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Buddha's Words (Talk 04 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Sep 27, 2005
Location: Zen Hospice Project
In topic: Early Buddhism
Fourth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Buddha's Words (Talk 04 of 13)

The Chain of Causation

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 27, 2005

Transcribed by Murray McGillivray.  Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum.

The text, "The Ancient City," is about the really important teaching in Buddhism that's variously translated into English as "co-dependent arising," although co-dependent is not a preferred translation anymore.  This teaching is also called "interdependent origination," "interdependence," "inter-being" (Thich Nhat Hanh has made the term "interbeing" famous). The teaching in Sanskrit is called pratityasamutpada, which means the causation in which everything causes everything else.

Bikkhu Bodhi, in his introduction, mentions that in Mahayana Buddhism the teaching of pratityasamutpada has been seen as the basis for compassion. There's a famous treatise on emptiness, which says that pratityasamutpada is emptiness - that is, inter-being.  Since all conditioned things are empty, they co-create each other. Therefore, the only reasonable response to life is compassion.  Nothing is separate and apart. We are all not only connected to each other, but we are literally creating one another all the time.

The necessary consequence of knowing this would automatically be love. No matter what it looked like from the outside, if you knew this, your heart would be full of love. Because all dharmas are mutually caused, you can't tease any out from any other. Because all dharmas are empty, all dharmas are one. Because all dharmas are one, how can we not be full of love?  

The example is given of the person who walks on a path, gets a thorn in his foot, and the hand pulls the thorn out. The hand doesn't debate whether or not this is a good idea: "The foot is so far down there! I don't know if I want to go to the trouble of going all the way down there where the foot is! Besides, the foot is always touching the earth and the earth is so dirty and messy, and I don't know if I want to associate with that foot" and so forth. This is an absurdity, because the hand doesn't need to debate this; the hand just pulls the thorn out of the foot, because our hand knows that the foot is part of the same body. It's one body, and so all parts of the body want to take care of all other parts of the body automatically. And it is similar that all sentient beings are one body.

So this is how the doctrine of pratityasamutpada appears in Mahayana Buddhism. But in Pali Buddhism there's a more distinct and technical teaching about pratityasamutpada. As a result of the Buddha's deep spiritual investigation, he works back to find the actual root cause of suffering and to see how suffering gets produced in this world and in each one of us. He sees that he can go back - causal link by link - and bring peace to all this.  The causality that causes us to suffer and transmigrate is brought to peace, real happiness, release, and letting go.

So in Pali Buddhism, pratityasamutpada is the Buddha's description of the mechanism of karma - the detailed mechanism of how karma churns and how it works. In the most classical description of this are the twelve links of the chain of causation. 

The first causal link, the primary root of karma, is ignorance. It is not the ignorance that we can be aware of, but some kind of deep, dark, primordial oscillation in consciousness, or before consciousness, from the beginning-less past. It's as if in the peacefulness of an undifferentiated reality, something is a little bit off, oscillating or stirring, and it's that little piece that's off that gives rise to the whole craziness of the human world.

Ignorance causes the second link in the chain, which is called karmic formations. This is the slightest inkling toward moving in a direction toward life, which is always looking for something. Have you noticed this? This is what life seems to be. It's always looking for something, and it's either not finding it, or if it's finding it, it is afraid it might be taken away. So the slightest glimmer of this is called karmic formations.

When ignorance and karmic formations are caused, then the karmic formations in turn cause the third link in the chain, which is called consciousness - the rudiment, the substrata, of being. It's not yet a being, but it's the substrata of a being.

The fourth link in the chain, caused by consciousness, is called name and form. This is consciousness differentiated, bisected into two parts. One part we call mind, and the other part we call matter. So the consciousness of the third link is a consciousness in which there has not yet been a distinction between mind and matter. So name and form. Now there can be an "over there." Before, there was no over here and no over there. So even though there was this slight oscillation within unity, there was no "over there" to grasp, because everything was still in unity. Now that unity is split, and there's an outside and an inside. It's called name and form - form because of the emergence of physicality, and name because now, when there's something here and something there, there's a reaching across to that something through the naming of it. There's something to name, and there's a consciousness that can name.

Once there's a bifurcation in consciousness, there's physicality and there's awareness.  This then further differentiates into the six sense consciousnesses. Now you can have a living being who's capable of interacting with a world. Before this there's just the physical and a consciousness, but now there's interaction: there's seeing, there's hearing, there's tasting. We're really creating the world with our sense organs. It's obvious. If we had different sense organs, we'd live in a different world. I mean we all know that animals, for example, have sense organs that can perceive differently. They can hear sounds and see colors that we don't see. So is that unreal and our world is real? No, it's just different. So we create a world because of the way we're structured with the six sense consciousnesses.

Now here's where the interaction with the world really begins, with contact, and this is where the suffering starts, because as soon as there's contact with an object and an organ, there's immediately feeling. There's always a reaction. There's always a conditioned reaction as soon as there's a perception. You like it, you don't like it. You want to run away from it, you want to eat it - whatever it is, there's some reaction. And this reaction, if we're not wise, if we're not aware, if our conditioning is so immediate and so strong that we're clueless about it, this feeling will create a whole chain of events that will lead to suffering and trouble.

The eighth link in the chain after feeling is craving. The sense organ meets an object, there's a reaction. Then I want to do something about that reaction right away if it's something that I like - I want to have it. If it's something that I don't like, my whole body is already moving away from it. So there's some craving, some desire, and a need for a change of state.

