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Although the Buddhist teachings on human conduct and relationships are diverse and numerous – according to the suitability for different individuals, communities, and circumstances, and in order to generate wholesome results at various times and in various places – they all converge at the same principles and modes of instruction. All of these teachings encourage people to live and act in harmony with an interrelated natural system functioning according to natural laws. If we are able to follow the guidance of awakened individuals conforming to this natural truth, or if we gain insight into this truth and practise accordingly, we will reap the desired results.

As the basic theoretical Buddhist teachings, which when realized lead to genuine satisfaction, are based on a truth connected to an interrelated natural system, there are additional practical teachings encouraging people to understand this truth. When realization of this natural truth occurs, people can use their understanding to engage with things in order to bring about favourable results, without needing to rely on teachers or external instruction. This is an inherent part of the natural system itself.

These two layers of teaching – the theoretical and the practical – are thus linked and form an integrated body of truth, pertaining directly to a natural order. ’The One Who Knows’, i.e. the Buddha, simply encouraged people to give heed to this truth of nature, so that they would realize it for themselves.

By clearly realizing this natural truth, one is no longer dependent on the advice and counsel of others. Buddhism thus contains no form of coercion; it neither forces anyone to believe in the teachings, nor is it troubled if people reject the teachings. It follows the principle that all things proceed naturally according to an interrelated system of causes and conditions. Having realized and discovered this truth for himself, the Buddha out of kindness and compassion gave instruction and guidance to others.

This book Buddhadhamma is an attempt to describe the Buddha’s teachings – which he systematized and set down as standard principles – on both levels: the basic theoretical teachings on truth and the practical teachings on personal conduct and social engagement, which are directly based on the theoretical teachings.

For many years, Khun Yongyut Thanapura has devoted himself to propagating the Dhamma. Towards the end of 1985, through his own initiative, he and other faithful lay supporters founded the Buddhadhamma Foundation. Although this foundation has no direct affiliation to the book Buddhadhamma or to its author, the foundation’s name was most likely chosen as a result of their sense of spiritual connection to this book.

As far as I am aware, from 1992 to the present – for almost twenty-three years – Khun Yongyut Thanapura has endeavoured to bring about an English translation of Buddhadhamma. He sponsored this work unremittingly, until erelong, two translated books were published: Good, Evil and Beyond: Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching (translated by Bruce Evans, January 1993) – a translation of chapter 5 of Buddhadhamma titled ’Kamma’; and Dependent Origination: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality (translated by Bruce Evans, 1994) – a translation of chapter 4 of Buddhadhamma titled ’Paṭiccasamuppāda’.

Khun Yongyut Thanapura, the president of the Buddhadhamma Foundation, was determined to bring about a complete English translation of Buddhadhamma, containing all the chapters. Although he met with much difficulty and obstruction, spending a lot of money and having to wait a long period of time, he was undaunted and did not give up. The result is that now, after many years, a complete translated English edition is ready for publication.

The complete English translation of Buddhadhamma is the work of Mr. Robin Moore, who has been working on this translation for many years. Before working with the Buddhadhamma Foundation, while he was still ordained as a monk named Suriyo Bhikkhu, through his own enthusiasm, he began to translate these texts and published The Three Signs: Anicca, Dukkha, and Anattā in the Buddha’s Teachings, a translation of chapter 3 of Buddhadhamma titled ’The Three Characteristics’. On that occasion, in 2006, Khun Sirichan Bhirombhakdi and her two daughters, Khun Chuabchan and Khun Pornbhirom Bhirombhakdi, sponsored this publication for free distribution.

After leaving the monkhood, Mr. Robin Moore continued the translations of Buddhadhamma under the patronage of Khun Sirichan Bhirombhakdi and her two daughters, who published the following books for free distribution: Nibbāna: the Supreme Peace (2009; a compilation of material drawn primarily from chapters 6, 7 and 10 of Buddhadhamma on Nibbāna); Dependent Origination (2011; a translation of chapter 4 of Buddhadhamma titled ’Paṭiccasamuppāda’); and Awakened Beings: True Disciples of the Buddha (2014; a compilation of material drawn primarily from chapters 6, 7 and 18 of Buddhadhamma on enlightened beings). On this occasion it is thus appropriate to express a deep gratitude to Khun Sirichan Bhirombhakdi and her two daughters for supporting this translation work and giving the gift of Dhamma by publishing and distributing the translated editions of Buddhadhamma. Their efforts have nourished and sustained this translation work until it was linked with the project sponsored by the Buddhadhamma Foundation, thus helping to bring about this complete translated edition.

Over more than a decade that Mr. Robin Moore has been working on this project of translating Buddhadhamma, I am aware that Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro – through his kindness towards the translator, his love of Dhamma, and his wish to benefit students of Buddhism – has offered his assistance, both in terms of his knowledge of Dhamma and his linguistic skills, to the translator all through to the end. Here, I wish to acknowledge this kind, able, and virtuous assistance by Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro.

I wish to congratulate Khun Yongyut Thanapura, both for his individual efforts and his work as director of the Buddhadhamma Foundation. He has shown enduring charitableness towards Buddha-Dhamma, and has maintained fortitude, constancy, and perseverance, braving hardship and difficulty until the goal of completing the translation of Buddhadhamma has been achieved. He has played an important part in sustaining Buddhist study and practice and has spread the blessings stemming from the Dhamma on a wide scale.

On a similar note, I wish to express gratitude to Mr. Robin Moore, the translator, whose genuine and faultless efforts have brought this translation of Buddhadhamma to completion. These efforts have deservedly generated and radiated goodness and wholesomeness.

The original Thai edition of Buddhadhamma was written as an offering and dedication to the true Dhamma. As I mentioned in the ’Brief on Copyright of Translated Material’ (Nov. 9, 2009): ’All of my books are intended as a gift of the Dhamma, to be printed for free distribution, for the benefit of the wider public. There are no copyright fees for these books. If someone appreciates these books and with pure intent wishes to translate and share them … this is a way to propagate the Dhamma and perform good deeds for a wider audience. People engaged in such translations must rely on their skill and proficiency, and expend much time and energy…. The copyright to these translated works can thus be considered as belonging to the translator.’ What the translator then wishes to do with these translated texts is his or her responsibility to take into further consideration.

I wish to thank everyone who has participated in helping to bring this translated book into tangible form. May these efforts help to foster goodness and wellbeing, enhance spiritual development, and generate wisdom for all human beings, and help to create a stable and true human civilization.

Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P. A. Payutto)
21 November 2015


(In the list below, canonical works are in italics)

A.Aṅguttaranikāya (5 vols.)
AA.Aṅguttaranikāya Aṭṭhakathā (Manorathapūraṇī)
Ap.Apadāna (Khuddakanikāya)
ApA.Apadāna Aṭṭhakathā (Visuddhajanavilāsinī)
Bv.Buddhavaṁsa (Khuddakanikāya)
BvA.Buddhavaṁsa Aṭṭhakathā (Madhuratthavilāsinī)
Comp.Compendium of Philosophy (Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha)
CompṬ.Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha Ṭīkā (Abhidhammatthavibhāvinī)
Cp.Cariyāpiṭaka (Khuddakanikāya)
CpA.Cariyāpiṭaka Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
D.Dīghanikāya (3 vols.)
DA.Dīghanikāya Aṭṭhakathā (Sumaṅgalavilāsinī)
DAṬ.Dīghanikāya Aṭṭhakathā Ṭīkā (Līnatthapakāsinī)
Dh.Dhammapada (Khuddakanikāya)
DhA.Dhammapada Aṭṭhakathā
Dhtk.Dhātukathā (Abhidhamma)
DhtkA.Dhātukathā Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Dhs.Dhammasaṅgaṇī (Abhidhamma)
DhsA.Dhammasaṅgaṇī Aṭṭhakathā (Aṭṭhasālinī)
It.Itivuttaka (Khuddakanikāya)
ItA.Itivuttaka Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
JA.Jātaka Aṭṭhakathā
Kh.Khuddakapāṭha (Khuddakanikāya)
KhA.Khuddakapāṭha Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthajotikā)
Kvu.Kathāvatthu (Abhidhamma)
KvuA.Kathāvatthu Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
M.Majjhimanikāya (3 vols.)
MA.Majjhimanikāya Aṭṭhakathā (Papañcasūdanī)
Nd1.Mahāniddesa (Khuddakanikāya)
Nd2.Cūḷaniddesa (Khuddakanikāya)
Nd1A.Niddesa Aṭṭhakathā – Mahāniddesavaṇṇanā (Saddhammapajjotikā)
Nd2A.Niddesa Aṭṭhakathā – Cūḷaniddesavaṇṇanā (Saddhammapajjotikā)
NettA.Nettipakaraṇa Aṭṭhakathā
PañcA.Pañcapakaraṇa Aṭṭhakathā
Paṭ.Paṭṭhāna (Abhidhamma)
PaṭA.Paṭṭhāna Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Ps.Paṭisambhidāmagga (Khuddakanikāya)
PsA.Paṭisambhidāmagga Aṭṭhakathā (Saddhammapakāsinī)
Pug.Puggalapaññatti (Abhidhamma)
PugA.Puggalapaññatti Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Pv.Petavatthu (Khuddakanikāya)
PvA.Petavatthu Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
S.Saṁyuttanikāya (5 vols.)
SA.Saṁyuttanikāya Aṭṭhakathā (Sāratthapakāsinī)
Sn.Suttanipāta (Khuddakanikāya)
SnA.Suttanipāta Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthajotikā)
Thag.Theragāthā (Khuddakanikāya)
ThagA.Theragāthā Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Thīg.Therīgāthā (Khuddakanikāya)
ThīgA.Therīgāthā Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Ud.Udāna (Khuddakanikāya)
UdA.Udāna Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Vbh.Vibhaṅga (Abhidhamma)
VbhA.Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā (Sammohavinodanī)
Vin.Vinaya Piṭaka (5 vols.)
VinA.Vinaya Aṭṭhakathā (Samantapāsādikā)
VinṬ.Vinaya Aṭṭhakathā Ṭīkā (Sāratthadīpanī)
VismṬ.Visuddhimagga Mahāṭīkā (Paramatthamañjusā)
Vv.Vimānavatthu (Khuddakanikāya)
VvA.Vimānavatthu Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)
Yam.Yamaka (Abhidhamma)
YamA.Yamaka Aṭṭhakathā (Paramatthadīpanī)

Foreword by Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro

Buddhadhamma is the crowning achievement of Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P. A. Payutto), widely acknowledged as the most brilliant Thai scholar of Buddhism in living memory. The venerable author’s masterpiece, it is by some distance the most important Buddhist academic work to have been published in Thailand during the twentieth century.

Buddhadhamma consists of a rich and comprehensive presentation of the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. As a book dedicated to revealing the Middle Path of the Buddha in all its profundity, it is fitting that the text steers a skilful course between an unquestioning acceptance of ancient commentarial interpretations and a too wide-ranging rejection of their value. On controversial issues, such as Dependent Origination for example, the author fairly summarises the various positions on the debate and leaves it to the reader to decide amongst them. The arrangement of the material in the book is a departure from the norm, but it is a well-considered departure, one that provides the author with a satisfying frame on which to beautifully mount the many jewels of the Buddha’s teachings.

The venerable author’s use of language in this book has earned him wide renown in Thailand. It can, however, offer considerable challenges to a translator. Although the book is free of the elliptical phrases found in the works of many forest monks, the style is dense and given to unusual combinations of words that are stimulating in the original but occasionally overpowering in a literal translation. The translator of this book, Robin Moore, an old friend of mine and ex-fellow monk, has done a fine job in making the English version as accessible as possible, while maintaining an admirable fidelity to the text. It has been a labour of love on his part, and I salute him on behalf of all grateful readers.

Buddhadhamma has been my constant companion for over thirty years and is the book I would choose to have with me on a desert island. I would like to express my appreciation that finally an English translation will make this excellent book available to many more people.

Ajahn Jayasaro
Janamara Hermitage
June 2016

Foreword by the President of the Buddhadhamma Foundation

The Buddhadhamma Foundation is non-profit charitable organization, established by a group of devout Buddhists in 1987. Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya (P. A. Payutto) had no part in the establishment of this foundation or in any other matters pertaining to it.

The goal and objective of the Buddhadhamma Foundation is the widespread propagation of the Buddha’s teachings, so that people may benefit from them and apply them to solve problems, both personal and social, in everyday life, in accord with the Buddha’s directive to his disciples:

Bhikkhus, wander forth for the welfare and happiness of the manyfolk, for the compassionate assistance of the world.

Caratha bhikkhave cārikaṃ bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya lokānukampāya.

The inspiration for the establishment of the Buddhadhamma Foundation was the book Buddhadhamma, written by Ven. P. A. Payutto. Besides this text, the venerable author has written many books on how to apply the Buddha’s teachings to address problems and work out solutions in various domains, e.g.: education; society; economics; politics; government; jurisprudence; culture; history; health; medicine; family life; adolescence; self-development; Dhamma practice; mind development; sangha administration; remedying problems in the sangha; etc.

For his accomplishments Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya has been given honorary doctorate degrees from fifteen leading universities in Thailand, and in 1994 he received UNESCO’s Prize for Peace Education in Paris. The Buddhadhamma Foundation thus primarily focuses on propagating the Buddhist works written by Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya (P. A. Payutto).

Buddhadhamma was compiled by Ven. P. A. Payutto by drawing on the essence of the Buddha’s awakening, i.e. the Four Noble Truths. Ven. P. A. Payutto writes in a detailed, systematic, integrated, and logical way, revealing with clarity long-hidden truths to the reader. As a consequence, knowledge arises about the interconnected nature of human life and spiritual practice, from basic stages up to the final goal of life. One discovers the nature of human life, the attributes of life, the goal of life, and the means for living a worthy life. Through wise reflection one develops greater awareness and a transformation occurs in how one conducts one’s life, leading to fulfilment and success.

To finish, I would like to thank Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya for his kindness in permitting the Buddhadhamma Foundation to carry out this English translation of Buddhadhamma. I am delighted that Mr. Robin Moore has shown such commitment and donated his time to finish this translation in such a thorough and circumspect way. I also wish to express my appreciation to Mr. Bancha Nangsue, who has completed the computer and graphic work for this book with great diligence and determination. The foundation expresses its deep gratitude to all the other people (whose names are not mentioned here) who have provided support for this project and have helped to bring about its success.

The Buddhadhamma Foundation is happy for this English edition of Buddhadhamma to be shared and disseminated, both as a printed publication and over the internet, with the stipulation that this is not done in exchange for any form of profit or monetary reward. If anyone wishes to publish or share this book, please contact the Buddhadhamma Foundation first for permission.

I would like to offer this work in homage to the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

On this occasion, I wish to dedicate any goodness generated from the publication of this book to my late parents Mr. Rung Rueng and Mrs. Kulap Thanapura, and to my two children who have also passed away.

Yongyut Thanapura
President of the Buddhadhamma Foundation
1 June 2017


Buddhadhamma Foundation
87/126 Thetsaban Songkhro Road
Khwaeng Lat Yao, Khet Chatuchak
Bangkok, 10900

(Please send correspondence by registered mail.)
Tel: +66 (0)92-992-6962

Foreword by the Translator

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The first step, however, may be initiated by many different causes. The journey of completing this translation of Buddhadhamma in a sense began accidentally, or at least serendipitously.

In November 1994, after completing my 7-year training as an anāgārika (white-robed novice) and newly-ordained bhikkhu (nāvaka) in the monasteries situated in the UK led by Ven. Ajahn Sumedho (Tahn Chao Khun Rājasumedhācāriya), I asked permission from the elders in the UK to spend some time in Thailand, the spiritual home of the branch monasteries connected to the Luang Por Chah tradition. My request was granted and I was given a oneway ticket.

With only a rudimentary understanding of the Thai language, I went first to Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Ratchathani, where Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro was currently the acting abbot. Coincidentally, during the first month while I was there, the community was blessed with a rare visit by Ven. Phra Payutto, who spent several days giving teachings in English. I had of course heard of Tahn Chao Khun Payutto, whose scholarship was renowned in the Western monasteries and whose books – in particular his Dictionary of Buddhism – was widely read. I also knew that he had lectured at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where I had studied comparative religion as an undergraduate.

During those days at Wat Pah Nanachat he gave a talk on happiness. Although I hadn’t ever heard anyone emphasize the central importance of happiness in Buddhist practice at all levels of the Path, it wasn’t so much the subject of the talk as the manner of the presentation that moved me so deeply. Than Chao Khun radiated happiness – he seemed to embody the joy of one who has tasted the fruits of happiness and who wishes to impart the accompanying knowledge with others. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was moved to tears. Although this was an inchoate form of bliss, based on devotion, it nonetheless infused me with energy and interest. His talk had served its purpose.

I spent most of the next six years walking tudong1 in Thailand as well as living in a remote branch monastery – Wat Phoo Jorm Gorm – by the Mekong River bordering Laos. As a monk, and even before that, I always had a strong academic leaning. Rather than using a standard course book or language teacher, I learned Thai primarily by carrying small Dhamma books (by Ajahn Buddhadasa, Tahn Chao Khun Paññānanda, Luang Por Chah, etc.) on my travels. For long periods of time these books were my companions. In 2001 I felt the need to deepen my theoretical or academic understanding of Buddhism, in part because as an 11-vassa monk (and thus officially a ’Thera’ or ’Ajahn’) I was expected to provide more formal teachings to the lay community.

I decided to ask permission from Ven. Phra Payutto to live with him at Wat Nyanavesakavan in Nakhon Pathom province. Ajahn Jayasaro took me to meet him. Rather than granting permission immediately, Tahn Chao Khun looked at me and asked: ’What are you going to do here?’ Obviously this was no place to simply eat and lay back. I replied that I wanted to read the Tipiṭaka in Thai. Tahn Chao Khun seemed satisfied with this answer.

Not long after moving to Wat Nyanavesakavan, I asked Tahn Chao Khun about the Buddhadhamma translation project. I knew that Mr. Bruce Evans (formerly Puriso Bhikkhu) had spent several years working on this book during the 90’s. Two of the chapters – on Dependent Origination and on Kamma – had been published and very well received. But for some reason, the project had come to a standstill. Tahn Chao Khun asked me whether I would be willing to look at the unfinished manuscript and see whether it could be polished up and made ready for publication. Very soon, however, it became apparent that editing or rewriting someone else’s work, at least in this case, was significantly more difficult than translating the entire text from scratch.

And so the journey began. At first it seemed like walking through a garden filled with exotic flowers, set on gentle foothills. I had no specific destination in mind. It was simply a matter of replacing my original goal of reading the Tipiṭaka with this new activity. I would joke with people, saying that it would take me several lifetimes to complete the entire translation.

In 2003 I returned to the UK and acted as abbot of Hartridge Buddhist Monastery in Devon. In my spare time I would work on the translation, until, in 2007, I completed chapter 3 (I chose not to work sequentially on the text, but rather selected subjects that were of particular interest to me at the time). This was published as a separate volume titled The Three Signs: Anicca, Dukkha and Anattā in the Buddha’s Teachings. The book was sponsored by Khun Sirichan Bhirombhakdi and her two daughters.

In 2007, after having struggled with a debilitating physical illness over the entire nineteen years of my monastic life, I decided to disrobe and see if life as a layman would bring about an improvement of health. Whereas it appeared as if the translation project would come to an abrupt halt, or enter a period of long abeyance, things in fact took an opposite turn, impelling me, metaphorically, from the foothills into elevated heights, where rhododendron trees bloom and the tree line gives out to expansive, moraine-sculpted valleys. Only weeks after disrobing in the UK I received a phone call from Khun Sirichan, urging me to return to Thailand and continue with the Buddhadhamma project. She made it clear that, in her mind, it was irrelevant whether I was in robes or not – she wished to support me and enable this valuable enterprise to be sustained. And so a new chapter of my life began.

Once in Thailand, I continued on the translation in earnest. Fortuitously, Khun Yongyut Dhanapura, the president of the Buddhadhamma Foundation, heard about the work I was doing and proposed that I continue with this project under the auspices of this organization. This enabled me to have all the proper documentation to stay longterm in Thailand and also to receive a salary so that I could earn a living. Here the journey began its most regular and consistent interval. One step at a time, one page of translation a day.

Although the actual translation of the text was completed in November 2014, it has taken another two years to attend to all the necessary details involved in preparing the text for publication. Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro kindly read through the manuscript and we met regularly to make corrections and improvements. After this, the entire formal preparation for publication began – selecting fonts, font sizes, margins and spacing, hyphenations, index, bibliography, contents, etc.

The journey now comes to end, although I hope the book itself will have a life of its own and travel into the world. Although I don’t claim to have reached a summit – that honour rests with the author – I have reached a high saddle or plateau, circumambulating with devotion Tahn Chao Khun’s crowning achievement. As a bonus I have been afforded rare glimpses and insights into the Dhamma. The project would never have reached this stage without devotion and love – a faith and devotion in Tahn Chao Khun’s ability to elucidate the Buddha’s teachings and a love of truth and goodness. Those of you who read the chapter on desire will recognize this latter quality as chanda – the first factor of the four roads to success.

It was perhaps an audacious step to use Buddhadhamma as my sharpening stone in learning the skills of translation. I was not a proficient translator or writer when I began this project. In this light, I have most likely not done full justice to the original Thai book. It is possible that I may have translated some passages incorrectly. If as readers you have doubt about any of the material, I have inserted the page numbers of the Thai edition into the text, in curly brackets, so that you can compare the English with the original. I have confidence, however, that with the help of my editors, in particular Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro, the book contains no blatant distortions or discrepancies.

Besides attempting to capture the meaning of the original Thai text, it has also been a challenge to find a suitable style of translation. Developing such a style was part of the evolution of translating this book. I think it is fair to say that the way in which ideas are formally conveyed in the Thai language differs from the traditional method of English compositions. One friend explained the distinction thus: Thai follows an inductive method whereas English traditionally follows a deductive method. Whether this is an accurate description or not, the text of the Thai edition of Buddhadhamma often follows what I would describe as a series of concentric circles, returning repeatedly to a similar premise. Using this same method in the English translation seemed inappropriate. If one is not used to this style, one can easily feel that, rather than adding layers of meaning and elucidation, one is encountering unnecessary repetition or redundancy. I have therefore reorganized the text accordingly, on many levels: paragraphs, chapter sections, and even entire chapters have been shifted. When key changes were made I consulted with the author to receive his approval. In any case, I can state with conviction that I have neither removed any important text or added my own interpolations.

One major task involved locating equivalent scriptural references used in the footnotes. This was not difficult with references to the Pali Canon, since the BUDSIR program (version 7) developed by Mahidol University contains a quick and easy to use search option for finding the corresponding Pali Text Society page numbers, matching the page numbers in the Thai Pali Tipiṭaka. The challenge was greatly multiplied, however, when faced with references to the commentaries, sub-commentaries, and other non-canonical texts. In most cases, I would have to copy the relevant Pali passage using the BUDSIR program, which does not give the PTS page numbers, and then try to match it by typing Pali terms in Roman script and pasting them into the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka program (version 4.0), which does provide pages numbers, or sometimes only headings, to the PTS editions. The BUDSIR program is based on the Siam Raṭṭha Pāli Tipiṭaka (supplemented by the Thai translation called the Royal Tipiṭaka) which is the source of the references in Buddhadhamma (see bibliography). It is quite possible that there are errors with some of these footnote references. If readers spot any errors I would be grateful if you contact me so that I can make corrections for future printings. In the case where numbers are in brackets this indicates that I was unable to find an equivalent PTS (or other Roman alphabet) page number. Again, hopefully these will be updated in the future.

So many people have been supportive and helpful with this project that it is impossible to name everyone. The most important people are as follows:

First and foremost, my gratitude extends to Ven. Phra Payutto, who, besides being a constant inspiration and beacon of wisdom and compassion, has bestowed so much trust and confidence in my ability to complete this project at a required quality and standard. Although, due to his many other responsibilities and limitations on the physical level, he has not been able to read through the entire English translation, he has always answered my questions and doubts punctually when they arose. Although I may have been able to reflect some of his depth of wisdom and intellectual brilliance, it is beyond my powers to transport his beaming smile and radiant kindness to the reader. Those of you who have had the good fortune to meet him know what I’m talking about.

Second, I give my thanks to Ven. Ajahn Jayasaro, who has provided me with so much encouragement on many levels throughout the past fifteen years (and beyond that). He shares a similar devotion to Tahn Chao Khun Payutto, as well as a love for language. Our time poring over this manuscript has deepened my respect for and friendship with him.

Third, I thank Khun Sirichan Bhirombhakdi for acting as the catalyst in bringing me back to Thailand to continue this work until it reached completion. Sometimes we must hear the words ’I believe in you’ to overcome inertia or other mental obstacles.

Fourth, this project would not have been completed without the enthusiasm and support by Khun Yongyut Thanapura, president of the Buddhadhamma Foundation. It was through his initiative and longterm vision that this book has materialized.

My mother and stepfather – Karin and Jon Gunnemann, and my father and step-mother – Basil and Subithra Moore, have given me material and emotional support over the years, including a time when I was between jobs. Important editors and proofreaders over the years include: Ven. Gavesako Bhikkhu, Ven. Cittasaṁvaro Bhikkhu, Ron Lumsden, Max Mackay-James, and Martin Seeger. I thank Mr. Bruce Evans for letting me consult with his earlier translations of Buddhadhamma, a work he did with great dedication. Other people who have provided notable support include Mr. Sian Mah and Mrs. Chantana Ouysook.

May these collective efforts help to bring light and peace to the world through the power of wisdom and understanding. The Buddha bequeathed the Dhammavinaya to us, to safeguard and uphold. This entails more than simply keeping copies of the Tipiṭaka in glass-fronted bookshelves. Although the realization of the Buddha’s teachings may be summarized as a fulfilment of the four duties vis-à-vis the Four Noble Truths, i.e. understanding suffering, removing its cause, realizing its cessation, and cultivating the Path, or more succinctly, knowing suffering and the end of suffering, many tools and skilful methods may be needed to accomplish this goal. The beauty of the Buddha’s teachings is that they provide us with a treasure chest of insights and guidelines. Another metaphor is that the Dhamma is a multifaceted diamond. No matter from what direction you pick it up, it offers invaluable glimpses of truth which may be used to cut through the shrouds of delusion. These teachings were expanded upon and elucidated by later commentarial authors. Ven. Phra Payutto’s gift and genius here is to present the canonical and post-canonical teachings in a lucid integrated whole, a watertight vessel for taking us to the other shore. The work to be undertaken is still ours to do, but the Path, and its many obstacles, has been clearly outlined and revealed.

Robin Moore
Green Park Home
August 2016


Tudong: the traditional practice of itinerant monks. This word stems from the Pali dhutaṅga, which is translated as a training for eliminating or ’shaking off’ mental impurity.


People today frequently pose the question whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, or simply a way of life. This query gives rise to all sorts of debates and opinions, which often just create confusion.

Although this book Buddhadhamma is written as a form of philosophical treatise, I will not engage in the aforementioned debate.1 My focus will simply be on what is stated in the Buddha’s teachings – on the gist of these teachings. As for the question whether Buddhism is a philosophy or not, it is up to various philosophical systems themselves to determine whether Buddhism fits their criteria. Buddhism remains what it is; it is unaffected by these judgements and interpretations. The only specification I wish to make here is that any teaching or doctrine on truth that is only intended as an intellectual exercise of logic or reason, and contains no corresponding elements for practical application in everyday life, is not Buddhism, especially the original and genuine teachings given by the Buddha himself, which are referred to as Buddha-Dhamma.

It is a difficult task to compile the Buddha’s teachings, especially on the premise that one is presenting the true or genuine teachings, even if one cites passages from the Pali Canon which are considered the words of the Buddha. This is because these teachings are copious and contain various dimensions or levels of profundity, and also because imparting them accurately depends on the intelligence and sincerity of the person presenting them. It may happen that two people with divergent opinions are both able to quote passages from the sacred texts supporting their own points of view. To determine the truth is dependent on how accurately one grasps the essence of these teachings, and on how consistent the link is between one’s theories and the evidence one uses to support them. In many cases the supporting evidence is not comprehensive enough, and thus it is inevitable that the presentation of Buddha-Dhamma often reflects the opinions and understanding of the person interpreting it.

To clarify one’s analysis of the teachings, it is helpful to examine the life and conduct of the Buddha, the supreme teacher, who is the origin and source of these teachings. {2} Although one may argue that the stories of the Buddha’s activities come from the same sources as the formal teachings, nonetheless they are very useful for reflection. Occasionally, the Buddha’s actions reflect his aims and wishes more clearly than the formal teachings in the scriptures.

From the evidence in the scriptures and from other historical sources, one can draw a rough sketch of the events and the social environment at the time of the Buddha as follows:

The Buddha was born in the Indian subcontinent about 2,600 years ago. He was born among the warrior caste (kṣatriyaḥ/katthiya), and named Prince Siddhattha. He was the son of King Suddhodana, the ruler of the Sakyan country, which lay at the northeast of the Indian subcontinent, adjoining the Himalayan mountain range. As a prince, and in accord with the wishes of the royal family, he was fully provided with worldly pleasures, which he enjoyed for twenty-nine years, during which time he was married and had a son.

At this time, absolute monarchies were in the ascendency and were trying to expand their empires by waging war. Many other states, especially the republics, who ruled by a general assembly based on unanimous decisions, were gradually losing their power. Some of these states were conquered and incorporated into larger states, while others that remained strong were under duress, aware that war could break out at any time. And the large, powerful nations were often at war with one another.

Trade and commerce were burgeoning, giving rise to a new group of highly influential wealthy merchants (seṭṭhi), whose prestige and authority began to extend even to the royal courts.

According to the teachings of Brahmanism, people were divided into four social classes or castes (vaṇṇa). People’s privileges and social standing, as well as their occupations, were determined by their caste. Although Hindu historians claim that the caste system at that time was not yet very strict, members of the class of manual workers (śūdra/sudda) were not entitled to listen to or to recite passages of the Vedas, the sacred texts of the brahmins. These restrictions became increasingly rigid and severe; śūdra who defied these injunctions and studied the Vedas were penalized with capital punishment. Moreover, outcastes (caṇḍāla) were not entitled to any form of formal education. The sole factor for determining one’s caste was birth, and the members of the brahmin class claimed to be superior to all others.

The brahmins safeguarded and upheld the traditions of Brahmanism. They developed ever greater arcane and mysterious teachings and rituals, which became increasingly irrational. Rituals were observed not simply for religious purposes, but also as a way for powerful rulers to demonstrate their importance. And the priests who conducted these rituals gained personal advantage and riches.

These ceremonies and rituals increased selfishness in those people seeking wealth and pleasure. At the same time, they caused distress for members of the downtrodden lower classes – the slaves, servants, and labourers – and they caused agony to those countless animals slaughtered as a sacrifice.2 {3}

During the same period, one group of brahmins doubted whether these religious rituals actually lead to eternal life, and they began to devote themselves to the contemplation of immortality and the path to its realization. In their search for truth, many of them separated themselves from society and resorted to the forests in seclusion. Such renunciants, who renounced the household life and went forth in search of the true meaning of life, were collectively referred to as samaṇa.

The brahmanical teachings during this time – the era of the Upanishads – was full of contradictions. Some religious factions affirmed the effectiveness of the established rituals, while other factions denounced these very same rituals. There were conflicting views on the subject of immortality and the soul (ātman). Some brahmins claimed that the ātman is equivalent to brahmin (Brahmā/Brahma; the godhead; the divine essence); they claimed that Brahma generates and permeates all things, and is ineffable, as is expressed in the phrase, neti neti (’not this, not that’). They believed that the ātman/brahmin unity is the supreme goal of spiritual practice. They engaged in religious debates on this subject, while at the same time jealously guarding knowledge on this matter within their own circles.

Meanwhile, another group of renunciants were disenchanted with the seeming meaninglessness of life, and practised in the hope of attaining exceptional states of mind or of reaching the deathless state. Some of them engaged in extreme forms of self-mortification, by fasting and undertaking strange and unusual ascetic practices, which ordinary people would not believe were possible. Others developed the concentrative absorptions (jhāna), reaching the fine-material attainments (rūpa-samāpatti) and the formless attainments (arūpa-samāpatti), while some became so proficient in the jhānas that they were able to perform marvels of psychic powers.

Included among the groups of renunciants were those who wandered from village to village, establishing themselves as teachers and expounding their various religious views by engaging in religious debate and dialectic.

The search for meaning and the propagation of various beliefs and teachings proceeded in an intense and energetic manner, leading to numerous ideologies and doctrines.3 As is mentioned in the scriptures, there were six major established doctrines at the time of the Buddha.4

To sum up, one group of people was growing in wealth and power, revelling in sensual pleasures and seeking increased riches. At the same time, many other people were neglected, and their social standing and quality of living was declining. Another group of people was separating itself from society, bent on discovering philosophical truths, but they too did not take much interest in the conditions of society.

Prince Siddhattha enjoyed worldly pleasures for twenty-nine years. Not only did his family provide him with such pleasures, they also prevented him from seeing firsthand the lives of the ordinary folk, which were full of suffering. This suffering, however, could not be concealed from him forever. The problems and afflictions of human beings – most notably aging, sickness, and death – preoccupied the prince and caused him to seek a solution. {4}

When the prince reflected on these social problems, he saw a group of privileged people who pursued their own personal comforts, competing with one another and indulging in pleasure, without any care or concern for the suffering of others. They were enslaved by material things. In times of happiness, they were engrossed in their own selfish pursuits; in times of affliction, they were obsessed with their own distress and despair. In the end, they grew old and sick, and died in vain. Another group of people, the disadvantaged, had no opportunity to prosper and were desperately abused and oppressed. They too aged, grew ill, and died in a seemingly meaningless way.

Seeing his pleasures and delights as pointless, the prince became disillusioned with his own life. Although at first his search was unsuccessful, he began to look for a solution, for a way to discover lasting and meaningful happiness. His life full of temptations and distractions was not conducive to his reflections. In the end he recognized that the renunciant life is uncomplicated, free from worry, and conducive to spiritual knowledge. He considered that this way of life would probably help him solve these universal human problems, and he may very well encounter renunciants who could teach him valuable lessons.

This line of thinking prompted the prince to relinquish the princely life and go forth as a renunciant. He wandered around studying with various teachers, learning the methods of spiritual endeavour (yoga) and developing meditation, until he reached the concentrative attainments (jhāna-samāpatti) – including the highest formless attainments (arūpa-samāpatti) – and became proficient at psychic powers (iddhi-pāṭihāriya). Eventually, he practised extreme austerities.

In the end he came to the conclusion that none of the methods belonging to these other renunciants were able to solve his conundrum. When he compared his present life to his earlier life in the palace, he realized that both were expressions of extremes. He decided to follow his own reflections and investigations, until he finally reached complete awakening.5 Later, when he proclaimed to others the truth, the Dhamma,6 that he had discovered, he referred to it as the middle truth (majjhena-dhamma) or the middle teaching (majjhena-dhammadesanā), and he referred to the system of practice that he laid down for others as the middle way (majjhimā-paṭipadā; the ’middle path of practice’).

The Buddhist perspective is that both a life of greed and indulgence – abandoning oneself to the stream of mental defilements – and a life of complete retreat from the world – giving up all involvement in and responsibility for society, and afflicting oneself with hardship – are incorrect and extreme forms of practice. Neither of these can lead people to a truly meaningful way of life.

After his awakening the Buddha returned to the wider society and began to teach the Dhamma in an earnest and devoted manner for the wellbeing of the manyfolk. He devoted himself to this task for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

The Buddha realized that sharing the teachings and helping others would be most effective through the renunciant form. He thus encouraged many members of the upper classes to renounce their wealth, go forth into the renunciant life, and realize the Dhamma. These individuals then participated in the work of self-sacrifice, devoting themselves to benefiting others, by wandering around the country and meeting with people of all social classes. {5}

The monastic community itself is an important medium for solving social problems. For example, every person, regardless of which caste or social class he or she comes from – even from the class of outcastes – has the same rights and privileges to be ordained, to train, and to reach the highest goal.

Merchants and householders, who are not yet prepared to fully renounce their possessions, may live as male and female lay disciples, supporting the monastic sangha’s activities and duties, and assisting other people by sharing their wealth.

The true objective and extent of activities by the Buddha and his disciples is summed up by the Buddha’s injunction, which he gave when he sent out the first generation of disciples to proclaim the teachings:

Bhikkhus, wander forth for the welfare and happiness of the manyfolk, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and humans.

Vin. I. 20-21.

The Pāsādika Sutta offers a summary of how the Buddhist teachings are connected to society and how they benefit various groups of people:

The ’holy life’ (brahmacariya = the Buddhist religion) is only considered to have reached fulfilment, to be of benefit to the manyfolk, and to be firmly established – what is referred to as ’well-declared by devas7 and human beings’ – when the following factors are complete:

  1. The Teacher (satthā) is distinguished, experienced, mature, and advanced in seniority.

  2. There are bhikkhu elder disciples with expert knowledge, who are well-trained and fearless, who have realized the unsurpassed safety from bondage, who are able to teach the Dhamma to others effectively, and who successfully refute (opposing) doctrines correctly and in line with the Dhamma. Moreover, there are bhikkhus of middle-standing and newly ordained monks who have the same abilities.

  3. There are bhikkhuni8 disciples – nuns who are senior, of middle-standing, and newly ordained – who have the same abilities.

  4. There are male lay disciples, both those who live a celibate life and those who live at home and enjoy the pleasures of the senses, who have the same abilities.

  5. There are female lay disciples, both those who live a celibate life and those who live at home and enjoy the pleasures of the senses, who have the same abilities.

Even lacking female householders with such virtuous qualities means that Buddhism is not yet prospering and complete.9

This sutta reveals how the Buddhist teachings are intended for everyone, both renunciants and householders. Buddhism embraces all of society. {6}

Primary Attributes of Buddha-Dhamma

The two main attributes of Buddha-Dhamma may be summarized as follows:

  1. It reveals ’middle’ (i.e. ’objective’) principles of truth, and is thus referred to as the middle truth (majjhena-dhamma) or the middle teaching (majjhena-dhammadesanā). It reflects the truth in strict line with cause and effect and according to laws of nature. It has been revealed solely for the benefit of practical application in real life. It does not promote an attempt to realize the truth by creating various theories and dogmas based on philosophical conjecture and inference, which are consequently adhered to, debated and defended.

  2. It lays down a system of practice referred to as the ’middle way’ (majjhimā-paṭipadā), which acts as a guideline for those undergoing spiritual training. These practitioners gain a clear insight into their lives, steer away from credulity, and aim for those fruits of practice accessible in this lifetime, namely: happiness, purity, enlightenment, peace, and liberation. In practical application the Middle Way is connected to other factors, such as one’s life as a renunciant or life as a householder.

Buddhism is a religion of action (kamma-vāda; kiriya-vāda), a religion of effort (viriya-vāda).10 It is not a religion of supplication nor is it a religion based on hope.

The practical benefits of the teachings are available to everyone no matter what his or her situation, beginning with the present moment. Regardless of a person’s station in or condition of life, everyone can access and utilize these teachings as is suitable to his or her circumstances, both in terms of understanding the Middle Truth and of walking the Middle Way. If one is still anxious or concerned about life after this world, one is encouraged to devote oneself through proper conduct to generating the desired favourable conditions now, until one gains confidence and dispels all worries and fears about the future life.11

Every person is equally eligible according to nature to reach the fruits of spiritual practice. Although people’s spiritual abilities differ, everyone should have equal opportunity to develop these wholesome results of practice according to his or her ability. Although each one of us must generate these results through individual effort – by reflecting on one’s full responsibility in these matters – we are all important agents for assisting the spiritual practice of others. For this reason, the Buddha stressed the two chief principles of heedfulness (appamāda) and virtuous friendship (kalyāṇamittatā). On the one hand, one takes full responsibility for one’s own life, and on the other hand one recognizes the supreme value of wholesome external influences.

The Buddha focused on several major tasks. One of these was his attempt to eliminate naive and superstitious beliefs around misguided religious ceremonies, in particular the practice of animal sacrifice (not to mention human sacrifice), by pointing out their harmful effects and overall fruitlessness. {7}

There were several reasons why the Buddha gave so much emphasis to abandoning the practice of sacrifices. First, these practices caused people to seek help from divine intervention. Second, they caused great hardship and affliction for other people and living creatures. Third, they increased selfishness and craving for material rewards. Fourth, they brought about a preoccupation with the future, rather than a wish to improve the present state of affairs. To counteract these detrimental practices, the Buddha emphasized generosity and service to society.

The second thing that the Buddha tried to abolish was the caste system, which used people’s birth as a way to restrict their privileges and opportunities, both in society and in regard to spiritual development. He established the monastic community, which welcomes people from all social classes into a system of equality, just as the ocean receives all rivers, as one unified and whole body of water.12 This then led to the institution of monasteries, which later became vital centres of education and the spreading of culture, to the point that Hinduism followed suit and created their own monastic institutions about 1,400-1,700 years after the Buddha.13

According to the principles of Buddha-Dhamma, both women and men are equally able to realize the highest goal of Buddhism. Not long after the Buddha had established the bhikkhu sangha, he also established the bhikkhuni sangha, despite social conditions being unfavourable to a female monastic order. The Buddha was fully aware of how difficult it would be to create a suitable form for women to live the renunciant life. He exercised great care in its establishment at a time when extreme restrictions around spiritual practice were placed on women by the religions of the Vedic period, to the extent that one may say the door had been closed to them.

The Buddha taught the Dhamma using vernacular language – the language used by the common people – so that everyone, regardless of his or her station in life or level of education, would be able to benefit. This was in contrast to Brahmanism, which insisted on the sacredness of the Vedic texts and used various means to reserve higher religious knowledge within a narrow, elite group. Specifically, the brahmins used the Sanskrit language, the knowledge of which was confined to their own group, to transmit and guard the texts. Later, some individuals asked the Buddha for permission to preserve and transmit the Buddhist teachings in the Vedic language, but he rejected this proposal and had the monks continue to use the language of the common people.14

Furthermore, the Buddha absolutely refused to waste time debating on matters of truth through philosophical speculation – on matters which cannot be empirically proven by way of rational discussion. If people came to him with such questions, the Buddha would remain silent. He would then lead the person back to everyday, practical matters.15 Those things to be understood by way of speech he would share with others by speaking; those things to be understood by way of sight he would reveal to others to see. He would use the most direct and appropriate method according to the circumstances.

The Buddha used many different methods when teaching the Dhamma, so that everyone may benefit. His teachings contain many layers: those aimed for householders and members of mainstream society, and those aimed for individuals who have relinquished the household life. There are teachings focusing on material benefits and others focusing on deeper, spiritual benefits. {8}

Because the Buddha taught within a brahmanic culture and was surrounded by various religious belief systems, he was required to engage with spiritual terms used by these other traditions. As the Buddha wished for his teachings to reach the greatest number of people within a short period of time, he applied a unique approach in regard to these terms. Rather than directly refuting or discrediting people’s beliefs associated with these terms, he questioned or challenged the true meanings of these terms. He did not use an aggressive approach; instead, he promoted a natural form of transformation through understanding and spiritual development.

To accomplish this the Buddha used some of these already established spiritual terms and gave them new meanings in line with Buddha-Dhamma. For example, he defined the term brahma/brahmā (’Brahma,’ ’divine,’ ’sublime,’ ’sacred’) as referring to one kind of celestial (yet mortal) being; in other contexts it was used in reference to parents. He altered the concept of worshipping the six cardinal directions into the notion of maintaining and honouring one’s social relationships. He changed the meaning of the sacred brahmanic fire worship, by the three kinds of sacrificial ceremonies, into fulfilling a responsibility vis-à-vis three kinds of individuals in society. And he transformed the factor determining a person as a brahmin (brāhmaṇa; ’one who is sacred,’ ’one who has divine knowledge’) and as noble (ariya; ’cultured,’ ’civilized’) from a person’s birth into a person’s conduct and spiritual development.

Occasionally, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to draw upon wholesome and beneficial aspects of other religious traditions. He acknowledged and approved of any teaching that is correct and connected to virtue, considering that such righteousness and virtue is a universal aspect of nature. In the case that specific principles of practice by these other traditions had varying interpretations, the Buddha explained which ones are correct and which ones are false. He sanctioned only the practice of what is correct and wholesome.

The Buddha pointed out that faulty or harmful practices observed by other religious traditions were sometimes a result of a decline or degeneracy within these traditions themselves. The original teachings espoused by these traditions were sometimes virtuous and correct. He occasionally described these original wholesome teachings. Examples of this include his historical explanations on the notions of ’religious austerity’ (tapa), the offering of sacrifices (yañña), the principles of leadership in regard to social assistance, and the duties of a brahmin (brāhmaṇa-dhamma).16

In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, after his teachings had spread to different areas, numerous disparities arose in people’s understanding of Buddha-Dhamma. This occurred for various reasons: those people who transmitted the teachings had different levels of training, understanding, and aptitude, and they interpreted the teachings in different ways; people began to mix in beliefs from other religious traditions; local cultures exerted an influence on people’s ideas and understanding; and some aspects of the teachings grew in prominence while other aspects fell into obscurity, due to the interest, predisposition, and skill of those individuals who safeguarded the teachings. These disparities resulted in the breaking off into various schools (nikāya), as is evident today in the division between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, along with numerous other subsidiary schools and lineages. {9}

Although the Theravada tradition is known for its precision and accuracy in preserving the original standards and teachings, it could not escape some changes and alterations. The authenticity and validity of some teachings, even those that are contained in the scriptures, are debated among members of the current generation, who often seek proof in order to either substantiate their own opinions or repudiate the views of others. Discrepancies are especially evident in the views and practices upheld by the general public. In some cases, these views and practices seem to stand in direct opposition to the original teachings, or they have almost developed into another religious ideology, perhaps even one refuted by the original teachings.

Take for example the understanding in Thailand of the word kamma (Sanskrit: ’karma’). Most Buddhists in Thailand when they encounter this word think of the past, in particular of deeds from past lives. They focus on the harmful effects in the present of bad deeds from past lives and on the negative results of previous evil actions. In most cases, their understanding is shaped by a collection of such thoughts. When compared to the true definitions of kamma in the scriptures, one can see how remote some of these ideas are from genuine Buddha-Dhamma.17

In this book the author18 is attempting to present Buddha-Dhamma in a way that is as true and accurate as possible. Because it is considered superfluous to this task, these divergent views, definitions, and practices are not discussed.

The source of the material for this book is the collection of Buddhist scriptures, which, unless otherwise specified, refers to the Tipiṭaka (Pali Canon). It is generally accepted that this text is the most accurate and complete compilation of the Buddha’s teachings. The author has selected those teachings in the Pali Canon which are deemed most authentic and accurate, by applying the principles of compatibility and coherence in respect to the overall body of Theravada scripture. As an added assurance in this undertaking, the author considers the Buddha’s conduct as a complement to the formal Dhamma teachings.

Having selected these guidelines, the author is confident that he has accurately explained and presented the true essence of Buddha-Dhamma.

On a fundamental level, however, the accuracy of this presentation depends on the extent of the author’s wisdom and intelligence, as well as any unacknowledged bias or prejudice. Let us simply conclude that this is one attempt to present the Buddha’s teachings in the most accurate way, based on specific methods of scholarship in which the author has the most confidence. {10}

One may separate Buddha-Dhamma into two parts, as matters of truth (sacca-dhamma) and matters of conduct (cariya-dhamma): as theory and practice. The former is defined as those teachings pertaining to reality, to manifestations of truth, to nature, and to the laws and processes of nature. The latter is defined as those teachings pertaining to principles of practice or behaviour, to benefiting in a practical way from one’s knowledge of reality or one’s understanding of the laws of nature. Sacca-dhamma is equated with nature and natural truths; cariya-dhamma is equated with knowing how to act in response to such truths. Within this entire teaching, no significance is given to supernatural agents – to any alleged forces over and above nature – for example of a creator God.

In order to do justice to the entire range and scope of Buddha-Dhamma as an integrated system, one should describe both of these aspects. That is, one should first reveal the theoretical teachings, followed by an analysis of how to apply these teachings in an effective and valuable way.

For this reason, the chapters in this book, each of which deals with a specific aspect of truth, also contain guidelines on how to apply these truths in a practical way. For example, at the end of the second chapter dealing with different kinds of knowledge, there is a section on the practical meaning and benefit of such knowledge. Moreover, the main body of Buddhadhamma follows this format: the first main section pertains to specific laws of nature, and is titled ’The Middle Teachings.’ The second main section pertains to a practical application of such laws in everyday life, and is titled ’The Middle Way.’

Although the presentation in this book may seem unorthodox, it corresponds to an original style of teaching. It begins with those aspects of life that are problematic, and it then traces back to the source of such problems. The analysis continues to a deeper inspection of the causes of suffering, the ultimate goal of spiritual practice, and the practical methods for solving problems and for realizing the goal. Indeed, the presentation is consistent with the Four Noble Truths.19


When I began to write this book, I was invited to compile the Buddha’s teachings (Buddha-Dhamma) into chapters by following a philosophical approach.


See, e.g.: Vāseṭṭha Sutta (Sn. 115-16) and Brāhmaṇadhammika Sutta (Sn. 52-5).


According to the evidence in the scriptures, the doctrines of the renunciants and brahmins can be divided into sixty-two different views or belief systems (D. I. 13-45).


For a closer examination of the conditions in the Indian subcontinent at the time of the Buddha, see, e.g.: G. C. Pande, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (India: University of Allahabad, 1957), pp. 310-368.


For more on this period of the Buddha’s life, see, e.g. the Sagārava Sutta: M. II. 209-213. [Trans.: this sutta is also known as the Saṅgārava Sutta.]


Trans: Sanskrit: dharma. The word dhamma has many definitions; some of the most common are: thing, phenomenon, quality, property, nature, natural law, truth, reality, virtue, righteousness, the teachings revealed by the Buddha, and mind object.


Trans: deva = god; divine being.


Trans: Pali: bhikkhunī. For the sake of simplicity, I use the spelling ’bhikkhuni’ in this text.


See the Pāsādika Sutta: D. III. 122-5. Note how the term brahmacariya (’holy life’, ’sublime life’) incorporates householders.


E.g.: A. I. 286-7.


E.g.: S. V. 386.


See, e.g.: A. IV. 202-203; D. III. 97-8.


See, e.g.: B. V. Bapat, 2500 Years of Buddhism, (1959), p. 335, and: S. Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, (1962), p. 210.


See: Vin. II. 139.


See, e.g.: A. V. 193-8; M. I. 426-32.


See: A. IV. 41; A. V. 190-91; Sn. 51-53; see also the following subject material.


Thai people have developed similarly unique meanings of other concepts and terms, e.g.: ārammaṇa (’sense object’), viññāṇa (’consciousness’), pāramī (’spiritual perfection’), santosa (’contentment’), upekkhā (’equanimity’), adhiṭṭhāna (’determination’), parikamma (’preliminary meditation exercise’), bhāvanā (’cultivation’), vipassanā (’insight’), kāma (’sense desire’), lokiya (’mundane’), lokuttara (’transcendent’), puñña (’merit’), icchā (’longing’), etc. These terms are now used either in a completely different meaning from how they were originally intended, or else their range of meaning has changed. In the study of Buddha-Dhamma it is vital to be able to recognize and distinguish these newer meanings in order to understand the true definition of these terms.


Trans: In the original Thai text of Buddhadhamma, the venerable author never uses the first person pronoun to refer to himself. This is a means of distancing himself from the text. As he states in the Author’s Notes, he wishes as much as possible to present an objective account of the Buddha’s teachings, and in this regard, to have the readers forget that he is there. As this is unusual in an English context, I have occasionally inserted the first person pronoun.


See the ’sequence of teaching’ (desanānukkama) at: MA. II. 219 (in reference to: M. I. 184-91). [Trans.: this final statement, of the presentation being consistent with the Four Noble Truths, is particularly noteworthy. For more on this subject, see how the four factors of Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga are included in the Contents. See also chapter 19 on the Four Noble Truths.]

Part 1: Middle Teaching

Section 1: Nature of Human Life

‘Venerable sir, it is said, “the world, the world.” In what way, might there be the world or the description of the world?’

‘Where there is the eye, Samiddhi, where there are forms, eye-consciousness, things to be cognized by eye-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world. Where there is the ear … the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world.’

Loko lokoti bhante vuccati kittāvatā nu kho bhante loko vā assa lokapaññatti vāti. Yattha kho samiddhi atthi cakkhu atthi rūpā atthi cakkhuviññāṇaṃ atthi cakkhuviññāṇa-viññātabbā dhammā atthi tattha loko vā lokapaññatti vā … atthi jivhā … atthi mano atthi dhammā atthi manoviññāṇaṃ atthi manoviññāṇa-viññātabbā dhammā atthi tattha loko vā lokapaññatti vā.

S. IV. 39-40

Where there is form, monks, by clinging to form, by adhering to form, there arises the view: ‘That which is the self is the world. Having passed away, I shall be permanent, lasting, eternal, not subject to change.’ When there is feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness … by clinging to consciousness … there arises the view: ‘That which is the self is the world. Having passed away, I shall be permanent, lasting eternal, not subject to change.’

Rūpe kho bhikkhave sati … vedanāya sati … saññāya sati … saṅkhāresu sati … viññāṇe sati, rūpaṃ … vedanaṃ … saññaṃ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṃ upādāya … abhinivissa evaṃ diṭṭhi upajjati so attā so loko so pecca bhavissāmi nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo.

S. III. 182-83

Five Aggregates

The Five Constituents of Life


From the perspective of Buddha-Dhamma, all things exist according to their own nature. They do not exist as separate fixed entities, and in the case of living creatures, they are not distinct and immutable ’beings’ or ’persons’, which one could validly take to be a legitimate owner of things or which are able to govern things according to their wishes.1

Everything that exists in the world exists as a collection of convergent parts. There exists no inherent self or substantial essence within things. When one separates the constituent parts from each other, no self or core remains. A frequent scriptural analogy for this is of a vehicle.2 When one assembles the various parts according to one’s chosen design, one assigns the conventional term ’wagon’ to the end product. Yet if one disassembles the parts, no essence of a wagon can be found. All that remains are the various parts, each of which is given its own specific name.

This fact implies that the ’self’ or ’entity’ of a vehicle does not exist separate from its constituent parts. The term ’car’, for instance, is simply a conventional designation. Moreover, all of those constituent parts may also be separated into further parts, none of which possesses a stable, fixed essence. So when one states that something ’exists’, one needs to understand it in this context: that it exists as a collection of inconstant constituent elements.

Having made this claim, the Buddhist teachings go on to describe the primary elements or constituents that make up the world. And because the Buddhist teachings pertain directly to human life, and in particular to the mind, this elucidation of the constituent parts encompasses both mind and matter, both mentality (nāma-dhamma) and corporeality (rūpa-dhamma). Here, special emphasis is given to the analysis of the mind.

There are many ways to present this division into separate constituents of life, depending on the objective of the specific analysis.3 This chapter presents the division into the ’five aggregates’ (pañca-khandha), which is the preferred analysis in the suttas.

In Buddha-Dhamma, the human living entity – what is referred to as a ’person’ or ’living being’ – is divided into five groups or categories:4 {14}5

  1. Rūpa (corporeality; body; material form): all material constituents; the body and all physical behaviour; matter and physical energy, along with the properties and course of such energy.

  2. Vedanā (feeling; sensation): the feelings of pleasure, pain, and neutral feelings, arising from contact by way of the five senses and by way of the mind.

  3. Saññā (perception): the ability to recognize and to designate; the perception and discernment of various signs, characteristics, and distinguishing features, enabling one to remember a specific object of attention (ārammaṇa).6

  4. Saṅkhāra (mental formations; volitional activities): those mental constituents or properties, with intention as leader, which shape the mind as wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral, and which shape a person’s thoughts and reflections, as well as verbal and physical behaviour. They are the source of kamma (’karma’; intentional action). Examples of such mental formations include: faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), moral shame (hiri), fear of wrongdoing (ottappa), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), appreciative joy (muditā), equanimity (upekkhā),7 wisdom (paññā), delusion (moha), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), conceit (māna), views (diṭṭhi), jealousy (issā), and stinginess (macchariya). They are the agents or fashioners of the mind, of thought, and of intentional action.

  5. Viññāṇa (consciousness): conscious awareness of objects by way of the five senses – i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling tangible objects – and awareness of mind objects.

There are several points to bear in mind in reference to the final four aggregates, comprising the mental aggregates (nāma-khandhā):8

Perception (saññā) is a form of knowledge.9 It refers to the perception or discernment of an object’s attributes and properties, including its shape, appearance, colour, etc., as well as its name and conventional designations. For example, one knows that an object is ’green’, ’white’, ’black’, ’red’, ’loud’, ’faint’, ’bass’, ’high-pitched’, ’fat’, ’thin’, ’a table’, ’a pen’, ’a pig’, ’a dog’, ’a fish’, ’a cat’, ’a person’, ’him’, ’her’, ’me’, ’you’, etc.

Perception relies on the encounter or comparison between previous experience or knowledge and new experience or knowledge. If one’s current experience corresponds with previous experience – say one meets someone familiar or one hears a familiar sound – one has ’recognition’ (note that this is not the same as ’memory’). For example, Mr. Jones knows Mr. Smith. A month later, they meet and Mr. Jones recognizes Mr. Smith. {15}

If a new experience does not correspond with previous experiences, people tend to compare it to previous experience or knowledge, looking at those aspects that are either similar or different. They then identify the object according to their labels or designations, determined by the similarities and differences. This is the process of perception – of designation and identification.

There are many layers to perception, including: perception in accord with common agreement and understanding, e.g.: ’green’, ’white’, ’yellow’, and ’red’; perception in accord with social conventions and traditions, e.g.: ’this is polite’, ’this is beautiful’, ’this is normal’, and ’this is abnormal’; perception according to personal preferences and conceptions, e.g.: ’this is attractive’, ’this is admirable’, and ’this is irritating’; perception based on multiple factors (perception of symbolism), e.g.: ’green and red represents this university’, and ’two rings of the bell designate mealtime’; and perception according to spiritual learning, e.g.: ’perception of impermanence’ and ’perception of insubstantiality’.

There is both common, everyday perception and subtle, refined perception (i.e. perception that is intricately connected to the other aggregates). There is perception of matter and perception of the mind. The various terms used for saññā, such as ’recognition’, ’remembering’, ’designation’, ’assignation’, ’attribution’, and ’ideation’ all describe aspects of this aggregate of perception.

Simply speaking, perception is the process of collecting, compiling, and storing data and information, which is the raw material for thought.

Perception is very helpful to people, but at the same time it can be detrimental. This is because people tend to attach to their perceptions, which end up acting as an obstruction, obscuring and eclipsing reality, and preventing one from penetrating a deeper, underlying truth.

A useful and practical division of perception (saññā) is into two kinds: ordinary perceptions, which discern the attributes of sense objects as they naturally arise; and secondary or overlapping perceptions. The latter are sometimes referred to by specific terms, in particular as ’proliferative perception’ (papañca-saññā): perception resulting from intricate and fanciful mental proliferation driven by the force of craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and views (diṭṭhi), which are at the vanguard of negative mental formations (negative saṅkhāra). This division highlights the active role of perception and shows the relationship between perception and other aggregates within mental processes.

Consciousness (viññāṇa) is traditionally defined as ’awareness of sense objects’. It refers to a prevailing or constant form of knowing. It is both the basis and the channel for the other mental aggregates, and it functions in association with them. It is both a primary and an accompanying form of knowledge.

It is primary in the sense that it is an initial form of knowledge. When one sees something (i.e. visual consciousness arises), one may feel pleasure or distress (= feeling – vedanā). One then identifies the object (perception – saññā), followed by various intentions and thoughts (volitional formations – saṅkhāra). For example, one sees the sky (= viññāṇa) and feels delighted (= vedanā). One knows the sky to be bright, beautiful, the colour of indigo, an afternoon sky (= saññā). One is delighted by the sky and wishes to admire it for a long, uninterrupted period of time. One resents the fact that one’s view is obstructed, and one wonders how one can find a place to watch the sky at one’s leisure (= saṅkhāra).

Consciousness is an accompanying form of knowledge in that one knows in conjunction with the other aggregates. When one feels happy (= vedanā), one knows that one is happy (= viññāṇa). (Note that the feeling of happiness is not the same as knowing that one is happy.) When one suffers (= vedanā), one knows that one is suffering (= viññāṇa). Perceiving something as pleasurable or painful (= saññā), one knows accordingly.10 And when one engages in various thoughts and intentions (= saṅkhāra), there is a continual concomitant awareness of this activity. {16} This prevailing stream of awareness, which is in a continual process of arising and ceasing, and which accompanies the other mental aggregates, or is part of every aspect of mental activity, is called ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa).

Another special characteristic of consciousness is that it is an awareness of particulars, a knowledge of specific aspects, or a form of discriminative knowledge. This may be understood by way of examples. When one sees say a striped piece of cloth, although one may not initially identify it as such, one discerns specific attributes, for example its colours, which are distinct from one another. Once consciousness discerns these distinctions, perception (saññā) identifies them, say as ’green’, ’white’, or ’red’. When one eats a particular kind of fruit, although one may not yet have identified the flavour as ’sweet’ or ’sour’, one already has an awareness of such distinctions. Similarly, although one may have not yet distinguished between the specific kinds of sourness, of say pineapples, lemons, tamarind, or plums, or between the specific kinds of sweetness, say of mangos, bananas, or apples, by tasting the flavour one is aware of its distinctive nature. This basic form of knowing is consciousness (viññāṇa). Once this awareness arises, the other mental aggregates begin to operate, for example one experiences the flavour as delicious or unsavoury (= vedanā), or one identifies the flavour as one particular kind of sweetness or sourness (= saññā).

The knowledge of specific aspects referred to above may be explained thus: when consciousness arises, for example when one sees a visual object, in fact, one is seeing only specific attributes or facets of that object in question. In other words, one sees only those aspects or angles that one gives importance to, depending on the mental formations (saṅkhāra) which condition the arising of consciousness (viññāṇa).11

For example, in a wide expanse of countryside grows one sole mango tree. It is a large tree, yet it bears only a few pieces of fruit and in this season is almost barren of leaves, providing very little shade. On different occasions, five separate people visit this tree. One man is fleeing from a dangerous animal, one man is starving, one man is hot and looking for shade, one man is searching for fruit to sell at the market, and the last man is looking for a spot to tie up his cattle so that he may visit a nearby village.

All five men see the same tree, but each one sees it in different ways. For each one eye-consciousness arises, but this consciousness varies, depending on their aims and intentions in regard to this tree. Similarly, their perceptions of the tree will also differ, according to the aspects of the tree that they look at. Even their feelings (vedanā) will differ: the man fleeing from danger will rejoice because he sees a means to escape; the starving man will be delighted because the 3-4 mangos will save him from starvation; the man suffering from heat may be disappointed, because the tree does not provide as much shade as it normally would; the man looking for fruit may be upset because of the paucity of fruit; and the man driving his cattle may be relieved to find a temporary shelter for them.

Feeling (vedanā) refers to the ’sensing’ of sense impressions, or of experiencing their ’flavour’. It refers to the feeling or sensation arising every time there is contact and cognition of sense objects. These feelings may be pleasurable and agreeable, painful and oppressive, or neutral. {17}

To avoid confusion with the aggregate of mental formations (saṅkhāra), it is important to note that feeling (vedanā) is an activity at the level of reception – it pertains exclusively to the immediate effect an object has on the mind.12 It does not pertain to the stage of intention or of acting in response to sense impressions, which is the function of mental formations (saṅkhāra). For this reason, such terms as ’like’, ’dislike’, ’delight’, and ’aversion’ usually refer to the activity of mental formations, which involves a subsequent level of activity. These terms normally refer to volitional activities or to reactions to sense impressions, as illustrated on Figure Feeling (Vedanā) and Mental Formations (Saṅkhāra) about mental processes.

Feeling (Vedanā) and Mental Formations (Saṅkhāra) image

Feeling (vedanā) plays a pivotal role in the lives of sentient creatures, because it is both desired and sought after (in the case of pleasure), and feared and avoided (in the case of pain). Each time there is contact and cognition of a sense object, feeling acts as the juncture, directing or motivating the other mental factors. For example, if one contacts a pleasurable sense object, one pays special attention to it and perceives it in ways that reciprocate or make the most out of that sensation. One then thinks up strategies for repeating or extending one’s experience of this object.

Mental formations (saṅkhāra) refer to both the factors determining the quality of the mind (the ’fashioners’ of the mind), with intention (cetanā) as chief, and the actual volitional process in which these factors are selected and combined in order to shape and mould one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, resulting in physical, verbal, and mental kamma.

In any case, the traditional analysis of the five aggregates focuses on the components of reality, rather than focusing on the various dynamics in nature that affect human life. For this reason, the description of mental formations (saṅkhāra) in this context normally only mentions a list of these determining factors (the ’fashioners’ of the mind), along with their attributes. As for an explanation of conditioned processes, at which stage these factors reveal themselves and are set in motion, this is reserved for the analysis of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), which demonstrates precisely how these factors affect people’s lives.

In the teaching of Dependent Origination, mental formations (saṅkhāra) are defined in the context of practical application or operative function; they are divided into: kāya-saṅkhāra (physical intentional activity; bodily volition); vacī-saṅkhāra (verbal intentional activity; verbal volition); and citta-saṅkhāra (mental intentional activity; mental volition). This differs from the analysis of mental formations in the exposition of the five aggregates, in which various determining factors are simply presented as a list, e.g.: faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), wisdom (paññā), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), intention (cetanā), and concentration (samādhi). If one compares these analyses to a motor show, the analysis of the five aggregates is similar to laying out all of a car’s parts for people to see, while the analysis of Dependent Origination is like demonstrating the car as it is being driven on the road. {18}

Of all the determining factors of the mind, intention (cetanā) is leader or chief. No matter how many mental formations are operative at any one time, intention always participates as the key factor in the process. For this reason, the term cetanā is sometimes used alone to represent all of the mental formations (saṅkhāra). Saṅkhāra in this context can thus be defined as: ’intention (cetanā), along with associated factors (sampayutta-dhamma; ’connected factors’), which shapes the mind as good, bad, or neutral, and which determines thoughts, speech, and physical actions, giving rise to mental, verbal, and physical kamma.’

Besides occasionally representing or defining all mental formations (saṅkhāra), the term cetanā is also used to define or represent the term ’kamma’. In this sense, these three terms – saṅkhāra, cetanā, and kamma – all have roughly the same meaning. To offer an analogy, Venerable Mani, the abbot of Majjhima Monastery, goes to receive an offering of Tipiṭaka books. At the formal gathering, the announcement of the honoured guest may state Venerable Mani, or the abbot of Majjhima Monastery, or simply Majjhima Monastery – all three terms express the desired meaning.

Besides its central role, intention (cetanā) also reveals the special and distinctive properties of mental formations (saṅkhāra), which set this aggregate apart from the others. Cetanā may be translated as ’intention’, ’volition’, ’purpose’, or ’deliberation’. The special attribute differentiating mental formations (saṅkhāra) from the other mental aggregates is that they can originate spontaneously. The other mental aggregates – of feeling, perception, and consciousness – on the other hand operate or function with sense impressions that are immediately manifesting in the mind. They are associated with and attend to these sense impressions, and they rely on the reception of them in order to function. Mental formations, however, both deliberate over sense impressions and act in response to them.13

These explanations may clarify the following questions: Why are feelings of ease and dis-ease classified as sensations (vedanā), while the subsequent factors of liking and disliking are classified as mental formations (saṅkhāra)? Why are perception (saññā; recollection) and mindfulness (sati; memory) classified into separate aggregates (sati is included among the mental formations – saṅkhāra)? Why is wisdom (paññā), which, similar to perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa), is a form of knowledge, classified as a mental formation (saṅkhāra)?

Saññā and Sati: Memory, Recollection, and Mindfulness

There tends to be confusion among Buddhist scholars as to which mental factor in the Pali vocabulary corresponds to ’memory’. Saññā is often translated as ’recollection’, whereas sati may be translated as ’mindfulness’, ’recollection’, ’recall’, or ’memory’.14 In regard to the latter term, there are some prominent sutta examples, for example the passage praising Ven. Ānanda as foremost among the bhikkhu disciples in ’remembering the Buddha’s words’. In this context the Buddha uses the term sati: ’Of all my disciples, Ānanda is supreme in memory (sati).’15

In the formal teachings, there is no confusion about this matter. Memory is not the exclusive function of just one mental factor, but rather it is part of a mental process, within which perception (saññā) and mindfulness (sati) play the most prominent and important roles.

Both the terms saññā and sati have overlapping meanings in respect to the concept of ’memory’. One aspect of perception (saññā) has to do with memory, while other aspects are separate from it. This is the same for mindfulness (sati): one aspect pertains to memory, while other aspects function apart from the process of memory. {19}

Note these important distinctions between saññā and sati in the process of memory:

Perception (saññā) designates and identifies sense objects. When one encounters such objects again, saññā compares their current features with established perceptions, determining any similarities and differences. If one determines that the two (the old perceptions and the new) correspond, this may be called ’recognition’. If there are differences, one creates additional perceptions. The term saññā refers both to the recognition, designation, and identification of objects (the comparison and accumulation of data), and to perceptions themselves (the actual data and information created and stored). In this context, saññā creates the requisite conditions for memory. The important attribute of saññā is that it engages with sense objects immediately present; when these sense objects manifest, saññā is able to focus on, identify, or remember them.

Sati functions to draw sense objects to attention and to hold them firmly in the mind. It directs and sustains attention to sense objects, preventing them from drifting by or slipping away. These sense objects may be currently manifesting or they may have occurred in the past. The term sati thus encompasses such nuances of meaning as: ’recall’, ’recollection’, ’calling to mind’, ’reflection’, ’remembering’, and ’attentiveness’. In the context of memory, it remembers and enables recall. In this sense, sati is the opposite of sammosa, which means ’forgetting’ (saññā is not paired with forgetting). Sati is generated from within an individual, relying on the power of volition, even when sense objects are not immediately manifest. Because it is a volitional response to sense objects it is classified as a mental formation (saṅkhāra).

Saññā records and notes sense objects; sati draws sense objects to attention. Both a healthy perception – the ability to identify things clearly, to designate things in a well-ordered and structured way, and to integrate and connect things (which relies on attentiveness and understanding) – and a strong recall – the ability to recollect (which relies on clear perceptions, constant mindfulness, and a bright, peaceful, and concentrated mind) – are factors for a good memory.

At one time in the past Robert and Jake knew each other well. Ten years later, they meet again and Robert recognizes Jake and remembers the places they once visited and the activities they once shared. The recognition of the other person is saññā, whereas the recollection of past events is sati.

On one occasion Greg meets and talks with Karl. A month later, Greg’s friends ask him whom he met and spoke with on that specific date. Greg reflects on the past and remembers that he met with Karl. This recollection is sati.

A telephone is located in one corner of a room, and a phone book is located in another. Karen opens the book and finds the number she is looking for. She makes a note of this number in her mind and then walks to the telephone to dial it. As she crosses the room she keeps this number constantly in her attention. The reading and noting of the number from the book is saññā; the recall of that number from the moment she leaves the book is sati.

When sense objects become manifest, one is able to perceive them immediately. Yet when they do not manifest, and in the case that they are mind objects (dhammārammaṇa; matters inherent in the mind), one can use sati in order to draw them forth and focus on them. Moreover, sati is able to call perceptions to mind, that is, it can recollect past perceptions to be the objects of attention. Saññā is then able to identify, clarify, and consolidate these previous perceptions, or to perceive them in a new way according to one’s aims and objectives. {20}

Perception, Consciousness, and Wisdom

Perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) are all aspects of knowledge, yet they are part of three distinct aggregates. The first two factors, described earlier in this chapter, constitute an aggregate in themselves, whereas wisdom is classified among the mental formations (saṅkhāra).

Wisdom (paññā) refers generally to understanding, and more specifically to comprehensive or clear understanding: to a thorough and accurate understanding of the truth. This term paññā is defined in many different ways, including: knowledge of causality; knowledge of good and evil; knowledge of right and wrong; knowledge of suitability; knowledge of benefit and harm; knowledge of advantages and disadvantages; thorough knowledge of conditioned phenomena; knowledge of constituent factors; knowledge of causes and conditions; knowledge of origin and destination; knowledge of the interrelationship of things; knowledge according to the truth; genuine knowledge; genuine understanding; knowledge of reality; and knowing how to reflect on, contemplate, analyze, and engage with or manage things and situations.

Simply speaking, wisdom is clear, correct, and genuine understanding. Wisdom possesses an insight into reality and it penetrates into the heart of problems. It supports both perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa). In regard to the latter, it broadens and deepens the range of consciousness. Likewise, in regard to the former, it increases the range of perception, because the cognition and apprehension of things is dependent on one’s knowledge. This is similar to solving mathematical problems; as long as one cannot solve the initial equations, one has no data or criteria for further calculations. With increased understanding, one possesses the markers or raw material for further perception and analysis.

Wisdom (paññā) stands in opposition to delusion (moha; ’ignorance’, ’misunderstanding’), whereas perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) are not contrasted with delusion in this way. Indeed, perception and consciousness may fall prey to delusion. When one is deluded and confused, one’s conscious experience and perceptions are equally distorted. Wisdom assists here to rectify both consciousness and perception.

Perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) rely on currently manifesting sense objects in order to function. Images or concepts of these sense objects are thus created and discerned. Wisdom, on the other hand, reflects on sense objects and responds actively to them (wisdom is a deliberative faculty, and is thus classified among the volitional formations – saṅkhāra). It links various sense impressions with each other, analyzes their various attributes, compares and considers various perceptions, and discerns cause, effect, interrelationship, and the ways to benefit from things. By doing this, it provides consciousness and perception with wholesome food for engagement.

Ven. Sāriputta once responded to the question on how wisdom (paññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) differ. He explained that wisdom knows (’understands’; ’knows clearly’) that ’this is suffering’, ’this is the cause of suffering’, ’this is the cessation of suffering’, and ’this is the way leading to the end of suffering’. Consciousness, on the other hand, knows (= discriminative understanding) that ’this is pleasure’, ’this is pain’, and ’this is neither pleasure nor pain’. Wisdom and consciousness, however, are intimately entwined and in a sense inseparable. Having said this, there is a distinction in that wisdom is a ’quality to be trained and developed’ (bhāvetabba-dhamma), in order to increase and strengthen it. In contrast, consciousness is a ’quality to be fully understood’ (pariññeyya-dhamma); its nature and its attributes should be truly recognized and understood.16 {21}

The commentarial texts, including the Visuddhimagga,17 explain the distinction between perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) in this way: perception (saññā) simply recognizes the properties of a sense object, say that it is ’green’ or ’yellow’; it is unable to understand the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself. Consciousness (viññāṇa) also knows the object’s properties (of ’green’, ’yellow’, etc.), and it is able to understand the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself (it understands according to the counsel and guidance by wisdom). But it cannot deliver one to the actualization of the Path (i.e. to the realization of the Four Noble Truths). Wisdom, however, accomplishes all three: it knows the properties of sense objects, it discerns the three characteristics, and it enables the actualization of the Path.

