvana and complete calmness leads to Enlightenment by the path of immaterial form. Contemplating the impermanence of all existences, leads us to Enlightenment by the path of inactivity (no desire).
The Three Universal Characteristics are the other implications of Dharma-nature and Nirvana. The paths to Enlightenment are also the same cause of absolute reality. All of them return to the Dharma-nature and the condition of Nirvana. In short, the teachings of the Buddha start from the observation and contemplation of all worldly phenomena. They are like thousands of streams of water competing with each other, and flowing from the top of the mountains to the bottom. Eventually, all of them return to the ocean of voidness and Nirvana.
IV. Sunyata and Cessation is the Truth (Nature) of All Existences.
All existences that are recognised by worldly understanding, whether materially, spiritually or intellectually, have always been misunderstood by us. We cling to them as real, physically existing and permanent. Actually, they are only unreal names.
The more precise meaning of the term "unreal name" is "assumption" or "hypothesis". It is an empirical name. It is formed by the combination of various causes and effects. (These include the effects of mental consciousness.) It does not exist by itself. Everything exists relatively. Thus, what is the ultimate truth? If we investigate existence further, we realize that all existences are empty. This is the fundamental characteristic and reality of all existence. It is ultimate and absolute. But we should not think that empty means nothing. It implies the disentanglement from the worldly misunderstanding of the existence of self, identity, and the realization of the absolute.
In the Sutras and Abhidharma, the worldly understandings are sometimes referred to as all phenomena (Dharma). Sunyata is referred to as "Dharma-nature", and hence there is a distinction between "phenomena" and "Dhamma-nature". However, this is only an expedient explanation that helps us to realize the truth of Sunyata through the phenomena of all existences.
We should not think that "existence" and "nature"; or the "phenomena of Dharma" and "Dharma-nature" are something contradictory. They are just concepts needed to understand the implication of Sunyata.
We may analyze the expedient explanation of "existence" and the "nature (voidness)" from two aspects:
a) The truth of Sunyata is the nature of each individual existence. Each step we make in understanding that each minor form has a nature that is not describable by words, are steps to the realisation of the truth of Sunyata. The Sunyata of Dharma nature is the same for all, it is non distinguishable. However, from our deluded viewpoint, we assume that it is the nature of each individual existence and not an abstract common nature.
b) Dharma-nature is best described as the characteristic of equanimity of Sunyata. It cannot be described as many or one and absolute. (One is relative to many!) We cannot say that the Dharma-nature is different to existence. But at the same time, we cannot say that it is equal to existence. All in all, Sunyata is the nature of existence. Although the realization of supreme wisdom may seem to be abstract superficially, it embodies very substantial and compelling ideas.
V. The Relationship between Phenomena and the Sunyata of Dharma-nature.
From our discussions above, it is very clear that existence and nature cannot be described as the same or different. In the Mahayana teaching, the theory of "not the same nor different" is indisputable. However, in order to adapt to the different spiritual foundations and thinking, the ancient great practitioners have different explanations.
a) The Dharmalaksana Sects emphasise the "phenomena or characteristics of things". Their theory is, "the appearance of karmic seeds nurtures the rising of things and vice versa." The Law of Dependent Origination of karmic seeds explains all worldly (mundane) and out-worldly (supramundane) Dharma. When this sect explains impermanence and the rising and falling of all existence, they omit to mention its relationship with the Dharma nature that is not rising nor falling.
According to them, under the definitions of impermanence and rising and falling, "karmic seeds" appear and nurture the rising of things and in return, can be formed. Therefore, the nature of "no rising nor falling" cannot be the foundation of any existence.
This school is famous for its detail and careful observation. However, there is a tendency to misunderstand the theory of no-rising nor falling (the eternal Dharma-nature) and the theory of rising and falling (the causative Dharma) as two separate identities.
This is definitely not the intention of the scholars of the Dharmalaksana Sect. This is because as we detach ourselves from the illusion of rising and falling, and the Law of Cause and Effect, we will see the truth of Dharma-nature. We will realize that the Dharma and Dharma-nature are neither the same nor different. This is nature of the individual existence that is beyond description. It has no difference from the Dharma. To differentiate the Dharma from aspects of rising and falling, is to emphasize the difference between "nature" and "phenomena" only.
b) The schools of Tien Tai, Xian Shou and Chan (Zen) emphasize the Dharma-nature. They call themselves the "School of Nature" and the perfect intercommunion of all things is their emphasis. In respect of the equanimity of Dharma-nature, the phenomena of all things are embodied in Dharma-nature. The phenomena of Dharma that is pure or deluded arises from Dharma-nature.
The scholars of Tien Tai called it the "Embodied nature". (This is the Buddha-nature that includes both good and evil.) The scholars of Xian Shou say, "It is arising from primal nature", and the scholars of Chan (Zen) say, "It is nature that causes the rising of things". All Dharma is Dharma-nature. It is not different from Dharma-nature. Dharma and Dharma-nature are not two separate identities, "Phenomena" and "nature" are also not distinguishable either. In other words, there is no difference between principle (absolute) and practice (relative).
This also implies that there is no differences among practices. The schools that emphasize Dharma-nature do not emphasize differences. However, scholars who misunderstood its implication, always became attached to the principles (an absolute), and neglect the practice (a relative). This is definitely not the aim of the schools of "Dharma-nature".
c) The School of Madhyamika, which is also called the "School of Sunyata", explains the truth directly. They say that existence and Sunyata are neither the same nor different. According to the School of Sunyata, all Dharma arises from causes and conditions. Therefore the nature of all Dharma is empty. Because of its empty nature, it has to rely on causes and conditions in order to arise.
In other words, all Dharma arises from causes and conditions, and all Dharma is empty in nature. The Law of Dependent Origination (existence) and the nature of emptiness is neither the same nor different. They exist mutually. The truth of "Sunyata" and "existence", and "nature" and "phenomena" are not in conflict with each other. Unlike the scholars of the Dharmalaksana Sect who explain the Dharma only from the aspect of Dependent Origination, or the scholars of Dharma-nature that explain the existence of Dharma only from the aspect of Dharma-nature, the scholars of Madhyamika explain the truth of the Dharma from both aspects. Hence this is called the Middle Path which does not incline to either side.
These are the three main schools in Mahayana teaching. The Dharma and Dharma-nature resemble worldly phenomena and entity, but they are not identical. In Mahayana teaching, the Dharma-nature is the nature of each individual Dharma. There is no entity that causes the appearance of things. Although Dharma (existences) and Dharma-nature are not identical, they are also not beyond Dharma (existences). We should not think that these concepts are too deep beneath or too high above us. By realising the Dharma and Dharma nature from the existence (Dharma) around us, then can the real and profound implications of Sunyata be portrayed.
Rice, Sweeping Leaves
By I. M. Oderberg
What we do each day should benefit all others. -- Hui-neng, Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism
Every people in history has contributed something of value to human advancement, adding a distinctive quality to the sum of mankind. Ancient China's offering is a large one stressing character and the self-controlled man, but also covering many aspects of endeavor. One of these creations is Ch'an Buddhism, a system of enlightenment with nonintellectual or rather intuitive as well as intellectual facets. An Indian monk known as Bodhidharma brought it to China in the early part of the 6th century, and his successors were known as the Chinese patriarchs. He transmitted to them the "Dharma-knowledge" symbolized by his robe and bowl, but what was passed on was not really a tangible thing at all but something spiritual, beautiful and unnamable.
The sixth and last patriarch was Hui-neng, who gave Ch'an (A Chinese adaptation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, signifying concentration or meditation) a particularly Chinese cast without Indian coloration, and he is a luminous instance of the practical outlook of his people on daily problems and even metaphysical questions. His life and method of presenting ideas show a catalytic power still capable of affecting people in search of their 'real nature' or essence. There is no wonder that his work influenced not only Ch'an Buddhism ever after-ward, but also spread to Japan where his name became Eno and his insights transformed into Zen. He left behind him a single scripture of surpassing excellence and simplicity known either as The Platform Sutra or The Altar Sutra (according to which of the few surviving versions is taken up). It provides a brief autobiography as well as his instructions, and contrasts with the later flamboyant exaggerations and additions that encumber the original like a filigree, and today go by the Japanese name "Zen," but that also affected even the Chinese form "Ch'an" of centuries after his. Hui-neng was the religious or "Dharma" -- name assumed in adult life by the only son of an official surnamed Lu who had been demoted and exiled. He was three years old when his father died, and his mother took him to a small town near Canton where they lived in great poverty. As a consequence, he received no education and was illiterate even in maturity. He carried a meager living selling firewood in the city.
On one occasion, he heard a man reciting a verse from the Buddhist classic known as the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the line -- "Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment" moved him deeply. Introduced into a new thought-world, he asked for the source of such ideas. (There are several variations, one giving the passage as "No mind, no abode, and here works the mind.) The man said he had received the text from its famous commentator Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch who was abbot of a monastery at Huang-mei, five hundred miles to the north. Not long afterward, Huineng received a sum of money from a benevolent acquaintance and he settled it upon his mother to assure her an income. He then traveled north and after varied experiences, such as expounding to a Buddhist nun a text she had chanted, he reached the monastery.
The abbot asked him who he was and what he wanted, and Huineng told him he wished to attain buddha-insight. Hung-jen replied, "How can you, a barbarian from the south, expect to receive enlightenment?" Hui-neng said that all human beings are intrinsically the same in their buddha-nature; the only difference is in their physical appearance. Hung-jen appears to have recognized his innate wisdom, but set him to work in the kitchen where he pounded rice for eight months.
One day, Hung-jen announced the time had come for him to pass on the "Dharma-inheritance" derived from Bodhidharma. He asked each monk to write a stanza upon the theme of his self-nature: Why does it obscure the gateway to understanding the world of birth and death? Whoever caught the basic idea would be designated his successor. The monks felt that Shen-hsiu, a disciple of Hung-jen's for thirty years and regarded as standing next to him, would certainly be chosen. He was a spiritual man, modest, and possessed considerable erudition and high intelligence. The others felt so convinced of the outcome they decided not to submit their own responses. Shen-hsiu himself, however, felt doubts of his worthiness, seesawing in his mind until late at night when he decided to write an unsigned verse upon a corridor wall being readied for a painting --
The body is the bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.*
*There are several versions of both Shen-hsiu's stanza and Hui-neng's reply. One Chinese variation gives "bright mirror stand." H. P. Blavatsky gives the essence of the thought in The Voice of the Silence: "The mind is like a mirror. It gathers dust while it reflects."
He felt that although it did not carry his name, if it struck the right note the Patriarch would know its author. The next day the monks acclaimed it as a verse of great perception, and Hung-en then inspected it. He suggested the brethren should reflect deeply upon its meaning.
Later, Hui-neng heard of the abbot's announcement and the chatter about Shen-hsiu's stanza. He requested an acolyte to take him to the wall. Turning to a monk standing there, a former petty official, he explained that he could not read and asked him to chant the text. The monk was astounded, but complied. Then Hui-neng requested the monk to write under it his response, which read --
By no means is bodhi a kind of tree,
Nor is the bright reflecting mind a mirror.
Since mind is emptiness,*
Where can dust collect?
*The word in Sanskrit is sunyata, the void or voidness, the "non-substantial and non-self nature of beings, and a pointer indicating the state of absolute nonattachment and freedom." This definition is from the study of sunyata, by Sengchao, but the philosophy behind the term is better expounded by G. de Purucker in discussing the fullness of the seeming void (see Fountain-Source of Occultism).
Alternative readings in the Tun-huang and Hsi-hsia versions are --
Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror has no stand.
Buddha-nature is always clean and pure,
Where is there room for dust?
The Fifth Patriarch recognized that acceptance of Hui-neng would be unwelcome to the monks who not only were northerners but also looked down upon Hui-neng as a lay-brother. So he told them: "This is still not complete understanding" and rubbed out the writing from the wall. But that night he visited Hui-neng in the kitchen, later taking him into the hall where he expounded the Diamond Cutter Sutra. When he reached the sentence: "One should use one's mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment," Hui-neng said: ". . . who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind?" The Fifth Patriarch then "handed the Dharma-knowledge" on to him "flashed direct from the Heart of Buddha."
After that he also warned him that he was in grave danger from the monks of the monastery and that he should leave immediately, in the darkness of the night. So Hui-neng departed, accompanied by Hung-jen who saw him safely to a boat and then returned to the monastery. After several days the monks asked Hung-jen about the Dharma-successorship only to learn that it had already passed to the south. They raised a hue and cry, but Hui-neng had safely escaped into wooded country where he lived for fifteen years. It was possibly this period of his life that inspired a Zen artist of Japan to depict him sweeping leaves from the path before his hut while he looked across his shoulder as though to the "Essence of Mind," which has also been symbolized in Buddhist art as the "other shore" or nirvana. (Hui-neng has provided the motif for Ch'an and Zen paintings. One depicts the six patriarchs, others various themes from his life-story and sutra. I-shan's study in calligraphy entitled Gatha of the Sixth Patriarch contains only the following eight-character passage from the Diamond Cutter Sutra -- "The Enlightenment of the Dharma rests in no finite place, it is born in the heart.") After this period Hui-neng took up public teaching, his presentation being plain, understandable, outspoken, and matter-of-fact.
Were Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng bitter opponents, then? Not at all. Each established schools that became famous and endured for a considerable time. The former's was known as the "gradual school" leading toward enlightenment, and the latter's as the "sudden school." Hui-neng himself used warm terms of Shen-hsiu in his sutra, and when the Dowager Empress Wu Tse-t'ien invited Hui-neng to the court to instruct it, the move had been suggested by Shen-hsiu who referred to him as the Sixth Patriarch, the legitimate inheritor of the Dharma-knowledge and the one most able to impart it. The ill-feeling between the schools originated in later times with those followers who identified themselves with a school rather than its message. This development is not unique to Ch'an, but can be seen in the history of other movements that begin as bearers of a spiritual teaching then decline into personality or other cults.
