Circles can be peaceful, but they can also be vicious when they represent, as these do, the regenerative aspect of the suffering that they describe. In the last frame, the man holds onto his chains which are symbolic of the world of the five aggregates. The more he feels burdened by it, the harder he holds on, imagining all the while that, by this effort, he is preventing himself from being overwhelmed. The circle in this picture is fire, and its repetitive cycle is caused by the three forms of desire rooted in self (tanha). These three desires chase each other in circles and are preoccupied with trying to eliminate each other. This is represented by the three violent creatures emanating from the central fire. The monkey at the bottom symbolizes the untrained mind that always darts hither and thither, and the hand at the top, as in the last painting, is the hand of the Buddha held in the symbolic teaching gesture (mudra). The little vignettes in the loops of fire I’ll explain later.
If you felt dismayed by the First Noble Truth but were determined to get to the heart of the matter, as was the case with those five bhikkhus, you’re probably ready to go through the fire of the Second Noble Truth, which is about the origin of suffering and, by inference, of grasping. The Buddha points out:
Idam kho pana bhikkhave … kamatanha, bhavatanha, vibhavatanha.
Bhikkhus, there is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering. It is desire, which gives rise to fresh birth, bound up with relish and passion, running here and there, delighting in this and in that: in other words, sense desire, desire for existing and desire for extinction.
First of all, I’m going to say something about tanha, generally translated as “desire.” These translations are difficult, because the words don’t exactly correspond to the same meaning in the two languages. Dukkha is almost impossible to catch in a single word, khandha doesn’t mean much as an aggregate, and tanha as desire gives rise to some misinterpretations. What about the desire to realize Truth, is that suffering? Actually tanha means “thirst,” and, as the context explains, is purely the kind of desire that wants something for me. At another time, the Buddha defined tanha simply as:
Desire for sights, sounds, for fragrance, for tastes, for things to touch, for ideas. (Samyutta Nikaya: [II], Cause, Buddha, 2)
Tanha, then, is the desire that pulls things inwards, not the desire that radiates out—like aspiration or compassion. These are all aspects of spiritual Truth; it is a Truth that cannot be grasped selfishly. In fact, you could summarize spiritual training as the transformation of selfish desire into selfless desire, zest and aspiration. The desire that acts as a motivation to know how things really are, beyond the grasp of the gratification instinct, is the needed vigor to carry one through the rough patches. So it’s important that, in abandoning the fantasized and deluded objects of desire, one doesn’t sink into an apathetic fatalism; or into believing that the putting forth of energy in spiritual practice is another form of craving. Then consider the following reflection: isn’t the desire to extinguish desire an aspect of the desire for extinction? Sometimes you wish you didn’t have any desires, and feel really depressed by the inability to get rid of them—that’s suffering, isn’t it? When it comes down to it, a lot of the gratification instinct is about getting rid of itchy, hankering feelings.
The First Noble Truth seems to say that life is suffering; but more accurately, it states that there is a range of feelings that we have to bear with through the experiences of birth, aging and death. This is experienced as suffering as long as the way things appear to us is taken as an absolute truth. The heart of the matter is that life is not a flawed experience; rather it is made that way by an unconscious activity of the mind. We don’t realize that we’re doing it: we’re simply not aware at the level of the mind where the activity is born. These two Truths (and a good deal of Buddhist mind training) help to focus our attention deeper in our heart so that we can stop the seeds of suffering from being planted.
Suffering arises, it has an origin. We can recognize that the feeling of emotional dissatisfaction begins; we were feeling pretty good, and then—we got offended, or the good time came to an end. In a little while, we feel upset or we hanker after some new way of enjoying ourselves. The fact that the arising of suffering can be noticed means that it arises from something other than suffering, and that there is something other than suffering that notices it. Whatever arises has a cause, is created. Simply to recognize that suffering arises is the beginning of opening the mind to a deeper understanding.
