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Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki.  Wisdom Publications 2010.  190 pages.

Book blurbs are invariably hyperbolic, laudatory and, well, a wee bit exaggerated.  In this case, I think they’re actually spot on.  Consider this from Christopher Germer: “This book has the power to change how you see yourself and the world.”  Or the following from Joseph Goldstein: “[Olendzki] enlarges our understanding of basic principles and raises occasionally unsettling questions about familiar assumptions.”  Or, from David Loy: “Olendzki’s presentation of the Abhidhamma is particularly helpful and informative.”  I could go on, but you get my drift.  This is, indeed, a work of great knowledge and perspicacity.

First, as to the contents.  The book consists of previously published essays from a variety of venues, mainly Tricylce, Insight Journaland Buddhadharma.  The upshot of this is that there really is no sustained polemic or argument to the text, though it is organized into sections with such titles as “Caring for the World,” “Constructing Reality,” “Self and Non-Self” etc.  I admit I hardly noticed these as I read though. The individual essay topics hit all the traditional Buddhist favorites–dependent arising, not-self, suffering, impermanence, karma, ethics, as well as war and peace, the environmental crisis, modern psychology, and other things besides.  However, the book does not really develop progressively from section to section.

This hardly mattered to me because each essay is itself a little gem.  Olendzki brings several strengths to his work.  First, he is very familiar with the Pali texts, the oldest Buddhist scriptures and the only ones that can claim a direct link to the Buddha himself.  Second, he has clearly read and pondered and used these texts in the way they are meant to be studied and used–as guides to one’s world of inner experience.  He has done this thoroughly and reflectively, and brings a strong teaching resume to the work.  (His academic credentials are solid, plus he has a long-time association with IMS.)  Third, Olendzki is an excellent writer.  He is quotable, to the point, clear, and succinct.  In other words, he’s got all the ingredients necessary to turn out a masterful book, and that is what he’s done.

This is a work that can speak for itself, so I offer a few quotes as examples.  Here is Olendzki on the ever-controversial issue of anatta:

One assumption challenged [by the Buddha] is that the self has some sort of privileged ontological status as a substance, an essence, or a spiritual energy that is something other than the manifestations of a person’s natural physical and mental processes.  Self might be a useful word for referring to a person’s body, feelings, perceptions, behavioral traits, and consciousness, but it cannot be construed as something underlying or transcending these manifestations.  It may be a good designation of a person, in other words, but a person is not something other than how he or she manifests in experience (9).

Olendzki adds much as well to the understanding of paticca samuppada:

As an example of interdependent origination making a specific contribution to the new psychologies, we can look more closely at the relationship between feeling and desire.  As we have already seen, Buddhist psychology regards feeling–the affect tone of pleasure or displeasure–as an intrinsic feature of the mind/body organism.  Every moment’s experience of an object will come with a feeling tone, whether or not this feeling is accessed by conscious awareness.  In response to a feeling of pleasure or pain, an emotional response or attitude of liking or not liking the object may also arise.  Most of us conflate these two experiences much of the time, concluding that a particular object is liked or disliked.

However, in fact the object is merely experienced, and the liking or disliking of it is something added by our psychological response to it.  This difference is a subtle but important nuance…  It is the difference between “I am an unworthy person” and “I am a person who is feeling unworthy just now” (13-14).

Here Olendzki puts the Buddhist path into perspective, at the same time revealing its non-theistic origins:

Having identified that suffering is caused by a thorn–craving–lodged deep in the heart, the Buddha offered to pull out that thorn, allowing a person to find peace in any circumstance.  It turns out that extracting the thorn is not something magical, requiring the special grace or powers of a transcendent being; rather it is something that can be learned by almost anyone.  Since the causes of human suffering are ultimately psychological, the healing process is psychological.  This somehow puts the whole enterprise within reach, and renders it attainable (15).

Amazingly, the above passages are all found just in the introduction!  With such a wealth of well-put insight, how could any sincere and open-minded person not benefit from this book?

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read.  As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners.  The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies.  (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.)  The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying.  Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.

