The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.

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11 thoughts on “The True Wonder of the Mind

  1. Talk about Confession of a Buddhist!

    We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness…. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

    If we were to limit ourselves to the tools and goals of the current and much-glorified scientific method, this would be the trap we’d stay stuck in.

    The mind’s “shcklmgh,” the nature of volition’s being (momentarily exposed from its “ljbhewerg”), the link between willing something and doing it, the nature of the cause that produces any particular result: all of them elude definition when we limit ourselves to human language, typical modes of perception and habitual thinking processes.

    The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics.

    Exactly! So why continue trying to think about the Buddha’s discovery as if it could be expressed in terms of modern physics? The point, it seems to me, is to practice so that we can experience something that isn’t based on perceptions conditioned by the senses, not to find a way to define that experience by means of conceptual categories derived from our senses or, when it turns out we can’t do it, conclude that there’s nothing beyond limited human conceptual categories derived from our senses that is worth experiencing.

  2. I should have noted also the limits of human reason, and not just the limited human conceptual categories derived from our senses. Some of the Buddha’s teachings can be confirmed by modern physics (the matter-energy equivalency theory, in fact, helps me to understand some of the Buddha’s teachings!), but the Buddha’s ultimate discovery clearly isn’t expressible in the terms of modern physics or reachable by means of the tools and goals of modern physics.

  3. You comes to this now, Bhante, congratulation! But do you know that what you’ve experienced is very much a stage of Vipassana knowledge. Hope that you investigate it further. The so called ‘ultimate realities’ in Abhidhamic terms are not really ultimate as such. It’s just a way to describe phenomena through limited conceptual articulation. Beyond that, they talk about three gateways of deliverance: aniccanupassana leads to animitto vimokkho; dukkhanupassana leads to appanihito vimokkho; anattanupassana leads to sunnato vimokkho. If you discover another way, that would be a wonderful experience, and pl. share with us.

  4. Ayya,

    I just noticed that Bhante put “vipassana” as one of the tags for this wonderful post. Thank you for framing your impressions about Bhante’s experience in terms of the three marks or characteristics. I need to learn what are animitto vimokkho; appanihito vimokkho; sunnato vimokkho.

    Regarding ‘ultimate realities’ in Abhidhammic terms, I was reading the selections in Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha and was struck by the term ‘Silentness Supreme’ (Life of the Buddha, 8; KN, Sutta-nipata 3:11) I wonder if there is a connection. If so, I wonder if pondering this connection might deepen understanding of both ‘ultimate realities’ and ‘Silentness Supreme.’

    Bhante talked about ‘seeing.’ Maybe ‘Silentness Supreme,’ which makes me think of an ultimate reality that is neither-heard-nor-not-heard, points to another way to think about seeing.

    Btw, what was the Pali term that is being translated as ‘Silentness Supreme’?

  5. Weirdness definately should be considered normal, then there would be no weirdness ….as long as it is virtuous …. enlightenment would then be an easier journey; because we would not get so stuck in and slowed down all the time in the zone of “normal.” Then though there is the danger of normal becoming weird, so normal should also be considered weird too.

    So the equation is: normal = weird, weird = normal; therefore both normal and weird are normal and weird.

    If you don’t get that, it is not my fault I am totally weird or stupid, “you” are not yet at the level whereby you understand weird and need to get over your normalness abit.

  6. Dear bhante Ratanadhammo,
    1. animitto vimokkho can be translate as liberation through seeing signlessness;
    2. appanihito vimokkho is the liberation through seeing desirelessness and
    3. sunnato vimokkho is liberation through seeing emptiness.
    Hmm, it sounds quite academic here, but the first one is seeing that realities can not be formed in anyway of conceptual thinking. I think Bhante Sujato’s experience is of this kind, though at the first glim. Investigate further, all the three are related, once one enters, one realizes all of them, but enters at one gate a time!
    I do not know what is the Pali words for ‘Silentness Supreme’. However, in meditation, especially at Vipassana stages, the practitioner might know and see everything but can’t form it in any idea, because the very intention of forming an idea is dissolved right in front of the seeing mind. Everything that seeing mind turn to, it melted, then one comes to a stage of no language, no time, no form, no name. It just something likes that.

