The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories)

September 6, 2018; revised September 7, 2018

1. Here we will discuss the critical importance of nāmagotta (our memory records). Even though I had written it as “nāma gotta” previously, I noticed that in some suttas it is written as “nāmagotta“, one word.

  • Let us take person X. If someone shows X an apple, he will say, “that is an apple, and I know how it smells and tastes”. Suppose  X loses all memory right after that. Now, will X be able to identify that as an apple? Of course not.
  • This is another amazing thing about the mind. It can search one’s previous experiences with a given object (in this case an apple), and remember what an apple looks like, smells, tastes like, etc, i.e., all the distinguishing properties of an apple. And it can do that in a billionth of a second!
  • We discussed this in detail at: “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)“.

2. Think carefully about the following: If X loses all memories, he will not know what to do with a plate of food put in front of him; he would not identify that as a pizza, a sandwich, etc.

  • If he is at work when the memory loss happens, X will not know how to go home, or even what is meant by “home” and  that he is supposed to go home at a certain time.
  • If he gets urge to go to the bathroom, X will not know that he is supposed to do in the bathroom or where the bathroom is.
  • You can think about zillions of things that we take for granted every day, that X will not be able to do. In fact, X will not be able to function at all!

3. This is why a little baby of a few months of age does not recognize anything and does not have any control over “bathroom functions”.

4. Now, suppose that person X, who has lost all his memories, takes a bite of the apple. Of course, he will taste the sweetness, but he will not be able to IDENTIFY that as “apple taste”.

  • Furthermore, X may not even generate a liking or the desire to take another bite, unless he is hungry.
  • This also proves that the CRAVING for the taste of apple was not in the apple. Cravings are associated with one’s anusaya. And those anusaya cannot come to the surface as āsava, unless one’s memories are intact.

5. With his memories lost, X’s vēdanā and saññā will be pretty close to “uncontaminated” pabhassara citta. He will experience a taste (without identifying it as taste of apple). But he will not generate any sōbhana or asōbhana cetasika based on any type of attractive or repulsive sense input.

  • But of course, he has not attained the Arahant stage. His anusaya will be with him, just as new born baby will have all its anusaya with it.
  • If X lost his memory due to brain damage, his anusaya will not resurface until next birth if the brain is permanently damaged.

6. In fact, this has really happened to a person and his story is detailed in the book, “Patient H.M. : A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets” by Luke Dittrich.

7. This is why a new-born baby (within a year or so from birth) has a very limited capability for perceptions: the brain has not developed to be able to process all the information that comes through the sense faculties.

  • Therefore, a new-born baby’s brain does not have the ability to transfer anything useful to the hadaya vatthu for it to identify objects or match each with the set of anusaya and to generate cravings or dislikes for that sense input.
  • A baby’s hidden anusaya will not show up until its brain develops. The brain function attains the full capacity around 7 years of age according to the Buddha: One can even attain Arahanthood if one is over 7 years of age.
  • It is important to know what is meant by anusaya and āsava:

    “Gathi (Gati), Anusaya, and Āsava”.

  • The role of the brain is discussed at: “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“.

8. We can get a good idea of how the mind of an Arahant works by thinking about the experiences of X who has lost all his memories. The only difference is that in the case of X, all his anusaya are intact, but they cannot be “triggered”.

  • For an Arahant, all gati and āsava/anusaya have been removed via cultivating paññā.
  • But an Arahant will have all his memories intact. In fact, if he has developed abhiññā powers, he will be able to recall memories not only from this life but many, many lives in the past.

9. Most of our cravings are associated with our past habits and desires. Each person has a set that is unique to him/her, AND that set of habits/cravings will change over time.

  • All  gati and āsava/anusaya arise or — are  with oneself — because of the inability to get rid of defilements due to ignorance of the real nature of this world: anicca, dukkha, anatta, asubha, etc.
  • When one is on the Path, one will gradually get rid of “bad gati” and cultivate “good gati“. Then , at some point one will be able to comprehend the anicca nature and one’s paññā will grow and one’s anusaya will be PERMANENTLY removed in four stages of Nibbāna.
  • One should read up on those Pāli terms, if one does not understand them. It does not make sense to translate those terms to English, because no single English word will convey the same meaning as a Pāli word.
  • This is NOT memorization. One should comprehend what is MEANT by a Pāli word, not memorize it.

10.  Suppose X is a young male. When X  — if he has lost his memories — sees an attractive woman, he will see her as an attractive person. But he will not generate any lust for her, no matter how beautiful she is. It is just “seeing” for him.

  • That “picture” which comes to mind cannot match it with X’s past experiences with women. His kāma rāga anusaya is still there, but it is not awakened.
  • Similarly, X will not generate any angry thoughts when seeing “an enemy”; he just does not have any recollection of the past encounters with the person.
  • In the same way, X may touch a red-hot iron, because he has no idea that it can burn.
  • This is also why little babies touch or even try to eat anything and everything: they have no prior experience that some of those could be harmful.

11. These days, there are many “philosopher-types” (such as Ekhart Tolle or even Buddhist teachers), who say “forget the past and live in the moment”.

  • That is utter nonsense.
  • One CANNOT forget the past AND live in the present. What the Buddha said is to live the present moment mindfully, making sure not to make bad decisions — that one may have made in the past.
  • The Buddha had the perfect memory. He could remember things as far back as he wished. Often he would give accounts of what had happened in past lives and teach people how to learn lessons from the past.

12. Finally, in the beginning of the “Mahā­māluk­ya Sutta (MN 64)“, the Buddha points out this fact that sakkāya ditthi cannot arise in a new-born baby, exactly because what we discussed above: there is no way to trigger the hidden anusaya in that baby.

  • To quote the above translation: “For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view (sakkāya ditthiarise in him?
  • The Pāli verse is: “Daharassa hi, mālukyaputta, kumārassa mandassa uttāna­seyya­kassa sakkāyotipi na hoti, kuto panassa uppajjissati sakkāyadiṭṭhi? “.
  • I had forgotten the name of the sutta. Thanks to reader Siebe for pointing this out at the discussion forum.
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