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A Discourse on
Paticcasamuppada, or The Doctrine of Dependent Origination
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw
The Buddha's Emphasis On Practice
Incidentally there is a story illustrative of the importance the Buddha attached to the practice of the Dhamma. One day, the Buddha came out of the Jetavana monastery with the bhikkhus to go on tour. King Kosala, the merchant Anathapindika and other lay disciples requested the Buddha not to go on tour, but it was in vain. The merchant was unhappy because he would not be able to hear the Buddha's teaching or to make offerings to the Lord and the bhikkhus. His slave girl, Punna by name, said that she would ask the Buddha to come back. The merchant promised to free her from bondage if she could make the Buddha return to the monastery.
Then Punna followed the Buddha quickly and implored the Lord to come back. The Buddha asked her what she could do for him. She replied that she had nothing to offer, but that she would take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and observe the five precepts if the Lord spent the lent in Savatthi city. Saying, "Sadhu - well said", the Buddha blessed her and returned to Jetavana monastery.
The news spread and the merchant set Punna free and adopted her as his daughter. She was now free to do what she liked, free to shape her own destiny. For this reason and by virtue of her parami (kammic potential) in her previous lives, she joined the holy order. She practised vipassana and when she developed insight into the impermanence of nama-rupa, the Buddha exhorted her thus: "My daughter, just as the moon is full and complete on the fifteenth day, so also you should practise vipassana to the end. When your vipassana insight is complete, you will attain the end of suffering."
After hearing this exhortation, Punna theri attained the last stage on the holy path and became an Arahat. The Buddha had of course foreseen Punna's destiny and it was his concern for her spiritual welfare that prompted him to cancel the projected tour and turn back in response to her appeal. This is an example of the high regard for the practice of dhamma that Gotama Buddha had in common with other Buddhas.
So the prince observed the ten precepts and dwelt at the residence of the Buddha. He spent his time near Sumana thera, the special attendant and watched him serve the needs of the Buddha in a very intimate manner. Shortly before the end of the lent, he returned home, donated lavishly to the Sangha and, in his prayer to the Buddha, he affirmed his desire to become an intimate attendant of a future Buddha. The Buddha blessed him and the prince developed paramis tor innumerable lifetimes. The jatakas refer to many lives which he devoted to perfecting himself in collaboration with bodhisatta Gotama. Sometimes the bodhisatta was king and he was the king's minister or the bodhisatta was a human being and he happened to be a deva or Sakka. But their positions were often reversed. In some jatakas they were brothers.
Thus they developed paramis close together through their long samsaric journey and in his last existence Ananda was the nephew of king Suddhodana. After spending the first lent near Benares, the Buddha went to Rajagaha and from there he proceeded to Kapilavatthu at the invitation of his father. When he left his native place, Ananda and some Sakyan princes followed the Buddha and joined the holy order.
The parami (perfections) which Ananda had acquired through many lifetimes made it possible for him to understand easily Paticcasamuppada that has baffled so many people. Moreover, Ananda had received instructions from teachers. He had not only lived with his teachers but also learned and inquired about the meanings of the doctrine and memorized them. This kind of learning helped him to understand Paticcasamuppada. In fact, he attained the first stage of the holy path after having heard the sermon of the noted preacher, Punna thera. Ananda paid a high tribute to Punna for his illuminating discourse. The substance of the discourse is as follows.
"Self-conceit arises from attachment to the body, feeling, memory, kamma-formations (sankhara) and consciousness. It cannot arise without the five khandhas any more than the reflection of a man's face can appear in the absence of a mirror. The body, feeling, etc., are not permanent. Since they are not permanent, you should contemplate and realize that none of the five khandhas, whether in the past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, good or bad, distant or near is yours, is you or is your ego."
"The well-informed disciple of the Buddha who thus contemplates and realizes truth is disillusioned with the five khandhas. He becomes detached and free. He knows that his mind is free, that he has done what is to be done, that he has nothing else to do for his freedom."
This was what Punna preached to Ananda. As sotapanna, Ananda realized the cause-and-effect relationships of Paticcasamuppada. He had this insight when he practised vipassana. He knew that illusion, attachment, obsession, effort, rebirth, consciousness, etc., form the links in the chain of causation. Here, illusion or ignorance is avijja, attachment is tanha, obsession is upadana, effort is kamma. So when it is said that kamma leads to rebirth, we should understand that rebirth is also conditioned by upadana, etc. So the past involves avijja, tanha, upadana and kamma as causes. The yogi who realizes this through contemplation of nama-rupa is free from all doubts which we cannot remove merely through learning and reflection.
As the best-informed disciple of the Buddha, Ananda also gained recognition of the Teacher in matters of knowledge. He usually accompanied the Buddha on preaching tour and memorized all the discourses. He could repeat a discourse verbatim after he had once heard it. As for the Buddha's talks given in his absence, he learnt from others and memorized them. The dhammas which he had thus learnt by heart are said to number eighty four thousand.
Ananda was well-known for his retentive memory and the commentary on Mahavedalla sutta says that he could memorize hundreds of gathas in a short space of time. What with his wide knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha and his chief disciples, it is no wonder that the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada did not present much difficulty to him. Even today, given a thorough knowledge of the Pitaka, a man may understand the cause-and-effect relationship in the doctrine.
The Abstruseness Of The Doctrine
Nevertheless, the doctrine is abstruse in terms of effects, causes, teaching, and empirical knowledge (pativedha).
