The Three Periods
Dependant origination encompasses two life-cycles, the anterior life-cycle and the posterior life-cycle. The anterior cycle begins with ignorance as its main source and ends with feeling, while the posterior cycle begins with craving and ends with aging and death. In the anterior cycle, ignorance and mental formations in the past life lead to rebirth, while in the posterior cycle, craving, attachment, and becoming cause rebirth in the future. The two cycles show how a person's lives are linked through cause and effect. Again, if the doctrine of Dependent Origination is described on this time scale, ignorance and mental formations are two links in the past life, the links from consciousness to becoming concern the present life, while birth, aging, and death are the links in the future. Thus the doctrine refers to three periods.
Distinction Between Mental Formations and Becoming
The doctrine describes the past cause as only ignorance and mental formations, but ignorance is invariably followed by craving and attachment. Mental formations, too, always lead to becoming. So the Patisambhidāmagga comments on the doctrine as follows. "Avijjā is ignorance that dominates us while doing a kammic deed. Sankhārā means composing and exerting effort. Tanhā is the craving for the results of an action in the present life and after death. Upādāna is the obsession with action and its result. Kammabhava is volition. These five factors in the past make up the causes of the present rebirth." Thus we have to consider all these five links — ignorance, craving, attachment, mental formations, and becoming — if we are to fully describe the past causes. Of these, ignorance, craving, and attachment are called the cycle of defilements. Mental formations and becoming are called the cycle of kamma. The commentary makes a distinction between mental formations and becoming. It describes the effort, planning, etc., before an act as mental formations and the volition while doing the act as becoming. So seeking money, buying things, etc., before an act of charity are mental formations while the state of consciousness at the time of offering is becoming. Plotting a murder is mental formations, and volition while killing is becoming.
Another distinction between mental formations and becoming is based on the moments of impulsion. All acts of murder or almsgiving involve seven impulse-moments. The first six impulse-moments are called mental formations while the last is termed becoming.
A third way of distinguishing the two is to describe volition as becoming and other mental states associated with volition as mental formations. The third method of classification is helpful when we speak of meritorious deeds in the fine-material and immaterial realms. All the three distinctions apply to wholesome or unwholesome acts in the sensual realm, but the first distinction is very illuminating for those who are not well informed.
Alternatively, the Visuddhimagga attributes rebirth to the visions that hold a dying person's attention at the last moment of life. So according to this commentary, becoming may be defined as the volition that motivated wholesome or unwholesome acts in the past, and mental formations may be defined as the mental state conditioned by deathbed experiences.
Present Effects Due to Past Causes
Thus, owing to the cycles of defilements and kamma comprising the five causes in the past, rebirth-consciousness arises together with mind and matter, six senses, contact, and feeling. These five effects are collectively called the cycle of resultants. Because of their ignorance, ordinary people have the illusion of pleasure regarding sense-objects and mind-objects. They develop craving, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of cause and effect that makes up their round of suffering. Consciousness, the six sense-bases, etc., arise as the result of past kammas. It is a matter of cause and effect, just like all other phenomena. This leaves no room for a self, God or Prime Mover. The only difference lies in the moral law governing this relationship, the nature of feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant, being dependent on wholesome or unwholesome mental formations in the past. In reality no 'person' has pleasant or unpleasant feeling, and no 'being' causes one to have such an experience. Life is only the continuum of consciousness, contact, feeling, etc., as conditioned by ignorance, craving, attachment, and so forth.
Knowledge for Insight Practice
Those who have some knowledge of Dependent Origination or Abhidhamma say that it is impossible to practise meditation without such knowledge. However, one who practises meditation under the guidance of a learned teacher need not bother about higher Buddhist philosophy. One can follow the teacher's instructions if one knows only that life is a psychophysical process characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. The adequacy of this simple knowledge to meet the intellectual needs of one who is intent on arahantship is borne out by the Cūlatanhāsankhaya Sutta, where the Buddha talks about insight practice. The meditator's understanding of mind and matter is termed 'abhijānāti,' which the commentary explains as full comprehension. It refers to analytical knowledge of mind and matter (nāmarūpa-pariccheda-ñāna) and knowledge by discerning conditionality (paccaya-pariggaha-ñāna). Through contemplation, one knows all phenomena analytically (parijānāti) as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. Here, parijānāti refers to knowledge by comprehension (sammasana-ñāna) and other insights.
