Monday, November 17, 2014

Buddha, Self & No-Self

“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.”
(Visuddimagga, 513)

The Buddha taught that there is no permanent individual self (anatta), and that if we fully realize this for ourselves we will be enlightened just like him. The important word here is ‘realize,’ for if we merely hold the view of not-self, we will not actually be enlightened, but rather clinging to a concept. The concept, or view (ditthi) of not-self is, from the Buddhist perspective, an improvement on the self-view (atta-ditthi), but it is still a pale imitation of the real thing. Believing something is one thing, but knowing it is another and the Buddha stated that if we really wish to escape the claws of suffering, we must realize what the extract above by Buddhaghosa describes as “Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.”

The Buddha’s teaching on not-self is unique among the world’s great religions, with all the other major faiths making the assumption that there is a soul or self of some description or another (atta-ditthi). They take as true what Buddhism classes as the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi), which is one of the two extreme views criticized by the Buddha. Eternalists believe that there is a permanent, individual soul in each of us that lives forever, either being reborn life-to-life, or being sent to heaven or hell upon physical death. Hinduism is an example of a faith that postulates that an eternal self reincarnates through a myriad lifetimes, with Sikhism and Jainism promoting essentially the same idea. The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – tell us that we have undying souls that either end up in heaven or hell after death, depending on our behavior during just one life upon this earth.

The other main form of self-view is the annihilationist view (uccheda-ditthi), which states that although everyone does indeed have a separate self, it does not precede or survive this life. This is essentially the materialist view that modern scientifically-influenced people hold, such as the Darwinists and other non-religious people. The difference between this view and the Buddha’s is that annihilationism still presumes the existence of a real self (atta), whereas Buddhism declares that there has never been a self (anatta). The Buddhist understanding of no-self will be explored a little later, but first, we have a brief excursion to make into a third group of false views that the Buddha listed which, like him, denied the existence of a permanent, separate self, but unlike him, also denied the law of karma.

The first of these three anti-karma beliefs is called the inefficacy-of-action-view (akiraya-ditthi), which states that because there is no self, no karma and no karma results, our actions are meaningless and without any karmic consequences. The next idea is that of the view of non-causality (ahetuka-ditthi), in which the believer in no-self holds the opinion that things happen purely by chance, without prior conditioning factors, and that in turn our actions have no direct influence on future occurrences, either. The last false understanding of there being no self and no karmic process is called the nihilistic view (nattika-ditthi). Nihilists suppose that the universe is empty not only of any self or karmic process, but that it is also therefore empty of any meaning. It doesn’t matter what we do, because there’s no one to suffer our wrong doings and no one to benefit from our virtuous behavior. As with the annihilationist view, nihilism has gained a certain popularity with some modernists, among them anarchists and materialistic hedonists, who feel that they can do whatever takes their fancy as nothing really matters anyhow.

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one that sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)

As his words to the monk Kaccanagotta illustrate above, the Buddha held what he considered the Middle Way between the extremes of eternalism (“the idea of existence”) and annihilationism (“the idea of nonexistence”). In this quote, by the word “world” the Buddha means the world as it is experienced, in other words, all sense data that is received, interpreted, and reacted to by the mind. It is existent in that mental and physical phenomena are apparent, and yet it is nonexistent in that there’s no distinct self here experiencing it all. In this light, it is worthwhile rereading the verse from the Visuddhimagga found at the top of this article, as long as you see that there is in truth no one actually doing the reading!

With the teachings on karma and dependent arising (paticca-samuppada), the Buddha also avoided the extreme positions taken up by those holding ideas like the inefficacy-of-action view, the view of non-causality, and the nihilist view. Karma and karmic fruition describe existence in terms and actions and their consequences; that is to say, whatever we do, say, or think has repercussions far beyond this present moment (although they certainly influence current events also.) Recognition of karma and its results negates the idea of non-causality, as well as giving nihilists pause for thought. The Buddha’s radical, and like anatta unique, teaching of dependent arising also leaves those with the inefficacy-of-action view much to ponder, in that it describes a clear and logical set of conditioning factors that give order and meaning to life. Here’s a typical description of dependent arising as given by the Buddha in the Pali Canon:

