What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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The Candy Crush Sutta

book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone. Image is generated by an AI.

This is a bonus post, following from yesterday’s, in which I interviewed the artificial intelligence known as ChatGPT about meditation.

This time I gave the AI the prompt, “Write a Buddhist sutta, in the style of the Pali canon, in which the Buddha tells Ananda to stop playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.”

See also

Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.

Once, the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. And at that time, the Venerable Ananda was addicted to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.

The Blessed One approached Ananda and said, “Ananda, what are you doing?”

Ananda replied, “I am playing Candy Crush, Lord.”

The Buddha spoke: “Ananda, this is not the path to liberation. The playing of such games only leads to craving and attachment. To achieve true peace and wisdom, one must let go of such distractions and engage in virtuous and meaningful actions.”

Ananda listened to the Buddha’s words and put down his iPhone, vowing to let go of his attachment to Candy Crush. He turned his attention to the Buddha’s teachings and soon realized the path to enlightenment.

And so it is said:

“Just as a bird is freed from its cage
when the door is opened, so too one is freed
from the bonds of ignorance and craving
by practicing the path taught by the Buddha.”

Appropriately, the image above was generated by another AI (Craiyon: formerly DALL-E Mini), using the prompt, “book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone.”

Coming back down to earth, ChatGPT’s predecessor was prone to using vile racist and misogynistic language, because its database of information was drawn from the web, and the web is full of that sort of stuff. For the latest version of the AI, a program had to be developed that could recognize and screen out the toxic material. In order to do that, Kenyan workers were paid as little as $1.32 an hour (via a subcontractor of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT) to read and categorize the text. Workers were traumatized by reading, for example, graphic descriptions of bestiality and pedophile sex.

The contract between OpenAI and the subcontractor ended after an article was published showing that Facebook had employed the subcontractor to screen content. In this case, Kenyans were required to view images and videos of executions, rape and child abuse for as little as $1.50 per hour. This is traumatizing work.

AI and social media are fun, but there’s a dark and exploitative side to it as well.

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The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

Scientific pentagram diagram

Buddhism is full of lists: the three trainings, the four foundations of mindfulness, the five skandhas, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold dependent origination, the 37 limbs of awakening, and so forth. Often these lists are presented in a rather static way, as if we’re just being offered an overview of some area of life. So the four foundations, for example, are often described as simply being four aspects of our experience that we can be mindful of, and the five skandhas as simply a way to break down the idea of a unified self.

The five spiritual faculties

One such list is the five faculties, or five spiritual faculties, as it’s often termed. If you aren’t familiar with the five spiritual faculties, they’re a very common teaching. They are faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. They tend, as I’ve suggested is often the case, to be presented as if they just are, or as if they are five things we simply need to develop in order to become awakened. That’s how they’re often presented in the scriptures, as in the following:

A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment. What five? The faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

My impression of the Buddha is that he wasn’t really interested in providing overviews, but that he was instead very interested in how things work. He had a mind that was perhaps a bit like an engineer’s. His teaching on dependent origination, for example, is all about how one thing provides conditions for another arising and that to another, each of those conditions leading to a greater sense of freedom and joy. So when I see Buddhist lists one of my first thoughts is, how might the items on that list work together as a dynamic system.

The five spiritual faculties as a dynamic system

As it happens, when I was doing some background reading for writing this article, I found that there’s a relatively early text that does just this with the five spiritual faculties. In one Sanskrit commentarial work, “The Discourse on the Analysis of Topics” (or Arthaviniscaya Sutra) they’re presented as a dynamic series, with each of the factors building on the previous one. Although this text is called a “sutra,” a term usually reserved for records of things the Buddha and his disciples said, the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics is actually a commentarial text. It was created by monks a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, as they tried to explain some of the teachings found in the actual scriptures. And in the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics the five spiritual faculties are described as contributing, step by step, to the development of the skillful qualities needed for awakening to take place.

Here’s how that works:

  1. The faculty of faith is an awareness of the possibility of practicing in order to be happier.
  2. The faculty of vigor allows us to actually practice and develop skillful qualities.
  3. The faculty of mindfulness helps us to preserve and maintain those skillful qualities.
  4. The faculty of concentration allows us to stay focused on those skillful qualities.
  5. And finally the faculty of wisdom allows us to “penetrate and reflect on the birth” of those things, and thus to develop insight.

