07 June 2013

Only Simple Elements

Kammassa kārako natthi, vipākassa ca vedako;
Suddhadhammā pavattanti, evetaṃ sammadassanaṃ.

There is no doer of actions; no one who suffers the results;
Simple elements proceeding, this constitutes perfect vision.

Evaṃ kamme vipāke ca, vattamāne sahetuke;
Bījarukkhādikānaṃva, pubbā koṭi na nāyati.

Thus actions and results progress, closely connected together;
Their beginning is unknown, like seeds and trees in succession.

Anāgatepi saṃsāre, appavattaṃ na dissati;
Etamatthaṃ anaññāya, titthiyā asayaṃvasī.

The future end of going around, removed beyond discovery.
The goal remains unknown to those unself-disciplined heretics.

Sattasaññaṃ gahetvāna, sassatucchedadassino;
Dvāsaṭṭhidiṭṭhiṃ gaṇhanti, aññamaññavirodhitā.

Grasping what's perceived as being eternal or non-existent;
They grab at the sixty-two views, hostile, each to the other one.

Diṭṭhibandhanabaddhā te, taṇhāsotena vuyhare;
Taṇhāsotena vuyhantā, na te dukkhā pamuccare.

Bound up in the bondage of views, swept along by floods of craving.
Being swept along by these floods, snarled up in dissatisfaction.

Evametaṃ abhiññāya, bhikkhu buddhassa sāvako;
Gambhīraṃ nipuṇaṃ suññaṃ, paccayaṃ paṭivijjhati.

Disciples of the Awakened, they break through to insight of,
Particular knowledge of the deep, subtle, naked condition.

Kammaṃ natthi vipākamhi, pāko kamme na vijjati;
Aññamaññaṃ ubho suññā, na ca kammaṃ vinā phalaṃ.

There is no action in result. Result is not found in action;
Not in each or both or neither. And yet no fruit without action.

Yathā na sūriye aggi, na maṇimhi na gomaye;
Na tesaṃ bahi so atthi, sambhārehi ca jāyati.

Just as there's no fire in the sun, nor in a gem or in cow dung;
Nor does it exist outside them. From the requir'd conditions only.

Tathā na anto kammassa, vipāko upalabbhati;
Bahiddhāpi na kammassa, na kammaṃ tattha vijjati.

So results are not to be found interior to the action;
Nor external to the action. Nor is action found to persist.

Phalena suññaṃ taṃ kammaṃ, phalaṃ kamme na vijjati;
Kammañca kho upādāya, tato nibbattate phalaṃ.

The action is empty of fruit, in action the fruit is not found;
And therefore the fruit arises from the condition of action

Na hettha devo brahmā vā, saṃsārassatthikārako;
Suddhadhammā pavattanti, hetusambhārapaccayāti.

Here is no shining creator of the cyclic world from nothing.
Just simple elements proceed, arising conditionally.


This poem is found in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga [xix.20; p.700 in Ñāṇamoḷi's translation]. It was composed sometime in the 5th century Common Era in Sri Lanka and represents an orthodox Theravāda view of conditionality.

The approach is similar to that found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā but it is much simpler, presumably because it is simply stating a view not trying to argue against one at the same time. The natural consequence of conditionality is a focus on the flow of experience. And in the final analysis there is only experience. Nāgārjuna frequently becomes bogged down in trying to deal with ontological issues, though he cites the Kaccānagotta Sutta he seems not to have taken it fully on board.

The main point is made right away - there is only experience and no one who experiences. Everything we are aware of is a flow of experience, including our sense of self. But within this actions (kamma) and consequences (vipāka) are correlated.  In ancient India the image of trees and seeds is directly equivalent to our 'chicken and egg'. Which comes first? The paradox is that one cannot have one without the other.

Even if we over-ride the pre-scientific sense of infinity and claim to know that egg laying chickens evolved from earlier types we still cannot trace the beginning of this process. Yes, at some point life must have begun on our planet but we know when to within on a 100 billion years or so, and even then the paradigm insists that life had precursors, that it was a consequence of the universe unfolding from a point of no dimensions and infinite density. But infinity and zero in physics equations, as any high school physics student can tell you, means that you made a mistake. Thus the Big Bang was by no means the beginning of time and space, merely a horizon beyond which we cannot at present see or imagine. From a Buddhist point of view cosmic creators and creation are irrelevant in any case because our focus ought to be on the process of creating our own world of experience; on the process of creation involving sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition.

