Saturday, December 14, 2013

HfM:Ch9 Emancipation from the World

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World

The goal of vipassana (clear insight) practice is to end dukkha, transcending the worldly condition into the "supra-mundane" plane.

To understand that, let's look at the mundane plane.  It has three levels:
  1. Sensual: Contented in the various pleasures of the senses
  2. Forms: Contented in concentrating on various forms
  3. Formless: Contented in concentrating on concepts

All mundane beings, from earthly beasts to celestial beings, operate at these levels. Without active consideration, most beings settle into the sensual level as a default.

During the Buddha's time, several people had devoted themselves to maintaining the higher levels of the mundane plane. However, their concentration left them as nothing more than blissful rocks or logs, and they still struggled with desires and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, there are levels on the supra-mundane plane on the path to enlightenment; the Fruit of the Path. They are:
  1. The Stream-Enterer (sotapanna)
  2. The Once-Returner (sakadagami)
  3. The Non-Returner (anagami)
  4. The Perfected Individual (arahant)

An individual at these supra-mundane levels is known as an ariya. The level you are at corresponds to the level of release on has from the mundane world. This release is judged by assessing the Ten Fetters; ten subtle ties to the world. Once you are free of these fetters, you are truly free indeed. They are:
  1. Self-belief: Dropping the misconception that the body and mind are your self. (What is meant by self, and why it doesn't really exist, was discussed in Chapter 6)
  2. Doubt: Liberation from the uncertainty that the Buddhist path is the right and true path.
  3. Superstition: Releasing the misunderstanding that rules, rites, rituals, or objects hold some sort of special power.

When these first three fetters have been cut, a person has become an ariya at the level of the Stream-Enterer. They have been released from the most basic levels of bondage, and have entered the stream which will flow on to nirvana.

The next level of the supra-mundane comes after attenuating greed, hatred, and delusion to such a degree that there is only a feeble attachment to sensuality remaining. At this point, the ariya becomes a Once-Returner, as such a person will likely only dip back into the mundane worldliness only once.
  1. Sensuality: The attachment to and satisfaction in sensual things is completely extinguished.
  2. Ill-Will: All anger, resentment, hatred, annoyance, etc. are vanquished.

These two fetters are two sides of the same coin. Sensuality results from satisfaction, while ill-will results from dissatisfaction.

Once an ariya has released themselves of these first five fetters, they are said to be a Non-Returner, for they will never again return to the mundane worldliness, but instead will continue progress to nirvana.
  1. Bliss of Concentration on Objects with Form: Becoming free of the allure of deep concentration on object forms.
  2. Bliss of Concentration on Formless Objects: Similar to the sixth fetter, but instead pertaining to concentration on things like concepts, space, emptiness, etc.
  3. Awareness of Superiority or Inferiority: Ridding yourself of the delusion of having a status that is better or worse relative to another, further transcending the notions of "good" and "bad".
  4. Agitation of the Mind: Developing a mind that is not perturbed by sensory inputs.

An ariya having attained liberation from these nine fetters may still have some curiosity or inquisitiveness about things, but someone who has attained nirvana has no such interest in anything. In such an enlightened person, partiality is abolished, and nothing can provoke him or her to interest or action, even in the face of deadly circumstances. With the nine fetters cut, and advancing toward nirvana, the ariya is known as an arahant.
  1. Ignorance: Ending your ignorance. That is not done by knowing all things, but rather by knowing, and intuitively understanding, the true nature of things. Ending ignorance is about truly understanding dukkha. Ignorance will have you misidentifying suffering as pleasure, misidentifying the causes of pain and misfortune as being spirits or celestial beings, and misidentifying different levels of concentration or feeling as nirvana. Ignorance will have you pursuing non-essential knowledge, possibly making you even more deluded in the process.

A person who has cut these ten fetters has truly transcended the worldly condition; achieving nirvana. Nirvana is the canceling out of the worldly condition. It is the realm which is free of all conditional things, and therefore it is the end of dukkha and a complete, true freedom. It is the goal of Buddhism.

My Take

At the end of the book here, we get a little bit more information about what this nirvana thing is all about, at least according to Buddhadasa's Buddhism.  I've made references to Spock-like behavior, but, based on this chapter and all of the preceding content, let's push a little deeper...

What is this nirvana?  What kind of "bliss" can be expected from it?

In short, this nirvana is about causes and effects.

Consider all of the different stimuli which provoke you to into actions.  Often times, it's nearly an automatic process, like scratching an itch.  Other times, stimuli are strong influences, like browsing the dessert menu and seeing one of your favorites... chances are you'll end up getting that slice of cheesecake.  And, of course, there is an entire spectrum of other stimuli which coerce or provoke you into action.  Or, if not into action, perhaps they provoke you to think about them, hijacking your mind for some time.

