The questions that follow [in Visions of Knowledge] advocate no particular view. Their assumptions are open to being challenged; their conclusions should be considered provisional. If we ask in ways that are incisive and clear, our questions do not have to lead to answers. In asking openly, we create support for knowledge, and then our inquiry cannot fail.” – Tarthang Tulku, Visions of Knowledge
Openness is a kind of knowing upon which our inquiry can depend. Indeed, openness intrinsically has a fine quality of inquiry. And, the need for openness is applicable, too, when we make statements (as distinct from questions, mentioned in this quote). If we are dwelling openly, our statements – negative or affirmative – can act as prompts for further inquiry; even if that inquiry is only the act of appreciation. Open interchange carries a conversation forward (as the combination of ‘inter-’ and ‘change’ implies).
As a writer of Dharma, I dance between saying what I know to be so and the openness that in itself is not sayable. Although the openness is always present, I have to zig-zag. I am mindful of not turning the saying into some kind of fixed knowledge – which is to create fictions in the service of my self-image. The awareness that this living is open by nature, helps me avoid being dogmatic. (Sometimes I hear the student come into my voice, and I know to pause.)
The dilemma of such knowing is nicely put by the Nikāya Buddha (in the Kālakarāma Sutta): “All the things that people and gods know, I know too. But I don’t conceive of any thing in or behind what is experienced.” (Don’t quote it. This is a summary for our specific purpose; yet, the gist is accurate.) He follows this up with: “This snag I beheld, long ago, upon which humankind is hooked, is impaled, which is: ‘I know, I see, ‘tis truly so.’” How will we live, in ordinary situations, and not be run by our opinions, beliefs, principles, or tenets; that is, by our ‘dogmas’?
If such a radical change of heart is to be optimally secured in humanity – safely come upon, and yet remain fresh in its transformative freedom – whatever is claimed to be ‘true’ or ‘known’ can’t be imposed from without; not by gods, nor culture. For such a change to be a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra), it has to come from directly knowing our experience.
When our senses are not grasped at – and we thoroughly let them be in their own reach and range – there’s a fundamental revolution in knowing, where even to speak of separate senses is not correct. This realization is the fruit of openness. Openness is the way and the fruit. Clearly, this kind of self-knowledge is radically intimate. It’s an open connection to a basic quality of life which is ‘already-always’ available.
(By the way, while reading “seat of consciousness,” how did you register the word ‘seat,’ in yourself, as you read? Did you vaguely imagine it as something static, fixed, or located; as somewhat thing-ish? A solid base? That would be natural, wouldn’t it, to give it spaciality? However, we want to leave such terms open to a process-use, which won’t establish any such ‘seat’ as actually findable. The word ‘seat,’ here, has to mean something active – even vividly living – right? Let’s not freeze the image; because, it points to experience.)
So, what exactly are we directly knowing, such that our fixities – for instance, our constructions: I am here, something is there, and there’s a ‘between’ – dissolve? Traditionally, the Nikāya Buddha named this knowledge that we need to develop as ‘the six’: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (which has usually been interpreted as knowing mental events). It was, for him, comprehensive:
“What is the All?” he said. “Simply, it’s: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & mental content.”
I’ve expanded them because modern knowledge includes a lot of subtleties. In a recent post, I spoke of them as ‘the eight,’ but now I’m condensing them into seven – “seven domains of sensory life.” The names, by which I hope to encompass all that we currently designate as knowable are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, interoception, and symbolizing.
The purpose of the lists is not merely to clarify the known for scientific progress (not in itself an unworthy purpose, of course) but in the Buddhist tradition it has always been for direct self-knowledge. So, next I’ll unpack the ancestral territory that we have available for deepening the inquiry into death, these seven domains of sense. The takeaway from the above paragraphs, though, is to be wary, during this analysis, of foreclosing our inquiry by assuming that our names, and the forms we discern, are the reality of the body. The body doesn’t actually have parts or opposites. It is an open cycle functioning, so our thinking about the body with its body-environment interaction via the linguistic gestures of ‘parts,’ ‘categories’ and other names, is meant to point to movements of an undivided process, an undivided multiplicity.
