Twelfth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Transcribed, abridged, and edited by
Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
Last time we were learning about wisdom in relation to the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.