Tag Archives: meditation

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.

 

Actualizing our Human Potential

30 Dec

Actualizing our Human Potential

We live our lives in relationship; we have a choice to live in dependence, independence, or interdependence.” Stephen R. Corey6

What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself’ Abraham Maslow7

Everyone seeks natural wellbeing, peace, and harmony, which is inherent in all of us. However, often it seems impossible for us to know how to develop and be peaceful and harmonious with our self, as well as, with the people and world around us. Indeed, when we normally crave for having something or reject what is contrary to our preferences and desires, we start generating heightened tension and negativity in our mind and easily become agitated. The common result is stress, anxiety, disappointments, conflict, and even depression. In fact, personal peace and harmony cannot co-exist with such a negative state of mind and emotion. So, we ask ourselves, how can I not react heedlessly to things I crave or do not like? How can I remain in my natural potential of ease, happiness, goodwill, and wisdom and not create heightened tension? The answer is in the teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha’s original teachings are not a theistic doctrine divinely revealed to Siddhartha, the Buddha to be, as he meditated under a tree, as some might think. Nor do they constitute only a philosophy. Rather, the Buddha’s teachings foreshadowed modern psychology in many ways and are profound and unique in the history of humankind. This book will not only show important connections between the Buddha’s teachings and psychology, but aid in the psychological and emotional well-being and, ultimately, the enlightenment of the readers of this book. Through the teaching of the Buddha, we can eliminate the ignorance that causes us to act unwholesomely which creates unhappiness and suffering. The teachings are a system for self-transcendence by purposely transforming self-knowledge to understand the reality of our true nature. By doing so we learn to act in accordance with this reality, resulting in our leading a productive, harmonious life of wellbeing and contentment.

Buddhism shares with modern psychology a strong belief in our ability as human beings to transcend our historical patterns and fully actualize our special human potential. This optimistic approach is central in Buddhist teaching, which “aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium and tranquility” [8] In fact, the Buddha has long been described as the peerless physician (bhisakko) and unrivaled healer. In the Four Noble Truths, like a physician, he first diagnosed the dis-ease of suffering (dukkha); next he discovered the cause of the illness (craving or misplaced desire, ignorance) that prevents us from attaining our fullest potential of well-being; then he discovered the cure (enlightenment), and lastly prescribed the remedy -The Eightfold Path. His focus of investigation was, “Both formerly & now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.”SN 22.86.

Dukkha, often translated as suffering, has no single English word that adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the general emotional pain that it describes. Its translation includes many negative mental/emotional states such as dis-ease, uncertainty, alienation, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, stress, anguish, and anxiety. The teachings that the Buddha proclaimed, known as the Dhamma, are a powerful therapy and method of treatment for the gradual transformation of our cognitive apparatus to cure the deep dissatisfaction of dukkha that normally afflicts us all. The Buddha’s treatment purposely develops and cultivates a peaceful mind based on a daily ethical practice; a mind firmly concentrated and calm; mindfulness which easily discerns the arising and disappearing of what is wholesome or not and the purification of the mind through the elimination of mental defilements. The tranquil, natural, wise, and fully conscious mental state created by advancing through the transformation and purification of our mind is metaphorically referred to as an inner refuge or sanctuary which is always accessible to us. The Buddha provided a comprehensive plan to transform and transcend the ignorance that creates the dis-ease of cravings of desires, aversions, and obsessions in our life, thereby, liberating our innate potential for inner peace, happiness, well-being, compassion, knowing, and wisdom – our true natural and original mind.

A transformative cognitive process attains the Original Mind. While our current mental and physical state is strongly determined by the automatic habits created by our past thoughts and actions, our future development is firmly established through our thoughts and actions in the present moment. To progress, simply making resolutions to change, however, is not enough. So long as unwholesome habits remain in the non-conscious, eventually they will express themselves, no matter how earnest the resolutions we have promised. It is essential, therefore, that we bring a knowing awareness to the conditioned reactions of our Citta or mind/heart, which then gives us the opportunity to intervene and alter our previous conditioning. This book will explore numerous proven interventions to do that.

