Fundamental View: Talk 9

Presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 10 and 13, 2013

Talk 9

The Cultivation of Wisdom

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


In previous talks we have discussed the importance of wisdom in the spiritual quest, but what kind of wisdom is this? The Buddha compares wisdom to the lights of the moon, sun, and fire; he declares the light of wisdom to be greater than these. In a remarkable simile, in a sermon presented, not to monks, but to nuns, the Buddha compares the supermundane wisdom of dhamma to a butcher’s knife “that cuts, servers and carves away the inner defilements, fetters, and bonds just as the butcher cuts, severs, and carves away the inner tendons, sinews, and ligaments of a cow.” This simile is remarkable, in the context of the universal Indian veneration for the cow and the quasi-tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism (I say “quasi,” because the Buddha himself never regarded vegetarianism as mandatory).

The Indian reverence for the cow must be very ancient. The Rigveda says, “[t]he fiend who consumes flesh of cattle, with flesh of horses and of human bodies, who slaughters the milk producing cow, O Agni, tear off the heads of such with fiery fury.” Nevertheless, the ancient Brahmans also sacrificed cows and ate their meat in a ritual context. The Buddha’s words must have struck the ears of his listeners as a very powerful and even offensive metaphor. Perhaps it was designed to offend the Brahmans, who the Buddha criticized openly, often, and severely.[1] In other words, the wisdom of the Buddha is an anti-Brahman wisdom.

Perfect View

The Buddha identifies eight preconditions for developing true wisdom. These preconditions include an attitude of reverence toward a teacher. The teacher may include a fellow monk – another indication of the Buddha’s egalitarianism. Also included are receiving teachings from a teacher; physical and mental withdrawal; ethical self-restraint; investigating and penetrating the teachings; effort directed toward abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome; not engaging in rambling and pointless talk, either talking about the dhamma or keeping silent; and deeply realizing the truth of impermanence.

When asked, “What is Perfect View?”, synonymous with the realization of wisdom, Sariputta, renowned as the arahant foremost in wisdom, identifies 16 realizations. These realizations constitute Perfect View, viz., understanding the root of the wholesome and the unwholesome; the four “nutriments” so-called, which include food, contact, volition, and consciousness; the truth of suffering; aging and death; birth; existence; clinging; craving; feeling;  contact; the six senses; name and form; consciousness; volitional formations (sankhāras); ignorance; and the taints (āsawas). These realizations lead to the realization of the Supermundane Eightfold Path. Twelve of these, starting with aging and death and ending with ignorance, correspond to the twelve links in the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). These include three of the four nutriments. 

The Five Complexes

The Buddha says that his enlightenment arose out of a state of direct knowledge or gnosis based on the realization of the Five Aggregates. The twelvefold chain of cause and effect, the general principle of interdependency, resolves itself into the twelve nidanas. The nidanas consist of ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, mind and matter, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and dying. The Five Aggregates are a subset of this list. They consist of mental formations, consciousness, form, perception, contact-feeling, and clinging. The latter is applied to the previous five, all rooted in desire. Thus, the Five Aggregates constitute a subset of the nidanas (literally, “causes”), but in a different order. One wonders if the aggregates preceded the causes as an early version of the latter.

Comparison of the Causal Chain and the Five Complexes

The 12 Causes (nidānas)

The Five Complexes (khandhas)

Unconscious (awijjā)
Potentiation (sankhāra) Volitional formations (sankhāra) (4)
Mentation (vinnyana) Consciousness (vinnyana) (5)
Psychophysical complex (nāmarūpa) Form (rūpa) (1)
Six apperceptions (salāyatana) Perception (sannya) (3)
Sensing (phassa) Feeling (vedanā) (2)
Feeling (vedanā)
Desiring (tanhā) “Rooted in desire”
Attachment (upādanā) “Subject to clinging”
Living (bhāwa)
Rebirth (jāti)
Dying (jāramarana)

All these factors must be understood in dynamic process terms, rather than as objective constituents or things. It is hard to convey this concept in English, due to the linguistic distinction between verbs (actions) and nouns (things). The closest one can come in English is the use of the process-participle, indicated by the suffix “ing.” Although presented in linear sequence, the nidanas are all connected by the doctrine of interdependency. Therefore, they are not truly linear – the nidanas are all aspects of a singular and complex, universal process, all aspects of which condition and are correlated to each other. Thus, they are essentially inseparable.

