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[ Dhamma Talk ]

Understanding Understanding

Understanding, Not Blind Acceptance

Part II

 


 

A: After being with this material for the past week, reading and rereading the posts, writing and rewriting my response, I finally saw that there is no possibility of my understanding very much about the no-self issue until I understand clearly how "is" is understood in this forum.

I don't mean to imply double talk here, but there were times when I had the impression, while reading your response to my questions, that I was trying to understand your words by using meanings you were not intending, and that these words had meanings not just different, but radically different from what I "knew" the words to mean.[1]

I am going to focus on understanding the meaning of just one of your sentences:

"I said that seeing a thing as 'existing' or as being 'self' depends on point of view."

I understand the following words "Seeing a thing as 'existing' ... depends on point of view" as meaning that without point of view — the seeing of the thing from a point external to the thing — there would be no seeing a thing as existing, and with no seeing a thing as existing, there would be no thing existing. In other words, the ending of points of view would be the ending of things existing. Is this correct?

Is the understanding I'm aiming for here, what you have described as Nana — "book knowledge ... correct but theoretical understanding of the system and how it works" — not with panna (wisdom) or with vijja (direct knowledge).

If this is correctly described, then full understanding must wait until later, much later. But you have indicated that one can understand even at this basic level "before one is able to achieve its purpose." So I'm assured there's no whistling in the wind here.

No. There is whistling in the wind here. "Seeing a thing as existing" does not mean that because one has a point of view one is therefore able to see a thing's "existence"; and it also does not mean the contrary, that in not having a point of view there would be no thing there to see. The idea is that the very idea of "existing" itself (the conception in mind of things having existence or nonexistence; not their real existence or nonexistence) depends on having a point of view (e.g., that things can or do exist or have existence).

When I say "seeing a thing as existing", that is the description of a point of view, that is not a statement about ultimate realities.[2] The idea is that having the view is independent of, irrelevant to the situation. Extra baggage. And worse than extra baggage, having a view leads to identification with that view and one becomes pleased when the view is confirmed, and displeased when it is refuted, desires arise from both the pleasure and the displeasure; from the desires arises action in pursuit of those desires; from the action follows new becomings, from new becomings new having become (or rebirth into a new situation) from this aging sickness and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery and despair.

 

§

 

A: In order to understand, theoretically, as fully as possible the meanings generally given for the word "existing" (exist and existence) and related words, and to better understand in what ways the Pali meaning differs, if it does, from the generally understood meanings, I have checked out the meanings in three dictionaries. A summary listing of the findings follows.

American Heritage (Unab.). Existence: "The fact or state of existing." Exist: "To have being or actuality; to be. (From root sta, to stand.) Being: "That which can be conceived as existing; the essence of existence." Actual: "In existence, real, factual." Real: "Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence." Fact: "Something that has been objectively verified; that has real, demonstrable existence." Verify: "To determine or test the truth or accuracy of, as by comparison, investigation, or reference." Truth: "Fact, actuality, reality." Reality: "That which exists objectively and in fact." Objectively: "Having actual existence or reality...as distinguished from having a mental concept, idea or belief."

Webster's 2nd Ed. (Unab.). Existence: "State of being actual; reality as opposed to appearance." Exist: "To have actual or real being."

OED. Exist: "To stand out, be perceptible, have objective being." Existence: "The state of being existent." Existent: "having being or existence. Often emphasized by actuality, really, truly, etc.

First, let me say that I found it very interesting to read that existence comes from the root "to stand" which as you will note, is the same root as the Pali has for atthi, "thi" being to stand. I am amazed that I never heard "stance" there before.

So it would seem that the word "existence" would mean: to stand outside or independently; where the Pali would mean "at the standing position". I think this tells us much about the origination of points of view concerning being.

A: The above shows, I think, that most often when we use the word "exist" we are referring to something we believe has, as noted by the OED, actual, real, true, objective being; these terms all repeat the same refrain: some "isness" external to the mind is necessary if we are to say that something exists.

Exactly! The operant word here being "believe".

