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May 30th
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Home Teachings Dependant Originations What is Dependant Origination - Ignorance to Formations

What is Dependant Origination - Ignorance to Formations

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Article Index
What is Dependant Origination
Ignorance to Formations
Formations to Consciousness
Consciousness to Mind-and-Body
Mind-and-Body to Six Bases
Six Bases to Contact
Contact to Feeling
Feeling to Craving
Craving to Clinging
Clinging to Becoming
Becoming to Birth
Birth to Suffering
The Three Periods
Other Aspects
All Pages

Ignorance to Formations



According to the Buddha, avijja is ignorance of the four Noble Truths, viz, the truths about suffering, its cause, its cessation and the way to its cessation. In a positive sense avijja implies misconception or illusion. It makes us mistake what is false and illusory for truth and reality. It leads us astray and so it is labelled micchapatipatti-avijja. Avijja therefore differs from ordinary ignorance. Ignorance of the name of a man or a village does not necessarily mean misinformation whereas the avijja of Paticcasmuppada means something more than ignorance. It is misleading like the ignorance of a man who has lost all sense of direction and who therefore thinks that the east is west or that the north is south.

The man who does not know the truth of suffering has an optimistic view of life that is full of dukkha (pain and evil). It is mistake to seek the truth of dukkha in the book for it is to be found in one's own body. Seeing, hearing, in short, all nama-rupa arising from the six senses are dukkha. For this phenomenal existence is impermanent, undesirable and unpleasant. It may end at any time and so all is pain and suffering. But this dukkha is not realized by living beings who look upon their existence as blissful and good. So they seek pleasant sense-objects, good sights, good sounds, good food, etc. Their effort to secure what they believe to be the good things of life is due to their illusion (avijja) about their existence.

Avijja is here like the green eye-glass that makes a horse eat the dry grass which it mistakes for green grass. Living beings are mired in sensual pleasure because they see every thing through rose-coloured glasses. They harbour illusions about the nature of sense-objects and namarupa. A blind man may be easily deceived by another man who offers him a worthless longyi, saying that it is an expensive, high quality longyi. The blind man will believe him and he will like the longyi very much. He will be disillusioned only when he recovers his sight and then he will throw it away at once. Like-wise, as a victim of avijja, a man enjoys life, being blind to its anicca, dukkha and anatta. He becomes disenchanted when introspection of nama-rupa makes him aware of the unwholesome nature of his existence.

Introspection of nama-rupa or vipassana contemplation has nothing to do with bookish knowledge. It means thorough watching and ceaseless contemplation of all psycho-physical phenomena that comprise both the sense-objects and the corresponding consciousness. The practice leads to full awareness of the ir nature. As concentration develops, the meditator realizes their arising and instant vanishing, thereby gaining an insight into their anicca, dukkha and anatta. Avijja makes us blind to reality because we are unmindful. Unmindfulness gives rise to the illusion of man, woman, hand, leg, etc., in the conventional sense of the terms. We do not know that seeing, for instance, is merely the nama-rupa or psycho-physical process, that the phenomenon arises and vanishes, that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory and unsubstantial.

Some people who never contemplate die without knowing anything about nama-rupa. The real nature of nama-rupa process is realized by the mindful person. But the insight does not occur in the beginning when concentration is not yet developed. Illusion or the natural way of consciousness precedes contemplation and so the beginner does not gain a clear insight into the nature of namarupa. It is only through steadfast practice that concentration and perception develop and lead to insight-knowledge. If, for example, while practising mindfulness, the meditator feels itchy, he is barely aware of being itchy. He does not think of the hand, the leg, or any other part of the body that is itchy nor does the idea of self as the subject of itchiness, "I feel itchy" occurs to him. There arises only the continuous sensation of itchiness. The sensattion does not remain permanent but passes away as he notes it. The watching consciousness promptly notes every psycho-physical phenomenon, leaving no room for the illusion of hand, leg and so on. Illusion dominates the unmindful person and makes him blind to the unsatisfactory nature (dukkha) of all sense-objects. It replaces dukkha with sukha. Indeed avijja means both ignorance of what is real and misconception that distorts reality.

Because he does not know the truth of dukkha, man seeks pleasant sense-objects. Thus ignorance leads to effort and activity (sankhara). According to the scriptures, because of avijja there arises sankhara but there are two links, viz, tanha and upadana between them. Ignorance gives rise to craving (tanha) which later on develops into attachment (upadana). Craving and attachment stem from the desire for pleasure and are explicitly mentioned in the middle part of the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada. When the past is fully described, reference is made to avijja, tanha, upadana, kamma and sankhara.


