Archive for May, 2008

There is one major misconception in current mainstream – understanding of Buddhism (if there is such a thing 🙂 ) IMHO, brought about by a rather misconceived interpretation of one very important and frequent term in the discourses of the Buddha, nama-rupa.

Nama-rupa is a compound, a noun, made up of two words. They are really easy to translate. “Nama” is “name” in English and many other indo-european languages as well, and rupa is form or picture, as in “the form on a canvas”.

Well, if that is so easy, why do we nowadays seem to find this term almost exclusively translated as “mind-matter”??

How does that sound to you? Ah, maybe you are familiar with this word in a Buddhist context. But, dare we say, doesn’t it sound a bit…materialistic. And the reason for the common translation is pretty simple: Modern day scholars follow the late commentarial interpretation which on this important topic is.. shall we say .. a bit abhidhammic-like materialistic in that it views mental phenomena as compartmentalizable “realities” by themselves. Which they are not. They are all concepts. Names.

It may sound very “scientific”, talking about “mind-matter”. Well, if we compare Newton to Einstein and Niels Bohr, of course his laws play a much more important part in our daily lives…on the surface, that is. In the same way, talking about mind and matter on a conventional basis makes sense. However, especially this term “nama-rupa” shows the depthness of the Buddha’s realization. Therefore, “psychologically” looking into name and form, could then be considered a “postmodern” physics topic where your four quantum theory semester would be the preliminary course in Buddhist vipassana meditation.

In fact, if the Buddha would have meant “mind and matter” in his language it would have been something like “mana-kaya” or “cittakaya”.

However, as it happens, Buddha had something very important “in mind” when he used the term “nama-rupa” not in this conventional materialistic connotation.

Nama-rupa definitely relates to “mental” phenomena and reality, but, from the perspective of the insight meditator, in a more “idealistic” sense: those mental phenomena which are at the root of proliferating the world in time and space around us based on 6 (sense) impression, that is the viewpoint which the Buddha had in mind, when he was looking for a term which could appropriately denote this deeper perspective, beyond the conventional terms of “mind” and “body”. Those terms, used separately, are “concepts” of content fabricated by the mind and are thus only useful in a very conventional type of communication. All just said where concepts as well, generated in the way outlined. You can sense an endless loop here.

If you will, there is a “wisdom-speak” and a “conventional-speak” in the suttas. Both deal with the same things, but the first talks in technical terms trying to catch the experience someone practicing vipassana or insight meditation may garner. That is hard, being at the event-horizon of reality, but Buddha came up with some pretty neat and accurate labels describing what is “going on” – if you try to translate them literally, that is. It is hard to grasp their meaning without practice and personal experience, because they talk about things which can only be seen by experience – now translating them in a very abstract and alienated way just to capture a readership used to the materialistic mechanic positions of last century physics doesn’t help in appreciating the novelty and depthness of the Buddha-Dhamma.

So, what is nama rupa? Here some suggested translations:

  • “name and form”
  • “concept and reality”
  • “concept and forms”
  • “representation and reality”

Nama or “Name/Concept” stands for a number of mental phenomena which are all necessary to fabricate and generate mental concepts which are then perceived as “reality” by our mind. It is a tricky process, and a quick one as well, but bare attention can shed some real light into this. If you like to read more about what constitutes “name” and produces concepts by which we live, have a look at this post.

Rupa or “form” is the physical counterpart on which our sixfold sense consciousness bases it concept-creation. The basic objective for our samsaric thirst for continuity is getting a “picture” or “representation” of the physical reality so that we can go on feeding the whirlpool. But the “physicalness” of the world is very evasive, as we can only interpret and infer it. And if we do a good job doing that, we end up with quantum physics pointing the finger back at the finger who is pointing. Anyway, if you like to read more about the definition on rupa, have a look here.

So, the next time you write/read a text on Buddhism, try to re-consider “mind-matter” as “name and form”. Using terms like “concept and reality” so much more precisely points us in the right direction, i.e. a direction of mindfulness and insight.

There could not be any liberation from a “mind created by matter”. But there very well can be a liberation from “concepts and forms”.

