Mental Development in Daily Life

by Nina van Gorkom | 2000 | 31,190 words

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Part 1 - Death

It is a reality of life that we are bound to lose those who are dear to us. When a relative or one of our friends dies we feel much grief and we find it difficult to bear our loss. The Buddha's teachings can help us to face reality, to see things as they are. Many times the Buddha spoke about the sorrow caused by the loss of dear people.

We read in the sutta 'Born of Affection' (Piyajatika-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya II, Raja-vagga):

Thus have I heard: At one time the Lord was staying near Savatthi in the Jeta Grove in Anathapindika's monastery. Now at that time the dear and beloved little only son of a certain house-holder had passed away. After he had passed away (the father) had no inclination for work or for food. Going constantly to the cemetery, he wailed: 'Where are you, little only son? Where are your little only son?' Then that householder approached the Lord,; having approached, having greeted the Lord, he sat down at a respectful distance. The Lord spoke thus to that householder as he was sitting down at a respectful distance:


'Have not you, householder, controlling faculties for stilling your own mind? There is a change in your faculties.'

'But how could there be no change in my faculties, Lord? For, Lord, my dear and beloved little only son has passed away...'

'That is just it, householder. For, householder, grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair are born of affection, originate in affection.'

'But for whom Lord, could this hold good in this way: "Grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair are born of affection, originate in affection?" For, Lord, bliss and happiness are born of affection, originate in affection.

Then the householder, not rejoicing in what the Lord had said, repudiating it, rising from his seat, departed...


The householder could not grasp the deep meaning of the Buddha's words. We should try to understand what the Buddha meant. We should try to understand what the Buddha taught about the world, about ourselves, about life and death. The Buddha summarized his teachings in the 'Four Noble Truths'.

We read in the 'Samyutta Nikaya' (Maha-vagga, Book XII, Chapter II, par. 1) that the Buddha explained the 'Four Noble Truths' (ariya-sacca) to his first five disciples in the Deerpark of Varanasi. The first 'Noble Truth' is 'dukkha' which can be translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The Buddha said:

Now this, monks, is the ariyan truth about dukkha: Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha... To be united with what we dislike, to separated from what we like- that also is dukkha. Not to get what one wants- that also is dukkha. In a word, the five khandhas which are based on grasping are dukkha.

The five khandhas, which are the mental phenomena and the physical phenomena in and around ourselves, are dukkha. One may wonder why they are dukkha. We take the mind for self, but what we call our mind are only mental elements or namas, which arise and then fall away immediately. We take the body for self, but what we call our body are only physical elements or rupas which arise and fall away. When we do not know the truth we think that these phenomena can stay; we take them for self. We might for instance think that sadness stays, but there is not only sadness in our day; there are many other phenomena such as seeing, hearing and thinking. What we think is a long moment of sadness is, in reality, many different phenomena a succeeding one another.

All phenomena which are impermanent are not real happiness; so they are dukkha. Although dukkha is often translated as 'suffering', it is not only an unhappy feeling; the first 'Noble Truth' applies to all phenomena which arise and fall away. There is not anything in our life which is not dukkha. Even a happy feeling is dukkha, it does not last.

The second 'Noble Truth' is the origin of dukkha, which is craving. The same sutta states:

Now this, monks, is the ariyan truth about the arising of dukkha: It is that craving that leads back to birth, along with the lure and the lust that lingers longingly now here, now there: namely the craving for sensual pleasure, the craving to be born again, the craving for existence to end. Such, monks, is the ariyan truth about the arising of dukkha.

As long as there is craving in any form there will be a condition for life, for the arising of nama and rupa. Thus, there will be dukkha.

The third 'Noble Truth' is the cessation of dukkha, which is nibbana. The sutta quoted before states:

And this, monks, is the ariyan truth about the ceasing of dukkha:

Verily it is the utter passionless cessation of the giving up, the forsaking, the release from, the absence of longing for this craving.

