How Are Paṭicca Samuppāda Cycles Initiated?

November 6, 2015; Major revision October 13, 2017; January 8, 2021; March 29, 2023

Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) cycles have many varieties and can be analyzed in great detail, reveal subtle aspects, and clarify our understanding of the world we live in. 

Two Categories of PS Cycles

1. There are two broad categories of PS cycles.

  1. The standard paticca samuppāda describes how our actions (saṅkhāra) 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 labeled in the Tipiṭaka 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.
Sensory Experience Starts With Avyākata PS

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

  • However, the feelings (vedanā) that we experience due to such sensory 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).
  • The other five sensory inputs initially bring “neutral vedanā” as vipaka. However, mind-made samphassa-jā-vedanā are generated depending on the person. For example, a teenager may like a heavy metal song, but his grandfather may not. See  “Vipāka Vēdanā and “Samphassa jā Vēdanā” in a Sensory Event.”
  • In all cases, each person RESPONDS to the sensory input in one’s own way. This response may lead to new kammā and is described by the “kammā generating” PS cycles.
We Don’t Have Control Over Avyākata PS

3. We do not have control over the avyākata PS — which brings 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 Satipaṭṭhāna/Anāpāna meditations.
  • Avyākata PS bring kammā vipāka when suitable conditions are available; see “Annantara Samanantara Paccaya.”
Avyākata PS May Lead to New Kamma

4. Now, depending on what we see, hear, etc., due to a kammā vipāka, we MAY start making saṅkhāra, 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 saṅkhāra); when we see a distasteful object, we may generate hateful thoughts  (apunnābhi saṅkhāra). If we see a beggar on the street, we may generate alōbha thoughts (punnābhi saṅkhāra), 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 saṅkhāra, were done by “kammā generating” PS cycles that operate based on one’s gati (samsāric habits), as will discuss below.
Not All Avyākata PS Lead to New Kamma

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 if it is true.

  • Thousands of people see an item on display in a shop. Many glances 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 sensory input is strong enough! You may also want to read the post “‘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, the person’s gati).

6. We do not even notice most of these sense events. When we travel in a car, we see a million 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 we like (due to a kammā vipāka). We may get attached to it (form taṇhā), and then start thinking about building a house like that. Then we may remember a nice house that belongs to a friend, and then start thinking about that friend, which could lead to thinking about a common enemy. Suddenly, 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 “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?” and many other posts; enter the keywords “wheeling process” in the Search box at the top right, and you will get many posts. Our sansaric journey is fueled by uncountable “kammā generating” PS cycles.
Kamma to Vipāka to KammaSaṃsāric Journey

7. This vicious cycle of  “vipāka” leading to “kammā” leading to more “vipāka” is the process that binds us to the saṃsāra of endless rebirths or perpetuates 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 the world, and “pavatta” means “maintain.”
“Moral” Is Relative – Any Pothujjana Can Act Morally or Immorally

8. We usually 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-Mula PS.

  • Similarly, one labeled 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 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.
  • Any “average human (pothujjana) is considered to be “moral” might act with mōha and commit a severely immoral act if the trigger was tempting enough.
Stopping the Saṃsāric Journey

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 (saṅkhāra) that COULD generate kammā bhava corresponding to possible birth in the four lowest realms (apāyā).

  • In other words, depending on the trigger, it is possible for the pancanīvarana to “cover the mind” and initiate strong Akusala-Mula 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 kāmacchanda nīvarana taking over their minds. Kāmaccanda comes from “kāma + icca + anda,” where icca is liking, and anda is blind; thus, kāmacchanda means “blinded by kāma or sense pleasures.”
  • We have also heard stories about murders 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).

10. When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, the COARSE level of pancanīvarana (that can lead to rebirths in apāyās) is permanently removed.

  • That is why potent Akusala-Mula PS cycles — which could lead to rebirths in the apāyā — are not triggered for a Sōtapanna; see “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances.”
  • One’s gati permanently changes with magga phala. More changes happen at higher magga phala.
More Information

11. Different types of PS cycles are discussed in: “Paṭicca samuppāda Cycles.”

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

  • 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 “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ,” where dhammā coming to our minds; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.
  • These are also kamma vipāka. These are more common than vipāka coming through the other five senses; for example,  just seeing an enemy by chance, hearing something one likes, etc.
  • In either case, we must always be mindful and catch such “new kamma generations.” This is the key to Ānāpāna/Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā.
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