Liberation: Uncoiling in Space

· Essays · ,

by Francesca Fremantle

What is liberation? How is it accomplished? Who is liberated, and from what? The state of liberation is the ultimate goal. It has been given many names and has been described in many different ways, although it is essentially inexpressible. It is our true, innate nature, our inalienable birthright, yet we do not recognize it. We seem to be imprisoned in a condition of unknowing. This unknowing, ignorance, or delusion is the cause of all evil and pain, but it is not intrinsic to our being; it is like clouds obscuring the clear sky or dust that has accumulated on a mirror. Instead of having a concept of original sin, Buddhism speaks of basic goodness, for buddhanature dwells within us as our hidden essence. Liberation is synonymous with the Sanskrit word bodhi, which means awakening, understand- ing, or enlightenment, and with nirvana, which means blowing out or extinction: the extinction of illusion.

The Buddha said that his entire message was concerned with suffering and the ending of suffering. We suffer because we do not know the true nature of reality, and so we have a false idea of what we really are. Liberation is release from this condition of suffering, and the path to it leads us through the process of questioning and finding out “who” exactly is to be liberated. We shall discover that “who” and “from what” are really the same. All the philosophical developments within Buddhism, all the different methods of practice, and all the elaborate symbolism of Vajrayana are concerned with these two basic principles: understanding the nature of suffering and becoming free from it. This is the message of Liberation through Hearing, just as it is of all Buddhist scriptures, and so to journey along the path of the bardos, we must begin with these fundamental teachings.


The Foundation Of Buddhism is the four noble truths proclaimed by Shakyamuni, the Buddha of this age, after his enlightenment: the truth of the existence of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the ending of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to its ending. Suffering in this case is not just ordinary pain as opposed to pleasure, but a deeper, more pervasive sense of lack and of unreality, which is inherent in worldly existence itself. Suffering is closely linked to the impermanence of everything in our lives. The Buddha described all worldly phenomena as having three characteristics: impermanence, suffering, and nonself. We suffer because we imagine what is not self to be self, what is impermanent to be permanent, and what from an ultimate viewpoint is pain to be pleasure.

Existence with these three characteristics is called samsara, which means continually flowing, moving on, from one moment to the next moment and from one life to the next life. Samsara is not the actual external world or life itself, but the way we interpret them. Samsara is life as we live it under the influence of ignorance, the subjective world each of us creates for ourselves. This world contains good and evil, joy and pain, but they are relative, not absolute; they can be defined only in relationship to each other and are continually changing into their opposites. Although samsara seems to be all-powerful and all-pervading, it is created by our own state of mind, like the world of a dream, and it can be dissolved into nothingness just like awakening from a dream. When someone awakens to reality, even for a moment, the world does not disappear but is experienced in its true nature: pure, brilliant, sacred, and indestructible.

The key to the Buddha’s realization and teaching is the understanding of causality, because it is only when we know the cause of something that we can truly bring it to an end and prevent it from arising again in the future. In his search for the origin of suffering, he found that he had to go right back to the very beginning, to the very first flicker of individual self-awareness. In his spiritual practice, too, he always went further and further, never satisfied with the states of knowledge, peace, and bliss that he attained under the guidance of his teachers. He always wanted to know their cause and to see what lay beyond. In this way, he surpassed his teachers and eventually attained his great awakening.

He awoke to a state of perfect enlightenment, which he described as deathless, unborn, and unchanging. If it were not for that, he said, there could be no escape from birth and death, impermanence and suffering. There is indeed a condition of ultimate peace, bliss, knowledge, and freedom, but to reach it, we must first understand the cycle of conditioned existence in which we are imprisoned. Samsara is like a sickness; the Buddha, who was called the Great Physician, offers a cure, but the patient must recognize the illness, with its causes, its symptoms, and its effects, before the cure can begin.

The Buddha discovered the whole causal process of samsara, the complete cycle of the stages of cause and effect. According to tradition, he once described this process in a series of images so that it could easily be sent in pictorial form to the king of a neigh- boring country who had inquired about his teaching. An artist drew the images according to the Buddha’s instructions, illustrating the whole realm of samsaric existence from which we seek liberation. This picture is known as the Wheel of Life and is familiar throughout the Buddhist world. It springs from the same tradition of imagery that flowers so dramatically in Vajrayana, but goes back to the beginnings of Buddhism, so in every way it provides an excellent introduction to the understanding of our text.


