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Jun 23rd
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Home Teachings Dependant Originations What is Dependant Origination - Contact to Feeling

What is Dependant Origination - Contact to Feeling

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Article Index
What is Dependant Origination
Ignorance to Formations
Formations to Consciousness
Consciousness to Mind-and-Body
Mind-and-Body to Six Bases
Six Bases to Contact
Contact to Feeling
Feeling to Craving
Craving to Clinging
Clinging to Becoming
Becoming to Birth
Birth to Suffering
The Three Periods
Other Aspects
All Pages

Contact to Feeling

The impact on the sense-organs leads to feelings, which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral according to the nature of the sense-object. If the object is beautiful, pleasant feeling arises. If it is ugly, we have unpleasant feeling. The feeling is neutral if the object is ordinary. Neutral feeling does not cause any comment, whether favourable or unfavourable. It is not even recognized as a feeling, though it is accepted by the ego. In fact, feelings have nothing to do with the ego or self, but are aspects of the mental process stemming from sense-contact.

Freedom from Doubt

Understanding the law of Dependent Origination means freedom from doubt and delusion. Since this freedom is an essential attribute of a stream-winner, understanding the doctrine is important. Ignorance of it fosters doubts about the Buddha, doubts about the Dhamma, and so forth. These doubts are of eight kinds.

Doubt about the Buddha: The sceptic raises such questions as, "Was the Buddha really free from all defilements, or was he just an ordinary man who commanded the blind faith of his followers?"

Doubt about the Teaching:. "Do the Path and nibbāna really ensure the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion?"

Doubt about the Sangha: "Are there any Noble Ones who are really free from defilements? Are there stream-winners who, having overcome illusion and doubt, will never be reborn in the lower realms? Are there once-returners, who do not have much sensual desire and anger? Are there non-returners, who are wholly free from sensual desire and anger? Are there arahants who have freed themselves from all defilements?"

Doubt about the practice: "Is the practice of morality or meditation beneficial and necessary for spiritual progress?"

Doubt about the past: "Did I exist in the past? Why and how did I exist in the past? What kind of person was I in my previous life?

Doubt about the future: "Will I exist after my death? What kind of person will I become in my next life?"

Doubt about both the past and the future: According to the subcommentaries, this doubt refers to the present life. This interpretation agrees with a text from the Sutta Pitaka that says, "Now doubt regarding oneself in the present arises, such as, 'Am I really myself? Does the self exist or does it not exist? If the self exists, what kind of entity is it? Is it big or small? Why or how does the self exist? Was it created or did it come into being spontaneously? Where did the self come from and where will it go after the final dissolution of the body?'" One overcomes all these doubts and illusions about the self or personality on attaining purification by overcoming doubt (kankhāvitarana-visuddhi).

The last subject that raises much doubt is the doctrine of Dependent Origination, which emphasises the primacy of the cause-and-effect relationship in the world of living beings. Are mental formations really due to ignorance of the true Dhamma? Is rebirth really conditioned by kamma? Is unwholesome kamma harmful and wholesome kamma beneficial to a future life? Is there really a cause for every phenomenon? Is everything the outcome of the random combination of atoms and electrons? These doubts centre on causal links (ignorance, mental formations, etc.) and resultant links (consciousness, rebirth, etc.) in the causal sequence as described in the doctrine of Dependent Origination.

In the end, these doubts lead to wrong views that conflict with Dependent Origination. Speculations on the nature of life that are beyond one's intellectual abilities at first produce doubts and eventually turn the sceptic into one who clings to illusions. Scepticism and wrong views are due to ignorance of Dependent Origination. One who clearly understands the teaching, harbours no doubts, let alone illusions.

In the final analysis, a sentient being is a compound of causes and effects, as are insentient things like the earth, the sun or trees. The law of causation governs the universe, leaving no room for creation or spontaneous occurrence. Science offers compelling evidence for the total dependence of the inanimate world on the law of cause and effect. It confirms the Buddha's teaching about the conditionality of everything, whether life, mind, or matter.

The Buddha stressed the conditioned nature of man's inner life. His teaching is not concerned with inanimate matter because the material world is not subject to rebirth or suffering. From the Buddhist point of view, sentient beings are most important. Left to itself, a sentient being passes through innumerable lives and, for the most part, the individual suffers in the lower realms of existence. However, if we understand the process and act wisely, we can make gradual progress towards liberation. Even if we do not gain liberation, we can improve our circumstances in the cycle of existence. A clear understanding of Dependent Origination is vital, for it ensures the complete extinction of defilements.

