Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda

November 29, 2021; revised October 16, 2022

Distortion of Pāli keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda is quite common in current English translations. I will analyze two critical suttas to make that clear.

First Two Suttas in Udāna

1. The suttas in the Udāna section are the “joyful utterances” of the Buddha and many of his disciples. Let us look at the first two suttas in Udāna. They describe how the Buddha comprehended anulōma and paṭiloma Paṭicca Samuppāda during the night of the Enlightenment. First, I will reproduce the English translations of the two suttas verbatim.

The following verse is from the first sutta. The Pāli version of the corresponding verses is in Ref. 1 :

“In the first part of the night, he reflected on dependent origination in forwarding order:

When this exists, that is, due to the arising of this, that arises. That is: Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. The feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.”

2. The following verse is from the second sutta. The Pāli version of the corresponding verses is in Ref. 2 :

“In the second part of the night, he reflected on dependent origination in reverse order:

When this doesn’t exist, that is not; due to the cessation of this, that ceases. That is: When ignorance ceases, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. When consciousness ceases, name and form cease. When name and form cease, the six sense fields cease. When the six sense fields cease, contact ceases. When contact ceases, feeling ceases. When feeling ceases, craving ceases. When craving ceases, grasping ceases. When grasping ceases, continued existence ceases. When continued existence ceases, rebirth ceases. When rebirth ceases, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress cease. That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.”

The complete English translation: “Upon Awakening (2nd).” The second translation is almost the same: “The Second Discourse about the Awakening Tree.”

Overview of the Two Suttas

3. Those two suttas summarize the key findings of the Buddha upon his Enlightenment.

  • The first sutta describes how future suffering arises via future rebirths. It all starts with the step, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā.”
  • The second sutta explains that removing ignorance from a mind prevents future rebirths.

4. Both English translations of the second sutta are blatantly incorrect. Buddha’s mind became free of ignorance (avijjā) upon Enlightenment that night. Does that mean he stopped all the subsequent steps, as stated in the translation of #2 above?

  • If so, he would not have generated any saṅkhāra from the moment of attaining Enlightenment (Buddhahood.) Vedanā and saññā are in ALL types of saṅkhāra. Does that mean he would not feel anything or be unable to perceive and identify anything?
  • The literal “word-by-word” translation is blatantly wrong for all the steps in the second sutta.
  • The cessation of those steps would also hold for any Arahant since they have no trace of avijjā left in their minds!
Insane Discussions in Discussion Forums

5. There is a recent discussion at Dhamma Wheel: “Do Arhats experience contact with their sixfold sense media? What about vedanā?” It is a clear example of the confusion caused by such translations. The participants are understandably confused by the above translation of the second sutta in #2.

  • The translation in #2, without a doubt, says that when avijjā is not there, choices (saṅkhāra), consciousness, name and form, six sense fields, contact (with the sense fields), feeling, craving, grasping (upādāna), continued existence (bhava), rebirth, and the entire mass of suffering ceases.
  • We all agree that the Buddha and Arahants do not have even a trace of avijjā (ignorance about the Four Noble Truths) left.
  • Then, according to the translations in #2 above, they would not generate any more saṅkhāra. They do not experience the six sensory facilities (i.e., don’t hear, taste, smell, touch, or think) and will not feel anything. That means they would essentially not be living!
  • On the contrary, we know that the Buddha lived for 45 years after Enlightenment. He experienced all six sensory faculties, used them optimally, and had the best mind. He could recall any event in the past as far as he desired. But he also felt all types of vedanā, including bodily dukkha vedanā (he had back problems and once was injured by Devadatta)

6. So, where is the problem? Is that second sutta wrong?

  • Both suttas are perfectly fine. Such problems arise when translators start translating Pāli suttas word-by-word without paying attention – – or not understanding the basic concepts in Buddha Dhamma.
  • As I have repeatedly emphasized, each Pāli word (especially in deep suttas) needs to be handled in the context of the discussed issue.  We run into similar situations, even in English. The word “park” means two different things in the same sentence, “She will park the car so we can walk in the park.”
Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa

7. The steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda (and those in the reverse or the Patiloma Paṭicca Samuppāda) are in the “utterance (uddesa)” form. That is to recite the 11 steps.

