In Asoka’s Footsteps

by Nina Van Gorkom | 1999 | 27,079 words

Ashoka (or Aśoka, asoka) was an Indian emporeor reigning the Maurya dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE. In Asoka’s Footsteps; Dhamma in India; October 1999; by Nina Van Gorkom...

Chapter 4 - Misconceptions

We have a distorted view of reality: what is impermanent we take for permanent, what is dukkha we take for happiness, what is non-self we take for self, what is foul we take for beautiful. Without the Buddha’s teachings we would never know that we have a distorted view of reality, that we deviate from the truth. We have accumulated these ways of wrong conceiving for so long, that even when we study the Dhamma we are still inclined to deviate from the truth. These ways of conceiving phenomena in the wrong way are classified in the scriptures as “vipallasa”, as perversions or hallucinations. This was one of the subjects we discussed during our journey.

We read in “The Path of Discrimination” (Patisambhidamagga, First
Division, VIII, Treatise on Perversions) :

Bhikkhus, there are these four perversions of perception (sanna), perversions of cognizance (citta), perversions of view (ditthi). What four? Bhikkhus, seeing what is impermanent as permanent is a perversion of perception, a perversion of cognizance, a perversion of view. Seeing the painful (dukkha) as pleasant is a perversion of perception, a perversion of cognizance, a perversion of view. Seeing what is not self as self is a perversion of perception, a perversion of cognizance, a perversion of view. Seeing the foul as beautiful is a perversion of perception, a perversion of cognizance, a perversion of view. These, bhikkhus, are the four perversions of perception, perversions of cognizance, perversions of view. 

We read further on that there are four non-perversions which are the opposites of the perversions. The perversions are deeply rooted and all of them arise so long as we have not attained enlightenment. Four of the eight akusala cittas rooted in lobha, attachment, are accompanied by ditthi. When there is ditthi one clings with wrong view to the self, to what one believes is permanent, to what one takes for beauty and for happiness. Citta is the “leader” in cognizing an object, and the accompanying cetasikas also experience that object, but they have each their own function. Citta and the accompanying cetasikas condition one another. When citta is accompanied by ditthi, the citta and the other cetasikas, sanna included, are conditioned by ditthi: all of them are perverted by wrong view. Sanna (Sanna is usually translated as perception. Sanna which accompanies kusala citta is completely different from sanna which accompanies akusala citta. Also in the case of akusala citta without ditthi, sanna which is perverted remembers wrongly, in a distorted way, and citta which is perverted cognizes the object in a distorted way.) which accompanies each citta has the function of remembering or recognizing.

The commentary to the “Path of Discrimination”, the 
Saddhammappakasini”, explains that the perversions of sanna, citta and ditthi have different strengths:

“... The perversion of sanna is the weakest in strength of all three. The perversion of citta has more strength than the perversion of sanna. The perversion of ditthi has the greatest strength of all three.”

This reminds us of the danger of wrong view. So long as we cling to the concept of self there cannot be the eradication of any defilement. We have learnt from the Buddha’s teachings that what we call a person are ever changing phenomena which arise and fall away, but instead of developing right understanding of nama and rupa we are often absorbed in concepts and we remember these with perverted sanna. Since we have accumulated wrong sanna for countless lives we are inclined to think of ourselves and others as persons who exist, at least during a life time; we fail to see that a person is only citta, cetasika and rupa which do not last. This causes us many problems when we suffer from the loss of people who are dear to us through death. We have learnt through the teachings that all dhammas are anatta, but we forget that realities are beyond control, that they do not belong to us. Even when we develop vipassana we can be lured by the wrong view of self : we believe that “we” can cause the arising of sati. We take what is dukkha for happiness, we cling to life, to all the sense objects we experience. Whatever we experience through the six doors falls away immediately, it is dukkha, but we believe that what we experience can bring us pleasant feeling. Pleasant feeling does not last, it is dukkha. What is foul or ugly we take for beautiful: we find our body beautiful and forget that in reality it is foul. It consists of rupa elements which arise and fall away immediately; it is insignificant and not worth clinging to.

The Buddha taught the way to overcome the perversions, but they can only be eliminated very gradually. Insight has to be developed stage by stage until enlightenment can be attained. The characteristics of nama and rupa should be known as they are when they appear one at a time. At the first stage of insight nama is clearly distinguished from rupa. We cannot forego this stage, because so long as we are confused about the difference between nama and rupa, higher stages of insight cannot be reached, the impermanence of realities cannot be realized and the concept of self cannot be eradicated.

