This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
Once more I’d like to request your kind attention for some thoughts. We’ve been exercising what we, somewhat casually, call the mind. As you are probably aware, this is quite a rubbery term, “Mind”. As we spend more time with that mind we find out there’s actually several of them in there. … In fact that place is teeming with people who say, “Me”. We have people who say, “You should lose weight.” And then we say, “Well, but there’s this chocolate in the fridge.” And then we have the same voice saying, “Well, actually, he who doesn’t enjoy becomes joyless.” And then we say, that was the Buddha, wasn’t it? Or was it somebody else? And then we say, “Fair enough. Let’s go and eat that chocolate.” And then the same voice says, “I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.”
There seems to be quite a few people in there who all use the same voice; I think of sock puppets sometimes. I have Akincano sock puppets which pipe up, sometimes with predictable, sometimes with completely novel messages. So I thought of spending some time and looking at the early Buddhist psychological conceptualization of that zoo in there.
The zoo is called “Citta”. The Citta is… already here it gets difficult. Is it a place? Is it a process? Is it a structure? Hard to say. The Citta is the intuited heart of our experience. It’s literally at the heart of our experience. The Citta is where we go to when we are asked, “How are you doing?” In, particularly early, Buddhist psychology, the, what we would call “intellect”, with its cognitive function, and what we would call “the heart”, with its affective world and emotional world, is both meant by the Citta. The Citta is something that does not yet recognize a split between the affective and the cognitive and the co-native, the will functions.
Buddhist traditions have somewhat ambivalent relationship to that term. In the very earliest discourses the Buddha blatantly refused to define the term. You find that this term is sometimes identified with other terms, one of them is Viññāṇa, consciousness, and one of them is Mano, mentality. Often these terms are used synonymously. If we look closely, we can discern different usages. Viññāṇa is often used when the Buddha speaks analytically. When he speaks of a particularizing awareness that is based on our sensory functioning. So when the Buddha speaks of the six sense fields, then he generally speaks of Viññāṇa. So consciousness dependent on eye, dependent on ear, dependent on nose, on tongue, on body, on mind. In this case he would use the term Viññāṇa. So the particularizing relationship to the sense bases he uses generally the term Viññāṇa.
The term Mano is again used differently; it has to do with the mind as the coordinating, the crossroads where our other sense functions are being coordinated. It’s the sense base for intellection. It is the sense base for any mental phenomena called Dhammā. The job of Mano, the mind as Mano, is basically the cognitive function, the coordination of mental phenomena, and it’s also a special class distinguishing the internal and the external phenomena of our experience.
The term Citta the Buddha always uses when he speaks of something that is non-analytical. The Citta is what we are encouraged to grow. To develop. To purify. To stabilize. To make big, to make abundant. So whenever he speaks about meditation, he generally uses the term Citta. So the Citta is what we are encouraged to cultivate. The Citta is what we are encouraged to unify. The Citta is what we are encouraged to stabilize. The Citta is what we are encouraged to make big. To let become abundant. As Yuka has explained, [when] the Brahmavihāras are strengthened by deep stillness, then they become immeasurable. They become Appamāṇa.
… The Citta is not just nice. If we are looking at some of the uses of the Citta, I want to give you a few key words. The Citta can be quite capricious. The Citta is described in a number of ways. It is, maybe most importantly it is described as inherently luminous. In a famous passage in the Aṅguttara Nikāya it is described as “radiant”. And if it is troubled, the troubles it gets, these troubles are only adventitious. The are not inherent. That’s an important baseline on Buddhist teaching. Buddhists have been blamed for being pessimists and being obsessed with suffering. All this harping around on Dukkha. All this insistence that life is impermanent and things are crumbling away from us. And this is all true, unfortunately this is all true. You’ve got tons of sad poetry about impermanence, the poignancy of… in Japanese you have wonderful terms. The inherent heart-rendering nature of all things. The famous Mono no Aware which is something that, in all things is pain. In all things is loss. Even in the most beautiful thing you see mortality.
But that’s not all of it. The Citta, on the background of the Citta being radiant and luminous, Buddhists have always insisted that Dukkha is not actually necessary. Truth be told, this is a bit more complicated. You have a Dukkha that has to do with the Four Truths and you have a Dukkha that has to do with the Three Lakkhaṇas, the three characteristics of the universe. You don’t really get rid of [these]. Even the Buddha had back pain and died of bloody dysentery at the end of his days. And it wasn’t nice. So that’s the bad news. That’s the really bad news. That even if you do everything right you will still end up with back pain and you are gonna die. Let’s get that straight out. Let’s not be pretend that this is any different.
