This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
Okay, okay. Just 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.
John Peacock 0:11
[Let’s] see if there’s any questions left over from the last session before we move on. And I’ll kind of move on a bit further.
I can blame this on tiredness.
My question was: I see emptiness lurking in there and wondering if tomorrow or the next day you’re going to talk about that. And if you’re going to talk any about karma.
John Peacock 0:30
I hadn’t scheduled to talk about emptiness, but I can talk about emptiness. It’s a fairly simple idea, in many ways, a simple concept. It’s there in the early texts. It’s not something that gets invented by Mahayana Buddhism. So yes, if you like I can talk a little bit about it tomorrow because in a sense where I’m going, which is to talk a bit about the early texts, understanding paṭiccasamuppāda, that, in a way, that really is the model for emptiness. What’s occurring. And in fact, for example, when it’s said, whoever sees Dependent Origination sees the Buddha, whoever sees the Buddha sees Dependent Origination. Nāgārjuna goes on and says, Dependent Origination is dependently originated, therefore empty. Anything that’s dependently originated is empty.
And perhaps we can talk also about the word emptiness. I think it’s a very negative term. I think it’s an extremely negative term; it gives people a very wrong impression of what the teaching is about. Because the word in Pali and Sanskrit suñña or suññatā actually means “nothing and everything”. So why do we concentrate on the nothing as opposed to the everything? So yes, I will. I’ll talk a little bit about that. And the other part was?
I thought on emptiness, something you mentioned earlier, that things like inherent self existence, but is that more of a Mahayana thing where they really get into that?
John Peacock 2:16
Oh, they get into a stride with a vengeance in the Mahayana.
And the other question was about karma.
John Peacock 2:23
Karma. Yes, I will certainly deal with karma. Yeah, that’s a really important one. I’ll talk about that in relation it will come at some point in dependent origination, because the other word for this, sankhara, is karmic action. Is karmic action. Now it’s interesting, in this case, we always use the Sanskrit as opposed to the Pali, as opposed kamma, which is obviously the Pali in this instance. I’ll just point that out when we’re using the word “karma”, and I would emphasize rolling they “r” a bit because otherwise you end up with “sensuality”. If it’s just “kama”, sensuality. If it’s “karma”, then it’s action, which is literally what the word means.
I think there’s lots of wrong-headedness around the whole notion of karma. And what’s going on in karma. [It] almost ends up, even in Buddhist circles, almost being Hindu fatalism. Which is not what the Buddha intended at all about it. But that will come up in Dependent Origination most certainly.
Do we have any knowledge about the evolution of the Buddha’s ideas? Because the conventional view is that he sat under the Bodhi tree and bingo. He got the whole works just like that. What kind of you human being, and he was a human being, gets ideas fully formed like revealed truth. And so how did his ideas evolve? All the works of men and women, of individuals, over time have been revised by subsequent generations. Because we are all fallible and yet the Buddha’s ideas just come as received truth to the community, to the Sangha.
John Peacock 4:37
Yeah, I think I’d qualify it by saying “almost like revealed truth”. It’s not. Because he doesn’t ever claim, even within these traditional accounts, it’s never claimed that it is revealed truth. He is not claiming to have any revelation from on high. He’s just claiming to discover something. That’s all.
Now I think, obviously, what you’ve got, and you get this in a lot of Indian texts, is time contraction. That in a sense, the Bodhi tree experience, whatever that was, and all we can say is, according to the traditional accounts, even according to the Ariyapariyesana account, is that there is something like a Bodhi tree experience. Now, that doesn’t happen out of a vacuum, just like we said this morning, Buddhism doesn’t happen out of a vacuum. It happens out of all the causes and conditions that have given rise to that kind of inquiry. And I think what we see or hear as the Bodhi tree experience, I mean, this is my own conjecture, and I do emphasize the conjecture here, is that actually it occurs over a period of time, and a period of meditation, and probably doesn’t occur on one night. That’s my own conjecture about it.
The words definitely changed. There is no doubt about it. The Buddha’s conception of what he’s doing, the way the sangha is evolving, certainly changes from the earliest strata of texts that we can tell. The problem with the suttas is there’s no chronological order to them. It’s not as if the compilers, the redactors of the texts, actually sat down and said, okay, this is an early sutta, this is a late sutta and put them in some kind of chronological order. They didn’t. If any of you’ve ever looked, as I’m sure probably a lot of you have, you’ve looked at these texts, it’s all over the place. And if you happen to get two texts that correlate and actually follow on from each other, it’s more by accident than by design. That they’re there.
The only non-seeming accident seems to be the Dīgha [Nikāya] and the Majjhima [Nikāya], which both start off with really difficult texts, and then get easier immediately you get into it. But apart from that, I can’t see any common way of compiling these things. So it’s very difficult to know the actual development of the Buddha’s ideas over time. However, that text I mentioned earlier on, the Sutta Nipata, you can certainly see clear ideas about the development of the sangha, for example. What I mentioned to you about two monks not traveling together. He had no idea of settled communities at that point.
And one extremely almost funny remark, I find it in a Vinaya which also, I would recommend people to read if you haven’t read the Vinaya, or elements of it, because it’s so revealing about the early sangha and what was going on and actually just the human capacity to get around rules. The reason why you end up with 227 rules is the human capacity to try and get around the simplest ones. You know, that’s the reason for it. And most of the things that the monks were up to were prosecutable. You know, it’s pretty bad stuff that’s going on in the Vinaya.
But in there, there’s one very indicative statement I find in the Vinaya when the Buddha says to Ananda, he says, “Ananda, weren’t things better in the old days?” There’s all that kind of retrospective saying, “When it was simpler, when we had less people, when we didn’t have the monasteries to run,” and things like that. It was a lot better.
