Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mind II

“Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts,
Suffering follows like a wheel following the foot of an ox.

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts,
Happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.”

It’s not by chance that this opening verse of the famous Buddhist book the Dhammapada centers on the mind. Buddhism itself is centered upon the mind; observing it, understanding it, and transcending it. Such transcendence is the realization of what some call the ‘Mind,’ ‘Buddha-Mind,’ or even ‘No-Mind.’ These terms are synonymous with the words Bodhi (‘enlightenment’) and Nirvana (‘blowing out’), and indicate the blowing out of the three ‘flames’ of greed, hatred, and delusion, which is the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice. In another well known scripture, the Adittapariyaya Sutta (‘the Fire Sermon’), the Buddha teaches more on these three impediments to awakening (an alternative translation of the term Bodhi):

“The mind is burning, mental states are burning, mind consciousness is burning, mind contact is burning, the feeling that arises through mind contact, whether it is pleasant, painful, or neutral, that too is burning. Burning with what? I declare that it is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion; it is burning with birth, aging, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

Earlier in the same discourse, the Buddha applied the same analogy to the eyes, ears, noise, tongue, and body; so, according to this sutra, all that we are in both body & mind is aflame with greed, hatred, and despair, not to mention the other afflictions referred to. This may sound extremely pessimistic, describing the very nature of our humanity as being inherently burdened with suffering. However, it is not negative, but empowering. For, as described above, if we can observe the mind as it truly is, and then understand it, we are in a position to transcend it, long with the suffering that accompanies it. Recognizing the three poisons and their affect on the human mind is the beginning of this process.

“Mind precedes all mental states.”

Like all states, mental or otherwise, mental states are conditioned. They are programmed, to use modern parlance, by all previous experiences, manifest in the current state of the mind and its contents. For example, if the present mood is an inexplicably annoyed one, it will have its origins in previous events and mental conditions, forming a negative substrate upon which present psychological phenomena occur. Although it may sometimes seem so, anger never comes from ‘nowhere,’ but instead lurks in the subconscious, waiting for a chance to burst free of its mental prison. Like a computer program, mental states run in preset patterns, dependent upon the mind, consciousness, mind contact, and feeling, as well as the physical world which the mental faculties are interacting with.

Buddhism has several words pertaining to the various aspects of the mind, the three main ones being citta, vinnana, and manas. Although all three are sometimes used interchangeably, corresponding roughly with the English word ‘mind,’ they do have distinct connotations. Citta is a general word for the mind, sometimes denoting the subconscious in later Buddhist philosophy; vinnana means consciousness or awareness; manas denotes the thinking mind, or intellect. In the twin verses being reflected on here, the word used is manas (sometimes rendered mano), and the aspect of the mind being focused on is the intellect.

Mano refers to thought, or the mental process of conceptualization, which integrates and makes meaning out of the different percepts brought in through the different senses. This meaningful total ‘experience’ is the dhamma, viewed subjectively as ‘identification of an entity’ (nama) and objectively as ‘the entity identified’ (rupa).”
(Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera, ‘Treasury of Truth: The Illustrated Dhammapada,’ p.61)

So, if we take the intellect as that which precedes all mental states, what does this mean? It is the intellect that categorizes experience, classifying a tree as ‘tree’ and human as ‘human,’ etcetera. If the intellect does not do its stuff, a tree is no longer a tree, and a human no longer a human. They are simply aspects of what is, without any concepts or names attached to them. Therefore, the intellect precedes all mental states (and the phenomena that is experienced in the mind), coloring life with definitions and interpretations. The word used to refer to both mental states and phenomena in general is dhamma, as the Venerable Weragoda makes note of in his commentary quoted above. (This low-case dhamma is different in meaning to the high-case Dhamma, known more widely as Dharma, which indicates ‘the-way-things-are,’ ultimate truth, or the Buddhist teachings on this.)

“Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.”

The intellect is the part of the mind that identifies al things, including the self. That ‘I’ am ‘G’ and not Barak Obama is down to my intellect; that the President of the United States is not someone called ‘G’ is also down to the intellect. Without the intellect, we wouldn’t be able to use a computer, or a ballet paper for that matter. It is responsible for the ability to recognize a snake as a snake and a fallen branch as a branch – an important distinction in certain circumstances, no doubt! Intellect is the “chief” of phenomena in that it tells us what they are, enabling us to use them to our advantage. Without the intellect, we might pick a snake rather than a branch, with grave consequences. Experience is “mind-made” not in the sense that the mind literally creates it, like a kind of psychological creator-god, but in the sense that everything is given an identity and meaning by the intellect.

“If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts,
Suffering follows like a wheel following the foot of an ox.”