If we neither contemplate suffering nor wish to understand it, suffering is not so noticeable. Instead of looking at it, we keep shifting away from it to absorb into something else. This is the birth habit I mentioned earlier. But what that causes is an underlying sense of dis-ease, denial, and even cynicism in the psyche—the “get it while you can!” syndrome. A natural state of joy or contentment is considered impossible, and happiness arises only when we have our security, our creature comforts, our best friends. Then we say, “I don’t suffer, life is great!” At such times—which we assume to be the norm—we easily forget our frequent disappointments and irritations, or try to ease the chafing of life with some balm of comfort or bluff heartiness. Also we unconsciously assume that calamities won’t occur—that our partner won’t get run down by a truck or that our child won’t be crippled by disease. Most incredible of all, something in us is shocked by death: we still feel that sickness, death, betrayals, breakdowns and failures are an outrageous deviation from the smooth flow of life. This is what the Buddha called “unknowing” or avijja—the mind’s contraction to a level where the full range of birth’s potential is not accepted. Although this avijja is a buffer that the psyche uses to protect itself from suffering, it actually drives the dukkha deeper into our hearts, affecting our ability to be open and easeful with life.
For example, what happens when we try to recover from suffering? We often find something else to distract our minds; or perhaps we repress the pain. During a lifetime of many small disappointments, betrayals, threats and the rest, we develop a tough skin over our sensitivity, and a feeling that happiness is something we have to seek out. Eventually, there is so much hide protecting the heart that the innate joy of being alive becomes inaccessible. Many people would not even guess that happiness is an innate state of being, independent of circumstances. The Buddha found that happiness in the purity of his heart, and called that innate purity of being the Unconditioned. It is unconditioned because it is not dependent on conditions and one who realizes that experiences Nibbana, the highest happiness.
But for the average person, happiness is dependent on circumstances. They don’t see suffering—because they have created the circumstances to avoid it. But the avoidance of suffering is not the cessation of suffering. Suffering remains a distinct possibility, and we take every step to prevent it. We tend to settle for guarded security. However, that too is suffering—the defensiveness and anxiety that someone might rob or attack us; or that some insidious virus might be gnawing its way through our immune system. The average comfortable Westerner living with material adequacy is still always prone to anxiety: the possibility of losing one’s partner, one’s job, one’s health, one’s standing in the community, one’s dignity or sense of well-being. When our happiness is dependent on a fragile tissue of circumstance, no-one can afford to relax and be at ease. Societies where people have a lot of opportunities and possibilities for pleasure are generally frantic, anxious or neurotic. And people who depend on fortunate conditions for their happiness become quite selfish and deluded, refusing to accept that there might have to be some constraint on how they use the planet, their bodies or other people. The right to pursue one’s own happiness easily gets distorted into the right to do whatever turns you on, no matter what the effects might be on others; the right to use as much of the earth’s resources as one likes, to have whatever one wants immediately and live a life of ever-renewing pleasure and vitality. Just as for an alcoholic, the gratification of desire only leads to more and more thirst, not to its quenching. That’s the circle of fire, and it often begins with a pleasant, warm glow.
By our inability to relate and respond wisely to the down side of life, or even to accept that it might exist, we have taken dukkha deep into ourselves and buried it there—where it is difficult to extract. From not living in accordance with the changing rhythm of life, from expecting it always to be bright and positive, we create a spectre that haunts the heart, and affects the ways we view and live our lives. We make dukkha an ultimate truth that we run away from for as long as we can, by absorbing ourselves into the up side of the sensory world. But we can’t commit ourselves for too long to any one thing because, like the waves of the sea, the sensory world has its down side. And remember the sensory world is a lot more than beer and parties: now we have all kinds of refined things to watch or taste, and the mind especially offers a vast potential for sensory enjoyment. There are so many things one can study, though this is hardly considered a sensory activity. But in the Buddhist analysis it is; we delight in intriguing ideas or in being aroused by tales of stirring adventure. Then again, one can alter one’s consciousness completely with drugs. So the sensory world allows us to get absorbed into many states—into each of which we are propelled by kamma or volition, and each is experienced as the arising of the five khandhas. They are births—we experience “being born” into the sensory realm. And since we do it over and over again, no birth satisfies us for very long.
We try to become something in order to feel that we are making progress. This is another kind of thirst: it is the desire for existing or “becoming” as it is also translated. This means the desire for some “position” in the temporal or spatial world that consciousness projects. We “feel” ourselves to be immaterial things regarding experience, affected by it, even imperilled by it. And we seek to become in control of, or able to understand and direct, the life experience. “Becoming” is very powerful: we do things now so that we can “be” in a better situation in the future. We study in order to qualify for a good job, to have a stable family life, or to have love and security and an adequate supply of sensory happiness. This is reasonable enough; but it often entails overriding the experience of the present. People work themselves hard and become very stressed chasing the dream of ease in the future. And the amount of stress that one undergoes in order to achieve one’s goals makes it necessary to raise the expectations of what the future will provide.