  7. Dear Friends,

    Through my recent illness, the Universe (my greatest, kindest and most unfailing teacher) has urged me precisely that: to look at the Buddha’s teachings and see their basis in science. Could have to do with my specific conditions, namely the constant tango struggle between head and heart.

    Modern science has established quite clearly, in the study chronic pain and neurological disturbances the effects of samadhi pratice on our physiology. I have learned that it can do things to the spinal chord and by way of the spinal chord affect the rest of the body in a way that very few other interventions can (yet.) Modern science is only just realizing that the spinal chord is more important than the brain and peripheral nerves when it comes to chronic pain and certain illnesses and injuries. But our friend 2500 years ago knew this.

    I have also learned that mindfulness prevents the limbic brain from programming our responses in a way that is very difficult to unprogramme. Upadana programmes the limbic brain – reaction to that which arises is extremely quick to get etched into the limbic brain yet extremely difficult to erase. Neuroscientists and clinical practitioners have gathered enough evidence to accept this. So that teaching on letting go – is reeeeallllly good advice for the homo sapien species– it is not a distant teaching about psychology or ego or my dreadful addictions or attaining Jhanas. To let go has quite practical immediate implications. By letting go from moment to moment we are not letting a particular hook get etched into the limbic brain. (And, as Jill Bolte Taylor would say, we are not letting left brain crush and dominate right brain or vice versa.)

    So, why was learning about the scientific basis for thi ancient teaching helpful for me? I guess because our spiritual path – at least mine tends to swing from the esoteric and mystical mysterious to the pragmatic and the ground in between is my practice and the fruit of my practice.

    My head and heart (left and right brain) struggle with one another (is that also the “weird”-”normal” dance? :-) and the better they dance together, the stronger my determination, more consistent my practice and the fruit of that pratice. I think at some point I got lost in the mystical. The scientific evidence has popped the esoteric mystical far far away land bubble and forced me to adopt it as a very simple, straightforward practical way of life that is necessary from moment to moment.

    This wonderful man many full moons ago discovered all of this without any computers or MRIs or medical laboratories. And he was spot on. Spot on. He could very well have been spot on with the rest of it too! Do we believe this? If we do – is it some distant, mystical otherworldly belief? Do we feel sometimes that things like Nibbana or Jhana or renunciation are far out of reach? Or is it direct, here, now, this kaya, this moment, every moment? Is it direct and in this moment because we heard that in a Sutta? Or some patriarch said it was so? Or because we are sitting on a zafu? Or are we experiencing it, directly, in this moment? Do we have to know physical Dukkha – illness, disability, ageing, death, before we start penetrating the truth of Dukkha and the way of its cessation?

    Although the path had helped me climb out of a few mental addictions, the physical illness helped me to penetrate another layer of the First Noble Truth, and a couple of secular scientists helped me to grasp the very non-esoteric non-spiritual non-religious non-weird, non-normal relationship between suffering and the path of the cessation of suffering.

    (yeah, I know this is all left brain talking!)

    Reading your delightful entry, Bhante Sujato, the shcklmgh arising wanted to find a way to pronounce and say “shcklmgh” leading to spontaneous laughter, a delightful dance of left and right and letting go.


  8. Dear Ayya,

    Thank you for clarifying animitto vimokkho, apanihito vimokkho and sunnato vimokkho. Your description reminds me of what the Buddha taught about the truth one discovers when penetrating the three characteristics: anicca, dukkha and anatta.

  9. “the shcklmgh of the mind”

    Interesting term. I’m not sure I grasp the concept of a shcklmgh, but I think that one should be on Urban Dictionary!

  10. I will try to gain insight into the nature of shcklmgh and ljbhewerg through meditation.

    But seriously, it sounds like those were some very powerful insights.

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