Friday, December 20, 2013

Mind, thinking, and consciousness (sutra)

K. Nizamis (trans.), Assutavā Sutta, "The Spiritually-Unlearned" (SN 12.61); Dhr. Seven and Amber Larson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
The gears of cognition at work (
(Ken Lee Photography/flickr)
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthi in Jeta Forest in Anāthapiṇḍika's grove. There the Blessed one addressed the monastics: ‘Monastics!’ They responded: ‘Blessed One!’ The Blessed One then said:
“Meditators, the ordinary person, unlearned in spiritual knowledge [the ordinary uninstructed worldling], might grow disenchanted, might become detached from, might become freed from this physical body (form) made up of the four great elements. What is the reason?

“It is, meditators, because apparent are the increase and the decrease, the taking up (grasping) and the putting down (discarding) [Note 2], of this physical body made up of the four great elements. For this reason the ordinary person, in every way unlearned in spiritual knowledge, might grow disenchanted, might become detached, might be freed.
“But, meditators, that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘thought’ or ‘consciousness’ [Note 1], indeed, the ordinary person -- in every way unlearned in spiritual knowledge -- does not distinguish enough to turn away, enough to become detached, enough to be freed [from clinging that produces rebirth and suffering]. What is the reason?
  • The Abhidharma usually treats these three terms (citta, mano, and viññāṇa or mind, thought, and consciousness) as more or less synonymous. They are NOT distinct and separate “things” but refer to quite distinct and non-inter-reducible functions and properties of “mind” as such. To treat them as mere synonyms is, very crudely speaking, like claiming that the words “steam,” “liquid,” and “ice” are mere synonyms. To be sure, they may all refer to forms of water, but it would be plainly and simply wrong to claim that they are therefore merely synonyms.
Buddha in the clouds, Bentotagama, Sri Lanka
“It is because for a long time, meditators, the ‘mind’ or ‘thought’ or ‘consciousness’ of the ordinary person, in every way unlearned in spiritual knowledge, has been clung to, has been cherished, has been delighted in: ‘This is mine; this I am; this is my self.’

“Because of that, the ordinary person, in every way unlearned in spiritual knowledge, does not distinguish enough to turn away, enough to lay down, enough to let go.
“Better, meditators, to let the ordinary person in all ways unlearned in spiritual knowledge, it is better to consider [proceed from the assumption] that the self is this physical BODY made up of the four great elements, rather than [thinking that it is] the MIND [the four processes feeling, perception, formations, consciousness]. What is the reason?

“This physical body, meditators, composed of the four great elements [qualities of materiality expressed in many different ways], is seen standing for one rainy season, standing for two rainy seasons ...for three ...four ...five ... ten... 20... 30... 40... 50... standing for 100 or more rainy seasons.
Golden Buddha altar (Mochilo_MoMo
“But, meditators, that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘thought’ or ‘consciousness’ that, indeed, by night and by day, as one arises, the other ceases. Just as, meditators, a monkey on a mountainside forest moving itself grasps a branch then releasing that, grasps another then releasing that, grasps another -- even so, that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘thought’ or ‘consciousness,’ that, by night and by day, as one arises, the other ceases.
“Herein, meditators, the noble [i.e., enlightened] disciple, learned in spiritual knowledge, properly and legitimately cognizes [does or makes using the mental faculty] only dependent origination [or co-dependent co-arising] thus:

