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Consciousness Concepts of Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)

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Though one were to live a hundred years immoral and with a mind unstilled by meditation, the life of a single day is better if one is moral and practices meditation.

Though one were to live a hundred years without wisdom and with a mind unstilled by meditation, the life of a single day is better if one is wise and practices meditation.

Though one were to live a hundred years without seeing the rise and passing of things, the life of a single day is better if one sees the rise and passing of things.

Though one were to live a hundred years without seeing the deathless state, the life of a single day is better if one sees the deathless state.

Though one were to live a hundred years without seeing the supreme truth, the life of a single day is better if one sees the supreme truth.

(Saying of the Buddha from the Dhammapada, Verses 110-115, Translation by John Richards)

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Siddhartha Gautama (known as Siddhattha Gotama in the Pali language) was born in about 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal; he died in 483 B.C. in Kusinara, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh Province, India.  I consider him to be the greatest of the shower of stars or group of great thinkers who lived during the 6th Century B.C.

His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya Kingdom; his mother was Queen Maya.  Siddhartha grew up living the luxurious life of a young prince. According to custom, at the age of sixteen, he married a girl named Yasodhara. They lived a typically upper class life for many years and during this time they had one son named Rahula. However, soon after the birth of his son, Siddhartha became aware for the first time of the suffering and misery of most of the people in his kingdom. Subsequently, at the age of 29, he left his kingdom and newborn son to lead an ascetic life and determine a way to relieve universal suffering.

For six years, Siddhartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, studying and following different methods of meditation with various Brahman teachers, but he was never fully satisfied. One day, however, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl and he accepted it. In that moment, he realized that extreme physical austerity was not the means to achieve liberation. From then on, he encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He called this The Middle Way.

One night, when Siddhartha was 35, he sat under a tree on the bank of the River Neranjara (in modern Bihar Province, India) and meditated until dawn. He successfully cleared his mind of all physical attachments and attained enlightenment, thus, he subsequently became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. The tree under which he had sat, henceforth, became known as the Bohdi-Tree or tree of wisdom. For the remainder of his eighty years, the Buddha taught the set of truths (called the Dharma in Sanskrit or the Dhamma in Pali) that he had learned during his enlightened state in an effort to help other sentient beings to also reach enlightenment.

Although most people consider the Buddha to be a religious thinker, I strongly disagree.  The Buddha was primarily concerned with understanding the nature of consciousness and the human mind; he was not interested in any of the deities that were worshipped in his time.  Indeed, he seems to have denied the existence of any personal god or gods.  Although the Buddha could be classified as a philosopher, I believe that he was primarily a psychologist.  His central issue of concern was the human mind and, of course, that is now the central concern of modern Western psychology.

Although Buddhism is considered by most people to be a religion, my opinion is that the teachings of Buddhism constitute a psychological system.  Religions are belief systems that include most of the following characteristics:

1)  Belief in a god or gods which are usually personal in nature;

2)  Belief that prayers offered to the god or gods are efficacious to the supplicant;

3)  Belief that each human being possesses some sort of an immortal component, which in Christian belief is called a soul;

4)  Belief that after the death of the physical body, the surviving immortal component will dwell in either a heaven (good place) or a hell (bad place);

5)  Since there is little or no empirical evidence to support any of the above beliefs, humans are required to accept these beliefs on faith alone.

Based upon my limited review of the various branches of Buddhism, I find that many Buddhist groups reject all of the above cited characteristics.  In particular, this is true of Theravada Buddhism which is discussed in more detail below.  It is very important to note that faith plays no significant role in Buddhism.  Indeed, the Buddha was very explicit in asserting that he was a teacher who could show the way, but achieving the goal of enlightenment was the responsibility of each individual seeker. A well-known saying of the Buddha cited in the Pali Dhammapada (verse 276) is:

It is you who must make the effort; the masters only point the way. But if you meditate and follow the dharma you will free yourself from desire.

