Comparison of the concept vasana with anamnesis
Posted: Mon May 15, 2017 9:45 am
*I transcribed the excerpt below from a lecture titled "memory - John Steele with terence McKenna". I could not find a transcription of this particular lecture anywhere on the internet, and transcribed the excerpt below from an audio recording as I was writing this post.*
the word memory in Sanskrit comes from the word "vasana", and it's a beautiful word because it has several different nuances, it means memory which is transmitted from one life to another, either consciously or unconsciously, usually unconsciously, memories- habit patterns that are generated with in one life are called "samskaras", it's different from a vasana, vasanas have a cross life connection, now, one of the secondary meanings of this word, vasana, is very appropriate to one of my other interests, and that is fragrance, because the secondary meaning of the word, vasana, means if you have an empty perfume bottle, even if it's completely empty, the smell always remains of that scent in that bottle, in other words, the scent pervades even when the vessel is empty, this is what the- in the Sanskrit language there is a mixture of great technical precision and great poetic insight, you have this idea that a past life memory is like...the smell which goes through time, this smell memory, goes from one life to another even though the bottle is empty, now, in this word also means habit energy, vasana means habit energy, and this word habit energy in Tibetan, "bag chag" is the term for it, it's like a trace, like a smell, like a trace, and the teaching in the sutra is that these traces, they build up after a while, to the extent where we begin to nucleate an ego around them, like I get up every morning, and I do this, and I eat that, and you get this whole kind of axis of a moment, what the Buddhists call an axis of a moment begins to generate, this "I" this subject begins to generate from habitual action, repetitive, automatic, hypnotic, you know repetitive, action, now, the, uh, therefore one of the ways, one of the strategies to deal with this nucleation around this moment of subjectivity is to learn how to uh, shall we say die to oneself, and this is in the perennial philosophies, the mystical philosophies known as the tradition of "un-knowing", unknowing like the 14th century English mystic work the clad of unknowing , and this whole process I want to look at in one moment, I just wanted to set that out.
-John Steele; memory lecture with terence mckenna
After reviewing the concept of vasana, I was instantly reminded of the platonic concept of anamnesis. The excerpt below briefly outlines this concept:"vāsanā (Skt.). Habitual tendencies or dispositions, a term, often used synonymously with bīja (‘seed’). It is found in Pāli and early Sanskrit sources but comes to prominence with the Yogācāra, for whom it denotes the latent energy resulting from actions which are thought to become ‘imprinted’ in the subject's storehouse-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). The accumulation of these habitual tendencies is believed to predispose one to particular patterns of behaviour in the future."
Sandvik (2007: unpaginated) states that:
... bag chags, in Sanskrit vāsanā. This word is used a lot in presentations about karma. It means habitual tendencies, subtle inclinations that are imprinted in the mind, like a stain. For example, if someone smokes, there will be a habitual tendency for an urge to smoke every day, usually around the same time. There are bigger picture bag chags, such as why some people are kind by nature, and others are cruel; it's the tendency to behave in a certain way that will trigger similar actions in future, reinforcing the bag chags.
I apologize for not going into greater personal detail, however, I feel the thought exercise here is in the juxtaposition of vasana and anamnesis, and in the in depth contemplation of both concepts. Compare the two, philosophically, historically, and personally, and derive all that you can from each. While I have much insight and personal speculations regarding these concepts, I feel that simple thought and contemplation on the matter is valuable enough in its own right.In Meno, Plato's character (and old teacher) Socrates is challenged by Meno with what has become known as the sophistic paradox, or the paradox of knowledge:
Meno: And how are you going to search for [the nature of virtue] when you don't know at all what it is, Socrates? Which of all the things you don't know will you set up as target for your search? And even if you actually come across it, how will you know that it is that thing which you don't know?
In other words, if you don't know any of the attributes, properties, and/or other descriptive markers of any kind that help signify what something is (physical or otherwise), you won't recognize it, even if you come across it. And, as consequence, if the converse is true, and you do know the attributes, properties and/or other descriptive markers of this thing, then you shouldn't need to seek it out at all. The result of this line of thinking is that, in either instance, there is no point trying to gain that "something"; in the case of Plato's aforementioned work, there is no point in seeking knowledge.
Socrates' response is to develop his theory of anamnesis. He suggests that the soul is immortal, and repeatedly incarnated; knowledge is in the soul from eternity, but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the trauma of birth. What one perceives to be learning, then, is the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.
The theory is illustrated by Socrates asking a slave boy questions about geometry. At first the boy gives the wrong answer; when this is pointed out to him, he is puzzled, but by asking questions Socrates is able to help him to reach the correct answer. This is intended to show that, as the boy wasn't told the answer, he could only have reached the truth by recollecting what he had already known but forgotten.