SOME REMARKS ON PATICCA-SAMUPPADA

By Ajahn Brahmavamso

11/5/1994

  1. THE MEANING OF THE TERMS IN PATICCA-SAMUPPADA

    The Paticca-samuppada is explained in detail at two places in the Sutta-Pitaka: in the Mahanidana - Sutta, No 15 of the Digha Nikaya; and in the Nidana -Samyutta, Samyutta No XII of the Samyutta Nikaya. The Nidana -Samyutta begins with a simple expression of the 12 links in forward and reverse order. The following Sutta, Vibhanga, No 2 of the Nidana -Samyutta, explains the meaning of each of the 12 terms. I recommend that you read this Sutta carefully so that you will see for yourself what the Buddha meant by each term. In particular you will see that Jati can only mean birth, the sort of birth which for a human occurs in a mother’s womb: ‘Katama ca bhikkave jati? Ya tesam tesam sattanam, tamhi tamhi satta-nikaye, jati, sanjati, okkanti, abhinibbatti, khandhanam patubhavo, ayatananam patilabho, ayam vuccati bhikkave jati (Samyutta XII-2) ‘What monks is Jati? With regard to these and those beings, among the various classes of beings, that which is Jati, Sanjati(a synonym of Jati), descent (into the womb, Okkanti as at Digha Nikaya, Sutta 15 verse 21 "Vinnanam...matu- kucchim, okkamitva’ = ‘the consciousness ... having descended into the mother’s womb’), birth (Abhinibbatti), the appearance of the (five) Khandhas, the acquiring of the sense-faculties (Ayatananam patilabho), that monks is called Jati’- Elsewhere, perhaps, Jati may mean different things, but here, in the Sutta defining the meanings of the terms in the Paticca-samuppada, Jati unmistakeably means the appearance of a being in a particular class of beings, or "birth" as is generally understood for a human being.

    The meaning of Bhava can be found at Anguttara Nikaya, Book Of The Threes, Sutta 76. Look this up in Pali and you will relish its deeper meaning.

    The meaning of Vinnana can not readily be discerned from the Nidana -Samyutta’s Sutta No 2, but if you look at the Mahanidana - Sutta, No 15 of the Digha Nikaya, you will find the following at verse 21:

    "It was said: ‘With consciousness as condition there is mentality-materiality’. How that is so, Ananda, should be understood in this way. If consciousness (Vinnana) were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mentality-materiality (Nama-rupa) take shape in the womb?"’
    "Certainly not venerable Sir" From the BPS edition ‘The Great Discourse on Causation’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi page 5.
    So, the way the Buddha said Vinnana, in the context of Paticca-samuppada, should be understood is clearly as the Vinnana which descends into a mother’s womb at conception, what the Commentaries call Rebirth-Linking-Consciousness.

    The meaning of Sankhara as something which produces rebirth can easily be discerned in the Sankhara -uppatti- Sutta, No 120 Majjhima Nikaya. Uppatti is usually translated as rebirth and if you look at the context this meaning is obvious. A typical passage in this Sutta is analysed in Rune E A Johansson’s ‘Pali Buddhist Texts - explained to the beginner’. I recommend that you find this book, look up the passage on pages 66 and 67 and see how the word Sankhara is used in the meaning of a willed activity of body, speech or mind which causes rebirth.
  2. It is essential to know precisely what the Buddha meant when he used each of the 12 terms in the Paticca-samuppada. There is no need to go to the Commentary to find these meanings. They are clearly evident in the Suttas themselves, as I hope I have indicated. Only when one accurately understands the meaning of each of the 12 links is there a hope that one will understand the profundity of the whole Paticca-samuppada as the Buddha meant it to be understood.

     

  3. THE FALLACY OF THE "ONE LIFE" INTERPRETATION OF Paticca-samuppada

    Once one sees what the Buddha meant by Jati in the context of Paticca-samuppada (see Samyutta Nikaya XII.2 and Mahanidana - Sutta Verse 4) then wriggle as one might, one will have to accept that the Buddha meant Paticca-samuppada to span more than one life. What becomes before Jati, eg Bhava, Upadana, Tanha ..., must refer to something occurring before birth (a cause is simultaneous with, or more often precedes, its effect), ie in what is called a previous existence. To maintain otherwise is merely to ignore the facts and throw away all reason.

