Arannasanna - Forest Perceptions
- Venerable Santidhammo
Given the rapid depletion of the world's forests and the associated population explosion problem, a monk who dwells in a monastery which is located in a forest situation has good reason to count his blessings. Having been able to move from one forest monastery to another, from Serpentine, Western Australian to Stokes Valley, New Zealand, I wonder how long such a privileged option will be available to our Forest Tradition monks.
Serpentine is a dry eucalypt forest whereas Stokes Valley is wet, temperate rain forest: quite a contrast, but each is very attractive in its own way. This in spite of the fact that both environments are mainly regrowth with a large component of invasive 'exotics'. My personal preference has always been for a greener cooler forest and I like nothing better than to extend my dawn walking meditation into a circumambulation of the monastery. The circular pathway leads deep into the overgrown recesses of our little 'sub-valley', a small extension at the end of the main valley (Stokes Valley proper). Twin streams merge under palm fronds, ferns, creepers, tree ferns, shrubs and trees which unite to almost block out the sunlight on many sections of the path. The combined water of both streams and many springs unite to gurgle past the Sala where the circular pathway terminates.

There are meditation seats at strategic spots with either closed forest views or spectacular outlooks over the monastery buildings far below, glimpses of suburbia beyond and distant ranges-upon-ranges forming the horizon to the north. To the rear of the seated viewer, through the dense undergrowth that covers the higher slopes, lies the ridge which forms a natural boundary to the monastery, sheltering it from the southerly winds. From the summit one has views of Wellington harbour, the central cityscape and, on a clear day, the snow capped peaks of the South Island.
Sounds of suburbia barely penetrate the inner reaches of the monastery: so much beauty, lushness and solitude put one in a joyful mood conducive to meditational calm. Proceeding mindfully along the leaf- strewn path, coloured golden brown by autumnal offerings from a delightful glade of southern beech trees, the fallen leaves give cause for reflection on impermanence. The upper layers of gold and rustic colours grade into ever deeper shades of brown feeding the rich brown humus; a return to mother earth (Gaia), to provide nutrients for the whole cycle to repeat itself yet again. 'Earth', foremost of the four mahabhuta, the four great becomings; for earth, water, fire and air ceaselessly combine in an ever changing multiplicity of forms. The processes by which the leaves decompose into earth cannot proceed without water (moisture), without fire (warmth), nor without air (oxygen).
Traditional commentators and modern writers are apologetic about the Buddha's use of this 'primitive' classification of matter. They usually explain the four mahabhuta, in terms of solidity, fluidity, heat and motion, often digressing into scientific explanations of the nature of matter. As is so often the case, elaboration and overrefinement of the Dhamma is a case of the writer bringing his over conceptual map to bear, resulting in an inevitable distortion or veiling of the teachings. Hence the statement by the Buddha: "yena yena hi mannanti tato ta hoti annatha" (whatever they conceive it to be, it is ipso facto otherwise). Matter cannot be reduced to the so-called sabhave dhamma, having their own intrinsic nature, which are referred to as the final irreducible components of existence. This is where the Abhidhamma and commentaries move into materialism. Herein lies the danger of conceiving rupa as either 'body' or 'corporeality' or 'physically'. Matter is ultimately a mystery, as science is beginning to understand.. The Suttas only refer to the 'forms' it takes in a perceiving consciousness, defining it as, 'the four great becomings and the form based on them, this is called form (rupa).' (S.ii.3)

Pali is a very precise language whereas English is a hybrid tongue and rarely provides a single word which captures the meaning of the original Pali word. Kaya is 'body' in the physical sense while rupa is 'body' only in its objective sense as one mental image or form among all other mental images, shapes or forms: "ayam kayo rupi catummahabhutiko" (this body formed from the four great becomings -M 74), illustrates this subtle and confusing point. Only when such Pali terms are rendered correctly in their precise meanings does the depth and profundity of the Dhamma reveal itself with startling clarity.
Further reflection on 'matter' brings to mind two other classifications used repeatedly in the Suttas but neglected or misunderstood by commentators and all but ignored by most writers on Buddhism. They are the four nutriments (ahara) and the six elements (dhatu). The latter classification adds space and consciousness to the four mahabhuta. Earth, water, fire and air 'become' forms in a consciousness which places them in space. Consciousness entails thought, one thought necessarily follows another, hence 'kappa' can mean both 'thought' and 'time'.
"By time the sage described the mind And by the mind described time" (Atthasalini)
The six elements, earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness (time) are simply the building blocks with which all conceptualization takes place. It is a process of 'becoming', of 'coming to be, ceasing to be' taking place in the thought processes of a consciousness that sees everything as separate from itself. Indeed, the progression through the jhana levels is simply a matter of transcending these six elements, the third arupa jhana being ' no-thingness' because no 'thing' (dhamma) can be conceived in the absence of the six building blocks which are the basis of thought. Earth, water, fire and air in different combinations register as form (rupa), not matter, and are placed in space and time by the perceiving consciousness. Such consciousness (vinnana-vi = divided; nana = knowledge) or separative awareness is the arising of individuality or separateness, which is a placement in space and time, the union of which is causality. Causality is the arising of forms which are separate from the observing consciousness. These forms are all that we can know of 'matter'.The profundity and depth of all this is expressed in the resultant formula: SPACE & TIME = CAUSALITY = MATTER.
An astonishing statement you may think, but consider this: "Time has no beginning or ending but all beginnings and endings are in time; space has no limits but all limits are in space; matter has no origin or extinction but all arisings and passings away are in matter. Every change in matter can occur only by virtue of another change that preceded it. Therefore, a first change and hence also a first state or condition of matter are as unthinkable as a beginning in time or a limit of space. The essential nature of matter consists in acting; it is action itself in the abstract, and thus action in general, apart from all the difference in the manner of acting; it is through and through causality".