This early text tries to show the five spiritual faculties as working together as a system. And the explanation makes sense, although I’ll shortly show another way of looking at how they can work together.

The five spiritual faculties, moment by moment

Recently I taught a class in a local Buddhist center where I explained how the five spiritual faculties can work, moment by moment, working together more or less simultaneously, in order to help us move from unskillful to skillful states of mind, from states of mind that cause suffering to states of mind that are imbued with a sense of peace, calm, and even joy.

So let’s say that we experience anger, and see how the five spiritual faculties function. Because they work together in a simultaneous way, we could deal with them in any order.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the activity of observing our experience. Without mindfulness no practice can take place, which is why I prefer to start with its role. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see that anger has arisen. So rather than simply being angry, now we’re aware that we’re angry.

These days there’s a tendency to see mindfulness as the only spiritual quality we need. But really it’s nothing more than simply observing. In itself it does nothing, which is why we also need the other spiritual faculties.

2. Wisdom

Often (especially in a Buddhist context) we might think about wisdom as an enlightened quality, as seeing reality as it really is, as something that arises at the end of the path and that we’ve yet to gain. But early Buddhism saw wisdom as consisting also of a very mundane form of understanding spiritual truths. For example, understanding that “There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds” are forms of wisdom.

So, in our example of being angry, our mindfulness tells us that anger is present. Wisdom tells us that this anger isn’t good for us and will likely lead to our suffering. Our wisdom also knows that there are alternatives to anger — curiosity, patience, kindness, and so on — that will make us happier in both the short and long terms.

3. Faith

Faith in Buddhism is not blind belief. It’s more like a sense of confidence and clarity. It’s from a root that literally means “to place the heart upon.” So we can know on some level that anger is going to cause problems for us, but on some other level believe that we need anger to get what we want. So our confidence in our practice is compromised.

But as we continue to mindfully observe actions and consequences unfolding in our lives, and with wisdom to see how those things are connected to each other, we can start to have more confidence that letting go of anger, and instead practicing things like curiosity, patience, and kindness, has both short- and long-term benefits.

So in this example, we’ve now mindfully noticed that anger is present, have wisely seen that anger causes suffering, and now, with faith, have confidence that some alternative to anger is more appropriate. Now, coming from the heart, there’s a desire for change. But we still haven’t actually acted.

4. Vigor

Vigor is virya, also sometimes rendered as “energy.” This is the faculty of taking action. So, now that we have confidence that non-anger is preferable to anger, we now act. We can act by letting go: we might have angry thoughts or be speaking angry words, and we simply let go of those. We can act by opening up to the possibility of acting in ways that are more helpful than anger, so that we have a sense that curiosity, patience, and kindness are there, waiting in the wings, ready to be activated. And some actions involve actually bringing those skillful qualities into being. We speak kindly or apologetically, for example. Or we empathetically try to understand a person we’re angry with.

5. Concentration

Concentration is samadhi, which comes from a root meaning something like “bringing together” or “holding together.” It refers to the mind being unified around one purpose.

Often when we hear the word “concentration” we think of a narrow focus, but that’s not necessarily what samadhi is about. Samadhi is more about having an absence of internal conflict, and therefore continuity of mindfulness.

So, in our example of dealing with anger, our concentration can mean keeping up a sustained effort to respond skillfully. As we all know, that’s difficult to do. There are parts of the mind that want to be angry and that see anger as solving our problems. And those parts of us can be very persistent, and can come back over and over again and hijack our attention. This is why maintaining concentration is necessary. So that’s one thing that concentration can mean in this instance.

But it can also refer to the state of mind that emerges from mindfulness, wisdom, faith, and vigor. As we continue to give priority to the wiser parts of our mind, the more reactive parts become weaker. They’re less able to affect us. They’re less able to control us. We’re less likely to do things we regret by acting unskillfully. And so, over time, we experience less inner conflict. The mind is more harmonized, more (to coin a word) samadhic.

But although I started to talk in that last paragraph about the long-term functioning of the five spiritual faculties, what I want to emphasize is how they function moment by moment, and how they’re intrinsic to every act of skillful change that we bring about. They function together, supporting each other, very time we work with an unhelpful or destructive habit. And as we exercise them over and over again in this way — at least if we do this in a half-way consistent way — they become stronger. So when the scriptures say something like “A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment,” this is what they’re talking about: change, taking place moment by moment, and those acts of change developing habits that help liberate us from suffering.

