Pain, sensation, suffering and self

“Pain is a sensation, and as such, is impersonal. Pain leads to suffering when it is seen as ‘my’ pain. No self, no suffering.”

Rudi states a basic Buddhist view of pain and suffering in this comment on Why does Euthyphro hurt? On first reading, this comment struck me as a good reminder of some fundamental teachings.  On reflection I see that it provides a good framework for clarifying these teachings.

These three sentences make four assertions:

(1)  Pain is a sensation.

(2)  Sensations are “impersonal.”

(3)  Seeing pain as “mine” leads to suffering.

(4)  “No self, no suffering.”

Some initial thoughts on these assertions.

(1)  From the beginning of this blog I have been wrestling with the relations between what the scientists call “nociception,” i.e., aversive sensations, and what we call “pain.”  In one of my first posts I paraphrased the definition of pain from a scientific textbook that bears repeating here:

Many nerve receptors lie close together in the skin and underlying tissues. When they are stimulated, energy changes into electrical impulses that are transmitted and modulated by the nervous system.  What we call “pain” is our experience of that process.  (Ransom et al. 249; Gatchel et al. 1)

Scientists use the noun “nociception” to refer to that process in the nervous system.  What many posts here have been exploring is how we experience those sensations when we feel pain.  I am not going to repeat them here.  They can be found through the Index and links at the top of the left hand menu on all these posts, and they run from Pain, disturbance, and “bad things” through Rosetta.

(2)  Yes, sensations are “impersonal” if we are talking about the electrical and chemical activity in our bodies.  The scientific definition of pain mentioned above distinguishes between nociception as “objective” and pain as “subjective.”  Another text referenced in that post labels nociception as “physiological” and pain as “psychological.”  I questioned these dichotomies, but these texts make an important, relevant point:  pain occurs when someone experiences these physical sensations.  If no one is aware of these electrical and chemical activities, no one feels pain.

We need to be careful here not to reintroduce the dichotomies that the scientists used (objective/subject, physiological/psychological) or the dichotomy implicit in “impersonal” (i.e., as opposed to “personal”).  Feeling pain is not a process where one thing (mind, me, or whatever) experiences another, distinct thing (nociception, nervous activity).  One of the best 20th century scientists of pain, Ronald Melzack, tries to express this complex of interactivity as a “neuromatrix” of pain.

Earlier, I quoted what the Dutch physician and philosopher F.J.J. Buytendijk has to say about this dynamic in his exploration of “the underlying principle of the phenomenon of pain, namely, the relationship … between self and body.”  Buytendijk’s observation bears repeating in this context.

Pain is hurtful only because it is a state of conflict between some part of our body and the centre of our personality. …  Pain is the sensation of crisis and tension, where our normal relationship with our body seems to be destroyed, while it asserts itself in protest in one of its parts.  We are conscious of the fact that the injured part belongs to us, but we are incapable of adequate reaction.  We must do something and we say to ourselves over and over again: ‘Painfulness is what we neglect to do.’  Buytendijk 57

Buytendijk is quoting Viktor von Weizsäcker, a German physician and physiologist.  The implication in Weizsäcker’s word “neglect” is relevant to the recent discussion that led to Rudi’s comment.  Weizsäcker is not blaming the victim; rather, he is trying to express how we become aware of what our body is doing as something we want to stop.

Elaine Scarry describes this becoming aware with the preposition “against” when she defines pain as:

a pure physical experience of negation, an immediate sensory rendering of ‘against,’ of something being against one, and of something one must be against.  Even though it occurs within oneself, it is at once identified as ‘not oneself,’ ‘not me,’ as something so alien that it must right now be gotten rid of. (52)

I’ve been using the interjection Not! when talking about pain. We haven’t opted in to pain, but we do want to opt out.  Some people confuse becoming aware with opting in to pain.

(3)  If pain arises when I see physical sensations as mine, but I see them as “against” me, as Not! me, where does that leave suffering?  If pain is already “mine,” how does seeing pain as “mine” lead to suffering?  Many Buddhists will see Rudi’s aphorisms as a summary of an idea that has been given a number of English names—dependent origination, interdependent origination, dependent co-arising.  The central concept is not very complicated—everything has causes, usually many, interacting causes.  It gets complex when this concept is used to analyze the causes for dukkha, i.e., suffering and related phenomena. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an e-book which does as good a job as any in clarifying the concept.)

