Letters from Nina
by Nina van Gorkom
I wrote letters about the Buddha's teaching from different parts of the world where my husband and I were posted. My letters are comments and answers to questions I received pertaining to problems which arise when we deal with other people, when we have sad experiences such as separation from those who are dear to us, as well as questions pertaining to the development of calm and of insight. I do not personally know all people I am writing to, but because of our common interest in the Dhamma it is as if I have met them all. Ms. Charupan Phengsrithong collected ten of my letters and translated them into Thai.
When we are occupied with our work and have a busy social life we may be inclined to think that we have no time to read the scriptures and consider what the Buddha taught. However, through correspondence about the Dhamma we can be stimulated to study more, read the scriptures, ponder over them and share with others what we learnt. In the scriptures we find an innumerable amount of advice for the solving of problems in daily life as well as reminders to practise the Dhamma in our conduct through body and speech.
I receive questions and remarks about lack of progress in the development of satipatthana. Progress is bound to be slow and at times we may be impatient. When we are wishing for a quick result of the practice we forget that it is the present moment which should be known as it is: only a nama or rupa, not self. When I, in my letters, quote from the scriptures I am reminding myself as well as others that it is urgent to be aware of realities such as seeing, visible object or thinking which appear now. There is so much to be learnt about the most common realities, ignorance is deeply rooted. At the moment of awareness of a reality there is no clinging to result, no thought of "my progress". The goal of the practice is to lessen the importance of self, but we keep on forgetting this. Through exchange of letters about the Dhamma we can be encouraged to persevere with the development of right understanding.
I wish to acknowledge my deepest respect and gratefulness to Ms. Sujin Boriharnwanaket who gave me great assistance in the understanding of the Buddhas teachings and their application, so that I could begin to walk the Path he taught. I also wish to express my apprecation to Ms. Charupan Phengsrithong who took great trouble in translating my letters into Thai.
I also want to mention that part of the 9th letter and the 4th letter were printed by the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka as Bodhi Leaves no. B 112. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi gave his kind permission to use elsewhere what had been printed before by the B. P. S.
I shall give an explanation and summary of some notions and terms of the Buddhist teachings in order to help those who are not familiar with them.
Before we learnt about the Buddhist teachings we were used to thinking of a person or self who exists, of "our mind" and "our body", but the Buddha taught that there is no person, no self. What we used to take for a person are only mental phenomena or nama and physical phenomena or rupa which arise and then fall away. Nama experiences an object, whereas rupa does not know anything. Nama and rupa are absolute realities or ultimate realities, paramattha dhammas. Paramattha dhammas have each their own characteristic, their own function, and they are true for everybody. Seeing, for example, is nama, it experiences visible object. It has its own characteristic which cannot be changed: seeing is always seeing, for everybody, no matter how we name it. The names of ultimate realities can be changed but their characteristics are unalterable. Person, animal or tree are real in conventional sense, they are concepts we can think of, but they are not ultimate realities.
Citta or moment of consciousness is nama, it experiences an object. Different cittas experience objects through the six doorways of the senses and the mind. Seeing is a citta experiencing visible object or colour through the eyesense, and hearing is another type of citta experiencing sound through the earsense. Cittas are variegated: some cittas are wholesome, kusala, some are unwholesome, akusala, and some are neither kusala nor akusala. There is one citta arising at a time, but each citta is accompanied by several mental factors, cetasikas, which each perform their own function while they assist the citta in cognizing the object. Some cetasikas such as feeling (vedana) or remembrance (sanna), accompany each citta, whereas other types of cetasikas accompany only particular types of citta. Attachment, lobha, aversion, dosa, and ignorance, moha, are akusala cetasikas which accompany only akusala cittas. These cetasikas are called roots, because they are the foundation of the akusala citta. There are akusala cittas rooted in ignorance, moha, and attachment, lobha, and these are called lobha-mula-cittas (cittas rooted in lobha). There are akusala cittas rooted in moha and aversion, dosa, and these are called dosa-mula-cittas (cittas rooted in aversion). There are cittas rooted in only moha, and these are called moha-mula-cittas. Non-attachment, alobha, non-aversion, adosa, and wisdom, amoha or pa, are sobhana cetasikas, beautiful cetasikas, which can accompany only sobhana cittas. They are roots which are sobhana.
Citta and cetasika, which are both mental phenomena, nama, arise because of their appropriate conditions. Wholesome qualities and unwholesome qualities which arose in the past can condition the arising of such qualities at present. Since our life is an unbroken series of cittas, succeeding one another, wholesome qualities and unwholesome qualities can be accumulated from one moment to the next moment, and thus there are conditions for their arising at the present time.
Some cittas are results of akusala kamma and kusala kamma, they are vipakacittas. Kamma is intention or volition. Unwholesome volition can motivate an unwholesome deed which can bring an unpleasant result later on, and wholesome volition can motivate a wholesome deed which can bring a pleasant result later on. Akusala kamma and kusala kamma are accumulated from one moment of citta to the next moment, and thus they can produce results later on. Kamma produces result in the form of rebirth-consciousness, or, in the course of life, in the form of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and body-consciousness which is the experience of tangible object through the bodysense. These vipakacittas experience pleasant objects or unpleasant objects, depending on the kamma which produces them.
