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The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, June 2-4, 2000

Day One: Unawareness


The twelve links of dependent arising (rten-‘brel yan-lag bcu-gnyis) describe the mechanism of rebirth. Rebirth concerns the continuity of the mind. When we speak about mind in Buddhism, we are not talking about some sort of "thing" in our heads. Rather, we are talking about an activity that is occurring all the time. We are not making a division, as we do in Western thought, between mind and heart or the rational/intellectual aspect on the one side and the emotional/intuitive aspect on the other. Rather, we are talking about a type of activity that includes both the rational and the emotional sides, both thinking and feeling. We are also talking about perceiving: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling physical sensations. So, what we are actually talking about is the mental activity of experiencing. And, it is always the mental activity of experiencing something: mental activity always has contents. Moreover, it is an individual, subjective experiencing of things, and this individual, subjective experiencing of things continues from moment to moment without any break. We experience being awake, being asleep, dreaming, and even dying. Moreover, it has no beginning and no end.

Our individual, subjective experiencing of things is presently mixed with or tainted by confusion. Confusion has been accompanying our experiencing of things also with no beginning. But, confusion is not an intrinsic part of our experience. It can be removed or separated from our experiencing of things. Not only can it be removed in the sense of a temporary removal, it can be removed so that it never recurs. This is because confusion can be replaced by understanding, and understanding can overpower confusion such that confusion never arises again. And that is because the more we examine understanding, the more it is validated; and the more we examine confusion, the more it falls apart.

Because it has no beginning and no end, the continuity of individual, subjective experiencing of things continues from one lifetime to another. Rebirth can occur in two ways. In one, confusion is part of the experience from lifetime to lifetime. When mixed with confusion, we have various types of problems as part of our experience. In fact, Buddhism says that if we look closely, every moment of our lives is filled with problems of one sort or another when our experiencing of things is mixed with confusion. This is called "samsara." The way that I like to translate samsara is "uncontrollably recurring rebirth." In other words, it repeats over and over again, is filled with problems, and we have no control over it. In a sense, it is self-perpetuating.

It might seem unreasonable to say that everything is suffering, but if we say everything we experience or do in life has problems, it becomes a little easier to relate to. Therefore, I prefer "problems" to "suffering." Even when we are experiencing happiness, there is a problem with it. Not only does it not last, but also we don’t know what is going to come next. Our mood will change, we don’t ever know when, and we never know what our next mood will be. That is a problem.

Since confusion is something that can be separated out and removed from our experiencing of things, rebirth can continue without confusion. Technically, that situation is not actually rebirth, but is still the continuity of our individual, subjective experiencing of things. It is called a state of "liberation" or "nirvana," in which one is freed from samsara.

The process of becoming free from samsara and attaining not only liberation but also, eventually, the enlightenment of a Buddha is complicated and involves going through various stages. The continuity of individual, subjective experiencing of things continues throughout the entire purification process: from being completely mixed with confusion to being free from confusion and in a state of fully realizing all the potentials that we have.

To be able to free ourselves from the uncontrollably recurring experience of rebirth with its confusion and problems, it is important to understand how it happens and how it evolves. This is described by what are called the "twelve links of dependent arising." In nice Buddhist fashion, it is neither a simple nor a linear description. What we are going to try to cover this weekend is a description of how these twelve links function. In other words, how is it that we continue to experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth with problems and confusion. We will also explore how a correct understanding of voidness or reality is able to break this uncontrollably recurring sequence so that we can eventually experience liberation and enlightenment.

We can discuss the mechanism of samsara in terms of these twelve links on many levels of complexity. This weekend I propose to explain it with a level of complexity that is neither too simple nor too complicated. If it is too simple for you, please be patient. If it is too complicated, please also be patient. Also, some presentations of the twelve links describe all twelve happening each moment or all happening within one lifetime. Here, we shall only discuss them in terms of the rebirth process. This is their most common reference.

Unsymmetrical "Links"

The word link is used here because the process is described as a chain. You are already warned that it is not a linear chain; it is not that the twelve follow one another in a linear sequence.

