Archive for the ‘emptiness’ Category

Newly Old: a Fantasy

July 13, 2014

I have been working with a student to proof my pending autobiography. A number of passages are fanciful, each of which is intended to make a Dharmic point, at least obliquely. I thought I would begin to post these as a series. Most, maybe all, have been posted independently in a previous incarnation as separate pieces before, but generally a number of years ago.

The first was originally written in Myanmar, in the Sagaing Hills. No other background is required, except Wigglet, the dog I refer too, was a feral dog who befriended me. She was actually much better cared for than most dogs around the monastery because she was smart enough to claim the Guest House as her territory, where many foreign visitors stayed, who tended to take more interest in dogs than the natives.

Newly Old

While living in Sagaing I became officially old: I turned 60!

In Buddhism we have this Self thing, or rather don’t have it. To be a Self requires the view that there is something in or around this body that is unchanging, besides a Social Security Number. That unchanging Self is what is known in Buddhism as “a mental formation,” and also as a “Wrong View.” In my case this delusion of a mental formation must have arisen many years ago complete with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not surprising that that Self is someone actually much younger than me. The landmark event of turning 60 put me once again face to face with that unchanging youthful Self, and gave me three choices:

The first choice is denial. Under this choice I try all the harder to convince myself that I am this youthful unchanging Self. After all, I have the still unchanged energy to be an international globetrotter, like I was in my 20’s, and now without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except when I’m not feeling so chipper. I can always grow some of my lush head of hair back. I’ve had many more years of experience being young than any of the young of today — the whippersnappers — so I should be really good at it. Why, I just might get me a skateboard, and what I think they call a “Walk Man” so I can listen to the latest “Disco” music, just like the youth of today. Monks don’t have hats to speak of that they could wear backwards, but maybe I’ll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my robe over my right shoulder.

After I began with such thoughts to settle into a happy state of denial my daughter Kymrie emailed from America, “I don’t think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you are 60.” That suddenly took the wind out of my sails. I then began to realize how denial must always slide the slippery slope gradually into despair. So I placed my mind there to see how it felt.

So, the second choice is despair. Under this option I lament the unfairness of the universe for not being the way it is supposed to be, for failing to respect who I really am, for not according me what was promised to me, for being like a fancy restaurant that has inexcusably lost my dinner reservation or a hotel that has put me in a room next to the elevator or over a, uh, disco. I might even try to organize something to do about it, like a gray folks’ protest.

Or I might just relish the despair. You know, I would probably make a really great Bitter Old Man, famous for my Bodhidharma frown. I would learn the art of striking fear in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more and more bitter. The Despair I would experience with Flair, with a Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Wigglet would no longer want to come to my door, relieved instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, my kinda dog. I would learn to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by. Ha ha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I’m going to do it right. By next rainy season my mere presence will pop meditators right out of samādhi into a thicket of unwholesome impulses. My former fans will say, “Don’t do It, Bhante, don’t become a Bitter Old Man,” and “No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita.”

… But wait, what am I thinking? Am I not just replacing one Self with another, the Young with the Old, then clinging equally to the new (Old)? Do I really think I can find satisfaction with the Old (new) Self, any more than I could with the old (Young)? Is not the new (Old) equally subject to dissolution? Oh, Impermanence, What Vexation Have You Wrought? And what would the Buddha say? One of his monks turning into a modern (new but Old) Mara. Besides, I can see that this Bitter Old Man bit will wear thin pretty quickly. “Oh, Wigglet! Wigglet!”

The third choice is acceptance. Under this choice I regard this situation as a good Practice Opportunity and Topic for Contemplation. This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is that guy, and who am I? I seem to have his memories of who he is supposed to be, so we must have intersected at some point, maybe that time in 1965. If he is not me, he must be around here somewhere, since he is unchanging. And I must be another Self, so two Selves. And if there can be two Selves that I identify as me, aren’t there likely to be more? But I know that guy used to be me, so what happened? The mind not able to wrap itself around any of this, exhausted, all the Selves shatter and what is left is nothing but the recognition of change, a continual relentless flux of the whole universe morphing into new forms. Even as the idea arises that this is me, all the parts and their relations are already morphing into something else. Any Self that tries to hold onto itself does not fit into the way things really are, is no more than the product of a very active imagination trying to find something solid in an ocean of change. It is silly to try to hang onto something I never was and could not possibly be.

Thinking this way gives me the ability to lighten up, … and to sound very philosophical while I’m at it.

Just when I had not only resigned myself to no longer being a youth, or a Self, but also thought I was joyfully present with this reality, one of the monks at Sagaing told me he thought I was already 70! That suddenly propelled me back to Square One. I began to picture myself in the upcoming spring once again zipping around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes.

Faith II

May 9, 2011

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, May 10, 2011

It takes a lot of faith to do zazen [Zen Buddhist practice], otherwise you’d never do something so stupid.”
– Rev. Shohaku Okumura

Last week I introduced the notion of faith as a space in which we all spend most of our waking time, the space that exists between our ability to discern and reason and know, and our need to act in all manner of daily affairs and of lifetime commitments. One of the difficulties in talking about faith is that most people have some fixed ideas — generally adopted on faith — about it, often as some kind of higher good, or alternatively as a kind of human weakness, gullibility or laziness in thinking. I hope I impress upon the leader over and over in this short series of posts that whether we have or act on faith is not a choice in the realm of human possibility, only whether our faith is skillful or unskillful. The Buddha’s view is that faith is a faculty of the human mind. As such it is a topic of investigation and understanding as a part of human psychology, and is subject on the one hand to training and development of skill, or on the other to neglect and misuse.

I want this week to open up the topic of the content of faith, that is, what is it we have faith in. In subsequent weeks we will look at the origin of, or influences on our faith, and the emotive properties of faith. To repeat my own definition from last week, anything that can be said to inform our actions and activities and life decisions that is beyond the scope of rational discernment and reasoning fits under faith.

I would like to cast our net far, but let me at least zoom in to make some early reference to Buddhist faith so we don’t lose track of our primary concern. Buddhist faith will also provide some interesting examples of some universal points. The Pali word saddha is generally that which is translated as faith. Sometimes it is said that the primary object of faith is in the enlightenment of the Buddha. A secondary object of faith is in kamma (Sanskrit, karma). These two make sense: If Buddhism is primarily concerned with the perfection of human character, the Buddha’s enlightenment provides the example of what we are all capable of, and kamma is the developmental model that shows how attention to our actions gets us there. (Please keep in mind that karma in Buddhism is quite distinct from alternative models of karma in various Hindu traditions, with which it is commonly confused. Last year I wrote a long series on the Buddhist developmental model, “From Thought to Destiny.”) Saddha is also commonly associated with the Three Refuges, or Triple Treasure. Going for Refuge is a matter of putting faith in the authority of the Buddha, the Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dharma) and the Sangha. When we take refuge in the Buddha we recognize the Buddha’s enlightenment, as well as his wisdom as a teacher capable of accurately expressing what he realized, and of setting in motion a means to propagate his teachings and extending their influence into the future. When we take refuge in the Buddha we place our faith in the accuracy of what the Buddha taught, and in the efficacy of the various practices and of the way of life he recommends. When we take refuge in the Sangha we place our faith in the Buddhist adepts responsible here and now for conveying, exemplifying and maintaining the integrity of the teachings.

The Dhamma is somewhat distinct in that by and large it treats faith as provisional, something that is progressively replaced with direct discernment as one’s practice develops. Recall Sariputta’s (he was the Buddha’s foremost disciple in wisdom) words in the opening quote last week, “I don’t take it on faith. I know.The Dhamma is a sophisticated doctrinal system, but one open to investigation, ehipassika, “to be seen for oneself.” Investigation, in turn, is a progressive process, a possibility that depends on, and opens up more and more with continued practice. Therefore at the outset one necessarily starts with a lot of faith, faith that the Buddha knew what he was talking about and that it has been successfully conveyed in the Dhamma and through the Sangha to you. But what the Buddha taught included clear instructions that enable you to investigate for yourself, gradually to see what the Buddha saw. As Rev. Okumura expresses in the opening quote above, we start with little discernment — we cannot see for ourselves the sense of zazenandso without faith we would not start at all. However, through investigation based on our experience of practice, discernment progressively replaces faith, and at the same time the intensity of faith in the rest grows through repeated confirmation.

What enables this development of discernment is that the Dhamma is really a nuts-and-bolts system, with relatively little in the way of lofty and sweeping truths, for instance, about the existence of God or the origin of the universe, rather primarily confined to pointers to elements of present experience, things you can see with a degree of training and practice. But more about this later.

So, now zooming back out from Buddhism, we ask, What are the elements or contents of faith? Naturally much of the content of faith has the form of beliefs, for instance, the belief that heaven and hell are real places, that God is an animate being, that free markets ensure the optimal use of resources, that walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror is bad luck, or that craving is the source of suffering. Notice that for all of us, individually, virtually all common beliefs are matters of faith, for instance, that the moon orbits around the sun or that water is made of oxygen and hydrogen, since we rely on some other authority to stand behind these beliefs whose infallibility most of us cannot generally prove rationally. We believe in scientific “truths” for the most part because we have faith in science, and we trust that scientists discern or establish these beliefs on a rational basis.

What does the scientist have faith in? He has faith in the data provided by other scientists, but further than that, he has faith in the correctness of the scientific method, in the existence of an objective world in which certain propositions are true that humans have the capacity know, none of which can be rationally established with certainty. Moreover, the individual scientist, doing what is known as normal science, works and is invested in a certain paradigm or broad theoretical framework, which acts as a lens through which data is interpreted and given meaning. That individual scientist has faith in that paradigm. It is faith because belief in it is not arrived at rationally by that scientist through considering all possible alternatives, but rather through faith in the authority of that scientist’s elders, usually especially his dissertation advisor. Other scientists will at the same time have faith in competing paradigms, but virtually any scientist has allegiance to some particular paradigm or another. Science is riddled with faith.

