“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.”
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.
Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)
“Insight (εἴδησις, seeing, understanding) we take as a fine and worth-while thing..”
– From the opening passages of Aristotle’s ‘De Anima,’ quoted in Gendlin, Line by Line Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Bk 1.
Because my topic is how we think about death and dying, and how we can best benefit from these facts of life, this work has insight as its primary topic. My OED gives, as a definition for ‘insight’: “The fact of penetrating with the eyes of the understanding into the inner character or hidden nature of things; a glimpse or view beneath the surface.” I want to look into the not-so-obvious dimensions of death and dying. Insight, from a Buddhist perspective, is about care, growth, and precision of understanding; hence, it is about more life, and that can occur even while one is dying.
A further major theme in this work is the exploration of the kind of thinking which fosters insight into death and dying; and, not only the how of that particular thinking, but the how of any thinking freshly. It sounds funny to say, because we adults think we know how to think. Yet, we are get along in our day-to-day thinking by relying on a mode of thinking acquired before the age of… say, mid-teens? Early, anyhow.
Death did figure in our thinking early in life, but we hardly got on top of the topic, did we? If so, why is there not peace abounding? We didn’t master a training in death-thinking, nor in thinking in general. In respect of death, we fell in line with our cultures, and adopted a ‘don’t-think-the-unsayable’ strategy.
A student recently came to see me shocked that her life-long friend died accidentally, unexpectedly, in the midst the friend’s routine daily activities. When this happens, the mourners find themselves without ground. They’ve mastered much else – engineering, medicine, building, creative arts, therapy, driving, or whatever – but they haven’t mastered the process of insight, which alone can light up the ‘space’ where death matters the most. People die in innumerable ways, frequently unexpectedly – and we are shocked. Why the shock? You might say it’s normal to be shocked. Is it? What do you mean by ‘normal’? And, if it is, maybe ‘normal’ is not optimally responsive to life’s powerful moments. Can we learn from death, when we are in shock?
I heard of a five-year-old who cried in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” That little one had seen it; he had commended that he will in fact die. From the point of view of the growth of insight, and of wisdom, that’s a precious moment. How do we carers respond, when that occurs?
There’s a YouTube of another five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she wails, keening before the event. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute.” She’s seen the fact that no matter how much she loves him – he won’t stay the way he is. She seems to Intuit that none of us will be here forever, because next she bawls: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”
I was uncomfortable that someone – presumably a parent – was making a video of her so interior moment, but seeing the video did get me thinking about other times, of other cases, when I have heard of children having this particular anguish. I think that most of us (if not all) have a child somewhat like that in us, a child who once said, or thought: “I don’t want to die.”
Tragically, if asked, the adults around us didn’t know what to say, except for the usual conventional, distracting platitudes. Things like: “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it – you’ll go to heaven and meet Toby” (or whatever our pet’s name was – or the grandparent’s name). You know the kind of thing. At best, the carers whom I’m talking about – the parents and teachers of curious or bewildered children – are thrown into a sea of loving pain, upon witnessing the anguish of these innocents; but they still can’t respond in a grounded way. Apart from platitudes, they might treat the child as cute (as in the YouTube video); or they might be embarrassed at their lack of capacity to meet their child’s existential angst.
Of course, I’m generalising, but think back to your education. Most adults in our society lack insight into death. Insight training didn’t happen in their childhood, either. So, how can they help their children, when they weren’t trained to investigate the subtle dimensions of life? For, death, despite appearances is a subtle matter. It’s as subtle as ‘mind.’ WeWe aren’t trained to investigate our minds – as rigorously as a good scientist would – to investigate that which is less obvious than chemicals, organs, and nervous systems; that which is closer to us than breathe – our actual, interactional being-in-and-of-now.
Before the age of twenty-six, not one person that I meet in flesh and blood suggested to me that it was legitimate to question what the ‘mind’ is. Not one. And I’d gone through university by then. No educator had helped me get a practical handle for the territory of ‘mind,’ until I meet the Buddhist teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe, in 1976. Yet, can we comprehend death without penetrating the hidden mind of freedom? Where are we teaching this in our schools?
