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Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey! (Part 9 of A 13-Part Series)

Returning again to Mr. MacPherson’s posts: in his “The Eightfold Path inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2” he states correctly that “Right understanding means knowing the Four Noble Truths.”  (I might quibble with this by saying instead that it means directly seeing the four truths, but this is a small point.)  He also correctly equates right view /understanding with seeing dependent origination, but then proceeds to misunderstand that term in a mystical sense.

As soon as one interprets Dependent Arising as asserting mystical “unity,” one can get away with just about anything.  The Dhamma is reduced to a Mystical Blob, a black box where anything comes and anything goes, a wish fulfilling doctrine we can equate with everything and nothing.  And so we are told that Dependent Arising “does not contradict essential Christianity” (which for Mr. MacPherson is contemplative Christianity), which equates a misconstrued Buddhist term with an idiosyncratically defined Christianity.  I am sorry to be blunt, but this equation is a torturous case of factual distortion and wishful thinking and does nothing to shed light on the Buddha’s teaching or Christianity. 

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In the previous post I said a lot about right view (sammaditthi), but there are a few things I believe I can yet add.  We have already discussed how right view equals seeing the four noble truths, and also how the four noble truths spring from the primordial insight of dependent arising; i.e. the two middle truths (arising and cessation) are directly built off it, the first truth describes the state of the putthujjana who has not seen it, and the fourth truth (that of the Path) describes how one obtains that insight.  The point was also made that the difference between the mundane and supramundane, between not seeing and seeing (Dependent Arising), is absolute: the putthujjana sees avijja (“delusion”); the sekha sees nibbana.  

Now the observant reader may have noticed something interesting: in enumerating the four noble truths, the Buddha goes on to define the fourth truth (the way to getting knowledge of the four truths) as headed by right view, and defines that as knowledge of the four noble truths.  In other words, getting knowledge of the four noble truths requires knowledge of the four noble truths, which in turn requires knowledge of how to get to the four noble truths!  

Remember my analogy of parallel lines?  

Here we have a structure—embedded within the suttas themselves—that illustrates the recursive nature of avijja, and also indicates why the extinction of asmimana, of “I am-ness,” is so difficult.  Seeing and non-seeing are absolutes—either you have insight or you don’t.  And this is why avijja appears at the head of the list in dependent arising: it is the lock that seals the putthujjana within his cell of subjectivity, just as the arising of right view in the fruition moment is the key to getting out.    

The first writer I encountered who pointed out this structure was Ñanavira Thera, and I cannot imagine anyone describing it better than he.  I will therefore take the liberty to quote him at length: 

The faculty of self-observation or reflexion is inherent in the structure of our experience. Some degree of reflexion is almost never entirely absent in our waking life, and in the practice of mindfulness it is deliberately cultivated.  To describe it simply, we may say that one part of our experience is immediately concerned with the world as its object, while at the same time another part of our experience is concerned with the immediate experience as its object.  This second part we may call reflexive experience.  It will be clear that when there is avijja there is avijja in both parts of our experience, the immediate and the reflexive; for though, in reflexion, experience is divided within itself, it is still one single, even if complex, structure.  The effect of this may be seen from the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:8) wherein certain wrong views are spoken of. Three of them are: “With self I perceive self… With self I perceive not-self…  With not-self I perceive self.”  A man with avijja, practising reflexion, may identify “self” with both reflexive and immediate experience, or with reflexive experience alone, or with immediate experience alone.  He does not conclude that neither is “self,” and the reason is clear: it is not possible to get outside avijja by means of reflexion alone; for however much a man may “step back” from himself to observe himself he cannot help taking avijja with him.  There is just as much avijja in the self-observer as there is in the self-observed.  And this is the very reason why avijja is so stable in spite of its being sankhata.  Simply by reflexion the puthujjana can never observe avijja and at the same time recognize it as avijja; for in reflexion avijja is the Judge as well as the Accused, and the verdict is always “Not Guilty.”  In order to put an end to avijja, which is a matter of recognizing avijja as avijja, it is necessary to accept on trust from the Buddha a Teaching that contradicts the direct evidence of the puthujjana’s reflexion.  This is why the Dhamma is patisotagami (M.26:19), or “going against the stream.” The Dhamma gives the puthujjana the outside view of avijja, which is inherently unobtainable for him by unaided reflexion (in the ariyasavaka this view has, as it were, “taken” like a graft, and is perpetually available).  Thus it will be seen that avijja in reflexive experience (actual or potential) is the condition for avijja in immediate experience.  It is possible, also, to take a second step back and reflect upon reflexion; but there is still avijja in this self-observation of self-observation, and we have a third layer of avijja protecting the first two.  And there is no reason in theory why we should stop here; but however far we go we shall not get beyond avijja. The hierarchy of avijja can also be seen from the Suttas in the following way: 

But which, friends, is nescience?…
That which is non-knowledge of suffering,
non-knowledge of arising of suffering,
non-knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
non-knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, friends, is called nescience (M.9:66). 

And which, monks, is the noble truth of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of arising of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of ceasing of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering? 