But the development of the Buddha’s ideas I don’t see so clearly. There are, as I mentioned earlier on today, there are conflicting passages, contradictory statements, which clearly show development. But which one follows which it’s very difficult to tell. I mean, the capacity for the bikkhus to try and remember everything that was said by the Buddha. Obviously, some of its going to be misremembered, also reflects on the status of some of the things and probably some of the contradictions within the text themselves.
But unlike, say, the Gospels, where you can look at the Gospels, and some people have kind of gone through them and really begun to analyze, well, this probably looks actual, this is probably an interpolation, and so on and so forth, and then try and work it out chronologically. You can’t do that with this body of material, which is so vast. It’s a huge amount of material that you’ve got in the Pali Canon. So there’s no way of telling what’s chronological and how those ideas develop. The closest I can say, and this is part of the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing with you, the particular teachings I’m giving you in terms of the early texts. These are the ones I think we can clearly say, are probably the ones that the Buddha gave. Because he emphasizes them again and again and again and again through these early texts. There are certain themes which come through the texts. You were asking about the Itivuttaka and the Udana earlier on. They don’t actually occur that frequently. There’s only two instances of them. Whereas Paṭicca Samuppāda, dependent origination is mentioned again and again and again. The khandas, mentioned again and again and again throughout the text. The tilakkhana, the three characteristics of existence are mentioned again and again and again. So, these, I think, just by the frequency of the references, you can see that these are the core teachings that the Buddha really emphasizes.
I’m appreciating your remarks and I’ve been studying Buddhism for a number of decades. This has been very helpful. Thank you. A lot of clarification. Quick question, or really comment and then a question. You kicked off today by saying you’re kind of stripping away the extraneous religious components that have been built up over time. I guess two questions: Why did the Buddha, after he became awakened… I’ll use that word… continue to pursue a monastic lifestyle. What was the value of that? And is there any role for monasticism today?
John Peacock 11:28
That’s a good question. Okay, first bit, why did the Buddha pursue monasticism? Well it’s not monasticism, in the sense we understand it, as this renouncer tradition. I think it’s very much enculturated. It was very, very enculturated. It was literally the sign of breaking away from the conventions of society as it was known in India at that time. And you’ve got to remember that to pursue any of the things that the Buddha is talking about, to pursue what you’re doing today, listening to somebody speak about the teachings and thinking about them and pondering about them and to engage in meditation, these were luxuries in Indian society of that day. They still are in certain places in India. To engage in this, they’re luxuries. They come with a degree of wealth and they come with a degree of leisure. So, when you find the Buddha addressing, for example, lay people, again, you still see this in contemporary Buddhist cultures, the Buddhists or the monastics now will primarily be talking about ethics, about the way that you live your life practically. Because in a sense, that’s the only way these people have time to practice. And in ancient India, that would have been the case.
So actually entering into a renouncer tradition was a way of creating time. It was a way of freeing yourself up from all of the heavy responsibilities of simply going out and probably farming your land for hours and hours and hours a day to try and produce food for your family. The majority of it would have been agricultural laboring, apart from, obviously, some mercantile trading that was going on. So it would have been an extremely hard life.
Now, it’s very interesting in the history of Buddhism, and particularly in colonial countries, such as Sri Lanka and Burma, not so much Thailand because that was never a colonial country. But in Sri Lanka and Burma the first time you get lay people really starting to meditate is under colonialism. Now, colonialism had some good points as well as bad points. And a lot of bad points, but it had some good points in the sense that it employed a lot of people and employing a lot of people and paying them relatively, and I say relatively, well, it created a degree of wealth. And then you start to find people meditating as lay practitioners, and the development of a lay practitioner community in Sri Lanka started in the 19th century under British rule. That simply wasn’t available to people earlier than that.
So I think you have to look at the socio-historical conditions, as why monasticism was such an important affair. In all of the Buddhist cultures that we know are Buddhist cultures, that are now known as Buddhist cultures, they were either subsistence economies such as China, and Tibet. Korea and Japan were also pretty subsistence economies. So if you really wanted to learn the Dharma practice, even if you wanted to, for example, in Tibet, even if you just wanted to learn to read and write, you would have to enter into a monastery. You all remember these monasteries are educational establishments as well. They weren’t just meditation halls and things like that. And so that degree of… poverty, really… created monasticism as a powerful institution.
Now, when I used to teach Buddhist studies at Bristol University and I used teach a two semester course in Tibetan religion, and the first thing I used to get people to read wasn’t a book about Tibet. It was on European medieval monasticism, because it’s directly comparable. What you find is a feudal system, with the monasteries owning the land, tithes being paid to the monasteries. Spiritual, religious welfare being looked after by the monks and so on and so forth. You find all of these connections. And so that’s the reason for that monasticism, when that no longer becomes a necessity, then I think it starts to break down.
Now, it was very interesting you should ask the last question about, is monasticism useful in the western context now? When the Dalai Llama first visited the west, I think was in 1971? He came to Europe in 1971. And I asked him a question about the value of monasticism. And he said to me at the time, he said, Yes, of course, monasticism will have to be an important part of Western culture for Buddhism to put down roots and to establish itslef in Western culture. I asked him that question about 10 years ago, he said absolutely not. Because he’s obviously seeing what has happened and the changes that have taken place.
Now, we’re in a very unusual situation in Western culture, in that the majority of practitioners, what you’re doing here today, is only what would have taken place in a monastery. Ordinary laypeople like yourselves, in a traditional Buddhist culture, you would not get this kind of teaching. Even going to your retreat centers and your dharma centers around, you would not get the kind of input that you’re getting from your resident and local teachers. They’re going to direct you towards texts and teachings and practices and things like that you would not get that anywhere else. We’re in a very unusual situation here, in that you’re getting stuff in a sense that only monastics in the past would have received.
