The Links That Actualize a Samsaric Rebirth

We have started our discussion of these twelve links, and we saw that they describe the mechanism for how we generate our uncontrollably recurring aggregates – the body and mind and so on – of each lifetime, and, specifically our tainted aggregates. These are these aggregate factors that are generated by unawareness – unawareness specifically of the reality of how persons exist – and how these aggregates then constitute the basis of the foundation on which we experience the first two types of suffering – unhappiness and ordinary happiness. And these aggregate factors contain further unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes that derive from that unawareness, as well as various karmic tendencies which are built up by acting on the basis of unawareness.

And because these aggregate factors contain these various “taints,” they’re called, then we generate further tainted aggregates in the future with future rebirths. So the whole thing just recurs over and over and over again, almost like a self-perpetuating system. And if we do nothing about it, it just continues uncontrollably. But if we take control, as it were, but not from the basis of some solid “me”: “I’m going to be in control of everything,” then we can stop this chain. We can break it at its weakest point, which is our unawareness, and gain liberation from this uncontrollably recurring cycle of rebirths.

We started going through the twelve, and the first one was unawareness. That was specifically unawareness of how persons exist, both ourselves and others. And it includes both the doctrinally based unawareness that we have been taught, we had to learn from one of these non-Buddhist Indian systems of tenets – so one of these theories of an atman that we find in the various Hindu and Jain schools, which has to do with basically, what we in the West would call a “soul.” And because we wouldn’t automatically believe that we have a soul and that we identify with this soul, that this soul is “me.” That’s something you’d have to learn; animals wouldn’t believe that they have a soul, for example.

And also this unawareness link contains what is more subtle, underlying this type of this doctrinally based unawareness, namely what’s called “automatically arising unawareness.” And this is understood on several levels. The level which is held in common, or asserted in common by all Buddhist schools of philosophy here, is the belief that I exist as some self-sufficiently knowable “me” that can be known all by itself, as in the example we used yesterday of, “I want you to love me for me, myself; not for my money, or my good looks, or my intelligence, or whatever.” And animals have this as well. When the dog sees its master, it thinks, “I’m seeing the master.” It doesn’t certainly think that I’m seeing a body and on the basis of the body is imputed my master.

OK. Now on a deeper level which is asserted only by, for example the Gelug interpretation of Prasangika, which is one of the philosophical schools, then much deeper is this automatically arising feeling or belief that there is something special inside me, something special inside you, which makes me “me” and you “you.” And the habit of this unawareness, in other words, of believing that we exist in these impossible ways, causes our minds to project the appearance and the feeling that we exist like that. And then the unawareness – with the unawareness, we believe that it corresponds to reality; but it doesn’t. Nevertheless, we do exist; it’s not that we don’t exist at all.

But how do we establish that we exist? How do you prove that you exist? How do you prove that anybody else exists? What establishes it? This is the whole issue that is involved in the discussion of what’s usually called “existence.” How things exist. But it’s not really talking about how they exist. It’s talking about how you establish that something exists. What establishes it? That’s an important word to understand. It’s the same word as is used – I’m talking about in Sanskrit and Tibetan – it’s the same word as is used for to prove something. How do you prove it? It’s not talking about what creates me or you. We’re not talking about what creates it. We’re talking about what proves it. So this is the word “establish,” it’s usually translated. What establishes it?

Is it something on the side of the object, of a person, that makes it that you can know the person all by itself? Well, no. Is it some special findable characteristic inside the person that makes them me, or makes them you? No, you can’t find anything like that. Is there a bar code on the side of the person, or a special genetic code? Well, aside from the fact that that’s only there for one lifetime, you might think that, “Well, this is what makes me special,” a fingerprint or something like that. Because, after all, this becomes a very serious question. We look at ourselves, pictures of ourselves, when we were a baby, when we were five years old, fifteen years old, thirty years old... depending on how old we are, at various stages in our life let’s say, sixty years old, and there certainly isn’t, there aren’t any cells in the body that have stayed the same in each of these pictures, in each of these bodies. And yet, “That’s me!” isn’t it? So what makes it “me?”

