If avijjā is ignorance, and saṅkhāra is choices or volitional formations, I’m confused about why they are the conditions for the arising of consciousness. Wouldn’t there need to already be consciousness for ignorant mental volitions to arise?
If what you say is true, then ignorance and its influence on volition would cease when we sleep.
Please note that ignorance is a negative. Do we become wise when we sleep (unconscious)?
About this (from avijjā …), you may need to read SN 12.19 = SA 294. See Choong Mun-keat, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 184-188, a discussion about “from ignorance to feeling” based on SN12.19 = SA 294.
It doesn’t mean there has never been consciousness before. There is no “first point” of consciousness, nor of anything else. You may want to read Ajahm Brahmali’s article on dependent originatin which can be downloaded here:
When there is craving, aversion and ignorance, intentions arise to experience from the six sense bases. Therefore the six kinds of consciousness arise at the senses. When this process is observed mindfully, only these singular phenomena can be known to exist (other things may or may not exist), AFAIK. This is how I understand Idapaccayata or specific conditionality. This is with insight. But when looking at ‘mundane conditionality, like what causes and required to make a cup of tea it becomes multiple causes, and not idapaccayata, which is specific.
This is a great article, the explanation of how DO connects with the other major lists is very helpful! What I understand now is that delusion is what inclines people to make choices that condition consciousness in a certain manner, which is what then influences what sensory impressions are clung to during the process of sense contact.
You’re also right that I was misunderstanding that DO doesn’t say that delusion comes first. It’s more like that delusion is the bottom brick in a stack of 12 bricks, with rebirth, suffering, and death at the top. Then with the removal of the bottom brick, the stack collapses.
For future readers, this helped me with the OP question:
The first of the twelve factors is usually known as ignorance (avijjā). Ignorance refers to a distortion in our understanding, a not seeing of reality as it actually is, and it affects all beings except those who are fully awakened. Because of ignorance we engage in activities that have future kammic results. These activities (saṅkhāra) are the second factor of dependent origination. The most important result of producing kamma is future rebirth, the arising of consciousness at the beginning of a particular life. So consciousness (viññāṇa) is the third factor.
By craving and trying to control we tend to just create more suffering for ourselves. And the Buddha said that when we penetrate to the truth of non-self this is exactly what we see: we realize that, indeed, we have no mastery over our feelings, that craving is futile and in fact counterproductive. When we see this, when we eliminate delusion, we also give up craving. When you abandon craving you don’t need any strategies to try to satisfy it. When you give up all your strategies, all your grasping and taking up of things, you no longer exist in a particular way and your consciousness is no longer established in anything. Since consciousness is not established in anything, then at death, when the body falls away, consciousness does not incline to any particular realm, whether the realm of sense pleasures or a refined realm of the mind or any other realm. Then there will be no rebirth, and when there is no rebirth there will be no suffering, no old age and no death. This is how the elimination of delusion translates into the elimination of suffering.
Consciousness feeds on itself. It grows.
And as consciousness grows, so do choices. As long as ignorance remains, consciousness goes in circles. It goes in circles because consciousness exists to recreate personal experiences of delight. That is suffering.
If your question is regarded metaphysically, in terms of ‘rebirth’ (‘reincarnation’), then, yes, it sounds very subtle & complex.
But if your question is regarded in terms of the present arising of ignorant defiled mental states, then it could possibly simply mean consciousness gets ‘involved with’ or ‘stuck on’ the sankharas, as described in say SN 22.53.
For example, the sankhara (thought) arises to watch television. Then consciousness gets stuck on that thought. That sankhara becomes the object of consciousness. SN 22.53 says:
As long as consciousness remains, it would remain involved with form, supported by form, founded on form. And with a sprinkle of relishing, it would grow, increase, and mature.
Or consciousness would remain involved with feeling …
Or consciousness would remain involved with perception …
Or as long as consciousness remains, it would remain involved with choices, supported by choices, grounded on choices. And with a sprinkle of relishing, it would grow, increase, and mature.
Mendicants, suppose you say: ‘Apart from form, feeling, perception, and choices, I will describe the coming and going of consciousness, its passing away and reappearing, its growth, increase, and maturity.’ That is not possible.
While the second possibility may not be true, it does seem to make logical sense for why consciousness arises after sankhara & ignorance.
There is an interesting book called “Thinking Fast and Slow” that talks about how so many of our decisions (perhaps most/all) are actually caused by our sub/unconscious mental processes. Our conscious recollection of our decisions only happens after the fact.
For me, going backwards and forwards in Dependent Origination helps me see the chain. Also, I think it’s important that I have a good grasp of what each link is. Sankhara, Namarupa and Conciousness can be easily misunderstood, particularly if I try to rely on a concise translated word or phrase rather than an exhaustive study and meditative understanding of what the Buddha was trying to impart by using said terms.
My understanding of namarupa, consciousness and sankhara is as follows. I might be wrong, so feel free to correct me!
Namarupa is name-and-form, the Buddha’s brilliant re-definition of an already existing term.
Rupa: The material side of experience; what I experience in terms of objects, sounds, odors, etc.
Nama: The functions of the mind (apart from consciousness) Nama consists of five factors: feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention. In conjunction, my mental concepts are formed.
Namarupa is what consciousness is aware of, the conceptual and material aspects of all experience.
Consciousness (vinnana) is the mind’s ability of being conscious of something. Consciousness is distinctly separate from namarupa.
Namarupa and vinnana are mutually dependent upon one another, cannot exist without the other (the two bundles of reeds).
