28 August 2015

Having Seen a Form with the Eye...

If the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) represents the epitome of early Buddhist metaphysics, then what would its counterpart be in terms of practice? After all it is one thing to accurately define the terms of Buddhist practice, to make it clear that we are examining experience and that we are not speculating on the nature of reality, that the proper domain of application of Buddhist thought and training is the world of experience. Most people are familiar with the "meditation" suttas, especially the Ānāpānasati (MN 118) and the Satipaṭṭhāna (MN 10). But is there something between metaphysics and meditation? On one hand I've already explored the Spiral Path texts (Western Buddhist Review) which give a general outline of the Buddhist program in more practical terms, corresponding to the threefold way of sīla, samādhi and paññā. However, I've also noted that sīla or Buddhist ethics seems to defined in different ways at different times (Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism).

My Pali reading group is reading the Cūḷahatthipadopamasuttaṃ (MN 27) which seems to suggest layers of practice of exponentially increasing intensiveness. The broad basis is ethics. Following the precepts establishes the basis for Buddhist practice. Then one practices restraint of the senses to eliminate the hindrances, preparing the mind for meditation., which prepares the mind for insight. 

I can easily be seen how this relates to the Spiral Path teachings. But instead of sīla, samādhi, and paññā we have an extra layer: sīla, saṃvara, samādhi, and paññā. In fact, in the Spiral Path we can see that what I have previous labelled sīla is in fact typically more like saṃvara. This essay is mostly about the saṃvara aspect. However, the hatthipadopama also provides a context that allows us to see, what I previously mistook for two kinds of ethics, as distinct practices of differing intensity.

In the hatthipadopama the practice of saṃvara revolves around the phrase so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā 'having seen form with the eye, he...'. By looking at what ideal practitioners do having seen a form, we get a sense of how the early Buddhists expected a skilled practitioner engages with the practice of saṃvara
so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī. yatvādhikaraṇamenaṃ cakkhundriyaṃ asaṃvutaṃ viharantaṃ abhijjhādomanassā pāpakā akusalā dhammā anvāssaveyyuṃ tassa saṃvarāya paṭipajjati, rakkhati cakkhundriyaṃ, cakkhundriye saṃvaraṃ āpajjati.
Having seen form with the eye, [the ideal disciple] doesn't grasp at signs (nimitta) or at secondary characteristics (anubyañjana). Since dwelling with the eye-faculty unrestrained, mental events (dhammā) of covetousness and grief, evil, unwholesome stream into [their mind], for that reason they practice restraint (saṃvara), they protect the eye-faculty, they undertake restraint with respect to the eye-faculty.
The analysis is repeated for each sensory mode. This passage or a close parallel of it is found through out the four main Nikāyas, e.g.
  • DN i.70, i.270;
  • MN i.180, i.268, i.346, i.355, ii.162, ii.226, iii.2, iii.34, iii.134 (as iii.2, abbreviated),
  • SN iv.104, iv.111, iv.176, iv.178,
  • AN i.113, ii.16, ii.39, ii.152, ii.153, ii.210, iii.99, iii.163, v.206, v.348, v.351
So having seen form with the eye (cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā) the practitioner is not (more literally) "a grasper of signs" (nimitta-ggāhin). The etymology of nimitta is uncertain, though likely related to the verb √ 'to measure'. Generally it means 'a sign or omen'. The latter is an important connotation. However there are several other main senses and most likely here it refers to 'outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute, phenomenon.' From this point of view, the problem apparently is not that we grasp the form itself, but that we grasp the mental image of it. 

The early Buddhists were dismissive of fortune telling and omen reading.† Here the implication is that the experience of a form, the signs by which we know we are having an experience, are like the omens that foretell events. For anyone who is a skeptic the omens are meaningless, at best a coincidence at worse completely unrelated except in the imagination of the credulous. The unawakened treat the nimittas that arise from seeing forms as being like omens. The skilled practitioner sees them for what they are.
† Some years ago now the late Professor David Pingree noticed that the Brahmajāla Sutta contained a list of omens which monks are forbidden to use. See Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism.
This is a very important distinction. It suggests for example, that it's not the money we grasp, when we grasp at wealth, but the mental counterparts of it. In other words it's not the physical act of grasping that is problematic, but the mental concomitants of it: basically the desire for the pleasurable experiences we associate with the act.