But the good news is there is a Dukkha, particularly the Dukkha that the Four Tasks speak of, the Ariya Sacca, the Dukkha in there, remember that’s the first of the realities we are, not just asked to cope with, but actually to reconcile with, the Dukkha in there is something that can be brought to sensation. The Dukkha in there is something that can be given up by understanding what brings it about and by removing the causes that bring about Dukkha. Most of our Dukkha is that sort of Dukkha. Then some back pain remains and, you know, you’re gonna die. We’re not gonna survive this.
All of this harping on Dukkha takes place on the background that we can be happy. That we can be free. That we can be awake. That the Citta is capable of intuiting our freedom. That the Citta is capable of healing. It is capable of waking up. It is capable of being totally expansive. It is capable of being intuitive and discerning. It is capable of understanding, most importantly, the principles that underpin happiness. And obviously if you are interested in happiness, you must be interested in its opposite, suffering. And all the insistence on Buddhists trying to understand and allay suffering has to do with an acknowledgement that we are capable of intrinsic happiness. That’s an important piece that some of the early translators haven’t quite grasped when they found out that Buddhists are all about suffering. Yes. Because they think suffering is not mandatory.
Let us see what the Citta is described as. Luminous. The Citta is not immutable. It’s not a nucleus. It’s not an essential core. The Citta is a process. It is multi-faceted. It is a dynamic pattern. And in that dynamic pattern, it is both generative, so it produces things, and it is resonant. It picks up things. If we go a little bit into more detail, one of the features of that Citta is [that] it is highly changeable. Indeed, “It is not easy to give a simile for how quickly the mind changes.”
The Citta may be malleable. It is workable. It may be pliable. It is soft. It may be Mahagata [sp?], it may be lofty. It may be abundant, Vipula. It may be immeasurable. Particularly when it is still and unified, it becomes big.
Unfortunately it can also be shrunken. It can contract. It can be reactive. It can be scared. It can be obscured by defilements. Sometimes it turns into the proverbial Monkey mind. By the way, that’s a Palī term. Monkey Mind is found in the Palī Canon. It’s called Kapicitta. If your mind behaves like a monkey it actually is on safe canonical ground. It’s not that it’s recommended, but you can rest assured that people for the last two and a half millennia have already had this experience. You are not alone.
Sometimes the Citta has a mind of its own. There is this wonderful little phrase where it say, “The practitioner makes his Citta turn according to his or her wish. He or she does not turn by the Citta’s wish.” The Citta can be pleased or displeased. There’s a passage that say, “That person does not appeal to my Citta.” Or somebody rather self-confidently at some point concludes, “Your Citta was pleased with me.”
The Citta can be tamed, Danta, or it can be unshakeable, Akuppa. The Citta is capable of recognizing its own good, the good of others, and the common good. That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? The Citta, this is maybe most important, is, if refined and stabilized and trained, it is capable of understanding how things truly have become. In other words it is capable of understanding how we have arrived at a particular condition. That means, if this is a desirable condition, we are able to repeat it or to strengthen it. And if this is an undesirable condition, we are able to gradually undo the precursor for this condition. What it is predicated upon. From a Buddhist point of view, that’s one of the crucial functions of the Citta, it is capable of understanding.
I said the other day, in a somewhat not terribly doctrinal, sophisticated way, that the Citta has three functions. One of them is foundational sensitivity, receiving sense impressions. Then processing sense impressions and producing Saṅkhāras. Producing will functions. That generally translates as like, dislike, aversion, compassion, joy, serenity. Those would be how we respond to the world. And finally, on a third level, the Citta is concerned with understanding. And it so happens that the more it is preoccupied with the former two, the less resources it has to allocate to this third function of understanding. Hence meditation practice. Calming down the body, calming down the mind, slowing down the body, slowing down the mind. And beginning to brighten the mind and then beginning to still, stabilize the mind. So that it becomes more capable of connecting, in an intuitive way, with the world of its experience.
There are some pieces in there. One of the pieces in there is obviously, this is the process in Buddhist understanding that leads through cultivation of mind, through Citta Bhavana, this is what you’ve been doing for a week, to liberation. So what helps the heart, the mind, to become liberated is the cultivation of the Citta’s capacity to understand.
It is not control that makes us free. It is not willpower. It is not attrition. But it is the capacity of the mind to understand that this impulse is not a helpful impulse. That impulse is a more promising impulse to be followed.
