Change: 9. The second noble truth

The second noble truth, the truth of the arising of dukkha, is intricately recursive. No description of “the arising of dukkha” can ignore the key roles played by craving and ignorance. We have already seen how craving and ignorance are recursive. Any structure of which they form an integral part cannot be less so. However it is not our purpose here to illuminate all the recursive interplay and echoing discoverable within the second noble truth. (Nor, by the way, was our discussion of recursiveness in the first noble truth by any means complete: we did no more than to touch upon one aspect of one of the aggregates.) Rather, in light of what the second noble truth reveals about recursion we shall try to better fathom the stability and strength of those structures. For therein perception of (the necessity of) impermanence is concealed, and therefore these structures are fundamentally involved in the arising of dukkha.

Dukkha arises dependent upon there being craving and ignorance. Craving and ignorance are related to dukkha in a describable way which, not being haphazard or casual, can be called structural. The principle which describes this structure is called dependent arising (paticcasamuppāda). It is stated in the Suttas as “when there is this, that is. With arising of this, that arises.” (See M. 79: ii,32, etc.; this phrase also immediately follows the words “the middle way” in the S. XII,15 quotation of section 2.) This principle is exemplified throughout the texts in a variety of formulations, but most commonly in a construction of twelve factors which takes the form “By means of (paccaya) A there is B; by means of B there is C;….” This sequence begins with ignorance (avijjā), proceeds through conditions (sankhārā), consciousness, name-and-matter, six (sense-)bases, contact, feeling, craving, holding, being, and birth, and ends: “By means of birth there come into being ageing-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus is the arising of this whole mass of dukkha.” — M. 38: i,262-3.

Dukkha arises, we are told, dependent upon birth and ageing-and-death. And the Suttas also tell us that “birth is dukkha; ageing is dukkha; death is dukkha.” This suggests that dukkha arises dependent upon dukkha. But whereas earlier we might have dismissed this notion as a mere cyclical argument, now that we have discovered the importance of recursiveness we are more inclined to credit the idea — misery breeds misery — as being worthy of investigation.

Dukkha generates more dukkha. Furthermore, dukkha is the necessary consequence of dukkha. This is due to an essential feature of dependent arising: not only does B exist dependent upon A; it is also the inevitable and necessary consequence of A. Indeed, an exact translation of paticcasamuppāda would be “dependent (paticca) Co- (-sam-) arising (uppāda),” which states this feature exactly.

Thus, for example, it is not only the case that ageing-and-death arise dependent upon there being birth, and that otherwise they have no basis in existence. It is also the case that if there is birth then there must be ageing-and-death. Birth which does not give rise to ageing-and-death is impossible, however much we may wish it to be so. (Similarly, circles exist dependent upon there being roundness. Without roundness there are no circles. But also, roundness without the circle is unthinkable.) So too, as being gives rise to birth, birth is the inevitable consequence of being, as are being of holding, holding of craving, and so on.

However, not every series exhibits this property. In both experience and in the Suttas we can find sequences of a different type, wherein although B follows from A it is not the case that it necessarily does so. Such series are non-recursive. In the Upanisā Sutta, S. XII,23: ii,29-32, a sequence of this non-recursive type emerges from a variant dependent arising sequence. Using the non-technical term “support” (upanisā) rather than the usual “by means of” (paccaya), the discourse begins with ignorance: “Supported by ignorance, conditions.” It then proceeds through the other factors in sequence as far as “supported by being, birth,” and then goes on:

supported by birth, dukkha; supported by dukkha, faith; supported by faith, joy; …gladness; …(inner) harmony; …happiness; …concentration; …knowing and seeing what is; …disenchantment; …dispassion; supported by dispassion, freedom; supported by freedom, knowing destruction (of the cankers).

