Pakistani Buddha, Karachi Museum. Courtesy of Borronme/Art Resource, NY.
Pakistani Buddha, Karachi Museum. Courtesy of Borronme/Art Resource, NY.

This discourse on how the mind creates, reflects, and conditions the sense of self is excerpted from the Pali Canon, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings recorded by disciples after Shakyamuni Buddha died. Here, the Great Sage of India responds to the inquiries of Ananda, his cousin and most devoted follower.

Thus have I heard. Once the Lord was staying among the Kurus. There is a market town there called Kammasadhamma. And the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, saluted him, sat down to one side, and said: “It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvelous how profound this dependent origination is, and how profound it appears! And yet it appears to me as clear as clear!”

“Do not say that, Ananda, do not say that! This dependent origination is profound and appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, covered as with a blight, tangled like coarse grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin, and the round of birth-and-death.

“If, Ananda, you are asked: ‘Has aging-and-death a condition for its existence?’ you should answer: ‘Yes.’ If asked: ‘What conditions aging-and-death?’ you should answer ‘Aging-and-death is conditioned by birth.’ . . . ‘What conditions birth?’ . . . ‘Becoming conditions birth.’ . . . ‘Clinging conditions becoming.’ . . . ‘Craving conditions clinging.’ . . .  ‘Feeling conditions craving.’ . . . ‘Contact conditions feeling.’ . . . ‘Mind-and-body conditions contact.’ . . . ‘Consciousness conditions mind-and-body.’ . . . If asked: ‘Has consciousness a condition for its existence?’ you should answer: ‘Yes.’ If asked, ‘What conditions consciousness?’ you should answer: ‘Mind-and-body conditions consciousness.’

“Thus, Ananda, mind-and-body conditions consciousness and consciousness conditions mind-and-body, mind-and-body conditions contact, contact conditions feeling, feeling conditions craving, craving conditions clinging, clinging conditions becoming, becoming conditions birth, birth conditions aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress. Thus this whole mass of suffering comes into existence.

“I have said: ‘Birth conditions aging-and-death,’ and this is the way that should be understood. If, Ananda, there were no birth at all, anywhere, of anybody or anything: of devas to the deva-state, of gandhabbas . . . of yakkhas . . . of ghosts . . . of humans . . . of quadrupeds . . . of birds . . . of reptiles to the reptile state, if there were absolutely no birth at all of all these beings, then, with the absence of all birth, the cessation of birth, could aging-and-death appear?” “No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, just this is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for aging-and-death—namely birth.

“I have said: ‘Becoming conditions birth.’ . . . If there were absolutely no becoming: in the World of Sense-Desires, of Form or the Formless World . . . could birth appear?”

“No, Lord.” “Therefore just this is the condition of birth—namely becoming.

“‘Clinging conditions becoming.’ . . . If there were absolutely no clinging: sensuous clinging, clinging to views, to rite-and-ritual, to personality-belief . . . could becoming appear?

“‘Craving conditions clinging.’ . . . If there were absolutely no craving: for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, mind-objects . . . could clinging appear?

“‘Feeling conditions craving.’ . . . If there were absolutely no feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact—in the absence of all feeling, with the cessation of feeling, could craving appear?

“No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, just this is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for craving—namely feeling.

“And so, Ananda, feeling conditions craving, craving conditions seeking, seeking conditions acquisition, acquisition conditions decision-making, decision-making conditions lustful desire, lustful desire conditions attachment, attachment conditions appropriation, appropriation conditions avarice, avarice conditions guarding of possessions, and because of the guarding of possessions there arise the taking up of stick and sword, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying and other evil unskilled states.

“I have said: ‘All these evil unskilled states arise because of the guarding of possessions.’ For if there were absolutely no guarding of possessions…would there be the taking up of stick or sword . . . ?” “No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, the guarding of possessions is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for all these evil unskilled states.

“I have said: ‘Avarice conditions the guarding of possessions . . .’

“‘Appropriation conditions avarice, . . . attachment conditions appropriation, . . . lustful desire conditions attachment, . . . decision-making conditions lustful desire, . . . acquisition conditions decision-making, . . . seeking conditions acquisition . . .’

“I have said: ‘Craving conditions seeking.’ . . . If there were no craving, . . . would there be any seeking?” “No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, craving is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for all seeking. Thus these two things become united in one by feeling.

“I have said: ‘Contact conditions feeling.’ . . . Therefore contact is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for feeling.

“‘Mind-and-body conditions contact.’ By whatever properties, features, signs or indications the mind-factor is conceived of, would there, in the absence of such properties… pertaining to the mind-factor, be manifest any grasping at the idea of the body-factor?” “No, Lord.”

