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What is Buddhism? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Hugo   

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Saturday, 28 April 2007 07:25
Ven. 'Geoffrey' of Wat Metta explains the Buddha's teaching in detail with many quotes from the cannonical text.

Interest in Buddhism is popular these days. It is fueled mostly by dissatisfaction with traditional western religions and philosophy. There are two ways in which people approach Buddhism. One way is to find a teacher or a group of people that match one's preconceived notions or due to fascination with the  outward ceremonial aspects. This approach is usually not able to sustain any long-term interest and when the outer symbols of the doctrine become blase or one's opinions change members will move on. This happens when there is no firm basis in doctrine.

The other approach is to actually study the doctrine of the Buddha and then make a decision as to whether one agrees with the teachings. This approach is to know what the Buddha himself taught. This approach at least makes one aware of what was  taught by the Buddha himself, even if others teach something different. One can, with such a basis, then have the ability to be able to compare the Buddha's original teaching with what one hears or reads. With that knowledge the external, symbolic trappings may be adopted safely. A teacher may then be followed with at least having an understanding of the differences between the teachings of the Buddha and what a more modern master might present or understand their emphasis. This approach is logical and fair. Below are the basic doctrines of the Buddha based on the original Suttas (discourses).

The Buddha did not always begin with the core teaching but assessed his listeners as to what was suitable. He used a method called the gradual training. This often meant starting with morality first (Sila), then concentration (Samadhi) and finally wisdom (Panna). But here we will give the doctrine in a less traditional order.

The Four Noble Truths (Ariya Sacca)

The first noble truth is that of "Dukkha". Dukkha may be translated as stress, unsatisfactoriness, pain and the usual (but not the best) word, suffering. Dukkha focuses us on the basic problems of life.

The second noble truth the origin of dukkha, the third noble truth is the cessation of dukkha and the fourth noble truth is the way to the cessation of dukkha.

The following descriptions are taken from the book "The Wings of Awakening" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It gives clearly the Theravada teachings of classical Buddhism. 

The Buddha referred to himself as a doctor, treating the spiritual illnesses of his students. This metaphor is useful to keep in mind as we discuss the basic categories of right view: The Four Noble Truths. Many people have charged Buddhism with being pessimistic because the four truths start out with stress and suffering (dukkha), but this charge misses the fact that the first truth is part of a strategy of diagnosis and therapy focusing on the basic problems in life so as to offer a solution to it. This is the sense in which the Buddha was like a doctor; focusing on the disease he wanted to cure. The total cure he promised as a result of his course of therapy shows that, in actuality, he was much less pessimistic than the vast majority of the world, for whom wisdom means accepting the bad things in life with the good, assuming that there is no chance in this life for unalloyed happiness. The Buddha was an extremely demanding person, unwilling to bend to this supposed wisdom or to rest with anything less than absolute happiness. We are fortunate that he was so demanding and succeeded in his aim, for otherwise we would have to undertake the uncertain task of tying to discover the way to that happiness ourselves.

Once the problem of stress and suffering is solved, he said, there are no more problems. This is why he limited his teaching to this issue, even though his own Awakening encompassed much more. The vicious cycle that operates between suffering and ignorance-- with ignorance underlying the craving that causes suffering, and suffering causing the bewilderment that leads people to act in ignorant and unskillful ways--can be broken down only when one focuses on understanding suffering and stress and the causal network that surrounds them. Most people are so bewildered by the complexities of suffering and stress that they do not even know what the true problem is. Thus they may deny that they are suffering, or may imagine that something stressful can actually be a solution to their problems. The genius of the Buddha is that he recognized the most elegant and comprehensive way to deal with every variety of dissatisfaction in life. When suffering and stress are seen with clear knowledge, they no longer can cause bewilderment and the cycle that underlies all the problems of experience can be disbanded for good.

This clear knowledge is based on knowledge of the four noble truths. These truths are best understood not as the content of a belief, but as categories for viewing and classifying the process of immediate experience. The Buddha refers to them as categories of "appropriate attention", a skillful alternative to the common way that people categorize their experience in terms of two dichotomies: being and non-being, and self/other. For several reasons, these common dichotomies are actually problem-causing, rather than problem-solving. The being/non-being dichotomy, for instance, comes down to the question of whether or not there exist actual "things" behind the changing phenomena of experience. This type of questioning deals, by definition, with possibilities that cannot be directly experienced: If the things in question could be experienced, then they wouldn't by lying behind experience. Thus the being/non-being dichotomy pulls one's attention into the land of conjecture--"a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views," and away from the area of direct awareness where the real problem and its solution lies.

As for the self/other dichotomy, there is the initial difficulty of determining what the self is. Any true self would have to lie totally under one's own control, and yet nothing that one might try to identify as one's self actually meets this criterion. Although the sense of self may seem intuitive  enough, when carefully examined it shows itself to be based on confused perceptions and ideas. If one's basic categories for understanding experience are a cause for confusion in this way, they can only lead to confused, unskillful action, and thus  to more suffering and stress.