If we grant that belief in science can arise through faith, we should also acknowledge the ongoing impetus in science to investigate, including to challenge accepted beliefs or to improve their rational basis over time. This ensures progress over time toward aligning belief with some rational empirically grounded criteria of truth (notice, however, that the existence or nature of such criteria is a matter of faith). There is a trend in science that moves toward knowing and away from faith, but not a accomplished goal. This is not so different from the spirit of investigation alive in Buddhism that Sariputta refers to, but is uncommon in most areas of human interest. This raises an interesting question about these other areas: Are they just sloppier than science about what is true and what is not, or do they have good reasons for believing something without a reasonable basis for whether it is actually true or not? In other words, is faith at least sometimes preferable to knowing?

The human capacity for denial illustrates the tendency to ignore reason to grasp at a more comforting proposition out of faith. For instance, the notion of eternal life protects us from the horror of future non-existence. Or you may choose to tell a victim of a clearly about-to-become fatal accident, “You’re going to be O.K.” to protect him from the shock of a more objective appraisal. And, the implicit and comforting view that “all beef” on the package means something like ground steak, protects us from the uncomfortable recognition about what body parts the hot dogs we are eating really are made of. Buddhism, seemingly in contrast to most religious faith, is not generally prone to encouraging denial, often lending the impression of Buddhism as pessimistic: “What makes you think,” the Buddhist asks, “that you exist even now?” On a cautionary note, I am sure most readers are aware of the often serious dangers of denial, for instance, denial of the lump growing under the skin, of an increasing burden of personal debt or of the accelerating rate of severe weather events.

On the side of more skillful applications of belief based in faith, there are cases in which faith gives rise to truth. William James points out the power of faith to provide its own verification. Most of the cases involve cooperation among people. A group of die-hard strict rationalists would be hard put to exhibit any cooperative behavior at all, or even to develop friendships. Each would think along the lines of, “It is wasted effort for me even to think about doing my part of this proposed collaborative task before I have good evidence that those other people intend to do their part of the task,” then put their efforts on hold to await such evidence. Or they would reason, “Why should I be friends with him when I have no basis for suspecting that he wants to be friends with me?” If they are all thinking like this then nothing gets done and no friendships are forged. These are generally not people you want on your basketball team, in your platoon, among your squad of circus acrobats or in your construction crew. These are also not people prone to have dates on Saturday nights. Why? Because they lack sufficient faith. Collaborative behavior requires at least one person daring enough to have faith in the intentions of others, and then to begin to act on that basis. It is faith that inspires. James states, “Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts [doubts about?] them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.” In fact, I would suggest a supplementary pattern of human development is to learn to live up to the faith place in you be others.

A notable form of faith would be in that which is discernibly questionable or false. However, these are sometimes skillful as well! All myth falls into this category, but may nonetheless provide lessons and examples that inform skillful actions. In weeks past (see “Buddhism with Beliefs”)I have talked about the skillfulness of the belief in the existence of two pillars of Western culture, whose actual empirical existence is questionable: Money and God. The skill in believing in God can perhaps best be illustrated from the perspective of Buddhism which makes no use of such faith. Buddhism holds that there is a mythical element running through most human thought — in fact, even through virtually all of science — an element whose existence has no support in discernment or reason, but which people consistently accept on faith. Furthermore Buddhism holds that faith in this element is an example of unskillful faith. This is, of course, faith in the existence of things, including in the existence of our selves, as separate entities. As we have just seen in the series on non-self, faith in this myth gets us into a lot of trouble. As we have also seen, it is no trivial task to shake our-selves loose from this kind of faith. One way to look at God is as a means of fighting fire with fire, as a means of offsetting the consequences of an unskillful myth with another myth. Faith in God does for us much of which losing faith in the self does: It dethrones the self from the center of the universe.

In summary, much of faith has the form of beliefs. We all adopt many of our beliefs on the basis of very little hard evidence, often unskillfully but also skillfully and sometimes even as a matter of necessity. I have focused this week on belief, but next week we will see that the content of most of faith does not concern belief at all, but rather values and commitments that are difficult to express propositionally, and which also resist a basis in pure discernment and reason. Next week I will turn to the contents that are not belief. Probably in two weeks I will consider The Kalamas Sutta, a well-known and important statement of the Buddha’s views on religious faith and reason with which many readers will already be familiar. In the pipeline is also a discussion of the emotive aspects of faith. Does this sound good?

The Self Collapses, Concluding this Series.

April 25, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 26, 2011

In the many weeks past we have seen that the self is a fabrication that begins with a single faulty thought but which acquires a whole architecture as it extends its scope and influence and develops layers of protection. We begin by staking a greatest claim in Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The claims then extends to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. This grows to the things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the external things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. We not only think of the self as a separate thing, we begin to separation to the entire world into two parts, into Good and Evil, based on the self’s concerns, based on Me, what is Mine and what I want and despise. And our behaviors become marked with self-interest, by manipulating the world for personal advantage, exploiting its resources and protecting from its danger. The whole emotional tenor of our lives shifts away from the simple joy of being alive toward greater levels of pain and suffering. Furthermore we find ourselves increasingly mired in a world of our own making but that seems to be swallowing us up. The Buddha has pointed to the source of the problem and given us a path for its undoing.

Having a self is like taking a new roommate into your apartment, who may initially present himself as a nice guy but who turns out to be a jerk. After a month you can list all of his faults in detail, which he is invariably totally clueless about. After two months you are ready to throw him out. The problem is that the more stuff he has, the more bills he has been paying, the more signatures he has placed on leases and contracts and accounts, the more people he has given the apartment phone number to, the harder it is to throw him out. You need to find an alternative for paying the bills, to sort through and haggle over the CDs, to let his friends know he cannot be reached here, and so on.

What is more, in the case of the self, the roommate is you! You just hadn’t noticed your faults before, even though you had already been living with you all your life. You will now understand why you have always been so miserable and why everyone else seems to think you are a jerk: You have been just living with a jerky roommate: You. So your task is to kick you out. And that is the heart of Buddhist practice: kicking you out of your apartment. The apartment will be fine on its own, for …

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there; Nibbāna is, but not the man that enters it; The path is, but no traveler on it is seen. (VisuddhiMagga XVI)

I have been making use of the metaphor of the self as having an architecture, in fact of the self as a wooden bridge that cannot be destroyed at any single structural point but must be weakened at various points at once until the entire thing comes crashing down. In this regard I have unleashed termites that stand for the various parts of the path of practice the Buddha has given us, the Noble Eightfold Path. In this concluding episode we get to watch the bridge collapse into the abyss below.

Through Virtue we transform our behavior in the world directly. In the self-centered life our speech, our actions and our livelihood are beams and rafters that support and reinforce the self. The Buddha’s practices of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters.

Through Cultivation of Mind we transform our emotive impulses. In the self-centered life our thoughts tend toward lust and anger, our intentions are impulsive and rooted in greed, hate and delusion, and our minds are feverish and endlessly disturbed. The Buddha’s practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. Of course termites are social insects; they nourish each other back at the mound, and the energy, focus and clear awareness provided by the termites of cultivation makes a big difference in the work of all of the other termites.

Through Wisdom we transform our conceptualizations and perceptions. The self-centered life began with a faulty fabrication and proceeded to fabricate a complex and biased model of reality and our place in it. The Buddha’s practices of Right View and Right Resolve are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. This is where the wood is hardest and is generally the last point at which the bridge breaks when the rest is already collapsing. In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that can be pointed to that abides so long, there is similarly no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality recognized when this last part of the collapsing bridge is carried away is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless.

The self gets a bad rap in Buddhist circles and I want to conclude with a few mixed words on its behalf. First, the fabrication of a self clearly has a function in our survivability as a species and in the evolutionary scheme of things, as I pointed out some weeks ago. It is not an accident of nature. Moreover, it must have a continuing function in the simple survival of the arahant. The arahant will not have the intentionality of common folks, her activities will be driven by mere functionality on behalf of kindness and compassion rather than on self-interest, yet if she is to be a teacher and an inspiration to others and a factor in perpetuating the sasana, she has to eat, she has to avoid getting run over by a truck, she has to continue to have some loosely working but not domineering concept of a self as circumstances require. After all, our whole ability to reason and deal with a complex and uncertain world is based in our capacity for fabrication.

Second, for most of us it is the self the brings us into Buddhist practice in the first place. The self suffers; contentment and happiness are elusive to the self. The self in its quest to manipulate the situation on its own behalf often begins to look outside the box of raw impulse and recognizes in Buddhist practice a resource to be used to get the happiness it seeks. As it enters into Buddhist practice it is encouraged to actually find a new sense of well-being. Practice then becomes a struggle between the self’s new path of Self-improvement and its more ingrained and impulsive patterns of thought and behavior. We can in fact travel a long way down the path with a firm idea of Self-improvement in mind. Ultimately, though, the self is playing a cruel hoax on itself. This is that when the path nears its end, the self will not have improved itself, nor acquired any special characteristics at all; it will simply be absent, its last remnants lost in the bridge’s resounding Kafwump! We start out thinking we are practicing for ourselves but that is O.K., because in the end we discover we have been practicing in spite or ourselves all along. And yet benefit has accrued.

Buddhism is about looking outside the box with the eye of wisdom. It is about seeing how our rich emotional lives, though providing good material for Italian opera, keep us constantly on edge, perpetually dissatisfied and trapped inwardly in a drama from which we cannot get free, all the while thrashing about outwardly in a world of our own fabrication in horribly harmful ways. It is about transforming this unbounded insanity that we all seem to be endowed with and to live in the midst of, and instead to live worthwhile, satisfying and harmless lives, by liberating our actions from our basest emotions, by developing skill in our actions, turning away from our untutored emotional reactiveness. This is growing up fully, to let go of the tyranny of the fabricated self, which is, after all, hardly more real than a donut hole, a shadow, a cloud or a lump of foam.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Five

April 17, 2011

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 18, 2011

Right Concentration (Samma-Samadhi) is the final step on the Noble Eightfold Path, the culmination of the Path, the last termite implicated in the destruction of the structure of the self.

The Termite of Right Concentration.

