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Paticca Samuppada - Introduction

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Paticca samuppada - dependent origination - is an indispensible teaching, a thorough understanding of which is necessary for the penetration of the Buddha's doctrine. Together with anatta [ § ] it is one of the hallmarks of Buddhism, distinguishing it as a unique religion. The Abhidhamma Pitaka (third section of scripture  § ) primarily focusses on these two teachings. Where the teaching on anatta proceeds by 'seperating' phenomena into basic constituent parts (thus revealing their impersonality) the doctrine of dependent origination proceeds by 'incorporating' phenomena, showing that they are all conditionally related. In either case the direction is the same - liberation.
Just as the great ocean has but one taste, the taste of salt, so also this Dhamma and Discipline has but one taste, the taste of liberation." Udana 5
One way of considering the teaching of paticca samuppada is as a general statement of universal law.
"When there is this, that comes to be;
With the arising of this, that arises.
When this is absent, that does not come to be;
With the cessation of this, that ceases." Majjhima 79

This simple formula applies to all things: trees (arising due to rain, nutriment, etc.), this web page (due to my computer, electricity, etc.), planetary systems (arising due to...). It outlines a conditioned genesis which can sometimes be mis-understood as implying a 'first cause,' as implying some kind of original 'this' (God?). We then need then to ask: "what was the 'this' that caused the arising of that first 'this' - and the cause of that... ad infinitum. Which of the balls in the animation above caused the knock-on? The intention with paticca samuppada [P.S.] is neither to propose or deny primordial origin - or final extinction for that matter - but to examine causal, conditional relationships - between this and that, birth and death, ignorance and suffering, etc. The buddha didn't invent this teaching, it is just an expression of natural law. The more we study our world through this principle what we increasingly see is a web of causal connectedness, inter-relations and non-independence. Seeing this, compassion quite naturally arises; abusing you is only harming myself. This is not saying "we are all one being" but just that we are not wholly seperate. Take care of me
A second approach takes the same principle but applies it directly to the human condition and most specifically to the problem of suffering. Dukkha is a condition that has arisen. If we examine its causes we can initiate its cessation - and this is truely the point of the Buddha's teaching. We will mainly look at the linked series in the forward direction but there are many scriptural instances where it is presented in reverse: "with the cessation of craving there is cessation of feeling." [see: phassa  § ]
 Are you ready?
The traditional presentation is a list of twelve terms - each one linked causally to the next. The formula repeats along the following lines: Avijja-paccaya sankhara: "Through ignorance are conditioned the sankharas... sankhara > viññana... etc."
Paccaya = 'condition', and is something on which something else, the so-called 'conditioned thing', is dependent, and without which the latter cannot be.

The image of paticca samuppada [P.S.] is sometimes a chain, or the rim of a wheel (see below). It is a complex subject with varied opinions as to its meaning and I encourage you to read widely if you want to get a good understanding of it - at least to collect a range of data to form your own opinion :). For easy reference the navigation bar includes both the Pali and English for all twelve links. What isn't apparent is the extent of the last link. It is in fact jara-marana (old-age and death) but even this is abridged from: "old-age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair - such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering" - that is: dukkha. With ignorance as cause - suffering is the result. To give some idea of how the Buddha regarded P.S. here are a couple of quotes.



"Profound, Ananda, is this Dependent Arising, and it appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this law that the world resembles a tangled skein of thread, a woven nest of birds, a thicket of bamboos and reeds, and that man does not escape from (birth in) the lower realms of existence, from the states of woe and perdition, and suffers from the round of rebirth." Digha 15
"He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising." Majjhima 28

The Four Noble Truths is the essence of the Buddha's teaching so it is not surprising to find the inter-dependent principle of P.S. included in its outline. Looking at the four truths in relation to the general formula above we see that:
When there is this (craving; 2nd truth), that (dukkha; 1st truth) comes to be.
     And that...
With the cessation of this (craving; 3rd truth), that (dukkha) ceases.
The emphasis is clearly on the causal relationship between craving and suffering. If you look at the nav. bar links you will see that the pivot point of feeling and craving has been marked. Of all the link points this is one of the most crucial - a 'weak' link. We can't avoid contact (with the world) nor the resultant feeling but, we do have the possibility of avoiding, or at least tempering craving. Grasping is another 'break point' as, having grabbed something, we can let it go. The importance of this is made very clear in the "grasping of the five khandhas" as the summary definition of dukkha [see: 1st Noble Truth  § ]. There is another potent but quite subtle break point called manasikara (attention) between viññana and nama-rupa [see: nama-rupa]. Directing the mind with this clear-wise attention to any of the 12 links will bring a greater understanding of that factor, and the role it plays in your inner world. More clarity around one will help bring the others into a more manageable perspective.

