The Wings to Awakening constitute the Buddha’s own list of his most important teachings. Toward the end of his life he stated several times that as long as the teachings in this list were remembered and put into practice, his message would endure. Thus the Wings cover, in the Buddha’s eyes, the words and skills most worth mastering and passing along to others.
The Buddha’s Awakening
When discussing the Buddha’s teachings, the best place to start is with his Awakening. That way, one will know where the teachings are coming from and where they are aimed. To appreciate the Awakening, though, we have to know what led Prince Siddhattha Gotama—the Buddha before his Awakening—to seek it in the first place. According to his own account, the search began many lifetimes ago, but in this lifetime it was sparked by the realization of the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. In his words:
I lived in refinement, utmost refinement, total refinement. My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace: one where red lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Vārāṇasī. My turban was from Vārāṇasī, as were my tunic, my lower garments, & my outer cloak. A white sunshade was held over me day & night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, & dew.
I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them, and I did not once come down from the palace. Whereas the servants, workers, & retainers in other people’s homes are fed meals of lentil soup & broken rice, in my father’s home the servants, workers, & retainers were fed wheat, rice, & meat.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I—who am subject to aging, not beyond aging—were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the (typical) young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to illness, not beyond illness, sees another who is ill, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to illness, not beyond illness. And if I—who am subject to illness, not beyond illness—were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is ill, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the healthy person’s intoxication with health entirely dropped away.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to death, not beyond death, sees another who is dead, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to death, not beyond death. And if I—who am subject to death, not beyond death—were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is dead, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the living person’s intoxication with life entirely dropped away.
Before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), being subject myself to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, & defilement, I sought (happiness in) what was subject to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, & defilement. The thought occurred to me: ‘Why am I, being subject myself to birth… defilement, seeking what is subject to birth… defilement? What if I… were to seek the unborn, unaging, unailing, undying, sorrowless, undefiled, unexcelled security from bondage: Unbinding.’
So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, I shaved off my hair & beard—though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces—and I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.
These passages are universal in their import, but a fuller appreciation of why the young prince left home for the life of a homeless wanderer requires some understanding of the beliefs and social developments of his time.
Prince Siddhattha lived in an aristocratic republic in northern India during the sixth century B.C.E., a time of great social upheaval. A new monetary economy was replacing the older agrarian economy. Absolute monarchies, in alliance with the newly forming merchant class, were swallowing up the older aristocracies. As often happens when an aristocratic elite is being disenfranchised, people on all levels of society were beginning to call into question the beliefs that had supported the older order, and were looking to science and other alternative modes of knowledge to provide them with a new view of life.
The foremost science in North India at that time was astronomy. New, precise observations of planetary movements, combined with newly developed means of calculation, had led astronomers to conclude that time was measured in aeons, incomprehensibly long cycles that repeat themselves endlessly. Taking up these conclusions, philosophers of the time tried to work out the implications of this vast temporal frame for the drama of human life and the quest for ultimate happiness.
These philosophers fell into two broad camps: those who conducted their speculations within the traditions of the Vedas, early Indian religious and ritual texts that provided the orthodox beliefs of the old order; and other, unorthodox groups, called the Samaṇas (contemplatives), who questioned the authority of the Vedas. Modern etymology derives the word Samaṇa from “striver,” but the etymology of the time derived it from sama, which means to be “on pitch” or “in tune.” The Samaṇa philosophers were trying to find a way of life and thought that was in tune, not with social conventions, but with the laws of nature as these could be directly contemplated through scientific observation, personal experience, reason, meditation, or shamanic practices, such as the pursuit of altered states of consciousness through fasting or other austerities. Many of these forms of contemplation required that one abandon the constraints and responsibilities of the home life and take up the life of a homeless wanderer. This was the rationale behind Prince Siddhattha’s decision to leave the home life in order to see if there might be a true happiness beyond the sway of aging, illness, and death.
Already by his time, philosophers of the Vedic and Samaṇa schools had developed widely differing interpretations of what the laws of nature were and how they affected the pursuit of true happiness. Their main points of disagreement were two:
1) Survival beyond death. Most Vedic and Samaṇa philosophers assumed that a person’s identity extended beyond this lifetime, aeons before birth back into the past and after death on into the future, although there was some disagreement as to whether one’s identity from life to life would change or remain the same. The Vedas had viewed rebirth in a positive light, but by the time of Prince Siddhattha the influence of the newly discovered astronomical cycles had led those who believed in rebirth to regard the cycles as pointless and restrictive, and release as the only possibility for true happiness. There was, however, a Samaṇa school of hedonist materialists, called Lokāyatans, who denied the existence of any identity beyond death and insisted that happiness could be found only by indulging in sensual pleasures here and now.
2) Causality. Most philosophers accepted the idea that human action played a causative role in providing for one’s future happiness both in this life and beyond. Views about how this causal principle worked, though, differed from school to school. For some Vedists, the only effective action was ritual. The Jains, a Samaṇa school, taught that all action fell under linear, deterministic causal laws and formed a bond to the recurring cycle. Present experience, they said, came from past actions; present actions would shape future experience. This linear causality was also materialistic: physical action created āsavas (effluents, fermentations)—sticky substances on the soul that kept it attached to the cycle. According to them, the only escape from the cycle lay in a life of non-violence and inaction, culminating in a slow suicide by starvation, which would burn the āsavas away, thus releasing the soul. Some Upanishads—post-Vedic speculative texts—expressed causality as a morally neutral, purely physical process of evolution. Others stated that moral laws were intrinsic to the nature of causality, rather than being mere social conventions, and that the morality of an action determined how it affected one’s future course in the round of rebirth. Whether these last texts were composed before or after the Buddha taught this view, though, no one knows. At any rate, all pre-Buddhist thinkers who accepted the principle of causality, however they expressed it, saw it as a purely linear process.
On the other side of the issue, the Lokāyatans insisted that no causal principle acted between events, and that all events were spontaneous and self-caused. This meant that actions had no consequences, and one could safely ignore moral rules in one’s pursuit of sensual pleasure. One branch of another Samaṇa school, the ﬁjīvakas, insisted that causality was illusory. The only truly existent things, they said, were the unchanging substances that formed the building blocks of the universe. Because causality implied change, it was therefore unreal. As a result, human action had no effect on anything of any substance—including happiness—and so was of no account. Another branch of the same school, which specialized in astrology, insisted that causality was real but totally deterministic. Human life was entirely determined by impersonal, amoral fate, written in the stars; human action played no role in providing for one’s happiness or misery; morality was purely a social convention. Thus they insisted that release from the round of rebirth came only when the round worked itself out. Peace of mind could be found by accepting one’s fate and patiently waiting for the cycle, like a ball of string unwinding, to come to its end.
These divergent viewpoints formed the intellectual backdrop for Prince Siddhattha’s quest for ultimate happiness. In fact, his Awakening may be seen as his own resolution of these two issues.
The Pāli Canon records several different versions of the Buddha’s own descriptions of his Awakening. These descriptions are among the earliest extended autobiographical accounts in human history. The Buddha presents himself as an explorer and experimenter—and an exceedingly brave one at that, putting his life on the line in the search for an undying happiness. After trying several false paths, including formless mental absorptions and physical austerities, he happened on the path that eventually worked: bringing the mind into the present by focusing it on the breath and then making a calm, mindful analysis of the processes of the mind as they presented themselves directly to his immediate awareness. Seeing these processes as inconstant, stressful, and not-self, he abandoned his sense of identification with them. This caused them to disband, and what remained was Deathlessness (amata-dhamma), beyond the dimensions of time and space. This was the happiness for which he had been seeking.
In one passage of the Pāli Canon [§188], the Buddha noted that what he had come to realize in the course of his Awakening could be compared to the leaves of an entire forest; what he taught to others was like a mere handful of leaves. The latter part comprised the essential points for helping others to attain Awakening themselves. The part he had kept back would have been useless for that purpose. Thus, when we discuss the Buddha’s Awakening, we must keep in mind that we know only a small sliver of the total event. However, the sliver we do know is designed to aid in our own Awakening. That is the part we will focus on here, keeping the Buddha’s purpose for teaching it constantly in mind.
When the Buddha later analyzed the process of Awakening, he stated that it consisted of two kinds of knowledge:
“First there is the knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma, after which there is the knowledge of Unbinding.”
The regularity of the Dhamma, here, denotes the causal principle that underlies all “fabricated” (saṅkhata) experience, i.e., experience made up of causal conditions and influences. Knowing this principle means mastering it: one can not only trace the course of causal processes but also escape from them by skillfully letting them disband. The knowledge of Unbinding is the realization of total freedom that comes when one has disbanded the causal processes of the realm of fabrication, leaving the freedom from causal influences that is termed the “Unfabricated.”
The Buddha’s choice of the word Unbinding (nibbāna)—which literally means the extinguishing of a fire—derives from the way the physics of fire was viewed at his time. As fire burned, it was seen as clinging to its fuel in a state of entrapment and agitation. When it went out, it let go of its fuel, growing calm and free. Thus when the Indians of his time saw a fire going out, they did not feel that they were watching extinction. Rather, they were seeing a metaphorical lesson in how freedom could be attained by letting go.
The first knowledge, that of the regularity of the Dhamma, is the describable part of the process of Awakening; the second knowledge, that of Unbinding, though indescribable, is what guarantees the worth of the first. When one has been totally freed from all suffering and stress, one knows that one has properly mastered the realm of fabrication and can vouch for the usefulness of the insights that led to that freedom. Truth, here, is simply the way things work; true knowledge is gauged by how skillfully one can manipulate them.