Knowledge of the conditionality and cause-effect relationship that denies a soul or self is enough for the practice of insight. It is not necessary to know thoroughly the twelve links, or the twenty main points of the doctrine. If the practice of insight presupposed such comprehensive knowledge, a man of low intelligence like Venerable Cūlapanthaka would be unable to practice it. The elder's memory was so poor that he could not even memorise a few verses, though he had studied them for four months, yet he attained arahantship in a few hours when he meditated as instructed by the Buddha.
A laywoman, Mātikamātā by name, attained the stage of non-returning before some bhikkhus who were her meditation teachers. She did not know much about Abhidhamma or Dependent Origination. Many others were also like this woman and Venerable Cūlapanthaka. So although one may not have studied the Abhidhamma thoroughly one can attain the Noble Path if one meditates earnestly.
To overlook the true nature of feelings is ignorance. It is craving to like a sense-object and attachment to cling to it. To do noble or ignoble deeds from desire for one's happiness in the present life or after death means mental formations and becoming. These five factors are present causes and lead to rebirth after death. Dependent Origination mentions only three causes: feeling, craving, and attachment. However, these three factors imply two others: ignorance and mental formations, since these two are the basis of craving and becoming respectively. So the Patisambhidāmagga describes all these five factors as causes of rebirth in future.
Removing the Present Causes
Every wholesome or unwholesome act means the conjunction of these five present causes, which may happen many thousands of times in a single lifetime. Under favourable circumstances these causes may lead to rebirth after death, or to two or three rebirths in succession. Every existence is accompanied by aging, grief, and death, so to avoid this suffering, we should remove the causes. Thus we should note all phenomena the moment they occur. With the development of concentration, we will notice their instant passing away and so realise their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and unreliability. This realisation helps us to overcome the ignorance and illusion that fuel craving, attachment, and kammic effort. Thus we render the five present causes inactive, forestalling rebirth and consequent suffering.
This is called 'tadangapahāna,' 'partial, or momentary abandoning of defilements.' By this method, one attains 'tadanganibbuti,' 'partial or momentary, extinction of defilements.' Later, insight on the Noble Path arises, which means the extinction of all mental formations and the realisation of nibbāna, which is extinction through cutting off. The defilements and kammas are then eradicated. Stream-winners overcome the defilements and kammas that lead to the lower realms, and those that may cause more than seven rebirths. Once-returners overcome defilements that may cause more than one rebirth, while non-returners remove those that lead to rebirths in sensual realms. Finally, the arahant eradicates the remaining defilements and kamma and becomes a Noble One who is worthy of honour because he is wholly free from defilements.
The Arahant's Outlook on Life
Arahants have no illusions about the nature of sense-objects. They are aware of their unsatisfactoriness, which means they fully realise the truth of suffering because they are free from delusion. So they have no craving for anything. Inevitably, they have to fulfil the biological needs of the body such as eating, sleeping, etc., but they regard this as conditioned suffering and find nothing agreeable. The question arises whether they should long for a speedy death to end such suffering. Nevertheless, the desire for early death or dissolution of the physical body is aversion, which the arahant has also removed. In the Theragāthā, the Elder's Verses, an arahant says that he neither wishes to die nor to live. The arahant does not wish to live a long life, for life means a burden of suffering inherent in the aggregates. Although the aggregates need constant care and attention, they are not reliable in the least. To many middle-aged or old people, life offers little more than frustration, disappointment, and bitterness. Living conditions deteriorate, physical health declines and only disability and death await them. Yet, because of ignorance and attachment, many people take delight in existence. However, the arahants are disillusioned, so they find life unattractive.
Yet the arahants don't desire death either, since they have conquered ill-will. They equanimously anticipate their parinibbāna, an expectation that is analogous to a worker's expectation of wages. A worker does not like to face hardships and privations to make a living, but does not want to be unemployed either. A worker wants only money and expects payment. Likewise, the arahants await death, so when they think of their lifespan, they wonder how long they must bear the burden of the body. Because of their total disillusionment, their life-stream ceases completely after parinibbāna, so it is called cessation without any remainder (anupādisesanibbāna).
