Tag Archives: Knowledge

Agency Mistaken as Self

18 May

Agency mistaken as Self

The Buddha’s Awakening – Seeing without Illusion chapter 7

18 May

The Buddha’s Awakening – Seeing without Illusion chapter – Copia

Intentional Development of Personality and Social Maturity

18 May

Intentional Development of Personality and Social Maturity

A New Approach to the Khandhas – How We Experience the World

18 May

A New Approach to the Khandhas – How We Experience the World

A New Approach to the Khandhas – How We Experience the World

26 Feb

 

‘What is this world condition?

Body is the world condition.

And with body and form go feeling, perception, consciousness, and all the activities throughout the world.

The arising of form and the ceasing of form – everything that has been heard, sensed, and known, sought after and reached by the mind – all this is the embodied world, to be penetrated and realized.’ Samyutta Nikaya

‘The ‘world’ of experience is not given in experience: it is constructed by thought from the data of sense.’I. Lewis1

 

For us to understand the profundity of the Buddha’s teachings, we must first turn to an examination of the khandhas. According to the Wisdom Library2, the khandhas (Pali) (Sanskrit: skandhas) or Five Aggregates are the five components of a being which come together at birth and separate at death:

(1) Matter or form (rupa) – external and internal matter. Externally, rupa is the physical world. Internally, rupa includes the material body and the physical sense organs, i.e. eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body;

(2) Sensation or feeling (vedana) – the feeling in reception of physical things by the senses through the mind;

(3) Perception and/or cognition (sanna) – the functioning of mind in distinguishing appearances;

(4) Volition or mental formation (sankara) – habitual action, i.e. a conditioned response to the object of experience, whether it is good or evil, whether you like or dislike it;

(5) Consciousness (vinnana) – the mental faculty engaged in perception, cognition, and experience.

 

 

Figure  2

The Traditional Interpretation of Khandha

 

Khandha is most frequently translated into English as ‘aggregate.’ Before the Buddha’s particular use of the word, the word khandha had very common meanings: a khandha could be a pile, a bundle, a heap, a mass. Inaccurately, this image of a ‘pile’ has continued to be used in describing the Buddha’s use of the word. For example, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu traditionally uses the term, ‘The five khandhas are bundles or piles of form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness. […] The common and explicit image is of the khandhas as burdensome.’ (SN 22.22)3

Or as C.A.F. Rhys Davids wrote:

‘And the Khandhas stand exposed as the vehicles of pain and misery, and as “a burden” taken up ever again by craving ever-reborn – craving of sense-desires, craving for rebirth.’4

Extended Interpretation of Khandhas

 

Sue Hamilton, in her book Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder, makes a significant extension of reference from the above traditional doctrine of the khandhas as five individual, separate, burdensome aggregates or ‘piles.’ She cogently argues that, in his first sermon and after, the Buddha always referred to the khandhas as a collective, unified unit, and only as a unified unit can one best understand the Buddha’s perspective regarding their function. In their collective function, the khandhas refer to the body as a living organism that provides the basis for our ability to know anything.

This important formulation of the khandhas as an integrated organic whole, highlights the reality that it isn’t possible for us to separate ourselves from our experience, nor is it possible to know anything other than by the khandhas. There is not only no separation between our self and our experience; there is also no separation between mind and body. The human ability to conceptualize relies on the sensory data that are filtered through the collective unit of khandhas. From this perspective, the khandhas are not a ‘burden’ and cannot be separated or jettisoned from our experience – nor should they be.

They are our experience. We know the world through the khandhas. The khandhas must be understood not as five separate ‘heaps’ of bodily material but as a cohesive, living physical apparatus, an apparatus whose main operating processes are centered on the survival of the organism and the functioning of our cognitions.

So we come to understand that our senses are not ‘windows on the world’ and what we see isn’t actually what’s out there but instead an ‘informed guess’. Our brain constructs a reality of the external world based on what evolution has developed as a capacity of cognitive construction of what we need to know for our survival.

Khandas as a Collective, Unified Unit

 

This crucial point of understanding the khandhas as a collective, unified, organic unit and not five separately functioning bases is similar to what Marek McGann explains as the enactive cognitive position regarding our cognitions.5 McGann notes that, while individual sensory organs may be vital, no perception depends on, or can be explained by, the input of a specific organ alone. All perception is inherently multi-modal. Modalities are not atomic in nature; rather, they are a product of a dynamic process which involves an embodied agent (with goals and sensitivities) and a world. Any aspect of a person’s awareness during a particular action will have to be described and interpreted in light of the rest of the system during that same activity. In other words, the khandhas, or body as a living organism, is an organization of interacting modalities.

With Hamilton’s extension of understanding, we analyze the khandhas as interacting modalities of a unified organization. This leads us to a very different analysis of the nexus of interactions of the khandhas, the cognitive apparatus through which we construct our ‘world,’ so it makes sense to us. Ultimately, instead of the traditional analysis focusing on the impermanence of each separate ‘heap’ or khandha as the root of suffering, we understand on a more radical and profound level that the sources of our suffering are the illusory cognitive constructions of ‘self’ and ‘world’ with their accompanying cravings. The result is that, with Enlightenment, one ceases to grasp at the object and subject of experience. Enlightenment results from insight into, and the dis-identification of, the thoughts and the conceptual constructions and projections that provide the foundation for our pre-enlightened cognitions. This dis-identification transforms our basic and mundane mode of cognition into ‘pure experience’ (emptiness), which is defined as non-conceptual and devoid of interpretive overlay. Much of this book explores the implications of this extended analysis.