There are many places in the Pāli Canon where the Buddha describes his own act of Awakening to the first knowledge as consisting of three insights:
- recollection of past lives,
- insight into the death and rebirth of beings throughout the cosmos, and
- insight into the ending of the mental effluents or fermentations (āsava) within the mind [§1]. (As we will see below, the Buddha’s Awakening gave a new meaning to this term borrowed from the Jains.)
The first two insights were not the exclusive property of the Buddhist tradition. Shamanic traditions throughout the world have reported seers who have had similar insights. The third insight, however, went beyond shamanism into a phenomenology of the mind, i.e., a systematic account of phenomena as they are directly experienced. This insight was exclusively Buddhist, although it was based on the previous two. Because it was multi-faceted, the Canon describes it from a variety of standpoints, stressing different aspects as they apply to specific contexts. In the course of this book, we too will explore specific facets of this insight from different angles. Here we will simply provide a general outline to show how the principle of skillful kamma underlay the main features of this insight.
The Bodhisatta’s realization in his second insight that kamma determines how beings fare in the round of rebirth caused him to focus on the question of kamma in his third insight. And, because the second insight pointed to right and wrong views as the factors determining the quality of kamma, he looked into the possibility that kamma was primarily a mental process, rather than a physical one as the Vedists and Jains taught. As a result, he focused on the mental kamma that was taking place at that very moment in his mind, to understand the process more clearly. In particular, he wanted to see if there might be a type of right view that, instead of continuing the round of rebirth, would bring release from it. To do this, he realized that he would have to make his powers of discernment more skillful; this meant that the process of developing skillfulness would have to be the kamma that he would observe.
Now, in the process of developing a skill, two major assumptions are made: that there is a causal relationship between acts and their results, and that good results are better than bad. If these assumptions were not valid, there would be no point in developing a skill. The Bodhisatta noticed that this point of view provided two variables—causes and results, and favorable and unfavorable—that divided experience into four categories, which he later formulated as the four noble truths (ariya-sacca): stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation [§189]. Each category, he further realized, entailed a duty. Stress had to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed [§195].
In trying to comprehend stress and its relationship to kamma, the Bodhisatta discovered that, contrary to the teachings of the Jains, kamma was not something extrinsic to the cycle of rebirth that bound one to the cycle. Rather, (1) the common cycle of kamma, result, and reaction was the cycle of rebirth in and of itself, and (2) the binding agent in the cycle was not kamma itself, but rather an optional part of the reaction to the results of kamma.
The Bodhisatta analyzed the cycle of kamma, result, and reaction into the following terms: kamma is intention; its result, feeling; the reaction to that feeling, perception and attention—i.e., attention to perceptions about the feeling—which together form the views that color further intentions. If perception and attention are clouded by ignorance, craving, and clinging, they lead to stress and further ignorance, forming the basis for intentions that keep the cycle in motion. In his later teachings, the Buddha identified these clouding factors—forms of clinging, together with their resultant states of becoming and ignorance [§227]—as the āsavas or effluents that act as binding agents to the cycle. In this way, he took a Jain term and gave it a new meaning, mental rather than physical. At the same time, his full-scale analysis of the interaction between kamma and the effluents formed one of the central points of his teaching, termed dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) [§§211, 218, 231].
The fact that it is possible to develop a skill suggested to the Bodhisatta, while he was developing his third insight, that the craving and clinging that cloud one’s perceptions and attention did not necessarily follow on the feeling that resulted from kamma. Otherwise, there would be no way to develop skillful intentions. Thus craving and clinging could be abandoned. This would require steady and refined acts of attention and intention, which came down to well-developed concentration and discernment, the central qualities in the path to the cessation of stress. Concentration gave discernment the focus and solidity it needed to see clearly, while discernment followed the two-fold pattern that attention must play in the development of any skill: sensitivity to the context of the act, formed by pre-existing factors coming from the past, together with sensitivity to the act itself, formed by present intentions. In other words, discernment had to see the results of an action as stemming from a combination of past and present causes.
As the more blatant forms of craving, clinging, and ignorance were eradicated with the continued refinement of concentration and discernment, there came a point where the only acts of attention and intention left to analyze were the acts of concentration and discernment in and of themselves. The feedback loop that this process entailed—with concentration and discernment shaping one another in the immediate present—brought the investigation into such close quarters that the terms of analysis were reduced to the most basic words for pointing to present experiences: “this” and “that.” The double focus of discernment, in terms of past and present influences, was reduced to the most basic conditions that make up the experience of “the present” (and, by extension, “space”) on the one hand, and “time” on the other. Attention to present participation in the causal process was reduced to the basic condition for the experience of the present, i.e., mutual presence (“When this is, that is; when this isn’t, that isn’t”), while attention to influences from the past was reduced to the basic condition for the experience of time, i.e., the dependence of one event on another (“From the arising of this comes the arising of that; from the cessation of this comes the cessation of that”).
