HomeAll PostsNotes: fourth event – The Incompleteness Theorem


Notes for talk four in the 2014 dhamma talk series The Incompleteness Theorem Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.

Maths was not my strong suit. And I have little understanding of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Suffice to say that they say, more or less, that you can’t say anything about maths that will always be both complete and consistent. Roughly.


But that does sound a lot like Ajahn Chah’s constant reminder that everything is ไม่แน่ – uncertain.

Dukkha, or ‘suffering’ is the first Noble Truth, and the foundation on which Buddhism rests. Is that a strange notion?

I met a man who thought so. He’d come to the monastery from Russia. He had read about enlightenment, and thought WOW! So he came for a 3 week retreat, with the intention to get enlightened and then go back to the newly liberated Russia to teach it. Six months later, when he actually did head back to Russia, he thought he had it figured out.

All religions teach there is something wrong. And then they provide you with the only cure. Catholics have their Sin, and Buddhism has suffering.”

He makes a valid point actually. But for many people, the fact that saints and sages around the world have talked about some kind of awakening spiritual goal, suggests that there is more to it.

hermitIn fact all religions, and many other ‘independents’ also, have attested to there being an ultimate goal – a summum bonum of existence. Catholics have Saint Teresa De Avila, or the darker and heavier Saint John of the Cross. There is the Christian Cloud of Unknowing. Islam has the Sufi tradition. And of course India has many special beings, ancient and modern who attest to the Ultimate Liberation.

Liberation from what? According to Buddhism, from ‘suffering’.

There is that, which is unborn, uncreated, unformed & unconstructed! If, Bhikkhus, there was not this unborn, uncreated, unformed and unconstructed, no escape from what is born, created, formed & constructed could ever be realized… But since there indeed exists that, which is utterly unborn, uncreated, unformed and unconstructed, the escape from this born, created, formed & constructed state can therefore indeed be realized, explained and made known right here and now! (Udana)

We are not really talking about extreme suffering in this case. Not saving people who need water or food. Or are in want of a medical treatment. We are referring to a more existential kind of suffering. Perhaps this is why Buddhism has become a middle class pursuit. Perhaps when the physical situation in a society is critical, a more engaged religion is needed? Only when basic needs are met and we have time to spare, can we humans turn to the deeper problems.

Suffice to say that most of us here do have resources. We do have water, power, medical care. We have shelter and clothes. We have a privileged situation, and we should make the most of it. There is no virtue in being poor or unkept.

I recall an travellor I met in India some 20 years ago. He was American, and travelling around Indian without any shoes. He made a big deal about it too. It was kind of ‘cool’ for him. One Indian summed it up.

we don’t like to see this. It is not desirable to have no shoes. The people who have no shoes want them. And they should have them. Don’t come here without shoes thinking we will be impressed

In the same way, even though there is drastic suffering around in the world, if there is a chance of spiritual enlightenment, then we should develop it. Hopefully we will be doing our part in keeping this path and teaching alive.

Another Indian I met was working at the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. This is the organisation of Mother Teresa. He was not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, so he worked there as a security guard. He was covered from head to foot in ringworm. It is easily treated in its beginning stages. But he had not been so lucky.

Hanging around with him at the gate, I did not feel it was my lot to do the voluntary work. I admired the many volunteers But to my mind, if Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta, Ramana Maharshi, Buddha and many others are correct, and enlightenment is real, then it is worth seeking. The guard on the gate thought so too, and did all he could to encourage me to go to Thailand and ordain. Sadhu!

All theory leads back to the practise.

Sati-sampajanya : Mindfulness

Sati = to recollect, to call into the mind. If I ask your mothers name, or your town of birth, that is Sati acting right there. It is not the same as memory, but is closely related. The direct English equivalent is ‘recollect’.

There are many forms of Sati practise. To recollect your own mortality for instance. There is also recollection of the Buddha’s qualities or my own favourite, recollection of ‘stilling’.