The Wheel Of Life

The outer rim of the wheel of life is divided into twelve sections, each containing a small picture. These represent the twelve links in the chain of cause and effect, known as dependent arising or, as Trungpa Rinpoche put it, the samsaric chain reaction. The twelve links can be seen as stages in the evolution of the individual human being (or any other living being), but at the same time they can be applied to one’s states of mind, which are continuously arising, developing, and passing away. The Buddha was inspired to set out on his search when he saw a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being carried to the cremation ground, and he realized the inescapable, universal nature of suffering. He also saw a wandering ascetic, whose look of peacefulness and inner joy deeply impressed him: he had caught a glimpse of freedom and he determined to attain it. Starting from the same point of departure as the Buddha, we can trace back the causes of suffering to their root by means of the twelve links in the chain. They should all also be understood as taking place within us from moment to moment, so that as we go through this whole series of images, we are also observing the birth, life, and death of mental states.


1. Death And Decay

The iconography may vary slightly in different paintings, but somewhere on the rim, generally at the top left, we find a picture of a corpse being carried to the cremation ground: this is called decay and death. It is often translated as old age and death, but since many people die young and do not reach old age, here “age” really refers to the whole process of aging and decay, which actually begins as soon as we are born. All pain, whether it is physical or mental, arises from some aspect of loss, destruction, or decay, so this image represents all the sufferings of existence.


2. Birth

The real cause of decay and death is not our physical condition, not illness or accident, but life itself, the simple fact of having been born. Moving counterclockwise around the circle, we come to the second picture, a mother giving birth to a child. Although this link in the chain is known as birth, it does not mean just the event of being born, but the life that has come into being; it encompasses the whole lifetime of that particular embodiment. It can refer to the birth of a living being or the physical appearance of something in the external world, or it may be interpreted as the arising of a thought or a mood in the mind.


3. Existence

The next picture, illustrating the cause leading to birth, is sometimes of a pregnant woman and sometimes of a man and woman in sexual union. Both these images suggest conception, the beginning of a new life. This link is called existence, life, or becoming— coming into existence. Existence means being in the state of samsara; outwardly subject to birth and death, inwardly under the influence of ignorance and confusion.

Photo by Jim Kelly

Photo by Jim Kelly


4. Grasping

Why do states of mind arise? Why do we continuously create our version of the world from moment to moment? Why does a living being enter a womb to be born? When we search for the cause of becoming, we find it in grasping. The word for this link in the chain literally means appropriation or taking to oneself, and it is symbolized by a figure picking fruit from a tree. Grasping is the opposite of giving and letting go. We hold on tight to our opinions, our views of life, and our ideas about ourselves; again and again we grasp at the next thought, the next emotion, the next experience; at the moment of death, we grasp at the next life.


5. Thirst

Grasping is based, in turn, on the fund- mental instinct of needing, wanting, and longing called thirst. It is depicted by a person drinking or being offered a drink. This is the thirst for existence that makes us cling to life at all costs, and it is also the basic drive to experience pleasure and to be free from pain. Thirst can never be satisfied: even if we drink as much as we can, it will return sooner or later. It is inherent in our sense of self. This thirst, also translated as desire or craving, is often said to be the cause of suffering. It is not the ultimate cause, but it is the immediate and most obvious cause.


6. Sensation 

Thirst for experience depends upon the possibility of feeling or sensation, symbolized by a man pierced in the eye by an arrow. This brutal image reminds us sharply that the whole series is intended to express the inescapable suffering of samsara. It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit word for feeling can specifically mean pain as well as sensation in general. This points to the truth that in samsara, from the absolute point of view, all feeling of any kind is essentially painful because it is related to our false idea of self. But in the awakened state where there is no self-centered attachment or aversion, all feeling is experienced as “great bliss.” Great bliss is not just increased pleasure but a transcendental experience of sensitivity that can be aroused by means of any sensation what- soever, not only through pleasure, but also through what we ordinarily think of as pain.