In Ancient Greek thought, what is true was equated to what is good and that was equated to what is beautiful. So in the Ancient Greek way of looking at things, beauty is symmetrical: the golden means. Everything works out evenly, nicely, neatly. The truth should be like that. Then it is good. We have this heritage from the Ancient Greeks on an unconscious level. If everything works out to be nice, neat, and symmetrical, we feel comfortable and satisfied with it. If it does not, we feel uncomfortable with it, don’t we?

As one of my Tibetan teachers pointed out, there is no reason why the universe should have to be symmetrical or why things should have to work out evenly. If you think about it from a scientific point of view, if the universe were symmetrical, then when it started with a big bang, all the stars should have arranged symmetrically. But, they are not symmetrical, are they? That shows that there is no innate symmetry in the universe. As another of my teachers said very nicely, "Symmetry is stupid." Let us not grasp for the twelve links to be symmetrical, nice, and neat, because they are not. Let’s try to expand our concept of what is beautiful beyond symmetry.

The First Link: Unawareness

The first of the twelve links is called "unawareness" (ma-rig-pa). Though it is usually translated as "ignorance," I do not find that a satisfying translation because it implies that we are stupid. It is literally a lack of awareness – in other words, unawareness. When I spoke about confusion being mixed with our experiencing of things, I was referring to unawareness. Let us look at its definition.

The Indian masters Vasubandhu and Asanga explained unawareness as the murkiness or heaviness of not knowing. According to some other descriptions, such as that of Dharmakirti, it can include the murkiness or heaviness of apprehending things in a wrong or inverted way. Either we don’t know something or we understand something wrongly.

There are many things that we can either not know or know in an incorrect way. I don’t know everybody’s name in this room, for example. Here we are not talking about unawareness of such things, but only of two specific topics. The first is behavioral cause and effect. This is not physical cause and effect, such as knowing how far a ball will go when you kick it with a certain force. We are talking about cause and effect in terms of behavior. In other words, the cause is our behavior – how we act, speak, and think – and the effect is what we experience. Behavioral cause and effect is about the connection between our behavior and what we experience as a result.

If we are not aware of behavioral cause and effect, we act destructively because we do not realize what the result will be. Consequently, we experience worse rebirth states. We act destructively and, consequently, we are reborn in states that are not at all conducive to spiritual progress.

The second topic that we are unaware of is the nature of reality, in other words how everything exists. Unawareness about reality causes us to have samsaric rebirths in general, whether they are in situations conducive or not conducive for spiritual practice. We all have both types of unawareness.

What is the function of unawareness? What does it do to us? Asanga said that, firstly, it makes us befuddled or confused. Bewildered is another word. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what is going on. Because we really don’t understand, we are confused. Secondly, it makes us indecisive: we are uncertain of ourselves. We don’t know how to act or how to relate to people, though we have all kinds of ideas. Usually we adopt an incorrect attitude and, thus thirdly, it makes us stubborn and we insist on some weird way of understanding things.

If we were to look at the mental or emotional state that is being described here, of being confused, befuddled, indecisive, and stubborn in insisting on something that we are basically uncertain of, what one word would describe it? Do you recognize it? It is "insecurity." We all know it. Although there is no word like "insecurity" in the original Buddhist languages, I think we can understand what we are talking about here. Unawareness functions to make us insecure.

The first link of dependent arising is unawareness about reality, not unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. This is what we are talking about in general. Now we have to understand this more precisely.

Unawareness of Reality

As part of our individual, subjective experiencing of things, things appear to exist with some sort of solid identity. They appear to exist solidly or concretely. The terminology here is very difficult. We need to use general terms in order to get a general understanding so that we can discuss it in more detail later. "Solidly" is the simplest word I can think of to use here.

For example, it may appear to us as that we really have problems in our lives, solidly, concretely. Maybe our partners have left us. In the moment, all that is actually happening is that we are looking out the window and feeling sad. But it appears to us as though we have a monstrous problem – concrete, solid, heavy. This type of thing is happening to us all the time. We apprehend or perceive things that way.

Although we may in fact have a problem, a "monstrous" problem does not correspond to reality. There is no big heavy thing sitting in our room. A realistic way to look at it would be to think that the person left, it is not easy and we feel sad, but that is life. What do we expect from samsara? We deal with it and try to find some solution. The way in which this situation seems to exist, as a monstrous problem, does not correspond to reality. Unfortunately, not only does the problem seem to exist like that, it actually feels like we have a big horrible problem.

