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May 30th
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Home Teachings Dependant Originations What is Dependant Origination - Other Aspects

What is Dependant Origination - Other Aspects

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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

Other Aspects

Four groups of factors are involved in the chain of causation: the first group of causes in the past, the second group of effects in the present, the third group of causes in the present, and the fourth group of effects in the future. The groups are termed 'sangaha' or 'sankhepa.' They may also be translated as layers. These four groups have three connections. 1) The connection between the past cause and the present effect, with mental formations as the cause and consciousness as the effect. 2) The connection between the present cause and the present effect, with feeling as the cause and craving as the effect. 3) The connection between the present cause and the future effect, with becoming as the cause and birth as the effect. Again, twenty factors (ākāra) are involved in the psychophysical process: 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 Dependent Origination deals with three cycles or rounds (vattas): defilements, kamma, and resultants. The first cycle comprises ignorance, desire, and attachment; the second comprises mental formations and becoming; and the third comprises consciousness, mind and matter, sense-bases, contact, and feeling. The third cycle leads again to the cycle of defilements, which gives rise to the cycle of kamma, and so on without end. The three cycles drive the samsāric round of suffering. Samsāra means the continuum of the psychophysical process occurring in a cause-effect relationship.

To liberate ourselves from samsāra, we must do meritorious deeds. We should study the Buddha's teaching about the Four Noble Truths, practise contemplation on seeing, hearing, etc., and thus realise the ceaseless arising and dissolution of psychophysical phenomena. This insight forestalls illusion and frees us from the craving and attachment that lead to rebirth and suffering.

The Visuddhimagga describes the contribution of kamma to the cycle of defilements. The meditator sees how the mind-body complex is born from the cycle of kamma and the cycle of resultants. One realises that there are only kamma and its fruits. Because of kamma in the past, mind and matter arise in the present life; mind and matter produces kamma in this life, which leads to rebirth. Thus mind and matter arise without end. The arising of mind and matter means the arising of phenomena from the senses, e.g. seeing, hearing, etc. These lead to defilements, kamma, and rebirth successively. Thus the psychophysical process is conditioned by the cycle of kamma and its fruit. According to the Visuddhimagga, this insight means knowledge by discerning conditionality (paccaya-pariggaha-ñāna) and purification by overcoming doubt (kankhāvitarana-visuddhi) .

Four Points to Bear in Mind

Four special features of Dependent Origination should be borne in mind. The first is the individual character of the psychophysical process that comprises the three successive existences. Although the doctrine stresses the conditionality of all phenomena, it is a mistake to believe that ignorance, craving, and other causes concern one person, while consciousness, mind and matter, and other effects concern another person. This belief implies the extinction of a living being after death, which is annihilation — a view that Buddhism rejects. The psychophysical process is analogous to the evolution of a mango tree. A mango seed sprouts into a seedling, the seedling becomes a sapling, and the sapling grows into a tree. Here the seed, the seedling, the sapling, and the tree form an unbroken line of causal relationship. Strictly speaking, distinguishing between the tree and the sapling is impossible. Likewise, ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, etc., occur in unbroken succession as causes and effects. Therefore, to speak in the conventional way of a particular person is not wrong. It was Devadatta, for example, who created a schism, and it is Devadatta who is now suffering in hell. The merchant Anāthapindika did meritorious deeds, and he was the one who went to the celestial realm after his death.

The Wrong View of Venerable Sāti

This identification of the doer of kamma 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 from one life to another. This mistaken view of eternalism was held by Venerable Sāti in the time of the Buddha. The Jātakas led Venerable Sāti to hold this view. 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 no part passed on to his final existence. It was only consciousness that survived death and formed the core of the bodhisatta's personality in each of his existences. 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." However, the Jātakas highlight only the continuity of the relationship concerning the doer of kamma and the bearer of its fruit. They do not imply the transfer of consciousness or any other attribute from one life to another. Everything passes away, but because of the causal connection, we have to assume that the hero of the Jātaka stories finally became Prince Siddhattha. After questioning Venerable Sāti, the Buddha said that consciousness was conditioned, that it could not arise without its relevant cause.