A: But it also seems to leave room for including the purely mental existent in the definition: "That which can be conceived as "existing."

Here we have room for what is called in this system: "conventional speech". We need to be able to say "He is now living..." etc. in order to communicate with one another. This, as long as it is understood to be the use of a conventional expression, and not the declaration of a philosophical position, acceptable.

A: How we are to understand "objective being" is not defined except by its opposition, implied, to subjective being.

On the whole, I think one could say the definitions agree that whatever the nature of objective being, its being objective, that is, external to the mind, is thought to be necessary for it to be called "existing."

This is where the trouble starts. To enter the debate about existence is already to have accepted the proposition of "real" "ultimate" existence (the concept of "No Existence" depends entirely on the concept of "Existence"). This is something that is just off track in this system.

A: This understanding, I admit, doesn't mean very much and certainly doesn't point us in the direction of truth; we don't go, or shouldn't go, to dictionaries for truth. I want merely to orient my understanding, by the use of these definitions, so that when I find these critical words being used in the Pali, I will be able to place it within the context of what I already know, theoretically, about it. I believe this will help. Am I thinking correctly here?

The answer to your question is that it is irrelevant. We are not talking about existence or nonexistence here, we are dealing with points of view about existence or nonexistence. That is where the trouble starts and is brought to an end.

Backtracking to A's question to answer his request for a definition of 'is', in [D 15] Gotama states the limits of what can be considered 'existing' or an 'existing being':

"To this extent only, Ananda, is there birth, aging, death, disappearance and reappearance; to this extent is there verbal expression; to this extent is there getting to the root; to this extent is there knowing; to this extent is there scope for discriminating and drawing distinctions; to this extent is there this run'n round showing up as some sort of being this at some place of being at...that is to say: only just as far as mentality/materiality with recognition." —Olds, trans.

 

§

 

A: When you say "'seeing' a thing as existing...depends on..." rather than "its 'existence' depends on..." are you making a distinction here we should note?

Absolutely. My effort here is always to make every word count. We are not talking about, attempting to discover, ultimate existence or nonexistence. We are attempting to demonstrate the problems caused by points of view about existence and nonexistence. I am saying that having an opinion that a thing exists is itself a point of view. Having the point of view has nothing to do with a thing's existence or nonexistence. We are saying here that that whole set of ideas is points of view. One person concludes (arrives at a point of view about the existence of a thing) a thing exists because he understands the phenomena one way (I look at the body and I say "how can I say it doesn't exist?) another looks at the same thing and comes to another conclusion: (I see nothing there that is the same from one micro millisecond to the next, how can it be said to have existence?). Both are arguing an irrelevant issue. (Not irrelevant to us because we are attempting to free ourselves from the grip of this argument.) If point of view were relevant, and the guy who thought he existed were correct, the guy who thought he did not exist could not exist, etc.

A: Could you have said, "its existence depends on point of view"? Or is this not possible because one cannot say anything about a thing's existence except when it is "seen" as being existent?

No. That would have been to have taken up one side of the argument of existence or nonexistence. It's existence has nothing to do with the point of view. The point of view is a point of view. It is the point of view we are discussing. We are saying that seeing a thing as existing depends on having a point of view. We can say that one cannot say that a thing exists without having a point of view about existing. We do not say anything about a thing's existing or not.

A: If this is so, does this mean that one must leave unsaid what is not nana-seen but directly seen (experienced?) because the 'what' of experience is beyond existence and non-existence? As a consequence, one refrains from saying either?

No. We can speak of what we understand through book knowledge as what is understood through book knowledge. We can speak of what is understood through directly seen experience as directly seen experience. There is nothing in this that allows for drawing the conclusion that the 'what' of experience is beyond existence and non-existence. And one does not refrain from saying anything but what is not true, idle, useless, provocative, or speculative.