As a result, we are left to depend on, and we daily serve, the standard body of our culture’s thought. Presently, in the standard training, we are expected to believe that we are fundamentally made up of non-living things – sub-atomic particles, elements, molecules, and so on; and, that at death, we simply re-become non-living entities – food for worms, or dust – and that’s it. The rest of the standard story is that between birth and (that kind of) death, we simply muddle through, heroically making up whatever story we can about what this life is, and who we are in it – any story that will work. Since post-modernism, all stories are equally true. This is the dominant model, isn’t it?
While useful in the operating theatre (where, of course, I want my surgeon to have this view in great detail), such a version of human bodies doesn’t include the experience from the inside, and so it doesn’t include what is most important to you – your experiencing. And, isn’t it experiencing death and dying that we are afraid of? So, another central theme of my project is experiencing.
Isn’t it true that, in our English-speaking scientifically literate culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matter at the heart of their discovery of death; this discovery which, powerfully for them, includes the striking realization that death separates us from what is dear to us? More importantly, we don’t encourage our children to cherish the questions; a more important response than giving them answers.
To the extent that this lack of training was so for you and I, we got on with growing up ‘normal,’ and we learned to tuck the inconsolable doubts away for as long as possible, in a compartment the therapists call ‘the unconscious,’ far from the reach of insight. Does this seem a healthy and happy course? Perhaps instead we can turn toward death and dying, and find gifts in a fresh approach? Perhaps this is the next step in our development in the way to becoming truly homo sapiens – the wise human.
A few decades ago, I had a friend who died of cancer. Let’s call her Milly. From the first, we had a basic kind of respect for each other; though we would clash occasionally. I didn’t understand it, then, but now I know that my arrogance triggered her. As a result, though we learnt to accept our differences, for some years we weren’t very close. Then, when she got cancer and she was dying, the relationship changed. Our conversation became real and beautiful. The presence of death brought out honesty and vulnerability in both of us.
I am reminded of her, because I’ve been reading a account of a mother screaming at her daughter during an argument, “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!” The narcissism of that attack is so obvious that I’d like to think that it’s a caricature. But, no – it really did happen.
So, what of Milly? On a summer day, months before she died, we were walking along a bushland track, reflecting. She shared that she had recently told her mother that she was dying; and through her tears she said that her mother had exclaimed: “How can you do this to me?!” I was shocked. No doubt her mother thought that she spoke from love; but I couldn’t see it. I still don’t. Why do we mistake narcissism for love?
A related instance is given by author Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette was sixteen, and her Pentacostal adoptive mother was evicting her – throwing her out for taking up with her second lesbian girlfriend. During the argument, Jeanette declared her wish for happiness – she wanted to be with her beloved, a female, because she wanted to be happy. Her adoptive mother’s response was, “Why be happy, when you could be normal?”
When I read that, I laughed. But, then I thought something like: “Hey. Hang on. That actually happened. A person was actually in such a condition of mind that could say such utterly ill-fitting words, and think them right.” Right where his youth Janet deserved understanding and care from her adoptive mother – right when she needed to be listened to – she got narcissism.
It might seem that these three vignettes are extreme; but what of less obvious reactivity in the face of the unwanted facts of life? We all have some level of narcissism. Milly’s other friends didn’t say out loud, “How can you do this to me?” No, instead, she told me: “They dropped away. They disappeared.” Without a word of explanation.
Milly was dismayed at the loss. Their reactions were a reflection of a self-absorbed mindset; and it wasn’t what she needed, right then. It would seem that they avoided her because of cancer and death. Sure, they didn’t say, “Why are you doing this to me?!’ but they may as well have. (Several years before, someone very close to me, when dying from cancer, told me: “Cancer tells you who your real friends are.”)
All these instances are on a continuum which reveals narcissism to be terribly normal. By normal, I mean statistically so. A glance at any newspaper, any day of the week, alerts one to the ubiquity of deluded self-centred views – narcissistic read-outs on life – which capture people and lead them to harmful behaviour. Look at our politicians’ grubby self-interest, their blatant fabrications and their grandiosity. The parliament is filled with selfish individuals, who can only read things through their biases.
