Monthly Archives: October 2015
After the Nikāya Budda’s awakening, he was not content to sit quietly in the forest for the rest of his life. He went looking for people to share the transforming practice with, and his five former companions in the ascetic work were the first. He caught up with them in the Deer Park near Benares (modern-day Varanasi). They became convinced that he truly had seen something different than the usual, and for several days he guided them, until at least three of the five had it. He talked, pointing toward the unsayable, until they changed.
To suggest that he merely turned up, gave them a ‘sermon’ and that immediately Kondañña awoke to the uncreated dimension, is typical of the usual historical process of making a mythical hero, but real relationships rarely happen like that.
It’s likely that, even if we accept that such a comprehensive teaching could happen in that period (the middle way, the eightfold way of life, the four ennobling realities, the twelve tasks – that’s an impressive list), much of it would have achieved articulation in the interactions with the five; that is, in dialogue. That’s how genuine teaching relationships go – the teacher hones, with the student, the articulation of that which is known but which doesn’t yet have words.
So, what does the Nikāya Buddha teach, in the Conveying of the Nature of Reality Sutta that you and I can apply? The middle way, which is stated here as neither sensory indulgence, nor suppressing the self.
The usual formula is expressed as neither indulging the senses, nor ‘mortifying’ the body. That would be applicable to the five ascetics, but only an extremely small proportion of modern Western householders are mortifying the body. However, many practitioners do ask whether they should be enjoying the senses, so it’s worth noting that it is not healthy to suppress our natural responsivity, or life of impulse. So, where to from there?
What is so special, here, is that the eightfold way of life is directly tied to the middle way. When I place indulging my impulses over on one side, and suppressing them over on the other, then in the middle I am interactional, but I’m not engaging from ‘reactivity.’ Reactivity is exactly what the middle way is free from.
For instance: I am going to die. The understanding of this fact profoundly impacts me. Do I rush out and fill my bucket, acquiring experiences hungrily before I go? No, that keeps me on the surface. I am swirled around, to no deepening benefit. Do I stop all activity, not engage with life in its natural movement, in its unfolding? Likewise, there’s no joy, no growth, no innate responsivity, no freedom in that.
A devatā asks the Nikāya Buddha: “But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?”
“When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
– Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha.
I’m struck with how it is paradoxical: it is appropriate living, because it stays with the dependently-arisen (no room to move, either to indulgence, or to suppression); and, yet, this is maximum freedom, precisely because we are unconditioned. That is, not conditioned by reactivity, not enslaved by past structures. Yet, this is not without order and beauty; nor without peace, gladness and joy.
That is the beauty of Kondañña’s insight: “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.” This itself was the realisation of the middle way. It isn’t conceivable, because it is exceeds concepts; nevertheless, our bodies feel it. And, we must speak of it to each other, just as the Nikāya Buddha couldn’t keep quiet about it. It’s too valuable to suppress.
Speaking about the Chinese text The Heart Sutra, Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi commented:
“Here we see the Middle Way of the Buddha Dharma. Conceptual dyads are useful in communication but they become invidious when, for example, truth and falsehood become fixed positions that differ from person to person. Misunderstandings turn into anger, and worse. Thus it is not the forms of the world, it is not our perceptions of the forms, that are obstacles. It is the fact that we take them as ultimate verities.”
– The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective.
The Nikāya Buddha teaches a method of meditation based on gladness, tranquillity and joy. Both indulgence and suppression produce an inflexible heart-mind, making insight harder to arise. No doubt, in those several days, the teacher helped them steady their minds, so that they could see their subjectivity with greater subtlety. He must have used words freshly, to by-pass their usual dualistic perceptions, so that they could arrive at the middle way, which is not a position. It’s ‘This’ that you have now, in its dependently-arisen and implicitly-ordered immediacy. It exceeds our concepts of ‘yes’ (indulge) and ‘no’ (suppress). It is ever-fresh.
When I sought the historical Buddha in the Nikāya texts, I was troubled by my inability to accept the cosmology in those texts. I see no reason to reject the evidence that the Nikāya Buddha believed in rebirth. However, since I have looked on these texts as a huge, collective literary endeavour, I have found it much easier to extract the honey from sentences such as the following (in the Sutta of Conveying the Nature of Reality): “Immovable is my freedom. This is my last birth. Now there is no cycle of becoming.”
When I look upon these texts as reflecting something about human experience, then I’m curious about that experience, and not about what the texts say about the ultimate status of the so-called physical universe. I don’t care for that. Don’t I know where to find ‘birth’? Don’t these texts show me where to find birth, death and liberation? It’s in human experiencing.
The Nikāya Buddha wanted to find a way out of an unsatisfying continuity of experiencing. Haven’t I, too, found myself in unsatisfactory cycles of becoming – the same old, same old? Haven’t I, too, found myself asking the kind of questions that the Nikāya Buddha asked at the beginning of his quest: “There must surely be more to this? Is there a life-affirming inner end to psychological pain? What is this?”
When I first understood that I couldn’t be a believer in rebirth (at least, not in its traditional form), I committed myself to interpreting these texts as documents regarding the liberation of experiencing, documents of self-evident sophistication. The dynamics of mind evident in their theory of dukkha was enough to make me want to stick at it – the ancient culture with its patriarchal views, notwithstanding.
That was possibly about forty-five years ago, and my intuition was rewarded. The Buddhist way has provided valuable tools for dissolving layer upon layer of habitual protection of false ways of being; to gradually come to trust an open, spacious, groundless ground. (The Nikāya Buddha describes himself and other tathāgatas as ‘traceless, like the sky.’)
Perhaps one way to express the core of the path which is offered by this teaching is that it involves the development of personal responsibility to the extent that you are willing to inhabit your experiential space, alone – without a second.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who
dwells in mindfulness
night and day
‘the one who knows
the better way to live alone.’
– Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN131), translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, in Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.
To do that you necessarily undertake the humiliation of recognition of delusion in yourself and responsibility for the harm that has flowed from your delusions. It’s no wonder that this path has engendered so much respect throughout the centuries; yet, without producing any radical transformation in the societies which have taken it up. (In today’s world, we can’t call Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Burma exemplars of the Buddhist way – all of them with appalling human rights records.) Most people admire the saint, without wanting to go all the way with her.
What am I saying? I’m saying the wheel of birth and death – the stranglehold of materialistic personality – is very hard to escape. Our dukkha involves the interplay of ignorance, unconscious shaping factors, consciousness, identity, sense domains, contact, feeling tones, craving, grasping, and becoming; resulting in ignorant conceptions of birth, old age, sickness and death, which in turn feed back into that dynamic mesh. It’s no wonder that the Nikāya Buddha is portrayed, in the days after his enlightenment, sitting on the banks of a river, saying (more or less): “This is deep, subtle, difficult to see. Surely it would be vexatious to try and communicate this to people addicted to sense pleasures.”
However, here is the key: Dukkha is fabricated out of the experiential space. You and I have that always – in our living, which includes in our dying. Always, it’s all there is for us. And, dukkha is derived, not basic. The reason that the Nikāya Buddha can withstand Mara under the Bodhi tree is that he trusted his experiential space. He found that Mara is not real and is way less dependable than the Earth, which, on that night of his enlightenment, he called upon as a witness to his right to inhabit his experiential space absolutely. You and I have that Earth available, too.
Hence, the two fundamental meditation texts in this teaching – the Sutta of Breathing in and Out and the Mindfulness Sutta – establish the meditative endeavour has beginning in and flowering in the body – with the support of the earth element. This is the spirit reflected in: “Immovable is my freedom.”
How do we go about grounding ourselves in the sense of things being out of whack; that is, grounding ourselves in dukkha? Does that make any sense?
