The Buddha’s succinct, cryptic teaching of the dhamma to the bark-cloth wearing ascetic Bāhiya is one of the most famous in the early Canon.
Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of suffering (Udāna 1.10).
How do we approach this teaching? Since it ends with the awareness that “there is no you”, it appears to be about non-self (anatta). Presumably the “this” in “This is the end of dukkha” refers to some kind of direct awareness of anatta, sufficient to bring nibbāṇa. But what is sufficient to bring nibbāṇa? From elsewhere in the Canon we know that nibbāṇa is the extinction of greed and hatred with regard to the world, and extinction of ignorance with regard to the Four Noble Truths. That’s quite a lot to pack in to what appears to be such a simple teaching.
One idea, which we will return to below, is that this passage expresses a route to the immediate insight into “non-dual consciousness”, of the kind I discussed in Sam Harris’s recent book Waking Up. This insight, which in Harris’s understanding amounts to a form of “self transcendence”, constitutes what he believes to be the spiritual path.
With his teaching to Bāhiya, I believe the Buddha intends to outline a practice to eliminate so-called “conceptual proliferation” (papañca) in all of its forms. “Conceptual proliferation” is a pervasive tendency we have to generate deluded, self-directed, obsessive thoughts when presented with sense data. We spend much of our days absorbed in such unproductive obsessions, and one of the basic goals of meditative insight is both to become aware of the extent of them through mindfulness training, and through training in samādhi, to calm them.
To understand it better, let us turn to a description of the process of conceptual proliferation from the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta. There the Buddha is confronted with an arrogant questioner, Daṇḍapāni the Sakyan, who asks for the Buddha to outline his dhamma.
In response, the Buddha says to Daṇḍapāni that he teaches “in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world”. Then he gives a (perhaps intentionally) confusing summary of his dhamma: the Buddha teaches “in such a way that perceptions no longer underlie that brahmin who abides detached from sensual pleasures, without perplexity, shorn of worry, free from craving for any kind of being” (Majjhima Nikāya 18.4).
On hearing this, Daṇḍapāni leaves in confusion. Later that evening one of the monks asks the Buddha to explain this cryptic teaching. In response he explains something of the process of mental proliferation.
Bhikkhu, as to the source through which perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency (anusaya) to sensual lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion, of the underlying tendency to views, of the underlying tendency to doubt, of the underlying tendency to conceit, of the underlying tendency to desire for being, of the underlying tendency to ignorance; this is the end of resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words, and false speech; here these evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. (MN 18.8).
Later on in the sutta, after the Buddha leaves, the bhikkhus ask Kaccāna to unpack the statement even further. He goes through the causal process in more detail:
Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one mentally proliferates as the source, perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye. (MN 18.16).
This outlines a process whereby the deluded mind takes a sense object and develops concerns surrounding it based upon desire or aversion. For example, we walk by a store window and see a pleasant stack of chocolate brownies. This makes us feel hungry, which influences our perception of them as desirable. We remember the brownies we have eaten and how tasty they were. We think about how we will have to do more exercise in the future to work off the calories. We think about how many of them we will need to buy to satisfy our desire: will just one be enough? Maybe buy a couple so we can have more tomorrow?
Are we really so weak willed that we have to give in to such a silly desire? Well, what’s wrong with a little brownie now and then?
Then hours later we feel sorry for not having bought one, or alternately we feel sorry for having bought and eaten one.
And so on. This is the root problem in not allowing the seen only to be in the seen. For to do that would be to say to oneself “Ah, there are brownies,” and move on. This is not to say that living without mental proliferation would inhibit action; it might be that one would buy the brownie anyway. It simply means that there would be none of the obsessive mulling that occurs to no good end.
The Buddha’s Advice to Māluṅkyaputta
We can look to another sutta for some confirmation that we are on the right path. In his blog post “In the seen …” Jayarava notes that the Buddha is recorded as having given very much the same teaching to the elderly bhikkhu Māluṅkyaputta as he did to Bāhiya. Crucially the Buddha’s teaching to Māluṅkyaputta is more complete: the Buddha provides clues as to what he means by his teaching.
In particular, the Buddha asks the elderly bhikkhu,
“What do you think Māluṅkyaputta, do you have any desire, lust, or affection for those forms cognizable by the eye [sounds by the ear, etc.] that you have not seen and never saw before, that you do not see and would not think might be seen?” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 35.95).
When Māluṅkyaputta denies having such desires, the Buddha gives the same description of the training that we saw above with Bāhiya: that in that case there will be “merely the seen”, and so on. So for there to be “merely the seen” is for one to be without desire for unseen forms, or in other words, forms of mental proliferation of the kind: “I wish I were seeing [hearing, tasting, …] X right now,” “I wish I were not seeing X right now,” “Wouldn’t it be nice to see X right now,” and so on.
Or as Māluṅkyaputta says,
Having seen a form with mindfulness muddled
Attending to the pleasing sign,
One experiences it with infatuated mind
And remains tightly holding to it.
Many feelings flourish within,
Originating from the visible form,
Covetousness and annoyance as well
By which one’s mind becomes disturbed.
This is a concise description of mental proliferation: conditioned by the pleasant nature of experience, we cling to it. This clinging produces any number of mental states that proliferate around the experience’s pleasant nature. They can be feelings of clinging, possession, or identification, they can also be feelings of annoyance. For example, we can be annoyed at the thought that this experience will soon cease, or that someone else is better situated to enjoy it, or that it has ceased and we would like it to return. The same process will occur with our aversion to unpleasant experiences: we obsess about upcoming meetings, tests, doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and about past ills done to us. There is no end to the ways thoughts can proliferate around such experiences. Their obsessive nature in many ways constitutes dukkha itself.
On Selfing and Anatta
Further, these proliferations bring with them the notion of “self” or “I”; by being related to desire and aversion, they necessarily are bound up in self-identification.
‘I am’ is a proliferation; ‘I am this’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall not be’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall consist of form’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be formless’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be percipient’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be nonpercipient’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be neither percipient nor nonpercipient’ is a proliferation. Proliferation is a disease, proliferation is a tumor, proliferation is a dart. Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will dwell with a mind devoid of proliferation’. (SN 35.248).
To dwell with a mind devoid of proliferation is, as we saw above, to uproot the underlying tendencies to sensual desire, aversion, views, doubt, conceit, desire for being, and ignorance. One who has done this, the Buddha says elsewhere, “has made an end of suffering” (Aṅguttara Nikāya 7.12). That is, they have reached nibbāṇa.
So to return to Bāhiya, we saw above that the Buddha suggested to him a practice of allowing the seen only to be the seen, and so on. By doing so, he says, “There is no you in connection with that.” Why not? Because to practice in this manner is to overcome conceptual proliferation around sense objects: it is no longer to regard them as, for example, worthy of attachment or aversion. It is no longer to identify with them. It is just to see them as they are, without self-reference.
This might seem to be a simple practice, one that we could for example undertake to achieve right now, and so it is. The Buddha tells us that the practice of overcoming conceptual proliferation is itself sufficient to reach nibbāṇa. It is “the end of suffering” as the Buddha said to Bāhiya.
This insight into non-self comes because by eliminating proliferation, the concept of a self simply never arises. Or perhaps, one might say, if it arises it is seen as just one more item in cognition, rather than a manner of grasping at the world.
In “A World of Impermanence” I argued that the earlier tradition tended to view non-self in terms of impermanence. Self was understood to be something permanent and changeless, but all things within experience are always changing, hence none of them is “fit to be regarded” as the self (MN 109.15; SN 22.59). In the comments to my piece, cognazor mentioned that the teaching to Bāhiya might be another way to directly understand non-self without recourse to notions of impermanence. As it were, one read ‘non-self’ directly from experience. This appears to be true, in this sense: the mind devoid of proliferation will contain no thinking about the self, or at least no thinking about the self as conceived as separate, permanent, and so on.
The Buddha’s teaching to Bāhiya appears as one of the shortest effective presentations of the dhamma, exceeded perhaps only by the famous stanza that Assaji used to shock the young Sariputta into awareness of the Buddha’s path:
Whatever phenomena arise from cause:
& their cessation.
Such is the teaching of the Tathāgata,
The great contemplative.
That is, as understood by Sariputta, “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” Said that way it is, of course, a succinct statement of anicca (impermanence), while the statement to Bāhiya is about anatta (non-self).
We find ourselves interested in these pithy statements because of the depth to which we can plumb them. But perhaps it’s also because we’re all looking for shortcuts: the path up the mountainside looks steep and long, but here it seems we have a free ride direct to the top. If only we could have an experience like Bāhiya’s or Sariputta’s, we tell ourselves. That wouldn’t take long at all!
But of course this misses the long periods of training prior to hearing those phrases. Further, when we unpack the training to Bāhiya, we see how truly complex and far reaching it is: what the Buddha is telling him is to cease mental proliferation. Easily said, not easily achieved.
Still, it is interesting and instructive to realize that the entire Buddhist path can be summarized as one of ceasing mental proliferation: that is the point of meditative training and insight.
As a side note, we might wonder if Bāhiya’s insight is the same as “non-dual consciousness”, that for example we saw in Sam Harris’s book Waking Up. If so, it may be that he is correct to note that achieving such a state encompasses the entire spiritual journey.
It’s hard to say for sure, but there appear to be some differences. The Buddha makes no reference to consciousness nor to conscious awareness in the passage to Bāhiya. While consciousness is necessary for perception to take place, as we saw in Kaccāna’s detailed analysis of the Buddha’s utterance to Daṇḍapāni, nevertheless consciousness itself is not the relevant issue here. Thinking, conceptualization, and mental proliferation, particularly around a notion of “I am” is the relevant issue.
That said, it may be that the state Harris describes as “non-dual” is just the state of “non-proliferating consciousness”: one in which there is only the seen, and so on. In order to go from such a state to one in which there is awareness of anatta or non-self, further mental operations must take place, as we look into memory to find some conception of a separate self, and note that it is not found. Whether this sort of process can take place within the same non-proliferated state, or whether it would count as its own form of subtle proliferation, I do not know.
Nevertheless I would hesitate to call “non-proliferating consciousness” a state of “non-dual consciousness”. Firstly, this is for the reason outlined in my piece on Harris’s book: it threatens to reify consciousness as some sort of ground of being. Secondly, because the concept of “non-duality” took on some quite sweeping ontological connotations in the later tradition. As Bhikkhu Bodhi has argued, the Buddha himself did not teach non-dualism. However if we understand “non-dual” in this context simply to mean that mental proliferation around the notion of a separate self does not come up within consciousness, then this would qualify as “non-dual” in that sense.
The Buddha’s teaching to Bāhiya is simple, but deceptively so. Behind its effectiveness lies long practice. To train this way requires us to be ever mindful: to witness proliferation in action, to learn to know it, to see it arise and pass, to see its danger. It also requires us to practice samādhi, a critical part of quieting mental chatter. These two, plus the often overlooked Right Effort that I described in “The Four Strivings“, constitute the meditative portion of the Eightfold Path.