18 June 2010

The Pscyhological Wasteland

waste land
A couple of years ago senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Subhuti, studied the Cetokhila Sutta [1] and was talking about it with other senior order members. Although I did not have the chance to study the text at the time I was intrigued by what I heard, and I have now done my own translation. This translation is also a condensation because there is a huge amount of redundancy and repetition in the Pāli - what I have done is communicate the same message, in the same order, but in succinct English.

There are other translations of this text and in this case I needed to rely on that by Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand parts of it. [2] There are other internet translations, though I think they struggle to communicate the message of the text because they are caught up in the Pāli syntax. 

The Cetokhila Sutta

Thus have I heard. One time the blessed one was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park outside Sāvatthī. There the blessed at one addressed the monks.

There are five psychological wastelands unrenounced, five emotional bindings not cut that make it impossible to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

The five psychological wastelands are: doubting [kaṅkhati] and hesitating [vicikicchati] with respect to, and lack of faith and assurance in the teacher, the doctrine, the spiritual community, and the training; and taking offence, being angry, resentful and sulky towards one's companions in the spiritual life. In the psychological wastelands one's mind is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

The five emotional bindings are uncut passion, desire, love, longing, fever, and thirst for: sensuous pleasure, the body, and form; eating as much as one likes and being given to the pleasures of sleeping, lying about, and laziness; and living the spiritual life aspiring to heaven thinking: 'by this morality, this austerity, this spiritual practice I will become a god or go to heaven.' With these emotional bindings left uncut one's heart is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

For those who renounce the five psychological wastelands, and cut the five emotional bindings it is possible for them to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

This samādhi of intention [chanda] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of vitality [vīriya] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of mind [citta] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of investigation [vīmaṃsā] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. Enthusiasm [ussoḷhi] is the fifth basis for success.

With these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough [abhinibbida], capable of fully understanding [sambodha], capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union [anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigama].

Just as a bird with eight or ten or twelve eggs perfectly sitting on them, incubating them, and brooding them need not wish: "may my chicks, with beak and claw, safely break through their eggshell", because the chicks are well-equipped with beak and claw to pierce their eggshell and break through. So with these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough, capable of fully understanding, capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union.

This is what the blessed one said. The monks were pleased and rejoiced in his words.

This is almost like two suttas mashed together, which appears to go off on a tangent by introducing the samādhi accompanied by effort, though perhaps it made sense to the compilers of the Canon. In my comments, therefore, I want to focus on the part about the psychological wasteland and the emotional binds. Firstly some of the main terms.

Cetokhila: a khila is a patch of barren or fallow land. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi opt to render it 'wilderness'. I thought wasteland was a better fit because the metaphor is not of being lost in a wilderness, but of a place where growth is not possible. Ceto, and cetaso, are more or less the same as citta. Citta can be 'mind' generally; 'mind' as specifically the consciousness that arises in dependence on contact between sense organ and sense object; and it is also a synonym of 'heart' (hadaya) as the seat of the emotions. We usually get landed with either 'heart' or 'mind' because the two are distinct in English. My thought is that psychological covers both emotions and thoughts.

Cetsaso-vinibandha: the word vinibandha means 'bondage'. The plural 'bondages' sounded a little too 'Buddhist Hybrid English' to me, and not natural. Bindings seemed to fit. Here I have chosen 'emotional' to render cetaso because the items included under this heading are more clearly emotional. Although 'heart' is a well worn poetic cliché for emotion, I wanted to be specific and heart is used quite vaguely.

The basic message of the text is that if we don't have faith and confidence in the three jewels, if we are doubtful and unsure, then this is like a wasteland, a patch of barren land. A wasteland is not productive, not somewhere we expect crops to germinate, flourish and ripen; we cannot grow spiritually under these conditions. So this is an agricultural metaphor for a Buddhist life.

