Buddhist Philosophy Part II: Impermanence, Suffering and the Illusion of Self

The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the so-called Middle Way, for which Buddhism is perhaps most known for represent the very basic tenets of Buddhism in all its forms.  Within this philosophical framework are included not only a unique perspective on the nature of reality itself which distinguish it from all other theo-philosophical traditions in antiquity, and in modern times, but also the basic guiding principles upon which a good and fulfilling life, and ultimately liberation and “enlightenment”, i.e. nirvana, or the cessation of suffering, can be achieved.

These core Buddhist tenets are primarily understood through a set of sutras referred to as the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, or as it is sometimes translated, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma.  These teachings can be found in the Sutra Pitaka, a section of Pali Canon which is believed to represent the earliest and most authoritative text of Buddhist philosophy.  This teaching, akin to Jesus’s sermon on the mount, is was said to be delivered to five ascetic monks (bhikkhus) with whom he had practiced austerities with after he had renounced his royal heritage and who became his first followers.

As the story is told, upon approaching his former ascetic brethren, given that they recognized that he was no longer following their extreme ascetic ways being that he was fully clothed and well fed, his former friends were at first reluctant to receive him.  However, after seeing him come closer, it was clear that he was a changed man, an enlightened and illumined being of sorts, and henceforth the monks sat and eagerly received his teachings.

Then the Realized One [Tathāgato], monks, in the first watch of the night agreed (to teach) by keeping silent, in the middle watch of the night he took delight in what was to be said, in the last watch of the night he addressed the auspicious group-of-five, (saying):

“There are these two extremes, monks, that one who has gone forth ought not to descend to, which is this: being joined and clinging to the pleasure in sense pleasures, which is low, vulgar, worldly, not very noble, not connected with the goal, not (helpful) for the spiritual life in the future, not leading to world-weariness, dispassion, cessation, deep knowledge, Complete Awakening, and Emancipation [Nirvana]; and this, which is not the middle practice: devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, not connected with the goal, painful in this very life and in the future where it results in pain.

Not having approached either of these two extremes, monks, the Doctrine of the middle practice [Middle Way] is being taught by the Realized One, which is this: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right concentration.

There are these Four Noble Truths, monks.  Which four?  Suffering, the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the practice leading to the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is suffering?  Birth is suffering also old age is suffering also sickness is suffering also death, being joined to what is not dear, being separated from what is dear, is suffering also not to obtain what one seeks for is suffering in brief.  The five constituent parts (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are suffering.  This is said to be suffering.

Herein, what is the arising of suffering?  it is that craving which leads to continuation in existence, which is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is said to be the arising of suffering.

Herein, what is the cessation of suffering?   It is the complete fading away and cessation without remainder of the birth of that craving, which greatly enjoys this and that, and is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is [said to be] the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is the practice leading to the cessation of suffering?  It is the noble eightfold path [Noble Eightfold Path], which is this:

  • right view [samyag-dṛṣṭiḥ],
  • right thought [samyak-saṁkalpaḥ],
  • right speech [samyag-vākright],
  • right action [samyak-karmāntaḥ],
  • right livelihood [samyag-ājīvaḥ],
  • right endeavor [samyag-vyāyāmaḥ],
  • right mindfulness [samyak-smṛtiḥ],
  • right concentration [samyak-samādhir-iti].[1]

What we find here first and foremost in the initial part of his teaching is the fundamental belief that the basic problem of life, the one essential aspect of being to which all mankind is afflicted, is suffering.  Furthermore, he outlines from the very start that his “revelation”, was not just that the nature of being or existence itself was essentially characterized by this notion of suffering (duḥkha in Sanskrit, or dukkha in Pali)[2], but that in fact he had “discovered” the source of this suffering, as well the specific practices and principles by which it could ultimately be eliminated, i.e. what he called the “cessation of suffering”.  These principles and this path, again the so-called “Middle Way”, are referred to as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path represent the cornerstones of Buddha’s teachings, he also lays out a fairly sophisticated metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of his philosophy rests.  Herein lies the philosophic portion of Buddhism, where he defines what he believes to be the true nature of “reality”, the fundamental characteristic of “being” and “existence” itself, which when properly understood, hold the key to the liberation from what is sometimes called the “wheel of dharma”.

At its core, Buddhist philosophy is based upon the notion that it is from a very basic and fundamental misconception and misunderstanding of the true nature of reality which is the cause, or source, of suffering in all its forms.  It is fair to say then that Buddha’s teaching is based upon a fully rational and logical system of cause and effect, marking a stark departure – at least from his point of view – from the faith based theo-philosophical systems which dominated the intellectual landscape in the Indian subcontinent in the middle of the first millennium BCE and placing his teachings squarely within the philosophical intellectual revolution that sprung forth throughout Eurasian antiquity at that time – parallel to the Hellenic philosophical tradition to the West and the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition to the East.

The source of suffering according to Buddha’s teachings as interpreted and understood by his followers is based upon three basic “misconceptions”, or falsehoods, upon which he not only establishes his “worldview”, but also provide the rational foundation of his Four Noble Truths and in turn the Noble Eightfold Path, the basic practices and principles to be followed to end suffering once and for all.  These misconceptions are referred to in the Buddhist tradition as the “three marks of existence”, or tilakkhaṇa in Pali (trilakṣaṇa in Sanskrit).  They are:

  • anicca(anitya in Sanskrit), typically translated as “Impermanence”[3],
  • dukkhain Pali, duḥkha in Sanskrit, which is typically translated as “suffering” but a more literal translation might be “unsatisfactoriness”, and
  • anattā, anātman in Sanskrit, which means literally “non-self”, or more literally translated as the “lack of existence of self”, or perhaps more aptly put as the “illusion” of self.[4]

It is from these three fundamental “misconceptions” from which our experience of suffering originates according to Buddha, and upon which the intellectual foundations of his Middle Path are based.

From the Khuddaka Nikāya, or “Minor Collection”, section of the Sutta Pitaka called the Dhammapada[5], or “Way of Dharma”, one of the cornerstone texts in all of Buddhist scripture, we find the following description of these “three marks of existence” as they relate to the Noble Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths:

Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.

This is the only path; there is none other for the purification of insight. Tread this path, and you will bewilder Mara.

Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering. Having discovered how to pull out the thorn of lust, I make known the path.

You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way. Those meditative ones who tread the path are released from the bonds of Mara.

“All conditioned things are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

The idler who does not exert himself when he should, who though young and strong is full of sloth, with a mind full of vain thoughts — such an indolent man does not find the path to wisdom.

Let a man be watchful of speech, well controlled in mind, and not commit evil in bodily action. Let him purify these three courses of action, and win the path made known by the Great Sage.

Wisdom springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes. Having known these two paths of progress and decline, let a man so conduct himself that his wisdom may increase.[6]

The passage above come from the chapter called “Magga Vagga”, or “Maggavagga”, typically translated as “The Way” or “Path”, and while it most likely represents a compilation of sayings and teachings of Buddha that were only later organized under a single heading or chapter, it still nonetheless philosophically connects the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, and the tilakkhaṇa, i.e. the “three marks of existence”, arguably the three most distinctive characteristics of Buddhist philosophy.

Here, anicca (change or impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anattā (no-self) are described as points of contemplation which lead one along the “path of purification”, providing the rational basis as it were of the Four Noble Truths.  That is to say, it is the confusion surrounding the notion of the existence of Self (in particular as it was understood in Vedic philosophy), the illusion of any sort of permanent existence, and the recognition that anything that is “conditioned” or “qualified” in any way can only ultimately lead to a lack of satisfaction at some level, that form the backbone of ignorance from which the basic problem of human suffering originates from.  So these three elementary characteristics of “reality”, or again “being”, are presented as being necessary and critical to the “purification” process which underlies the means by which cessation of suffering can be achieved.  It’s important to note that the intellectual system is entirely rational, and in this sense it not only marks a significant departure from the theo-philosophical systems that preceded it in the Indian subcontinent, but it also places Buddhism squarely within the context of “philosophy”, particularly as it was understood in classical antiquity as reflected of Logos over Mythos, rather than “religion” as it is most often times viewed.

These three complementary and interrelated “marks of existence” permeate Buddhist philosophy and reflect the fact that according to Buddha’s teaching, it is ignorance, or lack of knowledge, that is the source of basic predicament of man, and conversely that “knowledge”, or the absence of ignorance, is the source of liberation, enlightenment or nirvana.  These elemental, and primarily psychic, “marks of existence” therefore constitute the intellectual basis upon which the Four Noble Truths are constructed, and through which as explained in this passage above, the bonds of “Mara”, the deity that personified desire and death which the Buddha directly encountered and overcame on his journey toward enlightenment, can be broken.