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Normally, when we talk about the world, we think of mountains, oceans, rivers, valleys, towns, transportation, globalisation, earth, planets, the universe.

When the Buddha spoke about “the world” he had something else in mind:

As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “‘The world, the world’ it is said. In what respect does the word ‘world’ apply?

“Insofar as it disintegrates, monk, it is called the ‘world.’ Now what disintegrates? The eye disintegrates. Forms disintegrate. Consciousness at the eye disintegrates. Contact at the eye disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too disintegrates.

“The ear disintegrates. Sounds disintegrate…”The nose disintegrates. Aromas disintegrate…”The tongue disintegrates. Tastes disintegrate…”The body disintegrates. Tactile sensations disintegrate…”The intellect disintegrates. Ideas disintegrate. Consciousness at the intellect consciousness disintegrates. Contact at the intellect disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain —that too disintegrates. [SN]

Just pause for a moment and give it “a thought”. Except for those six building blocks, where can there be a world beyond those? Can you imagine outside imagination? Can you feel outside feelings? Can you think the thoughtless?

Okay, you say: “But there is our earth and the stars”. But, well, yes, that what you said was in itself, if we are honest, a thought. Or better: a series of sense impressions. You say: Beware of solipsism. That is just a philosophical playground.” But well, yes, even this “standpoint”, if we show absolutely no interest in this question’s content but try just to be aware, listening to the sixfold noise of becoming, this question too was, in effect, just a thought.

Even my reflection, whether there could be something beyond thoughts…is, again, a thought. You say: “It is all a brain function.” Guess what? Gotcha, another thought (this term is used here very loosely. As seen in the quotation above, in addition to the five sense impressions Buddha reckons the mental objects and mind consciousness as just another “sense” – all in all, those six realms (sal-ayatana) are the foundation of “all” (even time and space are derived from their interplay). Whoever wants to “know” has to work with them. The trick however is to not get intangled with the contents (usually summed up sense impressions wrought into concepts and proliferated into perceptions of a 3D-surrounding filled with comedy and tragedy. Having said that, even a (quantum) physicist is essentially taking the stars for the telescope, ouch!).

The one trying to stop running away into labyrinths and thought chains, stopping hard to confront himself with the shock and aftermath of each sense impression, enters the abyss of impermanence which in each moment is closer than we fear but made invisible by some form of existentially necessary amblyopia. Or, did you ever enjoy a film were you could see each individual frame flashing? You may have enjoyed the funny aspect about that, a joy the insight meditator may very well experience seeing the rising and falling of his world in real-time. But “enjoying” the story? The “story” as such comes only into being through interpretation.

Being close to a realm which many unfortunately only associate with philosophy instead of personal experience we nevertheless know of at least one very famous (Buddhist) philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, who came as close to the Dhamma as you can get using contemplation on the topic of what constitues “world”, which is pushed forward by thirst and caught in concepts (or in Schopenhauer’s terms: The world as will and representation). Who knows, maybe he is using the reality-slicing knife of insight meditation as you read these lines.

Our existence is based solely on the ever-fleeting present. Essentially, therefore, it has to take the form of continual motion without there ever being any possibility of our finding the rest after which we are always striving. It is the same as a man running downhill, who falls if he tries to stop, and it is only by his continuing to run on that he keeps on his legs; it is like a pole balanced on one’s finger-tips, or like a planet that would fall into its sun as soon as it stopped hurrying onwards. Hence unrest is the type of existence. [link]

In the suttas we find another very famous passage which sheds light on how -in the perspective of a stream enter up to arahant – this “world” should be perceived – according to the Buddha, that is:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering & stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & consciousness,that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos. (AN 4.45)

The “eye of the Dhamma”, dhammacakku, which the stream enterer is supposed to open for the first time is nothing else than his ability “to perceive” the world, for the very first time, in a new light (the light of wisdom, poetically – the light of perceiving the act of perception itself in a more literal sense, and thereby dimming even the light of sun and moon).

When others talk about an event “in the world”, he will hear them while maybe watching the “six sense world” disintegrating in a subtle way.

In that way, the world becomes a drop of water on a lotus leaf of his unestablished consciousness (periodically at least, probably depending on the stage of his progress) or appears like the wind, passing through a net.