Hui-neng embodied the meaning of his religious name, hui standing for "the bestowal of kindness and Dharma on living beings" and neng, "ability to do the Buddha-work." He made the vow to save all sentient beings, but then explained that each individual must save himself. What did he imply by this paradox?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the bodhisattva vow ascribed to Kwan-yin --
Never will I seek or receive private, individual salvation. Never win I enter final peace alone, but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world.
Be that as it may, from hulling grains of rice to sweeping leaves, the importance of practical living while reflecting upon the nature of being and the major issues of the human condition is exemplified by Hui-neng himself. He enjoined upon all to be compassionate . . . "What we do each day should benefit all others." In his Sutra he tells us in effect that "every human being is capable of the highest truth because the Buddha-nature is in everyone." Hui-ming asked him for additional "esoteric teachings" after Hui-neng had pointed him to look within to his "real nature," and in reply he was told: "If you turn your light inwardly you will find what is esoteric within you." On another occasion he told his listeners --
If one wishes to follow certain practices in order to
seek the Buddha [outside],
I do not know where he can expect to find the real Buddha.
If one can in his own mind see the real Buddha,
That will bring about his realization of Buddhahood. He who does not seek the real Buddha in himself but seeks Him outside,
Is surely a man of great delusion.
This was said to his disciples and lay followers just before he died. He directed again that they should spread the concept that all beings have buddha-essence in themselves and that only they can work out their liberation. The Dharma-inheritance devolved upon everyone, there would not be a seventh Patriarch.
Buddha-seeds latent in our mind,
Will sprout upon the Corning of the all-pervading rain.
The 'Flower' of the doctrine having been intuitively grasped, One is bound to reap the fruit of Enlightenment.
Of the many versions of The Platform Sutra consulted, I am most indebted to the
editions of Philip B. Yampolsky, which weighed many of the ancient texts, and
Wing-tsit Chan; both have the Chinese characters as well as translations. Of considerable
help were the translation and commentary of the Zen Roshi, Zenkei Shibayama in
his work Zen Commentaries on the Mumonkan; Lu Ku'an Yu's excellent translation
and exposition in his Ch'an and Zen Teaching, Third Series; Chang Chen-Chi's The
Practice of Zen, and Wong Mou-lam's translation which gives the Cantonese rendering
of some of the names.
For the background material, reference must be made to Professor Chou Hsiang Kuang's informative but quaintly Englished Dhyana Buddhism in China -- Its History and Teaching; The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (of the dharma); The Hekigan Roku, a Japanese text translated as The Blue Cliff Records, and finally, The Golden Age of Zen by Dr. John C. H. Wu, with some valuable quotations of texts. I have also consulted Zen: Painting and Calligraphy, and Chao Lun, The Treatises of Sen-chao, translated by Walter Liebenthal, Ph.D.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)
Love and Forgiveness
This year we've
been studying and practicing the teachings on Bodhicitta-the luminous heart of
the Dharma, the awakened heart-mind-according to the Seven Points of Mind Training
of Atisha. What I want to talk about tonight is a subject we don't hear much about
in Buddhist circles. It is the real meaning of Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is said
to have two sides: the conventional side-selfless or unselfish altruism, aspiration
to relieve the suffering of all, compassion, services, and so on-and the ultimate
side, which is wisdom itself, sunyata, appreciation of the infinite openness.
Still, if we bring all that together, if we talk about it in English today, if
we really think about what it all means, I think it is all about love. We hear
the word compassion a lot these days; it's become a buzzword. But I think it is
about what we used to call in English before we heard about Buddhism, love.
The Christian notion of love means unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, openness, oneness with all, treating others as you yourself would be treated. But let's go deeper and look into what it really means to love, to learn to love. What comes up for us when we first hear the word love. Do we think of Prince Charming or Princess Charming? Do we think of our child, our parents, our pet? What? Do we think of nature, our garden, the lake we live near? What do we think of when we think of love? Our ex-wife or ex-husband? Maybe not!
When we talk about Dharma or truth or love, it all really comes down to the same thing: an appreciation of something, someone, or a certain moment in life. An appreciation of something that is perhaps beautiful or at least beautiful to us. Like the quality of our relationship. That's really what we love, isn't it? How we feel in that moment. We might say we love the other person, but if we really look into it, what are we really loving? We probably love how we feel with them.
So if we look more deeply into what this Bodhicitta, this luminous heart of the spirituality, is, I think it comes down to love. And love really is more a matter of openness, which includes things like acceptance and forgiveness. It's almost like an equanimity that appreciates things now matter how they fluctuate, rather than an attachment like "I love how I feel when I'm with you-most of the time." So what does that mean? That you don't love the person when they don't give you a good buzz. Or, "I love my work, but I can't wait until I retire." Love is not an expedient to get to retirement. Love is much deeper than that. It is where we come from, not just what we are going towards. It's like how we are when we were children. That child-like quality of wonder and appreciation that is open to everything. That's why I called it equanimity. It is appreciating everything, because everything is new. We perceive things with fresh eyes and ears. Everything is new and therefore miraculous, marvelous. We love it.
So how can we take off the veils, the obscurations that tarnish our eyes and ears and heart and mind? How can we learn to love, to be open to things as they are, which is truth according to Buddha's definition: things as they are. How can we learn to love not just our mate or ourselves or our work? How can we learn to appreciate all beings, to appreciate everything as it is? To being open to learning to love through whatever experience we have? That would be a spiritual life, a way of awakening; not just a religious thing, but a way of awakening, to learn from everything that happens. That would be to love life and to love the world. I think that is the luminous heart of the Dharma, beyond Buddhism, beyond Dharma, beyond heart and mind or body or even soul.
When we talk about love we are talking about something that is very soulful, not very abstract. Not just, "Ah, emptiness! The infinite!" Do we love ourselves well enough to give us space to be? We are all involved in all kinds of self-improvement programs. Is that love for ourselves or not? Are we doing the best by ourselves as we are trying to change for the better? Or is that just one more symptom of self-hate, of low self-esteem, or non-self-acceptance? If we don't love ourselves, how can we love others and love our life?
When we enter into the heart of the Dharma, I think it comes down to some sort of love, to speak English. It is something we can really explore and actualize, to bring out from within. Not just find love, seek love. But practice loving, be open to love. Receive love. We hear about radiating love and loving-kindness. But what about receiving it? Are we open to receiving it? How open are each of us to receiving it? We all like the idea of it, but when it comes, doesn't it make us a little nervous? Isn't it a little scary? "What does this mean? Does she really love me? Does he love me for my good looks? What does she want? Can I love equally well in return?" So many neurotic thoughts.We all have these same thoughts. We are all just junior Woody Allens. As Woody likes to say, "I am two with everything."
Even when we practice loving-kindness meditation, I feel like sometimes we are focusing on loving, fixing, solving something, but not on appreciating everything, on opening, on forgiveness. We don't hear much about forgiveness in Buddhist circles, do we? Has anybody heard any Buddhist teacher talking about forgiveness? How is that possible? And yet, it is a fact.
Forgiveness is a big part of acceptance. Can we accept, can we forgive? Not just forgiving others, but can we forgive ourselves? Aren't we all carrying around some neurosis, some guilt, some inadequacy, some feeling of failure from something in our life? I think that from the point of view of Bodhicitta, we should think about working on forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves. And notice what that brings up. Last time I said this I was in Jerusalem. You can imagine what an earful I got, about the people that we shouldn't forgive. But think about that. Who is hurting whom by carrying this unforgivingness around all the time? How much does it cost oneself? Rabbi Kushner said that if after two days you still haven't forgiven something, now it has become your problem. You are paying everyday. If you can't let go of it in two days, you should really take care. And he was talking about the most grievous things, not just about that someone cutting you off in traffic or something.
So I would like you to think about forgiveness. Forgiveness of others and forgiveness of yourself. Even of those who wronged us, abused us, victimized us. But we are still carrying all that. Let's see if we can loosen some of that burden. It doesn't mean to exonerate the others. Actually, it is their karma, whatever they did. But after two days it becomes our karma if we are still carrying it, if we haven't let it go. Then we are victimizing ourselves. In a way, life is about learning to love, to love others, to love ourselves, and to love life itself; to dance with it, to play with it, to be one with it, even with those you hate and those you think are unforgiveable.
There is a way we can recognize that we abhor someone's actions, but we don't abhor the person. We judge the action, not the person. Then we can drop some of our burden, which is just weighing ourself down. The burden of anger, of bitterness, of resentment, perhaps towards our parents. But when you become a parent, it changes your perspective on parents, doesn't it, as you see what happens to your kids and what you inflict on them, no matter how hard you try to be a great parent. You realize that your own parents are just human too, poor things! It's a circle. We are all being recycled continuously.
I myself have been looking into this a lot, feeling that I have been suffering from those things. And feeling that these Bodhicitta teachings have helped me to lighten my heart about that. I think it is a very important practice when things are difficult. We talked about the practice of tonglen, of putting yourself in the other's shoes, exchanging self and others. That's a great practice for when things are difficult. To stay in there, not to reject, not to run away, not to withdraw. To be with it a little longer, to learn from it. And sense it holistically, not just the part that's pushing your buttons. What about the rest of it? There's a lot more to any person than that action that pushes your button. I want to recommend a book by Ani Pema Chodron: It's called When Things Fall Apart. She's an expert on the subject. Check it out if you like to read books.
And do consider forgiveness and equanimity and putting down that burden. And when you reflect on this in your own time, notice what comes up in your mind, in your heart, in your psyche. Who or what comes up. It might be illuminating to see what one is still harboring. What grudges, what vendetta, what prejudices we are still carrying. It doesn't mean we have to feel guilty about those things. The bogeymen go away in the light of awareness. Let's give them a good look. What stays unconscious still drives us and afflicts us.
Does anyone have any questions or anything they want to say tonight?
My Christian heritage asks me to love my neighbor, to love a total stranger, to love unconditionally, but in my life I see that love turn to hatred so quickly. It seems like such an all-consuming emotion. Now I just want to respect and accept and be compassionate in a less overwhelming way towards those I encounter.
That's a good strategy. But I don't think anything is really all-consuming. You might see what isn't consumed by those things we are so afraid of being consumed by. Anger is a great fire, it burns us, but there is still something remaining. So maybe we don't have to be so afraid of being consumed by it. Maybe we can even look at it in another way and say "May it consume us." Then only the immutable will remain. Maybe it will consume all the dross. That is more of a tantric approach, rather than avoiding it or trying to tamp it all down so you don't get so passionate about it.
But yes, love turns to hatred very quickly. They are very connected. There is also a lot of fear around love, isn't there, just as there is fear around the negative emotions like anger and hatred. Fear of getting consumed by love, giving yourself away, losing yourself, being vulnerable. There is a great book called Love Is Letting Go of Fear. It goes into how much love we are and we have and how we are afraid to express it. That we might put ourselves out too much, too nakedly, get burned and I don't know what. We don't know what, but we're afraid. So fear is a big barrier to love. Let's see what we are afraid of. We are afraid of being seen as we are, so we put up a persona, false behavior; we tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. That comes out of fear.
If we love ourselves, we can afford to be who we are. What's the problem? We're OK. Who cares? We are old enough. Who are we kidding at this point? No more report cards. Let's not make Dharma or karma into one more report-card situation.
I read something by Dogen about dropping your body and mind and also dropping the body and mind of others.
So drop it.
It is easy for me to see the transparency of my own thoughts and energy, but it is very difficult to see the transparency of other people's thoughts and energy.
What's the difference between yours and theirs? The difference is ego-involvement. More ego-involvement on one side than the other. Once we even that out, things change. That's why the practice of putting yourself in the other's shoes evens things out. Yes Dogen said drop body and mind, but that's a pretty big statement. That's like saying die to yourself. Who can do that just by saying it. It doesn't mean to kill yourself. It means die to yourself, let go totally, lose yourself and find your true being.
Really check into your relationships, to whomever you are close to: What is really the difference between your thoughts and theirs? When you are close, aren't you really on the same team? They don't want to be sick any more than you do. And if you really love them, you don't want them to be sick, in almost exactly the same amount that you don't want you to be sick. Some people love someone so much-maybe their child-that they would rather themselves be sick than have their child sick. So there is something to learn there about love. And not just from Dogen who lived a thousand years ago.
Do you know how Dogen first had that realization? When he first dropped off body and mind? Do you remember the story? I think it was when his parents died when he was a kid. It was at the funeral. Isn't that the story? He was about nine or ten years old at his parents funeral. I don't know. I'll just tell the story. Who knows if is true.
His parents both died together or maybe it was the funeral of his last surviving parent. Dogen was a kid. And he saw the incense burning at the head of the coffin as the priests did their blessings. The incense burned down but the ash was still standing. Then the ash fell over and Dogen's body and mind dropped off. It had to do with the intense love, the loss of a parent. It comes back to something very human in a way. It had his total attention. His loss of a parent is connected to his first awakening.
So maybe some loss or letting go can cause something to shift. So it is an interesting place to be. It comes back to the tantric principle: Why avoid the passionate thing? Get in the place where that life and death cusp is, where things can shift. Where you are really consumed enough that POW! something can shift.
I'm glad you mentioned forgiveness, because it seems to me that it is one way to transition from our normal restricted, focused kind of love to a much more liberating, understanding love. I read today about this new rage in Japan: virtual pets. You can buy (for lots of money) a little computer-based 3D display of a "pet" that you wear on your wrist. And this pet needs to be fed and given water. You feed it by pushing buttons. And if the pet is not fed and given water every day, it "dies." And these things are amazingly popular in Japan; they can't keep them in the stores. I guess this shows the strong innate need we all have to love, to nurture.
Maybe we could have virtual mates or lovers! Virtual children. You get to love and nurture them, but they don't talk back or ever leave us! But can we handle real love, where things aren't so predictable? Where things can turn out bad.
