Wednesday, July 30, 2008

nterdependent Co-arising

from The heart of the Buddha's teaching - The Two Truths
by Thich Nhat Hanh

All teachings of Buddhism are based on Interdependent Co-arising. If a teaching is not in accord with Interdependent Co-Arising, it is not a teaching of the Buddha. when you have grasped Interdependent Co-Arising, you bring that insight to shine on the three baskets (tripitaka) of the teaching. Interdependent Co-Arising allows you to see the Buddha, and the Two Truths allow you to hear the Buddha. When you are able to see and hear the Buddha, you will not lose your way as you traverse the ocean of his teachings.

The Buddha said that there are twelve links (nidanas) in the "chain" of Interdependent Co-Arising. The first is ignorance (avidya). Vidya means seeing, understanding, or light. Avidya means the lack of light, the lack of understanding, or blindness. Although ignorance is usually listed as the first link, it does not mean that ignorance is a first cause. It is also possible to begin the list with old age and death.

The second link is volitional action (samskara), also translated as formations, impulses, motivating energy, karma formations, or the will to cling to being. When we have a lack of understanding, anger, irritation, or hatred can arise.

The third link is consciousness (vjiƱana). Consciousness here means the whole of consciousness -- individual and collective, mind consciousness and store consciousness, subject and object. And consciousness here is filled with unwholesome and erroneous tendencies connected with ignorance that are of the nature to bring about suffering.

The fourth link is mind/body, or name and form (nama rupa). "Name" (nama) means the mental element and "form" (rupa) means the physical element of our being. Both mind and body are objects of our consciousness. When we look at our hand, it is an object of our consciousness. When we touch our anger, sadness, or happiness, these are also objects of our consciousness.

The sixth link is the contact (sparsha) between sense organ, sense object, and sense consciousness. When eyes and form, ears and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste, body and touch, and mind and object of mind come into contact, sense consciousness is born. Contact is a basis for feelings. It is a universal mental formation, present in every mental formation.

The seventh link is feelings (vedana), which can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. When a feeling is pleasant, we become attached (the ninth link).

The eighth link is craving (trishna), or desire. Craving is followed by grasping.

The ninth link is grasping or attachment (upadana). It means we are caught in the thralls of the object.

The tenth link is "coming to be" (bhava), being, or becoming. Because we desire something, it comes to be. We have to look deeply to know what we really want.

The eleventh link is birth (jati).

The twelfth link is old age (or decay) and death (jaramarana).

Ignorance conditions volitional actions. Volitional actions condition consciousness. Consciousness conditions mind/body. And so on. As soon as ignorance is present, all the other links -- volitional actions, consciousness, mind/body, and so on -- are already there. Each link contains all the other links. Because there is ignorance, there are volitional actions. Because there are volitional actions, there is consciousness. Because there is consciousness there is mind/body, and so on.

In the Five Aggregates, there is nothing that we can call a self. Ignorance is the inability to see this truth. Consciousness, mind/body, the six senses and their objects, contact, and feeling are the effect of ignorance and volitional actions. Because of craving, grasping, and coming to be, there will be birth and death, which means the continuation of this wheel, or chain, again and again.

When artists illustrate the twelve links of Interdependent Co-Arising, they often draw a blind woman to represent ignorance; a man gathering fruit in the jungle or a potter at work to illustrate volitional actions; a restless monkey grasping this and that for consciousness; a boat to represent mind/body; a house with many windows for the six senses and their objects; a man and a woman close to each other to represent contact; a man pierced by an arrow for feeling; and man drinking wine for craving or thirst; a man and a woman in sexual union or a man picking fruit from a tree to represent attachment or grasping; a pregnant woman for coming to be; a woman giving birth for birth; an old woman leaning on a stick or a man carrying a corpse on his back or his shoulder for old age and death.

Another way that artists sometimes depict the twelve links is to draw an embryo in the womb for consciousness; the child just before birth for mind/body; the child from one to two years old, when his or her life is dominated by touching, for the six senses and their objects; the same child from three to five years old for contact; and an adult for desire or attachment.

There do not have to be exactly twelve links. In the Abhidharma texts of the Sarvastivada School, it says that you can teach one, two, three, four, or five, op to twelve links. The one link belongs to the unconditioned realm (asamskrita). The two links are cause and effect. The three links are past, present, and future. The four links are ignorance, volitional actions, birth, and old age and death. The five links are craving, grasping, coming to be, birth, and old age and death. The six links are past cause, present cause, future causes, past result, present result, and future result. Because ignorance and volitional actions exist in consciousness, and the six ayatanas exist in name and form, in the Mahanidana Sutta the Buddha lists only nine links. At other times Buddha taught ten links, omitting ignorance and volitional actions.

Sometimes when the Buddha taught Interdependent Co-Arising, he began with old age and death and the suffering that accompanies them. In the sutras that do not include ignorance and volitional actions as links, the Buddha ends by saying that mind/body is conditioned by consciousness, and consciousness is conditioned by mind/body. The Buddha never wanted us to understand the twelve links in a linear way -- that there is a line going from ignorance to old age and death or that there are exactly and only twelve links. Not only does ignorance give rise to volitional actions, but volitional actions also give rise to ignorance. Each link in the chain or Interdependent Co-Arising is both a cause and an effect of all the other links in the chain. The twelve links inter-are.