These expressions later formed the basic formula of the Buddha’s teachings on causality, which he termed this/that conditionality (idappaccayatā) [§211] to emphasize that the formula described patterns of events viewed in a mode of perception empty of any assumptions outside of what could be immediately perceived.
After reaching this point, there was nothing further that concentration and discernment—themselves being conditioned by time and the present—could do. When all residual attachments even to these subtle realizations were let go, there thus followed a state called non-fashioning, in which the mind made absolutely no present input into experience. With no present input to maintain experience of time and the present, the cycle of fabricated experience disbanded. This formed an opening to the Unfabricated, the undying happiness that the Bodhisatta, now the Buddha, had sought. This was the knowledge of Unbinding, or total release.
The Buddha’s Teachings
The texts say that the Buddha spent a total of 49 days after his Awakening, sensitive to the bliss of release, reviewing the implications of the insights that had brought about his Awakening. At the end of this period, he thought of teaching other living beings. At first the subtlety and complexity of his Awakening made him wonder if anyone would be able to understand and benefit from his teachings. However, after he ascertained through his new powers of mind that there were those who would understand, he made the decision to teach, determining that he would not enter total Unbinding until he had established his teachings—his doctrine and discipline (Dhamma-Vinaya)—on a solid basis for the long-term benefit of human and divine beings.
The two primary knowledges that constituted the Awakening—knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma and knowledge of Unbinding—played a major role in shaping what the Buddha taught and how he taught it. Of the two, the knowledge of Unbinding was the more important. It not only guaranteed the truth of the other knowledge, but also constituted the Buddha’s whole purpose in teaching: he wanted others to attain this happiness as well. However, because the first knowledge was what led to the second, it provided the guidelines that the Buddha used in determining what would be useful to communicate to others so that they too would arrive at the knowledge of Unbinding of their own accord.
These guidelines were nothing other than the three insights of which this knowledge was composed: recollection of past lives, insight into the death and rebirth of beings, and insight into the ending of the mental effluents. As became clear during the Buddha’s teaching career, not all those who would reach the knowledge of Unbinding would need to gain direct insight into previous lifetimes or into the death and rebirth of other beings, but they would have to gain direct insight into the ending of the mental effluents. The mastery of causality that formed the heart of this insight thus formed the heart of his teaching, with the first two insights providing the background against which the teachings were to be put into practice.
As we noted above, the three insights taken together provided answers to the questions that had provoked Prince Siddhattha’s quest for Awakening in the first place. His remembrance of previous lives showed on the one hand that death is not annihilation, but on the other hand that there is no core identity that remains unchanged or makes steady, upward progress through the process of rebirth. One life follows another as one dream may follow another, with similar wide swings in one’s sense of who or where one is. Thus there is no inherent security in the process.
The second insight—into the death and rebirth of beings throughout the cosmos—provided part of the answer to the questions surrounding the issue of causality in the pursuit of happiness. The primary causal factor is the mind, and in particular the moral quality of the intentions comprising its thoughts, words, and deeds, and the rightness of the views underlying them. Thus moral principles are inherent in the functioning of the cosmos, rather than being mere social conventions. For this reason, any quest for happiness must focus on mastering the quality of the mind’s views and intentions.
The third insight—into the ending of the mental effluents—showed that escape from the cycle of rebirth could be found, not through ritual action or total inaction, but through the skillful development of a type of right view that abandoned the effluents that kept the cycle of kamma, stress, and ignorance in motion. As we have seen, this type of right view went through three stages of refinement as the third insight progressed: the four noble truths, dependent co-arising, and this/that conditionality. We will discuss the first two stages in detail elsewhere in this book [III/H/i and III/H/iii]. Here we will focus on this/that conditionality, the most radical aspect of the Buddha’s third insight. In terms of its content, it explained how past and present intentions underlay all experience of time and the present. The truth of this content was shown by its role in disbanding all experience of time and the present simply by bringing present intentions to a standstill. Small wonder, then, that this principle provided the most fundamental influence in shaping the Buddha’s teaching.
The Buddha expressed this/that conditionality in a simple-looking formula:
- “(1) When this is, that is.
- (2) From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
- (3) When this isn’t, that isn’t.
- (4) From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.”
There are many possible ways of interpreting this formula, but only one does justice both to the way the formula is worded and to the complex, fluid manner in which specific examples of causal relationships are described in the Canon. That way is to view the formula as the interplay of two causal principles, one linear and the other synchronic, that combine to form a non-linear pattern. The linear principle—taking (2) and (4) as a pair—connects events, rather than objects, over time; the synchronic principle—(1) and (3)—connects objects and events in the present moment. The two principles intersect, so that any given event is influenced by two sets of conditions: input acting from the past and input acting from the present. Although each principle seems simple, the fact that they interact makes their consequences very complex [§10].
To begin with, every act has repercussions in the present moment together with reverberations extending into the future. Depending on the intensity of the act, these reverberations can last for a very short or a very long time. Thus every event takes place in a context determined by the combined effects of past events coming from a wide range in time, together with the effects of present acts. These effects can intensify one another, can coexist with little interaction, or can cancel one another out. Thus, even though it is possible to predict that a certain type of act will tend to give a certain type of result—for example, acting on anger will lead to pain—there is no way to predict when or where that result will make itself felt [§11].
The complexity of the system is further enhanced by the fact that both causal principles meet at the mind. Through its views and intentions, the mind takes a causal role in keeping both principles in action. Through its sensory powers, it is affected by the results of the causes it has set in motion. This creates the possibility for the causal principles to feed back into themselves, as the mind reacts to the results of its own actions. These reactions can take the form of positive feedback loops, intensifying the original input and its results, much like the howl in a speaker placed next to the microphone feeding into it. They can also create negative feedback loops, counteracting the original input, much like the action of a thermostat that turns off a heater when the temperature in a room is too high and turns it on again when it gets too low.
Because the results of actions can be immediate, and the mind can then react to them immediately, these feedback loops can at times quickly spin out of control; at other times, they may act as skillful checks on one’s behavior. For example, a man may act out of anger, which gives him an immediate sense of dis-ease to which he may react with further anger, thus creating a snowballing effect. On the other hand, he may come to understand that the anger is causing his dis-ease, and so immediately does what he can to stop it. However, there can also be times when the results of his past actions may obscure the dis-ease he is causing himself in the present, so that he does not immediately react to it one way or another.
In this way, the combination of two causal principles—influences from the past interacting with those in the immediate present—accounts for the complexity of causal relationships as they function on the level of immediate experience. However, the combination of the two principles also opens the possibility for finding a systematic way to break the causal web. If causes and effects were entirely linear, the cosmos would be totally deterministic, and nothing could be done to escape from the machinations of the causal process. If they were entirely synchronic, there would be no relationship from one moment to the next, and all events would be arbitrary. The web could break down totally or reform spontaneously for no reason at all. However, with the two modes working together, one can learn from causal patterns observed from the past and apply one’s insights to disentangling the same causal patterns acting in the present. If one’s insights are true, one can then gain freedom from those patterns.
For this reason, the principle of this/that conditionality provides an ideal foundation, both theoretical and practical, for a doctrine of release. And, as a teacher, the Buddha took full advantage of its implications, using it in such a way that it accounts not only for the presentation and content of his teachings, but also for their organization, their function, and their utility. It even accounts for the need for the teachings and for the fact that the Buddha was able to teach them in the first place. We will take up these points in reverse order.
The fact of the teaching: As noted above, this/that conditionality is a combination of two causal modes: linear activity, connecting events over time; and synchronic causality, connecting objects in the present. The fact that the causal principle was not totally linear accounts for the fact that the Buddha was able to break the causal circle as soon as he had totally comprehended it, and did not have to wait for all of his previous kamma to work itself out first. The fact that the principle was not totally synchronic, however, accounts for the fact that he survived his Awakening and lived to tell about it. Although his actions created no new kammic results after his Awakening, he continued to live and teach under the influence of the kamma he had created before his Awakening, finally passing away only when those kammic influences totally worked themselves out. Thus the combination of the two patterns allowed for an experience of the Unfabricated that could be survived, opening the opportunity for the Buddha to teach others about it before his total Unbinding.
The need for the teachings: This/that conditionality, even though it can be expressed in a simple formula, is very complex in its working-out. As a result, the conditions of time and the present are bewildering to most people. This is particularly true in the process leading up to suffering and stress. As §189 states, beings react to suffering in two ways: bewilderment and a search for a way out. If the conditions for suffering were not so complex, it would be the result of a simple, regular process that would not be so confusing. People would be able to understand it without any need for outside teachings. The fact of its actual complexity, however, explains why people find it bewildering and, as a result of their bewilderment, have devised a wide variety of unskillful means to escape from it: recourse to such external means as magic, ritual, revenge, and force; and to such internal means as denial, repression, self-hatred, and prayer.
Thus the complexity of this/that conditionality accounts for the lack of skill that people bring to their lives—creating more suffering and stress in their attempts to escape suffering and stress—and shows that this lack of skill is a result of ignorance. This explains the need for a teaching that points out the true nature of the causal system operating in the world, so that proper understanding of the system can lead people to deal with it skillfully and actually gain the release they seek.