You talked about focused, restricted love, sometimes called attached love. It seems that that is the tip of the iceberg of the bigger love, divine love, universal love. But its being the tip of the iceberg means that it is ice, it is true love. It is not something different. If we can push it to the point of absurdity and say love all beings, it can become very abstract. So actually we don't even feel that warm, losing yourself love ever because it is so dispersed. Like a virtual pet. All beings becomes like a virtual being. So we need to keep the human element, the tantric teaching that includes the sacred and the profane and includes our bodies and our feelings and realizes the spiritual through that. That's all love and it functions on a personal level. Like nuns who never married and never had children. They love Baby Jesus. Isn't that a pretty human kind of divine love? It's using the human tendency, which is part of the iceberg. The human feeling-including the negative feeling-is part of the iceberg. It is the tip of the divine. And it is the way in for us.
In practices like compassion and loving-kindness meditation-and this is where I think Buddhism has its genius, because it contains exercises that can actually make it happen-you start generating this feeling with the person or thing you love the most. It could be anything. It could be a pet or a dead person or an image. Then you expand it to the thing you love the next most. So it's not that hard to jump all the way from someone you love to your hated enemy next to you. But we don't start by trying to love all our enemies. It sounds good, but it's very diffuse. So we start with someone we love the most and go out from that. You broaden it. Then you start to do it with people you are indifferent to. Then to your enemies or someone who plays the role of enemy. They did something to you. They abused you maybe or insulted you. See if we can send out love and good wishes to them, honestly. That's how we expand to the whole iceberg, to the whole salty sea. It is a challenge. It is the work of life.
But let's not idealize that we are a failure until we get to the whole salty sea. That's another way of hating ourselves. It's aggressive and it's delusional. "Oh I'm not good enough. I don't really love until I love like God loves." Who loves like God loves?
I think one of the dangers in the spiritual life is totalizing things. Love all beings! Impartial love! Christ-like love! Unconditional love! Love everybody like you love your child! It is very idealistic. Maybe too idealistic. It disempowers us. It makes us feel like we are not good enough. It's putting ourselves down. It's inverted ego. Instead of putting ourselves up, we put ourselves down. It's ego. It's separateness. It's delusional.
I have a question about consort practice. I read an article recently by June Campbell, who was a translator for Kalu Rinpoche. She wrote that she had a sexual relationship with Kalu Rinpoche at the time he was ostensibly a celibate monk. And she was sworn to secrecy. She was told by attendants not to reveal the relationship. If she did, there would be dire karmic consequences. So my question is, can consort practice be sexual abuse?
If it's abusive, then it's not consort practice; it's just sex. It's not practice and it's not a consort.
Could you comment on this particular case?
What do you care about that, actually? What's your real question?
I have a lot of trouble with the kind of faith and devotion that is required for Guru Yoga. And it seems like incidents like this are not isolated.
Right. There are plenty. Too many. So why do we put people on pedestals and hand ourselves over so easily? That's our responsibility.
There are examples in the church and in the Dharma, in politics and in all kinds of positions of power. It is something we should be very aware of in our own minds, so we don't perpetrate that ourselves.
But Guru Yoga, like consort practice, is a different matter. Devotion is a very powerful way of going beyond yourself. If you are a devoted type, it can be useful. If you have an authentic relationship with a guru, it can be liberating. But not everybody is in a practice path that uses devotion or gurus. There's the do-it-yourself path. There are plenty of other ways if you don't think you're into devotion and the guru path.
Authentic Buddhism comes from one place and one place only: From the experience of enlightenment. That's the touchstone. Buddhism comes from Buddha's enlightenment under the tree. Our Dharma practice comes out of our relation to the actual lived experience of something. We participate in that. That's authentic Buddhism.
The Vajrayana has its approach, the Theravada has its approach, and other schools have their approaches. It is important to find something that is compelling for you, that is authentic spiritual life. And we should keep our eyes peeled. Not disempower ourselves and give ourselves away too soon.
Cambridge, January 27, 1997
Answer is 'There Is Nothing' "
I remember one of the teachings Ajahn Chah gave me personally. He used to come to our monastery at Wat Nanachat every week because we had built a sauna for him there. He found the sauna beneficial as his health was failing at this stage. When he came it was great because he would give us a talk as well. That day he'd come to give a talk. We had fired up the sauna, and as soon as it was ready a few monks went to help him. I would help; him sometimes; other times I let other people help.
This time, after giving a very inspiring talk to all the Western monks, he went off to the sauna, and I let some other monks look after him. I went to the back of the hall, sat outside, and had a deep, peaceful meditation. After coming out of my meditation I thought I would check out how Ajahn Chah was to see if I could help him. Walking from the hall to the sauna, I saw he had already finished and was walking in the opposite direction with some Thai lay people.
Ajahn Chah took one look at me, saw that I'd been in a deep meditation, and he said, "Brahmavamso, why?"
I was completely surprised and confused, and replied, "I don't know."
Afterwards he said, "If anyone ever asks you that question again, the correct answer is, 'There is nothing.' Do you understand?"
"Yes," I said.
"No you don't," he replied.
So if you've been asking that question, "Why? Why? Why?," I've given you the answer now. It's straight from a great meditation master, Ajahn Chah. The answer to the question "Why?" is, "There is nothing."
He was really great, Ajahn Chah, and he was correct. That will always remain with me, "There is nothing." This is emptiness. There is no doer. There is no knower, it's completely empty! To be able to get to that emptiness, encourage yourself by knowing that if you do find that emptiness, it's wonderful! All the Enlightened Ones that I have known have always been happy; they haven't regretted finding out that there's nothing there. No one has said to me, "I wish I hadn't found this out." It's liberating when you see there is nothing there. There is nothing to hold onto, and when you don't hold onto anything there's no suffering anymore.
All of the craving, all of the attachment, and all of the pain that arises because of those cravings and attachments, all have their origin in the illusion of self. That illusion of self creates a sense of "me" and a sense of amine," all that I want, all the praise and blame, the "I am" conceit (asmimana): aI am as good as the next person"; "I am better"; aI am worse." How many of you are still suffering because of comparing yourselves to someone else? You don't have to compare yourself to anybody. You're not there!
There is no more comparison anymore once you can give the "self" away. You don't even need to worry about what people think about you: because there is no one there to think about. How much suffering comes from worrying about what you think other people think about you, especially what I think about you because I'm the teacher here! What do I think about you? I don't think anything about you; because you are just not there!
Buddha referred to himself as a doctor, treating the spiritual illnesses of his
students. This metaphor is useful to keep in mind as we discuss the basic categories
of right view: The Four Noble Truths. Many people have charged Buddhism with being
pessimistic because the four truths start out with stress and suffering (dukkha),
but this charge misses the fact that the first truth is part of a strategy of
diagnosis and therapy focusing on the basic problems in life so as to offer a
solution to it. This is the sense in which the Buddha was like a doctor; focusing
on the disease he wanted to cure. The total cure he promised as a result of his
course of therapy shows that, in actuality, he was much less pessimistic than
the vast majority of the world, for whom wisdom means accepting the bad things
in life with the good, assuming that there is no chance in this life for unalloyed
happiness. The Buddha was an extremely demanding person, unwilling to bend to
this supposed wisdom or to rest with anything less than absolute happiness. We
are fortunate that he was so demanding and succeeded in his aim, for otherwise
we would have to undertake the uncertain task of tying to discover the way to
that happiness ourselves.
Once the problem of stress and suffering is solved, he said, there are no more problems. This is why he limited his teaching to this issue, even though his own Awakening encompassed much more. The vicious cycle that operates between suffering and ignorance-- with ignorance underlying the craving that causes suffering, and suffering causing the bewilderment that leads people to act in ignorant and unskillful ways--can be broken down only when one focuses on understanding suffering and stress and the causal network that surrounds them. Most people are so bewildered by the complexities of suffering and stress that they do not even know what the true problem is. Thus they may deny that they are suffering, or may imagine that something stressful can actually be a solution to their problems. The genius of the Buddha is that he recognized the most elegant and comprehensive way to deal with every variety of dissatisfaction in life. When suffering and stress are seen with clear knowledge, they no longer can cause bewilderment and the cycle that underlies all the problems of experience can be disbanded for good.
This clear knowledge is based on knowledge of the four noble truths. These truths are best understood not as the content of a belief, but as categories for viewing and classifying the process of immediate experience. The Buddha refers to them as categories of "appropriate attention", a skillful alternative to the common way that people categorize their experience in terms of two dichotomies: being and non-being, and self/other. For several reasons, these common dichotomies are actually problem-causing, rather than problem-solving. The being/non-being dichotomy, for instance, comes down to the question of whether or not there exist actual "things" behind the changing phenomena of experience. This type of questioning deals, by definition, with possibilities that cannot be directly experienced: If the things in question could be experienced, then they wouldn't by lying behind experience. Thus the being/non-being dichotomy pulls one's attention into the land of conjecture--"a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views," and away from the area of direct awareness where the real problem and its solution lies.
As for the self/other dichotomy, there is the initial difficulty of determining what the self is. Any true self would have to lie totally under one's own control, and yet nothing that one might try to identify as one's self actually meets this criterion. Although the sense of self may seem intuitive enough, when carefully examined it shows itself to be based on confused perceptions and ideas. If one's basic categories for understanding experience are a cause for confusion in this way, they can only lead to confused, unskillful action, and thus to more suffering and stress.
A second problem, no matter how one might define a self, is the question of how to prove whether or not it actually exists. This question entangles the mind in the irresolvable problems of the being/non-being dichotomy mentioned above: Because the problem is phrased in terms that cannot be directly experienced, it forces the solution into a realm that cannot be experienced, either. Regardless of whether one would answer the question with a yes or a no, the terms of the question focus on an area outside of direct experience and thus away from the true problem--the direct experience of suffering--and actually make it worse. If one assumes the existence of a self, one must take on the implicit imperative to maximize the self's well-being through recourse to the "other". This recourse may involve either exploiting the "other" or swallowing the "other" into the self by equating one's self with the cosmos as a whole. Either approach involves clinging and craving, which leads to further suffering and stress. On the other hand, if one denies any kind of self, saying that the cosmos is totally "other", then one is assuming the there is nothing with any long term existence whose happiness deserves anything more than quick short-term attempts at finding pleasure. the imperative in this case would be to pursue immediate pleasure with as little effort as possible, thus aborting any sustained effort to bring about and end of suffering.
These problems explain why the Buddha regarded questions of existence and non-existence, self and no-self, as unskillful, inappropriate ways of attending to experience.
Stress and its cessation, on the other hand, are categories that avoid these problems. To begin with, they are immediately present and apparent. Even babies recognize stress and pain, well before they have any concept of "self" or "being." If one pays close attention to one's actual experience, there is no question about whether or not stress and its cessation are present. Finally, because these categories don't require that one fashion notions of "self" or "other"-- or "no-self"-- on top of one's immediate awareness, they allow one to reach the mode of "entry into emptiness" on the verge of non-fashioning, in which the mind simply notes, "There is this..." Thus they are ideal categories for analyzing experience in a way that reduces the confusion that causes people to act in unskillful ways and brings the mind to a point where it can disengage and transcend all suffering and stress by ending the mental fabrications that provide input into the causal web.
As for the imperative implicit in the four categories of the noble truths, they are very different from the imperatives implicit in the notion that there is a self or that there isn't. Stress, the first category (noble truth), should comprehended. In practice, this means admitting its presence, recognizing it as a problem, and then observing it with patient mindfulness so as to understand its true nature. One comes to realize that the problem is not with the stress and discomfort of external conditions, but with the stress and discomfort in the mind. one also sees how stress is part of a causal process, and that it is always accompanied by craving, its point of origination.
The second category (noble truth)--craving, the origin of stress--should be abandoned. Here we must note that the word "craving" covers not all desire, but only the desire leading to further becoming. The desire to escape from that becoming is part of the path. Without desire, no one would have motivation to follow the path or reach Unbinding. When Unbinding is reached, though, even this desire is abandoned, just as a desire to walk in a park is abandoned on arriving there.
The third category (the third noble truth), the cessation of stress, should be realized. The definition of this truth as the abandoning of craving means that it denotes the successful performance of the duty appropriate to the second noble truth. This introduces a double tier into the practice, in that one must not only abandon craving but must also realize what is happening and what is uncovered in the process of that abandoning. The feedback loop created by this combining of abandoning and knowing is what eventually short-circuits the process of this/that conditionality, cutting dependant co-arising at the links of craving and ignorance, and leading on to the state of non-fashioning that forms the threshold of the Deathless.
The fourth category (noble truth), the way to the cessation of stress, is defined as the noble eightfold path (see below). This truth must be developed. In general terms, this development involves two processes: nurturing the conditions for clear knowing; and abstaining from acts of body, speech and mind that involve craving and would obstruct knowledge. These two processes correspond to the two layers we have just noted in the duties associated with the cessation of stress: realization and abandoning. This correspondence shows the intimate relation between the third and fourth noble truths, and explains the Buddha's insistence that the noble eightfold path is the only way to the goal.
Taken together, the four categories of the noble truths, along with their imperatives, follow a basic problem-solving approach: one solves the problem of stress by following a path of practice that directly attacks the cause of the problem. The noble eightfold path develops the qualities of mind needed to see that all the possible objects of craving--the five aggregates (the body and mind)-- are stressful, inconstant, and not-self. As a result, one grows dispassionate towards them. With nothing left to focus on, craving disbands. When one experiences the "remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release and letting go of that very craving", the problem is solved.
Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
That which is made of iron, wood or hemp is not a strong bond, say the wise; (but) that longing for jewels, ornaments, children and wives is far greater an attachment. Dhammapada (vs. 345).
Attachment to people and possessions is strong, almost irresistible. We are infatuated by what we see, hear, smell, taste, experience through the bodysense and through the mind. However, all the different things we experience do not last. We lose people who are dear to us and we lose our possessions. We can find out that attachment leads to sorrow, but at the moments of attachment we do not want to accept the truth of the impermanence of all things. We want pleasant objects for ourselves, and we consider the "self" the most important matter in the world.