(Translation by Thomas Byrom, Oxford University)

Buddhist Writings

As mentioned in the Introduction to this website, the Buddha was an oral teacher only; he left no writings.  Indeed for many years after his death, his teachings were only promulgated by word of mouth.  It was not until about 100 B.C., more than three centuries after the Buddha's death, that at least some of his teachings were put into writing. The collection of these earliest writings, rendered in the Pali Language (probably the native language of Buddha) are referred to as the Pali Canon.

The Pali Canon consists of three sections, the Tipitaka (in Sanskrit, Tripitaka), a term which literally means the "three baskets." Each of these baskets has different concerns:

1)  The Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of Discipline, which includes the rules of monastic discipline given by the Buddha during his lifetime.

2)  The Sutta Pitaka, a collection of the Buddha's discourses. This has particular significance as it contains the essential teachings of the Buddha, accounts of his own enlightenment experience, and instructions on morality and meditation.  Perhaps the best known work in this section is a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha known as the Dhammapada.

3) The Abhidhamma Pitaka or Higher Teachings which offers an intricate analysis of the nature of mental and physical existence.

The Pali Canon is probably the closest one can get to the authentic teachings of the Buddha. The Pali scriptures are the nearest in time to when he lived and, although they are somewhat ritualistic in nature, I have a feeling that they represent true teachings of the Buddha. Furthermore, there is an intellectual consistency throughout the different discourses that helps to support their authenticity.

Three Seals of the Dharma

Based upon my limited review of the Pali Canon and of a select few Buddhist commentators, both ancient and modern-day, I have concluded that the teachings of Theravada Buddhism are those most closely connected to the actual oral teachings of the Buddha.  Based on the Theravada tradition, my understandings of the Buddha's concepts pertaining to  human consciousness are given in the next few paragraphs.

In my opinion, the main ideas of the Buddhist psychology of consciousness are contained in those teachings pertaining to the so-called three Dharma Seals. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition all consciousness phenomena possess three characteristics which are referred to in Pali as: 1) the Anicca, 2) the Dukkha, and 3) the Anatta.

1)  Anicca – The Characteristic of Impermanence:

The Pali term Anicca means the absence of continuity or the absence of permanence. The Anicca is viewed as a universal characteristic that may be applied to all phenomena in the Cosmos, including all of our sensory experiences.  In my opinion, this viewpoint is very similar to one held by one of Buddha's Greek contemporaries, Heraclitus of Ephesus.

According to the Anicca concept, all human perceptions concerning the Phenomenal World (in the Kantian sense) are inherently subject to change and decay, as soon as they appear. This aspect of change or impermanence is vividly shown by the simple fact that phenomena appear. As soon as a phenomenon becomes manifest, we recognize its impermanent nature; before it occurred, it had not manifested yet now it is here before us and we can ascertain that it just appeared. Therefore a change took place, but this phenomenon will have a limited duration and will inevitably disappear. As soon as it appears, a kind of natural law compels it to ultimately vanish. This is valid for all sensory phenomena without exception.

Pursuant to the doctrine of Anicca human consciousness undergoes ceaseless mutations. All of our experiences, even those experiences while in a meditative or transcendental state (see discussion of meditation below), are transitory by nature.  If, by means of meditation, we succeed in reaching a transcendent, unitary state similar to the ones depicted in the Buddhist and Hindu spiritual literature, we imagine that we have seen "face to face" an eternal substratum, essence or immutable substance not subject to the law of impermanence.  However, the simple fact that we have reached this meditative state or "experience", to have attained something, vividly shows that this object of experience is subject to change. Why? Because prior to being experienced, this stage had not been reached yet; there is something that began to become manifest, a state of emerging, culminating in a state involving the immersion of ordinary consciousness.