Right Concentration is a different kind of step because it is not actually something you do, but rather a natural consequence of the preceding seven steps. The five steps immediately prior to concentration involve volitional actions, practices in the purest sense. These are the three Virtue steps of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, and the first two meditation steps of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. All of these are things we do over and over in the Buddhist life, things we make choices about, individual actions of body, speech and mind. The initial two steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, on the other hand, which make up the Wisdom group of Right View and Right Resolve, are practices of a less discrete sort: they are matters of study, contemplation and commitment, but still things we do in some sense. Right Concentration is the consequence of all of these steps. As such the steps leading up to Right Concentration are like building a fire: we start with some newspaper, then kindling, then logs, of course oxygen is available without effort, and we add heat (say as a spark from a flint stone), and a flame arises. Right Concentration is like the fire, it is a rarified quality of mind, call it concentrated wholesomeness.

Now, concentration is common in meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and it is also something that sometimes arises spontaneously, or when something is of utmost importance and urgency. But these instances of concentration are generally not Right Concentration. For instance, a hunter or a sniper commonly has extremely strong concentration just before a kill. A dog, or particularly a cat, similarly seems to have unblinking concentration when stalking prey. A hunter’s concentration, as deep as it may be, is not Right Concentration, because it is based in the intention to kill; it lacks at a minimum the backing of Right Resolve, Right Action, Right Livelihood and Right Effort. Concentration also seems to arise naturally when there is danger, when the cost of making a mistake is high, or when something provokes lust. But here concentration would arise as an accomplice of the self. Concentration typically brings temporary euphoria, a blissful feeling; in fact, some people engage in dangerous activities like bungee jumping or driving fast for recreation … on purpose, probably to induce states of blissful concentration.

In most forms of non-Buddhist meditation concentration is achieved almost exclusively through Mindfulness, which we looked at last week. There we learned that Mindfulness is a practice of remembering to keep the mind on a single task, most commonly holding one’s attention on a single object. This is a simple yet difficult exercise that can quickly lead to the arising of a very stable quality of mind. These forms of meditation also tend to produce temporary feelings of bliss without the cost or risk of sky diving or alligator wrestling.

Right Concentration is not something we do; it is instead a mental space that we dwell in and explore at every opportunity. We make use of the other steps of the Noble Eightfold Path to do this, much as a smith produces in his forge a fire of the desired size and temperature by feeding it with the right kind and amount of wood or coal, by the skillful use of the bellows, and so on. As we attend to our concentration we bring the other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path to bear in a focuses and coordinated way to move our concentration in the direction we would like. We will see that the benefits of Right Concentration ultimately feed back into the effectiveness all of the other steps in the Noble Eightfold Path, as if the Termite of Right Concentration kicks back pep pills, or growth hormones, to all of the other termites.

In Right Concentration two qualities are highlighted, serenity and clarity. These are captured in the metaphor of a forest pond. If kids are splashing in the pond, someone is throwing in a stick for his dog to swim out and fetch, another is jumping out of a tree, plunging into the water holding his nose, and a motorboat is pushing up waves, pulling a water-skier, the pond will be neither serene nor clear. Our minds are like this in their normal state, jumping around like a money or coming at us with a constant stream of useless thoughts. However, when the kids have gone, the dog is snoozing at home, the motorboat and water skis have been taken out of the water and are out on the highway somewhere, the pond has a chance to settle and after a time the surface becomes like glass. From one angle we see the reflection of the trees against the sky and the setting sun. From another we can look down into the depths of the water and see fish, crabs, growing plants every pebble at the bottom of the pond as clear as can be. Serenity and clarity arise in unison.

And so it is with the mind, normally churned into a frenzy by our self-centered delusions, our self-centered aspirations, our unvirtuous speech and action, our ignoble livelihood, our runaway unskillful thoughts and our unsteady minds. As each of these departs, our thoughts begin to float rather than rush past, they are kind, and sometimes stop altogether, we can see what is there prior to our fabrications and how our fabrications arise. Serenity and clarity arise in unison. At some point we flip into a state in which serenity and clarity come effortlessly, Effort and Mindfulness are no longer a chore, we simply dwell there.

We can fruitfully explore this space of concentration in various ways. We can, for instance, go into deeper and deeper levels of serenity, or we can apply our clarity in certain directions. This is why we often talk about serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana) meditation. The Buddha actually never really talked about two separate kinds of meditation, since serenity and clarity always arise together, but by choice of object of mindfulness, for instance, we seem often to favor one over another. Attending to something highly localized like the touch of the breath at the edge of the nostrils, for instance, can propel us into deep states of concentration, quantified as jhanas. Attending to something like the decaying of the body is less focused but opens up theme of investigation in which clarity can be of particular efficacy. Also as we get up from the meditation cushion and begin to move about in the world, the depth of our concentration tends to let up, but with training does not disappear altogether and can also be recalled in an instant. Thereby the clarity of concentration has many fruitful opportunities to alight on new subjects throughout the day.

Right Concentration is a quality of mind that is already imbued with the qualities acquired through the seven practices that precede it. It includes the habit of contemplating the arising and cause of suffering, the nature of impermanence and the notion of non-self. It includes the aspirations toward kindness and renunciation, and the many practices of virtue. It includes the practice of weeding and watering in the garden of the unskillful and the skillful. And of course it includes mindful of various wholesome things. As such the concentrated mind tends to settle into and become even clearer about these qualities. This is what I mean by concentrated wholesomeness. From the perspective of clarity is is like turning a magnifying glass on each of these aspects of practice; in effect in Right Concentration we walk the whole Path anew but at a much more refined and detailed level. Our contemplations become very sharp, we begin to see directly impermanence and emptiness. Our aspirations are brought into relief and any deviation from renunciation, kindness or non-harming is immediately noticeable. The whole process of acting in the world, from inception of intention to tracing of consequences comes into sharp focus, and we begin to act decisively without entangling ourselves in justifications. Skillful or unskillful qualities of thoughts jump out at us as soon as they arise, we can feel the tension in the unskillful.

The self does not fare well in the world of the rightly concentrated mind. The self’s tendencies toward fabrication, excuse and manipulation settle down and appear as cheap trickery. The pain of maintaining a self or acting out the self’s demands becomes all too clear. The self is discovered to be elusive as a primary phenomenon of actual experience; no matter how hard we look for it all we see is the flux and contingency of the things imagined to be a self, to belong to a self or to contain a self.

Right Concentration is the last of the termites chewing on the trestle of the self and all of its supports. Next week we will see what happens when the bridge collapses.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Four

April 10, 2011

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 11, 2011

To recap the discussion of previous weeks, the recalcitrant sense of self is a fabrication that gives rise to a vast structure of additional fabrications, emotions and intentions and behaviors that together cause us and others huge problems. We are considering the Noble Eightfold Path from the perspective of undermining or eating away this whole tangled structure, like a wooden bridge, each of the steps eating away, termite-like, at some crossbeam manifestation of the sense of self. We have considered so far the two Wisdom termites, named Right View and Right Resolve, and the three Virtue termites, who call themselves Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Remaining are the termites of the cutivation of mind: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The Termite of Right Effort.

Our task is like that of a gardener, one pulls out the unskillful weeds and waters the skillful flowers, shrubs, vegetables and herbs and thereby give the desired shape to the garden. Right Resolve and Right Effort are the bookends to the Ethical Conduct Group. Right Resolve is the outline of how we conduct ourselves in the world, selflessly, with kindness and with compassion. Right Speech, Action and Livelihood are our proper verbal and physical activities. Right Effort drops down to the level of intention, the mental qualities we bring into our activities. These mental factors, like the actions they may give rise to, are sorted in terms of skillful and unskillful.

Unskillful thoughts emanate from the self. You can tell because they are implicated in all the problems we have seen are caused by the fabrication of self. They result in unvirtuous behavior when we listen to them. They distort our perception of reality, ultimately entangling us in samsara. They are stressful or even painful, and even destroy our health. Most important for our concerns, they reaffirm and strengthen the hold of the self. Unskillful thoughts are those rooted in the infamous Three Poisons in Buddhist doctrine, Greed, Hatred or Delusion, and are bad news.

The Termite of Right Effort eats unskillful thoughts. He eats the ones that are already there, sometimes reemerging from force of habit. He even gets ahead of the game by eating the conditions that would otherwise allow new unskillful thoughts to arise. He even shores up skillful thoughts that do not come from nor reaffirm the self, the skillful thoughts that unskillful thoughts seek to displace, and even cultivates conditions that encourage skillful thoughts. This is a very busy termite, we hope at work continuously throughout the day.

Suppose Skipper has some cookies on his desk, receives a phone call and is gazing out the window while focused on the call. Lust arises in you for one of his cookies. That sense of lust is unskillful. It is a form of greed that arises from the self’s search for personal advantage, that arises when the self is presented with a new resource. If you listen to this unskillful thought you might steal Skipper’s cookie, thus depriving him of what is his and failing to live up to standards of virtue. The intention to steal is another unskillful thought. You begin to scheme and justify, “He won’t notice that one is missing. Besides I gave him a drink of water once and he owes me. And I’ll go on a diet next week, for sure.” You are now entangled in a thicket of unskillful thoughts. Then if you actually steal a cookie you will reinforce a habit pattern that will lead to more greed in the future that will entrench the self even further.

How do you know when a thought is unskillful? There is an easy way, once you learn to recognize suffering (dukkha) as it arises. You will be surprised how ubiquitous suffering is when you start looking, even when you think you are having fun. Unskillful thoughts are almost always tinged with suffering. Before spotting the cookie you might be quite happy, having not a care in the world. Then you spot the cookie, the unskillful thought arises and you have a problem: You don’t have the cookie. As you review your alternatives you can hardly stand not having that cookie, you become anxious and restless. That is suffering, the mark of an unskillful thought, and you discover how deep that suffering goes. That is out-of-sync-edness, the gap between our stake in formations and the way the world really is. You will experience this with thoughts characterized by restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, envy, grumpiness, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, lust, and so on. Contrast these with thoughts of generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, pliancy, stillness of mind, mindfulness, and so on.