Cittas which experience objects through the six doors arise in a process of cittas. When, for example, hearing arises, it occurs within a series or process of cittas, all of which experience sound. Only hearing-consciousness hears, but the other cittas within that process, which is called the ear-door process, perform each their own function. Hearing-consciousness is vipakacitta, it merely hears the sound, it neither likes it nor dislikes it. After hearing-consciousness has fallen away there are, within that process, akusala cittas or kusala cittas which experience the sound with unwholesomeness or with wholesomeness. These cittas are called javana cittas; they perform within the process the function of javana or "running through the object". The javana cittas can be akusala cittas rooted in attachment, aversion or ignorance, or they can be kusala cittas. There are processes of cittas experiencing an object through the eye-door, the ear-door, the nose-door, the tongue-door, the body-door and the mind-door. After the cittas of a sense-door process have fallen away, the object is experienced by cittas arising in a mind-door process, and after that process has been completed there can be other mind-door processes of cittas which think of concepts. Cittas arise and fall away in succession so rapidly that it seems that cittas such as seeing and thinking of what is seen occur at the same time, but in reality there are different types of citta arising in different processes.
Citta and cetasika are mental phenomena, in Pali: nama. Nama experiences an object whereas physical phenomena, in Pali: rupa, do not know or experience anything. What we call the body consists of different kinds of rupa which arise and then fall away.
The Buddha explained in detail about the different namas and rupas of our life and the conditions through which they arise. Theoretical understanding of nama and rupa is a foundation for direct understanding of them. We should know, for example, that seeing is nama, and that eyesense and visible object are rupas. The sense objects of visible object, sound, odour, flavour and tangible object are rupas and also the doors of the five senses are rupas. The cittas which experience the different objects are nama. There are different degrees of understanding, panna. Direct understanding of realities can be developed by sati, awareness or mindfulness of the nama and rupa appearing at the present moment. There are many levels of sati; sati is heedful, non-forgetful, of what is wholesome. There is sati with generosity, dana, with the observance of moral conduct, sila, with the development of tranquil meditation, samatha, and with the development of insight or right understanding, vipassana. In the development of insight sati is mindful of whatever reality presents itself through one of the six doors. Absolute realities, nama and rupa, not concepts, are the objects of mindfulness and right understanding.
When vipassana has been more highly developed, different stages of insight can be reached and eventually enlightenment can be attained, but this takes many lives. The person who has attained enlightenment is called an ariyan, or noble person. There are four stages of enlightenment and at these stages defilements are progressively eradicated. These stages are: the stage of the streamwinner or sotapanna, the stage of the once-returner or sakadagami, the stage of the non-returner or anagami and the stage of the arahat, the perfected one. The arahat who has eradicated all defilements, will not be reborn after he has passed away.
April 10, '71
I will repeat your questions and then give my comments.
"When feeling hot, there is not only nama, there is also rupa.
What is the characteristic of body-consciousness, kaya-vinnana?
What is the characteristic of the (bodily) feeling which accompanies body-consciousness?
What are the characteristics of the other feelings which do not accompany body-consciousness, but arise at other moments?
What is the characteristic of the rupa which is heat?"
These are questions which are bound to arise when we hear about the characteristics of nama and rupa and learn to be aware of them.
Kaya-vinnana, body-consciousness is the citta which experiences rupas which impinge on the bodysense. These rupas can be solidity, which can be experienced as hardness or softness; temperature, which can be experienced as heat or cold; motion, which can be experienced as motion or pressure.
The bodysense through which these rupas can be experienced is also rupa.
Bodysense is to be found not only on the outside of the body but everywhere, except in those parts which are insensitive, such as hair or nails. The
"Visuddhimagga" (XIV, 52) states that "it is to be found everywhere, like a liquid that soaks a layer of cotton". Also in those parts of the body we call "kidney" or "liver" there is body-sense; pain can be felt in these parts. When we notice any bodily sensation, be it ever so slight, it shows that there is impact on the bodysense. When we remember this, it can condition awareness of different kinds of realities, also when the impact on the bodysense is very slight, or inside the body.
Body-consciousness which is vipakacitta, the result of kamma, arises in a process of cittas which experience the object which impinges on the bodysense. When the object which impinges on the bodysense is unpleasant, body-consciousness is accompanied by painful (bodily) feeling (dukkha vedana) and when the object is pleasant, body-consciousness is accompanied by pleasant (bodily) feeling (sukha vedana). It cannot be accompanied by indifferent feeling. The object is unpleasant when, for example, the temperature is too cold or too hot, and pleasant when the temperature is just right.
The painful feeling or pleasant feeling which accompanies body-consciousness and can therefore be called "bodily feeling", is nama, it experiences something; it is different from rupa which does not know anything. Since body-consciousness is vipaka, the accompanying feeling is also vipaka.
Shortly after the body-consciousness has fallen away, there arise in that process javana-cittas which are, if one is not an arahat, kusala cittas or akusala cittas, and these experience the same object as the body-consciousness. When the javana-cittas are kusala cittas, they can be accompanied by happy (mental) feeling, somanassa, or by indifferent feeling, upekkha, and when they are akusala cittas, they can be accompanied by happy
(mental) feeling, by indifferent feeling, or by unhappy (mental )feeling, domanassa. These feelings can be called "mental feeling" in order to differentiate them from the feeling which accompanies body-consciousness.
Sometimes we have the idea that painful bodily feeling and domanassa can hardly be separated. However, they are different realities arising because of different conditions. When we burn ourselves with fire, the heat, which is an unpleasant object, impinges on the bodysense and is experienced by body-consciousness which is accompanied by painful bodily feeling. At that moment there is no dislike, the body-consciousness which is vipakacitta merely experiences the unpleasant object. The dosa-mula-citta which is accompanied by domanassa arises later on. It experiences the object with aversion. When sati arises it can be mindful of one reality at a time, and thus, different characteristics of realities can gradually be known. When we try to "catch" realities and desire to know whether the phenomenon which appears is citta, feeling, rupa or any other reality, it is thinking, not mindfulness.
