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Dependent Origination by Bhikkhu Brahmāli
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Dependent Origination

Foreword

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Dependent origination is often said to be the central pillar of the Buddha’s teaching, and the Nikāyas themselves show the Buddha identifying dependent origination as one of the two aspects of the “deep Dhamma” that he discovered on the occasion of his enlightenment, the other being nibbāna (see MN I 167). Because of its critical importance, the compilers of the original texts devoted an entire chapter of the Saṃyutta Nikāya to this teaching. Further, in the Mahānidāna Suttanta of the Dīgha Nikāya (see DN15 in the Addendum), the Buddha declares that because they have not penetrated dependent origination, beings roam and wander through the sequence of births and deaths called saṁsāra (see DN II 55). From this we can see that understanding of dependent origination is the key to liberating wisdom.

Despite the importance of this doctrine, however, various conflicting opinions have arisen over its correct interpretation, and in modern times these have multiplied. The resolution of this issue is not inconsequential, for if one’s understanding of dependent origination is distorted, one’s understanding of the Dhamma itself is bound to be inaccurate. The most secure way of interpreting dependent origination in accordance with the Buddha’s intent is to return to the early discourses and closely scrutinize them, trying to draw out the meaning they aim to convey rather than randomly seeking out statements that support one’s own predetermined interpretation.

In this little essay, based on a Dhamma talk, Ajahn Brahmāli gives a concise explanation of dependent origination that, in my view, extracts its core principle while remaining faithful to the original intent. A major point that Ajahn Brahmāli makes, both explicitly and through his mode of explanation, is the integral connection of dependent origination with the teaching of rebirth. It has become fashionable today to interpret dependent origination simply as an affirmation of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all events, and then to extol it as a forerunner of the scientific method. But while dependent origination may well point to interdependence and a scheme of universal interconnections, this is not its primary purpose. The primary purpose, as seen in the most archaic Buddhist texts, is to show the causal origination of suffering, which is sustained precisely by our bondage to rebirth. Thus, by revealing the conditions that keep us bound to repeated birth, dependent origination also indicates what must be done to gain liberation.

This, as Ajahn Brahmāli shows in his account of the ‘core driver’ of dependent origination, is by breaking the link between feelings and craving, to be achieved by eliminating ignorance or delusion. Delusion in turn is to be eliminated by cultivating the noble eightfold path, a point Ajahn Brahmāli also makes. His explanation thereby shows the coherence and internal harmony of three fundamental Buddhist teachings: dependent origination, the four noble truths, and the eightfold path.

Dependent Origination

Introduction

As you read the word of the Buddha and get a feel for what he taught, again and again you come across the teaching of dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda). It soon becomes quite obvious that this teaching is a very important part of the way the Buddha explained things. At the same time dependent origination is a difficult teaching to understand. This essay, then, is an attempt to draw out the most important aspects of dependent origination in such a way as to make it more easily comprehensible.

To begin with, and very briefly, I will go through each of the twelve factors of dependent origination to give an overall picture of what it is about. I will then pick out some of the factors and explain only those in detail. I will also try to show how dependent origination fits in with the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. When we understand how dependent origination fits into the teaching overall, it gives us a better sense of why this teaching is important and how it might be used as part of the development of the Buddhist path. But first of all I will briefly go through each of the twelve factors so as to set up a framework for the following discussion.

Twelve factors

The first of the twelve factors is usually known as ignorance (avijjā). Ignorance refers to a distortion in our understanding, a not seeing of reality as it actually is, and it affects all beings except those who are fully awakened. Because of ignorance we engage in activities that have future kammic results. These activities (saṅkhāra) are the second factor of dependent origination. The most important result of producing kamma is future rebirth, the arising of consciousness at the beginning of a particular life. So consciousness (viññāṇa) is the third factor. Consciousness always arises together with the other aspects of mind – feeling, perception and the will – and usually also a material body. That becomes the fourth factor (nāmarūpa). When you have mind and body you also have the fifth factor, the six senses (saḷāyatana). All experience happens through these six senses, and the senses thus allow us to ‘contact’ the world. Contact (phassa) therefore is the sixth factor. Perhaps the most fundamental part of what we experience through the five senses is feeling (vedanā). This becomes the seventh factor of dependent origination. Our experiences are usually either pleasant or unpleasant, and obviously we want the pleasant feelings to last and the unpleasant ones to disappear. We have desire both in regard to the pleasant and the unpleasant. So desire or craving (taṇhā), which is the eighth factor, is a natural consequence of feeling. Craving in turn leads to taking up, grasping or clinging. Your desires make you implement ‘strategies’ with the aim of fulfilling those desires. This is the ninth factor (upādāna). Once we grasp at things, once we decide on particular strategies to satisfy our cravings, then our life tends to take a certain direction. And because we live in a particular way, we make kamma according to that way of living. This is the tenth factor, known as existence (bhava). When we live in a certain way and produce the corresponding kamma, rebirth (jāti) follows as the eleventh factor. Through rebirth we experience what all beings must experience – we experience old age, we experience death and we experience all the suffering that comes with existence. Old age (jarā), death (maraṇa) and suffering (dukkha), or in brief just suffering, is the twelfth and final factor of dependent origination.

