Withstand uncertainty, listen to its dissonance, without trying to master it. Embracing uncertainty, one is confronted with a strange paradox. Since uncertainty is, by definition, unstable and contradictory, one cannot fully identify with it, nor claim ownership over it. And yet, by endorsing uncertainty, one is not alienated from it either. Uncertainty cannot bound or yoke anything, it creates no obligation, it makes no promises. In its contingency, uncertainty reveals how anything in experience is completely gratuitous, and valuable, since it could well not have been there at all. This is the bright side of uncertainty, which discloses a profound meaningfulness, an open-endedness that surrounds what appears like an aura of value, dignity, depth. Too concerned with mastering or managing uncertainty, the construction of selfhood misses this aura and covers it up. However, there is really nothing to fear in what is uncertain.
In the last lecture, we saw how a core aspect of early Buddhist teaching turns on the issue of selfhood, or rather of ‘non-mastery.’ The point is not ontological, it does not concern whether or not the self exists, or what its true nature is. The Buddha’s teaching is pragmatic, it points to the need to face uncertainty upfront, it helps us to acknowledge that any attempt at mastery is doomed to fail and end in frustration. Behind this strategy, there is a sophisticated account of action. Action depends on intentionality, but intentionality in turn is conditioned by different bases. The Buddha’s analysis distinguishes mainly between two sets of bases: desire, aversion, and ignorance constitute a triplet that gives rise to the struggle for mastery and the sense of self, while their negatives (non-desire, non-aversion, non-ignorance) lead to the opposite result. In a nutshell, the sort of training and practice that the Buddha recommends in the discourses is very much about substituting the first threefold basis with the second. As a result, one eventually ceases to enact selfhood, which means refraining from any attempt at mastering uncertainty.
Relinquishing this attempt does not entail that one is overwhelmed by uncertainty. On the contrary, Buddhist training aims at a condition of needlessness, patience, resistance, tolerance, contentment, self-sufficiency, and autonomy. Ultimately, it aims at unshakable freedom. One who tries to master uncertainty will never achieve this goal. In fact, they will never become a master of anything. One who foregoes the attempt to master uncertainty can achieve this goal, they can reach fulfilment and constancy. As should be clear by now, this sort of training does not aim at reaching any particular state or content of experience. Unlike poietic practice, it does not aim at producing visions. Unlike anaesthetic trance, it does not aim at shutting down perception to generate an intransitive experience. Since both these aspects are elements of experience, they might be integrated in the training. However, the focus of practice remains on intentionality and its bases.
Here another paradox appears. Mastering uncertainty (enacting selfhood) is an attempt at exercising control over one’s condition. One acknowledges uncertainty, sees the threat in it, and tries to defuse that threat. The problem is that what is uncertain is structurally unsuitable for being fully mastered. The Buddha’s teaching is aimed at dissolving and letting go of the very attempt to master uncertainty. The training he presents does not consist in simply accepting things as they are, but requires a profound reshaping of intentionality at all levels of action (thought, speech, body). But isn’t this yet another form of mastery?
To make this paradox more apparent, we could say that the Buddha’s training aims at mastering the uncertainty of intentionality for the sake of (and in a way that leads to) eventually abandoning all mastery. This paradox has two consequences. The first is that, in the process of training, by attempting to master the uncertainty of intentionality, one will in fact enact a certain kind of selfhood. This is a strategic selfhood needed by practice, and its value is entirely instrumental. The fact that something is uncertain does not entail that it does not exist at all, and so uncertainty does not exclude some degree of limited control on events or conditions. The sort of selfhood enacted through practice takes stock of this limited degree of control and exploits it for the sake of relinquishing the need for control as such. The second consequence is that this attempt at mastering uncertainty is not aimed at actually achieving full mastery, but rather at exposing in its whole breadth and depth the impossibility of any mastery, and thus allowing a complete relinquishing of that very attempt.