The Explanatory Analysis of the Five

 

The five khandhas are the body, consciousness, sensations or feelings, apperception, and volitional activities. The body is significant as a khandha not as simply a ‘pile’ of matter, but as the living organism which is the origin of one’s ‘experience’ – the locus of the senses through which we experience the world. In Buddhism there are six senses of the body: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and ‘mind.’ While the first five are familiar to us, we usually do not consider mind a sixth sense. As Hamilton states, ‘[…] in the early Buddhist teachings (mind) is the faculty, or sense, which filters and collates all sensory data so it can actually make sense to us.’6 In the Buddha’s teachings, it is mind that mediates everything the other senses collect, that makes sense of the huge volume of information that arises with the interaction between our sense organs and sense datum. Mind is not a permanent substance; it is the ongoing process of conceptualization and emotion. Or, as neuroscientists J. A. Scott Kelso and David Engstrom put it, ‘The body is crucial to our experience of the world because it provides the sense organs through which the objective world is accessed by us and it has the organizing capacity of the mind that processes and constructs an understanding of that data. Organisms are not just pieces of matter; they are matter in motion – animate forms. […] Coordination dynamics (the study of how human beings and human brains – singly and together – coordinate behavior) has stressed the coevolution of real organisms coupled to and acting in real environments, a view captured in the term “embodied cognition.”’7

Our Bodies are Crucial

 

The body is thus crucial to our experience of the ‘world,’ since it provides us with the sense organs through which the ‘objective world’ is accessed by us. The input through our sense organs is then further processed by our sophisticated complex mental activities; these become our ‘experience’ or knowledge of the world. Experience which originates for us through our sense organs, then, is not simply sensation or perception but is also embodied, unified, and interpreted with the mind’s organizing, processing, and constructing our ‘sense’ of the world.

This analysis is emphasized in the Buddha’s teachings, with the crucial importance of how the body operates; it also places a different perspective on what is now found in many Buddhist meditation practices as well as in teachings regarding the body. Often, the body is taught in a negative light as an encumberment, a heap of unwanted bile, pus, and cells, a burden. In fact, the emphasis of numerous Buddhist interpretations is mainly on impermanence and encourages bhikkus (monks) to feel disgust with their bodies in order to create an attitude of nonattachment. For example, the common ‘corpse meditation’ is considered to be a particularly powerful method to develop disgust toward our bodies; this is then supposed to cut our attachment to sensual pleasures, such as sexuality or pride in appearance.

An example of this attitude, as Hamilton writes in Identity and Experience,8 can be found in an often cited text by the 5th century AD Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa. It has been translated as: ‘Wherefore, monks, be ye disgusted with this body.’ However, in Hamilton’s opinion, a more appropriate translation (both in this specific text and the wider context of the Buddha’s teachings) is: ‘So monks, be indifferent towards or dis-enchanted with your body.’ Hamilton posits that this second interpretation of the passage, and the accompanying general attitude – rather than encouraging bhikkus to feel disgust and repulsion towards their ‘impure’ bodies – is meant simply to discourage them from identifying with their bodies. The early Buddhist attitude toward the body was neither positive nor negative but neutrally analytical. In fact, the Buddha repeatedly encouraged a healthy lifestyle and care for the body.

A quote attributed to him is: ‘To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.’ This perspective is stated by Dr. Pinit Ratanakul:

‘In the Buddhist perspective the unique body of each of us, both in appearance and structure, is a result of our past kamma. The human body is at the same time the means by which we contact the world and the physical manifestation of our mind. Being such an important instrument, the body must be duly attended to, i.e. one must not abuse it through unwholesome food, alcohol, drugs, or by taxing it with over-indulgence and deprivation. Even enlightenment, the highest goal of Buddhism, cannot be attained by the mortification of the body, as witnessed in the personal experience of the Buddha. This is due to the interdependency of the mind and the body (mind and the body are also labeled name and form). Intellectual illumination can be attained only when the body is not deprived of anything necessary for the healthy and efficient functioning of all bodily organs.’9

So, as we see in all of his teachings, the Buddha did not teach revulsion but an analytic and pragmatic Middle Way in our attitude toward our bodies.

Consciousness

 

The other khandhas engage in our intricate cognitive activities, and the necessary condition for all of the activities of the khandhas is consciousness. Consciousness is the activity of being conscious or aware and is dependent on the operation of the organic integrated whole of the khandhas, not individual aggregates acting in isolation from each other. Even though our attention becomes selective, narrowed, and focused on one awareness in a given moment, the general process of knowing what one is aware or knowledgeable of is called the khandha of consciousness.

Evan Thompson wrote about the brain basis of consciousness model called the Unified Field Model, as developed by Professor John R. Searle, which echoes the Buddha’s conception of consciousness: ‘According to this model (the Unified Conscious Field) the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience or conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness: “Conscious experiences come in unified fields. In order to have a visual experience, a subject has been conscious already, and the experience is a modification of the field.”’10

In other words, Searle, like the Buddha, is advocating that the process of consciousness be understood not as manifested through separate individual ‘piles’ of experience but as an integrated ‘unified’ whole.

Sensation

The final three khandhas – sensation, apperception, and volition – explain how incoming sensory data filtered through the ‘mind’ and awareness become our knowledge, or what we know. Again, we need to remember that we do not attend to our raw sensations one at a time; this process is, therefore, not linear. Rather, many inputs course through the various sense organs as well as bodily sensations that the ‘mind’ sorts out, and then specific inputs are given conscious attention within the unified field. McGann states: ‘Cognition is not added to perception after the fact, because it is inherent in the process of perception itself, it is part of what continually initiates, drives and structures the act of perceiving. An enactive approach to perception thus maintains a strong distinction between sensation and perception. Perception, wrapped up as it is in cognition, action, sense-making, is an activity embedded within, contextualized by, value driven intentional action. Sensation is an aspect of an embodied agent’s interaction with the world, an important part certainly, but not one with any veto or absolute authority as the character of experience.’11

This is clearly different from the traditional intuitive stage-like description of perception which holds modalities as basic ‘modes of presentation’ in which a perception is simply ‘presented’ to us as is – as visual, gustatory, tactile, or the like. All other aspects of perception (recognition of the object, interpretation of the event) involve some form of further, often inferential, cognitive operation; perception mingles with cognition. In other words, it’s not just what the sensory organs are doing, but what the brain is already doing, that is involved in perception.