This is the point: because the idea that a thing has an ultimate reality or existence is not possible to demonstrate to the exclusion of the opposite view, to hold a view one way or another is to always be partly wrong, and in being partly wrong and holding on to that as "true" we are setting ourselves up in opposition to those of other views. This is an act of "identification". We have attached ourselves to a way of seeing, and one becomes pleased when the view is confirmed, and displeased when it is refuted, desires arise from both the pleasure and the displeasure; from the desires arises action in pursuit of those desires; from the action follows new becomings, from new becomings new having become (or rebirth into a new situation) from this aging sickness and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery and despair.

A: In terms of the definitions, is the Pali saying that what is normally called objective existence, ultimate reality, is for the Pali an understanding that cannot be "nana-seen," but can be "vijja-seen, which is beyond the range of what can be spoken; and of what cannot be spoken, nothing can be said about its existence or non-existence?

Absolutely not. The Pali is saying that one cannot speak of your "objective existence" without reliance on a point of view; that reliance on a point of view is a bias which obscures what is really happening which is not classifiable by the concepts "existence" or "nonexistence", that is to say, causation: This being, that becomes, upon the ending of this, the ending of that.

A: So, is it correct to say that we can not speak of seeing anything, and affirming the reality of anything, that is beyond nana-seeing, a seeing that does see in terms of "is" and "is-not?" And is it correct to say that we can speak of seeing something, and affirming the reality of something, that is within the range of nana-seeing because it does see in terms of "is" and "is-not"?

I do not understand what you mean by "nana-seen". Nana is "Book Knowledge". We could understand the theory of ultimate existence with Nana. I don't know where you get the idea that what you call "nana-seeing" has anything to do with seeing in terms if "is" and "is-not." We cannot "see" ultimate reality, ever, because it depends, entirely, on having a point of view ("existence", your external ultimate reality, is a point of view, not a real thing). The Pali is not dealing with the issue of existence, period (except, as I said before, as an issue to get away from). Neither ultimate nor conventional. Here we are after a condition which is described as "The End of Dukkha." The End of Pain. The Deathless. Beyond Time. Free. What? The Unborn, Uncreated, Unmade, Unconfounded. None of these descriptions imply any position with regard to existence.

If you understand book learning to be the standard for conventional knowledge and conventional speech, it might be possible to say that Nana sees in terms of "is" and "is not." If that is how you are seeing this, then, yes, the position here is that understanding that we are not speaking about ultimate, we can use words like "I am" and "Please give me my money," etc. But I suspect the way you have it is a remnant of clinging to the hope of finding somewhere an is that is. People do not "see", whether with vijja or Nana or in any other way, an existence. They "believe" there is an existence there. In the Pali we need to communicate like anyone else, so we use the term "is" and "exists" while understanding that these are just words used for convenience.

A: You say that "seeing a thing as existing...depends on point of view." Is seeing at this level always dependent on points of view? At this level, can there be a seeing that is not from a point of view? If we did not have points of views, would we be seeing directly?

First, the meaning is here again that which I explained above: not that "seeing" depends on point of view; but that "seeing a thing as existing" is a point of view. One does not "see" the existence or non-existence of things. One "holds the point of view" that a thing exists or does not exist. This, at any level. Holding points of view obscures seeing things (not existence!) directly, so, yes, if we did not hold on to points of view, we would be seeing directly.

How is this to be understood? At the level of the ordinary common man, that is, one who is seeing by way of the eye and sights, etc then this seeing actually depends on point of view. Were there no point of view there to begin with, there would be no blindness as to how things really are. With no blindness there would be no identification with the eye and sights, etc., with no such identification, there would be no subjective experience of pleasure or pain connected with sight, with no experience of pleasure or pain there would be no desire, with no desire there would be no grasping after the desired or trying to get away from the unpleasant, with no grasping there would be no becoming, with no becoming, no birth, with no birth, no aging, sickness and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery and despair.

If we did not have points of view we would be seeing directly, without the intermediary of the organs of sense.

A: Are these two: "seeing a thing as existing" and "seeing a being as self" the same thing? Since they both depend on point of view, can we say that seeing self is seeing existence, and seeing existence is seeing self? Is it then correct to say that since these two "existences" are mind generated, are not objectively real, are dependent on point of view, then if one were to drop the point of view, both "existence" and "self" would cease to have meaning?

