In Asoka’s Footsteps

Dhamma in India, October 1999

by Nina Van Gorkom

Chapter 2.
Ultimate Realities

We paid respect to the Buddha in the holy places by incense and candles, by walking around the stupas and the Bodhi-tree, by chanting and reciting texts from the scriptures and the commentaries. We can pay respect above all by studying and considering the Dhamma and by developing satipatthana which is the way to directly understand the true nature of the realities the Buddha taught for fortyfive years. Therefore we had Dhamma discussions as often as we could in the holy places and in the hotels where we stayed.

Without the understanding of the Dhamma it is difficult to take one’s refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. One may pay respect because one has been taught to do so, but one’s confidence may not be very strong. When we develop right understanding of the realities the Buddha taught our confidence and also our respect for the Buddha will grow.

The Buddha taught that there is no person, no self. What we take for a person are mental phenomena, nama, and physical phenomena, rupa, which arise and then fall away. Nama experiences something whereas rupa does not experience anything. Citta, consciousness, is nama, it experiences an object. Seeing is a citta experiencing colour or visible object, hearing is a citta experiencing sound. Only one citta arises at a time and then falls away immediately, to be succeeded by the next citta. There cannot be seeing and hearing at the same time. Each citta is accompanied by several mental factors, cetasikas, such as feeling, remembrance and contact. Mental factors, cetasikas, are nama, they experience the same object as the citta they accompany but they have each their own function while they assist the citta in experiencing that object. Cetasikas arise and fall away together with the citta they accompany.

Rupa does not experience anything. There are different kinds of rupas which can be rupas of the body or physical phenomena outside. Visible object, sound, odour, flavour and tangible object are rupas which are experienced by different cittas. Eyesense is a kind of rupa in the eye which is able to receive the impact of colour, and earsense is a kind of rupa in the ear which is able to receive the impact of sound, and also the other senses can receive the appropriate sense objects. The senses are rupas which do not know anything, but they are the means through which citta can experience an object. They are called “doorway”, in Pali: dvara. When we think of the conventional term “door” we think of something which lasts, but the doors of the senses do not last, they arise, perform their function and then fall away. Seeing experiences colour through the eye-door, hearing experiences sound through the ear-door, and it is the same with the other sense-cognitions. Rupas arise and fall away in groups consisting of different kinds of rupa. Each group consists at least of eight rupas: the four Great Elements which are solidity, cohesion, heat and motion, and in addition colour, odour, flavour and nutritive essence. Thus, when colour or visible object arises, it does not arise alone, it is  accompanied by the other seven rupas of that group. Seeing experiences visible object, it does not experience the accompanying rupas of that group.

What we take for a whole of mind and body, a person, are only citta, cetasika and rupa which do not last. Citta, cetasika and rupa arise because of their appropriate conditions. Whatever arises because of conditions has to fall away again, because the conditioning factors are also phenomena which do not last. If there were no colour and no eyesense there could not be seeing.

Colour and eyesense which arise are conditions for seeing, they  perform their functions and then they fall away. Seeing also falls away immediately. 

There is one reality which is unconditioned and that is nibbana. Nibbana is not rupa, it is nama, but it does not experience an object and it does not arise and fall away. It can be experienced by the cittas of the person who attains enlightenment.

Citta, cetasika, rupa and nibbana are paramattha dhammas, ultimate realities (10 The Pali term paramattha is derived from parama, which can mean superior, highest, and attha, which is meaning. Paramattha dhammas are realities in the highest or ultimate sense.). Paramattha dhammas are different from conventional truth. Person, animal or table are conventional realities we all know. We give them names to designate them in our daily life. They are objects of thinking, but they have no characteristics which can be directly experienced. Through the Buddha’s teaching we come to know paramattha dhammas, ultimate truth we had not heard of before. They have their own characteristics which cannot be changed. We can change their names, but their characteristics cannot be changed. Seeing is always seeing, no matter how we name it. It experiences visible object through the eyes. Khun Santi writes in his lexicon about the ultimate truth. We read concerning citta, cetasika and rupa:

“... Even when we do not name them, they appear. For example, the characteristic which sees, hears, smells, tastes, experiences tangible object or thinks is citta paramattha dhamma.

