Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Life is SO boring (sutras)

Ashley Wells and Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Nyanaponika Thera (trans.), The Four Nutriments of Life: An Anthology of Buddhist Texts (BPS.lk via accesstoinsight.org)
There must be more than this provincial life (Andrew Tavin/community.sparknotes.com).
"All beings subsist on nutriment" -- this, according to the Buddha, is the one single fact about life that, above all, deserves to be remembered, contemplated, and understood [namely, that we are not independent of others and our environment, see Note 1].

If understood widely and deeply enough, this saying of the Buddha reveals indeed a truth that leads to the root of all [painful] existence and also to its uprooting. Here, too, the Buddha proved to be one who "saw to the root of things" (mula-dassavi) [2]. So it was thought useful to collect his utterances on the subject of nutriment (ahara), together with the instructive explanations by the teachers of old, the commentators of the Pali language Buddhist texts.
The laws of nutriment govern both biological and mental life, and this fact is expressed by the Buddha when speaking of four kinds of nutriment:
  1. edible food
  2. sense-impressions
  3. volitions
  4. consciousness.
It is hunger that stands behind the entire process of nutrition, wielding its whip relentlessly. The body [in whatever form one appears, dense or subtle], from birth to death, craves ceaselessly for material food. 

I am like totally bored, totally, so let's do something, seriously, before I like kill myself!
Moreover, mind (mental processes, the heart, the immaterial components of existence collectively) hungers as eagerly for its own kind of nourishment, hungering and thirsting for new sense-impressions and  ever expanding universe of mental objects.
Craving (tanha, lit. "thirst") is the principal condition of any "in-take" or "up-take" (upadana, lit. "clinging, grasping") [3], that is, of "nutriment" in its widest sense. This is the first factor common to all types of nutriment, whether physical or mental.
The second common factor is the process of the assimilation of food. In the process of eating and digesting, that which was external becomes absorbed and internal. What was foreign matter becomes intimate, "one's own," and becomes identified with one's personality.

We are what we eat
Am I a fat cow hamburger? (Sean Norvet)
An old German proverb says: Der Mensch ist, was er isst — "We are what we eat" (lit., "The human is what he or she eats") [which suggests that meat eaters are themselves brutal animals or, at the very least, animal graveyards where corpses are deposited for worms to decompose].

And this applies as well to mental nourishment. Our mind also feeds on "external" material: on sense-impressions and variegated experiences, on the contents of the store-house of knowledge accumulated by the larger group, and on the precipitate derived from all these sources.

And our memories, when they become objects of mind (of the process of consciousness), are also as "external" to the present thought-moment as the ideas presented in a book. What cannot be absorbed by the system is discarded; thus, in the body as well as in the mind, there is a constant process of grasping and rejecting, assimilating and disgarding, identifying with and alienating from oneself.

When we look closely at this process of nutrition, physical and mental, we notice that it is not only the eater who consumes the food but, in the course of assimilation, also the food that devours the eater.

There is mutual absorption between them. We know how much people can be changed (for the better or, alas, the worse) by ideas they have absorbed and which finally have absorbed and consumed and possessed them.
I'm totally a unique individual! Totally!
These laws governing nutriment, physical and mental, are sufficient to convince a thoughtful observer how illusory the conception of an abiding "self, ego, soul, personality or substance" is. This alone should be enough to vindicate the anatta doctrine, the Enlightened One's unique, radically transformative, and liberating teaching of not-self.

Individualized life is, as Paul Dahlke says:
"neither a metaphysical 'I'-identity (pure spirit, pure subject, according to the soul-theory of the religions) nor a mere physical process (pure body, pure object, according to scientific materialism), but a nutrimental process and as such it is neither something which is in and by itself, nor something caused by another, but something that is maintaining itself: and all these so-called higher faculties of thinking and feeling are different forms of eating, of maintaining oneself."
I, addition to the vindication of the not-self or impersonal characteristic of existence, nutriment is a convincing teacher of the two other characteristics of existence, impermanence, and unsatisfactoriness.

Change, or Impermanence (anicca), is at the very root of the nutritive process which cries for constant replenishment of the food consumed. The bottomless gaping hole has to be filled again and again as long as the being lives. And it is no different with our mental hunger that craves for change and variety.
This repetitive monotony of the process of nutrition kept going by the urge to preserve life -- which should be enough to reveal the unsatisfactory, disappointing, and distressing (dukkha) nature of life, the tiresomeness of the tedious round of eating and being hungry again, of being stimulated and then almost immediately being overcome with craving for sensual pleasures/distractions again.

Hence a medieval Jewish sage was moved to say, "I am fed up with being hungry again and again, and I hunger after final satiety" [4].