Nibbana is the end of defilements. When there is no more craving there is no longer a condition for rebirth and thus there is the ending of dukkha.

We read in the same sutta about the fourth 'Noble Truth':

Now this, monks, is the ariyan truth about the practice that leads to the ceasing of dukkha:

Verily it is this ariyan eightfold way, namely: Right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The eightfold Path (ariya-magga) is the development of insight into all phenomena which appear in our daily life. We come to know the world in and around ourselves, not through speculation, but from our own experience.

How do we experience the world? We experience the world through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, receiving impressions through the body-sense and through the mind-door. Everything we experience through the doors of the five senses and through the mind-door is extremely short, because all phenomena which arise fall away immediately. When we see, there is the world of sight, but it does not last, it falls away again. When we hear, there is the world of sound, but it is impermanent. Likewise the world of smell, the world of taste, the world of touch and the world of mental objects; none of these worlds lasts.

In the 'Visuddhimagga' (VIII, 39) we read about the shortness of the world: the ultimate sense the life- moment of living beings is extremely short, being only as much as the occurrence of a single conscious moment. Just as a chariot wheel, when it is at rest, rests only on one point, so too, the life of living beings lasts only for a single conscious moment. When that consciousness has ceased, the being is said to have ceased ....

Life, person, pleasure, pain- just these alone
Join in one conscious moment that flicks by.
Ceased khandhas of those dead or alive
Are all alike, gone never to return.
No (world is) born if (consciousness is) not
Produced; when that is present, then it lives;
When consciousness dissolves, the world is dead....

What we call death is not really different from what happens at any moment of consciousness. Each moment that a citta falls away there is death of citta. Each citta which arises falls away completely but it conditions the next citta. The last citta of this life, the death-consciousness citta (cuti-citta), is succeeded by the first citta of the next life, the rebirth-consciousness citta (patisandhi-citta). There is no self at any moment of our life and thus there is not a self or soul which travels from this life to the next life.

It is ignorance which makes us think and behave as if the body and mind were permanent. We are attached to the body and to the mind and we take them for self. We think that it is self which sees, hears, thinks and moves around. The clinging to self causes sorrow. We wish to experience only pleasant things and when we are confronted with old age, sickness and death we are very sad. Those who are ignorant of reality cannot grasp the Buddha's word that sorrow originates in attachment. This is in fact the second 'Noble Truth'. We should realize that all nama and rupa which arise are impermanent, dukkha and anatta (not self).

The Buddha pointed out the impermanence of phenomena in many different ways. He spoke about the impermanence of the body in order to help people to become detached from the idea of 'my body'. He spoke about the contemplation of the foulness of the body, recommending meditations on corpses in different stages of dissolution.

We read in the 'Satipatthana-sutta' (Majjhima Nikaya I, Mulapariyaya-vagga):

And again, monks, as a monk might see a body thrown aside in a cemetery, dead for one day or for two days or for three days, swollen, discoloured, decomposing; he focuses on this body itself (his own), thinking: 'This body, too, is of a similar nature, a similar constitution, it has not got past that (state of things).'

The 'Visuddhimagga' (Chapter VI, 88) explains: '... For a living body is just as foul as a dead one, only the characteristic of foulness is not evident in a living body, being hidden by adventitious embellishments.'

In order that people might realize the foulness of the living body as well, the Buddha used to speak about the 'Parts of the Body'. We read in the 'Satipatthana-sutta':

And again, monks, a monk reflects on precisely this body itself, encased in skin and full of various impurities, from the soles of the feet up and from the crown of the head down, that: 'There is connected with this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver...'

Reflections on the foulness of the body can help us to become less attached to it, but the most effective way to reduce attachment is to know the rupa- elements which constitute the body. If we learn to experience the characteristics of these rupa-elements we will know what the body really is. That is why the Buddha used to speak about the body in terms of the four elements. We read in the 'Satipatthana-sutta':

And again, monks, a monk reflects on this body according to how it is placed or disposed in respect of the elements, thinking: 'In this body there is the element of extension (solidity), the element of cohesion, the element of heat, the element of motion.'

