Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Self That Is Not Other

The teaching of no self is one of the most difficult Buddhist teachings to comprehend; not because it is such an intellectually taxing one, but because it cuts right to the core of how we view reality. And even after we do “get it” we’re still subject to the relentless tug of karma pulling us back into our old way of looking at self and other and the world. Unfortunately, as well, is the fact that somewhere along the road to our “getting it” lurks the nihilistic view that everything is merely an illusion, a phantasm – self, other, everything.

It is not difficult to understand how Buddhist teachings related to no self, in particular, and emptiness, in general, might be misconstrued as nihilistic. After all, the word emptiness – when used as a description of ultimate reality – almost invites it. And if you think that the word emptiness invites nihilistic ponderings, imagine what the word voidness might inspire. In fact, early scholars of Eastern texts often translated the Sanskrit word, sunyata, as voidness instead of the now more commonly accepted emptiness – and it’s pretty hard not to think in nihilistic terms when contemplating the void!

However, the key to understanding emptiness from the Buddhist point of view is to realize that it refers to being empty of individual and independent existence. Thus, the emptiness of ultimate reality is more a field of infinite potential than it is cold, dark, empty space; and comprehending no self is more a matter of comprehending one’s seamless integration into that field of infinite potential than it is convincing yourself that you don’t exist. By the way, a very nice resource on this topic is Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding – Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra.  



Shohaku Okumura, in a talk he gave at the Dogen Zenji Symposium of 1999, noted three areas in which Dogen’s standards for community practice have a role to play for Soto Zen practitioners of today. Pertinent to our current discussion is what Okumura (1999) refers to as “practice for the self that is not others” (p. 150). And just how does “the self that is not others” relate to the concept of no self? Okumura (1999) describes it this way:
If there is no self, the self is zero. If the self is universal and one with everything, the self is infinite…. Through studying Buddhist teachings we study “no self”; when we practice zazen, we study the “universal self” that is beyond separation of self and others. And within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this individual person that is not others can manifest the reality of “no self” and “universal self.” (p. 151)

Actualizing the Self That Is Not Other

I was lay-ordained along with four other people in a Soto Zen ceremony referred to as jukai. Jukai signifies the acceptance of the Buddhist precepts, and it is similar in meaning and importance to what Christians refer to as confirmation. The only reason I bring that up in this context is because within just a couple of years of our ordination one of our group had sold his business interest in order to start an organic farm, another had retired early in order to further simplify his life, yet another had left his sales job in order to pursue a self-employment opportunity, and I had left my corporate career in order to pursue graduate work in counseling. For a while the running joke around the Missouri Zen Center was that, if you weren’t careful, practicing zazen would lead to you quitting your job! Well, I don’t know about that, but I can say that zazen leads one to realize in no uncertain terms the impermanence of one’s existence and that of all beings and everything – a realization that imbues each moment with an unprecedented sense of immediacy. I can also vouch for zazen being what Okumura (1999) describes as a “study [of] the ‘universal self’ that is beyond separation of self and others.” This dual realization of the impermanence of the ‘small self’ and the unbounded nature of the ‘universal self’ seems to awaken in the individual a depth of compassion that they never knew they had, in addition to fostering the aspiration to bring one’s fleeting life into accord with this newly realized reality.

And just what does it look like when one’s life is in accord with the principles of this newly realized reality of emptiness and impermanence and interconnectedness? What does it look like to actualize the self that is not other? At this point I am so tempted to answer my own question by glibly invoking the woefully clich├ęd “chop wood, carry water”, but I won’t. Even though “chop wood, carry water” superbly conveys the Zen approach to life – wholeheartedly doing what needs to be done in each and every moment, no matter how ordinary the task – I will refrain from pretending that it can adequately answer the question currently under consideration. The fact is that knowing what needs to be done requires a spiritual journey unto itself. Our modern lives are just too complicated. Should we chop wood and carry water, or should we become engineers instead and set about designing passive solar heating systems and seawater desalinization facilities?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to be had here. One person might best manifest the self that is not other by simplifying their life, reducing their impact on the environment, living off-the-grid, and becoming increasingly integrated into a sustainable ecosystem. For them, chopping wood and carrying water might describe quite literally their approach to daily life. Such a lifestyle need not be motivated by a desire to drop out of a social system that’s going to “hell in a hand basket”, so to speak. Instead, it can encompass a dropping into increased social involvement due to a newfound ability to structure personal time and effort around that which is of greatest value – as opposed to what the marketplace might say that we should value. Furthermore, such a lifestyle tends to inspire others to tread lightly on the earth, as well, thereby leading all of us toward a way of being that might just end up saving the planet. If this intrigues you, you may want to check out Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity – Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.

Of course, another individual might be so moved by the problems that we face such as global warming or freshwater scarcity that they become drawn to finding solutions for them. They might love learning the science and math necessary to succeed as an engineer, and perhaps nothing engages them more than being able to put their imagination to work and see their ideas come to fruition. This would also seem to be a case wherein the individual’s talents and motivations are brought into accord with what the world needs.