Impermanence is the cornerstone of these three principles really, as it is the common thread under which all three “illusions” or “misconceptions” can be understood.  It is mankind’s lack of recognition of the true nature of impermanence, as it relates to existence itself, which represents the fundamental ignorance, again the lack of knowledge, which is at the very root of the of the problem of human suffering according to Buddha.  It is the very core of the intellectual problem as it were, a problem which rests on the principles of reason and causality, and therefore represents the “thorn” which must be removed in order that this “chain of causality” which underlies the problem of suffering can be broken.  Impermanence then, is the basic metaphysical and philosophical tenet upon which all Buddhist philosophy fundamentally rests, the contemplation and full realization of which – again knowledge or lack of ignorance surrounding the true nature of – becomes the essential component of the attainment of nirvana.

From the Samyutta Nikaya portion of the Sutra Pitaka , we find further explanation of this notion of impermanence, anicca, and how it is directly associated to the principle of “non-self”, anattā.

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.” — SN 22.102[7]

The direct causal relationship between impermanence (anicca) and “suffering” (dukkha) is described as being caused by this illusion of self, this notion that “I am”, or that “I exist”, something that Buddha clearly saw as not only flawed, but totally based upon falsehoods and misconceptions surrounding the nature of reality.  But in this sense Buddha’s teaching is not all that revolutionary.  The idea that a misconception of the idea of self, or soul, or confusion surrounding the nature of existence was at the very heart of the philosophical revolution throughout the classical period of Eurasian antiquity.  But this intellectual connection between these misconceptions, and the full acceptance of the rule of cause and effect in not just the domain of philosophy but also theology, or metaphysics, is surely one of the very unique and lasting contributions of Buddhist philosophy.  Suffering then, is directly causally linked to impermanence itself, and once this is established and truly understood, it then becomes possible to eradicate it entirely.

“The body, bhikkhus [monks], is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self [should be considered as] ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.

“Feeling is impermanent… Perception… Mental activities… Consciousness is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self, should be considered, ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.” — SN 22.15[8]

Here, impermanence and suffering are not only “causally” equated, but the attainment of perfect wisdom, the end goal of Buddhist philosophy from which one can liberate themselves from suffering, is described as the practice of, and full and complete recognition and understanding of, the lack of existence of this notion of “self”, i.e. anattā.  It is this notion of “not-self” – in Sanskrit anatman – which in fact represents the major philosophical departure from the prevailing philosophical doctrines of the Vedic schools of philosophy which rest squarely not only on the existence of “self”, or atman, but also its indivisibility and ultimate unity with the cosmic Self, or Brahman, the existence of which Buddha also denies.  So impermanence and confusion regarding the idea of one’s one existence, become the cornerstone elements of Buddhist philosophy, ideas which are born out of the Vedic philosophical tradition from which Buddha is exposed during his journeying and wandering days, but which represent an almost complete inversion of the system itself, a system which is based upon reason, logic and causality rather than ritual, scripture or blind faith.

The important and relevant rational and logical deduction here however with respect to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and its relationship to suffering, and in turn the existence of a path or way by which suffering can be eliminated, is that this idea of self-existence itself is fundamentally flawed, hence the importance of the notion of “not-self”, anattā, in the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which when fully comprehended and “realized”, can form the intellectual basis upon which suffering itself can be completely, utterly, entirely and absolutely eliminated.  This belief system depends upon two assumptions of course, a) that the basic problem of existence is not god realization or the attainment of heaven after death or even immortality but the avoidance of suffering, and b) that reality itself is not only fully “rational”, but that it also rests entirely upon metaphysical and ideological principles, i.e. our reality is governed by our minds and beliefs.


[1] From Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, The Discourse that Set the Dharma-Wheel Rolling, edited and Translated by Anandajoti Bhikkhu, August 2009 pgs 9-10.  According to the author this translation is from the Sanskrit text Lalitavistara (literally “An Elaboration of the Play [of the Buddha]”), one of the central texts of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism which begins with Buddha’s decision to leave Heaven, and then follows the narrative of his birth life and practices until his Awakening, culminating with this final discourse delivered to his former 5 ascetic monastics which become his first disciples and to which he delivers his sermon on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, i.e. the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtra.  Note that while the text of the Sanskrit version is very close to the extant Pāḷi version of the Discourse, there are some variations albeit minor, speaking to the consistently of the transmission of the content of the discourse itself.

[2] Dukkha is opposed to the Pali or Sanskrit work sukha, which meaning “happiness,” “comfort” or “ease”.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Sukha’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 April 2016, 23:28 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sukha&oldid=715303916&gt; [accessed 14 April 2016]

[3] The Pali word anicca is a compound word consisting of “a” meaning “non” or “lack of”, and “nicca” meaning “constant, continuous, permanent”, denoting that which is literally “not permanent” or “not lasting”.

[4] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Three marks of existence’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 October 2016, 10:04 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Three_marks_of_existence&oldid=742873817> [accessed 6 October 2016]

[5] The Pali word Dhammapada is a compound of two words, dhamma, which is equivalent to the Sanskrit word dharma, and “pada”.  Dhamma is not only a key Buddhist philosophical term, but also an important word and concept in orthodox Indian philosophy as well.  In the Buddhist tradition it is sometimes used to denote Buddha’s teachings as a whole, or alternatively it can mean simply “righteousness”, or “way” or “path”.  Pada means “foot” in Pali, and therefore in this context Dhammapada can be understood to denote the way of truth or righteousness.  The word is certainly reminiscent of the elemental Chinese philosophic notion of “Dao”, which is also typically translated as “way” or “path”.  The Dhammapada consists of 423 verses and is classically organized into 26 separate chapters or headings, all of which contain sayings and teachings which are attributed to the Buddha himself.  Many of the verses and passages in the Dhammapada can be found in other parts of the Pali Canon as well, signifying their importance within the context of Buddhist teachings as a whole.

[6] Dhammpadda.  Chapter XX, Maggavagga: “The Path”, pgs 273-289.  Translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita, 1996. at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.budd.html

[7]Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

[8] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.15.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

The Legend of Prince Siddhartha: Buddhist Philosophy Part I

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan people were going through a similar intellectual revolution from the prevalence of ritual and ceremonial worship of gods and goddesses embedded in their mythologically steeped traditions as preserved in their Hindu (Vedic) scripture, to a more speculative and metaphysical mode of inquiry into the nature of reality and existence and its relationship to change, impermanence, and the immortality of the Soul, or Self (Atman) as it was referred to in the Vedas.

The aim of this inquiry, again just as it was in the West in the Hellenic philosophical tradition which was emerging at contemporaneously, was to explain not only the nature of reality, being, or “existence”, but also mankind’s place in as well as expound upon the goal of life, i.e. happiness, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, moksha, eudaemonia or whatever other term the specific theo-philosophical tradition chose to denote this idea.  Unique to the Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition, which was also shared by Buddhism its close cousin, was that there existed a path to the ultimate liberation of the human Soul, by means of which death itself could be overcome.  This belief system was not just steeped in the notion of “realization”, or absolute knowledge (vidya), that which was spoken of by the great sages or seers of old, i.e. the Rishis, but also was characterized and underpinned by a system of metaphysics within which the nature of the Soul could be understood, and through which the means by which the Soul could be ultimately liberated rested upon.  This fundamentally intellectual development was driven not only by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas, or more specifically the Upanishads, but also by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure who is the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes root in the Indian subcontinent toward the end of the 5th century BCE or so, originating in the northeast border between modern India and Nepal where Siddhartha Gautama was born (and where he presumably taught as well) at around the same time that the first of the Upanishads were compiled.  In modern academic literature, Buddhism is typically considered to be part of a broader philosophical movement that arose as an alternative to Vedic religion in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Indian subcontinent called Śramaṇa.  This movement included Jainism, as well as other heterodox – i.e. not adhering to the Vedas as authoritative scripture – theo-philosophical schools of thought.[1]

The rise and influence of Buddhism then must be seen within the context of a broader intellectual movement that arose on the outskirts of the ancient Indo-Aryan civilization which reflected a basic and fundamental dissatisfaction with Vedic philosophy, culture and tradition as a means to liberation.  It represented almost a rebellion of sorts to the orthodox theological and religious dogma that was prevalent at the time which was encased within a very structured and elitist socio-political structure, i.e. Varna, which closely guarded theological study and knowledge by a specific class of society, i.e. the Brahmins, and which held that moksha, or immortality, was to be practiced only by the well trained and select few. Siddhartha, after much trials and tribulation, and after following many different paths and teachings, concluded that the prevailing orthodox Vedic philosophical system as a means to liberation or happiness was fundamentally flawed and after his Awakening, came up with an alternative philosophy (and underlying metaphysics) which became the basis of Buddhism in all its different variants today.