Through the Buddhist teachings we learn that what we take for "self", for "our mind" and for "our body", consists of changing phenomena. That part of the Buddhist teachings which is the "Abhidhamma" enumerates and classifies all phenomena of our life: mental phenomena or nama and physical phenomena or rupa. Seeing is nama, it experiences visible object through the eye-door. Visible object or colour is rupa, it does not experience anything. The eyesense which functions as the eye-door through which visible object is experienced is also rupa. The rupas which are the sense objects of visible object, sound, smell, flavour and tangible object and the rupas which are the sense organs of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and bodysense, are conditions for the namas which experience objects.
Nama and rupa are interrelated. Nama and rupa are ultimate realities. We should know the difference between ultimate truth and conventional truth. Conventional truth is the world of concepts such as person, tree or animal. Before we learnt about Buddhism conventional truth, the world of concepts, was the only truth we knew. It is useful to examine the meaning of concept, in Pali: pannatti. The word concept can stand for the name or term which conveys an idea and it can also stand for the idea itself conveyed by a term. Thus, the name "tree" is a concept, and also the idea we form up of "tree" is a concept. A tree is actually a conglomeration of things; the component parts are just different rupas. The rupas of which a tree consists do not last, they arise and fall away. Through the eyes only the rupa which is visible object or colour can be experienced, through touch hardness which is another type of rupa can be experienced. Visible object and hardness are ultimate realities, paramattha dhammas, each with their own characteristic. These characteristics do not change, they can be experienced without having to name them. Colour is always colour, hardness is always hardness, even when we give them another name. The whole day we touch things such as a fork, a plate or a chair. We believe that we know instantaneously what different things are, but after the sense-impressions such as seeing or experiencing through the bodysense, there are complicated processes of memory of former experiences and of classification, and these moments succeed one another very rapidly. Concepts are conceived through thinking. We remember the form and shape of things, we know what different things are and what they are used for. We could not lead our daily life without conventional realities; we do not have to avoid the world of conventional truth. However, in between the moments of thinking of concepts, understanding of ultimate realities, of nama and rupa, can be developed. The development of understanding does not prevent us from doing all the chores of daily life, from talking to other people, from helping them or from being generous to them. We could not perform deeds of generosity if we would not think of conventional realities, such as the things we are giving or the person to whom we give. But through the development of understanding we will learn to distinguish between absolute truth and conventional truth.
The "Abhidhammattha Sangaha", a compendium of the Abhidhamma composed in India at a later time (This work has been ascribed to Anuruddha. It has been translated into English by the P.T.S. under the title of "Compendium of Philosophy", and by Ven. Narada, Colombo, under the title of "A Manual of Abhidhamma".), states that concepts are only shadows of realities. When we watch T.V., we see projected images of people and we know that through the eyesense only visible object is seen, no people. Also when we look at the persons we meet, only colour is experienced through the eyesense. In the ultimate sense there are no people. Although they seem very real they are only shadows of what is really there. The truth is different from what we always assumed. A person is a temporary combination of realities which are constantly in a process of formation and dissolution, and thus the flux of life goes on. We cling to a conglomeration of different objects, we take these as a solid "whole". So long as we do not see the disruption of the continuity of body and mind we continue to believe in a self which lasts.
Ultimate realities are impermanent, they arise and fall away. Concepts of people and things do not arise and fall away; they are objects of thinking, not real in the ultimate sense. Nama and rupa, not concepts, are the objects of understanding. The purpose of the development of the eightfold Path is seeing ultimate realities as impermanent, suffering and non-self. If the difference between concepts and ultimate realities is not known the eightfold Path cannot be developed. The eightfold Path, that is, right understanding of nama and rupa, is developed through direct awareness of them. However, this is difficult and can only be learnt very gradually. When there is direct awareness of one object at a time as it appears through one of the senses or through the mind-door, there is no thinking of a concept of a "whole" at that moment. The study of rupas can help us to have more understanding of the sense objects and of the doorways of the senses through which these objects are experienced. If we do not have a foundation knowledge of objects and doorways we cannot know how to be aware of one reality at a time as it appears at the present moment. The study of nama and rupa is a condition for the arising of direct awareness later on.
The study of rupas is not the study of physics or medical science. The aim of the understanding of nama and rupa is the eradication of the wrong view of self and freedom from enslavement to defilements. So long as one clings to an idea of self who owns things, it can give rise to avarice and jealousy which may even motivate bad deeds such as stealing or killing. Defilements cannot be eradicated immediately, but when we begin to understand that our life is only one moment of experiencing an object through one of the six doorways, there will be less clinging to the idea of an abiding ego, of a person or self.
All three parts of the Buddha's teachings, namely the Vinaya (Book of Discipline for the monks), the Suttanta (Discourses) and the Abhidhamma point to the same goal: the eradication of defilements. From my quotations of sutta texts the reader can see that there is also Abhidhamma in the suttas, thus, that the teachings are one, the teaching of the Buddha. I have added questions at the end of each chapter in order to encourage the reader to check his understanding. I have used Pali terms next to the English equivalents in order to help the reader to know the precise meaning of the realities which are explained in the Abhidhamma. The English terms have a specific meaning in the context of conventional use and they do not render the precise meaning of the reality represented by the Pali term. The texts from which I have quoted, including the scriptures and the commentaries, have been translated into English by the Pali Text Society (73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX 37, 7 AD.).
The first of the seven books of the Abhidhamma, the "Dhammasangani", translated as "Buddhist Psychological Ethics"( Pali Text Society, 1974.), is a compilation of all nama and rupa, of all that is real. The source for my book on physical phenomena is that part of the "Dhammasangani" which deals with this subject, as well as the commentary to this book, the "Atthasalini", translated as "Expositor" (Pali Text Society, 1958.), which was written by the venerable Buddhaghosa. I also used the "Visuddhimagga", translated as "The Path of Purification", an encyclopedia by the venerable Buddhaghosa (I used the translation of Ven. Nyanamoli , 1964, Colombo, Sri Lanka. There is another translation by Pe Maung Tin under the title of "The Path of Purity", P.T.S.)
May this book on rupas help the reader to develop right understanding of nama and rupa!
The Abhidhamma teaches us that in the ultimate sense our life is nama and rupa which arise because of their appropriate conditions and then fall away. What we take for person or self is citta (pronounced as chitta.) or consciousness, cetasika (pronounced as chetasika.) or mental factors arising with the citta, and rupa or physical phenomena. Citta and cetasika are nama, they experience objects, whereas rupa does not know anything. Citta experiences sense objects which are rupas through the five senses which are also rupas. The five senses by means of which cittas experience an object are called doors. When we think of something we saw or heard citta does not experience an object through a sense-door but through another door which is the mind-door. Thus there are six doorways. Through the mind-door citta can experience ultimate realities, nama and rupa, as well as concepts.
Citta experiences only one object and then it falls away to be succeeded by the next citta. We may have thought that there is one consciousness which lasts and which can see, hear and think, but this is not so. There can be only one citta at a time: at one moment there is a citta which sees, at another moment a citta which hears and at another moment again a citta which thinks. In our life there is an unbroken series of cittas arising in succession.
Cittas can be good or wholesome, kusala cittas, they can be unwholesome, akusala cittas, or they can be neither kusala nor akusala. Seeing, for example, is neither kusala nor akusala, it only experiences visible object through the eye-door. After seeing has fallen away, visible object is experienced by kusala cittas or by akusala cittas. Thus, when an object impinges on one of the six doors there are different types of cittas which arise in a series or process and all of them experience that object. They arise in a specific order within the process and there is no self who can prevent their arising. There are processes of cittas which experience an object through each of the five sense-doors and through the mind-door.
There is one citta at a time, but each citta is accompanied by several cetasikas or mental factors which share the same object with the citta but perform each their own function. Some cetasikas such as feeling and remembrance or "perception" (sanna) accompany each citta, others do not. Unwholesome mental factors, akusala cetasikas, only accompany akusala cittas, whereas "beautiful" mental factors (sobhana) cetasikas accompany kusala cittas.
As regards physical phenomena or rupa, there are twentyeight kinds of rupa in all. Rupas are not merely textbook terms, they are realities which can be directly experienced. Rupas do not know or experience anything; they can be known by nama. Rupa arises and falls away, but it does not fall away as quickly as nama. When a characteristic of rupa such as hardness impinges on the bodysense it can be experienced through the bodysense by several cittas arising in succession within a process. But even though rupa lasts longer than citta, it falls away again, it is impermanent.
Rupas do not arise singly, they arise in units or groups. What we take for our body is composed of many groups or units, consisting each of different kinds of rupa, and the rupas in such a group arise together and fall away together. The reader will come across four conditioning factors which produce rupas of the body: kamma, citta, temperature and food. The last three factors are easier to understand, but the first factor, kamma, is harder to understand since kamma is a factor of the past. We can perform good and bad deeds through body, speech and mind and these can produce their appropriate results later on. Such deeds are called kamma, but when we are more precise kamma is actually the cetasika volition or intention (cetana) which motivates the deed. Kamma is a mental activity and thus its force can be accumulated. Since cittas which arise and fall away succeed one another in an unbroken series, the force of kamma is carried on from one moment of citta to the next moment of citta, from one life to the next life. In this way kamma is capable to produce its result later on. A good deed, kusala kamma, can produce a pleasant result, and an evil deed can produce an unpleasant result. Kamma produces result at the first moment of life: it produces rebirth-consciousness in a happy plane of existence such as the human plane or a heavenly plane, or in an unhappy plane of existence such as a hell plane or the animal world. Throughout life kamma produces seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions which are vipakacittas, cittas which are results. Vipakacittas are neither kusala cittas nor akusala cittas. Seeing a pleasant object is the result of kusala kamma and seeing an unpleasant object is the result of akusala kamma. Due to kamma gain and loss, praise and blame alternate in our life.
Rebirth-consciousness is the mental result of kamma, but at that moment kamma also produces rupas and kamma keeps on producing rupas throughout life; when it stops producing rupas our life-span has to end. Kamma produces particular kinds of rupas such as the senses, as we shall see. Citta also produces rupas. Our different moods become evident by our facial expressions and then it is clear that citta produces rupas. Temperature which is actually the element of heat also produces rupas. The unborn being in the womb, for example, needs the right temperature in order to grow. Throughout life the element of heat produces rupas. Nutrition is another factor which produces rupas. When food has been taken by a living being it is assimilated into the body and then nutrition can produce rupas. Some of the groups of rupa of our body are produced by kamma, some by citta, some by temperature and some by nutrition. The four factors which produce the rupas of our body support and consolidate each other and keep this shortlived body going. If we see the intricate way in which different factors condition the rupas of our body we shall be less inclined to think that the body belongs to a self.
There are not only rupas of the body, there are also rupas which are the material phenomena outside the body. What we take for rocks, plants or houses are rupas and these originate from temperature. We may wonder whether there are no other factors apart from the element of heat which contribute to the growth of plants, such as soil, light and moisture. It is true that these factors are the right conditions which have to be present so that a plant can grow. But what we call soil, light and moisture are, when we are more precise, different compositions of rupas and none of these could arise without the element of heat or temperature which is the producing factor. Rupas which are outside the body are only produced by temperature, not by kamma, citta or nutrition.
Rupas perform their functions, no matter one dresses oneself, eats, digests one's food, moves about, gesticulates, talks to others, in short, during all one's activities. If we do not study rupas we may not notice their characteristics which appear all the time in daily life. We will continue to be deluded by the outward appearance of things instead of knowing realities as they are. We should remember that the rupa which is the "earth-element" or solidity can appear as hardness or softness. Hardness impinges time and again on the bodysense, no matter what we are doing. When hardness appears it can be known as only a kind of rupa, be it hardness of the body or hardness of an external object. In the ultimate sense it is only a kind of rupa. The detailed study of nama and rupa will help us to see that there isn't anything which is "mine" or self. The goal of the study of the Abhidhamma is the development of wisdom which leads to the eradication of all defilements.
The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
The Four Great Elements
Rupas do not arise singly, they arise in units or groups. Each of these groups is composed of different kinds of rupa. There are four kinds of rupa, the four "Great Elements" (Maha-bhuta rupas), which have to arise together with each and every group of rupas, no matter whether these are of the body or materiality outside. The types of rupa other than the four Great Elements depend on these four rupas and cannot arise without them. They are the following rupas:
the Element of Earth or solidity
the Element of Water or cohesion
the Element of Fire or heat
the Element of Wind (air) or motion
Earth, Water, Fire and Wind do not in this context have the same meaning as in conventional language, neither do they represent conceptual ideas as we find them in different philosophical systems. In the Abhidhamma they represent ultimate realities, specific rupas which each have their own characteristic. The Element of Earth (in Pali: pathavi dhatu), which has been translated into English as "solidity" or "extension", has the characteristic of hardness or softness. It can be directly experienced when we touch something hard or soft. We do not have to name the rupa designated by "Element of Earth" in order to experience it. It is an element which arises and falls away; it has no abiding substance, it is devoid of a "self". It may seem that hardness can last for some time, but in reality it falls away immediately. Rupas are replaced so long as there are conditions for them to be produced by one of the four factors of kamma, citta, temperature or nutrition (See Introduction. This will be explained further on.). The hardness which is experienced now is already different from the hardness which arose a moment ago.
We used to think that a cushion or a chair could be experienced through touch. When we are more precise, it is hardness of softness which can be experienced through touch. Because of association and remembrance of former experiences we can think of a cushion or chair and we know that they are named "cushion" or "chair". This example can remind us that there is a difference between ultimate realities and concepts we can think of but which are not real in the ultimate sense.