Though he still interacts with the world, usually in a very positive sense, he enjoys a personal freedom and detachment which is beyond “thoughts”. This goal, ending all goals, an unshakeable deliverance of the mind even when facing death: this was what prince Siddhattha had been looking for for such a long time. The cooling off of the fire, i.e. Nibbana. And that is why they still call him “the Awakened One”, Buddha.

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If you are a monk, i guess you do not read (online). But if you do, this text was written exactly for you 🙂

In 100 BC Buddhist monks faced a tough question:

“Should we preferably memorize and thus keep alive the discourses of the Buddha as they have been handed down to us or should we focus more on realization (meditation) and transfer the practice instead.”

Well, why not do both, you may ask. The problem at that time was: famine and a war ravaging the countryside. Many monks died of hunger and the Sangha was low on people who could memorize books. It is said that at one point only one monk had survived who could remember the Mahaniddesa. So close to oblivion were parts of the Pitaka.

Finally the monks voted in favor of keeping the memory of the teachings alive and thought that it is from the textual understanding that in later times the Dhamma could be realized again. They guessed that if they did achieve realization and all became Arahants maybe down the line the teacher-pupil transmission of knowledge would wither away and with it the entire Buddhist teaching.

The meditative monks were not happy with the decision in favor of book knowledge. But they did not voice their opposition though.

Now, 2100 years later, that ancient problem seems solved. Maybe not once and for all, but definitely for our current day and age. There are millions of copies of the original teachings of the Buddha. The pali canon is widely available on CDROM, as a download, web-based and in several book editions. Yes, you can even read it on ebook readers.

Scholars abound and dry scholastic knowledge on “Buddhism” swamps the bookshelves. Some deeper some more superficial – but it seems that the Tipitaka itself will be even better accessible to interested lay people and monks as the years pass by. More translations and magnificent editions are very likely to be sponsored by Buddhists around the globe. The benefits of a global interactive Southeast Asia and China – especially for Buddhists – are adamant.

Looking at the meditation / practice side in the Sangha though, we can only wonder: There is room for quite some improvement. Maybe you are the one who will make that difference!

Instead of going to the forests, young monks head to the streets, universities and political arena. A task made for lay life is taken over by laymen in robes, who, because of ignorance or boredom forsake the training grounds of frugality and virtue and the battlefields of insight and concentration for the semi-luxurious life of … well, laymen.

Don’t get this wrong. Sure, there is a great need for such and many other worldly activities. However, it is not what the banner of the Arahants was made for. And it is not just the Vinaya, but also conscience which should intervene.

Now, lets imagine if we would bring back to life those monks who created the distinction between “book” monks (ganthadhura) and meditative monks (vipassanadhura or dhutangikas) in the first place and who decided to spent most of the time handing down the texts, bound up by activities which are closer to the scholar than the practicioner: let us imagine that they would all come together to vote again, based on the current 21st century state of affairs.

Would they not unanimously vote in favor of realization, i.e. striving for Nibbana?! At that time, they knew what this Sasana stood for, and felt it and awkward deviation to book-learn instead to realize and guide others but reluctantly they ventured on this path, because in the long run, they thought, practice of the teachings and thus liberation of the mind would not be lost. And again: Videos, transcripts and dhamma talks of experienced meditative monks, that is what the lay and monk Sangha is in need of.

Should some monks have forgotten the real reason of the existence and foundation of the Sangha?

The Theravadin countries abound in monks/nuns an and perfect conditions for more or less intensive meditation practice. For the development of sila, samadhi and panna. However, the monk communities of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma etc. etc., seeing no need in handing down scriptures any more are now – for a big part, lost in monotheistic-like unreflected worship or political and social activism or they compete in scholarly activities with lay people.

While all those activities are and should be in the domain of lay people they need not, in the present day and age, be in the domain of monks. Exceptions may exemplify the rule. Of course. But in the end, to be honest, the robe is donned and a man or woman becomes the sun or daughter of the Buddha for the sake of Nibbana not Mannana.