In a sense, this provocation in the face of different stimuli is a type of bondage or slavery.  You react in a manner which, while it may appear to you to be under control, is actually controlled by the stimuli around you.  What you determined to do through logical evaluation is impeded, or even halted, as you become diverted or distracted by the influences around you.

Attaining nirvana means that you no longer respond to stimuli in a manner which is not first vetted by your logical mind, and your mind is operating in a condition which is free of any emotional influences.  You become fully in control of you.  So the associated bliss comes from the harmony of intuitively knowing the Three Universal Characteristics and of being independent of the influence of stimuli to the extent that your will alone determines your actions.  That is true freedom.

Or so the story goes.

And a story Buddhism is, not to be dismissive of it.  It's actually a pretty powerful story.  It's what leads some Buddhists into absolutely selfless, altruistic actions without consideration for their own safety, such as self-immolation to make political statements for the good of the general population.  These demonstrations prove that the state of nirvana is real and achievable, at least to a certain extent.  Obviously we can't tell much about the cycle segments of afterlife and rebirth from our temporal perspective.  ;-)

Yet Buddhism is not unique in its ability to prompt people into altruistic action, in either the extreme sense of self sacrifice, or otherwise.

As Buddhadasa said in the first chapter, Buddhism is best viewed as a religion.  Sure, it's quite different from the other major religions.  There's no attempt to placate some powerful deity, at least in Buddhadasa's version.  But even his version carries with it the key component of what makes a religion a religion; faith.

As we saw in the previous chapter, as well as this one, the elimination of doubt in Buddhism is part of the process.  We could say that eliminating doubt comes as a natural fruit of progress along the Buddhist path.  However, that defense falls apart given the prominence of elimination; it's purification #4 in the Seven Purifications, and fetter #2 of the Ten Fetters.

In other words, you commit yourself to believing in the religion before the religion provides its deepest proofs.  You buy into the worldview presented by the religion, and that is what helps you progress within it.  That's a common thread in all religions.

Religious faith aside, I find certain aspects of Buddhism practical and valuable to consider in everyday life.  I won't be setting myself on fire anytime soon, but I think there are some things which can really help live a more productive, and, perhaps, even a more enriched life.  I'm not talking about nirvana here, but it'll still be pretty damn good.  :-)

I'll write a post in the future concerning the lessons to learn from Buddhism.  Cheers!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

HfM:Ch8 Insight by Formal Training

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 8: Insight by Formal Training here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 8: Insight by Formal Training

Formalized training methods were developed by later Buddhist teachers. Enlightenment of the Buddha and others came without such training. However, some people believe that formal training makes Buddhism accessible to people with a wider range of innate attributes.

Buddhist training systems are divided into two complementary aspects; gantha-dhura (study) and vipassana-dhura (insight wisdom development). These practices were developed by asking fundamental questions about the path of enlightenment.

Vipassana, meaning clear insight, comes as a fruit of the Seven Purifications. They are:

  1. Moral Purity - Have upright behavior and speech.
  2. Mental Purity - Develop a concentrated, focused mind which is calm and ready to think.
  3. Perspective Purity - Eliminate false views which are inconsistent with the true nature of things. Know the Three Universal Characteristics, the Five Aggregates, etc.
  4. Confidence Purity - Doubt is eliminated by the understanding of the true nature of things.
  5. Path Vision Purity - Discernment is made of what is and what is not the Path to enlightenment. (There are several levels, or stages, of development, which are sometimes mistaken as the pinnacle of achievement, and sometimes there are other ancillary developmental benefits which people chase after because they mistakenly believe them to the purpose of development.)
  6. Progress Purity - With the Path clearly identified, progress is achieved along that Path.
  7. Insight Purity - The true nature of things becomes inherently intuitive in all circumstances, leading to Nirvana.

Later Buddhist teachers identified the progress (referencing the sixth Purification above) one makes along the Path in nine steps as follows:

  1. Concentrated introspection develops the insight that everything is involved in a perpetual cycle of arising and decaying.
  2. The decaying aspect of all things is focused on, such that it can be seen in its complete depth, recognizing that all things are in a state of perishing and disillusionment.
  3. Seeing the decay in all things at all times leads to an intense apprehension, or fear, of all things.
  4. This apprehension leads to the recognition of the emotional danger of becoming involved in things.
  5. Seeing the inherent danger of all things leads to complete disenchantment with them all.
  6. With that disenchantment comes an intense desire to be free of all things.
  7. That desire leads to an internal struggle to further weaken the bondage of the mind to things.
  8. Ridding ourselves of the bondage to things, we become imperturbable and achieve equanimity.
  9. The mind is then ready to perfect the progress and achieve Nirvana.

