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Buddha's Words (Talk 12 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 05, 2007
In topic: Early Buddhism
Twelfth 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 Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Last time we were learning about wisdom in relation to the five skandhas.  This time we’ll take up a text that involves wisdom in relation to the six sense-bases. The six sense-bases are the five senses that we all know about, plus the mind as a sixth sense. One of the unique features of Buddhist psychology is that the mind is on the same level, on the same par, with the other five senses as a sixth sense.   Buddha says:

Monks, without directly knowing and fully understanding the all, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering. And what, monks, is that all? Without directly knowing and fully understanding the eye, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering. Without directly knowing and fully understanding forms . . . eye consciousness . . . eye contact and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering.

 So the All, then, is the whole process of our cognizing our world—seeing, hearing and so on—and here the Buddha is saying that one needs to develop dispassion toward it and abandon it. The word “abandon” does not mean not hearing anything, or being uncaring about the seeing and hearing. It means non-clinging. Dispassion is the opposite of passion. Passion means exactly clinging and suffering. So we have to cut the bonds of clinging and abandon our stickiness toward the eye, the ear, and so on. So this is a really an intimate level of confronting what disturbs us in our lives.

Without directly knowing and fully understanding the mind, and whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering. Monks, by directly knowing and fully understanding the all, by developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is capable of destroying suffering. And what, monks, is that all? By directly knowing and fully understanding the eye . . . the mind, and whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition, by developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is capable of destroying suffering. This, monks, is the all by directly knowing and fully understanding which one is capable of destroying suffering.

 So, you could see that this is hard to appreciate, I think, and hard to understand, because acts of perception are so habitual and so instantaneous. How would you possibly figure out how to get so intimate with acts of perception that you could discern where the clinging and passion and the suffering comes in? The Buddha is saying here that the clinging and the passion and the suffering result from every act of perception. We all know the various unwise ways we have of clinging and messing up our lives. Maybe we can’t help ourselves from doing it, but at least we understand it to some extent. But the idea that it’s rooted in every act of perception seems impossible.

How would we ever hope to be so intimate with our experience that we could see that taking place within acts of perception? That’s where meditation comes in, because with meditation practice, the mind slows down quite a bit. The situation is vastly simplified. All there is is breathing. You get quiet enough and aware enough within the intimacy of experience to understand what the Buddha’s talking about. You begin to see, “Oh, right there! Right there in seeing something attitudes emerge, ‘I like it, I don’t like it, I want more of it, I need to get away from it, whatever it is.’” And you begin to develop a more present relationship to acts of perception, without the grabbiness, but just the willingness to be present with acts of perception. The Buddha here is calling “abandonment” as just allowing what happens to happen without needing something else out of it.

The important message here – which might be surprising – is that the root of our troubles is on the level of perception.  The basic process of perception needs to be clarified, and that’s a very intimate affair that takes a certain amount of meditative preparation and skill.

Here’s another very dramatic text, sometimes called the Fire Sutta.

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Gaya, at Gaya’s Head, together with a thousand monks. And there the Blessed One addressed the monks thus:  “Monks, all is burning. And what, monks, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning. Forms are burning (what’s seen by the eye). Eye-consciousness is burning. Eye contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition, whether pleasant or painful or neither pleasant nor painful, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, the fire of hatred, and the fire of delusion. 

These are the famous three poisons of Buddhism: lust or greed, hatred, and delusion - confusion about experience, or an exaggerated grabbing for it, or an exaggerated running away from it. And greed, hate and confusion set the world on fire.

Burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection and despair.

The mind is burning . . . and whatever feeling arises with mind contact as condition, whether pleasant or painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion. Burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Seeing this, monks, the instructed noble disciple becomes disenchanted with the eye. 

So what’s being said here is that through our acts of perception, we are on fire, which causes suffering. We have been literally enchanted and mesmerized. We’re in a spell with our acts of perception, and we don’t know it. And because of that spell, we’re setting our whole lives ablaze. So the noble disciple who follows the Buddha breaks the spell and becomes disenchanted. The spell is broken that causes obsession with the eye. In other words, through disenchantment, the spell is broken on the level of the senses. There’s peace and contentment without any need for something more in any moment.

This is what the Buddha said. Elated, those monks delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the thousand monks were liberated from the taints by non-clinging. 

So just in hearing the Buddha’s teaching here, they understood it and therefore they were unhooked from their clinging.

Now we’re going to read a few passages that have to do with the next thing to be wise about, which in Buddhism is called dependent co-arising, or the twelvefold chain of causation.

At Savatthi, the venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him, “Venerable sir, it is said ‘Right view. Right view.’ In what way, venerable sir, is there right view?” And the Buddha answers: “This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality, upon the idea of existence and the idea of non-existence.

So these are the famous two extremes in Buddhist thought. Here existence means the denial of impermanence.  Existence assumes a permanent, abiding existence. So that’s why Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as “the idea of existence.” This is not an argument against existence. It’s an argument against a view of existence that most of us actually have. Intellectually we know better, but in reality we do believe that we’re the same today as we were yesterday; that our needs and desires are the same, and so forth. The other extreme is nihilism: nothing matters, we’re all going to die anyway, so who cares, what’s the difference, why bother about anything?  So these are the two extremes: we’re never going to change, we’ll be here forever, and we might as well already say we’re dead, so what’s the use of anything. That’s the duality under which we’re operating, and pretty much we often do go from unrealistic complacency to despair over night, and then back again.

But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is, with correct wisdom, there is no idea of non-existence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is, with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.

But the one with the right view does not become engaged and cling. He does not take a stand about “myself.” He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, and what ceases is only suffering ceasing.

It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view. “All exists”—Kaccana, this is one extreme. “All does not exist”—this is the second extreme. Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle.

And here’s the interesting part. Now the Buddha reverses the twelvefold chain of causation:

With ignorance as condition there are volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, there is consciousness; with consciousness there is name and form, the six sense fields, etc. etc.

This is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainder-less fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations, with the cessation of volitional formations cessation of consciousness . . .

So the whole chain is rolled back. The middle way, then, is between complacency based on an abiding self and the despair that is the recognition of the pervading nature of impermanence, and the process by which impermanence leads to suffering.  When you see that process, then you bring the whole process to peace.

You enjoy things coming and going, and you realize that this is vitality, this is beauty, this is life. It’s only when we have a mixed-up expectation of what we think life is supposed to be giving us—and it of course never does—that’s when life becomes literally suffering due to the overlay of our expectations and our deeply-held confused ideas. The ideas are there in our consciousness. They’re imbedded in our consciousness. They’re imbedded in everybody’s consciousness, so everything we learn from every person we’ve ever met tells us the same thing.

So it’s a deep confusion, it’s not a trivial confusion. But it’s a confusion that can be reversed. We can see through it with the effort and practice to see that our desires are never met. And yet over and over again we do die, and over and over again our desires are not met. Sometimes they are, of course, but never permanently. Everything we get we eventually lose, and every satisfaction eventually turns into a dissatisfaction. And it goes both ways, dissatisfactions turn into satisfactions, but what we want is for things to stay just the way we like them. And they never do. So this doesn’t deny that there are moments of happiness and satisfaction; it’s just saying that they can’t remain static, and that’s the problem.