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Chapter 3

Clinging to Concepts

Citta, consciousness, experiences something, it experiences an object.  Acharn Sujin reminded us many times during our journey that each citta experiences an object. Citta could not arise if there were no object. The object is one of the conditions for the arising of citta. Without citta, colour, sound and the other sense objects could not appear. We should apply what the Abhidhamma teaches about citta and object to this moment of our daily life. We heard Acharn Sujin say many times that visible object appears now, and that it could not appear if there were no seeing that experiences it. We listen to the Dhamma and we read the texts about the objects experienced through the six doorways, but do we really consider this deeply and apply it to this very moment?

Theoretical knowledge, pariyatti, is a foundation for the understanding of the level of patipatti, practice, that is direct understanding of realities appearing one at a time through the six doorways. Acharn Sujin spoke during our journey about seeing, hearing, the other sense-cognitions and the sense objects time and again, but we found this not monotonous. It is a vivid reminder to begin to investigate those dhammas as they appear in daily life. In this way all we hear and read in the Suttas can become more meaningful, we can come to see that everything that appears is dhamma. Thus, studying dhamma, reality, is studying with mindfulness of what appears at this very moment. The purpose of our study should be understanding of our life at this moment.

This is a new approach to life, to the world. We are used to being infatuated with the world of people and all the things around us without understanding what is really there: nama and rupa that arise because of their appropriate conditions and then fall away immediately. When we perceive people there are in reality different moments of citta: seeing is different from thinking of the meaning of what we see. When we perceive a person or a thing, we pay attention to a mental image of a whole, and we are absorbed in all the details of what is seen. This happens during all our activities in daily life when we, for example, add sugar and milk to our coffee, use knife and fork when we are eating, when we are reading or walking. A mental image of a whole is not a reality, a dhamma, it is a concept, pannatti. The word concept, in Pali pannatti, has different meanings: it is a name or term that conveys a meaning as well as the idea it makes known. Thus, it makes known and also, it is what has been made known. Names can denote persons or things that are not realities, or they can denote realities, such as different namas and rupas. When we have a notion of a “whole”, such as a person or thing, we are thinking of an idea, a concept, not a reality, not a nama or rupa.

When we were in Nalanda, we went to the grounds where the ancient monastic university has been excavated and sat down on the grass for a Dhamma discussion. The Buddha used to stay in Nalanda in Pavarika’s Mango Grove where people from different religious groups visited him to discuss with him. Several centuries later a university was founded in Nalanda that became a famous center of learning for different religious groups. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who lived in the seventh century, became a bright scholar in this university and he stayed in Nalanda for a long time. At that time Buddhism was already disappearing from India. There must have been many debates in Nalanda between different schools of thought. Acharn Sujin mentioned that one should carefully consider different points of view and that one should investigate the scriptures and commentaries in order to understand the subtle points of Dhamma, so that the teachings can be kept free from corruptions. She mentioned that, after her return, there would be a board meeting in Bangkok of the Dhamma Study and Support Foundation to compare different viewpoints and clear up misunderstandings. The goal of such meetings is preserving the purity of the Buddha’s teachings.

In Nalanda we discussed the meaning of nimitta, the Pali term for image or mental picture. She explained that we think of an image on account of what we see, hear, and experience through all the sense-doors.  We pay attention to an image of a whole and we are absorbed in all its details (in Pali: anuvyanjana). When we perceive a rose we think immediately of its shape and form, of an image, a concept; we may not even think of the name “rose”, but when we perceive the shape and form of a rose we are bound to take it for something that really exists.

Each citta is accompanied by the cetasika sanna, perception or remembrance, that remembers or “marks” the object so that it can be recognized later on. The recognition of a thing or a person is the result of many different processes of cittas, each of which is accompanied by sanna performing its function of marking and remembering. We may reason about the way sanna operates and wonder how and when it remembers a past object. This is only thinking, and by thinking we shall not understand realities. When someone found it difficult to understand that sanna marks as well as remembers, she answered that it is difficult to find a term that covers the real meaning of sanna. Acharn Sujin said that we should not cling to terms but understand the characteristics of realities appearing at this moment. The purpose of our study of the Dhamma is detachment, detachment from the idea of self. We can begin to understand, whenever we perceive different things we handle or use in daily life, such as a cup and a saucer or the computer, or whenever we perceive people, that it is not due to a self who remembers but to sanna. Sanna is an important condition for clinging.

When we cling to concepts we misinterprete realities and take them as a unity. We take a compact mass or collection of things as something that exists, such as a table or a chair. We join different objects, such as visible object or tangible object, into a whole but they appear one at a time, through different doorways. What we take for a whole can be resolved by panna into different elements which arise and fall away. We also take different cittas performing their different functions for a “whole”, such as seeing and thinking. We believe that there is a long moment of seeing, that it lasts.