There are as many ways as there are people to bring one’s talents and motivations into accord with what the world needs. We need parents who will raise healthy and caring citizens of the world. We need doctors who will heal them when they get sick. We need business owners to provide jobs and we need workers who are fulfilled by their labor. We need a sustainable economy in which all of this can take place and, yes, we even need politicians to be drawn to public service in order to help bring it about. Unfortunately, though, it is all too often the case that people become parents because of their own selfish need to be loved rather than any desire or capacity to give it. Likewise, individuals can be drawn to becoming physicians, for instance, more out of a desire for status or esteem or money than any real calling to heal others. Business owners, as well, can be motivated more by a desire to enrich themselves than a desire to make safe and useful products, or to behave responsibly toward the workers making those products. And workers, likewise, may be keeping track of their paychecks more closely than the quality of their work or whether that work has any meaningful significance to them or the world. Oh, and please don’t get me started on politicians who claim to have dedicated their lives to “public service” when actually it is power that they have thirsted after every step along the way!

So, even with so many ways to actualize the self that is not others, it seems that there are even more ways for us to falter and end up guided by our own self-interest – without our being aware of it. But I don’t so much think it is a matter of us being motivated in this “good” way or that “bad” way as it is a matter of us negotiating myriad shades of gray. We are complex creatures, and everything that we do and every choice that we make involves a complex calculus of all of our wants and needs, aspirations and longings – much of it taking place on the subconscious or even the unconscious level. (Recall the bandwidth of consciousness discussed in the previous post.) Just pick any hot summer day and note what happens as your aspiration to help save the world by decreasing your carbon footprint and refraining from turning on your air conditioner comes face-to-face with your desire to escape languishing in your sweltering home for even one more instant! What, then, are we to do?

I think we need to start by being honest with ourselves – by becoming aware of our wants and needs, our talents and our fears. Have we chosen that highly compensated occupation because it is truly the best use of our talents and because it is truly of value to the world (and I’m not talking about economic value), or have we chosen it because we fear not having enough or because we want to prove that we, too, can play the game? We are the only ones who can answer these questions for ourselves, and zazen can provide us with the ability and the strength to make such an honest and fearless assessment. I once heard a Zen teacher say that zazen has its own built-in bullshit detector. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree. Zazen, by affording us greater and greater freedom from the conventional ways we’ve come to think about ourselves and the world, allows us to see, ahem, the falseness that is endemic to this modern existence, and it allows us to see the falseness that we try to pass over onto ourselves nearly every moment of every day. Perhaps, then, it is apropos to close this post with my favorite quote from Dogen’s Genjokoan: “To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas” (as translated in Yoshida, 1982).
  

References

Okumura, S. (1999) Dogen Zenji’s standards for community practice (as it appears in Dogen Zen and its relevance for our time). Sotoshu Shumucho.
Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way. Missouri Zen Center. (Genjokoan originally published 1233)


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dependent Origination - A Structural Interpretation (Part 5 of 5)

As of the close of the previous post we’d made it all the way through the twelve links of what is generally considered to be the standard representation of the teaching of dependent origination. I’m sure that questions still remain, and I expect that some of them will linger for quite some time. I do hope, however, that there is no question in anybody’s mind that there is something important being conveyed within these links with respect to how we can live our lives with greater awareness.

Perhaps many of the questions that remain relate in some way to the linear presentation of the concepts. “Just how exactly is it that this arises from that?” you might be asking. Perhaps other questions relate to the expectation that this twelve-fold chain should be able to answer far more than it actually does – as if it were a blueprint of metaphysical reality, for instance. I hope that the remainder of this post helps with questions of the first variety. However, as far as those of the second variety are concerned, I think we just need to stay focused on the fact that the twelve-fold chain was intended to explain how suffering arises. Questions of a more metaphysical nature simply cannot be answered by it, no matter how powerful a microscope we might place it under.

Rosan Yoshida’s Structural Interpretation of Dependent Origination

Yoshida roshi’s 1994 book, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, makes a strong case for a non-linear interpretation of twelve-fold dependent origination. In it he examines various representations of dependent origination within Buddhist scripture having anywhere from eight to twelve links (p. 166). Yoshida (1994) explains why this might be so:
[It] is not correct to think that 12 D.O. [twelve-fold dependent origination] was given by the Buddha as a rigid and sole form of Dependent Origination. He must have taught people freely with his insight, less concerned about formulation. Imagine that his teaching was given to all walks of people in different situations according to their personalities and capacities during 45 years [his teaching career]. Formulations might have been done by people such as Sariputta, a legendary proponent famous for his expounding of the dharmas, and those producing the Abhidamma Pitaka, and others. (p.57)
Yoshida (1994) goes on to describe the Buddha’s teaching style as “more like midwifery with flexible dialogue suited to each person and occasion” (p. 68).