I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be.  I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph.  There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.

Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point.  Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism.  Consider the following from pages 2-3:

Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind.  This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.

How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!

This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8).  Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings.  For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha).  The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts.  You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma.  Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.

The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.”  Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways.  On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:

On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self.  I confess I cannot quite understand this.  If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so.  And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed.  He does not (60).

This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars.  I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.”  And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71).  Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.

Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion.  This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you.  In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can.  But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.

I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:

  • When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self.  This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience.  The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
  • He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44).  This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
  • He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
  • On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died.  This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since.  It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada.  This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view.  (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
  • He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.”  Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada.  I have discussed this at length in other reviews.  Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects.  Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71).  In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
  • Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83).  This is a frequent mistranslation.  The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
  • His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand.  Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.

The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts.  This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble.  Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).

A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe.  This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this.  (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.)  Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought.  I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey.  Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

 

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution

A LETTER TO CHRISTIAN-BUDDHISTS

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

Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity? (Part 6 of A 13-Part Series)

Having written more than three thousand words discussing the Second Noble Truth, I thought I should directly address Mr. MacPherson’s remarks on it—now that we have something to compare them to.  I think it is clear, first of all, that any analysis of the Second Truth that doesn’t take Dependent Arising into account is a non-starter.  Simply saying that “desire causes suffering” does not go far enough.  Unfortunately, that is as far as Mr. MacPherson goes.  Moreover, the textual evidence he brings to bear on his point—specifically, the Sermon on the Mount and some examples of greed leading to sin in the Old and New Testaments—add nothing to his case.  In fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not even really say “we suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things.”  Rather, in his sermon Jesus is calling for a reorientation of priorities—away from the everyday trivia of life towards God.  A discussion of suffering (in the sense of dukkha) and its causes is not his focus.  So, while Buddhists, Hindus and even good, old fashioned materialists (of a certain stripe) can laud Jesus’ teachings, as a Christian demonstration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, the Sermon on the Mount falls flat.  This is not to disparage the Sermon in any way; simply, the Second Noble Truth is not its principle subject matter and it should not be judged as such.  

Mr. MacPherson also discusses the Biblical story of the Fall (Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit) in the context of the Second Noble Truth.  While Biblical creationism is a total non-starter for me, and its advocacy by anyone the fastest way to lose my intellectual respect (other than, perhaps, arguing for a flat earth), as a meaningful myth the Genesis account has great merits.  That is to say, the writers of these early creation stories clearly had insight into the nature of suffering and its causes.  I don’t intend to discuss here all my thoughts on this subject—this is a blog on Buddhism, not Biblical mythology—but I will grant that great wisdom is contained in those stories provided they are not taken as literal history.  That said, in not a single passage do the Biblical writers demonstrate knowledge of the rise and fall of conditioned phenomena à la Dependent Arising, or see the escape from them; there are no sotapannas walking around in the Bible.  In the end, this is the critical point, the only thing that matters as far as Mr. MacPherson’s argument goes.   

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.

Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter (Part 3 of a 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson’s argument begins with the first noble truth, which he describes as: “Life is full of suffering.”  He goes on to say “Every human life without exception witnesses to this truth. It is in particular a recurrent theme in the Psalms of the Old Testament.”  That’s it.  This is all he says.    

As presented by Mr. MacPherson, the Buddha’s Noble Truth of Suffering is a rather banal truth, something a five year old with a stubbed toe could probably tell you.  And one is left to wonder, “Did we really need the Buddha to tell us this?”  Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—that is not what the first truth actually says or even implies.  

Let’s start with a definition.  The word “suffering” is really just the best the English language can do with the Pali word dukkha.  Other translations that have been offered over the years are “anguish” (by Stephen Batchelor), “ill” (by Edward Conze), “stress” (by Thanissaro Bhikkhu), “frustration” (by an old friend of mine), and various other nouns denoting general unpleasantness.  All of these capture some of the flavor and character of dukkha, but to appreciate what the Buddha really meant one must go to the texts.  The following is from his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: 

Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha, to be united with the unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from the pleasant is dukkha, not to get what one desires is dukkha.  In brief, the five aggregates of clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are dukkha

That last line is the clincher: the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.  What are they?  Briefly, the panc’upadanakkhandha are everything that can be experienced.  Bodily form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness with clingingall are dukkha.  

