One of the most basic of “Buddha Basics” is the Twelve-fold Chain of Dependent Origination, sometimes called the Twelve-fold Chain of Cause & Effect. It describes how our experience of being a separate “self” arises — and with this, as its mirror reflection, the experience of a separate world that is “not our self” — coupled with desires, judgments, discontentedness, worries about loss, fears, feelings of passing time and all the rest that the “self” feels about the “not the self.”
My interpretation may be a bit modern, but I am struck by how the Buddha’s idea parallels modern theories of the development of a consciousness and a sense of separate identity in the human infant (such as by Piaget and others)… as the child begins to respond and react to pleasant and unpleasant input through the senses, slowly building a hard sense of “self” vs. “other,” driven on by its thirst and hunger and other desires.
In fact, might our Buddhist practice be seen as an effort, in some way, to reverse or return to aspects of living that arose or were lost in those first days of our lives? A return to the “Buddha Womb,” perhaps?
Are we attempting to recover our original undivided state prior to “self/other” but –this time– free of the greed, anger, fear, need and lack of understanding of the crying newborn? (That’s Jundo’s theory, which I propose.)
In a nutshell, what are those stages?
[NOTE: The following is a bit complex -- so you can also skip down to the video, where I act the whole thing out... as the baby!]
1) The first of the “Twelve Causes” is a state we can barely understand with the ordinary mind, for it is the state of reality before the mind comes into play, before the mind divides, and categorizes and judges. Before the mind identifies separate objects, assigning names, distinguishing by characteristics and imposing judgments, there is no figure or ground, no subject or object, no defined relationships of any kind, the whole merging into the whole. Often termed ignorance or chaos (sk: avida) — much as the newborn infant is born into the world confused and ignorant of what is transpiring to her — this nondual source can also be seen as our “Original Face” when properly perceived.
2) Following birth, this process of division by mind into “self” and “not self” begins with the next of the Twelve Causes, which is action (karma). We might say that it is human action of the most ordinary kind, like the moving hands and feet of a newborn baby. It is much as the blind flailing about of the tiny baby in its crib who, still lacking clear sense of separate self, un-directedly kicks and thrashes amid the chaos of the new environment in which it finds itself. Thus, in the midst of the ignorance and chaos of the newborns world, this movement or “action” naturally arises.
3) The next of the Twelve Causes is consciousness (vijnana), or simple self-awareness. It is a basic sense of “self” that arises out of the bodily “action” which precedes it, much as the newborn infant develops when it forms a simple sense of separation from its environment as its arms and legs flail about amid the chaos, thereby coming to define space and dimension and separate objects in its surrounding environment. As the sense of self arises, the sense of ‘not self,’ of the external world, mentally arises as its reflection in the following steps.
4) As each link of the chain leads to the next, we come to the name and form of the external world (nama-rupa). Here, “external world” refers to each and every one of the individual things upon which we have mentally bestowed names and identity. It is the “not self” which manifests reflective of the “self” which arose in the previous stage of consciousness, now beginning to be categorized as separate objects. In other words, as the infant develops a very slight idea of “me,”it also develops a sense of “not me” which is the objective world, whereupon separate names, identities and characteristics are soon allocated by the mind to each in the steps which follow.
5) The “six sense organs” (shadayatana) are the next of the Twelve Causes. In traditional Buddhist thought, the “six sense organs” means the six types of sense organ which receive external stimulation, and refers specifically to eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In this list,”body” refers to the sense of touch, and “mind” refers to the center point of the other senses which integrates all components of the sensory system into a whole. It is through these senses that information on the external world flows into the brain to be further interpreted, whereby details are quickly added to the infant’s early image of the world.
6) That brings us to contact (spasha), which means the “coming into contact” of the baby’s six senses, with the immediately prior of the ‘Twelve Causes, the “external world” which provides external stimulation to the senses. For example, the visual sense of the eye comes in physical “contact” with light from objects seen in the surrounding environment.
7) Which then brings us to sensation (vedana) as in “feeling sensations.” We might also call it “perception.” Just as “contact” is the passive form of one’s coming into contact with the external stimulations, “sensation” is the active reception and taking in of external stimulations, the perception, the experiencing and actual tasting thereof in the contact. For example, what the eye sense contacts in the surrounding world is now perceived and experienced by the seeing person.
8) Leading to desire (trishna)… as we begin to desire, and become attached to, the objects we encounter through contact and sensation in the outside world. We perceive separate things, and such discrimination leads to likes and dislikes, and the situation of wanting what we desire (and desiring to be away from what we do not like). This leads then to the next step…
9) Grasping (upadana), our efforts to reach out for and ‘get’ what we want. The child wishes to acquire and make her own the things which are the objects of her “desire.”
10) This brings us to possession (bhava), the next link in the chain, which is the state of a sense of possessing which arises from grasping. From reaching out, we 'get' something, and we develop a mental consciousness of possession and ownership of the thing. But more than a simple sense of ownership of things as property, this leads also to a fundamental sense of “having” something, for example, of having our own body, our own thoughts and ideas, our having our very own life. Because such feelings of possession are fundamental to our sense of being, of having a life, it is sometimes called the “process of becoming.” It, of course, leads to the following link…
11) Birth (jeti) … This “birth” is life, our sense of being alive. It is our sense of our very lives, of our living born from the foundation of that possession. Thus, we feel that we were “born” into a life which we feel we possess.
12) And so we come to sickness, old age, and death (jana-marana). Now that we have a sense of having a “life of our own,” we become afraid of losing “our life”, getting old or sick and dying.
Actually, the Twelve-fold Chain does not draw to an end with sickness, old age and death, but rather all goes ’round and connects to the first link, to ignorance and delusion. For, when we can reverse much of this process of cutting the world into bits and pieces — and recover some of the original unbroken wholeness, much as we do in Zazen — that ignorance and delusion can be tasted as enlightenment and awareness, with a mature sense free of much of the greed, anger, fear, need and lack of understanding of the crying newborn.
This may all seem a bit complicated, so let me see if I can act it out in a simpler way, with today’s Sit-A-Long video, which follows here.
Remember: recording ends soon after the beginning bells; a sitting time of 20 to 35 minutes is recommended.