CHAPTER 5: TWO INCORRECT PATHS, ONE INCOMPLETE

Chapter 5 : Two Incorrect Paths, One Incomplete

The discourses tell of many individuals who, in experiencing the types of happiness based on becoming, mistook them for the ultimate possible happiness. DN 1, for instance, describes five types of wrong view concerning Unbinding (nibbāna) in the here and now: one equating it with a state in which the self is completely furnished with the five sensual pleasures, and four equating it with each of the four jhānas. MN 49 tells of a Great Brahmā who believed of his brahmā realm that “This is constant. This is permanent. This is eternal. This is total. This is not subject to falling away—for this does not take birth, does not age, does not die, does not fall away, does not reappear. And there is no other, higher escape.” The Buddha himself studied with two teachers who identified the highest happiness with the formless realms: fiḷāra Kālāma, whose path led to the dimension of nothingness; and Uddaka Rāmaputta, whose path led to the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

The Buddha repeatedly warned that a person aiming at genuine freedom must be careful not to mistake any of these states of becoming for the goal. The happiness they provide is conditioned. No matter how long it might last, it still ends when its underlying conditions end, and the mind will continue to be subject to all the uncertainties of its kammic field.

However, the Buddha was not the only seeker of his time who noticed these limitations. Others noticed them as well and recommended paths of action to escape them. In some cases their paths bore a partial resemblance to the Buddha’s path; in others, no resemblance at all. The Buddha discussed some of these other paths, showing that they failed to lead to true freedom because they were based on an incomplete understanding of the various forms that becoming—and its underlying clinging—can take. Three of his discussions are especially interesting: two because they deal with paths that the Buddha totally rejected but are currently taught as genuinely Buddhist; and one because it shows how the Buddha adopted a teaching from another path and adapted it for use in his own.

The first discussion focuses on a view equating the self with the cosmos. This view attempts to overcome the limitations inherent in centering an identity on a particular point in space and time, and it does so by identifying with the entire cosmos in all time. The Buddha gave explicit reasons for rejecting this approach. In fact, of all the self-doctrines he reviews, this is the one he holds up to the strongest ridicule.

“Monks, where there is a self, would there be (the thought,) ‘belonging to my self’?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Or, monks, where there is what belongs to self, would there be (the thought,) ‘my self’?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Monks, where a self or what belongs to self are not pinned down as a truth or reality, then the view-position—‘This cosmos is the self. After death, this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity’—Isn’t it utterly & totally a fool’s teaching?”

“What else could it be, lord? It’s utterly & totally a fool’s teaching.”— MN 22

The Buddha calls this view foolish because it denies a notion central to the concept of self, which is control (SN 22:59). One can genuinely identify with something only if one has a measure of control over it, for the function of “self” is to use that control for the sake of happiness. If one would have full control over the entire cosmos, it would be possible to claim a unity between the cosmos and one’s self. But because such a range of control is patently impossible, the notion of a world-self or cosmic self is ultimately meaningless. A person claiming to hold this view on an explicit level would have to make use of other self-definitions in order to function in daily life. Thus, because the view contains an inherent contradiction and self-dishonesty, the Buddha does not adopt this teaching as part of his path at all.

From our analysis of the factors leading to becoming, we can see that there are other reasons for rejecting such a teaching as well. The motivation for adopting a view of a cosmic self is based on a misunderstanding: the idea that by claiming an infinite self, one can escape the limitations of a self centered on a single point. Actually, even though a cosmic sense of self may claim identity with all points in space and time, the acts of craving and clinging leading to that identity still center on a single psychological event: the particular feeling, perception, or thought fabrication on which the act of identification is initially based. Thus this view does not overcome limitations in the way it is meant to. At the same time, because it encourages the person holding it to adopt surreptitious self-views to function in the world, it does not lead to a state of becoming that would be useful on a path devoted to developing genuine insight into the process of becoming.

Another failed path to freedom was that advocated by the Nigaṇṭhas, a group presently known as the Jains. Seeing the dangers of identifying with pleasure, they thought that these dangers could be overcome by subjecting themselves to painful practices. They held to the following views: All worldly pain and pleasure were the results of past physical actions; worldly pleasure was simply a subtle form of pain. Thus the way to the end of suffering lay in escaping the results of past actions. The only way to do this was to avoid all action, developing equanimity while enduring pain as it arose in the present. The process could be accelerated by patiently enduring painful practices, thus burning up past action and not replacing it with new action. With the ending of all action, one’s self would be freed.

The Buddha’s primary criticism of this approach is that it is based on a partial understanding of kamma, in which past kamma is given total power, with no understanding of the role of present kamma in shaping the present.

“Going to Nigaṇṭhas… I have asked them, ‘Is it true, friend Nigaṇṭhas, that you teach in this way, that you have this view: “Whatever a person experiences—pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain—all is caused by what was done in the past. Thus, with the destruction of (the results of) old actions through asceticism, and with the non-doing of new actions, there will be no flow into the future. With no flow into the future, there is the ending of action. With the ending of action, the ending of stress. With the ending of stress, the ending of feeling. With the ending of feeling, all suffering & stress will be exhausted”?’

