Journey to the Center of Your Mind

Come along if you care
Come along if you dare
Take a ride to the land
inside of your mind
Beyond the seas of thought
Beyond the realm of what
Across the streams of hopes and dreams
where things are really not

– The Amboy Dukes

Karma, a Sanskrit word meaning “action,” is the collection of potential effects which are said to reside in the inner realms of consciousness and manifest in various ways at various points in the future.

Buddhism teaches that every action has a reaction, and every action imprints a latent influence on one’s life. These actions need not always be physical in nature. Karma is created though thought, words, and deeds. Greed, anger and delusion compound the negative aspects of karma, and all karma is carried over into this life and future lives though consciousness.

Consciousness (vijnana) refers to discerning, comprehending or judgment and is one of the five components or aggregates (skandhas). Early Buddhism defined six consciousness, functions which perceive objects as well as the subject who perceives them. They correspond to the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body and mind, and with sounds, tastes, scents, forms and textures. In short, the senses and everything the senses perceive. The 6th Consciousness (the mind or intellect) integrates the perceptions of the senses into coherent images.

The Abhidharma Pitaka (one of the three “baskets” of the Pali canon) saw the 6th Consciousness or mind-consciousness as the ultimate basis of life. Without going into great detail, it is suffice to say that the Mahayanists felt this did not fully explain how karma transmigrates the cycle of birth and death. Since the working of the six consciousnesses are interrupted from time to time, it is difficult to find a continuing subject that performs cognition. The six Consciousnesses are but the surface of the mind.

The difficulty in regards to karma was resolved somewhat by the Consciousness-only school of Mahayana (aka Yocacara) with the concept of a continuum of sub-consciousness below the surface or conscious level of the mind. This school, systematized largely by Asanga and Vasubandhu, defined two more realms of mind beneath the 6th Consciousness.

7th Consciousness or mano-consciousness:

The word mano comes from manas and originally meant mind, intellect or thought. The 6th Consciousness is limited to thoughts and judgments concerning ordinary, external life matters. The mano-consciousness, however, represents a deeper cognition.

The mano-consciousness is independent from the senses in terms of its functions, yet it bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind. Here is where the delusions concerning the false idea of a “self” originate.

Yet this still did not provide a full accounting for how karma transmigrates or how it continues to operate from past to present to future. Thus, an eighth consciousness was proposed

Eighth Consciousness or alaya-consciousness:

Alaya means “abode’ or “receptacle.”  Actually, the sixth, seventh, and eighth consciousness already existed in Buddhist theory, however, they had never been represented in this manner or in this context before, so it is not a case of the Mahayana philosophers creating them out of thin air.

All of one’s past thoughts, words and deeds are said to be stored in the 8th Consciousness as potential influences. Memories and experiences exist in a form of psychic energy. If that sounds too New Age, then think of them as seeds planted in the soil of the mind that will sprout and exert influence at some future time. Or look at them as imprints or traces of past thoughts, words and deeds etched onto the hard drive of consciousness. Our karmic history is stored in this extremely deep layer of the mind, the 8th Consciousness.

We have certain feelings at one moment but they disappear the next – where, for instance, does happiness go? It returns to the depths of our being. Let’s say we get angry, then after a few minutes the anger seems to leave. Where did it go? A single moment of anger is stored in the alaya or 8th Conciousness, also known as the Storehouse Consciousness.

The concept of an 8th level of consciousness provided an explanation as to how karma is deposited and carried over into future lifetimes. Both positive and negative karma is stored in this consciousness, which led some Buddhists to see it as a battleground of the good and evil forces within life. For that reason, it seems that without another more profound dimension, these forces would be locked in infinite combat.

Ninth Consciousness or amala-consciousness:

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) and Hua-yen (Flower Garland) schools proposed the existence of a 9th layer of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This level of mind lies beyond the level of the Storehouse Consciousness and is said to be free from any karmic influences. In this sense, it is pure consciousness, far beyond any sense of self, of “I”.

In the Shurangama Sutra it reads, “World Honored One, the ground of fruition is Bodhi; nirvana; true suchness; the Buddha-nature; the amala consciousness; the empty treasury of the Thus Come One; the great, perfect mirror-wisdom. But although it is called by these seven names, it is pure and perfect, its substance is durable, like royal vajra, everlasting and indestructible.

[It should be noted that ancient Buddhists did not mean for words like “everlasting” or “indestructible” to be taken literally. For a good explanation of the Buddhist use of what corresponds to the English word “eternal,” see Buddha Nature by Sallie B. King.]

