22 August 2014

Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda

Image: All Things Thai
One of my bigger projects at the moment is an article on the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. This is the contradiction between pratītyasamutpāda requiring the presence of a condition for the effect and karma which requires the manifestation of the effect long after the condition has ceased (with no intervening manifestation of the effect). 

Having dealt with the Sarvāstivāda approach to this problem it will be interesting to see how other schools managed. In this essay I'll look into the Theravāda Abhidhamma to see how they dealt with Action at a Temporal Distance. Where the Sarvāstivādins dealt with the problem explicitly, the Theravādins do so only implicitly, and spread the answer out so that it's not so obvious. Indeed it's so obscure that some respected modern scholars have missed it entirely!

It's fairly common to see Theravāda Dhamma books referring to the accumulation (āyūhana) of kamma over time. Other terms like latent tendencies (anusaya) and karmic formations (saṅkhārā) seem to hint at something similar. In particular saṅkhārā appears to be made up from an accumulation of cetanā. The problem here is that these kinds of answers simply shift attention without solving the problem. The question shifts from "where is kamma in the interim between cetanā and vipāka?"; to "where is anusaya or āyūhana?" If there is an accumulation of something, where and/or how does it accumulate; and why does it not affect the person until the karma ripens? Something happens to hold over the effect (vipāka) long after the cetanā that conditions it has ceased, in contradiction of the fundamental principle of conditionality. The standard answers are simply linguistic substitutions. Other commentators have noticed that there is a problem here.
"Questions about the persistence of latent dispositions and accumulation of karmic potential thus remain: once the cognitive processes are activated, are they transmitted through the six modes of cognitive awareness? If so, why do they not influence these forms of mind? If not, how do they persist from one moment of bhavaṅga-citta to the next without some contiguous conditioning medium? The bhavaṅga-citta does not directly address these persisting questions, adumbrated in the Kathavātthu so many centuries before. Nor, to my knowledge, do subsequent Theravādin Abhidhamma traditions discuss these questions in dhammic terms."
Waldron, William S. Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p.83.
The bhavaṅgacitta is like a resting state of the mind when there is no sense experience. Like sense cittas, the bhavaṅga-cittas are short-lived and one follows another in succession. Unlike sense cittas, the bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object as the paṭisandhicitta or relinking-mental event that was the first conscious event to arise in our freshly minted being after the final or death-moment conscious event (cuticitta) of our last being. Unlike sensory cittas, bhavaṅgacitta doesn't register as vedanā. Thus even when we are not consciously having experiences—such as in deep sleep or arūpa-jhāna—there is a steady stream of mental events that we are not aware of that provide continuity between moments of sense awareness. 

Waldron invokes the stream of bhavaṅgacitta (or bhavaṅgasota) but it's hard to see how it can  be responsibile for accumulation if each bhavaṅgacitta is identical. This difficulty had already been noticed by Professor Rupert Gethin (before Waldron):
"...it does not seem possible on the basis of what is said explicitly in the texts to justify the claim that the bhavaṅga carries with it all character traits, memories, habitual tendencies, etc." (30).
Gethin, Rupert. (1994) 'Bhavaṅga and Rebirth According to the Abhidhamma.' in The Buddhist Forum. Vol III. T. Skorupski and U. Pagel (eds.), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, pp. 11–35.
However Gethin is alive to the need for something to do this job or perhaps we should say, for this function to be carried out somehow. Since bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object they aren't much use for the kind of connectivity with accumulation we are looking for. But they are not a million miles away. Gethin finds it inconceivable that the great Theravādin commentators, Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala, had not considered the problem, and he ventures to speculate a little on how they might have solved it. Like Gethin, I'm interested that the great three seem not to have openly dealt with the problem in the way that Sarvāstivādins did. Buddhaghosa is nothing if not thorough.

For Gethin there are many similarities between bhavaṅga and ālayavijñāna (the solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance adopted by Yogacārins, based on the Sautrāntika idea of 'karmic seeds'). Thus he is willing to entertain the thought that the two at least "belong to the same complex of ideas within the history of Buddhist thought." (35). I agree on this last point. However I think we can go further.