Following this system, vipassana can be gained. In turn, the mind can be freed from all dukkha because all cravings and desires will cease. Such a status is Nirvana, and it is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

One final note: Be wary of teachers who have distorted the meaning of vipassana for the purpose of making a profit.

My Take

Reading Buddhadasa's words here, and combining them with those from the previous chapter, I got a sense that he has a level of disdain for formalized systems, but he recognizes them as a "necessary evil" that helps some people. This view is likely born from his own experience, where his own will and determination led him to become a self-taught "enlightened" individual, without the aid of a professional teacher.

On the other hand, while Buddhadasa didn't care for these formal systems, his language appeared to indicate an agreement in principle with the Seven Purifications and the nine steps of progress along the Path.

With the Seven Purifications and the nine steps of progress laid out clearly for examination, we can get a sense of what it takes to become enlightened. It's an extreme form of mental reprogramming where you get broken down to nothing and rebuilt with "right" views:

  • See how nothing lasts.
  • See that everything causes some form of dissatisfaction
  • See how "you" are nothing more than the summation of causes and their effects.

Meditate and focus on these "facts" until nothing is desirable. Then you won't care what you have or what you are, so you'll be fine with whatever happens to you.

It seems that, in a manner of speaking, the goal is to become the ultimate pessimist. Come to accept how broken and imperfect everything is, because none of it really amounts to anything anyway. Not only accept it, but relish in it, because such a view creates a certain level of freedom in that you can do what you want to do without the distraction of worldly desires, and without the fear of failure.

Can it "work"? Can someone really achieve the imperturbable equanimity, the calm bliss of Nirvana? I have no doubt; as surely as the mind can be programmed and reprogrammed.

The more important question is this: Is it worth it?

It you think that you are fated to a perpetual cycle of birth, life, death, afterlife, birth, life, etc., and this is your only way of getting out of that cycle, then, maybe. It seems like a truly rational goal, if you are totally committed to eliminating your dukkha once and for all.

Yet that perspective is challenged by other questions, such as:

  • Is all dukkha really undesirable?
  • Is there an optimal balance to be had between disenchantment and engagement that falls short of enlightenment, yet yields a truly rich (depth, not wealth) and rewarding life?

I wager that the answers to these questions, contrary as they may be to Buddhist philosophy, hold the attainable and desirable truth to leading a fully satisfying life.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

HfM:Ch7 Naturally Occurring Insight

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 7: Naturally Occurring Insight here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 7: Naturally Occurring Insight

Natural concentration is normally sufficient and appropriate for gaining insight. Of course, the type of deep concentration that can developed through formalized practice can yield insight, but it can also become an impediment to insight if one is not careful.

In the Scriptures, there are many references to people gaining enlightenment without any of the later-developed, formalized concentration practices, such as with the Buddha's first five disciples. Such concentration happens naturally, like when doing arithmetic or when aiming a gun at a target. It is not magical or miraculous, but it is powerful, and more than adequate enough to develop liberating insight, or can become adequate with some cultivation.

Joy comes with natural insight. You can have joy by doing good deeds, and increase joy by acting morally. There is also a joy associated with a concentrated mind.

Our minds are naturally restless, but as we learn to cultivate our ability to focus and concentrate, tranquility and calm will proportionately increase, preparing us to eliminate our misunderstandings.

We are not talking about achieving a deep level concentration such that the mind is silent and devoid of awareness. In fact, such deep concentration is an obstacle to insight. Instead, we are talking about a level of concentration where the mind is calm, focused, and ready to think introspectively without distraction. This is the natural, even mundane, level of concentration used by several disciples in the early Scriptures.

Our individual progress through such naturally occurring concentration will vary from one person to another, based on several influencing factors. However, as long as we work toward understanding the Five Aggregates (physical matter, feelings, recognition, thinking, and consciousness), our studies will surely be beneficial in coming to understand the true nature of things.

The true nature of things is found in the Three Universal Characteristics (all things are transient, not fully satisfying, and lacking self). It is found in understanding that nothing is truly worth desiring or owning, and no status is worth becoming or being, because there is no object and no status which does not come with its own type of associated dukkha (refer to Chapter 2 for the definition of dukkha). There will be a struggle to get, a struggle to be free of, or a struggle to maintain any thing and any status.

