Niddesa (Brief Description) of Paṭicca Samuppāda

March 7, 2022; revised February 1, 2023

The niddesa version (Brief Description) of Paṭicca Samuppāda provides more clarity than the uddesa (utterance) version. We discuss the niddesa version in this post.

Three “Elephants in the Room”

1. During the emergence of Mahāyāna (with Sanskrit literature) around 2000 years ago, had distorted meanings of keywords like anicca and anatta. Misinterpretation of Ānāpānasati as “breath meditation” by Buddhaghosa got incorporated into Theravāda Buddhism about 1500 years ago.

  • Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) came out of yet another dark period of 300-400 years thanks to the efforts of some British civil servants and European scholars starting in the 1800s. However, they (unintentionally) made those earlier distortions permanent using the newly discovered printing press. Furthermore, they started the practice of translating the Pāli Tipiṭaka word-for-word to English.
  • The adoption of wrong interpretations of keywords like anicca and anatta due to the influence of Mahāyāna would be ONE issue to tackle. Misinterpretation of Ānāpānasati as “breath meditation” is the SECOND. I have discussed those two issues in the past but will address them again in this series of posts.
  • Before that, I need to address the more urgent THIRD issue that resulted from translating the Tipiṭaka word-by-word. Most of these contradictions can be seen even by a child without any knowledge of Pāli. That is what I will call the FIRST “Elephant in the Room.” It is impossible to translate the Tipiṭaka word-for-word and convey the embedded deep concepts.
The First “Elephant in the Room”

2. The following verse (in the uddesa form) is from the “Dutiyabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.2). The Pāli version of the corresponding verses are in Ref. 1:

“In the second part of the night, he reflected on dependent origination in reverse order:

When this doesn’t exist, that is not; due to the cessation of this, that ceases. That is: When ignorance ceases, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. When consciousness ceases, name and form cease. When name and form cease, the six sense fields cease. When the six sense fields cease, contact ceases. When contact ceases, feeling ceases. When feeling ceases, craving ceases. When craving ceases, grasping ceases. When grasping ceases, continued existence ceases. When continued existence ceases, rebirth ceases. When rebirth ceases, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress cease. That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.”

Insane Discussions in Discussion Forums

3. There is a recent discussion at Dhamma Wheel: “Do Arhats experience contact with their sixfold sense media? What about vedanā?” It is a clear example of the confusion caused by such translations. The participants are understandably confused by translations like in the sutta in #2 above.

  • The translation in #2 plainly says that when ignorance (avijjā) is not there, choices (saṅkhāra), consciousness (viññāṇa), and the rest of the entities cease to exist.
  • We all agree that the Buddha and Arahants do not have even a trace of avijjā (ignorance about the Four Noble Truths) left.
  • Then, according to the translations in #2 above, they would not generate any more saṅkhāra and would not have consciousness (viññāṇa). That means they would essentially not be living! That is what confused those people in that discussion forum in the above link.
  • On the contrary, the Buddha lived for 45 years after Enlightenment. He experienced all six sensory faculties, used them optimally, and had the best mind. He could recall any event in the past as far as he desired. But he also felt all types of vedanā, including bodily dukkha vedanā (he had back problems and once was injured by Devadatta)

4. So, where is the problem? Is that sutta wrong?

  • The sutta is perfectly fine. Such problems arise when translators start translating Pāli suttas word-for-word without paying attention (or not understanding) the basic concepts in Buddha Dhamma.
  • The critical point is that many suttas are in the highly-condensed uddesa version. There are THREE levels of explanations, as discussed in “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
  • The niddēsa form provides a slightly expanded version. Then the paṭiniddēsa form provides details with examples. If someone tries to translate the uddesa version to English word-for-word, that leads to severe problems, as seen in #2 and #3 above.
  • Many keywords have different usages depending on the context. For example, viññāṇa cannot be translated as “consciousness” for all cases because there are many types of viññāṇa (for instance, vipāka viññāṇa and kamma viññāṇa are two VERY different types.) One needs to know which kind of viññāṇa a given sutta discusses.
How Can One Learn Paṭicca Samuppāda by Reading These Translations?

