Finally, the Buddha asserts that his Awakening to Truth is not just a momentary vision; it’s no passing thing. What makes him so sure? After all, everyone experiences certainties that don’t always prove reliable. How many relationships begin with the conviction that “You’re the one for me;” only to find out a year or two later that “You’re not”? In the places where I’ve lived as a bhikkhu, quite a few people have come to the monastery with the absolute certainty that they are going to be monks or nuns, and this is the only way to live. Not many of these people make it through the preliminary stages. It’s not that they’re lying, it’s just that they don’t always understand the nature of conviction.
Conviction based on belief and affirmation is unreliable. Belief by its very nature needs to be constantly affirmed. Left unattended it wilts. When religion is based on belief, the adherents must keep on meeting to tell each other how wonderful it all is or go out and convert someone. Getting fresh converts boosts one’s own belief to no end. But why is there this demand to believe? Does Truth or God, really need to be believed in?
When inspiration initiates and promotes conviction, it aims to preserve a particular feeling, role or image. The image then easily becomes a stereotype. Familiar examples we all know about are: the loving couple—always sharing and caring, growing together through life; or the serene, gentle monk—abiding in the peace of non-attachment, delving into the profundities of the mind, composed and wise. As ideals they are fine but one can’t expect to realize them without going through the trials posed by the things that challenge them. With regards to monastic training, confronting the hindrances, living together with other people as they go through their changes and growing pains, and the duties of maintaining a monastery as a place for people to practice, all involve something other than liking the idea of peace and mental refinement. Inspiration alone doesn’t usually provide the practical know-how to help you see the need or appreciate the means for discerning effort. If you’re just interested in inspiration, it’s generally easier to dump one idea and find another idea, situation, partner or cause, than go through the work of bringing the ideal into the realm of reality. Continuously switching loyalties is the samsara shuffle which is based on desire for a particular condition, a certain place, a scene, a mood, an atmosphere, a role or a particular state of mind.
The Buddha looked at the fundamental conditions of life—the conditions of the body and mind—and not special or fascinating ones. Rather than approving or disapproving of any of them, he looked at the inherent nature of them all. All phenomena are caused. They arise dependent on conditions. Mental phenomena depend on interest, belief and other supporting conditions which include some form of desire. All of these are subject to change and can only be temporarily sustained. For this reason, things are unsatisfactory. It follows that no condition can be an Absolute Truth, nor can it be the true quality of a person or any living being. Whether the “self” is being masqueraded as a voice in the mind (myself), or a bird on a branch (some other self), it doesn’t matter. All conditions which arise are impermanent and not-self. Yet an unenlightened mind sees the world from the perspective of conscious experience based in desire/becoming and birth/death. The experience of self, which the mind holds instinctively, goes against all reason.
Just consider what gives rise to the conviction that one has an identity which is found within a body. Not the thought, but the emotional conviction, “This is my body.” Isn’t that conviction based on attachment to bodily pleasure and pain? The sense of actually being a pleasant bodily feeling is ecstatic, however impermanent. It feels like a higher, more unified sense of being than the diffuse bric-à-brac of ordinary consciousness, It feels like the real thing. Unfortunately the experience is fleeting, and is a set-up for being put into the firing line of receiving unpleasant feeling as the real thing. Hence the violent swings that sensual indulgence puts you through. From another perspective, there can be pleasant and unpleasant mental feelings based on the body. Being told that one’s body is wonderful or disgusting is liable to cause a certain amount of identification. Yet if one’s reference point is that this body is mostly made up of protein chains of hydrocarbon molecules or of flesh, bones, nerves and various kinds of liquid, there isn’t a sense of “self.” And this factual description is more accurate than the value judgements our emotions believe in.
