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A Discourse on Paticcasamuppada, or The Doctrine of Dependent Origination
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw



Vipassana Practice And Upadana

The practice of vipassana, too, is to be attributed to kamupadana of a person who seeks permanent deliverance from evils of existence. Ordinary people have to contemplate to be free from the four upadanas while the Ariyas have to contemplate to overcome kamupadana. Thus, vipassana practice stands for the conquest of upadana. According to Visuddhimagga and another commentary, viz., Sammohavinodani, avijja is indirectly the cause of good acts in that one has to do good for liberation from avijja and it is also said that bhavana or vipassana practice is one of the good acts in the sensual world which one has to do for such liberation.

The question then arises as to whether vipassana practice can lead to rebirth. The commentaries on Anguttara Nikaya and Patthana point to such a possibility. According to the commentary on Anguttara Nikaya, the first three right views lead to good rebirth, the last two right views, viz., the view that is born of fruition on the path (phala-sammaditthi) and the view that results from vipassana practice tend to liberate the yogi from life-cycle (samsara). It says, however, on the authority of a learned thera (Culabhaya) that the yogi is subject to rebirth for seven times before he attains Arahatship. According to Patthana, contemplation of appamana (conditions of existence) leads to rebirth in sensual sphere, and the commentary defines appamana-cetana as maturity (gotrabhu cetana). Hence, it is reasonable to assume that vipassana practice can give rise to rebirth before Arahatship is won.

But vipassana can ensure freedom from samsara through insight into anicca, dukkha and anatta of all sense-objects - an insight that keeps off the defilement of craving for them. This non-arising of craving means non-arising of kamma and rebirth. Thus, vipassana insight helps to offset kamma and its samsaric consequences by tadangapahana (overcoming by opposite).

Moreover, through inductive generalization, the yogi realizes the anicca, dukkha and anatta of other phenomena that he has contemplated. Thus, he keeps off the defilements and their kammic potentials by repression (vikkhambhana pahana). Then, there follows the Ariyan insight on the path that helps to root out the defilements. The emergence of this insight may be likened to the signing of an official letter by the head of a government department. The act of the officer-in-charge is, in fact, to give the finishing touch to the lot of work done by his subordinates. We cannot ignore the major contribution of vipassana practice in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment any more than we can ignore the work of office staff or the cumulative effect of repeated use of a saw that makes it finally possible for the woodcutter to exterminate the tree once and forever. As the sub-commentary on Visuddhimagga says:

"Transcendent insight on the path helps to stamp out, root and branch only the defilements which the yogi has done his utmost to overcome through mundane vipassana insight."

Those who do not contemplate, labour under the illusion of bliss and ego-entity. The illusion leads to craving, kammic efforts, rebirth and all the sufferings that are inherent in life-cycle.

Life-Cycle And Three Time Dimensions

The doctrine of Paticcasamuppada describes twelve causes and effects viz., (1) ignorance, (2) kamma formations, (3) consciousness, (4) mind and body, (5) six senses, (6) sense-contact, (7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) clinging, (10) becoming (bhava), (11) birth (jati), (12) old age and death.

According to the doctrine, ignorance and craving are the two main sources of suffering. There are two life-cycles, the anterior life-cycle and the posterior life-cycle. The anterior life-cycle begins with ignorance as its main source and ends with feeling, while the posterior life-cycle begins with craving and ends with death. In the former life-cycle, ignorance (avijja) and kamma formations (sankhara) in the past life leads to rebirth, while in the latter life-cycle, craving (tanha) and clinging (upadana) cause rebirth in future. The two life-cycles show how a man's lifetimes are linked with one another through cause and effect.

Again, if the doctrine of dependent origination is to be described on time-scale, avijja and sankhara are two links in the past life, the links from vinnana to kammabhava concern the present life, while birth, old age and death are the links that future has in store for us. Thus, the doctrine refers to three time dimensions.

Five Causes In The Past

The doctrine describes the past cause only in terms of avijja and sankhara but in point of fact avijja is invariably followed by tanha and upadana and sankhara too always lead to kammabhava. So Patisambhidamagga comments on the doctrine as follows.

"Avijja is ignorance that dominates us while doing a kammic deed. Sankhara means collection and exertion of effort. Tanha is the craving for the results of an action in the present life and hereafter. Upadana is obsession with action and its result. Kammabhava is volition. These five factors in the past constitute the cause of present rebirth."

Thus, we have to consider all these five links viz., avijja, tanha, upadana, sankhara and kammabhava if we are to describe the past cause fully. Of these, avijja, tanha and upadana are labelled kilesavatta (cycle or round of defilements). Sankhara and kammabhava are called kammavatta (cycle of actions). The commentary makes a distinction between sankhara and kammabhava, describing the prior effort, planning, etc., preparatory to an act as sankhara and the volition at the moment of doing the act as kammabhava. Thus, seeking money, buying things, etc., prior to an act of dana comprise sankhara while the state of consciousness at the time of offering is kammabhava. Preliminary activities leading to an act of murder are sankhara while cetana or volition at the time of killing is kammabhava.

Distinction Between Sankhara And Kammabhava

The other kind of distinction between sankhara and kammabhava is based on impulse-moments. It is said that an act of murder or alms-giving involves seven impulse-moments. The first six impulse-moments are called sankhara while the last is termed kammabhava.

The third way of making the distinction is to describe volition (cetana) as kammabhava and other mental states associated with volition as sankhara.

The last method of classification is helpful when we speak of good deeds in rupa and arupa spheres. All the three methods apply in the case of good or bad acts in sensual world, but the first method is most illuminating for those who are not well informed.

