Saturday, January 22, 2011

Three Hard Teachings

Teaching 2: Don't Give the Arrows a Place To Land

(This is the second of three blogs inspired by a public talk given by Joseph Goldstein on January 4, 2011.)

In the previous blog, I mentioned the Parable of the Second arrow from the Samyutta Nikaya. Here is an excerpt of the first part of that parable:
When touched by a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.
So it really comes down to this: For the arrow to hurt, it has to have a place to land. In other words, if we understand that all of our suffering is created by the mind, we must also understand that there is no "self" other than what the mind creates.

In his program, Joseph called this process of creating a self where none exists "selfing." I had never heard that word used as a verb before, and it turns out to be quite apropos. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1973), when "self" is used as a transitive verb it means "to pollinate with pollen from the same flower or plant" (p. 1048). So when we "self" we are engaged in a sort of inbreeding feedback loop. First the mind receives a sensory stimulus, then it creates information (accurate or not) about that stimulus. When we come to believe that information, we create "I, me, and mine." A self is born.

(Perhaps not incidentally, the online Urban Dictionary defines selfing as "the act of saying something ridiculous, with absolute self-righteousness behind it, only proving how much of an idiot the person actually is." And apparently - according to their website, at least - it has become slang for describing masturbation. Who knew?)

Meanwhile, we still have that pesky first arrow to contend with. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha concluded that a person who does not create a self based on the sensory stimulus of the first arrow:
...feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. (From "Sallatha Sutta: The Second Arrow" SN 36.6, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009.)
The cultivation of "no self," or anatta as it referred to in Pali, the language of the Buddha, is perhaps the hardest teaching in all of the Dharma. Because of this, however, it is the most valuable. Anatta offers us a way out of suffering while still allowing us to be fully engaged in life. It is not the same as denying the existence of the "sense of self" created by the mind, Nor is it a trick of somehow detaching mentally from an unpleasant predicament.  It is, however, about knowing every experience that arises for what it is, and being able to live skillfully in the midst of it, without creating more suffering.

Again, as I said in the previous blog, and as the Buddha says above, there really is legitimate pain in life. And good luck trying to avoid it. What we may be left with are horrible memories that can torment us for the rest of our life. The cultivating of anatta is a process of knowing those memories for what they are - objects of mind - and not as facts that are happening in the present moment. In this way, even the most painful images from the past can be allowed to simply move through us, just as the second arrow does when it has no place to land.


1 comment:

  1. These teachings are wonderful, going straight to the most difficult concepts in Buddhism. I noticed that I got stuck on the phrase "the Buddha concluded that a person who does not create a self....feels one pain: physical, but not mental" - and I realized that it was the concept of "not creating a self" that I couldn't grok. Babies right out of the womb (or perhaps still in the womb) begin responding to stimulus and forming a "self". Reflecting on it, I'm sure this is meant to refer to "creating a self" moment to moment. But without that preface, it sounds completely impossible. It's more helpful to me to think of standing behind the self and not identifying with it. Almost impossible, but it sounds more achievable than not "creating a self" to me.