If the ways of the mind were simple, its problems would be simple too and therefore easy to fathom. In showing how to end its problems, the Buddha might have opted for simple and short instructions. He probably would have given us a single, all-encompassing approach to whatever happens to us in the present — like what we find today in the spiritual marketplace of New Age Buddhism. We would have received from the Buddha, instead of modern gurus, a Noble Single-fold Path. It might have read, “just mindfulness,” “just concentration,” “just non-reactive awareness,” “just choiceless awareness,” or “just meditation — whatever that means in our Western enlightenment market — or even “just emptiness,” another word with a myriad of meanings depending on the teacher. Like many current self-proclaimed voices of the Buddha, he might not have bothered to teach much at all, knowing that people could easily solve their problems on their own and give credit for it. “Trust your innate nature, your innate understanding, your original enlightenment,” and left us on our own. This is not, however, how the mind works, and that’s not how he taught. It’s what is taught by contemporary teachers teach and how it is taught today.
Even just a few minutes spent observing the ways of the mind can show how complex and serpentine those ways are. This naturally means that the mind’s problems are complex and tangled as well, especially the problem of suffering. The Buddha told us that the causes of suffering are knotted and tangled like a bird’s nest, like the thread in a tangled skein.
[A Certain Deity asked the Buddha]
The inner tangle and the outer tangle—
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
And so I ask of Gotama this question:
Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?”
“When a wise man, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.”
— Samyutta Nikaya 1.13 & quoted in the Visuddhimagga Chapter 1 §1
Tangle is another word for the network of craving. For that is a tangle in the sense of lacing together, like the tangle called network of branches in a thicket, because it goes on arising up and down1 among the objects of consciousness beginning with what is visible.
It’s called the inner tangle and the outer tangle because it arises as craving for one’s own needs as well as those of others, for one’s own person and that of another and for the internal and external bases for consciousness. The tangle grows becoming both personal and social. This generation is truly entangled in a tangle. Like a briar patch is entangled by the briar tangle. This “generation” refers to all living beings. Every sentient being is entangled by the tangle of craving, intertwined, interlaced by it. What is asked is, who is capable of disentangling it? The answer is — a “wise” person.
When solving any complicated problem the solution lies in how the problem is framed. Identifying the problem means we have to examine the patterns of the factors with that problem. It’s a matter of doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Once the pattern is discerned you can decide which factors are crucial to the solution and which factors we can ignore.
Framing the issue correctly allows us to determine how to approach each of the individual parts of the problem so that instead of exacerbating the problem, the factors actually aid with the problem’s solution. When faced with a problem it is helpful to know which questions are useful and which questions create new dimensions to the problem.
The Buddha a great deal of importance to the skill of framing the issue of suffering in the most skillful way. He called this ability yoniso manasikara — appropriate attention. He taught that no other inner quality was more helpful for untangling suffering and gaining release from that suffering (Itivuttaka 16). In giving his most detailed explanation of appropriate attention (Majjhima Nikaya 2), Among the examples of inappropriate attention, which center on questions of identity and existence: “Do I exist?” “Do I not?” “What am I?” “Did I exist in the past?” “Will I exist in the future?” What makes these questions are inappropriate because they lead to “a wilderness of views, a thicket of views” such as “I have a self,” or “I have no self,” all of which lead to entanglement, and none to the end of suffering.
Right mindfulness helps to remember to formulate and sustain a stable framework for being aware of the activity of the mind’s own fabrication. It also “remembers” lessons drawn from right view, lessons from reading and listening to the Dhamma. Lessons drawn from examining the results of our own actions can be used to artfully form our activity in a more skillful way. This can act as the path to the end of suffering, which is also a form of fabrication. This is one way to create a better, more skillful delusion. Right mindfulness doesn’t only witness our fabrications it takes and active interest in it. Motivated by Right View it promotes the cessation of suffering. Still, it is a fabrication, one that helps to manage the intentional dynamics of the processes of fabrication, conforming them to the path of the fourth noble truth.
In Pure Land Buddhism it is recognized that all of our experiences are simply delusions. Through mindfulness we can create better delusions, more skillful fabrications that can help toward a happier and freer life, but also help us along the Path.
Right mindfulness interacts with all of the factors in dependent co-arising, and in particular with those that come just before sensory contact. These preliminary factors are: ignorance, fabrication, consciousness, name-and-form, and the six sense media. Samyutta Nikaya 12:2 explain them in reverse order.
