A topic that aroused a good deal of interest at the latest Vipassana Teachers’ Conference (April at IMS) was 'the sacred’. As in ‘What is it?’ ‘Is it a useful reference?’ ‘How do we teach it?’ The interest centred around the distinction between meditation as a system that one does, and the meditative domain that can, over time, open. There thought and the world of the senses dissolve, and the will to do quietens down – so how to speak about such a ceasing, and of what value is it? Well, rather than being something way out there, maybe it’s closer than we think.
Witness the dialogue between two arahants, Maha Kotthita and Ven. Sāriputta:
Maha Kotthita: Friend, is there anything which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
Sāriputta: Do not say that, friend.
M.K:Then, friend, there is nothing which exists after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: Then there both is and is not ... neither is nor is not ... after the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact?
S: Do not say that, friend.
M.K: ...Then how is this matter of which I speak to be regarded?
S: Friend, in saying that there is...is not...is and is not...neither is nor is not anything which exists, one is making a conceptual proliferation over that which cannot be conceived. Friend, as long as one operates in terms of the six spheres of sense-contact, there will be conceptual proliferation. But, friend, with the dispassionate cessation of the six spheres of sense-contact, there is a calming down of conceptual proliferation. (A.4,174)
‘Conceptual proliferation’, papañca, is the process whereby an idea, impression or principle arising in our minds, is conceived to be some real thing that occurs, or could occur, ‘out there’. It’s not just an intellectual process: we do it all the time when we project characteristics onto other people based on our biases. As when in the act of seeing another person, we attribute (or remove) value based on their clothes, their skin colour, and so on. And through papañca we create our own personhood and its future out of moods and impressions. Then the mind gets stuck on what it has fabricated and makes an emotional tangle out of what we should, might and shouldn’t, be. In this way an impression gets solidified into a three-dimensional reality that overwhelms awareness and extends into the future. This reflex is something that an Awakened One has terminated:
'Humankind delights in proliferation, the Tathāgata does not proliferate' (Dhp. 254)'... having seen what can be seen, the Tathāgata does not conceive the seen, does not conceive the unseen, does not conceive what can be seen, does not conceive one who sees.' (A.4.24)
However given the message that ‘cessation’ doesn’t mean that there’s nothing, ‘sacred’ might well be an acceptable word to place as a flag on that experience; it conveys a profundity and a depth of value – not ‘out there’, but to be sensed in oneself.
Naturally, there are reservations. If you're looking to resolve issues in terms of our social environment, references to the ‘ceasing of contact’ sounds like a sidetrack. Like it’s about spacing out and not dealing with the realities of everyday life. Then again, quite a few Dhamma practitioners are people who have abandoned conventional religion because of its adherence to ritual, and its obedience to the will of the divine – as administered by a fallible hierarchy of priests. Organised religion does by and large conceptually proliferate on the nature of the world, how it was created, why we’re born and what happens when we die; and holds its images and rituals to be the sacred rather than supports to realise it. Worse still, religion has too often been coopted to support the socio-political status quo. As a consequence then, there can be a reluctance to trust in anything other than the evidence of one’s eyes and the power of reasoning: ‘Think for yourself, don’t just follow a tradition’ is a common paraphrase of the 'Kalāma' sutta (A.3.65).
The authenticity is laudable, but what to be authentic about? Strings of slippery words? The gossamer weave of thought? Disorientation? Well, as was the case with the Kalāmas, what is sure is that we all need some standards and values to orient our minds and actions around in a turbulent world, absence just won’t do. (There’s enough of that already.) So: ‘Be your own authority, figure it out for yourself?’ Not quite. Read more carefully, the Kalāma sutta advises us not to follow blindly: oral tradition, a lineage of teaching, hearsay, a collection of scriptures, logical reasoning, inferential reasoning, reasoned cogitation, or acceptance of a view after pondering it, or by the skill of a speaker, or out of loyalty to one’s teacher. In other words just about everything, including one’s own intellect. On the other hand, the sutta does encourages us to put the need to find meaning to the test of direct personal experience. Then if one senses an action or inclination as blameless and ‘praised by the wise’, it should be followed; otherwise, not. So what is needed doesn't come through blind rejection of guidelines, or compulsively holding on to them. Beautifully, there is an orientation we can trust: the Dhamma of direct personal experience, beyond logic; and experienced by ‘the wise’. Because here’s an intelligence that goes deeper than the tides of debate and theory.
‘This Dhamma that I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, not within the sphere of reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise …. that is, the stilling of all sankhāra [activations, mental formations], the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.’ (S.6.1)
What can ‘know’ cessation? And if the wise are made so by their ability to navigate where sankhāra go still, what about clear thinking? Even a cursory glance at the scriptures makes it clear that the Buddha talked a lot; he could extemporize in poetry, narrate fables, come to decisions about training principles, and debate with great skill. Yet the Buddha’s vocation is worthy of honour: it is a dispensation that was selfless, authentic, not seeking praise or gain, and offering both ethical guidance and meditative realisation. A teaching that is something we can practise and check out for ourselves. This Dhamma may go beyond the sphere of reasoning, but it’s highly reasonable and amenable to a verbal transmission. ‘A Tathāgata has arisen in the world who teaches a Dhamma that’s directly ascertained, timeless, encouraging inquiry, relevant, personally realisable, and discerned by the wise’_is the standard recollection. That’s pretty sacred too. But it’s hardly the ceasing of ‘mental’ activity, or mental formations, at least according to how we would understand ‘mind’.
