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Hardcore Dharma: The 12 Nidanas

posted by Julia May Jonas

TF, good little yupster/slave to her body that she is, needs her yoga.  TF was sick and busy and wasn’t able to get to yoga for about a week and a half, (which, since TF prefers to go 3 to 4 times a week (TF needs her yoga) is a super long time).  So TF was thrilled from the point of her head to the tips of her toes that her health and schedule allowed her to attend a Tuesday night class at her neighborhood spot, Greenhouse Holistic, a great place not only because of its two Williamsburg locations and fairly solid roster of teachers, but also because of their best-in-the-city-unlimited-classes-for-75-dollars-a-month deal and no mat rental prices.  (Sidebar:  Those mat rental prices really kill me.  It’s like eating at a restaurant and getting charged for the cutlery.  That’s right every single Manhattan yoga studio: I’m talking to you).

I’d had a normal day at work, and therefore as I settled onto my completely free mat I felt low-brained, glassy-eyed and shifty with inertia.   I was eager to push back into downward dog, spin my heart-center to the ceiling in ardha chandrasana, cartwheel my hands into Warrior II, breathe fire in uttkatasana.  What I mean is – Momma was ready to move.
So perhaps I reacted more uncharitably (mentally, I did nothing externally other than close my eyes) than I should have when the substitute teacher, during her long opening statement said, “the people who lost their jobs during this recession – that’s their karma.”  Addressing the unskillful representations of Buddhist concepts (and the common misunderstanding that Yoga and Buddhism are the same) that happen in yogercize classes is worth a whole big post of its own.  But, I’ll leave that for another time.  The fact  is, misinterpretations of karma are commoner than advertising and karma is the focus of this spring semester of Intermediate Hardcore Dharma.   We began last Saturday with a discussion of the 12 Nidanas.
To paraphrase Wikkipedia (would that be a metaparaphrase?) the 12 Nidanas are the “conditioned causal connections of each state that supports the next in the cycle of our lives as we suffer through Samsara.”   (Additional sidebar: Do you think Buddhists would ever be able to explain anything if they removed the words ‘causal’, ‘conditioned’, and ‘origination’ from their vocabularies?)  In class we started with the Nidanas of the past: Ignorance (Avidya) leading to Volitional Actions or mental formations (Samskara) that then lead to our present state: conciousness (Vijnana). 
I think this means that back in the day we started separating ourselves from spaciousness by putting our own separate spin on the present moment, by thinking of reality as ‘my continuous and solid reality’ and this led to us developing mind patterns so that now we get all hot and bothered when our mother over-pronounces the ‘d’ in the word sandwich.
What I’m currently turned on by about these Nidana’s is the idea that they’re a description, not a direction.  They’re not saying “don’t separate yourself from reality” or “don’t develop habits,” – rather they’re saying that this state is where we live.  There’s nothing to do, our present consciousness is build by the mortar and brick of ignorance and habit energy.  I like Reggie Ray’s example that when we walk into an ice cream store, it is simply an illusion that we have choice about what kind of ice cream we are going to get.  Our choice is actually completely dictated utterly informed by the infinite galaxy of our past.
It could seem like a bummer, but I also tend to think that understanding that we are completely subject to our exhaustively incomprehensible history of causes and effects is liberating.  But then again that’s just my completely dependent consciousness talking.  How do you interpret these first three steps/links of the Nidana 12?
Also a disclaimer/question:  I, unfortunately, am not going to be attending the Intermediate Hardcore Dharma sessions in person this semester (although I was there for the first class before I realized I was crazy).  I will be listening to the audio, following along in the reading and continuing to post HC Dharma inspired posts, however.  Is this fraudulent?  Let me know.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 9, 2009 at 4:03 pm


I like Reggie Ray’s example that when we walk into an ice cream store, it is simply an illusion that we have choice about what kind of ice cream we are going to get. Our choice is actually completely dictated by the infinite galaxy of our past.
What did he say? because this is not true.



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Julia May Jonas

posted April 9, 2009 at 4:11 pm


“If I walk into an ice-cream store and see endless rows of flavors to choose from, it is only an illusion that, in selecting one of them, I am making a free choice. in fact, it is my own physical, emotional and intellectual predispositions that lead me to pick the flavor that I do. If I am aware of the doctrine of karma and decide to flout it by choosing a flavor that I do not like, I am still within the grip of karma, being driven as I am by my anger, resentment, and opposition to the idea that I am not free in my choice.” (Indestructible Truth, page 377)



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 9, 2009 at 4:14 pm


Greg Zwahlen vs. Reggie Ray, dharma combat. This I gotta see. I know what Reggie’s trying to say with that quote, but Greg Zwahlen might be able to deliver a knockout blow.



