Posted by: Soh
Thusness commented: "It is a good article... ...In the article there is no obsession or singling out clarity as independent and existing by itself. "Being" here is understood within/from the context of anatta, process, verb, no locus and without agent. His term of "being" is not to single out from the ever dynamics of appearance but rather understood from the standpoint of non-action. Would be better if there is integration of total exertion (dependent origination) into it; makes the article more complete."
[Evertype]  Some remarks on conceptualization and transcendent experienceHome

Some remarks on conceptualization and transcendent experience in the Theravāda tradition, with two notes on translation

Michael Everson

This paper, written originally in 1988, was an excursion into theology -- or perhaps “noetology”. It was an attempt at commentary proper, rather than at disinterested analysis.

It is a basic tenet of Buddhism that suffering arises from false notions of self. Individuals perceive themselves as separate entities, autonomous yet dependent on their world, experiencing change and continuity. The uniqueness of each moment of existence is distorted by the filter of a self which categorizes and interprets those moments, judging them good or bad and fighting a useless battle to keep the good and shun the bad. The nexus for the introduction of false notions of self into experience is the point at which experience is conceptualized. Enlightened consciousness results when these false notions are no longer imposed upon the perceptual process.
It cannot be said that the Buddhist description of conceptualization is without its difficulties. Indeed, a Buddhist description ofanything is much entangled in relationships: just as any event in the world depends on a nigh infinite series of causes, and engenders a nigh infinite series of effects, so does a light shone on any facet of Buddhist epistemology shine and reflect off of each other facet. It is difficult to pluck one string of the sitar without causing the sympathetic strings into resonance as well. Still, conceptualization, and its relation to conditioned and enlightened consciousness, is central to Buddhism -- both to its taxonomy of the problem of existence and to its soteriology. An investigation of that relation will suggest a reëvaluation of notions of action and being.
Buddhism might be described as a kind of cure to the disease of dukkha, of ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Existence (bhava) is an ongoing process of becoming, manifest in its constituents (aṅga). The natural (or ideal) condition for the mind is a calm flow (bhavaṅga-sota), through which (around which, in which) the constituents of becoming interact harmoniously in an “experiential stream” of what is as it is. Nyanatiloka remarks that bhavṣaṅga-sota is explained in the Abhidhamma commentaries as the foundation or condition (kaṁraṇa) of existence (bhava), as the sine qua non of life, having the nature of a process, lit. a flux or stream (sota). [Nyanatiloka 1980:38]
Conceptualization impedes the harmonious flow of bhavaṅga-sota. It is a process for ordering stimuli to consciousness, convenient for interaction with the world, but, apparently, not essential once the world has been investigated. Bondage to concepts is considered to be an inevitable consequence of the process of conceptualization because of the fiction of the self, and that bondage to concepts leads to expectation and denial, the causes of dukkha. A review of the process leading up to conceptualization will be helpful here.
The immediate precursors to conceptualization have been classified as a purely impersonal, causal process. In the Madhupiṇḍika-sutta, the venerable Kaccaṁna sums up his understanding of the Buddha’s teaching:
    Manañ-c’ āvuso paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññāṇaṁ, tiṇṇaṁ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṁ vedeti taṁ sañjānāti, yaṁ sañjānāti taṁ vitakketi, yaṁ vitakketi taṁ papañceti, yaṁ papañceti tatonidānaṁ purisaṁ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samu-dācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppanesu manoviññeyyesu dhammesu. [Majjhima-nikāya 18 (Madhupiṇḍika-sutta) (1888: I:112)]

    ‘And, brothers, the mind and mental objects are the cause for the arising of mental consciousness. The meeting of the three is sense contact; feelings are the result of that contact; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives one reasons about; what one reasons about one differentiates; what one differentiates is the origin of the sign of perceptions and obstructions which assail a man with regard to mental objects to be comprehended by the mind, in the past, the future, and the present.’
Interaction between one of the sense-bases (the five senses and the mind) and an object gives rise to the attentive faculty of consciousness, that is, of awareness of objects. The meeting of the three is contact (phassa); from this contact arises sensation or feeling (vedanā). The living being with functioning sense organs must interact with objects, become conscious of them through contact, and feel or sense them. When the ego intrudes and makes the connection “I experience this object”, the process loses its impersonality, and becomes first a kind of deliberate and conscious, then a subconscious and automatic activity, conditioned by karmic predisposition. Kaccāna’s description points to this shift from impersonal to personal in his movement from a simple ablative construction to the inflected personal verb: “Phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṁ vedeti taṁ sañjānāti” ‘From the condition of contact [arises] feeling; what one feels, one perceives’. Suddenly it is an individual person (puggala) who experiences sensation; and when he does, he perceives, knows, or recognizes (compare sañjānāti with Latin cōgnōscit). A person has arisen here out of nonperson: attā out ofanattā. That ego, once established with its faculties of memory and volition, will evaluate its sensations in terms of itself; it will judge, and desire. That ego is a confluence of material and mental processes, and, apart from them, has no real existence.
Conceptualization arises from perception. “Yaṁ sañjānāti taṁ vitakketi” ‘What one perceives, one reflects on’. This is indicative of the insidious nature of the ego to take the original subjective experience and “objectivize” it. Though each object, contact, and sensation be unique, the ego takes them only in relation to itself and its past, present, and future experience and needs. The concepts (vitakkā) which arise through perception tend toward proliferation, for the ego becomes attached to them. Conceptions become preconceptions, and the whole scheme is filled with error.
The Buddha was concerned about the detrimental nature of attachment to speculative views of existence and of the Transcendent. The problem is not whether or not the views themselves have validity, for it is clear that they do, depending on, and with respect to, the particular point of view. “The fact that existence is a relative concept is often overlooked by the worldling.” [Ñāṇananda 1974:20] It is axiomatic that the frog knows what the tadpole cannot; but the question here is whether or not the tadpole’s point of view is wise, and the Buddhist approach would be to say that no point of view is worthwhile unless it is a view which encompasses reality as it is. That view is impersonal. From the Sutta-nipāta:
    “Mūlaṁ papañcasaṁkhāyā” ti Bhagavā
    “‘mantā asmī ’ti sabbam uparundhe,
    yā kāci taṇhā ajjhattaṁ,
    tāsaṁ vinayā sadā sato sikkhe.” [916 (1913:179)]

    ‘“He should”, said the Lord, “break up the root of these signs of obstruction,[1] the notion ‘I am the thinker’. Whatever his subjective desires, he trains himself to give them up, always mindful in his discipline.”’

It should be noted that both E. M. Hare [Sutta-nipāta 1944:134] and Hammalava Saddhatissa [Sutta-nipāta 1985:107] have mistranslated mantā asmi as ‘all the thoughts “I am”’ and ‘all thought of “I am”’ respectively. A better reading would have mantā <mantar ‘thinker’ (< Sanskrit *mantṛ) and take the deictic ’ti as setting off the phrase mantā asmi as translated above. (Cf. Neumann’s translation “Ich bin’s, der denkt”, ‘I am the one who thinks’. [Sutta-nipāta 1911:299]) The Commentary to the Sutta-nipāta, however, explains this phrase by mantāya:

    ...tassā [papañcāya] avijjādayo kilesā mūlaṁ, taṁ papañcasaṁkhāya mūlaṁ ‘asmī’ ti pavattamānañ ca sabbaṁ mantāyauparundhe, yā kāci ajjhattaṁ taṇhā uppajjeyyuṁ, tāsam vinayāya sadā sato sikkhe upaṭṭhitasati hutvā sikkheyyā ti. [Paramatthajotikā II.iv.14 (1917:II:562)] {My emphasis.}

    ‘...from this [obstruction] comes the root, the impurities which begin with ignorance: this root of the signs of obstruction is ‘I am’, which results in pride, and he should break up all [this] by wisdom, whatever the subjective desires that should arise, for/of these he trains himself to give up, ever mindful, he should discipline himself, being one whose attention is firm.’

