This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
One more thing… a friend of mine said that she found these dharma talks difficult to parse. So I thought I’d include the mindmap I created while studying this talk:
The following talk was given at the Insight Meditation center in Redwood City, California, please visit our website at audiodharma.org.
Okay. Just try and preserve the format we had this morning. So I’ll talk for a bit and then we’ll have some questions and then perhaps a break, come back and do some more talking and some more questions. That sound okay?
Okay, first of all, let’s approach a topic I hope to be controversial.
What is this practice about? And what is it not about? I’m gonna start [with] what is it not about, first of all. I’m just gonna say a few words. And as I said, I do hope they’re going to be controversial, atleast for some of you. Well, first of all, the one thing I would say is that the practice is not about mysticism. It’s not a mystical practice.
The Buddha, from my reading of the texts, from this earliest strata, no matter what the traditions say, and the traditions say all sorts of things, is: the practice is aimed very much at the here and now. It’s not about some kind of transcendental reality to be tapped into or to reach. It’s about reaching where we are now. Becoming who we are now, in a sense, but not in a sense of being static about where we are. To use the classic phrase the teaching is about this… and this often gets misinterpreted; I’ll give you the Pāli for it, “yathābūtha”. Do you know what this means? “Seeing the way things are.”
Seeing the way they actually are. Now, for many people, and I don’t know if this strikes you, for many people “seeing the way things are” almost feels like having a divine eye to see the inner essence. Some kind of mystical experience, some hallucinogenic experience of what things are. It isn’t. “Seeing the way things are” is summed up very succinctly by the Buddha, and I’m sure you all have come across this, although you might not remind yourself of it, as seeing them as being what is characterized by what is known in Pāli as “tilakkhaṇa”. The three characteristics.
We can never get away from this in the early teaching. This is the content of yathābūtha: the three characteristics. Seeing the way things are: impermanent, aniccā, dukkha, again, I’m not going to go and describe that, I did enough of that this morning, and of course, anattā [not-self].
Notice the bridge between. Often they get jumbled up and mixed up; it is actually impermanent, dukkha, and [anattā]. And dukkha is like the bridge between them. And it’s because we don’t experience things as aniccā, or as anattā, that we perceive them as dukkha. So dukkha is the key term in this, but this is the three characteristics. This is the way of seeing things as they really are: as impermanent, dukkha, and not self. That is it. End of story.
Easy to say, though, isn’t?
… I’m sort of wearing two hats here as I talk to you because I know you’re a Dharma practitioner course and I often teach just purely retreats. As often I will say in a retreat context, there is nothing hyper-intellectual, about understanding that everything is impermanent. Is there? Absolutely nothing intellectual about it. It doesn’t take a great brain to work out that all things are impermanent. You know, they’ve been saying this since the early Greek periods with people like Heraclitus, for example, that all things are impermanent.
The problem is, we just don’t get it. That is the problem. We don’t live as if things are impermanent; we live as if they are salted with permanence and certainty. In the field of human relationships there is nothing worse than your partner changing on you. When they become someone else, develop another interest, dislike something they said they liked. This is the irritating fact of ordinary life isn’t it? That all things are impermanent. And things break down. The ghost story writer, M.R. James, I don’t if any of you know his stories, a great English ghost story writer. He actually wrote a short story which was, I think, a wonderful title it was called The Malice of Inanimate Objects. They’re doing things to spite you, aren’t they? In some way or another, look how upset you become when things break down on you.
So impermanence is what is written into the warp and woof of life. This is what life is. The great German-language poet Rilke once said, “We’re in this world forever taking leave.” And as a corollate to that he said, “Be ahead of all your partings.” To actually be ahead of all your partings. And know that they’re there. Yet this is not the way we live. This is not seeing the way things are. We don’t view them with the eye of impermanence, then we look for something which they are not. We look for them to possess something which they cannot deliver at all.
So as you can see, this is a great setup for our next term, which is dukkha. If you’re not seeing things with the eye of impermanence and living things with that eye of impermanence, as the Buddha is suggesting again, and again and again in the early canon, then we set ourselves [up] for dukkha on a big scale. Because we literally do not live in accordance with the way things are.
So again, let’s just come back to my opening statement: it’s not a mystical experience. It’s the ability to live in a particular way and with a particular understanding of things. This is almost like an epistemological approach, where, actually, it’s the eye of knowledge, which helps you to understand and to live with things as they are. Not to look for them to possess something that they do not possess, such as certainty and permanence. This is where we set ourselves up for so many major falls according to the Buddha in these early texts, is that we constantly constantly look for things to have the possession of something they simply do not and never will possess. There is nothing that is not impermanent. Okay, the rates of impermanence are different, aren’t they? The oldest edifices in the world crumble. But they do it at a different rate to human lives which crumble quite fast, comparatively. But nothing is unchanging.
Now, the only time I think that this works for us, of course, when is something we want to be changed. Then we welcome and embrace impermanence. When your headache disappears, you don’t say, “Oh, I wish that headache was permanent.” You actually appreciate that it’s gone. When changes in your employment or something work for the better for you, then you embrace them. But when they seemingly don’t, they go against your wishes, then we reject them. So we set ourselves up for big time aversion and craving, wanting and not wanting things to be. So this is the first one; this is the really big obstacle in our ordinary lives. As I said right at the beginning of just introducing this topic, it doesn’t take a great brain. Yeah, and all of us will probably nod our ascent in some way or another. When I say, “everything is impermanent”; and the Buddha says “everything is impermanent”, we all sagely not our heads and go, “Oh, yes. It’s all impermanent… My pen doesn’t work!” Or whatever it might be. That things suddenly somehow don’t go our way. That is dukkha yet again, when we don’t get what we want.
So the dukkha often is not about not just getting what we want. It as Oscar Wilde says, it’s often getting what we want. He said, “There’s nothing worse than not getting what we want than getting what we want.” Because actually, again, it doesn’t produce the goods and it’s often not permanent. And certainly even the pleasure that is attained when you acquire something, piece of knowledge, some material possession or that, [it] doesn’t last. It changes. So without stressing the point too much, impermanence is written into everything. Into our emotional qualities, and into our looking for pleasure, and our obviously grasping after what we find, which we like, and rejecting that which we don’t like.
The one good thing we often know about most aspects, even if it’s unpleasant, is that it will change. Might not change in the sense of going away completely, but it’ll often change in terms of quality. A lot of the practice is sensitization to change, the changes that are occurring in our ordinary life. And the ability to live impermanence. Just connecting with another tradition for a second, and moving away from the early texts, this is what Dogen says, the great Japanese Zen thinker, that awakening is nothing other than the ability to live impermanence. I don’t say I’d go quite that far, but it’s certainly one of the key components in it.
And everything is impermanent, we will all say, coming back to my phrase where we all sagely nod our heads, but a little voice inside generally goes, “But not me.” Doesn’t it? You know, like, somehow you’re exempt from it. Somehow we think we’re immune from the impermanence which is written into everything. So that’s the first big hurdle. This is the way of seeing things as they are, to see them as dukkha.
What does that mean? There’s many senses of dukkha isn’t there? There’s the dukkha of impermanence. There’s the dukkha of conditions. There is the dukkha of dukkha. The pain of pain, if you want to put it that way. Of sickness, and disease, and old age and all of the things that go with corporeal existence, there is that dukkha. These are not going to go away. So there’s certain dukkha that doesn’t go away. Isn’t there?
In the Samyutta Nikaya that’s made very clear, the kind of dukkha that the Buddha is talking about, that we can deal with. Which is, there’s a sutta which is translated roughly as “The Sutta of the Stone Splinter”, where it talks about the Buddha walking along the road for various reasons as they did in those days without any footwear on. You’d walk barefoot and the shard of stone penetrates his foot and it says this causes him immense pain, but effectively no dukkha. So pain is not going to go away. Pain is something that we will not get rid of.
But, and this is the whole point of dukkha, the dukkha the Buddha is talking about is, and perhaps I’ll propose it as a question, is there the possibility of coming into a different relationship with the pain which is inevitable in our lives? The pain of loss, the pain of old age, the pain of disease and sickness, and all of the natural things that arise in our life. This is the challenge. This is the challenge.
That impermanence is so important, it’s really to be seen in the Buddha’s final words as they’re supposedly reported to us in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha says, I’ll give it to you in the official translation, and then I’ll kind of gloss it. It says, “All compounded phenomena are impermanent. Now strive on with diligence.” A better way of saying that probably in more contemporary English, more modern English is, “Absolutely absolutely everything you see around you is impermanent. Now get on with it.” Now make your way through life with that understanding.
