Bāhiya's Training on Mental Obsession

Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Clare Bloomfield at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

Against Proliferation

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.

Conclusion

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 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.

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  1. David S on February 4, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Hi Doug. You seem to be on a role with producing more writing, very stimulating, thanks.

    Funny in how making the effort to understand the Buddhist conceptual framework how much mental proliferation is needed!

    I think non-proliferation looked at from the perspective of understanding the six-sense bases the sense base that poses a conceptual conundrum is the intellectual sense base.

    Can the sense base of the intellect be entirely released from proliferation? Do the instructions to understand the six sense-bases as each being relative qualities of experience, understanding each just for how it is experienced and not grasped at and clung to, is this actually going to cease the sense base of the intellect’s proliferation? Or just temper it with occasions of ceasing in moments when one isn’t thinking discursively? Or is it necessary for us to further delimit cessation to specific forms of thought and only those forms cease? If so, then what would a non-proliferating form of thought be?

    To answer such questions I have to grasp all sorts of conceptual work-a-rounds for this notion of cessation to work. Either this notion is a mistaken idealization when spoken of as if it has permanently ceased, or it can be understood through the concept of impermanence as everything endlessly arising and continuously ceasing.

    Conceptually though such conundrums only seem to produce endless proliferation of thoughts. Funny.

    • Doug Smith on February 5, 2015 at 5:03 am

      Hi David and thanks for your kind comment. I think you ask some good questions here, ones that I might want to get at in a later blog post. But yes, proliferation is a mental occurrence, so will be witnessed by the mind sense base. (I prefer to call it the “mind” sense base rather than the “intellect” sense base because the latter term suggests a distinction between intellect and emotion which does not exist within the early Buddhist theory of mind).

      But I think a lot of what we today would call “intellectual” (that is, rational, theoretical) thinking would be considered papañca by the Buddha: a lot of wheel-spinning that doesn’t get us anywhere along the path. That’s not to say all intellectual work is this way, though. Finding the difference is likely not to be easy, and I expect it won’t always be so clear-cut. But I do think intuitively we can see a difference between useful intellectual work and intellectual papañca.

  2. David S on February 6, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Doug I’ve been obsessing on your thoughts a bit! …and for the sake of taking a close look, at only one point you made, I wanted to share some thoughts on a sutta you quoted.

    In your article at one point I found myself with a different interpretation of the text you quoted. In the text with Māluṅkyaputta, the quote ‘…for those forms cognizable by the eye [sounds by the ear, etc.] that you have not seen…’ etc. you equated this with ‘…for there to be “merely the seen” is for one to be without desire for unseen forms….’ However, for there to be merely the seen I do not think this refers to a lack of desire for unseen forms, but the opposite, a lack of desire for the forms actually seen. If one just sees a form without desiring it no thoughts will assail one about it. I think this question the quote poses regarding the lack of desire for unseen forms is being used as a counter example of how desire arises towards sense experience. Without any current experience, nor memory of previous experiences, nor expectations for an experience desire is sure to be absent and so it does not arise. This point seems to me to be an attempt to show the contingent existence of desire, and its separateness, and by extension that one could likewise bring this understanding to bear in following the instruction that only the sensed must be sensed by each sense base. Although, how to be mentally dispassionate in this way is not described only prescribed. The idea being that one can have feelings of sensations and not become mentally excited by them, nor desiring of them.

    None of what I say about this quote though is intended to critique your point about how we are prone to relate with craving and aversion towards current experience, our memories, and our expectations. This is of course very relevant to your discussion on proliferation and you had far more to say than this. So my point is very minuscule but I thought it was still important to share. The second quote from MN 18 clearly states the issue of present, past, and future perceptions in proliferation.

