In both Buddhism and neuroscience, the concepts of brain, mind, and consciousness play vital roles in understanding human existence and awareness. While Buddhism offers a philosophical and spiritual perspective, neuroscience approaches these concepts from a scientific and empirical standpoint.
This article aims to explore how Buddhism explains the brain, mind, and consciousness, provide clear examples, explain the differences between these concepts, and highlight the importance of understanding them. We will also touch upon the perspective of neuroscience to provide a comparative analysis.
The Buddhist Perspective:
Buddhism views the brain, mind, and consciousness as interconnected elements shaping human experience and reality. According to Buddhist teachings, the mind is the primary factor of one’s experiences and perceptions, while consciousness serves as the underlying foundation of awareness.
In Buddhism, the brain is considered a physical organ responsible for processing sensory information and generating mental states. It is similar to a computer processor that receives inputs from the environment, processes them, and produces corresponding outputs. While the brain is crucial for cognitive functions, Buddhism emphasises that the mind’s activities are not solely dependent on the brain.
The mind is often referred to as “citta” and encompasses thoughts, emotions, and mental processes. It is not limited to the physical brain and extends beyond it. It is considered to be an ever-changing stream of mental phenomena rather than a fixed, permanent entity. The mind is seen as a dynamic process that arises and ceases due to various causes and conditions. It is believed to be the driving force behind actions and the creator of one’s subjective reality.
Imagine observing a beautiful sunset. The brain receives visual stimuli, processes them, and generates neural activity. Simultaneously, the mind perceives the sunset, experiences awe or tranquillity, and generates corresponding feelings and thoughts. Buddhism emphasises that the mind’s experience of the sunset goes beyond mere neural processes and involves subjective interpretation and emotional engagement.
Buddhism recognises different levels or aspects of mind. One of the fundamental teachings is the distinction between conceptual mind and nonconceptual mind. The conceptual mind is characterised by ignorance, attachment, and suffering, while the nonconceptual mind is free from delusion and is characterised by wisdom, compassion, and liberation.
One important aspect of the Buddhist understanding of mind is the concept of non-self or the emptiness of self. According to Buddhism, there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul that exists independently. Instead, the mind and all mental phenomena are seen as impermanent and devoid of inherent selfhood. This understanding challenges the notion of a fixed, enduring self and is a key aspect of the Buddhist teachings on liberation from suffering.
It’s important to note that the concept of mind in Buddhism is vast and multifaceted, and different Buddhist traditions may have variations in their understanding and terminology. However, the fundamental idea of the mind as a dynamic, ever-changing process and the exploration of its nature as a means to liberation are common threads across Buddhist teachings.
The concept of consciousness is complex and multifaceted, and it is often discussed in relation to the theory of mind and the nature of human existence. The Buddhist understanding of consciousness is different from the conventional Western understanding.
According to Buddhist teachings, consciousness refers to a continuum of mental states or experiences that arise and cease in each moment. It is not considered as an eternal, unchanging entity or a self. Instead, consciousness is seen as a dynamic process without a fixed essence.
Buddhism recognizes the concept of “dependent origination” or “dependent arising,” which explains the interdependent nature of all phenomena, including consciousness. According to this doctrine, consciousness arises dependently on the presence of various conditions, such as sensory organs, sense objects, and mental processes.
Buddhist philosophy also asserts that consciousness is impermanent, constantly changing, and devoid of inherent existence or self-nature. It arises and passes away in a continuous stream of moments, influenced by causes and conditions. This understanding aligns with the broader Buddhist concept of impermanence and the absence of a permanent, unchanging self.
Moreover, Buddhism emphasizes the cultivation of mindfulness and insight meditation as a means to gain direct experiential insight into the nature of consciousness and reality. Through meditation and contemplation, practitioners aim to develop a deep understanding of the transient and conditioned nature of consciousness, leading to insights that can liberate them from suffering and delusion.
