Showing posts with label Conditionality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conditionality. Show all posts

21 December 2018

Dependent Arising: Nidānas

In Part I, I began with a detailed grammatical analysis of the traditional Pāli paṭicca-samuppāda formula. I showed that it tells us that the presence of the condition is required for the duration of the effect. The only traditional Buddhist view compatible with this criterion was Sarvāstivāda. And, to be clear, this means that modern teachings on dependent arising are inconsistent with the formula. Also, this entailed a particular view of time: it has to be linear and infinite in the past. Now, in Part II, I will continue by looking at the traditional connection of paṭicca-samuppāda to the concept of nidāna "basis". Although this is not as easy as it sounds.

Given that all Buddhists these days use the 12 link nidāna model, there are a surprising number and range of variations in the early Buddhist texts and disagreements between the various recensions. See the accompanying diagram for a visual representation of the main variations.

click to embiggen
Not included in the diagram are the numerous versions of the standard links that leave out the early links. A number of suttas have standard links but begin at the six senses (e.g., SN 12:24) or even at clinging (e.g., SN 22.80). The existence of these shorter links led Austrian Indologist (and Nazi), Erich Frauwallner to the conclusion that the sequence must have originally been two shorter sequences that got mashed together (cited in Bucknell 1999). The list might also have started off short and expanded with time.

Meanwhile, Polish Indologist, Joanna Jurewicz (2000), has proposed that the nidānas might have emerged as a parody or even polemic of Vedic cosmogony, an idea that Richard Gombrich (2009: 133 ff) has enthusiastically supported.

In addition to these obvious major variations, Rod Bucknell (1999) has noted many minor variations that are not visible to the casual reader. The different lineages of Pāli texts (i.e., Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, etc) are often at odds, with some leaving links out and some adding them. Also, there are several examples where two variant suttas in Pāli are represented by a single text in the Chinese Āgama translations, which Bucknell says this indicates a variation emerging in Pāli. However, we cannot rule out that either the Sarvāstivādin redactor or the Chinese Translator tidied up the Āgama versions by removing minor variants, just as a modern editor might do (see, e.g., Bodhi 2000 p.586).

The much vaunted unity of the early Buddhist Canon has been imposed on a riot of different teachings by one or more anonymous systematizers. I don't see this as a problem, per se; it is true of all Canons that they are constructed from less systematic raw material. Of course, one might argue that these are all variations on the theme and that the theme itself constitutes the unity. In response I would point to the inconsistencies between the themes: karma does not gel with dependent arising. If they are the product of one mind, then that person was, at best, an unsystematic thinker.

In the standard view, the texts were passed on orally with high fidelity until being written down. In fact, the fidelity must have been very low, judging by the written canon. Given the internal suggestions of the texts themselves it is likely that they were passed on orally in a wide range of dialects and only standardised at the time of being written down.

If anything, the Pāli Canon feels more like the work of a committee of people. The idea that the different nikāyas form a single collection must be relatively late and specific to the Theravādins. There is no evidence that other sects viewed them as such. The Āgama equivalents were separately translated into Chinese. The Pāli Canon is a compromise. Where conflicts could not be resolved, two or more versions of texts were included. The Sarvāstivādins, as evidenced in their Canon of early texts that survive in Chinese, were both less divided and more systematic, despite working from similar raw material.

This is all worth keeping in mind when we reflect on the nature of the early Buddhist doctrines. However, for the porpoises of this essay I will look at just two of the many variations from this mess. The familiar twelve nidānas and another model that will be familiar to some, the upanisās also known as the Spiral Path.


Nidānas

In this section, I'm going to outline the implications of obligatory presence for our understanding of dependent arising applied to the nidānas.

The twelve nidānas are usually seen as an application of the principle set out in paṭicca-samuppāda. Eviatar Shulman has argued that, actually, the formula applies specifically, and only, to the nidānas. In 2010, I outlined his argument in an essay called A General Theory of Conditionality? At that time, I tended to disagree, but I have come around to his way of thinking. As far as the Pāli suttas are concerned, paṭicca-samuppāda is the nidānas, though the nidānas frequently occur without the formula. It does not appear to be the case that the former is a general principle and the latter one application amongst many. However, nidāna models also exist that appear unrelated to paṭicca-samuppāda, per se. So we may be looking at an uneven composite that developed at the same time as the texts.

First, we may say that the circularity argument from Part I is a blow for the three lifetimes conception of dependent arising. The requirement of presence means that all such arguments are topologically identical to the case where an event is the condition for itself. Any form of cyclic conditionality has only two outcomes: everything always exists or nothing ever exists. As I notated it in Part I, any circularity in which the presence of the condition is a requirement for the presence of the effect logically reduces to: (A if A) and (¬A if ¬A). If we accept that conditions must be present, then we have to accept linear time with an infinite past or an eternally existent condition at the start of time. The universe may have spatial epicycles of creation and destruction, but time itself must be linear. A phenomenon cannot appear in its own past as a condition. A way around this would be to argue that the nidānas are categories of phenomena rather than a specific phenomenon: each instance is unique, but together they form a class of similar phenomena. Whether this rescues the three lifetimes interpretation is moot, but I want to move on because delving into the theory of categories would take me too far from my topic.

The traditional depiction of the nidānas around the outside of the "wheel of time" (kālacakra) is not a workable model of the nidānas. They are not a loop because conditional loops are forbidden by the requirement for presence. Also, death is not the condition for ignorance. If you look at how the teaching is presented in the texts, it's not presented as a loop, either. The cycle is birth and death. The rest of it is an attempt to explain what happens during a life to drive the constant recycling into new lives. Compare the important version of this doctrine in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15), for example, which only has 10 links (I leave this as an exercise for the reader). Arguably, for the unawakened, ignorance is a constant presence rather than something newly arising from moment to moment (I will look at the implications of this shortly).

Presence is problematic for the nidāna model. Take cognition (viññāna) as a nidāna. The imasmim sati formula says that cognition must be present all the time for the rest of the string of conditions to occur. And not only does this not work, it is evidently not the intended meaning of the nidāna. There are obviously times, when we are asleep, for example, when we do not cognise anything.

If we work through the logic, the condition for cognition is karmic volitions (saṅkhārā) which are arguably present, and the condition for karmic volitions, i.e., ignorance (aviijā) definitely is present. Ignorance is a constant for the unawakened; it must be, or they would be awakened. and it must persist for many lifetimes. If ignorance is present then, according to the formula, karmic volitions must also be present, and cognition must follow. Except that we know there are times when cognition is not present even when ignorance is. So the nidāna chain is constructed on a model which does not have a requirement for presence, or indeed which has a requirement for non-presence some of the time.

Things get even worse at the other end of the chain. If birth (jāti) is the condition for aging and death (jarā-maraṇa) then it cannot make any sense at all to require presence. Birth is an event, and not a short lived event, but one which takes place over an appreciable and often considerable time. Labour can last for a day or more. But if the presence of birth is the condition for the presence of aging and death, the death would be instantaneous for every new born. Again, presence here is counter-indicated and some other form of conditionality is required. If birth is the condition for death then we hope to delay it by as long as possible, but the average in the developed world is around 75. Also surely birth is not that significant compared to conception. Iron Age India only had vague and inaccurate conceptions of conception so they could not have come to this conclusion.