What about the mental processes that give rise to the belief that we are our thoughts? Belief in the states of the mind is really based on aspects of interest (either through desire or aversion): “I approve of these states—they are ‘me’; I disapprove of these—they are also ‘me.’” Then the good me has to get rid of the bad me. And despite my efforts to get rid of it, the bad me keeps popping up like a jungle guerrilla. When we think the campaign is too tough, we look for another cause to believe in; we switch to another set of thoughts, interests and attitudes. With the mind, the very creation of phenomena is conditioned by the mental act of believing that they are aspects of our self. When you take the “special and personal” labels off; when what we experience is the same as everybody else, all phenomena amount to nothing much. And in one way, they are all the same: they are all impermanent, dukkha and not-self. And as such, they no longer emotionally bind the heart. When that happens, the wizard’s spell is broken. That “disenchantment” with conditions is what the process of insight awareness is about.
From where does the Buddha see things? Isn’t that yet another position that the mind can attach to? What is the Buddha’s wisdom based upon? What happens to it when he dies? If we use the Buddha as a sign, the no-position of the Awakened Mind can be made clearer. In considering the Buddha, one can’t really say that the body is the Buddha, nor are the feelings, or the sense-consciousness, or the ideas, thoughts and so on. The world of the khandhas is what is seen and not grasped by Buddhas. But Buddhas have the five khandhas. So all we can say is that the existence of Buddhas can only be designated in relationship to them; and when the five khandhas cease, we can’t make any more designations. So Ultimate Truth can’t be contained in any concept. Can you conceive of the inconceivable? Not being conceived, it can’t be born; not being born, it can’t die. Being beyond birth, death and all conceiving, it has no position and no characteristic. It has no “self.”
When we can’t hold onto the Ultimate Truth, and everything else is dukkha, the problem becomes one of sustaining the motivation for practice. Maybe if we were sufficiently high-minded, we could sustain endeavor without the support of developing something, making progress or feeling happier. But that isn’t how it is. One’s practice should be to carry out every action with a one-pointed attention to do the thing right, irrespective of personal cost or gain. Moreover, the various pleasant or unpleasant feelings that arise in the body and mind should not be adhered to. Nor should one cling to the peacefulness of the neutral feelings. To abandon such preferences however, requires the mind to be constantly in touch with the ground of consciousness within which phenomena arise. To do this requires a major change, not only of energy and attention, but of ingrained value systems. Most people’s problem is that their mind still remains unconvinced of the value of Nibbana. Whatever the theory, when it comes down to the actuality, we are still turned on by the sensory world despite getting burned by it. How does one develop the taste for the Unconditioned? Is it just through being disillusioned with everything else? This sounds like a pretty grim prospect. …
However, the insight teachings of the Buddha are practical and instructive rather than inspirational. For this Path, aspiration comes from faith rather than belief. Faith is the quality that sustains the heart without the need to have something else to hold onto. It is akin to courage or the willingness to try something out. Dhamma practice has to begin with this, otherwise there is no real giving of oneself, and no personal inquiry. With one moment of faith, we practice one moment of letting go. But one moment of Dhamma has a furthering quality. The practice is one moment at a time, and yet very firm and supportive. The Buddha explained it as a natural process:
Bhikkhus, for one who is virtuous … there is no need to wish: ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ Bhikkhus, it is in accordance with nature that freedom from remorse arises in one who is virtuous. For one who is free from remorse, there is no need to wish: ‘May joy arise in me.’ Bhikkhus, it is in accordance with nature that joy arises in one who is free from remorse. (And similarly joy is the foundation for rapture, rapture for calm, calm for contentment, contentment for concentration, concentration for insight, insight for dispassionate realization, realization for liberation.) (Anguttara Nikaya: [V], Tens, 2)
Motivation without selfish desire, attachment or becoming is a matter of sustaining the Dhamma, and letting the practice bring up our fundamental wholesomeness. In brief, we develop qualities in which we can trust. The cultivation of Dhamma, remember, has two Paths—the mundane and supramundane. The mundane Path begins with setting up conditions like living honestly, without intoxication, aggression or greed. These are favorable for peace of mind. Moral integrity is the best foundation for meditation. Then meditation makes your mind more calm and clear—and these are pleasant and fruitful conditions. Moreover, if you sustain the practice, it gives you the insight to realize that the mundane is ultimately not good enough, and that there is a supramundane.
