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A Swift Pair of Messengers
I have coined the term ‘dependent liberation’ for this doctrinal framework, elsewhere known as ‘transcendental dependent origination’. Many versions occur in the suttas, but with a common pattern, displaying the conditional unfolding of liberation as an evolution of ever more refined qualities. All of the variations follow the sequence virtue, samadhi, wisdom. Often these broad categories are subdivided, revealing their inner structure as comprised of further conditional sequences. Such passages as the above, which treat the samadhi section in most detail, occur throughout the suttas. An important version explicating the virtue section is given below, starting with ‘mindfulness and clear comprehension’. Variations of this version occur often, but only in the Anguttara Nikaya, reflecting the pragmatic orientation of that collection. Wisdom is highlighted in the seven purifications.
Some understanding of the principles of causality is helpful to fully appreciate the significance of this teaching. Causes can be analysed as two kinds: necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition is one whose absence makes it impossible for the result to occur. For example, a necessary condition for being a woman is being a human being; if one is not a human being, it is impossible to be a woman. A sufficient condition is one whose presence makes it inevitable that the result will occur. For example, a sufficient condition for being a human being is being a woman; if one is a woman, it definitely follows that one is a human being. The two need not, as in the examples above, be exclusive. For example, a necessary and sufficient condition for being a human being is being a featherless biped; if one is not a featherless biped, one cannot be a human being and if one is a featherless biped, it definitely follows that one is a human being. Or a condition may be neither necessary nor sufficient. For example, being a boy is neither necessary nor sufficient condition for becoming an adult human being, but merely conducive.
This distinction is critical. If in the thought-world of the suttas ‘x is a condition for y’ means ‘x is a sufficient condition for y’, this leaves open the question whether other things may also be sufficient. Virtue, samadhi, and understanding lead to Nibbana; but there may be another, or a myriad of other paths up the same mountain. If however, ‘x is a condition for y’ means ‘x is a necessary condition for y’, we must regard all ‘x’ -- each of the factors subsumed within such a causal relationship -- as being indispensable. One mountain, one path. The general formula for causality in dependent origination, known as ‘specific conditionality’, is this:
‘When this exists, that is; due to the arising of this, that arises.
‘When this does not exist, that is not; due to the cessation of this, that ceases.
The first pair of principles appears to imply sufficient conditionality. However, a close contextual examination reveals that this is not so.
‘That noble disciple, content with the virtues beloved of the noble ones, does not try further for seclusion by day and retreat by night. Abiding thus negligent, gladness does not arise. When there is no gladness, there is no rapture. When there is no rapture, there is no tranquillity. When there is no tranquillity, he abides in suffering. The mind of one who suffers does not enter samadhi. Dhammas do not manifest in a mind without samadhi. Because dhammas do not manifest he is called an abider in negligence.
If such sequences were based on sufficient conditionality, there would be no point in making an effort. Further, the phrase ‘feeling is the condition for craving’ would render the holy life ineffectual. There are in fact many conditions left un-stated in these contexts. The suttas make no claim to completeness rather than usefulness in their analysis of causality. In the context of practice, sufficiency applies only in that a noble disciple must eventually attain liberation even if, as above, they are ‘mightily negligent’. The second pair of clauses are explicitly identified as necessity:
‘If there were not the birth of those various kinds of beings into the various states [of existence]; when all kinds of birth do not exist, due to the cessation of birth, would aging and death be found?’
Below we shall see the kinship between dependent origination and dependent liberation, like an image and its reflection, expressed in various ways in the suttas. All the main similes illustrating dependent liberation likewise imply necessity -- the rain filling the mountain streams, the leaves sustaining the tree, or each stage of a journey bringing one to the next. This means that these passages embody an invariable law of nature: unless these conditions are fulfilled, it is impossible that the result can occur.
Our first passage above, however, shows a more active process than mere necessity, a vigorous positive inducement. The main emphasis is not that the absence of the conditions immediately destroys the resultant phenomena, but that without the supporting conditions the results are not nourished to fulfilment and completion. Although this does not apply to all causal relationships found in the suttas, it is an important aspect of the contexts dealing with practice -- they have a direction, a forward impetus. Following the way of the world, the sequence of dependent origination starting with ignorance, one is swept along the stream of birth, aging, and death. But the sequence starting with faith and virtue will sweep one along to Nibbana.
