Listening to the Dhamma

There is no Self

by Nina van Gorkom | 1998 | 18,252 words

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Chapter 2 - The Meaning Of Dhamma

In the Dong Devi Temple the Abbot reminded us of our ignorance of dhamma. We do not know the meaning of dhamma, that which is real in the ultimate sense. We should not merely say, "everything is dhamma", without deeply considering the meaning of what dhamma is. We should come to know the characteristic of the dhamma appearing at this moment. But for the development of understanding we need patience and perseverance. It is not difficult to learn the terms of citta, cetasika and rupa, but this is not enough. They are realities, each with their own characteristic which can be directly known when they appear at the present moment.

The Abbot stressed that seeing is dhamma, that there is no "I" who sees. Hearing is dhamma, there is no "I" who hears. Seeing and hearing are nama-elements, realities which experience something, they experience an object. Seeing experiences colour, which is rupa, a reality which does not know anything. Sound is rupa, a reality which does not know anything. When people hear about seeing, colour, hearing and sound, they may find this subject too ordinary. However, we are ignorant about these realities when they actually appear. We are confused with regard to ultimate truth, nama and rupa, and conventional truth, concepts and ideas. Seeing is a citta experiencing colour which is a kind of rupa. However, we still think that we see people or trees. People and trees are concepts we think of but which do not appear through eyesense.


On account of what is seen we can think of concepts, the thinking is conditioned by seeing. We believe that we can hear words, but hearing only hears sound, that which appears through the ears, and on account of what is heard we can think of words and their meaning. What we hear is interpreted immediately, it seems that hearing and knowing the meaning of words occur all at the same time, but in reality there is only one citta at a time which experiences one object. There are many different cittas which arise and fall away extremely rapidly, succeeding one another, but it is difficult to distinguish between them. It is the same in the case of the other sense-cognitions, we interpret immediately what kind of odour is smelt, what kind of flavour is


tasted, what thing we are touching. We think of concepts for a long time, we are forgetful of ultimate realities which are non-self. We can gradually learn the difference between ultimate realities, paramattha dhammas, and concepts. When we are not thinking but seeing, paramattha dhammas are the object of citta. When we are not thinking but hearing, paramattha dhammas are the object of citta. They appear in between the moments of thinking about the meaning of what we experience. When we listen to the Dhamma we can begin to understand the meaning of anatta, non-self. Paramattha dhammas are anatta.

We are used to thinking of "my body", "I see", "I hear", "I think". We have to consider carefully what the Buddha taught about nama and rupa so that understanding of the truth can develop. Our life consists of nama and rupa which are impermanent and non-self. We are attached to the idea of "my body", "my hand", "my feet", but the body consists of different kinds of rupas which arise and then fall away. The rupas which have fallen away are replaced by new rupas so long as there are conditions. It seems that the body lasts for some time, but in reality there are only different rupas which are impermanent. There are four factors which produce rupas of the body: kamma, citta, temperature (or heat) and nutrition. These factors keep on producing rupas throughout our life. The body as a whole is a concept we can think of, it is not real in the ultimate sense. One characteristic of rupa at a time such as hardness or heat can be experienced and these are ultimate realities. Gradually the difference between ultimate realities and concepts can be understood. Also understanding is impermanent and non-self, it is a cetasika which arises for a moment and then falls away, but it can be accumulated so that understanding can arise again.

The Buddha classified realities in different ways in order to help people to develop understanding of them. He classified realities as four paramattha dhammas, ultimate realities, namely as citta, cetasika, rupa and the unconditioned reality which is nibbana . Another way of classification is by way of ayatanas, sometimes translated as bases or sources. They are:

Manayatana includes all cittas, and dhammayatana includes objects which can be experienced only through the mind-door, namely: subtle rupas , cetasikas and nibbana.