In the first place it is very hard to understand sankhara, etc., as the results of avijja and other causes for most people mistake the suffering of nama-rupa for happiness. This is avijja and they do not know it as an illusion. They believe that it is their ego-entities that think, they do not know sankhara (effort) as an effect of avijja, but they think it is they themselves who make the effort. So it is hard to see good or bad deeds (kamma) as the effects of ignorance. More difficult to understand is the causal relation between this sankhara of the previous life and the rebirth consciousness of the present existence. Likewise, it is hard to understand that nama-rupa, salayatana, etc., are conditioned by vinnana, etc.
Equally incomprehensible are the causes involved in dependent origination for people believe that they shape their own destiny. Some say that they are created by God or Brahma while some insist that everything happens by chance. Most of them do not see avijja, etc., as the mainspring of their existence.
Again, some teachings of the Buddha on the doctrine begin with avijja and end with death. Some are set forth in reverse order. Some begin with the middle links in the chain and proceed to the beginning or to the end. These various versions of the doctrine add to the difficulty of understanding it.
In order to gain an insight into the doctrine, one has to practise vipassana and realize the facts of causal relationship empirically. This vipassana approach to the study of Paticcasamuppada is by no means easy for the method must be right and one will have to practise it steadily and thoroughly.
In spite of these difficulties, the doctrine seemed clear to Ananda because of his unusual qualifications, So the Buddha's words "Do not say like this, Ananda" may be an implicit compliment to him, but according to the commentary, the Buddha's saying may be an indirect reproach to him. It may mean in effect, "Ananda, you say that Paticcasamuppada is easy to understand. Then why did you become a sotapanna only after hearing my teaching? Why have you not attained any stage higher than the first stage on the path? You should think of your shortcomings. You are my disciple with average, limited intelligence and what you say does not agree with my words. It is a saying that should not have been uttered by a close disciple like you. I have had to develop intelligence for aeons to know this doctrine and so you should not speak lightly of it."
Thus, after chiding Ananda implicity by a few words, the Buddha stressed the profundity of Paticcasamuppada. "Profound, Ananda, is this dependent origination and profound does it appear. It is through not understanding and not penetrating this law that this world of living beings resemble a tangled ball of thread, a bird's thicket of sedge or reed, and that man does not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of suffering, from the round of rebirths."
In other words, this law concerning the conditioning of vinnana, nama-rupa, etc., by avijja, sankhara, etc., is very profound. So people do not know that there are only cause-and-effect relationships and that there is no permanent being. They believe that a living being exists in a permanent form from the time of inception; that there is a permanent entity behind the being that develops and grows up. Some hold that this core or soul of the being has many previous lives. All these illusions are due to ignorance of the reality underlying the dependent origination.
A living being's acts, words and thoughts are clearly due to ignorance of the four noble truths and dependent origination. Undeniably, good acts bear good fruits, bad acts bear bad fruits and everyone fares according to his deeds. So ignorance leads to kammas or sankharas which in turn give rise to rebirth, consciousness, etc. This fact is clear to an intelligent person.
Because of their inability to understand dependent origination, living beings remain mired in the round of rebirths, wandering ceaselessly from one existence to another. By and large, they land in the lower worlds and pass on to the deva-realms only occasionally by virtue of their good kamma. When the good kammic effects run out, they revert to the lower worlds.
It is hard for the denizens of the lower worlds to pass on to the human or deva worlds for attainment of the higher planes of existence is possible only when a dying person has memories or visions of his good deeds and a good act is simply unthinkable among the lower forms of life. Animals kill one another and the law of the jungle prevails in their world, leaving no room for love, pity and other spiritual values. They usually die stricken with pain and fear. So a lower being is very likely to be reborn in the lower worlds.
Because of the ignorance of dependent origination a living being is unable to free himself from the round of rebirth. He is like an ox yoked to the mortar. No matter how long it goes round and round, the animal cannot leave the strictly limited area of its mobility. Likewise, the ignorant person is mired in the life-cycle (samsara) which largely means confinement in the nether worlds and for aeons he remains subject to rebirth.
Understanding of Paticcasamuppada is as vital to spiritual liberation as the understanding of the four noble truths. In fact, the four noble truths are synonymous with the dependent origination. The object of vipassana practice is to gain insight both intellectually and empirically into these teachings, but these teachings are deep and hard to understand. Even in vipassana practice it is not easy to have clear ideas about avijja, sankhara, etc.
The Buddha reflected on Paticcasamuppada before and shortly after his attainment of supreme enlightenment. For seven days the Buddha was absorbed in the peace of liberation (vimuttisukha) and on the seventh day at night, he contemplated Paticcasamuppada in terms of conditioning (paccaya) or cause-and-effect relationship.
Having dealt with the first links in the chain of causal sequence, we will now proceed to phassa that is conditioned by salayatana. Salayatana means the six sense-organs and the six sense-objects, viz., visual form, sound, smell, taste, tactile object and mind-object. The contact between a sense organ and the corresponding sense-object is called phassa. It is an intangible phenomenon of mental life but it shows itself clearly when the object has an unmistakable impact on the mind. For example, we are shocked when we see someone being ill-treated. It makes us tremble when we see a man whose life is hanging by a thread on the top of a tree. Seeing a ghost will send the shivers, down the spine. Hearing or reading an interesting story often leaves some impressions that may remain indelible for a long time. All these show what it means when there is phassa or the impact of a sense-object on the mind of a person.
The impact is occasionally very violent and gives rise to violent emotions and outbursts of passion, anger, etc. According to the commentary on Anguttara Nikaya, in the time of the ancient Sinhalese King Dutthagamani, a young monk happened to see a girl. The girl looked at him too and both of them were so much consumed with a burning desire that they died. Again an elderly monk became insane after looking unmindfully at the queen of King Mahanaga.