Sensations are vipaka, which are whatever you initially experience through the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. We first have an impinging of incoming sensory data but are unaware of the ‘pure’ sensation and experience of it because it is still too early for the data to reach a necessary threshold to register it. In this pre-reflective stage, experience is direct, immediate, and intuitive. Subject and object, inner and outer, are unified. This is the khandha of sensation. Every perceptual experience is an experience of my body.

Apperception

 

Next come discrimination and identification, which are associated with the khandha of apperception. In modern terms, this equates to cognitive functioning – an intellectual constructive process by which one becomes aware of, perceives, or comprehends ideas – and it involves all aspects of perception, thinking, reasoning, and remembering. One identifies more clearly or becomes perceptually aware when what was previously only a sensation (the impinging data) reaches a certain threshold, triggering impulses in the receptor neurons that register in the brain through various mediating processes. It is through this process that we identify things individually by contrasting and distinguishing them from their surrounding contexts, independently from us, and giving them a separate continuity. ‘Ideas’ about the object mingle with the awareness of its sense presence: we name it, categorize it, and compare it to other things. Seeing a color is vipaka, but conceptualizing our like or dislike of it is not. Names, features, and what seem to be independent objects are the products of this reification process and are dependent phenomena. Importantly, the independent status of objects is purely an attributed state. They are only distinguished contrastively, and they no longer correspond to an original ‘pure’ sensation, because they are now the result of a complex, constructive neurological process.

Take, for example, the act of seeing, or looking at a flower, to distinguish what characterizes the stage of sensation, or immediate awareness, from that of apperception, or ascertaining distinguishing features of an object. In the first instant of experience, the flower and the observer are one. The impinging stimuli hasn’t yet reached the threshold that triggers registration in the cortex. The flower is seen and the seeing of it is one indivisible act, which is the datum, or the ‘pure sensations’experience. But to cognize and then declare that the flower is a flower and, more specifically, a yellow rose, involves interpretation, which is an abstracting process. What is now experienced is not an immediate, unmediated sensation, but the outcome of a complex, constructive cognitive process. Therefore, a sensation is defined as the contact between sense organ and sensory input, as well as the consciousness that results from their contact. After the direct experience, the sensations are processed by a complex, constructive neurological process and categorized and their significance established. As Hamilton writes, ‘One sees, hears, tastes, something. As such, though one refers separately to sense organs, sense objects and what is sensed – nose, cheese, smell, for example – this separation is, in fact, an abstraction from the experience “smelling cheese-smell.”’12 It is in this reflective phase of perception and conceptualization that experience becomes a constructive process and that sensations are interpreted in light of past experience, including cultural and linguistic constructs and individual interests and preferences.

Writer and philosopher Alva Noë makes a similar point about the difference between sensations and perceptions when he argues:

‘In general, there are reasons to doubt that tactile sensation or feeling is sufficient for tactile perception. To perceive by touch, for example, the rectangularity of something you hold in your hands, or the layout of furniture in a room (as a blind person might, by moving around and reaching and touching) is not merely to have certain feelings or sensations. After all, the rectangularity is not captured by specific sensations. There is no unitary sensation or feel of a rectangle. The rectangularity is made available to you, in touch, by your active touching (probing, prodding, stroking, rubbing, squeezing) with your hands. What informs you of the shape of what you feel or hold is not the intrinsic character of your sensations, but rather your implicit understanding of the organization or structure of your sensations.’13

Bhikkhu K. Ñänananda also makes a relevant observation with this analysis:

‘Suppose there is a little child, a toddler, who is still unable to speak or understand language. Someone gives him a rubber ball and the child has seen it for the first time. If the child is told that it is a rubber ball, he might not understand it. How does he get to know that object? He smells it, feels it, and tries to eat it, and finally rolls it on the floor. At last he understands that it is a plaything. Now the child has recognised the rubber ball not (only) by the name that the world has given it, but by those factors included under “name” in nàma-råpa, namely feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention.’14

And finally, Sariputta, a chief disciple of the Buddha, declared:

‘Feeling, apperception, and cognitive awareness, friend – these factors are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is impossible to separate each of these states from others to describe the difference between them. For what one feels, that one apperceives; and what one apperceives, that one cognizes.’15

In the workings of the khandhas, the initial impinging of sense data are not enough for the grasping of what the initial data represent. Sensation and sensory knowledge must work together, for example, in the case of furniture, to produce the perception of the spatial layout of an object or a room. As Noë concludes, modeling any sense requires that we understand it not as something that concerns the brain alone but as something involving ‘the animate body and the world. I propose that to perceive is not merely to have sensation, or to receive sensory impressions, it is to have sensations that one understands […]. The enactive view insists that mere feeling is not sufficient for perceptual experience (i.e., for experience with world-representing content).’16

As the Buddha explained, the process of selection begins at the initial non-reflective stage when attention creates the necessary threshold and then moves to the self-conscious stage of apperception. David J. Kalupahana explains:

‘Selectivity based upon “interest” occurs even in the pre-reflective stage beginning with the impinging of the sense object with the sense organ culminating in feeling or sensation. The need for selectivity even at this initial stage of sense experience is prompted by the inability of consciousness to deal with the “big blooming buzzing confusion.” During the second stage, when sensations give rise to perception and reflection, the selectivity is conditioned by the stronger “dispositions” or habitual tendencies, thereby leading to obsession and bondage during the final stage. This selectivity in consciousness accounts for the possibility and, therefore, the ability on the part of the human being to choose, think and act, and these represent the core of selfhood or personality in the Buddha’s doctrine.’17

For William James, the making manifest of what is attended to by the sensations is the result of what he called attention, which is selection: ‘Out of what is in itself an indistinguishable, swarming continuum, devoid of distinction or emphasis […] Attention […] picks out certain sensations as worthy of notice, choosing those that are signs to us of things which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us, to which we, therefore, give substantive names and to which we give the status of independence and dignity.’18

So while selection or attention is based on an inherent or learned focus as well as on our organic biological makeup, it isn’t until the selected sensation is cognitively recognized, named, and interpreted that it moves into the realm of apperception. There are two aspects of a single, represented, integral event – two poles (subject/object) with consciousness linking them together.