The characteristic which is angry, attached, forgetful, remembers, is confident, recollects, knows the truth, suffers pain, is happy, sad, indifferent, these are the cetasika paramattha dhamma. 

The characteristic which is visible, loud, malodorous, fragrant, sour, sweet, pungent, cold, hot, soft, hard, mobile, resilient, all these are characteristics of rupa paramattha. “As to the unconditioned paramattha dhamma, nibbana, this does not arise and fall away. Nibbana means freedom from the dukkha inherent in the five khandhas which arise and fall away. 

Citta, cetasika and rupa are appearing at this moment, they are real for everybody. They have no owner, they arise because of their own conditions and then they fall away. It seems that we can see people, but then we are thinking of conventional realities or concepts. It is difficult to truly understand the characteristic of seeing, an element which only experiences what is visible.

On account of seeing we think of people and this is conditioned by
remembrance of past moments of seeing, defining and recognizing. Each citta experiences an object. Sometimes the object of citta is a paramattha dhamma and sometimes it is a concept or conventional reality. When citta thinks of a person it does not experience a paramattha dhamma. We should not force ourselves not to think of concepts, because thinking arises because of conditions, thinking itself is a paramattha dhamma and it can be understood as such. Gradually we can learn the difference between ultimate truth and conventional truth. 

We read in Khun Santi’s lexicon about the understanding of paramattha dhammas:

“... One should study in order to understand that what is true in the ultimate sense is different from what is true merely in conventional sense. When one understands these two kinds of truths one will know that the realization of the four noble Truths is actually the penetration of the truth of paramattha dhammas. This can be achieved by being mindful and by understanding the true nature of citta, cetasika and rupa which appear in our daily life, until  eventually the truth which is nibbana can be realized.”

It is not sufficient to merely know the names of citta, cetasika and rupa, to have only theoretical understanding of them. We should verify the truth of the paramattha dhammas which appear in our daily life. We need to be reminded of the truth by listening, reading and studying, it never is enough. When we hear that nama experiences an object and that rupa does not know anything it may seem simple, but this truth should be considered again and again. As we just read, anger, like or dislike are cetasikas, visible object or flavour are rupas. These are realities of our daily life appearing time and again. We should consider the truth that a rupa such as flavour is completely different from nama such as like or dislike. It is essential to gradually learn the difference between nama and rupa, because so long as we confuse their characteristics there is no way to become detached from the concept of self.

Khun Sujin often repeated that seeing is nama, the element which experiences visible object, and that visible object is rupa. Some people may feel bored to hear this again and again, but when we carefully consider the reality appearing at the present moment it never is boring; it is always new, because by considering what we hear understanding can grow little by little. We are so used to thinking of a self who sees, we have to be reminded again and  again that it is nama which sees. We are absorbed in our thoughts arising on account of what is seen that we forget that seeing can only see what is visible.

We cannot hear often enough that it is only visible object which is seen, a kind of rupa. If the Buddha had not taught about paramattha dhammas and if the scriptures had not been established by means of the Great Councils we would have no possibility to learn about the truth. The scriptures and also the ancient commentaries and subcommentaries which explain the scriptures are of utmost importance (The three parts of the scriptures are the Vinaya or Book of Discipline for the monks, the Suttanta or  Discourses and the Abhidhamma, the teaching of ultimate realities. Most of the ancient commentaries have been written by Buddhaghosa, and they date from the fifth century A.D. He used more ancient commentarial works which he edited. He also wrote the encyclopedia the “Visuddhimagga”, the “Path of Purification”.). Lodewijk, my husband, stressed during this journey that reading the scriptures themselves is essential, as well as studying the Abhidhamma. He found that without a foundation knowledge of  realities the scriptures cannot be understood. He used to find the study of details tedious, but now he is convinced that details relate to realities. 

