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[ Dhamma Talk ]

Understanding Understanding

Understanding, Not Blind Acceptance

Part I




This comes from a long discussion, one of the first that appeared on the BuddhaDust Forum when there was a public forum. For presentation here in this section the dialog has been severely edited to remove extraneous detail — the issues themselves were hard enough to follow! In addition to editing the materials as originally presented, certain clarifying statements have been made and certain of "A's" own statements have been edited to more clearly state his case. This makes this dialog a bit "unreal," but hopefully more helpful to the reader coming on this cold.

This issue was not successfully resolved. A is still, as of this writing, working on his understanding as he has been doing for the more than 40 years I have known him. The fact that he continues 'at it' puts him way out ahead of the pack in my book.

[Edit: Since this time A has died. He was a very active correspondent with me during his last few years and though I am no final judge, he seems to have been wise in his direction and his progress towards the goal seems to me to have been significant.]

Understanding Understanding

I'm Late! I'm Late! I'm Late

A: I am beginning to like the Alice-in-Wonderland feel of it as I plunge into this material that is for me both utterly convincing and, seemingly, utterly beyond my willingness at this time to accept.

I ask myself: How can something be both convincing — "utterly" so — and yet not convincing enough, in fact so much so that I felt just as strongly about not being able to assent as I was about the compelling arguments to assent?

As a beginner who has dabbled (I admit this has to be part of my difficulty) with the Buddhist teachings over many years, I am now asking myself what is it that keeps me dabbling, interested, accepting but not accepting? What is it, exactly — as exactly as I can make it exact — that allows me to say I am totally convinced by the Dhamma but totally unconvinced that it can be the total answer.

The problem, as I see it, is the conflict within me between head and heart; the head saying one thing and the heart saying another.

My head tells me yes, the arguments are convincing and I am convinced — in the head.

But the heart/feelings/intuitive mind/self, Self-I-don't-know-what tells me 'no', 'it's not so'. It can not be so. It can not be that "The All" is Dukkha — I guess one would have to say that I simply refuse to see myself, as included in the all, as just Dukkha — that nothing has a purpose beyond what seems like the one purpose of getting out of the Dukkha as quickly as possible, that what is real is only the realization that nothing's real (but how then does one exclude the realization itself from being equally unreal?),[1] that we are just aggregates colliding with other aggregates in a shadow land with no substance.

Will the difficulty I'm having with the very first of the Noble Truths[2] prejudice my understanding to the extent that it will be impossible for me to accept or maybe even understand anything else?

Or will my suspension of disbelief, as much as I'm capable of doing this, and I'm not sure I can, concerning this First Truth, allow me to understand enough of other matters so that the truth underlying this Truth becomes, finally, clear and acceptable?

I am willing to accept, must accept — for sanity's sake — whatever is clearly and convincingly shown to be so. Head and heart, though I see them as different faculties/powers, need to work together.

Is there a particular approach that can be used in studying the material that would help one who is having difficulty in accepting, and most likely not understanding, the very first step?




First of all let me say that just on an intellectual basis, if what the Buddha is saying is correct, then the problem we are dealing with here is The Most Difficult Problem of All to grasp. What is the order of the day, therefore, is congratulations and encouragement to anyone who is making an effort to understand.

I mention this not just to encourage you, but because it is a vital part of the solution to the problem to recognize that life without complete knowledge of what is going on in life is not worth living (or at least is a very risky proposition). That the first priority of the living is to answer these important questions:

Why isn't Everything going Exactly the way I want it to?
Why must there be any Pain at all?
Why must we die?[3]
— and here I am talking about "knowing for one's self" not accepting the word of another that it's OK because this is the way God intended it to be, or some such.

You have done a lot of the groundwork in even bringing yourself to the realization that you are of two minds about the situation. The phenomena of finding yourself having two extreme and opposing positions with regard to the Dhamma is a familiar one, and one which would be expected if what the Buddha says is true: if there were only the one side or the other to hold the mind captive, there would be no problem.

So, having made yourself aware of "doubt", what is the logical next step?

Each extreme must be made to answer to the arguments of the other extreme.

Here, in broad brushstrokes is what I propose as needed arguments at each end of the spectrum of your doubt:

On the side where the emotions rule, where you see the joys of life and are firmly convinced that the Dhamma must be wrong and that there must be some answer that acknowledges the truth of the goodness of life and the transcendence of the human spirit; the mind must be brought to deal with the hard realities.

Try to think of the situation of the hard-core drug addict. Drugs are drugs not because they are the unpleasant experiences that the authorities would like people to believe that they are. I have had very little experience with heroin, but I have been told by people who were addicts that there is no more pleasurable experience in the world. There is no getting such an individual to stop by telling him that what he is doing is wrong and is entirely evil. He knows better. And yet, in the end, he will have gained nothing but passing pleasure and will have piled up a mass of un-dealt-with pain. And what will have been the source of that pain? It will have been his desire for that pleasant experience of that drug.

