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Map of the Mind (Talk 1 of 4)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/08/2004
Location: Samish Island
In Topics: Buddhist Psychology

Zoketsu talks the mind and emotions from the point of view of Buddhist psychology, as it is formulated in the Abhidharma.


(unabridged transcription by Ruth Ozeki)

Hello everybody. Here we are again. I really appreciated Tim’s talk yesterday. I appreciated not only what he said, but the fact that he said it at all, which is probably even more important.

This is a very intimate retreat. It’s kind of unusual, or maybe it’s usual, I don’t even remember, but it seems unusual in that everybody here is pretty experienced in practice, and everybody here is pretty committed to practice. So I realize more than ever in this retreat that we’re doing this together. We’re collaborating. We’re helping each other. It’s not at all the case that I’m coming here, leading or producing this retreat. There are many of us guiding, and leading, and taking real responsibility for the dharma, and this is a great relief to me. Now I can start goofing off and relaxing…[laughter]

As Tim was saying, when I started coming here to Bellingham ten or twelve years ago, I knew that this was something that could not go on forever, that it would be something that I could do just for a little while. And the older I get, the shorter that little while becomes. Just a little while. So, it’s nice to know that the dharma doesn’t just depend on me and my showing up. That there are many others who are willing to take responsibility, to continue to make this offering of dharma to the world. That’s great.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the dharma. The world is magnificent and also a total disaster. And dharma, in all its forms and aspects, is an absolute necessity. Even though there is nobody here but us chickens, actually we are practicing for others. We are practicing for the world. I don’t want to be immodest or inflated, but it’s true. We’re practicing not just for ourselves, but for the world, and I hope we will never forget this. When we continue with the practice, we’re not just benefiting ourselves, we’re working to keep the dharma candle lit. Even if it looks like no one is coming to join us, or only one or two, that’s okay, because our job is not to bring in great crowds. Our job is to keep the dharma candle lit, so that it remains lit, so that it can be passed on. As you know from your life, a tiny little bit of light can illuminate a big dark room. Just one little candle can illuminate a big room. And one little candle is enough to ignite a gigantic bright flame that can light a whole world.

It is a beautiful day today, and as Tim reminded us yesterday, it’s beautiful here, but this is not exceptional or extraordinary, this place, or this day. It’s just like any other day, anywhere else—magnificent, immense, peaceful. We appreciate it here because the natural world is so much like this. But so are we, like this, because we are also manifestations of the natural world. We come from earth, and we return to it. Every culture in the world has a version of the myth of the Garden of Eden, a state where the world makes sense, is beautiful, and really works, and we human beings are living in harmony with it. Every culture has that myth. So what happened? Why can’t we live this way? This is the great question. This is the question we’re here to investigate. This is the question the Buddha spent his lifetime investigating. This is what artists and thinkers and practitioners all through history, all over the world, in all cultures, have always been investigating. This is the human question.

In this sesshin, I would like to suggest that we focus on studying the flow of our human feeling; that we, as I said the first evening, that we try our best to become as intimate as we possibly can with ourselves, and with what we’re actually experiencing from moment to moment. So as always, we start with the body, finding our seat on the cushion, bringing ourselves to the body, bringing ourselves to the breath, giving ourselves to each and every breath. And then I would like to suggest to us all that we ask ourselves—and I’ve been practicing this wonderfully; I had a whole day yesterday just practicing this, coming back to the question—”What am I really feeling now?” “What is, deeply, my experience of this moment?” And then let that question bring you back to what’s really going on, to what you’re really deeply feeling, deeply experiencing in that moment. Whenever you find that your mind is wandering, when you’re caught in thinking and imagining, immediately apply that question: “What am I really experiencing now?” “What am I really feeling now?” Apply it, just as you would apply a cool rag to a burn. Use it over and over and over again. Develop it as a skill, and I think that it will help you to understand your thinking and your emotions. It will help you to see the real sources behind what makes you think and how you feel.

