Change: 10. The third noble truth

The third noble truth, the ceasing of suffering, is the converse of the second, the arising of suffering. But it is not merely the opposite, or the same thing said in an opposite way. The structural principle which characterizes it — “When this is not that is not; with ceasing of this that ceases” — when taken together with the characterizing principle of arising, together form a general description of the structure of impermanence. It is insight into this very structure that marks the difference between the ordinary person and one who sees not only things (e.g. impermanence) but also the nature of things. Such an insight is frequently described (at e.g. S. LVI,11: v,423) as seeing that “whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.”

Of course, it is not only by the conjunction of these two noble truths that the nature of impermanence is described. Each of them separately says the same thing, both as principle and as exemplification. It is apparent, for example, that “By means of birth there comes into being ageing-and-death” is but a different way of saying the same thing: “Whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.” And this truth is implicit in every statement with the form “By means of A there is B” where B is the necessary consequence of A.

The usual exemplification of the third noble truth has such a structure. It involves the same twelve factors, ignorance to ageing-and-death, in a formula with the pattern “With ceasing of A ceasing of B; with ceasing of B ceasing of C….” Clearly this is a description of impermanence, of how things (and in particular dukkha) cease. Therefore all that was said concerning impermanence and recursiveness in section 9 will apply mutatis mutantis to the third noble truth. There remains the need to indicate how it is that perception of impermanence is concealed, and how it can be revealed.

It can be seen from what has already been described that dependent arising is most commonly exemplified as a twelve-factored formula not because it takes eleven steps to get “from” ignorance “to” dukkha (for it is only conceptually that ignorance and dukkha can be distanced), but because to say more would only be endlessly repetitive of what has already been said. On the other hand, to say less is certainly possible: many exemplifications are to be found which in various ways omit some or even most of the terms.

Thus, some people can work out the personal significance of dependent arising by considering their experience in light of one or another aspect of the exemplification. Others will use the exemplification as a whole, while still others will do their work based on the guidance of the principle itself. Dependent arising formulae (and the principle as well) are best regarded not as quasi-scientific explanations but as pedagogical paradigms, designed to provide guidance in the work of comprehending the perilous nature of one’s situation. They can, of course, be misapplied. But it does not follow from this that there is only one “correct” way to use them. This essay does not attempt to explore the diversity of possible applications.

That there is such a diversity of exemplifications will of course occasion no surprise. As with any recursive structure, to see any part of the structure is to see the whole of it. This is in contrast to non-recursive structures. One could not construct a bicycle with no greater understanding of it than, say, the relationship of the pedals to the sprocket. Taken together with Sutta statements (at e.g. S. LVI,30: v,436-37) that he who sees any one of the four noble truths sees all of them, this is in itself sufficient proof (if one is still needed) that recursiveness is of the essence in the Buddha’s Teaching. Dependent arising, then, keeps saying the same thing over and over: in the structure of any experience the more specific arises and ceases bound up with the more general context within which it exists. Existence apart from a context, as well as a context apart from specification, is utterly impossible.[33]

And whatever is bound up with conditions is contingent. It is at all times liable to become other than the way we would have it be, and is at no time fit to be regarded as “me” or “mine.” It is inseparable from dukkha. And this is true of all experience, all the way up to “name-and-matter together with consciousness,” which is to say experience-in-general. (“Experience-in-general” is to be understood here as “the most general level of experience,” rather than as “experience taken as a whole.”)

But what, then, of experience-in-general? This, at least, might seem to constitute if not an ultimate then at least a limit. For within the realm of experience, which is the only realm of which we can know or say anything at all, what could be more general than this?

We can readily understand that name-and-matter arises dependent upon consciousness, for name-and-matter can be known or described only insofar as it is in fact cognized, or present. If it is not cognized its very existence is beyond any reckoning,[34] and therefore name-and-matter is negative as regards existence. It can derive only a borrowed existence (whereby it becomes reckonable) from consciousness, and as regards existence its being is that of a debtor.

What, then, of consciousness? Is it independent? When we considered Bandha’s troubles we found that a movement towards the specific did not lead to escape from either dukkha or the conditions that give rise to dukkha. What, then, of a movement towards generality?

The answer is to be found in the well-known variant dependent arising exemplification found at D. 15: ii,56-7, which begins: “By means of name-and-matter, consciousness; by means of consciousness, name-and-matter; by means of name-and-matter, contact; …feeling …” etc.[35] It is clear that here there is no “first term.” Nothing independent is to be found. Just as name-and-matter depends upon consciousness (without which matter could not be involved in experience as name-and-matter) so too, “this consciousness turns back from name-and-matter; it does not go beyond” (D. 14: ii,32). This inter-relatedness is compared at S. XII,67: ii,114, to two sheaves of wheat leaning each against the other: if either falls they both fall. They stand together and they fall together.

In other words, a consciousness which does not cognize something, a “pure” consciousness (“pure,” here, in the sense of “without content” rather than “without defilements”) is as impossible as a fire without fuel. Consciousness may be understood as the presence of things — for if a thing is cognized it must in some sense be present, and we cannot know of a thing that “it is [present]” unless it is cognized. There cannot be “presence” without there being something that is present. So too, consciousness can only exist dependent upon there being “the cognized,” and it can be known or described only in terms of that content.

Just as a fire becomes reckonable only dependent on the means whereby it arises — when fire burns by means of logs it becomes reckonable only as log fire; when fire burns by means of faggots… by means of grass… by means of cowdung… by means of chaff… by means of rubbish it becomes reckonable only as rubbish fire — so too, consciousness becomes reckonable only dependent on the means whereby it arises. When consciousness arises by means of eye and forms it becomes reckonable only as eye-consciousness; when consciousness arises by means of ear and sounds… by means of nose and smells… by means of tongue and tastes… by means of body and tangibles… by means of mind and ideas/images it becomes reckonable only as mind-consciousness. — M. 38: i,259.

We can say, then, that of itself consciousness lacks content. But there can be no presence without something being present. And since consciousness (or presence) cannot cognize (or be present to) just itself,[36] it can derive only a borrowed essence (whereby it becomes reckonable) from name-and-matter, and therefore consciousness is as negative regarding essence as is name-and-matter regarding existence, and as regards essence its being is that of a debtor.

D. 15: ii,63-4 leaves no doubt as to the significance of the inter-relatedness of name-and-matter and consciousness:

Thus far, ānanda, may one be born or age or die or fall or arise. Thus far is there a way of designation, thus far is there a way of language, thus far is there a way of description, thus far is there a sphere of understanding. Thus far the round proceeds as manifestation in a situation — so far, that is to say, as there is name-and-matter together with consciousness.