In Mudulakkhana jataka, the bodhisatta was a rishi (recluse) who went to the king's palace to have his meal. He went there by air as he had psychic powers. When the rishi appeared suddenly, the queen rose to her feet in a hurry and her garment slipped. The queen's seductive pose instantly aroused the long-dormant sexual desire of the rishi. He could not eat any food. His psychic powers having vanished, he walked back to his abode and there he lay, afflicted with the fires of lust and passion.
On learning what had happened, the king offered the queen to the rishi as he was confident of the holy man's ability to recover his higher self eventually. He secretly instructed the queen to do her best for the welfare of the rishi.
Taking the queen, the rishi left the king's palace. Once outside the gate the queen told him to go back and ask the king for a house. He was offered an old house but there he had to fetch a hatchet and a basket for the disposal of excreta and filth. Again and again, he had to go and ask the king for other things that he needed. Going to and fro and doing all household chores at the bidding of the queen, the rishi was dead tired but he did not come to his senses as he was still dominated by lust and passion.
After having done everything that he was told to do, he sat down near the queen to take a rest. Then she pulled his moustache with a jerk and said, "Are you not aware of your being a samana (ascetic) whose object is to do away with passions and desires? Are you so much out of your senses?" This awakened the rishi to a sense of his blind folly and ignorance. After handing back the queen to the king, he went to the Himalayan forest, practised vipassana and recovered his psychic power. On his death he attained the Brahma world.
The moral is that even a person of spiritual calibre like a bodhisatta could not escape the fires of defilements. The rishi might have casually seen the queen before but the impact was not violent enough to jolt his emotional life. It was the clear, vivid impressions of the queen's physical appearance that harassed and engulfed him with the fires of lust and passion for many days.
In Ummadanti jataka, King Sivi became almost crazy after seeing Ummadanti, the wife of his commander-in-chief. The woman was so famous for her beauty that the king sent his brahmin advisers to see whether she had the qualities of a noble lady. But at the sight of the woman they were so much bewitched by her beauty that they lost self-control and made a mess of the feast given by their host. Disgusted by their disorderly behaviour, Ummadanti had them hustled out of the house. Thereupon, the disgruntled brahmins reported to the king that she was not qualified to be a queen. The king lost interest in her and she became the wife of the supreme commander. She was, however, determined to make things even with the king and so when he went round the city during a festival she showed her beauty and charms to the best of her ability.
The king was half beside himself with infatuation for the woman. Unable to sleep, he raved about her and gave vent to his blind passion in a gatha which says that if he were granted a boon by the king of devas, he would ask for an opportunity to sleep one or two nights with Ummadanti. The impact of a sense-object depends largely on the nature of the impression conveyed by the object. If the impression is vague and dim, it produces only mild feeling and craving, but much vedana, tanha, etc., follow in the wake of clear and vivid impressions.
The impact may also lead to outburst of temper. We show anger at the sight of an offensive object, and we fear a frightful object. Unpleasant words are irritating to us. Pride wells up in us when we think of something that boosts our ego. We hold wrong views when we toy with the idea of soul or with a teaching that makes a farce of kamma and its fruit. Objects of envy make us envious, and objects which we wish to possess exclusively make us miserly. These are instances of phassa that fuel unwholesome kammas.
Wholesome kammas too arise from phassa. Objects of devotion arouse faith, those whom we should forgive or tolerate help to foster forbearance, and contemplation of the Buddha and the Arahats make us mindful, kindly and so forth. So Patisambhidamagga says: "Conditioned by phassa, there arise fifty cetasikas (mental factors)." It attributes feeling, perception and kamma-formations to phassa.
We see because of phassa and this phassa occurs because of the eye, the visual object and the visual consciousness. The Buddha's teaching makes a distinction between the visual consciousness and the visual object. Ordinary people tend to confuse the former with the latter, but the Buddha stated clearly that visual consciousness arises from the eye and the visual object, and that phassa means the conjunction of the eye, the visual object and the visual consciousness.
This is the impact of seeing for which the three ayatanas, viz., the eye, etc., form the three necessary and sufficient conditions. The nature of impact is realized empirically by the yogi who practises mindfulness. The yogi notes, "seeing, seeing" at every moment of seeing and as concentration develops, he comes to realize that seeing is not uncaused, that it is not made or created by a person; that it is a psycho-physical phenomenon, having the eye and the visual object as its cause and the visual consciousness as its effect.
The impact on the sense-organ leads to feelings that may be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent according to the nature of the sense-object. If the object is beautiful, there arises pleasant feeling; if it is ugly, we have unpleasant feeling. If the object is neither ugly nor lovely, the feeling is indifferent. This feeling (upekkha vedana) does not give rise to any comment, whether favourable or unfavourable; indeed it is not even recognized as a feeling but it is accepted by the ego. In fact, these three kinds of feelings have nothing to do with the ego or self but are aspects of the mental process stemming from sense-contact.
To understand Paticcasamuppada means to be free from scepticism and illusion. Since this freedom is the essential attribute of the yogi at the first stage on the holy path, it is important to understand the doctrine. Ignorance of it tends to cause doubts about the Buddha, the Dhamma and so forth. There are eight kinds of doubts.
(1) Doubt about the Buddha. This leads the sceptic to raise questions such as "Was the Buddha really a being who was free from all defilements? Or was he an ordinary man who commanded the blind faith of his followers?"
(2) Doubt about the Teaching. "Are there the Path and Nibbana that really ensure the extinction of craving, hatred and ignorance?"