The consequence of this is that, whatever tradition and scholars tell us, the paṭicca-samuppāda formula emphatically does not logically apply to the nidānas. Indeed, a further analysis would reveal that more than one kind of conditionality is required to make sense of the nidānas and several schemes involving multiple types of condition were concocted by the different Abhidharmakāras. For example, Theravādins teach about the twenty-four different kinds of conditionality that their Abhidhamma speculates have to exist to make it all happen. Sarvāstivādins got by with just four. But most of the time the nature of the conditionality is unspecified, which allows us to have a more intuitive but less precise account of conditionality.

We do not teach the nidānas with the requirement for presence despite the clear implication of the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. There is nothing wrong with teaching a story about conditionality that we think works, if the alternative is one that we know doesn't work. But it seems disingenuous to promote this as something the Buddha taught. The whole concept is rather dubious, anyway, as we cannot even say if the Buddha was a historical figure. Even if we stipulate this much, however, it is clear that the early versions of the doctrine are incoherent and later Buddhists disagreed on how to fix this. What we now teach has no connection with the Buddha, it is "Buddhist" pragmatically because it is something that Buddhists say, not because it was something the Buddha said.

This is all bizarre enough, but there is a related, though largely neglected early Buddhist doctrine which is a much better fit for paṭicca-samuppāda, i.e., that also requires the presence of the condition.


The Spiral Path

click to embiggen
The lesser known model of conditionality was rediscovered by Carolyn Rhys Davids while she was editing and helping to translate the Saṃyutta Nikāya for the Pali Text Society. The idea was taken up by Sangharakshita but has never really gained much traction outside of the Triratna Buddhist Order, where it is an important doctrine. Both Ayya Khema (1991) and Bodhi (1980) wrote about it but just the once each, and some time ago now. Sangharakshita called it the "spiral path" (though in his teaching it is not a spiral, but a helix). The Nettiparakaraṇa, an early Pāli commentary included in the Canon, refers to it as lokuttara paṭicca-samuppāda which Bodhi translated as "Transcendental Dependent Arising". Other terms such as "progressive nidānas" have been used. As nidāna "basis" is used to refer to the paṭicca-samuppāda links, I have suggested that the spiral path be referred to as the upanisā "preconditions".

The PED is unsure about whether to derive the word upanisā from upa-ni-√sad, in which case it would be the same as Vedic upaniṣad, or from upa-ni-√śri (P. upanissayati), in which case we would have to see the word as an abbreviated form of the gerund upanissāya "depending on, by means of". Given how the word is used in the upanisā doctrine, the latter is far more likely. Compare BHS upaniśritya. In the Chinese Samyuktāgama (SA 495) the word is translated 所依 (T 1: 2.129a11), which is commonly used for Sanskrit terms such as āśraya and niśraya (ā√śri and ni√śri respectively) both meaning a "basis" or "foundation".

The upanisā doctrine occurs in about 40 suttas, whereas the imasmim sati formula occurs just 13 times, and the two are never related in Pāli. The scattered references were collected into one section of the Sarvāstivāda Madhyama Āgama, which is preserved in Chinese (see my draft translations of MĀ 42-55, Taishō 1: 26 §5).

In the spiral path, the upanisās are cumulative, with earlier conditions needing to be present, and thus  it is consistent with the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. Although existing explorations of the doctrine have focused on the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12:23 ≈ MĀ 55), my view is that the suttas at the beginning of the Chapter of Tens/Elevens in the Aṅguttara Nikāya are the template.
  • Kimatthiya Sutta (AN 10.1 = AN 11.1 ≈ MĀ 42)
  • Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta (AN 10.2 = AN 11.2 ≈ MĀ 43)
  • Paṭhama-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.3 = AN 11.3 ≈ MĀ 44, 47)
  • Dutiya-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.4 = AN 11.4 ≈ MĀ 48)
  • Tatiya-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.5 = AN 11.5 ≈ MĀ 43)
Seen in the light of the broad range of other spiral path texts, the Upanisā Sutta is an oddball, albeit an interesting one since it is the only text that attempts to join the nidānas with the upanisā. The usual nidāna sequence is listed to birth, which is followed by dukkha, then the upanisā sequence beginning with faith (saddha). However, this is a very problematic conjunction. Linking faith to suffering as a condition is prima facie strange but more so when one realises that the usual condition for faith is hearing the Buddha preach. Explanations for this conjunction typically add three extra steps in the process of linking the two. Even in the Triratna Order, where we actively teach the upanisā doctrine, we do not utilise the text as it stands. Instead, we use Sangharakshita's revision. Whether it even makes sense to combine the two models at all is doubtful.

The pattern from AN 10.2 begins like this:
The virtuous one, monks, endowed with virtue, need not form an intention ‘may my conscience be clear.’ It is natural (dhammatā) for the virtuous one endowed with virtue to have a clear conscience. Having a clear conscience, there is no need for an act of will ‘may I feel joy.’ Joy naturally arises in those who have a clear conscience.
The dynamic is illustrated in the Upanisā Sutta and several of the Madhyama-Āgama texts with a simile:
"Just as, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains, water flows down the mountainside, filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies; having filled the crevices and gullies, small lakes and the great lakes are filled; the great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up; the small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean."
 Again, this is consistent with the continued presence of the condition giving rise to the effect and not with the sequences of the nidāna doctrine.

As I showed in my first published article on the subject (2013), the upanisā doctrine is a more elaborate version of the threefold path of conduct, concentration, and insight (sīla, samādhi, and paññā). The factors leading up to pāmojja constitute what we usually call "morality", but which are more about creating the conditions for meditation, rather than being a good person or following group norms. Hence, I would now say that "conduct" is a better translation than "morality" or "ethics", both of which are too broad in this context. The stage of conduct involves accustoming oneself to reduced sensory stimulation through restricting one's exposure to sense objects. It is characterised by restraint and renunciation. This is supposed to lead to a general mood of uplift and happiness (pāmojja) which is the prerequisite for meditation.

Having crossed the threshold of pāmojja as one becomes concentrated in meditation (and here we can infer that jhāna meditation is intended) one passes through a series of phases of increasingly refined experience, with less reference to external sense objects. This is not the place to argue about the general applicability of the model (I have my doubts) but we can say that at least this doctrine is consistent with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda, although the Buddhist tradition seems to have kept apart the two doctrines that do make sense together, and to have largely forgotten the upanisā doctrine (or at best to have let it fall out of use).

What's more, it is apparent that the upanisā list aligns with the bojjhaṅga or "factors of awakening" list. For a graphic representation of this see my big dependent arising diagram.

The conclusion of this section is that the dynamic in the paṭicca-samuppāda, which requires the presence of the condition, is not the dynamic of the nidānas. In fact, the requirement for continued presence is incompatible with the nidāna model. And this despite Shulman's observation that the wording suggests that Buddhist authors saw the nidānas as spelling out in detail the principle of the formula. By a strange twist, the requirement of presence is exactly what we find in the neglected and sidelined upanisā doctrine. The two are not linked in surviving texts (Theravāda or Sarvāstivāda) except the Upanisā Sutta, which cobbles the two together end to end and this could not possibly work (and is not used in practice).

This shows, I think, that the received texts have been quite heavily and ineptly edited to favour an interpretation of doctrine that does not make sense, despite there being a combination that did make sense. This suggests that religious ideology has trumped common sense. It also shows that what appears to be unity to some people, is not apparent on closer inspection. 


Alternatives?