One of the important things to understand about this sequence of twelve factors is that each factor builds on the previous one and is dependent on the previous one for its existence. It is precisely because of this conditional relationship between the links that this sequence is called dependent origination. Take the last two factors. To experience old age, death and suffering, first of all you have to be born. Birth is a necessary condition for you to experience suffering in life; if you had not been born, you wouldn’t suffer. In the same way, each one of the twelve links, starting with ignorance and ending with suffering, is necessary for the subsequent one to exist. This is a crucial aspect of dependent origination, and once you understand this the whole thing becomes much clearer.

Old age & death

The next thing which is very helpful is to acquire a good grasp of the significance of the two end points of the sequence. The significance of the last link is that it shows us the purpose of dependent origination. Each of the other links is just a condition that leads up to the last one; the last factor is what all the other ones are pointing to. So the purpose of this teaching is to show us why we suffer, to show us the causes for the arising of suffering. This in turn makes it a practical teaching, because if we understand why suffering arises then we have an opportunity to do something about it; if we understand the causal relationship then we can do something about those causes. This gives us the opportunity to both reduce the suffering in our lives and ultimately to overcome suffering altogether. Since we have seen that rebirth is the immediate cause of suffering, the only way to eliminate suffering is to end all future rebirth.

An interesting point here is that the last two factors of dependent origination are birth and suffering, or birth, old age and death. Now birth and death taken together, when they are perpetuated through the mechanism of dependent origination, is nothing other than saṁsāra. Saṁsāra is the perpetual wandering on, around and around, from one life to another, from birth to death, again and again. The last two factors of dependent origination are thus essentially equivalent to saṁsāra. Looking at dependent origination in this way shows us how saṁsāra comes to arise, how there can be such a thing as saṁsāra. On the subject of saṁsāra, a brief word of caution: please don’t think of it as the world or the universe ‘out there’, something different from us. Saṁsāra, rather, is how we as human beings experience the world, our internal view, what goes on in our minds. Because it is a personal experience, saṁsāra will inevitably be slightly different for each one of us. But the common thread is that we experience a seemingly endless sequence of births and deaths, suffering without apparent beginning or end. So dependent origination shows us how saṁsāra comes to be and how suffering comes to be, these two essentially being the same. And again, knowing how suffering comes to be empowers us to do something about it.

Ignorance (delusion)

To properly understand what can be done about the problem of suffering we have to go to the other end of dependent origination, its starting point, ignorance. Once we understand the nature of the starting point we understand the fundamental cause of dependent origination, and thus what drives it. If we were to remove the starting point dependent origination would unravel, because each factor is causally dependent on the previous one. This means that if we eliminate ignorance then each subsequent factor is also eliminated, ending in the elimination of suffering. If we are not able to remove ignorance altogether, but we are able to reduce or weaken it, then we also weaken suffering, because that weakening of ignorance makes itself felt all the way through that chain. In this way, we can use the conditionality of dependent origination to our own benefit.

To be able to reduce and eventually eliminate ignorance, first of all you need to be clear about what it refers to. The Pāli term usually translated as ignorance is avijjā, which might be better translated as delusion. The problem is not so much that we lack knowledge, as the word ignorance might suggest, but that we have a distorted understanding of how things work. Because of our fundamentally deluded or distorted outlook, we don’t see things as they actually are. This distorted outlook is nothing other than our inability to see the three characteristics of existence: our tendency to see things as permanent when in fact they are impermanent, to see happiness where in fact there is suffering, and to see things as self when in fact they are non-self. This is the basic delusion that we live under and this misperception is at the root of this entire chain of dependent origination.

Hindrances

The good news is that ignorance / delusion is itself conditioned by other factors; it is not a monolithic entity that exists independently of everything else. It is by understanding the conditionality of delusion that we can weaken it. When we understand the conditions that support delusion we also understand what sort of practice we need to undertake to reduce it and eventually abandon it altogether. So what are the conditions that prop up and perpetuate delusion? They are nothing other than the five hindrances: desire for sense objects, ill will, dullness and lethargy, restlessness and worry, and doubt. This means that the stronger these five hindrances are, the more powerful our delusion is going to be.

