Showing posts with label Shulman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shulman. Show all posts

31 December 2010

A General Theory of Conditionality?

IT IS VERY OFTEN POINTED OUT that the nidāna sequence is only the application of a general principle of conditionality to the specific case of rebirth or becoming (depending on how one interprets the nidānas). What if this idea, that the Buddha proposed a general theory of conditionality, is not true? I want to revisit an article by Eviatar Shulman in the Journal of Indian Philosophy [1] I've previously mentioned, and discuss one of his conclusions. He points out that what is traditionally thought of as the general principle of conditionality is:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti,
imass'uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti,
imassa nirodha nirujjhati.
That being, this becomes;
with the arising of that, this arises.
That not being, this does not become
with the ceasing of that, this ceases.
This formula occurs just 14 times throughout the Nikāyas, and not at all in the Vinaya. [2] What we don't often see is that this formula is, in all but one case, followed immediately by the nidānas. So at SN 12.21 (Dasabala Sutta):
Iti imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati; imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati - yadidaṃ avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ…pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.
Note that the punctuation varies from place to place in the various Romanised versions of the Canon: sometimes the phrases are connected by hyphens or semi-colons, though of course Pāli traditionally employed no such punctuation; sometimes they are separated into separate sentences. The abbreviation "pe" occurs in the Pāli, especially in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, for well known lists such as the 12 nidānas. The phrase avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā means 'with the condition of ignorance, there are volitions'.

A great deal of exposition on the Dharma relies on paṭicca-samuppāda being a general theory of conditionality. Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary entry on paṭicca-samuppāda is broadly representative and begins:
'dependent origination', is the doctrine of the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena... (p.154)
For Buddhists all phenomena are explained by paṭicca-samuppāda. In the traditional account the twelve-fold nidāna sequence is a special case of paṭicca-samuppāda applied to becoming, or to rebirth, just as the 'Four Noble Truths' are that principle applied to suffering. Shulman's point is that this is not what the suttas say. His argument revolves around the connecting pronoun yadidaṃ (or yad idaṃ). He says:
"If yad idaṃ meant ‘for example’ or ‘such as,’ we could accept the view that the 12 links are a private case of a general principle of conditionality. But it clearly does not. What it does express is more akin to ‘that is,’ or more precisely ‘that which is’." (p.307)
This proposition is quite startling. Shulman is not just proposing that we reinterpret an obscure piece of doctrine, but that we completely re-read the Buddhist tradition. I decided to take him seriously, and explore his hypothesis more fully.

The PED has a fairly full description of the use of yadidaṃ (s.v. ya˚, p.544b)
nt. yadidaŋ lit. "as that," which is this (i. e. the following), may be translated by "viz.," that is, "i.e." in other words, so to speak, just this, "I mean"; e.g. kāmānaŋ etaŋ nissaraṇaŋ yad idaŋ nekkhammaŋ "there is an escape from the lusts, viz. lustlessness"; or: "this is the abandoning of lusts, in other words lustlessness" It 61; dve dānāni āmisa˚ dhamm˚, etad aggaŋ imesaŋ yad idaŋ dhamma˚ "this is the best of them, I mean dh -- d." It 98=100; supaṭipanno sāvaka -- sangho, y. i. cattāri purisa -- yugāni etc. M i.37.
There seems no necessity to restrict yadidaṃ to a narrow range of meaning based on etymology as in practice it is quite broad. Additionally Warder (Introduction to Pāli, p.292) suggests precisely the kinds of translations that Shulman says are not applicable: "such as, to wit, i.e., namely". So the case on this ground is not as strong as Shulman suggests.

The single exception to the imasmiṃ formula being followed by the nidānas (M ii.32 Cūḷasakuludāyi Sutta) seems to be inconclusive and Shulman dismisses it summarily. My opinion is that the 13 examples where imasmiṃ... is linked via yadidaṃ to the nidānas weigh against the singular exception. The context of the sutta - where the Buddha introduces the imasmiṃ formula but appears to be interrupted by Udāyin, who baulks at hearing the full teaching - supports the contention that this exception need not be construed as a standalone, but could equally be seen as a fragment, as an incomplete statement. In other words though I disagree with Shulman about yadidaṃ, I tend to agree that the exception does not definitely point to a different conclusion.

In search of some more conclusive evidence I looked for sentences which used the same locative absolute syntax as the 'general formula - Xlocative sati Y hoti. If we were to find the same syntax applied in different situations this would strengthen the 'general principle' case. It turns out that we do find other types of examples: for instance at D ii.276 we find a series of connected elements in the form:
kismiṃ sati issāmacchariyaṃ hoti? piyāppiye sati issāmacchariyaṃ hoti.

When what exists is there envy? When there is pleasant and unpleasant, there is envy.
The sequence runs:
papañcasaññāsaṅkhaya → vitakka → chanda → piyāppiya → issāmacchariya
There is no intersection with the nidāna sequence, but the same syntax is being used, suggesting that this syntax is not as specific as Shulman's claim would suggest. Having found a counter example we can say that Shulman's specific conjecture is refuted. The formula does have a more general, a more abstract sense.

