24 April 2020

Dhammaniyāmata and idappaccayatā

I was going over my notes on niyāma and comparing some Pāli and Chinese texts a couple of years ago and started writing this essay. I discussed it on the Sutta Central forums in 2018. I noticed it sitting in the draft folder and thought it would be worth finishing and putting on the blog.

My interest in the concept of niyāma is long-standing and ongoing because Sangharakshita employed the word in his teaching. However, he based his use of niyāma mainly on the ideas of Carolyn Rhys Davids who seems to have concocted a narrative that didn't relate to what we find in Pāli. Rhys Davids was aided by Ledi Sayadaw although they disagreed on some details. Ever since I discovered the way Buddhaghosa actually used niyāma I've been interested to flesh it out. One of the avenues for doing so is to refer to the several uses of the word niyāma in the compound dhamma-niyāmatā and one of the places we find this word used is the Paccaya Sutta (SN 12:20). When we compare the Pāli with its counterpart in the Samyuktāgama, i.e. SĀ 296, we notice something quite interesting with respect to another word idappaccayatā.

A Samyuktāgama manuscript was translated into Chinese by Guṇabhadra (求那跋陀羅) in the Liu Song 劉宋 period (435–443 CE). However, there is also a Sanskrit text from a cache found at Turfan. It was copied much later, probably around the 13th Century. We begin with the Pāli.

Paccaya Sutta (SN 12:20)

The Pāli passage with my translation:
uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. (SN II.25)
“Whether anyone is awakened or not, the principle remains: the fact of mental events being conditioned, the fixed course of mental phenomena, and specific conditionality [of mental phenomena].”
Tathāgata is how the Buddha referred to himself. It means someone who has realised nirvāṇa or attained awakening (etc). More literally the phrase is "arising of a tathāgata or non-arising of a tathāgata".

Here thitāva is ṭhitā eva. Ṭhita (Skt sthita) is the past participle of the verb tiṭṭhati (Skt tiṣṭhati from the root √sthā "to stand, remain"). A ṭhita is something lasting or enduring. The long final ā tells us that ṭhita is being used as an adjective of dhātu, a feminine noun. Dhātu can have a range of meanings including "element; natural condition, property; factor, item, principle." If we take ṭhitā dhātu as a unit, then we expect meanings such as "abiding principle", "established property", or "enduring natural condition". In other words, it is a state of affairs that remains in play. The particle eva emphasises the endurance of the principle.

Ṭhitatā is an abstract noun from the same past participle (ṭhita). PED suggests it means "the fact of standing or being founded on". In other words, the connotation is somewhat different here. The word is mainly used in precisely this context as a quality of dhammas. As we know, conditioned (saṅkhata) dhammas arise (samuppāda) in dependence on a condition (paccaya). Dependence (literally "hanging down from") is an inversion of the cognitive metaphor involved in the Pāli word paṭicca (Skt pratītya), which is from the root prati√i and means "going back to, returning". This also gives us the title of the sutta, paccaya (Skt. pratyaya). A dhamma (literally "support") springs-up (samuppāda) when the condition (paccaya) that supports it (from below) is in place. I take dhamma-ṭṭhitatā to be a reference to the principle of conditionality. And that we can take it to mean that the principle of conditionality is an abiding principle.

Next, niyāma means "a fixed course; constrained; inevitably". In the context of dhamma-niyāmatā "the fact of the fixed course of dhammas", this means that dhammas don't get a choice. When the conditions are in place, dhammas must arise; when the conditions are absent dhammas must either not arise or having arisen they must cease. Buddhaghosa relates this to the inevitability and inescapability of the ripening karma (cf Attwood 2014). So again this is a reference to the principle of conditionality.

Finally, the abiding principle is also idappaccayatā (Skt idampratyayatā). The etymology is fairly obvious (more so in Sanskrit) but difficult to articulate in English. The whole thing is an abstract noun, so refers to an abstraction from the idea of idaṃ pratyāya "this condition" or "whose condition is this". However we get there, the word refers to the specificity of the conditions: specific conditions give rise to specific results. In other words, there is an order to how dependent arising functions: it has to function and it has to function in a particular way that relates consequence to action: A kusala cetanā gives rise to a kusala phala; if there is a kusala phala we can infer a kusala cetanā as condition. We can see, therefore, that idappaccayatā is the same quality as Buddha-ghosa's bījaniyāma (like for like), perhaps combined with utuniyāma (timeliness).

