Whether we think of it as having arisen from a different mother or from the moment before last, giving consideration to our past life provides us insight into what makes up this present moment. More important, however, is what we choose to do with this moment now that we are living it. Will we proceed with awareness, in a way that reduces suffering, or will we act without awareness – propelled forward by the kamma (karma), the habit energy that has brought us here?
What we have in this present moment is consciousness (or at least the capacity for it), a storehouse of habit energy (formations, volition, and will), and an inaccurate understanding of the nature of reality. With just this much we dive into the swirling waters of samsara (the continuous flow of life, death, and rebirth) to sputter and thrash around and get pulled under and fight our way back to the surface – over and over again. Oftentimes we think that the solution is as simple as learning how to swim. But, you know, there will always be a bigger wave and a stronger current than we can handle. No, better yet would be to allow ourselves to simply merge into those very waters that would destroy us. But how do we do that?
These next links in the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination make up what is sometimes referred to as the becoming wheel – bhava-cakka (Yoshida, 1994, p. 24). They reveal with precision how suffering arises, and at the same time they reveal the nature of its cessation. Once again, let me restate the entire twelve-fold chain so that it is readily available for reference:
- avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
- sankhara – formation, volition, will.
- vinnana – consciousness.
- nama-rupa – name and form.
- salayatana – the six sense bases.
- phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
- vedana – feeling.
- tanha – craving.
- upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
- bhava – becoming.
- jati – birth.
- jaramarana – aging and death.
Who Is This That Stands Before Me?
Nama-rupa – name and form. In his book, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, Yoshida (1994) frequently references the Milindapanha, a sutra based on a conversation said to have taken place between a king, Milinda, and a monk, Nagasena. The conversation begins with the usual introductory discourse of the day, but King Milinda soon gets down to business – that business being ascertaining Nagasena’s understanding of Buddhism. I’ll quote from a passage of the Milindapanha as it appears in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Radhakrishnan and Moore (1957):
“How is your reverence called? Bhante (Lord), what is your name?”
“Your majesty, I am called Nagasena; my fellow-priests, your majesty, address me as Nagasena; but whether parents give one the name Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, it is, nevertheless, your majesty, but a way of counting, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation, a mere name, this Nagasena; for there is no ego [self] here to be found” (p. 281).
King Milinda, seeking to get to the bottom of the matter, goes on to question Nagasena with respect to who it is that engages in spiritual practice and keeps or breaks the precepts, does good deeds and bad, and enjoys the merits or demerits thereof. He goes on to ask whether Nagasena is, in turn, form, feeling, idea, formations, consciousness (the so-called five aggregates (skandhas, in Sanskrit) comprising this mind-body existence). “Nay, verily, your majesty,” Nagasena replies. The King asks whether Nagasena is, then, the combination of form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. “Nay, verily, your majesty.” So the King asks whether Nagasena is something other than form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. “Nay, verily, your majesty.” To which King Milinda replies: “Bhante, although I question you very closely, I fail to discover any Nagasena, Verily, now, bhante, Nagasena is a mere empty sound. What Nagasena is there here?” (p. 282).
It is clear why Yoshida roshi would begin his book with such a story, for in it are many good examples with which to explain the five aggregates, dependent origination, the teaching of no self, and, of course, nama-rupa. We use nama-rupa to partition off various aspects of what is ultimately a seamless reality. This usage of the term can be traced back to the Upanisads. As an example, Yoshida (1994) quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad: “At that time this (universe) was undifferentiated. It became differentiated by name and form (so that it is said) he has such a name, such a form. Therefore even today this (universe) is differentiated by name and form” (p. 27). Despite the historic usage of the term nama-rupa (even at the time of the Buddha), it still ended up being interpreted, by some, as ‘mind-body’. One reason for such confusion might be that the consciousness link of the usual depiction of the twelve-fold chain comes before the six sense bases – which are clearly physical (bodily) in nature. Thus, it might have seemed reasonable to think of nama-rupa as mind-body and thereby conclude that consciousness enters the body (a la reincarnation) rather than arising as a result of the body. Nama-rupa is, in fact, integral to how we process phenomena. If you need to convince yourself of that, simply try to imagine what it would be like to go through life without being able to use words to refer to common, everyday objects. As Yoshida (1994) notes: “Consciousness holds an object by means of name and form” (p. 28).
The Wheel of Becoming is Turning Now!
Salayatana – the six sense bases. Five of these six are the ones that you always think about when you think about your senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. In Buddhism, though, the mind is considered a sense organ, as well, with thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc., being its corresponding sense objects.
Phassa – contact. Okay, so we have consciousness (or at least the capacity for it), a storehouse of habit energy (formations, volition, and will), and an inaccurate understanding of the nature of reality. We’ve taken to subdividing the seamless reality in which we exist into this and that – each with name and form. We have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, a body, and a mind and we interact with the world around us. It is at this point, according to Buddhism, that eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, and so on, up to mind-consciousness arise.
