August 5, 2018; revised January 26, 2019; May 2, 2019; revised July 4, 2022
A Zen Riddle?
1. “Imasmim sati idam hōti, imassa uppādā idam uppajjāti; imasmim asati idam na hōti, imassa nirōdhā idam nirujjhatī ti.” This is a famous phrase that appears in most suttā that describes Paṭicca Samuppāda (Dependent Origination).
- It is usually translated as, “When there is this that is, with arising of this that arises; when there is not this that is not, with the cessation of this that ceases.” That sounds like a Zen riddle!
- But the Buddha never made his Dhamma into riddles. He always presented it in the simplest possible way. Some verses have become riddles because people have incorrectly translated them; they did not understand the true meanings or the significance of key Pāli words.
- Another example is, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”
Sati – Mundane Meaning in the Verse
2. The keyword in the verse that we are interested in is “sati.” All English translations that I have seen have left out this keyword!
- There are two meanings to the word “sati.” One is mundane, meaning “attention.”
- It is actually that mundane meaning that should be used in this verse.
- If one set the mind on an immoral task (planning a robbery, assembling a bomb to kill people, etc.) one will start doing immoral deeds with “apuñña abhisaṅkhāra (or apunnābhisaṅkhāra)” and initiate akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. That will lead to rebirth in the apāyās.
- At the opposite end, a Noble Person above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage will try to set the mind on cultivating “kusala-mula saṅkhāra” and initiate kusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. Here, they will have Sammā Sati (mindset focusing on Nibbāna). That “sati” is the one with deeper meaning.
Sammā Sati– Deeper Meaning of Sati
3. The deeper meaning of “sati” should be used in the context of Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā, for example.
- That “sati” is a sōbhana cetasika, i.e., a good mental factor. The sati cetasika is cultivated by learning dhamma and eventually comprehending Tilakkhana.
- However, that cetasika sati does not have a counterpart in asōbhana cetasika, i.e., there is no “asati” cetasika.
- In the verse in question, both “sati” and “asati” are mentioned. Therefore, “sati” in the context of the verse does not refer to the sati cetasika.
Mundane Sati – An Example
4. The word “sati” in “Imasmim sati idam hōti..” is, however, still related to the mind. It just refers to keeping the mind focused on the task at hand, whether it is a “good” or “bad” task.
- Suppose a suicide bomber is assembling a bomb that he intends to use to kill many people. He must be paying careful attention (or “being mindful”) to what he is doing, otherwise, he will blow himself up. That is the mundane meaning of sati there.
- Thus, the term “mindful” can apply to the mindset of the suicide bomber while assembling the bomb. He must be mindful of his task. If he makes even a slight mistake, he may trigger the bomb and will perish.
- Obviously, he is not engaged in Satipaṭṭhāna. In fact, someone being mindful of morality/Nibbāna would not engage in such an act.
Attention Needed to Do Good or Bad
5. That mundane meaning of “attention” (or “being mindful”) is the meaning that should be used in analyzing the verse in question here: “Imasmim sati idam hōti,..”
- What it means in this context is “to focus the mind on something (X).” Then that “something” leads to the creation of “another thing (Y).” Even though X is ALWAYS mental, Y could be mental (nāma) or material (rūpa), or a combination of the two (nāmarūpa).
- When the mind is set on getting something done, one makes vaci and kāya saṅkhāra accordingly, i.e., one thinks about getting it done and acts accordingly; that is the “sati” that is referred to in that verse.
- When the mind does not focus on something (and does not make plans in mind via vaci saṅkhāra, and carries out such plans), that is called “asati.” In that case, there is no reason that Y would arise.
Good or Bad Deeds Done With Different Types of Saṅkhāra
6. As we will see below, making saṅkhāra is just the first step in a series of steps.
- We can make the mindset to do good or bad things. Keeping the attention on “good things” will lead to good outcomes (via good dhamma). Keeping the attention on “bad things” will lead to bad outcomes (via bad dhamma).
- Therefore, both cases (good or bad attention) will lead to a corresponding (good or bad) outcome. That is what is meant by “Imasmim sati idam hōti” or “keeping the attention on this will lead to that.”