Now, once the Sangha – the community of Buddhist monastics – set about formalizing and standardizing the Buddha’s teachings, the focus changed. Says Yoshida (1994): “The Sangha, in teaching and learning, needed a single comprehensive and convenient formula, a representative one out of different D.O. types, which includes essential ideas of the dependent origination of consciousness, samsara and suffering” (p. 49). The linear structure arose from the simple fact that the Sangha at that time still relied largely on an oral teaching tradition – making a sequential presentation of links all but necessity (pp. 43, 49). Yoshida (1994) goes on to say that “12 D.O. is not [a] linear succession of phenomena, but simply a linear expression of a structural form” (p.56).

With the constraint of linearity removed, we are free to examine relationships amongst the various links as we would the components of any dynamic system. And so, without further ado, let me introduce Yoshida roshi’s structural interpretation of dependent origination:


Let’s orient ourselves to this new way of looking at the twelve-fold chain. First of all, it is not a model that encompasses multiple physical lifetimes, i.e. reincarnation. The model presupposes the existence of a physical mind-body interacting with the world of nama-rupa, name and form, the seamless reality subdivided into an environment consisting of a multitude of sense objects. The activity of a physical being within this world of sense objects leads to contact between the sense bases and sense objects, prompting consciousness and feelings to arise.

And this brings us to the most dynamic part of the model. How we interpret feelings as they arise – as good, bad, or neutral – largely depends upon what we’ve brought to the present moment as a result of our previously lived experience. For instance, what is the nature of our nescience? How accurate is our view of the nature of reality? What comprises this self that we have thus far appropriated? What exists in our accumulated storehouse of karmic formations? All of these play a role in determining whether that feeling that just arose will be followed by craving or equanimity, whether it will prompt us to appropriate something new into our conception of self or whether we will continue on, unmoved, realizing the essential insubstantial nature of arising phenomenon. Act without awareness and the end result will, of course, be one of suffering. Engage in further appropriation and, of course, the process of birth, aging and death commences. In this model, however, birth, aging and death are interpreted as moment-to-moment as opposed to lifetime-to-lifetime.

I’ll include the traditional interpretation here for comparison’s sake:

Past Life
  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
Present Life
  1. nama-rupa – name and form.
  2. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  3. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  4. vedana – feeling.
  5. tanha – craving.
  6. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  7. bhava – becoming.
Future Life
  1. jati – birth.
  2. jaramarana – aging and death.

One Final Walk-Through

At this point I’d like to bring to a close this series of posts on dependent origination by looking at the twelve-fold chain in light of our modern understanding of evolution and human development and human behavior.

Avijja and Kamma – It’s In Our Genes:
Human beings, like all animals, have evolved certain attributes and capabilities necessary to our surviving long enough to reproduce. Having greater functionality than is required for survival is, generally speaking, a “luxury” that does not get passed on to successive generations. As such, our vision is confined to a fairly narrow band of electromagnetic radiation – the spectrum of light that is most useful to us; and our hearing, as well, occurs only within a fairly narrow range of acoustic wave frequencies. Interestingly, I recently heard that birdsongs fall within the area of the audible spectrum where our perception is most acute. That certainly makes sense. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine how our ability to tune in to the birds of the forest would have allowed us to better sense when danger was in our midst.

In addition to our sense of sight and sound being very localized on their respective spectra, our sense of time is also. We readily think in terms of days and months and lifetimes, but when it comes to the vast expanses of geological or astrological time we find them virtually unimaginable. We simply have no frame of reference with which to understand them. And so it is with very small increments of time, as well. There is so much information bombarding us during even the smallest increment of time that we simply can’t be conscious of it all. Norretranders (1991) discusses this reality in The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size:
The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. (p. 125)
So, rather than actually experiencing the microsecond by microsecond rollercoaster of our subconscious attention being drawn here, there, and everywhere as “we” go about processing our environment, our brains have become very adept at editing the raw footage down to a very smoothly perceived conscious existence. This is referred to as the bandwidth of consciousness.

It seems safe to conclude, then, that the very structure of our being keeps us from experiencing the true nature of reality. In other words, the human body is constructed in a way that precludes us from consciously experiencing all but a very narrow range of the vast and seamless reality that I keep referring to. Science, in large part, endeavors to expand that range – affording us greater knowledge in the process. By seeing far into space and deep into molecular structure, by speeding things up and slowing things down, by turning that which we can’t see, the phenomenon itself, into something that we can, data, we expand the realm of human experience. One particularly fascinating way that we can expand our perception of the world is through stop-action photography. With it we can witness a bullet exiting the barrel of a gun or the still wings of a hummingbird photographed in mid-flight. In fact, we are so used to seeing the world via such techniques that perhaps we don’t even wonder how someone like the Japanese Zen monk, Dogen, could have written a poem such as this in the 13th century (as translated by Yoshida, 1999, p. 77):

To what is the world compared?
It’s the moon dwelling
In the dewdrops strewn
From the beak of a water fowl.

Nearly 800 years have elapsed since Dogen wrote that poem, and even though our powers of observation have been greatly artificially enhanced since then, our innate ability to interpret what we see in all but the most mundane ways has not. Dogen was writing about impermanence. But even as our ability to experience impermanence has increased many times over as we’ve expanded our range of experience, we still cling as tightly as ever to the idea that we are independent individuals, separate from our environments, lasting forever, with identities that span lifetimes. Apparently even with our expanded sensory capabilities we still end up processing the input in the same old way as we always have – through the lens of self and other, subject and object, this and that. We are still fundamentally processing the world in the way that our forebears did – as a function of our innate drive to perpetuate “our” genes.

