At this point in the twelve links we have the mental continuum, referred to by its main component, consciousness – individual subjective mental activity – loaded with karmic aftermath and going on into a future lifetime. We have reached the second half of this third link, the resultant loaded level. Now, in a future lifetime, the next set of links describes the development of a fetus and the five aggregates, specifically when being reborn as a human or mammal. In other words, the next links describe the sequence with which the network of five aggregate factors develops in a rebirth, so that we will have the mechanism for the sequence of samsara to repeat itself yet again. The five aggregate factors make up what we experience in each moment.
The Fourth Link - Nameable Mental Faculties with or without Gross Form
The fourth link is nameable mental faculties with or without gross form. We need to add this stipulation about gross form, because formless realm beings don’t have a gross form. They just have the subtlest energy.
All these next links are the ripened results of the karmic aftermath. What ripens from the karmic aftermath – the karmic tendencies and so on – are unspecified phenomena, like our sensory apparatus and our feelings of happiness or unhappiness. Unspecified (lung ma-bstan) means that Buddha didn’t specify whether they were destructive or constructive. By themselves, these things are ethically neutral; they become destructive or constructive depending on whether they are accompanied by destructive or constructive mental factors, like anger or love. The mental factors of anger or love ripen from their own tendencies, but technically, they are not the ripened results of their tendencies, because anger is destructive and love is constructive. Ripened results include only unspecified phenomena. But here with the twelve links, we’re just speaking about the ethically neutral basis for experiencing happiness and unhappiness. That basis is unspecified.
Nameable mental faculties with or without gross form refers to the initial period in the womb, when there is only an undifferentiated consciousness aggregate and an undifferentiated form aggregate. An undifferentiated consciousness aggregate means undifferentiated into mental consciousness, visual consciousness, audio consciousness and so on. An undifferentiated form aggregate is when the sperm and egg has divided and developed to the stage where it can serve as the basis for consciousness, but has not yet developed to the point where there is the sensory apparatus that could support eye consciousness, ear consciousness and so on.
When, from a medical point of view, this step actually begins is hard to ascertain, but at least the definition of when this step occurs is clear. This is the first step in the development of the fetus that Buddhism concerns itself with. This is the fourth link.
The Fifth Link – Stimulators of Cognition
The fifth link is stimulators of cognition. “Stimulators of cognition” (skye-mched) refer to the sensory objects and sensory cognitive apparatus needed to cognize them. Both are included as parts of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. This period, then, refers to when the form aggregate has differentiated into its main components – the photosensitive cells and sights, audio-sensitive cells and sounds, smell-sensitive cells and smells, taste-sensitive cells and tastes, and physical sensation-sensitive cells and physical sensations. Although also included as stimulators of cognition are mental consciousness and all validly knowable objects, they are not included as parts of the link of stimulators of cognition. Also not included are the brain and nervous system, since traditional Buddhist physiology does not consider them, although they do not exclude or deny them either.
At this point in the development of the fetus, the consciousness aggregate has developed to the point where it is also differentiated, namely into mental consciousness and the five types of sensory consciousness. The different types of consciousness, however, are not classified as stimulators of cognition.
The Sixth Link – Contacting Awareness
The sixth link is contacting awareness (reg-pa). Often, we find the name of the link translated simply as “contact,” but that is misleading because the term used is the name of a mental factor, a way of being aware of something. The term does not refer, then, to physical contact between two objects. At this point in the development of the fetus, the aggregate of distinguishing has become manifest from its potential. Now, within a sense field, there is not just undifferentiated consciousness of an object. There is the distinguishing of distinct objects within a sense field. In this sense, there is now “contact” with distinct objects, but not in a physical sense. Contacting awareness is the mental factor that differentiates this awareness of distinct objects as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, for instance the motion of bouncing up and down when the mother is walking.
One of the things that ripen from our karmic tendencies, based on previous experience and behavior, is feeling or wishing to experience again something that we like – something that we find pleasant. So, whether we experience cognitive contact with something as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is due to our karmic tendencies. For example, I like the taste of chocolate ice cream – I experience it as pleasant. But where I live in Berlin they make white asparagus flavored ice cream and that I find quite disgusting, though some of my German friends love it. This sixth link, then, contacting awareness, has to do with our likes and dislikes, which are based on distinguishing objects from one another.
The Seventh Link – Feeling a Level of Happiness
The seventh link is feeling a level of happiness – somewhere on the scale between extreme ordinary happiness and extreme unhappiness. The link also includes neutral feelings – feelings that are neither happiness nor unhappiness and which are only experienced in very advanced states of total concentration, the so-called higher “dhyanas,” somewhat like meditative trances. So, in the development of the fetus and the five aggregates, the feeling aggregate is now manifest and functioning.
This whole phenomenon of feeling is very interesting. If we ask somebody, “What are you feeling right now? Do you feel happy or unhappy?” Most people will say, “I don’t feel anything. I’m not particularly happy, I’m not particularly unhappy, I’m just sitting here.” That’s not what is meant here by a neutral feeling. Most of our feelings are of very low-level intensity.