One of the topics for sati is ‘sampajanya‘. This is often translated as ‘clear comprehension’. But it means your own awareness. Or what we might mean in English as your consciousness (though ‘consciousness’ is usually a translation of another word in the Pali, vinnyana, which has a slightly different meaning).

So, to recollect your own awareness. That’s the practise. Mindfulness.

Much has been said and taught about this practise. But here I want to point out two of the insights.

First is your own body. See how it moves. Or just look around you and see how other people move. All the time. Gyrating. Shuffling. Shifting about.

My own teacher had Parkinson’s disease, and he was not able to shift his weight, except with great effort. It was very painful and uncomfortable for him. If you can’t shuffle, you will experience the suffering of the body.

If as they say, the body is a temple, then it is a temple of suffering. Movement hides the suffering.

Is that true? Take a look. Keep your attention open. Maintain the awareness of your own consciousness. And take a look at the body. Movement feels good. But really it just distracts from the natural suffering of the body.

All the more reason of course, to look after the body well. And to develop yoga, Qi Gong and other disciplines that balance the body (and make it feel good).

In Buddhism santati, movement, hides the pain of the body.

The same is true of the mind. See how it too shuffles. How it can’t stop still. How it feels uncomfortable when it is left with nothing but itself to focus on.

This is why meditation is not for everyone. It takes some patience and some insight to really be willing to go in there!

The movement of the mind hides the suffering. You can feel it. Stop, and call your own awareness into attention. Shortly you will be a little uncomfortable. The thinking becomes a burden. The mind just won’t be still!

But as soon as you release the attention off into the story – the story of thinking, then the suffering disappears. Engaging in a pass time brings relief. We are born daydreamers.

But the daydream only brings temporary distraction from the real nature of the mind.

But don’t worry. This is a beautiful thing. Watching the ‘suffering’ nature of experience breaks your attachment to it. Slowly maybe, but it occurs. Liberation of the mind becomes more apparent. Liberation from being caught in any kind of object. You learn to be awake, aware, and to just be.

Alternative Terms

You can note here that ‘suffering’ is not such a good translation. Since it is the word we use in Buddhism, we should keep using it. Just to be clear what we are talking about.

The original word is Dukkha. And this term carries the idea of a wheel that is not quite balanced properly. It shakes and trembles. Dukkha is not dynamite. Nor is it the devil or Grim Reaper. It is that which shakes the mind. An Enlightened person, in Buddhism, is called one who is ‘unshakable’.

Other translations might be ‘unsatisfactoriness’, ‘conflict’, ‘instability’, ‘dis-ease’, or the favoured term of one of the world’s best Pali translators Thanissaro Bhikkhu, ‘stress’. Note, that it’s not stress as in ‘a bit stressed out’. Better to think of it as stress in the engineering sense, of an item like a bridge, that is under a constant stress.

Any which way you call it, better to know it directly. You feel it in the meditation – the suffering of the body and the suffering of the mind which is covered by movement. Being still, gives you the insight.

It is this rather more subtle feeling that becomes clear in a society that has enough provisions. Did you notice that the richer a society gets, the more are its wants? Basic societies just want water, food, peace, and maybe a TV as a luxury item. Richer societies have no end of wants. Witness the iPhone queues – just for the sake of an upgrade that has a fingerprint scanner!

Richer societies refine their level of suffering while advertisers provide endless promising solutions!

Here’s one of my favourites : Neuview Glasses.

“Now NeuView Sunglasses offer you a non-pharmaceutical way to lower your stress and anxiety.”

neuviewRead the kind of claims they make (which may even be true). They are tying into this unease that we still feel despite having all our necessities met!

Try it out – do these kind of products really reduce this sense of unease? Or do they just ease someone’s bank account? Or:

“Existing studies have shown that we have way too many free radicals floating around in our bodies. These free radicals often cause discomfort, pain, inflammation, listlessness. They take a toll on our bodies.”

This is the claim of a company who also want to reduce your subtle suffering. Pluggz shoes will ‘ground’ you and let lovely earthy electrons flow around your body! Wow, the end of suffering! And all this time I thought you had to do years of meditation!