The commentaries use the analogy of three people who look at the same coin. Perception (saññā) is like a young child who simply discerns the shape of the coin – small, large, square, or round – its colour, attractive sheen, and strange markings. He does not know that it is an agreed-upon means of trade and exchange. Consciousness (viññāṇa) is like an adult who discerns the shape, markings, etc. of the coin, and who knows that it is used for trade and exchange, but he does not possess the deeper understanding of whether the coin is genuine or counterfeit, or of what combination of metals were used to mint the coin. Wisdom is like a treasurer, who discerns all of the above data, and in addition possesses expert knowledge, to the extent that he may look at, tap and listen to, smell, taste, or weigh the coin in his hands, and know everything about it, including where and by whom it was made.

Moreover, wisdom does not always arise. It may happen that only perception and consciousness arise, devoid of wisdom. Yet when wisdom arises alongside these other two qualities, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

When Jāli and Kaṇhā18 sought a hiding place, they walked backwards into the lotus pond, convinced that their pursuer would think that they had only recently come out of the pond. This line of thinking on their part may be referred to as wisdom (paññā). Later, Vessantara saw their footprints and knew immediately that they had walked backwards into the pond. This was because there were only prints leading away from the pond and none leading towards it, and the impression in the prints was deepest at the heels. This understanding may also be referred to as wisdom. The children and their father applied different levels of wisdom and circumspection, which indicates how wisdom (paññā) derives benefit from perception (saññā).

Prince Siddhattha saw an old person, a sick person, and a human corpse, and as a result he reflected on and discerned the suffering to which everyone is prone, without exception. He then went on to understand how all conditioned things are impermanent, subject to arising, to alteration, and eventually to passing away, and he saw the need to bring to an end the suffering based on these conditions. These are all examples of wisdom (paññā). When the Buddha was preparing to establish Buddhism in the Magadha country, he went to visit the matted-hair ascetics of the Kassapa clan, who were revered by the people of Magadha, in order that they gain confidence in and endorse the Buddha’s teachings. The insight and intuition behind this line of thinking by the Buddha is also an expression of wisdom.

The term paññā is a general term describing the kinds of knowledge mentioned above. There are many different levels of wisdom, for example mundane wisdom (lokiya-paññā) and transcendent wisdom (lokuttara-paññā). There are many other Pali terms indicating specific levels, degrees, or aspects of wisdom, or referring to its specific activities, qualities, or benefits, for example: ñāṇa (’knowledge’), vijjā (’true knowledge’), vipassanā (’insight’), sampajañña (’clear comprehension’), pariññā (’thorough knowledge’), abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’), and paṭisambhidā (’discriminative knowledge’). {22}

Relationship between the Aggregates

The five aggregates are interdependent. The aggregate of corporeality (rūpa-khandha) comprises the body, while the four aggregates of mentality (nāma-khandha) make up the mind. Human life requires both the body and the mind. When the body and mind function normally and operate in unison, life progresses well. Mental activities, for example, require an understanding of the external world and this understanding relies on sense data (visual forms, sounds, odours, tastes, and tangible objects) entering by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Both the five sense objects and the five sense faculties are material things (rūpa-dhamma) and part of the aggregate of corporeality – they are part of materiality.

In this chapter the emphasis is on the mind, considering the body to be similar to a readymade instrument prepared to serve mental activities. The mind is considered to be the focal point of life, and its range of functions is vast, complex, and profound. The mind gives value and meaning to life, and it is directly connected to the teachings by the Buddha presented in this book.

The four aggregates of mentality are intimately related, influencing and conditioning one another. The arising of these four aggregates is ordinarily outlined in the following way:19

Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises (similarly with the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, etc). The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about…

M. I. 111-12.

Here is an example: Gordon hears the sound of a bell (ear + sound + ear-consciousness). He finds the sound pleasant (= vedanā). He perceives the sound as ’melodious’, ’the ringing of a bell’, and ’the sound of a melodious bell’ (= saññā). He likes the sound and wants to hear it again; he thinks about striking that bell himself; he wants to obtain the bell; he thinks about buying or stealing the bell, etc. (= saṅkhāra).

Note the crucial role of feeling (vedanā) in this process. Perception (saññā) pays particular focus on those objects providing pleasurable sensations. The greater the pleasure, the greater the importance bestowed on the object by perception. In addition, such pleasurable feeling incites people to think and act in order to increase the pleasure. One may describe this as a basic, ordinary, or elementary process.

In this process, feeling (vedanā) acts as the incentive, similar to a person who invites one to take something, or to refuse and avoid it. Perception (saññā) is similar to a person who gathers and stores data or raw material. Mental formations (saṅkhāra) resemble a person who takes this raw material and shapes it in preparation for work. Consciousness (viññāṇa) is similar to the director of the work, aware of everyone else’s activities; it both opens the way for the work to be performed and it receives the results of the work.20

One complex aspect of this process is that feeling (vedanā) does not act as a catalyst for the other aggregates in a one-sided way. The other aggregates, too, have an influence over feeling. Take the example of a single piece of music that one person listens to and finds delightful, whereas another person listens to it and feels depressed. Similarly, the same person may listen to a song at one time and feel elated, while at another time he may feel disturbed by it. {23}

A general principle is that those things that one likes and finds pleasure in correspond to one’s desire. When one encounters them one is happy. Inversely, those things one dislikes conflict with one’s desire; when one encounters these things, one suffers. The mental formations, say of liking, disliking, desire, and aversion, then condition another round of feeling. Here, perception is also engaged, that is, mental formations condition perception, which in turn influences feeling.

Here is an example: a person may see someone whom he admires behave in a particular way and perceive that behaviour as lovely or endearing. And he may witness other behaviour by someone he dislikes and perceive it as annoying or abhorrent. Later he may encounter others exhibiting such behaviour, which he has previously perceived as either endearing or annoying (= saññā), and as a result feel either delighted or distressed (= vedanā), and either approve of or be angered by it (= saṅkhāra).

This interrelationship between the aggregates can be even more complex. Take for example a work project or study lesson that is difficult and demanding. Performing the task alone may involve much turmoil and discomfort, causing one to be disinclined from engaging with it. Yet, if there are particular incentives, one may be more interested and determined to do the work or to pursue the lesson. These incentives may be pleasurable sensations in the present, for example the method of learning is fun and entertaining, or they may be elaborate matters associated with perceptions of future pleasure, say of gaining a reward, achieving success, or deriving some benefit, either for oneself or for others. These perceptions are dependent on various mental formations, for example craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wisdom (paññā), which then lead to further perceptions by bestowing meaning, value and importance to the work or study. Moreover, one now experiences pleasure while performing the deed. Although one may feel physical discomfort, one’s mind is imbued with joy, making one more eager to do the work or to complete the lesson.

When the school bell rings in the late afternoon, the students hear the sound (= viññāṇa). Having heard this sound every day, they may feel neutral about it (= vedanā). All of them identify the sound as the bell denoting the end of the school day (= saññā). Some children may be delighted (sukha-vedanā + saṅkhāra), because they ache from sitting all day and may now go out and play (= accompanying perceptions). Other children may be sad (dukkha-vedanā + saṅkhāra), because they must interrupt a useful and valuable lesson, or because they must return to unkind and intimidating guardians (= accompanying perceptions).

This entire process, beginning with consciousness, is an intricate interrelationship of causes and conditions, which together create people’s personalities and determine each person’s unique fortune and destiny. Volitional formations (saṅkhāra), represented by intention (cetanā), are the agents which shape and mould the process, and in this context saṅkhāra is the technical name for volitional action (kamma). Inversely, kamma is the informal title for volitional formations, representing them when they are actively operative. It is the term used when referring to the crucial role that volitional formations play, e.g.: ’It is kamma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior’;21 ’beings exist according to their kamma.’22 {24}

The Five Aggregates and Clinging to the Five Aggregates

In the Buddha’s elucidation of the Four Noble Truths, encapsulating the essence of Buddhism, there is a noteworthy reference to the five aggregates found in the teaching on the first noble truth, on suffering.

At the beginning of the Buddha’s explanation of the first noble truth, he defines suffering by citing various examples and circumstances, which are easily recognizable and a part of people’s everyday lives. At the end of this discussion, however, he summarizes the entirety of suffering into the single phrase: ’the five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha) are suffering’:

Monks, this is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering, association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the liked is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is suffering.

Vin. I. 10.

Here, let us look at the distinction between the term khandha by itself as opposed to the term upādāna-khandha, by examining these words of the Buddha:

Monks, I will teach you the five aggregates and the five aggregates subject to clinging. Listen attentively.

And what are the five aggregates? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near…. These are called the five aggregates.

And what are the five aggregates of clinging? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is tainted (sāsava; accompanied by mental taints), that is a foundation for clinging (upādāniya)… These are called the five aggregates of clinging.

S. III. 47-8.

Monks, I will teach you the foundations for clinging, and clinging itself. Listen…

Form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is a foundation for clinging. The desire and lust (chanda-rāga; delight or intense desire culminating in attachment) for form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is the clinging there.

S. III. 167.

This distinction between the five aggregates and the five aggregates of clinging is an important principle required for a deeper study of Buddha-Dhamma. {25}

Practical Application

Ordinarily, human beings are inclined to believe that they possess a true and lasting self, in some form or another. Some people attach to their mind as the ’self’;23 some believe that something exists separate and yet somehow connected to the mind, which acts on another level to be responsible for and to control the body and mind. The exposition of the five aggregates is intended to reveal how that which is called a ’being’, ’person’, or ’self’ – when it is closely examined and analyzed – is simply comprised of these five components. There is no residual essence or substance existing separate from these five. And even these five aggregates exist within an interdependent relationship. They do not exist independently; they are not autonomous. Therefore, these aggregates, too, do not function or exist as a stable, substantial ’self’.

In sum, the teaching on the five aggregates refers to the principle of selflessness (anattā; ’nonself’, ’not-self’). Human life consists of a convergence of various elements or parts; there exists no substantial ’self’ as unifying principle or centre-point of these parts. None of the aggregates (components, etc.) exist as a stable, lasting ’self’, and no such self exists apart from them.24 When one gains insight into this truth, one lets go of one’s attachments to self. This principle of nonself is clarified in the teaching on Dependent Origination in relation to the five aggregates.25

Furthermore, when one understands that the five aggregates exist in an interrelated and interdependent manner, one does not develop the wrong views of either annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi) or eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi). Moreover, this understanding also leads to a correct understanding of the workings of kamma. Again, the teaching on Dependent Origination explains this interrelationship and interdependence in more depth.

Examining things by separating them into the five aggregates helps to train one’s thinking abilities and it nurtures the disposition to analyze the truth. When one encounters or engages with something, one does not look simply at surface appearances; instead, one inclines towards investigation and inquiry of deeper truths. And crucially, this examination leads to an objective discernment of things, to seeing things ’as they are’. This is in contrast to a subjective understanding, by which one relates to things by way of craving and grasping (taṇhā-upādāna), and sees things according to one’s preferences and aversions. An objective understanding is the goal of Buddha-Dhamma and of this teaching on the five aggregates. Rather than relating to things by way of attachment, craving, and grasping, one relates to them by way of wisdom.

In any case, the Buddha normally did not teach about the five aggregates in isolation. In most cases, the five aggregates are the chief factors of consideration within the context of other principles and teachings, which act as the criteria for contemplating and determining the nature and function of these aggregates. The five aggregates need to be examined in relation to other principles, say of nonself (anattā), in order to fully appreciate their value on a practical level. The benefits of such contemplation will become clear in subsequent chapters. {26}

Appendix 1: Additional Details in Regard to the Five Aggregates

Rūpa: body; physical form; materiality

The Abhidhamma divides rūpa into twenty-eight factors:

  1. Four primary elements (mahābhūta-rūpa; referred to simply as the four ’elements’ – dhātu): earth (paṭhavī-dhātu; element of extension; solid element); water (āpo-dhātu; element of cohesion; liquid element); fire (tejo-dhātu; element of heat or radiation); and wind (vāyo-dhātu; element of vibration or motion).

  2. Twenty-four derived material qualities (upādā-rūpa; derivative materiality; matter resulting from the four primary elements):

    • The five sense bases: eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), and body (kāya).

    • The four sense objects: form (rūpa), sound (sadda), smell (gandha), and taste (rasa). Tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba) are not included here, because they are equivalent to paṭhavī, āpo, and vāyo, above.

    • Femininity (itthatta).

    • Masculinity (purisatta).

    • Physical basis of mind (hadaya-vatthu).

    • Bodily intimation or gesture (kāya-viññatti).

    • Verbal intimation; speech (vacī-viññatti).

    • Life-faculty (jīvitindriya; vitality; vital force).

    • Space element (ākāsa-dhātu).

    • Physical lightness (rūpassa lahutā).

    • Physical pliancy; elasticity (rūpassa mudutā).

    • Physical adaptability; wieldiness (rūpassa kammaññatā).

    • Physical growth or enlargement (rūpassa upacaya).

    • Physical continuity (rūpassa santati).

    • Decay (jaratā).

    • Disintegration (aniccatā).

    • Edible food; nutriment (kavaḷiṅkārāhāra).

Note that the term hadaya-vatthu, which is translated as ’heart’, is considered the locus of the citta, yet this interpretation is expressed in later texts; it does not occur in the Tipiṭaka.

Vedanā: feeling; sensation

  • Threefold division: pleasure (sukha; physical and mental); pain (dukkha; physical and mental); neutral feeling (adukkhamasukha; neither pleasurable nor painful; it is sometimes referred to as upekkhā).

  • Fivefold division: physical pleasure (sukha), physical pain (dukkha), happiness (somanassa), unhappiness (domanassa), neutral feeling (upekkhā).

  • Sixfold division (according to its origin doorway): feeling stemming from contact by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Saññā: perception

It is divided into six factors, according to the pathway of cognition:

  1. Perception of form (rūpa-saññā), e.g. of ’black’, ’red’, ’green’, or ’white’.

  2. Perception of sound (sadda-saññā), e.g. of ’loud’, ’faint’, ’base’, or ’high-pitched’.

  3. Perception of scent (gandha-saññā), e.g. of ’fragrant’ or ’malodorous’.

  4. Perception of flavour (rasa-saññā), e.g. of ’sweet’, ’sour’, ’bitter’, or ’salty’.

  5. Perception of tangibles (phoṭṭhabba-saññā), e.g. of ’soft’, ’hard’, ’coarse’, ’fine’, ’hot’, or ’cold’.

  6. Perception of mental objects (dhamma-saññā), e.g. of ’beautiful’, ’revolting’, ’constant’, or ’impermanent’.

Saṅkhāra: volitional formations

The Abhidhamma divides the mental concomitants (cetasika) into fifty-two factors. If one compares this division with the teaching of the five aggregates (khandha), the mental concomitants comprise feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), and volitional formations. Of the fifty-two factors, one of them is feeling and another is perception; the remaining fifty factors are all volitional formations. These fifty factors are subdivided as follows: {27}

  1. Eleven mental factors common to both the wholesome and the unwholesome (aññasamāna-cetasika). (If one includes vedanā and saññā here, these constitute thirteen factors; these two factors are excluded here because they are not volitional formations):

    1. Five universal mental factors (sabbacittasādhāraṇa-cetasika; those arising in every mind moment): contact (phassa), intention (cetanā), one-pointedness (ekaggatā = ’concentration’ – samādhi), life-faculty (jīvitindriya), and mental application (manasikāra). (With vedanā and saññā, these constitute seven factors.)

    2. Six ’particular’ mental factors (pakiṇṇaka-cetasika; those factors common to both the wholesome and the unwholesome, yet they do not arise in every mind moment): applied thought (vitakka), sustained thought (vicāra), determination (adhimokkha), effort (viriya), joy (pīti), and enthusiasm (chanda).

  2. Fourteen unwholesome mental factors (akusala-cetasika), arising along with unwholesome mind states:

    1. Four universal unwholesome factors (sabbākusalasādhāraṇa-cetasika; those factors always present in unwholesome mind states): delusion (moha), shamelessness (ahirika), lack of moral dread (anottappa), and restlessness (uddhacca).

    2. Ten particular unwholesome factors (pakiṇṇaka-akusala-cetasika): greed (lobha), wrong view (diṭṭhi), conceit (māna), hatred (dosa), jealousy (issā), stinginess (macchariya), worry (kukkucca), sloth (thīna), torpor (middha), and doubt (vicikicchā).

  3. Twenty-five beautiful mental factors (sobhaṇa-cetasika), arising along with wholesome and indeterminate (abyākata) mind states:

    1. Nineteen universal beautiful mental factors (sobhaṇasādhāraṇa-cetasika): faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), conscience (hiri), moral dread (ottappa), non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa = ’lovingkindness’ – mettā), equanimity (tatra-majjhattatā; sometimes referred to as upekkha), tranquillity of the mental body (kāya-passaddhi; tranquillity of the collection of mental concomitants), tranquillity of mind (citta-passaddhi), lightness of mental body (kāya-lahutā), lightness of mind (citta-lahutā), pliancy of mental body (kāya-mudutā), pliancy of mind (citta-mudutā), adaptability of mental body (kāya-kammaññatā), adaptability of mind (citta-kammaññatā), proficiency of mental body (kāya-pāguññatā), proficiency of mind (citta-pāguññatā), rectitude of mental body (kāyujukatā), and rectitude of mind (cittujukatā).

    2. Six particular wholesome factors (pakiṇṇakasobhaṇa-cetasika): right speech (sammā-vācā), right action (sammā-kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā-ājīva) – collectively called the three factors of abstinence (viratī-cetasika); compassion (karuṇā) and appreciative joy (muditā) – together called the two boundless states (appamaññā-cetasika); and wisdom (paññā).

In the suttas, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) are normally defined as the six kinds of volition (sañcetanā; ’intention’, ’thought’), pertaining to: form (rūpa-sañcetanā), sounds (sadda-sañcetanā), smells (gandha-sañcetanā), tastes (rasa-sañcetanā), tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba-sañcetanā), and mental objects (dhamma-sañcetanā).26

Viññāṇa: consciousness

It is divided into six factors, according to the pathway by which it originates: awareness of objects by way of the eye (cakkhu-viññāṇa), the ear (sota-viññāṇa), the nose (ghāna-viññāṇa), the tongue (jivhā-viññāṇa), the body (kāya-viññāṇa), and the mind (mano-viññāṇa).

The Abhidhamma refers to the consciousness aggregate as citta, and it divides the citta into either 89 or 121 types of consciousness:27

  • Divided according to the state or level of consciousness: fifty-four sense-sphere states of consciousness (kāmāvacara-citta), fifteen fine-material states of consciousness (rūpāvacara-citta), twelve immaterial states of consciousness (arūpāvacara-citta), and eight transcendent states of consciousness (lokuttara-citta; these may be divided into more detail, resulting in forty transcendent states of consciousness).

  • Divided according to the quality of mind: twelve unwholesome states of consciousness (akusala-citta), twenty-one wholesome states of consciousness (kusala-citta; the detailed analysis results in thirty-seven), thirty-six kamma-resultant states of consciousness (vipāka-citta; in the detailed analysis – fifty two), and twenty functional states of consciousness (kiriyā-citta). It is unnecessary in this presentation to list all of these various states of consciousness, and it may even cause confusion for the reader. {28}

Appendix 2: Commentarial Explanation of Perception

The commentaries describe the following function and attributes of perception (saññā): its unique attribute is sañjānana (recognition; remembering). Its function is to establish a sign as a key for memory, so that in the future one knows that ’this is such-and-such’; this function is similar to a carpenter who marks a piece of wood. Its result is an attachment to those established signs; this is similar to a blind man who touches an elephant and consequently identifies an elephant with that part of its body that he has touched. Its ’footprint’ (padaṭṭhāna) – the object as it appears – resembles how a fawn sees a scarecrow and believes it to be a real human being (Vism. 462). In comparison to Western psychological terms, saññā encompasses ’perception’, ’conception’ (as ’mental representation’), and ’recognition’, and to a certain degree, but not exclusively, to ’memory’.


(Open large size)

Sāla blossoms from the Sāla tree.
The Buddha was born under a Sāla tree.


In Pali, one may refer to ’things’ as phenomena (dhamma), elements (dhātu), or aspects of reality (sabhāva). The complete spelling of this third term is sabhāva-dhammā (from sa + bhāva + dhamma), which literally means ’things that exist according to their own nature’.


S. I. 135. [Trans.: in ancient India this referred to a wagon; in modern parlance we may refer to this as a ’car’.]


The broadest division is into mind (nāma) and body (rūpa), or mentality and corporeality. The Abhidhamma texts prefer the threefold division of the mind (citta), mental constituents (cetasika), and the body (rūpa). If one compares this analysis to the five aggregates, one may equate the following: citta = viññāṇa-khandha; cetasika = vedanā-khandha, saññā-khandha, and saṅkhāra-khandha; rūpa = rūpa-khandha.


See more details on the five aggregates see Appendix 1.


The numbers in curly brackets refer to the page number of the Thai edition of Buddhadhamma.


The term ārammaṇa (’object of attention’) refers to those things cognized by the mind by means of the six ’doorways’ (dvāra), i.e.: visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mind objects (thoughts).


The meaning of this important term upekkhā is often misunderstood. This term appears in the group of mental formations (saṅkhāra), where it is equivalent to specific neutrality (tatramajjhattatā), and also in the group of feelings (vedanā), where it is equivalent to neutrality (adukkhamasukha), i.e. to neither-painful-nor-pleasant sensations.


The following explanations are based on references from the Pali Canon as well as comparative references from the commentaries, in particular: M. I. 292-3; S. III. 87; [MA. II. 462]; SA. II. 291; Vism. 436, 452-3.


For the commentarial analysis of perception see Appendix 2.


Trans.: one sometimes encounters the term ’apperception’ as a definition for saññā. According to the ’Collins Concise Dictionary’ (© 1999), apperception is defined as: ’the awareness of perceiving’, which is closer to this function of consciousness.


For more on this subject, see chapter 4 on Dependent Origination.


Vedanā is classified as an ’effect’ (vipāka; fruit of kamma). By itself, it is neither wholesome nor unwholesome.


In the doctrine of the threefold life-cycle (tivaṭṭa) in relation to Dependent Origination, vedanā, saññā, and viññāṇa are classified as ’fruits of kamma’ (vipāka), whereas saṅkhāra is classified as kamma itself. This classification of saṅkhāra as kamma refers exclusively to those times when intention (cetanā) is operative. The various mental determinants (within the round of rebirth – saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) are classified as mental impurities (kilesa).


One aspect of sati is recollection – the ability to recall; another aspect is mindfulness.


A. I. 24-5.


M. I. 292-3.


Vism. 436.


Trans.: the children of the bodhisatta Vessantara and his wife Maddī.


For the complete sequence of this process, see the following chapter on the six sense spheres.


The commentaries, including the Visuddhimagga, provide the following analogies: the body is like a bowl, feeling is like staple food, perception is like the side dishes of food, mental formations are like the cook, and consciousness is like the consumer of the food. Similarly: the body is like a prison; feeling is like the punishment; perception is like the offence; volitional formations are like the magistrate inflicting the penalty; and consciousness is like the prisoner. See: Vism. 479; CompṬ.: Samuccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Sabbasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


M. III. 203.


Sn. 118-19.


Note the Buddha’s words: ’It would be better, monks, for the uninstructed worldling to take as self this body composed of the four great elements rather than the mind. This is because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for one year, for two years, for three, four, five years, for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, for a hundred years, or even longer. But that which is called ’mind’ (citta), ’mentality’ (mano), or ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa) arises and ceases perpetually, by day and by night’ (S. II. 94-5).


See: S. III. 3-5, 16-18, 110-15.


See chapter 4 on Dependent Origination*.*


E.g.: S. III. 60-61.


Trans.: for more information on the terms citta, viññāṇa, and mano see the Special Appendix at the end of this book.

Six Sense Spheres

Pathways for Contacting and Experiencing the World


Although human beings are made up of the five aggregates, which can be further subdivided into numerous subsidiary factors, generally speaking, in everyday life, people do not directly engage with these aggregates. Many of these component factors making up human life exist and function without people’s knowledge, and even if they are aware of them, people often do not give them much thought. In respect to the body, for example, many physical organs function without the knowledge of the person involved, who often does not care to know. People may only take an interest in these functions when there arises some abnormality or impairment. This is similarly the case in regard to mental factors.

People generally leave the study and analysis of the body as the responsibility of medical scholars and biologists, and they leave the study of the mind up to Abhidhamma scholars and psychologists. For the majority of people, the importance or meaning of life centres around their everyday engagement and interaction with the world. The importance of life for most people lies in their relationship to the world.

This engagement or relationship can be divided into two parts or systems, both of which rely on specific ’doorways’ (dvāra; ’channel’) for making contact with the world:

  1. Cognition and experience of the world by way of the six sense doors (phassa-dvāra; ’doorways of sense contact’; ’sense bases’): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These sense doors cognize various properties and attributes of the world, namely, the six sense objects (ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mental objects.

  2. Behaviour and response to the world relying on the three channels of action (kamma-dvāra): the body (kāya-dvāra), speech (vacī-dvāra), and mind (mano-dvāra), resulting in physical actions (kāya-kamma), verbal actions (vacī-kamma), and mental actions (mano-kamma).

Note that in the context of active engagement in everyday life, the term dvāra (’sense doors’) in the first system is most often referred to in the scriptures by the term āyatana, which means ’sphere of cognition’ or ’path of cognition’. For this reason, in this analysis here, the term āyatana is used instead of dvāra.

In regard to the second system, the entire engagement here pertains to the fourth aggregate – the aggregate of volitional formations (saṅkhāra) – which was discussed in the previous chapter. The myriad volitional formations, which can be classified as wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral, manifest and function when they are selected, induced, and authorized by intention (cetanā) – their leader and representative – to behave or act by way of body, speech and mind, resulting in physical deeds, speech, and thoughts. {29}

In this context, volitional formations are reclassified in three ways: (1) according to the chief or representative factor (i.e. of intention); (2) according to the pathway by which they are expressed; and (3) according to the specific action performed, as shown on Figure Intention and Action.

Intention and Action image

In the previous chapter on the five aggregates, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) as the factors determining the quality and attributes of the mind have already been discussed. In chapters 4 and 5 of Buddhadhamma, covering the process of human life and human activities, a detailed explanation of volitional formations will be presented in regard to their role in shaping behaviour and responding to the external world. In this present chapter, the focus is thus restricted to the first system above, namely, the nature and proper functioning of the six sense doors.

Nature of the Six Senses

The term āyatana literally means ’link’ or ’sphere’. In this context it refers to ’cognitive link’, ’sphere of cognition’, ’source of awareness’, or ’doorway of perception’. There are six such doorways: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.1

One may then ask, ’To what are these senses linked?’ The answer is that they are linked to the world, to the external environment. Yet the world only reveals limited parts or aspects of itself to human beings, depending on people’s faculties or instruments of cognition, that is, depending on the six senses mentioned above. For this reason, each one of the six senses is paired with a specific ’object of awareness’ in the external world. {30}

These objects of awareness are also referred to by the term āyatana, because they too act as a cognitive link or as a source of awareness. Yet, as opposed to the six internal senses (internal āyatana) just mentioned, these objects exist in the external world (external āyatana).

Generally speaking, these six external sense objects – visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mental objects – are referred to by the term ārammaṇa, which literally means ’something that detains the mind’ or ’something that holds attention’. Simply speaking, they are ’objects of attention’.

When an internal sense base (āyatana; ’sphere of cognition’) comes into contact with an (external) object of attention (ārammaṇa), an awareness specific to that individual sense sphere arises.2 When the eye comes into contact with forms, the awareness of ’seeing’ arises; when the ear contacts sounds, the awareness of ’hearing’, etc. This awareness is called ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa): the awareness of sense objects.

There are thus six kinds of consciousness, corresponding to the six sense faculties and the six sense objects: eye-consciousness (i.e. seeing); ear-consciousness (i.e. hearing); nose-consciousness (i.e. smelling); tongue-consciousness (i.e. tasting); body-consciousness (i.e. touching); and mind-consciousness (i.e. awareness of mental objects):

  1. Eye (cakkhu) is the sphere for cognizing form (rūpa), giving rise to seeing (cakkhu-viññāṇa).

  2. Ear (sota) is the sphere for cognizing sound (sadda), giving rise to hearing (sota-viññāṇa).

  3. Nose (ghāna) is the sphere for cognizing odours (gandha), giving rise to smelling (ghāna-viññāṇa).

  4. Tongue (jivhā) is the sphere for cognizing tastes (rasa), giving rise to tasting (jivhā-viññāṇa).

  5. Body (kāya) is the sphere for cognizing tangibles (phoṭṭhabba), giving rise to tactile awareness (kāya-viññāṇa).

  6. Mind (mano) is the sphere for cognizing mental objects (dhamma),3 giving rise to awareness of mental objects (mano-viññāṇa).

This can be expanded as:

  • 6 sense bases (internal āyatana): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.

  • 6 sense objects (external āyatana): form (visible objects), sound (audible objects), smell (odorous objects), taste (sapid objects), touch (tangible objects), mind-objects (cognizable objects).

  • 6 kinds of consciousness: eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body- and mind-consciousness.

D. III. 243-4.

Although the arising of consciousness is dependent on the contact between a sense base and its respective sense object,4 the fact that a sense object becomes manifest to a sense base does not invariably result in consciousness. Other accompanying factors, such as receptivity, determination, and interest must also be present.5 For example, while a person is asleep, agitated, absentminded, focused on an activity, or highly concentrated, various visual forms and sounds within range of potential awareness are neither seen nor heard. {31} Similarly, when one is focused on writing a letter or a book, one may not be aware of the contact between one’s body and the chair or between one’s fingers and the pen. In such cases, when sense bases and sense objects are in contact, but without the arising of consciousness, ’cognition’ is not yet said to have occurred.

Cognition arises when all three factors are present: a sense base (āyatana), a sense object (ārammaṇa), and consciousness (viññāṇa). The technical term in Pali for the union of these three factors is phassa (alternatively, samphassa). Although this term literally means ’contact’, in Buddhism it refers specifically to the coming together or convergence of these three factors. In this context phassa may be translated as ’cognition’. This contact or cognition is divided into six kinds, according to the specific sense sphere involved, i.e.: eye-contact (cakkhu-samphassa), ear-contact (sota-samphassa), nose-contact (ghāna-samphassa), tongue-contact (jivhā-samphassa), body-contact (kāya-samphassa), and mind-contact (mano-samphassa).

This contact is a vital stage in the wider cognitive process. Once contact with an object has occurred, other mental and physical dynamics follow in its wake. To begin with, there is a feeling (vedanā) in response to that object, followed by recognition, associated thinking, and various actions of body, speech, and mind.

The feelings or sensations (vedanā) arising immediately after contact with an object are of special interest in this analysis of people’s interaction with the world. The term vedanā refers to sense experience, to experiencing the ’flavour’ of sense impressions. These sensations are either pleasurable, painful, or neutral.

If classified according to the pathways of cognition, there are six kinds of feeling, corresponding to the six sense bases: feelings arising from eye-contact, feelings arising from ear-contact, etc.6 If classified according to the quality of feeling, however, there are three kinds:

  1. Sukha: pleasurable, easeful, comfortable, agreeable.

  2. Dukkha: painful, uncomfortable.

  3. Adukkhamasukha (also referred to as upekkha):7 neutral; neither pleasant nor painful.

This latter division is sometimes expanded into five kinds of feeling:

  1. Sukha: physical pleasure.

  2. Dukkha: physical pain.

  3. Somanassa: mental pleasure; joy.

  4. Domanassa: mental pain; sorrow.

  5. Upekkhā: neutral feeling; neither pleasure nor pain. {32}

The cognitive process up to this point can be outlined as follows:

The Cognitive Process (Simple Form) image

The objects of awareness (ārammaṇa) are equivalent to those aspects of the world apparent to human beings by way of the sense bases (āyatana). The awareness of these objects is necessary for people to engage with the world and to survive.

Feeling (vedanā) is an essential factor in this process, indicating to people both what is dangerous and should be avoided, and what is supportive and should be sought out. Feeling thus promotes a comprehensive understanding of things.

For unawakened people, however, the role of feeling does not end here. Feeling is not merely one factor in the cognitive process which enhances knowledge and enables them to live a virtuous life. For them, feeling also implies that the world provides them with some form of compensation or reward for engaging with it. This reward is the pleasure and delight (referred to as sukha-vedanā) derived from sense objects.

If people seize onto feeling in this manner, they depart from the natural cognitive process and provide another dynamic the opportunity to take over. Feeling becomes a principal agent giving rise to subsequent factors within this new dynamic. The natural cognitive process functions in conjunction with this new dynamic, but it is distorted by its force and deviates from the truth.

This new dynamic unfolds very easily. Basically, if contact with a sense object provides pleasure (sukha-vedanā), a desire (taṇhā) for that object arises. This desire leads to attachment and latent clinging (upādāna). One is unable to lay down the object, even though in truth it is impossible to appropriate it, since it has already passed one by and vanished. At this stage, one is mentally preoccupied, creating various ideas and conceptions on how one may possess the pleasurable object, and planning how to obtain it. Finally, one performs various physical and verbal actions in order to reach one’s desired goal and to access the pleasurable feelings.

Conversely, if contact with a sense object leads to painful or uncomfortable sensations (dukkha-vedanā), one is discontent and annoyed. One desires to escape from or to eliminate the object (= taṇhā). One is preoccupied and fixated on that object (= upādāna) in a negative sense, predisposed towards aversion, fear, and avoidance. One reacts further by yearning for and obsessing over pleasurable feelings, pursuing those things one believes will provide pleasure.

This new dynamic produces a complex and desperate cycle of joy and sorrow, which is concocted by human beings themselves and which spins around repeatedly, beginning with this link of feeling (vedanā). This is one interpretation of the ’cycle of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). People get caught in this whirlpool, and are unable to reach superior states of mind, which are available and attainable as a human being.

The link in the cognitive process following on from contact (phassa) is thus highly significant. One may say that this is the critical or turning point in the process. Feeling (vedanā) plays a crucial role at this stage. The subsequent factors in the cognitive process depend on the kind of role that feeling plays at this point. Here, there are a couple of matters to consider: {33}

First, the link following on from contact is a critical juncture, which acts as the fork in the road between a pure cognitive process and the so-called ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa).

Within a pure cognitive process, feeling is simply a minor factor, helping to bring about correct and accurate knowledge.

Within the ’round of rebirth’, however, feeling is a predominant factor, dictating the entire process. It is valid to say that feeling (vedanā) shapes all of unawakened peoples’s thoughts and actions – people’s lives are determined by feeling. Within this process, people do not experience sense impressions merely to learn about the world and to engage with it in a healthy way, but they also begin to view the world as something to be consumed.

Technically speaking, within a pure cognitive process, the link of feeling (vedanā) is removed or considered inconsequential. Here, cognition is completed with contact (phassa). The following stage is referred to as the process of knowing and seeing (ñāṇa-dassana), or the process of ’turning away’ (vivaṭṭa), which is the opposite to the ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa).8

Second, the link following on from contact is a critical juncture in terms of ethical conduct. It is the decisive turning point between good and evil, between wholesome and unwholesome, and between liberation and spinning around in the cycle of rebirth.

At this point we should return to the subject of the sense bases (āyatana), because all of the cognitive factors so far discussed rely on and begin with the sense bases. These sense bases thus also play a vital role in the cognitive process. For example, they are the source of feeling (vedanā) or the channels enabling the arising of feeling. Human beings aim for and desire feeling, and the sense bases make it possible to experience feeling.

In sum, the sense bases serve human beings in two ways:

  1. They are the pathways for experiencing the world; they are the locus where aspects of the world are submitted to human beings. They are the instruments for communication, providing people with raw data for understanding. They are thus essential for helping people engage successfully with the world, to live well, and to survive.

  2. They are the channels for ’consuming’ the world; they are the doorways that people open in order to experience the sweetness and pleasures of the world and to seek amusement, by seeing sights, hearing sounds, smelling fragrances, tasting flavours, touching tangibles, and fantasizing over agreeable thoughts.

These two functions are connected. The first is the principal or basic function, which is necessary. The second function is secondary; one can say that it is ’extra’ or ’excessive’. {34}

In both cases, the sense bases operate in the same way. The difference lies in the factor of intention, whether people aim for knowledge or whether they aim for sensation (vedanā).

For unawakened beings, the importance of the sense bases tends to be centred on the second function, of consuming sense impressions. The first function then becomes simply an accessory or accomplice in fulfilling the second. In other words, cognition acts as a servant for consuming the world or for propelling the cycle of rebirth. Ordinarily, people use their senses to gather only that specific knowledge that helps them to obtain and experience delicious and delightful sense objects. They are generally not interested in securing knowledge beyond this function.

Moreover, the physical, verbal, and mental behaviour of unawakened beings is also performed out of service to the cycle of rebirth. That is, people tend to act, speak, and think in order to seek and obtain pleasurable sense impressions.

The more dimwitted people are, the greater is their entanglement with this second function, to the point that people’s entire lives revolve around the six sense bases.

Although the six sense bases are only one part of the five aggregates and do not comprise the entirety of human life (as the five aggregates do),9 they play a vital role for people and are highly influential in directing people’s lives. One can say that life as ordinary people know it is defined by their engagement with the world by way of the six senses. The six senses give meaning to people’s lives. If the six senses do not function properly, life becomes meaningless – the world ends.

The following passage from the Pali Canon provides a concise yet complete description of this process, and helps to integrate the explanations of the five aggregates (from the previous chapter) with the subject here of the six senses:

Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates (papañca) over. With what one has mentally proliferated over as the source, diverse and complex perceptions (papañca-saññā-saṅkhā) beset a person with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye.

(The same is true for the remaining five pairs of sense bases/sense objects.) {35}

M. I. 111-12.

This process can be illustrated in this way:

The Cognitive Process image

With the arising of diverse and complex perceptions (papañca-saññā), there is an increase in elaborate and embellished thinking, giving rise to such defilements as lust, aversion, possessiveness, and jealously.10

Nota Bene

  1. The term papañca refers to an engagement and entanglement with specific sense objects; it also refers to proliferative thinking driven by the force of craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wrong view (diṭṭhi), or thinking that compensates these three mental impurities. Here, a person conceives of things in terms of ’me’ and ’mine’, building a sense of self-identity or conceiving of things in line with personal opinions. These thoughts appear in myriad and elaborate ways, leading to various complex perceptions (papañca-saññā) that are associated with these mental proliferations.

  2. There are two stages of perception (saññā): the first stage is initial perception, which perceives those objects that arise naturally on their own. The second stage – papañca-saññā – is perception based on mental formations (saṅkhāra), which fabricate myriad and elaborate images or concepts in relation to sense objects, as mentioned above.

  3. The entire cognitive process can be divided into two parts:

    1. The first part, from the internal sense bases to feeling, comprises a pure cognitive process; all of the inherent factors arise according to natural causes and conditions. At this stage there is no ’being’, ’person’, or ’self’ involved.

    2. The latter part, from feeling (vedanā) onwards, comprises the process of consuming the world or the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). (In fact, feeling – vedanā – can also constitute the initial stage of the process of turning away (vivaṭṭa), but here the focus is on the round of rebirth.) In this latter process, there are not only natural causes and conditions at work, but there now arises a ’person’ or ’being’. A dualistic relationship is established between a ’consumer’ and the ’consumed’, between a ’thinker’ and ’conceptualized ideas’.

  4. The process of consuming the world illustrated above is only one of several ways to depict this process. It has been selected here because it is concise and it corresponds to the subjects presently being explained, i.e. the five aggregates and the six sense bases. Another description of the round of rebirth is the detailed teaching of Dependent Origination, which is a comprehensive model.

  5. Strictly speaking, the factors of consciousness (viññāṇa), contact (phassa), feeling (vedanā), and perception (saññā) are classified as ’conascent factors’ (sahajāta-dhammā): they arise simultaneously. The linear presentation above is provided for the sake of simplicity. {36}

The cognitive process can be divided into two parts, and the latter part itself can be further divided into either the ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) or the ’process of turning away’ (vivaṭṭa), as illustrated on Figure Rounds of Rebirth or Turning Away.

Rounds of Rebirth or Turning Away image

Another term used to refer to the six internal sense bases (āyatana) or sense doors (dvāra) is indriya, which translates as ’faculty’ or ’governing faculty’. This term refers to the predominant or principal agent in a specific action. The eye, for example, is the principal agent in cognizing forms, and the ear is the principal agent in cognizing sounds. The six faculties are: the eye-faculty (cakkhundriya), the ear-faculty (sotindriya), the nose-faculty (ghānindriya), the tongue-faculty (jivhindriya), the body-faculty (kāyindriya), and the mind-faculty (manindriya).

The term indriya is generally used when referring to the active engagement of the sense bases, to their operation in everyday life, and in the context of virtuous conduct, for example: ’restraint of the eye-faculty’. The term āyatana, on the other hand, is generally used when referring to specific factors within a causal process (e.g.: ’dependent on the eye and visual forms, eye-consciousness arises’), and also when referring to characteristics of the senses (e.g.: ’the eye is impermanent’).

Another term frequently used for the sense bases when explaining specific factors within a causal process is phassāyatana, which translates as the ’source of contact’ or the ’origin of contact’.

Alternative terms referring to the external āyatana – the sense objects (ārammaṇa) – include gocara (’resort’, ’place for gaining sustenance’) and visaya (’bond’, ’attachment’, ’sphere of engagement’).

Another very important term, used only in reference to the first five sense objects, which are highly influential in the process of consuming the world or in the round of rebirth, is kāma-guṇa, translated as: ’cords of sensual pleasure’, ’strands of sensual pleasure’, ’alluring and enticing features’, ’delicious (or ’positive’) aspects of sensuality’. This term refers specifically to those forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects that are desirable, attractive, and pleasurable. {37}

Buddhist Epistemology

In the discussion of the cognitive process it is apt to include here a short description of different kinds of knowledge.

According to Buddha-Dhamma, there are many different ways to classify knowledge:

Types of Knowledge

This classification corresponds to the teaching on the five aggregates (khandha). Knowledge is a form of mentality (nāma-dhamma), and various aspects of knowledge are found in three of the ’aggregates of mentality’ (nāma-khandha), namely the perception aggregate (saññā-khandha), the volitional formations aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha), and the consciousness aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha). There are three distinct kinds of knowledge classified according to the aggregates: perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā).

1. Perception (saññā): This refers to all forms of knowledge within the domain of the perception aggregate, that is, perception along with knowledge stemming from perception. This includes the gathered and stored perceptions that become the raw material for thought and enable recognition, remembering, understanding, and contemplation.

According to the objects noted or perceived, perception is divided into six kinds: perception of form (rūpa-saññā), perception of sound (sadda-saññā), perception of smell (gandha-saññā), perception of taste (rasa-saññā), perception of tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba-saññā), and perception of mind objects (dhamma-saññā; perception of thoughts).11

According to how perceptions are formed, they can be roughly divided into two stages:

  1. Basic or initial perception: direct perception of the features and characteristics of things as they are, for example one perceives green, white, black, red, hard, soft, sour, sweet, round, flat, long, and short.12 This also includes perceptions linked to conventional designations (paññatti), for example: ’cat’, ’desk’, and ’chair’.

  2. Overlapping or supplementary perception: perception resulting from mental conceptualization,13 or perception in accord with various levels of knowledge and understanding, for example one perceives something as beautiful, revolting, despicable, impermanent, or nonself. This supplementary or secondary perception may be further subdivided into two kinds:

    1. Perception resulting from unwholesome mental proliferation (papañca-saññā); muddled or convoluted perception stemming from the elaborate embellishment by craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wrong view (diṭṭhi). The commentaries refer to it as ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā): perception tinged with mental defilement.14 {38} It is perverted by defilement and thus deviates from the path of knowledge. Rather than fostering understanding, it breeds greed, hatred, and delusion, and it distorts or obstructs understanding. Examples of this kind of perception include: perceiving those features one considers despicable; perceiving those features that answer to covetousness; perceiving those attributes that feed a sense of self-importance; perceiving attributes in others whom one considers inferior; and perceptions of ultimate ownership and control.

    2. Perception resulting from wholesome thinking; perception springing from correct understanding. This perception is referred to as wholesome perception (kusala-saññā), perception conducive to knowledge (vijjābhāgiya-saññā), or by other similar terms. It fosters the development of wisdom and the growth of wholesome qualities. Examples of this kind of perception include: perceiving those attributes that foster friendship; and perceiving those attributes that reveal the state of causality, the state of impermanence, the state of nonself, etc.

Arahants15 have perception, but it is perception free from mental taints (āsava), free from defilement (kilesa).16 Arahants are able to identify proliferative perception (papañca-saññā) as experienced by unawakened people, or as they themselves used to experience it before their full awakening, but they do so simply for the sake of knowledge or in order to benefit others, for example when helping others to solve their problems. With these perceptions by arahants, there is no sense of being personally disturbed or affected. General Dhamma practitioners can model their own behaviour on this conduct by the arahants.

2. Consciousness (viññāṇa): All knowledge that is part of the consciousness-aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha); the principal form of all knowledge and awareness, which is the constant function of the mind. Consciousness is aware of all mental activity, as explained in Chapter 1.

3. Wisdom (paññā): This is the principal form of knowledge contained within the volitional formation aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha). This factor too was already explained at length in chapter 1.17 Besides this chief form of knowledge, there are many other factors within the group of volitional formations that are related to the principle of knowledge and understanding. These factors are related to wisdom, either by supporting it, by acting as intermediary factors in wisdom development, or by acting as criteria for revealing the presence, absence, diminishment, or increase of wisdom. Most notably, these factors are:18

  • Faith (saddhā): belief; conviction; confidence; inspiration. Although faith is not itself a form of knowledge, it can act as a gateway to knowledge. Faith implies accepting the knowledge of others, trusting in others’ wisdom, and being willing to rely on other people’s knowledge, or other sources of knowledge, as a personal guide. If the person endowed with faith is able to reflect and to apply an initial reserve of wisdom, faith can lead to an understanding of the truth. This is particularly valid when the other person’s knowledge, or the other source of knowledge, is accurate and genuine, and when there is a virtuous friend (kalyāṇamitta) to advise in how to properly apply wisdom. On the contrary, however, if a person is gullible – that is, he is unable to apply wise reflection – and the people (along with other sources of information) he associates with are misguided, and he is without virtuous friends or has evil-minded friends, the results may be the opposite. He may be led to greater misunderstanding and delusion.19 {39}

  • View (diṭṭhi): knowledge according to one’s own notions and viewpoints. Diṭṭhi is an important stage in the development of wisdom. It follows on from a dependence by faith on other people’s knowledge, at which stage one arrives at one’s own personal understanding or reasoned discernment. View (diṭṭhi) and faith (saddhā) are often closely related, or they are two aspects of a single matter: the entrusting oneself to others’ knowledge and the willingness to follow them (with devotion) is faith; the adoption of those aspects of knowledge or of others’ advice, and identifying them as one’s own is ’view’. The important attribute of view is adhering to something as one’s own.20

    The knowledge classified as ’view’ (diṭṭhi) ranges from the irrational, to the moderately rational, to the highly rational. When view is developed to the point of correct knowledge and understanding – that which corresponds with reality – it is called ’right view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi) and is designated as ’wisdom’ (paññā).21 When one develops wisdom to the point of clearly discerning the nature of things, one no longer needs to seize this understanding as one’s own. This is because the truth exists in a neutral, objective way; it does not depend on anyone’s assertions or affirmations. It lies beyond the stage of ’view’.

    Because view tends to be linked with personal attachments, it often produces harmful effects. If one’s attachment is strong and unyielding, despite one’s views being very close to the truth, they will end up being an impediment, preventing one from realizing the truth.

  • Delusion (moha; ignorance): moha is a synonym for avijjā; both of these terms refer to an ignorance of the truth and a lack of understanding in regard to reality. This ignorance is the opposite of wisdom (paññā), particularly the specific form of wisdom called ’true knowledge’ (vijjā). One can say that delusion is the basic state of existence for human beings, who are encouraged to dispel it by way of true understanding (vijjā), or by way of wisdom development.

    Although one may study an extensive amount of technical knowledge (’arts and sciences’), and apply this knowledge in various enterprises, if it does not help one to understand things as they truly are – does not lead one to a true discernment of the conditioned world – it remains on the level of formal learning (suta): ’that which has been transmitted’; ’that which one has heard’. It is not yet true wisdom. It is unable to dispel ignorance or delusion, and it is unable to solve the basic predicament of life. It may solve some problems, but occasionally it breeds new ones. Take the example of someone who desires light and goes off in search of large quantities of kindling and fuel. No matter what this person does with these items, say by arranging them in various decorative patterns, as long as he has not ignited a flame, no light will shine forth.

Wisdom must be generated, cultivated, and gradually developed. There are many stages or levels of wisdom, and there are numerous important Pali terms used to refer to wisdom: either to specific stages of wisdom, specific attributes of wisdom, or specific origins of wisdom. Here is a list of some of these terms: pariññā (’thorough knowledge’), ñāṇa (’clear knowledge’), vijjā (’true knowledge’), aññā (’gnosis’), abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’), buddhi (’intelligence’), bodhi (’awakening’), and sambodhi (’full awakening’). {40}

The distinction between perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) was explained in chapter 1. There is, however, one point to reiterate here:

Consciousness (viññāṇa) is a pariññeyya-dhamma: it is something to be recognized and understood; our only task is to understand it as it is. We have no responsibility beyond this, because no matter what we do, consciousness functions according to its own nature.

Generally speaking, perception (saññā) is also a pariññeyya-dhamma: something to simply understand as it is.22 Perception resulting from unwholesome mental proliferation (papañca-saññā), or ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā), however, is a pahātabba-dhamma: something to be abandoned or eliminated.23 Perception supportive to understanding and to fostering wholesome qualities is a bhāvetabba-dhamma: something to be cultivated, increased, and perfected.24

Wisdom (paññā) is a bhāvetabba-dhamma: something to be trained and developed, until it can be used to completely dispel delusion and ignorance.25

Pathways of Cognition

According to Buddha-Dhamma, ’contact’ (phassa) is the source of knowledge: all forms of understanding arise as a result of contact, or they arise at the point of contact (see Note Contact and Consciousness).26 That is, knowledge is dependent on cognition, whereby data passes through the six ’spheres’ (āyatana) or doorways (dvāra) of cognition: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Contact and Consciousness

Technically speaking, contact (phassa) is not a condition for the knowledge referred to as ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa), because consciousness is one of the factors involved for the arising of contact. For this reason, these sutta passages cited above do not state that phassa is the cause for the arising of the consciousness aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha); rather, they state that materiality and mentality (nāma-rūpa) is the cause for its arising. The expression in English, ’contact is the source of all knowledge’, is still valid, however, since the term ’source’ can refer both to ’cause’ and a ’place from which something is obtained’.

If one considers the six sense spheres as the starting points of cognition, one can classify knowledge into two kinds:

  1. Knowledge obtained by way of the five sense doors (pañca-dvāra): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. This refers to basic forms of knowledge, i.e. knowing visual forms (including colours), sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles (phoṭṭhabba; these can be summarized as: ’earth’ (paṭhavī): the state of solidity; ’fire’ (tejo): heat or temperature; and ’wind’ (vāyo): movement, vibration, and tension). {41}

  2. Knowledge obtained by way of the mind door (mano-dvāra),27 i.e. knowing mind objects (dhammārammaṇa; or dhamma, for short). This refers to all of those things known and reflected upon by the mind. For the sake of clarity, the Abhidhamma divides these into five kinds:28

    1. The feeling aggregate (vedanā-khandha). (This refers to feeling as something that is known by the mind. The following four factors should be understood in the same way.)

    2. The perception aggregate (saññā-khandha).

    3. The volitional formations aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha).

    4. Anidassana-appaṭigha-rūpa: invisible, intangible form included in the classification of mind objects. This is also referred to as refined form (sukhuma-rūpa), and it is comprised of sixteen factors: the element of cohesion (āpo-dhātu); femininity (itthī-bhāva); masculinity (purisa-bhāva); physical basis of the mind (hadaya-rūpa); life-faculty (jīvitin-driya); material quality of nutrition (āhāra-rūpa; nutritive essence – ojā); space (ākāsa); bodily communication (kāya-viññatti); verbal communication (vacī-viññatti); the three qualities of alterability (vikāra-rūpa): levity (lahutā), softness (mudutā; malleability), and wieldiness (kammaññatā); and the four material qualities of salient features (lakkhaṇa-rūpa): growth or enlargement (upacaya), continuity (santati); decay (jaratā); and disintegration (aniccatā).

    5. The unconditioned element (asaṅkhata-dhātu), i.e. Nibbāna.

Later Abhidhamma texts present a more detailed analysis of mind objects (dhammārammaṇa), dividing them into six kinds:29

  1. Five sense organs (pasāda), i.e. the clarity or sensitivity which acts as the cognitive medium in regard to the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.

  2. Sixteen kinds of refined materiality (sukhuma-rūpa), mentioned in the previous list (D).

  3. Heart (citta; ’mind’).

  4. Mental concomitants (cetasika); this corresponds to the feeling aggregate, perception aggregate, and volitional formations aggregate mentioned in the previous list.

  5. Nibbāna.

  6. Paññatti: established names, labels, and designations, for example: ’earth’, ’mountain’, ’car’, ’person’, ’North’, ’South’, ’cave’, ’pond’, ’island’, ’peninsula’, etc. These names and designations may refer to things that truly exist or to things that only exist in the imagination. Whether the things they refer to exist or not, however, these names and designations are timeless and indestructible. A hole going deep into a mountain is called a ’cave’. Wherever and whenever such a hole appears, it is consistently called a ’cave’. The term ’cave’ refers to only this specific phenomenon. The actual cave itself (and every cave), however, is subject to caving in or being filled in; it is subject to change and transformation.

    Similarly, that which is called ’perception’ arises and passes away, and is subject to disintegration, but the label ’perception’ does not disappear. Wherever and whenever such a phenomenon arises, it is consistently called ’perception’ (if there is a conventional agreement to use this term). The body is subject to decay, but the term ’body’ remains constant. Wherever such phenomena arise, they are referred to by such designations. Those people who do not understand this subject of conventional designations may be puzzled or confused when they encounter such phrases as ’feeling is impermanent’ or ’perception is impermanent’; they are unable to distinguish whether impermanence here refers to the actual phenomenon or to its designation. {42}

Such highly technical explanations may be difficult to understand. On some occasions, it is especially difficult to distinguish between certain kinds of knowledge obtained by way of the mind-door and knowledge obtained by way of the five senses. Yet these distinctions are very important. For example, when one hears someone else speaking, the knowledge by way of the five senses (in this case, the ’doorway’ of the ear) is simply an awareness of sound – one simply hears a sound. One does not yet understand the meaning of the words. Subsequent understanding is knowledge arising at the mind-door. Likewise, when one sees a rooftop, the knowledge by way of the five senses (the ’doorway’ of the eye) is simply an awareness of a shape or colour. Knowing the condition of ’covering’ and ’sheltering’, and knowing that the object is a roof, is achieved at the mind-door.

Knowledge by way of the mind, or the knowledge of mental objects (dhammārammaṇa), encompasses a very wide range. It includes both the mental awareness of data obtained by way of the five senses and knowledge exclusive to the mind itself. To clarify this matter, here is another format for classifying the knowledge obtained by way of the mind-door (mano-dvāra):

  1. Objects (i.e. ’emotions’) specific to the mind, e.g.: love, anger, confusion, mental clarity, happiness, unhappiness, grief, depression, loneliness, delight, courage, fear, etc.

  2. Conceptions pertaining to the past, of objects that were cognized by way of the five senses.

  3. Conceptions associated with materiality (rūpa-dhamma) cognized by way of the five senses, yet not made aware of by the consciousness (viññāṇa) specific to each of these senses. These include ’designations’ (paññatti) and conceptions of the relationship between various material phenomena, for example: the function of coherence, expansion, and the state of interrelationship and interdependency.

  4. Thoughts, imaginations, justifications, and judgements created as a result of emotions (A.), conceptions pertaining to the past (B.), and conceptions of the relationship between various material phenomena, along with designations (C.).

  5. Insight or exceptional knowledge that pervades a luminous mind. For example, when one discerns the true relationship between various factors, a clear understanding arises and one sees into the law of interrelated conditions (or ’law of relativity’). This knowledge is referred to as ñāṇa. An example is abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’).

  6. The Unconditioned, i.e. Nibbāna.

Note that in the scriptures, the preferred classification of knowledge obtained by way of the cognitive doorways is fourfold:30 {43}

  1. Diṭṭha: ’the seen’, i.e. all visible objects (rūpārammaṇa) and knowledge obtained by way of seeing and watching.

  2. Suta: ’the heard’, i.e. sounds and knowledge obtained by way of hearing and listening.

  3. Muta: ’the experienced’, i.e. odours, tastes, and tangibles, or those things cognized by way of the nose, tongue, and body.

  4. Viññāta: the ’realized’, i.e. mind objects (dhammārammaṇa): all things known by way of the mind.

The first three factors constitute knowledge by way of the five senses. This threefold division is made because seeing and hearing are critical sources of knowledge and involve an extensive range of activity; these two factors are thus distinguished from the rest. The three remaining factors, pertaining to the nose, tongue, and body, share a common attribute: here, cognition is accomplished when the sense objects – odours, tastes, and tangibles – literally make contact with the respective sense base. This differs from the eye and the ear, which cognize objects that do not ’touch’ the sense base (visual objects rely on light and sounds rely on waves as the means of conveying information.)31

Technically speaking, the knowledge obtained by way of the five senses is very limited. In this context, however, this knowledge is defined in a broad, general sense: diṭṭha refers both to that which is seen and to all knowledge dependent on the eye and on seeing, including the mind’s interpretation of this visual data. Yet this interpretation of data still remains on a direct and basic level, without any additional embellishment. Suta refers to that which is heard and to all knowledge derived from hearing. This includes speech and language, which the mind has interpreted on a basic level, but which has not yet undergone additional conceptualization. Muta, too, should be understood in this way. Technically speaking, this knowledge pertaining to the five senses – diṭṭha, suta, and muta – extends as far as ’perception by way of the five senses’ (pañcadvārika-saññā). All knowledge beyond that is encompassed by the term viññāta: knowledge dependent on the mind door.

Wisdom Development

The knowledge corresponding to and required for wisdom development is referred to as knowledge ’to be developed’ (bhāvetabba-dhamma). Because consciousness (viññāṇa) is a form of knowledge simply ’to be understood’ (pariññeyya-dhamma; ’to be recognized’), it is not included as a factor in this context.

There are three kinds of knowledge pertaining to wisdom development. According to stages of development, or to the potency of wisdom and understanding, they are ordered in this sequence:

  1. Perception (saññā): knowledge derived from perceiving, remembering, and identifying the attributes of things. This knowledge is recorded in the mind. It acts as a model for comparison and as raw material for thinking and for subsequent understanding. This perception can be divided into two kinds, as described earlier (see: A. Nature of Knowing).

    The perception arising in the normal cognitive process – both basic perception and the perception accompanying the growth of understanding in wisdom development – is simply a matter of either knowing or not knowing. This is true even if one is referring to various levels of perception, say from indistinct to lucid perception, from partial to complete perception, or from false to correct perception. This matter thus pertains directly to knowledge and the development of knowledge. This is in direct contrast to the excessive or immoderate perception known as ’proliferative perception’ (papañca-saññā) or ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā), which invariably obstructs and distorts knowledge. {44}

  2. View (diṭṭhi): reasoned understanding; truth on the level of conceptualization; knowledge mixed with cherished thoughts and opinions. Here, a person draws conclusions of some kind, and attaches to specific viewpoints as his or her own. This knowledge may originate from an external source, but it has passed through a screening process and is adopted as one’s own, regardless of how logical or reasonable this knowledge may be. It can even be illogical. Examples of view include: eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi; the view of an eternal soul); annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi); and the view of non-causality (ahetuka-diṭṭhi).

  3. Direct knowledge (ñāṇa): profound knowledge; gnosis. The term ñāṇa is a synonym of paññā (’wisdom’), but its definition tends to be more restricted. That is, it refers to specific functions and fruits of wisdom, for example: kammassakatā-ñāṇa (the insight into how beings are the owners of their intentional actions); atītaṁsa-ñāṇa (profound knowledge of the past); saccānulomika-ñāṇa (knowledge in harmony with the truth); ṭhānāṭhāna-ñāṇa (knowledge of the possible and the impossible); and nānādhimuttika-ñāṇa (knowledge of the disposition, traits, and beliefs of various beings). Ñāṇa refers to a pure and radiant knowledge that arises spontaneously in the mind and discerns a particular quality as it really is.

Although there are many levels of ñāṇa, including mistaken knowledge or incomplete knowledge, they can all be referred to as ’pure’ or ’genuine’ forms of knowledge, because they have not yet been adulterated by self-identification or self-attachment. Occasionally ñāṇa arises as a consequence of reasoned thought, but this knowledge exists independent of such thought, because it connects with some aspect of reality that truly exists. This is one distinction between ñāṇa and diṭṭhi. The knowledge referred to as diṭṭhi relies on personal beliefs and logical reasoning, whereas ñāṇa makes contact with external aspects of reality that truly exist.32

On a basic level, perception (saññā) is the raw material for all thinking and subsequent knowledge. For this reason, both view (diṭṭhi) and direct knowledge (ñāṇa) rely on perception.

It is fairly obvious how view arises from perception. The very perception or discernment of something urges one to establish an opinion about it. Although perceiving the features of things is useful in everyday life, perception is selective and often acts to conceal or eclipse other features of these objects. If people fail to examine these dynamics, they may be deceived by perception or allow it to obstruct wisdom. This is the case for many people. The causes for wrong view to arise include false perceptions and also an incorrect application of perception.

The following passages from the Pali Canon describe how view arises as a consequence of perception:

An arahant does not possess even minor views arising from and produced by perception, pertaining to the seen, the heard, and the experienced. To wit: view has perception as its leader and principal agent, and it discriminates things according to perception. An arahant, free from mental taints, possesses no view produced by perception, created by perception, fashioned by perception, pertaining to the seen, etc.33 {45}

Nd. I. 110-11 (explaining: Sn. 156-8)

There are not many diverse truths in the world, except as a consequence of perception (resulting in diverse views).

Sn. 173.

The arising of direct knowledge (ñāṇa) is also dependent on perception:

Perception arises first, Poṭṭhapāda, then knowledge, and from the arising of perception comes the arising of knowledge.

D. I. 185.

The passage: ’From this you have not perceived the least sense,’ may be explained thus: ’You have not perceived those things you have engaged with or accomplished, nor have you perceived the characteristics, the causes, or the effects. “From this” means “from internal peace”, “from spiritual practice”, or “from Dhamma teachings”. From where else will you obtain knowledge?’

Nd. I. 193 (explaining: Sn. 165-6).

A person may watch falling leaves and consequently develop insight knowledge (vipassanā-ñāṇa) and discern the impermanence of all things. This knowledge relies on numerous perceptions as its source, for example: perceptions of life and the sustenance of all things; perceptions of aging and decay; perceptions of deterioration, death, and the ending of things; and perceptions of ’above’ and ’below’. The ability to see the relationship between these various perceptions gives rise to knowledge. Or take an example of worldly knowledge (lokiya-ñāṇa): when Isaac Newton observed the apple falling from the tree, he developed the insight into gravity. This insight relied on myriad perceptions, for example: perceptions of ’falling’; perceptions of convergence; perceptions of space and force; and perceptions of attraction, mobility, release, suspension, linearity, trajectory, etc. The ability to clearly see the relationship between these various perceptions gave rise to this insight into gravity.

Direct knowledge (ñāṇa) is able to give rise to view (diṭṭhi), and superior forms of view tend to arise as a consequence of previously accessed knowledge. A clear example of this from the suttas is the story of the Brahma god named Baka, who was able to recall the birth of beings for an expanse of time that appeared infinite. He observed the countless births and deaths of other beings, while he himself remained the same. He thus developed the view that the abode of Brahma is permanent and eternal, and that Brahma is the creator of all things.34 Similarly, Newton, after his discovery of gravity, used this insight to further observe natural phenomena, but his vision and understanding was not comprehensive. He was still stuck at or deceived by certain things. Knowledge and insight is thus susceptible to the attachment referred to as ’view’ (diṭṭhi).

Conversely, view (diṭṭhi) supports the arising of knowledge (ñāṇa). Many views result from contemplation and are highly logical and reasonable. They become established as beliefs in the minds of intelligent individuals and philosophers. For this reason, if one does not attach to these views in an unyielding way, and one is able to listen to others and to apply wise reflection, there is a good chance that a deeper knowledge will arise, paving the way to spiritual progress and removing any obstacles in the path. {46}

When view (diṭṭhi) or direct knowledge (ñāṇa) arises, new perceptions (saññā) are formed accordingly. Diṭṭhi and ñāṇa thus give rise to perception (saññā), which acts as the raw material for further contemplation and understanding. The difference here is that view tends to create false perceptions, whereas direct knowledge helps to create accurate, correct perceptions and to dispel false perceptions.35

The three kinds of knowledge – saññā, diṭṭhi, and ñāṇa – embodied in wisdom development are related to the three methods the Buddha described for generating wisdom:36

  1. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from one’s own reflection and reasoning.

  2. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom arising from learning or the transmission of knowledge from others.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from engaging in spiritual practice and cultivation. (See Note Factors of Generating Wisdom)

Factors of Generating Wisdom

In the suttas these three factors are named but not explained. When explaining the first two factors, the Abhidhamma focuses on kammassakatā-ñāṇa (the knowledge of the personal ownership of intentional action) and saccānulomika-ñāṇa (knowledge in harmony with the truth), i.e. it focuses on insight knowledge (vipassanā-ñāṇa), which arises as a result of engaging in work and technical discipline. The Abhidhamma equates the third factor with samāpannassa-paññā (the wisdom of one who possesses or accomplishes), which the commentaries define as the ’wisdom of one who is endowed with concentrative attainment (samāpatti)’, i.e. the wisdom arising from concentration (samādhi). See: VbhA. 413; VismṬ.: Khandhaniddesavaṇṇanā, Paññāpabhedakathāvaṇṇanā. But if one defines this term in a general sense, it can mean the ’wisdom of one who applies himself’, the ’wisdom of one who practises’, or the ’wisdom of one who earnestly engages in an activity’. See Appendix 1.

Besides these three chief methods, there exist numerous other means for developing wisdom. Especially in relation to the third method, these important activities include: listening (savana); inquiry and review (paripucchā); conversation, discussion, and debate (sākacchā); observing and watching (passana); scrutiny (nijjhāna); wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra; yoniso-upaparikkhā); evaluation (tulanā); examination, investigation, and analysis (vīmaṁsā); experimentation and selection (vijaya); repetition (āsevana); cultivation (bhāvanā); and continuous and devoted practice (bahulī-karaṇa).37

Reflection (cintā), learning (suta), and training (bhāvanā) help to generate, improve, and fine-tune perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa).

The learning imparted by others (suta), thoughts and reflections (cintā), and wisdom arising from practical application (bhāvanā) are all forms of knowledge inherent in an individual. The distinct and concrete knowledge manifesting in a person’s mind, however, are the three forms of knowledge described earlier: perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa). One can say that perception, view, and direct knowledge are the end results of learning, thinking, and practical training.

Perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa) have a powerful impact on people’s lives. Perception is highly influential in the cognitive process, in discerning and comprehending the world, and in generating other forms of knowledge. View, from religious beliefs and various ideologies, to personal values, acts as the guideline for people’s entire range of behaviour and way of life. Direct knowledge is the most pristine and profound form of knowledge – the fruit of the highest wisdom accessible to human beings. It is able to cleanse the innate character of people, and to create or change people’s worldview (loka-dassana) and outlook on life (jīva-dassana). Its effects on people’s behaviour and conduct is more lasting and definite than the effects produced by view (diṭṭhi).

These forms of knowledge discussed above are related to the classification of knowledge explained in the next section. {47}

Human Activities and Accomplishments

This heading refers to the knowledge pertaining to human social affairs, including: communication, imparting of information, research, symbolism, means of showing respect, social affiliations, and the transmission of a society’s heritage, which is the possession of all people and marks the advancement of a particular civilization. This form of knowledge can be divided into three kinds:38

  1. Suta (or suti): knowledge that has been heard, learned, or transmitted. It can be subdivided into two kinds:

    1. Knowledge heard, taught, or transmitted among human beings (in Pali this knowledge is referred to as suta). Buddhism considers this knowledge and learning to be of vital importance. In the context of wisdom development, it is referred to as the ’instruction by others’ (paratoghosa; literally, the ’utterance by others’). Wholesome instruction is given great emphasis in the teachings, as a basis and condition for right view (sammā-diṭṭhi).39 This knowledge (suta) includes formal schooling, news by way of the media, book- or textual knowledge, and recorded history. Even the suttas in the Tipiṭaka are a form of such knowledge. (Most of the suttas begin with the phrase, ’Thus have I heard’ – evaṃ me sutaṃ.)

    2. The knowledge that some religions proclaim has been revealed and disclosed by a supreme divinity. The brahmins, for example, believe that the Vedas were directly transmitted by Brahma. In Pali, this form of knowledge is usually referred to as suti, corresponding to the Sanskrit ṡruti. In Buddhism, however, this knowledge is not considered to hold any unique distinction and it is thus included in the term suta. In light of wisdom, it is not attributed any special value; its difference lies purely in its content.

  2. Diṭṭhi: views; opinions; theories; doctrines; beliefs. This refers to particular conclusions one draws about things. This understanding is associated with personal attachments and affinities, and it has the potential to create a sense of separation from others. Although this factor has been discussed above, here the focus is on its role in a social context. When personal beliefs extend outwards, and people declare or proclaim their views, others may adopt these beliefs, giving rise to factionalism and the creation of institutions or schools of thought.

    There are many Pali synonyms for the term diṭṭhi (Sanskrit: dṛishṭi). The most important ones are: khanti (’compatible idea’, ’acceptable principle’); ruci (’cherished idea’, ’pleasing principle’); and laddhi (’acquired idea’, ’dogma’, ’tenet of practice’, ’way of practice considered beneficial’, ’religious belief’.)40

  3. Ñāṇa: gnosis; direct knowledge; insight; pure knowledge; knowledge in accord with truth; wisdom resulting in a specific truth; comprehensive knowledge of a specific matter. Ñāṇa is the highest form of human knowledge and is of vital importance. Both in its mundane and transcendent forms, ñāṇa is the driving force for the development of ’noble qualities’ (ariya-dhamma) in human beings. The supreme ñāṇa is referred to as bodhi or bodhiñāṇa: ’enlightenment’, ’awakening’. The Buddha realized ’perfect, complete awakening’ (sammāsambodhi-ñāṇa), giving rise to Buddhism as the source of great vision for the world. {48}

There exist other, miscellaneous classifications of knowledge in the scriptures, in which various kinds of knowledge mentioned above are combined into groups, for example this group of five factors:

  1. Itiha (+ anussava) itikirā paramparā: knowledge derived from spoken information, news reports, listening, education, and transmission.

  2. Piṭaka-sampadā: standard scriptural knowledge.

  3. Takka naya ākāraparivitaka: knowledge derived through reasoning, including applied logic (takka), deductive thinking (anumāna), and reasoned reflection.

  4. Diṭṭhi-nijjhānakkhanti: knowledge that is considered compatible with one’s views or which one endorses as part of one’s personal beliefs.

  5. Sayamabhiññā (or sakkhi-dhamma): knowledge stemming from personal realization (atta-paccakkha). Knowledge derived from discerning the truth: from insight into the truth. This knowledge has been reflected upon with wise judgement; it has been clarified and made manifest.

Accurate and Defective Knowledge

Although Buddhist epistemology is an extensive subject, here we will look at only two more aspects, pertaining to correct and incorrect knowledge.

Two Levels of Truth

Students of Buddhism may experience confusion about the subject of truth. On the one hand, they hear such teachings as: do not associate with fools, associate with the wise; a foolish person has these attributes, a sage has these attributes; be content with what one has, do not covet the possessions of others; one is one’s own refuge; and one should offer mutual support. Other teachings, on the other hand, state: discern according to truth that the body is simply the body; it is not a ’being’, a ’person’, a ’self’, ’me’, ’you’, ’him’ or ’her’; it does not belong to us; it is not lasting and substantial; all things are nonself (anattā). These people then see these teachings as contradictory, or else they get confused and due to a limited understanding practise in an unbalanced, incorrect way. At times when they should speak or act according to a basic, conventional understanding of the world, they attach to teachings on ultimate truth, causing all sorts of confusion and even harm for themselves and others.

As an attempt to prevent such confusion and erroneous behaviour, the Abhidhamma divides the truth (sacca) into two levels:41

  1. Conventional truth (sammati-sacca): another name for this is vohāra-sacca: ’rhetorical truth’, ’vernacular truth’. This refers to consensual truth: to those things that have been mutually agreed upon and to common designations. These designations are used as tools for communication, for the sake of convenience and benefit in everyday life. Examples include the designations: ’person’, ’animal’, ’good person’, ’bad person’, ’table’, ’chair’, and ’book’, and the common words ’water’ and ’salt’. {49}

  2. Absolute truth (paramattha-sacca): to the extent that this truth can be articulated in words, the descriptions are intended for fully comprehending things as they really are. The aim here is to give rise to the supreme benefit of penetrating the ultimate truth (sacca-dhamma), an understanding which dispels all attachments, delusions, and defilements, fosters a proper relationship to things, brings about a freedom from suffering, and leads to true purity, peace, and happiness.

    Examples of absolute truths include: mentality (nāma-dhamma), corporeality (rūpa-dhamma), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volitional formations (saṅkhāra), consciousness (viññāṇa), the mind (citta), mental concomitants (cetasika), material form (rūpa), Nibbāna, contact (phassa), intention (cetanā), one-pointed attention (ekaggatā), the life faculty (jīvitindriya), etc. A comparison to modern science is the analysis of water or salt. For scientists, the terms ’water’ and ’salt’ may be deemed inadequate, ambiguous, or misleading. For more accuracy, they thus define water as Hydrogen Oxide (H2O) and common salt as Sodium Chloride (NaCl). (Note that this comparison does not correspond completely to the description here of absolute truth, but it shows how even in other branches of knowledge certain aspects of truth are distinguished from people’s ordinary understanding and definitions.)

In any case, the Abhidhamma, which assigns specific technical terms to these concepts of conventional and ultimate truth, cites passages from the suttas to substantiate its claim. This shows that these concepts existed from the beginning. Most likely, at the time of the Buddha, there was a basic understanding of these concepts, and it was thus unnecessary to establish unique descriptive terms for them. The key sutta passage cited in this context is a teaching by Bhikkhunī Vajirā:

Māra, how can you believe in a being and hold [such] a view? This is purely a mass of formations; here, no being can be found. Just as with the combination of various parts, the term ’wagon’ ensues, so too, with the five aggregates the conventional term ’being’ ensues.