Of course, what I’m talking about is avijja (avidya) – an inherent inability to discern the nature of reality. “So what?” you might ask. “Isn’t that the natural order of things?” “Didn’t this beautiful world of myriad living things come into existence via the process of competition between the individual beings of your so-called seamless reality?” Hmmm... Response #1: Are we sure that what we’re seeing as individual competition is not systemic cooperation instead? Response #2: Yes, and so it is that disease and starvation and death are quite natural for populations that are too successful – that overwhelm and devastate their habitat – that tip the balance too far in favor of their own short term self interests.

This is the shared human kamma (karma) that we have all been born with. Karma, as Yoshida roshi often describes it, is “habit energy”. Habit energy has been passed down in an unbroken chain via our DNA since the time when those first single-celled organisms arose in the primordial swamp of our birth. Habit energy dictates what we see, and habit energy dictates how we see it. In this way of looking at the first links of the twelve-fold chain, then, avijja (avidya) is perpetuated by the karma passed on from generation to generation within the DNA of our existence.

Consciousness – A Child is Born:
An infant lying in his or her crib – without ever entertaining a single thought, without ever having done a “bad” deed (or any deed, for that matter) – embodies the billions of years of struggle and strife and suffering that it took to prevail, or simply to survive, or merely to abide through the howling night in order to greet the glorious light of a brand new day. Consciousness exists for this newborn – though not consciousness as we adults perceive it. Freud coined the term ‘oceanic state’ to define the experiential world of the infant prior to individuation – prior to any conceptualization of self and other. In the oceanic state the infant and caregiver and environment are an, as yet, undifferentiated whole. Over time, the child’s sense organs will have come into contact with its environment often enough for patterns to become apparent. Figure begins to emerge from ground, so to speak, and nama-rupa begins to arise within the child’s realm of experience. The wheel of becoming is turning. At this point, Yoshida roshi’s structural interpretation of the twelve-fold chain becomes directly applicable.

Craving and Appropriation – What Complex Creatures We Become:
One way to really see how this process of craving works is to focus on some extreme responses to it – responses that could, in fact, require clinical attention. For instance, an individual might so crave release from their experience of loneliness that they binge eat – momentarily alleviating those feelings that they are averse to, but ultimately increasing their suffering in the long term by deflating their sense of self-worth and further increasing their feelings of isolation. Another example would be an individual whose strategy for dealing with their experience of anxiety or feelings of emptiness (not the Buddhist kind of emptiness, mind you) is to engage in cutting or some other self-mutilating behavior that, while calming in the short term, only leads to an even greater experience of anxiety and emptiness in the long term.

Whether we are talking about an overreliance on or an overvaluation of substances or sex, chaos or order, work or power, exercise or excitement, we are not lacking for examples of cravings leading to suffering when inappropriately addressed. All of them are instances wherein craving, coupled with a fundamental lack of awareness as to how to wisely deal with them (nescience), ends up creating negative karma (formations) that leads to further suffering. Now, some readers might think that these examples of how some individuals deal with their cravings are too extreme to be applicable to their own garden-variety cravings. Well, all I can say is please just keep paying attention to those cravings as they arise until you are certain for yourself.

Perhaps, in an individual’s attempt to fulfill their craving for esteem, security, or stability (or simply to make their parents happy), they end up choosing a highly compensated, highly regarded profession that, despite its rewards, ends up making them miserable. This could be an example of how an individual’s lack of awareness (nescience) as to what kind of work they might best be suited for, or might best suit them, leads them to appropriate a professional identity as their self, thereby causing them suffering in the process. Or perhaps we could take that a step further and consider that our craving for esteem, security, and stability might lead us to appropriate a nationalistic self-identity – one that makes it seem very rational and reasonable to go to war in order to protect our self-interests.

This past week I went on a long-distance run like I haven’t done in a long, long, time. For years now one injury after another has kept me from putting together more than a couple of months of decent running at a stretch. But as I was in the middle of this long and beautiful workout – just running, just being, thoroughly enjoying the pure physicality of my existence – I realized that I was beginning once again to appropriate ‘distance-runner’ into my conception of self. And what harm is there in that? Well, on one hand there is what economists refer to as ‘opportunity cost’ – the cost of foregoing X because of being engaged in Y.  If I’m spending such-and-such amount of time running, then I’m not doing something else that may, in fact, be more valuable to the world. Within the context of our current discussion, though, there is the little fact that my becoming a distance-runner sets the process of birth, aging and death in motion yet again. Someday, somehow, whether because of injury or old age, I will have to say goodbye to my distance-running self once again, and I will suffer for it – that is, unless I start working on cultivating equanimity with regards to it! Speaking of opportunity cost... perhaps from a Buddhist standpoint the opportunity cost of appropriating the self is the loss to the entire world whenever an individual acts purely in the interest of their ‘small self’ as opposed to acting on behalf of all beings.   