    For me the point of the text with Māluṅkyaputta appears to be making is that by bringing mental dispassion to all experience will lead to dissipating desire and thereby reducing suffering. And I think the point of MN 18 is similarly related to mental dispassion with the additional stress on the possibility of bringing understanding to any portion of the process involved in the arising of objectified thinking and obsession. The implicit connection seems to be that bringing such awareness supports mental dispassion, although it is never stated explicitly the context calls for some sort of connection. Interestingly the end of this teaching also utilizes a counter example whereby if no sense base existed then no such awareness (delineation) could arise. The use of this counter example seems open to many interpretations. Is it related to those statements of cessation in D.A. where even the senses are said to cease? Or is it related to the statements regarding how the human life is where discernment is most possible to attain enlightenment? Given that this most ambiguous statement ends Kaccāna’s analysis its intention is unclear to me. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • Doug Smith on February 7, 2015 at 7:03 am

      Hi David, and thanks for your interesting questions.

      However, for there to be merely the seen I do not think this refers to a lack of desire for unseen forms, but the opposite, a lack of desire for the forms actually seen. If one just sees a form without desiring it no thoughts will assail one about it.

      Quite so, I don’t think we disagree. That comes out more clearly in the verses starting, “Having seen a form with mindfulness muddled …”

      Without any current experience, nor memory of previous experiences, nor expectations for an experience desire is sure to be absent and so it does not arise.

      You may very well be right about that interpretation of the phrase re. “that you have not seen”, it certainly makes sense to take it in that way, and I can’t say I disagree with it. In any event, as you note the final point is the same either way one takes it.

      Interestingly the end of this teaching also utilizes a counter example whereby if no sense base existed then no such awareness (delineation) could arise. The use of this counter example seems open to many interpretations.

      Yes. There is a lot to be said about the way out of papañca. This sutta seems to endorse there being “no eye, no form, and no eye-consciousness” (MN 18.18). That may refer to “guarding the sense doors”(e.g., MN 27.15), but otherwise it’s kind of confusing. It may also simply be making the general point that one has to find an end to this process somewhere.

      Perhaps the more cogent analysis of the way out of papañca is later on in the sutta where it says, “if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome, and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion” (etc.) (MN 18.19). That seems to break the chain at the more traditional place, between feeling and craving.

      In general, I take talk of cessation of the senses (and even the world!) to be either a description of the experience of nibbāna, or a metaphor for the cessation of clinging to the senses (and thereby the world). FWIW.

      • David S on February 7, 2015 at 9:53 am

        “In general, I take talk of cessation of the senses (and even the world!) to be either a description of the experience of nibbāna, or a metaphor for the cessation of clinging to the senses (and thereby the world).”

        Yes. I’ll add that it seems to me that many of the themes of cessation look inspired by the immaterial jhana states where the sense of one’s six senses and sense of self go into abeyance, and thus could be thought of as having been completely ceased. These themes appear over and over as very radical over-arching statements, similar to how the fundamentals of science are very abstract and unintuitive, and yet make sense when considering what experience was their source. By using meditation to investigate the mind and to reflect on such experiences in order to reveal fundamentals of mind these reflections would then form one’s fundamental understanding. With meditation as the tool for looking into consciousness in order to see how it operates and how it is put together, the experiences of the jhanas could easily lead someone to models such as D.A., non-self, and other themes found throughout the suttas, and these would appear much more over-arching and over-stated compared to one’s experience of daily living.

        In MN 18 I was a bit puzzled by the description of a lack of a sense base making ‘delineation’ not possible, because delineation relates to discernment, and discernment relates to wisdom. The text’s lack of a explicit explanations doesn’t help, considering that even the critical points in the analysis are not explicitly connected to the Buddha’s statement, nor even to each other, because of this the use of this counter example remains unclear to me.

        “It may also simply be making the general point that one has to find an end to this process somewhere.”

        Yes, and you said this well…

        “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.”

        • David S on February 9, 2015 at 10:55 am

          I thought that I may be misunderstood and wanted to clarify what I have said, in using meditation to investigate the mind, when I brought in the example of science I was not equating the interpretations of such experiences in Buddhism as being of equal standards or validity. I was simply trying to express how such interpretations can easily become as abstract as those of scientific theory, equal only in how divorced from ordinary experience they appear, and that the interpretations of such experiences could form conceptual models of a general world view, as science has done today.

