Dependent Origination is the fine analysis of how we get from the Second Noble Truth to the First Noble Truth. Even before taṇhā (‘craving’ – literally ‘thirst’), it’s describing how that experience of craving appears. It all starts off with avijjā, not seeing clearly.
The first section, avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra, is describing that when the mind loses its clarity of awareness, then that creates the seed or the beginning of a subject-object division. Ajahn Sumedho translates this link in a very simple way: ‘Ignorance complicates everything.’ When there is a clear awareness, when there is vijjā, then that awareness is, to a great extent, subjectless and objectless. There is an alertness to the present yet there isn’t the sense of a division between a knower and a known, (a ‘me’, for example, watching ‘that thought’) there is simply hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, touching. There is an integration of experience. In that letting go of subject and object, there’s a simplicity, a spaciousness, a great peacefulness. The mind is alert, it’s bright, it’s energized. It’s not dissociated from the world of the senses: the body carries on, our normal everyday activities continue but they’re held in a different way. There is a quality of attunement to the time, the place, the situation. Avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra is describing the drift from that quality of clear awareness, when it’s not the pure simplicity of hearing or feeling or sensing but rather ‘I’m tasting,’ ‘I’m hearing,’ ‘I’m feeling’ (for example see the Buddha’s words at S 22.59, S 22.89 & Ud 1.10). In short, there’s the assumption of the reality of a solid ‘me’ in here and a separate ‘world’ out there.
The process gathers momentum after the drift has occurred; there is saṅkhāra paccaya viññāṇa, viññāṇa paccaya nāma-rūpa, nāma-rūpa paccaya saḷāyatana, saḷāyatana paccaya phassa, phassa paccaya vedanā. So from saṅkhāra being the first subtle division into subject and object, it rapidly concretizes until the mind is absorbed into sense-contact and feeling. That process happens very, very quickly: as awareness gets blurred, our mindfulness drifts, then in a flash there are the six senses and contact and feeling: ‘I don’t like’ or ‘I do like.’
Then you get to the key link: vedanā paccaya taṇhā. Up to this point we’re simply experiencing the world of the senses, thoughts and feelings; there is still an innocence, a clarity that is possible at this stage, a strong element of mindfulness. There’s still the capacity to be aware of the experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, of like and dislike, without confusion about it. Even though there will likely be a subtle sense of ‘me the experiencer’ and ‘that out there being experienced,’ that can still be known and understood with a great degree of detachment, non-entanglement, clarity.
When the bridge is crossed from ‘I like’ to ‘I want’ then the capacity to be mindful, to not be caught up and entangled, diminishes rapidly. At that point, the world starts to shrink because the attention goes to ‘I want that.’ This is where the trouble really begins. This is why, in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha says that taṇhā is the cause of dukkha. When the bridge is crossed, when something in the mind says: ‘I want to negotiate … I don’t like this; it shouldn’t be this way … This isn’t fair! Why me?!’ or ‘This is great, I’ve got to have it, I want to keep it … How can I hang on to this? This is mine and no one is going to take it away from me,’ this is where the heart is thrown into a state of disharmony, discord, where the dukkha really begins.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from Just One More, Appreciative Joy, pp.23-26.