Viewing the body and the things around us as different compositions of rupas may be a new outlook to us. Gradually we shall realize that rupas are not abstract categories, but that they are realities appearing in daily life. I shall quote the definitions of the different rupas given by the commentaries, the "Visuddhimagga" and the "Atthasalini". These definitions mention the characteristic, function, manifestation and proximate cause or immediate occasion (The Atthasalini explains these terms in Book I, Part II, Analysis of Terms, 63.) of the rupas which are explained. The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 93) (See also Dhammasangani, § 648 and Atthasalini II, Ch III, 332.) gives, for example, the following definition of the rupa which is the earth element or solidity:
...The earth element has the characteristic of hardness. Its function is to act as a foundation. It is manifested as receiving (As will be explained, it receives the other rupas it arises together with since it is their foundation.)...
As to the proximate cause, I shall deal with that later on. Each reality has its own individual characteristic by which it can be distinguished from other realities. Solidity has hardness (or softness) as characteristic, the fire element has heat as characteristic. Such characteristics can be experienced when they appear. As to function, rupas have functions in relation to other rupas or in relation to nama. Solidity acts as a foundation, namely for the other rupas it arises together with in a group, that is its function. Smell, for example, could not arise alone, it needs solidity as foundation. It is the same with visible object or colour which can be experienced through the eyesense. Visible object or colour needs solidity as foundation or support, it could not arise alone. Solidity which arises together with visible object cannot be seen, only visible object can be seen. As regards manifestation, this is the way a reality habitually appears. Solidity is manifested as receiving, it receives the other rupas it arises together with since it acts as their foundation. With regard to the proximate cause, according to the "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 35) each of the four Great Elements has the other three as its proximate cause. The four Great Elements arise together and condition one another.
At first the definitions of realities may seem complicated but when we have studied them we shall see that they are helpful for the understanding of the different realities, and this includes understanding of the way they act on other realities and the way they manifest themselves. The study of realities is a foundation for the development of direct understanding, of seeing things as they really are.
In the "Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint" (Middle Length Sayings I, no. 28) we read that Sariputta taught the monks about the four Great Elements. We read about the element of earth or solidity, which is translated here as "extension":
....And what, your reverences, is the element of extension? The element of extension may be internal, it may be external. And what, your reverences, is the internal element of extension? Whatever is hard, solid, is internal, referable to an individual and derived therefrom, that is to say: the hair of the head, the hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow of the bones, kidney, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, excrement, or whatever other thing is hard, solid, is internal....
If the body can be seen as only elements the wrong view of self can be eradicated. Solidity can be internal or external, outside the body. Solidity is also present in what we call a mountain or a rock, in all material phenomena. Sariputta reminded the monks of the impermanence of the element of extension:
There comes a time, your reverences, when the element of extension that is external is agitated; at that time the external element of extension disappears. The impermanence of this ancient external element of extension can be shown, your reverences, its liability to destruction can be shown, its liability to decay can be shown, its liability to change can.16 be shown. So what of this shortlived body derived from craving? There is not anything here for saying, "I", or "mine" or "I am"....
The impermanence of the element of solidity may manifest itself in such calamities of nature as an earthquake, but actually at each moment rupas arise and then fall away, they do not last.
As regards the Element of Water (in Pali: apo dhatu) or cohesion, the "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 93) defines it as follows (See also Dhammasangani § 652 and Atthasalini II, Book II, Ch III, 332.):
...The water element has the characteristic of trickling. Its function is to intensify. It is manifested as holding together.
The element of water or cohesion cannot be experienced through the bodysense, only through the mind-door. When we touch what we call water, it is only solidity, temperature or motion which can be experienced through the bodysense, not cohesion. Cohesion has to arise together with whatever kind of materiality arises. It makes the other rupas it accompanies cohere so that they do not become scattered. The "Atthasalini " (II, Book II, Ch III, 335) explains:
... For the element of cohesion binds together iron, etc., in masses, makes them rigid. Because they are so bound, they are called rigid. Similarly in the case of stones, mountains, palm-seeds, elephant-tusks, ox-horns, etc. All such things the element of cohesion binds, and makes rigid; they are rigid because of its binding.
We read in the above quoted sutta that Sariputta explained to the monks about the internal liquid element (element of water):
.... Whatever is liquid, fluid, is internal, referable to an individual or derived therefrom, that is to say: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, serum, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine or whatever other thing is liquid, fluid, is internal....
When we shed tears or swallow saliva we can be reminded that what we take for the fluid of "my body" are only elements devoid of self. Sariputta reminded the monks that the external liquid element can become agitated and can bring destruction to villages, towns, districts and regions, or that the water of the oceans may go down and disappear. It is liable to change and it is impermanent. Both the internal and the external liquid element are impermanent and not self.
As to the Element of Fire, heat or temperature (in Pali: tejo dhatu), the "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 93) gives the following definition of it (See also Dhammasangani § 648, and Atthasalini II, Book II, Ch III, 332.):
...The fire element has the characteristic of heat. Its function is to mature (maintain). It is manifested as a continued supply of softness. (The Atthasalini (332) states that it has "the gift of softening [co-existent realities] as manifestation".)
The element of heat or temperature can be experienced through the bodysense and it appears as heat or cold. Cold is a lesser degree of heat. The element of heat accompanies all kinds of materiality which arises, rupas of the body and materiality outside. It maintains or matures them. The element of heat is one of the four factors which produce rupas of the body. Kamma produces rupa from the first moment of life and after that temperature also starts to produce rupas of the body. Rupas which are materiality outside such as those of a plant or a rock are produced solely by temperature.
We read in the above quoted sutta that Sariputta explained to the monks about the internal element of heat:
... Whatever is heat, warmth, is internal, referable to an individual and derived therefrom, such as by whatever one is vitalized, by whatever one is consumed, by whatever one is burnt up, and by whatever one has munched, drunk, eaten and tasted that is properly transmuted (in digestion), or whatever other thing is heat, warmth, is internal....
The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 36) which gives an explanation of the words of this sutta states that the element of heat plays its part in the process of aging: "... whereby this body grows old, reaches the decline of the faculties, loss of strength, wrinkles, greyness, and so on." As to the expression "burnt up", it explains that when one is excited the internal element of heat causes the body to burn. The element of heat also has a function in the digestion of food, it "cooks" what is eaten and drunk. We may notice changes in body-temperature because of different conditions, for instance through the digestion of our food, or when we are excited, angry or afraid. So long as we are still alive the internal element of heat arises and falls away all the time. When heat presents itself and there is awareness of it it can be known as only a rupa element, not "my body-heat". When we are absorbed in excitement, anger or fear we forget that there are in reality only different kinds of nama and rupa which arise and fall away.
The element of heat can be internal or external. Sariputta explained that the liability to change of the external heat element and its impermanence can be seen when it becomes agitated and burns up villages, towns, districts and regions, and is then extinguished through lack of fuel. Both the internal and the external element of heat are impermanent and not self.
As to the Element of Wind (in Pali: vayo dhatu) or motion, the "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 93) defines it as follows (See also Dhammasangani § 648 and Atthasalini II, Book II, Ch III, 332.):
... The air element (wind) has the characteristic of distending. Its function is to cause motion. It is manifested as conveying.
We may believe that we can see motion of objects but the rupa which is motion cannot be seen. What we mean by motion as we express it in conventional language is not the same as the element of wind or motion. We can conclude that something has moved because there are different moments of seeing and thinking, and there is association of these different experiences, but that is not the experience of the rupa which is motion. This rupa can be directly experienced through the bodysense.
When we touch a body or an object which has a certain resilience, the characteristic of motion or pressure may present itself. These are characteristics of the element of wind. It can also be described as vibration or oscillation. As we read in the definition, the function of the element of wind is to cause motion and it is manifested as conveying. It is, for example, a condition for the movement of the limbs of the body. However, we should not confuse pictorial ideas with the direct experience of this rupa through the bodysense.
The element of wind or motion arises with all kinds of materiality, both of the body and outside the body. There is also motion with dead matter, such as a pot. It performs its function so that the pot holds its shape and does not collapse.
Sariputta explained about the internal element of motion:
... And what, your reverences, is the internal element of motion? Whatever is motion, wind, is internal, referable to an individual and derived therefrom, such as winds going upwards, winds going downwards, winds in the abdomen, winds in the belly, winds that shoot across the several limbs, in-breathing, out-breathing, or whatever other thing is motion, wind, is internal....
We may notice pressure inside the body. When its characteristic appears it can be known as only a rupa which is conditioned. As to the words of the sutta, "winds that shoot across the several limbs", the "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 37) explains that these are: "winds (forces) that produce flexing, extending, etc., and are distributed over the limbs and the whole body by means of the network of veins (nerves)".
The element of wind plays its specific role in the strengthening of the body so that it does not collapse, and assumes different postures; it is a condition for the stretching and bending of the limbs. While we are bending or stretching our arms and legs the element of wind may appear as motion or pressure. We read in the "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 92):
The air element that courses through all the limbs and has the characteristic of moving and distending, being founded upon earth, held together by water, and maintained by fire, distends this body. And this body, being distended by the latter kind of air, does not collapse, but stands erect, and being propelled by the other (motile) air, it shows intimation, and it flexes and extends and it wriggles the hands and feet, doing so in the postures comprising walking, standing, sitting and lying down. So this mechanism of elements carries on like a magic trick, deceiving foolish people with the male and female sex and so on. We are deceived and infatuated by the outward appearance of a man or a woman and we forget that this body is a "mechanism of elements" and that it flexes and wriggles hands and feet because of conditions.
The above quoted sutta mentions, in connection with the element of wind, in-breathing and out-breathing. The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 37) explains:
"In-breath: wind in the nostrils entering in. Out-breath: wind in the nostrils issuing out." We are breathing throughout life, but most of the time we are forgetful of realities, we cling to an idea of "my breath". Breath is rupa conditioned by citta and it presents itself where it touches the nosetip or upperlip. If there can be awareness of it the characteristics of hardness, softness, heat or motion can be experienced one at a time. However, breath is very subtle and it is most difficult to be aware of its characteristic.
We read in the above quoted sutta that Sariputta explained that the external element of motion can become agitated and carry away villages. Its liability to change and its impermanence can be seen. Both the external and the internal element of motion are impermanent.
As we have seen, the four great Elements always arise together, and each of them has the other three as its proximate cause. The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 109) states that the four great Elements condition one another: the earth element acts as the foundation of the elements of water, fire and air; the water element acts as cohesion for the other three Great Elements; the fire element maintains the other three Great Elements; the air element acts as distension of the other three Great Elements.
We should remember that the element of water or cohesion cannot be experienced through the bodysense, only through the mind-door, and that the elements of earth, fire and wind can be directly experienced through the bodysense. The element of earth appears as hardness or softness, the element of fire as heat or cold and the element of wind as motion or pressure. Time and again rupas such as hardness or heat impinge on the bodysense but we are forgetful of what things really are. We let ourselves be deceived by the outer appearance of things. The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 100) states that the four Great Elements are "deceivers":
And just as the great creatures known as female spirits (yakkhini) conceal their own fearfulness with a pleasing colour, shape and gesture to deceive beings, so too, these elements conceal each their own characteristics and function classed as hardness, etc., by means of a pleasing skin colour of women's and men's bodies, etc., and pleasing shapes of limbs and pleasing gestures of fingers, toes and eyebrows, and they deceive simple people by concealing their own functions and characteristics beginning with hardness and do not allow their individual essences to be seen....
The "Visuddhimagga" (XI, 98) states that the four Great Elements are like the great creatures of a magician who "turns water that is not crystal into crystal, and turns a clod that is not gold into gold...." We are attached to crystal and gold, we are deceived by the outward appearance of things. There is no crystal or gold in the ultimate sense, only rupas which arise and then fall away.
We may be able to know the difference between moments that we are absorbed in concepts and ideas and moments that there is mindfulness of realities such as hardness or heat which appear one at a time. Mindfulness (sati) arises with kusala citta and it is mindful of one nama or rupa at a time. When we are, for example, stung by a mosquito, we may have aversion towards the pain and there may be forgetfulness of realities. But when there are conditions for kusala citta with mindfulness a rupa such as heat can be object of mindfulness. This is the way to gradually develop the understanding which knows nama and rupa as they are: only elements which are impermanent and devoid of self.
As we read in the "Greater Discourse of the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint", different "parts of the body" are mentioned where the characteristics of the four Great Elements are apparent. The aim is to see the body as it really is. When Sariputta explained about the four Great Elements he repeated after each section:
...By means of perfect intuitive wisdom it should be seen of this as it really is, thus: This is not mine, this am I not, this is not myself....
The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
The Eight Inseparable Rupas
The four Great Elements of solidity, cohesion, temperature and motion are always present wherever there is materiality. Apart from these four elements there are other rupas, namely twentyfour "derived rupas" (in Pali: upada rupas). The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 305) explains about them:
"... grasping the great essentials (great elements), not letting go, such (derived rupas) proceed in dependance upon them." Thus, the derived rupas could not arise without the four Great Elements.
But not all kinds of derived rupas arise with every group of rupas. However, four among the derived rupas always arise together with the four Great Elements in every group of rupas and are thus present wherever there is materiality, no matter whether rupas of the body or materiality outside the body. These four rupas are the following:
visible object (or colour)
The four Great elements and these four derived rupas which always arise together are called the "inseparable rupas" (in Pali: avinibbhoga rupas). Wherever there is solidity, there also have to be cohesion, temperature, motion, colour, odour, flavour and nutritive essence. As regards visible object or colour, this is a rupa arising with every kind of materiality. It is that which is experienced through the eye-door. It is not a thing or a person. Visible object is the only rupa which can be seen.
Colours are different because of different conditions (See also Dhammasangani § 617.) , but no matter which colour appears we should remember that what is experienced through the eye-door is the rupa which is visible, visible object. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 318) gives the following definition of visible object (See also Visuddhimagga XIV, 54.):
... For all this matter has the characteristic of striking the eye, the function or property of being in relation of object to visual cognition, the manifestation of being the field of visual cognition, the proximate cause of the "four great essentials" (four Great Elements).
