By Peter Carlson
This is typically called dependent origination; in Pali, the term is paticca samuppada. After much consideration, I’ve changed the terminology. I use the word contingent, because it means coming together, mutual, dependent. The term provisional in this context means that because one condition exists in a certain way, the contingent condition is influenced in its arising. Sometimes it is termed as codependent or interdependent origination. I have substituted with provisional to emphasize the possibility for change implied by the term. The 12 links of provisional origination interact to provide a karmic outcome, which would be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. I use the term emergence to emphasize that that particular momentary self-state emerges into awareness, then subsides, to be immediately replaced with another emergent, contingent, provisional constructed self-state.
This concept represents what may be the first historical statement of what the modern mind recognizes as a psychology of consciousness. Rather than attributing human salvation or damnation to an external supernatural force, the focus is on how conditions unique to the individual and unique to the particular environmental circumstances of the moment provide the critical factors regarding the arising of suffering or the arising of liberation from suffering. 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.
Most Buddhist systems consider provisional origination to be a chain of associations with 12 links: Ignorance provides conditions leading to karmic formations arising; karmic formations are reflected in consciousness; this interaction manifests as the mind-and-form process; mind-and-form provides the conditions through which the six sense bases are activated; provisional on the six sense bases, contact or stimulation arises; contact provides feeling/sensation; provisional upon feeling/sensation, craving/urgency arises; provisional upon craving/urgency, clinging/identification develops; clinging/identification produces the summation of conditions that shape becoming in that moment; becoming leads to birth, then decay, and, finally, death, (of a momentary transitional ego state we call the self, due to ignorance and identification). This completes the cycle, which repeats multiple times a second.
These factors are to be considered in two ways–as indicators of physical birth, death and rebirth, but more importantly as the moment-by-moment existential arising and passing away of self-states. Here is a more elaborated discussion of the 12 links:
1) Ignorance is the normal human process of misperceiving that which arises in the mind as permanent, not subject to suffering, and self-affirming. This is considered to be a “past cause” because it is the default mode of mental functioning, and is called ayoniso manasikara, translated as unwise attention. Fundamentally, the untrained mind does not adequately track the process of cognition, functioning through emotionally laden biases (karmic formations) that distort perception. Ignorance is deeply conditioned, and is the final obstacle to be overcome in achieving enlightenment.
2) Karmic Formations are historical tendencies embedded in the mind that shape the perceptual process, in what in the West is called the “unconscious”. Also a “past cause”, these formations are latent and emotionally potent. Activated through craving and clinging, they cause suffering. Once enacted to shape current experience, the karmic formations become latent again, with the increased potency of enactment, which biases another emerging moment of being. When mindfulness is one of the arising karmic conditioners (which can be called sankharas or cetasikas), craving and clinging don’t occur. This condition decreases the potency of misperceptions in the future, creating the way that leads to enlightenment.
3) Consciousness represents the medium upon which the physical sensations and karmic formations are reflected, like the screen upon which a motion picture is projected. A moment of consciousness reflects a sensation, which immediately is processed by the karmic formations, becoming sensitized to the arising of the conditioned misperceptions. This is a “present effect”, that is, it’s a current function derived from past experience (influenced by the karmic formations).
4) Mind-and-Form emphasizes that the function of consciousness plus karmic conditioning that receives sense impressions is separate from the object that promotes the stimulus. For example, sound is a separate category of reality than the conditioning in the mind that perceives the sound. Due to ignorance and karmic shaping, the untrained consciousness misperceives mind-and-form as the same phenomenon. Additionally, mind-and-form are mutually influential, that is, as the mind is affected by karmic conditioning, the physiology of the body changes. As the physiology of the body changes, this influences mental processing. This is also a “present effect”. In the process of awakening from suffering, being mindfully, clearly aware of the distinction between physical sensations and the karmic conditioners is part of yoniso manasikara, rendered in English as wise attention.
5) The Six Sense Bases 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; without consciousness, there would be no sense base. This is also a “present effect”. The first five sense bases are always experienced through the sixth sense base, that is, consciousness and karmic conditioners, either wholesome or unwholesome.
