(Talk given at Washington Vihara, 13th October, 1990)
Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya
In ordinary speech, we make statements such as “sunset”, “sunrise” and the like. But actually there is no such thing as the setting or rising of the sun. The so-called sunrise and sunset are but phenomena brought about by the rotation of the earth on its axis. We make such statements not to mislead our hearers but to follow and comply with the usage accepted by the people.
Suppose a teacher explains the very same phenomena to his students in his classroom. There he may explain to them how the earth rotates on its own axis, how consequently the phenomena such as night, noon, sunset, sunrise, etc. come to pass. Yet the very same teacher at other times seems to use such expressions as sunset and the like.
This makes it clear that there are two modes of speech, namely the expression according to what really happens and that how a happening appears. The former is called the absolute truth and the latter the conventional truth.
The fifth discourse in the third chapter of Ekaka-nipata of Anguttaragama refers to two kinds of discourses of the Lord Buddha under the names Nitattha-suttanta and Neyyattha-suttanta. Nittattha-Suttanta means, according to the commentary, the teaching which is with the primarily inferred sense, and Neyyattha-suttanta means the teaching to which the primary sense is to be inferred. The former one was later known as Paramattha-desana, the teaching of the truth in the ultimate sense, and the latter as Sammuti-desana, the teaching in the mode of the language or usage generally or universally accepted by the people, (the truth in general terms as accepted by a consensus of opinion of the people). So the Lord Buddha said: “They are expressions, terms of speech, designations in common use in the world.”
“Man, woman, table, tree, river, mountain” and the like are the words used to express a definite idea. They are used for convenience’s sake and for conventional purposes, but the convention or conception is subject to change. For instance, at one stage of man’s growth we call him an infant, some years later when he becomes twenty years of age we call him a youth, still later a middle aged man and at last ‘an old man’, after the change of his physique.
Now let us try to understand what the so-called ‘man’ really is. From the ultimate point of view, there is only a psycho-physical process, and there is no self-identical entity i.e. a thing that persists without any change. To make it clearer, let us take a box. What is a box? Some pieces of timber are prepared, arranged and put together in a particular way to give a certain form or shape, and then it is called ‘a box’. Suppose the so-called box is disjoined and its parts are put together to give them the appearance of a bench. It will then no longer be called a box. The parts remain the same, but as the form or shape changes, the name changes too. Suppose someone referring to the bench calls it a box, regardless of the convention of people, they will then accuse him of uttering falsehood. So, if we do not follow or go against the parlance of people it would be tantamount to telling lies.
Now with reference to the shape we call it a box. How did the shape come about and where is it born? First, the carpenter thinks out the shape or forms the picture in his mind and then draws it on a piece of paper, which we call a plan or design, from which or according to which he arranges and fastens the pieces of timber together and calls it a box. The pieces of timber are not the box. The box is the name given to the shape and if the very same pieces of timber are arranged to give the shape of a bench then it is called bench. The box and the bench are mere names given to the shapes which are conceived in the mind of their maker. Thus in the ultimate sense the imagined box-shape is but a concept.
Similarly, bench, chair, house, man, dog, mountain, sea, pond and all such things and beings are but concepts and hence there is no special substance that is to be called bench and so on in the ultimate sense.
Then what are they from the ultimate point of view?
First, let us examine a box and see what it consists of or what it is made of. When we examine it deeper and deeper, we will come to conclusion that it is a combination of atoms. From Buddhist point of view every atom is a compound of still smaller particles of matter and every smallest unit of matter consists of four Maha-bhutas, the primary qualities, namely hardness or Pathavi-dhatu, cohesion or Apo-dhatu, heat or cold called Tejodhatu and vibration or Vayo-dhatu. All units of matter or dynamic, and are in a state of constant motion.
The afore-said Maha-bhutas or fundamental and primary qualities are indivisibly bound together and there is no material thing in the universe which is devoid of these Maha-bhutas.
Thus, after all, from the ultimate stand point, a box is a compound or combination of units of matter, a collection of ever changing material states.
