13 January 2012

Arising in Dependence on Conditions

FOR SOME YEARS NOW I have been interested in the the question: what is it that arises in dependence on conditions? I treat the question as a kind of koan, digging deeper though textual scholarship, and using it as a focus for reflection on my own experience from moment to moment, hoping to see through it. My studies have led to the conclusion that the important thing is that experiences arise in dependence on conditions. This may not exhaust the possibilities, but it's the most useful thing to focus on.

Recently I came across a short text, the Selā Sutta (SN 5.9; S i.134), which gives an interesting answer to my koan. This analysis seems to anticipate later developments in Buddhist theory - particularly the elaborations of the Abhidhamma.

Yathā aññataraṃ bījaṃ, khette vuttaṃ virūhati;
Pathavīrasañ cāgamma, sinehañca tadūbhayaṃ.

Evaṃ khandhā ca dhātuyo, cha ca āyatanā ime;
Hetuṃ paṭicca sambhūtā, hetubhaṅgā nirujjhareti.

Just as a kind of seed, sown in the ground will sprout,
Resulting from both nutrients in the earth, and moisture

Thus the masses, elements and six sense spheres
Are produced from a condition, and cease when the condition disappears.
So here the answer to my question is that what arises (sabhūtā) in dependence (paṭicca) on conditions (hetu) is threefold: the 'masses' (khandha), the elements (dhātu) and the sense spheres (āyatana). I will deal with them in the order: khandha, āyatana, dhātu for reasons which will become obvious.

I have dealt with the khandhas before now (see: The Apparatus of Experience), so I'll be brief here. I follow Sue Hamilton in seeing the khandhas as analysing experience into the most important factors. The five khandhas are: 1. the living body (kāya) which is the locus of experience, sometimes more specifically referred to as 'body endowed with cognition' (saviññāṇa kāya e.g. M iii.18; S ii.252); 2. feelings (vedanā); 3. apperception (saññā); 4. volitions (saṅkhārā); and 5. consciousness (viññāṇa). Hamilton emphasises the collective nature of the khandhas - they do not represent a lasting self either singly or all together. As far as I am aware the khandhas always occur in this order, but are not treated a sequence in the Pāli texts.

The six āyatanas are the six sensory 'spheres' - āyatana is from ā√yam 'to reach out, to extend'. We often read about the 12 āyatanas which are the 6 internal (ajjhatika) and 6 external (bāhira) spheres. The internal āyatanas are the sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; while the the external āyatanas are the respective objects: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mental activity (also confusingly called dhammas). It is this set of 12 that is referred to as "everything (sabbaṃ)" in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23 PTS: S iv 15). Here we have a resonance with Vedic texts which refer to the cosmos as idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this' meaning all of the created world. The Buddhist Sabba Sutta seems to be explicitly contradicting the ontological and cosmological implications of the Vedic texts such as Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.4.1) or Ṛgveda (8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times
One sun penetrates everything
Dawns as one, shines on all this
From this one, unfolds the whole
I read this aspect of Buddhist doctrine as saying something very important about epistemology. In saying that "everything" is the senses and their objects what the Buddha is doing is articulating limits on what we can know about. Although it feels real to us, our experience is a construction which relies equally on the thing being observed and the observer. And note carefully that this is a statement about the nature of experience, not a statement about the nature of reality. Reality remains at arms (or more accurately eye's) length from us, because our cognitions are constructed (saṅkhata) from sense impressions and mental activity.

The next set categories for analysing experience take the 12 āyatanas and add the 6 corresponding kinds of consciousness to make a set of 18. This brings together two basic ideas about the processes of consciousness. The first is that when cognition (viññāṇa) arises it is always associated with the sensory modality.
Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.

Whatever kind of condition gives rise to cognition, it is known as that kind of cognition. (M i.259)
With the eye (cakkhu) and form (rūpa) as condition, eye consciousness (cukkhuviññāṇa) arises, and so on so up to mind cognition (manoviññāṇa) which gives us six kinds of conscious. The second important idea is that the process of having an experience is always constructed from at least three elements:
Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, , yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M i.111)

With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels one comes to know. What one knows one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...
Each of these groups of factors (dhammas) - khandhas, āyatanas and dhātus - is a way of analysing experience. One of the key practices in relation to experience is examining it for any permanent, satisfying or substantial content of which one could truly say "this is mine" or "I am this", or "this is me" (etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā). Variations on this practice remain central to many forms of Buddhism from Theravāda to Madhyamaka.

As I suggested above these categories were foundational for the Abhidhamma which endlessly analysed them and their relationships. I have complained that the Abhidharmikas lost sight of the experiential nature of all this and at least some of them started to speculate about the reality or otherwise of the dhammas. (The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster) Such speculation was a dead end. I also think Buddhists are wasting their time trying to apply this analysis outside the sphere of experience. The sphere of experience is "everything" in the sense both of what we have to work with, and what we can know about the world. These categories acknowledge the pragmatic and epistemological limitations on human experience, though liberation from dukkha is still an option from within this framework. It's not illogical to argue that this idea has broader implications. For instance the Buddha sometimes used examples from nature to illustrate the principle of dependent arising, which suggests that we see analogues of dependent arising in nature. However I believe the Buddha, especially in texts such as the Sabba Sutta, warned us to stay focussed on experience as the most fruitful course.

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