28 December 2018

What is the Point of Dependent Arising?

In the first two parts of this essay I showed that a close reading of the Pāli texts associated with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda contradicts the received tradition. The imasmim sati formula says that the condition must be present for the duration of the effect, which contradicts all modern accounts (though it does fit the defunct Sarvāstivāda). Despite the traditional association, this is not the conditionality of the nidānas; rather, it is that of the upanisās (or Spiral Path), a lesser-known doctrine that is well attested in Pāli and Chinese. 

All of this ought to have been obvious, but Buddhism as a religion generates powerful cognitive biases against seeing things as they are. Instead, we are encouraged to see things the way that religious leaders tell us they ought to be. We are taught that Buddhism offers insights into reality, or even the ultimate nature of reality, but it really does not. To some extent this is the standard cognitive bias generated by expectations, but magnified by the emotive atmosphere of religious observance. Where others are expressing devotion and making sacrifices, we are more likely to be swept along by emotional contagion (cf. Martyrs Maketh the Religion. 05 February 2010). 

The kind of contradiction explored in this essay is so common that we can say that it is the norm. The doctrines of the Pāli texts are frequently so faulty that later Buddhists abandoned them altogether. This is partially hidden because they retained the jargon of Buddhism, simply redefining words to give the illusion of continuity. Technical terms like "nidāna" provide a figleaf of authenticity and legitimacy and allow those seeking leverage to reference the "Pāli Canon" but, in fact, no one teaches what is in the suttas. And why would they teach ideas that don't make sense? What we teach is someone's attempt to make sense of the early teachings. This is not wrong per se, but it is deceptively presented as ancient wisdom, when often it is just modern liberal humanism. 

In the final part of this essay I'll apply my principle hermeneutic—Buddhism is experience—to the idea of dependent arising. I've already shown that it doesn't make sense as metaphysics and now I'll try to show that it makes some sense as a kind of epistemology. 

A Third Way

If paṭicca-samuppāda is a failure as metaphysics, does it have any application? In the year 2000, Sue Hamilton argued that the doctrines in the Pāli suttas are concerned with experience rather than with reality. Since that time other scholars have picked up on this idea and I have made it one of the central tenets of my approach to Buddhism. There is, in fact, a third textual approach to dependent arising that corresponds to this experiential approach. This third way is found, for example, in two adjacent suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta, i.e., SN 12.43 and SN 12.44 (they are also repeated verbatim at SN 35.106 and 35.107). There is a pericope here that crops up regularly and forms the core of the idea. I'll call it the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati formula.
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. (SN ii.72) 
Dependent on the eye and form eye-cognition arises. The conjunction of the three is contact. From the condition of contact feeling exists, from the condition of feeling, craving exists. 
The texts say that the same is true for all the sense modalities (indriya): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Each of the sense modalities has its object (S. ālambana; P. ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactiles, dhammas. The meeting of sense object and sense faculty gives rise to its own kind of cognition or viññāṇa (S. vijñāṇa). Note that ālambhana means "seized, grasped"; Pāli uses the Sanskrit spelling of indriya (we expect indiya); and viññāṇa does not mean "consciousness" (and never does). 

The sense faculties are also sometimes referred to as the saḷāyatana "six spheres", but this term later comes to refer to the six sense faculties along with their objects. Another important later category is the eighteen dhātus, which is the twelve āyatanas plus their respective viññāṇa
6 indriya + 6 ārammaṇa = 12 āyatana 
12 āyatana + 6 viññāṇa = 18 dhātu 
These categories become important in the development of dharma theory and form the basis of many Abhidharma lists. However, in the texts in question, the later categories have yet to be imposed.

Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati is Pāli for "conjunction of the three", where saṅgati comes from saṃ√gam meaning "going together, meeting, conjunction".  Rather than one condition giving rise to one effect, we have a combination of three conditions giving rise to vedanā. We can summarise the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati by substituting the general terms:
indriyañ ca paṭicca ārammaṇañ ca uppajjati indriya-viññāṇaṃ. 
On the basis of sense faculty and sense object, sense cognition arises. 
It is only when all three are present that contact (phassa) occurs and on this basis vedanā and then taṇha arise. According to SN 12:43 this is the origin of dukkha and according to SN 12:44 exactly the same process is the origin of loka. From this and other texts we know that the Pāli authors considered the two terms to be synonymous. However, this equation appears to be have been lost sight of and  disappeared from Buddhist teaching until it was rediscovered by Sue Hamilton in 2000.