S. I. 135; cited at Kvu. 86-7.

In relation to everyday spiritual practice, there are many passages by the Buddha emphasizing an understanding of conventional and absolute truths. The Buddha encouraged people to recognize language merely as a means of communication, without attaching to conventions or becoming enslaved by language. Here are two examples:

An arahant with taints destroyed may say, ’I speak this way, and they speak to me this way.’ Skilful, knowing the world’s parlance, he uses such terms as mere expressions.

S. I. 14.

These are worldly terms, expressions, manners of speech and designations. The Tathāgata uses these, but does not attach to them.

D. I. 202.

Note that the Abhidhamma describes the suttas – the Suttanta Piṭaka – as a vernacular teaching (vohāra-desanā), because the majority of its subject matter is comprised of conventional language. In contrast, the Abhidhamma describes itself as an absolute teaching (paramattha-desanā), because the majority of its content is a direct presentation of absolute truths.42 {50}

Three Aberrations of Knowledge

The Pali term vipallāsa refers to aberrant or errant knowledge – knowledge that deviates from the truth. It is fundamentally flawed, leading to misunderstanding, delusion, self-deception, and an incorrect attitude and conduct vis-à-vis one’s life and all things. It is an impediment, shielding one from discerning reality (sacca-bhāva). There are three kinds of aberrant knowledge:

  1. Saññā-vipallāsa: aberrant perception; wrong or defective perception.

  2. Citta-vipallāsa: aberrant ’mind’; wrong or defective thought.

  3. Diṭṭhi-vipallāsa: aberrant view; wrong or defective view.

Examples of aberrant perception include: someone frightened by a piece of rope, perceiving it as a snake; animals encountering a scarecrow and seeing it as a real person guarding a field; someone completely disorientated, seeing north as south, south as north; and someone fleeing from the light of a flashing sign, perceiving it as a fire.

Examples of aberrant mind include: an insane person thinking grass is food; a deranged person paranoid of others, thinking they plan to do him harm; someone seeing a moving shadow in the dark and imagining it to be a ghost; and the story of Chicken Little, who, after an acorn hit her on the head, thought that the sky is falling.43

Aberrant view generally arises as a consequence of aberrant perception and aberrant mind. When one perceives something incorrectly, one views it incorrectly. Similarly, when one thinks in deviant and errant ways, one’s views and beliefs are accordingly mistaken. When one wrongly perceives a rope as a snake, one may come to the conclusion that this particular location is teeming with snakes. When one perceives the land as extending out evenly, in a straight line, one believes that the earth is flat. When one thinks that an external, conscious force is required to manage and control things, one develops the belief that gods are responsible for thunder, lightning, earthquakes, rain, and floods.

These examples are relatively simple, and one can say that they pertain to unusual situations. In the Pali Canon and in other Dhamma teachings, however, these aberrations are examined on a refined and fundamental level. They focus not merely on the false understanding by select individuals or groups, but more importantly on deviant forms of understanding that almost everyone is subject to, often unconsciously. People tend to be dominated by these fundamental or subtle deviations. Here, the three aberrations mentioned above are combined as a single group:

Monks, there are these four aberrations of perception, aberrations of mind, and aberrations of view. What four?:

  1. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes the impermanent to be permanent.

  2. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is suffering to be pleasurable.

  3. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is nonself to be self.

  4. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is unattractive to be attractive.44 {51}

    A. II. 52; Ps. II. 80.

These aberrations of perception, mind, and view impede spiritual development, and their elimination is thus an important target of wisdom practice. Those methods of developing knowledge described earlier all help to dispel these aberrations. Most effective for this task is an investigation into causes and conditions and a detailed and mindful analysis of the building blocks of conditioned reality.45

The Buddha’s Words on the Sense Spheres

(The expression ’Buddha’s words’ here refers to the ’sayings of the wise, with the Buddha at the helm’ (buddhādivacana) , that is, the teachings in the Tipiṭaka by the Buddha, the chief disciples, and subsequent learned and wise individuals. This brief heading is used for the sake of simplicity. The references indicate which passages are by the Buddha’s disciples.)

Monks, I will teach you the all.46 Listen carefully. And what is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.

S. IV. 15.

’Venerable sir, it is said, “the world, the world.” In what way, might there be the world or the description of the world?’

’Where there is the eye, Samiddhi, where there are forms, eye-consciousness, things to be cognized by eye-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world. Where there is the ear … the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world.’

S. IV. 39-40.

’Monks, I say that the end of the world cannot be known, seen, or reached by travelling. Yet I also say that without reaching the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering.’

[Ven. Ānanda spoke]: ’I understand the detailed meaning of this synopsis, which the Buddha recited in brief without a detailed exposition, as follows: by whatever means people perceive the world as the world, and consider the world to be the world – this is called the ’world’ in the Noble One’s Discipline.

’And by which means do people people perceive the world as the world, consider the world to be the world? It is by way of the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … and mind that people perceive the world as the world, consider the world as the world.’

S. IV. 95.

Monks, I will teach you the origin and the passing away of the world. Listen closely….

And what is the origin of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, becoming; with becoming as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. This is the origin of the world.

In dependence on the ear and sounds … the nose and odours … the tongue and tastes … the body and tactile objects … the mind and mental phenomena, mind-consciousness arises…. This is the origin of the world. {52}

And what is the passing away of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of becoming; with the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. This is the passing away of the world.

In dependence on the ear and sounds … the nose and odours … the tongue and tastes … the body and tactile objects … the mind and mental phenomena, mind-consciousness arises…. This is the passing away of the world.

S. IV. 87.

’Venerable sir, it is said, “Māra, Māra,”…. It is said, “a being, a being,”…. It is said, “suffering, suffering”…. In what way might there be Māra or the description of Māra … a being or the description of a being … suffering or a description of suffering?’

’Where there is the eye, Samiddhi, where there are forms, eye-consciousness, things to be cognized by eye-consciousness … the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there Māra exists or the description of Māra … a being exists or the description of a being … suffering exists or the description of suffering.’

S. IV. 38-9.

When the eye exists, the arahants designate pleasure and pain. When the eye does not exist the arahants do not designate pleasure and pain. When the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind exists, the arahants designate pleasure and pain. When the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind does not exist, the arahants do not designate pleasure and pain.

S. IV. 123-4.

Monks, the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is impermanent … subject to stress (dukkha) … nonself. The cause and condition for the arising of the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is also impermanent. As the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind has originated from what is impermanent … dukkha … nonself … how could it be permanent … inherently pleasurable (sukha) … self?

Forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects are impermanent … dukkha … nonself. The cause and condition for the arising of forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects are also impermanent. As forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects have originated from what is impermanent … dukkha … nonself … how could they be permanent … inherently pleasurable … self?

S. IV. 129-32.

Suppose, monks, that the rice seedlings have ripened and the watchman is negligent. If a bull fond of rice enters the paddy field, he might indulge himself as much as he likes. So too, the uninstructed worldling who does not exercise restraint over the six bases for contact indulges himself as much as he likes in the five cords of sensual pleasure.

S. IV. 195-6.

Monks, these six bases for contact – if untrained, unguarded, unprotected, unrestrained – are conveyers of suffering…. These six bases for contact – if well-trained, well-guarded, well-protected, well-restrained – are conveyers of happiness. {53}

S. IV. 70.

’How is it, friend Sāriputta, is the eye the fetter of forms or are forms the fetter of the eye? Is the ear the fetter of sounds … the nose the fetter of odours … the tongue the fetter of tastes … the body the fetter of tangible objects … the mind the fetter of mental phenomena or are mental phenomena the fetter of the mind?’

’Friend Koṭṭhita, the eye is not the fetter of forms nor are forms the fetter of the eye, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both the eye and forms: that is the fetter there…. The mind is not the fetter of mental phenomena nor are mental phenomena the fetter of the mind, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there.

’If the eye were the fetter of forms or if forms were the fetter of the eye, this living of the holy life could not be actualized for the complete destruction of suffering. But since the eye is not the fetter of forms nor are forms the fetter of the eye – but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both is the fetter there – the living of the holy life can be actualized for the complete destruction of suffering….

’The Blessed One has an eye, the Blessed One sees forms with the eye, yet there is no desire and lust in the Blessed One; the Blessed One is well liberated in mind. The Blessed One has an ear … nose … tongue … body … mind, yet there is no desire and lust in the Blessed One; the Blessed One is well liberated in mind.’

S. IV. 162-5.

’Although, venerable sir, I am old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life, come to the last stage, let the Blessed One, the Well Farer, teach me the Dhamma in brief. Perhaps I may understand the meaning of the Blessed One’s statement, perhaps I may become an heir to the Blessed One’s statement.’

’What do you think, Māluṅkyaputta, do you have any desire, lust, or affection for those forms cognizable by the eye that you have not seen and never saw before, that you do not see and would not think might be seen?’

’No, venerable sir.’

’Do you have desire, lust, or affection for those sounds cognizable by the ear … odours cognizable by the nose … tastes cognizable by the tongue … tangibles cognizable by the body … mind objects cognizable by the mind that you have not known and never knew before, that you do not know and would not think might be known?’

’No, venerable sir.’

’Here, Māluṅkyaputta, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and known by you: in the seen there will be merely the seen; in the heard there will be merely the heard; in the sensed47 there will be merely the sensed; in the known there will be merely the known.

’When, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and known by you, in the seen there will be merely the seen, in the heard there will be merely the heard, in the sensed there will be merely the sensed, in the known there will be merely the known, then, you will not exist by way of that.48 When you do not exist by way of that, you will not exist therein.49 When you do not exist therein, then there will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two.50 This itself is the end of suffering.’

’I understand, venerable sir…. Having seen a form with muddled mindfulness, attending only to the pleasing signs, one experiences it with infatuated mind, and remains tightly holding to it. {54}

’Many feelings flourish within, originating from visible form, and one’s mind becomes disturbed by covetousness and distress. For one who accumulates suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be far away.

’Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental phenomenon with muddled mindfulness…. For one who accumulates suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be far away.

’When firmly mindful, one sees a form yet does not attach to form. With a mind uninfatuated, one experiences feelings without enslavement to the sense object.

’One fares mindfully in such a way that even as one sees the form and while one experiences a feeling, suffering is exhausted, not built up. For one not accumulating suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be close by.

’When firmly mindful, one hears a sound … smells an odour … tastes a flavour … feels a tangible … knows a mental phenomenon, yet does not attach to mental phenomena…. For one not accumulating suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be close by.’

S. IV. 72-5.

In what way is one ’with sense doors unguarded’? Here, having seen a form with the eye, someone is intent upon a pleasing form and repelled by a displeasing form. He dwells without having set up mindfulness, with a limited mind, and he does not understand as it really is that liberation of mind, that liberation by wisdom, wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental object, he is intent upon a pleasing object and repelled by a displeasing object….

In what way is one ’with sense doors guarded?’ Here, having seen a form with the eye, someone is not intent upon a pleasing form and not repelled by a displeasing form. He dwells having set up mindfulness, with a measureless mind, and he understands as it really is that liberation of mind, that liberation by wisdom, wherein those evil unwholesome states within cease without remainder. Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental object he is not intent upon a pleasing object and not repelled by a displeasing object.51

S. IV. 119-120.

And how, monks, does one dwell diligently? If one dwells with restraint over the eye faculty, the mind is not distracted by forms cognizable by the eye. If the mind is not distracted, gladness is born. When one is gladdened, rapture is born. When the mind is uplifted by rapture, the body becomes tranquil. One tranquil in body experiences happiness. The mind of one who is happy becomes concentrated. When the mind is concentrated, phenomena become manifest. Because phenomena become manifest, one is reckoned as ’one who dwells diligently’. (The same is true for the remaining five sense faculties.)

S. IV. 78-9.

Ānanda, how is there the supreme development of the faculties in the Noble One’s Discipline? Here, when a bhikkhu sees a form with the eye … hears a sound with the ear … smells an odour with the nose … tastes a flavour with the tongue … feels a tangible with the body … knows a mental object with the mind, there arises in him what is agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable.

He understands thus: ’There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there has arisen what is disagreeable, there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen. This subsequent state is peaceful and sublime, that is, equanimity.’ {55} The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose in him cease, and equanimity is established.

Just as a man with good sight, having opened his eyes might shut them or having shut his eyes might open them, so too concerning anyone at all, the agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease just as quickly, just as rapidly, just as easily, and equanimity is established. This is called in the Noble One’s Discipline the supreme development of the faculties….

M. III. 299.

Bhikkhus, when one discerns the eye as it actually is, when one discerns forms as they actually are, when one discerns and sees eye-consciousness as it actually is, when one discerns eye-contact as it actually is, when one discerns as it actually is the pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings that arise with eye-contact as condition, then one is not caught up with the eye, with forms, with eye-consciousness, with eye-contact, with the pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings that arise with eye-contact as condition.

When one abides unattached, unobsessed, uninfatuated, realizing danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging are not accumulated in the future; and one’s craving – which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and searches for amusement in this or that – is abandoned. One’s bodily and mental worries are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned.

Such a person experiences bodily and mental pleasure. The view of a person such as this is right view. His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration. His bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier. Thus this Noble Eightfold Path comes to fulfilment in him by development. (The same applies to the remaining five sense bases.) {56}

M. III. 288-9.

Practical Application

The sense bases (āyatana) constitute the critical juncture between the wholesome and the unwholesome. One path leads to heedlessness, immorality, and an indulgence in worldly things. Another path leads to comprehensive knowledge, skilful actions, and liberation.

If people fail to develop a proper understanding and conduct in relation to the sense bases, they tend to be enticed or seduced into indulging in worldly things. They spend most of their energy on seeking pleasing forms, sounds, fragrances, tastes, and bodily contacts, along with related amusements, to minister to their desires. As a result, they increase greed, hatred, and delusion, and cause trouble and turmoil for themselves and others.

It is fairly obvious how conflict, maltreatment, exploitation, and oppression, along with other unresolved social problems, are largely a consequence of dissolute or unrestrained lifestyles, in which people are lured into a path of gratifying the senses, until this behaviour becomes intensified and habitual.

Many people never receive any reminders or encouragement to reflect on their behaviour and on how they cater to sense desire. They never consciously practise sense restraint and as a result they become increasingly heedless.

One aspect to resolving this ethical dilemma is to foster an understanding in people as to the proper role and limitations of the sense bases and the related sense objects. Another aspect is to have people train in sense restraint, and in guiding and managing the use of the senses for bringing about true personal and social wellbeing.

The sense bases are the source of pleasure and pain, of happiness and unhappiness, which for most ordinary, unawakened people is directly connected to their principal objectives in life and to the determined effort they make in almost every activity. Pleasure and happiness is actively pursued, and pain and suffering is actively avoided.

After exerting great effort pursuing worldly pleasures, often to the point of exhaustion, many people find themselves disappointed, for many reasons: their desires may remain unfulfilled; when they encounter sweet and delicious experiences, they must also face the bitterness that life offers – sometimes increased pleasure is overshadowed by increased mental pain and affliction, which in the end becomes more costly than the rewards obtained by pleasure – the pursuit of pleasure is then not worth the effort; they may find gratification, but not as much as they had wished; or they reach their target, but discover that happiness continually eludes them. Some people spend their entire lives chasing after true happiness, but never find it.

Many of these disappointed individuals end up in despair, wandering aimlessly through life and ruing the past. Others go to the extreme opposite of seeking sense pleasure, and instead they try to dissociate from life and undergo practices of self-mortification. {57}

The study of the sense bases is intended for a comprehensive understanding of the truth and for developing a correct attitude and relationship to sense pleasure, so that it does not cause harm to oneself and others. At the very least, these teachings provide principles and guidelines for rectifying any problems resulting from engagement with the senses. Besides offering a cautionary note about how one pursues sense pleasure, one also learns about its limitations and how it stands in relation to other forms of happiness. One is then able to pursue more refined kinds of happiness. Moreover, the way one deals with happiness and unhappiness is directly linked to ethical matters.

The sense bases and their relationship to both the cognitive process and to wisdom development are linked to virtuous conduct from the very start. If one acts incorrectly from the beginning, the entire cognitive process is tainted. The process then caters to the consumption of material things, or it becomes an aspect of the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). This leads to a distorted, biased, clouded, or incorrect understanding. The supportive practice in this context is to establish the mind in equanimity, to keep it even-keeled and impartial, not dominated by likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions.

There are many other practical teachings referring to the sense bases, either directly or indirectly. They are related to different stages of spiritual practice, and they focus on specific problems, say of suffering or unwholesome tendencies, that have the potential to arise on different occasions.

To prevent problems from arising, the teachings reiterate caution and restraint at the initial stage of cognition, when a sense object comes into contact with a sense base. This is the safest course of action.

In the case that problems have already arisen and unskilful mind states have infiltrated the mind, this is difficult to remedy. If one allows enticing and alluring sense objects to take hold of the mind, and one falls under the sway of greed, hatred, and delusion, one may not be able to resist these enticements, and one ends up performing immoral, unwholesome deeds. This is true even if one has a basic awareness of right and wrong. This is the reason such emphasis is given to taking precautions and protecting oneself from the beginning.

A vital spiritual factor for establishing this care and protection is mindfulness (sati), which helps to anchor the mind. Mindfulness is like a rope which holds and sustains attention. Mindfulness used at this initial stage of care and protection while receiving sense impressions is connected to the principle of ’sense restraint’ (indriya-saṁvara), which is also referred to as ’guarding the sense doors (gutta-dvāra)’.52 Here, mindfulness is fully prepared to receive a sense impression, for example when seeing a visual form by way of the eye. One does not allow attention to fix on those signs and features that give rise to infatuations and resentments, preferences and aversions, and that allow unwholesome states to over-whelm the mind. Sense restraint prevents wrongdoing, wards off suffering, and averts distorted understanding.

Using this principle of sense restraint effectively is not a simple act of will, however. For mindfulness to be well established, fully prepared, and constant, it must be trained and developed. Sense restraint must be repeated, exercised, and continuously applied. This is the meaning of the term indriya-bhāvanā: ’cultivating the sense faculties’. {58}

Those individuals who have cultivated the sense faculties are safe from unwholesome states, from suffering, and from distorted understanding.53 They are able to prevent these negative qualities from arising. Even if preferences and aversions manage to slip in, they are able to quell them or cast them aside instantly.

Sense restraint (indriya-saṁvara) is classified as part of the stage of morality (sīla). The essential factor of mindfulness (sati) applied for such sense restraint, however, is classified as part of the stage of ’concentration’ (samādhi). The practice of mindfulness involves constantly channelling the power of the mind and balancing attention, which thus also results in the development of concentration.

Another spiritual factor emphasized in this context is wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), which is classified as part of wisdom (paññā). This factor is applied when one has already received a sense object, at which point one contemplates it in order to fully understand it. One contemplates the advantages and disadvantages of various objects, along with the state of freedom and wellbeing, in which one is not dependent on them. The positive and negative aspects of conditioned phenomena then do not determine our happiness or our fate. {59}

Appendix 1: Three Kinds of Wisdom

In truth, there is only one kind of wisdom, that is, the natural phenomenon of understanding reality, of penetrating into the truth of things as they really are. Wisdom, however, is frequently separated into many different kinds, according to the level of wisdom, to its specific function, or to the specific source of understanding.

The three kinds of wisdom here refer to a classification connected to the source of understanding:

  1. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from listening, reading, and learning.

  2. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from reflection and contemplation.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from further spiritual cultivation.

These three kinds of wisdom are only seldom mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, but they are frequently referred to in later texts. Because there is some confusion about the meaning of these terms, it is useful to examine some of the scriptural explanations.

In most presentations of these three kinds of wisdom, sutamaya-paññā is placed as the first factor, but in the original texts, both in the suttas54 and in the Abhidhamma,55 cintāmaya-paññā comes first. An exception to this is the Nettipakaraṇa, which in the Burmese Theravada tradition is included in the Tipiṭaka (as part of the Khuddaka Nikāya in the Suttanta Piṭaka); here, sutamaya-paññā is the first factor.56 In the commentaries and sub-commentaries, these three factors are increasingly referred to as: sutamaya-ñāṇa, cintāmaya-ñāṇa, and bhāvanāmaya-ñāṇa (’knowledge’, arising by way of study, contemplation, and spiritual cultivation, respectively).

This is the order that they are presented in the original Tipiṭaka:

  1. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from contemplation; wisdom arising from wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) established within an individual.

  2. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom arising from learning; wisdom arising from the instruction by others (paratoghosa).

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from spiritual practice; wisdom arising from applying the previous two kinds of wisdom and engaging in devoted reflection and meditation.

The discrepancy between having either sutamaya-paññā or cintāmaya-paññā as the first of the three factors depends on whether the focus is primarily on exceptional individuals, or whether it is on the practice by general, ordinary individuals.

In the case where cintāmaya-paññā is placed first, the examination begins with an individual referred to as a ’great man’ (mahāpurisa), that is, with the Buddha (or with a ’Silent Buddha’ – paccekabuddha). Such a person has discovered and revealed the truth without relying on the instructions and teachings by others. He is able to apply wise reflection himself, investigating, linking, and following up on experiences in a comprehensive way, until he fathoms the truth. From cintāmaya-paññā, he moves directly to bhāvanāmaya-paññā (he needs not rely at all on sutamaya-paññā).

When the focus is on ordinary people, however, sutamaya-paññā is placed at the beginning. Generally speaking, people study and obtain formal knowledge, teachings, and information, which rouses faith and confidence. They examine and inspect these teachings, leading to an understanding of them, which is referred to as sutamaya-paññā. Based on this formal learning, they evaluate and contemplate it deeper, giving rise to a clear discernment of causality and of the interrelationship of things. This is cintāmaya-paññā. When they actively and determinedly apply these two initial kinds of wisdom and further investigate phenomena, knowledge (ñāṇa) arises and they realize the truth. Here the path (magga) gives rise to fruition (phala). This stage is referred to as bhāvanāmaya-paññā. {60}

Note that for many people, although they obtain a great deal of information (suta), they do not necessarily develop wisdom (paññā). So in regard to the first factor, only some individuals apply their learning to give rise to wisdom comprised of learning (sutamaya-paññā).

In the Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma, bhāvanāmaya-paññā is defined as samāpannassa-paññā, which literally means the ’wisdom of one who endeavours’ or the ’wisdom of one who has reached fulfilment’. (The term samāpanna may be variously translated as ’accompanying’, ’endeavouring’, ’completion’, or ’fulfilment’. It can be used in both a positive and a negative sense, for example: ’accomplished in the rules of training’; ’related to going forth (pabbajjā)’; ’full of envy and greed’; ’engaging in enjoyment and play’; ’accompanied by sorrow and lamentation’; ’brimful with a swift flowing current’.

In the context of Dhamma teachings, however, when this term is used on its own, it generally refers to accessing the concentrative attainments (jhāna-samāpatti). The commentary to the Vibhaṅga explains: ’The wisdom of one endowed with the concentrative attainments, and occurring within such attainments, is called “consisting of cultivation”.’57 This appears to be a very narrow definition. Other texts, however, including the Paramatthamañjusā, explain that the aforementioned definition is only an example. The essential meaning of the term bhāvanāmaya-paññā focuses on a clear discernment of the truth, which refers to ’Path wisdom’ (magga-paññā) operative within insight meditation (vipassanā).

There exists an explanation of bhāvanāmaya-paññā in the texts that encompasses the concentrative attainments, yet spans a broader range of meaning. This explanation considers the term appanā (’absorption’), which refers to the concentration lying at the heart of jhāna. One example from the Visuddhimagga states: ’Wisdom achieved by the power of cultivation reaching absorption is called “endowed with cultivation”.’58 This explanation is linked to the passage above, referring to diligent contemplation of all phenomena, which is equivalent to insight meditation (vipassanā). When insight wisdom (vipassanā-paññā) reaches an adequate degree of clarity, the mind reaches concentrative absorption (i.e. jhāna). This clear discernment and steady, focused attention is able to purify and eliminate those festering and constrictive qualities known as the defilements (kilesa). The mind is thus released from some or all of these defilements. This realization which brings about such transformation is bhāvanāmaya-paññā, equivalent to ’Path knowledge’ (magga-ñāṇa).

In the Nettipakaraṇa, these three kinds of wisdom are linked to the classification of the four kinds of individuals. Here, the spiritual assets of the first three kinds of individuals, those who are ’trainable’ (veneyya), are examined, before these individuals advance to bhāvanāmaya-paññā. Those people endowed with both sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā are called ’of quick understanding’ (ugghaṭitaññū): they understand instantly; they gain insight by even hearing a single outline of a teaching. Those endowed only with sutamaya-paññā are called vipacitaññū: they understand when they are given an explanation. Those individuals devoid of both of these kinds of wisdom are neyya: those who should be guided with teachings and training in order to gain understanding. Those who have not reached the stage of neyya and are padaparama (’one whose highest attainment is the word’) are not included here.

Compiling these various references, one may summarize this subject of the three kinds of wisdom as follows:

Those exceptional individuals (acchariya-puggala), comprising the Buddhas and the Silent Buddhas, are true sages; their wisdom surpasses that of other people. Ordinary people live in specific environments and have various experiences for decades, centuries, and generations, and yet their knowledge and understanding remains limited. A Buddha arises, however, and he is able to apply wise reflection and see things from a perspective that others are unable to see. Through investigation he is able to penetrate the profound underlying truth of things, gain an intuition into things that others do not recognize, make new discoveries, develop new understanding, and finally access a truth that no one else has realized.

The wisdom arising from one’s own ability to apply wise reflection is referred to as cintāmaya-paññā, which the Buddhas and Silent Buddhas possess, without needing to rely on the instructions by others. (Indeed, no one exists who would be able to provide them with such instruction.) This is the wisdom unique to such exceptional people. They are able to pass over the initial stage of sutamaya-paññā. If such unique individuals endowed with cintāmaya-paññā do not arise, revolutionary discoveries of truth and the breaking out of the limitations of wisdom are not possible. People then simply pass on their traditional yet restricted knowledge.

Ordinary people, who do not possess cintāmaya-paññā derived entirely from their own ability to apply wise reflection, must rely on the teachings and instructions by others. The starting point for them is generating sutamaya-paññā. {61}

Ordinary people must develop all three kinds of wisdom:

  1. Sutamaya-paññā: knowledge derived from formal learning. When one is not yet able to rely entirely on one own reflective abilities, one must seek out a teacher, who in the scriptures is referred to as a virtuous friend (kalyāṇamitta), for example the Buddha, awakened beings, and other wise individuals, for instruction and guidance. One is then able to comprehend the truth at one level.

  2. Cintāmaya-paññā: knowledge derived from reflection, from the ability to contemplate. When one acquires knowledge from formal learning and generates wisdom consisting of such knowledge (sutamaya-paññā), one trains in wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), leading to vast, profound, and thorough understanding, which can be applied in one’s investigation of the truth.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: knowledge derived from spiritual cultivation. This re-fers to practical application, whereby one acts from direct experience. Here, one relies on the first two kinds of wisdom and furthers one’s spiritual devel-opment by applying wise reflection in regard to all phenomena, until one realizes the wisdom established as the Path (magga) and one attains fruition (phala).

Note here that bhāvanāmaya-paññā relies and follows on from sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā. One does not spontaneously generate bhāvanāmaya-paññā without a basis of knowledge, or access it simply by sitting in meditation and attaining the jhānas. Most people are not even able to generate cintāmaya-paññā without a foundation of formal learning (suta). (And as mentioned earlier, many people acquire formal learning but do not transform it into wisdom – sutamaya-paññā.)

Wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) is the chief agent in this process. One can say that it is the essential factor in the development of all three kinds of wisdom. This is true even for those exceptional individuals like the Buddha, who begin with cintāmaya-paññā, without requiring formal instruction from others (paratoghosa). A Buddha begins with an inherent and exceptional talent for wise reflection, giving rise to profound wisdom. Ordinary people apply formal learning and then contemplate phenomena in order to grow in wisdom, until they develop bhāvanāmaya-paññā, at which stage wise reflection truly comes to the fore.

As mentioned above, this threefold division of wisdom is found only seldom in the Tipiṭaka. Ven. Sāriputta presented this classification in order to highlight the sources by which wisdom arises.

The factor constantly emphasized by the Buddha is wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), which is the means of practice by which wisdom is generated. When wise reflection is present, these three kinds of wisdom may arise and reach fulfilment.

In sum, of those people who receive information and external knowledge:

  • Some people only acquire facts and information, without developing any sort of wisdom.

  • Some people are able to contemplate and examine that information, and generate sutamaya-paññā.

  • Some people establish sutamaya-paññā, and then reflect and inquire further, generating cintāmaya-paññā.

  • Some people rely on sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā as a basis, and then develop wisdom further through wise reflection, generating bhāvanāmaya-paññā. {62}

Appendix 2: Commentarial Analysis of the Sense Spheres

The commentators provide many different nuances of meaning for this term āyatana, including: the point of transmission for the mind (citta) and mental concomitants (cetasika), i.e. the locus of their active engagement; the point of expansion for the mind and mental concomitants; the agents behind the continuation of the protracted suffering in the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-dukkha); the source; the domain; the point of convergence; etc.59

Note that the internal physical senses pertaining to movement, balance, etc., which are referred to as somesthesia (kinesthetic, vestibular, and visceral senses), are not added here as additional senses (āyatana). Although these additional senses are not explained in the scriptures, it is reasonable that they were excluded because some of their aspects are included in the fifth sense, referred to as ’body’ (kāya). More importantly, however, these additional senses function exclusively on a physiological level, by maintaining a normal physical state of operation; they have unique attributes and are confined to the inner life of human beings. Although they are necessary supports, their value is fixed; they are unable to promote increased benefits in regard to awareness and experience of the world, to knowledge and understanding, or to ethics. For this reason, they are not included in the definition and context of āyatana.

Appendix 3: The Six Sense Spheres and the Five Aggregates

All six internal sense bases (āyatana) are incorporated in the five aggregates; there are exceptions to this, however, in regard to the six external sense objects (āyatana):

The first five pairs of āyatana (cakkhu-rūpa, sota-sadda, ghāna-gandha, jivhā-rasa, and kāya-phoṭṭhabba) are part of the rūpa-khandha.

The sixth internal āyatana (mano; the mind) is part of the viññāṇa-khandha.

The sixth external āyatana (dhamma; dhammāyatana) are part of four aggregates: three kinds of nāma-khandha (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra) and the rūpa-khandha, in particular those refined material forms (sukhuma-rūpa), e.g.: the element of space (ākāsa-dhātu), femininity, masculinity, levity, flexibility, continuation, decay, expansion, physical transformation, etc. The exception here is Nibbāna, which transcends the five aggregates (khandha-vinimutta).60


On the commentarial analysis of the sense spheres see Appendix 2.


Normally, the term dvāra is paired with ārammaṇa, and the term ’internal āyatana’ is paired with ’external āyatana’. In this exposition, however, the internal sense spheres will be referred to as āyatana, and the external sense objects as ārammaṇa.


To avoid confusion, these mental objects are usually referred to as dhammārammaṇa, instead of simply dhamma, which is a term used in many different contexts and which has multiple nuances of meaning.


M. I. 258-9.


M. I. 190.


Six kinds of feeling (vedanā): cakkhu-samphassajā vedanā, sota-samphassajā vedanā, ghāna-samphassajā vedanā, jivhā-samphassajā vedanā, kāya-samphassajā vedanā, and mano-samphassajā vedanā (S. IV. 232).


Note that upekkhā in this context of vedanā differs from upekkhā in the context of volitional formations (saṅkhāra), e.g.: upekkhā-brahmavihāra, upekkhā-sambojjhaṅga, etc.


’Turning away’ (vivaṭṭa) pertains to solving life’s problems, and will be discussed in section IV: ’Goal of Life’ and section VI: ’A Worthy Life’.


On the relationship between the six sense spheres and the five aggregates see Appendix 3.


See: D. II. 277-8.


See the appendix in Chapter 1.


This is ’perception by way of the five sense doors’ (pañcadvārika-saññā): perception of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles (see: MA. IV. 20). The subsequent kinds of perception (below) are exclusively perception by way of the mind-door.


An example of perception resulting from mental conceptualization: ’When he is established in supreme perception (the most subtle and refined perception = ākiñcaññāyatana) it occurs to him: “Thinking and deliberating is worse for me, lack of thought and deliberation is better. If I were to think and conceptualize, these perceptions [that I have attained] would cease, and coarser perceptions would arise in me. Suppose I were not to think or conceptualize?” (D. I. 184-5).


E.g.: MA. II. 74; SA. II. 382.


Trans: arahant: a fully awakened person.


See: M. III. 108.


For a detailed classification of the various kinds of wisdom (paññā), see: Vism. 438-42. For more on this subject of wisdom, see chapter 16: ’Path Factors of Wisdom’.


According to the Abhidhamma, wisdom (paññā), faith (saddhā), view (diṭṭhi), and delusion (moha) are ’mental concomitants’ (cetasika) and are classified as part of the volitional formation aggregate (see: Comp.: Cetasikaparicchedo). For the reasoning behind this classification, see Chapter 1.


For more on the subject of faith (saddhā), see Chapter 14.


Terms related to diṭṭhi include: abhinivesa (’adherence’), parāmāsa (’taking hold’), and upādāna (’grasping’, which on a deeper level is conditioned by craving – taṇhā); see: Vbh. 149.


E.g.: Vbh. 124, 250.


See: Ps. I. 23.


See: A. III. 447; cf.: A. IV. 352-3, 358; Ud. 37; Ps. I. 57-8, 78, etc. Perception that is a bhāvetabba-dhamma – something to be cultivated – is sometimes referred to as perception conducive to knowledge (vijjābhāgiya-saññā; see: A. III. 334), perception conducive to eliminating defilement (nibbedhabhāgiya-sañña; see: SA. II. 392), wholesome perception (kusala-saññā), or unimpaired perception (aviparīta-saññā; for the last two terms see: Nett. 126).


See previous footnote.


Consciousness (viññāṇa) is a pariññeyya-dhamma, wisdom (paññā) is a bhāvetabba-dhamma; see: M. I. 292.


See, e.g.: S. III. 59-60, 63-4; S. IV. 68-9; A. III. 413; A. IV. 338-9, 385; Ps. I. 57.


Knowledge obtained by ’mind-contact’ (mano-samphassa).


Vbh. 71-72; Dhs. 169; Vism. 483-4.


Comp.: Pakiṇṇakaparicchedo, Ālambaṇasaṅgaho; CompṬ.: Pakiṇṇakaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Ālambaṇasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


This classification is found frequently; important passages include: S. IV. 73; Vbh. 429; Nd. I. 55. See also: D. III. 135 = A. II. 23-4; A. II. 25 = It. 121-22; M. I. 135-6; M. III. 261; S. III. 202-203; A. V. 318, 353-8; A. V. 321-22. Found as compound words at: M. II. 231-32; Sn. 209-210; Nd. I. 9, 50-51, 53-4, 133-4, 189-90, 203-204, 227, 245, 247, 333-4; Nd. II. 16. As a threefold classification of diṭṭhi, suta and muta, e.g.: S. I. 202-203; Sn. 155, 175-6; Nd. I. 95-6, 106, 110-11, 315; Nd. II. 28.


The eye (cakkhu) and the ear (sota) cognize objects that have ’not reached (the sense bases)’: appattavisayaggāhika/appattagāhika. The nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), and body (kāya) cognize objects that ’reach (the sense bases)’: sampattavisayaggāhika/sampattagāhika. See: Comp.: Rūpaparicchedo, Rūpavibhāgo; CompṬ.: Rūpaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Rūpavibhāgavaṇṇanā; VismṬ.: Khandhaniddesavaṇṇanā, Rūpakkhandakathāvaṇṇanā.


CompṬ.: Cetasikaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Akusalacetasikavaṇṇanā outlines this distinction between diṭṭhi and ñāṇa: ’An attribute of diṭṭhi is the belief: “Only this is true; all else is invalid.” Ñāṇa knows things objectively; diṭṭhi forsakes the objective truth and apprehends things subjectively.’


cf. UdA. 373, which states: ’Saññā is the nimitta (’sign’; ’point of origin’) of proliferative view (diṭṭhi-papañca).


See: M. I. 326-9.


Compare with this passage from the Pali Canon: ’Whoever speculates by relying on the view of existence (bhava-diṭṭhi) and the view of non-existence (vibhava-diṭṭhi) is devoid of knowledge of cessation, [and] this is the cause for human beings to harbour perverted views (saññā-viparīta)’; see: Ps. I. 159.


D. III. 219-20; Vbh. 324-5.


These supplementary factors are found dispersed throughout the scriptures. Many of them are mentioned as supports for realizing truth at M. II. 174.


This classification accords with: Sn. 164-5 and Sn. 207-208; explicated at Nd. I. 187-8 and Nd. II. 26. These references are in verse form, and these three factors are listed in the order of diṭṭhi, suti and ñāṇa. Here, they have been reorganized to accord with the preceding section (C).


See chapter 13, on the preliminary stage of spiritual training (factor #1: virtuous friendship).


E.g.: Nd. I. 64-5, 105, 162, 169-70, 310-11. The most frequent grouping of these terms is that of diṭṭhi, khanti and ruci, e.g.: Vin. I. 69-70; it occurs in many passages of the Mahāniddesa. These three terms are sometimes accompanied by the terms ajjhāsaya (’preference’) and adhippāya (’purpose’, ’opinion’), e.g.: Nd. I. 64-5; Nd. II. 43, 50. The largest collection of these synonyms includes: diṭṭhi, khanti, ruci, ādāya (’accepted belief’), dhamma-vinaya (’doctrine and discipline’), pāvacana (’fundamental teaching’), brahmacariya (’supreme teaching’), and satthu-sāsana (’teaching of the Master’), e.g.: Nd. I. 40, 156; Nd. II. 9, 20; Vbh. 245-6 (in these cases the reference is to Buddhism).


This concept of the two levels of truth began to take shape as a clear notion in the Kathāvatthu, although this text does not yet provide a clear distinction of terms. The term sammati-sacca is mentioned at Kvu. 311, whereas the terms sacchikattha-paramattha (’real and absolute’) and paramattha are mentioned at Kvu. 1-69. A clear description and distinction of these terms occurs at PañcA. 12, 84. They are mentioned in many other sources, e.g.: MA. I. 217 = SA. II. 13; DhA. III. 403; [Saṅganī Mūlaṭīkā: 165, 280]; [Saṅgaṇī Anuṭīkā: 328]; VismṬ.: Brahmavihāraniddesavaṇṇanā, Pakiṇṇakakathāvaṇṇanā; UdA. 396; ItA. I. 162; CompṬ.: Paccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Paññattibhedavaṇṇanā.[Trans.: In the Dictionary of Buddhism, in the alphabetical list of Pali terms at the end of the book, the venerable author acknowledges both spellings of sammati and sammuti as valid. In the main text of the dictionary, however, he only uses sammati, e.g.: sammati-sacca, sammati-desanā, etc. In his Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology (Thai edition only), he only provides the spelling of sammati. Moreover, in Sir Monier Monier-Williams’s A Sanskrit English Dictionary, only sammati is provided. Although the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary greatly favors sammuti (it includes sammata as a past participle), and has no mention of sammati, I decided to go exclusively with sammati in this book.]


VinA. I. 21; DA. I. 19; DhsA. 21, 56; MA. I. 217 = SA. 13.


Trans: the author uses the Thai version of this story, of a rabbit who panics after hearing a coconut fall on the ground, thinking the world is coming to an end.


In the Abhidhamma vipallāsa is referred to as vipariyesa (Vbh. 376; this alternative term has its source in the suttas, at S. I. 188-9; cf.: SA. I. 271; NdA. I. 163; DhsA. 253). At VinṬ.: Dutiyapārājikaṃ, Verañjakaṇḍavaṇṇanā, it states that these three aberrations are placed in order of power, from weaker to stronger.


See Chapter 15 on the preliminary stage of spiritual practice (factor #2: wise reflection).


’The all’ = ’everything’, ’entirety’.


Trans: the ’sensed’: tastes, odours, and tangibles.


The commentaries explain: ’one is not dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion’.


The commentaries explain: ’one is not caught up in the seen, etc’.


There will be neither this existence (bhava), another existence, or an existence between the two.


At S. IV. 198-200, the questions are posed: ’How is there non-restraint’ and ’How is there restraint?’; the reply is the same as above.


In full, this is called: ’guarding the sense doors in regard to the sense faculties’ (indriyesu gutta-dvāra).


In regard to being safe from distorted understanding, in this context it refers only to new sources of such distortions; it does not refer to previously accumulated factors such as craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), or view (diṭṭhi), which pertain to another stage of spiritual practice.


D. III. 219-20.


Vbh. 310.


In this text the terms are also spelled slightly differently, as: sutamayī-paññā, cintāmayī-paññā, and bhāvanāmayī-paññā.


VbhA. 412.


Vism. 439.


See: Vism. 481-2; CompṬ.: Samuccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Sabbasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


See: Vbh. 70-72.

Section 2: Attributes of Life

Indeed, all conditioned things are impermanent,
prone to arise and pass away.
Having arisen, they cease;
their coming to rest is truest bliss.

Aniccā vata saṅkhārā
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti
tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

D. II. 199

Monks, all conditioned things are of a nature to decay;
fulfil all your endeavours through diligence.

Vayadhammā saṅkhārā, appamādena sampādetha.

D. II. 120

Three Characteristics



The primary Buddhist tenet that all things can be separated into component parts is not intended to suggest a static world of composite objects. Rather, all things are seen to exist in the form of a stream. Each constituent element of that stream comes into being in dependence on other elements in an unbroken flow of appearance and decline. No single element has an independent fixed identity; they are all impermanent and unstable. Indeed, the fluid nature of phenomena is possible owing to the interdependence and insubstantiality of their components.

This stream of conditioned phenomena is naturally steady (dhātu), naturally stable and certain (dhammaṭṭhiti), and it is part of a natural order (dhamma-niyāma).1 It does not rely for its existence on a god, religion or prophet. {63} In Buddha-Dhamma the role of a Teacher2 is that of discovering and explaining this truth to others.

The Buddha presented the teaching of the Three Characteristics (tilakkhaṇa)3 to describe this natural law of flux (See Note Dependent Origination as Law of Flux). The teaching is outlined in this way:

Whether Tathāgatas4 appear or not, this truth (dhātu) exists as constant and stable … that is:

All conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) are impermanent….

All conditioned phenomena are dukkha5….

All things (dhamma) are nonself….

Having fully awakened to and penetrated to this truth, a Tathāgata announces, teaches, clarifies, formulates, reveals, and analyzes it: that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all conditioned phenomena are dukkha, and all things are nonself.

A. I. 286.

Definitions of the three characteristics are as follows:

  • Aniccatā: impermanence, instability, and inconstancy; the condition of arising, deteriorating, and disintegrating.

  • Dukkhatā: state of dukkha; the condition of oppression by birth and decay; the inherent stress, resistance and conflict within an object due to alteration of its determinant factors, preventing it from remaining as it is; the internal imperfection of things, which prevents true satisfaction for someone whose desires are influenced by craving (taṇhā), and causes suffering for a person subject to clinging (upādāna).

  • Anattatā: the condition of anattā – nonself; the condition of things being void of a real abiding self that owns or controls phenomena.6

Dependent Origination as Law of Flux

Another key teaching by the Buddha is on Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). This teaching describes the law of flux from a different angle and illustrates the same truth. The Three Characteristics shows the properties of all things, properties that correspond with the relationship outlined in Dependent Origination. Dependent Origination describes the conditioned flow of phenomena, revealing the three characteristics.

[Trans.: see chapter 4 on Dependent Origination. As a teaching I have capitalized ’Three Characteristics’, but when referring to these three signs as attributes of nature, I have not.]

The Pali adjectival terms for these characteristics are anicca, dukkha, and anattā, respectively. The abstract noun forms are aniccatā, dukkhatā, and anattatā. As characteristics they are known as anicca-lakkhaṇa, dukkha-lakkhaṇa, and anatta-lakkhaṇa. The commentaries occasionally refer to the three characteristics as ’universal characteristics’ (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa).7 {64}

All conditioned things exist in a state of flux, made up of interdependent conditioning factors, which arise and pass away in unbroken succession: things are impermanent. Because of their instability and causal dependence, conditioned things are subject to stress and friction, revealing an inherent imperfection. And all things, both conditioned things and the Unconditioned, exist according to their own nature; they possess no self that acts as owner or governor of phenomena.

Human beings too are comprised of constituent elements. The ’building-blocks’ for human beings are the five aggregates; nothing else exists besides the five aggregates.8 When we examine the five aggregates in turn, we see that each one is impermanent. Being impermanent, they are dukkha; they are distressing for one who grasps them. Being dukkha, they are selfless. They are selfless because each aggregate arises from causes and conditions; they are not independent entities. Furthermore, they are not truly subject to a person’s control or ownership. If one were to truly own the five aggregates, one would be able to control them according to one’s will and prohibit them from change, for example from debility or disease.

A key teaching by the Buddha describing the three characteristics in the context of the five aggregates is as follows:

’Bhikkhus, the body is not-self. If the body were self it would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of the body: “May my body be this way; may it not be that way.” But because the body is not-self, the body leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of the body: “May my body be this way; may it not be that way.”

’Feeling is not-self…. Perception is not-self…. Volitional formations are not-self…. Consciousness is not-self. For if consciousness were self it would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of consciousness: “May my consciousness be this way; may it not be that way.” But because consciousness is not-self, consciousness leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of consciousness: “May my consciousness be this way; may it not be that way.”

’What do you think, monks, is the body permanent or impermanent?’

’Impermanent, venerable sir.’

’Is that which is impermanent oppressive or easeful?’9

’Oppressive, venerable sir.’

’Is what is impermanent, oppressive and of the nature to change fit to be regarded thus: “This is mine, this is I, this is my self?” ’

’No, venerable sir.’

’What do you think, monks, are feelings permanent or impermanent?’…. ’Is perception permanent or impermanent?’…. ’Are volitional formations permanent or impermanent?’…. ’Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?’….

’Is what is impermanent, oppressive and of the nature to change fit to be regarded thus: “This is mine, this is I, this is my self?” ’

’No, venerable sir.’

’Therefore, monks, you should see any kind of physical form … feeling … perception … volitional formation … consciousness whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, coarse or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: “This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.” ’ {65}

S. III. 66-8.

Many scholars have tried to prove that the Buddha acknowledged a self existing apart from the five aggregates. They claim that he only repudiated a self within conditioned phenomena and that he affirmed an Ultimate Self. Moreover, they explain that Nibbāna10 is the same as ātman/attā: Nibbāna is the Self. I will elaborate on this matter in Chapter 6, on Nibbāna.

Here, let it simply suffice to say that all things exist according to their own inherent nature, which conflicts with the concept of a static, controlling essence or ’self’. Things exist as they do precisely because they do not possess such a self. (If a self were to exist and to interfere, things would not be able to exist as they do.)

Most people, especially those who have grown up in a culture espousing a ’self’ or ’soul’, tend to seek out and seize some concept of a fixed identity. Acting in this way satisfies a hidden, unconscious need. When their self-identification as one or more of the five aggregates becomes untenable, they create a new concept of self in which to believe. But the aim of Buddha-Dhamma is not to release one thing so as to grasp another, or to be freed from one thing only to then be enslaved by something else. As mentioned earlier, things exist according to their own nature. Their nature of existence is determined by the characteristic of nonself; if things were to possess a self then by definition they could not exist as they do. {66}

Understanding the Terms Dhamma and Saṅkhāra

’All Things’ and ’All Formations’

In the first and second statements of the Three Characteristics the Buddha states that all conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra)11 are impermanent and dukkha, respectively, but in the third statement he says that all things (dhamma)12 are nonself. This indicates a distinction between the first two characteristics and the third. To understand this distinction one must examine the words saṅkhāra and dhamma.

The Pali word dhamma has an all-encompassing range of meaning, covering all things: everything that exists – past, present and future, both real and imaginary. Material and mental, good and bad, and ordinary and exceptional things are all included within the meaning of this word. In Pali, when a restricted or more specific definition is desired, a modifier may be added to the word dhamma, or the object to be defined is divided into sub-categories. Alternatively, the word dhamma can be used unmodified within a specific context. For example, paired with adhamma, or used to describe moral behaviour, it means merit (puñña) or goodness. When it is used with attha it means rule, principle, or cause. When dhamma is used in relation to study it means the scriptures, the Buddha’s discourses.

In the third statement of the Three Characteristics pertaining to nonself, the Buddha uses the term dhamma in its broadest sense, referring to all things, without exception. To understand dhamma in this context it is helpful to divide things into categories:

  • Material things (rūpa-dhamma) and immaterial things (nāma-dhamma).

  • Mundane things (lokiya-dhamma) and transcendent things (lokuttara-dhamma).

  • Conditioned things (saṅkhata-dhamma) and the Unconditioned (asaṅkhata-dhamma).

  • Wholesome things (kusala-dhamma), unwholesome things (akusala-dhamma), and neutral things (abyākata-dhamma).

Each group above incorporates the entire meaning of dhamma, but the group that corresponds with the subject to be studied here is that of conditioned things and the Unconditioned.

All things can be divided into two types:13

  1. Saṅkhata-dhamma: constructed things; things that arise from conditioning factors (paccaya); things formed by the merging of such factors. These things are also called saṅkhāra, which has the same root and translation. Both saṅkhata-dhamma and saṅkhāra refer to every kind of condition, material and mental, mundane and supramundane, except Nibbāna.

  2. Asaṅkhata-dhamma: that which is not constructed; the state that does not arise by being fashioned from conditioning factors and is not subject to them. It is also called visaṅkhāra, meaning the state free from conditioned phenomena – the Unconditioned – that is, Nibbāna. {67}

Saṅkhāra is therefore just one aspect of the term dhamma. Dhamma has a range of meaning that embraces both conditioned phenomena and the Unconditioned: saṅkhata-dhamma and asaṅkhata-dhamma, or saṅkhāra and Nibbāna. Applying this interpretation to the Three Characteristics, one sees that the scope of the first two characteristics, aniccatā and dukkhatā, is narrower than that of the last, anattatā. This distinction is summarized as follows:

The characteristics of impermanence and dukkha apply only to conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) – and to all conditioned phenomena. The characteristic of nonself, however, applies to all things, both the conditioned and the Unconditioned. The Unconditioned – Nibbāna – is thus devoid of the first two characteristics.

In the Pali Canon the Buddha characterizes the conditioned and the Unconditioned in this way:14

Signs of the conditioned world (saṅkhata-lakkhaṇa):

  1. Origination is apparent.

  2. Disintegration is apparent.

  3. Alteration is apparent.

Signs of the Unconditioned (asaṅkhata-lakkhaṇa):

  1. Origination is not apparent.

  2. Disintegration is not apparent.

  3. Alteration is not apparent.

To sum up, the Unconditioned, or Nibbāna, is beyond impermanence and dukkha, but is nonself. As for everything else, that is, all formations, they are impermanent, dukkha, and nonself, as this passage from the Vinaya Piṭaka confirms:

All formations are impermanent, subject to stress, and nonself; Nibbāna and designations are nonself.15 {68}

Vin. VI. (Parivāra) 86.

Saṅkhāra of the Five Aggregates and Saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics

There are many examples in the Thai language of a single word having several definitions.16 Some definitions vary only slightly while others vary greatly to the point of appearing unrelated.

Similarly, in Pali there are many individual terms that have a wide range of different meanings. Those people who have studied Pali are able to distinguish and understand these different meanings, even in the case where the word appears several times in a single passage but with different connotations. Such words include:

  • Nāga: this term can mean a divine serpent, a battle elephant, or an excellent person.

  • Nimitta: in the Vinaya17 this term refers to a boundary marker, while in relation to meditation it means a mental image.

  • Nikāya: this term refers to a section of the Suttanta Piṭaka;18 in other contexts it means a religious faction.

  • Paccaya: in the Vinaya this term means a basic requisite, for instance, food, while in Dhamma teachings it refers more generally to a ’cause’ or ’support’.

Consider the following words as found in different Buddhist texts:

A person knows the rasa with the tongue; delicious or not, he does not allow desire or repulsion to overwhelm the mind. Such a person guards the indriya of the tongue.

The indriya of faith, as rasa, causes all accompanying qualities to be radiant, like a water-purifying gem.

In the first passage rasa means ’a taste’ and indriya refers to the sense base. In the latter passage rasa means a ’function’, while indriya refers to a spiritual faculty. {69}

A monk should perform yoga to realize the state that is free from yoga.

The first yoga means ’spiritual effort’: the development of wisdom. The second yoga refers to the defilements that bind beings to suffering in worldly existence.19

An ordinary person regards the body, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) and consciousness as self, but these five aggregates cannot be self, because all conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) are impermanent, subject to pressure, and not-self.

The first saṅkhāra refers solely to one of the five aggregates, whereas the second saṅkhāra covers all conditioned things in keeping with the Three Characteristics.

The word that needs explaining here is saṅkhāra. The list of aforementioned examples was given simply to demonstrate the important fact that in Pali there are many cases of the same word having two or more distinct meanings, of varying disparity; they can be dissimilar or even contradictory. If one understands this then one does not consider it strange to find the word saṅkhāra being used in the texts in many different senses, and one learns to distinguish the meaning accordingly.

The word saṅkhāra has at least four definitions, but there are two in particular that need to be understood. These are saṅkhāra as one of the Five Aggregates and saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics. Because these two definitions of saṅkhāra overlap, they can cause confusion.

  1. The Five Aggregates: rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa.

  2. The Three Characteristics: all saṅkhāra are impermanent, all saṅkhāra are dukkha, all dhamma are nonself.

Saṅkhāra as the fourth component of the five aggregates refers to mental factors that shape the mind as wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. They are the mental qualities led by intention (cetanā) that mould and influence thoughts and consequent physical action. They are the agents behind action (kamma), the ’fashioners’ of the mind, for example: faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), moral shame (hiri), fear of wrongdoing (ottappa), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), wisdom (paññā), delusion (moha), greed (lobha) and hatred (dosa).20 They are mental qualities (nāma-dhamma), existing in the mind along with feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), and consciousness (viññāṇa).

Saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics refers to constructed things: everything that arises from causes and conditioning factors – material or immaterial, physical or mental, live or inanimate, internal or external. They are also called saṅkhata-dhamma. Saṅkhāra here includes everything except Nibbāna.

Saṅkhāra of the Five Aggregates has a more limited meaning than saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics; it refers to one part of saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics. {70} Saṅkhāra of the Five Aggregates refers to the agents that determine the quality of the mind, or ’volitional formations’. As for saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics, it refers to compounded things: things constructed by conditioning factors, or simply ’formations’. Because volitional formations are themselves constructed things, they are not excluded from the all-inclusive meaning of saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics.

Using the model of the Five Aggregates, one can divide conditioned phenomena into mind and matter, and subdivide the mind into four subgroups – feeling, perception, volitional formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness. Here, saṅkhāra is solely a mental component and just one element of four. Saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics, however, covers both mind and matter. Therefore, saṅkhāra (of the five aggregates) is one kind of saṅkhāra (of the Three Characteristics).

Accordingly, the statements: Physical form is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) are impermanent, and consciousness is impermanent, and: All conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) are impermanent are identical in meaning.

The texts occasionally use the term saṅkhāra-khandha for saṅkhāra of the Five Aggregates, and saṅkhata-saṅkhāra, or simply saṅkhāra, for saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics. The reason these two teachings use the same term, saṅkhāra, is that they describe conditions with similar meanings, having to do with ’formation’.

Scriptural Definitions

The teachings on the five aggregates (pañca-khandha) in chapter 1, and on the six sense bases (saḷāyatana) in chapter 2, emphasize the internal life of human beings. The teaching of the Three Characteristics expands the scope of investigation to cover both the individual person and external objects. It is a study of human beings and the entire world. {73}

The meaning of each of the three characteristics has already been described in a rudimentary way. At this point they will be analyzed in more detail, based on scriptural teachings.


The Paṭisambhidāmagga offers a simple definition for aniccatā: something is considered impermanent ’in the sense that it perishes’ (khaya-aṭṭhena).21 All conditioned things exist only momentarily, at a specific time and place, then cease there and then. An object in the past does not exist in the present; an object present now does not exist in the future. Things do not endure in any fixed, immutable way.

Post-canonical texts expand on this definition and offer a range of explanations. For example, at first glance, one sees that a person’s life begins at birth and ends at death. Upon closer inspection, one notices an accelerating rate of birth and decline, of an age period, a year, a season, a month, a day, a few minutes, to the rise and fall of each moment, which is difficult for most people to discern.

Modern scientific discoveries, not least in physics, have helped to reveal and demonstrate impermanence. Many scientific theories, say of the birth and death of stars or of atomic disintegration, illustrate the law of impermanence.

The commentaries define aniccatā in many different ways. For example, something is considered impermanent ’because it is uncertain and unstable’ (aniccantikatāya), and ’because it has a beginning and an end’ (ādi-antavantatāya).22 A common and frequently used definition is: something is considered impermanent in the sense that ’it has existed and then ceases to exist’ (hutvā abhāvaṭṭhena).23 Additional wording is sometimes added to this phrase, for example: something is considered impermanent ’because it arises, passes away, and becomes otherwise’ (uppādavayaññathattabhāvā hutvā abhāvato vā).24

A detailed list of definitions is as follows. There are four reasons why something is considered impermanent:25 {74}

  1. Uppādavayappavattito: because it arises and disintegrates; it rises and ceases; it exists and then ceases to exist.

  2. Vipariṇāmato: because it is subject to change; it is continually altered and transformed.

  3. Tāvakālikato: because it is temporary; it exists momentarily.

  4. Niccapaṭikkhepato: because it is inconsistent with permanence; the changeability of a conditioned object is inherently in conflict with permanence; when one accurately observes the object no permanence is found; even if someone tries to regard it as permanent, it refuses to accommodate that person’s wishes.



The Paṭisambhidāmagga offers a concise definition for dukkhatā: something is considered dukkha ’in the sense that it is subject to danger’ (bhaya-aṭṭhena).26 Bhaya can also mean ’dangerous’ or ’frightening’. All conditioned phenomena invariably disintegrate and dissolve; they therefore offer no true safety, relief, or assurance. Any such phenomenon is threatened by destruction and disintegration. The object thus creates danger – both fear and a peril – for anyone who attaches to it.

The commentaries elaborate the meaning of dukkhatā, including these two frequently used definitions: first, something is considered dukkha ’in the sense that it is under perpetual pressure through arising and disintegration’ (uppādavaya-paṭipīḷanaṭṭhena27 or uppādavaya-paṭipīḷanatāya28). There is pressure on everything that interacts with that object, and the object itself is under stress from its component elements.29 Second, ’because it is a foundation for suffering’ (dukkha-vatthutāya30 or dukkha-vatthuto31). An object beset by dukkha is a basis for suffering, for example by causing pain. Simply speaking, dukkha means to cause pain.

The most complete compilation of definitions for dukkha in the commentaries is as follows. Something is considered to be dukkha for these four reasons:32

  1. Abhiṇha-sampatipīḷanato: because it is continually oppressed; it is subject to constant pressure due to arising and dissolution; there is persistent friction amongst component parts or amongst associated conditions.

  2. Dukkhamato: because it is ’hard to endure’; it is not durable; it is unable to be sustained in an original state; it is obliged to change, become otherwise, and lose identity as a consequence of arising and ceasing.33 {75}

  3. Dukkha-vatthuto: because it is a foundation for suffering; it is foundation for a state of pressure and stress. In relation to human beings, this means that it produces various kinds of affliction, e.g. pain, discomfort and distress.34

  4. Sukha-paṭikkhepato: because it opposes pleasure (sukha; ’happiness’). The natural conditions of pressure, friction, and instability oppose or obstruct ease and comfort. In order to obtain pleasure, people must strive to regulate certain factors. Essentially, pleasure exists only as a feeling (vedanā). The basic condition is that of dukkha – pressure, tension and friction – which is an attribute of all formations.

    In relation to human beings, this natural characteristic of dukkha produces feelings of oppression and stress, which we call ’pain’ (dukkha-vedanā). The reduction of pressure, or the freedom from pain, we call ’pleasure’ or ’happiness’. The greater the discomfort (duress, deprivation, yearning, hunger, etc.), the greater the happiness when one is released from it. For example, a person who moves from the hot sun into the shade feels refreshed and cool. Likewise, a person experiencing great pleasure (sukha-vedanā) will experience a similarly strong discomfort (dukkha-vedanā) when the pleasurable circumstances are disturbed. Even small amounts of discomfort, which are normally not felt as such, may be a torment. A person leaving a comfortably warm room into the cold, for example, may find the temperature extreme, even though those around him are not bothered.

    Happiness, or a pleasurable feeling (sukha-vedanā), is not an end of dukkha. We call an increase or reduction of pressure ’happiness’ because it creates a feeling of pleasure. But an alteration of this pleasurable tension results in a condition that requires endurance or is intolerable, a condition we call ’suffering’, that is, we feel pain (dukkha-vedanā). In truth only dukkha – pressure and stress – exists, which either increases or decreases.

    A similar subject is that of heat and cold. Cold does not really exist; there exists only a feeling of cold. The basic condition is heat, which increases, decreases, or is absent. When one says that one is pleasantly cool, one is referring only to a feeling; actually, one is experiencing a degree of heat. If more or less warm than that degree, then one is not at ease. In this sense, pleasure, or to speak in full ’a feeling of pleasure’, is one level of dukkha. Pleasure is dependent on pressure and tension, and necessarily changes and vanishes. In other words, dukkha, which is the basic condition, prevents pleasure from being sustainable. {76}

As quoted above, the Paṭisambhidāmagga defines dukkha in the context of the Three Characteristics as ’subject to danger’. In the section explaining the Four Noble Truths (ariya-sacca), it defines dukkha – the first of the Noble Truths – in four ways. Something is identified as dukkha in the sense that it is oppressed (pīḷanaṭṭha), constructed (saṅkhataṭṭha), burns (santāpaṭṭha), and changes (vipariṇāmaṭṭha).35 These four definitions of dukkha can also be used in the context of the Three Characteristics. Definitions one and four (pīḷanaṭṭha and vipariṇāmaṭṭha) have already been described;36 here are the other two:

  • 5. Saṅkhataṭṭha: ’in the sense that it is fashioned (saṅkhata)’; it is constructed by conditioning factors; it depends on such factors; it is inconstant.

  • 6. Santāpaṭṭha: ’in the sense that it burns’; it burns up, ending in decay and destruction; moreover, it burns someone with defilements, who grasps and clings to the object, causing torment and agitation.37

Dukkha in the Three Characteristics and Dukkha in the Four Noble Truths

1. Primary Classifications of Dukkha: Although this chapter is dedicated to the subject of the Three Characteristics (anicca, dukkha, and anattā), the discussion of dukkha in this context is invariably linked to other teachings pertaining to this term. This is especially true in relation to dukkha as part of the Four Noble Truths. Unless this relationship is well understood, it may cause confusion.

Simply speaking, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics, which is a condition inherent in nature, in some circumstances becomes the dukkha of the Four Noble Truths. When people lack an understanding of this primary, naturally-occurring dukkha and deal with it inappropriately, it turns into a personal problem.

The very characteristic of dukkha implies that conditioned things are under stress and are unable to sustain themselves in an original shape. When people lack discernment of this natural condition and things do not proceed according to their desires, then dissatisfaction, stress, and affliction arise in their hearts. This is the genesis of dukkha as outlined in the Four Noble Truths.

In other words, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics is an aspect of nature; it is not possible to cancel or abolish it. One should develop wisdom in order to fully understand it, and in terms of conduct, one should act according to causes and conditions.

Dukkha of the Four Noble Truths, however, we are able to do away with, to put an end to. This is possible by applying wisdom and by skilfully engaging with the dukkha of the Three Characteristics – the dukkha inherent in conditioned phenomena.

The term dukkha appears in another context, referring to the feeling of dis-ease or pain (dukkha-vedanā). This term is part of a threefold division, including sukha-vedanā (the feeling of ease; physical and mental pleasure) and adukkhamasukha-vedanā (neutral feeling; also referred to as upekkhā). This form of dukkha is also connected to the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. Because it pertains to feeling or sensation, which is experienced by people immediately, it is easily understood, almost without needing to apply any intelligence. When a branch falls on one’s head, one encounters a natural form of dukkha and one experiences pain. Sometimes this pain is almost unendurable.

This kind of dukkha is often easy to rectify. One seeks out a doctor, who stitches the wound and applies antiseptic. One then waits until the wound heals, and the matter is finished. {77}

But if one fails to recognize that the branch fell naturally by its own accord, one may become suspicious of others, thinking: ’Who is harbouring thoughts of ill-will, and has intentionally thrown this branch at me to hurt or kill me?’

This suspicion gives rise to anger, disquietude, and a deep sense of affliction. These thoughts are accompanied by more sensations of displeasure (dukkha-vedanā), but the deeper problem rests with the suffering pertaining to dukkha of the Four Noble Truths. The issue may then become intensified and protracted. The suffering (of the Four Noble Truths) deepens and escalates the discomfort (as a sensation), sometimes without end.

This matter of dukkha in the Four Noble Truths is highly significant. It causes all sorts of problems, up to and including waging warfare. One can say that this form of dukkha epitomizes the human predicament.

Nature on its own contains only the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. But when human beings become involved, all three forms of dukkha – dukkha of the Three Characteristics, dukkha of sensation, and dukkha of the Four Noble Truths – merge forces.

In sum, dukkha appears in three key teachings:

  1. On feeling/sensation (two versions):

    1. Three vedanā: painful feeling (dukkha), pleasant feeling (sukha), and neutral feeling (adukkham-asukha or upekkhā).

    2. Five vedanā: painful physical feeling (dukkha), pleasurable physical feeling (sukha), painful mental feeling (domanassa), pleasurable mental feeling (somanassa), and neutral feeling (upekkhā).

    Its complete name in this context is dukkha-vedanā.

  2. In the Three Characteristics: anicca, dukkha and anattā. In this context its complete name is dukkha-lakkhaṇa.

  3. In the Four Noble Truths: dukkha, samudaya (’origin’), nirodha (’cessation’) and magga (’path’). Its complete name is dukkha-ariyasacca.

The definitions of dukkha in these three groups overlap; they are different aspects of one truth.

The dukkha with the broadest meaning and is all-inclusive is dukkha of the Three Characteristics, also referred to as dukkha-lakkhaṇa or dukkhatā. This is the condition of instability, the inability to be sustained in an original shape, due to the pressure, stress and friction from rising and disintegration, as explained above. It is a characteristic of all conditioned phenomena (sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā), encompassing the same range as impermanence: whatever is impermanent is also dukkha (yad’aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ).

The dukkha with the most restricted meaning, and is simply a consequence of the dukkha of the Three Characteristics, is dukkha as feeling, called dukkha-vedanā: a feeling of pain. It is a feeling occurring when pressure reaches a certain level in relation to a person’s body and mind.38 This pain is included in the dukkha of the Three Characteristics, as is all other feeling, both pleasant and neutral. All kinds of feeling – painful, pleasurable, and neutral – are dukkha as determined by the Three Characteristics. {78}

Dukkha in the Four Noble Truths (dukkha-ariyasacca) is precisely the dukkha of the Three Characteristics which becomes the foundation or source of human difficulties. Yet these difficulties are created by people themselves.

All formations are under stress, which is the dukkha of the Three Characteristics. These formations (not all of them and not always) cause suffering for human beings who lack understanding and relate to things inappropriately; this suffering is the dukkha of the Four Noble Truths. (These phenomena are oppressive, however, because they themselves are subject to stress, and therefore it is impossible for them to provide true satisfaction to people in any constant or consistent way.)

Dukkha-ariyasacca refers specifically to matters connected to the five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha).39 Technically, the dukkha of the Four Noble Truths refers to the suffering arising on account of the sense bases (indriya-baddha), that is, suffering pertaining to everyday life. It excludes pressure independent of the sense bases (anindriya-baddha), which is classified as dukkha of the Three Characteristics but not of the Noble Truths.

(Note that dukkha-ariyasacca is dukkha of the Three Characteristics. Samudaya – the cause of suffering – and magga – the Eightfold Path – are as well, as they are naturally occurring conditioned phenomena, but they are not dukkha-ariyasacca.)

The scope of dukkha in the Four Noble Truths is determined as follows:

  • Dukkha as the first noble truth is associated with human life and human problems. It arises as a result of the sense faculties (indriyabaddha); it does not include dukkha independent of the sense faculties (anindriyabaddha). It is not the dukkha mentioned in the passages ’all conditioned phenomena are dukkha’ (sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā), and ’whatever is impermanent is dukkha’ (yad’aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ), which refer to the all-inclusive dukkha of the Three Characteristics.

  • It originates from a person’s defiled action (kamma-kilesa). It is a result of dukkha-samudaya; it is a result of craving – taṇhā. It refers specifically to matters connected to the five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha).

  • It is the focus of the duty (kicca) related to the first noble truth: pariññā-kicca. Pariññā is comprehension or knowledge of things as they truly are. To acquire knowledge of and to fully understand personal problems is our responsibility vis-à-vis dukkha of the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha here is confined to this subject of understanding human suffering.

  • It emphasizes the significance of the basis of suffering (dukkha-vatthutāya) rather than the pressure, tension and friction of arising and falling (udayabbaya-paṭipīḷanaṭṭhena), which is the essential meaning of dukkha in the Three Characteristics.40

The subject of dukkha in the Four Noble Truths will be explained at more length below. Here, let us examine another teaching, on the three kinds of dukkha (the 3 dukkhatā).41 This is a very important teaching located in three different suttas; it also occurs frequently in the Mahāniddesa and the Cūḷaniddesa. On one occasion it was taught by the Buddha; the remaining passages are by Ven. Sāriputta. In each passage, however, only the three factors are listed, without any explanation (most likely this set of three factors was an important concept during the Buddha’s time). The following description relies on the explanations provided in the commentaries. (The order of these factors here also accords with the normal order of the commentaries; the order in the suttas is: dukkha-dukkhatā, saṅkhāra-dukkhatā and vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.) {79}

The teaching on the 3 dukkhatā defines dukkha in the context of the Three Characteristics. It includes dukkha as feeling (vedanā), and it also links up with dukkha as found in the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha-dukkhatā:42 physical and mental pain, as generally understood, for example aches, discomfort, and fatigue; in other words, ’painful feeling’ (dukkha-vedanā).

  2. Vipariṇāma-dukkhatā: dukkha resulting from or inherent in change. This refers to pleasurable feeling (sukha-vedanā), which in truth is a degree of dukkha. Pleasure is equal to concealed pain, or always has pain furtively in pursuit. Once a feeling of pleasure changes, it transforms into a feeling of pain. In other words, the fundamental inconstancy of pleasure produces pain. (Another explanation is that pleasure is pain, of a particular degree.)

  3. Saṅkhāra-dukkhatā:43 dukkha inherent in conditioned phenomena, inherent in everything that originates from causes and conditions. In other words, the five aggregates are dukkha; they are of the nature to be pressured and coerced by the rising and decay of opposing factors, preventing them from remaining in a stable, original state. This third kind of dukkha comprises the dukkha of the Three Characteristics.

2. The Three Universal Characteristics Act as a Basis for Dukkha in the Four Noble Truths: As described earlier, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics refers to the conflict and stress inherent in conditioned phenomena, preventing them from any lasting stability. All conditioned things – all things that ordinary people know and experience – are subject to this characteristic. Another way of phrasing this is that this pressure and stress is a natural characteristic of the five aggregates (khandha).

Every human being, and everything that ordinary people come into contact with, is a conditioned phenomenon and is comprised of the five aggregates. If people lack understanding and deal with things unskilfully, a sense of oppression and affliction arises within themselves, which we call ’suffering’. This suffering experienced by people is the dukkha of the Four Noble Truths. Although it is real for these people, it is not a universal characteristic of all things.

Isolating this dukkha of the Three Characteristics is convenient in one sense, but it should not be completely removed from the other two characteristics. That is, one should recognize that all conditioned things are subject to three universal characteristics: impermanence (anicca; having arisen, things dissolve and disappear); stress (dukkha; all conditions or factors that constitute or associate with an object are under pressure and unable to sustain an original shape); and nonself (anattā; things exist according to causes and conditions; things do not possess a ’self’ or a distinct, abiding essence that is able to own or control things).

In short, all conditioned things are unstable, unreliable, and unenduring.

The arising of suffering (dukkha) in the Four Noble Truths is not simply due to the stress (dukkha) outlined in the Three Characteristics. Indeed, all three characteristics – anicca, dukkha and anattā – act as a basis for suffering in those individuals who lack a true understanding of them. {80}

All conditioned things (or the five aggregates), including the entirety of what makes up human beings – the body and the mind – are impermanent, subject to stress, and nonself. It is in their nature to be marked by these three characteristics, without any interference by human beings. For this reason the Three Characteristics are distinct from the Four Noble Truths (even though both of these teachings share the factor of dukkha).

So at what stage do the five aggregates become part of the dukkha described in the Four Noble Truths? The answer is when they become the five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha).

The five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha) are precisely these same five aggregates, but here they are grasped onto by clinging (upādāna). Technically speaking, they are ’accompanied by mental taints (āsava) and act as a basis for clinging (upādāna).’ One can define this term upādāna-khandha as the five aggregates born of clinging, the five aggregates as the point of obsession for clinging, or the five aggregates as the focus of attention for clinging. They pertain directly to ignorance (avijjā), craving (taṇhā), and clinging (upādāna). This dynamic is what is being referred to in the first noble truth.

In the following teaching, the Buddha distinguishes between the five aggregates and the five aggregates of clinging:

Monks, I will teach you the five aggregates and the five aggregates subject to clinging. Listen attentively.

And what are the five aggregates? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near…. These are called the five aggregates.

And what are the five aggregates of clinging? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is accompanied by mental taints (sāsava), that is a foundation for clinging (upādāniya)…. These are called the five aggregates of clinging.

S. III. 47-8.

When the Buddha taught the Three Characteristics, he would invariably state that the five aggregates are impermanent, subject to stress, and nonself. The true nature of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness is marked by these three characteristics. He did not state that the five aggregates of clinging are impermanent, subject to stress, and nonself, because these are already included in the wider classification of the five aggregates. The important point here is that by grasping to the five aggregates, they develop into the five aggregates of clinging and this grasping leads to suffering.

The following is a teaching on the five aggregates in relation to the Three Characteristics:

Monks, form is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, volitional formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent….

Monks, form is dukkha (it is under stress by its conditioning factors; it is unsustainable) … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is dukkha….

Monks, form is not-self … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is not-self…. Seeing this, the instructed noble disciple lets go of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness. Letting go,44 he extricates himself.45 Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there come the knowledge: ’It is liberated’. He understands: ’Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’ {81}

S. III. 21.

When one clearly understands conditioned things according to the Three Characteristics, the five aggregates of clinging do not arise, or they cease to exist. Instead, one experiences freedom, luminosity, joy, and an end to suffering.