It is important to learn more about paramattha dhammas in detail. Cittas and their accompanying cetasikas can be of four “jatis” (class or nature): they can be unwholesome or akusala, wholesome or kusala, result or vipaka and neither cause nor result or “inoperative”, kiriya. Akusala cittas are always accompanied by the akusala cetasika which is ignorance, moha, and they may be accompanied as well by the akusala cetasika of attachment, lobha, or by the akusala cetasika of aversion, dosa. These three cetasikas are called roots (hetu), because they are the foundations of akusala cittas. Besides these three akusala hetus there are other akusala cetasikas which can accompany only akusala cittas. There are three beautiful roots or sobhana hetus: non-attachment, alobha, non-aversion, adosa, and wisdom or panna. Alobha and adosa accompany each kusala citta and panna may or may not accompany kusala citta. Besides these three sobhana hetus there are other sobhana cetasikas which can accompany kusala citta.

Akusala citta and kusala citta can motivate deeds through body, speech or mind. These deeds are called kamma, but when we are more precise, kamma is actually the intention or volition (cetana cetasika) which motivates an unwholesome or a wholesome deed. Akusala kamma and kusala kamma can produce results later on in the form of unpleasant rebirth or pleasant rebirth or in the course of life, in the form of unpleasant or pleasant experiences through the senses. Vipakacittas are cittas which are results of kamma. Seeing is vipakacitta, it experiences an unpleasant or a pleasant object through the eyesense, and it is the same with the other sense-cognitions. It is hard to tell whether seeing or hearing which arises now is kusala vipaka or akusala vipaka, since cittas arise and fall away extremely rapidly. Seeing experiences visible object, but seeing is not the only citta experiencing visible object; it arises within a process or series of cittas, all of which experience visible object. The object is experienced by vipakacittas, kiriyacittas and kusala cittas or akusala cittas. Cittas arise and fall away succeeding one another. There never is a moment without citta. After the vipakacitta which is seeing has fallen away akusala cittas or kusala cittas experience visible object in an unwholesome way or wholesome way. When an object is pleasant there is likely to be attachment and when an object is unpleasant there is likely to be aversion. After an object has been experienced through a sense-door it is experienced through the mind-door.

All this concerns our daily life, even at this very moment. As soon as we have seen or heard there is likely to be attachment, even though we do not notice it. We have accumulated attachment during countless lives and thus there are conditions for its arising on account of the experience of the sense objects. We notice attachment when it is strong, when we like to possess something, but there are many shades and degrees of attachment and it may be so subtle that we do not notice it. When we are not engaged with kusala, wholesomeness, the sense-cognitions (seeing, hearing, etc.) are followed by akusala cittas, cittas with attachment, aversion and ignorance. It is important to have more understanding of akusala and of kusala which arises in our life.

Generosity (dana), morality (sila), and mental development (bhavana) are ways of kusala. Studying the Dhamma, tranquil meditation and vipassana, the development of insight, are included in bhavana. Thus, when we are thinking and the objective is not one of these ways of kusala, we think with akusala cittas. When we study the Dhamma we come to realize that we have many more akusala cittas than kusala cittas. Truthfulness is one of the perfections the Bodhisatta accumulated and it is a perfection we too should accumulate.

We should be truthful, sincere with regard to the akusala we have accumulated. Without the Buddha’s teachings we would be ignorant about the akusala cittas which arise. They can be objects of right understanding, they are namas arising because of conditions, they are non-self.