In an excellent summary from his introduction to the Khandhavagga of the Samyutta Nikaya (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 842), Bhikkhu Bodhi writes the following:

The aggregates are suffering because they tend to affliction and cannot be made to conform with our desires (S.22:59); because attachment to them leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair (S.22:1); because their change induces fear, distress, and anxiety (S.22:7).  Even more pointedly, the five aggregates are already suffering simply because they are impermanent (S.22:15) and thus can never fulfil our hopes for perfect happiness and security.  While they give pleasure and joy, which is the gratification (assada) in them, eventually they must change and pass away, and this instability is the danger (adinava) perpetually concealed with them (S.22:26).  Though we habitually assume that we are in control of the aggregates, in truth they are perpectually devouring us, making us their hapless victims (S.22:79).  To identify with the aggregates and seek fulfilment in them is to be like a man who employs as his servant a vicious murderer out to take his life (S.22:85).

Not the sort to mince words, the Buddha declares that

Whatever exists therein of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness he sees those states as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as not-self (Mahamalunkya Sutta, M.64:9). 

The Buddha then applies this formula to progressively more rarified, “spiritual” states (the jhanas), thus demonstrating that even the attainments of great contemplatives do not escape suffering as he defines it. 

In short: If you can think it, know it, be it, sense it and you are not an arahant, it is dukkha.  From the most blissful sexual experience, the trippiest drug trip, to cosmic consciousness, visions of Jesus, a new Ferrari, and life in heaven—all are dukkha.  One must know in the bones that all these things, all these experiences, are liable to suffering.  They are unsatisfactory.  They are unstable.  They end.  All depend on a self that is elusive, protean, in constant need of defense.  Experience itself is alien and you will grow weary of it, even Heaven.  So, going back to Mr. Macpherson’s definition, rather than saying “life is full of suffering” the first noble truth says—quite emphatically—“life is suffering.”  (For an exposition of the putthujjana’s experience of himself, see my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering.”  Much of what I say there applies directly to the present discussion, as well as to future posts in this series.) 

Far from being a garden variety truism, the truth of dukkha is actually a profound and subtle recognition, requiring considerable maturity to understand.  It is best known in the course of insight (vipassana) practice, where the mental formations (sankharas) are seen to follow one upon the other in a ceaseless, impersonal torrent of cause and effect.  Consider this description of several of the insight knowledges from the Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw:  

6. Awareness of Fearfulness

When that knowledge of dissolution is mature, there will gradually arise, just by seeing the dissolution of all object-and-subject-formations, awareness of fearfulness and other (higher) knowledges, together with their respective aspects of fear, and so on.  Having seen how the dissolution of two things—that is, any object noticed and the insight-thought engaged in noticing it—takes place moment by moment, the meditator also understands by inference that in the past, too, every conditioned thing (formation) has broken up in the same way, that just so it will break up also in the future, and that at the present it breaks up, too. And just at the time of noticing any formations that are evident, these formations will appear to him in their aspect of fearfulness. 

Therefore, during the very act of noticing, the meditator will also come to understand: “These formations are indeed fearful.”  Such understanding of their fearfulness is called “knowledge of the awareness of fearfulness”; it has also the name “knowledge of fear.”  At that time, his mind itself is gripped by fear and seems helpless. 

7. Knowledge of Misery

When he has realized the fearfulness (of the formations) through the knowledge of fear, and keeps on noticing continuously, then the “knowledge of misery” will arise in him before long. When it has arisen, all formations everywhere whether among the objects noticed, or among the states of consciousness engaged in noticing, or in any kind of life or existence that is brought to mind—will appear insipid, without a vitalizing factor, and unsatisfying. So he sees, at that time, only suffering, only unsatisfactoriness, only misery. Therefore this state is called “knowledge of misery.” 