You wrote that you recognize lobha and dosa more easily than seeing or hearing. Can we say that anything is easy? Different realities may present themselves closely one after the other, and when panna is not yet developed, we are bound to confuse them. When there is lobha, it may be accompanied by somanassa. Are we sure of the difference between the characteristics of lobha and somanassa? We cling so much to feeling, to the body and to the other realities that it is difficult to have clear understanding of different characteristics. When there is lobha-mula-citta or dosa-mula-citta there are both nama and rupa. These cittas can produce rupas. In the Abhidhamma it is explained that rupa can be produced by four factors: kamma, citta, temperature and nutrition. Can we not notice, for example, that when we are angry there are also rupas arising which are conditioned by dosa-mula-citta? Don't we look different when we are angry or when we are glad? When we are afraid, or when we dislike something we may notice bodily phenomena conditioned by citta. We might have thought that lobha and dosa are easier to recognize, but through the Abhidhamma we learn that it is not easy to distinguish between the different characteristics of realities. We tend to join different realities into a
"whole" and thus we will not know them as they are.
You gave in your letter examples of moments when there was awareness. You write that when walking you are aware of the feeling of pressing the ground.
Is there not thinking of the conventional term "pressing the ground"? Do you picture yourselves as walking? That is a kind of thinking. The object one thinks of at that moment is a concept or idea, not a reality, but the nama which thinks can be object of mindfulness. When you walk different rupas such as hardness, pressure or motion may appear. There can be mindfulness of one reality at a time, without having to think about it or name it.
You write that when eating you are aware of flavour. There is not only flavour, there is also the nama which experiences the flavour. Do we know the difference already? There can be mindfulness of one reality at a time.
Then you speak of the movement of the jaws when eating. Again, is there not thinking of the conventional term "jaws" instead of being aware of one nama or rupa at a time? When we are more familiar with characteristics of nama and rupa, we will be less inclined to name them or to select them as objects of awareness. There can be direct awareness of their characteristics, although there is bound to be a great deal of thinking in between.
Some people might be inclined to sit and wait for hearing, for sound, for like or dislike to appear. In that way realities will not be known. We can go on with all the things we usually do and we do not have to do anything special in order to have more awareness. For instance, when I am writing, there may be sound, hearing, like, dislike or any other reality appearing.
When moving the hand hardness or motion may appear and these realities can be object of awareness. We should not mind what kind of reality presents itself. In the beginning we may be trying to "catch" the difference between hearing and sound, seeing and visible object, but in that way realities will not be known. Sometimes there is mindfulness of rupa, sometimes of nama, it all depends on the sati.
I am glad to hear that while you talk there is also awareness. One may be inclined to think that it is impossible to be aware while talking, since one has to think of what one is going to say. Now you can prove to yourself that also at such moments there are namas and rupas appearing.
Our life consists of nama and rupa. When we are hungry or when we have a headache there are different kinds of nama and rupa. There is rupa such as hardness, there are namas such as painful bodily feeling, unhappy mental feeling (domanassa), there are many realities. When there is no awareness while we have pain, we think that there is a long moment of pain. When there is mindfulness we can find out that there are many other kinds of nama and rupa presenting themselves, besides the pain caused by the impact on the bodysense. Pain does not stay, it falls away, and then it arises again.
We find it very important whether we like or dislike something. We let ourselves be carried away by our like or dislike instead of being aware of different realities.
We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Kindred Sayings on
Sense, Third Fifty, Ch III, par. 130, Haliddaka):
Once the venerable Kaccana the Great was staying among the folk of Avanti, at Osprey's Haunt, on a sheer mountain crag.
Then the housefather Haliddakani came to the venerable Kaccana the Great.
Seated at one side he said this:-
It has been said by the Exalted One, sir, "Owing to diversity in elements arises diversity of contact. Owing to diversity of contact arises diversity of feeling". Pray, sir, how far is this so?
Herein, housefather, after having seen a pleasant object with the eye, a monk comes to know as such eye-consciousness that is a pleasant experience.
Owing to contact that is pleasant to experience arises happy feeling.
After having seen with the eye an object that is unpleasant, a monk comes to know as such eye-consciousness that is an unpleasant experience. Owing to contact that is unpleasant to experience arises unhappy feeling.
After having seen with the eye an object that is of indifferent effect, a monk comes to know as such eye-consciousness that experiences an object which is of indifferent effect. Owing to contact that is indifferent to experience arises feeling that is indifferent.
So also, housefather, after having heard a sound with the ear, smelt a scent with the nose, tasted a flavour with the tongue, experienced tangible object with the body, cognized with the mind a mental object, that is pleasant... Owing to contact that is pleasant to experience arises happy feeling. But after having cognized a mental object which is unpleasant ... owing to contact that is unpleasant to experience arises unhappy feeling.
Again, after having cognized with the mind a mental object that is indifferent in effect, he comes to know as such mind-consciousness that experiences an object which is of indifferent effect. Owing to contact that is indifferent arises feeling that is indifferent.
Thus, housefather, owing to diversity in elements arises diversity of contact. Owing to diversity of contact arises diversity of feeling.
We do not come to know seeing, visible object, contact and feeling "as such", merely by thinking about them. Panna should realize the characteristic of seeing when it presents itself; it should realize seeing as nama which arises because of conditions, not self. The nama which sees is different from the rupa which is visible object. When we learn to see realities as elements which arise because of conditions and which we cannot control, we will be less carried away by pleasant or unpleasant objects.
