Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice

Well I definitely don’t think anyone could understand Buddhism through the existentialists. :grin:

But I do agree that existentialism could bring someone to Buddhism. For sure. I think it’s very brave to toss out a creative piece of work that much time was invested into for critique. I hope he gets good critique and he knows to just listen and say thank you, and then put what he finds productive and useful from the critiques back into refinement, expansion, revision, etcetera, etcetera of his work.

As for the possible reach of @keller 's book, let me be existential about it for a moment: the message will find its hearer.

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I agree, but I would say that Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s “Notes on Dhamma” is a little more friendly than some of his letters and whatnot, of which I am no expert.

This is kind of the point of a project I am working on, though. I would like to re-iterate with the suttas some of the major points made by Ñāṇavīra Thera. He is great for some people, but not so much for others who are not as familiar or willing to get into Western philosophers (myself being someone with much less knowledge of them). Reframing the core of his insights with the EBTs and more friendly examples can be really helpful, as well as clearing up some of the potential errors and details that drive people to readily dismiss the whole thing.

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I am about half way through your book and find it an interesting read. One question however: are you aware of another monk who investigated the path you are treading in an elaborate way? Namely, Keiji Nishitani. I bring this up as he is not mentioned nor referenced anywhere so far and, though I have not finished your book, I see he is not included in your bibliography.

Maybe you know of him but because he is more associated with Zen, you (might) find this unalluring? Suffice it to say that his two books are no walk in the park (considering the same topics that you discuss in your book). Also not nothing that he both studied with and wrote about Heidegger quite a bit.

Religion and Nothingness

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Religion and Nothingness Religion and Nothingness.jpg200x308

Cover of the English translation
Author Keiji Nishitani
Original title 宗教とは何か (Shūkyō to wa Nanika), “What is religion?”
Translator Jan Van Bragt
Country Japan
Language Japanese
Subject Nihilism
Published * 1961 (in Japanese)

Religion and Nothingness (Japanese: Shūkyō to wa Nanika; the original title translates literally as “What is Religion?”) is a 1961 book about nihilism by the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani.[1] The book was published in English translation in 1982, and received positive reviews, commending Nishitani for his understanding of both western and eastern philosophy. The appearance of the English translation increased interest in Nishitani’s ideas among philosophers.

Contents

Publication history[edit]

The English translation of Religion and Nothingness, by the philosopher Jan Van Bragt, was first published in 1982 by University of California Press.[2][3]

Reception[edit]

According to Ruben L. F. Habito, the appearance of Religion and Nothingness in English translation in 1982 led to increasing interest in Nishitani’s ideas among philosophers, theologians, and religious scholars.[1] Graham Parkes described the book as Nishitani’s masterwork, writing that in it Nishitani achieved a philosophical synthesis that matches the achievements of the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger in depth of insight.[4]

The book received positive reviews from Donald L. Smith in Library Journal and J. N. Gray in The Times Literary Supplement.[5][6]

Smith wrote that Nishitani “presents a subtle philosophical analysis of reality and a lively argument for resolving problems of being in terms of certain metaphysical principles of Zen Buddhism.” Smith called the book “profound yet clearly written”, and credited Nishitani with “erudite wisdom and understanding of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions.”[5] Gray wrote that Nishitani “achieves a remarkable cross-fertilization of the most profound and radical elements in Eastern and Western philosophy and spiritual experience”, and that the book “will have the utmost value for all those who see in contemporary Western philosophy the unresolved issue of nihilism, and who are prepared to entertain the supposition that thought emerging from a tradition in which the experience of Nothingness was not threatening, and rather a benediction, may have something to teach us.”[6]

The book was also reviewed by Philip Blosser in Research in Phenomenology,[7] the theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer in Journal of the American Academy of Religion,[8] the Buddhist studies scholar Bernard Faure in The Journal of Asian Studies,[9] Thomas P. Kasulis in The Journal of Religion,[10] and Richard H. Drummond in Journal of Ecumenical Studies.[11] James L. Fredericks wrote in The Journal of Religion that Religion and Nothingness appeals to “a broad theologically or philosophically oriented readership.”[12]

I had heard of the Kyoto school prior to writing my book but, from my very brief investigations, it did not appear to me that their work had any value with respect to actually resolving nihilism. Indeed, in Chapter 3 I point to D.T. Suzuki as an example of how, through later Mahayana metaphysical ideas, strands of Japanese Zen in particular have often veered explicitly into ontological nihilism and, subsequently, ethical nihilism.

