Overview of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising
Session One: Unawareness of Reality, Root Cause for the Samsaric Syndrome
The topic for this weekend is the twelve links of dependent arising. This is a very central and important topic in the Buddhist path and in order to develop interest and motivation to study it, to learn about it, it’s important to know, why is it important? As way of introduction, let me discuss that for a little while first.
The main structure of the Buddha’s teachings are the four noble truths and these are facts which are seen as true by, it’s usually translated as “the noble ones,” the aryas. Ordinary people would not see these as true, they wouldn’t understand them. It’s only on very, very deep reflection about reality that one sees the truth of these four – “truth” maybe isn’t exactly the word. These are things that are really true in a sense. We’ll see what that means.
The first is true suffering. What truly is suffering? What truly is the problem? Well, what truly is the problem that we all experience is on many different levels. Some of these levels many people can see are truly a problem, not just the aryas. The first level is the suffering of unhappiness, pain, what’s usually called the “suffering of suffering.” This even animals recognize as something that is not desirable and that they want to get rid of and try to get rid of in their own ways.
A more subtle level is our ordinary happiness. Our ordinary happiness is a type of suffering called “the suffering of change,” basically because it is totally unreliable. Our ordinary happiness doesn’t last and it’s not satisfying, we always want more, and we never know what’s going to come next when it ends.
If ordinary happiness were true happiness, then the more we had, the happier we would be. So we might become happy walking, for example, going for a walk, but if you had to walk for an endless number of hours, after a while you’d get pretty tired and that happiness will turn into suffering. If it were true happiness, the more you walked, the happier you would become. So we sit down and we think that’s happiness, we feel happy when we sit down, but the longer we’re sitting, soon that happiness changes. If it were true happiness, the longer we sat, let’s say if we had to sit there for ten years, the happier we would become.
Obviously, that’s not the case. Now, Buddhism is not alone in identifying this type of experience, so-called “worldly happiness,” as a form of suffering. There are many religions that say, “Give up worldly suffering and aim for the everlasting happiness of heaven or paradise.” So, to want to overcome that kind of suffering is not particularly Buddhist.
So, what is the true suffering? What’s the true problem? That’s what the aryas see, is the true problem. The true problem is our uncontrollably recurring aggregates, in other words, the body and mind that we get, to put it very simply, lifetime after lifetime – this whole cycle of samsaric rebirth, which then form the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering: unhappiness and ordinary happiness. That’s the real problem. That’s the true suffering, the true problem. Others don’t really recognize this as true suffering, as the true problem.
Well, you could argue that there are other Indian philosophical systems, non-Buddhist systems, that also see this type of samsaric rebirth as a real problem. But what’s the cause of this? And now we have to go deeper. It’s not just to see that this is the only true thing, but Buddha went on to speak about what’s really, what’s truly the cause of this. Now we get much more specifically into a fuller Buddhist context. Buddha said the true cause of our problems, of this uncontrollably recurring samsara, the real problem is our unawareness of reality, of how we exist.
What Buddha taught was – to just jump ahead a little bit – that we have to realize that it is thinking that an impossible way in which we exist is actually the way in which we really do exist. That’s the problem. We’re confused. We think that we exist in a way that is impossible.
Other Indian systems also say that the cause of samsara is ignorance, this unawareness. However, what they say is impossible and therefore what’s left over, in other words, what is the way in which we exist, Buddha said, “No, that’s impossible too.” That’s what is particularly special here in the Buddhist presentation. Like, if we look at the Upanishads, which form the basis of most of the Hindu thought, they also say that it’s ignorance, it’s deception that causes samsara and we want to gain liberation – and what’s impossible is that we all exist separately and what really is the case is that we are all one with Brahma.
OK, so that identification of ignorance or unawareness, from a Buddhist point of view, Buddha saw that’s not true, that’s not true. So the identification of what really is unawareness, what are we unaware of, what is our confusion, what is our ignorance, Buddha identified what the true ignorance is, what the true unawareness is, which is the real cause of the real problem, which is the uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That’s where the explanation of the twelve links of dependent arising comes in, because it’s with this explanation scheme that Buddha explained how unawareness of reality, of how we exist, actually causes this uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
So the twelve links is basically a description of how rebirth works. In other words, the twelve links show us how do we, through our unawareness, through our confusion, how do we perpetuate over and over again having a body and a mind, which is going to act as the basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of worldly happiness, which never satisfies.
