By David Edwards
The response to Part 1 of this Cogitation was interesting. Positive comments were mixed with outrage that I should waste time on “twaddle“. A few people interpreted the piece as an attack on football or football fandom. Debates often rapidly turned into comments in support of, or against, particular teams!
Recall that the argument – a brief look at the 2,000-year-old Buddhist metaphysics of ‘shunyata’ or ‘emptiness’ – involved the claim that objects made up of different parts and dependent on external conditions, cannot be described as inherently existent. We have a strong feeling that a car, for example, exists in its own right as a concrete, unitary object ‘out there’. But when we look for the car, we find only parts, none of which is the car. When we assemble the parts we have a collection of, say, 10,000 parts – the ‘car’ is none of these but is merely a label applied by our minds to this collection.
The same, of course, applies to the parts that make up the object (the engine, wheels, doors) and so on down to the atomic level, and beyond. What is an atom? It is not an electron, or a neutron, or a proton? An atom, in fact, is no more findable than the Southampton football team – recently walloped by Manchester United in the FA Cup!
At first sight, this looks like mere semantics. We tend to see no meaningful difference between the idea of a car as an inherently existent object and a mere label. The reason is that we are so used to viewing objects as inherently existent that it is extremely difficult to pin down exactly the presumption we are making, or its significance. One way to get closer to the truth is to look at some of the more extreme psychological results of our presumption and then examine how they are rooted in an unsustainable view of the world.
What Exactly Do You Hate About Tony Blair?
We might not appreciate the significance of the idea that a car is an inherently existent object, but we have a much better idea of what it means to perceive a hated person as inherently existent. We need only imagine someone who has abused or insulted us in some way, or ruthlessly taken someone or something we view as ‘mine‘. We may feel a burning hatred for this person and even want to harm or kill them. A curious question arises – what exactly is it that we are angry with?
Consider the person’s body – are we angry with their hair, eyebrows, arms, feet, legs, lungs? Obviously not. The person’s body is innocent of all charges! Of course the appearance of a particular face – Tony Blair’s, for example – may well provoke feelings of anger. But we are not actually angry with Tony Blair’s features – we do not believe his eyes or nose, say, are to blame for his actions.
So are we angry with the person’s mind? If so, which aspect of the mind? Clearly the mind consists of multiple factors – sight consciousness, sound consciousness, feelings, the ability to discriminate between objects. We are not angry with any of these basic sense faculties. Then there is the constant flow of thoughts that run through the mind, and also a consciousness, or awareness, able to observe them.
Anyone who has attempted the ’shamatha’ meditation technique that involves focusing attention on the breath will be very familiar with the workings of this train of thoughts. As we try to fix our mind on the subtle sensation of air entering and leaving our nostrils we find that our attention is constantly whisked away by a swirling vortex of thoughts. One moment we are sensing the movement of the breath, the next we are thinking, ‘Success! Now I‘m focused on the breath!’, or ‘I don‘t +care+ about Prince Charles and Camilla!’ It is also clear that some other part of our mind is aware of these distracting thoughts, can notice them, and can choose to return attention to the sensations of the breath.
One of the initial results of this kind of meditation is a shocking awareness of just how little control we have over our mind. Try though we might to stay focused on the breath we find ourselves suddenly caught up in thoughts. But this very act of noticing that we have failed to stay focused is, itself, incredibly beneficial; in fact it +is+ the meditation, not a failure to meditate. Meditation teacher Rob Nairn explains one of the major discoveries that can arise out of this:
“We begin to realise that we don’t have to pick up a thought at the moment of arising. This is the first hint of freedom in the mind: we do not have to pick up on thought. Until this realisation all our processes are compulsive. We believe we have to pick up on thoughts because they appear. Even with this realisation, however, because of habit, we continue to engage. But after a while, in our meditation, we see that habit and return to the meditation support [the breath], and slowly the mind lets thought go again. A new one arises, we are compelled to pick it up, we see it, we go back to the meditation support.” (Nairn, Diamond Mind, Shambhala, 2001, p.78)
This increases our freedom because when anger arises, for example, instead of reflexively leaping onto an escalator of increasingly angry thoughts – perhaps without even awareness of what we are doing – we have trained ourselves to observe what’s happening. We may instead notice, “Ah, an angry thought!” To be aware of what’s happening means we are not quite so caught up in it; we are not so helplessly whisked away by anger. This creates the beginning, as Nairn writes, of “freedom from thought“.
But where does this avalanche of tumbling thoughts come from? They pop into existence like bubbles in a glass of lemonade – suddenly they’re just there. We can see that they are +our+ thoughts. We can see how they are linked to previous thoughts and experiences in our life. And yet they are curiously beyond our control and in a very real sense, not ‘us’. Or at least we are aware that there is no background self that is deciding to generate these thoughts. This is why the Buddha made the otherwise curious comment: “There are thoughts but no thinker.”