In the tendency to see the teachings of the Buddha as an explanation of how things are rather than as a support and guide to the practice, the twelve links have been misunderstood in many ways. One way has been to see them as a way to explain why there is birth and death. The Buddha usually began the twelve links with old age and death to help us get in touch with suffering and find its roots. This is closely linked to the teachings and practice of the Four Noble Truths. It was after the lifetime of the Buddha that teachers more often that not began with ignorance, to help prove why there is birth and death. Ignorance became a kind of first cause, even though the Buddha always taught that no first cause can be found. If ignorance exists, it is because there are causes that give rise to and deepen ignorance. The Buddha was not a philosopher trying to explain the universe. He was a spiritual guide who wanted to help us put an end to our suffering.

Two other theories based on the Twelve Links evolved after the lifetime of the Buddha. One was called the Three Times and the other the Two Levels of Cause and Effect. According to these theories, ignorance and volitional actions belong to the past; birth and old age and death belong to the future; and all the other links from consciousness to coming to be belong to the present. It is true that ignorance and volitional actions existed before we were born, but they also exist in the present. They are contained within all the other links, which include the so-called links of the present and future.

Regarding the Two Levels of Cause and Effect, at the first level, ignorance and volitional actions are said to be causes, and consciousness, mind/body, the six ayatanas, and contact are effects. At the second level, feelings, craving, grasping, and coming to be in this life lead to birth and old age and death in a future life. Theories like these are not entirely inaccurate, but we have to be able to go beyond them. All commentaries and theories contain some misunderstanding, but we can still feel gratitude to these commentators and theorists for taking the teachings in a new direction to help people transform, while basically conforming to teachings of the Buddha.

When we hear from commentators that some links are causes (namely ignorance and volitional actions) and others are effects (
namely birth and old age and death), we know that this is not consistent with the Buddha's teaching that everything is both a cause and an effect. To think that ignorance gives rise to consciousness, which then gives rise to mind/body would be a dangerous oversimplification. When the Buddha said, "Ignorance conditions volitional actions," he meant that there is a relationship of cause and effect between ignorance and volitional actions. Ignorance nourishes volitional actions, but volitional actions also nourish ignorance. Ignorance activates consciousness by producing feelings of discomfort, craving, boredom, intention, and aspiration, so these feelings are called volitional actions. Once these feelings are active in consciousness, they make ignorance stronger. The tree gives rise to and nourishes its leaves, but the leaves also nourish the tree. Leaves are not just the children of the tree. They are also the mother of the tree. Because of the leaves the tree is able to grow. Every leaf is a factory synthesizing sunshine to nourish the tree.

The interbeing of leaf and tree is parallel to the interbeing of the Twelve Links of Interdependent Co-Arising. We say that ignorance conditions volitional actions, but ignorance also conditions consciousness, both through volitional actions and directly. Ignorance conditions mind/body as well. If there were no ignorance in mind/body, mind/body would be different. Our six organs and the six objects of these organs also contain ignorance. My perception of the flower is based on my eyes and on the form of the flower. As soon as my perception becomes caught in the sign "flower," ignorance is there. Therefore, ignorance is present in contact, and it is also present in feelings, craving, grasping, coming to be, birth, and old age and death. Ignorance is not just in the past. It is present now, in each of our cells, and each of our mental formations. If there were no ignorance, we would not become attached to things. If there were not ignorance, we would not grasp the objects of our attachment. If there were no ignorance, the suffering that is manifesting right now would not be there. Our practice is to identify ignorance when it is present. Grasping is in volitional actions, feelings, coming to be, birth, old age and death. Our infatuations, our running away from this or toward that, and our intentions can be seen in all the other links. Every link conditions every other link and is conditioned by them.

With this understanding, we can abandon the idea of a sequential chain of causation and enter deeply the practice of the Twelve Links of Interdependent Co-Arising. Although it says in the sutra that consciousness brings about mind/body, that mind/body brings about the six ayatanas, and so on, we must understand this as a way of speaking and nothing more. We have to see the Twelve Links in a broad, open way.

Consider, for example, craving as the fruit of feeling. Sometimes a feeling does not lead to craving, but to aversion. Sometimes the feeling is not accompanied by ignorance, but by understanding, lucidity, or loving kindness, and the outcome will not be craving or aversion. To say that feeling brings about craving is not precise enough. Feeling with attachment and ignorance brings about craving. We must link each of the Twelve Links with all the other links. This is what the Heart Sutra means when it tells us, "No Interdependent Co-Arising." The Twelve Links are "empty," because each of them would not exist without all the others. Feeling cannot be without craving, grasping, coming to be, birth, old age and death, ignorance, volitional actions, and so on. In each of the twelve links, we see the presence of the other eleven. Feeling can lead to craving, non-craving, or equanimity.


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