But Buddha didn’t leave it just at that by saying, “Well, this is how we perpetuate our samsaric suffering,” and then just complain about how terrible that is. Buddha went on to see that it is possible to have a true stopping of it. In other words, you can truly stop it, so that it never recurs again. That’s the third noble truth.
In other words, Buddha saw that with these other systems of belief, other systems of explanation, you didn’t truly stop samsaric rebirth and all the suffering. Maybe you’re able to go into some incredible meditative trance and it would seem as though it had ended, because this trance lasted a very long time and you didn’t really recognize anything that was going on; but your samsaric suffering recurred, it came back.
Some people, ordinary people would think, and we have this belief commonly in the West as well, that life has its ups and downs and, “Learn to live with it,” and the best that we could do is to learn to live with the various problems, to cope with it. That’s in many cases the approach in Western psychology, isn’t it? But Buddha saw that it is possible truly to stop, to end the samsaric cycle, so that it will never ever recur again. So that’s true stopping.
The fourth noble truth is that he saw what truly was the pathway of mind that will lead to this true stopping. This is often translated as “truth of the path” or “the true path.” But we’re not talking about a road that you walk on; we’re talking here about a state of mind, a type of understanding that will act as a pathway leading to liberation. So it’s not really talking about step-by-step you do this; it’s more in terms of step-by-step this is the kind of mind that you need. It’s talking about the mind itself, the understanding: this is what is going to bring liberation.
And basically, if we understand that there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing that we imagine is how we exist, if we understand there’s no such thing – that’s what voidness is talking about, it’s an absence of this, a total absence, no such thing – then you can gain liberation. How that liberation actually occurs is also explained in terms of the twelve links. So the twelve links can be understood in the forward order: that one produces two, two produces three, etc. – that describes how we perpetuate samsara. Or we can also understand it in the reverse order, which describes how we get out of samsara.
In other words, if we want to get rid of link number twelve, since that arises dependently on eleven, you have to get rid of eleven. And how do you get rid of eleven? Well, then you have to get rid of ten. And then to get rid of that, you have to get rid of nine. And like that, that’s how we understand the twelve links, how the understanding of the twelve links in reverse order indicates how we actually get out of samsara. Therefore this teaching on the twelve links of dependent arising is very, very much involved with or represents the core of the understanding of the four noble truths.
We talk about, in Buddhism, the three poisonous attitudes. These are the attitudes or disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, that are the most poisonous, the ones that really keep us in samsara. This is longing desire or attachment, greed, and there’s hostility and anger, and then there’s naivety. And we can apply various temporary antidotes that will help us to overcome this longing desire or attachment and anger.
So, if we have so much longing desire for somebody else’s body or our own body and have a lot of attachment, we can meditate on what is inside the body, the so-called ugliness of the body. The body doesn’t consist of just the external surface and shape, but there’s everything that’s in the stomach and intestines and so on. So that helps as a temporary antidote to lessen our desire and attachment. The most desirable, wonderful cake that we love the most – chew it a few times and spit it out on the plate and see how desirable it looks. And if you swallow it, think what it turns into after a day. So these type of thoughts are a temporary help for overcoming our attachment and desire.
And for our anger and hostility, which is basically the wish for harm to happen to others, then we apply the temporary antidote of meditation on love, that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy and so on, so the wish for them to be happy. That’s a temporary antidote to anger and hostility. But these temporary antidotes of meditation on ugliness and on love don’t bring about a true stopping of these disturbing emotions and the suffering that they cause us. They’re just a temporary help.
But these disturbing emotions will recur. So if we really want to get rid of these, then we need to apply the antidote to naivety, the third poisonous attitude. Naivety is particularly about reality, how we exist. We often speak of naivety in terms of two levels: naivety about cause and effect, and naivety about how we exist. What is the antidote to naivety? What Buddha taught was the antidote is meditation on these twelve links of dependent arising. Through understanding them, we understand how cause and effect works.