People do certainly lie and cheat to get ahead, and after years of cheating and manipulating others, may feel disappointed that life doesn’t live up to their expectations. How can it? There are the laws of cause and effect (kamma-vipaka) at work, and they operate according to the state of your intentions and actions. The way you act in the present determines how you’re going to feel and the kind of situations you’ll tend to find yourself with in the future. If you are an aggressive unscrupulous go-getter, you’ll associate with the kind of people who fit into that way of operating. Naturally enough, such companionship will reinforce the drive to get something in the future. And the stress. The aggressiveness comes back to your own mind and body—until you find yourself “born” into an untrustworthy circle of associates, an ulcer or a coronary. This is how becoming leads to birth.
The process of becoming operates on a subtler level than big business competitiveness or desire for fame. The “inner self” that is the experience of becoming projects values and wishes onto everything. Notice when doing a mundane chore that the attitude is frequently one of wanting to get it done, wanting to have finished it in order to be peaceful, to relax or to enjoy oneself…. That, too, is dukkha. Rushing along to get to the next moment, we fail to open and appreciate this moment. The laws of kamma are that if you operate in that way in this moment, the same momentum takes you through the next moment, coloring your awareness of the present with its moods and perceptions. You want to go to a show, so you hastily take a shower, change your clothes, abruptly cut off a friend who just phoned, leap into the car, find out that you left the keys in your other jacket, rush back to the house, trip over the dog in the hallway … the scenario proceeds to the traffic jam, the lost temper, the minor accident, and then finding out that the show has been cancelled anyway—which was what your friend was phoning you up to tell you. Just notice, a mind filled with desire does not appreciate anything. And most people hardly investigate the quality of the present moment, because as a sensory experience, it may be nothing special. However, to one who cultivates attention to the present, in whatever form the present moment takes, the mind begins to reveal its treasures: sensitivity, joy, confidence and serenity.
When we get tired of running around and sensory stimulation, then the third kind of desire operates: the desire for extinction. These terms are not to be taken as absolutes. They apply to mind movements that may be momentary or only vaguely perceived. Vibhavatanha is the desire to get rid of something, to get out of it all. This is often a repressive influence, or simply an attitude of not wanting to be bothered: “I don’t want to see this.” It is also that force in us that denies our pain and sorrow, or makes us want to annihilate ourselves in sleep, drugs or with suicide. It often results from the other two forms of desire: if they are followed blindly, they leave us in states of mind that we dislike and therefore avoid being aware of. So we try to annihilate that awareness, even if it means destroying ourselves. What people don’t realize is that Vibhavatanha leads to birth too; birth in a negative state of repression or self-denial in this world—or in another life.
These three motivating influences of desire continue to operate on subtler levels of activity too. Even with a spiritual inclination, the mind can be motivated by the desire to get out of it all—Vibhavatanha. The desire for spiritual attainment can be a form of bhavatanha—desire to become—when it is to enhance one’s self-image, even just in one’s own eyes. This can actually hinder and bar progress towards purification of the mind by making one unwilling to fully understand the various unenlightened habits that one has to work through.
Sense desire (kamatanha) in terms of spiritual aims, is the desire for refined and blissful states of mind to absorb into: sit padded up with an elaborate system of cushions (so that you won’t have to be aware of bodily feeling) in a retreat centre where nobody bothers you and there’s no untoward sensory impingement. Then … use a meditation technique that gets you into a state of absorption and cruise on refined mind states for a while. This doesn’t always work for Westerners who have such overstimulated minds that to get them to quieten down through withdrawal often requires such manipulation and stressful effort that it is self-defeating. Being thwarted in this way, they then have the chance to develop insight into the Four Noble Truths by investigating suffering and realizing the wisdom that goes beyond desire.
The mind moves extremely fast, and desire creates so much movement that it is difficult to see what is really going on. Sometimes desires augment each other: you want to become something so that you will have more happiness on the sensory plane; you want to get rid of your habits so that you will become a more productive human being; you would like to have a really comfortable meditation cushion so that you can become a wiser, more compassionate being. Sometimes they fight with each other: I want to get rid of my disgusting sensual appetites, or maybe I should get into beer and T.V. to get rid of my attachment to purity, and show that I’m not obsessed with becoming enlightened. And so on … I want. This is the way it is. Such is the promotion of suffering.
