A talk given by Ajahn Amaro at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery –
Last week at the Spirit Rock family retreat we saw many young people, surrounded by wholesome structures and examples, and offered much in the way of skilful guidance. Seeing the good results of that in just a few days made me reflect on the idea that if you catch things early and have an influence at the beginning, as something is setting out and taking shape, then a small influence can go a very long way. The lessons that people learn and examples that are internalized early on can affect us very deeply.
This works the same way with our meditation. When we recite the factors of dependent origination, (the laws of causality that govern our experience and the arising and ceasing of dukkha), we can see that if you catch the process earlier in the cycle, then you need to do less work to uproot suffering and less grief is involved.
When we look at our experience in the way we handle the worldly winds – happiness and unhappiness, praise and criticism, success and failure, gain and loss – the mind can be seen reacting to and chasing after gain, running away from loss, identifying, seizing hold of and cherishing praise, rejecting criticism and so forth. These reactive habits are completely natural, but the sooner they are seen and known completely, then the less sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair we experience.
These are teachings to take to heart and use moment by moment. We live very much in our everyday world of perception and feeling. We see sights and hear sounds, we touch objects, we make decisions, we engage with our bodies, the material world and the 10,000 thoughts, moods and ideas that arise from those contacts. The more that we internalize and make use of the teachings on dependent origination the more that we are aware that this is just phassa or sense-contact. Sense-contact gives rise to feelings of pleasure, pain and neutral feelings: ‘This is beautiful, this is ugly, this is ordinary …’ And then, from that launch pad in the ordinary flow of our experience, taṇhā (craving) arises. Vedanā paccaya taṇhā: feeling conditions craving, and leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. When we really know this chain of causation, we can see that when there’s a feeling it can turn easily into a sense of: ‘I can’t stand this, this is wrong, this is bad, I don’t like this, I have to get rid of it’, or its opposite: ‘I want it, this is good, how can I make this mine, this is mine, I have to keep it, hold it, own it.’ When this cycle begins in that way with possessiveness, we can see how that sense of ownership causes a feeling of loss and then dukkha ensues.
As it is with children, if you influence a three-year-old in a wholesome manner, then those influences can have an effect for a lifetime. Similarly, if we mindfully catch the process right at vedanā conditioning taṇhā (feeling conditioning craving), then the cycle can be broken right there. We can live with a heart completely at peace in the realm of feeling: ‘This vedanā is present but I don’t have to own it. Praise is sweet. Criticism is bitter. Gain is sweet. Loss is bitter. This is how it is.’ We can make nothing more of it than just that.
We can recognize that: ‘This is the mind that likes sweetness, this is the mind that dislikes bitterness. That’s all. It’s empty. There’s nothing there. It doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s just one of the attributes of nature coming into being, taking shape, dissolving. That’s all it is.’ So the heart remains at peace even though there’s full engagement in the world of the senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling, perceiving, doing and acting. There’s full engagement but it is free of confusion and there is no identification with it.
If we catch the process even earlier, way down at the deep tissue level, and mindfulness is sustained acutely, then ignorance – the whole duality of: ‘Me as a person experiencing the world out there; me here going somewhere else,’ the subject being the knower of the object – is not given any strength or substance. This is when avijjā paccaya saṅkhārā (ignorance conditions mental formations). When there’s ignorance then that duality of saṅkhārā (compoundedness) arises but if there’s full awareness, full knowing, full mindfulness, then even that degree of confusion or unreality does not arise and is not given credence.
Phra Payutto points out in his book Dependent Origination that, when it is said: ‘With the cessation of ignorance there is the cessation of saṅkhārā, with the cessation of saṅkhārā (mental formations) there is the cessation of consciousness’ and so forth, it’s not just cessation in terms of something having begun then ending, it also implies ‘non-arising’. So when there’s no ignorance then saṅkhāras do not arise. The mind does not create the world of ‘thingness’, of ‘this- and that-ness’. It’s the realization of Dhamma. It’s just Dhamma; it’s not fabricated, it’s not divided, it’s not created. It’s not split into ‘Me here and the world out there,’ a subject separated from an object. This is the peace and clarity of realizing the Dhamma here and now. ♦