We’re all such thinkers. So I want to be clear, here, that I’m not asking you to think about, or analyze, or figure out what you’re feeling. I’m not asking you to think about it and query about it. I’m asking you to use this question as a device to help you feel what it is you’re feeling, without too much need to explain it or name it. To become intimate with what you’re feeling, deeply in touch with it, and to trust that flow of human feeling as the source of your liberation. Not to feel like you have to tinker with it, or come into control of it, but just allow it and trust it as the source of liberation. I think you will soon discover that mostly we don’t know. We’re not at all aware of what it is we’re deeply feeling and experiencing. We’re not at all used to being in touch with the flow of our human feeling. It’s quite natural for us to run away from it, and to start thinking and planning and emoting, so that we can avoid really feeling what we’re feeling, because in this world, what we’re deeply feeling and thinking and holding in our hearts is often painful. So we want to run away. But it’s okay if what we’re feeling is painful. If we can become intimate with it, and allow ourselves to be a little courageous, and experience whatever is really there, I think we will find a deeper and more lasting and more realistic comfort beyond—and through—the pain. So maybe at this point, I’ll ask you to just take my word for this, and trust me, and then verify for yourself and see if this is true.

If you’re a human being—and I think mostly everybody here is—that means that you are certainly avoiding your deepest feeling and your deepest experience, because this is normal for human beings. So, therefore, please practice this question, “What am I really feeling now?” “What am I deeply experiencing now?” and see if you can, during this week that we have together, these days that we have together, see if you can come more close, and be more trusting of your own human feeling. Your own natural human feeling.

So, in the talks I have to give to you this week, I want to talk about mind and emotions from a Buddhist point of view, about Buddhist psychology. This is a little bit of a chore, and kind of boring, but I think it’s important that we understand at least a little bit about how the masters of our tradition understand mind and self and personality. I think this knowledge will help us.

As you know, this is called, in Buddhism, Abhidharma, or Abhidhamma, advanced dharma, and provides a map of the mind and of mental states.

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that starts from human suffering—that’s the sort of initial point of Buddhism, rather than, in other traditions, starting from devotion to a god, and enthusiasm and love for god. Because Buddhism starts from this point, therefore it makes sense that it has a lot of very developed discussion about mind. About the human mind. And in this discussion there are lots of points of view, there are various debates, and so forth and so on, but in general, actually, when you take a step back from these debates, the map of the heart, or mind, that’s given in Buddhism is pretty consistent.

As we all know, there are many non-Buddhist maps of the mind, too. No map actually is the territory—it’s just a map. Still, every map is useful because every map gives us a little bit different view of the territory, which is always too big and too vast and too detailed for us ever to see in its entirety. So we need different maps to be able to illuminate different aspects of the territory. Maps aren’t the territory but they’re pretty useful, providing, of course, that we don’t bury ourselves so much in the map that we fail to look around and see what’s actually going on. And that can happen.

So the particular map, the Buddhist map, that I want to talk about these days, is one that is firmly grounded in the appreciation of the emptiness of all phenomena. A map that starts from, and assumes, our fundamental teaching of the Heart Sutra, that all dharmas are marked with emptiness. To appreciate this, that all dharmas are marked with emptiness, is to appreciate that the world-as-paradise and the world-as-disaster are simply and fundamentally two viewpoints. What is, is. That’s suchness, that includes experiences and viewpoints of good, as well as experiences and viewpoints of bad. It includes being and non-being. What is, is. Everything depends on us, and we depend on everything.

So life is not a crushing burden, because we’re always supported. We’re completely supported. And we can’t be irresponsible because life is completely depending on us. On each of us. So yes, there’s plenty of difficulty to go around. Because we’re so immensely supported, we’re grateful, and we feel a lot of compassion for ourselves and others. And if we feel compassion and we care about our own life, and other people’s lives, then there’s lots of sorrow and grief and anguish, as well as love, joy, ease, and peace. And all of this is workable; all of this is the stuff we need for our investigation. All of this is just what is.

And all of a sudden, the whole world lights up for no particular reason.

