Showing posts with label Dependent Arising. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dependent Arising. Show all posts

28 December 2018

What is the Point of Dependent Arising?

In the first two parts of this essay I showed that a close reading of the Pāli texts associated with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda contradicts the received tradition. The imasmim sati formula says that the condition must be present for the duration of the effect, which contradicts all modern accounts (though it does fit the defunct Sarvāstivāda). Despite the traditional association, this is not the conditionality of the nidānas; rather, it is that of the upanisās (or Spiral Path), a lesser-known doctrine that is well attested in Pāli and Chinese. 

All of this ought to have been obvious, but Buddhism as a religion generates powerful cognitive biases against seeing things as they are. Instead, we are encouraged to see things the way that religious leaders tell us they ought to be. We are taught that Buddhism offers insights into reality, or even the ultimate nature of reality, but it really does not. To some extent this is the standard cognitive bias generated by expectations, but magnified by the emotive atmosphere of religious observance. Where others are expressing devotion and making sacrifices, we are more likely to be swept along by emotional contagion (cf. Martyrs Maketh the Religion. 05 February 2010). 

The kind of contradiction explored in this essay is so common that we can say that it is the norm. The doctrines of the Pāli texts are frequently so faulty that later Buddhists abandoned them altogether. This is partially hidden because they retained the jargon of Buddhism, simply redefining words to give the illusion of continuity. Technical terms like "nidāna" provide a figleaf of authenticity and legitimacy and allow those seeking leverage to reference the "Pāli Canon" but, in fact, no one teaches what is in the suttas. And why would they teach ideas that don't make sense? What we teach is someone's attempt to make sense of the early teachings. This is not wrong per se, but it is deceptively presented as ancient wisdom, when often it is just modern liberal humanism. 

In the final part of this essay I'll apply my principle hermeneutic—Buddhism is experience—to the idea of dependent arising. I've already shown that it doesn't make sense as metaphysics and now I'll try to show that it makes some sense as a kind of epistemology. 

A Third Way

If paṭicca-samuppāda is a failure as metaphysics, does it have any application? In the year 2000, Sue Hamilton argued that the doctrines in the Pāli suttas are concerned with experience rather than with reality. Since that time other scholars have picked up on this idea and I have made it one of the central tenets of my approach to Buddhism. There is, in fact, a third textual approach to dependent arising that corresponds to this experiential approach. This third way is found, for example, in two adjacent suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta, i.e., SN 12.43 and SN 12.44 (they are also repeated verbatim at SN 35.106 and 35.107). There is a pericope here that crops up regularly and forms the core of the idea. I'll call it the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati formula.
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. (SN ii.72) 
Dependent on the eye and form eye-cognition arises. The conjunction of the three is contact. From the condition of contact feeling exists, from the condition of feeling, craving exists. 
The texts say that the same is true for all the sense modalities (indriya): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Each of the sense modalities has its object (S. ālambana; P. ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactiles, dhammas. The meeting of sense object and sense faculty gives rise to its own kind of cognition or viññāṇa (S. vijñāṇa). Note that ālambhana means "seized, grasped"; Pāli uses the Sanskrit spelling of indriya (we expect indiya); and viññāṇa does not mean "consciousness" (and never does). 

The sense faculties are also sometimes referred to as the saḷāyatana "six spheres", but this term later comes to refer to the six sense faculties along with their objects. Another important later category is the eighteen dhātus, which is the twelve āyatanas plus their respective viññāṇa
6 indriya + 6 ārammaṇa = 12 āyatana 
12 āyatana + 6 viññāṇa = 18 dhātu 
These categories become important in the development of dharma theory and form the basis of many Abhidharma lists. However, in the texts in question, the later categories have yet to be imposed.

Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati is Pāli for "conjunction of the three", where saṅgati comes from saṃ√gam meaning "going together, meeting, conjunction".  Rather than one condition giving rise to one effect, we have a combination of three conditions giving rise to vedanā. We can summarise the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati by substituting the general terms:
indriyañ ca paṭicca ārammaṇañ ca uppajjati indriya-viññāṇaṃ. 
On the basis of sense faculty and sense object, sense cognition arises. 
It is only when all three are present that contact (phassa) occurs and on this basis vedanā and then taṇha arise. According to SN 12:43 this is the origin of dukkha and according to SN 12:44 exactly the same process is the origin of loka. From this and other texts we know that the Pāli authors considered the two terms to be synonymous. However, this equation appears to be have been lost sight of and  disappeared from Buddhist teaching until it was rediscovered by Sue Hamilton in 2000.