There is still one issue with the Spiral Path model to deal with. As before, the problem is explaining cessation. The conditions for rebirth are present and are the reason that we are continually reborn. In order to eliminate rebirth we have to eliminate the conditions for rebirth. But if presence is the norm, then this would involve an infinite regress: conditions must be present and the past must be infinite. In order to wholly eliminate rebirth we would have to go back to the base condition for rebirth, which is the existence of the universe that allows for rebirth. With infinite time we could never get to the beginning of the sequence to remove that ultimate cause. And thus rebirth could never cease because the preconditions for rebirth would always be present. This paradox tells us there is something wrong with the model.

Could it be that we have it all wrong and that the formula expresses a different dynamic? Is is more like a cue hitting a snooker ball? Or a line of dominoes? A seed growing into a tree?

Let's take the first idea. As a general approach it suggests that the condition gives the effect a "push" that enables the effect to be present in the absence of the condition. But if the effect can be present in the absence of its condition, then it is the condition for its own presence and we have explored this scenario in detail already. Alternatively, we may argue that the condition bequeaths a temporary quality of momentum to the effect. But what is the condition for the continued presence of this momentum? Nothing can be unconditioned except nirvāṇa (and perhaps space, ākāśa). Clearly, at the outset, the presence of momentum is due to the condition itself. But the momentum has to be an effect of the condition and dependent arising says that when the condition ceases the effect ceases. So there is no way for the condition to pass on anything to the effect by way of momentum if the condition is not present. The requirement for presence cannot be subverted by adding extra steps, because if any effect can outlive its conditions, under any circumstances, then it has become a condition for its own presence.

In the line of dominoes analogy, the suggestion is that the condition changes its state in such a way as to force the effect to change its state in the same way, creating a cascade. The problem is that at the outset a line of dominoes are all present and are simply knocked over. They don't cease to be present once they have fallen over. So at the beginning and the end we have dominoes. There is no help from this analogy, although this is similar to the Sarvāstivāda view of constant presence combined with a changing state of activity. 

A traditional image that is sometimes use to try to illustrate dependent arising is the seed sprouting and turning into a tree - continuous change. This is an argument from analogy which is not an explanation. But let's consider it. What is the condition for the seed to sprout? We may say that it must grow in soil (a complex mix of organic and inorganic elements) and at a minimum be watered. What happens to the soil once the seed sprouts? Nothing much. It has to continue to be present. Similarly, water must be continually present in some form or the plant dries out and dies. One might argue that this analogy is considerably worse that others we have considered.

I cannot think of any other situation in which we take dependent arising at face value and arrive at a workable solution. The only logical conclusion is the sarva-asti-vāda. Conditions all exist all of the time because if they did not everything would cease. Indeed, if any past condition ceased then all of the downstream effects related to it would instantaneously also cease. Of course, this is not what we see when we look at the world. Rather, we see phenomena arising and ceasing.

Usually Buddhists take what they see to be what they are supposed to see and assert that this is what dependent arising shows. Clearly, this is not what the formula of dependent arising says. Rather, it says a condition must be present for the entire duration of an effect. We do not teach dependent arising according to canonical accounts, but substitute what seems intuitively correct to us. And if we are allowed to do this with our supposedly central doctrine, then what changes are we not licenced to make?

Contrarily, if we insist that the canonical account is the Buddha's verbatim teaching, then we have to admit that the Buddha screwed up his most distinctive teaching or those who attempted to preserve his teachings were hopelessly confused by the time they came to be written down. Either way it seriously undermines the case for the supposed authenticity of the early Buddhist teachings.


Conclusion

It seems to me that the people who promote dependent arising as a metaphysical truth have really not thought deeply enough about it. Even taking dependent arising on its own terms we end up at the sarvāstivāda position that all past conditions must still exist. This is not a position I advocate, it is simply the inescapable logical conclusion of dependent arising as stated in the imasmiṃ sati formula. This was, in fact, a hugely popular approach in classical Buddhism in India and in China. The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma books are all preserved in Chinese. While every Buddhist (presumably) accepts some form of conditionality doctrine, no living Buddhist actually holds this view.

The imasmim sati formula does not describe the conditionality of the nidāna doctrine, which is not, in any case, a single kind of conditionality. On the other hand, the formula does describe the upanisā doctrine, which can be seen as extending the threefold path (conduct, meditation, wisdom) and as consistent with the bojjhaṅga doctrine as well. It's just that the formula and upanisā doctrine are never linked in early Buddhist texts. No traditional school continues to promote the upanisā doctrine and its importance has largely been lost sight of.

Modern Buddhists may wish to argue that conditionality is not linear but that everything conditions everything else. Certainly this is a common Buddhist assertion. It has the disadvantage of gaining no support whatever from early Buddhist texts. However, many innovations in doctrine emerged over time to fix exactly this kind of problem, so this disadvantage is not fatal. Does it get us out of the bind? It does not, since, if everything is a condition for everything else, then this reduces to events or entities being the condition for their own existence. And again, this is not what we see when we observe conditionality: we see arising and ceasing. Any explanation we pose must at the very least allow for arising and ceasing. We see multiple conditions, but not infinite conditions. 

Should we be surprised that an Iron Age religious doctrine doesn't stand scrutiny? Hardly. I cannot think of a contemporary idea from anywhere in the world which has survived contact with modernity. Outside of academia no one gets excited by Plato and claims that he discovered the nature of reality. Platonic Idealism is trotted out to confuse philosophy undergraduates, but plays no great role in how modern intellectuals think about the world. Equally, no one in Britain thinks that our lives are controlled by the whims of Tiu, Woden, Thor, and Frigga any more. It's not credible to keep arguing that outdated theories tell us about the nature of reality.

What is really worrying is how much of academia is involved in trying, for example, to reconcile karma with modernity. I'd like to do some research on this, at some point. As an interim measure I think all believers in Buddhism should declare a conflict of interest with writing about Buddhism so that readers can be alert to unexamined assumptions. Editors should make it clear when someone is writing as an apologist or theologian rather than a scholar. I think I'll start adding a disclaimer to all my articles from now on.

So far, I have tried to avoid any argument rooted in modernity; even the logic I refer to is of a similar age to the doctrines themselves, if from another culture. I've tried to show that Buddhism is fundamentally incoherent on its own terms: the logical conclusions are avoided in favour of intuitive conclusions. Of course, it is much worse when we consider Buddhism in the light of modern philosophy and science. The painful thing is that we have a very useful practical approach that seems to benefit people; we just don't have a coherent explanation of what we are doing or why.

In the final instalment, I revisit the argument that our problem is treating doctrine as metaphysics and  that the solution is to shift the discussion to epistemics. Buddhism has a veneer of respectability as metaphysics but it is thin and getting thinner. The modern world is going to figure us out at some point, so we Buddhists need to get ahead of the curve in order to survive. We have nothing coherent to say about the nature of reality, but the same statements read as commentary on our paradigm make more sense and are sometimes compatible with modern knowledge. For the long term survival of Buddhism as a meaningful cultural movement, we need to come to terms with this issue.


~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Bodhi. 1980 Transcendental Dependent Arising: a Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.(The Wheel Publication no.277/278.) Buddhist Publication Society. Online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha : a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.

Bucknell, Roderick S. 1999. "Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine." JIABS 22 (2) 1999: 311-342.

Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What The Buddha Thought. London: Equinox.

Jayarava. 2012. Chinese Spiral Path Texts from the Madhyāgama. Draft Translations. Sept 2012.

Jayarava. 2013. "The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda." Western Buddhist Review 6: 1–34.

Jayatilleke, K. N. 1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

Jurewicz, Joanna. 2000. "Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought." Journal of the Pali Text Society 26 (2000) pp. 77 – 103.

