24 December 2010

Paṭicca-samuppāda - a theory of causation?

Wheel of Life: Dependent Arising
"The doctrine of Dependent Origination is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on causation
and the ontological status of phenomena."
Encyclopedia of Buddhism [1]


THIS IS THE FIRST SENTENCE from the definition of dependent-origination from the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, and it made me think "no, it isn't!" The fact is that this kind of source - a general encyclopedia - is not going to make much difference in Buddhist circles since Buddhists aren't likely to be consulting an encyclopedia on Buddhism, but it will get taken up by students, especially students of comparative religion, who will propagate the view.

I'm very doubtful about this word 'doctrine'. It leads to the phrase 'dependent-arising' being capitalised, when dependent-arising is purportedly a description of a process of 'things' arising, i.e. adjectival; it is not a thing itself, so I don't think it should be a proper noun. In any case "doctrine" sounds too fixed, too certain, and too dogmatic for my ear. So I won't use it, and will instead talk about the theory of dependent-arising.

First paṭicca-samuppāda is not a teaching on, or a theory of, causation at all. While the Buddha did use the term hetu 'cause, reason' sometimes, it was always synonymous with words like paccaya 'condition', samudaya 'origin', etc. The English translations are all synonyms as well, according to my Oxford Thesaurus. Paṭicca-samuppāda is about dependency and contingency, but it is not about causation. As far as I can tell the Buddha doesn't use hetu in its verbal form (hinati, pahiṇati), in this context. I've done a detailed analysis of the word paṭicca-samuppāda and you can consult that if need be, but the gist is that things arise on the basis of conditions. We do not say that the condition causes the thing to arise (and thereby we avoid assigning agency to them), only that something arises having depended on (paṭicca) something else. This form - 'having depended on' or 'depending on' - (a gerund) sounds awkward in English, but is a very common way of creating subordinate clauses in Pāli. The gerund refers to an action immediately preceding the main verb (here indicated by the verbal noun samuppāda arising). The arising is preceded by the condition, and arising is dependent on the condition - this is all that is being said.

When the Buddha said imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti (that being, this becomes) he used a particular grammatical form known as a locative absolute: both imasmiṃ and sati are in the locative case. Here sati is an action noun from √as 'to be', and not related to sati 'remember' (Sanskrit smṛṭi). The sense is of the locative absolute sub-clause is one of duration: 'while this exists' or 'when this exists'. Then idaṃ hoti just means 'this is'. So the sentence says: "while there is that, there is this" (imasmiṃ and idam are the same deictic pronoun and should both be 'this', but that gets confusing). There is no sense, nor any implication of causation here. We might say, following the metaphor used by Bhikkhu Ñāṇavīra, that while there are walls, the roof stays up; and when the walls are absent there can't be a roof, if the walls crumble the roof falls down. The walls do not cause the roof, nor are they in themselves sufficient to bring the roof into existence (it requires some other factors as well). To take the walls as causing the roof would be to give them agency as builders.

The most common way of explaining paṭicca-samuppāda is with reference to the nidānas:
"from the condition of ignorance [there are] volitions (avijjā-paccayā saṅkhārā)" etc.
The verb 'to be' (i.e. 'there are', 'there is') is missing because it is permissible, and idiomatically correct in Pāli. Just as above avijjā is a condition without which there can be no saṅkhārā, but it does not cause it - ignorance doesn't have agency of itself, but causes the agency I do have to go awry. Another frequent expression goes like this: with the eye and forms as conditions, eye-consciousness arises. (cakkhuṃ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhu-viññāṇaṃ). Again think of the house analogy - when the foundations and the walls are in place, you can put up a roof. As Bhikkhu Bodhi, articulating a more orthodox Theravāda view, says of the nidānas:
"The sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through a simple exercise of efficient causality. The relationship among the factors is always one of complex conditionality rather than linear causation. The conditioning function can include such diverse relationships as mutuality (when two factors mutually support each other), necessary antecedent (when one factor must be present for another to arise), distal efficiency (as when a remotely past volitional formation generates consciousness in a new life), etc." [2]
The second point is about ontology. Ontology is one of these big words I've gotten into the habit of using without ever saying much about it. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that word comes from the Greek verb einai 'to be' (present-participle: on 'being', genitive ontos.) and refers to the study of, and theories about 'being'. The primary question ontology asks is "what is there?" Similarly epistemology is the study of knowledge and asks "what can we know about what's there?" These are the basic questions of Western philosophy down the ages. And, as I have previously argued, there is a fundamental mismatch between Buddhism and Western philosophy because the Buddha had no interest in either of these questions. The domain (visaya) for Buddhist inquiry is the 'world' which arises out of the interaction between between sense faculty and sense object. The Buddha has little or nothing to say about sense faculties except to list them; and little or nothing to say about sense objects except that desire for them is unhelpful. Because he is not interested in the question "what is there?" we must conclude that the Buddha was not interested in ontology. As I pointed out in my commentary on the simile of the chariot, from the point of view of the Buddha only disappointment (dukkha) arises, and only disappointment ceases. Paṭicca-samuppāda is an insight into how dukkha arises - dukkha being a synonym for 'the world of experience' [see also What Did the Buddha Mean by World?].

I had a go at explaining the various meanings of dhamma in Oct 2009. Dhamma is often translated as 'phenomena' - with the sense that it applies to any phenomena. It can simply mean 'thing' and this may give the impression of an ontological position. The nidānas are sometimes referred to as dhammas (items in a list). However over some years now I've been arguing for the adoption of one of Sue Hamilton's key insights: that the Buddha was always talking about experience, and not about ontology. [3] Even Bhikkhu Bodhi who apparently remains convinced that the Buddha did talk about ontology from time to time, concludes:
“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.” [4]
To be fair there are some ontological implications of paṭicca-samuppāda: e.g. consciousness (viññāna) apparently precedes body (nāma-rūpa); but the teaching is not about that, it's an incidental aspect of the teaching. [5] I've confessed that these ontological implications cause me some confusion, and I have been so far unable to reconcile them. But in terms of getting on with practice it doesn't matter in the least - my focus, like the Buddha's is not on ontology, but on experience. I'm happy to practice ethics, calm down, observe my 'world' and allow insight to resolve lingering doubts and confusion when it comes - it's a work in progress.

So if I were to reframe that first sentence in the Encyclopedia I would say it this way:

The theory of dependent-arising is a
fundamental Buddhist teaching on conditionality
and the nature of experience.


  1. Keown, D. and Prebish, C. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Routledge, 2007. (p.268.)
  2. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 523 (introduction to the nidāna-saṃyutta.)
  3. Bodhi Connected Discourses. p. 394, n.182.
  4. I note that there is a contemporary philosophical discourse about the "ontology of experience" but I don't understand it. My view is that experience has an indeterminate ontological status - the language of ontology, i.e. existence and non-existence, simply doesn't apply. This is in line with what we find the Buddha saying in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15); and later in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā (which quotes a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta at 15.7).
  5. See especially: Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,' Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317. I have some reservations regarding Shulman's assumptions about what is referred to in the nidāna chain, but over-all this is one of the most interesting articles I've read in years.
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