> The Wheel of Life
The Three Signs of Being and the Six Realms of Existence
The Wheel of Life is the context, the way Buddhists see the world and our human condition, the reason we do what we do.
First the contex - where we are, the way things actually are. In the Buddha-Dharma this is described by a formula known as the Three Signs of Being. The Buddha said: 'Whether Buddhas appear in the world or whether Buddhas do not appear in the world, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact and fixed law that all formations are impermanent, subject to suffering and are without self.' Impermanence, suffering and without self (no-'I'), the Three Signs of Being, indicate the way things really are, but what are 'formations'?
The Wheel of Life is held up to us as a mirror by Yama, the god of death, who sends to human beings the messengers of approaching old-age, sickness and death. This famous symbolic picture traditionally can be found at the entrances of Buddhist temples and monasteries. Often it is the guest monk who explain its significance to visitors.
The Six Realms are, beginning at the top, the heavenly realm where divine beings devas, enjoy a very long life of godlike blissful existence: nothing goes wrong; everything goes their way. It is said that their bodies and their clothes shine.
Moving clockwise, the next is the realm of the fighting demons, the asuras, who, despite being semi-divine, are in a constant state of envy, declaring war on heaven and the devas. This is because the tree that they share with the heavenly realm has its trunk and roots in the fighting demon realm, but the majority of the fruiting branches in the heavenly realm. Therefore the divine beings simply help themselves to the majority of the heavenly fruit, while the fighting demons can only look after the trunk and roots.
Next is the animal realm. In the West we either view animals sentimentally or see them as dangerous beasts. In the East the life of an animal is thought to be pitiful because they have to accept whatever is meted out to them, having no redress for their suffering. In the wild, very few animals live out their natural lifespan. They kill to eat and will be preyed upon by others. If a lion breaks a tooth and it becomes septic there is no dentist to go to. As the pain increases they can no longer eat and therefore may starve to death. If they are lucky another predator will kill them off; if not, they will suffer a miserable death. The animal state is a pitiful state of suffering.
Next come the hungry ghosts, pretas, who are recognizable by their pipette-like necks and huge distended bellies. Their efforts at feeding themselves are continually thwarted by their thin necks. They exist in a state of constant hunger and craving.
At the base section of the wheel are the miserable realms or hells. There are 16 hells in Buddhism, eight hot and eight cold. Here there is unspeakable suffering sometimes for very long periods of time.
The human realm completes the circle. Traditionally it is said that it is only from the human realm that liberation from the Wheel of Becoming is possible. In this realm are depicted all the important themes of human life - birth, the religious life, old age, sickness and death.
These six realms are considered from the classical point of view not only as six separate realms existing in six particular place/times but also as a psychological map, a representation of the world that we create out of the passions of our own heart. 'I' identify with the heavenly realms when everything is going swimmingly. After dull rainy weather I may wake up to a sunny day and think, instead of having to stay indoors I am in the happy state of contemplating the endless possibilities of the outside world. When things don't quite go the way I want them to, something hot comes up inside and I say, 'Why does this always have to happen to me?' Suddenly, I am in the realm of the fighting demons. When I really want something I begin to crave it. Unable to think of anything else I become a hungry ghost and fall into the miserable realms or suffer fate like an animal. However, occasionally we find ourselves in the form we actually occupy, the human realm.
These realms are said to exist on Mount Sumeru as the six destinies of rebirth. Mount Sumeru, the pivot or axis of the world, rises out of the ocean, which is further surrounded by mountain systems of various metals. Around Mount Sumeru lie the four great continents of Uttarauru (Northern), Purvavideha (Eastern), Jambudvipa (India) and Godaniya (Western). The hells are said to extend 20,000 leagues under Jambudvipa. On a terrace near the top of Mount Sumeru reside the four Great Kings (Protectors of the Dharma) and at the top is Trayastrimsa (Heaven of Thirty-three), the abode of the gods, presided over by Indra. Extending above are the Tusita heaven and levels that correspond to the four levels of absorption in meditation (dhyana), kamadhatu (the realm of all passion), rupadhatu (realm of form) and arupyadhatu (the realm of no form). This is called the World System.
To return to the Wheel of Life, this ancient formula makes an interesting picture, but are we to take this as a serious guide to life in the present day? Let us see what the pictures of its six realms indicate. They can point to the world we live in or they can indicate mental states that we inhabit; whether inside or outside, physical or psychological these mental states are all known as 'the formations'. Moreover, we are told: 'It remains a firm condition (inherent nature), that all formations are impermanent, subject to suffering and without self (no-'I').