8. Knowledge of Disgust

Seeing thus the misery in conditioned things (formations), his mind finds no delight in those miserable things but is entirely disgusted with them. At times, his mind becomes, as it were, discontented and listless. Even so he does not give up the practice of insight, but spends his time continuously engaging in it. He therefore should know that this state of mind is not dissatisfaction with meditation, but is precisely the “knowledge of disgust” that has the aspect of being disgusted with the formations. Even if he directs his thought to the happiest sort of life and existence, or to the most pleasant and desirable objects, his mind will not take delight in them, will find no satisfaction in them. On the contrary, his mind will incline and lean and tend only towards Nibbana. Therefore the following thought will arise in him between moments of noticing: “The ceasing of all formations that are dissolving from moment to moment—that alone is happiness” (The Progress of Insight [1994], pp. 23ff). 

When you have seen and known this directly, and realize this is what you’ve been calling your self, your life, then you will understand what suffering really is.   

Needless to say, the Biblical texts do not come anywhere near this, not even Ecclesiastes, by far the most sober and reality-based in the Judaeo-Christian canon (and also my favorite).  As for the suffering Mr. MacPherson alludes to in the Psalms, all too often it is the suffering of a man (traditionally King David) railing against his enemies and partakes nothing of the ñanadassana of the Noble Ones, which “knowledge and vision” must be seen before the First Noble Truth can be penetrated and known.  I can thus state categorically: There is no knowledge or understanding in the Biblical tradition of dukkha as it is described in the Buddha’s Teaching.    

I’ll finish this post with two favorite quotes that touch on the subject of suffering.  The first is Ñanavira Thera’s reflection on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.  The second, one of the most chilling from the Buddha himself, gives an indication of the vastness of suffering through time and space; the Bible has no equivalent conception. 

I am glad to hear that you have managed to make something of Ulysses after all. Your reaction to the book (a feeling of sadness) is appropriate and shows that you have not misread it; but surely the sympathy you feel for the ageing Molly Bloom should be extended to Mr. Bloom himself (and, in a lesser degree, to most of the other characters)? Bloom has lost his first-born son, Rudi, and this has affected his relations with his wife: he himself says somewhere that he is now less happy than he used to be in earlier days. 

Actually, when I first read the book, it was not so much the ageing of the characters that affected me as the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of all their actions and aspirations. They are busy, all of them, seeking their immediate satisfactions and avoiding their immediate discomforts; and everything that they do—whether it is making money, making music, making love, or simply making water—is quite pointless—in terms, that is to say, of an ultimate purpose or meaning in life. 

At the time I read it—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?” (Clearing the Path [1987], pp. 407-8). 

+++++++++

 Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. 

Which do you think is more: the flood of tears which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way—hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired—this or the waters of the four oceans? 

Long time have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, and while you were thus suffering, truly you have shed more tears upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans. 

Which do you think is more: the streams of blood that, through your being beheaded, have flowed upon this long way, or the waters in the four oceans? 

Long time have you been caught as thieves or highway men or adulterers, and through your being beheaded truly more blood has flowed upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans. 

But how is this possible? 

Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. 

And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune and filled the graveyards full, truly long enough to be dissatisfied with every form of existence, long enough to turn away and free yourselves from them all (S.15:3,13).

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering

I recently answered some questions regarding Buddhism posed by Mr. Daryl E. Witmer on the website ChristianAnswers.net.  His first question from “Ten Question I’d Ask If I Could Interview Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) Today” concerned the nature of personality (sakkaya) in Buddhist soteriology.  In a nutshell, Mr. Witmer was asking what exactly personality is, where it comes from, and where it goes when one attains final enlightenment (arahatta).  Following is what I wrote in response:

——————————————————————————————————

You started with the toughest question of all! 

First, I would like to commend you for having gotten at least one very difficult point correct, that is, the definition of nibbana (nirvana).  But a little filling out of this definition is in order.  From the suttas we have the following:

“The destruction, monks, of desire, of aversion, of delusion (raga, lobha, dosa)—this, monks, is called (the) unconditioned extinction (asankhatam nibbanam)” (Asankhata Samyutta, S.43.2).