Therefore, the world and heavens are always in need of teachers who master samatha and vipassana. And monks, nowadays, find the best resources they could possibly expect for once again making the realization of Nibbana and the end of samsaric suffering their paramount goal.:

‘‘Bhante, imasmiṃ sāsane kati dhurāni nāmā’’ti pucchi. Āvuso, vipassanādhuraṃ, ganthadhuranti. ‘‘Bhante, gantho nāma paṭibalassa bhāro, mayhaṃ pana dukkhūpanisā saddhā, vipassanādhuraṃ pūressāmi kammaṭṭhānaṃ me dethā’’ti vanditvā nisīdi. Thero ‘‘vattasampanno bhikkhū’’ti vattasīse ṭhatvā tassa kammaṭṭhānaṃ kathesi. So kammaṭṭhānaṃ gahetvā vipassanāya ca kammaṃ karoti, vattañca pūreti. Ekadivasaṃ cittalapabbatamahāvihāre vattaṃ karoti, ekadivasaṃ gāmeṇḍavālamahāvihāre, ekadivasaṃ gocaragāmamahāvihāre. Thinamiddhe okkantamatte vattaparihānibhayena palālavaraṇakaṃ temetvā sīse ṭhapetvā pāde udake otāretvā nisīdati. So ekadivasaṃ cittalapabbatamahāvihāre dve yāme vattaṃ katvā balavapaccūsakāle niddāya okkamituṃ āraddhāya allapalālaṃ sīse ṭhapetvā nisinno pācīnapabbatapasse sāmaṇerassa aruṇavatiyasuttantaṃ sajjhāyantassa –

‘‘Ārambhatha nikkamatha, yuñjatha buddhasāsane;

Dhunātha maccuno senaṃ, naḷāgāraṃva kuñjaro.

‘‘Yo imasmiṃ dhammavinaye, appamatto vihassati;

Pahāya jātisaṃsāraṃ, dukkhassantaṃ karissatī’’ti. (saṃ. ni. 1.185) –

Happy Vesakh B.E. 2552!

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There are a couple of instances in the Pitaka, where the Buddha compares our moment to moment experience (zoom out and you would call it “life”) with a swift river.

In some similes he compares our journey from Samsara to Nibbana as crossing a stream and trying to reach the safe haven of “the other shore”.

But in some of those instances where the Buddha employs this simile, he actually puts us right in the middle of the water, comparing our moment to moment experience with a person caught in the middle of a wild mountain river.

Imagine yourself being washed away in a swift river, floating midstream. The waves push you up only to pull you down again. You are pulled under water, you may get close to drowning in the water. You stretch your legs and arms, paddling like crazy in the wild water just to find a hold on something. Catch something, grasp something to keep up with the pushing and pulling currents.

According to this simile (see below) each moment of our lives resembles such a scary situation. Because, in a certain sense, reality as such means constant change and the onslaught of sense impressions share a similarity with the currents of a stream. In order to “stay alive” we need to keep our head/ego above the water.

We could not live one moment, if sounds, thoughts, pictures, feelings would come into being and simply continue unchanged – never changing again. If such a thing would happen, there would be no thinking, no moving, no perceiving possible: Everything would freeze in a moment and unknowing eternity would be the result. Now, that is not the case. We know very well, that life comes with death and a new car will one day break. But on a much more intimate level, not one moment stays the same.

Because all life is a question of measurement of this against that, of object and subject …the sounds you hear, the pictures you see, the body you feel. It all is like a cocoon or a huge meshed echo of sense impressons and mental activity creating the seemingly robustness of a river in which you swim, but on zooming close to that little fellow in the water who so aptly learnt to survive in the waves you will see – that he is frantically trying to keep himself above the water in each moment of being…(that is the strange feeling in the back of your mind, deeply buried, that longing for final contentment which makes you skydive, found a family, go on demonstrations, buy new cloth…makes you “live” through objects).

So you try to keep your head above the water because of the fear of reality, because of the fear of:

  • impermanence which seems to take away our foundations – whatever water we just splashed against to pull ourselves upwards will give way and we loose ground again
  • exhaustion because of this eternal fight for being, fight for existence in a very fleeting fluid environment causes discontentment, unsatisfactoriness on a very deep level
  • and emptiness, as there seems to be no lasting hold – not in the seen, not in the heard, not in the felt, not even in the thought, the water arround us is so merciless natural.