In the sutta on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma (Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta), which was given to the group of five disciples (pañca-vaggiya), the Buddha gives a lengthy description of dukkha, the first noble truth. This first noble truth may be defined as:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; association with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

S. V. 421-2.

The ending phrase, ’In brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering’ (saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā), is the gist of this passage. That is, all the previous statements are summed up by this ending phrase.

The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta was the first sutta taught by the Buddha – no one had heard this teaching before this occasion. The group of five disciples would not have been familiar with how the term dukkha is defined in Buddhism. We can compare this with how the Buddha taught the first noble truth on later occasions.

At one time in Sāvatthi (indicating that this event occurred a long time after the first sermon), the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths to the bhikkhus (who would have had a foundation of understanding). Here, in relation to the first noble truth, the Buddha focuses exclusively on the five aggregates of clinging:

Monks, I will teach you suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering. Listen carefully.

And what, monks, is suffering? It should be said: the five aggregates subject to clinging. What five? The form aggregate subject to clinging, the feeling aggregate subject to clinging, the perception aggregate subject to clinging, the volitional formations aggregate subject to clinging, the consciousness aggregate subject to clinging. This is called suffering.

And what monks, is the origin of suffering? It is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for annihilation. This is called the origin of suffering.

And what, monks, is the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it. This is called the cessation of suffering. {82}

And what, monks is the way leading to the cessation of suffering? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is called the way leading to the cessation of suffering.46

S. III. 158-9; S. V. 425

From this passage we can conclude that the many examples the Buddha used to describe suffering in the First Sermon refer to conditions or situations related to suffering that general people are familiar with. After establishing a basic understanding of the subject matter, the Buddha went on to describe the gist of suffering: the five aggregates of clinging. Had he not provided common examples of suffering first, the listeners, who lacked a foundation of understanding, would have been at a loss.

In other circumstances, or in other Dhamma teachings, the Buddha may very well have presented other familiar examples of suffering to his listeners. Whichever examples the Buddha may have used, however, he would have eventually summed up human suffering as the five aggregates of clinging.

Note this teaching by the Buddha connected to the Four Noble Truths:

Monks, in reference to the statement declared by me: ’This is the noble truth of suffering’, there are innumerable nuances, innumerable meanings, innumerable interpretations…. In reference to the statement declared by me: ’This is the noble truth of the path leading to the end of suffering’, there are innumerable nuances, innumerable meanings, innumerable interpretations.

Therefore, monks, you should strive in order to understand according to the truth: ’This is suffering … this is the path leading to the end of suffering.’

S. V. 430.

This passage confirms that all of the Buddha’s teachings (the entirety of Buddha-Dhamma) can be summed up by or included in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Although some teachings do not specifically refer to the Four Noble Truths, they are still encapsulated by this key teaching. The following quotation from the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta, which describes the suffering and harmful effects of craving for sensual pleasures (kāma-taṇhā), along with describing a wholesome stage of practice on the noble way (ariya-magga) towards the final stage of cessation (nirodha), is a case in point:

See here, Mahānāma, before my awakening, while I was still only an unawakened bodhisatta, I too clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them. But as long as I still did not attain to the rapture and happiness that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I could not declare to be one who would not return in pursuit of sensual pleasures. Yet when I clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, and I attained to the rapture and happiness that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I could declare to be one who would not return in pursuit of sensual pleasures. {83}

And what, Mahānāma, is the gratification (advantage) in the case of sensual pleasures? There are these five cords of sensual pleasure. What are the five? Forms cognizable by the eye that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and pleasant, that are inviting and provocative of lust. Sounds cognizable by the ear … odours cognizable by the nose … flavours cognizable by the tongue … tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and pleasant, that are inviting and provocative of lust. These are the five cords of sensual pleasure. Now the pleasure and joy that arises dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure is the gratification in the case of sensual pleasures.

And what, Mahānāma, is the danger (disadvantage) in the case of sensual pleasure? Here, on account of the craft by which a clansman makes a living – whether counting or accounting or calculating or farming or trading or husbandry or archery or the royal service, or whatever craft it may be – he has to face cold, he has to face heat, he is plagued by contact with horseflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping things; he risks death by hunger and thirst. Now this is a danger in the case of sensual pleasures, a mass of suffering visible here and now, having sensual pleasures as its cause, sensual pleasures as its source, sensual pleasures as its requirement, the cause being simply sensual pleasures.

If no wealth comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught, crying: ’My work is in vain, my effort is fruitless!’ Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasure … the cause being simply sensual pleasures.

If wealth comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he experiences pain and anguish in protecting it: ’How shall neither kings confiscate it, nor thieves plunder it, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it way, nor hateful heirs make off and squander it?’

And as he guards and protects his wealth, kings confiscate it, or thieves plunder it, or fire burns it, or floods sweep it away, or hateful heirs make off and squander it. And he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught, crying: ’What I had I have no longer! My previous possessions are no longer mine!’ Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasure … the cause being simply sensual pleasures.

Again, with sensual pleasures as the cause, sensual pleasures as the source, sensual pleasures as the requirement, the cause being simply sensual pleasures, kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmins with brahmins, householders with householders; mother quarrels with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father; brother quarrels with brother, sister with sister, brother with sister, friend with friend. And here in their quarrels, disputes, and arguments they attack each other with fists, clods of earth, sticks, or knives, whereby they incur death or deadly suffering. Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasure … the cause being simply sensual pleasures. {84}

Again, with sensual pleasures as the cause … men take up swords and shields and buckle on bows and quivers, and they march off to war, both sides engaging in pitched battles. With arrows flying, spears hurled, and swords flashing, some of these soldiers are pierced by arrows, some are lanced by spears, some have their heads cut off by swords, whereby they incur death or deadly suffering. Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasure … the cause being simply sensual pleasures.

Again, with sensual pleasures as the cause … men take up swords and shields and buckle on bows and quivers, and they charge bastions coated in hot mud. With arrows flying, spears hurled, and swords flashing, some of these soldiers are pierced by arrows, some are lanced by spears, some are splashed with boiling manure, some are hacked by harrows, and some have their heads cut off by swords, whereby they incur death or deadly suffering. Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasure … the cause being simply sensual pleasures.

M. I. 91-2.

3. Myriad Forms of Human Suffering: One of the main objectives so far in this discussion is to distinguish the dukkha in the Four Noble Truths from the dukkha in the Three Characteristics, and also to see how these two forms of dukkha are related.

In the previous sections, various attributes or descriptions of suffering have been introduced. Note that these descriptions need not be held too strictly. The Buddha presented them as simple and clear examples for establishing a basic understanding of suffering. Yet many of these kinds of suffering vary according to time and place. (It would be possible to make a list of problems and afflictions that are specific say to the modern era.) Yet, in the end all of these variations on suffering may be summarized by the Buddha’s words: ’In brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.’

At this point let us look at some of the classifications of dukkha found in the scriptures.

The dukkha most often analyzed in the scriptures is dukkha of the Four Noble Truths, because it concerns human beings directly. We should reflect upon this suffering, to be released from it through Dhamma practice. As for the all-inclusive dukkha of the Three Characteristics, it is illustrated just enough for an accurate understanding of reality. The chief, most frequently mentioned groups of dukkha in the scriptures are listed below:

The 12 Kinds of Dukkha: This group elucidates the meaning of dukkha in the Four Noble Truths:47

  1. Birth (jāti): birth is suffering because it is a basis for various kinds of affliction:

    1. Gabbhokkantimūlaka-dukkha: the suffering of confinement in the womb: a foetus dwells in a dark, stifling place, full of repugnant substances.

    2. Gabbhapariharaṇamūlaka-dukkha: the suffering of carrying the womb. Whenever the mother moves, or eats hot, cold, or spicy food, it affects the child in the womb. {85}

    3. Gabbhavipattimūlaka-dukkha: the suffering from misfortunes of the womb, for example ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, or Caesarean operation.

    4. Vijāyanamūlaka-dukkha: the suffering of childbirth, including the pounding, twisting, squeezing and severe pain while exiting the narrow canal.

    5. Bahinikkhamanamūlaka-dukkha: the suffering of emergence into the outside world. The newly born infant, whose skin is sensitive as a wound, feels acute pain when handled and washed.

    6. Attupakkamamūlaka-dukkha: the suffering that results from self-inflicted actions, for example suicide, extreme asceticism, refusing to eat due to resentment, or other self-injurious acts.

    7. Parupakkamamūlaka-dukkha: the suffering caused by others’ deeds, for example being assaulted, murdered or imprisoned.

  2. Aging (jarā): aging weakens the organs. The faculties, e.g. the eyes and ears, function defectively, vitality wanes, and agility is lost. The skin wrinkles; it is no longer fair and lustrous. Memory becomes incoherent and faulty. A person’s control, both internal and external, weakens, causing great physical and mental distress.

  3. Death (maraṇa): if one has committed bad deeds during the course of one’s life, they appear as mental images (nimitta) at the time of death. One must be separated from cherished people and things. The constituent parts of the body cease to perform their duties, there may be intense physical pain, and one is impotent to remedy the situation.

  4. Grief (soka), for example from the loss of a relative.

  5. Lamentation (parideva), for example keening at the loss of a relative.

  6. Physical pain (dukkha), for example wounds, sprains and sickness.48

  7. Distress (domanassa; anguish), which causes crying, beating one’s breast, committing suicide, etc.

  8. Despair (upāyāsa; frustration), for instance the torment of unmitigated grief.

  9. Association with disagreeable people or things (appiya-sampayoga), for example the need to engage with a person whom one detests.

  10. Separation from cherished people or things (piya-vippayoga), for example separation from loved ones or the loss of possessions.

  11. Not obtaining what one wants; disappointment (icchitālābha).

  12. The five aggregates, which are the foundation for clinging (upādāna-khandhā). All of the aforementioned suffering stems from the five aggregates as objects of clinging. To sum up, one can say that suffering is the five aggregates of clinging. {86}

The Two Dukkha (A):49

  1. Paṭicchanna-dukkha: concealed, not clearly manifest suffering, for example a latent earache or toothache, or the mind smouldering with the ’fires’ of lust and anger.

  2. Appaṭicchanna-dukkha: overt suffering, for example being pricked by a thorn, whipped, or cut by a knife.

The Two Dukkha (B):50

  1. Pariyāya-dukkha: indirect or implicit dukkha, i.e. every form of dukkha mentioned above excluding painful feeling (dukkha-vedanā).

  2. Nippariyāya-dukkha: explicit dukkha, which is also called dukkha-dukkha: the feeling of pain.

The Mahāniddesa and the Cūḷaniddesa offer many additional categories of dukkha.51 For matter of simplicity, they can be sorted into the following groups:

  1. Suffering as birth (jāti-dukkha), aging (jarā-dukkha), illness (byādhi-dukkha), death (maraṇa-dukkha), sorrow, lamentation, pain, anguish and despair (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsa).

  2. The suffering of hell beings (nerayika-dukkha), of animals (tiracchānayonika-dukkha), of ghosts (pittivisayika-dukkha), and of humans (mānusaka-dukkha).

  3. The suffering experienced from taking birth in a womb (gabbhokkantimūlaka-dukkha), from living in a womb (gabbheṭhitimūlaka-dukkha), and from exiting a womb (gabbhavuṭṭhānamūlaka-dukkha); the suffering inherent in one who is born (jātassūpanibandhika-dukkha); the suffering of one who is born, due to being dependent on others (jātassaparādheyyaka-dukkha); self-inflicted suffering (attūpakkama-dukkha); and suffering inflicted by others (parūpakkama-dukkha).

  4. Pain (dukkha-dukkha), the dukkha of formations (saṅkhāra-dukkha), and dukkha inherent in change (vipariṇāma-dukkha).

  5. Various kinds of diseases, for example eye and ear diseases; thirty-five kinds of diseases are mentioned.

  6. Illness resulting from eight causes, including bile, phlegm and wind, or a combination of these causes; illness resulting from changes in the weather and irregular exercise; afflictions due to other people’s actions – for example being murdered or imprisoned, and the effects of personal actions.

  7. Suffering owing to cold, heat, hunger, thirst, defecation, urination, wind, sun, flies, mosquitoes and crawling creatures.

  8. Suffering resulting from the death of one’s mother, father, brother, sister, or child.

  9. Suffering due to loss of relatives, loss of possessions, loss through sickness, loss of moral conduct, and loss of cherished views and opinions. {87}

In the Mahādukkhakkhandha and the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha suttas, the Buddha describes many examples of the mass of suffering (dukkha-khandha), the plights afflicting humans because of sense desire.52 They are summarized as follows:

  1. The hardship or even loss of life due to one’s occupation.

  2. The disappointment experienced when one’s labour is in vain.

  3. The suffering in trying to protect acquired wealth.

  4. The grief that ensues when such protection is unsuccessful and wealth is lost, for example to thieves or fire.

  5. The disputes and violence between rulers, between householders, between parents and children, between siblings, and between friends, leading to death or serious injury.

  6. The slaughter and severe agony of war.

  7. The injury and death resulting from invasion.

  8. The committal of crimes, for example burglary or adultery, followed by arrest and conviction, and ending in torture and execution.

  9. The performance of physical, verbal and mental misdeeds, leading after death to states of deprivation, perdition, and hell.

More references to dukkha are located throughout the scriptures and commentaries. In some places the descriptions have no specific name (as in the examples of the Mahā- and the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha suttas mentioned above), while in others dukkha is identified by special terms such as saṁsāra-dukkha,53 apāya-dukkha (suffering of the lower realms), vaṭṭamūlaka-dukkha (suffering through the round of rebirth), or āhārapariyeṭṭhi-dukkha,54 to list just a few.55 {88}

It would be possible to elaborate much more on this subject of suffering, since human beings encounter so many problems, including the afflictions faced by all living creatures, and suffering specific to certain time periods, regions, and circumstances, but it is not necessary to offer a drawn-out explanation. More important is to realize that the many scriptural descriptions exist to promote an understanding of the true nature of suffering. With this understanding we can respond correctly to it. We acknowledge that we must engage with suffering, rather than resort to evasion, self-deception, or to the denial that either suffering does not exist or that it cannot affect us. Such deception only creates more complex problems and more severe affliction. Our responsibility is rather that of facing and understanding suffering (pariññā-kicca), to have victory over it, and to be freed from it: this is the practice of walking the path leading to suffering’s cessation, a cessation both temporary and permanent. {89}



As explained earlier the factor of nonself (anattatā) has a broader application than the factors of impermanence and dukkha. One sees the difference clearly in the Buddha’s presentation:

  • Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā: all conditioned phenomena are impermanent.

  • Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā: all conditioned phenomena are subject to stress.

  • Sabbe dhammā anattā: all things are nonself.

This teaching indicates that conditioned phenomena (and all conditioned phenomena) are impermanent and dukkha. But something exists apart from such phenomena, which is neither impermanent nor subject to stress. All things without exception, however, are anattā: they are nonself. Nothing exists which is a self or possesses a self.

The definition of dhamma encompasses all things. As dhamma includes all things it can be subdivided indefinitely. One can, however, classify things into groups and categories. The division pertinent to this discussion is into conditioned things (saṅkhata-dhamma) and the Unconditioned (asaṅkhata-dhamma).

Saṅkhata-dhamma refers to things created by conditioning factors (paccaya). These things can be simply called saṅkhāra, and include all materiality and mentality, constituting the five aggregates. Asaṅkhata-dhamma, the Unconditioned, is neither created nor supported by conditioning factors; it is also called visaṅkhāra: the state transcending the five aggregates, that is, Nibbāna.

One can describe this law of nature in more detail as follows:

  • All conditioned things (the five aggregates) are impermanent.

  • All conditioned things (the five aggregates) are dukkha.

  • All things, both conditioned things and the Unconditioned, are nonself. {90}

Basic Definition

Anattā can be translated as ’not-self’, ’selfless’, or ’nonself’. The statement ’all things are anattā’ means that all things exist or proceed according to their own nature. They do not exist as or possess a ’self’ – a substantial entity – that is able to control things at will. As anattā is a negation of attā, to comprehend the characteristic of nonself we must first understand the meaning of attā.

Attā (Sanskrit – ātman) refers to an eternal self or substance, which is the purported essence or core of any particular thing, residing permanently in an object. It is both owner and controller, the essential recipient of experience and agent of action. It is that which lies behind all phenomena, including all life, able to direct things in conformity with its needs and desires.

Some religions elaborate by claiming that a superior ’Self’ or ’Spirit’ lies behind all worldly phenomena, reigning over the souls or essence of all living beings and inanimate objects. They claim that this supreme Spirit creates and governs all things, or that it is the source and destination of all things and all life. In Hinduism, for example, it is called Brahmā or Paramātman.

The gist of the teaching on anattā is the negation of this fixed abiding self, both mundane and transcendent; it asserts that this self is simply an idea stemming from a misapprehension by unawakened human beings, who do not see the true nature of the world. People create a (concept of) self and superimpose it on reality; this (concept of) self then obstructs them from seeing the truth.

A clear understanding of nonself dispels the misapprehension and dissolves the obscuring (idea of) self. The teaching of nonself bids us to discern with wisdom that all things, all components of reality, exist and proceed in conformity with their own nature. No hidden, abiding self exists as owner or director; things are not subservient to an internal or external control.

A basic definition of selflessness, both in regard to conditioned phenomena and the Unconditioned, is that all things exist in compliance with their nature, and are not subordinate to an external authority. If a substantial, controlling self were to reside in things, phenomena would not be able to exist and proceed as they do according to their own nature. The very nature of phenomena reveals this characteristic of nonself.

To elaborate on this definition one must examine the distinction between conditioned phenomena and the Unconditioned. The Unconditioned, or Nibbāna, on the one hand, is an absolute truth (dhamma-dhātu),56 existing independent of conditioning factors. It is neither a being, nor a consciousness, nor a self (nissatta-nijjīva); it cannot be possessed or controlled; nor does it act in any sort of creative role. {91}

Compounded phenomena, on the other hand, are dependent on and conform to those factors which act as catalysts or creative agents. These phenomena are void of an inner substance that experiences the formative process or controls the five aggregates, commanding the aggregates to follow desire independent of the laws of cause and effect.

A basic definition in the scriptures for anattā is avasavattanaṭṭhena (alternatively, avasavattanato or avasavattito): ’something is described as nonself in the sense that it is not subject to control’. No one is able to demand or order that things proceed according to his or her desires (things are not subject to our desires).

Implied Definition

Before proceeding, one should understand that the Buddhist teachings refer to a self solely on a conventional level: the self is a relative truth; it is not believed to be absolute. This is made clear by the Buddha’s statement that a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha does not establish a self as part of his doctrine; he does not regard the self as real:

Seniya, the teacher who does not declare a self as real or true, either in this world or the next, is called the Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.

Kvu. 68; Pug. 38.

Consequently, the Buddhist teachings do not concern themselves with the existence of self or engage in a diagnosis of self. Moreover, the Buddha stated:

It is impossible for a person endowed with right view (i.e. a stream-enterer) to grasp any thing (dhamma) as self.57

A. III. 438.

With the realization of the supreme state, no reason remains for an arahant to contemplate a self. This is substantiated by the Buddha’s designation of an arahant as one who has ’abandoned the self’ or ’discarded the self’ (attañjaho/attañjaha):58 an arahant has abandoned the belief in a self, the view of existing as or possessing a self. Some passages describe an arahant as ’having abandoned the self, not clinging to anything’ (attaṃ pahāya anupādiyāno).59

The following passage from the Tipiṭaka summarizes this matter: {92}

All formations are impermanent, subject to stress, and nonself; Nibbāna and designations are nonself.

Vin. VI. (Parivāra) 86; quoted earlier.

Although a self does not truly exist, attachment to self does, and most people fervently embrace a notion of a fixed self. The Buddha rejected the validity of such a notion, and encouraged people to abandon the attachment to self. In Buddhism, a substantial self is of no importance; it is not a matter requiring speculation. Buddhism focuses on the attachment to self or on the concept of self that is the object of such attachment. Buddhism teaches people to release the attachment. With its release one’s responsibility is fulfilled, and a fixed stable self no longer has relevance.

To summarize, once a person understands that conditioned things are selfless, the topic of self versus nonself is over. A person who has realized the Unconditioned no longer identifies with anything as a self. Furthermore, any explanation for the selfless nature of the Unconditioned, i.e. Nibbāna, becomes redundant. To elaborate on Nibbāna as anattā is unnecessary for the following reasons:

  • The only things that people attach to and are able to attach to as self are conditioned phenomena or the five aggregates.

  • All that unawakened people recognize, know, and think about lies within the confines of the five aggregates. Even when speaking of Nibbāna, the Nibbāna they refer to is not the real Nibbāna, but part of the five aggregates. Awakened beings know Nibbāna for themselves and have abandoned any belief in self, so they need not refer to this subject of self. If they do speak, they simply state that arahants have completely ’abandoned the (belief in) self’ (attañjaha).

  • The duty of a teacher in this context is only to prompt people to know and then abandon their misunderstanding which leads them to grasp conditioned things as self.

  • Once people are fully aware, abandoning erroneous views and ceasing to grasp the five aggregates as self, they do not search for anything else to cling to as a self, because they have clearly realized Nibbāna, which transcends the five aggregates along with all belief in self. Those who have realized Nibbāna discern by themselves the selfless quality of the Unconditioned; there is no further need to discuss this matter. Transcending the state of an ordinary person (from the level of stream-entry upwards) results in the end of clinging to and doubting about a self; the obligation to discuss the selfless nature of the Unconditioned vanishes automatically. In other words, for awakened beings, no reference to a self arises to cling to, to doubt over, or to debate about.

The standard scriptural explanations of anattā therefore refer to conditioned phenomena (i.e. the five aggregates), which are of everyday relevance to people and comprise all things that ordinary unawakened people are able to conceive of from their experience. {93}

Scriptural Explanation

As stated above, the common scriptural explanations of anattā focus on conditioned things because these teachings are presented to ordinary, unawakened people and touch upon everyday issues.

Furthermore, those things that ordinary unawakened people are able to conceive of as self are limited to conditioned things (saṅkhāra), or limited to the five aggregates. Therefore, the explanations of nonself focus exclusively on the five aggregates. This corresponds with the Buddha’s words:

Monks, whichever ascetics and brahmins who regard self in various ways all regard the five aggregates subject to clinging, or a certain one among them. What five?

Monks, the uninstructed, ordinary person … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He regards feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self … or self as in consciousness. This way of regarding things thus becomes his fixed belief that ’I exist’.

S. III. 46.

In other words, (belief in) a self only exists where the five aggregates exist, and exists because of clinging to these aggregates, as explained by the Buddha:

Monks, when what exists, by relying on what, by adhering to what, does such a view as this arise: ’This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?….

When there is form, monks, by relying on form, by adhering to form, such a view as this arises: ’This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’ When there is feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness, by relying on consciousness, by adhering to consciousness, such a view as this arises: ’This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’

S. III. 203-204.

At this point let us examine some of the numerous scriptural explanations of nonself. The Paṭisambhidāmagga defines something as anattā in the sense that it is insubstantial (asārakaṭṭhena).60 Insubstantial means to be without essence, to be without a core, and to possess nothing that is truly stable or enduring.

Insubstantial means the absence of an essential, nuclear self (atta-sāra), which is thought of as a self (attā), an abider (nivāsī), an agent (kāraka), an experiencer (vedaka), or an autonomous master (sayaṁvasī). {94} For whatever is impermanent is dukkha; it is unable to prevent its transience or its oppression from rising and falling. How then can it exist as a doer, and so on? Hence, the Buddha said: ’Monks, if this physical form, for example, were self, surely it would not be subject to affliction.’

Vism. 610.

Note that this definition of non-essence or selflessness includes the absence of a creative role or a lack of intrinsic control. If one were to possess a stable enduring self as a core, then one could resist change; one would not be subject to change. Similarly, if one were master over things, one could manipulate possessions according to desire. Reality, however, is not this way. A distinctive feature of the absence of an abiding self is the inability to dominate conditions, and their opposition to desire.

Note that Buddha-Dhamma considers even Brahma, God, or whichever supreme creator deity as existing within the conditioned world and confined to the five aggregates, and thus wielding restricted power.

In this sense, the commentaries prefer to define anattā as ’the inability to control’ or ’not subject to control’ (avasavattanaṭṭhena or avasavattanato).61 Likewise, they explain that no one can force formations into subservience, in defiance of cause and effect, by demanding that arisen phenomena not exist, that existent phenomena not age, and that aging phenomena not perish.62 They quote the Buddha’s words:

A person cannot in regard to physical form obtain [as wished for]: ’May form be this way, may form not be that way.’ (Same with the other aggregates.)63

VbhA. 49; VinṬ.

When one thoroughly examines the nature of all things, one finds that no fixed and permanent self exists, as is implied by giving things particular names. There is merely a natural process (dhamma-pavatti) – a process of conditionality – or a process of materiality and mentality (khandha-pavatti), which originates from the confluence of manifold constituents. All of these constituents arise and cease in a continual, intercausal relationship, both within a single isolated dynamic and within all creation. This being so, we should take note of four significant points:

  • There is no true, enduring self within any phenomenon, existing as an essence or core.

  • All conditioned things arise from the convergence of components.

  • These components continually arise and disintegrate, and are co-dependent, constituting a specific dynamic of nature.

  • If one separates a specific dynamic into subordinate dynamics, one sees that these too are co-dependent. {95}

The manifestation and transformation of a dynamic is determined by the relationship of its components. The dynamic proceeds without the intervention by a ’self’. No separate self exists, neither an internal enduring self that resists cause and effect and is able to direct the activity according to its wishes, nor an independent external agent.

Human beings confer names on many of these assemblies and formations, for example ’person’, ’horse’, ’cat’, ’ant’, ’car’, ’shop’, ’house’, ’clock’, ’pen’, ’Mr. Jones’, and ’Ms. Smith’. These names, however, are simply conventional labels, established for convenience of communication. The entities do not really exist: they do not have a real self, a separate identity distinct from their collective components. Upon analysis of these entities what remains is each unit or part with its own specific name. It is not possible to find a self within such entities, no matter how deeply one searches.

By giving names to things one creates a provisional self that is superimposed on the true condition. It is superimposed randomly, without any direct relationship to, control over, or affect on that particular dynamic, except when one clings to the conventional designation (clinging is then one component of the process). If names are just conventional labels, arbitrarily superimposed, then it is self-evident that they are powerless.

When elements convene and manifest as particular forms, we assign agreed-upon names to these forms. As long as the components are conjoined, they sustain the particular shape corresponding to a conventional identity. When the components split up, however, or the surrounding conditions are unsupportive, the form disappears. For example, when temperature rises above a certain level, ice melts; the entity called ’ice’ vanishes, with water remaining. With a further increase in temperature, water evaporates, turning to steam; that entity of ’water’ ceases to be. Likewise, when paper is burned, only ashes remain; the entity called ’paper’ is no longer found.

The dynamics of nature occur in line with cause and effect; they do not obey desire, and they are not influenced by these randomly established identities. They do not obey desire because, speaking accurately, desire does not serve an autonomous self; desire is one component within a causal process, and it is not the agent that accomplishes a deed. Desire is only able to produce results when it acts as an impetus, affecting subsequent conditions like effort or action, in conformity with cause and effect.

A distinct, independent self cannot exist; were it to exist, it would not be subject to causality – it would be fixed. It would impede the causal flow, rendering all other elements dispensable. Any fluent dynamic would be nullified. Such a self could interfere with and modify conditions, causing a deviation from causality. In truth, however, all conditioned things proceed according to cause and effect. A separate self does not truly exist, either within a dynamic or externally. The only self that exists is the conventional self, which needs to be understood or else it ends up deceiving and oppressing people. {96}

The basic meaning of anattatā – that all things arise as a composition of interrelated parts according to cause and effect, are void of an enduring self, and are without a fixed creative agent – is confirmed by many references in the scriptures, for example:

Just as when a space is enclosed by timber, twine, clay and thatch, it comes to be called a ’house’, so too, when a space is enclosed by bones and sinews, flesh and skin, it comes to be called a ’body’ (rūpa).

M. I. 190.

Māra asked Vajirā Bhikkhunī:

Who created this being (person)? Where is the creator of beings? Where does a being originate? Where does a being cease?

[Vajirā answered:]

Māra, do you believe in a being? Do you hold [such] a view? This is purely a mass of formations; here, no being can be found. Just as with the combination of various parts, the term ’wagon’ ensues, so too, with the five aggregates the conventional term ’being’ ensues. Indeed, there is only dukkha that arises, abides, and passes away. Nothing but dukkha comes to be, nothing but dukkha ceases.

S. I. 135.

Māra asked the same question to Selā Bhikkhunī, who answered:

No one fashioned this shape; no one created this being. Dependent upon causes, it has arisen; with the ending of causes, it ceases. Just as seeds when sown on a field will sprout, owing to both the nutrients in the soil and the moisture within the seeds, so too, these aggregates, elements, and six senses arise dependent upon causes, and cease with the dissolution of those causes.

S. I. 134.

A collection of soldiers, vehicles and weapons is called an army. We call a group of buildings, houses, people and enterprises a city. A hand with fingers placed in a certain position is called a fist. Uncurl the fist and only a hand with fingers remains. Similarly, when one separates a hand into ancillary parts, then it too no longer exists. One can continue to subdivide, but one will be unable to find any static units or elements. The suttas contain only teachings of materiality and mentality (nāma-rūpa); there is no mention of a fixed ’being’ or ’person’.64 {97}

There are four principal definitions of anattā compiled by the commentators. Although these definitions are normally used in reference to conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata-dhamma), they also apply to the Unconditioned (asaṅkhata-dhamma). Something is considered nonself for the following reasons:65

  • Suññato: because it exists in a state of emptiness; it exists according to its own nature. It is without a self as essence or core (atta-sāra). It is void of a real identity as ’person’, ’I’, ’him’, or ’her’. There is no occupant, agent, or experiencer apart from the causal process, or apart from provisional designations. Things exist independently from their assigned or cherished identities, for example ’man’, ’woman’, ’I’, ’you’, ’object A’ or ’object B’.

  • Assāmikato: because it is ownerless; it does not belong to a person or to a self. No separate self exists that possesses phenomena. Phenomena exist according to their inherent conditioned or unconditioned nature.

  • Avasavattanato: because it is not subject to control; it does not depend on anyone. It is not under anyone’s power and it is not dictated by a ’self’. A related term used is anissarato, translated as ’not subject to a ruler’ or ’not subject to the authority by a controlling self’. We have no absolute power over things; we must concur with causes. In some places one finds the term akāmakāriyato, translated as ’unable to do as one pleases’. Things do not obey desires; the mind of desire cannot dictate things. If one wants things to be a certain way, then one must conform to or bring about the proper causes and conditions. Things depend on causes and conditions, not on someone’s power or desire. For example, it is impossible to order something that has arisen to disappear, or to not change, or to not deteriorate.

  • Atta-paṭikkhepato: because it is inconsistent with or opposes a self. Were a substantial, fixed self to exist, it would conflict with phenomena, causing them to deviate from their own inherent nature. Ordinary people can recognize this from examining conditioned phenomena. The causal process of interrelated components is inherently incompatible with a separate, autonomous self, which would dictate or interfere with that process. Such an isolated self cannot exist. If it were to exist, a causal dynamic could not occur; the course of events would necessarily follow the dictates of self. {98} Furthermore, the law of causality is intrinsically complete; it does not require a controlling agent to intervene.

There are two additional definitions of anattā, which, although included within the four points mentioned above, are particularly important and should thus be distinguished. They refer exclusively to conditioned phenomena, highlighting their dynamic nature:

  • Suddha-saṅkhārapuñjato or suddha-dhammapuñjato: Things exist purely as a mass of formations, or as a mass of phenomena (dhamma), that is, materiality (rūpa-dhamma) and/or mentality (nāma-dhamma). Another term used is aṅgasambhārato, meaning that things exist as a composition of subsidiary parts. They arise from the gathering together of such parts. They are not absolute enduring ’units’ or ’entities’. There is no real ’being’, ’person’ or ’self’ over and above these components. (This definition is already stressed in point 1 above.)

  • Yathāpaccaya-pavattito: Things exist following causes and conditions. They exist as a collection of interrelated and co-dependent parts. Things do not follow a person’s desires, and no self exists, either as an internal essence or as an external agent, which resists or directs the process. (All four of the above points include this definition, especially points 3 and 4.)

To sum up, all things exist according to their own nature. In the case of conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata-dhamma), they proceed according to specific causes and conditions. If the determinant causes exist, a phenomenon originates in conformity with them. If these causes cease, the phenomenon ceases (to exist in that way). Things do not obey supplication or desire. They are not ’entities’ or ’things’ as commonly identified, and they do not belong to anyone. As explained earlier, these definitions of anattā presented here focus on conditioned phenomena, which ordinary people engage with and can learn from.

One of the major misunderstandings for people is the belief that a ’thinker’ exists apart from thinking, a ’planner’ exists apart from volition, a ’feeler’ exists apart from feelings, or an ’actor’ exists apart from actions.

This misunderstanding has trapped many great philosophers, who were therefore unable to realize the truth and be free from the enshrouding influence of self-view. René Descartes, the famous French philosopher, is an example, who after much consideration, postulated, ’I think, therefore I am.’66

The belief in a distinct self or soul is common to unenlightened beings everywhere. This belief seems true and logical through ordinary awareness, but once one thoroughly investigates the premise of self, contradictions appear. {99}

People often posed questions about the self to the Buddha, for example: ’Who makes contact (who cognizes)? Who feels? Who craves? Who clings?’ The Buddha answered that these are unsuitable questions, which stem from a false assumption; they are not consistent with reality. Appropriate questions are: ’What is the condition giving rise to contact? What is the condition giving rise to feeling? What are the conditions giving rise to craving and clinging?67

Just as thought, intention, desire, and feeling are components of a physical and mental process, so too the experience of a ’thinker’ or a ’designer’ is a component of this process. All of these components exist in an intercausal relationship. There is simply thought and an experience of a ’thinker’ (that is, a false belief in a thinker – a thinker does not exist) arising within a single dynamic.

The experience of a thinker is actually a thought pattern; it is one instant in the thought process. The erroneous belief in a thinker arises due to a person’s inability to distinguish the related parts, and to distinguish each momentary event within the continuum.

At the time of ordinary thought, there is no experience of a ’thinker’; and at the instance of experiencing a ’thinker’ there is no (other) thought. While thinking of a certain subject, one does not reflect upon a ’thinker’; and while reflecting upon a ’thinker’, one does not think about the previous subject of consideration. Thinking of a subject and experiencing a ’thinker’ (thinking of a ’thinker’) are actually different moments of thought, which exist in the same dynamic. The ’thinker’ is just a mental fabrication, which then becomes an object for further speculation during another period of time.

The fallacy mentioned above results from a lack of thorough attention (ayoniso-manasikāra) and is classified as one of the six views mentioned in the following teaching by the Buddha:

When that unenlightened being attends unwisely in this way, one of the six views arises in him:

There arises in him the [fixed] view, as true and established, that

  1. ’I have a self’ …

  2. ’I do not have a self’ …

  3. ’I know the self by way of the self’ …

  4. ’I know nonself by way of the self’ …

  5. ’I know the self by way of nonself’;

  6. or else he has some such view as this: ’It is this self of mine that dictates, feels, and experiences here and there the fruit of good and bad actions.’

M. I. 8.

It was mentioned earlier how a name assigned to a particular entity is a contrived and arbitrarily superimposed self, which, unless clung to, has no relationship to or effect on the causal dynamic. Although such a self does not truly exist, clinging to an idea of self creates problems. This is because the clinging becomes a part of the dynamic, determining other components, and affecting the dynamic as a whole.

Clinging to a sense of self is an unwholesome factor since it stems from ignorance; it contaminates other elements of the process, interfering adversely with the causal stream. {100} One effect of clinging is that it produces a conflict within the dynamic, resulting in a feeling of oppression or suffering. People who hold tightly to the conventional self as real are afflicted by this grasping.

Those who fully comprehend conventional labels, on the other hand, do not cling to the idea of a self, seeing merely a causal continuum. These people use whichever term is commonly assigned to a particular object, but they can enhance the dynamic as they please, by acting in harmony with its determining factors. They do not allow craving and clinging to oppress them, thus avoiding the consequent suffering. Such people know how to benefit from conventional labels without suffering the harm of attaching to them.

Another detrimental effect of clinging to a self is the generation of unwholesome mind states, known as ’defilements’ (kilesa). In particular, these include:

  • Taṇhā: craving; selfishness; the lust for gratification.

  • Māna: conceit; self-judgement; the yearning for personal power.

  • Diṭṭhi: the firm grasping to personal opinions; the stubborn, unyielding belief that one’s views represent the truth.

These three defilements intensify both internal and external discord. People who do not see through conventional labels cling to randomly established identities as the truth and allow these defilements to dictate their behaviour, compounding misery for themselves and others. Those who penetrate the relative truth of conventional labels, however, do not cling to them, and are freed from the influence of these defilements. They are not deceived by such thoughts as ’This belongs to me’, ’I am this way’, or ’This is who I am’. They conduct their life with wisdom. A clear understanding of conventional labels, and action in harmony with causes and conditions, is the basis from which true safety and freedom from suffering extends.

Another error that tends to entangle people is vacillation from one extreme opinion to another. Some people strictly believe in the self as real and permanent; they think that the self makes up the essence of a human being, and that it is not just a conventional entity. Each person, they say, has a real, stable, eternal self; even when a person dies the soul/self/spirit (ātman/attā) continues unchanged: the self does not disappear or disintegrate. Some believe that this soul reincarnates, while others believe that it awaits judgement from the highest God for eternal salvation or damnation. Such views fall under the category of eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi or sassata-vāda): the belief that the self or soul is real and everlasting.

Another group of people believe that such a self exists, that a person exists as a definite identity, but that this self is temporary: it disintegrates. At death, they claim, the self breaks apart and ceases. This view is called annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi or uccheda-vāda): the belief that the self or soul is impermanent; it exists temporarily and then breaks up and vanishes.

Scholars of Buddhist studies may also embrace one of these views if they lack clear understanding. Those who study the law of kamma in connection to the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) may hold an eternalist view, regarding the self as permanent. Those who misapprehend the teachings of anattā, on the other hand, may hold an annihilationist view, believing that nothing exists after death. {101}

The common point of misunderstanding for proponents of these two extremes is the belief that a being or person exists as a real, fixed entity. One party believes that this entity is constant and eternal, while the other believes that this entity breaks up and vanishes at death.

Besides these two, there is another group with an even more extreme view, believing that the absence of self means that nothing at all exists. If no one exists, then no one experiences results. Therefore, actions have no consequences, actions are insignificant, and there is no accountability regarding actions. Speaking simply, there is no kamma.

One can divide this last-named kind of belief into three categories. One faction believes that actions are meaningless, or that actions bear no fruit. This is called the doctrine of the inefficacy of action (akiriya-diṭṭhi or akiriya-vāda). Another faction believes that things occur haphazardly, by chance, without any causes. This is called the doctrine of non-causality or accidentalism (ahetuka-diṭṭhi or ahetuka-vāda). The third faction believes that absolutely nothing exists: nothing exists with any value or meaning. This is called nihilism (natthika-diṭṭhi or natthika-vāda).

Since all things exist as a causal continuum, originating from the merging of components, there is no self which either endures or disintegrates. In this very instant no ’person’ or ’self’ exists; where can one find an enduring or dissolving self? The Buddha’s teaching negates both eternalism and annihilationism.

Since the dynamics of nature consist of interrelated, causally dependent components, how can one claim that nothing exists, or that things occur haphazardly and by chance? The teaching negates the doctrines of nihilism and non-causality.

As dynamics change according to inherent causal factors, each agent within a dynamic produces an effect; none is void of effect. Moreover, results ensue without a need for a ’recipient’ of such results; results are intrinsic to the dynamic. Notionally, one can say that the dynamic itself is the recipient. These results are more certain than if a stable self were to exist as the receiver, since the self could reject unwelcome results. As the law of causality exists, how can one claim that actions are meaningless or have no results? The teaching negates the doctrine of the inefficacy of action.

The following passages from the Visuddhimagga corroborate the explanations presented above:

Truly, in this world there is only mentality and matter. Here there is no being or person to be found. This mentality and matter is empty. It is fashioned like an instrument (by conditioning factors) – just a mass of instability (dukkha) like grass and sticks. {102}

Vism. 595.

Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found. Actions exist, but no agent. Nibbāna exists, but no one who is quenched. The Path exists, but no wayfarer.

Vism. 513.

There is no doer of a deed, or one who reaps the deed’s results; phenomena alone flow on. This is right view. While kamma and fruition (vipāka) thus causally maintain their round, as seed and tree succeed in turn, no first beginning can be known. Nor in the future round of births (saṁsāra) can an absence of this cycle of kamma and fruition be discerned. Adherents of other sects, not knowing this, have failed to gain self-mastery (asayaṁvasī – they are dependent on others because of wrong view). They assume a being (satta-saññā), viewing it as eternal or annihilated. They adopt the sixty-two kinds of views, each contradicting the other. The stream of craving bears them on, the mesh of views entangles them. And as the stream thus bears them on, they are not freed from suffering. A disciple of the Buddha, with direct knowledge of this fact, penetrates this deep and subtle void conditionality.

There is no kamma in fruition, nor does fruition exist in kamma. Though they are empty of one another, no fruit exists without the act. Similarly, fire does not exist inside sunlight, a [magnifying] glass, or in cow dung [used for fuel], nor yet outside them, but is kindled by their conjunction. So neither can the fruit be found within a deed, nor without; nor does a deed still persist [in the fruit it has produced]. Kamma of its fruit is void; no fruit exists yet in an act. And still the fruit is born of kamma, dependent on kamma. For here there is no Creator God, no Creator of the round of births; phenomena alone flow on, dependent on the marriage of conditions.68

Vism. 602-3

Natural phenomena arise wholly from causes; they are subject to stress, impermanent, unstable and inconstant. All things arise from other things in mutual dependence. There is no personal or external self within this continuum.

Phenomena give rise to other phenomena by the union of causes and conditions. The Buddha taught the Dhamma for the cessation of causes. With the cessation of causes, the cycle (vaṭṭa) is broken, and revolves no more. The sublime life (brahmacariya) exists to end all suffering in this way. When no being can be found, there is neither annihilation nor eternity. {103}

VismṬ. Paññābhūminiddesavaṇṇanā, Bhavacakkakathāvaṇṇanā.

To summarize, the teaching of anattā confirms the following points:

  • It negates both the doctrines of eternalism and annihilationism.

  • It negates the belief in a supreme God who created the world and governs the destiny of human beings, i.e. theistic determinism (issaranimmita-vāda).

  • It is consistent with the teaching of kamma as defined by Buddha-Dhamma, at the same time negating the following doctrines: the claim that actions have no results (doctrine of the inefficacy of action); the doctrine of past-action determinism (pubbekatavāda), for example of the Nigaṇṭhā Order (Jainism); the doctrine of kamma involving a soul or a caste system (for example of Hinduism); the claim that things occur by chance, without causes (accidentalism); and the doctrine of nihilism.

  • It reveals the supreme state, the final goal (parama-dhamma) of Buddhism, which differs from the goal of religions that profess a soul (attavāda).


The three characteristics of anicca, dukkha and anattā are linked; they are three facets of the same truth, as is seen in the Buddha’s frequent teaching: Whatever is impermanent is dukkha; whatever is dukkha is nonself (yad’aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad’anattā). This passage is often followed by the statement: Whatever is nonself should be seen with correct wisdom, as it truly is thus: ’This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’69 The relationship is also evident in the frequent exchange of questions and answers:

’Is material form, etc., permanent or impermanent?’


’Is what is impermanent oppressive or easeful?’


’Of that which is impermanent, oppressive and of the nature to change, is it proper to consider thus: “This is mine, I am this, this is my self?” ’

E.g.: S. III. 68; quoted earlier.

A brief explanation of the relationship between the three characteristics, and of the fact that they are three aspects of the same truth, can be formulated thus: all things originate by the union of component parts. Each of these parts arises, is sustained, and disintegrates, acting in turn as a condition for the other parts, in perpetual transformation. One can refer to this composite as a ’causal continuum’, which has the following characteristics:

  1. The arising and disintegration of components; the instability of the components or of the entire process: aniccatā.

  2. The pressure on the components or on the entire dynamic by rise and decline; their being subject to alteration, and their inability to remain in an original state: dukkhatā.

  3. The absence of a fixed ’core’ that governs the collection of components, and the requirement for the components to accord with causes and conditions; the characteristic of nonself: anattatā. {104}

By observing these three characteristics simultaneously, any object conventionally referred to as a distinct entity is seen as a composite of myriad clustering constituents. These constituents are unstable, continually rising and ceasing. They split up and disperse subject to reciprocal stress and friction, resulting in transformation. They depend upon the relationship of causes and conditions, which control and give form to the particular continuum. None of the components exists as a self; they proceed in line with causality, not in compliance with desire.

Although that which is impermanent is dukkha, and that which is dukkha is nonself, the converse is not always true, that whatever is nonself must be impermanent and dukkha. All conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) are impermanent, subject to stress, and selfless, yet all things (dhamma), both conditioned things and the Unconditioned (visaṅkhāra), although nonself, need not invariably be impermanent and dukkha. Something exists which is permanent and free of dukkha. The Unconditioned (Nibbāna), although selfless, is beyond both impermanence and dukkha.

In this sense, the definitions of the three characteristics as facets of one truth apply to conditioned phenomena, following the explanation of nonself mentioned earlier. Similarly, the selfless quality of the Unconditioned should be understood in conformity with the implied definition described above.

Concealers of the Three Characteristics

Although impermanence, dukkha and selflessness are common characteristics to all things and reveal themselves constantly, people generally do not notice them. They are obscured. If one does not pay attention and investigate correctly, one does not recognize the obscuring factors. These factors include:70

  • Continuity (santati): conceals impermanence.

  • Movement (iriyāpatha): conceals dukkha.

  • Solidity (ghana): conceals nonself.

By failing to pay close attention to arising and ceasing, to birth and decay, one allows continuity (santati) to obscure the characteristic of impermanence. All things that we experience perpetually rise and pass, but such rising and ceasing occurs in a continuous and rapid way. This rapid succession deceives people into viewing things as stable and unchanging. For instance, the image of oneself or of a friend appears the same as it did shortly before, but as time passes one realizes that change has occurred. In truth, however, transformation happens incessantly, without any visible gap.

An example of this deception is when one perceives a spinning propeller as a single motionless disk. When the speed of rotation slows one sees a propeller with several moving blades. Similarly, when a person quickly waves a torch in a circular motion it appears as a circle of light. Another example is a light bulb, which is seen as a still, bright sphere, but in reality the light results from a rapidly fluctuating electric current. When one applies the proper means, paying careful attention to the rising and ceasing of things, then impermanence – aniccatā – becomes clear.

Likewise, with a lack of attention to perpetual pressure, movement (iriyāpatha) obscures the characteristic of dukkha. People normally require a span of time to notice instability, an object’s inability to maintain or be sustained in an original shape due to stress and friction within its component parts. If in the meantime the object is moved or modified, or the observer is separated from it, the pressure and tension is not obvious. Our experience of things usually occurs in the context of such movement, and so dukkha is not recognized. {72}

Take for example the human body. One need not wait until the body perishes; even in daily life stress exists within the body, preventing a person from remaining still in one particular position. If one must remain in a single posture for long, whether standing, sitting, walking, or lying down, the physical strain steadily increases to the point of pain and exhaustion, until it is unbearable. One must then move, or change posture.71

Once the pressure (a consequence of the mark of dukkha) in the body ceases, the feeling of pain (dukkha-vedanā) also ceases. (When a feeling of pain vanishes, there usually arises a feeling of ease in its place, which we call ’pleasure’. But this is simply a feeling. In reality there is just an attenuation and absence of dukkha – pressure.) Remaining for long in a single posture hurts and one hastens to shift position. Normally, people continually move to avoid a feeling of discomfort. By evading discomfort, the dukkha, a truth inherent to all conditions, is consequently overlooked.

Similarly, with a failure to separate an object into various elements, the characteristic of nonself is obscured by solidity (ghana): something existing as a lump, a mass, or an amalgamated unit. All conditioned things are created by a merging of component elements. Once the elements are separated, that integrated unit called by a specific name no longer exists. Generally, human beings do not discern this truth, it being obscured by the perception of solidity (ghana-saññā): the recognition or denotation of something as a consolidated entity.

This is consistent with the Thai folk saying: ’One sees the coat, but not the cloth; one sees the doll, but not the plastic.’ People may be deceived by the image of a coat, failing to notice the fabric with which it has been tailored. In truth, there is no coat; there are only numerous threads woven into a pattern. If the threads are unravelled the cloth no longer exists. Likewise, a child who only sees a doll is deluded by its image; the plastic, which is the real substance of the doll, is not recognized. If one discerns the truth then there is only plastic; no doll can be found. Even the plastic material originates from the successive formation of component elements. The perception of solidity obscures the characteristic of nonself in the manner shown by these simple examples. If one separates and analyzes the components, the nature of nonself becomes clear. One sees things as anattā.

Nonself and No-Self

Many statements by the Buddha in the Suttanipāta describe arahants – those who have realized the goal of the holy life – as being without attā and nirattā.72 Arahants have neither a ’self’ nor an ’absence of self’.

The Mahāniddesa defines the word attā as ’a belief in self’ (attadiṭṭhi) or ’a belief in an enduring eternal self’ (i.e. an eternalist view). It defines nirattā as an adherence to an annihilationist view. Another definition of attā is ’something grasped’, and another definition for nirattā is ’something to be relinquished’.

Therefore an arahant does not believe in a self or in an absence of self (an annihilation of self). An arahant neither clings to anything nor needs to get rid of anything.

The Mahāniddesa explains further that whoever clings must have something to relinquish, and whoever has something to relinquish must be clinging. An arahant has transcended both clinging and relinquishing.73

These explanations by the Buddha and the commentators elucidate the meaning of anattā. {105}

Generally, people firmly believe in a self. At a coarse level they view the body as the self, but upon deeper inspection, perceiving that the body cannot be the self since physical change is so obvious, they identify with the mind, or mental qualities, for example feelings, memory, intelligence, and awareness. Indeed, they cling to one of the five aggregates as self, or to a unity of body and mind, that is, to all the five aggregates. Some people are more subtle, reckoning that the body and mind cannot be the self, but that a distinct self – a real, substantial, governing self or soul – abides within or beyond the body and mind.

Some philosophers and religious leaders include a concept of self in their pursuit of the ultimate reality. Some profess to have attained or realized this truth – the Supreme Being – called by various names, for example: Paramātman, Brahmā, or God. Many of these philosophers and religious leaders are highly intelligent and skilled, referred to in the scriptures as ’excellent ascetics and brahmins’ or ’divine philosophers’, and the conditions they describe are extremely profound. But as long as these conditions still possess a fixed identity, or still pertain to a self, they are not yet the supreme, ultimate Truth, as they are still tainted by attachment.

Ultimate Truth does exist; Buddha-Dhamma is not a nihilistic doctrine. One cannot realize this truth, however, with knowledge obscured and distorted by false perceptions, and with a mind confined by grasping to them. The reason that many philosophers and religious seekers are unable to realize Ultimate Truth, although they clearly know that the self of the body-mind (five aggregates) formerly adhered to is not real, is because they still maintain two kinds of self-deception. These two deceptions, characteristic of unawakened beings, are:

  • Self-identification: The cherishing of a residual self-image maintained since the body is clung to as self. However refined this image becomes, it remains essentially the same or is of the same lineage, and is a result of misunderstanding. When such philosophers and seekers encounter and identify with an aspect of reality, they fix this image or concept on that condition, distorting the truth. Whatever is known by them is therefore not the pure, unadulterated Truth.

  • Clinging (upādāna): Ever since believing in a rudimentary idea of self, these people harbour a tendency towards attachment. Besides sustaining a misguided self-view, they relate to phenomena with attachment, which prevents them from realizing the true nature of things. {106}

In brief, these religious seekers and philosophers are not yet liberated. They are neither liberated from misconceptions nor from clinging. These two deceptions are in fact inseparable: combining them, one can say that these individuals mistakenly take an idea of self, lingering from an original attachment, and overlay it onto reality or nature. As a consequence they remain bound.

Liberation is possible only when one stops investing things with a fixed identity; phenomena then cease to exist as substantial entities, and one realizes Ultimate Truth. Buddha-Dhamma teaches that the self is a supposition, a conventional reality. Ultimate Truth is diametrically opposed to conventional truth. The self applies to conventions; when one transcends conventions, one attains the Ultimate Truth, which is free from self. Stated simply, the Truth is not self; if there is still a self, it is not the Truth. Freed from conventions, the self ceases; by letting go, the self vanishes.

The prime factors for delusion are attachment and fixed notions of self. As the self does not truly exist except on a conventional level, it is simply a belief. The self is just an idea; it is not a true unchanging entity. Attā in the above quotation from the Suttanipāta can therefore be defined in two ways, firstly as ’self’ or ’belief in self’, and secondly as ’something grasped’.

In addition, the passage mentions the pair of attā and nirattā, and explains that an arahant has neither attā nor nirattā. Nirattā can also be defined in two ways, firstly as ’(clinging to) no-self’, that is, an annihilationist view, and secondly as ’something to be relinquished’. When one abandons the misapprehension of conventions and no longer attaches to a self, the matter is finished. One has reached freedom and ease; to cling to a notion of no-self is unnecessary. The abandonment of clinging is the end: nothing else is seized. With nothing seized there is nothing to be relinquished, as confirmed by the Buddha’s words:

That which is clung to does not exist; where then is there something to relinquish?

Natthi attā kuto nirattaṃ vā.

Sn. 180; explained at Nd. I. 352-3.

Even the expression ’clinging to a self’ is strictly incorrect. Since the self is only a conventional reality, the proper expression is ’clinging to an idea of self’. Our task is to cease grasping the belief in or concept of self. The self does not need to be relinquished, because there is no self that can be possessed; how then can it be relinquished?

To believe in a self is to form a concept and superimpose it on reality. One should abandon forming such a fixed image. If one fails to do this, then although one has let go of certain conditions, one will fasten a concept or ’deposit’ of self onto something else, obscuring or distorting its true nature. Therefore, the necessary tasks are to eliminate the attachment to previous notions of self, to refrain from attaching to anything else as self, and to avoid clinging to no-self (nirattā). Then only the Truth remains, which is neither concerned with nor dependent on personal beliefs and attachments. {107}

Since the self is an idea and a conventional entity established for facilitating communication, if one fully comprehends the self, and makes use of it without clinging, then it is not destructive. Likewise, if one formerly attached to an image of self, the teachings insist on abandoning this attachment. Without attachment, the matter is finished; it is unnecessary to identify with anything else. It is unnecessary to seize anything as self or to seek a self elsewhere.

Therefore, the Buddha taught to cease clinging only to the self that has already been attached to, which means to cease clinging to the five aggregates. Once the self is no longer attached to, the question of self ends. Thereafter, it is a matter of attaining the Truth, which does exist. A self, however, has no bearing on Truth, and therefore Truth is described as anattā: nonself. Those who have realized the Truth are free from any belief in self; they no longer need to believe in self or no-self. Knowing what is non-existent as non-existent, the matter is finished; thenceforth, there is arrival at the Truth, the Unconditioned, for which a self no longer has any significance.

One harmful consequence of clinging to a self, or believing in an image of self, is that one concludes that the self is the agent, with power to control events. When the notion of self becomes most subtle, a sovereign universal Self is envisaged, as the Creator of all things. This Creator is imagined as intervening in the causal process, despite such intervention being unnecessary.

It is unnecessary because nature exists autonomously; interrelated conditioned dynamics function independently, without requiring a Creator. Therefore, rather than say that a Creator, a God, must exist as a prerequisite for the genesis of all things, it should be granted that natural phenomena themselves are the primordial reality (since natural phenomena are reciprocally created in line with causality; simply speaking, they create each other.) One need not then be troubled with questions of the past such as, ’What existed before God?’ ’Who created God?’ or ’From where does God come?’

It is neither necessary nor true to say that natural phenomena or causal dynamics require a creator God to exist. If a God were truly the creator, the result would be two overlapping systems: God and nature. The course of nature would need to wait for the creative act of God. Natural dynamics subject to divine designs would be unwieldy, however, since things must proceed in accord with interrelated causes and conditions within their own system. Acts of God would interfere and obstruct the continual causal flow of phenomena.

Moreover, as God’s temperament can vacillate, things would be affected accordingly; at one moment God would have them be one way, and in the next moment another. As a consequence, nature would have even less opportunity to follow causality, ending in great confusion and chaos. This is not, however, the way things actually are; natural dynamics occur in conformity with their conditionality.

Some people may say that nature follows laws, and that God created or established these laws. In that case the laws must be uncertain, liable to change at any time, and untrustworthy, because the ordainer of the laws would abide beyond the laws; such a Being could modify the laws as desired. These laws, however, have invariably remained constant. {108}

The existence of a Creator of the laws is unnecessary and improbable, because nature must proceed in a specific fashion. Natural conditions accord with causes and are ’just so’ (tathatā): they are not and could not be otherwise (avitthatā). The laws themselves are only descriptions, which we form by observing specific natural occurrences.

Furthermore, the absence of a creator God and the autonomy of causal dynamics resolves another dilemma. Ultimate Reality, or the Unconditioned, is absolute; it does not meddle as the Creator of phenomena or interfere with conditioned processes. (From this perspective, Nibbāna cannot be God, no matter how much some people try to equate them, unless one is willing to redefine the meaning of ’God’).74

Under ordinary circumstances, it is natural for people to believe in a self and in a Creator of the world, because things ostensibly require an agent or creator to come into being. Seeing through this false belief to underlying causality is difficult. Therefore, in former times people believed that gods were the sole causes behind lightning, winds, floods and earthquakes. It is not strange then that religious seekers and philosophers have believed in a soul and a Creator. Clever individuals have created more refined, all-embracing concepts, but essentially they have been stuck at the same point.

The Buddha’s release from self-identification (despite the probability that he would get ensnared in more refined notions of self), his revelation that the world functions without a Creator, and his discovery of the nonself and non-creative Unconditioned count as enormous advancements in human wisdom. This realization is the escape from the massive pitfall that has trapped human beings.

Despite understanding the principles of impermanence and dukkha, the great philosophers before the Buddha were hampered by the belief in a self or soul. The principle of nonself is therefore extremely difficult to see. The Buddha tended to use the characteristics of impermanence and dukkha to signal and explain anattā. The commentators recognized the need to explain selflessness by way of impermanence and dukkha, and valued this major advance in wisdom as a revelation not found before or outside Buddhism, as is illustrated by the following passages:75 {109}

The Sammāsambuddha explained the characteristic of nonself by way of impermanence, by way of dukkha, or by way of both. In this sutta, the Buddha explains the characteristic of nonself by way of impermanence thus: ’Bhikkhus, if someone were to say, ’the eye (ear, etc.) is self, this would be unsuitable [because] the rise and decline of the eye is apparent; seeing such rise and decline that person would conclude: ’My self arises and deteriorates.’ For this reason saying, ’the eye is self’, is unsuitable. Thus the eye is not-self.’

In reference to M. III. 282.

The Perfectly Enlightened Buddha explained the characteristic of nonself in this sutta by referring to dukkha thus: ’Bhikkhus, the body is not-self. If this body were self, then it would not be subject to disease (i.e. oppression – dukkha), and it would be possible to have it of the body: ’May my body be this way, may my body not be that way.’ But because the body is not-self, therefore the body is subject to disease, and it is not possible to have it of the body: ’May my body be this way, may my body not be that way.’

In reference to S. III. 66.

The Perfectly Enlightened Buddha explained the characteristic of nonself in the suttas by referring to both impermanence and dukkha, for example: ’Bhikkhus, material form is impermanent. Whatever is impermanent is dukkha. Whatever is dukkha is nonself. Whatever is nonself should be seen with perfect wisdom, as it really is, thus: ’This is not mine’, ’I am not this’, ’this is not my self’.

In reference to, e.g.: S. III. 22.

Why did the Buddha explain in this way? Because impermanence and dukkha are manifest (they are easily observed). Indeed, when a cup, bowl or other object slips from the hand and shatters, people exclaim, ’Oh, how fleeting!’ Impermanence is therefore described as apparent. When a boil or blister forms on the body, or a thorn pricks someone, he exclaims, ’Oh, how painful!’ Dukkha is thus described as apparent. Anattā, however, is not apparent, it is not conspicuous; it is difficult to comprehend, difficult to explain, and difficult to describe.

Whether Tathāgatas arise or not, the characteristics of impermanence and dukkha are apparent, but the characteristic of nonself remains hidden unless a Buddha arises; it is evident only during the time of a Buddha. Truly, the religious ascetics and wanderers with great psychic powers, like the teacher Sarabhaṅga, were able to describe impermanence and dukkha, but were unable to describe nonself. If Sarabhaṅga, for example, had been able to describe nonself to his gathered community, that assembly would have been able to realize path and fruit. Indeed, revealing the characteristic of selflessness is not within the capability of anyone other than the Omniscient Buddhas. In this sense, the characteristic of nonself is not apparent. {110}

Ego and Conceit

Confusion exists, especially in the Thai language, about certain terms pertaining to the self and an attachment to self, so it seems appropriate to add a brief explanation at this point. The terms that pose a difficulty are attā and māna.

Attā in Pali, or ātman in Sanskrit, translates as ’self’ or ’soul’. Buddha-Dhamma teaches that this self does not truly exist, but that it is assumed by people for convenient communication and mutual recognition with respect to composite forms.

The self becomes a problem when people mistakenly believe that they really possess a self or truly exist as a self, which is a result of not fully comprehending the truth or being deceived by conventional reality.

To resolve this question of self, one should be aware that the self is not a defilement; it is not something that must be relinquished. As a self does not truly exist, there is thus no self that one can abandon. The self exists only as a belief. Our responsibility is to fully understand the truth that no self exists, which is to fully comprehend conventional reality. In other words, the practice concerning the purported self consists only of abandoning the belief in and identification with self, or eliminating delusions and false notions of self.

In the previous reference to the Suttanipāta, the Buddha used the words attā and nirattā. The commentaries developed the meaning of attā in this case as ’attachment to a self’ or ’belief in a self’, with another connotation as ’something grasped’. This was paired with nirattā, defined as ’belief in no-self’ or ’belief in the annihilation of self’, with an additional connotation as ’something to be relinquished’.

The definition of attā in this case goes beyond its ordinary perimeter; it stresses a person’s view (diṭṭhi), namely, harbouring a view of a self, which is called atta-diṭṭhi or attānudiṭṭhi. This is the eternalist view of having a permanent self as core or essence. Therefore, the explanatory passages from the Mahāniddesa and Cūḷaniddesa mentioned above define attā as ’belief in self’ (atta-diṭṭhi) or eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi). As attā in this case refers to ’wrong view’, which is a defilement to be abandoned, there are Pali verses in the Suttanipāta describing the relinquishment of self, for example: One who has relinquished the self (attañjaho),76 and having relinquished the self (attaṃ pahāya).77

There exists another form of belief concerning self, which differs from holding to a view (diṭṭhi). Diṭṭhi here is the belief that one possesses or exists as a self, for example identifying with something or viewing the self as permanent. The other form of belief relating to self is an appraisal; it is belief in the comparisons of oneself to others, the self-evaluations and self-judgements, for example: ’I am this way’, ’this is just who I am’, ’I am better’, ’I am worse’, ’we are inferior’, or ’we are equal’. The specific term māna is used for such belief, which translates as conceit, pride, arrogance, or self-appraisal as better, worse or equal in comparison to others.78 Māna, like diṭṭhi, is a defilement, something that should be relinquished or removed.

In Thailand, some people currently use the word attā in the meaning of māna, for example: ’She has much attā’ and ’his attā is big’.79 {111} One should be aware that using attā in this way is simply a current custom, but is technically incorrect. The proper word to use in this context is māna, which is the principal defilement causing defiance, disagreement, boasting, competition, and even persecution.

Note also that even the belief in being equal to others is conceit and a defilement, just like considering oneself better or worse. As long as such comparisons exist, the mind is still subject to prejudice, condescension, overconfidence, and inflation. These assumptions may be inaccurate or based upon the truth, but the mind is not yet free and clear. The end of conceit occurs with knowledge of the truth; despite being aware of superiority, inferiority or equality, if the knowledge is unadulterated by clinging, then it is not conceit or defilement.

To sum up, attā and anattā are matters to be understood with wisdom. If one lacks a true understanding of phenomena, one misunderstands them and believes that a true, substantial self exists. This is the rise of wrong view (diṭṭhi). One must rectify this misunderstanding with wisdom (paññā). Our only responsibility in this respect is to develop understanding. When one truly understands that phenomena do not possess a fixed, substantial self – that only conventional labels of self exist – any doubts or problems pertaining to self cease accordingly.

Māna is a matter of the mind – of emotions. It is a negative emotion (a form of defilement), whereby the mind seeks self-importance. One exalts oneself and disparages others. The mind is blemished, in conflict, inflated, closed, or anxious. These attributes of the mind should be remedied. Our responsibility in this context is to train the mind, to abandon and dispel this conceit, to develop such traits as politeness, gentleness, and humility, and to value and respect others.

Māna is a matter connected to ethical conduct. One should abstain from conceit and arrogance and resist mental defilement. Attā, on the contrary, is a matter pertaining to the truth. It is rectified when wisdom recognizes the selfless nature of phenomena.

These two tasks, however, are essentially connected. When one discerns the characteristic of nonself and lets go of a belief in self, one abandons conceit. The wisdom inherent in this discernment frees the mind from arrogance, haughtiness, self-importance, and such self-comparisons as being better or worse than others: one is free from māna.

To quote the Buddha:

One who perceives all things as nonself arrives at the removal of pride that says ’I am’ (asmi-māna), and attains Nibbāna here and now. {112}

A. IV. 353, 358; Ud. 37.

Practical Value

From a practical point of view, the Buddhist teachings touch on impermanence more than the other characteristics, because impermanence is more apparent. The state of pressure, stress and friction – dukkhatā – is moderately difficult to observe and is therefore referred to less. The characteristic of nonself is the most subtle and difficult to see, and is referred to the least. The more obvious sign of impermanence is used as a foundation to explain the characteristics of dukkha and nonself.

The following two verses of the Buddha, which highlight impermanence, show the value of the Three Characteristics for Dhamma practice:

Indeed, all conditioned things are impermanent, prone to arise and pass away. Having arisen, they cease; their coming to rest is truest bliss.80

D. II. 199; S. II. 193; spoken by others at D. II. 157; S. I. 6, 158; Ap. 385.

Monks, all conditioned things are of a nature to decay; strive to attain the goal by diligence.81

D. II. 120

Note that the first verse describes the state in which conditioned things (saṅkhāra) are stilled, that is, it refers to Nibbāna. It describes how Nibbāna is not subject to change; it is not subject to rising and falling, to dissolution and disintegration. It is a state of true happiness. This verse (aniccā vata saṅkhārā…) is very frequently chanted and cited, to the extent that it has become an important part of the Theravada tradition. In relation to ordinary people, this verse is linked to practical application; it is defined in such a way that people can benefit from contemplating the stilling of conditioned things evident in their own lives.

The first verse thus advocates a proper relationship to the world and to life in general: the value of thoroughly comprehending that all things are compounded, unstable, and subject to change; they cannot be commanded at will, they accord with causes, and they exist ’just so’. With this knowledge a person maintains an appropriate attitude towards life and clinging ceases. Despite alteration, decay, and disappearance of cherished objects, the mind is not overwhelmed and disturbed; it remains clear, radiant and joyful on account of its innate wisdom, which leads to true peace. This verse emphasizes liberation of the heart – transcendence – which is the benefit of spiritual practice.

The second verse calls attention to virtuous conduct, which is conducive to the realization of the supreme state. This realization stems from the knowledge that all things are ephemeral and subject to stress. {113} Flux is perpetual, relentless, and inexorable. Human life especially is fleeting, uncertain and unreliable. Knowing this, one makes effort in that which should be done and refrains from that which should be avoided. One does not procrastinate or waste opportunities. One strives to rectify harmful situations, takes heed to protect oneself from further damage, and cultivates virtue by reflecting with wisdom, which accords with conditions. As a result, one fulfils one’s responsibilities and attains one’s goals. This verse emphasizes diligence and careful attention, which are mundane and practical qualities. These qualities are the benefit of proper conduct.

One should apply this second, engaged course of action to all levels of human affairs, from personal to social issues, from secular to spiritual matters, and from earning a living to seeking the enlightened truth of the Buddha. The following teachings of the Buddha highlight this quality:

Monks, considering personal wellbeing, you should accomplish it with care. Considering others’ wellbeing, you should accomplish it with care. Considering the wellbeing of both, you should accomplish it with care.

S. II. 29; A. IV. 134-5.

There is one quality, Great King, which secures dual welfare, both present (visible) welfare, and future (subtle) welfare…. This quality is heedfulness (appamāda)…. A wise person who is heedful secures dual welfare, both present and future. The steadfast one, by securing [these two] benefits, is called a sage.82

S. I. 86-7

Monks, a person of good moral conduct, perfect in moral conduct, through careful attention to his affairs, gains much wealth.83

A. III. 253

By earnest endeavour (appamāda), monks, I attained enlightenment. And you too, monks, if you put forth undeterred effort … in no long time you shall realize the goal of the holy life by way of superior wisdom in this very life.

A. I. 50.

The two benefits, derived from spiritual practice and from proper conduct, are mutually supportive. By their consummation through right training a person obtains supreme wellbeing. {114}

The Spiritual Practice Leading to Liberation

Spiritual benefit, and the practice for its fulfilment, relates directly to the highest goal of Buddha-Dhamma. It is of utmost importance, concerning the entire spectrum of Buddhist teachings. Because many details of its development require special understanding, the texts refer to it frequently and at length. Some texts, for example the Visuddhimagga, outline this development as an ordered system. Rather than describe specifics here, I will only offer a broad summary.

Those people who discern the three characteristics grow in wisdom and acquire a clearer understanding of life. In addition, they normally undergo two important transformative mental stages:

  • Stage 1: Once a person understands conditionality more clearly, and has gained an intermediate insight into impermanence, dukkha and nonself, a reaction occurs. A feeling arises unlike any feeling previously experienced. Whereas formerly the person was captivated and delighted by sense objects, having now discerned the three characteristics sentiment changes into discontentment and aversion, and sometimes into disgust. At this stage emotions are predominant over wisdom. Despite the deficiency of wisdom and the lingering of mental bias, this stage is nonetheless important and occasionally even crucial for escaping from the power of attachment and for attaining the perfection in stage 2. Conversely, by stopping at this point a person’s prejudice can be harmful.

  • Stage 2: At this stage a person has cultivated a thorough understanding of reality: wisdom has entered the stage of completion. All feelings of repulsion disappear, replaced by a feeling of equanimity. There exists neither infatuation nor disgust, neither attachment nor aversion. There remains only a lucid understanding of things as they truly are, along with a feeling of spaciousness. A person is able to act appropriately and judiciously. This level of mental development, included in the practice of insight meditation (vipassanā), is called ’equanimous knowledge of formations’ (saṅkhārupekkhā-ñāṇa). It is a necessary stage of direct realization of truth and of the complete freedom of the heart.

There are two important fruits of liberation, especially when liberation is complete (in stage 2):

  • Freedom from suffering: liberated individuals are relieved of all harm resulting from clinging. Their happiness exists independent of alluring material objects. The mind is unrestricted, joyous, fearless, and sorrowless. It is not stricken by the vacillations of worldly conditions (lokadhamma).84 {115} This feature affects ethics as well since these people do not create problems by venting unhappiness on others, which is a significant cause for social conflict. They develop spiritual qualities, notably lovingkindness and compassion, which act for the welfare of all.

  • Absence of defilement: liberated persons are free from the power of mental defilement, e.g. greed, anger, covetousness, prejudice, confusion, jealousy, and conceit. Their minds are clear, unfettered, calm, and pure. This feature has direct influence on behaviour, both individual and social. Personally, awakened individuals apply wisdom in an unadulterated way; they are not biased by aversion or selfish ambition. Externally, they do not commit offences prompted by defilement. They perform wholesome actions righteously and without hesitation since no defilements like laziness or self-centredness impede and disturb.

Nevertheless, when still not fully developed and existing in isolation (that is, when not supported by the practice of heedfulness), spiritual practice can still be harmful since the good can be a cause for unskilfulness.85 Having attained some spiritual advances and found peace and happiness, people are likely to revel in this happiness. They are likely to rest on their laurels, abandon effort, or neglect unfinished responsibilities. In short, they fall into heedlessness, as confirmed by the Buddha:

And how, Nandiya, is a noble disciple one who dwells negligently? Here, Nandiya, a noble disciple possesses firm confidence in the Buddha … the Dhamma … and the Sangha…. He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones…. Content with this firm confidence … with these virtues, he does not make further effort…. In this way, Nandiya, a noble disciple dwells negligently.

S. V. 398.

The way to avoid such harm is to integrate the second practice.

The Practice of Heedfulness

Out of habit, people generally follow two pathways while conducting their affairs. When oppressed by suffering or in crisis, people hasten to amend the situation. Sometimes they are able to solve the problem, while at other times they cannot and must face loss or ruin. Even if they succeed, they experience much distress and struggle to find a lasting solution; they may even find defeat amidst their success: ’win the battle but lose the war’. {116}

While at ease in everyday life, having attended to immediate concerns, people then become complacent, allowing the days to pass by searching for pleasure or indulging in gratification. They do not occupy themselves with avoiding future harm. Unless cornered, they postpone their responsibilities. Assaulted by affliction or danger, they hasten to find relief; having escaped, they are content to partake in their delights. This cycle continues until one day they are powerless to alter the course of events or are destroyed in their attempt to escape.

The conduct described above is referred to as pamāda, which can be variously translated as negligence, heedlessness, laxness, disregard, lack of effort, and lethargy. It tends to go hand in hand with laziness.

The opposite quality is referred to as appamāda (’diligence’; ’heedfulness’),86 which is roused and guided by mindfulness. Diligent persons are continually aware of what must be avoided and what must be pursued, and commit themselves to these tasks. They recognize the importance of time, of work, and of the slightest responsibility. They are not intoxicated or overly enthralled by life. They make every effort to avoid transgression and miss no opportunity to grow in virtue. They hasten towards their goal or towards the good without interruption, and take great care in their preparations.

There are three important attributes of heedfulness (appamāda):

  1. One recognizes the importance of every moment; one does not allow opportunities to pass by in vain; one uses time in the most valuable and beneficial way.

  2. One is not intoxicated, indulgent, reckless, or forgetful. One is constantly vigilant in order to avoid making careless mistakes or falling into corrupt or evil ways.

  3. One hastens to cultivate virtue and create wellbeing; one endeavours in one’s duties and responsibilities and one acts thoroughly; one strives to develop the mind and foster wisdom. (This factor is referred to as ’heedfulness in regard to all virtuous qualities’.)