Another way in which the Suttas indicate the relationship between consciousness and its content is in terms of the aggregates. Consciousness taken together with the other four aggregates can be regarded as “experience-in-general” in the sense of “the totality of experience” or “the aggregate of experience.” Not only is the interrelationship or inseparability of feeling, perception, and consciousness explicitly stated (at e.g. M. 43: i,293); the dependence of consciousness upon the other four aggregates is also described at length. See e.g. S. XXII,53: iii,53-4, which concludes: “Monks, whoever should say thus: ‘Apart from matter, apart from feeling, apart from perception, apart from conditions, I will show the coming or going or disappearance or appearance or growth or increase or fullness of consciousness’ — that situation is not possible.”

Whether in terms of aggregates or of name-and-matter, there can be no doubt that this mutual dependence of essence and existence is essentially (and existentially) the same as the mutual dependence of specificity and context, which we have already discussed. Just as “existence” is the most general possible context, so too “essence” is the most general possible specification. Therefore we can see that the fundamental exemplification of dependent arising can be stated concisely in the form found at D. 15: “By means of name-and-matter, consciousness; by means of consciousness, name-and-matter.” Whatever follows afterwards does so by way of expansion, not by way of innovation.

However, most dependent arising formulas do not in fact begin by explicitly stating the interdependence of consciousness and name-and-matter, nor do they end there. More often we find, “By means of ignorance, conditions; by means of conditions, consciousness; …name-and-matter; …six bases; …” etc. And if indeed “name-and-matter together with consciousness” is the most general possible of existential specifications, then what can be meant by “conditions?” For if they are yet-more-general than “the most general possible” they must be impossible. But if they are not yet-more-general what could they be? And is not “By means of conditions…” a mere tautology, akin to saying “With conditions as condition…” or “By means of means…?” If it is more (or less) than a tautology, then what is it? And, above all, what specifically are these “conditions,” nested so prominently between “ignorance” and “consciousness?” And what have they to do with impermanence?

When we look through the Suttas we find a considerable variety of things identified as “conditions” (sankhārā): in-and-out breaths, thinking, pondering, perception, feeling, merit, demerit, imperturbability, intention, contact, regarding, doubt, wavering, kingly possessions and apnt of the Buddha’s Teaching: non-independence.

Not only are there “conditions;” there are also, unavoidably, “conditioned things” (sankhatā dhammā, sometimes shortened to “things,” dhammā). In the same way, there is not only “dependent arising” (paticcasamuppāda) but also “dependently arisen” (paticcasamuppanna). These pairs are simply two sides of a coin: if any thing is a condition then there is something else which is conditioned by it. If any thing is conditioned there must necessarily be also a condition (or conditions). If there is dependent arising, there are things dependently arisen. If things are dependently arisen, there is dependent arising.[37]

Now, within the context of dependent arising the term “conditions” is invariably described as consisting of three general categories. “There are three conditions: body condition, speech condition, mind condition” — M. 9: i,54, etc. And it happens that the Suttas never specify “conditions,” either further or otherwise, within the dependent arising context. This has permitted the growth of a diversity of opinions regarding the significance of “conditions” within the dependent arising context. And it is against this diversity that we ask, “What are these ‘conditions,’ nested so prominently between ‘ignorance’ and ‘consciousness?'”

How is “conditions” described in other Sutta contexts? We need not look far to find a discourse (e.g. M. 44: i,301) in which “conditions” is defined in the same terms as in the dependent arising context. “There are, friend Visākha, these three conditions: body condition, speech condition, mind condition.” Examples are offered: “The in-and-out-breaths, friend Visākha, are body condition. Thinking and pondering are speech condition. Perception and feeling are mind condition.” An explanation is provided. “The in-and-out-breaths, friend Visākha, are bodily. These things are bound up with the body. That is why the in-and-out-breaths are body condition. First, friend Visākha, having thought and pondered, afterwards one breaks into speech. That is why thinking and pondering are speech condition. Perception and feeling are mental. These things are bound up with the mind. That is why perception and feeling are mind condition.”

But it is sometimes argued that although these diverse items are (for reasons we need not detail here) the examples of preference within their native context, namely, certain meditative attainments, yet this context is rather remote from considerations of the structure of the second noble truth, “the arising of dukkha.” Might we not find a more relevant example in the context of the first noble truth?

In this context, that of the aggregates, “conditions” is often defined as “six bodies of intention — intention with regard to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, images/ideas — these, monks, are called conditions.” (S. XXII,56: iii,60, etc.) Here, then, the example of choice is choice. And at S. XXII,79: iii,87 (quoted in footnote 37) we are told that it is due to conditions (which, of course, would include intention) that the aggregates are conditioned as matter, feeling, perception, conditions, and consciousness, respectively.[38]

It is said that consciousness is conditioned as consciousness by conditions. This sounds much the same as “By means of conditions, consciousness.” Perhaps, then, “conditions” within the context of the second noble truth is not far removed from that of the first? Would it be legitimate to regard conditions within the context of dependent arising as involving (partly, at least) intention?

We can agree that intentionality is certainly fundamental to experience.[39] After all, it is revealed as such by reflexion. And being fundamental, our texts do not ignore it. Not only is it found in the explication of “conditions” (as the fourth of the five aggregates); it is, as well, one factor of name-and-matter. (See S. XII,2, in chapter 9.) If we are to regard it also as a factor in the “conditions” upon which consciousness depends, would this not be yet another instance of a term appearing first in a specific context and then in a more general one? The problem with supposing so is that this requires us to conclude that “intentions” are not only fundamental to experience (with which we can entirely agree) but that, surpassing even consciousness, they wholly transcend experience (which is but idle speculation).

It appears, then, that we cannot import an understanding of “conditions” into the dependent arising context without encountering difficulties or objections. From various quarters numerous questions have been raised.

Was the term “conditions” ever specified, in a dependent arising context, in some discourse now lost to us? Was it left unspecified either through neglect or a simple inability to address every possible question that future ages could raise? Was the meaning of the term not then regarded (as it is in some circles today) as dependent upon its context? Was it deliberately left as an open category? Or are there still other possibilities yet to be imagined?

The “lost discourse” theory is the least likely alternative. There is no reason to suppose that any discourses, once gathered into the protective framework of the Nikāyas, were ever lost. For scholastic evidence in support of this judgment see my Beginnings: The Pali Suttas. What, then, about neglect? It is always risky to ascribe to other eras the values and assessments of our own milieu; but from our present perspective it is difficult to imagine that the subject was not deemed as being as important in the Buddha’s time as it is today.

