Mbs course Outline 13-14 (Updated on November 28, 2013) Centre of Buddhist Studies

Broughton, Jeffrey L.; The Bodhidharma Anthology, Berkelery, University of California Press, 1999


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Broughton, Jeffrey L.; The Bodhidharma Anthology, Berkelery, University of California Press, 1999.

Buddhaghosa Bhadantacariya, tran. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Singapore, Singapore Buddhist Mediation Centre, 2001.

Cleary, Thomas, tran., Buddhist Yoga, A comprehensive course; Boston & London, Shambhala, 1995.

Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Satipatthana Sutta, The Foundations of Mindfulness; Majjhima Nikaya 10; London, Wisdom Publications, 1995

Nyanaponika Thera, the Heart of Buddhist Meditation. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996.

Reynolds, John; the Golden Letters: the Tibetan Teachings of Garab Dorje, First Dzogchen Master, New York, Snow Lion, 1996.

《六門教授習定論》,<title lang="en">Taisho Tripitaka, Electronic version, No. <font style="color:#55F;">1607</font> 六門教授習定論Electronic Version by中華電子佛典協會 (CBETA)

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA)


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無著菩薩本,世親菩薩釋,[02]義淨法師中譯, 大正藏 vol.31,1607




Buddhist Psychology

Dr. K.L. Kong

Tel: 6225-0902 or 3917-5019

Email: kkong@hku.hk

Schedule: 1st Semester; Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 pm

Class Venue: CPD-2.19, 2/F, Centennial Campus
Course Description

This course takes a psychological perspective to introduce Buddhism as a moral and psychologically healthy way of life. The early Buddhist way of life as practiced by the Buddha and his disciples is introduced through selected readings from English translations of the original Pali texts Majjhima Nikaya and Anguttara Nikaya. This source is chosen over other more theoretically oriented secondary sources on the belief that the early Buddhist way of life provided the experiential (and empirical) basis for Buddhist philosophy. The narrative format offers lively and concrete examples of problem solving in daily life that are easily understood by most readers and more importantly- less readily misunderstood. Theories and important concepts in Buddhism are introduced later in the course to bind together the rather loosely organized teachings of the Nikaya texts. Finally, the epistemological foundation of Buddhism is introduced through selected readings from the Yogacara tradition (in particular the Thirty Stanzas) and compared with recent developments in theoretical psychology (in particular social constructionism).
Course Objective

In this course we investigate Buddhism from a psychological perspective, with the objective of cultivating a way of thinking and way of life commensurate with the Buddhist goal of reduction of dukkha (“suffering” and other imperfections).

Readings- the Suttas
In the first part of this course we shall take a psychological perspective to investigate selected suttas from the basic Buddhist texts Anguttara Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya.

All of the selected Anguttara suttas (AN 3.2, 3.65, 4.28, 4.73, 4.183, 4.192, 5.41, 5.49, 5.57, 5.161, 8.6, 10.51, 10.80, and 10.93) can be accessed from the website http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an.

All of the selected Samyutta suttas (SN12.23, 12.31, 12.35, 12.38, 12.52, 12.64, 22.5, 22.36, 22.53, 22.89, 22.90,35.95, 35.101) can be accessed from the website http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn.

Most of the selected Majjhima suttas (MN 2, 5, 11, 13, 15. 18, 20, 21, 22, 38, 58, 61, 63, 72, 95, 103, 104, 109, 117, 149, and 152) can also be accessed from the website (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn). The four exceptions (above underlined) are from the book “The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995)”.

The suttas were recorded closer in time and origin to the Buddha’s teachings than anything else we have, and are accepted as basic texts by all Buddhist traditions. Unfortunately they also have serious shortcomings. They began as a loose collection of narratives gathered after the Buddha’s death and were transmitted orally from generation to generation. In the process they were subjected to much distortion and dilution so that by the time they were first written down as the Nikaya texts, they were already a basket of various traditions of Indian philosophies intermingled with distortions of the Buddha’s teachings. Subsequent centuries of further transcriptions, translations and oral transmissions added to the corruption.