This is a subtle, but extremely important point. Most often if somebody is trying to define who or what they are they will be willing (as Nagasena was) to disavow a multitude of things: their body, their facial appearance, their job, that which they do, etc. The last thing to go, however, will almost surely be consciousness (or some might say soul, which, as was mentioned earlier, seems very much like consciousness without form). Consciousness, in the Buddhist way of thinking about reality, is dependent upon sense base, sense object, and contact between the two. Without contact, consciousness does not even exist. This means that what we think of as “our” consciousness, rather than being like a continuous stream, is more like a rope woven together of many shorter threads of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc., that arise and pass away, but which, in combination, give the appearance of continuity of some beholder – the self. In fact, this “rope” might fray at times into a single strand of ear-consciousness, for instance. For me this is most likely to occur during meditation when my mind becomes very still, and thinking, bodily sensations, vision, smell, and taste have all receded. The sounds of birds chirping and chortling, the waterfall splashing into the pond, the whooshing of a car slipping past out in front of the zendo; these are like an aural cloud swirling about in “my” mind – unexamined, unnamed, unjudged. Perhaps more accurately would be to say that “my” mind is a swirling, aural cloud in that moment. Of course, there are also times when consciousness comes to an end altogether, as in deep, dreamless sleep. The “rope”, then, simply frays into nothingness. But it (usually) picks up once again – perhaps with the sound of the garbage truck outside your bedroom window, for instance.
Vedana – feeling. These respective realms of consciousness give rise to different feelings – some pleasant, some unpleasant, some neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Thus, craving arises. By the way, one of the most fundamental Vipassana meditation techniques is to classify all arising sensations, feelings, etc., as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, thereby bringing awareness to the impermanence of all arising phenomena and our conditioned responses to them.
Tanha – craving. We crave what feels good. We crave to be separate from that which feels bad. Attachment and aversion are but two sides of the same coin. Everything is changing, though – all the time changing. We want that which feels pleasant to last, and we want to be rid of that which feels unpleasant as soon as possible. But we can’t disown our sense organs, can we, for they are the source of the pleasantness that we crave. And so we take action to get more of what we desire and less of that which we find aversive.
The process that encompasses these preceding links – from sense base, to contact, to arising sense-consciousness, to feeling, to craving, to acting to engage the sense base in further contact – is known as bhava-cakka, the becoming wheel (Yoshida, 1994, p. 24).
Upadana – appropriation. Thus, we appropriate these five aggregates – form, feeling, ideas, formations, and consciousness – and consider them to be self. That which makes us feel good we determine that we must own, and that which threatens us must be repelled at all cost. And so we build our selves, our lives, our careers, our families, our hobbies, etc.
Bhava – becoming. Of course, this is all very normal, isn’t it? This is what people do. We live our lives, we become adults, we become accountants, we become friends and spouses and partners; we become, we become, we become. Indeed, it is all very normal, and as the Buddha observed, rife with suffering (the First Noble Truth).
At this point, we’ve reached the last of the links that encompass the so-called ‘present life’. Readers inclined to think in terms of reincarnation might think it’s now time to start all over again in a different body. Another way of thinking about it, though, is to realize that whenever we appropriate something as the self, whenever we become something, we inevitably end up experiencing birth, aging, and death. For the vast majority of humans, existence is comprised of repeated cycles of birth, aging, and death. We become a child, but then in becoming an adult the child must die. We become some type of professional, but then as economic circumstances change or our interests change or we succumb to injury or we reach retirement age, that professional also ages and dies. Our relationships are born, they age, and they die. Our recreational pursuits are born, they age, and they die. But the inclusion of birth, aging, and death into the twelve-fold chain is not merely a trivial statement of fact regarding the nature of our existence. Birth, aging, and death are part of the chain because their very existence depends on how we view reality.
Jati – birth. The process of becoming involves our thinking of ourselves as separate from what is fundamentally a seamless reality. Our appropriation of particular aspects of this ultimate reality inevitably causes us to be subject to birth, aging, and death. Recall that it is avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion – that causes us to interpret that which is transient as real.
Jaramarana – aging and death. That which is born must surely age and die. Everything changes. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Focus on any particular eddy in this swirling river of samsara and surely it will cease to exist one day. Or, using the metaphor that Yoshida roshi often uses: consider yourself to be like a bubble in the ocean and surely you will burst one day. Consider yourself to be the ocean itself and you will never, ever die. Let the waters of samsara drag you down, down, down until you’re certain that you’ll never make it to the surface ever again – and then take a deep breath!
Two Views – One Result?
On one hand, those who are inclined to view this twelve-fold chain through the lens of reincarnation might be motivated to take steps to cultivate awareness and equanimity, to purify their kamma – thereby bringing their cycle of birth and death to an end, and ending their suffering in the process. On the other hand, those who view this twelve-fold chain from the standpoint of no self and no soul – who truly actualize this reality by relinquishing their appropriation of that which makes up the “small self” – will, likewise, be freed from the cycle of birth and death, but via a somewhat different path, perhaps. Realize this instant that all of what you thought of as “you” and “yours” is a construct – that your existence is really but a manifestation of an ultimately seamless reality – and in that very instant you will realize freedom from birth, aging, and death. Now, could it be the case that the process of purifying “our” kamma so that we need not be born again, and the process of relinquishing selfhood and acting on behalf of all beings might actually be taking us to the same place? I’ll simply ask the question and leave it at that.
Radhakrishnan, S., Moore, C. (1957). A sourcebook in Indian philosophy (Radhakrishnan, S., & Moore, C., Ed.). Princeton University Press.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank