Overview of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising
Riga, Latvia, July 2008
Session Four: The Ripening of Karmic Tendencies
We have started our discussion of these twelve links, and we saw that they describe the mechanism for how we generate our uncontrollably recurring aggregates – the body and mind and so on – of each lifetime, and, specifically our tainted aggregates. These are these aggregate factors that are generated by unawareness – unawareness specifically of the reality of how persons exist – and how these aggregates then constitute the basis of the foundation on which we experience the first two types of suffering – unhappiness and ordinary happiness. And these aggregate factors contain further unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes that derive from that unawareness, as well as various karmic tendencies which are built up by acting on the basis of unawareness.
And because these aggregate factors contain these various “taints,” they’re called, then we generate further tainted aggregates in the future with future rebirths. So the whole thing just recurs over and over and over again, almost like a self-perpetuating system. And if we do nothing about it, it just continues uncontrollably. But if we take control, as it were, but not from the basis of some solid “me”: “I’m going to be in control of everything,” then we can stop this chain. We can break it at its weakest point, which is our unawareness, and gain liberation from this uncontrollably recurring cycle of rebirths.
We started going through the twelve, and the first one was unawareness. That was specifically unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And it includes both the doctrinally based unawareness that we have been taught, we had to learn from one of these non-Buddhist Indian systems of tenets – so one of these theories of an atman that we find in the various Hindu and Jain schools, which has to do with basically, what we in the West would call a “soul.” And because we wouldn’t automatically believe that we have a soul and that we identify with this soul, that this soul is “me.” That’s something you’d have to learn; animals wouldn’t believe that they have a soul, for example.
And also this unawareness link contains what is more subtle, underlying this type of this doctrinally based unawareness, namely what’s called “automatically arising unawareness.” And this is understood on several levels. The level which is held in common, or asserted in common by all Buddhist schools of philosophy here, is the belief that I exist as some self-sufficiently knowable “me” that can be known all by itself, as in the example we used yesterday of, “I want you to love me for me, myself; not for my money, or my good looks, or my intelligence, or whatever.” And animals have this as well. When the dog sees its master, it thinks, “I’m seeing the master.” It doesn’t certainly think that I’m seeing a body and on the basis of the body is imputed my master.
OK. Now on a deeper level which is asserted only by, for example the Gelug interpretation of Prasangika, which is one of the philosophical schools, then much deeper is this automatically arising feeling or belief that there is something special inside me, something special inside you, which makes me “me” and you “you.” And the habit of this unawareness, in other words, of believing that we exist in these impossible ways, causes our minds to project the appearance and the feeling that we exist like that. And then the unawareness – with the unawareness, we believe that it corresponds to reality; but it doesn’t. Nevertheless, we do exist; it’s not that we don’t exist at all.
But how do we establish that we exist? How do you prove that you exist? How do you prove that anybody else exists? What establishes it? This is the whole issue that is involved in the discussion of what’s usually called “existence.” How things exist. But it’s not really talking about how they exist. It’s talking about how you establish that something exists. What establishes it? That’s an important word to understand. It’s the same word as is used – I’m talking about in Sanskrit and Tibetan – it’s the same word as is used for to prove something. How do you prove it? It’s not talking about what creates me or you. We’re not talking about what creates it. We’re talking about what proves it. So this is the word “establish,” it’s usually translated. What establishes it?
Is it something on the side of the object, of a person, that makes it that you can know the person all by itself? Well, no. Is it some special findable characteristic inside the person that makes them me, or makes them you? No, you can’t find anything like that. Is there a bar code on the side of the person, or a special genetic code? Well, aside from the fact that that’s only there for one lifetime, you might think that, “Well, this is what makes me special,” a fingerprint or something like that. Because, after all, this becomes a very serious question. We look at ourselves, pictures of ourselves, when we were a baby, when we were five years old, fifteen years old, thirty years old... depending on how old we are, at various stages in our life let’s say, sixty years old, and there certainly isn’t, there aren’t any cells in the body that have stayed the same in each of these pictures, in each of these bodies. And yet, “That’s me!” isn’t it? So what makes it “me?”
So we might say, well, the DNA code has stayed the same. But of course the DNA in one cell is not the same exact atoms and so on and molecules as the DNA in another cell that replaces it; so it’s been changing every moment. So you could say, well, the pattern is the same, of the DNA. Well, what’s the pattern? What establishes that there’s a pattern? Are there little lines joining each of the molecules, on the side of the DNA? Well, no. The mind has mentally constructed a pattern based on all these little pieces. That’s what we call “mental labeling” or “imputation.” All patterns and so on are imputations, aren’t they, like mathematical formulas. And each atom of, each molecule of the DNA, and each atom of the molecule, and each part of the atom...I mean it goes on and on. There’s nothing solid findable there. All the wholes are imputed on their parts.
So, what establishes that that’s me in all these pictures? Well, the only thing that establishes it is that there is the word or convention “me” which is labeled on all of these, and it’s valid. Why is it valid? Well, other people who knew me agree and say, “Well yeah, that’s what you looked like when you were a baby.” There’s the convention “me.” So, this is an established convention that this is a word in a language that we understand that has a meaning. There’s a name. Everybody has agreed that my name is “Alex” in this lifetime. So that’s one thing that establishes it, that there actually is a convention.