“Having been asked this by me, the Nigaṇṭhas admitted it, ‘Yes.’

“So I said to them, ‘But friends, do you know that you existed in the past, and that you did not not exist?’

“‘No, friend.’

“‘And do you know that you did evil actions in the past, and that you did not not do them?’

“‘No, friend.’

“‘And do you know that you did such-and-such evil actions in the past?’

“‘No, friend.’

“‘And do you know that so-and-so much stress has been exhausted, or that so-and-so much stress remains to be exhausted, or that with the exhaustion of so-and-so much stress all stress will be exhausted?’

“‘No, friend.’

“‘But do you know what is the abandoning of unskillful mental qualities and the attainment of skillful mental qualities in the here-&-now?’

“‘No, friend’ ….

“So I asked them further, ‘ … When there is fierce striving, fierce exertion, do you feel fierce, sharp, racking pains from harsh treatment? And when there is no fierce striving, no fierce exertion, do you feel no fierce, sharp, racking pains from harsh treatment?’

“‘Yes, friend…‘

“‘… Then it’s not proper for you to assert that, “Whatever a person experiences—pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain—all is caused by what was done in the past.” …. But when I said this, I did not see that the Nigaṇṭhas had any legitimate defense of their teaching.”— MN 101

In other words, the Nigaṇṭhas totally ignored the fact that the pains of their practices were partly due to their present intentions to engage in those practices. Because the Nigaṇṭha path was thus based on an act of willful ignorance of what is happening in the present, it was incapable of producing a state of becoming that would be useful on the Buddhist path. This is why the Buddha, in his first sermon, singled out the practice of self-torment as one of the two extremes that a true contemplative should avoid.

Another problem with the Nigaṇṭha view is that they did not see that the act of being equanimous in the face of pain is also a type of kamma, and as such can become a center for craving and clinging. The Buddha discusses this point in his analysis of another view, one that he adapted from meditators of sects who aimed at non-becoming.

This viewpoint is expressed in a fairly cryptic statement that, because of an idiomatic peculiarity of the Pāli language, can be translated in two ways:

“The supreme viewpoint external (to the Dhamma) is this: ‘I should not be and it should not be mine; I will not be; it will not be mine.’”— AN 10:29

“The supreme viewpoint external (to the Dhamma) is this: ‘I should not be and it should not occur to me; I will not be; it will not occur to me.’”— AN 10:29

In the first reading, the “it” in “it should not be… it will not be,” apparently refers to any object of consciousness. In the second reading, the “it” apparently refers to any thought or perception appearing in the mind. In either reading, this viewpoint is aimed at putting an end to all thought, perception, consciousness, and any sense of identity at all. The Buddha regarded this as the supreme viewpoint external to the Dhamma because it prevents the person holding it from regarding becoming as an attractive option, and the cessation of becoming as an unattractive one. In this way, it could prove useful in a path aiming at the cessation of becoming.

“The supreme viewpoint external (to the Dhamma) is this: ‘I should not be and it should not occur to me; I will not be; it will not occur to me.’ Of one with this view it may be expected, ‘(The thought of) unloathsomeness with regard to becoming will not occur to him, and (the thought of) loathsomeness with regard to the cessation of becoming will not occur to him.’”— AN 10:29

However, this viewpoint—in and of itself—does not lead to freedom from the changeablility of becoming.

“There are beings who have this view. Yet even in the beings who have this view there is still aberration, there is change. Seeing this, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with that.”— AN 10:29

The Buddha nowhere discusses the precise state of becoming engendered by the act of holding to this viewpoint, but two possibilities come to mind. The first is that the act of holding to the second reading of the viewpoint—stating that no thoughts (or perceptions) should or will occur to one—would apparently lead to the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. AN 4:172 singles out this dimension as the realm in which beings take rebirth without conscious intention on their part or on the part of anyone else. In other words, one takes rebirth and inhabits a new level of becoming there even when one does not consciously want to engage in becoming at all. As we will see below, MN 106 states that this realm is the fate of a monk who, with an incomplete understanding of its results, uses a modified version of this viewpoint.

A second possibility is that, in trying to obliterate both perception and one’s existence—“I should not be… I will not be”—a person at death would join the ranks of a class of devas that are mentioned—briefly—in only one spot in the discourses: the “beings without perception” (asaññī satta or asaññā-satta—DN 1). These beings apparently exist in a state of total blankness, for DN 1 adds that when they fall from this state they retain no memory of anything preceding their fall, even if they later develop the level of concentration that would otherwise allow them to remember previous lives.

In either event, the primary flaw in this viewpoint aimed at non-becoming is that it actually results in renewed becoming. This, as we have frequently noted, is the central paradox of becoming. The simple desire to put an end to becoming cannot, by itself, put an end to the ignorance that lies at the root of becoming. This is why the Buddha, in MN 49, says that he saw becoming in the search for non-becoming, and why his full definition of the cause of suffering includes not only craving for sensuality and becoming, but also craving for non-becoming as well. This is also why his path to the end of becoming has, as its crucial moment, an act of knowledge that puts an end to ignorance about becoming and the types of clinging and craving that underlie it. An understanding of the processes of becoming thus not only helps to explain the path. It is part of the path itself.