Chih-i, founder of the T’ien-t’ai school, said in the Treatise on the Suvranaprabhasa Sutra (“Enlightened King Sutra”), “The ninth is the Buddha-consciousness.” He taught that if one can tap into this pure consciousness, it is possible to enable the other eight consciousness to function in an enlightened way.

But one cannot reach this level of mind encumbered with a “self”, an ego or soul or “the natural sense of ‘I am’” as this is to be burdened by delusion. The key is to see the self as something that is empty, non-existent in the ultimate analysis, a mere fiction. The self that is a stream of consciousness and transcends the limits of the aggregates of existence is a continuum in which the seeds or imprints of past thoughts, words and deeds (karma) are carried over into future lives, or future life-moments, and based on the accumulation of good or bad karma, we experience the corresponding results. And we do not travel separately within this continuum.

Perhaps you recall this bit of dialogue between Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in John Ford’s film of the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath:

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

I think it’s something like that.

Although I have only mentioned the aggregates or 5 Skandhas in passing, they are nonetheless an important subject. In the Treatise on the Storehouse of the Dharma, Vasubhandu, in the section entitled “Smashing the Self,” talks about eradicating all grasping at self through understanding the emptiness of the 5 Skandhas, the “psycho-physical components” of life.

In The Buddhist Tradition in Chinese Thought, Yao-Yu Wu explains further,

The five skandhas are all psychological processes, non-substantial and impermanent. If we analyze what is called a “person” according to the two aspects of body and mind, this person is constituted of nothing but the mutual continuation and harmonious union of the five skandhas. The ordinary person foolishly grasps at the five skandhas as his self. This is a mistaken notion. The Buddhist Dharma urges men to correct their mistaken notion and do away with ‘grasping at self.”

Because of grasping at self there arise the Three Poisons (greed, anger, and delusion), and the three poisons having arisen, it not only harms oneself, but others as well. For this reason, the Venerable Shakyamuni explained that the five skandhas are all empty, and gave proofs of the principle of anatman or non-self.

We can surrender to the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion, or we can embrace the virtues of compassion, peace, and wisdom. Because karma does mean “action” and indicates volition, we have a free will to determine our fate. We are the captains of the ship on which we cross over the sea of suffering. We are in control. This is why Buddhism is not fatalistic, nihilistic or deterministic. We have the power to do great good for ourselves and others, or we can commit great evil. Which path we take is, in the long run, determined by our state of mind. Buddhism gives us the tool with which to purify our mind, to tap into the pure Buddha consciousness, and change the negative thought patterns and karma into more positive ones. That tool is practice.



A portrait of no-self? Nah, the Invisible Man.

In November 27th’s post, the Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna both stated that the doctrine of no-self (anatman) will sometimes cause fear, with a somewhat extreme example offered by the Dalai Lama of a man shaking when he was given the teaching. In most cases, however, we see that this fear manifests itself as resentment, or obliviousness, and often, as confusion or doubt about the doctrine.

Some who have a hard time grasping this concept are just dealing with inner resistance. With others, it may be a case of not being able to get past what they perceive to be nihilistic aspects. And in other cases, it is simply a matter of poor teaching and/or poor learning.

I think most people who have been exposed to Buddhist teachings understand impermanence and interdependence, at least on some level.  Nearly all Buddhist schools teach about the doctrine of dependent origination. On the other hand, some groups focus on concepts other than the traditional core concepts.

The Soka Gakkai (SGI), for instance, favors such Tendai concepts as esho funi (the oneness of life and environment), shiki shin funi (oneness of body and mind), shobutsu-funi (oneness of living beings and Buddhas), meigo-funi (oneness of delusion and enlightenment), and zen’aku-funi (oneness of good and evil).

Each one of these contains the word funi that, according to the SGI Dictionary, is “an abbreviation of nini-funi, which indicates “two (in phenomena) but not two (in essence).” This points to non-duality, how things may appear to be separate, but are not, instead they are, figuratively speaking, one. It also points to interdependency, the inter-connectedness of things.

These teachings are perfectly valid and illuminating, but in a way, it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without a prior understanding of how the entity of human life fits in the grand scheme of things, it is difficult to have a very deep appreciation of interdependence.

The teachings are there, though. If one looks for them. Ichinen sanzen (three-thousand worlds in a single life-moment) is another way of expressing emptiness and the 10 Worlds and their Mutual Possession is essentially the same as Dependent Origination. Focus on less well-known concepts may be due in part from the SGI’s (and Nichiren traditions in general) desire to set their form of Buddhism apart from the rest of the pack, so to speak. Or it could simply be the Tendai influence. In any case, basic concepts that in most traditions are the starting point, may be obscured.

SGI President Ikeda has on occasion discussed, however briefly, the concept of “no-self”, as in this passage from Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World:

We cannot deny that a sense of “self” or ego is necessary for a fulfilling life, but Buddhism firmly points out that there are considerable dangers in the attachment to the idea of “self” as the whole of all that exists. By contrast, Buddhism teaches that the road to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death lies in our awakening to the far broader life that lies beyond the confines of the finite self.

Here the focus is on the “far broader” aspect of life. The way this is phrased, one might be tempted to think that it is inferring the existence of some sort of super-self that “lies beyond the confines of the finite self.” Yet, those with some understanding of no-self will infer the broader context to be the whole matrix of interdependence.

Language or semantics is the root cause for misunderstandings between Buddhist traditions. Whenever I read criticism, say from someone on the Zen side, toward, say, Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa, it tells me that they have not gotten beyond the appearance of the words to see what’s really there. To me, there is no radical difference between Zen and the Tibetan Gelug school. They’re saying the same thing, just using different words. I could say the same thing about several other traditions as well.

Speaking of semantics, here is an interesting question and answer with the Dalai Lama (from my transcript of teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, UCLA 1997):

Q: When people ask if Buddhists believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

From the Buddhist point of view, ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is not a substance but a stream of consciousness. All that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness, one of which may be a consciousness of those states, but no one of which may be viewed as the true self, something that is permanent, abiding, everlasting. If we think we possess a self that is immortal, to which we should be true, that we must serve and promote, then we are only deceiving ourselves.

Poussin described it in this way: “There is not a self, a permanent substantial unity, but there is a person to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments but which continues . . .” This continuum stretches over an infinite number of existences, bridging an infinite number of births and deaths, without becoming completely different from itself or being conscious of the previous rounds in the cycle.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in the cycle of birth and death or rebirth, the no-self concept is still valid. Instead of an infinite number of existences, think of it as an infinite number of moments. The personality and sense of “I” that we cling to so tightly is not tenable as a permanent entity regardless of whether it’s a matter of one lifetime, or many.

The question that comes up a lot is that if there is no self or soul, then what transmigrates through the cycle of birth and death? The answer is as indicated above, but if it does not seem clear, perhaps that’s because we are not asking the right question. For the majority of Buddhist thinkers of the past, the real question was how is karma carried over into this life and future lives.

The question was resolved by positing this continuum of consciousness. That’s the short answer. I’ll present the long (or longer) answer in tomorrow’s post.


Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna: No-self

Here is the Dalai Lama discussing the doctrine of “no-self” during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997.

When we talk about ignorance, we must know that, to a large extent, it is something that is natural and innate within us and sometimes this naturally flawed way of viewing life can be reinforced by philosophical speculation. So when the Buddhist teaching of anatman (no-self) is taught often it can create a sense of unease within us. Because the grasping for self-existence is so deeply rooted in us, reflection on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatman can create some discomfort. Especially for those in whom this inherent self-grasping is further reinforced by metaphysical speculation – for them the sense of discomfort or unease can be even greater.

I can tell you a story about an Indian from Behar, who later became a Buddhist and part of the monastic order. One day I was teaching to him the doctrine of anatman, no-self, and when I mentioned to him that Buddhism rejects the concept of a soul, the person was literally shaking. So this shows how a genuine reflection on this most basic Buddhist teaching of no-self can go against the deeply embedded ways of viewing the world that we posses.

This is what is meant by verse 26 [of the “Precious Garland”], where it reads, “the teaching of selflessness terrifies the childish./For the wise, it puts an end to fear.”

For the wise, the teaching of selflessness really shows that there is an opening to getting out of this condition of being in an unenlightened state of existence.

In verse 27, it reads that:

All ‘beings’ arise from fixation of self
Such that they (thereby) are fixated on ‘mine’;
This is what has been stated
By the one who speaks solely for the sake of beings.

Given that it is this grasping at the concept of self-existence which gives rise to the unenlightened forms of existence, the Buddha has taught, out of compassion for all sentient beings, the path which would liberate all out of the bondage. The path here refers to the path of no-self.


Thanksgiving with Andie Macdowell and Thich Nhat Hanh

I had another post planned for today, but it is not quite ready, and besides, I forgot that today is Thanksgiving. For those readers outside of the United States, Thanksgiving is the one day that Americans dedicate to overeating and watching a lot of football. It’s not the only day we do this, but it does seem to be the primary focus of the holiday in this modern age. It also officially begins the dreaded Christmas marketing blitz.

Andie Macdowell has nothing to do with this post, but it was either her or a photo of a turkey, and she's more fun to look at.