When we apprehend something as a monstrous problem, we are either unaware that this is not reality or we know it incorrectly and think that it corresponds to reality. Those are the two definitions of unawareness. Either way, it means suffering.

The Two Levels of Unawareness of How Persons Exist

There are two levels of unawareness about how persons exist: doctrinally based unawareness (kun-brtags) and automatically arising unawareness (lhan-skyes). The first is sometimes translated as "intellectually based" unawareness. I used to translate it as "ideologically based unawareness" or "unawareness based on propaganda," but now I prefer doctrinally based.

Doctrinally based unawareness is the unawareness that comes from concepts we have learned from the assertions of one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems concerning the "self" (bdag, Skt. atman) and which we accept as true. According to the views of these systems, the self of a person or the "me" exists as a static, partless monad (a permanent monolith) independently of the aggregate factors of body and mind.

Most Westerners have never studied the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems and so would not have authentic doctrinally based unawareness derived from learning and believing their shared view that we exist as a "me" with all three of these defining characteristics. However, I think we can postulate an analogous form of doctrinally based unawareness derived from concepts acquired from other sources that assert just one or two of these characteristics. Technically, this unawareness would arise from incorrect consideration (tshul-min-gyi yid-byed), such as considering something nonstatic to be static. It could arise from concepts about how we exist that we have acquired from the influence of our families, society, television, religion, politics, advertising, and so on. We might not have consciously and deliberately accepted these concepts, often we unconsciously assimilate them.

Then, there is the automatically arising unawareness, which even animals have. But, we should not think that animals do not also have analogous doctrinally based unawareness. Animals have concepts, although not verbal ones. Just like a human, a dog, for example, could become very neurotic about itself based on being beaten and constantly told it is bad.

Automatically arising unawareness is not something that we need to learn. Right from birth, we are confused about how we exist. Although we would not automatically feel and believe that we, as a person, have all three characteristics that the non-Buddhist Indian systems assert that the self has, we might automatically feel that we have one or another of those qualities.

When we talk about this first link as the unawareness about how people exist, we are talking about both types of unawareness, doctrinally based and automatically arising. Let us explore these two types of confusion. I think it is important to recognize them within ourselves, so let’s focus our discussion on unawareness of how we ourselves exist.

This unawareness concerns our conventional "me" and how it exists. It seems as though "I" exist as some concrete entity, unaffected by anything, always one and the same, a separate entity from my experience. On a deeper level, it seems as though the "me" is a controlling boss sitting inside our heads, receiving information from a monitor and speakers, pushing buttons, and using the body and mind like a machine. Let us look at examples of each of these characteristics so we can identify what we are talking about.

(1) First, let’s look at them in terms of analogous doctrinally based unawareness about how we exist. We are told by our families, society, and advertising to be a man or be a woman. "Regardless of what happens, don’t be affected by it. Be a man or a woman. Keep your place. No matter what happens, be cool." Let’s think about that for a moment and try to recognize it in ourselves. See if it feels like there is a concrete "me" that is always cool and unaffected by what we do or by what happens. We do not get rid of it by thinking it is stupid to think that way.

(2) Another aspect is that it seems we are always one and the same – unique. "Be someone in this world. Find yourself. Be yourself. Always be true to your self." Our society and families tell us that. It is rooted in our cultures. What is behind it? Feeling that we are always one and the same "me," which is the true, unique "me." If we haven’t found our "selves." we need to find them and remain always true to them. It is weird. Think about it. It is doctrinally based and deeply, psychologically rooted. Also, please bear in mind that all these thoughts are usually unconscious.

(3) The third characteristic is that this seemingly solid "me" seems separate from our experience. "Always be young and look good." That implies that there could be a "me" that is separate from feeling bad or from aging and that could always be young and feel good. When we wake up in the morning and are half-asleep and our hair is a mess and we look in the mirror, we think, "That is not me." This implies that there is a "me" separate from this that looks different. Based on that belief, we make this ball of flesh with hair sticking out look like the real "me." We then think, "Now, that is me! It was not me before." We are conditioned by our families, society, and so on to act like that. We say, "I am just not myself today." Well, who are we then? We also say, "I didn’t recognize myself." It really feels like that. The pity is that we are unaware that we don’t really exist that way. We think that is really how we are.