Then the text asks about the cessation of dukkha/loka. The cessation passage repeats the pericope on how dukkha and loka come into being, but it then continues with the standard nidāna sequence:
Tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodhā upādānanirodho; upādānanirodhā bhava-nirodho; bhavanirodhā jātinirodho; jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkha-domanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti. (SN ii.72)
From the remainderless absence of passion and cessation (of that craving; there is cessation of the fuel [of becoming]). From the cessation of the fuel, there is the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming, there is the cessation of birth; from the cessation of birth, aging and death, of remorse, sorrow, misery, depression, and despair cease. Just this is the cessation of the whole [blazing] mass of experience. 
I've translated this in line with Richard Gombrich's (2009) idea that it ties in with the general use of metaphors of fire for the mind. Compare especially the Āditti Sutta (SN 35.28) and an early essay of mine, Everything Is On Fire. There are two problems to point out with this:

The first problem is that in this view we think of craving (taṇha) as the fuel (upādana) for becoming (bhava). However, the fuel for becoming is here abstracted out as a separate item from craving. Here craving is the condition of the fuel, and the fuel is the condition for becoming. It suggests that we look to the applied meaning of upādāna, i.e., "clinging". Thus, craving gives rise to clinging, and it is the clinging rather than craving per se that fuels becoming. Indeed, we sometimes read that vedanā is simply a vipāka. Depending how we view karma there are a range of views on vipāka. 1. There is nothing we can do about it (Dhp 127). 2. All we can do is mitigate the impact of the vipāka (cf Loṇapala Sutta AN 3.99). 3. We can ameliorate the vipāka through religious practices so that it does not ripen. 4. We can eliminate all evil karma at the root through religious practices. Either way vedanā arises as a result of past actions and is not under our direct control (even in those views which allow us to eliminate evil karma)

The second problem is that becoming (bhava) is abstracted out of birth (jāti). The traditional explanations of the nidānas overlay bhava with a more complex doctrine involving "the rebirth producing kamma-process" (kammabhava) and the actual "rebirth process" (upapattibhava). It doesn't make sense to consider rebirth in the abstract as the underlying condition for the physical act of birth.

In tracing our way along the nidānas we lurch from abstractions like ignorance, to the subjective experience of cognition, to the concreteness of the body and sense organs, to the senses operating to produce subjective experience, into the realm of abstract ideas, and then back into the concrete world of birth and death. This is not a coherent series.

One can see how the three lifetimes interpretation emerged. Having birth be the effect of experience (saḷāyatana → phassa  vedanā → upādāna → bhava →) makes no sense because one has to already have been born in order to have experiences. In other words, experience presupposes a body and therefore birth. It is difficult to see how this series would work otherwise, although the three lifetimes model is still problematic for reasons given in Part II.

Note also that a literal reading of the nidānas combined with ideas from elsewhere, especially misreading the opening verses of the Dhammapada, leads many Buddhists to conclude that "mind creates matter". In the twelve nidānas, viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa, literally name and appearance. Even in the three lifetimes model, this pairing is part of the present rebirth process (upapatti-bhava). In order for there to be human "consciousness", there has to be a human body. One can, of course, in traditional views, become a disembodied spirit. But as far as human beings are concerned, one cannot have consciousness without a body and vice versa. This is also the conclusion of the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) which presents viññāṇa and nāmarūpa conditioning each other (nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ DN II.56). As Frank Sinatra said, "you can't have one without the other." Note also that the Mahānidāna Sutta labours the point about eliminating all forms of birth (anywhere in any way by anyone) in order to eliminate death. The goal of Buddhism is to entirely eliminate sentient life on earth in order to prevent suffering.

Even in this third approach to dependent arising the nidāna sequence is not coherent. It is a mix of different kinds of entities and events. 