Why is this so? Because the hindrances themselves distort how we see things. Consider what happens if you are angry: you tend to do things that you otherwise would not. Under the influence of anger you think that you should tell somebody off or do something nasty to them. While you’re angry, it seems the right thing to do: we think that this person deserves this, that that person needs to be told off or treated rudely. Thus we sometimes end up doing something stupid. But once the anger is over we realize that we made a mistake: we shouldn’t have been so harsh to that person, we should have been more understanding, we should have tried to understand their motivation. We feel regret and remorse. The point is that our anger distorts our outlook so that we do things which we otherwise would not. You can then see how anger connects up with delusion by distorting our understanding of the world.

Sense desire has a similar distorting effect. Why, for example, do people have extra-marital affairs? Often it is just because desire overpowers the mind. You don’t really know what you are doing, and because of that you often bitterly regret it afterwards. You realize how much pain you’ve caused for your spouse, and often you pay for it when your marriage breaks up, you have to sell your house, or you can’t see your children. But at the time, that affair seemed the right thing to do. Your view of things was distorted by your desires. Sometimes you can see the same pattern in a simple activity like shopping. Perhaps you see an item in a shop that is irresistibly attractive, and a desire so powerful arises that you simply have to buy it. Later on, when you are free from the grasp of desire, you realize that it was a mistake, that in fact you had no need for that item.

So the five hindrances, particularly anger and desire, distort our view of the world. The stronger the five hindrances are, the greater is our delusion, and the more distorted is our outlook. The less we have of these five hindrances, the less is the distortion and the clearer is our view of the world. And because dependent origination is a causal chain, the effect of the hindrances feeds the whole chain all the way down to suffering. So the weaker the hindrances are, the less suffering we experience, and the stronger the hindrances are, the greater is the suffering. It follows that if you want to reduce ignorance and suffering in your life, you have to reduce the five hindrances, that is, the defilements of the mind.

Noble eightfold path

How do we reduce the defilements of the mind? In no other way than by practising the noble eightfold path. You begin walking this path by practising virtue. Because of that practice there are certain actions you cannot do, and because you can’t do them you are restraining yourself, restraining the hindrances, restraining the defilements. Over time such restraint weakens the defilements. You know that this is the case when you see that keeping the precepts becomes easier over time until it becomes practically second nature to you. Practising meditation – developing loving kindness, peace and all such beautiful states of mind – has the same effect because we are going against the hindrances, abandoning them step by step. So the eightfold path is nothing less than a mechanism for removing the hindrances. This in turn reduces delusion and therefore also reduces suffering. In this way we can see how the noble eightfold path and dependent origination fit beautifully together, forming an important part of the overall picture we call the Dhamma.

In fact, it can be useful to regard the Dhamma as a big jig-saw puzzle, where each teaching is one small piece. It is only when we put all the pieces together, when we understand how they fit with each other, that we can see the full picture. In other words, although the Buddha’s teachings consist of all these individual bits and pieces – the five faculties, the five aggregates, the four jhānas, etc. – it is nonetheless a united whole. The better you understand the Buddha’s teachings, the more you understand how this jig-saw puzzle fits together. In the present case I am simply pointing out one particular way in which the noble eightfold path fits together with dependent origination.

So the noble eightfold path reduces our delusion stage by stage and therefore also reduces our suffering. If we keep practising this path we will eventually eliminate suffering altogether. How is it that reducing the hindrances leads to the complete abandoning of delusion and suffering? As you develop the path stage by stage, you gradually weaken the five hindrances until the day comes when temporarily the hindrances are completely absent, and the mind is pure and radiant. Because the five hindrances are the main supports of delusion, once the five hindrances are completely absent the props of delusion have been removed. Since delusion is no longer propped up it becomes weak at this particular point, and it is then possible to eliminate it altogether. That is why the deep states of meditation in which the five hindrances are completely abandoned are such powerful bases for attaining deep insight and understanding things as they actually are, that is, eliminating delusion. This also shows you why the deep meditations are the last factor of the noble eightfold path: it is only at this point that it is finally possible to make that breakthrough where you see the Buddha’s teaching for yourself. As long as the hindrances support delusion, no such breakthrough is possible. But when the props of delusion are removed – assuming that you already possess right view through a proper grasp of the Buddha’s teachings – the mind can penetrate to the truth, the Dhamma, and thereby eliminate delusion. When delusion is eliminated so is suffering, since they go hand in hand.1 This is how delusion is the root problem and how that root problem can be solved.