On the side where the intellect rules, where you see the logic and force of argument of this system, try to remember that what is being said here is that there is an answer. This is not just an: "it's all shit and you're stuck with it" story.

The All is in Pain! But "You are not that All". That is the message.

The Buddha is teaching a method for the ending of Dukkha, Pain. Just because the logical outcome is not stated in terms of great pleasure to be experienced by the individual does not mean that a sort of great happiness is not the goal: What do you imagine the situation to be that is entirely and completely without Pain?




A: Thanks for the reassuring words. I needed to hear that my difficulty was not unique with me.

You asked: "What do you imagine the situation to be that is entirely and completely without pain?" I would have to say that I don't know what it would be like. In searching for experiences I've had that could tell me something about what it would be like, those that come closest to a pain-free experience would be those that were deeply peaceful (am I making a distinction without a difference?), with a sense of being content, fully content with that moment — and not knowing why or even caring why. Those moments, experienced by most at one time or another, would necessarily be moments, it seems to me, where all wants have either temporarily disappeared for whatever reason or been temporarily satisfied. These moments seem to correlate with the dropping of wanting more than what we have at any given time. Not wanting more than it is possible to get at any given time seems to be the key. A recent book put it somewhat like this: want what you get rather than making the effort to get what you want. Does this eliminate pain? I don't know, but it probably would eliminate some. But I would have to say, again, that I don't know the answer to your question.

Moments where all wants have disappeared is pure Buddhism. Period. That's Nibbāna.




A: Would you clarify what is meant by "You are not that All"? I was surprised to hear this. I guess this is because I have yet to fully grasp the "no self" teaching.

What is meant by the statement: "You are not that All" is:

There is the eye and sight and the contact of the two,
arising from that is perception, sensation and consciousness.
Implanting into that the idea that it is "I" that is the one that is seeing,
or that what is seen is in some way "Mine"
is the process of identification which completes the illusion that is the basis for forming the concept of "myself";
the same process occurs with the ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.

This is what is known as "The All" because outside of this there is nothing that can be said to "be."

It is said that "You are not that All" because there is nothing in this that can be said to be the self of you in anything other than conventional ways of speech.[4]

This all is not the Self of You.
The Self of You is not "in" this All.
The Self of you does not have this all In It.
You are not some derivative of this All.
And this is not saying that you do not exist (but you didn't ask that).




A: When you say that "... if what the Buddha is saying is correct, the problem we are dealing with here is the Most Difficult Problem of All to grasp," are you referring to anyone who attempts to grasp/know it? Or are you referring only to those who are blinded by worldly concerns and defilements?

Here I am speaking both in terms of understanding the Dhamma specifically and I am speaking in terms of ordinary reality. Somehow in the world everyone has the idea that living comes first and then, if at all, understanding why one is living, where, even using the logic of the ordinary world it would seem that to squeeze the essence from living, one should have a perfect grasp (even a good grasp would do) of what that essence was.

But almost nobody does that, so it must be difficult!

And then we have the case of those who do understand the importance of the inquiry: for them there is constantly slipping from one extreme point of view to the other, so difficult is it to grasp the idea that it is holding on to points of view that is the root of the problem!




V: This is an interesting conflict, ie. the "head" vs the "heart", because I believe the "two" are one and the same thing. I've spent (and still do spend) a lot of time exploring my own emotions and have discovered that "my emotion" always begins in the mind. My body may react as a result, for example, like tears welling in the eyes, but I have found it all starts with a thought of pleasure or aversion in "my" mind.

And with regard to your objection to the idea that nothing has a purpose beyond getting out of the Dukkha as quickly as possible, isn't that what everybody tries to do anyway? Tries to get out of the "Dukkha" as quickly as possible? The problem is that almost everybody tries to get out of the Dukkha by grasping at the pleasurable things of this world, only to find that they don't last either.

But could it be that it is not so much that the "world" is Dukkha that is a problem for you, but perhaps the idea of "not-self" is the real issue with which you are struggling and unable to accept? I ask this because of your comment "that what is real is only the realization that nothing's real (but how then can one exclude the realization itself from being equally unreal?), that we are just aggregates colliding with other aggregates in a shadow land with no substance."

Is that what is (as you put it) "for me both utterly convincing and, seemingly, utterly beyond my willingness at this time to accept."? Just a thought.

A: Thanks for your insight. I do think that the "not self" idea, as you suggested, is very much a part of my struggle to understand the teachings. I do not see it, however, as being the only hard truth for me. The "Dukkha" idea I find, in some ways, even more baffling, but they both are contenders for top spot in my "don't understand" file.

Let me try to explain my difficulty with the "not self" idea. If what is meant by that is that the self I normally identify with is not real, is constantly changing and not permanent, even though I usually think and feel that it is real, unchanging and permanent, I can say to that, yes; I've experienced what to me seems like the truth of that "not self." It's the additional denial, if I understand this correctly, that there is anything there that can be called a self/Self which transcends the individual self that I have mistakenly identified with, that I have found hard to accept.

I find the idea itself (of self and not self) confusing. Even before the attempt to understand, I'm not sure what it is I'm trying to understand.