Notice that the Buddha makes no moral judgement here. He does not tell you not to be this way or to cut it out; in fact, he doesn’t say you are that way. He just says that there are these energies at work. Remember, the First Noble Truth points to the suffering which arises from grasping existence in terms of self. As soon as you start saying you are this way, and you should be another way, self-desire has slipped into the mind. So the language of the Buddha’s teachings is deliberately impersonal. This way, we don’t get ashamed or defensive, and have the encouragement to investigate the way things are in a more open and objective light.
The outer rim of this picture contains various figures bound up in loops of fire, mapping out the compounding of dukkha. These emblems represent twelve linking factors of an analysis called Dependent Origination (or Paticcasamuppada in Pali). Just as studying the cause of suffering is helpful as it will lead to understanding what we have to do or not do, Dependent Origination provides many insights into the origin and cessation of suffering.
It is a profound analysis whose terms and connections may seem baffling at first sight. Accordingly, I have drawn up a table for reference, and recommend reviewing and reflecting on it while looking at the illustration.
|Avijja||ignorance, unknowing||not understanding the full meaning and implication of the Four Noble Truths||person holding hand over eyes|
|Sankhara||Kamma-productive tendencies, “activities”||activities of mind which are aligned to self view||hand wielding hammer at forge|
|the activity of the six senses, i.e., acting in a dualistic way defining the subject as distinct from the object||monkey|
|Nama-rupa||name-and-form||feeling, perception, contact, intention, attention and their objects||human body|
|Salayatana||the six senses||eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind||five arrows pointing to a central space|
|Phassa||contact, impression||(dependent on feeling and perception)||electrical contact between two fingers|
|Vedana||feeling||painful, pleasant, neutral—bodily or mental||arrow in eye|
|Tanha||craving, desire||desire in terms of self—to have, to attain, to get away from||thirst-crazed face|
|Upadana||grasping, clinging||clinging to sense objects, views, etc.||fraying rope|
|Bhava||becoming||being something—better or worse—and being nothing||Sisyphus|
|Jati||birth||the experience of being a separate entity in a temporal context||baby|
|aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair||the sense of ego-loss, through physical death or the breaking up of the psychological foundations of self||skull with rat|
In the picture, the interlinking motif represents another example of these vicious circles. With the First Noble Truth, the previous circle, the grasped aggregates reinforce and support each other; the experience of grasping and suffering (really two ways of looking at the same thing) are the force of torsion that creates those doubled loops. In this Second Truth, there is also a double-sided force—ignorance and desire. The interconnectedness of the loops points to the fact that, in Dependent Origination, each factor supports every other factor. Nor is the connection one of a simple causal sequence. Each factor that is described is present in every subsequently described factor, and the analysis is one of conditionality rather than causality. Just as water is a condition for ice, the absence of clouds a condition for a sunny day, having ears a condition for enjoying Bach fugues, so the conditionally of Dependent Origination is the structure of the potential for dukkha or its cessation. The essential point in this is that conditions arise in the present and can therefore be changed. Causes, on the other hand, are historical.
Right at the top is ignorance (avijja), the man with his hand in front of his eyes. People tend to take “ignorance” as pejorative; however, it refers to a lack of gnosis or insightful seeing as well as to foolishness and unknowing. It is summarized as “not understanding the Four Noble Truths”—or, perhaps more accurately, not understanding their implications. That is, as long as there is ignorance, the mind still expects to find an experience that is completely satisfying, and feels disappointed when things “go wrong.” There is a parable of a man eating a bag of chilli peppers one by one, weeping at their fiery taste as he does so. When asked why he continues to eat the peppers, he replies: “I’m looking for the sweet one.” This is ignorance.
The Buddha said that it is impossible to find the origins of ignorance. However, with experience, one can see that it is increased by wilfully ignoring the way life is, and substituting wishful fantasies, based on the viewpoint of a self imagined to exist within the five khandhas. Dependent Origination teaches that this view, its origins, purposes and results can be seen as dependent on many factors—all with ignorance as their foundation. The cycle of Dependent Origination works both ways: with the arising of ignorance and the acting on that, suffering follows; with the ending of ignorance is the ending of every kind of inner pain, shadow or stress. The uplifting aspect of Dependent Origination is that it brings the ending of dukkha down to one practice—that of replacing ignorance with wise attention.
