Seeing Clearly Into the Chain of Causation

Ajahn Amaro • August 2005

Last week at the Spirit Rock Family Retreat, we saw many small, young, human beings surrounded by wholesome structures and examples offered in the way of skillful guidance. Seeing the good results of that in just a few days made me reflect on the idea that if we can catch things early and have an influence at the beginning—as something is setting out and taking shape—then even if the influence is small, it can go a very long way. The lessons we learn and examples that are internalized early on can affect us quite deeply.

Similarly, this works with how we apply the teachings. In particular, when we reflect on the cycle or chain of dependent origination—the laws of causality that govern our experience and the arising and ceasing of dukkha—we can see that the earlier in the chain that we catch this process of causality, the less work we have to do to uproot suffering. When we look at the way we handle the worldly winds—happiness and unhappiness, praise and criticism, success and failure, gain and loss—the mind can be observed reacting to and chasing after gain, running away from loss, identifying with, seizing hold of, and cherishing praise, rejecting criticism, and so forth. The sooner these reactive habits are seen and known, the less sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair we experience.

We live very much in our everyday world of perception and feeling. We see sights and hear sounds, touch objects, make decisions, engage with our bodies in the material world and with the 10,000 thoughts, moods, and ideas that arise from those various forms of sense contact. The more we internalize and make use of the teachings on dependent origination, the more we are aware that this is merely sense contact—phassa. Sense contact gives rise to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings—this is beautiful, this is ugly, this is ordinary. From that launchpad of feeling, in the ordinary flow of our experience, what arises is taṇhā, craving. Vedanā paccaya taṇhā—feeling conditions craving, which then leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. When we know this chain of causation, we are able to see that a feeling can easily turn into thoughts of I can’t stand this. This is wrong. This is bad. I don’t like this. I have to get rid of it. Or the opposite, I want it. This is good. This is mine. I have to keep it, hold onto it, or own it. When this cycle begins with possessiveness, we can see how that sense of ownership causes a feeling of loss, and then dukkha ensues.

Again, if we influence a three-year-old in a wholesome manner, those influences can have an effect for a lifetime. Similarly, if we mindfully catch the process right at the point where vedanā is conditioning taṇhā—feeling conditioning craving—the cycle can be broken right there. We can live with a heart completely at peace in the realm of feeling, and reflect, This vedanā is present. I don’t have to own it. Praise is sweet, criticism is bitter. Gain is sweet, loss is bitter. This is how it is. I don’t need to make anything more of it than just that. This is the mind that likes sweetness, this is the mind that dislikes bitterness. That’s all. It’s empty. There’s nothing there. It doesn’t belong to me or anyone else. It’s merely one of the attributes of nature coming into being, taking shape, and dissolving. That’s all it is. So the heart remains at peace, even though there’s full engagement in the world of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling, as well as perceiving, doing, and acting. There’s full engagement, but it is free of confusion and there is no identification with it.

If we catch the process even earlier, way down at the deep-tissue level, and mindfulness is sustained acutely, then ignorance—the whole duality of me as a person experiencing the world out there, of me here going somewhere else, the subject being the knower of the object—is not given any strength or substance. If we don’t catch it, however, that is when avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra—ignorance conditions mental formations. When there is ignorance, then that duality of saṅkhāra or compoundedness arises. But if there is full awareness, full knowing, full mindfulness, then even that subtle degree of ignorance or delusion does not arise and is not given credence.

Discourses on dependent origination often state, “With the cessation of ignorance, there is the cessation of mental formations, and with the cessation of mental formations, there is the cessation of consciousness,” and so forth. Phra Payutto points out in his book Dependent Origination that cessation is not meant to be taken only in terms of something beginning and then ending. The Pāli word for cessation is nirodha, which also implies non-arising. When there’s no ignorance, then mental formations do not arise, the mind does not create the world of “thingness” or “this-and-thatness.” This is the realization of Dhamma. It is simply Dhamma. It is not fabricated. It is not divided. It is not created. It is not split into me being here and the world out there—a subject separated from an object. This is the peace and clarity of realizing the Dhamma here and now.