The Origin of Rebirth-consciousness

We have described ignorance as the cause of mental formations, and becoming as the cause of rebirth. We should say something more about the origin of rebirth-consciousness. In a discourse of the Anguttaranikāya, the Buddha likens wholesome or unwholesome kamma to a fertile field, consciousness to seeds, and craving to irrigation water. The planting of trees requires fields and nurseries. Likewise, rebirth-consciousness presupposes fertile land in the form of kamma. Kamma produces the potential for rebirth, and although the former states of consciousness disappear, the potential for rebirth remains. Like a budding plant, it does not materialise immediately, but it is bound to appear under favourable circumstances just as a criminal is liable to become a prisoner, or as a conscientious worker is likely to gain promotion.

Furthermore, rebirth depends on wholesome or unwholesome consciousness no less than a plant depends on seeds for its germination. The wholesome or unwholesome cittas arise and pass away, but they stimulate a steady stream of similar states of consciousness. These states are the outcome of former kammic consciousness just like the transformation of a snake's skin. The most vital of them is the decease-consciousness centring on one's kamma, on an object associated with it (kammanimitta), or on a vision of a future life (gatinimitta). This encounter of a dying person with signs and visions is called 'upatthānasamangita' which means the foreshadowing of the future life as conditioned by kamma. It marks the transition from decease-consciousness to rebirth-consciousness, not unlike the development of a sprout from a seed. A seed needs water to turn into a plant. Without water, or moisture from the air, it will remain sterile. In the same way, although kamma forms the basis for a future life, rebirth cannot occur without craving. So for arahants, although consciousness and the kamma that they have done as ordinary persons are conditions for rebirth, the rebirth-consciousness cannot arise because they have destroyed craving.

Craving is inherent in all those who are not arahants and is very powerful in ordinary people. It makes the sense-objects seem pleasant, attractive and irresistible. It creates the illusions of enjoyment, happiness, and optimism. Craving likes what is pleasant, and makes happiness and prosperity the main goal for humankind. It motivates the kammic consciousness, which leads to other mental states. At the approach of death, these mental states produce signs and visions. The dying person delights in pleasant visions, and becomes lively and cheerful. This shows that the kammic seeds are beginning to sprout. One does not welcome unpleasant visions, but one is still attached to them, which leads to the germination of the kammic seed.

Therefore, for ordinary people, rebirth is conditioned by three factors: kamma, the thought-process that is linked to kamma, and craving. That kamma is the fertile soil for rebirth is evident in deathbed visions. The germination of the seed is shown by the dying person's interest in these visions. So rebirth-consciousness arises, conditioned by the mental state at the last moment of the previous life. Rebirth-consciousness brings into play mind and matter, the six senses, contact, feeling, and their interrelations that concern one's whole life. So we may regard it as the seed of the present existence. It is inextricably related to mind and matter. All material phenomena, whether internal or external, are suffering, as they are subject to constant arising and passing away. However, ignorance makes us blind to suffering, creates illusions and attachment, and keeps us engaged in the pursuit of sense-objects. This preoccupation leads to the renewal of existence.

Having rebirth-consciousness as the basis of a new existence, the physical body arises with the concomitant mental properties such as contact, feeling, and perception. When rebirth-consciousness ceases, other mental states follow in succession, which may stimulate unwholesome or wholesome kammas such as greed, anger, contentment or forbearance. These mental states lead to physical actions such as sitting, standing or walking. So the Buddha said, "The world is led by the mind. It draws the world wherever it pleases. The whole world follows the mind." Here the world refers to sentient beings. The mind leads sentient beings well or badly. The mind of people who develop virtues such as faith or morality will lead them to do meritorious deeds. It will urge them to listen to the Dhamma and to practise insight meditation. It will lead them to the higher planes of existence or bring them to the goal of nibbāna. On the other hand, the mind of ignoble individuals will motivate them to seek sensual objects and to do immoral deeds. After death, it will take them to the lower realms and cause them much suffering. This verse shows that all material phenomena are dominated by the mind. This accords with the teaching of Dependent Origination, which says that because of consciousness, psychophysical phenomena such as contact arise. We have already given a full account of contact arising from the eye, so we will now explain the process of hearing.