The popularity and spread of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent in the last half of the first millennium BCE, which spread all the way into the Far East and regions of Chinese cultural influence in the first few centuries of the Common Era and beyond, along with the establishment of Vedic philosophy as represented in the Upanishadic literature, is in many respects directly analogous theo-philosophical development in the Hellenic world which arose out of the prevailing mythological and theological based religious traditions from which our modern (Western) notion of “philosophy” itself was conceived.  It can also be understood as analogous to the Christian revolution in the first few centuries of the Common Era as Jesus of Nazareth rejected the fundamental teachings of Judaism and proclaimed his new philosophy, i.e. the Gospel, for which he was ultimately crucified.  The teachings of Jesus, who later became known as Christ or Logos personified, as interpreted and compiled by his followers who founded Christianity as we know it today, not only rejected the religion of the Hebrews (of which Jesus was of course a member), but also the so-called “pagan” religions that were prevalent in the Mediterranean at the time, proclaiming that not only was there one true God as the Hebrews had done before him, but that this God was accessible to, and was in fact indistinguishable from, the very inmost essence of all mankind.

But Christianity as well, in its formation in the after the death of Jesus and as the Church and its associated religious dogma became codified and canonized into the Bible, also integrated Hellenic theo-philosophy as well, this element of Christianity being specially emphasized by the early Christian Church Fathers.  Just like Jesus then, Buddha rejected the religious traditions of his forefathers proposed not only an altogether different theo-philosophy, but also a fundamentally different worldview, i.e. metaphysics, as well as a completely different means and approach by which the ultimate goal of life could be reached, a goal which he defined as the cessation of suffering.  Buddhism then was born out of Hinduism just as Christianity was born out of Judaism, and Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus was a Jew.

After searching for keys to unlock the secret of human suffering in his many years of wandering after he left behind his family and kingdom, Buddha ultimately came to find that none of the teachings he encountered answered his questions satisfactorily, and therefore he rejected Vedic philosophy in all its variations and after his “Awakening”, came to understand and teach a practical handbook of sorts for all seekers of Truth and Knowledge, a much more simplified and practical philosophy, a way of life really, than was then offered by the more traditional orthodox Vedic philosophical schools.

 

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).  His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures that one might expect were accessible to a prince.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth of the potential for his son to be a great religious prophet and teacher, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world which in turn might lead to his renunciation of his birthright.  It is said that he married and had a son and spent the first 29 years of his life in the sheltered and elaborate palace of his father where no desire of his was left unfulfilled.

In his late twenties, a story is told that one day he left the palace of his own volition to view his subjects and kingdom first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father.  On this journey outside the palace walls, he was exposed to his first examples of the great suffering of the world, seeing first an old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering and pain, followed by the corpse of a dead man, and lastly by an ascetic monk who had renounced the world in the classic Vedic monastic tradition which was prevalent at the time.  This experience is said to have completely transformed his view of the world and invoked feelings of tremendous and overwhelming compassion for the plight of his people, inspiring him to renounce his royal pedigree, leave his wife and child, and begin to live the life of an itinerant wandering monk to search for truth and the meaning of life, which was from his perspective the source and possible secret to the end of suffering.

Prince Siddhartha then spent the next several years following various forms of extreme Vedic asceticism and renunciation to try and find the true nature of existence and the path to illumination as prescribed by the teachings of the Vedas, with each successive path and teaching that he followed getting him no closer to the answers to the questions that he was seeking.  It is then said that after practicing these extreme forms of renunciation and deprivation that led him close to the edge of death, he finally gave up these practices as fruitless and settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India), and resolved to sit in contemplation until either the solution to the nature of suffering and its ultimate liberation was revealed to him or die in the process.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha the name being derived from the root Sanskrit verb ”to know”, or “budh”, meaning “one who is awake”, i.e. the Awakened One.  The term Buddha, or Buddha nature, has come to represent the eternal and ever-present nature of truth and existence which he came to embody after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree.

Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved and the eternal truth and knowledge of the nature of suffering and the path by which it could be overcome was revealed to him, Prince Siddartha became Buddha.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind, believing that everyone was too steeped in ignorance and worldliness to understand, comprehend and ultimately practice the eternal Truth which was revealed to him, it is said that he was convinced by one of the great Indian deities, Brahma Sahampati, to at least try to teach for the good of mankind.

Thus began the teaching phase of his life from which the philosophical system of Buddhism as we know it today has been handed down to us.  It is said that he traveled throughout India and taught his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, as well as instituted the practices of Buddhist monasticism, for some 45 years until his death sometime in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  These teachings, sometimes referred to as his Buddha Dharma, or the Way of Buddha, represented a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature as they applied to the problem, and ultimate solution, of human suffering which was from his perspective the end goal of any theological or philosophical pursuit.  He taught how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding, or knowledge of “reality”, or more precisely the shedding of ignorance of the existence of the Self and attachment to which to Buddha attributed the source of suffering.

The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to the 5th century BCE.  What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as the Buddha, is from a corpus of textual material written that is handed down to us in in Pali[3], as well as somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese transliterations of the Pali texts.  The Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, which is term used for the orthodox and authoritative Buddhist texts, cover not only his teachings, but also include biographic material as well, the latter of which is interspersed with a variety of mythical accounts that established him as a pseudo-divine figure who was born to deliver his message for the good of mankind.  Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali), means literally “three baskets”, and while the earliest parts of the canon are believed to have been compiled or transcribed within a few centuries after Buddha died, the biographic material is believed to have been incorporated into the corpus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Awakened One” as he was referred to by his followers, is one of the most prominent and influential theo-philosophical teachers from antiquity whose influence has spread over the centuries from the Indian subcontinent throughout most of Asia and now in modern times to the West.  In many respects the Pali Canon and teachings of the Buddha which are contained therein can be seen as analogous to the Four Gospels which contain various narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and form the core part of the New Testament of the Bible which were written some decades after his death and were only later included as part of the Biblical canon.

According to most scholarly accounts, it is the Pali Canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism that considers the Pali Canon to be the authoritative Buddhist scripture is referred to as Theravada Buddhism, Theraveda meaning literally “school of elderly monks” in Pali, as opposed to the slightly more possible and well known variant of Buddhism, at least in the West, called Mahayana Buddhism – of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative for example – and relies on a different set of scriptures than the Theraveda school referred to as the Agamas (“sacred work” or “scripture” in Sanskrit or Pali), which are written in Classical Chinese and referred to as the Chinese Buddhist Canon, or Dàzàngjīng (大藏經).

Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses more on the monastic aspects of Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the, rules, rites and practices for those who wish to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did.  These enlightened beings are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings” in the Mahayana school and while the Mahayana school does not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition (which precedes it historically) in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

Despite their differences in interpretation and practices, each adheres to the core basic teachings of Buddha as reflected in his Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which outlines the intellectual and metaphysical basis for the basic precepts and practices which are to bring about the cessation of suffering and ultimately enlightenment and the end if the cycle of death and rebirth.  While Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic doctrine per se, at least not in the classic Western sense of the term, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, it does however lays out basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, which is the means by which the bonds of attachment which ultimately lead to suffering can be broken for good, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which can be followed which will ultimately lead to nirvana, the term given to the cessation of suffering and the end of the “wheel of dharma”.

 

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity.  While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture, i.e. the establishment of the Pali Canon, and formation of the foundational principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contain three major sections, (in Sanskrit) the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which was an integral part of Buddhism from its inception.  The Abhidharma portion of the is the youngest material and reflects the Buddha’s teachings regarding various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon that we ascertain the core of Buddhist doctrine as it was understood by his followers and is interpreted by the various schools and practitioners throughout the world today.

 


 

 

[1] Śramaṇa (Samaṇa in Pali) is a Sanskrit word meaning “seeker”, or “one who performs acts of austerity”, or simple an “ascetic” and is used to refer to several Indian theo-philosophical intellectual developments that emerged in the first half of the first millennium BCE as distinct, and in opposition to, the more prevalent “orthodox” Vedic tradition which came to represent the basis of the Hindu faith, hence their categorization as “heterodox”.  These intellectual theo-philosophical developments and schools of thought ran directly parallel, and are believed to have influenced, the philosophy of the Upanishads.  Theo-philosophical traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, as well as the lesser known traditions such as Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka are all considered to be part of the Śramaṇa movement.  Classical Indian philosophical conceptions such as saṃsāra and moksha are believed to have originated within these schools of thought, conceptions that were later integrated into some of the major Indian philosophical schools such as Yoga and Samkhya.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Śramaṇa’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2016, 02:20 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C5%9Arama%E1%B9%87a&oldid=739942627> [accessed 18 September 2016] as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Buddha: Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/&gt;.

