Last updated 18 August 2022: Made an edit on the section of the four nutriments as #3 is actually manosañcetanā instead of sankhāra.
Link to Sutta: Majjhima Nikāya 9 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
*Bolds, italics and square brackets in excerpts are my own
“‘One of right view, one of right view,’ is said, friends. In what way is a noble disciple one of right view, whose view is straight, who has unwavering confidence in the Dhamma, and has arrived at this true Dhamma?”
“When, friends, a noble disciple understands the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, in that way he is one of right view, whose view is straight, who has unwavering confidence in the Dhamma and has arrived at this true Dhamma.
“And what is the root of the unwholesome? Greed is a root of the unwholesome; hate [aversion] is a root of the unwholesome; delusion [distraction] is a root of the unwholesome. This is called the root of unwholesome.
Often, I have people who are closer to me grumble about how other people frustrate or make them angry all the time (if not most times). In response, I most often start with silence until the grumbling stops and they truly turn to me for advice. In most cases, it is the three unwholesome roots of cravings (with regard to feeling) quoted above that I would advise these people not to act out of—in other words, sense restraint. Firstly, by no means it is my responsibility nor my obligation to help, even though that is what I have chosen and still most often choose where it could be helpful. One limitation to be acknowledged is the amount of information that can be packed at a time and more importantly to what extent they can be reflected, pondered, and worked upon by the individual.
I know of a friend who is completely unrestrained and miserable, and when he heard about stoicism and their practice of temperance, he simply dismissed it for sounding repressive and forced. He wanted me to support his view in the sense that the stoics do not seem to have a fundamentally valid reason to practice sense restraint other than it being teleologically ‘virtuous’ or merely ‘practical wisdom’ (which he views as shallow). Clearly, this person was very confused with regard to his own situation, which I had later on communicated that he was in no position to comment on what the stoics practice without having gone through it himself. In the Buddha’s Teaching, sense restraint is the non-negotiable basis for the practice of Dhamma and thus a deeper understanding with regard to sense restraint can only be understood through it. One cannot simply rationalise and conclude about the limited benefit of ‘sense restraint’ without being willing to sacrifice the most immediate and coarsest of pleasures. An addict who belittles the value of non-addiction is in the most ironical and absurd of situations indeed.
“When a noble disciple has thus understood the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, he entirely abandons the underlying tendency to lust, he abolishes the underlying tendency to aversion, he extirpates the underlying tendency to the view and conceit ‘I am,’ and by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view, whose view is straight, who has unwavering confidence in the Dhamma, and has arrived at this true Dhamma.”
The value of sense restraint is that it can lead one to a full understanding of the nature of feeling (given the right striving), which in the most fundamental sense is anicca (i.e. impermanent, unownable), dukkha (i.e. suffering, unpleasurable), anattā (not-self). When understood, a sekha (noble disciple of the Buddha) shall strive to abandon the underlying tendencies to both greed and aversion towards the pleasant and painful feeling respectively, and to the fundamental ignorance (avijjā). The “view and conceit ‘I am’” in the above excerpt comes from the subtlest intentions to take things (dhamma) as ‘mine’, rooted in avijjā. Thus, this verse is spoken to the sekha for the arahat (fully enlightened one) has completely uprooted it. For the sekha, the thought ‘I am’ still manifest as a phenomenon but with the right understanding, it is not taken at face-value: it is recognised and understood in reflexion as a more particular phenomenon within the more general ‘mind state’ (sometimes more or less contributed by it).
The puthujjana (ordinary person unlearnt in the Dhamma), however, does not see ‘I am’ as a phenomenon and as a result is often unable to distinguish and differentiate his own ‘mind’, ‘intentions’ (i.e. ‘bodily’ sankhāras [‘activities’] are automatically taken up with ‘volition’—with the grain) and feeling (vedanā). When he bears a painful feeling, it is on the level of distraction in his attempt to get rid of the pain and thus the attitude of aversion towards what is presently felt is not seen. In the case of a pleasant feeling, if he were not to immediately jump into it, he would be able to notice the pull of sense desire that reveals the true nature of craving as that which is painful (i.e. the ugly in the beautiful) and once again when he gives in to it, the aversion to what is presently felt (i.e. craving is always painful) is not understood—because he does not pick up the sign of his own mind. Hence, the neutral feeling is not understood by the puthujjana as he “helplessly” swing from one extreme pole to another in chase of the pleasant feeling because at the subtler level he identifies with feeling and conceive it as ‘mine’ (the ‘tetrad’ in MN 1 – Mūlapāriyaya Sutta).