This actually refers, again cross referencing in the early texts, this refers to something which is spoken about, certainly in the Mahayana tradition and in the early tradition a lot, which is “viriya“. Which is often translated as energy. The striving on diligently. But the diligence here and this is the, actually, the closest word in English is basically “virile”. It’s energy, but it’s also connected with, with heroism, too. The ability to face life heroically, so viriya was often referred to as a hero or heroine also in the ancient tradition. So somebody who possesses this kind of energy, to go on with this diligence, is somehow being or showing heroism in the face of what Shakespeare, I would say, would call the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. The things that we can’t avoid in our lives.
So this is what we’re dealing with, in a sense, here’s one of… here’s one of the goals, perhaps, one of the main aspects of the teaching, or which the teaching is aimed at, which is dealing with the vagaries of life. Life arising and falling. Life’s joys and sorrows, its comings and goings. This is made very, very clear in the early texts. It’s not about some inner mystical experience. It’s very much, Nibbana once we come to that, is also not about some inner mystical experience. If you want any mystical experience, you want to call it, it’s this life. That’s the mystery and the mysticism is enough here in dealing with this life. And this is what the Buddha, in a sense, is speaking of, this ability to deal with this life as it presents itself.
Now we like life when it presents itself very much when it’s in our favor. When it’s not in our favor, we’re not exactly so happy about it, are we? When it’s not working for us. I actually, my own personal feeling about this is, this is obviously not what the Buddha says, but my own personal feeling is actually most human beings even when they’re gray-ages really haven’t progressed much upon children. You know, what children do. When they like something they’re all joyful and jumping around about it and when they don’t like it, they’re screaming and stamping their feet. We have just developed more sophisticated means for doing exactly the same. In relationship to what is going on, we stamp our feet verbally. We express our joyfulness verbally.
But there isn’t much freedom in this. And this is what the Buddha is saying. This is reactive. These are reactive patterns which are set up in the mind. And I’ll come into this in a little while because this is what, basically, the saṅkhāras are, in the personality traits. They are reactive patterns. Not all bad. Let’s not paint a completely monolithic picture of them being all bad. Some of them are good, but they are reactive. They’re not free.
So one of the other goals of this teaching, and this understanding of impermanence, the understanding of dukkha is to develop a genuine responsiveness to life, not reactive. To respond is still to be in the heart, in the midst of life. It’s not to be, and my bette noire of words that I often hear bandied around in Buddhist circles is the word “detachment”. That’s one of my big bette noires because I think that the word “detachment” actually sounds like somebody standing on the periphery of life. All too often. It has a rather cold echo for me in English. Whereas, actually, it’s simply a product of our languages that when we talk about one of the main problems of course, upādāna. Attachment. Grasping. When we talk about upādāna then well, if we’re talking about upādāna, the opposite of upādāna has got to be “detachment”. And it isn’t. It’s really correct engagement. That’s really what it is. So we become correctly engaged with life.
And then of course, there’s the big one, which is much more difficult, a little bit, I would say more philosophical, but actually isn’t that difficult to get, which is “anattā”. Anattā, not self. What does this mean? What is not self? It’s not a great big deal of a concept to get your head round. I mean, some traditions have made, and I was in one of the worst traditions for doing this for quite a number of years, which is the Tibetan tradition make a big big deal about this. And they will argue this for years and years and years, this notion of anattā and emptiness, but it really isn’t that difficult. It says that nothing possesses any kind of fixed essence.
There is not a fixed essence of any of you sitting there. No one specific character trait that could remain totally permanent. Just like our bodies, over time, are being renewed and changing. Yet we have the illusion of identity, physically, then actually, that’s what’s going on with our mental states as well. There is no fixed self, if you want to use the “no self”. Not that there is no self but there is no fixed self. I don’t mind “no” as a negation here, when it’s applied to fixed self.
Do you know what this is? The idea that there is no fixed self. That’s the good news. Isn’t it? That’s the good news because it means that whatever is bad and seemingly intractable in your life or your personality, all that does not have to remain the same. It links up with the first of the characteristics. That too is impermanent. It can change.
Really what the process of the path is about is: how do you nudge the change in the right direction? How do you work to get that change to work, so that the qualities that are manifested in life and in your day to day life, are kusala, as opposed to akusala, wholesome as opposed to unwholesome. Skillful as opposed to unskillful. This is what the task is. When the Buddha succinctly describes the path in the Dhammapada he doesn’t get into vast philosophical discourses about it, does he? The most succinct definition of what the path is: to cease to do what is unwholesome, to learn to do what is wholesome, to clarify the mind. That is the teaching, he says, of all the Buddhas. Nothing else.
Now again, I think the words are deceptively simple, aren’t they? They’re very, very deceptively simple. But within that simplicity is great complexity in the task. And it is a practical task.
The Buddha who stands out to me from the teachings, outside of the philosophies of the Theravada or Mahayana or any of these other schools that have developed, the Buddha that stands out to me, or comes out of those pages of the texts as we have them now, is a figure of eminently practical concerns. He’s not a philosopher. Philosophy speaks Greek. That’s what philosophy is. It’s the love of wisdom. Philosophia. Whereas what the Buddha is doing is something, in a sense, completely different. And eminently practical.
If there is any similarity between what the Buddha is doing and some of those Greek philosophers who come later that I mention, probably the closest is Stoicism and Epicureanism. Epicurus, for example, said that no philosophy was worth anything unless it dealt with human suffering. So that was very practical teaching, as well.
So the Buddha that you really have to hear, from my perspective, out of these early texts, is an eminently practical Buddha. Well, you heard what I said this morning, he starts off with the practical grounding in ethics. With moral ethical concerns with our life. That all too often get hijacked, again, by intellectual concerns about right and wrong. But this is much more practical in the sense of even, how shall I put it, from a therapeutic point of view, is that it’s behavioral. We engage in the behaviors, even if the mental processes are not quite there yet. It’s a training, remember.
And this is one way to see the way, the path, whichever word works for you, is that it is training. I often mention this because I think it’s such an important thing. I think, particularly as Westerners who approach the teaching, we often come at it with what I call the myth of authenticity. That we have to have the authentic mental feeling in order to be able to do the right stuff. Actually, we’ve got to have, because we have this strange word in English “hypocrisy”, we actually have to have that full emotional quality there to engage in the behaviors that go with it. Well, the path, I’m afraid to say, ain’t like that a lot of the time.
For example, let’s take the virtue that is a very much lauded in Buddhist societies, which is the virtue of generosity. The virtue of generosity doesn’t mean material things. If you look at the teachings on generosity, they are much more about the teachings on things like friendship, as much as anything else. One of the greatest aspects of being generous is friendship. Time. Metta. Something I’ll talk about in a few days time. This is one of the basic qualities that the Buddha is really trying to get us to develop towards ourself and towards others.
Metta, by the way, as I shall say, when is it Monday, isn’t it, when we do this? Metta is not “loving kindness”. It’s rather sloppy, I think. I’m sorry to disabuse you of these things. Metta is linked the word mitta, to befriend. And actually the best translation of metta is boundless friendliness. A boundless friendliness towards oneself and towards others. This is doable. I mean, friendliness is doable, you’re not going to love everybody. But to be friendly towards and to be respectful towards them. That is something that’s within our human capacity to do.
So we’re developing really good qualities and, for example, let’s go back to my example of generosity. We could, let’s say, wait for an extremely long time for the really expansive authentic emotion of generosity to descend upon us. We could wait, sometimes, the whole of our life for it to happen. And this practice is one about: if you want to know what it feels like to be generous, be generous. So the action comes before the feeling. Where often we think the feeling has to come before the action. Keep doing your acts of whatever virtue, I was just using generosity as one of the good examples. But whatever virtue you select, keep doing it often enough, you might actually end up really genuinely experiencing it.
I always remember when I was in training, when I was in India training with Tibetans, and there was one Tibetan teacher I was studying with who was being berated by another Western monk who was saying to him, “You keep telling me to be compassionate! I don’t feel compassionate!” And the teacher said to him, “Feeling? What’s feeling got to do with it? Just be compassionate.”
So it’s not about that. It’s these practical dimensions which the Buddha is really emphasizing in this. When we think of even the practices of the brahmavihāras, what we’re talking about is a form of mindfulness which is deliberately forming concepts within the mind, which are a form of behavior. So we’re directing our mind in a particular way. Inclining our mind in a particular way. And, well, we certainly know this from the dukkha-ing point of view, but this is from another point of view, from the development of wholesome virtues. In the Madhupindika Sutta, which is the honey ball sutta, the Buddha basically says that however you incline the mind, that will become the shape of your life. However you incline your mind, that will become the shape of your life. So, if we incline our minds through infatuation, aversion, and confusion, then we get lives which are full of infatuation, aversion and confusion. If we incline our minds in terms of generosity, friendliness, and understanding, then we get a life which is shaped in that way.
So this, again, is coming back to that third aspect of the tilakkhana, of the three characteristics, which is anattā. [Without anattā] we couldn’t possibly do that. We couldn’t shape our lives by inclining our minds if it was somehow preset. If it was somehow already determined that this was you forever. But somehow we feel that, don’t we? On occasions… this is what I’m stuck with. This is my personality. I don’t know if you do this in the States, but in England, people often say, “Well, that’s the way I am.” What that implies is is that’s the way I am and I can’t possibly change.
And the Buddha is trying to make very clear to us in these early texts that we can always change. Change is going to occur anyway. How do you incline that change or generate that change in a direction that works in developing wholesome and skillful behaviors in your ordinary day to day existence. And that is the litmus test. The litmus test of all of your practice is how you are in everyday life. In average, ordinary, everyday situations. Not when you’re sitting in some meditation hall. Not when you’re on retreat. It’s how you are in everyday existence. Because what goes on in the meditation hall, what goes on in retreat, of course, is training. That’s why, in a sense, I think the English word “practicing” is very good. Practicing some equanimity. Well see if you can be equanimous outside.
When I was living in Sri Lanka, one of the places I used to stay had a meditation teacher, unfortunately he’s dead now, but he always used to call in people for interview after being there for about a month, and really settled in, and he would say to them things like, “Are you feeling settled?” And they would go, “Yes. Yes, yes.” “Feeling calmer?” “Yes, really feeling so much calmer. So much benefit of being here.” “Feeling a bit friendlier towards others?” “Oh, yes, I’m feeling… people are my…” And you would get all this sort of stuff and then he’d go, “Okay, go down to Kandy.” Which is the local chaotic Sri Lankan town. He said if you’re still like that, then you’re getting somewhere.
So sitting, basically, this is in the hill country in the middle of Sri Lanka, sitting on the top of a hill isolated from everywhere else was not the challenge. The challenge was to be in ordinary life. And actually when you look at the texts, this is exactly what you find the Bikkhus and the Buddha doing. Interacting with ordinary people on a daily basis. Interacting with them, not living lives of seclusion, cut off, if they are, and they do go and do that, that is training. That is not the end of it. That is simply the training part.
And what is the training in service of? The training is in service of the development of the understanding of tilakkhana. Of the three characteristics. That is the content of what we are meant to get. That they are impermanent, that they are dukkha, and that dukkha, in many ways, we could perhaps this is a little overstating it, but I’m gonna say it anyway is: the world is structurally incapable of providing you with ultimate satisfaction. It’s actually structurally incapable of doing it, because it changes. Don’t look so miserable. It gets better than this. Because actually the ability to live with that knowledge itself makes it a completely different world.
And let me say something about that word, the word “loca” or “world”. The word “loca”, we can misinterpret this, and I think this often goes on, again, in popular texts on Buddhism, the word loca or world often seems to be referring to what’s outside. It isn’t. The world is the world of our minds, through which all of that experience of the outside is filtered. The world, of course, there is stuff out there. There’s never any denial of that. It’s not the kind of form of philosophical idealism. It’s saying that: our world is the world that is imprinted with our minds. So if we imprint, if we see, if we incline our minds with this greed, aversion, this infatuation, aversion and confusion. Well, that’s what we get. That’s what we get. We get a world which is saturated with that, and all of the psychology that’s generated from it. If we incline our minds in other ways, in other words, see the world with the eye of kindness with the eye of friendliness, then we get a world which perhaps reveals itself in a very different way.
That is really the meaning of that phrase right at the beginning of the Dhammapada. Mind proceeds all things. Dependent on the way the mind is shaped, the way the mind is inclined, depends on what story follows next. What story is generated out of it? And the story, well, that can be seen as part of our sañña. Coming back to anattā, this is sañña, our ways of descriminating, our ways of perceiving the world, are actually perceived through stories. Through the stories that we tell ourselves, the narrative constructions that we generate. There’s a lovely book by an English feminist novelist called Jeanette Winterson. I don’t know if anybody’s come across her? But she starts off one of her novels, and she says something like this: I wake up in the morning and wonder which story to tell myself, the one about the happy childhood or the one about the unhappy childhood. And what follows from the day will then follow from the story.
Another way of putting that, and putting it more, in a sense, philosophical, and back in the Buddha’s terms, is: we’re always perceiving the world through a mood. Yeah, let’s face it, you’re always in a mood. You cannot not be in a mood. And our mood is what is part of our discriminating function. The way that we discriminate the world. And mood is the way the mind imprints itself on the phenomena it encounters. Change that, you change your world. Two different moods, two different worlds. We can see this with, say, happiness and depression. Same world, two different minds, two different worlds, actually, in those cases.
So this is about beginning to understand that process. And see, of course, that the problem does not lie, and this again is part of the Buddha’s emphasis in these early teachings, the problem doesn’t just lie without. The problem lies within the apprehension of what is there. The way that we take it. And this is not to deny, of course, that there are bad things [that] occur in the world. This is not that denial of that. But we can make even bad things so much worse. We can make good things really awful by the way that we apprehend them. Because if we apprehend them with a mind which is distorted, unwholesome, full of infatuation, aversion and delusion or confusion, then that’s what we get. We get more of it.
Now, the beauty of this practical approach that the Buddha [is saying] is that it’s in your hands to do something about that. It is in your hands. It’s very, very much in your hands.
So I think also I’ll throw in my next bit of controversy and see where we go from here, which is: the goal in many senses, as outlined by the Buddha in his final words, everything, absolutely everything is impermanent, now get on with it. The goal really is equanimity. This is the goal. Not to be pushed out of balance by what is going on in the world, to be forced by reactive patterns to repeat over and over and over again. Here’s your repetition: saṃsāra. Claustrophobic, if I was putting it in modern psychological terms. That’s a very claustrophobic feeling when we’re trapped into a small number of reactive patterns towards the world.
Constantly thrown off balance, literally and metaphorically, by the vagaries of the world. We know that’s what the world does. The world continues. And I’m using “the world” in the normal sense here, not in the technical Buddhist sense of loca. But the world in the normal sense is that fluctuating, evanescent stuff that’s always happening. The changes in political situations. The changes in climate. The changes in this, the changes in that.
And this is the question, I think, perhaps these are questions that have to arise for everybody out of these teachings is: how do you deal with that? How are you going to live with a life that is full of that movement? That’s the task again.
So I’m trying to put it to you in the kind of starkest terms I can here. Out of, I think what the Buddha is saying in these early teachings, he’s not, as I say philosophizing about it. He’s giving you a practical task. How are you going to do it? How are you going to live? In fact, here’s another question. I remember giving a talk in Cambridge Insight Meditation Center last year, the title was, “How do you want to live your life?” And that, in a sense, is exactly the question that arises. How do you want to live your life? Do you want to live it being constantly off balance? Out of balance, thrown out by this fluctuating, evanescent changing world? Or do you want to live it almost like a ballet dancer, with poise and balance? In this world?
There is a word that’s used in the Abhidhamma tradition, which again is part of the early tradition here, which is a synonym for upekkhā. “Upekkhā” is the word which is usually translated as “equanimity” and it’s a perfectly good translation. The word in Pāli for this other word that’s used in the Abhidhamma material is “Tacca Majha Tatta” [sp?] which is actually “to be in the middle of”. Now I see that in two senses. It’s to be in the middle in the sense [of] not being thrown off balance, but literally to be in the middle of life, as well. Seated, balanced, poised in the middle of life without being thrown by what is happening in that way. And in that sense, from that poise and balance, just as within some of the martial arts, there is the ability to respond out of that.
And that responsiveness, and this is again, something I’ll talk about, in a couple of days time, that responsiveness is out of friendliness and compassion as well. And out of a joyfulness. Often something that often gets forgotten about in Buddhist circles. We’re very good at talking about misery. Not so good often talking about joy. But joy, as most of you will know, in these early teachings, are part of the seven factors of awakening, the seven limbs of awakening. It’s there as part of the brahmavihāras. The appreciative joyousness that appreciates what’s going on for others. So, joyfulness is very much a part of it as well as the appreciation. And there’s one Sinhalese phrase, which I often use now in teaching the brahmavihāras, [it] says, “Life is nothing but a play of joy and sorrow.”
That is what it is, is a play of joy and sorrow. For most of us it’s not unmitigated sorrow and it’s not unmitigated joy. It’s a mixture of both. And it’s important to see that. And I think particularly in Buddhist circles, and I was in a sense joking, but not joking, in saying that we can overemphasize the problems. Sometimes we have to come into an appreciative joy for ourselves, as well. What is good in your life? Appreciate it. Appreciate it, because it can, and it is, not can, it is… it is fleeting. The preciousness in any joyful moment is that it will change. We know that it will change.