“Or in the absence of any such properties pertaining to the body-factor, would there be any grasping at sensory reaction on the part of the mind-factor?” “No, Lord.” “By whatever properties the mind-factor and the body-factor are designated—in their absence is there manifested any grasping at the idea, or at sensory reaction?” “No, Lord.”

“By whatever properties, features, signs or indications the mind-factor is conceived of, in the absence of these is there any contact to be found?” “No, Lord.”

“Then, Ananda, just this, namely mind-and-body, is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition for all contact.

“I have said: ‘Consciousness conditions mind-and-body.’ . . . If consciousness were not to come into the mother’s womb, would mind-and-body develop there?” “No, Lord.”

“Or if consciousness, having entered the mother’s womb, were to be deflected, would mind-and-body come to birth in this life?” “No, Lord.” “And is the consciousness of such a tender young being, boy or girl, were thus cut off, would mind-and-body grow, develop and mature?” “No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, just this, namely consciousness, is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition of mind-and-body.

“I have said: ‘Mind-and-body conditions consciousness.’ . . . If consciousness did not find a resting-place in mind-and-body, would there subsequently be an arising and coming-to-be of birth, aging, death and suffering?” “No, Lord.” “Therefore, Ananda, just this, namely mind-and-body, is the root, the cause, the origin, the condition of consciousness. Thus far then, Ananda, we can trace birth and decay, death and falling into other states and being reborn, thus far extends the way of designation, of concepts, thus far is the sphere of understanding, thus far the round goes as far as can be discerned in this life, namely to mind-and-body together with consciousness.

“In what ways, Ananda, do people explain the nature of the self? Some declare the self to be material and limited, saying: ‘My self is material and limited’; some declare it to be material and unlimited . . . ; some declare it to be immaterial and limited . . . ; some declare it to be immaterial and unlimited, saying: ‘My self is immaterial and unlimited.’

“Whoever declares the self to be material and limited, considers it to be so either now, or in the next world, thinking: ‘Though it is not so now, I shall acquire it there.’ That being so, that is all we need say about the view that the self is material and limited, and the same applies to the other theories. So much, Ananda, for those who proffer an explanation of the self.

“How is it with those who do not explain the nature of the self? . . .

“In what ways, Ananda, do people regard the self? They equate the self with feeling: ‘Feeling is my self,’ or: ‘Feeling is not my self, my self is impercipient,’ or: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not impercipient, it is of a nature to feel.’

“Now, Ananda, one who says: ‘Feeling is my self’ should be told: ‘There are three kinds of feeling, friend: pleasant, painful, and neutral. Which of the three do you consider to be your self?’ When a pleasant feeling is felt, no painful or neutral feeling is felt, but only pleasant feeling. When a painful feeling is felt, no pleasant or neutral feeling is felt, but only painful feeling. And when a neutral feeling is felt, no pleasant or painful feeling is felt, but only neutral feeling.

“Pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently-arisen, bound to decay, to vanish, to fade away, to cease—and so too are painful feeling and neutral feeling. So anyone who, on experiencing a pleasant feeling, thinks: ‘This is my self,’ must, at the cessation of that pleasant feeling, think: ‘My self has gone!’ and the same with painful and neutral feelings. Thus whoever thinks: ‘Feeling is my self’ is contemplating something in this present life that is impermanent, a mixture of happiness and unhappiness, subject to arising and passing away. Therefore it is not fitting to maintain: ‘Feeling is my self.’

“But anyone who says: ‘Feeling is not my self, my self is impercipient’ should be asked: ‘If, friend, no feelings at all were to be experienced, would there be the thought: “I am”?’ [to which he would have to reply:] “No, Lord.” Therefore it is not fitting to maintain: ‘Feeling is not my self, my self is impercipient.’

“And anyone who says: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not impercipient, my self is of a nature to feel’ should be asked: ‘Well, friend, if all feelings absolutely and totally ceased, could there be the thought: “I am this?” [to which he would have to reply:] “No, Lord.” “Therefore it is not fitting to maintain: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not impercipient, my self is of a nature to feel.’

“From the time, Ananda, when a monk no longer regards feeling as the self, or the self as being impercipient, or as being percipient and of a nature to feel, by not so regarding, he clings to nothing in the world; not clinging, he is not excited by anything, and not being excited he gains personal liberation, and he knows: ‘Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done was what had to be done, there is nothing more here.’”

Excerpted from Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Walshe. Reprinted with permission from Wisdom Publications, Boston.

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