The Tip of a Needle

Life, personhood, pleasure and pain

—    This is all that’s bound together

In a single mental event

—    A moment that quickly takes place.

Even the spirits who endure

For eighty-four thousand eons

—    Even these do not live the same

For any two moments of mind.

What ceases for one who is dead,

Or for one who’s still standing here,

Are all just the same aggregates

—    Gone, never to connect again.

The states which are vanishing now,

And those which will vanish some day,

Have characteristics no different

Than those which have vanished before.

With no production there’s no birth;

With becoming present, one lives.

When grasped with the highest meaning,

The world is dead when the mind stops.

There’s no hoarding what has vanished,

No piling up for the future;

Those who have been born are standing

Like a seed upon a needle.

The vanishing of all these states

That have become is not welcome,

Though dissolving phenomena stand

Uncombined from primordial time.

From the unseen, [states] come and go,

Glimpsed only as they’re passing by;

Like lightning flashing in the sky

— They arise and then pass away.

Guhatthaka-suttaniddeso: Upon the Tip of a Needle,  Mahaniddesa 2.4

All human experience is constantly influx. We know it only as fleeting moments of deep perception and consciousness is impacted. In these moments of close awareness in the presence of keen attention developed through concentration and meditation, we find an overabundance of impersonal interrelated mental phenomena (dhammas) arising, existing for a moment, and passing away in incalculable exclusive combinations.

This process of the comings and goings of human experience is found in an extraordinary and fascinating poem called “Upon the Tip of a Needle”. It is found buried in the somewhat dry commentary of the Niddesa. The Niddesa is a commentary on the canonical work entitled the Atthakavagga found in the Sutta Nipata. It is attributed to Sariputta who speaks to the dual themes of impermanence and selflessness. In the later addition to the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma, these themes are further developed into the doctrine of impermanence and the fleeting nature of experience as it manifests as impersonal phenomena; that is, phenomena that are neither our self, nor us The doctrine has come to be called “momentariness” (kha.nika-vaado). This is a theory of events where the static elements of “matter” has been replaced by that of undeterminable “events” corresponding to the quantum electrodynamic field theory in nuclear physics, which comes very close to the Buddha’s conception of a non-physical but purely phenomenological idea of dhamma.

The poem eloquently presents a picture of the dance of dhammas while still avoiding identifying it as  “me” or “ours.” The mind utilizes these elements to instantly fabricate indications of experience. Everyone feels pleasure and pain, anger, desire, fear and love.

Everyone’s personality is unique because at each moment sense data is constantly changing at every moment each mental state is unique. Each personality is unique because the causal environment from which they arise is uniquely different for each person creating a singular personality for each individual. The characteristics of the basic aggregates that comprise all human experience — the five clinging aggregates of materiality, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness — have always been.

When these states materialize in a single moment of mind’s awareness so too arises the world of “subjective reality”. Subjective reality is a product of mental sensation. When awareness ceases our world dies along with us. This leaves the idea of an “objective reality” on precarious footing. Still, some proclaim this motion of object reality as the profound teaching of the Buddha as if he taught the view of an objectively real world independent of empirical experience.  The Buddha said, “It is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception and intellect, that I declare that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the world.” (Anguttara Nikaya 4.45)

The illustration of a seed balancing on the point of a needle is strikingly describes with human condition with exacting accuracy.  We have admittance only to the present moment. The past has long ago dissolved and the future will never materialize. We are always in the present where neither past nor future exist except in our imagination. When we fail to realize this fact of our existence then we also fail to be fully authentic human beings.

Phenomena are ephemeral, like lightning, as illusory as a mirage. A lightning bolt can momentarily blind us or even harm us. A mirage can trick us into believing it is real and lead us into danger. Through meditation the mind can be sharpened to a needle’s point keenness. With this kind of precision we can explore the depths of our human experience.

Ultimately, there is no there out there.

What is the All? The eye and forms, ear and sounds, nose and odors, tongue and tastes, body and tactile sensations, intellect and mental phenomena. This is called the All.
Anyone who would say, ‘Having rejected this All, I shall make known another all,’ — that would be an empty boast. If he were questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be not be able to explain and would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond his domain.

— Sabba Sutta: The All: Samyutta Nikaya 35.23

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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