Well, I’m going to have to bring this discussion of dependent origination to a close. To those of you who’ve made it all the way through these five posts: Thank you for your dedication! I hope you’ve found them interesting and rewarding, and I hope that you’ve gleaned just a little something along the way that will help alleviate some of the suffering in the world somehow.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank Rosan Yoshida roshi for permission to include here his visual image of the structural interpretation of dependent origination. This image is a revised version of the one that first appeared in the text that I have referenced numerous times throughout these posts. And, once again, thank you for making available to the world your analysis of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination as it appears in No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, the text that I have relied on so much during this series of posts.


 References

Norretranders, T. (1991). The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size (Sydenham, J., Tr.). Viking – Published by Penguin Group.
Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.



Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dependent Origination - The Wheel of Becoming (Part 4 of 5)

Whether we think of it as having arisen from a different mother or from the moment before last, giving consideration to our past life provides us insight into what makes up this present moment. More important, however, is what we choose to do with this moment now that we are living it. Will we proceed with awareness, in a way that reduces suffering, or will we act without awareness – propelled forward by the kamma (karma), the habit energy that has brought us here?

What we have in this present moment is consciousness (or at least the capacity for it), a storehouse of habit energy (formations, volition, and will), and an inaccurate understanding of the nature of reality. With just this much we dive into the swirling waters of samsara (the continuous flow of life, death, and rebirth) to sputter and thrash around and get pulled under and fight our way back to the surface – over and over again. Oftentimes we think that the solution is as simple as learning how to swim. But, you know, there will always be a bigger wave and a stronger current than we can handle. No, better yet would be to allow ourselves to simply merge into those very waters that would destroy us. But how do we do that?

These next links in the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination make up what is sometimes referred to as the becoming wheel – bhava-cakka (Yoshida, 1994, p. 24). They reveal with precision how suffering arises, and at the same time they reveal the nature of its cessation. Once again, let me restate the entire twelve-fold chain so that it is readily available for reference:

Past Life
  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
Present Life
  1. nama-rupa – name and form.
  2. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  3. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  4. vedana – feeling.
  5. tanha – craving.
  6. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  7. bhava – becoming.
Future Life
  1. jati – birth.
  2. jaramarana – aging and death.


Who Is This That Stands Before Me?

Nama-rupa – name and form. In his book, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, Yoshida (1994) frequently references the Milindapanha, a sutra based on a conversation said to have taken place between a king, Milinda, and a monk, Nagasena. The conversation begins with the usual introductory discourse of the day, but King Milinda soon gets down to business – that business being ascertaining Nagasena’s understanding of Buddhism. I’ll quote from a passage of the Milindapanha as it appears in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Radhakrishnan and Moore (1957):
            “How is your reverence called? Bhante (Lord), what is your name?”
“Your majesty, I am called Nagasena; my fellow-priests, your majesty, address me as Nagasena; but whether parents give one the name Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, it is, nevertheless, your majesty, but a way of counting, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation, a mere name, this Nagasena; for there is no ego [self] here to be found” (p. 281).
King Milinda, seeking to get to the bottom of the matter, goes on to question Nagasena with respect to who it is that engages in spiritual practice and keeps or breaks the precepts, does good deeds and bad, and enjoys the merits or demerits thereof. He goes on to ask whether Nagasena is, in turn, form, feeling, idea, formations, consciousness (the so-called five aggregates (skandhas, in Sanskrit) comprising this mind-body existence). “Nay, verily, your majesty,” Nagasena replies. The King asks whether Nagasena is, then, the combination of form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. “Nay, verily, your majesty.” So the King asks whether Nagasena is something other than form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. “Nay, verily, your majesty.” To which King Milinda replies: “Bhante, although I question you very closely, I fail to discover any Nagasena, Verily, now, bhante, Nagasena is a mere empty sound. What Nagasena is there here?” (p. 282).

It is clear why Yoshida roshi would begin his book with such a story, for in it are many good examples with which to explain the five aggregates, dependent origination, the teaching of no self, and, of course, nama-rupa. We use nama-rupa to partition off various aspects of what is ultimately a seamless reality. This usage of the term can be traced back to the Upanisads. As an example, Yoshida (1994) quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad: “At that time this (universe) was undifferentiated. It became differentiated by name and form (so that it is said) he has such a name, such a form. Therefore even today this (universe) is differentiated by name and form” (p. 27). Despite the historic usage of the term nama-rupa (even at the time of the Buddha), it still ended up being interpreted, by some, as ‘mind-body’. One reason for such confusion might be that the consciousness link of the usual depiction of the twelve-fold chain comes before the six sense bases – which are clearly physical (bodily) in nature. Thus, it might have seemed reasonable to think of nama-rupa as mind-body and thereby conclude that consciousness enters the body (a la reincarnation) rather than arising as a result of the body. Nama-rupa is, in fact, integral to how we process phenomena. If you need to convince yourself of that, simply try to imagine what it would be like to go through life without being able to use words to refer to common, everyday objects. As Yoshida (1994) notes: “Consciousness holds an object by means of name and form” (p. 28).