According to my kalyanamitta, Satyapriya, it is particularly as we go into and emerge from samādhi that we see the processes of cognition and prapañca stopping and starting. It's from this observation that we see into the workings of this act of creation. It's as if we stand in the tide of an ocean of sensation and the waves push and the undertow pulls and our mind sloshes back and forth in response. Agonising over the stories it concocts about the sea. Trying to divine the motivation of the wave, and the intention of the undertow.

Another elemental description is used to describe ordinary experience: we are swept along in a flood of experience. Our senses are open doors through which experience pours at a rate faster than we can possibly process - like drinking from a fire hose. And yet we are intoxicated and obsessed these experiences. 

All experience is made up of simple dhammas arising and passing away. Why do we rejoice at arising and weep at passing away. Arising and passing away is what dhammas do. It is their nature. Our task is to see this deep, subtle, naked condition (gambhīraṃ nipuṇaṃ suññaṃ paccayaṃ). Note here the use of suññā not as 'empty', but as 'bare, naked, exposed'. The disciples of the awakened see this. Later suññā is used in the sense of lacking: phalena suññaṃ taṃ kammaṃ literally 'the action is empty with respect of fruit', i.e. action does not contain fruit. One cannot open a seed and find a tree. 

Buddhaghosa also invokes the element of fire. 'Fire is born out of firewood' (kaṭṭhā jāyati jātavedo Sn 462) as they said in the days before oxygen was invented. Fire, as dhātu or element, is associated with the sun, with the flashing of gems, and with cow-dung as fuel for cooking fires (it is still used for this in rural India!). Fire is also responsible for digestion. But it is not intrinsic to the fuel which it consumes. Fire depends on fuel (upādāna) but it's not that fire comes out of the fuel, but it arises in dependence on it. And the kind of fuel determines what kind of fire we are talking about: a forest fire, a grass fire, or a house fire are distinguished by the fuel. And consciousness is just like this. "Bhikkhus from whatever condition consciousness arises, it is called that kind of consciousness. Consciousness arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-consciousness." (Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. MN 38. PTS M i.259). Fire is an important metaphor for the processes of consciousness, see also Everything is On Fire; and Playing with Fire.

Results are correlated with actions in the realm of experience. Conditions are what results have rested on (paṭicca) in order to step up (sam-uppāda) into awareness. The condition in this worldview is not an agent. The seed does not cause the tree. The tree does not cause the seed. They are stepping stones for a process which cycles between seeds and trees.

And thus 'simple elements' or 'bare experiences' are what is happening (pavattati). And because dhammas are constructed at the very least on sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition they are impermanent. For anyone looking for permanence (which is most of us) discovering that what we wish to be permanent is in fact impermanent is frustrating, disappointing and dissatisfying. By the Vedic standard ātman is characterised by permanent being (sat), consciousness (cit) and ecstasy (ānanda) nothing that is impermanent and disappointing could be ātman. More Buddhistically, nothing which is conditioned exists in its own right. Thus these simple elements share three characteristics (tilakkhanā).

Buddhist moralists attempted to apply this theory to rebirth, making rebirth destination (gati) dependent on actions in this life, but they produced an afterlife theory that required constant tinkering by their successors. The problem of continuity just won't go away. But in experience, ah, in experience it fits perfectly. Wrong view concerning experience builds from reactions to habits to fixed views. And this was almost unavoidable by the Buddha's period - the Iron Age. How much more difficult in the present Age of Distraction?

This is the Buddhist hermeneutic of experience applied to the world of India and Sri Lanka. While it forms a template for contemporary Buddhism it ought not to be seen as defining Buddhism. Our problems - that is our fixed views - have some similarities with those of Iron Age, mainly agricultural people. But many differences. It is only be a close examination of our actual views that we will develop a Buddhist critique relevant to our times. We are not Iron Age Indians, or Medieval Tibetans.

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