- What Paṭicca Samuppāda describes the eventual outcome (“that” is a “jāti,” the outcome or the result): “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“,….ending up in “bhava paccayā jāti.” That is akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda leading to rebirths; “saṅkhāra” there are abhisaṅkhāra.
7. Of course, if one does not keep the attention on something, one will not be generating (good or bad) abhisaṅkhāra about it. Thus, one will not initiate Paṭicca Samuppāda cycles: “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“,….ending up in “bhava paccayā jāti” or rebirths.
- Therefore, if there is “asati” or “no attention on some task,” then there will be no reason for there to be an outcome: “Imasmim asati idam na hōti.”
- In other words, the mind will have no reason to generate new (abhi)saṅkhāra to initiate Paṭicca Samuppāda processes, i.e., akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda will not take place!
8. Now we can understand half of the verse: “Imasmim sati idam hōti, “Imasmim asati idam na hōti.” That means “when the mind is focused on X that will give rise to Y when the mind is not focused on X that will not give rise to Y.”
- We have already figured out what is meant by “imassa uppādā idam uppajjāti” and “imassa nirōdhā idam nirujjhatī. “
- This part states that what has ultimately come to being (uppajjāti) or the jāti is due to what first arose in mind (uppādā), which is (abhi)saṅkhāra.
- Similarly, for something not to come to being (nirujjhatī), the corresponding cause should not arise in mind (nirōdhā). If there is “asati” or “no attention,” then nothing will be realized: “no jāti“ (because no abhisaṅkhāra is generated to trigger Paṭicca Samuppāda processes).
- Abhisaṅkhāra generation will gradually decrease with increasing paññā (or wisdom and decreasing avijjā) starting at the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage.
Correct Interpretation of the Verse
9. So, now we can translate the whole verse: “when the mind is focused on this it will give rise to that, when the mind is not focused on this it will not give rise to that; this arising in mind (uppādā) will give rise to that (uppajjāti), this not arising in mind (nirōdhā) will stop that from coming to being (nirujjhatī).”
- In straightforward terms, this describes the Buddha’s key message: if one does not generate any defilements in mind, then one will not be reborn into this suffering-filled world.
- Furthermore, one MUST understand the anicca/dukkha/anatta nature of this world and set the mind on attaining Nibbāna to stop the rebirth process. That understanding will stop apunna abhisaṅkhāra from arising via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” in akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.
10. How anything and everything in this world arises with the mind as the “creator” is explained in the doctrine of the cause or effect or Paṭicca samuppāda.
- Even though the process starts with generating saṅkhāra (“avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“), it involves many other steps (“saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa,” etc.) before the final thing manifests.
- That is why this verse comes in many suttā just before introducing the Paṭicca samuppāda cycle starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” But many do not realize that “saṅkhāra” here refers to “abhisaṅkhāra.” See, “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Ariyasāvaka Sutta (SN 12.49)
11. What we discussed above becomes clear in the “Ariyasāvaka Sutta (SN 12.49)“. It starts with the statement: “Na, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa evaṃ hōti: ‘kiṃ nu kho—kismiṃ sati kiṃ hōti, kissuppādā kiṃ uppajjāti? Kismiṃ sati saṅkhārā honti, kismiṃ sati viññāṇaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati nāmarūpaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati saḷāyatanaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati phasso hōti, kismiṃ sati vedanā hōti, kismiṃ sati taṇhā hōti, kismiṃ sati upādānaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati bhavo hōti, kismiṃ sati jāti hōti, kismiṃ sati jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī’ti?”.
Translated: “Bhikkhus, a noble disciple, is not confused by the question: ‘What in mind becomes a cause? With the existence of what in mind does what come to being? What in mind becomes a cause for saṅkhāra? What in mind becomes a cause for viññāṇa? What in mind becomes a cause for nāmarūpa?… What in mind becomes a cause for jarāmaraṇa?”.
12. The next verse: “Atha kho, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa aparappaccayā ñāṇamevettha hōti: ‘imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hōti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjāti. Avijjāya sati saṅkhārā honti; saṅkhāresu sati viññāṇaṃ hōti; viññāṇe sati nāmarūpaṃ hōti; nāmarūpe sati saḷāyatanaṃ hōti; saḷāyatane sati phasso hōti; phasse sati vedanā hōti; vedanāya sati taṇhā hōti; taṇhāya sati upādānaṃ hōti; upādāne sati bhavo hōti; bhave sati jāti hōti; jātiyā sati jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī’ti. So evaṃ pajānāti: ‘evamayaṃ loko samudayatī’ti“.