This is the unsastisfactoriness or "suffering" inherent in the very function of eating, though it is mostly hidden by our habituation to this elementary feature of routine life.
The concrete "suffering" and "pain," also encompassed by this far reaching Buddhist terchnical term dukkha, involved in the search for food and getting it, is obvious enough to all. And this misery was, is, and will always be existence's constant companion. ...

1. Edible Food
Simile: A couple, starving in the middle of a desert, eat their infant child to enable them to reach their destination.
Just like the husband and wife in the Buddha's simile, humankind ever since it emerged/arrived on this planet has traversed the desert of life where food is our most urgent concern. As in that story, the stilling of human hunger is often heart-rending business -- sometimes for the callous "eater," sometimes for the hapless prey, and always for the sensitive observer.

Often our search for food, we destroy what is commonly dear to us, be it relatives or romantic relationships, friends or the ideals of our youth.

This is only one aspect of life: Life is not all a "desert"; it has a goodly number of oases where we can rest and enjoy ourselves to such an extent that we are likely to forget that we are surrounded by desert, which from time to time encroaches on these tiny oases and buries them. ...

2. Sense-Impression
Simile: A cow with its skin torn away, wherever it stands, will be ceaselessly molested and devoured by insects and other creatures in the vicinity.
If only I had superpowers and a motorcycle.
Like the skinned cow, we are ceaselessly exposed to the excitation and irritation of sense-impressions that come at us from all sides wherever we stand through all the senses.

The Pali word phassa ("sense-impression") literally means "contact" or "touch." But it is not any physical impact that is meant. It is the mental contact between: our senses, external objects of the senses, and consciousness.

Sense-impression, together with attention (manasikara), is the mind's first and simplest response to the stimuli exercised by the world of material and immaterial (mental) objects.

According to Buddhist psychology, sense-impression is a constituent factor in each and every state of mind, the lowest to the highest, occurring also in dream states and in subliminal states [liminal being that point where we would become self-reflexively aware] of consciousness.
Sense-impression is a basic nutriment. That is, it is a sustaining condition of life. And what is nourished or conditioned by it are feelings/sensations (vedana), which are living off of a multitude of constantly occurring sense-impressions and assimilating them as either pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent.

1. Disappointment, 2. Craving, 3. Freedom.
This relationship also has a place in the formula of Dependent Origination: "Conditioned by sense-impression is feeling" (Pali phassa-paccaya vedana).

As long as there is craving for sense-impressions, which arises from unguarded feeling (vedana-paccaya tanha), there will be an unlimited supply of that foodstuff/nutriment to be digested by feeling.
  • [NOTE: "Feelings" do not refer to emotions. Emotions are formations (saṅkhāras). Feelings are just the basic sensations, whethermundane or supermundane, an  awareness that something is perceived as being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This may seem a trvial point to emphasize, but people make too big of a deal of "feelings" in discussions of the Five Aggregates as the components of existence without realizing that they are looking in the wrong heap. Emotions are very important in Buddhist psychology, but it is their sensation -- pleasant, unpleasant, neutral -- that is referred to as vedana.]
In an unending stream and in rapid alternation, forms (bodies), sounds, fragrances, flavors, bodily impacts, and mental impacts ("ideas, mental impressions, awarenesses, knowings") impinge upon us as long as we live.

It is the poignant awareness of that constant bombardment by sense-impressions that induced the Buddha to choose for the sense-impressions the simile of a skinned cow whose raw flesh is the target of swarms of insects and other creatures that cause intensely painful feelings to the animal.

According to the Buddha, any type of feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) is bound to cause disappointment and conflict in one who has not yet freed oneself from attachment.