An understanding of the Three Characteristics directly promotes diligence, because when one knows that all things are impermanent, unstable, fleeting, non-compliant, and subject to causes, then only one way of practice remains, which is to act in conformity with causes and conditions. This means that one makes effort to protect oneself from unwholesome influences, to repair damage, to preserve beneficial qualities, and to act meritoriously for further progress. This practice involves investigating causality and acting accordingly. For example, aware that all things are subject to change, one strives to act in such a way that desired salutary conditions increase and exist as long as possible, and that they give the maximum benefit to others. {117}

Upon closer examination, one sees that the real cause for, or force behind, this diligence is suffering. People’s relationship to suffering, however, affects their reaction to it, resulting in either heedlessness or care. And even careful responses vary in quality. An analysis of this dynamic will show the value of appamāda. There are three ways to respond to suffering:

  • Conduct based on the strain of suffering: some people indulge in comfort and pleasure, neglect their responsibilities, do not consider potential danger, but rather wait until danger confronts them. Faced with trouble and necessity, they hasten to remedy the situation, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

  • Conduct based on fear of suffering: some people fear suffering and difficulty, and so strive to prevent hardship. Although their attempts to establish more security are usually successful, their minds are burdened by anxiety. Besides fearing suffering, they suffer from fear, and they act prompted by this secondary source of distress.

  • Conduct based on knowledge of suffering: some people reflect with wisdom on how to manage with potential suffering. They are not intimidated by fear since they understand the nature of the three characteristics; they recognize potential danger. They investigate the dynamics of change, relying on the awareness of impermanence and the liberty and flexibility afforded by the characteristic of nonself, to choose the best way forward. In addition, they use past experience as a lesson to prevent suffering and to steer towards the greatest possible good. They are relieved of as much suffering as is in their power, to the point of being free from all mental suffering and anxiety.

The first type of behaviour is heedless; types two and three are performed with care, but type two is a caution fed by defilement and thus bound up with suffering. Type three, on the other hand, springs from wisdom, and is therefore trouble-free: no mental suffering arises. This is full and proper heedfulness, which only an arahant practises perfectly. The quality of vigilance for unawakened persons depends on their ability to apply wisdom (in line with type three), and on the reduction of stress caused by fear and anxiety (of type two).

As described above, ordinary people are not the only ones susceptible to heedlessness; persons in the initial stages of enlightenment can be careless as well. The reason for this carelessness is contentment, satisfaction, or complacency concerning exceptional qualities that they have attained. They delight in happiness and ease, and abandon their spiritual work. {118}

Another reason is that they have perceived the three characteristics; they have a profound understanding of change, they are reconciled to conditionality, and they are not troubled by decay and separation. Because of this ease and reconciliation, they stop; they show no further interest and make no effort to deal with unresolved issues. They neglect the necessary tasks for prevention or improvement, allowing problems to simply remain or even worsen.

In this case, the attainment of spiritual benefit, or of (initial) liberation, is the grounds for carelessness. These individuals act incorrectly; their practice is one-sided and incomplete, lacking the effort required to achieve the full value of heedfulness. To rectify this situation, they must be aware of both benefits, the spiritual and the practical, and bring them to completion.

Thorough knowledge of things based on an understanding of the three characteristics loosens or releases clinging to things. This non-clinging is at the heart of liberation and freedom from suffering, leading to the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

One cause for heedless behaviour is attaching to non-attachment. In proper practice, letting go occurs by itself; it is a consequence of clearly seeing things according to the truth of the Three Characteristics. Some people, however, do not yet have this lucid discernment; they have simply heard about this truth and rationalize about it, forming a half-baked understanding. Furthermore, they hold on to the idea that by grasping nothing whatsoever they will be released from suffering.

Thinking in this way, they try to prove to themselves and others that they do not attach to anything, or are free of defilement, to the extent of taking nothing seriously (see Note Indifference). The result is functional imbalance, inattentiveness, and negligence. This is attachment to non-attachment: it is a counterfeit non-attachment.


Not desiring anything is good, but one must be very careful of indifference. Acting without wishing for personal reward is praiseworthy as it demonstrates that one is not controlled by craving; but indifference can easily turn into neglect. Neglect is equivalent to heedlessness, misjudgement, and craving, which leads a person to indulge in ease and comfort. At the very least indifference indicates a lack of wholesome enthusiasm (kusala-chanda), which is the first step to all virtue.

A comparison of activities prompted by different motivations helps to highlight the activity prompted by heedfulness. Compare the four kinds of activity and inactivity:

  • Some people do not act if they receive no personal advantage or if they will lose an advantage. They act to gain or to protect an advantage.

  • Some people do not act because they attach to non-attachment: they abstain from acting to show that they are free of defilement.

  • Some people do not act because they are careless, delighting in contentment and ease. Unafflicted by suffering, or resigned to conditionality, they are complacent. {119}

  • Some people act or refrain from acting dependent on wise consideration of the circumstances. Knowing that something should be done, they act even if they gain no advantage. Knowing that something should not be done, they refrain even if by acting they would gain an advantage. When action is called for, they act immediately, without hesitation or delay.

The fourth kind is proper action performed with pure mindfulness and wisdom.

The Buddha’s guidelines for heedful action are twofold, concerning both internal and external activities. The former are the exhortations pertaining to spiritual development, to making effort towards higher states of consciousness, which is equal to attaining the spiritual benefit from the Three Characteristics or to liberation of the heart. In brief, this activity is ’personal improvement’. The latter are the teachings for daily life and interaction with the world: the urging for diligence in work, the fulfilment of responsibilities, the solution and prevention of problems, the development of virtue, and the fostering of social wellbeing. In brief, this is ’social improvement’.

The teachings of heedfulness encourage contemplation on three periods of time: the past, in order to draw lessons from past events and experiences, and to use these lessons as incentives for further effort; the present, for greater urgency in one’s activities, for not postponing, and for making the most of each moment; and the future, to reflect on potential change, both beneficial and destructive, by using wisdom to examine causality, followed by plans to prevent harm and advance the good.

Compared with the Buddha’s spiritual teachings, the practical teachings are fewer and of less detail; they are found scattered throughout the scriptures and tend to be concise. The reason for this is that human activities vary greatly according to time and place; they cannot be described with any uniformity. Therefore, the Buddha merely presented principles or examples. In contrast, the transformation of the heart pertains to all human beings: the nature of the human mind is identical for all. Furthermore, this transformation is profound and difficult to realize, and is the unique aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. He thus explained it thoroughly. {120}

Correlation Between the Practice of Liberation and the Practice of Heedfulness

The spiritual practice for liberation supports the practice of heedfulness by promoting purity of action. Liberated persons act with a pure heart, not driven by defilement. The practice for liberation also fosters a sense of joy in a person’s activities. It releases people from the stress, agitation and worry that results from actions stemming from unwholesome mind states, for example action done out of fear or competitiveness. Instead, people act with serenity and joy. In addition, when people see the value of deliverance and mental wellbeing, they perform external activities to promote a just and peaceful life. In brief, material progress goes hand in hand with spiritual development.

Heedfulness similarly complements the practice for liberation. Generally, when people are at ease they become heedless, by becoming idle and slack in their effort. People who profit materially or who solve external problems are not the only ones who become careless when they are prosperous and comfortable. Those who have reconciled themselves to impermanence, dukkha and nonself, whose hearts are at ease, also tend to become attached to happiness and cease making effort. They no longer attend to unresolved matters, and do not urge themselves to improve either personal or social circumstances. The active value of the Three Characteristics based on heedfulness prevents this stagnation and motivates these individuals to persevere.

In short, these two practices must be united for Dhamma practice to be correct. Spiritual progress then inspires virtuous and joyful action, while people’s deeds nurture further spiritual development. Proper practice is free from acting with a troubled mind and free from complacency. People act with ease, and this ease does not become an obstacle for subsequent effort. As a result, spiritual realization safeguards action and action enhances spiritual realization. In unison, perfection is reached. {121}

Spiritual qualities and active, heedful qualities both depend on wisdom, which discerns the three characteristics, leads to non-attachment, surrender, relinquishment, and liberation. The deeper the understanding, the greater is the freedom and higher the realization. For example, by accessing jhāna or gaining an insight, a person is able to perceive the impermanence, dukkha, and nonself in the bliss of these conditions, and they neither cling to the bliss nor to the attainments.

In practical affairs, wisdom rouses people to act with diligence and to make the most of each opportunity. An understanding of the law of causality prompts a person to investigate causes to solve problems at their root and to act in harmony with this law. This knowledge includes analyzing causes of past events so that one learns from them, and recognizing the necessary conditions for preventing harm and promoting wellbeing.

The two ways of practice reveal the supreme importance of the teaching on the three characteristics. The first way of practice highlights wisdom, which penetrates reality by comprehending the three characteristics. The second way of practice points to diligent action, which springs from an understanding of this teaching. Wisdom’s task is to realize the truth of the three characteristics; with this realization the heart is freed. At the same time, the three characteristics motivate a person who has some level of insight to take heed, make further effort, and avoid transgression.

An understanding of the three characteristics is the source of just action, from beginning stages of Dhamma practice to the end. Awareness of the three characteristics is the motivation for heedfulness, ingenuity, abstention from evil, and good conduct on all levels. Ultimately, a complete understanding of the three characteristics enables perfect mental freedom, which is the highest human achievement.

The worldly and the transcendent converge at the three characteristics. Liberation of the heart is a transcendent quality; heedfulness is mundane. The mutually supportive nature of these two principles demonstrates that in an honourable life the worldly and the transcendent abide in unison.

One sees the evidence of this clearly in the Buddha and the arahants. Perfectly free, they represent the human ideal; and they attain this freedom by way of heedfulness. Arahants alone are described as ’those who have perfected heedfulness’;87 they are persons who have finished their business by way of careful attention. Having attained arahantship they continue to persevere for the welfare of the monastic community (saṅgha) and of all beings. {122} One should follow the example of these awakened ones, by realizing mental freedom and acting with care.88

The practical benefits associated with the three characteristics ensure perfect moral conduct, with definite consequences. There are two things which guarantee infallible moral conduct:

  1. A mind free from longing, which does not experience clinging, craving, lust for material objects, or perverse thoughts; because one has reached deliverance, there is freedom from defilement; there is an end to selfishness.

  2. Sublime happiness, which is independent of materiality and is accessible without moral infringement.

Indeed the first quality is enough to guarantee moral impeccability. The second is merely additional confirmation.

Liberation grants these two moral guarantees. A thorough understanding of the world and an insight into the three characteristics leads to freedom of the heart. Coveting and loathing, both grounds for wrongdoing, cease. In other words, moral conduct arises automatically since no impulse exists to act immorally.

Furthermore, liberation generates a profound happiness. Awakened beings experience expansiveness and joy and some of them experience exalted states of bliss in jhāna.89 Experiencing such bliss, it is natural that they are of no mind to act dishonourably for another sort of happiness.

In any case, one must understand that the second guarantee of refined happiness alone is not yet fully dependable if it is a mundane form of happiness, for example that of jhāna, since a person who accesses these mundane states can still revert to indulgence in gross forms of happiness. To be truly secure, a person must obtain the first guarantee of non-craving; otherwise, the happiness must be transcendent, which automatically arises with the first guarantee. {123}

Stream-enterers (sotāpanna) possess these two moral guarantees; they are impeccable in moral conduct and are incapable of moral transgression. The scriptures refer to enlightened beings (ariya-puggala), from stream-enterers upwards, as ’perfect in moral conduct’.90 Therefore, if we wish for ethical standards to be firmly established in society, we must promote the realization of stream-entry; we will thereby meet with true success.

If one is unable to establish these two guarantees, one’s chances for a secure ethical society will be slim, because members of society will be contaminated by defilement and thus be predisposed to violate boundaries. In this event, systems of control and coercion must be implemented, or even excessive force be applied, which does not offer true safety or resolution.

We see the lack of success of such measures everywhere. For example, people in this day and age receive advanced education, and have learned what is good and bad, what is beneficial and harmful. But because they fall prey to greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha), they act immorally; they injure themselves (for example, by intoxication and drug abuse) and damage society (for example, by corruption, exploitation, and deforestation). Reasoned arguments and law enforcement end up having minimal effect and sometimes even appear farcical.

When people are unable to establish the two aforementioned guarantees, they generally use the following methods to protect or promote ethical standards, with varying degrees of success:

  • Intimidation by establishing rules, laws, and punishments. Due to evasion of these laws, new systems must be created for reinforcement. In addition, the system itself may be flawed, for example with corruption. As a result, the attempts to maintain ethical standards meet with ever diminishing success.

  • Intimidation with threats of occult power, for example of gods and supernatural forces. This is successful during times when people believe in these forces, but is less effective when people have the sort of scientific understanding present today. This form of intimidation includes instilling the fear of going to hell.

  • Intimidation with threats against a person’s honour and popularity, for example applying social pressure of blame and disrepute. This works for some but not for others, and is indecisive at best (this will drive some people, for example, to act in secret.)

  • Catering to desire by using a reward or compensation, either from people, gods, or occult powers, including the promise of heaven. This method is variously effective, according to time and place, and its results are uncertain.

  • An appeal to virtue and righteousness, by encouraging a sense of shame, self-respect and mindfulness. Few people possess these qualities in strength; people usually submit to desire and therefore their moral conduct is inconsistent. The protection bestowed by this motivation is especially weak in an age abounding in temptation and base values. {124}

  • An appeal to faith, by fixing the mind with strong conviction on an ideal. This is difficult to accomplish, and even when successful it is unreliable, because faith is dependent on something external. Faith is not direct knowledge and sole reliance on faith is still tainted by defilement. Occasionally, this defilement intensifies and enshrouds faith, or faith wanes and disappears on its own. (This method includes the concentrative power in preliminary stages of mind deliverance – cetovimutti.)

  • Applying the power of wholesome desire (chanda), by encouraging an interest in the development of virtue. This force is the adversary of craving, which is the agent behind immoral behaviour. If one cannot yet cultivate the heart’s liberation, one should emphasize the rousing of such desire and enthusiasm, as it is a wholesome force, is conjoined with wisdom, and supports liberation more directly than any of the other methods mentioned above.

Regardless of which impetus or motivation one uses, Dhamma practice must rely on self-restraint (saññama) to achieve moral rectitude. Therefore, to foster ethical conduct people should be trained in strict self-discipline.

Of all the motivations listed above, the summoning of virtuous qualities, faith, and enthusiasm are best, but one must remember that these forces are unable to provide definite results. A truly stable ethical society only exists when people establish the two moral guarantees: a free heart and sublime happiness, which generate moral integrity automatically.

One can use heedfulness as a measuring stick for Dhamma practice by comparing oneself to the arahants, who combine consummate liberation with perfect diligence. They integrate knowledge of the truth with pure conduct, non-attachment with earnest effort, and transcendent realization with responsible action in the world. They reveal how two apparently discordant elements can exist in harmony and be mutually supportive.

Heedfulness is the core of all righteous conduct and is the incentive behind all virtuous acts from beginning to end. As the Buddha said, heedfulness is like an elephant’s footprint, which covers the footprints of all other animals; it dictates the function of all other virtues. All virtues depend on heedfulness; regardless of all the virtues described in the scriptures, carelessness alone suppresses and invalidates them as if they did not exist. Virtues are truly effective when heedfulness is established.

For ordinary people, however, diligence tends to be weakened or interrupted due to their preoccupation with alluring sense objects. Craving causes laziness, worry, and procrastination. People’s conduct is thus continually wanting or fruitless. {125}

Conversely, the greater the heart’s liberation, the less a person indulges in delusory sense objects, and the more assiduous that person is, unimpaired by defilement. Freedom and earnest effort support one another in this way.

In addition, the principle of heedfulness is a reminder that all persons, including noble ones (ariya) in initial stages of awakening, are still vulnerable as long as they have not realized arahantship. They may become heedless by grasping the ease and contentment stemming from their attainments: their virtues induce them to err. Therefore, we must constantly remind ourselves to take care, and to promote a sense of urgency (saṁvega).

In any community there are people who succumb to heedlessness. Offering friendship and encouraging others to be prudent is one duty of a diligent person. The presence of a ’beautiful friend’ (kalyāṇamitta) is a key factor which is paired with caution as an antidote when all other virtues are defunct during a period of foolhardiness, and as an answer to the question: Having been careless, what are the alternatives to simply waiting to incur the painful consequences?

To sum up, people should take care and make earnest effort for their own and others’ benefit and development. For example:

  • Leaders of a country should make effort to establish peace and welfare, promote a healthy, just environment, and nurture people’s spiritual qualities.

  • Religious elders should propagate the Dhamma for the welfare of the many, act in consideration of later generations, and do everything in their ability to preserve the true teaching (saddhamma) for all beings everywhere.

  • Monks should perform their duties and inspire people with care; they should create a feeling of peace and safety by not undertaking practices of self-mortification, and by teaching the way to a virtuous life.

  • All persons should strive for personal wellbeing by developing self-reliance, and for others’ wellbeing by helping them gain self-reliance. One should cultivate wisdom to reach the highest boon, which leads to deliverance and a life of integrity.

Because human beings who are momentarily untroubled, live in comfort, or have reconciled themselves to an aspect of the truth ordinarily become careless, skilled teachers customarily offer friendly admonishment. They constantly seek means to encourage their followers by advising, inspiring, and even frustrating, to establish people in heedfulness. {126}

The Value of Liberation

Although the value of liberation is a component of the spiritual path, it has several distinctive features. The scriptures define the spiritual path and its companion practical teachings by referring to impermanence, since impermanence is easily noticed. Even beginning Dhamma practitioners benefit from the three characteristics by integrating the spiritual and practical teachings, as befits their level of understanding. The value of liberation, however, accompanies the meditation on nonself (anattā), cf. Note Liberation.

A person sees any kind of material form … feeling … perception … volitional formation … and consciousness, whether past, present or future … as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ’This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When a person knows and sees in this way, there exists no ‘I-making’ (ahaṅkāra), ‘my-making’ (mamaṅkāra), or underlying tendency to conceit (mānānusaya) regarding this body with its consciousness and all external signs.

M. III. 18-19.

The defilements of ahaṅkāra, mamaṅkāra and mānānusaya are also called diṭṭhi, taṇhā and māna respectively. As a group they are usually arranged as taṇhā, māna and diṭṭhi. This quote’s significance is that a person who clearly sees the nature of nonself eliminates the three defilements that are tied up in a sense of self or that create egocentricity, namely:

  • Taṇhā: selfishness; the search for self-gratification and personal gain.

  • Māna: conceit, pride and self-judgement; the desire for prominence and control over others; the pursuit of power.

  • Diṭṭhi: attachment to personal opinions; rigid conviction, credulity, and infatuation concerning theories, creeds, and ideals.


The results of inquiries into impermanence, dukkha, and selflessness are linked, so examining each of the three characteristics aids in liberation. The chief determining factor for liberation, however, is the understanding of nonself, as confirmed by the Buddha’s teaching:

The perception of impermanence should be cultivated for the removal of the conceit ’I am’ (asmimāna). For when one perceives impermanence, Meghiya, the perception of nonself is established. A person who perceives nonself [in all things] accomplishes the eradication of the conceit ’I am’, and [realizes] Nibbāna.

Ud. 37; and see A. IV. 353, 358

These three defilements are collectively called papañca or papañca-dhamma, which can be translated as ’encumbrances’. Another translation is ’agitators’: papañca produce mental proliferation and turmoil. They cause mental disquiet, excess, delay, and confusion. They lead a person to deviate from simple obvious truth. They breed new problems and interfere in the reasoned solution to existent problems; instead, they generate more complication and disorder. They dictate human behaviour, inducing unrest, disagreement, conquest, and war.

Such vices are not the only fruits; even if a person acts virtuously, a hidden catch hampers behaviour when these defilements act as the catalyst, leading people astray. {127}

Depending on the extent of wisdom, an understanding of the three characteristics, especially the quality of selflessness, weakens or destroys these self-obsessed defilements. Once these disturbing, confining, and misleading agents are absent, the path to virtuous conduct is wide open and limitless. A person can then wholeheartedly cultivate virtues, for example goodwill, compassion, benefaction (atthacariyā), and generosity.

In sum, insight into the three characteristics leads to goodness, growth, and happiness: the goodness of great virtue, the growth of diligence, and the happiness of wisdom, which brings about the heart’s release.

Happiness is the basis on which good conduct rests. The happiness meant here is primarily the happiness independent of material objects (nirāmisa-sukha); it is a happiness that does not stagnate, sour, or lead to harm.

People who have penetrated the truth of the three characteristics and whose happiness is independent of material things do not become infatuated with sensual pleasures. They do not commit ill deeds in pursuit of such pleasure. When pleasure subsides, grief does not overwhelm them; they are able to sustain mindfulness with minimal disturbance. Untroubled by anxiety, they are able to partake of all degrees of happiness fully and fluently, including enjoying the most refined forms of bliss without attachment.

Practical Benefits of the Individual Characteristics

So far the practical benefits of the Three Characteristics have been explained as a whole. Below, the benefits of each individual characteristic are outlined:


The teaching on impermanence describes the arising, maintaining, and ending of all things, extending to the smallest molecule, and embracing both mind and matter. Although people acknowledge impermanence when witnessing the alteration of an object, even this alteration may reinforce their belief in substantiality: they believe that an object’s essence was formerly of one composition, now it is of another. This misunderstanding leads people to further self-deception and entanglement. People who have gained true insight into impermanence, on the other hand, are no longer led astray. {128}

Impermanence is essentially neutral, neither good nor bad, but with human beings one can designate some forms of change as growth and some as decline. Regardless of which direction it goes, change depends on causes: whatever declines can improve or can decline further; and whatever improves can decline or can blossom further. Humans themselves are a primary factor in this growth or decline, and are able to create many supporting conditions.91

Growth and decline therefore do not occur at random but are subject to human participation according to people’s deeds (yathā-kamma). They are subject to human actions. To prosper, one should not wait for the interference by some imagined supernatural agent, nor should one passively stand by, believing that things happen on their own depending on one’s fate.

Impermanence thus offers people hope: if one wishes for something, one must foster the proper conditions. Improvement is possible, both material and spiritual; an ignorant person can become wise and an ordinary person can be awakened. Self-improvement depends on our understanding the causes for such change and then generating these causes.

As just mentioned, growth is susceptible to decline. One must take care to prevent the conditions for decline, and foster the conditions for growth. A person who has fallen into decline can rectify the situation by abandoning detrimental factors and nurturing beneficial ones. Moreover, spiritual growth can be enhanced to the point that one realizes the complete end of spiritual regression.

Here we come to the supreme quality that links the truth with human conduct: wisdom. Wisdom is necessary to differentiate between decline and true growth, to know which factors are necessary for desired change, and to develop the skills for supporting these factors.

The teaching on impermanence is thus of great import for human conduct. It offers the potential for improvement, it confirms the law of kamma, that human actions bear fruit, and it emphasizes the development of wisdom. {129}

Besides helping one to prosper in one’s worldly engagements, the teaching on impermanence prevents one from becoming a slave to the vicissitudes of life. One can live with change without being battered by worldly currents until one is powerless to help oneself, let alone help others.

People who no longer cling to various aspects of life can clearly see what is truly valuable. They do not maintain false ideas of what is beneficial that justify the kinds of gain leading to dependency and ruin. They take the fullest advantage of prosperity, both material and spiritual, and are a refuge to others.

On a basic level the understanding of impermanence helps to alleviate suffering when one is faced with misfortune, and prevents indulgence in times of success. At an advanced level it leads to a gradual realization of truth up to an understanding of nonself, resulting in the heart’s deliverance and the absence of suffering – to perfect mental health.

People tend to use the teaching of impermanence to comfort themselves in times of anguish or loss, with varying degrees of success. Such use of impermanence is effective when used appropriately, especially to alert someone to this truth who has never considered it. Habitual application of such self-solace is detrimental, however, equivalent to submitting oneself to worldly tides, or to not taking full advantage of the teaching on impermanence. Such action is incorrect in the light of the law of kamma; it contradicts the self-improvement necessary for reaching the goal of Buddha-Dhamma.

In brief, the advantages of the teaching on impermanence are comprised of two stages. First, people who comprehend this natural law are able to diminish or eliminate grief when confronted with undesirable change, and do not get carried away by desired change. Second, they diligently attend to necessary tasks, knowing that all alterations are due to causes; these changes do not occur in isolation or by chance.

Conversely, people who observe that all things are unstable and transitory and therefore see no point in getting involved, carelessly letting life drift along, betray a misapprehension and act incorrectly in relation to impermanence. Such a stance conflicts with the Buddha’s final teaching:

All conditioned things are of a nature to decay; strive diligently to reach the goal.92 {129}

D. II. 156.


To understand the benefits of the teachings on dukkha one must examine this characteristic in relation to two key teachings: the Three Characteristics and the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Given that all conditioned things exist as an aggregate of fleeting components, and are subject to birth, transmutation, and demise conforming to the law of impermanence, things are a venue for change and conflict; they are thoroughly instilled with impending rupture and decay. To sustain a desired object or to steer the flow of change in a desired direction requires energy and guidance. The more complex and numerous the components, the greater the effort and more meticulous the means required to engage with them. To influence something one must act at its underlying causes, and know the relative importance of these causes. Such wise action leads to an end of suffering. In contrast, action prompted by misguided attachment leads to oppression.

  2. According to the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, our sole responsibility (kicca) in the face of dukkha is accurate knowledge (pariññā). This correct response to suffering is essential and yet it tends to get overlooked. Buddha-Dhamma teaches not to increase our suffering but to know suffering, to deal with it skilfully, and to be free of it: to realize true happiness. In other words, the teaching on the Four Noble Truths instructs us to investigate and accurately understand personal problems before trying to solve them. Investigation of problems does not imply creating or inflicting ourselves with more; on the contrary, it is a method for eliminating problems. People who are not aware of the responsibility enjoined by the noble truths may react to suffering inappropriately and aimlessly, and may increase their suffering by viewing the world negatively.

These two dimensions of dukkha, the universal and the personal, and the skilful response enjoined by the teachings mentioned above, determine the practical value of this characteristic.

The rise and disintegration of things reveals an inherent frailty and imperfection. Passage of time amplifies this deficiency, as alterations occur within and surrounding an object. Consequentially, things must continually struggle to sustain their form or to improve. For human beings, maintaining a higher quality of life and reaching fulfilment requires constant revision and refinement. {131}

People’s impulsive resistance to the conflicts arising from change generally leads to more harm than good, irrespective of the matter involved: a material object, another person, or a community. An appreciation of proper adaptation and improvement is essential, and points again to the importance of wisdom, which engages with all things in harmony with cause and effect.

Ordinary happiness falls within the domain of the characteristic of dukkha. Such happiness is inherently flawed in the sense that it is subject to change, and therefore it is not fully satisfying. People who place their hope in this form of happiness essentially align themselves with the imperfection, or fall into the stream of change; they are thus swept in whichever direction the currents go. When disappointed, the anguish is equal to the expectation for joy. Searching for happiness in this way is tantamount to enslavement or to gambling with life. It is incumbent on us to apply mindfulness and clear comprehension while deriving pleasure from these transient forms of happiness. Despite the vacillation of worldly joys one should minimize the harmful repercussions with the resolve: ’Whatever happens, may I protect freedom of the heart.’

Happiness is of two kinds: happiness satisfying various forms of desire, and happiness of a spacious heart – a heart free from mental obstructions and free from the need for personal gratification.

The first kind of happiness can be subdivided into two kinds: happiness derived from gratifying unwholesome desire (taṇhā; ’craving’), and happiness derived from fulfilling wholesome desire (chanda). The first kind is gratification by way of the five senses, by which one focuses on deriving pleasure from people or things in a selfish way. The second kind is a fulfilment of a desire for people or things to be well and complete. This wholesome desire (chanda) prompts one to act in order to help bring about such wellness or completion. It is a vital factor for nurturing virtue and for spiritual development, leading to more profound kinds of happiness and acting as a link to the second kind of happiness (of a spacious heart). This wholesome desire, however, is often overlooked by people, as if it is concealed or hidden behind the desire of craving. It will be discussed at more length in another chapter.93

Here, the discussion is limited to sense pleasure, which the majority of people get caught up with and obsess over. Sense pleasure is almost an opposite to the second kind of happiness, which is spacious and tranquil, free from such obstructions like anxiety and stress, which bind and oppress the mind. {132}

Pleasure based on sense contact is dependent on external conditions in order to gratify desire. The disposition of the mind enthralled with this form of happiness is prevailing agitation, possessiveness, and self-obsession. When not restrained these selfish qualities cause problems. It is natural that this form of happiness dependent on material objects (sāmisa-sukha) leads in some degree to addiction and disturbance, since it results from an attempt to compensate for a feeling of lack or loss.

The second kind of happiness is independent of external sense objects; it is a self-reliant and unconditional state of mind. Its distinguishing features are:

  • Purity: uncontaminated by defilement.

  • Luminosity: accompanied by profound, immeasurable wisdom, prepared for investigation.

  • Peace: an absence of anxiety or agitation; relaxed and tranquil.

  • Freedom: free of mental obstruction; spacious, non-attached, and buoyant; full of lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative joy.

  • Fulfilment: no feelings of inadequacy or loneliness; satisfied; inherently complete; if compared to the body, akin to having good health.

The two most significant qualities of this state of mind are freedom and wisdom. Together they manifest in the mind as equanimity (upekkhā): an evenness and balance of mind, which engages with things in an unbiased way. This profound happiness (nirāmisa-sukha) is of supreme benefit to human conduct.94 It is untroubled and is instrumental in solving problems. One can say that it is beyond happiness, and is thus referred to as freedom from suffering. It signals the end of defect and insecurity.

Human beings normally seek the first form of happiness, of sense pleasure (sāmisa-sukha), but they cannot always obtain or keep desired objects at will because these things are subject to external influences and are transient. One must therefore try to establish the second kind of happiness, at least enough to live at ease in the world and to minimize suffering; one will then know how to relate to sensual happiness without causing distress for oneself and others. {133} Understanding the three characteristics engenders this supreme happiness and leads to non-attachment.

Happiness dependent on external conditions requires the interaction between two parties, for example between two persons, or a person and an object. Both parties, however, possess the characteristic of dukkha: they are impaired by inherent conflict. The friction between two such entities increases in proportion to the misguided behaviour of the persons involved.

An example is of two people, one who seeks pleasure and the other who is the object of desire. Both persons possess inherent deficiency: the former is not always equipped to partake of pleasure and the latter is not always in a state to be enjoyed. It is impossible that either always gains. If they do not realize or accept this fact, they will hold their gratification as the criterion for happiness, causing strife and irritation.

Furthermore, a person’s fixation on an object includes possessiveness and a wish to sustain the affiliation forever. This behaviour sets a person in opposition to the natural causal process. Such lack of wisdom, applying gratification as the measure for behaviour, is just foolhardy defiance, leading to the numerous expressions of suffering.

Apart from two parties interacting, additional elements often play a special participatory role, for example when two people desire the same object. Frustrated desire tends to create contention, leading to competition, arguments, and theft, all of which are symptoms of suffering. The more people attend to their problems with attachment, the more intense is the ensuing anguish. But the greater the application of wisdom the less that problems remain.

Ignorance (moha) leads to selfishness and greed (lobha); unable to acquire a desired object, a person then becomes angry (dosa). Many other vices spring from these three root defilements, for example stinginess, jealousy, mistrust, restlessness, anxiety, ill-will, and laziness, generating ever increasing internal discord. These impurities divorce people from nature’s harmony. The repercussion of such denial is a feeling of oppression and stress: nature’s penalty system. Hence, the dukkha of nature is compounded, creating more intense pain for human beings, for example: {134}

  • Feelings of tension, dullness, embarrassment, agitation, insecurity and depression.

  • Psychological disturbances and related physical illnesses.

  • Ordinary physical pain, for example the pain experienced during sickness, which is unduly exacerbated because of craving and clinging.

  • Escalated misery brought about by causing distress and discomfort for others.

  • Increased social conflicts resulting from individuals inflaming their defilements. The consequence is social decline and turmoil.

By engaging with things with ignorance, stubbornly resisting the flow of nature, and succumbing to desire, the dukkha of formations (saṅkhāra-dukkha) erupts as pain (dukkha-dukkha).

The alternative is to engage with things wisely based on an accurate understanding of truth. People with such understanding know that the dukkha that is an attribute of formations is simply a part of nature; they do not struggle and create surplus conflict. Knowing that to grasp these formations would lead to suffering, they abstain from such grasping. By accepting this truth, they do not breed defilements. They know how to live in harmony with nature by exercising virtues, which promote inner spaciousness and peace. Such virtues include: lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), appreciative joy (muditā), equanimity (upekkhā), social concord (sāmaggī), cooperation, self-sacrifice, self-restraint, patience, humility, and circumspection.

These virtues counter the many vices, for example: hatred, hostility, jealousy, dissension, greed, self-indulgence, obstinacy, arrogance, fear, mistrust, indolence, infatuation, absentmindedness, and credulity.

This harmonious and wise way of conducting our lives, of taking best advantage of nature’s laws, not forfeiting our freedom, and not clinging, is the most excellent way to live, as extolled by the Buddha:

Life with wisdom is the supreme life. {135}

Paññājīviṃ jīvitamāhu seṭṭhaṃ.

Sn. 32.


An understanding of nonself benefits conduct in these significant ways:

  • It reduces selfishness and prevents one from applying personal gain as a basis for action. Instead, not limited by a sense of self, one discerns the wider benefit of one’s actions.

    According to the selfless nature of things, an object is dependent on its causes, which steer and shape the course the object takes. For this reason this teaching emphasizes that a person should wisely relate to things in conformity with their causes and conditions, which is the most effective way to succeed in one’s aspirations and to avoid suffering.

  • Concerning ’view’ (diṭṭhi),95 this understanding broadens the mind, enabling it to manage problems without interference from selfish desires and attachments. Instead, the mind engages with an object in accord with its true nature and potential. The mind is equanimous, and complies with the sovereignty of truth (dhammādhipateyya), rather than pursuing sovereignty of self (attādhipateyya).

  • On a higher level, an understanding of selflessness is equivalent to knowing all things as they truly are; it is an ultimate understanding of truth. Such complete understanding brings about the utter removal of clinging and the realization of perfect freedom, which is the goal of Buddha-Dhamma. A lucid understanding of nonself, however, relies on an understanding of Dependent Origination, and on a practice consistent with the Eightfold Path, as will be discussed later.96

  • The teaching on the Three Characteristics verifies other Buddhist teachings, in particular the teachings on kamma and the path to deliverance. For example, because all things are void of a fixed self, an interconnected causal dynamic is possible, and therefore our actions can bear fruit. And because the self is not fixed, liberation is possible. These statements, however, must be viewed in the context of Dependent Origination, which is explained in the following chapter. {136}

Buddha’s Words on the Three Characteristics

Direct Knowledge of the Three Characteristics

Monks, when what exists, owing to what, by adhering to what, does such a view as this arise: ’This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?

When there is form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness, owing to form … consciousness, by adhering to form … consciousness, such a view as this arises: ’This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’

S. III. 203-204.

Monks, whichever ascetics and brahmins who regard the self in various, manifold ways all regard [as self] the five aggregates subject to clinging, or a certain one among them. What five?

Here, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He regards feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. This way of regarding things becomes their firm belief: ’I exist’.

S. III. 46.

Monks, physical form is impermanent. Whatever is impermanent is dukkha; whatever is dukkha is nonself. Whatever is nonself should be seen as it truly is with correct wisdom thus: ’This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ (The same for feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.)

E.g.: S. III. 22.

Monks, physical form is impermanent … oppressive (dukkha) … and nonself. So too, the causes for the arising of physical form are impermanent … oppressive … and nonself. As physical form has originated from causes that are impermanent … oppressive … and nonself, how could it be permanent, easeful, or self? (The same for feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.)

S. III. 23-24.

But Friend, a learned, noble disciple, who has seen the noble ones and is skilled and well-trained in their teaching, who has seen the worthy ones and is skilled and well-trained in their teaching, does not regard physical form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He does not regard feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness.

He understands as it truly is impermanent form as ’impermanent form’ … impermanent consciousness as ’impermanent consciousness’. He understands as it truly is stressful (dukkha) form as ’stressful form’ … stressful consciousness as ’stressful consciousness’. He understands as it truly is selfless form as ’selfless form’ … selfless consciousness as ’selfless consciousness’. He understands as it truly is conditioned form as ’conditioned form’ … conditioned consciousness as ’conditioned consciousness’. He understands as it truly is debilitating form as ’debilitating form’ … debilitating consciousness as ’debilitating consciousness’. {137}

He does not assume, grasp or determine form as ’my self’. He does not assume feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness; he does not grasp or determine it as ’my self’. Not grasped or attached to, these five aggregates of clinging lead to his long-lasting welfare and happiness.97

S. III 114-15

How, householder, is one afflicted in body and afflicted in mind? Here, an untaught ordinary person, who has not seen the noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their teaching … regards physical form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness as self, regards self as possessing form … regards form in self … regards self in form … regards self in consciousness. He lives obsessed by the notions: ’I am form’, ’my form’, ’I am feeling’, ’my feeling’, ’I am perception’, ’my perception’, ’I am volitional formations’, ’my volitional formations’, ’I am consciousness’, ’my consciousness’. As he lives obsessed by these notions, that form … consciousness of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness, there arises in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.

And how, householder, is one afflicted in body but not afflicted in mind? Here, the instructed noble disciple … does not regard physical form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness as self, regard self as possessing form … regard form in self … regard self in form … regard self in consciousness. He does not live obsessed by the notions: ’I am form’, ’my form’, ’I am feeling’, ’my feeling’, ’I am perception’, ’my perception’, ’I am volitional formations’, ’my volitional formations’, ’I am consciousness’, ’my consciousness’. As he lives unobsessed by these notions, that form … consciousness of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness, there do not arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.98

S. III. 3-5

How, monks, is there non-agitation through non-clinging? Here, an instructed noble disciple … does not regard physical form as self, self as possessing form, self in form, or form in self. That form of his changes and alters. Despite the change and alteration of form, his mind is not preoccupied with this physical change. No agitation and constellation of mental states (dhamma-samuppāda) arising from preoccupation with physical change remains overpowering his mind. {138}

Because his mind is not overpowered, he is not frightened, distressed or anxious, and through non-clinging he does not become agitated. (The same for feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.)

S. III. 17-18.

Monks, when one has understood the impermanence, alteration, fading away and cessation of physical form, and when one sees as it truly is with correct wisdom thus: ’Form, both past and present, is impermanent, dukkha and subject to change,’ then one abandons sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. By abandoning sorrow … despair, one is not agitated. Unagitated one dwells happily. A monk who dwells happily is said to be quenched in that respect (tadaṅga-nibbuta). (The same for feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.)

S. III. 43.

An untaught ordinary person reflects unwisely (ayoniso-manasikāra) thus: ’In the far-reaching past did I exist? Did I not exist? What was I? How was I? Having been what, what did I become? In the far-reaching future will I exist? Will I not exist? What will I be? How will I be? Having been what, what will I become?’ Or else he doubts about the present thus: ’Do I exist or do I not exist? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’

When he reflects unwisely in this way, one of the six views arises in him. There arises the view (belief) as true and real: ’I have a self’, ’I do not have a self’, ’I perceive the self by way of the self’, ’I perceive nonself by way of the self’, ’I perceive the self by way of nonself’. Or else he has some such view as this: ’It is this self of mine that directs, feels and experiences here and there the fruits of good and bad actions; it is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure like this forever.’ Monks, this speculative view is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the disturbance of views, the wriggling of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, aging, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

Monks, a well-taught noble disciple … understands what things are fit for reflection and what things are unfit for reflection. He does not reflect on those things unfit for reflection, and he reflects on those things fit for reflection.

What are the things unfit for reflection that he does not reflect on? They are the things such that when he reflects on them, the unarisen taints of sensual lust, becoming, and ignorance arise in him, and arisen taints increase. These are the things unfit for reflection that a noble disciple does not reflect on.

And what are the things fit for reflection that a noble disciple reflects on? They are the things such that when he reflects on them, the unarisen taints of sensual lust, becoming, and ignorance do not arise, and arisen taints are abandoned. These are the things fit for reflection that he reflects on. {139}

By not reflecting on things unfit for reflection and by reflecting on things fit for reflection, unarisen taints do not arise in him and arisen taints are abandoned.

That noble disciple reflects wisely (yoniso-manasikāra) thus: ’This is suffering … this is the cause of suffering … this is the cessation of suffering … this is the way to the cessation of suffering.’ When he reflects wisely in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: personality-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), doubt (vicikicchā), and adherence to rules and observances (sīlabbataparāmāsa).99

M. I. 7-9.

Practical Benefits of the Three Characteristics

The Ephemeral Nature of Life and the Value of Time

Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitions like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion,
So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.100

However one may consider [these five aggregates],
And carefully investigate,
They are but void and empty,
When one discerns them thoroughly.

With reference to this body
The One of Broad Wisdom101 has taught
The abandonment of three things.102

Behold the body thrown aside;
When vitality, heat, and consciousness
Depart from this physical body,
Then it lies there cast away:
A senseless thing, mere food for others.

Such is this continuum [of life],
This illusion, beguiler of fools.
These five aggregates are known as a murderer;
Here no substance can be found.

A monk with energy aroused
Should look upon the aggregates thus,
Whether by day or by night,
Comprehending, ever mindful.

He should discard all the fetters
And make a refuge for himself;
Let him fare as with head ablaze,
Aiming for the imperishable state.103

S. III. 142-3.

Monks, this lifespan of human beings is short; one must pass on to the future life. You should reflect wisely, do good, and live a pure life (brahmacariya). One born cannot avoid death; one who lives long lives a hundred years or a fraction more.

Short is the lifespan of human beings,
The good man should disdain it.
You should live like one with head aflame:
No one can avoid Death’s arrival.

Days and nights pass by;
Life is brought to a halt.
The life of mortals is exhausted
Like the water of small streams.104

Nd. I. 44, 119-20.

Life in this world is unpredictable and uncertain. Life here is difficult, short, and bound up with suffering. There are no means to help those born to avoid death. Even for one reaching old age, death prevails; such is the nature of living creatures. {140}

As ripe fruit is in constant danger of falling, so too living beings are in constant danger of death. As clay pots made by the potter end up shattered, so it is with the life of mortals. The young and the old, the foolish and the wise, all are trapped by death, all have death as their end.

When they are overcome by death, going from here to the next world, even a father cannot save his son, or a family its relatives. Look: while relatives are watching, tearful and wailing, humans are carried off one by one, like cattle being led to slaughter. The world is smitten by death and old age.

The wise do not grieve, knowing the nature of the world. You cannot know a person’s path, neither its origin nor its destination. Not seeing these ends, to grieve for him is futile. If a deluded person should gain any good by lament and self-torment, a wise person would act so too. Grief does not lead to peace of mind. On the contrary, it doubles the misery and harm.

Tormenting himself, a mourner grows thin and pale. He cannot thereby aid the departed; lamentation is of no avail. Without abandoning grief a person suffers further anguish. Mourning the departed makes him a slave to sorrow.

Look at people set to depart in conformity with their actions; all beings are terrified when trapped by Death. What people expect is always different from what actually happens; such is the nature of separation.

See the way of the world: a person may live for a hundred years or more, but in the end he is parted from his relatives, and he too forsakes life here.

Having listened to the worthy ones, dispel your grief. Seeing someone who has passed away say: ’I cannot bring him back again.’ A wise, skilled and learned person eliminates sorrow as soon as it arises, like dousing a fire, or like the wind blowing away a tuft of cotton.

A person wishing for happiness should allay bereavement, pining, and distress; he should pull out this piercing arrow. Having pulled out the arrow he is free and discovers peace of mind. He passes beyond all grief, sorrowless and quenched.105 {141}

Sn. 112-114

Once conceived in the womb at day or night, human beings go onwards without return. Despite abundant vigour, their battles against aging and death are futile. Aging and death overrun all beings; for this reason I resolve to practise the Dhamma.

Kings may defeat a fearsome fourfold army [of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry], but they are unable to defeat the Lord of Death…. Surrounded by a fourfold army, kings may escape an enemy’s clutches, but they are unable to escape from Death…. With elephants, horses, chariots, and infantry a hero may assail and destroy an enemy, but he is unable to destroy Death…. People can propitiate furious demons, spirits and ghosts, but they are unable to placate Death…. A criminal, felon or rogue may still receive the king’s clemency, but Death shows no mercy…. Not royalty or nobility, not the rich, the powerful, or the strong; Death pities no one. For this reason I resolve to practise the Dhamma….

Indeed righteousness protects the righteous; Truth when well-observed brings the reward of joy. Those who observe the Truth to a woeful state do not go. For righteousness and unrighteousness have not equal ends; unrighteousness leads to hell; righteousness leads to a happy abode.

J. IV. 494-6

Just as mountains of solid rock,
Massive, reaching to the sky,
Might draw together from all sides,
Crushing all in the four quarters –

So aging and death come
Overwhelming living beings.
Kings, brahmins, peasants, servants,
Outcastes and scavengers:

Aging and death spare none along the way,
Crushing everything.
No battlefield exists there for elephants,
For chariots and infantry.

One cannot defeat them by incantations
Or bribe them with wealth.
Therefore let a wise person, out of regard for his own welfare,
Establish faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

When one conducts oneself righteously with body, speech and mind, one is praised here in the present life, and after death one rejoices in heaven. {142}

S. I. 102.

The world is smitten by Death and besieged by old age; the world is pierced by the arrow of craving, constantly seething with desire.

The world is mauled by Death and engulfed by old age; it is defenceless and relentlessly beaten like a thief receiving punishment.

Death, disease and old age pursue us like three huge fires; no power exists to withstand them, no speed to run away.

Do not let the days pass in vain – accomplish something, great or little.

With the passing of each day and night, life’s opportunities dwindle.

Your last moment approaches: whether walking, standing, sitting or lying, there is no time for you to be negligent.106

Thag. 447-52.

I see your young sons crying ’Mommy, Daddy’; they are adorable and hard to come by. Alas, even before reaching old age they succumb to death. I see your young daughters, maidens lovely to behold; but their life ends like an uprooted tender bamboo.

Truly, both men and women though of youthful age can die; who is assured of life, saying, ’I am still young?’ The days and nights pass by; life’s duration constantly shrinks, like the time remaining for a school of fish in an evaporating pond. What reassurance is youth?

The world is smitten by Death and besieged by old age; the days do not pass in vain…. Just as thread is used up by weavers, so too is the life of human beings. Just as a brimming river does not return to the heights, so too human beings do not return to youth. Just as a swollen river sweeps away the trees along its banks, so too old age and death sweep away all living beings…. Just as ripe fruit is in constant danger of falling, so too living beings are in constant danger of death.

In the morning we see many people; by evening some are no longer in sight. In the evening we see many people; by morning some are no longer in sight. We should hasten to make effort today; who knows if we shall die tomorrow? For there is no postponing Death and his hordes.

J. VI. 25-8.

My son discarded his body as a snake casts off old skin; no use for his body, he passed away…. From another world he came unsummoned; departing this world I gave not my leave. As he came so he went; what good is there in grieving his departure? If I keen my body will waste away; what benefit is there in this? My friends and relatives would anguish even more…. {143}

As children cry in vain to grasp the moon above, so people idly mourn the loss of those they love. Those dead and cremated feel not their relatives’ lament. Therefore, I do not grieve; he fares the way he had to tread.

J. III. 164-6.

Rather than mourn the deceased we should mourn for ourselves, who are constantly under Death’s dominion. As people stand, sit, lie or walk, life’s constituents are not remiss; our years wear away in each blinking of the eye.

Alas, as our lives expire so, we must face separation. We should have pity on those beings remaining rather than mourn for those who have passed away.

J. III. 95.

Monks, there are these five states not obtainable by ascetic, brahmin, god, Māra or Brahma, nor by anyone in the world. What five? The fulfilment of these requests: ’May what is subject to aging not age’, ’may what is subject to sickness not sicken’, ’may the mortal not die’, ’may the transient not end’, and ’may the unstable not be destroyed’.

For an untaught ordinary person, something subject to aging ages, something subject to sickness sickens, something mortal dies, something transient ends, and something unstable is destroyed. [When this happens] that ordinary person … does not reflect thus: ’Not to me only … [does this happen], but as long as beings come and go, arise and pass away, to all, that which is subject to aging ages … that which is unstable is destroyed. When that which is subject to aging ages … that which is unstable is destroyed, if I grieve, pine, lament, beat my breast, wail and anguish, food would have no appeal, the body would languish, affairs would be neglected, enemies would rejoice, while friends would be distraught’…. [When those conditions come about] he grieves, pines, laments and wails. This person is called an untaught ordinary person; pierced by the poisoned dart of sorrow, he torments himself.

To the learned, noble disciple also, that which is prone to aging ages … that which is unstable is destroyed. {144} [When this happens] that noble disciple … reflects thus: ’Not to me only … [does this happen], but as long as beings come and go, arise and pass away, to all, that which is subject to aging ages … that which is unstable is destroyed. When that which is subject to aging ages … that which is unstable is destroyed, if I grieve, pine, lament, beat my breast, wail and anguish, food would have no appeal, the body would languish, affairs would be neglected, enemies would rejoice, while friends would be distraught’…. [When those conditions come about] he does not grieve, pine, lament or wail. This person is called a learned, noble disciple; drawn out is the poisoned dart of sorrow with which the untaught ordinary person torments himself. This noble disciple, having extinguished the fires of anguish, is sorrowless, dart-free and quenched.

Neither grief nor lamentation offers any gain;
And enemies rejoice to see our grief and pain.
But the sage, skilled in discrimination,
Does not tremble in the face of misfortune.

Seeing the sage’s face unchanged and as before,
Rather his enemies are pained.
Wherever and however one gains the good,
By discourse, consultation, or well-worded speech,
By gifts or by customs rightly kept,
Make effort here with just these means.

And if one knows that a desired end is out of reach,
Both for oneself and for others,
One should not grieve, but rather halt
And with firm resolve inquire:
’How shall I now proceed.’

A. III. 54-6, 60-62; the final verses are also found at J. III. 204.

Dying we go alone; born we arrive alone; associations amongst beings are mere encounters. Therefore a sage, erudite, perceiving both this world and the next, and fully comprehending Truth, is not anguished even by the severest woe.

’I will bestow honour and wealth to the worthy, and support spouse, relatives and fellow citizens’; this is the duty of a wise person.

J. IV. 127.

’Here I will live in the rainy season, here in the winter and the summer’; unaware of danger, so muses the fool. Preoccupied with children and livestock, attached to possessions, Death carries him away as a great flood sweeps away a slumbering village. {145}

When one is overcome by Death, neither children, nor parents, nor friends can offer protection; family provides no refuge. Realizing the significance of this, let the wise and virtuous person swiftly clear the path leading to Nibbāna.

Dh. verses 286-9.

Short indeed is this life; a person dies within a hundred years, and even if one exceeds that one surely perishes from old age. People grieve for things they attach to as ’mine’, but no cherished possession lasts forever. A person seeing this inevitable separation should live the homeless life. Whatever one conceives of as ’mine’ one must relinquish at death. Knowing this let a wise person devoted to the Buddha shy away from possessiveness.

Just as a waking person does not see what he met in a dream, likewise one does not meet loved ones when they are dead and gone. Here, one sees and hears of specific people, but when they have passed away one is left only reciting their names.

A person greedy for possessions cannot renounce grief, lamentation, and stinginess. Hence the sage discerning true safety abandons guarded possessions and wanders forth.

The wise declare that he who escapes the cycle of births107 is a suitable companion for a monk cultivating seclusion and dwelling in solitude.108 Free from attachment, a sage creates no objects of lust or loathing.

Sorrow and selfishness do not stain the sage, as water does not permeate a lotus leaf. Just as water does not adhere to a lotus leaf, as a lotus is not tainted by water, a sage does not cling to what is seen, heard or perceived.

A wise person does not give undue import to what is seen, heard or perceived, nor does he wish for purity by other means.109 He is neither impassioned nor disaffected.110

Sn. 158-160.

At times wealth parts from its owner; at other times, a person departs from his wealth. See here, you pursuer of pleasure: mortals do not live forever. Therefore, I do not grieve whilst others are grieving.

The full moon rises and then wanes; the sun illumines the earth and sets. I see through worldly vicissitudes; therefore, I do not grieve whilst others are grieving. {146}

J. III. 154; Nd. I. 124.

Pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute,
Gain and loss, praise and blame:
For human beings these things are transient,
Inconstant and bound to change.

One mindful and wise discerns them well,
Observant of their alterations.
Pleasant things do not stir his mind
And those unpleasant do not annoy.

All partiality and enmity is dispelled,
Eliminated and abolished.
Aware now of the stainless, griefless state,
He fully knows, having gone beyond. A. IV. 157.

The physical form of mortals decays, Their name and ancestry do not decay.

S. I. 43.

Time all beings devours, and consumes itself as well.

J. II. 260.

Life undergoes destruction night and day.

S. I. 38, 43.

Time flies by, the days swiftly pass; the stages of life successively end.

Seeing clearly this danger in death, a seeker of peace should release the world’s bait.

S. I. 63.

Nowhere have I committed any evil; Therefore, I fear not impending death.

J. VI. 312.

Firmly grounded in the Dhamma, One need not fear the other world.

S. I. 43.

Now, Ānanda … at that time I was King Mahāsudassana. Those eighty-four thousand cities of which Kusāvatī was the chief were mine, those eighty-four thousand palaces of which the Truth-Palace was the chief were mine … those eighty-four thousand carriages adorned with gold ornaments, gold banners and spread with gold nets of which Vejayanta was the chief were mine…. And of those eighty-four thousand cities I dwelt in just one, Kusāvatī; of those eighty-four thousand palaces I dwelt in just one, the Truth-Palace … and of those eighty-four thousand carriages I rode in only one, Vejayanta…. See, Ānanda, how all those conditions are past; they have vanished and changed. Thus, Ānanda, conditioned states are impermanent; they are unstable and can bring us neither satisfaction nor security. This alone is enough for us to grow weary of conditioned states, to detach from them, and to be liberated from them….

’Indeed, all conditioned things are impermanent, prone to arise and pass away. Having arisen, they cease; their coming to rest is truest bliss.’ {147}

D. II. 196-9.

My city is called Kapilavatthu; my father is King Suddhodana; my mother who bore me is called Māyādevī. I was a householder for twenty-nine years; I had three magnificent palaces: Sucanda, Kokanuda and Koñca, with forty thousand beautifully adorned royal concubines. My wife’s name is Yasodharā and my son’s name is Rāhula. Having seen the four signs, I left the household life behind; for six years I strove and undertook austerities. I proclaimed the Wheel of Dhamma in the deer-park of Isipatana at Bārāṇasī. I am the enlightened Buddha named Gotama, the refuge for all beings…. My lifespan in this era is a mere one hundred years. Despite living so briefly, I have aided many people in crossing beyond the round of rebirth, and have set up the Torch of Righteousness to awaken future generations. Soon, I along with my disciples will attain parinibbāna,111 like a fire is extinguished for lack of fuel. This abode of the body possessed of superior qualities, graced with the thirty-two characteristics and peerless splendour, along with the perfections, the ten powers, and the six-hued aura illuminating as the sun the ten directions, all this will completely disappear. Indeed, all conditioned things are without essence, they are empty.

Bv. 97-8.

The young and the old, the foolish and the wise, the wealthy and the poor, all are destined for death. As a potter’s vessels, both small and large, both fired and unfired, end up shattered, so too the lives of all beings end in death.

Ripe I am in years. Only a little of my life remains. Now I depart from you; I have made myself my own refuge.

Monks, be vigilant, mindful and of pure virtue; compose your thoughts, and guard your mind. In this Doctrine and Discipline, a person who abides diligently escapes the round of rebirth and makes an end of misery.

D. II. 120-21.

Nowadays, O monks, speaking truthfully one should say: ’Short is the life of human beings, limited and brief; it is fraught with pain and tribulation. Reflect wisely, do good, and lead the sublime life (brahmacariya); for none who is born is immortal.’ Today one who lives long lives for a hundred years or a little more. And when living for a hundred years, it is just for three hundred seasons…. When living for three hundred seasons, it is just for twelve hundred months…. When living for twelve hundred months, it is just for twenty-four hundred fortnights…. And when living for twenty-four hundred fortnights, it is just for 36,000 days…. And when living for 36,000 days, a person eats just 72,000 meals: 24,000 meals in winter, 24,000 in summer and 24,000 in the rains. And this includes the drinking of mother’s milk and the times without food. {148}

These are the times without food: when resentful, troubled, or ill, when observing a fast, and when not finding anything to eat. Thus, O monks, I have reckoned the life of a centenarian: the limit of his lifespan, the number of seasons, of years, months and fortnights, of days and nights, of his meals and foodless times. Whatever should be done by a compassionate teacher, who out of goodwill seeks the welfare of his disciples, that I have done for you. These are the roots of trees, O monks, these are empty huts. Meditate, monks, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later. This is my instruction to you.

A. IV. 138-40.

Monks, considering personal wellbeing, you should accomplish it with care. Considering others’ wellbeing, you should accomplish it with care. Considering the wellbeing of both, you should accomplish it with care.

S. II. 29; A. IV. 134-5 (quoted previously).

Developing a Sense of Urgency and Preparing for the Future

Heedfulness is the path to the deathless,
heedlessness is the path to death.
The heedful do not die;
the heedless are as if already dead….
An earnest, attentive person obtains abundant bliss.

Dh. verses 21 and 27.

Therefore, with the remainder of your lives,
Carefully attend to your duties. Sn. 131.

One who has gone forth should reflect repeatedly: ’The days and nights are relentlessly passing, how am I spending my time?’

A. V. 88.

Do not let the opportunity pass you by….
With perseverance and knowledge remove the piercing arrow.

Sn. 58.

You should promptly do the deed you know leads to your own wellbeing.

S. I. 57.

The lazy, lethargic slacker who, although still young and strong,
Does not devote himself to timely tasks and wallows in heedless fantasies finds not the path to wisdom. {149}

Dh. verse 280.

A person of little learning grows old like an ox; his muscles develop but his wisdom does not.

Dh. verse 152.

They who have not led a pure life,
Who in youth have not acquired wealth,
Sit dejected like old herons
At a pond void of fish.
They who have not led a pure life,
Who in youth have not acquired wealth,
Lie bemoaning the past
Like spent, wasted arrows.

Dh. verses 155-6.

All profit is founded on two things:
Obtaining the unacquired and protecting the acquired.112

J. V. 116.

Whatsoever families, Monks, attain great wealth and last a long time, all of them do so because of these four reasons or one or other of them, namely, they seek for what is lost, repair the worn, consume in moderation, and put in authority a virtuous woman or man.

A. II. 249.

Heedfulness is the path to the deathless, heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful do not die; the heedless are as if already dead.

Indulgence leads to heedlessness, heedlessness to degeneracy, and degeneracy to calamity. You with the responsibility to rule the nation, do not be heedless!

Many reckless rulers have lost both their good fortune and their state. Likewise, reckless householders lose their homes, and reckless homeless ones their renunciant life.

When a nation’s ruler throws caution to the wind, the nation’s wealth is utterly destroyed; such is a king’s misfortune. Carelessness is the enemy of Truth.

Through a ruler’s excessive negligence, thieves destroy a rich, prosperous country; descendants, gold, and treasure are all lost; once plundered, a country’s wealth is no more.

Despite being king, when all wealth is lost, friends and relatives do not respect your judgement; your dependants – mahouts, knights, charioteers, and foot-soldiers – do not respect your judgement.

The glory of a witless, misguided leader wanes, like a worn-out snake-skin. But a diligent, industrious leader, who manages affairs well and in a timely fashion, grows in riches, as a bull enhances the fortunes of his herd.

Therefore, O King, journey and inspect the countryside, and having completed your inspection perform your royal duties. {150}

J. V. 99-100; also in part at J. V. 112-13.

Let a wise person in hope stand fast and not be discouraged.
Myself, I see clearly the fulfilment of all my desires.

E.g.: J. I. 267; J. IV. 269; J. VI. 43.

I have realized, Monks, [the value of] two things: not to be content with good states of mind so far achieved, and to be unremitting in the struggle for the goal…. Through diligence have I won enlightenment, through diligence have I won the unsurpassed security from bondage.

A. I. 50.

Do not rest content merely by keeping precepts and observances, nor by great learning, nor by deep concentration, nor by a secluded life, nor even by thinking: ’I enjoy the bliss of renunciation not experienced by an ordinary person.’ O Monks, you should not rest content until reaching the utter destruction of the taints.113

Dh. verses 271-2.

Carry out your responsibilities in preparation for the future;
Let not those tasks oppress you when they no longer can be postponed.

J. IV. 166.

Fear that which ought to be feared; protect yourself from potential danger.
A wise person inspects this world and the next considering future danger.

J. III. 35, 399.

Monks, recognizing these five future dangers (i.e. the possibility of old age, illness, famine, social unrest, and a schism in the sangha), you should be earnest, ardent and resolute to attain the unattained, master the unmastered, and realize the unrealized.

A. III. 102-105.

Monks, these five future dangers (i.e. there will be monks untrained in body, virtue, mind, and wisdom, who will act as preceptors for higher ordination, act as mentors, recite discourses on the Abhidhamma and Catechism, who will not listen attentively to the Buddha’s sermons, and who will be elders living laxly and luxuriously), which have not yet arisen, will arise in the future. Be aware of these dangers; being aware, endeavour to prevent them.

A. III. 105-108.

Monks, these five future dangers (i.e. there will be monks who long for fine robes, rich food, and pleasant lodgings and will seek these by violating the discipline; there will be monks who overly associate with nuns and female novices, and who will overly associate with lay stewards and male novices), which have not yet arisen, will arise in the future. Be aware of these dangers; being aware, endeavour to prevent them. {151}

A. III. 108-110.

Here Sāriputta, the Lords Kakusandha, Konāgamana and Kassapa were diligent in teaching the Dhamma in detail to their disciples, and they had many discourses in prose, in prose and verse … and catechetical discourses. They prescribed the training rules for their disciples, and laid down the Pāṭimokkha.114 When these Buddhas, these Blessed Ones, and their awakened disciples passed away, disciples of later generations of various names, families and clans went forth and preserved the teaching for a very long time.

It is as if various flowers, loose on a plank of wood, well tied together by a thread, are not scattered and dispersed by a gust of wind. This is because they are well tied together by the thread…. It is for this reason that the teaching of the Lords Kakusandha, Konāgamana and Kassapa lasted long.

Vin. III. 8.

And then the Venerable Sāriputta addressed the monks and said: ’Friends, this Dhamma has been well-proclaimed and well-imparted by our Lord the Perfectly Enlightened One; it leads to salvation and is conducive to peace. All of us should therefore convene and recite this teaching without disagreement, so that this dispensation (brahmacariya) may be enduring and established for a long time, thus to be for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and humans.’

D. III. 210-11.

Then the Venerable Kassapa the Great addressed the monks, saying: ’Come your reverences, let us recite the Dhamma and Discipline before what is not Dhamma shines out and the Dhamma is eclipsed, before what is not Discipline shines out and Discipline is eclipsed, before those who speak what is not Dhamma become strong and those who speak Dhamma weaken, before those who speak what is not Discipline become strong and those who speak Discipline weaken.’

Vin. II. 283-4.

Ānanda, as long as the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies … as long as the Vajjians meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline….

Monks, as long as the monks hold regular and frequent assemblies … as long as they meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline….

Monks, as long as the monks continue with faith, with modesty, with fear of wrongdoing, with much learning (bahussuta), with energetic resolve, with established mindfulness, and with wisdom, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. (See Note Impermanence and Attendance to Duties)

D. II. 73-9.

Impermanence and Attendance to Duties

In regard to spiritual development the Buddha urged his disciples to reflect that all things are impermanent and subject to decay; this passage, however, instructs that careful attendance to one’s (proper) duties results exclusively in prosperity, not decline.

One should study these two injunctions well for a correct understanding and to avoid misguided Dhamma practice. Furthermore, one should be aware that heedfulness for self-improvement and self-development, which is a personal matter, must go hand in hand with heedfulness in respect to social responsibility.

Appendix 1: Abhidhamma Classification of Natural Laws

The Abhidhamma commentaries divide niyāma, natural laws, into five kinds:

  1. Utu-niyāma (physical laws): laws concerning human beings’ external environment, e.g. laws governing temperature, weather, and seasons.

  2. Bīja-niyāma (genetic laws): laws concerning reproduction, including heredity.

  3. Citta-niyāma (psychic laws): laws concerning mental activities.

  4. Kamma-niyāma (kammic laws): laws concerning intention and human behaviour, i.e. the law of actions (kamma) and their results.

  5. Dhamma-niyāma: general laws of nature, especially those of cause and effect; laws concerning the interrelationship of all things.115

DA. II. 432; DhsA. 272.

Appendix 2: Commentarial Explanation of Designations (Paññatti)

The Vimativinodanī Ṭīkā (Samuṭṭhānasīsavaṇṇanā) explains the verse at Vin. VI. (Parivāra) 86 as follows:

Since designations (paññatti), for example the label ’person’, are conventional truths – they are contrived and ultimately do not exist – they are not characterized by impermanence and dukkha, as such characteristics imply rise and decay. They should, however, be characterized as nonself, because they are void of any substance that exists, for example as agent or recipient. Therefore, designations are explained as nonself, along with Nibbāna, which does exist, because they are both unconditioned (asaṅkhata) … they do not arise from conditioning factors. Nibbāna is unconditioned and does exist; designations are unconditioned and do not ultimately exist. Hence, there exists the one, true Unconditioned – Nibbāna – but both Nibbāna and designations are selfless.

Appendix 3: Various Forms of Suffering

Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vajirañāṇavarorasa, in the Dhammavicāraṇa (Mahāmakuta University Press, 1958), pp 14-19, lists various kinds of dukkha, from different sources, into ten groups.116 Some of the groups are given new names by the author. They are as follows:

  1. Sabhāva-dukkha: dukkha inherent in conditioned phenomena, i.e. birth, aging and death;

  2. Pakiṇṇaka-dukkha or dukkha-cara: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (including association with the disagreeable, separation from the loved, and non-acquisition of the desired);

  3. Nibaddha-dukkha: continual or resident suffering, i.e. cold, heat, hunger, thirst, and the need to defecate and urinate;

  4. Byādhi-dukkha (illness) or dukkha-vedanā (pain);

  5. Santāpa-dukkha: the burning and agitation of the heart due to the ’fires’ of defilement;

  6. Vipāka-dukkha: the afflictive fruits of actions, i.e. remorse, punishment, and the fall into states of perdition;

  7. Sahagata-dukkha: concomitant suffering; the suffering accompanying mundane, agreeable conditions, e.g. the suffering of needing to protect material possessions;

  8. Āhārapariyeṭṭhi-dukkha: the suffering of seeking food; the same as ājīva-dukkha – the suffering resulting from making a living;

  9. Vivādamūlaka-dukkha: suffering caused by disputes, e.g. fear of losing an argument or a lawsuit;

  10. Dukkha-khandha: the entirety of suffering, i.e. the five aggregates as objects of clinging are suffering.

Appendix 4: God

The meanings of the words Phra Jao (Thai for ’God’, literally ’Excellent Lord’) and the English ’God’ are vague. Phra Jao was originally a word used by Buddhists as an epithet for the Buddha (Phra Phu Pen Jao – ’Venerable Lord’ – is still a form of address to monks).

Once Christians adopted this term to refer to their God, Buddhists abandoned it until they forgot the original meaning. As for the word ’God’, Christians use this term to denote the Supreme Divinity, who they believe created the world and is characterized as a Being.

Some philosophers, however, broaden the meaning of God to be an abstract quality, not necessarily involved with the world’s creation. Some contemporary Christian theologians define God in a similar way, i.e. not as a Being, but Christian establishments reject these definitions (or outright condemn them).

When Hans Küng (in ’Does God Exist? An Answer for Today’, trans. Edward Quinn. London: Collins, 1980, pp. 594-602) tried to compare God with Nibbāna, he realized the difference, as Nibbāna is not involved in the creation of the world.


For the Abhidhamma classification of natural laws see Appendix 1.


Trans.: the Buddha.


Also known as ’signs’ or ’marks’.


Trans: tathāgata: a Buddha; here used in the plural.


Trans: the word dukkha is notoriously difficult to translate. The most common translations include: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress, pain, and misery. Many misunderstandings have arisen by translating the second characteristic as: ’everything is suffering’ or ’life is suffering’. For the different contexts in which the term dukkha is used, see below. Please note that when I use the terms ’stressful’ and ’under stress’ in this context I am referring to the pressure and tension inherent in all things.


Trans: note that I have translated anattā as ’nonself’, ’not-self’, or ’selfless’, according to the context. The Pali attā (Sanskrit ātman) is most often translated as ’self’ or ’soul’; I have used both, again according to the context. The words ’selfless’ and ’selflessness’ here should not be confused with the standard English definition of being altruistic. The author here has used the English translation ’soullessness’.


That is, all conditioned things (saṅkhāra) are universally impermanent and unenduring; all things (dhamma), both conditioned things and the Unconditioned, are universally not-self.


On the five aggregates (khandha) see Chapter 1. The five aggregates constitute all worldly things, and as a group they are synonymous with saṅkhāra – conditioned phenomena – of the Three Characteristics.


Trans: here, dukkha is contrasted with sukha, which is usually translated as happiness or pleasure. The term sukha has other definitions, including: ’fluent’, ’smooth’, ’convenient’, ’easy’, and ’easeful’. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this passage as: ’Is that which is impermanent painful or pleasant?’ See Chapter 11 on Happiness.


Sanskrit: nirvāṇa.


Trans: when referring to saṅkhāra of the Three Characteristics, I use the term ’conditioned phenomena’ or the simpler ’formations’.


Trans.: Sanskrit: dharma. The word dhamma has many definitions; the most common are: Ultimate Truth, teaching, doctrine, nature, law, phenomenon, and thing.


See, e.g.: Dhs 2, 193, 244; DhA. III. 128. (One manner of defining saṅkhata-dhamma in the Abhidhamma, as in this reference, is as follows: wholesomeness in the four planes (bhūmi); all unwholesomeness; results (vipāka) in the four planes; neutral actions (kiriyā-abyākata) in the three planes; and all materiality.)


A. I. 152.


Substantiating passages from the commentaries include: The Deathless is void of self (attasuññamatapadaṃ; Vism. 513); and: Indeed, Nibbāna is empty of self because it is without self (nibbānadhammo attasseva abhāvato attasuñño; PsA. III. 638-39). For the commentarial analysis of this verse see Appendix 2.


Trans.: of course this is also true in English.


Trans.: the discipline, particularly the monastic discipline.


Trans.: collection of discourses.


Trans.: in Hinduism yoga (to ’yoke’ or ’join’) refers to the union of the individual soul with the Supreme Spirit.


The Abhidhamma divides saṅkhāra into fifty kinds, comprising fifty of the fifty-two mental concomitants (cetasika).


Ps. I. 37; referred to at Vism. 610.


Vism. 611.


Alternatively, ’it has appeared and then disappears’ (e.g.: Vism. 628).


Alternatively, ’it has existed and then ceases to exist’ (Vism. 640).


Vism. 618; MA. II. 113; VbhA. 48; The VismṬ. Maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā, Rūpasattakasammasanakathāvaṇṇanā states that these four definitions refer only to material phenomena, but the Vibhaṅga Aṭṭhakathā shows that they can be used in regard to all conditioned phenomena. See also: VinṬ. Mahākhandhakaṃ, Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā.


Ps1. 37; referred to at Vism. 610.


Vism. 628.


Vism. 611.


VismṬ. Maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā, Cattārīsākāra-anupassanakathāvaṇṇanā.[Trans.: in the first two editions of Buddhadhamma, I translated dukkha in the context of the three characteristics as ‘subject to pressure’. Having done more research on the terminology used in the field of physics, it seems more accurate to say: ‘subject to stress’. I have therefore replaced the former translation with the latter throughout this third edition.]


Vism. 611.


E.g.: Vism. 502.


Vism. 618; MA. II. 113 (in this reference the first definition is santāpa – see below); VbhA. 48.


The literal translation ’hard to endure’ appears to refer to feelings (dukkha-vedanā), for example pain or suffering, which can be defined as ’something that is hard for humans to endure’. Actually, this Pali idiom meaning non-durable or unsustainable is a characteristic of all formations, as explained above.


The commentaries and sub-commentaries describe an object marked by dukkha as a basis for the 3 dukkhatā (see below) and for saṁsāra-dukkha; e.g. VinṬ. Mahākhandhakaṃ, Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā; VismṬ. Maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā (Cattārīsākāra-anupassanakathāvaṇṇanā and Rūpasattakasammasanakathāvaṇṇanā).


Ps. I. 19; Ps. II. 104; referred to at Vism. 494; VbhA. 83. MA. II. 113 classifies santāpa as the first of the four meanings above.


Trans: definition 1 of dukkha and definition 2 of impermanence above, respectively.


This is the author’s definition; for the commentarial and sub-commentarial explanation see: PsA. I. 100, 102; VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Saccavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā.


See item four above: sukhapaṭikkhepato.


Trans.: upādāna-khandha, the five groups of clinging, are identical to the five aggregates (khandha) mentioned earlier, but this term highlights the aggregates as the objects identified with and clung to by human beings, and which consequently give rise to suffering. See chapter 1.


The important sources for research in this matter are: Yam. I. 174-5; PañcA 167; Vism. 510-13; VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Magganiddesakathāvaṇṇanā.


Also known as the ’3 dukkha’; D. III. 216; S. IV. 259; S. V. 56; Vism. 499; VbhA. 93; VinṬ. Dhammacakkappavattanasuttavaṇṇanā; VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Dukkhaniddesakathāvaṇṇanā.


Also known as dukkha-dukkha.


Also known as saṅkhāra-dukkha.


Nibbidā: ’(maintaining) disenchantment’, ’letting go of attachment’.


Virāga: ’(experiences) dispassion’.


Here, the term ariya-sacca is found at the end of each passage; In S. V. 426 the sutta states that the noble truth of suffering should be defined as the six internal sense bases.


E.g.: D. II. 305; S. V. 421; Vism. 498-501; VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā (from Saccavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā to Pañcupādānakkhandaniddesavaṇṇanā). The divisions of birth’s afflictions, #1 a-g, are from the commentaries.


Note that this group of dukkha does not include illness (byādhi), which normally would follow aging. The commentaries explain that illness is not an inevitable form of suffering: many people have illness, but some may not. Also, illness is included in this factor (#6) of physical suffering (VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Saccavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā). In some places of the Canon, however, illness is listed separately in this group of dukkha; for such cases see the explanation at VinṬ. Dhammacakkappavattanasuttavaṇṇanā.


Vism. 499; VbhA. 93; PañcA. 167; VinṬ. Dhammacakkappavattanasuttavaṇṇanā; VismṬ. Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Dukkhaniddesakathāvaṇṇanā.




Nd. I. 17-18, 45-47; Nd. II. 7, 14, 54.