5. There are “24 results for avijjānirodhā,” meaning there are at least 24 suttas with the INCORRECT verse of Ref. 1. Many of the suttas in this list are from the Saṁyutta Nikāya 12, discussing Paṭicca Samuppāda. I don’t see how anyone can learn Paṭicca Samuppāda by reading those English translations!

  • In all those instances, the standard verse in Paṭiloma (Backward) Paṭicca Samuppāda, “avijjā nirodhā saṅkhāranirodho, saṅkhāra nirodhā viññāṇa nirodho,” is translated to English as “When ignorance ceases, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases…”
  • Did the Buddha lose consciousness upon attaining Buddhahood? Does an Arahant lose consciousness when reaching Arahanthood? On the contrary, we know that the Buddha lived for 45 years after the Enlightenment, and many Arahants lived for long times after Arahanthood and taught Dhamma to others.
  • The problem is worse because it does not matter who the translator is. All English translations I have seen have the exact direct, word-for-word translation.
The problem of Word-for-Word Translations Is Much Deeper

6. Of course, the problem is much more severe. Even the Anuloma (Forward) Paṭicca Samuppāda is incomprehensible with such word-by-word translations.

  • The sutta in Ref. 2 (and all the suttas of the list in #5) states: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇaṁ..” which they translate as “Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness..”
  • There are MANY types of saṅkhāra. Some arise due to avijja, but Arahants who have no avijjā generate other types of saṅkhāra.
What Are “Choices” and “Volitional Formations”?

7. Another problem is translating saṅkhāra as “choices” and “volitional formations.” No one has explained what those words mean. Here is an instance where that question came up, and a “non-answer” was given: “Explaining sankhāra= “choices.” Here is another discussion that ended without a resolution: “The way I analyzed Saṅkhāra.”

  • Mano saṅkhāra (defined as vedanā and saññā) arises with any sensory event. Thus any vipāka viññāṇa would have mano saṅkhāra.
  • However, saṅkhāra in avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” are abhisaṅkhāra. We accumulate kamma based on our thoughts, speech, and actions based on abhisaṅkhāra. That is the niddesa explanation. Thus, kamma viññāṇa arise due to abhisaṅkhāra. 
  • In many posts, I have explained the above in detail in the paṭiniddesa version, but we will discuss them again here in upcoming posts.
  • Only kamma viññāṇa cease to arise for an Arahant. They do experience vipāka viññāṇa.

8. Stated in another way, anyone (even without a basic understanding of Buddha Dhamma) can do word-for-word translations. It is just a matter of keeping a dictionary and translating word by word. But that leads to utter confusion, as we saw above.

  • Many standard dictionaries are those compiled by early European scholars like Rhys Davids. They had no understanding of Buddha’s profound teachings. They learned Pāli (and Sanskrit) from the locals and then translated the Tipiṭaka word-for-word!
  • Think about that. That is equivalent to saying that anyone who understands French and English can translate a textbook on medicine from French to English! Would that make sense?
Niddesa Version of Explanation

9. The steps in the Paṭiloma Paṭicca Samuppāda (in the sutta of #2 above) are in the “utterance (uddesa)” form. That is to recite the 11 steps. Those steps need explanations in either the niddēsa (brief descriptions) or the paṭiniddēsa (detailed explanations.)

  • We can see some clarity in the niddesa version below, which is the next level of explanation. This version uses more specific types of saṅkhāra, viññāṇa, etc.

10. In the niddēsa version, the steps would be: “.. when avijjā ceases abhisaṅkhāra cease, when abhisaṅkhāra cease kamma viññāṇa cease; when kamma viññāṇa cease nāmarūpa cease; when nāmarūpa cease saḷāyatana cease; when saḷāyatana cease samphassa cease; when samphassa cease samphassa-jā-vedanā cease; when samphassa-jā-vedanā cease taṇhā cease; when taṇhā cease upādāna cease; when upādāna cease bhava cease; when bhava cease jāti cease; when jāti cease jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā cease. That is the end of the whole mass of suffering.

