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Archive for the tag “pali canon”

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

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana.  The University Press of Hawaii 1976.  188 pages.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book—probably at least four times, maybe five.  There’s a reason for this: it’s relatively short, dense with information and insight, well written, and the single best book I know of for demonstrating the clear differences—nay, the rift—that lies between the teachings of the early texts (Pali suttas) espoused by the Theravada and those of the later Mahayana and Vajrayana sutras.

If the above sounds partisan, allow me to explain.  I have long been dismayed by the cavalier way in which so many Buddhists—and even scholars—muddle up terms and ideas from the different Buddhist traditions.  They take a little from here, a little from there, and assume that all of this represents the Buddha’s thinking.  They sometimes even buy into the idea that the early teachings were somehow “less developed” or “sophisticated”—hinayana, as they say.  Very beginner books are especially prone to do this, and since that’s where so many people start their dharma journey (for understandable reasons), the intellectual foundation they lay for themselves is often vague and non-discriminating as regards the historical realities of Buddhist thought.  Needless to say, a foundation of sand cannot serve anyone well when they venture into more difficult and challenging terrain.  Anyone reading this book, however, should avoid such troubles.

While the subtitle is “a historical analysis” the emphasis is much more on analysis than history.  In line with a historical approach, however, the book starts at the beginning in “Early Buddhism.”  Seven chapters take up critical points of the historical Buddha’s thoughts—epistemology, causality (more on this later), the three marks of existence, karma and rebirth, ethics and, lastly, nirvana.  In each case Kalupahana shoots right for the heart, trying to dig at the critical points underlying each concept.  Particularly noteworthy here, I think, is his discussion of the Buddha’s epistemology—that is, what the Buddha viewed as valid sources of knowledge.  Already here we can see how the Buddha stands out from so many other philosophers—not to mention religious teachers—in that he clearly equates the means of knowledge with knowledge (“gnosis”) itself.  The two are not distinct; his approach is relentlessly empirical.  Revelation and reason from unexamined a priori assumptions are rejected.  Only direct seeing without the intrusion of egoic distortions can be taken as valid (“in the seeing, only the seen” etc.).  I always get a thrill reading these kinds of passages and contemplating this man, a product of fifth century BCIndia, so far ahead of even the most modern of thinkers.  Kalupahana does an excellent job illustrating this, as well as other points.

This is not to say I agree with everything Kalupahana writes about the early teachings.  In particular I would fault his discussion of paticcasamuppada (“Dependent Arising”) or, as he terms it, “causality.”  My problem lies in particular with that word—causality.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, causality is “the relation between a cause and its effect or between regularly correlated events or phenomena.”  Consulting Hume, we get his first three points on causality, which define the commonsense notion:

  1. The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
  2. The cause must be prior to the effect.
  3. There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect.

Clearly what is implied in these definitions is a process in time: A (at time 1) causes (or determines) B (at time 2) etc.  But this is not how the Buddha describes Dependent Arising.  In fact, look at that translation—dependent arising.  B can be dependent upon A, but this does not mean A is its cause or precedes it in time.  Referring to the classical definition of dependent arising: “When there is this, that is; with the arising of this, that arises; when this is not; that is not; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—we can see clearly that the order of A and B is not chronological but structural.

Consider a twelve storey building.  It would be ridiculous to say that the first floor causes the second floor.  It would be perfectly correct though to say that it supports it, that the second floor is dependent upon it, and that if the first floor ceases, the second will cease (collapse) as well.  In considering this analogy, its obvious limitation has to be acknowledged: when building a twelve storey tower the first floor is necessarily constructed in time before the second floor.  But when speaking of human consciousness—which is what paticcasamuppada concerns—one part of consciousness does not appear before another part—consciousness simply appears, it is—and as it is, its structure is internally dependent/conditioned after the fashion of the Buddha’s description.

Failure to consider Dependent Arising as a structural principle leads to the sort of nonsense Theravadan commentators wallowed in, like the three lives interpretation.  Obviously, if the Buddha had actually wanted to teach such a thing, he would have done so, but nowhere in the suttas does the Buddha ever imply that dependent arising is a process stretching over time, not to speak over multiple lives.  Instead, he describes it as akalika—literally “not (in) time.”  Moreover, were it a process in time, it would of necessity be a thing remembered and therefore open to the distortion of memory.  But the Buddha described it also as sanditthika, meaning visible here-and-now.  Too, no arhant’s awakening experience (as described in the suttas) ever involved memory of past lives, which, again, the notion of causality and the resulting three-lives interpretation of necessity imply.  (None of this is to say though that the Buddha never discussed causality in the sense of trains of response and counter-response in emotions, actions, and social behaviors.)This is the most significant caveat I would issue in regards to Kalupahana’s work, though even this does not obviate the invaluable service he offers in distinguishing early and later Buddhisms.