But other points are not so easily decided. Independence of context? True, words have meaning even when they stand alone, independent of grammatical context; and this is particularly true of technical terms. But at the same time words are not independent of their context, which can alter significance in ways which are at times subtle beyond all description.[40] When “conditions” appears in the dependent arising context then to what extent does it take on fresh tones, or overtones? And how can we tell?

And if that seems to be a fine-edged distinction, then what are we to make of the question of deliberate non-specification? There is a strong argument in its favor. Dependent arising involves the whole of experience. To specify conditions in any way might be taken, wrongly, as suggesting that there are aspects of experience in which conditions play a greater role than elsewhere. Yet, against this view there is the equally strong contention that nowhere is it said that “conditions” is deliberately left as an open category. In other words, not only is “conditions” not specified; its non-specification is also not specified. This strategy has its aesthetic appeal; but the Suttas usually spell out in detail every point which could possibly be misunderstood. That this is not done in the present case argues against deliberate non-specification.

We could, if we wished, argue the above points more closely than we have. But no matter how refined our argument it would remain but an argument. No matter how subtle our scholasticism we would be no closer to understanding.

We see that we cannot go to other contexts in order to determine the meaning of “conditions” within the dependent arising context. This is a valid strategy for determining the meaning of some Sutta terms. But with a word as critical and as contested as sankhārā we find fine distinctions being drawn in support of various positions. (And, in any case, the Suttas ought not to be regarded as a sort of gigantic puzzle, its parts all interlocking. Each discourse originated within its own particular context, even though that context has not always come down to us. While all discourses point, distantly or closely, to the same goal they do not all do so in the same manner. It is not an error to find relationships between Suttas, but some caution must be taken before drawing conclusions from such comparisons.)

We see, too, that we can neither invoke historical hypotheses (lost texts) nor base conclusions on speculations about the unstated motives of the Buddha or of his disciples. Not thereby will we discover meaning and purpose in the texts.

What we must do, it seems, is to examine the dependent arising texts themselves, and refrain from going beyond them, either to other texts or to conclusions they do not themselves support. And we must also remember that those texts come to us within the context of our own experience. We do not rely upon our experience to understand those texts, of course, for the message of the texts is that we mis-conceive that experience. Rather, we remember that the texts are a guide to recognizing that which, within our experience, we have not hitherto recognized. Our understanding of the texts must be an understanding relevant to experience. For we are not trying to decide which side of a chalk line we should stand on. We are seeking to resolve a personal dilemma. And we cannot do so unless our considerations are personal.

Earlier we asked whether “conditions” could possibly be yet-more-general than “the most general possible.” If we require of “conditions” within dependent arising contexts that they be (primarily at least) intentions, then clearly we could not subsequently understand them as being involved with the hierarchy of experience. In such a case we would be forced to seek for some other way in which we could explicate dependent arising in terms that were isomorphic with what is revealed by a reflexive examination of immediate experience.

But — fortunately, perhaps, for hierarchical experience — this move is not called for.[41] For it must be insisted that in fact the Suttas never actually do take the step of identifying conditions in dependent arising contexts as being (or including) intention, any more than they do with the triad beginning with in-and-out breaths, or with any of the many other specific items which throughout the texts are identified in various contexts as being conditions. They never go beyond offering the three open categories of body, speech, and mind. In other words, all aspects of experience, bodily, verbal, and mental, arise with condition, not independently. Since this is a move they consistently avoid, for us to make it in defiance of their lead (however much our own view may invite us to do so) may well be a case of missing the point by overshooting the mark (see chapter 4).

And what, then, might be the point of leaving the term “conditions” unspecified in dependent arising contexts? If we are to understand the term in a way which is relevant to our concerns we shall reject any explanations which lie outside the range of experience. Certainly, when we looked, earlier, through the Suttas at the various things which within their contexts were identified as being conditions we found nothing which lay outside experience.[42] Indeed, to the extent that they are found at all, all conditions clearly depend upon consciousness (without which, of course, there would be no experience for these conditions to be found within). This leads us to two observations:

1) The relationship of conditions to consciousness is reminiscent of the relationship between feeling and dukkha. Neither feeling nor dukkha could be regarded as either “a whole” or as “part of a whole,” and yet we were able to differentiate between them in terms of precedence. Here too, although any particular conditions are certainly dependent upon consciousness (as well as upon contact — M. 109: iii,17) for its involvement within experience, yet consciousness depends upon the fact that there is such a thing as “conditions.” Therefore the category “conditions” takes precedence over the category “consciousness.”

2) The relationship of conditions to consciousness is reminiscent of the relationship between name-and-matter and consciousness. Indeed, the parallel is so close that the mistake is sometimes made of equating name-and-matter with the first four aggregates. However “conditions,” if it includes anything, certainly includes more than just intention, contact, and attention, none of which could be regarded as body or mind condition. It is by itself a broader and more-inclusive category than “name.” Therefore “name” may be regarded as a particularization of “conditions.” As a particularization name-and-matter is indeed as dependent upon consciousness as is consciousness upon name-and-matter. However, the category “conditions” is not at all a particularization. Therefore it is never suggested that “By means of consciousness, conditions.” Conditions as a category takes precedence.

This brings us back to what was said earlier, namely, that in order to reveal what is common to all behavior what is needed is not particularization but universalization. The “specific” when contrasted with the “universal” has quite different implications than when contrasted with the “general.” Even “name-and-matter together with consciousness” can be described as “the most general possible of specifications” when we refer to specific name-and-matter and specific consciousness. But for investigating the root-source of dukkha we need to attend not to the specific but to the universal. And “name-and-matter together with consciousness” is not “the most general possible of universalizations:” conditions is.

Is, not are, because to say “conditions are” is to pluralize and to specify: this, that, and the other. To say “conditions is” is to singularize, to universalize, to regard any particular condition as being no more (in essence) that “an example of conditionality.” The vital point is not that consciousness arises dependent on this condition or on that condition, but that consciousness has conditions. Therefore “conditions” is not yet-more-general: it is yet-more-universal.

In the same way our friend needed to see any particular circle — regardless of whether it was red or blue, large or small — as being in essence no more than “an example of roundness.” This could not be a mere matter of abstraction. (“Yes, ‘All circles are round’ may be fine in practice, but how does it work in theory?”) To abstract is no more productive than to attend to specifics while ignoring their general nature. (“Yes, this circle is hard; it is red; it is round. But will the next one be soft? Will it be blue? Will it be square?”) We require universalization. (“This circle could serve as a template for roundness, and so could any other circle.”) What is necessary is to see any specific as an instance of the universal. It is for this reason that we need to regard any specific condition as being no more, in essence, than “an example of conditionality.” (“This is an example of a relationship, of non-independence, and so too are all other experienced phenomena.”) Only thus can we see its universal necessity. Therefore the category “conditions” is left unspecified.