2)  Dukka – The Characteristic of Suffering:

In Pali, the word Dukkha means sorrow, pain and suffering. It is believed to be a dominant characteristic in the world in which we live. According to the Buddha, the simple fact of living is marked by the characteristic of Dukkha, which is suffering made manifest in many forms. It can be the sorrow that one experiences in sadness, in the misery or the difficulties of this life. It can also be the sorrow that can be felt when one is saturated with pleasure, to the point that the object of pleasure itself becomes disgusting and repulsive. It is the pain to be separated from those we love, and it is also that of having to endure the presence of those whom we do not love. It is the pain of not living in places where we would like to live, and also that of being forced to live in places where we do not want to live.

In one way or another, most situations in which we find ourselves are painful. Because of this assertion, the Buddha's teachings are often accused of being unduly pessimistic.  Sometimes it is said that the world is not that painful because there is always hope. There is the hope of a better world, the hope to gain paradise, to create a happier world, to build an environment that is more humane and balanced. When people say that the world is not so unhappy because there is hope, the Buddha tells us that it is precisely because there is hope, which indicates that the world is much more unhappy than we think it is.

Most humans live in hope for a better future; this is already in itself a way of admitting that the present is not so pleasant. Unfortunately, it is obvious that the world is full of difficulties. For some people there are unbearable sufferings, some must suffer very serious and very painful diseases. Humans must endure the oppression of insane governments, suffer debilitating accidents, etc.  Others, who do not face such cruel sufferings, have, nevertheless, experienced all kinds of sorrows in daily life, like having to work in an organization with people one does not like, or the difficulty of having lost a close relation, the difficulty of having been ill, or, even, the pain that one can experience when seeing the others' suffering.

For this reason many humans have, over the course of many centuries, imagined an eternal paradise where all beings live in perfect happiness. For some, this paradise is a democratic state; when living in a country oppressed by a totalitarian regime. For others, it is place of wealth and prosperity; when living in a very poor country where one must work much to earn very little. For some, it is the artificial paradise of drugs; when living amid personal malaise or socio-economic problems. No religion – including Buddhism – seems to have escaped these fantasies

What is useful concerning these fantasies, is that it provides further proof that the world in which we live today is filled with suffering. However, the disadvantage of believing in the fantasy of a future paradise, is that it often prevents people from building a decent life within the present. Thus, people have a tendency to be diverted from effectively dealing with everyday reality, in favor of an imaginary future that they themselves have fabricated.

Many people of all religions, including many Buddhists, believe in the fantasy of a future paradise. These people seem to believe that, because during life they made offerings to their god or gods, recited ritual prayers, or otherwise did all that the clergy of their respective religions demanded of them; they will go to some sort of paradise after death. They imagine that they will go to a splendid world where they will no longer experience the poverty, illness, or other sorrows of everyday life.  This belief is totally contradictory to the teachings of the Buddha.

To the Buddha, sorrow in all its forms is a general characteristic of the world; he did not delude his audience with the dream of a glorious future in paradise.. He had the intellectual honesty to warn us concerning the fact that we cannot buy a place in an imaginary paradise.  According to the Buddha, our most significant goal is not the acquisition of happiness. The most significant goal is to reach the end, the cessation, the extinction, the disappearance of sorrow.

Pursuant to the Dukkha, sorrow is an intrinsic component of our world. The Buddha tells us that there is a cause for this sorrow, and that because sorrow is in the world, there must also be the possibility to put an end to sorrow. As an analogy, consider the case of disease in the world; because there is disease in the world there also exists the cure. If there were no disease there would, of course, be no cure.  The Buddha does not offer happiness, eternal life, or life in a divine paradise as being the answer to the  question of suffering. He has told us that the answer is the end of suffering.  For the Buddha, just as the only alternative to light is darkness, the only alternative to suffering is the cessation of suffering.