Skeptics may ask: "If we give up striving to have or to be anything, how would we exist?" This objection is founded in misunderstanding. We are referring to ridding ourselves of the desires that are based on misunderstandings, the type that cause us dukkha in its many forms, the type that enslaves the mind to a perpetual cycle of desire and causes us great distress.

We must work to rise above this level of foolish desires so that we can get, have, be, or become without any type of attachment to any object or any status, for that which we cling to or grasp at ultimately hurts us in some way and all the time; before, during, and after. Even clinging to goodness comes with its own form of dukkha.

Skeptics may object: "If nothing is worth having or being, then it's pointless to work, build wealth, or have property." This objection is also based on misunderstanding. In fact, those who are enlightened are better positioned to have and be, because their decisions will be based on objective, mindful evaluations as opposed to foolish desires.

If we look at the example set by the Buddha and his early enlightened disciples, they made great accomplishments. Instead of being motivated by mundane desires, they were motivated by wisdom coupled with metta, and this allowed for discernment of what was worthwhile to do. (Metta is translated here as universal love, but I wonder if "benevolence" may be a better translation than "love", which can mean so many things.) Even bodily needs were handled with this discernment; eating and treating illness as a reasonable means to sustain life, yet not being upset if food was not available, or if the illness couldn't be treated.

Enlightened people acting from wisdom and metta can do consistently and persistently far more good for others than anyone else. They recognize that there is no self, and so their actions are purely selfless, lacking all selfishness. Knowing that nothing is truly worth having or being, they can get or become without being slaves to any thing or any status, having tranquil equanimity regardless of what happens. Those who truly understand that nothing is worth having or being are encouraged by that knowledge.

When we get or become something, we should keep in mind that we can never truly get or become something, because everything is transient. Furthermore, all things are not fully satisfying. Yet we grasp at them foolishly, being slaves to our desires. That selfish motivation prevents us from being consistently good, fair, honest, etc. Through Buddhism we can be liberated from this bondage. The only way we can truly achieve anything is through gaining insight of the Three Universal Characteristics.

We are things only in terms of relative truth. Convenient conventions give us titles and roles, but we are not truly those things, as is commonly assumed. Such assumptions drive people to inappropriate actions in the hopes of becoming or maintaining a status.

Similarly, we possess things only in terms of relative truth, because we can't truly possess anything. Yet our custom is to be overly concerned with what belongs to whom, and we cling to the thought of things being mine. In this way, the things we have and desire tend to lord over our minds.

However, we should recognize that these are relative truths, and behave towards what we are, or work to become, or have, or work to have, in an appropriate manner; we are or have these things simply for convenience and ease. That way, they will be slaves to us, not the other way around.

As we gain insight, there comes with it a proportional level of disenchantment from things. The romanticized images fade away, and we see things as they truly are. And with that disillusionment comes freedom, because we are no longer driven to chase our clumsy, base desires.

With enough insight, we rid ourselves of the defilement of desires, becoming truly free and pure. This yields a state of peaceful, imperturbable equanimity, which is essentially Nirvana.

Nirvana has been translated as "absence of any instrument of torture" and "extinction without remainder". Together, these definitions express the elimination of both the source of suffering and the means of suffering to arising again.

Other Buddhist sects interpret Nirvana differently, including even as the absorption into deep concentration or the complete immersion in sensuality. However, the Buddha defined Nirvana as total freedom from bondage, torment, and suffering.

Nirvana results from the insight of the true nature of things. We can either cultivate this insight naturally, or we can engage in a formalized training system to develop it. Some people excel under a formalized system, but it is not necessary.

You have the means to develop insight naturally, simply by living pure and honestly, and reflecting upon the nature of things in all circumstances. You can break free of blind desires, and the dukkha that they yield, by applying natural, or slightly enhanced, concentration to the events in your life in consideration of the Three Universal Characteristics. This can provide perpetual joy in work and in leisure, yielding a mind that is calm, focused, and truly free.

My Take

This was an interesting, if meandering, chapter on Buddhadasa's Buddhist philosophy. I felt that much of its content should have been included in earlier chapters. Anyway, let's talk about some of that content.

Do it yourself; that was the main thrust of this chapter. Not only can you do it yourself, you may actually have better results doing it yourself than by going through a formalized Buddhist training system. This is the antithesis of the jargon peddled by most spiritual leaders, who emphasize needing right (in other words, "their") teaching such that you must come back to them, the "church" or other formalized institution, or some other means of extracting a regular financial support from you. That's a refreshing point of view.

Mixed in that message, we've got the strange insertion of answers to a couple of skeptical questions, which would seem better placed earlier in the book. The answers Buddhadasa provides here essentially align with my earlier conjecture (in the "My Take" section of the Three Universal Characteristics); that the way to think of the status of having eliminated desires is somewhat analogous to being like Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek. It's all about letting logic be your guide, not emotional desires.

