Monday, October 24, 2011

Unraveling Mind and Body (Part I of II)

Ayya Susila and Yogi Seven (Wisdom Quarterly)

It is said that “mind leads the world.” Is it true? We will only really know when we understand how the mind works. Mind seems at times close and at times far away. Mind is both the culprit behind unwholesome deeds and also the director of all heart-soothing behavior.

The study of the Abhidharma (Buddhism's "Higher Teachings" on ultimate reality) helps us gain an understanding of how the mind works, which is essential for leading a happy and blameless life.

According to the Abhidharma, the ultimate realities that make up mind and matter making, which we call "self" or "soul" are revealed. They are actually an impersonal stream of mind-moments (cittas) and infinitesimally small particles (kalapas). Both continuously arise and pass away, utterly dependent on conditions.

The study of the Abhidharma is an antidote to the painful illusion of a permanent self, ego, or “I.”

Most problems in life spring from our ignorance and craving regarding this “I” and the selfishness that is its offspring.

But when we understand that -- ultimately speaking -- there is no “I,” we are finally able to let go of our intense clinging and thereby to let go of all suffering.

The truth sets one free. It is an escape to reality and away from the illusion that wash over us like a great flood. The heart is set free of affliction. Life’s problems suddenly disappear by a change of perception, understanding truth for truth.

How would we ever accomplish this? The Buddha’s gradual instruction guides us through a practical study of Abhidharma and, more importantly, meditative experience. There is no reason to be bogged down by intellectual grasping. Far more important is the application of the principles. For instance, we can debate for a lifetime whether there are four great elements (earth, fire, water, wind), or five (space), or none at all. Or we can practice four elements meditation as the Buddha instructed.

Then whatever we might choose to label the characteristics of matter, the truth about materiality remains the same. But we are changed, and our relationship to it is changed. We no longer regard it as me or mine. And freed from this illusion, we are at peace.

But "who" is at peace. How can the self realize not-self? How can all I regard as me or mine (my form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness) ever see that that is not me, not mine?

The Abhidharma shows the way. While it appears to be an inscrutable paradox, it is in practice very clear. How can what is changing at every moment, what is painful, what is beyond my control be "me" or be considered "mine"? How can it be anything but impersonal?

But whether it is personal or impersonal, me or not me, self or non-self should not be decided in advance. The Buddha advised us to investigate. And we should be fearless, like scientists knowing full well their hypothesis can be disproved (refuted, found to be false or in error).

I assert that I AM. Now I will test that assertion. By "I" I mean this body. Well, I know I'm not this body. But this body is mine? I can test that, too.

By "I" I actually mean this soul (consciousness, heart, mind, spirit, memory, history, ghost, energetic body, DNA, lineage... software package). Well, I don't know if I am, but I can test it.

The Buddha asserted that all that we typically regard as our "selves" can be summed up in five categories or heaps. He called these heaps the Five Aggregates of Clinging. We cling to them as self, as me or mine. They are familiar to us, though often go misunderstood, via the famous Heart Sutra mantra:
  1. form (body, materiality, subtle or tangible)
  2. feeling (sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral)
  3. perception (what we apprehend, conceptions, discriminations, cognitions)
  4. mental formations (such as volitions, intentions, emotions, memories, impulses, likes and dislikes, opinions... in fact, feelings and perceptions are also "mental formations," only they are so important as to be singled out from other formations and fabrications)
  5. consciousness (awareness, reflection, the knowing that knows it knows, but what does it know other than sights, sounds, bodily impressions, tastes, odors, and ideas, which we give the fancy name "objects of mind," the sixth sense beyond this body?)
According to the Buddha, we see ourselves as these, in these, or apart from these as owners of them. If that is true -- that these are me or mine -- we can test it.

A calm mind is a strong mind. A very calm mind is a very strong mind. If we can clear it of thought and intensify our attention and focus to laser precision, we have something very powerful to work with.

"KNOW THYSELF," all of the ancient traditions say, from India to Greece, from Timbuktu to Nalanda to the Gymnasium to Harvard. So what is this "self"? I don't know. Let's find out!

We can turn the well collected and sharpened mind in on those very things. It is easy enough to examine the mind. And (test it) perception can become so sharp as to directly observe that it is composed of light particles. The Buddha knew this. He was not the first to know it, not the first to speak of it, not the first to show how it is done. But we already know we are not these bodies.

I am my feelings! At least I feel that I am. Of course, by "feeling" is meant sensation not emotion. Emotions are another type of formation (sankhara or samskara). Am I this pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral worldly or otherworldly sensation? The mind can examine each and find out. I see sensations arising with perceptions, born of sense contact with the world. So if I am it, I must also be the body (sense base) and the outside world impinging on the body. Okay, so I might not be the feelings I am experiencing.

Am I what I think about it or how I discriminate it? Am I how I feel about it (happy, sad, up, down, ecstatic, dejected)? I perceive it one way, but it may be another. Or my perception of it can change. I'm probably not that, but I better check back.

Am I my intention? Karma is intention. What I think, speak, or act what determines whether this is profitable, unprofitable, or neutral karma is whether it is rooted in greed, aversion/fear, or delusion or nongreed, nonaversion/nonfear, nondelusion. The first three roots mean that when it ripens it will be unpleasant and unwelcome, but until then it might go either way and make me happy.