  • Those steps need explanations in either the niddēsa (brief descriptions) or the paṭiniddēsa (detailed explanations.) Details at “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
  • There are many verses like that in the Tipiṭaka. Another is “Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā, Tesaṃ hētuṃ tathāgato āha; Tesañca yo nirōdhō, Evaṃvādī mahāsamaṇō.” Upatissa (Ven. Sariputta before becoming a bhikkhu) attained the Sotapanna stage just by hearing the “uddesa version.” Of course, he was the chief disciple of the Buddha and had the sharpest mind next to the Buddha.
  • For a few other people at the time of the Buddha, the niddēsa version would have been enough to understand the meaning of that verse.

8. However, for most people, that verse needs to be explained in detail, i.e., the paṭiniddēsa version is required. Most current English translations provide word-by-word translations of that “uddēsa version” without any explanation. That can have disastrous outcomes, as illustrated by the translation of the second sutta in #2 above.

The following chart illustrates the problem I am trying to highlight. The first column shows the “uddesa version” of the sutta in the Tipiṭaka. The Sutta Central “word-by-word translation” of that uddesa version is in column 2, which is incorrect. 

Download pdf:Paṭicca Samuppāda Figure

Niddēsa and Paṭiniddēsa Versions of Some Steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda

8. I have explained those 11 steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda in many posts. Below I will briefly state the correct interpretations. It is impossible to discuss even a single term with a single essay.

  • First, saṅkhāra in the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” refers to “abhisaṅkhāra.” “Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” explains the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” as, “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro.” Translated: “What is meant by ‘avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā?’ That means Puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra.” For details, see “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”
  • Abhisaṅkhāra leads to the cultivation of “kamma viññāna,” which are different from cakkhu viññāna, sota viññāna, etc. The latter are the six sensory fields, which are “vipāka viññāna.
  • Therefore, an Arahant would have the six sensory fields intact (contrary to the translation in #2 above) but would not generate kamma viññāna. See “Vinñāṇa – What It Really Means.
  • Nāmarupa in the step “viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpa” is a bit harder to explain. See: “Kamma Viññāṇa and Nāmarūpa Paricceda Ñāṇa.” I may get to address all these terms again, but let us finish our overview.

9. In the next step, “salāyatana” does not refer to the “six sense fields” but only when those sensory fields (indriya) are used as “āyatana.” For example, an Arahant would have “cakkhu indriya,” i.e., he can see just like anyone else. But an Arahant would not use eyes for pleasure-seeking, and thus it will not become “cakkhu āyatana” (or “cakkhāyatana.”) See, “How Do Sense Faculties Become Internal Āyatana?

  • The above becomes clear when we look at the next step, “saḷāyatana paccayā phasso.” Here, “phassa” means “samphassa.” The contact between cakkhu and rupa is “phassa,” and that leads to “seeing” or “cakkhu viññāna.” Details at “Indriya Make Phassa and Āyatana Make Samphassa.”
  • A special kind of “phassa” (samphassa) comes into play JUST AFTER that “seeing” or “cakkhu viññāna.” As I explained in that post, “samphassa” means “contact of the mind with lobha, dosa, moha (defilements in mind called anusaya.).” That will happen ONLY IF one gets attached to that sight. Such “samphassa” then leads to samphassa-jā-vedanā.” That is a type of vedanā made up by a defiled mind. Therefore, the niddēsa version of “phassa paccayā vedanā” is “samphassa paccayā samphassa-jā-vedanā.”
  • It is samphassa-jā-vedanā that leads to taṇhā in the step “vedanā paccayā taṇhā.” Therefore, not all vedanā lead to taṇhā. It is only those samphassa-jā-vedanā that lead to taṇhā.
Correct Explanation of the Second Sutta