It seems to me that Rudi’s connection between suffering and “mine” refers to two of the steps in the chain leading to suffering—grasping (tanhā) and clinging (upādāna).  It is beyond the scope of this post, and beyond my abilities, to thoroughly analyze and clarify these concepts.  But, in the context of heading off tendencies to blame the victim for suffering, it is important to challenge the connotations of the English words “grasping” and “clinging.”  Both words imply a conscious, moral culpability that may not occur in the Pali words tanhā and upādāna.  Two of the suttas in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, the Digha Nikaya (15.2, 22.19), talk about grasping and clinging as conditions for suffering, both of which are also conditioned.  Both suttas discuss clinging and grasping more as just occurring when we sense, when we perceive, and when we think.  Like becoming aware of aversive physical sensations, tanhā and upādāna do not necessarily involve conscious choices that lead to pain and suffering.

(4)  “No self, no suffering” expresses the intent of the Buddha’s teachings.  If suffering arises from certain conditions, then we can free ourselves from suffering by reversing these conditions.  On the other hand, this short phrase both contradicts basic Buddhist teaching and provides another excuse for blaming the victim.  This is not a criticism of Rudi.  Such problems are just inherent in aphorisms in the same way the pain is inherent in becoming aware of sensation.

First, “no self” is one of the three marks of existence along with suffering and impermanence. (Dhammapada 277-279)  On the face of it, this aphorism says that one mark (no self) contravenes the other (suffering).  But that is not what Rudi meant.

Secondly, I do not think that Rudi meant what some people would take this aphorism to mean, i.e., that as long as we think of ourselves as substantive individuals, we are consciously choosing the conditions for suffering.  I do not mean that selfishness and self-centeredness don’t lead to suffering.  I’m just saying that it’s a mistake to blame all instances of pain and suffering on the one in pain.

***

Questions that do not help us become free of pain and suffering, that do not help us act freely in this world to free others of pain and suffering—such questions are not worth answering.  In writing the above, I have strived to pay attention to what questions are skillful and what are not worth answering, even when I seem to sound abstract and theoretical.  (By the way, I emphasize “in this world” because this is the path of the bodhisattva finding nibbāna in samsāra.  Obviously that aside is meant for my Buddhist readers.  In that vein, I would add that Mahayana teachers may have clarified the bodhisattva path, but I do not think that compassion for others is found only in Mahayana teaching and practice.)

 

3 Comments

  1. Comment by rudi

    “And how is a monk a noble one with banner lowered, burden placed down, unfettered? There is the case where a monk’s conceit ‘I am’ is abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. This is how a monk is a noble one with banner lowered, burden placed down, unfettered.
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Rudi, the teaching in the Alagaddupama Sutta regarding views on “self” are the same as in the Sabbasava Sutta (read the Six-Views section, almost the same wording). FWIW, if we are going use the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation (and we are, both from the Access to Insight site) than one must also read the introduction for his exegesis of the overall text (I like his “take” on the concept of a “cosmic self”).

    As for any Advaita Vedanta text, we both know each other’s Dualist/Non-Dualist positions so you would know that I grant them no truck more than any other wisdom literature in general. I can’t validate any concept that I have not personally experienced or can internalize.
    Also, it is very good to see you posting again. I personally have missed your views, wit and your ability to act as an intellectual whetstone. Muy missed.

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Rudi, FWIW, it is also good to provide context for quotes -note the verses following the one you quoted :
    “Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some brahmans and contemplatives [who say], ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.’ But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable brahmans and contemplatives [who say], ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.’
    “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress. And if others insult, abuse, taunt, bother, & harass the Tathagata for that, he feels no hatred, no resentment, no dissatisfaction of heart because of that. And if others honor, respect, revere, & venerate the Tathagata for that, he feels no joy, no happiness, no elation of heart because of that. And if others honor, respect, revere, & venerate the Tathagata for that, he thinks, ‘They do me such service at this that has already been comprehended.’
    As I have previously pointed out, within the Canon, the Buddha’s teaching on self is usually in some way a variation of the teaching on anatta – on the concept of “self”, as we normally use the term, he was overall silent.
    However, all this has to be an a tangent to the discussion of “pain” because whatever the reason, pain is perceived by some medium.