Buddhist teaching basically thinks there are two problems. One of them is bad habits and one of them is lack of understanding. Differing Buddhist schools have been not quite on the same page as to which one is worse. One school of thinking, that bad habits are the problem, basically suggests a very gradual approach. So you create better conditions to have better understanding to then create better qualities of the Citta which will then improve and become free. The other schools of Buddhism have more emphasized a foundational waking-up experience is necessary. And then you open your eyes of un-wisdom and you wake up from the slumber of ignorance. And by clearly seeing you don’t need to worry about the bad habits because when you see clearly you will not engage in bad habits because you have understood them to be bad habits.
The truth is both are true. These are metaphors for growth. And like all metaphors they don’t quite map the actual terrain. Like many good maps they start losing accuracy when you go really in to the terrain. They look really convincing and plausible as long as you are looking from a distance, but once you are in the midst of it, once you are in the weeds, your map doesn’t necessarily match anymore.
If I understand that correctly, and there is some story in Buddhist history where these two different school have argued with each other, Buddhists love argument, so they’ve always been happily arguing for centuries with each other, the nice thing about this is that they generally haven’t killed themselves in the process. Which makes me more fond of Buddhists arguments. Because they often have shared, monasteries for that matter. Over the centuries they have basically agreed, there is a gradual path, and there is a sudden path. The path is about sudden awakening or gradual awakening. One school says, look, you’ve gotta do this first and that first and that first and that first and then you get that and from there you go to there and then finally it gets better. You’re coming out of the woods. And the other school says, well, it doesn’t really work like that. You can’t really make mirrors by polishing tiles. However much gradually you polish your tile, you’re never going to turn this into a mirror. So this big metaphors, and these metaphors have to do with time, they have to do with space, they have to do with how to create conditions and how to respond to conditions. There was a big debate somewhere in Tibet in the 7th century, which apparently the gradualists have won but we don’t know because those were the guys who wrote the history. So it’s possible that things weren’t quite… history is always written by the guys who win. So you never quite know how they really won.
There’s two big metaphors. One metaphor is the metaphor of the lotus. The lots has its root in the dirt, in the ground. Then grows through muddy water up to the surface and finally into the sunlight. And opens its petals that are pure and beautiful and unblemished. So that’s the classic metaphor for the gradual path. From the most humble beginnings, we grow up, we grow through the muddy water, and open up into pristine purity. And you can’t see, when you see the pristine petals of the open lotus, you don’t see its humble origins. So that’s one kind of metaphor. One kind of image. Which I think has a lot to say about very hands-on ways the Citta can be cultivated.
The other metaphor works a little different. It says [that] when you switch on the light, darkness doesn’t disappear gradually. It doesn’t hide in the corners and you’ve got to scare it out piece by piece. You switch on the light and darkness is gone. Immediately. This is [a] sudden process. If you stand in front of the mirror, however fast you jump in front of the mirror, your image doesn’t gradually assemble in the course of the next two minutes. You’re there. However fast you jump, your image is going to be there. Unless you jump faster than the speed of light, which I suspect not so easy.
So this image says, if you understand something, then that process of understanding is irreversible. You cannot move back from that understanding. And its sudden. If you are afraid of snakes and you are in the dark walking through the forest and you see something that looks like a snake and you turn on your torch and then you see its either a root or the famous piece of rope that we find so often in Indian philosophy, then your fear goes away suddenly. It doesn’t go away gradually. Because you realize this is not a snake. This is a rope or a root. So you don’t need gradual self-soothing techniques. You don’t need therapy for that experience. You realize, “Oh. God. I was wrong. Just because I was afraid of snakes doesn’t mean there are snakes wherever I look. It just means I have more fear. But actually I have recognized now this is not a snake and my fear is gone.”
Both of these images have some power. And both of them have to do with the nature of the Citta. The capacity of the Citta to suddenly understand has been clear through all of the traditions. What can happen to that Citta? What is it that makes the Citta capricious? Later Buddhist tradition has basically distilled the many hindrances, you’ve heard of some of the hindrances, we’ve spoken of last week. Desire, and aversion, and sleepiness, and restlessness, and agitation, and doubt. There’s in fact many more hindrances. There’s longer lists than those, we haven’t given you the worst yet. But later tradition has boiled all those hindrances down into two. One of them is Klay Shavarana [sp??], the hindrance of bad habits, particularly emotional habits, so these are things like envy and jealousy, greed, anger, [and] such like. The other one is The Tchinayina Varina [sp??] which means the deficiency of understanding. We are lacking understanding. And both of these are basically inhabiting the Citta. The Citta, theoretically capable of lofty intuitions, of great profound trenchant wisdom, is also, unfortunately, easily seduced. It is seduced by beliefs, it is seduced by desires and aversions, it is seduced by laziness, and it can malfunction. Like anything that is delicate, it needs training. It needs educating. It needs encouragement. It needs looking after. In other words, it needs Bhavana. It needs meditation. That’s the basic premise of Buddhist teaching. You’re not pure when you get born. The Buddha was very clear. While little kids may be charming and innocent, they’re not enlightened.