          I see such radical over-arching statements, such as the ending of consciousness, as having been gleaned from jhannic experiences, and then these ideas were brought to bear upon the expression of the descriptions of the attainment of Buddhist goals in this life. I understand that such jhannic experiences would not in themselves become the final answer, yet they seem to me to have been instrumental the form of describing Buddhist attainments.

          The validity of such radical over-arching descriptions seems to me very suspect. It remains apparent to me that any investigation of the mind, by using the mind itself, will run into inherent functional limitations. It is understandable how many people, like the Dalai Lama, believe consciousness is literally part of everything in the world and is the fundamental source. This makes complete sense regarding how we come to experience everything with consciousness, yet it is a solipsistic first person point of view formed from using one’s consciousness to find what is fundamental in its own experience. The fact of our experience is consciousness doesn’t prove consciousness exists in everything beyond our mind, it is only an expected outcome and limitation of such an investigation.

          Place two mirrors facing each other. What do ‘they’ see? Would you exist from their point of view?

          • Doug Smith on February 9, 2015 at 1:39 pm

            It remains apparent to me that any investigation of the mind, by using the mind itself, will run into inherent functional limitations. It is understandable how many people, like the Dalai Lama, believe consciousness is literally part of everything in the world and is the fundamental source. This makes complete sense regarding how we come to experience everything with consciousness, yet it is a solipsistic first person point of view formed from using one’s consciousness to find what is fundamental in its own experience. The fact of our experience is consciousness doesn’t prove consciousness exists in everything beyond our mind, it is only an expected outcome and limitation of such an investigation.

            Agreed!



      • David S on February 9, 2015 at 11:32 am

        “Perhaps the more cogent analysis of the way out of papañca is later on in the sutta where it says, “if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome, and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion” (etc.) (MN 18.19). That seems to break the chain at the more traditional place, between feeling and craving.”

        Yes, that makes sense to me too.

        This was stated in the Buddha’s original statement, right?

        But why then does Kaccana’s analysis only describe first, the causal relationships leading to mental obsession, then how one could delineate this experience, and finishes with by not having any sense bases such delineation would not occur? Why would he leave out describing the importance of the feeling link? And why then would the Buddha find this an acceptable explanation?

        When I look at how the model is being described it describes how all experience leads to feelings which lead to objectified thinking. The solution given in the teaching to Māluṅkyaputta was to be mentally dispassionate given that one understood how all experience arose. There was no mention of dividing experience into deluded and non-deluded. In experiencing all feelings and thoughts one was to be mentally unexcited and dispassionate. The description’s form was predictable and total in its outcome.

        Here is why I find regarding such descriptions as a fundamental description coming out of experiences far removed from daily living. This help me understand why they would be spoken of in such a way.

        On the other hand, if it was insight coming out of daily living it would be spoken about much differently, and I would expect there to be explicit mention of the feeling link alone.

        • David S on February 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

          I wish I could edit my mistakes! While reforming sentences I slip up here and their.

          • David S on February 9, 2015 at 3:26 pm

            … “their” -oh , not again!



  3. zafrogzen on February 10, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Interesting discussion. There’s a lot of material here, which I could really “proliferate” upon. I’m not a scholar and I’m not even well versed in the Pali Canon — so I hope you’ll forgive me if my understanding of this is somewhat unsophisticated.

    The statement regarding “how many people, like the Dalai Lama, believe consciousness is literally part of everything in the world and is the fundamental source.” is puzzling to me.

    My understanding of Mahayana is that the “fundamental source” isn’t consciousness, but “emptiness,” which can also be understood as “non-self,” although any descriptive term is inadequate, when compared to the actual experience. It shouldn’t be much of a stretch to see emptiness existing in everything.