And, as I said, everybody who knew me – I mean, I don’t know what I looked like when I was a baby – but everybody else who knew me, who remember correctly, identify it correctly and say, “Yeah, that was you.” So that establishes that this is me. It’s not contradicted by people who actually remembered me and saw me then. It’s not that my mother says, “Oh, that wasn’t you, that was your brother in the baby picture.” And it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. In other words, if someone thinks, “solidly, permanently existing me.” Well, that’s wrong, because obviously we’ve changed throughout our lifetime. So anyone who understands how things exist would see, “Yes it’s you. But yeah you’ve changed throughout your lifetime. You’ve grown. Learned things, so on. You don’t still wet in your diaper.”
So, it’s only this convention or word “me” that establishes that that’s me, isn’t it, when it’s validly applied. And even the valid criteria are all from the side of a mind; they’re not from the side of the object. And I am not created by the word “me” – if nobody said “me,” “me,” “me” or “you,” “you,” “you,” that I wouldn’t exist; that’s absurd. If I went through life not thinking “me,” “me,” “me,” would that make me not exist? No. So, the mental label, the word, doesn’t create the object. And, I’m not just a word. A word, after all, is just a combination of meaningless sounds that somebody decided that this is a word and gave it a meaning.
What is “me?” Me. What am I? I am...well, the only thing that you can say is that I’m what the word “me” refers to, it’s referent object – it’s the technical word – it’s what the “me” refers to on the basis of an ever-changing stream of aggregates, body, mind, emotions, etc. And on the basis of that type of “me,” this is what actually does exist, we function, don’t we? Experience things. We do things. So what is impossible here is to imagine that the word “me,” or any word for that matter, has a – now, here we have to make a very subtle distinction – that there is a referent thing that corresponds to it that you can find.
A referent thing is some sort of thing in a box, the box “me,” or the box “you,” or the box “table,” or the box “good,” or the box “bad,” corresponding to an entry in the dictionary that the word which in the dictionary is of a little box by itself, that there’s a referent thing on the side of reality that’s there in boxes, like, like in the dictionary. And it’s in this box; it’s not in that box. That’s what’s impossible. So words refer to something, but not to some findable thing in a box. If I existed, if “me” existed as some sort of thing in a box to be known all by itself, etc., it could never change. It could never do anything. It could never interact with anything. It would be encapsulated in plastic, sitting there. That’s impossible. We don’t exist like that – although it feels as though we exist like that. That’s the problem. And we just don’t know; it’s unawareness.
You, box. You, thing. You don’t appreciate me. You don’t love me. You’re bad. Permanent. Never changing. In a box. That’s you. And then we get obviously very upset, don’t we? And we “grasp” – is the word that’s used – we perceive the other person to exist like that because our mind projects that nonsense and we believe it. That it refers to a referent thing, that’s really who this person is. Then we get angry and then we yell at them and that builds up karma and that sets in motion the whole samsaric process. But it was you – that is a valid label. You ignored me, or you didn’t do this or you did that. “You” is just what that word refers to, but not something in a box. But “you” is simply labeled on the basis of the body, mind, speech, emotions, whatever it was that was involved in that moment when you said something nasty to me, or did something that I didn’t like.
But all those aggregate factors, emotions, and mind, and body, and health, and all these sort of things that that moment, well, none of those exist in little boxes either. They were affected by millions and millions of causes and conditions, not only what’s presently happening, but going back in the past in the family and what you were doing before and all these other things. And you don’t just exist like a still photograph. I mean that’s often really the way that we view people, and ourselves, and things in the world; it’s like a still photograph. It’s not even color; it’s black and white. It doesn’t even get all the dimensions of it and then – frozen! The world doesn’t exist like a still picture. It’s a movie, if you want to use this analogy of film. But we freeze it. “Aaah! You said that! That’s you. You’re nasty. You don’t love me.” So the movie goes on and in all the later moments when you’re doing other things and interacting in other ways, well, that’s still you, isn’t it?
So...and it’s only when you freeze something into a photograph and then make it established from its own side as that’s really the way that you are… but then you get really angry. And if you see – well, you know – continuity, every moment influenced by millions and millions of things and I can label “you” on it, I can label “me” on my whole stream of these continuity of the aggregates, then it diffuses the whole thing. There’s no reason to get angry. What are you getting angry at?
So, with unawareness, the first link, then we believe that it’s in reference to persons, and myself, and you. We exist in these impossible ways, that, you know, there’s something like a still photograph, something on our own side that’s there, making, you know, establishing that special characteristic of nasty or something like that that makes me “me.” Or even just simply a line around us that makes “me” as a knowable thing. So we have this unawareness. We are confused about that. On the basis of that, we get disturbing emotions. On the basis of the disturbing emotions, we act in a way that creates karma, so either constructively or destructively based on this false idea and belief in an impossible “me.”
