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by Sangharakshita

... arises in the womb of the mother at the time of conception. Fourth, arising in dependence on that, there is nama-rupa, the whole psychophysical organism (the image for this is a boat with four passengers, one of them steering). In dependence upon that arises shadayatana, the six sense organs (in Buddhism, the mind is counted as a sixth sense) symbolized by a house with five windows and a door. Then, as the six sense organs come into contact with the external world, sparsa, touch or sensation, arises; the Wheel of Life's image for this is a man and woman embracing. And in dependence upon touch arises vedana or feeling (pleasant, painful, or neutral), represented by a man with an arrow in his eye. This group of five nidanas together makes up the `effect process' of the present life; they are the effects of actions based on ignorance performed in the previous life.

Next, there is a picture of a woman offering a drink to a man. This stands for the link of trishna or thirst - craving or desire in the widest sense. Then comes upadana, clinging or attachment, represented by a man gathering fruit from a tree; then bhava or becoming, the image for which is a pregnant woman. These three constitute the `cause process' of the present life, because they set up actions which must bear fruit in the future, either in this life or in some future existence. Lastly jati or birth and then jara-marana, old age and death, bring us full circle and constitute the `effect process' of the future life. These last two cast imagery aside; the pictures simply show the truth in its starkness - a woman giving birth and a corpse being carried to the cremation ground.

So what does all this signify? It is a graphic illustration of the whole of human life. Due to our ignorance, and activities based on that ignorance, the seed of consciousness arises again in a new existence, which develops into a new psychophysical organism endowed with six senses. This inevitably comes into contact with the corresponding six sense-objects, as a result of which feelings and sensations arise. We start craving for the pleasant feelings and rejecting the unpleasant ones, while we remain indifferent to the neutral ones - and we therefore start clinging to what is pleasant and avoiding what is unpleasant.

Habitually reacting in this way, grasping at pleasure and shrinking from pain, we eventually precipitate ourselves into another life, a life which is again subject to old age, disease, and death.

In this way, the twelve links explain how the whole process of life comes about. For explanatory purposes they are spread over three lives (past, present, and future), and in particular they show the alternation of cause and effect. First you get the cause process of the previous life; second, the effect process of the present life; third, the cause process of the present life; and fourth, the effect process of the future life. In this way there is an alternation between the two processes, cause and effect, a cyclical movement between pairs of opposites. This is all getting rather complicated, but it is leading us to a crucial point. Within the context of the three lives there are three points, known as the three sandhis or junctures, at which the cause process changes into the effect process or vice versa. Sandhi is an evocative term, being the Pali and Sanskrit word for dawn and twilight, the time when night passes over into day, or day into night.

The first sandhi occurs at the point where the volitional activities, the last link in the cause process of the past life, are followed by the arising of consciousness in the womb, the first link of the effect process of the present life. Another sandhi occurs at the juncture where in dependence upon feeling, the last link in the effect process of the present life, arises craving, the first link in the cause process of the present life.

And the third juncture is where becoming, the last link in the cause process of the present life, gives rise to birth, the first link in the effect process of the future life.

The first and third of these sandhis are `non-volitional' - that is, effect follows cause without our being able to do anything about it. But the second sandhi, between feeling and craving, is of crucial importance for us because it is a juncture at which we can make a choice. In fact, it is the point of intersection between the two kinds of conditionality, the cyclical and the progressive. This is where we either make a mess of things and as a result revolve once again in the Wheel, or start to progress and enter the Spiral. So we need to understand exactly what happens at this point.

