The doctrine of paticcasamuppada [dependent origination] taught by the Buddha is profound; consequently, majority of people cannot understand the law of dependent origination. Nonetheless, it is as valid today as it was when the Buddha explained the doctrine to Ven. Ananda some 2500 years ago. The doctrine of dependent origination, the core of Buddhism, is so difficult to comprehend that people commit serious errors in understanding it, and thereby distort the Buddha Dhamma. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu reveals the root of the distortions, and carefully scrutinizes and analyzes it in the book. The root of the distortions may be traced back to the primitive Buddhism period, but the earliest relevant record can be found in Buddhaghosa's essay written some 1500 years ago.
The teachings of many mainstream schools are based on Buddhaghosa's essay. By treating Buddhaghosa's misinterpretation of the Buddha Dhamma as standard, they obscured the Truth. Buddhaghosa explained the doctrine of dependent origination based on the idea of three connected lifetimes (past, present, and future). According to his idea, ignorance and action in the past gave birth to the present; the consequences of past actions are thus experienced in the present. The process causes our vexation (due to Craving and Clinging) in the present life, while transmigration [the cyclical process of death and rebirth or samsara] delivers us to births and sufferings in future lives. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu examines such an interpretation and raises these critical questions: If the Buddha taught the absence of an ego (anatta), then what is migrating from one life to the next? If the cause of suffering is instilled in one lifetime and its consequence emerges in another, how do we free ourselves from suffering in our practice in this life?
Proper understanding of dependent origination is essential. It allows us to know that the concept of an ego is dependent on various causal conditions. It also frees us from the erroneous belief of “an everlasting self.” The self or ego is not present. The idea of an ego is continually perpetrated by Ignorance. The ignorant citta [could mean the heart or mind depending on the context] is deceived by endless manifestations sustaining the illusion of “an everlasting self.” As Buddhadasa Bhikkhu points out, the Buddha taught the doctrine of dependent origination to help us see through the illusions. The idea of a process of dependent arising that encompasses three lifetimes implies that something is going from one life to the next. It is contrary to what the Buddha taught, and it undermines the Buddha's teachings.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu has strong basis in his interpretation of the doctrine of dependent origination. He circumvents the essays, and refers directly to the original Pali suttas as source. He focuses on the practical application of the Buddha’s teachings for the benefit of practitioners who intend to free themselves from suffering in this very life. The doctrine of dependent origination is actually a comprehensive analysis of the onset and cessation of suffering. In understanding the law of dependent arising we see clearly how the practice can be carried out. By focusing on the Contact in the instant, one can develop Wisdom and prevent the onset of suffering because the contributing factors for the onset and cessation of suffering exist in that instant. If Ignorance confounds the citta, suffering occurs; but if Right Mindfulness and Wisdom can subjugate the Six Roots (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind), suffering ceases. In this way the doctrine of dependent origination can be practical because the causes and consequences both exist in this life, where they are accessible. If the causes of suffering exist in the previous life, as Buddhaghosa said, then freeing oneself from suffering in this life is impossible because the cause of suffering is inaccessible.This book is very important to serious students of Buddhism. It points out the misconceptions, and leads us to the original teaching of the Buddha found in the Pali suttas. We hoped the book will clear up muddled essential religious doctrines and help everyone to understand suffering and discover everlasting peace.
Doctrine of Dependent Origination is Profound
The doctrine of dependent origination, the core or essence of Buddhism, is profound. For this reason, it is bound to spawn certain issues. These issues can endanger Buddhism, and take the benefits of religious doctrines away from the Buddhists. The Ven. Ananda once told the Buddha he found the doctrine of dependent origination evident and easy to comprehend. The Buddha replied, “Ananda, do not say so. The doctrine of dependent origination is so profound that sentient beings are unable to comprehend it. They are unable to understand what I teach; likewise, they are unable to perceive the process of dependent arising. Consequently, they are perplexed just like with a ball of entangled thread, a jumble of munja grass. They cannot free themselves from sufferings, state of deprivation [apaaya-bhumi], degeneration, and transmigration.”