Core driver

Having discussed the two end points of dependent origination, we next need to consider how delusion translates into suffering. This mechanism is what might be called ‘the core driver’ of dependent origination, since it shows us how saṁsāra is self-sustaining, that is, how delusion sustains the process of birth and death potentially without end. The ‘core driver’ is the process by which our response to feelings leads to rebirth. To understand the working of this core driver, therefore, it is necessary to understand the dynamic process that links the factors from feeling (vedanā) to rebirth (jāti).

We start with feelings. In Buddhism the word ‘feeling’ does not refer to emotion but to the ‘felt tone’ of a particular experience as pleasant or unpleasant.2 Experiencing things as pleasant or unpleasant is part and parcel of being a human being, or indeed any kind of being. The links of dependent origination preceding feeling show us how feelings arise from the interaction of body and mind; that is, once you have a body and mind you must also have feelings. Since it is given that we experience the world as pleasant or unpleasant, it is also given that we are going to have desires (taṇhā) according to those experiences. Because we don’t want displeasure, we crave to avoid unpleasant experiences and for existing unpleasant experiences to end; and because we want pleasure, we crave to acquire pleasant experiences and for existing pleasant experiences to continue. In other words, desire or craving is our normal response to experiencing feelings.

This leads us to the next link. Once we have desires we want to make sure that the craving gets satisfied, because not satisfying our craving is unpleasant. To do this we take things up, we grasp at things, and we follow certain strategies (upādāna). We get ourselves an education, we get a job, we get into relationships, we buy a house, we have children, we adhere to a religion, we have political views. Take religion: why do we become Buddhists, for example? Essentially it is a strategy to satisfy our craving, to help us find happiness in the world and decrease the suffering of life. Why do we have a home? Because a home provides us with an environment where we can enjoy pleasures. Our house is where we usually eat our meals, relax in comfort, enjoy entertainment, and the place that we share with our family. It is also a place of safety from the world outside. Having a home is a very important strategy for satisfying our desires, and that is why people become attached to their homes. Another important strategy is getting a life-partner. Again, because a life-partner brings us a sense of happiness, we often attach to such people. But our strategies can also be of a loftier type. As Buddhists we may take up meditation and a more spiritual life-style. In this case our strategy is to develop our mental happiness. Of course, these strategies are usually not mutually exclusive – most Buddhists go for a mixture of the sensual and the spiritual.

This leads us to the factor of existence (bhava). Once we adopt certain strategies, we get established in a certain life pattern; we tend to exist in a certain way. Because most people’s strategies revolve around satisfying their sense desires, they live a sensual existence. Their minds are preoccupied by the sensual realm; their consciousness is established in that realm. A meditator, however, who can access the pleasures of the mind in samādhi, will tend to value those experiences more than sense pleasures, and thus their mind inclines towards those states. The more profound their meditation, the more they ‘exist’ in the realm of the mind and the more their consciousness is established there. This mechanism also shows us why we have to be careful of anger and other negative states. The more we have of these dark states, the more we exist in that realm and the more our consciousness tends to be established in that darkness. So our existence is formed by the strategies that we implement to find pleasure and avoid pain. And once we exist in a certain way, in just that way we produce kamma. Thereby we establish and solidify our consciousness in line with how we exist.

The next factor is birth (jāti). Because we exist in a certain way and our consciousness is established accordingly, when we die our consciousness already exists in a certain ‘realm’. When we are reborn our consciousness doesn’t need to ‘go’ anywhere,3 because it has already been established in a particular ‘realm’ by the way we lived our past life. The body falls away and consciousness continues in line with its past habits. That continuation is essentially what rebirth involves. If we have lived a life of enjoying sense pleasures and have inclined strongly towards sense pleasures, then, when the body falls away at death, our consciousness will still be established in sense pleasures and we will tend to be reborn in a sensual realm. If you are a skilled meditator, however, when you die your mind is likely to be established in the peace of meditation. When the body falls away the mind inclines to a peaceful realm, and that is your rebirth. This is how rebirth happens in accordance with kamma, in accordance with how the mind has been established in the life that has just ended.4

Now you can see how this whole process works. Because we crave, we implement strategies to satisfy the craving; because of these strategies, we tend to live in a certain way; because we live in a certain way, our consciousness gets established in that way and we are reborn accordingly; because we are reborn, we suffer, grow old and die in line with that new existence. This core driver is the mechanism that perpetuates saṁsāra

