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” downloadable free from 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