Reality is a marvelous idea. Yet, most of us don’t know how it works. Everything we think we know is wrong. Why do we tend to believe in fantasies? It is because we were conditioned to do so. This is partly a function of education at times when the information available to educators was erroneous or incomplete. It is also a function of a kind of “spiritual fanaticism” that runs amuck in the Western world. In this case there seems to be an active avoidance of reality, science, and even common sense. The United States provides ample examples of this, I’m sure other nations do as well, and just as proudly. For example, in the US there is a movement afoot to ban evolution from school books and replace it with something called “intelligent design” based on upon a minority religious view. The measure has gained traction in several states, most notably, Texas. I’m sure there is a joke in there somewhere: what would the Texas legislature know about “intelligent” anything? (That’s one that immediately comes to mind.)
We are also socially conditioned to avoid reality. When I was a child I was told that the way to be happy I had to attain the “American Dream” of an attractive spouse, 2.4 children (one male, a female and another on the way), a home in the suburbs, a middle class trade and 2 cars. It has never been demonstrated that any of these things lead to happiness, but the myth remains alive to this today. People I would ordinarily find intelligent and articulate still recite the litany as if it were a gospel. As a youth I spent more of my life in Germany, then West Germany, than I had in the US, in fact, although born in the US, English was not my first language. I did’t speak English until I was 5 or 6. Since then I have spent more of my developing life outside of the US than inside the US. The “dream” is the same wherever I have gone, albeit with cultural variations.
This is the myth of “if only I had…” and fill in the blank, then “…I’d be happy.” It is a myth, it is a symbol that something is missing from our lives. It is a story we tell ourselves to explain the fact that we are missing something in life; that we need something to make us happy. It was just as untrue 2500 years ago as it is today. Some people fill the void with material goods, others with a particular notion of health, a profession or a codependent relationship. Alcoholism and drugs are a popular choice for a void-filler. Still others fill that missingness with an invisible grandfather type being called “God” replete with rites, rituals and magical spells usually referred to as prayer.
None of these things have ever been demonstrated to bring about happiness, not lasting happiness. Peace, both in the world and within ourselves, is still illusive and never long term. Freedom is reduced to yet another myth as we try to decide if we desire freedom to do something or freedom from something. Generally, we seem relatively confused about or hopes, desires and dreams.
Mindfulness and insight might help. Insight is the understanding of the true nature of things. This understanding brings us to a complete transfiguring of our mental life. Ideally this understanding takes place in the individual and he or she is lifted out of the rut of birth and death.
The understanding of the nature of things requires us to understand the facts of existence, all existence. It is the sure knowledge of the transience and submission to sorrow of all fabricated “things” and of the emptiness of all things as regards the existence of an apparent self or even essence of that thing within our experience.
This last knowledge of the essential emptiness of all things is called “the realization of the supreme void.” By it the conception of a self and the craving and suffering which spring from that conception can be abandoned. It marks the outer limit of the spiritually attainable in the Buddhadhamma and this world. Through this knowledge one gains liberation from all bondage to ignorance and the attainment of the highest happiness.
In the Patisambhida Magga(Way of Analytical Knowledge) a definition of the “supreme void” is said to be, “The quieting of all kammical conformations, the giving up of all clinging to rebirth, detachment, cessation, Nibbana — this is the supreme void.” The Way of the Arousing of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Magga) is for reaching that highest good of the Buddhas.
The primary characteristic of mindfulness is “non-superficiality,” while its function is the “absence of confusion.” Mindfulness manifests as the “state of being turned towards the object.” It is also called the “non-negligence” (appamada) in the commentaries, which indicates the state of unremitting alertness of the yogavacara, the one accomplished in the spiritual undertaking. (It is no accident that yogavacara looks very much like “yogacara.”}
In the presence of wisdom this kind of clear comprehensionis called the “prudence of mindfulness” (sati nepakkam). It is then pure cognition, the cognition which is free from bias and from freed from delusion. In the teaching to Bahiya Daruciriya the Buddha indicates that there must be in what is seen, only the seen; in what is heard, only the heard; in what is contacted only the contacted, in what is apperceived only the apperceived, so that one may be free from lust, hatred and delusion and from bondage to this or any other world.
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 stress
— Udana 1.10
This “objective” way of looking at a “thing” (a dhamma), freed from contemplation of our personal reactions to that thing, is the heart of the mindfulness method and is the basis of what is called “knowing as it is” (yathabhuta ñanadassana). With this characteristic we note only what is present. Mindfulness cuts through our habitual discursive thought preparing the mind to absorb the actual characteristics of the objects cognized. Mindfulness allows the object of meditation speak for itself and unfold its own nature right in front of us.
It conditions the mind to perceive impressions of truth by coaxing the mind to be pliant while enhancing spiritual receptivity, which is the basis of highest intuition.
“Knowing as it is” can lead us to deathlessness. The Buddha explains what he means by “deathlessness” in the Ratana Sutta: The Jewel Discourse (Samyutta Nikaya 2.1)
That Cessation, that Detachment, that Deathlessness (Nibbana) supreme, the calm and collected Sakyan Sage (the Buddha) had realized. There is nought comparable to this (Nibbana) Dhamma. This precious jewel is the Dhamma. By this (asseveration of the) truth may there be happiness.
