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Everything Leans

"Deep is this dependent origination, and deep its appearance."

"Whoever sees dependent origination sees the Dharma;
whoever sees the Dharma sees dependent origination."

- Buddha [MN:28, DN:15]


I’m not using this map (despite it’s probable origins) to explain our journey through rebirth. The Buddha was pretty clear not to believe anything we can’t test. And I don’t know of my rebirths, so I don’t have anything to say about it. I do find this map useful to this birth that appears to be unfolding in direct respect to the laws of Dependent Origination.

circle of dependent origination

It is probable that the Buddha did not use the 12 links model in his own teaching framework. But he certainly used the principle of Dependent Origination thoroughly in his teaching, with mutual dependencies being a key aspect to the foundational teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

On this page we will offer a descriptive definition of the terms, with the Pali and Sanskrit terminology. Once sufficient (rather than complete) understanding is present for us, I believe, we will find a useful framework both to explore our experience, and to further clarify the role and significance of the links of Dependent Origination.

Note: There is a beguiling simplicity to the map of Dependent Origination and we should be cautious of any premature understanding of the complexity it reveals. A map is a helpful navigational tool, not a substitute for a thorough exploration of the territory.

Ignorance or Misunderstanding - Avijja; Avidya

The root of all dukkha, and all release, resides in this factor, and obviously avidya is not an unchangeable state.

Vidya is knowledge and/or understanding. The prefix ‘A’ indicates an opposite or absence. Literally ‘avidya’ refers to an absence of knowledge, or a misunderstanding.

In a passive sense we do not know something––this is ‘avidya’ as ignorance. Usually we have recorded data over this absence of knowledge with knowledge of something incorrect––this is ‘avidya’ as misunderstanding. Hence we do not feel the absence of knowledge; we do not know that we do not know.

This is not just general or personal ignorance and misunderstanding, but quite specific misunderstandings or misinterpretations of life. Particularly ones that have a spiritual aspect. Such as the three wisdom views: all things are anicca (inconstant, impermanent), dukkha (stressful, unreliable, unsatisfactory), and all dharmas are anatta (not-self existent, empty). We can see how we take life by default in the opposite way.

For example, passively, we may not know that all things are inconstant, actively, we misperceive and believe that they are constant: we have a pernicious and unquestioned belief in our longevity. Such a view is operating subconsciously. We can feel the impact of reminding ourselves we will die, this is something we are ignoring or misunderstanding by default. We can amplify the waking up by reminding ourselves it may be sooner than we imagine; maybe today we will die. Just consider: there is someone somewhere who is in the same delusion as us about our mortality and they are dying right now, some unknown moment in our life that will be us. Here and ignorant, and then completely gone the next moment.

The kind of knowledge we are talking about reside in our subconscious. We do not think “this sunset is constant”, but we may presume the happiness we will absorb along with the beautiful rays will last. The more we bring to mind the inconstancy and selfless essence of all experiences the more we change our experience at the root.

Other misunderstandings are an ignorance of the implications of the 4 noble truths, and the existence of Dependent Origination in all experience.

Concoctions or Fabrications - Sankhara; Samskara

Whatever knowledge we know, and/or however we understand life to unfold, will influence what we experience due to the factor of ‘sankhara’. This factor is one of the most significant aspects we can play with. Fabrications “fabricate fabricated things”. Everything is made up by these factors.

That we have avidya about how sankharas shape our experience is a great revelation of how important it is to dispel our avidya about Dependent Origination. Sankharas are powerful for opening experiences of freedom and wisdom.

As with avidya, sankhara operates habitually on a subconscious level, but we can have a lot of influence on the way it affects our experience.

Sankhara can be subdivided into three aspects:

Bodily Fabrication

The shape, feeling, and relationship with bodily life; breath, posture, energy flow, temperature, pressure. These all are shaped by experience, and they shape our experience. When we are stressed we do not breath the same way as when we are relaxed. We can fabricate our experience by changing our way of breathing. Breathing in the sharp and pressured way of a stressed person feeds stress back into the feedback loop of stress, breathing in the soft and open way of a contented being offers space back into the contracted loop easing stress.

Verbal Fabrication

The way we talk to ourselves and others about the world (the all of the all). When we listen in to our minds we notice we have a constant narration of experience flowing through our intellects. The avidya factors come into being through this sankhara. Not only does the narrator co-generate the falsehood (avidya) that this experience is happening to a fixed and constant self. But this also shapes how we experience this experience. We can see this in how we seek happiness from ephemeral things that cannot be extracted from life’s interwoven web. Avidya generates values which come though in the narrators tone. People and things become objects that we must get or get rid of for peace, contentment, and wellbeing.

Practices like mettā add a new range of narrative flavours to our habitually limited range. “May you be happy”, is not one of our first thoughts when meeting a new, unusual, or challenging being. But mettā adds this to the relational range. We will find ourselves subconsciously feeling this urge come through if we practice opening the range of verbal fabrication through a cultivation practice like the Brahma Viharas (Divine Abodes). These are the illimitable qualities of mettā (kindness), karuna (compassion), mudhita (joy), and upekkha (equanimity).

Mental Fabrication

We’re getting more subtle as we move down this list within a list. The body is quite easy to attune to, the intellect already takes more steadiness and refinement for us to attend to them. The mental fabrications take us even further, they are comparably ghostlike in their nature.

Have you noticed how subtle a thought is? The most quiet and ephemeral of all thought forms are our intentions. Is it even possible to see an intention in real time? If you just wait in stillness for the urge to move to arise in the mind. Although there can be no action without intention, the speed of life is so fast and intention so subtle it is very difficult to extract intention from the action itself as it occurs. Yet intentions fabricate experience on many levels, behind our bodily activity, which also fabricates, and behind our verbal intellectual activity that also fabricates. And even behind our mental activity, which as we shall see also fabricates.

As we could see in the example above (for verbal fabrication) avidya of dukkha affects how we attend to people and things as objects of desire and aversion. The way we attend, how we bring attention, is an example of mental fabrication. Additionally this factor includes (somehow subsuming a later factor) vedanā; the hedonic classification of things as pleasant or unpleasant. It is clear with some investigation that vedanā appears on many levels. It is subconsciously active in what we look for, consciously in perception, and even in apperception; how we assimilate what we perceive into our world view. In all these ways vedanā shapes and is shaped by experience, making it a fabrication. For as we wrote above fabrications “fabricate fabricated things” as shown in the suttas.

Furthermore perception itself is often included in a collection of mental qualities that fabricate. Sankhara appears not just in the 12 links but also as one of the 5 aggregates. In that list perception is also one of the 5 aggregates. But as is oft said sankhara contains everything that is not otherwise easily assignable; that is inevitable where definite and clear maps and schema meet a reality less easily circumscribed or defined.

Perception affects what we see, for in it’s nature it includes only that which we attend to. In that way it is fabricated. But it also brings out of the mass of data objects and phenomena with which we interrelate. In this way it also fabricates all further experience. All of this will affect what comes into our conscious experience.

Consciousness - Vinnana; Vijnana

Much of what we have described is occurring in a pre-conscious or typically unconscious way. We do not know sense data coming into the mind as raw data before it is perceived into objects. Consciousness defines the moment in which the experience of experience begins. There is something happening and something knowing it. Yet this experience is clearly an affected reality, and the Buddha's system not only allows for this it demands for it to be seen this way. There is no being with things as they really are, for the level of consciousness can not precede itself. If we are conscious on the level of preconsciousness, it is no longer preconsciousness.

Name and Form - Nama-Rupa

What is this level doing?

The coming together of mind and body. This aspect really makes most sense when one considers the map's origin as an explanation of the process whereby one comes into life from death.

For is not the mind and body depicted in the 3 types of fabrication? Perhaps we could talk of this factor as name and form coming into consciousness.

6 senses - Ayatana; Shadayatana

Here we are dealing with the conscious experience of the six senses. As with Name and Form the senses have been at work on the level of preconsciousness. The conscious experience of the 6 senses comes after perception has made objects of light and sound waves, and sensations from pressure and heat.

