HEARTWOOD OF THE BODHI TREE
Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’
Specially adapted from Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu 1994
HEARTWOOD OF THE BODHI TREE
Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’
We will explain what spiritual disease is and how a single handful of Dhamma can cure it. Spiritual disease is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of ‘we’ and ‘ours’, of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ that is regularly present in the mind. The germ that is already in the mind develops first into the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and then, acting through the influence of self-centredness, becomes greed, hatred, and delusion, causing trouble for both oneself and others. These are the symptoms of the spiritual disease that lies within us. To remember it easily, you can call it the disease of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
Everyone of us has the disease of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. We absorb more germs every time we see a form, hear a sound, smell and odour, touch a tangible object, taste a flavour, or think in the manner of an ignorant person. In other words, we receive the germs from those surrounding things that infect us and cause the disease every time there is sense contact (phassa).
We must recognize this germ; which is clinging (upadana), and see that it is of two kinds: attachment to ‘I’ and attachment to ‘mine’. Attachment to ‘I’ is the feeling that ‘I’ is a special entity, that I am like this or like that, that I am the greatest, or something of the sort. ‘Mine’ is taking something as belonging to me, that which I love, that which I like. Even that which we hate is regarded as ‘my enemy’. All this is called ‘mine’.
In the Pali language, ‘I’ is atta and ‘mine’ is attaniya. As an alternative, we may use the terms generally used in Indian philosophy. The word ahamkara, ‘I-ing’, means having or making the feeling of ‘I’, and it stems from the word aham, ‘I’. The wordmamamkara means ‘my-ing’, having or making the feeling of ‘mine’, and it stems from the word mama, ‘mine.’
The feelings of I-ing and my-ing are so dangerous and poisonous that we call them the ‘spiritual disease’. Every branch of philosophy and Dhamma in the Buddha’s time wanted to wipe them out. Even the followers of other creeds had the same aim of wiping out I-ing and my-ing. The difference between other creeds and Buddhism is that when they eradicated those feelings, they called what remained the ‘True Self’, the ‘Pure Atman’, the ‘Person’. Buddhism refused to use these names because it didn’t want to cause any new attachment to self or things belonging to a self. The state free of I-ing and my-ing is considered simply to be a perfect voidness (or emptiness).  This voidness is called Nibbana, as in the phrase, ‘Nibbana is the supreme voidness’ (Nibbanam paramam sunnam). Nibbana is absolutely devoid of ‘I’ and void of ‘mine’, in every possible respect, without any remainder. Such is Nibbana, the end of spiritual disease.
This matter of ‘I’ or ‘mine’ is very hard to see. If you don’t take a genuine interest in it, you won’t be able to understand that it is the force behind Dukkha (suffering), the power behind spiritual disease.
Ego, Egoism and Selfishness
That which is called atta or self corresponds to the Latin word ‘ego’. If the feeling of self-consciousness arises, we call it egoism, because once the feeling of ‘I’ arises, it naturally and inevitably gives rise to the feeling of ‘mine’. Therefore the feeling of self and the feeling of things belonging to the self, taken together, are egoism. Ego can be said to be natural to living beings and, moreover, to be their centre. If the word ego is translated into English, it must be rendered as ‘soul’, a word corresponding to the Greek kentricon, which means ‘centre’. Thus, relating these three words, the soul (atta) can be regarded as the centre of living beings, as their necessary nucleus. Since it is so central, ordinary people cannot easily rid themselves of the ego.
It follows that unenlightened people must experience this feeling of egoism arising continually. Although it is true that it doesn’t express itself all the time, it does manifest whenever one sees a form, hears a sound, smells an odour, touches a tactile object, or has a thought arise in the mind. On every occasion that the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ arises, we can take it to be the disease fully developed, regardless of whether it’s dependent upon seeing a form, hearing a sound, smelling an odour, or whatever. When, at the moment of sense contact, the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ arises, it is the disease fully developed. The feeling of selfishness has arisen powerfully.
At this point, we no longer call it egoism but selfishness, because it’s an agitated egoism that leads one into low, false ways, into states of thinking only of oneself without consideration for others. Everything one does is selfish. One is completely ruled by greed, hatred, and delusion. The disease expresses itself as selfishness and then harms both oneself and others. It is the greatest danger to the world. That the world is currently so troubled and in such turmoil is due to nothing other than the selfishness of each person and of all the many factions that form into competing groups. They are all fighting each other without any real desire to fight, but through compulsion, because they can’t control this thing. They can’t withstand its force, and so the disease takes root. The world has taken in the germ which has then caused the disease, because no one is aware of that which can resist the disease, namely, the heart of Buddhism.
