This principle explains the coming into existence and development of the human body, called “outer causation,” and the changes in one’s mind, known as “inner causation.” The former explains the process of the birth, growth, aging and death of human beings across the three temporal states of the past, present and future, and based on this pretext, the latter demonstrates how our minds change, and for this reason, it also shows the basic method of purifying our hearts and minds and freeing ourselves from delusion.
The twelve links or stages are (1) ignorance, (2) action, (3) consciousness, (4) name and form (mental functioning and physical matter), (5) six senses, (6) contact, (7) sensation, (8) craving, (9) clinging, (10) existence, (11) birth, (12) aging and death.
First, we will explore the twelve causes and conditions as applied to the changing states of a human being’s mind. This is referred to as “inner causation.”
Ignorance, the first link, was explained previously as the absence of wisdom, which means not having a proper worldview or conception of human existence, or disregarding the proper view even when one is actually aware of it.
Due to ignorance, we have behaved in ways that deviate from the Truth (the universal principle) since the infinite past, and these deeds are actions, the second link. However, in this case “actions” should be interpreted not only as one’s own actions in this life, but as the accumulation of experiences and actions over an immense span of time, as explained above in the discussion of karma.
In the case of inner causation, consciousness, the third link, is our awareness and perception. It is the fundamental power or function by which living beings discern the everything in the world around us. All the capabilities and functioning of consciousness are determined by the accumulation of one’s experiences and deeds of the past, in other words, the karma that one has produced.
Name and form is the fourth link. In inner causation, name and form refers to the mental and physical realities and phenomena in the world around us. As explained before, “name” refers to intangible phenomena or mental realities, whereas “form” means tangible material forms in our environment, including our own physical bodies. Name and form together denote the phenomenon of our existence. It is through consciousness that we living beings have a sense of our own existence; without it, we would not be aware of ourselves.
Next comes the fifth link, the six senses. In the case of inner causation, this indicates the functioning of our six sense faculties. The six senses means the functioning of the six sense organs: eyes (sight), ears (hearing), nose (smell), tongue (taste), and body (touch). The sixth sense faculty is mind (perception), which perceives the various phenomena perceived by the other five senses.
Although we are vaguely aware of our own name and form—our own existence—through consciousness, this awareness is too indistinct to constitute knowledge in the truest sense. However, when the five functions of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, as well as the mind that perceives phenomena through these sense faculties all mature, we first gain the ability to discern things clearly. This stage is called contact, the sixth link.
When the mind develops to this point, feelings of pain, pleasure, like, and dislike are produced. This is the seventh stage of sensation. The pleasure or pain we experience is colored by our past experiences.
When feelings of pain, pleasure, like, and dislike are produced, craving, or desire for things, arises naturally as a matter of course. Craving, the eighth link, means something similar to “love” in the way we often use it today to refer to an attachment or obsession for something. In other words, craving is a mind that is fixated on what it likes.
When we crave something, we try to hold on to it and refuse to ever let it go. Conversely, this also implies that we will then try to avoid the things that we find unpleasant or undesirable. Seeking what is pleasant and desirable while also avoiding what we dislike is the ninth stage, called clinging, when we try to fulfil our wants and desires.
When clinging arises, different people begin to regard the same objects with differing feelings, which causes disagreements and conflicting assertions. This is existence, which means to see things dualistically, sharply discriminating between things as well as self and others.
Due to the presence of this discriminating state of mind, antagonism develops between people, conflicts arise, and a miserable human life of suffering takes shape as a result. Such a human life is called birth. In other words, the production of suffering. Leading a miserable life of disappointment, in which things do not go as we wish, old age comes before we know it, and at the end death awaits us.
Our experience unfolds moment to moment in this fashion during our entire lives. The primary cause of disappointments stemming from things not turning out the way we hope is our fundamental ignorance, as discussed above. In a nutshell, ignorance is not knowing the principle that imbues all phenomena; a lack of awareness of, or indifference to the proper view of the world and human life that accords with this principle. If we can only rid ourselves of this ignorance and set our minds on the proper track which is in accordance with this principle, our deeds (action) will also move in the right direction. Moreover, because the successfully unfolding states of our minds will also be set on the right track, our sufferings steadily disappear and we are able to attain peace of mind. This is the conclusion to which the teaching of the twelve cause and conditions leads us.
To summarize, the twelve causes and conditions teaches us that from the standpoint of the totality of one’s life, including both mind and body, the cause of our birth as ordinary human beings is our actions in previous lives that were motivated by ignorance. If we rid ourselves of ignorance in our present lives, from that moment onward our true form of existence—our buddha-nature—can naturally be revealed.
When thinking about this from the standpoint of just our minds, we should not restrict the meaning of “future lives” to rebirth after death, but should also regard this more generally as “our future life from this point onward.” That is to say, if we abandon fundamental ignorance and set our minds on the right track that is in accord with the universal principle, “our future life from this point onward” will become bright and peaceful. Conversely, to the extent that we fail to do this, suffering will haunt us no matter how rich we become or how much fame we gain, and our minds will continually revolve among the six worlds, of delusion. In this case, “six worlds” refers to the six states of mind, or realms.