When we talk about cause and effect, we’re talking about behavioral cause and effect; we’re not talking about the cause and effect involved in gravity or some physical type of process. We’re talking about it in terms of our behavior, in other words, the topic of karma. The twelve links help us to understand the whole mechanism of how karma functions and how it is the mechanism that drives uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth.
And more specifically, it explains to us how unawareness of reality, of how we exist, really is the root cause for the whole syndrome of samsara and explains how to get rid of it. And if we get rid of the root cause, this unawareness of how we exist, then we will also get rid of the whole process that as well is explained with the twelve links. That understanding that gets rid of our unawareness, our confusion or ignorance, likewise will get rid of the other disturbing emotions – longing desire and anger and so on – since these types of disturbing emotions are very, very much involved in the whole karmic process.
The twelve links explain the role of the disturbing emotions in driving karma, in a sense, in terms of negative motivations, in terms of what activates karmic tendencies and so on. The twelve links explain how these disturbing emotions are involved in causing our karmic actions and how they’re involved in bringing about the result of our karmic actions. So with our understanding of the twelve links, both how it brings about samsara and how we get out of samsara, it eliminates that naivety about reality and, as a side thing, it eliminates as well our naivety about behavioral cause and effect.
So that’s very important to realize: when we act in a destructive way, that brings about the experience of the first type of suffering, the suffering of unhappiness, pain. And why do we act destructively? Because we’re unaware of how we exist. And even if we act constructively, but based on a misunderstanding of how we exist, in other words, “I’ll help you, so that it’ll make me feel important, it’ll make me feel useful, you will thank me, will love me,” these type of things, that can bring about our temporary worldly happiness, but that’s still samsaric suffering, as we saw. So understanding these twelve links gets rid of the whole package: all the disturbing emotions, the karma, and the unawareness or ignorance of reality that is the basis for these.
Then the question is: why would we want to understand this? “How fascinating. This is how you get into samsara; this is how you get out of samsara. How interesting.” Well, just because it’s interesting is not a sufficient reason and is not going to give us a very profound result for studying this material. So what is one of the most basic fundamental axioms of Buddhism? It’s that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. And there’s no reason why that is so; that’s just the way things are.
It’s quite interesting, when we study Buddhism, many of us are struck at how rational the system is and how it gives explanations for everything. But in fact, even within Buddhism there are certain things that are explained as, “This is just the way things are. There is no reason.” One of these, which is really fundamental, is: “Everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy.” This is actually a very profound point. Because we don’t want to be unhappy, therefore we want to eliminate unhappiness, don’t we?
The problem is that we don’t really recognize what is true unhappiness, in other words, the first noble truth: true suffering. We don’t want to be unhappy. We don’t want to be poor and starving, so we think happiness is to get a lot of money. But then you get a lot of money and there are so many other problems involved with it. What are you going to do with your money? How are you going to invest it? “Everybody wants my money.” It’s going to be stolen... all these sort of problems that come with that.
And we want to be happy and so we think that... now, this is very interesting, I remember people who lived like you in the Soviet Union, who dreamt of being able to eat fruit, like banana. And one of my Russian friends came to India and there was almost an endless supply of bananas, so this is what he just absolutely stuffed himself, in the beginning, on bananas, bananas, bananas. But then he realized that this isn’t really happiness. I mean, once you’ve eaten a certain number of bananas for a certain number of days – enough already.
So although we want happiness, everybody wants to be happy, we don’t really know what happiness is. So if we could learn what true suffering is, this whole samsaric cycle, and what the true cause of it is, then – just based on the fact that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, just on the basis of that, you would want to get out of samsara, you’d want to get rid of that unhappiness, that suffering, that deepest type of suffering. That’s actually a very profound and deep point, if you think about it.
We hear about renunciation, renunciation of samsara, and this sounds so difficult and so really impossible. But there is a basis that we all have for that which does make it possible, which is the basic nature that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. On the basis of that, it’s possible to develop renunciation. And on the basis of the fact that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, we can develop compassion, which is the basis for developing bodhichitta, which is the motivation for reaching enlightenment to be able to best help everybody out of their suffering.
So, if we really want to develop renunciation, we have to realize what is it that we renounce. It’s not merely the suffering of unhappiness; it’s not merely the suffering of our ordinary happiness which changes all the time, the so-called “suffering of change.” What you want to get out of and get rid of is what’s called “the all-pervasive affecting suffering.” These are these uncontrollably recurring aggregates. It’s “all-pervasive” and it pervades every moment of our existence. And it’s “affecting,” it affects, it brings about our experience of the first two types of suffering. That’s what you’re renouncing. That’s what you want to get rid of.
So, renunciation is this wish to get rid of this deepest suffering, what’s true suffering, what truly is suffering, and its causes, what is truly its causes. And literally the word means “a determination,” so we’re determined to get free, our mind is absolutely certain.
Now, what’s the basis for being certain about this? The basis for it is being totally convinced that it is possible to eliminate true suffering and its true causes, that it’s totally possible. So you’re convinced of that. And you’re convinced of what type of mind, what type of understanding will actually get rid of it – and get rid of it forever. On the basis of that, then definitely we want to get out.
How can you have determination to get free, if you’re not convinced that it’s possible to get free and you’re not convinced of how to do it and convinced that doing that will work, and convinced as well that I’m capable of doing it, not just Buddha Shakyamuni? So, to really study these twelve links you have to have this motivation of being determined to get free of samsara. And that determination, it’s renunciation based on understanding the forward sequence of the twelve links, that: “This is really the true suffering. This is what I’m determined to get out of.” This is how it works.
And the reversal sequence, that: “This is really what will get rid of the samsaric suffering and it’s possible to get rid of it forever.” It’s very interesting, because in a sense you need this renunciation in order to get enough motivation to study the twelve links seriously. And the more seriously we study the twelve links, the more determined we are to be free of it and the more convinced that we can become free of it. So our renunciation becomes stronger. So, the two strengthen each other, like a feedback loop.
The discussion of the twelve links is really focused on the topic of how samsara works and how to get liberation from samsara. So it’s not exclusively Mahayana. It’s in common with Hinayana and Mahayana. In other words, this is what you have to understand and work with first, if you’re going to work toward enlightenment. So, this gets into the whole discussion of what do we need to gain liberation? What do we need to understand? What type of mind do we need to gain liberation? What kind of mind do we need to have in order to gain enlightenment?
And is liberation possible? And is enlightenment possible? And that is a very essential question and topic. Is liberation possible? Is enlightenment possible? “How could I possibly work toward it, if I’m not convinced that it’s possible?” So we have to look a little bit more deeply in terms of these twelve links and material that is underlying our understanding of the twelve links.
And although this is not specifically the topic of the twelve links, I think it’s extremely important to understand, or at least to have an indication of what we need to think about in order to understand and become convinced that liberation and enlightenment are possible. Otherwise, why are we practicing Buddhism? What are you doing if you don’t think that it’s possible to achieve the goal?
So, the problem is that our mind projects impossible ways of existing and we believe that they correspond to reality. These are the problems. When we talk about unawareness, the first of these twelve links, that’s referring to basically believing this projection, this junk that the mind projects of impossible ways of existing, it’s referring to believing that that’s true. That’s the unawareness.
And more specifically, our mind projects impossible ways of existing for persons – me, you – and also impossible ways of existing of all phenomena in general, of everything – in terms of the twelve links speaking specifically about the unawareness of how persons exist, both self and others.
Now, of course there are many different tenet systems within Buddhism, many different philosophical systems of explanation, and some of them say that the projection of what’s impossible with regard to persons and the understanding that there’s no such thing, that with regard to persons, that is one impossible way and all you need to understand is the voidness of that, that that’s not referring to anything real, in order to gain liberation. And what’s impossible about everything, including the self, is a deeper one that the mind projects and you believe in and you need to [get rid of] that in order to gain enlightenment. So there’s two levels of what’s impossible – two levels of getting rid of them.
And there are some systems within these Indian schools of Buddhist philosophy that say, “Well, actually you need the same understanding to gain either liberation or enlightenment.” But this is a technical point that we can study in depth later, whether we need the same understanding to gain liberation and enlightenment or there are levels of understanding for liberation and enlightenment. So that unawareness, that first link, is understood slightly differently in each of these tenet systems, in terms of what is it unaware of.
But the real point here is that the mind projects these impossible ways of existing and we believe that they’re true. Now, to gain liberation from samsara, you have to stop believing that these are true, that this projection refers to reality. You have to realize, “This is ridiculous; it doesn’t refer to anything real. That’s totally absent.” Voidness is talking about that – it’s totally absent.
Even if we only just stop believing that these projections refer to anything real, even if the mind is still projecting them, we don’t have any suffering. We don’t produce any further samsaric experience based on believing in these projections. It’s believing in these projections, like there’s some solid me and then we get desire, “I have to get a lot of things to me,” to make that me secure, and anger, “I have to get a lot of things away from me that I feel threatens it,” and so on. We get rid of that, when we stop believing in this false appearance, and so you don’t create any more causes for suffering for yourself.
So even if the mind produces all this garbage, we realize it’s like an illusion, it doesn’t refer to anything real. You don’t act upon it and you don’t produce further suffering for yourself and you don’t produce further samsaric rebirth. That’s liberation. You become what’s called an arhat, a liberated being. The understanding of the twelve links is sufficient for gaining that liberation. But we have to go deeper, if we really want to help everybody gain liberation as well. We need to get the mind to stop projecting these deceptive appearances, these false appearances. If we can get the mind to stop doing that, then we become an enlightened Buddha.
If we want to understand this in a very simple, initial way: the mind projects something like a solid line around things and so everything appears to exist solidly, independently, all by itself, as if encapsulated in plastic.
So like somebody gets angry with us, or says something nasty to us and, “There it is,” it appears as though it’s existing all by itself, independent of all the causes. The entire life of this person, the entire spectrum of all the people they ever met and all the influences and what happened to them the day before and what happened to them before they met us – all these things don’t appear. It just appears this one, “Oouh, you said this nasty thing to me!” as if existing all by itself, a big line around it or encapsulated in plastic. And then on that basis we get really angry.
If we want to help everybody achieve liberation, we have to get the mind to stop projecting this garbage. Because when it stops projecting these solid lines around things, encapsulating them as if they existed independently, then we see how everything is interdependent – all the causes of why somebody has acted the way they did, all the things that would follow if we taught them this or if we taught them that and how that will affect all their future lives and everybody that they interact with and so on.
You have to be able to know that in order to be a Buddha. That’s what an enlightened Buddha knows, the omniscient mind knows that. So to know that, you have to get the mind to stop projecting these impossible ways of existing, this false appearance. So we have to be convinced that it’s possible to gain a true stopping, not just of our belief in these false appearances, these deceptive appearances, but also that it’s possible to get a true stopping of the projection of these deceptive appearances, that the mind will stop projecting all of this.
And that brings one to the whole topic of what’s called “the natural purity of the mind,” Buddha-nature, these type of things. So, when an arya has nonconceptual cognition of basically the four noble truths and more specifically of voidness, “There’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing, they’re not referring to anything real,” when they’re focused on that nonconceptually, which means not through a category of “voidness” or whatever, then that state of mind, not only does it not believe in these false appearances, it doesn’t even project them. It’s totally free of all of that.
Now, this becomes a very interesting process. When you become an arya, that doesn’t mean that you’re already a liberated being. There’s still quite a long ways to go. There are many different levels of this unawareness, this first link, and the disturbing emotions that come from it. So, when you first get this nonconceptual focusing on voidness, then you start to get rid of this unawareness, it doesn’t come back. You start to get rid of different levels of it.
The first insight that we get here is that this confusion, this ignorance or unawareness is not in the nature of the mind. If it were in the nature of the mind, it should be there every single moment. But look, here’s a situation, when you have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, when it isn’t there. And if it isn’t there at certain times, then it’s not part of the innate nature of the mind.