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Listening to the Buddha within


The history of Buddhist scriptures has, to simplify a little, two main phases. There were the initial teachings, recorded in a number of languages and passed on first orally and then in written form. The sole complete version of these that we have is called the Pali canon.

Then there are the Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) scriptures, which often claim to be the word of the Buddha, but which were clearly composed much later. The style of these indicates that they were composed as written works, and didn’t go through a phase of oral transmission.

The fact that the Mahayana scriptures don’t literally come from the Buddha doesn’t invalidate them as sources of wisdom, of course. I love a lot of the Mahayana Sutras and take inspiration from them. The Perfection of Wisdom sutras (including the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra) and the Vimalakirti Nirdesha are works that I consider to be the profoundest spiritual documents in the world. In fact the claim that the Mahayana sutras came from the Buddha himself points to something very interesting about the nature of insight.

These scriptures were composed by people with genuine spiritual insight at a time when other early schools had largely slipped into scholasticism. Just to take one example, some of the key terms of the Mahayana, like “shunyata” (emptiness) are found in the early scriptures, but they’re largely ignored by the Theravadin tradition, or at least they’re very far from being central to its teachings. The Mahayana, on the other hand, kept alive a spiritually vital understanding of what the Buddha meant by that term.

The Mahayana authors chose to present their explication of those teachings as scriptures (writings purporting to be the word of the Buddha) rather than commentaries (the writings of later teachers). There’s a sort of dishonesty implicit in that, unless you consider the possibility of the teachings having emerged in visionary states, in which case the “composers” of the Mahayana sutras might well have believed that they were passing on teachings that mystically came from the Buddha. It’s quite literally possible in a meditative state to “hear” teachings from the Buddha.

There’s plenty of this is the Pali canon, by the way. There are many discourses where a disciple was pondering a question, and the Buddha appeared to them in a vision and gave them a teaching. For example, one time a disciple of the Buddha was trying to meditate, but falling asleep. We’re told that the Buddha then appeared to him (although he was physically elsewhere) and gave him instructions on how to stay awake.

I take this to mean that a deeper level of intuitive insight arose in the disciples, but was presented in the Buddha’s voice.

We all have the experience of having conversations in our head with other people we know well. We’ve internalized their thought patterns and mannerisms to the extent where we can run a mental simulation of them. Sometimes, though, when we’re very familiar with a teacher’s mode of presentation, we can “hear” them answering a question that’s in our mind. It’s not a psychic transmission, but our own wisdom appearing in the teacher’s appearance and voice. Although this is “our” wisdom, we hear insights that are new to us, and that surprise us.

So I think that this may have been what happened with the Mahayana scriptures — that they did come from the Buddha, in a sense, but not the historical Buddha. Instead they came from insights that arose in the minds of deep practitioners of the Dharma, manifesting in the guise of the Buddha.

For us, the important voices to listen to are our conscience and our intuition. This is one reason it’s crucial that we learn to calm the mind in meditation, so that there’s less inner chatter going on. Through meditation we can create a quiet inner space in which the quiet murmurs of our unconscious wisdom can make themselves heard. Eventually, these voices may appear in the guise of the Buddha, or some other figure who represents wisdom. But that’s not what matters. It’s simply important that we learn to still the mind, and to listen.

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When the Buddha quit

Buddha in the style of Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster

There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

See also:

The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Why develop mindful presence?

This is the second post in the series on mindful presence. You can view Part One here.

So why should we go out of our way to develop mindfulness?

Mindful presence feels good in its own right: relaxed, alert, and peaceful. Not contending with anything. No struggle.

In addition to the inherent, experiential rewards of mindful presence, studies have shown that it lowers stress, makes discomfort and pain more bearable, reduces depression, and increases self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Mindful Presence Series

  1. What is “Mindful presence”?
  2. Why develop mindful presence?
  3. Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
  4. Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.

To quote the father of American psychology, William James:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
William James, Psychology: Briefer Course, p. 424 (Harper Torchbooks, 1961)

At a deeper level, mindful presence is the counter to our habitual state of mind, which a Thai meditation master once summarized as, “Lost in thought.”