    You both apparently agree about the “solipsistic first person point of view formed from using one’s consciousness to find what is fundamental in its own experience.” I agree that individual consciousness is inadequate, but I’m curious to know what you might use to experience this matter?

    • David S on February 10, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      Hi Zafrogzen. I’m no scholar either. So come on and jump in!

      I watched a documentary film on the Dalai Lama called Sunrise/Sunset. In it he was speaking to a large crowd and this is what he said,

      “If we follow Darwin’s theory then the life starts from tiny plant cells that have no mind. These cells arise during the Big Bang. But what was before that? The Big Bang is preceded by huge accumulation of energy. But where did the energy come from? We go on with the analysis and conclude that there is a point we can call a starting moment. Something that has no mind cannot give rise to the mind. So the conclusion is the mind is beginningless.”

      It may be that part of the dialogue is missing and spliced together poorly here. Or maybe this is how he spoke. But the image this leaves me with is that he regards what he calls mind (and I would call consciousness) is more fundamental than matter and existed even before life itself.

      As for your thoughts on Mahayana I do not know the answer, but I have heard others speak as you do. I think there are significant differences between the main four lineages. So even if the Dalai Lama doesn’t refer to ’emptiness’ in this talk, it could very well be he or others would agree with you.

      Regarding your last question, for understanding consciousness I’d say it depends on what issue is being looked into. For inquiring about the experience of consciousness itself looking at one’s own experience seems very useful. For inquiring about the formation of consciousness much is being discovered by looking into the biological functions that contribute to it. For instance, some very odd perceptions occur with malfunctioning brains and much can be gleaned from studying these subjects. A person who sees ovals in place of faces. People who experience phantom limbs. A blind person who walks around a chair in their path. These sorts of cases have produced insights into processes of our consciousness that first person introspection could never reveal, especially because much of the complexity of consciousness occurs in processes not accessible to conscious awareness itself.

      My general point about limitations inherent in first person introspection was that even states such as ’emptiness’ may have other explanations for how such a state could come to be. I read a book called ‘Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness’ by James H. Austin. One simple thing I picked up from reading this was that there are switch-like neuronal circuits which shunt information from different areas of the brain to other areas. With the right conditions they can shut off the connection. In going to sleep this occurs. He suggested that this could also be another explanation for how sensory information could stop in deep meditation. Maybe all the quieting of one’s mind being practiced can lead to this closing down and lead to experiences of ’emptiness’. There’s much more to this book than this small insight. It was a difficult read. It went deep into neurobiological descriptions which I struggled through. But occasionally it led to finding little gems like this to think about, and with far more thoughtfulness than how I have said here.

      …I hope I don’t see any weird sentences or typos after I post this!

      • David S on February 11, 2015 at 10:10 am

        Zafrogzen I thought it might help to tie together the two ways I answered your last question.

        In laying out how experiences such as ’emptiness’ can be looked at from first person or through biological studies I do not intend to say that there would be no point in having such an experience. Such a biological explanation seems to make it appear entirely useless. I do not wish to denigrate such an experience.

        It could very well be that, as how all experience shapes our future perceptions, that such experiences would be the result of the conditioning process that practice has brought about. More so, such changes would inherently have an effect on our perceptions. And this would give one new understandings and shape what meaning one drew from this. Developing such experiential qualities are still relevant and give enough reason to continue practicing.

        As for the new understandings one came to, only those that seemed to indicate that mind is eternal would be adversely affected by drawing on a biological understanding. But considering that Buddhism aims to ease suffering such conclusions seem unnecessary either way one goes, and Buddhists don’t seem to agree on this topic of universal mind anyway. I would guess that probably most would, but isn’t that how it goes in the general population too regarding belief in an existence after death?

        It seems safe to conclude the deeper one changes one’s perceptions the greater their effect on changing one’s perceptions as a whole.