Right Effort belongs to the cultivation of mind, or meditation group because it deals with the purification of thoughts. In a sense it covers the some ground as the virtue group but at a more refined level, at the level of thought rather than the visible manifestations of the self in speech and bodily action. Because it seeks purity of thought it belongs to the cultivation of mind or meditation group rather than to the virtue group. However, unskillful thoughts tend to give rise to unvirtuous, that is harmful, visible behaviors. So, when your thoughts feel unskillful, have the tinge of stress, that is a red flag that you are about to do something you will later regret. And when you are doing something you discover to be harmful, that is a good indication that your thoughts have slipped into the realm of the unskillful. With virtue and with Right Effort joy and peace grow in the mind.

The Termite of Right Mindfulness.

Right Mindfulness is still more refined than Right Effort. Whereas the latter sorts out the various thoughts that arise or might arise throughout the day, Right Mindfulness keeps the mind in a rare place, generally defined in terms of a specific harmless mental or physical task, where only skillful thoughts are allowed entry, and in particular where the self is a stranger. Mindfulness is briefly to remember what it is you are doing, it is staying on task or taking up a new task at the proper time. It is not a simple quality that emerges in the mind, like serenity, awareness or concentration, but rather something the mind engages in actively, a learned skill. In fact it underlies almost any other skill, inside and outside of Buddhism. For instance cooking requires mindfulness so that food does not burn and all ingredients are added at the right time. Following the Precepts requires mindfulness lest you steal, squash or molest without thinking. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction, the mind becoming detached from the task at hand, going off on its own. It requires keeping the mind to some degree fixed.

Right Mindfulness (notice that most of the last paragraph was about mindfulness without the “Right”) is the basis of meditation practice. Classically it is to maintain some object in focus in the mind, to keep on top of this task, an object that will not thereby involve itself causally with unskillful thoughts or unvirtuous actions. The Buddha’s instructions are to keep the mind there, “ardent, clear comprehending,” and “independent not clinging to anything in the world,” “having subdued longing and grief for the world.”

The most familiar example of Right Mindfulness is following the breath. For instance, you discover the movement accompanying your breathing in the belly. This will take ardency, because your mind will wander in an instant otherwise. You feel the whole process of the breath, clear about whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, noting the beginning of the in breath, the middle and the falling away, then the same for the out breath. All those things of te world that want to occupy your attention you just put aside. Of course it rarely goes smoothly, even for experienced meditators, so you need to give attention to the causal factors according to which such a mindfulness exercise can succeed, for instance, through stabilizing the body with an erect non-moving posture, through stilling the unskillful thoughts most likely to lead to distraction through Right Effort, either before beginning the exercise or whenever mindfulness wanes and the object of meditation is lost. Aside from the breath, among the other objects of mindfulness are decaying corpses, the variety of body parts, feelings as they arise and fall, the mind or awareness itself, principles of doctrine, or even the arising of unskillful thoughts.

In Zen meditation, called zazen in Japanese, there is a tendency to take the task at hand, to which mindfulness adheres, as a physical task rather than as a mental one. This has led some Zen teachers to state that zazen is not meditation, that it is something you do with the body than with the mind, that it has no object upon which to focus. All agree, however, as far as I can see, that zazen has to do with mindfulness. For instance, shikantaza, the common Soto Zen form of “meditation,” and possibly at the historical root of Zen practice in China, means literally “just sitting.” An advantage of wrapping mindfulness around physical tasks is that all physical tasks become opportunities for zazen: just as you have just sitting, you have just walking, just eating, just pealing potatoes. Ritual activities, for instance, offering incense or bowing, present particularly fruitful opportunities for mindfulness practice.

The key zazen is in the “just …,” in the shikan-, part which we prefix to our tasks. This expresses independence or seclusion, detachment from the distractions of the world. For instance, just pealing potatoes means not thinking about payday or listening to music at the same time. For this reason the mind is very much involved, and in fact Right Effort is a useful preparation. What seems to happen, in fact, is that the focus of the mind settles on the (movement of) the physical objects involved in performing the task at hand, that is, the knife, the feet, the posture, the stick of incense, and more importantly on mindfulness itself, on the mind’s task of staying on task. The result is something akin to what the Buddha called Watching the mind (cittanupassana), the third of the four foundations of mindfulness, with the encouragement to do this throughout the day. I find it fascinating how closely Zen stays to the intent of the Buddha but in a radically different conceptual framework, generally one that wastes no words. I speculate that the difference in this case is that China at the time Buddhism arrived, was a very formal ritual Confucian culture and shikan-[task] harnessed the energy of existing practices in the service of Buddhist attainment.

How does the Termite of Right Mindfulness chew away at the supports that help sustain the sense of self. Right Mindfulness takes us into an active domain of thought and action in which the self has no currency. We take a task that itself is independent of self-centered concerns, an arbitrary mental task, a ritual activity or a duty in which the self has no obvious stake. Then we put our attention fully on that task and do not allow the pursuit of personal advantage. This is a domain which frustrates the self’s interests, schemes and views and in which the self’s stress, anxiety, unvirtuous impulses and samsaric trouble-making find no home. With Right Mindfulness, joy and peace grow even stronger in the mind.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Two

March 27, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, March 27, 2011

We have been looking in previous weeks at the various ways we create, then extend, then strengthen the sense of being a substantial separate self, until we are thoroughly invested in a framework of mutually supporting views, interests and activities that not only make it hard to see that we are dealing with a mental fabrication in the first place, but are also the source of our self-centered scheming, of the anguish of life, and of our imprisonment in our wordly roles and identities. However, last week we started considering the Buddhist practices that, termite-like, eat away at these various manifestations until — Crash! — the whole framework, bridge-like, comes tumbling down. Last week we looked at simple religiosity and the first step, Right View, on the Noble Eightfold Path, the master checklist of Buddhist practice. This week we move further along the Path.

The Termite of Right Resolve.

The flickering fabrication of self is an almost constant companion. It is scheming, like a politician or a car salesman; it is demanding, either wanting things like a small child on a shopping trip, or disliking things, like a teenager in a poetry class. It insists on an unrealistic sense of coherence of identity, like Indiana Jones. On the positive side, if life or limb is at issue it does reliably respond, like a bold and noble firefighter. Many of us place total faith in the self, we follow its schemes, we respond to its demands, and we try to live out its identity. As we do all these, we just make the self more and more real; it flickers less.

Notice that we seem to have two anthropomorphisms here, two people doing things: the self, which is natural, since part of the fabrication is that of a self that does things, and “we”: What is this “we”? “We” is something that gives us a subject for the English verbs I employ. If the self falls away — and this at least momentary flickering out of existence is a very real experience in Buddhist practice — what remains is thought without a thinker, a walk without a walker, experience without an experiencer, decision without a decider, and verbs without subjects. So I use “we,” “I” and “you” as English grammar requires an an alternative to a long series of passive constructions.

For the Buddhist Right Resolve is to the intention to develop a character of highest Virtue, one that embodies Renunciation, Good Will and Harmlessness. These qualities flow in humans quite naturally whenever our little companion dozes off, flickers out, or otherwise lets down his stake in things. Otherwise Right Resolve sets us quite counter to our constant companion’s interests and objections, and puts him on notice that he will no longer sit in the driver’s seat. Right Resolve arises from the conviction and understanding that our companion self has been driving perilously fast, hogging the road, scaring pedestrians, squashing squirrels and armadillos, throwing beer bottles out the window, heading in the wrong direction and getting hopelessly lost.

It is important to notice that Right Resolve distinguishes between renunciation and deprivation, or the morbid asceticism of the kind that the Buddha practiced for six years before discovering the Middle Way. It seems that neglecting the fundamental needs of the body, for instance. by starving or subjecting oneself to extreme heat or cold, awakens the bold and noble firefighter in the companion self, that is, awakens the self to the most fundamental purpose of preserving the living organism. While this is a noble cause, it also serves to strengthen his flickering hand. The Middle Way is not to deprive body and mind of what is essential to their well-being, but to cease to be a stakeholder in all the extras of life. In other words, the Buddha discovered the Middle Way; what has been called the Upper Middle Way is a modern development, and not what the Buddha had in mind.

With the “Me First in All Things” out of the equation, Right Resolve is able to extend the wish for the benefit of all and the recognition of the enormous suffering of the world to govern our involvement in the world. This becomes our compass. However, we are still at the beginning of our practice, for implementing Right Resolve in all aspects our our activities of bodily, verbal and mental behavior and development in spite of the kicking, screaming and scheming of our very determined and clever constant companion, is an exacting task. The Termite of Right Resolve must feel like it is trying to chew a board of walnut, … or petrified wood, but it has helpers: other termites.

The Termite of Right Speech.

The Termites of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood eat away at the behaviors the flickering companion of self would otherwise call for in the world. Self-centered activities in the world generally center around protecting our stakes, or in enhancing them by seeking personal advantage and affirming our attachments and obsessions, our personal identities from which in all their specialness everything flows, our appearance, our reputation as brilliant wits or stunning beauties, or even our frumpiness, our stuff in all its envy-inspiring abundance. All this is fabricated, its importance resting only in our minds, and therefore sources of our delusions, our suffering and our misguided efforts.

The search for personal advantage entails trying to get what the fortress self wants and to avert what it fears or finds distasteful. As long as behavior conforms with the fabrication of self and its associated fabrications it will be based in greed, hatred and delusion, and will serve to keep the fabrication of self happily in its dominating role. If, on the other hand, behavior conforms to some standard other than self view, and avoids intentionality based on greed, hatred and delusion, the function and significance of the fabrication of self will weaken. If the self is kept out of the driver’s seat, it tends to doze off more, or in any case after a while quits complaining so much. Buddhist practice is to do something in spite of the self. The prominent alternative to looking for personal advantage is the practice of virtue, to seek the benefit of all, and to harm no one.

Speech is a primary instrument for our companion selves to get their way, and to express and enhance themselves. To begin with, all of the views we have that give rise to our samsaric selves, the many stories about who we are, find expression in speech, and when they do others buy into the same stories, which strengthens our own commitment to stick with them. Idle chatter is a kind of paint brush we use to show the world what we mean by “Me.”

