The World - A Buddhist Perception
By Asuramuni Karunasena, Asian Tribune, March 10, 2006
London, UK -- The world we live in or the world around us or the world we belong to, however we try to identify or classify our traditionally accepted conventional world, is confined to the reach of our senses.
The two main features common to this conventional world are the existence of things and beings, implied feature of a degree of permanency. The galaxies, the universe, planets, countries, mountains, rivers, seas, trees, buildings, vehicles and all tangible things do exist in the conventional world. Similarly, human and other beings from single-celled ‘amoeba’ to all other creatures do also exist. This is the meaning of the world in common language or everyday language - the language of the people.
Most of us are familiar with the common language or the everyday language and fail to realise the existence of another quite different and very special language, the language of dhamma. Dhamma language is the language spoken by the people who have experienced dhamma i.e. the ‘Enlightened’. Having perceived dhamma, they speak in terms appropriate to their experience, and so dhamma language comes to be. This special mode of speaking is what we call dhamma language. It is a language quite distinct from the ordinary, everyday language. The following analysis makes an attempt to understand the meaning of the world in terms of dhamma language.
We have five sensory organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue and the body). These are our only instruments for knowing objects in the world external to us through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Through these processes, we ignorantly tend to deduce that the world is comprised only of things that are known or felt through our five senses, or if there is something else, that it must be of the same nature as these things or felt by the senses. These processes do not occur only from the five sensory organs without the functioning of the processing unit - the 'mind'. The intangible mind performs the essential function for the completion of the above processes of seeing, hearing etc. These five sensory organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue and the body) and the mind - the six senses help us see, hear, smell, taste and touch. The six senses create the world for us – I/me and the world external to 'a self' They confirm the existence of ‘a self’ and a tangible world around 'a self'.
There appears to operate an extremely complex process within us when our sensory organs are in contact with the external world enabling us to have a sense of engaging with the world - a tangible world with a degree of permanency. It is not possible to think otherwise, but to believe in a tangible permanent world around us when this extra-ordinary complex process of the mind functions within us at a very rapid speed confirming all the time, the existence of 'a self' other beings and things – the conventional world. In whatever direction we look we seldom go beyond the world of senses and our senses are rigidly confined by the encirclement of the world of objects – form, sound, odor, taste, tangible objects and mental phenomena. All the manifold objects collectively called the world are just those things we could feel or know by our senses.
The reality or the truth is different to what we feel or know by our senses. It is a veil of our own ignorance that blinds us to the reality beyond the senses and that compels us to judge all truth by the norms and standards set by the senses. For this reason we fail to comprehend anything beyond the sensory spheres. However, all theses beings/things – the permanent world, confirmed by the senses appear to exist only in a time frame and it is beyond the intellectual probing of many to understand any phenomenon beyond this concept, as we are all trapped in a time frame and the thinking process tends to confine within these boundaries.
We interact with the outside world when we are awake – i.e. when the mind is in an active mode. Our senses are used for this purpose. We have five inherent abilities (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling born of body contact) and also inbuilt desires/willingness to see, ear, smell, taste and touch. These properties lead to the interaction with the external world and this interaction results in 'living' in the conventional world. The various permutations/combinations of these five abilities and the desires are in operation all the time through a process in the mind leading to the interaction with the outside world. Conversely, when we are in our deep sleep, the process of the mind stops and the obvious conclusion is that we are not aware of a 'world' or 'ourselves' during deep sleep. The five abilities and the desires are not lost during that time, but without the 'mind' in active mode, the world does not exist for us. It is not possible for us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch during our deep sleep. For example, if we consider two organs ear and the nose – the sound and the smell could exist in the surroundings, but even with the existence of five inherent abilities and the five desires within us, we would not hear the sound or sense the smell in our deep sleep.
For others that person is in deep sleep and not dead, but for him, he does not know whether he is even living at that moment. What happened to his conventional world at that time? For him there was no 'world'. If there is a big sound, he may wake up, but would sense it’s feeling only after he is awake. However, once he is awake he is then in a position to enjoy the feeling of his existence and the existence of the world outside. When the senses are shut and the mind is not active, the so-called 'conventional world' does not appear to exist. For a dead person, there is no 'world' for him as the mind process has ceased to exist. Similarly, there is no 'world' for a person who is in deep sleep, as the mind process producing thoughts has ceased to exist due to some physiological rhythms of the body forcing him to sleep. What about the dreams? Our dreams are mental conceptions without any contact with the external world through the five sense organs and this does not occur during deep sleep. Hence, our 'world' - the conventional world does not exist in the absence of the mind or when it has ceased to function.