The Buddha states the Five Aggregates are rooted in desire, the craving that constitutes the eighth nidana of the twelvefold chain of cause and effect. He emphasizes, through desire or intention, that one can profoundly influence the state of one’s future rebirths. The idea of self arises from attachment to the Five Aggregates. Non-attachment to the Five Aggregates based on the realization of their essential nature, i.e., impermanence and suffering, results in non-identification with them. In this way, the realization of anatta, no-self, the third characteristic of existence, arises. Another basis for the arising of the realization of no-self is the inability to control form. If form were self, form would be amenable to change based on volition. However, this is not the case. So for the remaining aggregates. In other words, one experiences oneself as subject to the Five Aggregates. The fact the aggregates are not subject to volition proves the Five Aggregates are not a self.

A further subset of the Five Aggregates includes eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, ear, mind, mind-contact, etc. The senses, the sensations, and the sensed altogether constitute “the all” (sabba). The first three aggregates, perception-form-feeling, are the essential core set. The Buddha says, without detachment from and renunciation of the All, suffering cannot be overcome. In a famous simile, the Buddha says the All is burning with lust, hatred, delusion, birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Through detachment, the mind is liberated, birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, and there is no more rebirth through liberation from the taints by not clinging. Detachment is the result of realizing the essential truth of impermanence. In this way, one sees that the immediate causes of liberation are ultimately reducible to the realization of wisdom or insight, i.e., the realization or recognition of the true nature of things. Ananda declares the world is empty. The ontological realization of emptiness was further developed in the Mahayana. The Buddha confirms Ananda’s insight. He declares the world, consciousness, and the rest are empty of self.  Nothing samsaric is or can be self. 


The Buddha compares form to a bubble, a mirage, the coil of a banana tree, or a magical illusion. The Buddha refers to the magician who creates the illusion of samsara as doing so at a crossroads. The shamanic practice of meeting at crossroads is a universal archetype. In India, the god Bhairawa, an older version of Shiva, is said to guard the crossroads at the outskirts of villages. Stone phalluses and statues of Bhairawa’s watchful eyes represent him as a guardian of the boundaries. The Buddha recognizes form as inherently void, hollow, and insubstantial. It is remarkable in explanations of quantum physics that the underlying subatomic structure of matter is frequently described as quantum “froth.” It is as though one were to investigate the intricate structures of the froth of a wave breaking upon the shore. It exists for an instant, then is gone. If one looks at it closely and quickly enough, it contains worlds within worlds. Through this understanding, one is liberated.

We have referred to sangsara, the cycle of transmigration, commonly translated as “existence,” as a mirage. The Therawadins claim the Buddha did not talk about the trans-dual, despite explicit references to duality and its transcendence all through the Pali Canon. The Buddha says of sangsara,

This world … for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and upon the idea of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence with respect to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world. … ‘All exists’: this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle. (italics added)

Similarly, in the Udana the Buddha says,

There is, bhikkhus, that base (tadayatanam) where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; neither this world nor another world or both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering. (Ud. 81.) (italics added)


Here, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: “In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.” In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya. “When, Bahiya, for you what is seen is merely what is seen … in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that,’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that,’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that,’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.” (Ud. 1.10) (italics added)

These passages and many others suggest the Buddha did teach non-duality, with apologies to Bhikkhu Bodhi.[2]

These passages imply the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths: relative and absolute. Therefore, to describe sangsara simply as illusory is oversimplified. Illusions do not simply “not exist.” Even if sangsara is illusory from the perspective of the absolute, or reality itself, it is nevertheless experienced and therefore real in some sense, i.e., in the sense in which it is experienced, from the perspective of the relative. The Buddha’s discussion of kamma in the context of nibbana “with residue” confirms this view.