Buddhism is famous for its so-called ‘non-self’ (anatta) doctrine; ‘Emptiness’ – you read it everywhere. So, who’s ‘experiencing’ are we exploring? Who gets awakened? Let me say that this writer assumes you are a person, and that all this talk about growth, development, death, sickness, old age and awakening pertains to you as an individual. Enlightenment is a change in a person. I’ve translated the following ‘sutta’ to demonstrate that the Nikāya Buddha was clear about this.
The Burden (Samyutta Nikāya 22.22; PTS: S iii.25)
Translated by Christopher J. Ash
In Sāvatthi, the Flourishing One said: “Listen, Practitioners. I will point out the burden, the one who bears the burden, the taking up of the burden, and the laying down of the burden.” They were attentive.
“And, what, Practitioners, is the burden? It has to be said: the five sentient processes as clung-to. Which five? Form-process clung to, feeling-tone-process clung to, perception-process clung to, intentionality-process clung to, consciousness-process clung to. Just this, Practitioners, is called the burden.
“And who carries the burden? The person, it has to be said – the venerable one of such-and-such a name, and such-and-such a community. Practitioners, the person is called the carrier of the burden.
“And, what is: ‘taking up the burden’? Thirst, bringing renewed existence – accompanied by pleasure and lust; seeking pleasure all over the place. That is: thirst for sense pleasure, thirst for existence, and thirst for non-existence. This, Practitioners, is called ‘taking up the burden.’
“And, what is: ‘laying down the burden’? The complete fading away and cessation of that very thirst – giving it up, forsaking it – being free and unattached. This, Practitioners, is called ‘laying down the burden.’”
This is what the Flourishing One said. And, having spoken, the Well-Faring One further said:
“A burden, indeed, are the five sentient processes,
And, the burden-bearer is the person.
Taking up the burden in the world is stressful;
Laying the burden down is well-being.
Having laid this grave burden aside,
without having taken up any other –
Having pulled out craving at the root –
One is free from thirst, fully quenched.”
Later, I’ll have to explore how ‘the processes themselves’ could be thought of as a burden. It would seem obvious to us in a science-based culture that nature has given rise to these forms of knowing – the sensory dimensions – and to reject them cannot be sensible. So, instead we’ll look at the text as presenting something which contemplative experience can elucidate: that the senses don’t present reality.
Mindfulness with clear comprehension – that is, the way of contemplation – reveals that there is in present reality a way in which the noun phrase ‘senses’ doesn’t apply. To know this is to find a state of knowledge that is highly unusual; a valid state of absence of such a distinction, which will nevertheless not negate ordinary usage of the phrase. You would be forgiven if you responded with an “Huh?”
‘It is a state without ordinary perception and without disordered perception and without no perception and without any annihilation of perception. It is perception, consciousness, that is the source of all the basic obstacles.’
– Saddhatissa, H.. The Sutta-Nipata: A New Translation from the Pali Canon (p. 102). Taylor and Francis.
The teaching of the deathless makes sense only after we have seen that perception is not the primary fact of human experiencing; that perception is dependently arisen, and so derives from a deeper dimension.
But, for now, consider that it’s possible that there is a way in which mis-perceiving their nature is the condition for the burden. Suffering’s cause doesn’t just reside in the process of clinging alone, but in clinging as a significantly energetic point in a nexus of conditions. Why would we cling anyway, unless there was something we’ve projected into these processes? Have we seen them correctly, independently of our thirst and associated constructing tendencies?
And, for now, my point is that words like ‘a person,’ or ‘an individual,’ and so on, are a valid ways of speaking about our experiencing, referring to we who have been born and will die, and who are clarifying our place in things. ‘Non-self’ is a strategy for releasing us from clinging to experiences, releasing us into a greater comprehension; and is not meant to deny what you rightly know. We’ll come to all this later, when we unpack the Kalakārāma Sutta.
The body knows its activity at levels we call ‘unconscious’ (for example, its cellular activity). The following schema presents categories of ways the body ‘knows’ consciously – ways it is lucent (mindful) of its interacting. This conscious ‘having’ of experience helps the body carry forward its life.
