A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #6 Contact

Up to this point what has been covered in the first five steps is an overview of the problematic situation as it’s given to us.The model for what’s going on in these first five steps is a well-known origin myth that gets referred to in various different places in the suttas: the story of the first man, Prajapati (whose role got taken over by Brahma). In using the structure of the story of Prajapati’s creation — and the creation of all of us — the Buddha was clearly describing the parallel story of what he sees as important about the way we come to be as we are, as well, only the details of his story are a *little* different than the original. (For details on the story of Prajapati and how it can be seen to be part of the structure of dependent arising, please see the paper “Burning Yourself” available for the cost of a subscription to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. It’s in Volume II, May 2012 issue.)

The first five steps tell us that we come into the world ignorant (#1) of what’s about to be described, and what’s described is a process that results in dukkha. It begins with a drive for the existence of a lasting self, and for knowledge of that self (that drive is sankhara #2) which is activated — satisfied, fed, and made real — when our ever-hungry consciousness (#3) becomes aware of something that feeds it what it is seeking. What feeds it is a particular piece of information that comes in through the senses, that we can perceive as confirming that we are who we think we are and that the world behaves as we think it does (that’s “name and form” #4 aka “identification”).  This sequence of five steps, closely following the myth, ends up with the senses being directed (#5) to look for the information that sankhara drives us to seek.

With the sixth step, “contact” we leave the overview that describes the “givens” of our life and enter the realm of a detailed description of how the process plays out.

With Sariputta’s description we are, again, back in the field of the senses, in this case with any one of them making contact with its object. Because this is the first link in the chain that describes an actual sequence of events, this is the earliest point at which we can notice the process that is dependent arising taking place.

There are these six classes of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. With the arising of the sixfold base there is the arising of contact. — MN 9 translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi

One of the questions that has often been asked about dependent arising’s chain of events, when offered as a description of a process that needs to be stopped, is “What does it mean to stop contact?” as well as “Why would I want to stop consciousness?” If the descriptions given thusfar are mistaken for literal descriptions of what’s going on (a reasonable assumption to make, given that this is the way we describe things in our times) rather than recognized as the field things grow in, then ending consciousness and contact would mean literally ceasing to experience the world — flatlining, in the case of consciousness. Not a good thing. But the reason these questions always come up is because we have misunderstood the descriptions: they are not what is happening but where it is happening.

The other clue that is often missed is that each link not only depends on the previous link, but all the previous links. By the time we get to “contact” we have very narrowly defined it as contact that is grounded in ignorance of dukkha. It’s contact that is specifically created from ignorance of what dukkha is and how it happens, that ignorance being somehow important to the contact. It is contact driven by sankhara‘s desire for existence, as well as by the actions we take as a result of that desire, since, included in those actions are the ways in which our consciousness always seeks information that supports its awareness of itself, and the ways in which we divide the world up in terms of ourselves. The contact comes directly from the senses that have been actively seeking the information that will satisfy sankhara, awareness, and our desire to define the world as relating to us.

There may be contacts that don’t make reference to any of that. Certainly, in our practices of mindfulness and meditation, there are moments when we may manage to just hear the car with blaring music that booms and vibrates into our bellies as “sounds and vibration” and not as a serious annoyance that is interupting the quiet moment. When we manage to not be labeling experience in terms of ourselves, not assigning it to categories of pleasant or unpleasant and telling ourselves further stories about it — when we can let go of all that and just be — then we have contact of a different sort. Contact that isn’t even asked “are you for me or against me” is not the contact dependent arising is showing us we can end. In the same way, consciousness that is not about seeking the self or advantage is not what we are wanting to stop. In both cases it is a very narrowly defined part of a very specific process that we are seeking to bring to an end.

 

 

Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Dana Nourie on June 5, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Another great article, Linda, with more clarification. Thank you!

  2. […] Contact (phassa): And our senses make contact with the world; why bother even mentioning this? […]

  3. jps@texterity.com.au on July 9, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Why would I want to stop consciousness?” If the descriptions given thusfar are mistaken for literal descriptions of what’s going on (a reasonable assumption to make, given that this is the way we describe things in our times) rather than recognized as the field things grow in, then ending consciousness and contact would mean literally ceasing to experience the world — flatlining, in the case of consciousness. Not a good thing.

