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Buddha’s Words (Talk 02 of 13)

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/13/2005
In Topics: Early Buddhism, Pali Canon

Second of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Buddha's Words ~ talk 2 of 13

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Transcribed by Murray McGillivray. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum

We are continuing with the first section of In the Buddha's Words, that Bikkhu Bodhi calls "The Human Condition."

Anxiety Due to Change

Monks, I will teach you agitation through clinging and non-agitation through non-clinging. Listen and attend carefully, I shall speak. Yes, venerable sir, the monks replied.

The Blessed One said:

And how, monks, is there agitation through clinging? Here, monks, the uninstructed worldling, who is not a seer of the noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their dhamma, who is not a seer of superior persons and is unskilled and undisciplined in their dhamma, regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form, his consciousness becomes preoccupied with the change of form. Agitation and a constellation of mental states born of preoccupation with the change of form remain in obsessing his mind. Because his mind is obsessed, he is frightened, distressed, and anxious, and through clinging, he becomes agitated.

So the clinging comes from regarding the form – in other words, this stuff here [Norman slaps his leg and chest several times] – as the self. Or somehow, this is mine, this is me . . . this [slaps again]. When I am convinced of that, then I can't help but notice that this thing changes, either by aging, or something falls on it and breaks it, and that makes me nervous. In fact, even when nothing happens, I can be nervous that it might happen, so I can be pretty anxious. And then I can be more or less preoccupied with that, and then I can have a whole constellation of mental states that come from that basic anxiety. Even if I wasn't worried about something happening, I would know that this here will be a corpse at some point. Even though we might be quite successful in putting that thought out of our minds forever, for a whole life long, it might make us anxious deep down. There might be a sort of free-floating anxiety when I'm convinced that somehow this is me.

The same paragraph is repeated in exactly the same way, first in relation to feeling and perception. In other words, if I see that my feelings could be hurt-I could be dishonored, disrespected, or I could be insulted at any time – I'm a little nervous about that. At any time this could happen, and I could have all kinds of complexes and anxieties associated with that.

It is the same with my perception, my volitional force – the things that I want – and consciousness itself. In other words, if I identify with form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, or consciousness, in that identification there is automatically going to be a measure of anxiety, because I can't really control what's going to happen. I'm vulnerable by force of my identification with these five things: form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

The Buddha :

In this way, monks, there is agitation through clinging. And how, monks, is there non-agitation through non-clinging? Here, monks, the instructed noble, who is a seer of the noble ones, and is skilled and disciplined in their dhamma, who is a seer of superior persons and is skilled and disciplined in their dhamma, does not regard form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self or self as in form. This form of his alters and changes. Despite the change and alteration of form, his consciousness does not become preoccupied with the change of form. No agitation and constellation of mental states born of preoccupation with the change of form remains obsessing his mind. Because his mind is not obsessed, he is not frightened, not distressed or anxious, and through non-clinging he does not become agitated.

This important sutra goes to a theme that many times has come up in our discussions. It's impressive to me that we have talked so many times about fear. When we were looking at anger – we spent a whole month talking about anger – over and over again we found out that the essence of anger is really fear. You'd think that fear would be something relatively rare that would happen – if you were on the edge of a cliff or going in a dangerous place. But we have discovered that fear is much more pervasive than that. Fear is sometimes just below the surface of other emotions.

So this is what this is about: anxiety and fear. The text says that the basic cause of fear is clinging to a self-concept, which is fundamentally vulnerable. When you identify yourself, and what you most truly and most fundamentally are, with something that is so vulnerable as your feelings and your body, it just stands to reason that you're going to be in fear and anxiety most of the time.

And the format of the text is the five skandhas, which is a kind of alternative way of looking at human experience. The usual way of looking at human experience is based on the theory of me. In other words, "I'm me. I'm over here. I want and I need certain things, so I'm going to filter everything that comes to me through that format." We take this so much for granted that we don't think we're filtering things through a format; we think that's just how it is. The Buddha, seeing how devastating that habit of mind was, and seeing that it was really in a sense just a conditioned choice we were making, created an alternative. He said that instead of looking at everything through the format of "me," why don't you just learn how to categorize your various experiences?

We have a physical experience of being embodied; the experience of feeling; the experience of perceiving; the experience of desiring or having motivations; and the experience of consciousness. The Buddha said that instead of categorizing everything that happens – is this good for me, or is it bad for me? – see what experiences are based on form and what experiences are based on feeling. What is perception? What is motivation or desire-impulse? What is consciousness?

I'm hoping that you'll be willing to take on that reflection as homework for this week. See if you can see the difference between looking at your everyday, ordinary experience in terms of me, and beginning to bring into view the five skandhas. You don't have to do all the five skandhas. You can take your favorite one. See if you can discern impulse, motivation, desire. See if you can discern acts of perception.

The next section, under the large heading of "The Human Condition," is called A World in Turmoil." This is just a few short texts that talk about the social dimension of the Buddha's teaching. So although the main concern of the Buddha was the practice of the individual, there are a lot of places in the sutras when the Buddha was talking to kings or people in a village and trying to say just common sense things about how to be kind, how to avoid hatred, anger, injustice, and so on. He had a lot of teachings that he gave to householders and rulers and wealthy people. Basically his teachings were always the same. He always urged them to do good things and not bad things. He urged them to promote social welfare; to distribute wealth so that no one would starve; not to go to war when they had a chance to prevent war.

My sense is that the Buddha believed that only a transformation of people from the heart out, person by person, was going to change society. That was the ultimate way to change society. But there couldn't be this personal transformation without some basic justice and welfare for people. In other words, if you had a devastated society, it was going to be hard for people to transform personally if they were scrambling for food and they were under attack constantly. So the answer is personal transformation, but we need a modicum of justice and peace in order for that to take place.

