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Understanding Dependent Co-Arising is critical to Buddhist practice: The Great Causes Discourse Maha-nidana Sutta

Understanding Dependent Co-Arising is critical to Buddhist practice: The Great Causes Discourse Maha-nidana Sutta

In almost any “Buddhist” philosophical argument — for instance, “why should I meditate?” or “Is there a soul?” or “what happens after death?” or even, “what is the true nature of self?” — the impeccable logic of Dependent Co-Arising is the “go-to” Dharma teaching.

Buddha said:

“Whoever sees Dependent Co-Arising, he sees Dhamma;
Whoever sees Dhamma, he sees Dependent Co-Arising.”

Many of Buddha’s core teachings are represented in the iconic Tibetan Wheel of Life tangkha, including the three poisons (near the centre) and the 12 links of Dependent Co-Arising in the outside ring. Everything is represented as connected, interdependent and cyclic — like Samsara itself, the cycle of suffering, birth, death and rebirth.

Virtually all Buddhist understanding and teachings arise (pun intended) from the comprehension of Pratītyasamutpāda — Dependent Co-Arising (or more specifically, Interdependent Co-Arising), which is defined by the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh as:

“The general or universal definition of pratityasamutpada (or “dependent origination” or “dependent arising” or “interdependent co-arising”) is that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity.”

It’s not as simple as that. When Ananada, believing he understood the teaching intellectually, said, “It’s amazing, lord, it’s astounding, how deep this Dependent Co-Arising… and yet to me it seems as clear as can be.”

Buddha immediately challenged him:

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Deep is this Dependent Co-Arising, and deep its appearance. It’s because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein[4], a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations.” [1]

In saying this, Buddha was, at least in part, pointing to the importance of practice, rather than simply understanding intellectually. It is through practising Dharma (the Eightfold Path, notably “right mindfulness, right concentration”) we comprehend Dependent Co-Arising. It is through comprehension of Dependent Co-Arising we ourselves Awake to Dharma. (Dhamma in Pali, Dharma in Sanskrit.) 

The cyclical links of Dependent Co-Arising

In sutra, the most commonly cited “definition” of Dependent Co-Arising is:

“If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.”

Yet, Buddha went far beyond the scope of this simple statement, teaching us the great Twelve Links of Dependent Co-Arising (see section below) that clearly illustrate the interwoven complexity of interdependence. None of these twelve links has its own “independence” or nature and they are all interdependent and cyclical. The twelfth link circles back to the first.

They are, briefly: ignorance, mental formation, consciousness, form, six senses, contact, feeling, grasping, clinging, becoming, ageing and death (which links back to ignorance at the beginning).

Ignorance leads to mental formation which leads to consciousness, which leads to name and form, which leads to the six senses, which leads to contact, which leads to feeling, which leads to grasping (desire), which leads to clinging, which leads to becoming, which leads to  birth, which leads to aging and death, which circles back to the first link — ignorance.

 

Dependent Co-Arising depicted as a cycle. Although we speak of “beginning at ignorance” it’s actually a never-ending Samsaric cycle.

 

When Gotama, the Shakyamuni Buddha, attained Enlightenment (Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi: Supreme Perfect Enlightenment), he freed Himself from these links. Without ignorance, there was no more name, grasping, clinging, birth, ageing and death. Buddha, the Enlightened One, in his teachings pointed us to the same path to freedom — a path that requires daily practice.

Buddha and Modern Science Align

Many of Buddha’s ancient teachings align well with modern science (align, rather than agree, since Scientists have various opinions and theories). [See this recent feature The bridge between science and Buddhism>>]

 

An interesting presentation of the 12 links (from video embedded below which presents it in animated form) that tries to show how the various links inter-relate.

 

One reason Scientists and intellectuals tend to be drawn to Buddhism is the flawlessly logical teachings of the Buddha. He taught cause and effect centuries before Newton’s Law was developed (albeit conditioned causality rather than phenomenal causality) and Dependent Co-Arising long before Max Planck and Quantum Physicists developed the concept of “matter originates and exists by virtue of consciousness.” [2]

It’s interesting to compare modern science’s view (not necessarily a universal one, but a currently top of mind one) with the Buddha’s:

One concept in Buddhism is Shunyata, various described as Emptiness or Oneness. When the ego is removed, there is oneness. When the ego is introduced, phenomenon arise from the observer (with the ego).

