Reincarnation and Nirvana
Previously, we mentioned that it's the senses and objects that give rise to consciousness. The arising of consciousness is the arising of knowing, rather than consciousness, the senses, or something else being aware of things. If you understand this principle, we can now move on to discuss another misconception. People commonly believe in the existence of a subjective agent, and depending on their education and beliefs, they attribute this agency to sensory organs, the body, the brain, the nervous system, consciousness, the soul, the mind, intent, self-nature, awareness, the ego, and more. Regardless of how people define this entity, there is a persistent feeling that it is "me."
Let's first examine the principle of a burning candle. At room temperature, even though the candle is in contact with oxygen, it doesn't burn. However, when a source of ignition is brought close to the candle, the candle and oxygen start to burn, producing light, smoke, and additional heat under the influence of the heat from the ignition source. In this process, the heat from the ignition source initially triggers the combustion reaction of some wax molecules and oxygen molecules.
As these wax and oxygen molecules burn, they generate new light, smoke, and heat. This newly generated heat then acts as a new ignition source, initiating the combustion of additional wax molecules and oxygen molecules, thus sustaining the candle flame. Throughout this entire process, heat, the candle, and oxygen do not possess the inherent capability to actively burn, but when these three elements are present and combine, the combustion phenomenon naturally occurs. Similarly, when a flame arises, it simultaneously emits light, smoke, and heat. Likewise, when human consciousness arises, it is accompanied by sensations, imagination, and thinking.
Sensations can generally be categorized as painful, pleasurable, or neutral.
Imagination refers to the content of memories and cognition that appear in the mind as images or sounds.
Thinking encompasses various mental activities, including intention, concentration, judgment, planning, desire, decision-making, emotions, and contemplation.
Just like the combustion process, not every interaction between sensory organs and objects necessarily leads to consciousness. For instance, we are constantly surrounded by various sounds of different volumes, but we don't perceive all of them. Especially when we are deeply focused on something, many obvious sounds seem to vanish as if they never occurred.
The conditions that lead to the combustion of wax and oxygen are heat, while the conditions that cause sensory organs and objects to interact are mental activities. Thoughts can trigger sensory organs and objects to produce corresponding consciousness. Without the corresponding thoughts, even if sensory organs and objects are in contact, people won't experience the corresponding consciousness. This is similar to a person who is asleep and completely unaware of their surroundings. However, when there are corresponding thoughts along with sensory organs and objects, just like in combustion, the combination of these three elements naturally gives rise to the corresponding consciousness.
Therefore, when these three factors are combined, people cannot simply choose not to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think. Just as heat causes the combustion of wax molecules and oxygen molecules, resulting in new heat, thoughts trigger sensory organs and objects to create new consciousness. This cycle continues endlessly until the moment of life's end.
What is incredible yet real is that the final consciousness produced by the last sensory organs and objects in one's life, along with its associated thoughts, leads to the birth of new consciousness. The regeneration of this consciousness is equivalent to the birth of a new life. However, the principle behind this regeneration is the same as before: thoughts trigger new sensory organs and objects to produce new consciousness. This cycle repeats in the past, present, and future, just like a forest fire burning incessantly.
The reason for people's difficulty in accepting this is that they don't fully realize that all their current perceptions are the result of different sensory organs and objects interacting under the influence of different thoughts. Subconsciously, people tend to believe in the existence of an independent entity or life that cognizes everything. They perceive sensory organs and objects as always being the same entity, at least from birth to death. This makes it difficult to understand how this entity can continue to exist or transition to a new world after death.
If people thoroughly understand that the current consciousness is merely a phenomenon generated by the current sensory organs and objects, and the past consciousness is the result of past sensory organs and objects, they will realize that the current consciousness and past consciousness are entirely different. The current sensory organs and objects are also completely different from the past ones. Thus, they will understand that future consciousness will similarly be generated by future sensory organs and objects. Whether it's the continuity of consciousness in this life or the birth and continuity of consciousness in the afterlife, each moment consists of new consciousness generated by different sensory organs and objects.
The source of individuality and self-perception arises from ignorance of the truth of the world that constantly manifests in each moment. Ignorant consciousness, through various sensations, gives rise to new thoughts filled with love and hatred. These thoughts, in turn, trigger new sensory organs and objects to generate new ignorant consciousness. This cycle continues endlessly, as it has in the past, in the present, in this life, and in future lives.
Within this process, just as different temperatures of heat cause fuels and oxygen with different ignition points to ignite, different qualities of thoughts lead to sensory organs and objects of corresponding qualities, resulting in consciousness of corresponding qualities. When a person's life is ongoing, these changes may not be very apparent, much like a candle that has not yet burned out. However, when life ends, the quality of thoughts directly determines the quality of the new life. Just as the temperature determines the ignition point, the quality of thoughts determines whether sensory organs and objects produce consciousness of higher or lower quality.