A second problem, no matter how one might define a self, is the question of how to prove whether or not it actually exists. This question entangles the mind in the irresolvable problems of the being/non-being dichotomy mentioned above: Because the problem is phrased in terms that cannot be directly experienced, it forces the solution into a realm that cannot be experienced, either. Regardless of whether one would answer the question with a yes or a no, the terms of the question focus on an area outside of direct experience and thus away from the true problem--the direct experience of suffering--and actually make it worse. If one assumes the existence of a self, one must take on the implicit imperative to maximize the self's well-being through recourse to the "other". This recourse may involve either exploiting the "other" or swallowing the "other" into the self by equating one's self with the cosmos as a whole. Either approach involves clinging and craving, which leads to further suffering and stress. On the other hand, if one denies any kind of self, saying that the cosmos is totally "other", then one is assuming the there is nothing with any long term existence whose happiness deserves anything more than quick short-term attempts at finding pleasure. the imperative in this case would be to pursue immediate pleasure with as little effort as possible, thus aborting any sustained effort to bring about and end of suffering.

These problems explain why the Buddha regarded questions of existence and non-existence, self and no-self, as unskillful, inappropriate ways of attending to experience.

Stress and its cessation, on the other hand, are categories that avoid these problems. To begin with, they are immediately present and apparent. Even babies recognize stress and pain, well before they have any concept of "self" or "being." If one pays close attention to one's actual experience, there is no question about whether or not stress and its cessation are present. Finally, because these categories don't require that one fashion notions of "self" or "other"-- or "no-self"-- on top of one's immediate awareness, they allow one to reach the mode of "entry into emptiness" on the verge of non-fashioning, in which the mind simply notes, "There is this..." Thus they are ideal categories for analyzing experience in a way that reduces the confusion that causes people to act in unskillful ways and brings the mind to a point where it can disengage  and transcend all suffering and stress by ending the mental fabrications that provide input into the causal web.

    As for the imperative implicit in the four categories of the noble truths, they are very different from the imperatives implicit in the notion that there is a self or that there isn't. Stress, the first categor (noble truth), should comprehended. In practice, this means admitting its presence, recognizing it as a problem, and then observing it with patient mindfulness so as to understand its true nature. One comes to realize that the problem is not with the stress and discomfort of external conditions, but with the stress and discomfort in the mind. one also sees how stress is part of a causal process, and that it is always accompanied by craving, its point of origination.

The second category (noble truth)--craving, the origin of stress--should be abandoned. Here we must note that the word "craving" covers not all desire, but only the desire leading to further becoming. The desire to escape from that becoming is part of the path. Without desire, no one would have motivation to follow the path or reach Unbinding. When Unbinding is reached, though, even this desire is abandoned, just as a desire to walk in a park is abandoned on arriving there.

The third category (the third noble truth), the cessation of stress, should be realized. The definition of this truth as the abandoning of craving means that it denotes the successful performance of the duty appropriate to the second noble truth. This introduces a double tier into the practice, in that one must not only abandon craving but must also realize what is happening and what is uncovered in the process of that abandoning. The feedback loop created by this combining of abandoning and knowing is what eventually short-circuits the process of this/that conditionality, cutting dependant co-arising at the links of craving and ignorance, and leading on to the state of non-fashioning that forms the threshold of the Deathless.

The fourth category (noble truth), the way to the cessation of stress, is defined as the noble eightfold path (see below). This truth must be developed. In general terms, this development involves two processes: nurturing the conditions for clear knowing; and abstaining from acts of body, speech and mind that involve craving and would obstruct knowledge. These two processes correspond to the two layers we have just noted in the duties associated with the cessation of stress: realization and abandoning. This correspondence shows the intimate relation between the third and fourth noble truths, and explains the Buddha's insistence that the noble eightfold path is the only way to the goal.

Taken together, the four categories of the noble truths, along with their imperatives, follow a basic problem-solving approach: one solves the problem of stress by following a path of practice that directly attacks the cause of the problem. The noble eightfold path develops the qualities of mind needed  to see that all the possible objects of craving--the five aggregates (the body and mind)-- are stressful, inconstant, and not-self. As a result, one grows dispassionate towards them. With nothing left to focus on, craving disbands. When one experiences the "remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release and letting go of that very craving", the problem is solved. 

The Eightfold Path

  • Right View -- Sammaditthi
  • Right Intention (resolve) -- Sammasankappa
  • Right Speech -- Sammavaca
  • Right Action -- Sammakammanta
  • Right Livelihood -- Sammaajiva
  • Right Effort -- Sammavayama
  • Right Mindfulness -- Sammasati
  • Right Concentration -- Sammasamadhi

The eight factors of the noble eightfold path fall under the "aggregates" of discernment (wisdom), virtue, and concentration (panna-khandha, sila-khandha, samadhi-khandha): right view and right intention fall under the discernment aggregate; right speech, right action, and right livelihood under the virtue aggregate; right mindfulness and right concentration under the concentration aggregate. Although the factors of the noble path fall under the three aggregates, the three aggregates do not fall under the factors of the noble path. What this means is that not every instance of discernment, virtue, or concentration within the mind would count as a factors of the noble path. To begin with, there are such things as wrong virtue, wrong concentration, and wrong discernment. Secondly, even right virtue, concentration and discernment count as noble only when they are brought to a point of advanced development. This point distinguishes mundane and noble levels for each factor of the path. Even though the mundane factors counteract the blatant cases of wrong view, wrong resolve, etc., they still are conjoined with subtle levels of mental effluents and can lead to further becoming. Nevertheless, one must first nurture the mundane levels of the eight factors before they can develop into their noble counterparts.