“On ignorance (avijja) depend the karmic formations (sankhara); on the karmic formations depends consciousness (vinnana); on consciousness depends mind-and-form (nama-rupa); on mind-and-form depend the six sense-bases (salayatana); on the six sense-bases depends contact (phassa): on contact depends feeling (vedana): on feeling depends craving(tanha); on craving depends clinging (upadana); on clinging depends becoming (bhava); on becoming depends birth (jati); and on birth depends decay-and-death (jara-marana)." (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

From this description of the process of dependent arising it can be seen that the Buddha espoused a very detailed alternative to the non-causal and meaningless philosophies we have been examining. Whether we accept (or even fully understand) dependent arising, the step-by-step nature of its progression from ignorance (of the way things truly are) to eventual decay and death has a certain appeal that can leave the nihilists and other hedonists seeming rather inattentive and shortsighted. If we are to be attached to views, surely the Buddha’s Right View which includes karma and dependent arising makes more sense to both the mind and heart than the views of the eternalists, annihilationists, and thir ilk. (This article is not the place to explore dependent arising in more depth, but if there is interest on the part of this blog’s readership, it certainly can be the focus of a future post.)

Returning to the Buddha’s conception of karma and rebirth, some readers may be wondering how, if there is no permanent, separate self to be reborn, rebirth takes place, and also who, if there is no such self, it is that performs actions and receives their results. Well, a highly-detailed account of dependent arising was the Buddha’s main response to this question, but in the modest environment of a blog, a somewhat simpler explanation will be attempted! It is aspects of the mind that are reborn rather than a soul or personality, as such. Mental habits, attachments, and thought processes not only traverse time and space by ‘popping up’ in our brains during this life, but can also enter an embryo or foetus, a bit like radio waves or electrical impulses traversing the ether to be received at some future point. According to the Buddha, karmic results can also manifest (in relation to the mind-elements that created them) in future lives, as well as in the present one.

Another way in which the Buddha nullifies self-view is with his teaching of the five aggregates (panca-khandha), which he stated comprised the entiety of a person, leaving nothing to be considered as a permanent, separate self or soul. The five aggregates are as follows:

• The aggregate of corporality (rupa-khandha)

• The aggregate of feeling (vedana-khandha)

• The aggregate of perception (sanna)

• The aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha)

• The aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha)

The first aggregate of corporality means the body, that is, the physical components that make it up; the second aggregate of feeling indicates those emotional responses to mental and physical stimuli, the three basic forms of which are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; the third aggregate of perception refers to the recognition of objects, both mental and physical, and includes memory; the aggregate of mental formations applies to any psychological qualities, including volition, concentration, faith, compassion, delusion, hate, and envy; the aggregate of consciousness is that awareness dependent upon one or other of the other four aggregates, such as consciousness of feeling envy. As the following quotation points out, in his teaching of the five aggregates, the Buddha leaves no room for a separate, individual soul or self:

“Now, if anyone should put the question, whether I admit any theory at all, he should be answered thus:
The Tathagata is free from any view, for the Tathagata has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what mental formations are, and how they arise and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Tathagata has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’”
(Majjhima Nikaya, 72)

It’s interesting to note in the above words that not only does the teaching of the five aggregates cancel out self-view, but it also negates any views of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist, for as written at the top of this article, the Buddha taught that we need to realize that there is no permanent separate self if we wish to awaken to reality. Clinging to the view of not-self (anatta) is not enough: we must see this Truth and then live from it to really benefit from it. Otherwise, we are caught up in the realm of views, which as the Buddha declared, he did not enter into to. Transcending both self and all views, we fulfill the words from Buddhaghosa’s verse that opened this exploration: “Nirvana exists, but no one that enters it.” Bon voyage, no one!

Note: This post was first published on this blog in October 2010.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Buddha on the Qualities of the Dharma

I have heard that at one time the Blessed One was staying at Vesali, in the Peaked Roof Hall in the Great Forest.

Then Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, stood to one side. As she was standing there she said to him: "It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dharma in brief such that, having heard the Dharma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute."

"Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome': You may categorically hold, 'This is not the Dharma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher's instruction.'

"As for the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome': You may categorically hold, 'This is the Dharma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.'"

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Mahapajapati Gotami delighted at his words.