The Importance of Understanding Brain, Mind, and Consciousness:
Understanding the interplay between brain, mind, and consciousness holds significant implications for personal well-being, spiritual development, and the alleviation of suffering. Buddhism emphasises the importance of comprehending these concepts for the following reasons:
Self-Awareness and Liberation:
By understanding the nature of the mind and its connection to consciousness, individuals can cultivate self-awareness and gain insights into the causes of suffering. Buddhism teaches that recognising the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of the mind and consciousness leads to liberation from attachment, craving, and suffering.
Understanding the mind’s role in shaping thoughts, emotions, and actions enables individuals to cultivate ethical behaviour. By recognising the impact of their mental states on their actions and the interconnectedness of all beings, individuals can promote compassion, empathy, and a sense of responsibility towards others.
Neuroscience, as a scientific field, seeks to understand the brain, mind, and consciousness through empirical research, brain imaging techniques, and neurobiological studies. While neuroscience focuses on the physical aspects of these phenomena, it provides valuable insights that complement the Buddhist perspective.
From a neuroscience standpoint, the brain is a complex organ composed of neurons and intricate neural networks. It is responsible for processing sensory information, regulating bodily functions, and generating cognitive processes. Neuroscientific research has revealed the brain’s role in shaping emotions, memories, and behaviour.
Neuroscience recognises the mind as the subjective experience and mental processes that arise from the brain’s activities. It acknowledges that the mind emerges as a result of neural processes and interactions within the brain. Cognitive neuroscience investigates how neural networks give rise to mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making.
Through brain imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers can observe the brain’s activity while individuals engage in various mental tasks. These studies provide insights into how different brain regions are involved in specific cognitive functions, giving rise to the mind’s experiences. But what it is unable to do is to see exactly what the person is thinking.
Neuroscience approaches consciousness as the state of awareness and subjective experience. Although the exact nature of consciousness remains a topic of ongoing research and debate, neuroscientists study the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) to understand the relationship between brain activity and conscious states.
Research on NCC has identified brain areas associated with specific conscious experiences, such as visual perception or self-awareness. By studying patients with brain injuries or disorders, scientists can explore how alterations in brain function affect consciousness.
While Buddhism and neuroscience approach the brain, mind, and consciousness from different perspectives, there are areas of convergence between the two.
Buddhism provides a holistic and philosophical viewpoint, focusing on the subjective experience, the nature of suffering, and the path to liberation. It emphasises the role of mental states, emotions, and consciousness in shaping human existence. Neuroscience, on the other hand, offers empirical evidence and neurobiological explanations for the processes underlying the mind and consciousness.
Both Buddhism and neuroscience acknowledge the dynamic and interconnected nature of brain, mind, and consciousness. They recognise that mental processes arise from neural activities, and subjective experiences emerge from the interplay between the brain and the external world. Both perspectives highlight the impermanent and ever-changing nature of these phenomena.
To gain a deeper understanding of brain, mind, and consciousness, a synthesis of Buddhist insights and neuroscientific findings can be beneficial. Integrating contemplative practices and mindfulness-based interventions with neuroscience research allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind and its potential for transformation.
In conclusion, Buddhism and neuroscience provide distinct yet complementary perspectives on the brain, mind, and consciousness. Buddhism emphasises the subjective experience, the role of the mind in shaping reality, and the path to liberation from suffering. Neuroscience focuses on the physical aspects of these phenomena, investigating the brain’s neural processes and their relationship to consciousness. By integrating these perspectives, we can develop a more holistic understanding of human existence, cultivate self-awareness, and explore the potential for personal growth and well-being.
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Buddhism, originating in ancient India, has traversed continents and centuries, touching the lives of millions. As it spread to the West, it underwent adaptations to resonate with the Western mindset. One such adaptation that gained popularity is Secular Buddhism. In this article, I want to explore the essence of Secular Buddhism, its distinctions from traditional Buddhism, and the reasons behind, what I think, is its appeal to Westerners.