Alternatively, Visuddhimagga attributes rebirth to flash-backs, visions and hallucinations that hold a dying person's attention at the last moment of his life. So according to this commentary, kammabhava may be defined as the volition (cetana) that motivated his good or bad acts in the past and the sankhara as the mental state conditioned by his death-bed experiences.

Present Effect Due To Past Cause

Thus, owing to the rounds of defilements and kamma comprising the five causes in the past, there arises rebirth-consciousness together with mind-body, six bases, impressions and feeling. These five effects are collectively called vipaka vatta (round of effects). Because of their ignorance, common people have the illusion of pleasantness about every sense-object and mind-object. They develop craving, thereby starting again the vicious cycle of causes and effects that represent their rounds of suffering.

Consciousness, the six sense bases, etc., arise as the kammic result of past kammas. It is a matter of cause-and-effect relationship just like all other phenomena. This leaves no room for ego, God or Prime Mover. The only difference is the moral law governing this relationship, the nature of feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant, being dependent on the good or bad sankhara in the past. In reality there is no person who has pleasant or unpleasant feeling nor any being who causes him to have such an experience. Life is only the continuum of consciousness, impression, etc., as conditioned by five factors, viz., ignorance, craving, etc.

Knowledge For Vipassana Practice

Those who have a smattering of Paticcasamuppada or Abhidhamma say that it is impossible to practise meditation without a knowledge of these teachings. But, in fact the yogi who practises under the guidance of a learned teacher need not bother about higher Buddhist philosophy for he can follow the teacher's instructions if he knows only that life is a mental and physical process characterized by impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality. The adequacy of this simple knowledge to meet the intellectual need of the yogi who is bent on Arahatship is borne out by the Buddha in Culatanha-sankhaya sutta. There the Lord goes on to talk about vipassana practice. In the sutta, the yogi's understanding of nama-rupa is termed "abhijanati" which, says the commentary, means full comprehension and refers to nama-rupa paricchedanana and paccayapariggahanana.

Through contemplation, the yogi knows all phenomena analytically as anicca, dukkha and anatta (parijanati). Here, the Pali terms refer to sammasananana and other vipassana insights.

As regards Paticcasamuppada, a knowledge of the conditionality and cause-effect relationship in life that rules out a being ego or self is sufficient. It is not necessary to know the twelve links or the twenty main points of the doctrine thoroughly. If the practice of vipassana presupposes such a comprehensive knowledge, it would be unthinkable for a man of low intelligence like, say, thera Culapanna. The thera's memory was so poor that he could not remember a few gathas that he had learnt for four months. Nevertheless, he attained Arahatship in a few hours when he practised contemplation as instructed by the Buddha.

Another laywoman, Matikamata by name, attained the third stage (anagami) on the holy path in advance of some bhikkhus who were her meditation teachers. She did not know much about Abhidhamma and Paticcasamuppada. There were many other yogis like this woman and Culapanna thera. So it is possible for a yogi to attain the holy path if he contemplates even though he may not have thoroughly learnt the higher teachings of the Buddha.

Not to know the real nature of pleasant or unpleasant feeling is avijja (ignorance). It is tanha to like a sense-object and it is upadana to have craving for it. To seek the object of one's desire, to do good or evil for one's happiness or welfare in the present life or hereafter means sankhara and kammabhava. These five factors are the present causes and they give rise to rebirth after death. The doctrine of Paticcasamuppada mentions only three causes, viz., vedana, tanha and upadana but in reality these three factors imply two other causes, viz., avijja and sankhara since these two are the mainsprings of tanha and kammabhava respectively. So Patisambhidamagga describes all these five factors as causes of rebirth in future.

Removing The Present Causes

Every good or evil act means the complete conjunction of these five present causes and occasions for such a conjunction in a single lifetime may number by thousands. Under certain circumstances these causes may lead to rebirth after death or two or three rebirths successively. Every existence is bound up with old age, grief, death, etc., and if we wish to avoid these sufferings, we will have to remove the present causes.

To this end we should note all physical phenomena, "seeing", "hearing", etc., at the moment of their arising. With the development of concentration, we note their instant passing away and become aware of their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and unreliability. This awareness helps us to overcome ignorance and illusion that fuel craving, attachment and kammic effort: we thus keep the five present causes inoperative and inactive, thereby forestalling rebirth and consequent suffering.

This method of removing the causes is labelled //tadangapahana// - overcoming some defilements through contemplation. By this method, the yogi attains //tadanganibbuti// - partial extinction of defilements through contemplation. Later on, there arises the insight on the Ariyan path which means the extinction of all sankhara and the realization of Nibbana (//samucchedapahana//).

The defilements and kammas are then done away with, once and forever. The yogis who attain sotapatti stage overcome the defilements and kammas that lead to the lower worlds, and those that may cause good rebirth for more than seven lifetimes, the yogis at the sakadagami stage overcome those that may cause more than two rebirths while the yogis at the anagami stage remove those that lead to rebirth in sensual worlds. Finally, the yogi who attains arahatta stage eradicates the remaining defilements and kamma. In other words, he becomes an Arahat, the Noble one who is worthy of honour because he is wholly free from defilements.

Arahat's Outlook On Life

The arahat has no illusion about the nature of sense-objects. He is aware of their unwholesomeness and this means he realizes the truth of dukkha because he is free from ignorance (avijja). So he has no craving for anything. Inevitably, he has to fill the biological needs of his physical body such as eating, sleeping, etc., but he regards them as conditioned (sankhara) dukkha and finds nothing that is pleasant to him.