This awakening process entails a lot of investment. And this is, I think, his big project, namely to create conditions for men and women who are willing to do the work of mind cultivation.
What are some things that we haven’t spoken of yet which are difficult for the mind? One of them has to do with something Buddhist or, in fact, Indian tradition calls Indriya. Indriya is a word that refers to sense faculties. There are three distinct uses of this in Buddhist teaching, but the primary one is about sense faculties. Our Indriyas are what happens to our senses. This is an interesting choice of name. Indra, as many of you will know, is an Indian god. Creator-deity. In fact, he’s a fairly sort of bloke-ish dude. He’s on the macho side definitely. He’s a do-er. He’s a maker. If you want to pigeon-hole him in anthropological terms, he’s in the league of Zeus, with the Greeks, and maybe Thor with, say, the Germanic. These are all fairly muscular guys. They are definitely self-willed. They all have something to do with weather. Zeus has a blackened fist from throwing lightning and Thor has his hammer to create thunder. And Indra has the Vajra, the thunderbolt. So he, too, is to be reckoned with in meteorological terms… to be polite.
So Indra is basically a power. He is an authority. He is a force. And Buddhist conception of our senses makes use of this imagery of Indra as a force. As an authority that does things with us that make us do things. So our senses, in many ways, are like an occupant force that make us do things. Because of our senses, we are being propelled, we are developing needs, we are looking for gratification, we are trying to avoid pain. Because of these senses operat[ing], we are made to do things without having much say in it. The premise on Indriya, they exert a power, an authority over us, with which we need to somehow negotiate. We cannot just allow that this force occupies us and subdues us.
So the senses are troubling the Citta. The senses are taking, or using energy that the Citta has at its disposition. Remember that first two layers, sensory processing of information, the resonant part of the Citta, and then the responsive part of the Citta. This has all to do with our sense functioning. Buddhists also use the term Indriya with positive connotation when they speak of the spiritual faculties. [In] this case the authority that comes from the spiritual faculty is a welcome one. Confidence, or trust, energy, mindfulness, stillness, wisdom. These are the only places, basically, that authority comes from. So these, too, are called the Indriyas. So we have … one term that covers two different fields. in both cases the term “authority” is involved. In one case, authority is … on our good side, we gain authority by these five spiritual faculties. The other usage, the senses, are almost like an occupant force that we need to work and negotiate with.
So one of the things that can trouble the Citta is that it is under the sway of the Indriyas. And the Buddha is very clear that we need training in this. We need training in how we manage our sensory nature. If we just follow that sensory nature, we will not develop the potential of the Citta. So the idea of just being natural doesn’t work according to Buddhist psychology. It takes a lot of maturity to handle one’s, acknowledge one’s sensuality, at the same time acknowledge also the limits, the dangers, that go together with sensuality. We can easily become addicted. We can easily become anxious. We can easily become weary. We can easily become accustomed to comforts and then sacrifice much of our energy and much of our freedom to these senses.
So the Buddha, like any other world religion, has understood that there is some power in these senses and that power needs to somehow be harnessed. We can’t say we are not sensory beings, which would be a joke. We are just going to be spirit. Doesn’t work. I’ve tried that. I’m sure you have tried appealing to your angelic nature and found it… it has hooves. So one of the big challenges to deal with the Citta is to understand its relationship to the senses and the power these senses exert on us.
Another aspect which has to do with the Citta and can trouble the Citta is that it is affected by ignorance. A few days ago we spoke about differing layers of ignorance. And one of the more psychologically interesting explanations of how ignorance works in the Citta is looking at something Buddhist teaching calls “distortions”. It’s a strange term, the word is Viparyāsa [Sanskrit] or Vipallāsa [Palī]; that’s a term that is used for things that have been turned onto their head. The term is used, Asati [sp?], means “to throw”, and something that is “overthrown”. The term is used for a cart that is overthrown, with its wheels upright. So the Viparyāsas are things that are overthrowing our notion of what’s real.