So, the world—and also ourselves—is empty. But this doesn’t mean that we can goof off, despite what I said earlier, and not pay attention. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Because all phenomena are empty of any separate self, we have to see clearly, we need to understand our own human feeling, which is why a map of the mind can be helpful. So that it maybe helps us understand, a little bit, the way emptiness unfolds in this life.

I hope that in our sesshin, we have a little bit of peace. I think everybody here needs that and deserves that. But it’s not enough for us to have a little peace. We have to also understand, because without understanding, our peace will be always partial and shaky. And it’s not enough for us to understand just with the surface of our mind, just with our thinking—that, we all know, is so easily blown around. We have to understand with our hearts and our guts, too, with our whole body. And this is why we spend so much time in zazen on our cushions, because that’s the method that we use to understand with our whole heart and our guts and our whole body. So that’s what we have to do. To understand with the mind, with the heart, with the guts, with the whole body, and then we have to train ourselves in this understanding, re-forming ourselves as people through this training. And that’s our practice. And zazen is at the heart of it. And this is why we’re here. Why we keep coming back.

So, the Buddhist map of the mind isn’t just a map of the mind. It isn’t really exactly psychology. The Buddhist map of the mind starts with a map of everything, naturally, and also nothing, because nothing is included in everything. Which makes perfect sense because in emptiness, the whole point of emptiness, is that nothing is excluded; everything is constantly included, and constantly cooperating, including nothing. It’s all part of a single network of support. So it would be impossible to talk about mind as a single, separate lonely thing, out there, lost in the universe. Mind, mental states and emotional states—and in Buddhism, you know there is no sharp distinction drawn between mental and emotional states, which in itself is a very important thing to think about—these things can’t be talked about without first positing the whole universe and beyond. So that’s the way the map goes: posit everything then break it down into categories, and then break those categories down into categories, like a branching tree. You could imagine it from the bottom, one root, which is all inclusive, and then branches and branches and branches and branches and branches until it becomes a very articulated thing. So that’s the way the Buddhist map of mind works.

So therefore, I’m going to talk about it—I mean, not the whole thing, every bit of it, because that would go on forever, but just certain parts of it that I think would be worth looking at. So we have to start at the beginning. The beginning is everything, including nothing. And the term that’s used in this particular system to describe the whole ball of wax is nairatmya, which translates as “the selfless.” That’s the name for everything, including nothing, the universe inside and out. The selfless. The unity in the flow of being of all that is and isn’t. This is the fundamental root.

The first division in this is between things and nothing. Or in other words, between existence, existent things, and nonexistent things. That’s the first division. Nonexistence is included in this whole thing.

So let’s look at nonexistent things, first, and then we’ll go over to existent things.

What would be nonexistent things? Well, actually it’s a very small category. It’s infinite in number but basically it’s one thing. An example of a nonexistent thing is a chicken with lips. A chicken with lips is a nonexistent thing, and a thing that couldn’t exist. Because if there were an animal that had lips, it would just not be a chicken. It would be another animal. There is just no way that a chicken with lips could…you could say we’re chickens with lips, you know, I suppose, but we’re not really chickens. So, this is a nonexistent thing. A thing that cannot exist, cannot really even be imagined exactly.

So, in other words, nonexistent things are not things that once existed and don’t exist now. They are things that never existed and couldn’t exist. And this is important to note, because what this tells us is that things that exist and don’t exist anymore are simply things that have changed condition. Changed state. The nonexistence of that which has existed or could exist is not the same as a nonexistent. It’s just a fundamental change of state. And all these things come under the category of things, so you might think that death, for example, would come under the category of nonexistent things, but it doesn’t. Because death is not a nonexistent thing. Death is. It’s an experience that happens. And this tells us that in the category of existent things, absence is included. Absence, and this kind of passing out of what we call existence, is a part of existence. It’s not a nonexistent thing. That’s very important to recognize this, so that we’re straight about it, and clear about what it is this world is, and what it is it isn’t.

So there’s not much discussion about nonexistent things, just to identify them and recognize they are part of the picture. So that branch only goes that far.

Then, on the other side, of course, “existent things” has many, many branches, and that’s the part that we need to worry about because that’s the part where we work.

