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Buddha's Words (Talk 11 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 28, 2007
In topic: Early Buddhism
Eleventh of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Transcribed, abridged, and edited by Barbara Byrum and Murray McGillivray


In chapter 9 we’re concerned with the wisdom teachings, which are understood to be what we come to after we develop morality, take precepts, and develop meditation and focus the mind. First practice morality to calm and smooth the mind and bring it into tune and harmony. Then you practice meditation to deepen and strengthen the mind so that it has the capacity to cognize wisdom. So with the mind developed in that way, smoothed out, clear, focused, we can now study the wisdom teachings and make them our own in our lives.

What do we mean by wisdom in Buddhism? The word panna or prajna basically means to know, to cognize. But the word has a sense of knowing with an active leading edge to it. There are two metaphors that are used for Prajna.  One is, “Prajna is like a knife,” and the other one is “Prajna is like light.” These are two almost opposite metaphors, and they bring out two almost opposite sides of prajna. Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom, so he’s got a sword that cuts through delusion. Delusion is to be tangled up in objects of desire. It’s not that there’s something wrong with desire or an object of desire. The problem comes when we get tied up in knots around it. 

So wisdom cuts through those knots. But also “cutting” means to discriminate, to see the difference between this thing and that thing.  To know, to be able to see differences, is to distinguish. That’s also a mode of wisdom, to see the difference between what’s wholesome and not wholesome; to see the difference between wisdom and ignorance.

The light metaphor is almost the opposite of this, because light shines evenly and equally on everything and doesn’t distinguish between one thing and another. It illuminates everything without any discrimination, without exceptions. Everything is illuminated, and everything is equally acceptable to and equally inspirational to the light that shines on it.

This is what Buddhist wisdom claims to be. It claims to be a seeing, an accurate seeing of things the way they really are, a shining of light of wisdom onto things. The light of wisdom will be strong enough to break through the darkness, this very thick cloud-cover which is the delusion that we have covered over things. The light of wisdom shines through, breaks through that darkness, which is just a covering. Implied here is the faith, the understanding, that once that happens, once wisdom shines in our life, we will have reached the goal,the goal of nirvana. When we develop wisdom completely, and there’s light shining through the darkness, that is nirvana, that is peace, that is happiness, that is the ending of suffering, and ease.

The Buddha then gives the way to develop wisdom through the experience of the five skandhas and the twelve-fold chain of causation.

The five skandhas are form, feelings, perceptions, impulses or formations, and consciousness.  This list has the purpose of focusing on our subjectivity; analyzing our personal experience of being embodied; our experience of perceiving, our experience of feeling, and our experience of desiring. Through studying the five skandhas, we see that things are happening, arising and passing away, and we see this without distorting what’s happening with our personal needs and identities, through which we organize the whole world around our perception and consciousness. When we see that we do that, we are free to stop blaming everybody, including ourselves. (That’s mostly who we blame.) Instead of blaming everybody, we can be responsible.

The twelve-fold chain is a discussion of the patterns of force that put the world together—how our attitudes and actions shape our experiences and the world around us. It is the mechanism through which fluid reality is constantly evolving and changing all the time. There’s an evolution going on in consciousness, and there is a mechanism by which it occurs. It’s conceived of as a circular chain of causation. The first link in the chain is ignorance, misperception, that causes some kind of urge. Not perceiving that things are at peace, there’s an urge toward completion. Karmic formations is the second link. The third link is consciousness. Consciousness gives rise to the six senses. The six senses give rise to the fifth link, name and form, meaning mind and matter. When mind and matter coalesce, there’s contact. When there’s contact, there’s feeling. When there’s feeling, there’s craving. When there’s craving, there’s grasping. This twelve-fold chain is sometimes conceived of as the shape of every moment, and sometimes conceived of as what carries us from one lifetime to another – the process of rebirth. So rebirth is both a linear concept, and also a simultaneous concept happening in every moment.

So wisdom means seeing all these things and knowing for ourselves the truth of these lists and what they imply. The important thing is that there is the effort that we so naturally and reflexively make to grab ahold of something that is essentially ungraspable – to want something that we can never have. That’s really the point of all these lists, to show us exactly how that happens, how that works, and how that leads to a lot of misery and confusion and harm and hurtfulness. So to see that point we study these lists, and we know for sure that we have to let go, and it’s the letting go that brings happiness and peace.