Thanksgiving has always been about food. In olden times, it was a harvest festival. Of course, the origin of this celebration in the US is said to have occurred at the Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621, when the Pilgrims shared food with the Wampanoag Indian tribe. I don’t believe that turkey was on the menu at that first Thanksgiving, but somehow the bird has become synonymous with the holiday, and many people do refer to today as Turkey Day.

Since eating is such a salient aspect of Thanksgiving, let me present to you five apropos gathas (verses) by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Serving Food

In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.

Looking at the Filled Plate

All living beings are struggling for life. May they all have enough food to eat today.

Just Before Eating

The plate is filled with food. I am aware that each morsel is the fruit of much hard work by those who produced it.

Beginning to Eat

With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.

Finishing the Meal

The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

May you all be happy and well on this and every day.


Blogging and the Joy of Photoshop

Yesterday a reader left a comment that he had scrolled down the posts and saw no comments and “yet I saw lots of work that you have put into this.” Well, I appreciate that. Because I do put some effort into this thing and it is a little disappointing not to have some discussion, which was one of the reasons I started the blog in the first place.

The Endless Further is getting a ton of hits each day. It has stepped up dramatically in the past month. But it’s nothing to get excited about since approximately 60% are from spammers and bots. I suspect the same is true for most blogs, so when you see someone boasting about the massive number of hits he or she has received you might want to take that with a grain of salt.

Interestingly, the number one post so far has been “New HBO Series “All Signs of Death: A Sneak Peek” which had nothing to do with Buddhism, religion or spirituality, but was about scenes from this new series being filmed in my neighborhood. The post featured a photo of someone who was to me an unknown, but he turned out to be Ben Whishaw, a young actor who played Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and who has a million fans worldwide. Some 3 months have passed since it appeared and the post is still getting a score of hits daily, many from Japan where this guy seems to be especially popular.

From time to time, readers contact me privately. Anyone who wishes to do that can go to the “Contact” page. Messages posted there will not be published. Recently, one reader contacted me privately with a question, or perhaps more of a quandary, which I intend to address in the next post.

In the meantime . . . I like to include photos in the posts. I think they add something. I hope they do. Many are photos of the people mentioned in the post, some are news photos, others are “stock” photos available through Microsoft and some other sources, and I have also included my original photos and artwork. On a few occasions, I’ve created or “Photoshopped” a picture especially for a particular post.  Some have turned out better than others and usually it is the time factor that determines the quality.

I don’t know it there is an established term for this sort of thing, however I suppose they could be called “Found Photos,” similar to the idea behind “Found Poetry.” I just call them Photoshopped. So, allow me to indulge myself a bit and present some of my Greatest Photoshopped Hits:

The Three Marx Gurus

A photo of my three principle gurus: Harpo, Groucho and Chico. This is a photo of three Theravadin monks (from Germany, I think) taken in the 1930’s whose faces I replaced with those of the Marx Bros.

(from “The Joy of Marxism”)

Einstein on Desolation Row

Albert Einstein, inspired by the Bob Dylan song.

Now you would not think to look at him but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row . . .

(from “Einstein on Desolation Row”)

SGI President Ikeda
What began as a part-time hobby is now SGI President Ikeda's new mission

I don’t remember where this image came from, but I Photoshopped Ikeda’s head onto it. I can’t say definitively, but I rather doubt he spends his spare time building computers.

(from “Startling Revelation about the Soka Gakkai”)

General Stanley McChrystal
General Stanley McChrystal with two members of his inner staff.

Remember McChrystal? Remember Pinky and The Brain? Two lab mice out to take over the world?

They’re dinky, they’re Pinky and the Brain . . .

(from “Fame and Fortune”)

Killer Cell Phone

Killer cell phone wreaks havoc in Manhattan.

(from “Attack of the Killer Cell Phones”)

Aqua Buddha from Cheapo Comics (1947)

Originally a panel from a Superman comic.

(from “The Truth About Aqua Buddha”)

Lenny Saves

Two different images of Lenny Bruce Photoshopped on a still from the 1967 film Privilege.

(from “Talking Dirty”)

The idea of Buddha Buddha Beer sounds pretty good, but with that mug on the can I don’t think it’s gonna sell.

(from “Rebels Without A Cause, Buddhas Without A Pause”)

By the way, way down in the left hand corner of this page is my copyright notice. That means that everything posted on this blog, with the exception of the stock and news photos, or any that are in the public domain, and attributed quotes is my intellectual property. I’ve seen a couple of my original photos posted on other blogs, and I don’t mind too much, but it is always nice to ask permission first.

See ya tomorrow.