Volition

 

The fifth khandha, volition, is the most complex aspect of our cognitive apparatus. We have affective responses to whatever we experience; these can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. A neutral response is to merely register a sensation and become aware of it simply in a non-attached, factual sense. When we consider an experience to be pleasant, on the other hand, we become attached and want it to continue or be repeated. These desires or cravings become preferences and choices and therefore originate in our cognitive apparatus; they can range from minor preferences in the positive domain and mild aversion in the realm of the negative to very profound affective states in both. These affective states are responses not only to bodily sensations, but also to abstract concepts and beliefs; they are established on, among other things, one’s beliefs, desire to continue to exist (or not), self-identifications, traditions, customs. They can also be such general desires as to be loved, successful, accepted, happy, wealthy, not alone, not poor, or not unhappy. These biases and inclinations make up our psychological orientation and represent our ‘world.’

According to the Buddha, our affective volitional characteristics fuel the kammic process and continue until our last affective volitional states are extinguished with Enlightenment. Their continued functioning is conditioned (dependently originated) by the level of ignorance or insight on which we are operating. As we better understand how to see things ‘as they are,’ the degree of our ignorance – and, therefore, our volitions – becomes differently conditioned. To return to the work of David J. Kalupahana: ‘The Buddha insisted that desire is not identical with the variegated objects in the world. It is the thought of lust which is generated by wrong ideas or misconception, primarily the metaphysical conceptions of self and object. As such it is possible to maintain that on occasions of sense experience, which are represented by the coming together of the subject and object, the subject does come to be affected in a certain way and this is conditioned by views it holds regarding its own nature as well as the object.’19

We cannot separate ourselves from our experience, which is organically based and which takes place through the khandhas. It is the understanding of the operation of the khandhas that is the focus of insight meditation. We clearly see that dukkha is intimately linked with our cognitive experience and is not just a description of the world in which we have our experience, or of what we perceive and then react to. Since our affective-volitional apparatus, which fuels our continuity, is cognitively based, dukkha is also. The cessation of suffering, or Enlightenment, is a radical cognitive re-orientation. The Buddha taught that our cognitive experiences and phenomena are dependently originated, dynamic, ever-changing, and impermanent. This is the Truth of experience.

The Buddha’s teachings focus on epistemology, or how we can know about reality, and they assign primary importance to the workings of one’s constructive and categorical cognitive apparatus. They are not ontological or based on the study of fundamental categories of reality. Unfortunately, this significant but subtly expanded understanding of the Buddha’s teachings is often missed in contemporary Buddhist teachings. For example, in a discussion about the Buddha’s perspective on suffering, Adam Miller writes, ‘Sensation is suffering. Sensation takes place only when a sensor is affected, stimulated, irritated, perturbed, or pressed upon. We see only when light perturbs the eye, we hear only when sound perturbs the ear, we think only when thoughts perturb the mind. It is in light of the constant, relentless pressure of sensation in all its modalities that life is suffering.’20

We have seen, though, that the Buddha taught dukkha, not as the simple occurrence of sensations of inputs alone, but as the secondary processing which then identifies, contrasts, classifies, and creates pleasure or discomfort and then desires or craves or rejects as a consequence of cognition. In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha clearly teaches that dukkha is our pre-enlightened constructed experience.

Cognition after Enlightenment

 

Often, also, there is confusion as to how the Buddha, as a human being, experienced life cognitively after his enlightenment. To end suffering, an Enlightened One does not become a ‘robot’ that transcends worldly sense experience or someone who denies the reality of the world of sense experience. Quite the contrary: the operation of the five khandhas becomes intimately known and accepted. The grounding of Enlightenment as a cognitive event leaves intact the locus of experience in the body, and the post – Enlightenment life experience becomes quite reasonable and understandable.

In fact, if we accept biologist H. R. Maturana’s concept of autopoiesis21 – that living systems are ‘self-producing’ organisms which maintain their particular form despite material inflow and outflow, through biological self-regulation and self-reference – we can consider the Buddha’s biological existence to have continued as before his Enlightenment. The biological, physical functions of sleep/wakefulness, hunger/satiation, fatigue/alertness, and so on, as well as smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing, touching, and thinking would have remained the same. These physical conditions only ended upon the Buddha’s death. The Buddha made the distinction between the experience of living which is grounded in the body and in the khandhas and the ignorance of a cognitive schema in which a subject/object dualism exists. Actually, the Enlightenment experience allowed the Buddha to move in the world unhindered by the ordinary restrictions borne of our ignorance in referring naively to our dualistic cognitive constructions.

Another source of confusion has to do with the ‘I’ of an Enlightened One. As Kalupahana explains:

‘In the context of the five aggregates (khandhas), the Buddha was not reluctant to speak of “I” or “myself” or even of the “self.” Without admitting to a “ghost in the machine” or a transcendental apperception, the Buddha was willing to recognize the feeling of individuality, of self. It is a feeling that can contract and expand depending on the context. It does not represent a static entity to which everything belongs. […] There seems to be no justification for assuming the Buddha encouraged the annihilation of this feeling of self. Indeed, the reality of feelings and emotions that occur in the stream of experience are relevant to an explanation of harmonious life. […] Thus the Buddha spoke of “I” or “myself” and “mine” but avoided and discouraged “I-making” or “mine-making,” both terms imply egoism. The feeling of self-occurring thus turns out to an important element in the affirmation of the relation of dependence that exists between a person, his family, nation, humanity, as well as nature.

The solidification of this feeling into a ‘pure ego’ can interrupt its extension at any level, confining it exclusively to the neglect of every other. As such, it can lead to extreme selfishness, to tribalism, to nationalism, or to pure altruism. For the Buddha, the so-called self-feeling is dependently arisen, and, is therefore contextual, not absolute.’22

As much as the Buddha emphasized the elimination of egotism, he did not intend the annihilation or depersonalization of what modern psychology labels the empirical self or the individual experiences. The terms ‘I’ or ‘self’ are pragmatic conventions that reflect the living experience that all conscious living beings have.