        • zafrogzen on February 11, 2015 at 8:45 pm

          David,

          Thank you for your reply. It’s an honor to encounter someone who actually read all of Austin’s book. I didn’t get very far into it — and I have a high tolerance for such writing

          You said “Maybe all the quieting of one’s mind being practiced can lead to this closing down and lead to experiences of ‘emptiness’.” Actually it isn’t a “closing down,” but the exact opposite. Closing down is more likely to result from the forming of preconceived concepts and opinions. Quieting one’s mind, unless it is in oblivion or sleep, opens one up and makes it possible to see more clearly.

          As for the quote you mention from the Dalai Lama — as I tried to say in my first post, consciousness, as it is usually defined, is not the fundamental Mind that the Dalai Lama was pointing at. That Mind is neither eternal nor not-eternal, neither existent nor non-existent, neither universal or particular, etc, etc. And emptiness is really not empty. I’m sure you must have encountered such non-dual, non-conceptual talk by now. Anything I say about it is going entangle us in more “proliferations.”

          When I first read D.T. Suzuki at the age of seventeen I had a deep experience, but I thought afterwards, like you suggest, that perhaps it was the result of suggestion. After years of hard practice and many more experiences, which have gradually become less explosive, more frequent and down-to-earth, my doubts have become irrelevant.

          I’m a big fan of the current boom in neuroscience research. When the term “neural-plasticity” first surfaced I felt it validated much of the yogic practice I’d always espoused. However, a lot of scientists, like the late Carl Sagan, believe that there are no inherent mysteries in this life — that it is only a matter of time before science answers all the questions, such as exactly what the “fundamental source” is. What monumental hubris!

          Human beings don’t like facing an unknown or, worse yet, an unknowable. But if It could be grasped with the intellectual mind there would be no salvation or liberation. Fortunately that’s not going to happen.

          • David S on February 12, 2015 at 10:16 pm

            Zafrogzen, I think our experiences may have us using descriptions differently.

            It is evident that there are various types of experiences to be had, from those of absorptions increasingly stripped of perceptions to those flourishing cognitions of what would be called awakenings. From those I’ve read of they lead me to think that for each type there are many many forms these take, some aspects unique and others characteristic.

            With my experiences, what I was talking of was literally aspects of cognitive functioning going into abeyance in absorptions. I take from your response that your experiences were more a flourishing of cognitions. Is this correct?

            So far I remain on board with the idea that all conscious perceptions arises from brain activity. So how I spoke of the Dalai Lama was from that point of view [“…what he calls mind (and I would call consciousness)…”]. You are correct in making the clarification on what he is speaking of. I just can not come into agreement with his statements, like “Something that has no mind cannot give rise to the mind.” Tricky subject to approach because for one thing, we need to understand what is being called mind and be in agreement about this. And of course we have nothing close to understanding all the processes of consciousness in the brain either to say how such would occur. A great book that plays with many various issues regarding these issues is ‘I am A Strange Loop’ by Douglas Hofstadter. It offers no conclusions, but many thoughtful discussion in a playful manner, while jumping from a wide range of topics.

            For me, the very notion that our conscious experience appears to be a sort of affect of all these biological processes is the very notion of emptiness.

            Yes, I agree with you that the mysteries are numerous and it seems to me there will be aspects that are unknowable. Going back in time is impossible, much data no longer exists. Looking into deep space is limited by its own expansiveness growing beyond light’s capabilities to reach us. Going infinitely small fumbling with tools too large and crude causing interference. Our consciousness’ complexity beyond our concepts to fully know.

            The exciting thing about increasing our knowledge is the search for new understandings and mapping out new terrain.

            I’m curious to know if you consider the Dalai Lama’s statement “the mind is beginningless” to be part of your understanding given what you have experienced, or if you hold it as a possibility.



  4. zafrogzen on February 13, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    No, my experiences were not a “flourishing of cognitions,” quite the contrary. What do you take me for?

    As for the Dalai Lama’s statement about the Mind being “beginningless.” Beginning and end are concepts, so is “mind.” Concepts are inadequate to describe what he was talking about. He could have said “self” or “emptiness” or whatever. Nothing to get hung up on.

