I enter the workshop and once again encounter our old monk, he must be in his seventies, skillfully shaping clay faces. A serious face, eyes focused… he doesn’t notice me at all.
“Good morning, Ajahn Thita!” I greet him aloud.
“Oh, what artistry!” I admire the four faces protruding from a large conical clay form, facing four different directions. Two male faces and two female. Ajahn explained to me a few days ago that once he finishes this model, he will prepare the tip for the top of the tower he built a year ago.
“And how’s it going?” I ask. I admit, I’m also a bit impatient to see the culmination of this art.
“Oh, it’s never-ending. I always have to adjust the faces.”
If I knew Ajahn Thita, I would know what a true master he is. It’s truly admirable how someone can be interested in such small details. I’ve always been less attentive in that direction.
“I spin around and around these images, correcting the details. Then at the end of the day, I’m satisfied with myself, thinking it’s finally done. But I look at the faces the next morning, and they’re no longer the same as before. That’s when I see how one eye is higher than the other, how one side of the face is swollen, and the other is hollow.”
“Yes, that sounds familiar!” I exclaim. “Even when I create something, like a portrait I’ve drawn, I proudly showed it to others. Oh, but a few years later, I become ashamed of it! The images on paper are nowhere near reality.”
I also remember many other instances where something I wrote or designed lost its quality after a while. My interests also often change. Change has occurred, but in a material sense, things are still the same. Those faces used to be perfect, but now they look like someone seriously battered them. I start to think:
“Hmm, this is really interesting. Once something is created, I’m enthusiastic about it, but later it seems like it has changed. It’s no longer the same thing, even if it hasn’t changed materially. If I have to agree with myself about what I think of this or that matter, how can I expect others to agree with me?! Ah, there’s the reason for misunderstandings and all the other problems that arise from it, even fights and wars. Yes, undoubtedly, we all think we are right and, of course, always fight for ‘the truth.'”
We say that humans live for suffering, and this is truly a profound truth. How often do we have to face unpleasantness that trips up our lives? Jump here and jump there, constantly seeking relief in this existence. Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if my existence (my self) were completely stable and happy? … For a moment, I try again to maintain some stability. Oh, another failure… This world and the self I experience seem to be constantly flowing in this three-dimensional existence, like in a whirlpool. It never rests, and I never succeed in seeing a complete and clear Hiriko. But why is that? Humans are so creative that they can offer you thousands of explanations, but none are completely scientifically proven. They try, but it seems that this is something science will never understand, as it (unintentionally?) transcends reality and does not grasp the truth about itself: it looks at the problem objectively, ignoring the subject. So, science is not the answer. If that’s not it, then a person must return to reality, where the world and I face each other eye to eye. Only then can we understand universal truth.
From this comparison of clay images, we can now infer that there is instability in every stability. In this case, when the images changed, we were not looking at the problem as scientists, dealing only with the impermanence of matter, but rather as phenomenologists, as we were talking about our experience. And what is most personal is that we can see, smell, hear, taste, physically feel, and recognize thoughts. However, as we have now learned, this nature is impermanent. In this way, we can realize that our existence cannot be completely stable. It’s true that our house still stands, and the car is still in front of it, and I still have this healthy body, job, and status, but the feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa) towards these things change by their nature, which we cannot control: Ajahn Thita certainly didn’t decide on his own that his statue would have one eye too high the next morning!
Similarly, we can ask about this essence, i.e., the ‘self’ or ‘self.’ Just as I can experience every (material or worldly) thing, I also experience myself: I feel myself, perceive myself, determine myself, and am conscious of myself. Is this ‘self’ really as stable as I initially thought? How can it be stable when it depends on all these unstable factors?
Let’s look at the origin of all these views from which our dear ‘self’ arises and from which all misunderstandings, disputes, and even wars arise. Below, I will provide excerpts from two teachings from the Majjhima Nikāya. These are the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18) and the Dīghanakha Sutta (MN 74).