And we’re also in a very unusual position because, I don’t know what it’s like in San Francisco, but you go into most major conurbations in Britain, and you’ll have a shop window onto virtually every form of Buddhism. We’ve got all these different forms, which one do you want? Do you want Korean? Or four forms of Tibetan? Or two forms of Zen? Or even differences in the Theravadan tradition, between the Sri Lankan vihara and the Thai forest monks up the road, you’ve got all these forms of Buddhism. And so in a way, the necessity for monasticism, outlined in the first place in traditional cultures, is no longer there. But also I think we’ve got a very different attitude towards the teaching and the apprehension of the teaching the assimilation of it. And often people do do that until they find the right form of Buddhism that suits them. They go from tradition to tradition tradition, perhaps even moving to a form of more secular Buddhism in this interlude. So I think the case for monasticism becomes increasingly less convincing in a Western context.
Now, having said that, I think it will always be the case for people who genuinely want to be monastic, celibate, and all of the advantages and disadvantages that monasticism brings. But I think as a major way of establishing Buddhism in the Western context, I don’t think it’s going to be a big player at all anymore. In fact, I think, in a sense, the development lies with people like yourselves. This is where the development lies. Now, you can either do this properly, and this is my big concern, you can either do this properly, by genuinely being educated in these traditions and understanding what they’re about, and understanding a little bit of what I’ve tried to share with you today. Or you can ignore that and just go through the traditions. I think there’s big dangers in that for some of the reasons I won’t go into which I outlined this morning. I think there’s big dangers with that. I think we have to bring some of our Western educational understanding to the study of Buddhism. So we really begin to understand what’s going on. And know what is the teaching, as much as we can, and know what is cultural.
Because actually, when you look at all these traditional forms of Buddhism, what you find is heavily, heavily enculturated aspects of Buddhists thought. I always think of Tibetan Buddhism as being one of the most heavily encultured. It’s really difficult to pull the Buddhism out of the culture in that sense. Thai Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, all of these are heavily encultured. They’re influenced by previous indigenous religious traditions and that, as we are. In our apprehension of Buddhism in the West we’re influenced by Christio-Judaism primarily, in apprehending it. And even in the translation of it, as I tried to make the point for. But, I would still say I think monasticism is not going to be a major key player in this at all. And I think one of the big things that has shown up in the controversy [is] about the role of women. Certainly in Thai forest monasticism. Seeing a big cultural difference here, between the things that women have fought for for so many years and gained in the West, and this kind of very very retrogressive patriarchal situation that you find yourself in with traditional Thai approaches to the role of women in the sangha and things like that. So that’s another reason that makes me in a sense doubt the role monasticism is going to play because there’s just to many cultural clashes coming together. Again, sorry, I always given long answers to short questions. Please try and shut me up. [Laughs]
Okay, anybody else?
Taking off on the last question, I know a Theravadan Buddhist nun, Thai forest tradition, Who does believe that monasticism is useful. Particularly all the extra precepts such as giving up sex, not handling money, and many others. It does go further, take you further in training the mind toward letting go and so forth. Any thoughts on that?
John Peacock 22:21
Having lived both lives, I can see advantages and disadvantages to both. To a certain extent, monasticism frees you up of certain things. It doesn’t mean you don’t have those desires any longer, it just means you can examine them more closely, or there’s less opportunity if you’re trying to live the vinaya to immediately want to satisfy the desires that you have, whether they be for sex or money or whatever it might be. There’s less desires, but there’s also great difficulty because you’re living in community all the time. There’s lots and lots of difficulties. And actually the community problems that you find in monasteries are just as great as they are in ordinary life. Sometimes even more exacerbated because of the close proximity in which everybody is living. So you get real hatreds going on. I always find it very indicative, it’s not actually within Buddhist monasticism, but this shows the problem of monasticism in general, that Saint Benedict, when he wrote the rules of his order, actually put in a rule, which is monks: shouldn’t hit each other.
… But you know, I think it shows you the tensions that often arise in these monastic situations. And I do think that Western monasticism, when it’s there, has actually a slightly different flavor to it than living within Eastern monasteries. I really do. I think that living in Easter monasteries, or nunneries, as the case may be in some traditions, mainly in Chinese tradition, but living in monasteries, nunneries, and that has more of a naturalness to it than it does in the Western context. There is not such a great degree of piety. In fact, I’ll always remember, I’ll give you this story that happened to me when I was living in a monastery in South India, because most of the big Tibetan monasteries are in South India, because they were resettled there when there were border problems with the Chinese in the early 60s. And I was actually the only Western monk in this monastery at the time. And occasionally we’d get people coming down from Dharamsala to come and take teachings from some of the Lamas who were in this particular monastery. And one of the monks said to me, because I’d kind of been assimilated in Tibetan society by that time, and one of the monks said to me, kind of nudged me in the ribs when he saw this Western monk coming along. He was coming from Dharamsala and he said, “Can you tell me why it is that Western monks look so miserable?”
Because often they come with that sort of, I don’t know, religious piety, that often is there. That you don’t find, certainly in Tibetan monasteries, anyway, there’s lots of pranks and things going on and kids misbehaving and, you know, pelting each other with pellets in the ceremonies. And all this sort of stuff in the monastery is there so there’s a naturalness to it and it’s not considered to be so holy, in a certain way. So I think there’s a certain element that is there with Western monisteries which is quite distinct from the monisteries that you find in more indigenous cultures anyway.