So, we get the second link, affecting variables. This is referring to the karmic impulses that come up to either act destructively, based on this unawareness, “You did something nasty to me,” therefore the impulse to hurt this person. Or, “You are so wonderful and special; therefore I’m going to do something nice to you.” So the impulse to do something constructive, to be nice to you so that you, special “you,” will love me, special, solid “me.” So that’s a constructive karmic action. After we’ve completed the action, then we get some sort of karmic tendency after that: a positive one from constructive behavior, a negative one from destructive behavior.
And that brings us to the third link, the loaded consciousness. In other words these tendencies, which are not something solid, are imputed or labeled on the consciousness, whatever level, we want to consider that with, depending on the tenet system. And that goes into future lives. And we have the causal phase of this loaded consciousness in this lifetime, and the resultant phase in a next lifetime. The main thing that is going to ripen from these karmic tendencies, as is discussed in these twelve links, is, from a positive karmic tendency, our worldly happiness which never satisfies – it’s the suffering of change – and from the negative tendencies, experience of unhappiness, the suffering of suffering. And they can… these experiences of unhappiness or our ordinary happiness… could accompany any moment of our life.
So, I mean, we all know that, don’t we? It’s not really dependent on the object that we’re seeing or hearing, because we could listen to the same music and sometimes feel happy and sometimes feel very unhappy. Or see a person and sometimes you feel happy seeing them and sometimes you feel unhappy. Every moment, actually, we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. It might not be dramatic, in fact most of the time it’s not dramatic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s nonexistent. Often we say, “Well, I don’t feel anything.” Well, if you really examine, it’s very rare that it’s going to be what’s called neutral: exactly, exactly in the middle between happy and unhappy. It’s usually a little bit on one side or a little bit on the other side.
This mental factor of feeling a level of happiness is defined actually in terms of how we experience the ripening of our karma. So when they use the word “experience” in a Buddhist context, it’s referring to this. How do you experience it? With some feeling of happiness or unhappiness? Does the computer experience the data in it? Well, by this definition, no. The computer can, in a sense, know data, manipulate data, do all sorts of operations. Does it experience it? Well no, it doesn’t feel happy or unhappy. Therefore, a computer doesn’t have a mind. We talk about artificial intelligence – well it can do various operations, but it doesn’t experience anything, doesn’t have happiness or unhappiness. So from that point of view, it doesn’t have a mind.
In order to experience ordinary happiness and unhappiness, we need to have a fully developed system of the other aggregates. This feeling of happiness or unhappiness is one of the aggregates: the aggregate of feeling. And so we have the next links which describe the development of the aggregates in a lifetime, from the moment of conception up until the moment when the aggregates are fully developed and functioning. So, in the case of someone born from a womb or an egg, then it’s talking about the development of the fetus. First we have the fourth link: nameable mental faculties with or without gross form. Here we have basically just the aggregate of consciousness, first of all. But it’s not differentiated into the different types of sense consciousness. Those are just potentials. The aggregate of distinguishing and feeling are just potentials. And the aggregate of other affecting variables, only some of them are functioning. Most of that is still in potential form; the various emotions and so on are in potential form. You could say that maybe attention or something like that might be there in a very primitive form because there are certain mental factors that are ever functioning in each moment. But most of that aggregate is in potential form.
One would have to do quite a detailed analysis to say whether all of that aggregate is in potential form or, as I suspect, maybe some little aspects of it might be functioning. And that mental consciousness, as we discussed in detail yesterday, can be associated with either some sort of gross form, which could be either the gross element or subtle elements, or what’s called “without a form,” which just means the subtlest life-supporting energy itself.
Next step, the fifth link: stimulators of cognition. Now the mental consciousness is differentiated into the different types of sense consciousness and the form that you get – referring to the body – is differentiated into the different, at least, into the different cognitive sensors. So there are photosensitive cells of the eyes, ears, etc., for sights, sounds. So there’s some sort of association of these with sights, sounds, physical sensations, whatever it is a fetus can experience in the womb – certainly sounds and physical sensations.
Then we have the sixth link: contacting awareness. This evolves next. This is one of the ever-functioning mental factors that’s part of the aggregate of other variables. And I think this would have to operate in connection with the mental factor of distinguishing. That’s usually translated as the aggregate of recognition. So it’s distinguishing, like light from dark. It doesn’t mean you knew it before and remember it. So, now, when there’s the various sensory types of cognition, the sensor, the sound sensitive, of ears, and you have a sound and some audio consciousness, then there is an awareness that accompanies this cognition, this perception, as being pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.
Now, yesterday we started to explain, that this is similar to the mental factor of consideration, how you pay attention to something. But it’s not the same mental factor. Let me explain why. This mental factor of consideration, or attention, is taking something to mind. So either you can take something to mind in terms of a very painstaking attention, or always bringing your attention back. There’s that type of attention. But there’s also attention in terms of how you pay attention to something. How you consider it. And that can either be correct or incorrect. And so this is explained with various examples.