There may be awareness of particular rupas but not of the nama which experiences them. Then we are bound to take the experience for self. Or we may be merely thinking about nama and rupa and be forgetful to be aware of thinking. In that case we may take thinking for self.

We read in the “Dispeller of Delusion”, the commentary to the “Book of Analysis”, to the second Book of the Abhidhamma (Ch 7, Classification of the Foundations of Mindfulness) about reasons why the Buddha taught the four Applications of Mindfulness, namely of the body, of feeling, of citta and of dhammas. One of the reasons is as follows:

Or alternatively, it is in order to abandon the perversions (vipallasa) of the beautiful, the pleasant, the permanent and self. For the body is foul, and herein beings are perverted (into regarding it as beautiful) by the perversion of the beautiful. The first foundation of mindfulness is stated in order to abandon that perversion by showing them the foulness therein.  And as regards feeling and so on, taken as “pleasant, permanent, self” feeling is dukkha, citta is impermanent and dhammas are non-self. And beings are perverted as to these (Namely citta and dhamma.) by the perversions of the pleasant, the permanent and self.  The remaining three (Applications of Mindfulness) are stated in order to abandon those perversions by seeing dukkha etc. (dukkha, impermanence and non-self.) therein. Thus, they should alternatively be understood to be stated as four, no less, no more, in order to abandon the perversions of the beautiful, the pleasant, the permanent and self.

The Buddha taught the “Application of Mindfulness of the Body” because we all cling to the body. We are so used to taking care of the body, to beautifying it or to adorning it, that we are ignorant of our clinging. When we read in the section on Mindfulness of the Body about the “Repulsiveness of the Body” we can be reminded that what we take for “our beautiful body” are only rupa elements which are not beautiful, impermanent and do not belong to a self. We should not select one Application of Mindfulness in order to abandon a specific perversion. Any nama or rupa which appears can be object of understanding. If there is mindfulness only of rupas of the body, but not of nama, we shall not know rupa as different from nama and right understanding cannot develop. Citta is impermanent, it arises and falls away each moment. When seeing arises and then hearing, seeing has fallen away, because there cannot be seeing and hearing at the same time; each citta can experience only one object at a time. This can remind us of the impermanence of citta, but when it is said that the contemplation of citta can help one to abandon the perversion of permanence, it does not mean that mindfulness of rupa, feeling or dhamma are excluded. Only through mindfulness of whatever reality appears, can the first stage of insight be reached, when nama is realized as nama and rupa as rupa. It is only at a higher stage of insight that
the impermanence of realities can be penetrated. We read in Khun Santi’s lexicon about the abandoning of the perversions:

“The Buddha taught the four Applications of Mindfulness as a means to abandon the four perversions, but one should not fix one’s attention on a specific perversion with the purpose to abandon it, because everybody who is not an ariyan is bound to have the four perversions. When satipatthana arises there can be awareness of a reality as anatta. Right understanding which results from listening to the Dhamma is accumulated and forms together with the other sobhana cetasikas included in sankharakkhandha (the khandha of formations) the condition for the arising of right mindfulness. At that moment there will be mindfulness of anyone of the four ‘Applications of Mindfulness’.

Right understanding of realities which arises will gradually abandon the perversions until they are completely eradicated when the ‘path-consciousness’ (magga-citta) arises .” 

Right understanding resulting from listening is accumulated together with all the other good qualities, the sobhana cetasikas included in sankharakkhandha (which khandha includes all cetasikas except feeling and sanna). In this way the right conditions are developed for right mindfulness which is aware of the nama or rupa which appears. Not only right understanding but all good qualities, such as metta, generosity or patience are necessary to eliminate the clinging to the self.

We read in the “Path of Discrimination”, in the section on the perversions, about the eradication of the perversions. The sotapanna (streamwinner) who has attained the first stage of enlightenment, has not eradicated all the perversions. He has eradicated the perversion of sanna, citta and ditthi which take what is impermanent for permanent. He has eradicated the perversion of ditthi which sees what is dukkha as happiness, but the perversions  of citta and sanna which see dukkha as happiness he has not eradicated. (At the different stages of enlightenment the perversions are subsequently eradicated.) He has eradicated the perversions of sanna, citta and ditthi which take what is non-self as self. He has eradicated the perversion of ditthi which sees the foul as beautiful, but the perversions of citta and sanna which see the foul as beautiful he has not eradicated.

