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training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no

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Disclaimer: I've writtent this mainly in order to "get it out of my system". Still, if anyone feels inclined to comment or answer, it would be very much appreciated.

Buddhist discourse carries a lot of century-old conceptual baggage that is confusing and hard to relate to from the standpoint of a modern life. Upon reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu's book "With each and every breath" I have found that the notion of "putting an end to suffering / stress" is highly problematic for me.

I can of course see why the idea of "ending suffering" would appeal to people who are forced to live their lives in difficult circumstances, surrounded by illness, poverty, war, political suppression etc. But that doesn't seem to be the idea of Theravada, at least if I understand Thanissaro correctly. He seems to be saying that the suffering that is eventually eliminated by practice is the suffering that the mind creates for itself "needlessly".

This seems to imply the following model: The mind, if left alone, tends to create a lot of suffering for itself, regardless of external conditions, i.e. even if you live in paradise, you suffer now and then, because your mind misbehaves. Buddhist practice (as described by Thanissaro) approaches this problem in two steps.

First, it trains the mind to create less (and less severe) suffering for itself. Thanissaro calls this "fabricating more skillfully". This means, in Thanissaro's terms, that the practitioner for example seeks pleasure and recreation in Jhana instead of going out and getting drunk or high etc. I would add that noting and metta practices and many other kinds of practice can fall into this category, if they are integrated into day-to-day life and done in order to improve the quality of life here and now, i.e. without too much attainment orientation.

Having calmed the mind down and trained it to "fabricate skillfully", the second step in practice, which Thanissaro calls "insight", consists in teaching the mind that every kind of fabrication, i.e. every action, perception, feeling, thought etc. is in itself bound to suffering and stress. Fabrication itself, i.e. all sorts of mental and physical activity, skillful and unskillful alike, are to be seen as stressful. When the mind sees this clearly, it turns toward "the deathless", which is free from fabrication and thus free from suffering.

It is this second step that I can't understand. In my own words, this means that practice is not only supposed to help me get some control over the amount of suffering I create for myself (which I find very reasonable), but its ultimate goal is to teach me that all the capacities to feel, think, imagine, act etc. that I have because I am an embodied being are "not worth the effort", because they entail the capacity to suffer. Ultimately then, the goal seems to be to get rid of these capacities in order not to suffer from them.

I don't see how this can be a reasonable goal, because for me it's obvious that the capacity to suffer is not separate from the capacity to feel joy or happiness. Both are consequences of the sensual and mental makeup of embodied beings, and thus the idea of getting rid of one implies getting rid of the other. There is no distinct sensory or mental apparatus for experiencing suffering that can be shut down by practice, and sensations of suffering are in their essence not different from any other sensations (impermanent, not personal, causal etc.). With this in mind, I don't see why anybody would ever want to "put an end to suffering", because he/she would simultaneously and inevitably "put an end to happiness" as well.

Even if I take Thannissaro's qualification of "needless" suffering into account, the idea doesn't really add up: The capacity to "inflict needless suffering" upon myself is bound (by logic and in experience) to the capacity to create "needless", i.e. spontaneous joy and happiness for myself. Both are consequences of mind and body. Getting rid of one implies getting rid of the other.

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/3/13 6:36 AM as a reply to Christian Calamus.
For me this brings up the difference between two overarching views--

1) every conditioned thing (thought, feeling, sensation, etc) is dukkha as such

2) every conditioned thing is experienced as dukkha when related to as if it is unconditionally available, i.e., as if it were permanent/solid/stable, and as if it were being apprehended by a substantial subject who can actually have and lose phenomena it likes and be forced to endure phenomena it doesn't like.

These two views are not well distinguished in modern Theravada in my opinion. When I look at traditional Theravada though, and also at the critiques of it from Mahayana and other traditions (Taoism for example), it seems like it generally expresses view 1 above. Conditioned things are inherently stressful, dukkha. Yet my experience suggests that's not true; view 2 corresponds better for me.

