Excerpts from Reflections: Ajahn Sucitto
One of the monks asked a renowned Forest Ajahn: ‘What’s it like to see things as they really are?’ There was an understandable air of expectation in the room: to ‘see things as they really are’ (yathābhutam ñānadassanam) is the vision of the Awakened Mind. What mystical insight was about to be revealed?
‘It’s ordinary,’ said the Ajahn in his customary succinct and matter-of-fact way.
Bodhidharma (6th Century CE), the legendary conveyor of the Ch’an Dhamma to China. Ch’an (from Sanskrit Jhāna), a Chinese school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Bodhidharma had an exchange with the Chinese Emperor that was similar in tone to the Forest Ajahn. The Emperor, who had devotedly built temples and shrines throughout China, implored the Master, ‘What is the essence of the Holy Truth?’
‘Emptiness, no holiness,’ replied the sage.
Awakening is more of a deflation of the mind than a peak experience. That way, it’s difficult to grasp. Actually, ‘emptiness’ – until you understand it as the non-clingable, signless quality of what arises – does give one something a little mystical to cling to… perhaps the Emperor wasn’t ready for the really direct teaching. The point is that the closer you get to the Dhamma, the more you know that appearances aren’t where it’s at. What you are able to see is the Unconstructed, and the end to the conceiving, favouring and proliferations of the mind.
A related example is Bhikkhuni Patacāra’s experience of Awakening. Returning to her dwelling after a period of walking meditation, her realization occurred as she turned down the flame of her lamp: Like the going out of a flame was the release of awareness. (Thig. 5,10)
No blazing light, just the opposite… so, is ‘Awakening’ some kind of coma? Well, this apparent paradox occurs because awareness as consciousness is not fully understood. This kind of consciousness is the six-fold awareness that processes data through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thinking mind. In this context, mind-consciousness is the awareness that is affected by the perceptions and feelings that arise from external sense contact, and also from of the internal (mind-base). The mind is always being affected, it’s either fluttering, on the run, or sliding from this to that. Now, maybe if all that flittering and chattering were to stop… that would be a stilling of an activity rather than an annihilation of anything solid. Which is exactly the point. It also explains why the language of Awakening is distinctly unexciting and doesn’t get one’s pulses racing.
It’s all in the mind. The mind base is the home of the impulses and psychological activities, which stimulate consciousness for good or for bad. On investigation these activities of liking, disliking, of hesitancy or eagerness are seen as arising dependent on our attitudes and subjectively-based perceptions we acquire over the course of time. Whether a taste is ‘delicious’ or music ‘pleasant, etc., all gets learned from paying attention and assessing results through language communication. This is how consciousness is formed, activated and programmed; a perception of ‘what’s out there,’ from moment to moment, defines a ‘me’, as lively, articulate, passionate, even-minded or dull. So, the solidity of our world and our self is based upon activities and formations. And what if they stopped? In that freeing up, in things really being seen as they are, the world and the self neither exist nor don’t exist. They both arise dependently.
One point to emphasize is that the ‘me’ sense is a solidification of the sense of presence that is the resonance of consciousness. It takes form dependent on the perceptions and feelings that consciousness forms, infers and otherwise derives from sense-contact. When an architect looks at a building, he/she becomes an architect (that particular sense of self doesn’t arise as they eat a meal or watch TV). And in that mode, he/she sees something different from that which is seen by a thief. The individual bias, the acquired activity forms an impression both of the subject and the object.
When pain or displeasure touch the heart, ‘I’ get formed as the victim of that. With pleasure, I become the owner. Then I get defensive or acquisitive and act accordingly – instant kamma. Have you seen – or felt – who you become when guilt or fear gets into you? Or when compassion or joy touches your heart? ‘Being touched’ is a formation; contact/impression is an activity that modifies and colours the sense of self. In this respect, I’m referring not so much to direct sensory contact, but the impression that the mind makes of that contact, called ‘designation contact’.
This form of contact is the significant one: owing to the subjective flavouring of designation contact, different people find different sights, sounds, flavours, ideas, remarks and gestures delightful, repugnant, or neutral. Designation contact sets up the familiar pattern of how we experience the world; and the consequent perceptions and impressions guide what we will make impingement contact with in the future. So, this is the key to how we react and create fresh action, or kamma, based on the blueprint of the past.
The sting in this apparently neutral functioning is that when it gets infected with ignorance, the mind takes as real, substantial and potentially acquirable what in fact has been formed by consciousness. So that stirs consciousness into chasing its tail, motivated by either acquisition, aversion or delusion. Of which three, delusion is the one that is most constantly streaming in.
So, how would it be if, instead of creating fantasies and phobias, those streams were to stop? Intellectually, it’s not difficult to repudiate delusion. As far as we can see, in the experienced Cosmos, there’s no such thing as a thing: from the stars and rocks on down to the oscillating cells in our bodies and our flickering thoughts, it’s all dynamic. How could there be a permanent self? But in all this movement, there’s one process that forms the apparent self. It’s the lock of grasping. And that occurs in the mind-base when it’s infected by ignorance. So, trust what arises within when the self-impression passes. Investigate the dukkha of ‘how it should be.’ Because with unerring simplicity, release always comes down to cultivating the Four Noble Truths. Selfless clarity spontaneously arises with their comprehension; what arises by itself after the release is the true guide.
And it’s nobody’s. The awareness that is liberated through such realization is just ‘aññā’ ‘the Knowing.’ It’s a knowing that has no subject, a development based on, but beyond, the mindful knowing and witnessing of what arises. At each stage of Awakening, as places where self-view congregates get freed, there is the Knowing, dispassionate and free from positions. And the Buddha constantly refused to make a self out of that.
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