Visible object "meets" the eyebase so that there can be seeing, the experience of visible object. It is the same with sound and the other sense-objects, they "meet" the respective sensebases so that the sense-cognitions arise. The association of objects with the different bases occurs at this moment, we can verify the truth of the Buddha's teachings. If visible object would not meet the eyebase, seeing could not arise. Visible object and the eyebase are rupas. The eyesense is a rupa in the eye which is capable to receive visible object or colour, so that seeing can experience it. Rupa arises and falls away, but it does not fall away as rapidly as citta. Visible object is experienced by seeing and by several other cittas arising in a process of cittas, the eye-door
process. When a pleasant visible object is experienced attachment is likely to arise and when an unpleasant object is experienced aversion is likely to arise and this happens already during the eye-door process, before we think of the meaning of what we experience. It all occurs because of conditions, it is beyond control what type of citta arises within the processes of cittas. The cittas arising in the different processes do so according to a specific order and nobody can change this order. After the sense-door process of cittas is over, the same object is experienced through the mind-door, and after that mind-door processes of cittas may arise which think about the object. One rupa lasts as long as it takes seventeen cittas to arise and fall away in succession . Visible object and the eyebase have not fallen away yet when the cittas of the eye-door process arise and experience visible object. Thus we see that the conditions for the different cittas which arise are very intricate. Visible object does not meet the ear-base, it can only meet the eyebase. When there is seeing, there cannot be at the same time the meeting of sound and the ear-base.

This is a difficult subject we discussed for many hours while we were in Thaton. However, we did not only sit, we were also walking in between the sessions on the terrace above the river. Acharn Sujin thinks of the welfare of everybody, she arranges for agreeable places to stay. She also thought of my husband Lodewijk who does not understand Thai and could not follow the
sessions. One should not torture oneself by sitting all day, that is not the "Middle Way". She herself took a short boat trip on the river. Lodewijk was reading my "Abhidhamma in Daily Life" on a terrace above the river, while we were having our sessions in the garden under an awning. Here we were somewhat protected from the cold wind which was blowing in the early morning
and in the evening.

No matter we are walking or sitting, discussing Dhamma, there are conditions for all the ayatanas of daily life, for the sense-bases and the sense objects, for the mind-base, mental objects, and for the cittas which experience these objects.

We read in the "Visuddhimagga" (XV, 5, 6) about the ayatanas:

Furthermore, base (ayatana) should be understood in the sense of place of abode, store (mine), meeting place, locality of birth and cause...

And these various states of consciousness and its concomitants (cetasikas) dwell in the eye, etc., because they exist in dependence on them, so the eye, etc., are their place of abode. And they frequent the eye, etc., because they have them (respectively) as their (material ) support and as their object, so the eye, etc., are their store. And the eye, etc., are their meeting place because they meet together in one or other of them, (using them) as physical basis, door, and object. And the eye, etc., are the locality of their birth because they arise just there, having them as their respective supports and objects. And the eye, etc., are their reason (hetu or cause) because they are absent when the eye, etc., are absent.

Seeing-consciousness and its accompanying cetasikas "dwell in the eye", the eye is their place of dependence and the place where they originate: seeing-consciousness arises at the eyebase; hearing-consciousness arises at the ear-base and the other sense-cognitions arise at their respective bases.

The "Atthasalini " (I, Part IV, Ch II, Discourse on the Section of Exposition, 141) explains that in the case of manayatana, mind-base, which includes all cittas, the three terms of birth-place, meeting-place and reason (or cause) are suitable:

...For mind is ayatana in the sense of birth-place as in the passage:- "dhammas such as contact (phassa) , are born in the mind." And mind is ayatana in the sense of a meeting-place, as in the passage:- "External objects, visible, audible, olfactory, gustatory and tangible assemble there as objects in the mind." And mind is ayatana in the sense of reason (or ground), because of its
being the cause-in-relation of the co-existence, etc., of contact and so on.

Citta is the leader in experiencing an object, and the cetasikas (contact and the other accompanying cetasikas) perform each their own function while they experience the same object. The cetasikas could not arise without citta, citta is their reason or cause.

There are six pairs of ayatanas, each pair comprising an inner ayatana and an outer ayatana. The five sensebases and the manayatana are the inner ayatanas, the sense objects and dhammayatana (mental objects) are the outer ayatanas. Cetasikas arise together with the citta, but they are included in dhammayatana which is an outer ayatana . Dhammayatana are the objects which can be experienced only through the mind-door. Cetasikas such as contact or feeling can be experienced only through the mind-door.

The "Visuddhimagga" (XV, 15) states about the ayatanas which are conditioned realities :

As to how to be seen: here, however, all formed (conditioned) bases should be regarded as having no provenance and no destination. For they do not come from anywhere previous to their rise, nor do they go anywhere after their fall. On the contrary, before their rise they had no individual essence, and after their fall their individual essences are completely dissolved.
And they occur without mastery (being exercisable over them) since they exist in dependence on conditions and in between the past and the future. Consequently they should be regarded as having no provenance and no destination.