This part of the sutta tells us not to treat the doctrine of dependent origination lightly; that one should devote his mind and intellect to the study of the doctrine.
Ordinary people, however, are used to the concept of a continuing existence. They still perceive an ego; therefore, they find the doctrine of dependent origination profound and difficult to comprehend. To them the doctrine is an unfathomable and intricate philosophy similar to the ball of entangled thread. Therefore, they spend much effort debating just like the blind men arguing among themselves when they try to describe the different parts of an elephant.
knowledge of dependent arising comes naturally to an arhant. An arhant
treats it as an open and proven science and a plaything. Even though he
might not know the Buddha’s doctrine, he has seen through everything. An
arhant does not cling anymore. He does not experience Craving and Clinging
due to Contact. An arhant does not have to know the different links of
dependent origination [the twelve links: Ignorance, Formation,
Consciousness, Name & Form, Six Sense Bases, Contact, Feeling,
Craving, Clinging, Existence/Being, Birth, and Aging & Death]. He
might not know how to teach the doctrine of dependent origination or
explain anything relevant, but because an arhant already possesses the
perfect Right Mindfulness, he does not anymore experience suffering,
because there is already the cessation of dependent arising.
Even with his wisdom the Buddha spared no efforts to discover the process of dependent arising and develop a doctrine for teaching sentient beings. When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he hesitated to teach the doctrine because only a handful of people would be able to understand it. In the end, however, the Buddha bore the burden of teaching the arcane and profound Truth because of his great compassion for the sentient beings. Because only a few people could understand the doctrine, we can see how difficult a task it was for the Buddha.
Language and Dharma Language
The Buddha used two kinds of language to teach his
doctrines. One was everyday language, which was
used to teach ordinary moral lessons to people deluded by the concept of a continuing existence. These
people experienced an
ego. They were possessive because of their deep-rooted mental Clinging. On the other hand, the Dhamma language was used to teach
people who were mildly deluded (people with sharp mind) for them to
understand the Absolute Truth [paramattha-sacca], and to stop them from
embracing the concept of a continuing existence.
The doctrine of dependent
origination is an Absolute Truth; therefore, the Dhamma language must be
used to explain it. It is contrary to the teaching of morality (about
worldly goodness, which supports the concept of an ego). The everyday
language cannot be used to discuss the doctrine of dependent origination.
If the Dhamma language were used, however, people could not understand it,
and would turn to everyday language to figure things out. Ultimately, the
problem will not only be about comprehension but also about
misunderstanding the law of dependent arising. This is the basic
difficulty in teaching the doctrine. It is also why the Buddha initially
hesitated to teach upon his enlightenment. Sometimes, comprehension is not
possible even after teaching, as in the case of Bikkhu Sati, the son of a
fisherman. I shall talk about him later in the book. The doctrine has been
taught to and discussed with people up to the present, but they are still
unable to comprehend it. They are either unable to practice it or
deviating from the right path in their cultivation.
The teaching of morality
involves the presence of a person, sentient beings, the self, and the
Tathagata [a Buddha]. Even teaching people to perform meritorious deeds
entails the idea of enjoying blessings after their death. In the case of
Absolute Truth, however, sentient beings, the person, and the Tathagata
are absent. There are only successive instants of occurrences due to
interdependent conditions. The occurrences are a process of dependent
arising (paticcasamuppanna dhamma). When these occurrences link together
or form a chain, it is called dependent origination. Here the ego is
absent in every instant; therefore, no entity is born, no entity has died,
and nobody is receiving karmic ramification, which is according to the
concept of a continuing existence. This is not nihilism because, at the
very instant, no person has died. In every instant, there is only
dependent arising. This is in accord with the Eight Noble Paths or the
Middle Path, which is applicable in moral teaching.
