How the Self & Reality Develop: What Buddhist Psychology Teaches us About Reality

Traditional_bhavachakra_wall_mural_of_Yama_holding_the_wheel_of_life,_Buddha_pointing_the_way_out.jpgIn Buddhist psychology, we have many concepts that are presented in many ways, in a variety of different languages. The teachings are simply a way of life. They need not be religious, spiritual, or otherwise. The teachings are simply an approach that has proven to be useful in living life.

Of these ideas, the Twelve Nirdanas are part of the first teachings that most students of Buddhism encounter. The word nirdanas can be translated as links. These twelve links describe how we come to perceive the world. Much like a cognitive psychology of sensation and perception, the twelve links show how our worldview come to be through a series of linked ideas, each idea leading towards the next, from ignorance to death. We can think of the Twelve Nirdanas as a stage process of human development of personality. We can understand how the self (called the ego in Latin) develops from conception through death.

Let’s take a look at the Twelve Nirdanas and see what they have to teach us. I will be reading and interpreting the nirdanas as they are presented in Dwight Goddard’s classic text, A Buddhist Bible.

The Twelve Nirdanas

  1. Because of ignorance, the principle of individuation as discriminated from enlightenment which is the principle of unity and sameness, the primal unity becomes divided into thinking, thinker, and thoughts by reason of which there appear the “formations” of karma.

    When we are in the womb, we have no concept of self. There is no me or  I; what we come to call ego (Latin for I). The words me, I, self are words. As we learn words –signifiers for the signified experience– we begin to discriminate between me and not me -self and other. This is a basic understanding in psychological research -it is not until about 18 months of age that a baby first recognizes itself in a mirror. Before this mirror phase experience, when we realize ourself the first time, there is no self-concept. What is experienced is wholeness, oneness with all experience. The psychologist express this as mommy and me are one. With language we begin to shape an idea of self-other, me-you, and with it the emergence of an I that can think about me. This is self-consciousness, the moment that I become the object of my own subjectivity. The birth of the self is generated by the grammar that shapes us. We come to learn that we are separate selves from each other. The event of experiencing this separateness is called ignorance. When we realize the initial oneness that preceded this sense of a separate self from others, we have Enlightenment. To put it simply Enlightenment is a remembering of what we forgot when we taught who we are. The self is something that is formed through culture and society. When we lose the self, we get back to the pre-ego state of being, like the infant, and are able free ourselves from the suffering that comes from the false notion that we are separate from nature.The word karma here does not mean reward and punishment, or some kind of you get what you deserve. That is a Western interpretation. Karma simply means action. The Buddha realized karma when he observed a farmer plowing a field, uncovering and earthworm with his hoe, a bird swooping down to eat the worm. Everything action leads to another action in a connection. Karma is an awareness that our actions lead to other actions. Good and bad, reward and punishment is not part of this thinking. What is part of the thinking is the awareness of action and what further action that act might invite.
  2. Because of these karmic “forms”, the principle of consciousness emerges.The “formations” of karma of the first verse becomes the focus of the second verse. Formations habitualize into forms. What is a form? A form is something that gives shape to that which it is applied. A form forms the materials of which it is utilized. Our consciousness arises from the forms with organize our experience. This is not too difficult to understand if one takes the long-view. The experience of the related of actions becomes crystalized into predictable of forecastable experiences. Our ability to forecast, predict or see connections between events is the experience that we call consciousness. A restatement might be helpful.We speak and write the word water. However, the written symbol water, or the spoke word can not make us wet. We can not drink the word water. However, the written and spoken signifier (water) signifies the sensory experience of the signified sensory experience. Furthermore this signifier becomes something that we reify; treat as real. These reified mental concepts are the formations from which consciousness emerges. To be conscious is to be conscious of something. The formations or signified mental concepts become the events that are linked together into past, future, and present -our experience of consciousness. This concept takes time to figure-out and understand. If you keep working through it in your mind, and let go or pre-conceived ideas about consciousness, it will be clear. This takes time and thoughtful contemplation.
  3. Because of the principle of consciousness, mentality and body emerge. With these forms or mental concepts comes the emergence of conscious awareness. Awareness of something is awareness of one’s physical body and one’s own mind. Out of conscious awareness emerges observation of one’s thoughts, and one’s body. Notice that we speak of our thoughts and our body. There is a feeling that we are proprietors of the thoughts and physical flesh that we observe.
  4. Because of mentality and body, the six senses and the organs appear. We are aware of the senses individually through observation. We observe separate senses and organs, rather than a whole. However those individual sensations are not yet integrated into a whole.
  5. Because of the six senses and the organs, sensations and perceptions arise. We sense and perceive reality. Keeping in mind that these sensations and perceptions emerge out of concepts, we can catch a glimpse of the illusory nature of reality. This is the part of our psychic process into which integration of sensations becomes organized into perceptions that we experience as reality.
  6. Because of sensation and perception, feelings and discriminations arise. In evolutionary terms, discrimination would be understood as understanding differences and arranging those differences by usefulness to our survival. I think that in a higher sense, we come to judge and arrange our sensation, perceptions, and feelings by how well they serve our newly formed ego, or sense of continuity.
  7. Because of feelings and sensations, thirst and craving arise. This is an important step to understand for self-insight. We come to crave and desire certain sensations and feelings associated with specific concepts that we have judged useful to our ego. This is not mere craving food, or thirsting for water. This is a desire for that which supports our ego.
  8. Because of thirst and craving, grasping and clinging appear. We become so focused on the symbolic order of the judgments that take place, and what their significance hold for our sense of self, that we cling desperately to possess those objects, or the feelings that they produce in us. This is the emotional hoarding that can take place in our desire to possess another person or objects. It is a grasping for security.

  9. Because of grasping and clinging, conception takes place. We call this ultimate form of clinging onto conception. It is the physical desire to duplicate, to create with another human being, as well as the desire to multiply the objects we cling-on to for their emotional charge of security. This is something felt emotionally, and only conceptualized intellectually. To get a sense of this, think of time when you knew logically the reason of some experience, but the emotional arousal of the experience dominates over logical thought. There is a moment when our understanding penetrates into the emotional level and we feel insight rather than think it.

  10. Because of conception, the continuing process of existence goes on. We cling to and reproduce one another, objects, and ideas. The self is time-based process, not an object or thing that exists in isolation. This is why the scientific measurement and search for objective understanding cannot get at the bulk of what we mean by being-human.

  11. Because of the continuing process of existence; growth, sickness, old age, decay, and death take place. The process of growth and decay are essential to existence. Again existence is a process based in time, rather than an object based in space.

  12. Because of sickness, old age, and death; sorrow, lamentation, pain, and despair arises. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering. Suffering is an essential feature of existence. You cannot live a life without suffering. However, much of our suffering is produced by actions and thoughts that are outside of this basic, natural suffering that is essential to existence. We can learn from that suffering, and also learn how to reduce that suffering. This is the insights provided in The Four Truths and The Eightfold Path.

We can see through the twelve stages of existence how ego emerges, the self  develops, reproduces, decays, and then dissolves. We call this birth, living, and death. We can also appreciate how consciousness, self-consciousness, and reality emerge from our psychological processes. This is an important aspect in Buddhist psychology. To be aware of not only the illusion of reality, but the reality of the illusion itself is to gain Enlightenment into the nature of ourselves and the realities we live in.