Translated: “Bhikkhus, the noble disciple knows that what arises is dependent on what is cultivated in mind: ‘When this exists in mind, that comes to be; with the arising of this in mind, that arises. When the mind is ignorant (avijjāya sati), saṅkhārā arise/come to be (saṅkhārā honti). When there are saṅkhāra in mind (saṅkhāresu sati), viññāṇa comes to be (viññāṇaṃ hōti). When there is viññāṇa in mind (viññāṇe sati), nāmarūpā arise/come to be (nāmarūpaṃ honti), ….When the mindset takes that of a certain existence (bhave sati), jāti comes to be (jāti hōti). When there is jāti in mind (jātiyā sati), jarāmaraṇa comes to be ( jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī). He understands thus: ‘In such a way the world arises (samudaya).’
13. Next verse is: “Na, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa evaṃ hōti: ‘kiṃ nu kho—kismiṃ asati kiṃ na hōti, kissa nirōdhā kiṃ nirujjhati? Kismiṃ asati saṅkhārā na honti, kismiṃ asati viññāṇaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati nāmarūpaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati saḷāyatanaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati phasso na hōti, kismiṃ asati vedanā na hōti, kismiṃ asati taṇhā na hōti, kismiṃ asati upādānaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati bhavo na hōti, kismiṃ asati jāti na hōti, kismiṃ asati jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī’ti?”.
Translated: “Bhikkhus, a noble disciple is not confused by the question: ‘Absence of what in mind would not be a cause? With the cessation of what in mind, what would be stopped from arising? Absence of what in mind (kismiṃ asati) saṅkhāra would not result (na honti)? Absence of what in the mind viññāṇa (an expectation of a worldly thing) would not result? ..Absence of what in the mind nāmarūpa would not result?… Absence of what in the mind jarāmaraṇa would not result?”.
14. And then: “Atha kho, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa aparappaccayā ñāṇamevettha hōti: ‘imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hōti, imassa nirōdhā idaṃ nirujjhati. Avijjāya asati saṅkhārā na honti; saṅkhāresu asati viññāṇaṃ na hōti; viññāṇe asati nāmarūpaṃ na hōti; nāmarūpe asati saḷāyatanaṃ na hōti … pe … bhavo na hōti … jāti na hōti … jātiyā asati jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī’ti. So evaṃ pajānāti: ‘evamayaṃ loko nirujjhatī’ti.
Translated: “Bhikkhus, the noble disciple knows that what arises is dependent on what is cultivated in mind: ‘When this does not exist in mind, that will not come to be; with the cessation of this in mind, that is stopped from arising. When there is no ignorance in mind (avijjāya asati), saṅkhāra do not come to be (saṅkhārā na honti). When saṅkhāra cease to exist in the mind (saṅkhāresu asati), viññāṇa do not come to be (viññāṇaṃ na hōti). With the cessation of viññāṇa in mind (viññāṇe asati), nāmarūpa do not come to be (nāmarūpaṃ na honti), ….When there is bhava absent in mind (bhave asati), jāti will not come to be (jāti na hōti). When there is no jāti in mind (jātiyā asati), jarāmaraṇa do not come to be ( jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī). He understands thus: ‘In such a way the world ceases to exist (nirujjhatī), and thus the samsāric suffering ends.’
15. Finally, “Yato kho, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako evaṃ lokassa samudayañca atthaṅgamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako diṭṭhisampanno itipi … pe … amatadvāraṃ āhacca tiṭṭhati itipī”ti.
Translated: “Bhikkhus, a noble disciple, thus understands the origin and the ending of the world. He is knowledgeable about the true nature of this world, has the correct vision, and comes to attain Nibbāna“.
16. That is the complete sutta. It provides the basic reasoning behind Paṭicca samuppāda.
- It is important to realize that all the steps in Paṭicca samuppāda involve the mind up to the jāti stage. When the jāti stage arrives, the process is complete. That jāti that came into being has to evolve naturally to its end.