24 June 2011

(Re)educating the Body

bodyPHILOSOPHER THOMAS METZINGER is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing he has had a number of out-of-body experiences - spontaneous, waking and vivid - and he takes such experiences seriously. He says that any theory of consciousness must account for such experiences or it is "just not interesting". For Metzinger the sense of being an autonomous self is a consequence of the particular way the brain models its surroundings and interactions with them. In particular the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic sense is important in providing a locus of experience. Proprioception is the felt sense of our body - the sum total of information about muscle and tendon tension throughout the body, as well as information from the inner ear about orientation. It is proprioception that allows us to locate ourselves in space without seeing ourselves. Our sense of self, of being a self, is intimately tied to this internal model of the body.

Even when there is no actual limb to feel -- if one is amputated, or through a congenital defect never develops -- we may still have an image of it in our heads. Metzinger quotes the example of a woman born with no arms or legs who none-the-less experiences four phantom limbs with varying degrees of vividity. Phantom limb pain in amputees is a common problem. And how can something that does not physically exist cause us pain? Only if we have a mental representation of it, and it registers the mismatch between the representation and the reality in terms of pain.

In addition there is a visual map of the body generated in the brain. I've noticed, for example, that in learning Tai Chi I often have to look down at my feet to see where they are. My internal proprioceptive map is a little unreliable at times. So my visual sense helps to correct that - once I visually check where my feet are currently, I can correct their orientation and internally 'see' where they actually are, and feel what that is like, and hopefully learn to keep better track of them. Having to look at one's feet is rather a disadvantage in moving about, but in martial applications is potentially fatal. No doubt this is a modern malfunction, as it is hard to imagine our clumsy footed hunter-gatherer ancestors surviving long enough to breed.

It is possible for one or other of these internal maps to over-ride the other. As is shown by the rubber hand experiment we can integrate inanimate objects into our body image, a case of the visual over-riding the proprioceptive sense; and similarly in Phantom-limb Syndrome it is possible to have a felt sense of a limb where there is none to see (or feel). Sometimes a phantom limb will feel paralysed and V.S. Ramachandran has used mirrors to give a visual illusion of the missing limb moving which allows it to be re-animated in the mental model. Sometimes we can integrate an entire virtual body into our body image as in experiments carried out by Olaf Blanke in association with Metzinger (See Guardian 17.2.11 which likens Blanke's work to the Avatar movie where people 'inhabit' virtual bodies).

Metzinger has plausibly theorised that out-of-body experiences occur when the proprioceptive and visual models of the body lose synchronisation. They are most frequently associated with trauma which may account for the mismatch. The felt sense is of floating, while the visual sense is actually unchanged. Apparently the visual information available during waking out-of-body experiences is still just that of the physical eyes - one doesn't see one's own face for instance. It is not that we are receiving information from some other source, only that we feel our point of view as disconnected from its usual location. In a related phenomena we can feel a sense of presence near us (typically behind). This is the result of a similar process. It is ourselves we sense, but we feel dislocated from our visual sense, and so the felt sense becomes 'other', often interpreted as a 'spirit' for instance. I know several people who've had this kind of experience, and who interpret it as confirmation of the presence of supernatural beings.

I prefer Metzinger's explanation of the phenomena without in any way denying that an experience was had, or felt to be somehow significant at the time. I'm not convinced by explanations involving supernatural phenomenon because it is possible through direct brain stimulation (as sometimes happens in operations for severe epilepsy) or through stimulation of the brain using magnets against the skull, to cause these experiences to happen. An out-of-body experience can be physically induced using electro-magnetism to stimulate brain cells, and this reduces the likelihood of a supernatural cause to almost zero in my view. Recent studies have shown that the drug Ketamine can also induce out-of-body experiences, presumably also by disrupting the synchronisation of the various body maps in the brain. The explanation of the effect is found in the workings of the brain. The interpretation of the experience -- i.e. what it means to the person having it -- seems to depend on the context, and the preconceptions of the person having the experience.

