How Are Paticca Samuppāda Cycles Initiated?

November 6, 2015; Major revision October 13, 2017; #12 added November 3, 2017

Paticca samuppāda (PS) cycles have many varieties and can be analyzed in great detail and can reveal subtle aspects as well as clarify our understanding about the world we live in. 

1. There are two broad categories of PS cycles.

  1. The standard paticca samuppāda describes how our actions (sankhāra) lead to the generation of new kammā. Thus they could be called kammā generating” PS cycles.
  2. The other category of PS cycles is responsible for bringing in kammā vipāka, and thus could be called vipāka generating” PS; this type of a PS cycle is labelled in the Tipitaka as an avyākata PS;  avyākata means “kammicaly neutral”; not generating new kammā. The Pāli word is avyākata and the Sinhala word is avyākruta. But in many places it is written as abyākata.

2. Everything that we INITIALLY EXPERIENCE is due to a kammā vipāka and is brought in by an avyākata PS. That PS process just make us see, hear, smell, taste, experience bodily sensations, and bring in new thoughts to the mind.

  • However, the feelings (vēdana) that we experience due to such sense inputs are not the same for different persons, except in the case of bodily sensations. Everyone feels the same if getting hit (pain), or getting a good massage (pleasure).
  • In other five sense inputs, the vēdana generated depends on the person. For example, a teenager may like a heavy metal song, but his grandfather may not.
  • In all cases, each person RESPONDS to the sense input in one’s own way. It is this response that may lead to new kammā and is described by the “kammā generating” PS cycles.

3. We do not have control over the avyākata PS — which bring kammā vipāka by initiating new sense events; once started, they cannot be stopped. Even Arahants cannot avoid kammā vipāka.

  • But the “kammā generating” PS cycles that arise as our response to such sense events can be controlled by us based on our gati (samsāric habits). This is the basis of Satipatthāna/Anāpāna meditations.
  • Avyākata PS bring kammā vipāka when suitable conditions are available; see, “Annantara Samanantara Paccaya“.

4. Now, depending on what we see, hear, etc due to a kammā vipāka, we MAY start making sankhāra and a new “kammā generating” PS cycle may be initiated; then we make more kammā vipāka.

  • For example, when we see an appealing object, we may generate lōbha (greedy) thoughts (apunnābhi sankhāra); when we see a distasteful object we may generate hateful thoughts  (apunnābhi sankhāra). If we see a beggar on the street, we may generate alōbha thoughts (punnābhi sankhāra) which may lead to a meritorious act (giving some money to that person).
  • All those “seeing events” arose due to  avyākata PS cycles. But those different responses, generating sankhāra, were done by “kammā generating” PS cycles, that operate based on one’s gati (samsāric habits), as will discuss below.

5. ALL our actions are initiated by avyākata PS cycles; but not all avyākata PS cycles lead to “kammā generating” PS cycles generating new kammā. You may want to think about this and see that indeed that is true.

  • Thousands of people see an item on display in a shop. Many just glance at it and don’t give it another thought. Some will stop and take another look since they like it. There could also be someone who really wanted it, but may not have money, and even think about stealing it!
  • There is no “fixed person with avijjā“. avijjā can arise in any normal human (without magga phala), if the sense input is strong enough! You may also want to read the post on “‘Self’ and ‘no-self’: A Simple Analysis – Do We Always Act with avijjā?“.
  • Whether avijjā arises depends on the particular sense input and the person (more correctly person’s gathi).

6. We normally call a person “moral” when he/she acts morally in most cases.

However, that does not mean that a “moral person” will not generate immoral thoughts at times. If a “tempting sense input comes in” via any of the six senses, he/she may act with avijjā and start an akusala-mūla PS.

  • Similarly, one labelled as a criminal (because of his prior acts) may see someone in danger and act with kindness initiating a meritorious deed.
  • This is why the Buddha said that there is no “unchanging self”, but there is no “self” either. What happens at a given moment depends on what kind of PS cycle is “triggered”, and the level of avijjā triggered.  avijjā can range from mōha (morally blind) to just not knowing the anicca nature.
  • A person considered to be “moral” may act with mōha and commit a severely immoral act, if the trigger was tempting enough.

7. ALL our sense inputs come to us via kammā vipāka. Through the beginning-less samsāra, we have accumūlated “infinite amounts” of kammā vipāka, large and small, and each “seeing event”, “hearing event”, etc is due to a kammā vipāka.