And as many of you will know, this is something that’s really celebrated in other forms of Buddhism. Particularly Japanese Buddhism, where, for example, the highest aspect of aesthetics is cherry blossom. Because cherry blossom is so evanescent. It’s so… it’s there and it’s gone. And its beauty is in its briefness.
And again, this is what the Buddha is trying to get us to see in these early texts. To come back to, not just the misery, but also the joyousness.[^joy]There’s that balance within it that you would expect. Looking at and balancing this.
[^joy]: It might be interesting some day to read through the Nikayas looking for this filter of joy.
So let me try to sum up what we’ve got so far, just so we don’t get lost in detail. What we’ve got is the figure of the Buddha in these early texts, and it’s a pity I haven’t got… I’ve got very heavily annotated, as you can imagine, texts at home. But in these early texts, I would be quoting you more bits if I had them with me. What we get is the figure of the Buddha as a very, very practical teacher. He’s a practical guide. He’s a practical guide to getting us to see certain things, to hear certain things, and to reflect on certain things.
And I’ll pause there a second because I just want to add another point in here, which is, often when we look at practice, we often think of the practice as only being sitting on a meditation cushion or doing walking meditation. That’s practice. And then there’s other stuff called study or theory. And almost done with a sort of, I don’t know, almost a reversal of Western culture, we like to see anything theoretical, as somehow being beneath us. Or study as being somehow lesser than practice. The Buddha makes no such distinction. The understanding and the actual inquiry into the teachings, which we would probably call “study”, I don’t like the word, is as important as sitting on a cushion. That’s equally as important, not more important, but equally as important as.
Because actually he lays out the path in this way: the way he lays it out is, first of all, there is something called “sutamayapaññā”. Sutamayapaññā. “Suta” is to hear something. It’s with one T. It’s not like sutta in the suttas, the discourses, but it’s related to it. But “suta” is to hear something. First of all, the start of any inquiry is to receive it, isn’t it? Just like you’re listening to me today. It’s, in our world, more often than not, reading something and encountering it through reading. These days might be listening to a Dharma talk from Dharma seed or something like that. But there has got to be that initial impetus, the input.
But next, which is really important, which is called “cintāmayapaññā”. “Cintā” means to reason through and analyze for yourself. But not out of, kind of, intellectual curiosity, but to connect it with experience. In other words, the question really at that stage is: does this make sense? Does this make sense at all? Does it make sense in terms of, and this is one of the things that the Buddha considered the most important, the authority of your experience. Not the authority coming from somewhere else, not from somebody sitting in front of you and telling you this is what you’re going to experience. But does it make sense in terms of what you are at present experiencing?
Now, in these early texts, this leads again, this is actually one of the worst mistranslations, let me give you this one. I didn’t give you this morning. Time I gave you another one. It’s this word “saddhā”. Usually apallingly translated as “faith”. Which puts it right back in the context of religion and theistic religion in particular. But better translated as “trust”, “confidence”. But it’s a trust or confidence founded on something that you’ve already investigated and understood and experienced for yourself. Now, this trust or confidence, I just think is nothing unusual. It’s not like the blind faith that you see often within religious traditions.
The trust or confidence that the Buddha really is encouraging is simply what I call pedagogic. It’s to do with teaching and learning. You can’t start off learning anything by distrusting everything your teacher says to you. You’ve got to start somewhere. You can’t have an infinite regression of “why?”s. You’ve got to have a starting block and inquire into that and if that makes sense, then you might want to go a bit further. And if that makes sense, you might want to go a bit further still. And it’s always based on already something understood. Something already experienced in your life. Now, that is what this is about. This is what saddhā is about. This is not faith in, subscription to a set of propositions that you haven’t experienced. But it’s something that you have already contacted in your own average experience and understood about your own life, then you inquire. So it’s an unfolding inquiry. And this is also what cintā is about. The cintā is about establishing that base of inquiry, so that you can inquire further. That which you have heard, that which you have understood and inquired into, you then practice or cultivate, which is “bhāvanāmayapaññā”. Literally the words mean, “the insight that arises through hearing the, insight that rises through inquiry, and the insight that arises through cultivation.” That’s all it means.
“Pañña”, by the way, this other term, I’m probably destroying too many sacred cows in one day today. But never mind. “Pañña” does not mean “wisdom”. It means “understanding” or “insight“. Wisdom, as a fellow colleague, when I was working at Bristol University, a fellow colleague of mine actually wrote a book and he said that in the Indian tradition, pañña or prajñā [Sanskrit] is all too common; understanding or insight is very rare. Because actually, lots of different traditions argue about their wisdom. The wisdom that’s going on. How often do they have real understanding or insight? So it’s insight and understanding, which is the goal in many senses. But how we understand that, well i’ll come on to that at another point.
But there are these three approaches, okay? Suta, cintā, bhāvanā. These three approaches, that is the path. That is the way. That is the template for the inquiry that the Buddha gives. And he does it in many different ways. I’m just giving you one of the very simple ways, but he says this again and again and again, through the texts, that there is this three, this three pointed approach to being integrated into genuine, what we would call practice. That it’s not just bhāvanā. It’s not just sitting. It’s not just walking. It’s doing these other things, actually being involved in opening out your field of inquiry. So this is what’s also going on in these early texts.
Let’s see what time we’ve got; perhaps I can get on to the next topic. So. anattā. How are we going to understand this one? Well, I’ve given you the most basic elements of that. anattā is really the lack of fixed self. I hope you’re still with me and still awake, because I want to take it right back to what I was talking about this morning in relationship to the Indian tradition. The Indian tradition speaks about ātman. Remember? This was the essence of the individual. This is the kernel of what represented the individual. Their real self. And actually, in a lot of, kind of new-ageism, I hear people going out in search of their real selves. What is a real self?
Well, I came across the years ago I came across a greetings card. It was a birthday card for somebody. And funnily enough, I sent it to a friend with exactly the same name. And it was entitled “Stanley goes to the Himalaya in search of his real self”. And you’ve got this figure with glasses on and a backpack on going up a mountain, and at the top of the mountain standing a guy in a pinstripe suit with a briefcase, who looks exactly like him. So looking for real selves, could be a bit of a disappointment.
Now, I’m only saying that because what the Buddha is saying: there is no fixed self. Andy Alensky [sp?] uses a term which I’ve now adopted myself, which I think is a really good one is: the self is a verb. It’s not a thing. We’re getting away from things into processes. And if there’s one defining characteristic of the early texts, which somehow has fallen through the net of a lot of the tradition is that we’re talking in terms of processes. We’re not talking in terms of things. Buddhist languages in general tend to talk more in verbs than they do in nouns. So we find much more verb constructions, and many many more declensions of those verbs in terms of these languages than we do, say, in English, which is more noun-based than it is verb-based.
And so there’s a big difference between that, and as we know, every language really distinguishes the world in a different way. And this is very much the case with these classical languages like Pāli and Sanskrit, which use these very much verb base constructions with all of the case declensions that you get in classical languages. So for example, in Pāli and Sanskrit, you get eight verb case declensions, as opposed even to Latin, which has seven. And so they’re very much verb-based languages.
So what is this indicating? Well, it’s indicating the way that the Buddha is trying to get us to see the world, which is based actually on the first of those three characteristics, the world is process. The world is process. We are one of the processes within the world. We are not outside of that. Our world, the world of our senses, the world of our minds, is process itself. He is really the first process thinker in many senses. To try and get us to see that. So that we’re not dealing with things.
Now the ātman, I haven’t got it up on the board, but the ātman, this term, in Sanskrit is very much an unchanging phenomena. This is the way it’s defined, an unchanging phenomena within the person. I was joking about it, but in a sense it represents the real self of the individual. And that real self is somehow connected to the unchanging aspect of the universe which is entitled Brahman. Now, Brahman isn’t God; it’s not theistic, although it does, in later traditions, in Hindu traditions, become more theistic. In these early traditions, it’s simply the unchanging essence of the universe. That is all it is. And somehow the individual is connected to that.
A wonderfully consolatory idea, isn’t it? I mean, I can understand why this is such an appealing idea. Lovely idea. You’re connected to everything. I see this, basically, infecting and infiltrating Buddhism, and Buddhist practice and Buddhist understanding. It’s kind of [the] “aren’t we all one” phenomena. Until that other one disagrees with you. Which invariably happens at some point. So, this is a very nice idea, it’s a very consolatory idea, but the Buddha just doesn’t see it in practice. It’s very much that, if we start to talk about the self, and this is where these five khandhas come in…
The word “khandha” is an interesting word. It’s often translated as “aggregates”. It literally just means lumps. These things that can be lumped together. So, the first lumping is all the corporeal processes, which we entitle “rūpa”. Now this again, I’m not going to give you the big story, but actually this word he’s using, “khandha”, connects with a lot of early Indian thinking here. And again, he’s making use of it and slightly parodying it because it’s used in a very, how would I put it, in a very elevated sense. In Brahminical philosophy. Whereas the Buddha goes and uses the crudest sense of it, it’s a lump. So he’s deliberately doing that.