Then the question is: can you get rid of it, so that it never comes again? Can you get a true stopping of it? But at least first you’re convinced that it’s not part of the nature of the mind. That’s essential. That’s what really pushes you further to work to really get rid of it, because you see you can get rid of it. It doesn’t have to be there all the time.
So what happens after you’ve had this, what’s called a “total absorption” on voidness, nonconceptual, total absorption on, “There’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing,” and that impossible way of existing doesn’t appear at all – what happens is that after that, what happens subsequent to that, is that things appear again and they appear in various impossible ways, but we start to not believe that it’s true.
As I said, there’s certain levels of this unawareness, certain levels that will go away in stages. So, the first levels start to go away. And with enough familiarity and practice over and over and over again for a huge amount of time, then eventually what will happen is, when we’re not totally absorbed on voidness, our minds will still make the appearance of these impossible ways of existing, but there won’t be any level whatsoever of confusion about it, there won’t be any level whatsoever of belief in it. That’s when you become liberated. That’s when you become an arhat.
Because it’s when you believe in it that it causes the disturbing emotions, and that forms a basis for karma and rebirth, samsara. So, on the basis of this, that there is this type of experience – in the total absorption there’s not even an appearance of false existence and there’s no belief in it, and eventually as an arhat, even when there is that appearance of true existence, of impossible existence, there’s no belief in it – then you can become convinced that it is possible to achieve liberation. But of course that’s quite difficult, if we haven’t actually experienced these states in meditation, isn’t it?
Then we have to look a little deeper and we look at a topic, which is discussed in the highest class of tantra, and this is the topic of the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, what actually goes from lifetime to lifetime, no beginning, and actually continues into enlightenment as well. And although it is present in every moment, this continuity is in every moment, but it’s not manifest while we’re alive, because there’s grosser levels of mind operating. But this level of mind becomes manifest during the period of death. In the death phase, you have the clear light mind of death, it’s called.
And that mind automatically, by just the nature of how it is, doesn’t project these impossible ways of existing and doesn’t believe in them. So, all of us experience that. No matter how much or how little meditation we’ve done, we all experience the clear light of death. We certainly aren’t very aware of it when we experience it, but this clear light state of the mind at time of death is also a very, very important indication that this mechanism of projecting impossible ways of existence and believing in them and then all the disturbing emotions and all this garbage that comes from it are not in the nature of the mind. Because at every death existence you don’t have it.
Also what is important about this clear light mind is that with that level of mind it is possible to have appearances of things, but without projecting an impossible way of existing with it. That’s possible with this level of mind. Now, that state of mind doesn’t necessarily understand what it is, doesn’t understand voidness or anything like that, but it doesn’t produce all this garbage. So if we can get the understanding of voidness with that level of mind, then we’ve really accomplished a powerful tool. Because that’s the state of mind, if we could sustain it forever, that is the enlightened state of a Buddha.
That is what enlightenment is. It’s this state of mind, clear light mind with the understanding of voidness that, through meditation, you’re able to sustain forever. It’s just a matter of familiarity. The more and more you’re able to generate this in meditation and keep it with the understanding of voidness, then not only do the different levels of this belief in these impossible ways of existing go away, but you don’t even have the projection of these impossible ways.
All of this may sound very fantastic and really strange, but the more and more we think about this, then the more and more we can become convinced that it is possible to gain not just liberation, but also enlightenment and this is how it happens. That’s the whole point of bringing up this topic. This is how it happens. This is why it’s possible. And we all have clear light minds, so everybody is capable of this. It’s summarized by the little statement here, which again is an axiom, that’s just the way it is, which is: “the mind is naturally pure.” That’s referring to this clear light level of mind.
If we can become convinced of: “it’s possible to gain liberation and it’s possible to even go beyond that and gain enlightenment, because a true stopping is possible of all this garbage and the belief in this garbage that we project,” then that really gives us a strong motivation to achieve it. If you’re not convinced it can happen and you don’t really understand how it can happen, it’s very hard to sincerely work for it. Then you’re working for, “Well, it would be nice, but I don’t know if I can achieve it.” How can you put your heart into it then?