Now, let us come to man. What is man according to the Ultimate truth? In the first analysis, he is a compound of mind and body – Nama and Rupa. When we analyse body and examine it deeper and deeper, we come to the understanding that it is an assemblage or combination of material parts, and that every such part is composed of a vast number of atomic units composed of primary material states, which are subject to constant motion, in other words, a mass of changing states, a amass of waves and vibrations in which there is no substance, nothing stable, nothing static in its own nature.
Next, let us come to the other constituent of the so-called man, the mind. So far as we have studied what the man’s physical body is, we see that it is a flux of waves, a stream of volumes of material states void of any static substance. It is the same with the mind too. But the states which are conventionally called mind flow far more rapidly. The nature of mind, the psychic side of man, resembles the nature of a flame to some extent. A flame is a mere continuity of flickering moments, rising and falling on what it feeds during its continual flux. It is never the same for two consecutive moments. Even so is the nature of mind, for it is but a stream of consciousness, an unending stream of thought-moments which rise and fall successively. Hence, there is nothing permanent in this psychic process and the only constancy about it is its incessant change.
Now we have come to the last point. From the ultimate or absolute point of view every animate thing, every man, every animal is but a stream of mental and physical states. A man who does not see this rapidly changing nature of mind-matter process mistakes the whole or a part of this process for an identity and imagines that there is an abiding ego entity. Every animate being, which has a mind and body, is an absolute combination of these two interdependent streams – one physical and the other psychical – each undergoing momentary change. Thus what man , in the ultimate sense, is a psycho-physical process in which there is not a single unchanging substance. All inanimate things such as stones, earth, fire, water, rays, air and the like are but various kinds of flow of the aggregates of the fundamental elements or primary states.
Thus according to Buddhist philosophy, man is an interdependent flow of consciousness, mental characteristics and material states co-operatively combined.
If anybody takes any part either of body or of mind as permanent or as an ego-entity, or distorts mind as matter or matter as mind, or any of their constituents as an ego, a self or soul, he is regarded as one holding an erroneous view.
A person who, when talking, changes or distorts the commonly accepted usage is regarded by people as a liar.
The Lord Buddha, when instructing people, used both these ways of expression, the way of commonly accepted expression and the way of direct expression of ultimate truth, suitink gthe purpose.
Now I have so far explained to you the difference between the two kinds of truths, Sammuti sacca, the, truth according to common usage and the Paramattha-sacca, the ultimate truth.
As regards the Paramttha-sacca or the Ultimate truth, it has two divisions, the Sabhava-siddha-paramattha and ariya-sacca-paramattha. Sabhavasiddha-paramattha means the self-evident truth according to our every day experience. Ariya-sacca-paramattha means the four Noble truths. I am now going to point out the difference between these two. There are three kinds of feelings according to the Sabhava-paramttha, namely Sukha-vedana, dukkha-vedana and upekkha-vedana, happy or pleasant feeling, unhappy or unpleasant feeling and neutral feeling. But from the highest or Ariya-sacca point of view all these feelings of the Vedanupadanakkhandha are the parts of Dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Thus what is regarded as happy feeling according to Sabhava-siddha-paramattha is included in Dukkha or suffering according to Ariya-sacca-paramttha.
Let us take the case of Lokiya-kusalas, the morally good karmas which are the causes of the birth in happy abodes in the world. We know good karma belonging to sensuous realm or Kama-loka causes the rebirth in a happy abode in the same realm (Kama-sugati), Rupavacara-kusala, the developed Rupa-jhana causes the rebirth in subtle material realm called Rupa-bhava, and arupa-jhana-kusala in non-material realm or arupa-bhava. These three kinds of good karmas are kusalas or wholesome causes of happiness according to the Sabhava-paramattha. But according to Ariya-sacca-paramattha, all these three realms of existence are Dukkha, Suffering or unsatisfactory states and the afore-mentioned kusalas or wholesome Karmas are the causes of those unsatisfactory states, hence they are no more wholesome from the ariya-sacca-point of view. The Lokiya-Kusalas either Kamavacara, Rupavacara or Arupavacara are included in Samkharas and Kammabhava which cause the continuity of samsara and are the Factors of Anulomaspaticcasamuppada. Thus the sabhava-siddha-paramattha wanes and loses its brilliance before the Ariya-sacca-paramattha. Ariya-sacca-paramattha, the four Noble truths are the only ultimate truths, perfect in all aspects.