More and more, the teaching practice takes me into the community where I engage directly with students. My focus right now is on bringing the continuity of the Dharma into the market place. Although retreating is an important form for self-knowledge, I find myself less interested in the immediate results of a retreat and more interested in helping students investigate their relationship to the ups and downs of their everyday life.
Nature, death and spontaneous freedom continually interweave themselves into my teaching. From the forest of Thailand, where I spent several years, I bring a deep awareness of the healing quality of nature into my teachings. Relaxing into our true nature allows us to realize what it means to be a human being. It is here we find a resting point, a counterbalance to the speed and turbulence of our culture.
My work in hospice brings a sense of urgency into my teaching. Working with the theme of death and dying reveals the here and now of life to us, how important it is to open to each loss, change and transition that marks our path. Life is precious. We need to awaken without hesitation.
Many of us crave to be more calm and centered. We know that life has more to offer than this fleeting material world. For each of us, the Dharma offers an immediacy of freedom for which we do not have to strive or wait. In practice, we can learn to relax deeply into the moment and rediscover spontaneous freedom.
Think of the senses as six channels that are constantly flooding the brain with raw data while the brain attempts to coordinate this barrage of input into a meaningful presentation of events. The brain selects what data it will focus upon and leaves the rest out. When the particular sense data is allowed to make its way into consciousness, we call that, "contact," which is the sixth link in Dependent Origination. After contact is made various formations of mind encircle the contacted sense impression with perception, recognition, and memory. Now the contact becomes connected to all the other data, and actions are taken in relationship to the definition the contact (now the focus of experience) is given. Is this significant or not, how does this fit within my worldview, and shall I approach or avoid? If there is unconscious contact, we will likely see unconscious action, and if there is conscious contact then the action will not come from the past conditioning of the mind but spontaneously from what is.
One of the questions answered by Dependent Origination is where our information about the world comes from, and what it is based upon. As we have seen, much of what we know is what the past allows us to know. By reflecting on the moment and commenting continually about it, we use past memories as our pathway to move forward. This imagined response (meaning these ideas we hold about reality are not based upon what is true here and now)is being organized by the brain. To show conclusively the difference, the Buddha in his famous Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23), stated that formed reality holds the six senses only: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect and ideas. "That is all (there is in form)," he said, "there is nothing that can be added or subtracted from this." The Buddha is specifically showing us that all our added responses from the past about the present are actually one of the six senses arising, as all the senses do, in the present moment. This arising of ideas in the present also includes the person who seems to be receiving those very sensations. Not spoken about in this sutta is the unformed, commonly referred to as sati or awareness. Awareness holds a direct wordless knowing, which does notrefer to the mental way we usually know something by giving it a name. There is space between this wordless knowing and the formation of words in the mind. Thoughts from the mind encircle this wordless knowing when, under the veil of ignorance, the two forms of knowing are perceived as one and the same. Ignorance enmeshes form with the formless, confusing the sacred with the mundane. Once this occurs we have only the sense data and our accompanying commentary to give us the information needed to navigate the world, the wordless discernment of awareness is no longer perceived.
Consciousness processes the mental formations by labeling and calling them something. Suddenly from a vague appearance arises the names and forms of life as we know it. Nama Rupa (name and form) arises from the fertile ground of mental formations and consciousness whose empty nature is confused by ignorance. To be called something, content requires information imparted about its nature. For example, we say an object is round, red, smooth, and small. Having recognized those traits through memory, we amass the data and call the object an "apple." The name we give separates it from the rest of the content before us. When we are hungry, "apple" rises to the forefront of all other forms. When we are not, it falls back and is barely noticed. The mental formations that encircle the words determine the object's importance to us. Consciousness is now ready to develop a narrative about the relative relationships between the objects, and where there is a story there will be a storyteller.
The third link in Dependent Origination is Consciousness. Consciousness springs forth from the fertile ground of ignorance and mental formations. We might think of this expression of consciousness as "egoic consciousness," the sense that "I am conscious of..." Different traditions use various definitions for the term, consciousness. In Buddhism there are different consciousnesses for each sense door. To get a sense of what this means, image you are standing on the ocean shore. If you focus exclusively on sight, certain memories and sense impressions will flood your mind, but if you concentrate exclusively on smell, there will be a whole new set of sense impressions and accompanying memories that may be very different from your visual consciousness. So too with each sense door - hearing, tasting, thinking, touching - each evokes a different set of memories and mental formations. The mind collates these separate consciousnesses into a single consciousness with "me" as the central casting figure. When each person speaks of "my consciousness or my mind" they usually mean the summation of all the separate consciousnesses falsely organized (ignorance) as a single conscious entity.