While "existing" and "self" are obviously not the same precisely, the root is the same and the purpose is the same and the rest of your conclusions here are correct. Again, they are irrelevant issues when it comes to Ending Dukkha (not irrelevant in terms of the need to understand and solve the problem).

A: A final point: It seems as if points of view are the bad guys here--all of them needing to be gathered together and deposited under some neat delete icon and doubled clicked with brio. Is there a legitimate use for them? What would become of the world without them? I can't imagine a world without them.

Clinging to Points of view is the error. It's not because there are points of view out there that beings come to a bad end. It is because they identify with points of view. To go further and speculate about a world without them is to go too far with this. Such a thing will not happen.

 

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A: In trying to grasp the Pali way of knowing, I came up against what seems a contradiction but most likely is an explainable paradox. To say that anything, (even to say that nothing, no thing,) is a sign of anything, but is only what it is ... isn't this a point of view?

A: I'm thinking here of your response to V's question concerning the earth realm[3]. You say:

"By having brought your mind to focus down on dirt, what you will have done is gained nothing — there is nothing possible in the perception of dirt that was not present all along. What you will have done is eliminate from your mind all the stuff that is not concerned with the perception of dirt."

A: I can see that "eliminating from the mind all the stuff that is not concerned with the perception of dirt" is not a point of view, but isn't the instruction to do this based on a point of view? That is, the view seems to be that this perception of dirt as dirt is alone what can be known (there is no sermon hidden in the dirt). It may be that this is so, but to say so, isn't this a point of view? Isn't any "say so" a point of view, and isn't the Pali itself a collection of points of view?

It's clear to me that what one comes to know as a result of the Pali teaching does not depend on point of view, one's experience is then what is depended on. But how does one know, for sure, that one's experience is to be depended on? How does one know that "dirt is only dirt"? For sure? And, again, to say that it is only dirt, is this not indulging in views? Or is it sometimes OK to do this? Or am I missing something about points of view? Are not points of views another term for concepts?

You seem to have said in various passages what I have pointed to above, but I still am not able to put it all together. For example, You say on this same page: "...from any point along the way, you could go straight to the Signless, or to the Pointless, or to the Empty...and you would still need to come to the conclusion: This too was confounded, made to become, subject to ending." (Is it correct to say here that because the goal was conceptualized — seen as signless, pointless, empty — its achievement is now not possible?) If this is so — if to conceptualize (have a view of anything?) keeps us from realizing the truth of anything — isn't the following statement, which follows the one above, also a point of view that will keep us from realizing its truth: "There is nothing at all there that can be conceived of in any way whatsoever..."?

You need to complete that last sentence for the meaning to be that intended by the statement.

The complete statement is:

There Is Nothing At All There That Can Be Conceived of In Any Way Whatsoever wherein is delight, wherein is content, but that from its changing and becoming otherwise there will not arise grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair.

And: it is not possible to say that The Goal is conceptualized — or to conclude, once this premise has been accepted that the goal is not achievable --. This is why it was so important to deal with the "atthi" issue earlier. Nowhere in this system is the goal ever stated in anything other than in terms of what it is not. One lives in the Fullness of Emptiness Empty of what is not the Goal, not Full of Empty Habits. Holding on to a view will prevent one from attaining the goal, if, after having conceptualized a method in which conceptualizing itself is seen as the problem, one follows the method, one is not left with a conceptualized conclusion because what one has done is take a course of action, one is not sitting behind a point of view and intellectualizing. . . ahum.

A: I suspect I'm getting confused here with conventional usage and Pali usage, and maybe with a misunderstanding of what perception is. Are the above quoted statements perceptions or conceptions? What is a perception? Since it is distinguished from sensation as one of the aggregates, does it then have some conceptual overtones, that make it seem like a point of view but is not? And finally, back to the statement that began this thread for me: "Seeing a thing as existing depends on point of view." Isn't this statement itself a point of view?

