In Dependent Origination, Consciousness conditions Mentality-Materiality and vice versa. How to understand this?
This question came up in the Online 10-day Retreat Nov 3, 2020, guided by Delson Armstrong. Day 1 was part of a daily 30-minute discussion on the suttas, the Dhamma talk and reflections.
Slightly edited to improve readability
Consciousness can only be reckoned, measured, through the experience of the Six Sense bases. There is the consciousness that arises from the Contact. You have the sensory consciousness of the eye, you have the consciousness of the visual object – that is in the external reality, so to speak – and then you have the consciousness of the seeing itself. So, in each of the six sense bases there is a triad of consciousness, you could say that there are altogether 18 different types of consciousnesses, depending upon where you put your attention to.
When the suttas talk about that – and in particular Sariputta talks about that – he says that it’s sort of an interlinking between Consciousness and Mentality-Materiality. You cannot really experience the eye without consciousness, for example, but at the same time you are conscious of something through the eye.
On a broader scale, on a macrolevel, through the process of Rebirth, it’s consciousness that then gets linked with a certain Mentality-Materiality. It gets linked at conception with the fetus or whatever it might be; Mentality or Mentality-Materiality. As the experience of that Mentality-Materiality starts to arise, there is a consciousness which links through it and experiences that Feeling. There is a consciousness before Mentality-Materiality and there is a consciousness that arises after it links with that Mentality-Materiality. However, it’s the same consciousness in the flow of that consciousness.
And when I say that, in the Mentality-Materiality, when you have the experience of the eye, that same consciousness arises, or is conditioned by Formations. Formations in this regard, unless you become an arahant, are conditioned by Ignorance. But how does the Formation arise? It arises through Contact, through Feeling and Perception. Primarily through Contact and Feeling, in that when you have contact with the outside world, let’s say you have the visual sensation, you have the visual object; upon having that contact, the Formations related to seeing that arise, then activate the consciousness and that consciousness links with the six sense base. Particularly with the eye, and that same consciousness experiences the triad of the eye consciousness, the visual object consciousness, and the Feeling or the sensation of seeing consciousness.
It always begins with Formations and you have to see that it happens so fast. At the level of the Base of Infinite Consciousness, you experience something like up to two million per second of consciousnesses arising and passing away. The actual links of Dependent Origination are several, several times faster. As soon as you make contact with light, as soon as the photons hit the receptors, you have already activated Formations, which activate Consciousness and through attention you experience, whether it’s the eye, whether it’s the photons or whether it’s the seeing of whatever is being shown. So, it’s one and the same thing; they are interdependent.
You will read in a later sutta, which is part of this program, where Sariputta talks about Ignorance and the Defilements, or the Taints. He says those two are interdependent; Ignorance is conditioned and caused by the taints, but at the same time the taints arise because of Ignorance. There is always an interdependency.
As I said earlier, the Formations will arise, based on Contact. This means that the flow of Dependent Origination, while on a broader scale might seem linear, is actually cyclical. But within that cycle of DO, are smaller cycles, from Contact to Formations and so on. And within that is embedded the cycle of the Five Aggregates, which are then embedded within the Mentality-Materiality, so it’s circles within circles within circles; it’s a spiral thing.