Visible object has as its proximate cause the four Great Elements because it cannot arise without them. However, when a characteristic of one of these four Great Elements, such as hardness or heat, is experienced, the accompanying visible object cannot be experienced at the same time. When there are conditions for seeing, visible object is experienced.
When we close our eyes, there may be remembrance of the shape and form of a thing, but that is not the experience of visible object. The thinking of a "thing", no matter whether our eyes are closed or open, is different from the actual experience of what is visible.
We may find it difficult to know what visible object is, since we are usually absorbed in paying attention to the shape and form of things. When we perceive the shape and form of something, for example of a chair, we think of a concept. A chair cannot impinge on the eyesense. Seeing does not see a chair, it only sees what is visible. Seeing and thinking occur at different moments. There is not thinking all the time, there are also moments of just seeing, moments that we do not pay attention to shape and form. There can be only one citta at a time experiencing one object, but different experiences arise closely one after the other. When one cannot distinguish them yet from each other, one believes that they occur all at the same time. If we remember that visible object is the rupa which can be experienced through the eyesense, right understanding of this reality can be developed.
As we have seen, odour is another rupa among the eight inseparable rupas. Wherever there is materiality, no matter whether of the body or outside the body, there has to be odour. The "Dhammasangani" (§ 625) mentions different odours, pleasant and unpleasant, but they all are just odour which can be experienced through the nose. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 320) defines odour as follows (See also Visuddhimagga XIV, 56.):
... all odours have the characteristic of striking the sense of smell, the property of being the object of olfactory cognition, the manifestation of being the field of the same....
It has as proximate cause the four Great Elements. Odour cannot arise alone, it needs the four Great Elements which arise together with it and it is also accompanied by the other rupas which are included in the eight inseparable rupas. When odour appears we tend to be carried away by like or dislike. We are attached to fragrant odours and we loathe nasty smells. However, odour is only a reality which is experienced through the nose and it does not last. If one does not develop understanding of realities one will be enslaved by all objects experienced through the senses. On account of these objects akusala cittas tend to arise and even unwholesome deeds may be committed. When someone thinks that there is a self who can own what is seen, touched or smelt, he may even steal or kill. In reality all these objects are insignificant, they arise and then fall away immediately.
As regards flavour, the "Dhammasangani" (§ 629) mentions different kinds of flavour, such as sour, sweet, bitter or pungent; they may be nice or nauseous, but they are all just flavour which is experienced through the tongue. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 320) defines flavour as follows (See also Visuddhimagga XIV, 70.):
... all tastes have the characteristic of striking the tongue, the property of being the object of gustatory cognition, the manifestation of being the field of the same...
Its proximate cause is the four Great Elements. Flavour does not arise alone, it needs the four Great Elements which arise together with it, and it is also accompanied by the other rupas which are included in the eight inseparable rupas. We are attached to food and we find its flavour very important. As soon as we have tasted delicious flavour attachment tends to arise. We are forgetful of the reality of flavour which is only a kind of rupa. When we recognize what kind of flavour we taste, we think about a concept, but the thinking is conditioned by the experience of flavour through the tongue.
Nutrition is another kind of rupa which has to arise with every kind of materiality. It can be experienced only through the mind-door. The "Dhammasangani" (§ 646) mentions food such as boiled rice, sour gruel, flour, etc., which can be eaten and digested into the "juice" by which living beings are kept alive. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 330) explains that there is foodstuff, the substance which is swallowed (kabalinkaro aharo, literally, morsel-made food), and the "nutritive essence" (oja). The foodstuff which is swallowed fills the stomach so that one does not grow hungry. The nutritive essence which is in food preserves beings, keeps them alive. The nutritive essence in gross foodstuff is weak, and in subtle foodstuff it is strong. After eating coarse grain one becomes hungry after a brief interval. But when one has taken ghee (butter) one does not want to eat for a long time (Atthasalini, 331). The "Atthasalini" (332) gives the following definition of nutriment (See also Visuddhimagga XIV, 70.):
As to its characteristic, etc., solid food has the characteristic of nutritive essence, the function of fetching matter (to the eater), of sustaining matter as its manifestation, of substance to be swallowed as proximate cause..
Nutritive essence is not only present in rice and other foods, it is also present in what we call a rock or sand. It is present in any kind of materiality. Insects are able to digest what human beings cannot digest, such as, for example, wood.
Nutrition is one of the four factors which produce rupas of the body. As we have seen, the other factors are kamma, citta and temperature (See Introduction.). In the unborn being in the mother's womb, groups of rupa produced by nutrition arise as soon as the nutritive essence present in food taken by its mother pervades its body (Visuddhimagga XVII, 194). From then on nutrition keeps on producing rupas and sustaining the rupas of the body throughout life.
We can notice that nutrition produces rupas when good or bad food affects the body in different ways. Bad food may cause the skin to be ugly, whereas the taking of vitamins for example may cause skin and hair to look healthy.
Because of attachment we are inclined to be immoderate as to food. We forget to consider food as a medicine for our body. The Buddha exhorted the monks to eat just the quantity of food which is needed to sustain the body but not more and to reflect wisely when eating (Visuddhimagga I, 85). The monk should review with understanding the requisites he receives. We read in the "Visuddhimagga" (I, 124):
... For use is blameless in one who at the time of receiving robes, etc., reviews them either as (mere) elements or as repulsive, and puts them aside for later use, and in one who reviews them thus at the time of using them.
The monk should review robes, and the other requisites of dwelling, food and medicines, as mere elements or as repulsive. If he considers food as repulsive it helps him not to indulge in it. Food consists merely of conditioned elements. This can be a useful reminder, also for laypeople, to be mindful when eating. In the Commentary to the "Satipatthana Sutta" (The Papancasudani. See "The Way of Mindfulness", a translation of the Satipatthana Sutta, Middle Length Sayings I, 10, and its commentary by Ven. Soma, B.P.S. Kandy.), in the section on Mindfulness of the Body, "Clear Comprehension in Partaking of Food and Drink", we read that, when one swallows food, there is no one who puts the food down into the stomach with a ladle or spoon, but there is the element of wind performing its function. We then read about digestion:
... There is no one who having put up an oven and lit a fire is cooking each lump standing there. By only the process of caloricity (heat) the lump of food matures. There is no one who expels each digested lump with a stick or pole. Just the process of oscillation (the element of wind or motion) expels the digested food.
There is no self who eats and drinks, there are only elements performing their functions.
Whatever kind of materiality arises, there have to be the four Great Elements and the four derived rupas of visible object, odour, flavour and nutrition. Because of ignorance we are attached to our possessions. We may understand that when life ends we cannot possess anything anymore. But even at this moment there is no "thing" we can possess, there are only different elements which do not stay. When we look at beautiful things such as gems we tend to cling to them. However, through the eyes only colour or visible object appears and through touch tangible object such as hardness appears. In the absolute sense it does not make any difference whether it is hardness of a gem or hardness of a pebble which is experienced through touch. We may not like to accept this truth since we find that gems and pebbles have different values. We have accumulated conditions to think about concepts and do not develop understanding of realities; we tend to forget that what we call gems and also the cittas which enjoy them do not last, they are gone immediately. Someone who leads the life of a layman enjoys his possessions, but he can also develop understanding of what things really are.
In the ultimate sense life exists only in one moment, the present moment. At the moment of seeing the world of visible object is experienced, at the moment of hearing the world of sound, and at the moment of touching the world of tangible object. Life is actually one moment of experiencing an object.
The "Book of Analysis" (Vibhanga, Second Book of the Abhidhamma, Pali Text Society, 1969.) (Part 3, Analysis of the Elements, § 173) mentions precious stones together with pebbles and gravel in order to remind us of the truth. It explains about the internal element of extension (solidity) as being hair of the head, hair of the body and other "parts of the body". Then it explains about the external element of extension as follows:
Therein what is the external element of extension? That which is external, hard, harsh, hardness, being hard, external, not grasped. For example: iron, copper, tin, lead, silver, pearl, gem, cat's-eye, shell, stone, coral, silver coin, gold, ruby, variegated precious stone, grass, wood, gravel, potsherd, earth, rock, mountain; or whatever else there is....
The elements give us pleasure or pain. When we do not realize them as they are, we are enslaved by them. We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (II, Nidana-vagga, Ch XIV, Kindred Sayings on Elements, § 34, Pain) that the Buddha said to the monks at Savatthi:
If this earth-element, monks, this water-element, this heat-element, this air-element were entirely painful, beset with pain, immersed in pain, not immersed in happiness, beings would not be lusting after them. But inasmuch as each of these elements is pleasant, beset with pleasure, immersed in pleasure, not in pain, therefore it is that beings get lusting after them.
If this earth-element, monks, this water-element, this heat-element, this air-element were entirely pleasant, beset with pleasure, immersed in pleasure, not immersed in pain, beings would not be repelled by them. But inasmuch as each of these elements is painful, is beset with pain, immersed in pain, not immersed in pleasure, therefore it is that beings are repelled by them
We are bound to be attached to the elements when we buy beautiful clothes or enjoy delicious food. We are bound to be repelled by the elements when we get hurt or when we are sick. But no matter whether the objects we experience are pleasant or unpleasant, we should realize them as elements which arise because of their own conditions and which do not belong to us.
The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
The Sense-Organs (Pasada Rupas)
So long as there are conditions for birth we have to be born and to experience pleasant or unpleasant objects. It is kamma which produced rebirth-consciousness as well as seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions which arise throughout our life. For the experience of objects through the senses there have to be sense-organs and these are rupas which are produced by kamma as well. The sense-organs (pasada rupas) are physical results of kamma whereas seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions are nama, vipakacittas which are the mental results of kamma (See Introduction.).
For seeing there must be visible object and also the rupa which is eyesense. Eyesense does not know anything since it is rupa, but it is a necessary condition for seeing. Eyesense is a rupa in the eye which is capable of receiving visible object so that citta can experience it. For hearing, the experience of sound, there has to be ear-sense, which is a rupa in the ear capable of receiving sound. There must be smelling-sense for the experience of odour, tastingsense for the experience of flavour and bodysense for the experience of tangible object. Thus, there are five kinds of sense-organs.
As regards the eye, the "Atthasalini (II, Book II, Ch III, 306) distinguishes between the eye as "compound organ" and as "sentient organ", namely the rupa which is eyesense, situated in the eye (In Pali: "cakkhu pasada rupa".). The eye as "compound organ" is described as follows:
... a lump of flesh is situated in the cavity of the eye, bound by the bone of the cavity of the eye below, by the bone of the brow above, by the eye-peaks on both sides, by the brain inside, by the eyelashes outside....
Although the world perceives the eye as white, as (of a certain) bigness, extension, width, they do not know the real sentient eye, but only the physical basis thereof. That lump of flesh situated in the cavity of the eye is bound to the brain by sinewy threads. Therein are white, black, red, extension, cohesion, heat and mobility. The eye is white from the abundance of phlegm, black from that of bile, red from that of blood, rigid from the element of extension, fluid from that of cohesion, hot from that of heat, and oscillating from that of mobility. Such is the compound organ of the eye....
As to the "sentient eye" or eyesense, this is to be found, according to the "Atthasalini", in the middle of the black circle, surrounded by white circles, and it permeates the ocular membranes "as sprinkled oil permeates seven cotton wicks." We read:
And it is served by the four elements doing the functions of sustaining, binding, maturing and vibrating (The earth element performs its function of sustaining, the water element of holding together, the fire element of maintaining or maturing, and the wind element of oscillation ), just as a princely boy is tended by four nurses doing the functions of holding, bathing, dressing and fanning him. And being upheld by the caloric order, by thought (citta) and nutriment, and guarded by life and attended by colour, odour, taste, etc., the organ, no bigger in size than the head of a louse, stands duly fulfilling the nature of the basis and the door of visual cognition, etc. ....
The "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 37) gives the following definition of eyesense (See also Dhammasangani § 597 and Atthasalini II, Book II, Ch III, 312.):
Herein, the eye's characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements that is ready for the impact of visible data; or its characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements originated by kamma sourcing from desire to see. Its function is to pick up (an object) among visible data. It is manifested as the footing of eye-consciousness. Its proximate cause is primary elements (the four Great Elements) born of kamma sourcing from desire to see.
We have desire to see, we are attached to all sense-impressions and, thus, there are still conditions for kamma to produce rebirth, to produce seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions, and also to produce the sense-organs which are the conditions for the experience of sense objects. Also in future lives there are bound to be sense-impressions.
Eyesense seems to last and we are inclined to take it for "self". It seems that there can be a long moment of seeing and that the same eyesense keeps on performing its function. However, eyesense arises and then falls away. At the next moment of seeing there is another eyesense again. All these eyesenses are produced by kamma, throughout our life. We may find it hard to grasp this truth because we are so used to thinking of "my eyesense" and to consider it as something lasting.
The eyesense is extremely small, "no bigger in size than the head of a louse", but it seems that the whole wide world comes to us through the eye. All that is visible is experienced through the eyesense, but when we believe that we see the world there is thinking of a concept, not the experience of visible object. However, our thinking is conditioned by seeing and by all the other sense-impressions.
The eye is compared to an ocean (Dhammasangani § 597. Atthasalini II, Book II, Ch III, 308.), because it cannot be filled, it is unsatiable. We are attached to the eyesense and we want to go on seeing, it never is enough.
We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Fourth Fifty, Ch 3, § 187, The Ocean):
... The eye of a man, monks, is the ocean. Its impulse is made of objects. Whoso endures that object-made impulse - of him, monks, it is said, "he has crossed over." That ocean of the eye, with its waves and whirlpools, its sharks and demons, the brahmin has crossed and gone beyond. He stands on dry ground.....
The same is said with regard to the other senses.