As we saw, the other factors of dependent arising exemplifications, consciousness to ageing-and-death, can be regarded in two ways: either as specifics or as universals. As specifics (“By means of this particular A, that particular B”) their use is on the psychological level. As universals (“There are such things as B if and only if there are such things as A”) they look towards the root. Therefore they transcend all psychology. For psychology at its best can only explore the manifestations or symptoms of the root problem.[43] But with “By means of conditions, consciousness,” specification becomes pointless, for all we will achieve is to specify consciousness (eye-consciousness, etc. — see the M. 38 extract in the chapter). This is endless and therefore non-productive. Therefore the category “conditions” is left unspecified.

Other parts of the exemplification are designed to lead from specifics to the general. This part leads from specifics to the universal. It is universal because “By means of conditions…” describes every level of experience and every pair of related items within any dependent arising exemplification. “Craving for craving” is a true recursive statement, but it is limited to the specific case. It describes only the structure of craving. But “by means of conditions…” describes the structure of conditions. That is, it describes the structure of all things that are dependently arisen. It is therefore the universal view of all recursiveness. And being universal, rather than specific, the category “conditions” must be left unspecified.

“By means of conditions…,” then, is no mere tautology: it is as concise a statement of the essence of the Buddha’s Teaching as one could possibly hope for. Indeed, to say “by means of conditions…” is equivalent to saying “dependent arising.” And, of course, to say “dependent arising” is to say “the Buddha’s Teaching” (M. 28: i,191). This is because dependent arising as a structural principle is self-descriptive. That is to say, it too arises with condition, not independently: it is dependently arisen. And what is the condition by means of which this principle arises? This: the condition of there being specific exemplifications of the principle.

Here we distinguish between the principle itself (“when there is this, that is…”), and its exemplifications (primarily, “by means of ignorance, conditions; by means of conditions…” and so on). The exemplification is not the principle: it is one of the many possible ways in which the principle becomes specified within (or as) experience. The principle states the general case. Just as in a world in which circles could not exist (though actually we cannot conceive of such a world) the principle that “all circles are round” would be meaningless, so too, if dependent arising totally lacked exemplifications then as a principle it would be wholly meaningless. That is, it would be no principle at all.

The principle of dependent arising, then, is not something “out there,” beyond experience, yet casting its influence upon us like some baneful and invisible sun. Such a model harks back to the search for an absolute, an unmoved mover of things, a godhead. But dependent arising is a refutation of just such a model. As such, it cannot fail to be subject to its own principle. Although from the point of view of its exemplifications the principle certainly appears as extra-temporal, yet it is also certainly not absolutely extra-temporal.

Efforts are sometimes made to equate the Buddha’s Teaching with eternalist religions by asserting that the fundamental insight to which this Teaching points is an eternal principle. As such it is said to be, therefore, of the same nature as that hypostasized impersonal god who, having created the cosmos, now merely sits back and observes it, paring his hypostatic fingernails. However, the fundamental point of this Teaching — namely, that an absolute or independent thing is nowhere to be found — is self-descriptive. Therefore any attempt to equate the Teaching with eternalist doctrines can be seen to be utterly misconceived.

But this is not all. (Indeed, with recursiveness it never is all, is it?) There is yet another way in which dependent arising can be regarded as self-descriptive. More significant than being the generalization of specific exemplifications, it can also be regarded as the universalization of specific exemplifications. Here we rediscover the equivalence between dependent arising and “by means of conditions….” We have already discussed how it is that “by means of conditions…” achieves its significance as a universal. Therefore the same cannot be less true of dependent arising. Whichever term we use, the purpose of this universalization is to create a movement from the psychological level (as illustrated by Bandha’s troubles) to the transcendental level (which, however, is beyond illustration). To understand how this works we must again look at holding.

The experience of the ordinary person, the puthujjana, is invariably involved with holding, the fundamental form of which is holding to a belief in self (see M. 11: i,66-7). However, this self that is believed in has the nature of being inadequate. The ordinary person thinks “I am,” but he is then unable to avoid the puzzlement, “But what am I?” He will seek in one way or another to establish an identity: “I am this; such is my self.” If a belief in self was adequate (as is, for example, a belief in concrete slabs) then this quest(ioning) would be unnecessary. (Nobody needs to repeatedly confirm, “This really is a concrete slab; that really is what belongs to a concrete slab.”) Because the ordinary person does find it necessary to repeatedly reconstruct this self identity we may say that (unlike concrete slabs) this self that is believed in lacks essence. (See Dh. 62, in chapter 2.)

However, though it certainly lacks essence, it is not strictly correct to say that “self” lacks existence, or that “self does not exist.” (To make such an assertion is to go beyond what is found in the Suttas: a dangerous move.) For the ordinary person self does exist; but he fails to recognize that it exists as a belief. But this belief in self is essentially a notion of independence: a self that is in thrall to the world’s vicissitudes is no self at all. Therefore the ordinary person cannot escape the conviction that this self in which he believes is independent of his belief in it. His view is that the appropriated depends on appropriation (i.e. that things are “mine” because “I am”). Therefore he fails to see that it is appropriation which depends on the appropriated (i.e. that “belief in self” persists only for as long as things are regarded as “mine”).

If something permanent could be seized then the appropriation too would be permanent. However, what is appropriated is necessarily impermanent. Therefore appropriation too is impermanent. If the view “my self” could persist independently of a “this” then there would be no means by which it could be undermined. It would be permanent. It is impermanent due to the impermanence of the conditions for that identity. Having accepted the validity of the notion “self,” the ordinary person does not see the invalidity of the question, “What is this thing, my self?” Therefore he cannot avoid his puzzlement. And since he does not comprehend his error he cannot recognize that his continuing search for such a “self” can never succeed. He is enchanted by the notion that independence is to be found, and is thereby caught in a terrible dilemma.[44] For though such a quest is doomed this does not dissuade the ordinary person. It merely keeps him busy. Neither assertion nor denial of selfhood can resolve his dilemma. The Suttas reject all statements which deny “self” no less than those which assert it. The Nidāna Samyutta (ii,1-132) is particularly rich in examples.

The need to identify “self” with “this” or “that” is a display of self’s lack of essence. This need can be abandoned only when it is seen to be predicated upon accepting selfhood on its own terms: as being independent, permanent, and pleasurable. But when one comes to right view then it is understood that other than as (dependent upon) a belief such a self is not to be found (and also, of course, that even as dependent upon belief such an independent self is still not to be found). Only with such an understanding is it possible that the search for a self that is independent (of that belief) could be abandoned, together with the belief. There will then be no ground upon which such a belief could re-establish itself.

