Taṇhā Paccayā Upādāna – Critical Step in Paṭicca Samuppāda

“Taṇhā paccayā upādāna” is a critical step in Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS). That is where we can take CONTROL of the PS process. 

December 7, 2019; revised October 14, 2020; October 9, 2022

We Do Have Control Over Our Destiny

1.  We started this series by discussing the Chachakka Sutta. That sutta describes the initial events that trigger the PS process. As we saw, the “salāyatana paccayā phassa” step is where a new PS cycle gets started. See “Buddhist Worldview – Introduction.”

  • A mind does not arbitrarily start generating saṅkhāra (corrupt or immoral thoughts) due to avijjā.  That is why I say that a PS cycle does not begin with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” See the previous post, “Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech).”
  • We focus on the types of abhisaṅkhāra that can bring “bad kamma vipāka” in the future. Therefore, we are discussing the “Akusala-Mūla PS.”
Paṭicca Samuppāda Initiated by “Salāyatana Paccayā Phassa

2. First, there must be a reason for a mind to generate abhisaṅkhāra (evil or immoral thoughts.) The Buddha pointed out that there are three primary reasons: lōbha (greed), dōsa (hate or anger), and mōha (not knowing about kamma/vipāka and rebirth at the base level and not realizing the anicca, dukkha, anatta nature at a deeper level.)

  • One MUST be tempted by greed or anger to do such bad kamma. That happens ONLY if a STRONG sensory input comes through one of the six senses. For example, one generates angry thoughts if one sees an enemy. One may think about stealing only if one sees a valuable item and generates greed.
  • That is why “salāyatana paccayā phassa” is the step that INITIATES kamma generation via the PS cycle. Salayatana means the six internal āyatana or the six sense faculties (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.)

3. The “salāyatana paccayā phassa” combines two steps. For seeing, “Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ and tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso.” Here, “saṅgati phasso” is “saṅ gati phasso” or “making contact with corresponding gati to accumulate “saṅ.”

  • Then the mind quickly goes through the “(saṅ)phassa paccayā vēdanā” (rhymes as “samphassa“) and “vēdanā paccayā taṇhā” steps to end up with “taṇhā” or “attachment to that ārammana” in a split-second! We CAN NOT stop those steps. They are automatic. They can take place as long as we have “gati to attach to that type of ārammana.”
  • We discussed that at length in several posts in discussing the Chachakka Sutta. See, “Is There a “Self”?”
  • Removing taṇhā (“gati to attach”) involves controlling the next step in PS: “taṇhā paccayā upādāna.” That is what we will focus on now.
Difference Between Mōha and Avijjā

4. Once “attached” to a ārammana, one is CAPABLE of doing akusala kamma (immoral deeds.)  Some people are unaware that immoral acts (bad kamma) can lead to unpleasant vipāka in the future. Some bad kamma can lead to suffering-filled rebirths in apāyā. That is the base level of mōha, where one is morally blind. Someone with mōha could do such immoral deeds without any remorse. See, “Lōbha, Dōsa, Mōha versus Rāga, Patigha, Avijjā.”

  • Mōha is reduced to the avijjā level when one gets rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi. Even at the lower level of avijjā, one is still CAPABLE of doing such “apāyagāmi actions” if the sensory input is strong enough. One could live a “moral life” most of the time but take a large bribe or engage in sexual misconduct if the ārammana is strong enough. For example, one may not have taken a bribe for most of their life but be tempted “if the price is high enough.”
  • Even after one attains the Sōtapanna stage, one may still do some akusala kamma, but one’s mind WILL NOT allow doing any “apāyagāmi deeds.” 
  • We now focus on understanding how an average “moral person” accumulates bad kamma, starting at the “salāyatana paccayā phassa” step in Akusala-Mūla PS. A “moral person” has removed the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi but has not yet comprehended Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta.)
A “Moral Person” May Be Tempted to Do Apāyagāmi Deeds

5. Such a “moral person” has reduced mōha to the avijjā level but still is capable of doing “apāyagāmi” deeds. Even though they mainly act morally, they have “hidden defilements” (anusaya.) Anusaya can come to the surface (as āsava) if triggered by a tempting sensory input. That is what we discussed in #3.