Here the dative mantāya would also prove difficult for Hare and Saddhatissa’s readings, where we should expect *manā asmi (formanāya asmi) ‘of the thought “I am”, since we have mano ‘thought’ opposed to mantā ‘wisdom’, as I think the Commentary has it, or even manta (< Sanskrit mantra) ‘charm, doctrine, Holy Scripture’. [Cf. Childers 1875:238-39, and Rhys Davids & Stede 1979:520-22] In any case, I find the present suggested reading more in keeping with the spirit and the sense of the intent of the text, and with the goals of the tradition generally.[2] It is the conceptual attachment of agent to action (yaṁ maññati taṁ mantar), resulting from the initial separation of agent from action, which the Buddha attacks in the Kālakārāma-sutta, not whether or not there exists a thinker at all.
It is true that identification with (or even the ‘real’ existence of) the personal ego is denied elsewhere by the Buddha:
    ...sutavato ariyasāvakassa avijjā pahīyati vijjā uppajjati. Tassa avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā “Asmī” ti pi ’ssa na hoti, “Ayam aham asmī” ti pi ’ssa na hoti, “Bhavissanti, na bhavissanti, rūpī, arūpī, saññī, asaññī, n’eva saññī nāsaññī bhavissan” ti pi ’ssa na hoti. [Saṁyutta-nikāya XXII.47.6-7 (Atthadīpa-vagga) (1890:III:46-47)] {My punctuation.}

    ‘...for the noble learned disciple, ignorance is abandoned and knowledge arises. From this cleansing of ignorance and coming into existence of knowledge, his “I am” is no more, his “This I exists” is no more, his “I will be, I will not be, I will have form, I will not have form, I will be conscious, I will be unconscious, I will be neither conscious nor unconscious” is no more.’

Yet there is no suggestion that a universal (albeit Vedāntist) ontological interpretation of aham asmi ‘I am’ would be rejected, though such a rejection could be inferred, I think, in the readings of Hare and Saddhatissa. J. G. Jennings has remarked that “[t]he an-attadoctrine so strongly emphasized by [Gotama] declares the transience of individuality, yet insists upon an ultimate or fundamental unity”. [1974:571] While the Pāli commentarial tradition would doubtless reject a Vedāntist claim of an essential unity to Reality, I see no reason to think that a radically non-attached, Liberated notion of “I am” is instrinsically inconsistent with Buddhist teachings. Pure being is neither conceived nor attached, It just Is, and if there is for “me” only “being”, then, it seems, “I am”.[3] The conceptual attachment of agent to action results from an initial (erroneous) separation of agent from action.
The source of the delusion standing in the way of Liberation (papañcasaṁkhā) is the personal notion “I am a thinker” (mantā asmi). Mindfulness is the method by which one learns the process of letting go (vinaya); that process begins with the elimination of attachment to the things perceived (pleasure, pain, desire, dislike) and culminates in the elimination of attachment to the identification with the notion that there is in fact a perceiver apart from the perception. This process of detachment from ego is admittedly difficult to describe, and it may be fruitless to attempt to do so. What may be more fruitful is to investigate the effects precipitated by that process. By and large, they derive from a fundamental revision of the process leading up to conceptualization, and from the removal of the causes leading to conceptual proliferation and egoistic “ownership” of experience. The Sutta-nipātadescribes the one who has managed this:
    “Sa sabbadhammesu visenibhūto,
    yaṁ kiñci diṭṭhaṁ va sutaṁ mutaṁ vā,
    sa pannabhāro muni vippayutto
    na kappiyo nūparato na patthiyo” ti Bhagavā ti. 
    [914 (1913:178)]

    ‘“He who has discarded all theories about anything seen or heard or conceived is a monk who is enlightened and liberated; there is no rule, no abstention, no desire for himself”, said the Lord.’
He is ‘disarmed’ (visenibhūta) with respect to all views based on what has been seen, heard, or conceived; he is liberated, has laid down his burden (pannabhāro, having, perhaps, “enlightened” his load!), and is without desire. There is no self to be concerned for.
What is the character of the impersonal viewpoint? In the Kālakārāma-sutta, transcendent experience is characterized quite comprehensively:
    Iti kho bhikkhave Tathāgato daṭṭhā [diṭṭhā in Burmese MSS] daṭṭhabbaṁ diṭṭhaṁ na maññati adiṭṭhaṁ na maññati daṭṭhabbaṁ na maññati daṭṭhāraṁ na maññati, sutvā sotabbaṁ sutaṁ na maññati asutaṁ na maññati sotabbaṁ na maññati sotāraṁ na maññati, mutvā motabbaṁ mutam [sic] na maññati amutaṁ na maññati mottabaṁ [sic] na maññati motāraṁ na maññati, viññātvā viññātabbaṁ viññātaṁ na maññati aviññātaṁ na maññati viññātabbaṁ na maññati viññātāraṁ na maññati. [Aṅguttara-nikāya 4:24 (Kālakārāma-sutta) (1888: II:25)]