The question arises as to whether he should long for speedy death to end such suffering. But the desire for early death or dissolution of the physical body too is a destructive desire and the Arahat is free from it. So there is an Arahat's saying in the Theragatha that he has neither the wish to die nor the wish to live.

The Arahat does not wish to live a long life for life means largely the burden of suffering inherent in khandha. Although the burden of khandha needs constant care and attention, it is not in the least reliable. To many middle-aged or old people, life offers little more than frustration, disappointment and bitterness. Living conditions go from bad to worse, physical health declines and there is nothing but complete disintegration and death that await us. Yet, because of ignorance and attachment many people take delight in existence. On the other hand, the Arahat is disillusioned and he finds life dreary and monotonous. Hence, his distaste for life.

But the Arahat does not prefer death either. For death-wish is an aggressive instinct which he has also conquered. What he wants is to attain Nibbana, a longing that is somewhat analogous to that of a worker who wishes to get his daily or monthly wage.

The worker does not like to face hardship and privations for he has to work inevitably just to make his living but he does not want to lose his job either. He wants only money and looks forward to pay-day. Likewise, the Arahat waits for the moment when he should attain Nibbana without anything left of his body-mind complex. So when they think of their life-span, the Arahats wonder how long they will have to bear the burden of nama-rupa khandha. Because of his disillusionment, the Arahat's life-stream is completely cut off after Nibbana, hence it is called //anupadisesanibbana//.

Not Annihilation But Extinction Of Suffering

Those who believe in ego or soul deprecate Nibbana as eternal death of a living being. In reality, it is the total extinction of suffering that results from the non-recurrence of psycho-physical phenomena together with their causes viz., kamma and defilements. So the Buddha points out the cessation of upadana arising from the complete cessation of craving, the process of becoming (bhava) ceasing to arise due to cessation of upadana and so on. With the non-arising of rebirth, there is the complete cessation of old age, death and other kinds of suffering.

Here, the popular view is that birth, old age and death are evils that afflict living beings but, in point of fact, these evils characterize only the psycho-physical process and have nothing to do with a living entity. Since there is no ego or soul, it makes no sense to speak of the annihilation of a living being with the cessation of rebirth and suffering.

So those who regard Nibbana as annihilation are not free from the illusion of ego-entity. To the intelligent Buddhist, Nibbana means only cessation of suffering. This is evident in the story of bhikkhu Yamaka in the time of the Buddha.

Story Of Yamaka

Yamaka believed that the Arahat was annihilated after his death. He clung to his view although other bhikkhus pointed out its falsity. Then, Sariputta summoned him. Questioned by the elder thera, Yamaka admitted that all the five khandhas are impermanent and suffering, that it would be a mistake to regard them as one's possession or self. Sariputta told him to see the five khandhas as they really are. He would then become disillusioned, detached and liberated.

While hearing the sermon, Yamaka attained the sotapanna stage. He was now free from false beliefs. Sariputta then questioned him again. In response to the thera's questions, Yamaka said that he did not identify the Arahat with the physical body, the perception, the feeling, conformations (sankhara) or the consciousness. Nor did he believe that the Arahat existed elsewhere without the rupa, vedana or any other khandha. Therefore, since the Arahat or a living entity is not to be found in the five khandhas even before death, it makes no sense to speak of the Arahat's annihilation after his parinibbana.

Yamaka confessed his mistaken view. He was now free from it and he knew what to say about the destiny of the Arahat. If someone were to ask him, "What happens when the Arahat passes away?", he would answer, "The death of the Arahat means the complete cessation of suffering inherent in the impermanent five khandhas."

This statement about the Arahat was confirmed by Sariputta. The thera likened the khandhas to the murderer who poses as a friend and said that identifying the khandhas with atta is like welcoming the murderer, etc.

Here, the thera Yamaka at first believed that the Arahat was annihilated after death, that there was nothing left. This belief presupposes the illusion of ego-entity and so the annihilation view of Nibbana is called ucchedaditthi, the view that Nibbana means the negation of atta after death. When he realized the truth and attained sotapanna, Yamaka said that the death of the Arahat means the complete extinction of suffering inherent in the impermanent five khandhas.

To sum up the way to the cessation of suffering, failure to note seeing, hearing and other psycho-physical phenomena leads to the arising of avijja, tanha, upadana, kamma, and sankhara that in turn cause birth, old age and death in future. Mindfulness of all phenomena forestalls the five present causes viz., avijja, etc., and the five consequences that involve suffering.

Bhikkhuni Vajira On The Nature Of Khandhas

Moreover, it is the extinction of suffering that is underscored in the famous saying of bhikkhuni Vajira. While she was sitting under a tree near Jetavana monastery, Mara appeared and in order to scare and discomfit her, asked her,"Hey, bhikkhuni! Who created a living being? Where is the creator? How did a living being originate and how would he come to an end?"

Bhikkhuni Vajira replied, "O, Mara! What do you think is a living being? Is not your belief in a living being an illusion? What you regard as a living being is nothing but a heap of sankhara. No being is to be found in this heap, a living being (sattava) is merely a term for the collection of five khandhas viz., rupa, vedana, etc., just as "chariot" is the term for the combination of wheel, axle, etc.; there is no being but only the group of five khandhas: That cause suffering - in fact, it is only suffering (dukkha) that arises, exists and ends. There is no arising and extinction of anything other than dukkha."

Therefore, a living being is to be understood only in the popular acceptation of the term. It does not exist in the absolute sense; there is only the psycho-physical process which comprises ignorance, craving, attachment, kamma and kammic effort as causes and consciousness, body-mind, sense bases, impression and feeling as effects. These effects in turn become causes that give rise to rebirth and suffering.