The supramundane practice is based on the same moral conditions, but brings the mind’s attention to the self-view—the judging, wanting, comparing, complaining, besieged ego that is trying to find exactly the right situation for itself. It uses conditions in the body, the mind and the world for reflection on the unsatisfactoriness of seeing things in personal terms. The supramundane Path in its entirety is aimed at shifting the mind to fit the world rather than expecting the world to fit the mind. The certainty of that Path is quite different. It’s not based on propping up one’s faith with attachment to conditions—such as great teachers, lots of fellow-disciples and scintillating teachings. Those things if they are around are a bonus. But when the teacher has confessed to a drink problem and everybody leaves except you and the janitor, you can keep going—if your practice is based on your own insights. The unshakeable insight isn’t dependent on having a series of inspiring perceptions to believe in. Perceptions are dukkha, and the need for belief is dukkha. True insight has a delight and uplift based on not holding onto the conditions of the body and mind. It is called the Unconditioned. And it has the taste of freedom.
Just as the great ocean has only one taste, that of salt; even so has the teaching and discipline only one taste, the taste of liberation. (Anguttara Nikaya: [IV], Eights, 19)
Let’s take a look at the painting for some further reflection. The Awakened One sits in the meditation posture in a nonspecific place in this world system. The central picture is framed by many faces, some animal, some human. These represent the many births of the Great Being, the Buddha to be. If there is no self, what is it that goes through a series of lives? The Buddha firmly rejected reincarnation—which is the theory that an immaterial being is contained within the body, and, after the break up of the body, goes to another body. He once sternly rebuked a bhikkhu who asserted that the same consciousness carried over from one life to another (Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta; Majjhima Nikaya: Sutta 38). This, of course, is a form of self-view. Yet on other occasions, the Buddha would talk about a person’s future destination after the death of the body or about his own previous births.
The apparent contradiction only becomes resolved when we understand the Buddha’s use of language on the one hand, and, on the other, insightfully investigate the process of life. Regarding the use of language: birth is the arising of the five khandhas which we experience as self. Using “self” and “I” as conventional terms for ease of expression, we can talk about the self-experience being born. However, the practice of insight points to form arising dependent on consciousness, which in turn is affected by intention and attention, and so on. So nothing has separate existence. Aspects of an interdependent, conditioned whole mesh and interact with other aspects in a field of conditionally that we can liken to a kammic biosystem. For this reason, in accordance with the Buddha’s own usage, I refrain from using the word “rebirth” which implies that some thing that was before pertains in the future, and simply refer to “birth” (jati). That keeps our inquiry within the linguistic and experiential framework of the Buddha.
In a kammic field of interdependence, no thing is really born; but through the coming together of the five khandhas is the appearance of a unified and separately existent self. The continuing factor of birth after birth then is not the elements, but what brings them together. What holds and merges energies, elements and forces into apparent independent units? It is that which serves as the continuum for “further becoming” upon which birth is dependent. Obviously desire, the inclination towards separative existence (bhavatanha), plays a key part—as does attachment (upadana)—while ignorance bars the insight into interdependence.
When we examine the experience of life with insight, we might see that the “coming together” is experienced in a moment-after-moment fashion as the co-dependent arising of consciousness and name-and-form.¹ In this way, when we see something, it can be noted as a moment of visual consciousness arising dependent on the eye organ and contact. A feeling and a mental perception arise, which is mind consciousness arising as the mind receives the eye’s message. With the perception arises the mental formation, the thought of the visual object. Then, dependent on interest/desire and the lingering of attention or attachment, a whole range of perceptions and feelings proliferate, compounded out of associations, memories, inclinations—in brief, attachments—and this experience gives rise to the impression of a separate self who sees and thinks.