Auditory Consciousness

As with seeing, hearing also involves three factors: the ear, the sound, and auditory consciousness. Hearing is impossible without the ear-sensitivity and the sound. Scientists say that sound-waves travel at the rate of 1,100 feet per second. This is the speed of sound in air, but radio can broadcast it all over the world in a moment. When the sound-wave contacts the ear, it is like a stone striking a drum, and hearing occurs. However, it is a mistake to believe that it is the owner of the ear who hears. The sensitive organs of the ear are always changing. The material phenomena involved are forever arising and passing away. They are like the ever-changing waters of a flowing stream. The contact of sound-waves with the stream of material phenomena awakens auditory consciousness, which occurs only for an instant and then vanishes. This is followed by the consciousness that focuses on the sound, investigates it and decides. Each moment of consciousness occurs just for an instant, then vanishes. Then seven successive impulse-moments flash forth, after which two registering moments occur focused on the sound.

Such is the process of consciousness involved in hearing. Whenever we hear a sound, auditory consciousness is renewed based on the ear and the sound. So one who practises mindfulness realises that hearing is conditioned by the ear and the sound, and that there is no one who hears. The meditator is more acutely aware of the causal relation in hearing than in seeing. Thus hearing means the conjunction of the ear, the sound, and auditory consciousness. The impact of the sound is contact, which is quite clear to the meditator. Some meditators are so sensitive that when they hear a harsh sound, they feel as if their ears are being bombarded. Some may even be startled by the dropping of a leaf. The impact is evident when, out of a variety of sounds that reach our ears, we select and attend to the sound that we wish to here. As for loud, harsh, and piercing sounds, we cannot avoid hearing them. We may avert our eyes from an unpleasant sight, but a sound cannot be ignored.

We have pleasant or unpleasant feelings according to the sounds that we hear. Songs and sweet voices are welcome while harsh sounds and abusive words are odious to us. When we hear ordinary sounds, we have feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. In such cases we may not even be aware of our feeling — neutral feelings are so subtle that they escape our notice. Although the Abhidhamma books say that we have only neutral feelings in connection with consciousness of the eye, ear, nose or tongue, these moments are too subtle to be discerned. Instead, one should contemplate the whole process of consciousness, which involves pleasant feeling along with some thought-moments, e.g. investigation, impulsion, and registering, and unpleasant feelings along with impulsion.

Neutral Feeling

Although sense consciousness may be accompanied by neutral feeling at the moment of its arising, it will be accompanied by unpleasant feeling if it is the result of unwholesome kamma. This is evident in our contact with unpleasant sense-objects that cause negative emotions such as fear. Loud noises may make us deaf, foul smells may cause headaches, while rotten food may make us ill. Likewise, the neutral feeling that is conditioned by the four kinds of pleasant sense-objects implies pleasant feelings. We enjoy seeing beautiful objects, hearing pleasant sounds, etc. This shows the pleasant character of neutral feeling that is the product of wholesome kamma. In this connection the sub-commentary on the Visuddhimagga says, "The neutral feeling that is the full-blown product of low kamma is suffering, and as such, it is of low character." In other words, the neutral feeling that is based on unwholesome kamma may be indifferent and neutral. However, because it stems from unwholesome kamma, it is low just like the flower that blooms in a heap of dung. Moreover, although it is not as unpleasant as painful feeling, it is disagreeable and so it is low. So the effect of a demeritorious deed is never free from pain and suffering.

Elaborating on the function of feeling in the chain of causation, the sub-commentary says, "The neutral feeling that results from unwholesome kamma should be described as suffering since it is undesirable. The neutral feeling that has its origin in wholesome kamma should be described as pleasant since it is desirable." It is evident in the pleasant feeling that we have when we hear a pleasant sound. Sweet words are welcome to the ear while harsh words jar on it. The feelings caused by ordinary sounds are neutral.

The three kinds of feeling due to hearing are distinctly familiar to the diligent meditator. One knows that painful or pleasant feelings arise from contact between sound and the ear, that there is no soul or self to be affected by it. One knows, too, that the feelings arise and vanish instantly. As concentration develops, one becomes aware of the ceaseless arising and vanishing of all the three kinds of feelings.

Smelling, or olfactory consciousness arises from the contact between the nose and the odour. Without an odour and the sensitive part of the nose, smelling is impossible. People without a sense of smell are rare. Once I met a monk who said that he detected practically no scent even when he smelled a handkerchief moistened with perfume. Even if the nose is sensitive you cannot smell if you plug it, or if there is no scent. The scent is detected only when it is wafted in the air and meets the sensitive part of the nose. People think that they can smell. In fact, it is the contact between the air-borne scent and the material phenomena of the nose that causes olfactory consciousness. As with seeing, olfactory consciousness involves advertence, investigation, impulsion, and other types of consciousness. The main point is, of course, that olfactory consciousness ceaselessly arises and vanishes, depending on the nose and the smell. We are all familiar with the offensive odour of something rotten, or the pleasing fragrance of a flower. Most people believe that they can smell. However, meditators know that it is only a phenomenon arising from the conjunction of the nose, the odour, and consciousness. Thus they realise the instability of everything. That is the difference between meditators and ordinary people.