“And which contact? These six contacts: eye contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, and tongue-contact, body-contact, intellect-contact. This is called contact.
“And which six sense media? These six sense media: the eye-medium, the ear-medium, the nose-medium, the tongue-medium, the body-medium, the intellect-medium. These are called the six sense media.
“And which name-&-form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are called name-&-form.
“And which consciousness? These six consciousnesses: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, intellect-consciousness. This is called consciousness.
“And which fabrications? These three fabrications: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications. These are called fabrications.
“And which ignorance? Not knowing in terms of stress, not knowing in terms of the origination of stress, not knowing in terms of the cessation of stress, not knowing in terms of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called ignorance.”
— Samyutta Nikaya 12:2
Not only is it important to be aware of fabrication but we also ought to consider the role played by consciousness and attention (under name-and-form, nama—rupa) in the causal progression — the components of sensory experience with which right mindfulness most closely interacts.
This interaction is a complex interaction of mental activity. Right mindfulness depends on right view to know the exact the causal sequence of this process, the right effort must be employed to deal with them in time. Right mindfulness also has to keep in mind the fact that fabrication underlies and shapes them. This is how it can focus right effort on the most effective strategies manipulate fabrication to turn unskillful instances of attention and consciousness into more skillful ones — more skillful fabrications, constructions, manipulations of experience.
We aren’t done yet. Right mindfulness has to apply skillful instances of attention and consciousness in fabricating the path to the cessation of suffering. Given the non-linear pattern of dependent co-arising, skillfully fabricated consciousness and appropriate attention right mindfulness can turn and shape the very conditions that underlie the fabrications, and this is why they can help in fabricating the path.
These are the classic lessons that right mindfulness draws from right view, in the form of dependent co-arising, about consciousness and attention.
The problem is modern meditators are prone to identify mindfulness with bare awareness (aka, bare attention). What dependent co-arising has to say concerning the nature of attention and consciousness (also often confused with bare awareness) and their relationship to right mindfulness?
First neither of them is bare. The untrained mind is conditioned by intentional activity, through fabrication and intention in name-and-form. By the time they come into contact with sensory data, ignorance has already preconditioned them to receive and attend to those quanta of data in a unique and particular way giving each of us a unique perspective on life and our experience of it.
Even in the mind on the path they are still preconditioned. It is the function of knowledge of right view to condition consciousness and attention in another direction — the end of suffering. Ignorance is totally eradicated at the culmination of the Path but not while we are on the Path. It is then that there is an experience of unconditioned awareness, or as Je Tsongkhapa called it, “The direct perception of emptiness.” Until then consciousness and attention are as a matter of course aimed at happiness. The American ideal of the pursuit of happiness manifests unskillfully in the untrained mind but with increasing skill in the mind firmly on the path.
Neither attention nor consciousness is identical with mindfulness. Consciousness is simply the act of receiving and registering phenomena; attention is the act of choosing which phenomena to focus on. They play an important role in establishing mindfulness, because they are both related to the activity of remaining focused. Attention is the skill used to stay solidly focused on the most important events identifies through the consciousness in the present moment.
Consciousness is only suggested this connection, as consciousness is not explicitly mentioned by name in the classical satipatthāna formula. Clearly the formula would is ineffectual without consciousness. The relationship is made more precise in the case of attention. Majjhima Nikaya 118 shows how the sixteen steps of breath meditation fulfill the practice of satipatthāna. Here the Sutta speaks in words that associate it with the skill of remaining focused and alert. While it specifically refers to paying close attention to the breath, but the principle is true of any other object of meditation, a kasina or chanting the name of Amitabha, for example.
When mindfulness evolves into right mindfulness the relationship between mindfulness and attention grows even more obvious. Then attention becomes appropriate attention. As mindfulness and attention are trained to act skillfully for the end of suffering, they both become forms of anupassanā — or remaining focused on something. Appropriate attention is a form of the act of remaining focused on mental qualities (dhammānupassanā) as directed by the guidelines of the four noble truths. Its purpose is to appropriately do what needs to be done according to the four noble truths.
Although mindfulness is not synonymous with bare attention, appropriate attention serves as an aspect of right mindfulness, as a deliberate process guided by the scheme of right view. Accordingly, right mindfulness plays a role in training attention to be appropriate. Both consciousness and attention are shaped by fabrication, which is shaped either by ignorance or knowledge. Right mindfulness manages the task of using this knowledge to provide deliberate fabricated consciousness and attention with a skillful intention.
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