Sankhara is tricky for me! I kind of hold in my mind that it is planned action of mind, body or speech accompanied by will resulting in kamma.
So if my understanding of reality is distorted (avijja), I engage in activities with future kammic results (sankhara). My concept (nama) of reality (rupa) is distorted and my consciousness (vinnana) is built upon distortion. If avijja is destroyed, the rest falls away.
The Buddha, in the last stages of his quest for awakening, already seeing consciousness as conditioned and not-self, went beyond refined meditative attainments and saw the conditioned nature of consciousness and then the reality of samsara, destroying avijja.
“…the Buddha-to-be had realized that the solution to the predicament of samsara was not to be found through the profound meditative abstraction of the immaterial spheres. At the present juncture, he would have realized why this was so: however much refined, these experiences do not go beyond the basic reciprocal conditioning between consciousness and name-and-form. Although form has been left behind and name has been greatly subdued, a remnant of name remains, sufficient for the conditioning relationship with consciousness to continue.
With ignorance acting via formations as the conditioning force, the reciprocal conditioning between consciousness and name-and-form is the hub around which the wheel of samsara revolves.”
(Analayo, 2017, pg. 111)
Not sure if that has been pointed out already, but ‘big picture suttas’ such as AN10.62 may be useful to have an idea of what maybe the Buddha meant about how lack of wisdom and choices informed by that lack of wisdom only serve to perpetuate a beginningless process of birth, death and suffering
I hadn’t read this before, this is very interesting. It’s kind of beautiful that the initial and most noteworthy result of faith in Buddhist teachings is proper attention, carefully putting attention onto the proper things, the factor of stream-entry.
AN10.62 seems a bit more helpful of a guide as to what to do in this life here and now than dependant origination. I think some of my struggles to understand dependant origination stem from me trying to understand dependant origination in terms of this very life. When really dependant origination seems to be (maybe I’m wrong) aimed at describing how the suffering of samsaric existance originates and ceases.
I recommend you check as well three other key suttas - AN9.1, AN10.2 and SN12.23 - which may help you get your head around the more tangible aspects of the dependent origination framework, which it must be noted, does stretch well beyond the twelve nidanas people tend to stick with and memorise.
Ajahn @Brahmali 's sutta retreats usually touch on how to reflect about those EBTs.
Check the AV category for the recording of most recent of the sutta retreats led by him!
As a general observation on the interpretation of DO, I’m not convinced that the sutta descriptions of idapaccayata support the idea of one nidana “conditioning” another nidana, ie shaping it in a particular way.
Here’s the standard formula for idapaccayata:
“When this is, that is.
From the arising of this, that arises.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.”
I take this these two modes of conditionality to mean that (1) while nidana A is present, then nidana B is present, and (2) when nidana A arises then nidana B arises.
I struggle to see how you could interpret this to mean nidana A shaping nidana B, which is what some suggest.
The only exception I can see would be the reciprocal conditioning between vinnnana and namarupa.
Sure, in some DO suttas vinnana and nama-rupa are co-dependent, but I don’t think this means that vinnana shapes nama-rupa, or vice-versa. It just means that they depend upon each other, as in the sheaves of wheat simile.
Though confusingly they’re not co-dependent in the majority of DO suttas.
Personally, I think that they do condition each other. It seems to me that they are dependent upon each other precisely because they condition each other. There is rupa and nama is where feelings, perceptions, intentions are formed and where attention is directed and consequently, it’s that which vinnana is aware of. If namarupa changes, vinnana changes. If vinnana (one of the five aggregates of clinging) is abandoned, what becomes of namarupa?
But in DO vinnana is described as sense-consciousness ( see SN12.2 ), which is the awareness of sense-objects, and not something which can be shaped or changed. So in DO vinnana is just the awareness of nama-rupa.
I think citta could be shaped or changed by nama-rupa, but that doesn’t seem to be what DO is describing.
Unfortunately there is no consensus on DO, just a lot of conflicting interpretations.
They appear co-dependent only in suttas that don’t trace DO back to ignorance. I think this relates to this topic because, in the 12 condition suttas (eg SN 12.2), consciousness arises dependent on sankhara rather than on nama-rupa. When sankhara is not mentioned (eg. SN 12.65, SN 12.67, DN 15, etc), then consciousness must arise dependent on something, which is nama-rupa.
Interesting point. I think the 12 condition suttas (eg. SN 12.2) are describing a ‘shaping’ or at least a ‘directing’ of consciousness by sankhara. Where as the 10 condition suttas (eg. SN 12.65) are not describing a shaping or directing but are merely describing a cognitive/neurological (cittaniyama) reality. In other words, in the 10 condition suttas, the real unwholesome action of DO starts at craving. But in the 12 condition suttas, the real unwholesome action starts at ignorance. For example, in SN 12.65, there does not appear to be any assumption that consciousness is affected by ignorance. In SN 12.65, my impression is consciousness is something quite neutral. But in SN 22.81, for example, it is explicitly said consciousness is affected by/tainted by ignorance.
When an uneducated ordinary person is struck by feelings born of contact with ignorance, craving arises.
Avijjāsamphassajena, bhikkhave, vedayitena phuṭṭhassa assutavato puthujjanassa uppannā taṇhā;
The SN22.81 passage doesn’t describe consciousness being tainted by ignorance, it just describes how feeling leads to craving when ignorance is present. I don’t see any support here for the idea of consciousness being shaped by ignorance.
It seems more about where consciousness is directed, perhaps related to the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate attention. But consciousness itself appears to be the basic, neutral function of sense-awareness, and not something which is tainted or shaped.