So the first great division in the category of existent things is the division between so-called permanent phenomena and things that are impermanent. So let me say something about the category of permanent phenomena.

It seems like a strange category. And here, it’s true that permanent is not exactly a good explanation for this category, because it doesn’t exactly mean permanent. It means things that aren’t exactly phenomena that come and go. Not phenomena that are caused. Things that come and go are always caused—that’s what karma is. Sort of the principle by which—the force by which—things arise and pass away ceaselessly. But these are things that don’t arise and pass away, and are not caused. And so therefore they are not exactly things. It’s hard to say what these are. You would wonder what could be included in this category.

Well, there are four things. Not things, exactly, but four items in this box: space, two kinds of nirvana, and suchness. Those are the four things included in the category of permanent things.

So space. We all know space. Space is just space. Everybody knows what space is. Or do we? Actually, know what space is? Does anybody have any idea what space is? Even though the whole universe depends on space, we don’t quite know what space is. Now there’s something about how most of the matter in the universe is dark matter, or something like that, in other words unknown, unseen. There are many contradictions that come up when we try to ascertain what space is. So is space something? Is space nothing? It seems like it’s not nothing, but it’s not exactly something. Anyway, I don’t pretend to have any line on what space is, but all I can say is that it doesn’t seem too clear.

And nirvana is exactly the same. So, you don’t achieve nirvana. That would imply that you could act in such a way that you could cause nirvana to arise out of nothing by your actions. That would be like saying that if you piled enough stuff up in your room you would create or destroy space. You could fill your room up until you couldn’t get a shoehorn in there but you wouldn’t have increased or decreased the amount of space in the room. Conventionally we say that there’s no space in here, but there would be the same amount of space, even if you filled it up. And similarly, you can’t produce or make disappear nirvana. You see, we think of maybe nirvana as a state of mind, or something like that, but nirvana is not a state of mind. Just the same way that space is not a particular place or an object, nirvana is also not a state of mind.

So there are two kinds of nirvana, as I said. One is the kind that the Buddha experiences, or any great practitioner who has a great awaking. Or even ungreat practitioners like us, when we just have ordinary moments of everyday awakening. When all of a sudden, for no reason, spaciousness enters our lives, and, for no reason, we’re free for a second of the apparent weight of our living. This nirvana is uncaused and insubstantial. It’s a kind of a gift. While sometimes we may recognize it or feel it in our mind or body as a state, that state that we’re feeling is not nirvana. It’s some kind of a manifestation in us. But it’s not nirvana. So that kind of nirvana is something that appears or disappears, but it’s not caused, and its appearance or disappearance is only an illusion in our lives. But it’s recognized as one of the permanent things.

Then, the other kind of nirvana is the kind of nirvana that is the Great Nirvana, the Complete Nirvana, Parinirvana, which doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. And this is why Buddha is called the Deathless One, or the Great Conqueror. Sometimes the sutras it says that about the Buddha, because the Buddha conquers death. The Buddha doesn’t die. When the Buddha dies, as it would appear in our world, he’s not dying. He’s entering Parinirvana. Because in Buddhism, death is actually an intermediate, in-between state. It’s a temporary state. But nirvana is true peace. It’s not something temporary. It’s life’s fruition and completion. So in a sense, only buddhas enter Parinirvana, and the rest of us die, restlessly, over and over again. But, from another point of view, since we’re all buddhas, we all enter Parinirvana when we die, and this is the sense of the Buddhist funeral ceremony, to imagine and hope and pretend that this is so, in relation to the deceased person. So that’s the other kind of nirvana.

Then the fourth kind of permanent phenomena is suchness. Like I was saying before, what is, is. And this is also like the two kinds of nirvana, and like space, only it’s an aspect of space or nirvana that comes forth as this very world of appearances in which we’re living and having such a hard time.

In other words, the whole flow of world, perception, feeling, trouble, sorrow, joy, suffering, seen as it actually is, in the light of suchness, is nirvana. In other words, the phenomenal world, the impermanent world, is actually bliss, perfection, eternity. The garden of Eden. It never went away. It’s right here, all the time. So that’s the last of the four permanent things.