Secular Buddhism is a contemporary movement that seeks to distil the core teachings of Buddhism, while shedding some of its religious and metaphysical elements. It embraces a humanistic approach, emphasising the practical application of Buddhist principles in everyday life. By focusing on the universal truths of human suffering and the pursuit of happiness, Secular Buddhism aims to make Buddhist teachings accessible to people of various religious backgrounds or those that have no religion at all.
Before I go on, I should declare an interest here. I am western and spent many years studying traditional Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. I then spend several more years trying to separate what I believed to be Buddha’s teachings from what I saw as cultural embellishments. This led me to start teaching Buddhism in a more secular way. I defiantly would not class myself as a traditional Buddhist but would not say I was fully secular either. For me Buddhism is not about rituals and dogma, in fact, I don’t think it is a religion at all, it is a path of practice. Teaching in a secular way helps me make Buddha’s teachings relevant to today’s world. If the teachings aren’t relevant and practical, they aren’t of any use. That’s just my personal opinion, for what it’s worth.
Now, back to the purpose of this article. Let’s look at some differences between traditional and secular Buddhism.
Secular Interpretation: Secular Buddhism places a strong emphasis on rationality and critical thinking, which I believe Buddha was emphasising in his teachings. It encourages practitioners to interpret Buddhist teachings in light of scientific knowledge and contemporary understanding, rather than relying solely on traditional beliefs and dogmas. Non-religious Nature: Unlike traditional Buddhism, Secular Buddhism does not require adherence to supernatural concepts such as rebirth or karma. It allows individuals to engage with Buddhism on a philosophical, psychological, or ethical level, without subscribing to religious rituals or supernatural beliefs. It encourages the practice side of Buddhism rather than the ritual. It doesn’t say karma and rebirth are untrue, it simple keeps an open mind.
Ethical Focus: While traditional Buddhism encompasses a broad range of practices, including devotional rituals and monastic discipline, Secular Buddhism places primary importance on ethical conduct, mindfulness, and meditation. It emphasises the cultivation of compassion, wisdom, and personal well-being as central aspects of the path.
Cultural Adaptation: Secular Buddhism recognises the need for contextual adaptation as it encounters diverse cultural backgrounds. It encourages practitioners to explore the teachings of Buddhism in a way that aligns with their own cultural values and social norms. So, why is secular Buddhism so attractive to Westerners? Here are some reasons I feel are relevant.
Compatibility with Western Thought: Secular Buddhism harmonises with the Western tradition of philosophical inquiry and scientific exploration. By emphasising humanistic values, critical thinking, and personal agency, it resonates with the intellectual frameworks prevalent in Western life.
Psychological and Emotional Well-being: Humans often experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and existential dilemmas. Secular Buddhism offers practical tools, such as mindfulness and meditation to address these challenges. Its focus on self-awareness, acceptance, and compassion provides a framework for psychological growth and emotional well-being.
Individual Autonomy: Secular Buddhism empowers individuals to explore and adapt Buddhist teachings according to their own needs and aspirations. It encourages personal agency, allowing practitioners to integrate Buddhist principles into their lives without constraints imposed by religious dogma or institutional authority.
Emphasis on Ethics and Social Justice: Secular Buddhism highlights the ethical dimensions of Buddhist teachings, urging practitioners to cultivate compassion and engage in social responsibility. This resonates with Western sensibilities, aligning with the values of equality, justice, and environmental sustainability.
Interfaith Dialogue: Secular Buddhism offers a bridge for interfaith dialogue, as it transcends religious boundaries and welcomes people from diverse backgrounds. It encourages mutual understanding and collaboration between Buddhist practitioners, atheists, agnostics, and individuals from other religious traditions.
Secular Buddhism represents a dynamic and evolving approach to the ancient wisdom of Buddhism. By stripping away the religious trappings and embracing a more humanistic and pragmatic perspective, it has become an attractive path for many Westerners seeking spiritual fulfilment and personal growth. The compatibility of Secular Buddhism with Western thought, its emphasis on psychological well-being, individual autonomy, ethics, and social justice, and its ability to foster interfaith dialogue are some of the reasons behind its appeal.
Secular Buddhism serves as a bridge between Eastern wisdom and Western minds, allowing individuals to engage with Buddha’s teachings without the need for religious conversion or dogmatic adherence. It offers a practical and accessible approach to incorporating Buddhist
principles into one’s daily life, helping individuals navigate the challenges of modern existence.
However, it is important to note that Secular Buddhism is not without its critics. Some argue that it dilutes the depth and richness of traditional Buddhist teachings, and that removing the religious and metaphysical elements can diminish the transformative potential of the practice. Others express concern that secularisation may lead to a superficial understanding of Buddhism, focusing solely on self-improvement rather than the deeper spiritual aspects.
Nonetheless, Secular Buddhism has undoubtedly made Buddhism more accessible and relevant to the Western world. It has sparked conversations and dialogue, encouraging individuals to explore their own beliefs, values, and paths to self-discovery. By adapting to the cultural context and addressing the needs of Westerners, Secular Buddhism has become a dynamic and evolving movement that continues to attract a growing number of practitioners.
In a nutshell, Secular Buddhism represents an evolution of Buddhist thought that resonates with the Western mindset. By emphasising rationality, ethics, mindfulness, and personal well-being, it offers a practical and adaptable approach to the timeless wisdom of Buddhism. While it may differ from traditional Buddhism in certain aspects, it provides a valuable entry point for Westerners seeking to explore Buddha’s teachings and integrate them into their lives. Ultimately, the appeal of Secular Buddhism lies in its ability to provide guidance and insight on the path to self-discovery, inner peace, and compassionate living in the modern world.
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The Buddhist concept of emptiness refers to the idea that all things lack intrinsic or inherent existence. It is a way of understanding the nature of reality and the way in which things come into being. By recognising the emptiness of all things, we can let go of our attachment to fixed identities and concepts, leading to greater freedom and compassion.
The concept of emptiness is probably the most difficult to understand in Buddhism. It is also one of the most misunderstood, and so in this article I will explore the concept of emptiness and its practical implications for our lives.
What is emptiness?
The concept of emptiness is a central Buddhist teaching. At its core, emptiness refers to the idea that all things lack intrinsic or inherent existence. This means that everything in the world, and that includes ourselves, is empty of any unchanging, permanent essence. If things had their own inherent nature, it would mean they are permanent and have an unchanging nature. It would also mean they arose without a cause and are completely indestructible.
It is often misunderstood as nihilistic or negative. However, emptiness does not mean that things do not exist or that the world is meaningless. Rather, it is a way of understanding the nature of reality and the way in which things come into being.
If we are trying to understand emptiness, it is helpful to first reflect on the concept of dependent origination. According to this concept, everything in the world arises in dependence upon other things. Nothing exists independently or in isolation. All things are interconnected and interdependent. This concept is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism that explains the nature of existence and the causes of suffering.
Buddha taught that all things are conditioned by other things, and nothing exists independently or in isolation. Every phenomenon arises due to a complex web of causes and conditions, which themselves arise due to other causes and conditions. This chain of causation is known as the “twelve links of dependent origination.”
The twelve links begin with ignorance, which leads to actions and choices, which in turn lead to consciousness, and so on through birth, old age, and death. Each link in the chain is dependent on the previous link, and the entire chain perpetuates the cycle of existence.
The Buddha taught that being delusional about the way life really is causes us to suffer, and that by understanding the chain of dependent origination, one can break free from the cycle of suffering and attain liberation or freedom from a deluded mind. By understanding the causes and conditions that lead to suffering, one can begin to uproot the underlying delusion and cultivate wisdom, which leads to the alleviation of suffering.