During the late 1980s I became fascinated with F. M. Alexander and his 'technique'. I read all of his books, and all of the then available literature; and I had several dozen lessons in the technique. It is remarkable. Though it can be difficult to communicate what the Alexander Technique is or does, the gist is that Alexander discovered through trial and error that his proprioceptive sense was unreliable, and was able to retrain it by careful observation of his own movements using a mirror. Alexander thought that many ailments and malaises were caused by poor functioning of the body due to a corrupted proprioceptive sense, and indeed many people trained in his technique do enjoy better health generally. For instance your typical Westerner slumps, has rounded shoulders, and carries excess tension in their neck muscles (and doesn't know where his feet are!). This causes postural imbalance, breathing difficulties, back pain, and in the long term contributes to poor functioning, and probably emotional disturbances (though some would point the causal arrow in the opposite direction when it comes to emotions). In an Alexander Technique lesson one learns to retrain the proprioceptive sense through subtle physical interactions with a teacher who has an accurate proprioceptive sense. These interactions are very similar to some of the subtle techniques used in Tai Chi during sticking and push hands to sense the 'root' of a partner. It's something that has to be felt and is very difficult to put into words.

A mismatch between proprioception and vision can, in extremis, cause us to have out-of-body experiences. Most of us do not have such experience, but we do have these everyday minor glitches when we habitually slump or lose track of our feet. There is not enough disturbance to strongly effect our awareness -- no shifting of our point of view for instance -- but there is an effect. It clearly is a problem, and typically it becomes gradually worse over our life time. This suggests that as we try to find the best way to live in the modern world that attention to this problem needs to be considered.

Some kind of physical training which emphasises proprioceptive awareness rather than simply cardiovascular fitness or muscle mass, and in particular refines the accuracy and synchronisation of this sense with other aspects of our internal self model, would seem to be a desirable companion to any mind training techniques we use. We have a number of options from various disciplines. We can use Chinese Tai Chi, or Indian Yoga for instance; but from the West we also have Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method which work more explicitly with proprioception without the more metaphysical and symbolic elements of Asian approaches. This doesn't exhaust the list. All temperaments are catered for.

This is a more prescriptive argument than I would usually make. I usually aim for understanding of a principle, or how to read a text; I'm not usually saying what to do on the basis of that understanding or reading, even if I think it's obvious what everyone should do. But for me there is a stronger sense of imperative about this theme of physical education because it is so clearly the direct cause of a lot of misery, and relatively easily dealt with. We had a subject called "Physical Education" at school, but though it involved being physical, moving around or playing sports, there was little or no education. By contrast many music schools now routinely give their students Alexander Technique lessons to ensure that poor body use does not result in repetitive strain injuries. Prevention is both better and cheaper than cure. And actually the practices are fun. If you aren't currently doing some form of body education along the lines I've been writing about, I would recommend that you start. The benefits are legion.

mens sana in corpore sano
nοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ
आरोग्यवन्मनः आरोग्यवच्छारीरे


See also:

17 June 2011

A Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs

I STARTED TO BE INTERESTED in this topic of the different responses to the certainty of death and found it hard to find information organised in the way that I wanted to think about it. I was looking for a taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, or eschatologies, but what one generally finds is the beliefs of various religions without analysis of the characteristics of the belief, and no consideration of the similarities between apparently disparate religions. So here is my own taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, setting them out according to common features rather than religious affiliation. I follow the scheme with some remarks about afterlife beliefs generally.

In this belief one seeks not to die. It is characteristic of Daoism, but also of certain New Age sects. Daoists avoid death through magic. New Agers, influenced by Indian yogis, preach "physical immortality" through yoga and especially diet. At least one Buddhist teacher offers immortality as a fruit of practice, though rather implausibly, even if 'deathless' (amṛta) is a synonym for nirāvṇa it comes from not being born into another life, rather than not dying in this life.

This is a special subset of immortality belief. In this belief it is possible for special individuals to come back from the dead - uniting the same mind and body. Jesus is the exemplar, and is considered by some to be physically immortal.

In destination beliefs the dead have a one-way ticket to a final post-mortem realm. Personal identity can be retained on arrival or relinquished. In the latter case one can merge with a god personified, or with a god in the abstract (e.g. the godhead, the universe, the essence).

When linked with morality it results in eternal heaven and hell. Both heaven and hell reflect the ideals of the cultures which propose them, often they are the ideal version of a man's life (women's ideals are usually ignored). Most mono-theist religions maintain some form of this after-life belief. However it seems to me that believers can reasonably expect to go to Heaven and that Hell is for other people, especially non-believers. The idea that Hell is for "sinners" is nonsensical in the face of the saving power of the Messiah.

The Catholic church introduced an temporary intermediate destination - purgatory - to enable necessary purging of any remaining sin before entering heaven. Sin here is seen as a kind of ritual pollution which adheres to the soul, but can be cleansed - very reminiscent of Hindu, and to some extent Jain, karma doctrines.