Citta, cetasika and rupa have been classified as five aggregates or khandhas: the khandhas of rupa, feeling, perception (sanna), the habitual tendencies (sankharakkhandha, all cetasikas except feeling and sanna) and vinnana (citta). We read many times in the scriptures about the five khandhas which are impermanent. Such texts are not monotonous, but most beneficial. We keep on forgetting that all the people and all our possessions we are attached to are only fleeting phenomena, insignificant dhammas and thus, we need time and again to be reminded of the truth. We read in the “Middle Length Sayings” (I, 35, Lesser Discourse to Saccaka) that Saccaka, son of the Jains, approached the venerable Assaji. He asked Assaji how the Buddha trained his disciples, and what his instructions were. Assaji answered that the Buddha instructed his disciples as follows:

“Rupa, monks, is impermanent, feelings are impermanent, perception (sanna) is impermanent, the habitual tendencies (sankharakkhandha) are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent. Rupa, monks, is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, the habitual tendencies are not self, consciousness is not self; all conditioned realities are impermanent, all dhammas are not self.”
We then read that Saccaka approached the Buddha with the wish to refute him and make him confused. He asked the Buddha how he trained his disciples and received the same answer as Assaji had given him. Saccaka stated that he took all the khandhas for self. Further on we read that the Buddha asked him:
“What do you think about this, Aggivessana? When you speak thus: ‘Rupa is myself,’ have you power over this rupa of yours (and can you say), ‘Let my rupa be thus, Let my rupa be not thus?’ ”
Saccaka became silent, but when the Buddha said that if he would not answer his skull would split into seven pieces, he became afraid and agitated. He answered that he did not have power over rupa. The Buddha then asked him whether he had power over the other khandhas and Saccaka answered that he had not. The Buddha asked Saccaka further about the nature of the five khandhas:
“Is rupa permanent or impermanent?’”
“Impermanent, good Gotama.”
“But is what is impermanent dukkha (anguish) or happiness?”
“Dukkha, good Gotama.”
“But is it fitting to regard that which is impermanent, dukkha, liable to change as ‘This is mine, this am I, this is my self’?” 
“This is not so, good Gotama.”
We then read that the Buddha asked the same about the other khandhas and that Saccaka gave the same answer. We read further on that Saccaka asked the Buddha to what extent a disciple becomes a doer of the instruction, one who accepts the exhortation, one who has overcome doubt and perplexity, and who lives according to the teacher’s instruction, won to conviction, not relying on others. The Buddha answered:
“Now, Aggivessana, a disciple of mine in regard to whatever is rupa, past, future, present, internal (personal) or outward, gross or subtle, low or excellent, distant or near, sees all rupa as it really is by means of perfect intuitive wisdom as : This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self...”

The Buddha said the same about the other khandhas. Saccaka asked how a monk becomes a perfected one, who has eradicated defilements, who will not be reborn again and is freed with profound knowledge. The Buddha stated that this is achieved when the monk, having seen the khandhas as “This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self”, becomes freed with no further attachment. We see that time and again the Buddha spoke about the five khandhas which should be seen as they are. The object of understanding is the same, nama and rupa, but the understanding of them develops until arahatship has been attained and all defilements are eradicated.

The five khandhas are not an abstraction, they arise and fall away even now. Feeling accompanies each citta, it may be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent. Perception or remembrance, sanna, accompanies each citta, performing the function of remembering or recognizing. In Sankharakkhandha are included all sobhana (beautiful) cetasikas and akusala cetasikas, and these accompany kusala citta or akusala citta which arise in each process of cittas, no matter whether an object is experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense or mind-door. We cannot be reminded enough of what is kusala and what akusala, because we are ignorant of the cittas which arise. We often do not notice that there is akusala citta. 

Vinnanakkhandha is citta, arising and falling away each moment.  That is what the Buddha taught: the development of understanding of all these realities appearing now.

The Buddha said to Saccaka that the arahat who is freed reveres, esteems, reverences and honours the Tathagata with the following words: 

“The Lord is awakened, he teaches Dhamma for awakening; the Lord is tamed, he teaches Dhamma for taming; the Lord is calmed, he teaches Dhamma for calming; the Lord is crossed over, he teaches dhamma for crossing over; the Lord has attained nibbana, he teaches Dhamma for attaining nibbana.”
The arahat has full understanding of the meaning of these words and thus he can give the highest honour and respect to the Buddha. Saccaka expressed his regret about the fact that he was so arrogant and presumptuous and that he tried to assail the Buddha by his speech. He invited the Buddha and the Order of monks to a meal and the Buddha accepted.