We may now consider another situation. When a child is born, s/he has no ‘world’, but for the parents, there is an arrival of a newborn baby to their world. Up to about three months, the infant may not be able to identify an object with the use of five sense organs and the mind. Although the infant possesses the five very important abilities (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling born of body contact), the infant lacks the skill or the knowledge for classification or identification of individual objects or beings with the use of those abilities. The infant’s mind was described by the Buddha as "Pabhassara midam Bhikkave Chittam, Agantukehi sankilitthena Sankilittham" - 'Pure indeed is the original mind. It is contaminated by the external contaminant'’. The external contaminants reach the mind through the senses. The processing and storing of information received through the contacts made by the senses with the external world lead to the contamination of the pure mind.
The difference between the five abilities and the identification/classification could be understood if we consider for example the darkness. In the dark we could not identify the objects, but we could see the darkness. It does prove that the ability to see does exist but the identification/classification was not possible at that time. The five abilities are inherent in all human beings and the identification/classification are developed through a learning process due to the existence of these five abilities. The infant’s sense faculties are not properly developed at that stage and therefore the infant has no knowledge of the external world. When the learning process begins from the parents and others, the infant starts to identify objects with names associated with them. For example; Mother – physical body of a woman and the name 'mother'. Apple – a fruit and the name 'apple'. Day by day and year by year the infant develops the knowledge with the use of sense faculties due to inbuilt desires and the five abilities through a very complex process in the mind. This knowledge we normally believe is stored (registered) as memory in the 'mind' to use at a later stage and this process continues until the actual physical death of the person.
There are three situations, in which we know that we cannot positively talk of an existing 'world' – i.e. deep sleep, infant up to about three months and when a person is dead. At all other times – i.e. when we are awake or half-asleep, we have a world that we can imagine or talk of. When the mind is in active mode enabling the production of thoughts, we sense the existence of a 'world'. This all-important 'mind' without which the world cannot exist is intangible and has no specific place, it could be everywhere in our fathom long body. The mind is not a part like the heart or brain in our body, it is only a process and when it is processing information, we call that it is in active mode. The inputs are necessary for a process to function and these inputs come from outside world through the five openings (eye, ear, nose, tongue and the body) and also from the mind itself from its memory. Although we identify a mind as a process, the mind itself is a concept in the mind.
What happens when we are awake? If we hear the word 'apple', then at the same moment a picture of an apple is formed in the mind. Not only its shape/form, but also all other qualities; colour, smell, taste, roughness/heaviness etc are sensed from the mind. The process does not end there. Various types/kinds of apples with different colours, different smells, different tastes and different textures are also being sensed at the same moment. Even when we actually see an apple all other qualities of an apple; name, smell, taste, roughness/heaviness etc and many different combinations of such attributes are similarly sensed from the mind at the same moment. It does not take split of a second for this process to occur - it takes place very fast in the mind. The ‘mind’, like a computer search for all possible combinations of attributes corresponding to the input it receives externally or internally. The same process would occur with imagination – input from the mind itself.
This process of the mind activates due to five desires and five abilities together with the opening of five sense organs (ayatana) to the outside world to identify/classify the objects, beings, feelings etc. Neither there is any doer nor a creator for this impersonal process. The identification/classification is only feasible through a thought, which is the outcome of this complex process. The thought resulting from the process leads to the identification, classification and accordingly the corresponding actions. This is how we see, feel the existence of beings/things and the interaction, hence the 'world'. What really happened is that only an image (picture) is formed in the 'mind' with its all qualities recognised by the 'mind' instantly. Whether we see, hear, smell, taste or touch, the same process would occur at a very rapid speed in order to produce this image (rupa) and the name (nama) with corresponding attributes in the intangible mind and hence a corresponding thought would arise. This thought would have two very important components name (nama) and the image (rupa). This process is common to every human being irrespective of religion, race, nationality etc and no one has any control over this process.
We cannot know by our senses what is beyond the perception of our senses. Our sense organs can make contact only within certain limits. For example, our ability to hear sound is limited to the vibration range that the ear is equipped to receive. Sound waves with higher or lower frequencies than these limits will pass into the ear, but will hear nothing at all. Although we have ears and eyes, we are unable to hear some kinds of sounds or to see certain colours that exist in the same way as the sounds and colours perceptible to our senses. The only difference is that of range. We pay less attention to them and act as though they did not exist. Our senses thus deceive us to such a degree about the real nature of things that we are often totally mistaken. Sometimes the same colour may appear to be different to different kinds of creatures. This suggests that the colour we ordinarily perceive it is an illusion. In the same way all the five sense organs together with the mind are liable to arouse the wildest delusions.
The 'World' is what one perceives in the mind. Nothing makes any physical contact with the mind nor there anything that goes out of the mind. It is through a complex process, we perceive things/beings and create our 'world'. The 'world' is created in our 'mind' and not outside. This process of creating our 'world' is an outcome of a 'cause and effect' relation. The process, which itself is the 'mind', is very subtle and the Buddha cracked this mystery which baffled many religious leaders and identified the reasons for this complex process and to explain it he used a structured methodology known as 'The Dependent Origination' (Paticca Samuppada).