View 1 entails a path OUT of conditioned being. Step one, mind becomes liberated from grasping conditioned phenomena. Step two body dies and that's that.

View 2 entails an assymetrical understanding of the three characteristics in that dukkha is not equal to emptiness and impermanence. Dukkha is what you get when you view empty impermanent phenomena through the lens of permanence and separateness. When you drop the false interpretation of phenomena and relax the clinging/resistance that comes with it, there is just open empty impermanence dancing as the phenomena of your life.

View 2 implies the possibility of being a complete human being, in which the human body and mind do not need to become more and more like the deathless (more and more still, unmoved, quiet, peaceful), because with view 2 there is nothing inherently wrong with phenomena, with emptiness and impermanence. View 2 lets conditioned beings arise, do their thing, and dissolve without clinging to them, and lets the deathless/unconditioned be still in its own place.

This place in experience where the unconditioned and the conditions which arise and pass do not conflict and even have a kinship seems to me the root of Mahayana and Vajrayana as well as Taoist teachings, and perhaps some Theravada too.

Point is, it seems quite possible in my experience to engage mind training in order to uproot false views about phenomena and this results in less and less suffering (perhaps eventually none) and yet this can occur without eliminating the arising of phenomena (or even any particular class of phenomena, like thoughts or feelings or any other 'culprit').

What is your experience with mind training?

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/3/13 8:22 AM as a reply to . Jake ..
. Jake .:

View 2 entails an assymetrical understanding of the three characteristics in that dukkha is not equal to emptiness and impermanence. Dukkha is what you get when you view empty impermanent phenomena through the lens of permanence and separateness. When you drop the false interpretation of phenomena and relax the clinging/resistance that comes with it, there is just open empty impermanence dancing as the phenomena of your life.

View 2 implies the possibility of being a complete human being, in which the human body and mind do not need to become more and more like the deathless (more and more still, unmoved, quiet, peaceful), because with view 2 there is nothing inherently wrong with phenomena, with emptiness and impermanence. View 2 lets conditioned beings arise, do their thing, and dissolve without clinging to them, and lets the deathless/unconditioned be still in its own place.


Jake, that's beautifully expressed, and although I don't have read enough to confirm your analysis about modern vs. traditional Theravada, I see what you mean and I too find "view 2" much more plausible and worthwhile than the alternative. Maybe it's because of my lack of experience with the literature that I find the ideas expressed by Thanissaro so utterly strange and incomprehensible. I remember that in MCTB there is a comment about Theravada teachers “mixing shit in with the gold” or something like that. Thanissaro’s book is a good example of that phenomenon: The meditation instructions in that book are as clear, practical and helpful as they get, and still, the same author advocates this kind of weirdness.

. Jake .:

What is your experience with mind training?


Well, I stumbled upon MCTB some three years ago and after reading it I developed a daily meditation practice, basically vipassana/noting for at least one hour each day, which brought great results quickly for a while. The instruction not to expect any off-the-cushion benefits from meditation (given in MCTB ) kept me highly motivated for a long time, because it takes the pressure off the practice and allows one to meditate for the fun of it. As it turns out, it's easy to keep not expecting benefits when actually good things happen because of the practice. But, as these things go, the maps stopped working after a while and although I kept my meditation routine, I found it harder and harder to see any progress. I also started thinking about why I was doing all this and where it could possibly lead. (What did I actually gain by being able to reach this or that insight stage or fruition? Was it worth the trouble? Did I actually learn something valuable?...) During the last six months, my daily (vipassana) practice has deteriorated, because I don’t see the point anymore. I started looking around for other things to try, and I’m now learning concentration practice, which is the only (formal) practice I’m doing at the moment. So I guess I'm at some kind of transition point right now. I feel inclined to stop hunting for whatever insights there are to be gained from meditation and instead use the small amount of disembedding I have learned to better deal with my life in this moment.

