22 May 2009

In the seen...

eye by Guhyaraja There is a very famous story regarding the ascetic Bāhiya Dārucīriya (Bāhiya of the bark garment) who travels far to find the Buddha. He repeatedly asks the Buddha for a teaching and eventually the Buddha turns and utters the now famous words: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard" - etc for all the senses. However it is quite difficult to know exactly what the Buddha meant, and although we get a general picture the details are sometimes left obscure. Indeed scholars allow that the passages which follow are not really understood any more.

I recently stumbled upon precisely the same teaching being given to another person in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Māluṅkyaputta is an elderly bhikkhu and asks the Buddha for a nice brief teaching that he can reflect on. The Buddha repeats the same words as he says to Bāhiya. Fortunately for us Māluṅkyaputta is not sure he understands either, and he asks the Buddha for clarification. He does this by spelling out his understanding and asking if that is what the Buddha meant. And since it he gets it right we can learn from this sutta.

Here is an edited version of what he said:
Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā, piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasi karoto;
Sārattacitto vedeti, tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati.

Tassa vaḍḍhanti vedanā, anekā rūpasambhavā;
Abhijjhā ca vihesā ca cittamassūpahaññati;
Evaṃ ācinato dukkhaṃ, ārā nibbānamuccati.

..sutvā ... ghatvā... bhotvā... phussa... dhammaṃ ñatvā
Having seen a form with mindfulness forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form.
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.

Similarly for sounds, smells, tastes, contact, and the knowledge of mental objects.
So let's pause here to consider what's been said so far. This is our existential situation. We see forms, hear sounds, etc and we are entranced by them. Consider that we do not have one sensory experience at the time, but live in a flood of sense impressions all giving rise to sensations and thoughts. So the problem is multiplied many times. And, because we are caught up in the delightful sensations that our senses deliver up to us, we are covetous. As I say - we seek happiness by pursuing pleasure. We worry when we don't get pleasure - either new pleasures or the same old pleasures. We are appalled when we get unpleasant sensations because we think this means we are unhappy. And all this impairs our mental functioning. We get caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and defending ourselves from worry and vexation. We accumulate material goods, we indulge in hedonism, we fight and quarrel over things. And none of this actually makes us happy! In fact the more we go on like this the less happiness we are likely to have. The more we have the less content we will be. The more pleasure we find, the less we will enjoy it. Pleasant sensations are like addictive drugs - after a while we need more to get the same effect.

So in this state nibbāna - the blowing out of the fires that torment us - is remote. It is remote because our craving is fuel for the fire. We keep the fire burning by pursuing pleasure and reacting against pain.

The sutta continues:

Na so rajjati rūpesu, rūpaṃ disvā paṭissato;
Virattacitto vedeti, tañca nājjhosa tiṭṭhati.
Yathāssa passato rūpaṃ, sevato cāpi vedanaṃ;
Khīyati nopacīyati, evaṃ so caratī sato;
Evaṃ apacinato dukkhaṃ, santike nibbānamuccati.
Having mindfully seen a form, he does not delight in forms,
He experiences dispassion and remains unattached
He sees a form and has the associated sensation,
It falls away, does not accumulate - thus he exercises mindfulness.
Thus suffering is not heaped up, and nibbāna is said to be near.
So what is the alternative to heaping fuel on the fire? Should we just give up everything and join a monastery? Well it's not quite as simple as that. Renunciation in a worldly sense can sometimes be counter productive if we remain mentally attached to the thing. Renouncing pleasure qua pleasure is not really possible. Those who try to do so end up cultivating pain, and that is quite as unhealthy as pursuing pleasure. The problem is our relationship to sensations. The key is mindfulness - which enables one to stay calm in the face of pleasure or pain, and to just experience what is happening in each moment as it happens.

This requires training. At first we don't even see that we have this kind of relationship to sensations. We have to become aware of what we are aware of, and not trundle along letting our unconscious reactions to things dictate our behaviour. This is what it means to become truly human - to rise above instinctual or habitual reactions and be conscious. By cultivating mindfulness of things, and our body and other people we generally refine our awareness. And most people find that this makes them slow down and appreciate things a little more, and it allows a measure of contentment to develop. This is preliminary to the greater work which is to begin to see more clearly that pleasure is not equal to happiness, and vice versa, and equally that pain - as in the physical sensation of pain - doesn't necessarily equate to unhappiness.

We may also pay attention to the grosser forms of impermanence and cause and effect - this helps us to tune into the spirit of the teachings. At some point our focus needs to shift to the impermanence of experience itself: to the way that experiences occur when the conditions are there (that is to say sense organ, sense object and sense consciousness) and that nothing substantial is found in the experience itself. Pleasurable experiences in particular do not last, they create no lasting happiness, and if we are very subtly attuned we begin to sense that our addiction means that as soon as we feel pleasure we begin to fear it's end - we cling to it.

So in order to be closer to extinguishing the flames that torment us we need to stop feeding the fire. When we have a sense experience we try to stay aware of it's temporary and contingent nature - we have that experience, but do not try to hold onto it, and stay open to possibility. We become 'fed up' with chasing pleasure and we turn away from the chase. This detachment brings it's own rewards - we are calmer, we are content. Life becomes simpler. Equanimity means we have more energy since we no longer waste it, and it is smoother. We are no longer rocked by the winds of change and fortune - because we stop looking for happiness in pleasant experiences.

  • The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72). Pāli text from tipitka.org. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi The Collected Discourses p. 1175-8. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  • On Nibbāna and the fire metaphor see also my essay: Everything is on fire!
  • Another take on the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta can be found in this interesting essay: theravadin.wordpress.com.

image: eye by Guhyaraja.

Related Posts with Thumbnails