(Gotami Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 8:53, Tipitaka)
*Notes:
Mahapajapati Gotami was Buddha's aunt & adoptive mother who became the first Buddhist nun, and is an important figure in the early development of Buddhism; here, Dharma indicates Buddha's teachings & Vinaya refers to the rules for monks & nuns.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Buddha on Two Views

Monks, there are these two views: the view of being and the view of non-being. Any recluses or priests who rely on the view of being, adopt the view of being, accept the view of being, are opposed to the view of non-being. Any recluses or priests who rely on the view of non-being, adopt the view of non-being, accept the view of non-being, are opposed to the view of being.

 "Any recluses or priests who do not understand as they actually are the origin, the disappearance, the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of these two views are affected by lust, affected by hate, affected by delusion, affected by craving, affected by clinging, without vision, given to favoring and opposing, and they delight in and enjoy proliferation. They are not freed from birth, aging and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair; they are not freed from suffering, I say.

 "Any recluses or priests who understand as they actually are the origin, the disappearance, the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of these two views are without lust, without hate, without delusion, without craving, without clinging, with vision, not given to favoring and opposing, and they do not delight in and enjoy proliferation. They are freed from birth, aging and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair; they are freed from suffering, I say.”

 (Buddha, taken from the Cula-sihanada Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 11, Tipitaka. Notes: although addressed to Buddhist monks & talking about recluses and priests, the above is applicable to anyone; being and non-being can also be translated as existence and non-existence; the crucial point here is that clinging to views is an obstacle to enlightenment, which involves the complete letting go of all views or beliefs.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dhammapada Reflections #3

Verses 6, 7 & 8:

There are those that do not realize
That one day we must all die.
But those that do realize this
Settle their quarrels.

Just as a storm throws down a weak tree,
So does Mara overpower the one who lives
For the pursuit of pleasures,
Who is uncontrolled in senses,
Immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated.

Just as a storm cannot prevail
Against a rocky mountain,
So Mara can never overpower the one
Who lives meditating on the impurities,
Who is controlled in his senses,
Moderate in eating, and filled
With faith and earnest effort.

 We humans are an ingenious lot. We can cure many fatal diseases, produce amazing works of art, and we can even walk in space. And yet, we can also be pretty foolish, too. We endanger our health with intoxicants, argue & inflict violence on each other, and live as if immortal, avoiding the fact of our impending demise. Such ways of living do immense damage both physically & psychologically, but Buddha suggests that we can go beyond these destructive behaviour patterns.

 A common exercise encouraged in Buddhism is to reflect on our mortality. We are mortal beings; not only do these bodies age & die, but also our minds do likewise. Indeed, it’s the nature of the human mind to change moment-to-moment in the constant flow of thoughts & feelings referred to as the stream of consciousness. Based in this fact, Buddha suggests that if we are to take any part of us to be a ‘self,’ it should be the body rather than the mind, for although the body is constantly changing, the mind morphs from one state to another much faster; it is in constant flux. Watch it for five minutes and you will see the truth of this.

Ultimately, though, Buddha advises us not to take any part of us as constituting a self, as both mind & body can be seen to be natural processes largely out of our control. Moreover, we can see that these human forms are ephemeral if we take the time to actually observe the human condition with discernment. One day, you will cease to be, and when the last day arrives, do you want to live with regret in your heart, having lived in states of animosity & conflict? Is this how you wish to be remembered: as someone who created much pain & suffering? Buddha promotes the opposite to this, for not only will you help create a better world by settling disputes fairly & swiftly, but you’ll be remembered more favourably as well.

 Mara is the Buddhist figure that represents death & ignorance; in other words, he is the antithesis of Buddha. Rather than selfless, he is selfish, rather than egoless, he is egotistic, and rather than compassionate, he is unsympathetic. Similarly, Mara personifies those aspects of ourselves that are pleasure-seeking, sense-gratifying & lazy. If we give in to these negative traits, we will be unable to realize the fruits of the Buddhist life, for we will live as followers of Mara and not Buddha. This is how Mara overpowers us, as spoken of in verse 7 of the Dhammapada quoted above. Living in such negative ways, we will surely live in conflict with others, over-competing with them, causing arguments & hatred. In giving in to these harmful modes of behaviour we are “weak trees,” as Buddha puts it, easily subject to further suffering based upon the fake identities we foolishly live from.