Remember, however, although we say ‘six,’ they are not separated out like that in reality. This schema of the ‘senses and their bases’ presents them as separate only for our understanding; they are, in actuality, never separate, isolated processes. They always imply each other. It is our discriminating capacity which discerns them separately.
In the body-en approach, all these categories indicate the interactive activity of the body. The body is the one ‘organ’ (the one sensing organism).
Sight consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, via the eye. Seeing is an aspect of body-environment interaction (body-en).
Sound consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via the ear. Hearing is an aspect of body-en, body-environment interaction.
TASTING AND SMELLING
Likewise, taste and smell consciousness are also each aspects of body-en.
TOUCHING (skin contact)
We in the West have traditionally said there are ‘five senses,’ the fifth being touch. This is an over-simplification; but let’s separate out touch:
Touch consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, interacting via the skin (which, in particular, is the organ of touch, though muscle pressure plays a part, too). Touching is an aspect of body-en. (The word ‘feel’ is often used as a synonym for ‘touch.’ Via the skin, you can feel your clothes, for instance.)
Introduction to two other body senses:
In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we will add two further body senses. These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing: ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perception.’ (See the note on this.)
PERCEIVING FORM (Loosely speaking: Proprioception)
With form-consciousness the body registers sensations arising within its own tissues; especially those concerned with the sense of position, balance and movement of the whole body, and its limbs.
Proprioceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its inner ‘environments,’ interacting inwardly. Proprioception is body-en. This, too, is the body feeling, the body’s sentience.
PERCEIVING ‘INNERMOST’ SENSATIONS
(For now, I’ll refer to this by the term short ‘Interoception’)
This points to sensations in the viscera and nerves. Interoception enables us to feel things such as: hunger, satisfaction, itching, tickles and tingles, pain, body temperature, nausea, need to urinate and defecate, physical effort, sexual arousal, emotions, and – very important, and little recognised – bodily-felt meaning. (Gendlin’s ‘felt sense.’)
Interoceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its own inner processes (its own ‘environments’); specifically, through interacting inwardly with the guts and subtle energies. Interoception is body-en. This, too, is feeling; that is, sentience.
Also, the body is aware of the mental – the Buddhist 6th channel of sensing.
This activity – that is, knowing of concepts, ideas, images, memories, and other subtle inner energies, including consciousness of consciousness – all this too is body-en. ‘Mental’ consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via its inward sensing. Hearing is an aspect of body-en. Mental life, too, is sensed.
EXTENDING THE USUAL MEANING OF ‘ENVIRONMENT’
How is this category – ‘mentality’ – an ‘environment’? Mind is body-environment interaction; but for this to have all its power, we have to expand our understanding of how the body has its ‘environments.’ Along with proprioception and interoception (as defined above), awareness of mental content is such a differentiated activity – which the body ‘goes on in’ (Gendlin). In this work, ‘environment’ is what you go on in.
Any organism, by virtue of reflexivity, becomes its own environment to some degree. The human body has developed a high degree of conscious differentiation of its own activities, and so its ways of ‘having’ its own activity have become differentiated as environments (situations) to be taken into account. The eight-in-interaction take shape as our states of mind, and our skill in handling them. So, I’m in a job interview, and my innermost sensing tells me I’m nervous. It that’s so, I know some things: I can sit up confidently (that feels better immediately) and I can activate the mental operations that might ease my amygdala’s presently disruptive functioning.
When we become familiar with the range of body-environment-interaction as outlined above – everything from what is ‘external to the body’ to what is ‘internal to the body,’ including the making of that distinction – then we can recognise the intricate dynamics of ‘states of mind’ and work with them skilfully.
The Buddha was teaching one day, and he said, “Practitioners, I will tell you about the ‘All.’ Listen closely.” Upon the practitioners assenting, he said: “What is the All? Simply: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘I reject this All, I will describe something more,’ if questioned as to the grounds for his claim, would be unable to explain; and would, furthermore, be at a loss. Why? Because [whatever he posits] lies beyond [the] range [of experience].”