Four Layers, Three Links And Twenty Factors

Paticcasamuppada refers to four groups of factors involved in the chain of causation viz., the first group of causes in the past, the second group of effects in the present life, the third group of causes in the present and the last group of effects in the future. The groups are labelled //sangaha// or //sankhepa// in Pali. They may also be translated as layers.

There are three links for the four layers - the link between the past and the present involving sankhara as cause and vinnana as effect, the link between the present effect and present cause with vedana and tanha as cause and effect, and the third link between present cause and future with bhava as cause and jati (birth) as effect.

Then, there are twenty factors (akara) involved in the psycho-physical process viz., five causes in the past, five effects in the present, five causes in the present and five effects in the future.

Three Cycles

Again the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada deals with three cycles or rounds (vattas) viz., the cycles of defilements, kamma and fruits. The first cycle comprises ignorance, desire and attachment (upadana), the second (kamma cycle) comprises kammic effort and kammic existence (bhava), and the third vipaka cycle involves consciousness, mind-body, sense bases, impression and feeling.

The third vipaka cycle again leads to the cycle of defilement, the cycle of defilement again gives rise to kamma cycle and so on, each of the three cycles occurring one after another ceaselessly in a vicious circle. The three cycles form the samsaric round of suffering. Samsara means continuum of nama-rupa (psycho-physical) process occurring in terms of cause-effect relationship.

In order to liberate ourselves from the samsaric cycle of suffering, we do good deeds. We become familiar with the Buddha's teaching about the Four Noble Truths. We practise contemplation at the moment of seeing, hearing, etc. We realize the ceaseless arising and dissolution of psycho-physical phenomena. This vipassana insight forestalls illusion and frees us from craving and attachment that leads to rebirth and suffering.

Visuddhimagga describes the contribution of kamma to the cycle of defilement. A certain yogi sees how mind-body complex is born of kammic cycle and vipaka (kammic fruits) cycle. He realizes that there are only kamma and its fruits: As a result of kamma in the past, there arise nama-rupa in the present life; nama-rupa is the cause of present kamma; it gives rise to kammic deeds in present life. These kammic deeds lead to rebirth. In this way there is the arising (becoming) of nama-rupa (being) without cessation.

Here, the arising or becoming of nama-rupa means the arising of phenomena from the senses e.g. seeing, hearing, etc. These lead to defilement, kamma, and rebirth successively. Thus, the nama-rupa process is conditioned by the cycle of kamma and its fruit. According to Visuddhimagga, this insight-knowledge means paccayapariggahanana and kankhavitarana visuddhi (Purity of Escape from all Doubt).

Four Aspects Of Paticcasamuppada

There are four aspects of the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada that we should bear in mind. The first is the individual character of the psycho-physical process that comprises the three successive existences. Although the doctrine stresses the conditionality of all phenomena, it is a mistake to believe that avijja, tanha and other causes concern one person, while vinnana, nama-rupa and other causes concern one person, and while vinnana, nama-rupa and other effects concern another person for this belief implies the total extinction of a living being after death, the annihilation - view which Buddhism rejects. In reality, the nama-rupa process is analogous to, say, the evolution of a mango tree. The mango seed becomes a seedling, the seedling turns into a young plant and the plant grows into a tree. Here the seed, the young plant and the tree form a continuous, unbroken line of cause and effect relationship so that strictly speaking, it is impossible to distinguish between the tree and the plant.

Likewise, avijja, sankhara, vinnana, etc., occur in unbroken succession in terms of cause and effect and so it is reasonable to speak of a particular person involved in the process. It was Devadatta, for example, who committed schism and it is Devadatta who is now suffering in hell. The merchant Anathapindika did good deeds and it was he himself who landed in the deva-world after his death.

The False View Of Sati

This identification of the doer of kammic deed with the bearer of its fruit makes it possible for us to avoid the annihilation-view. On the other hand, some people believe in the transmigration of a living being as a whole from one life to another. This mistaken view called sassataditthi (eternity-belief) was held by bhikkhu Sati in the time of the Buddha.

It was the Jatakas that led bhikkhu Sati to this view. He learnt how the Buddha identified himself with the leading characters in these birth stories. So he reasoned thus: the physical body of the bodhisatta disintegrated after his death and there was nothing of it that passed on to his last existence. It was only the consciousness that survived physical dissolution and that formed the hard core of the bodhisatta's personality in each of his existence. The same may be said of every other living being. Unlike the physical body, consciousness is not subject to disintegration. It passes on from one body to another and exists forever.

But the Jatakas underscore only the continuity of the cause and effect relationship in terms or the doer of kamma and the bearer of kammic fruit. They do not imply the transfer of vinnana or any other attribute intact from one life to another. Everything passes away but because of the causal connection, we have to assume that the hero of a Jataka story finally became Prince Siddhattha. So after questioning Sati, the Buddha says that vinnana is conditioned, that it cannot arise in the absence of its relevant cause.

The Buddha cites the simile of a fire which is designated according to its origin. The fire that originates with wood is called wood-fire, that which starts with grass is called grass-fire and so on. Likewise, consciousness is conditioned by something and it is labelled according to that which conditions it. Thus, the consciousness that arises from eye and visual form is called visual consciousness (cakkhu-vinnana), that which stems from ear and sound is called auditory consciousness (sota-vinnana) and so forth. In short, the consciousness is specified according to the sense-object and the sense-organ which together give rise to it. When the cause of a fire changes so does its designation. A grass-fire becomes a bush-fire when the fire spreads to the bush. In the same way, consciousness changes its label according to the sense-object and the sense-organ on which it is dependent. In the case of the same sense-object and the same sense-organ, too, it is the new consciousness that occurs at every moment in the mental process. Thus, to realize the truth about mental process is to be free from annihilation-belief whereas a false view of it leads to eternity-belief.