    Comment by rudi

    Mark seems to miss the point of the discussion from which his quote is taken. The Buddha is making the point that any and all attempts at “I-making,” including any notion of no-self (which is actually only a more subtle form of self) must necessarily end in disappointment. The Buddha’s questions repeatedly demonstrate that futility. Why? To put a stop once and for all to the search for something which is simply not there, in this case for the self.
    Just as an oil lamp goes out when no longer furnished with oil, so too “One discerns that with the break-up of the body, after the termination of life, all that is sensed, not being relished, will grow cold right here.” And, when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation; and as MN 140 points out, when one is truly unagitated one is unbound. The raft has reached the shore, and one can leave it there — free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.
    The point is not that any discussion of the self is “a thicket of views” and never objectively provable but that the impulse toward “I-building” is the “oil” that helps propel the raft to the other shore. It is the full realization of the futility of this impulse that allows the seeker to eventually abandon the raft, free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.
    “‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? ‘I am’ is a construing. ‘I am this’ is a construing. ‘I shall be’ is a construing. ‘I shall not be’… ‘I shall be possessed of form’… ‘I shall not be possessed of form’… ‘I shall be percipient’… ‘I shall not be percipient’… ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient’ is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace.”
    Pain become “mine,” when you see yourself as separate. “Objectively provable” does not equate with “externally observable.” You are in pain because you continue to see yourself as separate, because you resist.

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Rudi said: Why? To put a stop once and for all to the search for something which is simply not there, in this case for the self.
    Motivations are obviously able to be inferred, but the text states none other than that such musings were futile or confusing as shown in the response given in SN 44.10 .
    MN 22
    Again I defer to the Thanissaro Bhikkhu introduction wherein he states in summary:
    …the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them……
    MN 140
    From my reading of the text, including your quote, this appears to me to be a teaching on two things, discernment and dependent arising and therefore on to the elimination of suffering/”stress”. You would appear to be basing your perception of non-dualism on the passages regarding the attributes of a realized sage which would give the sage supernatural powers also. However, if I were to take this discourse “literally” and try to apply it to a teaching on self I would say it would have to also teach “eternalism” and definitely a soul of some form (which I don’t think it does).
    “Monks, the clansman Pukkusati was wise. He practiced the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma and did not pester me with issues related to the Dhamma. With the destruction of the first five fetters, he has arisen spontaneously [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world.”
    I think this is metaphor for a state of mind even though Pukkusati had been killed by a cow.
    I realize that much of this is plain to the level of each of our understandings and personal experience – and to others it is open to myriad personal interpretations. I think the introduction to the text of MN 22 is probably the best place to leave this jousting on “self” for today
    “Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred…”
    As to pain and suffering – if they are all an illusion caused by dualism, why do do both people and sages get bit by snakes, need glasses etc. etc – you know, the old bus question?

    How is the desert doing?

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Rudi, you will mark that during this thread I several times noted that all this “self” debate was outside the Buddha’s “mission” of ending suffering/stress. Unworthy of consideration and disruptive of what should be done. Actually I sense that you are splitting a cosmic hair insisting on a particular framing when everybody agrees on the outcome. I never “professed” that there was any other objective to his teaching although, obviously, there many discourses about how to achieve the goal – I just happen to read your proffered sutta as being about discernment and dependent arising and not about non-dualism (MN 22 is also about right discernment and clinging to unneeded and/or outmoded views – the Snake and the Raft are a couplet) .
    As to my favorite bus, after all these years, the answer still seems allusive – blatantly stupid is where you left me, why would you expect other upon your return :-).
    LOL

    Comment by rudi

    Mark,
    re: Motivations are obviously able to be inferred.
    I defer to the Thanissaro Bhikkhu introduction:
    Now, because the sense of self is a product of “I-making,” this question seeks to do nothing more than to induce disenchantment and dispassion for that process of I-making, so as to put a stop to it. Once that is accomplished, the teaching has fulfilled its purpose in putting an end to suffering and stress. That’s the safety of the further shore.

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Bows

    Comment by rudi

    klesha: any of the five hindrances to enlightenment, including ignorance, attachment, aversion, envy, and pride or belief in a separate self.

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Rudi, I am not sure of the source of your definitions – I have read several definitions of kilesa/defilements that do have this precise wording – but I do not wish to belabor the point any further – as to “I-making” in the Thanissaro Bhikkhu introduction to MN22 it obviously has to be read in it’s entirety, we can both take quotes from it to prove a position ie
    Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them.
    I concede the point inasmuch as your position can be inferred from selectively chosen passages from this exegesis , but I personally (that is, as in IMO) do not think that is the point of the totality – which I have repeatedly summarized as “put that aside, it is a thicket of views and “when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation”
    I do not see this sutta as a non-dualism discourse but about “views”, their value, or lack of, and the proper discernment thereof
    as to definitions:
    kilesa:
    Defilement — lobha (passion), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion) in their various forms, which include such things as greed, malevolence, anger, rancor, hypocrisy, arrogance, envy, miserliness, dishonesty, boastfulness, obstinacy, violence, pride, conceit, intoxication, and complacency.
    You have always been my teacher and I appreciate all that you have taught and often forced me to learn, but there is that raft thingy also 🙂
    Gassho