He’s saying, these are just things that aggregated together or clump together or lump together, that we can talk about. And these are the only sensible, meaningful ways that we can talk about being a self. They’re not meant to be exhaustive; if you want the exhaustive analysis of this go and look at the Abhidhamma. The exhaustive analysis of the khandas is there in the Abhidhamma. This tradition, which is also part of the tipiṭaka, of the three baskets, the three aspects of the teaching, but there you get, if you really want to know what’s going on in terms of the self, you get 52 mental factors, and 121 forms of consciousness. Plus loads and loads [more]. 28 physical aspects as well that are going on. If you want a real analysis, that’s it.
Now, the Buddha doesn’t do that, although many of the Abhidhamma terms are terms which occur in the Nikayas. What he says is: any meaningful talk about what it is to be a self can only be spelled out in terms of these five processes. The first process, now, I’m having a little conversation over lunch about this. These appear to be linear, the way they’re set up in teaching. Always beware of anything linear going on in early Buddhist texts. They’re not. It’s only a matter, again, of teaching it. It’s not a matter of, rūpa is first and then it’s followed finally by so called consciousness and in between, you’ve got the other three khandhas going on. It’s actually that they’re all interacting together. So all five processes are occurring simultaneously. And if you don’t get that it seems a very reductionistic, almost derogatory process. It just doesn’t make sense in terms of experience.
So these five processes, let me give them to you, but don’t hear them as linear, please. The first is all the material processes that go to make up, nothing remaining the same within it. Going back to the very first of those things. Nothing is going to be static. I find this out every morning, I look in the mirror. It hasn’t remained static. It’s changed yet again. So physical processes are not under our control. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were? But they’re not. Physical processes are not under our control. Any, kind of, condition for being a real self, and this is argued a number of places in the texts, is that if it was a real self, it would have real control. [^self]
[^self]: This argument doesn’t seem so evident to me as it does to others. May be an interesting point of investigation. That to be a self we must have control. I’m not yet convinced.
It would be a bit like the phrase that’s used often in psychology, which is the the homunculus in the head. It’s a bit like the crane driver in the crane. The crane driver directs where the limbs of the crane are going. We don’t a lot of the time. Our bodies do peculiar things to us. They don’t act as we want them to. They’re doing bodily things a lot of the time. So we’re not under control in that sense, and we desperately try to be. We live, and it’s probably… it’s extremely laudable, to do it, we try to live healthier lives. But even if we do that, we still get sick. Even if it’s picking up a common cold or the influenza or something like that, we still get sick. And so it’s not under our control.
Then we have this other term … I think I’m going to dot them over the board so we don’t get a linear process. So we’ve got rūpa, literally the word “rūpa” means “form”. Something which is formed in a way. And forming too. So it’s in process, and just to non-linearize it, I’ll put vedanā at the bottom.
Vedanā. Well, translation of this, the literal translation of is “feeling”, which is very accurate. [^vedanā] This is one other dimension of what it means to be a human being, is that we possess these bear feelings. And the feelings are initially of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neither.
[^vedanā]: Interesting that he likes “feeling” here. I thought the consensus at Bodhi College was that the translation “feeling” is no good and “hedonic tone” is the most accurate.
Ice cream truck music plays in the background.
Nice commentary, isn’t it? Just to lighten [things up] … sing along.
So vedanā is these six forms: pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neither, of both physical and mental stuff that’s happening for us. Now, people are often perplexed by what is a neither pleasant nor unpleasant experience? Well, it’s the dead zones on your body. If you take it as a physical sense. There are bodies which you will very clearly, even at this moment of time, if you just quickly scan your body, you will go that’s a pleasant sensation or that’s an unpleasant sensation. But then there’ll be bits that you’re not even conscious of. And one classic example I like to use is your ear lobes.
Now, you’ve probably become conscious of them now, of your ear lobes. But actually what neither pleasant nor unpleasant is [is] the absence of sensation. It’s the actual absence of a sensation. [^absence] So we get pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations attached to both physical and mental experience. And also to neither pleasant or unpleasant physical. So we notice those thought patterns, for example, which have a pleasant tone to them, because we like to keep them around. If it’s a happier thought, we want to hold on to that thought, if it’s an unpleasant one, like your deep sense of anxiety, perhaps, or fear, you want to get rid of it. You don’t want to know about it. So again, we’re back into the craving and aversion. Craving to hold on to certain experiences, aversive to other experiences, which we want to get rid of and detach ourselves from.
[^absence]: I’m not convinced here. Why wouldn’t he just say that? Why bother saying it is a feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant? Why not just say it is not-feeling? Dhammaddinā, in MN44, says that “neither” is pleasant when known (Bodhi) or pleasant when occurring together with knowledge (Thanissaro) and unpleasant/painful when unkown (Bodhi) or when occuring without knowledge (Thanissaro). Although, in the next section she says, “The underlying tendency to ignorance underlies ‘neither’.” (Bodhi) does equate ignorace with “neither”. So… maybe?
However, that isn’t the end of the story. Because out of pleasantness/unpleasantness, there’s a connectivity with this… “saṅkhāra”. So actually the vedanā will drag in the saṅkhāras of emotion. So actually, our emotions are … well, they’re aspects of forming our experience. They’re already formed, many of them, and actually our emotions are deep set narrative structures which rationalize experience. This is what emotion is. I completely disagree with anybody wants to argue that emotion is irrational. emotion is completely rational. It has its own logic, about the rationalization of our experience, but it’s the rationalization of something I find pleasant or unpleasant. In other words, what I’m saying is you’re going to tell yourself big stories about pleasant or unpleasant experience.
Now, that’s what we’re doing. We’re telling ourselves stories all the time. That’s the main job of saṅkhāras, [they] tell us our stories. Saṅkhāras infect every aspect of our sense of being in the world. That’s what they’re doing. So, actually most of our perception, which is another term; I’m going to join these all up in a second, “sañña”, which is a big one. Most of our perceptual experiences are coloured by deep narrative structures. Which means, if they’re colored by the narrative structures, I’m going to pose a cynical question: do you experience in anything new? Do you actually experience anything new? All you’re doing is reconnecting with past experience in the present moment. It’s already perceived, in a sense, in that process.
Now, I think this connects actually, with some scientific, psychological research that’s been done on the business of why the perception of time appears to speed up, the older you get. It’s because you’re not encountering anything new. Children, and that sense of almost the timelessness of childhood, is because often there’s a sense of curiosity and interest and connecting with something which is new in experience. Whereas, in a sense we’ve been there, done it, and seen it as we get older. And so the experience of time contracts, and it gets faster for us. This why sometimes meditation retreats can seem very long. Because you’re actually opening up experience again to re-perceive and actually igniting something that’s been lost, often, if you’re really engaged in this process, igniting curiosity. Igniting interest in what’s actually happening.
So moving from a position of, in a sense, already knowing to a position of not knowing. And it’s only in that position of not knowing do we open ourselves to what’s really going on. So we’re not already contracting around already known things. So the emotions here, for example, which are saṅkhāras, our saṅkhāras affect our perceptions, which also affect the way that we feel about things as pleasant or unpleasant, which then form further saṅkhāras. So this is going round in a lovely, vicious circle. This is what’s going on. Until you can break this circle, then you’re trapped in this cycle which also will include the last element which I’m going to write on the board in a second.
It’s all part of it because this is, in a sense, a definition of one dimension of saṃsāra. This is a selfing saṃsār-ic process. So this is going around in a circle, just as the whole sense of what we’re perceiving is going around in a circle. Now, if I want to leave you with an image, it’s not a very attractive image here. But if I want to leave you with an image, it’s not as bad as the incontinent one, don’t worry. But if I want to leave you with an image here, it’s of entrapment.
Saṃsāra and this, this whole process, this is why, actually, the Buddha describes this as the five aggregates of dukkha. The five aggregates of grasping. When we’re grasping there is dukkha arising out of this and it’s creating yet more dukkha and it’s going around, every time we try to grasp after any of these dimensions as being us. Then we’re creating it. Either singly, any of these elements within it, or collectively, as well. So we’re always trying to create a sense of something fixed out of something which is changing.