How do we demonstrate that we are feeling some level of ordinary happiness or unhappiness all the time? We look at the definition. Happiness is that feeling which, when it arises, we would like it to continue. We don’t want to be parted from it. It follows from pleasant contacting awareness with an object. Unhappiness is that feeling which, when it arises, we would like it to go away. We want to be parted from it. It follows from unpleasant contacting awareness of an object. Therefore, if we’re looking at something, why do we look away? We wouldn’t do that unless we find seeing that object unpleasant and want to be parted from looking at it. That’s a very low level of unhappiness. The experience of looking at something doesn’t need to be dramatically horrible or disgusting for us to feel unhappy with it. We may want to look away simply out of boredom or, for some reason something else catches our attention. Boredom, if we analyze it, is a low intensity form of unhappiness, isn’t it?
Feeling some level of ordinary happiness or unhappiness is described as what ripens from previous karma. The feeling of unhappiness is what ripens from destructive behavior; the feeling of ordinary happiness comes from constructive behavior. A neutral feeling ripens from experiencing the deeper meditative states of dhyana with attachment. In this way, we experience the three types of suffering: the suffering of suffering (namely unhappiness), the suffering of change (our ordinary happiness) and all-pervasive suffering (according to some explanations, the neutral feeling of the deeper states of dhyana).
As a fetus passing through the sequence of these four links – nameable mental faculties with or without form, stimulators of cognition, contacting awareness and feeling – we now have a full network of five aggregates. It is unclear where in these links each of the mental factors that constitute the aggregate of other affecting variables become manifest and function. These include destructive ones, like anger, constructive ones like love, and unspecified ones like concentration and attention. Clusters of each undoubtedly ripen at different stages. But by now, they are all functional.
These four links, then, describe the development of the fetus. Why are we talking about the development of the fetus? We’re talking about uncontrollably recurring aggregates, remember? This is about suffering, all-pervasive suffering. This set of links is describing how in each rebirth they evolve so that you get the full set. It’s not that instantly you have all five – except in some of the higher god realms – but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about as a human or an animal, this is how it works.
There are many levels of dealing with unhappiness. We are speaking here on the deepest level – ridding ourselves of the basis with which we would experience not only unhappiness, but also ordinary unsatisfying happiness. If we get rid of the basis, namely the tainted aggregates of uncontrollably recurring future rebirths, we won’t experience any of these samsaric feelings.
In our present state, however, on a provisional level, there are many helpful ways in which we can view ordinary happiness and unhappiness in terms of our attitude toward them and how we consider them. For instance, if we are unhappy, we may develop the courage to not only accept that unhappiness, but also to think, “May everybody’s unhappiness ripen on me.” In this way, we develop and practice empathy and compassion for others.
The provisional method for dealing with these samsaric feelings that I find the most useful and easiest to apply is the one of “nothing special.” “I’m unhappy or I’m happy, so what?” When we’re pursuing an aim with, hopefully, a positive motivation, it doesn’t matter how we feel while pursuing it, we just carry on. To use my own personal example, I work on my website. This is a huge undertaking with 21 language sections and 125 people working on it. I supervise and deal with all of that, as well as all the business and financial aspects, and all the grant writing. I do everything. I’m working on that a great deal of my waking hours. Do I feel happy doing it? Do I feel unhappy doing it? So what? I don’t feel joyously happy sitting there at my computer all day long, not at all.
Sometimes I don’t feel like doing this or that task, and the attitude I adopt is, “So what If I don’t feel like doing it?” It’s of benefit to others and extremely worthwhile to do. I’m 68 years old; death can come at any time, so I don’t mess around. I just do it. I reaffirm my aim, why I’m doing it and so on and just do it. If sometimes I feel unhappy, so what? What do I expect? It’s samsara, and of course sometimes I’m going to feel happy, sometimes I’m going to feel unhappy.
We have to wash the dishes and we’re not very happy about it. So what? We still have to wash the dishes. We have to change the baby. The baby’s soiled; are we happy about it? No. Why would we experience happiness about it? “Oh, how wonderful, I have to change the diaper.” We wouldn’t feel happy about it. We’re unhappy, what a mess! But we do it anyway, so what? If we can carry that attitude into our daily life, we just get on with our business of what we need to do in terms of dealing with life in the most positive and constructive ways as we can. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. That is a very fundamental way of understanding voidness.
Often, we make a solid and monstrous big deal out of feeling “I’m unhappy.” That brings on the mentality of feeling that we need to be entertained all the time, which is really sick if you think about it. “Me, me, me. I have to be entertained.” Of course, underlying that drive is that everybody wants to be happy, but that doesn’t mean being entertained, as if entertainment will permanently solve our problems. We always want a different entertainment. We don’t want the same TV show over and over again forever just because it was entertaining the first time we watched it. It’s no longer entertaining, is it?