The thought process occurs continually in one's mind and no two thoughts would ever appear together. Thoughts always do occur one after the other, but at a very rapid speed. Hence, sometimes we feel that two or more thoughts would occur simultaneously. But it is never possible for more than a single thought to occur or two thoughts to overlap at any given moment. If not for this fundamental phenomenon, 'Enlightenment - Nibbana' will never be possible. These thoughts are our life and they are the only instruments through which we identify things and beings, do things or refrain from doing certain things etc. They also give us a feeling of happiness as well as unhappiness.
These thoughts are like a flowing river and we tend to act on the feelings of the thoughts created in the mind and accordingly we tend to follow the flow of the river of thoughts – go down stream and finally end up in the sea of 'samsara' – never ending cycle of births and deaths. For a moment if we start to analyse the origin of the thoughts – understanding the facts of its origination, we may able to take wise decisions in our life based on facts rather than the feeling. We may be able to control our actions resulting from feelings, especially the anger. That is what is required at the start to go upstream. We may consider a common known example to illustrate this point - if we throw a ball towards a lion, it will look for the direction of its origination, whereas if we throw a ball towards a dog, it will go after the ball to collect it.
At any particular moment we have just a single thought and that is our'‘world' at that instant. Next moment, another thought occurs and a new ‘world’ would be created in the mind. The previous world then becomes history and is in the memory and so on the process continues until we are physically dead. Thus the 'world', which is created in the 'mind', could exist only for a moment, as a 'new world' would be created in the mind at the very next moment.
We can neither bring back the worlds created in the past, which are superseded by the worlds created thereafter nor can we create a new world in the future, which is yet to come. The only moment we could create the world is the present, which however, do not last even split of a second and is always influenced from the memories of the past and imaginations for the future. Thus there cannot exist a permanent world in the mind and hence the Buddha referred to this phenomenon as 'lujjati palujjati loko' – There is no permanent world, it always gets destroyed. However, we tend to imagine a permanent world by assembling the past thoughts within a time frame.
The reasons for the Buddha to say that the 'world' (loka) and the ‘cessation of world' (loka nirodha) are within the fathom long body are now not difficult to understand. Fathom - The total horizontal length of a person with both hands fully stretched horizontally is known as the 'Fathom' and which is normally the height of any human being irrespective of the age. Hence, the term 'fathom long body' in Buddhism when reference is made to the human body.
'The Dependent Origination' (Paticca Samuppada) is the structured method of analysis of this complex 'cause and effect' process of the mind that occurs without an operator, which results in creating the world. This analysis if understood properly would help us to clearly identify; firstly 'The world', secondly ‘The cause of the world’ – why the world is created in the mind, thirdly 'why the world gets destroyed' or ceased to exit the moment it is created and fourthly the only possible 'path for the cessation of the world'.
The 'world' is created with the arising of a thought and it gets destroyed the moment it is created and a new world is then created with the next thought at the next moment and so on. The reason for the arising of a thought (the world) is the activation of the desire (to see, hear, smell, taste and touch) or the 'craving' (tanha).
Thought could either be good, bad or neutral, but the originator of the thought is the desire or the craving. If the thought process stops for a moment – i.e. if a thought does not arise, the world would not be created and is the cessation of the world and the path for the cessation. These are in broad terms would be the four ‘Noble Truths’ – dukkha (suffering), The cause of dukkha (suffering), the cessation of dukkha (suffering) and the path for the cessation of dukkha (suffering).
We could experience happiness, anger, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair etc. (dukka - suffering) within the mind only when the world has been created from a thought or thoughts. It is the only way and we could not experience any of the above in our deep sleep, as the 'world' (thought) has not been created. The thoughts are the only reason for the creation of the world and the subsequent corresponding actions of ours. Hence in broad terms, the thought, the cause of the thought – the craving, the cessation of the thought and the path for the cessation of the thought are the four Noble Truths.
In conclusion, it is worth remembering the most fundamental principle enunciated by the Buddha in the following stanza;
Cittena neeyati loko
Sabbeva wasamam wagu
The Pali word 'cittena' means 'cintanaya ' or the only function of the 'citta – mind' and unfortunately there is no corresponding English word to reflect its proper meaning. The closest words are the 'mind' or 'the thought processes.' Hence the above stanza is interpreted as "the architect or the creator of the world is the 'mind' or the thought process, the world could only exist in the mind or on a thought process," 'citta – the mind' or the thought process is the only 'dhamma ' and every one is hypnotised to this process of the 'citta – mind'. Thus the above stanza very clearly summarises whole doctrine of the Buddha.
Asuramuni Karunasena author of the article is a chartered Surveyor attached to the Valuation Office Agency of the United Kingdom. As a Sri lankan born Buddhist, he developed interest in Budhism and writes about the faith he profess.