Delusion & the core driver

What then is the relationship between delusion – the root cause of dependent origination – and the core driver? Delusion is the reason why we crave in response to pleasant and unpleasant feelings. We crave because we think we can gain mastery over our feelings by controlling our environment; we think we can somehow make things conform to whatever we want them to be. This sense that we have an inherent mastery over our feelings is a central aspect of delusion. It is not difficult to see why this sense of mastery is illusory. We all meet more suffering and pain – that is, more unpleasant feelings – in our lives than we want. Why is that? Because we do not have mastery over the course of our lives. The most obvious suffering we can’t evade is illness, old age and death. The most frightening sort of suffering is the prospect of a bad rebirth. And in the end this too is beyond our control. The reason you cannot exercise mastery over events is because there is no self. Feelings arise because of causes and conditions, not because there is someone in charge of them. It is the delusion of a self that gives us the illusory sense of mastery and thus causes us to crave for pleasant feelings. Once there is craving, as explained above, you undergo rebirth and the consequent suffering. This is how delusion is the source of the craving which, in turn, causes rebirth. That is, this is how delusion constantly leads to renewal of suffering.

And how does the elimination of delusion affect the core driver so that suffering is also eliminated? Imagine for a moment that you have no mastery over the feelings in your body and mind. What would be the point of craving if you cannot really have the feelings you would like? If you lack mastery over your feelings, you are better off just ‘sitting back’ and watching as feelings come and go according to their nature. The irony is that this is also the way to experience the least possible suffering. By craving and trying to control we tend to just create more suffering for ourselves. And the Buddha said that when we penetrate to the truth of non-self this is exactly what we see: we realize that, indeed, we have no mastery over our feelings, that craving is futile and in fact counterproductive.5 (SN22.59) When we see this, when we eliminate delusion, we also give up craving.6 When you abandon craving you don’t need any strategies to try to satisfy it. When you give up all your strategies, all your grasping and taking up of things, you no longer exist in a particular way7 and your consciousness is no longer established in anything. Since consciousness is not established in anything, then at death, when the body falls away, consciousness does not incline to any particular realm, whether the realm of sense pleasures or a refined realm of the mind or any other realm. Then there will be no rebirth, and when there is no rebirth there will be no suffering, no old age and no death. This is how the elimination of delusion translates into the elimination of suffering.

Conclusion

For many, the ending of all rebirths might seem like a distant goal. But we should remember that, even if we don’t make a complete end to rebirth, any reduction in delusion is a reduction in future suffering. When you reduce delusion by reducing the five hindrances, your craving is also lessened. When craving is reduced you will be more peaceful, and this will result in a more contented life here and now, and also in a better future rebirth.

This, in brief, is how dependent origination works. It shows us how delusion, via rebirth, is the root cause of suffering. It is important to realise that rebirth is an integral part of this scheme. Because rebirth is the immediate cause of suffering, if there were no rebirth there would be no problem to solve. The suffering we meet in any individual existence as human beings is insignificant; it is the potentially endless round of births and deaths that is the real problem. Once we understand the true nature of suffering, and grasp the fact that dependent origination explains how suffering comes to be, we will clearly see that rebirth is integral to dependent origination. What we need to do, then, is to practise the noble eightfold path to remove delusion. By removing delusion we end all future rebirth. When there is no rebirth, suffering comes to a complete stop.

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-- ADDENDUM FOLLOWS --

Addendum

Both suttas translated by Bhikkhu Sujato, 2018.
Origin: SuttaCentral

DN15 - The Great Discourse on Causation

1. Dependent Origination

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the land of the Kurus, near the Kuru town named Kammāsadamma.

Then Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him, “It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing, in that this dependent origination is deep and appears deep, yet to me it seems as plain as can be.”

“Don’t say that, Ānanda, don’t say that! This dependent origination is deep and appears deep. It is because of not understanding and not penetrating this teaching that this population has become tangled like string, knotted like a ball of thread, and matted like rushes and reeds, and it doesn’t escape the places of loss, the bad places, the underworld, transmigration.

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for old age and death?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for old age and death?’ you should answer, ‘Rebirth is a condition for old age and death.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for rebirth?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for rebirth?’ you should answer, ‘Continued existence is a condition for rebirth.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for continued existence?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for continued existence?’ you should answer, ‘Grasping is a condition for continued existence.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for grasping?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for grasping?’ you should answer, ‘Craving is a condition for grasping.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for craving?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for craving?’ you should answer, ‘Feeling is a condition for craving.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for feeling?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for feeling?’ you should answer, ‘Contact is a condition for feeling.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for contact?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for contact?’ you should answer, ‘Name and form are conditions for contact.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for name and form?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for name and form?’ you should answer, ‘Consciousness is a condition for name and form.’