We’re extending this some, but it remains essentially a powerful method of self-awareness.
 In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we can add two further body senses to our experiential schema: proprioception, and interoception. These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing. However, science has not very clearly delineated the categories, yet; so, I’ll use the phrases ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perceptions,’ provisionally, to try to offer support for these subtle discernments.
I expect that in future this last-mentioned category of consciousness will be further differentiated by science to account for subtle energies, such as chi, or kundalini, and so on; but, at this point in history, these are included in my ‘innermost’ category.
 The dictionary defines ‘mental’ as of the ‘mind’; and, by ‘mind’ most people mean: thoughts, inner images, memories, and so on. However, let’s include that the mind can be aware of its own knowing of such contents. This makes this category extremely subtle as an experiential category.
While in the populace at large the word ‘mind’ has largely become restricted to a kind of content – products of the body such as thoughts, inner images, memories, dreams, and so on – we can widen the meaning of ‘mind,’ so that it includes what some call ‘awareness of awareness.’ If that’s so, then we have a broad category called the ‘mental’ which includes the subtler ‘spiritual’ experiences (If extra-sensory modes of knowing are detected, I would include them here.)
 Some further theoretical thoughts on the ‘mental’: Firstly, it would be too big a topic to go into, here, to explain how consciousness [or awareness] can know consciousness. This has to do with living organism’s reflexivity of process. Even one-celled organism ‘know’ organise themselves reflexively.
Secondly, and relatedly, tradition – East and West – have conceived of a separate organ – called the ‘intellect’ or the ‘mind’ as an organ, or ‘the soul’ – which knows mental phenomena. Of course, it’s quite possible that the organ especially developed for this territory is the brain. Experientially, it’s not so important to adjudicate on this issue right now; because whatever way you look at it, it’s still the body interacting – albeit extremely subtly. In the activity of become optimally lucent in our living, we just need to sensitivity to experiencing.
Lastly, a further distinction could be made here between the obvious psychological content – thoughts, concepts, ideas, images, memory, gross imagination – and more psychic or subtle level of mentality; such as subtler imagination, spontaneous visions, discrimination itself, and awareness of awareness. Again, this is not the place to explore that possibility.
As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.
However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.
Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.
I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)
Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.
In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)
No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.
One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.
(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)
So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.
And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created death.”
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Attributed to J. Krishnamurti
The search for authenticity is an ennobling quest. The early Buddhist teachings value highly the ‘true person.’ Yet, we are born ignorant of what is going on here, and are introduced to ‘what is going on here’ by people who haven’t clarified the matter themselves. Truth isn’t loved in societies generally.
‘Consensus trance’ is a term I got from consciousness researcher Charles Tart. When I became acquainted with his work, Tart wasn’t centrally interested in death. He was more interested in what unusual states of mind could tell us about human possibilities.
Later he wrote about near-death experiences and was interested in what happens to consciousness after death. What happens after death is not a core interest in my project (though later, I’ll enquire into the usefulness of the rebirth concept).
However, his idea of the susceptibility of children to hypnotic suggestion, grabbed my attention. It offers modern support for how consciousness gets so dissociated from nature generally and from its own nature.
In Tart’s book Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential, he made a credible case for concluding that children are inducted by their parents – the unwitting agents of their culture – into a ‘consensus trance’ which reflects the states of consciousness approved in their society.
Tart compared the suggestibility of children to the criteria for hypnosis suggestibility in psychology labs. Moreover, he suggests that parents can do things that no university laboratory would be allowed to do, by ethical standards: they can withdraw love, for instance, when the ‘subject’ is not co-operating; or worse, they can use physical violence to reinforce their lessons. His case was backed up by his years as a researcher at Stanford University.
In case you are interested in reading a stark description of the trance induction – of how our parents bring us into the consensus trance – then I recommend you read Charles Tart; chapter 10 of Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential. It’s chilling.
At the end of the chapter, he writes:
“But,” you might well say, “I don’t feel like I’m in a trance!” Of course not. We think of trance as something unusual, and our ordinary state as usual. We only realise we are in a trance state by reasoning about it… and/or by experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.”
