Monthly Archives: June 2012

Six Element Practice

In the Bahudhàtuka Sutta (MN 115), the Buddha explains that there are actually eighteen physical and mental elements. These are six triads of elements where each triad is composed of a sense object (the external sense bases), a sense organ (the internal sense bases), and the six related sense-consciousnesses (viññāṇa):

1. There is the element of the eyes as a visual organ
2. The form element as an objective visual
3. Eye-consciousness as the cognizance of the form perceived by the eyes
4. The ear element, or the ears as auditory organs
5. The element of sounds or audible objects
6. Ear-consciousness as the cognizance of the sounds perceived by the ears
7. The nose element as the olfactory organ
8. The element of aromas, scents, odors, fragrances, etc.
9. The nose-consciousness as the cognizance of the oflactive objects sensed by the nose
10. The tongue element as the gustatory organ
11. The elements of tastes, flavors, etc.
12. The tongue-consciousness as the cognizance of gustation sensed by the tongue
13. The body element as the tactile organ
14. The tangible element of touch, contact, etc.
15. Body-consciousness as the cognizance of the tangible objects sensed through body-contact
16. The mind element as consciousness and discernment
17. The element of mental objects (mano-dhātu) such as intellect, ideas, thought-processes, etc.
18. The mind-consciousness element (mano-viññāna-dhātu) as cognizance itself, or that which discerns

As a more concise, alternative description, the Buddha condensed these eighteen elements into only six descriptive natural elements. These include the four great elements that most people are familiar with – earth, air/wind, sea/water, and fire. Some traditions include a fifth element such as akasha/aether/sky/space/etc. These four classical elements (dhātu or mahā-bhūta), as well as the fifth, are also found within Buddhism. There is also a sixth element, which is consciousness. However, these elements themselves are more properly understood to be categories of sensorial qualities which are used to relate to the sensible physical world, rather than as substances. Therefore, these six elements can be understood as:

1. The Earth Element, or everything solid (pathavī) in the body, such as sense organs, hairs, teeth, tendons, bones, etc.
2. The Water Element, or all that is liquid (āpo) within the body. This is quite a bit, considering that up to 60% of the human body is water, while the brain itself is composed of about 70% water.
3. The Fire Element, or the heat (tejo) energy in the body. This can be related to body temperature, metabolism, temper, etc.
4. The Air Element, or everything internal that is in like wind (i.e. in motion; vāyo). This quite obviously applies to the air we breathe, but it can also relate to other things as well such as blood flow.
5. The Space Element, or the aether (ākāsa) constituted by the physical elements. This can be more easily comprehended as the bodily orifices such as the mouth, ears, nostrils, etc.
6. The Mind Element, or the emergent consciousness (viññāna) that arises from the other elements, by which they become conscious of themselves. This is cognizance, or that which discerns the three feelings (vedanā) of pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, and the arising and passing of the sense contact (phassa) upon which these feelings are dependent.

So it is easy to see how the six elements make for an easier mindfulness practice. There are of course other examples given which can be used for understanding the elements, but for now we will focus on this formula of six elements.

There was once a wandering aesthetic named Pukkusati who went traveling to search out and meet the Buddha. However, he had never seen the Buddha before so how would he even be able to recognize him once he did? Well, he wasn’t. He was only able to realize his mistake after the Buddha related to him the six properties/elements, six media of sensory contact, eighteen considerations, and the four determinations.

However, the main point of the six element practice is to note that how each is an ever-changing, temporal process, rather than a static, abiding quality or substance. Each element, that is: solidity, fluidity, airiness, aether, and consciousness, makes up our body but none of them can be identified as an intrinsic whole in their own right. They are all empty of inherent existence as they are all dependently co-arisen processes.

Therefore, all things perceived by the these six elements (or even just one of them) are actually unfit for identification with a “self”/”ego” or “soul” (atta) since they are impermanent (anicca) – and because there is anicca there is dukkha. The mark of not-self (anatta) states that one should regard the six elements with right discernment as, “This is not mine, this is not my self, this is not what I am.” Realizing this one grows weary and disenchanted with the each of these elements, letting go of attachment to each by progression through the jhanas, until there is only consciousness which discerns pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain.

With the cessation of the very sensory contact which is to be felt as pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, the concomitant feeling of said pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain also ceases. That is, consciousness is stilled. When this occurs, only equanimity will remain: pure and bright, pliant, malleable, and luminous. This can lead one to Nibbāna (Skt. Nirvāṇa), in which “birth is exhausted,the holy life fulfilled, the task done” and there is “nothing more of this becoming.”

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Happy Saka Dawa and Vesak Puja!

Today, as the full moon day of the fourth Tibetan lunar month, is the Tibetan observance of Saka Dawa and it is also Vesak Puja in Thailand and Poson Poya in Sri Lanka. Poson Poya commemorates the day in which King Asoka‘s son, the Arahat Mahinda, officially introduced Buddhism to Ceylon in the 3rd century BCE. In the Tibetan and Thai Buddhist traditions, today marks the celebration of the Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment, and Paranirvana. According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche of the FPMT, the karmic effects of meritorious acts which are performed on this day are multiplied exponentially – about 100 million times. He also offers some good advice and recommends the following specific practices for Saka Dawa:

1. Taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts
2. Doing Nyung Näs
3. Performing the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha puja

So to all of my Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist friends, I wish you a very happy and meritorious Saka Dawa, Vesak Puja and Poson Poya!

Superstitions, Blind Faith, and the Highest Blessing

In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha once explained that there are five qualities of a lay Buddhist which are the basic requirements for being what is considered a “jewel of a lay follower”:

“Endowed with these five qualities, laity (upasaka) is a jewel of a lay-follower, is like a lily, like a lotus with a hundred petals. Which five? He/she has conviction and faith (in the Buddha’s awakening); is virtuous; is not eager for protective charms & ceremonies; trusts in action (kamma) and not in superstition; does not search for recipients of his/her support outside [of the Sangha], and gives support here first. Endowed with these five qualities, laity (upasaka) is a jewel of a lay-follower, is like a lily, like a lotus with a hundred petals.”

Having conviction or faith (saddhā) in the Buddha’s awakening means that you should have the confidence that these teachings are capable of leading one to the “other shore” of awakening, and is therefore worthy of being practiced effectively. This, however, does not mean that you should ever have “blind faith” in any spiritual doctrine, as this is called ditthupadana or “view-clinging”.

The passage above also points out that lay Buddhists must not rely on mere superstition. Yeah, it may sometimes seem hard to reconcile this with what can be perceived as “superstition” and “ritual” in various Buddhist cultures throughout various countries. However, as Buddhism spread out of the Indian subcontinent, it was usually incorporated with the already existing cultural norms of a given society. A lot of local customs and traditions were adopted, adapted, or practiced alongside Buddhism.

It is clear that in terms of kamma (Skt. karma), no amount of luck or any charm will prevent you from being accountable for your own actions or circumstances. As I noted in my post on the Five Remembrances, this is kammassakata or karma which is our very own. More specifically, we are the owners of our own actions, heirs to our actions, born of our actions, related through our actions, and have our actions as our arbitrator. There are consequences to our actions, and whatever we do – for good or worse, it is to that which we will fall heir.

As I noted in my post Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, we can only better our own condition by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads beyond the range of karma to the highest happiness of Nirvana. Therefore it is more beneficial to practice giving and develop virtuous behaviors, rather than rely on superstition and charms.

To be more specific, in the Sutta Nipāta (which most scholars believe contain some of the oldest discourses found in the Tipiṭaka) the Buddha explains what the highest blessings really are:

“Not to associate with the foolish, but to associate with the wise; and to honor those who are worthy of honor — this is the greatest blessing.

To reside in a suitable locality, to have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing.

To have much learning, to be skillful in handicraft, well-trained in discipline, and to be of good speech — this is the greatest blessing.

To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in peaceful occupation — this is the greatest blessing.

To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.

To loathe more evil and abstain from it, to refrain from intoxicants, and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing.

To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful; and to listen to the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

To be patient and obedient, to associate with monks and to have religious discussions on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

Self-restraint, a holy and chaste life, the perception of the Noble Truths and the realisation of Nibbana — this is the greatest blessing.

A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated — this is the greatest blessing.

Those who thus abide, ever remain invincible, in happiness established. These are the greatest blessings.”