After I had typed the sutta-text I went to a party. When I have typed a text I find that it afterwards reminds me of reality, more so than when I only read the text. And thus, when I was at the party, the text reminded me of the six doors. I saw objects that were pleasing and owing to that pleasant impression happy feeling arose. I saw objects that were displeasing and owing to that unpleasant impression unhappy feeling arose.
There was diversity of elements and so there was diversity of contact and diversity of feeling. My legs were tired and there was hardness which could be experienced. There were speeches and I felt tense, and then there were aversion and hardness which could be experienced. Later on when we received roses, there was a pleasant impression through the eyes. Is it not true that all day long there is diversity of elements, diversity of contact and diversity of feelings?
Nina van Gorkom
Letters from Nina
20 April '71.
I will repeat your question:
'There is awareness, but not often of characteristics of nama and rupa. How can I get to know directly characteristics of realities?'
Is there seeing now? It has a characteristic which can be directly experienced. It is a type of nama, not self. It is a reality which experiences visible object through the eye-door.
Is there hearing now? It has a characteristic.
Is there pain now? It has a characteristic.
Is there dosa now? It has a characteristic.
Is there softness now? It has a characteristic.
Is there heat now? It has a characteristic.
A characteristic of nama or rupa is not something besides that which can be experienced now, at this moment. All realities which appear have different characteristics and they can be experienced one at a time. Seeing is nama, visible object is rupa; they have different characteristics.
You wrote that you cannot experience the difference between seeing and thinking about what was seen. You may think that at the moment of seeing there is also thinking about the object you see. When we pay attention to the shape and form of something such as a chair, or a person, there is thinking. But are there not also moments of just experiencing what appears through the eyes? There is not all the time thinking or defining what something is. Of course, in the beginning we cannot yet know realities as they are, but can their characteristics not be experienced now and then?
There are different degrees of knowing characteristics of nama and rupa and when panna has been developed more, they will be known more clearly.
The Buddha explained realities in many different ways so that people would be able to know them as nama-elements and rupa-elements, as not self. We read in the 'Nandakovada-sutta' (Middle Length Sayings, III, no. 146) that
Nandaka, a bhikkhu, had to preach to the nuns. Then the Buddha asked him to repeat to them exactly the same sermon. Why? Their 'faculties' (indriyas 1) were developed and hearing the same sermon again would be the right condition for them to attain the degree of enlightenment for which they were ripe. How could that happen? Could it be just because they were listening and thinking about what they heard, or rather because there would be mindfulness while listening? While listening there could be mindfulness of nama and rupa, of seeing, hearing, thinking or feeling, of any reality appearing through one of the six doors. When I quote what Nandaka said, one may think, 'Is that all?' However, when one listens with mindfulness one can come to know realities as they are. We read:
'What do you think about this, sisters? Is the eye permanent or impermanent?'
'Impermanent, revered sir.'
'But is what is impermanent anguish or happiness?'
'Anguish, revered sir.'
'Is it right to regard that which is impermanent, anguish and liable to alteration as, "This is mine, this am I, this is myself"?'
'No, revered sir.
What do you think about this, sisters? Is the ear... the nose... the tongue... the bodysense... the mind permanent or impermanent? ... Is it right to regard that which is impermanent, anguish and liable to alteration as, "This is mine, this am I, this is myself"?'
'No, revered sir.What is the reason for this?
Already, revered sir, by means of perfect intuitive wisdom it has been well seen by us as it really is that, "These six internal sense-fields are impermanent." '
The six 'internal sense-fields' are the five senses and the mind-door. The same is said about the six 'external sense-fields' : colours, sounds, smells, flavours, tangibles and mental objects. The same is said about the
'six classes of consciousness' which experience these objects. Then Nandaka said:
'It is good, sisters, it is good. For it is thus, sisters, that by means of perfect intuitive wisdom this is seen by an ariyan disciple as it really is.
It is, sisters, like the oil for lighting an oil-lamp which is impermanent and liable to alteration, and like the wick which is impermanent and liable to alteration, and like the flame which is impermanent and liable to alteration, and like the light which is impermanent and liable to alteration. If anyone, sisters, were to speak thus: " The oil for lighting this oil-lamp is impermanent and liable to alteration, and the wick... and the flame is impermanent and liable to alteration, but that which is the light-- that is permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to alteration," speaking thus, sisters, would he be speaking rightly?'
'No, revered sir. What is the reason for this?
It is, revered sir, that if the oil for lighting this oil-lamp be impermanent and liable to alteration, and if the wick... and if the flame be impermanent and liable to alteration, all the more is the light impermanent and liable to alteration.'
'Even so, sisters, if anyone should speak thus: "These six internal sense-fields are impermanent and liable to alteration, but whatever pleasure or pain or indifferent feeling I experience as a result of these six internal sense-fields-- that is permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to alteration," speaking thus, sisters, would he be speaking rightly?'
'No, revered sir.What is the reason for this?
As a result of this or that condition, revered sir, these or those feelings arise. From the stopping of this or that condition these or those feelings are stopped.'
You wrote that awareness helps you to be less involved when unpleasant things happen. When there are conditions for sati and panna we are not taken in by the objects which present themselves through the six doors. However, there are many moments of forgetfulness of realities. For instance, when feelings are intense, we tend to take them for self, we find it very difficult to see them as only conditioned realities.
At times we have unpleasant experiences and there is akusala vipaka through eyes, ears, nose, tongue or bodysense. The other day someone hit me, meaning it as a joke. Feeling the impact of it was akusala vipaka through the bodysense. Why, why did this have to happen? At such moments one may be upset and there is no awareness. Of course, I know why it happened: it was akusala vipaka, the result of akusala kamma. Thus we see that everything we have to experience are only conditioned realities, and also our like or dislike of what happens, and our feelings, are only conditioned realities.