“And what is nutriment, what is the origin of nutriment, what is the cessation of nutriment, what is the way leading to the cessation of nutriment? There are four kinds of nutriment for the maintenance of beings that already have come to be and for the support of those about to come to be. What four? They are: physical food as nutriment, gross or subtle; contact as the second; mental volition [manosañcetanā] as the third; and consciousness as the fourth. With the arising of craving there is the arising of nutriment. With the cessation of craving there is the cessation of nutriment. The way leading to the cessation of nutriment is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The four nutriments are things that when in practice are attended to with ‘proper’ attention from the origin (yonisomanasikāra), shed light on anicca, dukkha and anattā.
- Food – it is inconceivable to stand (or remain) living without having food as a support. When eating, one shall practice non-delight with regard to food, which in another Sutta (SN 12.63 – Puttamansa Sutta) the Buddha tells us to practice as if feeding on the carcass of one’s only son. When encountering an agreeable or disagreeable feeling, an individual in his practice of sense restraint shall discern the sign of his mind and understand that the delight and gratification of sense desires will always be limited to his own mind, and it is in the broader context of the agitated state of his mind where he suffers. When one remembers (sati) this context, the gratuitous delight would be inconceivable.
- Contact – as Ven. Ñānavīra Thera described, contact (phassa) is implicitly assumed to be between subject and object, in which the subject is taken to be independent from the object (and experience as a whole). However, this experience can only come about through the senses, and it is only within this where the sense of self can be found. With inaccessibility to either the sense bases or sense objects, one contemplates and sees through the conceit ‘I am’ and perceived sense of ‘mastery’ over things as a falsity.
- Mental Volition – its Pāli word is manosañcetanā and it refers to mental volition in the context of mano (mind) as a faculty of mind-objects (i.e. phenomena, dhammā). To regard mental volition as ‘mine’ would be a mistake for it assumes its independence apart from the appearances of phenomena which are always given (i.e. found, situational) in the experience. Mental volitions are thus dependently arisen phenomena that are independent of one’s sense of self.
- Consciousness – this is where many practitioners struggle to understand consciousness as not-self. Some hold the oxymoron view: ‘it is identification that is the problem and when the identification stops, you get pure consciousness which is self’. This is most probably where the modern doctrine of ‘non-self’ come from: a non-entity that nevertheless exists, which is a contradiction in terms. One simply needs to understand that whatever one can experience right here-and-now is on account of this living body—this would be the broadest and most general perspective.
With the arising of craving, there is the arising of the nutriments that are taken as permanent, pleasurable and ‘self’.
“And what is suffering, what is the origin of suffering, what is the cessation of suffering, what is the way leading to the cessation of suffering? Birth is suffering; ageing is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to obtain what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering. This is called suffering.
Having encountered the existential-phenomenological approach as taught by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero in late 2020, I have listened to the uploaded Dhamma talks as I practiced in solitude (for the most part) for over a year, reading Dhamma books such as Meanings by the Venerable Ajahn, Ven. Ñānavīra Thera’s Notes on Dhamma and Clearing the Path, Ven. Akiñcano’s With the Right Understanding and continued with my Dhamma-investigation until a particularly significant insight dawned on me: ‘all phenomena are empty of selves’, which shook me to the very core of my being. Looking back, even when it felt significant, the full clarity of understanding with regard to the Dhamma had not come to fruition. I was very much still hindered by doubt and still turning ‘stones’ that were left unturned. Two and a half months later, when I was reflexively pondering on phassa in the context of paticcasampuppāda, I noticed my mistake. I was visualising how the sense-object within range come into contact (temporally) with the sense-base in space and produce sense-perception, which in that moment I noticed the gratuitously assumed external viewpoint (the observer apart from the experience) in that very process of visualising. This is where the above excerpt is relevant: birth is suffering. The creature that ‘I am’ is already manifested. There can be no avoidance of pain—the ‘viewpoint of (my) Being’ that I implicitly identified as ‘self’ is fully dependent on there being views at all.