In Hinduism, they have the Atman idea and this is rejected, I believe, by Theravadins but accepted in some fashion by other Buddhists, mostly in the Mahayana.

Somewhat further confusing for me was a remark of Michael's that the anatta idea does not mean No Self, but means that there is nothing there that can be called a self. If by this is meant there is no individual self, then is this not the same view as the Hindu view which believes in a universal self shared by all. But since the "not self" idea is often said to be the most difficult to grasp, I suspect that something more, or something less, or maybe something entirely different from the Atman idea is meant here.[5]

As important as the "not self" idea is in my attempts to understand, the "Dukkha" idea is also, I think, a big part of the difficulty. The two ideas are clearly related, and maybe, if the "not self" was less of a problem, more clearly seen, the "Dukkha" problem would cease to be a problem.




V: I believe that there are two issues here that are causing confusion.

The first is that perhaps there is confusion as to exactly what is "The All"? Please correct me if this is a wrong assumption.

Here is a quote from footnote #6 from the Mulapariyaya (Thanissaro translation) which may help explain what is meant by "The All"...

"What is the All?
Simply the eye and forms,
ear and sounds,
nose and aromas,
tongue and flavors,
body and tactile sensations,
intellect and ideas.
This is termed the All.
Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his assertion, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why is that? Because it lies beyond range." — SN XXXV.23"

Given that "The All" is as stated above, then your comment "I simply refuse to see myself, as included in the all, as just Dukkha", seems to me to indicate that you in fact do think that there is something in "The All" that is you. This is the second issue that seems to me is causing confusion, the idea that there is a "self" in "The All".




A: Yes, there is a confusion as to exactly what is "The All." And I think my confusion here about the self stems from my confusion about The All.

If The All, as stated above, is The All (and not some other possibility) then yes, I am forced to admit that there must be something in that All that is the self of me. I cannot not admit this. The sense of "I am" is, rightly or wrongly, so real to me that I must acknowledge that this "I am-self" exists, must exist in some [way with regard to the] All, whether in the All described above or in some other All.

It would be easier for me if I could separate these two issues into two questions: What is the All, and What is the Self? Would not the answer to either question determine or at least greatly influence the answer to the other?[6] I will begin with the All question.

If by The All is meant the All of what can be known by eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and intellect, then yes, I do see myself in this All. It is a self that is sorrow and pleasure ridden, fearful and full of doubts, constantly changing, a self of a thousand faces. It is a self I claim as mine, thinking it to be as permanent and as real as I feel myself to be, even though, or in spite of, the changes I clearly experience.[7]

No, I do not see "my" self in this All. [Mine] is a self without concern for either sorrow or pleasure, without fear or doubt, never changing, a self with no face. (This occasionally though infrequently has been my experience in meditation and, I believe, is the experience of most mediators.)[8]

If by The All is meant the All of what can be known by other than eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and intellect (which possibility seems to be denied by the material) then there needs to be some clarification, it seems to me, concerning what is meant by "there is something" and by "that is you." The best I have been able to come up with, right now, is that either something identifies with the objects in this All world, and suffers, sometimes rejoices, with the varied play of the objects in my particular, personalized All world; or something occasionally identifies not with the objects in this All world but with nothing at all, with no thing that has been described above as being part of The All world. There does seem to be a yes and a no regarding the self, depending on whether something identifies or does not identify with the All as described.

In other words, is there not two "somethings" here, but one something manifesting in two different ways? One way, seemingly, does not identify with the All described; is this the self usually described as the Higher Self, Self with a Cap S, the Universal Self, the Atman, Pure Consciousness, Buddha Nature, as well as other names that could be named that might in some minds carry the same meaning but be repudiated by the more orthodox, such as Holy Spirit or Christ Consciousness in Christianity. And is the other way — the way that does identify with the All — usually described as the small self, with a lower case s, the ego self, the unawakened self, the individual self, and maybe even the suffering and blind self?

I don't know if its best to stick to just asking questions or whether in a case where I am totally unclear about something, which is the case here, I should attempt to frame that confusion by showing what I do think I understand. I do think it best that I await your suggestions about this before continuing on.




Just strictly as a matter of historical interest, in sucha situation as this, what would have been done in the old days would have been nothing at this point. It would be up to A to ask me to answer. It might have happened that the situation would come up in conversation at a later time, and the Buddha might have said something like: "Well, had A asked me this question, this is the way I would have responded:" So (and making no comparisons of myself with the Buddha!) this is what I would have answered had the question been asked of me:

This is where the two roads diverge: Are you going to rely on what you cannot know for yourself or are you going to rely on what you can know and see for yourself?

To conclude that one must rely on what one cannot know and see for one's self because there is a logical possibility that there is what cannot be known and seen for one's self is to deny the possibility that one is able to save one's self, to bring Pain/Dukkha to an end through one's own efforts.

This is to deny that there has ever been one out there who was Arahant or "Buddha", awakened to the truth, one who knows and sees for himself, and to say that those who have said that "One can know and see for one's self," are speaking untruth.