Our attachment or dislike are not vipaka, they arise with akusala cittas which are conditioned by our accumulated defilements. There are different types of conditions which play their part in our life.
Now I shall continue with the sutta. Nandaka said further on:
'It is good, sisters, it is good. For it is thus, sisters, that by means of perfect intuitive wisdom this is seen by an ariyan disciple as it really is.
It is, sisters, as if a clever cattle-butcher or cattle-butcher's apprentice, having killed a cow, should dissect the cow with a butcher's sharp knife without spoiling the flesh within, without spoiling the outer hide, and with the butcher's sharp knife should cut, should cut around, should cut all around whatever tendons, sinews and ligaments there are within; and having cut, cut around, cut all around and removed the outer hide and, having clothed that cow in that self-same hide again, should then speak thus: " This cow is conjoined with this hide as before." Speaking thus, sisters, would he be speaking rightly?'
'No, revered sir.What is the reason for this?
Although, revered sir, that clever cattle-butcher or cattle-butcher's apprentice, having killed a cow... having clothed that cow in that self-same hide again, might then speak thus: "This cow is conjoined with this hide as before," yet that cow is not conjoined with that hide.'
'I have made this simile for you, sisters, so as to illustrate the meaning.
This is the meaning here: "the flesh within" sisters, is a synonym for the six internal sense-fields. "The outer hide", sisters, is a synonym for the six external sense-fields. "The tendons, sinews and ligaments within", sisters, is a synonym for delight and attachment. "The butcher's sharp knife", sisters, is a synonym for the ariyan intuitive wisdom, the ariyan intuitive wisdom by which one cuts, cuts around, cuts all around the inner defilements, the inner fetters and the inner bonds.'
After Nandaka had finished his sermon and the nuns had departed, the Buddha said to the monks: '...although these nuns were delighted with Nandaka's teaching on Dhamma, their aspirations were not fulfilled.'
We then read:
Then the Lord addressed the venerable Nandaka, saying: 'Well then, Nandaka, you may exhort these nuns with this same exhortation again tomorrow.'
We read that after Nandaka had spoken the same sermon to the nuns for the second time, the Buddha said:
'...these nuns were delighted with Nandaka's teaching on Dhamma and their aspirations were fulfilled. She who is the last nun 2 of these five hundred nuns is a stream-attainer (sotapanna), not liable to the Downfall; she is assured, bound for self-awakening.'
You might think that the nuns had understood the impermanence of conditioned realities already the first time, but there are many degrees of realizing the truth. Because of Nandaka's sermon, which he repeated, there was a condition for those who had not attained enlightenment to become sotapanna, and for others who were already ariyan saints to attain higher stages of enlightenment in so far as they were ripe for it.
Thus we can see that listening to the teachings or reading them are conditions for mindfulness and the development of panna, and even for attaining enlightenment.
In the above quoted sutta we read about the dissecting of a cow. When we join realities together into a 'whole', we take for 'something', for 'self'.
We are not taken in by objects which are 'dissected' into elements, that is, when panna realizes visible object as rupa, not self; hardness as rupa, not self; hearing as nama, not self, and so on as to the other realities presenting themselves through the six doors.
After I had typed the text about dissecting the cow, my husband and I were having dinner. While we were eating I was still busy 'dissecting the cow'. I liked the food and I remembered the words of the sutta that we are bound by delight and attachment. We are all bound by these ' tendons', but wisdom can cut them away. This sutta was a condition for me to be mindful of different namas and rupas which appeared.
We are bound by attachment and delight with regard to what is experienced through the six doors:
We like savours--tasting-- we want to go on tasting,
We like visible object--seeing-- we want to go on seeing,
We like sound--hearing-- we want to go on hearing,
We like thought -- thinking-- we want to go on thinking.
Thus there are conditions to go on in the cycle of birth and death. It is because of craving that we must be reborn. There will be the arising of nama and rupa in other existences, again and again.
Why did the nuns have to hear the same sermon again? Hearing it only once was not enough. I would need to hear it again and again, many more times. I still cling to the internal sense-fields and to the external sense-fields.
That is why it is necessary to be aware of seeing, colour, hearing, sound, of all namas and rupas which appear through the six doors, over and over again, without preference for any reality. Their characteristics have to be realized over and over again, so that panna will know them as they are. Thus we are busy, dissecting the cow.
You asked me how we can realize the conditions of nama and rupa through being aware of them, and whether that is different from thinking about conditions.
There are different degrees of understanding conditions. First one should have intellectual understanding of conditions. Eye-sense, for example, is a condition for seeing, since it is the physical place of origin, the base
(vatthu) of seeing. Without eye-sense there cannot be seeing. Visible object is a condition for seeing by being its object. Seeing is vipaka-citta, it is produced by kamma. Kamma-condition is another type of condition. There are different types of conditions for the phenomena which arise.
Theoretical understanding of conditions is not the same as panna which discerns the conditions of the nama and rupa which appear. This is a stage of insight which cannot arise before the beginning stage of insight which is: panna which clearly distinguishes between the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa, thus, which knows nama as nama and rupa as rupa.
Seeing is a reality which knows visible object through the eye-door, it is not self but nama. There is no need to think about this. Can the characteristic of seeing not be known when it appears? Seeing is different from visible object. Visible object is a rupa which can be experienced through the eye-door, it does not know anything. Hearing is a reality which knows sound through the ear-door, it is different from sound, a rupa which can be experienced through the ear-door. Panna can come to realize that not a self, not a person sees or hears, but nama, and that nama is different from rupa.