Just this noble eight-factored path,
that is to say: right view…
And which, monks, is right view?…
That which is knowledge of suffering,
knowledge of arising of suffering,
knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, monks, is called right view (D.22:18ff). 

Avijja is non-knowledge of the four noble truths.  Sammaditthi is knowledge of the four noble truths.  But sammaditthi is part of the four noble truths.  Thus avijja is non-knowledge of sammaditthi; that is to say, non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  But since sammaditthi, which is knowledge of the four noble truths, is part of the four noble truths, so avijja is non-knowledge of knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  And so we can go on indefinitely.  But the point to be noted is that each of these successive stages represents an additional layer of (potentially) reflexive avijja.  Non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths is non-knowledge of vijja, and non-knowledge of vijja is failure to recognize avijja as avijja.  Conversely, it is evident that when avijja is once recognized anywhere in this structure it must vanish everywhere; for knowledge of the four noble truths entails knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths, and vijja replaces avijja throughout (op. cit pp. 36ff). 

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There is one final point I wish to make in regards to right view.  Mr. MacPherson was correct when he said “right understanding is cognitive”—meaning that for the one who obtains it a distinctly new understanding of the world arises.  The passage from Ñanavira above clearly illustrates this, but we can go further as regards specific existential questions that plague human beings.  In the following passage the Buddha contrasts the (right) understanding of the sekha against the (wrong) understanding of the putthujjana

When, monks, a noble disciple [sekha] has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: “Did I exist in the past?  Did I not exist in the past?  What was I in the past?  How was I in the past?  Having been what, what did I become in the past?”  Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: “Will I exist in the future?  Will I not exist in the future?  What will I be in the future?  How will I be in the future?  Having been what, what will I become in the future?”  Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: “Do I exist?  Do I not exist?  What am I?  How am?  This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?” 

For what reason?  Because the noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena (S.12:20). 

In other words, the sekha sees the lie in viewing the world with the sense of “I” or “me” or “mine.”  Though he still experiences subjectivity (asmimana), the self is known for the illusion it is, like a man in the desert who sees a cool garden and pools of water but comprehends it all as a mirage.  He is not fooled, unlike the commoner who naively chases after the illusion.  The arhant, of course, will not even see the illusion, much less be entrapped by it. 

But this is not the case for the men and women of the Bible, even with its most august figures: Yahweh and Jesus.  Consider the following, one of the most famous passages in the Bible:   

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”  And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). 

Yahweh’s choice of names is unfortunate, for at S.35:248 the Buddha has something very specific to say about the notion behind it:

In conceiving, one is bound by Mara; by not conceiving, one is freed from the Evil One.

Bhikkhus, “I am” is a conceiving…  Conceiving is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind devoid of conceiving”…

Bhikkhus, “I am” is an involvement with conceit…  Involvement with conceit is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind in which conceit has been struck down.”  Thus should you train yourselves.

The Biblical god plainly never heard the Buddha’s advice or, if he did, he chose not to follow it:

 I am the LORD your God…  (Exodus 20:2)

You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:3).

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:5).

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

The God of Abraham, whatever else he may be, is clearly a victim of attavada (“self view”) and suffers from a terminal case of asmimana (subjectivity, the “conceit” I am). 

And what conceit!  In addition to lording it over the hapless Israelites, he is the self-proclaimed creator of the world:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” he asks Job (in Job 38:4).  The rest of his speech (chapters 38 and 39) consists of a catalogue of boasts about his power and supremacy.  As a religion professor of mine once put it, God’s “answer” to Job is, “I’m bigger than you are!”

Now compare this to the wonderful story in the Kevaddha Sutta (D.11) where a monk asks the Great Brahma the following question: “Where do the four great elements—earth, water, fire, air—cease without remainder?” and Brahma replies: “I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be…”  Needless to say, he didn’t know the answer to the monk’s question—but the Buddha did.  (Wanna-be creator gods are the Rodney Dangerfields of the suttas: they get no respect.  See also my post on “The Morals of God and the Buddha” for a further examination of the [lack of] character of the Biblical deity.) 

Now consider Jesus, often counted by well-intentioned Buddhists as an “enlightened man.”  Yet he, too, like the God he claimed to be, was afflicted by sakkayaditthi (“identity view”) and thought and made pronouncements about his self in the past, the present and the future.  Whether he claimed to have been divine or not is irrelevant—he was still very much a self, a someone—and suffered as such. 

Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him.  Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”  (John 11:35-37). 

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”  Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.  And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground (Luke 22:41 ff). 

Compare these famous Biblical passages to what the Buddha says in the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:7ff): 

This is how he attends unwisely: “…Shall I be in the future?  How shall I be in the future?  Having been what, what shall I become in the future?”… 

When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him.  The view…”It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.”  This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views.  Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person [assutava putthujjana] is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. 

Plainly, Jesus, whether man or god (or perhaps, rather, because he was a man or a god), did not possess right view; he had neither put an end to suffering nor seen a way to its end.  And so Ven. Ñanavira, in his commonplace book, could pen these lines: 

Q: Why the Buddha rather than Jesus? 

A: Jesus wept. 