The World of Experience

I've already mentioned that in SN 12:43 and SN 12:44 loka and dukkha are synonymous. A close look at the word loka reveals that in this context it means "the world of experience" (Jayarava 2010). Sue Hamilton (2000) explains that dukkha is not descriptive:
"...dukkha is not descriptive of the world in which we have our experience: it is not descriptive of everything that we perceive out there and then react to. Rather, it is our experience. (2000: 82; emphasis in the original)
Our experiential world is created by the operation of khandhas. As Hamilton puts it, dukkha, khandha, and loka all refer to experience:
"... all three terms refer in effect to the way one's experience (dukkha), the apparatus of which is one's khandhas, is one's world (loka). (2000: 205).
This tells us that we can think of dependent arising in terms of giving rise to one's experiential world. That is, not to "the world" in a metaphysical sense, but to "one's world" in an epistemic or phenomenological sense. The American Theravādin monk and translator, Bodhi, made a similar point about the world at around the same time as Sue Hamilton:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182)
Some years ago I would have called this world "psychological", but I have come around to the idea that one's world is a social phenomenon as much as it is a psychological one. The social side of cognition is completely absent from traditional Buddhism and largely absent from modern Buddhism. The important point is that it seems likely that the authors of the Pāli actually had this epistemic approach in mind. The metaphysical application was an after-thought.

The Bodhi quote also introduces the idea that the Pāli authors might have entertained a duality between a subjective and an objective world, with a clear focus on the subjective. This was precisely the idea that I was expanding on in my previous essay on Perennial Philosophy. This is how the early Buddhists thought, though their views were quite undeveloped and poorly expressed.

We can unequivocally say that, from the point of view of a self-aware individual, the world of experience appears to come in two varieties: objective experiences which relate to a mind-independent world (reality) and subjective experiences which relate to the workings of the mind itself (experience). The two varieties are not the result of any ontological dualism, but merely because the apparatus of experience presents these two kinds of experience to our awareness: one which is directly based on physical senses and one which is only indirectly based on the senses, if at all, but is more reflective of our reactions to experience (both affective and cognitive). The fundamental mistake we all make is to assume that, because there are two main kinds of experience, the world must be divided into two types of existence. One does not follow from the other. This becomes clearer if we compare the information from the different physical senses. Light and sound, for example, are two very different phenomena, but we now know that they are manifestations of one reality at two very different scales. 

It becomes apparent, to every neuro-typical four-year-old, that we are not the only self-aware being, but that other beings (human and animal) have minds that are unique but also like our own mind. We are not alone and we can compare notes. Thomas Nagel's argument that there is "something that it is like to be a bat" (viewing the world via sonar) is true, but it downplays the fact that we evolved to understand what it is like to be another person. We have a highly developed innate ability to feel what other sentient beings feel and to understand the world from their point of view. All social mammals have some capacity for doing this. When we understand other animals in this way, it is not simply projection or anthropomorphising, but recognition. Our pet's mind may be smaller and limited in scope, but it is a mind and comprehensible. And it can go the other way, domestic animals can understand and respond appropriately humans to some extent.

Our experience of the world is shaped by our social environment, our sensory apparatus, our cognitive equipment, and a number of other factors. Discovering how any of this relates to reality is a matter of painstakingly separating subjective from objective by taking and comparing notes. The path to such knowledge has not been straight but we have built up a highly accurate and precise picture of how our everyday reality works. And it has nothing to do with Buddhist theories of dependent arising. 

The Epistemic Reading is More Authentic

The history of Buddhism Studies is littered with the detritus of naive attempts to reconstruct the "original Buddhism". It is almost always a mistake to assume that we can get back to Buddhism before it is presented in early Buddhists texts, even though it is apparent that the early texts represent a rather advanced stage of development. We can only get so far in reconstructing history from texts when there is no corroborating evidence from elsewhere. We can see a progression in the Canon: some texts have a more epistemic approach and some a more metaphysical approach. And we know that there is a general trend toward exploring metaphysics amongst Buddhists that does not fully manifest until really quite late in the development of Buddhism, i.e., well into the Common Era. Thus we expect an epistemic approach to be more prominent in early texts.

The texts were composed over several centuries and we have no way, at present, of stratifying most of them. It is a matter of relative rather than absolute chronology. Also, we do not, and cannot, say anything about what the Buddha taught or thought. We just do not know how these texts relate to the legendary figure of the Buddha. 

The idea of paṭicca-samuppāda makes a certain amount of sense in the context of epistemology, but it comes unstuck when pressed into service as metaphysics. In other words, when applied to the context that history suggests is the earlier, we are able to use the doctrine to make a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, when Buddhists tried to use the doctrine as metaphysics we can see that they had to make many adjustments, some of which effectively repudiated the original idea and replaced it with something novel. The more metaphysics became a concern, the less like the doctrines in the early texts Buddhism became. Many later forms, such as the medieval Japanese and Tibetan schools (Zen, Shin, Gelug) bear almost no relationship to the doctrines of the early texts. 

Thus, we may argue that the epistemic reading is more authentic, provided that we do not overlay it with a modern epistemology. The idea that Buddhism makes a contribution to the understanding of reality, or the nature of reality, i.e., to ontology or metaphysics, is not authentic, in the sense that such claims are inconsistent with the earliest forms of Buddhism that we have access to. And this becomes increasingly obvious. Buddhism addresses the subjective, epistemic, phenomenological, experiential world; that part of the world which is an internally-generated virtual model; what Thomas Metzinger has called the Virtual Self Model. In this domain Buddhism retains some sense and usefulness. Still, this is not an easy adjustment for anyone used to thinking that they are on the trail of ultimate reality via Buddhism. I tried to show that, in terms of ideas and methods, that Buddhism is strongly connected with subjectivity. I know that many Buddhists will remain unconvinced by this, but it is true nonetheless. If our age tells us anything it is that "truth" and "belief" are often unrelated.



Bodhi 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jayarava (2010). "Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?".

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.


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. 


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.


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.



Bodhi. 1980 Transcendental Dependent Arising: a Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.(The Wheel Publication no.277/278.) Buddhist Publication Society. Online:

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:


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.

26 June 2015

Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

One of my long time fascinations is with the Pali Kaccānagotta Sutta or Sanskrit Kātyāyana Sūtra. It survives in three versions: Pāḷi, Chinese, and Sanskrit. It is fairly well known that Nāgārjuna quotes a Sanskrit version of this text in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7). It's less well known that a number of Mahāyāna Sūtras appear to quote this sūtra, as well. Long term, I would like to do a complete survey of how this text was used in Buddhism over time, but we can say that it forms an important link between Mahāyāna and Mainstream forms of Buddhism. Some very useful reading on this subject can be found in Salvini (2011). There is also some discussion focussed on MMK in Kalupahana (1986).

In this essay I'll translate and discuss a passage from the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and argue that it recapitulates the argument about dharmas from the Kātyāyana. The implication here is that Kātyāyana provides a conceptual continuity link between trends of Buddhism. It represents a truth about experience that is widely acknowledged by different Buddhist schools of thought.

In my next blog essay I'll be exploring some important ideas about the history of the early Mahāyāna. One thing that has emerged recently is that Mahāyāna texts were almost certainly composed orally and in Prakrit. In the case of the Aṣṭa, we have physical evidence in the form of a birch bark manuscript, written in the Gāndhārī Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script and carbon dated to the first century CE (the mid-point for the probability curve is 79 CE). So the Sanskrit text is a translation. Aṣṭa might have been translated into Sanskrit as late as the 5th century CE. This undermines the claim of the Sanskrit version of Aṣṭa (or any Mahāyāna text) to be "the original". In some ways, the early translations into Chinese might better represent the original text, though this is debatable. 

The passage that I want to explore is Chapter 1, section 19; Vaidya (1960). In Conze's translation (1973) this passage occurs on p.87-88. My translation is:
When that was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Śāriputra, "thus training, Śāriputra, the bodhisattva mahāsattva does not train in any dharma. What is the reason for it? For the dharmas do not exist in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi polloi take them to exist."  
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist, Bhagavan?"  
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though they don't exist. Not being found in that sense they are said to be unfound (avidye). The foolish, ignorant hoi polloi are engrossed in them. All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing. Having imagined them, they are obsessed by the two extremes. They don’t know or see those dharmas. Therefore, all dharmas they imagine are non-existing. Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas], they are engrossed in the two extremes; engrossed, they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them, they become engrossed in name and form. Non-existing all-dharmas are imagined by them. Imagining those non-existing all-dharmas, they do not know and do not see the path as it really is. Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is, they don’t depart from the triple realm and do not awaken to the highest truth. They go by the name “fools”. They do not develop faith in the true dharma. The bodhisattva mahāsattva does not become engrossed in any dharma, Śāriputra."
Typically, Conze manages to make this section paradoxical. He has dharmas both existing and not existing at the same time, which does not make sense on any terms. For Conze, such non-sense is a way of pointing to a transcendent, ineffable truth that words are incapable of communicating. Supposedly, the contradiction temporarily confuses the rational mind (as conceived) and allows the intuitive mind (as conceived) to make an intuitive leap to the transcendent truth. There are many false assumptions here about the nature of reason and imagination. 
† See for example: Reasoning and Beliefs. (10 Jan 2014)
The important point of the Kātyāyana is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) are not terms that can be applied to dharmas qua mental objects. The typical Mahāyāna explanation, following the Two Truths doctrine, is that dharmas both exist and do not exist. Kātyāyana makes sense, the Two Truths explanation does not. I believe that, in this passage from Aṣṭa, the Kātyāyana argument about dharmas is being recapitulated in much the same terms, and with the same warning about what happens if we do get caught up in the dichotomy. In other words, that this is, in fact, a tacit reference to Kātyāyana.

Perhaps it is worth rehearsing why the denial of existence and non-existence is accurate and not at all paradoxical. My starting point, as always, is to take the subject under discussion to be experience. Being naive realists, or what the text calls "foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi" (bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto), we have an experience and we imagine ourselves to be in contact with something real, be it internal or external with respect to our first-person perspective. Ignoring what the experience implies about the world of sense experience, ignoring matters of ontology, the focus of the Kātyāyana is on the experience itself. Is the experience of an object an existing thing or a non-existing thing, irrespective of the nature of the object? Clearly, the answer is that it is neither. An experience cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence. It arises, lingers for a short time, and then passes away. But the experience itself is entirely internal to us. Two people may see the same object and agree on its characteristics. But their experience of it is individual and cannot be agreed on. And thus Conze, in affirming both existence and non-existence, has come to precisely the opposite conclusion because he seeks a transcendent truth behind the words; a noumenon of the text. Conze's Romanticism has a Platonic flavour to it.

The answer that an experience is neither existent nor non-existent is important, because it is the understanding of the nature of experience that has soteriological value. We say that "things" are arising and passing away, but the Buddhist texts seem to refer mainly (if not solely) to the arising and passing away of experiences. In the Kātyāyana, it says that only dukkha arises and only dukkha ceases. The same point is made in the Simile of the Chariot. Dukkha, here, is a synonym for unenlightened experience. This search for understanding is deprecated by Conze, by modern Zen commentators, and many Tibetan lamas, because they, too, believe in a transcendent truth that requires the suspension of reason (as they conceive reason). In the Spiral Path texts the experience of liberation (vimutti) is initiated by becoming fed up  (nibiddā) with the objects of the senses, i.e., with the intoxicating play of experience. Suspension of reason is not a prerequisite for awakening in these texts.

Central to Buddhist soteriology is the fact that our sense of self, our first person perspective, is also an experience, and partakes in the nature of all experiences. Streams of sensory information converge and are woven together to create the persistent illusion of being a self. Though, of course, we know that the illusion of the first-person perspective can be broken by drugs, trauma, brain injury and, of course, by meditation. In this view, insights consist of seeing experience, particularly the first person experience, in such a light that it ceases to intoxicate and fascinate. The word for 'insight', vipassana, literally means to 'see through', not, as our translation suggests, 'to see into'. 

In our naivete about experience, we imagine each experience signifies something real and we respond to it as though it were real. But, in addition to this, we are burdened with ideas about what constitutes happiness as the goal of our lives. The unenlightened, the bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto, believe, deep down inside, that happiness is about having pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant experiences. Maximising the former and minimising the latter seems to be the operational definition of happiness. If we can only arrange things so that we have the optimum amount of both, then we will be happy and free of unhappiness. For most of us this means living in an unsatisfactory compromise and a lot of self-delusion about how happy we really are. Our pleasures do not satisfy. Our pains are all too many and not the least of them is mortality!

The line of thought in the Kātyāyana is often mixed up with attempts to apply dependent arising to all kinds of other processes, particularly karma and rebirth. And I have showed how this leads to inconsistencies and incoherent statements about the nature of the world across a number of essays (see the Afterlife tab for a list). Many Buddhists end up believing that the impermanence of "things" (e.g., tables, chariots, or other physical objects) is the key teaching of Buddhism, when it's just a truism that everyone is already aware of (See Everything changes, but so what?). The Kātyāyana is one of the texts where the intent of the idea, by which I mean the application to experience and only experience, is apparent. And it was this intent that was, I argue, taken up by the Aṣṭa and by Nāgārjuna some centuries later. Although there are many loud voices arguing about what Nāgārjuna meant to say in his very confusing opus, with most of them seeing Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā as having deep ontological implications, I say that, in citing the Kātyāyana in the way that he does, we might understand his ideas better if we take the domain of application to be experience and forget about ontology. Nāgārjuna makes better, if not perfect, sense if we take him to be someone commenting on the phenomenology of experience, rather than speculating about metaphysics. 

In the Aṣṭa version of the idea, the author has chosen to use the words that are tricky to translate while retaining the connotations of the original. So in a key passage (Aṣṭa 1.19.4) the Buddha says to Śāriputra:
na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | 
"For the dharmas do not exist (na saṃvidyante) in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi take them to exist (abhiniviṣṭāḥ)." 
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist (saṃvidyante), Bhagavan?" 
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though (yathā) they don't exist. Not-being found (avidyamāna) in that sense (evaṃ), they are said to be unfound (avidyā)." 
The last statement in the Sanskrit text is:
yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti |
Conze translates "As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist [avidyamāna], they are called [the result of] ignorance [avidyā]", employing his usual hermeneutic of obscurity. He also translates avidyamāna as "do not exist", but avidye as "ignorance", but by his own logic the latter ought to mean 'not existing'.

Saṃvidyante is a passive form from sam√vid. Conze translates as ‘exists’. BHSD defines it as "is found, exists’ (= vidyate ‘is found; often virtually = asti)." PED saṃvijjati2 ‘to be found, to exist’. MW ‘know, recognise; perceive; approve’. It's tricky because there are two homonyms √vid meaning 'to know' (cognate with our word 'wisdom') and √vid meaning 'to find'. The two are indistinguishable except by context. The same goes for vidyamāna, a present participle 'knowing, finding' (here negated by the prefix a-). The other word here is abhiniviṣṭāḥ (abhi+ni√viṣ) which has a range of meanings 'entered or plunged into; intent on, endowed with; determined, persevering). Conze (1973a) suggests "settled down in, is accustomed to suppose."

So Conze is treating almost all the verb forms as meaning "exists". And we ought to point out that if a Sanskrit author wished to assert the existence of something they can do so very directly with the verb asti or some variation on √vṛt. So we need to be alert here to connotations. I think that √vid as found is relevant here. So, to say that if we go looking for a dharma is it not found, is not the same as saying it means it does not exist. We certainly have experiences, and so, to that extent, they do sort of exist. But when we say they "exist", we mean only that we have an experience, not that some kind of really existent entity has arisen and persists. Clearly, the author of the Aṣṭa has something very like the Kātyāyana teaching in mind. And the consequence is similar in the sense that it leads to two extremes of thought: that dharmas either exist or do not exist and all the problems that this causes. And note that the Two Truth argument adopts both extremes rather than avoiding either of them. Compare Aṣta 1.19.7:
kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | 
Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas], they are engrossed (abhiviviśante) in the two extremes (dvāv antāv); being engrossed (abhiniviśya), they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them, they become engrossed in name and form. 
Note the recurrence of abhini√viṣ here, translated as 'engrossed' this time (and as "settled down" by Conze). Taking dharmas to be real, settling into a view, we make mistakes about the nature of experience and, by implication, suppose that sense experience can be ultimately satisfying. And this is categorically a mistake. 

It has been argued that the Aṣṭa contains no direct reference to the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of sarva-asti (always existent), but Aṣṭa 1.19.7 might be just such a reference. Here, the deluded people imagine (kalpayanti) that dharmas exist in the past, future and present. This is precisely what Sarvāstivādins believe. If we recall the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, this 'always on' feature of dharmas was the Vaibāṣika solution to the disconnect between action and result in time that the doctrine of karma requires. It earned the Vaibāṣikas the nickname Sarvāstivāda. However, after examining two of the early translations T224 《道行般若經》by Lokakṣema (179 CE) and T227 《小品般若經》by Kumārajīva (408 CE), both make the point about the two extremes, but neither of them have this passage about past, future and present. So we must conclude that it was interpolated into the Sanskrit text at a later date. So, if criticism of Sarvāstivāda was intended, it was not part of the original intention. Kumārajīva's translation of the dvāv antāv 'two extremes' is prosaically 二邊 'two extremes', whereas Lokakṣema has the more interesting 兩癡耳 literally 'two insane ears'.

Taking the text on face value, the criticism of the two extremes (existence and non-existence) is tilted towards criticising existence, presumably precisely because the existence view was prevalent at the time. If this interpretation is correct, then it may help explain the idiom in the next sentence (1.19.8)
tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ |
All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing.
Kalpita is a past participle from √kḷp. The literal meaning is 'made, fabricated'. I'm presuming here that the fabrication is a mental one. There's not really a word for "imagination" in Sanskrit (one of many differences in how they understand mind). Again, the idea here seems to be that one has an experience and in the way of naive realism mistakes it for something more substantial than it is. And when we treat experiences this way it obscures the Buddhist path or, as Aṣṭa puts it, yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti, 'Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is...'

Interestingly, in 1.19.12 the wrong view is seen as an impediment to the development of faith in the truth of the dharma (satyaṃ dharmaṃ). This suggests that the mistake is foundational and must be sorted out right at the beginning of the religious life. My sense is that most modern Buddhism is already lost in speculation about ontology and supernatural forces. As Justin Whitaker recently pointed out to me, most Buddhists and scholars still invoke some variation of "seeing reality as it is" when describing Buddhist soteriology. But reality implies existence. Whatever we see as it is (yathābhūta) cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence and, therefore, is neither real nor unreal. Reality can have nothing to do with Buddhist soteriology, by definition. To be real, whatever it is would have to be permanently existing and I don't think I need to explain why that is a problem.

I hope I have showed that at the very least the author of Aṣṭa had Kātyāyana in mind as they were writing this section. I think this shows that at least at the beginning of producing the Prajñāpāramitā texts the authors saw the domain of application of the Dharma as experience. They were not caught up in the metaphysical speculations of the Ābhidharmikas. They were, however, caught up in their own metaphysical speculations about the nature of the Buddha, though that is a story for another time. The importance of this discovery is that it helps us to understand the apparently paradoxical texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. In flirting with paradox they were trying to describe an attitude towards experience that had a liberating effect. They did not set out to confuse the reader, but to draw attention to our suppositions about experience and reality. The former we can know and understand; the latter we can only make inferences about, based on the commonality of experience with reference to the same object.

A first step in reforming modern Buddhism would be to establish the domain of application of our theory and practice, and in such a way as our theory and practice were complimentary. Despite all the bitching from Buddhists about the Mindfulness Therapy movement, I think they have a much better handle on this focus and integration of theory and practice. Better to be working with experience in a shallow way than to have a deep engagement with the kind of ontological speculation that typifies contemporary Buddhists discourse, because the latter is not beneficial in any way while the former at least is mildly beneficial and creates a basis for progress.



Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
Conze, Edward (1973a) Materials for a Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Suzuki Research Foundation.
Drewes, David (2009). Early Indian Mah ay ana Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.Religion Compass 4/2 (2010): 55–65, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x.
Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.
Salvini, Mattia. (2011) The Nidānasamyukta and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: understanding the Middle Way through comparison and exegesis. Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies.II: 57-95.Änasamyukta_and_the_M_lamadhyamakakÄrikÄ_understanding_the_Middle_Way_through_comparison_and_exegesis
Vaidya, P.L. (1960) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 4).

Sanskrit text 

Aṣṭa 1.19. (Vaidya 1960)
evamukte āyuṣmān śāriputro bhagavantam etad avocat – evaṃ śikṣamāṇo bhagavan bodhisattvo mahāsattvaḥ katamasmin dharme śikṣate? evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat evaṃ śikṣamāṇaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvo mahāsattvo na kasmiṃś cid dharme śikṣate | tatkasya hetoḥ? na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante  yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evamavidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | tān bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ  | te tān kalpayitvā dvayor antayoḥ saktāḥ tān dharmān na jānanti na paśyanti | tasmāt te 'saṃvidyamānān sarva-dharmān kalpayanti | kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tairasaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ | te tān asaṃvidyamānān sarvadharmān kalpayanto yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti | yathābhūtaṃ mārgam ajānanto 'paśyanto na niryānti traidhātukāt, na budhyante bhūtakoṭim | tena te bālā iti saṃjñāṃ gacchanti | te satyaṃ dharmaṃ na śraddhadhati | na khalu punaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvā mahāsattvā kaṃcid dharmam abhiniviśante ||

PS. If anyone has a pdf of Conze's Sanskrit edition of Aṣṭa I'd love to get a copy.