These Vipallāsas or Viparyāsas they have, as a condition of the Citta, they make us believe that things that are impermanent are actually solid. They make us believe that things that are intrinsically laced with pain are actually giving us happiness. Viparyāsa makes us seek self in what has nothing to do with self. And finally a Viparyāsa may make us look for beauty in what is inherently unattractive. So under the influence of these Viparyāsas our Citta delivers bad results. We suddenly find ourselves obsessed with stuff that doesn’t deliver. We seek happiness, we seek solidity, we seek self and identity, and we seek beauty in things that don’t deliver these. The longing is good; the Buddha is very clear we need that longing. Without that longing we are not going to grow. It is the longing and, in fact, the mortality and the frailness of our condition that makes for spiritual growth. There’s this really laconic, terse text, that generally is not quoted on meditation retreats, it says, “If three things were not, Monks, there would be not path, there would be no fruition, and there would be no liberation. What are these three things? Old age, sickness, death.” Which you think, Wow. I’m glad he didn’t say that on the first page.
So there’s a sober and even stark acknowledgement that without the pressure of suffering and without the longing to come out of that suffering it is very unlikely that we are willing to take upon us the efforts needed to grow, to cultivate, and to refine the Citta to make it resonant for the truth of awakening, for the truth of liberation, for the capacity that lies dormant in that Citta.
So how does this take place? And now we are coming to the good news. This takes place… the Citta is capable of being discerning because it is fast and because it is curious and because it is intuitive, it can actually learn. That’s why it’s better to be born as a human being even though you have to pay taxes than as a rabbit where you don’t have to pay taxes. Because in a rabbit the chances spectrum between eating grass and having a good time and procreating and being eaten by something that is out there and faster than you to get you is very small. For human beings that spectrum, to contemplate, is much bigger. So it is considered a better option to be a human being. Even though you have to work, pay taxes, and it’s complicated, as we know. This is the good place. If you want the Buddhist take on this, then the Buddhist take is this is the privileged position. It’s not the best position, but it’s privileged precisely because it is not the best position. If you were born in a deva realm, you would live very long, you would live very happily, and you would forget that this is gonna change. The problem that the devas, according to Buddhist cosmology, is that they forget change. The Buddha turns up in their realm and strums the lute of impermanence to them. And the devas will know, one day your lotus is wilting and sweat is appearing under your armpit, and the hue of your Mondoor [sp?] and then the other devas know, this one will go down a floor.
So this is the good realm, this is the good movie, this is the best possible movie you can be in. Because here the chances to growth, to have enough stimulus, enough inspiration, and also enough pressure to do the necessary work to wake up and bring your Citta to the fullness, to its abundance.
It’s not secret how Buddhist teaching conceives that. It’s the path is an eightfold path which has different names, in fact. There’s this beautiful story about the Middle Path. But actually there are many middle paths, to be honest with you. One is a middle path between sensory indulgence and self-mortification. Tha’s maybe the most famous middle path. One is a middle path between the ascetic lifestyle of maybe, say, a Jain ascetic, and the Brahmanical householder lifestyle of seeking abundance. That’s a sort of social-historical middle path. When the Buddha, basically, created the conditions for his monastic community, where voluntary simplicity is big. But there isn’t actually any overt mortification or any overt asceticism in there.
There is a middle path, and maybe this is the most overlooked, and maybe the most important middle path in my books, is the middle path between things that just are and things that are not. In other words, the materialism that claims basically, after death everything is over, or eternalism that says you have a soul and that soul will continue to live irrespective of your body dying. Between these two positions, the Buddha ingeniously taught a path of becoming. And in the process of becoming, you avoid the extremes of essentialism, in other words, you claim that things in yourself are eternal, or you avoid the path of nihilism, which means generally it’s a form of materialism which says, after death everything is over, everything is gone and nothing is really continuing. And his ingenuity consists of doing justice, to acknowledge that things are actually impermanent and ceasing, at the same time he doesn’t deny that something is there that takes place. He comes up with this teaching on dependent arising which, most importantly applies to how the Citta functions. In other words, how moments of consciousness fuel future moments of consciousness. It’s not about what’s happening after your physical death, it’s what’s happening from one mind moment to the next mind moment that is the most powerful message of this teaching. He doesn’t deny process, he doesn’t deny existence, and yet he does neither take a position of eternal soul or an eternal body or an eternal mind or an eternal cosmic god, nor does he fall into the materialist trap and say, well, there’s just basically elements and these elements are gonna fall apart and when the elements fall apart you’ll fall apart.
So he has this ingenious teaching of doing justice to a process of becoming that also enables learning. That enables the foundation for an ethical life and that enables, finally, liberation. That means [that] when we learn, when we grow, we can understand how to become free and happy. Very very ingenious teaching which is, again, one of the middle paths.