In a nutshell, dependent origination teaches that everything is impermanent, constantly changing, and interconnected. It invites us to investigate the nature of reality and to see things as they truly are, rather than as we imagine them to be. Investigating dependent origination helps us to develop an awareness of the causes and conditions that lead to suffering, and cultivate the wisdom necessary to attain ultimate freedom, which is not an external freedom but a freedom from the delusional projections of the mind.
So, emptiness is the recognition that this interconnectedness and interdependence means that everything lacks inherent existence. All things are dependent upon other things for their existence and identity. This means that everything is impermanent, constantly changing, and ultimately insubstantial.
Emptiness can also lead to greater compassion and interconnectedness. When we recognise the emptiness of all things, we can see that everything is interconnected and interdependent. This can lead to a greater sense of compassion for others, as we recognise that their experiences are also impermanent and constantly changing.
Practical examples of emptiness
Understanding emptiness is not just an intellectual exercise, so let’s consider some practical examples. Take a table, for instance. We might think of a table as a solid, stable object with a fixed identity. However, when we examine the table more closely, we see that it is made up of various parts, such as legs, a top, and screws or nails. These parts are themselves made up of smaller parts, and so on.
Furthermore, the table is dependent upon other things for its existence. It is made from wood, which comes from trees that rely on sunlight, water, and soil for their growth. The table was also created by a carpenter, who used tools and materials that were themselves created by other people and processes.
In other words, the table is not a fixed, permanent object. It is a temporary arrangement of parts that is dependent upon other things for its existence. The table is empty of intrinsic nature.
Emptiness can also be applied to a car by recognising that it is composed of many different parts, such as the engine, wheels, and body. These parts are not inherently a car in and of themselves, but rather they come together to create the appearance of a car. In other words, the car is empty of car-ness, or a self-nature that makes it inherently a car.
Furthermore, the car is also impermanent and subject to change. It is constantly undergoing wear and tear, and eventually, it will break down and cease to exist as a car.
By recognising the emptiness of a car, we can begin to see it as simply a temporary phenomenon that arises due to various causes and conditions.
So, understanding that all phenomena are empty, or have no intrinsic nature, can help us let go of our attachment to material possessions and develop a greater sense of equanimity.
Benefits of understanding emptiness
Understanding the Buddhist concept of emptiness can offer a range of benefits in our lives, both on a personal and social level. Here are some of the main benefits:
1.Freedom from suffering: According to Buddhist teachings, the root of suffering is attachment to things that are impermanent and constantly changing. By recognising the emptiness of all things, we can let go of our attachment to fixed identities and concepts. This can lead to greater freedom and a reduction in our suffering.
2. Compassion and interconnectedness: When we recognise the emptiness of all things, we can see that everything is interconnected and interdependent. This can lead to a greater sense of compassion for others, as we recognise that their experiences are also impermanent and constantly changing.
3. Wisdom and insight: The recognition of emptiness can lead to greater wisdom and insight into the nature of reality. It can help us to see things as they really are, rather than being caught up in our own limited perceptions and concepts.
4. Reduced conflict: Many of the conflicts in our world arise from a sense of fixed identities and concepts, such as nationalistic or religious identities. By recognising the emptiness of these identities, we can reduce our attachment to them and become more open to others.
5. Environmental awareness: The recognition of emptiness can also lead to greater awareness of our interconnectedness with the natural world. By identifying that everything is interdependent and impermanent, we can become more mindful of our impact on the environment and work towards greater sustainability.
So, understanding the concept of emptiness can offer a range of benefits in our lives, including greater freedom from suffering, compassion for others, wisdom and insight, reduced conflict, and environmental awareness. It can help us to see things as they really are and become more mindful and compassionate beings.
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You do not have to study Buddha’s teachings for very long to understand that the very heart of his teachings centre around the mind. Sometimes the essence of his teachings is reduced to three points:
If you cannot help, at least do not harm them;
And calm your mind.