The sotapanna has eradicated wrong view, he does not take realities for permanent or for self. He has realized that realities which arise have to fall away, that they are impermanent. What arises and falls away has no beauty, but, although he has realized the impermanence of realities, the clinging to what is beautiful has been deeply accumulated, he cannot abandon it yet. He sees beauty in what is foul, and thus, he has to continue to develop right understanding of citta, cetasika and rupa, so that the perversion of seeing beauty in what is not beautiful is eradicated. This perversion has become attenuated at the second stage of enlightenment, the stage of the once-returner, sakadagami, but it can only be completely eradicated at the third stage of enlightenment, the stage of the non-returner, anagami. We read in the “Visuddhimagga” (XXII) that the perversions of sanna and citta finding beauty in the foul are eradicated at the third stage of enlightenment, the stage of the non-returner or anagami. He does not cling to sense objects anymore, and thus he does not see the body as beautiful. But he still clings to rebirth which he considers as happiness instead of seeing it as dukkha. The “Visuddhimagga” states that the arahat has eradicated the perversions of sanna and citta finding happiness in what is dukkha. Only the arahat does not cling to rebirth, he has no inclination to consider it as happiness. Thus we see that it is extremely difficult to eradicate the perversions.

Defilements are deeply rooted and it is necessary to persevere in the development of understanding of the nama or rupa which appears now. The object of right understanding is the nama and rupa which appear in daily life, but as panna develops, it understands more deeply their true nature. We have to follow the right Path so that realities will be understood as they are: impermanent, dukkha and not self. However, because of our defilements we are likely to deviate from the right Path, and then we shall not reach the goal.

We are bound to forget that there is no one who develops right
understanding. We read in Khun Santi’s lexicon, under “practice”, about the practice of vipassana:

“This is the moment when sati together with sampajanna (panna) arises and is aware of the characteristic of nama or rupa. Then the truth is known that they are only nama dhamma and rupa dhamma, no being, no person, no self, no thing. Moreover, it is known that there is no person who practises, but that only sati sampajanna (sati and panna) and the accompanying sobhana (wholesome) dhammas each perform their own function with regard to the practice. If there is right understanding of the nature of anatta of realities it will be the condition for the right practice and eventually for detachment from the clinging to the idea of self.”

If we forget that sati is anatta it conditions wrong practice. There are three factors which can obstruct or slow down the development of vipassana namely: craving, tanha, wrong view, ditthi and conceit, mana. Even when we listen to the Dhamma a great deal these three obstructions are bound to arise and slow down the practice.

There are many forms and varieties of thinking of ourselves. We may think of ourselves with clinging accompanied by wrong view, ditthi, or without wrong view, or with clinging accompanied by conceit. There are eight akusala cittas rooted in attachment, lobha-mula-cittas, of which four are accompanied by ditthi and four are without ditthi. When lobha-mula-citta is accompanied by conceit, it is not accompanied by ditthi. Thus, when we think of ourselves it may be with either one of the three factors which slow down the development of insight, namely, craving, wrong view and conceit. We read in the “Middle Length Sayings” (I,”Discourse on Expunging”) that Maha Cunda asked the Buddha a question about wrong views and that the Buddha gave him explanations. The text states:

“Those various types of views, Lord, that arise in the world and are connected with theories of the self or with theories of the world, does there come to be ejection of these views, does there come to be renunciation of these views for a monk who wisely reflects from the beginning?”

“Those various types of views, Cunda, that arise in the world and are connected with theories of the self or with theories of the world- wherever these views arise and wherever they obsess (the mind) and wherever they are current, it is by seeing them with perfect wisdom as they really are, thus: ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self,’ that there is ejection of these views, that there is renunciation of these views....”

We read in the Commentary to this sutta, the “Papancasudani”, that to think, “this is mine” (etam mama), is to be in the grip of craving (tanha); to think, “I am this” (eso aham asmi), is to be in the grip of conceit (mana); to think, “this is myself” (eso me atta), is to be in the grip of wrong view.

Thus we see that we may think of ourselves in many ways, not only with wrong view, but also with craving or conceit. Time and again the scriptures refer with the above quoted phrase to these three wrong ways of thinking (The commentary refers to them as the “papanca”, which is translated as “diffuseness” or aberrations.). We have deeply accumulated these tendencies and if we are ignorant of them they will prevent us from becoming freed from the cycle of birth and death.

The “Book of Analysis” (Ch 17, “Analysis of Small Items”, in the Exposition of the Occurrences of Craving) gives an exposition of the different ways of craving in connection with “oneself”. One thinks, for example, “I am”, “I am such an one”, “I am also”, “I am otherwise”. We read about these different ways of conceiving:

.... one gets the wish, “I am”; one gets the conceit, “I am”; one gets the wrong view, “I am”; when this happens there are these obsessions, “I am such an one” or “I am also” or “I am otherwise”.