Let us clearly understand this phrase, ‘the heart of Buddhism’. Whenever we ask what the heart of Buddhism is, there are so many contending replies that it’s like a sea of voices. Everyone has an answer. Whether they are correct or not is another matter. It isn’t good enough to answer according to what we have heard and memorized. We must look into ourselves and see with our own mindfulness and wisdom (sati panna) whether or not we have the true heart of Buddhism. Some will probably say the Four Noble Truths, others impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness (aniccata, dukkhata, and anattata), and others may cite the following verse:
Refraining from doing evil
Doing only good
Purifying the Mind
This is the heart of Buddhism
All those replies are correct, but only to a degree. I would like to suggest that the heart of Buddhism is the short saying, ‘Nothing should be clung to’. There is a passage in the Majjhima Nikaya where someone approached the Buddha and asked him whether he could summarize his teachings in one phrase and, if he could, what it would be. The Buddha replied that he could, and he said, Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya. Sabbe dhamma means ‘all things’, nalam means ‘should not be’, abhinivesaya means ‘to be clung to. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to’. Then, the Buddha emphasized this point by saying that whoever had heard this core phrase had heard all of Buddhism; whoever had put it into practice had practiced all of Buddhism; and whoever had received the fruits of practicing it had received all the fruits of Buddhism.
Now, if anyone realized the truth of this point, that there is not a single thing that should be clung to, then they have no germ to cause the diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, or of wrong actions of any kind, whether by body, speech, or mind. So whenever forms, sounds, odours, flavours, tangible objects, and mental phenomena crowd in, the antibody ‘Nothing whatsoever should be clung to’ will resist the disease superbly. The germ will not be let in, or, if it is allowed in, will be destroyed. The germ will not spread and cause the disease because it is continually destroyed by the antibody. There will be an absolute and perpetual immunity. This then is the heart of Dhamma. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.
A person who realizes this truth is like someone who has an antibody that can resist and destroy a disease. It’s impossible for him or her to suffer from the spiritual disease. However, for ordinary people who don’t know the heart of Buddhism, it’s just the opposite. They lack even the slightest immunity.
By now you probably understand the spiritual disease and the doctor who heals it. But it’s only when we see that we ourselves have the disease that we become really serious about healing ourselves, and in the right way too . Before, we didn’t notice our sickness; we just enjoyed ourselves as we pleased. We were like people unaware that they have some serious illness, such as cancer or TB, who just indulge in pleasure-seeking without bothering to seek any treatment until it’s too late, and then die of their disease.
We won’t be that foolish. We will follow the Buddha’s instruction: ‘Don’t be heedless. Be perfect in heedfulness’. Being heedful people, we should take a look at the way in which we are suffering from the spiritual disease and examine the germ that causes the infection. If you do this correctly and unremittingly, you will certainly receive in this life the best thing that a human being can receive.
We must look more closely into the point that clinging is the germ and then investigate how it spreads and develops into the disease. If you’ve observed even slightly, you will have seen that it’s this clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ that is the chief of all the defilements.
Greed, Hatred and Delusion
We can divide the defilements (kilesa) into greed, hatred, and delusion (lobha, dosa and moha); or group them into sixteen types; or however many categories we want. In the end, they are all included in greed, hatred, and delusion. But these three, too, can be collected into one: the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. The feeling of ‘I’ and mine is the inner nucleus which gives birth to greed, hatred, and delusion. When it emerges as greed, blind desire, and craving, it attracts the sense object that has made contact. If, at another moment, it repels the object, that is hatred ordosa. On those occasions when it’s stupefied and doesn’t know what it wants, hovering around the object, unsure whether to attract or repel, that is delusion ormoha.
This way of speaking makes it easier for us to observe the actual defilements. Greed or lust (lobha or raga) pulls the object in, gathers it into itself. Hatred or anger (dosa or kodha) pushes things away. Delusion (moha) spins around uncertain what it should do, running in circles, afraid to push and unwilling to pull.
Defilement behaves in one of these ways toward sense objects (forms, sounds, odours, flavours, and tangible objects) depending on what form it takes, whether it is clearly apprehensible or hidden, and whether it encourages attraction, repulsion, of confusion. Despite their differences, all three are defilements because they have their roots in the inner feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Therefore, it can be said that the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is the chief of all defilements and the root cause of all Dukkha and of all disease.
Having not fully appreciated or examined the Buddha’s teaching regarding Dukkha (suffering), many people have misunderstood it. They have taken it to mean that birth, old age, sickness, death, and so on are themselves Dukkha. In fact, those are just its characteristic vehicles. The Buddha summarized his explanation of Dukkha by saying, ‘In short, Dukkha is the Five Aggregates (khandha) in which there is clinging (upadana)’. In Pali it’s Sankhittena pancupadanak khandha dukkha. This means that anything that clings or is clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ is Dukkha. Anything that has no clinging to ‘I’ or ‘mine’ is not Dukkha. Therefore birth, old age, sickness, death, and so on, if they are not clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’, cannot be Dukkha. The body and mind are the same. Don’t think that Dukkha is inherent in the body and mind, Only when there is clinging to ‘I’ or ‘mine’ do they become Dukkha. With the pure and undefiled body and mind, that of the Arahant, there is no Dukkha at all.
Voidness or Sunnata
We must see that the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is the root cause of all forms of Dukkha. Wherever there is clinging, there is the darkness of ignorance (avijja). There is no clarity because the mind is not void (sunna); it is shaken up, frothing and foaming with the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. In direct contrast, the mind that is free of clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is void, serene, and full of mindfulness and wisdom (sati panna).
If one speaks intelligently and concisely about voidness – although it is somewhat frightening – one speaks like a Zen master. Huang Po said that sunnata (voidness) is the Dhamma, sunnata is the Buddha, and sunnata is the One Mind. Confusion, the absence of sunnata, is not the Dhamma, is not the Buddha, and is not the One Mind. It is a new concoction. There are two diametrically opposed things that arise – voidness (sunnata) and confusion. Once we have understood them, we will understand Dhamma easily.
We must firmly grasp the fact that there are two kinds of experience: on the one hand, that of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, and, on the other, that of mindfulness and wisdom. We also must see that the two are totally antagonistic; only one can be present at a time. If one enters the mind, the other springs out. If the mind is rife with ‘I’ and ‘mine’, sati panna cannot enter; if there is mindfulness and wisdom, the ‘I’ and ‘mine’ disappear. Freedom from ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is sati panna.
Right now, you who are concentrating on this teaching are void, you are not concocting the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. You are attending, and you have mindfulness and wisdom; the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ cannot enter. But if on another occasion something impinges and gives rise to the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the voidness or sati panna you feel now will disappear.
If we are void of egoism, there is no experience of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. We have the mindfulness and wisdom that can extinguish Dukkha and is the cure for the spiritual disease. At that moment, the disease cannot be born, and the disease that has already arisen will disappear as if picked up and thrown away. At that moment, the mind will be completely filled with Dhamma. This demonstrates that voidness is sati panna, voidness is the Dhamma, voidness is the Buddha, because in that moment of being void of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ there will be present every desirable quality in all of the Buddhist scriptures.
A Mind Undisturbed
Here your common sense may say that nobody likes being disturbed. Everyone likes to be void in one way or another. Some people like the lazy voidness of not having to work. Everyone likes to be void of the annoyance of having noisy children bothering them. However, these types of voidness are external; they are not true voidness.
Inner voidness (sunnata) means to be truly normal and natural, to have a mind that is not scattered and confused. Anyone who experiences this really appreciates it. If voidness develops to its greatest degree, which is to absolutely void of egoism, then it is Nibbana.
The disturbed mind is just the opposite. It is disturbed in every way – physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is totally confused, without the slightest peace or happiness. In sunnata is Dhamma, is Buddha, is the mind’s original nature. In busyness there is no Dhamma and no Buddha, no matter how many times we shout and holler ‘To the Buddha I go for refuge’. It is impossible for there to be Dhamma in the busy mind.
For people whose minds are disturbed by ‘I’ and ‘mine’ – even if they take refuge in the Triple Gem, receive the precepts, offer alms, and make merit – there can be no true Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha present. Everything just becomes a meaningless ritual. The true Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha abide in the void mind. Whenever the mind is void of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the Triple Gem is present right there. If it is void for only a while, that is temporary Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. If it is absolute voidness, that is real and enduring Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
All Teachings, All Practices
Sunnata (voidness) is the most difficult to understand of all the Buddhist teachings, because it is the innermost heart of Buddhism. Whatever is called the ‘heart’ must be something subtle and profound. True understanding of it does not lie within the scope of mere conjecture or the sort of ordinary pondering to which people are accustomed. It can only be understood by determined study.
In Buddhism, the essential meaning of the word ‘study’ is the unceasing, dedicated observation and investigation of whatever arises in the mind, be it pleasant or unpleasant. Only those familiar with the observation of mind can really understand Dhamma. Those who merely read books cannot understand and what’s more, may even go astray. But those who try to observe the things going on in their own minds, and always take that which is true in their own minds as their standard, never get muddled. They are able to comprehend Dukkha, and ultimately will understand Dhamma. Then, they will understand the books they read.
When we say that someone has a lot of spiritual experience, we mean that they are always observing the things happening in the mind. From the moment of birth to the time of death, we must train ourselves in this way. We must examine the contact of the mind with the objects that surround it and the nature of the results of that contact. Inevitably, in this natural process, there will be both pleasure and pain; observing them will make the mind wiser and more resilient. To keep observing the nature of our thoughts generates a mind emptied of Dukkha, which is the very best knowledge there is. Through it we gain familiarity with the experience, understanding, and realization of sunnata.
We have spoken of the spiritual disease from which we all suffer, and we have described its germ as the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. This disease is an illness affecting mindfulness and wisdom (satipanna), that which is able to know our life and the world as they truly are. So spiritual disease refers to ignorance (avijja), or the wrong understanding that springs from ignorance, and it causes the wrong actions that lead to Dukkha,even if physically and mentally we are quite healthy.
When we are suffering from spiritual disease, with what must we treat it? We must treat it with sunnata. Sunnata is not only the cure of the disease, it is also the freedom from disease. There is nothing beyond voidness.
The medicine that cures the disease is the knowledge and practice that gives birth to sunnata. When voidness has appeared it will be the cure of the disease. After recovery from the disease, there will be nothing save sunnata, the state void of Dukkha and void of the mental defilements that are the causes of Dukkha. This voidness, with its wide breadth of meaning, is self-existent; nothing can touch it, concoct it, improve it, or do anything to it. Thus, voidness is the eternal state, for it knows neither birth nor death. Its ‘being’ is not the same as the being of things that are born and die; so we say that voidness has ‘being’ characterized by immutable sunnata, because we have no other word to use. If anyone’s mind realizes this thing, then this realization will be the medicine that cures the disease and leads to the immediate recovery from the disease – a state timelessly void, which is true health.
The Meaning of Sunnata
Please keep trying to grasp the meaning of this word ‘voidness’, or sunnata, as we consider it from every angle. First, consider the fact that the Buddha declared that every word that he, the Tathagatha, spoke referred to the subject of sunnata. He spoke of no other matter, either directly or indirectly.
As for the saying that ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’, this is an expression in the language of relative truth, a sort of enticing propaganda in the language of ordinary people, used because people are generally infatuated with happiness and want nothing else. So it is necessary to say Nibbana is happiness, and what’s more, that it’s the best happiness. Truly speaking, Nibbana is better than happiness, is beyond happiness, because it is void. We shouldn’t speak of it as either happiness or suffering because it lies beyond the suffering and the happiness commonly known to us. Yet when we speak like this, people don’t understand. So we must say instead, in the conventional language of the worldly, that it is ultimate happiness. This being so, when using the word happiness, we must be careful to use it properly. It is not the happiness that people generally can see or aspire to. It is a different sort of happiness, a completely new meaning of happiness: the state void of every single thing that concocts, proliferates, flows, spins, and changes. Thus, it is truly lovely, truly refreshing, and truly desirable. For if there is still flux and change, constant swaying and rocking, how can there be happiness?
The feelings of sensual pleasure that arise from contact with the various sense objects are illusory; they are not ultimate happiness. Common happiness is not the supreme happiness of Nibbana, which is voidness. So in hearing the phrase, ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’, don’t jump to the conclusion that Nibbana is exactly what you’ve been looking for all along and start dreaming about it without taking into consideration that it is supreme voidness.
Consequently, the Buddha declared that to have heard this teaching (on sunnata) is to have heard all teachings, to have put it into practice is to have done all practices, and to have reaped the fruits of that practice is to have reaped all fruits: Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. You must strive to grasp the essence of what this word sunnata really means.
 Ajahn Buddhadasa generally preferred to leave the Pali word Sunnata (Sanskrit: Sunyata) untranslated. However, if a translation had to be used he preferred ‘voidness’ over ’emptiness’. The main point being that there should not be any misunderstanding that equates sunnata with utter nothingness. It is not any kind of nihilism.
Text Source: The Middle Way: Buddhism and Identity, May 2013 Vol 88 No. 1 (Specially adapted from Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu 1994).
Image Credits: Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (www.dhammatalks.net).
Buddha Shrine (PJL 2013)