Okay, shall we move on?
I won’t be able to cover what I’m going to start this evening, all this evening, because it’s too big a topic. But I’ll pick it up again tomorrow for those of you who are going to be here tomorrow. But let me just give you some preliminary remarks. The kernel of the Buddhist teaching, I think, really is to be found. I mean, obviously, all the things I’ve spoken about I consider to be important otherwise I wouldn’t be speaking about them. But the real kernel of the Buddha’s teaching is to be found in the teaching of Paṭicca Samuppāda. Paṭicca Samuppāda, which is Dependent Origination. Or conditioned co-genesis, or there’s many different ways of translating it. But dependent origination does as well. I think I’ll stick with that for today.
This teaching is probably the most important teaching in the Pali Canon. It really is. It’s worth it, if you don’t know it, memorizing the links in the chain. It’s a fantastic tool for meditation. Beginning to understand, certainly by the time we get to a number of links, from feeling to craving, to grasping, we’re into the real kernel of the problem that you and I and everybody suffer from. And I use that word deliberately this time. This is how we create the mess. And in understanding how we create the mess, and when I say created, I don’t say that we’re necessarily always doing it volitionally. We’re not deliberately going out there. So there’s no sense of moralistic finger wagging in this at all. It’s just saying, this is how it naturally starts to unfold with certain things being in place. So Samsāra starts to unfold, and this feeling of circularity and entrapment starts to occur almost as a natural unfolding of certain conditions being there.
It’s a difficult teaching. There’s no doubt about that. … The Mahanidanda Sutta, this is, again, Long Discourses of the Buddha. This is the Great Teaching on Causation, I think it’s translated as,] by Maurice Walshe. It’s the classic, it’s the main teaching on dependent origination. Interestingly enough, in this particular version, which is the Mananidanda, the Great Teaching on the links in the chain of dependent origination, there are only ten links, not twelve. Which tends to make me think that the other two are added in as an afterthought, probably by the tradition. Because actually, although they are important, the other two links, they are very much from an Abhidhamma perspective. I’m going to talk about them, because I do think they’re important, but I think they probably are afterthoughts, which are added in. The Buddha, again, with his primacy on the direct experience of things, is talking about what we can actually experience. So his chain starts not with ignorance, I’ll give you the standard translation before glossing it again, not with ignorance, but he starts with consciousness. This is where he starts.
So when we get all of these twelve links which are there, I think this is the tradition working it over, trying to put in other elements that he does mention in the teachings, but trying to include them into the chain of dependent origination. Now, again, this is conjecture. I can’t prove it. But just these slight anomalies when you’ve got the so-called “great teaching” on dependent origination, yet it doesn’t include two of the most important links of the chain, it seems quite strange.
So, the Mahanidanda Sutta starts with what I think is quite amusing, but others might differ, but Ananda comes to the Buddha and he says, Lord, the teaching on dependent origination is as clear to me as clear can be. And the Buddha goes, I can imagine a sharp intake of breath then, by the Buddha, and the Buddha goes Ananda, think again. This teaching is profound. Now, when the Buddha ever uses the word “profound” which obviously has a Pali correlate for it, whenever he uses the Pali correlate for it, when he says this word profound, he means it’s really difficult. Now I don’t think he’s meaning really difficult intellectually. I think he’s meaning really difficult experientially. The difficulty is not in our intellects. I think, particularly for Westerners, and I don’t think it was problematic for people in his own time, but when he’s talking about difficulty, the difficulty is never intellectually. We can almost always grasp intellectually what is going on. It is experientially that we find the difficulty.
In a way, there’s kind of a non-translation in terms of the actual practicalities of what is going on in this that we neglect to see. And in a way, this is why I partly find these possible late additions, in these other two terms, actually useful. Because the starting place for the whole of the chain of dependent origination is, with the twelve link version, which is the standard version that we find in Theravada, and most traditions in fact, the starting place is avijja. Avijja. Which is, as you well know, usually translated as ignorance. This is the starting place for it.
This is the fundamental ground on which, in a way, we walk. Now, remember what I’ve said earlier on today… It’s been a long day!… is that this word also can mean confusion. Confusion is the fundamental ground and upon which we walk. And one of these aspects of confusion is also not wanting to know about things. It’s just all too difficult. I don’t want to know, really. I don’t want to know about it experientially. I can sort it out intellectually. In fact, through the history of Buddhism, you’ve got more scholars than you have awakened practitioners. You’ve got fantastic scholars. The Tibetan tradition was full of them. Fantastic scholars. There was a movement, I think that again, this is why I emphasize the balance between study and practice, and the history of Buddhist thought and practice in general has been this vacillation between either or meditation and no study or all study and no meditation. And that’s often what happens. So much so that in Theravadan countries the monasteries were divided up between scholarly monasteries, which were called the “gramavasans” [sp?], which were actually the town-based monks. And then you had the “aramvasans” [sp?], which were the actual forest-based monks. And the forest-based space monks would have been the meditators, the city based monks would be the scholars. And that’s basically how they divided up into those two sections of society. And so the whole history of Buddhism has been like that. And really, it’s trying to bring together those two traditions, which I think we really do in the West, have an opportunity to do, if we don’t screw it up. To bring together the, kind of, real understanding of what’s going on in the teaching, but with the experiential practice, and the understanding actually comes through the experiential practice of it. So this is really really important, what’s going on.
So when he’s critiquing Ananda and saying, look… Ananda almost represents everybody. Ananda’s the Fall Guy. Because he represents everyone, he’s kind of the common person. You know, he’s always making a fool of himself, Ananda in the texts, I don’t know if you ever noticed that. He’s always saying the wrong things or not quite getting it. And it’s the kind of representation of every man, this is what we do. We don’t quite get it a lot of the time. And so in relationship to dependent origination, we don’t get it in terms of the experience of what is going on.
