Buddhist Analysis: Words, Memory and Anger

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Question about Understanding Words

When we are, for instance, doing a meditation retreat in a Buddhist context and reciting mantras. Although we might recite it and we have some concept of the audio category of the sound of the mantra, we could have no idea to the meaning. So there’s no meaning category. Or we could memorize a religious scripture, whether we’re talking about memorizing the Quran in Arabic when we don’t know Arabic – let’s say a Turkish child – or we are memorizing Latin prayers in the Catholic Church, or Hebrew prayers in Judaism, or, for that matter, Tibetan prayers that Western Buddhists recite and we have no idea of what it means. Is there something special or holy from just the sound itself?

Well, we’d have to answer your question from the point of view of one or another philosophical tenet system within Buddhism, because we might have different versions here. Let’s use the most sophisticated system, since that’s what we usually use, what’s known as Madhyamaka Prasangika. There we would say that there is nothing on the side of the sound that by its own power makes it something holy and special. Being holy or special is mentally imputed on it; there’s a group of people that have agreed on this.

Even though everybody has agreed upon on it and there’s nothing on the side of the object, nevertheless the object could function in a special way; it could function as a holy object. So what would that mean? Well, being a holy and special object could be something that is inspiring, and that could be stronger if we are aware of all the people in the past who have recited these things and have experienced some beneficial results of it. I could have been told and believe that it has some special meaning – I don’t really know what it means, but I believe that it does – I have faith in that, and so then it could have positive effect on me. Well, then we can say, “Well, what if a parrot recites it? Is it going to have a special effect on the parrot?” And that’s more difficult.

But then we have to maybe go more into a specific example here, which would be mantras; that’s different from reciting a so-called holy text. Mantras are a… And here we’re not talking about every mantra, but especially one specific type of mantra here, which is OM AH HUM. This has a special effect of shaping the winds or the breath. And so if we can integrate the whole breathing process with this mantra… (There is a special practice which is done like that, and there are many different versions of it. But in-breath with one of the three syllables, holding the breath with one of them, and exhaling with one of them.) …if you can integrate, make those inseparable, and if we have absolute perfect concentration of course, then it helps us to gain control over these energies that are associated with the breath and to be able to centralize them and get to more and more subtle levels. So even if we have no idea what it means. And then of course there’s the whole function having to do with rhythm. If what we’re reciting has a certain type of rhythm, it could induce a certain type of brain waves in association with that rhythm; we wouldn’t necessarily have to know anything of what it means.

So there are many variants of what could be taking place here. You can even think of examples of music. If you’re singing something and it has a certain rhythm, a certain… whatever. It’s associated with music. We don’t have to understand the words, and yet it has an effect on us, doesn’t it? It can change your mood.

So really what we’re talking about here is the influence of sound on our emotional states or mental states, and it does have an effect. But holy? That’s really a concept that people decide upon, isn’t it?

Question about Memory

There are some people who remember everything in their life, and this is very disturbing. And then there are others that have Alzheimer’s and can't remember anything. How would we explain this from a Buddhist point of view?

The person who remembers everything in their life… It’s a little bit hard to imagine playing simultaneously every single moment of your life when we’re talking about millions and millions of moments, to have it all going simultaneously. That I seriously question. You see, the problem here is even if we could remember everything one at a time, one after another, or whatever, the problem is: is that a problem for us? This is the issue. Is that a problem for us or not? For a Buddha, a Buddha can remember, as he says, the past lives (which means not just the life but everything they’ve experienced) of everything – of himself and of everybody else. And in the case of a Buddha, he can do all of that simultaneously. So it’s not a problem for a Buddha. Or my teacher, when he was in his late sixties – Serkong Rinpoche – once said to me, “I remember everything that I’ve ever studied in my life. Don’t you?” So obviously if we could do that, in that sort of clarity, that would be wonderful. It would be great if I could remember my high school algebra; I don’t remember that, do you?

The problem is that our mindfulness is at fault. If our mindfulness is correct, then we can have control over it – I can remember or I can let go. So this woman has the fault that she can’t not remember something when she doesn’t want to remember it; that’s the fault of the mindfulness. It is similar to, I think, what we have all experienced, which is you can’t get a song out of your head. That’s a real torture. It just goes on and on, and you cannot stop being mindful of it. Right? So that’s the fault in the mindfulness. If we had perfect control over our mindfulness, you could say, “Stop! Finished.” That’s why we train in meditation to concentrate, to bring our attention back to a focal object.

Have you ever had the experience of you want to go to sleep and you’re lying there and your mind keeps on going and going, thinking and thinking? Maybe sometimes you’ve experienced that occasionally. It’s the same problem. To have control over that, in which you just say, “OK, stop thinking,” and just be absolutely quiet – if you’re able to do that, you’ll find that you fall asleep very, very quickly. That’s the whole trick. “I can’t fall asleep.” “Well, just stop thinking.” “Thank you very much.”