There is a passage in the Anguttara Nikāya, in the Upanisa Sutta, which is striking. In this text the Nikāya Buddha is speaking about the transformation of habitual cycles of dukkha. Here he says that the causes of dukkha and the causes of liberation are intertwined. Many things have to be implicitly in place for dukkha – ignorance, false identity, a perception of our body-mind, dualistic sense-perceptions, thirsting for an escape from the round, and the whole thing rolls on due to our habit of ignoring immediate knowledge. At one point he says this:
“And what, Mendicants, is the immediate cause of gladness?
“It is confidence, I say, Mendicants.
“And what, Mendicants, is the immediate cause for confidence?
“It is dukkha, I say, Mendicants.
The cause of confidence, which is a basic process in the cycle of liberation, is dukkha? Yes, if we take the wise cook’s advice, and note the shifts that occur in our field – when we see clearly with mindfulness; that is, recollecting our purpose for seeing the causes of our dukkha – then we can be confident and glad of the process. (As an instance of this: I had a friend who died from cancer. When he got the diagnosis, he was glad, because then much that was happening to him made sense. His body took a big, relieved sigh and said, “Oh, that’s it!” Now he could get on with his next step with a certain kind of confidence; one which sustained him in his difficulties.)
It’s looks likely that in our earlier stages of evolution, what we now call greed, ill-will and delusion worked to carry the species forward. The development of self-centred-ness was once an achievement, and accomplishment. It helped give us a bodily feel for the kinds of distinctions we were making in our environment, and to sense our possibilities in those environments. The differentiation of the individual carried the species forward. The Buddhist teachings have no gripe with the emergence of an independent individual.
A baby is a representative of the development of the species. At an earlier stage of our personal development our narcissism works to help us survive – it is perfect for that phase. To be merged with our parents and not see their separateness furthers our bodies needs. Yet, at a later stage of development we need to discriminate a self which is separate. However, the particular mode of self-creation (the way we set it up in the past) may not be working for us now, for us as adults. Dukkha is a sign that an update is needed.
The next development needs to keep the discernment of our individuality, but to know it to be dependently arisen – including dependent on discernment. The task is to be conscious of our discriminations, of our dependently-arisen separateness, but to no longer resist its virtual-reality feel; and, to acknowledge the implicit matrix that it occurs from and into.
Dukkha, then, is a sign of the need for renewal. It’s a sign of something that needs growth. This ‘rough ride’ means that there is something good going on – a change is possible, and the situation is workable. Dukkha is a sign of a need for a new way to have knowledge. Dukkha is a sign that there is a life-expanding energy that needs our conscious presence to find its next step.
It’s a sign that the conditions of the old consciousness are no longer working to carry the organism (and therefore the species) forward. The old structures are not working and a process of renewal will bring new, more appropriate structures. (Which will include knowing that we and the biosphere are not two.)
How does such a new confidence and a fresh knowing emerge? It emerges when we take a fresh look at our dynamics of experience; when we activate the four placements of mindfulness:
– the sentient body in and of itself,
– the sentience of feeling-tones in and of themselves (pleasant, unpleasant, and neither),
– the sentience of mind-states in and of themselves, and
– the dynamics of the organization of the first three (of one’s body, one’s feeling-tones, and one’s mind-states), in and of themselves.
Here’s an exercise from Tarthang Tulku’s work, which I’ve found helpful to develop the fourth of these placements of attention. It’s from Time, Space, & Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality:
TSK Exercise 7: Body-Mind-Thought Interplay
Explore a wide variety of typical activities and situations. These can include social interactions, entertainments, learning experiences, various sorts of work or labor, and emotional highs and lows. In each situation, notice that its overall character and nature are reflected in your own psycho-physical embodiment. Observe the complex interrelationship between sensations, ‘mind’, thoughts, emotions, and body which constitutes ‘you in that situation’. For instance, the mind receives input; it thinks thoughts; these thoughts bear an emotional dimension; and emotions are embodied in particular physical areas (the stomach, the throat, etc.). Such embodiment leads to sensations which again tie in with particular emotions, memories, thoughts, and so on.