M. I. 83-90, 91-5.


E.g.: Vism. 531; VbhA. 145, 149; in some places of the Cūḷaniddesa printed in Thai script, e.g. Nd. II. 7, one finds this term saṁsāra-dukkha, but these are misprints; it should read saṅkhāra-dukkha.


These last three kinds of suffering are mentioned frequently in the eight subjects that prompt a sense of urgency (saṁvega-vatthu), e.g. at Vism. 135; DA. III. 795; MA. I. 298; SA. III. 163; etc.; āhārapariyeṭṭhi-dukkha (suffering resulting from the search for food) corresponds to item (A) above. The other two terms are included in the descriptions above, if not directly then indirectly.


On various other forms of dukkha see Appendix 3.


Literally ’elemental truth’.


’One endowed with right view’: diṭṭhisampanno.


Sn. 155.


Sn. 157.


Ps. I. 37, 53; Ps. II. 200; referred to at Vism. 610.


Vism. 628, 640; occasionally one finds avasavattito.


Vism. 618; VinṬ. Mahākhandhakaṃ Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā.


Mahākhandhakaṃ Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā refers to the Buddha’s sermon in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (S. III. 66).


See Vism. 593-5.


Vism. 618; MA. II. 113; VbhA. 48; See also VinṬ. Mahākhandhakaṃ Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā; VismṬ. Maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā, Rūpasattakasammasanakathāvaṇṇanā.


Cogito, ergo sum (R. Descartes, 1596-1650).


S. II. 13-14.


Trans.: based on Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s translation.


E.g.: S. IV. 1.


Vism. 640; VbhA. 50; VismṬ. Paṭipadāñāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā.


Trans.: iriyāpatha (’posture’) literally means ’mode of movement’.


Alternatively, attaṃ and nirattaṃ. The Siam Raṭṭha edition of the Tipiṭaka in Thai script has attā and nirattaṃ in some places, attaṃ and nirattaṃ in others (see Sn. 154, 168, 180, and related passages at Sn. 157, 213.) In other editions, however, I have found only attā and nirattā.


Nd. I. 82, 247, 352-53, and see related passages at Nd. I. 90-91, 107-8; Nd. II. 35.


On the subject of God see Appendix 4.


VbhA. 48-9; and in some sections of MA. II. 113; VinṬ. Mahākhandhakaṃ, Anattalakkhaṇasuttavaṇṇanā.


Sn. 155 (see related passages at Nd. I. 90-91).


Sn. 157 (see related passages at Nd. I. 107-108).


The current meaning of māna in the Thai language, which has deviated far from the original – now denoting effort/diligence – will not be discussed here, as that would branch out too far into the subject of linguistics.


Trans.: in English the word ’ego’ is used in this way, for example: ’He has a big ego.’


This verse is known as ’the maxim of the arahants’ (S. I. 6). The ’coming to rest’ and equally the ’bliss’ refers to Nibbāna. The verse is commonly chanted at funerals: Aniccā vata saṅkhārā….


Alternative second clause: bring heedfulness to perfection. This verse is the Buddha’s final utterance and is considered to be of great import. It is found at D. II. 120, 156; S. I. 157-8; Venerables Revata and Sāriputta spoke similar verses at Thag. 67, 91.


See S. I. 89; A. III. 48-9; It. 16-17.


See D. II. 86; D. III. 236; Ud. 87; in addition, see the beginning (not quoted) of the passage cited in the previous footnote.


Trans.: the eight ’worldly winds’: gain and loss, praise and blame, happiness and suffering, fame and obscurity.


Kusalo dhammo akusalassa dhammassa ārammaṇapaccayena paccayo (Paṭ. 154); adhipatipaccena (Paṭ. 158); upanissayapaccena (Paṭ. 166).


Trans.: other translations include: earnestness, perseverance, carefulness, uninterrupted mindfulness, vigilance, and zeal.


The Buddha sometimes characterized an arahant as ’incapable of negligence’ (M. II. 478; S. IV. 125). He explained that arahants have completed all tasks that must be accomplished through heedfulness.


The Abhidhamma states that arahants, those who have attained the ultimate transcendent state, act with ’an eminent operative mind’ (mahākiriya-citta), which is mundane and belongs to the sense sphere.


In contrast, being confronted with the three characteristics but not truly understanding them is a cause for suffering (e.g.: S. III. 3, 16, 42-3).


E.g.: A. IV. 380-81; Pug. 37.


The term ’create’ here is used tongue-in-cheek; speaking accurately, human beings are one condition affecting other conditions in an interconnected process.


Alternate translations for the second clause are: … fulfil your own and others’ welfare by way of heedfulness, and: …bring heedfulness to perfection.


Trans.: see Chapter 10.


Strictly speaking, one must use the term nirāmisatara-sukha, according to the threefold division of happiness: sāmisa-sukha (= kāma-sukha; sense pleasure), nirāmisa-sukha (the happiness of jhāna), and nirāmisatara-sukha (the happiness of liberation). It is possible for unawakened beings to become attached to the happiness of jhāna; true safety thus occurs with nirāmisatara-sukha. On the threefold division of happiness, see: S. IV. 235.


Trans.: diṭṭhi here is used in a neutral sense, referring to a person’s perspective or comprehension of the world.


Trans.: see the following chapter on Dependent Origination. The Eightfold Path is discussed in later chapters.


A verse by Ven. Sāriputta; an abbreviated translation. The section, does not regard physical form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form, is encapsulated in the Visuddhimagga’s definition: Na attā (not self), na attano (not of self), na attani (not in self), na attavatī (not possessing self); see Vism. 578. The Visuddhimagga uses numerous explanations for perceiving selflessness, for example by regarding physical form as not a being, a spirit, a person, a youth, a woman, a man, a self or of self, us or ours, or belonging to anyone (Vism. 653-6).


A verse by Ven. Sāriputta; an abbreviated translation.


A similar but slightly more detailed passage, concerning the six views, is found at Vbh. 382.


Trans.: the Buddha.




Lobha, dosa and moha, or taṇhā, māna and diṭṭhi.


The imperishable state: Nibbāna.


Some of these verses occur at D. II. 246; S. I. 108-109; Thag. 20.


Some verses are repeated at J. IV. 127; Nd. I. 120-21.


Spoken by Ven. Sirimaṇḍa Thera.


Trans.: an arahant.


A monk who is still in training: a sekha or a virtuous unenlightened person (puthujjana-kalyāṇaka).


For example, by other means apart from the Eightfold Path or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.


He is neither impassioned like a misguided person nor disaffected like a sekha or a virtuous unenlightened person.


Trans.: final Nibbāna; final release from rebirth.


The two aspects of heedfulness are establishment and protection.


The commentaries define the bliss of renunciation (nekkhamma-sukha) as the happiness of a non-returner (anāgāmī).


Trans.: the monastic code of discipline.


Trans.: the author here adds the English translation: ’general law of the suchness of natural states’.


This appendix comprises material found on page 87 of the Thai edition of Buddhadhamma: footnote 156.

Part 2: Process of Life

For name and clan are assigned as mere means of communication in the world, designations set down on occasion by those unknowing, whose wrong views have remained buried in their hearts since time of old. The ignorant repeatedly state that one is a brahmin by birth.

One is not a brahmin by birth, nor by birth a non-brahmin. By action (kamma) is one a brahmin, by action is one a non-brahmin. By their acts and occupations are men farmers, craftsmen, merchants, servants, thieves, soldiers … and kings.

This is how the wise see action as it really is, seers of Dependent Origination, skilled in action and its results. Action makes the world go round; action makes this generation of beings wander on. Living beings are bound by action like the chariot wheel by the pin.

Samaññā hesā lokasmiṃ, nāmagottaṃ pakappitaṃ;
Sammuccā samudāgataṃ, tattha tattha pakappitaṃ.

Dīgharattānusayitaṃ, diṭṭhigatamajānataṃ;
Ajānantā no pabrunti, jātiyā hoti brāhmaṇo.

Na jaccā brāhmaṇo hoti, na jaccā hoti abrāhmaṇo;
Kammunā brāhmaṇo hoti, kammunā hoti abrāhmaṇo.

Kassako kammunā hoti, sippiko hoti kammunā;
Vāṇijo kammunā hoti, pessako hoti kammunā.

Coropi kammunā hoti, yodhājīvopi kammunā;
Yājako kammunā hoti, rājāpi hoti kammunā.

Evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ, kammaṃ passanti paṇḍitā;
Paṭiccasamuppādadassā, kammavipākakovidā.

Kammunā vattati loko, kammunā vattati pajā;
Kammanibandhanā sattā, rathassāṇīva yāyato.

M. II. 196.

Dependent Origination

Paṭiccasmuppāda: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality


Basic definitions for the term paṭiccasamuppāda include ’dependent origination’, ’dependent co-origination’, and the ’origin of suffering dependent on co-conditionality’.

The Buddha presented the teaching of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) in two ways: general presentations, which do not specify each factor of the process, and detailed presentations listing each factor in a connected sequence. The general presentation usually occurs preceding the detailed presentation. The detailed presentation is found frequently in the scriptures, usually alone, without the general presentation; it expands on the general presentation, describing and analyzing each factor of Dependent Origination.

General Presentation

When this exists, that comes to be;
With the arising of this, that arises.

When this does not exist, that does not come to be;
With the cessation of this, that ceases.

Imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti,
imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati.

Imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti,
imasmiṃ nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati.
1 S. II. 28, 65.

Detailed (or ’Applied’) Presentation

With ignorance as condition, there are volitional formations.
avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā

With volitional formations as condition, there is consciousness.
saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ

With consciousness as condition, there is mind-and-body.2
viññāṇapaccayā nāma-rūpaṃ

With mind-and-body as condition, there are the six sense bases.
nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ

With the six sense bases as condition, there is contact.
saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso

With contact as condition, there is feeling.
phassapaccayā vedanā

With feeling as condition, there is craving.
vedanāpaccayā taṇhā

With craving as condition, there is clinging. {155}
taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ

With clinging as condition, there is becoming.
upādānapaccayā bhavo

With becoming as condition, there is birth.
bhavapaccayā jāti

With birth as condition, there is aging-and-death.
jātipaccayā jarā-maraṇaṃ

Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair thus come to be.
soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupāyāsā sambhavanti

Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti

With the remainderless abandonment and cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of volitional formations.
avijjāya tveva asesavirāganirodhā saṅkhāranirodho

With the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness.
saṅkhāranirodhā viññāṇanirodho

With the cessation of consciousness, cessation of mind-and-body.
viññāṇanirodhā nāmarūpanirodho

With the cessation of mind-and-body, cessation of the six sense bases.
nāmarūpanirodhā saḷāyatananirodho

With the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact.
saḷāyatananirodhā phassanirodho

With the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling.
phassanirodhā vedanānirodho

With the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving.
vedanānirodhā taṇhānirodho

With the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging.
taṇhānirodhā upādānanirodho

With the cessation of clinging, cessation of becoming.
upādānanirodhā bhavanirodho

With the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth.
bhavanirodhā jātinirodho

With the cessation of birth, (cessation of) aging-and-death.
jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ

Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease.
soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti

Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.
evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti

Vin. I. 1-2; S. II. 1-2, 65.

Both of these formats can be divided into two parts – the process of origination and the process of cessation. The first sequence, the process of origination, is called the cycle of origination (samudaya-vāra). It is also known as the forward sequence (*anuloma-*paṭiccasamuppāda) and is equivalent to the second Noble Truth: the origin of suffering (dukkha-samudaya). The latter sequence is called the cycle of cessation (nirodha-vāra) or the reverse sequence (paṭiloma-paṭiccasamuppāda); it corresponds to the third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha).

The closing statements of the detailed presentation indicate that Dependent Origination deals with the origin and cessation of suffering. Most of the scriptural references to Dependent Origination end with these statements. There are, however, passages that end with the origin and cessation of the ’world’:

This, bhikkhus, is the origin of the world;
this, bhikkhus, is the cessation of the world;

Ayaṃ kho bhikkhave lokassa samudayo;
ayaṃ kho bhikkhave lokassa atthaṅgamo.
S. II. 73.

In such a way the world originates,
in such a way the world ceases. {156}

Evamayaṃ loko samudayati;
evamayaṃ loko nirujjhati.
S. II. 78.

Here the words ’suffering’ and ’world’ are interchangeable, which will be explained below.

The detailed presentation of Dependent Origination contains twelve factors, which are part of an interconnected cycle, without a beginning or an end. There is no ’first cause’ (mūla-kāraṇa). For the sake of convenience, the Buddha chose ignorance (avijjā) as the most suitable candidate to place at the start of the list of factors, but this is not intended to imply that ignorance is the first cause. Occasionally, to prevent the misunderstanding that ignorance is the ’first cause’, he inserted the following statement:

With the arising of the taints, ignorance arises; with the cessation of the taints, ignorance ceases.

Āsava samudayā avijjā samudayo, āsava nirodhā avijjā nirodho.

M. I. 55.

The twelve factors of Dependent Origination, beginning with ignorance and ending with aging-and-death, are as follows:

Avijjā (ignorance) →
saṅkhāra (volitional formations) →
viññāṇa (consciousness) →
nāma-rūpa (mind-and-body) →
saḷāyatana (six sense bases) →
phassa (contact) →
vedanā (feeling) →
taṇhā (craving) →
upādāna (clinging) →
bhava (becoming) →
jāti (birth) →
jarāmaraṇa (aging-and-death).

Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are results of the cycle of Dependent Origination, arising in the minds of those who have mental impurities (āsava and kilesa) when they are faced with aging and death. These results, however, take an active role by leading to a further increase of mental taints (āsava), which are in turn the conditions for ignorance and a continued rotation of the cycle.

In general, when presenting this detailed or ’applied’ format of Dependent Origination (comprising the entire twelve factors), the Buddha mentioned the forward sequence only as an introduction. When he wished to emphasize the direct human experience of suffering, he most often presented Dependent Origination in the reverse sequence:


S. II. 5-11, 81.

On some occasions, when he wished to highlight a particular factor, the Buddha began the detailed presentation with one of the intermediate factors. The presentation may begin with birth (jāti),3 feeling (vedanā),4 or consciousness (viññāṇa),5 and then be linked with the subsequent factors until the process reaches aging-and-death (for the forward sequence), or traced back to ignorance (for the reverse sequence). Occasionally, the process begins with a factor or problem not included in the group of twelve, and is then connected to the process of Dependent Origination.6 In summary, the presentation of Dependent Origination is not fixed and does not have to mention all twelve factors. {157}

Although the twelve factors are said to be interdependent and act as conditions for one another, this is not the same as saying they are ’causes’ for one another. As a comparison, there are more conditions other than the seed itself that permit a plant to grow: soil, water, fertilizer, weather, and temperature all play a part. And these interrelated conditions do not need to follow a set temporal sequence. Similarly, a floor acts as a condition for the stability or positioning of a table.7

Significance of Dependent Origination

The Buddha presented the principle of Dependent Origination as a law of nature, which does not rely on the emergence of a Buddha for its existence. The Buddha presented Dependent Origination as a natural truth in the following way:

Whether Tathāgatas arise or not, that principle of specific conditionality8 is constant, certain, and a law of nature. Having fully awakened to and penetrated to this truth, a Tathāgata announces, teaches, clarifies, formulates, reveals, and analyzes it. And he says: ’See! With ignorance as condition, there are volitional formations….

Thus, bhikkhus, this actuality (tathatā), this inerrancy (avitathatā), this invariability (anaññathatā) – this specific conditionality (idappaccayatā) – is called Dependent Origination.9

S. II. 25-6.

The central importance of Dependent Origination is evident from the Buddha’s words:

One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Origination.

M. I. 190-91.

Bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple has a knowledge about this that is independent of others: ’When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises’…. When a noble disciple thus understands as they really are the origin and the passing away of the world, he is then called a noble disciple perfected in view, perfected in vision, who has arrived at this true Dhamma, who possesses a trainee’s knowledge, a trainee’s true knowledge, who has entered the stream of the Dhamma, a noble one with penetrative wisdom, one who stands squarely before the door to the Deathless. {153}

S. II. 78-9.

Those ascetics and brahmins who understand these things (i.e. the factors of Dependent Origination), their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to their cessation … those ascetics and brahmins are deserving of the acknowledgement as ascetics among ascetics and brahmins among brahmins. By realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, they are recognized as in this very life reaching and abiding in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood.

S. II. 16, 45-6, 129.

On one occasion, the Buddha warned Ven. Ānanda not to misjudge the complexity of Dependent Origination:

[Ānanda:] ’It is wonderful, venerable sir! It is marvellous, venerable sir! This Dependent Origination is so deep and appears so deep, yet to me it seems clear and easy to understand.’

[Buddha:] ’Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This Dependent Origination is deep and appears deep. It is because of not understanding and not penetrating this truth that this generation is afflicted and become like a tangled skein, like a knotted ball of thread, like matted reeds and rushes, and is unable to transcend the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the lower worlds, and the round of rebirth (saṁsāra).

S. II. 92.

Readers who are familiar with the Buddha’s life story will remember his reluctance soon after his awakening to proclaim the Dhamma:

Bhikkhus, this thought arose in me: ’This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, difficult to see, difficult to realize, peaceful, excellent, not accessible by reasoning, to be known by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes pleasure in attachment, rejoices in attachment.10 It is hard for such a generation delighting in attachment to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, Dependent Origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the abandonment of all foundations for suffering (upadhi), the end of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. If I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not truly understand me, that would be wearying and troublesome for me.

Vin. I. 4-5; M. I. 167-8.

This passage mentions both Dependent Origination and Nibbāna, emphasizing both the importance of these two truths and also the difficulty in realizing them. The Buddha awakened to these truths and explained them to others. {154}

Interpretations of Dependent Origination

The teaching of Dependent Origination may be summarized as follows:

  1. An explanation describing the evolution of the world and the cycle of all life, by interpreting some of the Buddha’s words in a more literal way, for example the Buddha’s teaching on the ’origin of the world’ (loka-samudaya).11

  2. An explanation describing the birth and death of human beings and the origin and cessation of human suffering. This explanation can be subdivided into two further categories:

    1. A broad description of one life to another: the passing from one realm of existence to another. This is also a literal explanation and it is commonly found in the commentaries, where it is systematized and described in great, and sometimes intimidating, detail.

    2. A description of a cycle present at each moment of life. This description offers an interpretation of this teaching implicit in the previous description (2A), but it focuses on a deeper meaning of specific Pali terms, or on their practical significance. This interpretation explains the whole cycle of Dependent Origination in terms of present experience, which is considered to be in line with the Buddha’s intention and the real objective of this teaching, as evidenced by many discourses of the Buddha, including the Cetanā Sutta,12 the Dukkhanirodha Sutta,13 and the Lokanirodha Sutta.14 In the Abhidhamma an entire section is dedicated to the complete sequence of Dependent Origination arising in a single mind moment.15

In reference to explanation #1, some people interpret Dependent Origination as a theory of the origin (’genesis’) of the universe, declaring ignorance as a ’first cause’16 in a process followed and completed by the remaining eleven factors. {158} This interpretation leads to the view that Buddhism resembles other religions and philosophies that posit a prime agent, for example a creator God, who is the source of all beings and all things. According to this interpretation, the only difference is that these theistic doctrines portray the creation and governing of the world by a force outside and above nature, while Buddhism describes a causal, natural process.

This interpretation, however, is inaccurate, because any teaching that professes a first cause or prime agent contradicts the teaching of Dependent Origination or of specific conditionality. The teaching of Dependent Origination offers an objective account of causality, that all conditioned things are interrelated and interdependent. They arise in a successive, causal process without beginning or end. A first cause, either a creator God or other agent, is impossible. Therefore, the explanation of Dependent Origination as describing the evolution of the world is only suitable in the context of explaining a natural, causal process of continual growth and disintegration, without beginning and without end.

One way of determining whether an interpretation of Dependent Origination is correct or not is to consider the Buddha’s intention in teaching the Dhamma. The Buddha focused on things that can be applied to bring about wellbeing, that are relevant to everyday life, and that solve real-life problems. He considered attempts to reach the truth through metaphysical speculation and debate to be fruitless. Determining what is truly Buddha-Dhamma thus requires a consideration of a teaching’s ethical and practical value.

The worldview that stems from explanation #1 of Dependent Origination, above, is suitable and accords with the aims of Buddha-Dhamma. It provides a broad perspective that things proceed according to cause and effect, that they depend on natural conditions, and that they neither originate from a creator God nor do they arise randomly or by accident. Moreover, it is conducive to bringing about the following three practical benefits:

First, one realizes that to find success and fulfilment, one cannot rely on hope, desire, fate, divine intervention, or supernatural powers. One only reaches success through concerted action; one must be self-reliant and generate the conditions that lead to success.

Second, to generate these conditions, one must properly understand each factor within the dynamic of nature in which one is engaged, as well as understanding the mutual relationship between factors; wisdom is therefore an essential element in the process. {159}

Third, the knowledge of causal connections reduces or eliminates the mistaken identification with things as a fixed ’self’. This knowledge promotes an appropriate relationship to things and leads to inner freedom.

Although the explanation of Dependent Origination as describing a beginningless and endless evolution of the world is acceptable, its practical value is limited. It is not yet sufficiently cogent or integrated to guarantee the three benefits mentioned above (especially the third benefit of promoting freedom).

To truly profit from this broad interpretation of Dependent Origination, one must refine one’s investigation by discerning the causal, interdependent nature of all conditioned phenomena. When one develops this clarity in every moment of one’s life, the three benefits mentioned earlier are complete, and at the same time one reaches the true objective of the interpretation related to the evolution of the world.

The explanation of Dependent Origination as the evolution of the world, either in its broadest sense or in a more refined way, is a contemplation of external phenomena. The second explanation, on the other hand, emphasizes the internal life of human beings, including the dynamic of human suffering.

The first subdivision (2A) is favoured by the commentaries, where it is explained in great detail.17 The commentaries coin many new descriptive terms for this process in order to construct a clear, organized system. The disadvantage, however, is that this system can appear inflexible, and to students new to Buddhism, rather arcane. The second subdivision (2B) is directly linked to the first (2A), as will be described below. {160}

Relational Context of Dependent Origination

The essential aim of Dependent Origination is to illustrate the origin and cessation of suffering (dukkha). The term dukkha plays a pivotal role in Buddha-Dhamma and appears in several key teachings, for example the Three Characteristics and the Four Noble Truths. To understand the complete meaning of the term dukkha, one must set aside the common translation of ’suffering’ and examine the threefold classification of dukkha,18 along with its commentarial explanations:19

  1. Dukkha-dukkhatā: a feeling of pain (dukkha-vedanā), as commonly understood; physical suffering (e.g. aches and pains) and mental suffering (e.g. grief); dis-ease; the suffering arising from encounters with undesirable and disturbing sense objects.

  2. Vipariṇāma-dukkhatā: suffering associated with change; suffering inherent in pleasure. Pleasure becomes suffering or produces suffering due to the transitoriness of pleasure. A person may feel at ease, without any disturbance, but after experiencing a more pleasant form of ease, the original state of ease may feel unpleasant. It is as if suffering lies latent and manifests when pleasure fades away. The degree of suffering is proportional to the degree of pleasure that precedes it. Suffering can even arise while experiencing pleasure if a person becomes aware of the fleeting nature of that pleasure. And when pleasure ends, the sadness of separation follows in its wake.

  3. Saṅkhāra-dukkhatā: the dukkha of conditioned phenomena; the dukkha of all things that arise from causes and conditions, that is, the five aggregates (khandha), including ’path’ (magga) and ’fruit’ (phala), which are technically classified as ’transcendent’. All conditioned things are oppressed by conflicting component factors; all things arise and pass away; they are imperfect. They exist in the ’stream’ of causes and conditions, which generate suffering for someone who does not understand the nature of conditionality, who with craving, grasping and ignorance foolishly resists this process, and who does not engage with it wisely.

The third kind of dukkha reveals the inherent nature of conditioned phenomena, but it also has a psychological dimension. This state of imperfection and stress prevents thorough satisfaction with conditioned phenomena and continually causes suffering for a person who relates to things with craving, grasping and ignorance.20 {161}

The meaning of this third kind of dukkha is thus all-inclusive. It corresponds with the meaning of dukkha in the Three Characteristics (’all conditioned things are dukkha’). The pressure and instability inherent in things may lead to the dukkha of the Four Noble Truths, whereby craving, grasping, and ignorance come to fruition as suffering, and whereby the five aggregates of nature develop into the five aggregates of clinging of human beings.

In this context, one can include the three kinds of feeling (vedanā): pleasure (sukha), pain (dukkha), and neutral feeling (upekkhā). Painful feeling (dukkha-vedanā) is part of the first kind of dukkha: dukkha-dukkhatā. Pleasant feeling (sukha-vedanā) is introduced in the second factor of vipariṇāma-dukkhatā. Although neutral feeling (or ’equanimity’) escapes the first two factors, it is included in the final factor of saṅkhāra-dukkhatā. Even equanimity is ephemeral, transient, and subject to causes and conditions. If one is enchanted by equanimity and wishes to indulge in it, one cannot escape the dukkha of conditioned phenomena. The commentaries elaborate by stating that neutral feeling (upekkhā-vedanā), along with all other formations in the three planes of existence (tebhūmaka) are saṅkhāra-dukkhatā, as they are oppressed by arising and dissolution. In sum, all three kinds of feeling are incorporated in these three kinds of dukkha.

The teaching of Dependent Origination reveals how dynamics inherent in nature develop into human problems as a consequence of ignorance, craving, and clinging. At the same time, these natural dynamics reveal how the interrelatedness of phenomena takes the form of a stream. Various aspects of this stream may be distinguished: conditioned phenomena are interrelated; they exist dependent on other conditioned phenomena; they are inconstant, not remaining the same even for an instant; they are not autonomous – they have no true ’self’; and they have no first cause.

Seen from another angle, the way in which phenomena manifest in the world – as appearing, growing, and declining – reveals their fluid nature. This fluid nature exists because things are made up of interrelated components. The stream of phenomena flows on because all of its components are unstable, inconstant, and without true substance. The particular features of interdependent processes both point to the impossibility of a first cause and also allow for the manifestation of distinct fluid entities.

If things were to truly possess a ’self’, they would be stable. If things were stable, even for a moment, they would by definition not be mutually dependent, and there would be no fluid entities. But, without a stream of interdependent phenomena, nature would not exist in the way it does. A ’self’ or fixed substance within phenomena would render true causal interactions impossible. Because all things are impermanent, inconstant, subject to decay, insubstantial, and interconnected, there is a stream of conditions manifesting as distinct natural phenomena.

The Pali term for impermanence and instability is aniccatā. The term for oppression through birth and decay, for inherent stress, conflict and imperfection, is dukkhatā. The term for ’selflessness’ or insubstantiality – the absence of any internal or external essence or agent that dictates things according to desire – is anattatā. The teaching of Dependent Origination reveals these three characteristics and describes the interrelated sequence of phenomena. {162}

The process of Dependent Origination applies to both material things (rūpa-dhamma) and to immaterial things (nāma-dhamma), to both the material world and to human life, which is comprised of both physical and mental attributes. This process manifests as particular laws of nature, namely: (1) dhamma-niyāma: the general law of cause and effect; (2) utu-niyāma: laws of the material world (physical laws); (3) bīja-niyāma: laws governing living things, including genetics (biological laws); (4) citta-niyāma: laws governing the workings of the mind (psychological laws); and (5) kamma-niyāma: law of ’karma’ (intentional action; karmic laws)21, which determines human wellbeing and is directly linked to ethics.

Again, all natural processes, including the dynamics of karma, are possible because things are impermanent and insubstantial. This fact may be at odds with how people commonly feel. Yet if things were permanent, stable, and possessed a solid core, none of the above laws of nature would hold true. Also, these laws confirm that there is no first cause for things, no creator God.

Conditioned things arise dependent on causes and they are interrelated; they have no fixed core. A bed, to take a simple example, is composed of various parts which have been assembled following a prescribed plan; there exists no essential substance of the bed apart from these components. Taking them apart, the bed no longer exists; there exists merely a notion of ’bed’, which is a thought in the mind. Even particular notions do not exist in isolation, but are connected to other concepts. The notion of a ’bed’ only has significance in relation to the notions of ’lying down’, a ’level plane’, ’position’, ’space’, etc.

People’s awareness and understanding of particular designations is linked to their understanding of the relational factors of that particular entity. But when recognition of the object has been made, habitual attachment in the form of craving and grasping leads the person to be convinced of the object’s substantiality. The object is separated from its relational context and true discernment of the object is obstructed. Selfishness and possessiveness come to the fore.

As mentioned above, things do not have a ’first cause’ or original source. Tracing back the causes and conditions ad infinitum, one still cannot find a first cause. There is a strong impulse in people, however, to seek an original source for phenomena, and as a consequence they assign undue importance to particular entities. This impulse to find a source conflicts with the truth, and the notions associated with whatever is taken as a source become a form of ’perceptual aberration’ (saññā-vipallāsa).

People abandon their inquiry into causality too soon. A correct investigation would go on to inquire into the cause of what is being taken as the source and conclude that this line of inquiry is endless. Things exist in mutual dependence, and therefore there is no ’first cause’. Indeed, one can pose the question: Why is it necessary for things to originate from a primal source? {163}

The belief in a creator God is equally at odds with nature. This belief stems from the observation and common assumption that human beings are responsible for producing things like tools, implements and crafts; therefore, everything in the universe must also have a creator.

The logic of this reasoning, however, is flawed. People separate the act of production from the natural context of conditionality. In fact, human production is only one aspect of conditionality. In the act of production, humans are one factor among many in a conditional process, all of which combine to reach a desired result. The distinction here from a purely material process is that mental factors (e.g. ’desire’) accompanied by intention also play a role. But these mental factors must combine with other factors in a conditional process to bring about a desired end. For example, when building a house, a person influences other factors to bring about completion. If humans were above the conditional process, they could build a house out of thin air, but this is impossible. Creation, therefore, is not separate from conditionality, and since all conditioned things exist as parts of an ongoing causal process, a creator God plays no role at any stage.

Another line of reasoning that contradicts the truth and is similar to the idea of a ’first cause’ is the idea that in the beginning there was nothing. This idea is connected to and stems from a belief in self: the identification with composite parts that comprise an individual form. A person establishes a notion of self and attaches to this notion. In addition, he may believe that originally this self did not exist, but rather came into being at a later time.

This limited way of thinking, of getting stuck on an object and not having a fluid outlook on things, is an attachment to conventional labels and a misunderstanding of conventional truth. It lies behind the need to find a first cause or creator God as the source of all phenomena, giving rise to such conflicting ideas as how can something immortal produce something that is mortal or how can transient things spring from the eternal? Apropos the causal, interrelated flow of phenomena, there is no need to speak of an enduring or a temporary ’self’, unless one is referring to ’conventional truth’ (sammati-sacca). Again, one can ask why is it necessary to have nothing before something can exist?

In any case, speculation on such topics as a ’first cause’ and a creator God is considered to be of little value in Buddha-Dhamma because it is irrelevant to the practical application of the teachings for bringing about true spiritual wellbeing. Even though these philosophical considerations can lead to a broad worldview, as shown above, they can be passed over since a focus on practical application leads to the same benefits. Attention here, therefore, should be on applying the teachings to everyday life. {164}

As mentioned earlier, human beings are comprised of the five aggregates. Nothing exists separately from these aggregates, dwelling either inside them or out. Nothing owns or controls the aggregates and governs life. The five aggregates function according to Dependent Origination; they are part of the interrelated flow of conditions. All of the components in this process are unstable; they all arise and pass away, and they condition further arising and decay. The interdependency of the components enables there to be a causal process and continual stream of formations.

The five aggregates are marked by the three universal characteristics (tilakkhaṇa): (1) they are impermanent and unstable, subject to constant arising and passing away (= aniccatā); (2) they are continually oppressed by arising and dissolution; they inevitably produce suffering for one who engages with them by way of ignorance and attachment (= dukkhatā); and (3) they are void of any substantial essence or self that is able to dictate things according to desire (= anattatā).

These five aggregates, perpetually shifting and inherently insubstantial, follow their own nature and proceed according to the flow of interrelated conditions. Unawakened human beings, however, make the mistake of resisting this flow by identifying with certain phenomena. They then want this imagined ’fixed entity’ to last or proceed in a desired fashion. At the same time, the eddying currents within the flow of conditions conflict with desire, causing stress and increasing desire and attachment. When desire is thwarted, the struggle to establish, control, and stabilize an identity becomes more intense, which results in ever greater disappointment, anguish, and despair.

A dim understanding of truth may lead a person to conclude that change is inescapable and that one’s cherished ’self’ may disappear, but this consideration only leads to firmer attachment intertwined with deep-seated anxiety. Such a state of mind is comprised of three defilements: avijjā (ignorance of the truth; the mistaken belief in a ’self’); taṇhā (the wish for this surmised ’self’ to be or not to be in a particular way); and upādāna (grasping; binding this ’self’ to things). These defilements are deeply embedded in the mind and they control the behaviour of human beings, overtly or covertly. They mould people’s personalities and shape their destiny. It is fair to say they are the source of suffering for all unawakened people.

The preceding paragraphs have revealed a conflict between two distinct processes:

  1. The course of life that is governed by the law of the Three Characteristics (anicca, dukkha and anattā), which is a fixed law of nature. It manifests as birth, aging and death, both in an ordinary and a deeper sense.22

  2. Ignorance of the course of life; the mistaken belief in a stable, enduring ’self’ and a subsequent attachment, accompanied by fear and anxiety. {165}

The conflict is between laws of nature and a mistaken self-view, between the causal dynamics in nature and people’s desires. People construct a self which then impedes the flow of nature. When people’s desires are unsound or thwarted, the result is suffering in its various manifestations. This results in a life of ignorance, attachment, enslavement, resistance to nature, and misery.

Conventionally speaking, the second process comprises two ’selves’. First is the ’self’ or ’entity’ within nature that changes according to causes and conditions. Although no true ’self’ exists, it is possible to separate and distinguish one natural dynamic or flow from others, and for practical purposes one can assign a conventional label of ’self’ to each individual dynamic. Second is a false ’self’, a ’fixed entity’, which one imagines to be real and clings to with ignorance, craving and grasping. The first ’self’, the dynamic entity, is not a cause for attachment. But the second ’self’, which is superimposed on the first ’self’, is defined by attachment; it is inevitably undermined by the nature of the first ’self’ and thus causes suffering.

A life of ignorance and attachment instils fear and anxiety in the heart, affects behaviour, and makes people unwitting slaves to their desires. It increases selfishness (a perpetual search for personal gratification), possessiveness, and a lack of consideration for others.23

In order to reinforce and affirm their desires, people latch onto and identify with those views, opinions, doctrines, belief systems, etc., that meet the needs of and accord with desire. They cherish and cling to these views, etc. as if protecting their very selves. As a result, they build a barrier that prevents them from accessing the truth: they hide from the truth. This rigidity of mind means that their critical faculties are impaired. And it can give rise to obstinacy – an inability to tolerate or listen to the views of others.24

When people establish ideas, views, and beliefs on what is good, what should be achieved, and what is the proper way to reach desired goals, they behave accordingly, and they observe corresponding traditions and customs. Their behaviour may even be naive or irrational as a result; they may act simply out of an attachment to such traditions and customs, possessing only a faint understanding of the causal relationship of the factors involved. Hence, they lack a clear understanding of cause and effect. {166}

This is reflected in the lives of some religious seekers, who uphold various ascetic traditions and practices with great intensity, believing that such behaviour will guarantee liberation, realization, or a passage to heaven. They then go on to criticize and look down on other people as a consequence of these established practices.25

At the same time, on a deeper level, such people are worried about the preservation of their cherished ’self’, which is a fabricated concept. Although they do not really know what or where this assumed self is, they still lug it around and protect it. And because they fear that at any moment the self may perish, they grab after whatever provides a sense of self-affirmation, however obscure such things may be. Life thus becomes restricted and their wellbeing is shaped by the fortunes of this so-called ’self’.26

These repercussions do not merely affect the individual: the conflict and suffering extends outwards, causing social conflict. All social problems created by human beings stem from a life of ignorance and attachment.

The detailed presentation of Dependent Origination outlines the origin of a life of suffering; it outlines the origin of a sense of self, which inevitably results in suffering. Breaking the chain of Dependent Origination is to end a life of suffering, to eradicate all suffering arising from a ’self’. This leads to a life of wisdom, non-attachment, freedom, and harmony with nature.

A life of wisdom – of direct knowledge of the truth – entails deriving benefit from one’s relationship to nature, which is equivalent to living in harmony with it. To live in harmony with nature is to live freely and with non-attachment: an escape from craving and grasping. And a life of non-attachment relies on a knowledge of conditionality, along with an appropriate relationship to things.

Buddhist teachings do not recognize a supernatural entity existing above nature and having power over it. If something were to exist beyond nature – to transcend nature – then by definition it could have no influence over nature. Whatever is involved in nature is a part of nature. {167} Natural phenomena exist according to causes and conditions; they do not arise haphazardly. All amazing occurrences that appear as miracles or marvels arise from and proceed according to causes and conditions. We call these events miracles because the causes and conditions remain hidden; as soon as the causes and conditions are known, the sense of wonder disappears. The terms ’supernatural’ and ’preternatural’ are merely ways of speaking; they do not refer to some entity that exists apart from nature.

A related subject is the distinction between ’man’ and ’nature’. The expressions ’man and nature’ or ’humans control nature’ are simply figures of speech. In fact, human beings are one part of nature, and humans can control nature only to the extent that they exist as one condition within it, influencing subsequent conditions and giving rise to particular results.

What is unique in the case of human interaction is the involvement of mental conditions, including volition, and therefore the term ’creation’ is used for human activities. But all the elements in the act of creation are, without exception, conditional factors. Human beings are unable to create anything out of thin air or in isolation, as somehow separate from the conditional process. When humans understand the requisite conditions leading to desired results, they enter the process as one determinant factor, shaping other conditions to reach a desired end.

There are two stages to successful interaction: the first is knowledge and the second is to act as a condition for subsequent conditions. The initial stage, equivalent to wisdom, is essential. With wisdom, one can engage with things according to one’s wishes. A wise engagement with things entails benefiting from one’s relationship to nature, or even controlling nature, and this benefit extends to a person’s relationship to both material things and the mind. Because human beings and nature exist in a mutual relationship, to live wisely is to live in harmony with nature. With wisdom, one has control over one’s mental faculties, control over one’s mind: one has control over oneself.

A life of wisdom has two dimensions: internally, wise individuals are calm, clear and joyous. When encountering pleasant objects, they are not seduced or reckless. When separated from delightful objects, they are not upset or despondent. They do not entrust their happiness to material things by allowing them to govern their lives. And externally, they are fluent and agile; they are prepared to engage with things appropriately and reasonably. There are no inner attachments or fixations that cause obstruction, prejudice, or confusion. {168}

The following words by the Buddha demonstrate the difference between a life of attachment and a life of wisdom:

Bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling feels a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling, and a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. The instructed noble disciple too feels a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling, and a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. In this case, bhikkhus, what is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the instructed noble disciple and the uninstructed worldling?

Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is contacted by a painful feeling, he grieves and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings – bodily feeling and mental feeling. Suppose an archer were to strike a man with an arrow, and then strike him afterwards with a second arrow, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two arrows. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is contacted by a painful feeling … he feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one.

Being contacted by that painful feeling, he harbours aversion towards it. When he harbours aversion towards painful feeling, the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling lies behind this. Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sense pleasure.27 For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than by sense pleasure. When he seeks delight in sensual pleasure, the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feeling lies behind this. He does not understand as it really is the origin and the passing away, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in the case of these feelings. When he does not understand these things, the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling lies behind this.

If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it as one bound. If he feels a painful feeling, he feels it as one bound. If he feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant felling, he feels it as one bound. This, bhikkhus, is called an uninstructed worldling who is bound28 by birth, aging and death; who is bound by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair; who is bound by suffering, I say. {169}

Bhikkhus, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not grieve or lament. He does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily feeling, not a mental feeling. Suppose an archer were to strike a man with one arrow, but the second arrow would miss the mark, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by one arrow only. So too, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling … he feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.

Being contacted by that painful feeling, he harbours no aversion towards it. Since he harbours no aversion towards painful feeling, the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling does not lie behind this. Being contacted by painful feeling, he does not seek delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the instructed noble disciple knows of an escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure. Since he does not seek delight in sensual pleasure, the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feeling does not lie behind this. He understands as it really is the origin and the passing away, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in the case of these feelings. Since he understands these things, the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling does not lie behind this.

If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it detached. If he feels a painful feeling, he feels it detached. If he feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant felling, he feels it detached. This, bhikkhus, is called a noble disciple who is free from birth, aging and death; who is free from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair; who is free from suffering, I say.

This, bhikkhus, is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the instructed noble disciple and the uninstructed worldling.

S. IV. 207-210.

The preceding section emphasizes knowing things as they are, knowing what to revise and what to cultivate in the heart, and knowing what is gained by such revision and cultivation. The proper conduct in relation to revision and cultivation is a matter of practical application, which will be addressed below. {170}

Orthodox Explanation

The orthodox explanation of Dependent Origination is detailed and intricate. Its study requires extensive knowledge of the texts and of the Pali language.29 Much of that material is beyond the scope of this book and here a basic summary must suffice.

Factors of Dependent Origination

(1) Avijjā → (2) saṅkhāra → (3) viññāṇa → (4) nāma-rūpa → (5) saḷāyatana → (6) phassa → (7) vedanā → (8) taṇhā → (9) upādāna → (10) bhava → (11) jāti → (12) jarāmaraṇa-soka-parideva-dukkha
-domanassa-upāyāsādukkha-samudaya (origin of suffering).

The cessation of suffering follows the same sequence.

The cyclical nature of Dependent Origination may be illustrated as shown on Figure The Cycle of Dependent Origination. {171}

The Cycle of Dependent Origination image


First, here are basic and literal definitions for these twelve factors:30

  1. Avijjā: ignorance; ignorance of truth; a lack of clear understanding.

  2. Saṅkhāra: mental formations; volitional formations; volition and all mental phenomena stored in the mind.

  3. Viññāṇa: consciousness; knowledge based on cognition.

  4. Nāma-rūpa: mental and physical phenomena; the mind and body.

  5. Saḷāyatana: the six sense bases; the six doorways of cognition: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

  6. Phassa: cognition; contact between the sense bases (āyantana), the sense objects (ārammaṇa), and consciousness (viññāṇa).

  7. Vedanā: feeling; the sensation of pleasure, pain, and neutral feeling.

  8. Taṇhā: craving (for sense pleasure, for becoming, and for non-existence).

  9. Upādāna: grasping; clinging; appropriation.

  10. Bhava: becoming; state of existence; mode of being; collective results of volitional action (kamma).

  11. Jāti: birth; the manifestation of the aggregates clung to as self.

  12. Jarāmaraṇa: aging-and-death; the decline of the faculties and dissolution of the aggregates.

Second, here are the formal, doctrinal definitions:

  1. Avijjā: ignorance of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering (the Four Noble Truths), and according to the Abhidhamma, ignorance of the past, the future, the past and future, and of Dependent Origination.31

  2. Saṅkhāra: Bodily volition (kāya-saṅkhāra), verbal volition (vacī-saṅkhāra), and mental volition (citta-saṅkhāra),32 and according to the Abhidhamma, meritorious volition (puññābhisaṅkhāra), demeritorious volition (apuññābhisaṅkhāra), and imperturbability-producing volition (āneñjābhisaṅkhāra).33

  3. Viññāṇa: the six kinds of consciousness: eye-consciousness (cakkhu-viññāṇa), ear-consciousness (sota-viññāṇa), nose-consciousness (ghāna-viññāṇa), tongue-consciousness (jivhā-viññāṇa), body-consciousness (kāya-viññāṇa), and mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa).34

  4. Nāma-rūpa: ’mind’: feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), intention (cetanā), contact (phassa), and attention (manasikāra); and ’body’: the four great elements (mahābhūta) and form that depends on these four great elements. The Abhidhamma defines ’name’ as the feeling aggregate (vedanā-khandha), the perception aggregate (saññā-khandha), and the volitional formation aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha).35

  5. Saḷāyatana: the six sense bases: eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), body (kāya), and mind (mano). {172}

  6. Phassa: the six kinds of contact, by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.36

  7. Vedanā: the six kinds of feeling: feeling arising from contact by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.37

  8. Taṇhā: the six kinds of craving: craving for forms (rūpa-taṇhā), craving for sounds (sadda-taṇhā), craving for smells (gandha-taṇhā), craving for tastes (rasa-taṇhā), craving for tactile objects (phoṭṭhabba-taṇhā), and craving for mind objects (dhamma-taṇhā).38

  9. Upādāna: the four kinds of grasping: kāmupādāna (grasping onto sensuality: to forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects); diṭṭhupādāna (grasping onto views, ideals, theories, and beliefs); sīlabbatupādāna (grasping onto rules and practices, believing that in themselves they lead to spiritual purity); and attavādupādāna (grasping onto ’self’; creating a false idea of self and then clinging to this idea).

  10. Bhava: the three spheres of existence: the sense-sphere (kāma-bhava), the fine-material sphere (rūpa-bhava); and the immaterial sphere (arūpa-bhava). Alternatively: (1) the sphere of ’karma’ (kamma-bhava) – the active process of becoming (equivalent to meritorious volition, demeritorious volition, and imperturbability-producing volition; see saṅkhāra, above), and (2) the passive process of becoming (uppatti-bhava)39, equivalent to the sense sphere, the fine-material sphere, the immaterial sphere, the sphere of perception (saññā-bhava), the sphere of nonperception (asaññā-bhava), the sphere of neither-perception-nor-nonperception (nevasaññānāsaññā-bhava), the sphere of one-constituent being (ekavokāra-bhava), the sphere of four-constituent being (catuvokāra-bhava), and the sphere of five-constituent being (pañcavokāra-bhava).40

  11. Jāti: the birth of the five aggregates; the arising of the sense spheres (āyatana). Alternatively, ’the arising of these various phenomena.’41

  12. Jarāmaraṇa: jarā (aging; weakening of the faculties), and maraṇa (death; the breaking up of the aggregates; an end of the ’life faculty’ – jīvitindriya). Alternatively, ’the degeneration and dissolution of these various phenomena.’42

General Explanations

Here are several examples that give a brief and simple explanation for these factors of Dependent Origination:

  • Āsava → avijjā:

    The belief that going to heaven is the highest happiness; the belief that killing others will bring happiness; the belief that suicide will bring happiness; the belief that birth as a Brahma god will bring immortality; the belief that heaven is reached by making propitiatory offerings; the belief that Nibbāna is reached by undertaking austerities; the belief that there is a presently existing self that will be reborn as a result of certain actions; the belief that nothing exists after death. Thence:

  • → Saṅkhāra:

    Thinking and inclining in the direction of, or in accord with, such beliefs (above); conceiving modes of conduct and action (kamma) based on such thoughts and intentions; these actions may be good (puñña), bad (apuñña or pāpa), or ’imperturbable’ (āneñja – see āneñjābhisaṅkhāra, above). Thence:

  • → Viññāṇa:

    Awareness and cognition of sense impressions that specifically conform to such intentions. A consciousness with particular qualities is generated. {173} At death, the force of volitional formations (saṅkhāra) – of created karma – induces rebirth-linking consciousness (paṭisandhi-viññāṇa), with appropriate properties, to take rebirth in a plane of existence suited to it.

  • → Nāma-rūpa:

    Birth leads to a body and a life that is prepared to perform subsequent karma. There arise the body aggregate (rūpa-khandha), the feeling aggregate (vedanā-khandha), the perception aggregate (saññā-khandha), and the volitional formation aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha), which possess the properties and deficiencies endowed in them by the force of previously generated karma. These aggregates are also conditioned by the nature of the particular plane of existence, depending on birth say as a human being, an animal, or a celestial being.

  • → Saḷāyatana:

    In order to respond to the external world, to enable cognition, and to satisfy personal needs there must be a channel for associating with the external world. With the support of ’mind-and-body’ (nāma-rūpa), life proceeds according to the force of karma (’karmic momentum’) to the point where there arise the six senses: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and the mind which cognizes internal phenomena.

  • → Phassa:

    Cognition takes place by the contact or coming together of three factors: the internal sense bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind), the external sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mind objects), and consciousness (eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind-consciousness). With cognition:

  • → Vedanā:

    There arises feeling (or ’sensation’), either as pleasure (sukha-vedanā), pain (dukkha-vedanā), or a neutral feeling (adukkhamasukha-vedanā or upekkhā-vedanā). For unawakened beings, the process does not end here; as a consequence:

  • → Taṇhā:

    When experiencing pleasure, there is delight, covetousness, and greed. When experiencing pain or discomfort, there is aversion, annoyance, and hostility. A person is agitated and wishes for the feeling to disappear. He wishes to escape from the painful object, seeking to replace it with a pleasurable one. Alternatively, a person experiences a neutral feeling, of indifference, which is a subtle feeling classified as a form of pleasure, since there is no aversion. It is a mild feeling of ease. Thence:

  • → Upādāna:

    When desire is heightened, there is grasping. A person becomes attached to and preoccupied with an object. Before an object is acquired there is craving; after the object is acquired there is grasping. Grasping is not confined to desirable sense objects (kāmupādāna), but extends to associated views and opinions (diṭṭhupādāna), to ways of practice for acquiring desired objects (sīlabbatupādāna), and to a sense of self (attavādupādāna). These different forms of grasping are linked. As a consequence, there is:

  • → Bhava:

    The intention to act in response to the aforementioned grasping. This intention, which conforms to the specific craving and grasping, leads to the entire range of behaviour (the active process of becoming – kamma-bhava), as good, bad, or ’imperturbable’ (āneñja). For example, a person may wish to go to heaven and believes that certain actions will lead to this end, and thus performs these actions. At the same time, he or she prepares the ’conditions for existence’ – the five aggregates – that will appear in the state of existence befitting that karma (the passive process of becoming – uppatti-bhava). When creation of karma operates in this way, at the moment when a lifespan ends, the force of the accumulated karma (kamma-bhava) impels the next stage of the cycle: {174}

  • → Jāti:

    Starting with rebirth-linking consciousness (paṭisandhi-viññāṇa), which conforms to the ’karmic momentum’, there is birth in a realm of existence appropriate to that karma. The five aggregates arise and life begins: ’mind-and-body’, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling arise and the wheel of Dependent Origination continues. With birth, there is certain to be:

  • → Jarāmaraṇa:

    Deterioration and destruction of life. For unawakened people, aging and death are constantly felt as threatening and oppressive, both overtly and subconsciously. Therefore, in the life of ordinary people, aging and death are linked to:

    Soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsa (sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair), which collectively are referred to as ’suffering’. The concluding line of Dependent Origination is thus: ’Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.’

As Dependent Origination exists as a cycle, this stage of sorrow, etc. is not the end. In fact, this collection of qualities becomes another important factor causing the cycle to rotate further. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair reveal the existence of mental impurities called āsava that fester in the heart.

There are four such impurities or ’taints’:

  1. Kāmāsava: The desire for gratification by way of the five senses and by way of the mind;

  2. Diṭṭhāsava: The holding fast to certain beliefs, like ’I am the body’ or ’this body is mine’;

  3. Bhavāsava: Satisfaction in a particular state of existence, considering it superior, precious, and happy; the wish that one can abide in such a state and experience joy forever;

  4. Avijjāsava: Ignorance of things as they truly are.

Aging and death are the marks of decline and decay, and they run counter to these mental impurities. For example, in regard to sensuality, aging and death lead people to feel that they will be separated from pleasurable, desired sense objects. In regard to views, when one identifies with the body, one grieves when it changes. In regard to ’becoming’, one fears that one will miss the opportunity to abide in a desired state of existence. And in regard to ignorance, one lacks basic understanding, of say the nature of aging and the proper course of conduct in relation to it. When a person who lacks proper understanding thinks of or encounters aging and death, he or she experiences fear and gloom and behaves in a misguided way. The ’taints’ thus act as fuel, giving rise to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair the moment a person contacts aging and death.

Sorrow, lamentation, etc., also reveal mental obscurity. Whenever these negative emotions are present, the mind is dim and dull. When one of these mind states arises, it is accompanied by ignorance, as confirmed by the Visuddhimagga:

Sorrow, pain, grief and despair are inseparable from ignorance, and lamentation is found in one who is deluded. So when these are established, ignorance is established; Vism. 576.

This is how ignorance should be understood to be established by sorrow and so on; Vism. 577.

As long as these [sorrow, etc.] go on occurring so long does ignorance occur. Vism. 529.

Therefore it is said: ’With the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance’. M. I. 54.

One can conclude that for unawakened persons, aging and death, with their retinue of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, are a condition for the arising of ignorance, providing the next link in the cycle of Dependent Origination, without interruption. {175}

Several important points may be made concerning the previous explanations:

(1) The cycle of Dependent Origination as explained above is usually called the ’wheel of becoming’ (bhava-cakka) or the ’wheel of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-cakka), and it covers three distinct lifetimes: ignorance (avijjā) and volitional formations (saṅkhāra) comprise one lifespan; consciousness (viññāṇa) to becoming (bhava) comprise another lifespan; and birth (jāti) and aging-and-death (jarā-maraṇa; along with sorrow, lamentation, etc.) comprise a third lifespan. By determining the middle interval (consciousness to becoming) as the present life, the three stages (containing twelve factors) can be connected to three periods of time:

  1. Past life = ignorance and volitional formations.

  2. Present life = consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, and becoming.

  3. Future life = birth and aging-and-death (with sorrow, lamentation, etc.).

(2) In this three-life division, the present life is considered the principal period of time. The relationship of the past to the present is only viewed in the light of causal factors; the results manifesting in the present are traced back to the causes in the past (past causes → present results). Similarly, the view to the future pertains to results; present causes are linked to future results (present causes → future results). Therefore, only the present contains both results and causes; this relationship of cause and effect can be depicted as four stages:43

  1. Past causes (atīta-hetu) = ignorance and volitional formations.

  2. Present results (pacuppanna-phala) = consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling.

  3. Present causes (pacuppanna-hetu) = craving, grasping, and becoming.

  4. Future results (anāgata-phala) = birth and aging-and-death (with sorrow, lamentation, etc.).

(3) From the explanations of each factor above, it is evident that some definitions for these factors overlap or correspond with one another. The factors can thus be grouped as follows:

  1. Ignorance (avijjā) corresponds with craving and grasping (taṇhā and upādāna):

    In the general explanations of ignorance above it is clear that craving (taṇhā) and grasping (upādāna), especially grasping onto a sense of self, are inherent in each example. When a person does not understand the truth and mistakenly identifies with a ’self’, there will be selfish desires and attachments. In the phrase, ’With the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance’, the taints of sense-desire, becoming, and views (kāmāsava, bhavāsava, and diṭṭhāsava) are all connected to craving and grasping. Therefore, whenever ignorance is mentioned, there is always a link to craving and grasping.

    Similarly, in the explanations of craving and grasping there is always a link to ignorance. When there is an identification with ’self’, there is craving and grasping. The many forms of selfishness stem from not knowing the truth of conditioned phenomena. The more people generate desire and attachment, the more impaired are their critical faculties. They increasingly fail to apply mindfulness and wisdom, and their true discernment of things decreases. {176}

    Therefore, ignorance as a past cause and craving and grasping as present causes have essentially the same meaning. The reason ignorance is used in the past and craving and grasping are used in the present is to show the chief determining factors in different sections of the cycle.

  2. Volitional formations (saṅkhāra) corresponds with becoming (bhava):

    The definitions for saṅkhāra and bhava are almost identical. The difference lies in the principal agent that is emphasized or in the range of focus. The definition for saṅkhāra emphasizes intention, which is the principal agent behind action (kamma). The definition for bhava is broader, distinguishing between the active process of becoming (kamma-bhava) and the passive process of becoming (uppatti-bhava). The active process of becoming also has intention as the principal agent (like saṅkhāra), but the term kamma-bhava has a wider meaning than saṅkhāra, encompassing the entire range of human behaviour. The passive process of becoming refers to the five aggregates, arising from the active process of becoming.

  3. Consciousness (viññāṇa) to feeling (vedanā) corresponds with birth and aging -and-death (jāti and jarāmaraṇa; and sorrow, lamentation, etc.):

    The factors of consciousness to feeling refer to results in this life. The reason these factors are listed in detail here is to show how present resultant factors interact and produce present causal factors, which then lead to future results.

    Birth and aging-and-death, as future results, demonstrate that when present causal factors exist, there will inevitably be future results. Jāti and jarāmaraṇa are here used only as a summary, referring to the arising and ceasing of consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling. And they are used to emphasize the arising of suffering, to reveal the point linking the process to the beginning (at ignorance). Therefore, the factors of consciousness to feeling and the dual factors of birth and aging-and- death are essentially the same and can be used interchangeably.

By integrating these matching definitions, each stage in the group of four causes and results (see above) comprises five factors:

  1. Five past causes: ignorance, volitional formations, craving, grasping, and becoming.

  2. Five present results: consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact and feeling (= birth and aging-and-death).

  3. Five present causes: ignorance, volitional formations, craving, grasping, and becoming.

  4. Five future results: consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact and feeling (= birth and aging-and-death).

Compiled in this way, these factors are known as the twenty ’conditions’ (ākāra).

(4) In accord with the preceding definitions, it is possible to classify the twelve factors of Dependent Origination into three groups, which are called the three rounds (vaṭṭa):

  1. Ignorance, craving, grasping are defilements (kilesa). They are the causes behind thinking and acting. This group is called the round of defilement (kilesa-vaṭṭa).

  2. Volitional formations and becoming (i.e. the active process of becoming – kamma-bhava) refer to actions (kamma) that shape the course of life. They are known as the round of intentional action (kamma-vaṭṭa).

  3. Consciousness, mind-and-body, the six sense bases, contact and feeling are results (vipāka). They are the fruits of karma, and become the conditions for producing subsequent defilements. Collectively, they are known as the round of results (vipāka-vaṭṭa). {177}

The relationship between these three rounds can be illustrated as shown at Figure Rounds of Defilements, Actions and Results.

Rounds of Defilements, Actions and Results


These three rounds are depicted in the commentaries. They are a simple, down-to-earth way of explaining Dependent Origination and the round of rebirth. For example, a person may act prompted by defilement in order to acquire a desired object. If the result of this action is a pleasurable feeling, desire is increased, leading to further actions and results. If, however, a person’s actions do not lead to the desired object, the result is an unpleasant feeling; a defilement in the form of anger arises, which becomes an additional result of the person’s actions.

(5) As mental defilements are the source of various forms of karma, shaping the course of life, defilements are thus designated as the beginning of the cycle. Following this designation, there are two starting points to the cycle, known as the two roots (mūla) of the wheel of becoming (bhava-cakka):

  1. Ignorance is the starting point from the past, influencing the present up to feeling.

  2. Craving is the starting point in the present, resulting from feeling and influencing the future up to aging and death.

As mentioned earlier, these two factors are the prominent defilements in each respective stage: ignorance follows from sorrow, lamentation, etc., while craving follows from feeling (see Note Two Roots).

Two Roots

The commentaries state the different purposes for distinguishing and explaining these two ’roots’: avijjā refers to people who are opinionated (diṭṭhi-carita); taṇhā refers to people who are greedy (taṇhā-carita). Alternatively, the section with ignorance as root is used to eliminate an annihilationist view, whereas the section with craving as root is used to eliminate the eternalist view; or, the former section refers to beings who dwell in the womb, while the latter refers to spontaneously born beings. See: Vism. 578.

In reference to rebirth, the orthodox explanation distinguishes between the case wherein ignorance is prominent and that wherein craving is prominent, as follows:

Ignorance is a primary agent causing beings to be reborn in a bad destination (duggati). When ignorance dominates the mind, people are unable to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, helpful and harmful. They tend to act in a deluded and unprincipled way, opening the door to serious misconduct.

The craving for existence (bhava-taṇhā), on the other hand, induces people to be born in good destinations (sugati). When such craving leads the way, people tend to focus on the good qualities of life. When thinking of the future, they want to be born in heaven or to be reborn as a Brahma. In this life they seek wealth, honour, and fame. {178}

Prompted by such desire driven by a craving for existence, they calculate and act to achieve their goal. In order to become a Brahma they develop jhāna, in order to go to heaven they are generous and morally upright, in order to be wealthy they diligently earn money, or in order to seek honour they are charitable. With this care and effort they are able to perform good deeds better than someone dwelling in ignorance.

Although ignorance and craving are designated as ’starting points’, they are not a ’first cause’:

Bhikkhus, the beginning point of ignorance is not apparent, so that one may say: ’Ignorance was not before; it has since come to be.’ Concerning this matter, I say: ’Indeed, with this as condition, ignorance is apparent.’44

A. V. 113; Vism. 525.

There is an identical passage concerning craving for existence:

Bhikkhus, the beginning point of craving for existence is not apparent, so that one may say: ’Craving for existence was not before; it has since come to be.’ Concerning this matter, I say: ’Indeed, with this as condition, craving for existence is apparent.’45

A. V. 116; Vism. 525.

The following passage addresses both ignorance and craving as ’root causes’:

Bhikkhus, for the fool, obstructed by ignorance and bound by craving, this body has thereby originated. As a result, there is this pair of conditions, of body and external name-and-form. Dependent on this pair there is contact by way of only six sense bases. The fool contacts by way of these sense bases, or by way of one among them, and thus experiences pleasure and pain.46

S. II. 23-4.

(6) The interconnection between the factors of Dependent Origination corresponds to the connections collectively known as the twenty-four ’supports’ (paccaya), following the explanation in the Abhidhamma.47

Moreover, each factor can be expanded upon. For example, consciousness (or the mind) can be analyzed according to its quality (as wholesome or unwholesome), its level, and its destination in a particular state of existence. Similarly, form (rūpa) can be analyzed according to different types, properties, and states of existence.

It does not seem necessary here to present these twenty-four supports or the elaborate details for each factor. Readers who take a special interest may investigate these matters directly in the Abhidhamma texts. {179}

The preceding explanations can be illustrated as shown on Figures Past, Present and Future as Stages and Past, Present and Future as a Cycle.

Past, Present and Future as Stages image

Past, Present and Future as a Cycle image

Note: The section on causal factors corresponds to ’origin’ (samudaya) in the Four Noble Truths, because these factors are the agents of suffering. The section on results corresponds with ’suffering’ (dukkha) in the Four Noble Truths. {180}

Alternatively, the section on causes is called active-process becoming (kamma-bhava), because this process generates causes. The section on results is called the passive process of becoming (uppatti-bhava), because this process contains results.

There are three ’links’ (sandhi) between cause (hetu) and effect (phala):

  • (the first) cause-effect link (hetuphala-sandhi);

  • the effect-cause link (phalahetu-sandhi); and

  • (the second) cause-effect link (hetuphala-sandhi).

Application in Everyday Life

The previous explanations are the traditional, orthodox explanations; they are found in the commentaries and have been passed down through the ages. These explanations emphasize the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa): the passing from one life to another. They demonstrate the connection between three lifetimes: the past, the present, and the future, and they have been developed into a fixed, strictly-defined system.

Some people are not content with these explanations and wish to define Dependent Origination in the context of everyday life. They cite explanations in the Abhidhamma and the commentaries that describe the entire sequence of Dependent Origination arising in a single moment.48 They can draw upon the same scriptural passages referred to in the orthodox explanations to support their own interpretation. Moreover, they can find evidence in other texts to substantiate their claims. As will be seen below, this alternate explanation has interesting and distinctive features.

There are many justifications for this alternate explanation. For example, the end of suffering for an arahant occurs in this very life; he or she does not need to die first in order to achieve this state of peace. An arahant is not reborn: there is no aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, etc. in a future life. Even in this life, an arahant experiences no sorrow, lamentation, etc.49 The complete cycle of Dependent Origination in relation to the arising (or ceasing) of suffering occurs in the present time; one need not trace back to a previous life or wait for a future life. And whenever one understands the presently occurring cycle, one also understands the cycles incorporating the past and future, because these respective cycles are all essentially the same.

The following teachings by the Buddha are referred to as corroboration for this alternative interpretation:

Udāyin, if someone should recollect his manifold past lives … then either he might ask me a question about the past (pubbanta – past life) or I might ask him a question about the past, and he might satisfy my mind with his answer to my question or I might satisfy his mind with my answer to his question. If someone with the divine eye … should see beings passing away and reappearing then either he might ask me a question about the future (aparanta – next life) or I might ask him a question about the future, and he might satisfy my mind with his answer to my question or I might satisfy his mind with my answer to his question. But let be the past, Udāyin, let be the future. I shall teach you the Dhamma: when this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. {181}

M. II. 31-2.

Bhadraka the headman approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: ’It would be good, venerable sir, if the Blessed One would teach me about the origin and the passing away of suffering.’

’If, headman, I were to teach you about the origin and the passing away of suffering with reference to the past, saying, ’So it was in the past’, perplexity and uncertainty about that might arise in you. And if I were to teach you about the origin and the passing away of suffering with reference to the future, saying, ’So it will be in the future’, perplexity and uncertainty about that might arise in you. Instead, headman, while I am sitting right here, and you are sitting right there, I will teach you about the origin and the passing away of suffering.’

S. IV. 327.

Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise originating from bile disorders … originating from phlegm disorders … originating from wind disorders … originating from a combination of causes … produced by a change of climate … produced by irregular exercise … caused by assault … produced as the result of karma. How feelings arise originating [from the aforementioned causes] one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ’Whatever feeling a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful, all that is caused by what was done in the past’,50 they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.

S. IV. 230-31.

Bhikkhus, what one intends, what one pays attention to, and what one thinks about: this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis there is a support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and come to growth, there is the production of future renewed existence. When there is the production of future renewed existence, future birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

S. II. 65.

Although the alternative explanation of Dependent Origination has distinctive features, it does not abandon the definitions contained in the standard exposition. Therefore, to understand the alternative explanation it is useful to define the factors of Dependent Origination in this context in a way that is consistent with the standard exposition: {182}

Factors of Dependent Origination

  1. Avijjā: ignorance; lack of knowledge; an absence of wisdom; not seeing the truth; being misled by conventional reality; ignorance inherent in certain beliefs; non-understanding of causality.

  2. Saṅkhāra: volitional activities; thoughts, intentions, deliberations, and decisions; to direct one’s thoughts and to seek agreeable sense impressions that correspond with one’s temperament, proclivity, abilities, beliefs and opinions; the ’fashioning’ of the mind, thoughts, and actions by habitual tendencies.

  3. Viññāṇa: consciousness; the awareness of sense impressions: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects, and the awareness of one’s particular state of mind.

  4. Nāma-rūpa: mind-and-body;51 the elements of materiality and mentality within the process of cognition; the coordination by all components of the body and mind conforming to the arisen state of consciousness; the progression and alteration of physical and mental factors in accord with the particular state of mind.

  5. Saḷāyatana: six sense bases; the functioning of the associated sense bases in accord with the specific circumstances.

  6. Phassa: contact; cognition of sense objects; the connection between consciousness and the outside world.

  7. Vedanā: feeling; the sensation of pleasure, pain, or neither-pain-nor-pleasure.

  8. Taṇhā: craving; desire; a yearning for pleasant sensations and an aversion to painful sensations; the wish to obtain, become, or sustain particular states of mind, or the wish for extinction and annihilation.

  9. Upādāna: attachment; grasping; clinging to pleasant or unpleasant sensations; engaging with and attaching to things that provide such sensations; this attachment leads to an evaluation of things according to how they support or gratify craving.

  10. Bhava: process of becoming; the entire range of behaviour in response to craving and grasping (kamma-bhava – active process), and the subsequent condition of life (uppatti-bhava – passive process) conforming to craving, grasping and personal behaviour.

  11. Jāti: birth; the arising of self-perception as existing (or not existing) in a particular state of life; to occupy this existence and to adopt the corresponding behaviour (kamma-bhava) by affirming this existence and behaviour as one’s own.

  12. Jarā-maraṇa: aging-and-death; decay-and-death; the awareness that one will be separated from this state of existence. The feeling of being threatened by the loss and decay of such an existence. As a consequence people experience the entire range of suffering: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, stress, annoyance, depression, disappointment, anxiety, etc. {183}

Preliminary Explanation of the Relationship between Factors

  1. Ignorance conditions volitional formations: because of not knowing the truth and not wisely investigating different situations, people create various mental fabrications: they speculate, fantasize, and conceptualize in terms of established beliefs, inhibitions, and habits, and they then determine how to speak and act.

  2. Volitional formations condition consciousness: when there is intention or the determination to engage with something, consciousness arises: to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel, and to think about that thing. In particular, intention induces conscious awareness to acknowledge and think about the desired object, resulting in an endless stream of mental proliferation. Intention also conditions a person’s state of mind, endowing it with particular qualities, as positive or negative, virtuous or defiled.

  3. Consciousness conditions mind-and-body: consciousness is accompanied by corresponding physical and mental attributes. Consciousness functions in conjunction with physical and mental factors, such as bodily organs, sensation, perception, and volitional formations. Moreover, in whatever way consciousness has been conditioned, the accompanying physical and mental factors function in concert with this consciousness. For example, when consciousness has been conditioned by angry volitional formations, accompanying perceptions are associated with coarse language, insults, and violence. A person’s countenance will appear sullen, his muscles will be tense, his pulse will quicken, and he will feel stressed. When consciousness is repeatedly conditioned in a particular way, a person’s mental and physical attributes develop into specific personality traits.

  4. Mind-and-body conditions the six sense bases: when mind-and-body has been activated in a particular configuration or direction, it relies on the support from the sense bases, which supply information or act as channels for behaviour. The sense bases are roused to perform their particular duty.

  5. The six sense bases condition contact: when the six sense bases exist, contact with and cognition of sense objects is possible. Cognition depends on the individual sense bases.

  6. Contact conditions feeling: with contact there must be feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

  7. Feeling conditions craving: when experiencing a pleasing sense object, a person feels delight; he or she becomes attached to that object and wants more of it. Consequently, there is craving for sense objects (kāma-taṇhā). One wishes to maintain or abide in a state where one can further experience the pleasure from that object: there arises the craving for becoming (bhava-taṇhā). When experiencing a painful sense object, one feels aversion; one wants to escape from or eliminate it. Consequently, there is the craving for extinction (vibhava-taṇhā). And when experiencing a neutral object, one is indifferent, indecisive, and deluded. The object is experienced as a mild form of pleasure, leading to attachment and a desire for more pleasant sensations. {184}

  8. Craving conditions grasping: when desire intensifies, it leads to attachment. The desire is lodged in the heart and a person is unable to let go of it. This gives rise to particular behaviour in relation to an object. If one likes the object, one binds oneself to it and submits to it; whatever is associated with the object is viewed as good; whatever disturbs it is viewed as disturbing one’s ‘self’. If one dislikes an object, one feels as if one is encountering an opponent. One feels repulsed by and in conflict with anything associated with this object. One sees nothing redeeming about the object and feels personally offended by it. One’s behaviour, both in relation to pleasing and displeasing objects, reinforces and validates the following four things:

    1. objects of sensual gratification (kāma), which are acquired or lost;

    2. views and understanding of things associated with sense objects, including one’s views on life and the world (diṭṭhi);

    3. practices, rules and customs (sīlabbata) maintained for acquiring and avoiding sense objects;

    4. a sense of a ’self’ (attavāda), which acquires things or is impeded.

  9. Grasping conditions becoming: when there is grasping and particular ways of behaving towards objects, people, and states of mind, a person generates a corresponding state of existence, both in regard to general behaviour (kamma-bhava), beginning with patterns of thought, and in regard to personality, which are the mental and physical traits of that person’s life at that time (uppatti-bhava). Examples of this are the distinct behaviour and personality of people who seek material wealth, people who seek power, people who seek fame, people who seek physical beauty, and people who are antisocial.

  10. Becoming conditions birth: with the arising of a personally occupied state of existence, there is a sense of ’self’: a distinct awareness of abiding in or embodying this state of existence. A person believes, for example, that he or she is the owner, the recipient, the agent, the winner, or the loser in this state of existence.

  11. Birth conditions aging-and-death: with the arising of a ’self’ that occupies a state of existence, it is natural to experience both growth and decline within that state, including a weakening of one’s strength, a buffeting by various forces, and a threat of impending loss. In particular, one is anxious about falling away from this state and one continually tries to preserve it. Such waning of strength and foreboding of death causes constant grief and suffering.

Expanded Explanation of the Relationship between Factors

  • Avijjā → saṅkhāra:

    By not knowing the truth and not seeing clearly, a person creates mental fabrications, speculations, and deliberations. For example, a superstitious person may see the reflection of light from an animal’s eyes and believe he is seeing a ghost; he becomes afraid and runs away. In the event that an object is hidden from view, a person may spend time guessing and arguing about the nature of this object. A person who believes that the gods bestow blessings when pleased will offer prayers, entreaties and propitiatory sacrifices to them. {185} A person who does not know the true nature of conditioned phenomena, that they are impermanent, inconstant, and formed by causal factors, sees them as lovely and desirable, and strives to acquire and possess them.

  • Saṅkhāra → viññāṇa:

    With intention, purpose, and deliberate engagement, a consciousness (say of hearing or seeing) arises. On the other hand, if one does not pay attention to or engage with an object, consciousness does not arise, even if one is within range of the object. A person focused on an activity is not distracted by other things. For example, someone reading a fascinating book is only aware of the book’s content; she may not notice loud noises or physical discomfort. When intensely searching for something, one may not pay attention to surrounding people and objects. People will look at an identical object with different intentions and from different perspectives. Take for example an empty plot of land: a child may see it as a playground, a contractor as a building site, a farmer as a plantation, and a manufacturer as a factory site. For each of them the land has a different significance. Similarly, one will see an object from different perspectives depending on one’s mood. If one is thinking good thoughts, one notices the positive aspects of an object, whereas bad thoughts will lead one to notice negative aspects.

    Imagine several objects lying together, which include a bouquet of flowers and a knife. A person who loves flowers may only notice the flowers, without paying attention to the knife. The stronger the interest is for flowers, the more exclusively the person’s attention will dwell on the flowers and the less the person will notice other things. Other people may only notice the knife, and they will associate the knife with different things, according to their thoughts and aims: a thief may see it as a weapon, a cook as a kitchen utensil, and a metal dealer as a source of income.

  • Viññāṇa → nāma-rūpa:

    Consciousness and mind-and-body are mutually dependent in the way described by Ven. Sāriputta:

Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with mind-and-body as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, mind-and-body comes to be … If one were to remove one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall, and if one were to remove the other sheaf, the first would fall. So too, with the cessation of mind-and-body comes cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of mind-and-body …

S. II. 114.

In this sense, when there is the arising of consciousness there must also be the arising of mind-and-body. When volitional formations condition consciousness, they also condition mind-and-body. But because mind-and-body relies on consciousness to exist – because it is linked to and is an attribute of consciousness – the distinction is made: volitional formations condition consciousness, and consciousness conditions mind-and- body. Here, there are two important points to be mentioned on how consciousness conditions mind-and-body: {186}

  1. When cognizing an object (e.g. a visual form or a sound), a person is in fact experiencing mind-and-body.52 The presently existing object for that person is none other than the presently cognized object, and as such it cannot be separated from mind-and-body experienced in that moment by consciousness. For example, when seeing a rose, the rose that exists in that moment is the rose that is known through the eye or is known by way of the ’mind-door’ in that moment of consciousness.53 It is inseparable from the mental concept of a ’rose’ and from the feeling, perception and other volitional formations present in that moment. Thus, consciousness and mind-and-body exist together and are mutually supportive.