Ayatana means more than sense base as physicality, it includes the whole field of sensitivity. It also includes the object being sensed. In many ways it breaks the boundary into 'contact' the next factor. The subject-object duality has no separation impetus in the word ayatana. For it includes both the object and the subjects ability to perceive it. In English we don't often dissolve the boundary between our senses and the sensed object. Yet our direct experience of our senses is that no object exists for us outside of our sensitivity: Apparently seperate objects are subjective; the world 'out there' is actually an interior experience. Percept and perceiver are of one body, one process, indivisible, non-dual.

Contact - Phassa; Sparsha

In many respects we don’t have any experience without contact between sensed objects and sense capabilities, for even the slightest subtlest mental fabrication is a sense object sensed by the intellect. By that rationale all prior explanations have referred to subtle meetings of objects and sensitivity known as ‘contact’. As already mentioned, this delineation is demarks steps on an increasingly conscious process.

Hedonic Response - Vedana

The inbuilt and perhaps inescapable tendency to categorise all experience from a self-concerned first-person perspective: We are constantly asking the world of phenomena “what can this do for me?” Vedana is fabricated and it fabricates. It was already mentioned as a mental fabrication. But it requires its own place as a factor link. With a misunderstanding around inconstancy, dukkha, and not self underlying it, the characterisation of phenomena by their ability to please often leads to the urge to get or get rid of, or otherwise to ignore and overlook. This is referred to as worldly vedana—vedana that occurs within a typical and unconscious human mode. Worldly vedanā habitually leads to tanha.

This implies that freedom and wellbeing come from unworldly vedana; the movement opposite to the tendency of ‘tanha’. Not all phenomena characterised as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither...nor, escalate to tanha. For the pleasure of seeing somebody being happy can usher forth the response of mudhita. The displeasure of a being's pain can bring compassion in place of aversion. Likewise the neutral sensations of deep unifying experiences (like the 4 jhanas) invite equanimity rather be than boredom. These are liberating and don't lead to dukkha.

We have many guided meditations on our site. You can try bringing Vedana as a focus in your meditation.

Thirst - Tanha; Trishna

This is literally the tightening thirst for things to be other than the way they are appearing. This clenched posturing is dependent on misunderstanding the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta. As with all prior links an understanding of these dissolves the clenching.

Attachment or Grasping - Upadana

The experience of tension inherent in sustaining tanha further tightens fabricating attachment. What we wanted becomes what we can’t do without: Desire becomes obsession; aversion becomes hatred; ignoring becomes boredom. The continuum without sufficient wisdom of the process tends towards the destructive end of the spectrum.

Becoming - Bhava; Bjava

The utter unpleasantness builds with the same inevitability of the tension between two tectonic plates, hail in a thunderstorm, or the swell of a pipe about to burst. Something new is bound to come into being. But it is likely born of tension, and is dependent on that tension, and will not be able to sustain itself long.

Birth - Jati

The full forming of the self identity comes out of a blind spot, the illusion perfected by the magician who fools herself. This appearance of self is by habit unquestioningly adopted as one’s own self. We feel “this is who I am.” Disregarding how we have been otherwise in the past, and how we will inevitably be otherwise in the future. Constantly reshaping our otherness into a sense of sameness and continuity. Anicca & anatta are disregarded, and for this dukkha is invited.

Death - Jara-Marana; Jaramaranam

Like a bicycle that can only stand propped up or propelled. Even if the illusion itself does not collapse; imploding in doubt or explode in conflict, the tension itself will tire, all things must pass.

Death may be consciously uncomfortable, particularly if we have attached to this fabricated sense of self, any shame, fear, conceit, will pass around the circle into the next cycle of becoming. The more vehemently we hold to the reality of this conception of self as “I, me, and mine” (not seeing the anatta characteristic) the more Avidya we will have.

Yet the more clearly we see through this fabrication of self, then although even in it’s dissolution there may be a sense of loss, there is also a sense of witnessing this fading. And the potential to journey to new realms of altered perception of self, other, world.

Bon Voyage.

Written by Nathan Glyde