We have to think of concepts so that we can perform our daily activities. Also the Buddha used concepts when he went out on his alms rounds, when he recognized his disciples and spoke to different people. However, he did not cling to concepts and he had no ignorance about them. We should lead our daily life naturally, but we can learn the difference between concepts and realities, dhammas. Acharn Sujin said that when seeing sees visible object, a concept does not arise together with seeing, but after seeing has fallen away, thinking can arise with a concept as object. We pay attention to concepts time and again, but we can learn to develop more understanding of a reality such as visible object appearing right now. We can learn to understand it as only a dhamma, not a person or thing that exists. Gradually we can know the difference between what is real and what is not real in the ultimate sense. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (IV, Salayattana vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, § 78, Radha, 3):

Then the venerable Radha came to the Exalted One... Seated at one side the venerable Radha said to the Exalted One: -

“Well for me, lord, if the Exalted One would teach me a teaching in brief, hearing which I might dwell remote and earnest, ardent and aspiring.”
“What is non-self, Radha, -for that you must abandon desire. And what is non-self, Radha? The eye... visible objects... eye-consciousness... eye-contact... that pleasant or unpleasant or indifferent feeling, which arises owing to eye-contact. What is non-self, you must abandon desire for that. Tongue... body... mind... mental objects... mind-consciousness... mind-contact... you must abandon desire for all that.”
Time and again the Buddha spoke about realities appearing through the six doorways so that people could develop understanding of their true nature of impermanence and anatta. Usually we live in the world of concepts and stories about life, but when understanding of dhammas such as seeing, visible object or feeling has been developed more, the concept of the whole world, a person, a body, can be broken down, resolved into elements. Then we learn that what we find so important are only insignificant dhammas that arise and fall away, which are non-self. When we read a Sutta about dhammas appearing through the six doorways we can be reminded to deeply consider its meaning: seeing, hearing or feeling appear time and again, even now. They are realities each with their own distinct nature and characteristic.  The Buddha said that one must abandon desire for all realities. Understanding, panna, is associated with a level of detachment: the development of panna leads to detachment from the idea of self and eventually from all realities.

In India I had a conversation about concepts with Acharn Sujin:

Nina: We forget to develop understanding of realities when we read the newspaper. We are absorbed in the news about events that occur such as wars.

Sujin: We take the stories for reality but actually they are contained in one moment of thinking. We can develop understanding of realities, no matter where we are, whatever event occurs.

Nina: We have accumulated so much forgetfulness of realities.

Sujin: We should listen to the Dhamma, consider it and develop more understanding.

On other occasions we spoke about fear we may have on account of the truth of non-self:

Sujin: The world appears dark and lonely without people. There are no family, no friends. There is nobody in this room.

Nina: Where is the gladness on account of the Dhamma?

Sujin: There can be gladness on account of panna that knows the truth. You cannot change the characteristics of realities that make up the world. They are only elements. One should be very sincere as to one’s own development of understanding. When someone is frightened it shows that panna has not sufficiently been developed. When he realizes this, he should be courageous to continue developing panna. The concept of self is deeply rooted.

She also reminded me:
“There is no Lodewijk, there is just our own world of thinking, thinking of Lodewijk. When we were born we were alone. When seeing, we are alone, there is just citta that sees. We are alone because there is no self. Seeing arises and then thinking of the world of concepts and this hides the reality of seeing, visible object and the other realities.”

Each citta that falls away conditions the arising of next one, this is one of the many conditions for citta: anantara-paccaya, contiguity condition. Our life is an unbroken series of cittas, otherwise we could not stay alive. Cittas arise and fall away extremely fast. We see only what appears through the eyes, but it seems that we see and immediately know that this or that person is there, this or that thing, and that we also at the same time have like or dislike of what we see. In reality there are countless moments of cittas succeeding one another. The fact that many impressions seem to occur all at the same time shows that cittas arise and fall away, succeeding one another extremely fast.

Cittas arise in succession, without a pause in between, and therefore, good and bad qualities, kusala cetasikas and akusala cetasikas, can be accumulated from moment to moment, from one life to the next life. Attachment, aversion, loving kindness or understanding can be accumulated so that there are conditions for their arising again and again.

Three akusala cetasikas are roots, hetus, and these are: attachment, lobha, aversion or hate, dosa, and ignorance, moha. Akusala cittas can be rooted in attachment, in aversion or in ignorance, but the hetu that is ignorance accompanies each akusala citta. Thus, ignorance of realities conditions all akusala that arises. Besides the three akusala hetus, several other akusala cetasikas may accompany akusala citta such as wrong view, stinginess or conceit. There are three beautiful roots, sobhana hetus: non-attachment, alobha, non-aversion, adosa and wisdom or panna. Alobha and adosa accompany each kusala citta and panna may or may not accompany kusala citta. Besides the three sobhana hetus several other sobhana cetasikas accompany kusala citta, such as confidence in wholesomeness and mindfulness.

Cittas such as seeing or hearing arise within a series or process of cittas. When seeing experiences visible object, it arises in a process of cittas experiencing visible object through the eye-door, they are eye-door process cittas. Seeing does not like or dislike, it is not wholesome, kusala, nor unwholesome, akusala; it is citta that is result of kamma, of a wholesome or unwholesome deed performed in the past. Seeing is vipakacitta, citta that is result.