And the final aspect, I’m gonna say some more about [sañña] but I want to put viññāṇa up on the board as well. …
“Viññāṇa”, usually translated as “consciousness”, but it’s more “cognizance”. Because that also is, like vedanā, is not just bare. But it also has the elements of saṅkhāra and perception involved in it. So it’s, it’s the consciousness and the thinking which is involved in these, which is embodied and never not embodied. Really interesting what the Buddha says about this in the early texts, particularly if any of you know anything about Mahayana Buddhism, which almost talks about consciousness in the sense of being a prime or base, being ultimately that which is reborn, for example, in Tibetan tradition, in the Bardo, the Bardo traditions were all about the dimension of consciousness being reborn into another situation. None of this is basically coherent with the early texts. It’s not what the Buddha is saying in these early texts.
He’s saying that all viññāṇa, all consciousness or cognizance, is an embodied cognizance. All cognizance, all consciousness is always embodied cognizance or consciousness in the early texts. And in fact, in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, it’s a very interesting little bit, the Buddha says, “He who has no mindfulness of body has no mindfulness.” It’s a very interesting remark. He who has no mindfulness of the body, of rūpa, has no mindfulness. That’s in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. I think it’s in either the twos or threes in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. [^mindfulness of body]
[^mindfulness of body]: In The Book of the Ones there are two sections, Mindfulness Directed to the Body and The Deathless, both speak at length about mindfulness of the body. I didn’t find a reference to rūpa in either of them, so maybe he means elsewhere.
So, here’s the basic map. [^map] And the reason why I kind of scattered them over the board, [first] to get over that linear process, but they’re also firing all together. If you want to see them as a kind of flowchart, they’re flowing together, mixed together. Sañña is a very, very important one. Particularly is infected by the narratives of saṅkhāra, which are constantly dominating the way that we perceive.
[^map]: It might be interesting to explore this in some detail with the information he’s given above. I still don’t understand this super clearly.
Now another addition to the translation of sañña, as “perception” is “discrimination”. It’s the ability to discriminate things. So there are certain capacities which are included under the function of sañña, which are also highly important and highly significant to being human. One of them is memory. The other is language. Language is an important function of sañña, and memory, obviously, if we are to use language we need memory. … One definition, an Abhidhamma definition, it’s not actually a Nikaya definition, but one definition of sañña is the ability to take an object and mark it for recognition. So we’re marking objects. And we’re marking them, often, with a linguistic mark. In fact, that’s the most common way that we mark things, with linguistic markers. But it’s no good having a linguistic marker if you can’t remember how you’ve marked it. So the ability to remember is an absolutely important function of this.
Also, if you want a self, this is where the burden of it falls. Perception, discrimination, memory. What is the self other than the ability to remember past events and connect them up with present time experience? That is what the self basically is. Now, that is not a fixed self, again, I’ll get you to examine this in your experience, is often exemplified by the fact that, obviously your memory of your life is not continuous. It’s fragmentary, isn’t it? It’s fragmentary. What you can remember. I mean I don’t know about you, but I can remember stuff from early childhood, but not a lot. I can remember stuff from adolescence, I can remember stuff from, you know, my 20s and 30s, and so on and so forth. But sometimes, I can’t remember what I did last week. So our sense of who we are is actually fragmentary. Bits will drop out of the picture and other bits will come in at times.
Now, the reason why it is not “no self”, but this is representing what is “not self”, any of these functions, is that, of course, in degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, that’s exactly what goes. Memory. And it’s a terrifying experience for most people because they literally can’t remember who they are any longer. Because there’s … loss of short term memory, but eventually long term memory goes. The ability to connect up aspects of experience to, in a sense, construct a sense of I. Now, I don’t think the Buddha is recommending us to be like that. He’s not recommending us to be, in a sense, having no absolute sense of self, this is about, again, I would say the corrective, not “no self”, what is “not self” and how we hold that sense of what is not self.
How do we, in other words, hold the selfing process? Are you deeply attached and grasping after the selfing process? Or is there a sense a lightness of touch that can hold it? Can you be a self without being egotistical? This is not a word that’s used, by the way, the word “ego”; there’s no Pāli word it. Freud digs it out of Latin. So here we have this sense of, a challenge of, how it is to be a selfing process without being self-ish. That’s the challenge, not to become a vacuous being.
I’ve often felt the teaching of “no self” is actually positively dangerous. To be quite honest. Particularly [for] people [who] have a fragile sense of who and what they are anyway. And then suddenly to be told they have no self could be quite destructive. Or, even if you’re fairly balanced, to be suddenly confronted and told you’ve got no self is, well, “I came in with one where’s it gone?” I’ve just left with a self-shaped hole.
So, viññāṇa, this is also implicated in the process. Now viññāṇa, as you heard me just lightly touch on the Abhidhamma, viññāṇa or “citta”, often these two words are used synonymously. Sometimes citta is used for the sense of mind over all. But sometimes it’s used synonymously, just as being consciousness or cognizance of something. So it’s used in two senses.
And I do make a plea for pronouncing as “chi-tah” rather than “cheetah”. I have visions of things bouncing over the South African veldt. My citta or my cheetah just got away.
So, these two words, “citta” and “viññāṇa” are actually synonymous words as they’re used, generally in the Nikaya material, in this early material. And viññāṇa is connected with the processes, the thinking processes, of discriminating and the narrative structures, or the habits, or the formations that come into play in any consciousness of something. So I’m very rarely just conscious of something. [Rather,] I’m conscious of it as being this, that, and with a certain feeling about it, the vedanā, and with a certain narrative associated around the lik[ing] or the disliking of it. If it’s, in a sense, a dead zone, which is what I was talking about in relationship to the neither, neither pleasant or unpleasant, then in a way it connects with confusion or delusion. Because I’m not even noticing it. What we usually notice in most of our experience is: that which we like and that which we dislike. That is very primary in terms of physical and all these mental processes.
Peacock: Well nāma is this, this is nāma. “Nāma” just means “name” in Pāli and Sanskrit actually. And nāma is used just to describe any of the mental processes. Any mental processes that are going on.
Conceptualization that’s not a bad one. Yeah, I’ve come across that as well. It’s, that’s actually okay. So again, it’s part of the story. It’s like a lot of these words, it’ll give you part of the story. Because saṅkhāra is our narrative conceptualizations of certain experiences which get repeated, not always negatively. Bear in mind, I said they can be good habits or they can be bad habits but they’re habits.
I think we’ve got into question and answers, haven’t we?
You’ve touched on Western psychology. Is that an important element to add in your goal to make this more real in the West? Or is the traditional psychotherapeutic model a distraction from or in opposition to what you’ve been teaching today?
Well, as you probably know, therapists are vast and widespread in their differences and their approaches. There is a whole group, one of which I’m deeply involved in, of therapies which are within a family, in a sense, and they are basically the mindfulness-based applications that you find. And they are drawing on traditional Buddhist understandings, but in a modern therapeutic model. So, for example, what I’m particularly involved in: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is actually using cognitive therapy elements out of the development of Beck’s work, to then use together with the mindfulness to create a quite powerful package to be able to help people with, for example, severe depression. And this has been shown through a lot of research to be very effective. And more effective than drug therapy, particularly for depressive relapse. So there’s quite a continuing body of research being developed out of that.
Then there is things like dialectical behavior therapy, ACT, as well. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. All of these are mindfulness-based applications. And MBSR, of course, which is really the precursor of most of them, with Jon Kabat Zinn, which are using these models. And I think sometimes Western models of mind are not in contradiction to what’s going on within Buddhist models of mind. They just come at it often from a different angle.
I know this because on our master’s course, where I teach, often people who are really specialists in cognitive therapy and cognitive science sit in on my sessions on Buddhist psychology. And some of them are saying this is exactly what we’re saying, it’s just different language being used about it. It’s exactly the same stuff. And so there is a resonance there; there’s certainly a resonance.
However, if I look, say, towards traditional psychodynamic theory, then I see vast disparities between some psychodynamic theory and again, it’s a broad church in a sense, psychodynamic theory, but say within traditional Freudianism, things that Freud is deeply suspicious of, such as emptying the contents of the unconscious out. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do in Buddhist practice and in Buddhist psychology. Is actually to see deeply repressed material and to have the ability to let it go or to let you go, actually, there’s a better phrase of putting it. So, I think it depends. It’s such a vast area. I wouldn’t like to comment on every form, but certainly there are a lot of resonances within these approaches.
I’ve got two questions. And maybe I’m jumping the gun and if so then you can address them later. What do you think of ideas that some teachers have talked about, like timeless awareness, the deathless, unconditioned? Sounds like pretty metaphysical stuff to me. And the other question is on jhana, and this is on the visuddhimagga version of jhana, which involves basically getting to a place where you have no bodily awareness. Sounds like that’s not something you’re in favor of. So if you could address these various.