However Shulman's wider point is this: "There is no reason to believe that dependent-origination originally discussed anything but mental conditioning" (p.307), and here I find we are in better agreement. In looking at this kind of syntax I did mostly find applications to mental process. However just one example of the Xlocative sati Y hoti construction is used as a simile which is suggestive. At S iv.172 the Buddha uses the example that "where there are hands, you get picking up and putting down" and similarly with the functions of the feet, limbs, and belly. These are cited to illustrate the application to mental processes, but they do show that the Buddha was aware of a more general application, even if it was not emphasised. As elsewhere the Buddha draws on nature for similes to illustrate his meaning, and this suggests that he saw similar processes in nature, though the similes all point one way - the mind is never a simile for what happens in nature.

The other aspect of the formula - X uppādā Y uppajjati - is much more restricted. I can find only one occurrence outside the context of the nidānas. At D ii.215 (Janavasabha Sutta) we find:
Tassa evaṃ jānato evaṃ passato avijjā pahīyati, vijjā uppajjati. Tassa avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā uppajjati sukhaṃ, sukhā bhiyyo somanassaṃ.

For one who knows and sees, ignorance wanes and knowledge arises. For that one, from the purification of ignorance and arising of knowledge, bliss and happiness arise.
The relevant part is vijjuppādā uppajjati sukhaṃ - word order is not important here, and this is equivalent to vijjā uppādā sukhaṃ uppajjati. This confirms my earlier finding that though the formula is not tied specifically to the nidānas, it applies mainly to mental processes. It seems that Shulman has over-stated the case a little, but was not completely off the mark. Indeed his idea is confirmed by Sue Hamilton's findings in Early Buddhism: a New Approach, and some of the references he himself cites, particularly Collette Cox's investigation of the development of the theory of dhammas in the Sarvastivādin tradition. It is good to see scholars continuing to challenge the status quo and traditional orthodoxy. I found Shulman's paper very stimulating and thought provoking. I've focussed here on only one aspect of it and may return to some of his other points in other blog posts.

This has clarified my thinking on paṭicca-samuppāda in a very useful way. The fact that there is even a single example of the kind - "when there are hands, there is picking up and putting down" - suggests that the Buddha did indeed see the idea of conditionality applying outside of mental processes - a hypothesis I have been arguing against for some time on this blog. That conditionality can be illustrated by similes drawn from nature tells us that the principle is more general. I don't think this changes the observation that the Buddha was concerned exclusively with mental processes as the source of disappointment; it changes the context a little, but not the focus.


  1. Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317.
  2. The imasmiṃ formula occurs at: M i.263, ii.32, iii.63; S ii.28, 65, 70, 78, 79, 95, 96, v.388; A v.184; Ud 1, 2. All of the references in S ii are in the nidāna saṃyutta.

A much longer and more involved exploration of this subject can be found in this essay: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?.

24 December 2010

Paṭicca-samuppāda - a theory of causation?

Wheel of Life: Dependent Arising
"The doctrine of Dependent Origination is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on causation
and the ontological status of phenomena."
Encyclopedia of Buddhism [1]


THIS IS THE FIRST SENTENCE from the definition of dependent-origination from the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, and it made me think "no, it isn't!" The fact is that this kind of source - a general encyclopedia - is not going to make much difference in Buddhist circles since Buddhists aren't likely to be consulting an encyclopedia on Buddhism, but it will get taken up by students, especially students of comparative religion, who will propagate the view.

I'm very doubtful about this word 'doctrine'. It leads to the phrase 'dependent-arising' being capitalised, when dependent-arising is purportedly a description of a process of 'things' arising, i.e. adjectival; it is not a thing itself, so I don't think it should be a proper noun. In any case "doctrine" sounds too fixed, too certain, and too dogmatic for my ear. So I won't use it, and will instead talk about the theory of dependent-arising.

First paṭicca-samuppāda is not a teaching on, or a theory of, causation at all. While the Buddha did use the term hetu 'cause, reason' sometimes, it was always synonymous with words like paccaya 'condition', samudaya 'origin', etc. The English translations are all synonyms as well, according to my Oxford Thesaurus. Paṭicca-samuppāda is about dependency and contingency, but it is not about causation. As far as I can tell the Buddha doesn't use hetu in its verbal form (hinati, pahiṇati), in this context. I've done a detailed analysis of the word paṭicca-samuppāda and you can consult that if need be, but the gist is that things arise on the basis of conditions. We do not say that the condition causes the thing to arise (and thereby we avoid assigning agency to them), only that something arises having depended on (paṭicca) something else. This form - 'having depended on' or 'depending on' - (a gerund) sounds awkward in English, but is a very common way of creating subordinate clauses in Pāli. The gerund refers to an action immediately preceding the main verb (here indicated by the verbal noun samuppāda arising). The arising is preceded by the condition, and arising is dependent on the condition - this is all that is being said.