Here we have the basis of the relationship between matter and mind which proves so elusive to the modern materialistic mind, for kamma is also action albeit volitional or intentional action. (A. iv. 63)
The basis of modern philosophy is the Cartesian 'Cogito ergo sum' - 'I think therefore I am'. In keeping with the Buddha's teaching of insubstantiality (anatta) this should have been-'There is thinking therefore there is being'. However there is another factor which is also overlooked or misunderstood. Herein lies the essential mistake not only of modern philosophy, but of all other religions - they consider thinking as primary - a serious misunderstanding - willing is primary, thinking is secondary.
Kamma is the result of volition (cetana). Intentional thought sows the action (kamma) through body, speech or mind; sow an action and reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny. Thus we are born with an inbuilt character, our kammic package, created by ourselves through our actions. This character is constantly modified in the light of new experience via the intellect (mano). If we do not see through the deception of appearances (the veil of maya, of time and space), we become attached to 'our world', we thirst after it (tanha) in our ignorance (avijja), and so it is ignorant craving or blind will that brings us into, and ties us to, the cycle of birth and death (samsara). That is why willing is primary and thinking is secondary.
Having been born we have to assemble 'our world' again via the cognitive apparatus which our human form endows us with, (i.e. via thinking). What we fail to understand, however, is that this 'strange' equation, TIME & SPACE = CAUSALITY =MATTER, is built into the workings of our cognitive apparatus. It is a priori, prior to experience - "being pre-formed in the intellect itself, space as the form of intuitive perception, time as the form of change, and the law of causality as the regulator of the appearance of changes. Now it is precisely the existence of these forms, ready-made and prior to all experience, which constitutes the intellect. Physiologically it is the function of the brain which learns this just as little from experience as does the stomach to digest or the liver to secrete bile." 2
Thus the basis of both matter and kamma is action and this in turn is the basis of the Buddha's teaching of impermanence (anicca). The Pali word for the pangs of childbirth is kammavaja-vata (lit. wind produced by kamma). Kamma is said to be our origin, kammayoni. The old argument, in modern psychology, of nature versus nuture, genes versus environment, requires a third factor which is 'the being to be born' as stated by the Buddha - in other words the kammic package or character produced by past intentional actions as a result of willing.
The Dhamma is not reducible to scientific materialism; its purpose is to show us the way out of the delusiveness of the veil of maya which is nothing more than space and time generated by a 'separative' perceiving consciousness. The relationship between the above law of motivation, which forms the basis of kamma, and the law of physical causality is the key to the correct understanding of the human situation as taught by the Buddha.
Further light is thrown on this perplexing dilemma by the other neglected classification, the four nutriments (ahara). The Buddha states that they " are the sustenances for the maintenance of beings that have come to birth, or for the forwarding of those that seek to become" (S. ii. 11) and that they are based on, caused and produced by craving (tanha). The first, material food (kabalinkarahara) provides the basis for the physical body (kaya). The sperm and the ovum are formed from the material food consumed by the parents and become the new body which begins to grow from the moment of conception, nourished by further material food. This contradicts the traditional interpretation which regards namarupa as body-and-mind or physicality-and-mentality arising at conception. Such misinterpretation also contradicts the Suttas definition of namarupa by assuming it to be the five aggregates (khandha) which constitute the person. Some endeavour to overcome this contradiction by attributing a different meaning to namarupa in this context. Again this becomes an unnecessary distortion and complication of the Dhamma while at the same time concealing its more profound aspects.

