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Franz Li

Latent Tendencies (Anusaya) & Our Mental Space

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This morning I was thinking about the monks and others who will soon emerge from the 3-month rain retreat. How we admire and envy the minds that have been cleansed of the usual chatters, everyday worries, dealings, trivia, wrong views and unwholesome latent tendencies.

Speaking of latent tendencies, I recall what my friend told me about her 18-yr daughter a while ago. She got an essay assignment. The topic: pick and write about an interesting event that happened recently. What do typical 18-year old girls find interesting? The obvious choices are dating, fashion, parties, celebrities, TV shows, etc. She wrote about the Brexit vote in UK.

My friend was only mildly surprised by her choice. This young lady has always been interested in economics and finance. Perhaps the teacher’s assignment is in some ways similar to the well-known psychology test: Rorschach inkblot. It is a test to “read” personality traits inside the mind.

Her choice illustrates the power of “latent tendencies” (anusaya) taught by the Buddha. Modern psychologists talk about the subconscious too. But there is an important difference. Most psychologists avoid “rebirths” or deny it even exists. “Scientists” are loathe to include the idea of rebirths and past karma in their scholarly papers.

Latent tendency in Buddhism is about how the habitual force of “preferences, likes and dislikes” are transmitted from one life to the next, driven by the forces of karma.

ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā is a long compound Pali word found in many early Buddhist texts. It is related to the topic of “Non-Self.” It pulls together three issues: “I-making”, “mine-making”, and “the underlying tendency to conceit.” It is a mental state that hinders liberation.

From Bhikku Bodhi – Connected Discourses -SN 18-21 “Underlying Tendency” - footnote 340:

(The compound) ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā is to be resolved thus: I-making (ahaṅkāra), mine-making (mamaṅkāra), and the underlying tendency to conceit (mānānusayā). (So the text in Be and Se, but if, as seems likely, the plural termination derives from the asamāhāra compound, after resolution the last member should be mānānusayo.) “I-making” is regarded as the function of wrong view (the view of self), “mine-making” of craving. The root conceit is the conceit “I am” (asmimāna), so conceit is also responsible for “I-making.”

To learn more about our own latent tendencies, it is an interesting exercise to ask ourselves: what’s on our mind lately? What immediately grab our interest and attention? What do we typically ignore?

I am guilty of watching too much political news recently, while I have no difficulty completely ignore baseball or hockey games. To me the 2016 US presidential election is a reality show too interesting to miss. It boggles the mind to think that democracy is built on top of the sometimes scary fans of the partisan candidates. What shape the minds of the polarized diehard supporters?

Ajahn Brahm had spoken of “Vipallasa”, Distorted Views. People’s view are conditioned by latent tendencies. The view in turn distorts perception, one’s contact with the outside world, and perception influence thinking. Then thoughts affect one’s views. The cycles of distortion feed on itself, and most people are powerless to escape the spin.

“Views” shape people’s “Identity (I Am).” Any challenge or perceived affront to people’s identity will be met with hostile reaction. That’s why the old adage: don’t discuss religion or politics at dinner parties.

I imagine the inner mental world as a large room with many windows looking out different directions. The windows are where we “point and look” and get our “view (perspective)” of the world. What our minds focus on and collect are the stuffs that dominates our likes and dislikes, our latent tendency. It also reflects those things that are of no interest to us, things we ignore or subconsciously filter out.

Contrast the mind of a meditating monk living in seclusion to the mind of householders in our 7-24 internet connected world: a minimalist room sounds very good indeed. We should be mindful of our inner mental space, but it is a very difficult thing to do. There are too many distractions. It would do us a lot of good to enter a longer meditation retreat to clean out the inner space. Hopefully one day it will be pristine like the clean-rooms used to manufacture semiconductor chips.