“When we go barefoot and directly connect to the ground we absorb the earth’s energy in the form of electrons. These electrons are what enable us to get grounded. Being grounded makes us feel better and even more importantly, it’s fantastic for our bodies.”

Walking barefoot is kind of nice. But really? There is even a movie about it!

Sometimes I wonder – money, advertising, investment … all to reduce ‘suffering’ by a fraction How much ‘healing’ does going barefoot enable? And yet here we are with a real meditation lineage, that can truly change people and society!! That does not get a fraction of the funding.

Three Levels of Suffering

There are numerous ways to define dukkha in the Buddhist model. The one mentioned in the talk is:

  • Dukkha Dhukkhata – painful suffering – that which is painful, sharp, difficult to bear, wither of the body or of the mind
  • Viparinama Dukkhuata – suffering that comes from change – absolutely nothing stays in the mind for more than a few moments, despite our best efforts to create a stable environment
  • Sankhara Dukkhata – having any kind of mind state, any kind of intentionality, is a kind of suffering. In deep meditation you see this – when the mind moves, it feels incomplete.

The Case for Incompleteness

In 1956 the famous Ajahn Dune gave this summary of the Four Noble Truths:

“The mind sent outside is the origination of suffering.
The result of the mind sent outside is suffering.
The mind seeing the mind is the path.
The result of the mind seeing the mind is the cessation of suffering.”
(Gifts He Left Behind full text)

A very Zen like statement.

The mind going outside itself is often described by the term asava – or ‘outflowing’. The idea is that the citta, the pure consciousness, goes outside of itself into the world and picks up objects of attention.

You can see this in action. Can you put your attention on sounds right now? Can you pick out the trumpet in a Jazz record? Can you feel the feeling in your big toe? Can you taste the sensations on your tongue right now? This is ‘attention’ (manasikara) moving around your experience.

When you put your attention on something you will get either liking or disliking. It’s also possible to have neutral feeling though mostly humans put their attention on what they like or dislike.

When you like/dislike something, then craving is stimulated. That means you really want to get that object or get rid of it. You want to change it or you want to keep it. The craving keeps the object in the field of attention. Is it possible to like or dislike something that you are not paying attention to?

It might be, according to psychology, but we can see the merits of the question nonetheless. When you stop paying attention to something the craving quickly vanishes. Thinking, as mentioned last week, has the effect of throwing attention back on to an object.

Note the quality of desire. It is a feeling of lack. It tells you that you that experience is not good enough, and needs to be changed. The feeling of lack whispers to ‘This thing needs to change’.

It is a feeling of incompleteness – which is why this is a good translation for dukkha!

When you get the object of desire (even if it is getting rid of some feeling you don’t like) you get a moment of happiness. Just like we observed earlier with the body – when you move it feels nice. But it only hides the feeling of bodily suffering. It does not remove it.

Same for getting the object of desire. It gives a feeling of satiety only for a few moments. In fact, research (that I can’t find right now) suggests the happiest moment is just before you get what you want. (That means there is something to be said for window shopping!)

This seeking after a moment of satisfaction by getting something you want becomes a habit. And habit is a good term for Karma.

Interestingly there is research showing a ‘pleasure’ area of the brain. This is not pleasant experiences, but is the part that lights up when you get a pleasant experience. Even drugs, only are desirable in so far as they can light up this particular area of the brain.

This is very interesting! Think about it. You can get a tiny hair of an electrode plugged into the brain and get endless pleasure that won’t make you fat, pregnant or poor! Shouldn’t we know about this? What about people who are really suffering painful disease? Should they be given this option? Depressed patients? Would it curb our consumeristic society that seems to never get enough? If we can have pure pleasure at the press of a button, we would not want to buy stuff!

Would the government tax it? Or give you 100 button presses if you do pay your taxes on time?

It is interesting to know this has been done to a human being. And not recently – it is old technology. Why is it so creepy? It is your right after all, if you are American, to pursue happiness!

I’ll leave you to read the full article here. it raises many interesting questions.

Comments are closed.