Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere, or through anger or resistance wish for another to suffer.

20 December 2009

With insight we are safe from pain

"The Buddha's teaching of Insight is — in as few words as possible — the training in knowledge and seeing of how it is that anything, whatever it may be whether objective or subjective, comes to be; how it acquires existence only through dependence on conditions, and is impermanent because none of the conditions for its existence is permanent; and how existence, always complex and impermanent, is never safe from pain, and is in need of a self — the will-o'-the-wisp idea, the rainbow mirage, which lures it on, and which it can never find; for the comforting illusion has constantly to be renewed. And that teaching also shows how there is a true way out from fear of pain. In its concise form this is expressed as the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of suffering's origin (craving or need), the truth of suffering's cessation (through abandonment of craving), and the truth of the way leading to suffering's cessation. These four truths are called the teaching peculiar to Buddhas (Buddhanam samukkamsika-desana) since the discovery of them is what distinguishes Buddhas." Ñanamoli Thera -The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon
The image above is probably not familiar to many who otherwise feel they have a good grasp of the central Buddhist conceptions, namely impermanence - annicca, suffering - dukkha, and non-self - annatta. Here the Buddha is represented as the Wheel of Dhamma atop a pillar. At the time this wonderfully dynamic image was being carved at Sanchi (1st-2nd century BCE) he was also being represented as a dome-shaped stupa, a bodhi tree, an oblong seat, or two horizontal parallel lines. This subtle, symbolic, non-human, aniconic representation of Gotama persisted for centuries after his death. This truth is hard to grasp, even hard to accept, for many modern explorers of dhamma, particularly those who are drawn towards a religious reverence for the practice of insight, who like to see in statues an embodiment of an ideal. For more than 2000 years the Buddha has been conceived of as an iconic image of a man in robes seated in the familiar lotus position, the eyes closed or partly open, the hands arranged in one of the classical symbolic gestures or mudra: both resting in the lap in meditation, one touching the ground to indicate the moment of enlightenment, or both arranged in a teaching or calming posture, the fingers joined or open depending on the knowledge or intention of the artist or the patron. There is a considerable literature on the emergence of this iconic image.(The link above is a good place to explore this fascinating story).
Suffice to say, the need for an image of the Tathagata is directly related to the human urge to establish a rainbow self, a will-o-the-wisp, exactly in line with the teaching of Dhamma and the Four Noble Truths. The image above, from the 1st century BCE, is a poignant and deeply personal statement from the historical development of an image of the Buddha. Here a monk has etched into stone a crude image of the Buddha as a human figure with a stupa for a head. How this image "came to be" can be interpreted as a cry from the heart. Someone practicing samadhi - meditative concentration, frequently encounters images, signs, portents, causes - nimitta, that arise spontaneously from the simple process of being involved in exploration of the mind and body - nama and rupa. These signs can appear to be bad, ugly, fearful - dunnimitta, or appear to be good, pleasant, beautiful - subhanimitta. They are not truly either; they are merely products of the process of impermanent existence. They may, however, when viewed correctly as impermanent, fleeting phenomena, become deeply useful parts of the process of achieving insight and hence wisdom. 

What does this have to do with pain? The greatest part of the wisdom of dhamma is to fully appreciate that "everyone wants to come out of misery, to live a life of peace and harmony...It was Siddhattha Gotama's enlightenment that made him realize the truth: where misery lies, how it starts, and how it can be eradicated." - Goenkaji. The practice of Vipassana is the exploration of the entire field of reality encountered from moment to moment, including the images and thoughts, hopes and fears, that arise from the practice. At one level the popular image of Buddhist practice is that it is rather severe, cold, analytical, hard to grasp,impersonal,mysterious, religious, mystical, exotic, unrelenting, austere, remote. The image above tells a different story. Here a human being has sat in contemplation and, lo and behold, something has arisen. Compelled by its uniqueness, he has brought it from his inner eye to his hand and left it crudely scratched on a rock wall for us to see. Has he transgressed? Some would say so. He has - and his gender is a guess - indulged in a fascination with the product of his mind. But he has done so fearlessly.There is a joyful energy at work in this little work of art and it is reminiscent in energy, if not in technical skill, of the wonderful sculpted image from Sanchi shown at the top of the page. Look closely at the arrangement of figures clustered around the pillar. How purposeful and ardent they are in their devotion, their palms pressed together in the prayer mudra, their bodies tense with joyful exuberance. The Wheel of Dhamma spins above them in a dizzying display of the power of the idea at the heart of their excitement. These are not blind devotees of some remote and unattainable deity, but fully realised beings happy to be human (or indeed happy to be witnessing the truly human in action, as these may be devas - spirit representations of forces beyond the mundane). The point remains that the setting in motion of the dhamma wheel is for all beings - male, female, young,old,king or slave - a thing to celebrate. It is above all a thing to be experienced personally, felt deeply and expressed vividly. There is something deeply reassuring in knowing that this sense of joy that anyone who begins to explore dhamma feels, has not been some recent invention, but rather has been there from the beginning, some 2500 years ago.
A second nimitta image from the same site as the stupa-head, perhaps by the same artist, only adds to our understanding of this continuously evolving perception of the Buddha image. Here the stupa has become the body of a meditating monk, sitting inside another stupa. The seven steps curving towards the figure indicate the Eight-Fold Path, which it is necessary to follow in order to reach happiness. Many may know that stupas traditionally contain a figure of the Buddha. This image suggests how such an artistic tradition emerged. The wayfarer of the suttas makes explicit statements regarding living away from settlements, in forests, in graveyards and so on. He never makes any claim that buildings should be erected for his benefit or for that of the sangha.This image suggests it is the body of the monk that makes the stupa, not the other way around. Housed in the body, the conscious mind is its own temple, so to speak. Or, rather, it is the perception of space - the non-emptiness of consciousness, the attending to and not attending to of perception that is so involving when the practice of Insight is undertaken that it demands to be given some expression as an abstract diagram, an image, and hence to representation in human form, so that finally the figure of the sitting Buddha emerges from history. Exactly this conception of inter-dimensionality is brilliantly outlined in the Cula-Sunnata Sutta:The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness. Ultimately, the way beyond pain is available. Come and see. May all beings find happiness!

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