To contrast with the Western idea of nihility as the absence of meaning Nishitani’s Śūnyatā relates to the acceptance of anatta , one of the three Right Understandings in the Noble Eightfold Path and the rejection of the ego in order to recognize the Pratītyasamutpāda, to be one with everything. Stating: “All things that are in the world are linked together, one way or the other. Not a single thing comes into being without some relationship to every other thing.”

In Chapter 5 I identify Buddhism being theologically pulled back into Brahmanical monism as perhaps the most consistent and ubiquitous forms of corruption the Dhamma has sustained across time and throughout space. The above quote from the wikipedia article quite clearly displays the monistic tendencies of the Mahayana that are apparently also present in Nishitani’s thought. I further argue in Chapter 5 that monism as a doctrine is both nihilistic and trivial. Monism simply puts a romantic window dressing on the problem of nihilism; it does not truly resolve it in any meaningful way.

So you were right to guess that I did not bring the Kyoto school into my book because they were Mahayana, but that exclusion was for very specific reasons rather than immature sectarianism. However, a book with a name like Religion and Nothingness is still quite alluring…I’ll give it a look.

Well, in Nishitani’s perspective “resolving Nihilism” is the whole point of his book. Furthermore, you may not be enamored by perennialism (to not say that you are rather averse to it) but Nishitani is not apologetic of some kind of airy fairy New Age syncretism. His books are well researched and no easy read.

Considering the time and effort you put into the subject of nihilism, I would think his books would certainly interest you.

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To take my dismissal of Mahayana to an even more fundamental place, my position is that there is no resolution of nihilism without the abandonment of sensuality. Given that emphasis on such an abandonment is so conspicuously absent from so much of the Buddhist world and especially from the Mahayana, I am skeptical that Nishitani actually succeeds in his efforts to resolve nihilism. Looking at the table of contents of Religion and Nothingness on the Google Books preview, it is unsurprising to see that in the chapter headings there is much emphasis given to the concept of Sunyata but no mention of asceticism.

It is quite natural that asceticism was the first thing chucked out the window as the Dhamma was metabolized into the religion that became Buddhism, but it is also the greatest shame…

I’ll take this in a different direction while addressing your last point.

Though I know this reply is probably futile – in that confronting another’s cognitive bias only results in an even greater hardening of the other person’s position (of which everyone is included) – Ramana Maharshi was of the most extreme ascetics to have lived in recent times. (He literally lived in caves for years with bugs eating away at his flesh and yet remained unmoveable). Though much of what is written about him from the most popular Western biographers are often riddled with misunderstandings and misinterpretations, when one knows where to look for his original teachings (such as the translations and writings of Michael James, for English speakers), one will find an outlook so radical that austerity and asceticism are but baby steps or partial means.

Though I have studied both Buddhism (à la Sujato, after Thanissaro and others) and Vedanta for the past thirty years, in different periods of course, I found both to be rather incomplete. Of course, this my personal experience and the purpose here is not to start (as I mentioned above) a foreseeable futile debate. Suffice it to say that many ways can seem to make sense…until they don’t. But though someone like Ramana would be thrown in with the Vedantins, his personal experience and teachings are so exacting as to make it a distinct teaching. Yet, as said, more ascetic than he is hard to find.

All this to say that ascetism or the relinquishing of craving (beautifully detailed in the first chapter of your book… or the mad whirlwind of our contemporary world) is not the sole purview of the Buddha. Strangely enough, though I am not in the slight attracted to any sort of eclecticism or syncretism, there might be more in common between the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi than meets the eye.

You may find my response, albeit indirectly, to the ultimate efficacy of self-inquiry or any other spiritually-justified notions of self whatsoever in Chapter 4.

Oh, I think there are plenty of examples of extreme asceticism in Mahayana.

In Japan, during the Heian (794-1185), followers of Pureland used to self-immolate on Mt. Amidagamine in Kyoto. This practice originated in China, apparently. There’s a whole book on it.