    ‘Thus, O monks, the Tathāgata, having seen whatever is to be seen, does not conceive of what is seen; he does not conceive of what has not been seen; he does not conceive of that which must yet be seen; he does not conceive of anyone who sees. Having heard whatever is to be heard, he does not conceive of what is heard; he does not conceive of what has not been heard; he does not conceive of that which must yet be heard; he does not conceive of anyone who hears. Having felt whatever is to be felt, he does not conceive of what is felt; he does not conceive of what has not been felt; he does not conceive of that which must yet be felt; he does not conceive of anyone who feels. Having understood whatever is to be understood, he does not conceive of what is understood; he does not conceive of what has not been understood; he does not conceive of that which must yet be understood; he does not conceive of anyone who understands.’
Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s translation of this passage proves problematic. [1974:9-11] For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will make a neutral reconstruction of this passage using just the verb karoti ‘to do’ as an example, since it is first the construction which is in question. “Iti kho bhikkhave katvā kātabbaṁ kataṁ na maññati akataṁ na maññati kātabbaṁ na maññati kattaraṁ na maññati.”Ñāṇananda would translate this so: “A Tathāgata does not conceive of a thing to be done as apart from doing; he does not conceive of ‘an undone’; he does not conceive of a ‘thing-worth-doing’, he does not conceive about a doer.” This “thing to be done apart from doing” is offered by Ñāṇananda as an alternative to the sense given in Buddhaghosa’s Commentary to the Aṅguttara-nikāya, which, according to Ñāṇananda, takes the words

    ‘[katvā kātabbaṁ]’ in the text to mean ‘having [done], should be [done]’, and explains the following words ‘[kataṁna maññati’ as a separate phrase meaning that the Tathāgata does not entertain any cravings, conceits, or views, thinking: ‘I am [doing] that which has been [done] by the people’. It applies the same mode of explanation throughout. [1974:10 n.1]
(Buddhaghosa’s original reads

    Daṭṭhā daṭṭhabban ti disvā daṭṭhabbaṁ.
    Diṭṭhaṁ na maññatī
     ti taṁ diṭṭhaṁ rūpāyatanaṁ ahaṁ mahājanena diṭṭham eva passāmī ti taṇhāmānadiṭṭhīhi na maññati. [IV.iii.4 (1936: III:39)]

