Friday, August 8, 2014

Right View continued: Dependent Origination

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly: Noble Eightfold Path, Part III
Golden Buddha, sunrise, Wat Muang, Ang Thong, Thailand (Sasin Tipchai/Bugphai/flickr)
Contemplating the dependent origination of a flame meditation (
Dependent Origination
Right view also means understanding something mentioned at the beginning: Dependent Origination (paticcasamupada). That is, all things arise dependent on supporting causes and conditions and not independent of them. (The one exception, leading to IT not being called a conditioned THING like everything else, is nirvana, "the unconditioned element").

All things have a cause and are themselves causes. Everything that arises does so depending on supports not in their absence.

This is very easy to understand AND very deep, profound, and difficult to understand. The Buddha stated that, "It is because of not seeing this truth that not only you but I, too, have wandered on for so long in this samsara [cycling wheel of death and rebirth]" meeting with suffering again and again, now here now there. It is key to enlightenment. (There are 37 "things pertaining to enlightenment" in all the Buddha's teaching, a list labelled the bodhi-pakkaya-dharma or "Requisites of Enlightenment." Such lists are for understanding, not for clinging to or memorizing or worrying about).

Easy DO
Five factors give rise to illusory flame.
Well, what's the easy version? As a general principle of reality, of life, of physics, of psychology, we can see countless examples of things that seem like things, like solid objects, like fundamental elements, like unities. But we come to find that they are actually composites. Fire (defined here as a simple flame) is a thing, but what is fire? It is not a "thing" at all, but a process, and this process has components, elements, factors. 

What are the elements of fire? Fuel, heat, air (or any oxidizer), a medium, and combustion. There may be more, but let's just look at these five and add anything else later when the principle of dependent origination is grasped. Is any one of them "fire"? Are any two, three, four? Is there "fire" without any of them? Is there "fire" hiding in them waiting to come out? Is there "fire" apart from them? These things, the components of fire, are NOT fire. And yet there is no fire without them.

Fire element (NLbroekieNL)
Put them together in a functionally operable way and, BAM, suddenly there's fire, there's a flame. Pull any one of the components (the supporting causes and conditions) out and, BAM, suddenly there's not fire. Add the component back and, BAM, fire. Pull another one and, BAM... Try it. Is the "fire" hiding in the thing pulled out and added back in? No, because "fire" is not a thing. It's an epiphenomenal process, an empty heap of elements, an illusion arising based on components.

That is not to say it's conventionally unreal. Of course, it's conventionally real. And if anyone doubts that, we'll burn you with a flame...or at least point you to a fire, and you can have at it. It is ultimately "unreal" -- that is, not at all what it seems, but rather without permanence, identity, or ability to satisfy. It is impersonal; no fire ever reaches out intending to burn someone. But burning will occur as a result of contact with it. Yet, our language forces us to say what is not actually true, which is that "It burns [inflicts injury on] us."

Candles go out (
It does nothing of the sort. It just becomes (not is, not being, but becoming, an ever-dynamic process, and if the process stops for even an instant, it goes out. 
  • Where does it "go"?
It doesn't actually go anywhere; that is just an artifact of the language we employ to talk when we talk about a process as if it were a "thing."
  • Where's nirvana?
Nirvana's not a place; that's just an artifact of the language we use to talk about it.
  • What are the components of nirvana, is it those 37 mentioned before?
Nirvana's not a "thing." It doesn't have components and is the only thing that does not, so it is the only thing that is not a thing.
  • Aha, but you just called it a thing!
That's an artifact of the language we use, not a property of nirvana, and anyway the path to a thing is not the thing.
  • Aha, you just called it a 'thing' again!
Shut up.
  • No, you shut up!
Okay, I'll shut up, and then this argument's over.
  • But...
Uh uh uh!

Difficult DO
Temple in Hamaya (Fabian Belleville/flickr)
Is it clear that what is a composite, composed of elements, is not an independent thing? It is a dependent thing, leaning for support on those elements. Even if we add others or subtract some, the principle remains. No-thing really comes into being or goes out; that's just illusory, that is, what seems to be happening. In reality, what there is is emptiness. Ah, emptiness (shunyata as anatta).

We chose the example of fire/a flame on purpose Other dharmas (e.g., Jainism) have had to say, due to the logic of their arguments about a self/soul, that fire is alive. It certainly is to animists, to some shamans, and to faithful Jains. A wise person, therefore, neither lights nor extinguishes fires for fear of "killing." Look into it.

The Five Aggregates of fire (or what Ven. Thanissaro explains in terms of ancient Indian ideas prevalent at the time of the Buddha of fire clinging or binding to an object, leading him to the eccentric definition of nirvana as "unbinding") are a lot like a famous Mahayana Buddhist Sutra, the most famous in fact.

The Heart Sutra (the epitome of the Heart of Wisdom Sutra in the Prajnaparamita literature) runs: "(1)Form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form. Whatever is form, that is emptiness. Whatever is emptiness, that is form. And the same is true of (2) feelings, (3) perceptions, (4) formations, and (5) consciousness."

These five are called "heaps" or the Five Aggregates (Groups) of Clinging because they are clung to as self (ego, soul, identity, personality, I, and me). But the very thing that looks at the world is not a unity either. It is a composite. A thing. And these are its components.
  • I'm not a 'thing'!
Of course not, not you. You're different. We meant every other living being, every other animate and inanimate thing. But here thing does not mean thing in conventional language. Conventionally, of course, we are all persons. Lowly living beings move up. High born beings fall. Everyone whirls in samsara rarely hearing anything about liberation, nirvana, enlightenment, or the Buddha's Dharma, so rarely appearing in the world.

So we beg your indulgence to pay a little attention because a little "right view" goes a long way in this continued wandering on of suffering, rebirth, and death, death, death. Actions performed with right view are very profitable, very meritorious, even for one not striving for enlightenment. So pay attention. You will rarely ever hear something so important. CONTINUED

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