‘We usually define or describe ourselves in terms of our sankaras, in other words in terms of our habits. These are usually what are most recognizable about people — you know, ‘such-and-such, he’s into football; such-and-such, they’ve got this tendency to talk very loudly,’ etc. Things like that. We generally define people in terms of their leading habits or qualities — ‘such-and-such is an angry person; such-and-such is a very shy person’ — and we see these things as not really changing.

I want to use an analogy to try to illustrate this business about the sankaras, and it may or may not work for you, but I want to use the analogy of a football team. Let’s, just for argument’s sake, call this football team ‘Manchester United’ (a bit of local colour!)…

…So we talk in terms of a team, or, if you like, in terms of a ‘self’, that somehow seems to have a certain identity that persists through time. The sankaras are each of the individual players. Eleven players — so, just for now, there are eleven sankaras. You’ve probably got a lot more than that… but let’s say there’s eleven.

And we think that there is a ‘core’ to this — but really what is the core to this team? Is it Ryan Giggs? Or it is Roy Keane, the captain? Well… sometimes they don’t play. So, when they don’t play, where is the core of Manchester United? Where has it gone? We still talk in terms of the ‘team’ having this identity. Actually there is only a notional sense of identity; the identity comes from description. There is no identity there. We impose that on the experience of these eleven players, if you like.

Perhaps you could say, ‘Well, what is distinctive about Manchester United is the red shirts.’ But actually, sometimes they play away! They wear blue shirts; even white shirts. So where is Manchester United, when they’re wearing those shirts?

Perhaps it’s the manager? But managers change over time. Even if they stay for quite a long time, they move on. Perhaps it’s the fans? Well, the fans too grow old… die… there are new fans. All of the players that play for the team at the moment will one day no longer play. There will be eleven new players. But we will still talk about Manchester United.

So you can see there is this constant change going on, and it’s not an absolute change — it’s not that one day there is one set of eleven players and the next day there’s a different set of eleven. There is continuity. Players play for several years; a new player comes in; one player drops out; etc. So there is this sense of continuity, and that’s very real, that’s very present. But we need to avoid moving from there to think that because there is that continuity, there is some fixed unchanging Manchester-Unitedness. Okay?

The reason why I’m banging on about this a bit is that we need to understand this business about the sankaras changing over time, and continuity, if we are going to understand the Buddhist idea of karma and the idea of rebirth. We could say that if we did have a core, unchanging self, we couldn’t change, and from a Buddhist point of view we couldn’t gain Nirvana; we couldn’t gain Enlightenment. So actually it is a great boon that we are constantly changing.’ (from Free Buddhist Audio)

To follow on from yesterday’s analogy, in a very English way.

B. Alan Wallace

‘In a well known discourse attributed to the Buddha he declares, “All phenomena are preceded by the mind. When the mind is comprehended, all phenomena are comprehended.” The mind and consciousness itself are therefore the primary subjects of introspective investigation within the Buddhist tradition. Moreover, just as unaided human vision was found to be an inadequate instrument for examining the moon, planets and stars, Buddhists regard the undisciplined mind as an unreliable instrument for examining mental objects, processes, and the nature of consciousness. Drawing from the experience of earlier Indian contemplatives, the Buddha refined techniques for stabilizing and refining the attention and used them in new ways, much as Galileo improved and utilized the telescope for observing the heavens.’ (The Buddhist Tradition of Samatha)

Dale S. Wright

‘To live wholeheartedly… is to live a life of integrity, the unity of will through which choices, acts, and energies are integrated around a “thought of enlightenment.” When we are unified in this way, we act in accord with ourselves rather than at odds with ourselves. Living wholeheartedly, the feelings and energies that are signified by the “heart” are joined in harmony with the mind and will, such that what we desire aligns with our largest vision of the good. This condition, as we all know from occasional experiences of it, gives rise to an ecstatic form of freedom, a liberation from destructive forces of self-contradiction.’ (The Six Perfections)

I take this to mean (and I can vouch for it in my own life) that when we can stop second-guessing ourselves, we have much more power to move freely – but that does not mean that we run roughshod over everything. The thought of enlightenment is our compass, even if we sometimes go astray.

Sharon Salzberg

‘In the Buddhist tradition we tend to be a little skeptical of hope, or perhaps it’s better to say we hold hope lightly. That doesn’t mean we are into hopelessness, quite the opposite in fact. But the opposite of hopelessness would be considered love, or connection, in contrast to trying to wrest control over life’s changes, which doesn’t do much for us. One cause of suffering is desire. When you get obsessed by or fixated on something specific that you want you may view yourself and the world around you from a deficit: Life would be perfect only if you could get that thing, person, experience. One can get lost in this craving, which only increases separation from the world as it is.

We try to see the world as it is with equanimity instead of craving and fixation. Equanimity — the balance that is born of wisdom — reminds us that what is happening in front of us is not the end of the story, it is just what we can see. Instead of being frightened of change, with equanimity, we can see its benefits and put our daily existence in a broader context. The hope resides in the certainty of relief not in specific outcomes, like getting exactly what we want; the hope comes from the way things actually are in this universe: This too shall pass.’ (from Instagram)

Kaira Jewel Lingo

‘Making happiness central to spiritual life is only self-serving if we see ourselves as separate from others. But in fact, we are inextricably interconnected with those in our lives. When we practice to bring genuine happiness to ourselves, we naturally become someone others want to be around—we are fresh, relaxed, and available because of our inner contentment. In this way we become capable of bringing happiness to others.

The Buddha taught in the Mallikaa Sutta that it is correct to regard yourself as the most precious person in your life. I love how Toni Morrison says it in Beloved: “You your own best thing.” This doesn’t mean we are more important than others. Rather, seeking happiness for ourselves is creating happiness for others. And the reverse is also true—when we strengthen others’ happiness, this also benefits us. Is this self-serving? Only in the best sense of that word. Taking good care of ourselves, loving and bringing happiness to ourselves, is the foundation for being able to love, care for, and bring happiness to others.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

May 2022 be a year when we can all do our best to take good care of ourselves.

All In The Mind

Another recent New Yorker article got many of my neurons firing – it was all about how scientists are discovering ways to tune into thought patterns, and how they understand the brain a little better as a result. It is all worth reading, but this bit caught my attention especially:

‘On one of my last visits to Princeton, (Ken) Norman (chair of the psychology department at Princeton University) and I had lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Ajiten. We sat at a counter and went through the familiar script. The menus arrived; we looked them over. Norman noticed a dish he hadn’t seen before—“a new point in ramen space,” he said. Any minute now, a waiter was going to interrupt politely to ask if we were ready to order.

“You have to carve the world at its joints, and figure out: what are the situations that exist, and how do these situations work?” Norman said, while jazz played in the background. “And that’s a very complicated problem. It’s not like you’re instructed that the world has fifteen different ways of being, and here they are!” He laughed. “When you’re out in the world, you have to try to infer what situation you’re in.” We were in the lunch-at-a-Japanese-restaurant situation. I had never been to this particular restaurant, but nothing about it surprised me. This, it turns out, might be one of the highest accomplishments in nature.

Norman told me that a former student of his, Sam Gershman, likes using the terms “lumping” and “splitting” to describe how the mind’s meaning space evolves. When you encounter a new stimulus, do you lump it with a concept that’s familiar, or do you split off a new concept? When navigating a new airport, we lump its metal detector with those we’ve seen before, even if this one is a different model, color, and size. By contrast, the first time we raised our hands inside a millimetre-wave scanner—the device that has replaced the walk-through metal detector—we split off a new category.

Norman turned to how thought decoding fit into the larger story of the study of the mind. “I think we’re at a point in cognitive neuroscience where we understand a lot of the pieces of the puzzle,” he said. The cerebral cortex—a crumply sheet laid atop the rest of the brain—warps and compresses experience, emphasizing what’s important. It’s in constant communication with other brain areas, including the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the inner part of the temporal lobe. For years, the hippocampus was known only as the seat of memory; patients who’d had theirs removed lived in a perpetual present. Now we were seeing that the hippocampus stores summaries provided to it by the cortex: the sauce after it’s been reduced. We cope with reality by building a vast library of experience—but experience that has been distilled along the dimensions that matter. Norman’s research group has used fMRI technology to find voxel patterns (areas of activation that are roughly a cubic millimetre in size) in the cortex that are reflected in the hippocampus. Perhaps the brain is like a hiker comparing the map with the territory.”

As I have often pointed to before, I love when science can put its finger on something that has been posited by Buddhist understanding for centuries. To whit:

“The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.

Mind consciousness is the first kind of consciousness. It uses up most of our energy. Mind consciousness is our “working” consciousness that makes judgments and plans; it is the part of our consciousness that worries and analyzes… The brain is only 2 percent of the body’s weight, but it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. So using mind consciousness is very expensive. Thinking, worrying, and planning take a lot of energy…

The second level of consciousness is sense consciousness, the consciousness that comes from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. We sometimes call these senses “gates,” or “doors,” because all objects of perception enter consciousness through our sensory contact with them. Sense consciousness always involves three elements: first, the sense organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body); second, the sense object itself (the object we’re smelling or the sound we’re hearing); and finally, our experience of what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.

The third layer of consciousness, store consciousness, is the deepest. There are many names for this kind of consciousness. Mahayana tradition calls this store consciousness, or alaya, in Sanskrit. The Theravada tradition uses the Pali word bhavanga to describe this consciousness. Bhavanga means constantly flowing, like a river. Store consciousness is also sometimes called root consciousness (mulavijñana in Sanskrit) or sarvabijaka, which means “the totality of the seeds.” In Vietnamese, we call store consciousness tang. Tang means to keep and preserve.

Store consciousness is like a museum. A museum can only be called a museum when there are things in it. When there is nothing in it, you can call it a building, but not a museum. The conservator is the one who is responsible for the museum. Her function is to keep the various objects preserved and not allow them to be stolen. But there must be things to be stored, things to be kept. Store consciousness refers to the storing and also to what is stored—that is, all the information from the past, from our ancestors, and all the information received from the other consciousnesses. In Buddhist tradition, this information is stored as bija, seeds.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from Lion’s Roar.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

Dale S. Wright

‘At earlier stages of “self-” cultivation, where one hopes to achieve something for oneself, the merit and progress accrued in virtuous acts is very important as motivation. But by the time the sutras work up to the perfection of wisdom, all talk of merit and individual accomplishment disappears in the texts. Wisdom entails overcoming the isolation of the selk, not just for the self but on behalf of a larger collective reality beyond the self. It imagines stages of self-cultivation where self-concern is no longer the focal point of the activity, where doing what is right, doing good on behalf of all members of a community are the images of perfection.’ (The Six Perfections)

I read this, and think that currently I am a long way from doing things on behalf of a collective reality, because the idea of that is so fractured right now…

Koun Franz

‘Teachers of old lost their tempers, went to the bathroom, told jokes that fell flat; teachers of today play with their phones, get ingrown toenails, and sometimes eat way too much ice cream.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

I can’t vouch for the teachers of old, but I can certainly attest to the ordinariness – as well as extra-ordinariness – of teachers of today.

Dale S. Wright

‘In Zen Buddhism, it is widely thought that the ultimate goal of the practice is neither to be engaged in zazen (seated meditation) nor to achieve satori (the sudden disclosure of reality) but rather to embody in everyday life the vision that zazen and satori have made possible. In that sense, “meditation” is not the intentional activity so much as it is the quality and depth of mindfulness that you bring to any activity. Thus, depending on which orientation to meditation you take, you might say with equal truth that an awakened human being no longer spends much time in meditation (in the first sense) or that in fact such a person is virtually always in a meditative stated of mind (in the second sense). (The Six Perfections)

I would not claim to be awakened, but I do spend less time in meditation these days, and try to bring that frame of mind to my daily life. I was struck, reading this again, about his definition of satori, ‘the sudden disclosure of reality’; where has reality been all this time, and how did we not notice it before?

Willa Blythe Baker

‘The teacher, the teachings, and the community of practitioners are jewel-like in the sense of being valuable and magnetic sources of safety and support. They are jewel-like in that they refract the light of truth into a thousand colors. In buddha, we seek refuge from instability. In dharma, we seek refuge from ignorance. In sangha, we seek refuge from fear and loneliness; we discover that no matter who we are, no matter what we have done, we can find belonging.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, social scientists who do research on the psychology and behaviors of groups, have concluded that humans share a need to belong, “a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and impactful interpersonal relationships.” Put another way, we need one another in order to thrive and grow. We are safer and happier when we bond together.

It has even been demonstrated that when humans feel lonely, their brain circuits light up in the same regions that register physical pain. Loneliness literally hurts. Is it any wonder that many who end up at the doorway to community come to assuage the pain of loneliness? From our isolation, we are drawn to belong.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

This article goes on to highlight strengths and pitfalls of sanghas, and is well worth reading if you are part of one.