When asked, ‘Is there a specific condition for consciousness?’ you should answer, ‘There is.’ If they say, ‘What is a condition for consciousness?’ you should answer, ‘Name and form are conditions for consciousness.’

So: name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

‘Rebirth is a condition for old age and death’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no rebirth for anyone anywhere. That is, there were no rebirth of sentient beings into their various realms—of gods, fairies, spirits, creatures, humans, quadrupeds, birds, or reptiles, each into their own realm. When there’s no rebirth at all, with the cessation of rebirth, would old age and death still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of old age and death, namely rebirth.

‘Continued existence is a condition for rebirth’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no continued existence for anyone anywhere. That is, continued existence in the sensual realm, the realm of luminous form, or the formless realm. When there’s no continued existence at all, with the cessation of continued existence, would rebirth still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of rebirth, namely continued existence.

‘Grasping is a condition for continued existence’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no grasping for anyone anywhere. That is, grasping at sensual pleasures, views, precepts and observances, and theories of a self. When there’s no grasping at all, with the cessation of grasping, would continued existence still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of continued existence, namely grasping.

‘Craving is a condition for grasping’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no craving for anyone anywhere. That is, craving for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts. When there’s no craving at all, with the cessation of craving, would grasping still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of grasping, namely craving.

‘Feeling is a condition for craving’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no feeling for anyone anywhere. That is, feeling born of contact through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. When there’s no feeling at all, with the cessation of feeling, would craving still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of craving, namely feeling.

So it is, Ānanda, that feeling is a cause of craving. Craving is a cause of seeking. Seeking is a cause of gaining material possessions. Gaining material possessions is a cause of assessing. Assessing is a cause of desire and lust. Desire and lust is a cause of attachment. Attachment is a cause of possessiveness. Possessiveness is a cause of stinginess. Stinginess is a cause of safeguarding. Owing to safeguarding, many bad, unskillful things come to be: taking up the rod and the sword, quarrels, arguments, and fights, accusations, divisive speech, and lies.

‘Owing to safeguarding, many bad, unskillful things come to be: taking up the rod and the sword, quarrels, arguments, and fights, accusations, divisive speech, and lies’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no safeguarding for anyone anywhere. When there’s no safeguarding at all, with the cessation of safeguarding, would those many bad, unskillful things still come to be?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition for the origination of those many bad, unskillful things, namely safeguarding.

‘Stinginess is a cause of safeguarding’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no stinginess for anyone anywhere. When there’s no stinginess at all, with the cessation of stinginess, would safeguarding still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of safeguarding, namely stinginess.

‘Possessiveness is a cause of stinginess’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no possessiveness for anyone anywhere. When there’s no possessiveness at all, with the cessation of possessiveness, would stinginess still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of stinginess, namely possessiveness.

‘Attachment is a cause of possessiveness’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no attachment for anyone anywhere. When there’s no attachment at all, with the cessation of attachment, would possessiveness still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of possessiveness, namely attachment.

‘Desire and lust is a cause of attachment’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no desire and lust for anyone anywhere. When there’s no desire and lust at all, with the cessation of desire and lust, would attachment still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of attachment, namely desire and lust.

‘Assessing is a cause of desire and lust’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no assessing for anyone anywhere. When there’s no assessing at all, with the cessation of assessing, would desire and lust still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of desire and lust, namely assessing.

‘Gaining material possessions is a cause of assessing’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no gaining of material possessions for anyone anywhere. When there’s no gaining of material possessions at all, with the cessation of gaining material possessions, would assessing still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of assessing, namely the gaining of material possessions.

‘Seeking is a cause of gaining material possessions’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no seeking for anyone anywhere. When there’s no seeking at all, with the cessation of seeking, would the gaining of material possessions still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of gaining material possessions, namely seeking.

‘Craving is a cause of seeking’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no craving for anyone anywhere. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for continued existence, and craving to end existence. When there’s no craving at all, with the cessation of craving, would seeking still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of seeking, namely craving. And so, Ānanda, these two things are united by the two aspects of feeling.

‘Contact is a condition for feeling’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no contact for anyone anywhere. That is, contact through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. When there’s no contact at all, with the cessation of contact, would feeling still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of feeling, namely contact.

‘Name and form are conditions for contact’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which the category of mental phenomena is found. Would linguistic contact still be found in the category of physical phenomena?”

“No, sir.”

“Suppose there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which the category of physical phenomena is found. Would impingement contact still be found in the category of mental phenomena?”

“No, sir.”

