PROVISIONAL ARISING OF SELFING MOMENTS by Peter Carlson
In Pali, this is termed paticcasamuppada; its traditional translation is dependent origination. I prefer to translate it as contingent provisional arising.
The word contingent is understood to mean that a moment of experience depends upon other co-occurring factors. The logic of contingency is as follows: if A occurs, B occurs; if A doesn’t occur, B doesn’t occur. In the incredible complexity of life, the amount of contingent variables far exceeds the number of letters in the alphabet!
The term provisional in this context means that because one condition exists in a certain way, the accompanying condition is influenced in its arising, that is, the arisen nature of A provides an influence on the co-occurring B, and vice-versa. For example, a man, A, would respond to a woman, B, differently than if B was a man. So, the word contingent describes the existence or non-existence of conditions A or B, while provisional describes the nature of conditions A or B. Sometimes it is termed as codependent or interdependent origination. I have substituted the word provisional to emphasize the conditionality of the process, as well as the transformational possibilities implied by the term. The co-occurring, mutually influential 12 links of provisional arising provide a karmic outcome, which could be a wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral moment of experience.
The term arising is used to avoid the potential for misunderstanding that occurs with the word origination, which implies an origin or beginning. Buddhism doesn’t consider first causes, because the emphasis is on modifying the constantly changing states of mind that constitute a self, rather than the origins of life. Also, the word origination implies a singular cause in the sequence of events, which isn’t really possible, considering the inconceivably complex nature of life!
Paticcasamuppada represents what may be the first historical statement of what the modern mind recognizes as a psychology of consciousness. In terms of spirituality, rather than attributing the origin of human salvation or damnation to an external supernatural being, the conceptual focus is on how psychological conditions unique to the individual and the contextual circumstances of lived experience provide the critical factors regarding spiritual progress or downfall. This concept doesn’t deny a supernatural force in the universe, but rather indicates that humans are ultimately responsible for their salvation, whether there is a God or not.
Contingent provisional arising describes a complex, dynamic process of interdependent factors coming together to produce a brief, transitory moment of subjective experience, which I’ve called selfing moments. Buddhist psychology posits that the self experience is constantly arising and passing away, relentlessly producing a fluid blending of physical sensations and mental constructions that, regardless of any religious attributions, is simply miraculous.
Most Buddhist systems consider provisional arising to be a chain of associations with 12 links: Ignorance clouds or distorts the incoming sense data as various karmic formations are activated; karmic formations are reflected in consciousness, which, in turn supports the interaction providing the mind-and-form process; mind-and-form acts through one or more of the six sense bases; provisional on the six sense bases, contact or stimulation arises; contact provides feeling/sensation; provisional upon feeling/sensation, craving arises; provisional upon craving, clinging develops; clinging produces the aggregation of conditions that shape becoming; becoming leads to birth, then decay, and, finally, death, (of a momentary transitional ego state which, due to ignorance, craving and clinging, we call the self).
Subjectively, all we are aware of is the emergence of feeling, craving and clinging, completing the cycle, which repeats multiple times a second. The repeated cycling of these factors can be considered in two ways–as describing physical birth, death and rebirth, (the human life cycle), but more important immediately as the existential arising and passing away of subjective life events.
It’s very important to realize that the system described here seems linear, that is, a sequential series of stages, or links. This is a significant perceptual mistake. Buddhist teachings and modern scientific research emphasize the fundamentally contingent, nonlinear nature of reality. The Buddhist concept of interdependence or interbeing relies on nonlinear concepts. The 12 links are co-occurring, operating simultaneously in processing sense data in ways that can be described in ways similar to modern complexity theory. Here is a more elaborated discussion of the 12 links.
Ignorance, called avijja, is considered to be the primary or fundamental cause of suffering during the transitional mind states which are occurring on a moment-to-moment basis. It could be described as the “default programming” of lived experience. Ignorance can be understood both conceptually and experientially.
Conceptually, ignorance means fundamentally misunderstanding how reality and the mind operate. Buddhist doctrine stipulates that momentary, ever-changing “self-creating” is a fundamental characteristic of subjective human reality. The self-creating process crystallizes a moment of “selfing” in this process through craving and clinging, with suffering as the consequence. The essential nature of the objective world is a state of flux, whether observing the flow of a stream or the nuclear vibrations of granite.
Experientially, the untrained mind does not adequately track the extremely rapid changes in the process of awareness, influenced by emotionally potent biases (karmic formations) that distort perception. A highly complex series of neural events operate very rapidly, giving the illusion of continuity which we call the self or ego. Ignorance is deeply conditioned, and is the final obstacle to be overcome in achieving enlightenment.
Karmic Formations, called sankhara, are historical tendencies embedded in the mind that shape the perceptual process; these formations are latent and emotionally potent. Sankhara are much like templates stored in memory—when a current stimulus arises, the mind sorts through memory in an extremely quick process, to determine the “best fit” template to make sense of the flow of incoming data. The accompanying process of craving and clinging, in a sense, forces the fit. This is particularly evident when someone overreacts impulsively to a situation, then, upon later reflection, realizes that their initial assessment was inaccurate and likely maladaptive.