Khandhas and Awakening

 

With Enlightenment, the Buddha came to a sudden realization or epiphany about the nature of ‘existence.’ The basis of his enlightened was having had the ‘pure experience’ of emptiness or Nibbāna (Sanskrit: Nirvana). It was only when he experienced this state of no-thingness that he understood the mechanism of the creation of cravings and desires which, in turn, causes the dukkha of our lives. Upon Enlightenment, he comprehended that it was his ‘mental apparatus’ that had in ignorance created his desires and cravings; therefore, it is the process and organization of our systematic mental organization that needs to be understood and altered in a radical way, and to do this we must understand the khandhas.

What the Awakening insight reorients is our understanding of how the cognitive apparatus creates craving and dukkha. The Buddha was concerned with the spiritual and existential suffering of sentient beings, and his Awakening showed him that our world is completely subjectively constructed, and that what the cognitive apparatus creates or imagines is dualism (most notably, subject-object dualism). Therefore, the Buddha’s teachings focus on understanding the workings of our bodies as embedded living organisms and the process of how we ‘experience’ living and knowing.

Upon achieving a correct understanding of the nature of our constructions of reality and the consequences thereof, the Buddha attained Enlightenment; this extinguished the fuel of the fire – the desires and cravings – of continuity (the cycle of rebirth). He taught the way for us to also achieve Nirodha and become Awakened. Dukkha is based not solely on impermanence but more profoundly on how we construct our ‘world’ and cling to the illusions we construct – our pre-enlightened experience.

 

Notes

Lewis, C. I., Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge (New York: Dover, 1956), 29.

Wisdom Library, Buddhism in Ottawa: “Glossary of Buddhist Terms” (www.wisdomlib.org). Retrieved 3 June 2013.

Thanissaro, B., “Five Piles of Bricks: The Khandhas as Burden & Path” in Access to Insight, 5 June 2010.

Davids, C.A.F. Rhys, “Intellect and the Kbandba Doctrine” in Buddhist Review 2:1, 1910.01-03, 104.

Enactive approaches in cognitive science propose that perception, and more generally cognitive experience, are strongly mediated by embodied (sensory motor) processes, and that our primary experience of the world is action-oriented or pragmatic (Noë 2004; Thompson 2007; Varela et al. 1991). Adams, F. and Aizawa, K., “The bounds of cognition” in Philosophical Psychology 14 (1): 43-64.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. T. and Rosch, E. (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991), 59-80.

Hamilton, S., Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (New York: Routledge, 2000), 73.

  1. A. Scott Kelso and Engstrom, D. The Complementary Nature (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006), 87, 89.

Hamilton, S. Identity and Experience: The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism (Oxford: Luzac Oriental, 2001), 181.

Ratanakul, P., “Buddhism, Health and Disease”, Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 15, 162-164.

Thompson, E., Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 351.

McGann, M., “Perceptual Modalities: Modes of Presentation of Modes of Interaction?” (http://lifeandmind.files. wordpress.com/2010/02/mmcgann-perceptual-modalities – modes-of-perception-or-modes-of-action1.pdf). Retrieved 3 June 2013.

Hamilton, S., Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (New York: Routledge, 2000), 163.

Noe, A., Action in perception (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004), 15.

Access to Insight, ed., “Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle-length Discourses”, in Access to Insight, 23 April 2012 (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/index.html). Retrieved 15 June 2013.

Noe, A., Action in perception (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004), 16.

Kalupahana, D. J., The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), 89.

Shaw, M., “William James and Yogaacaara philosophy: A comparative inquiry.” Philosophy East and West 37(3), 228.

Kalupahana, D. J., The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), 97.

Miller, A., “The Root, The All” (http://www.progressivebuddhismblogspot.com). Retrieved 3 June 2013.

Maturana, H. R. and Varela, F. J., Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980).

Kalupahana, D. J., The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), 38.

 

Subject and Object: Explorations how we construct meaning and language

26 Feb

Subject and Object: Explorations how we construct meaning and language

 

We experience ourselves and the world as subject and object only through conceptualization and language. This dualism, however, is only mental and not real. Mind produces this subject-object dualism. The subjectivity of our mind affects our perceptions of the world that is held to be objective by natural science.”

Tom Arnold

The entire world of experience is one which is comprised of the polarity between subjectivity and objectivity. […] The subjectivity and objectivity are mutually dependently originated […] the subjective and objective aspects of our experience are in fact the linked “poles” of a single process.’ Susan Hamilton

 

In all psychic life there is subject and object.’ Karl Jaspers

 Mental Structures

Defined in psychology and cognitive science, schemas are mental structures of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. According to M.A. Arbib & Erdi they are also interdependent in relation to the other ones. Schemas and their network of interconnections, have a proneness to remain constant, even in the face of contradictory information, nevertheless, they do change through the processes of accommodation. Accommodation is the cognitive process of incorporation of new information by revising existing cognitive schemas, perceptions, and understanding. An analogy of this transitional process are the colors of the rainbow. While we can clearly define the primary colors of a rainbow, part of its characteristic is the overlapping colors that merge into one another. Like a rainbow, at each phase of equilibrium or schematic stability, there is a primary ‘color’ while in the transitional spaces, the primary ‘colors’ merge and blend. If the established schema cannot make sense of unfamiliar information, dis-equilibrium is necessary for the transformation or updating of the existing schema (knowledge). Through learning, a new schema network emerges that moderates a person’s new reality or perspective. ‘Each schema enriches and is defined by the others (and may change when a formal linguistic system allows explicit, though partial, definition). Even though processes of schema change may affect only a few schemas at any time, such changes may “cohere” to yield dramatic changes in the overall pattern of mental organization. There is change yet continuity, with many schemas held in common, yet changed because they must now be used in the context of the new network.’ 30 Therefore, we see that transformation is different from learning new skills or facts; it instead disrupts and alters the way our cognitive apparatus knows, interprets and responds. In fact, one’s cognitive development and transformation through the Eightfold Path can be easily construed as intentional ego stage developments involving the advancement through progressively schematic dis-equilibrium/equilibrium to more refined ways of knowing.

