Twelvefold Conditioned Arising
Excerpt from The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra with Verses without A Stand and Prose Commentary
by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Twelvefold Conditioned Arising tells us that, "The way we die depends on the way we live."
The passage in The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, “No ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death” refers to the Twelvefold Conditioned Arising. The Twelvefold Conditioned Arising is the reason that people are in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The chain of the Twelvefold Conditioned Arising consists of: ignorance is the condition for karmic activity; karmic activity the condition for consciousness; consciousness is the condition for name and form; name and form is the condition for the six entrances (i.e., the six sense-faculties); the six entrances is the condition for contact; contact is the condition for feeling; feeling is the condition for emotional love or craving; emotional love is the condition for grasping; grasping is the condition for becoming; becoming is the condition for birth; birth is the condition for old age and death.
What is “ignorance”? “Ignorance” is the lack of understanding. In everyday language it is called “being mixed-up.” It means that you have not understood the truth. Because you are so mixed up and you don’t understand, you engage in confused and erroneous activities. “Erroneous activities” in this context means doing something that you shouldn’t do. The erroneous activity leads to false recognition, or “consciousness.” Consciousness leads to mixed-up “name and form.” Mixed-up name and form leads to mixed-up entrances. Since human beings have six sense-faculties, sense data come into our bodies and minds through these “six entrances.” From mixed-up entrances, mixed-up “contact” arises. Where there is mixed-up contact, one wants mixed-up “feeling of enjoyment.” From such mixed-up feeling comes mixed-up “emotional love” or craving. From mixed-up craving, mixed-up “grasping” arises. Once there is mixed-up grasping, mixed-up “becoming” results. From mixed-up becoming, one then obtains “birth.” From birth comes “old age and death.
These conditioned causes start with being ignorant or confused. Because people are confused in the beginning, they are confused in the end. They pass through one muddled life to the next, and that next life is also muddled. The Twelvefold Conditioned Arising starts with the mental state of ignorance, and explains the causes of our confusion. Unfortunately, ordinary people can’t understand this principle, when in fact the Twelvefold Conditioned Arising tells us that, “The way we die depends on the way we live.” Unfortunately, because people don’t understand, they do things contrary to this teaching. As a result, their troubles grow bigger and bigger to the point that they become pregnant. Things get even worse when, instead of giving birth, they get an abortion during the first few months of the fetus’ life.
Where do people’s desires, whether for food or sex, come from? They are all products of ignorance. Ignorance is just another name for being confused. When thoughts arise, a desire to act follows. Because there is ignorance, there is sexual activity. The confused sexual activity stems from the state of being confused; this is how “ignorance is the condition for activity.” When confused activity exists, confused consciousness arises, which starts to make confused distinctions. This consciousness is also referred to as “the intermediate skandha body” (i.e., the intermediate existence between death and reincarnation.) When a man and woman engages in sexual intercourse, if an intermediate skandha body has causes for familial ties with that couple, it would seek rebirth as their child. The affinity between this consciousness and the couple is so strong that even if it were a thousand or ten thousand miles away and even if only the tiniest point of light were emitted by the couple during their intercourse, it would see the light and go to the couple to become a fetus in the mother’s womb. Therefore, it is said that “activity is the condition for consciousness.”
“Consciousness is the condition for name and form.” In this context the phrase means that when the fetus comes into being, there is “name and form.” “Name” refers to the four skandhas of feeling, cognition, formations, and consciousness, while “form” refers to the form-skandha. Four of the fetus’ five skandha (i.e., feeling, cognition, formations and consciousness) exist in the mother’s womb in name only; they have yet come into being. Once the child is born, all five of his skandhas (i.e., his name and form) are complete, so are the child’s six sense-faculties or entrances (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind). This is called “name and form is the condition for the six entrances.” These six perceptual faculties interact with their corresponding sense objects (sight, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, and objects of mind) and give rise to the awareness of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch and thoughts.
Once the six entrances exist, the child becomes aware of contact. Therefore, it is said, “The six entrances are the condition for contact.” After contact occurs, the child starts to have feelings about his or her contact; this is called “contact is the condition for feelings.” Once there is feeling, love arises (e.g., loving pleasant situations and detesting unpleasant situations). Hence, “feeling is the condition for love.” After love arises, the child wishes to seek and grasp what he or she loves. Therefore, “love is the condition for grasping.” Thereupon one wants to possess his or her object of desires, and this grasping leads to becoming (in the desire, form or formless realms.) This is called, “grasping is the condition for becoming.” The next step, “becoming is the condition for birth” means due to grasping and attaching, there are further births. Finally, “birth is the condition for old age and death.” After birth comes old age and death. The entire process is the revolving cycle of the Twelvefold Conditioned Arising.
What if there were no ignorance? There would be no activity. In other words, when ignorance is extinguished, activity is extinguished. When activity is extinguished, consciousness is extinguished. When consciousness is extinguished, name and form are extinguished. When name and form are extinguished, the six entrances are extinguished. When the six entrances are extinguished, contact is extinguished. When contact is extinguished, feeling is extinguished. When feeling is extinguished, love is extinguished. When love is extinguished, grasping is extinguished. When grasping is extinguished, becoming is extinguished. When becoming is extinguished, birth, old age and death are extinguished. This is how to end the cycle of the Twelvefold Conditioned Arising. Therefore, it is said: “There is no ending of ignorance for its inherent nature is empty.”
When all these connected twelve conditioned causes cease to exist, it is like a clear sky for ten thousand miles; it is also like a bright moon appearing as a reflection on clear water. If you truly understand the teaching of Twelvefold Conditioned Arising, it would be like drinking water; when you are thirsty and take a drink of water, you know for yourself whether the water is warm or cold. If you don’t actually put in the effort to cultivate and awaken to the principle of Twelvefold Conditioned Arising, it is useless even if you say, “Oh, the twelve conditioned causes are all empty, empty, empty!”