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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Buddha on Attentiveness & Awakening

Subhuti asked, “How can the practitioner who wishes to help all beings find enlightenment awaken the complete and perfect wisdom?”

Buddha said, “This most subtle awakening comes about through moment-to-moment attentiveness. By way of attentiveness, there is attainment to the ways in which things manifest, such as form and consciousness. The practitioner awakens to perfect wisdom by becoming blissfully free from obsessions with habits, names, sense experiences, personal feelings, and with dread of dying and all despair that goes with it.

“Free to experience all the rising of manifestation and its interdependent functioning without believing it to be the final reality, the practitioner avoids two fundamental errors – that this relative world is rooted on any solid foundation, and the opposite error that the manifest forms we see are mere illusions without proper physical and moral implications for every single mind-flow.”

 (Buddha, Prajnaparamita)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Buddha on Fame & Fortune

"A fatal thing, monks, are gains, favors and fame, a bitter, harsh impediment to the attainment of the unsurpassed freedom from bondage. It is just like a beetle, feeding on dung, full of dung, gorged with dung, standing before a great dung-hill, who might despise other beetles, saying: 'I am a dung-eater, full of dung, gorged with dung, and before me is this great dung-hill!'

 "In the same way, monks, if some monk is overwhelmed with gains, favors and fame so that his head is turned, so, having risen early and taken his robe and bowl and gone for alms to the village or market town, he eats his fill, gets invited again for next day, and has a full bowl. Then he goes to the monks' park, and boasts in the midst of the assembled monks: 'I have had a good meal, and I am invited again for tomorrow. My bowl is full. I have got a robe, alms, lodgings and medical requisites. But these other monks have little merit and little influence; they do not get such requisites.' Thus this monk, who is so overwhelmed with gains, favors and fame that his head is turned, despises other well-behaved monks. But this will bring harm and sorrow to that wretched man for many a long day. That shows you, monks, how disastrous gains, favors and fame are, what a bitter, harsh impediment to the attainment of the unsurpassed freedom from bondage. Therefore monks, you should train yourselves thus: 'Whatever gains, favors and fame may come our way we will reject, lest it turn our heads.' So, monks, you should train yourselves."

 (Pilhika Sutta, ‘Dung-Beetle Discourse’. Note: Although Buddha is addressing monks in this discourse, this teaching equally applies to anyone else seeking nirvana, or release from suffering.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does a Dog Have Buddha-Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“No.”

 Being a dog lover and having had three dogs over the years, one of which still lives, the above dialogue involving Zen master Zhaozhou* seems really important. Interacting with dogs, looking into their eyes, doesn’t it seem obvious that Zhouzhou’s answer must be wrong? After all, it’s a basic tenet of Buddhism that all sentient beings have the capacity to realize nirvana. In other words, they all possess buddha-nature. And then there’s that look in my dog’s eyes; a look of indicating a certain level of insight, an ability to understand what passes between us. It is a mutual, inherent knowingness.

 Of course, Zhaozhou’s ‘No’ is a kind of Zen riddle used to bypass logical thought processes and achieve satori, or awakening to buddha-nature. If we take him literally, not only does this ‘No’ deny a basic Buddhist teaching, but it also contradicts our own intuition when encountering other sentient creatures such as dogs. It could be, “Does a chimpanzee have buddha-nature?” or “Does a frog have buddha-nature?” Whatever the sentient being involved, however, surely the correct response should be a resounding, “Yes.”

 “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“Yes.”

 A less well-known dialogue involving Zhaozhou revolved around the same question, but on this occasion the master responded positively. Now, this answer fits with both Buddhist teachings and that direct intuition referred to above. However, as a koan it probably wouldn’t work as well as there is nothing to get stuck into and work with. When Zhaozhou answers, “Yes,” the intellect isn’t challenged and neither is intuition. Everything’s as it should be and therefore the status quo is not overturned, making the likelihood of an experience of satori less possible.

 The ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ taken together paint a fuller picture for us to peruse. Logically-speaking, dogs with all other sentient beings possess buddha-nature, so the ‘Yes’ covers this. The ‘No’ serves the purpose of going beyond mere intellectual understanding of doctrines however and calls us to experience buddha-nature for ourselves. ‘Yes-No’ acknowledges both that my dog has the potential for satori, whilst leading me to experience it for myself. I can rest in awakening knowing that my dog is already saved from suffering as he has buddha-nature too. Maybe he sees it, maybe not, but it lies at the core of who he is forever.

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“Yes-No.”

 *Note: Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897) is one of China’s most famous and revered Zen masters. The dog koan, also known as the Mu koan, Mu being the Japanese version of ‘No’ in this context, is the most famous of all koans, often given to Zen students to inspire their initial awakening into the truth of Buddhism.