(4) We are also constantly told to be in control. Freud tells us that there is a super ego. It is a weird idea: There is a "me" inside who controls another "me" that needs to be controlled. So there are two "me"s. It’s like when we say, "I haven’t been letting myself have a good time lately, but now I’ll let go." If we think about that, it really is strange. One "me" is going to give permission to another "me" to have a good time. It becomes deeply psychologically rooted and causes lots of problems. These are different aspects of doctrinally based unawareness about how we exist.

Then we have the automatically arising unawareness about how we exist. This comes about because we automatically appear to exist in impossible ways. It is part of our individual, subjective experiencing of things. Let us look at the characteristics of the concrete "me" that is the object of this automatically arising unawareness. We can understand it from examples.

(1) It seems as though there is a "me" that is unaffected by anything, it is static. "I got hurt, but here I am, unaffected." It feels like that. Because we don’t immediately put on weight, we unconsciously think, "I can eat this cookie and not be affected."

(2) Always one and the same. Doesn’t it seem like the "me" that went to sleep last night is the same "me" that wakes up in the morning? "I went to sleep and now I woke up. Here I am again. The same ‘me.’" It just appears that way, automatically.

(3) It appears that there is a "me" separate from my experience or my aggregates. "I hurt my hand." Think about it. Doesn’t it feel like there’s a "me" separate from our hand? The "me" who hurt its hand seems to exist solidly separate from the hand in the same way as the "me" who ate the cake seems to exist solidly separate from the cake. It automatically appears like that. "I’m feeling terrible." There seems to be a "me" that is separate from the experience of terrible. It feels as though there is some separate "me," automatically.

(4) It also automatically appears that there is a "me" who is the boss. Why? Because there is a voice going on in our heads saying, "What should I do now?"

This is the first link of dependent arising. It is the main catalyst for this whole process of samsara, this unawareness about how we exist – both the doctrinally based and automatically arising forms of it. We all have it. We must not think that just stupid people over there have it; we have it! Having this confusion does not mean we are stupid, however. It is natural to have it. It’s part of experiencing. It feels like that! However, it does not correspond to reality. When we don’t understand that, we buy into it and believe it.

We will leave it here for this evening and tomorrow we will explore how this unawareness about how we and others exist perpetuates samsara. The important point for this evening is that this first link is not talking about something theoretical and abstract. It is fundamental to everyone. We all have it. It is the most everyday experience that we have. It accompanies our way of experiencing things, whether or not we are conscious of it.

Questions about How the "Me" Exists

Question: Can you say more about the characteristics of unawareness of how the "me" exists?

Answer: When we say, "I hurt my hand," it is as if there were a "me" that is separate from something different from itself that it possesses and now it hurt it. We say, "Now I will go to the market," as if we are picking up a "me" that is separate from all of this and throwing it into the experience of going to the market.

It is really important to work with all of this. These characteristics of unaffected, one and the same, and separate are talking about the same thing, a seemingly concrete "me." Another example is someone who was abused and beaten, thinking "You can hurt my body, but you can’t reach me." Similarly, a prostitute may think, "You can have my body, but you can’t have me." A beautiful looking person may think, "I want someone to love me for myself and not just for my body." What is really deceptive is that it feels like that; it feels like we exist as some solid entity.

Question: How could we say we’ve been beaten in a way that doesn’t imply a separation?

Answer: There’s simply the experiencing of being beaten. For example, a few minutes ago, there was the experiencing of watching the television. Now there is the experience of seeing my father walk into the room, the experience of hearing him yelling, the experience of him hitting me and telling me to stop watching TV and to get a job. Then there is the experience of seeing my father walk out of the room and the experience of seeing the television while feeling pain. That is all that happened.

If we wanted to put all of those experiences together and refer to the whole experience, we would say that it is referring to "me." It is an individual, subjective experiencing of a sequence of connected events. What is happening when we think, "He is beating my body, but he cannot really touch me. I am not going to let myself feel the pain and the anger. I am going to be a man"? All that is happening is the thinking of those thoughts.

Just because we think something doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. We can also feel things that do not necessarily correspond to reality. All that is happening is the feeling, thinking, and experiencing. The point is not to make a big deal out of it. It happened due to causes and circumstances from my side, and from my father’s side too. Whatever we are able to change, we change. We add some more ingredients into the karmic soup that is affecting what is happening. When we feel like the solid victim, well, it may feel like that, but it is not really how things are.