    Comment by Mark Drew

    Measure twice, cut once – sorry for all the editing but on re-reading I see/saw several instances where my brain has been faster than my fingers and I omitted several (many) crucial words. No actual deleted posts – just trying to type what I am actually thinking and taking several tries to get it done – and I am now going to quit rereading so if other stuff is wrong just read what I really meant.
    Comment by rudi

    You say,
    I do not see this sutta as a non-dualism discourse but about “views”, their value, or lack of, and the proper discernment thereof
    “the point of the totality” as you call it, can only be understood from a complete reading of the text. Your problem is that you suffer from a serious hangup, or “klesha,” as it were. You are preoccupied with the self/no-self discussion in particular and the non-dualism discussion, in general. In this instance you got hung up on a part of the statement that you have chosen to quote in support of your “position” and thereby failed to see the implications inherent the statement itself.
    Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them.
    First of all, according to the opening sentence in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction is: This is a discourse about clinging to views (ditthi)
    Why drop them? Why does the Buddha recommend dropping them? Why drop the various views of self? Because, as you steadfastly refuse to acknowledge, “when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation.”
    TB’s introduction goes on: The first section of the discourse, leading up to the simile of the water-snake, focuses on the danger of misapprehending the Dhamma in general, and particularly the teachings on sensuality.
    Taken together, these two similes (one of the water snake and one of the raft) set the stage for the remainder of the discourse, which focuses on the teaching of not-self. This is one of the most easily misapprehended teachings in the Canon largely because it is possible to draw the wrong inferences from it.
    And then, in summation (part of which I quoted and part of which you quoted):
    Thus it is important to focus on how the Dhamma is taught: Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them. For example, in his standard series of questions building on the logic of the inconstancy and stress of the aggregates, he does not say that because the aggregates are inconstant and stressful there is no self. He simply asks, [The question] When they are inconstant and stressful, is it proper to assume that they are “me, my self, what I am”? Now, because the sense of self is a product of “I-making,” this question seeks to do nothing more than to induce disenchantment and dispassion for that process of I-making, so as to put a stop to it. Once that is accomplished, the teaching has fulfilled its purpose in putting an end to suffering and stress. That’s the safety of the further shore. As the Buddha says in this discourse, “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress.” As he also says here, when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation; and as MN 140 points out, when one is truly unagitated one is unbound. The raft has reached the shore, and one can leave it there — free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.
    Having now reviewed TB’s introduction in its entirety, I venture to say again that this discourse is meant to accomplish one thing, and one thing only, the cessation of stress/agitation: “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress.” As he also says here, when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation; and as MN 140 points out, when one is truly unagitated one is unbound. The raft has reached the shore, and one can leave it there — free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.
    The question posed by Kenneth is, When does pain become “mine”? My response was, When you see yourself as separate, followed by a quote from Astavakra Gita.
    Give up the illusion Of the separate self.
    Give up the feeling,
    Within or without,
    That you are this or that.
    My child, Because you
    think you are the body, For a long time you have been bound.
    Know you are pure awareness.
    With this knowledge as your sword
    Cut through your chains.
    And be happy!
    If my conclusion still evades you, then I must fold up my tent and give up on you altogether. Enough said.

  2. Comment by Mark Drew
    Rudi has seen this quoted somewhere near to a zillion times – so once more time will not hurt:
    “This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’
    “As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”
    The doctrine of anatta is basically one of dependent arising – the issue of a “self” is one that the Buddha addressed directly only once in the Pali Canon and this was to Vacchagotta and the answer was no-answer. You will find many discourses on what a “self” is not but they more or less are discourses on anatta restated.
    However, the proposition/question of this overall thread was “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” – along the way it segued to is even pain optional and tangentially to “self”. FWIW, my sense of it all is that the experience of pain (physical or mental) is real (it comes to one and all and the absence of it is in itself a disease) and one’s reaction to that pain is governed by various mental and/or physical conditioning(s). Suffering may, or may not, be experienced depending on the disposition of one’s mind; and finally, all conjectures on “self” are “a thicket of views” and never objectively provable….pain and/or suffering, OTOH, are all too often externally observable.

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