  • Anusaya means “sleeping defilements.” They can be “awakened” by a robust sensory input (ārammana) and brought up to the mind as “āsava.” See, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gati).”
  • Anusaya is like gunpowder in a matchstick. Striking that match on a rough surface will produce light. In the same way, when a defiled mind (with avijjā) comes into contact (phassa, or more accurately samphassa) with a strong ārammana (say an attractive person), that could make greed or desire (āsava) come to the mind.
  • Having such an anusaya is the same as having “bad gati.” As one reduces anusaya (following the Eightfold Path), one’s undesirable gati will also decrease. As we will see, the key is to gradually decrease upādāna by being mindful.
Taṇhā Is There As Long as One Has Bad Gati and Āsava

6. The critical point in the Chachakka Sutta is the following. One MAY get attached (taṇhā) to a given ārammana as long as one has “defiled gati” or the seven types of anusaya: ditthānusaya (wrong views), vicikiccānusaya (tendency to do the unwise), kāmarāga anusaya (temptation for sense pleasures), paṭigha anusaya (temptation for hatred), bhvarāga anusaya (craving for existence), māna anusaya (sense of “me”), and avijjā anusaya (ignorance); see, for example, “Dutiya Anusaya Sutta (AN 7.12)“.

  • They all have greed, anger, and ignorance (of the Four Noble Truths) as their origins. See “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
  • Within a split-second of that ārammana coming to the mind, the mind gets attached (taṇhā.) Then, if one acts unwisely (ayonisō manasikāra), one will go through the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step in PS and will start accumūlating NEW kamma via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”
  • Therefore, the key to Nibbāna is to stop the tendency to move automatically from taṇhā to upādāna. We will see that this is equivalent to removing gati, anusaya (and thereby āsava or cravings.)
Connection to the Eightfold Path, Satipaṭṭhāna, Ānāpānasati

7. The key to getting to Nibbāna is to understand what happens in the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step. That is the first step after the last step, “vēdanā paccayā taṇhā” discussed in the Cha Chakka Sutta.

  • As we saw above, as long as one has “defiled gati” or āsava, one WILL have taṇhā. The way to reduce and eventually remove taṇhā is to reduce and eliminate one’s immoral gati
  • We cannot remove taṇhā by sheer willpower. But we can control the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step by stopping vaci saṅkhāra as they start arising. That is because we start “talking to ourselves” only when we reach the upādāna” stage. See “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna.”
  • Thus, as soon as we become aware that the mind has turned to a “defiled state,” we need to change from that “wrong or immoral path” (micchā diṭṭhi, micchā saṅkappa, micchā vācā, micchā kammaṃta, micchā ajiva, micchā vāyāma, micchā sati, and micchā samādhi) to the “moral path” and specifically to the Noble Path (sammā diṭṭhi, sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, sammā kammaṃta, sammā ajiva, sammā vāyāma, sammā sati, and sammā samādhi.)

8. Being mindful of such “bad ārammana” is Satipaṭṭhāna = “sati” + “paṭṭhāna” (to establish) or “being mindful.” 

  • Forcefully getting rid any of micchā diṭṭhi, micchā saṅkappa, micchā vācā, micchā kammaṃta, micchā ajiva, micchā vāyāma, micchā sati, and micchā samādhi is the “āpāna” (dispell) part of Ānāpānasati.
  • Forcefully strengthening relevant factors of sammā diṭṭhi, sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, sammā kammaṃta, sammā ajiva, sammā vāyāma, sammā sati, and sammā samādhi is the “āna” (take in) part of Ānāpānasati.
  • Now we can see that Ānāpānasati is to focus the mind (sati) on “āna” and “āpāna” or “ānāpāna.
Vaci Sankhāra Responsible for Upādāna

9. When one gets “attached” or “gets stuck” in a ārammana due to taṇhā, the FIRST THING that happens is that DEFILED thoughts arise in one’s mind AUTOMATICALLY. Those are manō (or citta) saṅkhāra.

  • For example, if one sees a beautiful person, one may generate lustful thoughts automatically. If one sees one’s arch-enemy, one may create angry thoughts, etc. Such defiled arise due to “hidden defilements” (anusaya) or “bad gati.”
  • However, within moments, we become aware of such thoughts. Many of us continue to generate similar defiled thoughts CONSCIOUSLY at that stage. As soon as we become aware of such thoughts, they are now vaci saṅkhāra.