I’m kind of just polishing these off, you know, because it’s the other side…we haven’t gotten yet to the part where we have to work, right? These are just things we can think about, but in the category of caused, temporary things, that’s where our work comes, right? The phenomenal world. Our world. The things that come and go, that arise and pass away according to karma.

Okay, so, here we are, over there. Three categories. This is broken down into three categories. And now we get to the place where each category is broken down into more categories. It goes on and on and on. Because the more we’re on this side, the more stuff there is, all of which is actually, from another angle, only suchness. Right? But, in order for us to understand that, we have to be able to discriminate and understand the way this world is put together; the way we are put together.

So, three broad categories. Rupa, or form; Jñana, or consciousness; And then a third very troublesome and complicated category called viprayukta-samskara, translated as “non-associated, compositional factors.” So, I’ll get around to that, but I have to talk about rupa and jñana for a while, but we surely must get around to “non-associated compositional factors” because actually there are some very important aspects to that, which are actually crucial for us to understand who we are and what we’re doing.

So now I’m going to talk about form, rupa. There’s a delightful definition, not in this text but in other Abhidharma texts, defining form as—and this is shocking and amazing, I think—rupa is defined as “that which can be molested.” Form is that which can be…in other words, if something is rupa, you can take it and smash it. You can break it. It can be messed up. This is not true in the realm of consciousness. You can’t take a thought and break it in half and throw one part away, you know? You can’t do that with a thought, or a feeling. You can create a situation in which succeeding a particular thought will be other thoughts that are painful, but that particular thought or feeling cannot be harmed, changed or altered in any way. It arises and passes away. Nothing can be done about it. But you can take a vase and smash it. You can’t take a thought and smash it. Or a feeling. And so on. So that’s the characteristic of rupa. So you can see how, when we invest ourselves in rupa, when we attach ourselves to, say, the body, which is rupa, we’re going to be sad. And we’re definitely going to find a moment of real loss and dismay if we don’t understand what rupa is, and what it’s nature is. If we don’t relate to it from the point of view of its actual nature.

That’s what rupa is. In a sense, rupa is matter, stuff, as opposed to consciousness. That’s the division here between matter and consciousness. But actually, rupa is not precisely matter as we understand it—physical stuff—because in this map of mind, of the universe, there’s an appreciation that what we call “matter” is an aggregate, a construct built on some objectivity in phenomena, some objective property, which is not yet matter. But that objective property, aggregated and combined with subjective experience, creates what we think of as matter. So a vase, in a way, is not really a vase. A vase exists as a vase because of an aggregate of properties as well as our mind, and our intelligence calling it a vase. So, as science now acknowledges, there is actually no such fundamental thing as matter, on a subtle level, but there seems to be some objective property in the universe.

So there are eleven—I told you this would be a little boring—so there are eleven categories of rupa, and this is as far as we’ll get today. Eleven categories of rupa. And ten of them are quite easy to understand and recognize, even though they’re further subdivided, and I’m not going to get into that. But the ten of them that are easy to recognize are the five sense organs, and the five objects of the sense organs. So the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body, are rupa, and what is seen, what is heard, what is smelled, what is tasted, what is touched, are rupa. So those are ten out of the eleven categories.

So what is the eleventh kind of rupa? Well, the eleventh kind of rupa is the rupa—and remember, rupa is an objective property, right?; it’s not consciousness; it’s something that’s objective—the eleventh kind of rupa—and this is very interesting—is rupa which is the object of the organ of mind.

So the brain is not the mind, the way smelling is the nose, at least in the Buddhist understanding. Mind is not rupa. But mind can have as its object a subtle kind of rupa, which is not seeing, hearing, and so forth. So then you might say, well, what kind of rupa would that be? What would be included under that category? And this is quite fascinating actually. There are five kinds of rupa that are cognized by mind. This eleventh category of rupa has five members in it. The first one is rupa arising from aggregation. And this is the world. Because the world that we perceive is actually not a direct result of our senses. It’s a projection of an aggregation that we put together in our minds.