Now on the rivers edges towards which such a flood victim is pushed there are some plants which he will try to hold onto in order to keep his head above the water:

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, “Monks,suppose there were a river, flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, and — holding on to both banks — kasa grasses, kusa grasses, reeds, birana grasses, & trees were growing. Then a man swept away by the current would grab hold of the kasa grasses, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. He would grab hold of the kusa grasses… the reeds… the birana grasses… the trees, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.

“In the same way, there is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form (sense objects) to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form. That form tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.

“He assumes feeling to be the self, or the self as possessing feeling – perception – preparations – consciousness, oror consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness. That consciousness tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. AN 22.93

A little bit later In the same discourse the Buddha goes on giving a vipassana instruction to the monks. Like we saw in prior posts he finally asks the monks to simply note whatever there is (appears in their meditation) :

“Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment [noting] as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

The list of categories given here is not supposed to be a checklist. If you’d sit down and go through that list, trying “to think your way” through each of the phenomena in terms of “okay, let me see, what could a past feeling be” – doing it that way you would of course mean that you indulge in a number of feelings already NOT seeing them as they are but being hooked on them.

Instead “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near” stands for “all possible” contents or “whatever the content be, which arises” or “regardless what form, feeling etc. you perceive”. A method where the insight meditator would disregard the “content” of the sense current and regardless of what the water would push under his nose he would exert himself NOT to hold it. Because holding / resting in a strong current brings disaster. The insight meditators approach instead is to simply acknowledge / note and then disregard it.

Now lets continue with this beautiful simile. How could that poor guy get out of the water?

It is like the insight meditator had someone standing on the shore of the river seeing him being carried along by the swift current. The man on the river would shout: Look, there! Not far from you there is an elevation in the river bed. If you make it against the current and paddle up there you can stand with your feet! You won’t loose any further ground! So not excepting the pushing and shoving of the water but simply letting it float through his empty hands to push forward he dives into the water against the current parting it in his effort (getting better and better while fighting forward) and coming closer and closer to that elevation.

What is his biggest obstacle before reaching that first safe elevation in the river from which a sand bank leads to the shore where the other man gave him such a helpful advice? Well, think of all the piranhas (bad company) and logs in the water (disease and sudden death) which may appear and knock him out immediately. Or him losing faith in the message or the man on the river before even trying to do as he suggested. And don’t forget his exhaustion after swimming against the stream!

It is sure that the odds are way against him arriving on that safe little island in the water.

Lets suppose he makes it nevertheless. Now feeling that high ground with his toes for the first time he immediate feels relief (stream entry). Doubt whether the man on the shore really was trying to help him subsides, because now he knows that the instructions where correct. He can experience it as a fact. Would other people still floating in the water belief him? They may or may not, there is no way to “proof” it to them, that his feet feel ground. The only way for others would be to follow in his footsteps (paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi). But again, although the feet touch the ground, he is still 3/4 under water and the sense stream and “in-fluxes” (a-sava, lit. in-streamings) will push him in one or the other direction. However, as strong as they may push, he cannot lose that ground, he knows this spot now, tugging his toe into the ground.

Eventually, going further up on that elevation in the river bed he still can feel the tugging of water currents, but now the water reaches only up to his hips (once returner)! The karmic pushing and pulling lost its power over him and those unwholesome influxes (effluents) like greed and hatred which used to helplessly push him in their direction carrying him with them loose their grip on him. He still feels their slight nudging against his legs, but that does not mean that he has to follow them, the water falls back, the foundation under his feet is sound.

Next comes the moment where he completely leaves the water (anagami). Losing contact with the water will probably feel funny after all that time in the river.

Eventually he will reach the shore and be in the same position as the man who helped him escape in the first place. His skin will completely dry. No water left. The stream will be a remote detached event for him…still be there, but somehow completely separate. A feeling of aloofness, of ultimate freedom and release from the state of being trapped in the river currents.