The need for this knowledge is illustrated in a passage where the Buddha discusses two cases—one unsuccessful, one successful—in which a monk adapts the above viewpoint for the purpose of full liberation.

Ven. Ānanda said to the Blessed One: “There is the case, lord, where a monk, having practiced in this way—‘It should not be and it should not occur to me; it will not be; it will not occur to me. What is, what has come to be, that I abandon’—obtains equanimity. Now, would this monk be totally unbound, or not?”

“A certain such monk might, Ānanda, and another might not.’

“What is the cause, what is the reason, whereby one might and another might not?”

“There is the case, Ānanda, where a monk, having practiced in this way—(thinking,) ‘It should not be and it should not occur to me; it will not be; it will not occur to me. What is, what has come to be, that I abandon’—obtains equanimity. He relishes that equanimity, welcomes it, remains fastened to it. As he relishes that equanimity, welcomes it, remains fastened to it, his consciousness is dependent on it, clings to it. With clinging, Ānanda, a monk is not totally unbound.”

“In clinging, where does that monk cling?”

“The dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.”

“Then, indeed, in clinging, he clings to the supreme clinging.”

“In clinging, Ānanda, he does cling to the supreme clinging; for this—the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception—is the supreme clinging. There is (however,) the case where a monk, having practiced in this way—‘It should not be and it should not occur to me; it will not be; it will not occur to me. What is, what has come to be, that I abandon’—obtains equanimity. He does not relish that equanimity, does not welcome it, does not remain fastened to it. As he does not relish that equanimity, does not welcome it, does not remain fastened to it, his consciousness is not dependent on it, does not cling to/is not sustained by it. Without clinging/sustenance, Ānanda, a monk is totally unbound.”— MN 106

This passage illustrates several important points. To begin with, notice the two ways in which both monks have adapted the viewpoint. First, in replacing the phrases, “I should not be… I will not be,” with the phrases, “It should not be… It will not be,” they have removed all references to self-annihilation. In this way they avoid the mistake of “slipping right past” the Buddha’s purpose in teaching the cessation of becoming (Iti 49—see the following chapter). Instead of willing their own destruction—and thus taking on a new identity as destroyers—the monks are simply fostering dispassion for the raw materials provided by every instance of the aggregates (the “it” in the altered phrases). In this way, they are beginning to put themselves in a position to undercut becoming at the ground level.

Second, the monks have added a new sentence to the viewpoint: “What is, what has come to be, that I abandon.” The phrase, “what has come to be,” is important here, for as we will see in the next chapter it is essential to the path for side-stepping both craving for becoming and craving for non-becoming. It derives from an understanding of kamma as illustrated in the Buddha’s field analogies for explaining becoming. Both monks in this passage are attempting to relate to the field of kamma, not in terms of what becoming can be created from that kamma, but simply as it appears as mere kammic result: unfashioned raw material. In this way, old potentials can be allowed to arise and pass away, with no new becomings created from them. This is how becoming can come to an end.

The fact that the above viewpoint can be adapted to this understanding of kamma explains why the Buddha felt that—unlike the views of the cosmic self or the burning away of kamma—it could be adopted for his purposes in inducing a sense of dispassion for becoming in a relatively informed way.

However, the difference between the first monk and the second monk shows that a general understanding of past and present kamma is not enough to put an end to renewed becoming. There is also a need to understand all four ways in which clinging can function. The first monk, having focused exclusively on his desire to put an end to thoughts and perceptions, is blind to the fact that he is relishing the equanimity to which that desire leads. Because the equanimity is intentional, and intention is kamma, his relish for equanimity still waters the field of kamma. Becoming is bound to result.

Based on our analysis of the various forms of clinging, we can see that his relish for equanimity would easily involve clinging to views—perhaps to the unarticulated view that equanimity was a state free from fabrication. It could also involve clinging to the practices of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, perhaps again with the view that, because these practices aimed at non-becoming, they could not be a source of clinging.

The second monk, however, has a full understanding both of kamma and of clinging, and so he is able to detect—and abandon—types of clinging that eluded the first monk. This is why he is totally unbound.

This passage thus illustrates the practical corollary to the paradox of becoming: that part of the path to the end of becoming involves practices that lead to becoming. The states of becoming that can be used for this purpose, however, must allow the meditator to watch the processes of becoming as they occur. Now, it so happens that the states of becoming meeting this requirement can be created either through craving for becoming or—as we have just seen—craving for non-becoming. This fact is what allowed the Buddha to convert the two alternatives of craving for becoming and craving for non-becoming into a third alternative that opened the way to the end of suffering. An exploration of that third alternative, and the way it absorbs and transmutes the two other alternatives, provides many important insights into the strategies the Buddha employed in opening a path to the genuine end of suffering.