So this is really astonishing because what it means is—I mean in some sort of colloquial way we could say—we’re making up the world. I mean, we have a basis for that, but we’re making up the world.

Now how skillful are we in making up this world? Or are we making up the world in some pretty confused ways, based on habits from the past? Our various confusions and hurts and pains and sorrows are right there, in the world that we are making up. This is important to think about and recognize, because we’re always thinking it’s the world. It’s not the world. It’s the world we’re creating.

The second rupa that is an object of mind is, again, space. Why would they [include space?] Space already, we’ve heard about space! Because space can’t be, in any way, cognized by the mind, so we have a concept of space, and experience of space that isn’t space, but it’s our human experience of space, which is only cognized by the mind. But there’s something objective about that. It’s a thing, somehow. Sort of a little bit less than a thing, but it’s a thing.

And the third one, that is really—the one that really gets me, and I think you’ll be impressed with this…you ready? Okay, here it is…

Vow. Vow. Very appropriate since we’re going to have an ordination ceremony at the end of our retreat, to note that—and this is true in all the different versions of the Abhidharma throughout Buddhism, this is consistently understood—that vow, which is an object, which is not a thing that you can pick up and do something with, actually has a status of objective reality, on this subtle level. In other words, when you take vows, there is actually, it is understood, almost like a cellular change. You become like a different form of being. And similarly, when you break vows, and so forth. Incredible, isn’t it? To think about that.

I’ve read some of the accounts of this, debates about this, where they try to ascertain precisely what kind of stuff goes into the body when you take a vow. It gets kind of funny, when they try to get too literal about this. Because they actually think, early Buddhists actually felt, this was their experience, that actually something like a physical alteration occurred in the whole body/mind under the influence of vows. And they were trying to explain exactly how this came about. And I think there are many failures of explanations in this, but nevertheless, the root of this really seems true and I think as we go along, we can appreciate this. So that’s interesting, isn’t it.

And then the fourth kind of rupa, in the eleventh category, is imaginary forms. So dream images, visions, actually have a reality status. From our point of view, this is just imaginary stuff, it’s all in your mind, we say, but here they say, yes, it’s all in your mind, and it’s real. There is a reality to these things that is of a different status than we would give it in our map of mind. There’s a weight to visions and dreams, and there are many, many legends and stories in Buddhism about people having visions and dreams, and having it be an enormous thing. There are people who would be ordained in dreams and in visions, by bodhisattvas who would appear and give them vows, and so on, in visions and dreams.

And the final kind of rupa of the eleventh category is a particular kind of form, a particular kind of rupa that you see in meditation practice. So there’s a distinction made between a dream or a vision, and the particular practice, say, of visualization or the production of purified images that arise sometimes spontaneously and sometimes intentionally in meditation practice.

So I want to spend my talks going further with this map of the mind. As I say, it’s a little tedious, but I do feel it’s important that at least once we go through if not all of this, the points that are at least salient, because we need to appreciate and understand this stuff.

I hope you don’t think about it too much. I wouldn’t want it to mess up your peace and quiet. So try your best not to think about any of this, and just kind of forget about it after I…hopefully you’ll listen to it while I’m saying it, but if you would rather snooze, that would be okay, too. As long as you don’t snore. It’s very disturbing, when you’re sleeping, if you snore. But if you sleep surreptitiously so that no one knows, this would be alright. Then it will sink into your pores and you’ll have a deeper understanding, probably. But during the rest of the time please do your best to forget about this. Sometimes it happens that as you’re concentrating on your breathing and your posture and returning to this question that I suggested that you return to—the investigation of what you are feeling—sometimes it happens that some point that comes up in all this flies into your mind, and you understand it very clearly. So if that happens, I myself find such moments to be pleasant, and I hope that you have a moment like that once in a while and also find it pleasant. If so then go on to the next thing and don’t let it bother you. But in general, don’t think about it. Just something to distract you and pass the time, and entertain you so that you don’t have to relentlessly worry about how your neck hurts, and your back hurts, and how miserable your life is, and the world is going to pot, and everything like that.

Okay, thank you.

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