This is to claim to know that anyone else who has claimed to know the answer is wrong.

This is to put one's self above others and to put others below one's self, and is, in effect, to state that one, one's self knows the answer which is contradictory to the stand one is one's self taking.

All this seems to my mind like a very dangerous position to be holding.

This is also a stand that is specifically refuted by the Buddha as not being conducive to effort at self improvement, not to mention the fact that it leaves one in despair.

This is a system which depends on one premise: an individual, by way of effort, can know and see for himself. If this is not a proposition on which you can rely, then this is not a system for you.

This is a deep teaching, difficult to understand, but not impossible to understand, and not impossible to understand before one is able to achieve its purpose.

What is not difficult to understand about this teaching (in spite of it being known by us primarily through translations) is that it says what it means: When the word "All" is used, the word means all. All is everything. Everything means everything. There is nothing outside of everything that is a something.

When it is said that "There is, in this All, No Thing that is the Self of one (Atman, soul, true self, Buddha Nature, The One, Merger with Brahma, or stated in any other way) (whether a distinct phenomena or a co-founding of various elements)" that is what it means.

When it is said that it is not the case that there is no self, that is what it means.

This is how this is to be understood:

The Concept "Self" (or in a similar way "existing") is an idea that depends on Point of View.

The ordinary man takes a look at his body or his mind (usually, sometimes his sense experiences, sometimes his emotions and says: Its obvious that there is a self there.

The scientist takes a look at the molecular structure down to atoms and sub atomic particles and even beyond and can find in there no self and comes to the conclusion: There is No Self.[9]

For one who sees the scientific point, there can be no coming to the conclusion that there is a self, for one who sees the common view there can be no coming to the conclusion that there is no self.

So this is dealt with here, in this system, this way: There Is a Middle Way (This is not a term intended to imply moderation[10]):

This comes to be as a consequence of that,
as a consequence of the coming to an end of that, this ends.

Working backwards from the observable fact of death: one sees:

Were there no Birth there would be no Death.

Were there no Living there would be no Birth.

Were there no Effort to come to Be there would be no Living.

Were there no Desire there would be no Effort to come to be.

Were there no Sense Experiences there would be no Desire.

Were there no Contact of Sense Organ with Object of Sense there would be no Sense Experience.

Were there no joining up of names and forms there would be no Sense Organs.

Were there no Consciousness there would be no joining up of names and forms.

Were there no Identification of Self with Anything at all there Would be no Consciousness by Self.

Were there no Blindness as to where it would end up, there would be no Identification of Self with anything at all.

So seeing one is repelled by points of view and one abandons's ones downbound angry ways, wantings and depression and letting go of argument and contention and wrestling with views, and forgoing triumph in victory and humiliation in defeat, and letting go of the fear and trembling grounded in the false security of reliance on the promises of others, one rises up downbound by nothing at all in the world.

This is freedom.
And in freedom seeing freedom, one knows:

"This is being free."

And one knows:

"Rebirth has been left behind!
The Best Life Has been Lived.
Done is Duty's Doing.
No More It'n and At'n (being any kind of an "it" at any place of "at-ness") For Me!"

This is what is meant when the Buddha says that "Any Beggar, Beggars, who comes along saying, 'Putting aside that All, I will show you another All,' would be unable to do so and, furthermore would find himself over the Abyss:

Any person who came along saying: "I will enter into a reasonable, rational discussion with you," and then, faced with a reasonable, rational conclusion with which they disagree, resorted to the irrational and unreasonable; about such a person, — seeing this situation as it really is — a person could rightly conclude that they are just faced with Mara trying to entrap them in confusion.




A: I certainly will admit to my confusion, and to feeling very much under the sway of Mara. I also think that my thinking may have been irrational and unreasonable, though of course it was meant to be rational and reasonable. I cannot agree, however, with the view that I disagreed with anything. It may have appeared that way because of my unskilled dialectic or because, though having no answers that are my own, I often bring up answers — not my own, I want to emphasize — to better understand the answers being discussed. They are not meant to be used to counter any position or way of knowing but to allow me to see where the new position or way of knowing fits into what I do know about, not with what I agree with. I have to admit, even here, the possibility that maybe to the discerning understanding I was unconsciously disagreeing with some of the material. If that is the case, then I need to work on seeing that. But I need to state again that at least on the conscious level, there are no answers with which I agree, and therefore none from which I disagree.




A: I would like to clarify my understanding of what it means to "argue the case of the doubter." How does one properly respond in a dialogue where the goal is to understand the truth?

I see two issues here: one concerns the method of resolving doubt by means of asking questions; the second concerns the method of resolving doubt by means of "arguing the case of the doubter."

I can see that the best method of resolving doubts when one is in doubt concerning the specifics of the other's position is to ask questions (using statements only as they relate to those questions, to clarify, when necessary, the intent of the questions), and then to evaluate the answers given; and to continue the questioning and evaluating process until one has understood, or thinks one has understood, and then accept or reject or suspend judgment. Until this happens, I can see that there is no good reason to argue the case of the doubter. I see that is what I was doing and I thank you for pointing this out. I was clearly making statements in support of a contrary position, when I had yet to understand the initial position.

