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The 24 Nidanas

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by Sangharakshita

... more devotional temperament will usually never become someone of a more intellectual temperament. They'll stay pretty much the same right up to the end, even though both of them will be Enlightened. One will be an Enlightened devotee, and the other will be an Enlightened intellectual, even an Enlightened academic, though that's rather difficult, I think. One may be an Enlightened monk; another may be an Enlightened householder - but Enlightened.

So this is also quite important - that though as lotuses or any other kind of plant we grow, we grow in accordance with our distinctive natures. The nearer we come to Enlightenment, the more different from one another we become. You might think that's a paradox, but it isn't. The nearer you grow towards Enlightenment, you don't grow more like one another as persons; you grow more different. But at the same time communication between you improves. I'll leave you with that paradox for the moment. But yes, the simile of the lotuses and the parable of the plants in the White Lotus Sutra, they convey the same sort of emphasis. They convey, they communicate, an emphasis on growth, development, transformation. They remind us that human beings can change. They can change from worse to better, and from better to best.

To take a few examples from the scriptures and Buddhist history, Angulimala, who'd murdered nearly a hundred people, became an Arhant in his present life. That should give us a great deal of material for thought. I don't suppose there's anybody here who's ever killed anybody. Perhaps those who were in one or another of the recent wars have done so. But in the case of Angulimala he'd murdered a hundred people. There's a great story behind that which I won't go into, but he became an Arhant.

And then in Tibet hundreds of years ago there was a certain black magician who'd been guilty of the death of about three thousand people. But he became the greatest of the Kagyupa saints.

That, of course, was Milarepa. And if we look at Indian history we see the example of Ashoka.

Ashoka was a great king, he wanted to unite the whole of India under his rule. He slaughtered thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. Then he experienced remorse. He started going against the grain, as it were. He changed. And he became known as Dhamma-asoka, `righteous Ashoka', one of the great benefactors of Buddhism. He changed; he turned round completely, as his rock edicts tell us.

And this change in all these people and so many others was brought about not by the grace of God. It was brought about by a change in the direction of the human will, a change originated within the human psyche itself. Because man is responsible for his own spiritual destiny. He is free to develop or not to develop, just as he or she wishes. Circumstances may hinder, may even appear to crush us, but in the last resort no circumstance can ever deprive us of our inner, our basic freedom of will, or in a word just our freedom. And this is what the Buddha saw when he saw that pond of red and blue and white lotuses. And this is what the parable of the White Lotus Sutra, the parable of the plants, also tells us.

But it's time I returned to this theme of Reality, to the theme of that the experience of which transformed the Buddha from an unenlightened to an Enlightened human being. As we've seen, the Reality to which the Buddha attained was profound and hard to see. It was the most peaceful and superior goal of all. Not only that. It was not attainable by mere ratiocination. It was subtle, incredibly subtle. And it was for the wise to experience. Nonetheless it had to be communicated.

A bridge, however frail, however slender, had to be flung across that abyss separating the Enlightened from the unenlightened mind.

So how did the Buddha do this? How did he communicate the Reality he had discovered to unenlightened human beings. Now we may say that there are two principal modes of communication. One can communicate through the mode of concepts and one can communicate through the medium of images. In the Pali scriptures the Buddha tends to make the greater use of the medium of concepts, though images - parables, myths, similes - are by no means lacking.

In some of the Mahayana scriptures the Buddha tends to make much greater use of the mode of communication which consists of images, though here again concepts are by no means absent, and a few of the Mahayana sutras are communicated almost entirely through the meaning of concepts.

In the present account in the Pali scriptures the Buddha communicates through concepts. And in particular he communicates through the concept of what we've come to call in English conditionality. He has already given a hint of this in his account of his solitary reflections before the appearance of Brahma Sahampati, when he was disinclined to teach, disinclined to communicate. But this time he spoke of the Reality he had discovered as `specific conditionality', as Nanamoli translates it, `dependent arising'. It can also be rendered as `the originating of things in dependence on conditions' or more simply as `conditionality'.

