Showing posts with label Practice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Practice. Show all posts

22 January 2016

Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation

I'm sure I've told this story before, but in sixth-form biology (some 35 years ago now) we studied a plant and an animal in some depth. For our animal we followed Charles Darwin in studying the earthworm. I gained a new appreciation of these creatures through studying their physiology and behaviour. One of the experiments we did was a bit cruel. We studied the stress response of earthworms. I want to begin this essay on rumination by outlining what happens when you pretend to be a predator to an exposed earthworm.

The Stress Response

Earthworms may be exposed on the surface during daylight for a number of reasons. For example rain-saturated soil forces them up to breathe, or some chemical or mechanical irritant may make then break cover to escape it, despite the risk. Not only does sunlight kill them, through exposure to UV light and dehydration, but being on the surface also leaves them vulnerable to one of their principle predators - birds. Back in 1982 we collected earthworms by introducing a chemical irritant into the soil and grabbing them as they popped up, then we rinsed them and kept them in a dark moist environment. After they had time to acclimatise to their new environment, we stressed them by poking them in a way designed to mimic a bird attempting to eat them. Stressed in this way an earthworm goes into a frenzied writhing motion which is obviously designed to make them hard to grab hold of. Once they stopped we poked them again, producing more writhing. And we repeated this several times. On the third time the writhing was noticeably less vigorous. On the fourth time the poor worm was lethargic but moved around slowly. And after that further poking did not seem to produce any response at all.

So what does this tell us?

The father of modern stress research, Hans Selye (1907 – 1982), did much the same thing with rats and outlined threephases of response to a stressor that seemed to apply to many organisms. He defined these largely in glandular terms, i.e. in the type and amount of hormones produced. Nowadays we might characterise the response in terms of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

1. Alarm reaction. These is an immediate reaction to a stimulus or stressor. In humans the ANS initiates a series of changes: The sympathetic side of the ANS acts rapidly to produce changes: the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol flood the blood with glucose, raise our blood-pressure, increase our heart rate. The bronchioles in the lungs expand. Blood is diverted away from the gut, toward the skeletal muscles. The pupils dilate. In the gastro-intestinal tract, sphincters tighten and peristalsis is slowed or suspended, In other words we prepare for action (another term for this is arousal). These preparations are for in-the-moment reactions such as "freezing" and the "fight or flight" response.Without further stressors this reaction is short-lived and the body soon begins to restore normal operating conditions, reversing the changes that arousal produces through the actions of the parasympathetic side of the ANS. Relaxation takes longer than arousal. Short lived stressors may be positive, such as the anxiety preceding a performance (be it sporting or artistic) that allows us to achieve something out of the ordinary - a gold medal winning time in the Olympics or a recital that gains a standing ovation. Selye called this positive side of stress eustress and the negative kind distress.

2. Resistance.With continued exposure to stressors, the body's ability to respond to stimulus changes. We may begin to experience fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbance, and problems with homoeostatic regulation, such as high or low blood pressure. We may also begin to experience mood disturbances, such as mood swings, low mood, or anxiety. There may also be impairment to the immune system. This corresponds to the third and fourth stimulus in the worm where the response to the stressor was attenuated and the ability to avoid the threat was significantly degraded.

3. Exhaustion. Finally, prolonged exposure to stressors (or an intense short-term stressor) can cause a complete breakdown in our ability to response to stimulus. Like the earthworm, the behaviour that protects us from threats simply ceases. Glands that produce the hormones become depleted and receptors become unresponsive. Such exhaustion may manifest as what we call "major depression" (sometimes lay people call this "clinical depression"). People suffering from depression typically experience overwhelming fatigue, appetite disturbance, a tendency to sleep too much or too little. They begin to avoid social interactions. Stimulation of any kind may be experienced as painful. The classic image of depression is of someone unable to get out of bed, lying in the dark, unresponsive. Another less known aetiology, particularly amongst men, is of a kind of "always on" anger, an emotional response to stimuli that is stuck on one setting. One suspects that this process may also be implicated in a number of other disease syndromes (i.e. illnesses that are a cluster of symptoms with no known cause) such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Modern urban life is increasingly stressful. City living is already stressful for us as social primates, because we are crowded in with a lot of strangers. As well as being surrounded by strangers, increasing numbers of people are socially isolated for one reason or another. We don't get enough of the right kind of contact with human beings. Older people in particular may never experience physical contact with another human being except the functional touch of carers (who are also likely to be strangers). Loneliness is epidemic in modern life. For many people social bonds are weak, a vulnerability and a stressor for a social primate.

In modern cities we are hammered by sights, sounds, and smells. Everywhere we go there is noise pollution, visual pollution, air pollution and so on. Teams of psychologists work to tune advertising to grab our attention and manipulate our emotions, often utilising highly sexualised images. News media focus on stories that will elicit the basic emotions of fear, anger, and disgust, making news a stressor. Too many of these stimuli are noxious and trigger our alarm reaction too often. Everything in modern life is designed to cause arousal and this can leave us in a state of hyper-alertness. Or in Selye's terms, leaving us in the state of resistance or exhaustion. The body's natural relaxation response (mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system) is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of arousing stimuli that we meet in a day).

Almost nothing is designed to help us get back to a resting state. Indeed many of us attempt to do this through drugs and alcohol. This is problematic in many ways, but in the case of alcohol, being a poison, it is also a stressor! Clearly the inability to self-regulate emotions and to relax back to a calm resting state is a serious problem in modern urban life. Another way people try to calm down is through eating.

In the UK 24.3% of men and 26.8% of women were obese in 2014 (Public Health England). By 2050 these figures are predicted to be 60% and 50% respectively.Every day I see children being unconsciously being taught to use food as a means of regulating their levels of arousal, i.e. being given food to quiet them down and get them stay calm while strapped into a pushchair. I suspect that this is partly why we see more and more fat people who find dieting almost impossible. They've learned from infancy that eating is a way to regulate emotions, to calm down. And this is true to some extent, the satiation response that comes after eating does relax the body, causing what is sometimes called the postprandial dip. On the other hand, dieting is a powerful stressor, partly in its own right and partly because it removes one of the most effective means people have of calming down. Exercising is also a stressor, at least until one can build up the intensity enough to reap the reward of endogenous opioids,. It may be some time before an obese person can achieve this and in the meantime it's just painful and stressful. So I imagine that the average obese person is caught in a vicious cycle of eating as a first choice aid to deflating arousal and being stressed by the supposed cures for obesity (dieting and exercise).

For those of us who are hyper-stimulated, sleep may become elusive or ineffective. We may wake without feeling refreshed, use coffee of some other stimulant to try to spark ourselves into action and stumble through our days without ever feeling fully awake. Along with depression, anxiety and obesity, insomnia is a major problem in urban populations. Chronic stress leads to all kinds of illness, often with no obvious cause and no consistent aetiology, which thus leaves the medical profession scratching their heads.

If all this external stress were not bad enough, many of us use our imaginations in such a way that our own thoughts become stressors. And this brings us to the problem of rumination.

bovine stomach

The word rumination comes from rumen,a word of uncertain origin. Some animals, often referred to collectively as ruminants, have a multi-compartment stomach and typically eat grass and leaves. Food from the oesophagus goes into the first chamber, or rumen,where it is fermented by microbes to break down cellulose. No animal can digest cellulose, the major constituent of plants, without help from symbiotic microbes living in their gut. After fermentation the wodge of partially digested food, or cud, can be regurgitated to be further chewed. This act of re-chewing food is called "chewing the cud" a characteristic of ruminant animals. When it is re-swallowed it carries on through the alimentary canal.

For obvious reasons this process has been seen as analogous to cogitating on something repeatedly or continually turning a thought over in the mind. And thus we metaphorically call this process rumination. Rumination refers to a particular type of mental process. For example when we turn over a problem and work through it, this is not really rumination. Nor is it rumination if we plan out an event or period of time. The crucial feature of rumination is repeatedly going over the same thoughts, particularly memories of past events. Like a cow chewing its cud - swallowing and regurgitating.

When we recall a memory, the content of it may be impressions from any of our senses: visual, aural, tastes, smells, and tactiles. But along with these images come the associated emotions. When we recall a pleasant meeting with friends, we experience a measure of the joy and happiness that we experienced during the original event. Equally, if we remember some unpleasant event then we will experience the associated emotions, such as fear, anger, or disgust. In other words thoughts and memories can lead to arousal, can be stressors.

Some people are prone to rumination, prone particularly to bringing to mind the unpleasant events of their lives. Events may haunt them. They may endlessly relive past shame, humiliation, fear, or helplessness. And with the memories come the emotions associated with these events. Such memories and emotions are stressors. While an event such as an assault produces very strong emotions, bringing to mind the assault can be almost as intense if the memory is vivid. And though perhaps less intense than the original experience, when we repeatedly bring these events to mind, time and again, one after another, or when they persistently intrude seemingly of their own volition, the repeated stimulation of our alarm reaction can lead to exhaustion.

A related problem is worry. Worry about what might happen in the future can create chronic anxiety. This can sometimes be a problem if our past experience means that we expect our future experience to be stressful. Especially if we have a good imagination, we can create vivid scenarios in imagination that also give rise to emotions and act as stressors. When we allow them to play out repeatedly, they may tax our ability to respond and eventually lead to exhaustion.

Although depression may have other causes, these two routes to depression—through rumination on the past and worry about the future—seem to me to be especially significant. For example the correlation between depression and low serotonin levels is often assumed to be causal in a particular direction: low serotonin causes depression. In fact it may be the other way around, that depression causes low serotonin. The body chemistry of someone suffering from an overload of stressors, from distress, resistance and exhaustion may deplete serotonin leaving the person with low serotonin levels. Even so, serotonin ought not to be seen in isolation because it is involved in a complex, highly interrelated system of internal regulation. If one part of that system is malfunctioning then chances are the rest of the system is also malfunctioning.The relation between neurotransmitters and depression is in fact poorly understood and messing with neurotransmitters always has unpredictable, unintended consequences.

Medications which raise serotonin availability are often seen as the first line of treatment for depression even though there is now serious doubt about their efficacy. The historical non-reporting of negative trials made anti-depressants seem much more effective than they are because when it came time to do review studies they only considered published rather than unpublished results and these were very heavily biased towards positive results. The movement to pre-register all drugs trials and to publish negative results has altered how we see the efficacy of these medicines. When we add in all the trials in which anti-depressant medications had no discernible effect beyond what might be attributed to the placebo effect, then the picture changed. This seems not to have filtered down to the GP level were anti-depressants are still the first line treatment for depression as well as being liberally prescribed off label.

Buddhists often see Buddhism as a panacea for stress,. One prominent translator of Buddhist texts goes so far as to translate dukkha as "stress" making stress the fundamental problem of human existence. So next I want to look at meditation from the point of view of someone suffering from rumination and/or depression.

Depression and Meditation

As well as the symptoms described above, depression often manifests in a distorted inner-dialogue. The depressed person may experience feelings of worthlessness accompanied by self-talk that reinforces this feeling. It may also distort a person's sense of perspective, so that the present seems unrelated to the past or future. One may find it difficult to recall things ever being different or to imagine them getting better. The combination can be unbearable and result in thoughts of suicide, though the suicidal thoughts themselves may be a symptom of depression.

If a person suffering from depression induced by the chronic stress of rumination and/or worry takes up meditation the results can be disastrous. Attempting meditation while being prone to rumination can bring on or exacerbate any problems they may be experiencing. Without considerable experience of dealing with the hindrances the mind simply goes to its well worn habits of rumination and worry. Only now in a more intensive way than usual because meditation encourages us to focus on the object of awareness. Focus on rumination or thoughts of worthlessness or even suicide may lead to acute distress as a result. Going on retreat with this habit is like being in a pressure cooker and can lead to severe acute distress. It's important to begin breaking the habit of ruminating before setting out to do any meditation practice, be it concentration or just awareness based. One needs practice stabilising the mind and dealing with the hindrances or one simply dwells in negative states. Rumination will subvert this practice unless it is addressed directly. Simply trying not to think about something for someone in the habit of ruminating won't work. They will be drawn inexorably back to the same old subject. There is recent research which supports this conclusion.
"The results suggest that, contrary to expectation, strong concentration on the present, perceived as an important and unique time area, by highly neurotic individuals intensifies the negative relationship between neuroticism and self-esteem, satisfaction with life and life engagement." (ScienceDirect pre-pub)
When we add some of the more nihilistic Buddhist doctrines such as non-self or emptiness then we can create real havoc in a person's psyche. Of course such doctrines are not intended as nihilism, but they are so often interpreted and taught nihilistically that they are worse than useless and can be positively dangerous to someone prone to psychological distress. To some people these doctrines say "you are nothing", which is just what their depression-influenced inner-dialogue is telling them.

In a religious context, especially in a Buddhist context, the conversion to and practice of the religion are supposed to cure one of psychological distress. That's what it says on the tin. If someone does the Buddhist practices, but they still get depressed then that threatens to undermine the faith of the rest of the community. It intimates the fragility of some of the claims made by Buddhists. The religious whose faith is threatened by the mere existence of another person can react unpredictably. They may angrily reject the depressed person in a catastrophic way, pushing them out of home or religious community for example.

Another area of confusion is ethics. Buddhists of my acquaintance are both too slack in their own practise of the precepts and too rigid when viewing the practice of others. The result is a kind of lazy hypocritical judgement and criticism of others. The precepts are phrased as personal undertakings, not externally imposed rules. We undertake to practice them, usually because we see mentors exemplifying the practice and being attractive as a result. If we fail to uphold our precepts then this is not an opportunity to put the boot in, for the Buddhist this ought to be seen as an opportunity for offering a helping hand. Someone committed to ethical behaviour is unlikely to suddenly act unskilfully for no reason. In fact it may be the environment the person is in which is undermining their practice, in which case the community ought to be doing some soul searching rather than sitting in judgement. All too often Buddhists use the precepts as a stick to beat someone with or to place an unbearable burden on them. Most of us are at least as likely to be responding to our social environment as acting on some internal motivation. Unfortunately Freud and other Romantics have rather blinded us to our social nature and the importance of environmental factors in determining behaviour.

If we are suffering from stress to the point where it affects our behaviour, then it is deeply unhelpful for our friends and mentors to sit in judgement and criticise our ethics. Of course there may be a need to set limits and boundaries. Simply tolerating destructive behaviours is counter-productive. But there are ways of achieving this without cutting off from the person. The most important thing a community can do is let the suffering person know that they are loved and appreciated. In my experience Buddhists can be quite good around people who are dying or severally physically ill, but they are crap, really crap, at responding to severe psychological distress. Death is something we want to face with grace. It's the ultimate test of our test of our faith. We can feel good about ourselves if we face death with equanimity. Depression and other forms of psychological problem seem to be something we don't want to face at all. Since happiness is said to be the result of being a Buddhist, then a Buddhist suffering from distress is a kind of anathema. The reaction seems to be to pull away and isolate the person, perhaps with a sense of preventing the spread of the negativity contagion. Fear is a common reaction.

The point is that traditional approaches to meditation assume fairly good mental health from the outset. And it's doubtful at best to assume that everyone who signs up for a meditation course at an urban Buddhist Centre is in good mental health. In fact I would say that many people sign up for meditation precisely because they are not in good mental health and have been told that meditation is the cure for what ails them. And that is confusing for everyone involved.


My view is that this kind of problem is widespread. Modern urban life is organised in such a way that many people suffer from hyper-stimulation and chronic, generalised stress reactions. We are constantly being intensely stimulated and don't know how to effectively calm down. In addition many of us develop the vicious habits of rumination or worry which are themselves stressors. We may not have enough resilience or know ways to calm ourselves down. Without acknowledging this, Buddhism as widely taught is unintentionally creating a significant amount of confusion and misery. It is a significant barrier for many people who might otherwise benefit from our practices. And the idealism of Buddhists, who tend to see meditation as a kind of panacea—saving not only individuals, but the cosmos itself—doesn't help matters. For many people attempting meditation does not bring any of the promised benefits and but contrarily introduces new stressors and/or intensifies old ones. We cannot continue to teach as though we are living in pre-modern Asia. Unfortunately the negative changes are ramping up as time goes on and we need to adapt to rapidly changing times.

Fortunately there are a number of auxiliary practices that are also frequently taught alongside Buddhism. I'm thinking of yoga and taichi for example, both of which indirectly enable a person to manage their mental states better by grounding them in the bodily experience (I've praised cultivation of the body previously). But I'm also thinking of what we call mindfulness (in the John Kabat-Zinn sense). With this kind of practice of paying attention to our bodies and our movements we prepare the ground for going deeper by allowing ourself to experience a stable mind. The physicality of bodily awareness often short-circuits rumination and worry. We enable a person who is prone to rumination to stop the vicious cycle and experience themselves anew. Recent research has shown that paying attention to the body increases resilience, where resilience refers to the body's ability to rapidly return to a resting state after encountering a stressor. See for example:To Better Cope With Stress, Listen to Your Body. (New York Times, 13 Jan 2016)

Another task I find helpful is writing. This forms an integral part of my strategy for avoiding rumination and worry. The linear nature of the process of writing about ideas is perfect for preventing the downward spiral of negativity. Always having something to think through that I can switch to if I notice an unhelpful trend building up in my thoughts has been essential to my well-being for over a decade now. I heartily recommend this practice to anyone who is thoughtful, but struggles with rumination or worry. Creative writing may suit other people better. But writing epitomises an approach to moving away from vicious spirals into more virtuous progression.

Knowing, as I do, the pitfalls of rumination and worry, I'm in favour of these auxiliary practices becoming much more prominent in our teaching. My opinion is also that we ought to teach very little theory to beginners and focus on mindfulness practices, particularly related to the body. All one needs to do, initially, is to start paying attention and to note what happens when we do pay attention. Everything should be based on this. Once someone achieves a measure of success in this, then we can move them onto more intensive practices. New techniques should only be introduced on an individual basis, by an experienced mentor, when the practitioner is ready. Indeed I would advocate that everyone be introduced to these practices by a mentor who can function a bit like a sponsor in AA. Someone who is experienced enough to offer guidance, but also sufficiently available for the guidance to be timely. Someone who can take an active interest in that individual's life. As it is I suspect many Buddhists are way ahead of themselves and floundering because the foundations of their practice are not sound. Any theory that we do teach should tie directly into experiences we've already had rather than hypothetical. Buddhists should not be allowed to teach what they do not know from personal experience. We need fewer teachers and more demonstrators. More people who show us what to do, and fewer who can only tell us. 

Simplicity and experience ought to be at the heart of what and how we demonstrate Buddhism. If we much teach "History of Buddhism" we ought to structure our approach to highlight experience and draw people into paying attention to their experience. We should never teach anything that is not part of a coherent program of taking people towards insights into the nature of experience. We must refocus on what Buddhists do rather than what they believe - it's only by doing what we do, that what we believe what happens becomes relevant. And we should be guided by critical scholarship rather than traditional accounts of history. Of course to some extent this horse has already bolted. There are uncounted books describing Buddhism, its history and practices to anyone with the money and time to read. Books that are often simply parrot the traditional stories and/or are misleading. Chances are that new people are showing up at our centres having crammed their heads with useless information about Buddhism that gets in the way of their understanding the Dharma.

I think this means starting from scratch and redesigning Buddhism. Including, I may say, the approach of the Triratna Buddhism Movement. Unlike most religious groups, for example, we use our centres primarily as classrooms. Events are almost always structured with active teachers and passive students. I personally find almost no opportunities to engage. There is almost no opportunity to simply socialise with experienced Buddhists for example. If I could go back, I would do everything differently. If I could advise my younger self, I would be emphasise physical cultivation, mindfulness, and sustaining social connections. Meditation was not what I needed back then. Had I established better foundations, my life might be very different now. The most effective practices I have are not ones that I learned from my Buddhist teachers, but one's I figured out for myself based on wide reading and reflection on my life. It was difficult and took a long time to get this far. And most of the time enlightenment is not at all relevant to my daily practice. I'm working at a very different level. Everyone ought to be aiming to work effectively at the level that they are at, rather than getting caught up in the interminable babble about enlightenment.

So much for my opinions on Buddhism. But make no mistake. Rumination is a serious problem. Having our own thoughts as a constant stressor can have serious health consequences. It can be debilitating. And I don't think it is widely enough understood by those who merely "teach" Buddhism.


Update 25 Jan 2016

“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.” - The Independent

update 24 Jan 2016

In case anyone is in any doubt, please see the UK National Health Service's definition of depression. It's quite important when considering this discussion to have a clear idea of what I mean by the word. And I mean what the Brits call Clinical Depression or what the DSM-IV calls Major Depression. It is a profound disease that manifests in changes to thoughts, emotions, and bodily systems. It represents a powerful perturbation of our homoeostatic systems. And it can be fatal. 

update 23 Jan 2016.

As it happens the day after I published this essay, the Guardian newspaper published one of their regular scare stories, this time about mindfulness. 
Is mindfulness making us ill? It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects. by Dawn Foster (23 Jan 2016)
My view on the UK press is that they thrive of fear, anger, disgust. It's an extreme form of entertainment which is not peculiar to this country, but does exist here in a particularly refined form. They tailor their stories to produce these emotions in their readers - different types of reader respond to different stimuli. One has to take this into account reading newspapers. They will always pitch the information in a way designed to elicit fear, anger, and/or disgust. All the UK papers are extremely unethical in this sense. They fuck you up.

However my attention was also drawn to this article in The Atlantic which comes closer to some of my concerns. 
The Dark Knight of the Soul. For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why. 25 Jun 2014. 
As far as people having psychotic breaks after starting meditation I think this must be read with caution. As I understand it, someone prone to have a psychotic break was going to have one anyway. I've certainly found myself in some extremely painful and distressed states while trying to meditate, especially on retreat, but I don't think meditation is a practice that by itself will cause a psychotic break in someone that was otherwise unlikely to have one. Again The Atlantic is a newspaper.

Readers who find this material rings bells may also like to look at the story of Sally Clay, particularly her story The Wounded Prophet.

If you have a psychiatric diagnosis then meditation may not be for you. You need to work closely with your support people and a mentor who has some experience in mental health. And most meditation teachers have no fucking clue. So be warned.

If you are prone to rumination and/or worry then you really need to address that before taking up meditation and, again, work closely with an experienced mentor. Something I wish I had done. 

I would also add that despite having some very difficult experiences around meditation and particularly retreats, I still think of meditation as an extremely positive and helpful practice on the whole. I see it as essential for the process of awakening (however we interpret that). Everyone needs to have good foundations before they dive into practices that can disrupt their sense of identity and embodiedness.

28 August 2015

Having Seen a Form with the Eye...

If the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) represents the epitome of early Buddhist metaphysics, then what would its counterpart be in terms of practice? After all it is one thing to accurately define the terms of Buddhist practice, to make it clear that we are examining experience and that we are not speculating on the nature of reality, that the proper domain of application of Buddhist thought and training is the world of experience. Most people are familiar with the "meditation" suttas, especially the Ānāpānasati (MN 118) and the Satipaṭṭhāna (MN 10). But is there something between metaphysics and meditation? On one hand I've already explored the Spiral Path texts (Western Buddhist Review) which give a general outline of the Buddhist program in more practical terms, corresponding to the threefold way of sīla, samādhi and paññā. However, I've also noted that sīla or Buddhist ethics seems to defined in different ways at different times (Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism).

My Pali reading group is reading the Cūḷahatthipadopamasuttaṃ (MN 27) which seems to suggest layers of practice of exponentially increasing intensiveness. The broad basis is ethics. Following the precepts establishes the basis for Buddhist practice. Then one practices restraint of the senses to eliminate the hindrances, preparing the mind for meditation., which prepares the mind for insight. 

I can easily be seen how this relates to the Spiral Path teachings. But instead of sīla, samādhi, and paññā we have an extra layer: sīla, saṃvara, samādhi, and paññā. In fact, in the Spiral Path we can see that what I have previous labelled sīla is in fact typically more like saṃvara. This essay is mostly about the saṃvara aspect. However, the hatthipadopama also provides a context that allows us to see, what I previously mistook for two kinds of ethics, as distinct practices of differing intensity.

In the hatthipadopama the practice of saṃvara revolves around the phrase so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā 'having seen form with the eye, he...'. By looking at what ideal practitioners do having seen a form, we get a sense of how the early Buddhists expected a skilled practitioner engages with the practice of saṃvara
so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī. yatvādhikaraṇamenaṃ cakkhundriyaṃ asaṃvutaṃ viharantaṃ abhijjhādomanassā pāpakā akusalā dhammā anvāssaveyyuṃ tassa saṃvarāya paṭipajjati, rakkhati cakkhundriyaṃ, cakkhundriye saṃvaraṃ āpajjati.
Having seen form with the eye, [the ideal disciple] doesn't grasp at signs (nimitta) or at secondary characteristics (anubyañjana). Since dwelling with the eye-faculty unrestrained, mental events (dhammā) of covetousness and grief, evil, unwholesome stream into [their mind], for that reason they practice restraint (saṃvara), they protect the eye-faculty, they undertake restraint with respect to the eye-faculty.
The analysis is repeated for each sensory mode. This passage or a close parallel of it is found through out the four main Nikāyas, e.g.
  • DN i.70, i.270;
  • MN i.180, i.268, i.346, i.355, ii.162, ii.226, iii.2, iii.34, iii.134 (as iii.2, abbreviated),
  • SN iv.104, iv.111, iv.176, iv.178,
  • AN i.113, ii.16, ii.39, ii.152, ii.153, ii.210, iii.99, iii.163, v.206, v.348, v.351
So having seen form with the eye (cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā) the practitioner is not (more literally) "a grasper of signs" (nimitta-ggāhin). The etymology of nimitta is uncertain, though likely related to the verb √ 'to measure'. Generally it means 'a sign or omen'. The latter is an important connotation. However there are several other main senses and most likely here it refers to 'outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute, phenomenon.' From this point of view, the problem apparently is not that we grasp the form itself, but that we grasp the mental image of it. 

The early Buddhists were dismissive of fortune telling and omen reading.† Here the implication is that the experience of a form, the signs by which we know we are having an experience, are like the omens that foretell events. For anyone who is a skeptic the omens are meaningless, at best a coincidence at worse completely unrelated except in the imagination of the credulous. The unawakened treat the nimittas that arise from seeing forms as being like omens. The skilled practitioner sees them for what they are.
† Some years ago now the late Professor David Pingree noticed that the Brahmajāla Sutta contained a list of omens which monks are forbidden to use. See Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism.
This is a very important distinction. It suggests for example, that it's not the money we grasp, when we grasp at wealth, but the mental counterparts of it. In other words it's not the physical act of grasping that is problematic, but the mental concomitants of it: basically the desire for the pleasurable experiences we associate with the act.

The practitioner is also not a grasper of secondary characteristics (anubyañjana-ggāhin). The base word is byañjana or vyañjana, a word that is used for words and letters. Like nimitta, byañjana can refer to a sign or characteristic. With the prefix anu- it means 'accompanying characteristic, secondary attribute. Thus we can take this as relating to papañca (see my two essays on the word and the meaning). Nimitta is the experience of contacting a sense object, where anubyañjana is our internal reflection on, or reaction to, the experience, the experience of having had the sense experience. 

So the practitioner does not grasp at either of these types of experience. Things arise in our sensorium and they pass away. When we allow this process to take it's natural course without imposing our desires and aversions onto it, then we are free. But if we do impose them, then evil, unwholesome thoughts invade out minds, such as desire (abhijjhā) for more pleasure, despondency (domanassā) at the cessation of pleasure or the failure of pleasure to arise. So in order to be free of unwholesome thoughts we protect the sense faculties.

Sometimes this is referred to as indriyesu duttadvara or "guarding the gates of the senses". In turn, as I explored long ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words, appamāda (often translated as 'vigilance' or similar) is also found in this context and etymologically means 'not blind drunk' or in context 'not blind drunk on the objects of the senses'. Which here clearly refers to practising restrain as sense cognitions arise and pass away. Yes, we can also practice wise attention, and not seek out overt stimulation, but the key is what we do with sense experience that arises and passes away.


A similar passage is referred to as saṃvarapadhāna 'striving for restraint' (DN iii.225), and vaṇaṃ paṭicchādetā 'dressing a wound' (MN i.122, AN v.538) or uttariṃ karaṇīyaṃ 'the highest obligation' (MN i.273). Another minor variation (DN iii.269, 291, AN ii.198-9, iii.279, v.30, cf. DN iii.244) puts the above more simply:
Idhāvuso, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā neva sumano hoti na dummano, upekkhako viharati sato sampajāno.
Here, friend, a bhikkhu, seeing form with his eye he is not elated or despondent, he dwells stoical, mindful and attentive.
An important variation for understanding the Buddhist account of suffering and liberation occurs at MN i.266:
So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe byāpajjati, anupaṭṭhitakāyasati ca viharati parittacetaso.
Seeing a form with the eye they are attracted to a pleasing type of form and averse to an unpleasing type of form, they dwell without establishing mindfulness of the body and with an unprotected mind (parittacetaso)
Unsurprisingly this failure to protect the mind sets off a chain reaction which is can be seen as a subset of the twelve nidāna (or the nidānas could be an expansion of this list). And thus they give rise to all the different kinds of disappointment, discontent and suffering (kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo). In some passages (SN iv.119, SN iv.184, iv.189, iv.198) the verb sārajjati is replaced by adhimuccati 'drawn to'. In these passages the contrast is between having guarded doors (guttadvāra) and unguarded (aguttadvāra).

At (MN iii.216, iii.239; AN i.176) the phrase is part of a very differently worded teaching, but still seems to aim at the same approach. The Saḷāyatana-vibhanga Sutta appears to be influenced by Abhidhamma categories of dhammas. It revolves around the idea of manopavicāra 'mental exploration' which Buddhaghosa relates to applied and sustained thought (vitakkavicārā MNA v.20). In the Theravāda Abhidhamma there are 18 kinds of manopavicāra which are based on the 18 dhātus.*
* the 18 dhātus are the six sense objects or external bases (cha bāhirāni āyatanāni); the six sense faculties (indriya) or internal bases (cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni), and the classes of cognition (cha viññāṇakāyā).
The procedure is like this:
Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati.
Seeing a form with the eye they investigate (upavicarati) a form which is a source of misery, or investigate a form which is a source of elation, or investigate a form which is a source of equanimity.
This sutta makes some distinctions. For example there is a contrast at MN iii.219 which asks about the six kinds of equanimity associated with household life. Here a householder having seen form with the eye uppajjati upekkhā bālassa mūḷhassa puthujjanassa... "He gives rise to the equanimity of the foolish infatuated hoi polloi, etc.". This kind of equanimity is of a lesser kind, because it dhammaṃ sā nātivattati "It does not transcend the dhamma." Dhamma here probably means "mental-object", which is how Ñāṇamoḷi & Bodhi translate it. The sutta continues to outline a complex system of practice.

In Practice.

At the end of the section on saṃvara the hatthipadopama says
so iminā ca ariyena sīlakkhandhena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena indriyasaṃvarena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena satisampajaññena samannāgato vivittaṃ senāsanaṃ bhajati araññaṃ rukkhamūlaṃ pabbataṃ kandaraṃ giriguhaṃ susānaṃ vanapatthaṃ abbhokāsaṃ palālapuñjaṃ. 
Endowed with this noble mass of virtue, and possessing this noble restraint of the senses, and possessing this noble mindfulness and attentiveness, he resorts to the wilderness, the foot of a tree, a mountain, a grotto, a mountain cave, a cremation ground, or a pile of straw in a clearing in the jungle. 
And here, of course, he or she sits down and deals with the five hindrances, and having abandoned them (pañca nīvaraṇe pahāya), enters the first jhāna, and so on. In the hatthipadopama, having purified, stabilised and made their mind malleable through jhāna, the practitioner then turns their mind to insight. In this case it is through contemplating the tevijja, i.e. the three mystic skills: the knowledge recollection of former births (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and the knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It seems very likely that the early Buddhists saw this passage as literal: they believed in rebirth and they believed that knowledge of the way that beings were reborn was attainable. But the tevijja is not the only description of Buddhist insight practice and anyone of them could be substituted at this point.

