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Archive for the tag “suffering”

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


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:


  • 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.


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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