Panna can also come to realize that nama and rupa arise because of conditions, not without conditions. A higher stage of insight has been reached when panna directly discerns the conditions of the nama and rupa which appear.
Someone thought that knowing the conditions for dosa (aversion) would help to eliminate it. He thought that knowing the conditions means thinking about the circumstances, the 'story'. However, that is not panna which realizes conditions, it is thinking about a 'story', about concepts. And is there not an idea of ' my dosa' about which one thinks?
How can one know dosa as it really is, since that is the only way to eventually eliminate it? It should be known as nama, not self, arising because of conditions. Not only dosa should be known as it is, but all realities which appear through the six doors. As regards dosa, the real cause of aversion or anger is not the circumstances, not the other people, but our accumulations of dosa. Dosa is not self, but a conditioned reality.
Thus we can see that in thinking about the story, about the circumstances, we do not come to know more about dosa. We have accumulations to think a great deal. When there is thinking about dosa, the thinking can be realized as nama, not self.
Ignorance of realities can never be eradicated by merely thinking about them. The Buddha spoke time and again about realities appearing through the six doors in order to remind us to be aware of them. In this way panna will know them as they are and ignorance and wrong view of realities can be eradicated.
We read in the 'Kindred Sayings' (IV, Salayatana-Vagga, Second Fifty, Ch I, par. 53, Ignorance):
Then a certain monk came to the Exalted One, and on coming to him saluted him and sat down at one side. So seated that monk said this:
'By how knowing, lord, by how seeing does ignorance vanish and knowledge arise?'
'In him that knows and sees the eye as impermanent, monk, ignorance vanishes and knowledge arises. In him that knows and sees objects...seeing-consciousness, ...the ear...sounds...hearing-consciousness,... the nose...smells...smelling-consciousness..., the tongue...flavours... tasting-consciousness..., the body... touches...body-consciousness,...the mind...mindstates... mind-consciousness,... as impermanent, ignorance vanishes and knowledge arises.
Nina van Gorkom
Footnote 1:The indriyas are here, in this context: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
Footnote 2: With the least attainment
Letters from Nina
The Hague, March, '77
Dear Mr. Walter,
Thank you for your letter. First of all, I will repeat your remarks on
Buddhism, and then comment on them.
'I am rooted in the Christian culture and tradition and therefore I find the world of Buddhism a world which is strange to me. I have only an academic interest in Buddhism, but I believe that Buddhism may help me to know myself better. What I do not like is the idea of self-redemption in Buddhism.'
Yes, of course we are rooted in the tradition and culture in which we have been brought up. It is natural that we feel at home with what is familiar to us. The Buddha's teachings do not require one to give up his tradition and culture, his likes and dislikes. Through the Buddhist teachings there will be more understanding of the conditions for our actions, speech and thoughts, more understanding of the causes of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We do not have to try to change our life, but, through the
Buddhist teachings there can be more understanding of it.
I understand that you do not like the idea of 'self-redemption'. We cannot be redeemed by anyone. We cannot be redeemed by a 'self' either, but it is right understanding which can make us more free, less enslaved to our many defilements. The Buddha showed us the Path leading to the end of defilements. We follow this Path in developing right understanding of all phenomena in and around ourselves.
When you see that the Buddha's teachings can help us to know ourselves, you may no longer think of these teachings as belonging to a particular culture which you find strange. You may think it worth while to find out whether these teachings can help you directly, now, in your daily life.
Many religions teach that one should love one's fellowmen, but do we know how to develop this kind of love? Do we know what unselfish love is and when it occurs? I think that it is important to know more clearly what unselfish love is. Don't we often mistake attachment for unselfish love? We can delude ourselves when we do not know what unselfish love is. When it seems that we perform a deed of pure generosity there may also be many selfish thoughts.
Through the Buddha's teachings we learn to distinguish between different mental qualities. When there is pure generosity we think of the wellbeing of others and there is no selfishness. Whereas, when there is attachment we wish for our own wellbeing and gain. Unselfish love is wholesome and attachment is not wholesome. At one moment there may be unselfish love, but shortly afterwards there may be moments of selfishness. There is not one consciousness which stays, but there are many different moments of consciousness, arising one at a time and succeeding one another.
We do not possess something like unselfish love. It may arise and then it falls away immediately, to be followed by the next moment of consciousness which is different again. Moments of consciousness change so quickly that we do not notice it if we have not developed right understanding of the present moment. It seems that unselfish love can stay, but in reality it falls away immediately as soon as it has arisen.
When we have affection towards other people there may be moments that we genuinely think of their wellbeing, but such moments do not stay, they fall away and then selfish attachment may arise. There are many forms and degrees of attachment: it may be coarse such as greed or covetousness, but it can also be more subtle clinging which we do not notice.
Parents may think that they have nothing but unselfish love for their children, but is this true? They may have a selfish attitude towards their children and consider them as 'mine'. They may be attached to their own pleasant feeling they derive from being in the company of their children. It may be difficult to understand that attachment is not wholesome, because many forms of attachment are generally in society considered as good, provided one does not harm other people. When attachment is as intense as greed or covetousness and it motivates bad deeds, people will agree that it is harmful. But when we are attached to people, to beautiful things or to agreeable surroundings, it may be difficult to see that also such kinds of attachment are not wholesome. However, one may understand that attachment, be it coarse or more subtle, is in any case different from a moment of genuine generosity, when there is no selfish thought.
Attachment is deeply rooted in us, it arises time and again. It is useful to know also the moments of more subtle attachment. When we see a pleasant sight or hear a beautiful sound, attachment to what we see or hear is bound to arise immediately. It is beyond control, because it has its appropriate conditions for its arising. We are attached to pleasant objects today, because we were attached in the past. Our attachment today conditions the arising of attachment in the future.