However, when there is belief in self then all of experience is apprehended either as “this, my self” or as “that, for my self.” If it isn’t “me” then it must be “mine.” (Even when there is a manifest disclaimer, “not mine,” there is still tacit appropriation: “it could be mine,” i.e. “it is mine as ‘rejected;’ I can do with it as I wish, even to the extent of choosing whether it is to be accepted or refused.”)

This view is continuously undermined by the unreliability of the world. (“It seems, then, that ‘this, my self’ is not so independent after all: the fault, of course, is with ‘this,’ never with ‘my self.'”) But nonetheless that unreliability is in itself insufficient to lead to an abandonment of the view. What is needed is to see the nature or unavoidability of this unreliability. This is what Buddhas teach.[45]

The ordinary person can potentially identify “this, my self” with any part of experience (= the five aggregates involved with holding). But such an identification will naturally tend to gravitate to the most general level of experience (or levitate, if one conceives the hierarchy to be an ascending generalization). The impermanence of “this particular achec in my left elbow” is far more easily exposed than that of “being one who suffersb from arthritis.” “Being one who feelsa” could be taken up yet more readily by the ordinary person as being “the nature of my self” (cf. D. 15: ii,66). Of course, “being one who suffers from arthritis” could also yield movement towards the identification, “This (my) body, my self.” A. E. Housman has admirably summed up the furthest implications of such an identification:

Good creatures, do you love your lives?
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife, like other knives:
It cost but eighteen pence.
I need but plunge it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth’s foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.  (More Poems, XXVI)

Identification of the body with “self” is supported by our sense of control over the body (even though we may have arthritis). But it is undermined not only by the body’s manifest changeability and need for sustenance but also by comparison with the longevity of many material things external to the body. “Therefore the unenlightened commoner is able to be disenchanted, to be dispassionate, to be freed herein” (i.e. from body). S. XII,61: ii,94. See footnote 16.

The identification “this, my self” is more tenaciously involved with mental qualities and, in particular, with consciousness. For it is not only “self” that lacks essence: we have seen that consciousness too lacks essence. There is a very great difference. Consciousness lacks essence in the sense that it is simply the presence of any phenomenon (matter, feeling, perception, conditions), and is not more than that. However, “(a belief in) my self” is actively involved in seeking substantiation. A belief in self exists dependent upon craving and, the question “What am I?” having been raised, there is a quest.

Consciousness, though as negative as the notion of self, lacks the drive characteristic of “self.” Yet it is seized upon, and is taken up as “this, my self.” Being a “this” in relation to “my self” endows consciousness with a sort of false positivity: it comes to be conceived of as the essence of selfhood. This identification wins support from name-and-matter, for name-and-matter (as we have seen) does in fact provide that essence which consciousness lacks — an essence which the ordinary person will then ascribe to “self.”

Therefore other parts of experience, when taken up as “this, my self,” tend to be so identified at a remove from holding. Consciousness is interposed. And when that identity, “this, my self,” comes to be altered (as it must) to a new “this” then, due to the buffering action of consciousness, there is not normally the need for a radical re-organization of “my world.” Thus, “things as they are experienced” are taken as being for “this consciousness, my self.” They become known not merely as “the cognized” — i.e. as what is for consciousness — but as “the appropriated” — i.e. as what is for me.[46]

Actually, the situation is considerably more complex than the account offered here, for two reasons.

1) For the ordinary person, that which is primarily identified as “this, my self” is holding (to a belief in self). Consciousness is taken up only in the second place, and the others, if at all, only in the third place. However, holding (a complex structure which is negative in regard to what is held) is not seen as holding: it is seen only in the guise of the five aggregates (and the aggregates, then, are actually concealed by the holding which mimics them) — as if in a mirror one were to search for frown lines, while at the same time wearing a mask which was an exact replica of one’s face, except that on the mask there was painted a becoming smile! We shall not attempt to expand on this observation.

2) For the ordinary person there is considerable ambiguity between “me” and “mine.” Although “this” and “that” can be differentiated without difficulty[47] the difference between “my self” and “for me” is not so clear-cut as might be supposed. On the one hand there is an ever-widening schism between “this” and “my self” as “this” becomes more explicit. This growing failure of “my self” to coincide with “this” tends increasingly to endow “this” with the character of a “that (for me).” On the other hand merely by virtue of being “for me” each “that” is already granted the potential of becoming “this, my self:” such is my potency.

In the following discussion (as in the previous), rather than become tongue-tied with qualifications, when we refer to “this, my self” we shall understand that it is not the case that thereby “my self” can be localized within experience. Not only can “my self” not be localized; it cannot even be found. Whenever there is holding, then holding is pervasive, universal.

With these qualifications made we can say that whatever is identified as “this, my self” is at that time conceived of as being absolutely extra-temporal. For the notion of selfhood is inherently a notion of independence, permanence, and pleasurableness. When there is the view “this, my self” then the conditions upon which that view depends are not seen. Other conditions can be seen, but not those upon which self-view is based. Conditions are seen, but not as a universal. This means that they are seen as things, not as the nature of things, and the nature of things is that they are conditioned.

When “conditions” is not seen as a universal then “by means of conditions…” (= dependent arising) is not seen, at least insofar as it applies to “this, my self.” However, “by means of conditions…” can be seen in other relationships. Dependent arising is seen, but not as a universal. This means it is seen as a thing, not as the nature of things, and the nature of things is that they are dependently arisen.[48]

When dependent arising is not seen as a universal then impermanence is not seen, at least insofar as it applies to “this, my self.” However, impermanence can be seen in other relationships. Impermanence is seen, but not as a universal. This means it is seen as a thing, not as the nature of things, and the nature of things is that they arise and cease.

And when impermanence is not seen as a universal then dukkha is not seen, at least insofar as it applies to “this, my self.”[49] However, dukkha can be seen in other relationships. Dukkha is seen, but not as a universal. This means it is seen as a thing, not as the nature of things, and the nature of things is that to hold them is dukkha.

And when dukkha is not seen as a universal then not-self is not seen, at least insofar as it applies to “this, my self.” However, not-self can be seen in other relationships. Not-self is seen, but not as a universal. This means it is seen as a thing, not as the nature of things, and the nature of things is that they are not-self.

Therefore fundamentally dependent arising is not seen, impermanence is not seen, dukkha is not seen, not-self is not seen. What is seen is “this, my self.” And “this, my self” is necessarily seen to be independent, permanent, and pleasurable. And because in his endorsement of this perception the ordinary person is sadly mistaken, therefore he experiences sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair: thus is the arising of this whole mass of dukkha.