So we might say, well, the DNA code has stayed the same. But of course the DNA in one cell is not the same exact atoms and so on and molecules as the DNA in another cell that replaces it; so it’s been changing every moment. So you could say, well, the pattern is the same, of the DNA. Well, what’s the pattern? What establishes that there’s a pattern? Are there little lines joining each of the molecules, on the side of the DNA? Well, no. The mind has mentally constructed a pattern based on all these little pieces. That’s what we call “mental labeling” or “imputation.” All patterns and so on are imputations, aren’t they, like mathematical formulas. And each atom of, each molecule of the DNA, and each atom of the molecule, and each part of the atom...I mean it goes on and on. There’s nothing solid findable there. All the wholes are imputed on their parts.

So, what establishes that that’s me in all these pictures? Well, the only thing that establishes it is that there is the word or convention “me” which is labeled on all of these, and it’s valid. Why is it valid? Well, other people who knew me agree and say, “Well yeah, that’s what you looked like when you were a baby.” There’s the convention “me.” So, this is an established convention that this is a word in a language that we understand that has a meaning. There’s a name. Everybody has agreed that my name is “Alex” in this lifetime. So that’s one thing that establishes it, that there actually is a convention.

And, as I said, everybody who knew me – I mean, I don’t know what I looked like when I was a baby – but everybody else who knew me, who remember correctly, identify it correctly and say, “Yeah, that was you.” So that establishes that this is me. It’s not contradicted by people who actually remembered me and saw me then. It’s not that my mother says, “Oh, that wasn’t you, that was your brother in the baby picture.” And it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. In other words, if someone thinks, “solidly, permanently existing me.” Well, that’s wrong, because obviously we’ve changed throughout our lifetime. So anyone who understands how things exist would see, “Yes it’s you. But yeah you’ve changed throughout your lifetime. You’ve grown. Learned things, so on. You don’t still wet in your diaper.”

So, it’s only this convention or word “me” that establishes that that’s me, isn’t it, when it’s validly applied. And even the valid criteria are all from the side of a mind; they’re not from the side of the object. And I am not created by the word “me” – if nobody said “me,” “me,” “me” or “you,” “you,” “you,” that I wouldn’t exist; that’s absurd. If I went through life not thinking “me,” “me,” “me,” would that make me not exist? No. So, the mental label, the word, doesn’t create the object. And, I’m not just a word. A word, after all, is just a combination of meaningless sounds that somebody decided that this is a word and gave it a meaning.

What is “me?” Me. What am I? I am...well, the only thing that you can say is that I’m what the word “me” refers to, it’s referent object – it’s the technical word – it’s what the “me” refers to on the basis of an ever-changing stream of aggregates, body, mind, emotions, etc. And on the basis of that type of “me,” this is what actually does exist, we function, don’t we? Experience things. We do things. So what is impossible here is to imagine that the word “me,” or any word for that matter, has a – now, here we have to make a very subtle distinction – that there is a referent thing that corresponds to it that you can find.

A referent thing is some sort of thing in a box, the box “me,” or the box “you,” or the box “table,” or the box “good,” or the box “bad,” corresponding to an entry in the dictionary that the word which in the dictionary is of a little box by itself, that there’s a referent thing on the side of reality that’s there in boxes, like, like in the dictionary. And it’s in this box; it’s not in that box. That’s what’s impossible. So words refer to something, but not to some findable thing in a box. If I existed, if “me” existed as some sort ofthing in a box to be known all by itself, etc., it could never change. It could never do anything. It could never interact with anything. It would be encapsulated in plastic, sitting there. That’s impossible. We don’t exist like that – although it feels as though we exist like that. That’s the problem. And we just don’t know; it’s unawareness.

You, box. You, thing. You don’t appreciate me. You don’t love me. You’re bad. Permanent. Never changing. In a box. That’s you. And then we get obviously very upset, don’t we? And we “grasp” – is the word that’s used – we perceive the other person to exist like that because our mind projects that nonsense and we believe it. That it refers to a referent thing, that’s really who this person is. Then we get angry and then we yell at them and that builds up karma and that sets in motion the whole samsaric process. But it was you – that is a valid label. You ignored me, or you didn’t do this or you did that. “You” is just what that word refers to, but not something in a box. But “you” is simply labeled on the basis of the body, mind, speech, emotions, whatever it was that was involved in that moment when you said something nasty to me, or did something that I didn’t like.