The Wheel of Becoming is Turning Now!

Salayatana – the six sense bases. Five of these six are the ones that you always think about when you think about your senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. In Buddhism, though, the mind is considered a sense organ, as well, with thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc., being its corresponding sense objects.

Phassa – contact.  Okay, so we have consciousness (or at least the capacity for it), a storehouse of habit energy (formations, volition, and will), and an inaccurate understanding of the nature of reality. We’ve taken to subdividing the seamless reality in which we exist into this and that – each with name and form. We have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, a body, and a mind and we interact with the world around us. It is at this point, according to Buddhism, that eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, and so on, up to mind-consciousness arise.

This is a subtle, but extremely important point. Most often if somebody is trying to define who or what they are they will be willing (as Nagasena was) to disavow a multitude of things: their body, their facial appearance, their job, that which they do, etc. The last thing to go, however, will almost surely be consciousness (or some might say soul, which, as was mentioned earlier, seems very much like consciousness without form). Consciousness, in the Buddhist way of thinking about reality, is dependent upon sense base, sense object, and contact between the two. Without contact, consciousness does not even exist. This means that what we think of as “our” consciousness, rather than being like a continuous stream, is more like a rope woven together of many shorter threads of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc., that arise and pass away, but which, in combination, give the appearance of continuity of some beholder – the self. In fact, this “rope” might fray at times into a single strand of ear-consciousness, for instance. For me this is most likely to occur during meditation when my mind becomes very still, and thinking, bodily sensations, vision, smell, and taste have all receded. The sounds of birds chirping and chortling, the waterfall splashing into the pond, the whooshing of a car slipping past out in front of the zendo; these are like an aural cloud swirling about in “my” mind – unexamined, unnamed, unjudged. Perhaps more accurately would be to say that “my” mind is a swirling, aural cloud in that moment. Of course, there are also times when consciousness comes to an end altogether, as in deep, dreamless sleep. The “rope”, then, simply frays into nothingness. But it (usually) picks up once again – perhaps with the sound of the garbage truck outside your bedroom window, for instance.      

Vedana – feeling. These respective realms of consciousness give rise to different feelings – some pleasant, some unpleasant, some neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Thus, craving arises. By the way, one of the most fundamental Vipassana meditation techniques is to classify all arising sensations, feelings, etc., as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, thereby bringing awareness to the impermanence of all arising phenomena and our conditioned responses to them.

Tanha – craving. We crave what feels good. We crave to be separate from that which feels bad. Attachment and aversion are but two sides of the same coin. Everything is changing, though – all the time changing. We want that which feels pleasant to last, and we want to be rid of that which feels unpleasant as soon as possible. But we can’t disown our sense organs, can we, for they are the source of the pleasantness that we crave. And so we take action to get more of what we desire and less of that which we find aversive.

The process that encompasses these preceding links – from sense base, to contact, to arising sense-consciousness, to feeling, to craving, to acting to engage the sense base in further contact – is known as bhava-cakka, the becoming wheel (Yoshida, 1994, p. 24). 

Upadana – appropriation. Thus, we appropriate these five aggregates – form, feeling, ideas, formations, and consciousness – and consider them to be self. That which makes us feel good we determine that we must own, and that which threatens us must be repelled at all cost. And so we build our selves, our lives, our careers, our families, our hobbies, etc.

Bhava – becoming. Of course, this is all very normal, isn’t it? This is what people do. We live our lives, we become adults, we become accountants, we become friends and spouses and partners; we become, we become, we become. Indeed, it is all very normal, and as the Buddha observed, rife with suffering (the First Noble Truth).

At this point, we’ve reached the last of the links that encompass the so-called ‘present life’. Readers inclined to think in terms of reincarnation might think it’s now time to start all over again in a different body. Another way of thinking about it, though, is to realize that whenever we appropriate something as the self, whenever we become something, we inevitably end up experiencing birth, aging, and death. For the vast majority of humans, existence is comprised of repeated cycles of birth, aging, and death. We become a child, but then in becoming an adult the child must die. We become some type of professional, but then as economic circumstances change or our interests change or we succumb to injury or we reach retirement age, that professional also ages and dies. Our relationships are born, they age, and they die. Our recreational pursuits are born, they age, and they die. But the inclusion of birth, aging, and death into the twelve-fold chain is not merely a trivial statement of fact regarding the nature of our existence. Birth, aging, and death are part of the chain because their very existence depends on how we view reality.

Jati – birth. The process of becoming involves our thinking of ourselves as separate from what is fundamentally a seamless reality. Our appropriation of particular aspects of this ultimate reality inevitably causes us to be subject to birth, aging, and death. Recall that it is avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion – that causes us to interpret that which is transient as real.

Jaramarana – aging and death. That which is born must surely age and die. Everything changes. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Focus on any particular eddy in this swirling river of samsara and surely it will cease to exist one day. Or, using the metaphor that Yoshida roshi often uses: consider yourself to be like a bubble in the ocean and surely you will burst one day. Consider yourself to be the ocean itself and you will never, ever die. Let the waters of samsara drag you down, down, down until you’re certain that you’ll never make it to the surface ever again – and then take a deep breath!

