Dr. Dukkha wrote:If it's been going on forever, why haven't we all been enlightened by now?
From the Buddhist point of view, all conditional things, whether they have a definite beginning point or not, persist for only as long as the conditions for their existence persist
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
In this case, whether you view samsara as referring the continual cycle of death and rebirth of beings or to the continual cycle of death and rebirth of the conceit 'I am,' the self-identification that designates a being (satta)
, it's a conditional process that persists for as long as the requisite causes and conditions persist. Once those cease, the cycle of samsara ceases or breaks down.
The teachings on dependent co-arising details the casually-determined psychological process by which suffering and stress arises in the mind, and which conditions the arising of future suffering and stress. Although the basic concept is expressed by the formula, "When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn't, that isn't. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that," it's expressed more fully (in the context of the arising and cessation of stress and suffering) in the form of dependent co-arising:
From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form.
From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media.
From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact.
From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.
From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.
From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance.
From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming.
From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.
From birth as a requisite condition, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.
Now from the remainderless fading and cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness. From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form. From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/ sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress. (Ud 1.3)
There are a multitude of factors and conditions that gives rise to this psycho-physical chain within the mind, all of which are mutually dependent; but there are places in the chain where, with mindfulness and effort, one can disrupt one of the links in this chain, much like a mental resonance point
, which in turn can disrupt the entire causal chain, ultimately leading to a mental-state empty of passion, aversion, and delusion.
As for the question, If it's been going on forever [or at least a very long time], why haven't we all been enlightened by now?, I think it's based on the assumption that we're all moving towards nibbana in some sort of blind, teleological fashion when awakening generally requires a certain number of supporting conditions (SN 12.23
). In other words, there's no reason to assume that all beings are heading towards nibbana, however you define the term.
In the Pali Canon, for example, there are at least two places where the question of whether all beings will attain liberation is addressed. The first is AN 10.95
, where Uttiya the wanderer, after asking a number of other metaphysical questions, asks the Buddha if all the world will reach release, or a half of it, or a third. In this instance, the Buddha remains silent, and Ananda gives an analogy to explain the Buddha's silence:
"Uttiya, suppose that there were a royal frontier fortress with strong ramparts, strong walls & arches, and a single gate. In it would be a wise, competent, & knowledgeable gatekeeper to keep out those he didn't know and to let in those he did. Patrolling the path around the city, he wouldn't see a crack or an opening in the walls big enough for even a cat to slip through. Although he wouldn't know that 'So-and-so many creatures enter or leave the city,' he would know this: 'Whatever large creatures enter or leave the city all enter or leave it through this gate.'
"In the same way, the Tathagata isn't concerned with whether all the cosmos or half of it or a third of it will be led to release by means of that [Dhamma]. But he does know this: 'All those who have been led, are being led, or will be led [to release] from the cosmos have done so, are doing so, or will do so after having abandoned the five hindrances — those defilements of awareness that weaken discernment — having well-established their minds in the four frames of reference, and having developed, as they have come to be, the seven factors for Awakening. When you asked the Blessed One this question, you had already asked it in another way. That's why he didn't respond."
The second reference is in the Questions of King Milinda
, a later work that's included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Burmese edition of Pali Canon, but not in Thai or Sri Lankan versions. Here, King Milinda asks whether everyone attains nibbana, to which the Ven. Nagasena (an arahant who's thought to have lived some time around 150 BCE) responds:
“Not all, O king; but whoever conducts himself rightly, understands what should be understood, perceives what should be perceived, abandons what should be abandoned, develops what should be developed and realises what should be realised; he attains nibbāna.”
In addition, there's also the possibility that there there are infinite beings and infinite amount of time, which means there's the potential for there to be an infinite number of both awakened and non-awakened beings at any given point.
Those are some of my thoughts on the matter, at any rate.