And how is there, “I am such an one? “I am a ruler” or “I am a Brahmin” or “I am a merchant” or “I am an artisan” or “I am a householder” or “I am an ascetic”....

The Commentary to the “Book of Analysis”, the “Dispeller of Delusion” (under Behaviour of Craving) explains that there comes to be the thought “I am” depending on this internal pentad of khandhas (the five khandhas), due to taking it as a unit through craving, conceit and wrong view... 

The Commentary explains that if one takes the five khandhas as a unit and thinks “such am I”, this may be done without comparison or with comparison. We read in the Commentary:

Herein, as to without comparison there comes to be the thought: “Such am I” by making only one’s own state the object without reference to any other aspect; among Khattiyas (The Khattiyas belonged to the warrior caste, the highest social rank. Kings belonged to this caste.) and the like there comes to be the thought through craving, conceit and wrong view thus: “I am of this kind” is the meaning. This in the first place is the taking of it without comparison.

But the taking of it by comparison is of two kinds, as the same and as not the same....

All these ways of thinking occur time and again in our daily life. We may think of ourselves as being of such nationality, of having such status in society, of having had such education, with craving, conceit or wrong view: “I am such”. As we just read in the Commentary, even when we do not compare ourselves with someone else, but only think, “I am such, I am of this kind”, we may still have conceit, because we cling to the importance of our personality. 

We may cling to ourselves as belonging to a special group, a group of Dhamma students: “I am such”. When we compare ourselves with someone else we may see ourselves as being equal, higher or lower: “I am also”, or “I am otherwise”. The Book of “Analysis” gives the examples: “As he is a ruler (Khattya), so also am I a ruler”... or “As he is a ruler, I am not a ruler in the same way”. We may compare ourselves with others who have sati more often or who lack sati. Comparing is useless because sati is a type of nama which arises because of its appropriate conditions.

The “Book of Analysis” points out that one may also think of oneself with regard to the future: “I shall be”. One may also think: “I am eternal”, and that is the wrong view of eternalism, or “I am not eternal”, and that is, as explained here, the wrong view of annihilism: one believes to be annihilated, that there is no rebirth.

We should not try to pinpoint all these different moments, because they can only be known through the development of satipatthana. So long as the difference between nama and rupa has not been realized by the insight knowledge of the first stage, it is not possible to clearly understand the different defilements which are anatta, which arise because of conditions.

Defilements are nama, but so long as we take nama and rupa as a unit, as a “whole”, it cannot be clearly understood what nama is. However, studying details and considering them in daily life is useful, because we can be reminded of the many different ways of clinging to “our personality”, of thinking of ourselves. We may be inclined to think ,“He loses his temper, I am different”, or “His memory is weak, I am different” or “He practises vipassana in the wrong way, I am different”. Instead of criticizing someone else we can see the urgency to develop the way leading to the eradication of the clinging to ourselves.

We may, without noticing it, cling to ourselves as a person who has sati: “I am such”, “I am the same”, “I am otherwise”. Or we conceive ourselves as a person who should reach the goal very soon, and then we shall certainly not reach it. Such ways of thinking can be a condition to engage in wrong practice and that is a form of ditthi. We may hope for the arising of sati, we may wait for insight knowledge, vipassana nana, or after someone has reached the first stage of vipassana nana he may wait for the next ones. After a moment of sati one may cling to it and feel happy about it. One may be so keen to have sati that one clings to characteristics of paramattha dhammas which appear. For example, hardness appears and then one may cling to this characteristic and erroneously believe that that is awareness of hardness. If we cling to “my practice”, to a self who develops satipatthana, we are on the wrong Path.

There is no self who practises, only citta and cetasikas performing their functions. The conceiving of self is bound to be an obstruction time and again and only panna which realizes such moments can be the condition to return to the right Path. We should not forget that right understanding should lead to detachment, but panna must be very keen to realize even the more subtle kinds of akusala as not self. Mana can also obstruct the development of vipassana. One may find oneself important and believe that one’s knowledge is already accomplished, that further study and consideration of  realities is no longer necessary, or that one does not need to listen to someone else who explains the right Path.

The sotapanna who has eradicated wrong view still thinks of himself with clinging or conceit. At the subsequent stages of enlightenment clinging and conceit are attenuated, but only at the last stage, the stage of the arahat, all ways of misconceivings, even the most subtle, are eradicated. This can show us that there should be awareness and right understanding of all kinds of realities, including all ways of misconceiving, of thinking of ourselves, so that their true nature can be penetrated.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: