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.

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