Steps in a Process
Because the Buddha's reasoning was completely logical, and very detailed so as to address a variety of philosophical and religious views, there have come down to us a number of ways of regarding the process by which we are bound to Existence. Most of these analyses of the process of Becoming stand on their own, but through the centuries there have been a variety of attempts to integrate them into a single presentation.
Existence is complex, and the system[s] get very elaborate. To help explain views of the nature of existence (or, ontology,) Buddhism also developed a famous iconography -- a relatively coherent system of visual symbols. Thus the Wheel of Existence is usually depicted with three concentric circles: The hub with its three poisons or "defilements," the segments of the "realms," and the rim with its 12 Nidanas or "links" which are the steps in a process of relating to existence.
Since conceptualization breeds more conceptualization, the 4 crucial experiences or "visions" of Shakyamuni Buddha have been correlated to the 4 gates of his home town, the 3 times (past, present, future) and also the 5 Buddha families.
The 5 Skandhas also integrate into the Wheel, at the level of the Nidanas.
The Four Sights Relate to the "Noble Truths"
Furthermore, in a vain attempt to demonstrate that all so-called esoteric systems or Wisdom teachings are similar, or just from the simplistic tendency to conclude that all groups of 12 share an important characteristic -- namely that they consist of a dozen -- a parallel is sometimes drawn between the 12 Nidanas and the "12 labours of Hercules," or the 12 Signs of the Zodiac -- even the 12 days of Christmas! But there is nothing "esoteric" or "mystical" about the Nidanas. They are simply stages of a smooth unfolding that is viewed as a series of links in the chain of causality. They are points on a "map" showing how it is that a person (or any other being) gets to be born, to live, to enjoy and also to suffer, and then to fade, die and eventually come into existence in one way or another, again and again.
If you had no computer, could you see the image?
To describe the existence of the blooming image of the lotus, we need to be able to recognize two different kinds of conditions for its being there -- two categories of cause.
Kinds of Conditions For Existence
The first is a basic or root circumstance called in Sanskrit, hetu (in
the Western philosophical tradition, causa necessitans.) In this example,
you have to live in this century, have electricity and your
computer must be on. So in the Indian, Tibetan and related views, we have
to be in an eon in which existence is possible -- a cosmic phase where
The 12 Nidanas (Sanskrit) comprise a Chain of Causality also known as "Dependent Origination." It is important to see that the main reason for examining this chain is so that it can be broken!
Nothingness and Being
The Source of Existence is not Nothing (though it is often called the Void) and it is not Self although many insist on "personifying" and worshiping it. It is described as a luminous ground or matrix. Its quality is that of Buddha-nature.
As the font of all existence -- past, present and future -- in Sanskrit it is called alaya. Viewed as the cosmic storehouse of traces and impressions, it is called alaya-vijnana. The late Trungpa Rinpoche compared the emergence of alaya-vijnana from the alaya to the freezing of water. It turns to ice, but that does not mean its nature is no longer that of water. In other words, beings are alaya, alaya is Buddha-nature, so beings are Buddha-nature.
Existence has no beginning nor end. We could say that it has three "flavours" of which Emptiness is one. (In terms of its potential, it is called Buddha-nature.) The others are Impermanence ("nothing is forever") and Suffering (anxiety, dissatisfaction.)
The process of existence has been going on since "beginning-less time." Any "exister" -- we usually say "being" -- tends to feel like an individual. This misperception is usually termed Ignorance, but it is really a kind of delusion. Ignorance readily gives rise to Attraction or Desire (wanting, clinging, attachment) and its opposite, Repulsion or Aversion (rejection, hatred, aggression.) These are the Three Poisons. They are depicted at the hub of the Wheel as spinning forms because they feed on each other.
When we look closely at the Poisons, it seems as if we can discern intermediate mental states. As a group of six they are called in Tibetan, the kleshas (stains, contaminating or clouding factors.) Pride, Greed and Jealousy are the three that, added to the Poisons, make up the 6 Kleshas.
~ "Nidana Sutra" in Book of Threes, Anguttara-nikaya III, 33
Buddha-nature finds expression in the Five Buddha families. These five classes refer to all beings, and not only buddhas and bodhisattvas. That is because beings "precipitate" -- to continue the chemical analogy -- according to how they respond. They tend to "favour" a particular klesha; that is, have a propensity [tendency] to one of five patterns in reaction formation. In the Vajrayana, the types or ways of being -- styles of karmic formation -- can be transmuted through various suitable kinds of practice.
Dependent Origination (Skt. pratitya samutpada, Pali paticca samuppada)
From a certain perspective, any action -- internal, external, conscious or not -- is a consequence of Ignorance (of the fundamental Buddha-nature.) Also any and all actions or reactions produce consequences or results. This fact is called in Sanskrit, the Law of Karma. Therefore, even at the most unaware level, whenever we react we "produce" karma. It is as incorrect to speak of good or bad karma as it is to say "good gravity" or "bad gravity."
Nevertheless, we also refer to the potential for future consequences by using the term "karma." Hence all distinct beings and things can be said to have their "own karma," and we sometimes speak of the karma of a nation or group. From a negative standpoint, a person or group may be subject to one predominating klesha and so respond in a way that repeatedly results in similar karmic consequences.