The usual example is with respect to the body: that we could consider the body clean – that’s incorrect consideration, whereas in fact it is unclean, when you think about what’s inside. Or you could consider it static, never changing – that’s incorrect consideration, whereas in fact it’s nonstatic; it’s changing all the time. Or we could consider it that it is happiness – that’s incorrect, whereas in fact it’s in the nature of suffering of unhappiness. So we can consider it incorrectly that it has an impossible soul, or what is correct consideration is that it lacks an impossible soul. So these are usually described as the four types of incorrect consideration. And the four types of correct consideration.
So, this mental factor of consideration can be correct or incorrect. Here, with contacting awareness, you might think: “Well, it’s like consideration,” but there’s no variable here of correct or incorrect. So when we perceive something, we are aware of it as pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. It’s not that one of those is correct. Although it sounds similar to consideration and certainly is connected with distinguishing, it’s a different mental factor. And we also explained that why we consider something pleasant or unpleasant is based on habit, but also, I think, it is connected with karma to a certain extent. Because when we are eating a certain food, normally when we see this food, we might find it pleasant to see it. But then there are other times when we don’t find it pleasant to see it. So the same object, pleasant or unpleasant, and it’s not just a matter of habit here, is it? So I think in some way it’s associated with karma, but it’s not very clearly explained. In other words, based on habit, most of the time when I see chocolate I see it as something pleasant when I see it. That would be habit. But sometimes I see it as unpleasant. I’ve just finished a huge meal and I see this and it doesn’t, doesn’t really interest me. That’s affected, I think, not just by karma but by other circumstances, like the fact that my stomach is full. So there are many factors, I think, which are going to influence our being aware of something as pleasant or unpleasant.
But I think we would have to analyze much more deeply and extensively to see whether or not really there is a connection with ripening of karma here. It’s not explained in terms of ripening of karma, so I have some doubts here. Maybe it’s associated with karma, maybe not. Maybe it’s just affected by habit and the circumstances, like your stomach being full. Or everybody around you saying, “Ooh! This is horrible, this is contaminated chocolate, radioactive chocolate,” or something like that.
Then there is the, on the basis of how we have this contacting awareness, then the next step, the seventh link, is feeling the level of happiness. So, pleasant, pleasant contacting awareness with something; on the basis of that, we feel happy. Unpleasant; we feel unhappy. Neutral; we feel neutral. I’m thinking of an example, that’s why I’m chuckling a little bit. One of my most favorite foods are these salt pretzels and I’ve been on a diet recently, you know, trying to lose weight. And at one lecture that I was giving, they had a big pile of these pretzels and it was very difficult, as I like them, not to eat them because I really am quite attached to them. And, so initially I saw it, and saw it as pleasant, of course, and felt...I was a little bit apprehensive. But, I tasted one. I said, okay I’ll let myself eat one. And I found that it was stale! And then was very happy that it was stale. And so I saw the stale pretzel – actually when I saw it initially, it was unpleasant, “Ugh, I’m going to eat all of these.” And so I was unhappy. But I said, “Okay, I’ll taste one.” I tasted one. It was stale – it was wonderful! I was really happy that they were stale because then I had no interest in eating any more. So it’s very funny. This is...I think it’s not based on habit really here, and this, and it’s certainly not based on karma. It’s based on the circumstances that the thing was stale, the circumstances of being on the diet, and so on.
So, now the mechanism is full of the five aggregates for experiencing the ripening of our karma with a feeling of a level of happiness. Happiness is defined as that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like not to be parted from it. But of course it never lasts, this ordinary happiness, so of course we’re going to be parted from it. And unhappiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like to be parted from it. But we, most of the time, cannot just be instantly parted from it, can we? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We feel unhappy or sad and then we say, “Well, I don’t want to feel sad or unhappy anymore.” Snap your fingers and now you feel happy. That would be great. But unfortunately most of us can’t do that, can we? And neutral is that feeling which, when we experience it, we’d like it to just continue. Like for instance when your asleep, you don’t feel happy or unhappy and certainly we like to stay asleep.
The next links are talking about how we activate these karmic tendencies that the consciousness is loaded with. And specifically it is speaking about how we activate the karmic tendencies for rebirth. These tendencies are the tendencies of what’s called “throwing karma.” These are karmic impulses that can throw us into a next rebirth, throw us into having a new set of aggregates, or another set of aggregates. I mean that’s what all this is talking about, isn’t it? How we generate over and again basis aggregates, “tainted aggregates.”
And this throwing karma is referring to the karmic actions that we do with a very, very strong motivation, whether it’s positive or negative, based on of course unawareness. And also I mean there are some special objects that sometimes are involved, like doing something nice or something nasty to your spiritual teacher, or to your parents, etc. But the main emphasis here is on the strong motivation: either you hurt somebody with really strong anger or you help somebody with really strong love, the wish for them to be happy, to actually help them – but based on unawareness.
And also I should mention that in the standard explanation, these next three links which are going to activate the tendencies, the karmic tendencies of throwing karma, these are explained in terms of what happens at the moment of death; what actually is going to activate these throwing karma that will throw you into a next rebirth. But there are some explanation systems of these twelve links that talk about how this can occur all the time, in terms of activating the karma to feel happy and unhappy. But that’s not a mainstream explanation, but it does exist.