Not Annihilation but Extinction of Suffering
Those who believe in the soul deprecate nibbāna as the annihilation of a living being. In fact, it is the extinction of suffering due to the non-arising of phenomena with their causes, i.e. kamma and defilements. The Buddha pointed out the cessation of attachment with the cessation of craving, the cessation of becoming with the cessation of attachment, and so on. With the non-arising of rebirth, there is the complete cessation of aging, death, and other kinds of suffering. The popular view is that birth, aging, and death are misfortunes afflicting living beings. However, these misfortunes characterise only the psychophysical process and have nothing to do with a living being. Since there is no soul, it makes no sense to speak of the annihilation of a being with the cessation of rebirth. So those who regard nibbāna as annihilation are not free from the illusion of selfhood. To the intelligent Buddhist, nibbāna means only extinction of suffering. This is evident in the story of Venerable Yamaka.
The Story of Venerable Yamaka
Venerable Yamaka believed that the arahant was annihilated after death. He clung to this view although other bhikkhus pointed out that it was wrong. When Venerable Sāriputta summoned him and questioned him, Venerable Yamaka admitted that all the five aggregates are impermanent and suffering, that it would be a mistake to regard them as one's self or as one's possessions. Venerable Sāriputta told him to see the five aggregates as they really are. He would then become disillusioned, detached, and liberated.
While listening to the discourse, Venerable Yamaka attained the stream-winner stage. He was now free from wrong view. Venerable Sāriputta then questioned him again. In response to the elder's questions, Venerable Yamaka said that he did not identify the arahant with the physical body, feeling, perception, mental formations or consciousness. Nor did he believe that the arahant existed elsewhere without the aggregates. Therefore, since even during life the arahant is not to be found as a living being, it makes no sense to speak of the arahant's annihilation after death. Venerable Yamaka confessed his mistaken view. He was now free from it and so knew what to say about the destiny of the arahant. If someone were to ask him, "What happens when the arahant passes away?" he would answer, "The death of the arahant means the complete cessation of suffering inherent in the five aggregates."
This statement about the arahant was verified by Venerable Sāriputta. The elder likened the aggregates to a murderer in the guise of a friend and said that identifying the aggregates with oneself is like welcoming the murderer.
Venerable Yamaka at first believed that the arahant was annihilated after death, leaving nothing, which implies the belief in a soul. The annihilation view of nibbāna is ' ucchedaditthi,' the view that nibbāna means annihilation after death. When he realised the truth and attained stream-winning, Venerable Yamaka said that the death of the arahant means the complete extinction of suffering inherent in the five aggregates. Failure to note seeing, hearing, and other psychophysical phenomena leads to the arising of ignorance, craving, attachment, kamma, and mental formations. These in turn cause birth, aging, and death. Mindfulness forestalls these five present causes and the five consequences that involve suffering.
The Famous Saying of Bhikkhunī Vajirā
The extinction of suffering is also stressed in the famous saying of Sister Vajirā. Māra appeared while she was sitting under a tree near Jetavana Monastery. To discomfit her, he asked, "Hey, bhikkhunī! Who created a living being? Where is the Creator? How did a living being originate and how will it cease?"
Sister Vajirā replied, "Oh, Māra! What do you think a living being is? Is your belief in a living being not an illusion? What you regard as a living being is nothing but a heap of aggregates. No being is to be found in this heap. A living being is merely a term for the combination of materiality, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, just as 'chariot' is a term for the combination of the wheels, the axle, yoke, etc. No being can be found apart from the five aggregates — it is only suffering that arises, exists and ends."
So a being should be understood only in the popular usage of the term. It does not exist in any absolute sense, only a psychophysical process continues. This comprises ignorance, craving, attachment, kamma, and kammic effort as causes, and consciousness, body-mind, sense-bases, contact, and feelings, as effects. These effects in turn become causes that lead to rebirth and further suffering.