  2. The attributes of mind-and-body, especially the mental factors, correspond to the consciousness on which they depend. When a person’s thoughts (saṅkhāra) are wholesome, they condition a wholesome consciousness. In that moment the mind is bright and consequent physical conduct is also wholesome. When a person has bad thoughts, he or she focuses on the negative aspects of things; the mind becomes clouded and subsequent physical conduct is strained.

Accompanying mental and physical factors act in unison with the corresponding volitional formations and consciousness. When there is an emotion (saṅkhāra) of love, a person is attentive (viññāṇa) to the positive side of things; one’s mind is cheerful (nāma), one’s complexion is bright, and one’s physical conduct is positive (rūpa). When one is angry one focuses on the negative side of things; one’s mind is clouded, one’s face is scowling, and one’s behaviour is stressful; all the factors are primed to follow this negative line of thought.

The thoughts and intentions of an athlete at the start of a sporting event are absorbed in that activity. His attention is commensurate to his interest in the competition. All aspects of his mind and body participating in this event are prepared to function accordingly.

The interrelationship of factors here includes the arising and ceasing of newly formed physical and mental properties, which shape or strengthen the personality in line with the corresponding consciousness and volitional formations.54 This process involving the first three links of Dependent Origination is an important stage concerning karma and the fruits of karma (vipāka): a small revolution of the cycle is complete (avijjā = kilesasaṅkhāra = kammaviññāṇa and nāma-rūpa = vipāka), and begins to revolve again from the beginning.55 This stage is pivotal in forming habits, temperament, understanding, skill, and personality.

  • Nāma-rūpa → saḷāyatana:

    The factors of mind-and-body rely on a knowledge of the external world to function, or else they draw on stored knowledge for deciding what course of action to take. Therefore, the aspects of mind-and-body acting as channels for receiving sense impressions, that is, the relevant sense bases, are in a state of receptivity and act in unison with the preceding factors of Dependent Origination. {187} For example, the sense organs (e.g. the eye and ear) of a football player during a match are in a heightened state of alertness and are prepared to receive relevant sense impressions. Simultaneously, the functionality of the sense organs unassociated with this activity is reduced and they are not in a state of alertness. While absorbed in playing football a person’s sense of smell or taste, for example, may be dormant.

  • Saḷāyatana → phassa:

    When the sense bases are engaged and there is the conjunction of three things, cognition arises. The three things are: one of the six sense bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind), one of the six corresponding sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, or mental objects), and one of the six corresponding kinds of consciousness (by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind).

  • Phassa → vedanā:

    With the arising of contact, there is inevitably one of the three kinds of accompanying feeling: pleasure (sukha-vedanā), pain (dukkha-vedanā), or a neutral feeling (upekkhā or adukkhamasukha-vedanā).

The third to the seventh factors of Dependent Origination (viññāṇa to vedanā) comprise a section called the ’fruits of karma’, especially factors five, six and seven (the six sense bases, contact, and feeling). In themselves, they are neither good nor bad, neither skilful nor unskilful, but they act as causes for future good and bad results.

  • Vedanā → taṇhā:

    When a person experiences a pleasant sensation, he is pleased and delighted; he becomes attached and craves for more. When a person experiences a painful sensation, he is annoyed; he wants the painful object to vanish, he wants to escape from the pain, and he searches for a pleasant substitute. When a person experiences a neutral sensation, there tends to be apathy and complacency. Neutral sensation is a subtle form of pleasure; it can lead to attachment and a yearning for further pleasure.

    There are three kinds of craving (taṇhā):

    1. Craving for sense pleasure (kāma-taṇhā): the search for gratification by way of the five senses; desire for acquisition (of pleasurable sense objects).

    2. Craving for existence (bhava-taṇhā): desire for things associated with particular states of existence, or desire for a state of existence (e.g. as a millionaire, a celebrity, or a deva) bestowing such coveted things. More profoundly, it is a desire to sustain the ’self’ in a permanent state of existence.

    3. Craving for non-existence (vibhava-taṇhā): the desire to escape from an undesirable object or state of existence. This craving often manifests as coarse mental states, for example apathy, loneliness, boredom, hopelessness, self-hatred, self-pity, or a wish for self-annihilation (see Note Three Kinds of Craving). {188}

    Craving has these three manifestations: a desire for sensuality, a desire for a pleasant state of existence, and a desire to escape from an unpleasant state of existence. When a person’s desires are thwarted there is a feeling of annoyance, aversion, and ill-will. When this reaction is expressed externally it leads to thoughts of aggression and violence.

  • Taṇhāupādāna: when there is desire for an object, a person clings to it. The greater the desire the greater the attachment. When a person experiences pain and wishes to escape the source of that pain, attachment takes the form of hostility. At the same time, there is a corresponding degree of attachment to things that one believes will gratify desire: to favourable states of existence, to a sense of self, to views, practices, and theories that satisfy personal desires, and to customs and practices that answer to personal needs.

  • Upādānabhava: grasping is connected to a particular state of existence. Attachment involves a process of binding oneself to or identifying with a state of existence, which either provides desired sense objects or helps to escape from undesirable objects. At the same time, when there is a desired state of existence, there invariably must be undesired states of existence. The state of existence grasped on to is called uppatti-bhava (’passive process of becoming’).

    When there is attachment to a state of existence, one strives to sustain certain aspects of this state and to escape from other aspects. All of one’s thoughts and actions, however, are propelled by grasping; they are influenced by established beliefs, opinions, theories, habits, and preferences, and they manifest as behaviour corresponding to this grasping.

    Take for example a person who wishes to be reborn as a god: he will attach to certain belief systems, traditions, ceremonies, and practices that he believes will lead to heaven. He will think and act according to these beliefs and as a consequence may even develop idiosyncratic behaviour. A person who seeks honour will attach to a set of values she believes to be honourable and to a corresponding standard of behaviour. Her thoughts, actions and behaviour will conform to his attachment. A person who covets an object belonging to someone else attaches to the idea of ownership and attempts to acquire the object. By not discerning the harm in wrong conduct, he will think and act out of habit. His initial covetousness may even lead him to steal; his wish to be an ’owner’ results in him becoming a ’thief’.

    Based on correct or false beliefs, a person responds to situations either skilfully or unskilfully. {189} The specific pattern of behaviour driven and shaped by grasping is the active process of becoming (kamma-bhava). The state of existence resulting from this behaviour, say of being a deva, an honourable person, an owner, or a thief, is the passive process of becoming (uppatti-bhava). This state of existence may conform to a person’s desires or it may conflict with them.

    This section of Dependent Origination is a crucial stage for the creation of karma, the receiving of the fruits of karma, and for the development of habits and personality.

  • Bhavajāti: accurately speaking, existence in various states of being is equivalent to the five aggregates arising, transforming, and ceasing. The aggregates possess various properties, which increase or decrease according to internal and external conditions. Of all of these factors, intention is chief, determining the appearance and qualities of the general flow of existence.

    The five aggregates are in constant flux, arising and ceasing in every moment. Conventionally speaking, one can say a ’person’ is born, ages, and dies in every moment, as described in the commentaries:

    In the ultimate sense, as the aggregates are arising, declining, and passing away, when the Blessed One says: ’Monk, you are born, you are aging, and you are dying in every moment’, it should be understood here that, as regards all living beings, he has made a reference to the aggregates.

    KhA. 78.

    For unawakened beings, however, there is not simply an arising and ceasing of the five aggregates according to a natural process. When becoming follows on from grasping, there arises a sense of ’self’, the perception of an ’I’, as existing in a particular way, either conforming to a person’s desires or not.56 In short, a ’self’ is born within that state of existence, as in the former examples of an ’owner’, a ’thief’, or an ’honourable person’.

    The birth of a ’self’ is seen clearly in times of personal conflict involving strong emotions, for instance in the course of arguments, even apparently rational ones. If a person succumbs to mental defilement rather than applies wisdom, a distinct sense of self is generated, for example: ’I am in charge’, ’I am respectable’, ’he is unworthy’, ’he is inferior’, ’this is my opinion’, or ’I am being contradicted’. Consequently, the sense of being a certain kind of person may be discredited or lost. The birth of a ’self’ is especially distinct at times of aging and death, but as is evident from the next link in the cycle, aging and death are only possible because of birth:

  • Jātijarāmaraṇa: when there is a ’self’ existing in a particular way, then there is a ’self’ that is separated from particular states of existence, and a ’self’ that is impeded, agitated, diminished, and unfulfilled. With the birth of a ’self’, there is a wish to sustain a desired state of existence: a wish for stability and permanence. But the birth of a self inevitably brings the end of the self. There is a constant threat of weakness and loss, producing a fear of disturbance, conflict, and death, and leading a person to cling more tightly to that state of existence. {190} A fear of death is embedded in people’s subconscious and affects their behaviour. It leads people to grasp after desired states of existence, to be intimidated by discomfort, and to experience pleasure with anxiety, fearing that it will disappear.

    When the ’self’ is born in an undesired state of existence or when it is born in a desired state from which it must pass away, the various forms of suffering arise: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. People suffering in this way are misguided and blinded. They vainly seek an escape using methods tainted by ignorance, thus continuing the cycle of Dependent Origination.57

    In a competitive world, an ordinary person experiences two kinds of ’success’: there is conventional (sammati) success, with its socially agreed-upon definition; and there is the subjective idea of success that is held by grasping – the act of ’becoming’ (bhava). It is often the case for people, especially those who are proud, to have the thought: ’I am successful’ (i.e.: ’I am born into the state of being a success’). This is then followed by the thought: ’But for success to be complete, I deserve prestige, praise, recognition and reward.’ Success is thus linked to praise, to the failure of others, and to a sense of fulfilled ambition. In the moment when the sense of success arises along with its related attributes, there is a feeling of being fulfilled or unfulfilled.

    With fulfilment comes the feeling of having to firmly attach to success, out of fear that the success will disappear and that the praise and admiration will wane. When others do not express the desired amount of praise, the person feels unhappy, since the sense of being a ’success’ is affected and threatened. One is threatened by decay (jarā) and by the passing away (maraṇa) from the cherished state of success (bhava) along with its attendant benefits. In this circumstance, the feelings of disappointment, worry, and despondency, which have not been uprooted by mindfulness and clear comprehension, preoccupy and entangle people. They become innate characteristics, shaping personality, affecting behaviour, and continuing the cycle of Dependent Origination. {191}

    The fabricated idea of ’self’ takes up space in the heart, which leads to a sense of confinement and limitation. This feeling of limitation induces people to separate themselves from others and gives rise to the ideas of ’me’ and ’other’. When the sense of self becomes further inflated, a person wants to acquire, to accomplish, and to impress others. But the sense of self must be checked and suppressed by people themselves. If people are overly egotistical or follow desires without restraint, external conflict arises. Such unrestrained behaviour also leads to a loss of vitality, by increasing the power of desire and a sense of personal inadequacy. Overall conflict is thus augmented and contentment decreases. There is then no satisfaction and each moment is an opportunity for stress to arise.

Three Kinds of Craving

There are two or three conflicting ways of translating these three kinds of craving, especially the second and third kinds (see, e.g.: Vbh. 365; Vism. 567-8). Some scholars associate bhava-taṇhā with a life-instinct or life-wish, and associate vibhava-taṇhā with a death-instinct or death-wish, corresponding to the psychological terminology of Sigmund Freud (see: M. O’C. Walshe, Buddhism for Today, George Allen and Unwin, London, © 1962, pp. 37-40). One very clear definition for bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā is found at It. 43-4. See Appendix 8 for more on this subject.

Examples from Everyday Life

Tom and Ben are students and intimate friends; everyday at school they great each other cheerfully. One day Tom sees Ben and greets him in a friendly manner, but Ben frowns and does not reply. As a consequence Tom gets angry and stops speaking with Ben. In this situation the process occurs in this way:

  1. Ignorance: Tom does not know the reasons behind Ben’s bad mood and he does not reflect with wisdom to work out the truth of the situation. Ben may be upset about something or have an unresolved problem.

  2. Volitional formations: Tom forms various ideas corresponding to his personal habits and opinions. He speculates about what Ben must be thinking or feeling, and mental defilements may make Tom feel confused, angry or offended.

  3. Consciousness: in his disturbed state, Tom notices those of Ben’s actions that fuel and confirm his current prejudices and interprets them accordingly. And the more he does this, the more convinced he is that he is right. Tom finds all of Ben’s expressions and actions annoying.

  4. Mind-and-body: the various aspects of Tom’s mind and body – feelings, thoughts, mental states, facial expressions, gestures, etc. – manifest as symptoms of anger and conceit. The physical and mental factors that arise match consciousness.

  5. Six sense bases: the sense bases involved in this situation are alert and fully primed.

  6. Contact: there is contact (particularly eye or ear contact) with those characteristics and traits of Ben that are particularly pronounced or arresting, for example sullenness, unresponsiveness, and apparent scorn and disrespect.

  7. Feeling: a feeling of discomfort, stress, pain, or sadness.

  8. Craving: a desire for the destruction and end of the discomforting, oppressive sense impressions. {192}

  9. Grasping: Tom grasps onto the idea that Ben’s behaviour is deliberately aimed at him and that the issue must somehow be sorted out.

  10. Becoming: Tom’s behaviour is conditioned by grasping. His behaviour (kamma-bhava) is adversarial; his existence at this moment (uppatti-bhava) is as an adversary.

  11. Birth: Tom embraces this existence as an adversary. He clearly sees himself as Ben’s foe. He separates ’me’ and ’him’, and identifies himself as one who must confront Ben.

  12. Aging-and-death: the ’self’ arising in this state of conflict is sustained by various perceptions, for example as being a person who is able, skilled, honourable, dignified, or successful. These qualities, however, have opposing qualities, say of inferiority, failure, dishonour, or defeat. As soon as the desired ’self’ arises it is threatened by the possibility of turning into its opposite.

Tom may not be able to sustain the identity of a skilled and effective adversary; rather he may become weak and unable to defend his honour. Suffering continually assails him. It ranges from the fear that he will not get what he wants, the tension and worry involved in the search for a desired state of being, right up to the disappointment if he is unsuccessful. And even in the case that he is successful, a waning of enjoyment inevitably follows. This suffering envelops and overshadows the mind, conditioning further ignorance and another turning of the wheel.

This suffering is like a festering wound, which steadily releases toxins; it causes problems for the person and for others, affects behaviour, and shapes the entire course of life. In the above example, Tom may be unhappy all day, be unable to concentrate on his studies, act and speak badly towards others, and cause further conflicts.

If Tom were to respond correctly from the beginning, this cycle of problems would not occur. When Ben does not smile or return his greeting, Tom would reflect with wisdom that Ben may have encountered some trouble; perhaps he was scolded by one of the teachers, is short of money, or is suffering from some other unresolved issue. Thinking in this way he will not be upset; rather, his heart will remain spacious and full of compassion. He may inquire after the cause, comfort Ben, help him find a solution to the problem, or simply allow Ben to have some quiet time to himself.

Even if a negative cycle begins to turn there is an opportunity to make amends. Say the cycle has reached contact (phassa), where Tom is aware of Ben’s unpleasant behaviour and Tom begins to suffer as a result. Tom can give rise to mindfulness instead of falling victim to an ensuing craving for escape (vibhava-taṇhā). By considering the situation, wisdom severs the cycle and Tom experiences Ben’s actions in a new way. Tom uses reason to reflect on Ben’s actions and on his own appropriate response. Tom’s mind will be clear and free from stress, and he will think of ways to help his friend. {193}

The arising of wisdom brings freedom to the mind; no ’self’ is fabricated that is prone to disturbance. Apart from not creating personal problems, wisdom gives rise to the compassionate wish to reduce others’ suffering. This has the opposite effect from ignorance, which leads to the ’wheel of rebirth’ (saṁsāra), to craving and attachment, and to a restricted sense of ’self’ which is subject to pain and has far-reaching consequences.

At this point let us review some important aspects of Dependent Origination:

  • The entire process of Dependent Origination described above occurs rapidly – it is completed in an instant. For example, a student who has failed his exams, a person who has lost a loved one, or a person who sees his beloved with another partner may be anguished, frightened, or in shock; he may even scream or faint. The stronger the attachment and importance bestowed on something, the more intense the reaction.

  • The conditional factors need not follow a set temporal sequence. In a similar manner, a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a clean surface, and the act of writing are all conditions for written words (on the blackboard).

  • The teaching of Dependent Origination emphasizes an understanding of a natural law – a process found in nature – for discerning the source of problems and the specific points that require correction. The details of that correction – the methods of practice – are not directly connected to the teaching of Dependent Origination, but are matters related to the ’Path’ (magga) or the ’Middle Way’ (majjhimā-paṭipadā).58

Some of the former examples are superficial and lack subtlety, especially those illustrating the link between ignorance and volitional formations, the link between craving and clinging, and the link in which sorrow, lamentation, etc. induce a further rotation of the cycle. Some of the examples describing ignorance are limited to specific circumstances – they are not matters present in each moment of life. This may lead some people to think that ordinary people can live much of their lives without ignorance or that Dependent Origination does not give a true account of daily life. Therefore, it is important to provide a clearer, more detailed explanation of some of the difficult points.

Deeper Explanations

When encountering an object or a situation, people normally interpret it, create ideas about it, and respond to it influenced by the following four predispositions or subconscious impulses:

  1. Kāma: the desire for gratification by way of the five senses.

  2. Bhava: the desire for or anxiety over self-existence; the desire to be a particular way and to maintain a desired state of existence.

  3. Diṭṭhi: habitual views, beliefs, doctrines and theories that are attached to and cherished.

  4. Avijjā: delusion; ignorance; a lack of true awareness and comprehension of causes, effects, meanings, values, and objectives, and of the natural relationship between things or between events; a lack of discernment of the law of causality; the mistaken view that a ’self’ acts and is acted upon; an understanding of things conditioned by personal conjecture or mental fabrication. {194}

These four predispositions, especially factors three and four, are connected. When one does not clearly understand the truth (avijjā), one tends to act in accord with habitual views, beliefs, ideas and concepts (diṭṭhi), many of which one assimilates from society. Factors three and four also influence factors one and two: ignorance and socially conditioned views determine and control people’s thoughts and actions – what they like, what they need, and how they seek satisfaction; they lie buried in a person’s subconscious and dictate behaviour without the person being aware of them.

It is a common perception that people act entirely out of free will, but this is a delusion. If one investigates closely and asks what people really want, why they want these things, and why they follow a particular course of action, one sees that there is no real freedom of choice for most people. Their behaviour is conditioned by their upbringing and education, by culture, by religious beliefs, and by social conventions. They choose and act within the confines of these social factors; even if they depart from usual (i.e. ’normal’) forms of behaviour, they still use these factors as a standard for comparison.

All the things that ordinary people identify with lie within the framework of these four predispositions (and are part of the five aggregates). Apart from being absent of any real ’substance’ or ’self’, these things exert an unrelenting power over people, who, while under their sway, have no independence.

These four predispositions are called āsava, often translated as ’effluent’ or ’outflow’ – something that leaks out; or as ’taint’ – something that ’festers’ and ’ferments’ in the heart. (See Note The Four Taints.) These defilements leak out and stain the mind when a person encounters sense objects. Whenever a person contacts something by way of the senses or thinks of something, these ’āsavas’ permeate and contaminate the mind. One’s experience of sense objects is not guided by wisdom, but is mediated by the taints.59 This state of affairs prevents objective knowing and leads to continual problems. {195}

The Four Taints

The four taints are known as kāmāsava, bhavāsava, diṭṭhāsava, and avijjāsava, respectively. This group of four taints is found in the Abhidhamma; in the suttas only three are mentioned – diṭṭhāsava does not appear. Diṭṭhāsava is an intermediate factor between avijjāsava and bhavāsava: it relies on ignorance to be established and it expresses itself through the taint of becoming. Three āsava: see e.g. D. II. 81; S. IV. 256. Four āsava: see e.g. Vbh. 373-4. Alternative English translations for āsava are: ’inflowing impulses’, ’influxes’, ’biases’, and ’cankers’. The four taints are sometimes referred to as the taint of sense-gratification, the taint of becoming (or of ’self-centred pursuits’), the taint of views, and the taint of ignorance, respectively. MA. I. 67 claims that diṭṭhāsava is incorporated into bhavāsava because the desire for existence or the attachment to jhāna, for instance, is linked to an eternalist or an annihilationist view. See more material at: Nd. II. 7; DA. III. 999; VinṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhāgo, Verañjakaṇḍavaṇṇanā.

These taints govern unenlightened people’s behaviour, including their thoughts and actions, without people being aware of them. They are the agents behind the basic mistake of viewing things as ’me’ or ’mine’, which is the most fundamental level of ignorance. They are the starting point for Dependent Origination: when there is the arising of the taints, there is the arising of ignorance. Ignorance is then the condition for volitional formations, by which people act with a deluded sense of ’self’. Similarly, one can say that people are not free because their behaviour is ruled by unrecognized volitional impulses.

One definition for ignorance is a lack of discernment of the three universal characteristics, especially the quality of nonself. A person is unaware that the things considered to be a ’being’, a ’person’, a ’self’, ’me’, and ’you’, etc., exist as a stream of myriad physical and mental components that are interrelated and mutually dependent. The continual arising and dissolution of these components causes this stream to perpetually change shape. People exist as a collection of thoughts, desires, habits, inclinations, opinions, values, perceptions, insights, and beliefs (both irrational, erroneous beliefs and well-grounded, correct beliefs). These thoughts, etc. are the result of cultural transmission, education, and ongoing responses both to internal events and to one’s environment.

When people are unaware of this fact, they identify with one or another of these components. Through such self-identification, these things deceive and subjugate people; they lead one to see things in the context of a ’self’ and to believe that one is a free agent behind action.

At this point, let us look at another link that is difficult to understand: the link between craving and clinging, which is similarly a stage involving mental impurity.

The three kinds of craving mentioned earlier are all expressions of a single form of basic craving, which all unawakened people possess. This craving is evident when one investigates the deeper workings of the mind, beginning with its lack of understanding of the interdependent relationship of things. This misunderstanding produces the distorted sense of ’self’, which in turn generates an underlying desire for existence – the desire for this illusory ’self’ to exist forever.

The desire for existence is not abstract, but is connected to the desire for sense objects: a person desires existence in order to experience desirable objects and to gratify sense desire. People want to ’be’ because they want to ’get’. The desire for sense objects amplifies the desire for existence.

When the desire for existence is strong but a person does not acquire desirable sense objects, however, the reaction is a state of existence (bhava) that is unsatisfactory, objectionable, and unendurable. The person then wants this state of existence to end. But as soon as there is a desire for extinction the desire for acquisition resurfaces, since there is the fear that with extinction one may not experience desired pleasure; the desire for existence thus follows in its wake. {196}

The same process occurs when one acquires an object of desire but not to a satisfactory degree, or when one acquires an object but one starts to desire something else. The most basic and all-encompassing desire is the desire for more. One finds that human beings are perpetually searching for a happiness that surpasses the happiness they are currently experiencing. Unawakened beings constantly miss or forsake the present moment. People find the present moment hard to endure; they want to escape from it and seek a more gratifying state of existence. The desire to get, the desire to be, and the desire to cease existing, thus continually spin around in a vortex within the lives of ordinary people. Because this cycle is subtle and occurs in every moment, people are not aware that they are constantly struggling to escape from the previous moment and to seek gratification from each subsequent moment.

Craving stems from ignorance: because people do not understand the interdependent nature of things, a fundamental error occurs. They see things either as substantial, as possessing a stable and permanent core or self,60 or see things as existing for a period of time in a stable, substantial way and then dissolving.61

All unawakened people hold these two views in subtle degrees, and hence are subject to the three kinds of craving. Because of the deluded and deep-seated view that things possess a permanent, solid ’self’, there arises the craving for existence. And because of ignorance and doubt, there arises the competing view that things possess a solid substance, but that this substance or ’self’ perishes and disappears. Consequently, there arises the craving for extinction.

These two wrong views give the opportunity for craving to arise. If a person understands the fluid, interdependent nature of things, there can be no permanent, solid ’self’, nor can there be a real, objective ’self’ that dissolves and disappears. Neither craving for being nor craving for extinction has any foundation to stand on. Craving for sense pleasure also results from these two wrong views: fearing that the ’self’ or the pleasure may disappear, people anxiously search for personal gratification. And because they see things as permanent and solid, they grab onto things in order to reinforce a sense of stability.

On a coarse level, craving manifests as the search for sensual pleasure and for situations providing such pleasure, or as boredom with pleasures already acquired. People who have no inner independence feel tedium and agitation when they are unable to experience gratifying sense objects. They constantly search around for new forms of pleasure to escape their disquiet and discomfort. When they do not get what they want they feel disappointment, discouragement, and self-loathing. Their happiness and unhappiness are entirely dependent on external conditions. Time without stimulation or activity then becomes a punishment or a misfortune. {197}

Boredom, depression, loneliness, and discontentment increase both for the individual and in society, even though there is an increase of stimulating objects, and the search for stimulation becomes more crude and passionate. A deeper inspection reveals that problems like drug abuse and teenage delinquency stem from a lack of patience, boredom, and the wish to escape from the state of existence one is born into in that moment.

The mental impurity resulting from craving is grasping (upādāna), of which there are four kinds:

  1. Kāmupādāna: grasping onto sensuality;62 as a consequence of craving, the mind firmly attaches to desired objects. When one acquires a desired object, one attaches to it because one wishes for further gratification and because one fears separation. Attachment arises when a person experiences a moment of gratification and then wishes to repeat the experience, or else when desired objects do not provide gratification. Loss or disappointment may then lead to greater fixation and longing. Although objects of desire do not truly belong to people, they try to persuade themselves that in some way they do possess them. The minds of ordinary people are therefore constantly tangled up with desirable objects and it is difficult for them to reach objectivity, security, and freedom.

  2. Diṭṭhupādāna: grasping onto views; the desire for something to exist or to be eradicated produces biased views and beliefs, which correspond to people’s desires. The search for gratification leads people to grasp onto teachings, theories, philosophical doctrines, etc. that serve and minister to their desire. When people attach to a view, then they appropriate it and identify with it. Apart from thinking and acting in accord with such a view, they feel personally threatened whenever they encounter an opposing view. They feel this opposing view may diminish, weaken, or destroy their ’self’ in some way, and they therefore feel the need to defend their cherished view in order to maintain dignity. This reaction produces conflict, narrow-mindedness, and obstructed wisdom. They are unable to truly benefit from new ideas and teachings, and they are unable to advance their knowledge in an optimal way.63

  3. Sīlabbatupādāna: grasping onto moral precepts and religious practices. The desire for acquisition and existence, the ungrounded fear of the dissolution of the self, and the attachment to views and doctrines all lead to correspondingly superstitious behaviour in the face of those things considered sacred and promising fulfilment, even when people cannot rationally understand the link between these things and desired results. {198}

    The firm belief in a self manifests externally as an unyielding attachment to behaviour, rules, practices, customs, traditions, religious ceremonies, and established institutions, without an awareness of their meaning, objectives and value. As a consequence, human beings create such rules, customs, etc. to limit and confine themselves. They end up becoming narrow-minded and obstinate, and they find it difficult to improve themselves and truly take advantage of what they experience.

    The following passage from the late Ven. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu64 may clarify this attachment to rules and practices:

    When a person upholds a moral precept or follows a teaching without applying reasoned awareness, he simply assumes that this action possesses some kind of sacred power, which will naturally produce positive results. Such a person acts merely by following forms, customs, conventions, and scriptures passed down by society, without understanding their true meaning. Because he repeats these actions until they become a habit, attachment becomes more pronounced. This form of grasping varies from the second form, which is a grasping onto mistaken views and opinions. This third form is very hard to rectify – it is a grasping onto spiritual practices and their external manifestations.

    Ven. Buddhadāsa (Ariyanandamunī); ’The Teachings of Buddhism’;
    Suvijānna Press, 1955; p. 60.
    Suvijānna Press, 1955; p. 60.>

  4. Attavādupādāna: grasping onto the concept of self. The mistaken belief in a true, substantial self is native to the unawakened mind. This belief is reinforced by linguistic conventions, which lead people to see things as distinct, solid entities. This belief in self, however, becomes a form of grasping when craving acts as a condition: with a desire for acquisition a person attaches to the idea of a self which will experience or own the desired object; with a desire for a state of existence there is grasping onto a ’self’ that dwells in that state; with a desire for non-existence there is grasping onto a ’self’ that perishes. And fear of extinction leads a person to struggle to consolidate the sense of self.

    These forms of desire are linked to the idea of possession or control: people believe that there is a ’self’ manipulating events in accord with desire. And because events occasionally do follow desire, they believe that they have mastery over things. But such control is limited and temporary. The various factors attached to as comprising the ’self’ are merely isolated conditions in a larger causal process. Indeed, there is no factor in this process that can be truly or permanently controlled. People, however, interpret even this experience of partial control as proof of a permanent ’self’.

    When people grasp onto the idea of self they are unable to deal with things in harmony with conditional factors. Instead, they are deluded into trying to make things comply with their desires. If people do not act in line with causality and things do not proceed as wished, then they feel oppressed by inadequacy and loss. The grasping onto an idea of self is central and acts as a basis for all other forms of grasping. {199}

These four forms of grasping are connected: an encounter with a pleasurable object gives rise to craving and covetousness. This is followed by grasping onto sensuality: people attach to the desired object, thinking they must acquire, experience, or possess it. Grasping onto views then follows: they think, ’This is good’, ’This will provide happiness’, ’Life will be meaningful when I get this object’ or, ’Any teaching that promotes the acquisition of this object must be correct’. Similarly, there arises the grasping onto rules and practices: people consequently uphold rules, traditions, moral codes, etc. as a means to acquire the desired object. Furthermore, there arises the grasping onto a ’self’, as that which experiences or controls the object.

Clinging prevents mental freedom and clarity. People subject to clinging are unable to think reasonably, interpret events accurately, make wise decisions, or act responsibly in relation to the law of cause and effect. Instead, they experience continual prejudice, limitation, conflict and stress because they hold firmly to such ideas as ’me’ and ’mine’.

Clinging to such ideas demands that things accord with desire, even though things must exist in line with causes and conditions and are not subject to a person’s will. Whenever things deviate from a desired outcome, people feel oppressed. When a cherished object is adversely affected by something, those who grasp onto it are similarly affected. The degree of impact or disturbance is proportional to the degree of attachment and identification. Suffering is not the sole consequence of this attachment: a person’s entire life and scope of activity is ruled by desire and grasping, rather than by wisdom.65

Following on from grasping, the Dependent Origination sequence proceeds to becoming, birth, aging-and-death, and sorrow, lamentation, etc., as described earlier. When people experience sorrow, etc. they seek an escape. Their thoughts, choices, and actions, rather than being based on a discernment of the truth of things, are based on accumulated habits, prejudices, perceptions and opinions. The cycle thus resumes at ignorance and rotates further.

Although ignorance is a fundamental defilement of the mind and engenders other mental impurities, craving tends to be the catalyst and plays the more dominant role in external behaviour. For this reason, in teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the source of suffering is defined as craving (taṇhā).

When ignorance is unchecked – when the mind is in a state of blindness and confusion – then craving is unconstrained and people’s intentional actions (karma) are more likely to be bad than good. But if people receive spiritual training and develop confidence in a correct path, craving can be used to their advantage. When ignorance is corrected by wholesome beliefs, right thoughts, and reasoned understanding, then craving is ’deflected’ to a virtuous goal; it is disciplined and purposeful, and can lead to wholesome actions and beneficial results. {200}

With proper encouragement, craving may be a support for efforts to eliminate ignorance and craving. In such cases a person strives to be a good person, makes good use of idle time, applies effort to achieve longterm goals, and tries to gain social standing or go to heaven. A good person and a bad person are both subject to suffering, but only the method of transforming ignorance and overcoming craving leads to freedom and true happiness.

The following passage demonstrates how craving can be used to a person’s advantage for the highest goal:

Sister, a monk hears it said: ’They say that a monk of such and such a name, by the destruction of the taints, in this very life enters and dwells in the taintless liberation of mind and liberation by wisdom’…. Then he thinks: ’Oh, when shall I too realize the taintless liberation of mind and liberation by wisdom?’ Then, some time later, based on that craving, he abandons craving. It is on account of this that it was said: ’This body has come into being through craving; yet based on craving, craving can be abandoned.’

A. II. 145-6.

If there is no alternative but to choose between two forms of craving, one should choose a craving that leads to the good and acts as an impetus for constructive action. But if possible, one should refrain from both advantageous and destructive craving, and choose the way of wisdom, which is pure, unfettered, and free from suffering. {201}

Dependent Origination and the Middle Teaching

An understanding of Dependent Origination is considered equivalent to right view (sammā-diṭṭhi), which is objective and unbiased. The teaching of Dependent Origination is an ’impartial teaching of truth’ or a ’middle teaching’.66 This teaching is differentiated from doctrines and views that are considered ’extreme’.67 Following are some of these ’extreme’ or ’dualistic’ views, along with scriptural passages explaining them.

Duality #1

  1. Extreme realism (atthika-vāda):68 the belief that things exist absolutely.

  2. Nihilism (natthika-vāda): the belief that nothing has any real existence.

This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends on a duality: on the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world. This world for the most part grasps after theories and is imprisoned by dogmas. But the noble disciple does not become engaged with, hold, and cling to an adherence to theories, beliefs, dogmas, and the underlying bias of ’my self’. He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. A noble disciple’s knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way that there is right view.

’All exists.’: Kaccāna, this is one extreme. ’All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness …

S. II. 17, 76; S. III. 134-5.

A brahmin philosopher approached the Blessed One and said to him:

’How is it, Master Gotama: does all exist?’

’ “All exists”: this, brahmin, is the primary cosmology.’

’Then does all not exist?’

’ “All does not exist”: this is the second cosmology.’

’How is it, Master Gotama: is all a unity?’

’ “All is a unity”: this, brahmin, is the third cosmology.’

’Then is all a plurality?’

’ “All is a plurality”: this is the fourth cosmology. {202}

’Without veering towards any of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be…. With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation …’

S. II. 77.

Duality #2

  1. Eternalism (sassata-vāda)

  2. Annihilationism (uccheda-vāda)

Duality #3

  1. Self-generationism or karmic autogenesisism (attakāra-vāda):69 the belief that happiness and suffering, for instance, are self-generated.

  2. Other-generationism or karmic heterogenisisism (parakāra-vāda): the belief that happiness and suffering, for example, are produced by an external agent.

A proper investigation of duality #3 and duality #4 (below) helps to prevent misunderstandings concerning the law of karma. Here are several sutta passages in which the Buddha addresses this subject:

The naked ascetic Kassapa: ’How is it, Master Gotama: is suffering created by oneself?’

The Buddha: ’Not so, Kassapa.’

’Then is suffering created by another?’

’Not so, Kassapa.’

’Then is suffering created both by oneself and by another?’

’Not so, Kassapa.’

’Then has suffering arisen randomly,70 being created neither by oneself nor by another?’

’Not so, Kassapa.’

’Then is there no suffering?’

’It is not that there is no suffering; there is suffering.’

’Then is it that Master Gotama does not know and see suffering?’

’It is not that I do not know and see suffering, Kassapa. I know suffering, I see suffering.’

’… Venerable sir, let the Blessed One explain suffering to me. Let the Blessed One teach me about suffering.’

’Kassapa, if one asserts as in the first statement, “Suffering is created by oneself”, this is the same as saying, “The one who acts is the same as the one who experiences [suffering].” When one asserts thus, this amounts to eternalism. If one asserts like someone stricken by a feeling, “Suffering is created by another”,71 this is the same as saying, “The one who acts is one, the one who experiences [suffering] is another.” When one asserts thus, this amounts to annihilationism. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be…. With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation …’ {203}

S. II. 19-21.

’Are pleasure and pain created by oneself?’

’Not so.’

’Are pleasure and pain created by another?’

’Not so.’

’Are pleasure and pain created both by oneself and by another?’

’Not so.’

’Then have pleasure and pain arisen randomly, being created neither by oneself nor by another?’

’Not so.’

’Then is there no pleasure and pain?’

’It is not that there is no pleasure and pain; there is pleasure and pain.’

’Then is it that Master Gotama does not know and see pleasure and pain?’

’It is not that I do not know and see pleasure and pain. I know pleasure and pain, I see pleasure and pain.’

’… Venerable sir, let the Blessed One explain pleasure and pain to me. Let the Blessed One teach me about pleasure and pain.’

’If one thinks as in the first statement, “The feeling and the one who feels it are the same”, there arises the belief: “Pleasure and pain are created by oneself.” I do not speak thus. If one thinks, “The feeling is one, the one who feels it is another”, there arises the belief like one who is stricken by feeling: “Pleasure and pain are created by another.” I do not speak thus. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be…. With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation …’

S. II. 22-3.

I have said, Ānanda, that pleasure and pain are dependently arisen. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact….

When there is the body, because of bodily volition, pleasure and pain arise internally; when there is speech, because of verbal volition, pleasure and pain arise internally; when there is the mind, because of mental volition, pleasure and pain arise internally.

With ignorance as condition, one generates on one’s own initiative that bodily volitional formation that conditions internal pleasure and pain; or prompted by others one generates that bodily volitional formation that conditions internal pleasure and pain. Either deliberately one generates that bodily volitional formation that conditions internal pleasure and pain; or undeliberately one generates that bodily volitional formation that conditions internal plea-sure and pain…. One generates on one’s own initiative that verbal volitional formation…. One generates on one’s own initiative that mental volitional formation … or prompted by others…. Either deliberately … or undeliberately one generates that mental volitional formation that conditions internal pleasure and pain. In all of these circumstances ignorance is involved. {204}

E.g.: S. II. 39-40; cf.: D. I. 53-4; D. III. 137; S. I. 134; A. III. 336-7, 440; Ud. 69-70; Vbh. 376-7.

Duality #4

  1. The extremist view of a self-identical soul or the monistic view of subject-object unity (kārakavedakādi-ekatta-vāda).

  2. The extremist view of individual discontinuity or the dualistic view of subject-object distinction (kārakavedakādi-nānatta-vāda).72

’How is it, Master Gotama: is the one who acts the same as the one who experiences [the result]?’

“ ’The one who acts is the same as the one who experiences [the result]”: this, brahmin, is one extreme.’

’Then is the one who acts one, and the one who experiences [the result] another?’

’ “The one who acts is one, and the one who experiences [the result] is another”: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be…. With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation….’

S. II. 75-6.

’Venerable sir, what now is aging-and-death, and for whom is there this aging-and-death?’

’Not a valid question’, the Blessed One replied. ’Bhikkhu, whether one says, “What now is aging-and-death, and for whom is there this aging-and-death?” or whether one says, “Aging-and-death is one thing, the one for whom there is this aging-and-death is another” – both these assertions are identical in meaning; they differ only in the phrasing. If there is the view, “The life principle and the body are the same”, there is no living of the holy life; and if there is the view, “The life principle is one thing, the body is another”, there is no living of the holy life. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: ’With birth as condition, aging-and-death comes to be …’

’Venerable sir, what now is birth, and for whom is there this birth? … becoming … grasping … clinging … feeling … contact … six sense bases … mind-and-body … consciousness … volitional formations?’

’Not a valid question…. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance, whatever kinds of distorted views, vacillations and contradictions there may be – “What now is aging-and-death, and for whom is there this aging-and-death?” or “Aging-and-death is one thing, the one for whom there is this aging-and-death is another”, or “The life principle and the body are the same”, or “The life principle is one thing, the body is another” – all these are abandoned, eradicated, destroyed, obliterated so that they are no more subject to future arising.’

S. II. 60-63.

’Venerable sir, who makes contact?’

’Not a valid question’, the Blessed One replied. ’I do not say, “One makes contact.” If I should say, “One makes contact”, in that case this would be a valid question: “Who makes contact?” But I do not speak thus. Since I do not speak thus, if one should ask me, “With what as condition does contact come to be?” this would be a valid question. To this the valid answer is: “With the six sense bases as condition, contact comes to be; with contact as condition feeling comes to be.” ’

’Who feels…. Who craves…. Who grasps?’

’Not a valid question…. If one should ask me, “With what as condition does feeling come to be?” … “With what as condition does craving come to be?” … “With what as condition does grasping come to be?” this would be a valid question. To this the valid answer is: “With contact as condition, feeling comes to be; with feeling as condition craving comes to be….” ’ {205}

S. II. 13-14.

’Bhikkhus, this body is not yours, nor does it belong to others. It is to be seen as old karma produced by conditioning factors and generated by volition, as the foundation for feeling. Therein, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple investigates carefully Dependent Origination thus: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. That is, with ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations, consciousness comes to be … With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness …”

S. II. 64-5.

The teaching of Dependent Origination reveals the natural law that all conditioned things are marked by the three characteristics (impermanence, dukkha, and nonself) and exist subject to causality. Buddha-Dhamma does not concern itself with such questions as: Do things exist absolutely? Do things lack a real existence? Do things exist in a state of permanence? Or do things exist in a substantial way temporarily and then disappear?

Those people who do not correctly understand Dependent Origination tend to misunderstand the teaching of the Three Characteristics, especially the quality of nonself. Having only a superficial understanding of nonself, they interpret this quality to mean nothing exists and thus adhere to nihilism, which is a serious wrong view.

A person who understands Dependent Origination correctly will escape the misunderstandings stemming from the theories and beliefs mentioned above, for example the belief in a first cause or a belief in the supernatural. The Buddha addresses this topic in the following passage:

When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this Dependent Origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ’Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: ’Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ’Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being – where has it come from and where will it go?

For what reason [is this impossible]? Because the noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this Dependent Origination and these dependently arisen phenomena.

S. II. 26-7.

A person who understands Dependent Origination is not confused by the metaphysical dilemmas known as the ’unanswerable questions’ (abyākata-pañhā). When people asked these questions, the Buddha remained silent. He said that he would not explain them because when a person sees the interdependent nature of things these questions are considered trivial and worthless. These dilemmas are also known as the ten ’erroneous, extremist views’ (antagāhika-diṭṭhi), as illustrated below: {206}

’What, Master Gotama, is the cause and reason why, when wanderers of other sects are asked such questions:

  1. Is the world eternal?

  2. Is the world not eternal?

  3. Is the world finite?

  4. Is the world infinite?

  5. Are the life principle and the body the same?

  6. Is the life principle one thing, the body another?

  7. Does a being73 exist after death?

  8. Does a being not exist after death?

  9. Does a being both exist and not exist after death?

  10. Does a being neither exist nor not exist after death?

… they give such answers as: “The world is eternal”, “The world is not eternal”, … “a being neither exists nor does not exist after death”? And what is the cause and reason why, when Master Gotama is asked such questions, he does not give such answers?’

’Vaccha, wanderers of other sects regard form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. They regard feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. Therefore, when the wanderers of other sects are asked such questions, they give such answers as: “The world is eternal …” But the Tathāgata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One, does not regard form as self … or self as in consciousness. Therefore, when the Tathāgata is asked such questions, he does not give such answers.’74 {207}

E.g.: S. IV. 395-6.

There are other erroneous doctrines and theories concerning karma that conflict with the teaching of Dependent Origination, but these will be discussed in the separate chapter on karma.75

Dependent Origination in a Social Context

So far the discussion has focused only on Dependent Origination as it occurs in the minds and lives of individual people. In the Mahānidāna Sutta,76 however, which is a very important teaching and is the longest of all suttas describing Dependent Origination, the Buddha explained conditionality both in a person’s mind and between people or in society. Following is a brief explanation of how Dependent Origination works on a social level:

The origination of suffering, or the origination of evil, in society proceeds in the same fashion as the origination of suffering in an individual, but the manifestation of social ills begins with craving. In the following passage the Buddha highlights this link in the chain of Dependent Origination:

And so, Ānanda, feeling conditions craving, craving conditions seeking (pariyesanā), seeking conditions acquisition (lābha), acquisition conditions appraisal (vinicchaya), appraisal conditions passionate attachment (chanda-rāga), passionate attachment conditions preoccupation (ajjhosāna), preoccupation conditions possessiveness (pariggaha), possessiveness conditions stinginess (macchariya), stinginess conditions protectiveness (ārakkha), and dependent on protectiveness, as a consequence of protectiveness, there arise the taking up of stick and sword, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying and other evil unskilful states.77 {208}

D. II. 58-9.

The Mahānidāna Sutta thus introduces an alternative sequence of Dependent Origination, containing factors different from those manifesting in an individual. The factors shared by both formats are illustrated thus:

Ignorance → volitional formations → consciousness → mind-and-body → six sense bases → contact → feeling → craving.

Within an individual, when craving (taṇhā) arises, the process continues as follows:

Craving → grasping → becoming → birth → aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, etc. = individual suffering.

In society, however, craving leads to these alternative factors:

Craving → seeking → acquisition → appraisal → passionate attachment → preoccupation → possessiveness → stinginess → protectiveness→ quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, etc. = social problems. {209}

The Kalahavivāda Sutta contains similar material but it is in the form of questions and answers and is composed in verse, so differs in some of the details.78

To help explain Dependent Origination as it relates to social conditions one can examine associated processes that are mentioned elsewhere in the scriptures, for example the process of differentiation (nānatta):

The existence of various elements (dhātu-nānatta) → the various forms of contact (phassa-nānatta) → the various kinds of feeling (vedanā-nānatta) → various perceptions (saññā-nānatta) → various thoughts (saṅkappa-nānatta) → various desires (chanda-nānatta) → various passions (pariḷāha-nānatta) → various forms of seeking (pariyesanā-nānatta) → various forms of acquisition (lābha-nānatta).79

The first section of the above passage, from the elements to perception, can be summarized as ’various elements generate various perceptions’. Another passage in the Canon therefore presents this outline as follows:

Various elements → various perceptions → various thoughts → various desires → various passions → various forms of seeking → various forms of acquisition.80

These alternative presentations of Dependent Origination combine internal human dynamics with external social affairs. They present a wide perspective, revealing the source of social problems to be people’s mental defilements. It may be said that those suttas explaining the wider implications of mental defilement, for example the Aggañña Sutta,81 the Cakkavatti Sutta,82 and the Vāseṭṭha Sutta,83 are working models of Dependent Origination in a social context. {210}

There are a couple of important points to keep in mind when examining this form of presentation: the law of conditionality implies a dependency and necessity between factors. In the phrase ’feeling conditions craving’, the arising of craving depends on feeling; feeling is required for craving to arise. However, when feeling exists, it does not necessarily lead to craving. It is at this link between feeling and craving that the cycle of Dependent Origination can be severed, as corroborated by the sutta passages mentioned earlier, which describe the arising of feeling without subsequent craving. When a person experiences feeling with adequate mindfulness and clear comprehension, the link is cut and craving does not arise.

Note from the Mahānidāna Sutta that the Buddha began his analysis of social woes at this juncture, where feeling conditions craving (vedanaṃ paṭicca taṇhā). This link between feeling and craving is a crucial stage and has a direct bearing on human behaviour and social wellbeing.

The suttas cited above describe how aspects of human society, like the caste system and differences in individual circumstances, result from human interactions and are influenced by the natural environment. Social conditions are shaped by the interdependency between human beings (beginning with people’s mental qualities), society, and the natural environment. For example, a person’s feelings rely on contact, which is affected by social and environmental factors as well as internal factors like perception. When craving follows feeling, subsequent behaviour may have an impact on other people and on the environment so that all factors are affected. Human beings are not the only factor influencing society and the environment, neither are society or the environment the only factor in influencing the other two: the three are interdependent.

Sections of the Aggañña Sutta illustrate the process of conditionality:

Idle individuals hoard grain and this practice becomes popular

→ areas are established for allocating grain

→ greedy individuals steal grain from others to increase their share

→ there arises censure, deceit, punishment, and fighting

→ wise individuals see the need for government; there develops the practice of electing a leader or king (khattiya); some people become disillusioned with the corruption in society and go to live in the forest to free themselves from evil and develop jhāna; some of these people live near populated areas; they study and compose texts, and the term ’brahmin’ (brāhmaṇa) is coined; those people who have families and pursue various forms of enterprise are called ’merchants’ (vessa); others whose behaviour is considered vulgar or inferior are branded as ’low class’ (sudda)

→ members of each of these four groups abandon their personal customs, renounce the household life, and go forth as ascetics (samaṇa). {211}

This sutta shows that various castes and social classes are formed and conditioned by naturally occurring human relationships; they are not created by a creator God. Every person has the choice to perform good or bad deeds and everyone will equally receive the fruits of their actions in accord with natural laws. And every person who cultivates the Dhamma correctly can reach liberation – can reach Nibbāna.

The Cakkavatti Sutta (mentioned above) describes the conditions underlying crime and other social ills:

Government leaders do not provide financial assistance to the poor

→ poverty is rampant

→ theft is rampant

→ the use of weapons is rampant

→ killing is rampant

→ the spread of lying, divisive speech, harsh and frivolous speech, sexual misconduct, covetousness, hostility, wrong views, attachment to unrighteousness (adhamma-rāga), greed, injustice (micchā-dhamma), lack of respect for parents, ascetics and brahmins, and lack of respect according to social standing

→ the decline of beauty and longevity.

(Trans.: in the Thai edition of Buddhadhamma, this section is at the beginning of chapter 12, introducing the Middle Way.)

The Middle Teaching (majjhena-dhammadesanā) is the objective truth revealed by the Buddha – the truth that all things naturally accord with causes and conditions and that they are not subject to the extreme or biased views fabricated by people to match their erroneous perceptions and their desires for the world to be a certain way. The Middle Teaching refers to Dependent Origination: the process of the interdependent arising of things. As outlined earlier, there are two formats or courses of Dependent Origination in reference to the suffering of human beings. The first format illustrates the arising of suffering. The second format illustrates the cessation of suffering.

The Middle Teaching describes these two processes:84

  1. Origination (samudaya): the origination cycle of dependent origination: avijjāsaṅkhāraviññāṇa → … jātijarāmaraṇa → soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsā = the origin of suffering.

  2. Cessation (nirodha): the cessation cycle of dependent origination: ignorance ceases → volitional formations cease → consciousness ceases → … birth ceases → aging and death cease → sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease = the cessation of suffering.

Suffering is of primary concern to human beings. The origination cycle is presented to identify the source of suffering, and the first step is to outline the factors acting as a foundation for suffering.

As for the cessation cycle, the term nirodha in the Middle Teaching has a broad range of meaning. Besides referring to the process leading to the cessation of suffering, it also refers to Nibbāna – freedom from suffering. The Middle Teaching incorporates both the cessation cycle and Nibbāna. {514}

By describing the teachings on suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation cycle, and the freedom from suffering, one may conclude that the entire essence of Buddha-Dhamma has been captured, but this is not the case. The reason for this is that the Middle Teaching purely describes naturally occurring phenomena; it does not include the means of spiritual practice applied by human beings.

The cessation cycle as found in the Middle Teaching is depicted as a pure (i.e. ’theoretical’ or ’mechanical’) process of nature. It describes the necessary interrelated causes and conditions that lead to the end of suffering, but it does not explain the details of practical application: it does not specify what needs to be done in practical terms to reach this end.

People may study the Middle Teaching and gain a gradual understanding of the cessation cycle and the principle of ending suffering, but they still require practical advice to achieve results conforming to this principle. Our responsibility in regard to nature is to gain knowledge (initially an intellectual grasp of natural truths) and then to apply this knowledge to spiritual practice. This is the link between objective, natural processes and Dhamma practice.

The Pali term for Dhamma practice, including methods of practice, is paṭipadā. This term specifically refers to rules of practice, methods of practice, or ways of conducting one’s life in order to reach the end of suffering. The Buddha set down this practice in conformity with the Middle Teaching on the cessation of suffering, and he called this practice the ’middle way of practice’ (majjhimā-paṭipadā) or simply the ’Middle Way’. It is a balanced practice corresponding with the laws of nature, and it gives results according to the natural cycle of cessation. It is impartial; it does not swing to either of the two extremes that cause entanglement or deviation from the correct path.85

The Middle Way can be simply referred to as the ’Path’. The Path is comprised of eight factors and because it leads to awakening (i.e. the state of a ’noble person’) it is called the ’Noble Eightfold Path’ (ariya-aṭṭhaṅgika-magga).86 The Buddha said that this is an ancient Path, which has been traversed by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. The Buddha rediscovered this path and revealed it to others, showing the way to those who are ready to be trained.87 {515}

This path of practice produces results in accord with the cessation cycle; it enables causes and conditions to proceed in an interconnected way until the natural process reaches its end. The achievement of the Path marks the transition from the theoretical cycle of cessation, or from a preliminary knowledge of truth, to practical application.

The transition from the theoretical cycle of cessation to practical application can be illustrated in this way:

Cessation (nirodha): cessation of ignorance → cessation of volitional formations → cessation of consciousness … → cessation of birth → cessation of aging-and-death, sorrow … despair = cessation of suffering.

Path (magga): right view (sammā-diṭṭhi) + right intention (sammā-saṅkappa) + right speech (sammā-vācā) + right action (sammā-kammanta) + right livelihood (sammā-ājīva) + right effort (sammā-vāyāma) + right mindfulness (sammā-sati) + right concentration (sammā-samādhi) → cessation of suffering.

Here are some significant points concerning the connection between the cessation cycle and the practice of the Path:

The cessation cycle is a process occurring in nature; the Path is a way of practice for human beings to achieve results in accord with this natural process. The Path arises from applying knowledge of the cessation cycle. This knowledge is developed into a method of practice and one who follows this practice must have at least a rudimentary understanding of the cessation cycle. For this reason, the Path begins with ’right view’.

The cessation cycle deals directly with the relationship between causes and conditions; it is described as the cessation of causes and conditions that give rise to suffering. Cessation in this context is decisive and complete: it is an end to and a freedom from all problems. The Path of practice, on the other hand, is flexible. The details of practice can be described in terms of different degrees of difficulty, and the eight factors of the Path can be expanded upon into various levels of complexity. The path to liberation is gradual, and the reduction or elimination of problems is commensurate with the extent or degree of a person’s practice.

The cessation cycle focuses explicitly on causes and conditions – it is impersonal – and it points to the utter elimination of such causes and conditions. It includes little mention of good and bad or good and evil. The Path is gradual; it constitutes an increase in the power of goodness to combat and vanquish negative, obstructive forces. It emphasizes the abandonment of the bad and the cultivation of the good at many levels. {516}

The cessation cycle is theoretical; the Path is practical and methodical.

To use an analogy, the cessation cycle is like the set of principles involved in extinguishing a fire: fuel must be removed, the oxygen supply cut off, and the temperature reduced. The Path is similar to the methods used to achieve results based on these principles: what is needed to remove the fuel, cut off oxygen, and reduce temperature. This requires much effort, both in acquiring the necessary equipment and planning tactics: should water or an alternative fire retardant be used? What tools are needed? How should one respond in the case of ordinary fires, electrical fires, oil fires, and gas fires? How does one access the fire and protect oneself? And how does one train people to act as firefighters?

Similarly, the cessation cycle is like the set of principles involved in treating disease, which refers directly to the removal of pathological elements: the elimination of germs, the removal of toxins and foreign substances, the repair of faulty or weakened tissues and organs, the supply of deficient nutrients, and the improvement of one’s mental condition. The Path is like the treatment of disease, which may only involve a brief review of medical principles and yet comprise elaborate and complex procedures, including: examination, diagnosis, medication, surgery, nursing, physiotherapy, the manufacture and use of medical equipment, the creation of clinics and hospitals, health administration, and the training of medical staff.

The eight fundamental factors of the Path can be expanded on and rearranged into many formats, groups and stages, to correspond with various objectives, persons, circumstances, conditions, and levels of readiness, all of which requires detailed study. The Middle Way is therefore explained in a separate section of Buddhadhamma.88 This explanation can be divided into two parts: first is a description of the eight factors, which is a basic, preliminary structure; and second is an expansion and rearrangement of these factors into new outlines, according to specific circumstances.

At this point let us look again at the transition from the theoretical description of phenomena to the way of practice, a transition that can be explained by different formats.

The Buddha described two modes of practice:

  1. Wrong practice (micchā-paṭipadā): the incorrect path: the path giving rise to suffering.

  2. Right practice (sammā-paṭipadā): the correct path: the path leading to the end of suffering. {517}

On one occasion he equated the origination cycle of Dependent Origination with wrong practice and the cessation cycle with right practice:89

  1. Wrong practice: avijjāsaṅkhāraviññāṇa → … jātijarāmaraṇa → soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsā = the origin of suffering.

  2. Right practice: ignorance ceases → volitional formations cease → consciousness ceases → … birth ceases → aging and death cease → sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease = the cessation of suffering.

On another occasion he described the factors that are contrary to the Path as wrong practice and the factors of the Path as right practice:90

  1. Wrong practice: wrong view (micchā-diṭṭhi) + wrong intention (micchā-saṅkappa) + wrong speech (micchā-vācā) + wrong action (micchā-kammanta) + wrong livelihood (micchā-ājīva) + wrong effort (micchā-vāyāma) + wrong mindfulness (micchā-sati) + wrong concentration (micchā-samādhi).

  2. Right practice: right view (sammā-diṭṭhi) + right intention (sammā-saṅkappa) + right speech (sammā-vācā) + right action (sammā-kammanta) + right livelihood (sammā-ājīva) + right effort (sammā-vāyāma) + right mindfulness (sammā-sati) + right concentration (sammā-samādhi).

Dependent Origination describes a natural, causal process of phenomena; it is not an outline of practice. Nevertheless, in the first pair of right and wrong practice above, practice is defined by way of Dependent Origination. An answer to whether or not this is a contradiction is that here Dependent Origination emphasizes practice.91

The commentary to this sutta poses the question that if ignorance can act as a condition for wholesome, meritorious intentions (puññābhisaṅkhāra) and as a catalyst for highly concentrated states of mind (āneñjābhisaṅkhāra), then why should it be classified as wrong practice? The commentary goes on to reply to its own question that someone who desires existence aims for acquiring and becoming; whatever they do, even developing the five higher psychic attainments (abhiññā) or the eight concentrative attainments (samāpatti), is ’wrong practice’. On the contrary, one who aspires for Nibbāna with thoughts of relinquishment (with a clear mind) does not aim for becoming; even if he or she offers a small gift, this action is ’right practice’.92

In any case, the reason for placing these two preceding pairs of definitions for right and wrong practice together is simply to help explain the transition from the cessation cycle to the path of practice. We can observe here, however, that besides describing a positive cycle and a correct form of practice, the Buddha also described a negative cycle and an incorrect form of practice.

Breaking the Cycle

The Buddha described another format for the cessation cycle of Dependent Origination. The initial part of this format begins with the standard origination cycle, from ignorance to the arising of suffering. From there, instead of describing the cessation cycle, it describes a connected process of wholesome qualities leading up to and ending with awakening. This is a completely new format which does not refer to the cessation of any of the factors in the origination cycle. {518}

This outline is an important example of applying the factors of the Path in a system of Dhamma practice; in other words it is a process that occurs for a person who successfully follows the Path and reaches perfect realization. The Buddha described this format for liberation on many occasions, with slight variations in detail:

Avijjāsaṅkhāraviññāṇanāma-rūpasaḷāyatanaphassavedanātaṇhāupādānabhavajāti → suffering (dukkha) → faith (saddhā) → joy (pāmojja) → delight (pīti) → tranquillity (passaddhi; ’relaxation’) → happiness (sukha) → concentration (samādhi) → knowledge and vision according to reality (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) → disenchantment (nibbidā) → dispassion (virāga) → liberation (vimutti) → knowledge of the destruction of mental defilement (khaya-ñāṇa).93

S. II. 31.

This process begins with ignorance until it reaches suffering (the word dukkha here replaces the terms jarāmaraṇa and soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsā). But from this point, instead of linking with ignorance and resuming the cycle of origination, it proceeds in a wholesome, positive direction, with faith taking over from ignorance. It finally reaches knowledge of the destruction of the taints and does not link up with ignorance again. If one counts suffering as the pivotal factor, the number of factors both preceding and following suffering is identical.

This new outline can be divided into two parts: first, from ignorance to suffering, and second, from faith to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. In the second part, faith replaces ignorance as the initial factor. Referring back to an earlier section in this book, one can recognize that faith here is equivalent to a ’disciplined’ or weakened form of ignorance. At this stage ignorance is no longer totally ’blind’, but is imbued with a grain of understanding, which buds as an aspiration to reach a virtuous goal and blossoms into true knowledge and complete liberation.

In this instance, when the cycle has proceeded from ignorance and reached suffering, one seeks an escape. If one receives correct instruction or considers carefully the law of cause and effect, and one has gained confidence in goodness (the arising of faith – saddhā), then there will arise joy, contentment, and a determination to gradually advance in virtue until the end is reached.

The second part of the new outline is in fact the same as the standard cessation cycle of Dependent Origination (ignorance ceases → volitional formations cease → consciousness ceases, etc.). This new outline merely describes the prominent factors of the cycle in greater detail, and emphasizes the connection between the origination cycle and the cessation cycle.

In the Nettipakaraṇa94 the following teaching by the Buddha is interpreted as a transcendent form of Dependent Origination (i.e. the mode of cessation): {519}

Virtuous conduct, Ānanda, has the benefit95 and reward of non-remorse….96 Non-remorse has the benefit and reward of joy…. Joy has the benefit and reward of delight…. Delight has the benefit and reward of tranquillity…. Tranquillity has the benefit and reward of happiness…. Happiness has the benefit and reward of concentration…. Concentration has the benefit and reward of knowledge and vision of things as they really are…. Knowledge and vision of things as they really are has the benefit and reward of disenchantment…. Disenchantment has the benefit and reward of dispassion…. Dispassion has the benefit and reward of the knowledge and vision of liberation…. In this way, Ānanda, virtuous conduct brings the succeeding qualities to perfection, for reaching step by step the fruit of arahantship.97

A. V. 311.

This teaching can be illustrated easily as follows:

Virtuous conduct → non-remorse → joy → delight → tranquillity → happiness → concentration → knowledge and vision of things as they really are → disenchantment → dispassion → knowledge and vision of liberation.

This process is almost identical to the outline above, except that it begins with moral conduct and non-remorse instead of faith, and it only describes the cessation cycle – it does not refer to the origin of suffering. It is fair to say, however, that the meanings of the two formats are essentially the same.

The first format focuses on a situation where faith is the predominant factor. When a person has faith – faith in virtue and confidence in the law of cause and effect – this state of mind is connected to conduct. Faith is supported by virtuous conduct and thus leads to gladness. The second format focuses on conduct as the predominant factor. In this situation, the mind has a foundation of faith and confidence, which promotes virtuous conduct. Virtuous conduct leads to an untroubled mind – one has self-confidence in one’s good actions. This self-confidence is an attribute of faith (saddhā), which also leads to gladness, the following factor. The final factors of the first format end with liberation and with knowledge of the destruction of the taints, while the second format ends with knowledge and vision of liberation. These two endings are identical in meaning; the second format combines liberation with knowledge of the destruction of the taints into a single factor.

There is another outline similar to the one beginning with faith, but here faith is replaced by wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra):

Wise reflection → joy → delight → tranquillity → happiness → concentration → knowledge and vision according to reality → disenchantment → dispassion → liberation. {520}

D. III. 288.

This teaching does not introduce a radically different idea; the process simply begins with a person’s ability to analyze and to apply wisdom to investigate cause and effect. Instead of beginning with faith, which is equivalent to entrusting one’s wisdom to someone or something else, the process begins with proper attention, which leads to an understanding of things as they truly are and to a bright and joyous mind. The subsequent factors are the same as in the preceding formats.

Destruction of Mental Defilements


These processes of cessation shed light on the path of practice and on the tasks required by human beings. However, they still lack sufficient details for a comprehensive practice; the question remains as to what is required to bring about and fulfil these cycles of cessation.

At this point, in order to gain a new perspective let us look at another format of Dependent Origination:

Nutriment of Ignorance

Monks, and ignorance too, I declare, is a specific condition. And due to its nutriment, it manifests. I declare:

  1. Ignorance has its nutriment: the five hindrances.

  2. The five hindrances have their nutriment: the three ways of wrong conduct.

  3. The three ways of wrong conduct have their nutriment: lack of sense restraint.

  4. Lack of sense restraint has its nutriment: lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension.

  5. Lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension has its nutriment: improper attention.

  6. Improper attention has its nutriment: lack of faith.

  7. Lack of faith has its nutriment: not listening to the true teachings.

  8. Not listening to the true teachings has its nutriment: not associating with superior people.

When non-association with superior people prevails, not listening to the true teachings will prevail. When not listening to the true teachings prevails, it will make a lack of faith prevail…. When the five hindrances prevail, they will make ignorance prevail. In this way, ignorance has its nutriment and becomes complete.

A. V. 113-14.

Nutriment of Knowledge and Liberation

  1. Supreme knowledge and liberation have their nutriment: the seven factors of enlightenment.

  2. The seven factors of enlightenment have their nutriment: the four foundations of mindfulness.

  3. The four foundations of mindfulness have their nutriment: the three ways of good conduct.

  4. The three ways of good conduct have their nutriment: restraint of the senses.98 {521}

  5. Restraint of the senses has its nutriment: mindfulness and clear comprehension.

  6. Mindfulness and clear comprehension has its nutriment: wise reflection.

  7. Wise reflection has its nutriment: faith.

  8. Faith has its nutriment: listening to the true Dhamma.

  9. Listening to the true Dhamma has its nutriment: association with superior people.

When association with superior people prevails, it will make listening to the true Dhamma prevail. When listening to the true Dhamma prevails, it will make faith prevail…. When the seven factors of enlightenment prevail, they will make supreme knowledge and liberation prevail. In this way, supreme knowledge and liberation have their nutriment and become complete.

A. V. 114-15.

In this teaching two factors play a pivotal role: wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), which is the principle of Buddhist application of thought and is a key internal attribute; and association with superior persons (sappurisa-saṁseva = having a ’beautiful friend’ – kalyāṇamitta),99 which reveals the importance of social factors and is a key external factor. Faith acts as the link between these two factors.100

The various outlines of the cessation cycle mentioned above along with particular forms of practice can be summarized as follows:

  • 1. The cessation cycle and the path of practice:

    Cessation cycle of Dependent Origination: ignorance ceases → volitional formations cease → consciousness ceases → … birth ceases → aging and death cease → sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease = the cessation of suffering.

    The Middle Way: right view + right intention + right speech + right action + right livelihood + right effort + right mindfulness + right concentration → cessation of suffering.

  • 2. The cessation cycle explained as a process of wholesome qualities leading to liberation, in which suffering is the starting point. This cycle proceeds in an opposite direction to the origination cycle of suffering, as illustrated on Figure From Ignorance to Liberation and the Destruction of Defilements.101 {522}


From Ignorance to Liberation and the Destruction of Defilements

  • 3. A gradual way of practice comprised of (subsidiary) factors of the Path. This way of practice is not an automatic causal process, but each step of this process acts as a support for the subsequent stages of practice. Here is an example of this outline:

    Mutually sustaining qualities: association with superior people → listening to the true Dhamma → faith → wise reflection → mindfulness and clear comprehension → sense restraint → good conduct → foundations of mindfulness → factors of enlightenment → supreme knowledge and liberation.

The placement of Path factors into a way of practice (as shown above) can result in many different detailed stages of practice, corresponding to the specific objective and emphasis of the compiler. The stages of practice, however, generally conform to the framework and sequence of the threefold training (moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom),102 which is a key principle in the application of the Path factors in Dhamma practice. Following is a brief summary of three further examples of this last outline of practice which are mentioned frequently in the scriptures.

The Fulfilment of the Holy Life (brahmacariya)

(This way of practice is found frequently in the scriptures. It is referred to as the fulfilment of the holy life (M. I. 521-2); and it is equivalent to the threefold training (D. I. 206-209). According to this format, sense restraint is grouped under ’concentration’, but in later texts, e.g. Vism. 15-16 and Comp.: Kammaṭṭhānaparicchedo, Vipassanākammaṭṭhānaṃ, Visuddhibhedo, it is grouped under moral conduct and is called the ’virtuous conduct of sense restraint’ (indriyasaṁvara-sīla), where it is the second factor of the four ’modes of pure conduct’ (pārisuddhi-sīla). On many occasions contentment is not mentioned. See also: D. I. 62-85; M. I. 178-84, 265-71, 344-9, 412; M. II. 38, 162-4, 226-7; A. II. 207-208; A. V. 203; Dhtk. 27.)

Moral conduct:

Encountering the Buddha (= association with superior persons) → listening to the Dhamma → faith → (’going forth’ as a monk) → noble moral conduct (the happiness of leading a faultless life – anavajja-sukha) +


Restraint of the senses (untarnished happiness – avyāseka-sukha) + mindfulness and clear comprehension + contentment (santosa) → (developing concentration in secluded places) → eliminating the hindrances (= joy – pāmojja) → four jhānas (= the bliss of jhāna – jhāna-sukha) →


Three kinds of supreme knowledge – vijjā (or the six kinds of direct knowledge – abhiññā; or the eight kinds of supreme knowledge) → liberation → knowledge of the destruction of the taints.

Seven Kinds of Purity

(M. I. 149-50; also, the entire text of the Visuddhimagga. At D. III. 289, two more kinds of purity are added at the end: paññā-visuddhi and vimutti-visuddhi. The commentaries explain that these two refer to arahattaphala-paññā and arahattaphala-vimutti, respectively (DA. III. 1062).)

Moral Conduct:

  • 1. Purity of moral conduct (sīla-visuddhi) = pure conduct in accord with a person’s personal circumstances →


  • 2. Purity of mind (citta-visuddhi) = ’access concentration’ and higher forms of concentration →


  • 3. Purity of views (diṭṭhi-visuddhi) = knowledge of mind-and-body →

  • 4. Purity of knowledge leading to the end of doubt (kaṅkhāvitaraṇa-visuddhi) = an understanding of Dependent Origination →

  • 5. Purity of knowledge regarding Path and not-path (maggāmaggañāṇadassana-visuddhi) = encountering and going beyond the ’defilements of in-sight’ (vipassanūpakilesa) →

  • 6. Purity of knowledge of the way of practice (paṭipadāñāṇadassana-visuddhi) = ’insight knowledge’ (vipassanā-ñāṇa) →

  • 7. Purity of knowledge and vision (ñāṇadassana-visuddhi) = Path knowledge (magga-ñāṇa). {523}

Fifteen Modes of Conduct and the Three Kinds of Knowledge

Fifteen Modes of Conduct (= moral conduct and concentration):103

’Practice of a trainee’ – sekha-paṭipadā: (1) perfect moral conduct (sīla-sampadā) + (2) sense restraint + (3) moderation in eating (bhojane-mattaññutā) + (4) practice of wakefulness (jāgariyānuyoga) +

Seven essential qualities (saddhamma): (5) faith; (6) moral shame – hiri; (7) fear of wrongdoing – ottappa; (8) great learning – bāhusacca; (9) energy – viriya; (10) mindfulness – sati; and (11) wisdom; + (12-15) four jhānas →

Three Kinds of Supreme Knowledge (= wisdom). The three vijjā: reminiscence of past lives (pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa); knowledge of the decease and rebirth of beings (cutūpapāta-ñāṇa); knowledge of the destruction of the taints (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa).

Occasionally the Buddha emphasized the development of wisdom, for example:

Gradual training (anupubba-sikkhā) or gradual practice (anupubba-paṭipadā):104

Faith (in a teacher) → one seeks out (the teacher) → one approaches (the teacher) → one is eager to listen (to the teacher) → one listens to the Dhamma → one memorizes the Dhamma → one examines the meaning of the teachings → one gains a reflective understanding of the teachings → enthusiasm → perseverance → one examines the truth and gains a clear understanding → resolute effort → one penetrates the truth with wisdom.

A well-known teaching that applies to daily life is the teaching on the ten ’righteous ways of conduct’ (dhamma-cariyā),105 which are also known as the ten ’wholesome ways of action’ (kusala-kammapatha).106 In the Pali Canon these qualities are sometimes referred to as ’noble qualities’ (ariya-dhamma).107 The commentaries refer to them as ’human qualities’ (manussa-dhamma).108 This teaching is an example of applying the factors of the Path to Dhamma practice:

Righteous Ways of Conduct (dhamma-cariyā)

Moral Conduct:

Right Action: abstaining from injury to living creatures – pāṇātipāta (= mutual kindness and support) + abstaining from taking what is not freely given – adinnādāna (= respect for personal property) + abstaining from improper sexual relations – kāmesumicchācāra (= not violating cherished persons) +

Right Speech: abstaining from lying – musāvāda (= truthful speech)

  • abstaining from malicious speech – pisuṇā vācā (= harmonious speech) + abstaining from harsh speech – pharusa vācā (= polite speech) + abstaining from frivolous speech – samphappalāpa (= reasoned, constructive speech) +


Right Intention: non-covetousness (anabhijjhā) + non-aggression – abyāpāda (= lovingkindness) + Right View → happiness (sugati) → liberation (vimutti). {524}

Some people may object that this process does not contain any factors related to concentration. Although the development of concentration is generally not emphasized in the context of people’s everyday lives, the factors related to concentration are included in this process. Right effort and right mindfulness are necessary factors when developing all the other factors of the Path.109 Moreover, one definition for samādhi is the absence of the hindrances (nīvaraṇa), which corresponds to the eighth and ninth factors of the righteous ways of conduct (dhamma-cariyā): non-covetousness and non-aggression. (Abhijjhā – covetousness, or kāma-chanda – sensual desire, is the first hindrance, and byāpāda – ill-will – is the second). The Buddha classified non-covetousness and non-aggression as forms of mental excellence (citta-sampadā).110

Furthermore, from the perspective of internal spiritual growth, the entire process of ’righteous conduct’ is a preparation for the development and fulfilment of concentration.111

Appendix 1: Interpretations of Dependent Origination

Earlier, I referred to the passages in the Vibhaṅga (the second volume of the Abhidhamma) and the Sammohavinodanῑ (the commentary to the Vibhaṅga) describing the entire sequence of Dependent Origination occurring in a single mind moment.112 The main commentarial interpretation of Dependent Origination, however, explains the teaching exclusively in the context of several lifetimes. When the teaching of Dependent Origination is interpreted in the context of everyday experience, those people who hold to the mainstream interpretation may feel uneasy and object that this former interpretation is unorthodox and baseless.

Scriptural evidence does exist, however, for the interpretation of Dependent Origination in the context of everyday life. Although the interpretation of Dependent Origination as occurring subtly and rapidly in the present moment differs from the orthodox interpretation, the evidence is clear and compelling that this former interpretation is valid. Granted, the remaining traces of evidence are scanty and obscure. This alternative interpretation was likely overlooked or forgotten. The reason it survives is because there is substantiating proof in the Tipiṭaka itself.