The ordinary attitude of mastery is mostly built on the assumption that uncertainty can be mastered, and hence that a self can be really established. In the Buddha’s training, this attitude is reversed. A certain sense of self is enacted for the sake of exploring in a controlled, methodical, and deliberate way, the impossibility of genuinely obtaining full mastery over uncertainty, and thus realizing that mastery should be entirely abandoned. The Buddha’s approach exposes the deluded presumption that is nestled in the ordinary way of confronting mastery as something that could or should be achieved. This presumption is one of the most profound problems in the whole issue of mastery, since it entails that the project of full mastery is something genuinely achievable. Only when this presumption is abandoned, because its impossibility becomes overwhelmingly apparent, can ultimate freedom from the project of mastery be gained. While mastery is a practical attitude (something one does), it inevitably relies on views and assumptions about what can be done. The Buddha’s training aims at engaging in certain forms of acting for the sake of progressively clarifying the underpinning views that shape the understanding of action, by thus enabling the practitioner to expose those views that are ungrounded or untenable and to leave them behind.
How does one move in this direction? In the short Nibbāna-pañhā-sutta (‘Question on Extinction,’ SN 38.1), Sariputta, one of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, is asked precisely this question.
On one occasion, the excellent Sariputta was dwelling in the country of Magadha, near a village called Nalaka. Then, the renunciant Jambukhadako went to the excellent Sariputta. Having arrived, he exchanged greetings with him and then he set to one side. Once seated, the renunciant Jambukhadako said this to the excellent Sariputta:
‘Friend Sariputta, they say: extinction, extinction (nibbānaṁ)! Friend Sariputta, but what is this extinction?’
‘My friend, the destruction of lust (rāga), aversion (dosa), and confusion (moha): this is called extinction.’
‘Friend Sariputta, and is there a path (maggo), is there a way leading to (paṭipadā) the realization of this extinction?’
‘My friend, there is a path indeed, there is a way leading to the realization of extinction!’
‘Friend Sariputta, and what is this path, what is this way leading to the realization of extinction?’
‘My friend, behold, this noble eightfold path (ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo) is for the realization of extinction, that is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right recollectedness, right composure. My friend, this is the path, this is the way leading to the realization of extinction.’
‘My friend, this is an excellent path, this is an excellent way leading to the realization of extinction! Friend Sariputta, this is enough for non-intoxication (appamādāyā)!’ (SN 38.1)
Extinction (Pāli nibbāna, Sanskrit nirvāṇa) is a soteriological ideal shared among ancient Indian seekers. It plays with the metaphor of a fire going out. Insofar as fire is burning some fuel, it is attached to that fuel and bound to it. But when the burning ends, the fire itself is not annihilated, but rather reverts to a state of non-findability (according to the Indian view). That is, it cannot be located anywhere because it is simply unbound, free. The first question that Jambukhadako asks Sariputta concerns how nibbāna is specifically understood by the disciples of the Buddha. Sariputta then replies that nibbāna does not concern a particular content of experience, but the overall context in which any experience unfolds, namely, a context in which the threefold basis of desire (lust), aversion, and ignorance (confusion) has been extinguished. These three are also interpreted metaphorically as ‘three fires’ in other discourses (e.g. SN 35.28, Ud 3.10). Next, Jambukhadako asks whether Sariputta knows a method, a path that leads to this condition. Notice, the issue is not whether some experience of freedom can arise spontaneously. On the contrary, the issue is how can one deliberately train oneself to reach the envisaged goal of extinction. Is there a method, is there a path that leads one to extinguish greed, aversion, and ignorance? The answer is positive, the path to freedom is the noble eightfold path.
- Both these points are well discussed by Ajahn Ṭhānissaro, Selves & Nonself (2011), especially talks 5 and 7. ↵
- For instance, it is mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gītā 2.72 (trad. Feuerstein 2014, 117): ‘This is the brahmic state, O son-of-Prithā. Attaining this, [a person] is no [longer] deluded. Abiding therein also at the end-time [i.e. at death], he attains extinction in the world-ground (brahma-nirvāṇa).’ ↵
- For a detailed examination of this metaphorical background, see Ajahn Ṭhānissaro, The Mind like Fire Unbound. An Image in the Early Buddhist Discourses (1993). ↵