The idea here is that after a sojourn one is reborn. This is widespread across the world, but shows a great deal of variation. For some rebirth is a good thing, for others it is not and an escape from rebirth becomes the goal of life. Following Obeyesekere I've identified these forms. [1]
  1. One is reborn immediately after death, amongst one's own people.
  2. One is reborn in another world amongst one's ancestors, and lives there for a long time. Then one dies in the other world and is reborn again in this world, usually amongst one's own people. This is the oldest Vedic belief. And seems to be behind the this world/other world terminology found in the Pāli Canon.
  3. The destination after death is connected with ritual actions - only the adept obtains rebirth amongst their ancestors in another world, or their family in this world. Others have less desirable destinations. Seen in orthodox Hinduism.
  4. Destination after death is connected with morality - minimally this requires a bifurcation into heavenly/hellish states, but these are not permanent and one still cycles around. Buddhism posits 5, 6, or 10 possible destinations each of which may be subdivided into many sub-levels. For early Buddhism the rebirth happens with no time lapse. Tibetan Buddhists add the idea of the bardo - a kind of intermediate state or clearing house which determines one's destination on the basis of the development of one's consciousness at the time of death. The bardo also provides an early opportunity for escape from repeated rebirth.
  5. Avatar. In this kind of belief the same individual, despite the possibility of escape, deliberately returns to the world again and again for the benefit of others - e.g. the Tibetan tulku; the advanced bodhisattva in Buddhism, and some Hindu gods.

There are some forms of afterlife belief which do not entail any actual life. I'm not sure if this is a genuine afterlife belief - it seems to be a consolation for not believing in life after death. But it's worth including for completeness sake.

Some would say that we live on as memories. For instance we may say that someone "lives on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones". Similarly when we leave children behind we have left something ourselves to continue on. We could call this genetic seeding - it's not our life that continues, but our genes. There is also intellectual or artistic seeding where we leave behind evidence of our creative work - books, art, music, and ideas.

Hybrid forms
Although the early Vedic model was simply cyclic, in Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad one can see it becoming more sophisticated. We see, for instance, a version in which the post-mortem destination is linked to ritual funeral rites (śraddha). But we also see an escape to a single destination as well - usually in terms of companionship with brahman/Brahmā (the former being the abstract universal principle, the latter being the personified creator god). Here we see the two main types above - destination and recycling - combined into one complex system.

Buddhism also posits a more or less endless cycle of birth and death if one makes no effort, but with an escape route - amṛta "the deathless" - which removes one from cycle permanently. However one cannot say anything about the destination the tathāgata ("one in that state") after death. Later a further elaboration was added which was the Pure Land - an intermediate idealised destination which is perfect for gaining enlightenment, and reflected the cultural values first of medieval India and then China (compare this with the Catholic purgatory)

Personal vs Cosmic Eschatology
Some belief systems overlay personal eschatology - i.e. the post-mortem fate of the individual - with a more universal eschatology - the fate of the universe. So for some Christians the world will end at some point - the end times or Apocalypse.

Similarly in India it is common to see the world as going through great cycles of evolution and devolution with a world destroying cataclysm leading to rebirth of the cosmos. Though presumably the liberated are no more caught up in these cycles than they are the cycles of personal existence.


Buddhist afterlife beliefs are variations on a hybrid model. Traditionally Buddhists believe that without making an effort they are reborn in a beginningless/endless cycle. The fact that the cycles are eternal may well be an extension of the unwillingness to see death as the end of consciousness. Ethics is what determines one's destination and there are 5,6, or 10 main destinations that are subdivided. These range from heavenly to hellish with the human world being middling, but still ultimately disappointing - although it is generally only from the human realm that one can escape the cycles. Buddhists include heaven within the impermanent cycling around. Liberation from the rounds of rebirth is possible with effort and results in an indeterminate state but not in rebirth in this world. Variations include an intermediate state - easy to attain - called the Pure Land from where liberation is guaranteed. The Tibetans add the bardo state which is a prolonged limbo in which decisions can be made - consciously or unconsciously - by the disembodied being about their destination.

Clearly Buddhists agree on the broad outline of this hybrid model, but details vary from culture to culture often exhibiting the direct influence of local culture.