On the mundane level, the first five factors of the path correspond  to the faculty of conviction. Right view on this level means believing in the principle of kamma and trusting that those who have practiced properly truly understand the workings of kamma in this life and the next. In the Buddha's words, this, this level of right view holds that "There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and result of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are priests and contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized, for themselves." What this passage means is that there is merit in generosity' the moral qualities of good and bad are inherent parts of the cosmos, and not simply social conventions; there is life after death; one has a true moral debt to one's parents; and there are people who have lived the renunciate's life properly in such a way that they have gained true and direct knowledge of the matters. These beliefs are the minimum prerequisites for following the path to skillfulness, as they necessarily underlie nay solid conviction in the principle of kamma. Mundane levels of with resolve then build on right view, as one resolves to act in ways that will not create bad kamma; mundane right speech, right action, and right  livelihood result naturally as one follows through with this sense of resolve. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration on this level, correspond to the faculties of persistence, mindfulness and concentration. Right concentration, in turn, provides a basis for insight into the four noble truths, which counts both as the faculty of discernment and the noble level of right view.

Once right view reaches the noble level, it brings the remaining factors of the path up to the noble level as well On of the striking feature of this level of the path is that it consists primarily of discernment and concentration with the boundaries between the two increasingly blurred. The noble level of right resolve, part of the discernment aggregate, consists of directed thought, evaluation, and mental singleness, all of which are factors or jhana (absorption). The noble level of right speech, right action, and right livelihood differ from the mundane levels of those factors in that the emphasis here is on the state of mind of the person abstaining from wrong speech, action, and livelihood. It sees safe to assume the noble levels of right effort, mindfulness, and concentration, that they are equivalent to the fifth factor of noble right concentration in which all three factors converge with right view and right resolve in a state of full development. In fact, their mutual reinforcement is what makes these factors.

When the noble eightfold path is attained, the mind reaches the level of stream-entry, the first of the four levels of Awakening. At this point even the path can be abandoned, for one has reached the goal. Abandoning here, does not mean that one reverts to wrong views, wrong action, etc., rather, one no longer needs to use right views, etc., as a means to a further attainment. The Awakened one continues practicing meditation and exercising right view as a pleasant dwellings for the mind, conductive to mindfulness and alertness, and leads a moral life both for its inherent pleasure and for the sake of the example it offers to those still on the path.

"Monks, what is the noble eightfold path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

"And what this right view? Knowledge with regard to stress (dukkha), knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

"And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

"And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from sexual intercourse.: This is called right action.

"And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a noble disciple, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood. This is called right livelihood (not to deal in weapons, poisons, animal traps, misrepresentations, all livelihoods that break the five precepts.)

"And what is right effort? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen...for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen...for the sake of the arising of skilful qualities that have not yet arisen...for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plentitude, development, and culmination of skilful qualities that have arisen. This is called right effort.

"And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk focused on the body in and of itself--ardent, alert and mindful--putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves...the mind in and of itself...mental qualities in and of themselves--ardent, alert, and mindful--putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness.

"And what is called right concentration? There is th4 case where a monk--quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities--enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. With the stilling of directed thought and evaluation, he enters and remains in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation--internal assurance. With  the fading away of rapture he remains in equanimity, =mindful and alert, and physically sensitive of pleasure. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, "Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding." With the abandoning of pleasure and pain--as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress--he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration.

Kamma (intentional action)

The Buddha's doctrine of kamma takes the fact of skillful action, which can be observed on the ordinary sensory level, and gives it an importance that, for a person pursuing the Buddhist goal, must be accepted on faith. According to this doctrine, skillful action is not simply one factor out of many contributing to happiness: it is the primary factor. It does not lead simply to happiness within the dimensions of time and the present: if developed to the ultimate level of refinement, it can lea to an Awakening totally released from those dimensions. These assertions cannot be proven prior to an experience of that Awakening, but they must be accepted as a working hypothesis in the effort to develop the skillfulness needed for Awakening. This paradox--which lies at the heart of the act of taking refuge in the Triple gem (the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha)-- explains why the serious pursuit of the Buddhist path is a sustained act of faith that can become truly firm only with the first glimpse of Awakening, called stream-entry. It also explains why a strong desire to gain release from the stress and suffering inherent in conditioned existence is needed for such a pursuit, for without that desire it is very difficult to break through this paradox with the necessary leap of faith.

The basic context for the doctrine of kamma was provided by the first two insights on the night of the Buddha's Awakening--remembrance of previous lives, and insight into the death and rebirth of beings throughout the cosmos. This context was expressed in terms of a personal narrative. The possibility of rebirth accounted for the way in which kamma could shape experiences in life, such as the situation into which a young child is born, for which no karmic cause in the present lifetime could be found. The pattern of rebirth depends on the moral quality of actions performed in previous lifetimes, presented the possibility that moral standards, instead of being mere social conventions, were intrinsic to the workings of any and all experience of the cosmos.

Essential to the Buddha's second insight was its realization of the mind's role in determining the moral quality of actions. His analysis of the process of developing a skill showed him that skillfulness depended not so much on the physical performance of an act as on the mental qualities of perception, attention, and intention that played a part in it. Of these three qualities, the intention formed the essence of the act--as it constituted the decision to act-- while attention and perception informed of it. Thus the skillfulness of these mental phenomena accounted for the acts of kamma consequences. The less greed, aversion and delusion, motivating the act, the better the results. Unintentional acts would have karmic consequences only when they resulted from carelessness in areas where one would reasonably be held responsible. Intentional actions performed under the influence of right view--which on this level means conviction in the principle of kamma--led inherently to pleasant states of rebirth, while those performed under the influence of wrong view led to unpleasant states. Thus the quality of the views on which one acts--i.e.,... the quality of the perceptions and attention informing the intention--is a major factor in shaping experience. This observation undercuts the radical distinction between mind and material reality that is taken for granted in our own culture and was also assumed by many of the Samana schools of the Buddha's time. From the Buddha's viewpoint, mental and physical phenomena are two sides of a single coin, with the mental side of prior importance.