The common belief at the time of the Buddha is that amata (Sanskrit amrta; Ö mr to die; = Gr. ambrosia): ‘Deathlessness’ the gods’ drink conferring amata to gain immortality. It later became a synonym for Nibbāna (skt. Nirvāna), the final liberation from the wheel of rebirths, and therefore also from the ever-repeated deaths.
What stops us from “knowing as it is?”
The Buddha tells us of two gardens. One leads to cycles of birth and death and the other to deathlessness. Deathlessness is possible even now. Which field one cultivates determines whether one achieves deathlessness or continually becomes in cycles of birth and death. In the Bhava Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 3.76), the Buddha explains, “…kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.”
- Kamma = the field;
- Consciousness = the seed;
- Craving = the moisture (the rain)
…”Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.
“If there were no kamma ripening in the form-property, would form-becoming be discerned?”
“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a middling property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.
“If there were no kamma ripening in the formless-property, would formless-becoming be discerned?”
“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a refined property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. This is how there is becoming.”
— Bhava Sutta: Becoming
Anguttara Nikaya 3.76 [extract]
Our kamma drives our mind from one place to another. It is constantly pushing and pulling us. Our consciousness is the seed. We are not talking about Yogacara’s “Seed Consciousness.” This Sutta might very well be the origin of that theory, but this is not what the Buddha is addressing. He is talking about the six senses, the objects of those senses, and the conscious of those sense objects. When we see a “thing of beauty” the eye sees the object and a consciousness of the object arises. With the arising of the eye consciousness is also the arising of the mental consciousness that there is an object that the “I” finds beautiful. Immediately there is attraction and aversion.
The Buddha refers to this kind of mental field as a “middling property.” Today we would call it “low rent.”
Our kamma is the ground upon which our world is continuously becoming. The conscious is the seed from which the “ego” arises. The “ego” is always associated with a craving. Our ego emerges when there is a craving to have something and when there is a craving to not have something. Paradoxically it seems the two always arise at the same time. When there is one there is also the other. When we want something we don’t have it is because we don’t want what we do have. The craving for companionship arise when we feel lonely. The craving for happiness arises when we are feeling unhappy. The craving for fine food arises when we are eating week old leftovers. Then we identify with it the craving. If the feeling of loneliness arises, what do I say to myself and probably others? I say, “I am lonely” as if I am that feeling of lonely. What is it I say I want? I probably say, “I want company.”
It is the craving that is reborn, not the person. After the craving arises there is a “me” that identifies with it. When Mui the “bhikkhu” or “sensei” arises it is because there is an identification. That identification might be with the craving to be seen as something in particular, or a sense that someone needs a teaching which I can fulfill at that time. The point is, there is no Bhikkhu Mui Sensei unless there is a requirement for that identity to arise. Those are rebirths of Bhikkhu Mui Sensei. The hungry Mui arises only when there is a craving for food.
When the Buddha spoke of tanha, Pali for “thirst,” he wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with being thirsty. What concerned the Buddha was our view of our individual thirsts, how we look at “thirst” taking a normal animal need to an extreme, where it becomes obsession and uniquely personal in our own mind.
We know what causes the cravings. The Buddha has already told us about the relationship between kamma, consciousness, and craving. He also told us how to avoid these rebirths. For the Buddha or any other arahant, the field, seed, and moisture were different. He said,
2. “Faith is my seed, austerity the rain, wisdom my yoke and plow, modesty is the pole, mind the strap, mindfulness is my plowshare and goad.
3. “Controlled in speech and conduct, guarded in deed and speech, abstemious in food, I make truth my weed cutter; arahantship, my deliverance complete.
4. “Exertion, my team in yoke, draws me to Nibbana’s security, and on it goes without stopping, wither gone one does not suffer.
5. “Thuswise is this plowing plowed which bears the fruit of Deathlessness; having plowed this plowing one is freed from every ill.”
—Kasi Bharadvaja Sutta: Discourse to Bharadvaja, the Farmer
Samyutta Nikaya 7.11
This is the high rent” district the Buddha lived in. Where
- Faith = the seed
- Self-discipline (austerity) = the rain
- Wisdom = the yoke and plow (this is the yogavacara practice)
- Modesty = pole
- Mind = the strap (reigns)
- Mindfulness = the plowshare and goad (that which both cuts through the soil and the goad which drives him on)
The first thing we might notice is that kamma is not included in the list. Consciousness is also absent. Craving is nowhere to be found. Instead we find faith, self-discipline, wisdom, modesty, mind as it is, and mindfulness. It is mindfulness, non-superficiality in the absence of confusion, that drove the mind of the Buddha. It is this formula which leads to happiness, sukkha, the opposite of dukkha (usually called “suffering”). Our formula leads inevitably to suffering, dukkha, the opposite of happiness.
It seems obvious that if we really wanted to be happy we would jump on this wagon of mindfulness coupled with wisdom. Instead we cling to our myths. The fables of what makes a person happy are useless in really attaining the very happiness we seek. Until we free ourselves from the self-created prison of the ego that craves we will never know the happiness, the peace, and the freedom the Buddha offered us.