Firstly a reminder that in Dhammavāda there are four kinds of dhamma: citta, cetasika, rūpa and nibbāna. Importantly for us, each citta though itself singular and occurring strictly in series, has a variable number of associated cetasikas. What the Buddha calls kamma is cetanā, which is classified as a cetasika. So each citta has associated with it a cetanā that makes it morally significant. Just to be clear a citta is a mental event and a cetanā is the intentional function of that mental event. With this in mind we can look at what some of the traditional sources tell us about the accumulation of kamma.

Buddhaghosa provides a quote from the Paṭisambhidāmagga that looks promising. At Visuddhimagga (Vsm) XVII.292:
Tenāha ‘‘purimakammabhavasmiṃ moho avijjā, āyūhanā saṅkhārā, nikanti taṇhā, upagamanaṃ upādānaṃ, cetanā bhavoti ime pañca dhammā purimakammabhavasmiṃ idha paṭisandhiyā paccayā’’ti (Ps 1.47).
Hence it is said: 'In the previous kamma-process becoming, there is delusion, which is ignorance; there is accumulation (āyūhanā) which is formations (saṅkhārā); there is attachment, which is craving; there is embracing, which is clinging (upādāna); there is volition (cetanā) which is becoming (bhava); thus these five things in the previous kamma-process becoming are conditions for the rebirth-linking here [in the present becoming]. (PTS Ps i.52). trans. Ñāṇamoli
Elsewhere the commentary on the Saṅkhārasuttaṃ, AN 3.23 (Mp 2.192), Buddhaghosa glosses the phrase kāyasaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti with:
Kāyasaṅkhāranti kāyadvāre cetanārāsiṃ:
The body-formation [is] "a heap of intentions in the body-door”. 
Abhisaṅkharotīti āyūhati rāsiṃ karoti piṇḍaṃ karoti.
The verb abhisaṅkharoti [means] he accumulates, he makes a heap, he makes a lump.”
This points towards saṅkhārakkhandha as the process by which cetanā accumulates. But I still don't see where this fits into the cittavīthi (or the track of mental events). A problem here is that kamma accumulations are not supposed to take effect until the kamma ripens, creating a vipāka. The idea that kamma accumulates as saṅkhārā is attractive, but there is a contradiction since the saṅkhārā is actively involved in the perceptual process. The experience of the vipāka is supposed to be a one-time thing: it ripens and we either experience it as vedanā or we experience it as gati (rebirth destination) and then it is expended. If it were not expended then there would never be a way to escape from previous negative karma. This is complicated because clearly habitual tendencies (positive and negative) are a phenomenon that everyone experiences. They're also centrally important in cultivating a Buddhist lifestyle and the pursuit of liberation from greed, aversion and confusion.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that a kamma stays active for a period and has an effect while active; and then once it is exhausted ceases to be active. But that's not what the texts describe. And the same limitations apply: the kamma qua event is short-lived and if it is to accumulate we have to find a way to pass on the effect without the continued existence of the condition. Effects are said to accumulate despite the absence of their conditions which, being mental events, exist only in the moment.

In Early Buddhist Metaphysics, in the chapter "Causation as the Handmaid of Metaphysics" Noa Ronkin summarises the 24 types of conditions as found in the seventh book of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭṭhāna. This seems to be the key to understanding the Theravāda response to Action at a Temporal Distance. The functions of accumulating and passing forward kamma are distributed amongst several different types of conditionality. The approach relies on the idea that dhammas can operate as a condition in many different modes. Twenty-four such modes are discussed in the Paṭṭhāna.

Under her discussion of the pair proximity condition (antara-paccaya) and contiguity condition (samantara-paccaya), Ronkin says, "Every preceding thought moment is thus regarded as capable of arousing succeeding states of consciousness similar to it in the immediately following instant." (216). She further speculates that these two, almost identical, modes of conditionality were "probably necessary in order to account for the continuity of phenomena without relying on any metaphysical substance". (216) Buddhaghosa covers this subject in Visuddhimagga XVII.73-6 (Vol 2, para 598 in the VRI ed.) Buddhaghosa spends some time refuting an internal dispute regarding the need for temporal proximity. The fact that Theravādins were not united on this issue of temporal proximity is telling. It shows that they were actively considering the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance and divided over how to solve it. If we follow through the rest of the paccaya modes we find more specific links of this kind.