But all those aggregate factors, emotions, and mind, and body, and health, and all these sort of things that that moment, well, none of those exist in little boxes either. They were affected by millions and millions of causes and conditions, not only what’s presently happening, but going back in the past in the family and what you were doing before and all these other things. And you don’t just exist like a still photograph. I mean that’s often really the way that we view people, and ourselves, and things in the world; it’s like a still photograph. It’s not even color; it’s black and white. It doesn’t even get all the dimensions of it and then – frozen! The world doesn’t exist like a still picture. It’s a movie, if you want to use this analogy of film. But we freeze it. “Aaah! You said that! That’syou. You’re nasty. You don’t love me.” So the movie goes on and in all the later moments when you’re doing other things and interacting in other ways, well, that’s still you, isn’t it?

So...and it’s only when you freeze something into a photograph and then make it established from its own side as that’s really the way that you are… but then you get really angry. And if you see – well, you know – continuity, every moment influenced by millions and millions of things and I can label “you” on it, I can label “me” on my whole stream of these continuity of the aggregates, then it diffuses the whole thing. There’s no reason to get angry. What are you getting angry at?

So, with unawareness, the first link, then we believe that it’s in reference to persons, and myself, and you. We exist in these impossible ways, that, you know, there’s something like a still photograph, something on our own side that’s there, making, you know, establishing that special characteristic of nasty or something like that that makes me “me.” Or even just simply a line around us that makes “me” as a knowable thing. So we have this unawareness. We are confused about that. On the basis of that, we get disturbing emotions. On the basis of the disturbing emotions, we act in a way that creates karma, so either constructively or destructively based on this false idea and belief in an impossible “me.”

So, we get the second link, affecting variables. This is referring to the karmic impulses that come up to either act destructively, based on this unawareness, “You did something nasty to me,” therefore the impulse to hurt this person. Or, “You are so wonderful and special; therefore I’m going to do something nice to you.” So the impulse to do something constructive, to be nice to you so that you, special “you,” will love me, special, solid “me.” So that’s a constructive karmic action. After we’ve completed the action, then we get some sort of karmic tendency after that: a positive one from constructive behavior, a negative one from destructive behavior.

And that brings us to the third link, the loaded consciousness. In other words these tendencies, which are not something solid, are imputed or labeled on the consciousness, whatever level, we want to consider that with, depending on the tenet system. And that goes into future lives. And we have the causal phase of this loaded consciousness in this lifetime, and the resultant phase in a next lifetime. The main thing that is going to ripen from these karmic tendencies, as is discussed in these twelve links, is, from a positive karmic tendency, our worldly happiness which never satisfies – it’s the suffering of change – and from the negative tendencies, experience of unhappiness, the suffering of suffering. And they can… these experiences of unhappiness or our ordinary happiness… could accompany any moment of our life.

So, I mean, we all know that, don’t we? It’s not really dependent on the object that we’re seeing or hearing, because we could listen to the same music and sometimes feel happy and sometimes feel very unhappy. Or see a person and sometimes you feel happy seeing them and sometimes you feel unhappy. Every moment, actually, we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. It might not be dramatic, in fact most of the time it’s not dramatic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s nonexistent. Often we say, “Well, I don’t feel anything.” Well, if you really examine, it’s very rare that it’s going to be what’s called neutral: exactly, exactly in the middle between happy and unhappy. It’s usually a little bit on one side or a little bit on the other side.

This mental factor of feeling a level of happiness is defined actually in terms of how we experience the ripening of our karma. So when they use the word “experience” in a Buddhist context, it’s referring to this. How do you experience it? With some feeling of happiness or unhappiness? Does the computer experience the data in it? Well, by this definition, no. The computer can, in a sense, know data, manipulate data, do all sorts of operations. Does it experience it? Well no, it doesn’t feel happy or unhappy. Therefore, a computer doesn’t have a mind. We talk about artificial intelligence – well it can do various operations, but it doesn’t experience anything, doesn’t have happiness or unhappiness. So from that point of view, it doesn’t have a mind.