The Buddha’s Way to Awakening is a sequential cognitive cultivation process (Bhavana), with each step smoothly transitioning to the next. In addition, accompanying each successive level of cognitive transformation, are refined positive emotions including bliss, equanimity, and compassion. The suttas affirm that the attainment of the final state of Nibbāna is by means of development: “He should train himself towards Nibbāna” – SN 10.62. The attainment of Nibbāna is the insightful transformation of one ego state to another until, finally, “He (the Arahant) understands.” Indeed, the Sanskrit word ‘Buddha’ literally means one who has awakened. One awakens and leaves behind the distorted reality when one develops insight and understands the truth behind suffering. Awakening was the final radical insightful cognitive transformation that created the Buddha’s understanding of undistorted actuality. Once understood, it fosters new wellbeing of living and will not be forgotten.

Transformation, Interbeing and No-Self

The empirical reality, which we access through our six senses, consists of a never-ending, ever-fluctuating field of vibrational activity. There is no inherent permanence, not only in anything that we experience, think, or are but also in existence. The Buddha and modern science say that all existence is in flux, it is only vibration. Everything that exists is in motion, vibrates, and transforms. The Buddhist doctrine of Annicca, or universal transformation, describes this perspective. Numerous recent scientific discoveries confirm what the Buddha taught more than 2500 years ago. Michael Talbot suggests, ‘Even the world we know may not be composed of objects. We may only be sensing mechanisms moving through a vibration dance of frequencies.’ 9. Renowned physicist Nikola Tesla reportedly observed, ‘If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.’ Also, biochemist Mae-Wan Ho wrote, ‘One comes to the startling conclusion that the coherent organism is a macroscopic quantum object, it has a macroscopic wave-function that is always evolving, always changing as it entangles its environment. This wave-function is the unique, significant form of the organism. In the quantum coherent state the organism is maximally sensitive and can best respond to opportunities and cope with all contingencies. It is source of the organism’s remarkable flexibility, resilience and creativity’ 10.

There is a growing consensus in Western thought and science that field-based relationships are fundamental, a condition described by the Buddha as dependent co-arising, or interbeing. We can understand our world and ourselves more deeply if we think in terms of dynamic patterns of relationships rather than of reified essences or entities. Ryuei Michael McCormick also explains this in a descriptive manner: ‘So nothing exists as a static, isolated entity. Everything arises and ceases depending on causes and conditions which themselves arise due to causes and conditions. There is no ultimate ground or primordial cause, but a network of causes and conditions. This undercuts the view of metaphysical selfhood, fixed entity, or substance underlying the constant change which is life.11 We gain the necessary insight to realize Anattā (no-self) through effort, self-responsibility and ego transformation through the cultivation provided by the practices of the Eightfold Path.

Of all our preconceptions about ourselves, the most basic and what we each give the highest importance to is the self. Even though the Buddha has shown how our common belief of the self is a misunderstanding, nevertheless we dedicate our lives to seeking its fulfillment, considering that as the way to happiness. For most of us, the thought of living in a different way seems unnatural or even impossible. As long as we are compelled by the illusion of an inherent self, we remain driven by our wants, fears, and identities, alienated and in opposition to the world and from understanding the interbeing of life. By awakening and emerging from this ignorance and obsession of self, we truly find release from bondage, enabling us to step forth unencumbered into the world, to be open and compassionate to life, to others, and to find real wellbeing. With this release, we understand that what we call ‘self’ is, in fact, merely an ephemeral abstraction, a script in constant change. This is right understanding. The Buddha said, ‘Right Understanding comes first’. Since the Buddha’s precept of ‘no self’ is radically different from basic beliefs of the Western culture, we need to have right understanding to trust and correctly follow the Eightfold Path.

With a similar perspective to Annica, modern science views humans as homeostatic, coherent, dynamic organisms which exist and constantly interact and transform in a field of the intricate web of life. However, we misinterpret our aware agency (the capacity of exerting influence) and mistakenly create the cognitively abstracted representation of an ‘I’ as our permanent self. In fact, since the ‘I’ is a cognitively created abstraction, a concept, and a narrative, the entity we call our self is only a character in the constantly evolving mentally devised story of our life. It is also helpful to understand, as S.B. Klein wrote, that the self-narrative is platformed or supported by one’s memory 12. The memory of our emotional, cognitive and behavioral tendencies created through repeated past reactions and experiences, conceives a perceived continuity of a participant, which becomes petrified as a continual identity – a static entity. Through the Buddha’s remedy of the Eightfold Path, we replace the dis-ease generated by our conviction of being a static, afflicted, and isolated self, with a refined understanding of the dynamic interconnectedness and impermanence of all experience.