And this, we really need to remind ourselves, is the basis concept of Buddhism. To the extent that Buddhism is reducible to a concept, it's reducible to the concept of conditionality. The whole of Buddhism, both theoretical and practical, is founded on this concept - not founded on it as a concept, of course. Buddhist philosophy is founded upon it; Buddhist meditation is founded upon it. The Buddhist life itself is founded upon it.

What then is this concept? In what does it consist? Well, this concept of conditionality is two things, or represents two things. First of all, it represents an expression of the Buddha's experience of Reality. It's an expression of the Buddha's Enlightenment experience. It is not something that the Buddha has merely thought out. It's not something that the Buddha has reasoned out, excogitated. It's an expression, a direct expression, of his Enlightenment experience. It doesn't represent a philosophy in the Western sense of the term. Though I've spoken of Buddhist philosophy as being based on it, that too - Buddhist philosophy - it's not philosophy in the Western sense. Buddhist philosophy, as we call it, as an attempt at the further, more detailed elucidation of the Buddha's vision of Reality.

Second, the concept of conditionality is an expression of the Buddha's experience of Reality in conceptual terms, or if you like in terms of abstract ideas. Concepts, abstract ideas, are a means of communication. And the Buddha had to give expression to his experience of Reality somehow. He had to give expression to it in conceptual terms if he was to say anything at all. At the same time, he had to give expression to that experience of Reality by means of a concept that would be intelligible to ordinary unenlightened people. Because we can certainly have an intellectual understanding, up to a point, of the concept of conditionality. He had to give expression to his Enlightenment experience through the medium of a concept that would actually communicate, a concept that would also provide a basis for the eventual attainment of Reality by the ordinary person.

So that concept is the concept of conditionality, or we may say universal conditionality. And I hope this part of my talk hasn't been too abstruse. But unless we grasp this point we won't understand the nature of Reality, and we won't understand Buddhism and we won't understand the process of transformation.

Now the concept of conditionality, or conditioned co-production, as it's more generally called by writers on Buddhism in English, has quite a number of different formulations. Some of these formulations are simple, and others are complex. The simplest formulation is a purely abstract one. This is the basic formulation, we may say, at least in conceptual terms, and it runs like this.

A being present, B arises. In the absence of A, B does not arise. That's the fundamental principle, that's Buddhism in a nutshell. If anyone asks you for Buddhism in a nutshell, and they don't want it in one word, because that word would be conditionality, they want it in a couple of phrases, couple of sentences, just tell them `A being present, B arises. In the absence of A, B does not arise. That's the essence of Buddhism.' - and let them work it out for themselves. Because if they're sufficiently intelligent they could; it's all there.

Tape no. 181 - The Twenty-four Nidanas, Sangharakshita (Second tape, side 1) But the Buddha, even the Buddha, had to make a few concessions. He had to explain it in rather more detail and probably the best known formulation of the principle, the concept, of conditionality is that of the Four Noble Truths, about which we heard quite a lot yesterday - that is to say, the truths of suffering or unsatisfactoriness, of the cause of suffering or unsatisfactoriness, which is craving; the truth of the cessation of suffering or unsatisfactoriness, that cessation being the equivalent to Nirvana; and the truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering or unsatisfactoriness, the way leading to Nirvana. In other words, in terms of this formulation, craving being present, suffering arises; craving not being present, suffering does not arise. Here the suffering that does not arise is mental suffering. You can have physical suffering - even the Buddha could hurt his foot. In fact, Devadatta wounded the foot of the Buddha with a splinter of rock and the Buddha suffered pain. There's also a passage in the Pali Canon - one of my own teachers, Bikkhu Kasyapa, with whom I studied Pali and Abhidhamma, was very fond of referring to this passage.

In this passage, the Buddha is teaching his disciples and he's seated cross-legged and, well, he teaches a long time and his back ...

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