Khema, Ayya. 1991 When the Iron Eagle Flies. Penguin.

14 December 2018

Dependent Arising: Presence And Time

We can think of the following essay as a coda to my critique of the Perennial Philosophy since dependent arising is often presented as a singular universal metaphysical truth. In this essay I will begin by stipulating that paṭicca-samuppāda is a metaphysical doctrine and then proceed to draw out the implications of this premise.

The first task is to establish exactly what paṭicca-samuppāda says, using the standard methods of philology: analysing the grammar, syntax, and lexemes of the sentences. With a clear understanding of what the traditional formula says, we can try to understand what it means. I will show how the effect and condition relate under paṭicca-samuppāda. In addition, Buddhists were forced to accept a particular account of time and I will show why it had to be that account and no other. By the end of Part I, we will have a pretty good idea of how paṭicca-samuppāda performs as metaphysics.

If anyone thinks this is an elementary exercise and that we can hardly learn anything new about this most famous of all Buddhist doctrines at this late stage, let me assure them that in this case I learned something new or I wouldn't be writing about it. Most of what we learn about Buddhism in the present is only loosely correlated to the ancient texts and in this case there are major discrepancies.

In Part II, I will take the usual step and discuss paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of the nidānas (or bases) and what is often called the Spiral Path or upanisās. In particular, I will show, contrary to the received wisdom, that it is inconsistent with the nidānas, that the two describe very different kinds of conditionality. Unexpectedly, paṭicca-samuppāda turns out to be exactly consistent with the conditionality described in the upanisās. This is a major new observation.

Finally, in Part III, I will return to the issue of metaphysics and argue that paṭicca-samuppāda has nothing to do with metaphysics, but was employed as a description of subjective experience arising and passing away. Attempts to make it a metaphysical doctrine resulted in the kind of nonsense epitomised by Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā. Relieved of the necessity to make sense on the level of metaphysics, we are in a better position to see what the early Buddhists were getting at.

Let us begin at the beginning:


Dependent Arising

The classic formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda (Skt. pratītya-samutpāda) can be found in the four phrases found scattered through the Nikāyas:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti
imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati
Since there is no regular pattern of metre we cannot think of these as verses. This is prose and, since each phrase has its own finite verb and there are no conjunctions, we can say that they are grammatical; four separate sentences, presented on separate lines to aid discussion. The formula occurs just a few times in Pāli: MN i.263, ii.32, iii.63; SN ii.28, 65, 70, 78, 79, 95, 96, v.388; AN v.184; Ud 1, 2.

The usual Sanskrit version is:
yaduta asmin satīdaṃ bhavaty asyotpadād idam utpadyate | yaduta asmin asatīdaṃ na bhavaty asya nirodhād idaṃ nirudhyate ||
Although in Sanskrit this often be abbreviated to just the first two sentences. And in Chinese the phrase is typically:

         此有故彼有、此生故彼生、此無故彼無、此滅故彼滅。

For reference, the verbs here are 有 "being", 生 "arising", 無 "non-being", and 滅 "ceasing". And Chinese does not have the rich grammar of the Indic languages so the structure is the same in each of the four phrases. It comes out sounding like something from the 道德經 Dàodé Jīng and this may not have been an accident since Daoism was a strong influence on Chinese Buddhism.

However, we will stick with a grammatical analysis of the Pāli. The two phrases imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti and imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti use a locative absolute construction with present participles to indicate the relationship between the conditioning factor (paccaya) and the conditioned factor (vipāka). This kind of construction is used to indicate an action that is simultaneous with the main action of the verb. The main clause is idaṃ hoti "this is". The deictic pronoun idaṃ is used for an object present to the speaker and hoti is a dialectical variant on the verb bhavati (√bhū) "to be, become". The dynamic sense of "becoming" is probably better since it parallels uppajjati (ud√pad) "arising", though the difference in this case is minimal.

The "absolute" clause is imasmiṃ sati or imasmiṃ asati. The (irregularly formed) present participle sata is from the verb atthi (√as) and is in the locative case, while the pronoun is from the same base as idaṃ and also declined as locative. The meaning is: "this exists", but the locative absolute construction makes it "when this exists" or "while this exists"; and negatively "while this does not exist". Note that the deictic pronoun is used for both condition and effect; i.e., both are present to the speaker. However, if we translated literally it would be ambiguous, so most translators substitute this/that for this/this.

With this in mind I read these sentences as, “while the condition exists, the effect comes into existence” and “while the condition does not exist the effect doesn’t come into existence.” or more briefly: "This being, that becomes" and "This not being, that doesn't become".

The phrases imass’ uppādā idaṃ uppajjati and imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati combine an action noun (uppāda, nirodha) in the ablative of cause with a present indicative verb from the same root (ud√pad, ni√rudh). These mean: “from the arising of this [condition], that [effect] arises” and “from the cessation of this [condition], that [effect] ceases.”

So the sentences may be translated as:
This being, that becomes.
From the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that doesn't become.
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.
or:
While the condition exists, the effect exists.
From the arising of this condition, this effect arises.
While the condition does not exist the effect doesn’t exist.
From the cessation of this condition, this effect ceases.
This reading is supported by the influential Sri Lankan Buddhist writer, Kulatissa Jayatilleke, who expresses the relation as "Whenever A is present, B is present ..and... whenever A is absent, B is absent." (1963: 449). He notes that Buddhaghosa also saw it this way in the Visuddhimagga:
uppajjamāno ca saha samā ca uppajjati na ekekato no pi ahetuto ti sampanno (Vsm 521)
"Arisen (sampanno)" means arising together and arising equally, not one at a time and not for no reason.
There is not a lot of discussion about this, but my understanding is that the condition is both necessary and sufficient for the arising of the effect. The necessity part must be true, but the sufficiency is debatable. Conditionality might be underspecified and, indeed, in one way of talking about conditionality, multiple conditions are required to give rise to the effect (see Part III). We may ask if, in this standard case, the necessary condition could be present and not give rise to the effect? My reading of the formula is that this could not happen. Therefore the condition is sufficient. I deduced from Jayatilleke's translation and exposition that he also takes this to be the case.

To labour the point, the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect, and as soon as it is not present, then the effect ceases. To put it another way, we could say that the effect and condition must coexist. This is one way to understand the world samuppāda, although more literally it means "co-arising".

Now that we know what the formula says and why, we can begin to explore the implications:


The Logic of Presence

The early Buddhist theory of conditionality says that an effect can only arise when the appropriate condition is present and that it must cease when the condition is absent; and thus we can say that the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect. Note that Buddhaghosa himself has described arising as na ekekato "not one at a time" or "not from itself".

The doctrine of momentariness (focused on mental events) asserts that events can only happen one in each moment of time (the one citta rule). Under the conditions of momentariness, a condition can never coexist with its effect and therefore no effect can ever arise. Dependent arising simply does not work under these conditions. So the doctrine of momentariness fails, on its own terms, to explain karma (or anything). This puts the one citta rule in the spotlight, because this rule vitiates any attempt to link consequences to actions via dependent arising since it requires the two to always coexist (samuppāda).

There is a further profound consequence of the necessity for the coexistence implied by the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. Let us say that we have a number of events that (co)exist in conditioned relations as defined by dependent arising. We can call them a precondition, a condition, an effect, and an aftereffect (upanisā, paccaya, vipāka, and anuvipāka).

Each one is the basis (nidāna) for the arising of the next. If the precondition exists, then the condition arises. Once the condition arises, then the effect will arise, and the aftereffect will follow. And, of course, the system is not closed, but open-ended.