[3] Pali is a Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent, believed to have originated in Northern India, and very closely related to Sanskrit, with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  Pali is a language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy

Buddhism 101

Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism originated out of the Hindu and Vedic culture just as Christianity emerged out of and in reaction to orthodox Judaism.  The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to have lived and taught in the 5th century BCE.

What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as Buddha is from texts written in Pali (an extremely close relative to Sanskrit[1]), and other somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese texts that were transcribed no sooner than some 2 or 3 centuries after his death and in some cases not fully codified until the 2nd or 3rd century CE.  The texts cover what is supposedly his direct teachings to not just householder disciples but also covers specific guidelines and rules for the establishment of a monastic order as well, along with some materials (written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) which outline the basic facts of his life, the latter being interspersed with some basic facts as well as a variety of mythical accounts that had become associated with the historical figure who is attributed to the founding of one of the world’s greatest and lasting religions that still thrives to this day.

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).

His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures and luxuries of life.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world.  He is said to have married and had a son (Rahula) and spent 29 years in this sheltered and elaborate existence as a great prince with no want or desire left unfulfilled.

After this illustrious and heavenly upbringing it is said that one day he left his palace to view his subjects first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father, upon which he saw first and old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering followed by the corpse of a dead man and lastly by an ascetic monk, all of which completely transformed his view of the world, drove him to great compassion for the plight of his people and inspired him to renounce his royal pedigree and live the life of a wandering monk to search for Truth and the secret to the end of suffering, leaving his wife and child behind.

Siddhartha then spent the next several years practicing various forms of yoga and asceticism to try and find the path to enlightenment and an end to suffering, each successive path and each successive teaching yielding no answer to what he considered to be the basic problem of life for all people and which he saw as his ultimate goal and purpose.  It is then said that after practicing austere forms of renunciation and deprivation, he followed settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India) resolved to sit in deep meditation until he solve the problem of human suffering or died trying.

From an historical context Siddhartha Gautama life and teaching represents one of the many theo-philosophical streams of thought that emerged in the Indus Valley region at the time as alternatives to the older Vedic religion that was steeped in ritual and dogmatism.  These various religious movements are sometimes grouped together as Sramana and gave rise to not just Buddhism, but also the Upanishadic tradition of Vedanta, Jainism and later the Yogic philosophic traditions, all descending from the Vedic/Hindu theo-philosophical tradition of antiquity but all rejecting many of its orthodox positions regarding caste and ritual and all for the most part sharing core philosophic themes and terminology such as samskara, the psychology underpinning the cycle of birth and death, karma and the laws of action which underpin Indian ethics even to this day, and the possibility and reality of moksha, or liberation.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha which we know his as to this day.  Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved, the Buddha had complete understanding and knowledge of not only the source of the world’s suffering but also the path to rising above it so to speak, to reach a state of nirvana which would yield an end the seemingly endless cycle of birth, suffering, and death which plagued mankind since time immemorial.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind thinking that they were too steeped in ignorance and desire to every understand what he had come to realize under the Bodhi tree, he was supposed convinced by one of the great Indian deities Brahma Sahampati to at least try for the good of mankind.

And thus began the 45 years of teaching of Buddha, what is sometimes referred to as his Dharma or “way” as a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature and how they applied to the problem of human suffering and how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding of “reality”, or the shedding of ignorance “vijnana” which to Buddha was the ultimate source of suffering – ignorance of the true nature of the self and consciousness, i.e. that it was an illusion and that it does not in fact exist.

 

Buddhist Scripture and Philosophy

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity. While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

The most authoritative and oldest textual tradition surrounding Buddhism is the Pali Canon, also referred to sometimes by the Sanskrit Tripitaka, meaning “three baskets” denoting the three main treatises that make up the ancient scripture that is written in Pali, an ancient script very closely related to Sanskrit.  According to almost all scholarly accounts, it is the Pali canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism represents what is referred to as Theravada Buddhism.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture (the Pali canon) and forming the foundations of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contains three major sections, the Sutra Pitaka (Sutta Pitaka in Pali), the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka (Abhidhamma Pitaka in Pali).  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  The Sutra portion of the Tripitaka contains discourses in dialogue form between Buddha and his disciples and other contemporary figures on a variety of doctrinal and spiritual questions within which the philosophical heart of Buddhism is contained.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which has been a part of Buddhism from the very beginning.  The Abhidharma portion of the Pali canon is the youngest material and supposedly reflects the Buddha’s teachings to various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra portion of the Pali canon that we can glean the core of Buddha’s teachings to his disciples as it’s clear that the Vinaya and Abhidharma sections contain somewhat later material relative to the Sutra Pitaka.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.

The other main thread of Buddhism which continues to thrive today is Mahayana Buddhism, of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative.  Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses and builds upon the Buddhist monastic tradition as articulated in the Tripitaka and establishes the path, rules and practices for those who want to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did, what are referred to as bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings”, in the Mahayana tradition.  Although the Mahayana schools do not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition which precedes it historically in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

The essence of Buddhism in all schools however is to be found in the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which addresses directly the path to end such suffering permanently.  Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic discipline per se, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, but instead lays out some basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, to rising above the seemingly endless trials and tribulations of life, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which when followed rigorously will lead to nirvana which in Buddhism is the ultimate goal of all sentient life.

 

Buddhist Metaphysics and Psychology

It is said that Buddha first taught the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths to his five companion ascetics just after attaining enlightenment as recorded in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sutra, or The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma as the title is translated into English, a set of sutras which can be found in the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali canon.  In this teaching, Buddha is addressing his five fellow renunciate ascetics with whom he practiced sadhana (religious rites and practices) with, and he lays out his basic philosophy as it was revealed to him when he achieved enlightenment.  He rejects the two extremes of complete self-indulgence and total self-denial (renunciation) and puts forth a “middle way”, what has come to be known as the noble eightfold path, as the means to salvation and cessation of suffering.

After laying down the middle way, Buddha describes the nature of reality, or the Four Noble Truths, the proper understanding of which underpins the “right view” portion of the Eightfold Noble Path.  These four truths, the pillars of Buddhist philosophy, can be summarized as follows:

 

  • The Truth of Suffering: that the basic nature of life is characterized by varying types and degrees of suffering (duhkha), sometimes alternatively translated as
    “unsatisfactoriness”. Suffering in this context involves the mental and physical pain associated with the process of being born, being subject to disease and illness and ultimately death, as well as the stress and anxiety associated with attachment to feelings, objects and emotions that are in a constant state of change – the Buddhist notion of impermanence (anitya) and attachment or grasping (upadana). 
  • The Truth of the origin of suffering: that suffering has an ultimate source and it comes from the incessant craving or attachment (raga) of objects of desire and its conjugate the aversion of fear of undesirable objects, (dvesha) ultimately stemming from ignorance (avidya), or wrong knowledge, of our ideas of self and reality.
  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: that suffering indeed can be overcome via the cessation of the root of suffering, the ceasing of all craving or aversion of things that are impermanent that stem from ignorance, representing the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
  • The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering: that there is a specific path which if followed correctly will yield a cessation of suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, the perfection of which yields a perfected state of being, nirvana, the final state of the cessation of suffering.

 

From the Sutra Pitaka, the “Connected Discourses” we find:

 

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”[2]

 

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path are the cornerstones of Buddhism, the school also lays out a fairly sophisticated causal and psychological metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of nirvana rest and upon which our ultimate misunderstanding of the nature of existence originates.

A related concept which speaks to the metaphysics underlying Buddhist philosophy is the notion of “dependent origination” or “dependent arising”; Pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.  At the heart of pratityasamutpada are the Twelve Nidanas, the basic psychophysical elements which constitute the set of interdependent and causally related principles from which Samsara, – a Vedic Sanskrit term which is adopted by the Buddhist tradition as well which signifies the repeating cycle of birth and death and is translated as “continuous movement” or “cycle of existence” – emerges.  It is the cycle of Samsara, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering (duhkha), which Buddhism as a theo-philosophical system as a whole is designed to address and it is the notion of Pratityasamutpada which describes in detail the co-conspirators so to speak that underlie this phenomenon.[3]

The Twelve Nidanas are

  • ignorance (avidya), which yields
  • mental formations and habits (samskara), which yields
  • a sense of consciousness or mind (vijnana), which yields
  • the world of name and form (namarupa), which in turn yields
  • the existence of the sensory apparatus or “sense gates” (sadayatana), which yields
  • sensory impressions (sparsa), which yields
  • feelings or sensations (vedana), which in turn causes
  • cravings and desires (trsna), which yields
  • attachment or grasping (upadana), which yields
  • formation of new karmic tendencies, or “becoming” (bhava), which in turn yields
  • new life or “birth” (jati), which leads to
  • aging, decay and death (jaramarana).

