Our Love in the Forest of Sense Impressions

2500 years lie between us and Buddha Gotama, but even though the historical and cultural gap seems so unbridgeable
to our intellect, it is moments like the following that remind us of the eternal presence of the Dhamma – not as a religious doctrine – but a simple yet profound description of reality:

‘‘Atha kho, bhikkhave, tassa purisassa evamassa – ‘ahaṃ kho amussā itthiyā sāratto paṭibaddhacitto tibbacchando tibbāpekkho. Tassa me amuṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ uppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā. Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yo me amussā itthiyā chandarāgo taṃ pajaheyyan’ti.

So yo amussā itthiyā chandarāgo taṃ pajaheyya. So taṃ itthiṃ passeyya aparena samayena aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ. Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, api nu tassa purisassa amuṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ uppajjeyyuṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā’’ti?

‘‘No hetaṃ, bhante’’. ‘‘Taṃ kissa hetu’’? ‘‘Amu hi, bhante, puriso amussā itthiyā virāgo. Tasmā taṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ na uppajjeyyuṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā’’ti.

Suppose that a man is in love with a woman, his mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion. He sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing. What do you think, monks: As he sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise in him?”

“Yes, lord. Why is that? Because he is in love with her, his mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion…”

“Now suppose the thought were to occur to him, ‘I am in love with this woman, my mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion. When I see her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, then sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise within me. Why don’t I abandon my desire & passion for that woman?’ So he abandons his desire & passion for that woman, and afterwards sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing. What do you think, monks: As he sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise in him?”

“No, lord. Why is that? He is dispassionate toward that woman…”

MN [en] [pi]

Many, many years ago, when I read through the Majjhima Nikaya the first time (in this life  🙂 ) I remember that I was struck by the simplicity yet profound implications of this particular passage. Obviously, there is probably no one on this planet who cannot relate to the context or simile which the Buddha turns into a tool for insight.

The simile of the “love lost” tries to explain that something very very similar is at the heart of all our suffering – at the very heart of the mystery of life.

For one it is very easy to translate this passage into any contemporary language. The situation is so universal that it is quite easy to transfer it into our own modern world – or any future. At the same time there are at least three fundamental terms which the Buddha uses in this simile, concepts which the Buddha also applies to much more profound parts of his teaching. So in a certain sense, we are looking at (one) Rosetta stone of the Buddha’s Dhamma – allowing us to breath the same air (so to speak) as Indian people 2500 years ago sitting in front of the Buddha. This in itself is remarkable. We know possess a “can opener” to unravel some of the deeper implications of his Dhamma by embracing the spirit of this simile and applying it to other passages where we see the Buddha use the exact same vocabulary to describe phenomena which usually escape us or – which we cannot experientally understand and therefore tend to view as philosophical expression or metaphysical descriptions.

So, let’s have a closer look at this. What happens in us / with us, when we are successful in loosing interest in a girl/man of the opposite sex? What do we have to do in order to achieve such a dispassion about that person? What takes place when we do see the other person and now react in a different way?

This is an invitation, obviously, for deep introspection…

For this simile to have any effect on you, you have to visualize the process the Buddha is talking about. Put yourself in the place of that person. First, when overcome with affection, later when he decided to not care anymore, how does his mind-set changes when he sees her again?

I recommend you do this a couple of times and then, from one moment to the other, now you look at the six senses in exactly the same way…try to apply the simile and see what you feel or what happens…

If we can unravel this, then, and this is the crucial point, then why not apply the same to something which until now we have embraced with even stronger ties of love: all forms, all feelings, all perceptions, all mental activities, all (re)cognition. To all sights, sounds, smell, taste, touch and thoughts?

At this point, I would like to move your attention to a second very powerful and by no means new simile with which the Buddha used to express a very similar thought/reflection. Maybe we can connect the dots…

‘‘Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, yaṃ imasmiṃ jetavane tiṇakaṭṭhasākhāpalāsaṃ taṃ jano hareyya vā ḍaheyya vā yathāpaccayaṃ vā kareyya.

Api nu tumhākaṃ evamassa – ‘amhe jano harati vā ḍahati vā yathāpaccayaṃ vā karotī’’’ti?

‘‘No hetaṃ, bhante’’. ‘‘Taṃ kissa hetu’’? ‘‘Na hi no etaṃ, bhante, attā vā attaniyaṃ vā’’ti. ‘‘Evameva kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ na tumhākaṃ, taṃ pajahatha.

Taṃ vo pahīnaṃ hitāya sukhāya bhavissati.

were to gather or burn or do as he likes with the grass, twigs, branches, & leaves here in ‘s Grove. Would the thought occur to you, ‘It’s us that this person is gathering, burning, or doing with as he likes’?”

“No, lord. Why is that? Because those things are not our self nor are they like our self.”

“In the same way, monks, the forms are not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit… The sounds… The smell… The taste… The touch… The thoughts are not yours: let go of them. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit…

SN. 35. 101. [en]

Please do not just read over this simile. I would suggest that you visualize this particular scenario. Just give it a few minutes and think it through. Make yourself believe to be the firewood, being carried away, without control over yourself. How silly that thought might be. Just picture it. Someone comes and picks you up. They break you in half, they take you to a fire, they throw you into the fire, there is nothing you can do.

Oh, yes, we forgot: Of course we would never identify ourselves with branches and twigs lying around in the forest. Especially not if we see someone else take them up and carry around. But yet, that is exactly what we do (or rather: what is taking place) with regard to forms, feelings, perceptions, mental activities and cognition. One six-sense-impression moment after the other.

Now, at least theoretically knowing what needs to be done, we “only” have to turn this advise of the Buddha into reality. Luckily, the Buddha does have quite a lot to say about how this can be done – practically –  and in many instances using similarly powerful similes thus mapping out the entire path for us. What a beautiful simple yet clear path through the forest of experiences. Let’s go 🙂 …

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