The Pratyeka Buddhist view6 min read

The fact that however much we try to act rightly we are unable to act absolutely rightly is the result of the karma of our past delusion and action. However we try to give up evil we cannot altogether give it up, and this is the effect of the karma-energy from our past. Our life of fifty or sixty years’ suffering —and it must be called suffering—is just living all the time driven by karma through smiles and tears on the wheel of birth-and-death.

Delusion and karma-action, considered as the Causes of suffering in life, are again analysed into twelve, and the method of practice of the Pratyeka Buddhas is to perceive them in tranquillity, concentrated in the centre of the heart. The Pratyeka Buddhas meditate on the twelve channels through which delusion, karma-action and suffering are the causes of human life. Here is the list:

Ignorance, impulse (to live), consciousness, name-and-form, the six organs of sense including mind, contact, feeling (Vedana), desire, grasping, existence, birth, age-and-death. These are referred to in the Heart Sutra in the words: ‘no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance, nor any of the rest including age-and-death and extinction of age-and-death’. Of the list of twelve, just the first and the last are expressly named, and the rest are included in the general phrase.

Ignorance means the passions. The heart which hangs on to self is the heart of passion. Delusion, action and suffering are all ignorance. Impulse to live is karma. These two are the Causes in the past, seeds which have been sown in previous births.

Delusion and karma created in former lives being the cause, our present life is the result, and it is classified into five: consciousness, name-and-form, the six sense-organs, contact, desire. Consciousness means the moment of the first throb of life in the mother’s womb. It is the mental consciousness which is there at that first moment of life. As a matter of fact in Buddhism there is never mental consciousness without a body, but here the stress is laid on the mental side so the technical term is consciousness.

Then comes name-and-form. Name alone has no form and is a mental thing; form is the physical thing to which name is attached, and it means the body. The first is when consciousness settles in the first throb of life; the second period is gradual development of mind and body in the mother’s womb; but as yet without the senses. Then is the next stage, of the sense-organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body-surface, and mind considered as the sixth.

Contact is one or two years after birth. The child stares and listens. There is just contact with what is before him, but he does not yet know about good and bad; it is just physical awareness.
The time of what is technically termed feeling is when having taken in what is before him he now begins to go over it all in his mind again and again. The condition of the mind where things are deeply gone over like this is technically called feeling. This is said to be the period from five or six up to fourteen years. These five (consciousness, name-and-form, the six organs, contact and feeling) are the fivefold Karmic effect in the present.

Now desire, grasping and existence. We come to the point when in our life which is a karmic effect, we come to produce passion and karmic action. Consciousness, name-and-form, sense-organs, contact and feeling are neither passions nor action. They create no sin. The child just touches the objects before him, and then up to fourteen he just takes them in. Up to feeling there is no sin whatever. But as the human being develops—according to one Sutra, from fourteen or fifteen up to seventeen or eighteen—the thoughts of desire and grasping begin to arise, thoughts of desire for sexual relations and accumulation of wealth and property. Grasping, the next in order, is when the thoughts of acquisition go deeper and deeper until the pursuit of them is incessant.

The manifestation in action of desire and grasping (which are thoughts of clinging to self) is what is technically called existence. It is another name for karmic action. As desire and grasping become strong they appear in our conduct and then the karmic energy, which will produce its results in the future, comes into existence. The time of creation in conduct, good and bad, of the karmic energy is technically called the stage of existence. Desire and grasping are passions; existence is karma. So that they form the pair—delusion and karma-action.

There were the five effects in the present: consciousness, name-and-form, sense-organs, contact and feeling, and now desire; grasping and existence are the three causes in the present, which lead to the two results in the future, namely birth and decay-and-death, or old-age-and-death.

The present spark of consciousness in the womb marks the future birth. The effect of name-and- form and the others is in fact age-and-death. Age-and-death is not in just the ordinary sense of something living which goes. It means to change round, it means mutability—for instance the way in which our destiny has brought about the changes of the five effects now.

So from the past to the present, and the present to the future; changing, delusion and action the
causes, and age-and-death the effect, eternally we pass through the three worlds of past, present, future without ever reaching an end. Ignorance leads to impulse and impulse on through the others to age-and-death. So it is called a circle; because there is the passion called ignorance, there is action, and from karma-action comes about decay-and-death.

If the fundamental ignorance were cut off, there would be no action, good or bad; and if action good and bad were annihilated, delusion and karma-action would cease to exist. If delusion and karma-action ceased, there would be no more incurring of the suffering of life. If ignorance is annihilated impulse is annihilated, and so right up to age-and-death. This is the view of the Pratyeka Buddhas.

They mean it quite literally. First making passions void, they go on annihilating to become free from birth-and-death, and the annihilation of life is their ideal of Nirvana. The Nirvana of Hinayana is literally a void, nothingness. Their view is complacency at escaping from life. It is a selfishness which is satisfied with personal release from birth-and-death. So it is called the Buddhism of hermits and recluses in mountain and forest. Their Nirvana is annihilation of life.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect