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Buddhadharma : Fall 2008
51 fall 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly T he English language is rich in many ways, particu larly when explaining the features of the material world, but it is remarkably clumsy when it comes to articulating the nuanced terrain of inner experi ence. This is one of the reasons the current conversations about consciousness, meditation, and psychology in general can be somewhat confusing. One of the satisfactions of studying the languages and lit eratures of India is the exposure it offers to a richer and more precise vocabulary for speaking about internal states of mind. At the time Greek philosophers were seeking to identify the universal substances out of which all matter is constructed, their counterparts in India were exploring, empirically and directly, the textures of consciousness. By the time Socrates suggested that care of the soul was an appropriate thing for philosophers to attend to, a detailed and highly devel oped map of the mind and body as a system of lived experi ence had been delineated by the Buddha and his immediate followers. Part of the literature containing this lore is the Abhi dhamma.1 It is an attempt to extract some of the Buddha’s core teachings about the phenomenology of experience from the narrative context of the dhamma and to organize it into a more systematic and consistent presentation. I’d like to offer a taste of this greater precision by considering the question, “What is mindfulness?” As the term grows in importance in contemporary discourse, its meaning seems to be becoming less rather than more clear. Fortunately, the rich vocabulary and meditative insight of the Abhidhamma tradition can help us understand better what the word “mindfulness” is referring to. In the process, this excursion will also include some general observations about how the mind functions and how these functions are augmented by the deliberate practice of meditation. Moreover, it will touch on the relationship between the cultivation of mindfulness and the emergence of wisdom. The Nature of Consciousness According to the Abhidhamma, consciousness arises and passes away each moment as a series of episodes in a con tinuing process. It is not a thing that exists, but an event that occurs—again and again—to yield the subjective experience of a stream of consciousness. Consciousness itself is rather simple and austere, consisting merely of the cognizing of a sense object by means of a sense organ. This event serves as a sort of seed around which a number of other mental fac tors crystallize to help consciousness create meaning from the stimuli presenting themselves so rapidly and relentlessly at the doors of the senses. Like a king with his entourage, as the classical image has it, consciousness never arises alone. It is always attended by a number of other mental factors that help structure, shape, and direct rudimentary consciousness in various ways. The idiosyncrasies of our experience come from the unique con figurations formed by all these supporting mental factors as they interact each moment with the changing data of the senses and the synthetic constructions of the mind. Alto gether, fiftytwo of these mental factors are enumerated in the Pali Abhidhamma. (The Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition has a somewhat different list, but we will not get into that here.) Scholars have tended to dismiss this exhaustive catalog of mental states as the product of scholasticism run amok, but many people with a mature practice of vipassana medi tation are thrilled by the precision with which this literature describes the interior landscape. It is the child of two parents: its mother is deep empirical observation of meditative experi ence, while its father is a brilliant organizing intellect. As I review the Abhidhamma perspective on meditation and mindfulness, I will identify each mental factor by its Pali term and its number on the list for the sake of clarity, but will not consider all the mental factors nor treat them in their strict canonical order. Universal Mental Factors Meditation starts with getting in touch with experience at the point of its inception. We literally make contact (phasso, 1) with what is happening in the present moment. If we are daydreaming or worrying or wondering what to do next, we let go of that for the moment and get grounded at one of the sense doors. What is the actual physical sensation arising this moment at the body door as I begin to draw an inbreath? Can I get right to the cutting edge of the sound produced by that chirping bird outside the window? Dropping down from the level of “thinking about” something to “getting in touch” with what is actually occurring right now is referred to as making contact with the sensation just as it first arrives at one of the sense doors. We immediately notice that this sensation is always accom panied by a feeling tone (vedana, 2) that can be grossly or subtly pleasant or unpleasant. This is a strand of experience that brings with it a sense of embodiment, an awareness of (fAcingpAge)BjArteAlvestAd 1 This refers to the Abhidharma of the Theravada school, which is composed of seven books and written in Pali. Some parts differ from the Abhidharma of the Sarvastivada school, written in Sanskrit.