The first of these, the eighth link, is called “craving.” It is the word that in both Sanskrit and... well, Tibetan, I’m not quite sure if it has that connotation. You don’t see it used so often with the connotation. But the Sanskrit word is definitely the word for “thirsty.” And so this is a strong thirst, “I’m craving.” This is in response to a feeling of a level of happiness, really craving... big, strong, solid, impossible “me.”.. really, really want to be: not to be parted from this happiness and to be parted from this suffering and for this neutral feeling to continue. Usually, it’s always described only in terms of the happiness and unhappiness. But neutral is there as well. How we experience this “I can’t take it! I can’t stand it! I’m so hungry. I’m so unhappy.” I mean that’s maybe an extreme, but this is what we’re talking about here. “Aren’t we happy? Aren’t we having a good time?” This type of, “Oh, I’m having such a good time.” And you cling to that. So this is very, very important to understand, because we feel happy and unhappy every moment of our lives – something is going on.
And that’s very important – not to have, I mean to watch out not to make a big deal out of the “me” that is conventionally experiencing this. Don’t make it into an impossible “me” and, “I can’t take it!” and so on. Happy, unhappy, it just goes up and down: that’s the nature of samsara. No big deal. As, to put it in hippie English, just sort of “surf the waves” of happy and unhappy in life and don’t get upset by it. That’s very important.
That’s really a very practical piece of advice in terms of leading our lives. You’re unhappy, no big deal. So what? What do you expect from samsara? You’re happy – also no big deal. Nothing special. The mantra of the young reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche, he uses that all the time: “Nothing special.” He went to America, Disneyland, “Nothing special.” Nothing special. The old Serkong Rinpoche... I was his translator, traveled around the world with him also, and he also was into “nothing special.” The Eiffel Tower – he said, “What’s the big deal about this? You get to the top; all you have to do is come back down. What’s so special about this?” The only thing, he said this, the only thing special that he found in traveling in the West was that people were actually interested in the Dharma and came to teachings. So, anyway, craving.
Then we go further in this development, in this sequence, and we get what is called “an obtainer.” An obtainer – I mean, that’s literally the word that’s used here – sometimes it’s translated as “grasping,” which is a silly translation and doesn’t have anything to do with it. But an “obtainer” is an attitude, a disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude, which will obtain for us tainted aggregates in the future. And those aggregates that are received on the basis of all of this are called “obtained” aggregates. I mean, it’s a technical word. So this is, there’s a whole list here of obtainer disturbing emotions and obtainer disturbing attitudes. I have these on my web site in an article on the twelve links in much more detail. We don’t have so much time to go into great detail about them, but let me just give a rough overview. Actually, my intention here with this course is to give an introductory course on the material of the twelve links and if you want more detail, I have a very detailed, long article on the web site. So that would be the second step if you are interested in more detail. If this is already too much detail, then you don’t have to be bored with the longer article or a longer explanation.
So first, we have what’s called “obtainer desire.” Now, this is different from craving. Craving is in terms of a strong attachment or desire, whatever you want to call it – thirst, literally – aimed at a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. Here, it’s aimed at the object, the sense object. So you really want something. So it’s some sense object. So usually, as you’re dying, you want to hold somebody’s hand, or you want to see a picture of Jesus or Buddha, or something like that. You want to hear the sound of your loved one. So this is the strong desire for a sense object. “Hold me. Don’t let me go” – as if somebody holding us could prevent us from dying. So of course this desire for a sense object is based on a misconception about “me.” Somehow, if I held somebody’s hand, that’s going to make me, you know, this solid “me” stay; and it’s based on a belief on a solid “me.” And it’s interesting, because we have that misconception very often during our lives as well, not just at the time of death, that somehow if I could hold somebody’s hand or that if you say, “You love me,” if I hear those sounds, that somehow that will make the solid “me” secure.
And actually, the more you delve into this, it becomes really quite interesting, because there is a conventional level of this which doesn’t necessarily have to be based on this identification with an impossible “me.” Because if you look from a sociological and psychological point of view, human beings do need other human contact. We are social animals. If you were totally ignored, often people will die. Old people abandoned in a nursing home that nobody visits, will die from being irrelevant, from just being ignored. Same thing with small infants. If they are given no human contact or anything, they often die; they don’t survive. So there is some conventional level here, which is not a neurotic, samsaric level, that we do need some contact. But that’s not going to make “me” real. So there’s a difference here, I think, that has to be brought in consideration of these insights from Western psychology and sociology.
Now we have various obtainer disturbing attitudes that could also be present and could also function here as the ninth link. We could have a distorted outlook, which could be that we do accept rebirth but we deny cause and effect. So it’s not that, I mean it’s, we think that, “Okay, I’ll be reborn, but you start all over again. There’s no effect from what I’ve done in this lifetime.” Or it could be a total denial of rebirth. So if we feel that there will be rebirth, but there’s no cause and effect, then that’s very insecure because you don’t know what’s going to happen. If we think that there is no rebirth then, well, that’s the end of “me” and so you cling even more strongly to this life. Or we think there’s no safe direction, what’s usually called “refuge,” so we feel lost, helpless, panic, “I don’t know what to do; I’m dying.”