Some writers have tried to reduce Buddhist conditionality to the ‘mutuality condition’, that is, when two factors act as a mutual support for each other, as when two sheaves of straw lean against one another. But this type of condition, though important, is restricted to a few contexts. In many contexts, this relation is expressly denied. It would be difficult to establish from the suttas that the normal expressions for conditional relations can mean, in and of themselves, co nascent (or 'mutuality') condition. The few occasions where such a relation is discussed emphasize how abstruse and unusual this was regarded. And even here the standard conditional clause does not alone bear the burden of expressing two-way conditionality. Co nascence is explained instead with two separate mirror image statements of one-way conditionality.
This lack of full mutuality is explicitly affirmed in the relationship between samadhi and wisdom. In the Potthapada Sutta, the Buddha first describes ‘perception’ in terms of the successive refinement of perception through the jhanas leading to insight knowledge. Perception deals with how things seem; knowledge with how they are.
‘But Bhante, does perception arise first and knowledge afterwards, or does knowledge arise first and perception afterwards?’
‘Perception, Potthapada, arises first, knowledge afterwards; due to the arising of perception there is the arising of knowledge. One understands thus: “It seems that my knowledge arose due to that condition.” I
This is like a mother's relationship with her child. A child as they mature may give their mother as much support and help as they are able, but can never repay the gift of life. Similarly, wisdom can act as a supporting condition to deepen clarity of awareness, but can only see its way to do so dependent on clarity already present.
Three main modes of the wisdom which precedes samadhi can be discerned. Firstly, conceptual understanding from hearing and reflecting on the teachings. Second, investigation into the causes of samadhi. Third, vipassana proper -- the clear-eyed discernment of conditioned reality. Now obviously these three aspects are closely linked, and the mention of any one of them is a particular context should normally understood by way of emphasis, not exclusion. A thread unifying all these modes is that wisdom is described in some sort of relation to samadhi, not apart from it. This preliminary understanding serves various preparatory functions, but only with the ripening of the other path factors does it mature into the wisdom that really counts – ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’. The prevailing general paradigm -- that clarity of awareness is necessary for understanding -- for all its vagueness of application elsewhere, assumes in this highest sense a rigorous invariability.
‘It is, monks, just like a house with a peaked roof. As long as the roof peak has not been set in place, the rafters are not steady, not stable. But when the roof peak has been set in place, then the rafters are steady and stable. So too, as long as noble knowledge has not arisen in the noble disciple, the [other] four spiritual faculties are not steady, not stable. But when noble knowledge has arisen in the noble disciple, the [other] four spiritual faculties are steady and stable.’
The rafters of faith, energy, mindfulness, and samadhi must be set up before the roof peak of noble understanding can be set in place. They are the necessary antecedent conditions for liberating wisdom. Understanding in its turn fortifies and firmly fixes the four already existing faculties. This kind of ‘feedback loop’ may have quite a general application -- any subsequent quality can strengthen previously developed qualities. However, this should not distract from the prevailing paradigm of sequential conditions.
‘That one could fulfil the aggregate of understanding without having fulfilled the aggregate of samadhi: that is not possible.’
The Buddha did not teach causality with such philosophical pleasantries as ‘Everything is interrelated.’ He taught specific conditionality -- this is the cause of that. The same patterns occur over and over. Craving is the cause of suffering; but just as the lotus grows in the mud, the experience of suffering is the essential motivation for the spiritual practice which will end suffering.