Physicist John Wheeler: “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.” [See BW for source>>]

Albert Einstein said: “Our separation of each other is an optical illusion of consciousness.”

Cognitive Scientists Professor Hoffman: “I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” [See BW for source>>]

The Buddha’s teaching in its simplest form (which is vastly more elaborate in the full Maha-nidana Sutta below this feature — full English translation): “if this exists, that exists”

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen master explains that it is easy to assume that Depedent Co-Arising is a teaching on cause-and-effect: “that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions…”

As an example of the intricacy of Buddha’s teaching (in which he explores all the links of Dependent Co-Arising), Buddha taught:

“Thus, Ananda, from name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging. From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress.”

Dependent Co-Arising the foundation of most teachings

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who translated the Maha-nidana Sutta to English (from Pali) described it as

“One of the most profound discourses in the Pali canon. It gives an extended treatment of the teachings of Dependent Co-Arising (paticca samuppada) and not-self (anatta) in an outlined context of how these teachings function in practice.” [3]

Although one can basically benefit from and live the teachings of the Buddha, such as the Eightfold Path, without an understanding of Depedent Co-Arising, to really benefit from practice (especially “right mindfulness, right concentration”), it is vital to be familiar with the principle of the twelve links.

Note: From here-on, we’ll standardize on Dependent Co-Arising, even though Interdependent Co-Arising is closer to the true meaning, and Dependent Arising is most often used in translation. We capitalize to underscore it’s importance as a core teaching.

The Twelve Links of Dependent Co-Arising

A Tibetan tangkha (painting) symbolically displaying the “wheel of life and suffering”. The 12 links of Dependent Arising are symbolically portrayed in the outer ring of the wheel, just under the teeth of the Samsaric beast. (Close up views below.)

With flawless logic, arising from Enlightened insight, which in turn can be used to elaborate on other teachings — such as the Four Noble Truths (and profound teachings such as Shunyata or “Emptiness”) — Buddha taught the twelve links of Dependent Co-Arising:

  1. Ignorance (avijja) — the condition for the arising of mental formation.
  2. Mental Formation (Volitional Formations) (sankhara) — the condition for arising of consciousness.
  3. Consciousness (vinnana) — the condition for the arising of name (labels) and form.
  4. Name and Form (nama-rupa) — (sometimes translated as mind/body) the condition for the arising of the six senses (perception).
  5. The Six Senses (salayatana) — the condition for arising of contact or interactions (the psychological process whereby we interact)
  6. Contact (or interaction) (phassa) — the condition for the arising of feeling.
  7. Feeling (vedana) — the condition for arising of grasping (wanting)
  8. Grasping (wanting or craving) (tanha) — the condition for the arising of “clinging”
  9. Clinging (upadana): the condition for the arising of “becoming”.
  10. Becoming (bhava) — the condition for the arising of birth.
  11. Birth (jati) — the condition for the arising of aging and death.
  12. Aging and death (jara-marana) — the condition for arising of ignorance (back to 1)

Why it’s important: The Dalai Lama explains

The Dalai Lama explained (Oct 15, 2014) why Dependent Co-Arising is important to our success in practice:

“Following on from this, Buddha stated that the presence of fundamental ignorance leads to karma, or action. Our undesirable experiences of suffering, such as pain, fear, and death, are all basically effects produced by corresponding causes. So in order to put an end to these sufferings, we have to put an end to the relevant sequence of causes and effects. Buddha explained how, within the framework of the twelve links of dependent origination, the earlier elements in the causal sequence give rise to the later elements. He also explained the process of reversing the twelve links of dependent origination. In other words, by putting an end to the earlier elements, we can eliminate the later elements. So, by completely cutting the causal root—eliminating our fundamental ignorance—we will finally come to experience total freedom from all suffering and its origin.”

Close up of the wheel in a Tibetan “Wheel of Sorrow” Tangkha. The outer ring contains pictorial symbols of the 12 links of Dependent Co-Arising, staring with the blind woman (top just right of centre in outer ring).

