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.