Simple beings

What are simple beings?

Vasubandhu talks about two kinds of beings, which he calls substantial beings and conceptual beings. Substantial beings, he says, are those that cannot be broken into smaller physical pieces and cannot be analyzed by the mind into more basic ideas. An example he gives of substantial being is water. Presumably what would also count as a substantial being in his way of looking at the world is any atom of the five basic elements, namely, earth, water, fire, air and ether. As long as we look at the world as Vasubandhu did, it is fairly clear that a substantial being is a simple being, an irreducible whole, that can serve as a component of a macroscopic being. If an earth atom is a simple being, then a clay pot or a turkey vulture, being composed of many atoms and several types of atom, is a complex being. In the same way that a nation, as a conceptual fiction, is less real than the individuals that the nation comprises, a clay pot, as a conceptual fiction, is less real than the earth, water, fire and air atoms of which it is composed.

While the examples that Vasubandhu uses to illustrate the difference between a substantial being and a conceptual being are material in nature, it is important to realize that psychological events and states are considered components of a conscious being to the same extent that physical components are. A turkey vulture is an animate object, that is a physical body that is associated with cognitive events such as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and with psychological events such as motivations to approach or avoid what is sensed and recollections of previous sensations. All these cognitive and mnemonic and volitional episodes can be considered components of the complex entity known as a turkey vulture. In the same way that a nation is less real than the individuals that constitute it, a turkey vulture is less real than the earth, water, fire and air atoms that form the fictional complex we call its body and the cognitive, mnemonic and volitional episodes that form the fictional complex we call its mind.

One of the many contemplative exercises available for Buddhists to do is to analyze one’s own being into its many component parts. A beginning point for this exercise is to analyze the physical body into its parts, such as head hair, body hair, finger- and toe-nails, teeth, skin and so forth. The exercise is to cultivate the habit of thinking of a body as a collection of internal organs and tissues and gases and fluids. One can then analyze the various parts of the anatomy into their chemical components. There are various reasons given for why this exercise is beneficial. The fifth-century Indian commentator Buddhaghosa offers a memorable analogy. Suppose a person has a calf and takes it to market to be slaughtered and butchered. At the end of the process, the various parts of the calf will be displayed for sale. Customers will see rib roasts, rump roasts, steaks, ground muscles, brisket, liver, kidney, heart, brains, tripe, tongue and pizzle on display and will think about which cuts to buy and how to prepare them for a meal. The customer will not think of them as body parts, much less as a calf. Once the animal is cut into pieces, the notion of its being an animal has all but vanished, and so have the unpleasant psychological reactions one might have to the animal’s former life and its death. In much the same way, if a meditator looks with the mind’s eye at the skull, the brain, the eyeballs, the tears, the tongue, the teeth, the saliva, the snot in the nostrils and so on down through the body, one will be less inclined to see oneself as something that cannot be divided, that is, an individual. We saw above how Śāntideva puts a version of this technique to use in dissipating anger.

This mental analysis of the person into a set of interconnected physical and psychological pieces, the connections between which can be broken, is not seen merely as a trick to play on oneself to talk oneself out of anger or sexual desire. Rather, the analysis is seen as a way at arriving at more basic and fundamental realities. A person is less real than a body and a mind. A body is less real than a head, a torso and an assortment of fingers. A head is less real than a skull and a brain and a pair of eyeballs. A skull is less real than a pile of atoms. The smaller and closer to being a fundamental, indivisible, not-further-analyzable particle something is, the more real it is. The more complex, composite and structured a thing is, the more its reality is conceptual in nature, that is, made up by the mind and a matter of subjective perception. Moreover, the more one is in touch with fundamental realities rather than mind-born fictions, the more healthy and happy one will be. A person’s well-being depends on developing the habit of yoniśo manaskāra. Such is the conviction of classical Buddhism.

Are there simple beings?