The only real solution to suffering is cultivating the Citta by knowing, dis-identifying, and transforming our cognitive apparatus. This is accomplished by a profound change in lifestyle through various direct behavioral interventions and a regular Bhavana practice. While meditation is the best-known tool of this practice, ethical and virtuous behavior is also necessary. A restrained and orderly mind is expressed through the proper application of moral virtue in everyday life. By consequence, this natural mind is associated with a calm mind, as well as a compassionate and prosocial motivation. Compassion is the feeling of concern for oneself’s and another sentient being’s suffering, which is accompanied by the motivation to help. The follower of the Eightfold Path establishes together all facets of the path: the practice of sīla (ethics or morality), samādhi (concentration), and paññā (wisdom).  There is a stable unification when the natural mind, the calm established mind, and the knowing mind are together as one. Each of the three aspects supports the others like the three legs of a tripod.

Meditation Retreat

4 Dec

My weekend retreat began similar to others I had attended at the Buddhadharma Center, in a pleasant suburban setting about 30 miles outside Chicago, Illinois. I arrived by car on a sunny, summer Friday afternoon with my sleeping bag, meditation pillow, mat and a small bag of clothes and toothbrush/shampoo and towel. I was grateful to again have an opportunity to practice a few days of Mindfulness meditation in a supportive and relaxed atmosphere.

As I walked into the renovated small church, now temple, I was greeted by the friendly smiling faces of volunteers who were going to provide us visitors with delicious Thai vegetarian meals as well as evening tea and cookies. One of the helpers showed me to the large room where the male meditators would be sleeping and, looking around the sparsely furnished room, I found a spot where there wasn’t an open sleeping bag on the floor and, firstly, I put my mat down and then on top of it, my sleeping bag. Next to my sleeping bag I set down my clothes bag.  No one else was in the room.

Shortly after setting up my ‘bedroom’ I heard a bell ringing which meant for all participants to go to the main Temple room. Leaving the ‘bedroom’, I put my shoes back on and walked up stairs where there were already about thirty people, men and women, young and older, sitting. I again took my shoes off and went into the Temple room, which, in the front, on a small stage, had a large gold painted statue of the Buddha, beautiful flowers on both sides and three monks in light brown robes were sitting quietly in front of the Buddha statue. With my meditation pillow in hand I found a comfortable spot, sat down on my pillow and quietly focused on my breathing and centering myself in this new situation after a three hour drive.

Everyone sat quietly. I heard birds chirping in the field outside. There was a pleasant smell of incense and the light whirling sound of the three ceiling fans. My meditation weekend had begun. After about ten minutes, one of the monks went to the microphone and greeted everyone and then gave a short talk on the five precepts, which is the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers, that we were expected to observe during the retreat. He said that the precepts were meant to provide a harmonious situation for the best practice of meditation and cooperation among all the participants. The five precepts are

  1. Not to harm living beings

  2. Not to steal

  3. Not to participate in sexually harmful behavior

  4. Not to lie

  5. Not to take alcohol or other intoxicating drugs

After this short introductory talk and ‘Taking the Precepts’, we all participated, for an hour, in first chanting and then sitting meditation. After that we had individual time during which I went to the Temple’s small bookshop where I browsed through the titles. With the again ringing of the bell, we were informed that lunch was ready for us so everyone went to the auditorium area where tables had been set up and we chose our lunch of Thai cooking, buffet style. Sitting at tables with our food, we all ate silently and mindfully. After lunch, the program had a pause and I went outside behind the temple where there was an acre of lawn with neat rows of different fruit trees. Sitting in the warm sun, I enjoyed my contentment of the moment.

So that day and the next two included the following: mindfully meditating on loving kindness, walking, sitting, yoga, chanting; Dhamma instruction by the monks followed by Q&A; individual time to read, write, think, rest, and eating nourishing and tasty vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch and refreshments in the evenings. All activities were done in silence to help keep our focus on the here and now and to quiet the mind and body. As in previous retreats, I noticed a gradual transformation of my mind/body condition. With the meditation practices, the instructive Dhamma talks and peaceful environment, my mind/body began to shed the stress and tension of everyday life and I began to melt into a deeper state of present awareness and mindful absorption.