Searching For ‘Mini-Me’
One of the curious features of meditation, then, is the initial sense that we are being victimised by our thoughts. Here we are, trying hard to focus on the sensations of our breath, and these damned thoughts keep popping into our heads and spoiling everything!
So to return to our original point, when we are angry with someone who has, say, shouted abuse at us, is it these thoughts that we are angry with? Is it these same thoughts that seem so stubbornly beyond our own control in meditation?
When a person chooses to flirt with our girlfriend in front of us, say, are we angry with his thought, ‘She’s nice and I don’t give a damn about him!’ Are we angry with that idea? Or are we angry with some presumed person, some skulking self, that we imagine has +chosen+ to think that thought?
If we are angry with the thought, then we are angry with a transient phenomenon that comes and goes. If we identify the person with the thought, then this person is a thousand different people every day – a ‘good person’ when a good thought arises, a ‘bad person’ when a bad thought arises – which seems absurd. If a particular thought has come and gone, so too has the target of our anger.
So is there a permanently nasty self somehow behind the nasty thoughts that we can blame? This is the crux of the matter. According to the brilliant eighth century sage, Shantideva, there +is+ no self behind the thought, no one who can be deemed responsible for the thought.
Instead the thought is the result of a vast collection of conditions and influences – previous thoughts, experiences, family influences, social influences, cultural influences, genetic influences, accidents, chance – that are clearly +not+ the responsibility of an unchanging, autonomous, inherently existent self.
It is not, for example, that a malicious ‘mini-Me’ inside the person’s head decided, ‘Now I will think a vicious thought!’ Similarly, moments before we become angry in response, there was no ’mini-Me’ inside our heads who decided to become angry – anger just arises, blasts into being, erupts! Shantideva explains:
“Never thinking, ’Now I will be angry,’
People are impulsively caught up in anger.
Irritation, likewise, comes –
Though never plans to be experienced!
“Every injury whatever,
The whole variety of evil deeds
Is brought about by circumstances.
None is independent, none autonomous.
“Conditions, once assembled, have no thought
That now they will give rise to some result.
And that which is engendered does not think
That it has been produced by such conditions.” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.81)
The conclusion, therefore, is clear:
“Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.” (Ibid, p.82)
It is clearly unrealistic to blame some mythical, independent and autonomous ‘Little Controller’ behind our thoughts for the infinite range of influences and conditions that give rise to unkind or destructive thoughts and acts. If it were wholly independent of conditions to this extent – such that it could be held responsible for what happens, as our anger claims – it could not function in the world for the simple reason that it could not interact with the world. After all, to interact is to imply mutual influence, which is to mitigate responsibility.
Indeed, Buddhists reject the idea of an independent, autonomous self behind mental events just as they reject the idea of an independent, autonomous God behind the universe. Egotism, in fact, might be considered a kind of religion – placing an illusory, independent, autonomous Self at the centre of the universe – a microcosmic version of theism. Whenever I see prideful atheists denouncing theists, I can’t help but reflect on Nietzsche’s comment:
“Yes, it divines you too, you conquerors of the old God! You grow weary in battle and now your weariness serves the +new+ idol!”
None of this means that people should not be held to account for their actions – it means that there are no grounds for the kind of blame that gives rise to feelings of hate. There simply is no permanent, autonomous self to pin the blame on.
A few years ago it was reported that an American policeman had shot and killed a colleague in cold blood for no reason. The media described the act as one of “pure Evil”. It was later discovered that the killer, who had no previous history of violence, had been taking sleeping pills subsequently found to produce extreme psychotic side-effects. In this case it is easy to “be calm and call to mind that everything arises from conditions”. But in our day to day lives the vast array of more subtle conditions, and our firm belief in the inherent existence of independently existing objects and people, make it very easy for us to feel anger and hatred.
More to the point, anger is a form of dynamic ignorance. It is bad enough to be ignorant, but anger forms an energetic filter in our minds powerfully removing all mitigating circumstances, ideas and factors from awareness that interfere with our desire to blame. Just as when we are infatuated we can perceive no bad qualities in a desired object, so we can perceive no good qualities in a hated object.
Anger and craving, then, have a massive impact entrenching our view of the world. Our belief in the idea of inherently existent, autonomous objects and people is constantly being cemented and bolstered by anger and desire. Buddhists claim that if these are gradually attenuated and replaced by compassion, so the truth and real significance of ‘emptiness’ can become clearer to us. Remarkably, then, it is claimed that compassionate thoughts and actions actually lead away from illusion to a more rational perception of the world. This is why it is argued that the bird of Enlightenment – of valid perception of reality – rises on the two wings of wisdom and compassion.
As is doubtless clear, my understanding of these very difficult issues is superficial in the extreme. For a far more informed discussion I recommend B. Alan Wallace’s excellent books The Seven Point Mind Training (Snow Lion, 2004) and Boundless Heart (Snow Lion, 1999). For a discussion of ‘shamatha’ meditation, take a look at Rob Nairn’s Diamond Mind – A Psychology of Meditation (Shambhala, 2001).