Then craving intensifies and becomes the ninth link in the chain - grasping. Now we've made contact with that thing, we've moved in the direction of it, either by grabbing hold if it or by deciding we really, really hate it. That grasping causes activity. That activity, then, causes becoming. What's called becoming is a thirst for life and ongoing being, which then leads to birth, and so then we're born. (Everything I have described so far happened before we were born.) And then the last link in the chain, which is the result of birth, is - you know what - death. So that's the last link in the chain, old age and death.

These twelve links were understood from earliest times in Buddhism to describe simultaneously three different processes. Number one, they are said to describe every moment of consciousness-all this takes place in every moment of our lives. Every moment of our lives there's some ignorance; a moment of consciousness is created out of that; there's the creation of our selves over here and the world over there; there are the organs and the objects. There's feeling, craving, grasping, and birth and death - every moment. Because every moment is born anew, and every moment dies. I mean it's kind of shocking to think about it, but of course, it's true that every moment dies. Otherwise, how could the next moment come? And the next moment, the whole process starts over again.

So nirvana is first of all to understand-I mean it's easy to understand as an idea-what life is. To see it unfolding. To see the chain of becoming into being, and then to bring peace to it, so that it doesn't keep going on and on that way- undoing the karmic links. And the place where you can undo it - the only place - is at the link of feeling, craving, grasping. Because that's where we can have some intention. We can be aware, and we can practice in a particular way. So our practice can help us to release those links. In this way, nirvana is cessation. There's cessation of the wheel of life, and we ourselves and the world are at peace.

In Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a part, there was a different view of the whole thing. Rather than putting to rest the chain of causation so that things would cease, you would transform the chain of causation. Instead of churning because of restlessness, confusion, craving, and grasping, they would now be returning motivated by love. And so bodhisattvas would take powerful vows to be reborn over and over out of love, for the benefit of others.

Monks, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisattva not yet fully enlightened, it occurred to me, alas, this world is fallen into trouble, in that it is born, ages and dies, it passes away and is reborn, yet it does not understand the escape from this suffering headed by aging and death. When now will an escape be discerned from this suffering, headed by aging and death? Then, monks, it occurred to me, when what exists does aging and death come to be? By what is aging and death conditioned? Then, monks, through careful attention that took place in me, a breakthrough by wisdom that when there is birth, aging and death comes to be. Aging and death has birth as its condition.

So we're thinking, "Buddha, why are you so excited about this? Didn't we all know this already, you know?" But not really, you know, not really. We're all hoping that we'll be the one to be immune from death; that death is not a necessary, fundamental, built-in condition of every moment of time. We hope death is something that comes later on and something that happens to other people. Even though intellectually we understand it happens to us, really and truly we're all betting that we'll be immune from it. So to see that the cause of death is birth is very profound.

Then, monks, it occurred to me, when what exists does birth comes to be?  (And the whole formula is repeated.) Existence causes birth.

It's this tendency towards life that precedes birth, the urgency that seemingly propels every human and other animal's conception. Some energy is going to make that conception happen, right? And it's that energy that precedes birth that causes birth. And what causes that energy? Clinging. If you think about this in terms of human birth, and romance, you can get this. Literally, clinging leads to the urge to conceive, and conception leads to birth. Where does clinging come from? Craving. Where does craving come from? Feeling. Where does feeling come from? Contact. Where does contact come from? The six senses. Where do they come from? Name and form.

And what conditions name and form? Then, monks, there took place in me through careful attention a breakthrough by wisdom. When there is consciousness, name and form comes to be. Name and form has consciousness as its condition. Then, monks, it occurred to me, when what exists does consciousness come to be? By what is consciousness conditioned? Then, monks, there took place in me through careful attention a breakthrough by wisdom. When there is name and form, consciousness comes to be. Consciousness has name and form as its condition.

Then, monks, it occurred to me, this consciousness turns back. It does not go further than name and form. It is to this extent that one may be born and age and die, pass away and reborn, that is, when there is consciousness with name and form as its condition and name and form with consciousness as its condition. With name and form as condition the six sense bases, with the sense bases contact, such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

Then, you might ask, what's the part about the "Ancient City"? What does that have to do with anything? Well, it comes in at the end. And this is one of my favorite parts. After he goes through all this he says,

Suppose, monks, a man was wandering through a forest and saw an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past (in other words a path that was grown over, and hard to see, obscure, you wouldn't see it but all of a sudden you realize "Oh, it's a path!"). He would then follow it and he would see an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Then the man would inform the king or royal minister: "Sire, know that while wandering through the forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past. I followed it and saw an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Renovate that city, sire!" Then the king or royal minister would renovate the city and sometime later that city would become successful and prosperous, well-populated, filled with people, attain to growth and expansion.

So, in effect, the Buddha is saying here, "I stumbled into something that was an ancient path. I didn't invent this! I'm not this great genius who invented this. I just was going along, minding my own business, trying my best to do my practice, and I stumbled into this amazing thing. And I followed it. I kind of cut through the underbrush, and I followed it along, and all of a sudden it all became clear. I saw that it had been something that had been discovered before, and that it was glorious and wonderful. And now, it can be refurbished, and the path can be cleared. Other people easily can go down that path, because now it's an identifiable path."

And that's what the Buddha says:

               So, too, have I found an ancient path.