As a result we have different versions of the suttas depending on the route of transmission. The English translations that we use are from the Pali texts transmitted through the Southern route. The Chinese version (called the Agama 阿含經) was introduced from the Northern route and translated from Sanskrit (except for the Samyutta Nikaya 雑阿含). The two versions differ in the number, contents, and arrangements of the suttas (when comparable). Students who want to refer to the Chinese version can access the equivalent of the Anguttra (增一阿含) at http://sutra.foz.cn/kgin/kgin02/125/125.htm, that of the Majjhima (中阿含) at http://sutra.foz.cn/kgin/kgin01/26/26.htm, and that of the Samyutta (雑阿含) at http://sutra.foz.cn/kgin/kgin02/99/99.htm

A particular sutta revealed itself where the life of a particular person (or persons) intersected with the Buddha’s at a particular point in space and time. In general each sutta corresponds to one sermon delivered by the Buddha or by one of his disciples, usually in response to a question related to some important concern of a certain class of audience (e.g. problems related to discipline or “self identity” for monks; sensual pursuits for lay people; obsession with truth and existence for priests and philosophers). The Buddha’s prescriptions are different, depending not only on the nature of the question but also on that of the audience. But the result was always the same- the audience could see the Buddhist path more clearly and followed it from where they were in the direction of the Buddhist goal.

As a collection of the life events of real people the suttas unfolded with the flow of natural events. They were not and could not be organized in the way that academic materials of Western disciplines like psychology are. It is at best a collection of “case studies”, if we have to call it by a modern name. In a loose way, many of the suttas were put together under a general topic like dependent co-arising, the six sense media, the Noble-Eightfold Path etc (e.g. in the Samyutta, hence it is also called the Connected Discourses of the Buddha). In the Anguttara the suttas were simply organized according to the number of “factors” discussed in each sutta.

To reconstruct the Buddha’s teachings from the suttas is a huge project of reverse engineering. We need to know and be able to discern what is good for us. This is Right View. Whether one’s view is right or not lies in one’s practice, the practice of mindfulness. The reader may recognize that to develop right view and right practice is exactly what we want to learn from the Buddha in the first place, so we are caught in a Catch-22 situation here. It is good to recognize that we are not dealing with an easy task. But it is not impossible. It is just like learning to play ping pong or in fact any life skill; we learn as we practice and we learn how to learn. The Venerable Ajahn Chah compared the growth of a person’s knowledge to that of a mango. One begins as a small mango, with all the necessary parts in a small way.

Readings- Western Psychology and the Mahayana Tradition

Modern students of Buddhism (like the Buddha’s audience) come from a variety of backgrounds. Each student brings with him/ her particular interests, needs, biases, and other conditions. This course is designed for students interested in psychology as a study of the mind, and in its application. We are making an attempt to enter the core of Buddhism and Buddhist practice by taking a psychological approach, through the gate of Buddhist epistemology or theory of knowledge. The Buddhist view of knowledge is usually discussed around the concept of “emptiness”/空觀). Beginning with this concept, we shall attempt to construct a theory of the mind and apply it in daily life.

Students often run into difficulty with Buddhist epistemology. Much of this difficulty is conditioned upon inherent human ignorance in this aspect of understanding. This can only be overcome with patience and exertion. A more mundane obstacle is the suttas (even if uncorrupted) are from a distant culture foreign to the modern mind. It would help to have a theory of knowledge written in modern language to bridge our understanding. Such a dream theory, in the lecturer’s opinion, had been bestowed upon us by the nineteenth-century German physiologist Ludwig von Helmholtz in a chapter he wrote on perception and the nature of knowledge: “Concerning the perceptions in general. In Treatise on physiological optics, vol. III, 3rd edition (translated by J.P.C. Southall 1925 Opt. Soc. Am. Section 26, reprinted New York: Dover, 1962)”.

Helmholtz was a renowned scientist who made tremendous contributions to science and medicine, in particular the physiology of vision. Incidentally he was the supervisor of Wundt, who in American psychology textbooks is honored with the title “Father of Modern Psychology”. Modern students of psychology would be puzzled how Helmholtz as “grandfather” of modern “scientific” psychology could play any contributory role, not to mention a critical role, in the understanding of “emptiness” of the mind. The answer, as we shall see, is that when psychology began in Germany in the nineteenth century, it was very, very different from the American “psychology” we see today. It is just that “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to America”- when psychology crossed the Atlantic its psyche was left behind.

So we must spend a few lectures on Helmholtz’s theory of perception, which actually is a theory of the mind. Helmholtz’s work is not leisure reading either but past students have found the course notes helpful- when accompanied by a lot of exertion on the student’s part. With Helmholtz’s teaching, one should understand the suttas in a new light.

In our last lecture we shall also use Helmoltz’s teaching to interpret a Buddhist theory of knowledge from the Yogacara School- the “Thirty Stanzas”. The latter was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by the famous Tang Dynasty Master Xuan Zhuang (玄装) in his book “成唯识论”. A modern English translation is available titled “成唯识论Ch'eng Wei-Shih Lun (Doctrine of Mere-Consciousness) By Tripitaka-Master Hsuan Tsang, English Translation by Wei Tat”. A good reference for those who read Chinese is “成唯识论直解 林国良 撰 复旦大学出版社.

For students who feel a need for background or additional reading to prepare for this course, an excellent and friendly introduction can be found in the book “Food for the Heart” by Ajahn Chah (see excerpts of the book in the course notes or the full text in http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/heartfood.html). For students with no Buddhist background, the book “What the Buddha Taught” (http://www.quangduc.com/English/basic/68whatbuddhataught-02.html) by Walpola Rahula offers a quick introduction.

Buddhist Epistemology and Buddhist Practice

We are attracted to Buddhism because we find life unsatisfactory and are convinced that the Buddha’s teaching will help us escape from this unsatisfactory state or dukkha. In so doing we acknowledge that our knowledge is also unsatisfactory, i.e. we are in a state of relative ignorance (dukkha arises from ignorance). The Buddha will help us rid ourselves of this ignorance by cultivating a different way of knowing and seeing. By knowing and seeing differently, we also live life differently, and get closer to the Buddhist goal of escape or release.

Seeing, knowing and living are all acts- acts of the mind and body. To learn these acts, as in learning other acts like playing a musical instrument or a sport, we need to practice. In Buddhism learning and practicing go hand in hand. We learn to practice, and we also learn as we practice. We learn in the context of real life, one’s own life, so we learn and practice as we live. This means one may learn and practice Buddhism every moment of one’s waking life- provided one is “mindful” of or attend to one’s consciousness in the way the Buddha taught. One learns mindfulness by practicing. By practicing “mindfulness” one learns Buddhism.

In this sense Buddhism is more of a skill in practice (a life skill) than just a philosophy. So when we say we have “learned” something Buddhist, it does not just mean that we can elucidate a theory in conscious thought, speech or writing- although all this is essential for teaching and learning the suttas (and for exams). To have learned something Buddhist means we can practice it, preferably the way Lang Lang plays the piano. This requires vast amount knowledge, of which only a miniscule portion can be represented in language or in fact in conscious knowledge of any form. In learning Buddhism, bear in mind it is this kind of knowledge- knowledge of skill and largely subconscious, that we want to attain ultimately. This can only be accomplished by practicing,

To practice right, one needs to see rightly what life is about. The Buddha’s teaching here is simple and clear. Life is about dukkha- psychological experiences that are unsatisfactory. In Buddhist language these are the five aggregates- form (sensations derived from the senses giving rise to impressions of a physical world), feelings, perceptions (including ideas and other mind fabrications), and consciousness. In modern language, it just means all kinds of conscious phenomena, psychological experiences, activities and knowledge; in fact everything pertaining to the psyche.

So the Buddha asks us to attend to our own consciousness. But we have to it the right way- the way he taught. This is different from what most people do in daily life. In fact, don’t we, more often than we like, can’t help attending to “that obnoxious guy in the office” in our consciousness? The more one reflects, the more angry one gets. But I can’t help it because that guy is really disgusting. This is an objective fact because everybody says that. He even has this disgusting look in his face- all the facial characteristics correlated with negative emotions, as reported in scientific findings (facts are merely found scientifically, not fabricated subjectively). These are physical features that really exist, a physical reality. So what I say is “true” when I call him an obnoxious guy. His denials are false. I am right and he is wrong.

This is attending to consciousness the way of “ignorant, run-of-the-mill people”, and not the Buddhist way. The issue is not whether it is “true or false” that “that guy in the office is really disgusting”. The problem is precisely thinking is terms of “true or false” in the first place- the epistemology. In this way of thinking one conceives a conscious image as a “true representation of reality”, a “copy of the outside world” originating and “determined” from the outside- a fact. One assumes one plays no role in shaping its content, but just receives it passively. One may concede one has to change one’s opinion if it is “false”. But if one’s opinion is a “fact”, the problem lies outside- that guy is really disgusting. He has to change his ways or leave office.

Thinking this way one’s mind is frozen- both in content and in the way of thinking. To escape from dukkha one needs to change both. The first step to change is to abandon grasping consciousness as a frozen picture. This is a most difficult thing to do because the picture is disguised and glorified as “a true representation of the world out there”. Upon this is rested an entire epistemology, a way of life for the individual- in fact the way of the entire conventional world. To the average mind the alternative seems inconceivable because it means giving up truth and reality. A popular misconception about Buddhism is that the concept of “emptiness” leaves one with “nothing”.

What the Buddha offered was actually exactly the opposite, quite the opposite. He is not going to just take away the one picture that we have and leave our mind blank. He only asks us to see more- much, much more. He asks us to switch from seeing the world in picture mode to video mode. Instead of taking just one picture of what is in front of us from a single perspective, limiting our view to that narrow speck in space and time, he reminds us that we could take many videos from many different perspectives, and vastly expand our knowledge of life in space and time- if we want to. This transformation appears daunting. But strangely the watershed in this transformation requires “only” an intellectual breakthrough, a paradigm shift in thinking. This is to change one’s way of thinking from what the psychologist Jean Piaget called the “pictorial” mode to the “transformative” mode.

Imagine a painter who had lost his memory going down a gallery decorated with his own paintings of various scenes and objects. He did not even know those were paintings, not to mention his own. He thought they were photographs. He was not satisfied with them, but thought there was nothing he could do since photographs were “copies of reality”. He subsequently recovered his memory and went down the same gallery. Dissatisfied, he went back to the old scenes, set up the same objects and recreated the paintings until he was satisfied. He might even proceed to conceive a story of the events behind those scenes, and make a cartoon out if it. And then he might even fabricate different stories told from different perspectives of the same “events”, as in the movie Rashomon (罗生门), and make a cartoon out of each.

This is what we should do. We should see consciousness not as photographs but as paintings created in our own mind by our own mind acts. The conscious images of objects, men and women, and even of one’s own “self” are fabricated from the five aggregates, just as those images in a painting are from dyes. The five aggregates are not “the real self” etc. They are all expressions of mind acts that we ourselves performed. They can potentially be transformed from inside the mind because they arise from, and are dependent on conditions inside one’s own mind.

So instead of saying “That guy (out there) is disgusting (a fact)” one could reflect “I crave for respect and I don’t get it”. One may further reflect that this craving arises from, and is dependent on one’s big ego, conceit, vanity. This in turn has as its basis the fabrication of a “self” that “exists” (hopefully forever) and needs to be “nourished” (with food for the ego). All these cravings, delusions and fabrications arise from one’s ignorance. To see consciousness this way is to see the five aggregates or “dukkha as is”- as the Buddha taught.

(Some psychological illusions will help the reader see that “reality” or “fact” is not just “found to exist out there”, but fabricated in the mind by mind acts)

If we see it right, the five aggregates no longer “represent” a “rigid reality”. They are just psychological phenomena. Furthermore they arise from, and are dependent on other psychological conditions. These conditions may come and go by themselves as events flow. But to a certain extent they can also be changed by acts of the mind. Desire may be restrained, or even extinguished with disenchantment and insight. Aversion may be subdued by insight or even replaced with compassion. When desire and aversion cease, so do the five aggregates which depend on them. Abandon desire for others’ adoration and we see no cause for anger. Harbor compassion and we see a person who lacks adequate social skills and needs our help. That obnoxious guy in the office “exists” no more, and hopefully will not be born again.

Thus the five aggregates are said to be impermanent, and not rigid or permanent as they seemed when we grasped them as frozen pictures originating from the “outside”. When we see dukkha as is, i.e. impermanent, we see the possibility of change and of escape. Previously we believed that the source of happiness and unhappiness lies outside and we wanted to change the world. Now we know what needs to be changed is ourselves.

Because psychological phenomena arise and cease dependent on other conditions or phenomena, the Buddha called them “dependently co-arisen phenomena”. In various suttas the Buddha mentioned a number of these phenomena (usually twelve) as the source of human suffering (when they arise), and as doors of escape (when they cease). The relations between these conditions are stated in the rule of “dependent co-arising: …..this arising, that arises; this ceasing, that ceases”. The relations are not linear, but reciprocal and cyclic, such that the conditions reinforce one another to generate a vicious cycle. The more one craves- the more one pursues- the more one gets- the more one craves and so on. Hence worldly pursuits and human emotions tend to intensify, and so does suffering.

The concept of dependent co-arising and dependently co-arisen phenomena forms the overall framework of the Buddha’s teaching. Within this framework one can fit in other key Buddhist concepts. To attend to dukkha, its arising and ceasing is Right View, or the first three of the Four Noble Truths. To reflect on oneself with right view is “Practicing Mindfulness”. To practice right one needs to cultivate a number of good “habits” and in fact an entire way of life which include right view and other factors (right exertion, right livelihood etc). This is The Noble Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth.

From Babyhood (No Picture) to Buddhahood (Many Videos)

According to some psychologists (e.g. Jean Piaget) newborn babies can only see the world as loose sensations, unconnected in space and time, and for as long as they are looking at them. These images disappear as soon as their eyes are not looking- out of sight, out of mind. They are unable to grasp even a single stable picture from the world the way adults see it (which might explain why babies smile a lot).

Before the age of one, most babies would have learned to look for hidden objects. One may infer that they have learned a “program” (schema) to construct (fabricate) and recall the image of a “thing” (e.g. a ball) from memory alone, without the help of immediate sensory input. They are said to have acquired “object permanence”. With this schema, people are able to conceive the “existence” of an identical thing and fabricate a picture out of it, even when one is not looking. This is a tremendous leap in animal intelligence. With this picture in mind one may persist in pursuing a goal independent of immediate sensations. Survival is served by grasping the image (out of sight but not out of mind) until the biological goal is attained with respect to that “thing” (eaten and not eaten by). Without this stable picture hunting and fruit gathering would be impossible, not to mention hoarding food for winter use.

But because this image takes on the appearance of “an identical thing existing out there” (and not just a mind fabrication comprising the five aggregates which are impermanent), one’s consciousness is constricted in space and time to that “thing”. People suffer precisely because they see only in a narrow perspective over space and time. They grasp onto that thing (执着) and do not know when to let go. By focusing on that one “thing” to the neglect of everything else, they see only the good side (the allure of sensations) and get the impression that the allure will remain unchanged across space and time, i.e. “permanent” (a “beautiful” model; a luxury villa; Prince Charming and Snow White riding into the sunset and lived happily hereafter).

But real life unfolds continuously, as in a video (after riding into the sunset there are the in-laws coming over for the weekend, changing diapers for babies, mortgage installments for the castle, spouse growing old and getting sick and getting tired- in short married life no different from those we know in real life). The Buddha’s prescription here is simple and obvious: expand our vision in space and time so we see not only the allures of sensations but also their drawbacks. We don’t just pose for one beautiful photo, get some fun out if it and start anew. One is the principal actor in one’s own video of life. Pictures are strung together into one continuous video. In acting out of greed, aversion and delusion people set themselves on a different path of life (as when one enters into a pyramid sale scheme; an unhappy marriage).

The Buddha taught us to “see” in this holistic way- the entire story of lives continuously unfolding in a changing universe. John Dewey called it “transactional” way of thinking, or thinking in terms of acts and consequences in extended space and with a time dimension. One practical example suggested in the suttas is for one to play a mental video of a beautiful young maiden growing old, getting sick, die and decay. This is not to deny the value of all images and sensations- they are good for sustaining life. The Buddha just urged us to expand our thinking in time and space so we may see and know more, and make decisions with a better perspective.

One would have achieved a lot if one has learned to make just one video of life (one’s own) according to the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha has compassion for all sentient beings. With this all-encompassing compassion he was able to a make a video of life for each of those who were lucky enough to come across his teaching in the past millennia, and perhaps in the millennia to come. That would add up to many, many videos. This is possible only when wisdom and compassion are combined in one mind.

The Four Noble Truths as Way of Thinking

The above brief discussion on how to see and think the Buddhist way can be summarized in the following way. To be able to see and anticipate suffering and whatever is imperfect is to see Dukkha. To recognize that they are the consequences of our own ignorance and our own acts is to see the Arising of Dukkha. To be able to change the way we act so as to avoid and escape from suffering is the Cessation of Dukkha. Eliminating ignorance and acting in a way leading to liberation from all suffering and whatever is imperfect is the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha. This way of seeing, knowing, thinking and acting is more commonly known as the Fourth Noble Truths (Dukkha, its Arising, Cessation, and Path leading to cessation; 四聖諦- 苦集滅道).

The suttas will enrich our concept of the Four Noble truths as we move on. It is to be practiced as a way of thinking. In the suttas this pragmatic way of thinking is often contrasted with useless arguments over absolute truth (“this is true and everything else is false”). The way this course is conducted also follows the logic of the Four Noble Truths. Ideas that are thought to lead to the reduction of dukkha are considered “good” ideas, which are contrasted with “bad” ideas that increase dukkha. We shall attempt to answer questions, solve problems and make decisions according to this rule, in this course and life in general. In fact, the suttas (which in the original text was a mixture of ancient Indian traditions of which Buddhism was just one) and other course materials have been selected on the same grounds.

Practicing Mindfulness

Thus learning Buddhism is to learning to act: to attend to what is useful (appropriate and inappropriate attention- putting on one’s mind the correct agenda i.e. dukkha); to reflect internally on our acts (including emotions and motives as well as overt bodily acts and speech) instead of fixating on sensual and apparently external images; to expand our thinking so we may see more in both the space and time; to see the consequences of our acts on others and ourselves- in short thinking according to the logic of the Four Noble Truths.

This can be done any time during one’s waking hour. The important thing is to pause and reflect on ourselves instead of taking things for granted and blindly follow our instincts (and excusing oneself by saying that this is the “real me”). To be mindful of the acts of the body, speech and mind from moment to moment is called practicing mindfulness.

When we learn to think in this practical way, we will notice a number of changes in us. We stop putting useless issues (those that have nothing to do with the reduction of suffering) on our mind’s agenda. Instead of arguing with people, we learn to respect their views because we know that views are mental constructions depending on an individual’s peculiar needs, desires and past experience. Instead of clinging to sensual images as external objects, we recognize them as sensations, constructed and transient. They come and go and are not worth clinging to. Even the “self” will finally be recognized as a mentally constructed view and image and can be “let go”.

Do take notes of your reflections. As the course progresses take notes also of how studying and practicing Buddhism change the way you see, act and experience life. The first assignment (guideline to be given in the following lecture) will be a sort of progress report on your part (the assignment is due first lecture after reading week).


Final Exam 60 %

Coursework 40 % (one mid-term quiz 10%; 2 essays 15% each)

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