We need to note that all afterlife beliefs (except perhaps the Seeding variety which I will leave out of this discussion) by definition require a mind-body duality. While the body dies something does not die but persists. This insubstantial aspect of the being may be called mind or soul or spirit or something else, but it is not part of the body, and not permanently bound to the body. All afterlife beliefs are therefore fundamentally dualistic. All recycling afterlife beliefs therefore also create another problem in that they require a mechanism by which the mind (or whatever) can detach from the body and reattach to another body - and as Buddhists we do need to acknowledge that our own forms of rebirth belief share these fundamental problems. Where the afterlife belief entails 'memories' of past lives this entails the further difficult problem of how memories are stored and accessed, and why they are not generally available. Such metaphysical problems seem insoluble to me.

Recent research on children's afterlife beliefs [2] suggest that even young children understand that when a person dies their physical functions cease. However children seem to believe that mental functioning may continue in the dead 'person'. So the deceased may not need to eat, but will still feel hungry. It may be that having developed a theory of mind, i.e. the ability to see other beings as self conscious in the way that we are self conscious, that we find it hard to imagine a dead person not having an inner life, even when they clearly have no outer life. We also have a tendency to see self-consciousness in places where it cannot logically exist. Animism is far from dead, and was given a boost by 19th Century Romantics.

I would say that some sort of afterlife belief is one of the fundamental characteristics of religion and that it is difficult to imagine a religion which did not address this question (I can't think of an example). It is true that nihilists have arisen within societies, and sometimes become quite prominent, but I also cannot think of a generally nihilistic society or culture.

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has also put forward the idea that because the strongest urge, desire, drive (it is difficult to find terms which are not anthropomorphic) of life is to continue - aka the survival instinct - that faced with the certainty of death we simply cannot cope and chose to believe in continuity whatever the evidence. Hence though science has undermined religion since the European Enlightenment, it has not annihilated it, and indeed fundamentalist religion, with the greatest reliance on faith and superstition, appears to be on the rise. What 'feels right', can over-ride what 'makes sense', or to put it another way it feels wrong that life does not continue, so we prefer unlikely invention. Metzinger makes the interesting point that attacking such beliefs, especially from an empirical realist (aka 'scientific') point of view is not an ethically neutral venture. Attacking deeply held beliefs, even if they be factually erroneous, under these circumstances may in fact create more suffering than the ignorance itself. At the very least we must consider our motives for attacking other people's beliefs.

That said, when we line all these different kinds of belief up together I'm at a loss to decide between them - they all seem equally unlikely to me, especially in light of theory of mind research. We should not fall into the error of thinking of assertions as evidence. All of these forms of belief are supported by assertions and arguments, but by what possible criteria would we assess them, either individually or comparatively? We simply choose to believe without reference to rational criteria. But then this how human beings make decisions, so perhaps it's not great surprise.


Isn't is always the way. An hour after I hit the "publish" button I find an interesting article on death from precisely the kind of perspective that I'm interested in: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.

  1. This section in particular relies on Gananath Obeyesekere. (2002) Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press. Obeyesekere discusses rebirth theories found in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, Ancient Greece and India and provides a very useful taxonomy of the development of rebirth eschatologies that has influenced this post.
  2. See for instance:
    • Oxford Centre for Anthropology & Mind.
    • Bering et al. (2005) "The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607. pdf

10 June 2011

Beginning and End Marker in Buddhist Texts

Rañjana yig gmo + extension
and double daṇḍa
I have often wondered about the symbols one sees at the beginning and end of texts and mantras. I've been researching them for my forthcoming book. It possible to consider these as simple decoration, but scholars of Buddhist texts and inscriptions have often interpreted them as something more. The Tibetans seem to have the most developed and elaborate forms of these, and they have a clear name for the symbol, so let's start there.

Beginning Markers

Here are the Tibetan variations from the Tibetan Unicode block.

The general term seems to be yimgo (i.e. yig mgo) meaning 'head' or perhaps 'header'. The first symbol is bdra rnying yig mgo mdun ma which seems to mean 'old orthography header', so-called since it is used in early texts, while the more ornate version (no.3) is used currently. [West 2005, 2006] The second is the yimgo combined with the 'following yimgo' (yig mgo sgab ma) and a shad (see below). The 3rd and fourth are the standard yimgo these days (yig mgo mdun ma). The 5th and 6th are the yimgo decorated with a shad (yig mgo phur shad ma; the shad is used as a punctuation mark and equivalent to the Indic daṇḍa); and the old style yimgo with both shad and tsheg (yig mgo tsheg shad ma), the tsheg or syllable marker is usually a simply dot between syllables, but sometimes is more elaborate.

