Thursday, August 23, 2012


Most thinking people---and even a lot of 'unthinking' people---want to know more about themselves and the human mind. Buddhism has a lot to say about the human mind. That should not come as a surprise, since Buddhism is more a system of psychology than a religion or a philosophy.

Consistent with an overall empiricism, the Buddha, and Buddhism generally, reject the idea that consciousness is an entity at all. Buddhist psychology recognises the following four functions (as opposed to ‘mental entities’, which they are not) of the mind: consciousness (viññāna), perception (sañña), feeling of body sensations (verdanā), and reaction (sankhāra). Now, the Buddha reportedly said:

Whatever suffering arises
Has a reaction as its cause.
If all reactions cease to be
Then there is no more suffering.
    [Sutta Nipata III, 12.]

We experience, for example, a ‘sensation’, which may be physical or mental. If we react to that sensation with ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’---that is, with craving, attachment or aversion---that is karma (kamma). The word karma means 'action'---in this case, mental action in the form of a mindless, involuntary reaction to some input. The result? Pain, suffering or distress. However, if, on the other hand, we simply allow ourselves to be dispassionately and choicelessly aware of the sensation---note, we should not try to ‘know’ (let alone judge or analyse) the sensation per se---then there is no ‘cause’ to produce any pain, suffering or distress. In other words, no reaction, no cause---and no effect. 'Like attracts like.' So, Buddhism takes the cause-and-effect process back one step earlier. In Western popular psychology, the primary emphasis is on avoiding negative thinking and the like, in the belief that as negative thoughts lead to negative results, so positive thoughts will inevitably lead to positive results---an obvious but debatable proposition. However, if we go back a step, and when something happens we simply do not allow a reaction (eg disliking) to arise in the first place---in other words, we simply let the sensation (input) be---then there will be no opportunity for any negative thought to arise at all.

Consistent with Buddhism's methodological and ontological emphasis on the need for direct observation, Buddhist psychology asserts that the ‘best’ way of obtaining psychological knowledge about oneself is by direct, objective observation of one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions as well as one’s bodily sensations---without any identification of ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations arise and pass away by natural laws of cause and effect. They wax and wane. They arise and vanish. In Buddhism, reality---what is---is that which comes and goes, waxes and wanes, arises and vanishes. However, with careful observation and choiceless (non-judgmental) awareness we are able to discern and understand those laws. Now, in order for there to be an immediacy and directness about our moment-to-moment experience of life, three events need to occur more-or-less simultaneously. Those three events are: touch (or sensation), awareness, and mindfulness. If those three events are not simultaneously experienced, what will be experienced will be nothing but the past, for the reality of the immediate experience will already have subsided. Indeed, any consciousness of it will be in the form of an after-thought or a memory, as we glance back to re-experience, and (sadly, yes) evaluate, a past experience. I am reminded of something the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson (pictured below) wrote in his landmark 1934 journal article ‘Mind as Feeling’:

Progress in psychology may therefore be made by the actual discovery of the emotional character of sentiments or motives, i.e., of what is in our minds, as contrasted with what is before our minds. [In Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962), p 75.] 

Specifically, the Buddhist 'system of deliverance' treats what Buddhism often calls an 'illusory [or a 'false'] mind' (that is, a mind characterized and dominated by wandering, oppositional and discriminatory thoughts) with a view to bringing into manifestation a 'true [or 'pure'] mind' (being a mind which is not in opposition to itself). It has been said that, for the first time, the Buddha taught that not only was self-deliverance (or self-liberation) possible, it could be attained independently of an external agency. He said, ‘I have delivered you towards deliverance. The Dhamma, the Truth is to be self-realized.’

Buddhism has something distinctively unique and, I think, very meaningful to say about ‘disease of the mind’, and it is this: the root cause of our disorder, distress, sorrow, anxiety, stress, tension, insecurity, discontent, frustration, and general ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukkha) is attachment, craving, grasping and clinging of various kinds (collectively, upādāna), especially, clinging to ‘mind stuff’ in the form of, among other things, ideas, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions and prejudices. All of this ‘mind stuff’ we then turn back on itself and on ourselves. That is tantamount to insanity but we are all very good at doing it---most of our waking hours (if not whilst asleep as well). Instead of living by reason and direct experience (sanity), we are driven by emotional compulsion. Worse, we cling to the ‘self’ as self, and we even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, and that we are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness (the latter simply being the function consisting of apprehending the bare phenomenal world, that is, cognition):

Whenever there is a functioning sense-organ (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and mind), a sense-object (visual form, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought) entering into the field of the sense-organ then, with these brought together, there is the manifestation of the part of consciousness referring to the specific sense-organ. [Majjhimanikāya, i, 190.]

Now, when it came to attempting to explain the conventionally accepted concept of ‘person’, the Buddha referred to various ‘elements’ at work in a person---the ‘five aggregates’ (the skandhas [Sanskrit] or khandhas [Pāli, ‘aggregates’ in English], also known as the ‘five hindrances’), namely, the ‘illusions’ arising from matter or bodily form, emotion or feeling, recognition or perception, mental formations (eg fixations and conclusions of the mind such as attitudes, beliefs and opinions), and consciousness. (Consciousness is regarded as an ‘aggregate’ more because ‘it’ tends to intensify ego-fixation as opposed to its being a ‘thing’ in itself.) The ‘mental’ is anything but a unitary agent. Consistent with the overall pluralism, we are talking about a plurality of complex interacting forces, that is, distinct but connected, pluralistic complexes grounded in spacetime.

The Buddha, who saw a human being as simply an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence, had this to say about the matter:

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones does not regard material shape as self, or self as having material shape, or material shape as being in the self, or the self as being in material shape. Nor does he regard feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness in any of these ways. He comprehends each of these aggregates as it really is, that it is impermanent, suffering, not-self, compounded, woeful. He does not approach them, grasp after them or determine 'Self for me' ['my self']--and this for a long time conduces to his welfare and happiness.

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones beholds of material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness: 'This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.' So that when the material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness change and become otherwise there arise not from him grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, and despair. [Adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya, trans L Feer, in J Kornfield with G Fronsdal (eds), Teachings of the Buddha (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1993), pp 23-24.]

The Buddha makes it clear that the so-called ‘self’ is only an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. It is, in the words of Manly Palmer Hall, ‘a summary of what is known and what is not known’. We are not a ‘self’; we are persons among persons. The Buddha also acknowledged the important distinction between our perceptions or sensations of things (the fact that on certain occasions certain things are perceived by us) and the things themselves, stating that ‘the senses meet the object and from their contact sensation is born’.

Consistent with his rejection of any ‘unitary’ view of the human mind, Buddha refers to the ‘four establishments’ (cattāro satipaţţhānā), that is, one remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, the observation of the mind in the mind, the observation of the objects of the mind in the objects of the mind, and the observation of the body in the body. For example, when one’s mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’

There is a refreshing directness about the Buddha’s approach. You see, we never know ‘ideas’ or ‘feelings’ but rather independent things or states of affairs. In other words, what is ‘thought,’ ‘felt,’ ‘sensed,’ etc, are real-world objects or situations. Buddhist psychology ‘works’, not by calling upon people to retreat from the world or to treat the world as an illusion, but by pointing out that the solution to one’s problems is to be found in the directness, immediacy and actuality of ‘things’ themselves. Don’t retreat, but engage. Don’t fear, just look and see and come to understand.


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