These three points form a graded sequence of steps that leads you from an external practice to the essential internal practice. If we want to reduce our suffering, we cannot do it just by knowledge and meditation alone. We need to live a responsible life by understanding that we do not live in a vacuum and our actions influence others, as their actions have an effect on us. We should look upon Buddha’s teachings as a bird. On one wing there is ethics, and on the other there is the calming of our mind. The bird cannot fly with just one wing and, likewise, we cannot reduce our suffering with only one part of the teachings.
This is what Buddha said to his monks in the Vatthupama Sutra regarding defilements of the mind:
Why is a simile of a soiled piece of cloth used in this discourse? It is because the cloth is naturally pure, so it is possible to remove the dirt by washing it, as it is not permanently stained by the dirt. The same can be said for our mind. The defilements have not permanently stained our mind; they have just temporarily polluted it. The defilements can be cleansed, but as with cleaning the cloth, it will take effort on our part. However, before we can start cleansing our minds we have to first understand that our minds are defiled, as Buddha stated in the Pabhassara Sutra:
Before I talk about what the defilements are I must point out that we are not trying to stop the defilements from arising; I believe this is not possible, or even desirable. We are also not trying to repress them either, as that again will not be desirable. What we are aiming at here is being aware of the defilements when they arise and having a strategy to deal with them. I will talk more on this later.
Depending on what book you are reading, defilements can range from three to one hundred and eight. The three defilements are known as the base defilements and are clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness—the three poisons. What I want to go through here are the ten defilements. These form the basis for all the other defilements.
Briefly, the ten are:
Clinging desire—holding on to sensual objects, thinking they are going to bring us permanent happiness.
Anger or aversion—getting thoughts of hatred towards others and discriminating against certain people and material things.
Unawareness—not understanding the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions.
Conceit—believing yourself to be better than others.
Wrong views—thinking things are permanent, there is a solid and lasting self, and believing whatever you do will not have any consequences.
Doubt—when something does not seem to agree with your experiences.
Torpor—inactivity resulting from lethargy and lack of vigour or energy.
Restlessness—when your mind is hopping about like a demented frog and cannot settle on anything.
Shamelessness—behaviour marked by a bold defiance of what is considered right and proper.
Recklessness—the trait of giving little thought to danger towards yourself or others.
The defilements arise in our mind and, if we want to reduce our suffering, we need to focus our work on the mind. As these unhelpful mental states run beneath the surface of our stream of consciousness, we have to exert sustained effort to be aware of them when they start to arise.
The process of becoming aware of the defilements starts with self-understanding, and we can do this in a daily reflection session. Before we can work on the defilements, we must first learn to know them, to notice them at work penetrating and influencing our day-to-day thoughts and lives. In today’s world we strive for instant results, but this is not possible with the defilements. It takes patience, time, and perseverance. We have to systematically understand each defilement, what the consequences of them are, and then work out a strategy where we can let them be without engaging with them. Luckily, there are antidotes for each of the defilements and I have listed some below, but it has to be noted that different things will work for different people. So, this is just a list of suggestions.
Clinging desire—see that everything is impermanent and so our happiness with the sense object is not going to last. If we love someone and we get attached to them, when they want to move on, we suffer. Just enjoy your time with the person while you can but understand that one day it will come to an end.
Anger or aversion—when we let anger and aversion arise they lead us into inappropriate speech and action. We must understand that in these states of mind nobody wins. It is better to walk away or not let yourself get involved in the situation.
Unawareness—we have to study and reflect so that we understand the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions. It is no good just intellectually knowing these three key concepts; we must reflect on them, so they become a part of our lives.
Conceit—if we believe ourselves to be better than others, we are going to lack compassion as we will not care for what others think or feel. We are actually denying others their opinions because we believe our opinions are more valid. We will also not be making ourselves very popular as conceit is not a good trait to have. So, listen to others with an open mind and welcome their point of view. This way we will not become conceited.
