The Way it Is Now

I don’t desire, want, need, plan for, look forward to, scheme about, design, structure or strategize about, the future.

THEREFORE,

I don’t need to have, cling to, recall, analyze, be limited by, edit or compensate for, the past.

THEREFORE,

I don’t have to be, have, do, become, make effort, correct, judge, resist or change, the present.

THEREFORE,

I have no need for symbolic logic and verbal cogitation.

Dependent Co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda)

“When this is, this comes to be; with the arising of this, this arises; when this is not, this does not come to be, with the stopping of this, this is stopped.” — Vera Sutta (AN 10.92)

All the formulas of paṭicca-samuppāda are specific applications of this principle. When applied to the phenomena of our daily experience, this principle enables us to wean our minds from the tendency to rest on the concepts of existence and non-existence. As a preliminary step towards this end, those two concepts are replaced by the two terms uppāda (arising) and vaya (decay), These latter enable us to view the two extremes rightly (sammā diṭṭhi) as they are suggestive of conditionality. In developing samatha and vipassanā (calm and insight), the mind is made to oscillate between these two terms with ever-increasing momentum, spurred on by the three signata: anicca (transience), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (not-self). At the peak of intensity in this oscillation, the lingering notions of existence and non-existence wane into insignificance since the mind now hardly rests on them. The three signata involved in the oscillation have by now built up a powerful motive force of detachment. So the mind gets weary of (nibbidā) the extremes, and decides to step out (nissarana) of the process. Hence he cuts off the thread of selfhood—already made slender as at the stage of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana)—the thread by which his mind was oscillating under the artificial superstructure of concepts. As he lets go selfhood, he touches the realm of cessation (so nirodhaṃ phusatiPoṭṭhapāda Sutta). Thus the distressful tension abates (dukkhūpasama), the mental synergies are allayed (saṃkhārūpasama), and the triple process of conceptualization subsides (papañcavūpasama). Along with the concepts of the extremes, that of a middle also disappears. In short all concepts lose their significance for him (papañcasaṃkhā-pahāna). As for the relevance of the metaphor of mental pendulum that we have adopted in this connection, attention may now be drawn to the following passage of the Udāna dealing with the problem of Nibbāna:

“For him who clings, there is wavering, for him who clings not there is no wavering. Wavering not being, there is calm; calm being, there is no bending; bending not being, there is no coming and going; coming and going not being, there is no death and birth; death and birth not being, there is no ‘here’, no ‘yonder’, nor anything between the two. This indeed is the end of Ill.” — Catut­tha­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta­ Sutta (Ud 8.4)

The word nissita (lit., resting on) is reminiscent of the Buddha’s sermon to Kaccāyana on the two extremes. This being so, the rest of the passage accords well with the metaphor. To one who rests on the verbal dichotomy,there is mental unsteadiness or irritability. Hence to him who does not rest on it, there is no such irritability. The absence of irritability brings about tranquility of mind. The tranquil mind has no inclination towards conceptual distinctions of two extremes or of any middle position. This release from the bondage of concepts is itself the end of suffering.

Authentic Buddhism

“Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathāgata as said or spoken by the Tathāgata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathāgata as not said or spoken by the Tathāgata. These are two who slander the Tathāgata.” — Abhasita Sutta (AN 2.23)

The Buddha compassionately brought light to the world, but that light is fading due to the covering influence of three very wrong concepts: religious ‘buddhism’, intellectual ‘buddhism’, and western ‘scientific’ ‘buddhism’. All three redefine the Buddha’s teaching in ways that he certainly did not intend and would not approve, and in the process cripple its self-transcending power.

Religious ‘buddhism’ is traditional Indian religion applied to the Buddha’s teaching. Similar offerings, hymns, statues and temples are built, but instead of Vedic deities like Indra, Rāma or Kṛṣṇa, the Buddha becomes the deity and object of worship. The Buddha never instructed anyone to build statues or other likenesses, worship them or make offerings to him after his parinibbāna (Unbinding). In fact, the core teaching of the Buddha is that everything that has being is impermanent. So, where is the Buddha? He is “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond,” and never coming back into manifestation. Attaining that release is the whole point and goal of the Buddha’s teaching. So treating him as still present to receive offerings and prayers seems inconsistent.

Intellectual ‘buddhism’ is the idea that intellectual analysis and commentary on the Buddha’s teaching is sufficient to pass his legacy on to succeeding generations. My teacher Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda writes:

According to the Manorathapūraṇī commentary on the Aṅguttara-nikāya, there was a debate early in the Sri Lankan Sāsana between the scholar-monks and the meditators. And the conclusion was that merely communicating the words of the Suttas and commentaries would be sufficient for the continuity of the Sāsana, and that direct realization of the practice is not so important. So the basket (piṭaka) of the Buddha’s words came to be passed on from generation to generation in the dark — that is, without the corresponding realization. 

As a result, later derivative works like the Abhidhamma and Commentaries increasingly displayed the ideas of their unrealized authors, rather than the Buddha’s deep insights. It led to degeneration of the practice and the Saṅgha as a whole, because of the idea that study alone was sufficient to realize the Dhamma. It’s not, and the proof is that very few people today become enlightened.

So-called ‘scientific’ ‘buddhism’ is neither scientific nor Buddhist. It is, rather, using empirical science as an excuse to reject vital aspects of the original teaching—such as karma, rebirth, and observance of precepts—that do not fit with contemporary notions.

All three of these deviations destroy the most essential and unique feature of the Buddha’s teaching: its power of self-transcendence. The self-transcendence of Nibbāna makes the Buddha’s teaching unique among all wisdom traditions. Without it, the Buddha’s teaching becomes yet another brittle set of beliefs, easily destroyed by changing conditions in the world. With it, the Buddha’s teaching is truly universal, ‘beyond the beyond’.

For, as Bhikkhu Ñānananda has kindly pointed out in his book Concept and Reality, Nibbāna is non-conceptual. To reduce it to a mere concept by defining it is to deprive the Buddha’s teaching of its most powerful aspect. Religious ‘buddhists’ have defined nibbāna differently than intellectual ‘buddhists’, but the effect in both cases is to deny their followers entrance into the Dhamma door of nibbāna.

Some may object by pointing out the list of 33 names of Nibbāna in the Saṃyutta Nikāya as definitions of Nibbāna. But if we examine them closely, we must conclude that these are not definitions but epithets or euphemisms: expressions that name the ineffable without defining it directly. This apophatic nature of Nibbāna is precisely the feature that gives the entire teaching of the Buddha its extraordinary power of self-transcendence.

An ontology is a set of terminology defined in terms of one another. Ontology and taxonomy are the semantic tools at the heart of all science. But any system in which terms are circularly defined is a closed system—brittle and subject to falsification. A single anomalous finding falsifies any theory.

But the Buddha’s teaching is applicable to any set of aggregates, for it is based on the cycle of being and becoming (paticca-samuppāda or Dependent Origination). It is incapable of falsification because any system of being and becoming, in this or any other universe, must be based on the principle of conditionality or causality. And Nibbāna, being the unconditioned, is never touched or affected by causality.

Reverence for the Teacher

As an old-school spiritual disciple with a fair bit of teaching under my belt, I want to share one very important insight: respect and reverence for the teacher is the most powerful and necessary ingredient in spiritual progress. Without it, you may have the external trappings of spiritual life, and you may be able to convince yourself that you are on the path. But more likely, you are just an imitation disciple and will get nothing more from your spiritual practice than decorations for your false ego.

I learned to approach a teacher the old-fashioned way: bowing humbly with an attitude of surrender, offering in hand. I always tried to be a blank slate before my teachers, ready to offer any requested service. You can find out a great deal about a teacher by how he responds to such an approach. If he arrogantly tries to use you, or on the other hand, treats you too much like an equal, beware. If he is grateful, not condescending, acknowledges your respect with kindness, really hears where you are coming from and gives substantial instruction, you’ve struck gold.

The blessing of a realized teacher is the most valuable thing in the world. It can mean all the difference between empty, superficial following and deep realization of the teaching. When I met my mentor Bhikkhu Ñānananda, after approaching him as described above, we chatted for some time. He put me completely at ease but nevertheless asked probing questions about my history and insights. At last he leaned back and said simply, “You know, nibbāna is non-conceptual.” Period.

The words hit me like a brick. I found myself instantly in deep concentrated trance. Suddenly so many things made sense, so many mysterious connections were revealed, the Path stood clear before me. Of course I had already read the same words so many times in his books, but they were a blunt instrument compared to this incisive remark. That experience led, more or less directly, to realizing Fourth Path almost a year later. But had I not approached him properly, there is no doubt in my mind that the immensely valuable conversation and experience could never have taken place as it did.

Since taking up the role of sharing my insights here and elsewhere on the Internet, I have been appalled at the bad attitudes I have encountered. No one wants to respect a teacher, but simply criticize and manufacture faults from their fertile imaginations. I’m sorry, but I am not responsible for the bad attitudes and actions of other teachers. I am not going to respond to fabricated allegations of misconduct. It’s still the students’ responsibility to approach the teacher properly and offer respect and service. Otherwise, why should I continue to work so hard for your benefit?

‘Positions’ and the Middle Way

“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding…”

“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

“But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?”

“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”…

“At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured.”

“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: …If a fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”

“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form… Any feeling… Any perception… Any mental fabrication… Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea.” — Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72)

The End of Conflict

“If, O monk, one neither delights in nor asserts, nor clings to, that which makes one subject to concepts characterized by the prolific tendency (papañca), then that itself is the end of the proclivities to attachment, aversion, views, perplexity, pride, ignorance and attachment to becoming. That itself is the end of taking the stick, of taking the weapon, of quarreling, contending, disputing, accusation, slander and lying speech. Here it is that all these evil unskilled states cease without remainder.” — Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)

“Perception Causes Proliferation”

“Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and material shapes; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement (phassa, contact); because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one turns into papañca; what one turns into papañca, due to that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā assail him in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye belonging to the past, the future and the present. And, brethren, auditory consciousness arises because of ear and sounds belonging to the past, the future and the present; olfactory consciousness arises because of nose and smell belonging to the past, the future and the present; gustatory consciousness arises because of tongue and tastes belonging to the past, the future and the present; bodily consciousness arises because of body and touches belonging to the past, the future and the present; mental consciousness arises because of mind and mental objects belonging to the past, the future and the present.” — Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)