    Having seen the process that is described by Paticca-samuppada moving from one life to another around Jati, having broken the fixation on a wrong idea, it is easy to accept the meaning of Vinnana as the first consciousness which arises in the new life as implied by the Mahanidana - Sutta, Verse 21: "If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mentality-materiality (Nama-rupa) take shape in the womb? (Bhikkhu Bodhis translation in "The Great Discourse on Causation", BPS edition, page 59). That Vinnana as the starting point of a new life is the meaning in the context of Paticca-samuppada is also made clear at Anguttara Nikaya, Book of the Threes, Sutta No 61 Verse IX: "Channam bhikkave dhatunam upadaya gabbhasam- avakkanti hoti, okkantiya sati namarupam, namarupapaccaya salayatanam, salayatanapaccaya phasso, phassapaccaya vedana." "Monks, based on the 6 elements, there is descent into the womb. This descent taking place, name and shape come to pass. Conditioned by name-and-shape is the six-fold sphere (of sense). Conditioned by the six-fold sphere is contact. Conditioned by contact is feeling" (Gradual Sayings, Vol 1 page 160, Woodward’s translation). A similar formula can be seen in the Nidana-Samyutta, Sutta No 39.

    Lastly, it becomes obvious that the full Paticca-samuppada cannot be interpreted as existing in one life when one looks at the first 3 links in reverse order: When Avijja ceases so does Sankhara and, consequently, so does Vinnanam. In other words the ending of Avijja causes the ending of Vinnanam. Now what type of Vinnanam can possibly cease as a result of a person eradicating Avijja, the ignorance of the full meaning of the Four Noble Truths? We all know that an Arahat, one who has eradicated Avijja, remains fully conscious, retaining Vinnanam, after his attainment. He does not become unconscious at the moment of his attainment, ever more to be comatose until he dies! So Vinnanam cannot mean the ordinary, arising in every moment, type of consciousness. However, we all know that sometime after the attainment of Arahat, after a period of days or years after Avijja is ended, the Arahat’s life span ends, the 5 Khandhas dissolve and they never arise again. In particular, the 5th Khandha, the binding Vinnanam, ceases after the life span of an Arahat ends Thus, it is very clear that the Vinnanam which is caused to cease by the ending of Avijja is the first arising of consciousness in a new life, or in other words the rebirth linking consciousness of the Commentary. Nothing else makes sense. No advocate of the "one-life" interpretation of Paticca-samuppada has ever been able to explain how Vinnanam can be something existing in this life and yet ceases in this life for an Arahat!
  4. THE MEANING OF THE PATICCA-SAMUPPADA ACCORDING TO THE BUDDHA

    It becomes quite clear that Paticca-samuppada explains the process of rebirth. It gives the answer to the often asked question. "How can there be rebirth when there is no-self?" In explaining the process of rebirth it uncovers the causes of rebirth. So, one can eliminate rebirth by eliminating the causes. Remember that the point of this exercise is to stop being reborn, to get off the "wheel of rebirth", Samsara, or as Ven.Sariputta once answered to a Brahmin who asked what is the true difference between Sukha and Dukkha, "To be reborn (Abhinibbatti) friend is Dukkha. Not to be reborn is Sukha?", Anguttara, book of the Tens, Sutta 65. The Paticca-samuppada explains the process of rebirth in 2 ways starting at 2 causes:
    Avijja ® Sankhara ® birth® Vinnanam ® Namarupam ® Salayatana® Phassa® Vedana and, Tanha ® Upadana ® Bhava ® birth® Jati ® Jara-maranam-soka-parideva- dukkha -domanassa-upayasa. The cause of Dukkha, and rebirth, can be said to be Avijja or can be said to be Tanha. When one stops the other stops immediately. Thus it gives two ways of explaining the process of rebirth, first through willed actions (Sankhara) of body speech and mind originated through Avijja, and second through Tanha giving rise to clinging (Upadana) giving rise to existence (Bhava - see the explanation of Bhava at Anguttara, Book of the Three’s, Sutta 76) producing rebirth (Jati). The first sequence can be seen in the Suttas at Anguttara, Book of the Three’s Sutta 61 Verse IX. The second sequence can be found in the Mahanidana- Sutta, No 15 of the Digha Nikaya Verses 9 - 18.
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  6. THE ARGUMENTS GIVEN AGAINST PATICCA-SAMUPPADA DESCRIBING REBIRTH
    1. Words have different meanings in different contexts and so, for example, can’t Jati mean a metaphorical birth. However the Incomparable Teacher, the Buddha, foresaw possible confusion by giving precise difinitions of the terms. He used when He used them. Thus at the beginning of the Nidana-Samyutta, in Sutta No 2, the Buddha explained methodically the meaning of each term. Even in the Mahanidana - Sutta He made certain that no uncertainty as to meanings could remain: "How that is so, Ananda, should be understood in this way. If there were absolutely and utterly no birth of any kind anywhere - that is, of gods into the state of gods, of celestials into the state of celestials,of spirits, demons, human beings, quadrupeds, winged creatures, and reptiles, each into their own state - if there were no birth of beings of any sort into any state ... " (The Great Discourse on Causation, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, BPS edition page 54). How more clear can one make it?! If one actually looks at the Mahanidana - Sutta, or at the second Sutta of the Nidana-Samyutta, the meaning ascribed to these words in the context of Paticca-samuppada by the Buddha become obvious. In particular, Jati is clearly not intended to be used metaphorically. It is meant by the Buddha to refer to the beginning of life in the various classes of existence, the birth of a living being.
    2. All dhammas, at least useful ones any way, are supposed to be Sanditthiko and Akaliko. How does this apply to the Paticca-samuppada if it spans more than one life?