But, speaking of desires, there was a particularly challenging sentence to make sense of in this chapter:

    "Regardless of whether we are hoping for worldly benefits, such as wealth, position and fame, or for benefits in the next world, such as rebirth in heaven, or for the ultimate benefit, the final Fruit of the Path, nirvana - whatever we are hoping for, the only way to achieve it is by means of this right knowledge [of the true nature of things] and insight."

In that passage, Buddhadasa appeared to be promoting desires! How else do you interpret achieving what "we are hoping for" while including worldly benefits? This one, lonely expression seems quite counter to what he had said everywhere else. He had consistently voiced that we should desire for insight, and that such insight would extinguish all other desires. Such language is even included in the paragraph from where this sentence was taken! Furthermore, it seemed odd that worldly desires would being included here, given that they can be "achieved" without special knowledge or insight. So I thought I'd offer alternate explanations than what comes at first glance:

  1. The knowledge and insight of the true nature of things are the foundation for everything else.
  2. We must recognize true achievements in perspective of the knowledge and insight of the true nature of things.
  3. The only way to truly achieve anything is through development of the knowledge and insight of the true nature of things.
  4. Though we may think that we are achieving things in this life, the true knowledge and insight suggest differently, and so we must know the true nature of things to view achievements in the right perspective.

Much like one of the Three Universal Truths suggests, I'm not completely satisfied with any of these interpretations, and, in light of the teaching rest of the book, I can't help but wonder if Buddhadasa would have redacted this sentence in a subsequent revision, or at least clarified it. Or, perhaps there is something lost in translation here. Or, perhaps this is just an indication that I don't understand Buddhadasa's teaching as much as I think I do! ;-)

Finally, let's touch on Nirvana. We're finally got some more information, more hints, of what Nirvana is supposed to be about, at least according to Buddhadasa. As I extrapolate it, it's this:

    Spock-like, logic-ruled mindset + equanimity bliss = Nirvana

You choose your actions based on logic. Your mental status doesn't change, regardless of the circumstances, events, or outcomes. This logical, perpetually calm mindset brings about an imperturbable, quiet joy, peace, and contentment. When you have achieved this level, you will never go back.

Getting to that level is what (Buddhadasa's) Buddhism is all about. And getting there requires developing intuitive-level insight about the true nature of things.

We'll chat more about Nirvana, the path to it, and its practicality (or lack thereof) in Chapter 9.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

HfM:Ch6 The Things We Cling To

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 6: The Things We Cling To here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 6: The Things We Cling To

We cling to the world, but most of us are only familiar with the superficial layer of relative truth. While the world is more than just our realm, our problem lies within our realm.

Our realm is made of Five Aggregates; the physical aspect and four mental aspects. The four mental aggregates are:
  • Feeling - pleasure, displeasure, neutrality
  • Recognition - awareness of things through the senses
  • Thinking - active thoughts, both willed and not willed
  • Consciousness - comprehension of what is sensed or thought

These aggregates are the basis for our desires, our forms of attachment, discussed in the prior chapter.

Our understanding of these aggregates is reflected by our concept of a self. At the lowest level, a person may kick a door that he painfully bumped into, as if to retaliate to the door itself for causing him pain. Those at higher levels may cling to the thinking aspect as being their true self.

    Feeling is the most common level where people cling to the concept of self. We are all seduced by pleasures and delights of the senses; focusing on things, grasping at them, and considering them to be mine. The effect of gain or loss, happiness or sorrow, pleasure or pain, is to drive the mind to cling to or repel from the source of that feeling. In other words, our feelings have control over our minds. This concept is so fundamental that truly understanding how feelings control the mind can lead you to enlightenment, so it is worthy of introspective study. Consider how feeling compels us to do the majority of our activities. We tend to invest all of our resources into attaining pleasure in one form or another. Feeling is why we study and why we work. It is no small matter. By understanding how feelings control the mind, we can better conduct our own activities as well as better understand the motivations of the struggles and conflicts of those around us; everything from minor interpersonal disputes up to and including wars. Even devotion to doctrines fall short of the enslaving power of feelings. Celestial beings and gods are still attached to pleasure in one form or another. And, of course, animals are slaves of pleasure in an even more crude form.

    There is a line of belief that the part of you which is aware and that receives sensations is your real self. However, recognition is simply a natural process of sensation and memory; as is demonstrated by how things which disrupt bodily functions can alter recognition. Recognition, then, is clearly not a self.