We might call this a law of nature. A law of nature is always applicable, always gives the same result given the same causes. It is a ṭhitā dhātu or a niyāma. Initially out of idle curiosity, I wanted to see what the Chinese equivalents of these words were so I used Sutta Central to identify the Chinese counterpart in the Samyuktāgama. And things started to get interesting because it rapidly became apparent that the Chinese text was corrupt in an interesting way.

The Chinese. SĀ 296

The Samyuktāgama parallel with Choong Mun-keat's translation is
若佛出世,若未出世,此法常住,法住法界 (T2.84.b17-18)
“Whether a Buddha arises in the world, or not, this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma, the element of dharma.” (Choong 2010: 45)
Note that in the Sutta Central metadata this translation is credited as "originally published in" Choong (1999) but it is not translated in that book as far as I can tell. Rather, it is translated in Choong (2010).
Choong (1999: 19) leads us to believe that certain Pāli and Middle Chinese terms are equivalents, i.e.
  • dhammaṭṭhitatā = fǎ zhù 法住
  • dhammaniyāmatā = fǎ dìng 法定
  • idappaccayatā = fǎ jiè 法界
But this cannot be right and furthermore what we actually have in the Chinese Pratyāya Sūtra is: fǎ cháng zhù 法常住, fǎ zhù 法住, fǎ jiè 法界. Under 法常住 the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism suggests "the Dharma that is eternally abiding". But I think the pronoun 此 in the text implies dharmāḥ in the plural, meaning mental phenomena rather than the Dharma (singular) - this is also my reading of the Pāli compounds. So a translation like "dharmas abide eternally" is more likely, though obviously this is quite problematic from a Theravāda point of view (I'll return to this point at the end of this section).

Note that the text has taken a shortcut. There is no equivalent to ṭhitāva sā dhātu "the principle remains". Although we do actually have the characters we need for it, i.e. zhù jiè 住界 "abiding principle".

T2 p.84
The problem here is that fǎ cháng zhù 法常住 "dharmas eternally remain" is followed by more or less the same word, i.e.fǎ zhù 法住 "dharmas remain". We are expecting to find 法定 the equivalent of dhammaniyāmatā. In other words, this appears to be a scribal error with repetition/substitution of 住 for 定. Such errors are very common in copied manuscripts and called an "eye-skip"). From the imaged page accompanying the CBETA reader the error occurs in the printed version of the Taishō Tripiṭaka as well (see also image right).

Choong glosses over (and thus hides) the repetition by choosing different translations for the two phrases, viz. "the unchangeable nature of dharma" and "the status of dharma". Here "nature" and "status" both translate zhù 住. The character 住—meaning "stay behind, remain; pause, halt"—is a commonly used to translate words deriving from Sanskrit √sthā "abide, stand, remain" since the semantic fields substantially overlap. It is also used to translate the verb viharati "dwelling, abiding".

Moreover, the characters fǎ zhù 法界 do not translate idappaccayatā but rather usually translate dharmadhātu, i.e "the realm of dharmas qua experience " or the "experiential realm" rather than the later idea of a realm of the Dharma). A modern translation of idappaccayatā is 此縁性 but this is no help to us here precisely because it is modern and not found in the Āgama texts. And the reason for this took some time to appreciate.

It turns out that in the whole Saṃyutta Nikāya the word idappaccayatā only occurs here in the Paccaya Sutta, so there is no easy way to find out if Guṇabhadra used it in other contexts. In fact, this word is very uncommon. Across all the Nikāyas it only occurs one other time, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26), and there only once. The Chinese version of MN 26, i.e. MĀ 204 omits the passage that includes the word idappaccayatā. The story of Brahmā’s request to teach (Section 20 of MN 26) is recounted in (1st) Ekottarikāgama (19.1) but does not use this word. Ekottarikāgama 24.5 recounts part of the story but also misses out the passage of interest. So there appears to be no Chinese Āgama text that uses this expression. At this point, I do not even have any Chinese characters that I could search for in the Chinese Canon.

