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.

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