The latter portions of the book clarify Mahayana, beginning first with the development of scholasticism, then the newer sutras and explicitly philosophical schools, such as Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka and the Yogacara.  In these later thinkers we see the development of philosophical absolutism and the steady departure from the Buddha’s psychological and empirical approach in favor of more metaphysical and speculative ideas.  The results often bear more resemblance to the Advaita of Shankara than to the Dhamma of the Buddha.  As Kalupahana puts it:

We have attempted to explain the gradual development of the absolutist tendency within Buddhism after the death of the Buddha.  If what has been said here regarding the early doctrines is true, then the Prajnaparamitas certainly represent a “revolution”…in Buddhism.  The revolution consists of the adoption of the transcendentalist standpoint, which is opposed to the empirical approach of early Buddhism (p.134).

That, in a nutshell, is the vital lesson of the book and the best reason for reading it.

My Amazon rating: 5 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

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.

Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire (Part 4 of A 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson has a whole lot more to say about the Second Noble Truth than he did about the First.  He makes a number of points which, taken together, add up to a kind of definition:

  1. “Suffering certainly comes from temporal desires” (though he doesn’t seem entirely certain this is sufficient, positing Original Sin as, perhaps, a more complete “explanation”);
  2. “We suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things” (after which statement he quotes part of the Sermon on the Mount);
  3. “The Second Noble Truth [of] Buddhism posits that the root cause of all suffering is pride, greed, lust, and the like” (and then asserts “This is Christianity”);
  4. “Pride, or boastful vanity, which always leads to suffering because it is an attachment to temporal material things” (which truth he relates while discussing how Lucifer became the Devil—“he could not get past the third step of Buddha’s Eightfold Path”). 

To sum up: Mr. MacPherson is saying that the Buddha is saying that desire (greed) for impermanent material things, connected with pride, lust, and vanity, is the source of suffering and that this constitutes the Second Noble Truth.  He then says “The Buddha was in fact right.”  Mr. MacPherson offers nothing from the suttas as textual support for his assertions, and this is unfortunate (for him) because he could easily have found a rich trove of evidence for his case.  He might also, in the act of consulting them, have learned there is much more to the Second Noble Truth than mere desire. 

Let us start again with a definition: “The Second Noble Truth is that of the arising or origin of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya-ariyasacca)” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 29), or Samudaya for short.  In his first sermon (S.56:11), the Buddha spoke of it as follows: 

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kamatanha), craving for existence (bhavatanha), craving for non-existence (vibhavatanha). 

This would certainly seem to support what Mr. MacPherson is saying, that greed (craving) is the source of suffering.  Indeed, it is clear that he is “right”—as far as he goes.  The trouble is he does not go far enough; he is like a man who has visited Four Corners, splayed his legs and arms, and then claims on this basis that he has seen the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.  (I did it and I haven’t seen squat in New Mexico!) 

Without going further than this, it is clear his definition is at best one-third complete.  The Buddha, after all, lists three specific types of craving, but Mr. MacPherson considers only one, i.e. kamatanha.  What about the other two?  A full discussion of these terms could lead us far afield, so for now I will only say that these represent two orientations toward experience, the first of wanting more of it, of wanting to preserve, continue, prolong and fortify it, the second the urge to escape it, end it, change it (from what it is to something else).  The first is typically born of experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter often results from world-weariness and dissatisfaction.  Notice how these emotional orientations naturally incline one toward specific views (ditthi) toward the world, namely eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), respectively.  The Buddha, however, claimed to teach something quite different from either of these, specifically the Middle Way (majjhima patipada): 

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence.  But for one who sees the origin [samudaya] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world.  And for one who sees the cessation [nirodha] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (S.12:15).  

The “world,” therefore, is none other than that which arises and ceases, namely dukkha.  (And so we have the equation: dukkha = life = the world [of experience].  Those who have read my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering,” will know also that these terms are identical with sakkaya, i.e. “personality,” or “identity,” as well.)   The Buddha is saying too that tanha (“craving,” “thirst,” “desire”) in at least these two senses is related to certain false modes of viewing the world, and that desire can end when the world is seen “with correct wisdom.”  What is that “correct wisdom”? 

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence.  But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, that mental standpoint, adherence, and underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about “my self.”  He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising [i.e. he sees the second noble truth], what ceases is only suffering ceasing [he sees the third noble truth].  His knowledge about this is independent of others.  It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view. 