The Buddhist analysis of this problem says that the problem is much bigger than a small class of ‘crazy’ people: it’s a species problem. A direct, contemplative investigation of ‘mind’ reveals everyday forms of narcissism; and, it has its roots in a lack of direct awareness of our organism. Due to this ignorance, we misperceive the nature of the mind. Hence, we live our normal lives on the basis of delusions about the organism’s reality. We see through filters, through a ‘glass darkly,’ and our relationships suffer concurrently. “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!”
Was it mentally ill for Milly’s friends to abandon her? Not conventionally so, of course. It’s merely fear; misshapen perceptions formed their fickleness. But we could ask, why aren’t such fears (with their attendant mental structures) considered, in this society, a form of mental affliction? That’s how the Buddhists see it. These distortions – aversion to a friend who has cancer, for instance – are not intrinsic to the mind. Why aren’t we addressing this at the national level? Well, simply because the delusions are statistically normal.
If a whole community has such delusions, one loses perspective; you find it hard to identify fear as mental concocted. Your perceptions present as real, and your fear and your hatred appear justified. Racism and homophobia are two areas where this analysis is powerful.
What what kind of sickness can it be then, when you are scared of people who have different skin colour, or a significantly different culture? Or, what kind of a sickness is it, when you are afraid of a person who has cancer? The answer that Buddhist is that we are sick with greed, hatred, and ignorance.
Without a culture of mindfulness and compassion, we can imperceptibly slide into mass delusions. Then, destructive attitudes become so widespread that they passes as normal. Nazi Germany is a case in point; and, Trump’s ‘America.’ (Notice, even the name ‘America,’ as a designation for the U.S.A, is a narcissistic insult to all the other nations of the Americas, north and south.)
So, where do we go with such a widespread problem? A significant portion of people throughout the world are currently under the sway of xenophobic afflictions. These attitudes are the stuff of minds – we have to investigate what it means to have good mental health. Why aren’t the policies of far-right’s (such as One Nation, in Australia) being discussed as a matter of our community’s mental health? Is it because we might have to begin at home? It is far harder to look at one’s own mind, than to blame other’s for our dissatisfaction.
I thought Milly was a hero, given the brave way she approached her death. Moreover, she spoke without ill-feeling, when addressing the reactions of others to her disease and impending death. A warrior; and one of my teachers.
Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
– Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
(Sallatha Sutta: Samyutta Nikāya 36.6)
Translated from the Pali by Christopher J. Ash
[The Buddha:] “Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person experiences pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant A well-trained student of the noble ones also feels pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant. So, what difference is there between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?”
[Practitioners:] “Because we depend on the Flourishing One’s teachings, it would be good if the Flourishing One were to personally explain. Hearing this, we will remember it well.”
“Then listen carefully. I’ll explain.”
“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and become wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. They have two pains – physical and mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot another with an arrow, and, right afterward, they were to shoot that same person with another arrow. Hence, the victim would feel the pain of two arrows. In a similar way, when in contact with a feeling of pain, the untrained, ordinary person frets and becomes wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. So, they experience two kinds of feelings: the bodily and the mental suffering.
“When they are in contact with suffring, they meet it with resistance. When they feel resistance, their (previously latent) underlying patterns of resistance become active. Touched by pain, they then yearn for sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any other escape from pain beside sensual pleasure. While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person, relies on (previously latent) underlying tendencies to lust for pleasure. So, they can’t understand – in their experience just as it actually is – the production and cessation of these feelings; the attraction and the disadvantages of them; nor can they know the actuality of leaving this suffering behind. When they don’t discern these processes, they [likewise] dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it. This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one tied to grief, complaining, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.
“When a trained student of the noble ones contacts suffering, they don’t fret and are not wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they just have the one pain – the physical, and not the mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot a person with an arrow, and didn’t shoot them a second time. So the victim would feel the pain of only the one arrow. In this way, when a trained student of the noble ones contacts a feeling of pain, they don’t fret and aren’t wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they experience the one kind of suffering; the physical suffering, but not the mental suffering.
