Paṭicca Samuppāda – Introduction

October 4, 2021; revised August 31, 2022; rewritten March 4, 2023

Resources in the Tipitaka

1. In the Saṁyutta Nikāya 12 in the Sutta Piṭaka, there are over 100 suttas on Paṭicca Samuppāda. However, the first 70 are the more critical. The series starts with the “Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (SN 12.1).” That first sutta introduces the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda, and the second one, “Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 12.2),” provides brief descriptions of the terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • Of course, many other vital suttas and sections spread over the whole Tipiṭaka because it is the essence of Buddha Dhamma. For example, “Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15)” is a key sutta on Paṭicca Samuppāda.
  • To get to deeper explanations, one needs to refer to the “Paṭiccasamuppādavibhaṅga” in “Vibhaṅga Pakaraṇa,” one of the three original Commentaries included in the Tipitaka. As usual, SOME of the English translations there are NOT correct. Of course, the original Pāli versions (in English letters) are accurate.
  • The Commentary, Visuddhimagga, written (much later, around 450 CE) by Acāriya Buddhaghosa, is completely inadequate. It only discusses the Akusala-Mula Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda and does not even discuss the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. In brief, the Akusala-Mula Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda explains how different types of births arise in the rebirth process, and the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda explains the way to stop the rebirth process and attain Nibbana.
A Novel Approach

2. I have discussed Paṭicca Samuppāda in the section “Paṭicca Samuppāda.” I want to take a different approach in this series, hopefully providing new insights.

  • Almost all explanations of Paṭicca Samuppāda follow the standard sequence starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” That is because the main cause for the rebirth process is avijjā, and its result is suffering (the last step in Paṭicca Samuppāda, i.e., “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti”). As we have discussed, the rebirth process and all that suffering arise due to ignorance of the Four Noble Truths/ Tilakkhana/ Paṭicca Samuppāda; see, “Buddha Dhamma – Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana.”
  • However, in real life, we don’t start acting with avijjā without reason. Our unwise actions ALWAYS begin based on an ārammaṇa that comes through one of the six senses.
Mind “Turns On” With an Ārammaṇa

3. Our minds are inactive if we are unconscious or deeply asleep. While in a deep sleep, we are unaware of the “world” around us. But, of course, we are still alive, and our bodies are kept alive by kammic energy.

  • We take action in response to an external stimulus called an ārammaṇa. Some actions are “morally bad,” some are “morally good,” and others are “neutral.”
  • An ārammaṇa can come in on its own. For example, while walking, we may see and hear various things. Most are “neutral,” and we ignore them.
  • But if we see something “eye-catching,” we may even stop and look at it. If we hear a loud noise, we may walk away from it. In such cases, we take action based on such an ārammaa.
  • The inputs coming through the five physical senses are easy to recognize. But many ārammaṇa come through the mind itself. For example, thoughts about meeting a friend last week or a planned activity for tomorrow may come to mind while waiting to fall asleep. We may act on those too. For example, if thoughts about an old friend come to mind, one may decide to call that friend.
What Happens When an Ārammaṇa Brings a Sensory Input?

4. It is helpful to see how the Buddha described what happens when an ārammaṇa comes to mind. That will help our analysis of how a Paticca Samuppada process is initiated.

  • If we see something while walking, our eyes capture an image of a particular object, say a person (X.) It just happened because that person was also walking on the road. Even though the eyes capture that image, it is not the eyes that “see” that person. It is our mind that “sees.” We don’t need to understand the details, but here is what happens: The image of person X captured by the eyes is processed by the brain and then transmitted to the cakkhu pasāda rupa in the “mental body” or the gandhabba.
  • At the SAME MOMENT, the cakkhu pasāda rupa (abbreviated as “cakkhu”) receives such an image from the brain, it passes that image (called “rupa“) to the seat of the mind, hadaya vatthu. That is how the mind becomes aware of that person X, i.e., how a “cakkhu viññāna” arises.
  • That interaction between the cakkhu and a rupa leading to the “awareness of an external object” is written in Pāli as, “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ.” For details, see the post, “Phassa (Contact) – Contact With Pasāda Rupa.”
  • Don’t be discouraged by these Pāli words. Try to get the basic idea. The main point is that “seeing” does not happen in the physical eye. The mind sees (not the eyes and not the brain)!