Finally, compare the above to what transpired after the Buddha’s passing (mahaparinibbana): 

And at the Blessed Lord’s final passing there was a great earthquake, terrible and hair-raising, accompanied by thunder… 

And those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying…  But those monks who were free from craving endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying: “All compounded things are impermanent—what is the use of this?” (D.16:6.10).

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Parallel Lines: The Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths (Part 8 of A 13-Part Series)

In the Mahasalyatanika Sutta (M.149:9-10) the Buddha defines what constitutes the Noble Eightfold Path: 

When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are diminished for oneself in the future [this describes the sekha]; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—is abandoned [=nirodha].  One’s bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure. 

The view of a person such as this is right view.  His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration.  But his bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier. 

Clearly, the ariyamagga is Aryan only for those who have attained the path.  Until then, the aspirant walks a mundane way, purifying first his actions, words and livelihood (his sila) in preparation for the higher stages.  At the same time (hopefully), he undertakes those practices that are liberating, as are found in, for example, the Satipatthana Sutta: mindfulness of breathing, of bodily posture, feelings, mental states (i.e. vipassana), cultivating detachment from pleasant things (via asubha bhavana) and overcoming hostility by metta bhavana.  None of these practices, however, constitute the Noble path until the path and fruit (maggaphala) are obtained and one “enters the stream”—or better.  That the path-moment constitutes entry into Right View (sammaditthi) is affirmed by the Buddha in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (M.117:34): 

In one of right view, right intention comes into being; in one of right intention, right speech comes into being; in one of right speech, right action comes into being; in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being; in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being; in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being; in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being; in one of right concentration, right knowledge (vijja) comes into being; in one of right knowledge, right deliverance (vimutti) comes into being.  Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training (sekha) possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors. 

Clearly, right view is the “gate” to everything else; it is equivalent to seeing the Four Noble Truths.  (Cf. M.141:24: “And what, friends, is right view?  Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is called right view.”)  It needs to be pointed out, too, that for the sekha each of the eight supramundane factors “come into being” simultaneously; it is not a matter of first obtaining right view, and then a few days or months later getting right intention, and so on down the line.  Just as we saw with Dependent Arising, the seeing (=accomplishment) of one element is the seeing/accomplishment of everything else.  While one practices the mundane eightfold path over the course of time, the fruition-moment of the supramundane path is accomplished instantaneously—it is akalika (“without time”).  (Note: We have here as well a further distinction between the sekha and the arhant: final knowledge and deliverance are the arhant’s special provinces and represent the consummation or completionas opposed simply to the acquisition—of the noble path factors.)   

I have written the above because it is a widespread misperception—and one that Mr. MacPherson perpetuates—that the putthujjana, by practicing meditation and restraint in accordance with the Teaching, is by this means practicing the noble eightfold path.  He is not.  The noble eightfold path is not perfectly practiced until it is attained; it is not attained until it is perfectly practiced.  As two parallel lines do not, by definition, ever intersect, so these paths—the noble and mundane eightfold paths—are separated by a gulf, and that gulf (from the putthujjana’s standpoint) is avijja (“delusion”)—the non-seeing of the Four Noble Truths. 

Clearly though, the Noble Path cannot be accomplished without the aspirant’s work on the mundane path.  The former depends upon the latter not for its existence, but for its availability or visibility.  And when the mundane path is practiced to perfection, then at the moment of attainment comes the “knowledge of change of lineage” (gotrabhu ñana)—the supramundane is accomplished and the worldling becomes a Noble One.  To extend our metaphor from above, the disciple finds himself not on the mundane line he started on, but on the other, noble line—only now when he looks at the gap between them, he sees not avijja but nibbana

This critical distinction between the two paths must be borne in mind when considering Mr. MacPherson’s argument that the Eightfold Path can be found in the Bible, which is predicated upon discovering resemblances between dhamma practice and Biblical passages.  Resemblances I freely admit to, but they are the resemblances of one mundane path to another.  In not a single chapter or verse from the Old and New Testaments is the complete picture obtained; there is no comprehension of a path (to nibbana), much less the realization or accomplishment of the Path.  Putthujjanas abound in the pages of the Bible, but nowhere is discovered an indication that anyone—including Jesus—ever attained cessation or any of the stages of holiness described in the Buddha’s teaching.

Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It (Part 7 of A 13-Part Series)

If someone asked me directions from New York City to Washington,D.C., I’d tell them to hop on 95 and drive south, and keep going till the signs told them to stop.  If that person then called me from Philadelphia and said they couldn’t find D.C., I’d tell them they were on the right track, they just needed to keep going; they weren’t lost, they just hadn’t gone far enough.  However, if they called me from Paris and said my directions hadn’t been helpful, I’d furrow my brow and tell them they obviously hadn’t been listening.  

This is sort of the way I feel after reading Mr. MacPherson’s second post, “The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism inside Christianity.”  His explanations of the first two truths (in his first post) weren’t so much wrong as incomplete; in neither case did he go far enough.  This could be on account of a lack of reading or insufficient reflection, and since in his second comment on my site he said he was “still learning Buddhism,” this is perfectly understandable.  In those cases he was like the person who drove to Philly and just needed some extra encouragement.  But in this post, concerning the third noble truth, I feel like I’m getting a call from Paris.  Or perhaps it’sAnchorage. 