The practitioner is also not a grasper of secondary characteristics (anubyañjana-ggāhin). The base word is byañjana or vyañjana, a word that is used for words and letters. Like nimitta, byañjana can refer to a sign or characteristic. With the prefix anu- it means 'accompanying characteristic, secondary attribute. Thus we can take this as relating to papañca (see my two essays on the word and the meaning). Nimitta is the experience of contacting a sense object, where anubyañjana is our internal reflection on, or reaction to, the experience, the experience of having had the sense experience. 

So the practitioner does not grasp at either of these types of experience. Things arise in our sensorium and they pass away. When we allow this process to take it's natural course without imposing our desires and aversions onto it, then we are free. But if we do impose them, then evil, unwholesome thoughts invade out minds, such as desire (abhijjhā) for more pleasure, despondency (domanassā) at the cessation of pleasure or the failure of pleasure to arise. So in order to be free of unwholesome thoughts we protect the sense faculties.

Sometimes this is referred to as indriyesu duttadvara or "guarding the gates of the senses". In turn, as I explored long ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words, appamāda (often translated as 'vigilance' or similar) is also found in this context and etymologically means 'not blind drunk' or in context 'not blind drunk on the objects of the senses'. Which here clearly refers to practising restrain as sense cognitions arise and pass away. Yes, we can also practice wise attention, and not seek out overt stimulation, but the key is what we do with sense experience that arises and passes away.


A similar passage is referred to as saṃvarapadhāna 'striving for restraint' (DN iii.225), and vaṇaṃ paṭicchādetā 'dressing a wound' (MN i.122, AN v.538) or uttariṃ karaṇīyaṃ 'the highest obligation' (MN i.273). Another minor variation (DN iii.269, 291, AN ii.198-9, iii.279, v.30, cf. DN iii.244) puts the above more simply:
Idhāvuso, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā neva sumano hoti na dummano, upekkhako viharati sato sampajāno.
Here, friend, a bhikkhu, seeing form with his eye he is not elated or despondent, he dwells stoical, mindful and attentive.
An important variation for understanding the Buddhist account of suffering and liberation occurs at MN i.266:
So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe byāpajjati, anupaṭṭhitakāyasati ca viharati parittacetaso.
Seeing a form with the eye they are attracted to a pleasing type of form and averse to an unpleasing type of form, they dwell without establishing mindfulness of the body and with an unprotected mind (parittacetaso)
Unsurprisingly this failure to protect the mind sets off a chain reaction which is can be seen as a subset of the twelve nidāna (or the nidānas could be an expansion of this list). And thus they give rise to all the different kinds of disappointment, discontent and suffering (kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo). In some passages (SN iv.119, SN iv.184, iv.189, iv.198) the verb sārajjati is replaced by adhimuccati 'drawn to'. In these passages the contrast is between having guarded doors (guttadvāra) and unguarded (aguttadvāra).

At (MN iii.216, iii.239; AN i.176) the phrase is part of a very differently worded teaching, but still seems to aim at the same approach. The Saḷāyatana-vibhanga Sutta appears to be influenced by Abhidhamma categories of dhammas. It revolves around the idea of manopavicāra 'mental exploration' which Buddhaghosa relates to applied and sustained thought (vitakkavicārā MNA v.20). In the Theravāda Abhidhamma there are 18 kinds of manopavicāra which are based on the 18 dhātus.*
* the 18 dhātus are the six sense objects or external bases (cha bāhirāni āyatanāni); the six sense faculties (indriya) or internal bases (cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni), and the classes of cognition (cha viññāṇakāyā).
The procedure is like this:
Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati.
Seeing a form with the eye they investigate (upavicarati) a form which is a source of misery, or investigate a form which is a source of elation, or investigate a form which is a source of equanimity.
This sutta makes some distinctions. For example there is a contrast at MN iii.219 which asks about the six kinds of equanimity associated with household life. Here a householder having seen form with the eye uppajjati upekkhā bālassa mūḷhassa puthujjanassa... "He gives rise to the equanimity of the foolish infatuated hoi polloi, etc.". This kind of equanimity is of a lesser kind, because it dhammaṃ sā nātivattati "It does not transcend the dhamma." Dhamma here probably means "mental-object", which is how Ñāṇamoḷi & Bodhi translate it. The sutta continues to outline a complex system of practice.