To quote Jack Kornfield:

 . . . you [become] mindful of the constantly changing conditions of sight, sound, taste, smell, physical perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, you [begin] to experience how conditioned the world is and how these conditions constantly change.

To free ourselves, we need to quiet the mind through some mindfulness in meditation. Then, instead of identifying with the changing conditions, we learn to release them and turn toward consciousness itself, to rest in the knowing. Ajahn Chah called this pure awareness, “the original mind,” and resting in “the one who knows.”

The senses and the world are always changing conditions, but that which knows is unconditioned. With practice . . . we can be in the midst of an experience, being upset or angry or caught by some problem, and then step back from it and rest in pure awareness. . . We learn to trust pure awareness itself.
Jack Kornfield, Buddhadharma, Summer 2007, pp. 34-35

And in addition to the psychological, everyday benefits of mindful presence, it is also, in Buddhism, considered to be a direct path to enlightenment and the end of suffering:

This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentations, for the passing away of pain and dejection, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana – namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.

What are the four? A person dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world.
[In the Buddha’s Words, p. 281]

This isn’t the place to get into detail about that quote, though I invite you to let the feeling of it carry you along. But in passing, it is worth noting that “contemplating body in the body” (or feelings in feelings, mind in mind, phenomena in phenomena) means being simply aware of immediate, experiential phenomena as they are without conceptualization or commentary. Just the sensations of the rising breath in the belly. Just the subtle feeling of a sound being mildly unpleasant. Just the sense of consciousness being contracted or spacious. Just a single thought emerging and then disappearing. Just this moment. Just this.

There’s a pithy summary of this simplicity of pure experiencing in the advice the Buddha gave to a man named Bahiya:

Bahiya, you should train yourself in this way: With the seen, there will be just the seen; with the heard, there will be just the heard; with the sensed (touched, tasted, smelt) there will be just the sensed; with the cognized [thoughts, feelings, etc.], there will be just the cognized.

In sum, imagine being in a lovely and peaceful meadow, with a train full of thoughts and feelings and desires rolling by in the distance . . . Normally, as this train approaches we tend to become drawn in, and we hop on board and get carried away . . . “lost in thought.”

On the other hand, mindfulness allows you to see the train coming but have the presence of mind . . . to stay in the meadow! And whenever you get swept along by the train, as soon as you notice that, whoosh, you return immediately to the peaceful meadow, to the refuge of mindfulness.

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Self-hatred, self-compassion, and non-self

You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred'

A lot of people have difficulty practicing self-compassion, but some people have difficulty with the concept of self-compassion. I’ve had very experienced Buddhist practitioners tell me that while they think it’s good to have compassion for others it’s not desirable or even possible to have self-compassion, or that self-compassion is just self-pity. It’s a shame there’s so much confusion over such a crucial practice.

But in some ways it’s not surprising that this confusion exists. The Buddha just took it for granted that we love ourselves — he said we should love others as we love ourselves, which for self-loathing westerners seems the wrong way around — and as far as I’m aware he never addressed the problem of self-hatred, which people say is largely a modern, western phenomenon, although I’m not sure there’s any evidence of that. Anyway, there’s little to nothing in the Buddhist scriptures about the practice of self-compassion or even self-metta.

Dealing with those objections, I see the issue of self-compassion versus compassion for others, or self-hatred versus hatred of others as a red herring. Hatred is hatred. So hatred of oneself, or parts of oneself, should be dealt with in the same way as hatred for others. And compassion for oneself should be cultivated in exactly the same way that compassion for others should be cultivated. So when the Buddha says something like:

“You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred,'”

this is as applicable to ourselves as it is to others. When the mind is full of compassion it touches everything it experiences with compassion. And this applies to reflexive thought — when the mind full of compassion thinks of itself it does so compassionately. How could it do otherwise?

This is a teaching of non-self. The perception of pain is just the perception of pain. If you experience pain in another or in yourself there’s not any essential difference regarding how you should respond: your pain, another’s pain — it doesn’t matter. And the only appropriate and skillful response to the perception of pain is compassion. It doesn’t matter whether the pain you’re perceiving is in yourself or another, you should meet the pain with compassion. This is where the non-self perspective comes in. “Your” pain isn’t really your pain.

