Thursday, June 3

On Dependent Origination

As a result of last night's chat in UpasikaTalk, Antony Woods sent me the following extract.

Ven Mahasi Sayadaw taught in "Paticcasamuppada":

"The impact of a sense-object depends largely on the nature of the impression conveyed by the object. If the impression is vague and dim, it produces only mild feeling and craving, but much vedana, tanha, etc., follow in the wake of clear and vivid impressions."

Here is the full quote:

"Having dealt with the first links in the chain of causal sequence, we will now proceed to phassa that is conditioned by salayatana. Salayatana means the six sense-organs and the six sense-objects, viz., visual form, sound, smell, taste, tactile object and mind-object. The contact between a sense organ and the corresponding sense-object is called phassa. It is an intangible phenomenon of mental life but it shows itself clearly when the object has an unmistakable impact on the mind. For example, we are shocked when we see someone being ill-treated. It makes us tremble when we see a man whose life is hanging by a thread on the top of a tree. Seeing a ghost will send the shivers, down the spine. Hearing or reading an interesting story often leaves some impressions that may remain indelible for a long time. All these show what it means when there is phassa or the impact of a sense-object on the mind of a person.

The impact is occasionally very violent and gives rise to violent emotions and outbursts of passion, anger, etc. According to the commentary on Anguttara Nikaya, in the time of the ancient Sinhalese King Dutthagamani, a young monk happened to see a girl. The girl looked at him too and both of them were so much consumed with a burning desire that they died. Again an elderly monk became insane after looking unmindfully at the queen of King Mahanaga.

In Mudulakkhana jataka, the bodhisatta was a rishi (recluse) who went to the king's palace to have his meal. He went there by air as he had psychic powers. When the rishi appeared suddenly, the queen rose to her feet in a hurry and her garment slipped. The queen's seductive pose instantly aroused the long-dormant sexual desire of the rishi. He could not eat any food. His psychic powers having vanished, he walked back to his abode and there he lay, afflicted with the fires of lust and passion.

On learning what had happened, the king offered the queen to the rishi as he was confident of the holy man's ability to recover his higher self eventually. He secretly instructed the queen to do her best for the welfare of the rishi.

Taking the queen, the rishi left the king's palace. Once outside the gate the queen told him to go back and ask the king for a house. He was offered an old house but there he had to fetch a hatchet and a basket for the disposal of excreta and filth. Again and again, he had to go and ask the king for other things that he needed. Going to and fro and doing all household chores at the bidding of the queen, the rishi was dead tired but he did not come to his senses as he was still dominated by lust and passion.

After having done everything that he was told to do, he sat down near the queen to take a rest. Then she pulled his moustache with a jerk and said, "Are you not aware of your being a samana (ascetic) whose object is to do away with passions and desires? Are you so much out of your senses?" This awakened the rishi to a sense of his blind folly and ignorance. After handing back the queen to the king, he went to the Himalayan forest, practised vipassana and recovered his psychic power. On his death he attained the Brahma world.

The moral is that even a person of spiritual calibre like a bodhisatta could not escape the fires of defilements. The rishi might have casually seen the queen before but the impact was not violent enough to jolt his emotional life. It was the clear, vivid impressions of the queen's physical appearance that harassed and engulfed him with the fires of lust and passion for many days.

In Ummadanti jataka, King Sivi became almost crazy after seeing Ummadanti, the wife of his commander-in-chief. The woman was so famous for her beauty that the king sent his brahmin advisers to see whether she had the qualities of a noble lady. But at the sight of the woman they were so much bewitched by her beauty that they lost self-control and made a mess of the feast given by their host. Disgusted by their disorderly behaviour, Ummadanti had them hustled out of the house. Thereupon, the disgruntled brahmins reported to the king that she was not qualified to be a queen. The king lost interest in her and she became the wife of the supreme commander. She was, however, determined to make things even with the king and so when he went round the city during a festival she showed her beauty and charms to the best of her ability.

The king was half beside himself with infatuation for the woman. Unable to sleep, he raved about her and gave vent to his blind passion in a gatha which says that if he were granted a boon by the king of devas, he would ask for an opportunity to sleep one or two nights with Ummadanti. The impact of a sense-object depends largely on the nature of the impression conveyed by the object. If the impression is vague and dim, it produces only mild feeling and craving, but much vedana, tanha, etc., follow in the wake of clear and vivid impressions.

The impact may also lead to outburst of temper. We show anger at the sight of an offensive object, and we fear a frightful object. Unpleasant words are irritating to us. Pride wells up in us when we think of something that boosts our ego. We hold wrong views when we toy with the idea of soul or with a teaching that makes a farce of kamma and its fruit. Objects of envy make us envious, and objects which we wish to possess exclusively make us miserly. These are instances of phassa that fuel unwholesome kammas.

Wholesome kammas too arise from phassa. Objects of devotion arouse faith, those whom we should forgive or tolerate help to foster forbearance, and contemplation of the Buddha and the Arahats make us mindful, kindly and so forth. So Patisambhidamagga says: "Conditioned by phassa, there arise fifty cetasikas (mental factors)." It attributes feeling, perception and kamma-formations to phassa.

We see because of phassa and this phassa occurs because of the eye, the visual object and the visual consciousness. The Buddha's teaching makes a distinction between the visual consciousness and the visual object. Ordinary people tend to confuse the former with the latter, but the Buddha stated clearly that visual consciousness arises from the eye and the visual object, and that phassa means the conjunction of the eye, the visual object and the visual consciousness.

This is the impact of seeing for which the three ayatanas, viz., the eye, etc., form the three necessary and sufficient conditions. The nature of impact is realized empirically by the yogi who practises mindfulness. The yogi notes, "seeing, seeing" at every moment of seeing and as concentration develops, he comes to realize that seeing is not uncaused, that it is not made or created by a person; that it is a psycho-physical phenomenon, having the eye and the visual object as its cause and the visual consciousness as its effect.

The impact on the sense-organ leads to feelings that may be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent according to the nature of the sense-object. If the object is beautiful, there arises pleasant feeling; if it is ugly, we have unpleasant feeling. If the object is neither ugly nor lovely, the feeling is indifferent. This feeling (upekkha vedana) does not give rise to any comment, whether favourable or unfavourable; indeed it is not even recognized as a feeling but it is accepted by the ego. In fact, these three kinds of feelings have nothing to do with the ego or self but are aspects of the mental process stemming from sense-contact."

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