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Dependent Arising

By Bhikkhu Anālayo | 11/21/2021

The principle of “dependent arising”, or paṭicca samuppāda, stands at the heart of the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teaching. According to a well-known saying, one who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma, and conversely one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.[1] What such seeing requires, however, is perhaps not necessarily obvious. In order to unpack this statement and relate it to the meditative contemplation of vedanās, first of all it could be noted that a chief principle behind expositions of dependent arising is the principle of specific conditionality.[2] Simply said, this means that there are specific conditions required for something to arise. In the absence of the relevant specific condition(s), that which depends on them will cease, or not even arise in the first place.

A straightforward illustration can be taken from the final part of the standard exposition of dependent arising by way of twelve links. The final part states that birth is the condition for old age and death (together with other manifestations of dukkha). Birth is a specific condition for old age and death because, without birth, old age and death will not manifest. The same basic principle of specific conditionality then applies to each of the standard twelve links, which are as follows:

ignorance

volitional formations

consciousness

name-and-form

six sense spheres

contact

vedanā

craving

clinging

becoming

birth

aging-and-death

The formulation of this particular series of links is best understood to stand in response to a Vedic creation myth.[3] This means that the twelve links can be considered as one particularly prominent expression of dependent arising, presumably occurring so frequently because it resonated with ideas prevalent in the ancient Indian setting. In other words, this specific formulation would have served to create a sense of familiarity, while at the same time completely reversing the original meaning of its apparent Vedic antecedent. Instead of leading to the creation of the world, the Buddhist teaching on dependent arising reveals the creation of dukkha. Moreover, in the cessation mode, where the cessation of each link leads to the cessation of the next, the same teaching shows how to get out of all ‘creation.’

Keeping in mind the central importance of the basic principle of specific conditionality provides a helpful perspective on the existence of various alternative formulations, found in the discourses, which involve fewer than the standard twelve links. These are expressions of the same basic principle and are just as valid as the twelve-link formula. What matters from a practical perspective is to identify the specific conditions that lead to dukkha and to bring about their cessation.

This assessment in turn puts the spotlight on the role of vedanā as the necessary condition for craving. Out of the whole series of links listed above, the repercussions of this particular specific condition can hardly be overestimated, wherefore it presents a crucial opportunity for the cultivation of liberating insight.

Fully awakened ones, arahants, still experience contact leading to vedanā. The same no longer holds for what happens from this link in dependent arising onward, as fully awakened ones will not react to vedanā with craving. Clearly, the specific conditionality at this juncture carries considerable importance.

The task is to be mindful of vedanā in order to bring into the full view of attention what happens at this juncture. This helps avoid that the tendrils of ignorance—the initial specific condition in the series of the dependent arising of dukkha—activate craving in relation to whatever vedanā is experienced. All that is required is to become fully aware of the push of vedanā toward reaction, mindfully noting it without acting it out. In this way, the cultivation of mindfulness can introduce a crucial pause, which enables a full appreciation of the situation rather than responding on the spot to the affective push of vedanā by way of craving for more of this and less of that. From the viewpoint of the path to liberation, it is difficult to think of something that could be of greater importance than mindfully avoiding the arising of craving in order to side-step, and eventually overcome, dukkha completely.

Yet, this much does not yet exhaust the role of vedanā in the context of the dependent arising. Another role emerges in relation to the link of name-and-form, as “name” comprises vedanā. Here, name stands for those mental factors that are involved in naming things, in the construction of concepts and labels required to recognize and mentally process the raw data of experience. Besides vedanā, these mental factors are perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa), and attention (manasikāra);[4] be it noted that here consciousness is not part of name.

This additional occurrence of vedanā as part of name in the context of dependent arising provides a helpful background for considering a passage in the Mahānidāna-sutta, the Great Discourse on Conditionality (DN 15). In addition to the Pāli version of what among the early discourses is the longest and most detailed exposition on the topic of dependent arising or conditionality, several parallels are extant in Chinese translation. For an appreciation of “early Buddhism” as the earliest stage in Buddhist thought and practice to which we still have access nowadays, it is helpful to consult such parallels. These are products of the same oral transmission of the teachings given by the Buddha and his disciples as the Pāli discourses. Due to the nature of oral transmission to give rise to memorization errors, comparing parallel versions can help identifying such errors, and thereby gain a clearer perspective on the actual teaching given.

One of these parallels, found in the Chinese Dīrgha-āgama collection (the term Dīrgha-āgama being a near equivalent to the Pāli Dīgha-nikāya, both standing for a collection of long discourses), proceeds as follows:[5]

Ānanda, therefore, name-and-form conditions consciousness, consciousness conditions name-and-form, name-and-form conditions the six sense spheres, the six sense spheres condition contact, contact conditions vedanā, vedanā conditions craving, craving conditions clinging, clinging conditions becoming, becoming conditions birth, birth conditions old age, death, sadness, sorrow, pain, and vexations: the arising of the great mass of dukkha.

Particularly significant in this presentation is the reciprocal conditioning relationship between consciousness and name-and-form.[6] Another discourse illustrates this relationship with the example of two bundles of reeds that stand leaning on each other.[7] Each needs the other in order to be able to stand up.

The reciprocal conditioning between consciousness and name-and-form can be taken to explain the continuity of existence, during life as well as from one life to another.[8] One of the two bundles of reeds represents the process of being conscious. The other bundle of reeds stands for the mental factors and activities that make sense of things, giving them a ‘name,’ which occur in conjunction with ‘form’ as the experience of materiality. In this context, vedanā is part of name as what makes sense of things, here in particular in its role of providing an affective tone to experience as being pleasant, or unpleasant, or else neutral.

From the viewpoint of actual meditation practice, what emerges in this way could be explored by broadening the attentional field while observing vedanās. Such broadening of perspective could take the form of letting the process of being conscious of vedanā stand out more clearly in the field of meditative awareness. For example, in the case of bodily pain, the pain itself is an object of the sense door of the body. Meditative attention can simply be directed to knowing that tactile experience. But it is also possible to include the corresponding body-consciousness in the range of meditative observation by broadening the scope of awareness to include the knowing of the bodily pain. Doing so enables a more in-depth appreciation of the dependently arisen nature of experience at the bodily sense door. A side-effect of such practice that has considerable practical importance is that the mind’s tendency to get lost in distraction is more easily and swiftly noted.

The same principle of including the respective type of consciousness in the purview of one’s meditative vision can be applied to any sense door and its corresponding type of vedanā. In addition to noting the vedanā itself, it is possible to be also aware of consciousness as the knowing quality of the mind that experiences that vedanā. Both aspects are similarly impermanent and dependently arisen. The broadening of perspective introduced in this way fosters an inner distance toward vedanā. It leads to being considerably less prone to succumbing to its impact by reacting with desire or aversion. It is precisely through such clear understanding of the different dimensions of the experience of vedanā that ignorance diminishes, weakening the tendency for vedanā to stimulate the arising of various types of craving.


Notes:

[1] MN 28 at MN I 190,37 (translated by Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 284), which has a Chinese Āgama parallel in MĀ 30 at T I 467a9 (translated in Bingenheimer et al. 2013: 233).

[2] See also Anālayo 2021.

[3] See Jurewicz 2000 and Anālayo 2020c.

[4] SN 12.2 at SN II 3,34 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 535), with a parallel in EĀ 49.5 at T II 797b28 (translated by Anālayo 2020a: 1132; see also Anālayo 2018: 10n21).