      I am confident that no-one will argue that Marana-sati is a useful Dhamma, and yet Marana-sati is described by the Buddha as contemplation one’s physical death, which is something which has not happened yet! The same can be said of recollection of one’s past liberality. Caganussati, one of the 40 Kammatthana, it is something which happened in the past. How can these be Sanditthiko and Akaliko?

      The point is that Sanditthiko does not mean, cannot mean, something existing in the present moment experienced in the present moment! It means something which can be understood in the present moment. Understanding (Panna) is different to experience (Vinnana), see the beginning of the Mahavedella - Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No 43). One can understand each step, each link, of the Paticca-samuppada here and now. Old age (Jara) and death (Maranam) one can see in others, just as the Bodhisatta Gotama saw them as two of the "Devadhuta". They are Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma even though one may not be personally experiencing them now! they can be clearly understood without doubt, for oneself, here and now ¾ that is what makes them Sanditthika and Akalika. Similarly one can understand Jati, the birth of a human being here and now.
    3. Personally, I have never witnessed a human birth but I have not the slightest doubt that we all come into this present life through the same way, by birth! The possibility of full understanding (Panna) here and now regard to birth, Jati, makes it a Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma. Bhava can be understood here and now and, if one has a very clear mind, can be experienced as the very same process described at Anguttara, Book of the Three’s, Sutta 76. The same can be said of Upadana, Tanha, Vedana, Phassa, Salayatana and Namarupam. The Vinnanam as the first consciousness arising in a life can only be understood here and now in the same way that death (Marana) can be understood. Thus if the death of a being, Maranam qualifies as Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma so does the Patisandhi- Vinnana (rebirth consciousness). Sankhara, the willed Kamma done by body speech and mind which gives rise to rebirth can be experienced as well as understood here and now. In fact, the only link of the Paticca-samuppada which, strictly speaking, can never be experienced even when it is happening but it can be understood is Avijja. Only the Arahat properly understands Avijja and by then it is no more. Of course, no one would argue that Avijja is not part of the Buddha’s Teaching because it can not be experienced! All agree that even Avijja is Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma, because it can be understood here and now!


      The causal relationship between the 12 links can be harder to understand. Indeed, only the Sotapanna and higher Ariyas will fully understand these causal relationships. It must be borne in mind that in such causal relationships, the cause may precede the effect by a lengthy interval. For example, in the causal relationship between birth (Jati) and Maranam (death); the cause, birth, may precede the effect, death, by 100 or more years. A cause which produces an effect after an interval of time is called Purejatapaccayo, pre-nascence condition, the 10th of the 24 Paccaya which we chant at funerals. Because the cause may have ceased before the effect arises, much of causality can both be experienced "in the moment". Instead, causal relations are discerned using Yoniso Manasikara, the work of the mind which goes back to the source (Yoni). Indeed, Yoniso Manasikara is the main cause for the arising Sammaditthi (eg at Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 43) and Sammaditthi includes understanding Paticca-samuppada (eg at Anguttara, Book of the Tens, Sutta 92). Thus Paticca-samuppada is understood, here and now, by applying Yoniso Manasikara. It is in this way that the causal relations between the 12 links become discerned by Panna and, having been understood here and now, become Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma.

