Sunday, June 29, 2008

The 16th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Inner Consciousness

The fascinating topic of the Inner Consciousness, the cognitive and affective core of the human mind as Buddhism views it, was the chosen theme of the 16th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) held on May 25, 2008 at its Pinellas Park venue. It was delivered by Bhante Upananda, by now a familiar Buddhist monk who has graced the MWBA Dharma sessions on numerous occasions.

Bhante started with some rudimentary and brief lessons on the Pali language, which consists of 41 alphabets/letters following the romanized International Pali Alphabets (IPA) system. One Pali root word is [buj] (the Sanskrit root is [budh]), meaning to awake, to know, or to enlighten. Most will recognize that this is the first part of the word, Buddha, meaning the Awakened/Enlightened One.

For the topic of the day, the relevant root word is [na] [here I would like to apologize for my inability to use the curly hats/bars over these letters as they should], which means to know, to be aware. Examples are sanna (preception), vinnana (consciousness), panna (understanding). The six areas of consciousness, vinnana, are: eye-consciousness (cakkhu-vinnana), ear-consciousness (sota-vinnana), nose-consciousness (ghana-vinnana), tongue-consciousness (jivha-vinnana), body/skin-consciousness (kayai-vinnana), and mind-consciousness (mano-vinnana). The first five (outer) are projections of the 6th, which has no bodily form but is as regular as the others. In terms of the base of consciousness/sense faculties, the first five have a corporeal base while the 6th, mental. The mind is all over the body except the hair and nail. And the brain and heart are closest to the mind.

In the western world, psychology is long considered as part of biology/neurology, though this sub-classification is beginning to change due to the infusion of Eastern philosophy. On the other hand, Buddhist psychology commences from fetal development (but this is just a convenient starting position from a pedagogical standpoint that entails an endless chain described by the twelve links of causality).

A distinct example is the Last-Thought Moment (LTM, not to be confused with LMT, lifting, moving and touching in moving meditation). Upon dying, the mind separates from the physical body, which has become dysfunctional, and is reduced to the 6th consciousness (mind consciousness). Just before the last breadth is drawn, the 6th also becomes dysfunctional.

The inner consciousness is closer to the 6th, but is yet none of these. It is the absolute layer of consciousness that comprises the innermost (mental) aspects. This is the subliminal layer of the consciousness that is immune to the outside world.

In the Mahayana tradition, there is also a storehouse-consciousness, the alaya-vinnanna, which functions like a microchip, in modern day parlance, of karmic data. Thus, the other layers are reduced to the microchip that manifests, in simple terms, in the extremes of our mental states between mania (feeling big) and morbid (feeling small).

As an analogy, a huge tree begins from a seed, which assumes no identity as all seeds are at the same level, be they Gods, humans, animals, etc. Then the inner consciousness opens up, as if it is watching itself. A next birth is triggered when a random seed springs up out of the billions of karmic seeds, unless it is driven by a previous resolution. In this case, one is karmically qualified to become one based on one's resolution. As is the case at the imminence of death, the birth is preceded by a gap, the first thought moment of life. In Buddhism, the self that ensues is independent, but changing constantly.

As mentioned previously, the fetal development is the fundamental level resulting from the union of the father's male egg cell and the mother's female egg cell to form the physical embryo. At the same instant, the mental side is formed from the birth consciousness, the microchip.

In Pali, Vinnana ani dassanam. That means, Vinnana is ineffable (beyond metaphor/description). At this point, liberation and nirvana are deemed as ineffable knowing. It is higher than the microchip.

In vipassana meditation, one senses impermanence. While one still feels oneself, there is no burden, hence, the absence of self/ego. The microchip opens up, and one would totally kill the karmic seeds to clear the microchip. But memories remain and yet they cannot be acted upon without the karmic seeds.

Understandably, inner consciousness is an extremely complex subject in Buddhism and would certainly defy even a basic level of understanding at first sitting of such a short length, and based on a feeble transcription attempt by a layperson (yours truly) at that. It is hoped that Bhante would expand and clarify on many more aspects in future sessions.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Bring the Dharma Along

That's the title of the Dharma talk delivered by Venerable Yung Han, Director of Fo Guang Shan Dallas Branch, at Guang Ming Temple on May 17, 2008. This was the second successive weekend that we were at the Temple, but this time with WT and CE, the previous one being on the occasion of Celebrating Buddha's Birthday and Mother's Day Festival on May 11, 2007.