(3) Doubt about the Sangha. "Are there Ariyas, the Noble ones who are really free from defilements? Sotapannas who, having overcome illusion and doubt, will never be reborn in the lower worlds? Sakadagamis, who do not have much sensual desire and anger? Anagamis, who are wholly free from sensual desire and anger? Or the Arahats who have freed themselves from all defilements?"
(4) Doubt about the practice. "Is the practice of morality or contemplation beneficial and helpful to the higher spiritual progress?"
(5) Doubt about the past. "Did I exist in the past? Why and how did I exist in the past? What kind of person was I in my previous life? Did I originate with the moss or did I come into being spontaneously?"
(6) Doubt about the future. "Will I exist after my death? What kind of person will I become in my next life?"
(7) Doubt about both the past and the future. According to the sub-commentaries, this doubt refers to the present life that is between the past and the future of a man's life-cycle. This interpretation agrees with the Pali text of Sutta pitaka which says: "Now there arises doubt as regards one's self in the present." Such doubt may raise questions such as, "Am I really myself? Does the ego exist or does it not exist? If the ego exists, what kind of being is it? Is it big or small? Why or how does the ego exist? Was it created or did it come into being spontaneously? From where did the ego come and where will it go after the final dissolution of the body?"
These questions show that there are five doubts about the past, five doubts about the future and six doubts about the present. The yogi overcomes all these doubts when he is free from all illusions about the self or ego (kankhavitarana-visuddhi).
(8) The last subject that raises much doubt is the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada that emphasizes the primacy of cause-and-effect relationship in the world of living beings. Is effort really due to ignorance of the true dhamma? Is rebirth really conditioned by kamma? Is it a fact that bad kamma is harmful and good kamma beneficial to a future life? Is there really a cause for every phenomenon? Is everything the outcome of the combination of atoms and electrons by chance? These doubts centre on causal links, e.g. avijja, sankhara, etc., and resultant links, e.g. vinnana, rebirth, etc., in the chain of causal sequence as enunciated in the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada.
These doubts give rise to wrong views in the long run. The false beliefs that conflict with the dependent origination are rooted in these doubts. Speculations on the nature of life that are above one's intellectual level produce doubts in the beginning but eventually turn the sceptic into one who clings to illusions. Such scepticism and false views are due to ignorance of Paticcasamuppada. One who understands the teaching clearly harbours no doubt, let alone illusions.
In the final analysis, a living being is a compound of causes and effects as are non-living things like the earth, the sun, tree, etc. The law of causation governs the universe leaving no room for creation or spontaneous occurrence. Modern science provides overwhelming evidence for the absolute dependence of the non-living material world on the interplay of cause and effect. It tends to bear out the truth of the Buddha's teaching about the conditionality of everything in the world, whether it be life, mind or matter.
The Buddha laid emphasis on the conditioned nature of man's internal life. The teaching leaves out of account the external world of inanimate matter because the material world has no life-cycle and is not subject to rebirth and suffering. What matters most from the Buddhist point of view is the living being. If left to itself, the nama-rupa comprising the living being passes through innumerable lives and, for the most part, the individual suffers on the lower planes of existence, but if we understand the nama-rupa process and act wisely, we can make progress gradually on the way to liberation. Even if we are not yet liberated, we can achieve a better life and fare fairly well in the round of rebirths. A clear understanding of Paticcasamuppada is vital for it ensures complete extinction of defilements.
We have described ignorance as the cause of effort (sankhara) and kammic effort as the cause of rebirth. It is necessary to say something more about the origin of rebirth consciousness. In a sutta of Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha likens the wholesome or unwholesome volitional (cetana) action (kamma) to a thriving field, consciousness (vinnana) to seeds, and craving (tanha) to water for irrigating the field. The planting of trees requires fields and nurseries. Likewise, rebirth consciousness presupposes arable land in the form of kamma, kamma gives rise to the potential for rebirth and although the former states of consciousness disappear, the rebirth potential remains bound up with the psyche. Like a budding plant, it does not materialize as yet but it is bound to become actual under favourable circumstances, just as a man who has committed a crime is a potential prisoner or a worker who has distinguished himself in a state factory is a potential winner of government reward for good service.
Furthermore, rebirth depends on wholesome or unwholesome consciousness no less than does a plant depend on seeds for its germination. The good or bad vinnanas arise and pass away, but they touch off a ceaseless flow of similar states of consciousness.
These states are the outcome of former kammic vinnanas just like the transformation of a snake's skin. The most vital of them is the death-bed consciousness centering on one's kamma or objects associated with it (kammanimitta) or visions of future life (gatinimitta). This encounter of a dying person with signs and visions is called upatthanasamangita which means the foreshadowing of the future life as conditioned by sankhara-kamma. In a sense, it marks the transition from dying consciousness to rebirth consciousness somewhat similar to the development of a plant from a seed to a sprout.
A seed needs water to turn into a plant. Without water or at least moisture from the air, it will remain sterile. In the same way, although kamma forms the basis for a future life, there is no rebirth in the absence of craving (tanha). So in the case of Arahats, although there are conditions for rebirth in terms of vinnana and the kamma that they have done as ordinary persons, the rebirth consciousness cannot arise because of the extinction of craving.
Tanha is inherent in non-Arahats and it is most powerful in common people. It makes the sense-objects pleasant, attractive and desirable. It creates the illusion of pleasure, happiness and hope. It likes what is good and makes happiness and prosperity the main object of life for mankind. Tanha motivates the kammic consciousness which leads to other mental states. On the approach of death, these mental states give rise to signs and visions. The dying person delights in pleasant visions and he becomes lively and cheerful. This shows that his kammic seeds are beginning to sprout. He does not welcome unpleasant visions, but still these visions have something to do with himself and this self-attachment, too, leads to the germination of the kammic seed.
