Buddhism emphasises how everything and every experience is dependent on other things and on other experiences. This is the idea of ‘dependent origination’, or the co-origination of all that appears.
We can see this clearly in our sciences. In the natural world there are no absolutes, rather everything is compounded of different elements. We know from physics that nature is made up of increasingly subtle states of matter and energy, from visible forms to molecules, to atoms comprising what were once thought of as ‘elementary particles’, to sub-atomic particles, and then to a quantum flux in which particles are created, annihilated and recreated.
We can see this in our experience too, where one thought leads to another, one encounter with something or someone sparks an emotion, where one desire leads to an action, and the action to some result that ignites a further chain of experiences.
The Buddha is said to have described this as a chain of inter-connected links, the twelve links in the chain of dependent origination-
Name and form
The six senses
Desire and Craving
Existence and becoming
Suffering, old age, death
This teaching is extremely subtle. Many words and many sutras have been devoted to how it can be seen as describing how human lives are shaped by it, indeed constrained by it. The connections between each link in the chain are forged almost, but not quite, instantly. Once we experience that we are an ‘I’, a subject, we experience consciousness or awareness as conditioned by that ‘I’, so that what arises is my consciousness, my experience. Then we create names for the objects that appear before this subject, recognise the senses that allow us to make contact with those objects, the sensations to which those objects give rise, and the craving and clinging we feel toward them. At this point we are more than half-way through the twelve links, but we arrive there, time after time, in the blinking of an eye. So fast that we cannot interrupt the process to reflect, ‘How did I get here, entangled in this net of thoughts, desires and habitual responses?’ ‘Do I really want to be here?’ ‘Do I, or did I, have a choice?’
One of the most interesting aspects of this teaching is that it starts with ‘ignorance’. But ignorance of what?
Whatever the nature of this ignorance might be, it gives rise to a sense of subject and object. And once I perceive myself as a subject of experience, my experience and my awareness is conditioned by that subjective sense. I am what it is that has those experiences. I have a name, an identity, and a body. This body which is ‘me’ or ‘mine’ has sensual and cognitive experience which connects me with everything which is not me. I find some of the things that I come into contact with to be ‘good’ and some to be ‘bad’; I am attracted to the former and averse to the latter. I cling and I crave, I hate and I avoid. I am attracted to life. I am afraid of death. And in my craving and my avoiding, I suffer.
So, it is ignorance that creates the ‘I’. But what is the nature of this ignorance?
We have a possible answer to this question which was not available in the Buddha’s time, or at least not in the way that it is currently available. We can perhaps now see that it lies in our evolutionary history. You and I are only here now because our ancestors survived long enough to have children and (preferably) lived long enough to help raise their progeny. This simple fact connects each living human being on the planet to a chain of other human beings, and indeed to our non-human ancestors. Herein lie billions and billions of connections that have led to life on this planet.
One of the key features that our ancestors possessed was a sense of self, accompanied by all the selfish characteristics that nature could assemble and pack into one small body. All of these cravings, emotions, thoughts, fears, and aversions were brought together in this fragile body thereby enabling it to survive long enough to raise children who would carry that body’s genes and those characteristics into the next generation. Since life appeared on earth some four billion years ago this has been a chain of cause and effect which has led (amongst many other things) to these words and to you reading them.
Is selfhood then ‘good’, ‘desirable’, to be celebrated? Certainly, if you are a gene, it is. But if you are a human being? Not so clear. Might you not want to think about it a bit? Who really am I? Am a free to determine my own identity? Could I say, ‘Thanks to my ancestors and their genes for creating this body, but this body and its evolutionary history is not the sum total of what I am.’ Indeed, this body might not be ‘me’ at all, for the sense of being ‘me’ comes only from you, those genes that have made this body. But am I not more than that body?
I think that what the Buddha is saying is that there is a choice. What if we, each and every human being, start with ignorance, start with that first link in the chain of dependent origination? OK, so ignorance had a purpose. It fuelled evolution, led to the self and self-interest, and made possible my birth. Here I am to prove it. Except, what exactly is this ‘I’ that appears to be ‘here’? Is there not a sense in which I and my ancestors, and you and your ancestors, have been the fall guy for an evolutionary process in which the individual was never the hero nor heroine, never the ‘subject’ of the story? Are we then just mugs?
One thing leads to another, and then another. Ignorance leads to selfhood, and selfhood to eight billion competing, voracious, warring, suffering, human beings. But what if something comes before ignorance? What if we only have to retrace our steps in order to find what lies before it arose? What if, when we find it, we can live without ignorance?
What is it that, at least for us human beings, lies before ignorance, self and self-interest? If you look at the twelve links you might see it. There it is, disguised by its conditioning, waiting to be liberated, waiting to be celebrated. Zen describes it as your ‘original face’, the face that you had before ignorance took hold, the face that you have always had. It is very close, so close that you might overlook it.