1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
7. Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower the man who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated. 1
8. Just as a storm cannot prevail against a rocky mountain, so Mara can never overpower the man who lives meditating on the impurities, who is controlled in his senses, moderate in eating, and filled with faith and earnest effort. 2
19. Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others â€” he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.
20. Little though he recites the sacred texts, but puts the Teaching into practice, forsaking lust, hatred, and delusion, with true wisdom and emancipated mind, clinging to nothing of this or any other world â€” he indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.
Today I'd like to continue thinking about this sutra, beginning with vss. 7-8. It seems to me these verses contain instructions of what to do about the seed of craving.
Craving is a very basic concern in Buddhism. It's one of the main sources of suffering, but it's not altogether a bad thing. After all, craving evolved as a set of useful signals. If we don't eat and drink, for instance, we die. If we don't reproduce, the species dies. To prevent that from happening, we have signals like hunger, thirst, and sexual urges. Also, we have satiation signals to turn off hunger, thirst and sexual urges.
But humans, unlike wild animals, can easily get addicted to the sense of satiation. Maybe that's the difference between craving and simple hunger, thirst, sexual urge. We eat a big meal and we feel GREAT! So we want to repeat that experience as often as possible.
In addition, modern advertising is in the business of watering the seeds of craving in a way that is really unprecedented in human history. We have very poor evolved defenses against the onslaught of images and messages that tell us to eat! drink! meet interesting and beautiful people on the computer! (wink, wink.)
I think verse 7 perfectly states the problem with craving, from a Buddhist perspective:Â If you allow craving to get the upper hand, you make yourself weak. Also, you set up a vicious cycle. The more you give in to craving, the stronger that craving becomes. By attempting to satisfy all your cravings, you are in fact watering the seed of craving and making it stronger and stronger.
I am sorry to say that I think this verse could also be applied to American culture. We seem to believe that we MUST be ruled by our cravings. Where we used to believe in hard work and sacrifice for our families and communities, we now believe in non-stop consuming. This is supposed to make our economy strong, but in fact, we are growing weaker and less capable of doing anything... other than arousing further craving.
This has to be one of the most basic insights in Buddhist thought. I am sometimes amazed, and a little reassured, that the problem existed 2500 years ago, just as it does today. If we made it through those 2500 years, I have some reason to believe we can make it through today's swamp of craving.
Paired with verse 7, verse 8 offers the solution to the dilemma of craving: moderation. Of course, this was something the Buddha himself discovered the hard way, according to the stories about his life. He was raised in a situation of wealth and ease, and in fact, his father tried to keep him not only from knowing suffering personally, but even from knowing that suffering exists. When he discovered the existence of suffering, his life of ease seemed worthless, so he went to the other extreme. He starved himself and abused his body in every way in a quest to find enlightenment. When he realized that his ascetic practices were killing him, he saw that neither extreme of indulgence of denial was effective. He decided to try moderation.
Eventually, it seems he got pretty good at it, lol.
OK, so my working assumption is that this sutra is organized not as counsels of perfections, but as a series of warnings paired with quite specific instructions for preventing or curing the problem described. What, in verse 8, is instructive?
Well, the first thing recommended is "meditating on the impurities", which the notes helpfully explain means thinking about disgusting things to avoid lust. I believe I've read that corpses may have been involved. Personally, I'm not a big fan of corpses.
But when you think about it, this is a little like the earlier suggestion of remembering that everyone has to die. Basically, I think that the lesson might have been, yes, if we don't eat and drink we die. But if we spend our whole lives eating and drinking, we STILL die. The signal of satiation says, "Good! Now you won't die!" but in an ultimate sense, that's a lie.
Maybe the villains are our selfish genes, as described by Richard Dawkins. Our genes want to continue into the next generation. So they have rigged the game to get us to do things that make that happen. We get hungry, and if we eat, we get soothed. Our genes try to convince us that we've staved off death, but really, we've just pushed it back a little. Maybe long enough for our genes to get out into the next generation, y'see? Our genes don't care if we die, just that THEY don't die. That's why they're selfish.
Because we are humans, we can see beyond the smoke and mirrors of our impulses -- if we try. That's what "meditating on the impurities" is about: the first step in dealing with any problem is always seeing clearly the problem and the nature of the problem. It's a huge element of Buddhist theory and practice.
So this verse is sort of a road map for solving the problem of craving. First, recognize the situation and understand its nature. Then, adopt moderation as a way of life. And finally...Â aaaah, we get to the problematic part, lol.
In order to "stick to" moderation in the face of cravings, we need more than good intentions. We need, according to the sutra, faith and earnest effort. OK, earnest effort is a given, but faith is, well, a fraught term.
A lot of Buddhist texts use faith pretty much the same way Christians do. I was at a Shin Buddhist church (that's what they call it) on New Year's Eve, and they seem to pretty much expect Amida Buddha to pull them through. They were really nice people, I gotta say. But that ain't my style of Buddhism. I'm not looking for a god / worshipper relationship. I'm more in the market to (forgive me, Rambam) a guide to the perpelexed.
I'm going to leave this at this point for today, and consider the question of faith along with the next two verses tomorrow.