“Wander in your proper range, your own ancestral territory: focused on the body in & of itself, focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.” ~Sakunagghi Sutta, translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
As phenomena flows into and within our senses, all we need is bare attention to just what is arising. Phenomena includes forms dancing into the eyes, sounds cascading off the ear drums, aromas wafting in the nasal cavities, flavors lighting up the tongue, tactile sensations activating the body, and thoughts swirling in the mind (thoughts are considered a sense in Buddhism). The ability to approach the world with bare attention to just what is arising is the “proper range” or “ancestoral territory” mapped out in this Sutta.
The Sutta opens with the story of a quail and hawk who enter into competition with one another. Both creatures leave their proper range and enter into combat and both end up maimed, the quail in the claws of the hawk, and the hawk with a broken breast. The Buddha uses the Pali word mara to describe the dangers of leaving ancestral territory. Mara, a mythological figure personifying death, is the insidious, impulsive, grasping tendency of every normal human being.” [i]
Like the quail and the hawk, we unconsciously allow the phenomena flowing into our senses to morph into needless conceptual proliferation. We surrender ancestral territory to longing and discontent, likes and dislikes, good and bad, and right and wrong. Phenomena arrives with an agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing…enticing quality that sparks the production of representations, abstractions and scenarios in our minds tethered to a sense-of-self positioned in opposition to others.
In this Sutta the Buddha holds out the possibility of living from a place of ancestral territory, resting in just what is arising in the senses. The Pali word for this refuge is satipatthana, our natural human capacity to be attentive to whatever is appearing in our being in an open, clear, nonintrusive manner. [ii]
It is important to root this Sutta in the biological processes involved in experiencing phenomena in the senses. In his book Conscilience, Edward O. Wilson describes what happens when the color red dances into our eyes. Wilson is a biologist and the author of two Pulitzer prize winning books, On Human Nature and The Ants.
When we see and speak of color, for example, visual information passes from the cones and interneurons of the retina through the thalamus to the visual cortex at the rear of the brain. After the information is codified and integrated anew at each step, through patterns of neuron firing, it then spreads forward to the speech centers of the lateral cortex. As a result, we first see red and then say “red”. Thinking about the phenomenon consists of adding more and more connections of pattern and meaning, and thus activating additional areas of the brain. The more novel and complicated the connections, the greater the amount of this spreading activation. The better the connections are learned by such experience, the more they are put on autopilot. [iii]
The place of bare attention to just what is arising in the senses is described as “The All” in the Sabba Sutta: “Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas.” This is the proper range before conceptual proliferation ejects us from an awareness of the present moment. “It might be assumed that we are always aware of the present,” writes Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “but this is a mirage.”
In ordinary consciousness the mind begins a cognitive process with some impression given in the present, but it does not stay with it. Instead it uses the immediate impression as a springboard for building blocks of mental constructs which remove it from the sheer facticity of the datum. The cognitive process is generally interpretive. The mind perceives its object free from conceptualization only briefly. Then, immediately after grasping the initial impression, it launches on a course of ideation by which it seeks to interpret the object to itself, to make it intelligible in terms of its own categories and assumptions. To bring this about the mind posits concepts, joins the concepts into constructs — sets of mutually corroborative concepts — then weaves the constructs together into complex interpretive schemes. In the end the original direct experience has been overrun by ideation and the presented object appears only dimly through dense layers of ideas and views, like the moon through a layer of clouds.” [iv]
Like the experience of phenomena in the senses, we can also root conceptual proliferation in biological processes. Biologist Edward O. Wilson goes on the write:
As energy enters the human being through the five senses, physical processes similar to seeing a red object multiply and combine to produce the mind. Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions…Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of such coding networks. Many are linked by the synchronized firing of the nerve cells at forty cycles per second, allowing the simultaneous internal mapping of multiple sensory impressions. Some of the impressions are real, fed by ongoing stimulation from outside the nervous system, while others are recalled from the memory banks of the cortex. All together they create scenarios that flow realistically back and forth through time. The scenarios are a virtual reality. They can either closely match pieces of the external world or depart indefinitely far from it. They recreate the past and cast up alternative futures that serve as choices for future thought and bodily action…The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity…As the scenarios of consciousness fly by, driven by stimuli and drawing upon memories of prior scenarios, they are weighted and modified by emotion. What is emotion? It is the modification of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity. [v]
The Buddha taught meditation practices to help us learn to live from the place of ancestral territory, resting in just what is arising in the senses. For example, by actively following the tactile sensations of the breath flowing in and out of our nostrils, we can experience just what is arising in the senses and witness the grasp of conceptual proliferation on our ordinary consciousness.
As I meditate…
Many, many distractions will arise. A torrent of thoughts and plans and images and aches and pains. It does not matter. Recognize that you’ve lost touch with an awareness of the breath [just what is arising] and simply come back. If you have to begin again and again and again in the course of one sitting, that’s the practice. That’s what meditation is. [vi]
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[i] Glenn Wallis, Basic Teachings of the Buddha, pg. 72
[ii] Ibid., pg. 73
[iii] Edward O. Wilson, Conscilience, pg. 117a
[iv] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path Way to the End of Suffering, pg. 76–77
[v] Edward O. Wilson, Conscilience, pgs. 119–120, 123
[vi] Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation, pgs. 34–35