He claims that every Christian can affirm the Third Noble Truth.  But what exactly does he think the third noble Truth is?  How does he define it?  As I did for his definition of the second noble truth, I’ll extract some relevant quotes and see if we can’t draw a picture from them. 

  1. “Third Noble Truth: There is a way to stop suffering.”
  2. “In Buddhism the way is the virtuous life of the Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth coming up.”  He equates this with the Christian imitation dei—specifically the imitation of God in the form of Jesus Christ, the goal of which is to “stop sinning” (though he admits this is not in keeping with standard Christian thinking in America).
  3. The Christian goal of obedience to God by not sinning parallels the Buddha’s injunctions: “never stop trying to conform your behavior to ‘good,’ to the Eightfold Path.” 

It seems then that, in Christian terms, the third noble truth—for Mr. MacPherson, at least—means to stop sinning.  Or, to quote the Buddha: 

To abstain from evil,

To cultivate the good,

To purify one’s mind –

This is the teaching of the Buddhas

(Dhammapada 183).

But is this in fact what the Third Noble Truth says?  A definition, once again, is in order: 

The Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha.  This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), which is Nibbana more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvana (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 35). 

Or, as the Buddha put it in his first sermon: 

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation (nirodha) of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it (quoted in Rahula, p. 93).  

So, judging by these two quotes, Mr. MacPherson was correct as regards point #1: “There is a way to stop suffering.”  Or maybe not.  The way to stop suffering, as he notes in point #2, is the Eightfold Path.  But that’s the Fourth Noble Truth.  He seems, then, to be confusing the third and fourth Truths.  He affirms a method, but offers no expected outcome; he does not indicate what the cure for the illness of dukkha, of suffering, actually is.  He simply says that God, in the Old and New Testaments, “exhorts people to willfully stop sinning,” and then assumes this is what the Buddha was saying.  

But sin is an entirely Christian concept.  One cannot sin in Buddhism because there is no God setting forth commandments that everyone then breaks in due course.  If you jump off a cliff and go splat on the rocks, you haven’t sinned against gravity, you’ve simply acted like a suicidal idiot.  You’ve behaved unskillfully.  And, indeed, stupid behavior (i.e. “immoral actions”) in the Buddha’s teaching are called exactly that: akusala kamma, “unskillful action.”  

But I digress. 

The problem I have with Mr. MacPherson’s post on the Third Noble Truth is he never actually tells us what the Third Noble Truth is.  He never even mentions the words nibbana or nirvana.  This is like Jaws without the shark.  And this, needless to say, is where I furrowed my brow and wondered who could possibly be calling me Paris.  Or Anchorage.  Wherever he’s coming from, one thing is certain: Mr. MacPherson has no argument concerning the Third Noble Truth existing anywhere in the Bible.  

That said, an answer to the question of “What is nibbana?” needs to be attempted.  I’ll now attempt it, though first I would strongly urge readers to review my post, “The Buddha on Suffering and the Nature of Personality.”  While my intent in that post was to answer a different question than the present one, a lot of the discussion there illuminates what I’m going to say here.  

It seems there are really two questions pertaining to the Buddhist nibbana:  (1) What is it?  (the obvious one), and (2) What is the state of the saint who has attained it? 

(1) Earlier I remarked that Dependent Arising lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, and that, specifically, the second and third noble truths are built directly off it.  For the second noble truth we saw that samudaya, “arising,” referred to the existent structure of conditioned consciousness.  The Buddha described the putthujana’s experience as something “built up,” “constructed,” “contrived,” (sankhata) and noted that its integrity remained intact so long as its individual constituents—ignorance (avijja), mental formations (sankharas); contact (phassa), etc—were left unexamined.  But if “proper attention” (yoniso manasikara), minduflness-and-clear-comprehension (sati-sampajanna) and concentration (samadhi), along with other wholesome mental attributes, were cultivated and brought to bear on the constituents of experience, then one or more links in the chain could be severed and the entire structure would collapse.  And so he described Dependent Arising in its reverse, or negative (patiloma), order: 

With the cessation of delusion, mental formations cease; with the ceasing of mental formations, consciousness ceases; with the cessation of consciousness, name-and-form ceases; with the cessation of name-and-form, the six sense bases cease; with the cessation of the six sense bases, contact ceases; with the cessation of contact, feeling ceases; with the cessation of feeling, craving ceases; with the cessation of craving, grasping ceases; with the cessation of grasping, existence/being ceases; with the cessation of existence/being, birth ceases; with the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease; thus is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering (M.38:20). 

Just as the positive order of Dependent Arising described samudaya, the arising of suffering, so the negative order describes nirodha, the cessation of suffering.  This, then, is nibbana; this is the third noble truth. 

