Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Tenth Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Consciousness and Self

Venerable Jiang Hu made a return visit to Middle Way Buddhist Association's venue at Pinellas Park at the occasion of its Tenth Dharma session to deliver the Dharma Talk entitled Buddhist Analysis of the Mind: Consciousness and the Self. As was the case during his first visit in July, the session was preceded by meditation at 7.00pm, and concluded with a Taking the Three Refuges ceremony at 9.30pm.

We left home around 6.00pm and found the evening commute on I-275 to be bearable, enabling us to reach the venue before the scheduled time of start.

The attendees in place, seated variously on chairs and on the carpeted floor, with cushions, Venerable Jian Hu first gave a brief introduction to the essentials of meditation, it being a way to tame the mind, distracted as it is by our endless search for happiness, not realizing that our preoccupation is actually a delusional facade and is the very source of our unhappiness.

Through understanding the mind, which is by nature restless and constantly seeking, we can begin to understand ourselves, the truth of others, and the problems that surround us. This insight can come from within, uncovering our potential to realize the highest level of happiness and freedom.

Meditation is a fruitful practice that begins with the right posture, one that is upright, centered, and relaxed. While the full lotus position is deemed the most stable, beginners can opt for other less “difficult” position such as half lotus, or simply cross-legged, or even sitting on a chair, if physical limitations prevent one from assuming the preferred position. This is followed by paying attention to our breathing to follow a natural unhurried rhythm, and our mind to be fully aware of what's going on. The salient points in this regard are covered in Venerable Jian Hu's first visit and would not be repeated here.

Venerable Jian Hu then led us through a sitting meditation, followed by a walking meditation to experience mindfulness in motion.

Brother Tom introducing our Dharma teacher for the night, Venerable Jian Hu.

In the Dharma talk that followed, Venerable Jian Hu cited meditation as one approach to calming the mind, to render it non-seeking and not desiring. The focus is to clear ourselves of self, the mind in pure awareness, no thoughts arising.

Another approach is a contemplative one, by analyzing consciousness. He related a parable of a group of blind men trying to make sense of what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of the animal: its tusks, its trunk (snout), its body, its tail, and its leg. As a result, each “sees” a partial and incomplete picture. This is analogous to our perceiving the world using our limited senses.

In Buddhist analysis, we have eight types of consciousness. The first five of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are similar to the five senses known in western psychology. The sixth consciousness is our thinking faculty, one that categorizes, and assigns names to objects the first five consciousnesses come into contact with and therefore co-arises with them. However, this is not sixth sense or extra-sensory perception (ESP) that people in the west are wont to invoke.

As a result of the co-arising, our perception of reality through the five sense consciousness is often colored and distorted by our sixth consciousness, with accompanying good and bad thoughts. These then lead to good or bad karma, and retributions. In this regard, it is the one most responsible for our fate. The principle of causality enshrined therein is a central canon in Buddhism, and is somewhat akin to the western refrain, what goes around, comes around.

A good example of our sense limitation is we can only see a tiny range of the entire electric-magnetic wave spectrum, the visible light. Outside this visible light range, a wide assortment of EM waves ranging from microwaves to X-rays that we are blind to have been tapped to maintain and advance our well-being. But when we do not understand the limitations of our senses, we become ignorant.

Venerable Jian Hu then related a personal story of talking a little girl out of consuming meat. The girl was holding a puppy and admitted to not wanting to hurt it when asked. But her eyes swelled with tears when she was asked whether a chicken would feel pain when its leg is cut off. So often we are so used to seeing a small part of reality, in this case, a golden yellow drumstick on our dinner plate, we become detached from it. But if we are able to see a bigger picture, through a larger window to the world if you will, we can generate compassion within us and behave compassionately toward others.

The 8th consciousness is the Alaya or storehouse consciousness. It is also a field, akin to one from which farmers can reap harvest. It always metamorphoses, changing our perspective. As a storehouse, it is a repository of “karma seeds” created by the first seven consciousness. As a field, it can preserve the karma seeds, and when the conditions are ripe, the seeds will grow and bear fruits (karmic retributions).

The 7th consciousness is the Manas or self consciousness. In everyday lingo, it's the ego, a rather irrational one, through clinging to the 8th consciousness. Unfortunately, it's not the real self.

On the other hand, awareness, that fundamental perception that lies at the base of consciousness, does not change. We are equal at the fundamental level, but diverge through alterations by cultural conditioning. To realize your true self is to empty yourself.

Venerable Jian Hu concluded the talk by offering the following advice:

Your can only convert your enemy through compassion.
Work as a way to serve humanity.
Life is impermanent. Accept it.
Do something for the departed by doing good deeds and dedicating the merits to them.

We left the session at the conclusion of the talk and did not stay to witness the Taking the Three Refuges, but I'm sure those who did have had a very blessed night.

Here I would like to conclude with one of the two poems on consciousness from the handout of Venerable Jian Hu:

There are eight brothers from one womb,
One is smart, one is dumb,
Five are out there doing business,
one stays home keeping the account book.

Can you name each of the eight consciousness as described?

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