There’s an interesting dialog in the Samyutta Nikaya, where the Venerable Moliya Phagguna asks the Buddha the simple question:

“Lord, who feels?”

The reply is very interesting: “Not a valid question,” the Blessed One said.

“I don’t say ‘feels.’ If I were to say ‘feels,’ then ‘Who feels?’ would be a valid question. But I don’t say that. When I don’t say that, the valid question is ‘From what as a requisite condition comes feeling?’ And the valid answer is, ‘From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.'”

So suffering, which is a feeling, arises, but it’s improper to say that there is a person who suffers. There is suffering but there is no sufferer. This is hard to understand without having seen through the illusion of self, but if we want to move toward directly seeing the truth of non-self we shouldn’t get caught up in thinking that our own suffering is any different from other people’s suffering.

We often, though, think either that our suffering is more important than others’ because it’s ours, or that it’s less important because it’s ours. Both of these are examples of what Buddhism calls “conceit” which includes not just thinking that we’re more important or better than others (so we’ll hurt people to relieve our own suffering) or that we’re less important or worse than others (so we’ll give compassion to anyone but ourself).

Self-pity is entirely different from self-compassion, incidentally. Self-pity is where you’re causing yourself further suffering by going “Oh, this is terrible. This shouldn’t be happening.” With self-compassion you let go of those story-lines and simply feel compassion for your pain. You send it loving attention. You hold it in awareness the same way you might hold a sick child. You give yourself comfort and reassurance.

Actually self-compassion is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t really have compassion for “yourself.” “Your self” is too large and vague a category; it’s hard to point to exactly what it refers to. You don’t really have a unified, stable, single entity called “your self.” “Your self” is an abstract category, and so you can’t really have compassion for it. What you can have compassion for is your pain, or the part of you that is suffering (which is inseparable from the pain). It’s the experience of suffering that is the object of self-compassion. The experience of suffering is more concrete. There is feeling, but no one who feels.

So this is my practice: when I’m experiencing pain I notice as best I can where it is in my body (even emotional pain is experienced in the body) and I send it my love. I send it my kindly attention, and drop phrases into the mind like “May you be well; may you be free from suffering.” But you could just as easily describe the intention as “I shall remain I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred (or self-pity).”

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The book that changed my life

penguin dhammapada from the 1970's, translated by juan mascaro

In the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.

I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.

One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada,” translated by Juan Mascaró. I can still see exactly where in the bookshop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.

I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its brown paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation. Nevertheless, these clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.

Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life.

Choose wisely.

PS. A better translation would be:

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows them like the wheel the hoof of the ox.

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves.

Since this is a bad translation, I suggest either Narada Thera‘s version (available free in various formats), or Gil Fronsdal’s. Buddharakkhita’s translation is good, and is available free on Access to Insight. Bhikkhu Sujato’s is excellent, and is available free on Sutta Central, along with other translations.

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“No man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s words encapsulate perfectly something I’ve long held, which is that the Buddhist view of greed, hatred, and delusion — often called the Three Unwholesome Roots (akusala mūla) — is far removed from the western conception of sin.

Sin is “bad.” It’s “evil.” It’s a transgression against the Divine law.

When we encounter the Buddhist teaching of the Three Unwholesome Roots, it’s easy to slip it into the sin-shaped space that exists in our minds. But the Buddha’s understanding of these roots is wholly different from how sin is understood, and we need to disentangle the two sets of concepts in our own minds.

Here’s something that when you think about it is rather stunning. The Buddha said:

I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

So if giving up greed, hatred, and delusion (“what is unskillful”) made you unhappy, then he wouldn’t ask you to do it. If greed, hatred, and delusion made you truly happy, then the Buddha would say it was all right to keep on doing them!

The reason for this is that the Buddha said that “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”

So the Buddha was only concerned with the problem of suffering, and of how to end suffering. He was concerned with the effects that your actions have on your welfare. And it’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion are detrimental to your welfare that they’re to be given up — not because they’re in some sense ultimately “evil.”

So the Buddha was the ultimate moral pragmatist. He took a totally practical regard toward “the unskillful.” Greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, so you should abandon them. Abandoning them will make you happy.

But if greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, why do you still do them? The answer is simply that you believe, on some level, that they will in fact bring happiness. This belief is very strongly rooted in our psychology. We think that by having aversion toward things we don’t like, we can avoid sources of suffering. We think that by desiring what we want, we can have it, or by trying to hold on to the pleasant we can make it last forever. But actually both those things — aversion and craving — simply cause more suffering.

I find all of this very encouraging, because it suggests that, deep down, our impulses are a desire for happiness and well-being. Below the level of the skillfulness or unskillfulness of our actions, there is a simple, basic, human desire for happiness. Whether we act skillfully or unskillfully, we have the same motivation — to be happy. And our skillful or unskillful actions are simply strategies to being about the happiness we seek.

The difference between skillfulness and unskillfulness is simply pragmatic — acting unskillfully doesn’t work. Acting skillfully does. We simply suffer from delusion, thinking that things that make us unhappy will somehow make us happy. Acting unskillfully, then, is simply an ineffective strategy for finding happiness.

This is encouraging because it means you can drop any notion you might have that there is something inherently bad inside you. Even when you hurt others, you’re not doing it out of inherent badness. You’re doing it because you’re under the sway of a powerful belief that hurting others will, in the end, bring you joy. When others try to hurt you — or even just hurt you accidentally — they too are simply acting under the influence of delusion. Deep down they simply want to be happy. In fact, at your core, below the level of all the strategies you employ in order to find happiness and escape suffering, is this basic need for happiness. That need is the most fundamental thing about you. And it’s good.

Knowing this, it’s easier to be forgiving of ourselves and others, and to drop the idea that unskillfulness is just another name for sin, evil, or badness.

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The ten funniest scenes from the Pali canon

buddhist humor

The Pali Canon is profound, difficult, revolutionary: but not funny, surely. And if it is, then why? What’s the nature and purpose of Dhamma humour?

Thankfully I’m going to leave aside weighty matters of interpretation and present here the definitive list of funniest scenes. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments. In this list I am only considering the early Suttas. There’s plenty more humour in the Vinaya, and even more in the Jatakas, but it would just be too hard to choose.

10. Saccaka gets his comeuppance


Majjhima Nikaya 35, Culasaccaka Sutta

What’s up?

Saccaka the wanderer features in a few Suttas. Here he threatens to take on the Buddha in debate on the five aggregates and not-self, giving an elaborate series of similes on how he will drag the Buddha about ‘like a huge elephant would enjoy a game of washing hemp’.

Where’s the funny?

While Saccaka is boasting, there’s no doubting his pride is due for a painful fall, and the Sutta doesn’t disappoint. He ends up thoroughly humiliated, seating and depressed. But like all good thrashings in debate, it turns out to be a necessary antidote for his pride. He ends up becoming an arahant.

9. The Boast of Brahma

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 11, Kevaddha Sutta.

What’s up?

A monk searches for an answer to the question, ‘Where do the four great elements cease without remainder?’ He questions the gods, but they keep referring him upstairs (which itself is a lovely satire on the bureaucratic nature of the celestial hierarchy) until he arrives in the realm of Brahma. Brahma appears and boasts, ‘I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, Father of All…’. But he keeps dodging the question. Eventually the monk is so persistent, he takes him by the elbow, leads him to one side, and whispers to him, ‘Actually, I don’t know the answer to your question. You should have asked the Buddha!’

Where’s the funny?

It is a brilliantly accurate skewering of religious pretensions. The bluster and bombast is revealed for what it is. While the story as it stands is directed at the Brahmans, other texts make it clear the Buddha respected the good practice of Brahmans of old (after all, he must have had jhanas to become a Brahma in the first place.) The point here is that religious authority is propped up by signs and displays, and with a little dedicated and persistent questioning anyone can see beneath the surface.

8. Sariputta gets Clubbed

Where do I find it?

Udana 4.4

What’s up?

A passing yakkha sees Sariputta meditating in the full moon, his freshly shaven head a tempting target for an ogre’s club. Unable to resist, despite the warnings of his friend, he lands a blow that would split a mountain in two. Sariputta sits there unperturbed and the blow bounces off. Later, Moggallana asks him if he saw anything unusual, and Sariputta says, ‘No, but I do have a slight headache’.

Where’s the funny?

Come on. A huge troll smashing a shiny bald head in the moonlight? How is this not funny? The episode is pure slapstick, and gives an entertaining contrast between the violent religion of the yakkhas – which, let us not forget, was a mainstream cultic practice often involving human sacrifice – and the peaceful cultivation of the Buddhists. We’re left with no doubt where the real strength lies.

7. Sakka Turns Back

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 11.6, Kulavaka Sutta

What’s up?

In the interminable war between the Gods and Titans, the Gods lost the battle and were fleeing, with the Titans hard at their heels. Their escape route led through a forest full of delicate birds, with their chicks nesting. Sakka cannot bear to endanger such innocent creatures, and so he instructs his charioteer Matali, to turn around, even though this means facing their enemies. The Titans, however, assume that Sakka has turned around because he has reinforcements. Terrified, they flee and the Gods end up victorious – and saving the birds.

Where’s the funny?

Sakka is the Buddhist version of the ferocious war god of the Vedas, Indra. He is the archetypal Aryan hero, leading his people on chariot raids, plundering and slaughtering in the joy of strength and victory. The Buddhist texts turn him, not without a struggle, into a spokesman for non-violence. Like the religious allegories, this provides, in its light-hearted way, a political allegory for the idea that non-violence can be a source of strength and political success.

6. The Humiliation of Mara

Where do I find it?

Sutta Nipata 3.2, Padhana Sutta

What’s up?

Mara tires to defeat the Buddha, but ends up routed. While later accounts depict Mara’s army as a vicious mob of monsters, this early story lists 10 purely psychological factors as Mara’s army: desire, cynicism, and the like. Mara tries to tempt the Buddha to live a life of wholesome merit and give up striving for Awakening. But the Buddha is impervious, and Mara ends up depressed, saying he couldn’t get any more entrance to the Buddha than a crow poking a stone. It ends with the unforgettable image of the ‘depressed troll’ letting his lute droop from his armpit and vanishing.

Where’s the funny?

Mara is hardly the paragon of evil we might expect by comparison with the Christian Satan. He is more akin to the Trickster figures of folk mythology; except he ends up being the one getting tricked. His inevitable defeat is a standard trope, repeated in countless stories. Like the wily coyote (another trickster figure), the fun is watching his (admittedly admirable) persistence and ingenuity, knowing all the while his efforts are doomed… I could have chosen any number of Mara tales for this spot, but I felt this major archetypal episode deserved the gong. A special mention, though, for Majjhima 50, Maratajjaniya: Mara enters Moggallana to possess him, and Moggallana says it feels like his belly is full of beans.

5. The Doctrine of Dighanakha

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 74, Dighanakha Sutta

What’s up?

Dighanakha approaches the Buddha and without ado declares his doctrine to him. With a name like ‘Long-nails’, you know this is not going to end well. His doctrine is, ‘Nothing whatsoever is pleasing to me’. The Buddha responds with one of the best one-liners in the Suttas: ‘Well, this view of yours, is that pleasing to you?’

Where’s the funny?

The Buddha’s response is sharp, witty, and cuts to the heart of the matter. Like the best humour, it’s not just amusing, but it points to a deep truth: religious people often claim to have let go of the world, but it is their attachment to their religious ideals that is really holding them back.

4. Ratthapala’s Wives

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 82, Ratthapala Sutta

What’s up?

Ratthapala is the son of a wealthy family. He is permitted to go forth by his parents only after he nearly starves himself to death. When he returns to his family after attaining enlightenment, they try to tempt him to return to worldly things, placing a large pile of gold before him and serving delicious food. Ratthapala’s former wives come to attend him, intent on seduction. They ask, ‘What are they like, the divine maidens for whose sake you are following the holy life?’ Ratthapala says, ‘Sisters, we do not live the holy life for the sake of divine maidens.’ They cry out, ’He called us “sisters”!’ and collapse in a faint.

Where’s the funny?

Your mileage might vary! Yes, it’s a standard ‘woman tempts ascetic’ scenario; but I don’t think it’s as sexist as it might appear out of context. The bulk of the sutta has Ratthapala dealing with his clinging parents, and later with a king. The wives only appear in this one scene, and are a transparent narrative device. I just find the image of the wives crying, ‘He called us sisters’ and fainting to be so over the top. They’re vapid valley-girls; and for me the humour lies in the naivety of their response, in stark contrast with the strong, wise women found elsewhere in the Suttas. It strikes me as a throw-away bit of camp, contrasting beautifully with the sombre and profound teachings that the sutta ends with. The sutta as a whole is one of the most dramatically accomplished in the whole canon, and the effect is partially accomplished with the fusion of dark and light elements. Anyway, if you still think the story is proof of the sexism of the Pali Canon, perhaps you’re not familiar with…

3. Mutta’s Song of Freedom

Where do I find it?