Dukkha arises, then, dependent upon not seeing dependent arising. This is ignorance. “Non-knowledge of suffering, non-knowledge of the arising of suffering, non-knowledge of the ceasing of suffering, non-knowledge of the path leading to the ceasing of suffering — this is called ignorance.” — M. 9: i,54, etc.[50] “By means of ignorance, conditions; by means of conditions…,” then, may also be understood as “by means of ignorance, dependent arising.” And the corollary is, of course, “with ceasing of ignorance, ceasing of conditions; with ceasing of conditions…,” which may also be understood as “with ceasing of ignorance, ceasing of dependent arising.” This indicates to the ordinary person how he can resolve his dilemma.

His dilemma is that he cannot perceive dependent arising, he cannot perceive impermanence, he cannot perceive dukkha, he cannot perceive not-self. And he cannot perceive them in their vital sense because he does not see how to stop perceiving “this, my self.” When, as a Buddhist, he earnestly tries, he finds that by a “heads-on” approach (“This is not-self; that is not-self; nor that nor that nor that…”) he does not succeed. All he succeeds in doing is, at most, to change the identification from “this, my self” to “something else, my self” (and, probably, also discovering an ever-deepening sense of frustration and futility in the effort).

This is the identical dilemma that he faces when he decides to “give up everything:” no matter how sincere his resolve, no matter how intense his effort, he finds that that resolve and effort are insufficient. It is undercut at once, always, and everywhere, by attachment. To resolve such a dilemma evidently requires something more than the simple wish to do so. For such a simple and straightforward effort, whether to perceive impermanence or to give up all attachment, will simply lead him back to the perception that he can’t.

But we know that this is not entirely true. For although it is sometimes very difficult, yet we have all succeeded in ending certain “narrow” deceptions (such as “cigarette smoking is good for you,” or “the way to cure poison ivy infection is by scratching”). And we know, too, that the Buddha’s Teaching offers itself as that means whereby one can end even the “broadest” or most fundamental of deceptions, that of conceit.

But how, then, is this to be done? If a “heads-on” approach continually fails, then clearly an indirect movement is indicated.[51] The development of any particular perception of dependent arising, or of impermanence, or of dukkha, or of not-self — which is entirely possible for the ordinary person, within the limits described above — can lead to a universal perception.

It must be emphasized that by “a universal perception” I do not mean “seeing the whole of experience.” (This, anyway, is an impossibility, inasmuch as the seeing, which is part of the experience, is itself not seen. Or if it is seen then the means whereby it is seen — namely, a higher order of reflexive attention, which is also part of the experience — is itself not seen. And so on.) Even if we (think we) see dukkha “everywhere” we have not thereby perceived dukkha as a universal. At best we have seen it as no more than a generality.

But dukkha can be seen as a universal in even the most specific things (e.g. “the in-and-out breaths,” or anything else to do with body; or “this achec in my elbow,” or anything else to do with feeling; or “this fear that my house may be on fire,” or anything else to do with mind; and so on). It is seen as a universal if it is seen as an instance of the way all experience is necessarily organized. In other words, to see structure structurally we must see that it is dependent upon exemplification. It is futile, then, to try to see the “bare” principle. What must be seen is the particular living relationship upon which the structure is founded, and to see that it too arises, endures, and ceases dependently. It is towards this direct intuition on the most intimate level of being that the Buddha guides our efforts. When dukkha (or impermanence or the others) is seen as a universal in “this particular perception” then at that time there will not be seen not-dukkha (and the others) elsewhere.

To achieve this universalized perception requires dedication and perseverance, inasmuch as it is a perception which is at odds with all that holding to a belief in self involves. It is achieved through intelligent experimentation with reflexion and its concomitants (i.e. the noble eightfold path), using the Teaching as a guide (see e.g. A. VI,98-104: iii,441-444)[52] lest one confuse concept with percept.

But even then this perception is in itself insufficient; for when the ordinary person achieves it he still has at the same time a belief in self. Though he sees nothing he can take up as independent, permanent, and pleasurable, yet there remains the view that there is a person, a somebody, to be found. In this unstable position it is necessary for the ordinary person, using proper attention, to apply his perception of the universal necessity of dependent arising (and of the others) to this co-existing view.

Reference to our circular analogue may help him to understand this. But should he not succeed in this then his perception of universality can be lost. Indeed, he will probably find it difficult enough to maintain this perception. And, the perception lost, he would find himself to be still in the throes of wrong view and of the dukkha that arises dependent upon wrong view.

Fortunately, however, there is the Teaching. One who has achieved this perception of universality is now in a position to fully utilize the guidance of the Teaching’s outside perspective. If he chooses to not opt for pleasure then he can now acquiesce by accepting, even against craving’s view of things, that this Teaching points the way to the end of dukkha.

When such a movement is made, then this individual will understand the meaning of “with ceasing of ignorance, ceasing of conditions.” He will no longer be puzzled, as he was before, as to how there could be a ceasing of conditions (and of consciousness and the rest) and yet for an individual to remain. For even fully purified beings surely continue to breathe both in and out, and to think, to ponder, to perceive, feel, regard, intend, and so on. And yet all of these things are identified in various contexts as conditions. But now he will understand that “with ceasing of ignorance, ceasing of conditions” means that “those conditions which depend upon ignorance cease when ignorance ceases; and ignorance, or non-seeing, ceases when those conditions are seen to be dependent upon ignorance.”

And what are those conditions which depend upon ignorance? They are the conditions dependent upon which there is the identity “this, my self.” And, as such, they are not seen as conditions. Not being seen (for what they are), they cannot be further specified. Other conditions — conditions which are seen — are not conditions which depend upon ignorance. Only those conditions which are not recognized as such are implicated in the arising of “this consciousness, my self” or “this name-and-matter, my self” or any other possible identification of “my self.”

Whereas previously such a person had been unable to see craving except on craving’s own terms, now he has this Teaching to offer him an outside view. This view is not locked into those conditions which arise dependent upon ignorance. He can thereby see, as he could not before, that contrary to craving’s view of things, all experience that is involved with “I,” “me,” and “mine” is wholly dukkha. There is (pace St.-Exupéry) no oasis of pleasure to be found within this desert of dukkha. Understanding this, wrong view is thereby exposed. It is concealment (of dukkha and of flight from dukkha) that, as the characteristics of ignorance and craving, generate and re-generate dukkha. With dukkha now fully exposed as concealment, as flight, that recursive structure which had infected all of experience becomes destabilized and must collapse. It is by such a movement that one ceases to be an ordinary person (puthujjana) and becomes a noble disciple (ariyasāvaka), one who sees the noble eightfold path as the way to the ceasing of dukkha.