There are two principle approaches to P.S. - "three life" and "momentary". A wide range of authoritative views support both and a clear conclusion is difficult. The 3-life model begins with the past life, going on to this present life and then to a future life. The following table outlines the relationship between the three successive lives.
  • 1 Ignorance (avijjá)
  • 2 Karma-formations (sankhárá)
  • Karma-Process (kammabhava)
    5 causes: 1,2,8,9,10
  • 3 Consciousness (viññana)
  • 4 Mind-Matter (nama-rupa)
  • 5 Six Bases (ayatana)
  • 6 Impression (phassa)
  • 7 Feeling (vedana)
  • Rebirth-Process (upapattibhava)
    5 results: 3-7
  • 8 Craving (tanha)
  • 9 Grasping (upadana)
  • 10 Becoming (bhava)
  • Karma-Process (kammabhava)
    5 causes: 1,2,8,9,10
  • 11 Rebirth (jati)
  • 12 Old Age, Death (jara-marana)
  • Rebirth-Process (upapattibhava)
    5 results: 3-7
    [ § ] A one-page presentation of P.S. (supporting the "three life" theory).
    [ § ] Another - arguing against the "one-life" model.
    [ § ] A detailed, well-reasoned and documented support for this-life
    [ § ] Part of a well balanced book by a renowned Thai scholar - generally supporting 'this-life.'
    It is not my intention, nor even within my scholastic ability, to refute the 3-life theory, however, in terms of reflecting on and applying this teaching in daily life, the second approach - "momentary arising" - seems to me more workable or applicable. Another term for this approach is "psychological unfolding." The time-frame is the matter generally in dispute and consideration here can be given to the timeless nature of the Buddha's teaching and the thought that P.S. is not even an 'unfolding' as this implies a (time bound) process. One author suggests that P.S. is entirely structure - not process. The following pages are a range of musings with the 'this-life model' in mind. Every attempt is made to reflect the Buddha's teaching as accurately as possible but do question this accuracy - as you should with any dhamma presentation [see: Kalama Sutta  § ].
    The 'momentary arising' model suggests that any moment or 'slice of experience' of one's life - this life - that has ignorance as its starting point tends to have suffering as its end result. Imagine being at the top of a tree. One is ignorant (distracted, deluded, heedless, or some such) and as a result looses ones grip and falls. On the way down there are various branches (consciousness, contact, feeling, etc.) but they can be a bit of a blur. What you do know tho' is the THUD when you hit the ground - the end - ouch - dukkha! The passing of the various factors is usually rapid but there is some space - we are not total victims. If the aim of Buddhism is the ending of dukkha (nibbana), and this can happen in this present life, then it is not necessary to die to break this chain. It is not a deterministic formula, it is a teaching leading to liberation. With wisdom, one can have the clarity to grab one of those branches! Or just not fall in the first place.
    Another way of considering P.S. is using an intermediary time span - neither over three life times nor in-an-instant - but over days, or weeks or years. An action now generates (plants the seeds for) future consciousness, feeling, etc. - "at some later time." It is also useful to consider P.S. as non-linear [see: mindfulness  § ]. The result of actions depends on the actions - and many associative conditions. We can consider the twelve links as essential marker points on our 'map' but not as the whole map itself.
    The Buddha was pointing to suffering in this life - the causes in this life - and the end, in this life. His teaching presents itself as not being particularly cosmological, metaphysical or philosophical but essentially topical, practical.
    Whichever approach seems most relevant to you (and they need not be mutually exclusive) it still remains to study each element of the twelve links to develop a clear understanding of these key terms and the overall mechanism of P.S. Equally important is to study the workings of your own life in relation to the causal, inter-related principle. Can you see patterns of activity, habitual associations, linked sequences of mental-emotional processes that govern, even dictate, your life? When: they say that... you... or, when: you see that .... you... and so forth. One question is relevant here - that of free will. With every-thing in the world determined by causal conditions, is this not some sort of fatalism? No, no. But, where is the break point? What is the cause, the supporting condition for intention, volition, the point of free choice? Read the page on nama-rupa, likewise tanha & upadana.

    There are other formulations of the P.S. principle.
    In the Upanisa Sutta the following series of links are presented:
    Faith > Joy > Rapture > Tranquillity > Happiness > Concentration > Knowledge-vision > Disenchantment > Dispassion > Emancipation > Destruction of the asava (ie. nibbana).
    The principle of 'paccaya' - conditionality - is the same for all these lists. Ie.: "with faith as condition - arises joy > with joy as condition arises...".
    There is a similar list but instead of 'faith' it begins with:
    Skilful moral conduct > absence of remorse > Joy > Rapture > Tranquillity > Happiness > etc.
    Another sutta (Digha II.58) offers a series reflecting more on 'social' suffering:
    Feeling > Craving > Seeking > Gain > Valuation > Fondness > Possessiveness > Ownership > Avarice > Gaurding > Suffering = taking up the stick, the knife, contention, dispute, arguments, abuse, slander and lying. This is 2500 years ago. How much has changed?
    There are also instances where the link-set is presented in both forward and reverse directions. Eg. starting with suffering: "What is the support condition for suffering? Birth. For birth? Becoming?.... ending with Ignorance."

    The law of kamma (action  § ) features prominently in the working of P.S.. In relation to the 3-life model you can see in the table above that our past-life was a kamma-process. In the present, items 8-10 are also kamma-processes. In the moment-by-moment model our actions can both increase or, more importantly, moderate our ignorance. The list above has: Faith + Joy leading to knowledge and likewise, initiating skilful moral conduct leads to happiness, knowledge etc. Our choices (actions - kamma) directly affect consciousness.

    As well as the image of a chain P.S. is sometimes presented as a wheel, notably in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) and in other commentarial literature. Do allow, considering the complexity of P.S., that this representation is a little superficial. Here is an example - which also includes information on the six realms of existence [ § ]. The wheel is a primary Buddhist symbol [ § ] but in the case of P.S. we can think of the wheel of samsara - the continuing process of ever again and again being born, growing old, suffering and dying. Buddhism looks to break the cycle.