The nature of this event is pointed to in the method of meditation the Buddha teaches, i.e. satipatthana (“setting up of mindfulness”), the point of which is knock out the foremost link in the chain: avijja (delusion).  As described by Ñanananda: 

By revealing the antecedents of craving, the law of Dependent Arising points to a technique whereby this tendency [to identify with sense-data] deeply ingrained in the ruts of our samsaric habits could be ferreted out of its sockets.  Ignorance has to be replaced by knowledge.  In other words, the tendency to attend to the dependently arisen phenomena by imagining “things” in them, has to be overcome by training the mind to attend to the law of Dependent Arising, instead.  It might be recalled that each of the twelve links of the formula has been described as “impermanent, compounded, dependently arisen, of a nature to wither away, pass away, fade away and cease.”  The via media of training the mind to attend to the nature of things rather than to the things themselves, may be called a rare type of psychotherapy introduced by the Buddha.  It is a way of making the conditioned phenomena “fade away and cease” by penetrating into their cause.  Thus, insight into the Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) of Dependent Arising implies a knowledge of the cause (hetu) as well as of the things causally arisen…  As the insight into the principle—“This being, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  This not being, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—goes deeper and deeper into the fabric of the twelve-linked formula, a de-colouration or a fading-away ensues, with which one realizes the destruction of the very conditions (paccaya) forming the warp and woof of the formula in its direct and reverse order (Magic of the Mind, pp. 50-51). 

The “psychotherapy” Ñanananda refers to here is none other than vipassana, the continuous, dispassionate observance of experience, until the observer no longer relates to phenomena as “I” or “mine” or “other,” at which point consciousness as something caused or determined by its objects (namarupa) ceases; consciousness, as it were, drops out

…when insight knowledge is mature, having become keen, strong, and lucid, it will understand one of the formations [sankhara] at one of the six sense doors as being impermanent [anicca] or painful [dukkha] or without self [anatta; these are the three marks—tilakkhana—of all phenomena].  That act of noticing any one characteristic out of the three, which has a higher degree of lucidity and strength in its perfect understanding, becomes faster, and manifests itself three or four times in rapid succession.  Immediately after the last consciousness in this series of accelerated noticing has ceased, path and fruition (magga-phala) arises realizing Nibbana, the cessation of all formations (Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, pp. 35-6). 

And so the Buddha proclaimed on the seventh day after his enlightenment: 

When phenomena manifest themselves

To the ardently meditating Brahman,

All his doubts vanish for he has understood

The destruction of all conditions (Udana 1.2). 

During my brief career as a novice monk (cut short, alas, by poor health), I had the good fortune to meet a remarkable man whose lay-name I either never learned or have simply forgotten.  To me he was Venerable Sunetta; he was my one and only ordination brother and—lucky me—a stream enterer (sotapanna).  (How I came by this fact is a story for a different occasion.)  Once I knew what he was I relentlessly plied him with questions and…he answered.  

I described to him some of the “mystical experiences” I had had—experiences of great bliss, wherein—to paraphrase J. Krishnamurti—the “observer was the observed.”  These are the sorts of experiences (non-dual) you read about in mystical literature from all over the planet.  Ven. Sunetta said—quite emphatically, I might add—that such experiences naturally arise during the course of insight practice but he also said they were “very dangerous” because one might easily mistake them for the goal, which they are not.  (In fact, such experiences are most likely cases of the fourth insight ñana, “the arising and passing away” event.  See, e.g., case study #2 of Kenneth Folk’s “The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis” at The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis.  Clearly, it is not uncommon for people to spontaneously attain one or more of the insight knowledges or, for that matter, the jhanas.  [As a child of nine or ten I on several occasions experienced the first of the arupa jhanas, the “base of infinite space,” and then re-experienced it again at age twenty.]  I have yet to hear of anyone though spontaneously attaining nibbana.)  I then asked Ven. Sunetta to describe what the nibbana moment was like. 

He said it most definitely was not “ultimate bliss” or any such thing as one would ordinarily conceive it.  In fact, it was really not like anything at all.  “Imagine,” he said, “that you’re walking down a path.  You’re stepping along and then suddenly you’re at a different point along the path, as if you went from there to here, but without an interval.  That gap is nibbana.”  Refer again to Kenneth Folk’s “Guide,” case #5.  That’s exactly it.  

The nibbana moment then, is a disruption in the cause-effect stream of consciousness.  It is neither cause nor effect, but rather the absence of either, which is why it is referred to as asankhata—the “unconditioned”; it is, if you will, a non-event, a non-experience.  For the first time in the person’s samsaric career, the round of birth-and-death has, for him or her, stopped.  Hence the formal designation of the third noble truth as nirodha, “cessation.” 

As the Buddha described this stateless state: 

There is that base where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air… neither this world nor another; neither sun nor moon.  Here, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no passing away or arising.  Unestablished, unmoving, unconditioned: just this is the end of suffering (Udana 8.1). 

Clearly, this is no mystical pronouncement—it is not an affirmation of the “unity of all things” or a declaration about an immortal “Ground” out of which everything arises.  This is, rather, the stopping of the world as we know it.  If anything, nibbana is anti-mystical for, far from revealing any kind of ultimate Substance or Selfhood, it indicates that true freedom is in fact the absence of such things. 

Given the structure of Dependent Arising, it is clear that ordinary, conditioned consciousness—conditioned, that is, by notions of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” which result from mis-apprehending phenomena as “things” or “objects” that a knowing self interacts with and appropriates—has no choice but to cease in the moment its “self-ness” is seen for the lie it is.  The self appears as the shadow cast in consciousness by “things” when they are not known “as they are”—as ephemeral, unsatisfying, and empty (of self).  If “I” cannot be found among “my” possessions—i.e. my experiences (namarupa)—and this fact is seen and known, then the “I” of necessity vanishes.  