If the causal conditions
of goodness exist, most ordinary people adhere to morality because of
habit. They seek peace of mind through meritorious deeds. When the causal
conditions change, however, they suffer because they cling and they
experience impermanence. They will understand that morality is not their
ultimate refuge and must seek Absolute Truth, such as the doctrine of
dependent origination, to get free of suffering. When a person transcends
the concept of an ego, ego possession, goodness and evil, good and bad,
bitterness and pleasure, then he will no longer experience suffering. The
teaching of an ego that is constantly present in the process of dependent
arising not only violates the law of dependent arising but also violates
the Buddha’s principle in preaching the Dhamma - that is to help people
totally abandon any concept of an ego. For this reason, the doctrine of
dependent origination does not involve morality, because morality, in any
situation, is based on the ego. It advocates the concept of a continuing
At present, two kinds of
teaching of the doctrine of dependent origination exist. One distorts the
Buddha Dhamma, and it has existed for more than a thousand years. The
other is in accord with the Buddha Dhamma, and it teaches awareness of
Contacts at the sense bases to prevent Feeling from advancing to Craving.
In this way, the doctrine of dependent origination can be practiced to
reap the results at once. The truth is if ordinary people can practice in
this manner, they can have significant achievements even without referring
to the law of dependent arising. A serious practitioner should be wary of
the confusion from these two kinds of teaching, and ensure that his
cultivation is in accord with the Buddha Dhamma. The nature of dependent
origination, as taught by the Buddha, upholds neither nihilism - for
instance, encouraging people to abstain from performing meritorious deeds,
be irresponsible, be troublesome and reckless - nor the concept of a
continuing existence; for instance, advocating people to be extremists, to
be deluded with the concept of an eternally existing ego or all forms of
ego and ego possessiveness. The doctrine of dependent origination is not
an exaggerated theory as generally believed. On the contrary, it entails
rigorous cultivation such that when there is Contact in the sense base,
Right Mindfulness is applied to subjugate Feeling, thus preventing its
advance to Craving, Clinging, and Existence/Birth. In actual practice, a
term such as “dependent origination” is unnecessary.
The doctrine of dependent
origination must not be interpreted as a theory of spirits, where the
spirit of the ego is present, where the spiritual consciousness is
reincarnated or stays in the body. In this age, western scholars ridicule
such belief. Do not mix everyday language (or a language polluted with the
concept of a continuing existence) that is used in teaching morality with
the doctrine of dependent origination, because only the Dhamma language
(or language from the Right View) is used to teach the doctrine.
Practicing in accordance with the law of dependent arising is the true
Middle Path. The suttas say that in knowing dependent origination one
achieves supreme or supra-mundane Right View. Such a Right View is not
prone to nihilism or the concept of a continuing existence. The doctrine
of dependent origination stays in the Middle Path that is neither the
substantiation of the ego (concept of a continuing existence) nor the
negation of the ego (nihilism). Its law follows the principle of “this
exists therefore that exists, this ceases to be therefore that ceases to
be.” This principle keeps Buddhism from embracing nihilism or the
concept of a continuing existence. We must be careful not to let the
doctrine of dependent origination evolve into one that is not in accord
with the Buddha Dhamma or become a doctrine of Hinduism or Brahmanism. The
truth is it is impossible to instill the doctrine of dependent origination
in the mind of one who embraces the concept of a continuing existence
because the two are contradictory. Hence, teaching the doctrine of
dependent origination using the concept of a continuing existence is
undermining the law of dependent arising.
There are two distinctions in the Buddha’s teachings in the primitive Pali suttas. One part is morality, which is taught to people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence, and the other part is Absolute Truth, which abolishes the concept of a continuing existence without nihilism. During the time when essayists were popular, a very common deviation was using the concept of a continuing existence to explain Absolute Truth and the doctrine of dependent origination. Whenever opportunity arose, the essayists interpreted the doctrine of dependent origination from a viewpoint where ego existed. The person died and was reborn. The essayists also interpreted the doctrine from a purely materialistic viewpoint. For instance, hell was explained to be under the ground, a place where people go when they died. It was not explained according to the law of dependent arising where the fearsome hell exists in every instant. Furthermore, even if hell is supposedly experienced according to the law of dependent arising, people still consider it under the ground or a place for dead people.
