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.