Archive for the ‘Dependent Origination’ Category

Consciousness in the EBT

September 6, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

Thus, Ānanda, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an inferior [… repeated also for middling and superior] realm. (AN 3.76)

Consciousness (viññāṇa) as represented in the early Buddhist texts (EBT) has received relatively little attention in modern Buddhist literature, in view of its centrality in human cognition. It is highlighted in the EBT as the third of the twelve links of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), to which I will make frequent reference in this essay:

(1) ignorance → (2) formations → (3) consciousness →
(4) name-and-form → (5) sixfold-sphere →
(6) contact → (7) feeling → (8) craving →
(9) attachment → (10) becoming → (11) birth →
(12) old age, death, this mass of suffering.

In this role consciousness and name-and-form are said to whirl continually around each other to produce our whole conceptual world. In fact, in the seminal Mahānidāna Sutta , which omits the two links prior to consciousness consciousness, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning:1

(3) consciousness ↔ (4) name-and-form.

Therefore, consciousness actually depends on two conditioning factors, formations and name-and-form. Through form, according to the same sutta, it is also subject to the impingement of new sense data.

Consciousness also appears as the last of the five aggregates (khaṅdha) – which are form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness – that represent aspects of phenomenal experience, to which we will also make frequent reference in this essay. We will also see that consciousness tends to arise in the presence of craving. Consciousness is also mentioned as a dependent component of (6) contact.

This essay attempts a coherent overview of consciousness based on earliest texts, but also from the perspective of a (retired) cognitive scientist. I will begin with an illustrative example, then point out the various properties attributed to consciousness in the EBT, and finally outline how consciousness gets us into trouble and what we do about it.

Read More …

The Buddha as Biologist

June 26, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

babySwimmingThe Buddha taught suffering and the ending of suffering. His teachings were stringently parsimonious and practical. It made sense that he would teach us about craving the origin of suffering, because understanding those factors and internalizing their under­standing through practice makes a difference in how we deal with these factors in everyday experience: we see the dangers in crav­ing, we become dispassionate about craving, experience revulsion with regard to craving, abandon craving, and suffering ends. These are factors of phenomenal experience that we can learn to respond to directly as they arise, in more skillful ways. Such phe­nomena are the stuff of dhammānupassanā, examining phenom­ena as they arise in our experiential world through the lens of the Dhamma.

So, why would the Buddha teach biology? It appears that he had important things to say about the nature of conception in the womb, and about the composition of the psychophysical organ­ism, and that he gave these things prominent roles at key junc­tures in his teachings. Or did he? Biology lies within the pro­cesses of the natural world that are largely beyond immediate ex­perience but that generally continue to play out, at least within this life, regardless of our practice or how we might respond to them. Such things, if they are valuable at all, belong to theory and not praxis.

I don’t think the Buddha was a biologist, and hope to show this in this brief essay.

MORE … (BuddhaBiologist.pdf)


What is the Eye?

April 16, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

The eye seems like a commonplace enough and useful thing. Who would imagine that it would be so implicated in the human pathology, nor that understanding the eye would play such an important role in its resolution?

The Buddha attributes many, at first sight, puzzling properties to the eye in the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT), and equivalently to the other sense faculties – ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind. We learn that the eye is something that can be guarded or restrained, by not grasping signs and features of the forms it contacts, for Māra is constantly trying to gain access through the eye. More­over, “it is better for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin … than for one to grasp the features in a form cognizable through the eye” (SN 35.235). We learn that the eye is that by which one is “a perceiver of the world, a conceiver of the world” (SN 35.116). On the other hand, we learn that the eye is imperma­nent, and that its rise and fall can be discerned, and moreover reveals itself as impermanent with the devel­opment of concentration. Since the eye is im­permanent, it is suffering and cannot be a self.

We learn that “that sphere should be understood where the eye ceases and the perception of forms fades away” (SN 35.117). It is possible not to conceive the eye, in the eye, from the eye, or “this eye is mine,” and, as a result, it is possible to end conceptualizing and clinging. As we gain such direct knowledge of the eye, we are able to de­velop dispassion for the eye, revulsion for eye and thereby abandon the eye. Surprisingly, we also learn that the eye itself is old kamma, fashioned by volition and something to be experi­enced.

So, what is this eye the EBT speak of? And analogously, what are the ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind?

Read More . . . (pdf)

The Art of Lay Life 4: Selecting Elements (cont.)

July 29, 2011

Uposatha Day Teaching (Index to Series)

Your life is based on a long history of lifestyle decisions of your own making. Some of these decisions are to include something because something appeals to you, some of these are to include elements out of obligation. This is the pull and push of decision making. If you are like most people you made these decisions with very little reflection.

Last week I began discussing the “Selecting Elements” step, the first step in the Art of Lay Life (the steps are Select – Reject – Balance – Simplify). You’ve already done this step probably with poor results; this is a good time to revisit the Select Step with more reflection and with the wisdom gained through the experience of having lived with your decisions. I suggested that you prioritize the elements of your life, to try to discover which are non-negotiable and which are rather frivolous. Selecting Elements should be something you revisit over an over throughout your life, as you develop more insight in conjunction with your Buddhist practice; this is much more valuable than worrying about your investment portfolio, for instance, for living optimally.

