Paṭicca Samuppāda – Overview

Revised November 4, 2018; August 27, 2022

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

  • However, if one cause dominates, it appears to have 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 more fuel to the fire, the fire will extinguish when existing fuel runs out.

  • Akusala kammā is fuel to the saṃsāric journey or the rebirth process.
  • Saṃsāric journey does not end because we keep adding “fuel to the fire,” i.e., keep doing akusala kamma.

3. The Paṭicca samuppāda (let us shorten it as PS) describes that process. It explains the arising of future births due to accumulated kammic energies.

  • Acāriya Buddhaghosa understood only one aspect (the akusala-mūla PS) of the numerous applications of PS. Since Theravada Buddhism adopted Visuddhimagga as the basis of Dhamma, this deep knowledge of PS went underground.
  • Many variations of PS can be found in the “Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda­vibhaṅga” of the Vibhaṅga Pakarana 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.

  • For details, see “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 ignite.
  • 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 triggered by an ārammaṇa or a “thought object” (a picture, sound, smell, touch, or thought). See “Worldview of the Buddha.”

6. Therefore, if one acts mindfully, one can PREVENT many akusala vipāka and FORCE many kusala vipāka.

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 translate those keywords to single words in English, which often leads to misinterpretations.

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

9. In the following, I will provide a few posts to read to get an idea of what those Pāli words mean. 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 comes into play in PS is not “phassa” but “defiled contact” or samphassa, “Difference between Phassa and Samphassa.”

Vēdanā: Vēdanā in PS does not 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.”

10. It is clear from #7 above that all future suffering (jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti) will stop with the stopping of the akusala-mūla PS.

  • 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 are 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 pretty 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.
  • Taṇhā gradually reduces with changing our gati. That is discussed in the post: “Difference Between Taṇhā and Upādāna.”
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