Wrong views—First, if we see things as permanent we will suffer when they change. So, understand that all things are impermanent. Second, if we think we have a solid and permanent self, we will waste our time and money on pampering it and trying to reinforce this sense of self. This will make us suffer when we become old or sick. See that this body is just a vehicle to carry us through this life. It is made up of innumerable parts and so is impermanent. Whatever we experience in this world is not through a sold self, but through the five aggregates, which are form, feeling, conception, action and consciousness. Finally, we need to see that any action we take is going to have a consequence. This will steer us towards helpful actions and away from harmful ones.
Doubt—this can really eat at us if we do not resolve it satisfactorily. When doubt arises ask questions, reflect on it, look in books or on the Internet for answers, whatever is best for you; don’t just leave it, as it will grow and eventually become a real obstacle.
Torpor—when we allow this to take hold we become lazy and cannot be bothered with anything. If you start to feel like this, take a walk, splash cold water on your face, have a break. Again, it is for you to see what works best, but do not just follow the torpor or you will end up a couch potato.
Restlessness—usually we get restless when our minds are stuck in the past or drifting off to the future. It may be caused by stress or anxiety. The best thing to do is a breathing or body scan meditation. This will relax you and bring you back to the present.
Shamelessness—this behaviour shows that you really do not care for yourself. It could be that you have low self-confidence or have reached a low point in your life. If you leave this unchecked it could lead to an addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, and even may land you in prison. You need to look at the cause of these feelings of self-worth. You may need to seek professional help, such as a therapist.
Recklessness—when our thoughts are of a reckless nature, our actions will also be of the same nature. This is dangerous for you and those around you. As with the defilement above, you really need to find the root cause of this behaviour. Having compassion for others will help here, as you will be able to see that your actions may bring harm to them.
During a daily reflection practice, look at a situation where a defilement arose. See what caused the situation to arise. After a while you will begin to see patterns emerge. Certain defilements associate themselves with certain situations. Armed with this information, you will be able to apply the appropriate antidote. What we are aiming at is to be able to spot the defilements when they arise and deal with them. As I said before, we are not ever going to stop them, and we shouldn’t try to repress them. Just spot them and apply the antidote.
If we are not aware of the defilements, they will arise and we will unwittingly follow them. Remember what I have spoken about all the way through this series on the Mangala Sutra: first we think and then we act. Keeping this in mind is the key to reducing our suffering.
In this blog, we will be looking at the Buddhist concept of nonself. This is a difficult subject for many of us to grasp because we have invested so much time and effort into building and reinforcing a sense of self. However, Buddha stated that what we call a self is just a coming together of different parts.
A woman goes to the woods to meditate. Whilst she is there her mind gets distracted and these questions arise:
By whom was this being created?
Where is the living being’s maker?
Where has the living being originated?
Where does the living being cease?
These are questions we all grapple with at some time in our lives. However, she doesn’t get distracted by these thoughts and thinks to herself:
‘This is purely a pile of fabrications. Here no living being can be pinned down. Just as when, with an assemblage of parts, there’s the word car, even so when aggregates are present, there’s the convention of a being’.
The questions are presupposing there is a self, but that is just a fabrication. Some people think we are our thoughts, but thoughts come and go, so we are not our thoughts. Others believe we are our bodies, but scientists tell us that millions of cells in our body are renewed every minute, so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Our bodies are changing, so we can’t be our bodies. So, who are we?
No lasting, permanent self can be pinned down because we are just a collection of parts, much the same as a car. When various parts are assembled, we label it a car, and the same for us. When all the parts come together, we call it a self. As this self is compounded it follows that it is impermanent, and so it will come together, remain for a period of time and finally die.
We have to be careful here that we don’t misunderstand what is being said. Buddha was not saying there is no self or there is a self. The question of there being a self or not is just a ‘thicket of views’, and one should avoid such ways of thinking. This isn’t because he couldn’t answer the question, but that it had no bearing on easing our suffering. These types of questions get us confused and may lead us down the wrong path, such as nihilism or eternalism.