Visual consciousness arises because of eye and material shapes; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement; because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates over; what one proliferates over, becomes the source of the array of perceptions and obsessive thoughts that assail one in regard to visual objects of the past, future and present. (Madhupindika Sutta; Majjhima Nikaya: Sutta 18)
Using the references of Dependent Origination, it is the proliferating power of ignorance affecting the “kamma-productive activities” in mental consciousness (avijjapaccaya sankhara, sankharapaccaya viññanam) that is the condition for birth. This can also be expressed as the activity of the outflows. The accumulative effect, the vipaka of this, affects the kammic field in which consciousness continually arises. The more that the mind is allowed to dwell and be activated in ignorance, the more patterns are established on ignorance, and the accompanying desire and attachment get established where consciousness arises. The net result is that consciousness keeps getting re-established in the same old patterns. To this extent, there is re-birth. Nothing is really re-born, but a pattern persists—a kind of kammic blueprint or genetic code—upon which consciousness and name-and-form get established.
In that way, Ananda, kamma is like a field, consciousness like a seed and desire like sap. For beings that are hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, consciousness is established on a low level. So it is that further becoming and ongoing birth are brought about. Thus, Ananda, is existence. (Anguttara Nikaya: [I], Threes, 76)
To use a simile: if we apply a burning match to dry paper in the presence of air, a flame will arise on the paper. The flame has not left the match, nor has anything passed from the match to the paper. The second flame has arisen bearing certain similar characteristics to the first, and related to the first through action (kamma) initiated by some volition or desire. The paper (form) is dry and has the potential for combustion (the arising of consciousness); what we have to remember is the essential presence of oxygen (becoming) which is the continuum of the transmission.
The pattern of birth is then established on desire, attachment and ignorance. So the “stickiness” of consciousness is a result and a cause for the accumulative processes of attachment and becoming that give rise to self-view. So, although the process of birth is selfless, the “glue” that binds the khandhas together, the upadana or attachment, is nourished and developed by the results (vipaka) of kamma. Before the whole scenario gets too depressing and fatalistic, we should remember that the whole birth/becoming process only pertains to the field of kamma. And as the Buddha says, there is the Unborn. We could liken this to the space within which action and form occur. How can we know that? Simply because we can observe action and form, desire, attachment and becoming.
This must be the case in order for there to be a clear way to fully see desire, attachment and becoming. In the Buddha’s accounts of his own Awakening, this complete review of the process of kamma and birth was not a sign of being totally enmeshed in it, but rather of a mind that was transcending it.
It must also be considered that the way out of kamma is by cultivating enough good kamma for consciousness to arise with the requisite faculties for enlightenment. Good kamma binds the sense of self in more sensitive, refined, loving and peaceful states; bad kamma does the reverse. Although both kammas are adhesive in essence, good kamma will sensitize the mind until its reflective powers can see through the accumulated whirl of phenomena, and the appetite for further birth palls. And good kamma feels good. It’s good to feel free from remorse, clear and compassionate towards others.
Kamma performed without greed … hatred … delusion … is skillful, praiseworthy; that kamma has happiness as its fruit, that kamma leads to the ceasing of kamma … (Anguttara Nikaya: [I], Threes, 108)
Although the spirit of selflessness is not measured in terms of some mental feeling, we have already seen that Buddhas do have feelings; they feel the bliss of concentration, the pain of physical sickness. In the presence of Buddha wisdom, feelings are made light and non-obstructive. The process of cultivating good kamma, which is inspiring and leads one on, is the subject matter that is illustrated by the border of this painting. Although ultimately there is no “rebirth,” there is “further becoming”—the process of kamma-vipaka stimulating the arising of beings in the plane of time, birth and death. Some of these beings are depicted in the border.
The Buddha, in describing his own Awakening, recounts seeing, during the first watch of the night, the stream of cause and effect that had led him to that point. His mind had become so clear that he was also able to see the stream of cause and effect extending into a great range of his past lives and that of a great number of other beings as well. In looking at his own circumstances, what stood out was the consistent perfection of good kamma through paramita: spiritual acts that go beyond the normal motivation of personal gain. The ten perfections of kamma are: generosity (dana), morality (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (pañña), energy (viriya), patient endurance (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), resolution (adhitthana), benevolence (metta) and equanimity (upekkha). The story goes that the recollection of this wealth of goodness was one of the foundations for repelling the host of Mara. Fully knowing his aspiration and inner worth, the Bodhisatta was able to stave off any doubts that might assail him as to his intention and resolve.
