The first link is unawareness. Unawareness – remember I was using this as a translation for the word “ignorance” in order to avoid this connotation that we’re stupid. It simply means we don’t know or we know in an incorrect way. Here, unawareness is specifically about how persons exist – ourselves and everyone else.
For this, we always need to think of persons in terms of individual mental continuums – individual persons that are imputations – and later, we’ll discuss what that means – imputations on continuities of individual subjective experience that go on from moment to moment to moment. This is usually called the “mind-stream,” the “mental continuum,” the “continuum of mental activity.” That mental activity is always individual. When I experience eating, you don’t experience eating – it’s individual and it’s subjective. It is subjective in the sense that it’s accompanied by all sorts of emotions, memories and so on of each individual person that is experiencing moment-to-moment changes.
Each individual continuum goes on from lifetime to lifetime with no beginning and no end. It continues even after attaining enlightenment. The demonstration of that is in terms of the analysis of causality. We don’t want to go too deeply into that analysis, but you can’t have something that starts from nothing and then, all of a sudden, begins to change from moment to moment. That makes no sense.
Further, with individual mental continuums, we’re not talking about something that falls apart and degenerates, like water dripping out of a vase with a hole in the bottom. Eventually there will be no more water; we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about a mental continuum that from moment to moment is subjectively experiencing something. That doesn’t slowly run out over time – though its physical basis, a brain, may wear out and be replaced in a next lifetime with a different physical basis – but the individual continuity of experiencing things, based on previous moments of experience, goes on from moment to moment. Something that doesn’t decline can’t start from nothing and can’t not produce another moment.
As the result of various tendencies and habits built up during previous lifetimes, then in each lifetime, an individual continuum of moment to moment experiencing of things is going to be based on a different limited physical basis. Because of the limitations of this so-called hardware, the mental activity based on it will be correspondingly limited, like in the example of being reborn as a fly. Because of various instincts and so on, a mental continuum that had as its physical basis a human body in one lifetime can have as its physical basis in a next life the body and brain of a fly. Then its awareness and understanding will be even more limited. It can even be more limited than that if it has as its basis the body of a ghost or a hell being.
In any case, there’s no fixed identity to a mental continuum as this or that type of limited being. It’s individual, and it’s not necessarily male or female, or human or animal or whatever. The type of aggregates it will have – the so-called “tainted” aggregates coming from unawareness and all the things that develop from unawareness – will vary from one lifetime to another.
This is part of the all-pervasive suffering that we are talking about. We never know what’s going to come next. That’s the scary part of what type of basis is going to ripen from our karmic tendencies in our next lifetimes. Of course, the basis will have among its causes the sperm and egg of the parents, the physical elements, and the phase of evolution of the world. You can’t be born on Earth as a dinosaur now. So, there are many, many causes and conditions coming together for the type of rebirth we’re going to have.
When we attain enlightenment, our mental continuum will have the Form Bodies of a Buddha as its basis. But it’s not as though that is inevitable. It’s not as though each moment our mental continuum is automatically getting closer and closer to that attainment, which some Indian philosophical systems assert is the case. To attain the physical bodies of a Buddha, we need to rid ourselves of all our unawareness and the deeper obscurations that prevent that from happening; and that takes a bodhichitta motivation and a great deal of practice and effort.
“Bodhichitta” is a “principal awareness (gtso-sems),” in other words a composite state of mind in which our mental consciousness is aimed at our own individual enlightenment that has not yet happened and is accompanied by the mental factors of love, compassion and the intentions to achieve that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of its attainment.