      It is misleading of anyone to claim that one needs Pubbenivasanussati, memory of previous lives, to be able to understand the process of rebirth described in the Paticca-samuppada! One understands Paticca-samuppada using Yoniso Manasikara in the way described above. And, whatever can be understood here and now becomes Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma.

      A Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya has been understand by some to imply that "Vedana is not always the karmic result of a previous life" and therefore none of the links in the Paticca-samuppada can refer to a previous life.

      The Sutta in question is Anguttara Nikaya Book of the Three’s, Sutta 61 verses I-IV. Interestingly, those who quote this part of the Sutta fail to notice verse IX in the same Sutta which I have quoted twice in this letter to support Paticca-samuppada being an explanation of the rebirth process!

      The part of the Sutta which is relevant here is verses I-IV which three tenets are put forward and roundly refected by the Buddha as wrong. The first is "Yam kinci purisapuggalo patisamvedeti sukham va dukkham va adukkhama sukham va, sabbam tam pubbe katahetu" ... "Whatsoever weal or wore or neutral feeling is experienced, all that is due to some previous action" (Woodward’s translation in the PTS’s Gradual Sayings Vol 1 page 157). The other two tenets are that ... all that is due to the creation of a Supreme Deity ... (and) all that are uncaused and unconditioned.

      It is instructive to notice that this first tenet is repeated verbatim in the Devadaha - Sutta, No 101 of the Majjhima Nikaya, where it is attributed to the Jains. In that Sutta it is clear that the tenet in full is holding that "Whatever Sukha, Dukkha or neutral feeling is experienced, all that is due to some previous action in a past life." This is obviously wrong, as the Buddha pointed out in both Suttas, for everyone should know that some Sukha, some Dukkha and some neutral feelings that are experienced are due to some previous action in this life!

      But something else needs to be pointed out about this tenet. If you look at the Pali carefully you may notice that it is referring to the types of feeling that one experiences not to the faculty of feeling (Vedana) in general. It should be understood tht the fact that one has Vedana, the faculty of feeling, at all is due to craving and ignorance in a previous life; but the particular type of feeling, the content of Vedana if you like, does not necessarily depend on kamma of a previous life. Let me offer a simile. A man buys a TV, a year later he moves to a new house and there he sometimes watches channel 1, sometimes channel 2 and sometimes channel 3. the fact that in his present house he has a TV, the fact that he can experience television at all, is because of an act be performed while in his previous house - but the programme he chooses to experience are not all conditioned by some preference or other he built up while in his previous house. In this rough simile, the TV corresponds to Vedana, the programme channels appearing on that TV, channels 1, 2 and 3, correspond to Sukha, Dukkha and Adukkhama Sukha. Again, the fact that one has Vedana of some sort is due to craving and ignorance in a previous life, but the content of that Vedana or rather the particular type of feeling which is experienced is not necessarily caused by an action in a previous life. When one understands this one understands that the tenet being discussed, which originates in Anguttara Nikaya Book of the Three’s Sutta No 61 Verses I-IV, that is has no bearing on Paticca-samuppada.

      But in case someone is still not convinced that Vedana has a cause originating in a previous life, I cite the Bhumija Sutta, No 25 of the Nidana Samyutta. "Sant’avuso Eke Samanabrahmana Kammavada:

      1. Sayam-katam sukhadukkham pannapenti
      2. Paramkatam sukhadukkham pannapenti
      3. Sayamkatanca paramkatanca sukhadukkham pannapenti
      4. Asayam-karam aparam-karam adicca-samuppannam sukhadukkham pannapenti" ..There are, friend, certain recluses and brahmins, believer in karma,
        1. who declare that happiness and ill have been wrought by oneself,
        2. who declare that happiness and ill have been wrought by another,
        3. who declare that happiness and ill have been wrought by oneself as well as by others,
        4. who declare that happiness and ill is neither wrought by oneself nor by another but arises by chance" (see Kindred Saying Vol 2 page 30)