Now, how do we get it? Well, … you get it through your laboratory. And your laboratory is your meditation practice. This is where you get to get to see it. This is where you get to experience and experiment within it. The intellectual grasping which, hopefully you’ll start to get a little bit of, is just one part of the story. But when you start to see it in practice, this is when it becomes real.
So let’s go to the first of the terms. … Before I do that, let me just say a word about Paṭicca Samuppāda. The word that’s being used here, notice it’s the word “dependent”. So what we’re talking about in the chain of dependent origination, the way it’s coming across in the early texts is not a description of causality. I make that very clear. It’s not A causes B. But A is dependent on B. So they’re mutually supporting. And the image that is being used, that the Buddha uses, is of corn stocks. You know, when you’ve harvested corn, and you collect them in bundles, and then you stack them by placing them against each other so the weight leans into each and they self support each other. Or using another image, you often used to see, particularly old army regiments, when they’d be stacking rifles and they’d have all the rifles supporting each other, standing up in little triangles. Well, here you’ve got mutually supporting aspects. And so it’s a series of dependencies, not a series of A causes B. So we’re not saying that avijja is going to cause sankharas. It’s saying that: dependent on avijja being present, sankharas will arise. It’s very different.
[I don’t know if] you can see that. And one of the reasons I’m emphasizing this is because, like I did with the aggregates, with the khandas, we want to get away from any sense of linearity. In other words, if we draw the circle, I’m sure you’ve all seen the Tibetan wheel of life. Yeah, yeah, the bhāvacakra, or the “Wheel of Becoming” as it really should be known as, you’ll find a little bit on the rim, which is a pictorial description of dependent origination. Now, if you took it literally, you’d be looking at that chain saying, well, this causes this, and this causes this and this causes this and this causes this and this causes this, until we eventually get to old age and death. And then we get back on the wheel again. It’s not that simple. It really isn’t that simple. That is the profundity of what the Buddha is saying. The profundity is actually in the complexity of the interactions that are going on between the different dimensions of the links in the chain.
How actually it’s not just one thing supporting another thing, they’re all supporting each other. Which is actually a really good reason why it’s so difficult to unravel our experience, even when we have the best motivation. That we’re not just dealing with one dimension of experience. We’re dealing with lots and lots of interdependent dimensions of experience, all which mutually support each other. In other words, self reinforcing. And I use that again, deliberately. They reinforce a sense of self.
So not causation, but chains of dependencies. Overcoming the sense of linearity, beginning with avijja, but not beginning with avijja. Now I really want to make it clear. In other words, the problem just doesn’t start with avijja. Avijja is just part of the chain. It’s like the backdrop. Actually. …You can almost have this with avijja at the center, and all the other links spread out in the normal way. Seeing that it literally is the backdrop. Everything takes place on the backdrop of avijja, but avijja is not a first cause. It’s not a first cause.
Where does avijja come from? The Buddha doesn’t say. It’s just there. Avijja is just in our experience.
Now confusion, rather than ignorance. I’m using this term deliberately. Because it shows a fundamental sense of existential confusion. What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we do it. And I often liken this whole sense of avijja… which I think we do actually have an experience of, I mean, I don’t know if any of you feel confused, but I do about life. I often liken it to being, I don’t know, kind of dropped in by parachute into a strange land where you don’t actually have a map at all. You wander around fairly futilely in the landscape, you bump into a few locals, who are also fairly confused because they don’t know the landscape. They only know their own valley where they live in. That is all. So they can’t tell you about what’s going on in the other valley. And actually the landscape is life. And the confused inhabitants are probably your parents. Because all they’re trying to do is give you their confusion. This is Confusianism. [laughs]
Sorry, it’s a bad time of the day.
But no, being serious about this, this is being … dropped into a strange place and not knowing our way around. And actually, although I was joking about this, this is actually often our experience of life. We do our best. We do our best. We often don’t mean to be hurtful, or malicious or any of those things, but they just arise out of circumstances. They arise, actually, out of conditions. And they arise out of the fundamental condition of being confused. So how can we know what the right thing to do is? We’re confused because the information we’ve got is fairly confusing, and it’s … I kind of joked about it a bit, in saying it’s parents but it’s often our societies as well. For example our societies proffer us ways of getting through life which actually exacerbate the problem rather than helping us to overcome the problem[s that we] experience.
Western materialistic societies often offer out materialism as being the end of all meaning and the goals that we have in life. And when that is seen as failing somehow then existential depression arises, lack of meaning, boredom, all sorts of things which I think are rampant. I don’t know [about] over here, but they’re certainly rampant in European society, these, kind of, fundamental existential problems that are there. I was sharing with Tony, when I was driving in this morning, that the World Health Organization says that depression is going to be the second major health problem in the world in five to ten years time. Sort of running a close second to cardiac problems. It shows you [that] something is happening in our societies which isn’t being fulfilled by the kind of dreams that were offered. So I don’t want to… I’m trying to diffuse the sense that it’s our fault. It’s not our fault. Let’s make that really, really clear. I don’t wanna have any moralistic sting in this whatsoever.
So If we’ve got that background [of confusion/avijja] and actually find it really difficult, then often we don’t want to know. As well as simply not knowing. Now the actual word avijja has that connotation as well. It’s not that I just don’t know, I don’t want to know. And even if, for example, somebody like myself or other teachers come along and say, look here, come on. Everything, absolutely everything is impermanent. That part of you that doesn’t let you live with impermanence is actually the bit that doesn’t want to know. Because it’s still kind of grasping after some sense of… actually, it’s going to be like this. It’s all going to be okay, isn’t it? This is probably about as good as it gets. You know, what’s actually occurring, but this is actually happening.
This not wanting to know is one of the fundamental blockages to us actually living the teaching. I actually think, I’ll just share this with you, I actually think that none of the teachings are difficult. And you’ve probably heard them, probably in slightly different ways because I’ve taken a slightly different tack today with you. But most of what I’ve said, apart from the historical stuff, you might have heard in many other contexts before. You might have read it a lot of times. But our lives don’t change that much do they? They do change. But they don’t change as you would think they would, dramatically change when suddenly I get the idea that everything is impermanent, things are dukkha and they’re not self. And I really begin to understand that. That’s because there’s some aspect, really fundamentally buried in the psyche very deeply, which doesn’t want to know. That’s the blockage, in a sense, that’s stopping us. So what we’re doing is literally clearing the path. What we’re trying to do is sweep the path of all the debris, all the rubble, all the blockages, all the things that are stopping us as impediments.
Now one of the chief impediments is thinking too much. And interestingly enough, the word papanca, which is a word I’m sure you must have come across, which is usually translated as “proliferation” has the sense etymologically in Pali of spreading out. It’s thought gone rampant. It actually is derived also from a another Pali term papancati [sp?], which actually means to obsess about things. That word is actually linked to the word “impedimentum”. [They’re] etymlogically linked, the Latin word impedimentum and papanca, that which blocks the path. So all of this thinking we engage in which spreads out and obsesses and proliferates. … [It] actually stops us from seeing. It becomes literally an obfuscation on the path. An obfuscation.
So that’s what we’re fundamentally engaged in clearing. So don’t think that avijja is something we’re going to absolutely clear up really easily. It’s not something that’s suddenly going to go away. Even by collecting all the Dharma books that you could possibly get and putting them on your walls, it’s not somehow by osmosis going to … transform you overnight. It isn’t. This is what we’re working on. This is kind of a long term project. Now, the sense of avijja is that it’s also composite. It’s not just one thing. It’s actually composite. And it’s composed out of something and again, this will give you an idea of the Buddha’s use of language, it’s composed out of the Asavas.
Now, this is a really difficult term to translate. I’ve never really found a satisfactory translation for it at all. You can give a sense of its dynamics and that’s about it. The word is actually borrowed from Jainism. And the word asava means an influx. Something coming in. Now, the the Jains believed that the reason why samsara was occurring was because we engaged in any actions whatsoever. It didn’t matter whether they were good or bad. But the soul, the atman, was weighted down by, literally, what they called “the dust of the influxes” which weighted it and stopped it from being liberated. So there was things flowing in.
Now the Buddha transfers the main meaning of this term to flowing out. So what’s keeping us bound is not what’s flowing in, but what’s flowing out of us. And we come back to our sense of incontinence, again, that we had this morning. And what is flowing out of us, and this is one translation, and it’s etymologically quite sound is “effluent”. Now that effluent itself has a direct context, and our part of it is what’s called “avijjasava”, the effluent of confusion. Because I just don’t like to keep my confusion to myself. I like to spread it around. Why keep it to yourself?
So that’s part of what we’re spreading around. Now, there are alternative translations I only mention them because you will see them as you go through the books. One: outflow. Sometimes you even see influxes which is very wrong because they’re translating it literally from a Jain context into this. Another one is outflows. Cankers is another one. Roy Norman, who I mentioned earlier on, who said that Four Noble Truths is the very worst possible translation, his comment on this was, when I heard him speaking once, he said, the only thing I know that has canker is dogs ears and roses. Not human beings. So cankers, I don’t think is a very good translation. But the dynamic you’ve got is … a sense of what is flowing out of us, what is coming out of us. Literally what we can’t keep to ourselves.
Now there are three, sometimes four, of these aspects which will be asavas. These are the roots of all unwholesome psychological behavior. It’s that bad. Of all unwholesome psychological behavior. [And, actually,] there’s a synonym which is used, rather than Buddha, for somebody who is awakened, an arahant, or somebody called a Buddha, is usually described as “kinasava”, which means somebody who’s brought an end to the asavas. “Ended the asavas”, literally.
So that’s the first one is the asava of avijja. The ignorance, the confusion, the delusion that we cannot keep to ourselves, that we spread around. We keep on pouring out. Because it affects all of our relations with the world. It’s not something which is deeply personal. It affects all of our relations with the world. It affects all of our personal relationships, too.
Deeply linked to this is the term… If you just see these truncated, you’ll probably figure out how to join that together. Is this word, “kamasava”. The asava of sensual desire. For any form of sensuality. Now this is, in a sense, the asava that deeply craves sensuality. Sees it as a positive thing. Always. It’s also linked to cravings for innovation and new things that you want to experience. But this is not just knowing I’ve got a craving for a bar of chocolate or something like that. This is really deep stuff. This is addiction to sensuality, in all of its forms. Whether it’s addictions to substance abuse, addictions to sexuality, addictions to… gotta be in beautiful surroundings, gotta have the most lovely things around me. You name it. This is a deep obsession that’s really embedded in our psyches in some way. This is obviously gonna vary from individual to individual. This is not always manifesting in the same way.
Then there is the craving for continued existence. “Bhavasava”. As we go round the links of dependent origination, you’ll find this term occurring again but in another form, in the craving for existence, “Bhavatanha”. Bavatanha, which is much, much further around. But this is showing that it’s a really deeply buried dimension of the psyche. Now, the craving for existence, I’ll say much more about this tomorrow. But the craving for existence isn’t literally just the physical craving to continue to exist, which, of course we all have, but it’s a craving for continued existence, say in a traditional Indian context of continuing to be reborn as the same person. If you like, it’s a deeply linked sense of wanting to be me forever. It’s a deep grasping after self.