I want this week to add another dimension to the considerations behind Selecting Elements. When we think we are bringing in one element (“Ice cream. I like ice cream. I’m going to put that down as an essential element of my lifestyle.”) we are actually bringing in a mass of incidental, causally implicated elements at the same time (“How’d I get so Chubby?!?!).

Incidental Elements. “Because this arises that arises.” This is the Buddhist principle of Dependent Origination, which the Buddha introduced to help us understand Samsara, how we get so stuck in life. We know it particularly in the twelvefold sequence that has

Contact → feeling → desire → craving → becoming

in the middle. A less known variant (from DN 15) touching on social issues also goes

Craving → seeking → acquisition → decision making → lustful desire → attachment → appropriation → avarice → guarding of possessions → taking up sticks and swords, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying, etc.

A modern variant might run,

Stress → Watching T.V. → Seeing commercial → craving → buying → debt → work

Although these lists traditionally are presented as linear sequences, it is clear that they actually trace lines through what is actually a complex network of causality in which each arising phenomenon has many conditions and conditions many arising phenomena. “Craving,” for instance, show up in all three sequences above. The point is when you bring one thing into your life, even if it is a simple thought, you generally bring a mass of consequences into your life as well. Sometimes these spin off into vicious circles, like

anger → violence → vengeance → anger → violence → …

Studying such causal relations is the primary part of studying samsara. This is why the Buddha taught Dependent Origination.

In the unexamined life we inevitably get unwittingly pulled into this tangled mass of thorns, creepers and snarl, and wonder why life is so difficult. It is critical in Selecting Elements to consider all of the incidental elements in your life that you wish were not there, at least not in their present forms, yet have been brought in to sustain things you feel you need in your life:

  • Job, oppressive working conditions, boss from hell
  • Car, long commutes, breakdowns, providing free chauffeur service to family
  • Insecurity, suspicion, insurance, maintaining stuff
  • Debt, bills, overdrafts, plunging markets
  • Competition, undermining others, retaliation, malicious speech
  • Anger, hatred, dishonesty
  • Stress, anxiety, busy-ness, worry, panic, high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, back aches

The Select step of the Art of Lay Life is to rationalize your life to the extent that you at least know what a pickle you’ve gotten yourself into, then to decide what is really important to you on that basis. This will probably inspire you to prune away at this mass of thorns and creepers to what is really essential, to what you really really value, and for what you are willing to incur the incidental costs for. What is left may or may not have Buddhist roots, but they will be yours.

Of course incidental elements can just as well be desirable, and maybe unexpected at the same time. You might take up a sport like birdwatching because of the challenge or even the competitive element of spotting more birds than Fred, but discover an unexpected serenity and joy at the end of every outing. We all begin with some fundamental values that we would all like in our lives, such as Health, Preserving this Life and Happiness, and perhaps even Being Good, that is, being of net benefit rather than harm to others. Without understanding causal links you will not know specifically what to bring into your life to realize these things; the most fundamental things are incidentals. If you are like most people you don’t even have much of an idea of what Happiness is or how to recognize it. Buddhist practice can help. If you are like most people you probably have brought in a lot of elements that are even detrimental to these most fundamental values, often neglecting one while you vainly pursue another. Consider smoking, for instance.

In sum, Become a Student of Samsara, and be ready to adjust your lifestyle to accord with what you discover! If you get serious about this you will probably start making a lot of changes in the grosser elements for the better in the short terms as you become quickly disenchanted with much you now thing is important through tallying up the most obvious incidental emotional, financial and other costs of the elements of your life. Then these changes will become more gradual as your understanding becomes more subtle.

This study of Samsara for the serious student of Buddhism will deal for the most part with very subtle emotive and cognitive elements taught in detail by the Buddha and his disciples. Dependent Origination even leads to a very refined understanding of existence, and what the self might be. Nagarjuna, the Second Century philosopher-monk, wrote, “Emptiness is Dependent Origination,” and the Buddha said, “To understand Dependent Origination is to understand the Dharma.” The lifestyle elements we are dealing with here are the visible and much grosser manifestations of, and influences on, human thought. Tractable, but still a challenge to sort out.

The human mind has not changed since the time of the Buddha so much as human artifacts, institutions and conventions . Many common elements of modern lives did not ever remotely exist during the time of the Buddha; things like credit cards, television commercials, cheerleaders, extended warranties and traffic tickets probably would have puzzled even Shariputra. I find that an invaluable source of wisdom on negotiating modern life, one that has put this network of conditionality in a proper perspective for modern life is the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It is not Buddhist in origin, but is nonetheless similarly concerned with understanding the causes of conditions at work in trying to realize our most fundamental values, and has a similar willingness to look outside the box. A book I have at hand is Your Money or Your Life, which focuses on simplifying your financial life in order to have more free time and a better sense of contentment. There is not much in there I can use as a monk, but I can report I regret not having followed their advice more closely as a layman. You can google Voluntary Simplicity and probably come up with a lot of current thinking on-line.

I’ll return to some of these themes with the Simplifying Elements step in the Art of Lay Life. But next week I will take up Rejecting Elements, those things which Buddhism has been pretty clear about having ideally no place in the Buddhist life, even if they have a certain appeal.