The 12 links of dependent arising is a central and important topic in the Buddhist path, it’s important to know why it’s important in order to develop interest and motivation to study and learn about it. As way of introduction, let me discuss that for a little while first.
Is Liberation Possible?
The discussion of the 12 links is really focused on the topic of how samsara works and how to get liberation from samsara. So it’s not exclusively Mahayana. It’s in common with Hinayana and Mahayana. In other words, this is what you have to understand and work with first, if you’re going to work toward enlightenment. So, this gets into the whole discussion of what do we need to gain liberation? What do we need to understand? What type of mind do we need to gain liberation? What kind of mind do we need to have in order to gain enlightenment?
And is liberation possible? And is enlightenment possible? And that is a very essential question and topic. Is liberation possible? Is enlightenment possible? “How could I possibly work toward it, if I’m not convinced that it’s possible?” So we have to look a little bit more deeply in terms of these 12 links and material that is underlying our understanding of the 12 links.
And although this is not specifically the topic of the 12 links, I think it’s extremely important to understand, or at least to have an indication of what we need to think about in order to understand and become convinced that liberation and enlightenment are possible. Otherwise, why are we practicing Buddhism? What are you doing if you don’t think that it’s possible to achieve the goal?
So, the problem is that our mind projects impossible ways of existing and we believe that they correspond to reality. These are the problems. When we talk about unawareness, the first of these 12 links, that’s referring to basically believing this projection, this junk that the mind projects of impossible ways of existing, it’s referring to believing that that’s true. That’s the unawareness.
And more specifically, our mind projects impossible ways of existing for persons – me, you – and also impossible ways of existing of all phenomena in general, of everything – in terms of the 12 links speaking specifically about the unawareness of how persons exist, both self and others.
Now, of course there are many different tenet systems within Buddhism, many different philosophical systems of explanation, and some of them say that the projection of what’s impossible with regard to persons and the understanding that there’s no such thing, that with regard to persons, that is one impossible way and all you need to understand is the voidness of that, that that’s not referring to anything real, in order to gain liberation. And what’s impossible about everything, including the self, is a deeper one that the mind projects and you believe in and you need to [get rid of] that in order to gain enlightenment. So there’s two levels of what’s impossible – two levels of getting rid of them.
And there are some systems within these Indian schools of Buddhist philosophy that say, “Well, actually you need the same understanding to gain either liberation or enlightenment.” But this is a technical point that we can study in depth later, whether we need the same understanding to gain liberation and enlightenment or there are levels of understanding for liberation and enlightenment. So that unawareness, that first link, is understood slightly differently in each of these tenet systems, in terms of what is it unaware of.
But the real point here is that the mind projects these impossible ways of existing and we believe that they’re true. Now, to gain liberation from samsara, you have to stop believing that these are true, that this projection refers to reality. You have to realize, “This is ridiculous; it doesn’t refer to anything real. That’s totally absent.” Voidness is talking about that – it’s totally absent.
Even if we only just stop believing that these projections refer to anything real, even if the mind is still projecting them, we don’t have any suffering. We don’t produce any further samsaric experience based on believing in these projections. It’s believing in these projections, like there’s some solid me and then we get desire, “I have to get a lot of things to me,” to make that me secure, and anger, “I have to get a lot of things away from me that I feel threatens it,” and so on. We get rid of that, when we stop believing in this false appearance, and so you don’t create any more causes for suffering for yourself.
So even if the mind produces all this garbage, we realize it’s like an illusion, it doesn’t refer to anything real. You don’t act upon it and you don’t produce further suffering for yourself and you don’t produce further samsaric rebirth. That’s liberation. You become what’s called an arhat, a liberated being. The understanding of the 12 links is sufficient for gaining that liberation. But we have to go deeper, if we really want to help everybody gain liberation as well. We need to get the mind to stop projecting these deceptive appearances, these false appearances. If we can get the mind to stop doing that, then we become an enlightened Buddha.
If we want to understand this in a very simple, initial way: the mind projects something like a solid line around things and so everything appears to exist solidly, independently, all by itself, as if encapsulated in plastic.
So like somebody gets angry with us, or says something nasty to us and, “There it is,” it appears as though it’s existing all by itself, independent of all the causes. The entire life of this person, the entire spectrum of all the people they ever met and all the influences and what happened to them the day before and what happened to them before they met us – all these things don’t appear. It just appears this one, “Oouh, you said this nasty thing to me!” as if existing all by itself, a big line around it or encapsulated in plastic. And then on that basis we get really angry.
