In the context of Buddhadharma, Dharma refers to the ultimate dharma, which is nirvana. Therefore the understanding of Buddhist religion needs the correct understanding of the dharma of cessation and nirvana or liberation. If one’s practices become an antidote towards the delusions or afflictions of the mind then those practices are Dharma or Dharmic. If the practices do not become antidotes to your delusions then they are not Dharmic or Dharma.
What is the distinguishing feature of the Buddhadharma? It is the dharma that is practiced on the basic understanding or recognition that the delusions and afflictions of the mind are the true enemy. One’s whole spiritual practice is dedicated towards combating these afflictions of the mind. Of course favorable rebirth and other desirable aspects of samsaric life along with their causes for these positive attainments are virtuous but these should not be our ultimate aspiration as Dharma practitioners. Our ultimate aspiration should be liberation from samsara.
Based on the true recognition of the unsatisfactory nature of existence in samsara and also based on the full appreciation of the desirability of liberation from this, one should develop a genuine aspiration to seek such freedom. This is called true renunciation. In order to develop a genuine aspiration to attain full liberation or freedom from samsara, one needs to develop a certain understanding of what nirvana or liberation really means. In this context one also needs to have some idea of what it means to attain such liberation. This understanding arises from the recognition that the delusions of the mind can be removed. In this context the understanding of emptiness is critical.
Generally speaking the notion of moksha or spiritual liberation is found in many religious traditions. For example in the non-Buddhist Indian tradition of Samkhya, there is a very sophisticated concept of moksha, liberation. They speak about twenty-five primary objects of knowledge, which are various manifestations of or modalities of the primal substance. When all of these manifestations dissolve into primal substance, this is when all delusions cease and true liberation takes place. Similarly in the Jaina tradition of ancient Indian thought there is a conception of moksha in terms of there being an ontological pure land where spiritually enlightened beings take rebirth.
What is unique to Buddhism is the true understanding of moksha or liberation that can only come when one has a deep understanding of emptiness. There is a passage from Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way), which gives a very succinct account of what Nagarjuna understands as moksha or liberation. Nagarjuna states that liberation takes place when the continuum of karma and delusions has ceased. Here the cessation of the karmic continuum and the delusions does not refer to a stream just coming to an end because it is a momentary phenomenon. Rather this cessation refers to a cessation that is brought about by deliberate means by the application of the path.
The karma which give rise to the whole perpetual cycle of unenlightened existence is in turn created by the motivating factors such as the delusions of the mind; attachment, hatred, ignorance and so on. These delusions or afflictions of the mind themselves are in turn created on the basis of a false perception of the world, particularly the kind of exaggerations we tend to place on our perceptions. This preconception of the world in turn is created by our fundamentally ignorant way of perceiving the world whereby we tend to project some sort of eternal, abiding or enduring nature to things and events. This is termed conceptual elaborations in the sense that we are elaborating the world. This elaboration or the fundamentally misconceived way of viewing the world is something that can only be eliminated and rooted out by developing the insight into emptiness that sees through the deception and understands the world as it is. The key to undercutting this whole process lies in the correct understanding of emptiness.
There is an alternative reading to the last line of Nagarjuna’s statement that all of these conceptual elaborations are calmed by the means of developing insight into emptiness. The alternate reading is where he says that all these conceptual elaborations are calmed within emptiness. This notion of calmed within emptiness has the sense that it is in fact the insight into our ultimate true nature of mind which dispels the delusions of the mind. The mind in a way becomes the same instrument of purifying the mind.
If one thinks through carefully, moksha or liberation is nothing but a state of mind, the ultimate nature of the mind. The ultimate nature of the mind is the emptiness of the mind and this is sometimes referred to as the natural nirvana. The emptiness of the mind, a mind which has reached a point where it is cleansed of all its delusions or pollutants, is nirvana or moksha.
Therefore in the scriptures there are mention of at least four principal kinds of nirvana or liberation. First is the natural nirvana that refers to the emptiness of the mind. In fact this is the basis or ground that allows, makes it possible, for our minds to become free. The remaining three are the nirvana with residue, the nirvana without residue and the non-abiding nirvana.
This notion of equality between samsara and nirvana has been developed in the Sakya explanation of emptiness where they talk about the equality of samsara and nirvana even in relation to aggregate objects like pots and so on. Although the real meaning of the equality of samsara and nirvana has to be based an understanding of the nature of the mind.
Within the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, the key is understanding the difference between fundamental ignorance and the rest of the cycle. There is a causal relationship present as if fundamental ignorance is eliminated, the whole cycle comes to an end. When teaching the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination in the sutras, the Buddha made three very important statements. First was that because this exists, that exists. The point he made here is that for anything to have the potential for causation of another, it must be existent.