5. The Pāli verse, “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ” is commonly translated as “eye-consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights.”  But we must remember that the “contact” is NOT between the PHYSICAL EYES and the PHYSICAL OBJECT (a person in our above example.)

  • In that verse, “cakkhu” refers to the cakkhu pasāda rupa, and “rupa” refers to the “image of person X” (formed by the brain based on the image received from the physical eyes.) The “meeting of the cakkhu and rupa” is indicated by “paticca” in the above verse, which leads to the mind “seeing an image of person X” (cakkhu viññāṇa or eye-consciousness).
  • Therefore, there are a few CRITICAL things to remember: “cakkhu” is not physical eyes; “rupa” is not the actual object (a person in this example); “cakkhu viññāna” does not arise in the eyes or the brain or even in the cakkhu pasāda rupa (cakkhu.) That cakkhu viññāna (eye-consciousness) arises in one’s mind!
  • The other processes involving ears, nose, tongue, and the physical body (touch) must be understood similarly.
Two Meanings of Paticca

6. The Pāli word “paticca” has TWO possible meanings, depending on the context. The term “Paṭicca Samuppāda” means “getting attached willingly” or pati” + “icca (“pati” means to “bind.”) See “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha” + “Sama+uppāda

  • However, in the above verse, paticca implies two entities (that are compatible) making contact.” A rupa does not “make contact” with one of the other four indriya like “sota pasāda rupa” or “ghāna pasāda rupa.” Similarly, a sound (sadda) does not “make contact” with “cakkhu pasāda” or “ghāna pasāda.”
  • In the “Saṃyojana Sutta (SN 44.9),” the Buddha explains the second meaning: “Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, telañca paṭicca vaṭṭiñca paṭicca telappadīpo jhāyeyya” OR “Bhikkhus, an oil lamp burns in dependence on oil and a wick (oil getting soaked in the wick).” An old-fashioned oil lamp has a wick partially immersed in oil. That oil soaks the wick, gets to the burning wick’s tip, and sustains the flame. Therefore, oil and wick are compatible and will “paticca.” If one puts a “wick made out of the plastic” in oil, the oil will not soak the plastic, i.e., they are incompatible and thus would not “get together” or paticca.
  • Now let us return to our example of “seeing a person.”
Cakkhu Vinnana Is More Than Just “Seeing”

7. Suppose that person X is a friend. The moment we see person X, we identify him. Think about it. It does not take more than a split second to identify X. How does that happen?

  • A complex process happens in mind during the event of “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ.” That process happens in that single citta which lives only for less than a billionth of a second. Only a Buddha can discern something that can happen that fast. We can verify that to be true only by seeing that it is compatible/consistent with nature.
  • The mind needed to compare it with previous experiences to identify X as a friend. Otherwise, how would it identify person X?
  • It is possible because the mind can access our memories “stored” as the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha)! To understand that process, one must understand the “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha)” (see the first six posts there) and “Where Are Memories “Stored”? – Connection to Pañcakkhandha.”
  • As we have discussed, the mind can access our past experiences and future hopes (within an unimaginably short time.) Rupakkhandha is of 11 types, including “past rupa we have experienced,” and the same is true for the other four aggregates: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna. The mind can scan our memories/hopes and IDENTIFY the sense object (we have had prior experiences with it). That is how the mind identified person X as “a friend.” The amazing thing is that it happens so fast. See “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
  • Further details and examples in “Arising of the Five Aggregates With an Ārammaṇa.”
References in the Chart

Ref. 1: “What Did the Buddha Mean by a “Loka”?

Ref. 2: Rest of the posts in the subsection: “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.

  • That should be enough to get to at least the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage.
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