One afternoon, the Buddha sat under a young tree in the Great Forest near his native Kapilavatthu. Nearby, a man was taking a leisurely walk. He met the Buddha and they chatted a bit. The man leaned on his staff and directly asked the Buddha:
“What does the recluse assert, what does he proclaim?”
The Buddha replied:
“Friend, I assert and proclaim [my teaching] in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, in this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people; in such a way that perceptions no more underlie that brahmin who abides detached from sensual pleasures, without perplexity, shorn of worry, free from craving for any kind of being.”
The man shook his head, wagged his tongue, and raised his eyebrows, revealing three wrinkles on his forehead. Then he continued his stroll.
In the evening, the Buddha returned to his group in the Nigrodhavim Park and told them about the man. His disciples also didn’t quite understand this brief teaching, so they politely asked him to explain it further. The Buddha then spoke:
“Bhikkhu, as to the source through which perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion, of the underlying tendency to views, of the underlying tendency to doubt, of the underlying tendency to conceit, of the underlying tendency to desire for being, of the underlying tendency to ignorance; this is the end of resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words, and false speech; here these evil unwholesome states cease without remainder.”
Buddha then rises and goes to his dwelling (perhaps it was already late), leaving his teachings – and us – bewildered. It’s true that Buddha’s words clarified things somewhat, but certainly not enough. The disciples then remembered another monk whom Buddha had praised as one of the wisest scholars. His name was Venerable Mahā Kaccāna. So, they all went to him, probably on the same evening. First, they explained to him everything that Buddha had said, which they didn’t understand and were still puzzled by. Venerable Mahā Kaccāna then scolded them a bit, saying that they should have directly asked Buddha about this matter. When they asked him again, Venerable Mahā Kaccāna finally agreed to explain this teaching:
“Alright. So now listen, very attentively. “Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye.”
And then he repeats all of this for the ears (sota) and sound (sadda), the nose (ghāna) and smell (gandha), the tongue (jivhā) and taste (rasa), the body (kāya) and touch (phoṭṭhabba), the mind (mana) and thoughts (dhamma), and explains this conditionality also from the opposite side and from other perspectives. The disciples were enthusiastic about this teaching. And when they reported this teaching back to Buddha on another occasion, he praised Venerable Mahā Kaccāna, saying that he himself would have explained it exactly the same way. He praised his wisdom and emphasized among the disciples that they should remember this teaching.
And what does all this mean now? Looking at the story with Ajahn Thito, we have learned that impermanence is present in every non-permanent thing. This means that experience is not as simple, linear as these words on the screen, but rather more complex. If two things are present at the same time (e.g. 1. a successfully created clay statue, and 2. that statue which is no longer good enough), then the experience must be hierarchically composed, as one thing is placed on top of another (‘superimposed’). This means they are not linear, but vertical in our experience. (Another example: this X on the screen is conditioned by other things that are not X, those are other letters, white background, dots, consciousness, perception, intention, etc.) The thing is here, but there is change in it. The mind doesn’t perceive just a simple thing, but a bunch of diverse feelings and perceptions. These then expand when the mind is in desire, and they contract when the mind is without passion. And whatever we perceive, we think about. (This doesn’t just mean intellectual speculation, but simply recognizing the thing. For example, I recognize Ajahn Thito who sculpts statues and I don’t have to think much about it.) But consciousness is not something stable, and whatever we recognize, we can notice that the experience is more complex and extends beyond ‘Ajahn Thito’ to all sides and all times. When we perceive something, we don’t perceive just the present, but a collection of past and present experiences and also future possibilities. This unlimited nature of experience is due to the nature of consciousness.