  • We are beginning to see some clarity on the question discussed at the Dhamma Wheel forum in #3 above.
  • All those terms in blue WILL cease to exist for an Arahant. But the Arahant WILL experience vipāka viññāṇa (ordinary consciousness via the six senses) and normal feelings (vedana) that arise with such consciousness, for example.
  • Of course, jāti refers to future births in the Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda. All births (including the one that Arahant was born to) will undergo old age, decay, suffering, and eventual death. Thus even an Arahant will be subjected to them until the death of the physical body. But no more births and no more suffering after that!

11. I have not translated key Pāli words to English in #10 above. In many cases, there are no equivalent English words!

  • It is only kamma viññāṇa that would stop arising for a Buddha or an Arahant. Ordinary consciousness (vipāka viññāṇa) would be there until their death (Parinibbāna.) 
  • Of course, the reader needs to know what is meant by kamma viññāṇa and vipāka viññāṇa. See “Abhisaṅkhāra Lead to Kamma Viññāṇa.”
Why Don’t Others See the “Elephant in the Room”?

12. How have such apparent contradictions gone unnoticed for so long? We may never fully understand that. But I think it is due to several factors.

  • Many people who turn to Buddhism may accept certain concepts without looking for inconsistencies. Some may think Buddhism has some “mystical features” that they are not supposed to question.
  • Another is people’s high respect towards bhikkhus/scholars who have written “books” on Buddhism. While honoring bhikkhus is undoubtedly exemplary, the Buddha taught us not to believe even his own words without asking questions to clarify any doubtful concept.
  • But the main reason most English-speaking people do not “see the elephant” is the following. Most don’t understand that words like saṅkhāra and viññāṇa cannot be just translated word-by-word as “formations” and “consciousness.” They do not even have a basic idea of Paṭicca Samuppāda. I will be spending most time clarifying these basic concepts in this series. But we all need first to agree that there is a problem!
  • Recent comments in discussion forums have led me to conclude the above. No matter how obvious the error I point out, they say, “Oh, I just believe so and so.” They will not even acknowledge that there is a problem. I say something like, “Person X  says 2 plus 3 is 6-  Is that not a contradiction?” They ignore that and start commenting about an entirely different issue.
Concept of Paṭicca Samuppāda in Simple Terms

13. It will be quite beneficial to understand the basic framework of Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • In the next post, I will explain that using simple examples. As the Buddha instructed, one needs to grasp the concepts. Memorization of words/verses is of no benefit.

1. Relevant verse from “Dutiyabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.2)“:

“Atha kho bhagavā tassa sattāhassa accayena tamhā samādhimhā vuṭṭhahitvā rattiyā majjhimaṁ yāmaṁ paṭiccasamuppādaṁ paṭilomaṁ sādhukaṁ manasākāsi:

Iti imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati, yadidaṁ—avijjā nirodhā saṅkhāranirodho, saṅkhāra nirodhā viññāṇa nirodho, viññāṇa nirodhā nāmarūpa nirodho, nāmarūpa nirodhā saḷāyatana nirodho, saḷāyatana nirodhā phassa nirodho, phassa nirodhā vedanā nirodho, vedanā nirodhā taṇhā nirodho, taṇhā nirodhā upādāna nirodho, upādāna nirodhā bhava nirodho, bhava nirodhā jāti nirodho, jāti nirodhā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hotī”ti.

2. Relevant verse from “Paṭhamabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.1)“: 

Atha kho bhagavā tassa sattāhassa accayena tamhā samādhimhā vuṭṭhahitvā rattiyā paṭhamaṁ yāmaṁ paṭiccasamuppādaṁ anulomaṁ sādhukaṁ manasākāsi:

Iti imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti, imassuppādā idaṁ uppajjati, yadidaṁ—avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpaṁ, nāmarūpa paccayā saḷāyatanaṁ, saḷāyatana paccayā phasso, phassa paccayā vedanā, vedanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā paccayā upādānaṁ, upādāna paccayā bhavo, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hotī”ti.”

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