“Suppose there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which the categories of mental or physical phenomena are found. Would either linguistic contact or impingement contact still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“Suppose there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which name and form are found. Would contact still be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of contact, namely name and form.

‘Consciousness is a condition for name and form’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. If consciousness were not conceived in the mother’s womb, would name and form coagulate there?”

“No, sir.”

“If consciousness, after being conceived in the mother’s womb, were to be miscarried, would name and form be born into this state of existence?”

“No, sir.”

“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name and form achieve growth, increase, and maturity?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of name and form, namely consciousness.

‘Name and form are conditions for consciousness’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. If consciousness were not to become established in name and form, would the coming to be of the origin of suffering—of rebirth, old age, and death in the future—be found?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and condition of consciousness, namely name and form. This is the extent to which one may be reborn, grow old, die, pass away, or reappear. This is how far the scope of language, terminology, and description extends; how far the sphere of wisdom extends; how far the cycle of rebirths proceeds so that this state of existence is to be found; namely, name and form together with consciousness.

2. Describing the Self

How do those who describe the self describe it? They describe it as physical and limited: ‘My self is physical and limited.’ Or they describe it as physical and infinite: ‘My self is physical and infinite.’ Or they describe it as formless and limited: ‘My self is formless and limited.’ Or they describe it as formless and infinite: ‘My self is formless and infinite.’

Now, take those who describe the self as physical and limited. They describe the self as physical and limited in the present; or in some future life; or else they think: ‘Though it is not like that, I will ensure it is provided with what it needs to become like that.’ This being so, it’s appropriate to say that a view of self as physical and limited underlies them.

Now, take those who describe the self as physical and infinite … formless and limited … formless and infinite. They describe the self as formless and infinite in the present; or in some future life; or else they think: ‘Though it is not like that, I will ensure it is provided with what it needs to become like that.’ This being so, it’s appropriate to say that a view of self as formless and infinite underlies them. That’s how those who describe the self describe it.

3. Not Describing the Self

How do those who don’t describe the self not describe it? They don’t describe it as physical and limited … physical and infinite … formless and limited … formless and infinite: ‘My self is formless and infinite.’

Now, take those who don’t describe the self as physical and limited … physical and infinite … formless and limited … formless and infinite. They don’t describe the self as formless and infinite in the present; or in some future life; and they don’t think: ‘Though it is not like that, I will ensure it is provided with what it needs to become like that.’ This being so, it’s appropriate to say that a view of self as formless and infinite doesn’t underlie them. That’s how those who don’t describe the self don’t describe it.

4. Regarding a Self

How do those who regard the self regard it? They regard feeling as self: ‘Feeling is my self.’ Or they regard it like this: ‘Feeling is definitely not my self. My self does not experience feeling.’ Or they regard it like this: ‘Feeling is definitely not my self. But it’s not that my self does not experience feeling. My self feels, for my self is liable to feel.’

Now, as to those who say: ‘Feeling is my self.’ You should say this to them: ‘Reverend, there are three feelings: pleasant, painful, and neutral. Which one of these do you regard as self?’ Ānanda, at a time when you feel a pleasant feeling, you don’t feel a painful or neutral feeling; you only feel a pleasant feeling. At a time when you feel a painful feeling, you don’t feel a pleasant or neutral feeling; you only feel a painful feeling. At a time when you feel a neutral feeling, you don’t feel a pleasant or painful feeling; you only feel a neutral feeling.

Pleasant feelings, painful feelings, and neutral feelings are all impermanent, conditioned, dependently originated, liable to end, vanish, fade away, and cease. When feeling a pleasant feeling they think: ‘This is my self.’ When their pleasant feeling ceases they think: ‘My self has disappeared.’ When feeling a painful feeling they think: ‘This is my self.’ When their painful feeling ceases they think: ‘My self has disappeared.’ When feeling a neutral feeling they think: ‘This is my self.’ When their neutral feeling ceases they think: ‘My self has disappeared.’ So those who say ‘feeling is my self’ regard as self that which is evidently impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and pain, and liable to rise and fall. That’s why it’s not acceptable to regard feeling as self.

Now, as to those who say: ‘Feeling is definitely not my self. My self does not experience feeling.’ You should say this to them, ‘But reverend, where there is nothing felt at all, would the thought “I am” occur there?’”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why it’s not acceptable to regard self as that which does not experience feeling.

Now, as to those who say: ‘Feeling is definitely not my self. But it’s not that my self does not experience feeling. My self feels, for my self is liable to feel.’ You should say this to them, ‘Suppose feelings were to totally and utterly cease without anything left over. When there’s no feeling at all, with the cessation of feeling, would the thought “I am this” occur there?’”