Ignorance is a mental inclination of ignoring; it’s not just a passive quality, although it may occur through a programmed impulse rather than a clearly conscious choice. If it were not something that was inclined towards, there would be no way of stopping it. However, a lot of the time one is not conscious of ignorance (one thing about ignorance is that one is often ignorant of it!). Reactions appear to happen automatically, without the awareness of where the motivation lies. When awareness is not developed to the point of knowing the mind, the “automatic” and “reflex” operations of our mind create the reality of our world.
The inclination to not notice—to ignore—arises dependent on dukkha. We don’t want to know about things not fitting in with our wishes, although there’s no reason to assume that life should or could ever be the way we’d like it to be. So ignorance affects our perceptions—the way we “see” things. If we’re honest, we may notice prejudices, errors of judgement, definite biases towards seeing things “my way.” Also ignorance distracts; what one doesn’t want to know about is ignored. One’s mind filters out flaws in a loved one’s behavior, for example. Sometimes it is more conscious. They say the captain of the ocean liner, the Titanic, was informed of icebergs floating in the sea in front of his ship, yet chose to ignore the warning and went straight into them with the resultant death of almost everybody on board. Notice that there was an element of choice in the matter. Many accidents are caused by people not being attentive, thinking about something else with a chain saw in their hand, doing things automatically; and that inattention is due to our minds wanting to be somewhere else. Sometimes ignorance is deliberate and wilful; sometimes it could be prevented by being more attentive; sometimes it’s ingrained in the ways we perceive things, and requires insight and the courage to undergo personal change to remedy. However, ignorance is always activated by some element of conscious or unconscious desire. Therefore ignorance and desire are the axis which allows this wheel of fire to spin.
As long as there is ignorance, actions tend to become automatic, compulsive, idiosyncratic, related to “my way of seeing things” rather than to the needs of a situation. Ignorance, therefore, is linked to volitional “kamma-productive” tendencies (sankhara¹)—which include activities of body, speech or mind. Sankhara are symbolized here by the hand brandishing the hammer at the forge of creation. We’re always creating. When we speak, we create ourselves in another person’s mind; and so it is with our actions. Ignorance conditions actions and makes them into “activities” of a self. When there is ignorance we act, consciously or unconsciously, in order to prove ourselves or enhance ourselves. We also measure actions and speech in terms of self—we expect results, progress for ourselves or others we have identified with. We defend and justify our actions or assign to them a significance that they may not have. Alternatively, we may be highly self-critical. This “self-view” of sankhara means that we fail to measure the true worth or effect of actions and thoughts. Thereby it strengthens the habit of acting in unreflective ways. We do not clearly notice the motivation behind action, or the impersonal and changing nature of the energies and perceptions that feed them. Action becomes habitual activity and starts to form our identity.
Do you find that your life has repeating patterns in it, similar scenarios with different people involved? We seem to go through the same emotional cycles around different events, and have recurring patterns of thought—the same memories, the same habits—so we think, “That’s the way I am.” Habitual activities, even thoughts in the mind, are elements which forge the kamma—the self-defining and binding activities that shape our lives. Any identity, good or bad, is subject to stress, frustration, sorrow and death; if the kamma is unskillful, there are a lot more problems on the way, such as guilt, fear and the hostility of others. Then we act in ways to cover up or redress previous actions, again acting from self-view. Thus more kamma is established, strengthening the sense of identity, good or bad. This is the proliferating effect of sankhara. It is only when we understand motivation as coming from energies such as greed or love, rather than an existing self, that we find the still point of reflection and pull out of the spin. That freedom gives us the opportunity to act and speak in unbiased ways—in the way of Dhamma rather than sankhara.
The sixfold sense consciousness (viññana) is the agent through which sankhara manifest. This is the next link, symbolized by the monkey in the third loop. Dependent upon habits, reflexes and viewpoints that have been created, the monkey jumps: seeing, hearing, thinking, tasting, smelling and touching are sent running around this way or that. Consciousness is based upon the six sense organs and described as eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness and so on. It can also be defined in terms of how it is propelled. Interest and attraction towards a sense object is consciousness rooted in “greed.” Generosity is consciousness rooted in non-greed. Aversion to a sense object is consciousness rooted in “hatred;” love is the opposite. Mind-consciousness may experience a lot of confused, wavering activities around its sense objects of thought and emotion. This is consciousness rooted in “delusion.” Consciousness may be refined to varying degrees, from just above coma, to sleep, to wakefulness, caffeinated highs, alcoholic wooziness, ecstasy or the refined absorptive states arising through concentration. For liberation from suffering and enlightenment, the Buddha stipulated that the mental consciousness should be unclouded and attentive; and that the quality of intention should be known and trained. It is intention that directs the monkey.