Maybe the fourth middle path, applicable also to the Citta, is the middle path between the ethical force of self respect against the ethical force of having to oblige the subculture, the peer group, the society I live in. Ideally, what Western teaching calls the difference between ethics and morals. Speaking either of conscience, what I feel as value internalized, and what I have to live by, otherwise I get in really big trouble with myself, and the ethical expectations or the moral expectations of my particular society. Which, when I don’t live up to those, they will let me know. Depending on where I am, they will lock me up or ostracize me, chop off my hands, publicly shame me in some ways or give me fines or so. Ideally those two things would overlap. My personal ethical conscience would totally congruent with what my society expects I embody as ethical behavior. Practically, they never do.
If Akincano, late at night, doesn’t stop at red lights because there aren’t any cars any more as he drives with his bicycle, then he finds, according to his personal conscience, this is absolutely do-able. But if he’s getting caught with that then he may pay a fine. Because the legal code that he is surrounded by and that is established in his society doesn’t tolerate, even bicyclists, even if there are no other cars, to drive over red lights. There’s a very simple example. So the Citta is holding, has to hold, the middle path in this area between personal self-responsibility and the ethical morays of a society that surrounds us. So there are many middle paths the good Citta has to tread.
The Citta is capable of empathy. That is, maybe, one of the most powerful growth factors in human evolution. We weren’t actually that good, when the race got going. We were a little late in that game. There were things that could swim faster, jump higher, had bigger jaws than us. We were pretty late in the game. What made us successful, if you want to think we are successful just because we are many, what made us successful was that we teamed up.
We’re actually quite brutal people, if you look at the history of human, of evolution, you see where humanoids turned up, very shortly after, the megafauna, the big animals, disappeared. It’s disastrous, it’s really shocking to see how quickly that has taken place. When you trace back where human beings appeared, you know exactly when they were in Australia, you know exactly when they came to certain islands in the Caribbean, you know exactly when they turned up on distant archipelagos, and very shortly after, generally within less than a thousand years, the big animals had gone. Guess what happened.
Some mammal, higher vertebrate, unfeathered, with a lot of empathy for his fellow human beings, and not a lot of empathy for big animals, simply ate them. Chased them. So we’re pretty at killing bigger things. We are even good at killing ourselves, to be honest, but I am moderately hopeful that this is improving. I’m in Steven Pinker’s camp; I think we are becoming more tame. It’s still not really impressive, the record is still not really great. But it’s getting better. And I’m moderately hopeful that we continue that tack.
How do we do this? We do it with empathy. Empathy made it possible that we learn. Empathy made it possible that we begin to look after the elders in our community. That, in turn, made it possible that we now not just have one generation of people to teach our children, we have two generations. Because we fed our grandparents, even though they didn’t hunt anymore. There’s great advantages in terms of, not jus the kindness, but actually kindness pays off in many many big ways. Not just for killing big animals, but also for learning. For becoming smarter. For handing down information and knowledge to our children. To our subsequent generations. We’re really good at this. And that’s, I think, why the planet is teaming with us. So empathy has huge dimensions.
In Buddhist teaching, universal empathy basically comes in four tones. Friendliness is one of them, compassion is one of them, joy, sympathetic resonance or joy is one of them and obviously equanimity is one of them. These things are what cultivate the Citta in most powerful ways. Because as you have understood by now, what makes the Citta most alive, and what brings about most learning has to do with the relational nature of the Citta. The Citta, or more precisely some of its functions, keep relating. Relating to things, relating to people, relating to the personal experience. So we keep being in relationship and that capacity to attune, that capacity to resonate, that capacity to empathize, makes us bigger than just one little unit with two legs and two arms operating in its way. We resonate. We all resonate. Not just with each other in a room, but we resonate with… we can read Marcus Aurelius and see that what he felt, when he wrote his Greek diaries, while he was chasing Germans up there in the Danube region, sick of his job, pondering life and death matters… towards the tail end of the Roman Empire. You can read that today. And I can sympathize with the man. There he was, the top of the feeding line, not believing in his job anymore, getting older, knowing that he, however successfully, was going to be, the Empire, in whose service he was doing his work, was doomed anyway. Sometimes you can feel that way. We can empathize with that.
And this is marvelous. That’s possible because the Citta has found ways to communicate over time, over place, we can connect beyond our individual immediate experience. That’s an incredible gift. And the Buddha has somehow understood that if we cultivate functions of the Citta that connect us in this way, then the experience of others becomes accessible to us. We are not limited to our own little six senses. To our own little worlds. We can actually be touched by the lives, by the honest testimony of other beings in other times, in other places. It’s an immense amount. And we can do this because we empathize. We can cognitively empathize and we can affectively empathize.