Unawareness of How Persons Exist
Unawareness, as the first of the twelve links, is specified as unawareness of how persons – we and all others – exist. It needs to be asserted that way because the twelve links and the whole mechanism of rebirth and gaining liberation from rebirth are topics shared in common among the so-called “Hinayana” traditions – there are eighteen of them – and the Mahayana traditions. Sometimes these are referred to as the Pali tradition and the Sanskrit tradition, and although these terms are politically more correct than Hinayana and Mahayana, they are not so precise. Only one of the Hinayana traditions, Theravada – the one that is extant today – is based on the Pali texts, whereas the scriptures of the other seventeen Hinayana traditions are in Sanskrit or one of the Prakrit dialects. So, although Hinayana and Mahayana are not terribly nice terms and a bit derogatory toward Hinayana, still they are the most accurate. To be less politically incorrect, I sometimes translate them as the “modest vehicle” and the “vast vehicle,” rather than the great and the lesser one. In any case, liberation is shared in common as a goal for both those that are aiming for their own individual liberation as an arhat – the Hinayana goal – and those who are aiming ultimately for enlightenment as a Buddha – the final Mahayana goal.
Several different Buddhist tenet systems of philosophy, both among the Hinayana schools and the Mahayana ones, were studied at Nalanda Monastic University in India and the Tibetans have been carrying on that tradition. Within Madhyamaka, the distinction between Svatantrika and Prasangika was only first made by the Tibetans, but in any case, from the Prasangika point of view, as asserted by the Gelug school in Tibet, the same understanding of voidness is needed for attaining either liberation or enlightenment, and that is the voidness of all phenomena, including persons. The other Mahayana tenet systems – Chittamatra and Svatantrika Madhyamaka – assert that there’s only a certain level of understanding of the voidness of persons that we need for attaining liberation, and we need the deeper level of understanding of the voidness of all phenomena only for gaining enlightenment. The Hinayana tenet systems do not assert a voidness of all phenomena. They assert only a voidness of persons – referred to as the selflessness or identitylessness (Pali: anatta, Skt.: anatma) of persons – for attaining liberation and, broadly speaking, this is the same understanding as asserted by the non-Prasangika Mahayana schools. In all these cases, however, voidness refers to an absence of anything findable corresponding to some impossible way of existing that we project onto things.
Please keep in mind, though, that voidness as a complete absence is not the total negation of everything. It is not a nihilistic term. It is just a total absence of something corresponding to our projection of something impossible that could never exist.
Let me illustrate the relation between nothing and the absence of something with a simplified example. There’s the absence of an apple on my table. You can see there is no apple on the table. What do you see? You see nothing on the table, but you understand “nothing” to be the absence of an apple. When you see an absence of milk in the refrigerator, you know that you need to go out and buy milk. It’s interesting, how what you’re actually seeing, though, is nothing!
Doctrinally-Based and Automatically Arising Unawareness
Getting back to unawareness about how persons exist, there are two levels of this unawareness and, in general, they will be defined differently by different schools. The two levels are doctrinally based and automatically arising.
Doctrinally-based unawareness of how persons exist is based on some doctrine that we’ve been taught, specifically by a non-Buddhist Indian tenet system concerning atman, the soul. Not only have we been taught it, but we believe it to be true. Based on the unawareness of not knowing that these assertions do not correspond to how the conventional self actually exists, we identify ourselves, for example, with an unchanging, permanent soul that currently lives inside our bodies and minds and controls them. With rebirth, that soul will inhabit another body and mind, but with liberation, it will fly off to some transcendent realm and be totally free of any body or mind. Well, the dog wouldn’t believe that. You need to be taught that and be capable of understanding it and believe it in order to hold that type of view. That’s what it means to be doctrinally-based.
Then there is automatically arising unawareness, which the dog will have as well. Everybody has that automatically, because that’s the way that things appear to us. It seems to all of us that when we hear our own or someone else’s voice, we are just hearing ourselves or the person and we believe that is correct. For instance, we believe we are speaking to someone on the phone. It doesn’t seem to us that we are hearing the simulated sound of a voice produced electronically and coming out of a rectangular, flat black plastic box and the person is merely an imputation based on that. It seems that we just hear the person.