When the Buddha said imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti (that being, this becomes) he used a particular grammatical form known as a locative absolute: both imasmiṃ and sati are in the locative case. Here sati is an action noun from √as 'to be', and not related to sati 'remember' (Sanskrit smṛṭi). The sense is of the locative absolute sub-clause is one of duration: 'while this exists' or 'when this exists'. Then idaṃ hoti just means 'this is'. So the sentence says: "while there is that, there is this" (imasmiṃ and idam are the same deictic pronoun and should both be 'this', but that gets confusing). There is no sense, nor any implication of causation here. We might say, following the metaphor used by Bhikkhu Ñāṇavīra, that while there are walls, the roof stays up; and when the walls are absent there can't be a roof, if the walls crumble the roof falls down. The walls do not cause the roof, nor are they in themselves sufficient to bring the roof into existence (it requires some other factors as well). To take the walls as causing the roof would be to give them agency as builders.

The most common way of explaining paṭicca-samuppāda is with reference to the nidānas:
"from the condition of ignorance [there are] volitions (avijjā-paccayā saṅkhārā)" etc.
The verb 'to be' (i.e. 'there are', 'there is') is missing because it is permissible, and idiomatically correct in Pāli. Just as above avijjā is a condition without which there can be no saṅkhārā, but it does not cause it - ignorance doesn't have agency of itself, but causes the agency I do have to go awry. Another frequent expression goes like this: with the eye and forms as conditions, eye-consciousness arises. (cakkhuṃ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhu-viññāṇaṃ). Again think of the house analogy - when the foundations and the walls are in place, you can put up a roof. As Bhikkhu Bodhi, articulating a more orthodox Theravāda view, says of the nidānas:
"The sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through a simple exercise of efficient causality. The relationship among the factors is always one of complex conditionality rather than linear causation. The conditioning function can include such diverse relationships as mutuality (when two factors mutually support each other), necessary antecedent (when one factor must be present for another to arise), distal efficiency (as when a remotely past volitional formation generates consciousness in a new life), etc." [2]
The second point is about ontology. Ontology is one of these big words I've gotten into the habit of using without ever saying much about it. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that word comes from the Greek verb einai 'to be' (present-participle: on 'being', genitive ontos.) and refers to the study of, and theories about 'being'. The primary question ontology asks is "what is there?" Similarly epistemology is the study of knowledge and asks "what can we know about what's there?" These are the basic questions of Western philosophy down the ages. And, as I have previously argued, there is a fundamental mismatch between Buddhism and Western philosophy because the Buddha had no interest in either of these questions. The domain (visaya) for Buddhist inquiry is the 'world' which arises out of the interaction between between sense faculty and sense object. The Buddha has little or nothing to say about sense faculties except to list them; and little or nothing to say about sense objects except that desire for them is unhelpful. Because he is not interested in the question "what is there?" we must conclude that the Buddha was not interested in ontology. As I pointed out in my commentary on the simile of the chariot, from the point of view of the Buddha only disappointment (dukkha) arises, and only disappointment ceases. Paṭicca-samuppāda is an insight into how dukkha arises - dukkha being a synonym for 'the world of experience' [see also What Did the Buddha Mean by World?].

I had a go at explaining the various meanings of dhamma in Oct 2009. Dhamma is often translated as 'phenomena' - with the sense that it applies to any phenomena. It can simply mean 'thing' and this may give the impression of an ontological position. The nidānas are sometimes referred to as dhammas (items in a list). However over some years now I've been arguing for the adoption of one of Sue Hamilton's key insights: that the Buddha was always talking about experience, and not about ontology. [3] Even Bhikkhu Bodhi who apparently remains convinced that the Buddha did talk about ontology from time to time, concludes:
“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.” [4]
To be fair there are some ontological implications of paṭicca-samuppāda: e.g. consciousness (viññāna) apparently precedes body (nāma-rūpa); but the teaching is not about that, it's an incidental aspect of the teaching. [5] I've confessed that these ontological implications cause me some confusion, and I have been so far unable to reconcile them. But in terms of getting on with practice it doesn't matter in the least - my focus, like the Buddha's is not on ontology, but on experience. I'm happy to practice ethics, calm down, observe my 'world' and allow insight to resolve lingering doubts and confusion when it comes - it's a work in progress.

So if I were to reframe that first sentence in the Encyclopedia I would say it this way:

The theory of dependent-arising is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on conditionality
and the nature of experience.


  1. Keown, D. and Prebish, C. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Routledge, 2007. (p.268.)
  2. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 523 (introduction to the nidāna-saṃyutta.)
  3. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 394, n.182.
  4. I note that there is a contemporary philosophical discourse about the "ontology of experience" but I don't understand it. My view is that experience has an indeterminate ontological status - the language of ontology, i.e. existence and non-existence, simply doesn't apply. This is in line with what we find the Buddha saying in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15); and later in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā (which quotes a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta at 15.7).
  5. See especially: Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317. I have some reservations regarding Shulman's assumptions about what is referred to in the nidāna chain, but over-all this is one of the most interesting articles I've read in years.