But do I understand you to mean that it is always wrong — less suited to the task at hand — to argue the case of the doubter? (By doubter, I have in mind someone who, while doubting, is affirming something in opposition to what is being doubted.) Is it never appropriate to weigh together any number of understandings in order to see which one is most weighty and convincing?

I think the question of whether or not to take an opposing position in a debate depends on the context and whether or not one is, in fact, a doubter (are you debating facts or ideas?). Venerable Punnaji, in a debate some time ago made statements in opposition to those of the Pope. The Pope, by making certain statements in public, had invited rebuttal. The Pope had made certain factual and conceptual errors and it was proper that the true facts be stated. But Ven. Punnaji in this case, had no doubt.

But even in the case where one is sure of one's position, the strongest method of debate will be to ask the opponent questions until he is driven to a point where the um ..."fallibility" ... of his position is clear to anyone with intelligence. See [MN 75: Magandiya] and [MN 93: Assalayana] for good examples of this sort of debate.

Weighing together the number of understandings on an issue in order to see which one is most weighty and convincing is, essentially, meditation, thinking things over. Spoken, it becomes idle talk, and is a waste of other people's time, or is a subtle, perhaps subconscious, argument and contention.

A: Are you saying also that it is impossible for someone to argue the case of the doubter, the case of any opposing position, without taking that position as one's own? There is, then, no playing devil's advocate simply to bring all the points of an argument, especially the most contrary ones, to the table? Is this approach never necessary, never worthwhile, or even possible as you pointed out in my case without becoming Mara's accomplice?

This is the risk: the mind is organized around its ideas, points of view. To debate a point of view is essentially to threaten the existence (speaking conventionally here!) of the one with whom one is debating. Should one successfully argue one's case, one will have lead another (and here, maybe more than one or two) in their direction. One could do this irresponsibly or responsibly; fooling around, or with conviction. To argue the opposing case in a case where the opposing case is not even believed in by one's self, even if for the sake of clarification for one's self is to ignore the risks to others and therefore would be to be debating irresponsibly. (To dislodge someone from the point of view on which they are grounded without providing a substitute position on which to ground themselves, is essentially to cast them into oblivion, at least temporarily ... for the millisecond it will take them to find another point of view onto which to cling). So essentially the answer is that it is not possible to responsibly neither take the position as one's own or to be arguing the case of Mara — its one or the other. The furthest I can see one might go along these lines would be to be putting the opposing statements in the form of hypotheticals or hypothetical questions.




What we have here is an issue that is nicely dealt with using your own idea of a Greater Self and a Lesser Self.

In this system we have what I would call a lesser conscious self and a fully conscious self (speaking in conventional terms!). The lesser conscious self being less conscious not because of the absence of consciousness but because of the presence of masses of wrong ideas. For me there is no question that your "greater self" is well motivated and sincere. Where the devil steps in is when you go from having doubt about a thing and asking questions until that doubt is resolved to arguing the case of the doubter.

It is a common situation here that a learner, going from the situation of the ordinary individual to crossing beyond points of view about self does so in stages.

First there may be a dramatic breakthrough or there may only be an almost imperceptible breakthrough then there follows what can be a very long time of wavering between seeing and not seeing until the not-self view finally prevails. During the periods of doubt, this individual will continue to "feel" as though there is a self somewhere there.

But here we do not rely on "feelings" as the verification of a thing. Feelings can be seen to be unreliable, and the truth they might verify cannot be seen for one's self. Therefore to argue that without being able to see it for one's self, one should accept the testimony of the feelings, is to argue the case of the irrational and unreasonable and is just simply Mara attempting to delude.

If there were an ultimate A there, at this point we could say "A is", but these arguments and such not being the A of A, we do not say "A is Mara," we say that Mara was manifesting himself through A's arguments. Hearing these arguments we can conclude that Mara is standing before us at that time.




A: I think that it is reasonable for some, maybe most, to rely on some authority that they can trust if they believe that they will not be able or willing to know and see for themselves.

It may be a fact that people will rely on authority, but that does not make it reasonable, and I would say that anyone capable of making the evaluation that they are not able or willing to know and see for themselves has already proven the opposite case.

A: For myself, I will take the "road less traveled:" I am going to rely on what I can know and see for myself. And if I cannot do this to my satisfaction, then I probably will rely on what I cannot know and see for myself. Or I will do something else.

Well the reasonableness of this position depends on the criteria you set for your satisfaction. For me not knowing, in the face of someone telling me that knowing is possible is a challenge that could be backed down from only after having thoroughly comprehended the position of the challenger and having dismissed it, thoroughly knowing it to be nonsense. Death is going to be the victor here with regard to this body. That is a certainty. In a case such as this, to back down in the face of a challenge that promises to ultimately upset that victory with regard to my subjective condition in the world is to give up hope.