Therefore in the case of common people rebirth is conditioned by three factors, viz., kamma (action), cittavinnana that is linked to kammic consciousness and tanha. Kamma as the fertile soil for rebirth is evident in death-bed visions and signs, the germination of the seed is shown by the dying person's interest in these signs and visions and one's self. So after death there arises rebirth consciousness as conditioned by the mental state at the last moment of the previous life.
Rebirth consciousness brings into play nama-rupa, ayatana, phassa, vedana and their interrelations that concern the whole life. So in a sense, we may regard it as the seed of present existence. It is inextricably bound up with nama-rupa. All nama-rupa, whether in or out of the body, is suffering as they are subject to constant arising and passing away, but ignorance makes us blind to dukkha, creates illusion and attachment and keeps us engaged in the pursuit of sense-objects. This preoccupation leads to the renewal of existence.
With rebirth consciousness as the basis of a new existence, there arise the physical body as its basis and the concomitant mental factors such as phassa, vedana, etc. When rebirth consciousness ceases, there follow other mental states in succession which may touch off good or bad kammas such as greed, anger, contentment, forbearance, etc. These mental states in turn lead to physical actions such as sitting, standing, and so forth.
Hence the Buddha's teaching: "Cittena niyate loko..." a Pali verse which may be freely translated as: "The mind (thought, will, etc.) leads the world. It draws the world wherever it pleases. The whole world follows the mind." Here the world (//loka//) refers to the world of living beings. The mind leads the living beings rightfully or wrongfully. The mind of a good man who develops faith, morality, etc., will lead him to do good deeds. It will make him hear the dhamma and practise vipassana. It will land him on the higher planes of existence or bring him to the goal of Nibbana. On the other hand, the mind of an evil man will lead him to seek sensual objects and do evil deeds. After death, it takes him to the lower worlds and makes him subject to much suffering.
This verse shows that all nama-rupas are dominated by the mind. It accords with the teaching of Paticcasamuppada that because of vinnana there arise psycho-physical phenomena such as phassa, etc. We have already given an account of phassa arising from the eye and now a few words about the phassa of hearing. As in the case of seeing, hearing also involves three factors, viz., the ear, the sound and the ear-consciousness.
Hearing is impossible without the ear-organ and the sound. Scientists say that sound-waves travel at the rate of 1,100 feet per second. This is the natural speed of sound; the radio broadcast can carry it all over the world in a moment. When it comes into contact with the ear it is like the reflection in the mirror and the hearing occurs.
But, it is a mistake to believe that it is the original owner of the ear who hears. The sensitive organs of the ear are in a ceaseless flux, the rupas involved are forever arising and passing away. They are like the ever-changing waters of a flowing stream. It is the contact of sound-waves with the stream of rupas that sparks the ear-consciousness. The consciousness occurs only for an instant and vanishes. This is followed by the citta that continues to focus on the sound, inquire it and decide. Each of these cittas occurs for a moment and vanishes. Then, there flash forth successively with much speed seven impulse-moments, after which there occur two thought-moments that focus on the sound.
Such is then the consciousness-process involved in hearing. Whenever we hear a sound, the ear-vinnana is renewed on the basis of the ear and the sound. So the yogi who practises mindfulness realizes that hearing is conditioned by the ear and the sound, that there is no person or being who hears. In fact the yogi is more aware of the causal relation in hearing than in seeing.
Thus, hearing means the conjunction of the ear, the sound and the ear-consciousness. The impact of the sound is phassa and it is quite clear to the meditating yogi. Some are so sensitive that when they hear a harsh sound, they feel like being attacked by a tremendous onrush of it towards the ear. Some may even be startled by the dropping of a leaf. The impact is evident when out of a variety of sounds that reach our ears we select and attend to the sound that we wish to hear. As for loud, harsh and piercing sounds, we cannot avoid hearing them. We may not look at an unpleasant object, but the sound cannot be so ignored.
We have pleasant or unpleasant feelings according to the pleasant or unpleasant sounds that we hear. Songs and sweet voices are welcome to the ear while harsh sounds and abusive words are odious to us. When we hear ordinary sounds, we have feelings that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. In such cases we may not even be aware of our feeling, the upekkhavedana that is so subtle that it escapes our notice.
True, the Abhidhamma books deny that we have pleasant or unpleasant feeling when we have consciousness in connection with the eye, the ear, the nose or the tongue and describe it only as upekkhavedana. But for the contemplating yogi, it is not advisable to focus on eye-consciousness, etc. He should contemplate the whole process of consciousness (vithi) which involves pleasant feeling along with some thought-moments, e.g. santirana, javana and tadarammana and unpleasant feelings along with javana or impulse-moments.
Moreover, even though the eye-consciousness, etc., may be upekkhavedana at the moment of their arising, they will be accompanied by unpleasant feeling if they happen to be the effects of unwholesome kamma as is evident in our contact with unpleasant sense-objects that cause painful emotions such as fear. Loud noise may make us deaf, evil smells may cause headache while unwholesome food may do harm to our health. Likewise, the upekkhavedana that is conditioned by the four kinds of pleasant sense-objects implies pleasant feelings. We enjoy seeing beautiful objects, hearing pleasant sounds, etc. This shows the pleasant character of upekkhavedana because of its being the product of wholesome kammas. In this connection the sub-commentary on Visuddhimagga says:
"'The upekkhavedana which, being the full-blown product of low kamma, is painful and as such, it is of low character." In other words, the upekkhavedana that is based on unwholesome kamma may be indifferent and neutral but, since it stems from evil kamma, it is low just like the flower that blooms in a heap of excreta. Moreover, although it is not as worse as dukkhavedana, it is unbearable and so it is low. In fact, the kammic effect of a bad deed is never good or free from pain and suffering.