Attachment brings sorrow. We like particular events in our life to take place, we want to be with people we like, we want to see and hear pleasant things. However, when things do not turn out the way we want them to be and we have to be separated from people or things we like, there is displeasure or aversion, there may even be anger. This is conditioned by attachment.
Wholesome qualities do not harm us, they do not make us sad or disturbed.
What is unwholesome brings sorrow.
The moments of consciousness which are wholesome and those which are unwholesome arise at different moments, but these moments can arise closely one after the other. I find it very helpful to know these different moments so that I will not delude myself. When I, for instance, help others for a whole morning, it is good to know that there was not generosity all the time, that there were also attachment and aversion. We may approve of our own good deeds and we may find ourselves important. We want to be popular, we do not want to be overlooked by others. We may expect something in return for our good deeds, such as words of praise. At those moments there is no generosity, we think of ourselves. Also aversion may arise while we are helping others. There are many forms and degrees of aversion: it may be coarse such as anger or hate, or it may be more subtle such as a slight displeasure or uneasiness which we may hardly notice. We are bound to have aversion when something does not go as smoothly as we want to, and does this not happen time and again? Aversion may arise when we feel a little tired while we exert ourselves, even while we are helping others. The Buddha's teachings help us to know also the more subtle degrees of unwholesomeness.
We may find Buddhism too intellectual. It may seem that we have to force ourselves to follow all our different moments of consciousness and that we could not live in a natural way. This is not so. We do not try to change anything which occurs, we could not anyway, since all phenomena arise because of their appropriate conditions. We need not try not to feel close to other people, not to have affection for them, but we can develop a clearer understanding of the different phenomena of our life. It is better to know that one is not wholesome all the time than not to know, to delude oneself.
The Buddha taught what is wholesome and what is not wholesome.
Non-attachment or generosity is wholesome. Non-hate or kindness is wholesome. Wisdom is wholesome. These are the three 'roots' of wholesomeness. There are three 'roots' of evil: attachment or clinging, aversion or anger and ignorance. We may be used to thinking in terms of sin.
However, unwholesomeness is not exactly what in society is meant by 'sin'.
Even when one does not do an evil deed there can still be unwholesome consciousness. Also attachment or aversion which is more subtle is unwholesome, it is not beneficial. As we have seen, there are different degrees of unwholesomeness.
We are so ignorant about ourselves that we do not know whether this very moment is wholesome or not wholesome. Is there attachment now? Do we like what we see? Or is there aversion? If there is a slight feeling of uneasiness or tiredness there is bound to be aversion. Gradually we can develop more knowledge of the present moment. This is the only way to know oneself.
Our life consists of ever-changing phenomena which are beyond control. One may find it difficult to understand what the Buddha meant, when he taught that there is no self. Our clinging to the self is so deeply rooted. We would like to be master of our body, we would like to be master of our moments of consciousness, our feelings, all our experiences. However, one can see that the body consists of changing phenomena. We cannot control the body, we cannot prevent its decay. What we call mind changes all the time.
We would like to be kind and wise all the time but instead we are often attached, unkind and ignorant of realities. We would like to hear kind words from other people, but instead we may hear harsh words, or people may treat us badly. We would like to have only pleasant experiences but this is impossible. Consequently we tend to feel frustrated and even bitter. The seeing of pleasant and unpleasant objects, the hearing of pleasant or unpleasant sounds, all our experiences are phenomena which arise because of their appropriate conditions, we are not master of them. Instead of blaming other people when life is not as we want it to be, instead of giving way to feelings of frustration, there could be development of right understanding of the phenomena of our life.
The Buddha taught us to be aware of the phenomena which occur at the present moment, no matter they are wholesome or unwholesome, pleasant or unpleasant.
This is the only way to have less clinging to an idea of 'self' which tries to control life, to have less clinging to 'my feelings', 'my thoughts', 'my body', and is this not a gain?
Kind regards from
Nina van Gorkom
Letters from Nina
The Hague, March '79.
You asked me whether the Buddha's teachings could console our friend Ina, who lost her husband and who has to bring up her children all by herself.
The Buddha's teachings can help us to have right understanding about life and death. What is life? Why must we die? We make ourselves believe that life is pleasant, but there are many moments of pain and sickness, sorrow and grief. And inevitably there is death.
Everything which arises must fall away, it cannot stay. We are born and therefore we have to die. The body does not disintegrate only at the moment of death, there is decay each moment. We notice that we have become older when we see a photograph taken some time ago. But the change which is noticeable after some time proves that there is change at each moment.
There are many phenomena taking place in our body and they change each moment. Temperature changes: we feel sometimes hot, sometimes cold. We feel motion or pressure in our body time and again. What we take for 'our body' are many different elements which arise and than fall away, but we are so ignorant that we do not notice it. The Buddha reminds us that our body is like a corpse, because it is disintegrating, decaying each moment. Our body does not belong to us but we cling to it, we are ignorant of the truth.
We may understand intellectually that the body does not really exist and that it is only physical elements which change all the time. However, intellectual understanding is thinking, and thinking, even if it is right thinking, cannot eradicate wrong understanding of reality. We should learn to experience the truth directly.
Can we experience the body as it really is? Let us for a while forget about our theoretical knowledge of the body and ask ourselves whether there is not a bodily phenomenon now, which we can experience directly, without having to think about it. While we are sitting or walking, is there no hardness? Can it be experienced now? Is there no heat or cold? Can it be experienced now, just for a moment, without having to think about it? These are physical elements which can be directly experienced, one at a time, through the bodysense.
