Some Assembly Required
March 12, 2024

Suppose we lived in a world where your actions didn’t make any difference, and everything were determined already from the past, where everything you experienced had already been set in motion a long time ago, nothing you could do about it. It would be a pretty miserable world.

And it wouldn’t be a world in which you would have a Buddha, because he gained awakening by observing himself, testing himself—on the assumption that he could learn from his mistakes and change the course of his life by his actions. That approach works only in a world where your choices do make a difference, where you have a role in shaping things.

As he later explained causality, some influences come in from the past, but other things are chosen in the present moment. You put things together in the present moment. You’ve got the raw material coming in from the past, but your skill in putting things together right now is what’s going to make a difference.

If it didn’t make a difference, there wouldn’t be the four noble truths, or, if someone did talk about the four noble truths, they wouldn’t make any difference. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha said that if you believe that everything you experience is caused by the past, you’re left unprotected and bewildered.

Bewildered in the sense that you really don’t know what to do: Something comes up in the mind and you have no choice—you tell yourself—in whether you’re going to follow through with it or not. You’re unprotected in the sense that you could do a lot of unskillful things and just tell yourself, “Well, it’s because I was born with a certain DNA.” Or simply because, “That’s the way the material world works.”

There was an odd piece in the New Yorker recently about Spinoza, and how Spinoza was supposedly a champion for free thought. But then, when you look at what Spinoza actually taught, you see that, yes, he advocated free thought in the sense of defying the church, the synagogue—the powers that be at the time—but what he actually taught was that we have no choice in what we do or think, and that learning to accept the fact that we have no choice was our only consolation.

It’s hard to say that he’s a champion of free thought at all. The Buddha, though, was the champion for free thought: You change the way you approach things, you change the way you look at things, and it’s going to make a difference inside and out. And you have the power to change.

So keep that in mind as you practice. We’re sitting here putting things together from the past: Things come up from the past, and as the Buddha said, we take these potentials and shape them into forms, feelings, perceptions, thought constructs, consciousness—for a purpose. Our primary purpose is simply to have these kinds of experiences so that we can then use them, to get some pleasure out of them.

That means that our experience is purposeful. We’re not just on the receiving end of things. And we do make choices in the present moment, and we need to think about what kinds of choices they are: We’re putting things together.

You can see this most clearly in our visual experience. They say of people who were born blind but then are able to regain their sight through an operation, if it happens late in life, that they have trouble making sense of things they’re suddenly able to see. To make sense of these patches of color and light that appear to us requires a lot of assembling inside, to get a sense of a three-dimensional world, and how we can function within that world.

So, even just in the act of looking, there’s a lot of constructing going on. That’s the meaning of the word saṅkhāra: You put things together.

Now, there are some choices you make in putting them together, but it’s important you realize what kind of choices you’re making: Rhey’re constructive choices, active choices.

We can see this in the opposite of saṅkhāra. Something that is not a saṅkhāra is asaṅkhāta. It’s “not assembled.” That’s what it means. If saṅkhāra meant “choice,” then asaṅkhāta would mean “un-chosen.” There are a lot of things in life that are un-chosen but are not necessarily what we would want. But something that is unfabricated: That’s what we’re aiming at—something that doesn’t change because it’s not put together. As the Buddha said, it’s a happiness that doesn’t change. But the path leading there is something that you do have to put together.

Look at yourself right now: trying to maintain your mindfulness, to be alert, to stay with the breath—several things you have to balance all at once. Staying with the breath, making it comfortable, evaluating it: This is what’s called verbal fabrication. You keep reminding yourself to stay, and you keep evaluating the breath to make sure that it’s comfortable. And if it’s not comfortable, what are you going to do? How can you make it more comfortable? When it is comfortable, how do you maintain that? And then, when you can maintain it, how do you let it spread around?

There’s some assembly work required here to put the path together. As you get better and better at assembling it, you begin to realize that this is the best thing you can put together. Everything from right view through right concentration helps you see through things you’ve chosen wrongly in the past, things you’ve assembled wrongly in the past.

You see how things come into being and you realize that you’ve been playing a role—and not necessarily a good role. But as you make it more habitual to play a better role, you find subtler things that you wouldn’t have seen before.

Which is why your discernment has to be on top of things. There is a saying that you can’t use your old insights for very long. They’re like food: delicious the first day it’s cooked, and maybe you can make good leftovers out of it after a while, but there comes a point where you can’t keep it any longer. It goes stale.

Your mind is constantly doing new things in the present moment, and you have to be on top of what those new things are. Some of them may be old patterns that you followed in the past, but then, there may be some new things coming in as well. So you’ve got to be on top of things to watch how you’re assembling things here in the present moment.

This is why we focus on the present moment to begin with. If the present moment were already determined, there’d be nothing you could do, there’d be no reason to focus here; you might as well wander around in whatever thought comes into the mind. But it’s because you can make a difference here—and it’s going to make a huge difference between whether you’re going to suffer or not suffer—that’s why we’re focused here.

The Buddha saw that on the night of his awakening. People can do things skillfully for much of their lives, and you’d think that they would have a good rebirth ahead of them. But then, say, all of a sudden at the moment of death, they develop wrong view. That moment of putting things together in a different way, questioning your right views and saying, “No, I don’t follow this anymore”: That can have a huge bad influence on how you’re going to be reborn. It’s going to delay the good results of the skillful things you’ve done in the past.

And vice versa: If you’ve been doing unskillful things, but you have a change of heart—see things correctly—that can delay the bad results. That can open an opportunity for you to get some more time to get your act together.

So, what you do right now really does make a huge difference. How you put things together makes a huge difference.

We’ve been putting things together for a long time, but we’re not really aware of what we’re doing. This is what ignorance is all about. We do things that cause stress and suffering. We cling to things: That’s the suffering. We crave them: That’s what causes it.

There are things we like. That’s why we cling, that’s why we crave—when we’re not willing to see the suffering that goes along with them. It’s only when you can see that, that you’re going to change your ways: When you see that you are creating suffering, and you’re not compelled to do it. That’s how you can change. That’s why the practice has meaning. As the Buddha said, if everything were preordained from the past, there’d be no point in trying to teach you a path of practice. It wouldn’t make any sense.

So look at how you’re putting things together right now. If you’re not clear about how you’re putting things together, try to put together a state of concentration. Focus on the breath—that’s bodily fabrication. Talk to yourself about the breath—that’s verbal fabrication. Use different perceptions to see what ways of imaging the breath to yourself make it more comfortable—that’s mental fabrication.

As you get more sensitive to how you’re putting this together, then you begin to sense that as you go through the day, you put a certain thought together with another thought, or a mood goes through you that influences the breath, and the breath influences the mood: You get more sensitive to these things.

This is why sensitivity is an important part of discernment. It’s not just a matter of taking the Buddha’s labels and smacking them on things. It’s being sensitive to this question of: What are you doing? How are you putting things together? And, where is the stress? What’s causing that stress? What can you do to stop that? You’ve got to question your own role in assembling the present moment. You really can make a difference when you do.

So, it’s not just causes and conditions rolling on. There are influences coming in from the past. Sometimes they’re really strong, but the whole point of the teaching is that you have the choice of how to put those influences together in a way that either causes suffering or does not cause suffering. That’s what the four noble truths are all about. That’s what the idea of a path of practice is all about.

So, take it as your working hypothesis that you do have choices, and you are putting things together in ways that you—at the moment—are not sensitive to. But if you develop the right qualities of mindfulness and concentration, you can develop that sensitivity, and you can use that sensitivity in all sorts of good ways.