The modern Japanese Siddhaṃ has a yimgo with the same form as the archaic Tibetan yimgo.

The same kind of mark is seen (right) in the Lantsa and Rañjana scripts. The proposed Unicode block for Rañjana calls this the Rañjana yig mgo which suggests there is no indigenous explanation for it in Nepal. In fact I haven't found a definite Indic name for the symbol.

In older manuscripts the symbol is cruder an much more variable, but always a variation on the spiralling curve. As you can see below in the partial chart from Roth (1986) there was considerable variation. Virtually all of the possible orientations are seen in practice, including the one used in Tibetan and it's mirror image.

The symbol numbered 11 is found in the Patna Dharmapada (a famous manuscript with the Dharmapada in Sanskrit); 8 at the beginning of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa. Tibetan Scholars have usually interpreted this symbol as oṃ, and modern scholars seem to have followed their lead. Notice no.17 from a Pala era inscription (ca 1174 AD) which shows the two together. They are obviously quite distinct, and the two wouldn't occur together if one was an abbreviated form of the other.

Others have sought to explain this symbol as an abbreviated form of the word siddhiḥ or even siddhir astu (Roth p.240). Margaret Cone for instance transcribes sign 11 as siddhaṃ in her Patna Dharmapada (p.35). Roth cites an example of the symbol and the word found together (right) in an unpublished manuscript of the Pañcakrama (a tantric text attributed to Nāgārjuna). Roth interprets the word as explaining the symbol preceding it, but I don't see why unless we presume that the symbol means siddhiḥ in the first place. In any case this one example shows that at the time the symbol was not graphically similar in any way to how the word was written.

The identification as oṃ may explain why we find so many texts transcribed as beginning with oṃ. When for instance the bhaiṣajyaguru-vaidūrya-prabharāja Sūtra is transcribed as beginning with the maṅgala-gāthā:
oṁ namaḥ sarvajñāya | namo bhagavate bhaiṣajyaguruvaidūryaprabharājāya tathāgatāya ||
The oṃ was in fact most likely a yimgo. Judging by the remarks by Roth and by Sander, many of the times we find oṃ in a Buddhist text which is not simply a mantra or dhāraṇī, we might really be seeing yimgo. The scribe was most likely concerned to begin with an auspicious symbol, but they did not have oṃ in mind.

The scholarly consensus seems to be that the curve represents siddhaṃ c.f. Salomon (1998, p.66-68). Certainly we know that many scribes did begin copying with the word siddhaṃ or siddhiḥ, hence the name of the script, but if they abbreviated it to the symbol the proof has yet to be found. So although in many editions of Buddhist texts we find oṃ, it's prevalence might have been greatly exaggerated. Personally, I doubt oṃ was used by Buddhists before the 7th or 8th century because it doesn't occur in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra.

Another possibility not previously considered is that it represents a snake. Symbols representing cobras appear on ancient Indian coins. To the right is a sketch of a coin from the Kuninda era (ca. 2nd century BCE - 1st CE) borrowed from the Resources for Collectors coin website. Between the horns of the deer is a sign which is described as "two cobras". You can see that they are very similar to the ancient Indian yimgo symbol, although apparently they always appear in between the deer horns. On the other side of the coin are other common symbols including the svastika, and the three jewels sign (see my post on the svastika). I wonder if the yimgo is actually a nāga?

End Markers

End of line or text markers are usually based on the Indic daṇḍa. The word daṇḍa means 'stick or stroke' and in Devanāgarī it is a simple vertical stroke |. In prose it is used rather variably to represent any kind of hiatus - where we might have a comma, a semi-colon, a colon, a dash, or a full-stop, in Deanāgarī one finds a daṇḍa. In Poetry the end of a pada (or line) is marked with a daṇḍa while the end of a gāthā (or stanza) is marked with a double daṇḍa ||. The earliest Indian inscriptions use no punctuation, and it took many centuries for the use of the daṇḍa to be standardised. I note that most examples of Japanese Siddhaṃ do not use any internal punctuation, but only mark the beginning and end of the text.

Rañjana also has a daṇḍa and double daṇḍa (right). One has to be careful not to mistake the daṇḍa for a diacritic mark, or double daṇḍa for a ta. Mantras will sometimes, as in the Tibetan scripts, combine a yimgo with a daṇḍa or double daṇḍa. You can see how this is used in the this woodblock print.

