08 August 2008

The Apparatus of Experience

Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism a New Approach is not an easy read, but it is very rewarding. I found in it a doctrinal confirmation and clarification of my intuitions about the Dharma. I had been asking myself - what is it that arises in dependence on causes? (Jayarava Rave 8 April 2008) My answer had shifted from "things" to "experiences". This is reflected also in my translation of the Buddha's last words: "all experiences are disappointing..."

Central to Hamilton's book, and building on her earlier published work is a re-examination of the canonical references to the khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). These are typically described as encompassing the whole human being - there is nothing outside of the khandhas. Hamilton demonstrates that actually the khandhas are not meant to literally encompass the whole being, but do make up the minimum required apparatus for experience: hence "apparatus of experience". I like this little phrase and its implications very much.

A quick digression here to a suggestion by Prof. Gombrich about the translation of khandha - again from the Numata Lectures and appearing in his forthcoming "What the Buddha Thought". Khandha is most often translated by words such as aggregate, group or category, or (by Conze) as 'heap'. Gombrich points to the Pāli term aggikhandha meaning "a blazing mass". Khandha often occurs in the compound upādānakhandha where it is frequently translated as "aggregates of clinging". Gombrich links it to the extended fire metaphor used by the Buddha and suggests "blazing mass of fuel" (upādāna meaning literally fuel.) The khandhas, then, are a mass of fuel which, as the Fire Sermon ( Ādittapariyāya Sutta literally: The way of putting things as being on fire) tells us are on fire with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

The khandhas then are part of the mechanism keeping us in saṃsara, they are the "mass of fuel" that burns, and Nibbāna is the extinguishing of that fire - though the fuel itself can remain at this point as the term upādi-sesa-nibbāna "extinguishing with a remainder" suggests. It is rather a squeeze to fit every facit of the human being into just these five categories, and Hamilton manages to make a lot more sense of them as a kind of minimal requirement for experience - she takes the idea of nothing existing outside the khandhas as a metaphorical reference to the fact of experience: that everything we can know comes to us through the senses.

To have experience at all we must have a living body (rūpa). This is the vehicle for consciousness and the locus of experience. Without a living sensing body we would not receive sensory data - recall that the sense organ must be involved for contact to take place.

Having met with sensory data (vedanā) we process it: we become aware of and identify the sensation (saññā), we categorise it and name it (viññāṇā), and we respond affectively to it (saṅhkāra). This is a very cut down psychology, a minimalist account of consciousness, but it contains all that is necessary for continued experience, that is to say for continuation in samsara. And this is the process, this continuation in samsara which the Buddha constantly tells people is the focus of his teachings. Asked about all manner of metaphysical and philosophical teachings, the Buddha replies that he only teaches about the process of experience and how to end it.

Hamilton is saying, in effect, that later Buddhist tradition have taken this teaching a little to literally when they say things like: "These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence". [Nyanatiloka : 98] Everything is not literally summed up, it is just that this is the necessary apparatus (to use Hamilton's terms) for all experience. All of experience - of whatever kind - is sensed, processed and acted upon through the khandhas. It is in this sense that the set is a complete description of the human being, not literally. It makes the assumption that we are what we experience, and as I have discovered, any attempt to get behind experience to confirm it involves some other sensory experience. One image that occurs to me for this is that we cannot get behind the mirror to see if anything is there because we always see a new mirror.

All this is not to say that some kind of objective world does not exist. I think the level of consensus that is possible on what is being experienced suggests very strongly that there is some kind of objective world. However I would argue that since we must always rely on our senses in any attempt to establish the status of the objective world, that such attempts are meaningless - they cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other. I've come to believe that it was this that the Buddha was trying to get people to understand. Take for example the short Sabbaṃ Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In this text the Buddha says that "the all" (sabbaṃ) is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and the felt, the mind and dhammas. (SN 35.23 = Bodhi : 1140). There is nothing outside of this "all". This is an explicit confirmation of what I've been saying. To take this to be an ontological statement - that outside of this "all" there is nothing - is to miss the point. It does not make sense as ontology, but as an epistemology it is very useful. All that we can know are 'objects' of the senses (including the mental sense), that is to say all we can know is what we experience - and the khandhas are the apparatus of experience.

I think this has profound implications for how we practice and teach the Dharma. For one thing I think we should abandon talking about dependent arising in terms of "things arising in dependence on causes" - there are no things only experiences. It would be more accurate to say that "experiences of things arise in dependence on causes". This then allows us to focus on the experience of dependent arising, rather than trying to locate some object which is arising. So many of our metaphors for dependent arising involve "things". But because of the way we function - through and only through experience - there are in effect no things arising.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary : manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. (4th ed). Kandy, Sri Lanka : Buddhist Publication Society (2004 reprint).

image: JAKIMOWICZ Fabien - belfry clock mechanism
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