Most descriptions of the Buddha's teachings on kamma tend to stop here, but there are many passages on kamma in the Canon that do not fit into the neat picture based merely on the first two insights on the night of Awakening. The only way to account for these passages is to note the simple fact that the Buddha's teaching on kamma were shaped not only by these two insights but also by the third insight and the resulting knowledge of Unbinding. The third insight explored the possibility of a fourth kind of kamma--in addition to good, bad and a mixture of the two--that was skillful enough to bring about the ending of kamma. At the same time, in the course of developing the level of skillfulness needed to bring kamma to an end, the Buddha learned a great deal about the nature of action that forced him to recast his understanding of kamma in much more subtle terms. The knowledge of Unbinding--which followed on the full development of this fourth type of kamma and the realizations that accompanied it-- acted as the proof that the understandings comprising the three insights were true. To explore these points will not only help give us more complete understanding of the Buddha's teaching on kamma, but will also show why conviction in the principle of skillful kamma is essential to Buddhist practice.

In his effort to master kamma in such a way as to bring kamma to an end, the Buddha discovered that he had to abandon the contexts of personal narrative and cosmology in which the issue of kamma first presented itself. both these forms o understanding deal with categories of being and non-being, self and others, but the Buddha found that it was impossible to bring kamma to an end if one thought in such terms. For example, narrative and cosmological modes of thinking would lead one to ask whether the agent who performed the act of kamma was the same as the person experiencing the result, someone else, both, or neither. If one answered that it was the same person, then the person experiencing the result would have to identify not only with the actor, but also with the mode of action, and thus would not gain release from it. If one answered that it was another person, both oneself and another, or neither, then the person experiencing the result would see no need to heighten the skill or understanding of his/her own kamma in the present, for the experience of pleasure and pain was not his or her responsibility. In either case, the development of the fourth type of kamma would be aborted.

To avoid the drawbacks of the narrative and cosmological mind-sets, the Buddha pursued an entirely different tack--what he called "entry into emptiness," and what modern philosophy calls radical phenomenology: a focus on the events of present consciousness, in and of themselves, without reference to questions of whether there are any entities underlying those events. In the Buddha's case, he focused simply on the process of karmic cause and result as it played itself out in the immediate present, in the process of developing the skillfulness of the mind, without reference to who or what lay behind those processes. On the most basic level of its mode of awareness, there was no sense even of 'existence' or 'non-existence', but simply the events of stress, it's origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation, arising and passing away. It was in this mode that he was able to pursue the fourth type of kamma to its end, at the same time gaining heightened insight into the nature of action itself and its many implications, including questions of rebirth, the relationship of mental to physical events, and the way kamma constructs all experience of the cosmos. 

Because the Buddha gained both understanding of and release from kamma by pursuing the phenomenological mode of attention, his full-dress systematic analysis of kamma  is also expressed in that mode. This analysis is included in his teachings on this/that conditionality, dependent co-arising (dependent co-arising, see below), and the four noble truths: the three levels of refinement in the type of right view without effluents that underlay his mastery of the fourth type of kamma. Here we will consider, in turn, how each of these teachings shaped the Buddha's teachings on kamma, how the knowledge of Unbinding confirmed those teachings, and how the success of the phenomenological mode s in instructing others. We will conclude with a discussion of how these points show the need for conviction in the principles of kamma as a working hypothesis for anyone who wants to gain release from suffering and stress.

To begin with this/that conditionality: This principle accounts not only for the complexity of the karmic process, but also for its being regular without at the same time being rigidly deterministic. The non-linearity of this/that conditionality also accounts for the fact that the process can be successfully dismantled by radical attention to the present moment. 

Unlike the theory of linear causality--which led the Vedists and Jains to see the relationship between an act and its result as predictable and tit-for-tat--the principle of this/that conditionality makes that relationship inherently complex. The results of kamma experienced at any one point in time come not only from past kamma, but also from present kamma. This means that, although there are general patterns relating habitual acts to corresponding results, there is no set one-for-one, tit-for-tat, relationship between a particular action and its results. Instead, the results are determined by the context of the act, both in terms of actions that preceded or followed it and in terms one's state of mind at the time of acting or experiencing the result. The feedback loops inherent in this/that conditionality mean that the working out of any particular cause-effect relationship can be very complex indeed. This explains why the Buddha says that the results of kamma are imponderable. Only a person who has developed the mental range of a Buddha--another improbable itself--would be able to trace the intricacies of karmic network. The basic premise of kamma is simple--that skilful intentions lead to favorable results, and unskillful ones to unfavorable results--but the process by which those results themselves out is so intricate that it cannot be fully mapped.

Although the precise working out of the karmic process is somewhat unpredictable, it is not chaotic. The relationship between karmic causes and their effects is entirely regular: when an action is of the sort that it will be felt in such and such a way, that is how its results will be experienced. Skillful intentions lead to favorable results, unskillful ones to unfavorable results. Thus, when one participates in the karmic process, one is at the mercy of a pattern that one's actions put into motion, but that is not entirely under one's present control. Despite the power of the mind, one cannot reshape the basic laws of cosmic causality at whim,. These laws include the physical laws, within which one's kamma must ripen and work itself out. The Buddha explained that present pain can be explained not only by past kamma but also by a host of other factors; the list of alternative factors he gives comes straight from the various causes for pain that were recognized in the medical treatises of his time. If we compare this list with his definition of old kamma, we see that many if not all of the alternative causes are actually the result of past actions. The point here is that old kamma does not override other causal factors operating in the universe--such as those recognized by the physical sciences--but instead finds its expression within them.