    “Stopping” is intrinsic, not only to Buddhism, but all the yogas.
    There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support (mental object). This, just this, is the end of stress [i.e. ‘dukkha’] . (UD 8.1 Trs. Thanissaro; Access to Insight).

  4. Linda on July 9, 2012 at 7:13 am

    jps, while it’s true that stopping is a common feature to the various ancient methods in the area, my point was that the end of consciousness described in dependent arising is not the end of consciousness as we would normally define it. It does not mean that we become unaware (i.e. that we are dead or zombies) but it is only the ending of a certain kind of consciousness, of the usual consciousness. We actually become far more aware, but in a different way. The usual yoga master may wish to stop consciousness altogether — but if he manages the feat it is not for very long or he would not be able to continue to operate in the world — the Buddha is not suggesting learning such tricks (though he does seem to enjoy playing off the idea) but something far more useful and, he tells us, sustainable.

    Nice quote there, too, thanks for it. Read at the surface level of “the obvious” that the Buddha is so fond of using, it could be saying that nibbana/the end of dukkha takes one to a literal place that transcends our normal world. But to me, seeing that the Buddha is talking about something deeper when he talks about “the obvious”, it is addressing sunnata (“emptiness”) and what we might call “a mental state” in which one is no longer putting things in categories so that we no longer perceive the world as having separate objects with intrinsic natures that we define as “earth” or “water” or “fire” or “wind”; we don’t set off “space” or “consciousness” or point out “nothingness” because there is neither perception nor non-perception, so how could there be this world or the next world, the sun or the moon? That which we perceive as the self, then, neither comes, nor goes, nor stays, passes away nor arises because it cannot be established or evolved since it gets no support.

    When I find the Buddha talking about “the world” I always come back to the way he defined it for Ananda in SN 35.84:

    Whatever is subject to disintegration, Ananda, is called the world… The eye, Ananda, is subject to disintegration, forms … eye-consciousness … eye-contact … whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as a condition … that too is subject to disintegration. The ear is subject to disintegration … the mind is subject to disintegration … Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition .. that too is subject to disintegration. Whatever is subject to disintegration, Ananda, is called the world in the Noble One’s Discipline.

    The shape of the above maps to dependent arising again, with the sense organ and its object as form (rupa), consciousness, contact, and the feeling that arises from them. If he had left out feeling we might be able to read “the world” as meaning simply material things, but feeling tells us he’s talking about D.A. again, and connecting it back to the Prajapati myth’s perception that world and the self are one and the same, which the Buddha, of course, denies — we construct the world that is the self and this is not the objective physical world. That’s why, in the quote above, this world does not exist in “that dimension”.

  5. jps@texterity.com.au on July 9, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Thank you for your reply.

    I don’t think that you can ultimately separate the inner and outer worlds in the way you suggest. From what standpoint does one do that? Here we have ‘the self’, there we have ‘the objective world’ which we know is real, independently of anything that I think or know. Where does this ‘construction’ exist? Where is that judgement made? I suggest that it exists in the mind, in thought itself. This is the fabric of our ‘reality’, which Buddhism calls into question.

    I agree that there is a sense in which Buddhism is secular, insofar as it requires us to ‘see’ rather than to ‘believe’. But I think the endpoint – what we are being called to see – is beyond the intellectual ego and discursive reason. In this way, Buddhism is much more radical than you allow. I think the boundary that ‘secular Buddhism’ draws between what it considers ‘secular’ and what it considers ‘religious’ is still very much influenced by the Western history of the relations between science and reason. There is an underlying samkhara as to what constitutes these realms.

    Alan Watts:

    the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion.

  6. jps@texterity.com.au on July 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    anyway, I won’t continue to bug you. I have been debating from a kind of ‘neo-Buddhist’ viewpoint on philosophy forums for a couple of years which has made me a bit combative, I’m afraid. I am not a fan of secular Buddhism, but I can see it fulfills a need and its proponents seem well-intentioned and educated, so I will leave you alone:-)

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