We read in the "Therigatha" (Psalms of the Sisters, Canto XIV, 71, Subha of Jivaka's Mango-grove) that the Theri Subha became an anagami (There are four stages of enlightenment. The anagami or "non-returner" has reached the third stage. The arahat has reached the last stage.); she had eradicated clinging to sense objects. A young man, infatuated with the beauty of her eyes, wanted to tempt her. She warned him not to be deluded by the outward appearance of things. In reality there are only elements devoid of self. The Theri said about her eye (vs. 395):
What is this eye but a little ball lodged in the fork of a hollow tree, Bubble of film, anointed with tear-brine, exuding slime-drops. Compost wrought in the shape of an eye of manifold aspects?....
The Theri extracted one of her eyes and handed it to him. The impact of her lesson did not fail to cure the young man of his lust. Later on, in the presence of the Buddha, her eye was restored to her. She continued to develop insight and attained arahatship.
Eyesense is only an element devoid of self. It is one of the conditions for seeing. The "Visuddhimagga" (XV, 39) states about the conditions for seeing: "Eye-consciousness arises due to eye, visible object, light and attention".
Earsense is another one of the sense-organs. It is situated in the interior of the ear, "at a spot shaped like a finger-ring and fringed by tender, tawny hairs.... "( Atthasalini II, Book II, Part I, Ch III, 310.). Earsense is the rupa which has the capability to receive sound. It is basis and door of hearing-consciousness.
The "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 38) gives the following definition (See also "Dhammasangani § 601 and Atthasalini II, Book II, Part I, Ch III, 312.):
The ear's characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements that is ready for impact of sounds; or its characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements originated by kamma sourcing from desire to hear. Its function is to pick up (an object) among sounds. It is manifested as the footing of ear-consciousness. Its proximate cause is primary elements born of kamma sourcing from desire to hear.
Without earsense there cannot be hearing. The "Visuddhimagga" (XV, 39) states:
"Ear-consciousness arises due to ear, sound, aperture and attention." "Aperture" is the cavity of the ear. If one of these conditions is lacking hearing cannot arise.
As to the other pasada rupas, smellingsense,
tastingsense and bodysense, these are defined in the same way (See Dhammasangani
§ 605, 609, 613, Visuddhimagga XIV, 39, 40, 41, Atthasalini, Book II, Part
I, Ch III, 312.). Smellingsense is a rupa situated in the nose. It is one of the
conditions for smelling. The "Visuddhimagga"(XV, 39) states: Nose-consciousness
arises due to nose, odour, air (the element of wind or motion) and attention."
As to the element of wind or motion being a condition, we read in the "Atthasalini"
(II, Book II, Part I, Ch III, 315):
... the nose desires space, and has for object odour dependent on wind. Indeed, cattle at the first showers of rain keep smelling at the earth, and turning up their muzzles to the sky breathe in the wind. And when a fragrant lump is taken in the fingers and smelt, no smell is got when breath is not inhaled....
As to tastingsense, this is situated in the tongue and it is one of the conditions for tasting. The "Visuddhimagga" states in the same section: "Tongue-consciousness arises due to tongue, flavour, water and attention." Also the element of water or cohesion plays its part when there is tasting. We read in the "Atthasalini" (same section, 315) about the element of water being a condition for tasting:
... Thus even when a bhikkhu's duties have been done during the three watches of the night, and he early in the morning, taking bowl and robe, has to enter the village, he is not able to discern the taste of dry food unwetted by the saliva....
As to bodysense, this is situated all over the body and inside it, except in the hairs or tips of the nails. It is one of the conditions for experiencing tactile object. The "Visuddhimagga" states, in the same section: "Body- consciousness arises due to body, tangible object, earth and attention." The "Atthasalini" (same section, 315) explains:
... Internal and external extension (solidity) is the cause of the tactile sense seizing the object. Thus it is not possible to know the hardness or softness of a bed well spread out or of fruits placed in the hand, without sitting down on the one or pressing the other. Hence internal and external extension is the cause in the tactile cognition of the tactile organ.
Thus, when there is tactile cognition, bodyconsciousness, there are actually elements which impinge on elements. The impact of tactile object on the bodysense is more vigorous than the impact of the objects on the other senses. According to the "Paramattha Manjusa", a commentary to the "Visuddhimagga"( See Visuddhimagga, XIV, footnote 56.), because of the violence of the impact on the bodysense, body-consciousness (kayavinnana) is accompanied either by pleasant feeling or by painful feeling, not by indifferent feeling, whereas the other sense-cognitions (seeing, hearing, etc.) are accompanied by indifferent feeling.
Through the bodysense are experienced: the earth element, appearing as hardness or softness; the fire element, appearing as heat or cold; the wind element, appearing as motion or pressure. When these characteristics appear they can be directly experienced wherever there is bodysense, thus also inside the body.
As we have seen, visible object, sound, odour, flavour and tangible object (three of the four Great Elements) are experienced through the corresponding sense-doors and they can also be experienced through the mind-door. The sense-organs themselves through which the sense-objects are experienced are rupas which can only be known through the mind-door.
The five sense-organs are the bases (vatthus) or places of origin of the corresponding sense-cognitions. Cittas do not arise outside the body, they are dependent on physical bases where they originate (There are also planes of existence where there is only nama, not rupa. In such planes cittas do not need a physical base.). The eyesense is the base where seeing-consciousness originates. The earsense is the base where hearing-consciousness originates, and it is the same in the case of the other sense-organs. As regards the base for body-consciousness, this can be at any place of the body where there is sensitivity. The sense-organs are bases only for the corresponding sense-cognitions. All the other cittas have another base, the heart-base, with which I shall deal later on.
The five sense-organs function also as doorways for the five kinds of sense-cognitions, as we have seen. The doorway (dvara) is the means by which citta experiences an object. The eyesense is the doorway by which seeing-consciousness and also the other cittas arising in that process experience visible object. As we have seen, cittas which experience objects impinging on the senses and the mind-door time and again, arise in processes of cittas (See Introduction.). The cittas other than seeing-consciousness which arise in the eye-door process do not see, but they each perform their own function while they cognize visible object, such as considering visible object or investigating it. Each of the five sense-organs can be the doorway for all the cittas in the process which experience a sense-object through that doorway. The sense-organs can have the function of base as well as doorway only in the case of the five sense-cognitions.
The sense-organs arise and fall away all the time and they are only doorway when an object is experienced through that sense-organ. Eyesense, for example, is only eye-door when visible object is experienced by the cittas arising in the eye-door process. When sound is experienced, earsense is doorway and eyesense does not function as doorway.
The "Atthasalini " (II, Book II, Ch III, 316) states that "the senses are not mixed." They each have their own characteristic, function, manifestation and proximate cause, and through each of them the appropriate object is experienced. The earsense can only receive sound, not visible object or flavour. Hearing can only experience sound through the ear-door. We are not used to considering each doorway separately since we are inclined to think of a person who coordinates all experiences. We are inclined to forget that a citta arises because of conditions, experiences one object just for a moment, and then falls away immediately. In order to help people to have right understanding of realities, the Buddha spoke time and again about each of the six doorways separately. He told people to "guard" the doorways in being mindful, because on account of what is experienced through these doorways many kinds of defilements tend to arise.
We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatanavagga, Third Fifty, Ch 3, § 127, Bharadvaja) that King Udena asked the venerable Bharadvaja what the cause was that young monks could practise the righteous life in its fullness and perfection. Bharadvaja spoke about the advices the Buddha gave to them, such as seeing the foulness of the
body, and guarding the six doors. We read that Bharadvaja said:
... It has been said, Maharajah, by the Exalted One... : "Come, monks, do you abide watchful over the doors of the faculties. Seeing an object with the eye, be not misled by its outer view, nor by its lesser details. But since coveting and dejection, evil, unprofitable states, might overwhelm one who dwells with the faculty of the eye uncontrolled, do you apply yourselves to such control, set a guard over the faculty of the eye and attain control of it. Hearing a sound with the ear... with the nose smelling a scent... with the tongue tasting a savour... with the body contacting tangibles... with the mind cognizing mind-states... be you not misled by their outward appearance nor by their lesser details... attain control thereof"....
We then read that King Udena praised the Buddha's words. He said about his own experiences:
I myself, master Bharadvaja, whenever I enter my palace with body, speech and mind unguarded, with thought unsettled, with my faculties uncontrolled,- at such times lustful states overwhelm me. But whenever, master Bharadvaja, I do so with body, speech and mind guarded, with thought settled, with my faculties controlled, at such times lustful states do not overwhelm me....
We read that King Udena took his refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.
How can we avoid being misled by the outward appearance or by the details of phenomena? By understanding realities as they are when they appear, one at a time. The following sutta in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatanavagga, Second Fifty, Ch 3, § 82, The World) reminds us not to cling to a "whole" but to be mindful of only one object at a time as it appears through one of the six doors:
Then a certain monk came to see the Exalted One.... Seated at one side that monk said to the Exalted One:
" 'The world! The world!' is the saying, lord. How far, lord, does this saying go?"
" It crumbles away, monks. Therefore it is called 'the world' (In Pali there is a word association of loko, world, with lujjati, to crumle away). What crumbles away? The eye... objects... eye-consciousness... eye-contact... that pleasant or unpleasant or neutral feeling that arises owing to eye-contact... tongue... body... mind... It crumbles away, monks. Therefore it is called 'the world'"
The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
We are infatuated with all the objects which are experienced through the sense-doors. However, they are only rupas which fall away immediately; we cannot possess them. Sometimes we experience pleasant objects and sometimes unpleasant objects. The experience of a pleasant object is the result of kusala kamma and the experience of an unpleasant object is the result of akusala kamma. The objects which can be experienced through the sense-doors are the following:
colour or visible object
As we have seen, three of the four Great Elements can be tangible object, namely: solidity (appearing as hardness or softness), temperature (appearing as heat or cold) and motion (appearing as motion, oscillation or pressure). The element of cohesion is not tangible object, it can be experienced only through the mind-door.
Visible object, odour and flavour are included in the "eight inseparable rupas" which always arise together. Although they arise together, only one kind of rupa at a time can be the object which is experienced. When there are conditions for the experience, for example, of flavour, the flavour which impinges on the tastingsense is experienced by tasting-consciousness. Flavour arises together with the four Great Elements of solidity, temperature, cohesion and motion, and with visible object, odour and nutrition, but these are not experienced at that moment.
Sound is the object of hearing-consciousness. Sound is not included in the eight inseparable rupas, but when it arises it has to be accompanied by these rupas which each perform their own function. Whenever there is sound, there also have to be solidity, cohesion, temperature, motion and the other inseparable rupas. When sound is heard, the accompanying rupas cannot be experienced (Because each citta can experience only one object at a time through the appropriate doorway.).
We read in the "Dhammasangani" (§ 621) about different kinds of sounds, such as sound of drums and other musical instruments, sound of singing, noise of people, sound of concussion of matter, sound of wind or water, human sound, such as sound of people talking. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Part I, Ch III, 319) which gives a further explanation of these kinds of sounds, defines sound as follows (See also Visuddhimagga XIV, 55.):
... all sounds have the characteristic of striking the ear, the function and property of being the object of auditory cognition, the manifestation of being the field or object of auditory cognition....
Like the other sense objects, sound has as its proximate cause the four Great Elements. No matter what sound we hear, it has a degree of loudness and it "strikes the ear". Its characteristic can be experienced without one having to think about it. We may hear the sound of a bird and it seems that we know at once the origin of the sound. When we know the origin of the sound it is not hearing, but thinking of a concept. However, the thinking is conditioned by the hearing. It seems that we can hear different sounds at a time, for example when a chord is played on the piano. When we recognize the different notes of a chord it is not hearing but thinking. When there is awareness, one reality at a time can be known as it is. Sound can be produced by temperature or by citta. Sound of wind or sound of water is produced by temperature. Speech sound is produced by citta.
We are inclined to find a loud noise disturbing and we may make ourselves believe that there cannot be mindfulness of realities when we hear a loud noise. We read in the "Theragatha" (Psalms of the Brothers, Part VII, 62, Vajjiputta) about a monk of the Vajjian clan who was dwelling in a wood near Vesali. The commentary to this verse (Paramatthadipani) states:
... Now a festival took place at Vesali, and there was dancing, singing and reciting, all the people happily enjoying the festival. And the sound thereof distracted the bhikkhu, so that he quitted his solitude, gave up his exercise, and showed forth his disgust in this verse:
Each by himself we in the forest dwell,
Like logs rejected by the woodman's craft.
So flit the days one like another by,
Who more unlucky in their lot than we?
Now a woodland deva heard him, and had compassion on the bhikkhu, and thus upbraided him, "Even though you, bhikkhu, speak scornfully of forest life, the wise desiring solitude think much of it," and to show him the advantage of it spoke this verse:
Each by himself we in the forest dwell,
Like logs rejected by the woodman's craft.
And many a one does envy me my lot,
Even as the hell-bound envies him who fares to heaven.
Then the bhikkhu, stirred like a thoroughbred horse by the spur, went down into the avenue of insight, and striving soon won arahatship. Thereupon he thought, "The deva's verse has been my goad!" and he recited it himself.
By this Sutta we are reminded that aversion to noise is not helpful. Our most important task is being mindful of whatever reality presents itself. When sound appears correct understanding of this reality can be developed. It can be known as a kind of rupa and it does not matter what kind of sound it is. We are infatuated with pleasant sense objects and disturbed by unpleasant ones. We often find reasons why we cannot be mindful of the present moment.
We would like to hear only pleasant things. When someone speaks unpleasant words to us we are inclined to think about it for a long time instead of being mindful of realities. We may forget that the moment of hearing is vipakacitta, result produced by kamma. Nobody can change vipaka. Hearing falls away immediately. When we think with aversion about the meaning of the words which were spoken we accumulate unwholesomeness.