 

Such is how the endless wheel of life is described in Buddhism, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering and anxiety and via the proper understanding and proper practice (the eightfold noble path) of which can lead to nirvana and the cessation of suffering.  It is important to understand that although these twelve “causes” are connected as if in direct cause and effect link, the underlying philosophy links them in a much more holistic and interdependent manner, providing the basis for complex, interdependent life and the source of the belief in the existence of individual consciousness or a sense of “I” or “me”.

 

In one of his earlier discourses, the Buddha declares that we ought to regard any form of sensation and consciousness, whether “past, future, or present; internal or external; manifest or subtle…as it actually is…: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’” (Majjhima Nikāya I, 130).[4]

 

Buddha also laid out a more psychological and process based view of how this illusory notion of self emerges, consistent with and complementary to the Twelve Nidanas.  This is the notion of Skandhas, which is the name given for the five functions or aspects of cognition, the detailed analysis of which yields the unavoidable conclusion that none of them can be said to represent “I” or “self”, another tool used by Buddha to help his students understand the concept of the not-self (anatman), as the association of the individual with one or more of these cognitive faculties so to speak is again the ultimate the source of our ignorance which is the ultimate cause of suffering.  These five aspects of cognition, or “aggregates”, are:

  • Form or matter: rupa, which represents the physical world as well as our senses which perceive it;
  • Sensation or feeling: vedana, the sensory processing aspect of interaction with rupa which is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in nature;
  • Perception, conception, apperception, cognition: samjna, which is the act of recognition or recognized awareness of an object or idea;
  • Mental formations, impulses, volition, desire: samskara, the sum total of all mental habits, conditioned thoughts or ideas, opinions, compulsions or desires which are triggered by the perception of an object and the sensations or feelings associated with said object;
  • Consciousness or discernment: vijnana, that which discerns, determines or cognizes, that element of the mind which we associate with consciousness or ego.

 

The Skandhas are properly understood as interrelated concepts which together constitute the process by which we as rational, sentient beings interact with and experience the world.  The five aspects of this process all are strewn together in constant flux, each aspect connected to and in some respects causally related to all of the others.  The important deduction from the proper analysis of the framework however is that none of these aspects of “us”, when looked at closely really can be said to represent “I” or “me” in any truly meaningful way, hence the conclusion that this “self” which we so closely identify with is an illusion.  This is what has come to be known as the doctrine of “not-self” in Buddhism, anatman in Sanskrit, which sits in direct contrast to the Upanishadic notion of the eternally existent self, or Atman, upon which Vedic philosophy rests.

 

 


 

[1] Pali was mainly a liturgical language from Northern India which was very closely related to Sanskrit with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  It was primarily a liturgical language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy which is referred to as either the “Pali Canon” or Tipitaka, the latter term meaning “three baskets” in Sanskrit.

[2] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

[3] In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition Samsara is depicted by the “wheel of life”, or bhavacakra.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhavacakra.

[4] Coseru, Christian, “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/&gt;. Pg. 4, “The Not-Self Doctrine”

Meditation and the Mind: The Sharpest Tool in the Shed

This review of the Cosmology of the ancients, their similarities and differences, their relationship to power and authority, were all intellectually interesting and of course relevant for that thesis that Charlie had to produce, but not so relevant for Charlie himself as he tried to navigate this increasingly interrelated and complex world, a world that had for the most part abandoned the dogmas of organized religion in favor for materialism and science and one where he had to make sense of the world without having the luxury of simply adherence to the doctrine or practices of a local church or synagogue.

But his curiosity had led him to the Eastern philosophical, rather theo-philosophical, systems of belief, religious systems that were founded on the notion of personal illumination, individual spiritual practices, and the existence of energy systems within the human form that were directly connected to, or at the very least very much related to, their cosmic counterparts.  For in the Cosmology of the ancient peoples lay an inherent belief in the connection between the individual human form and cosmic consciousness and the ground of all being, albeit in metaphorical form, a connection that was lost as advanced society evolved and the Cosmology of the ancients was subsumed for the science of modern man.

 

One of the many metaphors for the bliss of the union of the divine, the goal of the practice of meditation in all its forms, is that of the sky and the earth underneath it.  Wherever we go on this wonderful planet Earth, we always have the Sky as our backdrop.  We cannot escape it, although most of the time we are wholly unaware of its presence and its connection to our daily lives and its relationship to the ground of our existence.  It is just so with meditation.  The experience of deep meditation is the sky that provides the backdrop for the events of life.  And it’s this backdrop, this omnipresent source, from which the manifestations of life in all its forms springs forth, in all their various gross and subtle forms; from the crassness and cruel reality of the physical word where life and death coexist in natural interdependence, the doctrines of survival of the fittest and natural selection that Darwin “discovered” and explored, to the more subtle and finer world of the mind and spirit which provided for the ground of our being and the being of all life form on the planet.  All have the same beginning and end and all evolve and devolve into the same omnipresent and omniscient consciousness, this was the ultimate message of the ancient cosmologies that were so core to the belief systems of the ancient civilizations from which modern society emerged.

One need only to sit calmly for a few moments and attempt to completely perceive the nature of this underlying reality, the birthright of every single one of us that walk this great Earth, in order to get a glimpse of that which cannot be known and that which cannot be understood and yet can be experienced and perceived at the same time.  It is from this seed or practice, of the direct perception or Reality that the meditational experience can root itself and upon which sat the metaphysical systems which the Eastern traditions had kept alive all these centuries.

At first, when one sits in meditation practice one will find that thoughts toss themselves turbulently about the sea of the Mind.  But just as the nature of “I” is unclear as one’s meditation practice begins to take hold, the nature of Thought itself becomes unclear as well.  What are thoughts?  Are they real?  Does what we think define who we are?  What of the creative nature of thought?  From whence are thoughts born?  What is the true effect of thoughts upon the reality within which we perceived the world around us?  Are these thoughts, these impressions, simply a backdrop from which we experience the world around us as it happens or do they frame and construct the reality which surrounds us?  Do they create our reality or are they a function of reality?  A classic chicken and egg problem Charlie thought.

 

Charlie remembered his first meditation experience quite clearly.  Odd he thought that there were some events in life that were timeless to some extent, memories that did not fade no matter how much time passed.  And his first experience of focusing the mind on the eternal, looking inward, was something he always carried with him and something he always found spectacular and at the same time strange and odd – and yet real, in the sense that it had carried with him despite the passage of a great deal of time and life experiences.

He had started reading about some of the more esoteric mystical traditions of the East.  He had been on the road for many months in Europe, embarking on his arguably failed professional tennis career, and found a lot of free time to read and study during his travels.  All of his work and scholarship at during his undergraduate studies, his preparation and ultimate authorship of that darned thesis, had given him an appetite for learning, and an appetite and enjoyment of study and writing.  He hadn’t considered these skills very much when he was grinding through his studies, or even when he was preparing his thesis, but once he left academia, he found that what he had learned as an undergrad chasing that elusive concept of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina had planted in his mind, the true gift that he has given he later found, was the beauty of being an academic, a student and an author, an gift that last a lifetime or so it seemed.

He was playing in France, and in France they were known for their hospitality.  He was traveling with his old friend Niels, and two Aussie buddies he had picked up and met along the way.  And he was winning some, in a way that he hadn’t really done before.  He won some key matches, picked up some travel money, had gotten a decent ranking and a reputation that came along with it, and was starting to gain some confidence in his abilities on court.  And at the same time, his studies began to deviate from straight ancient history, theology, and philosophy, to mysticism; the practice and art of the experience of bliss that were so painstakingly described and outlined in the various systems of Yoga from the East, India in particular.

Charlie didn’t know it yet but it was Raja Yoga, or in its more esoteric form Kundalini Yoga, that he was reading about at that time.  He didn’t yet understand Yoga’s relationship to the Vedic tradition, or the premise that all the yogas – Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga – must be practiced together in concert in order for the spirit to progress along its path as smoothly as possible.  This synthesis was perhaps best described by the Yogic adept Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the chief disciple of the great 19th century Indian sage Ramakrishna, an enlightened mystic of the Yogic tradition by any measure who played a significant role in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world in the beginning of the twentieth century.

But Charlie landed on the tradition of Kundalini Yoga first, primarily as a mental practice in his quest for greater focus and concentration on court.  For what he found, and what all great athletes find eventually, was that concentrated mental focus, particularly at key moments in a match or contest, many times made the difference between a win or a loss.  And it was wins or losses that made an athlete at the end of the day, as much as some might believe in the old adage, “it’s not whether you won or lost but how you played the game” that counted.  Charlie found it humorous that Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis champions of all time was said to have once joked that whoever said that must have lost.  That always made Charlie smile.

