Having learned about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, if Buddhist liberation denotes the total extinguishment of our five aggregates and eighteen elements, we might wonder, would it not be equal to reducing our existence to complete nothingness? In fact, during the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel, the Buddha also implicitly taught a permanent dharma through the Ten and Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Among many others, the following incident recorded in the Agama sutras points to the insight of Nirvana.
The intellectual Susima was sent by non-Buddhists to act as an undercover to Gautama Buddha’s sangha group and to plagiarize His teachings. Susima asked the monastics in the sangha group, who claimed to know nirvana if they had all attained various states of samādhi. They all said they had not, and upon hearing their answers, Susima became doubtful and decided to enquire Buddha for clarification.
Susima reported to the Buddha, "How could these sanghas claim to know Nirvana when they have not attained any state of samādhi?”
At Susima’s request, the Buddha guided him to examine each phase of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising in countering the flow of cyclic existence, starting with the last link, “death.”
“With birth, as requisites come aging and death. Therefore, aging and death are inseparable from birth. The same is true of birth, becoming, grasping, craving, sensation, contact, six sense bases, name and form, consciousness, formation, and ignorance. With ignorance, as a requisite comes formation. Does formation come into existence, exempt from ignorance?”
Susima replied, “As such, World-Honored One! As a requisite for ignorance comes formation; never exempt from ignorance can formation come into existence.”
Buddha told Susima, "There will be no aging and death without birth; that is, if birth ceases, can aging and death cease?"
"As such, World-Honored One! There will be no aging and death without birth; therefore, aging and death will cease if birth should cease," Susima replied to the Buddha.
Hence, the Buddha asked Susima, “If that is your understanding and how you see the Dharma of Dependent Arising, can you then be able to abandon the cravings and unwholesome dharmas of the desire realm, carry on the practice so as to be liberated and eventually fully, securely abide by the liberation state?”
Susima replied, “This is not it, World-Honored One!”
The Buddha then said to Susima, “This is what I refer to by ‘One must understand the origin of the Dharma before being able to comprehend Nirvana.’” (Saṃyukta Āgama, Vol.14)
Upon hearing the words of Buddha, Susima instantly attained srotaāpanna (the first fruition) by eliminating the notion of self-view. He immediately confessed and repented to the Buddha for his sins of evil intention to plagiarize His teachings. The Buddha then instructed him further on how to rectify his wrong deeds from the past. Susima’s doubt and fear about becoming a total nihilist or being reduced to nothingness vanished, as he finally understood the meaning of the permanent dharma.
The inseparable correlation between the Ten and Twelve Links of Dependent Origination
The dialogue between the Buddha and Susima reveals that examining the Ten Links of Dependent Origination in countering the flow of cyclic existence stops at consciousness, ālaya vijñāna (the tenth link highlighted in red). Given that the Ten Links of Dependent Origination (hereafter referred to as Ten Links) have an inseparable sequential correlation with the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination (hereafter referred to as Twelve Links), we can now be assured that the consciousness link, ālaya vijñāna, in the Ten Links designates the origin of the dharma, while the consciousness in the Twelve Links designates the first six consciousnesses, belonging to the scope of name and form. Hence, the original dharma in the Ten Links is the premise of the Twelve links, making the contemplation on the Twelve Links practical and achievable for us.
The notion of Nirvana is hence precisely the origin of the dharma or the eighth consciousness (the eighth vijñāna) after one totally abandoning the five aggregates with no more future rebirth. The result will be a stateless state of neither arising nor ceasing, which is self-existing, permanent, and changeless.
In light of the foregoing, if noble disciples simply observe and contemplate the Twelve Links without using the Ten Links as premises, they will fear the unknown outcome of eliminating the illusory five aggregates of self and even fear the consequences of removing the notion of self-view. As a result, no disciples can realize the first fruition of the Sound-Hearer Vehicle. For this reason, the Buddha said to Susima, “this is what I refer to by ‘One must understand the origin of the dharma before being able to comprehend Nirvana.’” This denotes the implicit Buddhist teaching of a true Self in the Ten and Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Thus, the inseparable sequential correlation between the Ten and Twelve Links of Dependent Origination illuminates the ultimate truth in Buddhism.