In the Anguttaranikaya we find a very interesting simile with a similar context. Here the Buddha uses the river simile to show the different stages of the enlightened ones who successfully escape the full force of the water, the streaming sense experience delivering karmic ups and downs:

‘‘Cattārome, bhikkhave, puggalā santo saṃvijjamānā lokasmiṃ. Katame cattāro? Anusotagāmī puggalo, paṭisotagāmī puggalo, ṭhitatto puggalo, tiṇṇo pāraṅgato thale tiṭṭhati brāhmaṇo. etc.:

“These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.

“And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.

“And who is the individual who goes against the flow? There is the case where an individual doesn’t indulge in sensual passions and doesn’t do evil deeds. Even though it may be with pain, even though it may be with sorrow, even though he may be crying, his face in tears, he lives the holy life that is perfect & pure. This is called the individual who goes against the flow.

“And who is the individual who stands fast? There is the case where an individual, with the total ending of the first set of five fetters (Anagami), is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world. This is called the individual who stands fast.

“And who is the individual who has crossed over (Arahant), gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman? There is the case where an individual, through the ending of the mental fermentations, enters & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & made them manifest for himself right in the here & now. This is called the individual who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman. AN 4.5

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Even at Buddha’s time insight meditators went through times of doubt regarding their meditation practice. In the following case one monk thought he might simply ask his fellow monks how they practice and solve his own uncertainty. Unfortunately, they practiced differently. What was he to do?

Read this nice episode found in the Samyuttanikaya; it has a happy end:

taṃ bhikkhuṃ etadavoca – ‘‘kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī’’ti? ‘‘Yato kho, āvuso, bhikkhu channaṃ phassāyatanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ettāvatā kho, āvuso, bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī’’ti.

He then asked the other monk: “How, now, dear brother, is one’s insight-vision very clear? (Or: how does my seeing/bare awareness/attention has to be. How do i need to observe in order to make progress?)” – “When you, brother, perceive [*NOTE BELOW] the rising and falling of the six sense realms as they become/as they are, then, o dear brother, such monk’s insight-vision is all cleared.

However, the monk was not satisfied with this response and went to his next fellow-ascetic…only to get a complete different answer. Lets not repeat the whole text here, because even the second answer dissatisfied him and he continued getting expert tips from a couple of meditating monks. In the end he was completely confused. Lets list all expert responses on what would make our insight vision an excellent one:

  1. perceiving the rising and falling of the six sense realms as they are/or become
  2. perceiving the rising and falling of the five groups of grasping as they are/or become
  3. perceiving the rising and falling of the four great elements as they are/or become
  4. perceiving thus: ‘whatever arises will vanish’ as it becomes

Now lets study this neat list of vipassana instructions. It is hard to say whether those developed over time and all derive from the Buddha or whether the Buddha used all at the same time just applying them to different characters/tastes. All of them share the following strong similarities:

In each case the activity involved is pajānāti – to perceive/know/mentally see one or the other ‘object’ in a way or in the manner of yathābhūtaṃ. This term, as we saw here, usually translated as ‘as it really is’ and that being not a wrong translation but it too has a literal nuance of ‘as has become’, ‘as came into being’ which seems not unimportant in the context of insight meditation.

Especially when we have a look at the various ‘objects’ stated as valid insight meditation topics: all of them describe our experiential moment-to-moment reality in certain ‘categories’ which all imply motion. A rising and a falling. A coming and a going. Not just in spatial terms (sound coming from a bird behind me) or time (sound coming and going over time) but at a deeper level even depending on consciousness itself…no consciousness there, no one knowing, then no ‘being’. But that is something for your meditation cushion.

Now all listed methods seem to be set up in the same way, except for the objects they ask the meditator to observe. That is probably giving our newbee vipassana monk a hard time. How to solve this? Meditate all at the same time? One after the other? One in the morning, one in the evening? Or create a new one according to personal tastes? All wrong! Before we show Buddha’s answer to this tricky question, lets quickly make sure we are all on the same page and go through those objects once again:

  1. object: all six sense impressions (vision, hearing, smell, taste, tangibles, thoughts)
  2. object: all five groups of grasping (form, feeling, perception, (mental) preparations, consciousness)
  3. object: all four elements (heat, fluidness, air quality, hardness)
  4. whatever there is, tagging it promptly

If you compare your own personal vipassana instructions (be it Mahasi, Pa Auk, Goenka, Nyanananda etc. etc.) with this list you would probably find yourself in either group number 4 using some kind of label or you would use 1. or 2. derived from or combined with using labels.