“When in contact with pain, they don’t resist it. Not given over to resistance, then latent underlying patterns of resistance don’t possess them. And, touched by suffering, they don’t attach to sensual pleasures. Why? Because a well-trained student of the noble ones recognises the escape from suffering [that is other than] sensual pleasure. So, not relishing sensual pleasure, the well-trained person does not rely on the underlying patterns of sensual pleasure. Hence they see – in the experience as it actually is – the arising and cessation of these feelings. They see then the allure and disadvantages of these feelings. And they can know the reality of leaving suffering behind. As they know these processes, neither will they dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while not merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it not merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it not merged with it. This, I say, is a well-trained student of the noble ones: a person separated from birth, aging, and death; separated from grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person separated from dukkha.”
“So, this is the difference – the distinction, the distinguishing factor – between the untrained ordinary person and the well-trained student of the noble ones.
“A wise person, being discerning,
doesn’t experience a [concocted] feeling of pleasure or pain.
The difference, then, between the wise and
the ordinary person is one of skilfullness.
“For a person who discerns constructed dhammas,
clearly seeing this world and future worlds,
pleasant things don’t confuse the mind,
and unpleasant things don’t bring resistance.
“Passiveness and opposition are dispersed –
gone to their end, do not exist.
Having known the stainless and sorrow-free,
these ones understand thoroughly, beyond becoming.”
When we are identified with dukkha, we double our pain. In the sutta which I’m presently translating, the Nikaya Buddha is exploring what distinguishes a “well-trained student of the noble ones from the untrained ordinary person,” in respect of experiencing life’s pleasures and pains. If we understand this, we can transform our lives.
He says that we encounter suffering and naturally resist; especially by turning toward pleasure. By the way, when he says ‘sensual pleasure’ he means pleasures of the mind, too – not just of sight, sound, smell, taste, and the bodily senses. These five are what Westerners have been trained to think of as ‘the senses’; but, here, we include the pleasures of thinking, imagining and dreaming.
Furthermore, I should warn you that the point is not to live without pleasure happening – that’s not living – but the point is not to found our deepest well-being in what is changeable and connected with what is changeable. Being identified with what is changeable is a recipe for all the bitter dishes we are serving ourselves all over the groaning planet.
While we are untrained, we don’t know any better. So, in this next passage he goes into how our unaware approach to dukkha works; how our habitual patterns block insight, which is the key to freedom. He points out that if we depend on sensual pleasures, then we can’t have the requisite distance to see what’s going on, can’t have insight into the dynamics of our pervasive frustrations with life:
“While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person relies on pleasure; and so they can’t know – in the experience as it actually is – its production and its cessation; its allure and its disadvantages; nor the actuality of leaving suffering behind. As they don’t discern these processes, they dwell in ignorance of their neutral experiences.” (Those which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant).
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it.”
Then reminding us of what he’s doing here – inviting us deeper into training of the heart by naming the difference between the untrained and trained person – he finishes this part of his talk, by saying:
“This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one fettered by grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.”
I am translating a sutta, presently, on the sad fact that we double our pain, unnecessarily. In Buddhism this is referred to with the simile of the ‘second arrow.’ The sutta, from the Samyutta Nikāya, is called ‘The Arrow.’ The sutta opens with a warning about the danger of grasping after limited escapes, in compensation for our raw suffering. There is a better way to be free of suffering.
The Arrow (Sallatha Sutta: SN.36.6)
“Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. A well-trained student of the noble ones also has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“So, what difference is there – what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there – between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?
“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and are wearied, they complain, they cry and beat their breast, and they get confused. So, they have two pains – the physical pain and mental pain.
“Just as if someone were to shoot a man with an arrow, and then, right afterward, they were to shoot him with another one. Hence he would feel the pain of two arrows.
“So, in the same way, when in contact with a feeling of suffering, the untrained, ordinary person frets and is wearied; they complain, lament, and get confused. Hence, they experience two kinds of feelings, the physical and the mental suffering.