However, the fact that the karmic process relies on input form the present moment means that it is not totally deterministic. Input from the past may place restrictions on what can be done and known in any particular moment but the allowance for new input format the present provides some room for free will. This allowance also opens the possibility for escape from the cycle of kamma altogether by means of the forth type of kamma: the development of heightened skillfulness through the pursuit of the seven factors of Awakening and the noble eightfold path--and, by extension, all of the Wings of Awakening.

The non-linearity of this/that conditionality explains why heightened skillfulness, when focused on the present moment, can succeed in leading to the end of the kamma that has formed the experience of the entire cosmos. All non-linear processes exhibit what is called scale invariance, which means that the behavior of the process on any one scale is similar to its behavior on smaller or larger scales. To understand say, the large-scale pattern of a particular non-linear process, observe, and one will see the same pattern at work. In the case of kamma, one need only focus on the process of kamma in the immediate present, in the course of developing heightened skillfulness, and the large-scale issues over the expanses of space and time will become clear as one gains releases from them.

The teaching on dependent co-arising (see below) helps to provide for detailed instructions on this point, showing precisely where the cycle of kamma provides openings for more skillful present input. In doing so, it both explains the importance of the act of attention in developing the fourth type of kamma, and acts as a guide for focusing attention on present experience in appropriate ways.

Dependent co-arising shows how the cosmos, when viewed in the context of how it is directly experienced by a person developing skillfulness is subsumed entirely under factors that are immediately present to awareness: the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness, and the six sense media (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).  Included in this description is the Buddha's ultimate analysis of kamma and rebirth. The nexus of kamma, clinging, becoming, and birth accounts for the realm in which birth takes place, whereas the nexus of name-and-form with consciousness accounts for the arising and survival of the kammically active organism within that realm. Also  included in independent co-arising is a detailed analysis of the way in which kamma can--but not necessarily have to-- lead to bondage to the cycle of rebirth. Unlike the Jains, the Buddha taught that this bondage was mental rather than physical. It was caused not by sticky substances created by the physical violence of an act, but by the fact that, when there is ignorance of the four noble truths, the feeling that results from kamma gives rise to craving, clinging, and becoming; and these, in turn, form the conditions for further kamma. Thus the results of action, in the presence of ignorance, breed the conditions for more action, creating feedback loops that keep the karmic processes in motion. For this reason, the Buddha defined the effluents as clinging--expressed in some lists as sensuality, in others as sensuality and views--together with becoming and the ignorance that underlies them all. If ignorance of the four noble truths can be ended, however, feeling does not form a condition for craving or clinging, and thus there is no becoming to provide a realm for further kamma. Thus the mastery of the fourth type of kamma requires discernment of the four noble truths.

Dependent Co-arising

A few general points about dependent co-arising (often called dependent origination) are important to give a full and final understanding of the process of dependent co-arising, they can provide tools that the meditator can use to probe the process in the course of training the mind and clue to an understanding for him or herself. The passages in this section help to provide that set of tools. 

    "(1) When there is this, that is, (2) from the arising of this comes the arising of that. (3)When this isn't, that isn't, (4) From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that."

This formula is non-linear, an interplay of linear and synchronic principles. The linear principle--taking (2) and (4) as a pair--connects events over time; the synchronic principle--(1) and (3)-- connects objects and events in the present moment. The two principles intersect, so that any given event is influenced by two sets of conditions, those acting from the past and those acting from the present. Because this is the pattern underlying dependent co-arising, it is a mistake to view dependent co-arising simply as a chain of causes strung out over time. Events in any one category of the list are affected not only by past events in the categories that at as their conditions, but also by he ongoing, interacting presence of whole streams of events in those categories. All categories can be present at once, and even though two particular conditions may be separated by several steps in the list, they can be immediately present to each other. Thus they can create the possibility for unexpected feedback loops in the causal process. Feeling, for instance, keeps reappearing at several stages in the process, and ignorance can contribute to any causal link at any time. The importance of these points will become clear when we examine how to disengage the causal network so as to realize the third noble truth. 

Because new input into the causal stream is possible at every moment, the actual working out of this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising can be remarkably fluid and complex. This point is borne out by the imagery used in the Canon t illustrate these teachings. Although some non-canonical texts depict dependent co-arising as a circle or wheel of causes--implying something of a mechanical, deterministic process--the Canon never uses that image at all. Instead it liens dependent co-arising to water flowing over land: lakes overflow, filling rivers, which in turn fill the sea; while the tides of the sea rise, swelling the rivers, which in turn swell the lakes. This imagery captures something of the flow of give and take among the factors of the process.

The fluid complexity of dependent co-arising means that it is inherently unstable, and thus stressful and not-self. Although some non-Theravadin Buddhists texts insist that happiness can be found by abandoning one's smaller, separate identity and embracing the interconnected identity of all interdependent things, this teaching cannot be found in the Pali Canon. The instability of conditioned processes means that they can never provide a dependable basis for happiness. The only true basis for happiness is the Unfabricated (another name for Nibbana). The Pali discourses are quite clear on the point that the fabricated and Unfabricated realms are radically separate. The Buddha strongly criticizes a group of monks who tried to develop a theory whereby the fabricated was derived out to the Unfabricated or somehow lay within it. Stress, he says, is inherent in the interdependent nature of conditioned phenomena, while the Unfabricated is totally free from stress. Stress could not possibly be produced by absolute freedom from stress. Because the nature of conditioning is such that causes are in turn influenced by their effects, the Unfabricated could not itself function as a cause for anything. The only way the Unfabricated can be experienced is by using fabricated, conditioned processes to unravel the network of fabricated, conditioned processes (dependent co-arising) from within. To do so, one needs to know the individual factors of dependent co-arising and the patterns in which they depend on one another.

These factors come down to the five aggregates (see below). In fact, the entire pattern of dependent co-arising is a map showing how the different aggregates group, disband, and regroup in one another's presence in a variety of configurations, giving rise to stress and to the cosmos at large. One of the most basic features of the Buddha's teachings is his confirmation that the knowable cosmos, composed of old kamma, is made up of the same factors that make up the personality; and that the interaction of the aggregates, as  immediately present to awareness in the here and now, is the same process that underlies the functioning of the knowable cosmos as a whole. As a result, the descriptions of dependent co-arising slip easily back and forth between two time scales--events in the present moment and events over the vast cycle of time. It is important to remember, though, that the Buddha discovered this principle by observing events in the immediate present, which is where the individual meditator will have to discover them as well. This the practice takes the same approach as phenomenology; exploring the process of conditioning from the inside as they are immediately experienced in the present moment. This is why the pattern of dependent co-arising lists factors of consciousness--such as ignorance, attention, and intention--as prior conditions for the experience of the physical world, for if we take as our frame of reference the world as it is directly experienced--rather than a world conceived somehow as separate from our experience of it-- we have to see the process of the mind prior to the objects they process. References in the texts to the larger frame of space and time provide examples to illustrate particularly subtle points in the immediate present and serve as reminders that the pattern of events observed in the resent moment has implications that cover the entire cosmos. 

Given the fluid, complex nature of the basic causal principle, it should come as no surprise that the Canon contains several variations on the list of basic factors and configurations in dependent co-arising. Like the seven sets in the Wings of Awakening, these different lists offer the meditator a variety of ways to approach the complexities of the causal stream and to gain a handle on mastering them. The most basic list is as follows:

Aging and death require birth (i.e., rebirth). If there were no birth, there would be nothing to set in motion the processes of aging and death. Here and in the following causal links, "birth," "aging," and "death" denote not only the arising, decay, and passing away of the body, but also the repeated arising, decay, and passing away of mental states, moment to moment in the present. In fact, during the third watch of the night of his Awakening, the Buddha probably focused on present mental  states as his primary examples of birth, aging, and death. From them he gained insight into how these processes functioned in the cosmos as a whole.

Birth depends on becoming. If there were no coming-into-being of a sensual realm, a realm of form, or a formless realm, there would be no focus for rebirth. Again, these realms refer not only to levels of being on the cosmic scale, but also to levels of mental states. Some mental states are concerned with sensual images, others with forms (such as jhana), and still others with formless abstractions, such as the formless jhanas. The relationship between birth and becoming can be compared to the process of falling asleep and dreaming. As drowsiness makes the mind lose contact worth waking reality, a dream image of another place and time will appear in it. The appearance of this image is called becoming. The act of entering into this image ad taking a role or identity within it--and thus entering the world of the dream and falling asleep--is birth. The commentaries maintain that precisely the same process is what enables rebirth t follow the death of the body. At the same time, the analogy between falling asleep and taking rebirth explains why release from the cycle of becoming is called Awakening.

Becoming requires clinging/sustenance. The image here is of a fire staying in existence by appropriating sustenance in the act of clinging to its fuel. The process of becoming takes its sustenance from the five aggregates, while the act of taking sustenance is to cling to these aggregates in any of four forms of passion and delight mentioned (in the suttas), sensual intentions, views, precepts and practices, or theories about self. Without these forms of clinging, the realms of sensuality, form, and formless would not come into being.

Sustenance requires craving. If one did not thirst  (the literal meaning of tanha, or craving) for sensuality, for becoming, or for non-becoming, then the process would not appropriate fuel.

Craving requires feeling. If there were no experience of pleasant, painful, or neither-pleasant-nor-painful feelings, one would not thirst for continuing experience of the pleasant or the cessation of the unpleasant.

Feeling requires contact. Without contact there would be no feelings of pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain.

Contact requires name-and-form. "Form" covers all physical phenomena. "Name" here is defined as feeling, perception, contact, attention, and intention. Without these phenomena, there would be nothing to make contact.

Name-and-form requires consciousness of the six sense fields. Without this kind of consciousness, the physical birth of the individual composed of the aggregates would abort, while on the level of momentary mental birth there would be nothing to activate an experience of the aggregates.

Consciousness of the six sense fields requires name-and-form. Without name-and-form, there would be no object for this type of consciousness.

Other lists of the factors in dependent co-arising expand this basic list. The most common list adds the factors of the six sense fields between contact and name-and-form, and then states that sensory consciousness requires the three types of fabrication (Sankhara)--bodily, verbal, and mental-- while these fabrications in turn require ignorance (Avijja) of the four noble truths. There is some disagreement over the meaning of the three types of fabrication on this list. One passage in the Canon, which seems to treat fabrications as they are immediately experienced n the present, defines bodily fabrication as breath, verbal fabrication as perception. other passages, which seem to regard fabrications as they function over time, simply class these three types of fabrication as to whether they are meritorious, demeritorious, or imperturbable. If we regard these two definitions as typical of the dual time frame of dependent co-arising, there is no conflict between them.