“‘In the event of the being of this, there is (also) that; from the arising of this, that (also) arises. In the event of the non-being of this, there is (also) not that. From the cessation of this, that (also) ceases.’
“That is to say [in response to the question, ‘What is the reason for the arising of present disappointment or suffering?’ these 12 causal links are discerned]:
  1. ‘From ignorance as condition, the formative mental functions arise;
  2. from the formative mental functions as condition, sensory consciousness arises;
  3. from sensory consciousness as condition, name-and-form arise;
  4. from name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases arise;
  5. from the six sense bases as condition, contact arises;
  6. from contact as condition, sensation arises;
  7. from sensation as condition, craving arises;
  8. from craving as condition, clinging arises;
  9. from clinging as condition, becoming arises;
  10. from being as condition, birth arises;
  11. from birth as condition, old age and death, disappointment, grief, lamentation, distress, and all suffering come to be. 
  12. Thus there [simultaneously] comes to be this whole complex of suffering.
“‘But from the fading away and cessation of ignorance, with no trace remaining, there is the cessation of the formative mental functions; from the cessation of the formative mental functions, the cessation of sensory consciousness; from the cessation of sensory consciousness, the cessation of name-and-form; from the cessation of name-and-form, the cessation of the six sense bases; from the cessation of the six sense bases, the cessation of contact; from the cessation of contact, the cessation of sensation; from the cessation of sensation, the cessation of craving; from the cessation of craving, the cessation of clinging; from the cessation of clinging, the cessation of being; from the cessation of being, the cessation of birth; from the cessation of birth, old age and death, grief, lamentation, distress, and suffering cease. Thus there ceases this whole complex of suffering.’
Wise heart (jampatenzing)
“Seeing thus, meditators, a noble disciple, learned in spiritual knowledge, grows weary and turns away [is "nirvana-ed," liberated, emancipated, released] from [clinging to] material form, grows weary and turns away from feelings [sensations]; grows weary and turns away from perceptions; grows weary and turns away from mental formations; grows weary and turns away from sensory consciousness.

“Having grown weary and having turned away, one detaches; from detachment, one is freed; from being freed, there comes the certainty, ‘Freed.’ One understands, ‘Destroyed is rebirth; the supreme life has been fulfilled; what had to be done has been done; no coming back again to becoming [here and now].’”

1. These three terms would call for a very detailed and comprehensive analysis IF this discourse were presenting a more technical and theoretical discussion, such as is found in many others. More precisely, one might translate citta as “subjective mind,” mano as “cognitive faculty,” and viññāṇa as “sensory consciousness” (or consciousness when functioning in the mode of the six sense bases, although this term has two further special technical senses and uses elsewhere). But this discourse is very clearly not intended to be technically and theoretically precise about the distinction. In fact, one of the points the sutra seems to suggest is that for the ordinary unlearned person these three terms are quite interchangeable. For this reason, it is much more appropriate to translate these three terms more loosely and ambiguously. But this is somewhat difficult to do because, unlike Sanskrit and Pali, English does not have a very extensive vocabulary with which to indicate the subtleties of “consciousness” or “mind.” From the context in which these three terms are actually used, what is in question here is the way in which the unlearned or uninformed person thinks of these terms: We conflate them due to lack of analytical understanding and how we relate to what we think of as our own “mind” -- namely, identifying it and cherishing it as a private, personal “self” (attā). 

2. “Taking up, grasping” and “putting or laying down, discarding.” The meaning of these terms becomes much clearer if one sees how the same contrasting pair of terms is used in the very important  Bhāra Sutra (SN 22.22) in which the Buddha defines the expressions “taking up the burden” and “putting down the burden.” The “burden” is taking up the “Five Aggregates of Clinging,” and that the “burden-bearer”, is the “person.” While the Buddha certainly denied the existence of any permanent, immutable entity such as a core “self” (attā), the Dharma concerning the relationship between the apparent continuity-of-consciousness and its various interrelated functions, modes, and forms was extremely subtle, sophisticated, and complex. The process of consciousness continues from one existence to another. While it is not a separable “self” or “soul,” neither can it be reduced merely to the “stream” of its momentary “contents” or “components” (which is how, in essence, the later scholastic Abhidharma reinterpreted the teaching of the discourses): In a certain sense, “something” makes the “movement” of “consciousness” possible. That is to say, in order to be ignorant, to crave, to grasp, to move, consciousness must always already possess the inherent capacity to be conscious or aware. To interpret the Buddha’s teaching on “mind” or consciousness in a reductionist manner is to contradict its sense and thus to lose sight of its very deep and beautiful meaning.

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