On the last day, in the late morning, during walking meditation, I chose to walk outside among the trees. It was a beautiful warm sunny day. I began my walking meditation by finding a place where I could walk unhampered for about ten yards. I started walking slowly, mindful of each step, keeping my gaze forward, right foot rises and falls, left foot rises and falls. Arriving at the end, stop, stand and turn, begin walking again. And so it went for about twenty minutes. Then, intuitively, I shifted to a standing meditation by just standing and gazing out without a particular concentration. At this moment I had a wonderful, profound transformative experience. I stood without thinking, without a subject/object split. I experienced a state of profound freedom and deep happiness and relief. I was ‘one’ with existence. I realized that my ‘happiness’ was dependent not on the external but on my internal state. I experienced a sense of timelessness. Without attempting to keep ‘creating’ my experience but only to continue to allow it, my ‘pure experience’ continued for possibly fifteen minutes until I felt the need to return to the schedule of the retreat. After that, my continued meditation and ‘mundane’ activities had a continued profound peacefulness and ‘selflessness’. When I ate, I just ate, when I walked, I just walked. I had a sensitive awareness of everything/everybody. Even in the rolling up of my sleeping bag, my experience was as the Japanese philosopher Nishida wrote, “In pure experience there is no prior or posterior, no inner or outer; no experience precedes or generates experience” and (there is) “not the slightest interval between the intention and the act.”. There was only the rolling up of the bag, an oneness of action.

After having had this lovely transformative experience, later the retreat ended, I drove home and went back to work the next day. However, my transformed understanding of ‘myself’, happiness and the ‘oneness’ of life has remained deep for me and has continued to be a spiritual inspiration, guide and direction in my life as well as has my continued meditation and Dhamma study. Practically, I have continued to explore how to relieve myself from the burdens of the ‘virtual’ self and the accumulation of objects which, in the past, was a vain and destructive attempt to find happiness in ‘things’. I now understand how to better resist the obsessions that our modern mass consumption society attempts to create in our minds. Also, I have since adopted a voluntary simplicity to my life both for ethical and environmental concerns as well as for my own happiness. I try to create environments –both physically and emotionally – which nurture kindness and wisdom. Last, but not least, I continue to try to be mindful, accepting, compassionate and sensitive to my own being and to other living beings.

Reflecting back on my meditation experience, I understand that there was nothing ‘special’ about its creation, indeed, only the correct conditions caused what took place. A deep, spiritual, life altering transformation is available to anyone who is willing to devote time to study and practice, have a “beginner’s mind” and finds wise teachers.

With metta

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The Buddha’s teachings are merely helpful means, ways of looking at sensory experience that helps us to understand it. They are not commandments, they are not religious dogmas that we have to accept or believe in. They are merely guides to point to the way things are. So we are using the Buddha’s teachings to grasp them as an end in themselves, but only to remind ourselves to be awake, alert, and aware that all that arises passes away. This is a continuous, constant observation and reflection on the sensory world, because the sensory world has a powerfully strong influence. Having a body like this with the society we live in, the pressures on all of us are fantastic. Everything moves so quickly – television and the technology of the age, the cars – everything tends to move at a very fast pace. It is all very attractive, exciting and interesting, and it all pulls your senses out. Just notice when you go to London how all adverts pull your attention out to whiskey bottles and cigarettes! Your attention is pulled into things you can buy, always going towards rebirth into sensory experience. The materialistic society tries to arouse greed so you will spend your money, and yet never be contented with what you have. There is always something better, something newer, something more delicious than what was the most delicious yesterday… it goes on and on and on, pulling you out into objects of the senses like that. Using wisdom by watching the impulses, and understanding them. That which observes greed is not greed: greed cannot observe itself, but that which is not greed can observe it. This observing is what we call ‘Buddha’ or ‘Buddha wisdom’- awareness of the way things are.  Ajahn Sumedho

In agreement with Ajahn Sumedho, I would just add that since he wrote the above passage in 1987, modern society has become even faster, more hectic and stimuli bound with the continual evasiveness of technology in everyone’s life. Of course, the newer technology includes mobile phones, computers, electronic games, computer social networking, TV screens everywhere, MP3 players, bigger, brighter high definition TV, DVDs, CDs, 3D movies, etc., etc.. The adverts and sensory impingements are becoming more sophisticated in their intensity and appeal as well as it’s availability. So his critique of not only the powerful impact of the growing hyper sensory world is very relevant but also his observation on the greed factor because adverts and the drive behind most of the technology is create desire and to sell, sell, sell. Rodger
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To continue this line of thought is a piece from Alan Watt’s book, “The Wisdom of Insecurity” while published in 1951 his observation is just as valid: “Thus the ‘brainy’ economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse – providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve cells with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect ‘subject’ for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ear with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. (Of course, now update to smartphone) His eyes flit without rest from the television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity – shock treatments- as ‘ human interest’ shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.”