It’s no secret to readers of this blog that samskara has become one of my preeminent interests in the dharma. That interest is due in no small part to the fact that so few others seem to understand it, or to be able to explain it.
One of the problems we face is that many of the early translations of both sutras and Zen teachings were written by academics or philosophers (e.g., Dwight Goddard, Alan Watts, DT Suzuki, etc.) with little or no actual experience with meditation practice, and that later practioners incorporated those early translations into their teachings, confusion giving rise to more confusion. This is particularly evident in reading attempts to explain the Buddha’s Chain of Dependent Origination, especially the first three or four links in the chain. Typically, even good teachers just sidestep any real explanation with linguistic tricks or diverting anecdotes, and I got to wondering if that was due to its difficulty to explain, or if they themselves did not understand. My teacher says that the Buddha once said something like, “If you think the Chain of Dependent Origination is easy to understand, you’re not paying close enough attention.”
Part of the problem is the many different ways samskara has been translated. Translator and author (and sincere practioner) Bill Porter, who publishes under the name Red Pine, once noted that samskara has been variously translated in the past as impulse, volition, predisposition, and mental conformation, a list to which I would add “mental formation” and just “formation.” Porter’s own preferred translation was “memory,” which sheds some light on the subject but still misses the mark in my humble opinion.
My understanding of samskara, oddly enough, came not from any Buddhist or spiritual teachers but from neurologists such as Dr. Ramachandran and philosophers like David Chalmers. It was not until I literally stumbled across an article about linguistics that I discovered the term "schema," my own preferred translation of samskara, and reading about schema has led me to philosophers like Erich Fromm, whose “mental maps” and “frame of orientation” I believe are the same thing the Buddha referred to as samskara.
The maddeningly frustrating thing about our schema is that it is both subconscious and totally unavoidable. As long as we think, a schema is employed, and I can tell you from my limited first-hand encounters with and observations of American and Asian Zen teachers is that they are still subject to samskara. It is possible, I suppose, that in a Buddha’s complete perfect enlightenment (annutara samyak sambodhi) samskara is either avoided or managed so masterfully as to not be a factor. It has been said that a Buddha sees things as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be, or a little more poetically, that a Buddha does not see by the same light as we do.
Bertrand Russell once said that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain and sure of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Even though the Buddha told us never to take anything for granted, even his own teaching, without careful questioning and examination, we should at the same time raise great doubt about our own understandings and assumptions. I believe this is because our schema are only approximations of the truth. But even a concept like “I’m not sure of anything,” while a useful and wise assumption, is still filtered through our schema and on one level is both just another concept that came about due to our experiences and what we’ve come to learn. At the same time, it is still full of schematic assumptions such as the existence of an “I” and “things” and “sureness.”
Our schema are only approximations of the truth, but as Erich Fromm notes, they are not completely right nor completely wrong either. They’re just good enough to assist us in directing our life, and it is from that aspect of samskara that I think the translation “volition” or “impulse” was derived.
Recognition of samskara is useful in helping us understand both our own actions and thoughts, and also in understanding the thoughts, words, and actions of others, for developing tolerance for those who seem to think “differently.”
There also seems to be layers to our schema, just as a map may consist of several layers. At the deepest level, the level that gives rise to consciousness of self, there’s the division of the universe into self and other, interior and exterior. Our schema maps out the dividing line between where “we” end and where “other” begins. On top of that layer, we may add memories of the self not having enough of exterior things, be they material wealth or emotional rewards like love or recognition. If so, then on top of that layer we might then add a predisposition toward anger or jealousy or greed.
My teacher often talks about an ”if only” mentality. “If only I get that promotion” or “If only I were prettier.” The legendary Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma taught that we violate each of the precepts because we don’t accept the universe as it is. For example, we kill because we think the universe would be better “if only” some other person or being were not in it. We steal because we think the universe would be better “if only” I owned what someone else has. And so on. Each violation of the precepts is a failure to recognize the immaculate perfection of the world as it is. Recognizing and accepting the world as it is, not as we want it to be, helps us maintain the precepts, follow the Eight-Fold Path, and realize the Buddha Way. We need to let go of one-side egocentric views, and part of that process is recognizing and accepting the existence of samskara.
As I said, as long as we think, schema will still be employed, and I don’t think it’s necessary or even possible to try to avoid schema, except in the deepest samadhi of zazen. It’s worth noting that in that state of non-thinking, self-awareness – a result of samskara – also drops away. But in our conscious, thinking state, schema will always be present. What I do think is useful, though, is understanding how consciousness arises from samskara, and since human consciousness, as much as anything else, seems to separate us from the apparent external world, an understanding of the emptiness and impermanence of consciousness may lead us to greater intimacy with the rest of the universe and greater acceptance of that immaculate perfection.
I know I’m all over the place in the above and wish that I could find a way to discuss all this in a more logical framework, but it’s not an easy topic to get our heads around (it’s like the hand trying to grab the fist). If even the Buddha said it’s not easy to understand, who am I to disagree?
And yes, I am aware that everything I’m writing here has been filtered through my own schema.