On understanding matter
By Kingsley Heendeniya
CDN / 14Feb2006
Matter: The concept and interpretation of matter [rupa] in the Teaching of the Buddha is unique. It is significantly different to physics.
Bertrand Russell defined 'matter' as: 'Physical things are those series of appearances whose matter obeys the laws of physics.' The material world experienced by our five senses and mind give rise to the notion - since the material world of one individual largely corresponds to that of another - that there is a general material world common to all individuals.
The Dhyani Buddha Vairocana.8th century A.D.Toshodaiji Monastery, Japan
'Natural science, in taking this concept as its starting-point and polishing it a little to remove irregularities, has no place for the individual and his sense experience (let alone mind-experience or imagination) for the material world of science is by definition utterly without a point of view (in relativity theory every point is a point of view, which comes to the same thing), it is uniformly and quite indifferently communal - it is essentially public. Consciousness, intention, perception, and feeling, not being public, are not a part of the universe of science.
Science is inherently incapable of understanding the nature of material change due to conscious action - which is concisely, reflexive exercise of preference of one available mode of behavior (or set of them) at the expense of others. (Quantum physics, in hoping to reinstate the 'observer' - even if only as a point of view -, is merely locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen). [Nanavira Thera, Notes on Dhamma, Vol. I, BCC, Sri Lanka, 2001, p. 99].
Consciousness is the presence of an object or idea [real or imaginary] in the five senses and mind. The phenomenon has two characteristics: inertia [patigha] and designation or name [adhivacana]. The inertia is 'rupa' or 'substance'. To be recognized as such, matter must be present for some time, however fleeting. Inertia can be understood also as the behaviour of matter.
The four modes of behaviour of matter [mahabhuta] are: earthy or persistent, resistant, or solid [patavi]; watery or cohesive [apo]; fiery or ripening, maturing [tejo]; airy or tense or distended, moving [vayo]. Space [akasa] is usually added but it has no standing of its own.
The designation or name of the phenomenon may also be seen as its appearance [vide, Russell, above]. This is the form adopted by the behaviour, as distinct from the behaviour itself.
It consists of the following, whether the presence of the phenomenon is (a) pleasant, unpleasant or neutral [vedana or feeling]; (b) recognition of its quality - shape, colour, smell, sound etc - or percepts [sanna or perception]; (c) significance or purpose [cetana or intention]; (d) engagement in experience [phassa or contact]; intentional direction of emphasis [manasikara or attention]. Contact specifies the kind of consciousness involved - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind-consciousness. Thus perception of fragrance specifies nose-consciousness. We cannot smell with our eyes. Experience is always selective. [There is more to be said but is outside the scope of this essay].
From the aforesaid, it will be noted that nama is the appearance of rupa. That is, what it looks like, its description; and conversely, rupa is the behaviour of nama. What is cognized is therefore namarupa. For example, the phenomenon of a fragrant red flower present in simultaneous eye and nose-consciousness will instantly evoke feeling.
Since the eye has a double faculty and can also ascertain touch sensitivity [that the flower is silky or smooth] the phenomenon is common to percepts of three senses. In other words, matter or rupa is independent of all consciousness. This is an extremely critical point to understand in Dhamma.
Cessation of matter
In the Kevaddhasutta [Digha I, 11] it is said that the question: 'Where do the mahabhuta finally cease?' is wrongly asked. It should be re-phrased: 'Where do they get no footing?' As noted above, matter is independent of all consciousness except for its presence in consciousness.
That is, matter cannot be said to exist. To say it exists, it must appear, even for a moment in time, whether real or imagined. Therefore, since it cannot be said to exist, it cannot cease. In other words, behaviour, in itself, does not involve consciousness, as perception does. In Dhamma terms, rupakkhanda is not phassapaccaya - conditioned by contact - as is sannakhanda.
A visual, auditory or any experience of the five senses and mind differ in consciousness but between them the difference is in matter (substance, inertia) and not in consciousness. What is the material difference between a blue thing and a red thing? They are simply different things or inertias. Thus difference in appearance (nama) is difference in consciousness (vinnana) or matter (rupa). Neither vinnana nor rupa, by itself, can appear or be manifest.
Consciousness by itself lacks substance. It is pure presence or existence without anything that is present. And matter by itself lacks presence or existence. It is pure substance or specification of which we cannot say 'it is' (i.e. it is present or absent) Appearance or manifestation must necessarily partake of an overlapping or imbrication of both vinnana and rupa (like tiles on a roof).
A simple superposition of two things each incapable of appearing would not produce appearance. Appearance, as it were, is sandwiched between vinnana and rupa: there must be rupa, and nama, and vinnana.
A general world would exist, where all experience is common to all individuals experiencing it, only if there is a general consciousness common to all. But this is a contradiction since consciousness and individuality are one. My consciousness and interpretation of a phenomenon in my consciousness does not necessarily evoke the same feelings and perception in another. Science cannot explain this change of matter or behavior with consciousness.
The behaviour [or matter] can get a footing in existence or in consciousness by being present in some form. With arising of consciousness, there is the arising of the mahabhuta.
As rupa in namarupa, the four mahabhuta get a borrowed existence as the behaviour of appearance, just as feeling, perception and intentions get a borrowed substance as the appearance of behavior.
Since namarupa is the necessary condition for consciousness [vinnana] - see the twelve-factored paticcasamuppada formulation -, with the cessation of namarupa, there is cessation of vinnana. The four mahabhuta now no longer get a footing in existence.
It is the end of existence. The consciousness of the arahat is anidassana, non-indicative. Phenomena do not present to a self. All subjectivity has ceased. He is freed from the nama-body. He experiences merely the elements of mahabhuta [and space] directly as objects. This is nibbana in the arahat. It is the aim of the Dhamma, here and now.
[PS: Note (a) the connectivity of Dhamma - opanayiko or leading onwards to full understanding or parinna (b) if matter is understood as in physics, nibbana would be impossible. Those interested to discuss further are invited to contact writer at 2866196 for an appointment.]