People do not know that craving is the origin (samudaya) of suffering. On the contrary they believe that it is attachment that makes them happy, that without attachment life would be dreary. So they ceaselessly seek pleasant sense-objects, food, clothing, companion and so forth. In the absence of these objects of attachment they usually feel ill at ease and find life monotonous. For common people life without attachment would be indeed wholly devoid of pleasure. It is tanha that hides the unpleasantness of life and makes it pleasant. But for the Arahat who has done away with tanha, it is impossible to enjoy life. He is always bent on nibbāna, the cessation of conditioned suffering.

Tanha cannot exert much pressure even on the meditators (meditators) when they become absorbed in the practise of vipassana. So some meditators do not enjoy life as much as they did before. On their return from meditation retreat they get bored at home and feel ill at ease in the company of their families. To other people the meditator may appear to be conceited but in fact his behaviour is a sign of loss of interest in the workaday world. But if he cannot as yet overcome the sensual desire, his boredom is temporary and he usually gets readjusted to his home life in due course. His family need not worry over his mood or behaviour for it is not easy for a man to become thoroughly sick of his home life.

So the meditator should examine himself and see how much he is really disenchanted with life. If his desire for pleasure lingers, he must consider himself still in the grip of tanha. Without tanha we would feel discomfited. In conjunction with avijja, tanha makes us blind to dukkha and creates the illusion of sukha. So we frantically seek sources of pleasure. Consider, for example, men's fondness for movies and dramatic performances. These entertainments cost time and money but tanha makes them irresistible although to the person who has no craving for them they are sources of suffering.

A more obvious example is smoking. The smoker delights in inhaling the tobacco smoke but to the non-smoker it is a kind of self- inflicted suffering. The non-smoker is free from all the troubles that beset the smoker. He leads a relatively care- free and happy life because he has no craving for tobacco. Tanha as the source of dukkha is also evident in the habit of betel-chewing. Many people enjoy it although in fact it is a troublesome habit. Like the smoker and the betel-chewer people seek to gratify their craving and this tanha, inspired effort is the mainspring of rebirth that leads to old age, sickness and death. Suffering and desire as its cause are evident in everyday life but it is hard to see these truths. For they are profound and one can realize them not through reflection but only through the practice of vipassana.


Avijja also means ignorance of the cessation of dukkha and the way to it. These two truths are also profound and hard to understand. For the truth about cessation of dukkha concerns nibbāna which is to be realized only on the Ariyan holy path and the truth about the way is certainly known only to the meditator who has attained the path. No wonder that many people are ignorant of these truths. Ignorance of the end of suffering is widespread and so world religions describe the supreme goal in many ways. Some say that suffering will come to an end automatically in due course of time. Some regard sensual pleasure as the highest good and reject the idea of a future life. This variety of beliefs is due to ignorance of the real nibbāna.

Even among Buddhists some hold that nibbāna is an abode or a sort of paradise and there are many arguments about it. All these show how hard it is to understand nibbāna. In reality nibbāna is the total extinction of the nama-rupa process that occurs ceaselessly on the basis of causal relationship. Thus according to the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada, avijja, sankhara, etc give rise to nama-rupa, etc and this causal process involves old age, death and other evils of life. If avijja, etc become extinct on the Ariyan path, so do their effects and all kinds of dukkha and this complete end of dukkha is nibbāna.

For example, a lamp that is refueled will keep on burning but if it is not refueled there will be a complete extinction of flame. Likewise for the meditator on the Ariyan path who has attained nibbāna, all the causes such as avijja, etc., have become extinct and so do all the effects such as rebirth, etc. This means total extinction of suffering, that is, nibbāna which the meditator must understand and appreciate before he actually realizes it. This concept of nibbāna does not appeal to those who have a strong craving for life. To them the cessation of nama-rupa process would mean nothing more than eternal death. Nevertheless, intellectual acceptance of nibbāna is necessary because on it depends the meditator's whole-hearted and persistent effort to attain the supreme goal.

Knowledge of the fourth truth, viz, truth about the way to the end of dukkha is also of vital importance. Only the Buddhas can proclaim the right path; it is impossible for anyone else, be he a deva, a Brahmä or a human being, to do so. But there are various speculations and teachings about the path. Some advocate ordinary morality such as love, altruism, patience, alms giving, etc., while others stress the practice of mundane jhana. All these practices are commendable. According to the Buddhist teaching, they lead to relative welfare in the deva-Brahma worlds but do not ensure freedom from samsaric dukkha such as old age, etc., so they do not form the right path to Nibban although they are helpful in the effort to attain it. Some resort to self- mortification such as fasting, living in a state of nature and so forth. Some worship devas or animals.

Some live like animals. From the Buddhist point of view all these represent what is termed silabbataparamasa which means any practice that has nothing to do with the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Noble Path comprises right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right contemplation. The path is of three kinds, viz., the basic path, the preliminary path and the Ariyan path. Of these the most vital is the Ariyan path but this path should not be the primary objective of the meditator nor does it require him to spend much time and energy on it. For as the vipassana practice on the preliminary path develops, the insight on the Ariyan leve l occurs for a thought-moment. For example, it requires much time and effort to produce fire by friction but ignition is a matter of a moment's duration. Similarly, the insight on the Ariyan path is instantaneous but it presupposes much practice of vipassana on the preliminary path.


To them sensual pleasure is the source of happiness, nibbāna as the extinction of nama-rupa is undesirable and the way to it is arduous and painful. So they seek to gratify their desire through three kinds of action (kamma) viz., bodily action, verbal action and mental action. Some of these actions may be ethically good and some may be ethically bad. Some people will practice dana, etc for their welfare hereafter, while some will resort to deceit or robbery to become rich. A Pali synonym for kamma (action) is sankhara. Sankhara is also of three kinds, viz., sankhara by thought, sankhara by speech and sankhara by body. Sankhara presupposes cetana (volition).

The function of cetana is to conceive, to urge or to incite and as such it is the mainspring of all actions. It is involved in killing, alms-giving, etc. The meditator knows its nature empirically through contemplation. In another sense there are three kinds of sankharas, viz, puññabhi (wholesome) sankhara, with its good kammic result, apuññabhi (unwholesome) sankhara with its bad kammic result and aneñjabhi-sankhara that leads to wholesome arupajhana which literally means immobile jhana. Rupajhana and all the good actions having the kammic results in the sensual world are to be classified as puññabhisankhara. Puñña literally means something that cleanses or purifies. Just as a man washes the dirt off his body with soap, so also we have to rid ourselves of kammic impurities through dana, sila and bhāvanā.

These good deeds are conducive to welfare and prosperity in the present life and hereafter. Another meaning of puñña is the tendenc y to fulfil the desire of the doer of the good deed. Good deeds help to fulfil various human desires, e.g., the desire for health, longevity, wealth and so forth. If a good deed is motivated by the hope for nibbāna, it leads to a life that makes it possible to attain his goal or it may ensure his happiness and welfare till the end of his last existence. Abhisankhara is the effort to do something for one's own welfare. It tends to have good or evill kammic results.

So puññabhi sankhara is good deed with good kammic result. There are eight type of good deed in sensual sphere (kamavacarakusala) and five types in fine material sphere (rupavacara). All these may be summed up as of three kinds, viz., dana, sila and bhāvanā. Giving dana gladly means wholesome consciousness which is kammically very fruitful. So the donor should rejoice before, during and after the act of alms-giving. In the scriptures this kind of dana is credited with great karmic productivity. The attitude of the donor may also be one of indifference (upekkha) but if the mind is clear, his act of dana too has high kammic potential. Any act of alms-giving that is based on the belief in kamma is rational and it may bear fruit in the form of rebirth with no predisposition to greed, ill-will and ignorance. An act of dana that has nothing to do with a sense of its moral value or the belief in kammic result is good but unintelligent and it will lead to rebirth with no great intelligence.

It may bear such kammic fruit in everyday life but it does not make the donor intelligent enough to attain the path in his next life. Again one may do a good deed spontaneously without being urged by others (asankharikakusala); some do good deeds at the instigation of others (sasankharika-kusala). Of these two kinds of good deeds the former is kammically more fruitful than the later. When we consider the four kinds of deeds the former is kammically more fruitful than the later. When we consider the four kinds of good deeds mentioned earlier in terms of these last two attributes, we have a total of eight types of wholesome consciousness in the sensual sphere.

Whenever we do a good deed, we are prompted to do so by one of these kusala dhammas; when we practise concentration and meditation, we have to begin with these eight types of wholesome dhammas. It is bhāvanā that can lead to jhana, the meditator attains rupavacara jhana when his samadhi is well developed. Jhana means total concentration of mind on an object of mental training. Samatha- Jhana is concentration for bare tranquility. Jhana samadhi is like flame burning in still air. According to the Suttas, the rupavacara jhana has four levels; in Abhidhamma it has five levels.


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" Give up the past, give up the future, give up the present. Having reached the end of existences, with a mind freed from all (conditioned things), you will not again undergo birth and decay. "

The Dhammapada

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