Buddha Dhamma – Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana

July 2, 2021; revised #8 on March 24, 2022

Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana – Interrelated

1. Buddha Dhamma is about eliminating suffering associated with the rebirth process. Before following the Noble Eightfold Path, one must understand the First Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth says that EACH AND EVERY birth (jāti) in the rebirth process only perpetuates saṁsāric suffering, i.e., unimaginable suffering associated with the rebirth process.

  • That critical step of “seeing AND fully comprehending” the First Noble Truth REQUIRES the following steps:
  1. “worldly things” are of unsatisfactory nature, meaning that we will NEVER be able to keep any worldly thing to our satisfaction IN THE LONG RUN.
  2. All our efforts to pursue such ‘lasting happiness” only lead to more suffering.
  3. Therefore, all such efforts are in vain; they are unfruitful.

Those three characteristics of our world of 31 realms are summarized as Tilakkhana: anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

  • Paṭicca Samuppāda describes how we create our future births among the 31 realms. Moral actions (puñña abhisaṅkhāra) lead to “good births,” and immoral actions (apuñña abhisaṅkhāra) lead to “bad births” in the apāyās. See, “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna)
  • Just living a “moral life” is not enough to stop suffering. It is necessary to realize that we MUST see the dangers in remaining in the rebirth process. That means we must see that our tendency to value and crave “mind-pleasing things” in this world keeps us trapped in the rebirth process.
Need to”See” Nibbāna Before Following the Path to Attain Nibbāna

2. When one comprehends the dangers of remaining in the rebirth process (i.e., the First Noble Truth) by grasping the concepts of Tilakkhana and Paṭicca Samuppāda, one would also “see” how to stop the rebirth process and be completely free of suffering, i.e., one would comprehend the other three Noble Truths as well. It is ONLY THEN one can follow the Noble Eightfold Path and attain Nibbāna, i.e., Arahanthood.

  • Therefore, there are two major steps. The first is to “see” this new worldview and become a Sotapanna/ Sotapanna Anugāmi. With this step, one will be free of future births in the apāyās (where suffering is worst). This step is “dassanena pahātabbā” or “remove defilements with clear vision.”
  • Once one understands the broad picture, one will realize how to Follow the Noble Eightfold Path (which is the Fourth Noble Truth.) That path is covered in three more steps Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, and Arahant. That removes the remaining defilements via Bhāvanā (loosely translated as meditation.) This second step is “bhāvanāya pahātabbā.”
  • Those two categories are discussed in the “Sabbāsava Sutta (MN 2).” We will discuss that sutta and a few more key suttas in the upcoming posts.
The First Noble Truth

3. The foundation of Buddha Dhamma was laid out in the first discourse of the Buddha, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)“ The First Noble Truth stated there succinctly:

“Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariya saccam:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhāṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhāṃsaṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.”

Translated: Bhikkhus, What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

Birth is suffering, getting old is suffering, getting sick is suffering, dying is suffering. Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering, and so is separation from those things one likes. If one does not get what one likes, that is suffering – in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving (upādāna) for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna (pañcakkhandha).

  • As we have discussed, pañcakkhandha means “the world of 31 realms.” Thus the origin of saṁsāric suffering is craving for (and attachment to) this world.
  • This is the “deep Dhamma” that the Buddha said is difficult for most people to understand!
Connection to Tilakkhana

4. Why did the Buddha say that we should not crave any rupa or any mental aggregate (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa)? This is what we will be discussing over several posts initially.

  • One of the remaining original Commentaries, Paṭisambhidāmagga, explains this. It starts with the following succinct verse in Section “3.1. Mahāpaññākathā:” 

Rūpaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁ aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṁ katvā rūpanirodhe nibbāne khippaṁ javatīti—javanapaññā. Vedanā …pe… saññā … saṅkhārā … viññāṇaṁ … cakkhu …pe… jarāmaraṇaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁ aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṁ katvā jarāmaraṇanirodhe nibbāne khippaṁ javatīti—javanapaññā.”