Good thoughts can trigger sensory organs and objects to produce good consciousness, while unwholesome thoughts can lead to the generation of unwholesome consciousness. Here, good sensory organs are referred to as higher beings, such as humans or heavenly beings, and good objects are conditions suitable for a favorable existence. The consciousness generated by good sensory organs and objects is pleasurable.
Unwholesome sensory organs are referred to as lower beings, such as animals or hungry ghosts, and unwholesome objects are unfavorable conditions. The consciousness generated by unwholesome sensory organs and objects is painful. Therefore, throughout eternity, life continues to cycle, reborn in favorable or unfavorable lives and worlds, experiencing pleasure and suffering endlessly.
The so-called subjective agency is essentially the result of thoughts triggering the generation of new consciousness. Countless new consciousnesses arise, each moment forming a different cognitive ensemble, creating the illusion that something is guiding it all. This is similar to primitive humans perceiving fire as a living entity capable of moving between forests and burning whatever it desires. However, the reality is that neither consciousness nor the body, whether inside or outside, possesses an active agent. Instead, it's a continuous process of regeneration.
Just like a flame advances along with the wind, fueled by materials with corresponding ignition points, consciousness progresses along the journey of time, continually regenerating. When people don't understand these truths, they mistakenly believe that there is something that can perceive, know, act, govern, and endure. This misconception gives rise to the feeling of "self." It's not just the belief in the existence of a "self" or an individual; it also includes the belief that there is something in the world with agency, capable of perceiving, knowing, acting, and enduring. It's the latter that is the crucial issue. When people believe in the existence of such a thing, the sense of "self" becomes inevitable.
With an agent capable of perceiving, knowing, acting, and enduring, there is a world that can be perceived, known, acted upon, and endured by this "self." This leads to preferences and aversions when there is a "self" that can perceive, know, act upon, and endure the world and the joys and sorrows that arise with consciousness. With the presence of the "self" that can perceive, know, act, there are likes and dislikes, desires, and determinations. All of this is driven by thoughts filled with love, hatred, and ignorance. These thoughts lead to new sensory organs and objects generating new consciousness. When various forms of consciousness arise, feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy emerge. Ignorance and love-hatred toward these feelings once again generate various irrational thoughts. These thoughts, in turn, lead to new consciousness and the rebirth of life. However, if one personally realizes that there is nothing within or outside the body and mind that possesses these attributes, they will truly understand the concept of "no-self."
The illusion of "self"
When the illusion of "self" disappears, including illusions related to "mine" and "what I perceive and do," there won't be any love or hatred for these entities. Without love or hatred, there won't be thoughts about them. When thoughts don't arise, new consciousness won't be generated. Through this realization, one can directly experience the state of cessation and non-perception, transcending the cycle of existence and the impermanence of all phenomena. If, at the moment when a person's life ends, there is complete absence of love or hatred, it's like a flame without any temperature, not igniting any new sensory organs and objects. When the old consciousness ceases, new consciousness no longer arises. Everything based on consciousness, such as birth, aging, illness, death, joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure, ceases to exist. This is the ultimate liberation, complete liberation from all phenomena that arise and pass away, from all phenomena of birth, aging, illness, and death.
Even when people understand these principles, some may still have fears and concerns, thinking that everything has ceased to exist. Hasn't everything turned to dust? These concerns arise because people have misconceptions about birth and death. As mentioned earlier, consciousness is generated by the interaction of sensory organs and objects, just like flames or sounds. The moment they arise, they disappear, and the thoughts arising with them trigger new consciousness to arise. Here, we can observe that consciousness arises and ceases without moving, without staying. The consciousness that arises in one moment does not continue into the next. The consciousness arising in the next moment is entirely new and different from the previous one.
Whether we like it or not, all consciousness is born and ceases instantly, including all sensory organs and objects. Regardless of whether one is alive or dead, everything that occurred in the past has already vanished and disappeared. Thus, the moment of death is not the disappearance of one's entire life; it's just the phenomenon of that moment. Common people believe that life persists from birth to death. They think that death marks the end of life. However, in reality, everything in the past has already disappeared in the past, and everything in the present disappears in the present. When life ends, at that very moment of death, only the phenomenon of that moment disappears.
An ordinary person's death is not the end; it's a turning point, much like a flame transitioning from burning one substance to another. For a person who has completely eradicated ignorance and love-hatred, once they pass away, they do not trigger the generation of new consciousness. Hence, the so-called rebirth is the constant cycle of all restless and transient things, continuously passing away and being born anew. The so-called non-birth or Nirvana is when all restless and transient things cease to generate new life after extinction, like a flame extinguished without further fuel.