Karma’s 12

The teacher Jesus had 12 apostles. The Western zodiac has 12 signs. There are the 12 days of Christmas. Twelve angry men. The 12 tribes of Israel. The 12 step programme. (Click here to read more about our fascination with the number twelve.)

And Shambhala Buddhism has its own 12. In reading about how our karma is created, we may have come across terms like the

  • 12 links;
  • 12 nidanas;
  • wheel of life;
  • laws of dependent origination; and
  • karmic chain reaction.

For me, there are two important questions:

  1. To what do these terms refer?
  2. And why should we learn about them?

The What
We could just say “dependent relationships,” where a particular situation arises because of “this” factor which arises because of “that” factor and so on.

Dependent and related arising is like this. Because this is present, that will arise, and because that was born, this is being born. (Buddha’s Rice Seedling Sutra)

So if you are on an airplane to fly somewhere, it is because you bought a ticket. You bought a ticket because you wanted something.

This is a gross oversimplification, but I think of it this way: if you have a project to do, you first break it down into small tasks. Let’s say there are 12 of these tasks. They are all linked, interlinked, with task number one leading to task number two leading to task three and so on until finally we have completed the entire project.

And the project described by these terms is nothing less than the creation of a “self” — what I mistakenly think of as who I am — that gets more and more layers, and the consequences of this “layered” mistake, i.e. karma.

I like to use the word “factors” or “chain of events” where this  leads to that leads to this and so on.

But no matter what term you use, all these terms explain and describe at least three things:

(1) the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth as explained by volitional actions;

(2) the dependent relationship — the INTERlinking between the factors that create our karma;

…[In short] how we are born, how we create karma, how we die, and how that all revolves. <Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche>

and (3) why we experience the world the way we do:

…the ego-self is ungrounded, and as a result we experience an uncomfortable emptiness or hole at the very core of our being. We feel this problem as a sense of lack, of inadequacy, or unreality, and in compensation we usually spend our lives trying to accomplish things that we think will make us more real. <author: David Loy>

The Why
Why should we learn about these factors? Awareness is necessary if we are going to understand and then unlearn what is causing our suffering.

…knowing the nidanas is an enormous step. That we should know what is actually happening in our life is an enormous education. <source: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: Karma and the Twelve Nidanas, Fall 2003>

Description of the 12 links\nidanas

Ferris wheel croppedThe links describe our ferris-wheel-like existence — a wheel that goes round and round and round and round……. People pay the price of a ride. They get on. Then they get off.

Some people, regardless of whether they had a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experience, want to go back on the ferris wheel. So, once again, they pay the price of a ride. And get on. Then at some point they get off. And so on.

It might be helpful to think of the links as dots in a child’s colouring book. When you join the dots, you see the picture! The twelve links, which can apply to any particular situation, or to many lifetimes, create a picture of why we experience life as we do:

  1. Ignorance (bewilderment) — In the beginning of any second there is openess, void, no form. (The Hebrew word Tohu means chaos in its neutral sense; void; or without form.) But I do not understand the true nature of the world – I can’t cope with a lack of solid reference points (open space) so I create a “self;” ego. I believe that this self\ego is “frozen” (solid), permanent, and ongoing in space, and that all other things are likewise permanent. I am now caught up in “mistaken identity” — thinking ego is who I am;
  2. Formations\karmic actions — ignorance gives rise to confusion; not understanding the true nature of things, I perform an action based on one of the three root posions of mind – desire, aggression, and stupidity. Thus I create karma. This second factor is linked to the Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering.
  3. Consciousness the action plants seeds or imprints on my mind;
  4. Name/Form — just as a foetus develops in the womb, an embyronic ego develops now;
  5. Six Senses —this refers to the actual physical organs of the five senses, plus the mind;
  6. Contact we now experience the outside world;
  7. Feeling\Sensation my experience of the outside world gives rise to feelings [e.g. compassion leads to good karma; hate, anger etc lead to negative karma];
  8. Craving because of feeings, I get involved with (a) wanting, (b) avoiding or (c) ignoring something;
  9. Grasping (intention) becoming involved, I make a decision to get object I desire or to avoid what I don’t want;
  10. Becoming decision (intention) is now put into action; this creates karma that will ripen later;
  11. Rebirth — actions taken will have effects in the future; and
  12. Aging & Death stands for all the suffering of existence based on karma and I start again at #1, Ignorance etc. etc. etc.

For a real life example of how these twelve factors play out, click here.