We read in the "Greater Discourse of the Elephant's Footprint" (Middle Length Sayings I, 28) that Sariputta spoke to the monks about the elements which are conditioned, impermanent and devoid of self. He also spoke about the hearing of unpleasant words:
... Your reverences, if others abuse, revile, annoy, vex this monk, he comprehends: "This painful feeling that has arisen in me is born of sensory impingement on the ear, it has a cause, not no cause. What is the cause? Sensory impingement is the cause." He sees that sensory impingement is impermanent, he sees that feeling... perception... the habitual tendencies (sankharakkhandha) are impermanent, he sees that consciousness is impermanent (This sutta refers to the five khandhas. Conditioned namas and rupas can be classified as five khandhas or aggregates: rupakkhandha (comprising all rupas), vedanakkhandha or the khandha of feelings, sannakkhandha, the khandha of perception or remembrance, sankharakkhandha, the khandha of "habitual tendencies" or "formations", including all cetasikas other than feeling and perception, vinnanakkhandha, including all cittas.). His mind rejoices, is pleased, composed, and is set on the objects of the element. If, your reverences, others comport themselves in undesirable, disagreeable, unpleasant ways towards that monk, and he receives blows from their hands and from clods of earth and from sticks and weapons, he comprehends thus: "This body is such that blows from hands affect it and blows from clods of earth affect it and blows from sticks affect it and blows from weapons affect it. But this was said by the Lord in the Parable of the Saw: 'If, monks, low-down thieves should carve you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, whoever sets his heart at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching.' Unsluggish energy shall come to be stirred up by me, unmuddled mindfulness set up, the body tranquilised, impassible, the mind composed and onepointed. Now, willingly, let blows from hands affect this body, let blows from clods of earth... from sticks... from weapons affect it, for this teaching of the Awakened Ones is being done."
Do we see our experiences as elements to such a degree already that, when we hear unpleasant words, we can immediately realize: "This painful feeling that has arisen in me is born of sensory impingement on the ear"? In order to see realities as they are it is necessary to develop understanding of nama and rupa. There are different ways of classifying rupas. One way is the classification as the four Great Elements (maha-bhuta rupas) and the derived rupas (upada rupas) which are the other twentyfour rupas among the twentyeight rupas.
Another way is the classification as gross rupas (olarika rupas) and subtle rupas (sukhuma rupas). Twelve kinds of rupa are gross; they are the sense-objects which can be experienced through the sense-doors, namely: visible object, sound, odour, flavour and the three rupas which are tangible object, namely: solidity, temperature and motion, thus, three of the great Elements, and also the five sense-organs (pasada rupas) which can be the doors through which these objects are experienced. The other sixteen rupas among the twentyeight kinds are subtle rupas (As we see, of the eight inseparable rupas six are gross, namely: three of the four Great Elements, visible object, odour and flavour, and two are subtle, namely: cohesion and nutrition.).
The "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 73) states that twelve rupas "are to be taken as gross because of impinging; the rest is subtle because they are the opposite of that." The seven rupas which can be sense objects (They are visible object, sound, odour , flavour and three tangible objects which are three among the Great Elements.) are impinging time and again on the five rupas which are the sense organs. Subtle rupas do not impinge on the senses. According to the "Visuddhimagga", the subtle rupas are far, because they are difficult to penetrate, whereas the gross rupas are near, because they are easy to penetrate.
There is impingement of objects on the senses time and again, but we are usually forgetful of realities. We have learnt about the four Great Elements and other rupas and we may begin to recognize different characteristics of realities when they present themselves. For example, when we are walking, rupas such as hardness, heat or pressure may appear one at a time. We can learn the difference between the direct experience of characteristics of rupa and the thinking of concepts such as feet and ground. The ground cannot impinge on the bodysense and be directly experienced. The Buddha urged the monks to develop right understanding during all their actions. We read in the Commentary to the "Satipatthana Sutta" (In the Middle Length Sayings I, no 10. See the translation of the commentary to this sutta in "The Way of Mindfulness" by Ven. Soma, B.P.S. Kandy, 1975.), in the section on the four kinds of Clear Comprehension, about clear comprehension in wearing robes:
... Within there is nothing called a soul that robes itself. According to the method of exposition adopted already, only, by the diffusion of the process of oscillation (the element of wind or motion) born of mental activity does the act of robing take place. The robe has no power to think and the body too has not that power. The robe is not aware of the fact that it is draping the body, and the body too of itself does not think: "I am being draped round with the robe." Mere processes clothe a process-heap, in the same way that a modeled figure is covered with a piece of cloth. Therefore, there is neither room for elation on getting a fine robe nor for depression on getting one that is not fine.
This passage is a
good reminder of the truth, also for laypeople. We are used to the impact of cloths
on the body, most of the time we do not even notice it. Or we are taken in by
the pleasantness of soft material that touches the body, or by the colour of our
cloths. We can be mindful of softness or colour as only elements. In reality there
are only elements impinging on elements.
We read in the "Gradual Sayings" (II, Book of the Fours, Ch XVIII, § 7, Rahula) that the Buddha said to Rahula:
Rahula, both the internal earth-element and that in external objects are just this earth-element. Thus it should be regarded, as it really is, by perfect wisdom: "This is not of me. Not this am I. Not to me is this the self." So seeing it, as it really is, by perfect wisdom, one has revulsion for the earth-element; by wisdom one cleanses the heart of passion.
The same is said of the elements of water, heat and wind. The Buddha then said:
Now, Rahula, when a monk beholds neither the self nor what pertains to the self in these four elements, this one is called "a monk who has cut off craving, has loosed the bond, and by perfectly understanding (this) vain conceit, has made an end of Ill."
The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena
Subtle Rupas produced by Kamma
The objects which can be experienced through the sense-doors and also the sense-organs themselves are gross rupas, the other rupas are subtle rupas. The sense-organs are produced solely by kamma, not by the other three factors of citta, temperature and nutrition which can produce rupas. There are also subtle rupas which are produced solely by kamma. They are: the femininity-faculty, the masculinity-faculty, the life-faculty and the heart-base. With regard to the femininity-faculty (itthindriyam) and the masculinity-faculty (purisindriyam), which are collectively called bhavarupa or sex, these are rupas produced by kamma from the first moment of our life and throughout life. Thus, it is due to kamma whether one is born as a male or as a female. The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 322) explains that birth as a male and birth as a female are different kinds of vipaka. Being born as a human being is kusala vipaka, but since good deeds have different degrees also their results have different degrees. Birth as a female is the result of kusala kamma which is of a lesser degree than the kusala kamma which conditions birth as a male. In the course of life one can notice the difference between the status of men and that of women. It is a fact that in society generally men are esteemed higher than women. Usually women cannot so easily obtain a position of honour in society. But as regards the development of wisdom, both men and women can develop it and attain arahatship. We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Part III, Kindred Sayings about Womankind, 3, § 34, Growth):
Increasing in five growths, monks, the ariyan woman disciple increases in the ariyan growth, takes hold of the essential, takes hold of the better. What five?
She grows in confidence (saddha), grows in virtue (sila), in learning, in generosity, in wisdom. Making such growth, monks, she takes hold of the essential, she takes hold of the better....
The "Atthasalini" (II, Book II, Ch III, 321) explains that women and men have different features, that they are different in outer appearance, in occupation and deportment. But the feminine features, etc. are not identical with the rupa which is the femininity faculty. The "Atthasalini" states:
...They are produced in course of process because of that faculty. When there is seed the tree grows because of the seed, and is replete with branch and twig and stands filling the sky; so when there is the feminine controlling faculty called femininity, feminine features, etc., come to be....
The same is said about the masculinity faculty. The "Atthasalini" (same section, 322) gives the following definitions of the femininity faculty and the masculinity faculty:
Of these two controlling faculties the feminine has the characteristic of (knowing) the state of woman, the function of showing "this is woman", the manifestation which is the cause of femininity in feature, mark, occupation, deportment.
The masculinity controlling faculty has the characteristic of (knowing) the state of man, the function of showing "this is man", the manifestation which is the cause of masculinity in feature, etc. (See also Dhammasangani § 633, 634 and Visuddhimagga XIV, 58.).
These two faculties which, as the Visuddhimagga (XIV, 58) explains, are "coextensive with" or pervade the whole body, are not known by visual cognition but only by mind-cognition. But, as the "Atthasalini" (321) states, their characteristic features, etc., which are conditioned by their respective faculties, are known by visual cognition as well as by mind-cognition.
Seeing experiences only visible object, it does not know "This is a woman" or "This is a man". The citta which recognizes feminine or masculine features does so through the mind-door, but this recognizing is conditioned by seeing. When the commentary states that these characteristic features are known by visual cognition as well as by mind-cognition, it does not speak in detail about the different processes of cittas which experience objects through the eye-door and through the mind-door.
Generally, women like to emphasize their femininity in make up and clothes and men like to emphasize their masculinity. One clings to one's feminine or masculine features, one's way of walking and deportment. We should not forget that it is the femininity faculty or masculinity faculty, only a rupa produced by kamma, which conditions our outward appearance or deportment to be specifically feminine or masculine. We take our sex for self, but it is only a conditioned element devoid of self.
Life faculty, the rupa which is jivitindriya, is also a subtle rupa produced by kamma from the first moment of life and throughout life (There is nama-jivitindriya and rupa-jivitindriya. Nama-jivitindriya is a cetasika among the "universals", cetasikas which accompany every citta.). Since this kind of rupa is produced solely by kamma, it arises only in living beings, not in plants (Plants consist of rupas produced by temperature or the element of heat.). It is a "controlling faculty" (indriya), it has a dominating influence over the other rupas it arises together with since it maintains their life. The "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 59) states about life faculty (See also Dhammasangati § 635. The Atthasalini (I Part IV, Ch I, 123, 124) refers to its definition of nama-jivitindriya.):
The life faculty has the characteristic of maintaining conascent kinds of matter (The rupas arising together with it.). Its function is to make them occur. It is manifested in the establishing of their presence. Its proximate cause is primary elements that are to be sustained.
Life faculty maintains the other rupas it arises together with in one group, and then it falls away together with them. The "Visuddhimagga" (in the same section) states:
It does not prolong presence at the moment of dissolution because it is itself dissolving, like the flame of a lamp when the wick and the oil are getting used up....
We cling to our body as something alive. Rupas of a "living body" have a quality which is lacking in dead matter or plants, they are supported by the life faculty. We are inclined to take this quality for "self", but it is only a rupa produced by kamma. The heart-base (hadayavatthu) is another rupa produced solely by kamma. In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa cittas have a physical place of origin, a base (vatthu). Seeing-consciousness has as its base the eye-base, the rupa which is eyesense, and evenso have the other sense-cognitions their appropriate bases where they arise. Apart from the sense-bases there is another base: the heart-base. This is the place of origin for all cittas other than the sense-cognitions.
At the first moment of life the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi-citta) which arises is produced by kamma. If this citta arises in a plane of existence where there are nama and rupa it must have a base: this is the heart-base, which is produced by kamma. Kamma produces this rupa from the first moment of life and throughout life.
The rupa which is the heart-base has not been classified in the "Dhammasangani", but it is referred to in the "Book of Conditional Relations" ( Patthana), the Seventh Book of the Abhidhamma. In the section on "Dependance Condition" (Part II, Analytical Exposition of Conditions) it is said that dependant on the five sense-bases the five sense-cognitions arise, and dependant on "this matter" mind-element and mind-consciousness-element arise. "This matter" is the rupa which is the heart-base and the mind-element and mind-consciousness-element comprise all cittas other than the five sense-cognitions (Mind-element are the five-sense-door adverting-consciousness and the two types of receiving-consciousness which are kusala vipaka and akusala vipaka. Mind-consciousness-element are all cittas other than the sense-cognitions and mind-element, a group of ten rupas including the heart-base in Book II, Ch III, 316. As I shall explain later on, from the first moment of our life kamma produces three decads, groups of ten rupas: the bodysense-decad, the sex-decad and the heart-base-decad.).
The "Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 60) gives the following definition of the heart-base (The Atthasalini does not classify the heart-base separately, but it mentions the "basis-decad"):
The heart-basis has the characteristic of being the (material) support for the mind-element and for the mind-consciousness- element. Its function is to observe them. It is manifested as the carrying of them....
The "Visuddhimagga" (VIII, 111,112) states that the heart-base is to be found on dependance on the blood, inside the heart. It is of no use to speculate where exactly the heart-base is. It is sufficient to know that there is a rupa which is base for all cittas other than the sense-cognitions. We may not experience the heart-base, but if there would be no heart-base we could not think at this moment, we could not know which objects we are experiencing, we could not feel happy or unhappy. In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa all cittas must have a physical base, they cannot arise outside the body. When we, for example, are angry, cittas rooted in aversion arise and these originate at the heart-base. If we had not studied the Abhidhamma we would have thought that all cittas originate in what we call in conventional language "brain". One may cling to a concept of brain and take it for self. The Abhidhamma can clear up misunderstandings about bodily phenomena and mental phenomena and the way they function. It explains how physical phenomena and mental phenomena are interrelated. Mental phenomena are dependant on physical phenomena and physical phenomena can have mental phenomena as conditioning factors.
The conditioning factors for what we call body and mind are impermanent. Why then do we take body and mind for something permanent? We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (III, Khandha-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Elements, First Fifty, Ch 2, § 18, Cause) that the Buddha said to the monks at Savatthi:
Body, monks is impermanent. That which is the cause, that which is the condition for the arising of body, that also is impermanent. How, monks, can a body which is compounded of the impermanent come to be permanent?....
The same is said about the mental phenomena (classified as four aggregates or khandhas). We then read:
Thus seeing, the welltaught ariyan disciple (An ariyan is a person who has attained enlightenment.) is repelled by body, is repelled by feeling, by perception, by the "activities" (Cetasikas other than feeling and perception are classified as one khandha, that of the activities or formations, sankharakkhandha.). He is repelled by consciousness. Being repelled by it he lusts not for it: not lusting he is set free. Thus he realizes: "Rebirth is destroyed, lived is the righteous life, done is my task, for life in these conditions there is no here-after."