There is no sense object ‘coming into contact’ with sense base out of nothing because the fact is that the sense bases, for as long as I am breathing and they are ‘active’, are always occupied (since birth). This insight reveals the structural nature of paticcasamuppāda: ‘with this, this is’; not ‘with the arising of this (ex-nihilo), this comes to be’. It is through this understanding that the sankhatassa sankhatalakkhanāni (characteristics of determined things: arising/appearance is manifest, disappearance is manifest, change while standing is manifest) finally made sense: I can’t see the appearing and disappearing, I can only discern that what has appeared (i.e. manifested, birth) is bound to disappear. Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing. Even typing this now still gives me the chills, and it is only a good reminder to strive in the right direction before all is too late (a reminder to not choose avijjā [e.g. distraction] over facing the existential situation head-on). The five-aggregates is what you are and its only destination is peril: breaking up and dissolution. Here, the puthujjana is encouraged to be unfettered from sakayyaditthi (i.e. self-view, personality-view) while the sekha is encouraged to make an end of suffering in this very life. This too, perhaps, would suffice as a commentary to the excerpt below:
“And what is ageing and death, what is the origin of ageing and death, what is the cessation of ageing and death, what is the way leading to the cessation of ageing and death? The ageing of beings in the various orders of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties—this is called ageing. The passing of beings out of the various orders of beings, their passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of the aggregates, laying down of the body—this is called death. So this ageing and this death are what is called ageing and death. With the arising of birth there is the arising of ageing and death. With the cessation of birth there is the cessation of ageing and death. The way leading to the cessation of ageing and death is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
Furthermore, it follows:
“And what is birth, what is the origin of birth, what is the cessation of birth, what is the way leading to the cessation of birth? The birth of beings in the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation in a womb, generation, manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases for contact—this is called birth. With the arising of being there is the arising of birth. With the cessation of being there is the cessation of birth. The way leading to the cessation of birth is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
As implied in my previous description, birth is ‘life’ or the manifestation of being. It is also simultaneously the acquisition of the sense bases as ‘mine’. In all of these cases (or point of views), ignorance is gratuitous and ‘beginningless’.
“And what is being, what is the origin of being, what is the cessation of being, what is the way leading to the cessation of being? There are these three kinds of being: sense-sphere being, fine-material being, and immaterial being. With the arising of clinging there is the arising of being. With the cessation of clinging there is the cessation of being. The way leading to the cessation of being is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
With clinging, being. And this is our starting point.
“And what is clinging, what is the origin of clinging, what is the cessation of clinging, what is the way leading to the cessation of clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. With the arising of craving there is the arising of clinging. With the cessation of craving there is the cessation of clinging. The way leading to the cessation of clinging is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
Clinging or upādāna in Cūlavedalla Sutta (MN 44) is described as the ‘desire and lust’ with regard to the five aggregates. The five aggregates is not the upādāna and neither can there be upādāna apart from (i.e. independent of) the five aggregates.
- Clinging to sensual pleasures – is easily understood with craving for sensual pleasures as condition. The whole of the puthujjana’s being and intentional actions are concerned with (or revolve around) wanting pleasure and not wanting pain. In this way he is always attached to feelings (SN 36 – Salla Sutta) and knows of no escape other than sensual pleasure which in turn aggravates the symptoms of craving (as a state of lack, which is painful) and worsens his situation.
- Clinging to ‘rules and observances’ – is better translated as clinging to ‘virtues and duties’ as per Ven. Ñānavīra Thera’s translation. The problem with this clinging is in not understanding that ‘virtues’ and ‘non-virtue’ are fully determined by the root of the wholesome and unwholesome respectively. The puthujjana, by not understanding it, conflates virtuous actions with “good deeds” (e.g. ‘I shall be charitable [kusala kamma] for that will be for my own/another’s future welfare and happiness [kusala kammavipāka seen externally]) when in fact it is non-greed, which pertains to the weakening of the gratuitous sense of self.
- Clinging to views – refers to ‘wrong view’ (DN 1 – Brahmajāla Sutta), which is the view that insists on asking questions about self and the world, implying the conceived independence of this ‘self’. Thus, ‘clinging to views’ excludes sammāditthi.
- Clinging to the doctrine of self – is sakayyaditthi. The view of ‘self’ independent from the experience. Much has been reflected on this.
“And what is craving, what is the origin of craving, what is the cessation of raving, what is the way leading to the cessation of craving? There are these six classes of craving: craving for forms, craving for sounds, craving for odours, craving for flavours, craving for tangibles, craving for mind-objects. With the arising of feeling there is the arising of craving. With the cessation of feeling there is the cessation of craving. The way leading to the cessation of craving is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
“And what is feeling, what is the origin of feeling, what is the cessation of feeling, what is the way leading to the cessation of feeling? There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact. With the arising of contact there is the arising of feeling. With the cessation of contact there is the cessation of feeling. The way leading to the cessation of feeling is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view… right concentration.
In another Sutta, craving (tanha) is also described as the triad: craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for annihilation. This particular illustration of craving based on the six senses would be particularly helpful to understand the craving for sensual pleasures in the sense that they are bodily. This is why in the practice of undoing the habitual craving, one shall neither interfere nor act out of it, for that action would still be rooted in craving. By not pushing forward and by not standing still (Oghatarana Sutta – SN 1.1), one abandons craving for feeling. The problem with the puthujjana is that this course of action is counter-intuitive to him–in the case of a painful feeling, it is the pain he devotes his whole life trying to outrun and so feel the need to dispel (similarly with the pleasant feeling: substituting ‘outrun’ and ‘dispel’ with ‘chase’ and ‘possess’ respectively). He identifies with feeling (or assumes feeling as ‘mine’) and thus an arisen-&-enduring pleasant feeling is felt as ‘life’ whereas an arisen-&-enduring painful feeling is felt as ‘death’ (applies to any past/present/future perception that the puthujjana feels, where feeling a percept is a fundamental mistake). The fact is that the painful feeling can’t kill him, and sooner or later the resistant mind will be tired out trying to outrun it (similar applies to the pleasant feeling). Only when he attempts the “practice” (i.e. face it) rightly and return to it stronger again and again would he start to see the value of it—detachment (not distraction) from feelings. Thus, all feelings are considered dukkha in the Buddha’s Teaching, where the neutral feeling is dukkha for its impermanence.