Another point of disagreement is over the question of how the factors of fabrication and ignorance (Sankhara and Avijja) came to be added to the basic list. Some scholars maintain that this was the result of a temporal development in the Buddha's teachings, either during his lifetime or after his passing away. However, if we examine the content of the added factors, we find that they are simply an elaboration of the mutual dependence between name-and-form and sensory consciousness, and do not add anything substantially new to the list. The three fabrications are simply another way of presenting name-and-form in their active role as shapers of consciousness. Bodily fabrication, the breath, is the active element of "form"; verbal fabrications, directed thought and evaluation, are the active elements in the attention and intention sub-factors of "name"; while mental fabrications, feeling and perception, are identical with the feeling and perception under "name." Ignorance, on the other hand, is the type of consciosness that actively promotes inappropriate questioning in the verbal fabrication of evaluation, which in turn can lead to inappropriate attention in the factor of name-and-form.

It may seem redundant to have the factors name-and-form on the one hand, and fabrications on the other, covering the same territory in two different configurations, but these configurations serve at least two practical purposes. First, the connection between ignorance and inappropriate questioning helps to pinpoint precisely what is wrong in the typical relationship between name-and-form and consciousness. As one modern teacher has put it, the verbal fabrications are the ones to watch out for. Second, the relationship between verbal fabrications on the one hand, and attention and intention on the other, mediated by consciousness, diagrams the double-tiered (and sometimes multi-tiered) relationships among mental events as the breed and feed on one another in the presence of consciousness. In the course of giving rise to suffering and stress, this incestuous interbreeding can fly out of hand, leading to may complex and intense patterns of suffering. However, it s double-tiered quality can also be used to help bring that suffering to an end.

If each factor in dependent co-arising were a sufficient cause for the following factor, the pattern would be absolutely deterministic and there would be no way out. However, in cases where the link between X and Y is necessary but not sufficient, then in terms of this/that conditionality, the X factor is input from the past--even if only a split second past--whereas ignorance is the input from the present needed to give rise to Y. Thus the strategy of the practice must be to use appropriate attention to eliminate ignorance in the presence of X. To do this, one must focus on comprehending the aggregates that functions as X--or, in the case of the craving/clinging link, that functions on the aggregate in and of itself. Then, to overcome the unskilfulness inherent in ignorance, one must gain practical familiarity with the aggregate in its role as a factor in the skilful practice of jhana. As this approach attains a state of mastery, one turns one's power of discernment n the "how" of the approach to the practice, taking it as the "what" or object of investigation, until one can see the aggregate even in this role in terms of the four noble truths. The more precise and comprehensive this knowing, the less craving is produced; the less craving produced, the fewer the effluents that cloud one's knowing. With the culmination of totally clear knowing, ignorance is totally wiped out, together with its attendant craving, and thus the present input that maintained the cycle is ended. This forms the point of non-fashioning at which the cycle breaks down, and where stress and suffering cease.

Once consciousness is released from the objects that ring sensory consciousness into play, all that remains is "consciosness without feature, without end, luminous all around."

The Five Aggregates (the five khandha of body and mind)

"The mental and the material really do exist but here there is no human being to be found. For it is void and merely fashioned like a doll, just dukkha piled up like grass and sticks."

A "being" is made up of two separate but interconnected parts of a "package."  These aggregates are called Name-and -form or, in Pali, Nama-Rupa. 

Rupa is the material or physical art of this package making up a being. It comprises the fur elements of earth, water, fire and air. This was the division of the material world at the time of the Buddha but still serves well to describe the physical make-up of a being. 

Nama (name) is the mental part f the package and divided into four aggregates:

  • Feeling (vedana). This is feeling towards things that enter the consciousness as pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Feeling stimulates the goals and searches for change n connection to what is pleasant, painful, or neutral i.e., towards or away from the stimulus. Feeling is this point, between contact and craving, where the direction of the mind flow is determined and propelled with influence from the other khandha factors. Up to the point of contact the other factors in the chain are neutral. At this point that feeling becomes personal and connected with "I" of the person and motivations and intention arise. These in turn are influenced by greed, aversion and delusion. Feelings arise from sensory impingement on the senses with their objects.
  • Perceptions (Sanna). Remembering, storing of information, labels, names, etc. Perception is one the of knowing, that is, perceiving an object such as its characteristics, color, name and various attributes such as green, white, loud, soft, etc., this perceiving is dependent on the coming together of comparisons between memory and a newly seen object. If the new experience is not the same as the old we take the old memory and compare it to the new (remembering and memory are different). There are many different kinds of memory/perceiving. Perceiving is according to what we have been told, or we ourselves believe through our own experience, as "this" and "that."  This is called perceiving in the form of concepts and recognition. Perceiving may be according to common cultural knowledge such as "green," following the world's understanding, society, customs etc.,  Perceiving may be according to one's own personal understanding or bias. Perception is perceiving at two levels, the mundane, as in colors and labels, and perceptions involving wisdom such as the memory of Dhamma truths in perceiving impermanence or non-self. perception is based on both on the physical and the psychological (Nama/Rupa). Sanna is memory, attention, and perceptions. Simply speaking, Sanna is the process of collecting, amassing information that one experiences and the stored materials. Sanna is very important in life but at the same time there are many faults with it because we attach to it and follow it blindly so that it has the nature to be covered over, twisted and blocked so that one does not see the truth which is deeper. 
  • Mental Fabrications (Sankhara). Intentional dhammas, states of mind which may be skillful, unskillful or neutral. fabrication of thought, intention, ideas, compounding and forming personality, mixing perceptions to form ideas., concepts, views, creating. Wisdom is a Sankhara. thoughts/mental fabrications, the factor that forms the mind and includes intention as its leading characteristic and the various intentions which lead it using there and mixing them in ideas, thoughts, views, concepts in thinking, doing, creating kamma  by way of body, speech and mind. In relation to the other three aggregates in the four that make up "name' or mind, it is usually spoken of in  relation to its duty of fabricating thoughts or the mind. Of the things that program or affect the mind, intentions is foremost. 
  • Consciousness (Vinnana). The awareness of a sense object at the moment it is contacted. Divided into six, following the six senses. Consciousness, knowing clearly, that is, knowing the object clearly, knowing purely as awareness. Consciousness in the five khandha is the path for all other psychological (Nama) factors and is connected to them all. It is awareness from first contact knowledge onwards. When hearing or seeing, for example, making one consciousness of feeling happy, or oppressed (feelings), making one aware of the perceptions as this or that (perceptions), so that one ideates or conceives (mental fabrications). Knowing following these means knowing the activities of the other aggregates. consciousness in the aggregates is neutral, it is just being aware without judgment, emotion or intentions. Consciousness is aware of the difference between things but it is perception that labels them and mental fabrications that ideate.