In the Upanisa Sutta, the connection between the normal dependent origination and the liberating sequence is made explicit. The sequence starts out as usual with ignorance leading up to birth and suffering; but suffering gives rise not to despair, but to faith. This is the difference made by paying attention to the root. In the spiritual faculties, virtue is included in faith. This emotional conviction then triggers the same sequence of joy, rapture, tranquillity, bliss, samadhi, insight, and release that was described above beginning with virtue. The sequence of twelve factors, beginning with suffering, is the positive counterpart of the twelve factors of the cessation mode of the normal dependent origination. Intriguingly, dependent origination in the mode of origination is called ‘the wrong way of practice’, just as the wrong eightfold path, while the mode of cessation is called ‘the right way of practice’, just as the right eightfold path. This collapses the distinction between theory and practice, between the middle teaching and the middle way.
The Maha Nidana Sutta also describes the ending of suffering in positive terms, by focussing on two kinds of arahants. The first is ‘released by understanding’. Here this is described as understanding the origin, ending, gratification, danger, and escape in the case of the seven stations of consciousness and two bases. These are all planes into which rebirth can occur depending on the level of development of consciousness, with particular emphasis on meditative attainments. Here the identity is clear between consciousness as a link in dependent origination, as the mind states developed in meditation, and as the stream of consciousness flowing on to rebirth in the various worlds. The second kind of arahant is the ‘both sides released’, who is distinguished by fluency in all the meditative attainments. Thus the transparent mind of samadhi has a key role throughout in unravelling the tangle of samsara.
‘This dependent origination is profound, and appears profound. Not awakening to and not penetrating this principle, this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, matted like a bird’s nest, entangled like a mass of coarse grass, and does not evolve beyond lower realms, bad destinies, the abyss, and samsara.’
A tangled ball of string will never untie itself, and so too the mind entangled in worldly affairs will never loosen the knot of suffering. The key difference between enlightened and unenlightened beings is their sincerity of devotion to spiritual practice.
‘For the fool [as for the sage], hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, this [conscious] body has been acquired. Thus there is the duality of this body and external mentality and physical form. Dependent on this duality, there is contact. There are just six sense bases, contacted through which -- or through one of them -- the fool [and the sage] experience pleasure and pain. What then is the difference, the distinction, between the fool and the sage?’...
‘For the fool, this ignorance has not been abandoned and this craving has not been evaporated. For what reason? Because the fool has not lived the holy life for the complete evaporation of suffering. Therefore with the breaking up of the body, the fool passes on to a [new] body. He is not released from birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, bodily pain, mental suffering, and despair; he is not released from suffering, I say.
‘But for the sage, this ignorance has been abandoned and this craving has been evaporated. For what reason? Because the sage has lived the holy life for the complete evaporation of suffering. Therefore with the breaking up of the body, the sage does not pass on to a [new] body. He is released from birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, bodily pain, mental suffering, and despair; he is released from suffering, I say.
‘This is the distinction, the difference, between the fool and the sage, that is, living the holy life.’
‘The holy life’ is usually identified as the noble eightfold path. Its application in this context is illustrated in the Mahatahasankhaya Sutta. This is one of the most important discourses on dependent origination, set up specifically to refute the view that it is this ‘very same consciousness’ which fares on through the round of rebirths. It is one of the contexts which suggests that the word ‘consciousness’ was established pre-Buddhist parlance for the principle underlying rebirth. As he often did, the Buddha accepted the conventional terminology, but redefined it according to his own system, insisting that consciousness arises according to conditions. We should note that although consciousness is the normal term used in the context of rebirth, this does not imply that it flows on alone, without the support of mentality and physical form. Rather, consciousness is mentioned as it is of key importance here; it is the ‘seed’ that performs the decisive function of transferring the information necessary to establish the new organism. The Buddha adopted not only terminology but also a brahmanical idea that reincarnation of the embryo occurs concurrent with three things: the coming together of the mother and father; the mother is fertile; and the being to be reborn is present. Having taken rebirth, one is nourished by the mother, plays childish games, and, as the sense faculties mature, engages in favoring and opposing feelings, giving rise to craving and future rebirth. The round of cessation is shown with the full gradual training, from the appearance of the Tathagata and the going forth, to the abandoning of the hindrances.