3)  Anatta -- The Characteristic of No-Self:

In my opinion this concept is probably the most abstruse and elegant teaching of Theravada Buddhism.  Many Theravada Buddhists believe that this concept should only be properly taught by a master who has himself/herself obtained a state of permanent enlightenment.  That may be true, however, I will attempt to give my rather simplistic and naive explanation of this doctrine in the following few paragraphs!

To the best of my knowledge, the doctrine of the Anatta, as taught and expounded in Theravada Buddhism, is not found in any other system of thought, including modern Mahayana Buddhism. The term Anatta is a Pali word, not Sanskrit; it is not a direct equivalent of the frequently substituted Sanskrit word "Anatman."

The Buddha did not make use of the more technical Sanskrit words that refer to spiritual techniques and religious beliefs. Instead, he used the everyday words spoken by the Magadha people of his country; Pali is the written form these words. The Buddha's strictly oral teaching does not seem to contain any specific technical vocabulary associated with philosophical or religious ideas or concepts. In India at that time, such technical words were found only in the Sanskrit language. It should be noted that Sanskrit and Pali are closely related to each other, but are not identical.

The word "Anatta" is the combination of two particles: a privative prefix "a" and the particle designating the idea of reflexivity or reciprocity, "atta."  The concept of Anatta suggests the absence of a soul; however, there are other words designating this in the Pali language. In English, we use a word like "not-self" or "no-self" because English has a word designating the reflexive particle; that word is "self".   In my view a legitimate translation of the Pali word "Anatta" is "no-self."

The doctrine of "no-self" or "Anatta" teaches that we do not possess a permanent and unchanging self. What is normally thought of as the "self" or ordinary consciousness is in fact only a complex compound of constantly changing mental states. The false belief that this temporal assemblage forms some kind of immutable and enduring self or soul may even become a cause of much unhappiness. In other words, our ordinary common-sense idea that we each possess an independent conscious self is an illusion!

Furthermore, the belief that this self possesses independent will or volition is also an illusion. The doctrine of the Anatta asserts that each event occurring in our lives and every action that we take are ineluctable and uncontrollable. We cannot really say: "we do." Our responses to events are essentially mechanical in nature. However, one should not become despondent by believing that our lives are just like airplanes operating under automatic pilot and everything is ruled in advance. The Buddha taught that this attitude is false, nothing is ruled in advance! It happens, it unfolds, admittedly, but it is not defined, established or ruled in advance.

Doctrine of Rebirth - Samsara

Embedded at the heart of Buddhist psychology lies a seeming paradox.  In contrast to the teachings of the Hindu Upanishads, the Buddha stated quite clearly that the self is an illusion and thus man has no real self or soul, i.e., no-self (Anatta in Pali).  However, there are cycles of rebirth (in Pali, Samsara) from one body to another one. This poses a difficult question: If there is no self or soul, what is it that reincarnates?  Before I try to provide an answer, it should be noted that the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth should be distinguished from the Hindu theory of reincarnation which implies the transmigration of a soul and its invariable material rebirth.

As mentioned in my discussion of the Anatta concept (see above), Buddhism denies the existence of an unchanging or eternal soul created by some god or group of gods.  The view of most religions, including Christianity, is that each human possess an immortal soul, which is supposed to be the essence of that person and eternal.  To Christians, Moslems and others, an immortal soul is absolutely necessary to support the existence of a felicitous, eternal heaven and unending torments of an eternal hell. Otherwise, what is it that is punished in hell or rewarded in heaven?

It is no secret that most Western neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists consider the concepts of heaven and hell to be childish fantasies; they also assert that there is no evidence whatsoever that humans possess immortal souls.  For the most part, the Theravada Buddhists agree with these Western viewpoints.  In fact, the Buddha anticipated these findings more than 2500 years ago.