Distinctive Character Of Each Phenomenon

Another aspect of the doctrine is the distinction between the different phenomena constituting the chain of causation. Thus avijja is a distinct phenomenon that conditions sankhara; sankhara is another different phenomenon that leads to rebirth and so on. To differentiate these phenomena is to realize their cause-and-effect relationship and this realization makes us free from eternity-belief. It helps us to do away with the illusion of a permanent, unchanging self that survives death and passes on to another existence.

In fact the eternity-belief or the annihilation-belief stems from the fact that people tend to over-emphasize either the connection between the mental states in two successive lives or the distinction between them. If we unintelligently identify ourselves with the nama-rupa in the present life and that in the previous life, we will be inclined to the belief in immortality. On the other hand, if we overstress the dichotomy of the nama-rupas, we are likely to fall into the trap of annihilation-view. The right attitude is to recognize the unbroken stream of nama-rupa that flows from one life to another in terms of cause and effect. This point of view gives us the impression of the individual character of nama-rupa and, as such, it clarifies the working out of kamma. It does not, however, imply the transfer of old nama-rupa or ego. It assumes the cessation of old nama-rupa and the arising of new nama-rupa in the present life on the basis of past kamma.

This view is crucial in vipassana practice. To the yogi who contemplates nama-rupa at every moment of their arising, these two aspects of the doctrine are apparent. He becomes aware of the stream of cause and effect comprising avijja, tanha, upadana and so forth. He is aware of the continuity, and the uninterrupted flow of nama-rupa process and, therefore, he rejects the annihilation view completely.

Furthermore, being aware of the new phenomenon that arises whenever he contemplates, he discriminates between the sense-object and his consciousness. Contemplation brings to light feeling, craving, clinging, effort, consciousness, etc., as distinct phases of the mental process. And because he is well aware of the arising of new phenomena, he frees himself from eternity-belief.

Absence Of Effort (Avyapara)

Another aspect of Paticcasamuppada is the absence of effort (avyapara). Avijja causes sankhara without striving and sankhara does not strive to create rebirth. Knowledge of this fact means insight into the non-existence of any agent or being (karaka-puggala) who hears, sees, etc., and as such it makes us free from ego-belief. But as Visuddhimagga says, it lends itself to misinterpretation and turns one into a moral sceptic who accepts determinism and denies moral freedom.

The non-volitional nature of conditioned psycho-physical phenomena is apparent to the yogi who contemplates their ceaseless arising and dissolution for he realizes clearly that since nama-rupa is conditioned, his mind and body do not always act according to his desire.

Relevancy Of Cause To Effect

The last aspect of Paticcasamuppada is the one-to-one correspondence between cause and effect (evam dhammata). Every cause leads only to the relevant effect; it has nothing to do with the irrelevant effect. In other words, every cause is the sufficient and necessary condition for the corresponding effect. This fact leaves no room for belief in chance or moral impotency (akiriyaditthi) but, as Visuddhimagga says, for those who misunderstand it, it provides the basis for rigid determinism (niyatavada). As for the contemplating yogi, he clearly sees the relevancy of each effect to its cause and so he has no doubt about their one-to-one correspondence and the reality of moral freedom.

I have dwelt at length on noteworthy facts about Paticcasamuppada. These will be clear to the yogis who consider them on the basis of their experience but as the doctrine is profound, they will not be able to grasp some facts that are beyond their intellectual level. It is of course only the omniscient Buddha who knew everything thoroughly. The yogi should make it a point to know fully as far as possible within the scope of his intellect. To this end, he should learn from the discourses of bhikkhus, reflect over what he has learnt and enrich his understanding through the practice of mindfulness.

Of the three methods of study, the third method (bhavanamaya) is the most important for the yogi who gains insight-knowledge by this method, attains the holy path and is liberated from the dangers of the lower worlds.


Now we will conclude the discourse on Paticcasamuppada with a commentary on Arahant, the chief attribute of the Buddha.

The formula about the dependent origination consists of twelve links beginning with ignorance and ending in death. It has ignorance and craving as two root-causes and two life-cycles. The anterior cycle begins with ignorance and ends in feeling, while the posterior cycle begins with craving and ends in death and old age. Since anxiety, grief and the like do not occur in the Brahma world, they do not necessarily stem from birth (jati) and, as such, are not counted among the links of the dependent origination.

Furthermore, the anterior life-cycle explicitly shows only avijja and sankhara; but avijja implies tanha-upadana and sankhara implies kammabhava. So all these five links form the past causes, while vinnana, nama-rupa, ayatana, phassa and vedana form the present effects. These vinnana, etc., are the wholesome or unwholesome kammic fruits that are clearly experienced at the moment of seeing, etc. The posterior life-cycle directly concerns tanha, upadana and kammabhava but these three causes imply avijja and sankhara, and so as in the past avijja, tanha, upadana, sankhara and kammabhava represent the five present causes that lead to birth, old age and death in future. These effects are the same as those of vinnana, nama-rupa, etc. Thus, like the present effects, the future effects are also five in number.

So there are altogether four groups of layers of five past causes, five present effects, five present causes and five effects in the future. The layers represent three causal relations viz., the relation between the past causes and the present effects; the relation between the present effects and present causes; and the conditionality of phenomenal existence is evident in these layers or the twenty links of cause and effect which are termed //akara//. These links may be grouped in terms of vatta or cycles or rounds of defilements, viz., the cycle of defilements, the cycle of kamma and the cycle of kammic fruits which we have already explained before.