Therefore, the primitive Pali suttas must be used as basis in studying dependent origination. Do not blindly follow the essayists or totally abide by essays and canons such as the Visuddhimagga [Way to Purity]. I believe the author of Vissuddhimagga and the one who integrated the annotations of all the Pali Buddhist canons were the same person. As a result, people's thoughts were monopolized, and they blindly followed the essays and canons all throughout. Nevertheless, we must still use the principle of the Four Criteria (mahapadesa) in the Kalama Sutta and Mahaparinibbaana Sutta to safeguard and apply our autonomy so as to protect ourselves from becoming victims of books, essays, or canons that are prone to the concept of a continuing existence.
If we use the Kalama Sutta and the Four Criteria, we can strictly apply the Buddha's principle to choose the right things from layers upon layers of garbage. This is not to say that all of the essays and canons are useless, but that the Buddha's principle must be strictly applied to find the right explanations. According to the Four Criteria, anything that is not in accord with the Doctrine [dhamma] and Discipline [vinaya] should be considered as erroneous hearing, memory, speech, and teaching. The doctrine of dependent origination is primarily intended to abolish the concept of a continuing existence and nihilism. Therefore, if the teaching of the doctrine involves man’s transmigration in three lifetimes, then it is unacceptable in accordance with the Four Criteria.
Principle of Dependent Origination
Following are some points on the principle of dependent
I. In the absence of thought and wisdom for liberation, Existence/Being and Birth are developed at the instant the Six Roots come in contact with the Six Objects [sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and idea; gunas]. In other words, the process of dependent arising begins at the very instant Contact is established due to Ignorance.
II. In the language of dependent origination, no “person,” “ego,” “us,” or “them” exists to experience suffering, the cessation of suffering, or transmigration.
III. In the language of dependent origination, there is no so-called “joy;” there are only suffering and the cessation of suffering. “Joy” is not spoken in dependent origination because the concept of a continuing existence is based on “joy” (“joy” readily leads to the concept of a continuing existence, whereas “suffering” readily leads to nihilism). It is only in everyday language that the absence of suffering is referred to as “joy.” For instance, “nibbana is the utmost joy” is used for the convenience of teaching morality.
IV. There is no transmigrating consciousness (patisandhi vinnana; that which connects this life to the next) in the language of dependent origination. Therefore, the consciousness (vinnana) in dependent arising refers to the Six Consciousness (arising from contacts between the Six Roots and Six Objects). The Buddha never explained consciousness as transmigrating consciousness because his purpose is to let us clearly see the Six Consciousness of ordinary sense organs. Transmigrating consciousness was only mentioned in essays in latter period. These essays unconsciously introduced the concept of a continuing existence into Buddhism. They have encroached Buddhism like destructive insects. The truth is we already have consciousness due to ordinary sense organs or Consciousness from Ignorance in the process of dependent arising, and no longer need a transmigrating consciousness.
V. There is only the law of dependent arising in dependent origination; meaning all phenomena emerge only when mutually dependent conditions exist. Furthermore, the beginning and end of each phenomenon happen in an instant after which other phenomena continuously arise due to mutually dependent conditions. A phenomenon that arises due to mutually dependent conditions is called a dependent arising. There are two important principles here: (1) do not entertain the idea of an ego so as not to embrace the concept of a continuing existence; and (2) do not entertain the idea that nothing exists so as not to become nihilistic. As long as one stays in the Middle Path, he will not stray from the law of dependent arising.
VI. From the kamma viewpoint, dependent origination is the cessation of the neither-black-nor-white kammas as well as the black and the white kammas. The meritorious kamma [punna-kamma], non-meritorious kamma, and imperturbable kamma (anenja) are all considered as suffering. One must transcend the three kinds of kamma to be totally free from suffering. In this way, the kamma will not become basis for ego clinging or the concept of a continuing existence.
VII That which conforms to the “principle of direct and immediate efficacy” (sanditthika)[primarily concerned with the world and present life] is in accord with Buddhist principle. The interpretation of dependent origination that encompasses three lifetimes does not follow the “principle of direct and immediate efficacy.” The eleven states of dependent origination must all conform to the “principle of direct and immediate efficacy” to be recognized as the Buddha's teaching.
