Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Desires

By Bhante Upananda
(This article first appeared in the Budusarana Newspaper, January 24, 2005, Sri Lanka)

In Buddhism, life could be seen as so many things, one of which is that it is a whole net of desires (tanha-jalini). There is a misconception of Buddhism among many a people that it denies desires. It is the true Buddhist idea of desires that they keep living beings (at this point, human beings) ‘alive’, and that there should be an overall understanding of how far human beings should be desirous of desires. According to Buddha’s explanations on the facets of human mind, people are endlessly desirous of desires. Desires both make us live and destroy our life, and it is owing to this reality that Buddhas appearing in the world from time to time would give the same basic admonition that evil not be done, and good be done. This admonition is further understood as a fourfold strategy of desire-reduction, and on the ultimate level, desire-extirpation, traditionally termed as ‘four energetic efforts’.

It is often asked whether to be desirous of Nirvana is Buddhist, and the answer is it is never un-Buddhist to be that way, since the desire for Nirvana is not a sensual desire but affirm determination to end sensual desires, which are the source of every suffering. Living beings are of the nature of being desire-made and desire-driven. It is rare that the ordinary mind can be away from that nature. Without that nature, we cannot talk about the notion of existence. There only exist the memories of past desire-fulfilments, and present imaginations of such fulfilments in the future,and it is very hard to talk about a truly existing ‘current fulfilment’, except the moment something desirous is now being experienced. Unless otherwise repeated, the desires have no value, since finally they leave no essence for us, and if we can think of an essence, it is only the memories. Owing to this reality, an ordinary person may have no other choice but being constantly occupied with and trapped in a cycle of the same desire-fulfilments. This cycle triggers our getting more and more trapped in the net of desires.

It’s an inherent characteristic of human beings that they tend to behave beyond their limits, and that is why Buddha has stressed the importance of different tendencies, good and bad, by birth, which remain dormant in association of the mental drives of lobha (greed) and alobha (non-greed), dosa (anger) and adosa (non-anger), and moha (delusion) and amoha (non-delusion). Of each of these three pairs the former, which is unwholesome, is much more dominant and
extremely hard to control, and the latter, which is wholesome, gets weakened, unless cultivated and enhanced. Buddha teaches a unique technique of tendency-management, which is meditation (bhavana). Tendency-management is the most integral part of suffering - reduction in Buddhism. Our desires impede our wholesome tendencies, and nurture our unwholesome tendencies, both as a result of our complicated observation of the external world through our sense organs of eyes (cakkhu), ears (sota), nose (ghana), tongue (jivha) and body (skin) (Kaya). 

I have talked to affluent people who have enjoyed almost every worldly comfort in every possible way. After all, they maintain the same perspective on life that it is ‘imperfect’. People are so much after desires, since they need to have a sense of perfection in life, and most of them fail in their journey to worldly perfection. In a way they are not wrong, since there is such worldly perfection,if it’s worldly, then it is not perfect. Pleasure is momentous and therefore is not perfect. Perfection is beyond desires. The true journey to perfection is essentially a continued process of gradual relinquishment of desires. But, it is unique to Buddha’s teaching that it first helps you to embark upon a ‘journey to worldliness’. Unless you see at least your existence, as it appears to be, how can you see it as it really is? First, you awaken yourself to the ‘conventional realities’in life and the world, without which you will find it hard in the true sense of the word to awaken yourself to the ‘true reality’ of life and the world. There is no margin between the two realities, since they have no external or physical forms of them. Upon your enlightenment the mind is transformed into a ‘desire-free’one, which then is used in a totally different way to see your own existence and the world. Whether or not a mind is free from desires makes the distinction between an enlightened person and an unenlightened one. At enlightenment,you see all the conventional realities as bogus. To you even the worldly desires are conceptual and not experiential. If they are at least kind of experiential, then you can at least see through the worldly desires, no point talking about Nirvana,yet.