All the time, whatever we are doing, even when we are just sitting reading a book, various sensations are impinging upon us - sensations of cold, heat, sound, light, and so on. All these sensations, whether we are aware of them or not, are either pleasant, painful, or neutral. Now, as these feelings arise, how do we react? To pleasant sensations we react most of the time with craving. We want them to continue, we don't want to lose them, so we try to cling on to them. Our natural tendency is to try to repeat pleasant experiences. This is the fatal mistake we are only too apt to make. We are not content to let the experience come and go; we want to perpetuate it, and so we react with craving. If, on the other hand, the sensation is unpleasant, painful, or at least unsatisfactory, we instinctively, even compulsively, try to thrust it away from us. We don't want it. We don't want anything to do with it. We try to escape from it. In short, we react with aversion. And if we feel a sensation which is neither pleasant nor painful, we just remain confused. Not knowing whether to grasp it or reject it, we react with bewilderment.

This is how we react all the time to the sensations and experiences that are continually impinging upon our consciousness through all the senses, including the mind. In this way an effect process is followed by a cause process, and we circle once more in the round of existence. The Wheel of Life makes one more revolution, and all the conditions are created or recreated for a fresh rebirth. This is where it all happens, at the point where in dependence upon feeling there arises craving.

But suppose we do not react in this way. Suppose, when sensations and feelings befall us, we do not react with craving or aversion or confusion. Suppose we can stop the process, suppose we can stop the Wheel turning - then what happens? Quite simply, what happens then is that mundane, conditioned existence comes to an end, and only the transcendental is left. We attain Enlightenment, nirvana, or whatever else we like to call it.

The next question is how to stop the process. It is easy to say, but how do we do it? Broadly speaking, there are two ways of ensuring that feeling is not succeeded by craving, two ways of ensuring that the Wheel does not make another revolution. The first is a sudden way which shatters the Wheel at a single blow; the second is a gradual way which progressively slows the Wheel down, gently applying a brake to bring the whole thing slowly to a halt.

The sudden way may sound rather Zen-like, Zen being famous for its abrupt methods, but we can illustrate it with a story not from the Zen tradition but from the Udana of the Pali Canon: the story of Bahiya.<$FThe Udana - Inspired Utterances of the Buddha, 1.10, trans. John D. Ireland, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka 1990.> Bahiya was a monk who had been admitted to the order in some distant part of the country, which meant that he had never had the chance to meet the Buddha or ask him any questions. He wanted to put this right as soon as possible, so he made the long journey to the place where the Buddha was staying. When he arrived, however, the Buddha was out on his daily alms round, going from house to house for food. Having come so far, Bahiya wasn't going to hang around waiting for the Buddha to come back, so he asked someone which direction the Buddha had taken and eagerly went after him.

It wasn't long before he caught up with the Buddha, still walking mindfully from door to door. Bahiya had no thought of waiting for a suitable moment to speak with his teacher for the first time. Almost treading on the Buddha's heels, he called out, no doubt rather breathlessly, `Please give me a teaching.' But it was the Buddha's custom never to speak during his alms round, so he ignored Bahiya's request and kept on walking. A second time Bahiya asked, even more urgently this time, `Please give me a teaching.' But again the Buddha ignored him and kept walking. Refusing to give up, Bahiya made his request for a third time.

And this time he got a response. It was apparently a rule with the Buddha that if anyone asked him something three times, he would answer the question, whatever it was and however serious the consequences might be for the questioner. So, stopping in his tracks, he turned round, gave Bahiya a very direct look, and said, `In the seen, only the seen. In the heard, only the heard. In the touched, only the touched. In the tasted, only the tasted. In the smelt, only the smelt. In the thought, only the thought.' He then turned round and went on with his alms round - and Bahiya became Enlightened on the spot.

The Buddha was saying, in effect, `Don't react.' If a sound impinges on your eardrums, it's just a sound - you don't have to react to it. You don't have to like it or dislike it. You don't have to want it to continue or want it to stop. `In the heard, only the heard.' The same goes for the seen, the touched, the tasted, the smelt, and even the thought. Don't react. Let the bare experience be there, but don't make that experience the basis for any action or reaction in the cyclical order. If you can do that, you abruptly stop the Wheel revolving ...

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