VIII. There are many ways of interpreting the doctrine of dependent origination in the suttas. For instance, (1) from Ignorance to Aging & Death in forward order (anuloma); (2) from Aging & Death to Ignorance in reverse order (patiloma); the forward and reverse orders of interpretation also talk about the cessation of dependent arising; (3) from contacts between the Roots and surroundings up to emergence of Consciousness, Contact, and Feeling but without mentioning Ignorance; (4) from Feeling up to suffering in Aging & Death; and the most peculiar of all, (5) simultaneous birth and cessation in one process of dependent arising such that Formation originates from Ignorance, Consciousness originates from Formation, Name & Form originates from Consciousness, and so forth up to the stage where Craving originates from Feeling, then the cessation of Craving is explained as the cessation of Clinging thus the cessation of suffering. This peculiar interpretation seems to claim that even when the process of dependent arising has developed up to the stage of Craving, the Right Mindfulness can still be brought forth to stop Craving and reverse the process until suffering is eliminated. Nonetheless, if we discuss the different kinds of dependent arising in the suttas, we will see more clearly that the process of dependent arising does not have to encompass three lifetimes.
IX. Dependent arising is a phenomenon that lasts an instant; it is impermanent. Therefore, Birth and Death must be explained as phenomena within the process of dependent arising in everyday life of ordinary people. Right Mindfulness is lost during contacts of the Roots and surroundings. Thereafter, when vexation due to greed, anger, and ignorance is experienced, the ego has already been born. It is considered as one “birth.” The “birth” that originates from the mother’s womb used in everyday language is not the “birth” meant in the doctrine of dependent origination. The meaning of birth in everyday language obstructs our understanding of the doctrine. We should instead direct our attention on possible “future births” [emergence of the ego] at the moment. This is certainly far better than not knowing in what state the “future birth” of everyday language will deliver us.
X. A philosophical theory of dependent origination for discussion is not beneficial to us; therefore, it is not essential. The doctrine of dependent origination is a kind of cultivation. It can stop the manifestation of suffering by maintaining awareness in the Six Roots when they come in contact with surroundings. Applying this principle to protect the Six Roots and stop influxes (asava) ["flowing" of the citta that perpetrates samsara] is the real end to the process of dependent arising. Any same method of cultivation is correct even if it is not referred to as the doctrine of dependent origination. This manner of ending the process of dependent arising is called the Right Path (sammapatipada).
The above points can be used as criteria for testing one’s understanding of the real doctrine of dependent origination. The real doctrine of dependent origination is actual cultivation that leads directly to cessation of suffering. Suffering is manifested because vexation generates a process of dependent arising (from Ignorance to Aging & Death). The process involves two rounds of birth, because once the Roots come in contact with the Objects, Consciousness emerges out of Ignorance. The first round of birth refers to the emergence of Name & Form due to Consciousness. The Six Sense Bases comes next from Name & Form. Before these happen, however, Consciousness does not seem to exist, because it is in a state of stay at the moment. Only people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence call it the transmigrating consciousness [that connects one lifetime to the next]. Feeling, originating from Contact, generates vexation that is due to Craving and Clinging. Thereafter, Existence/Being and Birth follow in succession. This is the birth of the ego and ego possessiveness, the second round of birth. At this point, suffering due to birth, aging, death, distress, sorrow, bitterness, worrying, and irritation may be experienced. They are simply called the Five Aggregates of Clinging (pancupadanakkhandha) or suffering. Therefore, each process of dependent arising involves two rounds of birth. Death or birth, in the doctrine of dependent origination, does not come when one is physically dead. The birth and death of the physical body in everyday language has nothing to do with the Buddha’s doctrine of dependent origination.