In Practice.

At the end of the section on saṃvara the hatthipadopama says
so iminā ca ariyena sīlakkhandhena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena indriyasaṃvarena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena satisampajaññena samannāgato vivittaṃ senāsanaṃ bhajati araññaṃ rukkhamūlaṃ pabbataṃ kandaraṃ giriguhaṃ susānaṃ vanapatthaṃ abbhokāsaṃ palālapuñjaṃ. 
Endowed with this noble mass of virtue, and possessing this noble restraint of the senses, and possessing this noble mindfulness and attentiveness, he resorts to the wilderness, the foot of a tree, a mountain, a grotto, a mountain cave, a cremation ground, or a pile of straw in a clearing in the jungle. 
And here, of course, he or she sits down and deals with the five hindrances, and having abandoned them (pañca nīvaraṇe pahāya), enters the first jhāna, and so on. In the hatthipadopama, having purified, stabilised and made their mind malleable through jhāna, the practitioner then turns their mind to insight. In this case it is through contemplating the tevijja, i.e. the three mystic skills: the knowledge recollection of former births (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and the knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It seems very likely that the early Buddhists saw this passage as literal: they believed in rebirth and they believed that knowledge of the way that beings were reborn was attainable. But the tevijja is not the only description of Buddhist insight practice and anyone of them could be substituted at this point.

Thus there is a sequence of increasingly intensive practices:

sīla - saṃvara - sati-sampajāna - nīvaraṇe pahāya - jhāna - vipassana

What we can take from this, is that simple ethics is not sufficient to sustain a meditation practice. It is certainly necessary, but in fact we must prepare through a far more rigorous approach to sense experience. This essay has focussed on saṃvara or restraint, but having established saṃvara, there is still some way to go before attempting meditation. One must be mindful, in the sense of paying close attention to ones movements and actions. Certainly hatthipadopama associations sati-samapajāna primarily with awareness of the body. And then one is ready to tackle the hindrances. And it's not simply that the layers follow on from each other in a linear way. Each seems to me to be an order of magnitude more demanding. It's not a simple step from sīla to samādhi. In fact samādhi is several orders of magnitude more intensive than even a quite rigorous practice of sīla.

This gives us the sense that meditation proper is actually quite an advanced practice. We sometimes talk about the necessity for basic ethics in relation to meditation, but we seldom seem to have the approach of exponentially increasing focus leading to concentration. There's a passage from the Upanisā Sutta on the Spiral Path which supplies an image for this kind of progressive approach:
Just as monks, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains and water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies. Having filled the crevices and gullies small lakes are filled, and then the great lakes. The great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up. The small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
The passage is much more common in the Chinese Spiral Path texts found in the Madhyamāgama (see my draft translations), it's attached to almost all of the Chinese Spiral Path texts, not just the counterpart of the Upanisā. This suggests that it struck a chord with early Buddhists in the North. It is trying to say that if one only fulfils (paripūreti) the first stage, then practice overflows into the next. Another Spiral Path text describes this process as natural (dhammatā). Though experience shows that progress still requires continuity of purpose.

To me, Buddhism begins and, more importantly, ends with experience. This kind of approach to increasingly intensive explorations of experience seems particularly significant. It's probably not enough to be generally ethical and to attempt some meditation techniques. The text and it's counterparts suggest that a far more systematic approach is required. And that each layer of practice is more demanding then the previous. When we skip layers we all too often find ourself floundering because we have not done the preparation. 


For some comments on this sequence of increasingly intensive practices and its parallel in Patañjali's Yogasūtra see: The Yoga Sutra: a handbook on Buddhist meditation? 
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