Similarly, according to the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, cognitive development and transformation progresses in discoveries or insights, not at a steady rate. A state of disequilibrium occurs when new information cannot be assimilated into existing schemas. Since disequilibrium creates stress, the urge for equilibration then becomes the force that drives the learning process as we seek to de-stress and restore balance by cognitively mastering or letting go of the new challenge (accommodation). We also see this phenomenon described in the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the natural propensity for alleviating the stress created by task incompletion by better recalling of all tasks, hence, giving priority to unfinished projects before finished projects. Through the process of assimilation and the integration of the new information, the newly formed schema remains until the next time an adjustment is required. This process of growth involves a progression of continual shifts of meaning marked by periods of stability and periods of instability, leading to ongoing construct/schemata reconstructions. Stability and harmony are the forces, which move development along. Resulting from either new experiences and/or deliberate interventions, such shifts produce corresponding changes in our viewpoint of the environment, ourselves, and, therefore, how we interact with an increasingly discerned and objective world. In the process of transformation, the previous schema or way of meaning-making is not entirely left behind; this previous way can still become activated as a latent disposition. As Laszlo points out, ‘…all we can say is that the new steady state, if it is dynamically stable, assimilates the disturbance introduced by the destabilizing parameters within an open structure that is likely to be more dynamic and complex than the structure in the previous steady state.’32

Thinking and Talking: the shift from Subject to Object

One of the Buddha’s most significant insights was that the self is developed and maintained by a dualist perspective, and this distinction between a subject and object is a cognitively based convention. This duality has two poles (subject/object) with consciousness linking these two aspects together. After all, where there is an object of perception, there is a subject perceiving and it is consciousness that maintains an awareness between them. The subject-object relationship is not just an abstraction but a cognitive experience. Our constructs of the self that are Subject are nonconscious aspects subsumed internally which hold our unquestioned beliefs about the world. One generally cannot name things that are Subject, and we do not usually reflect upon them for that would require us to stand back and make them object. Kegan asserts, ‘We cannot be responsible for, in control of, or reflect upon that which is subject’25 (p. 32). The Object represents the content of one’s knowing, and any insight of the subject (i.e. by a projective psychological test) provides a clue about our underlying cognitive structure or schemata. Even though dualities occur naturally as a function of conceptualization, psychological calcification around them leads to excessive fragmentation of experience.

In Kegan’s discussion of stage transformation, the distinction between Subject and Object is of vital importance. In fact, the aspect of transformation that he is most concerned with involves the movement of essential schematic features from Subject to Object. According to Kegan, the way one progresses from one stage to the next is taking what was once subject and making it object. Therefore, the process of transformation is learning to objectively evaluate what biases or schemata, as ‘colored glasses/lens’, we unconsciously used in the prior order of consciousness. ‘Object’ are those aspects of our cognitive world that we are aware of and can be looked at, related to, reflected upon, engaged, controlled, and connected to something else. Contrarily, on the other side of the subject-object relationship, ‘Subject’, is the aspect of our cognitive world in which we are embedded in, fused with, and identify as our self. Kegan writes, “We have object; we are subject”. Things that are Object in our lives are “those elements of our knowing or organizing that we can reflect on, handle, look at, be responsible for, relate to each other, take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise operate upon”.25 When we identify elements as Object, we become aware that “the element of knowing [when it is Object] is not the whole of us; it is distinct enough from us that we can do something with it”.25 Our worldview can expand and become more complex when we become objective about the subjective and no longer identify them as ‘me’. The disequilibrium and transformation of schematic systems moving from Subject to Object is gradual.  This shift means that what is once a non-conscious ‘lens’ through which we regard the world is instead brought into awareness, analyzed, categorized, and altered. This disequilibrium from Subject to Object of established systems to new equilibriums is what forms the transformation of orders in consciousness.

Therefore, Kegan’s five orders of mind are qualitatively different ways of constructing reality. Each order is a qualitative shift in complexity and meaning-making from the order before it.  Kegan explains that when we move the elements of the earlier meaning-making or schematic system from Subject (where it has dominion over us) to Object (where we have a new sense of qualification over the system itself), we accommodate what we have learned in a previous order. Therefore, with transformation, there is a shift from a habitual and unreflective pattern to a more deliberate and self-reflective pattern, changing the actual form of our understanding of the world. These different compositions of the cognitive apparatus largely determine the intellectual, emotional and behavioural aspects of our functioning.

The knowing disequilibration of our schematic systems by reflection and transformation successfully allows us to update our cognitive apparatus through context change, assumption re-assessment, and by challenging our minds to shift. By amending and revising our suppositions and assumptions, we loosen the static Self position and experience the humbling realization that our perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs are limited, imperfect, subjective and in need of constant mindful evaluation. In fact, also in Buddhist Citta cultivation, the intentional transformation of the subject becoming object is part of the ego transformation and transcendence leading to awakening. ‘Meditation, for example, includes a practice of making subject into object: of simply witnessing our own subjective minds with non-attached equanimity, experiencing our subjective thoughts, emotions, sensations, and impulses as objects in our awareness. With enough training and practice, the spiritual path ultimately leads us to the point of “Absolute Subjectivity”—that point where we are completely “emptied out” and there is no more subject left to be made into object, and all that remains is the effortless and seamless embrace of nondual awareness.’ 33

The Buddha’s transcendence of the Subject and Object

…the world is steeped in the notion of duality. It grasps either this end, or the other end. Hard it is for the world to understand the stance of the arahant couched in the cryptic phrase, neither here nor there nor in between the two”. The worldling is accustomed to grasp either this end or the other end.’