    Some people cling to the part of active thinking being their self; that which plans, intends, reasons, etc. This misunderstanding is seen in Descartes' expression "I think, therefore I am." However, Buddha taught that our thoughts are simply causal events, the results of interaction with prior events. When we think, we jump to the conclusion that there must be a thinker, or a soul; a master of the body. This is due to our inadequate understanding. Examining these Five Aggregates will show you that there is nothing remaining which can be considered to be a self.

    Some regard the part that fully and collectively comprehends senses and thoughts to be the self. However, Buddhists reject this notion, considering this process also to be natural. We take in stimuli and interpret those stimuli as objects in a mechanical, automatic function. No self needs to intervene. What else is there besides the physical body, feelings, recognition, thinking, and consciousness which could be called a self? Nothing. No one is a self.

We have been clinging to things since birth, but if we thoroughly examine the Five Aggregates, we will come to realize that there is no self in us, or in anything. Rational thought can help us realize that there are no true selves, but we need to develop deeper understanding such that it becomes intuitive insight; thereby making all clinging cease.

This is difficult to understand because, from birth, everything we experience reinforces the idea of self. Instinctively we identify ourselves and strive for self-preservation. Our speech identifies ourselves and others as selves; I, she, Mr. X, Ms. Y, etc. Inherently, as we cling to the concept of self, selfishness develops. This concept is a deception. We must realize that this speech and these thoughts are a facade of social intercourse. Mr. X and Ms. Y, and ourselves, are no more than the sum total of body, feeling, recognition, thinking, and consciousness.

The body can be further broken done, revealing just a collection of elements; earth, water, wind, and fire, or even their modern analogs of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. In those elements is no person, no self. "My child", "my husband", "my wife", etc. are all just summations of elements, physical and mental; each element empty of a self. Indeed, everything is empty of self. When this is intuitively understood, all grasping and clinging will cease.

So, by developing an intuitive understanding of these Five Aggregates, via the Threefold Training of morality, concentration, and wisdom, we will put an end to the Four Attachments of sensuality, opinions, rites and rituals, and the concept of self. Desire, unskilful grasping and clinging, will cease, and we will no longer experience dukkha. This will bring perpetual bliss and freedom to the mind that achieves such a state.

My Take

I am tempted to say that this was the most import chapter in the book. Why? Because throughout the other chapters, the need to realize that there is no self has been emphasized time and again as essentially the summation of the path to enlightenment, yet the reasoning behind the argument of there being no self had only been mentioned in brief. Furthermore, the concept of what was really meant by "self" was not clear until this chapter. So to me, this is a foundational teaching, and, had I been writing the book, I probably would have tried to position this teaching earlier, even if this is considered a "deeper" concept.

No self. Indeed, that appears to be the conclusion that the biological sciences has been driving towards, and doing so at an accelerated rate particularly in the past few decades as neuroscience has been supplemented with powerful tools such as MRI, DNA analysis, and an enhanced understanding of biochemistry. With insight like this, the Buddha seems to have been a true prophet, or at least a keen observer of the human condition.

This idea of no self is, perhaps, the hardest concept for most people to come to terms with, especially those of other faiths. It is a purely materialistic point of view. There is no soul, no spirit. There is only the biological, electrical, and chemical machinery of a self-replicating being with an inclination for self-preservation. This is about as atheistic a view as you can get, and I felt that I could solidly understand what Buddhadasa was saying.

Yet this "atheistic" view was tainted by Buddhadasa himself, as he made reference to celestial beings and gods having an addiction to pleasurable feelings. And there had been earlier brief and nuanced references in the book about the cycle of birth, death, and subsequent rebirth. In fact, a more-direct footnote included my hard copy book (not in the online version) way back in Chapter 2 said that:
"The Fruit of the Path [of attaining Buddhist enlightenment] consists of spiritual attainments that decrease [our misunderstandings of the truth] and guarantee full realization of Nirvana within seven lifetimes or less."
Seven lifetimes? How can there be no self, if there is a self which survives the end of your life to be reborn? This seems like an irreconcilable contradiction to this fundamental teaching of Buddhism. Yet what it really is is an artifact of the religious evolution from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Rebirth is a "fact" in many flavors of Hinduism, with some divisions emphasizing it more than others. Buddhism evolved from that tradition, considering rebirth a fact as well.

There are many diverse considerations of what controls the station of rebirth in both Hinduism and Buddhism, but in Buddhadasa's interpretation of the Buddha's teachings of the matter, which is only hinted at in this book, is that it is our desires which cause us to be reborn. We cling to things from our lives, and so we come back, trying to get them again. And so, when we eliminate desire, we will eliminate rebirth, and thus eternally be free of all dukkha.