The first of the Three Signs of Being, impermanence or change
(anitya), means that everything has a beginning, comes to be, endures
for a short or longer period, then decays and ceases to be. This fact
of life we know and accept intellectually but when it affects me personally
I do not know it or accept it. Most of the time we live as if this is
not the truth. We live as if in some way we are unique and permanent,
as if things are not going to change. We value innocence in childhood,
for instance, and feel it should be preserved as long as possible. However,
every child eventually leaves its innocence behind, reflecting its growing
experience, and moves on to
A story from the Hindu tradition reflects our ignorance of this constant state of change. It concerns the king of the gods of our world system, Indra. One day a powerful demon appeared in the world, and doing what demons do he decided to block all the waters that flowed in the world. All the human beings and animals of the world began to suffer from drought, and they petitioned Indra to save them. Indra took a thunderbolt and dispatched the demon. At that moment the waters flowed again in the world. All the beings of the world rejoiced, saying, 'Indra you truly are the lord of all the gods; you have saved us from a terrible death.'
Indra was pleased with his new popularity and thought, I
am king of the gods of this great world system. Perhaps I should live
up to this great role in the world by having a truly great palace to live
in. He had plans drawn up and supervized every aspect of the building
of the new palace. At every stage Indra inspected the building with his
architect, and each time he found something not quite right or something
to improve or extend. The architect became concerned because he knew that
Indra was a divine being who lives for many eons, and therefore the building
of this palace could go on
We learn from such a story to fulfil our role and not to see our wants as unique to this 'one and only me'. Change, needs to be acknowledged in our own lives. The Buddha said: 'What do you think, O monks? Is the body permanent or impermanent?' 'Impermanent, O Venerable One', the monks answered. 'Feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness [our inner states] are they permanent or impermanent?' 'Impermanent,' the monks replied. 'But what is impermanent, is that something satisfactory or unsatisfactory?' 'Something unsatisfactory, O Venerable One.' Therefore, said the Buddha: 'Whatever there is of body, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness, whether in the past, present or future, whether own or external, gross or subtle, lofty or low, far or near, one should understand according to true reality and true wisdom that this does not belong to me, this I am not, this is not myself.'
But that is not how we see it. We perceive this as my body - these are my thoughts and feelings. These are the things that I want; these are the things that I need, that I must have. I would like to look like Tom Cruise. I would like to be thinner and my knees never to be sore during meditation and never to be ill and never to suffer from infirmity or growing old. I want that unpleasant mental states should never arise and that I should be happy for ever after and never die. But the fact is, this is not what happens.
Because we have become totally identified with 'me' and those things we call 'mine' we do not see the truth. The Buddha said: 'According to true reality and true wisdom these things do not belong to me, this I am not, this is not myself.' But because 'I' identify with this body and what 'I' want, even though this is not the case and the world does not conform to what 'I' want, 'I' suffer, or there is suffering or a sense of incompleteness, the second of the Four Noble Truths.
Trevor Leggett has said of Dukkha that literally it means
'bad space', in the sense of the clearance between the hub and axle of
a wheel. A 'bad space' is too tight: it prevents the free rolling of the
wheel, and therefore its converse, sukkha, means good space, which
will allow free movement of the wheel. Dukkha therefore means a
state of resistance to the way things actually are. It reflects the fact
that when things do not go the way 'I' want, 'I' resist by grasping and
clinging on to those things that 'I believe' will make me feel good again.
The Buddha said: 'Birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age and
death is suffering, not getting what I want is suffering, getting what
I do not want is suffering, clinging to the Five Skandhas (our body and
all our mental states) is suffering, clinging to
We see the world through a central feeling of 'I', the one who wants but doesn't want to suffer. There is 'I' and my wants, alienated from everything else in the world. There is 'me' and my body. There is what 'I' like and what 'I' don't like. 'I' can be happy or 'I' can be sad. 'I' can be sober or 'I' can be drunk. 'I' can be alert or 'I' can be dull. The one apparent constant is the feeling of 'I' alone, which lives these experiences. The problem is that this 'I' has very firm views of how things ought to be, of what 'I' shall and what 'I' shall not put up with.