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GZA

posted April 9, 2009 at 6:12 pm


Hmm, looking it up, you left off the previous sentence, which says ” . . .the extensive domain of free will that we human beings think we have is an illusion.” Then the passage you quoted elaborates on that.
It seems to me that he is simply saying that our free will is drastically more circumscribed than we think. Not that we have none whatsoever. Because on 385 he outlines where free will enters into the equation.



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Julia May Jonas

posted April 10, 2009 at 8:09 am


I said it was dictated by our past. I did not say that we have no free will. I’ll cop to poor word choice, but I think there’s a difference. However, there’s no way that you can tell me he does not say, “it is only an illusion, in selecting one of them, I am making a free choice.”
On 385 he talks about further steps in the nidanas than I’m discussing.
To go even further back on 377:
“Whatever happiness or unhappiness arises, whatever pleasurable or painful circumstance occurs, it does so in accordance with the unfolding of karma, as the result of the ripening of the totality of the past. The operation of karma occurs even at the most subtle and seemingly insubstantial levels of our lives. Every thought that arises, every perception that happens, every feeling and emotion that we experience, all happen as the inevitable and unavoidable results of the totality of past karma. Within this framework, there is no independent, substantial “I” to be found.”



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 10, 2009 at 8:51 am


I think he did not make it as clear as he should have, because we do have free will, and if our choices were entirely dictated by the past we would have no free will. This is how Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it:
Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a simple straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/karma.html



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Julia May Jonas

posted April 10, 2009 at 9:20 am


How about “utterly informed?” I’m copping to poor word choice! Let me cop!



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 10, 2009 at 9:39 am


Ok ok. I’ll let you cop but I think Reggie should have been more clear.
Incidentally, I’m really coming to appreciate all of the work Thanissaro Bhikkhu has done making an enormous amount of high quality primary source material available for free. He’s the man.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 10, 2009 at 9:48 am


Also, if you buy that the present moment is always the Gap between feeling and craving (or craving and grasping or contact and feeling depending on the presentation – it doesn’t matter because no matter what the gap is always the present moment from an ultimate standpoint), then we got nothing BUT free will.
Of course Reggie is speaking relatively. He gets a bit sloppy when he goes for the edgy Fire and Brimstone statements, IMHO.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 10, 2009 at 9:55 am


I don’t think you could argue that the present moment is always the gap between feeling and craving. From a relative standpoint the present moment could be any one of the 12. From an ultimate standpoint there is no present moment.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 10, 2009 at 10:28 am


Wrong. The 12 nidanas always takes the present moment as the reference point. The preceding nidanas, such as samskara, were gaps missed in previous present moments. When they happened, they were not samskara, they were feeling and craving that happened two quickly to rest with. From the viewpoint of the present, they are nidana two. From the viewpoint of when they actually happened, they were the gap (missed). It’s always the present. The present moment can’t be any one of the twelve. There are not 12 present moments.



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Ellen Scordato

posted April 10, 2009 at 10:31 am


And I thought from the ultimate standpoint it is always the present moment? It is all happening at the same “time” but there is no way to perceive it that way.
I’m trying to get thru Katagiri’s Being and Time, which is about intersection of said nouns/concepts. Cool stuff from a slightly diff angle.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 10, 2009 at 10:39 am


The Gap is the place where relative and ultimate meet each other, or according to the 3rd turning, the place where things as they appear and things as they abide are in accord.
Greg Zwahlen is right from a Prasangika Madyamaka POV about ultimately speaking there is no present moment, but they are making a wordplay. What they mean is “ultimately, there’s no present moment you can fixate upon.”



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 10, 2009 at 11:55 am


Traditionally the 12 nidanas describe a process that unfolds over a minimum of three lifetimes. This is true for Sanskritic traditions, who take Vasubandu’s Kosha as authoritative, and also for the Theravada tradition, which relies on the the Visuddhimagga for its explanation. The Visuddhimagga provides the three lives model in chapter XVII. As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes,
The Nikayas themselves do not give any systematic explanation of dependent origination the way one might expect a college textbook to do. Thus, for a clear explanation, we must rely on the commentaries and expository treatises that have come down from the Early Buddhist schools. Despite minor differences in details, these concur on the general meaning of this ancient formula . . . [describes three lifetime model] From the above, we can see that the commentarial interpretation treats the twelve factors as spread out over a span of three lives” (In the Buddhas Words, pgs 313-314)
Vasubandu presents the momentary interpretation as a tertiary explanation in the Kosha, after spending pages and pages on the three lifetimes model. He posits that all twelve parts occur “in one and the same moment.”
How is pratityasamutpada momentary? When a person in prey to the defilements commits murder, the twelve parts are realized in one and the same moment: 1. his moha (aberration) is ignorance (avidya); 2. his “volition” (cetana) are the samskaras; 3. his distinct consciousness of a certain object is consciousness; 4. the four skandhas coexisting with the consciousness is namarupa; 5. the organs in relation to namarupa are the six ayatanas; 6. the application of the six ayatanas is contact; 7. to experience contact is sensation; 8. desire (raga) is thirst; 9. the paryavasthanas associated with thirst are attachment; 10. bodily or vocal action that proceeds [from sensation or thirst] is bhava; 11. the emersion (unmajjana=utpada=production) of all these dharmas is jati; 12. their maturity (paripaka) is old age; and their rupture is death. Pruden translation, Vol II pgs 404-405.
The nidana model is operating at a lower level of the two truths. If you start analyzing the present moment for ultimacy it necessarily becomes a Madhyamaka dialectic where the conceptual model falls apart altogether.
As Jampel Pawo says
[You thoroughly search] as before in what occurs
that is past, future, or present.
Now, whatever is a past mind is done-with.
Whatever is a future [mind] is unborn.
Whatever occurs in the present does not stay.
Don’t represent the mind anywhere.
Not representing anything, there is no past,
There is no future,
There is no present occurrence.
You really pass beyond the three times so as to be without the past,
without the future, and without the present hereafter.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 10, 2009 at 12:05 pm