Yes. These are my favorites. The first question about the kind of phrases you find like the unborn and the deathless, and things like this, which are made much of, actually, by a lot of Western teachers, I can only give my perspective on it. So I’ll say for what it’s worth is: first of all, I make the point that that passage, or the passages on the unborn and the deathless, the uncreated, the unborn, and all the rest of it, and it goes on, in fact, I can quote it for you got it quoted on the back of the paper.
Okay. This is this is the passage for anybody who doesn’t know it. There’s only two citations of it in the whole canon. And it’s exactly the same in both citations. One is in the Itivuttaka and one is in the Udāna, both of these in the Khuddaka Nikaya, in what I called “the odds and sods” this morning. The little bits that couldn’t be collected into the other. And this is the passage:
There is a not-born a not-constructed a not-made. If there was not that not-born, not-made, not-constructed, there would be no escape from what is born, become, made, constructed. The stepping out from that, the peaceful, beyond reasoning, everlasting, the not-born the non-produced the sorrowness that is void of stain, the cessation of states linked to suffering, the stilling of construction is bliss.
That’s the whole passage. Two citations in the whole of the cannon. That’s 6000 suttas. But I think it is canonical. I don’t think it is an insertion in there; I say that first. But what I would say is, for the majority of people who are, again this is very much my perspective, who interpret this, they interpret it exactly in what you’re saying: in a metaphysical way. As if this is some kind of transcendent state that the Buddha is talking about. Again, I think they missed the point of the language that’s being used. And the way in, Pāli, for example, you make negations. You make negations in a particular way to make the opposite point. That the not-born is also the born. It’s somehow peculiar.
Let me go back a second and try and make this clearer because it’s quite a difficult one to deal with. It’s dealing very much with the self for a start off. And interpreters, not just contemporary interpreters, have interpreted this often as being the occasion for example, for a transcendental self. A real self which exists. And the Buddha and the arahants and people like this, somehow have some kind of mystical aspect to a dimension of experience that you and I don’t have the access to at this moment in time.
I think it’s quite simple what the Buddha was saying here. If you read the passage in context with other passages in the text, you’ve got to understand the teaching on not-self. If there is no fixed self, here’s a question for you. What is it that dies? There is a not-self, there is a no-self to die. It’s only that which is, in a sense, produced, constructed, which is considered to be permanent, that can die. That’s what he’s saying. So actually, this language only makes sense if you’re already positing something which is fixed. And the Buddha is denying anything that is fixed. I might as well just read you what I wrote here, because I think it’s, I can’t really say it any better, is that: this declaration, sometimes being understood as a possible reference to being or a reality in itself existing beyond or behind the appearance of change. Now, I don’t think that’s what the case is, leads to speculation the Buddha is looking at some transcendental reality, an absolute, an unconditioned reality. But the words of the Buddha, when understood, in his own terms, again, the historical terms in which he is making these statements, it’s clear that he’s speaking of dismantling the constructions of greed, aversion, and delusion. Death is only present when there is greed, aversion and delusion.
Now, why I say that is because there is another figure who you all know, probably quite familiar with in real life and sometimes just through the texts. This figure is called Mara. Do you know what the literal translation of the word Mara means? Death, it literally means “the killer”. So, what he’s saying is that greed, aversion and delusion, I’m just using conventional terms, greed, aversion and delusion are that which kill life. When there is no greed, aversion and delusion, there is life. Not a transcendental reality, but just real life experienced differently. Not through that stultifying killer that keeps on killing our experience. Every time, as soon as desire is inserted into our experience, we somehow killed the experience. But in the thought that we’re intensifying it. That’s the great temptation of Mara.
Participant: Indiscernbale. Possibly asks him to repeat himself?
Peacock: Oh, I’ll see if I can. Well, I’ll go back Mara again. Let me start from that, because then I can follow what my train of thoughts were again, I mean, Mara is considered to be the killer. So it’s that which is killing life. So Mara is often associated with these three functions: greed, aversion, and delusion. So, for example, in the text, when you find Mara, talking to the Buddha, he’s always tempting the Buddha in some way. Usually, through some form of infatuation, some desire and saying, “You should do this, or you shouldn’t do this.” Greed and aversion. And he’s always trying to get him to do that.
If we follow through on that, I’m just thinking in terms of our ordinary experience. If we often follow through on our desires, we think we’re somehow going to get pleasurable, intensified experience. But somehow, actually, we’re no longer with the experience, we’re just with the desire, we’ve killed the actual experience.
It’s like expectation. Something I often say about when we’re engaged in meditation. When you sit in meditation and you’re expecting something to happen, you often lose sight of what actually is happening. You kind of kill the experience again. So the deathless is not referring to some transcendental state, but the absence of greed, aversion, and delusion. Because then we live life, as Blake says, the immortality in the moment. Immortality isn’t an endless sense of time. Immortality or a deathless state, is really intensely experienc[ing] that moment, as if for the first time. When you’re really with it. That’s the opening to the wondrousness of experience. It’s the opposite of Mara. It’s life.
That’s really, I think, what’s going on in that passage there. Now, I could give you all kinds of linguistic reasons I was going to go into that, but I don’t think I will. As to why, actually, it doesn’t even work in the language, when you understand the Pāli, what most people try to argue for this passage. Yet all kinds of, I think, transcendental, metaphysical views are based on a misreading of this passage.
Peacock: Gets into advaita [sp?]. Advaita. But I didn’t answer your second question. …
Participant: Jhana … From some people’s perspective, both are seen as maybe Hindu importations.
Yes, jhana practice, it’s quite clear that something like jhana practice was going on, certainly with the Hindu teachers. For example, the Buddha so-called “studied” under. And it seems to be within the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, this sutta of the noble search, that he seems to have experienced and moved within particular types of jhanic experience, but it’s interesting that he leaves most of these teachers having experienced the ultimate of what they have to offer and says, I will not take on disciples, I will not follow this group because ultimately I do not see liberation in this. There is no liberation in simple jhanic states.
I certainly see a lot of elevation and reintroduction of Hindu ideas and I also see a lot of monasticism in the pushing of this. There’s a very good book I could point people to it’s called The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. It’s by somebody called Alexander Wynn, who’s a student of Richard Gombrich. He tries to make the case in this particular book, that the types of experiences, the concentration experiences that the disciples of the Buddha seem to be getting are actually much, much more mundane than the tradition points out.
And there’s something, this is again personal, the way I say this, is there’s something about the holding on to power within monastic contexts. If you keep on upping the bar, to have these extraordinary, extraordinary experiences that actually don’t seem to me to hold that much value in terms of the liberative process. And saying that you must attain these before you can even enter into doing Vipassana. It seems to me that it’s a form of the power that often you see within religious traditions where the goal becomes certainly outside of the realm of ordinary people. Yet in the Buddha’s context, it’s really interesting that all of these people are doing this stuff all the time. They’re gaining insight, they’re gaining awareness, they’re gaining jhana states, and they’re gaining liberation. Showing that, not that it’s easy, but it also is not this massive, uphill, almost myth of Sisyphus, thing of pushing the boulder uphill all the time that often the monastic traditions put it out as.
Another aspect of jhana practice, which I feel that is problematic, certainly in a Western context, is it buys into competitivism. It buys into a very competitive spirit, even if it’s only with yourself, to get these states. But the actual position of jhanas in the early texts is very equivocal. It’s very mixed as far as I can read it within the early texts. Personally speaking, I can say I’ve had absolutely no interest in jhana practice ever. It just didn’t seem worth the effort for most of what was gained out of it, ultimately. But you know, that’s a very personal reflection on it.
Participant: Finally, just because the thought about jhana was triggered by your phrase that “If there’s no mindfulness of the body, there’s no mindfulness.”
Peacock: Yeah, and that’s a very key phrase for me because I think this is something that again, even traditional Buddhism has lost sight of, is actually our embodiment. Our real deep sense of embodiment. Theravada perhaps not so much as some of the other traditions because it still often retains this walking meditation tradition, and sometimes body scanning as well. Certainly within [the] U Ba Khin tradition and the Goenka tradition you still have a sense of the body within it, but within a lot of forms of Buddhism, body is almost being written out. And mindfulness is literally to do with the mind. Yeah, I find this phrase so powerful that “He who does not have mindfulness of the body does not have mindfulness.” In other words, we actually have to inhabit our corporeal existence.
Quite clearly the Buddha is saying within this framework, that all of this mental stuff does not take place without this. Does not take place without rūpa. It’s not a disembodied experience. It’s very much an embodied experience. So I find that a very powerful phrase to use, and jhana, and that sense of disembodiment, I can’t see the purpose of it. I really just do not, other than perhaps, the lack of the sense of self you get from it might make you investigate the notion of self on a much deeper level. That’s the only thing I can think of.