 

The Cycle of links

Often, the links are described in terms of three groupings:

  • Defilements (klesha): in this group ignorance, grasping and clinging
  • Actions (karma): in this group mental formation and becoming
  • Suffering (dhukka): in this group all the rest, consciousness, name form, the senses, contact, feeling, birth, aging and death.

 

The twelve links of Dependent Co-Arising represented on a tangkha with 12 symbols (see breakdown below.)

 

The cycling theme is famously depicted in the Tibetan “Wheel of Life” or “Wheel of Suffering tangkhas. These ferocious looking images feature a great Samsaric beast biting into a wheel. The wheel, on the outside perimeter, has symbolic, pictorial representations of the 12 links:

  1. On the Wheel of Life tangkha, the blind woman symbolically represents ignorance.

    Blind woman: first link of ignorance (top of tangkha just under the beast’s mouth): blindness represents “ignorance.”

  2. Potter: second link of mental formations, because the potter forms a shape out of clay (karma) setting into motion.
  3. Monkey: third link of consciousness: the monkey is often associated with mind in Buddhism (monkey mind = unsettled mind), and here represents primitive consciousness forming
  4. People sailing in a boat: fourth link of form: the boat represents form and the people represent mental aggregates
  5. House with six windows: the six windows represent the six senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch, and mind.
  6. Embracing couple: an amorous pair stands in as a very intimate symbol for “contact” (or interaction). This pleasurable contact leads to “feeling”
  7. Eye pierced by an arrow: “Feeling” is most graphically represented by a person sitting in pain, holding her eye which has been penetrated by a single arrow. Although all feelings are encompassed in the 7th link, they ultimately all lead to clinging, craving, pain.
  8. Drinking alcohol: a person drinks beer, clinging to the pleasures and addictions of “Craving” which arose as a result of “feeling.”
  9. Monkey reaching for fruit: the monkey again, this time grasping for yummy fruit, resresenting “Grasping” or “wanting.”
  10. A pregnant woman: representing “becoming” as she is just about to give birth.
  11. A mother with child: a naked woman nursing a child, graphically stands in for “Birth”, which ultimately, in a short time, leads to ageing and dying and death.
  12. A dying person, slumped on a rock: the lonelienss of dying and death. Ultimately, in death, ignorance is reborn, and the cycle beings again.

Video animation of Dependent arising that maps out the interdepedences of the links:


 

DN 15 

PTS: D ii 55

Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Dependent Co-arising

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was living among the Kurus. Now, the Kurus have a town named Kammasadhamma. There Ven. Ananda approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “It’s amazing, lord, it’s astounding, how deep this dependent co-arising is, and how deep its appearance, and yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be.”

[The Buddha:] “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Deep is this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It’s because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations.

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for aging and death?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition do aging and death come?’ one should say, ‘Aging and death come from birth as their requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for birth?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does birth come?’ one should say, ‘Birth comes from becoming as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for becoming?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does becoming come?’ one should say, ‘Becoming comes from clinging as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for clinging?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does clinging come?’ one should say, ‘Clinging comes from craving as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for craving?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does craving come?’ one should say, ‘Craving comes from feeling as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for feeling?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does feeling come?’ one should say, ‘Feeling comes from contact as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for contact?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does contact come?’ one should say, ‘Contact comes from name-and-form as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for name-and-form?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does name-and-form come?’ one should say, ‘Name-and-form comes from consciousness as its requisite condition.’

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for consciousness?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition does consciousness come?’ one should say, ‘Consciousness comes from name-and-form as its requisite condition.’

“Thus, Ananda, from name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging. From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress.

Aging and Death

“‘From birth as a requisite condition come aging and death.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from birth as a requisite condition come aging and death. If there were no birth at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., of devas in the state of devas, of celestials in the state of celestials, of spirits in the state of spirits, of demons in the state of demons, of human beings in the human state, of quadrupeds in the state of quadrupeds, of birds in the state of birds, of snakes in the state of snakes, or of any being in its own state — in the utter absence of birth, from the cessation of birth, would aging and death be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for aging and death, i.e., birth.

Birth

“‘From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. If there were no becoming at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., sensual becoming, form becoming, or formless becoming — in the utter absence of becoming, from the cessation of becoming, would birth be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for birth, i.e., becoming.

