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 of 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 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. What would that mean? 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. We could have been told and believe that it has some special meaning; we don’t really know what it means, but we believe that it does. We have faith in that, so then it could have a positive effect on us. Well, then we can say, “What if a parrot recites it? Is it going to have a special effect on the parrot?” That’s more difficult. 

Maybe we have to go more into a specific example here, which would be mantras; that’s different from reciting a so-called holy text. Here we’re not talking about every mantra, but especially one specific type of mantra, which is OM AH HUM. This has a special effect of shaping the winds or the breath. If we can integrate the whole breathing process with this mantra… There is a special practice that is done like that, and there are many different versions of it. It’s in-breath with one of the three syllables, holding the breath with one of them, and exhaling with one of them. If we can integrate, make those sounds inseparable with our breathing, 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, even if we have no idea what the syllables means. 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 certain types of brain waves in association with that rhythm; we wouldn’t necessarily have to know anything of what it means. 

There are many variants of what could be taking place here. We can even think of examples of music. If we’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 our mood. 

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. 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 our life when we’re talking about millions and millions of moments, to have them all going simultaneously. That, I seriously question. The problem here is even if we could remember everything one at a time, one after another, or whatever, the question 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 the past lives (which means not just the life but everything they’ve experienced) – of himself and everybody else. In the case of a Buddha, he can do all of that simultaneously. It’s not a problem for a Buddha. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, when he was in his late sixties once said to me, “I remember everything that I’ve ever studied in my life. Don’t you?” Obviously, if we could do that, with 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; we can remember or we can let go. 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 we can’t get a song out of our head. That’s real torture. It just goes on and on, and we cannot stop being mindful of it, right? That’s the fault of the mindfulness. If we had perfect control over our mindfulness, we 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 wanting to go to sleep, you’re lying there, and your mind keeps on going and going, thinking and thinking? It’s the same problem. To have control over that, in which we just say, “OK, stop thinking,” and just be absolutely quiet, if we’re able to do that, we’ll find that we 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 we’re autistic, then the problem is we have no filter. All the sense information – everything is going on, and we can’t filter. We do have this defense mechanism, sort of almost an evolutionary thing, to be able to filter certain things out. When we’re autistic, the filter is at fault. However, the problem is that we’re not able to process and digest the 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. We 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. Again, the problem is not all the information; the problem is how we’re able to deal with it. 

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. It’s like somebody who has post-traumatic stress syndrome, and 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 we have no filter over what we 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? 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 are arising simultaneously with remembering something. These simultaneously arising causes, if one isn’t happening, the other isn’t happening. If there’s a fault in the neuron connections in the brain, then we’re not remembering. It’s a condition; a necessary type of cause is not there. That’s the problem with Alzheimer’s. Is there still a tendency to remember something, like remembering people’s names? Well, maybe not in this lifetime anymore. However, from a Buddhist point of view, maybe in a future lifetime, we can remember when we 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 we can’t say that we still have a tendency to get angry. That’s a true stopping, the third noble truth. When we have a true stopping of anger, then it’s never going to arise again. In other words, we’ve gotten rid of anything that could possibly support and trigger and bring up anger. When it’s no longer possible to get angry, we can’t say that we still have a tendency to get angry – a presently-happening one, right? We have a no-longer-happening one. Before, we 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 we can’t still 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. 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. For example, attachment to somebody. Because we’re so attached, we will help you, for instance. It doesn’t mean we’re so attached that we’re going to hang on to our children and stop them from ever leaving home, or something like that. 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. However, 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 self-control, and as a 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 about the injustice in the world. I’m going to go out and do something.” However, our mind isn’t calm, and we don’t really have self-control, because we might just do something impulsively, without really thinking about it. In fact, we might do something that’s more harmful than good.

Now, we get into our analysis of karma. You see, this is wonderful about Buddhism. If we’ve studied it for long enough and digested this incredible analytical system that we have in Buddhism, then we can bring in all the different pieces and use them in an analysis. 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 toward that. 

In 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. Nonetheless, 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. Anger, attachment, etc., can be helpful as a causal motivation – gets us going in that direction – but not very helpful as a contemporaneous motivation. That’s not helpful. Our main aim would be, in this example of Florence Nightingale, to help others. That’s our intention, our aim.