Feelings vary according to the nature of contact. Scents of flowers and perfumes cause pleasant feelings whereas the stench of decomposing matter is offensive. Ordinary smells cause neutral feelings — a feeling that is so subtle that we do not notice it. The meditator notes the olfactory consciousness and becomes aware of the three kinds of feelings, and their arising and dissolution.

Gustatory consciousness arises from contact between the tongue and the food. Without the tongue or the flavour of food, there can be no gustatory consciousness. However, if the tongue is unhealthy and lacks sensitivity, the food will be tasteless. Ordinary people believe that it is a person who tastes and enjoys the flavour. In fact, the material phenomena forming the sensitive part of the tongue are constantly changing. It is from the contact of these material phenomena and the flavour of food that gustatory consciousness arises, which involves the thought-moments that we have mentioned before. The events at this stage are so rapid that they seem to form a single thought-moment. The consciousness changes at every moment, depending on the tongue and the flavour. It is this consciousness that knows sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and so forth.

The conjunction of the tongue, the flavour, and consciousness means contact. This is familiar to everybody, but people think that they experience the flavour. Only one who notes all the mental and physical events that occur while eating knows taste as a phenomenon dependent on the tongue, the flavour, and consciousness. Later, they gain a clear insight into its impermanence. Contact with flavour is followed by feelings that vary according to the taste. Eating delicious food gives us pleasure since we like it, whereas we complain about unpalatable food or the bitter taste of some medicine. The feeling we have when we eat some types of food is neutral. Although this is neutral feeling, the opportunity to eat is the outcome of wholesome kamma. Therefore, eating such food also has a pleasant aspect and leads to attachment. However, with developed concentration, the meditator becomes aware of the arising and passing away of all sensations — pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Tactile Consciousness

Another source of contact, feeling, etc., is the sensitive part of the body. It is said, "Tactile consciousness arises from the body and a tangible object. From the conjunction of the body, the tangible object and consciousness, contact arises, and the contact conditions feeling."

This needs some elaboration. Seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting each concern only their respective organs, so are restricted in locality and duration. You are conscious of tasting only when you are eating, conscious of hearing only when listening. However, tactile consciousness is present in every part of your body. You have tactile impression somewhere on your body whenever you think of it. So its sphere is extensive and its duration is long. Contemplation of tactile impression is most important for the beginner in insight practice, so meditators should know something about it.

The fine, sensitive matter that can receive tactile impressions exists in every healthy part of the body and so it can produce tactile consciousness everywhere through contact with an object. These material phenomena are constantly changing. They are like the current that passes through a bulb and emits light. In this state of constant change, the sensitive materiality that has not yet passed away collides with an external or internal material phenomenon, producing tactile consciousness. As with seeing, this consciousness involves a series of seventeen thought-moments: consciousness that adverts to the object, consciousness that knows, consciousness that registers and so on. However, these thought-moments arise and vanish so rapidly that the tactile consciousness appears to involve only a single thought-moment. Tactile consciousness is always present. It is not apparent when the mind is absorbed in an object other than the body. However, if attention is directed to the body, a tactile impression will be felt somewhere, for example, the contact between the body and the floor, the body and clothes, and so forth.

The Four Primary Elements

One who practises mindfulness regarding physical contact of the body is aware of its conditionality. One knows that it is neither created by God nor uncaused. One knows that it depends on the conjunction of a tactile object and the sensitive base in healthy condition. The object of contact is called photthabba and is of three kinds: solidity (pathavī), heat (tejo), and motion (vāyo).

The element of solidity has the attribute of hardness or coarseness. This attribute can be known if one focuses on a part of the body that gives a clear impression of contact. Softness too is to be regarded as solidity, since softness and hardness are just different degrees of the same quality. We call velvet a smooth object in comparison with many things that are coarser, but it seems rough when it touches the soft part of the eye. So softness and hardness are relative terms that differ only in degree, not in kind. Roughness and smoothness are also characteristics of the element of solidity.

The commentaries say that solidity is the support of the other elements that depend on it just as all objects depend on the earth. For example, when mixed with water, rice-powder turns into a lump of dough, which may be called earth because of its predominantly solid nature. The dough is held together by the element of fluidity (āpodhātu) . The lump also contains the fire element, which makes it hot or cold, and the air element, which supports stiffness and expansion. So this lump of dough contains all four elements. Solidity is the basis of the other elements, but the other three elements are also present. So, just as the rice powder is the support of fire, water and air, solidity is the support of its associated material phenomena. This is the function of the element of solidity.