Becoming

“‘From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming. If there were no clinging at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., clinging to sensuality, clinging to precepts and practices, clinging to views, or clinging to doctrines of the self — in the utter absence of clinging, from the cessation of clinging, would becoming be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for becoming, i.e., clinging.

Clinging

“‘From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from craving as a requisite condition comes clinging. If there were no craving at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for no becoming — in the utter absence of craving, from the cessation of craving, would clinging be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for clinging, i.e., craving.

Craving

“‘From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. If there were no feeling at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., feeling born of contact at the eye, feeling born of contact at the ear, feeling born of contact at the nose, feeling born of contact at the tongue, feeling born of contact at the body, or feeling born of contact at the intellect — in the utter absence of feeling, from the cessation of feeling, would craving be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for craving, i.e., feeling.

Dependent on Craving

“Now, craving is dependent on feeling, seeking is dependent on craving, acquisition is dependent on seeking, ascertainment is dependent on acquisition, desire and passion is dependent on ascertainment, attachment is dependent on desire and passion, possessiveness is dependent on attachment, stinginess is dependent on possessiveness, defensiveness is dependent on stinginess, and because of defensiveness, dependent on defensiveness, various evil, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies.

“And this is the way to understand how it is that because of defensiveness various evil, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies. If there were no defensiveness at all, in any way, of anything anywhere, in the utter absence of defensiveness, from the cessation of defensiveness, would various evil, unskillful phenomena — the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies — come into play?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for the coming-into-play of various evil, unskillful phenomena — the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies — i.e., defensiveness.

“‘Defensiveness is dependent on stinginess.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how defensiveness is dependent on stinginess. If there were no stinginess at all, in any way, of anything anywhere, in the utter absence of stinginess, from the cessation of stinginess, would defensiveness be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for defensiveness, i.e., stinginess.

(Similarly back through the chain of conditions: stinginess, attachment, possessiveness, desire and passion, ascertainment, acquisition, and seeking.)

“‘Seeking is dependent on craving.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how seeking is dependent on craving. If there were no craving at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for no becoming — in the utter absence of craving, from the cessation of craving, would seeking be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for seeking, i.e., craving. Thus, Ananda, these two phenomena [the chain of conditions leading from craving to birth, aging, and death, and the chain of conditions leading from craving to quarrels, etc.], as a duality, flow back into one place at feeling.

Feeling

“‘From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. If there were no contact at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., contact at the eye, contact at the ear, contact at the nose, contact at the tongue, contact at the body, or contact at the intellect — in the utter absence of contact, from the cessation of contact, would feeling be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for feeling, i.e., contact.

Contact

“‘From name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how, from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. If the qualities, traits, themes, & indicators by which there is a description of name-group (mental activity) were all absent, would designation-contact with regard to the form-group (the physical properties) be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“If the permutations, signs, themes, and indicators by which there is a description of form-group were all absent, would resistance-contact with regard to the name-group be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“If the permutations, signs, themes, and indicators by which there is a description of name-group and form-group were all absent, would designation-contact or resistance-contact be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for contact, i.e., name-and-form.

Name-and-form

“‘From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?”

“No, lord.”

“If, after descending into the womb, consciousness were to depart, would name-and-form be produced for this world?”

“No, lord.”

“If the consciousness of the young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form ripen, grow, and reach maturity?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for name-and-form, i.e., consciousness.”

Consciousness

“‘From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. If consciousness were not to gain a foothold in name-and-form, would a coming-into-play of the origination of birth, aging, death, and stress in the future be discerned?

“No, lord.”

“Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for consciousness, i.e., name-and-form.

“This is the extent to which there is birth, aging, death, passing away, and re-arising. This is the extent to which there are means of designation, expression, and delineation. This is the extent to which the sphere of discernment extends, the extent to which the cycle revolves for the manifesting (discernibility) of this world — i.e., name-and-form together with consciousness.

Delineations of a Self

“To what extent, Ananda, does one delineate when delineating a self? Either delineating a self possessed of form and finite, one delineates that ‘My self is possessed of form and finite.’ Or, delineating a self possessed of form and infinite, one delineates that ‘My self is possessed of form and infinite.’ Or, delineating a self formless and finite, one delineates that ‘My self is formless and finite.’ Or, delineating a self formless and infinite, one delineates that ‘My self is formless and infinite.’