We do find the expression in Dàzhìdù lùn《大智度論》 (T. 1509) a voluminous commentary on the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, where our passage of interest is cited.

有佛無佛,是因緣法相續常在世間 (T1509.253c.1-2)
“Whether there is a Buddha or there is no Buddha, this causality (idaṃpratyayatā), this nature of things (dharmatā), is always present in the world.” (Ani Migme’s translation of Lamotte's French translation)
However, here 因緣 seems to correspond, not to idaṃpratyāya, but to another common compound, >hetu-pratyāya “causes and conditions”. The character yīn 因 means "cause" and routinely translates hetu in contrast to yuán 緣 which routinely translates pratyāya "condition". The combination f ǎ xiāng 法相 does, at least, correspond to dharmatā, but I think Lamotte has fudged the translation of yīn yuán 因緣 because he knew what it ought to say. With hindsight the expression idaṃpratyayatā is not used here.


I noted above a little anomaly in the Chinese translation with respect to fǎ cháng zhù 法常住 "dharmas abide eternally". The Saṃyuktāgama manuscript translated into Chinese is thought to have belonged to a Sarvāstivāda sect. This phrase—fǎ cháng zhù 法常住—may betray a Sarvāstivāda point of view.

The late David Bastow (1995) outlined why the Sarvāstivādins came to the conclusion that dharmas must be eternal (always existent, i.e. sarva-asti). They began by taking the formula of dependent arising seriously (cited here in the less familiar Sanskrit form that Sarvastivādins used)
yaduta asmin satīdaṃ bhavaty asyotpadād idam utpadyate |
yaduta asmin asatīdaṃ na bhavaty asya nirodhād idaṃ nirudhyate ||
When this is present, that exists,
with the arising of this, that arises.
When this is absent, that does not exist,
When this ceases, then than ceases.
Let us suppose that a citta or dharma characterised by greed (lobha) arises and then ceases. If we are to make progress as Buddhists, we have to know that we just had a lobha-dharma. In order to know this, the citta itself must be a condition for the knowledge. But according to the formula "that" (result) arises only when "this" (condition) is present. Therefore, the lobha-dharma must still be present. If this relation holds true, then the logical outcome is that dharmas must always be present, they must always exist: sarva-asti. This is where the logic of the formula takes us and is by no means illogical or stupid. It was the dominant Buddhist view in the northwest of Greater India for some centuries.

Of course, this is eternality is problematic, but the Sarvastivādins got around it by positing that dharmas are always present but only active in the present. This was their metaphysical manoeuvre. All Buddhists ended up having metaphysical manoeuvres to try to link consequences to actions over time (this is one of the main topics of my book on karma and rebirth). The sarva-asti manoeuvre is actually quite metaphysically conservative compared to what made it through into the present. Buddhists tended to proliferate supernatural entities and processes to make karma work, e.g. bhavaṅgacitta or ālayavijñāna.

With this digression complete. we can now turn to the Sanskrit manuscript of the Pratyāya Sūtra, which is the latest of all our sources but may be of some use.

Pratyāya Sūtra

Part of a Sanskrit Nidānasaṃyukta was found at Turfan and edited by Chandrabhāl Tripāṭhī. It was probably copied in the 13th or 14th Century and we know very little about the provenance of it. This gives us a third version of the passage
ity utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ (Sutra 14, line 5)
Thus, whether or not a tathāgatā arises, this principle remains: naturalness and the stability of dharmas.
Cf P. uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. (SN II.25)
It appears to me that the Sanskrit text has become garbled. The word order has changed, partially obscuring the relation between sthitā and dhātuḥ. And we are lacking any equivalent of idappaccayatā.

The word dharmatā appears to be out of place. We are expecting to see dharmaniyāmatā. Meanwhile, dharmasthitaye has a case ending which is unexpected, since we expect to see a nominative singular. Given that the word is a feminine noun in -ā we don't expect to see -aye at all. According to Egerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar (1953: 63) it does occur as a case ending for -ā in the Mahāvastu, but it is used obliquely, i.e. for all the cases from instrumental to locative. Which in any case is not the nominative case that we expect (1953: 61). It is likely that -āye was intended, since this is more common, but again, this is the oblique case ending and it cannot be correct.