To the meditator, solidity appears to be the basis for its co-elements. This is its manifestation (paccupatthāna), as are heaviness and lightness. In the Dhammasanganī and its commentary, solidity is described as heavy and light. So when you move a thing and feel that it is heavy or light, that is a manifestation of the element of solidity. You are also aware of the characteristics of solidity through its roughness, softness or smoothness. You are aware of its function (rasa) when you realise that it serves as the basis of other material phenomena. You are aware of its manifestation when you know that other material phenomena lie in the element of solidity, that it bears other material phenomena, that it is heavy or light. Such awareness of solidity as to characteristics (lakkhana), function (rasa), and manifestation (paccupatthāna) means realisation of ultimate realities and discriminative insight into the true nature of mind and matter. For ordinary people, solidity is usually understood as hands, legs, clothes, a person, and so forth. This way of thinking is wrong, but the meditator realises the ultimate realities through mindfulness.

The element of heat means temperature. It is evident when we change the position of the body because we feel hot somewhere. Coldness too is a weak form of heat. Something is only hot or cold in comparison with other things. The shade of a tree is cool in comparison with the heat of the sun, but hot compared with the interior of a cave. Water in a pot is cool compared with that in the open air, but warm when compared to iced water. Hot, warm, and cool are relative terms that mean, essentially, the element of heat.

Temperature or heat is essential to maturation and development. The function of heat is to mature or ripen organisms. Aging and decay of trees, buildings, the earth and rocks, are due to the heat of the sun. The heat of the physical body causes grey hair, decaying teeth, wrinkled skin, and other signs of aging. The greater the heat, the more rapid is the process of maturation. The element of heat makes material phenomena soft and pliant. So as one notes, "hot," "hot," one realises its function — to soften and loosen. When heat or cold is manifested in the body, the mindful meditator is aware of the element of heat regarding its characteristics. One knows its function when one knows that it makes things soft and pliant. Thus one has discriminative insight into the nature of mind and matter. One is free from the illusion that ordinary people have when they regard the element of heat as an entity like a hand, a man or a woman.

The element of motion has the characteristics of stiffness and rigidity. If you sit erect, stretch your back, and look within, you will find rigidity. Again, stretch your arm and fix your mind inside the hand. You will find stiffness there. So if you sit and note mentally, "sitting," you become aware of the element of motion through its characteristics. You know it not as self, but as stiffness. This insight into the true nature of the element of motion is important.

Initially, however, insight will not necessarily be confined to the reality of stiffness. Ideas of substance, self, and so forth, continue to obtrude, since the average person's concentration is weak, and he or she lets the mind wander freely. The mind is often dominated by sensual desire and other hindrances that impede the development of tranquility and insight. As a result, the mind is not confined to the reality of elements. Some teachers would have us believe that all conventional notions can be dismissed from the beginning, but this is impossible. To be pure in mind and view is extremely rare for a beginner. Those who heard the Dhamma directly from the Buddha and attained the Noble Path were exceptional; such kind of attainment is unthinkable for others.

Mindfulness does not lead to insight at once, but while contemplating mind and matter, one develops strong concentration and vigilant mindfulness, leaving little room for stray thoughts. It is only at this stage of mental purity that insight into the true nature of mind and matter arises. Even so, conventional notions linger before the attainment of knowledge of dissolution (bhanga-ñāna). So it is said in the Visuddhimagga that at the earlier stage of insight (udayabbaya-ñāna), the meditator sees .".the lights and flowers on the pagoda platform, or fishes and turtles in the sea." Later, however, both the mental and material objects of contemplation and the contemplating mind are found to pass away repeatedly. Conventional ideas such as name or form do not arise any longer. As the Visuddhimagga says, "attention is fixed on cessation, disappearance, and dissolution."

Therefore, initially, one knows only the object that one contemplates in the right way. Rigidity (the element of motion) is evident when lifting the foot. To make us aware of this, the Buddha says, "When he (the meditator) walks, he knows that he is walking." Here, one is instructed to be aware only of the fact that one is walking; one is not told to reflect on the element of motion or rigidity. This means that names are not relevant. What matters most is to see things as they really are, so one can note them in conventional terms. Again, the element of motion is manifest in the movement of any part of the body. Awareness of rigidity in such movements, or in the abdominal rising and falling, means awareness of the true characteristics of the element of motion. Looseness too is a mark of the element of motion, for we speak comparatively when we refer to the tightness or looseness of anything.