(While these three terms are more commonly translated as “lust, hate and ignorance,” what is really meant here is the innate and automatic tendency to respond to sense (or mental) objects with feelings of attraction or repulsion, both of which tendencies are the result of not seeing them as they really are—as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and as not relating to a self (anatta).  It is this not seeing experience correctly that constitutes delusion, as when we see a snake as a rope (and want it), or see a rope as a snake (and feel repulsed).  The commoner, or worldling (putthujjana), sees everything through the veil of his/her emotional predilections, thereby distorting it.)

 There are, monks, these two extinction-elements (nibbanadhatu).  Which are the two?  The extinction-element with residue (saupadisesa nibbanadhatu) and the extinction-element without residue (anupadisesa nibbanadhatu).

And which, monks, is the extinction-element with residue?  Here, monks, a monk is a worthy one, a destroyer of the cankers (asava), one who has reached completion, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, achieved his own welfare, destroyed attachment to being (bhava), one who is released through comprehending rightly.  His five faculties [seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching] still remain: owing to their being intact he experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable, he feels what is pleasant and unpleasant.  It is his destruction of desire, aversion, and delusion, monks, that is called the extinction-element with residue.  [This describes the living arahat, the “residue” being the body and mental faculties.]

And which, monks, is the extinction-element without residue?  Here, monks, a monk is a worthy one, a destroyer of the cankers, one who has reached completion, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, achieved his own welfare, destroyed attachment to being, one who is released through comprehending rightly.  All his feelings, monks, not being delighted in, will become cold in this very place: it is this, monks, that is called the extinction-element without residue.  [This describes the “dead” arahat.]

These, monks, are the two extinction-elements (Itivuttaka 44, trans. by John D. Ireland in The Udana & The Itivuttaka, Buddhist Publication Society 1997, p. 181).

These passages clearly define nibbana as the destruction of desire, aversion, and delusion.  But other passages complicate this apparently straightforward picture.  Consider the following:

 Bhavanirodho nibbanam—“Extinction is cessation of being (existence)” (Anguttara Nikya 10:7).

(This passage is not from the Buddha, but Sariputta, his foremost disciple.  The word translated here as “existence” (bhava) can also be translated as “becoming” or “being.”  What must not be construed from this is any notion that the individual who “experiences” nirvana somehow ceases to exist.)

Lastly, from the Udana (8.3), we have perhaps the most famous description of nibbana:

 There is… an unborn, unbecome, unmade, and unconditioned, for if… there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, and unconditioned, an escape here from the born, the become, the made, the conditioned, would not be manifest.

Clearly, in both these passages, we have an opposition between nibbana (=nirodho=extinction) and being or existence (bhava).  There is, further, a characterization of nibbana as unconditioned (i.e. not affected or determined by a precursor) and, apparently, non-temporal; i.e. it is not a process in time.  Existence is characterized as exactly the opposite. 

Taking the above, we have the following:

Nibbana

  • Unconditioned
  • Absence of desire, aversion, delusion
  • Cessation of existence

 Existence/being/becoming (bhava)

  • Conditioned
  • Constituted by desire, aversion, delusion

Plainly, the “existence” described here is that of the ordinary, unenlightened man (putthujjana), whose life is conditioned (by time, birth, thought, death, etc) and constituted by, precisely, desire, aversion, and delusion. 