At my first residential retreat I remember one day after
lunch returning to our small community room to find a retreatant unwrapping
a chocolate bar, despite having just eaten a fully satisfying meal. I
could see in his eyes the thought, 'If I can just have this chocolate
bar then I can survive the rest of the retreat'. We reward ourselves often,
convincing ourselves that this is not a consolation but a need. It is
rather humbling to realize that human beings have evolved over the millennia
suffering untold privations and that we the inheritors of all that cannot
sit out a retreat without the consolation of a chocolate bar! Sometimes
we really do
This is not to say that preferences are illegitimate. We all have different ways of doing things. When I go shopping, for example, I prefer to go to a specific shop, find what I want say a shirt, check the size, style and price, buy it and return home. My mother, on the other hand, when shopping for shoes, for example, will try on several pairs of shoes at the first shop, then move up the high street trying on several pairs at each shop. She will only decide to buy a pair when all the shops in the high street have been visited. Individually, there is no problem. However, when I was a child and my mother took me shopping to buy a pair of trousers, it was a different story. We would go in the first shop and she would say, 'Now Martin, which pair of trousers would you like?' I would look around, try on a pair or two and finally decide, 'These are fine.' But my mother would say, 'Try this other pair on; these might be better.' And then - 'Let's try a shop further up the high street.' We would visit all the shops in the high street and then she would say, 'Now, Martin which pair would you really like.' And I would say, 'The pair that I chose in the first shop.' Finally, after I had tried on my first choice again, she would say, 'Now Martin, are you absolutely sure these are the ones you want?' I have my way of shopping and she has hers. This is an example of Dukkha, suffering due to that grinding 'bad space'. I cannot quite have my way because she is holding the purse strings; it's her preference that dominates, not 'my' preference that dominates. 'I' cannot live with that. That is Dukkha, suffering.
This grinding, sticking, wanting and resisting, are called the Attachments (raga). When the Buddha awoke at his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree he said: 'All beings are fully and completely endowed with the wisdom and the power of the Tathagata but sadly, human beings, due to their sticky attachments, are not aware of it.'
What am I aware of? Firstly there is 'me', and then there is you and everything else. We all see the world in our own particular way, but the Buddha in this declaration is pointing out that this is not the way things actually are. He is saying this view is a delusion, and is not a clear way of seeing. The Attachments that prevent that clear seeing are conditions with very specific causes. The Attachments are sustained and powered by the passions (klesa). At the centre of the Wheel of Life three of the fundamental passion-energies are depicted by a cockerel, representing greed (lobha), by a snake, representing hate (dvesa), and by a wild boar, representing delusion (moha). Traditionally the cockerel has a barnyard of hens, is very jealous and always wants more. The snake has a poison sack and spits venom, representing ill will. When the wild boar cleans himself he digs his tusks into the earth and throws earth back over his body. As he is thought not to see clearly he represents delusion. It is easy to understand why greed and hate are counted as passions, but why is delusion? Let us return to the basic delusion of 'I' separated from the rest of the universe, you and everything else. If something threatens this view, a passion begins to arise, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in our views and opinions. When 'putting the world to rights' during a dinner party we can often become adamant, our voice becoming passionate, and if challenged by being asked why we are so fired up we will deny that we are because we are quite unaware of it. We may pride ourselves on being tolerant because we hold very inclusive views about most aspects of society, but we all have particular views that, if challenged as being quite wrong, cause our openness, understanding and tolerance to be replaced by a hot feeling of intolerance and ill will. This is because the nature of 'I' is partial, subject to attachment and clinging. Whenever it comes under threat we react with these three fires, the passions of greed, hate and delusion, and acting out attachments only sustains, strengthens and entrenches delusion further. Because of my fundamental attachment to 'I' and 'my' view and my belief that everything else is separate from me, there is suffering. The Buddha said that this is in fact an illusion and is not the way things really are. The Buddhist practice of bhavana, meditation, leads us from this erroneous view to seeing clearly the way things really are, which is that all things are subject to change, that all things are fundamentally unsatisfactory and that there is no-'I.'
The last of a recent series of TV programmes about the human brain called 'Brain Story' dealt with consciousness. In it were a number of very interesting experiments, including one to determine whether the brain has a particular location for an overarching control centre. In fact the researchers were looking for the location of a 'doer', an agent that instigates action. In a slow, controlled way they anaesthetized a volunteer while scanning his brain in order to pinpoint the area that closes down last before consciousness is lost. They were hoping to find where the 'I' lives in the brain. What they found was that no part of the brain closes down under anaesthesia; in fact they do not understand exactly how anaesthesia works. They can observe consciousness going but they cannot find where it goes from. This points to the fact that the anaesthetized brain is still active, although without 'I' consciousness or sensory awareness.