The second statement is that because this came into being the other comes into being. The point made here is that existence alone is not adequate. What is required is that the very thing which causes something, it itself must be caused by something else. Nothing that is not caused can have the potential to cause something else. The point is that these are transient phenomena.
The third statement is that because fundamental ignorance exists, karmic factors also came into being. The point made here is that in order for something to produce something else, existence alone is not adequate as it also needs to be an impermanent phenomena. But impermanence itself is not adequate; there needs to be commensurability between the cause and effect. For instance in the case of cyclic existence, there is a co-relation between the fundamental ignorance and the samsaric unenlightened state. Because samsaric existence is undesirable, its cause that is the fundamental ignorance, is also something that is undesirable. The point Buddha makes here is that although everyone has the natural instinct to seek happiness, out of ignorance one creates the causes and conditions for one’s own suffering. It is this ignorance which lies at the root of one’s imprisonment or samsara.
Commenting on these three crucial statements from the sutra, Asanga makes the observation in his Abhidharmasamuccaya (The Compendium of Knowledge) that this refers to the three conditions. Asanga makes the point in the first condition that unlike other religious traditions, in the Buddhist context creation has to be understood within the context of cause and effect, not due to some transcendent being’s divine power.
By emphasizing the second condition which is the fact that cause itself is an impermanent phenomena, Asanga states that the Buddha is in some sense rejecting the assertion of other religious traditions whereby a claim is made that the whole physical world comes into being as the result of creation from a permanent cause. For example in Samkhya philosophy, primal substance that is itself said to be permanent is seen as the cause of the entire universe. This is what is being rejected.
Therefore this whole causation chain needs to be understood from these perspectives. The twelve links themselves are then categorized under three classes; delusions, karma and suffering the effects. These teachings on the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination are very succinctly captured in The Sacred Words of Manjushri by the Fifth Dalai Lama.
The Fifth Dalai Lama states in the example of a karmic cycle of taking rebirth in a favorable state of existence, like a human being, the initial fundamental ignorance, which is at the root of this rebirth, is the first factor, the first chain of the twelve links. This motivates or gives rise to action, which in the case of a human rebirth, would be a virtuous action. This is the second chain of the twelve links, a volitional, karmic act that arises from the motivating ignorance.
The third chain, consciousness, is divided into a causal path and the resultant path. The causal path is the consciousness that was simultaneous to the actual karmic act. The first part of the third chain is said to be the propelling causes, the initial causes that really give the thrust that propels the karmic action into a causal process. Fundamental ignorance is said to be the causal motivating factor and then there are certain types of ignorance that are said to be simultaneous to the actual actions. These are for example ignorance of the laws of cause and effect and so on. Such ignorance will lead to inferior rebirth in the cycle of existence.
The second chain in the twelve links is volitional acts or karmic action. There are three principal types; positive, negative and one that causes birth in the higher realms of existence. Only in the case of negative karma does one not only have fundamental ignorance as the motivation but also ignorance of the law of cause and effect. In all of these cases what is basic is the presence of fundamental ignorance. It is this fundamental ignorance that lies at the root of all of the chains.
Once the karmic actions are committed and karma is created the question then arises how does the karma maintain its potency throughout successive lives across time before it creates its result or effect? Here the question of how karma leaves its imprints comes into relevance. On the question of how karmic actions create imprints it is a very philosophically difficult question. I, myself, sometimes do not get a clear idea and of course one can see that there has been a tremendous amount of discussion on this point in the Buddhist philosophical literature. One general consensus is that it is on the continuum of consciousness that the karmic imprints are carried over or maintained.
The Fifth Dalai Lama states that the eighth chain in the twelve links, which is attachment and also the ninth, called craving [grasping] and the tenth, the chain of becoming, these three are the activating causes. These cause the maturation of the karmic seed. Attachment here refers to the affinity towards desirable sensations such as pleasure and so on as well as the attachment to avoid suffering. The ninth chain, craving [grasping], is a much-heightened form of attachment. Through attachment and craving [grasping], the tenth chain comes into being which is a highly activated form of the karmic potential.
Nagarjuna also points out that Buddha himself stated in the sutras that aging and death are also caused by birth, the coming into being. Just as coming into being is caused by an event, disintegration or dissolution of a phenomenon is also caused by an event. Nagarjuna and his followers maintain that just as production or creation is caused by events so too disintegration or dissolution. Others disagree with this and maintain that cessation is a permanent phenomena and is known as a non-affirming negation, a simple negation, a cessation of a phenomena. Nagarjuna and his followers would maintain that as cessation is caused by an event, it has still the potential to cause something else.