33. This is not to suggest that this is all that dependent arising says: “&Aacutenanda, this dependent arising is deep and is seen to be deep. It is by not wakening to and penetrating this Teaching that mankind is entangled…” — D. 15: ii,55 = S. XII,60: ii,92. And at S. LVI,19: v,430, it is said of each of the four noble truths that they have numberless shades and variations of meaning. [Back to text]

34. This does not contradict our earlier statement that “matter exists whether or not it is cognized.” Although there is no valid reason to doubt that even when it is not cognized matter continues to exist, and there is considerable indirect evidence to support this notion, still, when it is not cognized then at that time matter is outside the bounds of experience. But when it is cognized matter can never be present “bare,” i.e. as uninvolved with feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention. What is cognized is name-and-matter, and it is name-and-matter, not matter, that exists dependent upon consciousness. [Back to text]

35. This exemplification omits “six (sense-)bases.” Since these bases are implicated in every experience (that involves perception), and since perception is part of “name,” the omission does not in fact “leave out” the bases. (How, after all, does one omit perception from experience?) It merely changes their involvement from being explicitly stated to being implicitly understood. The bases are also immediately implicated in any experience (involving contact), and contact is both part of “name” and “the factor which precedes feeling.” So from this view the bases are implicated on each level of experience, as indeed they must be. [Back to text]

36. Consciousness, like experience, is hierarchical but it is not itself recursive. We cognize various levels of experience: consciousness of feelingc is more immediate than consciousness of feelingb. But we cannot say “consciousness of consciousness (of x).” There cannot be presence of presence; there can only be presence of “the present thing.” Unless something is actually present there cannot be presence. “By means of name-and-matter, consciousness.” Our discussion of consciousness will be limited to the most general level of experience (of which consciousness of feelinga is one aspect), namely, consciousness together with name-and-matter. [Back to text]

37. See S. XXII,79: iii,87, where all five aggregates, including conditions themselves, are described as conditioned things. “And, monks, what do you say are conditions? ‘They condition the conditioned;’ that, monks, is why they are called ‘conditions.’ And what is the conditioned that they condition? Matter as matter is the conditioned that they condition. Feeling as feeling is the conditioned that they condition. Perception as perception is the conditioned that they condition. Conditions as conditions is the conditioned that they condition. Consciousness as consciousness is the conditioned that they condition. ‘They condition the conditioned,’ monks. That is indeed why they are called ‘conditions.'” See also S. XXII,81: iii,94-99. [Back to text]

38. This does not imply idealism: the aggregates are conditioned, not created. But neither does it imply positivism: there is not merely the discovery of an already-existing world, complete with its relationships and implications. There is a middle way whereby this can be understood. Matter is perceived by the bodily senses as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches, and by the mind as the imaginary counterparts of these. These percepts are then characterized by involvement with intention, feeling, and attention; and it is this characterized matter which I use to construct my world.
Thus, if I hear a crackling sound (perception of matter by ear) I may characterize (or “name”) it as “fire.” I will then conceive a set of worlds in which “fire” plays a role, either agreeable (“dinner will be ready soon”), neutral (“just some old rubbish”), or disagreeable (“hey, that’s my house!”). However, I have learned that if my concepts do not accord with reality then I am liable to find their burden difficult to bear. Therefore I will consider whether these (or any of my conceived worlds) are isomorphic with what is further revealed of matter’s behaviour. Investigating, I see a length of shiny color waving briskly (perception of matter by eye), which I identify as “some plastic snapping in the wind.” I decide (or intend) that what I see is what I hear, and re-interpret the crackling as “sound of plastic.” With this re-conditioned matter I construct a new world, perhaps a pleasurable one wherein “I can deservedly relax, having dealt efficiently and successfully with an emergency.” Then I smell smoke. And so on. [Back to text]

39. It is worth pointing out that intention does not precede action. If I think about getting up then at that time there exist both “the intention to think about getting up” and “thinking about getting up.” If later I do in fact get up then at that time there exist both “the intention to get up” and “(the act of) getting up.” It is perfectly possible for me to get up without prior consideration (i.e. planning), but it is quite impossible for me to get up without at the same time intending to do so. “Monks, I say intention is action. Intending, one does action by body, by speech, by mind.” — A. VI,63: iii,415. Everydayness confuses intention with planning (which is the intention “to think about intending”), and therefore everyday language does also, even in some non-technical Sutta passages. In reflexion the distinction is clear: each act is accompanied immediately and at once by its intention. But for as long as reflection (= thinking about) is confused with reflexion (= self-observation) planning will be confused with intention. For so long the meaning of “responsibility” will be misunderstood. [Back to text]

40. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that is all.'” Clearly neither Alice nor Humpty Dumpty had grasped the notion of interdependence of content and context. [Back to text]

41. However, there is one way in which we might properly regard “conditions” as being intention. We have seen that in experience there is not only a simple hierarchy (e.g. “the clock tower” is more specific than “the Fort,” which is more specific than “Colombo,” which is more specific than “Sri Lanka”) but also a hierarchy of “for”-ness (e.g. the cup is for containing tea; tea is for drinking, which is for quenching thirst, which is for comfort; etc.). What a thing is for can be regarded as its intentions (“potentials” would be more precise, but the imprecision is not fatal). Therefore we might understand “By means of conditions…” to mean “Because there is a hierarchy of intentions (or of potentials)….” “Structure” is a more fundamental category than any category within that structure. In this sense, then, “conditions,” as intention, might properly be regarded as “surpassing even consciousness.” Although herein we will not discuss this approach further, yet to the extent that the idea proves to be isomorphic with experience it could be (for some people) conducive to setting aside mistaken notions and coming to see the uses of right view. [Back to text]

42. The single exception is āyusankhārā, conditions for life (i.e. things upon which life depends). These are said (at M. 43: i,295-96) to be “things that are not experienced.” We are never told what any of these unexperienced conditions might be. Contemporary theory, though, might indicate lymphatic circulation and the firing of neural impulses as examples, inasmuch as the body would probably not survive the total cessation of either. But though we can know about these life conditions indirectly, or conceptually, nobody actually experiences, say, the replication of his own DNA as part of ongoing cellular activity. To what extent such phenomena are merely reified conceptual devices, designed to organize and rationalize what is directly experienced, is a question which fortunately we need not decide here. But that there are things which, though beyond our direct experience, are capable of maintaining (or of terminating) life should not evoke surprise. However, those life conditions which lie beyond the realm of experience can have no direct bearing on the problem of dukkha (which is the problem of craving-based experience). Therefore, following the lead of the Suttas, we shall say no more about them. Such irrelevancies can best be left to the physiologists of the world. [Back to text]