A: You say: "When the word "All" is used, the word means all. All is everything. Everything means everything. There is nothing outside of everything that is a something." — I think I got it! Thanks to your "This is how this is to be understood." But it is so simple that I question whether this is in fact what is being said.

What I said could not be any clearer. Simple in fact, but look at yourself: extraordinarily hard to comprehend. You struggle in the face of outright blazing sunlight to find the fog!




A: If what is is beyond points of view (a truism because a view is not that which is being viewed), it becomes equally obvious that one can never say anything is that is a point of view. So if we depend on points of view to know, we will never get to know what is. "Is" and "is not" "exist" only in mind. (Is this anywhere close to what is being said here?)

We are not trying to find an ultimate "is" here. See: [AN 7.51] for a good explication of why not. The idea of Nibbāna, or the ultimate goal in the Pāḷi, is stated in the negative: "it is not this." We are not trying to "get" a vision of anything or to find an ultimate truth; or to see any ultimate reality or the existence of anything; we are only focused on getting rid of wrong ways of seeing things. Seeing by way of a perspective (point of view) is seeing with a bias that obscures the truth of things. We get rid of that. We do not take on something else to replace that.




A: To use material from footnote #6 from the Mulapariyaya: "Anyone who would say 'Repudiating this All I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his assertion, would be unable to explain. ... Why is that? Because it lies beyond range." If my understanding of this is accurate, or at least accurate enough to "continue on this way a bit farther" than I need to ask you about the word "All."

You say: When the word "All" is used, the word means all. All is everything. Everything means everything. There is nothing outside of everything that is a something." What does it mean to say that "There is nothing outside of everything that is a something"?

If this something is a view of "isness", then I think I understand. Otherwise not.

You are apparently misreading the thought there as 'there is "a nothing" outside of everything that "is a something." That is not what that sentence says. There isn't anything outside of the All. How can that be said any more clearly? All means All.




A: When you say that the All as described (eye and form, etc.) is everything are you saying that these things (eye and form, etc.) can be known without using points of view and that they are therefore the only things that can be known?





A: One final point that has been bothering me about the meaning of "is." I bring it up because it seems to deny my understanding explained above, and also to deny the All explanation. The words are, supposedly, those of the Buddha. (I suspect they are not from the Pāḷi scriptures.)

"There is an unborn, an unoriginated, an unmade, an uncompounded; were there not, there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made, and the compounded."

A: It makes sense to me, or would have before, but in the light of what I think I now understand, it does not. Is this authentic dhamma?

This is the wonder of Power. At the time you were posting the message that is the subject of this message, I was reading the Itivuttaka, or the "As It Was Said" which is the origin of this quote. I had stopped at that quote and had begun to write about it as a matter of controversy concerning this issue! And the issue is exactly what is the meaning of "is"; here "atthi".

PED: [Sanskrit: asti; Latin: sum-est; Gothic: im-ist; Anglo Saxon: eom-is; English: am-is] to be, to exist.

I am not really going to argue about the meaning of atthi. But as a matter of record, what this word breaks down to, the way I hear it is: "at this" with "this" being the index finger pointing up, which becomes "a stand" or "to stand" (up, upright, um, this erect). In this sense there is in the basic word no implication of any kind of ultimate existing thing — a way of saying "it is" without using the idea of "being". I believe there is a relationship here to "to breathe" and to the idea of self, "attan" to our "animation"; to the idea of attaining the goal: "attha" and to the number "8" aṭṭha. And in these related ideas is the implication of the infinite or unlimited and that which is to be the goal and here we may actually be seeing the very origin in language of these views.

And, additionally, this is considered part of the Pāḷi Cannon, supposedly having been recited at the First Council.

So here you all have a choice to make because I am going to say that either this is not Dhamma or it was intended to be understood by way of conventional speech. Where it is correct, in my opinion, and that from which I would say it was taken, is in the poetic lines at the end of the translation where "is" does not enter the picture.

First: This is the only occurrence of this statement in the entire Pāḷi Cannon.

Second, the Nidana is not the same as that for the rest of the suttas recited at the First Council, and I believe that is a clear indication that this was an add-on. This material is being stated as if being repeated by the laywoman Khujjuttara and that is exactly what I think is the case: this is the same misunderstanding as is being made by you here.

Third is that there are other instances of such kinds of statements made in the Itivuttaka that are to be found nowhere else in the Cannon. I think the work is suspect, and according to the rules laid out by the Buddha himself: Even if what is being said is being said as being heard face-to-face with the Buddha, comparing sutta with sutta, what does not agree with sutta is to be put to one side as being not-Dhamma.

You all will need to make up your own minds.