It is also the function of the element of motion to move, incline, tilt or displace. One notes the motion of the hands when one bends them and becomes aware of the element of motion. One knows it, too, when one focuses on walking or lifting. At such moments, one does not think of the object as a man, a woman, the body, and so forth. One is aware only of the gradual movement, which means the element of motion. Also, one is aware of something pushing or leading from one place to the other. Thus one knows the element of motion by means of the phenomena that appear. This is awareness by manifestation (paccupatthāna), which the scriptures describe as "abhinīhāra-paccupatthāna — the phenomenon that appears as leading."

Solidity, heat, and motion can be known only by touching. They cannot be known by the other senses. You can hear the sound of something, but you cannot say whether it is coarse or soft, hot or cold, rigid, stable or moving. Neither its smell, taste nor visual form will tell you anything about its primary quality. Yet, it is a popular belief that we can identify the primary elements by seeing. A rock or an iron bar looks hard, no doubt, but this is not due to seeing. It is just an inference based on past experience. What we know by seeing is only the appearance, which sometimes gives a false impression. This is evident when we tread on what looks like solid ground and stumble into a quagmire, or when we get burnt by handling a hot iron bar unknowingly. Nor can we know the element of motion just by looking. We know that an object is moving because we see it first here and then there, but its motion is only inferred. When one of two trains at rest starts moving, the other one seems to be in motion. To a traveller in a fast-moving train, the trees seem to be moving in the opposite direction. These optical illusions show that we cannot rely on seeing to know the truth about motion.

Once, an elderly layman who was interested in meditation told us about his exchange with a monk. Taking a pillow and shaking it, he asked him, "Venerable sir, what dhammas do you see passing away?"

The monk replied, "I see the element of motion passing away."

"Venerable sir, you are mistaken. What you can see is only the visual form. If you are mindful at the moment of seeing, you can know only what happens to the visual form. You cannot know anything empirically about the element of motion at that moment. Insight meditation is a practice that gives priority to what can be known directly by introspection. Only afterwards are other facts to be noted and known by reasoning. Contemplating each sense-object through its respective sense-organ is natural. The element of motion can be known only through body-contact. We can know motion if we contemplate while walking or bending. Now, without being in contact with the element of motion, you say that you know its dissolution. What you say is unnatural and wrong."

My informant's criticism contains much truth. Instead of relying on the S atipatthāna Sutta and other discourses for information, some teachers give purely speculative instructions based on Abhidhamma books that deal exclusively with natural phenomena. Some meditators practise according to these instructions. The practice may benefit them, but they should not rely on it for the attainment of genuine insight on the Noble Path. Only a few gifted meditators gain insight through speculative introspection.

The best way is to follow the Buddha's instruction in the Satipatthāna Sutta to contemplate the psychophysical phenomena that arise from the six senses. This is, as the Buddha says, "the only way (ekayāno maggo)." We should note and recognize the tactile-impression when we are aware of any contact internally or externally. Otherwise, the impression may dominate us, accompanied by ignorance and other defilements. We may harbour illusions of permanence, pleasure, and selfhood. Thus, through contact, we become attached to certain parts of the body, we consider them permanent and make distinctions according to our preferences. If we note each contact and realise its sensory, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial nature, attachment will not occur. Then we are on the right path leading to enlightenment and nibbāna.

Body-sensitivity is a quality that pervades the whole body when it is healthy. Many things, such as clothes or wind, can produce tactile impressions. The body itself can also produce impressions. Thus external and internal tangible objects are always available. A moment's reflection will reveal that any place, however small, responds to contact. This contact produces tactile consciousness. From the conjunction of body-sensitivity, the tangible object, and consciousness, a clear impression arises. Pleasant impressions of contact produce pleasant feelings while unpleasant impressions result in painful feelings. The deeper the impression the more intense is the feeling.

Mind-door and Consciousness

The mind-consciousness that thinks, conceives and cognizes has its origin in the mind and mind-objects. The mind that forms its basis is the subconsciousness that flows on from the moment of conception. It occurs ceaselessly because of kamma and is the basis for perception and cognition. When we are asleep, or when the mind is otherwise occupied, our mental life is just subconsciousness. It becomes active in the face of mind-objects and then volition and cognition arise. So we can think and know only because of subconsciousness. Although this consciousness is always present, lacking volition and cognition, it can lead to mental events only when it is strong.