Those who have done good kammas pass through human, deva or Brahma worlds while those who have done evil are doomed to rebirth in the lower worlds. Living beings confined to life-cycle (samsara) get the chance to do good only when they have a good teacher. A good teacher is hard to come by and so many people are largely prone to evil deeds and subject to their kammic effects in terms of suffering. It is then said that they are overtaken by Nemesis, that they have to pay for their round of kamma. Once established on the Ariyan path, they cannot land in hell but as for the cycle of kammic fruits, even the Buddhas and Arahats are not spared kammic retribution.

Cutting Off The Cycle Of Defilements

If we wish to end the threefold cycle, we will have to remove its cause viz., the cycle of defilements. Defilements originate with seeing, hearing, etc., and so we must practise mindfulness to prevent their arising when we see, hear, etc. The practice of concentration and mindfulness makes the yogi aware of the impermanence and insubstantiality of all phenomena. This means he has no more illusion and is free from the cycle of defilements, kammas and kammic fruits.

Now, to sum up the way to the total conquest of the threefold cycle of defilement, kammas and kammic results with reference to the attributes of the Buddha.

Arahan And The Attributes Of The Buddha

The Buddha's special designation is Arahan and this word points to the following attributes of the Buddha.

(1) The Buddha was free from defilements. So were the Arahats but they were not free from the habits that continued to dominate them even after the attainment of their spiritual goal. This is evident in the story of thera Pilindavaccha. Pilinda was an Arahat, beloved of the devas and extolled by the Buddha. Yet he was in the habit of addressing his fellow bhikkhus or laymen rather rudely. Some bhikkhus complained to the Buddha about the thera's rudeness. The Buddha attributed this unpleasant habit to his having spent several lifetimes in the Brahmin families but said that being an Arahat, the thera was pure and good at heart.

As for the Buddha, from the time of his attainment of supreme enlightenment, he became free from all the habits or hangovers of defilements that were carried over from past lives. This distinctive mark of the Buddha's Arahatship should be borne in mind when we contemplate the Lord's attributes. The complete extinction of cycles means total liberation from the three cycles of defilements, kamma and kammic fruits.

(2) The Buddha was called Arahan because of his conquest of defilements. People fear only the external enemy such as robbers, snakes, etc. They do not bother about the internal enemy, that is, defilements that are more terrible. In point of fact, they have to suffer because of their mind-body complex and defilements. The root-cause is the defilements that give rise to repeated rebirths and sufferings. The defilements are ten in number viz., craving, hatred, ignorance, pride, illusion, doubt, lassitude, restlessness, shamelessness and lack of conscience.

(3) By virtue of his outstanding moral integrity, wisdom and enlightenment, the Buddha was worthy of reverence and offerings. People who revered or made offerings to the Buddha have their wishes fulfilled.

(4) Since he had conquered the defilements completely, the Buddha was pure at heart whether in public or solitude. Many people play the hypocrite, posing as good men or women in public but doing evil when there is no-one to see or hear them. In reality, there is no place where one can do evil secretly. Even though the evil-doer is not seen by men and gods, he cannot help having qualms of conscience. His conscience is the most infallible witness to his misdeeds and it forms the basis for death-bed visions that point to unpleasant life that future has in store for him.

As for the Buddha, having wholly conquered all the defilements, his mind was always pure and he had absolutely no desire or intention to do evil either publicly or secretly.

(5) The Buddha had destroyed the spokes of the wheel with the sword of the Arahatship. Here, the wheel means the cycle of life as described in the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada and the sword means the insight-knowledge of the Arahat. The axle of the wheel represents avijja, the root-cause; the fringe of the wheel stands for old age and death, while the spokes stand for the middle links, viz., sankhara, etc. Just as the removal of spokes makes it impossible for the wheel to move, so also the destruction of the middle links in the chain of conditioned phenomena means the end of the cycle of life.

Story Of Baka Brahma

The first thing to do to end the life-cycle is to remove its root-cause viz., ignorance, for ignorance is invariably followed by sankhara, vinnana, etc., down to jaramarana (old age and death). This is true in the sensual worlds as well as in the material world of Brahmas.

Once there was a great Brahma called Baka. He outlived many world-systems (kappa); indeed he lived so long that at last he forgot his previous existences and became convinced of his immortality without old age or death. The Buddha went to his abode to remove his illusion. The Brahma welcomed the Lord and bragged about his eternal life. The Buddha said that his ignorance was appalling in that he denied impermanence, old age and death. He revealed the good deeds that had led to the Brahma's longevity and it was this fabulous longevity that had made him oblivious of his previous lives and created the illusion of his immortality. On hearing this, Baka Brahma had second thoughts about his omnipotence. Still, he was conceited and in order to show his power, he tried to vanish out of sight of the Buddha and other Brahmas but it was in vain. Because of the power of the Lord, he remained visible.

Then the Buddha uttered the following verse:

Bhavevaham bhayam disva bhavan ja vibhavesinam bhavam nabhivadim kinci nandincana upadiyim:

I do not extol any existence because I see danger in it. I have renounced the craving for existence because I am aware of its evil.

Baka Brahma and other Brahmas had lived so long that they considered their existence and their abode eternal. Likewise, the evils of life escape the notice of those who have the blessings of a good life such as health, wealth, prestige, success and so forth. But life is subject to suffering on all its three planes: sensual plane, material plane and immaterial plane. A Brahma or a rishi on the material or immaterial planes of existence may live for aeons but they too have to die eventually.


It is insight knowledge that leads to the destruction of ignorance which is the root-cause of suffering. For the Buddha, this means the attribute of sammasambuddha. Sammasambuddha is one who knows the Four Noble Truths rightly, thoroughly and independently. Here the twelve links of Paticcasamuppada may be differentiated in terms of the Four Noble Truths.