6) Contact represents the actuality of the stimulus-response experience, e.g., light hitting the eye, sound the ear drums, etc., and the resultant karmic influences. This would, most importantly, include contact between physical sensation and the mind. The more clearly and immediately mindfulness emerges after contact between any of the first five sense bases and consciousness, the more wise attention can emerge into awareness. This is also a “present effect”.
7) Feeling/Sensation 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, but conditions and is conditioned by karmic formations. There are five gradations of feelings: pleasant or unpleasant physical feelings, pleasant or unpleasant mental feelings, and feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Feelings emerge as each of the six sense bases are activated. This is the last of the “present effects”.
8) Craving is the provisional first response of the nervous system to pleasant or unpleasant feelings/sensations. It is a driving force, an impulsive urgency that seeks to sustain pleasant feelings or to eradicate unpleasant feelings. As a non-thinking force of nature, it has no shame or consideration for consequences of actions taken. Even the most primitive forms of the animal realm will move toward a pleasant stimulus or seek to avoid an unpleasant stimulus. It is the first of the “present causes” in that it sets the stage for the development of future ignorance and other karmic formations. Being mindfully aware of the very brief transitional interval between feeling and craving is the most potent opportunity to recondition the mind.
9) Clinging occurs simultaneously with craving, and is the obsessive quality of the mind in imagining responses to the arising of craving. The left over “afterglow” of the previous moment of craving and clinging biases the mind toward stronger identification with that momentary condition and misperceives it, producing suffering (see numbers 2 and 3 above). The mind tends to develop rationalizations that justify acting under the influence of ignorance, karmic formations and craving. Clinging affects being in 4 ways: preoccupation with sustaining pleasure; preoccupation with misperceptions or views; preoccupation with routines or rituals; and preoccupation with the misperception of a separate self. Clinging represents the next link of “present causes”.
10) Becoming represents action taken as a result of ignorance, karma formations, craving and clinging. It the fulfillment of the process, the outcome of contingent provisional arising. This action of the untrained mind reinforces the illusion of self as reliably able to accurately describe reality and take action in situations. This illusion just perpetuates the suffering on more or less subtle levels, with greater or lesser consequences. It is the last link of “present causes”. Upon enlightenment, ignorance is overcome, becoming doesn’t occur, and rebirth is eliminated.
11) Birth represents the fruition of the provisional origination cycle. It is typically what the untrained mind is aware of as the conscious decision making process. It represents the first link of “future effects”.
12) Decay and Death is the last link of the cycle and “future effects”. It represents the dissolution of the action, whether that action is mental or physical in nature. A basic principle of Buddhism is impermanence, a term which is reflected in 20th century philosophy as phenomenology. The implication of this is that each moment of experience is determined through karmic influences, and that as the moment passes, only the impression of the effects of karma remain, to subside into the realm of karmic history from which the perceptions of the next provisional origination cycle are drawn (See numbers 2 and 3 above).
These cycles reiterate many times a second, accumulating an illusory experience of a permanent and reliable self. Thus ignorance, plus the driving force of craving and clinging, creates the suffering.
The Buddha’s brilliant discovery is that the chain of provisional origination can be broken at the juncture between present effects and present causes, at the point that feelings are potentiated and acted upon through craving and clinging.
Using mindfulness of breathing meditation, a person can 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, at the point that craving and clinging arise in the mind. Having established a stable, relaxed process of being, relatively free from intrusive thoughts or images, practice noting as soon as possible the beginning of the in-breath and the beginning of the out-breath. This practice of immediate noting, trains the mind to be very alert to the change in feeling tone at those points, and therefore more capable of noting the onset of feeling that emerges when attention is drawn to experience that’s not breath awareness.
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. 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 the sense doors receive 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 states of consciousness.
On a psychological level, this wisdom promotes mental health and well-being, because the mind is undisturbed by irrational processes or felt urgencies. This increases the quality of life and sets the stage for spiritual development.
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 is Buddhist salvation. I hope that reading this inspires you to train the mind in order to realize freedom from suffering.