The most effective way to meditate, and the 12 links of interdependence

This is a brief summary for the KDC class on the Ornament of Precious Liberation, where we are studying the paramita of meditation, within the general heading of action bodhicitta. (Or for anyone else who is interested in these topics.)

I found a pretty good image of the Buddhist Wheel of Life with the 12 links of interdependent origination. Other resources: Kalu Rinpoche, Luminous Mind (with image) and Tai Situpa, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha, chapter on karma and reincarnation (no image, but a very clear and concise explanation).

For context, within the meditation paramita we have understood why meditation is essential to awakening (we can’t wake up without it, according to Gampopa) and we have figured out how to attain solitude of body (finding a place to meditate uninterrupted and a regular time to put it into practice) and solitude of mind (resolving to take a break from thinking about the past, present, or future while we engage in meditation).

Gampopa then explains how we should meditate: by identifying our strongest mental/emotional affliction and applying the corresponding antidote. Thrangu Rinpoche says the same thing in his book on the bardos, Journey of the Mind, which was first published in Shenpen Osel, Volume 2, Number 3, December 1998. The relevant quote is published on the cover of the magazine (pdf version linked above).

Here are the specific antidotes, according to Gampopa (fuller explanations in the book):

For  attachment/desire: meditate on the unpleasant aspects of what you desire. (This could include impermanence, which we have discovered might serve as a secondary antidote to any of the afflictions.)

For anger/hatred: meditate on loving kindness and compassion. (Ringu Tulku has an extensive example of such a meditation on page 53 of Path to Buddhahood. Or you could do any metta meditation, or perhaps tong len.)

For jealousy: meditate on the equality of yourself and others by remembering that everyone wants happiness just as much as we do, and rejoicing in their happiness and good fortune.

For pride: meditate on exchanging self for others. One way to do this, according to Ringu Tulku, is to shift the focus to one’s own shortcomings and the positive qualities of others, rather than vice versa.

The 12 links of interdependence come in when we identify our main affliction as ignorance. How can we tell if this is the case? Ringu Tulku, page 103: “If everything seems very solid and existing in an independent way, or if we’re too selfish, we should contemplate and analyze these twelve links. We’ll then understand that there’s nothing that’s not interdependent, interrelated; and we’ll learn to see things as they really are, devoid of self-existence. Nothing exists in itself; everything is shunyata (emptiness). What we mean by shunyata and by dependent origination…are the same.” A list of possible clues that we might be oversolidifying our reality (including our thoughts, opinions, and judgments), aka, operating from ego-clinging, aka ego-orientation, is here.

Each of us has to do our own work to begin to understand the 12 links and how interdependence works. It is a vast, detailed, and extremely interesting subject. But the main point is that if we find ourselves always caught up in the rightness of our own point of view, the antidote to that is to understand how everything is interrelated, which, according to Ringu Tulku, is the same as understanding emptiness (sometimes called openness by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche).

My personal working definition of emptiness: Nothing is ever limited to being the way I perceive it.

In the third point of the seven points of mind training (Great Path of Awakening, 2005 edition, page 21): “The ultimate protection is emptiness.” Remembering emptiness in every situation is the way to bring all adversity onto the path of awakening using ultimate bodhicitta.

Or, as Gampopa puts it: “Through realizing the true nature (dharmata) of all phenomena to be emptiness, ignorance ceases, and through its cessation, [all the other links] through to aging and death will come to cease in their due order….That is how this great cluster of nothing but misery will cease.” (Translation by Ken Holmes.)

A note on using these antidotes in meditation: To me, they fall more within the spectrum of contemplation (conceptual) than meditation per se, so the way I tend to apply these instructions is to begin meditation sessions by working with the antidote, then at some point let it go of it and just rest the mind however I am used to resting it (open awareness, following the breath, receptivity to sensory perceptions such as sound, etc.).

I feel this focus on our strongest affliction can also be applied in other kinds of practice we do, such as Vajrasattva, Green Tara, Medicine Buddha, Chenrezig, etc.

And if we find that we are subject to all the afflictions equally, or we can’t seem to identify which one is strongest? In those cases, Gampopa advises that we simply work with the breath by counting or following it. Ringu Tulku says any kind of calm abiding fulfills this instruction.

Homework: Having become somewhat familiar with the 12 links of interdependence, we could identify a particular habitual pattern we are subject to — from an inability to resist ice cream to an argument we fall into again and again — and trace it through the 12 links, from initial awareness of ourself as a separate entity with opinions and cravings, to the first impulse toward our object, all the way through when it starts to fall apart (decay and death)….and then watch ourselves start the same cycle all over again. This won’t be scientific — we may not be clear on the definition of some links, or able to apply some of them precisely to phases of our unfolding experience — but I think it might help us gain an overall sense of how the 12 links manifest in our day to day experience. And we may not be able to do it in real time, as the whole process can happen very quickly. But it’s helpful to analyze our experience even if it’s well underway, or even in hindsight. And eventually, from time to time, we may find ourselves remembering emptiness as the cycle begins.