The following experiment hinged on the assumption that if we see something, we feel there must be an 'I' that sees; if we hear something there must be a hearer, an 'I' that hears, and if there is thinking surely there must be a thinker, an 'I' who thinks and that this 'I' must instigate the action with my intention. The experiment was set up with the volunteer facing a stop watch on a screen and his hand on the key that would stop the fast-moving second hand. He was also wired up to a scanner. His task was simply to stop the clock. They intended to measure the delay between when the volunteer intending to stop the clock and the moment that the clock was actually stopped. It was found, however, by also scanning muscle activity that the body was already gearing itself up to stop the clock before the brain registered the intention of doing so. This shows that there is something operating before 'I' intention. So no-'I' works! Seeing, hearing and thinking arise regardless of 'I'. It is from this fallacy, this erroneous view of 'I', that we seek to be liberated.
How we see things conditions how we act, and those actions condition what we become, which in turn determines the world that we experience. We interpret everything from our own frame of reference, believing that the world is how we expect it to be. The way we see things conditions what we think, say and do. So the six realms represented on the Wheel of Life exist not only as our inner life but also are projected outwards into the world in which we live. The Buddha prescribed the cure by saying that as long as we live out our passions in the misguided view of the separation of 'I' and 'other', that is within the six realms powered by the Three Fires of greed, hate and delusion, the stronger these passions will become.
Liberation from the attachments that cause Dukkha or suffering involves following a path of training that leads to a true and clear view. This clear view forms the very first step on the Noble Eightfold Path, part of the first teachings the Buddha gave. This path leads to a way of seeing that 'I' cannot possibly imagine, and is illustrated by this story: A man went to a psychiatrist complaining that the whole world was against him. He said, 'Everyone treats me appallingly and even my friends and family plot against me.' The psychiatrist said, 'Do not worry, come to me for therapy twice a week for 10 years and we shall get your problem sorted.' The man faithfully attended therapy twice a week for ten years when, one day, his psychiatrist pronounced him cured. He said to the man, 'Well, Mr Smith, you are now cured of your persecution mania; you are now fit and healthy.' The man replied, 'I don't know what you mean by 'persecution mania'; there has never been anything wrong with me.'Nevertheless, I must admit the world is treating me a lot better now!' Our view of the world is projected from inside ourselves, and the Buddha's remedy to this wrong view is the path of practice (bhavana).
Before beginning on our main topic the Pratityasamutpada, I would like to remind you of the teaching on the Five Skandhas, Karman and the dharma samtana.
The word Dharma spelt with a capital 'd', Dharma, means the Buddha's teaching. It can also mean the Law or the way things really are or the true nature of things clear of the delusion of 'I'. When it is spelled with a lower case 'd', dharma, it means an element of consciousness. The Five Skandhas are the aggregates of these dharma elements that make up a conscious human being. They are: body and sense data, rupa; sensation, vedana; perception, samjna; mental formations, samskara; and consciousness, vijnana, in which all the other skandhas are imbedded. This consciousness which constitutes not only what a human being is but also what a human being can be conscious of, is itself made up of elements (dharmas). If we reflect for a moment we shall see that even in the physical world, everything, whether tactile, form and colour or sound and sight, arises in consciousness. Therefore dharmas encompass both the psychological and the physical. No human experience is outside consciousness.
Dharmas are the smallest component of consciousness, they have a very brief existence. So fleeting are they that we are not aware of them. We are aware of a world of appearances. We look in the mirror, and ten years later we look again and notice wrinkles and greying hair. Ten years later still we notice more wrinkles, white hair and a stooping figure. We become aware of our impermanence. The same is true of our mental states. One day the sun is shining and we are happy. Tomorrow it may be misty and dull, and perhaps our mental state will mirror that. Later, we may meet with friends and have a pleasant time. Our mood changes to a happier state, but then in the evening we may feel sad. What we do not see, however, is that all these states, whether physical or mental, are made up of clusters of these brief components of consciousness. These clusters form states that come to be, exist for a moment and then cease to be. They are illustrated on the Wheel of Life as the Six Realms of Existence.