The utility of the teachings: The fact that this/that conditionality allows for causal input from the present moment means that the causal process is not totally deterministic. Although linear causality places restrictions on what can be done and known in any particular moment, synchronic causality allows some room for free will. Human effort can thus make a difference in the immediate present. At the same time, the fact that the principle of this/that conditionality is expressed in impersonal terms means that the Buddha’s insights did not depend on any power peculiar to him personally. As he noted in recounting his experience, the realizations he attained were such that anyone who developed the mind to the same pitch of heedfulness, ardency, and resolution and then directed it to the proper task would be able to attain them as well [§1]. For these reasons, the act of teaching would not be futile, because the mental qualities needed for the task of Awakening were available to other people who would have the freedom to develop them if they wanted to.
The function of the teachings: As chaos theory has shown in graphic terms, any causal system that contains three or more feedback loops can develop into incredible complexity, with small but well-placed changes in input tipping the balance from complex order to seeming chaos, or from chaos to order in the twinkling of an eye. A similar observation applies to this/that conditionality. Given the inherent complexity and instability of such a system, a simple description of it would be futile: the complexity would boggle the mind, and the instability would ensure that any such description would not be helpful for long. At the same time, the instability of the system makes it imperative for anyone immersed in such a system to find a way out, for instability threatens any true chance for lasting peace or happiness. The complexity of the system requires that one find a reliable analysis of the sensitive points in the system and how they can be skillfully manipulated in a way that brings the system down from within.
All of these considerations play a role in determining the function for which the Buddha designed his teachings. They are meant to act as a guide to skillful ways of understanding the principles underlying the causal system, and to skillful ways of manipulating the causal factors so as to gain freedom from them. The concept of skillful and unskillful thoughts, words, and deeds thus plays a central role in the teaching.
In fact, the teachings themselves are meant to function as skillful thoughts toward the goal of Awakening. The Buddha was very clear on the point that he did not mean for his teachings to become a metaphysical system or for them to be adhered to simply for the sake of their truth value. He discussed metaphysical topics only when they could play a role in skillful behavior. Many metaphysical questions—such as whether or not there is a soul or self, whether or not the world is eternal, whether or not it is infinite, etc.—he refused to answer, on the grounds that they were either counterproductive or irrelevant to the task at hand: that of gaining escape from the stress and suffering inherent in time and the present.
Although the Buddha insisted that all of his teachings were true—none of his skillful means were useful fictions—they were to be put aside when one had fully benefited from putting them into practice. In his teachings, true but conditioned knowledge is put into service to an unconditioned goal: a release so total that no conditioned truths can encompass it. Because a meditator has to use causal factors in order to disband the causal system, he/she has to make use of factors that eventually have to be transcended. This pattern of developing qualities in the practice that one must eventually let go as one attains the Unfabricated is common throughout the Buddha’s teachings. Eventually even skillfulness itself has to be transcended.
The organization of the teachings: The fact that the causal system contains many feedback loops means that a particular causal connection—either one that continues the system or one designed to disband it—can follow one of several paths. Thus there is a need for a variety of explanations for people who find themselves involved in these different paths. This need explains the topical organization of the Buddha’s teachings in his discourses. In talking to different people, or to the same people at different times, he gave different accounts of the causal links leading up to stress and suffering, and to the knowledge that can bring that stress and suffering to an end.
Those who have tried to form a single, consistent account of Buddhist causal analyses have found themselves stymied by this fact, and have often discounted the wide variety of analyses by insisting that only one of them is the “true” Buddhist analysis; or that only the general principle of mutual causality is important, the individual links of the analyses being immaterial; or that the Buddha did not really understand causality at all. None of these positions do justice to the Buddha’s skill as a teacher of this person and that, each caught at different junctures in the feedback loops of this/that conditionality.
As we will see when we consider the Wings to Awakening in detail, the Buddha listed different ways of envisioning the causal factors at work in developing the knowledge needed to gain release from the realm of fabrication. Although the lists follow different lines of this/that conditionality, he insisted that they were equivalent. Thus any fair account of his teachings must make room for the variety of paths he outlined, and for the fact that each is helpfully specific and precise.
The content of the teachings: Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of the Buddha’s teachings is the assertion that the factors at work in the cosmos at large are the same as those at work in the way each individual mind processes experience. These processes, rather than the sensory data that they process, are primary in one’s experience of the cosmos. If one can disband the act of processing, one is freed from the cosmic causal net.
What this means in the case of the individual mind—engaged in and suffering from the processes of time and the present—is that the way out is to be found by focusing directly on the processing of present experience, for that is where the crucial issues play themselves out most clearly. Here and now is where everything important is happening, not there and then. At the same time, the skills needed to deal with these issues are skills of the mind: proper ways of analyzing what one experiences and proper qualities of mind to bring to the analysis to make it as clear and effective as possible. This boils down to the proper frame of reference, the proper quality of awareness, and the proper mode of analysis. These are precisely the topics covered in the Wings to Awakening, although as one’s skill develops, they coalesce: the quality of awareness itself becomes the frame of reference and the object to which the analysis is applied.