Worse yet, the self uses speech in its schemes to manipulate others. A primary means is to get others to share our aversions, in particular to dislike what are obstacles to its grand designs, enlisting them as co-conspirators in the removal of those obstacles. This inclines us to use harsh speech, to malign and slander others. Beyond this function we use harsh speech as a tool of vengeance, to threaten and attack those who stand in the way of the self’s schemes. Mutually shared aversions tend to be a way of cementing self-serving alliances and friendships, and in fact we tend to run wild with harsh speech that serves no further purpose, while, in our delusion, overlooking the consequences. Consider that racism, sexism, nationalism and eventually war and ethnic cleansing are all driven by many acts of harsh and often idle speech. Consider that the basis of harsh speech is hatred, which will both grow in the speaker and be inspired in the hearer, to the detriment of both.

Also among the self’s tools of manipulation is false speech, speech that intentionally distorts the view others have of reality so that they will behave in a manner appropriate to the self’s needs. Much speech is harsh and false at the same time, for instance, serving vengeance or to turn one person or group against another. Much is kindly and false, for instance, serving to induce people in a friendly manner to buy things that will ultimately fail to produce the anticipated results, such as wealth or a wild sex life. Much is idle and false, for instance, serving to gain respect for falsified qualities and accomplishments. Various kinds of speech are not strictly false, but like false speech serve to manipulate the views and behaviors of others, for instance, by exaggeration or evoking needs in other selves like pride and lust. False speech, aside from leaving others with faulty information, progressively undermines our trust in each other, a trust which underlies the efficacy of verbal communication in the first place, a trust which a society requires to function.

Right Speech is not to engage in idle, harsh or false speech, but rather to speak with a purpose, to speak kindly and to speak the truth. Because of the infectious nature of idle, harsh and false speech it is important to eschew people who do engage in them. This chews away at one of the self’s most immediate supports; in fact the self will likely object vehemently. But this is our Buddhist practice, it is our resolve.

Unfortunately idle, harsh and false speech are rampant in the Communication Age, in fact they have become a major industry. Blatant lies, character assassination, insult, frivolous gossip about celebrities are matters of daily consumption. When exposed to these influences, we not only learn self-serving behaviors by example, we are often manipulated to repeat further what has been communicated in the service of other selves. What is particularly alarming is that, with media consolidation significantly alternative viewpoints that may at least give an inkling of a discoverable truth behind the punditry are generally absent in a strikingly broad range of not only commercial media sources. Our Buddhist practice is to eschew (and the task of the Termite of Right Speech to chew …) such influences in favor of truth, kindness and value, where we can find these.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part One of, oh, about Three

March 18, 2011

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, March 19, 2011

Impermanent are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Suffering are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Without self are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

So, we have this self thing, or rather don’t have it but think we do. The self is at least in part a product of the human mind, it is a fabricated or compounded thing. We have seen in the previous weeks that the self is both necessary for the function of sustaining human life, and the source of all that ails us. What are we to do? This is right at the locus of the Buddhist project: it is a matter of training the mind with regard to the human dilemma.

The self is a fabrication, but not an isolated fabrication; it gives rise to a vast structure of additional fabrications, emotions and intentions and behaviors that are sustained by and help sustain that self. With the sense of self springs forth the resolve to get for it what it wants, and to protect it from what it fears, to engage in acts of speech body and mind on behalf of the self. It gives rise not only to a self-centered intentionality but also to a self-centered conceptualization of the world, populated with additional fabrications that best serve self-interests and cleansed of fabrications that don’t. Any development of qualities of mindfulness, concentration or mental purity are simply distractions from self-centered impulses.

This mesh of fabrications, emotions and behaviors is like a wooden bridge designed to retain its structural integrity even as some individual part might fail or be devoured by termites. For this reason it is impossible to remove the self alone; you would just get a self-shaped hole that would then be fabricated back into something substantial, like the hole of a donut. For instance, if your stake is too strong in fame and gain or your actions are directed exclusively by greed and hatred, you will have too much energy invested to let go of the fabrication of the self that provides justification for this investment.

By way of analogy, it is hard to let go of the notion that money has a substantial existence as long as you are earning, spending and investing it. It is hard to let go of the reality of Santa Clause as long as you are leaving cookies for him that disappear in the night, as long as he leaves cool toys for you by morning, not to mention spotting him getting kissed by your mom. It is hard to let go of the notion that God exists as long as you are praying to Him, as long as He is blessing you with His presence and as long as He intervenes in the world for your benefit. It is easier to sustain the sense of presence of a departed loved-one as long as you keep his bedroom as it was, and his chair in front of the T.V. Your intellect might tell you otherwise, but the stake you place in these things is nevertheless too great to let go of them any further than intellectually.

The task in Buddhist practice is to loosen the grip of the self and all of its manifestations, partly through proper understanding and aspiration, partly through giving up the behaviors rooted in the self, and partly through gaining awareness and deconstructing the actual processes by which selves are fabricated by the mind and through which these in turn give rise to having a stake in them, and to suffering. It is necessary to focus not only on the delusion of self, but at the same time on its manifestations because these all reinforce each other.

Given the embeddedness of the self in a greater structure of fabrications, intentions, behaviors, connections and attachments, it is important to recognize that the termites of practice cannot simply attack the self, they must seek to eat away at the various parts of the entire wooden bridge until the whole thing collapses under its own burdensome weight, plunging the self, its fabrications and urges, and self-centered behaviors into the depths below to be washed away by a torrent and carried into the clear blue sea.

On the Noble Eightfold Path the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The sense of self, tweaked, twisted, thinned, stretched, readjusted and spun, does not make it through to the end of the Path. This is the ultimate triumph of selflessness. I would like to consider how the termites of practice eat away at the bridge of self-centeredness with regard to each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, but to begin with the religiosity that is prior to the Path.

The Termite of Simple Religiosity.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of religiosity in Buddhism. It seems to be a universal function of almost all religion to in some way or another weaken the grip of the self or the stake we place in the self. One way in which religion does this is by dethroning the self from the central role we tend to accord it by replacing it with a higher being, a higher truth or a higher purpose. God commonly serves this function. The closest equivalent in Buddhism is devotion to the Triple Gem as a guide to a life entirely outside the grasp of the self. The Buddha realized that life, the Dharma instructs us how to realize that life and the Sangha inspires us with living examples of devotion to that life. Even before the Buddhist child has any understanding of what that life involves the reverence for an alternative to self-centered life begins to gnaw at the grip of the self. Entering into an understanding of the Dharma takes the Buddhist into the company of the Sangha onto the Noble Eightfold Path toward the attainment of the Buddha.

In addition, many practices running through all religiosity, including Buddhist, are physical expressions of selflessness, including bowing, which seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep roots, and including the various expressions of respect or veneration. It somehow has an inherent capacity to confront self-centered attitudes. Ritual also has the capacity to step outside of self-centered behaviors and attitudes, insofar as they are actions that are fixed and prescribed rather than driven by self-centered volition. They also are generally connected with, and therefore reinforce, the elements of higher truth described in the last paragraph, generally as expressions of reverence.

Religious communities also tend to foster an environment relatively safe from otherwise pervasive samsaric conditions, such as competition and anxiety overload. The Buddhist community in particular has generosity in its veins, and various means of promoting and ecouraging this as a fundamental value, so that for the member of that community the need to protect personal interests naturally wanes.

All of these things serve to eat at and weaken that entrenched sense of self. Religiosity has the capacity also to encourage wholesome mental factors such as kindness and tranquility. This is the beginning of qualities further developed in the Noble Eightfold Path, which will itself as a whole further develop selflessness.

The Termite of Right View.

Right View develops on three levels, through familiarity with the teachings of the Dharma, through reflection and finally through insight beyond conceptual thinking, seeing things directly as they are. Familiarity with the teachings and reflection are not sufficient for the full development of Right View, because they do not in themselves shake up our world in the way Buddhist practice calls for. For example, a theoretical physicist while on campus inhabits a curious intellectual word of strings of vibrating probabilities that have already jumped this way or that depending on who is observing at the moment, but at home inhabits the same old world—wife, dog, kids, dinner, TV—that most of us inhabit; the one does not impinge on the other. Not-self should impinge. If it does not impinge you will continue to be caught up in suffering, in Greed, in Hatred, in misperceptions, in unskillful and harmful behaviors. So far in this series of posts on Non-Self I have attempted to impart Right View of the first two levels. At its best this should provide the closest jumping off point from which to plunge into an experience beyond concepts, beyond language that will call forth a radical reorientation.

To understand insight beyond conceptual thinking, consider what the potter knows. The potter goes beyond mere conceptualizations of his domain and learns the materials and tools by feel or intuition, in ways that cannot readily be put into words. In fact, much of what the potter knows from experience is known not by the brain but by the fingers. By the same token, the greater part of Right View is a direct experience of the way things are, unmediated by conceptual thought. When we got into the path we found ourselves actually working with the material of life, just as the potter works with his or her materials and tools. Very prominent in the Buddhist path is the mind itself, which is the primary material we work with.

What is it that the Buddhist practitioner sees directly? In short, the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and not-self, along with the Four Noble Truths, which connect relate suffering causally to the misperception of self and its consequences. We become aware of a world in constant flux, where changes propagate continuously through an ever evolving network of contingencies, in which we seek in vain for any semblance of solid ground, any constant we can grab onto. But as soon as we grasp something we think we can rely on it begins to melt away in the constant flux of existence. It is painful when our hopes and plans cannot keep pace with reality. What we seek more than anything in this flowing network of contingencies is a self, a constant reference point, a lasting identity, and trying to hold on to this becomes the most painful thing of all. No wonder we had always felt so insecure and anxious. The only way out is for our minds to become as open and as fluid as the world.