At times we cannot think because we are drowsy, or our thinking may be futile, in spite of our efforts. This is due to the weakness of subconsciousness. Thus subconsciousness by itself serves little purpose, and becomes active only when it makes contact with a new sense-object. Thereupon, it is called active subconsciousness, vibrating subconsciousness or arresting subconsciousness. This last subconsciousness leads to volition and cognition. According to the commentaries, advertence is also the basis for mental activity. Advertence forms the first stage in the process of consciousness. It arises as the inquiring state of mind regarding the object. If it is alert and sharp, it is mindful of all the essential facts and objects. Expert writers select the most important facts for their books, and eloquent speakers choose the most appropriate words for their speeches. Thus their work comes to perfection. Later, this advertence leads to wholesome or unwholesome kamma, depending on whether it is intent on noble or ignoble objectives. It is open to introspection and cognition since we can know that intention and awareness arise from advertence.

Equally vital to mental activity is the mind-object. An object always arises when we reflect. Without an object, mental activity is not possible. Sometimes we try to think of something but give up because we cannot recall the essential facts. So, mental activity depends on the conjunction of subconsciousness, advertence and a mind-object.

According to the commentaries, the heart forms the physical basis of all mental events. However, doctors can remove the diseased heart of a patient and replace it with a healthy substitute, giving the patient a new lease of life. This may raise doubts about the role of the heart in the mental life of humanity.

The facts admit of two explanations. Although the heart is removed, its potency may not become extinct and subconsciousness may still linger in its place just like the tail of a lizard that moves after it has been cut off. Moreover, the subconsciousness may become active again when the transplant gets a new lease of life from the blood, just as grafted tissue has new sensitivity. Alternatively, we can reply to the question based on the Patthāna, a book of the Abhidhamma. This describes the physical basis of mind-consciousness simply as "the physical organ that conditions the mind as its basis." It does not specifically mention any organ or part of the body. Thus, according to this canonical book, a certain part of the body is the seat of the mind — perhaps it is in the heart or the brain. Those who do not wish to regard the heart as the seat of the mind may regard the brain as its physical basis.

Here we can mention the analogy of the spider and the evolution of mind, as set forth in the Abhidhamma commentary. The spider builds a web for catching flies. It can do so instinctively in a matter of days after its birth, whereas by contrast even a year-old child can do nothing for itself. The spider waits in the centre of its web, eats up any creature that gets entangled there and returns to its lair. Similarly, mind-consciousness abides in the heart, and the blood pumped by the heart flows through the blood-vessels, spreading all over the body like the threads of the spider's web. So a visual image in the eye stirs the subconsciousness in the heart, arousing visual-consciousness through its process (vīthi). Subconsciousness (bhavanga) then reverts to its original base. The same may be said of the other senses with their respective sense-organs.

So subconsciousness with its original activity, thinking and knowing, clearly forms the basis of our mental life. When a visual object occurs, visual-consciousness arises with the eye as its basis, and then mind-consciousness reflects on it. The same is true of auditory consciousness and other senses with the ear, the nose, and the tongue as their bases. As for tactile consciousness, its sphere is extensive as it depends on the size of the body.

When sense-objects are not apparent, the mind that comprises thinking and knowing dominates mental life. Sometimes we are so absorbed in thought that we remain unmindful of other sense-objects. Preoccupation with an important matter may even make us sleepless. We are then dominated by thoughts that arise ceaselessly based on mental activity as conditioned by subconsciousness, advertence, and mind-objects. To one who notes every thought as it arises, these thoughts will appear to arise and vanish separately in fragments.

Every mental event depends on the conjunction of the mind, a mind-object, and cognition. This is followed by contact with mental images. These images, which may be real or unreal, factual or fictitious, are present in imagination whenever we think or intend to do something. This should be familiar to those who have read the Jātaka stories. Reading these stories produces mental images of cities and kings coloured by Burmese beliefs and traditions. These images must be far from the historical truth, since the stories have their origin in India, and so the people and places described must have conformed to the Indian culture and way of life. Modern novels evoke images of towns, villages, men, women, criminals, and so forth. The reader knows that they are fictitious, yet while he or she is reading, they seem real, hence the delight, sorrow, and other emotions that a moving story arouses. All this is due to contact with mental images. As the Buddha says in the Brahmajāla Sutta, "These teachings and beliefs stem from the vivid imagination that makes them clear and real." In short, a vivid imagination is necessary when we speak, write, hold a belief, think, or let the mind wander freely.

Imagination leads to feeling. Pleasant images cause pleasant feelings as, for example, images related to our past affluence or the prospect of becoming affluent in the future. On the other hand, unpleasant images make us unhappy. Recalling past suffering revives painful memories. Equally unpleasant is the fear of hardship, or anxiety about accidents that might happen. The cause may sometimes be purely imaginary, as when people grieve over the reported death of a relative, only to learn later that he is still alive.