This presentation of the value of good kamma is very helpful. It indicates that the mind can be weaned from sensory gratification, becoming and ignorance. As the Buddha’s teachings grew more popular, the practice of perfecting kamma was illustrated by means of hundreds of fables, called Jatakas, about the previous lives of the Great Being. In each of his previous lives, whether he was a monkey or a brahmin, a prince or a hermit, he perfected one of the ten paramita.
For instance, in one life, the Great Being was a hermit who lived in a cave practicing patient endurance. At that time, the King of that country liked to go out in the countryside enjoying himself, hunting and drinking and eating, as is the way with kings. Generally he took his 150 wives along with him. He probably expected them to coo in awe when he came back with a dead stag. Anyway, they were out together one day, and the King decided to go off and chase some deer, leaving his wives with the servants and the baggage in a nice picnic spot. After a while, the ladies got bored and decided to go pick some flowers and look at the scenery. Well, they came across the hermit sitting in his cave, radiating gentleness and serenity. These ladies were intelligent and cultivated and they were moved to respectfully inquire as to what his practice of dhamma was. So he told them he was practicing patience. They, having had to put up with the behavior of the King for many years, could easily relate to the practice of patience and were very uplifted to realize that being patient with life was spiritually strengthening. This event set them thinking.
Meanwhile, the King came back from the hunt, hot and tired and expecting to be received by his adoring wives and told how magnificent he was. Nobody was there but a few servants looking after the baggage. “Hummph!” snorted the King, and when the servants told him that his wives had gone for a walk, he stomped off in the direction in which they had gone. Coming to the hermit’s cave, he found all of his wives engaged in rapt conversation about patient endurance with a little man in a loincloth. The King’s instincts and ways of assessing situations were pretty basic. Out came his sword. “Practicing patient endurance, are you! Let’s see what you make of this!” And with two swishes of his sword, he sliced off the Great Being’s ears. The hermit remained unmoved in body and mind. “Oh yeah?” roared His Majesty and sliced off the Great Being’s nose. Still, the hermit kept cool. Off came the arms and legs as the King tried to shake the hermit’s resolve to no avail. The King perhaps started to consider that there was something unusual about this hermit, or maybe he was getting tired; anyway he asked the Great Being why he was doing this practice. “Your Majesty,” replied the sage, “I wish to become a Buddha and discover a Dhamma for the welfare of all beings. In this lifetime, I have resolved to develop the paramita of patient endurance towards that aim. As you have helped me to perfect that quality today, when I do attain to complete Awakening in a future life, you will be the first one to whom I will transmit my Dhamma. Now if what I am saying has any truth in it, may my arms and legs and severed members be joined back to my body.” In a moment, his body was restored to its former appearance. The King, it is said, dropped his sword and prostrated on the ground in a gesture of humility and respect. Many lifetimes later, he was born as Kondañña.
Another good example of a transcendent virtue is equanimity (upekkha). In one Jataka, the Great Being decided to perfect this paramita. He lived as an ascetic, sitting out in the blazing sun all day and going naked in the chill of the night, sleeping on thorns and rocks, drinking water from puddles and eating leaves. All this was intended to develop equanimity. He did this for eighty years, constantly testing the body in order to become equanimous to pain and discomfort. However, as asceticism is a negation of the body and inflicts unnecessary hardship, it leads to a birth in Hell. So when the ascetic died, he went straight to Hell. As he saw the gates of Hell loom up ahead of him, he thought, “That life was a complete waste of time. Oh well, never mind.” And at that moment, he perfected equanimity and immediately went up to the heavenly realms.
Such stories give you another perspective when your boss is hollering at you for something that wasn’t finished yesterday. It helps you to remember what you can get right, what you can take with you and where your real home is. To remember that feels good and gives you strength when times are hard. When the reflections on insight, cessation and Nibbana lose their appeal, having such a fable in mind helps one find the aspiration to keep going in face of the stuff that life brings up. And the results are good. Life can give you spiritual strength and a sense of purpose if its mundane routines are highlighted in this way. For example, to be patient, generous, kind, moral and wise are qualities to perfect; any action that brings these perfections into the world has the capacity to Awaken the transcendent side of the mind. When you rise to the occasion, the result is that you feel good in yourself.