Of course, Ven. Sunetta and the Buddha are/were “conscious.”  The arya walks and talks like anyone else, and uses language “per the conventions of the world.”  What, then, distinguished him/her from the world?  Which question brings us to issue #2:  What is the state of the saint who has attained nibbana?  

(2) Perhaps the best answer to this question is found in the Mulapariyaya Sutta (M.1).  In that sutta the Buddha describes the responses of four different types of people to the phenomena of experience.  The four types enumerated are: (1) the uninstructed commoner (assutava-putthujanna), (2) the noble disciple, or sekha, meaning a stream-enterer (sotapanna), once-returner (sakadagami) or non-returner (anagami), (3) the arhant, and (4) the Buddha.  For all intents and purposes the natures of the third and fourth types are the same, so in fact we have three types of people.  Their responses are described as follows: 

  1. The putthujjana cognizes X as X; having cognized X as X, he imagines X, he imagines in X, he imagines from X, he imagines “X is mine,” he delights in X.
  2. The sekha understands X as X; understanding X as X, he should not imagine X, he should not imagine in X, he should not imagine from X, he should not imagine “X is mine,” he should not delight in X.
  3. The arhant understands X as X; understanding X as X, he does not imagine X, he does not imagine in X, he does not imagine from X, he does not imagine “X is mine,” he does not delight in X. 

The distinctions between these three types of people lie in their manner of relating to sensory experience, including thoughts.  For the uninstructed worldling, “things” are taken as they present themselves, as objects of potential appropriation by his (imagined) subject, and can be responded to either indifferently, or with desire or aversion.  In either case, he is burdened by his inevitable speculation and conceptualizing (papanca) in regards to these objects on account of his lack of clear comprehension of their true nature.  (Hence the proliferation of ideologies, mythologies, beliefs, customs and mores that every civilization produces.)  The putthujjana becomes the hapless victim of his own blindness, and his culture, ethics, norms, etc are arbitrarily manufactured in accordance with whatever environment he happens to find himself in. 

The noble disciple still in training, however, having already seen nibbana, is aware of the unsatisfactoriness of phenomena, as well as their arising and ceasing (i.e. he sees the first three noble truths, for he has practiced and, to a degree, accomplished the fourth), and is therefore aware of the ethical imperative “should not” as regards the objects of sense.  It is only at this point that ethics are in any way seen as fundamental; the putthujjana, regardless of whatever ideology he adopts, is not in a position to understand that ethical norms are inherent in a universe populated by conscious beings, and hence must seek the sanction of imagined deities and arbitrary social systems to provide such standards.  (Hence the incessant Christian refrain that without God there is no standard or basis for a moral life or the understanding of good and evil; they cannot grasp the fact of ethics in the absence of an ethical Lawgiver.)  The sekha, however, though his training is as yet incomplete, knows directly the necessity of ethical norms, for he has the right view (sammaditthi) that comprehends the nature and consequence of intentional actions (kamma) and their results. 

Finally, the arhant (and Buddha), like the noble disciple, knows phenomena for what they are: as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and as not designating a self (anatta).  But unlike the sekha, he has completed the training and entirely done away with asmimana, the subjective sense of a controller or doer that still bedevils the sekha.  As notions of self do not arise, objects are no longer seen as potentials for appropriation, hence are neither grasped at nor fantasized over.  

This represents a brief, decidedly theoretical overview of the subject.  I would strongly suggest materials by Kenneth Folk as supplementary resources for further understanding.  See, in particular, his “Seven Stages of Enlightenment” video series (1-6), starting here.  One interesting point he makes is that there are actually sub-grades of attainment in the classic four stages model you find in the suttas, and that only recently had he awakened to the degree where the elimination of negative affects had become a reality for him (the classic description of an anagami).  

Considering the above discussion, it is obvious the Biblical tradition contains nothing remotely comparable to the third noble truth.  To represent otherwise is delusional.  In fact, the Bible is entirely predicated upon assumptions (of permanence, immortality, a divine Lawgiver and the like) that make the idea of cessation either incomprehensible or downright repellent.  See, for example, the Alagaddupama Sutta (M.22:18-21) where the eternalist (sassatavadin), confronted by the Buddha’s teaching, misinterprets it as implying the inevitable destruction of his self—and cries out in despair.  This may explain the total disconnect in Mr. MacPherson’s discussion of the third noble truth.  What, after all, could he possibly say?  Either the Dhamma is taken for what it isn’t—as some kind of positive formulation of a mystical, substantialist metaphysics—or it is viewed (as was frequently the case with early European interpreters) as a negative, world denying nihilism.  And what do we have here but the very dualism the Buddha discussed in the Nidanasamyutta?  This world, Kaccana, depends upon a duality—upon notions of existence and nonexistence

Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling (Part 5 of A 13-Part Series)

But let be the past, Udayin, let be the future.  I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases (Culaskuludayi Sutta, M.79:7).