All it takes is a little learning, a little reading, and off we go. We have an immense amount of testimonies of how human beings have lived and struggled. That helps us. That helps me, quite directly. I find solace, I find inspiration, I find comfort, I find ideas, I find courage in the testimonies of other human beings. Not just of the ones I happen to be living with, but also of the ones that have handed me down Palī texts. Or that have handed me down how they coped with the job of hunting Germans and trying to fortify an Empire that was doomed anyway. And I can learn something of this. I can find myself validated in my own struggles when I recognize this human being has honestly spoken about his or her truth. And I am touched by this. I resonate with this. This capacity to resonate has made us grow together. It has made civilization possible.
The Buddha was very much in favor of that. And he thought this was our greatest strength. If I look [at] how much effort he put into looking after his monastic communities. Forty-five years of his life. How he helped create these social organisms which were totally counter-cultural in his days. They were not really popular. Nowadays it looks like they were very popular, but the truth is, if you actually look closely, they weren’t popular. They were really countercultural. The idea of creating a female monastic order can’t have been a popular idea in his heyday. He was blamed for that. Very much so. And he did it anyway.
He invested a lot of thought, a lot of care, a lot of time in cultivating, that particularly monks and nuns would look after each other and would create relationships amongst each other to grow. In fact that’s why you are sitting here. Because this has happened for many many centuries. Even though you may never meet many of them, the truth is we are all sitting here because for centuries people have handed down teachings, have organized, built, lived, become monks and nuns, and have practiced in that way. And that is possible because the Buddha has had a vision of how a non-family organism could help each other grow. Grow, create cultivation areas for this Citta.
There’s no secret in there that we like mindfulness, that we like stillness, that we like Brahmavihāras. We’ve spoken about these things. The power of the mind that is stilled, that is lucid, that is intuitive, that is unified, are sung many many praises in the Palī texts. Many many praises. Both the longing for freedom, the challenges for this mind, for this Citta to stop playing with the things that are nice but are not actually liberating, and re-directing that longing away from things that can never fulfill that longing, to things that could fulfill that longing if we took them up is amply testified. Particularly in the songs of the Elders and the songs of the Male and Female Elders are quite amazing testimonies. If you ever want to read how individual people have experienced their practice and their breakthroughs, this would be texts to read. Poems of the Elders and Poems of the Female Elders.
So the Citta is capable, by discerning the characteristics of our experience, is able to cultivate wisdom. This is a fascinating turn in Buddhist teaching. Rather than saying, this is a grim world, things are bad here, but if you do the right things you go to a place where things are much better. And there all will be well. He said, actually, no. Yes, things are rather mixed here. You get delights and you get hurt. But if you actually learn to discern what’s happening in different ways, if you turn your capacity to attend to be mindful, and to comprehend what takes place in your own experience, you’ll find thereby the key, how to liberate and waken the power of your mind.
That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? You would expect someone making an assessment: this is a world, a veil of tears, even if you get what you want you will not turn out as happy as you thought you would be after getting what you want. And the best you can do after getting what you wanted, and finding out you are not as happy, keep doing that and just live with eighty percent. He didn’t say that. He said, yes, obviously you can do this, this is definitely how it works. And even those eighty percent, you’ll end up with the law of diminishing returns. You will get eighty percent, but they will not taste like eighty percent. They will taper off. There will more… seventy or sixty. And at the end you will lose your teeth and even the sixty you get will not be tasting anymore.
He didn’t say that. Well he said a little bit of that. He said by turning your minds to the very nature of your experience, you will find transcendence. Not by turning to that which is outside, but by turning inward. By turning your mind with appropriate understanding and appropriate attention, you will understand the workings of your mind. And by understanding the workings of your mind you will make better choices. You will begin to discern those forces that are trustworthy to take you to contentment, to take you to happiness, to take you to an expansive connectedness that make you awake. It is precisely by turning into the problem, rather than by turning away from the problem, to a heaven or to a god or to something transcendent, you will find that transcendence by turning to the imminent. By that which is here. By understanding your body, by understanding your mind, by understanding what you want. By understanding what is painful.
There are a few pieces in there that are not so easy. One of them, in regard to the Indriyas, we are encouraged to practice restraint. We are encouraged to practice renunciation. Because only when we learn to stop the following movement will we actually begin to acknowledge the power that is pushing. Renunciation is something we all do. Let’s be clear. Heidegger had it very neat. He said, very tersely, “The act of renunciation doesn’t take away. The act of renunciation gives. It gives of the inexhaustible strength of the singular.” Renunciation doesn’t take away. Renunciation gives. It gives of the inexhaustible strength of the singular.