I don't think that the Buddha had a kind of social analysis. I mean, we could extrapolate one based on the way that he organized the sangha, because that was a microcosmic society, but I think the Buddha was quite aware of the fact that the Buddhist sangha was always a minority of people and was not exactly analogous to the rest of the world. And I don't think he believed that changing social structures would transform people. As long as human nature remained untransformed, then any social structure, however good it was or however well-motivated it was, would in the end be subverted by human nature.

I think that we've had a tremendous lesson in the twentieth century, when we had all kinds of social panaceas that really sounded good. Probably the majority of thinking people all over the world believed in one or another of these social panaceas. They were convinced that these were going to transform humankind. There even were people who rose to power and forced humankind to transform under their structures, and they ended up killing millions of people with their "positive" motivation of changing human nature.

I think that we now see from our own experience in our own lifetimes that there's a really good chance that the Buddha was right about this. "Yeah, we should have a just society and a peaceful society, but that's not going to save us. The only thing that's going to save us is a change of heart." That is, a change of heart that is something that people do by choice, not by legislation, not by coercion. You can't really coerce somebody, you know, to change their heart. You can offer them the means to do so. You can make it as easy as possible for them to do so, but in the end, what makes things change within oneself is a decision that we make that we're going to do that.

So I would say that for the Buddha the ultimate social action and the ultimate social good was for each person to practice, to help others to practice, and to offer the practice to other people. And if you offer practice to someone, and you notice that they couldn't do it because there was a war going on, then you'd have to try to work to stop the war. And if you tried to offer practice to people, and you noticed that they were starving, that they couldn't even think of practicing because they weren't eating, then you'd need to feed them.

I'll read a couple of these short sutras under this category of "The World in Turmoil,"

"Why do beings live in hate?"

One of the minor gods asked the Buddha: Everybody wishes to live without hate, harming, hostility, or enmity. Everybody wishes to live in peace. Yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies. By what fetters are they bound, sir, that they live in such a way?

The Buddha said: Ruler of the Devas, it is the bonds of envy and niggardliness that bind beings, so that although they do not wish to live in hate and hostility, yet they do live in hate and hostility.

Saka, the King of the Devas, was delighted with that and said, "This is great, I have overcome my doubt and gotten rid of my uncertainty. I now know the answer to that question. Thank you very much!" Then he thought about it for a while and said:

But sir, what gives rise to envy and niggardliness? What is their origin, how are they born, how do they arise? When what is present do they arise, and when what is absent do they not arise?

The Buddha said:

Envy and niggardliness arise from liking and disliking. This is their origin. This is how they are born. This is how they arise. When these are present, they arise. When these are absent, they do not.

So we wouldn't have this clinging and this wanting and be willing to fight for it if we didn't like the things we have and dislike having somebody take them away from us. It's that basic habit of wanting to hold on to what we like and wanting to end the condition of something that we don't like that cause us to fight. And that's very much like what we were talking about before.

The king of the gods asks further: What's the cause of liking and disliking?

The Buddha said: The cause of liking and disliking is desire.

Desire is more basic, because desire includes both liking and disliking; desire is a more primitive form of liking and disliking.

The deva says: Where does desire come from, and what gives rise to it?

The Buddha says: It arises from thinking. When the mind thinks about something, desire arises. When the mind thinks of nothing, desire does not arise. So thinking gives rise to desire.

The deva king asked: What gives rise to thinking?

The Buddha says: Thinking, ruler of the devas, arises from elaborated perceptions and notions. When elaborated perceptions and notions are present, thinking arises. When elaborated perceptions and notions are absent, thinking does not arise.

This all requires a little bit of explanation. I don't know if this is the best explanation or the right explanation, but this is how I understand the passage. If you look up the footnote, it tells you that papancha is the word for proliferated and elaborated thinking. And you know what that is – how you're just going along and all of a sudden your mind starts proliferating all kinds of elaborate stuff. This is a habit that the mind has. Confronted with an object and experience, it then is unsatisfied that just this experience is there and then will pass away. The mind elaborates on and on and on about that experience.

I think "thinking" here means confused, distorted thinking. Because of the mind's tendency toward confused and distorted thinking, when something comes into the mind, what follows is confused and distorted thinking. That confused and distorted thinking leads to a kind of basic desire, which leads to liking and disliking, which leads to envy and niggardliness, which leads to fear, which leads to hostility.

What we want to do, then, is to roll this whole thing back, as much as we can, to the place where the mind begins to elaborate. This is exactly what we do in zazen. The instruction in zazen is that when thinking arises, we come back to the breath, come back to the body-let the thinking be there, but don't create elaborations and notions; don't go on and on with it. Whatever mental activity is there is what Dogen calls non-thinking: "Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This is the art of zazen."

So to think not-thinking means to allow what's in the mind to arise without elaborations, without papancha, without proliferation. Just to let something come and let something go. Be attentive to whatever is there, but don't fall for the old karma of elaborations and notions, because that's when you get into trouble. That leads to a chain of events that eventually ends in hostility. So there's another thing you can work with. Can you identify the times when your mind begins to create elaborated perceptions and notions?

Sangha member: "What does it mean by notions? Is it opinions?"

Let me read you the footnote. "The meaning of this obscure compound is not elucidated in the Nikayas. The term seems to refer to perceptions and ideas that have become infected by subjective biases, elaborated by the tendencies to craving, conceit and distorted views. According to the commentaries, craving, conceit and views are the three factors responsible for conceptual elaboration."

But I really do think that this is exactly Dogen's writing about zazen. You can just remember, "Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking." Meaning, it's OK for thought to arise, but don't elaborate it, don't go on with it, let thought come, let thought go. That's what Dogen calls non-thinking – thinking without elaborations.

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