Japan is famous for its mummified saints …

… and, when I was living in Nagasaki prefecture, I came across Obaku Zen, which developed out of the the Huangbo lineage in China during the Ming, I do believe. Its practitioners are well known for burning off a finger as an offering to the Buddha, copying sutras in their own blood (kessho 血書) and sealed confinement (sanro 参籠), among other things.

These practices were outlawed in Japan in the late 1800s, which I think is a good thing.

You are right; I was certainly painting with too much of a broad brush to associate the entirety of Mahayana with sensual indulgence. At the very least I should have made more effort to disambiguate between the dichotomy of asceticism/indulgence and the true abandonment of sensuality: the Middle Way that the Buddha expounded. In the book I focus heavily on promoting asceticism because of the utterly abundant environment of pleasure modern people are enmeshed within, but there is an important distinction to be made between simply refraining from indulging in pleasure and going to the other extreme of engaging in self-mortification. Asceticism without Right View will always ultimately be simply another way of expressing and thereby being trapped within sensuality.

It is equally deluded to believe that Awakening is possible without being celibate as it is to believe that walking across China doing a full prostration every three steps or fasting for a week while banging a drum and chanting “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” over and over again has anything to do with what the Buddha taught.

As you so astutely say in Chapter Two, it all really boils down to faith (in or against whatever): “As I said before, I am not interested in or even capable of justifying the Dhamma in any fundamental, final way. There is no way to justify the pursuit of putting a final end to suffering. The Buddha never even tried to justify such a thing. Either you believe such a project is worthy of your time, or you do not. It, like any other speculative enterprise, inevitably just requires a bit of faith going in.”

I won’t keep ranting on for pages on the isuue but I am well aware of the usual problems of reification and the other problems related to getting stuck in a philosophical/intellectual trap. But since I am taking the time to read your book – and frankly, can see where you are headed because of a cursory appreciation of Buddhism – you (and other interested readers) might take the time to read this blog post by Michael James which goes into the details of the question of nothingness, the void, anatta, self (and not ‘the Self’) .

In the end, it inevitably boils down to a question of interpretation, a question I have banged my head with for the past 50 years. Maybe Buddhism attracts and successfully cuts down dukkha to a considerable extent for some. But the same can be said for other paths. As John Horgan says, maybe it all comes down to a question of taste. This is obviously oversimplifying the problem and yet what works for one does not necessarily work for another (and vice versa). This will never resolve which path is the ‘final truth’ but I doubt some God will ever come down from the clouds to spell it clearly out for us.

Ramana Maharshi also taught self enquiry as a raft to be discarded once ajata vada was finally understood as a living reality (not an intellectual concept to be clung to). Yet he never taught ajata vada other than point to it, because it can’t be taught. Self enquiry was only the raft.

“There is neither creation nor destruction
Neither destiny nor free will
Neither path nor achievement”

                                                            Ramana Maharshi

Self-knowledge is not a void (śūnya)

In a comment on one of my recent articles, The term nirviśēṣa or ‘featureless’ denotes an absolute experience but can be comprehended conceptually only in a relative sense, a friend called Bob asked several questions concerning the idea of a void, blank or nothingness and expressed his fear of such an idea. He started by asking why all we can now remember about what we experienced in deep sleep is a blank, or rather why we cannot remember anything at all except that we existed, and he suggested, ‘Is this because the illusory dualistic knowing consciousness [our mind or ego] cannot conceive the real non-dual being consciousness[?]’. He then went on to say, ‘I would be lying to you if I said that surrendering myself […] isn’t scary. It is very scary as I am scared of dissolving into the unknown. It is like letting go of the cliff and falling into nothingness, the complete unknown … the cold empty void’, but then asked, ‘is it more accurate to say that myself as I really am, the infinite non dual being consciousness that experiences everything as itself, is not a mere blank void or cold nothingness but is just a reality completely beyond the conceptualisation of my limited dualistic egoic mind[?]’, and added, ‘This seems to make letting go less scary as I am not falling into a cold empty void at all’.