So we find what could be a completely secular perspective hopelessly entangled with a religious faith of something that persists beyond death. I can't disprove rebirth any more than I can disprove the existence of a god, but I don't think that a faith in rebirth is necessary to reap some benefit from the core Buddhist teachings. But I've rambled on long enough here. We'll discuss how to use these teachings to our advantage later.

On a final note, while I felt that this chapter worked wonders in providing some fundamental understanding, I still did not have a clear picture of what Nirvana was. Or, more particularly, I couldn't quite understand how eliminating desires led to anything that could really be called bliss.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Debate Tip #7: Sum It Up

I think that one of the most frustrating things about any communication is when it appears that the person you are talking to does not have a clue of what you just said.  At the same level of annoyance is when that person does not appear to even have considered what you've said.  It is a fundamental sign of respect to illustrate that you have understood what you have been told and considered it, even if you disagree with it.

Show that respect.  The more respect you provide your opponent, the more likely they are to show respect to you, and actually consider what you are saying.

So, when your opponent states a position one way or another, take a moment to summarize what your opponent just said in the reply.  This helps to ensure that you actually know what your opponent meant, because he or she will have the chance to correct you.  It also demonstrates to them that you have actually considered their words.

Then proceed to rip their position to shreds with countering facts... doing so in a respectful manner, of course.  ;-)

You don't have to do this with every reply.  Just do so as it feels necessary.  Once you have done this on your own two or three times, you will be in a better position to ask them to do the same for you, if they haven't already picked up the trend of doing so.

If they appear to be completely ignoring your points, just kindly say something like "I am not sure that you fully understand my position.  Would you mind summarizing my point(s) and elaborating on why you object to them?"  Through this act, they will be forced to reconsider your position, or, alternately, you will be able to see where their misunderstanding/mental impediment is in understanding you.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

HfM:Ch5 The Threefold Training

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 5: The Threefold Training here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 5: The Threefold Training

You can eliminate dukkha through the Threefold Training.  (Dukkha is an all-inclusive sense of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, defined in Chapter 2.)  The three steps are:
  1. Morality - Controlling your actions and speech to promote peace and harmony, and to avoid undesirable effects.
  2. Concentration - Constraining the mind such that it is fit to do its work.
  3. Wisdom -  Developing the complete understanding (insight) of the true nature of things.
The "understanding" should not be thought of in the sense of either rational cognition or a conceptualization relative to each individual's experience.  Instead, it is a status of penetrating and intuitive-level wisdom, such that all things are inherently considered for what they truly are without any sense of enchantment, attachment, or bias whatsoever.

An intellectual understanding only provides the means to evaluate each desire as it comes; reasoning through the Three Universal Characteristics to become disenchanted.  However, with genuine insight, disenchantment has replaced desire at the most fundamental level, such that desire never arises.

Training in morality provides a foundation for gaining insight, because a moral mindset provides stability and limits perturbations.

Training in concentration is similar to training in morality, but instead of controlling your speech and actions, the goal is to control the mind.  "Good behavior" for the mind is unwavering, undistracted, deep concentration.  When successfully trained, this level of mind control is accompanied by other special abilities and benefits which are far outside the realm of what comes with naturally occurring or normally developed concentration.  To achieve this level of concentration requires endurance of hardships and intense training.

Training on concentration is even more relevant today than back in the time of Buddha, given the pace of our modern lives and our many distractions.  Such concentration will make all of our efforts more effective.

With the mind concentrated, we are prepared to see things the way they really are.  Often, the answer to a problem exists within our subconscious, but as long as we actively try to solve the problem, the answer will not come because the mind is not fit for its work.  Once the mind is concentrated, that subconscious solution becomes readily available.  Or, if there was no subconscious answer present, concentrated introspection will put us in the right mode to examine the problem and arrive at the solution.  The Buddha was in such a concentrated state before becoming enlightened to the true nature of things.

Solutions come when the mind is calm, undisturbed, and well concentrated.  Insight and concentration build off of each other, such that with better concentration, you will have better insight, and with better insight (particularly in understanding the way the mind works) you will have better concentration.

Buddhist wisdom (insight) is the ability to clearly see the reality of everything around you, and with that insight naturally comes detachment.  Outwardly we would appear to behave somewhat normally with things, but inwardly we would be independent and free from the bondage of desiring things we like.

Things we dislike also cause enslavement if we can't remain unmoved by them.  The emotional response to either liking or disliking causes us to be slaves to those things, because we will act according to our desires.  However, through insight, we can be freed and purified from the influence of things.  Freed of that bondage, we will have blissful enlightenment.