10. Now, one should get at least an idea of the real meaning of the second sutta.

  • A living Arahant would not generate abhisaṅkhāra (which involves lobha, dosa, and moha to various degrees.) But an Arahant can think, speak, and do bodily actions. Those involve mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra. But they will not become abhisaṅkhāra!
  • Living Arahants can see, hear, etc., as anyone else. Thus, they will have all six sensory faculties. But they will not use them seeking sensory pleasures, i.e., they will not become “āyatana.”
  • Each sensory event will have vedanā cetasika. That means an Arahant can “feel” just like anyone else. But there will be no “samphassa-jā-vedanā.”
  • Of course, since there is no taṇhā, the rest of the steps will not materialize, i.e., there will be no upādāna, bhava, or jāti (future rebirths.)

11. Any rebirth (jāti) leads to “old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress,” as stated in #1. Since an Arahant would not be reborn, all such suffering would not arise. That is the “parinibbāna” (or “full Nibbāna“) reached by an Arahant at the death of the physical body.

  • However, focusing on “ending rebirths” is not advisable at the beginning of the Path. If a child thinks about getting a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, she will be quickly discouraged. She must first go through primary and secondary schools. One’s first goal should be the Sotapanna stage; even then, one must first learn the basic concepts. See “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?” Still, it is a good idea to have the “big picture” laid out by the Buddha (and the ultimate goal of Nibbāna) in the back of the mind.

12. We can reach two critical conclusions.

  1. Paṭicca Samuppāda IS Buddha Dhamma. Simply stating the 11 steps is useless. A detailed explanation of each step is necessary.
  2. There is danger in translating Pāli verses word-by-word without understanding their meanings which depend on the context.
  • It is sad to go through discussions in various “Buddhist discussion forums” to”see how many people struggle to figure out the true meanings/concepts in multiple suttas. But they run into problems because most translations are wrong, and there are apparent contradictions.
  • This “mindless word-by-word translation process” has been going on for years. Just read old posts at Dhamma Wheel. Many topics have been repeatedly discussed, citing the identical wrong translations! But those translations are not consistent with other translations (by even the same author) because the translators do not understand the meanings of keywords in the context of some suttas. Many words have different meanings depending on the context. For example, “viññāna” DOES NOT mean the same thing everywhere! That is the problem. See my recent post, “Dhamma – Different Meanings Depending on the Context.”
  • It is time for those translators to come to their senses and learn the genuine and pure Buddha Dhamma and not continue cranking out meaningless translations of highly-condensed suttas!

1. Relevant verse from “Paṭhamabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.1)“: 

Atha kho bhagavā tassa sattāhassa accayena tamhā samādhimhā vuṭṭhahitvā rattiyā paṭhamaṁ yāmaṁ paṭiccasamuppādaṁ anulomaṁ sādhukaṁ manasākāsi:

Iti imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti, imassuppādā idaṁ uppajjati, yadidaṁ—avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpaṁ, nāmarūpa paccayā saḷāyatanaṁ, saḷāyatana paccayā phasso, phassa paccayā vedanā, vedanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā paccayā upādānaṁ, upādāna paccayā bhavo, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hotī”ti.”

2. Relevant verse from “Dutiyabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.2)“:

“tha kho bhagavā tassa sattāhassa accayena tamhā samādhimhā vuṭṭhahitvā rattiyā majjhimaṁ yāmaṁ paṭiccasamuppādaṁ paṭilomaṁ sādhukaṁ manasākāsi:

Iti imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati, yadidaṁ—avijjā nirodhā saṅkhāranirodho, saṅkhāra nirodhā viññāṇa nirodho, viññāṇa nirodhā nāmarūpa nirodho, nāmarūpa nirodhā saḷāyatana nirodho, saḷāyatana nirodhā phassa nirodho, phassa nirodhā vedanā nirodho, vedanā nirodhā taṇhā nirodho, taṇhā nirodhā upādāna nirodho, upādāna nirodhā bhava nirodho, bhava nirodhā jāti nirodho, jāti nirodhā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hotī”ti.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email