Conventional usage and Pali usage are about the same:

Vedana, veda + dana; the given thrill, or experience is the sensation of pleasure or pain or the absence of either of these two

Sannā, or "sa = one; na = know -ing" is raw perception: "One sees yellow; one sees white; one sees blue-green"

Viññāṇa, or "vi = double, knowing knowing" is awareness of knowing.

Diṭṭhi, or "point of view" is just a higher order functioning of the mind.

All depend, originally on diṭṭhi.

The three (vedana, sannā, and viññāṇa) are an inseparable process that was set going earlier as a consequence of having acted on a point of view: an earlier sankaraming, which was itself conditioned by blindness as to the consequences.

It is at the point of "sankaraming" that the process of binding one's self up in the consequences takes place, so once done, it must be lived out. For the Arahant, who has broken the idea that there is any reality to the idea that this is "Really" himself, this is "that which remains" and he understands it's origin and does no new sankaraming. His actions thenceforth are "selfless"; "acts of abstention" or, understanding the time-limited nature of the body (or even after-death remnants such as consciousness in the various realms), doing that which is one's duty in the compassionate care for it's basic needs (no extra stuff that doesn't just happen to fall to one's lot); when the body (etc) comes to an end, he knows there will be no taking up of any new body (etc), and he is therefore sometimes known as "one bearing his last body".

 

§

 

As I hear you, you are asking these questions:

"What is it that the Pali tells us can be known?"

Your questions about what "Is" is are essentially misdirected. You are trying to determine what the essential "is" is; the Buddha, in dealing with this issue is not trying to answer this question, he is telling us why we should not be asking it: We should not be asking it because there is no way to determine the answer without first superimposing a point of view and by superimposing a point of view one has biased the results.

Of "What is" we can know that it's Mechanism of Action is conditional. "This Being, That Becomes; from the Ending of This, The Ending of That."

So, of "What is", the Pali tells us that what can be known is that It Changes, because it changes it is out of our control and cannot therefore justify the proposition that it belongs to or is in any way connected with the idea of "one's own"; and that whatever is attached to that which changes and is not one's own by way of the Point of View: "This is myself", "This is Mine," will end up experiencing Pain.

Therefore, in the Pali, The Essential Thing we are to Know and See is the Painful nature of being attached to whatever it may be that may be.

"Isn't the Pali, while telling us that Points of View are misleading, determining it's own position and constructing it's methodology based on Points of view?"

A, please do not take offence if I tell you that this is, for sure, taking an argumentative stance.[4] I am not saying that it is dealing with an issue that should not be dealt with in one's thinking: it should be. But the methodology is not that which one has been asked to use in determining the validity of the position: The Buddha asks not a leap of faith, but a testing through trial and error.

Without saying to yourself that it is true, follow the suggested methodology — in brief, Let it Go --, and see for yourself if it does not accomplish what it says it will accomplish: bringing about the end of Pain --.

If I tell you there is a staircase here, at the top of this staircase is a light switch which will illuminate the room at the top of the staircase and you, remaining at the foot of the staircase argue about the possibility of such a light switch existing, about what it means to climb a staircase, about what materials the staircase were made of, about what the essential nature of the switch might be, about the mechanics of it's wiring, about what the light might illuminate, and so on; you will never know because you have not even taken the first step up the staircase.[5]

This is a system that requires "doing it".

The Buddha, after achieving the end result for himself, constructed a system which would take the individual buried deep, deeply attached to the world, from his present condition in the world, whatever level that might be, to the end result.

This system Uses "Point of View," "ditthi", like the staircase. Those who are deeply attached to points of view cannot simply abandon their point of view without some kind of leverage to do so. They have a point of view in the first place in order not to face what they do not understand. So the Point of View used in this system is one which:

1. Explains the Danger of Points of view

2. Explains the mechanism of action of that Danger as originating in Points of View

2. Explains the nature of the method for letting go of Points of view,

and

3. Provides a mechanism for systematically dealing with the issue of letting go of every aspect of every condition of life where Points of View should be let go of, Including, and Concluding In, the Letting Go of All Points of View Whatsoever, including, the Point of View on which the system itself is based.

