7.4.2 How attachment arises from ignorance

How attachment arises from ignorance [1]

How attachment arises from ignorance

For most of us, attachment will be a major source of suffering at the time of death: attachment to this life, to our loved ones, to our possessions and most of all to our body. Therefore it’s wise to investigate our attachments now, determine to reduce them, and find out how to do this. Understanding how attachment actually arises will be of great help in enabling us to eradicate it from the source. Some years ago, Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave some inspired teachings on this topic. They are quite deep and require some prior knowledge.

When an object appears to us, it appears as if it existed from its own side. Since our perspective is that of the Prasangika Madhyamika philosophical view, the following terms have the same meaning:
existing from its own side
inherently existing
truly existing
independently existing
They all mean that something exists without depending on causes, conditions, parts, or the consciousness which conceives and labels them.

If we think about it we will very likely say that, of course, things do not exist from their own side because we know they are not established or existent without relying on causes, conditions, parts or other factors. However, when a table, for example, appears to our visual consciousness, it appears as if it existed from its own side. The mind to which the table appears to exist from its own side – in this case the visual consciousness that apprehends the table – is not the conception of true existence. When objects appear to our five sense consciousnesses – the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile consciousnesses – and our mental consciousness, they appear as if they existed from their own side.

After they appear in this way, another mind comes along which conceives of them as being exactly like that: existing from their own side, without depending on causes and conditions or anything else. That mind is the inborn conception of true existence. It is a mental consciousness, not a sense consciousness.This is the unknowing ignorance to which objects appear to exist from their own side, and which then conceives of them as existing in exactly that way. Ignorance itself is the conception of true existence. It does not see an object’s actual way of being and conceives its objects to exist from their own side.

After that, the various other disturbing attitudes, such as attachment, hatred, jealousy and pride arise. These attitudes do not conceive the object to exist from its own side, but they arise based on the ignorance which does. The disturbing attitudes do not all arise at the same time of course. Sometimes ignorance will be followed by attachment, sometimes by anger.

Whether an object appears attractive or ugly to us, ignorance, a mind which conceives of it as existing from its own side, will arise in us. After that, but before either anger or aversion arise towards the object, there will be a conceptual consciousness called ‘inappropriate attention’. If a pleasing object is slightly beautiful, inappropriate attention exaggerates, makes it much more beautiful, and thinks, “This is really good!” This inappropriate attention indices attachment, a mind of desire that thinks, “If only I could have that.” If anger is going to be produced, first there is inappropriate attention which exaggerates the unpleasant aspects of the object, making t more negative. As a result we then get angry and want to destroy or run away from what we think is harming us.

Attachment, anger, and other disturbing attitudes motivate us to say and do various things, and thus we accumulate negative karma. As a result, we experience their results, feelings of suffering. Ignorance is also behind our experiences of happiness in cyclic existence. For example, ignorance grasping at a truly existent I arises, and we think, “I want to create good karma, so I’ll be happy in the future!”

This thought is a form of attachment, which clings to just our own happiness within cyclic existence, and is also a disturbing attitude. With such a motivation, we create positive karma, which leaves the imprints in our mindstreams that will ripen as our future experiences of happiness. Although this is good motivation compared to the previous ones, it nevertheless does not free us from cyclic existence because it still thinks all phenomena exist inherently.

The present explanation accords with the Prasangika system, which understands ignorance to be the conception of true existence. According to other Buddhist traditions, ignorance means merely not knowing, while the conception of true existence is a mind which apprehends its object wrongly. However, the Prasangika system does not make this distinction. It says that ignorance itself is the conception of true existence, and is a mind which apprehends its object as existing from its own side. Since its object does not exist in this way, but ignorance thinks it does, it apprehends its object incorrectly.

[1] Extracts from Transforming the Heart: The Buddhist Way to Joy and Courage, by Geshe Jampa Tegchok, Snow Lion: Ithaca, page 228, selected by Len Warren

Download this page as PDF