The termite of Right View can chew away at our conventional misunderstandings to help us see what is needed directly, but he will not succeed without the aid of all of the termites of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Next Week: The Termites of Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 2

March 3, 2011

Uposatha Day, New Moon, March 4, 2011

A mind overcome with unskillful qualities borne of greed, aversion and delusion, his mind consumed, dwells in suffering right in the here and now, feeling threatened, turbulent, feverish, and at the breakup of the body, after death, can expect a bad destination. AN 3.69

The self is born from functional behaviors that ensure survivability of an ongoing process, behaviors that protect from a dangerous world, and exploit resources of the world. It arises with greed and ignorance as a fabrication, a compounded thing, dependent on mind. We for the most part dwell in a world of our own fabrication, a world populated with selves, and a conceptual framework to make sense of it, a framework that leans toward seeking personal advantage. Now the first Problem with Having a Self is that the Self is a schemer and is capable of great harm while failing to recognize the harm it produces. We discussed this last week. This week I take up dukkha, personal suffering, and samsara, the round of birth and death where we really get stuck.


The Suffering Self. The world can appear as a candy shop full of delicious sights, sounds and tastes that we want to make ours. We begin a life of toys, electronic gadgets, later power tools, fast cars, fast women, fast food. From a young age our consumer culture, with its relentless marketing of Stuff, cheers us on. The second problem with having a self is that we begin to have a stake in things. We seek to possess that for which we are greedy, and to maintain and protect it from loss. We seek to avoid or get rid of that which we hate and to keep it distant. And of course we have a stake in ourselves, which we seek not only to maintain and protect, but to enhance, to make special and distinct.

So what is wrong with living like this? All of these things are compounded, they are fabricated as tractable islands of stability in a swirling whirling world of relentless change. The world as it really is out-paces our fabrications, and as a result one by one we see everything we hold dear slip away from us, and what we fear intrude, all too soon. We experience life as trying to hold on to a handful of sand and watching it run through our fingers. Things decay, they wilt, they die, they disappear, our once shiny new possessions, our good fortune, our fame, our friends, our loved ones, even our own body’s and our own minds all slip away, and even before they do we experience the insecurity that they will. Nothing is good enough, nothing lasts. It can’t, because our fabrications are always unrealistic ideals. This vexing ever-present gap, this lack, between our fabrications and the way things really are, is unsatisfying, it is tense, it is anxious, it is painful, it is suffering, dukkha. Alongside impermanence and unsubstantiality (non-self), suffering is the middle of the Three Seals of Existence, the stuff of all compounded things.

“Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.” SN 35.28

However, we are slow witted and don’t see the problem. It is as if everything we touch is red hot and burns our fingers, we feel the pain but, puzzled about its source, we continue to handle and pass things around anyway. Our minds deceive us; in spite of abundant evidence of our folly we continue to be seduced by the shiny fabrications and fail to realize that they are, in fact, unreliable, painful and insubstantial.

A man who is greedy for fields, land, gold, cattle, horses, servants, employees, women, relatives, many sensual pleasures, is overpowered with weakness and trampled by trouble, for pain invades him as water, a cracked boat. Snp 4.1 Kama Sutta

More than that, we want even more! Our common diagnosis of the dissatisfaction we are feeling is not that we need to let go of our stake in things, but that we simply do not yet have enough. Silly us. Never reaching the point of enough, the point of contentment, we distract ourselves increasingly with parties, games, public entertainment and private sexual intrigue. There is enthusiasm, laughter, thrills but there is always tension underneath. We get fat and drink too often, and still we cannot wash the lack away. We love and, while briefly rousing, there is no peace to be gained, either we stop or they stop and it turns to tragedy, sometimes hatred, depression, suicide, murder. Tension is the stuff of our lives, our sense of lack only grows, we even begin to lack kindness for those close to us, our feelings are blocked, we are emotionally dead. This is what Thoreau must have meant by “living a life of quiet desperation.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving. Dhammapada 186-187.

Eventually we die cheated and bitter because the promises of compounded things from which our stake in them arises, have been repeatedly broken. It was all meant to be so perfect.

The Samsaric Self. It is through craving and pursuing thinks, through having a stake in things, that the fortress self takes shape. I start to divide the world into Good and Evil, based on the fabrications I like and those I dislike, what is reassuring and what is threatening, what is an instrument for me and what is an obstacle, who likes me and who dislikes me. There is *Me* at the center of a network of causality that includes these other elements and tends to exclude anything else. The rest of the world has become irrelevant, we become indifferent to it. This becomes the realm of my schemes.

In my neediness, learn to scheme, present myself favorably, exhaust myself at work, eliminate competition, sometimes steal or lie, whatever it takes to satisfy those needs. I begin to build up stature, to become somebody, somebody with money and influence, somebody with a distinct character, a career path, a lifestyle, snazzy clothes. Then when I thought I would feel happy with what I have become instead I feel all the more threatened, since we now have so much more personal identity to lose and to protect than before. The stock market, the kid riding his bike past my shiny new car, the gossiping voices that suddenly become quiet as I enter the room, the storm in the county where I enjoy my weekend cabin, my irritable boss, all become threats that I counter with a larger portfolio, a two-car garage, a more loyal network of friends, an insurance policy, a position of more authority. Feeling decreasingly secure, I have been slurped into the vortex of … Samsara.

My greed and hatred entangles me more and more in a web of unskillful impulses and habits and entangles others in the same, as others try to match my greed lest I take what they have or might want, try to match my hatred in self-defense, and seek revenge where my plans are most fruitful. Envy, resentment at the injustice, stealing a client, angry words. As my greed robs and impoverishes others and my fear and insecurity turns to hate and arouses fear, the world punches back, it tries to bring down what I have accomplished. All the while my search for personal advantage has set a poor example for others, destroying trust and ideals and turns others’ reserves of skillful intentions to cynicism. On the other hand, I seek alliances with others, friendships, insofar as they are of mutual self-interest, letting down my guard enough to engages in exchanges, treaties and cooperative endeavors from which we both benefit.

As my samsaric life takes shape, it begins to express itself in characteristic patterns of behaviors. As such I become noted perhaps for my greed for material things, perhaps for my anger, perhaps for my inclination toward malicious gossip, perhaps for my restlessness as I become desperate for satisfaction, perhaps for my envy or jealousy, perhaps for my sexual affairs or for overeating or over-drinking, perhaps for my defensiveness and fear. As I act out any of these qualities I suffer, all the more when it becomes the emotional tenor of my life, and the lens through which I perceive reality. I find myself living in a realm of my own making, in fact, one of the following realms:

  • Animal Realm. This is the somewhat frantic, restless state that arises in response to the habit of turning all impulses (lust, greed, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, torpor, etc.) into action without reflection. A person of a passionate disposition lives in a world which pulls him this way, then that way, keeping him forever restless, unable to get his coordinates.
  • Hungry Ghost Realm. This is a state of constant lack or dissatisfaction that arises from the habit of trying to satisfy greed. A person of greedy disposition likewise lives in a miserly world, one that withholds what she seeks, who can never get enough.
  • Angry Titan Realm. This is the state of fury directed at all obstacles to one’s ambitions, that arises from the habit of acting out of anger. A person of angry disposition, who thinks angry thoughts, who acts repeatedly on his anger, lives in a world that is increasingly threatening, that is frightening and uncooperative or specifically conspires against him, and encourages even more anger in response.
  • Hell Realm. This is the extreme, overwhelming state in which greedy or hateful impulses have completely lost any bounds.
  • Deva Realm. This contrasts with the above. It is the comfortable, often complacent state relatively untouched by greed or hatred, in which one’s needs are satisfied. A person of a kindly disposition lives in a world of ease, where no personal needs are unmet, where others, even if not acting in an ideal manner, are forgivable.
  • Human Realm. This is a mixed state in which greed or hatred are present, but in which deliberate mastery of one’s emotional states are also possibilities. This is the best realm for Buddhist practice.

Not only do habit patterns shape the emotional tenor of one’s life, but they actually begin to impact health and physical appearance. We are all aware that habitually angry people (titans) are subject to heart disease and other stress-related illnesses. They also take on the characteristic appearance of angry people; they enter a cocktail party and people immediately begin shuffling over to the other side of the room. They tend to look like Klingons. For denizens of Hell this is all the more so. Animals and hungry ghosts take on the effects of overconsumption, such as plumpness. Upturned noses, downturned brows, scowls, these become etched on people’s faces. These habit patterns begin also to shape the successes and failures in one’s life; people would rather do business with a deva than an animal, a human is more likely to have her act together than a hungry ghost. These habit patterns even to a large extent determine who your friends are; people attract others like themselves, or sometimes repel those unlike themselves. We fabricate our world at many levels.

Not only will self-based habit patterns, attitudes and emotions determine your health, physical appearance and social context, but they will replicate themselves in others. For instance, your present alcoholism may still persist a century from now, in your great grandchildren, or in the great grandchildren of your current drinking buddies, and may have been alive in your great grandfather or in the great grandfathers of your drinking buddies. There is some evidence that humans absorb behaviors simply by observation. So, it is common that if a parent smokes, the child will grow up to smoke, if the parent is abusive, the child will grow up to be abusive. If the parents are studious and like to snack, the child will grow up studious and disposed toward snacks. The scheming suffering samsaric self you may have become will, in this sense, tend to replicate itself in your children and in others around you.

Institutional Samsara. I’ve mentioned the capacity scheming suffering samsaric people have for creating alliances, friendships, cooperative agreements, and such. These often further coalesce into street gangs, armies, vigilante groups, sports teams, fan clubs, business partnerships, guilds, clubs, corporations, political parties, unions and governments. The Buddha pointed out how greed and anger give rise to war between armies. The military becomes an institutionalization of hatred, or more properly aversion, aversion toward threat and aversion toward obstacles to greed. Humans generally make their institutions in their own image, only generally more so. Since institutions are becoming increasingly influential in human affairs it might be useful to consider their role in samsaric existence

American courts are fond of treating corporations as people, so it is worth taking them as an example to see how they actually are very much like selves. For-profit corporations are hungry ghosts, an institutionalization of greed, in fact boundless greed where contentment is not an option. This statement is not intended as a value judgment; they are actually structured with these functions in mind. A for-profit is a collaboration among stockholders, expecting returns on investment. and at the same time also institutionalize delusion insofar as they are chartered by governments to have limited liability for the consequences of their activities, such as harm to encountered populations or environments. (British corporations tend even to put the word “Limited” in their names, where American corporations use simply “Inc.” German corporations are clearest, adding “GmbH,” which stands for “Gesellschaft mit beschraenkter Haft,” i.e., “Company with limited Liability.”) This is quite deliberate: Early corporations were instruments of colonial expansion. Current American legal precedent even requires that corporations protect stock-holders’ interests prior any other interests.

For-profit corporations are thus legally constituted as greedy selves, that ignore, by law, anything that is not self-serving. Of course most corporations produce a product or service for sale to customers, so out of self interest they also engage in collaborative exchanges and must cultivate amicable relations with their customer base, just as greedy people will cultivate friendships, and often provide them with quality products in return for their money, so the public perception of most corporations is often positive. However, the harm committed in the operations of often shockingly aggressive corporations is abundantly documented. In short, they operate as designed.

An alarming property of human institutions is that they tend to take on a life of their own, often in spite of the intentions of the people involved. It is puzzling, for instance, that Burma, perhaps currently the most pristinely Buddhist country in the world, is ruled by a brutal military government, who are almost all ostensibly Buddhists! It is more apparent that corporations will do this. For instance, a CEO who neglects stockholder interest out of concern for migrating caribou, say, or for the damage a new monopoly would cause to the proper functioning of free markets, is commonly ousted and replaced by one who will focus entirely on profits. The second CEO takes on part of the character of the corporation and will suffer for it.

Naturally since institutions are selves walking amongst us, they influence the thoughts and behaviors of others. A particularly vexing modern development within human institutions, afforded by technologies of mass communication, are public relations and marketing. Now, the problem with the marketing paradigm from a Buddhist perspective is that it generally relies on provoking the very factors of greed, hate and delusion, and in particular a delusive view of the self that underlies human scheming, suffering and samsara. It produces a society in which Buddha’s words, The All is aflame … aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion,” are still true, but now someone is spraying gasoline from the air. Not only is the appeal of fabrications promoted, a set of values and attitudes that promote a self-enhancing consumer lifestyle is instilled in the culture. By Buddhist reckoning we should expect this to lead to a society which suffers enhanced levels of stress, anxiety, restlessness, despair, anger, fear, greed, envy, ill-will, and slimey behavior. Statistically I suppose this would be reflected in high levels of drug, alcohol and antidepressant use; suicide; divorce rates and crime. Still, most troubling about the power of public relations and marketing is that with too much exposure you live no longer in a world of your own fabrication, but in a world of someone else’s fabrication, fabricated for their own ends, not yours.

Aaaall of this comes from a misplaced thought, the simple belief in an separate self. A little fabrication is a dangerous thing. We now see why, recognizing this perhaps for the first time in human history, the Buddha placed anatta, non-self as “the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding of which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible.” Next week we turn to anatta in Buddhist practice, how we put what we have learned about anatta to work to alleviate the consequences of this misplaced thought, to end the harm we do others in the name of Self, the harm we do ourselves and the relentless suffering that shadows our lives.

Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 1

February 26, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, February 26, 2011

The anatta [non-self] doctrine teaches that neither within the bodily and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self- existing real ego-entity, soul or any other abiding substance. This is the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only really specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire Structure of the Buddhist teaching stands or falls. – Ven. Nyatiloka

In summary of last week‘s discussion, the Self, and all other formations (compounded things) owe their existence at least in part to mind. This has a practical role in the task of tracking what is essentially intractable: a fluid contingently co-arisen reality, in which all things are simply reflections of other things, astonishing in its complexity and dizzying in the dynamic flux spreading forever this way and that. Mind tracks this by reifying or freezing the most stable and functional parts. In short, it replaces a bewilderingly complex reality with a simpler conceptual model and uses the simpler model to predict the behavior of the more complex system. Independently of mind there is nothing that could be identified as existing in, of and for itself, independently of the fluctuating contingencies, nothing with the solidity and confidence of the formations the mind gives rise to. This last thesis is what is called Emptiness.

The problem with all this from the Buddhist perspective is that the conceptual model is a delusion. One of the immediate costs of this conceptual form of human cognition is that it tends to be chunky, it is full of large solid things with properties and with relations to other large solid things. There is inevitably a gap between this model and the fluid reality it is trying to track, and we, as humans, once we take a stake in the reliability of compounded things, have to live with this relentless disappointing gap. In good times and bad, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, through birth, sickness, old age and death, through bearish and bull, something is always askew. This is suffering.

The Separate Self. We occupy this world of formations, and the formations we have the greatest state in are our own selves, polished up as fabrications of our own minds to become separate things existing on their own, independently of the rest of the world, yet at the same time subject for their well-being to various forces at work in the rest of the world.

While I think of myself as a functional whole, I end up chunky, like an elephant trying to walk through a glassware shop of a world, maintaining a consistency of identity and purpose, lacking the fluidly of, say, a gaggle of bunnies entrusted with the same task. But then, which of the bunnies would be me? Even while maintaining this chunky separate self I recognize that no one part of it is constant; I have a tooth extracted, I have a bridge installed to replace it. I learn a foreign language, I take up a meditation practice and my mind has shifted. I age and begin walking with a cane or wearing a hearing aid. The most constant thing in this body and mind is me, my own identity as me. Although my own existence as an independent thing is the fundamental working assumption in my life, I still have an uneasy feeling that I am not there at all, only parts, processes and functions. So I assume the existence of something I cannot see, maybe a soul, a constant essence, or a homunculus, a tiny man in a larger machine, you know, the guy who makes the decisions, sees what the eyes have seen, hears what the ears have heard and in general has all the experiences.

We learned last week how the world, even before we fabricate the formations to understand or describe it, tends to organize itself into functional patterns, and that when we later conceptualize as living beings have among their functions survival and reproduction, to which the function of cognition has adapted. My separate self exists in a world that presents dangers that threaten my survival or reproductive capacity, and at the same time presents resources that I can make use of to secure my survival or enhance my reproductive capacity. Therefore it is natural to think in terms of a fortress, what needs protecting and nourishing on the inside and the dangers and opportunities on the outside. This is probably where I was born as a fabrication: I am the one who is on the inside, where I can defend myself from dangers, and from where I can conduct raids to bring back booty. The world is neatly divided in terms of self and other, subjective and objective, never mind that my own body and mind are also other, and that what is other is a fabrication of my mind.

Luckily and this is in particular lucky for the prospect of Buddhist practice the human mind is quite resourceful, and though it has a strong tendency to become imprisoned in its own conceptualizations, producing an ironic correlation between degree of certainty and degree of delusion, we do not need to be; we are capable of clinging to the fabrication of self only loosely. For instance, teamwork involves the ability to submit certain physical and mental abilities, which we would normally think of belonging to or at least serving the self, unreservedly to a team function, most commonly of winning a game. A really hot basketball team, for instance, will consists of selfless players — who are, at least, able to remain selfless until the game is over players who, tall and gangling, do not each await each play asking his rigid self, “What’s in it for me?” or “How is this going to make me look good?” Effectively a new self, the team, can constitute itself from the bits and pieces of what will return to separate selves after the game.

The Scheming Self. The fortress self is the self of greed and hatred or aversion, seeking personal advantage in a (partially) fabricated world of dangers and resources. Fundamental evolutionary functions are to protect and exploit. Something the Buddha recognized is the role greed and hatred play in how we fabricate the world.

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbana. AN 3.71

Love will find a way,” we say. Likewise, “cookies will find a way,” “beer will find a way,” and so on. They usually don’t. We interpret lust (in Buddhism a kind of greed) as a need and often abandon all wisdom to attain the object of our lust. Wisdom likewise gives way to anger (in Buddhism a kind of hatred). Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close and beloved friend having become perhaps an obstacle to that for which we are greedy, easily turns into something demonic, at least until the anger subsides, losing all good qualities.

Here is a speculative account how delusions may arise on the heals of greed or hatred: If we desire some thing (or dislike some thing), then that thing in our fabricating mind becomes big, it loses its undesirable features and its desirable features grow (or it loses its desirable features and its undesirable features grow). The paths of causal relations that connect the object of desire to the self come alive as plans are considered for the acquisition of the object of desire (or aversion of the object of dislike). Whatever objects lie along those paths grow in prominence, as do their particular features relevant to our plans, while all else shrivels and disappears. Even people become instruments and nothing more, or else obstructions, which then become immediate objects of irritation then hatred, or appreciation then love. The result is that we now reside in a sparse and anxious world fabricated from our own self-centered and highly judgmental manipulations. It is particularly telling what drops out of the world as irrelevant to the self’s concerns. Careers, marriages and health are often neglected and discarded through lust. Even self-destructive behaviors are tolerated as people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another. The victimization of others through our plans, for instance in stealing what is desired, is often ignored. When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, revenge, violence and even murder can ensue.

Now, in the absence of such delusion people tend by nature to be kind, compassionate and generous toward one another, even the most ignoble ruffians. However, delusion quickly displaces virtue, permitting the most horrendous and unimaginable crimes, and it all comes from a misplaced thought, the belief in an separate self. What is worse, when confronted with their crimes, people often respond with another round of delusion to explain away or justify their behaviors. Most people are quite adept at this: “They had no business being there.” “Well, he had it coming.” “That’s not my problem.” “That is one more step toward relieving the world of surplus population.” “Cows don’t feel pain.” “It is a dirty job, but someone has got to do it.” “It is a matter of honor.” “That takes care of it once and for all.” “Oops.”

And this is only the beginning. Next week we continue the discussion of the Problem with Having a Self as we look at suffering and samsara.

Non-Self: What is It?

February 18, 2011

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, February 18, 2011

Monks, suppose that a large glob of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a glob of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form? Phena (Foam) Sutta, SN 22.95

The things we think are substantial, including the self, are not, they are like foam. They are called Formations or Fabrications or Compounded Things. The Pali word is sankhara. Behind them is Suchness, also called Things as They Are, and sometimes Emptiness. Suchness is a vast and fluid, thick and ineffable network of cause and effect, all in relentless rippling flux, much like a raging storm at sea.