Clearly namarupa is not involved at conception. Kamma certainly is: 'we are born of our Kamma', but namarupa only 'descends into a womb' when the zygote develops sufficiently to have an operative brain enabling consciousness to occur. Consciousness is clearly defined by the Buddha as the six sense door consciousnesses and therefore dependent on a functioning brain. These six senses have, in turn, been defined as the sum total of the world, the 'all' (sabba) placed in space and time when namarupa begins to function. Namarupa, form-and-name, is an activity which takes place when a consciousness becomes conscious of something separate from itself. That 'something' appears as a form, shape or image which the consciousness ' bends towards' (nameti) and names it or identifies it. Hence the definition of nama as sensation(vedana), perception (sanna) contact or presence (phassa),volition (cetana) and attention (manasikara). This is a synthesising process by which we become aware of the five aggregates (khandha) and can then analyse this result and find, as the Buddha repeatedly states, nothing but the five aggregates, which are the 'all', the 'world', the totality of our experience. When we say something 'exists' we mean no more than that we perceive it.
Note that the remaining three nutriments are contact (phassa), intellectual intention (manosancetana) and consciousness (vinnana). Again it is a consciousness based on a physical body (kaya) in contact with 'forms' that creates via the mental formations (sankhara). The latter are defined elsewhere (S. iii. 60) as the intentions or volitions (cetana) towards sensations entering via the six sense doors. Tradition has reduced mental formations(sankhara) to volition (cetana) because of such definitions, but note that the sixth sense door volition is (dhammasancetana) i.e. phenomena that arise in the mind in which we express an interest. However, the sustainer of beings is (manosancetana), being the ideational, creative, intellect aspect of mind which fashions these separate volitional gleanings into our version of the world, the craving (tanha) for which, ensures our captivity in the cycle of existence (sa3/4sara). Hence the above statements that these four sustenances arise, are produced and caused by craving (tanha-thirst).
Thus the term sankhara in the Buddha's Dependent Arising (Paticcasamuppada) encompasses both volitional and creative aspects of mind and should not be reduced to volition only, as the traditionalists do.
Such are the thoughts that arise during a slow, silent circumambulation of the "garden of enlightened knowledge". The world of nature can incline the mind to either tranquillity meditation or to such investigative probing into the extraordinary depth and profundity of the Buddha's explanation of the human situation and the cyclical and interdependent nature of all existence exemplified by the fallen leaves: " The genuine symbol of nature is universally and everywhere the circle, because it is the schema or form of recurrence; in fact, this is the most general form in nature.She carries it through in everything from the course of the constellations down to the death and birth of organic beings. In this way alone, in the restless stream of time and its content, a continued existence, i.e. a nature, becomes possible".3
So where, you may ask, do all the new leaves come from? Where do future generations of human beings come from? An intriguing question: here is an intriguing answer:
" Whence will all these come? Where are they now? Where is the abundant womb of that nothing which is pregnant with worlds and which still conceals them, the coming generations? Would not the smiling and true answer to this be: Where else could they be but there where alone the real was and always will be, namely in the present and its content?- hence with you the deluded questioner who in this mistaking of his own true nature, is like the leaf on the tree. Fading in the autumn and about to fall, the leaf grieves over its own extinction and will not be consoled by looking forward to the fresh green which will clothe the tree in spring, but says as a lament: 'I am not these! These are quite different leaves!' Oh foolish leaf! Whither do you want to go? And whence are the others supposed to come? Where is the nothing, the abyss of which you fear? Know your own inner being, precisely that which is filled with the thirst for existence; recognise it once more in the inner, mysterious, sprouting force of the tree. This force is always one and the same in all generations of leaves, and it remains untouched by arising and passing away. And now, 'As the leaves on the tree, so are the generations of human beings' (Homer-Iliad) 4

Thus everything lingers only for a moment, and hurries on to death. The plant and insect die at the end of summer, the animal and man after a few years; death reaps unwearily. But despite all this, in fact as if this were not the case at all, everything is always there and in its place, just as if everything were imperishable. The plant always flourishes and blooms, the insect hums, animal and man are there in evergreen youth and every summer we have again before us the cherries that have already been a thousand times enjoyed......Therefore, what forces itself on us more irresistibly than the thought that that arising and passing away do not concern the real essence of things, but that this remains untouched by them, hence is imperishable, consequently that each and everything that wills to exist actually does exist continuously and without end."5
Endless indeed is this sa3/4saric cycle in which beings fettered by ignorance(avijja) and fueled by craving(tanha) ' fare on'. Contemplate this, and be thankful for the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. As I wend my way along the monastery's scenic pathway back to my picturesque little hut nestled in the greenery high above the main monastery building, I reflect on the spiritual path and the urgent need for progress along it. May all those who make the effort attain its goal of freedom, of peace that passes understanding, of happiness that transcends happiness.