We are especially responsible for consequences at a level at which we have some control. This differs with the various realms of existence. From point 4 in the Chain, people begin to react according to their individual natures. Around point 9, we can begin to be responsible for our reactions since with training and practice, it is possible to gain some control over unconscious actions.
In terms of evolutionary psychology, it is not at the levels of life-sustaining or instinctual functions, but at the cognitive level that an action has consequences for future rebirth. In other words, human beings are especially subject to karma from acts that are conscious and deliberate.
Some beings possess the karmic circumstances, determination, and ability to "purify" karma, or influence in a positive fashion their future existences. For example, arhats and Great Bodhisattvas can interrupt the Chain of Becoming. In the Rice Seedling Sutra, the Buddha teaches that any action done with perfect insight into the true nature of the world, that is performed without attachment and for the good of others, does not lead to further rebirth. He compares it to sewing seeds that have been fried. Made barren, they cannot and do not bear new life.
From a Hinayana perspective, the ultimate goal is called Nirvana (Pali: nibbana.) The word means "no more going." It is achieved when the final attainment is achieved without attachment. That is, the objective of "purifying" one's karma to the extent that no further results ensue is accomplished. From that standpoint, there is another analysis called the 10 Fetters.
Nirvana is not a heavenly state, but rather a release from the suffering of existence caused by the continual regeneration of desire. It is a condition of non judgment and non-attachment, rather than of passive, non-being.
Root Text and Commentaries
The catalogue of nidanas has no ordinary chronology -- it does not exist in linear time although it is a causal kind of explanation. The 12 nidanas arise sequentially, simultaneously and/or can also overlap.
Back to the Skandhas
Nagarjuna, the great mid-second century philosopher, sees #9 Upadana
(attachment) as the root of our suffering in the becoming- birth- aging-death process.
That is because attachment is a product of the five skandhas, which supply the
matrix for our experience of suffering. This also implies that the five
skandhas not only compose our individuality
The Role of Analytical Meditation
Once we have learned to be attentive to our mental state, and are stabilized through our own efforts through the practice of ordinary meditation (Skt. shamata) then we are better able to derive benefit from analysis or vipashyana (Pali vipassana.) We will see, firsthand, that:
From the ultimate perspective nothing is going on:
The Heart Sutra
When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was engaged in the practice of
deep Prajnaparamita, he perceived that there are the five Skandhas; and he saw
them in their nature to be empty.
Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no thought, no confection, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, colour, taste, touch, objects; no dhatu [source of, basis for] vision, till we come to [or, and so on down the line until] no dhatu of consciousness. There is no knowledge, no ignorance, [and so on] until we get to no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death. There is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path. There is no knowledge, no attainment, [and] no realization, because there is no attainment.
In the mind of the Bodhisattva who dwells depending on Prajnaparamita there are no
obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final Nirvana.
All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, depending on the
Prajnaparamita, attain the highest perfect enlightenment.
theory: This word is used in its scientific sense meaning a not-disproved idea.
"Chain, Chain, Chain ... ": song Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin & later, Maria Carey. Another kind of chain is the chronological "chain of responsibility:"
luminous: This does not literally mean "shining" but the reference to light is as a metaphor for the attraction of this potential.
no beginning: Texts such as the Kalachakra Tantra describe cycles of Existence-Time. According to current scientific views, our universe has been "here" for billions of years.
ways of regarding the process: The process is a continual unfolding, and the Buddha's teaching is clear and consistent, but from a relative perspective it can be analysed in various ways. Consider the various ways we have of analyzing a painting or a movie, or even a chemical reaction.
Etymology of the Nidanas: Nidana derives from the root da (bind, constrict) and the preposition ni- (down.) It is often translated as "fetter" or "band." As "constriction," it is also used to refer to an artery, a pulse or pressure point. Nida means a "resting-place" as in the French word, nid (nest.)
Emptiness or the Void (Skt. shunyata) does not mean
"nothingness," but according to our Mahayana view it connotes the
essential [>essence] Buddha-nature of all things -- the luminous ground of being. It is unconditioned,
beyond any determination, but also immanent, and inevitable.
Skandhas: Buddhist analysis is directed at disabusing people of a belief in Eternity, or any eternal soul or True Self and all similar and related notions. Any idea of Eternal Being contributes to desire for, or a "clinging" to, any and all material aspects of existence. The five skandhas (heaps or aggregates) are: form (Skt. rupam), sensation (vedana), apperception (samjna), conception or formation (samskara), and awareness (vijnana). Vijnana is the product of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and attitude-formation. They operate at a subliminal level contributing to repetitive psychological patterns we can call neuroses.
Heart: Here the word refers to the essence or core of the Perfection of Wisdom [or, Ultimate Wisdom;] in Sanskrit, the Prajnaparamita. The Tibetan text begins:
The Tibetan text ends with:
no knowledge: The words, "There is no knowledge, no ignorance, etc." is an out-and-out denial of the Twelve-fold Chain. In other words, from the ultimate perspective it does not exist. So why are you reading this?