The Wheel of Life represents a picture of the various states that we live in all our waking lives (and in dreams to!). The Wheel which is also known as the Wheel of Birth and Death often appears, to Westerners, as a fortaste of possible after lives and as such may not appear so terrible. We hear about people wanting to get off the wheel and do not appreciate the urgency. We may think rebirth as a fly or an ant undesirable but there is certainly an up-side to being born as a lion or perhaps even as a human again! In fact it can be quite difficult to understand the rush to enter Nirvana?
What we do not appreciate is that we do not have to wait until we die to this life to experience the other realms, we are re-born into them every day. When things are going well we are with the gods, when I do not get what I want then it's the fighting demons or the animal realm where there is no redress. The fact is that even though I know that I get upset in certain situations I cannot help feeling that way because, as I like to say, 'You make me so angry' or 'My job is so boring that even the thought of going into work depresses me'. If we experience the world that we live in as flat and lifeless, or that everything is getting on top of me, then it is not by an act of my will that the feeling of oppression can be lifted.
These states arise of their own accord due to certain causes and conditions. In fact we are driven around by these states, fuelled by the passions or klesas, compelled to chase after this or that or being upset by this or that. It is not just that I want something but I cannot bear the thought of not having it. It is this compulsiveness that betrays the presence of the passions as is all too evident in our own behaviour and that of others. If we look around it is clear that even small annoyances can produce overreactions in us. When there is no seat on the bus, or someone pulls out in front of me in the car, seeing someone else get something that was denied to me. Seen in this way, can we now glean an inkling into the urgent wish to leave this constant round?
To realize how these clusters of dharmas come into being and go out of being and how they give the appearance of change over time think of a bell being struck. The sound is loud at first - a clear definite tone - but gradually it dies away. On the striking of the bell a sound dharma comes to be. The next moment it ceases to be, being immediately replaced by another dharma not quite so loud which comes to be and the next moment, ceases to be. This in turn is immediately replaced by another dharma even quieter. This procession of dharmas is replaced by ever softer dharmas. It goes so quickly that we are only aware of a smooth diminution of sound. Clusters of dharmas arise and pass away seamlessly, in procession.
The Five Skandhas
A merchant on a two-day journey to market reached the end of the first day. As it was summer and hot, rather than spend money on putting up at the inn he decided to sleep in the open air. Looking over the cemetery wall he saw an inviting, cool gravestone. He hopped over the wall, lay on the gravestone and promptly fell asleep. In the middle of the night he was awoken by an deafening uproar from the end of the cemetery. He rolled off the gravestone and hid behind an upright stone. There was a tumultuous noise of stomping and clamour. He looked over the gravestone and in the far corner of the graveyard there were two huge demons, one red and one blue. They were tearing open the graves and devouring the corpses. The merchant was terrified and didn't know what to do. He couldn't escape because these two huge demons might catch and devour him too, so he looked for a hiding place. He saw a weeping willow with branches trailing to the ground, an excellent hiding place. Moving carefully and quickly he climbed up into its branches and hid clinging to the high branches in the middle of the tree. Unfortunately, he was shivering and shaking with fright so much that it made the tree itself tremble.
Eventually the red demon noticed the shaking tree. With two giant strides he went over to the tree and parted the branches like curtains, and there clinging to the trunk was the terrified merchant, who pleaded, 'Please don't eat me, please don't eat me. I've a wife and four children. If you eat me what will become of them?' The red demon was unmoved and grasped the merchant and tore off his right arm and devoured it. Meanwhile the blue demon had come over and had heard the merchant's plea and was moved by it. The blue demon smashed open one of the graves, lifted the lid of a newly buried coffin and tore off the right arm of the corpse and stuck it on to the merchant. Then the red demon, getting into his stride, tore off one of the merchant's legs. In response the blue demon smashed open another grave, tore off the leg of the corpse and stuck it on to the merchant. And so it went, limb for limb, head for head, torso for torso, and each time the red demon tore off a body part the blue demon replaced it from one of the corpses. This continued until the two demons vanished as the day began to dawn. A dishevelled, uncertain, somewhat shaken, merchant climbed down from the willow tree. He decided that he was not in a fit state to continue his journey. The fact was, his mind was consumed with an overwhelming question: 'Who am I?'
Here are the Five Skandhas, and on one side there is the red demon, on the other side the blue demon. As a cluster of dharmas arises, the red demon snatches it away. Immediately the blue demon replaces it with a new cluster of dharmas, only for the red demon to snatch it away, and immediately again the blue demon replaces it with a new cluster of dharmas. Thus is formed a continuous procession of dharmas.
