SOME REMARKS ON PATICCA-SAMUPPADA
By Ajahn Brahmavamso
It is essential to know precisely what the Buddha meant when he used each of the 12 terms in the Paticca-samuppada. There is no need to go to the Commentary to find these meanings. They are clearly evident in the Suttas themselves, as I hope I have indicated. Only when one accurately understands the meaning of each of the 12 links is there a hope that one will understand the profundity of the whole Paticca-samuppada as the Buddha meant it to be understood.
Personally, I have never witnessed a human birth but I have not the slightest doubt that we all come into this present life through the same way, by birth! The possibility of full understanding (Panna) here and now regard to birth, Jati, makes it a Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma. Bhava can be understood here and now and, if one has a very clear mind, can be experienced as the very same process described at Anguttara, Book of the Three’s, Sutta 76. The same can be said of Upadana, Tanha, Vedana, Phassa, Salayatana and Namarupam. The Vinnanam as the first consciousness arising in a life can only be understood here and now in the same way that death (Marana) can be understood. Thus if the death of a being, Maranam qualifies as Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma so does the Patisandhi- Vinnana (rebirth consciousness). Sankhara, the willed Kamma done by body speech and mind which gives rise to rebirth can be experienced as well as understood here and now. In fact, the only link of the Paticca-samuppada which, strictly speaking, can never be experienced even when it is happening but it can be understood is Avijja. Only the Arahat properly understands Avijja and by then it is no more. Of course, no one would argue that Avijja is not part of the Buddha’s Teaching because it can not be experienced! All agree that even Avijja is Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma, because it can be understood here and now!
The causal relationship between the 12 links can be harder to understand. Indeed, only the Sotapanna and higher Ariyas will fully understand these causal relationships. It must be borne in mind that in such causal relationships, the cause may precede the effect by a lengthy interval. For example, in the causal relationship between birth (Jati) and Maranam (death); the cause, birth, may precede the effect, death, by 100 or more years. A cause which produces an effect after an interval of time is called Purejatapaccayo, pre-nascence condition, the 10th of the 24 Paccaya which we chant at funerals. Because the cause may have ceased before the effect arises, much of causality can both be experienced "in the moment". Instead, causal relations are discerned using Yoniso Manasikara, the work of the mind which goes back to the source (Yoni). Indeed, Yoniso Manasikara is the main cause for the arising Sammaditthi (eg at Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 43) and Sammaditthi includes understanding Paticca-samuppada (eg at Anguttara, Book of the Tens, Sutta 92). Thus Paticca-samuppada is understood, here and now, by applying Yoniso Manasikara. It is in this way that the causal relations between the 12 links become discerned by Panna and, having been understood here and now, become Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma.
It is misleading of anyone to claim that one needs Pubbenivasanussati, memory of previous lives, to be able to understand the process of rebirth described in the Paticca-samuppada! One understands Paticca-samuppada using Yoniso Manasikara in the way described above. And, whatever can be understood here and now becomes Sanditthika and Akalika Dhamma.
A Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya has been understand by some to imply that "Vedana is not always the karmic result of a previous life" and therefore none of the links in the Paticca-samuppada can refer to a previous life.
The Sutta in question is Anguttara Nikaya Book of the Three’s, Sutta 61 verses I-IV. Interestingly, those who quote this part of the Sutta fail to notice verse IX in the same Sutta which I have quoted twice in this letter to support Paticca-samuppada being an explanation of the rebirth process!
The part of the Sutta which is relevant here is verses I-IV which three tenets are put forward and roundly refected by the Buddha as wrong. The first is "Yam kinci purisapuggalo patisamvedeti sukham va dukkham va adukkhama sukham va, sabbam tam pubbe katahetu" ... "Whatsoever weal or wore or neutral feeling is experienced, all that is due to some previous action" (Woodward’s translation in the PTS’s Gradual Sayings Vol 1 page 157). The other two tenets are that ... all that is due to the creation of a Supreme Deity ... (and) all that are uncaused and unconditioned.
It is instructive to notice that this first tenet is repeated verbatim in the Devadaha - Sutta, No 101 of the Majjhima Nikaya, where it is attributed to the Jains. In that Sutta it is clear that the tenet in full is holding that "Whatever Sukha, Dukkha or neutral feeling is experienced, all that is due to some previous action in a past life." This is obviously wrong, as the Buddha pointed out in both Suttas, for everyone should know that some Sukha, some Dukkha and some neutral feelings that are experienced are due to some previous action in this life!
But something else needs to be pointed out about this tenet. If you look at the Pali carefully you may notice that it is referring to the types of feeling that one experiences not to the faculty of feeling (Vedana) in general. It should be understood tht the fact that one has Vedana, the faculty of feeling, at all is due to craving and ignorance in a previous life; but the particular type of feeling, the content of Vedana if you like, does not necessarily depend on kamma of a previous life. Let me offer a simile. A man buys a TV, a year later he moves to a new house and there he sometimes watches channel 1, sometimes channel 2 and sometimes channel 3. the fact that in his present house he has a TV, the fact that he can experience television at all, is because of an act be performed while in his previous house - but the programme he chooses to experience are not all conditioned by some preference or other he built up while in his previous house. In this rough simile, the TV corresponds to Vedana, the programme channels appearing on that TV, channels 1, 2 and 3, correspond to Sukha, Dukkha and Adukkhama Sukha. Again, the fact that one has Vedana of some sort is due to craving and ignorance in a previous life, but the content of that Vedana or rather the particular type of feeling which is experienced is not necessarily caused by an action in a previous life. When one understands this one understands that the tenet being discussed, which originates in Anguttara Nikaya Book of the Three’s Sutta No 61 Verses I-IV, that is has no bearing on Paticca-samuppada.
But in case someone is still not convinced that Vedana has a cause originating in a previous life, I cite the Bhumija Sutta, No 25 of the Nidana Samyutta. "Sant’avuso Eke Samanabrahmana Kammavada:
Ven Sariputta replies when asked by Ven Bhumija which of the four is correct, "Paticca- samuppannam kho avuso sukhadukkham vuttam Bhagavata kim paticca? Phassam paticca! Iti vadam vuttavadi ceva Bhagavato assa, na ca Bhagavatam abhutena abbhacikkheyya..." "The Exalted One has said that happiness and ill (Sukha Dukkha) come to pass through a cause (Paticca). What cause? The cause is contact (Phassa)! Saying thus you would be repeating the words of the Exalted One correctly and not misrepresenting him" (compare Kindred Sayings Vol 12 page 31, which is heavily abbreviated). (The rest of the Bhumija - Sutta is also of interest for it indicates the role of Sankhara in the performance of Kamma. What Woodward translates as "plan those planned deeds conditioned by ignorance" is in Pali "Avijja paccaya. Kaya or Vaci or Mano - Sankharam abhisankharoti..." which shows Sankhara in the context of Paticca-samuppada means "Karmic actions of body, speech or mind conditioned by ignorance").
Thus Vedana is always caused by Phassa. Furthermore we all know that Phassa is caused by Nama-rupa and Nama-rupa is caused by Vinnana. These mind and bodily processed are caused by ignorance and craving in a previous life. Any Buddhist monk who does not agree with this, who does not accept the teaching of rebirth should look at Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 117: there are 2 forms of Sammaditthi, one for those who still have Asava (Sammaditthi sasava punnabhagiya upadhi-vepakka) and one for the Ariya’s without Asava (Sammaditthi ariya anasava ...) The type of right view which concerns most monks is the former and it is "the view that alms and offerings are not useless, that there is fruit and result, both of good and bad actions, that there are such things as this life and the next life ...". Thus belief in rebirth is clearly stated to be Sammaditthi, its rejection would thus be Micchaditthi.
This completes the refutation of the 3 arguments given against Paticca-samuppada being a description of the process of rebirth. They should be compared with the arguments against the "one-life" interpretation given on page 2-3 of this PS and held alongside the positive arguments for Paticca-samuppada (expressed on pages 1-2 and on pages 3) being a process spanning more than one life. Then you can make your own decision based on the Suttas.