Then we could have also an obtainer deluded outlook that is called an “extreme outlook” – I mean, these are just technical terms for it – the first one was a distorted outlook; this is called an “extreme outlook.” So the first is that... I mean, and it’s two varieties. Either we think that our body and minds are going to be permanent, they’re going to last forever; and so as we’re dying, there’s a big denial of death and that could be very disturbing. You refuse to accept what’s actually happening. Or we think there’s no continuity after we die and we’re facing the Big Nothing, and that’s very, very frightening. Actually, often we make the Big Nothing into a Something. It’s almost like, “When I die then I will experience the Big Nothing.” isn’t it?
Then we have what’s called the “deluded outlook as supreme.” So we think something is supreme. So this is an outlook of some weird idea that something is supreme. Like, for instance, my body is a true source of happiness and so I want to hang on to it for as long as possible. Or my body is a true source of pain, like when you’re dying from cancer and you have a very negative attitude toward it. Like somebody who’s in love with their body or in love with their minds, and so I don’t want to let go, or somebody who hates them and hates their life and just is about to kill themselves, suicide.
And then we have “holding deluded morality or conduct as supreme.” So that could include giving up some trivial manner of behavior that’s meaningless to give up in terms of death. Like, you’re dying of cancer and you only have a few more days to live and we think, well – like of stomach cancer, and this kind of thing – and we think, “Well if I don’t eat ice cream, that somehow is going to make me live a little bit longer or better.” So, you know, just give up something which is trivial, thinking that that somehow is going to save you. I remember my brother-in-law was dying of brain cancer and before he had to go into the hospital – he died very quickly after that – he went out and stuffed himself with as much ice cream sundaes and stuff as he wanted. He said, you know, “What difference is it going to make?” So he ate all the so-called wrong things. But you know how the doctors tell you, you know, “Don’t eat this and don’t eat that.” And you’re dying, so what difference does it make?
And the other aspect of this is deluded conduct. That means to act or dress in some trivial manner that’s meaningless to adopt in the face of death. People that, as they’re dying, “Well, dress me in my most beautiful dress so that I die dressed like this.” Or, “Give me my army sword next to my side as I die.” I mean it’s not somehow going to help us, is it? Or save us.
But the most common form here is what’s called “asserting our identities” which is identifying this impossible “me” with what’s going on. “Oh, I’m dying!” – as if there were a “me” separate from all of this. “What’s happening to me? Why is this happening? I don’t deserve this.” This whole sort of type of thoughts that revolve around this grasping for a solid “me” – known by itself, with something special that makes me “me.” “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I should be in control” – this type of thought. That certainly is the most common
OK, so we’ve got craving and an obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude and that is going to activate the karmic tendencies for throwing karma. And, you recall, karma is an impulse. And, depending on our tenet system, it’s either an impulse of energy or a mental impulse. But in any case, that activated throwing karma, that activated impulse from the tendency or potential, this is the tenth link that is usually called “becoming.” But “becoming” is totally meaningless in English. The term literally is “further existence.” So it’s an impulse for further existence. So it’s the impulse that throws or propels the consciousness into further existence; either what’s called “death existence” or “bardo existence” or “birth existence” – the actual moment that, the nanosecond of birth or of the life type of existence. It’s that impulse for further existence to go on. Since all of this is on the basis of grasping for a solid “me,” then sometimes I’ve called this a “survival impulse.” You want that solid “me” to survive, to go on, to further exist.
So, it’s very interesting because we see that actually these three links here – eight, nine, and ten: craving, an obtainer, and further existence – they really are based on unawareness about how we exist and how others exist, disturbing emotions and karma, activated karma.
OK. So now we have throwing karma, we have the disturbing emotions and attitudes that activate the throwing karma and activated throwing karma – what’s been activated by it – and now – another life. And now we get into the eleventh link that is conception. That is referring to the nanosecond, the moment of conception. You know usually it’s translated as “birth,” but it doesn’t mean when you come out of the womb; it is that moment of basically the mental continuum now being connecting and being supported on a physical basis of, let’s say of a sperm and egg of parents, if you’re going to be born as a human. So this conception link is actually the first moment of the fourth link, nameable mental faculties with or without gross form.
And then the twelfth link is aging and dying. That is from the second moment of a lifetime. I mean you’re already starting to age, all the way up to whenever you die. You could die two seconds after conception. And obviously during that aging and dying, I mean throughout this process, we have unawareness. So it’s going to continue. And the chain goes on and on and on.
When we speak of these twelve links, they can either be completed in two lifetimes or three lifetimes. So we had – without making this complicated – there were the links in the beginning which spoke about how we actually plant the karmic tendencies. That could happen in one lifetime. Then in another lifetime, which could be millions of years in the future – it doesn’t have to be immediately after – there would be another lifetime in which there is the development of the fetus and the whole mechanism that will then have at its end of that lifetime the activation of these karmic tendencies. And then the immediately following rebirth after that, you have conception, aging, and dying. Or, the process could be completed in two lifetimes. You plant the karmic tendencies and activate them in the same lifetime and then the immediately following lifetime we have the process of the development of the fetus which begins with conception and ends with aging and dying.