"And why, monks, do our say body? One is afflicted, monks, that is why you say body. Afflicted by what? Afflicted by the touch of cold and heat, of hunger and thirst, of gadflies and mosquitoes, wind, sun and creeping things... And why, monks, do you say feeling? One feels, monks, that is why the word feeling is used. Feels what? Feels pleasure, pain or neutral feelings... And why, monks, do you say perceptions? One perceives, monks, that is why you say perceptions. And what is perceived/ One perceives blue, green, yellow, red, and white... And why, monks, do you say mental fabrications? Because they fabricate a formation. And what do they fabricate? It is body that they fabricate into the form of body. It is feeling that they fabricate into feeling formations. It is perception that they fabricate into perception formations. And why, monks, do you say consciousness? One is conscious, monks, and therefore the word consciousness is used. Conscious of what? Of bitter, acrid, sweet, alkaline, salty..."

"In what respect, Ananda, does one assume when one assumes a self? Assuming feeling to be the self, one assumes that 'Feeling is myself', 'Feeling is not my self,' 'My self is oblivious to feeling,' 'Neither is feeling myself nor is feeling not myself but rather self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.' Now one who says, 'Feeling is my self,' should be addressed as follows, 'There are these three feelings, my friend, pleasure, pain and neutral. Which of these three feelings do you assume to be your self?... Now a feeling of pleasure is impermanent, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading and stopping (repeated for pain and neutral feelings). Having sensed a feeling of pleasure as 'My self' then with the ceasing of that sense one has perished...(repeated for other feelings). Thus one assumes, assuming in the immediate present a self inconsistent, entangled in pleasure and pain, subject to arising and ceasing."

"Monks, a well-taught noble disciple...regards material form (rupa) thus, 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' He regards what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered, thus, 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' And this standpoint for views, namely, 'This is self, this is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity.' --This too he regards thus, 'This is not mine, this I am not, this s not my self,' since he regards them thus, he is not agitated about what is non-existent." (this is repeated for feeling, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness).

"Therefore, monks, whatever is not yours abandon it. That will lead to your happiness and welfare for a long time. What is not yours? material form...felling...perceptions...mental fabrications...consciousness is not yours, abandon them."

The Three characteristics of Existence

Ti-Lakkhana = suffering and stress (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and, non-self (anatta).

"What do you think, Aggivesana? When you say thus, 'Material form is my self,' do you exercise any such power over material form as to say, 'Let it be thus, let my form be not thus?' ---No, master Gotama. What do you think, Aggivesana, is material form permanent or impermanent?-- Impermanent, master Gotama. Is what is impermanent dukkha or happiness? --Dukkha master Gotama. Is what is impermanent and dukkha and subject to change fit to be regarded thus; 'This is mine, this I am, this is my self? --No, master Gotama." (this formula is then repeated for all the other aggregates).

All things are associated, interdependent and, compounded, which is the very reason that each one is without self and impermanent. They follow their nature to arise and cease. there are two main principles of Dhamma that show the three characteristics, the characteristics themselves and the doctrine of dependent co-arising. In fact they are the same but approach from a different point of view. The three characteristics of dukkha, impermanence and, non-self, makes us see all things as "thus". Their compounded dependency, the mechanics, is shown in dependent co-arising. There flow is shown to be made up of many parts and interdependent, arising and ceasing following their time span and causes. When this is so there is dukkha and opposition and because of their arising and ceasing there is no permanence to self. It is as in number of stills run together through time and space, as in a film, giving the appearance of stability and a personal entity. A 'being" consists of the five aggregates, all are dukkha, all are impermanent, and all are without self.

"Monks, you may well acquire that possession that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might endure as long as eternity. but do you see any such possession, monks?--No ,Lord. --Good, monks, I also do not see any possession that is permanent."

"Rahula, develop mediation on the perception of impermanence; for when you develop meditation on the perception of impermanence the conceit, "I am" will be abandoned."


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Last Updated on Saturday, 05 May 2007 18:42