If we look at the cause of unsatisfactoriness, the second Noble Truth the Buddha taught, we see that the Buddha mentions desire as the big problem.
Desire stems from ignorance. But how can this desire cause all the suffering and rebirth?
The answer is the teaching of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).
The Buddha emphasized this with the words (MN 28):
“He who sees the Dhamma, sees dependend origination. He who sees dependend origination sees the Dhamma.”
Our Distorted Perception
We will start with a detour, namely by taking our everyday expirience as a starting point.
Both mind and matter become distorted during our perception.
In our daily experience, for example, seeing something, knowing what it is, forming an opinion about it, wanting or not wanting it all seem to happen at the same time. In fact, this seems to happen simultaneously with hearing, smelling, tasting, touch and thinking.
When looking at matter, a rock for example, you see a permanent form that perhaps only slowly changes through wind and weather.
But this is a distorted perception of mental processes and matter as a result of ignorance, the result of not (yet) being able to look sharp enough.
It is comparable to a movie. If you have ever been to the cinema, you know that you can get completely absorbed in the story, the beautiful images and the moving music.
In reality, however, the movie consists of seperate images that appear to our eye at a speed of at least 24 frames a second. That’s enough for the image to appear fluid. The sound is nothing more than loose tones that only form a whole when put together. And the story isn’t real but thought up, and we’re not really in the middle of it, although that’s what it feels like.
These mental moments follow each other with an increadible speed, creating the illusion that perception is a continuous process.
These separate moments each have an object and it always concerns one of the six senses. The senses do not work all at the same time, you see or hear or taste or smell or feel or think, one after the other, never at the same time.
And matter is not as permanent as it appears but is in a continuous flux of rising and decaying as well.
With high concentration it can therefore be concluded from your own experience that our normal day consciousness completely distorts reality.
The process that appears to be continuous actually consists of separate fragments that arise and decay in every respect.
This can be called the ‘analysis’ of reality, the division of reality, of mental processes and matter, into the smallest possible building blocks.
What dependent orignation shows us is that these moments, although separate from each other, are nevertheless interconnected.
Dependent origination can therefore be seen as the ‘synthesis’, describing the mutual relationships of the separate building blocks.
This is an important point with which the Buddha distances himself from nihilism. It means that intentions and subsequent actions do have consequences.
If there would be seperate moments without interconnection, then any behavior could be justified.
This is the most important thing about dependent origination, the hope it gives. For it is the conditional relationship between moments that you can slowly but surely work with, with intention as the driving force of free will.
Dependent Arising in the Buddha’s Words
Before we go any further, let’s take a closer look at what the Buddha himself taught about dependent arising (SN 12:1):
“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance (avijjā) as condition, volitional formations (saṅkhāra’s) come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness (viññāṇa); with consciousness as condition, mentality-materiality (nāma-rūpa); with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases (salāyatana); with the six sense bases as condition, contact (phassa); with contact as condition, feeling (vedanā); with feeling as condition, craving (taṇhā); with craving as condition, clinging (upādāna); with clinging as condition, existence (bhava); with existence as condition, birth (jāti); with birth as condition, aging-and-death (jaramaranam), sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, bhikkhus, is called dependent origination.
“But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”
Here dependend originition is explained as the chain of causal relations.
It is a chain because it keeps us bound to samsāra. It is a circle from existence to existence driven by ignorance and desire.
To emphasize this, the twelve links of the chain are usually spread over three lives. The past, present and future life.
Ignorance and volitional formations are placed together in the previous life. They form the conditions for the arising of the present life, namely by serving as a condition for the linking of the results of consciousness, mentality-materiality, the six sensory bases, contact and feeling.
As a result of feeling we have craving, clinging and existence in this life, which in turn is a condition for the next life with birth, old age and death.
Although the three lives are often given as examples, this conditioning takes place from moment to moment in this present life as well. In daily life these conditions are not sequentially but intertwined.
To make it simpler just look at the chain in this life.
Because we are now ignorant of the true nature of mental processes and matter, we take the feeling that arises from the contact we make with objects through our senses very seriously.
As a result of this feeling, which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, we want something or we don’t want it. Craving arises.
Driven by craving and clinging we perform good and bad deeds, we have wholesome and unwholsome mental states.
The attentive reader will have immediately seen that ignorance in the chain is followed by volitional-formations. Volitional-formations, which can also be translated as intention, is nothing less than karma (Pali: kamma) which we will consider later.
Through craving and clinging we have new intentions and so we make new karma, and on and on the round goes.
If the previously given formula in the form of “when this is, that is” causes the suspicion that the Buddha teaches a random dependency then consider (SN 12:20):
“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? ‘With birth as condition, aging-and-death comes to be’: whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. A Tathagata awakens to this and breaks through to it. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. And he says: ‘See! With birth as condition, bhikkhus, aging-and-death.’”
Note the words ‘specific conditionality’.
With this teaching the Buddha does not describe a general principle but an absolute law. A circular force that binds us.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the chain goes on and on, from moment to moment, day to day, year to year, from this life to the next.
Birth followed by sickness, old age and death, followed by birth, sickness old age and death, again and again and again.
Thus we are trapped in samsāra, we wander around, resulting in ‘sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, the unsatisfaction of existence’.
Momentary temporary pleasure, though tempting, offers no solution, no safe haven.
The only way to step out of the circle is to see the true nature of things by committing oneself to the way indicated by the Buddha and thus completely destroying the chain.
This is the hopeful message of the Buddha.
Because these are specific conditions, an end is possible. When ignorance is seen as it really is, the light of the Dhamma shines and the chain falls apart.
Liberation is possible.
This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276