    Ven Sariputta replies when asked by Ven Bhumija which of the four is correct, "Paticca- samuppannam kho avuso sukhadukkham vuttam Bhagavata kim paticca? Phassam paticca! Iti vadam vuttavadi ceva Bhagavato assa, na ca Bhagavatam abhutena abbhacikkheyya..." "The Exalted One has said that happiness and ill (Sukha Dukkha) come to pass through a cause (Paticca). What cause? The cause is contact (Phassa)! Saying thus you would be repeating the words of the Exalted One correctly and not misrepresenting him" (compare Kindred Sayings Vol 12 page 31, which is heavily abbreviated). (The rest of the Bhumija - Sutta is also of interest for it indicates the role of Sankhara in the performance of Kamma. What Woodward translates as "plan those planned deeds conditioned by ignorance" is in Pali "Avijja paccaya. Kaya or Vaci or Mano - Sankharam abhisankharoti..." which shows Sankhara in the context of Paticca-samuppada means "Karmic actions of body, speech or mind conditioned by ignorance").

    Thus Vedana is always caused by Phassa. Furthermore we all know that Phassa is caused by Nama-rupa and Nama-rupa is caused by Vinnana. These mind and bodily processed are caused by ignorance and craving in a previous life. Any Buddhist monk who does not agree with this, who does not accept the teaching of rebirth should look at Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 117: there are 2 forms of Sammaditthi, one for those who still have Asava (Sammaditthi sasava punnabhagiya upadhi-vepakka) and one for the Ariya’s without Asava (Sammaditthi ariya anasava ...) The type of right view which concerns most monks is the former and it is "the view that alms and offerings are not useless, that there is fruit and result, both of good and bad actions, that there are such things as this life and the next life ...". Thus belief in rebirth is clearly stated to be Sammaditthi, its rejection would thus be Micchaditthi.

    This completes the refutation of the 3 arguments given against Paticca-samuppada being a description of the process of rebirth. They should be compared with the arguments against the "one-life" interpretation given on page 2-3 of this PS and held alongside the positive arguments for Paticca-samuppada (expressed on pages 1-2 and on pages 3) being a process spanning more than one life. Then you can make your own decision based on the Suttas.

  7. A LAST WORD ON THE QUESTION OF HOW ONE "USES" PATICCA-SAMUPPADA IN "DAILY LIFE"

    On any journey one needs a map. An accurate map. The true understanding of Paticca-samuppada as describing the process of rebirth and exposing its causes is a large part of that map, if not the whole. That map is acquired at Sotapanna -phala. Before one has that attainment, one doesn’t really get very far at all. That is why only after the attainment of Sotapanna - phala until one completes one’s work is one called Sekha "in training". Before Sotapanna, without the map, one is neither Sekha nor Asekha. Without Sammaditthi, without the map, one wanders in circles. With the arising of Sammaditthi, when the Path becomes clear (Maggo Sanjayati see Anguttara Nikaya,Four’s, Sutta 170) One can start walking that Path, one can start training. The Ariyan Eightfold Path is the eightfold Path walked by the Ariyan. The Putthujjana walks another Eightfold Path which is not yet deserving of the adjective Ariyan.

    So it is vitally important to obtain that map, to gain Sammaditthi of the Ariyan kind. Suttas such as the Mahavedella - Sutta, No 43 of the Majjhima Nikaya show that this sort of Sammaditthi arises due to 2 causes: Yoniso Manasikara and listening/understanding the words of another (Parato Ghoso) (see Middle Length Sayings Vol 12 page 355) and is supported by 5 factors: Sila, Suta (equivalent to what we would call "book-knowledge), Sakaccha (discussing the Dhamma), Samatha and Vipassana. Thus if one aspires to become a Sotapanna look to either one (or both) of the 2 causes and support them with the 5 factors. That is how one should be practising in daily life.

    After Sotapanna, one practises according to the Ariyan Eightfold Path which is then abundantly clear to one.

    The point is, Paticca- samuppada , or rather its true realisation, is the heart of Sammaditthi of the Ariyan. It forms the foundation for further practise of the Ariyan, for the putthujjana, one practises in order to realise the Paticca-samuppada, especially by Yoniso Manasikara supported by the Five factors. The putthujjana practices aspiring to uncover the Paticca- samuppada, not assuming he knows it!

    "Gambhiro c’ayam Ananda Paticca -samuppado gambhir’avabhaso ca!"
    (Digha Nikaya, Sutta 15, Mahanidana - Sutta, Verse 1)

    "This Dependent Arising, Ananda, is deep and appears deep!"