Participant: Before my question, just a comment on your last answer. There’s, somewhere in the middle of Gil’s book, there’s a distinction between spirituality, he uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain, and spirituality is the metaphor of writing gracefully down a river, and you just reminded me of that. But my question is, what would you say to a relatively young person whose life has… what would you emphasize or not emphasize in Buddhism to a young person whose major problem is that their life has been characterized by a lot of instability and a lot of disturbing change? Because it seems to me then if you say to this person, well, the point of Buddhism is that life is always changing. That’s going to be [a] turn off, they’re going to go away. But there must be some other element of Buddhism that you would then introduce first, and then you’d find some positive way of life has changed. So it’s a tactical question.
Peacock: I suppose the first thing I would say to that, I probably wouldn’t even try to talk to them about Buddhism. I mean, that’s the first obvious thing for me, because I think the most powerful thing, particularly with working with young people is experience. To get them to do things. To get them to do, even if it’s extremely short, some kind of practice, or something to see what they experience out of it. Even if it’s, you know, a kid sits down and says, well, actually, I can’t do this. My mind is all over the place. You’ve got somewhere to start, then. Somewhere to start to talk, to examine what’s going on for them and to open it up. So I think in terms of tactical ways of doing that and introducing to young people, actually, we have a project in Oxford, which is Mindfulness in Schools. And we have a Mindfulness in Schools project. We’re working actually with very young children.
… And so there’s quite a lot of work going on in doing this. And for example, the kind of meditation practices you do, you modify them, you break them down, you make them fun, you introduce jokes into them, basically, you play with the kids attention span that they have and the wish to be entertained a lot, but still getting something out of it. [^kids] And so far, all the research that I’ve seen coming out of it is being really quite successful, but you do have to go through a lot of modifications. I think the worst thing you could possibly do is talk about Buddhism.
[^kids]: Why only kids? I think we could really make this more accessible if we made it a little less severe… stopped raising the bar, as it were.
Participant: I just want to ask you one question, this process of the … heaps as they’re moving. That creates Mara, right? That movement is… when the memory and the perception and the feeling all doing its movement, Mara arises out of that and…
Peacock: There’s Mara, it’s nowhere else other than the saṅkhāras. Mara is not something external. It’s the coming together of certain perceptual processes and saṅkhāras, ways of doing things, habituations, proclivities of behavior that arise. And one of the things you have to remember is that we’re deeply, deeply conditioned. It’s one of the first things that the Buddha really talks about is we’re conditioned beings. And so the lives that we have arise out of our conditionings and so even when we are on the path, the way, actually when it gets tough, these conditions re-arise. They become very, how should I put it, they become very attractive because they seem to require less effort.
And you could put this down even to the neuroscience. Neuroscience is literally the neural pathways, you have very deep, in a sense, grooves in the mind, which, if you haven’t completely eradicated them, set up new neural pathways, which in a sense, is partly what we’re doing, is setting up different proclivities of behavior and ways of doing things and more receptiveness. Then when the going gets tough, often, Mara, that’s the metaphor, reasserts itself because those neural pathways are still powerful.
Participant: The Buddha says, “I recognize you, Mara.”
Peacock: That’s right. “I recognize you, Mara.” Because it’s recognizing the tendencies for habits to re-arise. Remember, he’s having that conversation all the way through his life. Just as we do. I find it very interesting that’s even occurring towards the end of his life, that conversation. So that, again comes back to something I was saying earlier on today, that it seems to me that awakening isn’t a big bang process. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s an ongoing process. I’m sorry, I keep using the same word again, but it’s an ongoing process is ongoing engagement with it. And at certain points, when things get tough, like the Buddha is old and he’s sick, it will come back again.
Now because of his training, because of his experience, and that, then Mara can be dropped. He says, Oh, don’t bother me, Mara. I’m not gonna be here for too much longer. Kind of joking about it. But there is that sort of sense of well, these patterns can reassert themselves. We know that very much from our own experience. If we think about it; if you’ve got a deeply ingrained habit, addiction problem or whatever it might be, you might feel you’ve overcome it and got to a point and something hard happens and you’re back into it again. Back into doing it again. And that’s because those patterns reassert themselves so quickly back in our experience. But in Buddhist psychological terms, it’s nothing other than the process of saṅkhāra, sañña, vedanā. Unpleasant experiences give rise to certain forms of perception and certain narratives become involved.
Participant: You’ve answered a question I had, you said there are 6000 sutras, I think you said, and my question is what is the breadth and scope of this subject? Say one wants to just tackle the sutras in India, do you read all of them? Do you pare them down. Are some valid and some not valid, can you just give a sense of the breadth of it? Because obviously, you’re not going to read them all, I guess. But what do you do?
Peacock: Well, if you’re people like me you do. But yeah, it is a vast body of work. It’s a huge body of work. And some of it is very repetitive; it’s bound to be because it was an oral tradition. And that’s the way you kept things and retained memory was by repeating them again and again and again. But there is a body of texts and even a body of extracts from text now that you can find, which I think will give you some of the most important suttas there. For example, I was saying to somebody earlier, I can’t remember who it was. But there’s a little booklet I came across quite recently, which is, I think, extremely good, which is a little work and it’s called The Basic Teachings of the Buddha. And it’s translated by Glen Wallace. And it’s very good because they extract sixteen major suttas, not all of them are very long, either. But just to give the main points and extract the main points of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s The Basic Teachings of the Buddha; it’s translated by Glen Wallace. And it’s got a commentary by him as well on the suttas that he’s translating to.
You’ve got Bikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words, which is extracts from suttas all the important suttas there. But if you wanted to take say, one Nikaya, probably the most important one would be the Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses, because there’s an awful lot of material contained in that which is absolutely central, like the Satipatthana Sutta, which deals with, obviously, mindfulness. The Madhupindika Sutta, which deals with the whole of the cognitive process, and so on, so forth. It’s a very, very important collection, that particular collection. So if you’re going to choose one of the Nikayas to take out of them all, I’d probably say the Majjhima Nikaya. It’s a little bit more assiminable, say, then the big baggy ones that keep going on through the same material, but in slightly different ways.
Participant: You’re going to want to learn Pāli and Sanskrit, is that what you’re saying? Obviously the translations are important, but for somebody who wants to make a life out of …
Peacock: Well it is, but I mean, not everybody has an aptitude for languages do they? And I do appreciate that and as much as I’d like to encourage everybody to learn Pāli and perhaps, perhaps do Sanskrit first because Pāli is a lot easier once you’ve done Sanskrit, but I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. I think the best you can do if you’re not going to go through learning a classical language, and it is a classical language, which has its good points and its bad points. Good point is you’re not going to speak it. So you don’t have to become word perfect in pronunciation. It’s in Romanized script, which also makes it easy in Pāli, but it does have all the aparatus of the classical language within it. Which isn’t always easy for some people.
But outside of that, what I would say is there are actually a number of translations of the same suttas by different people available. Now, some of them are on the Access to Insight website, as you probably know. So it’s not only Than-Geoff’s [Thanissaro Bhikkhu] translations, but are often sometimes Bhikkhu Bodhi and somebody else, as well. If they’re really important suttas. Compare those translations, because each translator will have a perspective on it and come at it from a slightly different direction. What I think is the accumulation of perspective, sometimes you get something which comes close to what is being originally said, perhaps in the Pāli there.
But I would encourage those people who think they’ve got an aptitude for languages, I would encourage them to learn some Pāli. It isn’t that difficult, actually, because it’s a terribly repetitive language. It’s a terribly repetitive language. Richard Gombrich runs a crash course in Oxford every summer, where he installs, in ten days, all the basic aparatus of being able to then further self study. And if you continue it, you would progress very easily. I mean, you’re translating it on day two. He’s getting you translating on day two.
Participant: Hopefully an easy question; is there a word in Pāli for mind? Because you mentioned in the Dhammapada, “Mind is the precursor of all things…” and there seems to be, sometimes, co-translation of mind and consciousness in the same breath…
Peacock: That’s often because of that confusion between citta, sometimes when it’s used as being the more expansive sense of “mind”, and sometimes when it’s just being used as a synonym for viññāṇa, which is consciousness. That’s often why that’s occurring. But actually, interestingly in the Dhammapada, it’s “Manopubbano” [Manopubbaṅgamā?] which actually is “manas”, is the actual term, and this is, again manas is another term which is used for mind. So these are the two most commonly used terms for translating the overall functions of mind. Were viññāṇa, more often [than] not, in the early tradition, not in the later traditions because again, you don’t need to confuse the two, in the early tradition is more often [than] not solely associated with consciousness. But you know, it’s… these words have many connotations unfortunately. Which sometimes it’s difficult to grasp in English, but these two are probably the best contenders, manas and citta.