Let us say that the condition ceases, the effect immediately ceases, and thus the aftereffect also ceases. There is no backwards conditionality, so the cessation of the condition does not affect the precondition. This is good news for soteriology because if we can destroy the precondition then the whole edifice comes down. In Buddhism, ignorance (avijjā) is said to be the precondition for the whole miserable mess (kevala dukkhakkhanda), i.e., of rebirth, sentience, and suffering.

Another way to look at this is to begin with an event and trace back the conditions. Let us say that we observe the aftereffect and we analyse the conditions for that. We know that if the aftereffect exists, then the effect must exist at the same time. But if the effect exists, then the condition must exist, and if the condition exists then the precondition must exist. And so on. So if the aftereffect exists (i.e., if we perceive it) then all the preceding conditions must also exist at the same time.

...
precondition
condition
effect
aftereffect
...

→ → → → →
→ → → →
→ → →
→ →


In logic notation, ≡ stands for if and only if, thus the logic of this relation is:

aftereffect ≡ (effect ≡ (condition ≡ precondition))

We can generalise this as: For any system with N elements:


In order for anything to exist now, all the conditions for it must be in place stretching back in time. And at any point in the future, this must always be true. This was effectively the view of the Sarvāstivādins, although their process of inference was slightly different; they arrived at the same conclusion: in order to be consistent with paṭicca-samuppāda we are forced to conclude that everything exists all the time. See also my essay: Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance (02 May 2014).

There is a further problem here. This is a workable explanation of existence or becoming, but how could anything cease under these conditions? In order for something that is present to cease, the condition would have to ceased, and the condition for the condition, right back to infinity. But if all the conditions right back to infinity cease, then it would seem that all conditions whatever must cease. Thus if anything ceases than everything ceases. Though, of course, this is not what we experience, so it must be wrong.

One way around this would be to argue for a distinct thread of conditions for every phenomenon. However, in order for something new to arise, the conditions would have to stretch right back to infinity. In fact, if we follow the logic of paṭicca-samuppāda, nothing can come into existence and nothing can come out of existence. And since this is not the universe we observe, even on a superficial level, then something is wrong with our theory. Dependent arising does not describe the world at all. It cannot be thought of as a metaphysical theory. 

We also need to consider the implications of paṭicca-samuppāda for how Buddhists understood time:


Time

The precondition cannot be the condition for itself. Any event that is the condition for itself can only be always existent or always nonexistent. If it presently exists and is the necessary and sufficient condition for its own existence, then the condition is present and it must continue to exist forever. If it presently does not exist, then the condition does not exist for it to come into existence and never will.

There are only a limited number of scenarios that can explain the situation:
  1. Time is linear and infinite towards the past. There is an infinite and constantly expanding stream of conditions which allow the present to exist.
  2. Time is linear and finite in the past. This would lead to a first condition which must always exist for anything at all to exist.
  3. Time is circular. This reduces to the case of an event being the cause for itself.
To clarify the problem with circular time. If a condition occurs in its own timeline, then it becomes a condition for itself. In the simplest case, two events A and B condition each other A ⇄ B. A conditions B, which conditions A. If we take an arbitrary slice of this stream and lay it out flat, we would see a series of conditional relations:

→ A → B A B

If we spell this out:
  • If A is present then B is present and then A is present...
  • If A is not present then B is not present and then A is not present ...
  • In other words, If A is present then A is present; if A is not present , then A is not present .
  • If A is not present, the only way for it to be present is if B is present, but B can only be present if A is present. Therefore A is never present.
  • If A is present, then the only way for it to cease is if B ceases. But the condition for B is A which is present, thus A is present. Therefore A is always present.
In logic notation, for any system A,B where the relation is dependent on presence:
A ⇒ B • B ⇒ A
¬A ⇒ ¬B • ¬B ⇒ ¬A
∴ A ⇒ A • ¬A ⇒ ¬A
which is equivalent to:
(A if A) and (¬A if ¬A)
If B stands for a relation such as (P ⇒ Q) then we can see that for any arbitrarily long chain of similar relations, circular conditionality with obligatory presence logically reduces to: (A if A) and (¬A if ¬A).

Traditionally, Buddhists opted for the idea that time was linear and infinite towards the past, but they combined this with epicycles of evolution (samvaṭṭati) and devolution (vivaṭṭati). Strictly speaking, it would not matter if the universe were spatially finite, or had a finite future, but under dependent arising time must be infinite in the past to avoid an eternally existing first condition.


Summary of Part I

The paṭicca-samuppāda formula describes a dynamic in which the condition must be present for the effect to arise and the effect ceases when the condition ceases. It says that the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect. It has always said this, so if you learned something different then, I'm sorry, but your teacher misled you. Historically, only the Sarvāstivāda understanding of conditionality is consistent with paṭicca-samuppāda.

The requirement for presence means that the condition must be present for the effect to arise; and it means that the condition for the condition must also be present. And so on back through time. To avoid an eternal initial cause, Buddhists have to adopt a worldview in which time is infinite in the past. To avoid having conditionality collapse into something being a condition for itself, time must be linear, although within this linear time, Buddhists accepted the Vedic myth of epicycles of evolution and devolution. However, having explained presence this way, we struggle to explain ceasing.

I am sticking to the internal logic of paṭicca-samuppāda in this essay, but I cannot help but point out that early Buddhists were wrong on two counts: time is continuous rather than discrete; and time is finite in the past. As far as I can see paṭicca-samuppāda explains nothing on its own terms and it explains nothing on modern terms.

This concludes Part I. Part II will look at the relationship of paṭicca-samuppada to the concepts of nidāna and upanisā.


~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Jayatilleke, K. N. (1963). Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

22 August 2014

Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda

Image: All Things Thai
One of my bigger projects at the moment is an article on the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. This is the contradiction between pratītyasamutpāda requiring the presence of a condition for the effect and karma which requires the manifestation of the effect long after the condition has ceased (with no intervening manifestation of the effect). 

Having dealt with the Sarvāstivāda approach to this problem it will be interesting to see how other schools managed. In this essay I'll look into the Theravāda Abhidhamma to see how they dealt with Action at a Temporal Distance. Where the Sarvāstivādins dealt with the problem explicitly, the Theravādins do so only implicitly, and spread the answer out so that it's not so obvious. Indeed it's so obscure that some respected modern scholars have missed it entirely!

It's fairly common to see Theravāda Dhamma books referring to the accumulation (āyūhana) of kamma over time. Other terms like latent tendencies (anusaya) and karmic formations (saṅkhārā) seem to hint at something similar. In particular saṅkhārā appears to be made up from an accumulation of cetanā. The problem here is that these kinds of answers simply shift attention without solving the problem. The question shifts from "where is kamma in the interim between cetanā and vipāka?"; to "where is anusaya or āyūhana?" If there is an accumulation of something, where and/or how does it accumulate; and why does it not affect the person until the karma ripens? Something happens to hold over the effect (vipāka) long after the cetanā that conditions it has ceased, in contradiction of the fundamental principle of conditionality. The standard answers are simply linguistic substitutions. Other commentators have noticed that there is a problem here.
"Questions about the persistence of latent dispositions and accumulation of karmic potential thus remain: once the cognitive processes are activated, are they transmitted through the six modes of cognitive awareness? If so, why do they not influence these forms of mind? If not, how do they persist from one moment of bhavaṅga-citta to the next without some contiguous conditioning medium? The bhavaṅga-citta does not directly address these persisting questions, adumbrated in the Kathavātthu so many centuries before. Nor, to my knowledge, do subsequent Theravādin Abhidhamma traditions discuss these questions in dhammic terms."
Waldron, William S. Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p.83.
The bhavaṅgacitta is like a resting state of the mind when there is no sense experience. Like sense cittas, the bhavaṅga-cittas are short-lived and one follows another in succession. Unlike sense cittas, the bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object as the paṭisandhicitta or relinking-mental event that was the first conscious event to arise in our freshly minted being after the final or death-moment conscious event (cuticitta) of our last being. Unlike sensory cittas, bhavaṅgacitta doesn't register as vedanā. Thus even when we are not consciously having experiences—such as in deep sleep or arūpa-jhāna—there is a steady stream of mental events that we are not aware of that provide continuity between moments of sense awareness. 