To clarify what he was trying to express he also asked several other questions such as ‘is it right to say the non-dual infinite being consciousness is not a blank void of nothingness, it is just a reality beyond what the limited mind can understand so it appears a blank when tried to be recollected from the illusory dualistic waking state[?]’ and ‘is it right to say when I experience myself as I really am with perfect clarity of self-awareness this previous seeming blank empty nothingness / void I once linked to deep sleep will now be the one true reality as waking & dream would have dissolved into it and the deep sleep state will now be all there ever was / has been[?] The veil of lack of clarity would have been lifted for ever’, before finally expressing his hope that ‘this once seeming cold empty blank void perception of the deep sleep state will not be so but in contrast it will be a reality of pure bliss … pure happiness of being where I experience everything as myself … it won’t be cold empty void at all’.

This article is therefore an attempt to reassure Bob that the experience of true self-knowledge is not as scary as it may seem, and that it is something way beyond any idea that our finite mind may have of it.

  1. The void, blank and nothingness are just ideas

  2. The meaning of śūnya and śūnyatā

  3. We are not śūnya in the sense of non-existent or nothing

  4. Upadēśa Undiyār verse 23: what exists (uḷḷadu) is what is aware (uṇarvu)

  5. Emptiness requires the existence of something that is empty

  6. Suñña Lōka Suttaṁ: the world is ‘empty of oneself or of anything belonging to oneself’

  7. What did Buddha mean by anattā?

  8. Upadēśa Undiyār verse 28: the real nature of ourself

  9. We are fullness, not a void, because nothing other than ourself actually exists

  10. Ēkāṉma Pañcakam verse 5: what exists always by its own light is only ourself

  11. Upadēśa Undiyār verse 27: we are devoid of knowledge and ignorance

  12. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 10: knowing the non-existence of the ego is true knowledge

  13. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 11: knowing anything other than oneself is ignorance

  14. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 12: we are not a void, though devoid of knowledge and ignorance

  15. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 31: when our ego is destroyed, we will not know anything other than ourself

  16. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 18: when we know ourself, we will experience the world only as its formless substratum

  17. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 4: we can experience the world as forms only if we experience ourself as a form

  18. Why is true knowledge devoid not only of knowledge but also of ignorance of anything other than ourself

  19. Since true knowledge is devoid of knowledge and ignorance, why does Bhagavan say it is not a void?

  20. We alone are what is full, whole or pūrṇa

  21. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 7: the eternal and immutable ground and source of the ego and world is the infinite whole

  22. Upadēśa Undiyār verse 20: what remains as ‘I am I’ after the ego dissolves is infinite fullness

  23. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 30: ‘I am I’ means we are only ourself, and since nothing else exists we are the infinite whole

  24. Upadēśa Taṉippākkaḷ verse 12: being aware of multiplicity is ignorance

  25. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 13: since we alone are real, being aware of anything else is ignorance

  26. Why do we fear to let go of everything?

  27. Why does sleep seem to our waking mind to have been a blank?

We can believe vivarta vāda directly but not ajāta vāda

A few more words on this. Reading your fourth chapter, I found what was to be expected. The problem you identify as the reification of a personal self into ‘the Self’ of Vedanta-like tropes are what is usually communicated in the spiritual marketplace. This is precisely why I left Vedanta many years ago and got interested in Buddhism. Unfortunately, this is what gets associated with and agglomerated with the teachings of Ramana; nothing could be further from the truth. His teachings are a far cry from Vedanta though most never come to realize it.

The crux of the matter lies in his distinction between ego and self. Ramana’s view of ego – which has absolutely nothing to do with our Freudian based views in the West – is what the multifarious world is, the person we believe to be as well as everything that comes to be conceived of our world/universe. Or as your quotation of Sartre says: “The self therefore represents an ideal distance within the immanence of the subject in relation to himself, a way of not being his own coincidence, of escaping identity while positing it as a unity—in short, of being in a perpetually unstable equilibrium between identity as absolute cohesion without a trace of diversity and unity as a synthesis of multiplicity.” This again is, unfortunately, what goes for the whole UNITY rigmarole that is so rightly criticized by Buddhism. And yet this ‘unity of multiplicity’ or “synthesis of multiplicity” has nothing to do with the self that Ramana speaks of. Granted, this is what most people adhere to in the contemporary externalist perspective.
3. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 26: the ego is the sole cause for the seeming existence of everything else

"Therefore it is only because this ego seems to exist (though only in its own view) that all other things seem to exist, as Bhagavan teaches us unequivocally in verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu :

If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence; if the ego does not exist, everything does not exist. [Hence] the ego itself is everything. Therefore, know that investigating what this [ego] is alone is giving up everything."