In the first watch of the night, when Buddhas Awaken to some aspects of transcendent Truth, they realize their true lineage. It is a spiritual lineage—an evolution of wisdom and purity. It gives them the foundation from which to view the khandhas, the outflows and the host of Mara as not-self. That foundation is not a personal position or an identity. It is a transcending position, established not on any personal quality, but on qualities we can all develop and that take us out of our personal concerns and limitations. Being patient is definitely not-self. It does not appeal to the outflows or the self-view; to them, it seems like a waste of time, and even a humiliation. The transcendent, supramundane Path is always a giving up of self. Yet giving up self becomes a far more stable and unshakeable foundation than anything that comes through the processes of gaining and becoming.
It is said that in the second watch of that night, under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha came to understand the laws of cause and effect that determine the future of all beings. This deepened his compassion and understanding of not-self. In this picture, the Buddha is portrayed seated above a knotwork figure. The knotwork represents the links of cause and effect, of temporality, in which the Buddha is no longer operating. His perfection of good kamma has led to the end of kamma. He is depicted touching the ground, calling the earth to bear witness to his paramita. The hand is painted in some detail, whereas the face has no detail apart from a gentle smile. This represents the “change of lineage” from the realm of personality (we normally identify with the face) to that of transcendent activity within the field of cause and effect—the cultivation of paramita. That hand reminds us that realization of Truths only comes by getting in touch with fundamental things like our actual feelings and beliefs. We have to “touch the earth”—leave the illusions and hopes behind and get in touch with how it really is now. We don’t need to contact a special set of perceptions and feelings but we must develop an unwavering contact with the ones that arise ordinarily. Thus another meaning of a “Tathagata” is “one who has come”—a Buddha, having seen through cause and effect, willingly enters into it out of compassion for other beings, beings still held in the belief that they are the process of cause and effect.
All we can know is that we are—although the definition of what we are is subject to views and opinions. Is it possible to leave that Suchness, that “Is-ness” of being, unconditioned by our attempts to define it? Is it possible to abide in that apparent emptiness until we taste the freedom that enriches it? It is an act of trust. And the Awakened Ones can abide trusting in emptiness because of the rich store of paramita that has given them supreme confidence. With that, they repel Mara, and come to full understanding, not purely of themselves but of the way it is. Through this, in the third watch of the night, the Buddha came to realize the Four Noble Truths, the Way of living beyond self.
The illustration depicts, in the center of the Buddha’s body, a mandala—a spiritual theme formed into a symbol for the purpose of meditation. This particular mandala represents the union of male and female as the polarities of the universe. We can list what goes under those polarities: active/passive; constriction/expansion; form/space, and so on. As in the previous painting, the main theme here is the harmonizing of all positions. When there is unity, there is no “other” to flow towards, or away from. When there is harmony based on a fundamental resolution of all the potential dualities, there is no possibility of desire for one of them. There is no taking a position in the masculine to be drawn towards or away from the feminine. This point of resolution is the supreme liberation, the irreversible termination of the outflows because there’s nothing to flow out to.
The Buddha has lived it out. Now he is no longer fooled by any condition, any position, or any “self.” Hence he is no longer convinced that anyone is really that which is born and dies, because it becomes obvious that that true being or Is-ness is more than a matter of temporarily holding to a position. With this insight he can live with total sensitivity and compassion in a world of suffering beings, without anxiety or despair. As he does not take or hold any position regarding conditioned phenomena, he has all the possibilities of relating to them. His mind is open, free from bias, self-interest, unresolved traumas and the rest of it. Nor is he biased toward not experiencing conditions. It’s not the case that he doesn’t bother with the phenomenal world either. His liberation from suffering is, therefore, a source of faith as well as an inspiration for practice for all beings.
Homage to the Tathagata!
- i.e., rupa (form) + vedana (feeling) + sañña (perception) + sankhara (intention, attention and contact) + viññana (consciousness)—that is, the potential to receive impressions through the senses based on a psycho-physical organism. [return to text]