The Buddha compared it to fire, which is designated according to its fuel. Fire that burns wood is called a wood-fire, that which burns grass is called a grass-fire, and so on. Likewise, consciousness is always conditioned by something and is named accordingly. Thus consciousness that arises from the eye and visual form is called visual-consciousness, that arising from the ear and sound is called auditory consciousness. In brief, consciousness is named according to the sense-base that produces it. When the cause of a fire changes, so does its designation. A grass-fire becomes a house-fire when it spreads to a house. In the same way, the identity of consciousness changes according to the sense-faculty on which it depends. With the same sense-object and the same sense-organ, too, it is a new consciousness that occurs at every moment in the mental process. Thus to realise the truth about mental processes is to be free from annihilationism, whereas a wrong view of it leads to eternalism.

Distinctive Character of Each Phenomenon

The second aspect of the doctrine is the distinction between the different phenomena forming the chain of causation. Thus ignorance is a distinct phenomenon that conditions mental formations, mental formations are other distinct phenomena that lead to rebirth and so on. To differentiate these phenomena is to realise their cause-and-effect relationship, and this realisation makes us free from eternalism. It helps us to do away with the illusion of a permanent, unchanging self that survives death and passes on to another existence.

Eternalism and annihilationism stem from the way that people stress either the connection between the two successive lives, or the distinction between them. If we unintelligently identify ourselves with the psychophysical process in the present life and with that in the previous life, we will be inclined to believe in eternalism. On the other hand, if we stress the separateness of phenomena, we are liable to fall into the trap of annihilationism. The right attitude is to recognize the continuous process of cause and effect that produces one life after another. This point of view stresses the individual character of mind and matter and, as such, it clarifies the working out of kamma. It does not, however, imply the transfer of mind, matter or a self. It means the cessation of the old phenomena and the arising of new phenomena in the present life based on past kamma.

This view is crucial to the practice of insight. To one who contemplates mind and matter at every moment of their arising, these two aspects of the doctrine are clear. One becomes aware of the stream of cause and effect comprising ignorance, craving, attachment, and so forth. One is aware of the continuity, and the uninterrupted flow of the psychophysical process. So one rejects the annihilation view completely. Furthermore, being aware of the new phenomenon that arises whenever one contemplates, one discriminates between the sense-object and consciousness. Contemplation distinguishes feeling, craving, attachment, effort, consciousness, etc., as distinct phases of the mental process. Because one is well aware of the arising of new phenomena, one frees oneself from eternalistic views.

Absence of Striving

The third aspect of Dependent Origination is the absence of striving (avyāpāra). Ignorance causes mental formations without striving, and mental formations do not strive to create rebirth. Knowledge of this fact means insight into the absence of any agent or being (kāraka-puggala) who sees, hears, etc., and as such it frees us from ego-belief. However, as the Visuddhimagga says, the misinterpretation of this principle may turn one into a moral sceptic who accepts determinism and denies moral responsibility.

The non-volitional nature of phenomena is apparent to one who contemplates their ceaseless arising and dissolution, for one realises clearly that since they are conditioned, they do not act according to one's wishes.

Relationship of Cause to Effect

The fourth aspect of Dependent Origination is the one-to-one correspondence between cause and effect (evam dhammatā). Every cause leads only to the relevant effect; it has nothing to do with any irrelevant effects. In other words, every cause is the sufficient and necessary condition for the corresponding effect. This leaves no room for chance or moral impotency (akiriya-ditthi). However, as the Visuddhimagga says, for those who misunderstand it, it provides the basis for rigid determinism (niyatavāda). Meditators clearly see the relationship of each effect to its cause, so they have no doubt about their one-to-one correspondence and the truth of moral responsibility.

I have dwelt at length on the key points of Dependent Origination. These points will be clear to meditators who consider them in the light of their experience, but as the doctrine is profound, they probably cannot grasp those that are beyond their intellectual level. It is, of course, only the Omniscient Buddha who knew everything thoroughly. One should try to understand as fully as possible within the limits of one's intellect. To this end, one should listen to the discourses of bhikkhus, reflect over what one has heard, and enrich one's understanding through the practice of mindfulness. Of the three methods, the practice of mindfulness is the most important, since one who gains insight by this method attains the Path and is thus free from the dangers of the lower realms.


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