1. The Dharma Samtana

* by Clive Sherlock

The Middle Way  (Volume 72: 3) November 1997

Once we have settled into the practice, how we function as human beings becomes apparent, and so we start to get to know ourselves. There is a continuing stream of thought-moments, each one giving way to the next. These moments of consciousness are called dharmas, elements of consciousness, and their flow is likened to the flow of a stream called the dharma-samtana (samtana meaning stream, flow).

With awareness we can be here with what is: silence . . . an aeroplane flies overhead . . . somebody sneezes . . . a thought arises . . . silence . . . The flow of moments of consciousness is always present without a break but we are not always aware of this. Every moment of consciousness is a dharma arising, coming to be, evolving, decaying, and ceasing to be, as the next one arises, evolves and ceases to be, and so on, giving rise to a stream that is always changing, in flux, impermanent. The contents of the stream, which constitute consciousness, are peculiar to each of us because what occurs inside is different in each of us. The Buddha said that all compounded things are constantly changing; that there is no ” I “, no self, that remains constant. But it seems to us that there is, that I am constant while the phenomena of the world about me change. Consciousness is an ever changing series of reflections of images of the outer and inner worlds. What makes up consciousness from moment to moment is a series of dharmas which include thoughts, ideas, mental images, sense impressions, awareness and so on. We can see a tree and be aware – know we are seeing a tree – or we can see a tree and not be aware – not know we are seeing a tree.

The purpose of Buddhist practice is to discover life by living it in conscious awareness – not speculating about it and so living it unawares. The way that leads to this conscious awareness involves paying careful attention to what is being done now. Attentive awareness is often translated as mindfulness, which has the sense of (my) watching, whereas the meaning in Buddhism is not personal to me, ” I “, as an agent doing the watching. It is just awareness and does not involve, or need, a doer: awareness ” is “.

Life cannot be realized through conceptual thought, although most of us like to think it can and have firmly held beliefs about this. We habitually cling to what we like and 

reject what we do not like and so cannot live life freely as it is:pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent. For example, listening to what is being said now, the talk dominates the flow of dharmas. But one person might not be listening because he is thinking of how he liked that last point and all the implications of it; another is daydreaming; another thinking about what he is going to do this afternoon; and yet another of what he disagrees with. All such thoughts depend on the balance of forces, dharmas, within us.

As what is heard comes in, it is interpreted, assessed, criticized and judged according to our individual make-up. We might say, ” Yes, I agree with that, it makes sense. ” Or we might say, ” I’m m not sure about that “. In fact, I disagree with it. ” It is a matter of whether what is heard matches our existing ideas and, if not, what other factors (such as the desire to change or to follow the Buddha’s Path), which are also dharmas, influence us in accepting what is heard or rejecting it and sticking to our own ideas. This illustrates how dharmas as forces influence each other and so mould us, affecting what we do and so our lives generally.

The stream of consciousness, dharma-samtana, is changing all the time as we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The dharma elements flow like a stream which is forever evolving as other influences shape it and alter its direction. The dharmas in each stream can affect those in other streams in this individual, thus changing his or her make-up, and also the dharmas in other individuals, thus influencing them. Thoughts, sensations and emotions arise due to causes, the most significant of which are the effects of past actions. These effects manifest now because of present conditions. Having arisen, dharmas exert their influence by conditioning those dharmas arising in their wake in the next moment in the flow. Each dharma has been influenced and shaped by its predecessor. In this way what is put into the stream now has effects in the future and is the basis of karma.

By no means are we aware of all dharmas but they nevertheless exert their influences. Having been to the Summer School we might find that in a few weeks something reminds us of what was heard here. This in turn might influence our reactions, which will therefore have changed because of what entered the dharma-samtana, the stream of dharmas, earlier. In this way, the effects of practising the Buddha-dharma now will come into play weeks, or even years, later depending on the situation. Life is always changing, always projecting into the future and becoming. How we react to what comes in through the senses will set in motion new streams of dharmas.