What mechanism?

Samma Point of View, Sammā Diṭṭhi. A view, or set of views artificially constructed in a way which self-destructs. The system uses a point of view to get rid of points of view. In fact it is made clear by the simile of the raft that even sammā diṭṭhi can be dangerous if it is held onto after it has accomplished it's purpose.

The difficulty here is greatly complicated by translating the term "sammā" as "Right". It is not an incorrect translation, in that the word comes from the carpenters term: Upright, Perpendicular, or Straight; but today nobody hears that meaning and what is heard in it's place is Righteous, Correct, The Only Way, and so forth. The latter is incorrect. A better meaning is from another way the word has come down to us: sum, summa, summit, the highest, or peak or consummate, meaning the most expeditious. I use "high" only because "con-summit" is awk-word to my e-yar.

With regard to the method described in the Emptiness Sutta: Here your attention has been misdirected. The idea is not to describe the nature of what is, it is to describe the method of getting rid of attachment to what interrupts Objective Detachment or emptiness. The only thing being said about focusing on earth is that it is the method for ending attention to the forest, etc.

One measures one's success, or, the dependability of one's experience, or the dependability of the system — based on whether or not, if one follows it to the letter, it accomplishes the stated goal.

Here the goal is stated to be the ending of Pain by way of the ending of the conditions that bring about Pain. So here we judge by asking: Did good conditions increase and bad conditions decrease? And we define good conditions as the ending of bad conditions and bad conditions as Pain and it's cause: Attachment.

When you ask: How does one know that "dirt is only dirt"? you are reading meaning into things that isn't there. It is not being stated that "Dirt, is only dirt" in a philosophical sense. It was being stated that what was meant by focusing on dirt was to focus on dirt, and not on "the fundamental 'grounds' of things, and so forth. There are schools of Buddhism out there that do say things that sound like this, and that might be the source of your thinking that this is being said here.

 

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This is a short essay that might provide some insight into what the importance is of getting one's mind straight about existence and non existence and self and not self. This is not exactly how I would put it, but neither do I find any fault with it:

See Emptiness Resources, Emptiness

by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Emptyness

 


[1]I had the same impression...that you were hearing words that had no relationship to the ones I was using.

[2]This is the very edge of madness here! I can actually see how A is misunderstanding the words I am using, but I am having a devil of a time figuring out how to state the matter in a way that avoids the danger of the same misunderstanding. Try the simile of the stream again. What we are saying is that it is not possible to say that there is a stream there because that would necessitate the freezing in position of all the water molecules, currents, banks, etc that make up that stream. It is because it is impossible to point to the existence of a single thing there that is a stream that we cannot argue the existence or non existence of the stream. When some beggar comes along and says "I am going to cross the stream" he is speaking conventionally. We understand what he is talking about without arguing the ultimate existence of the stream. Arguing the ultimate existence of the stream will not help him cross the stream. When some person comes along saying there is ultimate existence to the stream, we say: he comes to that conclusion dependant on a point of view which ignores the molecular and transitory nature of that stream. In this way we can point to his conclusion about the existence of the stream as incorrect. When some beggar comes along having heard this argument and says: "There is no stream there." we say he has arrived at this conclusion based on a point of view. He has looked only at the molecular and transitory nature of the stream and seeing the error of holding the viewpoint that the stream exists, forms the opinion that it does not exist. We then needs must point to the ordinary reality, where, if there were no stream there, he would not need a boat to cross it, and such like.

[3]See: DhammaTalk: Emptiness

[4]And I am absolutely certain that it is this tenancy towards argumentativeness that is obstructing A's ability to comprehend.

[5]The Pali has another simile for this which I remember now: A man is struck with a poisoned arrow, but before he will allow the doctor to remove the arrow, he asks about the length of the shaft, the nature of the poison, the doctor's qualifications, etc etc., meanwhile, of course, the poison has done it's work.


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