Paṭicca Samuppāda – Overview

Revised November 4, 2018

1. Nothing can happen without a cause (“hētu” in Pāli or Sinhala). Everything happens for reasons or causes. Normally, many things simultaneously arise due to multiple causes.

  • However, one cause or one effect could dominate and thus sometimes it appears that one thing happened due to one cause.

2. Due to our ignorance of the true nature of this world, we keep initiating new causes. If we do not add fuel to a fire, the fire will extinguish when the fuel runs out.

  • We have been on this saṃsāric journey from the beginning-less time because we have been adding “fuel to the fire” without any pause.

3. The Paṭicca samuppāda (let us shorten it as PS) describes all aspects of life moment-to-moment: how we suffer the consequences of our past deeds, and how we make new causes or add more fuel.

  • Acariya Buddhaghosa understood only one aspect (the akusala-mūla PS) of the innumerable applications of PS, and since the time Theravada sect adopted Visuddhimagga as the basis of Dhamma, this wonderful knowledge of PS has been hidden.
  • Many variations of PS are discussed in the Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda­vibhaṅga of the Vibhangappakarana in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

4. Here are the main subsections in this section:

5. Even if there is a cause, its result (effect) does not manifest until the right conditions (“paccayā” in Pāli) appear.

  • This is discussed in detail in, “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paṭicca Samuppāda?“. We can get the basic idea from a few examples here.
  • A matchstick has the potential to bring about a fire. But unless it is heated by striking on a hard surface, fire does not appear.
  • A bomb can explode and create much destruction. But it will not go off until triggered.
  • We all have bad habits, but they do not manifest until it is triggered by an object (a picture, sound, smell, touch, or a thought).

6. Therefore, if one acts mindfully, one can PREVENT many akusala vipāka and FORCE many kusala vipāka. We all have an innumerable numbers of both accumulated in this saṃsāra; see, “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“, and “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavā)“.

7. It is necessary to understand that the terms in the standard PS cycle: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra; saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna; viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa, nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana, salāyatana paccayā phassō, phassa paccayā vēdanā, vēdanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā paccayā upādāna, upādāna paccayā bhavō, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’tiare highly condensed.

  • One could write a book on each term.
  • At a minimum, one needs to get the basic idea of each keyword: avijjā, saṅkhāra, ..bhava, jāti.

8. Most modern texts in English just translate those keywords to single words in English, which leads to misinterpretations in many cases.

  • It is better to understand the meaning of each of those Pāli worlds and just use those words. Their meanings can have different meanings based on the context.

9. In the following, I will provide a selected few posts to read in order to get an idea of what is meant by those Pāli words. The following terms are associated with the akusala-mūla PS.

Avijjā:What is Avijjā (Ignorance)?“.

Sankhāra: In most cases, what comes to play is abhisaṅkhāra or “strong saṅkhāra“. But it is necessary to get the basic idea of “saṅkhāra” first: “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means“.

Viññāna: One of the complex Pāli words: “Viññāṇa – What It Really Means“.

Nāmarūpa: Another complex word: “Viññāṇa paccayā Nāmarūpa“.

Salāyatana: Salāyatana (six āyatana) are not six sense faculties, “Nāmarūpa paccayā Saḷāyatana“.

Phassa: What really comes into play in PS is not “phassa“, but “defiled contact” or samphassa, “Difference between Phassa and Samphassa“.

Vēdanā: Vēdanā in PS does not really mean “feelings”, but “samphassa jā vedana“: “Vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“.

Taṇhā:Taṇhā – How We Attach Via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance“.

Upādāna:Difference Between Taṇhā and Upādāna“.

Bhava and Jāti: “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein” and “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control“.

  • Of course, gati is another key Pāli word that is not discussed much these days. More posts on each word can be found by using the “Search” box at top right.

10. It is clear from #7 above that all future suffering (jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti) will be stopped when the akusala-mūla PS is stopped from arising.

  • It is also clear that all future suffering ends when there is no rebirth, i.e., when the step “bhava paccayā jāti” stops and thus “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā” step stops.
  • As long as there jāti (or births), the suffering will not end.

11. The akusala-mūla PS can be terminated by working on two main targets: avijjā and taṇhā.

  • It is quite clear why we need to remove avijjā. If there is no avijjā (i.e., if one comprehends the Four Noble Truths), then an akusala-mūla PS will not even get started.
  • The second one of removing taṇhā is not that clear. It is actually gradually reduced by changing our gati. This is discussed in the post: “Difference Between Taṇhā and Upādāna“.
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