Monday, February 19, 2018

Guarding The Senses

The Buddha was talking with Uttara, a young pupil of a teacher called Parasariya.
“Uttara, does Parasariya teach you how to control your senses?” asked the Buddha.
“Yes, Parasariya does indeed teach us how to control our senses.”
“And how does he do this?”
“We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear. This is how we are trained to control our senses.”
“But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses, for the one does not see and the other does not hear,” the Buddha replied.
Uttara was silent.
After several moments, the Buddha continued, “Well, Uttara, Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach. When a yogi sees a form with the eye, usually a feeling of liking or disliking comes into being. The yogi understands that liking or disliking has arisen but that either one is not inevitable but is conditioned and dependent upon myriad causes and conditions. So, the yogi cultivates a state in which there is equanimity and finds that in so doing, the liking or disliking begins to fade and the yogi can then see things as they are. This is how the yogi can control their senses. That is what we teach.”
---Majjhima Nikaya

I am often asked what are the differences between the yoga taught by the Buddha and that taught by Patanjali or the Classical Yoga tradition. While there are quite a few, this passage points to a fairly central difference in actual practice. But first, it’s helpful to remember that the earliest definitions of the word yoga emphasized the practice of yoking. And this “yoking” was itself described as the practice of meditation. A common analogy of yoking the senses, breath and mind was to parallel it to the yoking of horses to a chariot, where the horses were the senses, the charioteer the egoic self and the owner of the chariot, sitting within, the ‘True Self.’ The implication was that the horses or senses, given free reign would cause havoc and needed to be restrained.

In Classical Yoga, pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eightfold path described in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, was often defined as “withdrawal” and described as sensory inhibition. The most popular image for this process of sensory inhibition is offered in the Goraksha-Paddhati (2.24): “As the tortoise retracts its limbs into the middle of the body, so the yogin should withdraw the senses into himself.” Of course there are other understandings of the process of pratyahara as in “the pleasant state of consciousness that beholds the Self in all things” as stated in the Tejo-Bindu-Upanishad (1.34) but in the contemporary yoga world it is the former view of the tortoise withdrawing inwardly that is most encountered. As Georg Feuerstein said to a group of us in 2002, “For Patanjali, yoga was a process of in-up-and-out.”

In this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya, Uttara is describing his teacher’s teaching on sense control as a process of shutting down the process of perception: “We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear.” It might be easy to miss the Buddha’s wry sense of humor as he responds, “But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses.” I can picture poor Uttara standing there, now mute in the face of this subtle smack-down!

The dramatic tension exists in those moments where Uttara remains silent, until the Buddha rescues him with his teaching. And note, he doesn’t completely negate Parasariya’s teaching as “wrong,” but rather just says “Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach.”

And what the Buddha teaches is what my teachers more accurately describe as “guarding the senses” in that the senses themselves are not “controlled” or “yoked” but the conditioned reactivity to the sense perceptions. In other passages, the Buddha exhorts his students: “In the seeing let there just be the seeing; in the hearing let there just be the hearing.” What the Buddha is getting at is that just about immediately upon a sense organ making contact with a sense object (eyes making contact with form/color etc. or ears making contact with sound) and the arising of sense consciousness, a conditioned reaction of a feeling-tone of pleasant or unpleasant arises. Without mindfulness, that conditioned reaction will condition and determine how we then react through action that is either clingingly desirous or aversive. The feeling-tone will present a kind of ‘veil’ that prevents us from actually seeing or hearing with more objectivity and clarity. We react to our feeling-tone and not the actual sense object (form or sound, in the case of eye and ear).


With mindfulness, we can stop, take a backward step from the conditioned reactivity and then choose a more skillful and beneficial way of responding. While Parasariya’s way may lead to a deep samadhi-like state of peace, it ultimately is very limiting as there can be no engagement with the world of “sound and vision.” With the practice of satipatthana (mindfulness), the yogi does not have to disassociate from the world, but rather changes the way they relate to the world. From conditioned reactivity to creative response, the practice of mindfulness can cultivate greater freedom here and now in the realm of inter-relationship, or perhaps even more the reality of “interbeing.”


Friday, December 8, 2017

The All (Sabba-Sutta)

I will teach you the all. Listen closely. 
What is the all? It is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and feelings, the mind and thinking. This is called the all.

Someone might say, "This all is not enough. I reject this all. I will proclaim another all. But because this is a groundless assertion, such a person, when asked about it, would not be able to show another all because that all is not within their sensorium. Such an assertion is merely a thought arising in the mind.
--- Samyutta Nikaya

This passage may be one of the earliest explications of the phenomenological  experience of reality. It also describes the buddha's criteria for how and what we can know of reality: what is the source for knowing the nature of our experience? It is the totality of our sensorium (the six sense organs and the objects of the senses) because these six senses comprise the totality of our lived experience, our lived reality as opposed to our imagined, deluded story about reality.