There are many different kinds of elements. The element which is solidity can be directly experienced as hardness or softness, when it appears through the bodysense. Bodysense is all over the body. In order to experience hardness and softness, we do not have to think of the place where they appear.
Temperature is another physical phenomenon, an element which can be directly experienced. It can be experienced as heat or cold when it appears through the bodysense. There is change of temperature time and again. Is there not sometimes heat, sometimes cold? We do not have to think about it in order to experience it.
I have given only a few examples of bodily phenomena, (physical elements which constitute the body). These examples may help us to see that all the
Buddha taught can be proven, through direct experience. Knowledge which is developed through direct experience is clearer than theoretical knowledge.
The knowledge acquired through direct experience is the wisdom the Buddha taught his disciples to develop, so that all ignorance and clinging can be eradicated.
Not only bodily elements arise and fall away, also what we call mind arises and falls away, each moment. There is not a mind or a soul which 'exists', there is only a moment of consciousness now, and this falls away to be succeeded by the next moment. There may be thinking now, but it falls away to be succeeded by the next moment. Don't we think then of this, then of that? Thinking never stays the same. Can we control our thinking? Now we may have attachment, then aversion, then a moment of generosity. Is there generosity all the time? It falls away and very closely afterwards there may be pride, or stinginess.
What we call mind are many different elements which arise and then fall away immediately. There is actually birth and death of consciousness, time and again, all through life. Thus, we may understand that what we call in conventional language 'dying' is in fact not different from what takes place each moment of our life.
The Buddha and the disciples who had attained supreme perfect enlightenment felt no grief about anything, whatever happened to them. We have not attained enlightenment and thus we feel deep grief when those who are dear to us die, and at times we think with fear of our own death.
Does the Buddha have a message for us who are only beginners on his Path?
The Buddha has a message for all those who are afflicted by grief and are disturbed by the thought of death. He teaches us to develop clear comprehension of the present moment.
The wisdom the Buddha taught to develop is knowledge acquired from direct experience of the physical elements and mental elements of which our life consists. Mental elements are moments of consciousness, feelings and other mental qualities such as anger and attachment.
We can have clear knowledge only of what occurs at the present moment, not of what is past already. Is there hardness now? That is only a physical element. Is there no heat or cold now? These are only physical elements. Is there pleasant feeling now? That is only a mental element. Is there dislike of something now? That is only a mental element.
We are not used to considering the world in us and around us as elements.
Someone may be inclined to say "How can this kind of understanding help me now? It will not return to me my husband or wife, my child or my friend who have died. It will not alleviate my bodily pain, it cannot make me healthy again."
When we learn to see realities as elements which do not belong to us and which are beyond control, there will be less ignorance in our life. We will suffer less from the adversities of life.
We still have sorrow, but we should know sorrow as it is. Sorrow or grief is a kind of aversion, it is dislike of something we experience. It is natural that we feel grief. It is bound to arise when there are conditions for it.
We had aversion in the past and this conditions the arising of aversion today. Ignorance of realities conditions everything which is unwholesome and thus also aversion. Aversion is also conditioned by attachment. We are attached to the pleasant feeling we have when we are in the company of someone who is dear to us. When that person isn't there any more we have grief. Thus, it is actually a selfish clinging to our own pleasant feeling which conditions grief. This may sound crude, but if we are sincere to ourselves we can see that it is true.
When we know more about the conditions for grief, we can understand that grief is only a mental element. Grief does not last, it falls away as soon as it has arisen. It may arise again, but then it is a different moment of grief. When we learn to see grief as a conditioned phenomenon, we will think less in terms of 'my grief', and thus we will be less overpowered by it. Our life consists not only of grief, there are many other realities which arise.
When there is, for example, seeing or hearing, there cannot be grief at the same time.
When we learn to know the present moment, we will worry less about the past.
What has happened, has happened already, how can we change it now? What can be done now is the development of right understanding of the present moment.
We read in one of the 'Jatakas', the Birthstories of the Bodhisatta, in the
'Birthstory about Desire' (Kama Jataka, no. 467 3 ) about grief, conditioned by clinging. In the commentary to this story we read that a brahmin cultivated corn with the greatest care. He had the intention to give alms to the Buddha and his disciples when it was ripe. However, the night before he was to reap it, a great flood of rain carried away the whole crop. The brahmin pressed his hand to his heart, because he was overcome with grief, went home weeping and lay down lamenting. The Buddha came in order to console him and said: 'Why, will what is lost come back when you grieve?'
The Brahmin answered: 'No, Gotama, that will not.' The Buddha then said:
If that is so, why grieve? The wealth of beings in this world, or their corn, when they have it, they have it, and when it is gone, why, it is gone. There is no composite thing that is not subject to destruction; do not brood over it.'
After the Buddha's discourse the brahmin could see realities as they are and attained enlightenment. The Buddha said that he had also in a former life, when he was still a Bodhisatta, cured this brahmin of grief. The brahmin was then a king who was very greedy for power. He wanted to possess many kingdoms. When he did not obtain three cities which were promised to him, he became sick of grief. The Bodhisatta explained to him that those who are greedy want to have more and more and are never satisfied. He cured the brahmin of his sickness by words of wisdom. He said:
'What, O King! Can you capture those cities by grieving?'
When the king answered that he could not, the Bodhisatta said:
'Since that is so, why grieve, O great King? Every thing, animate or inanimate, must pass away, and leave all behind, even its own body...'
We read that the Bodhisatta also said:
'For each desire that is let go a happiness is won:
He that all happiness would have, must with all lust have done.'
Nina van Gorkom
Footnote 3: Published by the Pali Text Society.