11 May 2012

On the Nature of Experience

I'VE BEEN READING  a lot of Pāli suttas in Pāli lately and came across an interesting pair: the Uppādā Sutta (A 3.134) and the Paccaya Sutta (S 12.20). They're a pair because they apply two abstract qualities-- dhammaṭṭḥitā and dhammaniyāmatā--to their subjects: the three lakkhaṇas in the first case; dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) and dependently arisen dhammas (paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā) in the second. In cross referencing my notes on the two a reflection flashed into my mind, which I will try to flesh out here.

As always my context is experience. Although the terminology remains a little vague I see dhammas as the objects of the mental sense - arising from mental objects directly, or through the mental objects created when we process sense consciousness arising in relations to sense objects.

S 12.20 is in the Nidāna Saṃyutta, and in Pāli it assumes that we have read and learned S 12.1 where the nidāna chain is spelled out in full. Subsequent suttas of this saṃyutta abbreviate the chain with pe which here means 'etc.' or 'ditto'. Note that here we find the standardised twelve nidānas, so this whole section of the Nikāya represents the mature Canonical thinking with all the wrinkles and differences ironed out. This is just a contextualising comment, not a polemic. It represents a particular stage in the development of this strand of Buddhist thought.

The sutta makes two main points. For reasons of space I will focus on the first, which is that dependent arising is the nidāna chain, and has the form of statements such as 'from the condition of birth, there is ageing and death' (jāti-paccayā jarā-maraṇaṃ). The form and the content of this statement are true if tathāgatas (plural!) arise or not. That is to say the authors believed that this observation is not a special revelation from the Buddha, but a fundamental truth about experience. I would argue that the mature twelve membered nidāna chain introduces some awkwardness into this process because it's become a little more than a model of experience. We have to wonder about the relationship between upādāna, bhava and jāti for instance. But leaving aside metaphysical problems for now, this process of experience is described as:

ṭhitā'va sā dhātu dhammaṭṭḥitā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā

The first part 'this property (sā dhātu) is persistent (ṭhitā eva)...' is relatively straightforward (note that ṭhitā takes a feminine ending so it must be an adjective of dhātu). In the case of birth, everyone born will die. We don't need a Buddha to tell us this. Indeed even the idea that 'everything changes' is not specific to Buddhism. [see Everything Changes but So What?]. The rest of model is not going to be intuited exactly by non-Buddhists, but it's recognisable when explained. In the absence of a Buddha, Western psychologists developed models of experience which are not so different.

The next three terms do need some explanation. But before getting into the individual terms I want to make a comment on the form of this phrase (which itself is actually the second half of a sentence). The last three words are strung together without connectors, which tells us that they are also adjectives related to dhātu. Being a feminine noun, dhātu forces the pronoun () and the adjectives to take feminine endings (-ā) also. It's quite common for the first adjective to precede the noun, and the others to follow it. The dhātu (element, property) is a property of paṭiccasamuppāda, has four characteristics: ṭhita (persistence, stability) and the other three. It will help to reinforce the fact that the context of this phrase that the first half is "whether tathāgatas arises in the world or not". So now to the other three adjectives.

This notion of conditionality is also described as dhammaṭṭhitā. We need to read translations carefully, because other translators do not read this as an adjective of dhātu but as a standalone statement with dhamma (often The Dhamma) as the subject. Hence Bodhi "the stableness of the Dhamma" (p.551). Thanissaro "this regularity of the Dhamma" (ATI). I can't go along with this, and neither does Buddhaghosa who sees dhamma- here as plural i.e. 'mental objects'; and tells us that conditionally arisen dhammas persist with that condition (paccayena hi paccayuppannā dhammā tiṭṭhanti), i.e. as long as the condition persists. Bodhi doesn't often disagree with Buddhaghosa, but here is an example. If we follow Buddhaghosa, and this time I do, then we must read dhammaṭṭhitā as 'the persistence of dhammas [in the presence of their condition].' This makes good sense. Confusingly Buddhaghosa commenting on the parallel phrase at A 3.134 glosses dhamma-ṭṭhitatā with sabhāva-ṭṭhitatā where sabhāva means ‘nature; state of mind; truth, reality’, most likely meaning ‘nature’. I think trying to make sense of this would take us too far from the main theme.

It's worth digressing to ask why two Theravāda bhikkhu's going against the Great Commentator here, to make persistence a quality of The Dhamma rather than of dhammas? Buddhists often want the Dhamma to be something cosmic; not (only) related to the nature of experience, but to the nature of everything. In other words Buddhists want to see Buddhism as providing a Theory of Everything. There are times when Buddhists appear to favour the idea that Buddhism is a revealed rather than an empirical religion, and that paṭicca-smuppāda is a kind of cosmic order to the universe. Perhaps this explains the situation?