Investigate the psychological and physiological mechanisms and interactions in as much detail as you can. Such an investigation may require that you treat your own body as a ‘giant body’, travelling through it… as a tiny observer.
I am doing a self-retreat at present, and today I have left my writing too late to begin. So, I thought that instead, I’d share a kind of meditative processes with you, one of the kind which I do.
This is a Tarthang Tulku exercise, from one of his books in the Time, Space, Knowledge series. This is from Dynamics of Time and Space: Transcending Limits on Knowledge (p. 262). It’s worth trying, because when I say we can ground ourselves in our ‘dukkha’ (stress, angst, pain of skew-whiff-ness), I mean we can enter right inside such experiences and become intimate with their dynamics.
Over the years, the greatest boon I have had from the TSK series is that it offers a kind of training for experiencing processes from in the processes themselves. This is recommended by the Nikāya Buddha – for instance, in the Sutta on the Placements of Mindfulness (MN 10: Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) – but precisely how to do that is not plainly stated in the Nikāyas. I’ve learned it from Tarthang Tulku’s books.
DTS Exercise 5: Abiding in Thought
“On the surface of experience, thoughts come and go quickly, even instantaneously. One event succeeds another, one reaction follows the next in a powerful momentum that structures linear time. Let yourself become aware of this dynamic and the rhythm that supports it. Gradually introduce a different rhythm: As a single feeling or emotion or thought arises, enter into it and abide there-as though you would be ready to live your life right within that experience.
This abiding is not static. It invokes the dynamic rhythm of time without insisting on a linear momentum. Nor does it ‘take’ time to abide in this way. As you sink into the experience, time expands. Deep within the content of the moment, you can contact the body of experience and discover a different way of being.
The shift from progression to abiding may lead to unusual experiences. Be careful not to aim at capturing or appropriating what arises, for doing so will only generate a new momentum that takes form in a new story. At first, you will experience abiding as a special event, something like ‘stopping’ time. As you grow more familiar with it, however, you will realize that you can abide within the flow of linear time. The two temporal dynamics can unfold simultaneously.”
I’ve been talking on this blog, lately, about the occasion on which the Nikāya Buddha first shared his realisation with someone. I’ve put my translation (completed today) up here.
Several weeks after the Nikāya Buddha’s awakening, he initially wishes to share his newfound knowledge with his teachers, but he finds that they had died. Then, he thinks about his five former companions, who had practised extreme asceticism with him. They had abandoned him, when he started to take a more moderate approach. So, he sets out to find them and share his new knowledge. (Vinaya i 8-10).
The Vināya record describes how he works with them over a period of days, finding ways to convey his understanding, so that they were able to realise it for themselves. Each day, while the ‘workshop’ continued, three of them go off and beg for food, which they bring back and for the six to eat together. And, on goes the work, until Koṇḍañña is the first of the five to see the nature of reality significantly and clearly.
In my translation, I have omitted the usual convention of the ‘Four Noble Truths,’ because reputable scholars doubt the authenticity of that phrase; and, anyway, it is unnecessary for a practical understanding of the teaching on dukkha and the ending of dukkha.
I’ve left dukkha untranslated. The Pali-English Dictionary says: “Our modern words are too specialised, too limited, and usually too strong. Sukha & dukkha are ease and dis-ease (but we use disease in another sense); or wealth and ilth from well & ill (but we have now lost ilth); or wellbeing and ill-ness (but illness means something else in English).”
If you need an English term for ‘dukkha,’ to help you make the text more experience-near, then I would probably choose Thanissaro’s ‘stress.’ Speaking non-technically, dukkha generally adds up to a ‘bad trip.’