Similarly, we automatically imagine that we, as persons, can be known independently, all by itself, without any thing about us simultaneously being known. It seems to us that we “know ourselves” or we have gotten to “know somebody,” as if we could just know a person, when in fact we can only know someone based on knowing something about them – their name, how they look, their personality and so on. We want others to love us for ourselves, not for our good looks or our brains, but just love me for “me,” as if we could exist and be loved independently of a body and mind. This is quite different from wanting people to love me as a soul that can fly off to a transcendent realm with liberation and be free of any body and mind. So, there is quite a difference between doctrinally based and automatically arising unawareness about how persons exist.
What happens with this first link is that we’re unaware of how we exist, or we think we exist in some inverted, impossible way and we feel insecure. Since it’s based on something impossible that doesn’t exist, naturally we experience that as insecurity. I’m sure we all are familiar with insecurity, almost everybody feels insecure. It arises because we’re conceiving of ourselves as some sort of independently existing entity that could potentially be made secure.
The secret is that there’s nothing to be made secure, so what are we so worried about? What are we feeling insecure about? Forget it, that’s not an issue: security or insecurity. But because we feel insecure, then we experience these disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. Remember, these are states of mind that when they arise, they cause us to lose peace of mind and lose self-control. That brings on the compulsiveness of karma, which then leads to our compulsive behavior.
Disturbing emotions are basically some sort of mechanism that we use – a mental framework and strategy to try to make this impossible “self” secure. One strategy would be to get things to us. “If I could just get enough money, get enough likes on my Facebook page and so on, I will feel secure.” Of course, we never have enough, do we? It’s an impossible mechanism; it doesn’t work, but we always want more. What we don’t have, we want – that’s longing desire; what we have, we don’t want to let go of – that’s attachment; and what we already have is never enough, we want more – that’s greed. More and more visits to my website, if I use my own example. All three varieties of this disturbing emotion are based on exaggerating the good qualities of what it is that we want, or adding good qualities that aren’t there and imagining that somehow what we want has the power to make this fantasy of “me” secure.
Mind you, we do exist. There is a conventional “me.” But we don’t exist in this impossible way that we project and imagine. I exist – you’re not eating, I’m eating, so there is a “me.” But it doesn’t exist in an impossible way, an impossible way that does not correspond to reality.
There are several levels of impossible ways that we imagine we exist. Based on each of these levels of what is impossible, we will experience that level of disturbing emotions, because believing in our projection of this level of impossible “me” still makes us feel insecure about it. So, with doctrinally-based unawareness about how we exist, we develop doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, and with automatically arising unawareness, automatically arising disturbing emotions.
We’ve discussed longing desire: “I have to get things to me in order to make this imagined self, ‘me,’ secure.” The next is anger, hostility, or repulsion, “I have to somehow get things away from this ‘me,’ and that will somehow make me secure.” Or naivety with which we deny that there is any effect of what we do on ourselves and others, so we feel we can do or say whatever we want and, because we imagine it won’t have any effects, we think that will make us feel secure – like, for instance, bossing our family and friends. That type of naivety is about cause and effect. There is also naivety about how we exist and how others exist. We deny that we or others have feelings, for instance. We imagine that by denying that we are in an unhealthy relationship, we will feel secure.
In addition to disturbing emotions, we also have disturbing attitudes. They are defined as states of mind that seek to latch onto something with an incorrect consideration of it and which add something to it that is not there. This is actually the definition of the most classic one – a deluded attitude toward a transitory network (‘jig-lta). With it, in a sense, we throw out a net of “me” and “mine” onto everything. It interpolates, or projects, “me” and “mine” onto various transitory things that we encounter. We try to claim things as “me, my partner, mine: me, my desk, me, my body, my space, don’t come too close.” That type of thing. Then we imagine that that if we have “my territory” around “me,” that will somehow make us secure, “Don’t invade my territory.”
All this ignorance, and the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes it spawns, is the first of the twelve links of dependent arising.