If I take the Pāḷi and render it into directly into Classical Sanskrit and Middle Chinese, it looks like this (followed by the actual texts for comparison):
P. ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā
S. sthitaiva tāḥ dhātu dharmasthitatā dharmaniyāmatā idaṃpratyayatā
C. 住界法住法定 XXX*
Turfan: sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ
SĀ 296: ... 此法常住,法住法界.
* Re XXX: by the end of the section on the Chinese text we still had not identified the Chinese equivalent of the word idappaccayatā.
There was nothing very difficult or complicated about either of these translations except the lack of a Chinese translation for idappaccayatā. The words in the Turfan ms. seem to have gotten jumbled up and fragmented so they no longer make sense. Something similar has happened to the Chinese text.

Second Phrase

If we read a little further on in the Chinese text we find a similar phrase which uses some of the same terminology (and the Pāli version once again uses the word idappaccayatā). Starting with the Chinese text and Choong's translation:
此等諸法,法住、法空、法如、法爾,法不離如,法不異如,審諦真實、不顛倒 (T 2.82.b22-4)
All these dharmas are the status of dharma, the standing of dharma, the suchness of dharma; the dharma neither departs from things-as-they-are, nor differs from things-as-they-are; it is truth, reality, without distortion. (Choong 2010: 45-6)
Choong's note (2010: 45) reads:
法定 The unchangeable nature of dharma. Original Taishō texts has 法空, but according to CSA*, it should be 法定 (vol.2, p.36).(2010: 45)
*CSA = Yin (1983).
In other words, the problem here is that 法空 (dharma-śūnyatā) should be 法定 (dharma-niyāmatā). This is consistent with the Sanskrit text. Note that the opening block of text 此等諸法 is literally "these 此 [plural] 等 many 諸 dharmas 法", hence Choong "all these dharmas".

The Turfan Sanskrit text counterpart reads
iti yātra dharmatā dharmasthititā dharmaniyāmatā dharmayathātathā avitathatā ananyathā bhūtaṃ satyatā tattvatā yāthātathā aviparītatā aviparyastatā (14.6)
Here, yātra is not to be confused with the locative adverbial pronoun yatra "where". It must either be a mistake for yatra, or the result of sandhi from yā atra "which here", where is the Prakrit relative pronoun in the feminine nominative singular. The Classical Sanskrit is yāḥ which would be followed by a vowel, but would not undergo further sandhi, i.e. yāḥ atra > yā atra. The Pāli text has yā tatra, which appears to confirm the yā atra reading. However, overall, the Pāli has a very different vocabulary at this point.
Pāli: Iti kho, bhikkhave, yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paṭic­ca­samup­pādo.
Thus, monks, that which is actual, not unactual, not otherwisethis is called dependent arising.
As Bodhi (2000: 742 n.54) elsewhere notes (i.e. in relation to SN 56:20 = 56:27), the Four Noble Truths are said to be tatha, avitatha, and anaññatha or in his translation "actual, unerring, and not otherwise". Note these are adjectives rather than nouns. Buddhaghosa's commentary on SN 12:20 in the Sāratthappakāsinī (or Saṃuyttanikāya Aṭṭhakathā) gives these terms a very specific meaning: tathatā refers to phenomena arising when conditions are present; avitathatā refers to this being a non-repeating process - one set of conditions gives rise to one phenomena; and anaññathatā means that each set of conditions gives rise to a phenomenon that is specific to those conditions, i.e. anaññatha is synonymous with idappaccayatā (which makes me suspect that the latter was added after the fact). Although Bodhi links this commentarial gloss with SN 56:20, the commentary he is translating is not the one that comes up when I look at the commentary on this text. Unfortunately, Bodhi does not say what he is translating.

Note that once again neither the Chinese nor the Sanskrit has an equivalent of idappaccayatā. It's not clear why they have a completely different pericope at this point. Clearly, this goes beyond a simple translation issue. The text appears to have been constructed with a different pericope at this point.