According to the Buddhist Anatta doctrine (see above), our conscious mind is nothing but a complex compound of fleeting mental states. A conscious thought passes through three phases -- an arising or genesis phase,  a static or development phase, and a cessation or dissolution stage. Immediately after the cessation stage of a thought there occurs the genesis stage of a subsequent thought. Taken together, these thoughts form a seemingly never ending stream of consciousness. These thoughts are part of an ever-changing life-process; each thought, on passing away, transmits its whole energy and all of its indelibly recorded impressions to its successor. Every fresh conscious thought consists of the potentialities of its predecessors together with something more.  A subsequent thought increment is neither identical to its predecessor nor entirely independent of its predecessor; both being part of the same continuity of kamma (Karma in Sanskrit) energy.  Thus, the Buddha's concept is that there is no identical being but there is an identity contained in the process of moving from one thought to another.

With respect to consciousness, in every temporal moment there is birth and in every moment there is death. The arising of one thought-moment means the passing away of another thought-moment and vice versa. In the course of one life-time there is momentary rebirth without the need for a soul.

However, it should not be understood that consciousness is chopped up in bits and joined together like a train or a chain. On the contrary, consciousness flows like a river receiving sensory input from various tributary streams and dispensing to the world the thoughts produced along its course.  Consciousness has birth as its source and death for its mouth. The rapidity of the thought flow is such that is there no standard whereby it can be even approximately measured.  However, some Theravada Buddhist commentators say that the time duration of one thought-moment is even less than the time occupied by a flash of lightning.

To the Buddha, consciousness should be envisioned as a juxtaposition of these fleeting mental states as opposed to a superposition of such mental states as many religions such as Hinduism appear to believe. No mental state once gone ever recurs nor is identical with what goes before. Thus, most humans, veiled by the web of their own illusions, mistake this apparent continuity to be something eternal and go to the extent of introducing an unchanging soul, the supposed doer and receptacle of all actions to this ever-changing consciousness.

Our ordinary perception of human consciousness is similar to the perception of a flash of lightning containing a succession of sparks that follow upon one another with such rapidity that the human retina cannot perceive them separately.  Likewise, an ordinary person, without proper instruction, cannot perceive this rapid succession of separate mental states.  Ordinary human consciousness is in being or alive only for one thought-moment at a time. This consciousness is always in the present, but is ever slipping into the irrevocable past. What we shall become is determined by this present thought-moment.

At the beginning of this section I asked: "If there is no self or soul, what is it that reincarnates?"  The Buddha's answer -- there is nothing to be reborn.  When life ceases, the kammic energy re-materializes itself in another form. Unseen it passes to wherever the conditions appropriate to its visible manifestation are present. It may show itself as a tiny worm or fly, or it may make its presence known as an important king or a plutocrat.  When one mode of its manifestation ceases, it merely passes on; where suitable circumstances are present, it reveals itself afresh in another form.

In Buddhism, birth is the arising of certain psycho-physical phenomena; death is merely the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.  Just as the arising of a physical state is conditioned by its preceding causal states, so the appearance of psycho-physical phenomena is conditioned by causes anterior to its birth. As the process of one life-span is possible without a permanent entity passing from one thought-moment to another, so a series of life-processes is possible without an immortal soul to transmigrate from one existence to another.

Theravada Buddhism does not totally deny the existence of individual personality in an empirical sense. It only attempts to show that it does not exist in an ultimate sense. An individual human self is considered to be merely a flux or a continuity. The self includes both mental and physical elements. It is the kammic force of each individual that binds these elements together. This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomena, which is conditioned by kamma, is not limited only to the present life, but has its source in an indefinite past and will continue on into the indefinite future.  This concept is the Buddhist substitute for the permanent self and/or immortal soul believed in by most of the World's religions.

Levels of Consciousness

The Theravada Buddhists teach that there are four principal layers or levels of human consciousness:

1)  A first or primary level where the immediate experience is in the present moment of the stream of consciousness. This is the level of pure consciousness phenomena before judgment and concept comes into play. This is the moment of pure awareness or primary cognition before the mind comes into operation with its judgments and concepts. In a sense, we could say that this pure awareness is beyond the mind, at least in the sense that it occurs before the various mental processes of the mind come into operation. Sensation occurs at this primary level.