“Now, the one who, when delineating a self, delineates it as possessed of form and finite, either delineates it as possessed of form and finite in the present, or of such a nature that it will [naturally] become possessed of form and finite [in the future/after death], or he believes that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self possessed of form and finite obsesses him.

“The one who, when delineating a self, delineates it as possessed of form and infinite, either delineates it as possessed of form and infinite in the present, or of such a nature that it will [naturally] become possessed of form and infinite [in the future/after death], or he believes that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self possessed of form and infinite obsesses him.

“The one who, when delineating a self, delineates it as formless and finite, either delineates it as formless and finite in the present, or of such a nature that it will [naturally] become formless and finite [in the future/after death], or he believes that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self formless and finite obsesses him.

“The one who, when delineating a self, delineates it as formless and infinite, either delineates it as formless and infinite in the present, or of such a nature that it will [naturally] become formless and infinite [in the future/after death], or he believes that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self formless and infinite obsesses him.

Non-Delineations of a Self

“To what extent, Ananda, does one not delineate when not delineating a self? Either not delineating a self possessed of form and finite, one does not delineate that ‘My self is possessed of form and finite.’ Or, not delineating a self possessed of form and infinite, one does not delineate that ‘My self is possessed of form and infinite.’ Or, not delineating a self formless and finite, one does not delineate that ‘My self is formless and finite.’ Or, not delineating a self formless and infinite, one does not delineate that ‘My self is formless and infinite.’

“Now, the one who, when not delineating a self, does not delineate it as possessed of form and finite, does not delineate it as possessed of form and finite in the present, nor does he delineate it as of such a nature that it will [naturally] become possessed of form and finite [in the future/after death], nor does he believe that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self possessed of form and finite does not obsess him.

“The one who, when not delineating a self, does not delineate it as possessed of form and infinite, does not delineate it as possessed of form and infinite in the present, nor does he delineate it as of such a nature that it will [naturally] become possessed of form and infinite [in the future/after death], nor does he believe that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self possessed of form and infinite does not obsess him.

“The one who, when not delineating a self, does not delineate it as formless and finite, does not delineate it as formless and finite in the present, nor does he delineate it as of such a nature that it will [naturally] become formless and finite [in the future/after death], nor does he believe that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self formless and finite does not obsess him.

“The one who, when not delineating a self, does not delineate it as formless and infinite, does not delineate it as formless and infinite in the present, nor does he delineate it as of such a nature that it will [naturally] become formless and infinite [in the future/after death], nor does he believe that ‘Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.’ This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self formless and infinite does not obsess him.

Assumptions of a Self

“To what extent, Ananda, does one assume when assuming a self? Assuming feeling to be the self, one assumes that ‘Feeling is my self’ [or] ‘Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious [to feeling]’ [or] ‘Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.’

“Now, one who says, ‘Feeling is my self,’ should be addressed as follows: ‘There are thesethree feelings, my friend — feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and feelings of neither pleasure nor pain. Which of these three feelings do you assume to be the self?’ At a moment when a feeling of pleasure is sensed, no feeling of pain or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pleasure is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pain is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of pain is sensed. Only a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed at that moment.

“Now, a feeling of pleasure is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. Having sensed a feeling of pleasure as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pleasure, ‘my self’ has perished. Having sensed a feeling of pain as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pain, ‘my self’ has perished. Having sensed a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, ‘my self’ has perished.

“Thus he assumes, assuming in the immediate present a self inconstant, entangled in pleasure and pain, subject to arising and passing away, he who says, ‘Feeling is my self.’ Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume feeling to be the self.

“As for the person who says, ‘Feeling is not the self: My self is oblivious [to feeling],’ he should be addressed as follows: ‘My friend, where nothing whatsoever is sensed (experienced) at all, would there be the thought, “I am”?'”

“No, lord.”

“Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that ‘Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious [to feeling].’

“As for the person who says, ‘Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious [to feeling], but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,’ he should be addressed as follows: ‘My friend, should feelings altogether and every way stop without remainder, then with feeling completely not existing, owing to the cessation of feeling, would there be the thought, “I am”?'”

“No, lord.”

“Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that ‘Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious [to feeling], but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.’

“Now, Ananda, in as far as a monk does not assume feeling to be the self, nor the self as oblivious, nor that ‘My self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,’ then, not assuming in this way, he is not sustained by anything (does not cling to anything) in the world. Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’

“If anyone were to say with regard to a monk whose mind is thus released that ‘The Tathagata exists after death,’ is his view, that would be mistaken; that ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’… that ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death’… that ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’ is his view, that would be mistaken. Why? Having directly known the extent of designation and the extent of the objects of designation, the extent of expression and the extent of the objects of expression, the extent of description and the extent of the objects of description, the extent of discernment and the extent of the objects of discernment, the extent to which the cycle revolves: Having directly known that, the monk is released. [To say that,] ‘The monk released, having directly known that, does not see, does not know is his opinion,’ that would be mistaken. [1]

Seven Stations of Consciousness

“Ananda, there are these seven stations of consciousness and two spheres. Which seven?

“There are beings with diversity of body and diversity of perception, such as human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is the first station of consciousness.

“There are beings with diversity of body and singularity of perception, such as the devas of the Brahma hosts generated by the first [jhana] and some beings in the four realms of deprivation. This is the second station of consciousness. [2]

“There are beings with singularity of body and diversity of perception, such as the Radiant Devas. This is the third station of consciousness.

“There are beings with singularity of body and singularity of perception, such as the Beautifully Lustrous Devas. This is the fourth station of consciousness.

“There are beings who,with the complete transcending of perceptions of [physical] form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not heeding perceptions of diversity, [perceiving,] ‘Infinite space,’ arrive at the dimension of the infinitude of space. This is the fifth station of consciousness.

“There are beings who, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of space, [perceiving,] ‘Infinite consciousness,’ arrive at the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. This is the sixth station of consciousness.

“There are beings who, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, [perceiving,] ‘There is nothing,’ arrive at the dimension of nothingness. This is the seventh station of consciousness.

“The dimension of non-percipient beings and, second, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. [These are the two spheres.]

“Now, as for the first station of consciousness — beings with diversity of body and diversity of perception, such as human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms: If one discerns that [station of consciousness], discerns its origination, discerns its passing away, discerns its allure, discerns its drawbacks, discerns the escape from it, would it be proper, by means of that [discernment] to take delight there?”

“No, lord.”

(Similarly with each of the remaining stations of consciousness and two spheres.)

“Ananda, when knowing — as they actually are — the origination, passing away, allure, drawbacks of — and escape from — these seven stations of consciousness and two spheres, a monk is released through lack of clinging, he is said to be a monk released through discernment.

Eight Emancipations

“Ananda, there are these eight emancipations. Which eight?

“Possessed of form, one sees forms. This is the first emancipation.

“Not percipient of form internally, one sees forms externally. This is the second emancipation.

“One is intent only on the beautiful. This is the third emancipation.

“With the complete transcending of perceptions of [physical] form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not heeding perceptions of diversity, [perceiving,] ‘Infinite space,’ one enters and remains in the dimension of the infinitude of space. This is the fourth emancipation.

“With the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of space, [perceiving,] ‘Infinite consciousness,’ one enters and remains in the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. This is the fifth emancipation.

“With the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, [perceiving,] ‘There is nothing,’ one enters and remains in the dimension of nothingness. This is the sixth emancipation.

“With the complete transcending of the dimension of nothingness, one enters and remains in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. This is the seventh emancipation.

“With the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, one enters and remains in the cessation of perception and feeling. This is the eighth emancipation.

“Now, when a monk attains these eight emancipations in forward order, in reverse order, in forward and reverse order, when he attains them and emerges from them wherever he wants, however he wants, and for as long as he wants, when through the ending of the mental fermentations he enters and remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release and discernment-release, having directly known it and realized it in the here and now, he is said to be a monk released in both ways. And as for another release in both ways, higher or more sublime than this, there is none.”

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Ven. Ananda delighted in the Blessed One’s words.

NOTES

[1] Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (in its entirety above.)Max Planck, 1944; Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv

[2] Max Planck, 1944; Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)

[3] “Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse” (DN 15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

[4] A “skein” is a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted, commonly meant to mean a tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation.

 

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