However, to get at your question, we need to go still further.  In the Culavedalla Sutta (M.44:2) the nun Dhammadinna says: “These five aggregates [material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness—the gamut of personal experience, what can be lived and known] affected by clinging/grasping (pañc’upadanakkhandha) are called personality (sakkaya) by the Blessed One.”  (Trans. by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 1995, p. 396.)   The five aggregates, by themselves, are simply pañcakkhandha, but the addition of upadana (“clinging”) makes them precisely that “personality” you were asking about.  This is yet another definition of the putthujana, the commoner or worldling.  And so we have an extended equation:

Existence (bhava) = five aggregates affected by clinging/grasping (pañc’upadanakkhandha) = personality (sakkaya)

If this is the ordinary man, what then is a Buddha or arahat (perfected Buddhist saint)?  He (or she) is none other than pañcakkhandha (“the five aggregates”), i.e. the psycho-physical complex of the living person devoid of grasping.  He is sakkayanirodha—“personality (or self-hood) ceased.”  However, the arahat (or a Buddha) is still an individual; he or she maintains a unique cognitive perspective in space and time, but is in no way personal.  He is not a “self,” not subjective.  (Subjectivity is thus revealed as a parasite upon experience, a kind of infection, the “symptoms” of which are suffering and sakkayadithhi, ideologies based upon or defined by personality.)  Hence it is said that “actually and in truth” (saccato thetato) there is in this very life no arahat to be found.  So, in the Kevaddha Sutta (D.11:85), the consciousness of the arahat  is described as anidassanam (“non-indicative”) and, further, as “limitless” and “wholly non-originating,” but also as viññanassa nirodho (“ceased/extinguished consciousness”).  All of this is opposite to the putthujjana, the common worldling.

But what, you may ask, is it that ceases?  In the following passage from Samyutta Nikaya 22:86 the Buddha clarifies:

But, Anuradha, when the Tathagata [epithet of the Buddha, and, by inference, of an arahat] is not apprehended by you as real and actual here in this very life, is it fitting for you to declare: ‘Friends, when a Tathagata is describing a Tathagata…he describes him apart from these four cases: ‘The Tathagata exists after death,’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death,’ or ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death,’ or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’?” 

“No, venerable sir.”

“Good, good, Anuradha!  Formerly… and also now, I teach only suffering and the ending of suffering [dukkha].”  (Trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 2000, pp. 937-8.)

(The underlined is, precisely, the Four Noble Truths in brief.)

The reason for this should, I hope, by now be apparent.  With the cessation of self-hood, existence (i.e. bhava=pañc’upadanakkhandha=sakkaya=dukkha) ceases and any discussion of an arahat or Buddha as existing or not existing (or any combination thereof) is wholly illegitimate.  Even the words “birth” and “death” do not apply (as they do not apply to nibbana).  And so in the suttas when the passing of a Buddha or an arahat is discussed, it is referred to as the “break up” or “laying down” of the body.  Death for the body is, as always, an objective fact, but if there is no “person” to die, the notion “I die” is extinguished.  (For this reason nibbana is often referred to in the suttas as amata, “the deathless.”)

This may seem like a long way round to answer your question.  Perhaps, but it is entirely necessary; the issues you raise are too complex to respond to in a facile manner.  The origin of personality is revealed by the foregoing to be identical with the origin of suffering—they are one and the same.  The cessation of personality is the cessation of suffering—they are one and the same. 

As regards how it all began, consider this from the Samyutta Nikaya (S.15:3, 13), one of the most chilling passages in the entire Sutta Pitaka:

Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths.

Which do you think is more: the flood of tears which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way—hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired—this or the waters of the four oceans?

Long time have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, and while you were thus suffering, truly you have shed more tears upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans.

Which do you think is more: the streams of blood that, through your being beheaded, have flowed upon this long way, or the waters in the four oceans?

Long time have you been caught as thieves or highway men or adulterers, and through your being beheaded truly more blood has flowed upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans.

But how is this possible?

Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths.

And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune and filled the graveyards full, truly long enough to be dissatisfied with every form of existence, long enough to turn away and free yourselves from them all.  (Trans. by Dwight Goddard in A Buddhist Bible, Beacon Press 1938/1994, pp. 28-9.  Goddard mis-references the source as S.14.)

And “where,” you ask, “does [personality] go when one ceases to exist?” (i.e. when one becomes arahat). There is a sutta that directly answers this question, too.  The following is from the Aggivacchagotta Sutta (M.72:15-20).

“Then does Master Gotama hold any speculative view [ditthi] at all?”