To resolve any apparent contradictions, I would return to that ‘knowing’ and comment that the contemporary definition of mind locates it in our heads as the thought system. But the Pali texts have a different understanding. Thoughts are vacisankhāra (articulations, or ‘verbal formations’) and emotions are cittasankhāra (activations and formations of citta); and they are all learned, acquired and the results of kamma. ‘Citta’ on the other hand is the awareness that such content occurs in. Although it is prone to activation ( for good or bad), and is for the average person often engaged with them, it, and it alone, carries sacred intelligence.
In itself, citta may be difficult to define, but its track is a crucial matter: ‘_ Though one’s (former) body be devoured by crows … when a person’s citta has been strengthened for a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity and wisdom – that goes upward, goes to distinction.’ (S.55.21). Citta is able to turn away from the khandhā of constructed experience and be directed to ‘the deathless element, thus: “This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all sankhāra … nibbāna.”’ (M.64, A.9.36). Although ‘nothing can do you so much harm as an misdirected citta’,(Dhammapada 42) 'This is the Deathless, namely the liberation of citta through not clinging.’ (M 106.13 ) This is because: ‘For a long time this citta has been defiled by lust, hatred, and delusion. Through defilement of citta, beings are defiled; through cleansing citta, beings are purified.’(S.22.100) It can be directed, it shines at moments of realisation, its vibrancy and constrictions can be sensed in our bodies, and although the processes with which it is involved make it sound like a soul or a self, citta can’t be traced as an object – because our presence stands behind the grasp of the conceiving mind. But annihilation of citta isn’t what cessation is about. Liberation of citta from sankhāra is the project. Now that’s a precious orientation, that’s Dhamma, that’s sacred.
It may then be more accurate to say that when the wise still their sankhāra, they still any pre-existing attitudes; then if there’s something that needs to be said, they let speech occur; otherwise, they stay silent.
Another way of highlighting citta is to note that it’s not a thing at all, but this ‘knowing’; it’s our subjective presence, the irreducible basis of our experience. Although all ideas and mind-states are objects that can be subjectively known as agreeable, disagreeable and changeable, the knowing of them is citta. So while constantly experiencing this subjectivity, we can’t discern it as an object – hence it is measured in terms of whatever obscures and mars it, by the love and hate and fear that oppress it, by the radiance that adorns it in meditative absorption, or by sense of release that occurs when hindrances abate or are cleared. Moreover, in fully bringing forth the loving qualities of this citta a person becomes ’brahma’ - divine. (A 3, 67; A 4,198). (For the secular mind-set, this takes some swallowing.) But also Through the development and purification of this relational awareness, one is ‘Buddha’ (M 91.31, 32, 33). From this pure intelligence, void of personal bias, attitudes, and craving, the Tathāgata rightly speaks, without papañca, of course.
All systems, images and rituals, along with all words, principles, my personality and its known world – are objects created by the mind. The reflex of papañca that solidifies them is based on assuming that the actions of consciousness give, or can give, us the real things of life; hence greed, aversion, gain, loss and dissatisfaction. As well as delusion: because things are a mirage; they will always come and go, and be subject to interpretation, disagreement, comparison and conflict. A deluded citta wrapped up and mesmerised by its own creations, is therefore miserable and restless, wanting this and rejecting that, conceiving truth but realising nothing.
The alternative to this dead-end of objectification sits in the awareness before reasoning occur. The Way to the sacred doesn’t open through attempting to define it but through those attitudes and actions towards others and to oneself that lessen the tangle of suffering. Through wise relationship: citta is revealed and purified through relating to what arises. Such is the teaching of the Buddha: ethics, goodwill, dispassion, and a mindful and fearless honesty about how things are. Without this unshakeable alignment, citta is lost in selfhood, enmeshed in its tangle, in danger, and no refuge. So, in terms of the process of practice, we are encouraged to be more gracious, more clear with regard to what arises; less prone to self-criticism and despair; less fearful, grasping and driven: all this elevates Dhamma beyond the scenario of ‘me’ and ‘trying to get it right.’ Or even being ‘right’. It is a Way that includes body, speech and mind in a temple free from bias, failure or gain. In such a domain we are no longer faulty systems to be set straight, damaged machines to be fixed, or cantankerous creatures to be domesticated and ordered, but a potential for the embodiment of values and for the purification of attitude and response. Right here. Only then there can be the revealing of what is beyond our creation and control. When there are no objects to be known, debated, made sacrosanct, there is an experience of complete inclusion.
He has no notion of 'recluse' or ' brahmin' or ' I am better' or I am equal' or ' I am inferior.' (A.4,185) … when he thinks, he thinks only of his own welfare, the welfare of others … the welfare of the whole world. (A. 4,186)
Can anything be more sacred than that?