Thus, old age and death together means the first truth of suffering and rebirth means the truth about the cause of suffering. The cessation of this cause and this effect means the truth about the cessation (nirodha) and, knowledge of this cessation means the truth about the path to it (magga).

The same may be said of rebirth and kammic cause, kammic cause and clinging, clinging and craving, craving and feeling, feeling and contact, contact and six senses, the senses and nama-rupa, nama-rupa and consciousness, consciousness and sankhara, and sankhara and ignorance. In short, what immediately precedes a link is termed its cause (samudaya) and what immediately follows is called its effect (dukkha sacca). We can even make ignorance (avijja), the origin of life-cycle, synonymous with truth about suffering (dukkha sacca); if we regard it as an effect of the attachment (asava) viz., attachment to sensual pleasure, existence, belief and ignorance.

Here, the identification of tanha with dukkha may not be acceptable to some people. But it is reasonable if we remember the fact that all nama-rupa including tanha means dukkha since it is subject to impermanence. The commentary does not describe avijja as dukkha, but we can say it is dukkha arising from asava (biases). There are four asavas that have their sources in sensual craving, attachment to life, false belief and ignorance. It is a matter of ignorance in the past again giving rise to ignorance in the present. Hence, the asavas may be regarded as the cause of avijja.

So having realized the Four Noble Truths and attained Nibbana, through his own enlightenment, the Buddha earned the unique and glorious title of Sammasambuddha. He knew that all the phenomena covered by the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada are the real dukkha and the causes of dukkha. He was disenchanted, had no attachment and achieved liberation from all fetters. So according to Visuddhimagga, he was called Arahan because he managed to destroy completely all the supports of the wheel of life.

The Fame Of The Buddha

The fame of the Buddha pervaded the whole universe. It spread to all parts of the universe through the inhabitants of some realms who came to hear the Buddha's sermons or through the sermons which the Buddha himself gave in some realms or through the former disciples who had landed in some higher realms after hearing the sermons.

We need not dwell on the first way in which the fame of the Buddha spread. As regards the other two ways, in the course of his long wanderings in samsara, the bodhisatta had been to all the realms except the five suddhavasa realms which are meant only for those who have attained anagami stage. The bodhisatta usually attains all the four stages on the path only in his last existence. So the Buddha had never been to suddhavasa realm before and on one occasion he paid a visit to it by means of his psychic powers. On arriving there, he received the homage of millions of brahmas, who told him about the former Buddhas and their landing in suddhavasa realm as the result of their attainment of anagami stage. Among these brahmas, there were also those who had practised the dhamma as disciples of Gotama Buddha.

The Buddha visited all the five suddhavasa realms. It is easy to see how he became famous in the realms that were the abodes of his former disciples. But the question arises as to how his fame spread to the formless (arupa) realms. It was not possible for the formless brahmas to come to the Buddha or for the Buddha to go to them. Those who practised the Buddha-dhamma in the sensual or the material world, attaining the first three stages on the path and dying with arupa (formless) jhana might land in the formless worlds if they so desired. These noble ones were aware of the sublime attributes of the Buddha and the possibility of attaining new insights through the practice of mindfulness. So through mindfulness of all mental events, they finally became Arahats and passed away in vinnanancayatana realm or akincannayatana realm or the highest realm called Nevasannanasannayatana. In this way, the fame of the Buddha spread throughout the whole universe.

The Four Noble Truths In Brief

We have dealt in detail with the Buddha's knowledge of the Four Noble Truths vis-a-vis his attribute of Sammasambuddha. We will now repeat the four truths briefly. According to the scriptures, all the nama-rupa in the sensual, material and immaterial worlds, exclusive of tanha, constitute dukkha. This is the first truth. Tanha as the cause of dukkha is the second truth. Nibbana as the cessation of dukkha is the third truth, and the Ariyan path as the way to cessation is the fourth truth. These Four Noble Truths are realized experientially by the yogi through the practice of vipassana. From experience he knows that all that is arising and passing away mean dukkha, attachment to them is the cause, that cessation of both the dukkha and its cause is Nibbana, and that its attainment is the path.

Sammasambuddha And Buddhahood

Both of the two Pali terms viz., Buddha and Sammasambuddha mean omniscience or knowledge of all the dhammas. This raises the question of how to make a distinction between the two attributes connected by the two terms. By the attribute of sammasambuddha, we are to understand that the bodhisatta attained Buddhahood on the basis of independent reflection, and effort and the realization of the Four Noble Truths through insight on the path of Arahatship. Buddhahood means the thorough and exhaustive knowledge of all the conditioned and the unconditioned dhammas on the basis of the unique attributes possessed by the Buddha such as omniscience (sabbannutanana), etc.

These unique attributes of the Buddha consist in knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, four kinds of analytical knowledge and six kinds of knowledge that are not to be found among disciples (asadharananana). The six asadharananana are: (1) knowledge of the different moral and spiritual levels of living beings, (2) knowledge of the desires, inclinations and latent tendencies (anusaya) of living beings, (3) the power to create super-miracles (yamakapatihariyanana), (4) infinite compassion for all living beings, (5) omniscience, and (6) knowledge without any hindrance or obstruction of anything which the Buddha wants to know and which he brings into the focus of his attention.

