Showing posts with label Critical Thinking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Critical Thinking. Show all posts

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:


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.
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.


→ → → → →
→ → → →
→ → →
→ →

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:


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.



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

05 August 2011

Not Two Truths

alchemy pictureFOR SOME TIME I have wanted to write a critique of the Doctrine of the Two Truths. The task is potentially a large and difficult one because there is no single version of the idea that is universally accepted, and the history of its development is complex. Some version of the idea of Two Truths is accepted by most schools of Buddhist thought, but they do not agree on the details. An in-depth exposition on the subject would be a long book project.[1] However, I think a single wrong step begins the path that leads to all versions of this theory. Therefore, I may be able to head them all off by identifying that step and suggesting reasons why we should not take it.

In broad outline, the idea of Two Truths says that there are two ways of understanding the world. In the conventional (samvṛti) sense the world is just as it appears to the unawakened. So, for instance, we find the world to be a relatively reliable place where the laws of physics and chemistry apply; where we are born and die; where we interact with people. And yet, according to this theory, this conventional world is not real. Taking the world to be real is why we suffer. Buddhist theorists came up with the idea of an ultimate (paramārtha) truth, the perception of which is liberating, and the understanding of which is liberation—those who see things this way see things as they really are, i.e., they see Reality (with a capital R). Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong. So, I'm probably mad, or deluded, but bear with me.

Let's begin at the beginning, or as close to it as we'll ever get. We do not find the idea of Two Truths in the Pāli suttas, nor, so far as I am aware, in the early Buddhist texts preserved in other languages. So, we cannot cite any Pāli sutta in defence of this idea. And this is, unsurprisingly, my first point. The idea is a later development. If the early Buddhists did not feel the need for such a theory why did later Buddhists invent it? (This is a question worth asking for many other ideas as well!).

I have argued for some time now that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a Theory of Everything.[2] Not only does paṭicca-samuppāda not explain the universe and everything in it, it was never intended to be applied beyond the arising of experiences in the mind, i.e., dukkha (literally: disappointment, dissatisfaction; suffering)—dukkha is our experience. The 'things' that arise in dependence on conditions are none other than dhammas, and these are the objects of the mind sense. The early texts have little or nothing to say about the ontological status of these dhammas. Indeed, the early Buddhist texts explicitly argue that ontological terms like 'existence' and 'non-existence' do not even apply (especially the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S ii.16). This is not to say that non-mental phenomena are not conditioned, or that cause and effect are not observed. They are. But this was not, so far as we can tell, the Buddha's insight, nor his teaching. So much should be familiar to readers of this blog. [and if this is not familiar then please read the essay referred to in footnote 2.]

Perhaps because their non-Buddhist contemporaries were deeply interested in ontology, such issues also came to occupy the minds of Buddhists. Not content to leave the dhamma as an indeterminate 'mental thing', what I refer to deliberately vaguely as 'an experience', they began to speculate on the nature of dhammas. Were they real? Were they ultimate? How long did they last? The answers to these questions were, from the beginning, irrelevant to the Buddhist program of practice. But, in some cases, they came to occupy centre stage of Buddhist discourse—so much so that many people today talk about the goal of Buddhism as "insight into the nature of Reality". [Google that phrase] The trouble with asking such questions is that people are rarely satisfied with not coming to a conclusion. I suspect that one only asks such questions when one already considers there to be a definite and preferable answer. A lot of time and energy is then wasted over competing opinions about something that is simply not relevant.

I understand the early Buddhist response to the question of whether dhammas are real or unreal to be that the question was neither answerable nor relevant, so even attempting to answer it is pointless. By extension I take the appearance of answers to this question to be one of the limits of what we I think of as early Buddhism.

It is a relatively straightforward proposition to argue that the external world is not dependent on my seeing it, for it to have form. It is harder to believe that the entire universe blinks out of existence and back into existence each time my eyelids close and open than that the Buddha was talking about was the world of 'subjective' experience. In fact, even the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are out of place here, since the 'world' the Buddha was talking about arises from the condition of both sense object and sense faculty—that world is neither subjective nor objective. In any case, I have found no reference in any early Buddhist text to the reality or unreality of sense objects, nor any mention of it in secondary literature which discusses the early Buddhist world-view. Sense objects are always part of the process of unenlightened consciousness, but there is no speculation on their nature.

However, if I close my eyes then my mode of perception has changed, and my experience of 'the world' has radically changed. This probably leaves the world itself unchanged. I say 'probably', because I do not know and I do not believe I can know the world except through my senses. This leaves me uncertain, and unable to come to any firm conclusion. So neither materialism or idealism in the strict senses are intellectually honest. All I know for certain is that I have experience of something; I find the experiences I have problematic; and early Buddhism tells me that the something is not the source of the problem.

This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse, that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.

If we begin to apply the paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory to everything, if we apply it not only to the arising of experiences in our minds, but to the arising of what we suppose to be objects in the putative world, then we create a problem. I have discussed this problem with respect to the simile of the chariot. In this case we lose sight of the fact that the chariot is a metaphor for how our 'world'—that is the world that we experience, not the world as ontological reality—is conditioned by the meeting of sense faculty (indriya) and sense object (dhamma) in the present of sense awareness (viññāna). The chariot is not the point of this story and neither is the world of sense objects. The main point is made in the seldom quoted statements that follow the simile:
"apart from dukkha nothing arises, and apart from dukkha nothing ceases".
When we focus on the chariot and its parts we start asking questions like: is the chariot real or not? Is there a chariot apart from the parts? Is there some essence of chariot? And we come to strange and speculative conclusions. In effect we must invent something like the Two Truths to account for the paradoxes that arise. Plainly, the chariot exists and is, in a sense, 'real', since we perceive it; but it can't be really 'real', or solidly existent because we know it to be merely a conglomeration of parts. Clearly, it cannot be both real and unreal, both exist and not-exist at the same time, so... there must be two distinct truths about reality: at one level it is real and at another unreal.[3]

If we reframe the question in terms of experience, then we already know that our mental states are neither real nor unreal—these kinds of dichotomies don't apply to experience. If we remove the sense object, the sense faculty or awareness from the equation our experiential world ceases or fails to arise (that being, this becomes, etc.). While the three factors are present, then there is both the experience and the experiencer. The khandhas are just another way of breaking up the experience and making the same point. [See The Apparatus of Experience] When we limit our domain to experience, then dualities like real/unreal or existence/non-existence simply and straightforwardly do not apply, and we do not create paradoxes.

All experiences, including the experience of self-hood, are formed this way: from an interaction of our mind, sense faculties and sense objects. And all experiences are characterised as impermanent, disappointing and insubstantial. We may think that a pleasant experience equates with happiness, but we find the experience is fleeting, and it isn't repeatable, which we take to mean that we are unhappy. We grasp after pleasure, but can never be satisfied, and the harder we pursue pleasure the less pleasure we experience. It is not that there is no experience, just that we fail to understand the nature of experience. And experience has only this nature. Awakening, I would say, is awakening to the nature of experience.

It's not that conventionally something exists, but ultimately it doesn't—if we are using words like exist, true or real then we're applying the theory in the wrong way and/or in the wrong domain. Because we are, or should be, talking about experience of things rather than the things in themselves, we have no need of two different truths. Only those who attempt to stretch the application of the paṭicca-samuppāda beyond it's intended domain require two truths.

The other aspect of the Two Truths that is insisted upon is that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to words: "Reality is ineffable". Words do a fair job of communicating about objects and ideas. But when it comes to experiences... no experience can be communicated in words. We can say that we have had an experience; we can say how we explain and/or interpret that experience; we can say how we feel about having had that experience; we can say how the experience changed us: but with mere words we cannot communicate the experience we've had. This is true of every single experience. So experience, all experience, is ineffable. And in fact probably all of us have had life changing experiences after which we have never been the same. We shouldn't make a big deal out of that in the case of bodhi. The ineffability of experience is a simple truism, not a profound Truth. I think the tendency is to emphasise the mystical aspects of bodhi, and for someone like me it makes it seem impossible.

So this is my mad thesis—that all Buddhist philosophers (including the modern Theravāda) are barking up the wrong tree with this business of Two Truths. If we take paṭicca-samuppāda in its natural domain there is no need to go down the route of inventing this dichotomy, because we do not meet the paradoxes that arise from the misapplication of the theory. The early Buddhists had no need of a Two Truths theory because they understood the domain in which paṭicca-samuppāda applies. We have no need of it either; in fact, it is probably a hindrance.


  1. A good overview of the subject is: Thakchoe, Sonam, 'The Theory of Two Truths in India,' The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online: [though of course the theory developed outside India as well!]. See also Ñāṇavīra. 'Paramattha Sacca.' Notes on Dhamma. p. 27-33. Online:
  2. For an extended treatment of this topic see my long essay: Is Pāṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? This is based on a close reading of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16). I've covered some of the same ground in this blog:
  3. If you are at all tempted to invoke Quantum Mechanics at this point then I suggest that you read my essay: Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. I don't think QM has anything helpful to say to us about this issue because conclusions about the nature of single sub-atomic particles do not apply when several septillion of them conglomerate at room temperature.