The element of earth appears in the characteristics of hardness and softness, the element of water in the characteristics of fluidity and cohesion, the element of fire in the characteristics of heat and cold, the element of wind in the characteristics of motion and pressure. There elements are the same no matter whether we experience them in dead matter or in the body. We do not think that dead matter is our body; why then do we continue to take the body for self?

We should know the world as it really is by experiencing different characteristics of nama and rupa when they present themselves through the five sense-doors and through the mind-door. For example, when the characteristic of heat presents itself through the body-sense, it can be the object of awareness. When softness appears it can be the object of awareness. In this way we will get to know different characteristics of reality through our own experience.

It is important to know different characteristics when they present themselves; if we do not know them we take them for self. For instance, we may think that the softness of the body belongs to 'my body'. When we have experienced the characteristic of softness more often we will find out that softness is a characteristic which is the same no matter whether it is in dead matter or in the body. We learn by experience that it is a characteristic which does not know anything; it is rupa and not self. Thus we will become less attached to the idea of 'my body'. When we are aware of realities such as seeing, sadness, happiness and thinking, we will learn that they are only different namas, which arise and fall away. They are dukkha. The eye is dukkha, seeing is dukkha, the feelings which arise on account of what is seen are dukkha.

It does not appeal to everybody to be mindful of nama and rupa as they appear in daily life. However, we have to consider what we really want in life. Do we want to continue being ignorant and taking body and mind for self? Do we want to live in darkness, or do we want to develop wisdom so that there will be an end to dukkha? If we decide that we want to walk the way leading to the end of dukkha, we must develop wisdom in our daily life; when we see, hear, or think, when we feel sad and when we feel happy. This is the only way to know dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the end of dukkha and the way leading to the end of dukkha. When we realize how deeply rooted our ignorance is and how strong is the attachment to the self, we will be urged to continue to be mindful of nama and rupa.

The Buddha often spoke about mindfulness of death. The Buddha spoke about death in order to remind people of the impermanence of each moment. Life is extremely short and thus we should not waste any time, but should develop the perception of impermanence at the present moment. In this way ignorance will be eliminated.

Ignorance cannot be eradicated within a short time. Only when one has attained the last stage of enlightenment, the stage of the arahat, are there no more defilements; only then is ignorance completely eradicated. We read in the 'Maha-Parinibbana-sutta' (Digha Nikaya II) that when the Buddha passed away those who still had conditions for sorrow wept:

Then, when the Bhagava (the Buddha) had passed away, some monks, not yet freed from passion, lifted up their arms and wept; and some, flinging themselves on the ground, rolled from side to side and wept, lamenting: 'Too soon has the Bhagava come to his parinibbana! Too soon has the Happy One come to his parinibbana! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from sight!

But the monks who were freed from passion, mindful and clearly comprehending, reflected in this way: 'Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?'

And the venerable Anuruddha addressed the monks, saying: 'Enough, friends! Do not grieve, do nt lament! For has not the Bhagava declared before, that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation and severance? Of that which is arisen, come into being, compounded and is subject to decay, how can one say: "May it not come to dissolution"?'

We read in the same sutta that prior to his passing away the Buddha said to Ananda:

Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year and my life is spent... Therefore, Ananda, be an island to yourself, a refuge to yourself, seeking no external refuge; with Dhamma as your island, Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

And how, Ananda, is a monk an island to himself, a refuge to himself, seeking no external refuge; with Dhamma as his island, Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?

When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island to himself, a refuge to himself, seeking on external refuge; having Dhamma as his island and refuge, seeking no other refuge...

Contemplating the body in the body, feelings in the feelings, mind in the mind, and mental objects in the mental objects means: not contemplating the self in the body, feelings, mind and mental objects. Only if we are mindful of all the different kinds of nama and rupa which present themselves in our daily life will we see that they are impermanent, dukkha and anatta. This is the only way leading to the end of dukkha, to the end of death.

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