I probably owe a lot to various translations, but here I’ll mention that the noun-phrase “for the spiritually ennobled ones” I took from Peter Harvey’s translation, so that the former Four Noble Truths could have some look-in. He has a very helpful glossary, as well, for those who want to explore.
I have taken the approach that this particular sutta is not so much about lauding the Nikāya Buddha, and not even so much about presenting the truth of dukkha – its existence, its generation, its cessation, and the way of life which is its ceasing – but it particularly presents the significant and joyous, occasion of the awakening of Koṇḍañña.
The link in the last post to the Kāyasakkhī Sutta (The ‘Realising Through the Body’ Sutta) didn’t work, so here’s one that does.
“Once adopted, a belief operates in a characteristic way. The mind classifies or labels experience in conformity with the belief and draws conclusions accordingly, perhaps ‘re-presenting’ the result as potential content for a new belief. The structure so determined screens out direct knowledge of experience itself. In establishing this structure, the key step is the acceptance of the content of the belief as trustworthy.” – Tarthang Tulku, Love of Knowledge
The Nikāya mythos suggests that death-dukkha, the anguish surrounding the concept of ‘death’ has to do more with a false sense of ‘I’ than it does anything else. Delusion is at the root of the fear of death. It’s the death of the ‘me’ that we fear, more than the actual physical end.
In my last post I began exploring the proposition that ‘whatever is actively appearing, is in every respect also a ceasing.’ My experience of this has been matched by others with whom I’ve explored this (experientially, not merely in discursive logic). That is, we notice that we baulk at staying right there, at that limit of human thought. As two brave explorers, in the one day, independently put it: “It’s freaky!” If you’ve done the experiment, you’ll know what they mean.
When I asked one person to explore (using Focusing-style contemplation) what makes it so freaky, after a period of sitting with it, feeling into his bodily-felt meaningfulness, he said, “If the arising and the ceasing are together… then who am I?” We explored that for a while; and after that, his next sense of ‘freaky’ was: “If the arising and the ceasing are both here, then… there’s nothing.”
In the Sutta-Nipāta: The Master told Upasiva:
“Use these two things to help you cross the ocean [of dukkha]: the perception of Nothingness and the awareness that ‘there is nothing’.” – verse 1070. Translated by Saddhatissa.
Remember the noting, we spoke of several days ago. Here it is. First the perception, then holding it with grounded awareness. I helped this person stabilise the awareness of the nothingness, and to check how the body responds. It is usually received well, overall, and he was able to hold the experience nicely.
If you do the ‘arising and ceasing, both’ exercise, please keep track of your body, and note the changes happening in your body as you encounter the ‘freaky’ display. You’ll be safe as long as you ground yourself in the body. The body can be tracked in all useful meditations. (See the Kāyasakkhī Sutta.)
So, that’s another type of ‘death.’ Dying to our beliefs regarding who we are and what ‘This’ is. (Even after dying to the belief in a little ‘me’ inside, I’ve found that the belief in some physical reality ‘over there’ persists for a long time.) When we can bring a unified consciousness to the question of what we actually experience, compared to what we believe we are experiencing, then the discovery that there is no ‘thing’ to be found anywhere, no conceivable reality-with-signs, which goes counter to the consensus belief-system, will eventually be found to be a great wish-fulfilling well – with the jewels of peace, joy, connection, and more.
Where did we acquire the belief that reality has to be conceivable, to be reality? How did it happen, that we put belief before experience? So strong is this, that when the mind confronts the inconceivability of ‘what is,’ it retreats in favour of concepts which can re-establish the familiar, the known and shared way to be. Another way of putting it: Where did we get the idea that the Kosmos is only cosmos?
Maybe that’s unanswerable, though if we can get the whippersnapper Science to talk to its rejected parent Philosophy, the two together might give us a decent answer someday. However, the crucial point will always be the ‘how’ of the continual mis-naming of what is going on here – the how of ‘dukkha.’ And, the ‘how’ of getting in line with what our experience actually is.
If we find that we are not believing our experience, or are rejecting it for one reason or another, how do we establish a way to go forward, in our quest for a flourishing life? The task hasn’t changed since the pre-Socratics ‘published’ abroad the results of their enquiries. That is, the task is, as in any good science, to find the appropriate method, and a ground upon which we can search for the questions which are appropriate to our situation.
My own history puts me in the Buddhist field, and more specifically, in the field of the ‘Pāli imaginaire’ (as Steven Collins says, in Nirvāna and Other Buddhist Felicities).I share from this angle. In this context, what does the text called the Dhammacakkapavatana (regularly misnamed ‘the Buddha’s first sermon’) tell us, about clarifying the problem of misperception of life, and undoing the knots? I’ve introduced its most radical insight, but let’s go back to first principles. Kondanna’s insight came in a situation of hearing some other things.
The Nikāya story is that this is the first occasion on which we hear of the problem situation defined: there is dukkha, and the necessary condition for dukkha. Upon this ground we can explore the cessation of dukkha, and the way of life which is the cessation of dukkha. A translation for dukkha is problematic, but for now, I’ll say it means ‘the anguish arising dependent on clinging to the wrong perception of how things are.’
“Now, Almsmen, for the spiritually ennobled ones, there is this dukkha: birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha. In short, clinging-to-the-fivefold-personality-processes-dukkha.”
– Dhammacakkapavatana (The Sutta of Conveying the Nature of Reality.) Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
What power has this insight, “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing”? Let’s start with why I didn’t translate “‘yaṃ kiñci samudaya·dhammaṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ nirodha·dhamma” in the usual way; that is, as: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing’?
That way of saying this deep matter is not incorrect; and if we dwell on it, it will point to the same point as I am emphasising here, that’s true. However, it can be, and is often, read to mean something like: “What is here now, won’t be here for long. What is here today, isn’t here tomorrow.” Do you see that? Did you, too, read serial time into that line, ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing’?
Let’s face it, that approach isn’t earth-shattering news to an adult; though, it is to a five-year old, as we have noted elsewhere. It’s not the kind of realisation that awakens a tathāgata. (Given the enormous creativity of the Kosmos, I imagine that for someone, somewhere, sometime, it might cause a revolution at the seat of consciousness, though.) One translation that I’ve seen – which didn’t include the translator’s name, so I can’t acknowledge her or him – says it well, with: “’All that has the nature of arising has the nature of ceasing.” However, this is still not clear enough, for me.
The standard translations run the risk of presenting only a first level of access to Buddhadharma, because they invite serial time. Folk wisdom can give us this access. ‘This’ – our actuality –requires an appropriate response, something more radical than beautiful folk wisdom. And, for the change of heart needed in our times, we, too, need something more radical than that.
What Kondañña is announcing is truly fresh news. This, if seen steadily, dependably, able to be checked and re-checked, this insight is only seen rarely in the world. Which is totally tragic, because if the actual insight (waking up) were the basis of our culture – combined with appropriate horizontal cultivation (growing up) – we would live in a vastly kinder, and joyful world.
This realisation opens the Heavens, and the ripples flow out:
“And with this teaching, the stainless, dust-free vision arose in Kondañña: “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.”
Upon the flourishing one conveying the nature of reality, the earth-devas exclaimed with one voice, “The incomparable nature of reality has been conveyed by the flourishing one at Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, and no recluse, brahmin, deva, māra, brahma, or other being in the world can hinder it.”
The lowest-heaven devas, having heard what the earth-devas said, exclaimed with one voice, “The incomparable nature of reality has been conveyed by the flourishing one at Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, and no recluse, brahmin, deva, māra, brahma, or other being in the world can hinder it.”
This utterance was echoed and re-echoed in the upper realms, and from lowest-heaven it was proclaimed in the second deva realm, [where Sakka rules], and then to Yama, and then to fourth deva realm, Tusita, and then up to the fifth deva realm, and on to the Beyond Signs realm.