Waldron invokes the stream of bhavaṅgacitta (or bhavaṅgasota) but it's hard to see how it can  be responsibile for accumulation if each bhavaṅgacitta is identical. This difficulty had already been noticed by Professor Rupert Gethin (before Waldron):
"...it does not seem possible on the basis of what is said explicitly in the texts to justify the claim that the bhavaṅga carries with it all character traits, memories, habitual tendencies, etc." (30).
Gethin, Rupert. (1994) 'Bhavaṅga and Rebirth According to the Abhidhamma.' in The Buddhist Forum. Vol III. T. Skorupski and U. Pagel (eds.), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, pp. 11–35.
However Gethin is alive to the need for something to do this job or perhaps we should say, for this function to be carried out somehow. Since bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object they aren't much use for the kind of connectivity with accumulation we are looking for. But they are not a million miles away. Gethin finds it inconceivable that the great Theravādin commentators, Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala, had not considered the problem, and he ventures to speculate a little on how they might have solved it. Like Gethin, I'm interested that the great three seem not to have openly dealt with the problem in the way that Sarvāstivādins did. Buddhaghosa is nothing if not thorough.

For Gethin there are many similarities between bhavaṅga and ālayavijñāna (the solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance adopted by Yogacārins, based on the Sautrāntika idea of 'karmic seeds'). Thus he is willing to entertain the thought that the two at least "belong to the same complex of ideas within the history of Buddhist thought." (35). I agree on this last point. However I think we can go further.

Firstly a reminder that in Dhammavāda there are four kinds of dhamma: citta, cetasika, rūpa and nibbāna. Importantly for us, each citta though itself singular and occurring strictly in series, has a variable number of associated cetasikas. What the Buddha calls kamma is cetanā, which is classified as a cetasika. So each citta has associated with it a cetanā that makes it morally significant. Just to be clear a citta is a mental event and a cetanā is the intentional function of that mental event. With this in mind we can look at what some of the traditional sources tell us about the accumulation of kamma.

Buddhaghosa provides a quote from the Paṭisambhidāmagga that looks promising. At Visuddhimagga (Vsm) XVII.292:
Tenāha ‘‘purimakammabhavasmiṃ moho avijjā, āyūhanā saṅkhārā, nikanti taṇhā, upagamanaṃ upādānaṃ, cetanā bhavoti ime pañca dhammā purimakammabhavasmiṃ idha paṭisandhiyā paccayā’’ti (Ps 1.47).
Hence it is said: 'In the previous kamma-process becoming, there is delusion, which is ignorance; there is accumulation (āyūhanā) which is formations (saṅkhārā); there is attachment, which is craving; there is embracing, which is clinging (upādāna); there is volition (cetanā) which is becoming (bhava); thus these five things in the previous kamma-process becoming are conditions for the rebirth-linking here [in the present becoming]. (PTS Ps i.52). trans. Ñāṇamoli
Elsewhere the commentary on the Saṅkhārasuttaṃ, AN 3.23 (Mp 2.192), Buddhaghosa glosses the phrase kāyasaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti with:
Kāyasaṅkhāranti kāyadvāre cetanārāsiṃ:
The body-formation [is] "a heap of intentions in the body-door”. 
Abhisaṅkharotīti āyūhati rāsiṃ karoti piṇḍaṃ karoti.
The verb abhisaṅkharoti [means] he accumulates, he makes a heap, he makes a lump.”
This points towards saṅkhārakkhandha as the process by which cetanā accumulates. But I still don't see where this fits into the cittavīthi (or the track of mental events). A problem here is that kamma accumulations are not supposed to take effect until the kamma ripens, creating a vipāka. The idea that kamma accumulates as saṅkhārā is attractive, but there is a contradiction since the saṅkhārā is actively involved in the perceptual process. The experience of the vipāka is supposed to be a one-time thing: it ripens and we either experience it as vedanā or we experience it as gati (rebirth destination) and then it is expended. If it were not expended then there would never be a way to escape from previous negative karma. This is complicated because clearly habitual tendencies (positive and negative) are a phenomenon that everyone experiences. They're also centrally important in cultivating a Buddhist lifestyle and the pursuit of liberation from greed, aversion and confusion.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that a kamma stays active for a period and has an effect while active; and then once it is exhausted ceases to be active. But that's not what the texts describe. And the same limitations apply: the kamma qua event is short-lived and if it is to accumulate we have to find a way to pass on the effect without the continued existence of the condition. Effects are said to accumulate despite the absence of their conditions which, being mental events, exist only in the moment.

In Early Buddhist Metaphysics, in the chapter "Causation as the Handmaid of Metaphysics" Noa Ronkin summarises the 24 types of conditions as found in the seventh book of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭṭhāna. This seems to be the key to understanding the Theravāda response to Action at a Temporal Distance. The functions of accumulating and passing forward kamma are distributed amongst several different types of conditionality. The approach relies on the idea that dhammas can operate as a condition in many different modes. Twenty-four such modes are discussed in the Paṭṭhāna.

Under her discussion of the pair proximity condition (antara-paccaya) and contiguity condition (samantara-paccaya), Ronkin says, "Every preceding thought moment is thus regarded as capable of arousing succeeding states of consciousness similar to it in the immediately following instant." (216). She further speculates that these two, almost identical, modes of conditionality were "probably necessary in order to account for the continuity of phenomena without relying on any metaphysical substance". (216) Buddhaghosa covers this subject in Visuddhimagga XVII.73-6 (Vol 2, para 598 in the VRI ed.) Buddhaghosa spends some time refuting an internal dispute regarding the need for temporal proximity. The fact that Theravādins were not united on this issue of temporal proximity is telling. It shows that they were actively considering the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance and divided over how to solve it. If we follow through the rest of the paccaya modes we find more specific links of this kind.

The decisive support condition (upanissaya-paccaya) allows a dhamma to self-sufficiently arouse a resultant dhamma, like the related nissaya-paccaya but not necessarily foremost and "it lasts longer, has long-term effect and implies action at a distance... The importance of the decisive support condition seems to lie in its accounting for more and spiritual progress: virtues like trust or confidence (saddhā), generosity (dāna), undertaking the precepts and others, all assist the occurrence of their long term results (the jhānas, insight, taking the path etc) as their decisive support, and these results, in their turn, condition the repeated arising of trust, generosity etc. (219, emphasis added). As the Paṭṭhāna says:
purimā purimā kusalā dhammā pacchimānaṃ pacchimānaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ upanissayapaccayena paccayo.
"All preceding wholesome dhammas are a condition by way of decisive support condition of all subsequent wholesome dhammas" (i.5)
Similarly for unwholesome (akusala) and undetermined (avyākata) dhammas. This section is covered in Visuddhimagga XVII 80-84. This criteria of self-sufficiency is interesting since it seems to flirt with something like svabhāva. Here though a dhamma is not a condition for itself, but a condition for another which we would expect to be parabhāva, a term we do find in Nāgārjuna's discussion of conditionality. This aspect requires some more research, but it looks like an all or nothing problem such as Nāgārjuna describes for svabhāva.

We also have:
Habitual cultivation (āsevana-paccaya)... "for example, developing a certain skilful thought once facilitates the cultivation of the same thought with a greater degree of efficiency and intensity... It therefore underlies the cultivation of right view, right speech and right action." (Ronkin 219)
Habitual cultivation is thus also responsible for memory without an agent that remembers. Ronkin places this observation in a note (242 n.118), with a reference to an article in two parts by David Kalupahana (1962) 'The Philosophy of Relations in Buddhism' University of Ceylon Review: 19-54; 188-208. Kalupahana re-visited this material in his 1975 book: Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Uni of Hawai'i Press), especially chapter VII "Causal Correlations". However compare:
"It is because of proximity-condition and contiguity-condition that we can remember past experiences, events which occurred many years ago." (38)
Gorkom, Nina van. (2010) The Conditionality of Life: An Outline of the Twenty-four Conditions as Taught in the Abhidhamma. Zolag.
This is troubling because the two commentators contradict each other. Buddhaghosa seems not to participate in this dispute. He mentions memory under neither heading. More research is required to untangle this knot, which only further emphasises the difficulty of dealing with the problems raised by Action at a Temporal Distance.

The kamma-paccaya occurs in two modes simultaneous (sahajāta) and asynchronous (nānākhaṇika)... and according to Ronkin:
"An asynchronous condition obtains when a past kamma comes into fruition in a manifest corresponding action. Although the volition itself ceases, it leaves in the mind latent traces that take effect and assist the arising of an appropriate action when the necessary conditions are satisfied" (220)
This is less satisfying because it does not explain the "latent trace" but I think the implication is clear enough in the light of the other passages. 


Conclusions

The picture is that each citta is not a simple event, but a complex one with many facets (cetasikā). And each citta conditions the next in a variety of ways (twenty four different ways according to the Paṭṭhāna). Theravādins envisaged that an aspect of conditionality would be the passing on of information from citta to citta, particularly the information relevant to karma: information about cetanā. And this process is perfectly conservative in order that karma can be 100% effective. There is no loss of information until the conditions amassed in a life-time manifest as a single vipāka. This takes place at the moment of death when death-moment conscious-event (cuticitta) occurs and conditions the paṭisandhicitta or 're-linking mental event'. By focussing on the information content the Theravādins avoided positing an entity for storing information. And by denying any interval between death and rebirth they avoided the complicated and unsatisfactory metaphysics of the antarabhāva or interim state. Thus information is conserved even though no entity is.

The idea of continuity with no entities, nascent in the suttas, is fleshed out in the Paṭṭhāna. It's not so clear what Buddhaghosa intended in Vism., though he bases his exposition on the same sources. Also some modern commentators seem to interpret functions like memory as being related to different kinds of condition.

I'm still slightly puzzled that this problem is so prominent elsewhere, and yet here quite submerged and difficult to get at. However, when one considers how initially disturbing is the notion that the two fundamental doctrines of Buddhism contradict each other it may be that at the same time as solving the problem they swept it under the carpet.

However, on first acquaintance this solution to Action at a Temporal Distance is far from satisfactory. If citta is a kind of dhamma then it ought to be unitary and simple. How does such a simple, momentary event operate as a condition in twenty-four distinct ways simultaneously? But then a citta is not a simple event after all, because it is always accompanied by cetasikas which are also dhammas. So is a citta a dhamma or not?

We still have no knowledge of how the final conscious event in one mind conditions a first conscious event in another mind. Handing on information within one mind is somewhat intuitive, but transmitting it to a spatially separate mind is quite counter-intuitive. Every single person has first-hand experience of the first, while experience of the latter is reported by a very few witnesses that we have every reason to doubt.

Traditionalists seem not to have an answer to this. The best they can do is to state that they simply cannot imagine conscious processes ceasing with physical death, and so it seems "natural" that conscious events continue to happen so their must be a transfer somehow. This is what all believers in an afterlife think: the afterlife is all about acknowledging physical death but denying mental death (a trait observed already in quite young children). So this refusal to allow for one's inner life to cease, certainly has a long pedigree and is widely accepted, but it doesn't ever answer the question of "how". Indeed the question of how can often produce hostile anti-intellectual responses which attack the idea that questions like this can be answered. The afterlife must be taken on faith and the answers to probing questions about the afterlife are never satisfactorily answered, which undermines faith.

Another question for this model is, how does the mind know that any particular citta is to be the last in this life and thus take on the function of cuticitta? That last citta has to perform a special function so it must "know" that it is the last citta. It implies a peculiar kind of determinism. But it also implies a very simplistic view of death. For the ancients death is consistent with the cessation of observable bodily processes, particularly the breath, which I have explained in my essays on vitalism is the quintessence of a living thing. However we now know that one can stop breathing for many minutes and be resuscitated (which is from the Latin and means "to summon up again"). In the West we have long associated death with the cessation of the heartbeat. But the discovery of brainwaves led to more precise definitions related to brain activity. However even this is far from precise. Identifying the last moment of consciousness is impossible. In the last couple of years fMRI scanners have enabled us to perceive mental activity in people who are in persistent vegetative states. 

A puzzling aspect of this model is the huge build up of information that would occur over a life time of responding to sensory cittas. If we have several cittas per second then the information being passed on from citta to citta grows exponentially (as we must "process" information about the information); especially if we consider that memory is a function of this process as well. Each citta passes on information about itself and information accumulated from all previous cittas. It seems implausible at best that such a process had sufficient bandwidth to transfer a lifetime's information in a fraction of a second, every fraction of a second without ever glitching. Let alone the information from uncounted lifetimes from the past.

We also need to acknowledge the obscurantism of the source texts. The Paṭṭhāna and the Visuddhimagga are both very difficult texts to read and comprehend. Which means that for the most part we are reliant on commentators to explain the intention of the authors. And the commentators apparently disagree.

Perhaps it is expecting too much of these very early theories to stand the test of time and the rigours of a modern philosophical inquiry? It's one thing to understand the Theravāda view on it's own terms, it's another altogether to accept it on those terms.

This inquiry raises important questions. We cannot both embrace modernity and these ancient ideas about mental functioning. Something has to give. I know many Buddhists are content to let it be modernity that gives way. Buddhist apologetics are proliferating at present in the face of the conflict. But there is always something two-faced about the rejection of modernity. We embrace modern medicine to stay alive while rejecting the idea that the mind is an emergent property of brain and body function, even though both are products of the same body of knowledge. How ironic that the internet is a prime tool for dismissing modern progress away from superstition towards reason. Perhaps this is because the internet is a sufficiently advanced technology that is seems like magic?

For the present we can just about have our cake and eat it too, but how long can this continue? Must we choose between anachronistic, superstitious, rejection of modernity; and a non-religious, humanist, scientific utopia? Or is their some middle ground?  

~~oOo~~


This essay began life as a discussion on the Dhammawheel forum.
Thanks to those who contributed to the discussion.

02 May 2014

Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance.

In recent weeks I've become a bit more involved in a distributed discussion about  the twin Buddhist doctrines of karma & rebirth. This has been in response to apologetics defending traditional articles of faith with respect to karma & rebirth.

Of course I have blogged about karma & rebirth (together and separately) quite often, mainly exploring the challenges that 400 years of empiricism raise for traditional belief. But one of the other topics I write about is the nature of religious belief and I have become increasingly aware that the discussion about karma & rebirth was in danger of becoming bogged down. It's all too easy to see the discussion as a contest between pejorative and polemical accounts of fideism and scientism. The two sides are already talking past each other. 

So I began to explore a new tack. I was aware that the Buddhist tradition itself had a history of modifying these doctrines and some explorations of this have appeared as essays on this blog (see e.g. How the Doctrine of Karma Changes). I'd also been exploring some of the metaphysical problems in early Buddhism. I realised that it might be fruitful to dive into the history of Buddhism and develop this a bit more. I wrote an essay for our Order journal which can be found on my static website: Some Problems With Believing in Rebirth. In that essay I briefly outlined eight problems that people who believe in karma & rebirth ought to have thought about and tried to resolve. These problems are not reasons to disbelieve in karma & rebirth, but they are quite serious problems most of which have historically troubled Buddhists and resulted in doctrinal innovations. 

In discussing karma & rebirth our frame of reference is usually quite narrow: for most of us circumscribed by what is available in our bookshops. As a result our discussion of the history of Buddhist karma & rebirth seems to me to be rather constrained. This essay will attempt to broaden it out a little. In addressing the problem of karma & rebirth I've tried to show that it is (at least) three sided:
1. Inconsistent Early Buddhist accounts.
2. Later Buddhist adaptations and innovations.
3. Knowledge from 400 years of empiricism.
Buddhists themselves found the earliest received versions of karma & rebirth unsatisfactory and changed them. Ignoring this aspect of Buddhism results in a lopsided discussion. The equivalent would be like discussing British history in terms of the Celts and the Industrial Revolution, but missing out the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Importantly, the Pali suttas cannot solve the problems we encounter, because they (along with their counterparts in other scriptural languages) are the source of the problem as I will try to show.

cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi


One of the key issues related to karma & rebirth that unsettled Buddhists is what I call the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance: the ability for short lived mental processes to have consequences spanning multiple lifetimes. This problem has two main aspects:
  1. Karma, according to the Buddha, is cetanā (AN 6.63) and cetanā is a short-lived mental event. 
  2. Pratītya-samutpāda requires that when the condition ceases the effect must also cease (imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati).
Thus, on face value karma cannot coexist with pratītya-samutpāda because it requires the possibility of an effect long after the cessation of the condition, usually with no effect in the intervening time - in other words the effect only arises long after the condition has ceased. Ancient Buddhists noticed this and the result was a raft of doctrinal innovations attempting to reconcile the two, usually by artificially prolonging the action of conditions long after they cease i.e. Buddhists adjusted pratītya-samutpāda to accommodate karma. Of the many responses, this essay will focus on the Sarvāstivāda. 

The Sarvāstivāda School has a far better claim to be representative of early Indian Buddhism than does the Theravāda School. It dominated the North Indian Buddhist scene for several centuries while the Theravada School was relatively isolated in Sri Lanka: having little influence and being little influenced. The Theravādin Kathāvatthu, which is an account of the Vibhajyavādin's dispute with the mainstream of Buddhism, does not engage with the arguments found below (Bronkhorst 1989).  There were of course other schools, but they all seem to have defined themselves at least to some extent in opposition to the Sarvāstivāda, or have subsequently been found to be part of the same movement (like the Sautrāntikas). We tend to ignore the Sarvāstivāda because of Mahāyāna polemics, and because their texts have yet to be translated into English. However, the Sarvāstivādins were very much alive to this problem and canny in their response to it.

With respect to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, Dundee philosopher David Bastow (1995) believes that he has discovered the earliest argument for the existence of dharmas in the past, future and present - the characteristic idea that gave the Sarvāstivāda School its name. The argument is found the Vijñānakāya, a Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma text dated to perhaps 200 BCE and available only in Chinese translation.

One Citta at a time


Consider a mental moment of greed, a "greed citta". It is axiomatic (for all Buddhist schools) that there can be only one citta at a time, though it may be accompanied by mental factors (cetāsika) such as attention, volition and so on (each citta and cetāsika being a "dharma"). This imposes a temporal sequence on experience. Cittas arise one after another in sequence, each lasting a fraction of a second.

imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti
imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati


Knowing that what we are experiencing is "greed", is itself a citta. So the knowledge that a citta was greed can only follow after the fact of the greed. Knowledge follows from experience. If we know we have experienced a greed citta then that greed citta cannot be non-existent, since, imasmin sati, idam hoti. Sati is a present participle from √as 'to be' while hoti is a dialectical variant of bhavati from √bhū 'to be, to become'. The phrase says "while this exists; this exists" (the pronoun in both cases is the deictic idam which is conventionally translated as 'this' and indicates something present to the speaker).

sense object + sense organ + sense discrimination = contact


It is also axiomatic in Buddhist psychology that for vijñāna to arise there must be a sense object (ālambana) and sense faculty (indriya). Thus the greed citta must "exist" in some form (imasmin sati). We don't need to get bogged down in defining in what way it exists, only to acknowledge that like any sense object it functions as a condition for vijñāna to arise, so it cannot be non-existent. And since the greed citta must sequentially precede the knowledge citta, the greed citta must exist (in some way) in the past. The same is true of all cittas.

Furthermore, it is essential to both Buddhist ethics and karma that a greed citta has future consequences. The classic pratītya-samutpāda formula informs us that if the condition has ceased then the effect ceases. The corollary is that if there is a future effect, then a future condition must exist. Thus, in our example, the greed citta must exist (in some form) in the future or it could not have future consequences. In order for karma to work as advertised the citta must potentially continue to exist over several lifetimes. The same is true of all cittas.

Thus, dharmas exist in all three times: present, past, and future.


To summarise: a citta "exists" (in some form) in the present, but in order for us to have knowledge of it, the citta must also "exist" (in some form) in the past; and in order for it to have consequences at a later time it must "exist" (in some form) in the future. Minimally "exist" means that it must at least be able to function as a condition for the arising of mano-vijñāna (i.e. as a dharma); it must be consistent with the imasmin sati formula. Thus, cittas (i.e. dharmas) exist in all three times: present, past, and future. And this, according to the Vijñānakāya, is what sarva-asti means. 

This view, and developments of it, dominated the first phases of sectarian Buddhism in Indian from around the 2nd century BCE until it was replaced by the metaphysical speculations of the Yogacārins in about the 5th century CE. The sarva-asti view emerges from the application of standard Buddhist axioms to karma and, unlike the Yogacāra view, it does not introduce further speculation or further axioms. It is a plausible solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, certainly no less plausible than suggesting the existence of seeds in a storehouse. Thus, we should not dismiss the Sarvāstivāda view lightly. If we are going to dismiss it, then it ought not to be on the basis of further metaphysical speculation. More importantly, we ought to offer a better solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance.

~~oOo~~


Bibliography
Bastow, David. (1995) 'The First Argument for Sarvāstivāda.' Asian Philosophy 5(2):109-125. Text online
Bronkhorst, Johannes. (1993) 'Kathāvatthu and Vijñānakāya'. Premier Colloque Étienne Lamotte. Bruxelles et Liège 24-27 septembre 1989). Université Catholique de Louvain: Institut Orientaliste Louvain-la-Neuve. 1993. Pp. 57-61)