Note that the tone of the text changes with respect to our companions in the spiritual life. With the Three Jewels we can be confident that they will never let us down. With respect to other people, other Buddhists, the text does not suggest that we have faith them. It assumes that they will let us down, that they will fall short, and it requires of us that we not harbour ill-will and resentment towards them when they do let us down. We are not to take offence. This is much harder than it sounds because when people do let us down we usually assume the worst, we assume that they hurt us on purpose. We do not see them as conditioned beings responding habitually or unconsciously. So we blame them for their behaviour. In the Christian morality that underlies Western societies blame implies guilt, and guilt demands punishment. In Christianity vengeance is the Lord's province, but in anger Christians often pre-empt Him by harming the person who has offended them and calling this "justice". Similarly Buddhists profess to believe in karma, but are reluctant to allow karma time and space to work, but want to hurt the person who has hurt them. So we unreliable humans are constantly lashing out at each other. It is not a failing of religion, as militant atheists suggest, but a failing of people. Atheists are not less likely to lash out, but only to rationalise their lashing out in different ways.

The emotional bonds that prevent us from making progress draw on a different metaphor. Here passion, desire, etc are chords that tie us in emotional knots. The wasteland is more about aversion, and the bonds are about attraction. The main thing we desire is pleasure. As I have argued before: people mistake pleasure for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of pleasure, which is disastrous for us, for the societies we live in, for humans generally, and for the planet. Despite the abject failure of the pursuit of pleasure to produce positive results we find it difficult to imagine any other way. This was true in the Buddha's day also. One of the most refined and pernicious aspects of this pursuit of pleasure is the idealised heaven. The text pays particular attention to using practice as a means to rebirth in heaven. Many culture's have heavens (even Buddhists) and you can tell a lot about that culture from the heaven they imagine: whether it is perfectly flat surfaces and jewelled trees, numbers of virgins, or a father's uninterrupted attention and love, heaven tends to contain the things that will give a man the most pleasure they can imagine. I say "man" advisedly here, because I think it's clear that 'official' heavens of the big religions were imagined by men. Unlike the Islamic heaven, in both Buddhist and Christian heavens there is no sex, and no sexuality. [3] Make of that what you will.

Perhaps it is the contrast between aversion and attraction that lead to the inclusion of stock phrases on the samādhi's accompanied by effort - which appear to refer to meditation accompanied by the four right efforts. Unravelling this paragraph on its own is next to impossible. Neither the Pāli commentary summary (MA 2.67), nor the longer explanation in the Visuddhimagga it refers you to, are very helpful as they are almost equally cryptic. I only understood it when I chanced on a reference in the notes to Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. [4] This pointed to the Chandasamādhi Sutta (SN 51.13 ) which untangles the long compounds in a way that makes sense. It is interesting that the Chandasamādhi appears to be a commentary on other texts which refer to the four bases for success (iddhipāda). The cryptic phrasing of this part of the text suggests to me a sophisticated intellectual milieu, and a written rather than oral medium. To find a commentary already in the Canon is intriguing.

The last image more or less speaks for itself. If you have faith in the three jewels, are tolerant of you companions, and cut the bindings of pleasure-seeking, and apply yourself to right effort, then you don't need to worry about breaking through. What we do as Buddhists is set up conditions for practice, and get on with practice. Wishing for Enlightenment is only useful to the extent that it gives us what Sangharakshita calls 'continuity of purpose'. We need to keep on committing ourselves, to keep on making the right kind of effort, but if we do that, then we can be confident of making progress. In fact doubt in, and of, this process prevents us from growing.

  1. MN 16, PTS M i.101. A pdf of my translation accompanied by extensive notes is available on my website: The Psychological Wasteland: a Translation of the Cetokhila Sutta.
  2. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. p.194ff.
  3. This is arguable. The Book of Enoch (which may originally have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but survives only in Ethiopian) was originally part of the Canon of both Jews and early Christians, but was excised in the 4th century. In Enoch the sin of the fallen angels was not pride, but lust - they had sex with and fathered children with human women. See for instance: Link, Luther. The Devil : the Archfiend in Art from the 6th to the 16th century. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1995. (see especially pg. 27f)
  4. Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.1939, n.246.

image: lots of copies of this around the net. I copied it from www.motherearthnews.com.
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