The term sankhara can be a noun, describing stored memory as template; when activated through craving and clinging, sankhara functions as a verb, a creative force. When acted on, the sankhara subsides back into its memory category, in reserve until reactivated. When repeatedly reactivated, the shaping force of the sankhara gets stronger and more convincing as it arises. The most enduring and potent form of sankhara is the notion of an enduring, separate self.
Karmic formations also appear as a component of pancakhandha, the five aggregates. Pancakhandha is another Buddhist concept that describes the dynamic clustering of different factors to create a coherent sense of self. Sankhara operates to aggregate or pull together sanna, perception, and vedana, feeling, reflected upon vinnana, consciousness. These four aggregates constitute the Buddhist notion of the mind. The fifth aggregate is rupa, form—the senses (sight, hearing, smelling, tasting and bodily sensing).
On a mundane level, the categories manifested by sankhara, activated by craving and clinging, are either wholesome or unwholesome moments of self-awareness. As spiritual purification develops, the increasing frequency of wholesome karmic formations produce insights leading to the selflessness of nirvana. These insights diminish suffering.
Consciousness, called vinnana, represents the medium upon which the karmic formations are reflected, like the screen upon which a motion picture is projected. A moment of consciousness reflects karmic formations, becoming sensitized to the arising of the conditioned mental phenomena. The sensitized moment of consciousness has a lingering quality—an example being the enduring afterimage of light that occurs after looking at a bright light, then closing the eyes. This lingering “glow” in the mind predisposes the shaping tendencies of sankhara during the successive thought-moments of subjective life experience, creating the blending of different selfing moments.
This is a fundamental aspect of ignorance, a blending of consciousness moments, much as the mind blends the images of a film strip to produce the illusion of forms moving on a screen.
Mind-and-Form, called nama-rupa, clarifies an important distinction: consciousness is essentially neutral, depending upon the contact between a sense object (rupa) and a sense base (nama) to arise. For example, the vibrating wave we call sound (the sense object) is a separate category of reality than the mental process (the sense base we call hearing) that perceives the sound and makes sense of it.
Due to ignorance and karmic shaping, the emerging, impressionable consciousness (vinnana) misperceives mind-and-form as the same phenomenon—however, they are not conditioned similarly. For example, what stimulates the ear might be the impact of a branch hitting the ground, while what conditions the mind,s interpretation of that sound depends on prior experiences which may or may not be a good fit-for example, prior experience might misperceive the sound as someone throwing something onto the ground.
In addition, regarding the Buddhist concept of the Five Aggregates of Clinging, rupa is the first aggregate, form; the other four aggregates, feeling, perception, karmic formations and consciousness, are nama. Mindful awareness of this difference between nama and rupa is an important skill to cultivate during the process of awakening from suffering. This is because mindfulness creates a spacious non-reactivity in consciousness, allowing the possibility of alternate perceptions to arise in awareness; in the case just described, someone throwing something down becomes a provisional understanding—more consideration would bring up the notion that it was a fallen branch.
The Six Sense Bases, called salayatana, represent the processes of the eyes and seeing, the ears and hearing, the nose and smelling, the tongue and tasting, the somatosensory system and touching, and, finally, the mind and remembering or planning. There is a consciousness that reflects each specific sense base, e.g. the function of the ear, combined with the part of the brain dedicated to processing signal from the auditory nerve; without consciousness, there would be no sense base. In the brain, each sensory processing system operates separately. The separate processes are mediated by feeling and perception; the gathering and shaping aspect of karmic formations pushes one of the sense-based processes into awareness.
Contact, called phassa, represents the actual stimulus-response experience, e.g., light hitting the eye, sound the ear drums, etc., and the resultant karmic influences. At this point in the process, there are present an object (light, sound, etc.), a sense base (eyes and seeing, ears and hearing, etc.) and contact (mind-and-form). As mentioned above, they operate separately in the previously described sense bases, outside awareness, emerging into consciousness through the processes of feeling, karmic conditioning, craving, clinging, and becoming.
Feeling/Sensation, called vedana, represents the immediate reaction of the mind to stimulation of the nervous system. It is experienced on an instinctual, reactive continuum extending from the exceedingly pleasant through a neutral range to the exceedingly unpleasant.
It is not thinking as such, the internal narrative, but conditions and is conditioned by karmic formations. There are five sorts of feelings: pleasant or unpleasant physical feelings, pleasant or unpleasant mental feelings, and feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
The experience of feeling, either physical or mental, is the first moment of conscious awareness available subjectively; all the links are now emerging, and mindful, non-reactive feeling this moment of arising is the primary opportunity for mindful investigation to intervene and redirect the unfolding of karma by letting go of craving and clinging.