And as I said, there is a tradition of explaining all of these as being complete in each moment actually, going in terms of generating each further moment of our existence. But that’s not such a common explanation. Because in each moment we are planting more and more karmic tendencies, each moment we are activating them and experiencing happiness and unhappiness. Each moment we have this going on to further existence, and so on. So there is a way of understanding it moment to moment. But the main, main, main emphasis is on explaining the process of rebirth and that is what we want to stop. When we talk about samsara, we’re talking about uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
Now, if we want to get rid of all of this and stop all of this, then we think of these twelve links in the reverse order. So dependent arising, in terms of cause and effect here, not only works in the forward sequence – that link one is the cause of link two, and so link two [is the cause of link three], like that – so dependent arising forward way, cause to effect. But also we could look at it in the reverse way – that link twelve was the result that arose dependently on link eleven. So if you want to get rid of aging and dying forever, you have to get rid of conception. If you want to get rid of conception, you’d have to get rid of activated throwing karma of further existence. If you want to get rid of that, you have to get rid of an obtainer attitude that would activate it. If you want to get rid of that... then it goes back like that. And it goes all the way back to unawareness. That’s what you really have to get rid of to start the process of the whole thing falling apart. And it’s not that getting rid of unawareness starts the process of getting rid of the other links. That was just a manner of speaking. It’s not as though first one domino falls and then the next one, and the next one, and the next one. It’s not like that. You get rid of the first link, you’ve gotten rid of the whole thing altogether, because basically, this unawareness link is underlying all of them. And we get rid of this unawareness link with the understanding of voidness.
And as we have touched on this topic several times during this weekend, “voidness” as you recall, is a total absence of these impossible ways of existing. With unawareness, we either don’t know that these impossible ways are false or we believe that they are true. And what will get rid of that is this understanding that there’s no such thing; it’s totally absent. Never was. Never will be this impossible way of existing of “me,” or “you.”
If we understand voidness based on intellectual curiosity on the basis of a belief in a solid “me” – “How clever I am; I’m going to think about this and explain it, and explain it in some class” – like that, then that’s just going to further perpetuate samsara. You might get a nicer rebirth: more clever and so on. But the effect of the understanding of unawareness is dependent on the motivation. In other words, what is the motivating factor that accompanies the mind that understands this? So we want to avoid trying to understand this just so that we can impress others by how clever we are when we explain it. Or studying it just because it’s interesting and, like studying insects or something like that, it’s just interesting, so you study it. It’s entertaining for the big solid “me.”
But rather we try to have renunciation as our motivation: the determination to be free from this uncontrollably recurring suffering of samsara. That motivation, this understanding, will bring us liberation. And if we strive to understand this with the bodhichitta motivation, in addition to this determination to be free, then it will bring us liberation as a stepping stone on the way to enlightenment. And there is a difference in the various tenet systems whether with that bodhichitta motivation we will achieve liberation and enlightenment at the same time, or first liberation and then, after some time, enlightenment. But these are the variations that we find in the different tenet systems.
OK, So that brings us to the end of this discourse, this explanation. Perhaps we have time for one or two short questions, or I should say short answers.
Alex: The question is: “If all of these links would be completed in one lifetime, what would be links four and five? The nameable mental faculties with or without gross form and the stimulators of cognition?”
To say that all of them are complete in one moment, this is... to understand that requires understanding the Indian and Tibetan concept of what a moment is. And a moment is not just a snap of the fingers. I mean in some contexts it is. But here in this context, it is referring to one phase and so that phase may take a few seconds, because it would be difficult to have all of these links simultaneously in one instant. So it’s talking about a phase, one sequence in a short period of time. But you know, one could also look at this from a point of view of different levels of what must be happening. There must be general mental consciousness and there must be the mental consciousness differentiated into the various senses. And there must be a contacting awareness and there must be a feeling of happiness and all of those are occurring simultaneously. It’s not necessarily that one is happening and the other hasn’t happened yet. So you could find that type of explanation in, for instance, some of the Karma Kagyu presentations. What I was explaining before, I think is – just now in terms of a phase – is probably more like an abhidharma explanation. This Karma Kagyu one is more on a tantra level. In one of the Karma Kagyu systems, they have a presentation of what I translate as “deep awareness,” “general awareness,” and “specific awareness.” And one could understand the development here in these links in terms of that system.
Any other questions?
Question: [via translator] It’s supposed to be short questions but certainly it’s not. But the question goes as following: So, what is life after? So to say, okay learn about these twelve links of dependent origination and suppose we manage to get rid of them. We know that here we are affected by these disturbing emotions like desire, hatred, and ignorance, but what is life there after liberation? You know what are the moral values? What are, let’s say, the rules of traffic, almost like that?
Alex: Well, what is it like to be a liberated being and what is it like to be a Buddha? These are of course not so easy for us to conceive of. What is the case is that we no longer have these tainted aggregates, so there’s no more unawareness mixed in with each moment of our awareness. And I don’t want to get into this big complicated discussion of the tenet systems of arhatship that you achieve during your life and then parinirvana when you die. Because when you achieve it during your life, then you still have the aggregates left that you were born with and so on. And this gets into all sorts of different presentations of this. But let’s just speak in general, afterwards, like in a next, in another lifetime with another type of aggregates. Then these are no longer associated with unawareness or confusion.
