The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories)

September 6, 2018; revised October 7, 2019; March 10,2020; June 10, 2021; December 13, 2022

Nāmagotta (Part of Pañcakkhandha) Are Memories

1. Here, we will discuss the critical importance of nāmagotta (our memory records). This discussion will help us understand the post, “Anatta in Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta – Part 1.”

  • It is important to note that “nāmagotta” contains records of all our past events. As we know, each aggregate (khandha) includes all past events. For example, rupakkhandha includes the rupa we are experiencing now and all past rupa we have experienced. See “Difference Between Physical Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha.” That holds for the other four aggregates too. Thus, nāmagotta consists of the “past components of pañcakkhandha.”
  • 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.
  • That 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, tastes like, etc., i.e., all the distinctive properties of an apple. And it can do that in a billionth of a second!
  • We discussed this in detail: “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”

(Important Aside:  A mind is constantly interacting with pañcakkhandha and also constantly adding to the pañcakkhandha.

  • Pañcakkhandha becomes panca upādāna khandha (pañcupādānakkhandha) when the mind attaches to an ārammaṇa based on gati (character/habits). That initial “attachment” happens within a billionth of a second.
  • But if we are mindful, we can stop that “attachment” when it leads to unwise actions. That will slowly change our gati. That will lead to better responses to various types of ārammaṇa over time. That is the basis of true Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna.
  • Of course, practicing Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna becomes easier with a proper understanding of the anatta nature. Then the mind will wee the unfruitfulness of immoral deeds seeking temporary pleasures.)
Without Memories, There Would Be Only Be a Zombie (or a Robot)

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 will not identify that as a pizza, a sandwich, etc.

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

3. That is why a baby of a few months does not recognize anything and has no control over “bathroom functions.”

Perception or Identification (Saññā) Requires Memories

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 an “apple taste.”

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

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 the taste of an apple). But he will not generate any sōbhana or asōbhana cetasika based on any attractive or repulsive sensory input.

  • But, of course, he has not attained the Arahant stage. His āsava will be with him, just as a newborn baby will have all its āsava with it.
  • If X lost his memory due to brain damage, his āsava would not resurface until the next birth if the brain was permanently damaged.
  • Details at “Gati (Gati), Anusaya, and Āsava.” Many examples are discussed in “Patient H.M. – Different Roles of Brain in Memory
The Account of Patient H.M.

6. Patient H.M.’s story is in the book “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets” by Luke Dittrich.

Brain is Required to Capture the External Sensory Object

7. That is why a newborn baby (within a year or so from birth) has a minimal perception capability. The brain has not developed to process all the information that comes through the sense faculties.

  • Therefore, a newborn baby’s brain cannot transfer anything useful to the hadaya vatthu to identify objects or match each with the set of āsava/anusaya and generate cravings or dislikes for that sensory input.
  • A baby’s hidden āsava will not show up until its brain develops. According to the Buddha, the brain function attains its total capacity around seven years of age: One can even attain Arahanthood if one is over seven.
  • The role of the brain is discussed in “Brain and the Gandhabba” and “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.” Those who want to investigate this issue can find a lot of information there. I have tried to present a consistent picture using Buddha Dhamma and recent scientific findings.
The Difference Between an Arahant and Patient H.M.

8. We can get a good idea of how Arahant‘s mind works by considering a person X discussed in #1 through #5 above (or patient H.M. IN #6) who has lost all his memories. The only difference is that in X or H.M., all anusaya are intact, but they cannot be “triggered.”

  • For an Arahant, all gati and āsava/anusaya have gone away via cultivating paññā.
  • But an Arahant will have all his memories intact. If he has developed abhiññā powers, he will be able to recall memories not only from this life but many lives in the past.
Habits/Cravings (and Thus Gati and Āsava/Anusaya) Change With Time

9. Most cravings are associated with our past habits and desires. Each person has a unique set, 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 evils due to ignorance of the fundamental 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 can comprehend the anicca nature. Then one’s paññā will grow, leading to the PERMANENT removal of anusaya in four stages of Nibbāna.
  • One should read up on those Pāli terms if one does not understand them. Translating those terms to English does not make sense because no single English word will convey the same meaning as a Pāli word.
  • That 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 ALL 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. Note here that he would have lost all memories regarding his past sexual activities (in fact, this is why a baby does not generate sexual thoughts.)

  • The “picture” that comes to mind cannot match X’s previous experiences with women. His kāma rāga anusaya is still there but not awakened. The same is true for a baby.
  • Similarly, X will not generate angry thoughts when seeing “an enemy”; he does not recollect 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.
  • That is also why babies touch or even try to eat anything and everything. They have no prior experience that some of those could be harmful. In the same way, until that baby grows up and has had sexual experiences, kāma rāga anusaya will stay dormant.
  • To emphasize, in the case of X, he had NOT his hidden defilements (anusaya.) If he gets his memories back, his lust toward attractive women or anger toward an old enemy will trigger. We can make it even simpler: If you lose ALL your memories of your father, would you be able to recognize him when you see him? If you cannot recognize him, would you generate affectionate thoughts when you see him? Of course not.
  • There are several real-life medical situations where people lost memories for different reasons: “Patient H.M. – Different Roles of Brain in Memory.”
“Live in Just the Present Moment”?

11. These days, there are many “philosopher-types” (like Ekhart Tolle or even some 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. The Buddha said to live in the present moment mindfully, ensuring not to make bad decisions.
  • The Buddha had a 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.
An Example from the Tipiṭaka

12. Finally, at the beginning of the “Mahā­māluk­ya Sutta (MN 64)“, the Buddha points out the fact that sakkāya diṭṭhi cannot arise in a new-born baby. That is because of what we discussed above. There is no way to trigger the hidden anusaya in that baby’s mind.

  • 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 diṭṭhiarise in him?
  • The Pāli verse is: “Daharassa hi, mālukyaputta, kumārassa mandassa uttāna­seyya­kassa sakkāyotipi na hoti, kuto panassa uppajjissati sakkāyadiṭṭhi? “.
  • Deeper explanation: That baby’s anusaya (hidden defilements), and thus sakkāya diṭṭhi, remains intact in the manomaya kāya (gandhabba.) However, until the baby’s brain is developed enough to process external sensory inputs, it cannot generate the sanna corresponding to sensory inputs; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.” One’s gati from previous lives start to materialize after about seven years of age when the brain is fully functional.
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