The story of how the wanderer Sariputta encountered the Buddha’s disciple Assaji and gained his enlightenment is well-known.  Sariputta and his friend Mogallana were seekers after “the Deathless” and had split up so as to increase their chances of encountering a bona fide teacher of the Way.  When Sariputta met Assaji, one of the Buddha’s original five disciples, he was impressed by the peacefulness of his bearing and countenance and asked about his teacher and the dhamma he proclaimed.  At first Assaji demurred, claiming to be but a beginner, but when pressed he at last responded with this now-famous summation of the Buddha’s teaching:

Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.

As it is written in the Vinaya: “Then, as he heard this Dhamma exposition, in Sariputta the wanderer there arose the dustless, stainless eye of Dhamma: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation’” (Vinaya Mahavagga I:23.1-10).  In that moment Sariputta became a stream-enterer. 

Clearly, Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda)—of which the quatrain above is a brief formulation—is the fundamental insight upon which the framework of the Buddha’s teaching is built.  As noted in an earlier post, the Second and Third Noble Truths are direct statements of it.  

Now, much has been written about this teaching, a great deal of it wrong.  However, as this is a blog and not a book, I am constrained by time and space and so will try to keep my comments to the point.  The most common (mis)understanding of Dependent Arising is that it somehow explains rebirth via the “Three Lives Interpretation.”  Readers unfamiliar with this interpretation from the Pali Commentaries should familiarize themselves with it before continuing.  See here for the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good as summaries go.  Bhikkhu Bodhi, an ardent proponent of this view, writes in its defense in volume one of his Samyutta Nikaya translation: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 517ff. 

Some points opposing this traditional interpretation are as follows:

  1. Dependent Arising has nothing to do with rebirth.  One might even be an arhant and not be able to recollect past lives. 
  2. “Precedence [of terms] in paticcasamuppada is structural, not temporal,” to quote Ven. Ñanavira.
  3. It therefore has nothing to do with causality, which is by definition a process in time.
  4. It is not the description of a process (necessarily temporal), but of a structure.

A recent, popular interpretation is that Dependent Arising teaches the “unity” and “interconnectedness of all things,” which seems to be what Mr. MacPherson thinks.  Cf. “Right understanding…means to understand both cognitively and experientially that one is connected to all other people (dependent origination)”—from “The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2”.  I have no idea where this belief came from or who started it (though I suspect Thich Nhat Hanh may have something to do with it), but it has no basis in either the suttas or in the experience of vipassana meditation.  Any interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching built upon this manner of thinking is built upon quicksand.

A few further points:

  1. In not a single sutta or Vinaya passage does the Buddha refer to past lives in connection with Dependent Arising.
  2. In no story of anyone’s awakening experience is their insight described as depending upon the remembrance of past lives, which is what the traditional interpretation implies.  Cf. Bhikkhu Ñanananda in The Magic of the Mind: “The law of Dependent Arising is a Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) which in all its twelve-linked completeness is well-seen and well-penetrated through wisdom (paññaya sudittho hoti suppatividdho ) even by a Stream-winner (sotapanna) who may not possess the knowledge of past lives” (p. 26, n. 1).
  3. No passage in the suttas asserts the “unity” of everything, the “interconnectedness” of creation, the “ground of being,” “cosmic oneness” or any other such substantialist doctrine.  (In fact, in books on non-duality and mysticism in general, passages from the Pali Canon are most noticeable for their absence.  This was one of the insights that caused me to start asking what it was about the Theravada that made it “feel” so different from the mystical philosophies—Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism, etc—with which I was at the time more familiar.) 
  4. Dependent Arising is solely concerned with the structure of conditioned consciousness, how it is (samudaya) and how it isn’t (nirodha).
  5. There are several formulations of Dependent Arising, differing in terms of the items listed, but all share the same structure of conditionality and dependence.  This  clearly indicates that the structural principle per se is what is important, and not the individual terms themselves.  Assaji’s phrase is but a bare statement of this structure, as is the Buddha’s declaration to Udayin.
  6. The individual items (sankhara) in the series depend upon, condition, determine and support one another.  Not one, not even avijja (=delusion, usually first in the chain), is unsupported.  The structure of consciousness therefore stands and falls depending upon its supporting elements.  This point is critical to understanding the nature of dukkha and nibbana

Having said the above, the question ought naturally arise: Why did the Buddha emphasize tanha—“desire”—as the source of suffering?  Why, even though the second noble truth is clearly the arising phase of paticcasamuppada, did he focus on that term, which is but one in the standard series of Dependent Arising? 

The following quote from Ñanananda’s masterful little treatise, The Magic of the Mind, indicates an answer: 

Selfhood which tries to sit pretty on that which is liable to disintegrate is itself subject to the inexorable law of impermanence.  In the face of this predicament one craves, grasps and “becomes” yet another “thing”—which too yields to the same law of nature… 

The process of becoming is thus shown to be perpetually going on within the mind of the samsaric individual who identifies himself with sense-data under the influence of the proliferating tendencies toward craving, conceits and views…  Since…becoming in the psychological realm is necessarily followed by birth, decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair in every specific instance of short-lived identification, an insight into the law of Dependent Arising provides one with the key to the entire gamut of samsaric experience.  One comes to understand the cycle of samsaric life by discovering its epicycle in the very structure of living experience.  He is now convinced of the fact that it is craving that plays the villain in the drama of samsaric existence, bringing about re-becoming by delighting “now-here-now-there” (pp.48-50). 