2)  A secondary level where the processes of perceiving, thinking, judging, and conceptualizing come into operation. Language and memory also occur here. Collectively these processes are known in Buddhist psychology as functional perception. This is a meta-process that organizes sensation into a recognizable perception having an identity and a name. Collectively, the programs that accomplish this are known as the functional mind.

3)  A third level where ego identification and emotional reactions occur. Ego identification is the process where we identify ourselves with each sensation, thought, or emotion that arise in consciousness. This false identification is then compounded by retaining this fictitious “I” which does not belong to immediate experience. As a result, certain impulses, thoughts, and emotions arise out of unconsciousness as reactions to the perceptions constructed at the secondary level. These unconsciousness impulses include both thoughts and emotions; they basically represent energy emerging from the unconscious. Action may occur at this point impulsively or there may occur a further elaborations in terms of thoughts and emotions.

4)  A fourth level where advanced concepts are created, e.g., those relating to cultural, social and personal interactions, as well as ethical considerations. Here commences the processes that elaborate thoughts, building the original perception into a concept and a thought construction. This is the meta-process of discursive thought. It is on this plane that our consciousness usually dwells, the plane furthest removed from immediate experience in terms of time and space. When discursive thought is operating, the immediate experience is already long in the past. Therefore, our consciousness is living in the past, not in the present.

Vipassana meditation

Most people are aware that meditation is an important part of the practice of Buddhism.  There are several major Buddhist schools of meditation. For the most part, the Theravada Buddhists use the methods of the Vipassana School. The methods of Vipassana (in Sanskrit, Vipashyana) are quite complex and require much more delineation than I can provide at this website. It should be noted that this type of meditation is similar to the "self-remembering" methodology used by many of the so-called Fourth Way schools. The following paragraphs present a very abbreviated version of my understanding of Vipassana meditation.

As discussed above, the Buddhist view is that both mental and material events occur in the stream of consciousness of each individual. These elementary events can be observed and brought into view through the use of meditation.  The practice of Vipassana meditation purportedly is able to slow down the processes of consciousness, that normally occur very rapidly, so that one may observe the operation of discrete events. This is like putting a motion picture projector into slow motion. Through introspection or higher insight (Vipassana), we can observe at first hand how the mind works. The mental and physical events that occur in consciousness which comprise these processes can then be brought into view.

Buddhist teachings speak of both the insubstantiality and the illusionary nature of all sensory phenomena. However, the illusion that we naively call “the real world” is not something passive; it is something energetic and dynamic. This energy manifests itself as processes. We can discover the mind as process through the practice of meditation. Usually our mental processes  occur very rapidly, often in mere hundredths of a second.  So, how can we discover what we actually experience? Not what we think we experience, which represents false judgments and concepts, but what we actually experience at the primary level. We must first slow down the processes of the mind and then perform self-observation.

One of the most important concepts in Vipassana meditation is something called mindfulness or mindful awareness. Mindfulness is an awareness that is present together with our immediate experience, whether sensations, thoughts, or emotions. This awareness is not distracted or caught up in any secondary mental processes, but remains at the primary level of immediate experience.  The Buddhist exercise for mindfulness is fourfold: there is mindfulness on bodily sensations, mindfulness on feelings and emotions, mindfulness on thoughts, and mindfulness of subliminal processes. Mindfulness is just being present. It is self-remembering, a remembering to be aware, a coming back to center again and again.  In this process, we are easily distracted; that is our habit and we continuously impose our conceptions on what we experience. Accordingly, to be successful, it is very important to fully develop this mindful presence so that we can subsequently engage in useful self-observation or introspection.

Up Daniel Wegner Julian Jaynes Stephen Pinker The Buddha

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