“When they are in contact with suffering, they resist. So, given the resistance, they fall into latent underlying patterns of resistance. Touched by this suffering, they are then thankful for sensual pleasures. Why? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any escape from dukkha beside sensual pleasure.”
When we hear the Nikāya Buddha speak his well-chosen words about living with present-moment awareness, we need to bear in mind several things.
We need to remember that through present-moment awareness we discover the manner in which our naming goes astray (thereby creating ‘is’ and ‘is not’ as absolutes). And, we need to keep in mind that, in like manner, unmindful naming establishes as ultimately existing a self and its world.
Above all, we need to keep in mind his teaching on the centrality of mindfulness in realising the deathless, the cessation of conceptual reality – and the ending of fictive notions regarding a self and its world.
Try reading the following in the light of these propositions.
An Auspicious Day: Bhaddekaratta Sutta
Translated by Christopher J. Ash
I have heard that one time the flourishing one was staying at Sāvatthi, in Jeta’s grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery, and he invited the assembled mendicants to listen.
“Mendicants!” he said.
“Yes, Sir,” they replied.
“I will now reveal the true meaning of ‘One who has an auspicious day.’ Pay close attention, and I will tell you.”
“Please do,” they said.
“Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
What has gone is finished with,
and the future is not yet come.
Be invincible, unmovable,
seeing clearly whatever is present now
– this, right here – and so develop wisdom.
Today, right away, do what needs to be done.
Who knows? Death could know you tomorrow.
There’s certainly no bargaining
with Death’s great hordes.
But one who lives ardently, day and night,
Such a one is an auspicious day,
the peaceful sage declares.
“How does one chase after a past, Practitioners? There, desiring, one thinks: ‘My body or form was such-and-such in the past.” “I felt such-and-such a way in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such a perception in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such an intention in the past.’ Or, ‘My consciousness was such-and-such in the past.” In this way, Practitioners, one chases after a past.
“And, how does one not chase after a past, Practitioners? One doesn’t nurture desire in thinking: ‘My body or form was such-and-such in the past.’ ‘I felt such-and-such a way in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such a perception in the past.’ ‘I had such-and-such an intention in the past.’ Or, ‘My consciousness was such-and-such in the past.’ In this way, Practitioners, one doesn’t chase after a past.
“And how, Practitioners, does one long for a future? There, one nurtures delight in thinking: ‘May I have such-and-such a form or body in the future!’ ‘May I feel such-and-such in the future!’ ‘May I perceive such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I intend such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I have such-and-such a consciousness in the future!’ That is how one longs for a future.
“And how, Practitioners, does one not long for a future? One does not nurture delight there in thinking: ‘May I have such-and-such a form or body in the future!’ ‘May I feel such-and-such in the future!’ ‘May I perceive such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I intend such-and-such in the future.’ ‘May I have such-and-such a consciousness in the future!’ That is how one does not long for a future.
“And how, Practitioners, is one swept away by present-moment events? Here, Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person – who has not seen the wise, and so who is untrained and unskilled in the teachings of the wise; who has no regard for true people, and so who is untrained and unskilled in their teachings – sees form as a self; or a self as owning form; or form as in a self; or a self as in form.
“[And so it is for feeling-tones, perceptions, intentional factors, and consciousness, in the ordinary, untrained person.] That is how one is drawn away from present-moment events.
“And how, Practitioners, is one grounded in regard to present-moment events? Here, Practitioners, a well-taught, noble student – who has seen the wise, and so who is trained and skilled in the teachings of the wise; who has regard for true people, and so who is and trained and skilled in their teachings – doesn’t see form as a self; or a self as owning form; or form as in a self; or a self as in form.
“[And so it is for feeling-tones, perceptions, intentional factors, and consciousness, in a well-taught person.] That is how one is invincible in respect of present-moment events.
“Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
Don’t chase after a past,
and don’t long for a future.
What has gone is finished with,
and the future is not yet come.
see clearly whatever is present now –
this, right here – and so develop wisdom.
Today, right away, do what needs to be done.
Who knows? Death could know you tomorrow.