“All exists” [sassatavada]: Kaccana, this is one extreme.  “All does not exist” [ucchedavada]: this is the second extreme.  Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving (tanha); with craving as condition; clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be.  Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering” (S.12.15). 

This list of conditioned, dependent psychological phenomena is none other than the positive (anuloma) phase of Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda), and clearly indicates that “correct wisdom” is seeing Dependent Arising.  (Cf. M.28:28: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”)  Thus by not adhering to ideologies of existence and non-existence, by seeing phenomena without bias, as conditioned and impermanent, the noble disciple sees the arising of dukkha and its cessation and so attains to Right View (sammaditthi).  His “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) opened, he attains the Path and becomes “independent of others” in the Teaching. 

Plainly then a proper understanding of the Second Noble Truth (and by extension the Third) entails a proper understanding of Dependent Arising.  The two are inseparable, for “the origin of this whole mass of suffering”—the illustration of which is the purpose of paticcasamuppāda’s positive phaseis exactly the point of the Second Noble Truth.  Greed, craving, lust—all are part of this, but tanha has its antecedents and they theirs, tracing back to beginningless avijja—“delusion”—which is non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and the Path leading beyond it.

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). 

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 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).

Looking For the Buddha In the Bible, or How NOT To Make Spinach Soufflé (Part 2 of A 13-Part Series)

As discussed in my previous post, the Dhamma has at its heart certain themes (aniccata being only one of them) that make it problematic for anyone with a theistic worldview, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim.  Even if he is attracted to the Buddha’s Teaching, the theist will inevitably misconstrue it; more likely, he will simply reject it.  Much to his credit, Mr. MacPherson has not done the latter.  He has, however, done the former.  

Mr. MacPherson’s primary thesis is that the Buddha’s teaching, its Four Noble Truths in their entirety, can be discovered within the Biblical tradition.  To prove this he first describes the Buddha’s teaching (the First Noble Truth, the Second, the Third etc.) and then attempts to show how what he just described is also described by passages in the Bible.  For this approach to be successful, he must accurately describe the Dhamma, then find Biblical correlates that not only fit their Buddhist counterparts, but do so with the same purpose.  This last point is vital, for a mere collection of resemblances, if they are not organized and motivated by a purpose similar to that which you find in the Dhamma, are then nothing but a collection of resemblances, whose intention or outcome may be anything at all.  In other words, purpose in thought and practice is just as important—perhaps more important—than the actual thoughts and practices themselves.   

Mr. MacPherson, however, is unsuccessful on both points.  First, he does not accurately represent the Buddha’s Teaching.  Second, he never demonstrates any common, overarching purpose to the catalogue of resemblances he describes.  It is this second point that I wish now to take up, and which brings me to the subject of…spinach soufflé.  

Imagine you have a thousand page cookbook entitled The World of Soufflé.  You’re trying to figure out what to eat one night and happen upon the following recipe for spinach soufflé: 

Ingredients:

1 egg

1/3 cup 1% milk

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

salt and pepper to taste

2 (10 ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

Directions: 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

In a medium bowl whisk together egg, milk, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Fold in spinach. Place in a small casserole dish.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until lightly set.

NOTE: If you are in a hurry, use a microwave safe casserole dish, cover with plastic wrap, and cook on high for 3 minutes. Release the steam, recover, and cook on high for another 3 minutes. Enjoy! 

It looks easy enough—only six or seven ingredients and six steps.  You are promised that by using just these ingredients, in just this order and in just this way, you will get spinach soufflé, and not (hopefully) lemon meringue or baklava.  

Now consider this: how many other recipes use these same ingredients—maybe more, but not less—and also follow these steps—not necessarily in this exact order, and perhaps adding a few, but not subtracting any either?  In other words, think of the above ingredients and directions as the least common denominator; how many recipes are there in your book, in the world, with those ingredients and directions at minimum?  I would wager hundreds, maybe thousands.  And if you combed through enough books you might cook all sorts of things, delicious things, using these ingredients and these steps—but unless you did it in exactly these proportions and in the correct order, you would not make spinach soufflé.  In other words, an overlap of parts and processes does not imply identity of purpose.  It does not imply identical, even compatible outcomes.  Herein lies Mr. MacPherson’s chief error.     

As will be demonstrated in the following posts, he has noted many similarities between Biblical teachings and Buddhist.  I will not argue against their similarities, but where he misconstrues Dhamma the similarities are of no import, and even when the meanings are correctly understood, the mere fact that Dhamma point A is similar to Biblical point B does not mean anything if the intentions, motivations and expected outcomes are at odds with one another.  The truth is, that in the case of these two traditions, their goals could not be more dissimilar.

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

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