Bhikkhus, whatever we determine, whatever we intend to do and whatever we are occupied with: this is the base for consciousness to be maintained on. (Samyutta Nikaya: [II], Cause, Kalara, 38)
Intention (cetana) and sustained attention (manasikara), produce the experience of conscious motivation. Motivation in terms of greed, or hatred or confusion will send consciousness deeper into those realms. Motivation in terms of giving and love and intelligence will incline consciousness towards more positive states. This is how kammic tendencies are strengthened. However, good or bad motivation in terms of self will always heighten that sense of self and the inevitable dukkha which that entails.
Consciousness always works in terms of name-and-form (namarupa). Something only has presence (i.e., enters consciousness) because there is the sense of contact, and contact depends on something contacted (form). From that contact, designations, feelings and perception (name) arise. “Nama” is defined as: feeling, perception, contact, intention and attention—the neutral factors that pick up, define, locate and react to the data of consciousness. Even “formlessness” is a designation of a kind of indefinite form. So the world of form only has presence for us because of consciousness, and how we perceive it is very much affected by the mind states, attitudes and feelings that we have. There is a saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint, all he notices are the saint’s pockets (if he has any of course). When an architect or a builder sees a house, a different set of perceptions arises than when a homeless person sees it, or a burglar, or an animal. In a way, we build our own world, and our world builds us. What we are conscious of moulds and determines the perceptions and attitudes we have. If you were attacked by a dog when you were a child, you probably will have some difficulty in perceiving dogs as loyal friends.
The thing that most profoundly affects consciousness, with whose rhythms and energies we are very much engaged, is the body. To be present in the sensory realm requires a physical body which has its needs, pleasant and painful feelings, its sickness and death. So consciousness depends upon and directs physical form, and is infused with attitudes and perceptions about it. Hence the fourth vignette, the body, is the connecting point for consciousness in the human world. The fifth vignette symbolizes the five “external senses” that relay information to the mind. The sixth vignette is of contact, the connection that is necessary for consciousness and its images to arise.
In the human birth, consciousness is programmed by bodily life. It constantly registers the pain that is a warning of injury to the body, and pleasure that is a signal for the preservation and development of the body. But the body inevitably experiences degeneration and death, making pain unavoidable, and pleasure ultimately futile. When there’s ignorance, consciousness remains fettered to this sensory realm, because the dependent link is not seen as biological or purely a matter of how the system works—it is felt as “me.” “I” appear to be a mental consciousness within a physical form, trying to seek solutions or remedies to it, or get as much agreeable experience as possible. Even if “I” am trying to get out of the physical form into some deathless or ethereal realm, “I” am always designated in terms of bodily presence or absence because of consciousness affected by self-view being attuned to bodily life. Consciousness is dependent upon the body for a lifetime, so no matter how ethereal the mind state, you still have to attend to the coarse functions of the body and be with its pains, its insatiable needs and its demise. The “I am” view associated with the body is always one of need, anxiety or pain. However, when one key log—the sense of “I”—is removed from this pile of dukkha, bodily life becomes an opportunity for bringing wisdom and compassion into the world.
In the vignette of the six senses (salayatana) depicted by the arrows and the central question, I’ve tried to illustrate what is the one direction of Buddhist mind-training. Sense consciousness normally takes us out—towards objects, or to thinking about what we can contact through the physical senses. However, in developing mindfulness, attention can be trained to look back into the mind, to focus on the intentions and reactions that govern conscious thought, speech and action. When you see something, you are aware of the seeing, and you reflect: “How am I seeing that?” If you’re thinking or feeling something, rather than just acting upon it impulsively, you reflect: “Hmm, how do I react to that?” This is a way you can learn about what is skillful or harmful, what the attachments and compulsions are and where the sense of identity is being created. It’s a way to investigate who we are, beyond our fluctuating and unsatisfactory identity. Who is the one who can freely contemplate the sensory world? There is always awareness of something in the domain of consciousness, even if it’s the feeling of confusion, suffering or desire. But awareness has no personal identity. The simple equation is that Truth has no personal identity, and personal identity has no Truth.
We can continue this chain through contact (phassa)—that’s the way that the senses operate. Apart from the physical needs and use of having contact, the inferred self needs contact to maintain its presence—self always exists in contrast to otherness. We get bored with the same old tastes, sounds, sights, people; but then sometimes it’s nice to have the familiar. “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you”—sounds familiar? If you really want to contact the forms of your psyche, you could try floating in a sensory deprivation tank, or, more simply, sit where it’s quiet and close your eyes: the natural inclination of the senses to make contact will bring up mental phenomena. For unenlightened beings, these will all be taken as aspects of themselves, and therefore unsatisfactory. However, the practice of sitting quietly with the eyes closed in meditation is useful in that, with steady attention, one realizes that all this stuff is something that can be watched, and is therefore a series of objects—not the subject, not self. We only experience contact because of feeling and perceiving something. And as what is felt or perceived must always be an object, how can we ever contact our true self? Hence contact affected by ignorance is the launching-pad for need or disappointment. From this contact arise the futile attempts to find ourselves or connect with our true feelings. Yet contact itself does not have to be dukkha. When there’s no ignorance or self-view, contact provides opportunities for attention, insight and sharing.
Contact links up to feeling (vedana), the arrow in the eye. Something strikes visual consciousness and a feeling arises which is either painful, pleasant or neutral. It is said that the body only experiences painful and pleasant feeling, the eye, ear, nose and tongue only experience neutral feeling and the mind experiences all three. However, as the mind will interpret neutrality as pleasant (calm) at some times and painful (tedious, dull) at other times, in normal consciousness, one is dealing with mental feelings based on perceptions. For instance, people can derive pleasure from doing extremely stressful things to their bodies! It’s a real problem: the mind’s values (sañña) can get so distorted that we actually derive pleasure from bragging, abusing and fighting—even though these are abrasive and violent feelings in mind-consciousness. Powerful emotional pleasure may arise out of being attractive, even though attractiveness can be stressful in terms of cost, artifice and competition—and quite dangerous if you attract the wrong kind of person. … Then there are the feelings associated with winning, being excited and so on. … The pleasure of these feelings is not due to the mind as a sense organ (which may even crack up under the strain) but to confused perceptions. The most consistent determinant for feeling is whatever sensation or perception makes “me” feel important, sensitive or powerful.
When there is ignorance or un-knowing, we don’t really know what we are feeling. As I have suggested above, much of the time we are in contact with our perceptions, because they can create images in accordance with desire. Such is the next loop of fire, craving—which is tanha in its fully conscious form. Here, it is represented by the thirsting mouth and the hand always reaching out to get water from a perceived mirage. Feeling links to desire. If what is felt through the senses is not desirable, or brings up aversion, the unawakened instinct creates a fantasy that is attractive. One of the bitterest aspects of the unawakened life is that when you have enough physically, your mind creates fantasies to crave. Nowadays in Western culture, our normal reality is composed of fantasies vividly portrayed on television, in movies, novels, shows and advertisements. They seem harmless enough, but the contact with them and the feelings they induce unconsciously affect our values. People end up voting for a fantasy, being governed by a fantasy, using fantasy money, having fantasy enemies and chasing fantasy goals. The only real element left is suffering, but that is repressed or not acknowledged because it doesn’t fit into the fantasy. In the Brave New World, everybody’s happy; ignore the rest.
Without ignorance, desire is not suffering. We can understand desire; it is something that we can watch in order to know its ethical quality. We can act on skillful desires with dispassion; we can respond to the signals of bodily need; and we can let go of desires that are born from greed, hatred or delusion. Then we are not acting in ignorance, and we can use the energy of desire to investigate the mind and bring goodness into the world.
Craving to have—or to annihilate—links up to grasping or clinging (upadana). Like desire, clinging is a function of natural bodily life—babies do it with good reason—but the un-knowing recreates that as a compulsive mental activity. And clinging to the wrong things is a frustrating, stressful and dangerous experience: clinging to sensory experience with ignorance is always going to let you down because there’s no having enough, and all sensory experience is unreliable. It changes and ends. If you hang your life expectations on the sensory world, it will take you to despair; it’s like climbing a mountain clinging to a fraying rope. Maybe we shouldn’t have any clinging … but those who wish to awaken hold onto the teachings and the practices that lead to liberation, so again the problem really is ignorance, clinging blindly. When there is no ignorance, we can hold onto things as physical necessities or mentally as workable conventions, responsibilities or commitments. The blanket “no clinging” statement is something which can be used to authorize opportunist shifts of loyalties and the dismissal of rules and precepts. The ultimate clinging is, of course, to the self-view.