Two Views – One Result?

On one hand, those who are inclined to view this twelve-fold chain through the lens of reincarnation might be motivated to take steps to cultivate awareness and equanimity, to purify their kamma – thereby bringing their cycle of birth and death to an end, and ending their suffering in the process. On the other hand, those who view this twelve-fold chain from the standpoint of no self and no soul – who truly actualize this reality by relinquishing their appropriation of that which makes up the “small self” – will, likewise, be freed from the cycle of birth and death, but via a somewhat different path, perhaps. Realize this instant that all of what you thought of as “you” and “yours” is a construct – that your existence is really but a manifestation of an ultimately seamless reality – and in that very instant you will realize freedom from birth, aging, and death. Now, could it be the case that the process of purifying “our” kamma so that we need not be born again, and the process of relinquishing selfhood and acting on behalf of all beings might actually be taking us to the same place? I’ll simply ask the question and leave it at that.


References

Radhakrishnan, S., Moore, C. (1957). A sourcebook in Indian philosophy (Radhakrishnan, S., & Moore, C., Ed.). Princeton University Press.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelve-Fold Chain (Part 3 of 5)

Okay, we can put it off no longer. It’s time to work our way through the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination link by link. This would seem to be a straightforward process, but as I stated in a comment following the previous post, as soon as you pull on one thread all of Buddhism follows! Immediately upon considering the first link, avijja, we can’t help but wonder: where do nescience, ignorance, and delusion come from? And just what is it that is deluded, anyway – an existing physical being, a soul about to be reborn? For the time being, please hold loosely in mind the possibility that the twelve-fold chain encompasses multiple cycles of physical birth and death. At the same time, though, please keep in mind the possibility that the twelve-fold chain acts within a single physical human lifetime multiple times as we continue “our” process of becoming. Regardless of the way you choose to think about what constitutes ‘past life’, the following list displays the common lines of demarcation:

Past Life
  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
Present Life
  1. nama-rupa – name and form.
  2. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  3. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  4. vedana – feeling.
  5. tanha – craving.
  6. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  7. bhava – becoming.
Future Life
  1. jati – birth.
  2. jaramarana – aging and death.


 So, Where Does It All Begin?

Avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion. If Buddhism has anything resembling Catholicism’s concept of original sin, I suppose it is evident in the Verse of Repentance. The Verse of Repentance as recited at the Missouri Zen Center is as follows (translated by Yoshida roshi):

All the wrong karmas made by me
Were created from beginningless
Attachment, aversion and delusion
Born of the body, mouth and mind.
I now repent all of them wholeheartedly.

Actually, we can pretty much blame it all on delusion given the fact that attachment and aversion themselves arise from it. The expression “be careful what you wish for” reflects our common recognition that quite often we don’t really know what would be good for us. Likewise, the expression “swallowing a bitter pill” reflects the insight that that which we find aversive might actually end up being good for us. We just don’t know, do we?

What are we to make of that word ‘beginningless’? Did the universe come into existence with an explosive burst of nescience? Did the very first organic molecule arise due to a lightning bolt of delusion bringing intense charge to the primordial soup of our birth? Just how far back does this chain extend? Mind you, I’m not being facetious in asking these questions. I’m merely pointing out that if we go back far enough our questions start to become metaphysical in nature and, as such, their contemplation ceases to be conducive to the cessation of suffering (recall the story of Malunkyaputta related in a previous post). But even by going back only as far as our previous lifetime we find ourselves veering into the realm of the metaphysical. It depends upon your definition of lifetime. And that is why I say that pulling a single thread causes all of Buddhism to follow.

If you are inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of reincarnation, you cannot find a more profoundly beautiful description of the process of its unfolding than in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes how something akin to the Christian concept of a soul departs the body and begins to navigate the Bardo Realm. In the Bardo Realm the “soul” of the newly deceased individual encounters various manifestations of what might be known on an intellectual level to be a unified whole, but which will appear as either beautiful or terrifying depending upon the karma that the individual has accumulated over the course of his or her physical lifetime. This process results in the individual actually choosing a subsequent birth that is perfectly tuned to the spiritual progress that they have yet to make – a birth that is commensurate with the nature of their attachment, aversion, and delusion.

Some readers, then, will think that it makes perfect sense to begin the twelve-fold chain with avijja, for it is our nescience, ignorance, and delusion that leads us to interpret the unified whole of reality as something terrible and frightening – thereby prompting us to begin the process of choosing the precise nature of our future birth. Of course, in order for this process to unfold there must be some soul or soul-like essence that leaves one physical body and enters into another. But what if you don’t believe in reincarnation – the transmigration of the soul? Does it still make sense to begin the twelve-fold chain with avijja?