The decisive support condition (upanissaya-paccaya) allows a dhamma to self-sufficiently arouse a resultant dhamma, like the related nissaya-paccaya but not necessarily foremost and "it lasts longer, has long-term effect and implies action at a distance... The importance of the decisive support condition seems to lie in its accounting for more and spiritual progress: virtues like trust or confidence (saddhā), generosity (dāna), undertaking the precepts and others, all assist the occurrence of their long term results (the jhānas, insight, taking the path etc) as their decisive support, and these results, in their turn, condition the repeated arising of trust, generosity etc. (219, emphasis added). As the Paṭṭhāna says:
purimā purimā kusalā dhammā pacchimānaṃ pacchimānaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ upanissayapaccayena paccayo.
"All preceding wholesome dhammas are a condition by way of decisive support condition of all subsequent wholesome dhammas" (i.5)
Similarly for unwholesome (akusala) and undetermined (avyākata) dhammas. This section is covered in Visuddhimagga XVII 80-84. This criteria of self-sufficiency is interesting since it seems to flirt with something like svabhāva. Here though a dhamma is not a condition for itself, but a condition for another which we would expect to be parabhāva, a term we do find in Nāgārjuna's discussion of conditionality. This aspect requires some more research, but it looks like an all or nothing problem such as Nāgārjuna describes for svabhāva.

We also have:
Habitual cultivation (āsevana-paccaya)... "for example, developing a certain skilful thought once facilitates the cultivation of the same thought with a greater degree of efficiency and intensity... It therefore underlies the cultivation of right view, right speech and right action." (Ronkin 219)
Habitual cultivation is thus also responsible for memory without an agent that remembers. Ronkin places this observation in a note (242 n.118), with a reference to an article in two parts by David Kalupahana (1962) 'The Philosophy of Relations in Buddhism' University of Ceylon Review: 19-54; 188-208. Kalupahana re-visited this material in his 1975 book: Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Uni of Hawai'i Press), especially chapter VII "Causal Correlations". However compare:
"It is because of proximity-condition and contiguity-condition that we can remember past experiences, events which occurred many years ago." (38)
Gorkom, Nina van. (2010) The Conditionality of Life: An Outline of the Twenty-four Conditions as Taught in the Abhidhamma. Zolag.
This is troubling because the two commentators contradict each other. Buddhaghosa seems not to participate in this dispute. He mentions memory under neither heading. More research is required to untangle this knot, which only further emphasises the difficulty of dealing with the problems raised by Action at a Temporal Distance.

The kamma-paccaya occurs in two modes simultaneous (sahajāta) and asynchronous (nānākhaṇika)... and according to Ronkin:
"An asynchronous condition obtains when a past kamma comes into fruition in a manifest corresponding action. Although the volition itself ceases, it leaves in the mind latent traces that take effect and assist the arising of an appropriate action when the necessary conditions are satisfied" (220)
This is less satisfying because it does not explain the "latent trace" but I think the implication is clear enough in the light of the other passages. 


The picture is that each citta is not a simple event, but a complex one with many facets (cetasikā). And each citta conditions the next in a variety of ways (twenty four different ways according to the Paṭṭhāna). Theravādins envisaged that an aspect of conditionality would be the passing on of information from citta to citta, particularly the information relevant to karma: information about cetanā. And this process is perfectly conservative in order that karma can be 100% effective. There is no loss of information until the conditions amassed in a life-time manifest as a single vipāka. This takes place at the moment of death when death-moment conscious-event (cuticitta) occurs and conditions the paṭisandhicitta or 're-linking mental event'. By focussing on the information content the Theravādins avoided positing an entity for storing information. And by denying any interval between death and rebirth they avoided the complicated and unsatisfactory metaphysics of the antarabhāva or interim state. Thus information is conserved even though no entity is.

The idea of continuity with no entities, nascent in the suttas, is fleshed out in the Paṭṭhāna. It's not so clear what Buddhaghosa intended in Vism., though he bases his exposition on the same sources. Also some modern commentators seem to interpret functions like memory as being related to different kinds of condition.