Because of desires, an average mind gets tangled with desires. The moment something desirous is experienced, it is ‘real’, and with the experience coming to an end, only pleasant memories plus subtle but intense disappointment are left as the result (= essence); the dream of perfection is only tantalizing. Your tantalizing dreams of perfection through sense-desires needs to be practical, practical in the sense that you understand how much more you can achieve with your human capacity rather than how much you need. You have sow basic intellect that you inherited by birth, and you as a person with this intellect in proper application (sapanno puriso) can see ‘inner tangles’ (anto-jata), or complicated mental states, and ‘outer tangles’ (bahi jata), or situations in the external world, both types born of desires. Neither your mind in its basic nature nor the situations in the external but your perspective on yourself and the world is to blame, if necessary.

At nirvana, you desist yourself from desires, as a result, you become ‘tanglefree’.
Being truly desirous is being desirous of the desirelessness. Make your
worldly desire a source of relief, not a source of burden to you. While you continue to enjoy your worldly desires, think of the following insight of Buddha, who has undeniably proved that desires bring you momentous pleasure, and at the same time, same or higher amount of suffering as well, the latter being the core of the former.

“As, a tree cut down begins to grow up again if its roots remain uninjured and firm, even so when the roots of desire remain undestroyed, suffering arises again and again.” (Buddha: Dhammapada 338)

On Discernment

By Bhante Upananda
President, Habitat of Buddha Yoga
(This article first appeared in the Washington Buddhist Vihara Newsletter -Summer 2006)

We are driven by what we believe. Beliefs very often and very easily create dilemmas in our lives. While some believe that fear of an unknown power is the beginning of discernment, Buddhists believe that such fear really is the beginning of delusion. It is a salient characteristic of Buddhist spiritual behavior that in a world where a great many people mistake delusion as discernment, Buddhists would see discernment as discernment, and delusion as delusion; at least, they would strive for this on a regular basis.
Discernment, as clearly explained in the Pali Canon, is undoubted, absolutely clear wisdom. Even a modicum of it is extremely hard to acquire; because even one who seeks discernment for many years, viz. an experienced spiritual practitioner, might mistake delusion as discernment, and so encounter his delusion concretized in the garb of discernment. I know quite a number of well-experienced meditation practitioners in North America who have finally given up seeking discernment. This simple example is not to discourage, but to show a simple reality of the human mind: that even those well on the way to higher levels of discernment are under possible attacks from delusion. In short, one’s achievement of some level of discernment is a matter of continuing effort of  
self-understanding. That is why Buddha’s constant advice to his followers - that they be led by continuing effort till they have achieved enlightenment - is of prime importance to Buddhist spirituality. In a liberal teaching like that of Buddha, one has freedom to go at one’s speed but within the boundaries of spiritual safety.
Today millions of people in North America practice some form of self-understanding in the Buddhist way. Because one does not have to be a Buddhist to practice Buddhism, this trend is growing dramatically. Buddha has stressed throughout his Teaching that one should maintain a ‘middle-ground’ approach to life, whether in spiritual life or in material life, and to one’s surroundings. Buddha’s unique Middle Path Teaching that shows the middle-ground approach is part of the secret behind so many people coming to practice Buddhism, day by day. The middle-ground approach gives an ample chance for self-understanding even for an extremely busy person running multi-million dollar businesses, One can still manage to cultivate discernment. It is marvelous to see people from quite opposite walks of life, billionaires and those poverty stricken, practice discernment according to Buddha’s lesson of the middle-ground approach. A better and specific example is that in rural Sri Lanka, genuinely practicing Buddhist villagers, despite their poverty, would keep their inner-peace, thanks to their discernment in daily life.
Delusion is the arch enemy of discernment. Unfortunately, due to their average human nature, people remain unaware of the ongoing inner struggle between the inner-potential of discernment and the incessantly active inner-power of delusion, both of which are part of the functionality of the mind. To individual people what their consciousness perceives through their eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, viz. sensory perception (SP), is their 
discernment. In almost every case of average human beings, what is perceived is taken in as it is, so that delusion, hiding itself in the dark corners of the mind, subdues the potential of discernment. Then it masquerades as discernment. It is due to this deceptive nature of the mind that one ‘honestly’ feels that one’s belief is right, thereby leaving almost no chance to experience the miraculous potential of discernment from delusion.
Self is constantly nurtured by delusion, and that is why Buddhists watch the arising of feelings in their minds, as an integral part of their acquisition of discernment. They take a break whenever possible at least few times a day, close their eyes and watch their minds. When there is a sweet feeling, they see it as it is - that it is sweet. When there is bitter feeling, they see it as it is. When there is a mixed or bitter-sweet feeling or neutral feeling, they see it as it is. Part of this mind-watching is seeing these sensations as essentially derived from perceptions from the outside world. Buddhist practitioners minimize the risk of being subdued by feelings, as they would not take the feelings as permanent, but arising from causes and conditions. In other words, feelings arise as a result of the inner-fabric of clinging that interconnects the self with the outside world. Therefore, for those who thus watch the mind, delusion has a lesser chance of subduing discernment.
Buddha says the world disputes and debates him, yet he has no dispute or debate with the world (= people). At his enlightenment he totally eradicated delusion, so that, with absolutely pure discernment, he now saw the world as it is, and saw no reason to dispute or debate. Interestingly, Nirvana or enlightenment is called the ‘highest discernment.’ At Nirvana the root of delusion and all projections of it, whether in the garb of discernment.
or in its original form (of delusion), along with wrong notions of self and the world created by delusion, are permanently removed.