    For concepts and words to have any meaning there has to be a mutual experience of what they are referencing.

    I brought up the subject of “experience” because this matter is non-conceptual. If you have had real experience with “cognitive functioning going into abeyance” you should at least have an inkling of what the Dalai Lama was referring to.

    • David S on February 13, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      “What do you take me for?” I didn’t know actually. I have heard of others’ experiences that fit a description in which sense information is perceived as a unified source and have called it profound. You used that particular word so I asked. It was just a question and nothing else. All insight experiences are not the same.

      Do you consider the Dalai Lama correct?

  5. zafrogzen on February 14, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Thank you, I appreciate that “don’t know” what to think of me.

    In regard to the Dalai Lama’s “beginningless.” Did you notice the new theory that was in the news the other day — that after all the big bang theory might be wrong and the universe really has no beginning?

    http://www.techtimes.com/articles/32659/20150214/big-bang-didnt-happen-new-theory-suggests-universe-has-no-beginning-no-end.htm

    • David S on February 14, 2015 at 7:08 pm

      I’m always interested to see what comes out of such seemingly imponderable questions.

  6. zafrogzen on February 14, 2015 at 10:41 am

    I don’t think “consciousness” is beginningless because it is “born,” i.e. transitory. If you think the mind is only the individual body/brain complex then mind is not beginningless. But the Mind the Dalai Lama was referring to is “unborn” so it is therefore beginningless.

    Here’s an interesting article on the physics of time.

    http://higherperspective.com/2015/02/time.html?utm_source=HP

    • David S on February 14, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      This article seems very attuned with the experiential reporting of store-consciousness notions and noetic experiences of time in altered states of consciousness.

      Here are some thoughts I had…

      “I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once.”

      Here it sounds conceptually very focused on the physicality of experiential ‘things’.

      “Barbour’s Nows all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time.”

      What would constitute a ‘Now’? How, and why, would any ‘Now’ be differentiated from any other ‘Now’? Wouldn’t it be a solid static mass if there was no time?

      Plato considered abstract mathematical objects whose existence is independent of us and our language, thought, and practices. I consider mathematics as symbols we use to relate to relationships in the structure of the world. Platonism to me seems deeply confused about how our use of language produces in our minds abstract mental objects which we construct thought with. It seems to take what is a mental creation as if it had an actual reality somewhere else with self-existing objects. These notions appear to me to operate as projections of human experience onto the world, similar to notions of consciousness existing everywhere. Or how ours needs and fears become Gods and forces acting through nature on us.

      “In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time.”

      How and why would change even occur? Isn’t ‘change’ wholly dependent upon time? And why would there even need to be an “illusion of time”?

      ““As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe.”

      That is fine to say, but it doesn’t answer any of the issues regarding appearances of movement creates.

      “The only evidence you have of last week is your memory. But memory comes from a stable structure of neurons in your brain now. The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present.”

      If everything is stable then wouldn’t neurons not signal the presence of memory in the first place? Why would there even need to be any neurons let alone memories? How could such a system function if it was all illusion? Why would death occur?

      I heard once (hopefully it is not bunk) that in the past native Americans (a particular tribe?) conceived of time as though humans faced the past, which is interesting too. It has a logic of facing what one knows and that would be the memory of the past, the future being unknown.

      “In quantum mechanics all particles of matter and energy can also be described as waves. And waves have an unusual property: An infinite number of them can exist in the same location. If time and space are one day shown to consist of quanta, the quanta could all exist piled together in a single dimensionless point.”

      Once again, the concept of a wave is dependent upon time itself.

      Isn’t everything essentially connected when time is included? Objects appear separate but taken as a whole can be considered yet another unity? If physicality is at base energy pulsing into formations wouldn’t this too be such a singularity even if we included the past and the future?