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/3/13 9:04 AM as a reply to Christian Calamus.
Christian B:


I don't see how this can be a reasonable goal, because for me it's obvious that the capacity to suffer is not separate from the capacity to feel joy or happiness. Both are consequences of the sensual and mental makeup of embodied beings, and thus the idea of getting rid of one implies getting rid of the other. There is no distinct sensory or mental apparatus for experiencing suffering that can be shut down by practice, and sensations of suffering are in their essence not different from any other sensations (impermanent, not personal, causal etc.). With this in mind, I don't see why anybody would ever want to "put an end to suffering", because he/she would simultaneously and inevitably "put an end to happiness" as well.

Even if I take Thannissaro's qualification of "needless" suffering into account, the idea doesn't really add up: The capacity to "inflict needless suffering" upon myself is bound (by logic and in experience) to the capacity to create "needless", i.e. spontaneous joy and happiness for myself. Both are consequences of mind and body. Getting rid of one implies getting rid of the other.


But this is exactly the point, as far as I understand it. The goal of Theravada (at least the tradition that Thannissaro represents) is not making one happy as such, but making one 'vanish' - even if the road to 'vanishing' leads through more and more rarified happiness.

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/3/13 12:07 PM as a reply to Christian Calamus.
Christian B:
Upon reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu's book "With each and every breath" I have found that the notion of "putting an end to suffering / stress" is highly problematic for me.

Even if I take Thannissaro's qualification of "needless" suffering into account, the idea doesn't really add up: The capacity to "inflict needless suffering" upon myself is bound (by logic and in experience) to the capacity to create "needless", i.e. spontaneous joy and happiness for myself. Both are consequences of mind and body. Getting rid of one implies getting rid of the other.


Do you have any experience of the jhanas? As you progress through them, you keep dropping things. They're pleasant experiences, though.

None of this really matters to me, because the benefits of "skillful fabrication" as Thanissaro calls it, are so direct, transparent and immediate that I don't need a soteriological motivation. But With Each and Every Breath was probably not the book for you if you are interested in his soteriology. For that, you probably want to look at the additional readings at the end of the chapter. "The Image of Nirvana" is probably a good place to start:

...the Buddha used nibbana more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to “seize” it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was “freed,” released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment — calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five “heaps” (form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness) that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.

Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to its verbal root, which means “unbinding.” What kind of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life.


I have no idea what the post-mortem experience is about or why it's desirable, and it doesn't really concern me. But hopefully this clarifies Thanissaro's view of release in this life. It does not destroy the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, it's just that the mind does not form worlds, passions or identities around pleasurable/painful experiences.

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/3/13 4:11 PM as a reply to . Jake ..
View 2 implies the possibility of being a complete human being, in which the human body and mind do not need to become more and more like the deathless (more and more still, unmoved, quiet, peaceful), because with view 2 there is nothing inherently wrong with phenomena, with emptiness and impermanence. View 2 lets conditioned beings arise, do their thing, and dissolve without clinging to them, and lets the deathless/unconditioned be still in its own place.


Hey jake I never really understood that about Mahayana. If the view developed is one of allowing conditioned things do what they will, then wouldn't the fruition of such development be a unmoved peaceful mind? What you described basically seems to be perceiving the 3cs then letting go, just as in Theravada.

RE: training the mind: yes - ending suffering: no
Answer
4/4/13 6:47 AM as a reply to Adam . ..
Hey Adam, I think it is more a matter of the overarching view one brings to practice. So if in the background one assumes that all phenomena are dukha one will condition a certain result, while if one assumes that dukkha is the result of seeing phenomena through false filters then one will condition a different result, even employing the same basic method of calmly allowing phenomena to come and go. In my experience it has to do with the respective fruition. In mode one fruition or tasting the deathless occurrs in the utter absence of conditions. In mode two tasting the deathless occurrs in the collapse of the duality of conditions/unconditioned, i.e., phenomena ARE the deathless. They are two different 'fruitions', two different 'cessations', conditioned by two different views. It doesn't matter which tradition you practice in explicitly, it matters which view you hold deeply. There are plenty of Mahayana and Vajrayana teachers who aim for oblivion and implicitly accept the duality of conditions and the unconditioned. What do you find?