sutta

Who Dies?

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.

Mindfulness of Death as Support

In the following text, the Nikāya Buddha makes a strong statement as to why he encourages mindfulness of death.

Mindfulness of Death,
Anguttara Nikāya
, 6.19.
Translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash

Once the flourishing one was staying at Nādika, in the brick hall, where he addressed the mendicants:

“Practitioners!”

“Yes, Sir!” they responded.

“Mindfulness of death, Practitioners, if practised and developed, brings great benefit and fruit , merging in the Deathless. Mindfulness of death comes to a head in the Deathless. So, Practitioners, you should cultivate mindfulness of death.”

After these words, one mendicant said to the flourishing one: “Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”

“So, Practitioner, how do you practise mindfulness of death?”

“I think in this way, Bhante: ‘Oh, may I live just for one day and night [more], to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. I could accomplish much, indeed!’ In this way, Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”

[Other mendicants in the assembly also presented their approach to the practice of mindfulness of death:]

“I think in this way, Bhante: ‘Oh, may I live just for a single day [more]…

“Oh, may I live just for the time I need to eat one single alms meal…

“Oh, may I live just for the time needed to chew and swallow four or five mouthfuls of food…

“Oh, may I live just for the time I need to chew and swallow one mouthful of food…

“Oh, may I live just for the time it takes to breathe in, after the out-breath; or to breathe out, after the in-breath…”

[They said:] “…to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. This way, I could accomplish much, indeed!’ In this way, Bhante, I practise mindfulness of death.”

After the mendicants had spoken in this way, the flourishing one said:

“The practitioners who say that they practise mindfulness of death with the thought, ‘Oh, were I to live just for one day and a night [more]… … just for a single day [more]…  …just for the time needed to chew and swallow four or five mouthfuls of food… to keep the flourishing one’s teachings in mind. I could accomplish much, indeed!’, of these practitioners it needs to be said that they live carelessly. In respect of destroying the taints, they cultivate mindfulness of death in a slack way.

“But, Practitioners, those who practise mindfulness of death with the thought, ‘Oh, may I live for the time I need to chew and swallow one mouthful of food… or, for the time it takes to breathe in, after the out-breath; or, to breathe out, after the in-breath… to keep the flourishing one’s teaching in mind. Much, indeed, could then be done by me!’, of these practitioners it can be said that they dwell carefully. In respect of destroying the taints, they practise mindfulness of death intently.

“Therefore, mendicants, you should train yourselves thus, ‘We shall dwell carefully; and, for the aim of destroying the taints, we shall practise mindfulness of death intently!’ Thus should you train yourselves.”

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