Bhikkhu Katukurunde Ñāṇananda34

 

While Kegan emphasized schematic stage transformation occurring through primarily new and unintentional life experiences, the Buddha, as well as now psychotherapy, used deliberate interventions to transform, refine, and ‘purify’ the schematic basis of the cognitive apparatus to reach the goal of enlightenment. What distinguishes the Buddha’s program for cognitive transformation from other psychological systems, is the principle of self-transcendence or the cognitive transformation that relinquishes all attempts to establish and attach to identities. The teaching of impermanence and dependent arising along with no self is a prescription for self-transcendence. In Buddhist training, the development and transformation of personality through dis-identification transcends the factors that constitute our perception of duality and the substantiality of existence. However, the transcendence of the self is the most subtle and difficult. While modern Western psychology assumes the primary importance of securing and strengthening the self to yield concrete, pragmatic, and successful life results, for the Buddha, ultimately realizing self-transcendence or non-self, is the successful end of the Path.

In fact, for the proper practice of the Path, transformation and transcendence are equally crucial. Without self-transcendence, the principle of self-transformation can lead to a wiser, happier and more socially astute personality but not the realization of the original mind. Only when these two principles work in harmony and are in balance during development can they bring the end of suffering. The accomplishment of self-transcendence – the relinquishing of all points of grasping and attachment – is through the gradual process of self-transformation in which moral discipline, compassion, and the cultivation of Knowing advances us by stages from our condition of subjective identifications to cognitive ‘emptiness’ and our original mind.

In conventional thinking, both the mutually exclusive either/or and dualism level of thinking are most common. We often function on both levels in which we are either making mutually exclusive distinctions with two possible polar monisms between concepts like right and wrong, hard and soft, or, in dualism, where both aspects of the pole are irreducible and coexist by definitions like subject and object, ‘I’ and ‘Mine’. As Vitaliano cogently states: ‘Dualism is the act of severance, cutting the world into seer and seen, knower and known ….’35 The Buddha taught that people mostly base their perceptions and thinking on duality. People, through the structure of grammar and language, communicate with each other using the significant feature of a subject-object relationship, which carries the implication that there is a thing to grasp and someone who grasps. Under those conditions, we are conditioned to think in terms of getting, attaining and maintaining.

While categories referring to more or less static concepts, which often dualistic pairs, have certain advantages like helping to organize information, removing ambiguity, and facilitating communication, inevitably the differences between the categories become valorized, reified, and given a superior/inferior position. Because of this creation of relative based misperceptions and misconstructions, the world becomes a tangle of names and concepts, with nouns particularly perpetuating the belief, that, as a reality, there is a permanent essence in existence. There is then the predisposition to falsely believe in a substantial self with the justified pursuit of ever-possible egotistic pleasures while ignoring three important characteristics of impermanence, not self, and suffering.

The structure of language and grammar is a mechanism for conducting thought processes which reinforce the perception of permanence as well as facilitates the communication of ideas. After assigning and sanctioning a name to an object, it easily becomes a convention. The Buddha recognized that shared language is crucial for numerous reasons including: mastery of the object world, self-conceptualization, social interaction, and cognitive growth in fields of knowledge. There is also the practical necessity for communication with the subject-object duality, including its categories, comparisons, and I – me – mine designations. Nevertheless, the Buddha also reminds us that language is only a convention with its inherent deceptions as we have seen in the research cited earlier. A. Chah explained, ‘The things of this world are merely conventions of our own making. Having established them, we get lost in them and refuse to let go, giving rise to personal views and opinions. … Now, if we know conventional reality then we’ll know liberation…If we clearly know liberation then we’ll know convention.’36 However, through the reification of these cognitive abstractions, all things are viewed with the emphatic belief that they categorically exist. As a result, our cognitive apparatus also becomes preoccupied with the belief of an abstracted ‘self’, which stands separate from ‘other’. With the illusion of our own permanence, we become fixated on a static identity and existence.

According to the Buddha, when adopting subject-object dualism there is a very close relationship between recognition and communication – in whatever way one perceives, one also speaks about them with the mindset of inherent permanence. Since knowledge and understanding are so often associated with words, concepts, and categories, if one recognizes the name of the thing one is naively assumed to comprehend or know it. The process of reification, however, is not an accomplishment through just learning the abstracted representation (word) with the object. For example, a child is given a rubber toy and told ‘ball’ to teach them the object name. Nevertheless, instinctively, this is to get to really ‘know’ the object. First, they smell it, and then touch it, try to eat it, roll it on the floor, and finally associate the object with an action, i.e. throwing; like they had seen someone do previously. At last, the child understands and recognizes the rubber ball not only by the name but also by other basic factors including: perception, intention, contact, and attention. Therefore, with such comprehensive involvement with objects/words/representations, the mind unequivocally accepts the view that ultimately the world is permanent and substantial. Consequently, we fail to understand that the basis of all of life is a dynamic process of transformation; never understanding the essence of ‘emptiness’ as a truth.

With the Enlightenment experience, the Buddha transcended the subject/object dichotomy, in which there is no experiencer nor thing experienced, and he found only experience. The result of this transformation is self-transcendence – no-self or the original mind.  The self is comprehended in the proper perspective of being a mental representation created through the polarity of a subject and object – ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’.  As Hamilton writes “This is what pure experience is: neither the world nor “I” in it other than experience.”29 Hence, the realm of pure experience is not an ontological category, but the ordinary world of phenomena experienced directly, with no intervening conceptualization. The essence of the middle path is inward peace, which is an existence free of clinging – letting go and not grasping of all identifications (dis-identification).

To illustrate this the Buddha presented a basic pattern representing three types of worldviews: the untaught ordinary person who is obsessed with and craving for the imagined substantial pleasures based in their perceived duality; the practitioner with higher training who is trying to free herself from her unconscious conventional script; and the emancipated one who is completely free from it. Also, non-self does not mean the absence of a functional ego; it means that one is no longer mistakenly identified with that self, the ego, or any of its sub-personalities. As Wei Wu Wei puts it, ‘The seeing of Truth cannot be dualistic (a ‘thing’ seen). It cannot be seen by a see-er, or via a see-er. There can only be a seeing which itself is Truth.’ 37The transcendence of the self is accomplished by cognitive, moral, and wisdom development as described above. It is through dis-identification and determining the truth of the original mind within, that we are able to transcend the world of suffering, attachment, and resistance. The way out is through transformation and transcending.