Although dukkha is certainly the inevitable consequence of ignorance, yet faith, joy, gladness, and the rest are, unfortunately, not. Although there cannot be, for example, joy (as it is meant in the texts) without faith, there can be faith without joy: to the extent that faith is poorly placed it could well give rise not to joy but to yet more dukkha. Strictly, then, this latter series is not an exemplification of dependent co-arising since it lacks the recursive feature of being self-generating (as craving breeds more craving, etc.).[24]

It is because it is non-recursive that it is so easy for this sequence to collapse, leaving us mired as always in the recursive structure which originates in ignorance. It is only when the sequence reaches the state of “knowing and seeing what is” (which is the first stage of enlightenment, when ignorance is undermined and knowledge [of knowledge] has arisen) that this collapse is no longer possible. Another non-recursive structure emerging from dependent arising exemplification is to be found at D. 15: ii,58-9, and related sequences are common: e.g. D. 21: ii,276ff; A. X,61: v,114-5. Unlike these sequences, the usual exemplification, ignorance to dukkha, is illustrative of co-arising.

Dukkha, then, generates more dukkha, and more dukkha is the inevitable consequence of dukkha. This may shed light on why some expositors have chosen to translate imasmim sati idam hoti as “when there is this, this is” — rather than, as we have rendered it, “when there is this, that is” — inasmuch as the same thing keeps being regenerated, which is the basic feature of recursion. “It is just dukkha that comes into being, dukkha that stands and disappears.” –S. V,10: i,135.

Even so, we cannot regard birth, ageing-and-death, and the rest as nothing but dukkha. For if that were possible we would be unable to distinguish any term from the others (as the Suttas certainly do: see how each term is described in light of the perception of the noble disciple [ariyasāvaka] at M. 9: i,46-55). Rather, dukkha may be seen as an inevitable and central quality of each, as is roundness of circles. Although all circles are certainly round, still we can distinguish one circle from another. (However, circularity has a simple structure which is non-recursive: one circle does not necessarily generate more circles. This is fortunate, for were it otherwise we should be as swamped by circles as we are by dukkha.)

Since we can distinguish the various terms each from the other we can see that amongst these terms is feeling. Included in feeling, of course, is dukkha. This presents us with exactly the same situation as we discovered when examining the first noble truth: there is an interplay between a “whole” and one of its “parts.” However, we can now recognize that when recursiveness is involved we cannot in fact call anything a whole, inasmuch as wholeness, or conclusiveness, is never achieved.

If the concept of wholeness is nevertheless insisted upon we are unable to decide whether it is dukkha (as the first noble truth, or as the outcome of the second noble truth) that is the posited whole and feeling (as one of the aggregates, or as an intermediate factor in the arising of dukkha) that is a part of that whole, or feeling that is the whole and dukkha that is one of its parts. “Wholeness” is an adopted way of conceptually organizing observed phenomena, and we would make a serious mistake to suppose wholeness to be inherent in the phenomena themselves.

The concept of wholeness is isomorphic with certain aspects of experience, which is why we tend to reify it.[25] But we see that it is not so with all aspects, which is why reification is a mistake. And in particular it is not so with those aspects which are fundamental to the problem of dukkha, which is why the mistake is serious.[26]

This relationship between feeling and dukkha is found in both the first and the second noble truths. These truths are similar because they are both examinations of the same thing: dukkha. They differ because they examine dukkha from different perspectives. The first noble truth is an analysis in terms of constituents while the second is in terms of relationships.

In the same way we might examine, say, a bicycle from a variety of perspectives. In terms of constituents we could speak of handlebars, seat, tires, frame, etc. In terms of relationships, of how the thing works, we might say that with movement of the pedals there is movement of the sprocket; the sprocket drives the chain; the chain forces the wheel to revolve, and so on. Or in terms of manifestation we could regard its motion, either as circular (the wheels) or linear (the whole machine, handlebars, seat, and all).

