Scholastic dependent origination

The applied formula of dependent origination: a scholastic account

The applied formula of dependent origination that has been examined so far is often accompanied, especially in scholastic literature, with an alternative account of how the formula is to be understood. The alternative account is based on the notion that a being who is alive now has been alive in a different form at an earlier time and will reborn again after the body it currently inhabits can no longer sustain life. When the twelve links of the applied formula of dependent origination are viewed in this way, then ignorance and mental factors refer to the ignorance in a past life that gave rise to one specific mental factor, namely, the desire to be reborn. The third link, awareness, is said to refer specifically to the first moment of awareness in the present life. The body-mentality complex, the six sense faculties, the sense faculties’ contact with their sensible objects, evaluation, desire, appropriation and the will to survive are all taking place in the current lifetime. The will to survive in this life gives rise to birth in another form after the present body can no longer sustain life, and the birth in the next life will lead to death in the next life. The point is that all the processes of the current life were also present in a previous life and will be present again in a future life. The series of lives leading to the present life has no beginning—as far back as one goes, one can find antecedent conditions, and one can never find a first cause out of which everything else arose (about which more will be said in a later module). The series of lives may, however come to an end. Indeed, the whole point of Buddhist practice is to bring the series of rebirths to an end, and that can be done by not allowing the condition necessary for a further birth to occur. That necessary condition, of course, is the will to survive.

How many kinds of causes are there?

Approximately one thousand years after the time of the Buddha,1 the great systematizer Vasubandhu wrote an encyclopedic work in which he summarized many of the reflections that generations of Buddhists had contributed to the discussion of causal theory. By his time, causal theory had grown more complex than any of the formulas found in the dialogues attributed to the Buddha himself. There is not enough space here to go into the complexity in detail, but a few general observations can be made. First, by Vasubandhu’s time distinctions had been made among different sorts of condition. Some conditions were said to be antecedent to the effects that arose out of them, while others were simultaneous. A seed is an antecedent condition to a sprout; by the time a process of vegetative growth has reached the sprout phase, the seed phase is no longer present. An antecedent condition is a thing or event that must have been present in the past and must have ceased to be present for a a given thing or event to occur at a later time. Not all conditions are antecedent. Other conditions, such as soil and water and air are all conditions that support the presence of the sprout at the same time that the sprout phase is occurring, and if any of them were absent, then either the nature of the sprout that they condition would be different or the sprout would not arise at all.

Among the kinds of causal condition that Vasubandhu discusses is one category so broad that it seems to include every sense of cause that is not found in more particular categories. The so-called kāraṇa-hetu2 is described as anything that does not actually prevent the arising of a given effect. Taken literally, this description would be that everything that is now or ever has been or ever will be present is a cause of everything else that has arisen or will arise in the future. The dog lying at my feet is the cause (and the effect) of the bicycle in front of my house, since neither of them impedes the other’s existence; and both the dog and the bicycle are the cause of background gamma radiation that reached the earth on the day Julius Caesar was assassinated. Although Buddhists rarely gave examples quite as wild as that of a modern bicycle being both cause and effect of a historical bombardment of gamma rays, they did insist that it is impossible to enumerate all the conditions that are factors in any given thing arising as it does. What makes anything what it is is nothing less than the entire universe, and if anything anywhere were different than it is, then everything else in time and space would be altered in some way.

One important corollary of this notion of causality is whenever we speak of something as being the cause of something else, we are speaking metonymically; that is, we are focussing attention on just one of countless conditions and letting it stand as a representative of the entire set of uncountable conditions. For example, when a fire marshal says that a particular forest fire was caused by a lightning strike, he is speaking economically and saving himself the time and trouble of saying that the trees that constituted the forest, the soil in which the trees were rooted, the sunlight and water that made it possible for the trees to grow, the prolonged drought that made the trees dry enough to catch fire, the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that contributed to the drought, the heavy use of fossil fuels by human beings that produced the greenhouse gases and so on ad infinitum. It is also noteworthy that among the innumerable conditions that give rise to a given event, there are absences. A drought is another name for the absence of water. If an automobile crashes into a tree because its brakes fail, the failure of the brakes is an absence. If a house that might have been saved from burning down when a kitchen fire grew out of control had a fire extinguisher been present in the kitchen, the absence of the fire extinguisher can be seen as one of the many causes of the house’s burning down.

A second corollary of the Buddhist view that everything arises because of a network of innumerable interconnected causal conditions is that nothing can ever be the single cause of all things. More will be said about this in a later module.

What causes disappearance?