‘Having thus abandoned these five hindrances, taints of the mind which rob understanding of its strength ... he enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana. Seeing a visible form with the eye, he does not lust for pleasant seeming visible forms. He abides with mindfulness of the body established, with an immeasurable heart, and he understands in accordance with reality the release of heart, release by understanding where these evil unbeneficial phenomena cease without remainder. Having thus abandoned favoring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant, or painful, or neither pleasant nor painful, he does not relish, welcome, or remain attached to it.... The relishing of feelings ceases in him. Due to the cessation of his relishing, grasping ceases. Due to the cessation of grasping, [ongoing] existence ceases. Due to the cessation of existence, birth ceases. Due to the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, bodily pain, mental suffering, and despair cease. Thus there is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. [And so on for the ear, etc.]’
Something of the profound relationship between the evolving sequence of dhammas beginning with faith or virtue and the core of the Dhamma is beginning to emerge, how this process is both necessary for and powerfully inductive to liberation. The term ‘vital condition’ has been chosen to bring out these two aspects.
‘Monks, when there is no mindfulness and clear comprehension, in one without mindfulness and clear comprehension, the vital condition for conscience and fear of wrong-doing is destroyed.
‘When there is no conscience and fear of wrongdoing... the vital condition for sense restraint is destroyed.
‘When there is no sense restraint... the vital condition for virtue is destroyed.
‘When there is no virtue... the vital condition for right samadhi is destroyed.
‘When there is no right samadhi, in one without right samadhi, the vital condition for knowledge and vision in accordance with reality is destroyed.
‘When there is no knowledge and vision in accordance with reality... the vital condition for repulsion and fading away is destroyed.
‘When there is no repulsion and fading away... the vital condition for knowledge and vision of release is destroyed.
‘Just as, monks, when a tree is without leaves and twigs, the branches, bark, sapwood, and heartwood do not come to fulfilment....’
The commentaries treat ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’ as immature vipassana. But this cannot be so, since vipassana may be developed prior to jhana. ‘Knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’ regularly refers not to vipassana but to the stream-enterer’s ‘vision of the Dhamma’. Vipassana as such seems to be one of the un-stated but implied factors in such sequences. Perhaps the advanced vipassana which, empowered by samadhi, issues directly in penetration can be included as a preliminary stage of ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’. In any case, this passage is a strong support for the necessity of jhana for stream-entry. It may not, however, in and of itself confirm the necessity of jhana for those on the way to stream-entry, since they may not unambiguously possess ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’.
More on these path-attainers below.
This passage further clarifies two points in the interpretation of other descriptions of dependent liberation or the path in general. Firstly, samadhi as a crucial support for liberation means right samadhi, which is the four jhanas. When we came across other descriptions of the path that refer to or imply samadhi in less explicit terms, we can therefore infer that jhana is meant. The sequence gladness, rapture, tranquillity, bliss, and samadhi in fact normally serves to introduce the four jhanas; sometimes too the divine abidings; or else it develops the spiritual faculties, powers, and enlightenment factors. Secondly, this right samadhi is an essential component of the path, not an optional extra. In contexts such as the gradual training, which include extras such as psychic powers, we must therefore understand that samadhi, no less than virtue or wisdom, cannot be skipped over.
The Seven Purifications
The seven purifications shed further light on ‘dependent liberation’. They occur only once in the suttas, and once again with two further purifications added, and are not analysed in detail. Although of slight importance in the suttas, they were utilized as the framework of the Visuddhimagga, thus assuming great importance for the Theravadin exegetical tradition. Here virtue and samadhi are treated summarily, the focus being on a more detailed breakdown of the stages of insight. This trend continues further in the Patisambhidamagga, and further still in the Visuddhimagga. Perhaps for this reason the seven purifications have played a key role in the attempts to discover a vehicle of ‘pure vipassana’ in the suttas. I will endeavour to piece together what the suttas say about these stages.
‘Purification of virtue is for the sake of purification of mind. Purification of mind is for the sake of purification of view. Purification of view is for the sake of purification of overcoming uncertainty. Purification of overcoming uncertainty is for the sake of purification of knowledge and vision of what is and what is not the path. Purification of knowledge and vision of what is and what is not the path is for the sake of purification of knowledge and vision of the way. Purification of knowledge and vision of the way is for the sake of purification of knowledge and vision. Purification of knowledge and vision is for the sake of final Nibbana without grasping.