The Tibetan equivalent of the daṇḍa is called a shad (pronounced shé) meaning more or less the same thing. The Tibetans also use a dot at the end of syllables called a tsheg - the ornate forms of which occasionally replace the shad. There are a great number of elaborate shad and tsheg markers in Tibetan. Here are the shads from the Tibetan Unicode block:

These are: 1. shad; 2. nyis or double shad; 3. tsheg shad; 4; nyis tsheg shad; 5 rin chen spungs (mound of jewels) shad; 6. sbrul (snake stroke) shad*; 7. rgya gram (cross) shad*; 8. gter (treasure) tsheg - sometimes used in place of a shad. [* displayed with Tibetan Machine Uni font]. Some of these signs have specific uses in manuscripts, and others are simply decorative. The Tibetan texts I've seen mainly use the shad, double shad and gter tsheg.

The ends of chapters or texts received extra elaborate marks, but I must stop here. I will be including a longer version of this essay my forthcoming book.

Tibetan examples are illustrated using the attractive Jomolhari font, with some help from Tibetan Machine Uni where noted. Both are free and take quite different approaches to dbu can, giving plenty of variation. As far as I know there are no fonts for Tibetan scripts other than dbu can.

For another introduction to this subject see this blog post by Tashi Mannox: The heading character and Script construction.

03 June 2011

Body and Mind

Assutavā Sutta
(SN 12.61, PTS S ii.94-95)
THUS HAVE I HEARD. One time the Buddha was staying in Sāvatthi in the Jeta Grove, in the park of Anāthapiṇḍika… [the Bhagavan said] the folks (puthujjana) who are unlearned (assutavā)[1], monks, might become fed-up (nibbindati) with the body composed of four elements, might lose interest (virajjati) in it, and might be freed (vimutti) from it. The reason? The taking up and putting down, the grasping and giving up[2] of this body four elements can be seen. Therefore the unlearned folk might become fed-up, lose interest, and be free.

However that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is insufficient for the unlearned folk become fed-up, lose interest, and be freed from it. What is the reason? For a long time the unlearned folk have hung on, cherished, and succumbed to the thought ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’. Because of this it is insufficient for the unlearned folk to become fed-up, to lose interest in it, and be freed from it.

It would be best, monks, for the unlearned folk to approach the body as their self, rather than thought. What is the reason? The body made from the four elements is seen remaining for 1 season [3], 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, remaining for 100 seasons or more.

And that called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is night and day arising and ceasing, one after another. [4] Just like, monks, a monkey goes through a forest on the side of a mountain,[5] swinging from branch to branch. [6] So, monks, that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, ‘cognition’ night and day is arising and ceasing, one after another.[7]

Therefore, monks, the learned (sutavā) noble-disciple (ariya-sāvaka)[8] pays close attention[9] to the dependently arisen origins: thus –
There being that, this is; with the arising of that, this arises. When that isn’t there, this isn’t; with the ceasing of that, this ceases: thus when there is ignorance there is volition, from the condition of volition there is cognition and so on, and this is the origin of the whole mass of disappointment. With the remainderless cessation of ignorance there is no volition, with the cessation of volition there is no cognition and so on, and this is the way the whole mass of disappointment ceases.
Seeing it like this the learned noble disciple is fed-up with forms, fed-up with sensations, fed-up with apperception, fed-up with volitions, fed-up with cognition; and being fed up, loses interest, and is free, and knows “birth is cut off, the perfect life is lived, what needed to be done is done; no more becoming here.”


The sutta makes two kinds of comparisons - between bodily and mental experience; and between ordinary people (assutavā puthujjana) and ideal disciples (sutavā ariyasāvaka).

The body does not change very fast and may continue on for a long lifetime changing only gradually, and leaving us with the perception of continuity, and therefore of a lasting identity. However even the ordinary person who has not heard (assutavā) the Buddhadhamma, and who is not making an effort (by definition) might still find the body disappointing, as they age, get ill, and die. They might still, according to this text, come to liberation from the body because of the dissatisfaction associated with the body. The Buddha allows that if you were going to identify with anything as your self, then the body would be a better candidate because it is far more stable. I think this is hyperbole for an audience of people already committed to the path, a point I'll come back to. In talking about getting to liberation the Buddha mentions the sequence of terms nibbindati - virajjhati - vimutti. This is the end of the upanisā sequence (c.f. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, & SN 12.23; see my blog Progress is Natural) and in suttas which have this sequence nibbindati arises from yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana: knowing & seeing the nature of experience.