If you or other readers would have the patience of learning more about this important and essential distinction, and understanding what Ramana meant by ego, here are two of many blogposts on the question:

When the ego seems to exist, other things seem to exist, and when it does not seem to exist, nothing else seems to exist

(…)

  1. Vāsanās are attributes of our ego, so they cannot exist independent of it
  2. Vāsanās seem to exist only in the view of our ego, so they are illusory appearances that only seem to exist relative to its seeming existence
  3. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 26: the ego is the sole cause for the seeming existence of everything else
  4. Śrī Aruṇācala Aṣṭakam verse 7: if the ego does not exist, nothing else exists
  5. The ego is the root cause of everything, including the ‘causal body’ (kāraṇa śarīra)
  6. The ego is an enigma, being a formless phantom that seems to exist only when it does not look closely at itself
  7. The ego is the primal mistake that causes the appearance of everything else
  8. The ego is the first cause, so it cannot be caused by anything else, and hence its appearance is inexplicable
  9. The ego arises from nothing other than our actual self, but our actual self is not its efficient cause (nimitta kāraṇa)
  10. All vāsanās will be destroyed completely only when the ego is destroyed, even though the ‘destruction’ of both is metaphorical
  11. A single moment of pure self-attentiveness will annihilate the ego and all its vāsanās completely

Ego seems to exist only when we look elsewhere, away from ourself

(…)

  1. Looking ‘elsewhere’ means looking at anything other than ourself
  2. None of the other things that ego looks at exist prior to or independent of it, because they are created by its perception of them
  3. Though ego seems to exist only when we are looking elsewhere, this does not mean that it comes into existence by looking elsewhere
  4. Ego is the first cause, the cause of all other causes, so no cause could exist prior to our rising as ego
  5. What is the atiśaya śakti (extraordinary power) that Bhagavan refers to in verse 6 of Śrī Aruṇācala Aṣṭakam and the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Ār??
  6. When Bhagavan says that this atiśaya śakti called mind or ego exists in and is not other than ātma-svarūpa, what he implies is not that it is real but that it does not actually exist
  7. Upadēśa Undiyār verse 17: if we incessantly investigate this atiśaya śakti called mind or ego, it will be clear that no such thing exists at all
  8. The nature of ego is to be always aware of itself as ‘I am this body’ and consequently always aware of things other than itself

Predictably, all of this is received with a stone wall. No worries, I understand that this is simply too much for most people to take (as if much what of the Buddha proposes isn’t?).

In any case, for those more philosophically inclined, a more “understandable” route can be taken through the many books and YouTube interviews of Bernardo Kastrup. With Kastrup the philosophy/perspective discussed in Keller Dellinger’s book is seriously confronted with a worldview that can’t be so easily dismissed and swept under the rug as many of his comments refuting idealism attempts to do.

Hi @keller. I just came across this thread. Congratulations on your book. I have not read it yet, but came across this quote in the comments section, that seems to be from your book.

Is it not fair to say that every being wishes to suffer the least amount possible? Each being may have a different understanding of how this might occur, but that seems to be a different issue. Anyone with an interest in Buddhist teachings likely believes that those teachings lead to the end of suffering. Similarly with other teachings. This recognition seems universal, as evidenced by the American ideal of allowing everyone life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Given this, the picking up of a given teaching in the quest to end suffering would be the speculative enterprise, rather than the quest to end suffering itself. This would lead directly to the kalama sutta, in which the Buddha provides instruction on how to pick up a teaching in a non-speculative way.

Dear @keller (or is it Bhante already?),
I‘ve read your book with great interest. Making EBT Buddhism the key to dissolving the suffering identified by the Existentialists seems like a sensible way to get philosophy-inclined Westerners on board (though I know a number of people who struggle a lot with „the absurd“ but are so committed to scientific materialist cosmology they would rather suffer indefinitely than consider Buddhist metaphysics).