The presentation of the teaching: Because the Buddha’s listeners were already caught in the midst of the web of this/that conditionality, he had to present his message in a way that spoke to their condition. This meant that he had to be sensitive both to the linear effects of past kamma that might either prevent or support the listener’s ability to benefit from the teaching, and to the listener’s current attitudes and concerns. A person whose adverse past kamma prevented Awakening in this lifetime might benefit from a more elementary teaching that would put him/her in a better position to gain Awakening in a future lifetime. Another person’s past kamma might open the possibility for Awakening in this lifetime, but his/her present attitude might have to be changed before he/she was willing to accept the teaching.
A second complication entailed by the principle of this/that conditionality is that it has to be known and mastered at the level of direct experience in and of itself. This mastery is thus a task that each person must do for him or herself. No one can master direct experience for anyone else. The Buddha therefore had to find a way to induce his listeners to accept his diagnosis of their sufferings and his prescription for their cure. He also had to convince them to believe in their own ability to follow the instructions and obtain the desired results. To use a traditional Buddhist analogy, the Buddha was like a doctor who had to convince his patients to administer a cure to themselves, much as a doctor has to convince his patients to follow his directions in taking medicine, getting exercise, changing their diet and lifestyle, and so forth. The Buddha had an additional difficulty, however, in that his definition of health—Unbinding—was something that none of his listeners had yet experienced for themselves. Hence the most important point of his teaching was something that his listeners would have to take on faith. Only when they had seen the results of putting the teachings into practice for themselves would faith no longer be necessary.
Thus, for every listener, faith in the Buddha’s Awakening was a prerequisite for advanced growth in the teaching. Without faith in the fact of the Buddha’s knowledge of Unbinding, one could not fully accept his prescription. Without faith in the regularity of the Dhamma—including conviction in the principle of kamma and the impersonality of the causal law, making the path open in principle to everyone—one could not fully have faith in one’s own ability to follow the path. Of course, this faith would then be confirmed, step by step, as one followed the teaching and began gaining results, but full confirmation would come only with an experience of Awakening. Prior to that point, one’s trust, bolstered only by partial results, would have to be a matter of faith [MN 27].
Acquiring this faith is called “going for refuge” in the Buddha. The “refuge” here derives from the fact that one has placed trust in the truth of the Buddha’s Awakening and expects that by following his teachings—in particular, the principle of skillful kamma—one protects oneself from creating further suffering for oneself or others, eventually reaching true, unconditioned happiness. This act of going for refuge is what qualifies one as a Buddhist—as opposed to someone simply interested in the Buddha’s teachings—and puts one in a position to benefit fully from what the Buddha taught.
The Buddha employed various means of instilling faith in his listeners, but the primary means fall into three classes: his character, his psychic powers, and his powers of reason. When he gave his first sermon—to the Five Brethren, his former compatriots—he had to preface his remarks by reminding them of his honest and responsible character before they would willingly listen to him. When he taught the Kassapa brothers, he first had to subdue their pride with a dazzling array of psychic feats. In most cases, however, he needed only to reason with his listeners and interlocutors, although here again he had to be sensitive to the level of their minds so that he could lead them step by step, taking them from what they saw as immediately apparent and directing them to ever higher and more subtle points. The typical pattern was for the Buddha to begin with the immediate joys of generosity and virtue, followed by the longer-term sensual rewards of these qualities, in line with the principle of kamma; then the ultimate drawbacks of those sensual rewards; and finally the benefits of renunciation. If his listeners could follow his reasoning this far, they would be ready for the more advanced teachings.
We often view reason as something distinct from faith, but for the Buddha it was simply one way of instilling faith or conviction in his listeners. At several points in the Pāli Canon [e.g., DN 1; MN 95] he points out the fallacies that can result when one draws reasoned conclusions from a limited range of experience, from false analogies, or from inappropriate modes of analysis. Because his teachings could not be proven prior to an experience of Awakening, he recognized that the proper use of reason was not in trying to prove his teachings, but simply in showing that they made sense. People can make sense of things when they see them as similar to something they already know and understand.
Thus the main function of reason in presenting the teachings is in finding proper analogies for understanding them: hence the many metaphors and similes used throughout the texts. Faith based on reason and understanding, the Buddha taught, was more solid than unreasoned faith, but neither could substitute for the direct knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma and of Unbinding, for only the experience of Unbinding was a guarantee of true knowledge. Nevertheless, faith was a prerequisite for attaining that direct knowledge. Only when the initial presentation of the teaching had aroused faith in the listener, would he/she be in a position to benefit from a less-adorned presentation of the content and put it into practice.