Vasubandhu goes on to say that the dharma series has intentional action as its original cause. In daily life practice and on the meditation cushion we quickly discover that, despite what I try to will, thoughts, moods and passions arise. And I cannot will them into existence, nor can I will them out of existence. By way of example, I have never liked pickled onions. I had an uncle who loved them and would sit and eat them in front of me. Even the sound of them being eaten and the smell of the pickling vinegar is stomach churning for me. I could not like them even if I tried. Maybe I could pick up a pickled onion, a very small one, and even put it into my mouth, crunch it and swallow it, but I could not make myself enjoy it. These clusters of dharmas, these states arise not because I intend them but because they have intentional action or Karman as their origination and cause. They arise because in the past they have been conditioned to arise, not because 'I' in this moment have willed them into being. Vasubandhu says that each of the skandhas, these dharma clusters, has a prior intentional action as its cause. What this means is that whatever state arises, whether collected or diffuse, dissolute or sober, concentrated or sleepy, interested or bored, all states of consciousness arise because of previous intentional action.
We begin to see that there are qualitative differences between our intentional actions. All intentional actions, whether good or bad, skilful or unskilful, will produce end results; they are all karma producing. There are, however, some actions that produce wholesome future states and some that produce unwholesome future states. It is therefore possible to describe actions as skilful, producing wholesome future states, or unskilful, producing unwholesome future states. St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuit Order, was a soldier in early life. When his leg was shattered by a cannonball and he had to spend six to eight months recuperating, suddenly there was nothing that this man of action could do. All he had to pass the time was the Bible and a book on the lives of the saints. However, he also had a vivid imagination and would spend hours daydreaming. He loved constructing dramatic stories in his mind, casting himself as the hero. As he had unlimited time at his disposal, each drama would last for several hours. He would imagine all the characters and places down to the finest detail and build up stories of chivalry and adventure to epic proportions. He had two major themes, One was adventure, acts of heroism and chivalry, with him as hero pursuing the hand of a fair maiden. The other was inspired by stories from the New Testament, in which he would imagine himself to be present at scenes such as the sermon on the mount or the passion of Christ. As time passed he began to notice a difference in the effect that these two kinds of theme had on him. Spending several hours immersed in an epic drama of heroism and chivalry left him exhausted, all passion spent. A quite different mood followed when he imagined himself at one of the dramatic events in the New Testament. These produced quiet, tranquillity or exultation and inspiration, and from this insight he later developed what came to be known as the Ignatius Meditations, which are practised to this day.
There is nothing quite like that in Buddhism, but we do have what are known as skilful and unskilful actions. The Five Precepts lead to joy because they are conducive to the eradication of 'I' and the erosion of the attachments. Conversely, other, unskilful actions produce clusters of dharmas that are unharmonious and lead to discontent and suffering.
The Jataka tales are the traditional collection of 'birth stories' that illustrate how our actions right now condition future mental states. These are the stories of the Buddha's previous lives, they trace his development to a great bodhisattva, eventually to be born as Prince Gautama and then to become the Buddha. They are stories of skilful acts, of generosity, as when the Buddha-to-be as a bodhisattva offered his very body to a starving tigress and her cubs.
Vasubandhu says that 'these acts do not perish, even after hundreds of millions of cosmic kalpas, on meeting the right combination of conditions they bear fruit.' So it is not only the intentional acts, the causes, that produce karmic seeds. They must have the right conditions in order to bear fruit. For example, when a boy I accidentally stepped on a wasps nest and was quite badly stung. Ever since, I have had a fear of wasps. However this fear is not always the same. There have been times when a wasp has came into the room and I have immediately left. At other times I am happy to see a wasp and for it to land on the table in front of me, even to land on me provided that I can see it clearly. Why do I not always feel that intensity of fear? I have discovered that it depends on my mental state at the time. If I am in an agitated state - maybe I am just out of sorts or I have been upset by something but that internal condition has to be in force - for the presence of a wasp to trigger the full terror and the reaction to it. A certain cluster of dharmas has met the right conditions they bear fruit, there is fear and before I know it, it is 'Excuse me, I will continue this talk some other time', and I have walked out of the room! At other times when the agitated state is absent and I am calm and collected, I can quietly accept the presence of a wasp, although I shall watch it carefully. Because the mental conditions are not right for that particular cluster of dharmas of fear to arise, there is no terror. In short, for particular states to arise, there must be the causes, the intentional act in the past and the right conditions in the present, both internal and external, for the past seeds to bear fruit.