If we want to help everybody achieve liberation, we have to get the mind to stop projecting this garbage. Because when it stops projecting these solid lines around things, encapsulating them as if they existed independently, then we see how everything is interdependent – all the causes of why somebody has acted the way they did, all the things that would follow if we taught them this or if we taught them that and how that will affect all their future lives and everybody that they interact with and so on.
You have to be able to know that in order to be a Buddha. That’s what an enlightened Buddha knows, the omniscient mind knows that. So to know that, you have to get the mind to stop projecting these impossible ways of existing, this false appearance. So we have to be convinced that it’s possible to gain a true stopping, not just of our belief in these false appearances, these deceptive appearances, but also that it’s possible to get a true stopping of the projection of these deceptive appearances, that the mind will stop projecting all of this.
How is it and why is it that the mind projects these impossible ways of existing?
This is very much related to the topic of the 12 links. When we talk about sentient beings – “sentient beings,” literally the word is “someone with a limited mind” and a synonym for it is “embodied beings,” which means someone with a limited body. A Buddha is not a sentient being. A Buddha is not an embodied being.
And so, if we can use an analogy from computers: the problem is that when we have this uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth, what is produced – and the 12 links explains how it’s produced – what is produced is “limited hardware.” We have limited minds and limited bodies. And basically it is the limited body that makes… I mean these two are dependent on each other. Because the body is limited, the mind, the awareness is limited.
For example, you can only see what’s in front of you out of the holes in your head where your eyes are; you can’t see what’s behind you. This is a very simple example – limited. So, with the limited capacity of a brain, the limited capacity of eyes and ears and so on – whatever life form we take, then it’s a little bit like being in a submarine looking out of a periscope. We only see a little bit – limited. And when we only see a little bit, like seeing out of the periscope, you believe that that’s all there is, because that’s all that you see, that’s all that you’re aware of. We can’t be aware of all the causes of things and all of the results and all these things. We can’t even see what’s behind our head.
So it’s like that. It’s part of this whole samsaric phenomenon that we are generating these limited aggregates. The 12 links explains how that happens and how you get out of that. And the really nasty thing is that it feels as though this is real. It feels as though there is some solid little me sitting inside my head talking, who’s the author of the voice going on in my head. It feels as though there’s some sort of me inside, solid, “Oooh, what am I going to do now? Press the buttons, make the arm move, get information in from the video screen from the eyes.” It feels like that.
The Natural Purity of the Mind
And that brings one to the whole topic of what’s called “the natural purity of the mind,” Buddha-nature, these type of things. So, when an arya has non-conceptual cognition of basically the four noble truths and more specifically of voidness, “There’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing, they’re not referring to anything real,” when they’re focused on that non-conceptually, which means not through a category of “voidness” or whatever, then that state of mind, not only does it not believe in these false appearances, it doesn’t even project them. It’s totally free of all of that.
Now, this becomes a very interesting process. When you become an arya, that doesn’t mean that you’re already a liberated being. There’s still quite a long way to go. There are many different levels of this unawareness, this first link, and the disturbing emotions that come from it. So, when you first get this non-conceptual focusing on voidness, then you start to get rid of this unawareness, it doesn’t come back. You start to get rid of different levels of it.
The first insight that we get here is that this confusion, this ignorance or unawareness is not in the nature of the mind. If it were in the nature of the mind, it should be there every single moment. But look, here’s a situation, when you have non-conceptual cognition of voidness, when it isn’t there. And if it isn’t there at certain times, then it’s not part of the innate nature of the mind.
Then the question is: can you get rid of it, so that it never comes again? Can you get a true stopping of it? But at least first you’re convinced that it’s not part of the nature of the mind. That’s essential. That’s what really pushes you further to work to really get rid of it, because you see you can get rid of it. It doesn’t have to be there all the time.
So what happens after you’ve had this, what’s called a “total absorption” on voidness, non-conceptual, total absorption on, “There’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing,” and that impossible way of existing doesn’t appear at all – what happens is that after that, what happens subsequent to that, is that things appear again and they appear in various impossible ways, but we start to not believe that it’s true.
As I said, there’s certain levels of this unawareness, certain levels that will go away in stages. So, the first levels start to go away. And with enough familiarity and practice over and over and over again for a huge amount of time, then eventually what will happen is, when we’re not totally absorbed on voidness, our minds will still make the appearance of these impossible ways of existing, but there won’t be any level whatsoever of confusion about it, there won’t be any level whatsoever of belief in it. That’s when you become liberated. That’s when you become an arhat.
Because it’s when you believe in it that it causes the disturbing emotions, and that forms a basis for karma and rebirth, samsara. So, on the basis of this, that there is this type of experience – in the total absorption there’s not even an appearance of false existence and there’s no belief in it, and eventually as an arhat, even when there is that appearance of true existence, of impossible existence, there’s no belief in it – then you can become convinced that it is possible to achieve liberation. But of course that’s quite difficult, if we haven’t actually experienced these states in meditation, isn’t it?