And that is the purpose of mindfulness practice. ‘Experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.’ A person waking up “dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world.” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). This means becoming independent of socity’s values.
There is a way forward. Once mindfulness is engaged there’s nothing – even trance – that isn’t a doorway to the real life, if we just turn our head a little in the right direction, or maybe start to just look out of the corner of our eye, at how we are really.
A place to start is just to entertain the possibility that being alive could be felt more authentically than it presently is; though, we might have to whisper it, because it’s still not common, being an authentic human.
A Story That Could Be True
by William Stafford
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.
He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by –
you wonder at their calm.
They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”
So, in respect of the many situations where the word ‘death’ is used, are we attuning to our bodies’ responses; and do we know how to venture into the unknown freshly?
It is the “sphere of experience that should be known” (said the Nikāya Buddha in the Kāmaguṇa-sutta, SN 35.117)
I’m reminded that so early in our project so many of the words that I’m using can’t yet mean to you what I want them to mean. We will have to work with them, until they bear new meanings, until they mean freshly.
I’ve think I’ve made it clear that this is so with the word ‘death,’ but what of other words which I’ve used – words like: ‘body,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘inside’ – especially the way that I’ve used ‘inside’? I wrote: “Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside?” What kind of ‘inside’ can this be? Even in this last decade of my fifty-year Buddhist inquiry, my experience of ‘inside’ has changed and deepened radically.
How do we find fresh life for the old words, words we meet everyday? Words don’t only accumulate meanings to become a fixed stock. They can be renewed – extended – by our whole-bodied, present use of them. A word’s use can feed back into its accumulated meanings, carrying concepts forward freshly, in line with our living – if we let it.
We do this in the same manner that we did as children: by resonating words against our feel of the situations. Words point to our being-in-situations – they find their meaning in bodily interactions.
How conscious are we, then, of the power of our speaking and thinking? When someone uses a significant word, I want to know to what experience the speaker is pointing, before assuming that I understand their meaning. Our conversations need to demonstrate in what way the words are meant. We have taken too much for granted.
For instance, I’m not one to use the ‘God’ word. But, if I’m talking to a thoughtful Christian, once we’ve got clear what kind of experience the word is pointing to for them, then I can use it with them. We might not always meet in the concepts, but we can meet in the experiences which they are meant to carry forward.
So, when talking about death, I try to show how I uncover, or invite, the experiences that I am naming. Recently I was talking with several people who were using ‘death’ in two main ways, but they hadn’t distinguished what these two ways were doing differently for them. It helped the conversation for us to get that distinction clear. I pointed out that the two meanings which they seem to be confusing were:
1) death as the ‘over-there/out-there’ experience; dependent mostly on knowing the physical death of others; death of an object; and,
2) death as experienced; death intimately.
The group could then begin to explore the idea of dying ‘before you die,’ once they had the insight that they were mixing up or collapsing two meanings under one label. Now they could feel each reference to death differently.
Through your bodily feel, you too can do the experiments and verify the meaning of the words for yourself. Here, in this project, I’m trying to show, as I go, how I use language, to free us from concepts. Let concepts serve us, not we serve them.
On your side, can you do reality-reading? As you read you remain aware of your body’s posture, its breath, its sensory presentations, its feelings, its felt meanings, and its thoughts – all in continuous flow? Can we not get lost in the words but refer them back to the ‘one who knows’ – our bodily interactional intelligence?
So, what is the job that words do for us? I have been convinced by forty years of inquiry into the relationship of language to experiencing, that the primary purpose of thinking and saying is to carry forward the situations in relation to which we are thinking and saying.
Free of craving and grasping,
Skilled in language and its use —
Knowing the coming together of sound,
[With] what’s passed and what’s next —
One is said to be
“A great person, of great wisdom,
In one’s ultimate body.”
– Dhammapada, verse 352. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
When we see the arising and fading of each experience – and more dramatically, see that there is nothing to get hold of as arising or fading – we see clearly that there is nothing to get hold of as ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ It’s clear, then, how stressful it is to pursue fictions about ourselves, others, and life.