  • We do not even notice most of these sense events. When we travel in a car, we see a million of things, but only a few “catch our attention”. Only those few events lead to the initiation of “kammā generating” PS cycles.
  • But even one initiation of a “kammā generating” PS cycle can, in turn, initiate many “follow-up” PS cycles. For example, while walking we may see a house by the road that we really like (which is due to a kammā vipāka). We may get attached to it (form tanhā), and then start thinking about building a house like that. Then we may remember a nice house that belongs a friend, and then start thinking about that friend, which could lead to thinking about a common enemy. All of a sudden now we have started a stronger “kammā generating” PS cycle that could lead to a worse kammā vipāka.
  • This is the “wheeling process” that we discussed in the post, “Nibbana – Is it Difficult to Understand?” and many other posts; enter the keywords “wheeling process” in the Search box at top right and you will get many posts. Our sansaric journey is fueled by an uncountable “kammā generating” PS cycles.

8. This vicious cycle of  “vipāka” leading to “kammā” leading to more “vipāka” is the process that binds us to the sansara of endless rebirths, or perpetuate our “world” of suffering.

  • The Buddha describes this as, “kammā vipākā vaddanti, vipākō kamma sambhavō, tasmā punabbhavō hōti, evan lokō pavattati“.
  • That means, “kammā lead to vipāka, vipāka in turn lead to kammā and thus to rebirth (punabbhavō), and that is how the world (existence) is maintained”.
  • There “sambhava” is “san” + “bhava“, or “adding more existences”. Also, “lōka” is world, and “pavatta” means “maintain”.

9.  The key point is that unless one has at least attained the Sōtapanna stage, one COULD act with avijjā at the level of mōha, and generate kammā (sankhāra) that COULD generate kammā bhava corresponding to possible birth in the four lowest realms (apāyas).

  • In other words, depending on the trigger it is possible for the pancanīvarana to “cover the mind” and initiate strong akusala-mūla PS cycles for any human being not yet attained the Sōtapanna stage.
  • For example, we have heard stories about people with “good moral backgrounds” committing rape, under conditions that led to kāmaccanda nīvarana taking over their minds. Kāmaccanda comes from “kāma + icca + anda“, where icca is liking and anda is blind; thus kāmaccanda means “blinded by kāma or sense pleasures”.
  • We have also heard stories about murders that were committed by “moral people” who were enraged by the sight of their spouse in bed with another person. Here the second nīvarana, vyāpada, covered their minds.
  • Those two are the strongest nīvarana, but we can think about cases when the other three also could lead to immoral acts: thina middha (frozen or lazy mind), uddacca kukkucca (tendency to do lowly things with high-mindedness), and vicikicca (tendency to do unwise things due to not knowing the anicca nature).
  1. When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, some of these pancanīvarana are permanently removed (some components are reduced below the nīvarana state).
  • That is why potent akusala-mūla PS cycles — which could lead to rebirths in the apāyas — are not triggered for a Sōtapanna; see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.
  • One’s gati  permanently change with magga phala. More changes happen at higher magga phala.

11. Different types of PS cycles are discussed at: “Paticca samuppāda Cycles“.

  • The “vipāka generating”  avyākata PS is discussed in the post, “Avyākata Paticca Samuppāda for Vipāka Viññāna”, that is to be published.
  • The “kammā generating” PS processes can be divided into two broad categories again: those generating “bad kammā” and “good kammā“: “Akusala-mūla Paticca samuppāda” and “Kusala-mūla Paticca samuppāda”.
  • Those “kammā generating” PS processes where one can see the consequences during this life itself are discussed in “Akusala-mūla Pavutti (or Pravurthi) Paticca samuppāda“.
  • There can be many other types too. But one can get a good idea of how PS works in different situations can be grasped by understanding those key processes.

12. Finally, There is another important way that we get started with generating new kamma. This is when we “get random thoughts coming to our minds that get us started on a pleasurable action”.

  • For example, we may be doing something and all of a sudden we get a thought about watching a movie or even start thinking about an enemy and what can be done to him/her. These are initiated by “manaca paticca dhammēca uppadati manō viññānam“, where dhammā coming to our minds; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.
  • These are also kamma vipāka. But these are more common than just seeing an enemy by chance or hearing something that one likes, etc.
  • In either case, we need to be mindful always, and catch such “new kamma generations”. This is the key to Ānāpāna/Satipatthāna bhavana.
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