Then the text asks about the cessation of dukkha/loka. The cessation passage repeats the pericope on how dukkha and loka come into being, but it then continues with the standard nidāna sequence:
Tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodhā upādānanirodho; upādānanirodhā bhava-nirodho; bhavanirodhā jātinirodho; jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkha-domanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti. (SN ii.72)
From the remainderless absence of passion and cessation (of that craving; there is cessation of the fuel [of becoming]). From the cessation of the fuel, there is the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming, there is the cessation of birth; from the cessation of birth, aging and death, of remorse, sorrow, misery, depression, and despair cease. Just this is the cessation of the whole [blazing] mass of experience. 
I've translated this in line with Richard Gombrich's (2009) idea that it ties in with the general use of metaphors of fire for the mind. Compare especially the Āditti Sutta (SN 35.28) and an early essay of mine, Everything Is On Fire. There are two problems to point out with this:

The first problem is that in this view we think of craving (taṇha) as the fuel (upādana) for becoming (bhava). However, the fuel for becoming is here abstracted out as a separate item from craving. Here craving is the condition of the fuel, and the fuel is the condition for becoming. It suggests that we look to the applied meaning of upādāna, i.e., "clinging". Thus, craving gives rise to clinging, and it is the clinging rather than craving per se that fuels becoming. Indeed, we sometimes read that vedanā is simply a vipāka. Depending how we view karma there are a range of views on vipāka. 1. There is nothing we can do about it (Dhp 127). 2. All we can do is mitigate the impact of the vipāka (cf Loṇapala Sutta AN 3.99). 3. We can ameliorate the vipāka through religious practices so that it does not ripen. 4. We can eliminate all evil karma at the root through religious practices. Either way vedanā arises as a result of past actions and is not under our direct control (even in those views which allow us to eliminate evil karma)

The second problem is that becoming (bhava) is abstracted out of birth (jāti). The traditional explanations of the nidānas overlay bhava with a more complex doctrine involving "the rebirth producing kamma-process" (kammabhava) and the actual "rebirth process" (upapattibhava). It doesn't make sense to consider rebirth in the abstract as the underlying condition for the physical act of birth.

In tracing our way along the nidānas we lurch from abstractions like ignorance, to the subjective experience of cognition, to the concreteness of the body and sense organs, to the senses operating to produce subjective experience, into the realm of abstract ideas, and then back into the concrete world of birth and death. This is not a coherent series.

One can see how the three lifetimes interpretation emerged. Having birth be the effect of experience (saḷāyatana → phassa  vedanā → upādāna → bhava →) makes no sense because one has to already have been born in order to have experiences. In other words, experience presupposes a body and therefore birth. It is difficult to see how this series would work otherwise, although the three lifetimes model is still problematic for reasons given in Part II.

Note also that a literal reading of the nidānas combined with ideas from elsewhere, especially misreading the opening verses of the Dhammapada, leads many Buddhists to conclude that "mind creates matter". In the twelve nidānas, viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa, literally name and appearance. Even in the three lifetimes model, this pairing is part of the present rebirth process (upapatti-bhava). In order for there to be human "consciousness", there has to be a human body. One can, of course, in traditional views, become a disembodied spirit. But as far as human beings are concerned, one cannot have consciousness without a body and vice versa. This is also the conclusion of the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) which presents viññāṇa and nāmarūpa conditioning each other (nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ DN II.56). As Frank Sinatra said, "you can't have one without the other." Note also that the Mahānidāna Sutta labours the point about eliminating all forms of birth (anywhere in any way by anyone) in order to eliminate death. The goal of Buddhism is to entirely eliminate sentient life on earth in order to prevent suffering.

Even in this third approach to dependent arising the nidāna sequence is not coherent. It is a mix of different kinds of entities and events. 

The World of Experience

I've already mentioned that in SN 12:43 and SN 12:44 loka and dukkha are synonymous. A close look at the word loka reveals that in this context it means "the world of experience" (Jayarava 2010). Sue Hamilton (2000) explains that dukkha is not descriptive:
"...dukkha is not descriptive of the world in which we have our experience: it is not descriptive of everything that we perceive out there and then react to. Rather, it is our experience. (2000: 82; emphasis in the original)
Our experiential world is created by the operation of khandhas. As Hamilton puts it, dukkha, khandha, and loka all refer to experience:
"... all three terms refer in effect to the way one's experience (dukkha), the apparatus of which is one's khandhas, is one's world (loka). (2000: 205).
This tells us that we can think of dependent arising in terms of giving rise to one's experiential world. That is, not to "the world" in a metaphysical sense, but to "one's world" in an epistemic or phenomenological sense. The American Theravādin monk and translator, Bodhi, made a similar point about the world at around the same time as Sue Hamilton:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182)
Some years ago I would have called this world "psychological", but I have come around to the idea that one's world is a social phenomenon as much as it is a psychological one. The social side of cognition is completely absent from traditional Buddhism and largely absent from modern Buddhism. The important point is that it seems likely that the authors of the Pāli actually had this epistemic approach in mind. The metaphysical application was an after-thought.

The Bodhi quote also introduces the idea that the Pāli authors might have entertained a duality between a subjective and an objective world, with a clear focus on the subjective. This was precisely the idea that I was expanding on in my previous essay on Perennial Philosophy. This is how the early Buddhists thought, though their views were quite undeveloped and poorly expressed.

We can unequivocally say that, from the point of view of a self-aware individual, the world of experience appears to come in two varieties: objective experiences which relate to a mind-independent world (reality) and subjective experiences which relate to the workings of the mind itself (experience). The two varieties are not the result of any ontological dualism, but merely because the apparatus of experience presents these two kinds of experience to our awareness: one which is directly based on physical senses and one which is only indirectly based on the senses, if at all, but is more reflective of our reactions to experience (both affective and cognitive). The fundamental mistake we all make is to assume that, because there are two main kinds of experience, the world must be divided into two types of existence. One does not follow from the other. This becomes clearer if we compare the information from the different physical senses. Light and sound, for example, are two very different phenomena, but we now know that they are manifestations of one reality at two very different scales. 

It becomes apparent, to every neuro-typical four-year-old, that we are not the only self-aware being, but that other beings (human and animal) have minds that are unique but also like our own mind. We are not alone and we can compare notes. Thomas Nagel's argument that there is "something that it is like to be a bat" (viewing the world via sonar) is true, but it downplays the fact that we evolved to understand what it is like to be another person. We have a highly developed innate ability to feel what other sentient beings feel and to understand the world from their point of view. All social mammals have some capacity for doing this. When we understand other animals in this way, it is not simply projection or anthropomorphising, but recognition. Our pet's mind may be smaller and limited in scope, but it is a mind and comprehensible. And it can go the other way, domestic animals can understand and respond appropriately humans to some extent.

Our experience of the world is shaped by our social environment, our sensory apparatus, our cognitive equipment, and a number of other factors. Discovering how any of this relates to reality is a matter of painstakingly separating subjective from objective by taking and comparing notes. The path to such knowledge has not been straight but we have built up a highly accurate and precise picture of how our everyday reality works. And it has nothing to do with Buddhist theories of dependent arising. 

The Epistemic Reading is More Authentic

The history of Buddhism Studies is littered with the detritus of naive attempts to reconstruct the "original Buddhism". It is almost always a mistake to assume that we can get back to Buddhism before it is presented in early Buddhists texts, even though it is apparent that the early texts represent a rather advanced stage of development. We can only get so far in reconstructing history from texts when there is no corroborating evidence from elsewhere. We can see a progression in the Canon: some texts have a more epistemic approach and some a more metaphysical approach. And we know that there is a general trend toward exploring metaphysics amongst Buddhists that does not fully manifest until really quite late in the development of Buddhism, i.e., well into the Common Era. Thus we expect an epistemic approach to be more prominent in early texts.

The texts were composed over several centuries and we have no way, at present, of stratifying most of them. It is a matter of relative rather than absolute chronology. Also, we do not, and cannot, say anything about what the Buddha taught or thought. We just do not know how these texts relate to the legendary figure of the Buddha. 

The idea of paṭicca-samuppāda makes a certain amount of sense in the context of epistemology, but it comes unstuck when pressed into service as metaphysics. In other words, when applied to the context that history suggests is the earlier, we are able to use the doctrine to make a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, when Buddhists tried to use the doctrine as metaphysics we can see that they had to make many adjustments, some of which effectively repudiated the original idea and replaced it with something novel. The more metaphysics became a concern, the less like the doctrines in the early texts Buddhism became. Many later forms, such as the medieval Japanese and Tibetan schools (Zen, Shin, Gelug) bear almost no relationship to the doctrines of the early texts. 

Thus, we may argue that the epistemic reading is more authentic, provided that we do not overlay it with a modern epistemology. The idea that Buddhism makes a contribution to the understanding of reality, or the nature of reality, i.e., to ontology or metaphysics, is not authentic, in the sense that such claims are inconsistent with the earliest forms of Buddhism that we have access to. And this becomes increasingly obvious. Buddhism addresses the subjective, epistemic, phenomenological, experiential world; that part of the world which is an internally-generated virtual model; what Thomas Metzinger has called the Virtual Self Model. In this domain Buddhism retains some sense and usefulness. Still, this is not an easy adjustment for anyone used to thinking that they are on the trail of ultimate reality via Buddhism. I tried to show that, in terms of ideas and methods, that Buddhism is strongly connected with subjectivity. I know that many Buddhists will remain unconvinced by this, but it is true nonetheless. If our age tells us anything it is that "truth" and "belief" are often unrelated.



Bodhi 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jayarava (2010). "Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?". http://www.jayarava.org/writing/paticca-samuppada-theory-of-everything.pdf

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