Whatever the reality outside of the sensory apparatus, we can only know what we know through the sensory apparatus. The raw reality -- phenomena as they are -- cannot be known directly as our senses already condition what and how we can know and experience reality. It is in this way that we can say our sensory apparatus create our lived reality/experience.

For example: you and I have been presented the same meal. I take a bite and begin to gag and feel like I could vomit. You take a bite, savor the taste, sigh and smile with pleasure. Can we say that the taste of the food was the same or different? We can imagine similar scenarios for any of the senses: a scent I find delightfully pleasant may make you gag in revulsion, etc.

Remember, the buddha is much less interested -- if he is at all -- in metaphysical speculation than the alleviation of existential duhkha. His teaching of satipatthana directs us to pay full attention to the experience of the sensorium because that is where the duhkha arises and it will be the place where it ends. As Glenn Wallis writes, "...your experience is your reality. And your experience is your reality." Thus, if your experience is pervaded by duhkha, then paying attention to the nature of your experience is much more to the point than speculating about "reality." 

This passage from the buddha also points to a fairly radical notion. The buddha is asserting that your sense organs and the data that comprise the totality of your experience is 'the all,' which is to say this all is your (lived) world! The buddha seems to be saying that those who posit another 'all,' such as a supernatural realm are misconstruing what is actually known. Those who speak of "knowing god" (or knowing "god") are not really clear on what it is that they actually know. According to this passage from the buddha, what they know are thoughts, concepts, perhaps visual imagery arising in their minds. Such mental formations are part of the sensorium and the only thing we can know. The error is the extrapolation from these mental formations to an entity that exists in the 'external' world. Recently, I read a Facebook thread where two devotees of new age thinking argued about what the "higher dimensional entities" they were in contact with thought about sexual relations for enlightened beings. One said they are beyond any such relationships while the other said they were so open as to be polygamous!

We all make all sorts of claims about the existence of things without taking the time and making the effort to look at just how we know them! The buddha is suggesting we get clear about just what it is that we know.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Awakening Life

Describing his awakening, the Buddha said: “Coming to be, coming to be! Ceasing to be, ceasing to be! At that thought, yogis, there arose in me a vision of things not before called to mind. Knowledge arose: such is form, such is the coming to be of form, such is its passing away. Recognition arose: such is its coming to be, such is its passing away. And the state of abiding in the understanding of arising and passing away; that too arose.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this description, the Buddha is emphasizing the deep insight into impermanence and the emptiness of phenomena. Form – the body – is the first of the five skandhas, and in an oral tradition, often, just mentioning the first of a list implies the rest of the items on that list. So, we can be assured that as with form arising and passing away, the Buddha would say the same for feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

When seeing clearly, with deep comprehension, the arising and passing away of the five skandhas, we come to see the empty nature of them; and in seeing the empty nature of the five skandhas, we loosen the clinging grip to the misidentification of them as “self.”

As a naturalist, I find the possible implications of that final sentence quite profound: the “state of abiding in the understanding” of impermanence may sound like a final, unchanging state of being, but he’s saying here that that state of abiding itself arose! Anything that arises passes away, so the importance of diligence becomes vividly clear: each moment we must cultivate the conditions that allow the on-going abiding in that understanding. It is moment after moment of understanding in relation to the ever-changing experiencing.


My graduate studies professor, Peter Harvey has said that the Pali would better be translated as “nirvana-izing,” as a kind of action rather than a state. This passage seems to point to that understanding. It may not satisfy a traditionalist and transcendentalist, but, as a naturalist, it is a way of understanding that I can feel comfortable accepting. Rather than seek a final "awakened" life, we can live the awakening life here/now, moment-to-moment, breath-by-breath.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Danaparamita: The Perfection of Sharing

In one of the most important and influential Mahayana sutras, The Diamond Sutra, is found one extended response from the Buddha to Subhuti who asks him:

“On what should a bodhisattva base themselves? On what should they base their minds?”

A bodhisattva is an "awakening being" committed to awakening for the sake of all life. The first thing the buddha reminds Subhuti is that the bodhisattva’s vows include the aspiration to help all beings awaken. However, he adds the caveat that a real bodhisattva takes such a vow while remaining uncaught in egoism, thinking that she is a being helping other beings; that in fact, though they vow to liberate all the numberless sentient beings, they must understand that in truth there are no such beings.

Then, he continues to say that the bodhisattva “ought to practice generosity (dana) without basing it upon anything…. Subhuti, when the generosity of a bodhisattva is not based upon any signs, her goodness is as immeasurable as the vastness of space throughout the ten directions.” Signs, or lakshana, are concepts that refer to something else. In The Diamond Sutra, the signs that we get attached to that must be seen through are perceptions, cognitions and emotions that arise and pass away. The problem is we often identify with these signs, creating a false identity.