The second three roots mean that when it matures and comes to fruition it will be pleasant and welcome, but until then it might go either way and make me unhappy. Being good can feel quite bad, and vice versa, but karma is not deceived. It all balances out in the long run. Am I these intentions, or opinions, or beliefs, or deductions, or what have you? I don't think I am, and I certainly don't feel that I am, but I might be. I better keep examining. Or forget about all that.

I know what I am. I am that I am. I am the Knower, the Watcher, the Soul, the One who has been doing this all along -- consciousness! Aha! Case closed!

Wait, let's not jump to conclusions. The Buddha said investigate. He didn't think he was consciousness. In fact, he saw through consciousness and likened it to a magician's trick (SN 22.95, echoed here). How do I know that I'm the one who knows, the knower? Oops! I see my mistake, I mean the mistake. It is being assumed that there is a knower, but the evidence so far only suggests there is knowing. I've made knowing into a Knower without even realizing it. First principles. Consciousness exists.

But to say someone is conscious is an assumption. Descartes jumped the gun to have said "I think therefore I am." Based on thinking, all that was known was that there was some thinking. Am I the thought? Am I the consciousness itself? That needs investigation. There are six kinds of consciousness, six things to be conscious of -- sights, sounds, savories, smells, touch sensations, and mind objects (extrasensory perceptions, ideas, thoughts, knowings, awareness of being aware, reflections, or whatever is beyond the body's sensory apparatuses).

You know, I'm starting to think the Buddha might have been onto something. But I'm going to investigate because he also said not to go on what others say, or tradition, or scripture, or preferences (Kalama Sutra), which I think is sound advice -- and not because he said it. I'll see for myself.

Hey, I'd better be one of these, or religions teaching me I have a soul and atheists tell me I have a self are going to have a lot to answer for, although I do wonder if I ever understood what they meant. Only Buddhism, on a buddha, teaches the liberating wisdom of nonself (anatta). It is unique to a fully, supremely enlightened teacher. But one can't help but notice how all of them are saying selfishness and self-centeredness, vaulting pride and ego are harmful delusions to be overcome by unselfishness, generosity, charity, and caring.

I really think the Buddha was onto something, but I'm not at all sure I'm up to the task of enlightenment (bodhi) and liberation (nirvana). After all, I didn't actually follow the first step, which was to purify my mind/heart through the effort of virtue (sila) and absorption (zen) in meditation.

So far I have only been intellectualizing and conducting a mental experiment. Buddhism is not about "thinking" and hammering things out by mere reasoning. This is a Wisdom Tradition. This is about real knowing. (The Buddha solved the philosophical tangle of epistemology, the ultimate question of questioners: "How do we know that we know, and how can we be sure?")

So long as we only think, there is no knowing. Knowing comes from direct experience of the truth. Nirvana, for example, is not something that could ever be conceptualized, yet it can be experienced and known here and now. It's not a feeling, so to say it's "women's intuition" if off the mark.

There is a certainty that surpasses all understanding. There is knowing. And mere thinking is not the way to it. I have a heart and a head, and this head is capable of far more than rationalism. It's capable of insight, wisdom, and enlightenment.

When I know, I'll know that I know. And the only way to that is practice with a well purified instrument of knowing. I may be thinking now, but in meditation I will be investigating.

What is the Abhidharma?

Buddhism is divided into three collections or divisions -- conventional discourses (sutras), disciplinary code (Vinaya), and the Higher Teachings (Abhidharma).

is a combination of abhi (means higher, special, or sublime) and Dharma, which means teaching or universal truth. Abhidharma is therefore the higher or ultimate teaching of the Buddha. It is grounded in the reality of experiential truth.

It is not metaphysical theory, as some portray it, but a description of what is possible for meditators to directly know, and it leads to enlightenment.

The Abhidharma system classifies and fully explains mental and material phenomena. This is why the oldest existing Buddhist tradition -- the Theravada or "Teaching of the Elders," who were the immediate disciples of the historical Buddha -- regards Abhidharma as the best exposition of the true nature of existence as realized by the penetrative wisdom of the Supremely-Enlightened One and those who successfully practice the path.

According to Buddhism ,as elaborated in the Abhidharma system, there are two types of truth (sacca), conventional (sammuti) and ultimate (paramattha).

Conventional truth refers to ordinary concepts such as “tree,” “house,” “person,” “body,” “being.” Such concepts are linked to language, culture, and conditioning. We may think these concepts are objective realities that actually exist. After all, there are words and concepts for them. But while they seem to exist, closer examination reveals that they in no way exist as irreducible realities.

Instead, incredibly, they break down into smaller and smaller components. For example, if we discern the four elements (or characteristics of matter) in this body, the "body" breaks down into innumerable, infinitesimally tiny particles. If the analysis continues, these particles break down further. Each contains... TO BE CONTINUED

But the mind or mentality is more relevant than the body or materiality. And that is what the Abhidharma teaches. And it teaches it to reveal the path to enlightenment in this very life.

Remember, this is all directly knowable, directly visible to the mind/heart purified by intense and prolonged concentration (absorption, jhana) and trained in insight (vipassana). This is the Buddha's Middle Path that avoids extremes in views.