And Kundalini, or Raja, Yoga more so than all the other Yogic disciplines, spoke of the mystical and supernatural doors into the nature of reality and existence that lay latent in the human form, the ultimate power that lay dormant within all of us the serpent of Kundalini, that lay dormant at the base of the spine, and could be awakened through the disciplined practice of meditation.[1]  And he was fascinated again, fascinated by this system of energy which it described, a system of energy that he already intuitively knew and manipulated, energy he could feel and tap into as he sprinted about on the tennis court chasing after that yellow fuzzy ball in the dance with his opponent chasing after points, games, sets and matches as a professional tennis player.  He was fascinated again, just as he was as a small child fascinated with the myths of Achilles, Hercules and Odysseus in his reading of the Greek myths and the gods and goddesses whose trials and tribulations they described.

He had sat for the first time on a small tree trunk outside one of the tennis facilities he was playing at in France at the time.  He had picked up a book on Raja Yoga, on the power latent within us that coursed through our chakras, or wheels of energy that ran up and down the base of the spine, and had starting reading the sections about Kundalini, the serpent power that lay latent within us, and how to awaken it.

The concept of the chakra system originates in ancient Hindu texts, featured prominently in in the Tantric and Yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, most notably the systems of Patanjali whose eight limbed practice of yoga had been adopted so widely in the West.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit word for “wheel” or “turning” and refers to wheel-like vortices which are believed to exist in the more subtle form of the human spirit.  The chakras are said to be “force centers” or whorls of energy permeating, from a point on the physical body, the layers of the subtle bodies in an ever-increasing fan-shaped formation, rotating vortices of subtle matter, they are considered the focal points for the reception and transmission of energies, energies which once understood could be manipulated through yogic practices like asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and concentration (dhayana) and ultimately meditation where the object of concentration and the concentrator himself merged into one.

And so, one day after a training session, he wandered into the woods behind the courts and simply sat, and rested his mind and focused his attention on this latent serpent power, this power that he was already attune to given his training as a professional athlete.  His posture was not bad, he was sitting upright with his back straight, and just as soon as he closed his eyes, he felt a rush of energy well up within him and quite suddenly and the world’s bottom seemed, in fact did, drop out from underneath him and the expansiveness of space and time opened up before his mind like the revealing of rainbow in the sky, a rainbow that was sitting before him all the time but yet had not noticed it until he had sat and opened his mind to receive its perception in all its glory.  Space expanded, time itself ceased to be, and he could sense that the source from which he came was not, and yet was at the same time, his physical body or the mental sheathe that covered it and awareness, his consciousness, expanded well beyond what he had ever thought imaginable.

But what Charlie had yet to learn, yet to fully absorb, was that the mind was an instrument.  This is what they taught in the Eastern theo-philosophical traditions.  The Eastern mystics had studied the mind, in a seemingly scientific and empirical way, for thousands of years and they had come up with various language and terms, as well as specific approaches and techniques, to harness this mind and use it to reveal the true nature of Reality, a Reality which at its core was unknowable and yet at the same time directly perceivable.  In fact they had created and formulated a language, an architecture of principles along with a means for its revelation, with which to not only describe the nature of mind, but also the process by which its true underlying and all-encompassing nature is revealed.

Sanskrit was the language that was used to describe this science of the mind, and its roots dated far back into ancient times, stemming from the Indo-Aryan nomadic peoples that roamed the Near and Far East well before the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt rose in the Mediterranean and Near East in the third millennium BCE and subsequent centuries.

Vedic Sanskrit was the language of the Rig-Veda, the oldest text of the Indo-Aryan people whose authorship was dated by most scholars to as early as 1500 BCE and according to some scholars and academics reflected oral and other ritualistic traditions that dated back much earlier, perhaps even as far back as the fourth or fifth millennium BCE based upon the civilizations and practices which it described and the corresponding archeological evidence from the region of modern day India and Pakistan which is where the ancient Indo-Aryan peoples are believed to have originated from.[2]

Let’s look to the science of the mind then, this great instrument that the seekers of old, the rishis, or great seers, described in the Vedas, and see how they described it and how it was best put to use to illuminate the mysteries of life and reality – what language they use and how they describe the utility of this mind, this tool that frames the world around us and has promoted and elevated the human species beyond the confines of the base physical world in the last few millennia since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution and in no small measure has driven the evolution of civilized mankind and its dominion over the earth.

 

The Sanskrit term for mind is manas.  It stems from the root ‘man’, which is a Sanskrit verb meaning “to think” or “mind”.  So it is the subjective, nominative concept of this term which is used to describe this most powerful instrument of ours.  Once could describe it from a Vedic point of view as ‘that which thinks’ or ‘that which minds’.  One can also think of this faculty, this gift that separates us from the lower forms of life, as our own computer, or interface, with the world of name and form around us.  The touch points, or sources of input for this system are the five senses – touching, tasting, hearing, seeing and smelling.  And each of these sources of input work together to experience the world around us.  This act of experiencing includes a subject and an object that together, along with the our faculties of sense perception, to create an experience, or event, all stemming from and processed by this manas, or mind, from which we experience the world around us.

And manas’s job then (and let there be no doubt that manas is supposed to work for the jiva, or individual soul, and not the other way around) is to process this event and experience for the individual, categorize it alongside other events and experiences that share similar characteristics, and in turn take learnings and concepts from the experiences to further along the mind/body system to which that manifestation of manas is associated, the individual Jiva or Soul.  From a Darwinian sense the development of manas can be looked at as a tool that has helped us survive, helped us to domesticate animals and develop agriculture which in turn helped the advent of great cities, civilizations and then in turn empires.  But from the Vedic point of view, the ultimate utility of this instrument was not survival, but liberation from this great wheel of life and death and the ultimate perception, realization, or our oneness with the ground of reality of essence of the universe.

Manas then, after thousands of years of evolution, is the highly developed and sophisticated instrument that could be considered the artificial intelligence portion of this mind/body system, continuing with our software and technology analogy from above.  It is constantly adapting to the world around it, processing and storing hundreds of pieces of information a minute, dozens at least every second, and is able to rapidly apply this information – these memories and lessons learned you could say – to another unfolding event or experience that immediately follows the previous one, and yet at the same time is wholly integrated with the experience before it.  It is the greatest gift of man, and yet so little of its power and essence is understood or studied by mankind ironically, at least outside the field of psychology or mysticism, both fields that take a back seat to the materialistic and capitalistic societies that dominate the Western world today.

According to the tradition and philosophy of Vedanta, which arguably is quite simply the science of the mind and intellect and its relationship with Ultimate Reality, manas is bound to the senses and yields vijnana (practical knowledge of simply information) rather than jnana (wisdom or true knowledge) or vidya (understanding).  This implies of course, that there is something higher than manas, something more subtle and powerful, something that guides manas – the charioteer of the mind if you will borrowing the analogy and metaphor from that great Hindu epic The Mahabharata where Krishna teaches Arjuna about karma, the nature of Reality and mankind’s place in it, and reveals ultimate wisdom to him on the eve of battle[3].

Manas presents its information to its maker, its ruler or its puppeteer, and it is this master principle that processes the information (vijnana) and determines or chooses how to react to all of the information being presented to it and what to do with it if you will.  This principle, this determinative faculty that sits above and behind manas, is called buddhi, or intellect[4].

Manas is the perceiving faculty, our interface with the world that we deem ‘real’, reality being defined in this context as that which is perceived by our senses[5].  Manas is no doubt a great and powerful instrument then, but it is an instrument or tool only, to be subjugated and controlled for higher means, according to Vedic tradition and philosophy, just as the horses are controlled by the charioteer.  Manas furthermore is considered to be just one aspect of what we classically consider to be our mind in the classic western sense of the term, or the mental aspect of individual consciousness.  The entire internal organ of the mind, according to the Vedic tradition, consists of manas, buddhi (intellect), chitta (memory) and ahankara (ego) and collectively is referred to as antahkarana, or “inner cause”.

In the Vedic tradition, or the practice of meditation as outlined in the various systems of Yoga, the individual is instructed to recognize the difference between buddhi and manas, and in turn to identify the presence of ego, or ahankara, in order to more closely identify with and be aware of the role of one’s buddhi in decision making and action in general.  What we would classically consider mind, or psyche in the classic Western academic sense, is looked at in the philosophical system of Vedanta as all of these four components – buddhi, chitta, ahankara and manas – working together to drive behavior and action.  Recognizing the distinctions and roles of these four aspects of our minds from the Vedic standpoint, allows the individual to understand the differentiate between the perceptive faculty of the mind and its corresponding discriminatory aspect, buddhi, allowing for separation and greater understanding of the workings of this great and powerful tool of mind or manas, that can be a destructive or degenerative force as well as a tool or instrument for liberation depending upon how the it is used.