We arrived at about 1pm, just in time for the vegetarian lunch held at the comfy Dining Hall, the various dishes arrayed neatly at its center before the start of the talk scheduled at 1.30pm. We partook of the rice noodles and a bowl of steaming hot black rice porridge, one of my favorite desserts during my junior high school days at Keluang in my home state back in Malaysia. Then, often after a hard night's of studying, we would saunter to the open-air night hawkers center to have a bowl of black rice porridge or peanut paste, enjoying the night cool air breezing by us, under the night sky hovering about us, a moment when youthful exuberance trumped over life's worries and nothing seemed impossible. But I digress.

The Mom flanked by CE (left) and WT (right) at the entrance.

Venerable Yung Han started by asking us to examine the focus of our life, the baggage that we have been carrying with us through life. Is it filled with:

- feeling, sentiments, and affections, worrying about the other half, household finance, bringing up the children, perturbed by spousal conflicts, floating along with the undercurrents of love-hate relationships and other emotional distress?

- money and other material wealth, under the impression, however erroneous it may be, that affluence equals the ability to solve problems but never halting to realize when is enough being enough?

- work, consumed by the workaholic routine to the exclusion of life itself?

- social status, as a way to vindicate ourselves?

- academic achievement, pursuing advanced degrees for their own sake and feeling smug about ourselves rather than for knowledge?

- external look, resorting to meticulous cosmetic upkeep without realizing that beauty is only skin-deep?

- hedonistic indulgence, preferring quick fixes, speed thrills, feeding a bottomless appetite of craving?

- technological advances, flaunting new-fangled gadgets (Ipods, Iphones, GPS, etc.) that pander to sensory stimulations?

- past glories, stuck at a time in the past?

Or, is it filled with virtuous character traits such as humility, integrity, patience, courage, confidence, compassion, wisdom, tolerance, traits that are consistent with those of a pursuer of the truism of the possession-less?

In the context of the western society, the advent of a Eastern religion/philosophy such as Buddhism also brings into focus a host of challenges such as the clash of the civilizations, the identity crisis, inter-personal relations, affection and marriage (across religions), the practice of religion (should I join the monastic order?), and the balance between work and life.

Such an examination will help us better understand our baggage. The next question is then: why bring along the baggage? The is tantamount to asking who we are so that we could awaken the master of our life, our inner Buddha, at least part of the time, recognizing that at other times we would remain delusional. Often, we know our problems, but are not prepared to face them, letting our hearts be hijacked in the process.

Venerable Yung Han at the rostrum.

Venerable Yung Han enumerated several ways to bring the Dharma along:

Simplicity. Having more does not equate to happiness. Rather, a simple meal of plain tea and rice is the source of a quality life. Finding that suffering of any kind and by any sentient life is as unbearable as our own suffering and hence, embracing a life of compassion, as exemplified by the selfless deeds of Mother Theresa, would bring endless blessings to this world.

Emptiness and nothingness. Emptiness is not the absence of physical presence, but the recognition that all phenomena are transitory and impermanent, and contingent upon dependent origination. To understand emptiness, we need to start from "having" and refrain from craving out of greed. Understanding that material wellbeing is illusory and delusional would help us rid ourselves of habitual clinging and move toward non-attachment, a core teaching of the Diamond Sutra that espouses the wisdom of detachment from worldly sentiments and the compassion of caring for all sentient beings. Know that ego/self is the source of problems. As for nothingness, not having is a beauty in and by itself.

Ordinariness. Lead an uneventful life, away from self-gratification, but one imbued with intrinsic wisdom that transcends grace and elegance of form and knows no bounds. Plant your feet on solid ground and proceed through life on an even keel. Venerable Yung Han summed up the essence of being ordinary using several gathas in Chinese (shown below) that translate roughly (because of my feeble attempts) as:

When Good Old Ordinary was scolded, he answered all is well to himself.
When Good Old Ordinary was bullied, he just lied down lonesome.
When Good Old Ordinary was spitted upon, he let the sputum dry by itself.
While I save some energy, others too have nothing to be concerned.

Thanks to Wendy of World Journal, Orlando for this group picture with Venerables Yung Han (left) and Chueh Fan (right), the director of Guang Ming Temple, Orlando.