The devas in the company of Brahma, having heard what the Beyond Signs devas said, proclaimed in one voice, “The incomparable nature of reality has been conveyed by the flourishing one at Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, and no recluse, brahmin, deva, māra, brahma, or other being in the world can hinder it.”
So it was, in a moment, an instant, a flash, that knowledge of the transmission of the nature of reality travelled up to the world of Brahma, and the ten thousand worlds system trembled, quaked and shook.
A boundless, sublime radiance, surpassing the power of devas, appeared on earth.“
Everything about this episode tells me that Kondañña’s fresh, present-centred understanding is highly significant; that is, the Nikāya text is very vocal in saying, “Look at this. Don’t underestimate this!”
Of course, it would be instantaneous – a flash. Recent experiments in the Netherlands have confirmed that objects separated by great distance can instantaneously affect each other’s behaviour. Your realisation changes the world.
However, our myth plays with ordinary time. It’s that kind of Kosmos, where all dimensions co-exist.
May we fully realise a tathāgata’s meaning.
“Now, Almsmen, for the spiritually ennobled ones, there is this dukkha: birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha. In short, clinging-to-the-fivefold-personality-processes-dukkha.” – SN 56.11 Conveying the Dhamma Sutta (Also called Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion Sutta). Translated by Christopher J. Ash
At the beginning of this month, I challenged the conventional idea that the Nikāya Buddha said:
“that all human beings experience great pain from old age, sickness, and death, from getting what we do not want and from not getting what we do want. He said that these changing conditions are dukkha, a Pali word usually translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’ or ‘stress.'”
That is, there is talk that the Nikāya Buddha said that the fact that you have been born and will die is dukkha. This is tradition being passed on uncritically. This teaching is not a solution to our actual old age and death. It’s the dukkha about old-age-death (jarāmaraṇa-dukkha) which the teaching addresses, and this has to do with clinging to the five sentient processes of: body (or form), feeling-tones (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), perceptions, formative factors (intentional factors), and consciousness. Clinging to these in the belief that they constitute an enduring, permanent, entity-self – that brings dukkha. The knot in consciousness caused by trying to live a life according to the entity-in-time-space model is painful in a very special way, because it is a ‘bad fit’ (du- = bad).
Aitken Roshi translated dukkha as anguish, and that certainly is a flavour of dukkha. The wonkiness of dukkha is not always operating. Many moments of well-being (sukkha) occur in each day. However, dukkha is sufficiently troublesome to merit very special treatment. This sutta is a goldmine of insights into the dukkha of human life.
The most exciting moment in the sutta, for me, is when Kondañña, one of a group of five ascetics, wakes up to what the Nikāya Buddha has realised. The Nikāya Buddha, just a several weeks away from his awakening, has been able help another see it in himself, personally. “And with this instruction, the stainless, dust-free vision arose in Kondañña.” And he says this beautiful thing, which has been passed on again, and again for the twenty-five hundred years; “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.” So important was this insight that it rocked the heavens, and the all the gods on all levels declared, “The incomparable nature of reality has been conveyed by the flourishing one at Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, and no recluse, brahmin, deva, māra, brahma, or other being in the world can hinder it.”
Then, he taught and instructed the others, and Mahanama and Assaji both realised it, too. This happened over several days. It definitely wasn’t a ‘sermon.’ Three of them would go out begging for food, while he walked the other three through the inner vision. They all lived on the food they brought back.
Not long afterward, Assaji passed on the essence of it to Sariputta, on the dusty road somewhere, and Sariputta had a profound awakening on the spot, and the stainless, dust-free vision arose in him: “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.”
Playfully, try it out yourself. When your meditation is feeling peaceful, steady or concentrated, for a little time watch the arisings. Then, shift the focus to the quality of ceasing. Then, notice that arising and ceasing are there together.