I started off exploring the meaning of dhamma-niyāmatā in a sutta with a view to better understanding Buddhaghosa's later use of the term niyāma "fixed course, constraint". This quality of dhamma-niyāmatā is said to be an abiding principle (ṭhitā dhātu). It seems that it refers to the conditionality of dhammas qua phenomena (a word that originally means "appearances"). And thus is it not related to the way that Buddhaghosa uses the term dhammaniyāma to describe the miracles that accompany the milestones in the career of a buddha. This is quite important for the concept of niyāma in Buddhism.

We have to be careful when thinking about phenomena in early Buddhism lest we inadvertently transpose a modern understanding of the concept or the terms we use. It is true that early Buddhists seem to make a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. It seems quite likely to me that they considered physical objects to be independent of their minds, but understood that phenomena associated with such objects (i.e. how such objects appear to the mind) as like mental phenomena. But the insight is connected in their case to meditative experience in which sensory and cognitive experience cease without the loss of consciousness, what is sometimes referred to as contentless awareness. Buddhists were not Idealists in the classical sense, but they might have had some sympathies with Kant's Transcendental Idealism had they come across it.

As I understand early Buddhists, they were making an epistemic argument about the conditions under which we experience phenomena. And they were not making a metaphysical argument about the nature of objects that we experience through phenomena. Indeed, the cessation of experience in meditation eclipsed any and all metaphysical speculation in importance. Which is not the same as saying that early Buddhists did not have metaphysics or that their epistemic conclusions did not have metaphysical implications. Rather, they simply never systematically developed metaphysics as a branch of philosophy. Phenomena and the nature of experience were the focus.

I argued that dhammaṭṭhitatā is a reference to fact of conditionality, what the early Buddhists considered to be an enduring law of nature, that phenomena arise when the condition is present. And that the term dhammaniyāmatā is a synonym with only a slightly different connotation. That dhamma (qua mental event) has a fixed course (niyāmatā) is a reference to the inevitability of a phenomenon arising when the condition for it is present, and the ceasing or non-arising when the condition is absent. This suggests that dhamma-niyāmatā is more like Buddhaghosa's kamma-niyāma.

The original phrase in the sutta was probably: ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā "this fact remains: the fact of mental events being conditioned, the constraints on mental events". And since the text refers to only one fact (sā dhātu), we have to read dhamma-ṭṭhitatā and dhamma-niyāmatā as being synonyms, not two different terms. Contrarily, we have to read dhamma here as dhammā (plural) and as being related to phenomena qua how things appear to us, not the existence of things or the nature of their existence.

It seems that idappaccayatā only occurs in Theravāda texts and may be a late insertion. I could find no early Buddhist texts in other languages that contain this word, even when there are translations that seem to be direct parallels. There seems to be no entry in the Gāndhārī dictionary that corresponds to this word. This seems to me to be quite a significant preliminary result that should be followed up on, but it probably won't be me that does it as I have my hands full with other things for the foreseeable future.

We also see how errors build up to render a text confusing or even meaningless and how Chinese texts read in isolation are often misleading.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). "Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma." Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21,503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

Bastow, David. (1995). The First Argument for Sarvāstivāda. Asian Philosophy 5(2), 109-125. Online: http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ADM/bastow.htm

Choong Mun-keat (1999). The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism. [2nd. Ed.] Motilal Banarsidass.

Choong Mun-keat (2010). Annotated Translation of Sutras from the Chinese Samyuktāgama relevant to the Early Buddhist Teachings on Emptiness and the Middle Way. [2nd Rev. Ed.] Thailand: International Buddhist College.

Edgerton, F. (1953). Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. Vol I. Reprinted: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2004.

Tripāṭhī, C. (1962). Fünfundzwanzig Sūtras des Nidānasaṃyukta. (Sanskrittexte aus den Turfanfunden, VIII). Berlin : Akademie-Verlag. Online at GRETIL.

Yin Shun. (1983) Combined Edition of Sūtra and Śāstra of the Saṃyuktāgama. Shanghai: Zhonghua Book Company. [印順. (1983) 雜阿含經論會編. 中華書局.]

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