That brings us back to the twelve links, to our topic for the weekend. Because on the basis of really being convinced that liberation and enlightenment is possible, then you go more deeply and you’re interested more deeply in, “Well, how does samsara actually work? How do you actually get out of it? How does this mechanism function?” And if you can understand how it functions and the various parts of it, then again you gain more confidence in how to pull it apart, so that it’s destroyed, so that it never occurs again.
More specifically, on a very practical level, when we understand these twelve links, then we can notice and recognize in our daily life how we’re creating more samsaric suffering for ourselves. You can see it. You can recognize what’s the problem here. And you have some idea of how to attack it. So the understanding of these twelve links is not just something which is theoretical. It has a very practical application once you’ve digested the whole system. Nobody said it was easy. It’s a complicated system. But once we’ve digested it, then you can actually apply it and see how it’s working, how... “Look, what am I doing? I’m just creating more suffering for myself,” and you know, “Ha! This is what I have to work on, right now.”
So, if we want to gain liberation ourselves, based on the fact that we want to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, specifically ourselves, then we need to understand this. And if we want to be able to help others gain happiness and overcome suffering, in other words gain liberation, this is what we have to teach them. Because they have to understand this. And to know how to do that properly, so you don’t mess them up, you know how to teach them and so on, then you need to become enlightened, a Buddha.
So, this is the introduction to the topic of the twelve links of dependent arising. Tomorrow we’ll start our more detailed discussion of it. But I think it’s very important, before studying something as complex as this, to try to understand the context of it and the importance of it. Because when we approach a complex topic, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, this is too complicated,” and, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to understand this, this is too much.” That’s a big obstacle and you need to overcome it. To overcome it, it helps to understand the context, the purpose, why would you want to try to understand this.
In short, “I want to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy. This is how I make myself unhappy. And this is how I can achieve a true happiness.” Bottom line.
So what questions might you have? We have some minutes left.
Question: I have one question with regard to how something is projected into your mind...
Alex: How is something projected into your mind or out of your mind?
Question (cont’d): Well, probably both ways. Because if we’re talking about impossible ways of existing and with this regard you’re projecting your mind in those impossible ways and you have to get rid of those, you have to...
Alex: Right. So this is a very good question. The question is: how is it and why is it that the mind projects these impossible ways of existing? This is very much related to the topic of the twelve links. When we talk about sentient beings – “sentient beings,” literally the word is “someone with a limited mind” and a synonym for it is “embodied beings,” which means someone with a limited body. A Buddha is not a sentient being. A Buddha is not an embodied being.
And so, if we can use an analogy from computers: the problem is that when we have this uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth, what is produced – and the twelve links explains how it’s produced – what is produced is “limited hardware.” We have limited minds and limited bodies. And basically it is the limited body that makes… I mean these two are dependent on each other. Because the body is limited, the mind, the awareness is limited.
For example, you can only see what’s in front of you out of the holes in your head where your eyes are; you can’t see what’s behind you. This is a very simple example – limited,. So, with the limited capacity of a brain, the limited capacity of eyes and ears and so on – whatever life form we take, then it’s a little bit like being in a submarine looking out of a periscope. We only see a little bit – limited. And when we only see a little bit, like seeing out of the periscope, you believe that that’s all there is, because that’s all that you see, that’s all that you’re aware of. We can’t be aware of all the causes of things and all of the results and all these things. We can’t even see what’s behind our head.
So it’s like that. It’s part of this whole samsaric phenomenon that we are generating these limited aggregates. The twelve links explains how that happens and how you get out of that. And the really nasty thing is that it feels as though this is real. It feels as though there is some solid little me sitting inside my head talking, who’s the author of the voice going on in my head. It feels as though there’s some sort of me inside, solid, “Oooh, What am I going to do now? Press the buttons, make the arm move, get information in from the video screen from the eyes.” It feels like that.
OK, then let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding has come from this, whatever positive force, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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