Therigatha 1.11, Muttatheri

What’s up?

An awakened nun sings of her freedom from the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband.

Where’s the funny?

Sexual politics have, it seems, changed but little. The short verses segue blithely from the mundane to the sublime, speaking with wit and pith of the reality of domestic disappointment. Rather than offering a Cinderalla-solution (the handsome prince will take you away and you can live in a castle – with someone else to do the cooking and cleaning), this offers a genuine solution: freedom from birth and death.

2. Citta’s Faith

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 41.8, Nigantha

What’s up?

Citta, a highly intelligent and capable lay disciple, goes to see Mahavira (known in Pali as Nigantha Nataputta), the leader of the Jains and the Buddha’s chief rival. Mahavira asks him whether he has faith in the Buddha’s claim that there is a state of mind so still that all movement and applied thought has vanished? Citta replies that he does not go by faith in the Buddha’s claim. Mahavira is delighted in this, puffs out his chest, and declares, ‘See, even the Buddha’s followers don’t believe him!’ And he praised Citta for his honesty. Citta, however, asks Mahavira, ‘Which is better, faith or knowledge?’ Mahavira agrees that knowledge is better. Citta then declares that whenever he wishes he enters the second jhana where there is no movement or application of mind, and indeed enters even higher attainments. So he does not need to go by faith: he speaks from personal knowledge. Mahavira is devastated: he glances aside at his following, and says how deceitful and insincere Citta is.

Where’s the funny?

Unfortunately, neither the Jain nor Buddhist scriptures record that the Buddha and Mahavira ever met in person, so exchanges such as this are the best we have. As well as the usual pricking of religious pretensions, Citta exposes some of the flaws of the Jain system as seen by the Buddhists. By focussing so much on self-torment, they do not have the tranquillity necessary for deep meditation, and so cannot see the truth. Moreover, Mahavira bombastically claims to be all-knowing, yet he can be so easily fooled – and by a mere layman at that.

1. The Love Song of Pancasikha

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 21, Sakkapanha Sutta

What’s up?

Sakka wants to ask the Buddha some questions, but can’t seem to arrange an interview as the Buddha is on retreat. Pancasikha the gandhabba offers to help, and standing neither too close nor too near, he serenades the Buddha with a song extolling the ‘Buddha, arahants, and love’. He sings of his beloved Suriyavacchasa, ‘maiden fair of thighs’, whose glorious beauty he covets ‘as the arahants love the Dhamma’. His desire grows as does the merit of gifts given to arahants; and were he to be made one with his beloved, he would rejoice like the Buddha attaining Awakening! Despite the outrageous inappropriateness of the song, the Buddha rewards him with a nice compliment: the sound of your voice blended well with the sound of your lute. Sweet, and neatly avoids commenting on the content of the song. (Incidentally, certain later myths make this lute of Pancasikhas none other than the very lute that had dropped so ignominiously from Mara’s armpit in the episode mentioned above. Not so implausible, perhaps, as both events are closely related with the of the Buddha’s Awakening.)

Where’s the funny?

A love song in the Pali Canon! Though the verses are perhaps the earliest attested love song in Indian literature, they are clearly playing with well-practiced tropes. Even when the song doesn’t directly speak of Buddhism, it uses standard Buddhist imagery: like an elephant plunging into a cooling lotus-pond, Pancasikha longs to plunge into the bosom of his beloved. Foreshadowing later Indic literature such as Ashvaghosa, the verses are ironically aware of their own tension: her love will grant him sweet release like water cooling flames, but at the same time he is like a fish stuck on a hook, his heart bound, and his thoughts confused. You can read it either as a genuine erotic song, or as an exposure of the sufferings of lust. And, like the Ratthapala Sutta, the narrative is sophisticated enough to move from such light fare to the weighty matters that are dealt with later on.

From the blog of Bhikkhu Sujato.

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