“And what is the sixfold base, what is the origin of the sixfold base, what is the cessation of the sixfold base, what is the way leading to the cessation of the sixfold base? There are these six bases: the eye-base, the ear-base, the nose-base, the tongue-base, the body-base, the mind-base. With the arising of mentality-materiality there is the arising of the sixfold base. With the cessation of mentality-materiality there is the cessation of the sixfold base. The way leading to the cessation of the sixfold base is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
The ‘six bases’ are also known as the ‘six bases of contact’. In each of these bases, I have found it to be helpful to start understanding them as ‘fields’, which led to my prior visualisation of the sense constrained to a single eye, out of which I involuntarily held to the external reference point up until my realisation. In the experience, however, much care and considerations are needed for contemplation or analysis on the workings of the sense bases as with the physicality of the body, there are overlapping of the bases even though the cognition of each sense is isolated to its corresponding sense base (refer to Ñānavīra Thera’s Note on Rūpa). A key takeaway from my contemplation on the six bases is to first see the whole (‘body’) and with dispassion discern the nature of its simultaneously existing constituents (the six bases) as resistant, burdensome, and empty.
“And what is consciousness, what is the origin of consciousness, what is the cessation of consciousness, what is the way leading to the cessation of consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. With the arising of formations there is the arising of consciousness. With the cessation of formations there is the cessation of consciousness. The way leading to the cessation of consciousness is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
Consciousness is the appearance of phenomena. Thus, the six classes of consciousness is merely the appearances of phenomena on account of the corresponding sense base and sense-object. In this way consciousness can be understood as ‘bodily’ and it follows that this cognition of phenomena too must share the same fate as its sense base and sense objects in that they are impermanent. If consciousness is taken as self, the disappearance of phenomena which is outside of one’s sense of control will inevitably be felt as painful, and that is suffering or dukkha. Therefore, consciousness cannot be self.
“And what are formations, what is the origin of formations, what is the cessation of formations, what is the way leading to the cessation of formations? There are these three kinds of formations: the bodily formation, the verbal formation, the mental formation. With the arising of ignorance there is the arising of formations. With the cessation of ignorance there is the cessation of formations. The way leading to the cessation of formations is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
The three sankhāras are ‘determinations’ bound up with mind-body: breathing as body-determination, thinking-&-pondering as speech-determination, and perception-&-feeling as mind-determination. To understand them is to understand that one’s existence cannot be outside of them. The body can only remain standing in dependence of breathing; speech can only be in dependence of thought; the mind can only be in dependence of perception and feelings, in which all determinations are simultaneously present. When seen for what it is, the idea of the ‘self’ becomes incomprehensible to assume (seen as a manifested phenomenon).
“And what is ignorance, what is the origin of ignorance, what is the cessation of ignorance, what is the way leading to the cessation of ignorance? Not knowing about suffering, not knowing about the origin of suffering, not knowing about the cessation of suffering, not knowing about the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is called ignorance. With the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance. With the cessation of the taints there is the cessation of ignorance. The way leading to the cessation of ignorance is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view…right concentration.
“And what are the taints, what is the origin of the taints, what is the cessation of the taints, what is the way leading to the cessation of the taints? There are these three taints: the taint of sensual desire, the taint of being, and the taint of ignorance. With the arising of ignorance there is the arising of the taints. With the cessation of ignorance there is the cessation of the taints. The way leading to the cessation of the taints is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
With regard to the two above excerpts it seems that there is circularity in the way avijjā is hierarchically first and foremost its own problem. Philosophically, I rest my case with Ñānavīra Thera’s interpretation of it being a ‘structural feature of the first importance’ and his elaboration on it (A Note on Paticcasamuppāda). Practically, however, this feature of avijjā puts an emphasis on the danger of ignoring the Dhamma and putting first what is second as I still sometimes do. Even for the sekha, to give in to avijjā (albeit knowingly) for mundane reasons plagues his present life experience with suffering (not necessarily in painful situations, even peaceful ones) and it is out of choice (i.e. actions) that he maintains this agitated body (giving in to avijjā truly is a sign of weakness).