Now a few words about the conditioned (sankhara) and unconditioned (asankhara) dhammas. The sankharas are the nama-rupa or the five aggregates of khandhas that arise owing to the harmonious combination of relevant factors. In other words, they are the phenomena conditioned by favourable circumstances. Thus, sound is produced when there is friction between two hard objects such as sticks or iron bars. Here sound is sankhara. As opposed to sankhara is asankhara which has nothing to do with causes. The only ultimate reality (paramattha) in the category of asankhara dhammas is Nibbana. Of the non-paramattha asankharas there are many kinds of names such as names of shapes, figures and so forth.

The Buddha's sabbannutanana is so called because it encompasses the whole range of conditioned and unconditioned dhammas. It is also described in terms of the five neyyadhamma viz., the sankhara, the distinctive qualities of certain rupas (nipphanna), the conditioned characteristics of nama-rupa, Nibbana and names.

The first two attributes of the Buddha forming the knowledge of the different spiritual levels, inclinations and latent tendencies of living beings are labelled Buddha-eye (Buddha-cakkhu). With this all-seeing eye, the Buddha chose the living beings who ought to be enlightened, and preached to them the appropriate dhamma at the appropriate moment.

We conclude the discourse on the Paticcasamuppada with the commentary on the attributes of the Buddha (Arahan) because we wish to inspire the readers with faith in the Blessed One. We hope that they will find the source of inspiration too, in the Arahats who also possess the Arahan attribute. The Arahat is wholly free from defilements, he has destroyed the framework of life-cycle; there is no secret place where he will do evil and so he is worthy of honour. These are the qualities that make up his Arahan attribute although this attribute as possessed by the ordinary Arahat is below the superlative Arahan attribute of the Buddha.

So you should try to overcome defilements through mindfulness of the nama-rupa processes that arise at the six sense-doors, destroy the supports of the wheel of life and keep your mind pure all the time in order that you may eventually become Arahats and earn the glorious title of Arahan.


From the two root-causes referred to in the two noble truths there arise four layers, three cycles, three connections, twelve links, three time-dimensions, twenty phenomena and five nama-rupa processes. One who watches these present resultant processes effectively does not have craving that is rooted in feeling and so he will put an end to life-cycle completely.

In other words, the yogi watches every psycho-physical event that occurs at the six senses clearly in terms of its impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and egolessness.

Through such effective practice of mindfulness, the yogi gains insight into the nature of the sense-object such as sound, visual form, etc., and overcomes the attachment to it by the opposite (tadanga), that is, he overcomes it by opposing it with the knowledge that undercuts it. The cessation of attachment rules out the arising of the other phenomena e.g. clinging, process of becoming, rebirth, etc. After this cessation through vipassana insight, the yogi overcomes the latent attachment completely through destruction (samuccheda) when he attains the insight knowledge on the Ariyan path. At this moment the other phenomena e.g. clinging, etc., also become totally extinct.

There is no teaching which says that with the extinction of feeling, craving too ceases to exist. This is no wonder for even the Arahats do not have any control over their feelings that arise from contact with the six senses.

There are certain psycho-physical phenomena that have to be watched and noted as they really are i.e. in terms of anicca, dukkha and anatta if the yogi wants to remove the present causes such as tanha etc., the future results and end the cycle of suffering. These phenomena with their Pali terms are explained below.

(1) Vinnana: consciousness, which is of six kinds viz., eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness.

(2) Nama: mental factors (cetasikas) that arise together with consciousness. Rupa: the physical phenomena that arises together with that consciousness. Nama-rupa may be translated as mind and matter.

(3) Salayatana: the six bases of mental activity, that is, the six internal bases comprising the consciousness and the five physical sense-organs viz., eye, ear, nose, tongue and body and the six external bases viz., visible object, sound, odour, sap or gustative object, body-impression and mind-object.

(4) Phassa: contact or impression, which is of six kinds viz., visual impression, impression of hearing, of smelling, of tasting, bodily impression and mental impression.

(5) Vedana: feelings which is of three kinds viz., pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling and indifferent feeling. We may also distinguish six kinds of feelings: feelings associated with seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, body-impression and mental impression.

1. Two root-causes:

Ignorance (avijja) and craving (tanha).

2. Two truths:

Truth about the cause (craving) and truth about suffering (dukkha).

3. Four layers:

(1) The layer of the past cause - ignorance, kamma formations (sankhara), craving, clinging and becoming.

(2) The layer of present result - consciousness, mind-body complex, six bases of mental activity, impression, feeling.

(3) The layer of present cause - craving, clinging, kamma, becoming, ignorance, kamma formations (sankhara).

(4) Future result - birth, old age, death, consciousness, etc.

4. Three cycles:

(1) The cycle of defilements - ignorance, craving, clinging.

(2) The cycle of kamma - kamma formations (sankhara), kamma and becoming.

(3) The cycle of kammic results - consciousness, mind-body complex, six bases of mental activity, impression, feeling, birth, old age and death.

5. Three connections:

(1) The connection between the past kamma formations (sankhara) as the past cause and consciousness as the present result.

(2) The connection between feeling as the present result and craving as the present cause.

(3) The connection between becoming as the present cause and birth as the future result.

6. Twelve links:

(1) ignorance (2) kamma formations (3) consciousness (4) mental and physical phenomena (5) six bases (6) impression (7) feeling (8) craving (9) clinging (10) becoming (11) rebirth (12) old age and death

7. Three time-dimensions:

(1) The infinite past - ignorance and kamma formations.

(2) The infinite present - consciousness, mind-body complex, six bases, impression, feeling, craving, clinging, kamma-process.

(3) The infinite future - rebirth, old age and death.

8. Twenty elements:

(1) Five elements of the causative process in the past existence.

(2) Five elements of the resultant process in the present existence.

(3) Five elements of the causative process in the present existence.

(4) Five elements of the resultant process in the future existence.


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