I prefer the metaphor of a mirage – a metaphor the Buddha also used – to that of an illusion. From this, one may infer, absurdly, sangsara is not grounded in reality. It becomes appropriate to inquire into how sangsara comes about in the context of reality itself, i.e., what is the ontological function of sangsara?  Clearly, sangsara must fulfil some function in relation to reality. The Buddha says in the face of the doctrine of impermanence that the Four Truths are actual, unerring, and invariable. The doctrine of impermanence itself is relative. The “absolute” truth of sangsara is also relative from the perspective of the absolute, since suffering is definitely transcended in the experience of nibbana.

The Nirvana Element

The Buddha refers to nibbana as the non-disintegrating, the non-manifest, the non-proliferated, the deathless, and the non-conditioned. He explicitly alludes to the ontological character of nibbana as absolute reality. The Buddha says, “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned [ajātang, akatang, abhūtang, asankhatang]. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.”

People think of nibbana as singular. I have alluded to the view of Hanshan that there are two nibbanas: one imperfect, one perfect. I have also referred to the nibbana of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the nibbana associated with the Buddha’s “passing on,” or death (the parinibbana). The Buddha himself identifies two nibbanas – one “with residue,” and one without. The “residue” referred to is kamma. Karmic residue is inherited from the past. Therefore, it does not seem past kamma is necessarily destroyed entirely by the realization of nibbana. The arahant who has attained nibbana with residue still experiences pleasure and pain. The arahant without residue is completely liberated through final knowledge upon his passing on. Presumably, an arahant who attains emancipation with no karmic residue will die immediately upon his enlightenment. Arahantship is a state of perfect liberation and transcendence in which there is no experience of pleasure and pain. A bodhisatta, then, at least potentially, is an arahant with residue, the residue in this case being the kamma of compassion.


The common view of kamma is that kamma is the product of action. However, this is simplistic. It is more like the Jain than the Buddhist view. The Buddha says, “what one intends and what one plans and whatever one has a tendency toward: this becomes a basis for the continuance of consciousness. … But … when one does not intend and does not plan and does not have a tendency toward anything, no basis exists for the continuation of consciousness.” Non-intentionality is the true meaning of Buddhist detachment. One is reminded of the saying of Yeshua, “You shall not be concerned about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be concerned for itself.” Intention and not action is the essential causal factor. Once one realizes this fully, one realizes all rules, observances, social and ethical norms, rituals, and practices are mere skilful means (upāya). Skilful means are not at all like the imperious absolutes that have been the bane of so many religions, Buddhism included. However, this does not mean one becomes inactive. Rather, any actions are undertaken without attachment and are therefore non-intentional. The evidence for this is the life of the Buddha himself.

The Universal View

Some might take the view that the Buddha taught the entirety of the spiritual life. Therefore, there is nothing concerning the spiritual life he did not teach. However, the Buddha, as the most recent Buddha, was also the shortest-lived. He taught during the most degenerate age, when the lifespan of human beings is only 120 years. They cite for this view the statement of the Buddha that he held nothing back, holding nothing in secret. However, the Buddha directly contradicts this notion when he says, “the things that I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few.” He compares the things he has taught to a handful of leaves in relation to the leaves of the simsapa tree. The simsapa was probably rosewood, the leaves of which are very numerous. It is more correct to say that the Buddha taught what is fundamental or essential to the spiritual life. He did not teach everything. This is consistent with our view that the Buddha taught the perennial philosophy. The perennial or primordial philosophy comprises the totality of the spiritual life by definition. In other words, the Buddha limited what he taught to the limitations of his hearers in this degenerate age. It follows, therefore, that the horizons of the spiritual life should open up before one as one progresses, rather than being limited to what the Buddha did and said. The fundamentalist view constricts the spiritual life.

When the Buddha says he eschews speculation, he is not saying that the subject matter of speculation is empty of meaning. Rather, the Tathagata has experienced the truth of the matter. For this reason, he eschews speculation. The Buddha does not refuse to discuss the trans-dual because it is meaningless or unreal. Rather, it is because it transcends the comprehension of his (unenlightened) audience.

[1] Compare Yeshua’s attitude to the Pharisees.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Dhamma and Non-duality” (Access to Insight, 2011),


Bodhi appears to support the philosophical concept of a fundamental and non-reducible ontological dualism. Dualism has had a rather checkered history in philosophy.

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