This moment of contingent provisional arising is happening very quickly—this is why the mental training described in the Noble Eightfold Path, combining Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, is so valuable. As mental training develops through rigorous meditation practice, the capacity to quickly notice and assess each arising improves. This assessing process includes a non-reactive equanimity regarding the pull of craving, and is guided by virtue-Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
Craving, called tanha, is the provisional first response of the nervous system to pleasant or unpleasant feelings/sensations. It is an instinctual driving force, an impulsive urgency that seeks to sustain pleasant feelings or to eradicate unpleasant feelings. As a non-cognitive force of nature, it has no shame or consideration for consequences of actions taken. It is typically experienced as a sense of aliveness or vitality that operates like a magnetic force, either pulled toward or pushed away from a feeling. The driven quality of craving sets the stage for the development of future ignorance and other karmic formations.
Clinging, called upadana, is the obsessive quality of the mind in imagining responses to the arising of craving. The mind tends to develop rationalizations that justify acting under the influence of ignorance, karmic formations and craving. The lingering, emotionally potent aftereffect of a moment of consciousness contributes to clinging—in awareness, the rapidly sequenced moment by moment arisings of the aggregates tend to blend together, to crystallize, producing an illusion of continuity, cohesiveness, solidity or validity.
A useful analogy is that of the motion picture film. Each image in the different cells has its own formation; the rapidly changing images from cell to cell as the film passes through the projector leaves a brief residual image in the mind, providing the illusion of continuity—the mind is tricked into believing there’s an object moving about on the screen.
Becoming, called bhava, represents action taken as a result of ignorance, karma formations, contact, feeling, craving and clinging. This action of the untrained mind reinforces the illusion of self as reliably able to accurately describe reality and take controlling action in situations. The process of becoming is inherently unstable, insecure and may or may not be a useful rendering of the current situation. Therefore, we can say that the end result of craving, clinging and becoming is dukkha, suffering. In modern terms, we could also say that becoming is stressful, in that there is an undercurrent of distress for all people, all sentient beings, since there is no guarantee of perceptions being entirely reliable all the time.
In fact, the cohesiveness provided by the sankhara activity, is truly provisional, that is, it provides a more or less useful adaptation to changing circumstances. To the extent that craving and clinging are strongly reinforced by ignorance, this illusion just perpetuates the suffering on more or less subtle levels, with greater or lesser consequences; we act out the belief that the mind is attached to, and then convince ourselves and others that it is justified.
Bhava is the last link of “present causes”. Upon enlightenment, ignorance is overcome, becoming doesn’t occur, and rebirth is eliminated.
Birth, called jati, represents the fruition of the provisional origination cycle. It is typically what the untrained mind is aware of as the conscious decision making process. Buddhist teachings and modern scientific research reveal that the decisions that we are consciously aware of, the self-states, were actually shaped pre-consciously (in other words, the conscious mind is the last to know what’s really going on!). It is the identified self, the “I am”, emerging and crystallizing. Because of ignorance, karmic influences, craving and clinging, this arisen moment is identified with and acted on, typically resulting in suffering.
Decay and Death, called jaramarana, is the fulfillment of the cycle. It represents the dissolution of the aggregated self, whether mental or physical in nature. A basic principle of Buddhism is impermanence, a term which is reflected in 20th century philosophy as phenomenology, which is the concept that each moment of experience stands uniquely, determined by immediate causes and conditions.
The implication of this is that each moment of experience is conditioned by prior karmic influences, and that as the moment passes, only the impression of the aftereffects of karma remain, the “glow” of the subsiding mind moment, to subside into the realm of karmic outcome, called vipaka, from which the sankhara of the next provisional origination cycle are drawn. The absence of mindful awareness produces the confusion and emotional urgency that gets “stored” in memory, for future reference.
These cycles are incredibly complex, involving perhaps millions of neurons, replaying hundreds of times a second, accumulating an illusory experience of a permanent and reliable self. Thus ignorance, plus the driving force of craving and clinging, creates and recreates the suffering.
Using mindfulness of breathing meditation, a person can train the mind to be more internally aware and disciplined. As the wholesome karmic condition of mindfulness is reflected more frequently in awareness develops higher and higher levels of proficiency, it’s possible to actually observe the arising of feeling, craving and clinging in the selfing process. As we learn to become aware of this cycling process and notice with clarity and detachment how the self is derived from the dynamic interactions between karmic formations and sensory input, we can investigate the point that craving and clinging arise in the mind.
As craving is diminished through mindful awareness, renunciation and equanimity, the tendency of the mind to identify with and unwisely cling to and act on an arising thought diminishes. The hard, crystallized sense of self begins to soften and dissolve. This reconditions the storehouse of karmic formations away from ignorance and toward wisdom.
In this system, wisdom is defined as the ability to recognize that there is a distinction between what stimulates the sense doors and how the mind perceives the input; that there is no permanent, ongoing self to be promoted or defended; and that karma is a real force in the universe that can be modified from unwholesome states of consciousness to wholesome moments of consciousness.
The ultimate achievement of wholesomeness is Nirvana, the unconditioned/uncontained–the only permanent, unchanging reality in the universe, the infinite ground of all being. This experience is called God consciousness, the Tao, Allah, etc., in other faith traditions. This is human salvation. I hope that reading this inspires you to train the mind in order to realize freedom from suffering.