He could have begun his extended answer with any number of profound teachings, and yet he begins with what on the surface can seem pretty mundane: “What’s so special about generosity? Anyone can do that!” And that is specifically the point! Whenever the buddha taught to a new audience, he began with the importance of generosity: “If you understand as I do the power of generosity, you’d not partake in a single meal without sharing it with others.” What the buddha also pointed out is that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can share with others, whether it is time, energy, or material resources; whether it’s the offering of a helping hand or a non-judgmental ear, a gentle smile or simply bearing witness, we can practice danaparamita, the perfection of sharing.

It is with danaparamita that the buddha’s teaching on interdependent origination becomes mutual inter-support. The important thing to take note of is that there isn’t a single thing specifically buddhist about danaparamita. Emerson refers to the interdependence of life when he says “The wind sows the seed, the sun evaporates the sea, the wind blows the vapor to the field…the rain feeds the plant, the plant feeds the animal.” Reading this, I am reminded of the poem, variously attributed to Hafiz, Rumi or Daniel Landinsky:

Ands still, after all this time
The Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.

This is the understanding that nothing ever really "belongs" to us; everything is recycled again and again: the water of our tears may have once been dinosaur piss. Every breath you take is said to contain, on average, one molecule from Caesar's last dying breath.

In traditional societies, all of life was seen as a kind of natural generosity or sharing and so the first form of economics was the ‘gift economy’ with various customs of gift giving and circulating the gift kept primal human society fluid and healthy. In it’s earliest form, the potlatch ceremony of northwestern America was a grand ritual of giving away precious possessions by the tribe on the occasion of naming a new chief.

In Pali Buddhism, there were several categories of dana. One dual categorical model distinguished sharing that is unconditional, looking for no reward or recompense and the other sullied by the motivation for personal benefit. Another categorical model was three-fold: sharing of goods; teachings; and services: we can share time, energy and material resources.

There’s a zen story about dana:

A monk asked Hui-hai, “By what means can the gateway of our school be entered?”
Hui-hai responded: “By means of dana-paramita.”
The monk then said, “But there are six paramitas. Why do you mention only the one? How can this one alone provide sufficient means for us to enter?
Hui-hai then answered: “Deluded people fail to understand that the other five all proceed from the danaparamita and that by its practice, all the others are fulfilled.”
The monk then asked, “And why is it called ‘danaparamita?’
Hui-hai said: “Dana means relinquishment.”
The monk asked: “But relinqusihment of what?”
And Hui-hai then said: “Relinquishment of the dualism of opposites; relinquishment of self and other.”

It is this relinquishment that Dogen means when he says with intimate awakening “body and mind drop away.” He’s not talking about some non-physical, dis-embodied state of transcendence. He’s talking about the relinquishment of our limited self-centered orientation. Now, this isn't to say there isn't the unique individual with necessarily permeable boundaries; there is still a ‘center,’ but it’s relational and effusively outflowing: we eat and nourish ourselves in order to be present to all life. Self-care taken with this understanding can never be selfish. For instance, as an older parent wishing to be present to my daughter as she grows up, I feel the need to do what I can (exercise, eat well and moderately etc.) in order to support her development. This is not the outflow of “obligation” nor is it “self-sacrifice.” It is rather the effusive outflow of love. Recreation or “re-creation” is a necessary practice to prevent the bodhisattva’s outflow from drying up!

For dana to become danaparamita, we must move beyond the dualistic view of separation; of binary opposition and see how the giver and receiver are equally empty of any self-nature. There is the awareness that in giving we receive and in receiving we give. It becomes a living dynamic practice of interaction; of mutual action. When thinking of dana, of sharing, we may over-consider the role of the giver, but the receiver is also practicing dana in her sharing.

Receiving a share of something, receiving a gift, we get to practice grace, gratefulness, while also giving the person sharing with us the gift of an opportunity for generosity. And acts of generosity bring joy to the giver, so we are also giving the gift of joy in our graceful and grateful reception of the gift. AND, when we give, we are receiving this precious opportunity to go beyond ourselves by the one who receives our gift.

Dogen Zenji has this to say about giving:
“When one learns well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving… It is no only a matter of exerting physical effort; one should not miss the right opportunity.

Giving is to transform the mind of living beings… One should not calculate the greatness or smallness of the mind, nor the greatness or smallness of the thing. Nevertheless, there is a time when the mind transforms things, and there is giving in which things transform the mind.”

The root of danaparamita is bodhicitta, the aspiration and action towards awakening for the sake of all beings. This is not the self-centered motivation for our own peace and joy, but the realization that at the most fundamental root, none of us is free if all of us are not free.

The thing to keep in mind, as we look to practice danaparamita, is that we do not need to wait for some big realization or experience. You and I can practice dana, the sharing of trust and respect just as we are. Do so as if it were perfected, and it is indeed perfected. We practice “as if” even in the smallest acts, opening the door for someone, answering the phone, volunteering at a soup kitchen,  listening deeply to others, demonstrating in the streets. The only prerequisite is the will do to so.