However most of us think of 'I' as the thoughts in our mind - we identify ourselves with the content of our minds - cogito ergo sum "I think [about stuff], therefore I am" (sañjānāmi tasmā asmi). The text uses the three main terms associated with 'mind': citta, mano, and viññāṇa. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders them "mind, mentality, and consciousness" in his Saṃyutta translation (p.595) - and notes his struggle to find suitable distinctions as he routinely translates both citta and mano as 'mind' (p.769). I think my translation brings out later differentiations between these words, though I suspect this is overcooking things a little, and perhaps they are simply synonyms here. [c.f. Mind Words]. It is this identification with our thoughts which makes it unlikely that we will become fed-up our mental processes - we don't think of mental processes as 'us', at least not in the conscious way that we think about, e.g. what to have for dinner: to ourselves, we are our thoughts. The sense of being a self is vivid, transparent (i.e. we don't see ourselves making the identification), instantaneous, and persistent.

The mind goes from one mental event to another like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, grasping first this and then that object - and each time generating a cascade of sensations, responses and proliferation - which all happens so fast that it seems to just be the ways things are - this feature is referred to Thomas Metzinger as 'transparency' because we don't 'see' it. This description of the mental process is perhaps the most attractive feature of this text.

And part of what we do in this process is create a virtual point of view, or First Person Perspective - "I, me, mine". I've come to the conclusion, after many years of resistance and argumentation, that what is intended by attā in these cases is the ego, in more or less the same way that Western psychologist speak of it, as opposed to the soul-like ātman of Brahmanical religion which provides continuity between lives. (If I was a UK politician, this would be called a policy U-turn). I don't think Buddhists were cognisant enough with the kinds of ideas about ātman that we meet in the early Upaniṣads to warrant our directly linking the two. This sense of identification with, and ownership over the contents of our minds is what prevents us from becoming liberated. [C.f. First Person Perspective] This includes all the polemical terms like selfishness, egotism, and self-centredness, but I'm not sure it is simply a critique of selfishness - it seems to be about how we identify with experience, and how we therefore generate expectations of experience that it cannot deliver. Selfishness is one little corner of a much larger issue!

The Buddha is outlining the worst case scenario for the monks, before telling them what the ideal disciple would be like. The ideal disciple is sutavā 'education, learned' (literally: 'one who has heard'), and is described as ariya which we would typically associate with someone either liberated or well on their way to liberation (at least a sotapanna 'stream-entrant'). Presumably most of the monks are somewhere in the middle. It's a fine rhetorical strategy to show that they have come a long way from being ordinary lay people, but have some way to go before finishing their task.

The ideal disciple is one who employs yoniso-manasikara. I have explored this term in the Philogical odds and ends II, but would also refer readers to the Theravādin blog where another interpretation can be found which is very useful. However I think my own definition 'thinking about origins' is apposite here. The content which one is paying attention to is paṭicca-samuppāda - the formula imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti... and the nidāna sequence. (see also A General Theory of Conditionality for a critical look at the relationship between the two). In this case one is paying attention to how things arise from conditions - to the processes arising (and ceasing) in dependence on conditions. And it is clearly implied here that where one needs to focus this exploration is in the mind. It is the mind that we mostly identify with and which is very hard to see in a way that conduces to liberation. It is relatively straight forward to see the body as conditioned (it is even a truism in the Western intellectual tradition that 'things change'), but it is in seeing the processes of the mind this way that the breakthrough to bodhi comes.

I imagine that this was a tailored discourse. It may not be a general teaching on the relative qualities of mind and body, so much as a teaching for people who were ascetics in the first place. It seems to me that the Buddha assumes that the monks, unlike lay people, do not see the body as their self, and dis-identification with the body is exactly what we would expect of ascetics. And what they would need is a teaching on how to deal with identification with the mind. Note that he almost taunts them by saying - even an untutored ordinary person might become liberated by being fed-up with their body - so if you're a bhikkhu, or possibly an ascetic, who is dis-identified with the body, then why aren't you liberated already? Remember that the Buddha has been down this road of mortification of the flesh and found it wanting. I think this perspective helps to make sense of what he is saying about ordinary people and the body (which is otherwise a bit paradoxical). The text clearly has broader appeal and application, but it is important to be sensitive to context when interpreting a text, especially where it seems natural to generalise the content.