There’s certainly no bargaining
with Death’s great hordes.
But one who lives ardently, day and night,
Such a one is an auspicious day, the peaceful sage announces.
“So this was what I meant when I said: ‘Practitioners, I will now reveal the true meaning of One who has an auspicious day.’”
That is what the Flourishing one said, and the mendicants were satisfied by, and delighted in, his words.
Translated by Christopher J. Ash, at Blackheath. ©2016.
Christopher: “We’re looking at mindfulness in the Buddhist context – with a mind to understanding our relationship to death – and I was thinking that if we understand the problem situation better, we might be able to understand what mindfulness can do for us; or, even what mindfulness can be.”
Kent: “Problem situation?”
C: “Yes. In the Buddhadharma the human problem situation is put in terms of dukkha; which is rather badly translated into English as ‘suffering.’ Dukkha is not just any old suffering, though. It’s a specific kind of suffering. So…
Melisa: “Isn’t dukkha defined as birth, illness, death, and so on? ‘There is dukkha’ means there is shitty stuff in life.””
C: “That’s one approach. It is often said that birth, illness, death, association-with-the-unpleasing, separation-from-the-pleasing, not-getting-what-one-wants – that these are dukkha. I can’t see that as an intelligent approach to human life.
“So, in order to understand it experientially, rather than in accordance with hearsay and tradition, we could ask: what do birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha, what do they have in common, when we encounter them?”
K: “We’d have to understand the word ‘dukkha’ more closely, wouldn’t we?”
Melissa: “When I invite the pained-body, pained-speech and pained-mind associated with those life events, I feel some sort of urgency, some sort of… intensity.”
C: “Yes. It would appear it is intense. Is that the very first thing you notice?”
K: “A kind of hunger accompanies this.”
C: “Yes. A thirst to do something, right? Rather than to let reality present you with its raw face. Birth and death, illness, and difficulties – this is the raw side of life, right? It would be unrealistic to expect a rose garden, only, in life.”
K: “Even roses die.”
M: “I certainly see that. There is illness and we want that it doesn’t happen to us. There is death, and we don’t want it to come.”
K: “We want it not to come.”
M: “Yes. And, ‘to come to me,’ especially. It’s not a big deal, if it’s out there in the world, but I want to avoid it for me and my loved ones.”
C: “So, You’ve introduced how one’s self-image is involved – the Narcissus theme – because the longing belongs to a ‘me.’ That plays a part in it. In fact, the last part of that traditional statement about birth, death, illness and so on, names the whole situation this way, as: ‘clinging-to-the-fivefold-sentient-processes-dukkha.’ Clinging to our image of how things should be, then, is central.
“So, we’re investigating the feeling of ‘things being out-of-kilter,’ ‘skew-whiff’; or the feeling that no matter what we do to secure peace and happiness, there is always a pervasive, unsatisfying element. And, we see that clinging to concepts plays a part in that.”
M: “And, more generally, there’s a subtle way we feel a little too active, most of the time.”
K: “You know, Christopher. I’ve been doing some reading, and it appears to me that you’re deviating from the standard view.”
C: “Which is?”
K: “Which is that the very fact of a stubbed toe is dukkha. Shit happens, and that fact is dukkha.”
C: “I know what you mean. That view is out there. And, you’re right – I don’t find that view useful. It seems to me there’s no justification for it, except an emotional rejection of life-as-it-is. But that very rejection is dukkha.
“Anyhow, that view doesn’t make sense of the entirety of the teachings; and, I’ve found that it is allied to the view that liberation (nibbāna) is release away from life processes – liberation out of life. Instead, I experience liberation as the liberation from clinging.”
M: “Do you mean it’s not liberation from pain?”
C: The ‘stubbed toe’pain is not intrinsically ‘dukkha,’ no. I notice that this view accompanies the ‘life stinks’ attitude, which I’ve met in some Buddhists.
“So, you’re right, Kent. After decades of inquiry, I’ve settled, for me, that nibbāna is a release from the bondage of clinging, and that, if it’s not a release into more realness in life – a real life of compassion – then it’s not worth my limited energy.”