Ongoing scholarly arguments revolve on Buddha and his Nirvana. I am saying this not to offend scholars, but to show that even the highest level of sensory knowledge is much lower than the lowest level of discernment. I do not stress the importance of the highest discernment at this point, but say that the Buddhist way of living in the present moment provides some discernment which is impossible through scholarly arguments. A single, successful application of this technique paves the way to the highest discernment by degrees. The simple discernment one gleans from a simple, ten-minute meditation session on breathing is much higher than the worldly knowledge acquired from a thousand books or scholarly arguments or debates. Here, I mean worldly knowledge for purposes of discernment. That simple discernment one receives could not be expressed even by a thousand books. Accordingly, no question would arise as to why the highest discernment of Nirvana is ineffable.

To further explain discernment, it is worth mentioning the popular parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant here. In the limited experience of the individual blind men, the elephant is just like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope; which is not perfect discernment of the object of “elephant”. Each one has seen only a particular facet of the reality of the elephant. Yet, to each of the blind men the ‘single facet of experience’ was perfect discernment, so that they had disputes to prove themselves correct. On the highest level of discernment neither the elephant nor the blind men really exist, but this point may not be relevant here. If one puts together the pieces of experience of the individual blind men in the proper place, one will see the shape of the elephant. The parable is not so applicable, since we have all seen elephants and can easily put together the blind men’s perceptions. What if I just ask you to see that no elephant exists? The parable is too easy for us, and the reality of no elephant at all is too difficult. But do not be elated or crestfallen, apply the middle-ground approach. Do not rush to justify and conclude. Be non-judgmental and continue to watch. Day by day, acquire more facets of discernment by removing more facets of delusion. One single facet of discernment is not complete discernment. Each of us has the potential. 

We have a way to go, which is clear. Never let a doubt ruin enthusiasm as a seeker after discernment. Keeping regular company with Dharma teachers, dialogues, never denying weaknesses but accepting them, reading recommended Dharma books, and a mandatory, everyday practice of mind-watching, lead to greater discernment. Soon, those who follow this path will have adopted a marvelous lifestyle. Become adept in discernment.


By Bhante Upananda
President, Habitat of Buddha Yoga, USA

The concept of Mara occupies an important place in Buddhism. People seem to be more interested in Mara the so-called Deity, even though we oftentimes hear about all the five Maras, Khandha Mara, Kilesa Mara, Abhisankhara Mara, Maccu Mara, and Devaputta Mara.