The ideal disciple -- the sutavā ariyasāvako -- becomes fed-up not with the body but with forms, sensations, apperception, volitions, and cognition; that is with the khandhas, what I call (following Sue Hamilton) the 'apparatus of experience'. Whereas these are usually taken in quite a materialistic way by the Buddhist tradition, Hamilton has convincingly shown them to be collectively concerned with experience, they are the processes by which, or through which we have experiences. So the ideal disciple sees this, becomes fed-up with this whole process, and it is through disillusionment with the processes of experience that they are liberated.

A discourse like this one throws some interesting light on the historicity of the Dharma. It seems to make more sense in a specific context, but we can only imply this. If the implication is wrong, and there is every chance that it is, then it leaves us puzzling over the possibility of ordinary people spontaneously becoming liberated, and the Buddha recommending that if we must believe that something is our self then we should opt for the body as it is more likely to disappoint us in the long run. In the end we have to select the option that makes most sense to us, and follow up to see where it leads. The one thing that a detailed study of Buddhists texts does not supply is certainty about the Buddha's message!

I seldom talk in terms of practice here, but in this case I offer the following way to approach meditation on impermanence from my own practice. It's usual when considering impermanence to take a changing object, or to try to get your head around the "fact" that "everything changes" by seeing everything around you changing. I think these are fair places to start. But in fact many things don't change that much. I've had this coffee cup for a couple of years, and it hasn't changed in that time as far as I can see. I have a B.Sc in chemistry so I know it is changing in ways that I cannot see, but the Buddha didn't know this, didn't have electron microscopes, spectroscopy, or magnetic resonance imaging did he? So when reflecting on impermanence chose an object which does not visibly change for the duration of the meditation. I have lump of quartz I brought with me from New Zealand. Beautiful, but quite inert and probably unchanged for millions of years! What can impermanence mean with respect to this from the point of view of an Iron Age person like the Buddha? And yet when looking at and/or thinking about something relatively unchanging, experiences still come and go. Why is that? [Rhetorical questions]

A second level is to then reflect on how we perceive change. If everything is moving at the same speed (say like inside an aeroplane travelling at 500kph) then we don't perceive things to be moving relative to us (this is the Principle of Relativity). The perception of change requires a reference point. For us, most of the time, it is our sense of 'self'. Change around us is perceived with respect to our sense of continuity. Other people change, and I look older, but inside I'm just the same person. Think of the potency of the phrase "you've changed". But consider that your sense of being a self, your First Person Perspective, is just an experience as well. It has all the features of other experiences, including impermanence. Contra Metzinger, I do believe that if we approach things in the Buddhist way we can get glimpses of this process in action, and that it is liberating.

Yes, people, places and things change, the world changes; but then again we've known this forever. Heraclitus was a contemporary of the Buddha! We need to get beyond this banal observation and see the process of changing experience and our responses to the changing of experience -- to see that mental experience is a feedback loop, where the output immediately becomes input, and generates complexity like the Mandlebrot set. It really does help to have experience of samādhi when trying this, but one can get glimpses without it. So go ahead and consider impermanence in the light of an unchanging object. Let me know if you get enlightened.


[1] nominative of assutavant: opposite of sutavant ‘one who has heard; i.e. ‘one who has been taught the Dhamma’, ‘learned’.

[2]ācaya ‘piling up, accumulating’, i.e. accumulating the actions the fruit of which are rebirth; apacaya – opposite of ācaya, i.e. decrease in the possibility of rebirth; ādānaṃ - grasping; nikkhepanaṃ - getting rid of the load.

[3] vassaṃ - literally ‘rain’, i.e. the rainy season. More or less equivalent to a year. Monks counted years of ordination by the number of rainy season retreats they had completed.

[4] aññadeva… aññaṃ. ‘another and another’.

[5] Such as one still finds around the Vulture’s Peak in Rājagaha where I have seen monkeys doing just this! There aren’t any mountains nearby Sāvatthī.

[6] lit: “grasping a branch, having released it grasping another, having released that grasping another” (sākhaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati)

[7] Cf AN i.10. “No other single thing can I perceive, monks, that is so changeable as the mind (citta). So much so, monks, that there is no simple simile for how changeable the mind is.” (Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ lahuparivattaṃ yathayidaṃ cittaṃ. Yāvañcidaṃ, bhikkhave, upamāpina sukarā yāva lahuparivattaṃ cittan’ti.)

[8] ariyasāvako ariya ‘noble’, sāvaka ‘a hearer, someone who has listened to the Dhamma’ synonymous with sutavant.

[9] yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. Yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. See also Yoniso manasi karotha on the Theravādin Blog.
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