Avijja is the Pali variant of the Sanskrit word avidya, a word with rich meaning rooted in Hinduism – the predominant religion of the culture into which the Buddha was born. In Hinduism, avidya has both cosmic and individual connotations. At the cosmic level, avidya encompasses what is sometimes referred to as the ‘veil of maya’. At the individual level, avidya refers to our inherent “inability to distinguish between the transient and intransient, between the real and the unreal” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 25-26). In Buddhism, the word avijja takes on somewhat greater specificity in referring to our ignorance of, for instance, the Four Noble Truths and the nature of kamma (karma) and the nature of the self. Note that Yoshida (1994) refers to nescience (avijja) as “the misidentification of the five aggregates as ‘the self’” (p.59). The five aggregates will be addressed later on. For now, though, please just think of them as the ever-changing components that make up this mind/body existence.

I’ll close discussion of this first link (for now) with a description of avijja as interpreted by the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism founded by the Buddhist disciple, Nagarjuna. Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) state that in the Madhyamaka school “ignorance refers to the determination of the mind through a priori ideas and concepts that permit beings to construct an ideal world, that confer upon the everyday world its forms and manifold quality, and thus block vision of reality” (p. 26). I actually think that this description corresponds quite well with a more scientific view of the twelve-fold chain in that what we know about neurology and the evolution of the human brain points to our being predisposed to see the world through the dualistic lens of this and that, of self and other.
Are We Ready For That Next Big Step?

Sankhara – formation, volition, will. Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that “formations include all volitional impulses or intentions that precede an action.” Furthermore, “if they [formations] are absent, no karma [whether physical,verbal, or mental] is produced, and no further rebirths take place” (p.298-299). Now, if you are inclined to believe in reincarnation, this seems like a logical next link in the chain. Using the description of what takes place in the Bardo Realm, for example, the newly deceased individual (due to nescience) incorrectly interprets what he or she is experiencing and thus begins the process of choosing his or her subsequent birth. This choosing is, of course, volitional.

However, Yoshida (1994, p. 48) points out a sutra, the Theragatha, in which this second link is actually kamma (karma) and not sankhara. This brings up a couple of points. First of all, it is evidence that the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination did not necessarily spring forth from the Buddha’s mouth fully formed but, rather, may have arisen and evolved over time as the Buddha’s oral teachings began to be written down. This process took place over the course of perhaps hundreds of years – long enough for divergence in teachings to have occurred or misinterpretations to have become manifest.  Secondly, it points to the possibility that this idea of a multi-fold chain was not originally intended to accommodate metaphysical concepts such as reincarnation and the transmigration souls but was, instead, intended to explicate how suffering arises and is perpetuated in an already physically formed individual. Yoshida (1994) states that sankhara has a more comprehensive meaning than kamma (karma), though both of them are derived from the same root – to create (p. 117). He notes that “kamma retains more concrete and limited sense of (physical) action, even though kamma can include three functions (bodily, verbal and mental)” (p.117). Furthermore, Yoshida (1994) points out that “action causes ‘the origination of consciousness,’ and turns the becoming wheel” (p.116). The ‘becoming wheel’ refers to the process of cycling through subsequent links in the twelve-fold chain.

Please note how important this word choice is. The word kamma (karma) leads us to focus on a physically existing body/mind, whereas the use of the more comprehensive word sankhara leaves the door open for us to focus on volition and will – concepts that are more easily theorized as being possible for some soul-like essence existing in a hypothetical spirit realm. Likewise, the next link, vinnana (consciousness), can be imagined as occurring in that same spirit realm. What is a soul, after all, if not some form of consciousness? The difficulty is that Buddhism describes very clearly how consciousness arises. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s that pulling-one-thread-and-having-all-of-Buddhism-follow phenomenon.

A Bridge Between Lives?

Vinnana – consciousness. When we begin to think about what it must be like to exist in the spirit realm, the closest description has to be that it is like having consciousness without form. And so, for readers inclined to think in terms of reincarnation, we have arrived at a point where consciousness may enter a physical body and begin life anew. For readers inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of the previous moment of existence, we have now arrived at the present moment of consciousness. Either way you choose to think about it, consciousness brings us into the present moment where we are actually in a position to do something to impact our circumstances, i.e., bring an end to suffering.

But I simply can’t bring this discussion of vinnana (consciousness) to a close without discussing the problem that I alluded to above. In Buddhism, consciousness requires and results from contact (see the link referring to phassa) between a sense organ and its associated sense object. Yes, and that includes thought, as well, for in this schema mind is the sense organ and mind-object (thought, etc.) the sense object. (See, for instance, the Samyutta Nikaya 35.93.) So just how is it, then, that consciousness leaves one body and enters another? Do we need to expand our definition of consciousness in order to include some other form that is available to a soul-like essence in a hypothetical spirit realm? Do we need to accept this apparent inconsistency in the twelve-fold chain? Perhaps we just don’t see the whole picture just yet. Remember, we’re holding these ideas loosely, right?

Well, it’s time for me to sign off. Let’s hold these ideas loosely for yet another week. In the next post I’ll be covering the so-called becoming wheel, the section of the twelve-fold chain most pertinent to our understanding of suffering and its cessation – regardless of how we got here.

References

Anguttara Nikaya 35.93. Dvaya sutta: a pair (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.093.than.html
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank