in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Buddha, Selfhood and Identity

I spent yesterday afternoon with the Venerable Ananda Bhante of the Maha Bodhi monastery in Bangalore discussing Western and Buddhist notions of self. The passage below is from my new book 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul' which should be available anytime now. I was keen to check some my ideas expressed there with the Abbot and fortunately he concurred with my analysis. What was remarkable was the way he could recite the 50 conditions of mental activity in the 4th skandha from memory. Sitting with Professor Jose of DVK it was an honour and privilege to discuss these matters. Afterwards as we toured the temple grounds near Bangalore's Freedom Park we saw the novices washing the Buddha and Bodhi tree (planted from a sapling from the great Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya) - I took the photograph above.
After breakfast today I travel to Vidyavanam to spend some days with the monks there.

best wishes


The Purpose of Mindfulness: The Agnostic Self

What then is the purpose of mindfulness in this Buddhist context? Essentially it can be seen as the need to develop freedom from entanglement with things as they seem. Desire, craving and its consequences will create the illusion of ‘self’ and ‘I’ that will further drive craving, desire and unhappiness (Dukkha).[1] The Buddha wrote of the delusion of self resting on our grasping of the five ‘aggregates’ or ‘heaps’ of ‘grasping’ (Pali khandha/ Sanskrit skandha).These aggregates are not to be seen as irreducibly elements of the personality, but rather as ‘the most prominent functions that are involved whenever the human personality is the subject of discussion’ (Kalupahana 1992:21). They are traditionally classed as:

1.    Rūpa – material form

2.    Vedanā- feeling or sensation (that which is pleasant or unpleasant)

3.    Saññā – perceiving/recognition

4.    Sankhārā – disposition or karmic formation/volition

5.    Viññāna – consciousness[2]

The work of mindfulness is therefore the work of awareness of these elements of existence so that the shifting bases of personality will inevitably be revealed. Therefore, through the practice of mindfulness the essentially shifting nature of the self will be revealed (Kalupahana 1992:75). Against this, write the Buddhist commentators (see Kalupahana 1992:40), there are two human tendencies, vis: to essentialise the self (largely speaking the contemporary Western view of personality) or to dissolve the self into nothingness (such as is found in wrong notions of ‘non-self’). For Kalupahana ‘the middle way consists of neither succumbing to essentialism or nihilism. Absolute self negation as well as absolute self cessation are not only morally repugnant but also epistemologically unwarranted’ (Kalupahana 1992:40).

          Mindfulness will accordingly assist us in moving from the grasping illusion of an ‘essential self’ to the flexibility of a de-centred or agnostic self. In the Buddha’s terms we remove our attachment to the aggregates to realise that over-identification with them is the source of delusion:

          He regards feeling as self… perception as self… volitional formations         as self… consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That           consciousness of his changes and alters. With the change and         alteration of consciousness, his consciousness becomes preoccupied       with the change of consciousness. Agitation and a constellation of       mental states born of preoccupation with the change of consciousness       remain obsessing his mind. Because his mind is obsessed, he is        frightened, distressed and anxious, and through clinging becomes       agitated. (BS: 3.16)

          A well taught, noble disciple… regards material form thus: “This is not       mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” He regards feeling thus, “This   is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” He regards formations    thus, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” He regards         what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally        pondered thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”     And this standpoint for views, namely, “That which is the self is the           world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not     subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity” – this too he           regards thus:  “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”       (Alagaddūpama Sutta: 15 in MN: 1.136)

The mistake would be to see the Buddha’s account as a type of ‘non self’. This is as much an illusion as the essentialism of everyday thought, or as Peter Harvey puts it in ‘The Selfless Mind’ (1995), the denial of any kind of self, metaphysical or empirical is ‘quite wrong’ (1996:7). We are therefore left with a sort of agnosticism towards selfhood. Therefore mindfulness as thus portrayed in its Buddhist context is generally seen as that which helps to sharpen our awareness of processes of the mind whilst generally remaining agnostic as to the nature of self in its essence. As the Buddha puts it in the Sabbāsava Sutta, both the view that ‘self exists for me’ and ‘no self exists for me’ are equally delusory:

          This speculative view, bhikkus, is called the thicket of views, the      contortion of views, the wilderness of views, the vacillation of views,     the fetter of views. (MN: 1.8)

With this Buddhist notion of the ‘decentred agnostic self’ revealed through mindfulness before us we now return to Teresa to see how she employs ‘oración mental’ and ‘contemplación’ in her works and whether, if at all, there are parallels with these Buddhist notions of mindfulness.

[1] ‘This delusion is the basis of māna (conceit of 'I am'), one of the samyojanas (fetters) that bind us to the wheel of rebirth.’ Paul Trafford: Note to author, 2012.
[2] See, for example, Mahāpunnama Sutta (MN 109:14) : ‘So it seems material form is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, volitions are not self, consciousness is not self. What self, then, will actions done by non-self affect?’ See also Williams 2000:89 passim for an extended discussion of the later Abhidhamma fine gradations of the five khandha.

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