      “The current predominant world paradigm is that if a thing can not be explained, detailed, analysed and documented by linear scientific thought processes then it’s mumbo jumbo. If you have a spiritual explanation for human existence then your crazy, you’re in dream land.” …
      “Science says “In the absence of scientific proof it’s not worth the time discussing. If it can not be put in a box with a label then forget it. Go figure out what box you can put it in, label it, then come back to us and we’ll see if we agree”.”

      This is a bit of an odd statement to make considering the physicists and their theories that this article’s ideas are seemingly based upon.

      Please don’t put my in the ‘box’ yet! I do not want to write off any possibility of time not being as it seems. I’ve heard mention of other ideas regarding very similar thesis using the image of a hologram. It seems it would have the same take on time as this thesis. If more people go in this direction and add to its validity I will be very interested. What a life!

      • zafrogzen on February 15, 2015 at 12:36 pm

        If only you could apply this kind of perseverance and attention to meditating on this issue! However, it would probably require a good deal of time (decades) and major effort. Without a certain amount of faith it is difficult to come up with that degree of commitment. By “faith” I mean that, having heard a certain place exists from numerous different sources, you set out to see if it is possible to actually go there yourself. I had that kind faith due to childhood experiences, and even then it has not been easy to muster the degree of dedication required, without permanently retreating into a monastery or hermitage (I have periodically).

        I’m not a scholar or scientist, but the central issue here, as I see it, is whether our mind is purely physical, confined to this body/brain, or if it is something else. I don’t use the word preexisting because I think It goes beyond concepts of existence or nonexistence.

        Anyway, it would make an excellent Koan.

        • David S on February 15, 2015 at 2:13 pm

          Yes, perseverance and experience, and maybe just directions to incorporate, but I don’t think faith is needed, or advisable. I say this because holding onto any conceiving using faith of such-and-such would prevent the abeyance from occurring from how absorptions came about for me. At least, if absorptions are along the lines of what you are referring to. Like I say, there are many differing altered states from differing practices that people experience that relate to the material described in Buddhism. But what I have found from experience is that the descriptions themselves are yet another layer of interpretation, and open to other understandings. So it comes full circle back to what one may be directed by, such as faith in some world view. Isn’t experience essentially empty?

          The koan of a mirror.

          • zafrogzen on February 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

            Everything is essentially empty. Emptiness, however, is not empty.

            By experience I mean the immediacy of our life, without anything extra added. That is where deep profundity is found.

            Your right about my use of the word “faith.” I was referring to something that is actually inherent, but not, as yet, fully realized. “Confidence” is usually the preferred word, since it doesn’t have the negative connotations that faith does these days.

            I admit I haven’t really studied or practiced the absorptions. They looked to me a little like writing on water with a knife. I’ve only gotten half way through the Visuddhimagga.

            There are many different altered states, but that isn’t what I was referring to by “experiences.” Insights could be another word for them, but that implies conceptual experiences, which are afterthoughts. Maybe calling them experiences of true emptiness comes closest.



          • David S on February 17, 2015 at 1:16 pm

            “By experience I mean the immediacy of our life, without anything extra added.”

            Yes.

            “Emptiness, however, is not empty.”

            As I understand this, it is ‘not empty’ because consciousness has a response.

            As you speak from experience, it is far from clear to me what you are referring to. I expect we don’t have to coincide experientially to speak within the same framework, nor arrive at the same world view, but what does coincide points directly to our common existence.



          • zafrogzen on February 21, 2015 at 7:45 pm

            The Koan of a mirror. This came to me lying in bed this morning.

            When you look in the mirror, the image in the mirror is you, but you are not the image in the mirror.

            That’s what the Dalai Lama was referring to.



  7. Herbie on March 24, 2015 at 3:07 am

    The quoted training instruction starting with “Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: …” and ending with “… That is how you should train yourself.” is complete and perfect as such. Alas it’s embedded in linguistic expressions that actually further speculation instead of bringing it to an end. Obviously the main intention of the author of this text is not to present a practice but to advocate a speculative philosophy.

    • Herbie on March 24, 2015 at 3:10 am

      “author of this text” refers to the author of Udāna 1.10

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