Then, elaborating the function of vedana in the chain of causation, the sub-commentary says: "The upekkhavedana that results from unwholesome kamma should be described as dukkha since it is undesirable. The upekkhavedana that has its origin in wholesome kamma should be described as sukha since it is desirable." It is evident in the pleasant feeling that we have when we hear a pleasant sound. Sweet words are welcome to the ear while harsh words jar on it. The nature of some feelings caused by ordinary sounds is not obvious and such feelings are termed upekkhavedana.
The three kinds of vedana due to hearing is distinctly familiar to the ever-mindful yogi. He knows that the dukkha or sukhavedana arises from contact between the sound and the ear; that there is no soul or atta to be affected by it; that the vedana arises and vanishes instantly, and that everything is impermanent. As his concentration develops, he becomes aware of the ceaseless arising and vanishing of all the three kinds of vedana.
Like hearing, smelling is also conditioned. The smelling consciousness arises from the contact between the nose and the odour. It is impossible to smell without the odour or the sensitive part of the nose (ghanapasada). People without sensitive nose are rare. Once I met a monk who said that he had practically no scent even when he smelled a handkerchief moistened with perfume. Even when the nose is sensitive you cannot have any scent if you plug it or if there is nothing to be scented. The scent is detected only when it is wafted in the air and comes into contact with the sensitive part of the nose. Ordinary people labour under the delusion that it is the person or the living being who smells. In fact it is the contact between the airborne scent and the rupas of the nose in continual flux that causes smelling consciousness. As in the case of seeing and hearing this ghana-vinnana is a process that involves advertence (avajjana), impulsion (javana), investigation and other stages. The crux of the matter is of course the smelling consciousness which ceaselessly arises and vanishes, depending on the nose and the smell.
We are all familiar with the offensive smell of something rotten or the fragrance of a flower. Common people believe that it is they who smell whereas the yogi knows that it is only a phenomenon arising from the conjunction of the nose, the odour and consciousness and he comes to realize the ceaseless influx and impermanence of everything. That is the difference between the yogi and the common people.
Vedana (feeling) may be agreeable or disagreeable according to the nature of impact (phassa). Scents of flowers and perfumes cause pleasant feelings whereas the stench of the decomposing matter is offensive to the nose. The ordinary smells cause neither pleasant nor unpleasant feelings and this is upekkhavedana; a feeling that is so subtle that we do not notice it. The yogi notes the smelling consciousness and becomes aware of the three kinds of feelings, and their arising and dissolution
Consciousness in eating (jivha-vinnana) arises from contact between the tongue and the food. Without the tongue or the flavour of food, there can be no consciousness of taste but, if the tongue is so unhealthy as to lack sensitivity, the food will be tasteless. Common people believe that it is a living being who eats and enjoys the flavour. In fact, the rupas forming the sensitive part of the tongue are forever in a flux and it is from the contact of these rupas and the flavour of food that there arises consciousness which involves the thought-moments that we have mentioned before. The events at this stage are so rapid that they seem to form a single thought moment. This consciousness (jivha-vinnana) changes at every moment, depending on the tongue and the flavour. It is this citta that knows sweetness, sourness, bitterness and so forth.
The conjunction of the tongue, the flavour and consciousness means what in Pali is called phassa. This is familiar to everybody, but common people think that it is they as living beings who experience the flavour. Only the yogi who notes all the psycho-physical events that occur while he is eating knows it as a phenomenon dependent on the tongue, the flavour and consciousness. Later on, he gains a clear insight into its ceaseless flux and impermanence.
Contact with flavour is followed by sensations (vedana) that may be good or bad according to the flavour. Eating good food gives us pleasure, we like it, whereas we complain of bad food or the bitter taste of some medicine. The feeling that we have when we eat some food is indifferent. Although this is upekkhavedana, the opportunity to eat is the outcome of good kamma. Hence, eating such food also has a pleasant aspect and leads to attachment, but as for the yogi with developed samadhi who notes the nama-rupa at every moment, he becomes empirically aware of the arising of all sensations (pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent) and their passing away.
Another source of contact, feeling, etc., is the sensitive part of the body (kayadvara). It is said: "Body consciousness arises from the body or tactile organ and the tactile object. Body-impression (phassa) arises from the conjunction of the body, the tactile object and tactile consciousness, and the tactile impression conditions the (tactile) sensations (vedana)."
This needs some elaboration. Seeing, hearing, smelling and eating - each of these physical events concerns only its respective organ, viz., the eyes, etc. Consciousness in connection with them also arises only in a certain part of the head. These psycho-physical events are restricted in terms of locality and duration. You are conscious of eating only when you are eating, conscious of hearing only when there is something to be heard. As for the body-consciousness, it is present in regard to every part of the body. You have tactile impression somewhere on your body at any time whenever you think of it. So its sphere is extensive and its duration is long. For the beginner in vipassana practice, contemplation of tactile impression is most important and so the yogi should know something about it.
The fine, sensitive matter (rupa) that can receive the tactile impression pervades the whole body. It exists in every healthy part of the body and so it can give rise to tactile consciousness everywhere through contact with an external or internal rupa in the body. These rupas are impermanent and are in a flux from moment to moment. They are like the electric energy that passes into the bulb and gives light.