Lately, for me, when confronting one drama or another in daily life, or one trivial pursuit, the question comes, ‘Is this how I want to spend this precious life?’ It’s no more than the snap of a finder, and I want to spend it arguing? Or, chasing ‘things’? I don’t think so. No thanks.
Bhikkhu Analayo in his latest book, ‘A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha,’ begins with the suggestion that we could consider, “how should we best formulate our own “noble quest”?
“Practitioners, whatever there is in the world… whatsoever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, sought after, and ruminated on by the mind: I know all that. I have fully comprehended all that; all that is known to a Tathāgata [one who comes and goes in suchness], but a Tathāgata does not serve that knowledge.” – The Buddha, Kālakarāma Sutta
The method of inquiry in the Buddhadharma is experiential. In an experiential inquiry, concepts serve us; they aren’t given a life of their own. If we give them authority over direct experience, we serve them.
In our project, here, ‘death’ is a dhamma word, which we don’t want to leave as a mere idea, or it will haunt us. It will dominate us, rather than serve us. We can get along – stumble through life – that way, of course – get through a life without giving attention to how it works in us. That doesn’t change the fact that a word’s meaning is in our living bodies. So, to ignore how the word ‘death’ lives in daily experience is actually detrimental to living.
This might be a strange idea: “how a word works in us.” Words work. That’s the point of them. Another way of saying this is that words have energy. And, in particular, they carry the energy of all the ways they have been used, in all the situations in which they have been used, by ourselves and our fellow speakers. (And, all the ways in which our animal forebears communicated – in gestures, for example.)
So intimate is the relation of words to experience, that words can help carry our life forward, affording us greater richness of experience. (It’s common, by the way, for meditators to be disparaging of words or concepts, but even this disparagement depends on concepts. If we haven’t mastered our mind, we tend to feel assailed by the verbal mind. Even this disdain for language, though, is an attempt – albeit unskilful – to carry one’s meditative life forward in a positive direction, isn’t it?)
Following Gendlin’s work on the relation of words to experience, the meaning of any word includes all the situations throughout your life in which you’ve encountered the word — all these experiences. So, your use of the word ‘death’ reflects the richness of your understanding of death in life.
Not experientially absorbing the word’s meaning, robs our humanity of its vitality and of a range of resources that we humans need, desperately. The meaning in the dictionary is not the living meaning. It can be a help in accessing our bodily experience, but it can’t give us the actual lived meaning of the word. (I treasure my dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary is a major achievement of the English culture – but I’m realistic about its limitations. A dictionary’s power is in our contact with bodily experience – in the users of the language.)
If we settle into an unreflective use of words, we suffer. We all settle into this habit before our twenties, having mastered the necessary habit of inattention by then. “Necessary?”, you ask. To not be attentive to the relation of words to reality appears necessary, doesn’t it, so as to fit in with the consensus social reality? That’s where our ‘centre’ has become established – in social reality. Yet, what the Nikāya Buddha is saying (in our quote above) is that he has become independent of social reality. He got there by connecting with immediate experience, and noticing the role that concepts (name and form) play in shaping experience. I’ll go more deeply into this later, in a way that is grounded in everyday observation. That’s one reason for this inquiry, so that harmony reigns between our speaking and experience.
A practitioner named Vaṅgīsa said the Nikāya Buddha: “Truth, indeed, is deathless speech: this is an ancient principle. The good and the Dhamma, good people say, are established upon truth.”
– The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries (p. 229). Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications.
To resolve our doubts around ‘death,’ and to know the deathless, we – ordinary people, not academics – can’t avoid the relationship of speech to experience.
I’m away this week, and I’ve had no time for writing. But, this morning, this came: Dying is continuous. I wake up, I die to my ‘second.’ I meditate, I die – very consciously, again and again – to my ‘second.’ I shower, I die to my ‘second.’
If you have a scenario going on in your thoughts, which takes your energy from your living presence – there, right there, is a ‘second you.’ It’s the one you imagine could be, will be, should be. It’s a conversation of the one you ‘could be’ with your partner, your lover, your boss, your teacher, your friend who hurt you. It’s what you could/should/will say or could/should/will have said; and so on. Right? A long lost friend of mine used to call them ‘scenarios.’ But, notice they imagine a ‘you’ as somewhere else in space and time. Is the one here now – the immeasureable ‘first’ which you actually are – is this one conscious of scenario-ing?