We have a similar situation with the next term. Again Buddhaghosa helps as he says that dhammaniyāma refers to the way that the condition constrains the dhammas [that arise] (paccayo dhamme niyāmeti). Again Buddhaghosa uses the plural; and again compare Bodhi: "the fixed course of the Dhamma"; and Thanissaro: "this orderliness of the Dhamma"; both using the singular. Now look at an unrelated passage at M i.259 which explores this quality from the other side:
yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ tena ten'eva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.
From whatever condition cognition arises, it is known as that kind of cognition.
Pāli Buddhism makes no allowance for synaesthesia: eye forms, and eye faculty only give rise to eye consciousness; never to ear, nose, tongue or body consciousness. This is a constraint (niyāma) of the Buddhist process of cognition. So dhammaniyāmatā refers to this kind of constraint which is a feature of dependently arisen dhammas, rather than a magical quality of The Dhamma. The tendency to translate niyāma as 'order' is one that I'm quite resistant to. Certainly paṭiccasamuppāda does seem to impose constraints (niyāma) on experience in the minds of the authors of this text; and this suggests that experience is to some extent orderly - but such order gives rise to constraints, so dhammaniyāmatā is not a reference to the order itself, though it could seen as assuming a fundamental order.

One little note on this word niyāma: my main source of Pāli is the 1954 Burmese Sixth Council Edition of the Tipiṭaka published (for free) by the Vipassana Research Institute, and it always uses the spelling niyāma. The PTS edition will sometimes have niyama in the same place. VRI modestly report: "The version of the Tipiṭaka which [the 6th council] undertook to produce has been recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of Gotama the Buddha and the most authoritative rendering of them to date."

The last of the four adjectives, idappaccayatā, posses less problem since it is a commonly used and understood term. In fact it is almost synonymous with the previous term. It means that each specific outcome has a specific condition: i.e. birth is the specific condition for ageing and death, while becoming (bhava) is the specific condition for birth. It is probably not significant that A 3.134 leaves this adjective out.

So mature Pāli sutta Buddhism sees this process of dependent arising as quite deterministic: this situation persists, the way that dhammas arise from conditions is always the same, the results are determined by the conditions, and nothing else. They see this process as independent of a living Buddha.

A 3.134 applies this same analysis to the three lakkhaṇas using the well known formulae (c.f. Dhp 277-279):
sabbe saṅkhārā anicca - All experiences are impermanent.
sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha - All experiences are disappointing.
sabbe dhammā anattā - All mental events are insubstantial.
Here saṅkhārā seems to refer to complex constructs of sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition along with the resulting responses (vedanā, papañca etc.); that is to say [unawakened] experience in it's fullness. All experience, including the first person experience, is just the ephemeral coming together of conditioned processes; and because we fail to grasp this our expectations are distorted and all experience is disappointing; with the arising of experience nothing substantial (attā here in the sense of 'body, form') comes into being. In other words experience has no clear ontological status: 'existent' and 'non-existent' don't apply in this domain (c.f. the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S 12.15). Experience is just experience, nothing less (i.e. not just an illusion), but nothing more. Experience is neither real nor unreal, it is dependently arisen.

If paṭiccasamuppāda describes the nature of experience, then the lakkhaṇas are the consequences of that nature, with an emphasis on the consequences for those unaware of that nature. Our fundamental problem, according to my reading of the Buddhist tradition, is that we don't see the processes clearly, and therefore we don't understand the consequences. The traditional solution to this problem is to pay dispassionate, even minded, close attention to experience to see for ourselves how it actually works; and then to base our responses to sensations on the knowledge we have gained. Flinching from the flame is perfectly reasonable, but usually this is accompanied by stories both gross and subtle which are the dukkha that we cause ourselves. The authors of the Canon saw similar limitations on the processes and the consequences because they are two sides of the same coin.

We don't have to go along with the redactors of the Canon and see the 12 nidānas as the definitive model of experience; we don't have to accept the deterministic spin they put on it; we don't have to go along with modern exegetes deification of The Dhamma; but we can see that there are some useful principles here, and some practical outcomes.

We don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we should be prepared to throw out the bathwater. If I can stretch this metaphor, Buddhists have been very reluctant, on the whole, to pull the plug on the bath, and have opted to just keep on adding more water; so that often the bathtub over-flows, and the baby is in danger of drowning. However in the West we all have indoor plumbing, hot water on tap, and (mostly) modern sewerage - pulling the plug is not such a big deal. Of course if we do pull the plug we are left holding the baby, but the baby will grow into an adult if we nurture it.

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