The Clear Light Mind
Then we have to look a little deeper and we look at a topic, which is discussed in the highest class of tantra, and this is the topic of the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, what actually goes from lifetime to lifetime, no beginning, and actually continues into enlightenment as well. And although it is present in every moment, this continuity is in every moment, but it’s not manifest while we’re alive, because there’s grosser levels of mind operating. But this level of mind becomes manifest during the period of death. In the death phase, you have the clear light mind of death, it’s called.
And that mind automatically, by just the nature of how it is, doesn’t project these impossible ways of existing and doesn’t believe in them. So, all of us experience that. No matter how much or how little meditation we’ve done, we all experience the clear light of death. We certainly aren’t very aware of it when we experience it, but this clear light state of the mind at time of death is also a very, very important indication that this mechanism of projecting impossible ways of existence and believing in them and then all the disturbing emotions and all this garbage that comes from it are not in the nature of the mind. Because at every death existence you don’t have it.
Also what is important about this clear light mind is that with that level of mind it is possible to have appearances of things, but without projecting an impossible way of existing with it. That’s possible with this level of mind. Now, that state of mind doesn’t necessarily understand what it is, doesn’t understand voidness or anything like that, but it doesn’t produce all this garbage. So if we can get the understanding of voidness with that level of mind, then we’ve really accomplished a powerful tool. Because that’s the state of mind, if we could sustain it forever, that is the enlightened state of a Buddha.
That is what enlightenment is. It’s this state of mind, clear light mind with the understanding of voidness that, through meditation, you’re able to sustain forever. It’s just a matter of familiarity. The more and more you’re able to generate this in meditation and keep it with the understanding of voidness, then not only do the different levels of this belief in these impossible ways of existing go away, but you don’t even have the projection of these impossible ways.
All of this may sound very fantastic and really strange, but the more and more we think about this, then the more and more we can become convinced that it is possible to gain not just liberation, but also enlightenment and this is how it happens. That’s the whole point of bringing up this topic. This is how it happens. This is why it’s possible. And we all have clear light minds, so everybody is capable of this. It’s summarized by the little statement here, which again is an axiom, that’s just the way it is, which is: “The mind is naturally pure.” That’s referring to this clear light level of mind.
If we can become convinced of: “It’s possible to gain liberation and it’s possible to even go beyond that and gain enlightenment, because a true stopping is possible of all this garbage and the belief in this garbage that we project,” then that really gives us a strong motivation to achieve it. If you’re not convinced it can happen and you don’t really understand how it can happen, it’s very hard to sincerely work for it. Then you’re working for, “Well, it would be nice, but I don’t know if I can achieve it.” How can you put your heart into it then?
That brings us back to the 12 links, to our topic for the weekend. Because on the basis of really being convinced that liberation and enlightenment is possible, then you go more deeply and you’re interested more deeply in, “Well, how does samsara actually work? How do you actually get out of it? How does this mechanism function?” And if you can understand how it functions and the various parts of it, then again you gain more confidence in how to pull it apart, so that it’s destroyed, so that it never occurs again.
More specifically, on a very practical level, when we understand these 12 links, then we can notice and recognize in our daily life how we’re creating more samsaric suffering for ourselves. You can see it. You can recognize what’s the problem here. And you have some idea of how to attack it. So the understanding of these 12 links is not just something which is theoretical. It has a very practical application once you’ve digested the whole system. Nobody said it was easy. It’s a complicated system. But once we’ve digested it, then you can actually apply it and see how it’s working, how... “Look, what am I doing? I’m just creating more suffering for myself,” and you know, “Ha! This is what I have to work on, right now.”
So, if we want to gain liberation ourselves, based on the fact that we want to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, specifically ourselves, then we need to understand this. And if we want to be able to help others gain happiness and overcome suffering, in other words gain liberation, this is what we have to teach them. Because they have to understand this. And to know how to do that properly, so you don’t mess them up, you know how to teach them and so on, then you need to become enlightened, a Buddha.
So, this is the introduction to the topic of the 12 links of dependent arising. Tomorrow we’ll start our more detailed discussion of it. But I think it’s very important, before studying something as complex as this, to try to understand the context of it and the importance of it. Because when we approach a complex topic, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, this is too complicated,” and, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to understand this, this is too much.” That’s a big obstacle and you need to overcome it. To overcome it, it helps to understand the context, the purpose, why would you want to try to understand this.
In short, “I want to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy. This is how I make myself unhappy. And this is how I can achieve a true happiness.” That’s the bottom line.