What Does “Paccayā” Mean in Paṭicca Samuppāda?

Revised April 27, 2016; August 25, 2019; December 14, 2023

Before we start discussing the various forms of Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS), it is essential to be clear about what is meant by “paccayā” (pronounced “pachchayä). Paṭṭhāna Dhamma provides a complete description. We will introduce the concept here.


1. The PS  cycle starts as: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna, viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa, nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana,….”.

  • And since PS describes the “cause and effect” in Buddha Dhamma, most people think “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” means “avijjā causes saṅkhāra” or “ignorance causes one to acts that generate bad kamma.”
  • Even an ordinary person has avijjā; he/she will not ALWAYS act accordingly; most of the time, people act appropriately or morally. However, as long as avijjā is there, at times, one WILL likely act with avijjā and do inappropriate or immoral things.
  • Similarly, many people think that “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” means “saṅkhāra causes viññāna” or “bad kamma leads to corresponding consciousness,” and so on down the whole PS cycle.
  • As we discuss below, the steps should be translated as, “with avijjā (ignorance) as condition, saṅkhāra arise, ” with sankhārā as condition viññāna, etc.
Key Role Of Conditions

2. It will clarify many things if one understands that PS does not refer to a “direct link” between causes and effects. Just because we have done good/bad kamma (generated via saṅkhāra) DOES NOT mean they ALL lead to kamma vipāka.

  • That was pointed out in item #5 in the post, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Overview.” But in case the point was missed, I wanted to emphasize it in this post.
  • Any effect must have a cause. But there can be possible causes without leading to any results. Otherwise, Nibbāna would not be possible. That needs some contemplation, and I will give some examples below.
  • However, without suitable CONDITIONS, causes (kamma) cannot automatically bring results (vipāka).

3. The easiest way is to consider the following example: A seed contains the necessary causes (ingredients) for bringing up a new tree. But just because a seed is there, a tree will not come into existence. If the seed is in a cool, dry place, one could keep it that way for a long time. Or one could burn or crush it, and it will not bring up a tree.

  • SUITABLE CONDITIONS must be present for causes to bring about corresponding effects. That is what paccayā means.
  • When such suitable conditions are present, causes WILL bring about corresponding effects. Thus, when some result is brought about, it is called “paccuppanna,” i.e., born (“uppanna“) via suitable conditions (“paccayā“); of course, if the root causes must be there, to begin with).
  • In the above example, the seed could germinate and grow into a tree if one plants that seed (cause) in the ground and provides water, nutrients, and sunlight (suitable conditions).
Not All Kamma Lead to Kamma Vipāka

4. When causes are there, corresponding effects (results) are LIKELY if suitable conditions for the effects of taking place. That is why kamma is not deterministic; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

  • However, the critical point in PS is that the effect – IF AND WHEN IT HAPPENS – is in accordance with the cause, and also the CONDITIONS was one’s choosing: “Pati ichcha” leads to “sama uppāda” or simply: “when one gets attached, that leads to a new birth of similar characteristics”. If and when the causes bring forth the consequences, they will be of a similar nature.

5. It is not necessary to get into further details unless one is interested in “digging deeper,” but there are 24 “paccayā” or “conditions” that can cause the effect to materialize; these are “Paṭṭhāna Dhamma“).

  • Let us briefly discuss three such paccayā, “hētu paccayā,”anantara samanantara paccayā,” and “aññamañña paccayā” to see what happens.
Three Important Conditions (Paccayā)

6. Nothing happens without a root cause or a hētu (pronounced “hēthu“; see the pronunciation key in “Pāli Glossary“).

  • For example, a bomb causes damage because of the explosives contained, but someone has to trigger it to go off. If the bomb sits somewhere long, its propellants may degrade, and then the “cause” may disappear; most kamma seeds are like that too.
  • Thus, without the root cause, there will not be an explosion. That is “hētu paccayā.”

7. My favorite example of the “anantara samanantara paccayā” is the seed germination I discussed above in #3. Just because there is an apple seed, it will not cause an apple tree to appear.

  • An apple seed will stay in a cool, dry place without germinating for many years. But if planted in the ground with water and sunlight, it will sprout and give rise to an apple tree; see “Anantara and Samanantara Paccaya” for details.
  • Of course, just like with the bomb, if the apple seed sits there for too long, it may lose its potency and may not yield an apple tree at all. Thus, the hētu paccayā must always be satisfied.

8. The third one, “aññamañña paccayā,” means dependent on each other. For example, Viññāna and nāmarūpa depend on each other:

  • It usually is stated that “viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa” or ‘depending on the viññāna, nāmarūpa arise.” For example, viññāna of the cuti citta at the moment of death causes a matching nāmarūpa to rise in the next birth: a hateful thought could lead to birth in the niraya or the animal realm.
  • However, viññāna, in turn, depends on the type of nāmarūpa: with the nāmarūpa of an animal, it is not possible to get into jhāna. Only certain types of nāmarūpa can “support” certain types of viññāna. See “Asevana and Annamanna Paccaya.”
  • Depending on the situation, one or more of the 24 paccayā (or conditions) can simultaneously come into play. Some are discussed in the section on “Paṭṭhāna Dhamma.”
Paṭṭhāna Dhamma

9. I just wanted to give a brief introduction to the complex “Paṭṭhāna Dhamma” which describes 24 such “paccayā” involved in Paṭicca Samuppāda. In other words, cause(s) and effect(s) have complicated relationships. We can only discern significant relationships. Only a Buddha can sort out all such complexities.

  • But there is no need to analyze everything in great detail to understand the message of the Buddha. One can become a Sotāpanna by comprehending the Tilakkhana: anicca, dukkha, anatta.

10. So why am I also providing information on these complex topics? It is for three reasons:

  • First, it helps build saddhā (faith) in Buddha Dhamma. Anyone who takes time to examine these concepts can see that they provide a COMPLETE explanation for everything we experience and more.
  • Second, it is intellectually satisfying to see how all pieces nicely fit into the “big picture.” I hope I have been able to give the sense of joy that I have experienced in “seeing how these pieces fall into place.”
  • Finally, this “self-consistency” is critical in sorting out which version of Buddha Dhamma is correct. As the Buddha pointed out, any version that is not self-consistent should be discarded; see “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis.”

Next in the series, “Anantara and Samanantara Paccayā.”

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