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.
Related Posts with Thumbnails