Arhats, liberated beings, still have limited aggregates. They are still sentient beings. And therefore their aggregates are on the basis of, not just clear light mind and the subtlest energy, but with grosser levels of mind and energy and matter. And therefore being associated with these grosser elements, and based on these grosser elements and with the more gross levels of mind, they are limited. Buddhas have only the clear light level of mind and only this subtlest energy. And, although they can appear to others associated with subtle matter, like a Sambhogakaya, or with a grosser matter, like Nirmanakaya, they’re not limited by that. It’s not that their consciousness becomes more limited because of that association. They still have omniscient mind.
In the presentation of how one becomes an arhat, there certainly is the practice of love and compassion and they have the far-reaching attitudes, the paramitas, generosity and so on, but on the basis of renunciation, not on the basis of bodhichitta. They do not have the what’s called “the exceptional resolve,” which is that I’m going to help everybody. I take responsibility to help everybody achieve liberation and enlightenment. And then bodhichitta aimed at their own future enlightenment with the intention to achieve that, attain that, so that we can actually help everybody to liberation and enlightenment. They don’t have that. But that’s all that they don’t have, in terms of motivation.
So, now, we have the expressions “the extreme of samsara” and “the extreme of nirvana.” So the extreme of samsara is that somebody is totally involved in just the samsaric type of situation, and perpetuating it like described in the twelve links. And they always point out the danger of the extreme of nirvana: that when one becomes an arhat, you just become totally complacent in the state of peace and don’t work any further to go beyond that level of spiritual development. What do arhats feel? What level of happiness or unhappiness? It would be untainted, so not mixed with confusion or unawareness and – I must confess I don’t remember exactly, my memory, but I’m not 100% certain here is that they experience sometimes untainted happiness and sometimes untainted neutral. I think that has to do with the level of absorption [that they have. I mean, they don’t] just sit around and do nothing. They can do various types of meditations, and so on.
So now, you have the discussion: Can they go on from arhatship to Buddhahood, or is it a final goal? Aren’t there three ultimate vehicles, it’s called, vehicles of mind, that bring you to three ultimate, meaning final, goals of an arhat of a shravaka, an arhat of pratyekabuddha class, or Buddha? There’s a big discussion of this and difference of opinion in different tenet systems and different sutras. Some of the Chittamatra texts, Mind Only texts, say that there are three final vehicles. You reach the goal of a shravaka arhat and that’s it, forever. But I think one has to look a little bit deeper here. And I think that what that means is that... you see it’s described in terms of what’s usually called Buddha-nature, this is actually a family trait or a characteristic. So do you have a family trait of being a shravaka, a pratyekabuddha, or a bodhisattva? And so it would say that there are some people who only have the ability to become a shravaka arhat, and so it’s a final goal in the sense that they don’t really have the ability, the bodhisattva nature, to reach enlightenment. I think that’s the main point of this type of explanation.
But there are other texts, starting with texts like the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which assert what’s called “Ekayana,” one vehicle of mind, which means that everybody has Buddha-nature, including the shravaka arhats and pratyekabuddha arhats, and they have the ability to become a Buddha. Everybody has the ability to become a Buddha. So that is the one final, ultimate goal. But as I discussed earlier in this course, that doesn’t mean that everybody will achieve that. You have to develop the motivation. Everybody’s capable of it, though. So, as I explained, it’s not a matter of just wait long enough and inevitably you will develop bodhichitta. That would imply developing bodhichitta without a cause. And so that doesn’t make any sense. But some may, in fact, never go beyond shravaka arhatship, despite the fact that they have Buddha-nature and could become a Buddha.
A Buddha is motivated totally by compassion and, in terms of feeling, only has untainted happiness. Moved by compassion, a Buddha will manifest in whatever way it will be helpful for others. So we need to understand, for instance, presentations like we find in Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation in the context of this one vehicle view. This first chapter where he talks about these various Buddha traits, various family traits – they’re not all Buddha nature, that’s not quite the proper translation – but he speaks in terms of a shravaka family trait, a pratyekabuddha family trait, a Buddha family trait: that just means what’s dominant. He’s not asserting that there are, if you have the shravaka family trait, you can’t become a Buddha. So one has to understand Gampopa properly, otherwise you get a wrong conception here. As is explained in lam-rim, graded stages of the path, one could just travel that part of the path – we can use that terminology – or just develop the pathway minds to a certain level that is in common with the course of development of an arhat, but not go all the way to a shravaka arhat liberation, but branch-off from there and go directly toward enlightenment. Or, there’s the possibility that you go all the way to a shravaka arhat, to liberation, and then continue from there on to enlightenment. Because that affects where you start the Mahayana path, what level are you going to start the Mahayana path. So there is this difference and Gampopa needs to be understood within that context.
So I’m sorry for your not very short question, I’ve given a not very short answer.
Let’s end here then with a dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up by all of this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)