In order to experience ordinary happiness and unhappiness, we need to have a fully developed system of the other aggregates. This feeling of happiness or unhappiness is one of the aggregates: the aggregate of feeling. And so we have the next links which describe the development of the aggregates in a lifetime, from the moment of conception up until the moment when the aggregates are fully developed and functioning. So, in the case of someone born from a womb or an egg, then it’s talking about the development of the fetus. First we have the fourth link: nameable mental faculties with or without gross form. Here we have basically just the aggregate of consciousness, first of all. But it’s not differentiated into the different types of sense consciousness. Those are just potentials. The aggregate of distinguishing and feeling are just potentials. And the aggregate of other affecting variables, only some of them are functioning. Most of that is still in potential form; the various emotions and so on are in potential form. You could say that maybe attention or something like that might be there in a very primitive form because there are certain mental factors that are ever functioning in each moment. But most of that aggregate is in potential form.

One would have to do quite a detailed analysis to say whether all of that aggregate is in potential form or, as I suspect, maybe some little aspects of it might be functioning. And that mental consciousness, as we discussed in detail yesterday, can be associated with either some sort of gross form, which could be either the gross element or subtle elements, or what’s called “without a form,” which just means the subtlest life-supporting energy itself.

Next step, the fifth link: stimulators of cognition. Now the mental consciousness is differentiated into the different types of sense consciousness and the form that you get – referring to the body – is differentiated into the different, at least, into the different cognitive sensors. So there are photosensitive cells of the eyes, ears, etc., for sights, sounds. So there’s some sort of association of these with sights, sounds, physical sensations, whatever it is a fetus can experience in the womb – certainly sounds and physical sensations.

Then we have the sixth link: contacting awareness. This evolves next. This is one of the ever-functioning mental factors that’s part of the aggregate of other variables. And I think this would have to operate in connection with the mental factor of distinguishing. That’s usually translated as the aggregate of recognition. So it’s distinguishing, like light from dark. It doesn’t mean you knew it before and remember it. So, now, when there’s the various sensory types of cognition, the sensor, the sound sensitive, of ears, and you have a sound and some audio consciousness, then there is an awareness that accompanies this cognition, this perception, as being pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

Now, yesterday we started to explain, that this is similar to the mental factor of consideration, how you pay attention to something. But it’s not the same mental factor. Let me explain why. This mental factor of consideration, or attention, is taking something to mind. So either you can take something to mind in terms of a very painstaking attention, or always bringing your attention back. There’s that type of attention. But there’s also attention in terms of how you pay attention to something. How you consider it. And that can either be correct or incorrect. And so this is explained with various examples.

The usual example is with respect to the body: that we could consider the body clean – that’s incorrect consideration, whereas in fact it is unclean, when you think about what’s inside. Or you could consider it static, never changing – that’s incorrect consideration, whereas in fact it’s nonstatic; it’s changing all the time. Or we could consider it that it is happiness – that’s incorrect, whereas in fact it’s in the nature of suffering of unhappiness. So we can consider it incorrectly that it has an impossible soul, or what is correct consideration is that it lacks an impossible soul. So these are usually described as the four types of incorrect consideration. And the four types of correct consideration.

So, this mental factor of consideration can be correct or incorrect. Here, with contacting awareness, you might think: “Well, it’s like consideration,” but there’s no variable here of correct or incorrect. So when we perceive something, we are aware of it as pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. It’s not that one of those is correct. Although it sounds similar to consideration and certainly is connected with distinguishing, it’s a different mental factor. And we also explained that why we consider something pleasant or unpleasant is based on habit, but also, I think, it is connected with karma to a certain extent. Because when we are eating a certain food, normally when we see this food, we might find it pleasant to see it. But then there are other times when we don’t find it pleasant to see it. So the same object, pleasant or unpleasant, and it’s not just a matter of habit here, is it? So I think in some way it’s associated with karma, but it’s not very clearly explained. In other words, based on habit, most of the time when I see chocolate I see it as something pleasant when I see it. That would be habit. But sometimes I see it as unpleasant. I’ve just finished a huge meal and I see this and it doesn’t, doesn’t really interest me. That’s affected, I think, not just by karma but by other circumstances, like the fact that my stomach is full. So there are many factors, I think, which are going to influence our being aware of something as pleasant or unpleasant.