The reason for this teaching was to stop us clinging to a self, because that clinging or attachment will lead to conceit, which will in turn lead to us suffering. He taught three different types of conceit we have to be aware of:
Thinking we are better than others, which causes the seven types of pride: pride of ego clinging, simple pride (thinking you are special), pride of thinking we are better/greater than others, pride of pride (thinking you are the best in the group), pride of thinking we are only slightly inferior to an outstanding person, perverted pride (when we are proud of something that is not good), and blatant arrogance.
Thinking we are worse than others, which leads to envy or resentment.
Thinking we are the same as others, which can lead to us being complacent.
So, the next question that may come to mind is, ‘If there is not a permanent and solid self, how do we experience the world?’ I see, hear, smell and so on, how is that possible? I have a family, friends, and job, so if there is no self, who has all these things? These are all fair questions.
Buddha stated the way we experience the world is through five aggregates. The five aggregates come together through a series of causes and effects, and then we experience the world around us. When the five disperse, we stop experiencing the world—in short, we die. What are these aggregates?
They are form, feeling, conception, mental formation and consciousness.
Form includes our bodies and the material objects that we encounter. This aggregate includes both internal and external matter. It is the only aggregate that represents material things. The remaining four aggregates represent mental phenomena.
Feelings are divided into three parts: pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant. These experiences can be mental or physical. There are six kinds of experience, five physical and one mental. These experiences arise when your eyes come into contact with objects, your ears with sound, nose with smell, tongue with taste, body with tangibles and mind with thoughts and ideas.
Conception is where we attach a name to the experience and categorise it by shape, colour, location, sex and so on. We pick up concepts from our parents, friends, society, teachers. and other social groups. It should be noted that our whole world is built on concepts, judgements, and ideas, and not on objectively existing realities, as is commonly believed.
Mental formation is where we respond to an object of experience. It can stem from an impression created from previous actions, which makes us respond in a certain way. These responses have moral consequences as they can make us act in a skilful, neutral, or unskilful way. We can also decide, when we are being mindful, to act in a new and different way.
The final aggregate is consciousness. This is where we get an awareness of an object. If an eye comes into contact with a visible object, the eye consciousness will become associated with the object and visual consciousness will arise. If the nose comes into contact with a smell, the nose consciousness will become associated with the smell and the olfactory consciousness will arise. The same goes for the remaining four consciousnesses.
So, let’s put this all together. Your eyes see a form. Your consciousness becomes aware of it. Your conception identifies it. A pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feeling arises. Your mental formation makes you respond to it with a conditioned reaction. This is how the five aggregates work together to give us a personal experience.
If you are walking down the street and a car passes you – this is form. Your eye consciousness becomes aware of the form – this is consciousness. As you know what a car looks like you will identify it as such – this is conception. If you like the car, a pleasant feeling will arise. If you dislike it, an unpleasant feeling arises. If you don’t care one way or another, a neutral feeling will arise – this is the feeling aggregate. Finally, our mental formation will make us act in a certain way, depending on if we like, dislike or don’t care about the car.
You should keep in mind that these aggregates do not constitute a self; they are just the way we experience the world. Buddha explained it this way:
‘…any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: “This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.”’
And the same goes for the other four aggregates.
These aggregates are compounded and so are impermanent and ever changing, so how can they constitute a self?
Nonself means there is no permanent, solid self. We come into being through a series of causes, conditions and effects, and we experience the world through the coming together of the five aggregates. These five aggregates also come into being through causes, conditions and effects, so they are impermanent and ever changing. In the Kalakarama Sutra prologue it states this about the aggregates:
Form is like a mass of foam,
And feeling—but an airy bubble.
Conception is like a mirage,
And mental formations a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic-show,
A juggler’s trick entire…
As impermanence, which was written about in the last blog post, and nonself are such important subjects, and since they can help reduce our suffering if we understand them, we should constantly contemplate them and try to implement their wisdom into our lives.