What Ñanananda is saying is that craving (tanha) is the energizing force behind the constant identification with the phenomena (dhamma) of experience, and that this identification is in part a survival mechanism, a flight from inevitable destruction under the pressure of omnipresent impermanence.  The flip side of desire, then, is fear—fear of loss, decay, death.  Life is bound between the carrot and the stick, an endless flight and pursuit.  We chase the pleasurable and flee the painful.  (Cf. Ñanavira’s discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses.) 

There is yet another reason why the Buddha focused on desire and defined it as the “cause” of suffering.  The Buddha’s teaching, unlike most pre-modern philosophies, is phenomenological as opposed to substance-based or idealistic in character.  Here, from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a definition of phenomenology: 

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/.  Accessed 7/4/2011). 

A more succinct and accurate description of the Buddha’s general orientation could hardly be desired.    

The Buddha, then, concerned himself not with abstract principles or explanations but with what human beings experience.  He realized that in describing the human situation he had to start with the grosser facts, the inescapable bases of all lived experience, and if anything is fundamental to life it is desire.  From the moment a baby is born (not to mention the manner of its conceiving!), it wants food, water, warmth, shelter, protection, nurturance, and then, later, status, recognition, acknowledgement, assurance, friendship, belonging, hope, and whatever else the person deems necessary to support his or her psychophysical being.  (Cf. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”)  Our experience of life, therefore, and what we make of it, is defined by our definition of phenomena as desirable or not.    

The implication of Dependent Arising, however, is that everything we hope for and hold to is radically vulnerable, i.e. impermanent.  If we understand this fact, we realize that no matter what we take our lives to be, they inevitably fall apart—I am unstable, as are the things I identify myself with, both inwardly and outwardly.  In demonstrating this truth, the teaching of Dependent Arising urges us to question and ultimately let go the desires and identifications that make up our selves. 

Writes Ñanavira: 

[T]he Dhamma does not set out to explain, but to lead—it is opanayika [“onward leading”].  This means that the Dhamma is not seeking disinterested intellectual approval, but to provoke an effort of comprehension or insight leading to the abandonment of attavada [“self-view”] and eventually of asmimana [the “conceit” I am].  Its method is therefore necessarily indirect: we can only stop regarding this as “self” if we see that what this depends on is impermanent.  Consider, for example, the Mahasudassana Sutta (D.17:2:16), where the Buddha describes in detail the rich endowments and possessions of King Mahasudassana, and then finishes: 

See, Ananda, how all those formations (sankhara) have passed, have ceased, have altered.  So impermanent, Ananda, are formations, that this, Ananda, is enough for weariness of all formations, enough for dispassion, enough for release.

This is not a simple statement that all those things, being impermanent by nature, are now no more; it is a lever to prize the notion of “selfhood” out of its firm socket.  Those things were sankhara, they were things on which King Mahasudassana depended for his very identity.  They determined his person as “King Mahasudassana,” and with their cessation the thought “I am King Mahasudassana” came to an end (Clearing the Path, pp. 108-9). 

Lest the reader think this all just some grand philosophy, some heady, speculative pronouncement, I would like to remind you that these insights are born of direct, reflexive observation of the mind and its contents.  Consider the following from Mahasi Sayadaw, where he describes the last moments before the attainment of nibbana, wherein the entire structure of dependently arisen consciousness suddenly ceases for the first time: 

The meditator who wishes to realize Nibbana should repeatedly bring to mind, through the practice of noticing, every bodily and mental process that appears at any of the six sense doors. When he brings them to mind thus, his consciousness engaged in noticing—here called “bringing to mind”—will, until adaptation knowledge is reached, fall at every moment upon the (conditioned) bodily and mental formations called here “continuous occurrence,” because they go on occurring over and over again in an unbroken flow, like a river’s current. But in the last phase, instead of falling upon that continuous occurrence, consciousness passes beyond it and alights upon “non-occurrence,” which is the very opposite of the bodily and mental formations called here “occurrence.” In other words, it arrives at non-occurrence, that is to say, it reaches, as if it “alights upon,” cessation, which is the stilling of the formations (or conditioned phenomena). When the meditator, having already before practiced correctly and without deviation by way of the knowledge of arising and passing away and the other knowledges (or by way of the purification of conduct, of mind, of view, etc.), has in this manner arrived at non-occurrence (by the consciousness alighting upon it), he is said to have “realized Nibbana.” He is called one who has made Nibbana a direct experience and has actually seen it (The Progress of Insight, VI.12). 

It cannot be stated too emphatically that the above does not describe a “mystical experience,” an experience of “oneness,” “nonduality” or “cosmic consciousness,” all of which are mentally constructed states, most being confined to the stage known as “arising-and-passing-away” (udayabbaya-ñana)—fourth of the sixteen “insight knowledges.”  The Buddha’s teaching is not mystical in character and any attempt to construe it as such will lead inevitably to distortion and confusion.

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