Thus too, the first noble truth is concerned with the constituents of experience (matter, feeling, perception, conditions, consciousness) as they are involved with holding. The second noble truth describes relationships (by means of feeling, craving arises; etc.). And the Teaching as a whole points repeatedly to the manifestation of these related constituents as dukkha (the sorrowfulness of dukkha, the sorrowfulness of conditions, the sorrowfulness of changeability: dukkhadukkhatā, sankhāradukkhatā, viparināmadukkhatā — S. XXXVIII,14: iv,259 = XLV,vii,5: v,56). And it urges an understanding of this manifest dukkha by comprehending the four noble truths: a holistic understanding of the impossibility of wholeness, and of the dukkha which arises in nevertheless seeking it.

Feeling cannot be regarded as a wholeness encompassing all dukkha; yet within the framework of dependent arising feeling is on a more general level than the dukkha which arises dependent upon it. In other words, “By means of feeling there is (via several intermediate steps) dukkha” is a hierarchical statement. This is not to suggest that we can establish a one-to-one relationship between the various items of dependent arising exemplifications and hierarchical levels: dependent arising is not merely a hierarchical formulary. It takes but a moment, for instance, to realize that although “birth” structurally precedes “ageing-and-death” it does not do so hierarchically. Ageing-and-death is not a component of a more general thing, birth, nor is it for birth. It does not have birth as its goal, not even though we accept the Buddha’s declaration that for beings fettered by craving there is rebirth.

Indeed, it might seem more reasonable to assert the opposite, that birth is “for” ageing-and-death, and has ageing-and-death as its goal. But although this is certainly true it is not true hierarchically, for still birth and ageing-and-death are on the same level, not on different ones. And so too with being,[27] holding, and craving: they must be differentiated from birth in ways other than hierarchical.

But when we come to feeling we arrive at a higher level, for feeling is more general than the dukkha which arises dependent upon it. Herein we will be reminded of our earlier observation that craving always looks towards a more general level than that which it itself exists on. We now see that this more general level is invariably involved with feeling. This is only to be expected, for fundamentally what craving seeks is pleasure. It is in fact only in the second place that it all-too-readily identifies pleasure with a more general craving than itself (“that yet more eternal me that I crave to be”). And it is only in the third place that (with the appearance of holding) there is a seizing upon (the things of) the world as that which (by providing opaque positivity to the transparent negativity of craving) is endowed with or able to provide pleasure. Thus craving always seeks pleasure, and in seeking always discovers dukkha.

After feeling the next more general level is name-and-matter. Since this is a category unknown to Western thought it seems unavoidable, if we are to say anything at all about it, that we begin with a brief explication. For our purpose we can understand name-and-matter as approximating with “things-as-they-appear(-in-experience):”

And what, monks, is name-and-matter? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the matter taken up by the four great elements: this is called matter. This which is name and this which is matter: this is called name-and-matter. — S. XII,2: ii,3-4, etc.[28]

Matter exists, whether or not it is cognized. (I don’t need to look at my clock in order for it to function.) But experience of matter always involves a context which, though not the matter itself, is part of the experience of it. This context is how matter appears, or is characterized, or identified (as “This thing”), or named. Such an orientation is describable in terms of contact (involvement in experience), perception (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, conceptual),[29] attention (direction of emphasis), intention (what it is for), and — feeling. “Name-and-matter together with consciousness” (D. 15: ii,64) is a way of specifying experience-in-general. To say more than this would take us away from our central purpose.

We see that just as feeling, which is the condition for dukkha, also includes dukkha, so too name-and-matter, which is the condition for feeling, also includes feeling. And just as feeling, together with the dukkha which is a part of it, represents a more general level than the dukkha which arises dependent upon the arising of that feeling, so too name-and-matter, together with the feeling that is a part of it, is on a more general level than the feeling which arises dependent upon the arising of that name-and-matter.

This gives us three hierarchical levels of feeling within the stock dependent arising exemplification. In the following discussion we will distinguish between them, when we have need to do so, by designating the feeling which is part of name-and-matter as feelinga; the feeling which exists dependent upon name-and-matter and which is the seventh factor of the usual exemplification as feelingb; and the (feeling of) dukkha which is the outcome of this whole formulation as feelingc. When we need to distinguish between levels of craving we shall refer to craving which exists dependent upon the feeling which is a part of name-and-matter as cravinga; that which is the eighth factor of the dependent origination series as cravingb; and that which exists dependent upon the (feeling of) dukkha which concludes the series as cravingc. Other particularizations, where necessary, will follow the same pattern.