Translation: “Any rupa that ever existed will exist in the future, or that is being experienced now has the following 3 characteristics: Any such rupa is of anicca nature because one’s hopes for enjoying rupa will only lead to one’s demise (“aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena.”) It will eventually lead to sufferings that one should be afraid of (“dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena.”) Therefore, such cravings are unfruitful and will make one helpless in the rebirth process (“anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti.”)

  • (Note that “khaya” is commonly translated as “destruction.” It is really the “destruction of moral values” in Buddha Dhamma, especially in the lokottara sense.)
  • Then the verse is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa (i.e., that statement holds for the five aggregates. As we have discussed, the five aggregates encompass “the whole world.”
  • Then it is repeated for cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, mano, and the 6 types of rupa (rupa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phoṭṭhabba, dhamma) we experience using them. These are the 12 ayatanā that also encompass the “whole world.”
  • Finally, it is repeated for the 11 terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda (avijjā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa, namarupa, salayatana, samphassa, vedanā, taṇhā, upādāna, bhava, jāti.) These 11 terms also define our world.
  • Therefore, those three characteristics are associated with ANYTHING to do with this world of 31 realms.

5. The same summary is stated a bit differently in another section of Paṭisambhidāmagga. Section “1.1. Ñāṇakathā has the following verse:

Kathaṁ “sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, sabbe dhammā anattā”ti sotāvadhānaṁ, taṁpajānanā paññā sutamaye ñāṇaṁ? Rūpaṁ aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena, dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena, anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti sotāvadhānaṁ, taṁpajānanā paññā sutamaye ñāṇaṁ. “Vedanā … saññā … saṅkhārā … viññāṇaṁ … cakkhu …pe… jarāmaraṇaṁ aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena, dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena, anattā asārakaṭṭhenā”ti sotāvadhānaṁ, taṁpajānanā paññā sutamaye ñāṇaṁ. Taṁ ñātaṭṭhena ñāṇaṁ, pajānanaṭṭhena paññā. Tena vuccati—“sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, sabbe dhammā anattā”ti sotāvadhānaṁ, taṁpajānanā paññā sutamaye ñāṇaṁ.

  • It says the same little bit differently. We will discuss this also in future posts. All these are interrelated and self-consistent.
Connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda

6. It basically says that our tendency to value and thus have upādāna for the five aggregates (i.e., pancupādānakkhandha) leads to various types of jāti. All jāti, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, end up in old age, decay, and death.

  • Paṭicca Samuppāda describes the mechanism by which that takes place, i.e., starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārathat cycle ALWAYS ends up with “bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti.
  • To expand that a bit more: Average humans (pothujjana) who have not comprehended the Noble Truths (and thus have avijjā) engage in deeds that lead to future bhava and jāti, perpetuating/lengthening the suffering-filled rebirth process.
  • Mano, vaci, and kāya (abhi)saṅkhārā generated with avijjā lead to such pāpa/akusala kamma. Most apāyagāmi pāpa kammā are induced by a strong attachment to a worldly entity. Many of them are done on impulse, without thinking about the consequences of such actions. The whole idea of engaging in Ānāpāna/Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā is to train the mind to be not impulsive. One gets there gradually by contemplating the consequences of actions on a regular basis. 
  • It is necessary to understand what is meant by saṅkhāra. See, “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”

7. It is a good idea to understand the key message of the Buddha before start reading deep suttas and getting confused. In most discussion forums on Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism), people keep discussing the same questions they asked many years ago. The reason is the lack of clarity of basic concepts.

  • Some people question the validity of some suttas in the Tipiṭaka because those suttas don’t fit into their narrative. Some people question the validity of Abhidhamma for the same reason, and also because Abhidhamma is not easy to understand. However, the Tipiṭaka is fully self-consistent. I discussed these issues in the post, “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
  • This is why it is good to see how the three major concepts — Four Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana — relate to each other. They clarify and strengthen each other. Abhidhamma is not necessary to grasp those concepts, but it can help clarify “knotty issues.”

8. The Four Noble Truths are discussed in many suttas, but many of the key suttas are in the “Sacca Saṁyutta (SN 56)“, where there are 131 suttas. The latter part of that section is devoted to many analogies on the high rate of rebirths in apāyās. See, “Introduction – What is Suffering?

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