“Vaccha, ‘speculative view’ is something that the Tathagata has put away.  For the Tathagata, Vaccha, has seen this: ‘Such is material form [feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness], such its origin, such its disappearance.’  [The first three of the Four Noble Truths.]  Therefore, I say with the destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up, and relinquishing of all conceiving, all excogitation, all I-making, and the underlying tendency to conceit, the Tathagata is liberated through not clinging.”

“When a bhikkhu’s mind is liberated thus, Master Gotama, where does he reappear [after death]?”

“The term ‘reappear’ does not apply, Vaccha.”

“Then does he not reappear, Master Gotama?”

“The term ‘does not reappear’ does not apply, Vaccha.”

“Then he both reappears and does not reappear, Master Gotama?”

“The term ‘both reappears and does not reappear’ does not apply, Vaccha.”

“Then he neither reappears nor does not reappear, Master Gotama?”

“The term ‘neither reappears nor does not reappear’ does not apply, Vaccha.”

“When Master Gotama is asked these four questions, he replies [as above].  Here I have fallen into bewilderment, Master Gotama, here I have fallen into confusion, and the measure of confidence I had gained through previous conversation with Master Gotama has now disappeared.”

“It is enough to cause you bewilderment, Vaccha, enough to cause you confusion.  For this Dhamma, Vaccha, is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.  It is hard for you to understand it when you hold another view, accept another teaching, approve of another teaching, pursue a different training, and follow a different teacher.  So I shall question you about this in return, Vaccha.  Answer as you choose.

“What do you think, Vaccha?  Suppose a fire were burning before you.  Would you know: ‘This fire is burning before me’?”

“I would, Master Gotama.”

“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: ‘What does this fire burning before you burn in dependence on?’—being asked thus, what would you answer?”

“Being asked thus, Master Gotama, I would answer: ‘This fire burning before me burns in dependence on grass and sticks.’”

“If that fire before you were to be extinguished, would you know: ‘This fire before me has been extinguished’?”

“I would, Master Gotama.”

“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: ‘When that fire before you was extinguished, to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?’—being asked thus, what would you answer?”

“That does not apply, Master Gotama.  The fire burned in dependence on its fuel of grass and sticks.  When that is used up, if it does not get any more fuel, being without fuel, it is reckoned extinguished.”

“So too, Vaccha, the Tathagata has abandoned that material form [feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness] by which one describing the Tathagata  might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, [palm tree stumps are hollow, and therefore a symbol of insubstantiality] done away with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising.  The Tathagata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form [etc.], Vaccha, he is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean.  The term ‘reappears’ does not apply, the term ‘does not reappear’ does not apply, the term ‘both reappears and does not reappear’ does not apply, the term ‘neither reappears nor does not reappear’ does not apply.”  (Trans. by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 1995, pp. 592-3.)

The perfected Buddhist saint, upon the “breakup” of his (or her) body, goes neither to heaven nor to hell.  God or the devil may search for him, but neither will find him.  And here indeed lies the dilemma for Christianity when confronting the Buddha’s teaching: it has no category by which to explain, or even to acknowledge, the existence of a Buddha or arahat.  According to the worldview of Christianity such persons should not exist—and yet, they do.

Appendix:

There is a marvellous little story at S.22.87 illustrating this point:

…Then the Blessed One, together with a number of bhikkhus, went to the Black Rock on the Isigili Slope.  The Blessed One saw in the distance the Venerable Vakkali lying on the bed with his shoulder turned. 

Now on that occasion a cloud of smoke, a swirl of darkness, was moving to the east, then to the west, to the north, to the south, upwards, downwards, and to the intermediate quarters.  The Blessed One then addressed the bhikkhus thus: “Do you see, bhikkhus, that cloud of smoke…?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“That, bhikkhus, is Mara the Evil One searching for the consciousness of the clansman Vakkali, wondering: ‘Where now has the consciousness of the clansman Vakkali been established?’  However, bhikkhus, with consciousness unestablished, the clansman Vakkali has attained final Nibbana.”  ((Trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 2000, pp. 940-1.)

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