[5] DĀ 13 at T I 61b19, parallel to DN 15 at DN II 56,31 (translated by Walshe 1987: 223), where the corresponding part occurs at an earlier junction of the discourse. A similar statement can be found in the other parallels to DN 15 that are extant in Chinese: MĀ 97 at T I 580a1 (translated in Anālayo and Bucknell 2020: 214), T 14 at T I 243c2, and T 52 at T I 845b11. The present passage in DĀ 13 has already been translated by Ichimura 2016: 32. Unfortunately, his translations are often unreliable and at times even seriously misleading; see in more detail Anālayo 2020d. In the present case, he translates the part after name-and-form in this way: “the sixfold sense operation depends on sense contact; sense contact depends on sensation and sensation depends on thirstlike craving; thirst like craving depends on grasping and grasping depends on the will-to-becoming; the will-to-becoming depends on birth and birth depends on old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering and agony.” In this way, besides adding terms not found in the original (“operation,” “thirstlike,” “will-to”) and omitting others (the arising of the great mass of dukkha), he inverts the conditional relationship between the individual links. As a result, vedanā is made to depend on craving or else birth to depend on old age and death. This patently fails to make sense.

[6] See also Anālayo 2020b.

[7] SN 12.67 at SN II 114,17 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 608), with a Sanskrit fragment parallel in Tripāṭhī 1962: 110, a Chinese parallel in SĀ 288 at T II 81b5, and a Tibetan parallel in Up 8005 at D 4094 nyu 70a5 or P 5595 thu 114b2. SĀ 288 differs from the other versions by speaking of three bundles of reeds; see Anālayo 2015: 109n16.

[8] On the latter see Anālayo 2018: 12–17.

Abbreviations:

CBETA Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association

D Derge edition

Dīrgha-āgama (T 1)

DN Dīgha-nikāya

Ekottarika-āgama (T 125)

Madhyama-āgama (T 26)

MN Majjhima-nikāya

P Peking edition

Saṃyukta-āgama (T 99)

SN Saṃyutta-nikāya

T Taishō edition (CBETA)

Up Abhidharmakośopāyikā-ṭīkā

References:

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2015: Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2018: Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research, Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2020a: “Attention and Mindfulness,” Mindfulness, 11.5: 1131–1138.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2020b: “Consciousness and Dependent Arising,” Insight Journal, 46: 55–63.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2020c: “Dependent Arising,” Insight Journal, 46: 1–8.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2020d: “Ichimura Shohei, The Canonical Book of the Buddha’s Length Discourses,” Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, 21: 159–170.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2021: “Dependent Arising and Interdependence,” Mindfulness, 12: 1094–1102.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu and R. S. Bucknell 2020: The Madhyama Āgama (Middle-Length Discourses), Volume II, Moraga, California: Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai America.

Bingenheimer, Marcus, Bh. Anālayo, and R. S. Bucknell 2013: The Madhyama Āgama (Middle Length Discourses), Volume I, Berkeley: Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai America.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu 2000: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, Boston: Wisdom Publication.

Ichimura Shohei 2016: The Canonical Book of the Buddha’s Lengthy Discourses, Volume II, Moraga, California: Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai America.

Jurewicz, Joanna 2000: “Playing with Fire: The Pratītyasamutpāda from the Perspective of Vedic Thought,” Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26: 77–103.

Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu 1995/2005: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.), Boston: Wisdom.

Tripāṭhī, Chandrabhāl 1962: Fünfundzwanzig Sūtras des Nidānasaṃyukta, Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Walshe, Maurice 1987: Thus Have I Heard; The Long Discourses of the Buddha, London: Wisdom.

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1 Comments

Mary Mendes
Date: 11/23/2021

I think I understand what Analayo is saying here and I am grateful for this teaching. Applying his comments to direct experience, I see myself noticing pain in my leg. I see that unpleasant feeling (vedanā) pushing me to worry about my future: Will I be able to get around? Is this aging or injury? With practice and mindfulness, I can check that foray into dukkha and come back to bare attention of the unpleasant feeling. But beyond this, I think he is saying that by broadening the consciousness, I can also see how my mind is naming and forming a lively prediction out of the unpleasant feeling. By lifting up my view another layer, I can experience directly the work of the mind, and then I can distance myself from it. This is like opening a back door to the mind and making a quiet exit. It means that I can see mind doing an expansion of the experience of unpleasant feeling and fabricating an entire narrative that would otherwise continue to shape any future experience of that vedanā. It means I can abandon this construction activity, let the experience be what it is, and regard it rather with a view of impermanence and dispassion, that I can observe its cessation, and let go of the whole knot.

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