“No, sir.”

“That’s why it’s not acceptable to regard self as that which is liable to feel.

Not regarding anything in this way, they don’t grasp at anything in the world. Not grasping, they’re not anxious. Not being anxious, they personally become extinguished. They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’

It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that a mendicant whose mind is freed like this holds the following views: ‘A Realized One exists after death’; ‘A Realized One doesn’t exist after death’; ‘A Realized One both exists and doesn’t exist after death’; ‘A Realized One neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death’.

Why is that? A mendicant is freed by directly knowing this: how far language and the scope of language extend; how far terminology and the scope of terminology extend; how far description and the scope of description extend; how far wisdom and the sphere of wisdom extend; how far the cycle of rebirths and its continuation extend. It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that a mendicant freed by directly knowing this holds the view: ‘There is no such thing as knowing and seeing.’

5. Planes of Consciousness

Ānanda, there are seven planes of consciousness and two dimensions. What seven?

There are sentient beings that are diverse in body and diverse in perception, such as human beings, some gods, and some beings in the underworld. This is the first plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that are diverse in body and unified in perception, such as the gods reborn in Brahmā’s Host through the first absorption. This is the second plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that are unified in body and diverse in perception, such as the gods of streaming radiance. This is the third plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that are unified in body and unified in perception, such as the gods replete with glory. This is the fourth plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that have gone totally beyond perceptions of form. With the ending of perceptions of impingement, not focusing on perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite’, they have been reborn in the dimension of infinite space. This is the fifth plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that have gone totally beyond the dimension of infinite space. Aware that ‘consciousness is infinite’, they have been reborn in the dimension of infinite consciousness. This is the sixth plane of consciousness.

There are sentient beings that have gone totally beyond the dimension of infinite consciousness. Aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, they have been reborn in the dimension of nothingness. This is the seventh plane of consciousness.

Then there’s the dimension of non-percipient beings, and secondly, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

Now, regarding these seven planes of consciousness and two dimensions, is it appropriate for someone who understands them—and their origin, ending, gratification, drawback, and escape—to take pleasure in them?”

“No, sir.”

“When a mendicant, having truly understood the origin, ending, gratification, drawback, and escape regarding these seven planes of consciousness and these two dimensions, is freed by not grasping, they’re called a mendicant who is freed by wisdom.

6. The Eight Liberations

Ānanda, there are these eight liberations. What eight?

Having physical form, they see visions. This is the first liberation.

Not perceiving form internally, they see visions externally. This is the second liberation.

They’re focused only on beauty. This is the third liberation.

Going totally beyond perceptions of form, with the ending of perceptions of impingement, not focusing on perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite’, they enter and remain in the dimension of infinite space. This is the fourth liberation.

Going totally beyond the dimension of infinite space, aware that ‘consciousness is infinite’, they enter and remain in the dimension of infinite consciousness. This is the fifth liberation.

Going totally beyond the dimension of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, they enter and remain in the dimension of nothingness. This is the sixth liberation.

Going totally beyond the dimension of nothingness, they enter and remain in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. This is the seventh liberation.

Going totally beyond the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, they enter and remain in the cessation of perception and feeling. This is the eighth liberation.

These are the eight liberations.

When a mendicant enters into and withdraws from these eight liberations—in forward order, in reverse order, and in forward and reverse order—wherever they wish, whenever they wish, and for as long as they wish; and when they realize the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life, and live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements, they’re called a mendicant who is freed both ways. And, Ānanda, there is no other freedom both ways that is better or finer than this.”

That is what the Buddha said. Satisfied, Venerable Ānanda was happy with what the Buddha said.

SN22.59 - The Characteristic of Not-Self

At one time the Buddha was staying near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana. There the Buddha addressed the group of five mendicants:

“Mendicants!”

“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:

“Mendicants, form is not-self. For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

Feeling is not-self …

Perception is not-self …

Choices are not-self …

Consciousness is not-self. For if consciousness were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because consciousness is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’

What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”

“No, sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?” …

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?” …

“Are choices permanent or impermanent?” …

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”

“No, sir.”

“So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

Any kind of feeling at all …

Any kind of perception at all …

Any kind of choices at all …

You should truly see any kind of consciousness at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all consciousness—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. Being disillusioned, desire fades away. When desire fades away they’re freed. When they’re freed, they know they’re freed.

They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’”

That is what the Buddha said. Satisfied, the group of five mendicants were happy with what the Buddha said. And while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the group of five mendicants were freed from defilements by not grasping.

-- END OF BOOK --
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