We continue our exploration of the second link of Dependent Origination, Mental Formations. Mental formations consist of everything "formed" by the mind. We can understand why some spiritual traditions call these displays "dreamlike" and "illusory" when they come from nothing and seem to form into something meaningful, but the meaning is an internal response to the image and not intrinsic to the image itself. We can directly observe their transparency, and yet at the same time be fooled by their presentation. In the same way we become mentally enmeshed in the rapid succession of two dimensional celluloid still pictures (called a movie), likewise we translate our mental formations into our life's story. The reality we give life is derived from these mental images. They form us and the world and establish a hunger (called desire) to reconnect with what is true and lasting. At first we attempt to discover this through our worldly pursuits, but we eventually awaken to the fact that what is true and lasting cannot be found within those images. <br />
Sankharas or karmic formations, the second link of causality within Dependent Origination, appear only within the environment of ignorance (first link). In other words, sanskaras form when our back is turned in denial or aversion or when we do not look beyond conventional meaning. Using the analogy of the sky, as clouds form and we are conscious of what is occurring, we do not take the clouds to be anything other than the formation of moisture in air. If there is a lapse of awareness and the cloud shapes itself into a recognizable form, we will no longer just see the cloud as a cloud but could easily lose ourselves in the shape it has now taken. So too, like a Rorschach inkblot test, ignorance or the lack of awareness brings our conditioned mental tendencies forth and configures each moment as a personal representation of our past. We then fall in line and behave as the formation dictates. If it says we are sad, we assume the posture of sadness, never questioning how this filter is coloring our experience. If we infuse enough belief into the formation, assumptions and attitudes create the sense of a personal truth that we then play out in action. The only tool we have to free ourselves from these false assumptions is awareness, and it is all we need to break their hold.
Ignorance, or "ignoring" the facts, begins the conditioned chain of events known as Dependent Origination. Our refusal to acknowledge and look is the essential first cause of the sequencing of conditions that leads to struggle and separation. To reverse this process all we have to do is be amenable to seeing what is in front of our eyes. This, together with our willingness not to turn away from the implications of what we see, are the sole requirements necessary for the interruption of the links of causality. Awareness ends the belief that the world is static and fixed. We usually gloss over the continual unfolding and disarray we call, "our living experience," so we can use ignorance as a life preserver and steady our position by fixing it within the world. How much of this unfixed universe we are willing to see will be determined by our sincerity, but the seeing, and therefore the ending of struggle, is always possible.
As we move through the links of Dependent Origination, one of the key areas for exploration are the linkages of craving, clinging, and becoming. What starts out as a simple feeling of pleasantness suddenly erupts into a needy and tumultuous sense-of-self. Dependent Origination explains the causal factors and conditions that led to full addiction and the reaction that followed. D.O. shows us how we carry over the remembrance of previous encounters that sets us up for our current display. Once the present is colored with the past, we carry the momentum of the past into that current relationship. An object is no longer seen for what it is (always neutral) but for what it has become through memory. We then chase after our memory like a cat would chase his tail, believing that the object is the same as the memory.
Dependent Origination asks us to see the world from a vastly different perspective than our normal understanding. It exerts that fundamentally nothing exists independently, and everything is co-dependent upon everything else. Most of us do not see the world in this configuration. Normally we think of ourselves and all other objects as having separate existences. Let us loosen our grasp on seeing life as separately existing and ease ourselves into the symphony at play. Notice that coincidences and chance occurrences are part of the wonderment of inseparability. Nothing is happening randomly by accident. Although even a philosophical understanding of this eases our individual burden, it is the realization of tis fact that dramatically effects our lives. When we see we are not separate from the world around us, we release the need for a personal and binding narrative, and the formless sacred comes into view.
Dependent Origination is the formative way that self and other arises in the world. When we look deeply at each of these twelve links we only discover emptiness and stillness. The question arises, how have we deceived ourselves to believe we and the world are formed and substantial? The answer the Buddha tells us is because we do not really look at all. We simply assume causes from previous conditions; we let our past decide the present. When we look, we see through this pretense into a world of mystery.