Sources: Pāḷi Text Society: The Minor Anthologies of the Pāḷi Canon: As It Was Said, Woodward, trans, pp142
Pāḷi Text Society: The Itivuttaka, Peter Masefield, trans (new), pp 34

Here is the Pāḷi:

Ajātasuttaɱ vuttañhetaɱ Bhagavatā, vuttamarahatāti me sutaɱ:|| ||

"Atthi, bhikkhave ajātaɱ abhūtaɱ akataɱ asaṅkhataɱ.|| ||

No c'etaɱ, bhikkhave,||
abhavissa ajātaɱ abhūtaɱ akataɱ asaṅkhataɱ,||
nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaɱ paññāyetha.|| ||

Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave,||
atthi ajātaɱ abhūtaɱ akataɱ asaṅkhataɱ,||
tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaɱ paññāyatīti.|| ||

Etamatthaɱ Bhagavā avoca.|| ||

Tatthetaɱ iti vuccati
jātaɱ bhūtaɱ samuppannaɱ,||
kataɱ saṅkhatamaddhuvaɱ;||
roganī'aɱ Āhāranettippabhavaɱ,||
nālaɱ tadabhinandituɱ;||
tassa nissaraṇaɱ santaɱ,||
atakkāvacaraɱ dhuvaɱ.|| ||

Ajātaɱ asamuppannaɱ,||
asokaɱ virajaɱ padaɱ;||
nirodho dukkhadhammānaɱ,||
saṅkhārūpasamo sukho" ti.|| ||

Ayam pi attho vutto Bhagavatā,||
iti me sutanti.

Peter Masefield trans:

The Unborn Sutta

This, unquestionably — so has there been heard by me — was stated by the Lord, was stated by the Arahant, viz.

'There exists, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned.

For if there were not, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned, there could not be made known here the escape from that which is born, from that which is become, from that which is crated, from that which is conditioned.

Yet since there exists, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned, there is therefore made known the escape from that which is born, from that which is become, from that which is created, from that which is conditioned.'

This matter the Lord did state; it was in connection therewith that this was so stated.

'That which is born, that which is become, that which is co-arisen, that which is created, that which is conditioned, that which is unstable, that which is the bridge between birth and death — this seat of disease, with nutriment and the lead as its source, is perishable.

It is nothing in which to rejoice.

The escape from this is calm, beyond the sphere of logic, being that which is stable, that which is unborn, that which is not co-arisen; grief-free, dustless, this tract is the cessation of states involving Dukkha, the pacification of formations, bliss.

This matter, too, was stated by the Lord, so has there been heard by me.

F.L. Woodward, trans. Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol 333, The Minor Anthologies of the Pāḷi Canon, Part II: As It Was Said, pp142 (abbreviations are the authors)

This was said by the Exalted One, said by the Arahant; so I have heard:

Monks, there is an unborn, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this that here is born, become, made, compounded.

But, monks, since there is an unborn ... therefore the escape from this that here is born ... compounded is apparent.

This is the meaning ...;
The born, become, produced, compounded, made,
And thus not lasting, but of birth-and-death
An aggregate, a nest of sickness, brittle,
A thing by food supported, come to be, --
'Twere no fit thing to take delight in such.
Th'escape therefrom, the real, beyond the sphere
Of reason, lasting, unborn, unproduced,
The sorrowless, the stainless path that ends
The things of woe, the peace from worries, — bliss.




Just to double check my facts, I did a search of the entire Sutta Piṭaka for the words "atthi, bhikkhave (my spelling dictionary asks if I mean "thickheaded" for bhikkhave), ajatam" and for "ajatam" and the four words preceding and following it, and for the four words together: "ajatam, abutam, akatam, and asankhatan". The word ajatam connected to the word atthi occurs only in this book and the other in this collection (Versus of Uplift) and in the commentaries. The word ajatam occurs frequently throughout the suttas (as I am assuming do the other words individually). The four words together occur only in the books of this collection and in commentaries.

Ground rules, as spelled out in the Forum Introduction permit me to exclude this work as authoritative, on this basis alone. But I, myself do not rely on this basis alone. It is really only a matter of words; we are after all talking about the un-born, un-living, un-made, and un-identified with (and I agree that these words are synonyms for Nibbāna). To speak of such a thing in any other than conventional terms as "existing" is incorrect. But words are important in the sense that we get from this very discussion; where an incorrect use leads to a conceptualization which is misleading.

We have one more fact that must be considered when deciding our take on this issue: Khujjuttara is said by the Buddha, in the Book of Ones to be well read (to have heard much).

This is what I think is going on: Khujjuttara listened to the Buddha when he was discoursing with others. She memorized what she heard and repeated it to her Mistress Samavati and her retinue. Some one of these individuals (or one who followed such a one) remembered the material with an incomplete understanding. (This does not, of course, explain the occurrence of the idea in the commentaries; but perhaps the occurrence of the term in the commentaries explains the occurrence of the term in these books — my distrust of the commentaries comes from unhappy experience following method suggested in them and the numerous places where I just find the commentary flat out unbelievable or wrong). Finally, as I mentioned previously, the work was incorporated into the whole. But in spite of the claim that it was repeated by Ānanda at the First Council, it does not follow the style of Nidana of the First Council (and I place a great deal of weight on the Nidana because it, in effect, is a swearing that a certain thing is a thing truly heard; here, one does not want to have the eye of the Buddha on one for having sworn that what one is saying was said by the Buddha if it is not the case. I find the same kind of twisting about to get around the Nidana in the Abhidhamma and distrust that work partly for that reason as well.)

Finally, let me give my way of stating what I think was intended here:

"Were it to be said, beggars, that there is no unborn, unliving, unmade, unidentified with, then no escape from the born, living, made and identified with could be pointed out; but since it is not said that there is no unborn, unliving, unmade, unidentified with, therefore the escape from the born, living, made, and identified with can be pointed out."

Again, this is one of those lines (and there will be others) where each individual is going to have to decide for themselves, see for themselves the consequences of going that way or This Way.


Monday, August 15, 2016 7:11 AM

This topic has reverberations throughout this site right on up to the present day. At this time I would translate the relevant passage thus:

Atthi, bhikkhave ajātaɱ abhūtaɱ akataɱ asaṅkhataɱ.

There exists, beggars, unbirth, unliving, the undone, un-own-making.

Which could be made smoother as: "There is being unborn, not-living, the un-done, not own-making."

In the same way that we do not think the statement 'There is birth' points to a realm out there somewhere called 'birth'; there is no reason to think that this statement is pointing to a realm out there, an existing place or state, that is 'an unborn' that is another name for Nibbāna.

Translating in this way solves the problem and eliminates the need to reject the Itivuttaka.

For more on how this issue is important to the understanding of Nibbāna, the goal of the Buddha's system, see the discussion: Is Nibbāna Conditioned.



[1] A here needs to let go of the idea "real" and "unreal." This is not the issue here. What is being said is that what is here is an illusion. An illusion can be unreal for one who believes in the ultimate reality of the illusion, but the illusion as an illusion can be real.

[2] "This is the Ariyan Truth of Dukkha: Birth is Dukkha, Aging is Dukkha, Sickness is Dukkha, Death is Dukkha; Grief and Lamentation are Dukkha; Pain and Misery are Dukkha; Despair is Dukkha. Not getting what is wished for is Dukkha; Getting what is not wished for is Dukkha. In a word: This Entire Stockpiled Shitpile is a heap of Flaming Dukkha!"

[3] Put in terms of the Dhamma: Why is there birth? Old Age? Sickness? Death? Grief and Lamentation? Pain and Misery? Despair? Not getting what is wished for?

[4] How is this to be understood? By way of ordinary logic: That which is the self, or that which could be considered one's own must, by definition, be under one's control. The eye and so forth can be shown to be out of one's own control. Therefore the eye and so forth cannot rightly be said to be the self or one's own or one would be required to assert the absurd proposition that the 'self comes and goes in me'. However, in this system, we also acknowledge "conventional reality," so we allow that the statement can be made: "I am" or "My" this that or the other, as long as it is understood to be just a manner of communication, not a matter of philosophical truth.

[5] See: Anatta = "Not-Self" not "No Self. Yes, the idea is different than the Hindu Atman idea (or any form of self, universal or otherwise), and no, it is not being said that there is no self. The difficulty here is focus: A is looking intently for this "I" that isn't said to exist and isn't said to not exist. The error is the focus on the idea of existing.


What is being said is 'stop paying attention to the idea of whether or not the self exists'! The idea of the existence or nonexistence of self depends on having a point of view about the matter. It's like saying about a stream, in one moment in time: 'The stream exists just like this.' That is to ignore the reality that the stream is not any one single way for even a split second. The way the Buddha is dealing with this issue is to refute the incorrect proposition that "It is," while at the same time countering the proposition that he is saying that "It is not." He abstains from either end of the debate and simply explains the mechanics of the stream: When this is, that becomes, upon the ending of this, the ending of that ... in other words, the paṭicca samuppāda.

[6] Here again the focus is the problem. This is not a system which attempts to discover whether or not things exist or not, whether those things are the all or the self. This is a system which is directed at solving the problem of pain. To solve the problem of pain, the issue of the existence and non-existence of the all and the self are dealt with by way of showing that this debate depends on holding a point of view about the matter and that the very holding of a point of view about the matter obscures the ability to see the reality which is that it is not that things exist and it is not that things do not exist, but that when the conditions for the existence of things come together, things become; when those conditions end, things end.

[7] This is to rely on the feelings to spite the mind. A is here holding the position "the self comes and goes in me."

[8] This and the following two paragraphs are engaging in speculation, taking an experience and generalizing that to a Truth, a True Self. This system does not rely on speculation. Speculation is regarded as unreliable on the grounds that conclusions reached from logic and reasoning can be incorrect. Here experience is taken at face value. The face value of the experiences described here are that these experiences were temporary and not under the control of self and therefore do not warrant being classed as self or belonging to self.

[9] This argument is also put another way: For one who sees how things come to be (that is, by way of Dependant Origination, the paṭicca samuppāda) it is not possible to hold the position that there is no self. For one who sees the passing away of things, it is not possible to hold the position that there is a self.

[10] See: DhammaTalk: The Middle Way

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