Buddhist Philosophy based on the Rice-Seedling Sutra

(Salistamba Sutra)

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Topga Rinpoche

Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Buddha statue

Part 2

The first of the 12 phases of dependent occurrence is basic unawareness. If one explains the word-meaning, it means not seeing, not knowing. If one defines awareness, it is a state of mind which is both clear and perceptive. Unawareness lacks these qualities, so it is a deluded, dense or thick state of mind.

However, basic unawareness is able to perceive something, but it is unclear. If one were to say that awareness is the opposite of unawareness, it follows that unawareness would be matter, which is not the case. Unawareness is also aware, but it is unclear.

In terms of basic unawareness there is an ongoing process, which is unclear awareness.

The buddhist master Vasubhandu has pointed out that basic unawareness is not merely a lack of awareness. It is defined as unclear awareness. If one were to say that basic unawareness is simply a state lacking awareness altogether then basic unawareness could not be the principal cause which produces actions and the karma actions accrue, because it would be nothing. As was said, if basic unawareness is defined as the mere absence of awareness it follows that one could not speak of basic unawareness ending, resulting in the ending of actions and the karma actions accrue, because basic unawareness in that case would be nothing, it would be a non-entity, hence it could not cease and it would not result in the ceasing of the other phases that make up the process of dependent occurrence. It follows that basic unawareness involves awareness though it is unclear. It cannot be defined as the mere absence of awareness.

Basic unawareness is an obscuration which is deluded with respect to whatever is at hand. It fails to recognise the truth, that is to say absolute truth. It fails to recognise cause and effect, it fails to recognise what is the dharma and so on. It is a state of mind which fails to perceive these things. It also fails to recognise the three jewels.

Out of basic awareness actions occur which accrue karma. When defining action, the Buddha said that he is not speaking of actions in term of their essence, rather as a function that occurs.

Actions and the karma they accrue relate to the activities of body, speech and mind. Therefore this phase in the process of dependent occurrence is defined as a function, rather than an essential component or element.

Actions and the karma they accrue in the process of dependent occurrence are defined as karmic imprints. Karmic imprints are the result of previous actions. They remain in one's mindstream, in one's consciousness and at one point they ripen. Then the individual experiences the result of previous actions.

The Indian scholar, Vasubhandu, has said that in terms of the different actions of body, speech and mind the process of breathing, where one breathes in and out, is a physical action. Verbal actions are based in the mind. If one takes an everyday situation where one is about to talk about something, one first considers what it is that one wants to say and then one thinks through how one should present it. These two processes where one considers something and then determines how to present it relates to the verbal action. The mental action is where one distinguishes different aspects of an object of perception, and it also involves turning one's attention towards something specific, one focuses upon something.

We have seen Vasubandhu's definitions of physical, verbal and mental actions. These actions in themselves, do not accumulate karma. It is with this function as a basis that one engages in karmic actions. Thus, one accumulates karma, because just by breathing you do not accumulate karma.

These different actions are the basis out of which karmic actions develop. These karmic actions that are accumulated, in turn triggers off or produces habitual tendencies that colour consciousness.

When talking about consciousness there are six aspects that relate to six different faculties that an individual has. There are the five sense faculties and then what is called the mental faculty. Consciousness operates through these different faculties and as a result one speaks about six aspects of consciousness.

Consciousness is defined as that which has the capacity to clearly perceive, to be clearly conscious of something. Consciousness, as was said, operates through six different faculties hence one speaks of six aspects of consciousness. In relation to each aspect of consciousness there are specific objects of perception that the particular aspect of consciousness is capable of clearly perceiving.

In terms of each aspect of consciousness one speaks of an aggregation of factors or components that bring about that specific consciousness, that kind of perception, whether one speaks of a visual perception or any other kind of perception. Now in order for any perception to happen or any aspect of consciousness to take place there are three main components that must come together, the object of perception, the presence of the sense faculty and the presence of that particular aspect of consciousness. When these three components are present at the same time the perception can take place, can operate.

Again, in the writings of Vasubhandu there is a clarification with respect to why one calls for example the consciousness related to visual perception for eye consciousness and not form consciousness, since form is also of a visual perception. Vasubhandu answers that of course all three elements that we spoke of in terms of a perception arising are causes, however, if one looks at a visual perception it is the physical sense-faculty that is specific to that perception. It is by virtue of there being a physical sense-faculty, in this case the eye, that the perception can perceive the object of form.

The reason for speaking of an eye consciousness rather than a form consciousness is that the different forms that are perceived, such as a colour, a shape and so on, these are approximately 20 different kinds of form, do not have the power or capacity to induce a perception on their own. However, the sense-faculty of the eye has that power. The eye has the power to induce a perception of form. Hence this perception is called a visual perception or a perception which operates through the eye.

This is the reason that one does not speak of a form perception.

We have come to the fourth phase, which is the phase that involves the four immaterial skandhas and the physical form (name and form)). In this particular case the physical form relates mainly to the physical form of the fetus.

