At Christchurch, Clarendon Park, this evening for the fourth session in the course, "Mindfulness & Wisdom", offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme. The eight-week course has been devised by Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons from the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.
Our topic this evening: “The Place of Wisdom in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition”, presented by Revd Master Saido Kennaway. Revd Kennaway is a member of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. We're grateful to him for having driven here from Telford tonight, as the roads are still treacherous in places, with the recent freezing weather.
Wisdom, in a Buddhist sense, combines right understanding and right intention. There is no distinction in the Soto Zen tradition between practice and realisation: it’s not about practising in order to reach enlightenment.
Our speaker refers to five skandhas ("aggregates", "constructs" or “heaps”). The skandhas may be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as "I" is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas, which may be delineated as follows (explanations taken from About.com.Buddhism:
The first skandha: form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things). Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can't see what's on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
The second skandha: sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odor, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts. It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism. Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
The third skandha: perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna. The word "samjna" means "knowledge that puts together." It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience with shoes. When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It's a "some kind of tool with a red handle," for example, putting the new thing in the categories "tool" and "red." Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize an apparatus as an exercise machine because we see it at the gym.
The fourth Skandha: mental formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggragate of mental formations. How are actions "mental" formations? Remember the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samskara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
The fifth Skandha: consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object. It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us, this is a different way to think about "consciousness." It is also important to remember that vijnana is not "special" or "above" the other skandhas. It is not the "self." It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a self.
Revd Kennaway emphasises the significance of two well-known, much-loved and oft-used pieces of Buddhist scripture which foreground wisdom:
Diamond Scripture (or Sutra) its Sanskrit name more fully translated as "The Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom" (so called because it cuts away at everything)
Heart Scripture (or Sutra), its Sanskrit name more fully translated as the "Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom" (recited every day)
Several questions arise from our group work, which are put to the speaker, including these:
"What is the point of all this? Is there a destination or is it all theory for theory's sake?"
"Can the Buddhist view, that the highest goal is emptiness, accord with the Abrahamic moral good?"