Clinging to that sense of self that you may have. However that is. However fractured that might be. a deep clinging to that. This clinging is manifested through all sorts of ways. Again, often through desire for innovation, new things, might be the craving to exist through your children, through your good works. people having good memories of you, all these sorts of ways. It might even come down to the chippings on your tombstone. It might even come down that far. But it’s somehow to go on in some way. Now, the desire for immortality, that you see traditionally manifested that was there within Indian religion… In fact, again, the Buddha is playing on this because there’s a very famous quote in the Brihadaranyaka [Upanishad], which is known as the “Giantri Mantra” [sp?], which is, “From death, take me to immortality”. It goes on, “Take me from light to darkness”… but ‘take me to immortality’ as being the main thing. So that’s a pretty big craving to move from the sense of transience and fragility and everything else to the idea that I want to be forever.
So to compound the problem, we also have this one it’s often included, ditthasava. Which is the asava of views. Or, as a better translation of “ditth” or “ditthi”, is actually “opinions”. So this is an unpromising beginning. The unpromising beginning … of dependent origination althought I’m saying it’s not an origin, so please don’t take me too literally on this, this is the situation: the asavas that compose avijja are confusion, desire for sensuality, desire for continued existence, and a whole load of opinions. Let’s face it, we’re just opinionated.
Now I use that word deliberately, “opinion” because what I want to contrast it with is, and “views” isn’t an inaccurate translation. It’s actually okay. But the reason I want to do that is because I want to contrast “opinion” with “knowledge” and “insight” into the way things are. So we have lots of opinions about the way things are. But actually not much insight into the way things are Now that’s all a manifestation of the confusion. So what is the chief, in a sense, problem that avijja is blocking us from? Well, it’s actually any direct insight into the three characteristics of existence. Because, desire for continued existence? Well, the Buddha is saying, actually there’s anatta. Anatta. The problems that we’re having in terms of impermanence… well, I think I’ll go and have a good time. Let’s get out and have a good time.
Now, there were characters called charvakas in the time of the Buddha, who literally believed that was the only thing. There was no death, there was no rebirth, it was only having a good time. They were nihilists basically. And then instead of this real knowledge about the way things are, we have lots and lots of opinions about it. “Views” works quite well in some cases, doesn’t it? Because what is most conflict about? And I’m thinking here politically and worldwide; conflict is about views. We hold conflicting contrasting views. Now all of these are born out of papanca. So, ditthi is, in some senses, something that is deeply embedded in papanca. It inclines the mind in a certain way. So there’s your unpromising beginning.
Now, what it’s saying is: dependent on these [asavas], these are the conditioning factors for the arising of sankharas. That word that I used in relationship to the five aggregates. The sankharas arise in dependence on confusion. So this is kind of everything’s misplaced here, isn’t it? Can you see this? The confusion is actually misplacing any search that we might have.
Now, in many ways, what you can see is that in the early texts, what the Buddha is trying to really give us a picture of is that we’re not bad people. Again, there’s this is lack of moralistic finger wagging a lot of the time. I see it, sometimes when it does occur in it, as being something’s being slipped in. I really do that. Sometimes the Pali is different. When it gets moralistic, it’s as if it’s been come in later, in some way. It’s become traditionalized again. Because I don’t find that so much within the bulk of the texts. Because the Buddha appears to be saying that these are outcomes of dealing with the problems of life. And if I’m confused, well I will go searching for happiness in things that actually don’t give me happiness. But I’m still under the delusion or the confusion that they will. And I keep on doing it almost out of the sheer disbelief that it’s not actually given me what I want. Does that ever occur to you? When you engage in a habit, doesn’t ever occur to you, I keep on doing this but I don’t want to do it. But it’s almost, I can’t really not believe this is not gonna give me what I want. So I’ll give it one more go. That’s really what’s occurring here.
Bhavasava is, well even better than misery I know, than not be me. Now in the later part of the wheel, you’re going to find vibhava which actually means the desire not to continue. The desire to obliterate the self in some way or another. And that’s deeply linked. And then there is, of course, well, I’ve got to find my way around the world, so I develop my sense of the world by having lots of views and opinions about it. And lots of views and opinions about right and wrong. Good and bad. Correct and incorrect. All these sorts of things.
But coming back to khamasava, I mean, even the material stuff of the world, which is actually one of the big things that khamasava devolves on, the Buddha describes in one sutta, as being a bit like a dog being thrown a bone… here’s the bone, it doesn’t have any flesh on it at all. He says it’s just smeared with a bit of blood. And the dog keeps chewing the bone again and again and again, searching for nutriment. What a wonderful metaphor for our compulsive behavior, doing the same things again and again, is a bit like chewing the bone, trying to see if we can get the nutriment out of all the nutrition that we want. But we keep on doing it. … It’s like chewing gum, isn’t it? When it’s lost its flavor. You can’t quite take it out your mouth. Just keep on chewing. And that’s really the experience of a lot of khamasava. Keep on doing the same stuff again and again and again and again. No wonder we get the sankharas we do. And the sankharas are deeply embedded habits. That’s why one possible translation, it doesn’t cover every eventuality of what the word “sankhara” means is “habit”. You’ll find these usually translated as “volitional formations”. Volitional formations.
Now in the Tibetan Wheel of Life, or the Wheel of Becoming I referred to earlier on, these pictorial illustrations show you, if you ever look at it closely, for example, avijja is described usually as either one [or] two blind men trying to lead each other. Tapping their way through the world.