Question: If I have a headache, it is the total sum of all of my previous moments? But, at the same time, each moment is new. How can we bring these together?

Answer: The whole process of how karma ripens is extremely complicated. We will discuss it a little bit tomorrow. Basically, all the various actions we’ve done with at least some level of motivation, whether positive or negative, result in a potential for experiencing this or that or experiencing happiness or unhappiness. There are a countless number of potentials. It is a matter of which ones are going to be activated in any particular moment to give rise to this experience or that experience, this mood or that mood. What we do now can provide the circumstances for activating the potential for experiencing either something unpleasant or something nice. If we start to think we’re the poor victim, it is certainly going to activate a potential to feel unhappy, isn’t it? If we think of the situation of being beaten as being the result of many different factors, it may not activate a potential to feel delighted, but our experience of being beaten changes. Understanding the situation and having patience builds up a potential to be able to repeat that understanding and patience more strongly in the future.

Question: There is a New Age idea of having to find our "true selves." Doesn’t this contribute to the confusion?

Answer: Once, a friend sent me a postcard, which had a picture of a young man hiking through the mountains with hiking boots and the whole outfit. On the path, he met somebody who looked just like him, but dressed in a three-piece suit with an attaché case. The caption was altered by my friend to read: "While trekking in the Himalayas, Alex found his true self."

The idea that we have to find our true selves is not unique to the New Age movement. A very great Western psychologist, Erik Erikson, spoke about the identity crisis at the end of adolescence. In fact, he coined the term identity crisis. People need to establish an identity separate from that of their parents and families, and this can be very stressful. It is very important for psychological health to resolve that crisis.

In any case, we need to differentiate what we call in Buddhism the conventional "me" from the false "me." The conventional "me" exists. It is necessary to have a sense of a conventional "me" that is able to function in the world. It is important to be introspective and to get to know ourselves, to know our talents, our strong points, our weak points, our needs, our limitations, and so on, to be able to function in a healthy way. This is not the same as finding our true selves, a solid "me" that will never change, is unique, and so on. When going through an identity crisis, it is important to make that differentiation. It does not have to be at the end of adolescence. It could happen at any time in our lives.

Also, there is a difference between self-consciousness and self-awareness. "Self-conscious" is what adolescents feel when they have pimples on their faces and feel that everyone is looking at them. In fact, probably nobody is looking at them, because nobody really cares. That is a difficult pill to swallow. Everybody else is preoccupied with his or her own problems; they are not interested in ours. Self-consciousness revolves around the seemingly solid false "me."

"Self-awareness" is to be aware of our motivations, what our feelings are, to have mindfulness of what is going on inside in each moment. It is focused around the conventional "me" and on what is actually going on. If finding ourselves or getting to know ourselves means to become self-aware so that we are aware of our motivations, and aware when we’re having disturbing emotions, then it is very healthy. But we have to be careful that it doesn’t spill over into self-preoccupation and narcissism and become the only thing we are focusing on such that we don’t care about anybody else. On the other hand, if finding ourselves means to try to discover the object of self-consciousness as if that were the real "me," then it is very unhealthy.

We might not really know what our motivation is, or we think it is this when it is that. That type of unawareness is not what we are talking about with the first link of dependent arising. Rather, we are talking about unawareness about how we exist – as if we existed separately, one and the same, unique, unaffected by anything, and the boss.

When the way that we’re experiencing things is mixed with this confusion, we experience problems whenever we experience anything. For example, just meeting you and seeing you I would experience as a problem. Why do I experience it as a problem? Because it feels like there is a solid "me" inside and I think that the solid "me" should be paid attention to and loved by everybody. So, in meeting with you, I’m really worried and preoccupied by thoughts like, "Is she really going to pay attention to me? Does she really like me?" The whole interaction becomes filled with problems and unawareness. And it is all revolving around this belief in a solid "me." It feels like that. That is why we believe it. All that is really happening is that I am seeing you, talking with you, and interacting with you. That is all. Understanding this first link is really essential. It is the key for being able to stop the whole samsaric process by which we produce problems for ourselves.