 Those that are heedful of Buddha’s teachings are compared to a “rocky mountain” beyond the destructive powers of any storm. He encourages us to meditate on “the impurities” which is a practice intended to reveal the real nature of our bodies. The focus of such reflection is such aspects of the body as bones, organs, membranes, fat, mucus & faeces, not to mention other distasteful stuff. Controlling our senses by not overindulging in sensual activities will also help in keeping Mara at bay. Conviction & energy with regards to being moral & meditative will give rise to the wisdom that transcends suffering & the delusion of self.

 Living from the realization of the impermanent nature of these body-minds can lead to a more positive attitude towards life, not wasting so much effort on conflictive behaviours. We’re more inclined to being tolerant & forgiving with each other if we recognize that we’re all in the same boat called ‘Impermanence’ that will disembark at the port named ‘Death.’ Being controlled in our actions and seeing the body as it truly is can lead to a letting go of sense-indulgent & self-centred activity, thus opening us up to the Dharma (the-way-things-are). All this can not only make life more tolerable for us all, but also lead to that realization of selflessness that Buddha called ‘nirvana.’

 The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above three verses are from this part of the book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Buddha on Self-View

"Blessed One, how does self-view come about?"

"There is the case, monk, where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dharma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dharma — assumes form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form.

"He assumes feeling to be the self, or the self as possessing feeling, or feeling as in the self, or the self as in feeling. He assumes perception to be the self, or the self as possessing perception, or perception as in the self, or the self as in perception. He assumes mental-formations to be the self, or the self as possessing mental-formations, or mental-formations as in the self, or the self as in mental-formations. He assumes consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness.

"This, monk, is how self-view comes about."

Saying, "Very good, Blessed One," the monk delighted & approved of the Blessed One's words and then asked him a further question:  "Blessed One, how does self-view no longer come about?"

"There is the case, monk, where a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dharma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dharma — does not assume form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form.

"He does not assume feeling to be the self or the self as possessing feeling, or feeling as in the self, or the self as in feeling. He does not assume perception to be the self, or the self as possessing perception, or perception as in the self, or the self as in perception. He does not assume mental-formations to be the self, or the self as possessing mental-formations, or mental-formations as in the self, or the self as in mental-formations. He does not assume consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness.

"This, monk, is how self-view no longer comes about."

(Buddha from the Maha-punnama Sutta, Majjkima Nikaya 109, Tipitaka. Notes: ‘Self-identity view’ (sakkaya-ditthi) is a barrier to awakening to our true nature; ‘noble ones’ indicates enlightened beings; Dharma here indicates both understanding & application of Buddhist teachings.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Buddha on the Two Kinds of Mind

"Suppose there were a pool of water — sullied, turbid, and muddy. A man with good eyesight standing there on the bank would not see shells, gravel, and pebbles, or shoals of fish swimming about and resting. Why is that? It is because of the sullied nature of the water. In the same way, that a monk with a sullied mind would know his own benefit, the benefit of others, the benefit of both; that he would realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision: Such a thing is impossible. Why is that? It is because of the sullied nature of his mind."

"Suppose there were a pool of water — clear, limpid, and unsullied. A man with good eyesight standing there on the bank would see shells, gravel, & pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about and resting. Why is that? It is because of the unsullied nature of the water. In the same way, that a monk with an unsullied mind would know his own benefit, the benefit of others, the benefit of both; that he would realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision: Such a thing is possible. Why is that? It is because of the unsullied nature of his mind."

 (Buddha, Udakarahaka Suttas, Anguttara Nikaya 1.45-46, Tipitaka)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Buddhist Reflection on Consciousness

“From the cessation of name-and-form comes the cessation of consciousness, from the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-and-form.”
(Venerable Sariputta, Nalakalapiyo Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12:67, Tipitaka)

 Sometimes, modern spiritual teachers claim that consciousness is it, that is to say that our true identity that lies behind all experience is consciousness, and that this is somehow eternal and separate from the world. In a world where traditional ideas of God & soul are falling at the sword of empirical science, times can seem rather bleak. What’s the point in it all if there’s no God to welcome our eternal souls into heaven? We work hard, try to be good partners, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and model citizens, only for it all to fade to dust upon our demise. Eternal life is a comforting idea, but if science has squeezed God & soul out of existence, what’s left to be never-ending?

 Well, consciousness is often seen as the modern equivalent of a soul, as it is lies behind the experience of the body, the personality, memories, thoughts, emptions and dreams, but is somehow apart from them; a nebulous ‘ground of being’ or canvas upon which these other aspects of self are painted. This fits in quite well with some traditional, albeit mystical, interpretations of the self (often written as Self to emphasis its apparent ‘cosmic’ nature). Known as Atman in Sanskrit, this Self is said to be identical with Brahman, the prime being or entity from which the universe springs, summed up by its most famous proponent Adi Shankara (788–820), thus: “Brahman alone is real, the world is not independently existent, and the individual Self is not different from Brahman.” This form of Hindu philosophy is known as Advaita, ‘Not-two’ or ‘Non-dualism.’ These ideas are often identified with forms of theistic mysticism found in Christianity, Islam and other religions, as well as some forms of Buddhist philosophy.

 So, is this Self identical to ‘pure consciousness’ as is often claimed? Well, there are different ways to answer this question. We could form an opinion about it based on our biases and belief systems, but this would simply be a set of thoughts arising in this consciousness, wouldn’t it? It isn’t actually investigating the question to test its validity, but merely formulating concepts around it and then identifying with them, reacting to alternative views with attachment and aversion. This won’t do. Alternatively, we might actually look into experience and examine it to see whether this idea that consciousness is the true Self is true or not. Looking at present experience, what is accompanying consciousness? In other words, what is it conscious of? Consciousness can be aware of sights, sounds and tactile sensations; smells, tastes and mental stuff may be the focus of consciousness also. Whatever consciousness is conscious of, however, it’s always conscious of something, isn’t it? Consciousness is never conscious of itself, or of nothing. Try this little experiment:

 Observe an object that is in front of you, noting its size, shape, colour, and features. Note that consciousness of the object is present; otherwise there’d be no awareness of anything at all, would there? Now, turn attention around and try to observe consciousness in the same way as above, noting its size, shape, colour, and features. Can this be done? What size is consciousness? What shape is it and what colours? Such questions cannot be answered, can they? In fact, upon reflection they seem rather ridiculous – of course consciousness cannot grasp itself. There’s nothing to be grasped!

 The above experiment can be undertaken with other faculties than vision; hearing, smelling, tasting, touching & thinking all work out the same. Consciousness can be conscious of something else, but it cannot be conscious of itself. This applies to mental as well as physical phenomena, with emotions, thoughts, memories, imagination & dreams experienced in conjunction with consciousness. Objects and consciousness are interdependent; we cannot have one without the other. In Buddhism, the main way to classify consciousness reflects this interconnectedness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, skin-consciousness & mind-consciousness. But, there’s no consciousness-consciousness.

 In the quote at the top of this article, it is stated that when consciousness ends so does “name-and-form,” and vice versa. Here, name-and-form indicates the totality of our experience. ‘Name’ indicates mental phenomena and ‘form’ points to physical phenomena. A rough equivalent to ‘name-and-form is the modern term psycho-physical. What this statement is saying, then, is that without psycho-physical stimuli, there is no consciousness. Buddhism teaches that consciousness is a dependent faculty or process. Indeed, the human condition is generally described by Buddha as a set of interdependent processes as opposed to a being in a universe. The claim of Buddhism is that if we practice mindfulness & meditation to their conclusion this truth can be experienced.

 So, what is Buddha’s response to those claims that consciousness or Self is the ultimate truth of our being? Essentially it is to deny it, but rather than through belief or dogma, it is to actually look & see that this claim about consciousness is in error. Consciousness is a natural process which is best described using the three characteristics of existence as taught by Buddha: it is impermanent (anicca), imperfect (dukkha) & impersonal (anatta). Moreover, as a natural process, consciousness is the universe being aware of itself through this human form. There’s nobody separate & eternal hiding somewhere in this body, nor is there a cosmic consciousness that contains experience; consciousness arises in the reaction between mind (‘name’) & world (‘form’). And if perfectly understood, release from suffering is achieved, which is nirvana, the ‘blowing-out’ of the delusion of a self.