When there’s ignorance, clinging acts as a base for becoming (bhava) which I’ve already talked about. Out of craving, one attaches to some object, and then sees it as a way of personal development or fulfillment. In the traditional paintings on this theme, bhava is symbolized by a pregnant woman; it is that sense of an inner separate being which leads to birth. But here, I’ve related it more to the weariness of having to sustain the sense of personal development. Do you know the myth of Sisyphus, who was the person whose punishment in a Greek hell was that he had to roll a huge boulder up to the top of a mountain? It took him a long time to get this vast boulder up the slope, and whenever he got close to the top, it would break loose and roll down to the bottom and he’d have to go down and roll it back up. That’s becoming. It leads to birth (jati). And such a birth is not the promised birth of fulfillment, but the experience of oneself as someone who’s not quite there yet. So these two (the tenth and eleventh) vignettes link up, and with ignorance continuing, support dukkha.
One of the problems on the spiritual path, which we walk on as unawakened aspirants, is the sense of trying to become something. It’s normal, because we have been doing that all the time with every pursuit that we have taken up. And the pursuit of ultimate well-being, of wisdom, enlightenment or whatever, really engages our becoming instincts. We always feel that we are not yet right. If only we try a little harder, we might get the boulder to the top of the mountain. Try a little harder, and we’ll get there.
Wise instruction teaches us about humility, patience and the need to be with the present moment. Don’t seek personal development. Practice developing beyond personal need; practice generosity, service, selflessness. Wise “becoming” is called bhavana, cultivation of the Path, not of self-view. If cultivation is always coming from self-views, you get caught up in the sense of failure, or the other kind of becoming—wanting not to become (vibhava), wanting to annihilate your desires and weaknesses. Thus you get “born” as a fanatic, a starry-eyed devotee or a tight-lipped zealot.
And whatever you get born into deepens the kammic, self-producing tendencies, so that when that birth ends, when you’ve given up on Buddhism and become a Sufi, or you’ve given up Sufism and taken to gestalt, you’re even more preoccupied with yourself and your problems and your importance. So death in ignorance—that is, not waking up when your current “world,” relationships, occupation or body end—takes you into the possibility for more dukkha. The twelfth factor of Dependent Origination is aging-death-sorrow-lamentation-pain-grief-and-despair (jaramaranam sokaparideva dukkha domanassupayasa), a comprehensive, if stark, summary of the consequences of attachment to birth. How many trips and games are we going to buy into and get infatuated with and disillusioned by, before we recognize the dukkha of attachment? Plenty, it seems, because dukkha is ignored. And so the habitual reactions to dukkha take you deeper into the cycle of ignorance … and round we go again. …
Not that becoming, birth and death are suffering on their own; when there’s wisdom, as in the case of the Buddha, the identity of being an Enlightened One, a teacher, the head of an Order was not taken personally. He even referred to himself in the third person. This role is just something that happens out of the compassionate desire to offer the teachings to those who wish to hear. He never sought disciples; he even encouraged people to stay with their old religions, but to use them wisely. Even at his own death, he had no concern that his teaching might die out; he realized that he had offered what was necessary. So death can be freed from anxiety with the ending of the self-view.
We can even use death as a meditation object: with the ending of an experience, there’s a moment when there’s “not knowing”—a moment of space or emptiness. Normally the ignoring habit immediately starts up again and sends a mad monkey racing round and back to the beginning. The whole thing flashes by very quickly. But to let the mind notice and give its full due to the ending of a sound, a thought, a mood … is an opportunity to recognize a state of being which is empty, and yet vibrantly present. The ending of things offers a peek into the Truth of Cessation, not dukkha.
We can see that the origin of this suffering process is compounded out of craving and not seeing. The remedy that the Buddha points out is actually right here, in the knowing. In the context of the Second Noble Truth, we are knowing desire—not desiring to know. Cessation is not destruction or annihilation; it is the “arrest” of an activity so that it is seen clearly and ignorance does not condition the “activities” and so on. Thoughts, feelings, desires, attachments, suffering—these are to be held by attention until they are:
Dominated by mindfulness, surmounted by wisdom, yield deliverance as essence, merge in the Deathless and terminate in Nibbana. (Anguttara Nikaya: [V], Tens, 107)
This requires bringing forth faith and wisdom so that there is the ending of un-knowing and, with that, the ending of all these possibilities for suffering.