Formations arise always dependent at least partly on mind, they are the minds attempt to make sense of Suchness. Formations are conceptual in nature and bound to language. Formations have three properties and insight into these three properties constitutes the basis of Buddhist Wisdom: Impermanence, Suffering and Non-Self, what the Buddha called the Three Marks of Existence.

Impermanence. Formations are impermanent because they also arise dependent on the wiles of the fluid mass of Suchness in constant flux. Things arise, they linger and they pass away. Living things are born, they live and then they die. Formations are the things that change; Formations are the mind’s pinpointers, whereby the fluid flux has no coordinates prior to Formations against which change could be measured. Even dependency and arising and therefore Dependent Co-arising can only be described in terms of Formations. Emptiness itself is a Formation. Our language and concepts simply do not fully reach Suchness, only our Insight can.

Suffering. We live our lives in a world of Formations, that is of our own Fabrication. But since those Fabrications have a basis in the fluid flux of Suchness as well as on Mind they are undependable, they are born only to decay then die. Suffering measures that gap between Formations and suchness, it rests in the minds inability to keep pace with Things as They Are. Having fabricated formations, they are still subject to the wiles of Suchness. They disappoint us over and over. We will look at Suffering in more detail next week.

Non-Self. speaks of the fabricated nature of Formations. Often the Buddha is thought to have taught that nothing exists, that there is really nothing there. The word emptiness or void (sunyata), used by the Buddha alongside ‘non-self’ tends to imply this. Rather he claimed nothing can be pinpointed on close examination that is a self, that things do not exist on their own. Their thingness, their status as objects, leans on the capacity of the mind for fabrication. While they may be grounded more or less in Suchness their full nature is made up. Formations arise dependent on mind. The cloud exists not because temperature, vapor and all the environmental factors make it exist, but because the mind also perceives it as existing, it exists not on its own side but as a fabrication.

In sum, it is Formations that are impermanent, it is Formations that are not self, it is also Formations that suffer! There are no Formations without mind, there is no impermanence, nor birth, nor death, nor suffering without Formations. So Formations are a kind of problem for humans, but luckily a problem dependent our own minds.

I should point out, lest things become too clear, that mind is not something apart from Suchness either. This point is prominent in Dogen’s thought in his subversion of the Zen tradition “Apart from Words and Letters.” Since mind is a part of the flux of Suchness, Formations arise entirely from the Suchness, they are in effect Suchness trying to comprehend itself. Suchness itself is just a Formation as soon as we think there is such a “thing,” or as Nagarjuna said, Emptiness itself is empty. For convenience of exposition, however, I will pretend that Mind and Suchness are distinct.

Why Formations? From a Buddhist perspective the tendency of the mind for fabrication is unskillful, it is a defilement, at root a delusion, that brings woe beyond measure. I want for a time, however, to write about this not as the present Buddhist monk but as the former cognitive scientist, to reveal the positive side of Formations, not as an unfortunate accidental defect of human cognition but as a necessary and integral part of it. I think this might help the reader make sense of all of this.

Formations are anticipated by the existence of certain statistical patterns, consistencies and relative stabilities in the fluid flux of suchness. For instance in a rushing river eddies can be perceived. Water molecules under the force of gravity tend to seek the lowest point in a terrain and pool into rivers or ponds, and those are perceived. Moreover initially chaotic systems tend to organize themselves into communities of elements interrelated as functional systems sometimes with the capacity to maintain certain behaviors or relations over time, such as two objects initially flying through space might come to orbit around each other to form a kind of localized system. Sometimes these communities develop complex adaptive and self-regulating behaviors as in the case of living cells. Clusters of such systems then organize themselves into larger systems, and these larger systems exhibit characteristic behaviors and functions. The mind comes along, recognizing such patterns and consistencies and Formations are born. It sounds a bit in my description like the Formations exist prior to the mind, but that is because I already need to invoke Formations like “communities” and “systems of elements” to describe what happens prior to the mind; language requires it.

Why do minds do this? Well, minds are themselves parts of such complex self-regulating systems. In particular, humans are systems adapted evolutionarily to sustain a certain system dynamics under a wide variety of environmental circumstances, and to replicate themselves. They require a high degree of self-regulation and adaptability in very fragile complex systems functioning in a very hostile environment. If somewhere internal to the system predictions can arise concerning what the environment will throw at it next, the system is in a better position to adapt, but this requires tracking a very complex fluid reality with its rich network of ineffable interdependencies to arrive at some understanding of reality. This understanding will always be a simplification, a crude model of what are in fact vast complexities of Suchness. This understanding develops first by fixing pointers to the most predictable, consistent, stable parts of that reality, first by recognizing patterns as things then by building up the relationships, properties and structures of these things. The recognition part is Perception, the building up part is Formation, two of the five skandhas/khandhas or aggregates of the personality in Buddhism.

So, instead of blissfully enjoying a low-pitched audio impression of increasing volume, several glints of white, the movement of orange and the whiff of dead meat, all in the flux of interdependent Suchness, we quickly perceive and build up a Formation of a Tiger and this enables us to respond, taking spear quickly in hand, to an impending attack that would otherwise compromise the integrity of this superbly self-regulating system. Pretty cool.

Are Formations in Here or Out There?

Question: “So, let me get this straight, Swami What’s-Your-Name, you are saying that the tiger is a Formation fabricated in dependence on my own mind, so that I can make the tiger disappear just by thinking differently?” Yes, that is exactly right. … But don’t try it. You will get eaten anyway.

The question is, Do Formations ever exist from their own side? Granted that we as reasoning creatures require mental representations of things, aren’t there also things that exist in Suchness, that is not dependent on mind, such as these superbly self-regulating systems? The various thought experiments we have conducted during the last few weeks are a means of helping get out minds around this question. I consider four basic reasons for saying things Formations always depend on mind:

First, what we think exists or does not exist changes radically upon reflection. A Formation is a kind of story but stories can have alternative plots. Our thought experiments with clouds and shadows are illustrative of this; we easily waffle as to their existential status. Cumulus clouds tend to exist more consistently than cirrus, for instance and shadows produced by a single well-defined light source exist more certainly than those produced from multiple light sources. Recall that each of the thought experiments involves a shift in existential commitment. The tendency for objects to shift or to appear or disappear depending on what the mind adds is reminiscent of the Necker’s Cube, in which one alternatively sees a box from above or from below as the mind shifts its interpretation. Sometimes the mind locks into one interpretation making the alternative difficult to recover, just as we lock into certainty about the existence of some thing.

In the adventure of two weeks ago Captain Kirk and Scotty came into conflict over their differing interpretations of the captains existence, tracing it through alternative branching continuities: As far as Scotty was concerned the physical Captain he zapped with the paralyzer ray was a mere remnant, something like a ghost, of the real captain that had been successfully beamed to continue his existence on the Planet Flubobo. As far as the captain was concerned he was the captain himself continuing to live his life, without a clear idea of who that guy was walking around on Flubobo. It is revealing that we often trace an object through its pragmatic role, rather than concrete physical existence, while other traceable objects come and go to fill that role. Philosophers of language have pointed out some examples thay call intensional objects. For instance, we can say things like, “Three years ago the President was a Republican but now he is a Democrat,” or “The age of the President has fluctuated from the forties to the seventies,” treating Bush and Obama as different stages of one continuity, of one Formation, allowing a certain function to define a rather long-lived object.

Second, as we examine suchness more closely, in particular to consider how things are dependently coarisen, the Formations are harder and harder to recognize. We have seen that when we examine clouds, shadows, reflections, even cars and people, as dependently co-arisen, they lose their substantiality. In Suchness the interdependencies are so extensive it does not entirely make sense to try to carve it into discrete objects. Such objects turn out to be much more porous than we expect of our Formations. Nagarjuna, the Second Century Buddhist philosopher, stated that “Emptiness is Dependent Co-Arising!” In short, as we approach Emptiness, Formations disappear, as we recede from Emptiness they assert themselves.

Third, formations depend on mind, but do not always seem to depend strongly on Suchness. Consider the second variation of the Necker’s Cube pictured here, which is really just an arrangement of pie slices. Actually it is really just an arrangement of pixels, dots of black or white on your computer screen or printed page from which we fabricate pie slices from which we fabricate the lines of the Necker’s Cube. Notice that the lines even seem to continue between the pies, until you blink a couple of times. The mind is doing a lot of fabricating on the basis of little suchness. Humans have been very creative in fabricating very abstract objects out of nothing discernable and then even agreeing among themselves that they are there. Money, for instance, the kind you think is in the bank and belongs to you, is an example. God is another.

Fourth, formations out there in Suchness are never experienced separately from Formations in here, in mind. We often think our mental formations, our thoughts, or feelings, exist in a different realm then what we think of objective reality. Sometimes we even picture the former realm as located in the space between out ears, or picture ourselves with our thoughts in a fortress Self with an often hostile, sometimes alluring, world outside. But we never experience things that way. Rather the mind seems expansive and encompasses all things. In our experience some pattern in the suchness, such as a combination of colors and an odor, appears and begins to acrete features, first perception or recognition as familiar, then objecthood, then it grows like a crystal to acquire properties like beauty, and relationships to other objects like kinship, and even longings or aversions, a degree of tension, a role in some grand plan, and so on. The object crystallizes in dependence on both suchness and mind. Sometimes we try to sort out what is out there and what it in here, for instance reminding ourselves that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but the fact that we find such reminders profound is precisely because that is not we experience things.

We live in a world of our own fabrication. The Formations arise dependent on mind, then the details that might be perceived in suchness tend to recede, and as they do so the Formations become even more tangible and convincing. The world thereby becomes easier to track (as Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all”), but also much more frozen and brittle. The wondrous richness and variety of Emptiness is replaced a hidden danger to our very mortal Formations. Next week we will consider the suffering and harm Formations, and particularly our Selves, bring with them. The following week we will learn of the various Buddhist practices that work with loosening the grip of the Self.