Thus, seeing arises when the right conditions are present, and the rupas which condition it are eyesense and colour or visible object. What occurs at this moment? Shouldn't we verify realities at this moment? There is seeing now, but no self who sees. Can we make seeing arise? It has arisen already because of conditions. Do we really consider and investigate this? We have to see, we have to hear, because there are conditions, no “I” who can cause their arising. If we do not consider this again and again we cannot understand the meaning of anatta.

Seeing is not the only citta arising in the eye-door process, there are other cittas that also experience visible object but perform each their own function. After seeing has fallen away, there are several more types of cittas and then kusala cittas or akusala cittas arise experiencing visible object in a wholesome or unwholesome way. When the sense-door process has ended a mind-door process of cittas arise that experience visible object. After that there may be other mind-door processes of cittas thinking of concepts.

When we experience a sense object through one of the sense-doors we often react with attachment, lobha, when the object is pleasant, and with aversion, dosa, when the object is unpleasant. Let us consider our daily life. When we experience a disgusting odour, aversion can arise even before it is known what kind of odour it is. When a delicious morsel of food is on the tongue, attachment can arise even before knowing what kind of flavour it is. When we are sitting on a soft chair, the rupa that is softness may appear through the bodysense and attachment arises already, but we may not even realize that there is attachment. This may happen just now while we are sitting. Many moments of akusala cittas arise but we do not even notice them. Cittas arise extremely fast, it seems that many impressions occur all at the same time. But there are different realities each with their own characteristic. We should verify this so that we can understand, at least in theory, the rapidity of the cittas arising and falling away in processes, cittas which have no owner and cannot be controlled. They have the characteristic of non-self, anatta. We don't have to do anything special to cause the arising of lobha or dosa, they arise already because of their own conditions. After odour or flavour is experienced during the sense-door process it is experienced through the mind-door, and again there can be aversion or attachment. It is still not known what kind of odour or flavour it is. That is known afterwards in other mind-door processes which experience concepts.

We can think of concepts with kusala citta or with akusala citta, but usually we think with akusala citta. When the objective of the cittas that think is not generosity, dana, morality, sila or mental development, bhavana, they are akusala cittas. There is no person who is good or bad, wholesomeness and unwholesomeness are particular cetasikas arising because of conditions that perform their functions in a wholesome way or in an unwholesome way. When we act, speak and think we can gradually find out that usually akusala cittas motivate deeds, speech and thinking. When we are stretching out our hands to take hold of things, when we walk or speak, cittas with attachment, lobha, are bound to arise. We like to speak, we speak with attachment or conceit. There are many degrees of akusala, they can be coarse or more subtle. Also when we do not hurt others there may be akusala cittas, but we do not notice them. Even when we consider the Dhamma, there can be clinging to the idea of self who wishes to make progress in understanding.

The Buddha spoke to the monks about sila, morality, under the aspect of restraint of the sense faculties (indriya samvara sila) by mindfulness of realities that are experienced through the six doors. At such moments one is not overwhelmed by defilements that may arise on account of what one experiences. The “Visuddhimagga” (I, 42) quotes from the “Middle Length Sayings” (I, 27, Lesser Discourse on the Elephant’s Footprint), explaining the virtue of restraint of the sense faculties as follows:

... On seeing a visible object with the eye, he apprehends neither the sign (nimitta) nor the particulars (anubyanjana) through which, if he left the eye faculty unguarded, evil and unprofitable states of covetousness and grief might invade him, he enters upon the way of its restraint, he guards the eye faculty, undertakes the restraint of the eye faculty. On hearing a sound with the ear... On smelling an odour with the nose... On tasting a flavour with the tongue... On touching a tangible object with the body... On cognizing a mental object with the mind, he apprehends neither the signs nor the particulars through which, if he left the mind faculty unguarded, evil and unprofitable states of covetousness and grief might invade him, he enters upon the way of its restraint, he guards the mind faculty, undertakes the restraint of the mind faculty...
We read in the ‘Visuddhimagga” (I, 54): “Apprehends neither the signs”: he does not apprehend the sign (nimitta) of woman or man, or any sign that is a basis for defilement such as the sign of beauty, etc.: he stops at what is merely seen. “Nor the particulars” (anubyanjana): he does not apprehend any aspect classed as hand, foot, smile, laughter, talk, looking ahead, looking aside, etc., which has acquired the name “particular” because of its particularizing defilements, because of its making them manifest themselves. He only apprehends what is really there...

Further on the “Visuddhimagga” (I,56) explains: “He enters upon the way of its restraint: he enters upon the way of closing that eye faculty by the door-panel of mindfulness.”

Understanding of realities should be naturally developed, we should not force ourselves to ignore concepts and try to know realities such as seeing or hearing. When we are listening to music we may try to know the reality that is just sound, different from the concept of a whole, of a melody, but this is not the way to develop right understanding naturally. Then there would be attachment that obstructs the development of panna. Direct understanding of a characteristic of a reality is already developed panna, and how can we expect to have developed panna in the beginning?