Tag Archives: Buddha

Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.

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The Fifth Remembrance

Not long into my initial inquiry into Buddha Dharma, I came upon a what can seem like a rather bleak list taught in the early Sangha. The list comes from the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Remembrances. They are:

1.) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2.) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3.) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4.) All that is dear to me and everyone that I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5.) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.*

I printed this list on a small piece of paper, which rests against my desktop computer at work (I haven’t received any comments from concerned co-workers… yet). I read the list again this morning, as I do every now and then when my computer is taking a while to boot up. What stood out to me was the fifth remembrance: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.” Now, I must be somewhat of a pessimist at heart, because whenever I read this I usually think in terms of negative actions resulting in negative consequences. Perhaps this is due to my Judeo-Christian upbringing, with its emphasis on fighting against one’s sinful nature. Or maybe it’s just that the word “consequences” tends to carry a negative connotation in American English, as in the phrase, “suffer the consequences.” Whatever the case may be, reading the fifth remembrance usually instills in me a sense of, “Yikes! Don’t do bad stuff, or else!”

However, reading the fifth remembrance this morning did not instill in me a sense of fear or worry. Instead, I understood it to mean that positive actions are sure to result in positive consequences. So much so, in fact, that we will not be able to escape the positive consequences. What came to mind is the following familiar verse from the Dhammapada:

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with an impure mind, and sorrow will follow you
As surely as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with a pure mind, and happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

It seems clear to me that at the heart of Buddha Dharma is our ability to choose our actions, and thus – to some degree – choose the quality of our present and future consequences. The Buddha didn’t teach a one-to-one relationship with regard to kamma/karma, and so it should not be understood to always operate in a linear fashion. In fact, he taught was has been termed This/That Conditionality.** In brief, the Buddha theorized that the results which manifest in the present result from both past and present actions. Your choices now somehow come together with choices made at some point in the past, and results are born out of this interaction. The possibility of multiple feedback loops make it difficult, if not practically impossible, to determine what will actually occur in any given moment.

Whatever the mechanisms of cause and effect, we are encouraged by the Buddha and the early Sangha to take this idea seriously and put it into practice. I have found that one of the most direct ways to witness this process is through the practice of meditation. When we make time to practice, and then actually make an effort to do the practice properly, results will follow in time. Just as with any skill one wishes to develop, there are peaks and valleys on the path. There are times when it feels like trying to dig a large hole with our bare hands. Other times, it feels like we’re operating one of those big yellow digging machines you see at construction sites. Progress is necessarily developmental and gradual, but there are quantum shifts along the way. The point to take away is that it is through our actions that we achieve results. It is by making a concerted effort – giving it the old college try – that will result in positive changes. And because there is no direct linear correlation between practice time and results, we must simply focus on executing the given technique as precisely as possible. Only then can we be confident that our current choices will have a desirable outcome sometime in the future.

Of course, the fifth remembrance applies to other areas of life as well. The point is to take seriously the fact that our actions are truly our only possessions. And since we cannot escape the consequences, we must always remember to choose wisely.

*Excerpted from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,by Thich Nhat Hanh.
**For a more thorough exposition on This/That Conditionality, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book, Wings To Awakening.

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A Reflection on Holistic Pluralism

Let me start by saying that I am by no means claiming to have a deep understanding of physics. What interests me as a student of religious studies is the relationship between faith traditions (including philosophical systems) and contemporary developments in scientific theory. What follows are my initial thoughts in response to idea referred to as Holistic Pluralism or Organicism.

Throughout history philosophers have speculated as to whether or not the world is reducible to an essential component. This is especially true of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. For Thales, the component was water. For Anaximenes, the component was air. The Western pre-Socratic philosopher that comes closest to the theories of today is Heraclitus – the “weeping philosopher.” Though he thought the essential component of the Universe was fire (which is now widely dismissed), he also taught the idea that everything is in flux, and that the universe is essentially a cooperation of opposites. His philosophy was in some ways the rough sketches of what now could be called ‘Organicism’ or ‘Holistic Pluralism’.

Rather than assuming that the Universe is merely composed of eternal matter that takes on different finite forms over time, Holistic Pluralism describes the Universe as an interconnected / interdependent reality in which all things exist in relationship to one another. This is not to be confused with Monism, which would deduce that all things are in reality an undifferentiated One. Physicists today would argue that Monism just isn’t so. They observe that an atom has its own identity and function in the Universe, but when brought together in relationship to other atoms, molecules come in to being. The atom is both its own whole and a part of something greater. Ken Wilber, author of ‘A Brief History of Everything’, calls this whole/part a ‘holon’. An atom is a holon, as is a molecule, an organism, and a human being. Every holon is both composed of sub-holons, and is itself a sub-holon to a greater holon that transcends the sub-holons by which it is composed (are we tracking?). The point is that everything is in some way deeply related to everything else, and thus interconnected and interdependent. Heraclitus was on to something by stating that everything is in flux.

The reason this theory of reality is sometimes referred to as Organicism is that it appears to be the way that things organically occur in nature. As Alan Watts has pointed out, one cannot accurately describe the behavior of an organism without also describing its environment. For example, it would be difficult to describe the act of a human walking without also describing the ground on which they walk. It would also be impossible to accurately describe the act of eating with describing both the organism and the food it consumes. This demonstrates how our contemporary understanding ecology relates to other (if not all) areas of existence.

As a student of religion, I immediately see a connection between Organicism/Holistic Pluralism and the teachings of the Buddha. Key to the Buddha’s teaching are the ideas of impermanence, interdependence, and the emptiness of inherent existence – each of which work in perfect harmony with my understanding of contemporary physics. Though, what I find fascinating about the Buddha is that his sole aim was not just to figure out the nature of reality for its own sake, but rather to use his knowledge to successfully liberate himself and others from an ongoing cycle of suffering (or, anguish / unsatisfactoriness). He saw that when conditions were right for a seed, it would grow in to a plant. He correlated this organic idea to the way that thoughts, emotions and concepts arise. When the conditions in the mind are suitable for a particular kind of thought or emotion, it will more than likely arise/come in to being. This is why the Buddha put such an emphasis on meditation. By freeing the mind of the conditions that cause negative results, one can begin to experience these negative thoughts and emotions less frequently.

This is just one example of a possible correlation between the teachings of an ancient faith tradition and contemporary science. I would to hear about other correlations if anyone has one to share.

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