Also what I’m reminded of in this first part of your question is someone who’s autistic. When you’re autistic then the problem is you have no filter. So all the sense information – everything is going on and you can’t filter. We do have this defense mechanism, sort of almost an evolutionary thing, to be able to filter certain things out. When you’re autistic, the filter is at fault. But the problem is that we’re not able to process and digest that information that comes in. The problem isn’t that there’s too much information; the problem is that we’re not able to handle it.

A Buddha is able to handle all of that. You want to get all the information from all the senses and all the details, and a Buddha is aware of all of it. The mind is capable of that; it’s just that we’re not trained well enough to be able to understand and have equal attention and process all of this information. So again, the problem is not all the information; the problem is how we’re able to deal with it.

So we also need to have filters in terms of thoughts. This woman in your example doesn’t have any filter in terms of the memories. It’s a specific type of autism. Like somebody who has post-trauma distress syndrome, that they keep on remembering some horrible, violent thing that happened; they’re not able to filter it out. This is another type of example.

There’s another sickness, Tourette’s syndrome, in which you have no filter over what you say. This has to do with the mental factor of discriminating awareness, to discriminate what’s helpful, what’s unhelpful, what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate. There’s something at fault with that mental factor. And then discipline, to be able to discipline what we say or what we think or what we do. Discipline is a restraint, a mental restraint, from what we consider inappropriate.

Now in terms of Alzheimer’s, basically... Remember we had all this analysis of the different types of causes and conditions? And so a simultaneously arising cause of remembering something is things having to do with the brain and the whole nervous system – neurons and so on in the brain, and the connections – that’s arising simultaneously with remembering something. And these simultaneously arising causes – if one isn’t happening, the other isn’t happening. So if there’s a fault in the neuron connections in the brain then you’re not remembering. So it’s a condition; a necessary type of cause is not there. That’s the problem with Alzheimer’s. So is there still a tendency to remember something, like remembering somebody’s name? Well, maybe not in this lifetime. But from a Buddhist point of view, maybe in a future lifetime you could remember, when you have better neural connections, better hardware.

That’s quite different from having a true stopping. If we have gotten rid of all the causes for anger ever to arise again, then you can’t say that I still have a tendency to get angry. True stopping. Third noble truth. When you have a true stopping of anger, then it’s never going to arise again. In another words, we’ve gotten rid of anything that could possibly support and trigger and bring up anger. So when it’s no longer possible to get angry, you can’t say that you still have a tendency to get angry – a presently-happening one, right? (You have ) a no-longer-happening one. Before, I had one; but that’s no longer the case.

A tendency can only be imputed when there are past instances and there’s a possibility for future instances. A tendency is a way of connecting these two points. If there can no longer be a future point, a future instance, then you can’t have a tendency. A tendency has to connect a past instance with a future one; it’s a way of putting it together.

Question about Anger

Can anger have two sides to it, one positive and one negative? For example the nurse Florence Nightingale was very angry about the fact that a lot of people were suffering and that incited her to help many people.

Well yes, it can. You gave the example of Florence Nightingale being so angry that people were suffering that she went and did something about it. So anger could incite us to hurt somebody, or anger at the injustice of the situation could incite us to help others. That’s true.

There are many disturbing emotions that could go in a positive or a negative type of way. Attachment to somebody: because I’m so attached, I will help you, for instance. It doesn’t mean I’m so attached that I’m going to hang on to my children and stop them from ever leaving home, or something like that. So of course it’s more beneficial if we have these disturbing emotions to try to at least use them to motivate us to do positive things. But the trouble with these disturbing emotions is indicated by the definition of a disturbing emotion. A disturbing emotion is a state of mind that when it occurs, when it arises, it makes us lose peace of mind and lose self-control and, as the result of that, we don’t really think rationally about what we’re doing. We’re moved by emotion, we would say. “I’m so upset at the injustice in the world, I’m going to go out and do something.” But my mind isn’t calm and I don’t really have self-control, because I might just do something impulsively, without really thinking about it. So in fact I might do something that’s more harmful than good.

So now we get into our analysis of karma. (You see, this is wonderful about Buddhism. If you’ve studied it for long enough and digested this incredible analytical system that we have in Buddhism, then you can bring all the different pieces and use it in an analysis. So that’s why it is important not to get discouraged. Be patient. All the little pieces are useful.) In the discussion of karma, we differentiate between the causal motivation and the contemporaneous motivation. When we talk about motivation in Buddhism, it has two aspects to it. One is the intention, what we’re aiming to do and (the other is) the emotion that goes with it, that drives us towards that.

So our example of Florence Nightingale. Her intention is to help others, medically. The causal motivation that gets her started in that direction could be anger at the injustice, how horrible it is. But the contemporaneous motivation is the emotion that she’s feeling when she actually starts to help others and while she’s helping them. If at that time she’s angry, she’s likely to make a mistake. At that time, it would be much better if she had compassion and love, rather than anger, as the emotion accompanying what she’s doing. So anger, attachment, etc., can be helpful as a causal motivation – gets us going in that direction – but not very helpful as a contemporaneous motivation. Not helpful. Our main aim would be, in this example of Florence Nightingdale, to help others. That’s our intention, our aim.