An issue that comes up for discussion in Vasubandhu and other Buddhist authors is whether there is any need to discuss the causes of the cessation or destruction of a thing or the termination of an event. The conclusion that Vasubandhu reaches is that since every conditioned thing naturally and spontaneously ceases to exist as soon as the conditions that brought it into being disappear or change configuration, there is no need to posit a cause of anything’s cessation beyond the very fact that it is conditioned. Everything that is conditioned is perishable; a thing or event is bound from the moment it arises to come to an end. This sounds as though it amounts to saying, for example, that the cause of a person’s death is just the very fact that she was born; one need inquire no further. No autopsy is necessary, since every death certificate will read, “Cause of death: parent’s sexuality.” As will become clearer in awn upcoming module, however, the general Buddhist position is that a person does not really exist as anything over and above the many perceptible characteristics (dharmas) that are collectively deemed to be a single object. What Vasubandhu and other Buddhists are really saying is that the arising of all these perceptible characteristics is conditioned, and that they will all perish, and the cause of their perishing will be nothing more than the very fact that they came into being as a result of conditions. To state the same idea in another way, the causes of a characteristic’s birth are also the causes of its death.

One of the arguments used to support the conclusion that a characteristic needs no further cause to make it disappear than the conditions that made it appear is that everything that arises has the innate potential to perish. But if something has an innate potential, then it must realize its potential in every moment of its existence. Fire, for example, has the innate potential to produce heat, and there is never a moment in the career of a fire in which it fails to do that. Now if something has the potential to perish, it must perish in every moment of its existence. If that is the case, then it follows that nothing that is perishable can exist for more than one moment; that is, it must go out of existence at exactly the same time it comes into existence. What causes it to begin existing is therefore sufficient to cause it to cease existing at the same time. This departure from common sense naturally entails numerous other departures from how one is accustomed to look at the world. If nothing endures for more than a moment, then nothing lasts long enough to undergo changes of quality or location. Motion cannot really exist, and the only sort of change of which anything is capable is the radical change from existing to not existing.

  1. The dates of both the Buddha and Vasubandhu have been the subject of considerable discussion by modern historians. For our purposes, their actual dates do not matter very much. Suffice it to say that Vasubandhu believed he was writing a full one thousand years after the time of the Buddha and drew attention to the Buddha’s prediction that one thousand years after his death, no one would have an accurate understanding of his teachings. ↩︎
  2. The term is difficult to translate, since both hetu and kāraṇa could be translated as “cause.” Taken literally, the term means something like a cause (hetu) that is instrumental in making something, but surely that is true of all causes and conditions. ↩︎

4 thoughts on “Scholastic dependent origination

  1. Sonny Day

    “One of the arguments used to support the conclusion that a characteristic needs no further cause to make it disappear than the conditions that made it appear is that everything that arises has the innate potential to perish”

    Is there an argument or a system of thinking when viewing those things that do not arise nor perish, such as dharmas?

  2. Richard P. Hayes

    In the abhidharma of Vasubandhu, which was followed by many Buddhists after his time, there is discussion of dharmas that impede the arising of other dharmas. A good deal of Buddhist practice, in fact, consists on cultivating positive dharmas to impede, delay or weaken the effect of less positive dharmas. Cultivating friendship, for example, impedes the arising of enmity and anger.

    In the Theravāda abhidhamma text called “Points of Controversy” (Katthāvatthu), there is an interesting discussion about bodhi, which is often translated as enlightenment or awakening. The position taken there is that one should not see bodhi as something that arises, because anything that arises must perish. So instead of seeing bodhi as a dharma that arises, it is said to be simply a name given to the non-arising of delusion. Similar things are said about nirvana. Rather than being something that arises, and is therefore liable to perish, it is described as a name given to the permanent absence of greed, hatred and delusion. How can an absence be permanent? When the causal factors that would be needed to make the absent thing arise are absent.

    I am not sure whether this addresses the question you were asking. If not, feel free to ask again, perhaps rewording your question somewhat.

  3. Jaka

    I had really hard time understanding dependent origination until I came across Bhante Punnaji’s explanation. He’s using different translations, more in tune with contemporary psychological vocabulary. It really makes sense to me. I’m wondering what’s your opinion on this since I have great respect for your writings on budhism.

    It goes something like this …

    Paṭicca-samuppāda – antecedental concurrence
    Avijjā – complete unconsciousness.
    Saṅkhāra – mental construction. This is the first activity of the mind. Sensation is perceived as colour when light is reflected to sense organ, the eye.
    Viññāṇa – perception. Is identification of an object.
    Nāma-rūpa – name and image. Object is named, categorized.
    Saḷāyatana – six sense realms. All the senses are activated in further shaping of an object.
    Phassa – sense experience. Object is formed, cognized. With object the whole world comes into being.
    Vedanā – feeling. Object is perceived  as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
    Taṇhā – emotional reaction to feeling. In a form of desire, aversion or ignore.
    Upādāna – personalisation. Object is perceived as something outside, reaction as something inside, as MY.
    Bhava – existence. That is how I comes into being. Imaginary SELF is born in imaginary world. If it’s existing it needs to occupy space and time. So the body becomes space for the self.
    Jāti – birth. Is past of a body.
    Jarā-maraṇa – aging and death. Is future of a body/self. And all the suffering of life comes into being.

    1. Richard P. Hayes

      Bhante Punnaji is admirably clear. I have great respect for him. Thanks for sharing his explanations as you remember them.


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