Since “By means of feelingb…there is dukkhac,” it follows that whenever there is feeling of any kind there is also feeling that is dukkha. Both pleasurable feeling and neutral feeling are inseparable from dukkha. For pleasurable feeling, when it exists, is taken as being “that which craving conceives [itself to be for],” while neutral feeling arises when craving, although not actually delighting in a particular matter, regards that matter as “potentially delightful.”[30] Therefore when we say “feeling” we say more than “dukkha,” but we never say anything different than dukkha. So too, when we say “name-and-matter” we say more than “feeling” (since “name” also includes perception, intention, contact, and attention), but we never say anything different than feeling. And since, again, when we say “feeling” we never say anything different than “dukkha,” therefore when we say “name-and-matter,” just as when we say “feeling,” we only say “dukkha.” Therefore it is said: “It is just dukkha that comes into being….”

However, there is a movement here towards the arising of more specific and obvious dukkha. This movement is designed to conceal the more pervasive and inescapable (dukkha) feeling that is inseparable from “what craving is for” and which, in its most general manifestation, is part of “experience-in-general” (name-and-matter together with consciousness). In other words, dependent upon any feeling there arises a specific craving which seeks escape from dukkha and synonymity with the pleasure which it conceives of (as its own). And this movement always results in a yet-more-specific sorrow.

To some it may seem that the distinctions we are making here are artificial and hollow. To distinguish between “By means of feelinga…dukkhab” and “By means of feelingb…dukkhac,” or between “By means of feelinga…craving” and “By means of feelingb, craving,” or between other sets of relationships which differ from each other only in regards to their position within the hierarchy — it may seem that such distinctions are but a mere tautologous argument which reveals nothing at all about the generation and regeneration of dukkha. That this is not the case can best be demonstrated by means of an illustration.

Suppose that Bandha, a common laborer working for day-wages, is trudging down the road, his pick and spade resting on one shoulder. It is the end of a hot and tiring day. Occasional cars cruise by, raising the dust and also raising Bandha’s recurrent wish that he could be such a one as to own a car. To be able to drive about when and where he pleased, and not to have to breathe dust and exert his tired body! His perception of the world (fine cars, cloying dust, tired body, etc.) is imbued with a wistful regret for his lot, a pervasive muted dukkha at his utter remoteness from the way he would choose things to be.

Yet since he accepts the virtual impossibility of achieving his wish he does not dwell overmuch upon it. He thinks instead, a bit lazily perhaps, of the dinner he will eat when he gets home. Not so fulfilling a prospect as the world of cars and wealth, to be sure, but pleasurable nevertheless, and much more likely to be realized. His attention, then, is divided roughly into thirds. There is the actual world in which he walks, and which is for him both manifestly and essentially dukkha; and then there are the imaginary worlds, the one of wealth, which promises exquisite pleasures but which is very remote; and the other of dinner, which anticipates more common pleasures but, being close to hand, is the principle object of his intentions.

The imagery he creates as he walks along helps Bandha to avoid facing the dukkhaa of his actual situation, namely, that he is a common laborer working for day-wages with no prospect of ever being anything else except disabled or dead. Still, thoughts of cars and wealth cannot but increase his awareness of the contrasting details of his actual situation, namely, that he is in fact walking, that his feet hurt, that his tools weigh him down, and so on. And too thoughts of dinner cannot but increase the grumblings of his empty stomach, and his awareness of those grumblings.

Thus, he avoids facing the general dukkhaa of his situation by means of heightened awareness of particular dukkhasb, and these dukkhasb become manifest by cravinga for pleasure. (More formally, cravinga is born of the dukkha feelinga which is an aspect of experience-in-general. While in flight it “discovers” mind-based percepts [i.e. imagery], touches upon them, and conceives them as being pleasurableb. This conceived pleasureb gives rise to a more immediate level of cravingb, which elaborates, or gives substance to, that craving-for-pleasurea which is its context.)

Were he interested in reflexion Bandha would discover that by confronting this general dukkhaa the particular dukkhasb would pale into unimportance. But, like almost everyone else, he prefers virtually any intensity of particular (and interchangeable) dukkhas to the single persistent gnawing general dukkha of being-for-death. However, Bandha has lived long in this situation and is inured to it. His defences are long-established and habitual, and he need not take on any further specificity of dukkha to conceal from himself his day-to-day involvement with dukkhaa.

But now suppose that while passing a car-sales showroom Bandha should happen to notice a poster announcing a sales promotion scheme wherein anyone could freely enter his name into a drawing, the grand prize being the very fine car on display in the showroom window. And suppose that on this particularly hot day Bandha’s imagination should become inflamed with the notion that he himself might win this draw.

Thereby his dream of owning a car — and all the wealth that goes with it! — would not seem as remote as he had always accepted; it would now appear as a very real possibility. In this intense pleasure which craving has conceived not only are his specific aches and tirednesses totally set aside. Not only is the minor pleasure of anticipated dinner quite forgotten. More importantly, the intention to utterly disguise dukkhaa is temporarily achieved, or at least virtually so: Bandha is now hardly aware of his actual situation, let alone the dukkha inherent in it.

So he resolves to enter the showroom at once to put down his name for the draw. But so ensnared is his attention in the imaginary situation he has conceived for himself that he fails to notice that the establishment has already closed for the day. Only when he finds the door locked does this check to his fantasy force him to pay sufficient attention to his actual world to understand that there is an obstacle in his way. This obstacle is involved with dukkhab, a more immediate order of feeling than the pleasurable feeling which craving is for. But the enchantment has been invested with such potency that the dukkha of the locked door is comparatively minor and is insufficient to break the spell of that fantasy. Never mind the locked door; tomorrow morning first thing he will put down his name.

So he turns from the showroom, his eyes still possessed by the car that will be his. Such flight from the real dukkha of his situation can only yield more specific dukkhas. In this case Bandha, inattentive to his actual world, takes but a few steps before he stumbles over a rubbish barrel he had failed to notice, knocking over the barrel and himself as well.

This is an obstacle sufficient to force his attention back to the real world. So now Bandha is suffused with a sense of himself as having been lost (to fantasy). How could he have been so careless? And worse, he recognizes (with a mental fall more painful than his bodily one) that this is not the first time he has suffered the consequences of daydreaming. How many jobs has he lost? And that time he set the mattress on fire, nearly burning down the whole house! It fills his awareness in an instant, and Bandha sees this fall as being “typical: the sort of thing that I’m always doing.” Thus there is the appearance of the very general and pervasive dukkhaa of despair: “I’ll never be anything but a failure; I’m a born loser, it’s the story of my life.”

This despair will of course have its gratifications, for this despair is not cast upon him, as is a net on a fish, but is chosen. There is the advantage of ease, for instance. For “the story of my life” (and however poor a story it may be, it is better than no story at all) doesn’t require of Bandha any unusual initiatives to perpetuate. But it is nevertheless despair, and Bandha recoils, needing escape. If only he was able to take an outside view of his situation he would be able to simply abandon the position from wherein despair is generated, for he would then see the deception. But Bandha does not have the immense advantage of external guidance in right view, and cannot see this way out of his dilemma, however much (or perhaps because) escape is so needed. This need is the cravinga which arises dependent upon his sense of despair.

But it wasn’t his fault! He didn’t knock over that rubbish barrel on purpose, these things are always happening to him, he’s got no luck at all. Thus the despair at perceiving his own shortcomings (“the sort of thing I’m always doing”) is transmuted into grief at the injustice in the world (“these things always happen to me”) by a simple act of denial of responsibility. But not actually transmuted: rather, the despair is simply concealed by interposition of the more immediate dukkhab of grief, for the responsibility remains, however much it is denied.

There is, of course, a gratification in this grief: innocence, non-responsibility. But still, it remains a grief which cannot be overlooked. A return to the fantasy is impossible, at least as yet, for Bandha has not yet even picked himself up from amidst the spilled rubbish. The actual world still demands that he attend to his situation within it. But grief generates its own cravingb for pleasure. How, then, to escape this grief?

Any broken bones? Bleeding? Contusions? At least a mark or two? In fact Bandha wasn’t hurt at all by his spill; but it is always possible to find some bodily pain or other if one looks assiduously enough. And it is equally possible to ascribe it to any cause one wishes, and to dwell upon it and to magnify it, particularly if doing so helps one to avoid dwelling upon something else. So Bandha discovers some painsc, and begins to invent a story which he hopesc will evoke appropriate sympathy from his wife. Here is a fantasy with enough modest pleasure in it to compensate for the dearth of actual bodily injuries — if only there had been a little blood as testimony of his innocence! — which would otherwise have almost adequately concealed the mental ones.

But his wife, Bandha knows, will be unlikely to offer much sympathy. He could be half-dead and she would have for him nothing but complaints, gossip, and underspiced food — to be married to such a woman! And the idiot who left that trash barrel in the middle of the road where innocent passers-by could break their bones — the world is full of fools!

Bandha’s lament is a denial of responsibility for his pains, just as “no luck at all” is a denial of responsibility for an already well-disguised despair. It is therefore dukkhad which, of course, generates its own cravings for flight from dukkha and search for pleasure. What mode will it take? Perhaps Bandha will cease to curse the fools of the world only to begin feeling sorry for himself: a hard day’s work for such poor wages, a long hot walk home with no companionship, an empty belly, and now this! What chance for an unlucky fellow like Bandha to win that car? Poor Bandha, he’s the only one with any sympathy for his own tribulations, with any appreciation of his own true worth, nobody else cares at all. And thus this dukkha(e) generates craving for sympathy and appreciation. Oh, to be understood!

And so it goes, each dukkha generating further dukkha for so long as there is flight. And each fresh dukkha more immediate, more obvious than the last — indeed, painfully so. And thus is the arising of this whole mass of dukkha: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.

This sequence (which takes much less time to live it than to tell it) is now completed. Bandha has disguised the fundamental nature of his situation enough to enable him to deal with it, in his own way. He begins to pick himself up — nobody to give him a hand, even in this! — and to proceed home. But hardly has he risen to his knees when he notices two street urchins guffawing at his misfortune, and at once he is suffused with the awareness of having been seen.

That defensive structure of sorrow, lamentation, pain, and grief he has devised in order to conceal the despair of his situation was adequate to his eyes alone. Left to himself he could have ignored the fact that the world-in-general, let alone specifics, is radically and fundamentally at odds with the way he would have it be. But now he stands (or, rather, half stoops amidst the spilled rubbish) exposed to the eyes of the world, and that defensive structure is inadequate.

Thrust from a world in which he was the possessor of a fabulous car into one in which he is laughed at even by street urchins, Bandha must now find a way to extricate himself (again!) from such dukkha. And who are they but a pair of stray waifs, probably homeless? How dare they laugh at the misfortune of an honest and hardworking laborer, the strength of the nation! Away with them!

And so Bandha resolves upon prideful anger as his shield. And if it is felt with sufficient intensity anger can indeed conceal a great amount of dukkha. But it will not conceal it with anything other than dukkha, for anger is but dukkha transmogrified. No matter how he twists about Bandha cannot conceal dukkha except by generating further (and more immediate and more obvious) dukkha.

But anger, though far more endurable than naked despair, is also far less durable. It requires a correspondingly more immediate effort to be maintained in being. Yet it can serve as a refuge only for so long as it is maintained, and maintained with sufficient intensity. Therefore it entails the channelling and expenditure of a great deal of energy, or fuel. This is tough work, and it is itself painful. And furthermore (furthermore indeed!) it cannot give rise to anything other than yet more craving — revenge? quick, a stone! all this rubbish about, but where’s a rock? — and more dukkha.

But of course as Bandha picks up a good-sized missile the two urchins flee; and Bandha rises to his feet with a gratifying sense of having been victorious at last in his dealings with the world, never mind all that has gone before. This single victory, celebrated by throwing the stone at the now-empty roadway, when relived and elaborated upon, will augur promise of a rosy future wherein Bandha can exult on his way home to dinner.

Or rather, would have exulted. But unfortunately for him, as he turns to proceed homeward — giving the rubbish barrel a good shove with his foot, just to show the world what a triumphant Bandha is capable of — he realises that he has been observed not only by that pair of children. Four gentlemen in trousers stand beside the open doors of a car — theirs! — which they are obviously about to enter. Equally obvious, they have paused just long enough to observe Bandha’s antics — a sarong-clad laborer who tries to enter that toney dealership and then, unable to tear his eyes from the showroom window (some driver Bandha would make!), first upsets both a trash barrel and himself, and then threatens small children with rocks. The whole sequence, they saw it all. And now, with a glance at one another and the briefest possible of smiles all round, they turn from Bandha (who realizes in the full light of their vision of him that he had also forgotten, in his triumph, to pick up his fallen tools) and they enter their car, conversing with casual friendliness in a world which is theirs.

To rouse anger at the street urchins was an easy enough matter. But in full view of four well-dressed gentlemen who live in the world of which he merely dreams, Bandha is stripped of any possible defence. He can only hope to escape their imperious glances by flight, and so he turns, routed and utterly mortified to his very being. He stands exposed and naked to himself; and as he quickly gathers up his tools and hurries away from the scene of his disaster he knows that now he will never enter that showroom to put down his name. It will be long before he will willingly pass this way again. He will say nothing at all to his wife. He must begin again the endless chore of dressing himself in swathing upon swathing of dukkha.[31]

We can see, then, that our description of the hierarchically recursive interconnectedness of feeling and craving is no mere theoretical structure but rather a generalized description of what happens, again and again, in life. Our example is necessarily rudimentary, and is also confined to the psychological level: we have not yet reached the transcendental (lokuttara) level which is actually the beginning of the Buddha’s essential Teaching,[32] but more sophisticated examples can be discovered in one’s own experience.

The experience may be as trivial as a slight grimace or as profound as full-blown paranoid delusion. But every instance veils within itself on every level the basic structure of conceit (“I know…”) and of craving (“I want…”) and is fueled by desire-and-lust. Insight into this situation is capable of exposing what is hidden therein. The value of paradigmatic description lies not in its being elaborate, clever, or original, but in its capacity to lead us to an understanding of the situation within which we find ourselves endlessly entrapped. It can serve thus as that right-view guidance referred to earlier.

Some may regard such analysis as “mere intellectualizing.” However, if intellectualizing means using one’s intelligence this is not necessarily a bad thing. It cannot be a substitute for insight, but if properly used it can be a prelude. For it is only by understanding the nature of our situation in the world that a movement is possible which, rather than perpetuating that situation, ends it.


24. Thus, the question:
Do little fleas have lesser fleas that bite ’em,
And so on and so forth, ad infinitum?
is not so much a question of recursiveness as of infestation. [Back to text]

25. Even more fundamentally, we tend to reify the concept of wholeness because it is vitally implicated in the notion of absolute extra-temporality (“this, my self”). In this sense, though, it is more than a mere tendency: the ordinary person, unable to do otherwise, does not see that such reification is not a mistake but the mistake. [Back to text]

26. Even experience “as a whole,” pañc’upādānakkhandhā, does not constitute a wholeness. In experience there is that which is central, or attended to most closely; that which is peripheral, or accorded less attention; and that which increasingly approximates to utter vagueness. But where the “horizon” lies, beyond which there is not the slightest awareness, we can never say. For if we attempt to discover it what we find instead is that the focus of attention has shifted and this “horizon,” if it actually exists, has moved to a new limit. Although experience clearly does have its limits we are unable to discover directly “where” those limits are. We can only (mis-)conceive them. For analytic purposes experience may in certain ways be taken as an entity, a unit, yet strictly we can never regard it as constituting a wholeness, as something complete. [Back to text]

27. Some might think it more reasonable that being should be said to follow upon birth rather than to precede it: without birth how could there be being? But on the ontological precedence of being, cf. Sartre, op. cit. pp. 136-42, of which we can quote only a few lines: “…Actually it seems shocking that consciousness ‘appears’ at a certain moment, that it comes ‘to inhabit’ the embryo, in short that there is a moment when a consciousness without a past is suddenly imprisoned in it. But the shock will cease if it appears that there can be no consciousness without a past…. There is a metaphysical problem concerning birth in that I can be anxious to know how I happen to have been born from that particular embryo…. But…we do not have to ask why there can be a birth of consciousness, for consciousness can appear to itself only…as being already born….” [Back to text]

28. It will be seen that this definition of matter is recursive: matter is defined in terms involving matter. Therefore, regardless how exhaustively we analyze matter, we will never find a level which does not involve matter. Nor will we ever arrive at an ultimate level to matter, as physicists are repeatedly discovering. No matter. The four great elements (earth, water, fire, air) are sometimes elaborated in various ways — most naively by supposing matter to be made from the four elements, compounded in various proportions (a move often found in conjunction with the supposition that name-and-matter can be equated with mind-and-matter; but on this topic, never mind); and perhaps most successfully as aspects or modes of behaviour which matter manifests. The Suttas seem to neither support nor to discourage such efforts. Rather, they regard these elements in more elementary terms: anything solid is an instance of earth-element, etc. This approach reinforces the basic recursive definition of matter: as matter is defined in terms of the elements together with matter taken up, so too the elements are described in terms of matter, which leads back again to the elements. See the M. 28 quote, beginning in section 5 (footnote 15) and concluding in section 12. [Back to text]

29. See A. VI,63: iii,413: “Monks, I say perceptions result in description….” [Back to text]

30. It also arises in the case of one who perceives the necessity of impermanence (i.e. a noble disciple, ariyasāvaka) when, not delighting in a particular matter, he regards it as “not potentially delightful.” But this distinction goes well beyond the level of discussion we have reached so far. [Back to text]

31. It would be entirely possible to illustrate in relation to Bandha’s experience not only the various levels of feeling and craving but also of holding (“This is what I am,”), being (“and this is the way the world is:”), birth (“others are born rich winners; I’m a born loser,”), and ageing-and-death (“the story of my life: my destiny.”), or to strictly describe the regeneration of dukkha using these terms (which are intermediate between cravingb and dukkhac) as was done a few pages back using the six (sense-)bases and contact (which are intermediate between dukkhaa and dukkhab). Such a description would be more complex than that involving the bases and contact, but it would come to the same thing: dukkha regenerates dukkha. Apart from the formal description itself (which could not be brief) some of these terms would require their own explication. This is better left undone, at least here, for we must stop sometime, and considerations of length suggest it be now. But the important point is not to carry out such an analysis but to understand that it could be done. [Back to text]

32. The Buddha’s Teaching is designed to lay bare a level of experience which it is the concern of all other levels to hide, and from which all action originates. To reveal what is common to all behavior what is needed is not specification but universalization. In specification we would take (for example) “By means of feeling, craving” to mean “Because of this particular feeling there is that particular craving,” an approach which can produce an excellent behavioral psychology. But it can also be understood as “Because there is such a thing as feeling there is also such a thing as craving,” an approach which can lead to an understanding not only of things but of the nature of things. This perception is developed when, in reflexive examination of, say, (experience of) a particular feeling those qualities which particularize the feeling are ignored [they are “put in brackets,” so to speak], and attention is centered upon those qualities which are common to all feeling. This particular feeling is seen as “but an example of all possible feeling.” Thus it is seen as a universal. [Back to text]

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