Painful feeling is suffering in itself; pleasant feeling brings suffering through its transience and its unsatisfying and unsatisfactory nature; worldly indifferent feeling produces suffering through the dullness and boredom involved in it. It is sense-impression that is the constant feeder of these feelings/sensations.
A Buddhist monastic Ven. Talaputta in ancient times, yearning to see still more vividly the burning and irritating nature of sense-impressions, was moved to exclaim:
"When shall I with calm endowed
Wisely see as caught in raging blaze
The countless [sights], sounds, scents, tastes, forms,
And contacts [with] mental things?
(Theragatha, Verse 1099, Talaputta) [5].
3. Volitions
Even I'm trapped by karma. -WW
Volitions (intentions, will, motivations) here means chiefly karma -- that is, rebirth-producing actions -- and the Buddha has compared it with a person dragged by two others towards and into a pit of burning embers.
  • In the listing of the Five Aggregates of Clinging (form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousnesses) the fourth, sankharas, is often translated as "mental formations" then functionally-defined confusingly as "volition." This is very easy to unravel. There are 52 kinds of formations. Two of them -- feelings and perceptions -- are so important that the Buddha gave them separate treatment; the other 50 he lumped together as "formations" and gave the entire group of factors the name "volition" after the chief among them, "volition" (cetana, "intention," which is crucial to understand because it is the determining factor of whether a karma ("action") is wholesome or unwholesome.
  • SPECIAL TECHNICAL NOTE: There are actually eight aggregates (groups, heaps), always plural because they are heaps of nearly-but-not-quite identical processes. Form or body is singular because it is comprised of four of these aggregates -- the material qualities of earth, fire, air, and water (which are not things but qualities or characteristics like extension, support, cohesion, temperature, solidity, etc.). The remaining four are sometimes referred to collectively as "mind." There is no identity from one moment to the next in the impersonal process-of-becoming, of dynamic "being," of consciousness, of existence in any world or sphere within samsara. There are only constantly transient states of becoming, snapshots of which can be retroactively viewed and slowly examined in the mind door near the literal heart for the sake of insight to directly see that they are really discrete moments (cittas) and submoments not a compact unity. (See  the Abhidharma for details).
The two dragging forces are our karmic actions, good (but still deluded) and bad.
  • "Good" and "bad" are very easy to define in Buddhism but are rarely defined as if it were obvious to all when, in fact, their definitions are understood by almost no one: "Bad" (akusala, papa, unwholesome, unskillful, harmful) means motivated by greed, hatred, fear, or delusion. "Good" (kusala, means motivated by the large categories of nongreed, nonaversion, nonfear, nondelusion. We often loosely refer to something as "good" because we are not aware of our or other's actual underlying motivations, or because so long as one is not motivated by greed or hate that's "good enough." But delusion is actually the most harmful and most insidious intention/motivation, and fear (a kind of aversion usually lumped under the rubric of "hate" and at other times singled out by the Buddha as its own harmful category) follows a close second.
It is our karmic proclivities, our samsara-perpetuating volitions (intentions, cetanas), our plans and ambitions, that drag us irresistibly to that deep pit of samsara, the Wheel of Rebirth and Death, with its burning embers of intense suffering in various states we experience he and in lower planes of existence we could end up being reborn in. Hence it was said that volition, in the sense of karma (lit. in the sense of cetana, the motiviating intention behind an action), is the nutriment for rebirth on the 31 Planes of Existence within the Three Spheres (Sensual, Fine Material, Immaterial) of samsara.
Deluded craving is the lynchpin.
The nutriment volition manifests itself in our incessant urge to plan and to aspire, to struggle and conquer, to build and to destroy, to do and to undo, to invent and to discover, to form and to transform, to organize and to create.

This urge has sent us into the depth of the ocean and into the vastness of space. It has made us the most vicious of predatory animals and also enabled us to reach the lofty heights of a genius [genies, djinn] of creative art and thought.
The restlessness that is at the root of all that lust for activity and of the creative urge is the constant hunger for all Four Nutriments of life and for a variety of them on different levels... More

  • 1. See § 1: "Meditators, when a meditator becomes entirely dispassionate toward one thing, when one's lust for it entirely fades away, when one is entirely liberated from it, when one sees the complete ending of it, then that person is one who, after fully comprehending the goal [nirvana, which if one sees means one has become at least a stream enterer, i.e., reached the first stage of enlightenment where one directly knows-and-sees the path], makes an end of suffering here and now [even in this very life]. What is that one thing? 'All beings subsist by nutriment.' When a meditator becomes entirely dispassionate towards this one thing (nutriment), when one'slust for it entirely fades away, when one is entirely liberated from it, and when one sees the complete ending of it then, O meditators, that person is one who, after fully comprehending the goal, makes an end of suffering here and now. — AN 10.27
  • Sutta-Nipata, Verse 1043.
  • 3. See Translator's Note to § 3 (a), and The Wheel No. 17, p. 19 under "Clinging."
  • 4. Abraham ben Chisdai, in The Prince and the Ascetic (Ben-hamelekh we-hanasir). This is an old Hebrew version of the "Barlaam and Joasaph" story, which unwittingly was based on and carried the main features of the Buddha's life story -- from the Jataka Tales, where the Buddha is the Bodhisattva striving for supreme enlightenment -- through a major part of the medieval world. The Hebrew version has several distinct traces not only of the Buddha's life story, but also of Buddhist ideas, like the one quoted above. Only a comparison of the numerous versions of the "Barlaam and Joasaph" story could decide on whether these ideas were part of the tradition and common to other versions, or whether they originated in the Hebrew author's mind.
  • 5. Translation [here modified by Wisdom Quarterly] is by Soma Thera in His Last Performance, Verses of Talaputa Thera (Colombo 1943; available from Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy). See also the "Fire Sermon" (The Wheel No. 17: "The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning. The ear... mind is burning, [mind objects] are burning..."
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