Not going into details, but there are quite some techniques out there which do forget that it is NOT JUST the object of concentration but the manner in which the objects are noted which is quite (shall we say, even more?) important. See the above paragraph where we dwelled a little bit on the similarities between these descriptions but we will make this maybe a separate posting another time. Just to close this second off-topic remark: Mental chatter, whatever the content be, is not “yathabhuta pajanati” but often conceived as such. Beware of the content, it catches you and invites you to take a rest on something.

Let us listen to how the Buddha resolves this “insight meditation technique competition”:

As he was sitting there he [reported to the Blessed One his conversations with the other monks. The Blessed One then said:]”Monk, it’s as if there were a man who had never seen a riddle tree (lit. ‘What is this’ – tree). He would go to another man who had seen one and, on arrival, would say to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?”

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is black, my good man, like a burnt stump.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like. (Tena kho pana, bhikkhu, samayena tādisovassa kiṃsuko yathāpi tassa purisassa dassanaṃ)

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with the other man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is red, my good man, like a lump of meat.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with this man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree is stripped of its bark, my good man, and has burst pods, like an acacia tree.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“Then the first man, dissatisfied with this man’s answer, went to still another man who had seen a riddle tree and, on arrival, said to him, ‘What, my good man, is a riddle tree like?’

“The other would say, ‘A riddle tree has thick foliage, my good man, and gives a dense shade, like a banyan.’ For at the time he saw it, that’s what the riddle tree was like.

“In the same way, monk, however those intelligent men of integrity were focused (yathā yathā adhimuttānaṃ) when their vision became well purified is the way in which they answered. (Transl. by Bh. Thanissaro, SN 35, 204)

So the Buddhas answer is a very interesting one, and the simile has a humorous overtone. The tree, which dramatically changes it appearance over the course of the year ( Butea frondosa ) was called a “What is this tree” or Kimsu-ko tree, in Pali. That is beautiful: We may ask: What is this name and form and consciousness? How can we “name” and “label” it properly for others to understand what we mean, if it changes so dramatically. We could rightly call this mind a “What is this” – mind.

It is not easy, coming up with a systemization of such an illusive process as the perception of our world and how we identify from moment to moment and proliferate into concepts, thought-constructs and finally views. Buddha’s great achievement as a very good teacher was in part that his Dhamma made it easy for many to immediately get a very good understanding of what he was talking about. Even though talking about most subtle things.

Therefore, when we go back at the list of those 4 different objects, the Buddha asks us to “judge” them as essentially the same. He gives a hint towards the fact, that those categorization of the perceived “world” may just differ in a “temporal” perception of basically one and the same process / thing: The process we experience and the perception of our world in each moment.

In our vipassana practice we could start with simple tags like “whatever arises will vanish” noting whatever arises to our attention and immediately see, when doing it, certain facts which we did not realize before. Just by repeatedly stopping and thus prolonging a sense processing sequence we allow this direct insight to grow into “wisdom” of what is really going on.

Applying this perceiving process of noting to whatever arises we eventually will witness the workings of illusive elements which are hidden behind form and are “sensed” only trough the poking of many sense impressions, or get to see feelings and perception and thoughts arise and pass away individually. Or we might even break down the frame rate further and perceive the six sense realms in yet another level of observation of the one and same tree changing its appearance.

Moral of the story: Make sure that the fundamentals of your technique (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti) as such are correct and whatever is the object of your insight meditation will play only a secondary role (and, like in this case, may just be related to how quick or slow your “swing-by” in the moment was).

* perceive – seems like good translation for ‘pajānāti’. Using this one the noun pannya would than become ‘Perceiving’ instead of ‘Wisdom’ … that makes so much more sense… the English word ‘wisdom’ sounds like an old man’s experience…but that is clearly not meant by Buddhist pannya. This context makes it clear that pannya, or ‘wisdom’ in the Buddhist sense is a direct ‘perceiving’ of reality – not perception though, perceiving, or the ability to perceive.

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