Likewise they should be regarded as incurious and uninterested. For it does not occur to the eye and the visible object, etc., "Ah, that consciousness might arise from our concurrence." And as door, physical basis, and object, they have no curiosity about, or interest in, arousing consciousness. On the contrary, it is the absolute rule that eye-consciousness, etc., come into
being with the union of eye with visible object, and so on. So they should be regarded as incurious and uninterested.

Furthermore, the internal ayatanas should be regarded as an empty village because they are devoid of lastingness, pleasure and self; and the external ones as village-raiding robbers because they raid the internal ones. And this is said: "Bhikkhus, the eye is harassed by agreeable and disagreeable objects" (Kindred Sayings, IV, 175).

We read in the text to which the "Visuddhimagga" refers, in the "Kindred Sayings" (IV, Salayatana Vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, The fourth Fifty, Ch 5, The Chapter on the Snake, 197, The Snake) that the Buddha explained by way of similes the disadvantages and danger of conditioned dhammas. He compared the inner ayatanas to an empty village and the outer ayatanas to robbers who plunder the village:

"The empty village", monks,- that is a name for the personal sixfold sense-sphere (inner ayatanas). For if a man, however wise, clever, intelligent he be, searches it through by way of the eye, he finds it empty, finds it void, unoccupied. If he searches it through by way of the tongue... by way of the mind, he finds it empty, finds it void, unoccupied.

"The village-plunderers", monks, - that is a name for the external sixfold sense-sphere (outer ayatanas). For the eye, monks, destroys with entrancing shapes, the ear destroys with entrancing sounds, the nose... the tongue with entrancing savours... the body... the mind destroys with entrancing mind-states....

Acharn Somphon reminded us time and again that we think of "our eyes, our ears", but in reality they are empty, devoid of "self". The teaching of the ayatanas pertains to daily life. We attach great importance to our eyes, ears and all the sense-organs, we are attached to seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions. We are attached to the objects we experience. However, they arise because of their appropriate conditions and they are beyond control. The teaching of the ayatanas makes clear that the experiences through the senses and the mind-door are conditioned. As we read in the "Visuddhimagga", "it is the absolute rule that eye-consciousness, etc., come into being with the union of eye with visible object." It is the absolute rule that hearing comes into being with the union of ear and sound, it is the absolute rule that smelling comes into being with the union of nose and odour, and so it is with the other sense-cognitions. It is beneficial to be reminded that we are attached to our eyes and ears, because most of the time we do not realize this. There are ayatanas at this moment: seeing and hearing do not last, they fall away immediately. They are vipakacittas, results of kamma, but we forget that they are results of kamma which have to arise when it is the right time.

As we read in the above quoted sutta text of the "Kindred Sayings", "the eye, monks, is harassed by entrancing shapes" and the same is true with regard to the other doorways. When a pleasant sense object is experienced there is likely to be clinging. So long as there is clinging there will be rebirth and the cycle of birth and death will continue. Birth is followed by old age, sickness and death and this is dukkha, suffering. Actually, each moment of life is dukkha, because what arises has to fall away, it is impermanent and thus it is dukkha, unsatisfactory. Being infatuated by the sense objects, is destructive, it is dangerous. We read in the same sutta that the man who is in terror and flees from danger sees a great broad [body of] water, of which this side is full of dangers, and the other side free from danger. He makes a raft to cross over to the other shore. The other shore is nibbana and the raft is the ariyan eightfold Path. He has crossed over and stands on dry land, this means: he has reached arahatship.

We read in the "Samyutta Nikaya" (I, Part I, Ch I, The Devas, 7, 10 The world) that the world is in trouble because of the ayatanas. We read:

What being given, comes the world to pass?

What being given holds its intercourse?

On what depending does it hold its way?

Because of what is it so sore oppressed?

"Six" being given , comes the world to pass.

"Six" being given, holds its intercourse .

On "Six" depending does it hold its way.

Because of "Six" it is so sore oppressed.

In the planes where there are nama and rupa the six bases arise. The meeting of the bases and the objects causes one to be agitated: after the sense-cognitions defilements such as like or dislike are bound to arise. So long as defilements arise one is not freed from birth, old age, sickness and death, not freed from dukkha. The Buddha taught the development of right understanding of paramattha dhammas so that defilements can finally be eradicated.

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