In this state of ceaseless flux the sensitive body rupa that has not yet passed away collides with an external or internal rupa, thereby giving rise to body-consciousness. As in the case of seeing, etc., this consciousness involves a series of thought-moments, viz., citta that inquires the tactile object, citta that knows, citta that registers etc., but these cittas arise and vanish so rapidly that the tactile consciousness appears to involve only a single thought-moment.
Body-consciousness is always present. It is not apparent when the mind is absorbed in any object other than the body but, if the attention is directed to the body, there is no doubt about the tactile impression somewhere as, for example, the contact between the body and the floor, the body and the clothes, and so forth.
So the yogi who practises mindfulness in regard to physical contact of his body is aware of its conditionality. He knows that it is neither uncaused nor created, that it in fact depends on the conjunction of tactile object and the sensitive rupa in healthy condition. The object of contact is called photthappha in Pali and it is of three kinds, viz., pathavi, tejo and vayo.
Pathavi element has the attribute of hardness and coarseness and this attribute is to be found if one examines or focuses on a part of the body that gives a clear impression of contact. Softness too is to be regarded as pathavi for softness and coarseness do not differ essentially. We call velvet a smooth object in comparison with many things that are coarser than it but it appears to be rough when it hits the soft part of the human eye. So softness and roughness are relative terms that differ only in degree, not in kind. Softness and smoothness represent solidity that is a mark of pathavi element.
According to commentaries, solidity as the essence of pathavi element serves as the abode of other elements that have to depend on it just as all objects have to depend on earth. For example, rice-powder when mixed with water turns into a lump in which it may be termed pathavi because of its solidity or its predominantly solid character. The particles of powder are combined and held together by the water (apo) element. The lump also contains tejo element that is concerned with heat or cold, as well as the wind (vayo) element that supports stiffness and expansion. So this lump of rice powder contains all the four elements, and of these the element of solidity (pathavi) is the basis of other elements. All the other three elements are also inherent in the rice powder. Thus, just as rice powder is the support of water element, etc., so also the earth element is the support of its associated rupas. This is the function of the earth element.
Thus, to the yogi, the earth-element appears to be the basis for its co-elements. This is its paccupatthana and so is of heaviness and lightness. In Dhammasangani, one of the books of Abhidhamma pitaka and its commentary, the pathavi element is described as heavy and light. So when you move a thing and feel that it is heavy or light, that feeling or idea is to be included in the paccupatthana of the pathavi element. The yogi is aware of the characteristics of pathavi element through its roughness, softness or smoothness. He is aware of its function when he realizes that it serves as the basis of other rupas. He is aware of its paccupatthana when he knows that other rupas lie in the pathavi element, that it bears other rupas, that it is heavy or light. Such awareness of pathavi element in terms of characteristics (lakkhana), function (rasa) and paccupatthana means realization of truth and discriminative insight into the nature of nama-rupa.
As for the common people, contact with pathavi element is usually understood in terms of hands, legs, clothes, man and so forth. This way of thinking is wrong, but the yogi knows the truth through the practice of mindfulness.
Tejo element means heat. It is evident when we change the position of the body, because we feel heated and pressed in some part of the body. Coldness too is a kind of weak tejo element. A thing is hot or cold relative to other things. The shade of a tree may be cool in comparison with the heat of the sun, but it is hot relative to the interior of a cave or house. The water in the pot is cool relative to that in the open air but hot when compared to iced water. Hot, warm and cool are relative terms that mean essentially tejo dhatu (element).
Tejo or heat is essential to maturation and development. The function of heat is to make organisms mature and ripe. Old age and decay of trees, buildings, the earth, rocks, etc., are due to heat of the sun and it is the heat of the physical body that gives rise to grey hair, decaying teeth, wrinkled skin and other signs of senility. The greater the heat, the more rapid is the process of maturation. Tejo element makes the rupas soft and pliant. So as the yogi notes, "hot", "hot", he realizes its function, viz., to soften and loosen.
When heat or cold is manifest in the body, the mindful yogi is aware of tejo element in terms of its characteristics. He knows its function (rasa) when he knows that it makes things soft and pliant. Thus, the yogi has discriminative insight into the nature of nama-rupa. He is free from the illusion that common people have when they think of tejo element in terms of substance and entity such as hand, man, woman and so forth.
Vayo element has the characteristics of stiffness and rigidity. If you sit erect and stretch your back and introspect yourself, you will find rigidity. Again, stretch your arm and fix your mind inside the hand. You will find stiffness there. So if you sit and note mentally, "sitting", you become aware of vayo element in terms of its characteristics. You know it not as ego, as atman, etc., but as stiffness and this insight into the real nature of vayo is important.
But initially the yogi's insight will not be necessarily confined to the reality of stiffness. Ideas of substance, self, and so forth, continue to obtrude upon his mind. For in the beginning, the average person's concentration is weak and he tends to let his mind wander freely. His mind is usually dominated by sensual desire and other hindrances (nivarana) that conflict with tranquillity and insight-knowledge and impede their progress. As a result, the mind is not confined to the reality of elements. Some teachers would have us believe that all conventional notions go by the board at the outset, but this is impossible. It is indeed hard for any beginner to be free from hindrances and pure in mind and belief. Exceptions may be made in the case of those who heard the Dhamma right from the Buddha and attained the holy path, but such kind of attainment is unthinkable for other people.
Vipassana practice does not help to develop insight in the beginning. While contemplating nama-rupa, the yogi develops concentration strongly, thereby leaving almost no room for stray thoughts and keeps himself constantly mindful. It is only at this stage of mental purity that there arises the insight into the real nature of nama-rupa. Even so, conventional notions linger before the attainment of insight into the dissolution of all forms of existence (bhanganana). So it is said in Visuddhimagga that at the earlier stage of insight (udayabbayanana), the yogi tends to see "the lights, flowers on the pagoda platform or fishes and turtles in the sea." But later on, both the nama-rupa objects of contemplation and the contemplating mind are found to pass away one after another. Conventional ideas of shape, figure, etc., do not arise any longer. As Visuddhimagga says, "attention is fixed on cessation, disappearance and dissolution."
Therefore, initially the yogi knows only the object that he contemplates in the right way. Rigidity (vayo) is evident at the moment of lifting the foot, etc. To make us aware of this, the Buddha says, "When he (the yogi) walks, he knows that he is walking." Here, the yogi is instructed to be aware only of the fact that he is walking; he is not told to reflect on the vayo or rigidity. This means that names are not relevant, that what matters most is to see things as they really are, that the yogi can note them in terms of popular usage. Again, vayo element is manifest in the movement of any part of the body. Awareness of rigidity in such movement or in the abdominal rising and falling means awareness of the real marks of vayo element. Looseness too is a mark of vayo for we speak comparatively when we refer to tightness or looseness of anything.
It is also the function of vayo element to move, incline, tilt or displace. The yogi notes the motion of his hands when he bends them and becomes aware of the true nature of vayo element. He knows it also when he focuses on walking, etc. At such moments, he does not think of the object as man, woman, body and so forth. He is aware only of the gradual movement which means the real nature of vayo element. He is also aware of something pushing or leading another from one place to the other. Thus, he knows vayo by means of the phenomenon that appears on his mental horizon. This is awareness by paccupatthana which the scriptures describe as "Abhinihara paccupatthana" - the phenomena which appears as leading.
All the three primary elements - pathavi, tejo and vayo are to be known only by experience. You cannot know them by hearing, etc. You can hear the sound of something, but you cannot say whether it is coarse or soft, hot or cold, rigid, stable or moving. Neither will its smell, taste or visual form tell you anything about its primary quality. Yet, it is a popular belief that we can identify the primary elements by seeing.
No doubt a rock or a block of iron apparently gives us the impression of hardness, but this is not due to seeing. It is merely an inductive generalization based on past experience. What we know by seeing is only the visual form which sometimes gives a false impression as is evident when we tread on what we believe to be solid ground and stumble into a quagmire, or when we get burnt by handling a heated iron bar unknowingly.
Nor can we know vayo element by seeing for it is an element that we can know only empirically. We see that an object is moving because we see it here and there, and the idea of its motion is only an inference from our observation of its displacements. Yet, when one of the two trains at rest starts moving, the other train appears to be in motion and to a traveller in a fast moving train, the trees appear to be running in the opposite direction. These optical illusions bear out the fact that we cannot rely on our eyes for the truth about motion.
Once, an elderly layman who was interested in meditation told us about his dialogue with a monk-teacher. Taking a pillow and shaking it, he asked the monk, "Now, Sir, what dhammas do you see passing away?"
"Well, I see the vayo element passing away."
"Sir, you are wrong. What you see with your eyes is only the visual form. If you are mindful at the moment of seeing, you know only what happens to the visual form. You cannot know empirically anything about vayo element at the moment of seeing. Vipassana is a practice that gives priority to what is to be known actually by introspection. It is only afterwards that other facts are to be noted and realized by reasoning. It is natural to contemplate each sense-object only through its respective sense-organ. Vayo is an object that is known only through body-contact. We can know the motion of vayo if we introspect while walking, bending, etc. Now without being in contact with vayo, you say that you know its dissolution. What you say is unnatural and wrong."
There is much truth in my informant's criticism. Instead of relying on Satipatthana and other suttas for information, some teachers give purely speculative instructions on the basis of Abhidhamma books that deal with natural phenomena exclusively. There are yogis who practise according to these instructions. The practice may benefit them spiritually but they cannot rely on it for the attainment of real insight and stages on the holy path. The only exceptions are a few gifted yogis who gain insights through speculative introspection.
The best thing to do is to follow the Buddha's instruction in Satipatthana sutta and contemplate the psycho-physical phenomena that arise from the six senses. This is, as the Buddha says, //eka yano maggo//: "the only way". In the case of body-sense corresponding to body-consciousness we should note and recognize the body-impression when we are aware of any body-contact internally or externally. Otherwise the impression tends to dominate us in conjunction with avijja and other defilements. We tend to harbour illusions of permanence, happiness and ego-belief. Thus, through contact, we become attached to certain parts of the body, we consider them permanent and make distinctions according to our preferences. If we note every contact and realize their sensory, impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial nature, there is no attachment and we are on the right path of vipassana that will certainly lead to enlightenment and Nibbana.
Body-sensitivity (kayapasada) is a quality that pervades the whole body when it is in a healthy condition. There are many things such as clothes, air and others that can give the body tactile impressions. The body, too, possesses many things, e.g. hair, skin, that lend themselves to contact. Thus, there are always both external and internal objects of contact for the body-sensitivity. Reflection will point clearly to the possibility of contact in every part of the body and there is no place, however small, that does not admit of contact, and this contact gives rise to body-consciousness.
From the conjunction of the body-sensitivity, object of contact and body-consciousness, there arises impression (phassa) that is very obvious. Pleasant impression of contact gives rise to pleasant feeling while unpleasant impression results in painful feeling. The deeper the impression the more intense is the feeling.
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