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.
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.
Dependent Origination is the way the Buddha understood the arising of individuated forms in the world. The question D.O. attempts to answer is how the world and the sense-of-self come into existence. That is, what are the causal conditions of separation? Why do we see the world as we see it? The first two talks in this series are overviews of the sequential unfolding of D.O. and the remaining talks examine each of the twelve individual link within this chain. Conditioned causality is the fact that many conditions conspire to allow a single internal or external event to arise. Western thought usually focuses on a single cause, but with increased insight we see that causal factors are limitless. No one person or one event "made us angry," the whole universe was the reason that anger arose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 />
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are now entering the feeding frenzy of Dependent Origination. Once contact is made, the following links condition the manifestation of the sense of someone very quickly. This someone is the one who is perceived as receiving the sense data. How did this someone get there? He or she was not present prior to the contact, now suddenly, like a magician's trick he or she appears. If we slow the process we see a very important link at the heart of this formation, and that is feelings. Feelings are the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral tastes that the contact conveys. These tastes awaken the conditioned sleeping giant of ourselves, and we come out hungry. As the feeding moves from a taste to wanting more, the volume of our noise increases considerably. The lines of definition are starting to form as the person builds itself upon all the similar tastes stored in memory. I first the person starts out simply hungry (desiring) but within the right conditions that hunger grows in magnitude to become ravishing (grasping).
Each feeling tone has a body posture and pose that reveals its occurrence. As pleasant feelings emerge and shape themselves into a psychic force, the body starts literally leaning into the experience with expectations. This can be noticed as a hurried pace, and a forward leaning tilt. Aversion is just the opposite. The avoidance occurs as a kind of backpedaling, a leaning away and tilting back in contraction or a sudden change in direction. Delusion is harder to pin down but is spacey, airy, and glazed over, often only tangentially connected to the earth. Delusion has lost the ground of its experience and because of that is usually more difficult to notice physically. There is of course the vertical stance that is upright and open to whatever comes that the homework is meant to address.
We think of desire as a spiritually undesirable state of mind. Because it holds such power over our actions and thoughts, we are reluctant to thoroughly take it on and explore what it is. Desire is not just one simple state of mind. It is the composition of all the links that preceded it in Dependent Origination, the confluence of ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name and form, six sense base, contact, and feelings. It holds all of that and the idea of "me" as well. As an analogy, think of snow as being the composite of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, etc. Snow seems like something separate and different from the conditions that form it, but it is those conditions. We can enter and examine the energy of desire through any of these composite conditions. Encouraged by our thoughts, desire also has a strong sense of becoming something, something essential to us. But when we look at desire, it is a future thought holding the wish of a different life. Sad, is it not? When properly seen, we can you feel the grief of the unfulfilled desire?
When the energy of self-formation moves through desire to clinging, there is a dramatic change in intensity. The grasping feels like a compelling need of the organism. We may feel that we must have this experience in order for life to be worthwhile, and we are usually willing to do whatever is needed to obtain it. The energy is very tightly bound to the sense of survival. The Buddha grouped the areas of clinging in four broad categories: (1) pleasurable experiences, (2) views and opinions, (3) rites and rituals, and (4) belief in self. When we see the ferocity of our need to procure and defend our right for pleasure, our personal and political opinions, the indoctrinated beliefs in our religious views and practices, and the obstinate way we defend our self-image, we begin to understand the entrenched positions our egoic state stands upon.
With the link of Becoming the sense-of-self is now fully alive within the dynamics of the mind. It does not exist outside of the mind as it likes to believe but as a working confluent whole with the other links of Dependent Origination. The sense-of-self wants to assume the "someone" who is receiving the desired object so it can chase after them, but to do so it has to spin the deception that it is the owner of the mental phenomena. To be perceived as the owner, the sense-of-self fractures the perception into the subject and object: me and my mind, or me and the object I want. Once the deception is complete it must continue to think in terms of past and future to keep the illusion going. If the mind becomes quiet, the past and future ends and the whole of the mind falls into the present where sparation cannot be maintained.
Let us explore the link of becoming a little more. We and the world arise together through the link of becoming. The feeling tone provides the inception point, the tear in the fabric of the formless, through which we and the world of form emerges. We come out naming and forming, with body and senses fully functioning, and a consciousness filled with content and states of mind - all thoroughly convincing "us" that we are someone interacting with "something." This manifestation needs to maintain momentum or it would be only a momentary fluctuation of personhood. Thought provides that continuity allowing ignorance to misperceive the sense-of-self as continuous. Thought establishes time and time and memory build a past and future whereby the sense-of-self can substantiate its existence. Thoroughly exploring thought allows a natural quieting that begins to disassemble the mental construction of "I."
Becoming, the previous link in Dependent Origination, is not continuous; it moves from birth to birth to birth as the necessary conditions come together that foster its arising. It is useful to get a sense of the birthing experience of self and what the conditions are that bring this about. Instead of trying to catch your origin, which is a little like trying to observe the first moment after your mind wanders, get a sense of how you inflate, relative to the strength and intensity of the thoughts you have. Notice in times of relative quiet how the egoic sense of you is markedly diminished, and at times of reactivity or heightened enthusiasm, the sense of you is large and noisy. Don't explain this away by saying that "you" became noisy and self-righteous because you care about the issue. Take the personal out of the observation and just notice your relative size as a phenomenon related to the noise of your thoughts and emotions. As this increases, so does that; as this diminishes, so does that. Now contemplate this question: how does the noise of your inflation move in accordance with desire and clinging?
As we move from birth to aging, the sense-of-self is dragged along in time, and we begin to notice the effects of memory and accumulated experiences on consciousness. Aging can create a burdened and heavy toll, but when used correctly this maturation process can culminate in wisdom and help us understand Dependent Origination. Maturation brings perspective and when coupled with dharma practice, it reveals the limitations and struggles inherent in our desires and aversions and begins to free us from many of our youthful oppressive states of mind. It can also slowly season our intention toward moving into the here and now. But aging can also be a time of great protest and bitterness. Our life did not turn out the way we wanted, and we now see only death in front of us. We must close this bitterness gap quickly, or it will define our later years. If bitterness arises, ask, "In the present what is left unfulfilled? What is left to do? In the present, how has the past betrayed me?" Our bitterness cannot enter the present, because the present sees the past and future as thoughts arising in the present. Here then is the final step of our maturation. Do we want to carry ourselves through time and arrive at our death with all the scar tissue time gives us, or do we want to enter the timeless present and leave ourselves behind?
Birth and aging inevitably lead to dying and death. The Buddha suggests this pattern can be broken by waking up to the sequencing of Dependent Origination. We cannot prevent the body from dying but we can opt out from the paradigm in which "I" die along with it. When we live encased within the idea of "me," with the "me" as real as the physical form we embody, then as the body ages we will fear our death. Interestingly enough, by eliminating everything that lives within the cycle of birth and death, we find our way out of death. Investigating what remains after death or what cannot be born or age can begin to move us away from dependency on form. We cannot rest our answer on the visible world because all we see will be taken away. If _what_ we see dies, perhaps the invisible _seeing_ itself holds the deathless. What is it that sees out of our eyes? Again, not what we see, but the seeing or awareness itself. Awareness gives us the capacity to see, but awareness cannot be seen. Though awareness cannot be seen, it can be intimated through a felt-sense of the body.
If we review where the exploration of Dependent Origination has brought us over the course of this series of talks, we will notice four perceptional shifts that Dependent Origination has encouraged. The first is that through Dependent Origination we perceive there are an infinite number of influences on every event and that existence itself arises from multiple factors, and therefore there is no separate existences. Everything is tied together through the web of relationship. But Dependent Origination moves it even further by its second perceptual shift in which it shows how the web of somethingness was generated by the mind from nothing. Out of nothing, form arises and becomes the world of connected relationships with "me" arising within it. The "how did that happen," is explained by Dependent Origination, as the links build upon themselves to reveal a world of appearances that have no inherent substance. The third perceptual change from Dependent Origination is a variation of the second in which the world arises directly from "my" projections. In essence the world does not have a fundamental existence of its own. It is dependent upon "me" and what I know, for it to be. The fourth shift is the acknowledgment of struggle that is inherent in the arising of form from formlessness. We are birthed from that struggle and ultimately must grow old and die because of it.