The Buddha’s purpose in teaching the doctrine of dependent origination is to totally abolish the concept of an ego. It is not enough to analyze the absence of an ego using the Five Aggregates; the process of dependent arising must be perceived clearly. Each of the Aggregates appears in accordance with the law of causality “this exists therefore that exists, this ceases to be therefore that ceases to be” only when the eleven states of dependent arising have totally come about. This enables us to better perceive the absence of an ego, delusion (vexation), kamma, and karmic reaction (vipaka); or realize the absence of ego in the entire causal process. Yet, learning about the absence of ego in the Five Aggregates but not clearly perceiving dependent arising might still result in delusion. For instance, in the Pali suttas, a bhikkhu asks the Buddha, “Esteemed Buddha, if the ego is absent in the Five Aggregates, then who is the receiver of karmic repercussions due to actions of the ego that is absent?” Evidently, there is knowledge about the absence of ego in the Five Aggregates, but there is no full understanding of the concept of absence of ego. Consequently, there is the idea that an ego has to experience suffering or pleasure due to the law of kamma. That is absurd. There will be no such question if the process of dependent arising is correctly perceived.
No ego can be found operating when the phenomena that last an instant according to the law of dependent arising are correctly perceived. This life and the next, the woeful realms (hell, hungry ghost, animal, and asura realms), man, heavenly gods, Brahma, the Buddha, or sangha, however, exist in the process of dependent arising. They are perpetuated by volitional action (abhisankhara) of meritorious, non-meritorious, and imperturbable kammas. If the volitional action has already generated Feeling or Birth, and the citta is afflicted by extreme vexation and anxiety, then hell is created in the moment. This is the hell of great heat (mahaparlaha) mentioned by the Buddha in the Samyutta-nikaya. It is also called the “hell where the six contact points belong” (chapassa yatanika niraya). It is real hell and more horrible than the hell under the ground that is believed by people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence. The same sutta refers to the “heaven where the six contact points belong” (chapassa yatanika deva). It is real heaven and more realistic than the heaven in the sky that is believed by people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence. When we suffer and experience terror, we are in the asura realm. When we are starving and breathless, we are in the hungry ghost realm. When we are foolish, we are in the animal realm. When we experience both suffering and pleasure, we are in the human realm. When we enjoy different temperaments and interests, we are in the realms of heavenly gods. When we experience too much pleasure and non-suffering-and-non-pleasure from meditation on the form or formless (rupa-jhana or arupa-jhana), we are in the realms of Brahma. All these are more realistic than the realms in the after-life [physical death] that is believed by people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence. The misunderstandings are caused by a distorted concept of Buddhism’s “spontaneous arising” or “spontaneous origination” (opapatika).
True Buddha, Dhamma, and
Sangha can be immediately confirmed upon the cessation of dependent
arising. Only a wise person can confirm them by personal experience. They
are more realistic than the Three Jewels of Buddhism spoken by people who
embrace the concept of a continuing existence. The Three Jewels spoken by
such people are meaningless. The “present life” is one process of
dependent arising in the instant, whereas the “next life” is another
process of dependent arising in the next instant. This is a more realistic
way of understanding the law of dependent arising. To people who embrace
the concept of a continuing existence, however, “birth” comes from the
mother’s womb and “death” is physical death. This is using everyday
or children’s language and not what the Buddha taught. One must
comprehend the law of dependent arising according to the Buddha’s
doctrine of dependent origination and not according to latter-period
essayists, who embraced the concept of a continuing existence. The
dependent origination discussed by latter-period essayists was their own
creation that has been passed down up to present day.
The language of dependent origination or the perfect Dhamma language can help us perceive the truth in phenomena. It is different from ordinary languages that are polluted by concepts of continuing existence. For instance, in the Right View (sammaditthi), there are other worlds, parents, heaven, hell, kamma, initiator and receiver of the kamma, the present life and the next. All these are explained according to the language of ordinary people. In the Intermediate Right View, there are only suffering and cessation of suffering. A suffering entity or “person” that is ending the suffering is neither mentioned nor acceptable. In the Perfect Right View, or undistorted supra-mundane realm, dependent arising is perceived as is, neither existing (atthita) nor nonexistent (natthita). Seen from the Middle Path the process of dependent arising, which operates according to the principle “this exists therefore that exists, this ceases to be therefore that ceases to be,” is perceived as devoid of ego, person, heaven, or hell. A perception of this level is called Truthful Middle Path because it is prone neither to nihilism nor the concept of a continuing existence.
In the Right View that
abides by secular truth the ego is present, whereas in the Right View that
perceives the Absolute Truth ego is inexistent. The Buddha always used two
kinds of language to expound his doctrines. The doctrine of dependent
origination is about Absolute Truth and not ethics and morality. No entity
is migrating from one life to the next. Also, it is not necessary for a
process of dependent arising to encompass three lifetimes.
The method of explaining a process of dependent arising as encompassing three lifetimes can be traced back partly to Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga [The Path of Purification]. The rest is unclear because no other relevant materials are older than the Visuddhimagga. Therefore, I will comment on the essay and its author. Essentially, my target is not Buddhaghosa. I believe it is beneficial for us to use the proper method in studying the Buddha Dharma, practicing Buddhism, or applying the Buddha’s doctrine of dependent origination. I disagree with explanations that are not in accord with the Buddha’s teaching. Hence, my comments are not actually for personal gains. I simply use relevant theories in the Pali suttas to help everyone understand the doctrine on his own, find out the truth, and not necessarily believe me or any other person. We would violate the spirit of the Kalama Sutta if we blindly believe what people are saying. We must use the “dhamma eye” as tool for assessing issues.
Buddhaghosa simply added
analogies, notes, and commentaries in the then existing Vimuttimagga to
produce his Visuddhimagga. It aggravated the situation. We must
therefore focus our attention to the Buddha's doctrine of dependent
origination. Although it is very difficult, still we must do our best to
let the Buddha’s doctrine benefit sentient beings.
Because Buddhaghosa’s essay does not corroborate with the tenets of the Pali suttas, such as the Kalama Sutta, I, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, like a puny insect that is trying to topple a tree or stop a moving vehicle, must depend on my intelligence to comment on Buddhaghosa. Although people will find my effort outrageous, as a Buddhist, I am quite satisfied with what I am doing because I am introducing the right theory to the teaching of the doctrine of dependent origination, the core of Buddhism.
The Doctrine of Dependent Origination is the Perfect Truth
Most people relate to the Four Noble Truths when the core of Buddhism is mentioned. The doctrine of dependent origination is the perfect and ultimate Truth; hence, it is called “maha-ariyasacca” [the Great Truth]. It must be discussed until it is fully understood.
Dependent arising exists within us in almost every moment; yet, we are not aware of it.
Anybody who is able to comprehend the doctrine of
dependent origination has the capability to engage in his own cultivation
and end his suffering. On the other hand, we must consider it our
responsibility to understand it, and help others to understand it. Such is
the Buddha’s wish. If we can do it, then the Buddha’s realization of
dependent arising will not be in vain.
It is just like the Four Noble Truths. If nobody
understands them, then the Buddha Dharma is useless. Essentially, the
doctrine of dependent origination is more important than the Four Noble
Truths. It is the perfect and ultimate Truth. We must help one another to
comprehend it, and promote it to all Buddhists. This is the main reason
why we are discussing the “maha-ariyasacca,” the doctrine of dependent
Following are guide questions to help you understand the doctrine. What is dependent arising? Why do we have to know about dependent arising? What are the benefits of understanding dependent arising? What method do we use to end suffering?
What is Dependent Arising?
The doctrine of dependent
origination explicitly points out how suffering begins and ends. It
reveals that the beginning and ending of suffering are mutually dependent
cyclic natural phenomena; that they are not attributable to ghosts,
divinities, spiritual entities, or other things. Dependent arising is
natural occurrences due to interdependent conditions. When each phase of
the process comes about due to mutually supporting conditions suffering
begins or stops. The “paticca” in paticcasamuppada means “mutually
dependent,” while “samuppada” means “to occur simultaneously.”
Dependent arising, therefore, occurs due to mutually dependent and cyclic
The doctrine of dependent origination also explains that no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist, or no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” are successively transmigrating. Everything manifests, stays, and expires naturally. By comprehending the doctrine, one can see that the no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” with an ego exist. If people do not comprehend the doctrine, they will be dominated by ignorance, and will feel that a “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist. The doctrine of dependent origination points out that how suffering begins and ends and the beginning and end of suffering are due to mutually dependent causal conditions. In this sense, the “person,” “self,” and “sentient beings” are superfluous.
Furthermore, the mutually dependent cyclic phenomena start and end with great intensity and in a flash. Thoughts arise with great intensity and in a flash. Anger comes about with great intensity and in a flash. In everyday life, when a mind action occurs in a flash and generates suffering, it becomes a dependent arising instantaneously. One feels horrified if he can perceive such phenomena. If one cannot, then he will be oblivious to them. Dependent arising, to put it in ordinary language, is intense and lightning-speed mind action, which generates suffering, in our everyday life.
Why Do We Have to Know About Dependent Arising?
For the purpose of learning and cultivation, we must know dependent arising. Because nobody understands it, it has become a fallacy. The ordinary people’s fallacy is similar to Bhikkhu Sati’s belief: “Only the consciousness is going around in samsara.” This bhikkhu insisted that there was a “person,” “self,” or “sentient being” in the consciousness, which dwelled in samsara from one lifetime to the next. Believing that the consciousness has a “person,” “self” or “sentient being” that is perpetually going around in samsara is a fallacy resulting from ignorance of the nature of dependent arising.
All the bhikkhus tried to convince Bhikkhu Sati to
abandon the fallacy, but Bhikkhu Sati was adamant about his view. The
bhikkhus then told the Buddha about it, and the Buddha talked to Bhikkhu
Sati. The Buddha asked him, “Do you really have such a concept?”
Bhikkhu Sati said, “There is only the consciousness that is going around
in samsara.” The Buddha then asked, “What is this consciousness that
you speak of?” Bhikkhu Sati replied, “Esteemed Buddha, the
consciousness is the entity that can talk, feel, or receive all the
His was a very serious fallacy: a consciousness that
facilitates talking, feeling, and receiving of all karmic
Ordinary people do not know why it is a fallacy
because they believe, as Bhikkhu Sati did, that the consciousness exists
perpetually. Since they are used to the idea, they do not consider it a
It is false to believe that the consciousness is perpetual, that it exists and acts on its own, and that it is not dependent arising. Consciousness, a manner of dependent arising, is devoid of ego. It manifests in an instant because of the interaction of mutually dependent conditions, and it advances to successive stages.
Bhikkhu Sati maintained that there was an ego or a
consciousness with an ego that went around in samsara. This consciousness
did not only exist in the instant but also persisted to the next life. He
called the ego that could talk, feel, or receive karmic repercussions
The common view prevents
people from seeing the fallacy. Consciousness is devoid of ego. If
consciousness exists, then it is dependent arising. It is a natural
phenomenon manifested from successive occurrences due to mutually
dependent conditions. It is not an entity.
What are the Benefits of Understanding Dependent Arising?
arising enables us to reject fallacy and possess the Right View to be
totally free from suffering. It is false to believe that a “person” is present
and reincarnates into a certain sentient being due to kamma. If one
erroneously believes consciousness is ego, then he will experience
suffering, and will be unable to free himself from suffering. Therefore,
one must know the nature of consciousness, which is dependent arising. In
this way, one can totally eliminate suffering using the Right View, the
right understanding. According to the Pali suttas, “Consciousness is
dependent arising. It is a phenomenon arising due to mutually dependent
conditions. Without these causal conditions, there is no consciousness.”
If consciousness has a main body, then it can manifest on its own initiative, and does not have to depend on causal conditions. The truth is consciousness cannot exist independently. Nevertheless, it is so infinitesimal that we find ourselves thinking, feeling, and allowing the Name & Form (body and mind) to perform work. Hence, we mistakenly think that there is a main body in us, and we call it consciousness. The doctrine of dependent arising helps us abandon such a fallacy for the cessation of suffering.
Notes: The translation is based on my interpretation of ideas in the Chinese version of the book. This is a continuing project, so the contents will be revised and edited from time to time. Information in brackets and word italicization are mine.
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and Fundamental of Dependent Origination: Conditions