Try dropping them all day, even in your sleep. That’s a form of continuous dying. (Of course, drop the criticism of ‘scenario-ing,’ too. That’s just more ‘seconding.’ If it helps, just say “Oh, hello ‘seconding.'” And soften your bellyrelax into bodily presence-ing. Timelessly active, dying is a flow.
What is consciousness like, which has no reference point, other than the inconcoctable presence?
No-one – not your mother,
Nor father, nor your relatives –
can do as much good for you
As a well-guided (citta) mind.
– Dhammapada, verse 43. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
– The Nikāya Buddha.
Some people might think that the intention of ‘memento mori’ – of remembering death – is to make us think about what will come after we die. That would make it a ‘later’ thing, even if only a heartbeat away. But, remember, we are wondering, in this project, if the essence of death is an inner process; and, indeed, if that makes the essence of death right here, now.
If the presence of death is as close as your present breath, then it may not be the unmitigated disaster that your untamed thoughts have it; and there can be a sane and life-affirming way, a life-enhancing way, to find out if death is the ‘sacrament’ which some say it is.
However, if you take up the invitation (which the fact of death offers), there will be many voices – both inner and outer – who will try to dissuade you from disturbing the conventional trance of the false-’I.’ This is the consensus trance.
On the other hand, there’ll be those who’ll encourage you, when you need it. I remember, when despair about loss pierced me through in the mid-seventies, I had a chance meeting with a Catholic nun, one night, in a taxi cab. I asked her what she thought of the big questions, and of the quest for awakening. We talked for about half an hour, and I recall how she glowed with joy when she heard what my despair was about.
She didn’t lecture, try to convert me, or patronise me with ‘Christian’ advice. Instead she said, with palpable kindness, “Oh, yes, those questions are on the right track. Keep going. Don’t give up.”
Her warm heart gave me the support I needed right then, and the inspiration to treasure the journey. She affirmed that though such possibilities weren’t taught in the regular culture, there was a real transformation possible. I felt less alone, and fortified for the next steps in my journey.
It is tragic really, this trance going on right here in these bodies; tragic that we don’t encourage deep inquiry into experiencing. This is one reason why we don’t get our relationship with nature right, and are destroying our home, the planetary ecology that originally gave rise to us.
It’s tragic when we ask the big questions, and get nonsense in reply from others; nothing straight-forward. We should help each other with the truth, even when we don’t know truth. As poet Bill Stafford wrote:
“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
The way forward, though, is always right at hand, even if we don’t see it. It’s as close as eating, walking, running, laughing, sleeping, spewing, crying, feeling sad or happy, lying down, or turning-somersaults. It’s at the heart of our life – with its actual processes of seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling. At Sāvatthī, the Nikāya Buddha spoke about this to his bhikkhus.
“Practitioners, dwell with your heart well-established in the four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
“What are the four? Here, a practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world. Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.”
– The Deathless (Amata Sutta: SN V.41) Translated by Christopher Ash
(In this translation, I’m not entirely satisfied with the word ‘psyche,’ because it’s a word rarely used these days – and it can be associated with occultism. Nevertheless, I’ll use it until we explore more of what ‘mind’ can mean, and until the Pāli word ‘citta’ can take over. I’ll go into these distinctions, later, an explain why I used it here.)
So, it bears mentioning again: I am not primarily investigating physical death. I see that as a simple matter. Culture can complicate it, but not stop it. Death will, from that side, will be easy. The body will do that well: heart stops, breathing stops, life-systems close up shop. From that angle, death is a breeze.
Can you feel as I say that “It will be easy”? Can you sense what happens in your body? While I’m not wrong, something’s missing in that picture, right? As an experience – that is, in the psyche – there’s more to it, right? And there just might be something we can learn to prepare us. And, along with that preparation for physical death, what physical death means to us while we’re living: that depends on how we’ve met our psychic death.