In other words, manas perceives the outside world and processes and stores this information via the chitta aspect of mind.  Chitta though, is not merely a storage mechanism; it also has an emotional aspect to it, which is manifested via what are referred to as samskaras, or deep seated mental impressions.  Samskaras, according to Vedic tradition, represent the most powerful and emotional charged memories and impressions of mind that most influence and guide our behaviors and choices as we go through life in the present.  (Samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam, which means ‘complete’ or ‘joined together’ and kara which means ‘action’, ‘cause’, or ‘doing’.  Samskaras, along with referring to these deep seated psychology impressions that are associated with the Jiva and are a result of previous actions and the Jiva’s attachment to said actions, also sometimes refers to the personal sacraments that mark the major milestones of the life of the Hindu, from the moment of conception to the final scattering of his funeral ashes.  It is the former philosophical meaning of the term samskaras that are pertinent in the role of the mind that we explore here.)

To make matters more difficult, manas and chitta are colored and clouded by ahankara, or ego, along with samskaras, and it is only through purposeful awareness of one’s buddhi, or intellect, that the individual can see the world around them for what it truly is, and forcibly guide one’s behaviors to desired results rather than one’s samskaras and ego guide our behaviors unconsciously, at times yielded undesirable results.  According to the Vedic tradition, it becomes a question of who is driving the chariot, the charioteer or the horses, to boil down to its essence one of the essential messages of the Bhagavad Gita.

All of our thoughts, words, feelings, actions, behaviors and life experiences create impressions on our mind, or our subconscious as referred to by modern psychology.  These impressions are called samskaras in the philosophical systems of Yoga and VedantaSamskaras are the grooves in the mental pathways of our mind, they can be thought of the current that drives us forward mentally which in turn drives our actions on the physical plane and at a very fundamental level create the reality of the physical world around us in the sense that it frames our perception of it and how we react to it.  Samskaras can be positive or negative, and are typically driven by emotional attachments to what we desire, or in turn the avoidance of things or experiences which we associate with pain or suffering- that which propels us toward something we want or forces us away from that which we want to avoid.

Understanding how all of these aspects of mind work together, and the role of one’s buddhi in processing all of the information and determining how to act or react to a given situation or stimuli, allows for a much more profound and deeper understanding of the role of mind in our daily lives, and in turn how the mind can lead to bondage or suffering.  This understanding, and tapping into the potency of buddhi, and at the very least the recognition of its existence, can also help us better understand why we think the things we think, why we have strong emotional attachments to some thoughts or ideas, and how these samskaras can be tamed to better guide and influence our behavior to desired results, rather than our behaviors and thoughts driving certain behaviors unconsciously.  Knowing the charioteer exists gives us a much better chance of controlling the direction and speed of the chariot.

Charlie liked to refer to the machination of the mind as reflections and speculations.  If you watched the mind for some time, stood away from it just a bit, he found that you could categorize the thought waves into reflections, the mulling over and processing of past events, and speculations, the creative part of the mind that is typically called the imagination that creates scenarios and situations that have yet to occur although they have some basis in reality, or the mental impressions of past experiences.

In effect, you could consider the workings of manas, that great and powerful tool, as a constant processing of information that is taken in by the senses, our interactions with others, and the application of this understanding to present or future events.  This is what the mind does, this is its purpose.  It is constantly organizing, generalizing and processing information from the world around us, comparing and contrasting it to past experiences and known modes of understanding, and then in turn filing away such information and storing it in the massive library, called chitta by the philosophical systems of Yoga and Vedanta.

Buddhi in turn, can be looked at as the charioteer, or the CEO, of this complex mental and psychological system.  He sits atop all of this massive store of information, and if his presence is perceived and recognized properly, he can be the master construct that processes and stores all of this information that comes in from the five senses continually all around us, and can act on it as they deem fit, using the power of discrimination and wisdom.  Better contact, comprehension and awareness of this guiding principle of the mind yields greater control over what would be called behaviors in modern psychology, and in turn a better chance of being able to achieve our desires and goals by framing our actions in a way that lead to desired ends rather than being bounced around in the world around us by the constant chasing of senses and desires.

As Charlie started practicing meditation more, he found that upon closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was immediately confronted by the waves of his thoughts.  The deeper and stronger the thought or desire, the more it plagued or was stirred up, by his practice of meditation – his desire to be a successful competitive tennis player, to compete on the big stages of the world, his desire for love and companionship, concern about his family, etc.  All of these thoughts stirred within him, and surged through his mind one after the other, with seemingly no end.  In the practice of meditation then, Charlie was challenged with the concept of mind and the nature of thought itself, what it represented and how it defined who he was.

Upon his meditation on the nature of thought, the turning of the instrument of the mind upon itself as it were, his now new quest to understand the thinking apparatus within man, he concluded what the Vedic and Yogic traditions had taught for thousands of years, that thoughts had different potencies, the waves came in different strengths and shapes through the backdrop of the mind, the strongest and most powerful of these thoughts stemming from his deepest and most lasting desires or disappointments, i.e. samskaras.

Most of us have thousands of thoughts during the course of the day.  They reigned over one’s life really.  They provided the framework from which Charlie acted and reacted in his daily life.  They framed people’s perception of him as well as one invariably must express themselves through words, and words and language and sound stem from thought.  It is these thoughts themselves that provide the framework for the events of our life really.

But most people didn’t recognize this.  They allowed themselves to be ruled by their thoughts, driven unconsciously by their samskaras, and were not aware of this subtle truth that drove their actions and behaviors, that their deepest and most relevant past impressions were in turn what more than anything else guided their present reality, and how the world around them shaped and adapted to them rather than the other way around.  But when you stopped for a few moments, let yourself enter into the world of the mind to discover its nature, it was then when you begin to realize the great influence that thoughts have on defining who you are and how you perceive the world around you, and in turn how the world around you and your relationships in particular were shaped by your thoughts, particularly your reaction to them.  Of course understanding their potency and liberating yourself from their bondage were two totally different things, the difference between a novice tennis player and a world champion, or master craftsman, so to speak.

 

Samskaras.  Charlie had yet to be exposed to that term when he first sat in meditation on that stump long ago in rural France, but that was the realm he was beginning to explore.  Moving from the raw physical world he sought so hard to master on the tennis court, into the more subtle world of the mind to try and find the secret of peak performance.  A journey which led into the nature of mind itself.  His inner journey had started.

Once Charlie had embarked into the realm of thought, he began to try and gain control of these thoughts, control by focus, that was the practice.  To sift his way through all the thoughts that he had, and consciously try to choose and focus his thoughts, the onepointedness of the Buddhist and Yogic traditions.  Some thoughts he chose to cultivate, and others, he chose to ignore or push away.  The thoughts still emerged to and fro upon the surface of his mind, but by choosing which thoughts to cultivate, Charlie began to reflect on their power, and contemplate their source.  Charlie had yet to realize the true import of visualization, the source from which mandalas and other visual representations of the divine, stemmed in the Eastern traditions[6].

And after the passage of some time, Charlie found, through the calming practice of meditation and the observing of thoughts as they passed through the undercurrent of Mind, one might find that these thoughts would slow, and begin to merge and coalesce into more pointed or singular thoughts or concepts.  One would climb the ladder of abstraction until it reached some its highest rungs.  And as it moved higher, the physical plane of existence becomes more and more distant, and the meditator began to merge into the world of thought, and into the source of all thoughts.  This world around the Jiva, the experiences and their impressions that they leave upon the mind of the individual, reflects the potency of this concept Maya[7], or illusion, that they speak of in the Vedic tradition, as looked at from the non-relative standpoint and from higher levels of perception.

Charlie knew for example, that one of the thoughts that plagued him on his second serve, was the double fault.  The dreaded double fault.  The gift wrapping of a point for your opponent.  And the potency of this little thought that had the potential to chip away at the foundation of his serve.  When he tossed that ball, sometimes that thought would creep into his mind, and his arm and back would seize up and tighten, and invariably, even if the serve went in, it had nothing on it.  A veritable meatball in the eyes of his opponent.  Despite all the energy he put into it, the ball had little velocity, and his accuracy was shoddy at best when this thought crept into his mind before his serve.  The thought, the fear of the double fault, had a direct physical manifestation in his physical body as he went through the physical motion of his serve.

So how to quell this thought?  How to drive it from your mind so that you can relax and be as fluid as possible in the complex motion of the serve that was so critical to setting the stage of the point and giving yourself the best possible chance to win that point?  For it is this fluidity, this relaxed state of mind, from which the velocity and accuracy on your serve came.  Charlie understood this and yet at the same time that dreaded thought would sometimes creep into his mind before he served, despite everything he might do to set it aside.