2 Mental Formations (Samskara)
3 Consciousness (Vijnana)
4 Name and Form (nama-rupa)
5 The Six Sense Gates (Sadayatana)
6 Sense Impressions (Sparsa)
7 Sensation/Feeling (Vedana)
8 Desire/Craving (Trsna)
9 Grasping and Clinging (Upadana)
10 The Process of Becoming (Bhava)
11 Birth (Jati)
12 Old Age and Death (Jara-marana)
Several years ago, I heard a radio interview with a man whose mother had died from cancer. For some reason he blamed his father for his mothers death and felt a deep bitterness towards him. His father, who was not a young man, was ill and could no longer look after himself. The son had no option but to take the father in under his own roof. Despite the fact that he felt this bitterness towards his father, he did feel sorry for him too. So the son made a conscious decision not to take it out on his father but to do his duty by him. Every day the son took care of his father, talked with him, shopped for him, took him on holiday and generally looked after him. One morning after about a year of living together with his father, the son woke up and suddenly realized that, without knowing it, the bitterness and deep hurt that he felt had gone. In fact he realized that he felt love for his father once again.
There are three important factors in this story that allowed
the change of heart to occur. Firstly, the son was fully aware of
his feelings towards his father. Secondly, he had made a conscious
decision to bear those feelings willingly without venting them on him. Thirdly,
he had to be in everyday contact with the subject of his bitterness and
maintain an outward form of service and devotion. Had one of these
factors been missing, that change could not have taken place. He
could have taken his father in but harboured that resentment such
things only stoke up the fires even more, and sooner or later they boil
over. So too if he had not been aware of his true feelings, if he
had said to himself, I ought not to feel this towards my own father
and tried to pretend he was the dutiful son.
In addition, we must always remember the Buddhas Middle
Way, because it is not a matter of pushing or forcing the passion away,
as that too is based on an aversive clinging, which is also a klesa
with Karmic results.
The Pratityasamutpada, the Twelve-linked Chain of Arising due to Conditions, puts our practice in a context. It provides a logical explanation for our practice and explains what the process is, why restraint is necessary and the significance of containing the passions so that they do not flow into the next link in the chain. It explains the significance of intentional acts, of why we set up skilful practices such as meditation and of why, as soon as we find that we are daydreaming, we intentionally give ourselves back into what is being done at this moment. Giving ourselves is also a skilful act, because the result is awareness, one of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. We become aware that we do not do this practice for my benefit alone: the more we work on ourselves, the more we are of service to others.
I remember talking with a Catholic priest who was interested in Buddhism. He asked if there was intercession in Buddhism. I understood this from my childhood: God is too remote a figure for us to make contact with him, so instead we ask a saint to intercede on our behalf and petition God to grant us grace. This can be used in practical matters such as praying to St Christopher to ask God to ensure a safe journey or to St Anthony to ask God to help us to retrieve a lost item. So I replied, No, we do not have such a thing in Buddhism. It was not until afterwards that it occurred to me that we spend all this time emptying out the root attachment, but for whose benefit? We may think that it is just for my benefit; however, this would be a selfish act, an act based on my wanting peace and happiness. Alternatively I might wish to spread a little peace and happiness into the lives of others. I may discover that it is not in the make-up of I to do anything that doesnt have some kind of payback for me in terms of self-esteem, status or my desire to control life. Either way, for me to want to do this practice can only risk strengthening attachment as my acts are based on wanting, even if that wanting is for the best of intentions.
If we really want to do the best for ourselves and others, then we need our own heart to intercede for us. True peace, true compassion, true tolerance cannot be carried out by I, as these things cannot be performed if there is a notion of some kind of payback for me. Sooner or later a situation will arise when my interests are in conflict with the compassionate act. But by emptying out I, the root attachment in whose presence the afflicting passions arise, the True Nature of the Heart can appear. And that can give without remainder and perform acts of compassion and tolerance without conditions. It is ironic indeed that the more I attempt to put the world and myself to rights, the more I store up trouble and that the more I get out of the way, the less obstruction there is for the free functioning of the hearts energy.
Click here to view Flash movie of the Tibetan Wheel of Life Roll mouse slowly over Twelve Links, Three Fires and Yama.