43. The texts are filled with examples of applications of this Teaching at the psychological level, but clearly there can be but one “example” of universalization. If, that is, a singularity can be called an example. But it is an instance which is repeated time and again (with variations) throughout the Suttas. “Whatever is matter, past, future, or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, all matter (is to be regarded as): ‘Not, this is mine; not, I am this; not, this is my self.’ Thus there is seeing what is with right understanding.” (The same formula is then repeated for feeling, perception, conditions, and consciousness.) This should not be understood as a call to examine individually each and every bit of matter, past, future, and present, in order to determine its nature and then to conclude, on the basis of this statistical survey, that indeed all matter very probably is not mine, etc. Clearly a different sort of examination is being called for here. [Back to text]

44. Despite the rationalized way in which “belief in self” is presented here, the belief, questioning, questing, and identifying are not overt and planned acts (though they are certainly intentional), at least in their initial arising. It is only subsequently that they become explicit as thought and thought-out. In any experience involved with holding no part of that experience can be found which is not already infected (such is the epidemic nature of conceit). Even in those meditative levels wherein thinking and pondering (speech conditions) have ceased, for one not fully enlightened there is still conceit. The problem, then, is more fundamental even than thought, let alone language. [Back to text]

45. Earlier it was said that dukkha arises due to the uncertainty inherent in the world. Actually this is but half the truth. There are two sources of dukkha in the world, not just one: the uncertainty inherent in the world (inasmuch as I could suffer loss, failure, or death at any time) and the certainty inherent in the world (inasmuch as sooner or later I certainly will suffer loss, failure, and death). Craving tends to stabilize pleasure, but the uncertainty of the world tends to destabilize it. Craving tends to destabilize dukkha, but the certainty of the world tends to stabilize it. Inevitably, the world wins; but craving always demands another chance. If it were not for these two things, certainty and uncertainty, the world would be a wonderful place indeed — if, that is, there could still be such a thing as “the world.” [Back to text]

46. That there is a propensity to identify selfhood with consciousness is apparent, of course, not only from structural considerations or textual exegesis. We have only to look around us. Adherents of many schools of philosophy (e.g. idealism) and psychology (e.g. Jungianism, transpersonalism), as well as of religions in general, regard consciousness as being in some sense fundamental or absolute. So do other thinkers, including many existentialists and even some advocates of current teachings which nevertheless go by the label of “Buddhism.” But I know of no school which seriously ascribes selfhood to the other categories we have been considering.
For example, we find in spiritual literature much talk of “pure consciousness.” But there seems to be nothing said of “pure conditions,” “pure perception,” “pure feeling,” or “pure matter” (“pure” in the sense of “nothing but”) in today’s mystical marketplace. (Except that, possibly, “pure matter” might be accepted by the most extreme adherents of logical positivism — but then, that breed are hardly to be found shopping in such a marketplace.) Too, there is a “Cosmic Consciousness” movement, but at present there seems to be no interest (perhaps unfortunately) in “Cosmic Name-and-Matter,” “Cosmic Ageing-and-Death,” or any of the others (with the arguable exception of an underground “Cosmic Craving”). [Back to text]

47. This (or that) is not to say that the differentiation does not have a degree of arbitrariness. In English we take it for granted that any thing must be either “this” or “that,” “here” or “there.” But in Sinhalese, for example, the division is seen as four-fold: a thing is either “this/here,” or “that/there (but close to hand),” or “that/there (not close but within sight),” or “that/there (too far away to be seen).” But since appropriation is more fundamental than language (a dog, for example, can display greed but cannot verbalize it), these differences do not alter the basic problem. [Back to text]

48. There are various passages in the texts (e.g. D. 14: ii,31-35; S. XII,10 & 65: ii,10-11 & 104-07) wherein the Buddha says that he considered dependent arising in its various aspects before his enlightenment. This raises the question, “If perception of dependent arising marks the difference between the enlightened individual and the ordinary person, then how can these passages be understood?” The usual reply is that this perception took place in “the moment before his enlightenment” (which again raises the ambiguous notion of moments), and was the impelling perception that brought about that comprehension.
However, the texts make clear that it was in perceiving “arising” and “ceasing” that there arose “the eye (of truth), knowledge, wisdom, gnosis, light” (the usual formula for the initial perception). But the consideration of dependent arising preceded this perception (by how long an interval is not said) and was therefore the reflexion of one as yet unenlightened. The usual answer, then, explains nothing. It merely leaves us with the plaint, “It happened to him; but I also think about dependent arising. Why doesn’t it happen to me?” But now, distinguishing between things and the nature of things (i.e. that things arise and cease), we can understand how it can be that the ordinary person is fully able to see dependent arising in a certain sense — as every reader of this essay will be able to confirm — but that this does not mean that he necessarily sees it in its vital sense, as a universal. [Back to text]

49. Actually, there is one way in which dukkha can be seen as “this, my self:” when it is dukkha itself (e.g. “this achec in my elbow”) that is taken up as “this, my self” (“good grief!”). In such a case it is seen as dukkhadukkhatā, the sorrow of dukkha (“woe is me”). But it is still not seen as sankhāradukkhatā, the sorrow of conditions; for the conditions upon which belief in self depends are not seen. Nor is it seen as viparināmadukkhatā, the sorrow of changeability; for the impermanence of those conditions is of course also not seen. These two sorts of sorrow can be seen by the ordinary person only in secondary relationships, never in this vital one. [Back to text]

50. This Sutta goes on to say that “with the arising of cankers (āsavā) there is arising of ignorance.” But later we are told: “With the arising of ignorance there is arising of cankers.” And what are these cankers? “There are three cankers: the canker of sensuality, the canker of being, the canker of ignorance.” Here then, the recursive structure of ignorance appears in yet-greater detail. Not only do cankers and ignorance arise by means of one another, but one of the cankers is the canker of ignorance. (Seven ways to abandon cankers are discussed in M. 2: i,6-12. See also S. XXII,101: iii,152-53.) Ignorance, then, is not merely a failure to be adequately informed. (“I didn’t know the gun was loaded.”) It is a deliberate refusal to look at that which is at all times and all places there to be seen. (“I didn’t know that pain hurts.”) It is a refusal supported by a recursive hierarchical structure of successive generations and generalizations of denial and a spectrum of successive specifications of dukkha. [Back to text]

51. “In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed to secure victory.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War. [Back to text]

52. E. M. Hare’s rendering (in Gradual Sayings III) of anulomikāya khantiyā samannāgato as “living in harmony and patience” is quite misleading. The phrase actually means “endowed with compliance in conformity” (with the Teaching).

Compliance, of austerities, is chief.
“Extinction is supreme,” the Buddhas say.
No ascetic causes others grief.
No recluse does oppress in any way. — Dh. 184 [Back to text]

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