One thing threw me off, though. In Chapter 5 (p.125f.) you write:

Considering the Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing, which goes

wouldn‘t you say that this is an instruction to concentrate on the breath and the body?

At a different point in your book, you assert that meditation should come as a late step in the gradual training. How would you respond to Thanissaro Bhikkhu‘s strategy of building rapture in meditation first to have something to replace the sensual pleasure one renounces? That‘s also what competent (behavioral) therapists do: they encourage their clients to stop self-medicating, but only when they‘ve taught them less harmful ways to cope. To me, that sounds more sensible and sustainable than your approach of renunciation based, it seems, on intellectual insight and sheer willpower.

Best wishes for your ordination and training!
Jonas

PS: If you‘re considering a revision, I‘d recommend toning down the style. Between the heavy use of jargon which might maybe half the time be replaced with everyday terms, passing references to philosophical concepts not all readers may know (f.ex. „imagining Sisyphus happy“), and a tone which seemed unnecessarily harsh (or apodictic, if you prefer) at times, your book reminded me of an undergrad philosophy essay.

That heavily depends on translation and interpretation

From Satipatthana sutta translation by ven Nyanasatta

Just as a skillful turner or turner’s apprentice, making a long turn, knows, “I am making a long turn,” or making a short turn, knows, “I am making a short turn,” just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”

The keyword here is knows, which is not focusing on a physical part or feeling. It’s in the domain of knowing, which is related to memory. You know what your posture is without having to look, because of memory. This is argued by some EBT followers as the true meaning of Sati, referring to memory and not sensuality.

Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”

This is important because the defilements are in the mind, not the body, specifically the defilements come up in memory. Hence “mindfulness to the fore” could mean bringing attention to memory and mental images.

The practice should decrease your defilements, from Satipatthana sutta:

Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,”[8] to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached,[9] and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.

Notice the practice should result in non-clinging

For note 8 and 9 Nyanasatta writes

  1. That is, only impersonal bodily processes exist, without a self, soul, spirit or abiding essence or substance. The corresponding phrase in the following contemplations should be understood accordingly.
  2. Detached from craving and wrong view.

So the practice should result in no-self which results in the suppression or uprooting of craving and wrong view.

In my opinion, simply focusing on physical sensation of breath in the nose has nothing to do with no-self and the defilements, and only results in tiring the mind.

I also find this note interesting since it’s the exact opposite of what is taught on Mahasi/Tong Vipassana retreats

The repetition of the phrases ‘contemplating the body in the body,’ ‘feelings in feelings,’ etc. is meant to impress upon the meditator the importance of remaining aware whether, in the sustained attention directed upon a single chosen object, one is still keeping to it, and has not strayed into the field of another contemplation. For instance, when contemplating any bodily process, a meditator may unwittingly be side-tracked into a consideration of his feelings connected with that bodily process. He should then be clearly aware that he has left his original subject, and is engaged in the contemplation of feeling.

I think this is important because if you’re focusing on how the mind knows the breath or any single object, then it’s a lot easier to catch images of sensual desires and other defilements arise, whereas if you’re focused on the physicality of the breath, you’re leaving your mind unguarded. If your attention moves to whatever new object arises, as per Mahashi/Tong noting instructions, then you’re once again allowing yourself to get distracted.

The Buddha said the 6 animals (i.e. 6 senses) need to be tied to a post, a single object, so that they can’t run in different directions. Focusing on the breath physical feeling is tying the animals/senses to another animal/sense, not a post. Changing your attention to whatever new object arises, as per Mahasi vipassana, is constantly changing your post.

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While this might get split off by mods, I think that as we‘re discussing a view expressed in the OP‘s book, this belongs in this thread.

Speaking purely for my practice, the difference seems to be one of degree or focus, not an absolute distinction. I use bodily sensations of breath as an anchor, attending to any images of desires and defilements as they arise, applying an antidote and then returning.
While reading (and re-reading) your post, I couldn‘t help but wonder what your practice looks like on a moment-to-moment basis. Sati as knowing seems to me rather abstract, and I have no idea how to put that into operation. Could you walk me through the steps there or link to a relevant resource?

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I don’t focus on physical sensations but only knowing that I know and mental images that arise.

There’s several suttas that give clues, as you can see the main object in all these suttas is the mind and the 5 hindrances vs 7 factors of awakening

This is Nanda’s mindfulness and clear comprehension: Nanda knows feelings as they arise, as they remain present, as they disappear; he knows perceptions as they arise, as they remain present, as they disappear; he knows thoughts as they arise, as they remain present, as they disappear. That is Nanda’s mindfulness and clear comprehension.

Bhikkhus, this is how Nanda guards the doors of the sense faculties: If he needs to look to the east, he does so after he has fully considered the matter and clearly comprehends it thus: ‘When I look to the east, bad unwholesome states of longing and dejection will not flow in upon me

  • AN 8.9

And how is a monk skilled in reading his own mind? Imagine a young woman — or man — fond of adornment, examining the image of her own face in a bright, clean mirror or bowl of clear water: If she saw any dirt or blemish there, she would try to remove it. If she saw no dirt or blemish there, she would be pleased, her resolves fulfilled: ‘How fortunate I am! How clean I am!’ In the same way, a monk’s self-examination is very productive in terms of skillful qualities:[2] ‘Do I usually remain covetous or not? With thoughts of ill will or not? Overcome by sloth & drowsiness or not? Restless or not? Uncertain or gone beyond uncertainty? Angry or not? With soiled thoughts or unsoiled thoughts? With my body aroused or unaroused? Lazy or with persistence aroused? Unconcentrated or concentrated?’

  • AN 10.51

And how does the view that is noble and emancipating lead one who practices it to the complete ending of suffering? It’s when a mendicant has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, and reflects like this, ‘Is there anything that I’m overcome with internally and haven’t given up, because of which I might not accurately know and see?’ If a mendicant is overcome with sensual desire, it’s their mind that’s overcome. If a mendicant is overcome with ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, doubt, pursuing speculation about this world, pursuing speculation about the next world, or arguing, quarreling, and disputing, continually wounding others with barbed words, it’s their mind that’s overcome. They understand, ‘There is nothing that I’m overcome with internally and haven’t given up, because of which I might not accurately know and see. My mind is properly disposed for awakening to the truths.’ This is the first knowledge they have achieved that is noble and transcendent, and is not shared with ordinary people.

  • MN 48

“If while he is walking, standing, sitting, and lying down a bhikkhu is free from covetousness and ill will, free from sloth and torpor, free from restlessness and worry, and has abandoned doubts, his energy becomes strong and unflagging, his mindfulness is alert and unclouded, his body is calm and undistressed, his mind concentrated and one-pointed. A bhikkhu who in such a manner is ardent and afraid of wrongdoing is called constantly energetic and resolute.”

  • iti 111

Bhikkhus, if while walking a sensual thought or a thought of ill will or an aggressive thought arises in a bhikkhu, and if he tolerates it and does not reject it, does not dispel it and get rid of it and bring it to an end, that bhikkhu—who in such a manner is lacking in ardour and unafraid of wrongdoing—is called constantly lazy and indolent. If while standing … If while sitting … If while lying down a sensual thought or a thought of ill will or an aggressive thought arises in a bhikkhu, and if he tolerates it and does not reject it … that bhikkhu is called constantly lazy and indolent.

  • iti 110

Also see the panner sutta AN 3.101 which shows that thoughts need to be refined until only thoughts about the dhamma (no-self, 5 hindrances, 7factors of awakening) remain.

My practice is a conglomeration from Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s teachings, Nanavira’s, the suttas, and a few others, but the main point is that the mind is the forerunner, and that’s where the defilements arise, and what needs to be dealt with.

This video by Hillside Hermitage (who OP is a follower of) talks about sati as memory/images so watching it will help you understand OP better. They consider focusing on the nose, a form of dukkha “management” and not the escape. They say that until one has the right order of priority (aka idappaccayatā), any practice they do will be wrong because it’s done for the wrong reasons. I agree with them on this as countless suttas show that one becomes an Ariya after hearing idappaccayatā and paticcasamuppada leading to yoniso manasikara which then leads to overcoming the 5 hindrances. So until you have properly understood idappaccayatā you’re not going to reduce the defilements.

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Was just reading through this thread and your comment gave me some food for thought. Thank you.

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