The need for various ways of presenting his points on a wide range of levels meant that the body of the Buddha’s teachings grew ever more varied and immense with time. As his career drew to a close, he found it necessary to highlight the essential core of the teaching, the unadorned content, so that the more timeless aspects of his message would remain clear in his followers’ minds. Societies and cultures inevitably change, so that what counts as effective persuasion in one time and place may be ineffective in another. The basic structure of this/that conditionality does not change, however; the qualities of the mind needed for mastering causality and realizing the Unfabricated will always remain the same. The Buddha thus presented the Wings to Awakening as the unadorned content: the timeless, essential core.
Even here, however, the principle of this/that conditionality affected his presentation. He needed to find principles that would be relatively immune to changes in society and culture. He needed a mode of presentation that was simple enough to memorize, but not so simplistic as to distort or limit the teaching. He also needed words that would point, not to abstractions, but to the immediate realities of awareness in the listener’s own mind. And, finally, he needed a useful framework for the teaching as a whole, so that those who wanted to track down specific points would not lose sight of how those points fit into the larger picture of the practice.
His solution was to give lists of mental qualities, as we noted above, rather than any of the more abstruse, philosophical doctrines that are often cited as distinctively Buddhist. These mental qualities are immediately present, to at least some extent, in every human mind. Thus they retain a constant meaning no matter what changes occur in one’s mental landscape or cultural horizons. The Buddha presents them in seven alternative, interconnected lists (see Table I). Each list—when all of its implications are worked out—is equivalent to all of the others in its effects, but each takes a distinctive approach to the practice.
Thus the lists provide enough variety to meet the needs of people caught in different parts of the causal network. As one searches the texts for explanations of the meaning of specific terms and factors in the lists, one finds that the lists connect—directly or indirectly—with everything there. At the same time, the categories of the lists, because they point to qualities in the mind, encourage the listener to regard the teachings not as a system in and of themselves, but as tools for looking directly into his/her own mind, where the sources and solutions to the problem of suffering lie.
As a result, although the lists are short and simple, they are an effective introduction to the teaching and a guide to its practice. From his experience with this/that conditionality on the path, the Buddha had seen that if one develops the mental qualities listed in any one of these seven sets, focuses them on the present, keeping in mind the four frames of reference and analyzing what appears to one’s immediate awareness in terms of the categories of the four noble truths, one will inevitably come to the same realizations that he did: the regularity of the Dhamma and the reality of Unbinding. This was the happiness he himself sought and found, and that he wanted others to attain.
In addition to the seven lists, the Buddha left behind a monastic order designed not only so that the teachings would be memorized from generation to generation, but also so that future generations would have living examples of the teaching to learn from, and a conducive social environment in which to put them into practice. This environment was intended as a gift not only for those who would ordain but also for those lay people who associated with the order, taking the opportunity to develop their own generosity, morality, and mindfulness in the process. Associating with others who are following a sensitive disciplinary code forces one to become more sensitive and disciplined oneself.
Although our concern in this book is with the Dhamma, or the teaching of the Wings to Awakening, we should not forget that the Buddha named his teaching Dhamma-Vinaya. The Vinaya was the set of rules and regulations he established for the smooth running of the order. Dhamma is the primary member of the compound, but the Vinaya forms the context that helps keep it alive. They meet in a common focus on the factor of intention. The Vinaya uses its rules not only to foster communal order, but also to sensitize individual practitioners to the element of intention in all their actions. The Dhamma then makes use of this sensitivity as a means of fostering the insights that lead to Awakening.
After he had placed the Dhamma-Vinaya on a sure footing, the Buddha passed away into total Unbinding. This event has provoked a great deal of controversy within and without the Buddhist tradition, some people saying that if the Buddha was truly compassionate, he should have taken repeated rebirth so that the rest of humanity could continue to benefit from the excellent qualities that he had built into his mind. His total Unbinding, however, can be seen as one of his greatest kindnesses to his followers. He showed by example that although the path to true happiness entails generosity and kindness to others, the goal of the path needs no justification in terms of anything else. The limitless freedom of Unbinding is a worthy end for its own sake. Society’s usual demand that people must justify their actions by appeal to the continued smooth functioning of society or the happiness of others, has no sway over the innate worth of this level. The Buddha made use of the kammic residue remaining after his Awakening to make a free gift of the Dhamma-Vinaya to all who care about genuine happiness and health, but when those residues were exhausted he took the noble way of true health as an example and challenge to us all.
Thus the Dhamma-Vinaya can be seen as the Buddha’s generous gift to posterity. The rules of the Vinaya offer an environment for practice, while the Wings to Awakening are an invitation and guide to that practice, leading to true happiness. Anyone, anywhere, who is seriously interested in true happiness is welcome to focus on the qualities listed here, to see if this/that conditionality is indeed the causal principle governing the dimensions of time and the present, and to test if it can be mastered in a way that leads to the promised result: freedom transcending those dimensions, totally beyond measure and unbound.