Consciousness actually doesn’t have some materiality and doesn’t exist by itself. Therefore, it always has to depend on the object of consciousness: consciousness is always ‘awareness of’. Thus, it’s never fulfilled and complete. To prove this, you can do a little practical experiment. Focus on one object and stay with it. What happens is that we recognize that this object of ours is conditioned by other things that surround it. And these side things present themselves as potential points of our attention. If our attention is weak and we can’t hold it, then our object becomes secondary or potential, and we get a new object of attention – roughly speaking, they switch. And so, this experiment goes on infinitely. And even if we’re good at concentration, we can notice that while our object is under our perspective, the field of potentiality becomes clearer and larger, and therefore impermanence becomes clearer.
The nature of craving is that it constantly seeks some limited essence. But due to the nature of consciousness, it can never succeed. The more it wants, the more it expands; the more it expands, the more it wants; it’s never satisfied. And because we don’t understand this, as Venerable Mahā Kaccāna says, “Expansion as a cause, the value of proliferating perception besieges a person.” And these are all views, opinions, ideas about this world and everything beyond. Each of us has our own ‘fixed’ extended perception, and each is firm, certain, and confident in this. And when my views then differ from yours, we are in conflict. And the more fixed we are, without wisdom and without restraint, anger, argument, fighting, criticizing, breaking tables and glasses, even killing, can occur. And for these views, a person is even willing to sacrifice their life! This is just due to ignorance.
If a person is intelligent enough, they will immediately seek help. First, they will develop virtues and will not harm another being physically or verbally at any cost. They will train restraint, patience, kindness, compassion, goodwill, and equanimity. Then we can also confront the nature of views. In another Sutta, Dīghanakha (‘Long Nails’), Buddha explains how to abandon these (wrong) views by recognizing exactly this: impermanence in the non-permanent.
“This body is made of matter, by combining the four great elements (i.e., earth, water, air, and fire), it is conceived by a mother and father and grown from rice and oatmeal (or more colloquially: from bread and milk), it is subject to impermanence, wear and tear, decay, and dissolution. Look at the body as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as misfortune, as misery, as a foreign object, as decay, as emptiness, as non-self. When you look at the body in this way, you then let go of desire for the body, attachment to the body, servitude to the body.
There are three feelings: pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling, and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant (i.e., neutral) feeling. Occasionally, when you experience a pleasant feeling, you don’t experience an unpleasant or neutral feeling, but only a pleasant feeling. Occasionally, when you experience an unpleasant feeling, you don’t experience a pleasant or neutral feeling, but only an unpleasant feeling. Occasionally, when you experience a neutral feeling, you don’t experience a pleasant or unpleasant feeling, but only a neutral feeling.
Pleasant feeling is impermanent, dependent, conditionally arisen, subject to destruction, disappearance, fading, cessation. Unpleasant feeling is also impermanent, dependent, conditionally arisen, subject to destruction, disappearance, fading, cessation. Even neutral feeling is impermanent, dependent, conditionally arisen, subject to destruction, disappearance, fading, cessation.
With this understanding, an educated noble disciple experiences dispassion toward pleasant feeling, dispassion toward unpleasant feeling, dispassion toward neutral feeling. With this dispassion, he becomes impartial. Impartiality leads to liberation. When he is liberated, he understands: ‘I am liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done – beyond this there is nothing.’
When the monk’s mind is thus liberated, it doesn’t decide for any side anymore (it’s unbiased) and doesn’t argue with anyone. It uses conventional speech for communication, but without malice.”
Is any further explanation needed? Aren’t these words enough for a person to realize that nothing needs to be permanently true if experience depends on a heap of many other factors that are impermanent, suffering, and not-self? How can this body, these feelings, perceptions, and all these ideas of mine be unchanging, pleasant, and self? Is this unchanging thing really as unchanging as we initially thought? And where did our pride and our views of the world go?
When Buddha finished this discourse, Dīghanakha became a sotāpanna, entered the stream of the Dhamma, and thus became partially enlightened. Now he can live without doubt, without self, and without blind belief. Venerable Sariputta, who was present at that time, became an arahant in that moment, a fully awakened being. He is free from suffering, he has experienced Nibbāna (Nirvāṇa).