I’M WAITING AT THE BUS STOP in the zone industrielle and there’s that slightly odd fragrant smell in the air again. I asked somebody about it and they told me there’s a laboratory here that creates different kinds of commercial smells: odorants, aromas; the air is full of fragrance. It’s the smell of fruit jam today. Another day, it’ll be a different smell, maybe a more subtle thing that you can’t identify easily, an essential component of a popular smell – not unpleasant, just odd. Interesting that the fragrance of fruit jam that strikes the nose when I open the jar is not as fruity as I thought. It’s a ‘replacement aroma’ created under laboratory conditions by chemists. How weird.
The manufactured smell is a chemical compound designed to trigger an olfactory experience. My smell process is activated and even though this is completely artificial, I’ll react in the same way. I’m just as likely to respond to the aroma and go into the ‘wanting’ mode, whether it’s been created in the laboratory or it’s the real thing – I can’t tell the difference. The chain reaction of consciousness is saying this is real, go for it, and that’s all it takes.
I’m thinking about the wonderful aromatic fragrance of bread and bakery items that wafts towards me from the bakery near the station. I’m drawn to it because of the aroma. And I realise now the bakery cannot produce that smell as a result of baking – I doubt if it even has a baker’s oven on the premises. But I respond to the smell as if it were real.
In the paticcasamuppada the smell of fresh bread starts a sequence that looks like this: The aroma of fresh bread is at Sense Gates salayatana. In itself, it’s not anything, then it makes Contact phassa and shortly after that there’s the beginnings of recognition, which leads to Feeling vedana and I’m taking out my wallet. There’s Craving tanha and after that I’m caught. The purchase is about to be made but before we close the deal: ‘…autre chose, monsieur?’ (anything else, sir?)
I experience Grasping, upadana and it seems like a good idea maybe to get a couple of other things as well. Then Becoming bhava happens, I’ve made the purchase – it’s mine! There’s a brief moment of joy: Birth jati and I get outside and look in the nicely wrapped carton of donuts, pain aux chocolate, almond croissants…. What did I get all these for?
At some point, it may be now; it may be later, I experience Sorrow, lamentation. pain, grief and despair soka, parideva, dukkha, domanassa upayasa (Note: the actual ps cycle includes: old age, death, jara, marana) and the lingering smell means I might, later, try to revisit the baker’s shop to see if I can do it again but somehow manage to avoid the suffering this time?
Not only food, there’s the smell of leather upholstery in a new car, for example. That distinctive odor, created by chemical processes, may tip the balance and … sold! The smell of a new carpet; it may not be an attractive odor but it does trigger something; there’s a familiarity about it – ok, proceed to checkout! The company that manufactures and promotes the aroma is engaged in the commercial exploitation of smell – and we are caught by the nose.
I used to travel regularly on a small jet, a short flight and the steward would come along the aisle of this tiny plane to serve a coffee and a rather sad-looking sandwich. But before that, before it was served, the cabin would be filled with a wonderful, exotic aroma mix of French cognac, a hint of cigar smoke, ground coffee, crème caramel, port, liqueur. The snack is served, it’s a terrible let-down.
Do they really think we might not suspect it’s something entirely manufactured, a puff of a spray that releases the odorant in the air? But I realise that it doesn’t matter. The steward who serves the snack and everyone in the plane know it’s an illusion. There’s a basic acceptance of illusion; it might even appeal to a competitive cleverness that ‘I’ can see through this illusion: “… isn’t it interesting how they can create artificial smells?”
It’s saying this is acceptable, it’s okay to do this, there’s illusionary stuff everywhere; TV, videos, and mind states are just the same; the ‘self’ we have created from the five khandas. And there’s a familiarity with the ‘trick’; a recognition of the whole panorama of illusion that we have created in our world. So what if it’s artificial? The whole ‘thing’ is artificial. We like it like that!
That’s the way to go if you think you like endless proliferation, but it does need to be maintained and the novelty wears off. The seeing of it dispels ignorance: ‘Phenomena are sustained only so long as their sustaining factors remain.’ Take out the sustaining factors and the whole thing comes to pieces.
The bus arrives and we all get on. It rumbles off down the road and the smell of fruity jam is almost gone, I can still smell slight traces, then I get distracted and forget to smell for a moment. When I remember, the smell is gone completely. Soon after that I’ve forgotten all about it.
‘When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.’ [Samyutta Nikaya 12.6]
(For the whole analysis of the paticcasamuppada, click on this link: Buddha’s Teaching on Causality, Dependent Origination paticcasamuppada.)
[link to more info on artificial aromas]