Thus there is a sequence of increasingly intensive practices:

sīla - saṃvara - sati-sampajāna - nīvaraṇe pahāya - jhāna - vipassana

What we can take from this, is that simple ethics is not sufficient to sustain a meditation practice. It is certainly necessary, but in fact we must prepare through a far more rigorous approach to sense experience. This essay has focussed on saṃvara or restraint, but having established saṃvara, there is still some way to go before attempting meditation. One must be mindful, in the sense of paying close attention to ones movements and actions. Certainly hatthipadopama associations sati-samapajāna primarily with awareness of the body. And then one is ready to tackle the hindrances. And it's not simply that the layers follow on from each other in a linear way. Each seems to me to be an order of magnitude more demanding. It's not a simple step from sīla to samādhi. In fact samādhi is several orders of magnitude more intensive than even a quite rigorous practice of sīla.

This gives us the sense that meditation proper is actually quite an advanced practice. We sometimes talk about the necessity for basic ethics in relation to meditation, but we seldom seem to have the approach of exponentially increasing focus leading to concentration. There's a passage from the Upanisā Sutta on the Spiral Path which supplies an image for this kind of progressive approach:
Just as monks, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains and water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies. Having filled the crevices and gullies small lakes are filled, and then the great lakes. The great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up. The small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
The passage is much more common in the Chinese Spiral Path texts found in the Madhyamāgama (see my draft translations), it's attached to almost all of the Chinese Spiral Path texts, not just the counterpart of the Upanisā. This suggests that it struck a chord with early Buddhists in the North. It is trying to say that if one only fulfils (paripūreti) the first stage, then practice overflows into the next. Another Spiral Path text describes this process as natural (dhammatā). Though experience shows that progress still requires continuity of purpose.

To me, Buddhism begins and, more importantly, ends with experience. This kind of approach to increasingly intensive explorations of experience seems particularly significant. It's probably not enough to be generally ethical and to attempt some meditation techniques. The text and it's counterparts suggest that a far more systematic approach is required. And that each layer of practice is more demanding then the previous. When we skip layers we all too often find ourself floundering because we have not done the preparation. 


For some comments on this sequence of increasingly intensive practices and its parallel in Patañjali's Yogasūtra see: The Yoga Sutra: a handbook on Buddhist meditation? 

19 September 2014

Cemetery Practice

The city of Cambridge is old. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1208, but the town dates from centuries earlier. We have the remains of a motte & bailey castle overlooking the town. It was built in 1068 just two years after the Norman conquest. But in fact there are Iron Age settlements in the neighbourhood that are around 3500 years old. This is around the time the earliest Indian texts were composed. Romans and Saxons also lived here at different times. Cambridge was under the Danelaw in the 9th century. 

I grew up in New Zealand where human occupation is thought to have begun ca 1000 CE with the arrival of the first Pacific Islanders, probably from what are now known as the Cook Islands. European's began arriving some centuries later beginning with Abel Tasman from Zeeland, Holland (hence the name), and followed by James Cook from Britain. Most of the evidence of human occupation of New Zealand is only a century or two old. Down the road from me in Cambridge is a church built when the Māori were washing up on the shores of New Zealand. 

In New Zealand we think 100 years is a long time. In Britain we live with much longer roots into the past. But we also have reminders of transiency. Some of the most evocative of these are the various cemeteries dotted around. In Britain each church parish had their own cemetery, though some, like the one I'm going to discuss, were shared between parishes. Many of these are now closed, full of the dead, and are slowly being turned into parks. Even headstones moulder given centuries. I particularly enjoy Mill Rd Cemetery. It's quite large and in a quiet part of town so that one can sit there and have a sense of being isolated from the busyness and business of the city. There are many mature trees and smaller trees, shrubs, brambles (if you will eat berries that grow in a cemetery they are juicy and ripe at this time of year). 

grave markers of that time
are rather ostentatious
Mill Rd Cemetery was consecrated in 1848 and closed in 1949 and thus neatly spans the last century of the British Empire. By 1848 Britain was starting to become seriously wealthy on the back of the Empire, so many of the grave markers from that time are rather ostentatious by today's standards. And yet some stones are now so weathered that the names are unreadable. Acid-rain due to fumes from industry and motorised transport has ablated the sandstone headstones, though marble fairs better. A couple of events of savage vandalism damaged many gravestones. The cemetery is slowly giving way to nature. In fact the management of the cemetery are helping nature out by planting trees.

There are a number of paths through the cemetery. However, after some thought I realised that not all of them are official. Some of them are simply shortcuts that have been worn down by use. In fact in some cases the shortcuts go right over graves. When it rains all the paths flood. If there's a lot of rain people go around the puddles and walk new paths into the grass. Again these frequently go over and across graves with apparently no hesitation. These old graves are not as sacred as new graves, if they are sacred at all. I find this aspect of the cemetery troubling. But then after a few hundred years we treat graves as curiosities to dig up and examine. Where is that line in time?

Another aspect for contemplation is that the cemetery regularly attracts groups of homeless people and/or alcoholics. In dry weather it's a pleasant place to spend time. And often-times people sleep out under the bushes in out of the way places. At one point a regular colony became established. But this is Cambridge and such things are not tolerated here, so they were moved on. Watching these people, whose lives and health are wrecked by drugs, alcohol, or fate, is salutary. I dare not stare for fear of inviting confrontation, but I do think that I could so easily have ended up amongst them. I gave up alcohol more than 20 years ago, before it wrecked my life, but had I waited a little longer it might have done a great deal more damage than it did. Both my grandfathers and at least one of my great-grandfathers were alcoholics. One of my uncles died of an accidental morphine overdose, another was a junky who died from a stab wound to his cirrhotic liver that a healthy man would have survived. There are other addicts in the family. I'm not so different from the dishevelled and unwashed street-people drinking their cheap, ultra-strong beer for breakfast. Having shouted conversations, not comprehending or caring. 

Descendants have
forgotten their ancestors.
But what really strikes me about the graves in Mill Rd Cemetery is that except for one or two, none are tended, kept clear of weeds or offered flowers. Descendants have forgotten their ancestors. And this in a town with more than averagely memorable people. Even holding relatively high office in the town is no guarantee of being remembered. Two or three generations after we die we'll, most of us, be forgotten. We think all the stuff we're doing today is so important. But most of it leaves no lasting impact on the universe. Even if we do manage to pass on our genes, our families forget us. We cease to exist even in memory. History has a very bad memory. Most of what we think of as important today is entirely inconsequential in the long view. All those decisions we agonise over for hours, days and months, they won't be given a moments thought in fifty years. Even if we have kids, our graves will go untended. Our cemetery will eventually be closed and turned into a park. Vandals or acid rain will destroy our modest headstones. People will casually walk over our graves to save a few minutes or avoid a rain-filled puddle.

So the question I find myself asking is this. "What will be my legacy?" OK I've written some books and they are in libraries. But they're printed on acid paper and won't last more than a century. And there were only ever a few dozen copies of each. Perhaps Google will leave this blog to stand for years after I die and stop updating it? Who knows? Maybe they'll start deleting cob-websites after a period of inactivity to save a little bit of money? In fifty years it's not going to matter much. Maybe my academic publications will have a longer life (if I ever get my Heart Sutra material published it might last a century). 

Does it make sense to even think in terms of legacy in this light? And if not legacy, then on what standard do we assess the value of our lives. One can see how life after death holds it's appeal for the majority of people. Or should we adopt the YOLO "live in the moment" maxim? In its hedonistic or contemplative aspects. My experience suggests that moments are only bearable if we know they're going to end. One has to have a longer perspective than just one moment in order for any given moment to be tolerable. In the moment, one is utterly alone. In perspective one is intimately connected. If in the long term we don't make a difference or matter, then perhaps in the short term we matter to the extent we experience our connectivity? Being in a dynamic web of relations is fundamental to being human, perhaps it is the ultimate source of meaning also? 

I don't have answers to these questions and I've become distrustful of people who have easy answers. It seems to me that perhaps contemplating such things is a value in itself without ever coming to an end point. If I ask myself these questions then at least I'm not stumbling blindly through my life with no sense what why I do anything. And one gets the sense that so many people are blind. 

So I continue to visit the cemetery. I sit and enjoy the environment, read, drink ginger beer, watch the people, think about the dead, and wonder about my place in the universe. It's hardly the ancient cremation ground practice, but it seems much better than a church or temple as a place for contemplation (weather permitting).


Pics from Mill Rd, Cemetery.
I enjoy Fentimans and Fever Tree ginger beer. Ginger beer, especially these fairly dry varieties, is a great alternative to alcoholic drinks for those who still like the feel of a bottle in their hand. If more of us drink it, the shops & pubs will stock it. Give it a go.

28 October 2011

Having your Cake and Eating it.

THE IDIOMATIC PROVERB in my title today is one of the strangest in the language I think. It refers to someone who wants everything. The basic idea is that having eaten your cake you no longer have any cake. So you can either have cake, or you can eat cake, but not both. I think Western Buddhists want to both eat their cake, and to have it. We often want both a full conventional life and liberation: to fully participate, and feel comfortable in saṃsāra; and escape from it. We might have a career, a family, a hobby: the "full catastrophe" as Zorba the Greek says. [1] We go to films, listen to music, and surf the Internet. And yes, we eat cake! And we might squeeze in one session of meditation a day around our busy schedule. An hour if we are lucky. And we want to be told that this is OK; that it is sufficient, that liberation is a possibility under these conditions. I've seen people become visibly upset at the mere hint that this is insufficient. But it is insufficient. Though that doesn't make you (or me) a bad person!

By contrast I have a friend who does building work for a couple of months each summer, and uses the proceeds to spend four months on solitary retreat every year, and has done for 12 years. Another colleague is on an open ended retreat that has so far lasted 3 years. Tibetan Buddhist clergy routinely do three year retreats, and have developed facilities for just this purpose. Now if I had to guess at where liberation was likely to occur I would have to say that it would be amongst this second group - the serious practitioners who arrange there life around their practice and not the other way around.

We need to be realistic. There's no shame in leading a lifestyle that is reasonably ethical and wholesome, but which lacks the intensity of practice that might be conducive to liberation. That kind of lifestyle is admirable in many ways, and preferable to an unexamined, hedonistic or vicious life. But it is not realistic to think that a lifestyle which is not conducive to liberation might by a fluke allow us to be liberated. It's pretty unlikely. Liberation seldom spontaneously arises in someone. We may have an insight which turns us around, makes us rearrange our lives, and reorder our priorities, as often happens for instance when a loved one dies; but this kind of spontaneous insight requires nurturing and cultivating if it is to bear fruit. And in a busy life it will be lost quite quickly. It's down to setting up the right conditions.

I was recently leading some study with my Order peers and pointing out that in texts which feature the spiral path or lokuttara paṭicca-samuppāda [2] the stage of ethics is characterised not by following rules and precepts, but by guarding the gates of the senses (indriyesu guttadvāra), wise attention (yoniso manasikāra), non-intoxication with sense objects (appamāda), and restraint (saṃvara). I suggested that this was a far more demanding approach to ethics than we normally take on. These models effectively suggest that we approach ethics as a trial run for the wisdom stages of the path: i.e. disenchantment (nibbidā) and turning away (virāga) which are the conditions for liberation (vimutti). Morality in this case is acting as if we are disenchanted with the delights of the senses, and a deliberate, even mechanical, turning away from them. The texts suggest that the results of these practices are a clear conscience (avippaṭisāra), faith (saddhā) and importantly joy (pamojja). Ayya Khema has said that joy is an essential quality for meditation. With joy we are ready to begin training in and becoming skilled in the jhānas which prepare the mind for seeing through (vipassanā [3]) the delights of the senses.

All this is demanding and to be successful requires considerable persistence and effort, because it goes against our natural inclinations. Frankly, it isn't really consistent with how most of us live or want to live. Therefore it is hardly any surprise that so few of us are confident in jhāna, able to enter jhāna at will, and move easily between the levels. I know people who are, but they are the ones I mentioned above who organise their lives around their meditation practice and dedicate long hours to practice. Of course developing familiarity with jhāna is only a preparation for vipassanā practices. Jhāna can help loosen the grip that intoxication with sense pleasures has on us, but other practices—reflections on the nidānas, on impermanence etc.—are, according to tradition, what set us free of that intoxication permanently.

I'm more focussed on study, on learning and reading Pāli, and on trying to understand Buddhist doctrines and the history of Buddhist ideas. My life, while not given over to vice, is not directed towards prolonged and intense meditation. But I make my contribution to a community of practitioners and help to create the conditions for bodhi to arise in someone; mostly like someone else. And after all it need not be me. Serious meditators do need a support system. As long as I help to set up supportive conditions for those who can make use of them, I feel I'm making a valuable contribution. My colleagues seem to confirm the usefulness of my work, so that's a relief!

We have different temperaments and can't all practice with equal intensity. And many of us come to the Dharma already encumbered with serious responsibilities. We can't both have our cake and eat it. I suggest that we need to think in terms of serving - making cake if you like. Not only serving something greater than ourselves (in my case the Triratna Order) but serving those members of our community who will benefit the most from our support. This in turn, unlike in the financial economy, has a trickle down effect and benefits the entire community, and we might say the entire world (if that is not too grandiose).


  1. The full quote seems to be "Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe." The source is less certain and it may be from the movie Zorba the Greek directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis, rather than the novel Life and Politics of Alexis Zorepa written by Nikos Kazantzakis; though Kazantzakis contributed to the movie screenplay as well. Note that this original version of the idea lacks the kind of positive spin given to it by John Kabat Zin.
  2. My comprehensive list of such texts and examination of them, along with diagrams showing the various links and nodes is here:
  3. Although we usually translate vipassanā as 'insight' in many ways this is a poor choice. The vi- in vipassanā does not indicate seeing inwards, but seeing through, and seeing through is closer to what we are trying to achieve. As I've said before Buddhism is not necessarily about looking inwards, not just navel gazing. Here the vi- is cognate with the Latin 'dia-' as in diaphanous which literally means 'appearing through'. A Latin translation of vipassanā might be diavisionem. We might call a moment of vipassanā a 'diaphany', on the model of epiphany.

03 December 2010

What is Important?

THIS IS MY PARAPHRASE of the Cūḷamālunkya Sutta (M 63) in contemporary idiom and context.

Once there was a man who had been brought up a Christian but gave it up, and then later on became a Buddhist. He did his best to live the spiritual life with help from a Buddhist mentor; he became a vegetarian, gave up drinking and meditated every day. He picked up and started to using the Buddhist jargon. A couple of times a year he went on a retreat for a week. It felt good to belong, the teachings seem to make sense, and he did seem to be happier than before. But some doubts from his religious upbringing continued to plague him, and his pious Buddhism didn't seem to help. He read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, but he just could not decide if God existed or not. The Sunday supplement of his newspaper kept talking about the debate between militant atheists and Christians, not to mention Muslims; he knew he didn't believe in creationism, but wasn't it possible that there was some intelligent designer? And what if there was? He went round in circles trying to reason his way through it, and became completely distracted. Eventually he decided that he had to know the answer to this question before he could carry on with his practice of ethics and meditation.

So he went to see his Buddhist mentor and laid out the problem. Then he said: "My question is this - does God exist or does God not exist? I need to know one way or the other, else I'll never be able to be whole-hearted about my practice. You're a wise person. If you know then just say so, one way or the other. Put me out of my misery or I'll have to go off and find another mentor who does know."

His mentor asked "when you started to learn about ethics and meditation at our Buddhist Centre did we say any about God? Did we promise to say anything about God? Is there anything about God in our literature?"

"Well no," replied the man, "you didn't, and there isn't."

"And when you came to the Buddhist centre, did you originally come to learn about God?"

"No. I came because I was unhappy and a friend told me that meditation would help me. And I liked the people and the vibe, so I hung around. Actually, not talking about God was one of the attractions."

"So, why are you now asking about God?" His mentor asked. "Why is God suddenly relevant?

"Look, the mentor said, "you would wait a long time for me to have anything to say about God. You'd die long before I said anything on that subject. If you are waiting to practice ethics and meditation until you know all about God, then you're like a man who has been shot, and refuses treatment until he knows what kind of gun shot the bullet, and what kind of bullet was used; you want to know the identity of the shooter, his race and religious beliefs, before allowing a surgeon to remove the bullet and save your life. You will die before you can know the answers to your questions. Then what?"

"Whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not God actually exists, there is birth, old-age, sickness and death; there is sorrow and disappointment; there is pain and suffering. Look at how many people believe in God. Has that changed the amount of suffering in the world at all? Has it perhaps even made things worse? Whatever your opinion about God and it wouldn't change the existential situation anyway. You'll still suffer. After many centuries the fact of millions of people believing in God has not changed this. So why get all stirred up about what to believe? What you believe is not as important as how you live, because how you live really makes a difference."

"I can definitely help you with disappointment and suffering. If you want a way to deal with disappointment once and for all, to put an end to sorrow, distress and depression; and to put an end to the constant repetition of pointless lives (presuming that you believe in rebirth) then I do have something useful for you. This method is really helpful, and it leads to greater happiness without any reference to God. There seems no limit to the improvements that you can experience through this method - at least I haven't found any limit yet. This method leads to disentangling yourself from the things that cause the problem; to sobering up from being drunk on sensuous pleasures; to turning your back on that which causes you constant disappointment once and for all. Once you understand why you get disappointed, then the way ahead is fairly clear, though of course it's not always an easy path."

The mentor said all this and the man took it away and mulled things over. After a while he realised that he did not need to know about God, and he was delighted to be relieved of this burden. He got on with his practice, and made progress, and soon forgot all about God.


image of God from

18 June 2010

The Pscyhological Wasteland

waste land
A couple of years ago senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Subhuti, studied the Cetokhila Sutta [1] and was talking about it with other senior order members. Although I did not have the chance to study the text at the time I was intrigued by what I heard, and I have now done my own translation. This translation is also a condensation because there is a huge amount of redundancy and repetition in the Pāli - what I have done is communicate the same message, in the same order, but in succinct English.

There are other translations of this text and in this case I needed to rely on that by Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand parts of it. [2] There are other internet translations, though I think they struggle to communicate the message of the text because they are caught up in the Pāli syntax. 

The Cetokhila Sutta

Thus have I heard. One time the blessed one was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park outside Sāvatthī. There the blessed at one addressed the monks.

There are five psychological wastelands unrenounced, five emotional bindings not cut that make it impossible to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

The five psychological wastelands are: doubting [kaṅkhati] and hesitating [vicikicchati] with respect to, and lack of faith and assurance in the teacher, the doctrine, the spiritual community, and the training; and taking offence, being angry, resentful and sulky towards one's companions in the spiritual life. In the psychological wastelands one's mind is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

The five emotional bindings are uncut passion, desire, love, longing, fever, and thirst for: sensuous pleasure, the body, and form; eating as much as one likes and being given to the pleasures of sleeping, lying about, and laziness; and living the spiritual life aspiring to heaven thinking: 'by this morality, this austerity, this spiritual practice I will become a god or go to heaven.' With these emotional bindings left uncut one's heart is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

For those who renounce the five psychological wastelands, and cut the five emotional bindings it is possible for them to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

This samādhi of intention [chanda] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of vitality [vīriya] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of mind [citta] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of investigation [vīmaṃsā] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. Enthusiasm [ussoḷhi] is the fifth basis for success.

With these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough [abhinibbida], capable of fully understanding [sambodha], capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union [anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigama].

Just as a bird with eight or ten or twelve eggs perfectly sitting on them, incubating them, and brooding them need not wish: "may my chicks, with beak and claw, safely break through their eggshell", because the chicks are well-equipped with beak and claw to pierce their eggshell and break through. So with these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough, capable of fully understanding, capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union.

This is what the blessed one said. The monks were pleased and rejoiced in his words.

This is almost like two suttas mashed together, which appears to go off on a tangent by introducing the samādhi accompanied by effort, though perhaps it made sense to the compilers of the Canon. In my comments, therefore, I want to focus on the part about the psychological wasteland and the emotional binds. Firstly some of the main terms.

Cetokhila: a khila is a patch of barren or fallow land. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi opt to render it 'wilderness'. I thought wasteland was a better fit because the metaphor is not of being lost in a wilderness, but of a place where growth is not possible. Ceto, and cetaso, are more or less the same as citta. Citta can be 'mind' generally; 'mind' as specifically the consciousness that arises in dependence on contact between sense organ and sense object; and it is also a synonym of 'heart' (hadaya) as the seat of the emotions. We usually get landed with either 'heart' or 'mind' because the two are distinct in English. My thought is that psychological covers both emotions and thoughts.

Cetsaso-vinibandha: the word vinibandha means 'bondage'. The plural 'bondages' sounded a little too 'Buddhist Hybrid English' to me, and not natural. Bindings seemed to fit. Here I have chosen 'emotional' to render cetaso because the items included under this heading are more clearly emotional. Although 'heart' is a well worn poetic cliché for emotion, I wanted to be specific and heart is used quite vaguely.

The basic message of the text is that if we don't have faith and confidence in the three jewels, if we are doubtful and unsure, then this is like a wasteland, a patch of barren land. A wasteland is not productive, not somewhere we expect crops to germinate, flourish and ripen; we cannot grow spiritually under these conditions. So this is an agricultural metaphor for a Buddhist life.

Note that the tone of the text changes with respect to our companions in the spiritual life. With the Three Jewels we can be confident that they will never let us down. With respect to other people, other Buddhists, the text does not suggest that we have faith them. It assumes that they will let us down, that they will fall short, and it requires of us that we not harbour ill-will and resentment towards them when they do let us down. We are not to take offence. This is much harder than it sounds because when people do let us down we usually assume the worst, we assume that they hurt us on purpose. We do not see them as conditioned beings responding habitually or unconsciously. So we blame them for their behaviour. In the Christian morality that underlies Western societies blame implies guilt, and guilt demands punishment. In Christianity vengeance is the Lord's province, but in anger Christians often pre-empt Him by harming the person who has offended them and calling this "justice". Similarly Buddhists profess to believe in karma, but are reluctant to allow karma time and space to work, but want to hurt the person who has hurt them. So we unreliable humans are constantly lashing out at each other. It is not a failing of religion, as militant atheists suggest, but a failing of people. Atheists are not less likely to lash out, but only to rationalise their lashing out in different ways.

The emotional bonds that prevent us from making progress draw on a different metaphor. Here passion, desire, etc are chords that tie us in emotional knots. The wasteland is more about aversion, and the bonds are about attraction. The main thing we desire is pleasure. As I have argued before: people mistake pleasure for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of pleasure, which is disastrous for us, for the societies we live in, for humans generally, and for the planet. Despite the abject failure of the pursuit of pleasure to produce positive results we find it difficult to imagine any other way. This was true in the Buddha's day also. One of the most refined and pernicious aspects of this pursuit of pleasure is the idealised heaven. The text pays particular attention to using practice as a means to rebirth in heaven. Many culture's have heavens (even Buddhists) and you can tell a lot about that culture from the heaven they imagine: whether it is perfectly flat surfaces and jewelled trees, numbers of virgins, or a father's uninterrupted attention and love, heaven tends to contain the things that will give a man the most pleasure they can imagine. I say "man" advisedly here, because I think it's clear that 'official' heavens of the big religions were imagined by men. Unlike the Islamic heaven, in both Buddhist and Christian heavens there is no sex, and no sexuality. [3] Make of that what you will.

Perhaps it is the contrast between aversion and attraction that lead to the inclusion of stock phrases on the samādhi's accompanied by effort - which appear to refer to meditation accompanied by the four right efforts. Unravelling this paragraph on its own is next to impossible. Neither the Pāli commentary summary (MA 2.67), nor the longer explanation in the Visuddhimagga it refers you to, are very helpful as they are almost equally cryptic. I only understood it when I chanced on a reference in the notes to Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. [4] This pointed to the Chandasamādhi Sutta (SN 51.13 ) which untangles the long compounds in a way that makes sense. It is interesting that the Chandasamādhi appears to be a commentary on other texts which refer to the four bases for success (iddhipāda). The cryptic phrasing of this part of the text suggests to me a sophisticated intellectual milieu, and a written rather than oral medium. To find a commentary already in the Canon is intriguing.

The last image more or less speaks for itself. If you have faith in the three jewels, are tolerant of you companions, and cut the bindings of pleasure-seeking, and apply yourself to right effort, then you don't need to worry about breaking through. What we do as Buddhists is set up conditions for practice, and get on with practice. Wishing for Enlightenment is only useful to the extent that it gives us what Sangharakshita calls 'continuity of purpose'. We need to keep on committing ourselves, to keep on making the right kind of effort, but if we do that, then we can be confident of making progress. In fact doubt in, and of, this process prevents us from growing.

  1. MN 16, PTS M i.101. A pdf of my translation accompanied by extensive notes is available on my website: The Psychological Wasteland: a Translation of the Cetokhila Sutta.
  2. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. p.194ff.
  3. This is arguable. The Book of Enoch (which may originally have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but survives only in Ethiopian) was originally part of the Canon of both Jews and early Christians, but was excised in the 4th century. In Enoch the sin of the fallen angels was not pride, but lust - they had sex with and fathered children with human women. See for instance: Link, Luther. The Devil : the Archfiend in Art from the 6th to the 16th century. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1995. (see especially pg. 27f)
  4. Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.1939, n.246.

image: lots of copies of this around the net. I copied it from

12 March 2010

The Parable of the Tortoise

tortoiseI present here a translation of the Kummopama Sutta along with Buddhaghosa's commentary. The former is a very tasty teaching on the benefits of guarding the gates of the senses (indriyesu gutta-dvāratā). The latter is not of huge interest, but those who are unfamiliar with the Pāli commentaries may be interested to see the kind of thing that they contain. Often it is simply synonyms, sometimes commentary in the sense of interpretation or exegesis. The commentaries can be invaluable when translating obscure passages.

As far as I know this is the only translation of this text on the web (I offered it to Access to Insight and they didn't want it).

Kummopama Sutta (SN 35.240; PTS: S iv 177)
With the Pāli Commentary from the Saḷāyatanavagga-aṭṭhakathā (SA 3.29)
Once, monks, a tortoise was intent on grazing along the banks of a river in the evening time. At the same time a jackal was also intent on foraging along the river. The tortoise saw the jackal in the distance. Seeing the jackal, the tortoise pulled his head and limbs into his shell, and stayed silent and still. The jackal also saw the tortoise in the distance, and went over to it. He thought: ‘when this tortoise pokes out its head, or one of its limbs I will grab it and pull it out and eat it!’ However the tortoise did not emerge from his shell and the jackal did not get an opportunity. So, becoming bored, the jackal went away. 
In the same way, monks, you should be ready because evil Māra is always waiting. He thinks ‘perhaps my opportunity will come from the eye, or the ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or the mind.’ Therefore, monks, dwell guarding the gates of the senses. Seeing a form with the eye, do not grasp the appearance, nor the associations. Because dwelling with the eye-sense unrestrained leaves you open to attack by covetousness and grief, to wicked, unhelpful mental states. So exercise restraint, protect the eye-sense, and practice restraint of the eye. Similarly having heard a sound with the ear… smelled an odour with the ear… tasted a flavour with the tongue… touched a thing with the body… or experienced a mental state with the mind, do not grasp the appearance, nor the associations. Because dwelling with the senses unrestrained leave you open to attack by covetousness and grief, to wicked, unhelpful mental states. So exercise restraint, protect the senses, and practice restraint of the senses. Therefore, monks, dwell guarding the gates of the senses. Then evil Māra, finding no opportunity, will become bored and leave you, like the jackal left the tortoise. 
The tortoise, limbs in his own shell,
Drawn up. The monk, steady mind,
Not given to oppressing others,
Completely calm, he abuses no-one.


kummo’ is just a synonym for ‘kaccahapo’ [tortoise]. ‘Anunadītīre’ means along the bank of the river. ‘Gocarapasuto’ means ‘if I locate any sort of food, I will eat it’; for the sake of grazing it is intent, eager, always [doing it]’. ‘Samodahitvā’ means ‘having put [it] in something like a box’. ‘Saṅkasāyati’ is ‘sit still’

So this is what is said: "just as the tortoise pulls his limbs into his shell and does not give the jackal an opportunity, and the jackal could not overcome him; so the bhikkhu pulling his turning mind back to the object of meditation does not give the taints or Māra an opportunity, and [Māra] cannot overcome [the monk]."

Samodahaṃ’ means remaining tucked up. ‘Anissito’ refers to not being attached [nissito] to the foundations of craving and views. ‘Aññamaheṭhayāno’ means not oppressing [aviheṭhento] any other person. ‘Parinibbuto’ means the complete calming [parinibbuto] associated with the extinguishing of the taints.’ Nūpavadeyya kañci’ means he should not insult [upavadati] another person, by moral transgression, failure of manners, longing for self-aggrandisement, desire to deceive another – surely having produced five subjective states: ‘I will speak at the proper time, not at an inopportune time, I will naturally not unnaturally, I will speak kindly not harshly, I will speak profitably not uselessly, I will speak with the loving thought, not bearing illwill’ that is how to dwell with a helpful disposition.

My Comments

Clearly the commentary makes better sense when read along with the text in Pāli - which I got from tripiṭ (scroll down to find sutta 240). I have a typed up version with everything linked up by foot notes, but it's a bit complex for this format (it's on my other website as a pdf). The second paragraph which sums up what is being said comes after paragraph one of the text.

In the case of a word like anunadītīre it can be quite helpful to have someone point out how to interpret it. The break down is anu-nadī-tīre: nadī is river, tīre is bank, and anu a preposition meaning 'along'. Nadītīre is a tatpuruṣa compound meaning the bank of the river which is relatively easy, but role of anu- did take a bit of thinking about (I'm still not sure how to describe the construction) and I was glad of the hint.

In the sentence in which the tortoise pulls in his head the sentence is a bit awkwardly phrased. The Pāli goes:
Disvāna soṇḍipañcamāni aṅgāni sake kapāle samodahitvā.
Seeing the jackal, the tortoise pulled his head and limbs into his shell, and stayed silent and still.
The commentary explains the verb samodahitvā. It is a gerund of samodahati which literally means 'to put together'. So the sentence appears to say that the tortoise put together its limbs (aṅgāni) with its head (soṇḍi) as a fifth (pañcama) [i.e. its four limbs and his head] in its shell (kapāle). Buddhaghosa helpfully explains:
Samodahitvāti samugge viya pakkhipitvā.
Samodahitvā’ means ‘having put [it] in something like a box’.
Of course if you haven't seen a tortoise pull it's limb and head into it's shell this might be quite confusing and one might be glad of a little hint. It's much easier to say in English because we have the verb 'to tuck'!

These are relatively trivial examples, but they do give an idea of how the text and commentary work together.


A similar parable is found in the Bhagavadgīta (Bhg 2.56-58):
duḥkheṣv anudvigna-manāḥ sukheṣu vigata-spṛhaḥ |vīta-rāga-bhaya-krodhaḥ sthita-dhīr munir ucyate ||56||
yaḥ sarvatrānabhisnehas tat tat prāpya śubhāśubham |nābhinandati na dveṣṭi tasya prajñā pratiṣṭhitā ||57|| 
yadā saṃharate cāryaṃ kūrmo 'ṅgānīva sarvaśaḥ |
indriyāṇīndriyārthebhyas tasya prajñā pratiṣṭhitā || 58 ||