So as I said, the chapter is divided by these lists. And remember, the point of each list is to see the wisdom: to turn the eye of wisdom on the five aggregates (five skandhas) and the twelvefold chain of causation. So this is on the aggregates, “A Catechism on the Aggregates”: 

And a certain monk rose from his seat, arranged his upper robe over one shoulder, raised his joined hands in reverential salutation toward the Blessed One and said to him, “Venerable sir! I would ask the Blessed One about a certain point if the Blessed One would grant me the favor of answering my question.” (That’s an extremely polite way of asking!) “The five aggregates subject to clinging, venerable sir, that is, the form aggregate subject to clinging, the feeling aggregate subject to clinging, the perception aggregate subject to clinging, the volitional formations aggregate subject to clinging, the consciousness  aggregate subject to clinging. Are they in their nature, these five skandhas, these five kinds of experiences, subject to clinging?” The Buddha said, “Yes, they are.” And so the monk said, “But, venerable sir, in what are these five aggregates subject to clinging rooted?” The Buddha replied, “The five aggregates subject to clinging, monk, are rooted in desire.” The monk said, “Venerable sir, is that clinging the same as these five aggregates subject to clinging, or is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates subject to clinging?”

Now this is a very important question, because if the five aggregates are by their nature clinging, we’re doomed. We understand that the clinging runs very deep. There’s no doubt about that; it’s not easily overcome. But if the nature of our experience is clinging, if that’s the way it is, and many people would say that’s the case, then there is no possibility of any kind of meaningful, thoroughgoing spiritual transformation. So that’s what is really involved with the monk’s question. And the Buddha’s answer is this:

Monk, that clinging is neither the same as the five aggregates subject to clinging, nor is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates subject to clinging, but rather, the desire and lust for them, that is the clinging there.

So we are not doomed to clinging. Our clinging can’t ever be separate from the five aggregates. There’s no abstract clinging, separate from form, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness. But form, feeling, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness don’t have to be clinging form, clinging feeling, clinging perceptions, clinging volitional formations and clinging consciousness—freedom is possible! And the monk says, “Good!”

On page 339 toward the bottom the monk has a further question:


What is the cause and condition, venerable sir, for the manifestation of the various aggregates as they arise? 

Each one has a different cause and condition. The cause of the form aggregate is the four great elements, earth, water, fire and air (solidity, fluidity, movement and heat.) Those are the conditions for the arising of the form aggregate. Contact is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the feeling aggregate, the perception aggregate, and the volitional formations aggregate. That’s why the analysis of perception and the senses is so important, because it’s in the sensual experience – where there’s contact between a sensual organ and an object, or the mind and a thought – that experience occurs. Right in the middle of that experience the feeling, perception, and volitional aggregates arise. That’s the place to work. That’s the place to be clear. Name and form is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the consciousness aggregate.


But then, venerable sir, how does identity view not come to be?

So form is there, but there’s no reason then to interpret form and define it as self.

Why not just say (taps chest) it’s form, it’s the body. Why say “It’s me!”? But people do that.  That’s where identity comes in. We identify the five skandhas – form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness –as the self. Either we say that they’re the self, or we say that the self possesses them, or the self is in them. That’s how identity comes to be; we make a conceptual jump on top of our experience. 

The person who’s wise sees the arising of things that are actually there, but doesn’t make the conceptual leap and call them and regard them as a self.  We say, “I hate life. It’s terrible.” So you actually have that thought, “I believe that, because I’m thinking that.” Right? But suppose you said, “Wow, that thought is there.” The thought would still be there, but you see what a world of difference that makes? The difference between, “Wow, that’s an amazing thing, the thought just arises in the mind,” and saying, “Life is terrible. I hate this.” If you actually experience this, it’s the simplest thing in the world, and the manifestation of this is so liberating.

So you can have all kinds of experiences, terrible experiences and painful experiences, but when you just view them as experiences, first of all you see them a lot better and you see more about them, and secondly, they don’t hurt you in the same way. So this is very good advice for the work on the cushion. You’re sitting on the cushion, and all these things are coming into your mind. If you realize they’re just thoughts coming into your mind, it’s a very different experience than taking all your thoughts so seriously.      

What, venerable sir, is the gratification, the danger, and the escape in the case of the five aggregates? 

This is another formula that’s often applied to the gratification, the danger, and the escape.  In the case of form – and you can run through the same formula for all the other ones – there  is pleasure in form, but there’s also danger in form, because form is impermanent and is subject  to change. So the beautiful sunset turns into “The sun went down. I’m freezing! It’s so cold! I’m so uncomfortable!” A minute ago it was the most beautiful sunset in the world, but that can’t stay there.

And what is the escape? The removal and abandonment of desire and lust for form: this is the escape.

I always have to say this: It sounds like you’re not supposed to enjoy anything, but it doesn’t mean that at all. It’s acknowledging, “Let’s just see the whole picture! Let’s see the gratification, let’s see the danger, and let’s approach everything from the point of view of the whole picture, enjoying what comes, knowing that it changes.” The problem is, we hate it when it changes. We like it when it’s nice, we hate it when it isn’t nice, and we’re very resentful when it changes.  So that’s the escape, and that’s essentially seeing things as they are.