10. We start analyzing that ārammana in various ways (vitakka/vicāra.) We may also start speaking about it. Both types are vaci saṅkhāra. We have discussed that in detail in several posts. See “Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech),” “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna” and “Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra.”

  • With vitakka/vicāra (vaci saṅkhāra), our interest in that ārammana will get stronger. Then, we may take physical actions involving kāya saṅkhāra.
  • By the way, vaci saṅkhāra (talking to oneself without speaking) is the same as saṅkappa. Vaci saṅkhāra also leads to speech (vācā), as we discussed before.
  • Of course, kāya saṅkhāra leads to bodily actions.

11. The following is the time sequence:

  • Manō (citta) saṅkhāra arise first (and automatically) and do not involve conscious thinking. They DO NOT have strong kammic consequences.
  • We start accumulating new kamma by generating vaci and kāya saṅkhāraVaci saṅkhāra lead to micchā saṅkappa and micchā vācā. Kāya saṅkhāra leads to micchā kammaṃta
Avijjā Is the Ignorance of Bad Consequences of Taṇhā/Upādāna

12. What we discussed above in #7 through #11 are all associated with the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step in PS. When the mind automatically “attaches to a ārammana” (taṇhā), it starts generating saṅkhāra via “avijjā paccayā (abhi)saṅkhāra.” That is how new PS processes start accumulating new kamma.

  • If one does not realize the harmful consequences of getting attached via greed, anger, or ignorance, one is acting with avijjā AT THAT TIME.
  • It is critical to note that any “given person” does not always act with avijjā. Whether one will start thinking and acting with avijjā depends on the nature of the ārammana (whether it matches his/her gati) and how strong the ārammana is.
  • If one does get “attached” or “get stuck” with an ārammana, then one will start “pulling it closer.” One wants to think and speak about that ārammana and take action.
  • Upādāna means “pulling it closer (in one’s mind)” (“upa” + “ādāna,” where “upa” means “close” and “ādāna” means “pull”).

13. That is how the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step starts a new PS cycle with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”

  • One will start generating vaci saṅkhāra without speaking first. Those are micchā saṅkappa. For example, upon seeing an enemy (Y), person X may generate evil thoughts about Y.
  • If emotions become stronger, X may speak out. In the above example, X may say something harsh to Y. Those are micchā vācā.
  • If Y responds in kind, and the situation escalates, X may hit that person. That is a micchā kammaṃta. That action was initiated by kāya saṅkhāra.
  • All such vaci and kāya saṅkhāra arise via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”
Paṭicca Samuppāda May Not Proceed Linearly

14. Now we can see how complicated the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step is. It went back to the “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” step to initiate a new PS cycle.

  • Now, those vaci saṅkhārā and kāya saṅkhārā lead to kamma viññāṇa, via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa” (and the rest of the PS cycle ending in “the whole mass of suffering”.) That whole process may repeatedly run as long as one remains engaged with that ārammana.
  • Such a kamma viññāṇa is focused on hurting that person in the example of #13. That viññāṇa, in turn, leads to more vaci and kāya saṅkhāra via “viññāṇa paccayā saṅkhāra.” Note that this is the reverse of “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.”
  • Therefore, PS steps do not necessarily go just one way. They can go backward. They can jump to different places in the cycle. As we saw, it jumped from the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step to the “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” step.
  • However, one can figure out such complexities when understanding the basic concepts.
Connection to Ānāpānasati and Satipaṭṭhāna

15. That is also why it is CRITICAL to stop the vaci saṅkhāra that arise immediately following the manō saṅkhāra. In that initial stage, speech has not “broken out yet.” We just become aware that we are generating lustful/hateful thoughts.

  • We MUST stop vaci sankhārā as they start arising. Then, they will not lead to “bad speech” (via more vaci saṅkhāra) or “bad actions” (via kāya saṅkhāra.) This is discussed in the “Vitak­ka­saṇ­ṭhāna Sutta (MN 20).”
  • That is the key to doing the correct Ānāpānasati bhāvanā and Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā! See “6. Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā (Introduction).”
  • We will discuss that and more steps in PS in the upcoming posts.
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