The next four links of the chain are the six sources, name and form, what are known as the contacts and feeling. These are said to be the propelled results. Name and form refers to an early stage of embryonic development and the six sources refer to the stage of development where the sense organs begin to develop. When the sensory faculties are developed to a point where they are able to register experiences, contact comes into being as there is now interaction with objects. The further development of this is the ability to cognitively experience sensation as feeling.
Use of the combination name and form is to include even rebirth in formless realms of existence. It is said that beings who take rebirth in the formless realms of existence, although they do not have forms, they have a name referring to the basis of the forms. Similarly the physical sense organs, the faculties, would not be fully manifest in the formless realms except that they remain in the form of a potential.
Eleventh in the chain, birth, is said to be of four different kinds; spontaneous birth, womb-born birth, egg-born birth and heat/moisture-born birth. Aging and death constitute the twelfth link in the chain. Aging need not necessarily refer to old age itself but rather it is said that from the second moment after one’s birth, the process of aging has begun. One can say that the twelfth link has started immediately after one’s birth.
In this chain of the twelve links the coming into being of the later ones depend upon the coming into being of the preceding ones whereas the cessation of the later ones depends upon the cessation of its preceding link in the chain. Through this way one can trace through to the final cause which is the fundamental ignorance. It is in this sense that one can say that fundamental ignorance lies at the root of one’s unenlightened existence in samsara.
What is the nature of this fundamental ignorance? There is a divergence of opinion among Buddhist thinkers. Asanga maintains that ignorance is not an active state of misknowing but rather a passive state of unknowing. However people such as Dharmakirti and Chandrakirti maintain that ignorance is not a mere passive state of unknowing but rather an active state of misknowing. Therefore the ignorant mind is nothing other than the distorted mind which misperceives reality as existing with some sort of inherent nature or reality.
In brief what is maintain here is that the root of cyclic existence is grasping at the true existence or inherent existence of one’s own self. Therefore it is only by eliminating this grasping at a self that one can begin the process of undoing the chain. As Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s chief disciple, stated in the Forty Verses on the Middle Way, the seed of samsaric existence is consciousness. By consciousness, he is referring to a consciousness that grasps at the true existence of self and phenomena. He then says that all objects; things and events are phenomena grasped at by that consciousness. When one gains insight into the absence of the self-existence of these phenomena then one can begin to eliminate, undercut the processes of the seed of samsara.
Similarly Nagarjuna states in his Seventy Verses on Emptiness, the mind that grasps at all things and events which come into being as a result of their causes and conditions as if they have some sort of inherent existence or autonomy, is taught by the Buddha to be ignorant mind. It is from this ignorant mind that the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination arises. If a person develops a full understanding of the meaning of dependent origination then one can begin the process of undoing the chain. One can particularly start undercutting the production phase of ignorance and once this is done then all the subsequent links in the chain will be cut also.
If we examine now our own natural state of mind, we have a deep sense of the presence of a self, even in our dreams there is an abiding core to our being. If we examine our natural sense of self, what can be called the I-consciousness or the though of “I am”, we find different degrees of strength. I am not talking about attachment to a sense of self but rather a notion of the sense of self. In certain situations we will have a strong sense of self where there is a strong belief in a real sort of existence of a person who is somehow independent of our body and mind. In that sense of self somehow this person, this self or me, is apart from the body and mind but at the same time connected to the body and mind. In some sense it seems like a boss or controller of one’s body and mind. This sense of self in the scripture is said to be a notion of self that is substantially real.
The Fifth Dalai Lama finally identifies what he means by an innate grasping at the sense of self in the certain states of our sense of self or I-consciousness. We tend to assimilate our sense of self with our bodily states or mental states where the identification with the body and mind is very strong so much so that there is a sense that mind and body are mixed together like milk and water, completely fused with each other. On the basis of such an assimilated notion of body and mind, a natural thought of I or self arises as if this self or I has an independent existence, an essence in its own right. The belief in this kind of self or existence is said to be the innate grasping at the self-existence of person.
When we talk about the sense of self, of course there will be certain types of a sense of self that can not be said to be false or distorted. The natural occurrence of thoughts such as “I am going” or “I am coming” have a level of self-consciousness or sense of self which must be valid, which allow one to function. This grasping at the self-existence of person based on a strong sense of self gives rise to emotional responses to given situations. If it is something desirable one tends to immediately grasp at it, cling to it and feel attached. If it is an undesirable object one tends to be repulsed and feel angry, hatred and so on. This is how the whole cycle of the chain begins.
The point I am making is that not all instances of a sense of self are false or deluded. Most instances of a sense of self, particularly those affected by an emotional reaction to a given situation, are polluted by a sense of grasping at the self-existence of person or phenomena. It is this grasping at self-existence which gives rise to other afflictions of the mind such as attachment, anger and so forth. The mere occurrence of them in our mind immediately creates a sense of disturbance within us and destroys mental composure or peace of mind. Since as Dharma practitioners what we desire and what we aspire to is ultimate, everlasting state of liberation and joy. Delusions, the mental afflictions, of mind are the true enemy. It is they who destroy the seed for such liberation.
It becomes important to not only appreciate the destructive nature of negative thoughts and emotion but also the completely undesirable nature of them. Anyone, so long as they remain under the control or power of the delusions, becomes an object of pity and compassion. There is no real place for joy or satisfaction. In a real sense so long as we remain under the control of the delusions we are in some sense imprisoned within cyclic existence. By reflecting on the destructive nature of the negative emotions or thoughts and also by reflecting upon their destructive power and ability to continually bind us to cyclic existence, one can generate a genuine aspiration to seek freedom and liberation from them. This is the true renunciation.
It is by appreciating the negativity or undesirable nature of suffering and also appreciating the causal mechanism of the origin of suffering that one can eventually develop a genuine aspiration to attain full liberation. When we talk about developing a genuine aspiration to attain freedom from suffering, here we are not talking about suffering in the ordinary sense but rather the third level of suffering, the suffering of pervasive conditioning. When one fully recognizes the true nature of this level of suffering then the wish to attain liberation will be very strong. This desire or aspiration to seek liberation or freedom is said to be true renunciation.
In order to fully appreciate the nature of suffering one has to be able to develop a good understanding of what is meant by impermanence or the transient nature of phenomena. If we look at the world, including both the universe and one’s own body down to the minutest particle, everything goes through constant change and flux. This process occurs dynamically even every second. The question can be raised as to what makes our body and the whole universe go through this process of change? The continuum is uninterrupted. The very cause, which gave rise to the first instance also, planted within its seed the mechanism for its disintegration. Therefore everything is said to be under the power of their causes.
In the context of our aggregates, our body and mind, since they also go into the constant change of this dynamic process, karma and the delusions cause it to come into being in the first place. Karma and the delusions have as their root fundamental ignorance. It is this fundamental ignorance in the final analysis, which is creating this whole process.
We can say that one should rise against this ignorance. How does one go about doing this? Only through cultivating insight into the selflessness of person and phenomena can one begin the process of eliminating ignorance. The fundamental ignorance is the mind that grasps at the true existence of things and events. Therefore only by seeing through that delusion, that is to say that only by demonstrating the way in which ignorant mind grasps at self and phenomena, is unfounded and invalid can one begin the process of eliminating it. When one begins to understand in this way then the passages in the Pramanavarttika where Dharmakirti says that understanding impermanence strengthens the understanding of suffering and the understanding of suffering strengthens the understanding of selflessness.
We can also reflect upon the fact that inherent, independent existence and the absence of inherent existence are mutually exclusive. Therefore they can not reside in one mind at the same time. The wisdom realizing emptiness and the ignorant mind grasping at true existence are directly opposite to each other. Ignorant mind, grasping at true existence, lacks grounding in any valid cognition whereas the wisdom cognizing emptiness not only is valid but also has a valid foundation. This kind of ascertainment can be strengthened, reinforced as it has a valid support. Therefore the more one develops it, the more one strengthens it, and it will become more and more reinforced so that one can develop it to a much higher level of power. Also one of the unique characteristics of the qualities of mind is that after one has developed it to a certain point, then one does not need to reinforce it again. It becomes a natural part of your habit.
It is on the basis of understanding this wisdom of emptiness because it is a quality of the mind, which maintains continuum in a stable way, and also because it possesses valid support in grounding in reason and experience, it has the potential to be developed to its limitless potential. As the origin of suffering can be eliminated, the Buddha emphasized that one must recognize the nature of suffering. Otherwise if there weren’t any possibility of freedom from suffering then the Buddha’s emphasis on contemplating the nature of suffering would only be a morose habit designed to create one’s depression.
In the scriptures the Buddha has given the analogy of someone in prison. The person is so ignorant that they do not realize they are in prison and as long as that recognition does not arise and they do not understand their true state of affairs, there will be no genuine wish to obtain freedom from prison. The moment the person realizes that they are a prisoner, itself a form of suffering, then the wish to seek freedom from the prison will be sparked. One will then start making arrangements to get out.
Therefore the Buddha having taught the first two truths; the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, immediately followed that teaching by the truth of cessation and the path leading to freedom. Otherwise if there are only two truths, the first two and not the third and fourth, then there would not be a point in the Buddha teaching the truth of suffering. Not only should he, himself given up his practices and had an indulgent lifestyle but he would have also recommended this to his followers to adopt that kind of lifestyle. However this is not the case as after talking about suffering and its origin, Buddha had a remedy for it, the truth of cessation and the path that leads to cessation.