But I think we would have to analyze much more deeply and extensively to see whether or not really there is a connection with ripening of karma here. It’s not explained in terms of ripening of karma, so I have some doubts here. Maybe it’s associated with karma, maybe not. Maybe it’s just affected by habit and the circumstances, like your stomach being full. Or everybody around you saying, “Ooh! This is horrible, this is contaminated chocolate, radioactive chocolate,” or something like that.

Then there is the, on the basis of how we have this contacting awareness, then the next step, the seventh link, is feeling the level of happiness. So, pleasant, pleasant contacting awareness with something; on the basis of that, we feel happy. Unpleasant; we feel unhappy. Neutral; we feel neutral. I’m thinking of an example, that’s why I’m chuckling a little bit. One of my most favorite foods are these salt pretzels and I’ve been on a diet recently, you know, trying to lose weight. And at one lecture that I was giving, they had a big pile of these pretzels and it was very difficult, as I like them, not to eat them because I really am quite attached to them. And, so initially I saw it, and saw it as pleasant, of course, and felt...I was a little bit apprehensive. But, I tasted one. I said, okay I’ll let myself eat one. And I found that it was stale! And then was very happy that it was stale. And so I saw the stale pretzel – actually when I saw it initially, it was unpleasant, “Ugh, I’m going to eat all of these.” And so I was unhappy. But I said, “Okay, I’ll taste one.” I tasted one. It was stale – it was wonderful! I was really happy that they were stale because then I had no interest in eating any more. So it’s very funny. This is...I think it’s not based on habit really here, and this, and it’s certainly not based on karma. It’s based on the circumstances that the thing was stale, the circumstances of being on the diet, and so on.

So, now the mechanism is full of the five aggregates for experiencing the ripening of our karma with a feeling of a level of happiness. Happiness is defined as that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like not to be parted from it. But of course it never lasts, this ordinary happiness, so of course we’re going to be parted from it. And unhappiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like to be parted from it. But we, most of the time, cannot just be instantly parted from it, can we? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We feel unhappy or sad and then we say, “Well, I don’t want to feel sad or unhappy anymore.” Snap your fingers and now you feel happy. That would be great. But unfortunately most of us can’t do that, can we? And neutral is that feeling which, when we experience it, we’d like it to just continue. Like for instance when your asleep, you don’t feel happy or unhappy and certainly we like to stay asleep.

The next links are talking about how we activate these karmic tendencies that the consciousness is loaded with. And specifically it is speaking about how we activate the karmic tendencies for rebirth. These tendencies are the tendencies of what’s called “throwing karma.” These are karmic impulses that can throw us into a next rebirth, throw us into having a new set of aggregates, or another set of aggregates. I mean that’s what all this is talking about, isn’t it? How we generate over and again basis aggregates, “tainted aggregates.”

And this throwing karma is referring to the karmic actions that we do with a very, very strong motivation, whether it’s positive or negative, based on of course unawareness. And also I mean there are some special objects that sometimes are involved, like doing something nice or something nasty to your spiritual teacher, or to your parents, etc. But the main emphasis here is on the strong motivation: either you hurt somebody with really strong anger or you help somebody with really strong love, the wish for them to be happy, to actually help them – but based on unawareness.

And also I should mention that in the standard explanation, these next three links which are going to activate the tendencies, the karmic tendencies of throwing karma, these are explained in terms of what happens at the moment of death; what actually is going to activate these throwing karma that will throw you into a next rebirth. But there are some explanation systems of these twelve links that talk about how this can occur all the time, in terms of activating the karma to feel happy and unhappy. But that’s not a mainstream explanation, but it does exist.