Buddhist Psychology -M.S. Srinivasan

As we have discussed earlier, Yoga as practical psychology, applies much more to Buddhist Yoga than other Yoga.  Let us briefly examine some of the important concepts of Buddhist Psychology.

The Cycle of Suffering

The Buddhist psychology is arranged around three distinct clusters of concepts and the associated terminology.  First is the famous formula  of  “dependent origination,” paticca-samuppada, which runs like this: Ignorance Avija  – activity Sankara – consciousness Vignana – name and form Namarupa  – sense contact phassa – feeling Vedana – craving Tanha – clinging Upavana – becoming – rebirth – suffering.

Each factor is considered as the cause of and the condition for the succeeding factor.  For example sense contact, phase, is the principle condition for feeling, Vedana, and feeling is the potential condition for Craving Tanha.   The other important concept in Buddhist Psychology is khandhas  which  are supposed  to constitute the human personality or individuality.  They are the body sarira, feeling vedana, perception sanna, activities sankara and consciousness vignana.  And the third very frequently used term in Buddhist psychology is chitta which is translated as `Mind’.  But this is one of those terms which can be interpreted in different  ways.

Avija: The Source of Ignorance

The  first  factor  in the cycle of causation is Avija  Ignorance.   But  this Buddhist  term  has  a  very different  meaning  and  significance  from  the corresponding term Avidya in Hindu philosophy.  In Hindu philosophy Avidya or Ignorance  means  the state of forgetfulness of the knowledge of unity,  or  a “fall” from the consciousness of the oneness of the eternal self to the status of  separative  consciousness of the Ego.  But in Buddhist psychology Avija is defined as : “Not understanding  suffering,  its origin,  its cessation and the way leading to the cessation of suffering”  a or  in other word we may say, lack of insight into the human condition  or  the true  nature of life which according  to Buddhist view is an ocean of impermanence and suffering.  But  if  we can push our  enquiry  into  the  cycle  of causation a little further back and ask “what is the cause of ignorance or the lack  of insight into the true nature of life or the cause of suffering  ”  we may  perhaps  get  a mare scientific and psychological  understanding of the term Avija.

What  then  is  the  cause of ignorance or lack of  insight?   The  answer  is Unconsciousness.  Consciousness is the source of all knowledge, understanding and  insight.   To become fully and comprehensively conscious of all  that  is within  and  around  us  is  the path shown  by  Buddha  towards  insight  and enlightenment.  It is this process or discipline of becoming fully, clearly  and comprehensively  conscious of the whole process of the bodily and mental  life which  Buddha  called  as  Mindfulness  Satipathana.   For  example,  in   his discourses on Mindfulness Buddha says” a monk when standing knows ‘I am standing.’   When sitting  he  knows  ‘I  am sitting.’  When lying down  he  knows  ‘I  am  lying down’;  Perfect Mindfulness means every activity of the body  and  psyche becomes  fully  conscious.  And such a perfect mindfulness was  considered  by Buddha  as one of the marks of a spiritually enlightened being.  The  Buddhist term  for Ignorance Avija refers probably to a state of consciousness  –  or rather  unconsciousness – exactly opposite to that of perfect mindfulness  And most  of us live in such a state of ignorance or unconsciousness.

It is now understood and accepted in modern psychology that the conscious parts of our being is only a small part of our being.  But ancient Indian Yogic  psychology always  held  the  view  that consciousness of our total  being  is  a  multi-dimensional spectum of which the conscious parts of our surface being is  only a  thin band. The rest of it extends immeasurably in other dimensions –  down below into the subconscious, deep behind into the subliminal and up above into the superconscious.  But we are not aware of this deeper, hidden and higher dimensions  of  our consciousness. We live in a small fragment  of  our  total being  and even this fragment we are not fully and continuously  conscious  of what  is happing within it and what are the forces which move it  from  above, behind,  below, within or around it.  And whatever little consciousness  we possess in this fragment is sustained by a constant stimulation of sensations, feeling  and  thoughts.  If this stimulation is not there we will  loose  even this  tiny  little  consciousness we possess and slip  into  our  subconscious being.

Sankara: Strivings of Ignorance

The  second  factor  in  the  cycle  of  dependent  causation  is  sankara  or “activity”.   This factor was defined in the Buddhist texts as “six forms  of purposeful  striving: striving for form, for sound, for smell, for  taste,  for touch, for mental images”; three types of activity are distinguished” activity of  the body, mind and speech” And Avija or Ignorance is said to be the origin and the potential condition for Sankara or “activity”.  But how?   Here also there are two possible interpretations.  The nature of Avija or ignorance is  defined  as lack of understanding of the source of suffering or in other  word  lack  of insight  into  the  true nature of life as an  impermanent,  even-changing  and sorrowful  flame of being and its causes and the way out.  As a result of  this lack  of  understanding or “ignorance” there is a constrance striving  of  the energies of the body, mind and senses towards possession and enjoyment of  the life, not knowing that both the objects and enjoyments which life can offer are subject  to the eternal law of impermanence and sorrow and therefore  pass  away and  end in drops of tears.  This is a rather metaphysical  interpretation which has its validity.  But more psychological interpretation which does  not contradict but complements this metaphysical explanation is possible.  Let  us examine  from  this  psychological perspective how the  cycle  of  human  life.

We can get a clue to this process when we observe carefully the process by which we emerge  from sleep when we wake up.  When we observe very carefully the  process by  which  the faculties of our consciousness become consciously  active  we will notice four basic “activities” powers or functions of consciousness which form the four khandhas of Buddhist psychology.  First there is the bare awareness of just “knowing” the existence,  sensation  experience of whatever that comes or happen  within  the field of awareness.  This is the major function of one of the khandhas of the Buddhist  psychology:  Vingana translated as “consciousness”.  In  the  famous Buddhist text Milinda patha, the king  Milinda asks the Buddhist monk, Nagasena.  “What  is the characteristic mark of Vingana”, Nagasena answers  “knowing,  O, King”  and  explains further “As a watchman in the city would  know someone  was  coming, whichever direction he came from; so when  man  sees  an object,  hears  a sound, smells an adour, tastes a savour, feels  a  touch  or knows  an  idea;  it is by consciousness he know it” (15).   In  the  Buddhist thought this awareness is not something static but dynamic, a moving stream of consciousness  pervading and moving along with  all the  energies  and activities of the body and mind.

After  this bare act of awareness comes the act of recognition  or  perception sanna  by  which we distinguish between various object by  its  unique  types, geneva,  species,  quality.   Again in Milinda Patha, Nagasena  describes  the characteristic  mark  of sanna or perception as “Recognising…  of  blueness, yellowness, redness”.  In other word perception means recognition of the “name and form” or namarupa of the object, not only the objects of the outer  world but  also  of  the inner world.  Another Buddhist text  define  sanna  as” perception of form, sound, smell, taste, touch and ideas” (16).

When  the  object is thus known and recognised and if it catches  the  further interest  and  attention  of our consciousness, then there  is  the  “reaching towards”  it by the mind and sensationses salayatana, for  contact  with  the  object, phassa.   Here  also,  we must note that in the Buddhist  psychology  mind  is considered  as the sixth sense and the “contact” phassa includes not  only  the contact  of the five sense-organs with the corresponding objects of the  outer world  but also contact of the mind with the “mind-objects” of the inner  world.  In  this  stage, consciousness has emerged fully awake  from  the  subconscious condition  of  sleep.  According to Buddhist psychology this  process  happens innumerable times everyday.  As we have said already, in most of us, it is the constant  stimulation  of  sensational  and  perceptual  impressions  and  our reactions  to them in the form of thoughts and seeings which  constitutes  and sustains our conscious self.

Vedana: The Hook of Bondage

After  this comes the most crucial phase in the psychological process  we  are describing  so  far.   Here comes the fatal point in which  human  beings  get trapped in the net of Mava.  When  the consciousness comes into contact with the object, there  arises  the “feelings”  of  the  object  vedana.  In Buddhist  psychology  sanna  and  vedana, “perception” and “feeling” are described as the activities of the mind  Chitta Sankara.   If this feeling is pleasant than there comes the desire or  craving, tanha,  to experience, enjoy and possess the object.  This craving develops into  clinging  attachment Upavana and from then on the consciousness  of  the individual is helplessly trapped in the cycles of Samsara following  endlessly the tragedy of life in a merry-go-round of rebirth and sorrow and despair.  From the  yogic point of view this stage in which the  feeling  develops into craving is the crucial point for breaking the cycle of sorrow and  escape from it.  It we can prevent “feeling” from developing into “craving” then the cycle is broken  and escape becomes easy.  This is one of the aims of Buddhist yoga.   But to understand clearly this point of applied psychology we have to understand the meaning given to the term vedana translated as “feeling”  in Buddhist psychology.

The  Vedana  in Buddhist  psychology  does  not  mean emotions;  Vedana  refers  to a primitive state  of  bare  sensations  felt  as pleasant,  unpleasant or neutral raising from the contact of  consciousness  with the  object.  Emotions are a later development when mind with its thought  and memory  works upon this sensations and creates something complex,  disturbing and  troublesome  psychological moods like love and hate  and  jealously  etc.

Vedana are  purely  instinctive  vital feelings  whereas  emotions  are  more mentalised moods.  According to Buddhist psychology, when first  consciousness breaks-out from the subconscious, in this primitive state of awareness,  there is  only  bare  attention which consists of an  initial  “taking  notice”  and “turning  towards” the object.  When this primitive state of awareness  comes into contact with an object there raise the bare feeling in the form pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations.  In this state of primitive awareness there is no  craving;  there  is only a passive registering  of  the  feelings  and impression as they raise and pass away within the field of awareness.  In  the terminology  of Hindu psychology it is a state of tamasic awareness  in  which rajasic  desire  is  dormant and potential but not  consciously  manifest  and active.   Emotional craving and attachment develops with the manifestation  of rajasic  desire.

Vedanta and Mindfulness

Buddhist yoga uses the techniques of Mindfulness to  prevent feeling, vedana from developing into craving tanha.  This yogic state of mindfulness is of the same nature as the bare  primitive tamasic awareness we have described earlier but on a much higher level.  In tamasic  awareness  there  is only a passive and helpless  subjection  to  the feeling  and impression.  When this tamasic awareness manifests  rajas,  there begins  an active involvement and identification with rajasic desire with  its craving  and attachment and all the positive and negative — mostly the  later emotions  which  raise  from it.  In yogic  mindfulness,  consciousness  raises beyond of helpless tamasic passivity and the active identification of  rajasic desire  to a state of detached and objective Awareness which leads to  Insight that brings  the cessation of craving.  These are some of the central psychological insights behind the Buddhist discipline of mindfulness, which is a core practice of Buddhist Yoga.

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