The simile is given of a journey by means of relay carriages. The first carriage takes one as far as the second carriage, but no further. The second carriage takes one as far as the third, but no further. Each carriage has a specific role to play, which cannot be omitted.
A related teaching by Venerable Ananda provides explanations of some factors. The stages of purification are here shown, not as self-sufficient, but as supported by a phalanx of ancillary factors. Though wisdom is at work throughout, only after ‘purification of mind’, i.e. jhana, does it mature into ‘knowledge and vision in accordance with reality’.
‘And what, Vyagghapajjas, is the factor of striving in the purification of virtue? Here, a monk is virtuous; he trains in the rules of training he has undertaken. This is called purification of virtue. [He thinks:] “I will fulfil such a form of purification when it is unfulfilled, or when it is fulfilled, I will assist it everywhere with understanding.” The enthusiasm therein, the effort, the industry, the endeavour, the not holding back, the mindfulness, and the clear comprehension; this is called the factor of striving in the purification of virtue.
‘And what, Vyagghapaijas, is the factor of striving in the purification of mind? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana. This is called purification of mind... The enthusiasm [etc] therein; this is called the factor of striving in the purification of mind.
‘And what, Vyagghapajjas, is the factor of striving in the purification of view? Here a monk understands in accordance with reality: “This is suffering”... "This is the origin of suffering”... “This is the cessation of suffering”... “This is the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering.” This is called purification of view... The enthusiasm [etc] therein; this is called the factor of striving in the purification of view.
‘And what, Vyagghapajjas, is the factor of striving in the purification of release? That noble disciple, endowed with the factor of striving in the purification of virtue ... of mind ... of view, makes lust fade from his mind regarding phenomena provoking lust, and makes his mind release from phenomena which should be released from. Having done so, he contacts right release. This is called purification of release. [He thinks:] “I will fulfil such a form of purification when it is unfulfilled, or when it is fulfilled, I will assist it everywhere with understanding.” The enthusiasm therein, the effort, the industry, the endeavour, the not holding back, the mindfulness, and the clear comprehension; this is called the factor of striving in the purification of release.’
In this sequence, purification of view is the vision of the four noble truths, which as we noted above, is normally associated with the stream-enterer . Purification of view in this group of four occupies the same place as, in the seven purifications, purification of view, of overcoming uncertainty, and of knowledge and vision of what is and what is not the path. These correspond exactly with the three fetters abandoned by the stream-enterer -- identity view, doubt, and misapprehension of virtue and vows. A possible reading is that these three purifications constitute an expanded explanation of purification of view, detailing the sequence in which these fetters are abandoned during the course of vipassana culminating in the vision of the four noble truths. Having clearly seen what the path is, the stream-enterer is in a position to perfect their purification of knowledge and vision of the way. This occupies the equivalent position in this sequence as do ‘repulsion’ and ‘fading away’ elsewhere. We noted earlier that these pertain exclusively to the noble stages; and in the above passage too, the text changes from ‘monk’ to ‘noble disciple’ for the final purification, the fading away of lust after seeing the four noble truths. The development of insight culminates with the purification of knowledge and vision, here surely the knowledge and vision of release pertaining to arahantship.' The commentarial notion that these seven stages are completed by the stream-enterer, and that the higher path attainers go around again, each time repeating the sequence of vipassana knowledges, finds no support in the suttas and contradicts the basic texts and similes, which speak of a one-way, step by step progression. The purpose of developing purification of knowledge and vision is not for the further purification of insight through the higher paths, but for final Nibbana without grasping. Now it is true that in real life things are not so straightforward, and Buddhist causality hinges on these ramified complexities. But this does not empower us to simply postulate interpretive paradigms without a textual basis. Such sequences express the primary conditional sequence of practice, to which other elements -- supplementary factors, feedback loops, etc. -- should be considered as subordinate. This interpretation is somewhat complicated by the nine purifications mentioned in the Dasuttara Sutta, which add purification of understanding and purification of release to the seven. These two extras, occurring only in this late and formalistic sutta, may perhaps be read as an expanded explanation of purification of knowledge and vision. The exact interpretation of the stages of liberating insight, though, does not affect the necessity for jhana as the purification of mind that precedes all these stages.
Purification of view can be described from different angles.
A certain monk approached another monk and asked: 'What does “well-purified vision” refer to? That monk replied: ‘When a monk understands in accordance with reality the origin and ending of the six bases of contact...’ Dissatisfied with that explanation, he approached another monk, who said: ‘When a monk understands... the five aggregates...’ and another monk said: ‘When a monk understands... the four great elements...’ and yet another said: ‘When a monk understands in accordance with reality: “Whatever is subject to arising, all that is subject to cessation,” that is what it “well-purified vision" refers to.’
Dissatisfied with all these answers, that monk approached the Blessed One, who replied: ‘Each of those true men explained how vision is well purified according to their dispositions, in just the same way that their own vision had been well purified.’
The Buddha then went on to present the simile of the city given above, showing that all of these modes of seeing reality are delivered to the mind by samatha and vipassana.
Purification by overcoming uncertainty refers to doubts such as: ‘Was I in the past? How was I? Will I be in the future?' Seeing the monk Revata the Doubter reviewing his purification by overcoming uncertainty, the Buddha remarked:
‘Whatever uncertainties about here or beyond
The Buddha's first inspired utterance after his enlightenment describes how he overcame doubt through discernment of conditions.
dhammas fully manifest
Knowledge and vision of what is and what is not the path seems to occur in only one other passage.
‘This was spoken, Bhante, by the Blessed One in the “Girl's Questions”:
attainment of the goal, the peace of the heart
‘Bhante, how should the detailed meaning of this brief statement by the Blessed One be regarded?’
‘Sister, some contemplatives and brahmans, excelling in the attainment of the earth kasina, came up with that as the goal. But the extent of excellence in the attainment of the earth kasina was directly known by the Blessed One. Directly knowing thus, he saw the beginning, the danger, the escape, and knowledge and vision of what is and what is not the path. For him, because of seeing these things, the attainment of the goal, the peace of the heart, is known.’ [And so on for the other nine kasinas, concluding with the consciousness-kasina.]
So this knowledge involves developing insight into samadhi based on direct experience. The seven purifications thus involve samadhi, not simply as the precondition for insight at purification of mind, but at each step of the development of insight, specifically including the stages of insight pertaining to stream-entry.
In this chapter we have delved into the nature of the conditional relations governing the path of practice. The path embodies the principles of the Dhamma in practical form. The practice and theory of Dhamma can only be provisionally separated; for the sincere practitioner their every moment is a reflection of Dhamma. The serenity they find in their daily life and in their meditation is the experiential proof of the drying up of the flood of defilements. The next chapter shows how these principles find expression in a life of contemplative simplicity.
‘When the sky pours down rain in big drops on the mountaintop, the water flows down and fills the mountain cracks and crevices. When the mountain cracks and crevices are full, they fill the little pools. When the little pools are full, they fill the great pools. When the great pools are full, they fill the little rivers. When the little rivers are full, they fill the great rivers. When the great rivers are full, they fill the mighty ocean.’
 S12.37 etc.
 Sn 230
 Similar similes are applied to dependent origination at S12.23, S12.55, S12.69.
 S14.3, 5, 8, 10
 e.g. D15.21-22, S12.67, M43.22
 D9.20; see below
 S48.8 cp. S55.3, etc.
 S12.3, S45.23
 see M93.18
 A8.81 cp. A5.24, A5.168, A6.50, A7.61, A10.3-5, A11.3-5
 D2.256, etc. quoted pg 91
 Vin Mv8.15 quoted pg 94
 contra Vsm 182
 contra Vsm 21.135
 contra Vsm 22.1
 Vsm 22.22f
 S35.245 condensed
 Ud 5.7 cp. Sn 474. Views are called feelings in D1.3.32ff
 Ud 1.1.3
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last updated: 06-09-2004