The Way It Is
The formations of self
Avijjapaccaya sankhara: this means: 'ignorance conditions the kammic formation', i.e. body and mind as defined by the five khandhas. That is when we operate from a position of ignorance, not understanding the truth, and everything that we experience and do and say and feel is conditioned from that ignorance. Absolutely everything.
This is where the self-view is such a blind spot. When we think of the kammic formation as 'self' rather than as 'not-self' then everything that happens, everything that is experienced is referred to that sense of as a person, as a physical body. 'Me' as a perception. This is avijjapaccaya sankhara.
If you have the insight that all conditions are impermanent, all dhamma is not-self, then there's knowing or vijja, and truth or Dhamma rather than ignorance (avijja) and habitual kamma (sankhara). There's knowing the Dhamma, the truth of the way it is. Then all the rest follows suit, everything is seen as it is. There's no distortion: consciousness and the five aggregates and the sense world are seen as Dhamma rather than as self.
What is your suffering in life, anyway? Why do you suffer? If you investigate you can always trace it back to avijjapaccaya sankhara. There's natural suffering, going hungry, getting old and getting sick, but that's all bearable. That's nothing that we can't bear. Sickness, and old age and death is something we can always bear with. That's not real suffering. But the suffering is the greed, hatred and delusion we produce through the self-view, through taking it all personally. The creations and attachments to wrong views and prejudices and biases and all the horrors that we are responsible for can all be traced back to avijjapaccaya sankhara.
We can't really expect very much improvement if we still insist on being ignorant, caught in the self-view. Even though we might be able to improve conditions slightly by trying to be a good person, as long as there is attachment to self-view, there is delusion; so even the goodness we do, comes from delusion. It doesn't lead anyone out of suffering. If we don't have wisdom, then often we try to do good but we end up harming and causing all kinds of problems, while thinking we can tell others what is good for them.
What is the way it is at this moment? Your body is sitting, isn't it? You can feel things - pleasure, pain, heat or cold or whatever. This is the way things are. There's no self in that, we are not creating the self. When we bring our attention to the way things are, we can see what we do when we create the 'me' and 'mine' on to the moment: what I think, what I feel, what I want, what I don't want, what I like, what I don't like. Or we can be aware of the selves we create in others: my opinions about you. I have suffered a lot from creating people in my mind, not because anybody was really cruel to me, but because of all the things I used to make out about myself and about other people. The fear of what others thought. The jealousies, the envy, the greed, the possessiveness. I would have my prejudices and views about people, what I think they are really up to, and my suspicions about what they really want. So that suffering comes out of the creation we make about ourselves and others, about our parents, and about the people closest to us.
What is suffering? Really ask yourself, what is the suffering of your life? Yesterday the cold winds were blowing through me as I was walking out there in the field. Is that suffering? I could make it suffering. I hate this cold wind and I don't like it. But actually it was all right. I mean, it was something I could completely bear. If I didn't make anything about it in my mind, it was just cold wind - that's all. Yet we can spend time in Amaravati creating attitudes about monks, nuns, lay people. You can really make senior nuns into big ogres, can't you? We can have strong views about seniority. If we are in a senior position we can be very attached to it. 'I am senior to you. You are just a new monk. Do that. I'm boss.' So we can create ourselves as being senior monks. But we are not here to create kamma based on ignorance. The conventions we have are merely expedient means. They are simplifications, moral agreements and community agreements, to make life simple and uncomplicated and also to allow us to reflect on the way relate to people above; people senior, people the same, people junior.
The Buddha said*: 'The view that everybody is equal is a delusion'. 'I am superior to everyone' is a delusion. 'I am inferior' is a delusion. 'I am' is a delusion, if that identity is based on ignorance. But when there's vijja, then 'I am' is merely conventional reality. It's just the way we talk: 'I am hungry' or 'I am Sumedho Bhikkhu' - but it's not a person.
(*For example Sutta-Nipata 860: 'Having finished with envy and green, the sage does not speak of 'superior', 'inferior', or 'equal'.)
When there's avijja, that conditions the sankhara which conditions the consciousness or vi˝˝ana. Consciousness conditions mentality and corporeality (nama-rupa), which conditions the sense bases (salayatana), which conditions contact (phassa), which conditions feeling (vedana). When ignorance is the primary condition, the rest are all affected by that. The sensory world, body and mind are related to in terms of 'me' and 'mine'. This is the self-view. Now in contrast to Brahmanism where the Hindu talks about the Atman, or the 'higher self', the One, when the Buddha talks of self it is related to attachment to the five khandhas, to body, feeling, perceptions, volitions and consciousness. The attachment to that, the ignorance, conditions kammic formations. All this creates a sense of a self.
This self-view starts getting strong when you are six to seven. You go to school and you compete and you compare, and this strong sense of a self starts being conditioned into your mind. I remember the first five or six years of my life being magical, and then after six or seven, it started getting increasingly worse. Before that, there wasn't very much a sense of self.