An impure mind is one defiled with the three poisons mentioned of above, tainted with their negative affects that create obstacles to seeing the Dharma, the natural way of things. Rooted in the delusion of self that comes from viewing this body & mind as a distinct person from everything else, we create the greedy and hateful conditions for our suffering to take seed and grow. ‘I’ am desirous of this or that and must have it at all costs, even if it means cheating or hurting others. Alternatively, ‘I’ intensely dislike something or somebody, and will go to extreme lengths to eliminate whatever it is from ‘my’ life. This process is discussed by the American Zen master Steve Hagen in his excellent book ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ where he reflects on the same verses from the Dhammapada that are the focus of this article:

“In a corrupt mind, emotions and ideas arise, just as they do in a pure mind – but then we grab hold of them rather than let them pass through and sweep away. We hold them close and build all kinds of mental structures around them. We carry them around with us, identify with them, and put them on display.
In other words, a corrupt mind is removed from the Whole. It’s the mind of ego, a mind that views everything as though apart from itself. It’s a mind that gets caught up in greediness, selfishness, fear, longing, loathing, and grasping.”
(Steve Hagen, ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ pp.148/149)

By “the Whole” Hagen means what Chinese Buddhists like to call “the Ten Thousand Things,” that is, the universe or all that we experience. It doesn’t seem to be any more mystical or mysterious than this. He isn’t suggesting a kind of divine Ego or Greater Self that is found at the heart of much Hindu thought, and can be yet another image to associate with, but instead is pointing at the entirety of existence in a holistic sense. And this is a useful way to picture the actual experience of seeing life as an undivided, interdependent unity, which is realized when the mind opens up into awakening.

For the impure mind, however, it is this attaching and clinging to emotions and ideas that helps to form the delusion of being a separate self. This, in turn, leads to the delusion of being a suffering separate self. It’s a vicious circle (or cycle) where greed & delusion breed the sense of self, and the sense of self then identifies with, and clings to, particular forms & processes. Being enlightened doesn’t eliminate pain & discomfort, but it does mean that there’s no one here to cling to these conditions and create suffering around them. In their place is a contentedness that is often simply called happiness by the Buddha:

“If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts,
Happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.”

Even when intense pain occurs, this underlying happiness remains, a kind of emanation that flows out of seeing that there’s no dividing line between here & there. For, when the pure mind (or ‘Mind’ or ‘Buddha-Mind’ or ‘No-Mind’) is realized, where the sense of ‘I’ used to be located, there’s now a void that’s full of everything & everyone else. An old lyric from the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus’ comes to mind” “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together!” If ‘I’ disappear and am replaced with the universe, then suffering ceases to be ‘my’ suffering, but the suffering of the world, for which compassion arises spontaneously. Again, the words of Steve Hagen are useful at this point to illustrate the fluid nature of the mind when it has nothing & nobody to cling to:

“A pure mind enters freely into each situation, no matter what it is. We may feel sadness, remorse, or grief, but if our mind is pure, it all sweeps through. It doesn’t take hold anywhere; it doesn’t grind us up. There’s nothing in the mind to obstruct the emotion, so it doesn’t get caught. We feel no need to avoid it, block it, work it up into something bigger, or make anything else out of it.”
(Steve Hagen, ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think,’ p.147)

A pure mind can be realized in any moment, if the self can be let go of. To sustain this psychological freedom is usually not so easy, however; hence the myriad methods developed and cultivated by Buddhists over the centuries to complement it. The conditioned mind is quick to jump in and place its mask over the emptiness that is our true face. And this is a mask of death, and the cost of wearing it is to mistake the face in the mirror as the true self. There is no true self, only the awareness of all things arising in an endless spaciousness. But, to live from this mind/no-mind is the challenge that is all too often beyond the comprehension of human beings, for it is the mind that is trying to do the comprehending when it is the mind that must be let go of to see the truth! On this note, the last word can be with the late, great Ajahn Chah in the following quotation. If you have any thoughts on the mind, please feel free to live a comment via the link below this article.

“Follow this mind until we see it as uncertain and changing. The mind must clearly perceive itself, seeing that it has nothing that can be grasped. Then it will let go completely. The mind lets go of this very mind. It exhausts the mind’s ability to concoct thought, it becomes unconfused by any of this.”
(Taken from ‘The Mind Let’s Go of Itself’ by Ajahn Chah)

Note: Wondering why this article is entitled Mind II? Well, partly because it comprises of two verses on the mind, and partly because it is a sequel to a previous reflection on the same verses that appeared on these pages some time back. To access the original article, please click here: Mind To access the full transcript of Ajahn Chah's talk, please go to the following link: What the Buddha Taught (There's lots of good stuff by Theravada Buddhist teachers here, by the way!) Veverable Achariya Buddharakkita's excellent 'Dhammapada: Buddha's Path of Wisdom' and Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thera's ‘Treasury of Truth: The Illustrated Dhammapada,'  can both be freely downloaded here: Buddhanet: Theravada Books


Gladstone said...

Yes, mind is the originator of all, the great creator.

Count Sneaky said...

I agree that mind is all. I was sitting in the front of a department store yesterday, and I was watching the people bustle about when I realized that all these people including my self were mind creatures. The only variables among us were age, physical condition, education and culture. This realization continued for an hour or more and still is fresh today. I had not read this very good post by then,so I was quite surprised to see it in writing. The most common-place events can bring awareness.My best.

G said...

Thanks for the comments, Gladstone & Count.

Another thing that we constantly overlook if we don't reflect on it is the fact that everything we experience occurs in the mind. Even science concurs that upon contact with the world the physical senses send their data to the brain, and that it is here that we are conscious of the world. As we experience life, the world is in the mind & the two are not separate. Dualism arises with the thought or feeling that we are 'here' and everything else 'there', when in fact it's all in the mind! Hence, the 'Mind-only' school of Buddhist philosophy.