Buddhist wisdom gives us the ability to break the shackles of the Four Kinds of Attachment.  Examine the truth of this for yourself.

Buddhism conflicts with no other religion, and yet it is superlative to all others in its ability to eliminate all forms of attachment, completely liberating individuals from the bondage of things and beings such that the individual becomes completely self-reliant.

Buddhism is the universal religion because it deals with the fundamental problem which every being experiences:  it demonstrates how to eliminate dukkha, which is caused by our desires.

My Take

In my opinion, moral behavior is really the foundation for becoming a better person.  No duh, right?!?!  Well, hold on a minute.

I don't mean better as in good or righteous, but better as in a more complete person.  If acting morally becomes intuitive to you, that frees your mind, body, and other resources up even more to do the positive things that you want to do; like study, teach, mentor, volunteer, explore, create, etc.  These are the types of enriching activities which truly make life worthwhile.

In contrast, struggling with moral choices or acting immoral on a regular basis constrains your resources, and, depending on the types of actions, possibly puts you at risk for seriously negative outcomes, such as prison, or even death.

So I can understand the morality-as-a-foundation teaching.

The concentration aspect in this chapter is particularly interesting, because, in most of the book, the difficulties in achieving the "right" level of concentration are somewhat glossed over.  Briefly Buddhadasa mentions having to undergo various hardships during concentration training.  This conjures up one of the classic images of Buddhist rites of passage (at least, classic in my eyes); that of the Monk attempting to meditate while being pummeled by a frigid, two-hundred foot tall waterfall.

I can see the benefit of that kind of training rigor; the if-you-can-focus-here-you-can-focus-anywhere endurance test.  The natural translation is that such training prepares you for any situation.

Yet that seems a little extreme, make that very extreme, for people like me who are trying to gleam the most practical teachings from Buddhism.  I don't think that level of training necessary for us, and, given that Buddhadasa mentions it almost in passing here and all but calls it unnecessary elsewhere in this book, I wonder if he would have felt the same way in general.  But then, I am pretty sure I know how Buddhadasa would feel about me just selectively picking teachings!

So I can certainly see how concentration is necessary for insight.  I just don't think that much concentration is necessary for some benefit.  In fact, in a couple chapters, we'll discuss that idea in greater detail.

On a final note, it was interesting to see Buddhadasa close out the chapter in a fundamentalist/apologist manner, claiming Buddhism to the be universal religion, and better than all others.  Within the confines of Buddhist thought, I can definitely see his point.  But in the grand marketplace of ideas, philosophies, and religions, I'm not so sure that holds up.  Each major religion, from the confines of their doctrinal thought, appears to be the best for the world.  ;-)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Debate Tip #6: Choose Wisely

The wise prevail through great power,
    and those who have knowledge muster their strength.
Surely you need guidance to wage war,
    and victory is won through many advisers. NIV Proverbs 24:5-6

In any one theological debate that you've got the chance to effectively make only one or two points which will leave any kind of lasting impact.  Make that impact matter.  At least, do so whenever you can.  I know, you can't always choose the debate topic, but sometimes you can steer the conversation to something of more substance.

Don't debate a simple Scriptural contradiction.  Nearly every time, those contradictions can be rationalized away.  And if they can't, they'll just be ignored.

I advise against a debate about evolution (unless you're trying to defend teaching it in school!).  For faithful believers who don't believe in evolution, their belief in the Bible is founded on other stuff.  In other words, they believe in Creationism because it aligns with the Bible, not the other way around.  They will surely take God's word over yours!

For the same reason as for evolution, I would advise not debating about whether or not a god exists in general, because their god is not a god, but rather the God.

It comes down to this:  It doesn't matter if evolution is true or if a god exists.  It does matter if the Bible is true and if God exists.  At least, that is the perspective of those who put their faith in that least-read-best-selling Book.

So I would advise that, if you can, you center the debate around God and the Bible.  Not loosely though.  Feel out your opponent.  Get a sense of their core beliefs.  Then pick one or two and demonstrate to them how God or the Bible is not what they perceive it to be on those specific points.  Let other "advisers" argue other points to them, or simply save them for a later debate.

Of course, that does require some strength in Scriptures to do so, but I've made that a little easier for you.  ;-)

Maybe you, like most Christians ;-), have no interest in deeply studying Scripture, but you love evolution or the philosophical realm of knowing how to know if a god exists or doesn't.  That's fine.  Argue your strengths.  But know that 1) your impact on their faith is likely limited, and 2) a similar strategy of trying to find the core for their beliefs, and addressing them specifically, will probably be the most effective strategy as well.

At least, that is my perspective based on my experience in deconversion.  Your mileage may vary.