In all sport, the more complicated a physical motion, the more relaxed and peaceful your mind must be to accomplish it, to find the perfection in it.  To channel the energy in your body in the most complete and effective way to send that yellow fuzzy ball into the exact spot you were aiming, with the exact velocity, and the exact spin.  You couldn’t break it down, you couldn’t think about all the complex physical attributes and movements that needed to take place in order to achieve it, you needed to simply feel it.  An in order to feel it, your mind had to be empty, or said in another way, full in its perception and manifestation of the fluid and clean motion that yielded the serve that you were looking to execute on.

The serve, ironically enough given that it was the only shot in tennis where you could set the time table upon which it was struck, was where this state of mind, this emptiness, was needed most.  The serve was only stroke that had no external variables associated with it outside of your own physical presence and posture and the ball which you held in your hand.  It was just you, and the ball, standing up there next to the baseline.  A simple toss with one hand, a coiling of the hips and shoulders, a bit of a knee bend to get your legs into the motion, and then “thwap!, that ball came off the strings and was sent barreling over the net (hopefully), over to the opponent’s service box.  The more relaxed you were in the motion, the more it came from true feel, the more effective the shot was and most certainly the more velocity you had on the ball.  This was true of the serve more so than any other shot.

So how do you find this place where you can be at your most effective?  Your most relaxed, and yet your most aware state at the same time?  It was through ritual and through mantra.  That was what Jim Loehr, the eminent sports psychologist, was getting at really[8].  Through the rituals that surrounded the beginning and ending of the points, and through the repetition of a mantra or word that represented positive and powerful energy, you lost yourself in the rhythm of the game, your mind focused on the ritual, and the body was allowed to perform at its best – naturally.

This experience on the tennis court then, gave Charlie a deep sense of appreciation for the power of thought, the importance of ritual, and most certainly the power of mantra.  He saw clearly the power of thought, and its defining quality in its manifestation in both the positive and negative sense.  Once he understood this, and began to apply these principles of ritual and mantra into his game, and his meditation practice, his thoughts began to gain strength and focus, and take on a more positive, affirming form.  Through the constant practice of meditation, Charlie began to refine his thoughts until they reached a purer state and more abstract state, and more importantly Charlie began to be aware of their potency.

For there is a great difference between a pure, crystallized thought, and a lazy thought that exists alongside of dozens of other thoughts.  At the beginning then, Charlie found that meditation was simply the practice of refining his thoughts, of letting them pass through the substrata of your mind until the sea of thoughts was quelled, and the thoughts that stemmed up from the depths of the mind became more abstract, and more subtle, and the space between each individual thought began to expand and grow.  This was the settling of the mind in action, the quelling of the sea of mind until its rough waves began to relax and calm.

This is where Charlie found the Buddhist’s traditions to be very helpful.  Buddhism originated from Hinduism, just as Christianity had its roots in Judaism.  Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew.  And yet Buddhism had taken the esoteric teachings of the Vedas and crafted a handbook of sorts for the struggling soul, a much more simplified handbook than the Vedic philosophical and metaphysical tradition, at least from Charlie’s perspective.  The Four Noble Truths.  What a beautiful gift to humanity it was.  A guidebook to the realm of the spirit really, and a framework for living that would last over a thousand years.

The four noble truths of Gautama, spoken to his disciples just after his enlightenment under the buddhi tree, can be summarized as 1) the nature of this world is suffering, 2) suffering comes from desire and attachment, 3) suffering can be overcome, it can be conquered, and 4) the path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.  Charlie didn’t consider himself to be a Buddhist, but he was drawn to the teachings for their simplicity and elegance.  And it was Sogyal Rinpoche’s work, his attempt to explain the deep mysteries of life to the Western mind in his seminal work ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, where Charlie found the best explanation of this nature of mind that Gautama attempted to provide us with a guidebook to cross:

 

Just as the ocean has waves, or the sun has rays, so the mind’s own radiance is its thoughts and emotions.  The ocean has waves, yet the ocean is not particularly disturbed by them.  The waves are the very nature of the ocean.  Waves will rise, but where do they go?  Back into the ocean.  And where do the waves come from?  The ocean.  In the same manner, thoughts and emotions are the radiance and expression of the very nature of the mind.  They rise from the mind, but where do they dissolve?  Back into the mind

 

In effect, when we begin our study of the mind, we begin our study of the surface of the oceanic mind.  And it is the mind, in all its depth, that is the sky of life.  It is in meditation that we perceive this mind most directly, and when we begin to explore its source.  That all seemed to make sense to Charlie.  He didn’t completely understand, but he was beginning at least to be introduced to the age old metaphors that would help him understand the true nature of Self, or the Atman of the Vedic tradition, and come closer to answering those nagging, age old questions: “Who am I and why am I here?”, the same questions that the ancients were looking to provide answers for in their mythological and cosmological traditions.

There is just so much activity in the day of the Westerner.  It is virtually impossible for him to see through the illusion of the physical world into the gravity of the mind.  Taking up of the practice of meditation however, gives you a totally different perspective on this collection of daily events and experiences.  Furthermore, through the constant practice of the direct experience of the raw material for all existence, the light of truth began to become brighter for Charlie, and the nature of mind somewhat illuminated, if nothing else providing a more abstract and accurate construct from which to view the word around him and his life in general.

But where exactly can we step beyond the nature of thought into the realm of the mind?  How do you navigate through the realm of thought into the world from which all thoughts sprung forth?  Sure, thoughts would get finer and finer in deep meditation.  But as long as there was this sense of ‘I’, this sense of self that emanated from the attachment to thoughts and their associated emotions, Charlie felt trapped.  He felt bound.  The study of thought only revealed to him the subtle potency of thought, as well as the daunting nature of the task to go beyond thought, to lose yourself in the framework within which waves of thoughts originated.

The Buddhist tradition had some guidance here though.  Captured elegantly by Sogyal Rinpoche once again:

 

In the ordinary mind, we perceive the stream of thoughts as continuous; but in reality this is not the case.  You will discover for yourself that there is a gap between each thought.  When the past thought is past, and the future thought not yet arisen, you will always find a gap in which the Rigpa, the nature of mind, is revealed.  So the work of meditation is to allow thoughts to slow down, to make that gap become more apparent.

 

It is within this gap then, that we may find the gateway to the mind and the true nature of all experience.  The study of thought is simply the first step along the journey.  And this journey is in the realm of mind, leading from the small mind of the individual, to the greater massive mind of all consciousness.  Meditation then, that purely subjective experience, formed the core principle of the eastern traditions, the first step toward the understanding of reality, the path upon which one must travel if the true nature of the universe from which everything in it has sprung can be known.

Easier said than done of course, and despite the elegant intellectual framework within which the East painted this picture of mind, and the means with which to quell it for peace and ultimate realization, Charlie was still left with all the same day to day challenges of life, no matter how good or revealing a meditation practice might be or how much “insight” it provided.

 

[1] For a good description on the etymology and meaning of Kundalini, and its reflection in the theological traditions of both the East and the West, see http://www.transpersonal.com.au/kundalini/definition.htm.

[2] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

[3] The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana.  Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kauravas and the Pandava princes, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas.  Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.  Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata.

[4] From the Sanskrit root term budh, meaning ‘to be awake’, ‘to understand’ or ‘to know’.

[5] Or extensions of our senses like microscopes, telescopes, thermometers, etc. which become relevant when looking at the results fields of the fields of physics, molecular-biology for example in modern times.

[6] Maṇḍala is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle.”  In the Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions sacred art often takes a mandala form.  The basic form of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point.  These mandalas, or concentric diagrams, have spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism.  Mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation.  In Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic works, h saw the mandala as “a representation of the unconscious self, and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality.

[7] Maya or Māyā in the Vedic and Yogic traditions has multiple meanings, usually translated into English as “illusion”, the concept centers on the philosophical principle that we do not experience the physical world itself but are rather a projection of it, and reality is created by us as a projection of our mind.  Māyā in these traditions is also referred to as the principal or deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal universe, resting on the principle that in fact reality is one and indivisible and it is only through the illusion reflected by the power of Maya that a distinction between the subject and the object is perceived.  For some mystics, this manifestation of duality and distinction between the observer and that which is observed is real (see dualistic Vedic philosophical systems such as Dvaita Vedanta), i.e. each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternal unity, is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean.  The goal of enlightenment is to understand this non-dual notion and the illusory nature of maya – more precisely, to experience this: to see intuitively that the distinction between the Self and the Universe is a false dichotomy that stems from ignorance and un-enlightenment.  Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(illusion).

[8] https://www.hpinstitute.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr

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