The Eightfold Path is a gradual development of reconceptualization leading towards the realization of emptiness. However, in trying to find release from the never-ending circle regarding dualism, some philosophical systems resort to finding a remedy through unity or oneness. The Buddha showed that oneness is not the solution. Developing in the Path, we confront the duality, and we grasp that the solution is found in the clinging-free approach of nonidentification – transcending both form and formless. In fact, transcendence of both is the aim; however, some mistakenly call emptiness the ending of existence. Instead, D-T. Suzuki explained, ‘The outside world of form-and-name and the inner world of thought and feeling are both no more than the construction of mind, and when the mind ceases, the weaving-out of a world of particulars is stopped. This stopping is called emptiness or no birth, but it is not the wiping out of existence, it is on the contrary viewing it truthfully unhammered by discriminative categories.’38

Modern psychology emphasizes identification as a largely unconscious process which occurs when an individual takes as his or her own characteristics, demeanors, achievements, or other identifying traits of other people or groups. However, differently, the Buddha’s use of identification (tammayatà) is more inclusive, subtle and establishes the fabrication and concoction of identity as all mental content. C.I. Lewis wrote, ‘The ‘world’ of experience is not given in experience: it is constructed by thought from the data of sense.’39

Through our attachment or aversion to our perceptions (the way we think about or understand someone or something), we are continually acting and reacting, never resting in repose. As these reactions become habitual and automatic, we become subservient to our cravings for or aversion against. Even though our cognitive representations are merely conventions that we adapt and employ, once we become well immersed in them, we become lost in them and we strongly resist relinquishing them, giving rise to personal biases and grand assumptions. ‘In whatever egotistic terms they think of an object, it becomes that. And therein, verily, lies its falseness, the puerile deceptive phenomenon that it is.S N v. 916.

To free ourselves from our self-inflicted dependences, biases, and ignorance, we must dis-identify and non-attach. By understanding that the belief in a substantial and inert self is imaginary, we develop a more mature and flexible relationship with our internal and external world. In fact, certain schools of psychology and psychotherapy, as we have seen in numerous examples in earlier chapters, recognize the possibility and significance of psychological dis-identification to create cognitive transformation through the objectification of the subjective (self). Nevertheless, even at the end of thorough psychological introspection there still prevails an ego (self) identified as the agent or mover behind the sum total of sense experience – ‘I experience therefore I am’. This conception of the ‘I’ as a CEO managing the operations of the mind/body is deemed an incontrovertible fact. However, the Buddha goes beyond the illusion of the necessity of a subjective ego as an agent. The Buddha said, ‘Let him completely cut off the root of concepts tinged with the prolific tendency, namely, the notion – ‘I am the thinker.’ Whatever inward cravings there be, let him train himself to subdue them, being always mindful.’ (S T v.916) To do this, he emphasizes that the experience of the subject/object duality has the third component of consciousness.

In fact, with the ego transformation development and resulting dis-identification of all mental content through the analysis of the two poles (subject/object) and the middle (consciousness), the final aim of eradication of the root of greed, lust, and hatred is achieved. As a rule, consciousness takes hold of objects on either side of the poles: (subject) __consciousness__(object). However, we usually ignore the middle or mindfulness because of habituation, impulsivity, and reflex grasping for the poles content by our craving or aversion which results in suffering.  Therefore, through our desires and volition, we are continually moving toward or away from whichever polarity we are inclined to in the now. When one believes everything exists in truth and fact, even though it is possible for one to remain neutral, usually one craves or rejects all that arises in awareness. In fact, this is the nature of craving and aversion; it continuously bends and moves one forward or away from the poles. Differently, the noble practitioner of the middle way, because of her insight and understanding of the arising, ceasing and insubstantiality of everything, let’s go of all through non-grasping. In other words, instead of reacting impulsively and reflexively to the perpetual stimuli, we mindfully and knowingly observe our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with calm equanimity, free from all worries and vexations and respond with reflection and wholeness.

Non-attachment is accomplished through non-conceiving or dis-identification. Consciousness becomes devoid of the nature of grasping for any object since it finds no object worthy of craving or grasping after. ‘Bhikkhu, ‘I am’ is a conceiving; ‘I am this’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall not be’ is a conceiving; I shall be possessed of form’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be formless’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be non-percipient’ is a conceiving. Conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumour, conceiving is a barb. By overcoming all conceiving, bhikkhu, one is called a sage at peace.’ (M.N. 140.31) Nibbāna literally means “cool” or “to extinguish”, and it is a cognitive state where suffering has been “extinguished”; the flames of desire have been cooled.  It is to be free from those bonds that entwine and trap us. It is a state of profound peace, contentment and wisdom that comes by eliminating the foolish attachment to the pain or pleasure in impermanent (transitory) objects. Through the mode of mindfulness, insight and wisdom of the middle path, one transcends the subject/object duality. The ‘extinction of craving’ through non-attachment is a full-fledged synonym of nibbāna.

 

Transcendence of Awakening

26 Jan

When our actions are based on empathy and compassion we naturally want ourselves and all other sentient beings to be well, happy and free from suffering. This intention of goodwill to all men, women, and creatures is based on the natural state of being without ignorance. This natural state of mind and emotions can be accomplished through the gradual and progressive transformation of dis-identification and non-attachment to the pragmatic, relative yet necessary conceptual world. After transcending the attachments and identifications to conceptualization and objectification and the duality of the subject/object, one can and will continue to participate with others in the construction and origination of these images and stories while, at the same time, knowing that it is all a sort of magic show, thereby, give up the attachments, dogma, and identifications with the stories and characters that are created in our minds. This is the Enlightenment or Awakening to seeing things as they are. This is understanding the non-substantiality of all forms.