Think of this. Everything in your life in which you had some success in, you will have had to sacrifice things. You will have had to renounce something. You all renounced a lot of things for you to come here. The beach holiday. The fishing trip. The family do. I’m sure you have games here you’ve missed out while you are here. You’ve given up quite a few things to be here. Some renunciation was needed. Every choice for something needs to be defended by a hundred “no”s. If you’re not willing to say many many “no”s to fortify one single “yes”, that yes doesn’t value. That yes hasn’t much value.
We all need to renounce things in favor of other things. Dramatically this is the case with attention. William James already said this, we all know what attention is, it means our voluntary decision to pay attention to one thing, and move attention away from other things. So to focus, in other words. This is not an easy thing to do. Because it feels like we are charged for something and we don’t yet know what we gain thereby.
Generally we need to be a little bit encouraged to do this. We need some inspiration for this. We need some support for this. There are other things we need to learn to discern. And sometimes that discernment goes against the grain of what we would like. If things go bad and we suffer, we generally just want it to stop. And we hope that others don’t notice because it’s embarrassing to suffer. To be asked to actually find out how we suffer and how it comes that we suffer is a real task.
Most of the time when something hurts, the first inclination is moving away with our attention. I want this to stop. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. Because I don’t want to have anything to do with it, I’m not finding out what brought it about. How it is connected to my behavior. So this is totally counterintuitive. Meditation, as simple as it sounds, is totally counterintuitive because it asks from us that we move away from involuntary attentional patterning. Which basically says, if it’s nice, I want more of it. If it’s not nice, don’t bother me with it.
And that is a really radical deviation, counterintuitive deviation, to cultivate attention irrespective of nice or not nice. Cultivate attention because it happens, rather than because it promises to be giving me good feelings. That’s [a] difficult step. You are all doing this difficult step.
I’d like to end with a little image which I actually should have put at the beginning. But, so be it. It’s a text, I don’t have it with me, but I will see whether I can string it together. It’s in the Collected Sayings about Satipaṭṭhāna teaching, the establishments of mindfulness, it’s the Sutta of the Cook. There is an analogy between two cooks, a good one and a bad one, and two meditators. The bad cook and the good cook, surprise surprise, are both cooking with great ingredients. They are both excellent cooks. At a first glance. But the bad cook doesn’t pay attention whether his king eats what he cooks. He doesn’t pay attention in what sequence the king eats what he cooks. He doesn’t pay attention whether the king praises what he cooks. And what he leaves aside. So despite his effort, despite the good ingredients, he doesn’t actually take into account where this good food lands and how it is taken up by the king, his employer. And consequently he is not being given rewards. He is not promoted. He doesn’t receive gifts. So the sutta tells us. Now the equivalent bad meditator is actually a good meditator. He is effortful, he does Satipaṭṭhāna practice, he takes up the body as an object of contemplation, feeling tone, the mind states, the mind objects, but he doesn’t pay attention to the sign of his or her own mind. The nimita of his or her own mind. In other words, the bad meditator pecks away at an exercise without actually paying attention to how his or her mind responds.
The good cook pays attention to what his king eats. In what sequence he eats, what he leaves aside, of what he eats much and what he praises. The good meditator does exactly the same exercises as the bad meditators but he or she actually looks [at] what’s happening in the mind after doing these exercises. In other words, the good cook and the good meditator both are wiling to engage in a relationship. One with is king and employer and the other one with her mind. Her Citta.
I think this is an interesting image. The key piece here is that we are willing to relate to that mind and find out where and how lands what we’re doing. And if what is happening is not immediately responsive, responded to, then obviously we need to do something else. In other words we are encouraged to establish such an intelligent relationship to our own mind. With the help of discernment, with the help of gentleness, of the Brahmavihāras, with the help of what Buddhist teaching calls Yoniso Manasikara, Wise Investigation. Appropriate, calibrated, attuned forms of attention.
And then, if all goes well, we end up with one little verse in the Mangala Sutta, some of you may know it. Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, Cittaṁ yassa na kampati, Asokaṁ virajaṁ khemaṁ, Etaṁ maṅgala-muttamaṁ. The mind, when touched by the worldly winds, remains unshakeable. One’s heart does not waver. It is sorrowless, it is unblemished and secure. This is the highest blessing.
So. Take of this what is useful and let us be quiet for a minute and then we have a walking period.
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. When the public decides there is massive demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.