When you can see this, you might see that our actual life never comes into existence, into an entity state; that is, ourselves as some object with location is dependent on naming, and not on direct experience. Or, saying it another way, we are never born except nominally.
The Nikāya Buddha’s teaching is to help us gain insight into process, and specifically, a false process of self-ing. To use the word ‘I’ or ‘self’ is merely useful convention, but we get snagged on it. In the dust-free, homeless state of ‘no-entity ever forms here,’ indeed, what being in the world could hinder it? Here, birth, illness, death, association with the unpleasing, separation from the pleasing, not getting what one wants, these are just states that come and go in life. See them with Kondañña’s eye, and they are no drama.
The Nikāya Buddha’s quest was to understand human disorder, and the ending of disorder, which he initially put to himself like this (in my paraphrase): “I saw that we are all subject to sickness, old age, and death. I saw that we try to deal with this, and to gain happiness, by chasing after things that are also subject to illness, old age, and death. And I wondered, is there an unborn, un-ageing, un-ailing, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled rest from the burden: nibbāna?” (See the Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search.)
Now death itself – or, at least, the processes we call death – is a part of life. Yesterday, I was watching a kookaburra dive on a grub, and gulp down; and I thought, “That little grub, a moment ago, was carrying its life forward, and now, it’s the carrying forward of the life of a kookaburra.” I operate on the principle that death, in itself, is not the kind of problem we make it out to be. Life is always transforming itself in one way or another, and we name some of those transformations ‘death.’ Our problem, our death-dukkha, comes from our resistance to the fact of such transformations – which implies our conceiving of ourselves as entities, rather than as life process. That is, ego-death is our death-dukkha. More than physical death, we are afraid of the loss of the ‘me’ and of ‘my world.’ (Language-use plays a part in this, too.)
Mindfulness of death is naturally a subject of interest to older people, but younger people can benefit, too. In the Nikāyas, it is Mara that deluder who brings death. Is it possible to use the word ‘death’ in a practical, life-enhancing kind of way, without imagining that it refers to something ultimately existent or findable? What would this mean experientially? Early Buddhist practice – just as much as Mahayana practice – arrives at the union of phenomena and the deathless element. Can I, before my year is out, show you how this can be?
The Nikāya Buddha’s way of approaching death isn’t to train ourselves for what occurs after death, but to train ourselves to be present in death. To do that he suggests we turned toward the thought of death. Maranasati means the recollection of death. A large portion of the mindfulness sutta is devoted to developing a realistic relationship with death (or at least, death as it was then – with bodies lying rotting on the surface of the earth, and charnel grounds).
But the context is not so much dealing with death, but awakening from delusions about life process – getting free of Mara’s grasp, and realising the deathless. In the Nikāyas, the deathless is one of the qualities of the unexcelled rest from the burden, nibbāna. Buddhist teachings and practices not only speak of this freedom, but they make it possible. To recollect death, then, is primarily a means to recognising the deathless. It is one of the Nikāya Buddha’s ways of helping us awaken to this quality in life.
In the Ch’an (Zen) tradition, in Case 94 of the Book of Serenity, there is an interchange between a monk and his teacher Dongshan. Dongshan is dying,
When Dongshan is unwell, the monk asks, “You are sick, teacher, but is there one who does not get sick?”
Dongshan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Does the one who is not sick look after you?”
Dongshan said, “This old man takes care of that one.”
‘How is it, then,” said the monk, “when you look after that one?”
“Then I don’t see any sickness.”
The dialogue could equally go like this:
“You are dying, Teacher, but is there one who does not die?”
“Does the one who does not die look after you?”
“This old man takes care of that one.”
“How is it then, when you look after that one?”
“Then I don’t see any death.”
How can this be? Unless we are in Fantasyland? Yet, the discovery of the deathless element is not a logical matter. It’s a matter of experience and has been verified in practice for two and a half thousand years. This is not hard to entertain, if we remember that logic is a process that this more-than-logical universe has come up with – not the other way round.