There is this phase which involves the four immaterial skandhas and the physical form of the fetus. This phase starts when the being is conceived in the womb of his or her future mother and it lasts until all the six sensory cognitive faculties are fully developed. This phase thus involves stages of developing.

The sutra says: Due to the formation of these tendencies which colour consciousness the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus are produced.

The second phase in the process dependent occurrence is, as we saw previously, actions and the karma they accrue. Due to their presence certain karmic imprints will be placed on the mindstream, hence one speaks of tendencies which colour consciousness, the third phase. It is this coloured consciousness which produces the phase of the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus.

What happens is that the coloured consciousness triggers off different mental functions as well as the physical form of the fetus. The coloured consciousness, so to speak, produces the four non-material skandhas such as sensation, making distinctions, mental events and different aspects of coloured consciousness, as well as the physical form of the fetus.

In terms of the skandha of sensation there are different kinds of sensation, pain, pleasure and what one calls a neutral sensation or reaction to something. Neutral in that it does not involve neither pain nor pleasure. Then there is the second non-material skandha which as we saw involves different mental functions in terms of perceiving different characteristics of an object of perception. The mental function is to single out different characteristics of an object of perception and focus on this.

Then we have the third which is the skandha of mental events (compositional factors) which are mental functions other than the ones we have been discussing. It will be explained later. Then there is the skandha of consciousness which involves different aspects of consciousness. In principal that is the process of perceiving an object, being aware or conscious of an object.

The Indian master Gunamati has explained the process of perceiving different characteristics of an object as follows: "This is a process where the perception discerns or distinguishes the different aspects and characteristics of an object." A focus or an object of perception can be a visual form, a sound and so on and so forth. What the perception does is that it discerns all the different characteristics that the object at hand has, such as a visual form having different colours, yellow etc. it be short or long. This process also involves discerning what the sex of a person is that one is looking at. If this individual is a woman or a man. It involves differentiating between pain and pleasure and so on. It is a process where mind differentiates the different characteristics of what it perceives.

What we just discussed was the group of mental functions where mind differentiates between the different aspects that the object of perception has. Next skandha is the skandha of consciousness. That involves being conscious of an object without differentiating or singling out the different characteristics. It is like merely being conscious of observing an object.

The four non-material skandhas involve a constant process of change, at times there is awareness of different kinds of objects, forms, sounds and so on and that may be followed by differentiating between the different specifics of the object of perception. There are different categories of objects of perception with different characteristics which again involves a constant process of change in terms of what one may call the conscious stream or consciousness.

We have these four non-material skandhas. In Tibetan they are given one name as a group, they are simply called name. One speaks of name and form rather than the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus. The reason is as we saw that there is a constant process of change in terms of different mental activities or functions following one upon another. In each moment there is a change taking place in the mindstream. If one were to attempt to identify each and every change that occurs that would prove impossible, hence one has given a name to these four mental functions in order to give an idea of what is at hand.

As we saw, the mindstream involves different functions, the ones that we have been discussing. In terms of the object of these different mental functions Vasubhandu mentions different kinds. We have the actual object which mind focuses on such as a visual form, a sound, a smell and so on. Then we have the quality of that object which yet another mental function is aware of, is conscious of. Then there are the specific characteristics of the object such as long, short, something which induces pain something which induces pleasure and so on which yet another mental function is aware of conscious of. We can see that mindstream involves a constant process of change. It is this very process of change which is the very reason for why these different mental functions of the four non-material skandhas are simply referred to as name. One merely gives them a name because it is impossible for one to recognise all the specifics of this process of constant change.

Then there is yet another explanation for the four non-material skandhas being referrred to as name and the physical form of a fetus as form. With respect to calling it name the reason is that the names of these four mental functions bring out or produce an idea or understanding of what they are, even though that name cannot completely bring out what is actually at hand. It is impossible by using these names to give a complete description of what these mental processes are.

Then we have form. That term indicates something which obstruct the presence of something else. Form is physical hence it obstructs the presence of something else. That is how form is defined in this context.

Another definition of form is given. If certain conditions are present the form will be subject to destruction or as was said, it will prevent the presence of something else in that it is a physical form, in that it is made up of matter.

There are the six sensory cognitive faculties. One speaks of two kinds, outer and inner. What we are discussing here are the inner six sensory cognitive faculties.

The Indian master Vasubhandu has said that these six sensory cognitive faculties that we are discussing, are called inner because the individual sees the five sense faculties that are physical and mind the cognitive faculty as something belonging to him. That notion involves taking these to be so to speak the possession of that individual. They belong to that person, so body and mind are always referred to when looking at one given individual. The person sees them as belonging to him. That is his attitude or way of looking at them.

These six sensory cognitive faculties, in Sanskrit called Ayatanas, are defined as follows by the Indian master Gunamati. "It is the sixth basis in dependence upon which consciousness arises and expands. They are the sources of the arising and expanding of consciousness."

These are the six cognitive sensory faculties in dependence upon which different aspects of consciousness, different kinds of perception arise and expand. To begin with obviously, an aspect of consciousness or a perception is induced. It arises, it becomes aware or conscious of an object. What follows upon that is that the individual react in one way or another towards what he is conscious of, what he has perceived. He may react with attraction, with repulsion, depending upon the different circumstances. He may evaluate or pass judgement on what he perceives, he may see it as something painful or something pleasurable. That process of passing judgement on what is perceived relates to the part of the definition where one speaks of consciousness expanding.

Vasubhandu continues his explanation on these six sensory cognitive faculties. They are defined as the faculties in dependence upon which consciousness arises and expands. That the first part arises relates to that the faculties act as a cause for a perception of something to arise and then, as we saw, that perception continues to develop further, it expands in the sense that it looks at what is perceived and passes different judgements on that object of perception. In that way there is a continuous stream of consciousness taking place. These six faculties are the cause for that continuous stream to take place.

There are questions with respect to finding the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus in terms of what they are at the beginning and what they evolve into. As was said, from the moment of conception one speaks of the presence of the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus. One may then ask the following question, in terms of body and mind, which these two categories constitute, it is the case that the body and the mind exist as a presence or not at the moment of perception.

This question comes after because the following phase in the process of dependent occurrence is the coming into existence of the six sensory cognitive faculties, so the question is if they are already present. How come that one speaks of the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus as the condition that produces the fully developed form of body and mind.

The answer is that in fact one can speak of the four non-material skandhas and physical form of the fetus as the condition which produces the six sensory cognitive faculties because what is at hand is a process where these involve into a fully developed physical body and a fully developed mind.

The six sensory cognitive faculties come into existence in dependence upon the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus, hence the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus are the basis in dependence upon which the six sensory cognitive faculties can evolve into their complete form and then remain in that way.

In fact talking about the four non-material skandhas and the development of the physical form of the fetus is a vast subject. If one looks at for example the skandha of consciousness there are different presentations, in some there is the mention of six types of consciousness. In another presentation there is the mention of eight kinds of consciousness. If one looks at the skandha of mental events there is mention of for example 51 mental events. There exist other presentations listing another number of mental events and so on, so what has been said today is extremely brief. We should all be aware of the fact that this subject is very large, evolving a lot of details.

Q and A

Question: [omitted]

Answer: One should be aware of that when one speaks of the faculty of mind and when one speaks of consciousness one is speaking about two different things.

Question: [omitted]

Answer: We have the third phase of the process of dependent occurrence where one speaks of habitual tendencies that colour consciousness. This phase is also referred to as just consciousness. What is at hand in this phase is the basis of consciousness, its seed so to speak. Consciousness in the context of the fourth phase, the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus where one of the four non-material skandhas is consciousness involves, as we saw, the six aspects of consciousness. Here consciousness has started to operate. It functions or operates in terms of perceiving something, being aware of something, being conscious of something. One should be aware of that there are these distinctions, even though the same word is used.

Question: [omitted]

Answer: When looking at the process of dependent occurrence we have gone through basic unawareness, actions and the karma they accrue, habitual tendencies that colour consciousness, the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus. The phase after that is the six sensory cognitive faculties. One should be aware of that these all occur within one instance of mind, within one moment of mind. As one speaks of them they may appear as separate entities with so to speak a distance between them. But in actual fact it is not the case. If one for axample speaks of the third phase, habitual tendencies which colour consciousness, that is mind's basis. However, mind's basis does not engage in the process of perception, does not perceive objects and so on. It is simply mind's basis. After that different aspects of consciousness involve into interacting with different kinds of objects. Both the third phase and consciousness in the context of the fourth phase are part of the continuous mind stream. They are not separate entities with some distance between them. They are simply different aspects of mind.

Question: [omitted]


Mind is unobstructed. As you listen to sound you can smell something and taste something.

Question: When one speaks of just six aspects of consciousness rather than eight are the remaining two then included within the sixth, when one deals with the enumeration of the six aspects.

Answer: Yes.

Question: [omitted]


One cannot see basic unawareness or actions based in basic unawareness as separate from mind or consciousness. Neither is basic unawareness the beginning of samsara. It is in the beginning of this presentation merely because it is the main cause for the other phases of this process to occur. It is because one is unaware that one accumulates karma. In that sense it is the basis due to which actions occur and karma as a result is accrued. One cannot say that basic unawareness is not mind so that there would be no consciousness. Then you would be dealing with matter.

Question: [omitted]


It seems that when there is a physical reflex there probably is a thought passing through one's mind. However it may be that one is not aware of that a thought passes the mind.

Question: [omitted]

Answer: There is the statement "if something is present that presence will produce something else". There was also a mention in that context of a Hindu school of thought where it is said that a supreme self exists as a permanent and static entity, as an unchanging phenomenon. What was said was that with this statement that the presence of something produces something else one refutes the notion of a supreme self as an unchanging phenomenon, as a static entity, as something permanent, because existing means that something is present, and as was said the presence of something triggers off so to speak a chain reaction where something else is produced and what is produced again produces something else. So what was refuted was that this supreme self could be permanent and unchangeable.

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