It is three lifetimes, but not three lifetimes of a person. Rather, it is three lifetimes of the habit in question. Those lifetimes could be three minutes, thirty years, or thirty eons.
The twelve nidanas only work as a cross-sectional analysis of one trait, habit or mode of perception. They do not explain the totality of experience. The twelve nidanas should be viewed as akin to one strand of “karmic” dna.
The Madyamaka critique that the present moment is unreal is fairly linguistic and experientially dubious.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 10, 2009 at 12:10 pm


It is three lifetimes of one mindstream continuum, certainly not three minutes in one persons life. There is no ambiguity about this in the texts.



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Peter Cerrato

posted April 10, 2009 at 12:54 pm


The Shri-Vidyan tantrics of south India (inheritors and expanders upon the great tantric revolution born in the vale of Kashmir which spread north to Tibet and elsewhere) have a deliciously interesting formulation of Karma and its balancing force, Lila.
Karma empowers us to build systems of causality, predictability, and order. Lila tells us every such system is incomplete and that entanglement, randomness and luck are real. We are offered the opportunity to embrace freedom rather than determinism as the true nature of consciousness.
And that’s just the jumping off point …
Remember : you will become what you choose to see … see desire as suffering and its energy will bind you … bind yourself freely to desire and the pure potency of its energy will deepen your experience of every reality.
-Peter



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 10, 2009 at 8:02 pm


On 3 lives, it is again 3 lives of a consciousness, which does not necessarily mean three human lives. Lifetime A could also refer to something that happened 500 sentient lifetimes ago, just so long as it is the karmic formation(s) relevant to the current moment’s experience. I do remember reading in the visuddimagga about three lifetimes, and they do make it seem very linear that way, which is fairly problematic (and endemic of many theravadan approaches – but the flower ornament sutra complexifies any understanding of karma).
Vasubandu is seemingly conflating what is meant by “the effects of all twelve are visible and accounted for in the present moment” and “they are ALL there in the moment.” The former makes total sense, but the later directly contradicts the fact that the mind can only take one object at a time, which is the moment of contact.



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Peter Cerrato

posted April 10, 2009 at 8:55 pm


@Ethan Nichtern : I’m curious – have you ever had a chance to work with any of the dream-state practices? I have had some vivid experiences which have shown me that the mind may indeed operates much more as a massively parallel system than appears to our waking consciousness. Most often these moments occur in the suspended transition from lucid dreaming back into waking.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 13, 2009 at 9:24 am


It is not necessarily three consecutive lives, or three human lives, but each sequence of twelves plays out over three lives of a sentient being. This is very clear in both Abhidharma traditions.
The Flower Ornament Sutra is a chinese composition that is only relevant to East Asian Buddhism.
Vasubandu, in presenting the 12-at-once, does not say that the nidanas are objects of mind.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 13, 2009 at 9:43 am


My mistake, the Flower Ornament Sutra was extent in India. But I don’t think it problematizes Abhidharma any more than any other Mahayana text.



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maloneki

posted April 13, 2009 at 9:47 am


Aw, man, you’re not attending in person?
I don’t think it’s fraudulent to blog as a listener, but it sure is a bummer that you won’t be there with us!



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Ethan Nichtern

posted April 13, 2009 at 9:58 am


If they are not objects of mind, how can he know them? The Flower Ornament Sutra is one of the key sutras to all Mahayana buddhism.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted April 13, 2009 at 10:04 am


They are not objects of mind for the person in whom the twelve are manifest in one moment.



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Julia May Jonas

posted April 13, 2009 at 10:07 am


@maloneki: I know! I’ll miss you. I’m just so overwhelmed these days… Maybe I can meet up with y’all for dinners afterwards…



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