I'm still slightly puzzled that this problem is so prominent elsewhere, and yet here quite submerged and difficult to get at. However, when one considers how initially disturbing is the notion that the two fundamental doctrines of Buddhism contradict each other it may be that at the same time as solving the problem they swept it under the carpet.

However, on first acquaintance this solution to Action at a Temporal Distance is far from satisfactory. If citta is a kind of dhamma then it ought to be unitary and simple. How does such a simple, momentary event operate as a condition in twenty-four distinct ways simultaneously? But then a citta is not a simple event after all, because it is always accompanied by cetasikas which are also dhammas. So is a citta a dhamma or not?

We still have no knowledge of how the final conscious event in one mind conditions a first conscious event in another mind. Handing on information within one mind is somewhat intuitive, but transmitting it to a spatially separate mind is quite counter-intuitive. Every single person has first-hand experience of the first, while experience of the latter is reported by a very few witnesses that we have every reason to doubt.

Traditionalists seem not to have an answer to this. The best they can do is to state that they simply cannot imagine conscious processes ceasing with physical death, and so it seems "natural" that conscious events continue to happen so their must be a transfer somehow. This is what all believers in an afterlife think: the afterlife is all about acknowledging physical death but denying mental death (a trait observed already in quite young children). So this refusal to allow for one's inner life to cease, certainly has a long pedigree and is widely accepted, but it doesn't ever answer the question of "how". Indeed the question of how can often produce hostile anti-intellectual responses which attack the idea that questions like this can be answered. The afterlife must be taken on faith and the answers to probing questions about the afterlife are never satisfactorily answered, which undermines faith.

Another question for this model is, how does the mind know that any particular citta is to be the last in this life and thus take on the function of cuticitta? That last citta has to perform a special function so it must "know" that it is the last citta. It implies a peculiar kind of determinism. But it also implies a very simplistic view of death. For the ancients death is consistent with the cessation of observable bodily processes, particularly the breath, which I have explained in my essays on vitalism is the quintessence of a living thing. However we now know that one can stop breathing for many minutes and be resuscitated (which is from the Latin and means "to summon up again"). In the West we have long associated death with the cessation of the heartbeat. But the discovery of brainwaves led to more precise definitions related to brain activity. However even this is far from precise. Identifying the last moment of consciousness is impossible. In the last couple of years fMRI scanners have enabled us to perceive mental activity in people who are in persistent vegetative states. 

A puzzling aspect of this model is the huge build up of information that would occur over a life time of responding to sensory cittas. If we have several cittas per second then the information being passed on from citta to citta grows exponentially (as we must "process" information about the information); especially if we consider that memory is a function of this process as well. Each citta passes on information about itself and information accumulated from all previous cittas. It seems implausible at best that such a process had sufficient bandwidth to transfer a lifetime's information in a fraction of a second, every fraction of a second without ever glitching. Let alone the information from uncounted lifetimes from the past.

We also need to acknowledge the obscurantism of the source texts. The Paṭṭhāna and the Visuddhimagga are both very difficult texts to read and comprehend. Which means that for the most part we are reliant on commentators to explain the intention of the authors. And the commentators apparently disagree.

Perhaps it is expecting too much of these very early theories to stand the test of time and the rigours of a modern philosophical inquiry? It's one thing to understand the Theravāda view on it's own terms, it's another altogether to accept it on those terms.

This inquiry raises important questions. We cannot both embrace modernity and these ancient ideas about mental functioning. Something has to give. I know many Buddhists are content to let it be modernity that gives way. Buddhist apologetics are proliferating at present in the face of the conflict. But there is always something two-faced about the rejection of modernity. We embrace modern medicine to stay alive while rejecting the idea that the mind is an emergent property of brain and body function, even though both are products of the same body of knowledge. How ironic that the internet is a prime tool for dismissing modern progress away from superstition towards reason. Perhaps this is because the internet is a sufficiently advanced technology that is seems like magic?

For the present we can just about have our cake and eat it too, but how long can this continue? Must we choose between anachronistic, superstitious, rejection of modernity; and a non-religious, humanist, scientific utopia? Or is their some middle ground?  


This essay began life as a discussion on the Dhammawheel forum.
Thanks to those who contributed to the discussion.

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