In Buddhist spiritual practice, we are not concerned with the EXTERNAL MARA, the Deity, but the rest of the four INTERNAL MARAS. To a Buddhist enthusiastic about awakening, the so-called external Mara is of no concern.

Khandha (Sanskrit: Skandha) is our self made of a psychophysical combination, or simply the Mind/Mentality (Pali: Nama), and Body Corporeality (Pali: Rupa); as the mind is again made of five components/abilities: vedana (feeling), sanna (perception), sankhara (karma-creating response to sensory experience), vinnana (consciousness), it becomes five. Our entire self is then Mara-created. Fascinatingly, the power to subdue this Mara nature, which is the “Buddha-potential,” is within our self.

Kilesa (Sanskrit: Klesha) are the defilements/mental impurities that impede our liberation. We continue to nourish this Mara with the best available ‘food,’ viz. evil thoughts, evil bodily actions, and evil speech. Addiction to fast food, computer games, drugs, child pornography, etc. is a smart agent of this Mara. One so addicted tends to detract from one’s normal behavior. 

Abhisankhara (Sanskrit: Abhisanskara) is the karmic energy accumulated and deposited within the subliminal layer of our consciousness, or ‘psycho-microchip’ or “mental continuum” (Pali: Bhavanga-citta). As the karmic energy coexists with the memories within the psycho-microchip, we easily get dogmatized even in spirituality, thereby giving this Mara an ample chance to manipulate us. Unmindful and careless, one can easily have this Mara as one’s Creator, for karma is one’s only Creator strictly in a Buddhist sense. Mindfulness of the reality of here and now is the weapon to fight off this Mara. We tend to forget the karmic data and memories deposited in the mental continuum, whereas this Mara never does.

Maccu (Sanskrit: Mrtyu) is death we die one day. Even though death is part of life, people in general are of a dormant fear from death, therefore, remaining frightened by death. We nurture this Mara, too. A momentous awakening into the ‘khanika marana,’ or “death of the moment” that corresponds to the perpetual change of mind and body, is the way to deal with this Mara. Inability or hesitance to accept the reality of aging and obsession with and worry about the reality of youth long gone paves the way for this Mara to attack us.

Devaputta (Sanskrit: Devaputra) is the so-called external Mara believed to reign the sixth/highest heaven of pleasure, the Paranimmita-Vasavatti. As he lives on the highest plain of sensual please, he is also the Deity of Celestial Pleasure. It is mentioned that he came down with his retinue and struggled to block Siddhartha’s Awakening. As far as his three daughters, Tanha (Desire), Aversion (Arati), Passion (Raga), which are mental tendencies, are concerned, even the Deity Mara could be taken metaphorically. On the other hand, the existence of a Mara as such is possible, for there are living beings, viz. spirits, deities, angels wishing that humans be lustful and evil, so that the former feeds on the negative energy of the latter. Kilesa Mara is the internal agent of external Devaputta Mara. As one fights off the internal one, the external one has no chance to attack one. Siddhartha’s case is the best example. Those who do not believe the external one, can just deal with the internal agent.

As opposed to the internal Maras, the external Mara is the world we are entangled with. To us the world is whatever we see in our average perspective (Pali: dassana).
Buddha, born out of the Mara-oriented world/universe, remains in the world yet untouched by the Mara. People are governed by the Maras, as long as they remain entrapped in illusion. The entire Mara force is an illusion we create through our wrong dassana, or “perspective.”

Yatha-bhuta-nana-dassana, or Perspective of As-It-Is-Ness, is our inborn power to defeat the Maras. Buddha calls it Awakening.

And Siddhartha did that, so that he became the Buddha, the Awakened One. As he ‘woke up,’ his ‘dream,’/’illusion’ due to his clinging to the world of the Mars was gone.

Mara is here and now. So is the Buddha.