    ‘Daṭṭhā daṭṭhabbaṁ means “having seen what is to be seen”.
    Diṭṭhaṁ na maññati means “I see the thing seen which is even seen by the people”; one does not conceive {of it} by desires or conceits or opinions’ [i.e., he does not conceptualize about it].)
Ñāṇananda prefers to treat the formally ambiguous daṭṭhā/diṭṭhā as ablative of the past participle (so katā from kata) “giving the sense: ‘as apart from [doing]’; and, ‘[kātabbaṁ kataṁ]’ taken together, would mean ‘a [do-able] thing’.” He suggests that the absolutive forms sutvā, mutvā, and viññātvā are “probably a re-correction following the commentarial explanation”, and that the ablatives suttā, mutā, and viññātā evince the most correct reading. [Ñāṇananda 1974:10 n.1] I am not certain that his revision is necessary. F. L. Woodward’s translation seems to follow Buddhaghosa with respect to the verbs suṇāti, maññati, and vijānāti: “[Doing] what is to be [done], he has no conceit of what has been [done] or not [done] or is to be [done], he has no conceit of the [doer]”; but he readsdaṭṭhā as the nomen agentis: “[A] Tathāgata is a seer of what is seen, but he has no conceit of what is seen”. [1933:27] Following Buddhaghosa, I would suggest that “Tathāgato katvā kātabbaṁ kataṁ na maññati” etc. should read ‘Having done what is to be done, the Tathāgata does not conceive of what is done; he does not conceive of the undone; he does not conceive of that which must yet be done; he does not conceive of a doer’. ‘Conceive’ (maññati) here means ‘to make a concept of’. Important too is the translation here of kātabbaṁ. There is really no reason to suggest that Buddhaghosa would have the gerundive be taken in an obligatory sense ‘should be done’, or the valued (read judged!) sense of ‘a thing-worth-doing’, as Ñāṇananda has taken it. [1974:10-11, 10 n.1] The context does not require that the form be understood as a participium necessitatis, but only as a future passive participle. According to Manfred Mayrhofer, the meaning of the future passive participle “ist die des ‘in Zukunft getan werden müssenden’, ‘is that of “that which must yet be done”’. [1951:174] Ñāṇananda’s obligatory “should” is unnecessary, for the deed which “is to be done” comes about through the exigencies of causality. That the Tathāgata is beyond causality is not taken into consideration by the forms of Pāli grammar, but he is nonetheless certainly free from obligation and evaluation. The deeds of most individuals are causally effected, and the point of the text is that once a deed is done, the Tathāgata is no longer concerned with it, or with the deed undone, or the deed yet to do, or the doer. He is concerned only with the doing, and only in the moment in which it is done. It is fairly easy to see that Ñāṇananda’s “thing to be done as apart from doing” is an attempt at just such an understanding, though I think the textual revision of absolutive to ablative is unnecessary.
What is there, then? Just seeing, hearing, feeling, or understanding. There is no agent, no patient, no recipient, no locus: only the verb, the process, or rather, the proceeding. To be enlightened is not to be or to do any thing: it is only being, or doing. This is admittedly circular, and it is proverbial to any student of mysticism--and certainly recognized by the Buddhist tradition itself--that little can besaid which can give any real sense of what goes on in transformed consciousness. Buddhism offers nonetheless its own kind of description, always tending toward the practical, toward the causes which will bring about the Liberation itself: that is, toward the empiric. The path to Liberation is twofold: moving away from deluded action, and moving toward wise action.

It is all the more significant for its corollary that the entire process [of cause and effect] could be made to cease progressively by applying the proper means. Negatively put, the spiritual endeavor to end all suffering, is a process of ‘starving’ the conditions of their respective ‘nutriments’ (āhārā), as indicated by the latter half of the formula of Dependent Arising. However, there are enough instances in the Pāli Canon to show that it is quite legitimate to conceive this receding process too, positively as a progress in terms of wholesome mental states. [Ñāṇananda 1974:46-47]
The eradication of conceptualization and the cultivation of a dispassionate, impersonal observation is the key to Liberation. “Ever-becoming and ever-ceasing-to-be are endless action.... Ceaseless action is the Universe.” [Merrell-Wolff 1973:247] Since the being embodied must be a part of such action, his hope must be to loose himself from the bounds of causal action: he must seek Liberation. Perhaps it is not so ironic that in order to do so, he must realize that there is nothing but action; for then he is, so says the Buddha, free.


[1] I prefer here the reading of papañca as ‘obstruction’ or ‘hinderance’ to the commonly met with ‘obsession’. Here I follow Rhys Davies’ suggestion that papañca is at least semantically related to *papadya ‘what is in front of the feet’, where he compares Latinimpedimentum (though Sanskrit prapadya should give Pāli papajja). [Rhys Davies 1979:412] An obsession is an obstruction, but not all obstructions are obsessions. Cf. also above, in the passage taken from the Madhupiṇḍika-sutta, where papañceti is taken in its sense as derived from Sanskrit prapañcayati ‘to describe at length’, from prapañca ‘diversity’. Back to text.
[2] Robert Buswell has pointed out to me that Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda has arrived at the same conclusion. [Ñāṇananda 1971:31] Back to text.
[3] Without really trying to second-guess the Tathāgata, the argument here is simply that he might recognize a distinction in the semantics of aham asmi with respect to his own description of the Enlightenment, and that of the Vedāntists. (He would almost certainly reject the use of such metaphor for paedagogical purposes, however.) Jennings is right to point out that the Vedāntist schools and their concepts of, for example, māyā, contributed to the Buddha’s own teachings. [Jennings 1974:cix-cx] Certainly, it can be said that useful comparison can be made between the Buddhist and Vedāntist traditions if such semantic differences are reconciled. Fundamental unities are realized in the Buddhist tradition at least insofar as the alienation of attāand anattā are concerned (Cf. the remarks on bhavaṅga-sota above.). Back to text.


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