Photo by Mohammadali F

Photo by Mohammadali F


7. Contact 

Sensation arises from contact or touch, illustrated by a man and woman embracing. This represents the contact between the senses and their objects. In the tantras, this powerful imagery is transformed into a passionate embrace of love, a magical dance of the awakened mind with the world perceived in its true, sacred nature. But here, while we are still concerned with basic principles, it simply illustrates what happens whenever there is the experience of duality and a relationship exists between subject and object.


8. Six Senses 

The embrace can only take place because of the existence of the six senses, depicted by a house with six windows. In Indian tradition, the mind is considered to be a sense organ that has as its objects all the perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and so on that arise within it. So in addition to the usual five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, the mental function is counted as the sixth.


9. Name And Form 

If the six senses exist, there must be a particular living being to whom they belong. The next picture is of a boat filled with passengers, which is called name and form. Name and form together constitute the individual person. Form is the material aspect, the boat of the body that carries us along the river of life, while name includes all the non- physical aspects of our being (the passengers could be regarded as the different “personalities” within us). In many parts of the world, a person’s name is considered to have magical significance. When we are given a name, we receive an identity; our name defines who we are. If we think of someone’s name, we automatically remember his or her physical appearance and vice versa. Body cannot be separated from mind; the physical and non- physical aspects of existence both arise from the same cause, and they reflect each other.


10. Consciousness

For a person to exist, individual consciousness is necessary. Consciousness functions through the six senses. It is what makes us aware of ourselves and divides the world into subject and object; it gives us the sense of being “I” as opposed to everything else that is not “I.” Consciousness is appropriately pictured as a restless, inquisitive monkey leaping from object to object, never staying still. Sometimes the monkey is shown picking fruit from a tree, and sometimes peering out through the windows of a house—the house of the six senses.


11. Conditioning

Consciousness is not pure, direct awareness, but is produced and conditioned by the way the mind functions, so the next link in the chain is called conditioning (or formations). It refers to certain characteristic mental forces or patterns that motivate our thoughts, words, and deeds. It is here that the law of karma begins to operate. The word karma literally means “action,” but generally when we speak of the law of karma, it refers to both action and its result: the universal law of cause and effect on a personal level. Everything we think, speak, and do has an inevitable consequence. The Buddha taught that karma really refers to intentions, not just to actions in the literal sense. Our lives are shaped by our innermost thoughts and deepest motivations, including those on the most subtle and hidden level, which can only be discovered by profound meditation techniques. This link in the chain is symbolized by a potter making pots. In theistic religions, the image of the potter is sometimes used for God the creator, while in Buddhism the force of karma is continually creating the world anew for each living being at every moment.


12. Ignorance

But why does conditioning even arise in the first place? How did the whole process ever start? The Buddha traced the root cause back to ignorance, the mind’s ignorance of its own awakened nature—the final and original link in the chain. This is the farthest back we can go within the circle of samsara; this is where everything begins. Indeed, we can say that this whole cycle really has no beginning and no end, because our very notions of past, present, and future are part of samsara. Ignorance is symbolized by an old blind woman, tottering about with the aid of a stick. Trungpa Rinpoche referred to her as a blind grandmother. She has given birth to generations of samsaric existence, endlessly proliferating and reproducing. Ignorance means ignoring the truth of reality, shutting one’s eyes to the awakened state. Although the light of reality is ever-present, ignorance chooses to remain blind. The nature of this blindness is to believe in the existence of a separate, independent self. Trungpa Rinpoche also used to say that ignorance is very intelligent. It is actually the intelligence of samsara, which is fighting a continual battle for survival and constantly looking for ways of keeping up its own illusion, its own self-deception.


Here We Have Traced each link in the chain backward to its cause, from the suffering of mortal life, culminating in death, all the way back to its ultimate origin, ignorance. The whole series of pictures can also be read in reverse order, from ignorance to death. If we do this, we can clearly see the inevitable development of the twelve stages: ignorance, conditioning, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, sensation, thirst, grasping, existence, birth, and decay and death. The twelve links form an unending circle. At death we fall into a state of ignorance once more, and the cycle starts all over again. Samsara means going on and on, round and round, without beginning or end.

Francesca Fremantle is a scholar and translator of Sanskrit, Tibetan and Buddhist texts. She is a teacher with the Longchen Foundation, established by Dilgo Khyentse and Chogyam Trungpa, and was a student with the latter for many years.

From Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Copyright © 2001 by Francesca Fremantle. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications.

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