The image that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant will cause neutral feeling. We are then neither happy nor sad. We seem to have no feeling at all, but this simply shows the extremely subtle nature of neutral feeling, which, according to the commentaries, can be known by the analogy of the deer tracks. When a deer runs across a large rock, the track is lost since the animal leaves no footprints on it. However, if footprints are found on both sides of the rock, we can conclude that the deer has run across the rock. Similarly, though one is well aware of pleasant or unpleasant feelings, one does not notice neutral ones, but is mindful only of seeing, hearing and so forth. However, when one again has a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling, one concludes that a neutral feeling occurred while being mindful of ordinary mental events So the Buddha said, "Conditioned by the mind and mind-object mind-consciousness arises; the conjunction of mind, mind-object, and consciousness is contact, and contact gives rise to feeling."

This natural process of cause and effect has nothing to do with a self or a Creator. Mind-objects include the five sense-objects and imagined objects. So mind-consciousness involves all the six sense-objects, whether real or imagined. Every sense-object leads to sense-contact, which in turn causes feeling. For most people, these mental events seem to belong to an ego, self or soul. Such illusions are incompatible with the law of causation. This is realised empirically if one notes every mental event, traces its cause and becomes aware of subconsciousness, advertence, and the mind-object. So one knows that every mental event means only the interrelation of cause and effect, leaving no room for chance, a self or a Creator.

One knows too that mental activity leads to sense-contact, which in turn produces feeling. This knowledge is not academic but empirical. If the mind wanders to one's home while meditating, one directs attention to the wandering mind. One then notes the contact between the mind and its object, i.e. images of home. Similarly, one notes and follows the corresponding thoughts that distract the mind if thoughts of, say, the Shwedagon Pagoda or a foreign country occur. This contact with mind-objects is called 'phassa.'

The feeling resulting from contact is equally clear. While meditating, one feels delighted on thinking of something pleasant, unhappy when a sad thought occurs, and amused when one thinks of something funny. So one knows that feeling is merely the outcome of contact. However, the insight of one who notes mind and matter at every moment is deeper than this knowledge of the origin of feeling. For, as concentration and tranquility develop, one finds that each object, and the consciousness that knows it, passes away. So one gains a clear insight into the impermanence of all mental events such as thinking or feeling. One also sees their unsatisfactoriness or unreliability, and their impersonality or insubstantiality. Such insight means the realisation and comprehension of Dependent Origination.

Review of the Anterior Life-Cycle

The doctrine of Dependent Origination consists of twelve links beginning with ignorance and ending in death. It has ignorance and craving as two root-causes, and there are two life-cycles. The anterior cycle begins with ignorance and ends in feeling, while the posterior cycle begins with craving and ends in aging and death. The first part of this discourse explained the links in the chain of causation up to the feelings that arise from contact. Avijjā is ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. It makes people oblivious to the impermanence and insubstantiality of sense-objects. So they think, speak, and act with the hope of securing happiness in the present life or after death. These thoughts, words or bodily actions, which may be either wholesome or unwholesome, are called mental formations (sankhārā).

Mental formations lead to a new existence. The dying person has flashbacks of kamma and visions of a future life that impress the mind and condition subconsciousness in a new life. Lacking any special object that concerns the new consciousness, the latter occurs repeatedly with the deathbed impression of the previous life as its object.

Subconsciousness gives way to active consciousness at the moment of seeing, for example. After a moment of adverting, visual-consciousness arises dependent on the eye and form. It is part of mental life as conditioned by mental formations. The sense-object may be pleasant or unpleasant. The nature of the corresponding sense consciousness is due to the ethical character of our past deeds. This applies to the six types of consciousness arising from the six senses. The last type of consciousness, implicit in mental activity such as thinking, imagining, or willing, is dependent on subconsciousness, mental advertence, the physical basis, and the mental image. This mental activity involves seven impulse thought-moments and two registering thought-moments. Registering is the product of wholesome or unwholesome kamma. Impulsion is not the result of kamma, but it is termed sankhārā -based consciousness in that it arises from subconsciousness, the product of mental formations.

With the arising of consciousness, other concomitant mental properties and material phenomena also occur. So, consciousness leads to mind and matter, which is followed by the six sense-organs and their corresponding impressions. Contact means the conjunction of the mind, the mind-object, and the sense-organ. It produces feeling, which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Neutral feeling seems like the absence of any feeling. However, according to the Abhidhamma, it is in fact a subtle kind of enjoyment that implies only the absence of pain.


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