The sankharas … is usually pictorially described as a potter molding pots. Sometimes collapsing them down and remolding them. Sometimes there’s one that’s being produced, it looks fairly similar to the ones being molded but it’s got a big wonkiness in the top and it’s not quite correct. And so it’s like the process of what we’re engaged in is molding, and remolding often, our habits. Our proclivities to behave and think in certain ways. This is very much the creation of the, kind of, neural pathways that we’re engaged in, you know, keep on doing it. It’s like bad habits. If you think of a bad habit and do it, or think of something you don’t want to do, but do it, and it’s really bad … it’s so much easier to do it the second time. And then the third time, and the fourth time. Fifth time, you’ve forgotten completely [that] it’s a bad habit. Probably actually earlier than that, but it becomes so ingrained so quickly. How to do these things.
So sankharas, we’re always setting up sankharas, and operating out of the sankharas. The sankharas, in a sense, become us. The poet Rilke once said, in his Duino Elegies, he said, here is the habit that moved in and didn’t leave. That’s what happened, for a lot of our behaviors. Our deeply, deeply ingrained habits which move in and haven’t left us. And that’s what we keep on repeating. So there’s a compulsion to repeat. And this is what we’re doing. So sankhara is actually, to use more contemporary jargon, almost become default options. When the going gets tough, you fall back on your default option. Which is usually the easy way, because I don’t have to think about it. I don’t actually have to think about this. Even if the end result is further misery or whatever. I don’t usually think about it because better to know what the outcome is going to be, rather than to engage in something new, which is difficult, and not know what the outcome is going to be.
So this is really the way that the Buddha is describing the setting up of the sankharas. That we’re always setting up. Remolding, the word literally means, in Pali, it comes from the word, “sankhata” which is “formed and forming”. So we’re … both formed and always forming. So hence the model, I think, of the potter is a very good one. Always molding our lives. Always shaping our lives. But often shaping just the same things. It’s like the painter that can only paint one subject. And the potter can only one make one model of pot. We keep on doing it, and we keep on doing it pretty compulsorily.
The other dimension to this is, of course, that these are narratives. These are also narrative structures, stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And who we are. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, even when you’ve had a habit, there’s usually two aspects to breaking a habit. Often there’s a great feeling of loss, like you somehow lost a bit of yourself. But there’s also the feeling of freedom that comes from that. So it’s a kind of double edged thing initially, until you become, in a way, more relaxed, more comfortable with the sense of what you’ve lost. So, there’s often this deep, deep sense almost of grief when you’ve lost a habit. When it’s gone. That’s a bit of me, it’s gone. It isn’t, it’s just a habit. This is what we’re dealing with. And these are sankharas.
Now I’m gonna say a bit more about them tomorrow, because they’re really, really important, although they’re not in the list that’s given in the Mahanidanda Sutta. Because these are the two factors which are going to influence what we, in a sense, are conscious of this moment in time.
Now, I put it in very crude, contemporary terms earlier on, we’re conscious of our stuff. Well our stuff is our sankharas and our confusion. Now I don’t want to paint, again, too bleak a picture. Because, actually, there are moments when we’re very accountable in this. But this is kind of like the dominant framework for most of our experience. So this is describing samsaric experience. And these two are literally the roots of samsaric experience. When we’re embedded in these we experience unpleasantness. Unwholesomeness. Something not being quite right. A sense of lack. Most of what the Buddha is dealing with, and here’s another thing. And perhaps I’ll finish the day on this comment. And then I’ll open it to see if there’s any few questions to finish off with.
What the Buddha is dealing with is really the pathology of desire. This is really what he is getting us to try and understand, is the pathology of desire. This is why this term will occur in endless lists. You know, actually Buddhist lists are a wonderful recycling mechanism. You get the same terms recycled again and again and again in different permutations to make different points about the psyche and the way that the psyche is functioning. Kama raga, kamasava, kamatanha. All these different terms you get where kama is involved. It’s this kind of recycling of this desire that we have that we’re deeply deeply enmeshed into. And this is, if you want to call it philosophy, the desire is linked to a philosophy of lack. There is always something that we feel we’re lacking. And it’s almost as if we can somehow fill ourselves up with something which will then make us feel fulfilled. Literally. So it’s about the elimination of this pathology of desire, which is another dimension of these early teachings, which I don’t feel… it’s there in the traditions, but it’s not so much stressed. It’s understanding that pathology, and then about how to eliminate that pathology. And I do deliberately call it a pathology.
Okay, so see if there’s any questions to finish off the day.
Since you mentioned that dependent origination is a very profound teaching and difficult from an experiential perspective. Will you also speak about how we can begin to break down the links and actually practice and see for ourselves how it really does manifest?
John Peacock 1:11:55
The quick answer to that is yes. I’ll talk about that tomorrow because there are particular links in the chain which are more susceptible to intervention, being able to see it. And this becomes a real practice. This is what we’re doing in our practice: beginning to see this [dependent origination] in operation as it goes. Because actually, in ordinary life, we have to… I gave you the quick answer, now I’ll give you the long answer… but in ordinary life, this stuff is going on so quickly. I don’t about you, but I don’t often see the desire for a piece of chocolate arising in my mind. I find myself eating a piece of chocolate. You know, it’s not this kind of, “oh, yes, I see it. Yes, desire desire.” It’s a very quick process. So what we’re actually engaged in [when we practice meditation] is beginning to slow down the process, beginning to see a lot more clearly. And then when we begin to see more clearly we know when we can intervene. And there are particular points and I’ll talk about it tomorrow.