In a country like the States - which is a very nice country, actually - there is an emphasis on self-view. There is not a tremendous amount of wisdom in that country and the personality view is very much the dominant theme. 'I am an individual, I have my rights. I can do what I want. You can't tell me what to do. Who do you think you are? I'm as good as you are. Get off my back.' The egalitarian Americans have their strong individualistic attachments to being an individual with a fascinating personality, a real character, a 'good guy'. This is the American emphasis on the personal level. Being a 'good guy' is all right; there's nothing wrong with it, but as avijjapaccaya sankhara it can only bring suffering. When there is ignorance and the self-view, the 'good guy' is always going to suffer.
Avijja conditions the sankhara, which conditions consciousness, which conditions mentality-corporeality, which conditions the six senses, which conditions contact and then feeling, and then feeling conditions desire - the vedana-tanha connection. You can notice that if you are caught in attachment to personality view or self, then there is going to be desire, grasping (upadana) and becoming (bhava) operating. You will be lost in that pattern because when there is ignorance in this moment then that affects everything - consciousness, senses and the sense-objects, the feeling and then the desire comes into it. 'I want something.' 'I want to be happy.' 'I want to become .' 'I want to get rid of.' The 'I want'.
Examine desire during this retreat, really get to know what desire is. From my own reflection on it, I see it always is energy aiming at something, whether it's restless and scattered or aimed at something definite. There is a strong desire to get rid of things we don't like, as quickly as possible. We want to get what we want instantly and get rid of what we don't like instantly; we don't value patience any more in our society. We want efficiency. Everything looks nice and then something comes in and makes a mess and you have to clean it up immediately because we don't want obstacles or hindrances or anything unpleasant. We want to get rid of it quickly, so we are very impatient and we can get very upset and annoyed at things because of this desire to get rid of, this 'vibhava'-tanha.
The desire to become, ambition, 'bhava'-tanha is often a motivation within the religious life - we want to become an enlightened personality. So bhava-tanha and vibhava-tanha are to be studied and examined.
You can reflect on them; you can listen to these desires: 'I want to get enlightened.' 'I want to get samadhi. I want to make the best I can out of this retreat so I can have some kind of achievement or attainment from it all.' Or to get rid of things: 'I hope I get rid of all my lust and anger during this retreat. I hope to get rid of the jealousy so I never have to be jealous again. During this retreat I am working on jealousy. I'm working on doubt or fear - if I can get rid of my fear by the end of this retreat, I will have no more fear left because I'm going to get right in there and annihilate fear.' That's vibhava-tanha! 'There is something wrong with me and I have got to make it right. I have got to become something else by getting rid of these bad things, these wrong things about me.' It's all the 'I am's' and the 'me-and-mine.'
'Kama-tanha' is quite obvious - it is the desire for pleasurable sense experiences. These forms of desire are to be known and understood. The trap is that we tend to think that the Buddha teaches you to get rid of your desires. That is how some people interpret Buddhism. But that's wrong: the Buddha taught us how to look and understand desire so that we do not grasp it! That's not telling us to get rid of desire but to really understand it so that desire can no longer delude us. The desire to get rid of desire is still desire, it is not looking at desire. With that desire you are just grasping a perception that you shouldn't have desires and you have got to get rid of them. But understanding Dependent Origination we see the tanha as Dhamma rather than as self - you are looking at tanha, the desire as that which arises and ceases. That's Dhamma isn't it? I have not found one desire in twenty-two years of careful looking and close observation that arises and keeps arising. If any of you do find one, please tell me.
Kama-tanha is fairly coarse and fairly obvious - I want something to eat. Or sexual desires. But vibhava-tanha can be very subtle and righteous and important. And one can be deluded by that righteous quality. The desire to get rid of evil can seem so right. We can really dedicate our lives to getting rid of the evils in this world and become fanatical. This is what you can see in modern social problems. There are the degenerate tendencies of this society that go into sexual aberrations and drugs and then there are the very righteous forms of fundamentalists that condemn the degenerate, loose-living, immoral behaviour of one element of society. But we are looking at desire itself, from the gross forms of want and lust to righteous passion of 'wanting to kill and annihilate these degenerates!'
Contemplate that as something within your mind. I have seen both tendencies in myself. I can become attracted to sensual pleasures. And I can also be really hard and self-righteous and critical of others or of myself. Bhava-tanha can be very sweet too, when you are doing it for the welfare of others. It's not just that I want to attain something so I can say that I have attained something. There is also the bhava-tanha of wanting because you feel you would like to help everyone else. There is still the 'I am'. 'I want to get enlightened and then I am going to really help everyone else and I want to become someone who is not-selfish but works totally for the welfare of all sentient beings.' That's very altruistic, isn't it? It's beautiful and it is inspiring, but it can also be bhava-tanha if it is coming from avijjapaccaya sankhara.
When we see clearly with vijja and see Dhamma, then there is nobody to become anything, or to achieve or to attain. Things are as they are. Good is done and bad is refrained from in action and speech. There is doing good. What is there left to do in life but to be virtuous? Isn't that the beauty of our humanity? What is truly joyful and lovely about being human is our ability to be virtuous. I can't think of anything else to do. The human experience is for virtue and goodness and refraining from doing evil harmful things to ourselves and others. I can't think of anything else worth doing!