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?”

 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?”

 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?”

 *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.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Buddha on Assuming a Self

"To what extent, Ananda, does one assume when assuming a self? Assuming feeling to be the self, one assumes that 'Feeling is my self' or 'Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious to feeling' or 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.'

"Now, one who says, 'Feeling is my self,' should be addressed as follows: 'There are these three feelings, my friend — feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and feelings of neither pleasure nor pain. Which of these three feelings do you assume to be the self?' At a moment when a feeling of pleasure is sensed, no feeling of pain or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pleasure is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pain is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of pain is sensed. Only a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed at that moment.

"Now, a feeling of pleasure is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. Having sensed a feeling of pleasure as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of pleasure, 'my self' has perished. Having sensed a feeling of pain as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of pain, 'my self' has perished. Having sensed a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, 'my self' has perished.

"Thus he assumes, assuming in the immediate present a self inconstant, entangled in pleasure and pain, subject to arising and passing away, he who says, 'Feeling is my self.' Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume feeling to be the self.

"As for the person who says, 'Feeling is not the self: My self is oblivious to feeling,' he should be addressed as follows: 'My friend, where nothing whatsoever is sensed (experienced) at all, would there be the thought, "I am"?'"

 "No, Blessed One."

 "Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that 'Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious to feeling.'

"As for the person who says, 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,' he should be addressed as follows: 'My friend, should feelings altogether and every way stop without remainder, then with feeling completely not existing, owing to the cessation of feeling, would there be the thought, "I am"?'"

 "No, Blessed One."

 "Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.'

"Now, Ananda, in as far as a monk does not assume feeling to be the self, nor the self as oblivious to feeling, nor that 'My self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,' then, not assuming in this way, he is not sustained by anything (does not cling to anything) in the world. Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

(Excerpted from the Maha-nidana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 15, Tipitaka. Note: Ananda was Buddha’s cousin, personal attendant & a monk who realized nirvana himself after Buddha passed away; Buddha often referred to monks in his discourses as it was monks that he was addressing, but the above teaching applies to nuns & laity also.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Buddha on Enlightenment & Emptiness

“Subhuti, this is how those who have entered well into the way of the bodhisattva must think to themselves as they feel the wish to achieve enlightenment:

 I will bring to nirvana the total amount of living beings, every single one numbered among the ranks of living kind: those who were born from eggs, those who were born from a womb, those who were born through warmth and moisture, those who were born miraculously, those who have a physical form, those with none, those with conceptions, those with none, and those with neither conceptions nor no conceptions. However many living beings there are, in whatever realms there may be, anyone at all labelled with the name of ‘living being,’ all these will I bring to total nirvana, to the sphere beyond all grief, where none of the parts of the suffering person are left at all. Yet even if I do manage to bring this limitless number of living beings to total nirvana, there will be no living being at all who was brought to their total nirvana.

 Why is this so? Because, Subhuti, if a bodhisattva were to slip into conceiving of someone as a living being, then we could never call them a bodhisattva."

 Notes: The above is Chapter Six of the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, or ‘Diamond Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Discourse’). Subhuti was a senior monastic disciple of Buddha; a bodhisattva (‘being-of-enlightenment’) vows to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment, and is the highest mode of existence for a Buddhist.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Being Buddhist, Being Kind

“Whatever kinds of worldly merit there are, all are not worth one sixteenth part of the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness; in shining and beaming and radiance the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness far excels them.”
(Buddha, Itivuttaka, Sutta 27, Tipitaka)

What is it to be Buddhist? To meditate? To chant? To read Buddhist books? To be generous? To be compassionate? To be kind? To be wise? No doubt a case can be made for all of these and more to be part of what makes a Buddhist. But, when we look at our behaviour as Buddhists, do we actually fit the bill? A Buddhist (by definition) is someone who tries to put Buddha’s teachings into practice in their lives. Simply paying lip service to Buddha & his teachings but without living them isn’t really being Buddhist, is it? It’s acting, playing out a role, a character in a movie called ‘Life.’ Thing is, if this is the limit of our being Buddhist, isn’t it just another form of identification, an aspect of the ego? He’s Muslim, she’s atheist, and I’m Buddhist; it’s what makes me special. Really?

Does being Buddhist make us special when compared to others? Well, surely no more or less special than anyone else! You see, merely being Buddhist through birth or allegiance doesn’t make us special among humans because we’re essentially the same; we are born, we live and we die; and in our lives we all experience suffering (dukkha). Can we say Buddhist suffering is more special than other kinds of suffering? Of course not! Can we say that identifying with being Buddhist as opposed to Christian or Jewish is a special kind of identification? How can it be? Suffering is suffering, whether it be a Buddhist’s or a Hindu’s, and identification is identification, whether it be Buddhist or Sikh.

So, what are the Buddha’s teachings that we should put into practice so that we might be truly Buddhist? Well, this isn’t as easy a question to answer as at first it might seem. For, what version of those teachings are we to follow? Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Nichiren, Shingon, Tendai, Huayan, Madhyamaka, Yogacara, or Navayana? And these are just some of the main ones! Moreover, even within these various traditions and philosophies there are different teachings and practices which are not followed by all. Going back to the list mentioned at the top of this article, can we say that someone fails to be Buddhist if they don’t meditate or read Buddhist books, for example? Surely not; there’s something more basic to being Buddhist than such specifics isn’t there?

Looking at Buddhists and humanity at large can help us to see what’s needed by recognizing what’s missing. Returning to that universal truth of dukkha (stress or suffering), we can certainly see what people that are in pain need more of: kindness. Buddha promoted a quality of mind called metta, often translated as loving-kindness, although goodwill is a decent enough English equivalent too. Yes, meditation and chanting have their place, as do the other practices already mentioned, but not all of us can sit watching the mind or recite ancient formulas. But what we can do is be kind. We can be kind to our partners, our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues, strangers and acquaintances alike.

You may argue that though being kind is all very laudable, it doesn’t sound particularly Buddhist. And I’d agree with this, because to be truly Buddhist is to be truly human. It isn’t a label or affiliation that makes us Buddhist, but being true to our human condition, and recognizing the same in others, changing our behaviour towards them so that they suffer just a little bit less. A kind word, a smile, a reassuring gesture; all such deeds are forms of metta in action, and make us more like Buddha, whether we identify with him and his teachings or not. Moreover, what’s the point in claiming to be Buddhist, spouting Buddhist philosophy if our actions lack the most basic level of goodwill? In reality, we are putting Buddhism in a bad light, waffling about all kinds of wise ideas and theories but falling short of these lofty notions in the way we conduct ourselves.

So, in answer to the query that opened this article, what it is to be Buddhist, the most basic answer is simply to be kind. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. Be kind to humans and animals, for we all have the capacity to suffer, but also the ability to alleviate some of that suffering. Be patient, and don’t listen to gossip nor spread it; forgive as much as you can and don’t wish others harm; see that all wish for happiness and safety – just as you do. If we can do this, then we can claim to be Buddhist, not only in our convictions but also in our actions, which is surely where the essence of being Buddhist is found. And, in doing this, we move closer to all beings, human or otherwise, Buddhist or otherwise. Being Buddhist means being kind.