The interpretation of Dependent Origination in the context of several lifetimes originates in the Visuddhimagga, composed by Ven. Buddhaghosa in the 5th century AD. The Sammohavinodanῑ, however, composed by the same author, provides an alternative interpretation. {212}

The Sammohavinodanῑ divides the analysis of Dependent Origination into two sections. Whereas the first section explains the teaching in the same way as the Visuddhimagga, in the context of several lifetimes, the second section explains it as occurring in a single mind moment.

It is recorded that Ven. Buddhaghosa wrote the Sammohavinodanῑ after he wrote the Visuddhimagga. The difference between the two texts is that Buddhaghosa was free to use a wide range of sources to compose the Visuddhimagga, while the Sammohavinodanῑ is a commentary exclusively on the Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma.

In the introduction to the Sammohavinodanῑ, Ven. Buddhaghosa claims in reference to this text: I have compiled and clarified the meaning of an ancient commentary.113 In the section of the Visuddhimagga dealing with Dependent Origination, he writes:

It is inherently difficult to explain Dependent Origination … Whilst now I wish to describe the structure of conditions, I find no footing and seem to founder in a sea. However, the teaching on Dependent Origination is graced by many modes of exposition, and the ancient teachers’ way of teaching is handed down unbrokenly. Relying on these two supports, I now begin to elucidate its meaning.

Vism. 522-3; identical to VbhA. 91.

In contrast to the Sammohavinodanῑ, the Visuddhimagga contains only the several lifetime explanation and is almost identical to the first section of the Sammohavinodanῑ, with only a few added details.114

One may ask why there is no equivalent second section in the Visuddhimagga. A probable answer is that by the time of Ven. Buddhaghosa the several lifetime explanation had become the prevailing orthodoxy.

And he may have felt more comfortable with this explanation because, although he considered the whole subject difficult, this explanation was supported by an unbroken lineage of teachers. The transmission of the single mind moment explanation had probably been broken, as suggested by the extreme brevity of this section in the Sammohavinodanῑ. Ven. Buddhaghosa may have felt obliged to include this second section, however brief, in the Sammohavinodanῑ in order to be true to the evidence in the Pali Canon and the traces in the older commentaries.

The Sammohavinodanῑ is a commentary on the Vibhaṅga, the second volume of the Abhidhamma. The section in the Vibhaṅga explaining Dependent Origination is called the Paccayākāra-vibhaṅga and is divided into two parts: the Suttanta-bhājanῑya (an analysis conforming to the suttas) and the Abhidhamma-bhājanῑya (an analysis conforming to the Abhidhamma).115 {213}

The Sammohavinodanῑ is similarly divided into two parts and it explains the difference between the two as follows:

The Teacher describes conditionality … in the sutta chapter as occurring in different mind moments. Conditionality does not exclusively occur in different mind moments, but also occurs in a single mind moment. The intent here is to describe the ways in which conditionality occurs in a single mind moment according to the Abhidhamma chapter.

VbhA. 199.

In the sutta chapter, conditionality is determined as occurring in many mind moments; in the Abhidhamma chapter, conditionality is described in the context of a single mind moment.

VbhA. 200.

Here is an example from the Sammohavinodanῑ of Dependent Origination functioning in everyday life (i.e. in a single mind moment):

Birth [aging, and death] here refers to the birth [aging, and death] of immaterial things, not to a broken tooth, greying hair, wrinkled skin, dying, or passing [from this state of existence].

VbhA. 208.

It is noteworthy that the sutta chapter of the Vibhaṅga dealing with conditionality in the context of several mind moments (i.e. emphasizing several lifetimes) covers only four pages; in contrast, the Abhidhamma chapter concerning conditionality in the context of a single mind moment covers fifty-four pages.116 In the Sammohavinodanῑ, however, these proportions are reversed: the sutta chapter runs to seventy pages, while the Abhidhamma chapter covers fourteen pages.117 The reason this latter division in the Sammohavinodanῑ is so brief may be because Ven. Buddhaghosa did not have much to say about this subject, or it may be because he felt the subject had already been covered in great detail and therefore it did not need to be expanded upon.

In sum, the basis for the interpretation of Dependent Origination in the context of everyday life is found in the Pali Canon and traces of it remain in the commentaries. It has merely faded in prominence, been forgotten, or been overlooked. {214}

Appendix 2: Laws of Nature (dhamma-niyāmatā)

The Buddha presented two key classifications which he referred to as dhamma-niyāmatā, which may be translated as ’certainty of nature’, ’natural order’, or ’law of nature’. This term refers to naturally existing principles of truth or to independently existing truths of nature (whether a Buddha appears or not, these truths exist according to their own inherent properties).

These two classifications of *dhamma-*niyāmatā are as follows:

  1. Idappaccayatā: ’specific conditionality’; the law of Dependent Origination comprising twelve factors.118

  2. Aniccatā, dukkhatā and anattatā: the laws of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself. Beginning with the commentaries, these three factors are referred to as the ’Three Characteristics’ (tilakkhaṇa).119

Technically, these dual principles are referred to by a pair of terms – dhammaṭṭhitatā and dhammāniyāmatā.120

Although these two classifications have been explained at length in chapter 3 and in this present chapter, at this point it is useful to provide a summary.

These Natural Laws Comprise Four Factors Linked to the Four Noble Truths

The law of Dependent Origination (or ’specific conditionality’) combined with the three laws of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself, comprise four factors, which in the Pali Canon are described as follows:

  1. ’Whether Tathāgatas appear or not, this truth exists as constant and stable, that is, specific conditionality.’

    (Uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā.)

  2. ’Monks, whether Tathāgatas appear or not, this truth exists as constant and stable, that is, all conditioned phenomena are impermanent.’

    (Uppādā vā bhikkhave tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhamma-niyāmatā sabbe saṅkhārā aniccāti.) {215}

  3. ’Monks, whether Tathāgatas appear or not, this truth exists as constant and stable, that is, all conditioned phenomena are unenduring.’

    (Uppādā vā bhikkhave tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhamma-niyāmatā sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhāti.)

  4. ’Monks, whether Tathāgatas appear or not, this truth exists as constant and stable, that is, all things are nonself.’

    (Uppādā vā bhikkhave tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhāti.)

In brief, the factors are:

  1. Idappaccayatā: the law of specific conditionality (= paṭiccasamuppāda – Dependent Origination).

  2. Aniccatā: the law of impermanence.

  3. Dukkhatā: the law of unendurability.

  4. Anattatā: the law of nonself.

The law of Dependent Origination reveals how the five aggregates exist as mutual, interrelated causes and conditions. This law deals with the existence of conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata-dhamma), which comprise all phenomena in the realm of conventional reality.

The laws of aniccatā and dukkhatā reveal how all conditioned phenomena (i.e. the five aggregates) are without exception impermanent and unenduring.

The law of anattatā reveals how all things – both conditioned things and the Unconditioned (asaṅkhata), things both within the five aggregates and transcending the five aggregates (khandha-vimutti) – are nonself.

The law of Dependent Origination reveals how the interrelationship between the five aggregates creates a dynamic that gives rise to suffering, which is specifically referred to as the ’cycle of origination’ (paṭiccasamuppāda-samudayavāra). This corresponds to the second noble truth: the noble truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya-ariyasacca).

Specific conditionality by itself indicates the impermanence and unendurability of the five aggregates – of all conditioned phenomena. (Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā.)

Because the five aggregates are subject to ’specific conditionality’, are marked by impermanence and unendurability, and in addition to this fall under the sway of the law of nonself, they act as a basis and cause for suffering, or they are the gathering point for potential suffering to arise. This corresponds to the first noble truth: the Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha-ariyasacca).

In the end analysis, conditioned formations (saṅkhāra) are natural phenomena (sabhāva-dhamma), which means that they have their own character or nature (bhāva). They do not constitute a stable, fixed, substantial identity, they do not belong to anyone, nor can they be governed or dictated by anyone in any real sense. As conditioned phenomena, they exist according to specific causes and conditions; their impermanence and unendurability is a result of this conditionality. No one can force them to be otherwise. They are thus included within the province of the law of nonself (sabbe dhammā anattā).

Apart from conditioned phenomena, there also exists the Unconditioned, which transcends specific conditionality and is not created by conditioning factors. It is permanent (nicca) and free from dukkha; it constitutes the cessation of dukkha (dukkha-nirodha). This corresponds to the third noble truth: the noble truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha-ariyasacca), namely, Nibbāna.

The Unconditioned, likewise, is a natural phenomenon, which means that it too does not constitute a stable, fixed, substantial identity, it does not belong to anyone, nor can it be governed or dictated by anyone. It too is nonself (anattā). For this reason, the fourth law – of nonself – pertains to all things, both conditioned things (saṅkhāra) and the Unconditioned (visaṅkhāra), both constructed things (saṅkhata-dhammā) and the Unconstructed (asaṅkhata-dhamma). {216}

The Unconditioned is not subject to the ’cycle of origination’ (samudaya-vāra); instead, it is realized as the final goal of the ’cycle of cessation’ (nirodha-vāra). It is reached by the stopping, ceasing, non-existence, and non-arising of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). Although it passes beyond the realm of conditioned phenomena, and it is permanent and free from dukkha, it shares the characteristic of nonself with all other natural phenomena. It does not belong to anyone, it does not manifest as some form of being, it does not constitute a ’self’, nor is it subject to anyone’s will. It exists according to its own inherent nature.

The noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodhagāminīpaṭipadā-ariyasacca), or the Path (magga) for short, comprises those means applied for ending and eliminating the cycle of origination or for reverting to the cycle of cessation. There are many details to this path of practice (referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path), which is fulfilled by completing the threefold training. Essentially, the entire Path involves abandoning the unwholesome and developing the wholesome, both of which exist within the sphere of the five aggregates. (One may describe this as ’developing the wholesome aggregates (kusala-khandha), or even as ’developing the aggregates’.) This factor of the Path is thus characterized by impermanence, dukkha, and nonself.

In sum:

  • The first law of nature (idappaccayatā) reveals the state of conditioned phenomena (this is the gist of the second noble truth).

  • The second and third laws of nature (aniccatā and dukkhatā) reveal the shared attributes of conditioned phenomena (encompassing the first, second, and fourth noble truths).

  • The fourth law (anattatā) reveals the shared attribute of all things – of all phenomena (encompassing all four noble truths).

Suchness (tathatā)

Both when introducing specific conditionality and when introducing the Three Characteristics, the Buddha used the two terms dhammaṭṭhitatā and dhammaniyāmatā. Yet at the end of these passages, in the context of specific conditionality the term idappaccayatā is preceded by three additional terms (tathatā, avitathatā, and anaññathatā), which are absent in the passages describing the three characteristics:

Iti kho bhikkhave yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave paṭiccasamuppādo.

’Monks, suchness (tathatā; the state of existing ’just so’), inerrancy (avitathatā; the state of not deviating from existing as such), and invariability (anaññathatā; the state of not being otherwise) is specific conditionality; indeed, all this cited here is Dependent Origination.’

These three additional terms are used for special emphasis or to draw special attention. But because they are concise and striking, they are alluded to frequently, to the extent of being well-known and finding public favour. The term tathatā, in particular, is mentioned frequently in Buddhist circles, and because this term is only found in connection with specific conditionality (Dependent Origination), people may believe that it only refers to this subject.

The following words of the Buddha provide a broad perspective on this matter:

Monks, these four things are actual (tathā), unerring (avitathā), not otherwise (anaññathā). What four? ’This is suffering’…. ’This is the origin of suffering’…. ’This is the cessation of suffering’…. ’This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’: this is actual, unerring, not otherwise….

Therefore, monks, you should make an exertion to understand: ’This is suffering’ … ’This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ {217}

S. V. 430; Ps. II. 104.

Note that in this context the three aforementioned terms refer to the Four Noble Truths, and they are used to supplement the meaning of the word sacca (’truth’). In the commentaries and sub-commentaries, the Four Noble Truths are sometimes referred to as tatha-dhamma (’true phenomena’), in a similar way as they are sometimes referred to as sacca-dhamma (’truths’). (The term sacca-dhamma, however, does not always refer to the Four Noble Truths.

There are other noteworthy passages in the Tipiṭaka in which the Four Noble Truths are referred to by these three aforementioned terms. The passage below follows on from the passage cited above:

How is suffering (dukkha) a truth (sacca) in the sense that it is ’just so’ (tathā)? There are four definitions of suffering characterizing it as being just so (tathā), inerrant (avitathā), and invariable (anaññathā). There is the definition of suffering as oppression, there is the definition of suffering as compounded, there is the definition of suffering as a state of burning, and there is the definition of suffering as fluctuation….

How is the origin (samudaya; cause of suffering) a truth in the sense that it is ’just so’? There are four definitions of the origin characterizing it as being just so, inerrant, and invariable. There is the definition of the origin as the merging of originating factors, there is the definition of the origin as cause (nidāna; ’source’), there is the definition of origination as bound, and there is the definition of origination as obstructed….

How is cessation (nirodha) a truth in the sense that it is ’just so’? There are four definitions of cessation characterizing it as being just so, inerrant, and invariable. There is the definition of cessation as freedom, there is the definition of cessation as tranquil, there is the definition of cessation as uncompounded, and there is the definition of cessation as deathless….

How is the Path (magga) a truth in the sense that it is ’just so’? There are four definitions of the Path characterizing it as being just so, inerrant, and invariable. There is the definition of the Path as a factor for release, there is the definition of the Path as cause, there is the definition of the Path as discernment, and there is the definition of the Path as sovereignty.

Ps. II. 104-105.

Here are the concluding passages summarizing the Four Noble Truths:

By way of how many attributes are the four truths realized in unison? The four truths are realized in unison by way of four attributes: in the sense of being actual; in the sense of being nonself; in the sense of being true; in the sense of being penetrating.

The four truths are integrated as one by way of these four attributes, seeing that each one of these unified truths is constant, realized by an equivalent knowledge. For this reason these four truths are realized in unison.

Ps. 105.

The term tathatā refers to the state of being ’such’ (tatha), just as aniccatā refers to the state of being impermanent (anicca), dukkhatā refers to the state of being subject to stress (dukkha), and anattatā refers to the state of being nonself (anattā). (Here, the suffix -tā means ’state’.)

The fundamentals of the Pali language in the original texts makes it quite clear for distinguishing the meanings of various terms. Later on, however, some of these meanings have become mixed up, which may cause confusion.

The important feature to note here is that in the context of these various laws the suffix -tā is frequently applied. For example, when the Buddha spoke about the law of nature, he used the term dhamma-niyāmatā, which refers to the state (-tā), the properties, the qualities, or the existence of phenomena, which are part of a natural order.

The shorter term dhamma-niyāma began to be used in the commentaries, and it was used here in a broader sense. It is sometimes synonymous with dhamma-niyāmatā (as defined above), while at other times it refers to specific phenomena acting as conditions within the process of Dependent Origination.

Likewise, the term dhammaṭṭhitatā refers to the state, properties, or existence of phenomena that accord with causes and conditions. The shorter term dhammaṭṭhiti may also convey this same meaning, but it usually refers to specific phenomena which act as conditions or are subject to causes and conditions. {218}

The terms aniccatā, dukkkhatā, and anattatā refer to the state, property, or existence of phenomena marked by impermanence, stress, and nonself, as described earlier.

In this book Buddhadhamma, the term dhamma-niyāma is generally used as synonymous with dhamma-niyāmatā, referring to the properties and qualities of things, rather than to the things themselves.

Therefore, the terms dhammaniyāmatā, idappaccayatā, tathatā, aniccatā, anattatā, etc. are not interchangeable with such terms as the ’five aggregates’, ’Nibbāna’, ’conditioned phenomena’, ’compounded things’, and the ’Unconditioned’.

Terms Pertaining to the Three Characteristics (tilakkhaṇa)

The Pali term tilakkhaṇa (’three characteristics’) is familiar to many students of Buddhism. This is not an original term and it does not appear in the Tipiṭaka; rather, it became a popular term in the commentaries. In the Tipiṭaka, the Three Characteristics are referred to as the three laws of nature (dhamma-niyāmatā), and there is no collective term for these three factors. Although they are described in many different formats, they are mentioned separately. For example:

Monks, form is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, volitional formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent…. Form is subject to stress, feeling is subject to stress, perception is subject to stress, volitional formations are subject to stress, consciousness is subject to stress…. Form is nonself, feeling is nonself, perception is nonself, volitional formations are nonself, consciousness is nonself.

S. III. 21.

Although there is a term in Pali that translates as ’three characteristics’, namely, tīṇi lakkhaṇāni, it refers to distinct groups of characteristics. The closest group to this context contains the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata-dhamma): uppāda-lakkhaṇa (the characteristic of arising), vaya-lakkhaṇa (the characteristic of passing away), and ṭhitaññathatta-lakkhaṇa (the characteristic of abiding and becoming otherwise), but this group has its own collective term (i.e. saṅkhata-lakkhaṇa).121

The term sāmañña-lakkhaṇa (’universal characteristics’) likewise is not an original term from the Tipiṭaka, but is used frequently in the commentaries. It is used for comparison, describing how all things are endowed with two kinds of attributes: unique attributes (paccatta-lakkhaṇa) and shared attributes (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa). For example: a unique attribute of physical form (rūpa) is that it is under strain, and a unique attribute of feeling (vedanā) is that it feels sense impressions, but both form and feeling share the attributes of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself.

The term visesa-lakkhaṇa (’unique characteristic’, ’special characteristic’) is occasionally used in place of paccatta-lakkhaṇa. In this case, the same distinction is made, between unique characteristics and universal characteristics.

There are other similar distinctions occurring in the scriptures. For example, ultimate truths (paramattha-dhamma) are endowed with two attributes: attributes of an individual nature (sabhāva-lakkhaṇa) and universal attributes (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa). Attributes of an individual nature are sometimes referred to simply as ’individual attributes’ (salakkhaṇa).

’Direct knowledge’ (abhiññā) is a unique kind of wisdom, the function of which is to understand the individual attributes of things (sabhāva-lakkhaṇa). It may also be translated as ’penetrative knowledge’. (It is equivalent to abhijāna. Note that this is not the same definition of abhiññā used to denote the five or six kinds of supreme knowledge.)

By understanding clearly with direct knowledge, one has reached an initial stage of ’thorough knowledge’ (pariññā) called ’knowledge of recognition’ (ñāta-pariññā). The understanding of universal attributes, on the other hand, is the function of wisdom called ’investigative knowledge’ (tīraṇa-pariññā). {219}

Note also that the term sāmañña-lakkhaṇa (’universal characteristic’) is not fixed to the principles of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself. For example, it is sometimes stated in the scriptures that all formations (saṅkhāra) possess the universal characteristic of existing according to causes and conditions.

These three terms – aniccatā, dukkhatā, and anattatā – in this particular grammatical structure do not appear anywhere in the Tipiṭaka as a group; instead, they are used separately, according to different circumstances.

Although the term aniccatā is found fairly frequently in the Tipiṭaka, it is most often used while explaining the breaking up of material things (rūpa-dhamma), including in the context of physical death (maraṇa). It is never used explicitly by the Buddha himself (it is used by Ven. Sāriputta and by other disciples, and in explanations within the Abhidhamma). The term dukkhatā was used by the Buddha, but only in the context of the three kinds of dukkha (dukkha-dukkhatā, saṅkhāra-dukkhatā, and vipariṇāma-dukkhatā). The term anattatā does not appear anywhere in the Tipiṭaka.

Because the commentators regularly mentioned and explained this collection of three factors, they came up with a convenient abbreviation to refer to them individually, by simply adding the term ādi (’beginning with’) to aniccatā, e.g.: aniccatādi-paṭisaṁyuttaṃ, aniccatādi-lakkhaṇattayaṃ, aniccatādi-vasena, aniccatādi-sāmaññalakkhaṇaṃ, and aniccatādinaṃ. Only in the sub-commentaries were these three terms combined into a distinct group, although, even here, this presentation is not common.

Terms Pertaining to Specific Conditionality (idappaccayatā)

The principle of the first law of nature (of specific conditionality) is acknowledged to be profound and extremely difficult to understand. From an initial and incomprehensive examination, it appears that this principle was almost not mentioned at all in traditional Thai texts and literary works. Only in the last century was it included in formal Dhamma educational systems, and at the beginning of this period the most popular term for this principle was paṭiccasamuppāda.

As far as I can discern, the reason why in scholarly circles this principle was specifically referred to as paṭiccasamuppāda stems from Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vajirañāṇavarorasa establishing the system of Dhamma studies known as nak tham. He wrote an explanation of paṭiccasamuppāda in the book titled Dhammavibhāga Pariccheda Vol. II, which is assigned to second level nak tham students in Dhamma studies (pariyatti-dhamma).

The term paṭiccasamuppāda appears frequently in the Tipiṭaka, the commentaries, and the sub-commentaries. It is thus apt that students of Buddhism are familiar with it. It is noteworthy, however, that idappaccayatā, which is a key term in this context (it usually accompanies and precedes the term paṭiccasamuppāda) seems to have gone unnoticed. This seems to indicate that those students engaged in this recent system of Dhamma studies did not extend their research beyond the course books assigned to them. Only within the past fifty years did this latter term become more prominent. As far as I can gather, the reason for this resurgence stems from Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s determined teachings on this principle, along with his frequent emphasis on the term idappaccayatā.

There were two occasions when the Buddha mentioned this term idappaccayatā. First, soon after his awakening, he stated that ordinary people would find it extremely difficult to understand the truth that he had realized, and therefore it would cause him hardship to try and teach it to them. The second time he mentioned this term was in his frequent exposition of this first law of nature. Apart from these occasions, the term only appears in the two forms of idappaccayā and idappaccayatā-paṭiccasamuppannesu.

The term paccayākāra (’mode of conditionality’), which is another synonym for paṭiccasamuppāda and is included in the second level nak tham textbooks, was coined later. It does not appear in the main body of the Suttanta Piṭaka; it first appears in the Apadāna, which is a later addition to the collection of suttas. The term appears twice in the same section (in a heading and in the text) describing the biography of Ven. Khemā Therī, the chief bhikkhuni disciple of the Buddha, who sat at his righthand side and was foremost in wisdom.122

Although the Vinaya Piṭaka contains a lengthy biography of the Buddha, beginning with the period after his awakening when he was experiencing the bliss of deliverance and contemplating the law of Dependent Origination, there is no mention in the entire Tipiṭaka of this term paccayākāra. {220}

The Abhidhamma contains a lengthy section – the Vibhaṅga (approx. 75 pages) – devoted entirely to the subject of Dependent Origination, but nowhere in this text does the word paccayākāra appear. Nor does the term paṭiccasamuppāda appear in this text; there are only references to phenomena being ’conditionally arisen’ (paṭiccasamuppanna) or ’specifically conditioned and conditionally arisen’ (idappaccayatā-paṭiccasamuppanna). The terms appear here only in headings, which later compilers of this text created, and these headings differ according to various editions. The Thai Siam Raṭṭha edition contains the heading Paccayakāra Vibhaṅgo, while the Burmese Chaṭṭhasaṅgīti edition contains the heading Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅgo.

In sum, the word most often used in the Tipiṭaka for this law of nature is paṭiccasamuppāda, occurring either on its own or in conjunction with idappaccayatā. Most of these references occur in the Suttanta Piṭaka. Only seldom is this word used in the Vinaya Piṭaka. In the Abhidhamma, it occurs explicitly only in the Kathāvatthu. Apart from this, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī contains the word paṭiccasamuppāda-kusalatā, and there is a single passage in the Dhātukathā (at the end of the tabulated summary – mātikā) with an interesting sequence of qualities: pañcakkhandhā dvādasāyatanāni aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo cattāri saccāni bāvīsatindriyāni paṭiccasamuppādo cattāro satipaṭṭhānā cattāro sammappadhānā cattāro iddhipādā.123

Beginning with the commentaries, the terms paṭiccasamuppāda and paccayākāra were used frequently. The term idappaccayatā was also used, but less frequently.

Another interesting observation is that stemming from the combined terms dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā, which together constitute a name for this law of nature, there was derived another important term – dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa, which appears in the Buddha’s words: dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇaṃ pubbe pacchā nibbāne ñāṇaṃ (’knowledge of constancy first, knowledge of Nibbāna afterwards’, or ’endowed first with knowledge of constancy, knowledge of Nibbāna ensues’).124

The Buddha spoke these words to Ven. Susima, who had previously been a religious wanderer (paribbājaka) and had asked to be ordained in the Buddhist Dhamma and Discipline. He maintained the misunderstanding that arahants must all be endowed with psychic powers, for instance the divine ear and the divine eye. The Buddha spoke this passage to free him from this misunderstanding and to explain to him that those arahants who are ’liberated by way of wisdom’ (paññā-vimutta) realize full awakening by generating ’knowledge of constancy’ (dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa), followed by a knowledge of Nibbāna, without requiring any sort of psychic powers.

Knowledge of constancy (dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa) is equivalent to an insight into laws of nature: the clear understanding that all phenomena (as part of the five aggregates) are impermanent, dukkha, and nonself, and that they are mutually conditioned, giving rise to results within the origination cycle of Dependent Origination. Eventually, one discerns the end of causes and conditions within the origination cycle and realizes the cessation cycle, culminating in a realization of Nibbāna.

Although according to the Buddha’s words above, the knowledge of constancy (dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa) encompasses both the insight into the Three Characteristics and into Dependent Origination culminating in the completion of the cessation cycle, concise explanations, for example in the description of the seventy-seven kinds of knowledge (ñāṇa) found in the very same volume, the Buddha mentions or emphasizes only Dependent Origination (the origination cycle).125

In later texts of the Tipitaka, the knowledge of constancy (dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa) was more frequently mentioned, and its meaning or emphasis was associated specifically with Dependent Origination. The Paṭisambhidāmagga, for instance, defines it as wisdom that comprehends conditioning factors (paccaya-pariggaha; this knowledge was later referred to as paccayapariggaha-ñāṇa).126 Dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa (or paccayapariggaha-ñāṇa or paccayakāra-ñāṇa) is also frequently mentioned and explained in the commentaries and sub-commentaries. For example, in these texts it is equated with ’purity of transcending doubts’ (kaṅkhāvitaraṇa-visuddhi). It is sometimes called ’knowledge according to reality’ (yathābhūta-ñāṇa), ’right vision’ (sammā-dassana), or ’insight knowledge’ (vipassanā-ñāṇa). It is occasionally described as knowledge reaching the pinnacle of insight into specific conditionality (idappaccayatā). The knowledge of Nibbāna (nibbāna-ñāṇa) is equated with Path knowledge (magga-ñāṇa).127

All-encompassing Principles of Truth

In the Buddha’s own words describing his awakening, he outlined the two truths that he had realized. This appears very clearly in his reflection several weeks after his awakening, when he states that he had realized idappaccayatā-paṭiccasamuppāda and Nibbāna, truths that go against the stream and are difficult for ordinary people to understand. Consequently, he was disinclined to teach the Dhamma.128 {221}

In the Vinaya Piṭaka the Buddha describes the events after his awakening, during which time he experienced the bliss of liberation under the Bodhi tree, taught the First Sermon, acquired his first disciples, performed various ordinations resulting in the creation of the monastic community (saṅgha), and finally established the monastic discipline.

The Buddha’s reflection cited above occurred (according to the commentarial account) after he had enjoyed the bliss of liberation for seven weeks, and before he departed from the place of awakening in order to teach the Dhamma in the Deer Park at Isipatana near the city of Varanasi.

Let us go back to the very beginning of this period. During the first night of experiencing the bliss of liberation, he gave three inspired utterances, one during each of the three watches of the night. Here, he contemplates Dependent Origination, both in its forward and reverse sequences (paṭiccasamuppādaṃ anuloma-paṭilomaṃ manasākāsi; note that here the term paṭiccasamuppāda appears alone, without the accompanying term idappaccayatā).

In contrast to later teachings, here the Buddha does not clearly name the truths that he had realized, but it is not difficult to discern that he is using synonyms for Dependent Origination and Nibbāna:

Verse no. 1: ’When truths manifest to a purified one,129 diligent and meditative, all doubts vanish away, since he knows the truth together with its cause’ (sahetu-dhamma = suffering and its origin).

Verse no. 2: ’When truths manifest to a purified one, diligent and meditative, all doubts vanish away, since he has realized the cessation of conditioning factors’ (khayaṃ paccayānaṃ = Nibbāna).

Verse no. 3: ’When truths manifest to a purified one, diligent and meditative, then he dispels Māra and his forces, and remains like the sun illuminating the sky.’

The gist of the first verse is the forward sequence (anuloma) of Dependent Origination (which is sometimes referred to in the commentaries as the origination cycle – samudaya-vāra). This verse reveals the origin of suffering – the process of causes and conditions giving rise to suffering. In other words, it describes suffering along with its causes.

The gist of the second verse is the reverse sequence (paṭiloma) of Dependent Origination (which is sometimes referred to in the commentaries as the cessation cycle – nirodha-vāra). This verse reveals the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha), the state free from suffering, the state in which no renewed suffering arises due to the exhaustion of all causes and conditions leading to suffering. This refers to the end of Dependent Origination – to Nibbāna.

The third verse describes the state of awakening, the state of one who has realized cessation – realized Nibbāna – one whose wisdom is clear, spacious, and free. The commentaries explain that this verse describes the splendour and majesty of the noble Path (ariya-magga).

This collection of three inspired verses points to and explains the same truths expressed in the Buddha’s later reflection cited above. They reveal how the practice for reaching the goal of Buddhism – for realizing the supreme truth of Nibbāna – requires a comprehension of this first law of nature (dhamma-niyāma), i.e. the law of Dependent Origination. In this way, one realizes two levels of truth encompassing all things, namely, the truth of all conditioned phenomena and the supreme truth (parama-sacca) of the Unconditioned.

It is important to reiterate that a realization of this first law of nature is combined with and equivalent to an understanding of the remaining three laws of nature – of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself.

There are many passages in the Suttanta Piṭaka in which the Buddha recounts his going forth and his spiritual exertions up to the time of his awakening.130 A key passage in this context pertains to the time when he was awakened: {222}

When my mind was concentrated … I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ’This is suffering’, ’this is the origin of suffering’, ’this is the cessation of suffering’, ’this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’. I directly knew as it actually is: ’These are the taints’, ’this is the origin of the taints’, ’this is the cessation of the taints’, ’this is the way leading to the cessation of the taints’. When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated …

E.g.: M. I. 247-9.

This passage indicates clearly that the Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths at the time of his awakening. This may seem to be at variance with the passages cited above, but when one analyses these different passages carefully, one sees that they refer essentially to the same thing.

Technically, the Four Noble Truths are comprised of two pairs of truths: dukkha/samudaya and nirodha/magga. According to the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, which in the Vinaya Piṭaka follows on from the Buddha’s reflections cited earlier, samudaya (’origin’) refers to the three kinds of craving (taṇhā), and nirodha (’cessation’) refers to the renouncing, abandoning, and cessation of all such craving – to complete liberation.131 At first glance, one may not yet see the connection here to the natural law of Dependent Origination.

Craving (taṇhā) is a vital factor in the forward sequence of Dependent Origination (or the cycle of origination) resulting in suffering. The first and second noble truths thus exist as a pair. The reverse sequence of Dependent Origination (the cycle of cessation) is the dissolution of all conditioning factors within the dynamic of suffering – the end of Dependent Origination. This corresponds to cessation (nirodha), the third noble truth. The fourth noble truth – the Path (magga) – is a formal method of spiritual practice established for people to give rise to the natural process of the reverse sequence. The Path is thus included in the reverse sequence of Dependent Origination. This is a very brief summary of how these principles are interlinked.

The commentaries provide another classification of laws of nature, which can be designated as a subdivision of natural laws. They use the term niyāma to refer to these laws, consisting of five factors:

  1. Utu-niyāma: laws pertaining to the material world, in particular to those dynamics in the natural environment related to temperature.

  2. Bīja-niyāma: laws pertaining to heredity.

  3. Citta-niyāma: laws pertaining to the functions of the mind.

  4. Kamma-niyāma: law of kamma.

  5. Dhamma-niyāma: the law of the interrelation between causes and conditions, in particular to those laws operating independently according to nature. For example: those things relying on conditions for their existence must naturally come to an end; stream-enterers are naturally beyond spiritual regression; etc.

Although this fifth factor of dhamma-niyāma is a key principle in the teachings, which was explained frequently by the Buddha, and for which there are numerous examples, it is surprising that the commentators in this context do not explain it in the same way. In their explanations, they simply refer to the normal attributes of a bodhisattva.132 For example: when a bodhisattva is conceived, born, and awakened, it is normal for the ten-thousand world systems to shake; when a bodhisattva enters his mother’s womb, it is natural that she is endowed with virtue and free from any illness.

In the Mahāpadāna Sutta, which lists sixteen general rules pertaining to the circumstances of a bodhisattva, the term dhammatā is used, rather than dhamma-niyāma. Although these two terms are synonymous, their meanings are not identical; they simply overlap. {223}

Appendix 3: ’Me and Mine’

The attachment to a sense of ’me’ and ’mine’ is firmly embedded in the human mind. It has a deep impact on people’s behaviour, on their wellbeing, and on human relationships, and it is connected to almost every social problem. This attachment to a sense of self provides a core focus for Dhamma practice: it must be attended to correctly and many teachings address this issue. Many unique terms and expressions are used to designate this form of attachment. Following is a summary of such terms and expressions, organized into groups:

Group 1: etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā-ti: ’this is mine, I am this, this is my self.’

Group 2: ahanti vā mamanti vā asmīti vā: ’(the belief in) “I”, (the belief in) “mine”, and (the belief), “I exist”.’

Group 3: ahaṅkāra mamaṅkāra mānānusaya: ’(the belief in) “I”, (the belief in) “mine”, and an underlying tendency of conceit.’

Group 4: mamāyita (or: mamatta) and asmimāna: the belief in “mine”, (’the belief in “I”), and the conceit “I am”.’

Group 5: attā, attaniya, (and asmīti): the self, things associated with the self, (and the belief ’I exist’).

Group 6: taṇhā, māna, and diṭṭhi: craving, conceit, and fixed views.

Group 1: these are the most frequently found terms relating to an attachment to self. Most often this group is found in teachings encouraging an analysis of human beings as consisting of the five aggregates or of other elements like the six senses or the six forms of contact, or in teachings that promote an investigation of the three characteristics, leading to an understanding of things that prevents the attachment: ’this is mine’, ’I am this’, or ’this is my self’.133

Group 2: this group is an abbreviation of group #1 above: ahanti (’a belief in “I” ’) = eso me attā; mamanti (’a belief in “mine” ’) = etaṃ mama; asmīti (a belief such as ’I am this’ or ’I still exist’) = esohamasmi.134

Group 3: this is another abbreviation of group #1: ahaṅkāra = eso me attā; mamaṅkāra = etaṃ mama; mānānusaya = esohamasmi. {224} These terms are most often found in the phrase: ’There is an absence of (or ’freedom from’, or ’eradication of’) “I-making”, “mine-making” and an underlying tendency of conceit in regard to this body with its consciousness and all external signs.’135

Group 4: the term mamāyita is most often used to mean ’an attachment as “mine” ’ or ’an object attached to as “mine” ’ and is thus equivalent to etaṃ mama.136 Occasionally it is defined as both a belief in ’I’ and a belief in ’mine’ (equivalent to etaṃ mama and eso me attā, or to taṇhā and diṭṭhi).137 Mamatta (or mamattā) has an identical meaning to mamāyita, but tends to appear in verses paired with mamāyita or in place of mamāyita,138 or as a definition of mamāyita.139 Asmimāna is defined as ’the conceit “I am” ’: a sense of ’I’ or the thought ’I exist’. In Pali it is usually described as simply māna, but the Abhidhamma classifies it as one of seven different kinds of māna. Asmimāna is a refined form of conceit,140 which only arahants have abandoned; non-returners have not yet done so.141 The Abhidhamma distinguishes asmimāna from other, coarser forms of conceit, like scorn and arrogance, which are abandoned by awakened beings of lower levels. Asmimāna is usually mentioned as a quality that Dhamma practitioners should eradicate.142 Essentially, the term asmimāna is identical to esohamasmi and it can be simply called māna: (the most refined form of) conceit.

Group 5: the terms in this group do not refer to attachment but rather to things that are attached to, or to the state of affairs arising due to attachment. If one makes a broad comparison with group #1, attā is equivalent to eso me attā and esohamasmi, while attaniya is equivalent to etaṃ mama. Strictly speaking, however, the term attā is confined to the view of possessing or existing as a ’self’ (i.e. it pertains to ’views’ – diṭṭhi). It therefore refers only to eso me attā, not to esohamasmi. To encompass the entire meaning of the first group, one needs to add the term asmīti to this fifth group. It is possible to translate attā as ’I’143 and attaniya as ’mine’, but the meaning of the expression ’I’ is not very precise or constant and can shift to encompass either of the two beliefs in group #1 (esohamasmi and eso me attā).144

Group 6: the three unwholesome qualities (craving, conceit, and view) are sometimes collectively referred to as papañca or papañca-dhammā: ’encumbrances’, ’mental proliferation’, ’things leading to excess’.145 These qualities give rise to myriad, complicated perceptions (papañca-saññā), as described in chapter 2. {225}

They are grouped together here following a commentarial explanation. One can compare and match these unwholesome qualities with the views and attachments contained in the preceding groups as shown on Table Craving, Conceit and Views.146

Craving, Conceit and Views image

The English terms ’me’ and ’mine’ (or ’I’ and ’mine’) do not entirely cover the meanings of these three groups; it is necessary to add another expression: ’I’, ’mine’, and ’this am I’. In any case, translations for the second group (the ’māna’ group) are sometimes imprecise and unusual. One solution in the face of such flexible terminology is to use only the two terms ’I’ and ’mine’, and then to define ’I’ so that it covers both diṭṭhi and māna. When it refers to a belief in a fixed sense of personal identity, then it is equivalent to diṭṭhi; when it refers to personal status, or to a personal identity used for comparison with others, for personal evaluation, or as a source of pride, then it is equivalent to māna. The term ’mine’ is an accurate translation for the first group (the ’taṇhā’ group).

Diṭṭhi, comprising sakkāya-diṭṭhi and sīlabbata-parāmāsa (the first and third fetters – saṁyojana), has been abandoned by stream-enterers. Taṇhā (in the form of kāma-rāga – the fourth fetter) has been abandoned by non-returners. Taṇhā (in the form of kāma-rāga, rūpa-rāga and arūpa-rāga – the fourth, sixth and seventh fetters) and māna have been abandoned by arahants.147

Following this interpretation one can give the following summary: the fixed view of a sense of self is abandoned at stream-entry, while the conceit ’I am’ and attachment to a sense of personal ownership are abandoned when realizing arahantship.148 {226}

Appendix 4: Birth and Death in the Present Moment

The following sutta passage may provide insight to those who wish to research the cycle of birth and death (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) as it occurs in the present moment – as it occurs in this present lifetime:

’The festering forms of self-conceiving do not accumulate for a person established in four qualities [wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace], and when such defiled self-conceiving is not accumulated he is called a sage at peace.’

So was it said; and in reference to what was it said? ’I am’ is a conceiving, ’I am not’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be’ is a conceiving, ’I shall not be’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be possessed of form’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be formless’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be percipient’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be non-percipient’ is a conceiving, ’I shall be neither-percipient-nor-non-percipient’ is a conceiving.

Bhikkhu, conceiving is a disease, conceiving is an abscess, conceiving is a dart. By overcoming all self-conceivings one is called a sage at peace. And the sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die; he is not anxious and does not crave. For there exists no cause by which he might be born. Not being born, how could he age? Not aging, how could he die? Not dying, how could he be anxious? Not being anxious, how could he crave?

So it was with reference to this that it was said: ’The festering forms of self-conceiving do not accumulate for a person established in four qualities, and when such defiled self-conceiving is not accumulated he is called a sage at peace.’ Bhikkhu, bear in mind this brief exposition of the six elements.’

M. III. 246; cf., e.g.: M. III. 225; S. III. 228-9; S. IV. 17; Sn. 184-5; Nd. I. 436 (aging = decay or loss); Thag. verse 247 (jiyyate = aging; the commentaries define this word as ’decay’ or ’passing away’); J. IV. 240. 184-5; Nd. I. 436 (aging = decay or loss); Thag. verse 247 (jiyyate = aging; the commentaries define this word as ’decay’ or ’passing away’); J. IV. 240.>

Appendix 5: Abhidhamma Interpretation of Dependent Origination

The Abhidhamma describes many variations to the process of Dependent Origination, according to the state of mind (citta), i.e. as wholesome, unwholesome, or ’indeterminate’,149 and according to the level of mind, i.e. as dwelling in the sense sphere, the fine-material sphere, or the immaterial sphere, or as transcendent.150 The factors of Dependent Origination may vary according to these states of mind and are not always identical to the factors mentioned in the suttas. For example, in some wholesome states of mind the process commences with volitional formations without a mention of ignorance, or it may begin with a wholesome root-cause (kusala-mūla) as a substitute for ignorance. Of particular note, craving is only found in unwholesome states of mind; in other states it is replaced by pasāda (’satisfaction’, ’joy’, ’confidence’) or left out entirely.

Because the Abhidhamma examines the mind on a momentary basis, it therefore only analyzes the factors present in each specific moment. Factors such as ignorance or craving, which may be temporarily suppressed, are not identified by name; they are inferred by the presence of other clearly manifest factors, or else they are completely overlooked.

The Abhidhamma describes the various factors of Dependent Origination both in forward and in reverse: ignorance conditions volitional formations and volitional formations condition ignorance; volitional formations condition consciousness and consciousness conditions volitional formations; etc. Here I will only present the primary categories for consideration: {227}

Twelve Unwholesome States of Mind (akusala-citta)

Avijjā conditions saṅkhāra.
Saṅkhāra condition viññāṇa.
Viññāṇa conditions nāma (mentality).
Nāma conditions chaṭṭhāyatana
(sixth sense base, i.e. the mind – mano).
Chaṭṭhāyatana conditions phassa.
Phassa conditions vedanā.
Vedanā conditions taṇhā,
or conditions paṭigha (annoyance, hostility),
or conditions vicikicchā (doubt),
or conditions uddhacca (restlessness).
Taṇhā conditions upādāna,
or taṇhā conditions adhimokkha (intent, inclination),
or paṭigha conditions adhimokkha,
or uddhacca conditions adhimokkha.
Upādāna conditions bhava,
or adhimokkha conditions bhava.
or vicikicchā conditions bhava.
Bhava conditions jāti.
Jāti conditions jarāmaraṇa.
= the arising of the entire mass of suffering.

Wholesome States of Mind

(of the Sense Sphere, the Fine-Material Sphere and the Immaterial Sphere)

Avijjā conditions saṅkhāra,
or kusala-mūla conditions saṅkhāra.
Saṅkhāra conditions viññāṇa.
Viññāṇa conditions nāma.
Nāma conditions chaṭṭhāyatana.
Chaṭṭhāyatana conditions phassa.
Phassa conditions vedanā.
Vedanā conditions pasāda.
Pasāda conditions adhimokkha.
Adhimokkha conditions bhava.
Bhava conditions jāti.
Jāti conditions jarāmaraṇa.
= the arising of the entire mass of suffering. {228}

Kamma-Resultant States of Mind and Functional States of Mind

(of the Sense Sphere, the Fine-Material Sphere and the Immaterial Sphere)

(Kusala-mūla conditions saṅkhāra.)
Saṅkhāra conditions viññāṇa.
Viññāṇa conditions nāma.
Nāma conditions chaṭṭhāyatana.
Chaṭṭhāyatana conditions phassa.
Phassa conditions vedanā.
Vedanā conditions bhava.
or vedanā conditions adhimokkha.
or adhimokkha conditions bhava.151
or vedanā conditions pasāda.
or pasāda conditions adhimokkha.
or adhimokkha conditions bhava.152
Bhava conditions jāti.
Jāti conditions jarāmaraṇa.
= the arising of the entire mass of suffering.

The first line in this section is in parentheses to indicate that this sequence is not necessarily present. This section can begin with volitional formations as a condition for consciousness or with unwholesome root-causes acting as a condition for volitional formations. If the latter is true, then this only occurs in the seven unwholesome kamma-resultant mind states (akusalavipāka-citta).

Transcendent States of Mind

(Wholesome and Kamma-resultant)

Wholesome states:

Avijjā conditions saṅkhāra,
or kusala-mūlā condition saṅkhāra.

Kamma-resultant states:

(Kusala-mūlā condition saṅkhāra.)
Saṅkhāra condition viññāṇa.
Viññāṇa conditions nāma.
Nāma conditions chaṭṭhāyatana.
Chaṭṭhāyatana conditions phassa.
Phassa conditions vedanā.
Vedanā conditions pasāda.
Pasāda conditions adhimokkha.
Adhimokkha conditions bhava.
Bhava conditions jāti.
Jāti conditions jarāmaraṇa.
= the arising of all of these qualities.

Note: transcendent wholesome mind states (lokuttarakusala-citta) may originate with ignorance or unwholesome root causes, but transcendent kamma-resultant mind states (lokuttaravipāka-citta) originate with wholesome roots or simply with volitional formations. Note also the difference in the last line of this section. {229}

Appendix 6: Nirodha (’Cessation’)

The term ’cessation’ has become the standard translation for nirodha.153 When alternative translations for nirodha are used, people may raise objections or they become confused, thinking that these alternatives are derived from other Pali words. In Buddhadhamma, I too have relied on the term ’cessation’ for the sake of convenience, and to avoid the misunderstanding that another Pali word is being referred to (and also because I have not found a suitable, concise replacement). But there are many occasions where the term ’cessation’ itself may lead to misunderstanding and is technically the incorrect translation.

The word ’cessation’ in English generally means the destruction or end of something that has already arisen. Nirodha in Dependent Origination (and in the third Noble Truth – dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), however, means that something does not arise because no causes exist for it to arise. For example, the phrase avijjā-nirodhā saṅkhāra-nirodho is translated as: ’Because ignorance ceases, volitional formations cease’. In fact, this phrase means that because ignorance does not exist, or does not arise, or there are no problems associated with ignorance, volitional formations do not exist, do not arise, and there are no problems associated with volitional formations. It does not necessarily mean that existing ignorance must be terminated in order to terminate existing volitional formations.

There are occasions when nirodha is accurately translated as ’cessation’, for instance when referring to the nature of conditioned phenomena, and when acting as a synonym for bhaṅga (’breaking up’), anicca (’impermanence’), khaya (’destruction’), and vaya (’decay’). For example: Bhikkhus, these three feelings are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, subject to dissolution, subject to vanishing, subject to cessation.154 (Every factor of Dependent Origination has these attributes mentioned in this quotation.) Having arisen, conditioned phenomena automatically must decline, according to the nature of causes and conditions. One need not try to make them decline; they will decline of their own accord. The practical application of this teaching is to see that all that arises must cease.

Although it describes a natural, objective process, the teaching of nirodha in the third Noble Truth (= paṭiccasamuppāda-nirodhavāra) emphasizes practical application. There are two interpretations of nirodha in this context:155 the first derives from the prefix ni- (’non-existence’; ’without’) + rodha (= cāraka = ’prison’, ’confinement’, ’restriction’, ’obstruction’, ’impediment’), translated as ’free from limitation’, ’free from restriction’, ’free from confinement’: i.e. free from saṁsāra. The second interpretation equates nirodha with anuppāda: ’non-arising’.156 In this context nirodha does not mean cessation or dissolution (bhaṅga).

Although the translation of nirodha as ’cessation’ is not always accurate, I have so far been unable to find a concise term to use instead and therefore use the customary translation. It is important, however, to understand the meaning of this word in different contexts. For this reason, these alternative translations for the cessation cycle of Dependent Origination are valid: ’With an absence of ignorance, there is an absence of volitional formations’; ’with freedom from ignorance, there is freedom from volitional formations’; ’when ignorance no longer bears fruit, volitional formations cease to bear fruit’; ’when no problems exist as a consequence of ignorance, no problems exist as a consequence of volitional formations’.

There are further complications regarding translation of terms in the origination cycle of Dependent Origination. The Pali terms cover a wider range of meaning than can be captured by single English counterparts. For example, the teaching: Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārājātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ in Pali can also mean: ’Because ignorance exists in this way, volitional formations exist in this way; because volitional formations exist in this way, consciousness exists in this way … because becoming exists in this way, birth exists in this way; because there is birth, there is aging-and-death.’ {230}

Appendix 7: Concise Definitions for the Factors of Dependent Origination

Because the definitions in this chapter for the factors of Dependent Origination are rather long and drawn-out, here are some short and simple definitions:

  1. Avijjā: ignorance; not knowing the truth; not applying wisdom.

  2. Saṅkhāra: thoughts; intentions; mental disposition; habits.

  3. Viññāṇa: awareness of the external world and of the content of the mind; state of mind.

  4. Nāma-rūpa: the constituents of life, both physical and mental.

  5. Saḷāyatana: the channels for cognition, i.e.: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

  6. Phassa: cognition; interaction with the external world; contact with sense objects.

  7. Vedanā: pleasurable, painful, and neutral feelings.

  8. Taṇhā: the desire for gain, for existence, for eternal life, for escape, for disappearance, or for annihilation.

  9. Upādāna: attachment; mental preoccupation; latent desire; ambition; cherished values; identification.

  10. Bhava: current state of existence; personality; the entire range of human behaviour.

  11. Jāti: the birth of a ’self’ that embodies the state of existence and interacts with the world. This ’self’ claims ownership and control over proceedings.

  12. Jarāmaraṇa: the encounter with decline, instability, loss, and passing away in regard to the ’self’s’ occupation of this state of existence.

    Soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upāyāsa: various forms of suffering, e.g. grief, sadness, lamentation, mourning, distress, self-pity, hopelessness, and despair, all of which resemble toxins festering in the mind, and when outwardly expressed generate more problems.

Appendix 8: Bhava-taṇhā and Vibhava-taṇhā

Translation of the three kinds of craving (kāma-taṇhā, bhava-taṇhā, and vibhava-taṇhā), especially the second and third kinds, may cause problems due to insufficient understanding of these terms and conflicting opinions. The following points may help clarify this matter:

Although there are suttas in which the three kinds of craving are clearly mentioned, for example in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,157 the Saṅgīti Sutta and the Dasuttara Sutta,158 nowhere in the suttas are the definitions for these three clearly outlined or directly addressed. We therefore must depend on the explanations found in the Abhidhamma and the commentaries. However, because people sometimes gather sketchy or incomplete information, or they are unable to clearly interpret such information, there have arisen divergent and conflicting views on this subject.

Despite the fact that there are no explicit definitions in the suttas for these three kinds of craving, there are some teachings by the Buddha and some related passages that cast light on the meanings of these terms. Here I will present evidence from the suttas, the Abhidhamma, and the commentaries for contemplation.

The Buddha mentions the three kinds of craving in the Taṇhā Sutta of the Itivuttaka. Although he does not present explicit definitions, he utters a verse that can be used to further understand their meanings. A literal translation of this sutta (free from commentarial interpretation) appears as follows: {231}

Bhikkhus, there are these three cravings. What three? The craving for sense pleasures, the craving for existence, and the craving for non-existence….

Bound with the bondage of craving,
People’s minds delight in becoming and non-becoming (bhavābhave).
Bound by the fetters of Māra, with no safety from bondage,
These beings go through the cycle of rebirth, headed for birth and death.
But those in the world who have destroyed craving, free from the craving for becoming and non-becoming,
Reaching the end of the taints, have gone to the other shore.

It. 50.

Another sutta in the Itivuttaka describes the two ’views’ – bhava-diṭṭhi and vibhava-diṭṭhi – and by doing so it indirectly describes bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā as well:

Bhikkhus, both devas and humans are under the sway of two views. Some are bogged down, some overreach, while those with vision see.

And how, monks, are some bogged down?

Devas and humans delight in becoming (bhavārāmā), rejoice in becoming (bhava-ratā), take pleasure in becoming (bhava-sammuditā). When the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma for the cessation of becoming (bhava-nirodha), the hearts of those devas and humans do not leap forward, do not gain confidence, do not become settled, do not yield. Thus are some bogged down.

And how, monks, do some overreach?

Some devas and humans are afflicted, depressed, and disgusted by becoming. They delight in non-becoming,159 saying: ’My good sir, with the breaking up of the body at death, this self is annihilated, destroyed, and no longer exists. This state is supreme, excellent and true.’ Thus do some overreach.

And how, monks, do those with vision see?

In this case, a monk sees the state of being as the state of being.160 When he sees the state of being as the state of being, he practises for disenchantment (nibbidā), dispassion (virāga), and cessation (nirodha) in regard to the state of being. Thus do those with vision see.

Whoever sees being as being,
And sees the state beyond being,
Surrenders to the Truth,
Through the exhaustion of lust for existence.
With full understanding of the state of being,
One is free from craving,
For both existence and extinction.
With the end of becoming in the state of existence,
A monk comes not to further birth.

Diṭṭhi Sutta: It. 43-4.

There are two noteworthy points concerning this sutta:

  1. The Buddha mentions craving and views in tandem because they are related and interdependent. One type of person delights in becoming, yearns for existence (bhava-rama, bhava-abhirama = bhava-taṇhā), and holds the firm conviction that this state of existence is desirable and is a place of stability for the ’self’ (bhava-diṭṭhi). Another type of person loathes existence, delights in non-existence, desires extinction (vibhava-abhinanda = vibhava-taṇhā), and firmly believes that the ’self’ will expire (vibhava-diṭṭhi = uccheda-diṭṭhi).

  2. The sutta differentiates between vibhava (the absence of existence; non-existence; extinction), which is a belief connected to wrong view, and bhava-nirodha (the end of becoming), which is the goal of Buddha-Dhamma. Vibhava is the opposite of bhava – these are the two extremes explained in this sutta: some people get stuck at the extreme of becoming, others at the extreme of extinction. The Buddha taught the escape from these two extremes. His teachings emphasize bhava-nirodha, which does not fall into either extreme but rather rests in the middle. If one understands this concept, then one understands the Middle Teaching and the Middle Way. {232}

Craving and views are distinct qualities and yet they are very similar: they are often paired and they are interdependent. When one views something in a positive light, one wants to acquire it. When one wants to get something, one sees it as something worthy of getting, and due to a lack of understanding of the object one creates various opinions about it. In the definitions of craving below, diṭṭhi is used to clarify the meaning of taṇhā: a particular kind of craving is directly related to a particular kind of view. This explanation notwithstanding, craving and views should be recognized as two distinct qualities.

There is a passage in verse in the Purābheda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, along with related explanations in the Mahāniddesa and the commentaries, that clarifies the meaning of the terms bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā:

One who understands the truth, who is independent (free from craving and views), who does not rely on anything (whose mind is emancipated), has no craving for existence or non-existence. Such a person I call one who is calmed.161

Sn. 167-8.

The important clause in this passage is: Bhavāya vibhavāya vā taṇhā, which can be divided into bhavāya taṇhā (craving for existence) and vibhavāya taṇhā (craving for non-existence).

These two terms are expansions on the terms bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā. The Mahāniddesa interprets this passage of the Sutta Nipāta by defining taṇhā as the craving for sights, smells, sounds, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects, and it interprets bhavāya and vibhavāya in several ways: (1) bhavāya is equivalent to bhava-diṭṭhi and vibhavāya is equivalent to vibhava-diṭṭhi; (2) bhavāya equals sassata-diṭṭhi and vibhavāya equals uccheda-diṭṭhi (this interpretation is essentially the same as the preceding one); (3) bhavāya is defined as a craving for repeated existence, for repeated spheres of existence (gati), for repeated arising, for repeated rebirth, for repeated birth of an individuality. In this third interpretation vibhavāya is not mentioned, but based on the three definitions of bhavāya one can define vibhavāya as the craving for non-existence or for extinction.162

The Abhidhamma offers several definitions for taṇhā. In some places only bhava-taṇhā is explained, in which case it is paired with avijjā:

Of these two qualities, what is ’bhava-taṇhā’? Pleasure in existence, delight in existence, enjoyment in existence, desire for existence, love for existence, craving for existence, infatuation with existence, obsession with existence. This is called ’bhava-taṇhā.’

Dhs. 227; Vbh. 358.

Another passage explains the three kinds of craving thus:

Of these three kinds of craving, what is craving for existence (bhava-taṇhā)? Desire, infatuation, delight, satisfaction, enjoyment, fascination, and mental preoccupation, accompanied by views of existence (bhava-diṭṭhi). This is called craving for existence. And what is craving for non-existence (vibhava-taṇhā)? Desire, infatuation, delight, satisfaction, enjoyment, fascination, and mental preoccupation, accompanied by views of annihilation (uccheda-diṭṭhi). This is called craving for non-existence. Craving apart from this is called sense craving (kāma-taṇhā).

[Alternatively], of these three cravings, what is sense craving? Desire, infatuation … mental preoccupation, accompanied by the elements of sensuality (kāma-dhātu). This is called sense craving. Desire, infatuation … mental preoccupation, accompanied by the fine-material and immaterial elements. This is called craving for existence. Desire, infatuation … mental preoccupation, accompanied by views of annihilation. This is called craving for non-existence.

Vbh. 365.

The commentary to the first sutta from the Itivuttaka mentioned above explains bhavābhave as ’(the mind entangled in) minor and major states of existence’, and offers another definition for bhava as an eternalist view and abhava as an annihilationist view.163 The mind is entangled in existence and non-existence, in an eternalist viewpoint and an annihilationist viewpoint, and thus bhava and vibhava here refer to bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā. The commentary to the second sutta from the Itivuttaka mentioned above explains bhavābhave as ’minor and major states of existence’, or an adherence, for example, to an annihilationist view.164 Another section of this same commentary explains bhavābhavo thus: bhava = sampatti (’prosperity’, ’growth’) and abhava = vipatti (’decrease’, ’decline’).165 {233}

The explanation of the Purābheda Sutta (see above) found in the commentaries of the Suttanipāta and of the Mahāniddesa offer this interpretation: Bhavāya vibhavāya vāti sassatāya ucchedāya vā. This interpretation can be translated as: ’(Craving for) existence or non-existence, that is, for permanence or for extinction.’166 (Some translators add the passage ’for an eternalist view or an annihilationist view’ here to correspond with other texts.)

The commentary of the Paṭisambhidāmagga gives two clear explanations of the three kinds of craving, including a complete reference to the definitions presented in the Abhidhamma. The first explanation defines bhava-taṇhā, which is paired with avijjā, as: ’The desire for states of existence, for example the sense realm.’167 It refers to the passages in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Vibhaṅga cited earlier,168 and explains the three kinds of craving by referring to another passage in the Vibhaṅga, also cited earlier.169 Finally it states:

The commentaries state:

’Lust associated with the five strands of sensuality is called kāma-taṇhā; lust for the fine-material and immaterial spheres, attachment to jhāna, lust connected to an eternalist view, and the desire generated by the power of becoming is called bhava-taṇhā; and the lust connected to an annihilationist view is called vibhava-taṇhā.’

The commentary to the Saṅgīti Sutta contains the same explanation.170

The second explanation describes the three kinds of craving thus:

Kāma-taṇhā is lust for sensuality (kāme taṇhā). The term kāma-taṇhā here refers to lust (rāga) associated with the five strands of sensuality. Bhava-taṇhā is lust for existence (bhave taṇhā). The term bhava-taṇhā refers to lust connected to an eternalist view, which is generated by the force of desire for existence; it refers to lust for fine-material and immaterial states of existence, and to attachment to jhāna. Vibhava-taṇhā is lust for non-existence (vibhave taṇhā). The term vibhava-taṇhā refers to lust connected to an annihilationist view.

PsA. I. 158.

This explanation is also found in the commentary to the Vibhaṅga.171

The Visuddhimagga usually explains important subjects in keeping with the other commentaries, but on the subject of the three kinds of craving, it says very little. It explains these three cravings only in the section on the one hundred and eight kinds of craving, which offers a different perspective:

Each of these six kinds of craving (for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects and mind objects) is reckoned threefold according to its manner of occurrence, as sense craving, craving for becoming, or craving for non-becoming. Indeed, when the craving for visual forms enjoys in the manner of sense-desire enjoyment a visual object that has come into the focus of the eye, it is called sense craving. When the craving for visual forms is accompanied by the view that the visual object is lasting and constant, it is called craving for becoming, because the lust associated with an eternalist view is called craving for becoming. But when the craving for visual forms is accompanied by the annihilationist view that this visual object breaks up and is destroyed, it is called craving for non-becoming, because the lust associated with an annihilationist view is called craving for non-becoming.172

Vism. 567-8; same as VbhA. 179.

The explanation in the Saddhammapakāsinī (the commentary to the Paṭisambhidāmagga) integrates the definitions for the three kinds of craving in a clear and satisfactory way, by incorporating the definitions from the various texts, both the Pali Canon and the commentaries. Here is a simple presentation of these definitions:

  1. Kāma-taṇhā: craving for sensuality; lust associated with the five strands of sensuality.

  2. Bhava-taṇhā: craving for existence; lust for the fine-material and immaterial spheres of existence; attachment to jhāna; desire associated with an eternalist view, which is expressed in the desire for existence.

  3. Vibhava-taṇhā: craving for non-existence; desire associated with an annihilationist view, which is expressed in the desire for an absence of existence or for extinction.

Note that vibhava (the absence of existence; the end of existence; extinction) is different from bhava-nirodha (the cessation of existence; the non-arising of further becoming), which is a desirable state. If this is still unclear, review the Diṭṭhi Sutta referred to above.

Appendix 9: Detailed Description of Consciousness

A detailed doctrinal description of consciousness: the thirty-two mundane kinds of consciousness (the five kinds of consciousness of wholesome fruition – kusala-vipāka, the five kinds of consciousness of unwholesome fruition – akusala-vipāka, and the twenty-two kinds of mind-consciousness). Alternatively: the thirteen kinds of consciousness (the five kinds of consciousness of wholesome fruition, the five kinds of consciousness of unwholesome fruition, the two ’mind elements’ – mano-dhātu, and the mind-consciousness element unaccompanied by a root cause and accompanied by joy – manoviññāṇadhātu-ahetuka-somanassasahagata) arising in the course of an individual existence (pavatti-kāla: between conception and death), plus the remaining nineteen kinds of consciousness arising in both the course of an individual existence and at the moment of conception.

Appendix 10: Metaphysical Dilemmas

There are many reasons why the Buddha refused to answer these metaphysical questions (formerly they were referred to as ’knowledge concerning the self’ – adhyātma-vidyā). Most importantly, these questions originate from a wrong view, for example from the belief in a ’self’, and they therefore do not correspond with the truth. As the Buddha mentioned above, they are ’invalid’ questions. Secondly, the answers to these questions are not accessible through reasoning. Such an attempt is made in vain, like trying to get people to visualize an image with their ears. Since these questions cannot be answered by logic, intellectual debate about them does not generate any practical value.

The Buddha emphasized those things that have practical relevance to our everyday lives and therefore he dismissed these metaphysical speculations. He encouraged the questioner to turn to practical issues and to not waste time. For questions that can truly be answered, the Buddha urged people to apply practical means to reach the truth rather than get lost in debate and blind speculation.

The Buddha lived at a time when there was a fervent interest in these questions and when leaders of many religious sects were engaged in such debate. It is fair to say that these were signature questions and ideas of people at that time. People were so preoccupied by these questions, however, that they became alienated from the reality of their own existence. There being no benefit to engaging with these people at this level of debate, the Buddha’s strategy was to remain silent, thus not fuelling the debates and instead spurring people to turn to those subjects he was teaching. See chapter 19 of Buddhadhamma on the Four Noble Truths.173


VismṬ.: Paññābhūminiddesavaṇṇanā, Paṭiccasamuppādakathā-vaṇṇanā states that this general presentation is sometimes applied to a single factor of Dependent Origination (e.g. ’contact’ at S. II. 96-7.); in this case it is called ’single topic Dependent Origination’ (ekaṅga-paṭiccasamuppāda). This general presentation corresponds to the term ’specific conditionality’ (idappaccayatā).


Trans.: Nāma-rūpa is variously translated as ’mind and body’, ’mentality and materiality’, or ’name and form’.


E.g.: S. II. 52.


E.g.: M. I. 266-7.


E.g.: S. II. 77-8.


E.g.: S. II. 11, 101.


The Abhidhamma mentions twenty-four modes of conditionality; see the Paṭṭhāna.


’Specific conditionality’ = idappaccayatā. This is another name for Dependent Origination. It can also be translated as the ’convergence of conditional factors’. In the later texts of the Tipiṭaka, Dependent Origination is sometimes referred to as ’mode of conditionality’ (paccayākāra). The commentaries and sub-commentaries use this term paccayākāra more frequently than the term idappaccayatā.


’Principle’ = dhātu: literally, ’element’. This is an almost identical presentation to the Buddha’s teaching on the Three Characteristics (tilakkhaṇa). See chapter 3.


Ālaya: attachment, obsession, dependency; a reliance on external conditions.


E.g.: S. II. 73.


S. II. 65.


S. II. 72-3.


S. II. 73.


The Abhidhamma-Bhājanīya of the Paccayākāra-Vibaṅga: Vbh. 138-92.


[Trans.: a form of ’cosmological argument’ or ’argument from first cause’.] Some proponents of this argument define avijjā as an ’unknowing entity’, which refers to materiality as the origin of life. Others translate avijjā as the ’unknowable’ or the ’unfathomable’, equating avijjā with God. And the term saṅkhāra (the second factor) is occasionally misdefined as ’all conditioned phenomena’.


See: Vism. 517-86; VbhA. 129-213 (pages 199-213 illustrate the complete process of Dependent Origination in a single mind moment.)


D. III. 216-17; S. IV. 259; S. V. 56. The first two references are passages spoken by Ven. Sāriputta; the third reference is a passage by the Buddha. In the Tipiṭaka these three kinds of dukkha are simply listed by name, without explanations.


Vism. 499; VbhA. 93. Here, these factors are listed according to the commentaries; the order in the Pali Canon is: (1) dukkha-dukkhatā; (2) saṅkhāra-dukkhatā; and (3) vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.


The three aspects of saṅkhāra-dukkhatā are: (1) stress, conflict, oppression, unrest, imperfection; (2) unsatisfactoriness; and (3) state of being liable to suffering.


Trans.: Pali: kamma; Sanskrit: karma. There are many misunderstandings of the Buddhist concept of karma/kamma. As a case in point, note the first two definitions of karma in ’Collins Concise Dictionary, Fourth Edition 1999’: 1. Hinduism, Buddhism. the principle of retributive justice determining a person’s state of life and state of his reincarnations as the effect of his past deeds; 2. destiny or fate. Hopefully, this text will demonstrate and explain just how remote these definitions are from the original Buddhist connotations.


Trans.: here, the author is referring to the different interpretations of Dependent Origination, as describing both the physical death of a human being and the birth and death occurring in each moment of life.


Clinging to sensuality: kāmupādāna.


Clinging to views: diṭṭhupādāna.


Clinging to virtuous conduct (clinging to precepts and religious practices): sīlabbatupādāna.


Clinging to the ego-belief: attavādupādāna.


Sensual pleasure (kāma-sukha): happiness that gratifies desire by way of the five senses. A basic example is the pleasure sought by gambling, drinking alcohol, and other immoderate amusements.


Saññutta = ’bound’, ’attached’, ’associated with’. ’Bound by defilement’, see: SA. III. 77.


See the Paccayākāra-Vibhaṅga: Vbh. 135-92; Vism. 517-86; VbhA. 129-213; Comp.: Paccayaparicchedo.


For these definitions, see, e.g.: S. II. 2-4; Vbh. 135-8. For further explanations, see the references in the Visuddhimagga and the Vibaṅga-Aṭṭhakathā quoted above.


Pubbanta, aparanta, and pubbantāparanta (the past, the future, and the past and future), see: Dhs. 195-6.


Kāya-saṅkhāra = bodily volition (kāya-sañcetanā); the twenty volitional formations by way of the body (the eight wholesome volitions of the sensuous sphere and the twelve unwholesome volitions). Vacī-saṅkhāra = verbal volition (vacī-sañcetanā); the twenty volitional formations by way of speech (as above). Citta-saṅkhāra = mental volition (mano-sañcetanā); the twenty-nine volitional formations of the mind door (mano-dvāra), which have not yet manifested as a bodily or verbal medium of communication (viññatti).


Puññābhisaṅkhāra (wholesomeness that ’shapes’ the course of life) = the thirteen wholesome intentions (eight intentions of the sensuous sphere – kāmāvacara – and five intentions of the fine-material sphere – rūpāvacara). Apuññābhisaṅkhāra (unwholesomeness that shapes the course of life) = the twelve unwholesome intentions of the sensuous sphere. Āneñjābhisaṅkhāra (state of stability that shapes the course of life) = the four wholesome intentions of the four formless spheres (arūpā-vacara).


For a more detailed description see Appendix 9.


See the appendix to chapter 1, on the five aggregates.


Phassa is the contact between the internal sense base, the external sense object, and the consciousness of that particular sense faculty.


Feeling can be divided into three kinds: pleasant, painful, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant, or into five kinds: pleasant bodily feeling, painful bodily feeling, pleasant mental feeling, painful mental feeling, and equanimity – upekkhā.


Craving can be divided into three kinds: kāma-taṇhā (craving for gratification by way of the five senses; delight in sensuality); bhava-taṇhā (craving for eternal life; desire associated with an eternalist view); and vibhava-taṇhā (craving for extinction; desire associated with an annihilationist view). Multiplying these three kinds of craving with the six kinds mentioned above yields eighteen kinds; multiplying these eighteen with the pair of external and internal fields yields thirty-six; multiplying these thirty-six with the three periods of time (past, present and future) yields one hundred and eight (A. II. 212-13).


Trans.: also known as ’rebirth-process becoming’.


Uppatti-bhava is a term from the Abhidhamma (e.g. Vbh. 137); in the later suttas the term used is paṭisandhipuna-bhava (see: Nd. II. 17, 50).


The last of these definitions, ’the arising of these various phenomena’, is used to explain Dependent Origination in the context of a single mind moment, following the teachings at: Vbh. 145, 159, 191.


For this alternative definition, see the preceding footnote.


These are called the four ’classifications’ (saṅgaha) or the four ’groups’ (saṅkhepa).


Following from this passage, ignorance is said to have the five hindrances (nīvaraṇa) as ’nourishment’. [Trans.: see the section: ’Breaking the Cycle’.]


The nourishment for bhava-taṇhā is ignorance.


Trans.: Bhikkhu Bodhi posits that ’external name-and-form’ here represents the entire field of experience available to consciousness; see n. 48, p. 740, ’The Connected Discourses of the Buddha’, Wisdom Press.


Paṭṭhāna (Pali Canon volumes 40-45); the explanation is called the Paṭṭhāna-naya. See also Comp.: Paccayaparicchedo, Paṭṭhānanayo.


Vibhaṅga.: Abhidhammabhājanīya: pp. 138-92; Sammohavinodanῑ: VbhA.: 199-213.


In the orthodox interpretation of Dependent Origination, birth, aging, death, etc. are associated with a future life.


’Caused by what was done in the past’: pubbekata-hetu.


Trans.: the author uses the English translation: ’animated organism’.


Here, mind-and-body is defined as body, feeling, perception, and volitional formations.


Trans.: ’known through the eye’ here refers to the direct act of seeing. In this case, it refers to seeing the colour, shape, etc. of the rose without interpreting what is seen as a ’rose’. ’By way of the mind-door’ refers to the next stage, in which a person cognizes the object. In this case, one recognizes the visual object as a ’rose’.


Note the relationship with ’becoming’ (bhava).


See the illustration in the previous section.


See Appendix 3: ’Me and Mine’.


See Appendix 4: ’Birth and Death in the Present Moment’.


Discussed in Part II of Buddhadhamma.


Trans.: from this point on I will refer to the āsavas as the ’taints’.


An ’eternalist’ view (sassata-diṭṭhi).


An ’annihilationist’ view (uccheda-diṭṭhi). Both this and the eternalist view are mistaken views of ’self’ but in different forms. The first is obvious, but the second is described as follows: a person believes that an object has a distinct core or self and believes that this essence or ’self’ is cut short and perishes. See the following section on ’Dependent Origination and the Middle Way’.


The term kāma has two definitions: (1) objects that gratify desire by way of the five senses, and (2) the desire for these objects.


The most basic views conforming to craving are the two views of eternalism and annihilationism, along with views directly related to these two.


Trans.: Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, 1906-1993; one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers in contemporary Thailand.


The four forms of grasping are found at e.g.: D. III. 229; Vbh. 375. Grasping onto the idea of ’self’ (attavādupādāna), in particular, is an attachment to one or several of the five aggregates, as confirmed by the Pali Canon: An untaught, ordinary person … regards material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. He regards feeling as self…. He regards perception as self…. He regards volitional formations as self…. He regards consciousness as self … or self as in consciousness (M. I. 300).


The Buddha used the expression ’impartial teaching of truth’ (majjhena dhammaṃ deseti). SA. II. 36 defines this as ’established in the Middle Way, he teaches (in this way)’. At Vism. 522 the impartial teaching of truth is equated to the Middle Way. [Trans.: the author continues to use the expression ’impartial teaching of truth’ throughout the text. For simplicity, I use the expression ’Middle Teaching’.]


Trans.: they may also be called ’polar’ or ’dualistic’.


In the case of a doctrine or belief system, the term vāda (’doctrine’, ’theory’, ’creed’) can be replaced by the term diṭṭhi (’view’). Therefore, these beliefs can be referred to as atthika-diṭṭhi, natthika-diṭṭhi, sassata-diṭṭhi, etc. Atthika-vāda is also known as sabbatthika-vāda.


Also known as sayaṅkāra-vāda.




Trans.: ’another’ here refers to one’s (previous) ’self’ as an agent of this act.


Both of these terms have been newly established. These views are a form of eternalism and a form of annihilationism, respectively.


The use of the word ’being’ (satta) here follows the commentarial interpretation (MA. III. 142); the term used in the original Pali is tathāgato. According to SA. III. 113, this term refers specifically to the Buddha, while at UdA. 339 it means the ’self’ or ’soul’ (attā).


For more on these metaphysical questions see Appendix 10.


See Chapter 5.


D. II. 55-71. Note here that when the Buddha discusses conditionality in relation to a person’s mind, he defines craving (taṇhā) as the six forms of craving: craving for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental objects. When he discusses conditionality in relation to society, however, he defines craving as the three forms of craving: kāma-taṇhā, bhava-taṇhā, and vibhava-taṇhā.


This group of qualities, from craving onwards, occurs in many places but is referred to as the nine ’qualities rooted in craving’ (taṇhāmūlaka-dhamma), e.g.: D. III. 288-9; A. IV. 400-401; Vbh. 390. Ps. I. 130 states that the worldly abode is bound by these nine qualities.


Sn. 168-9.


D. III. 289; Ps. I. 87. ’Elements’ (dhātu) here refer to the eighteen conditions: the six internal sense bases, the six sense objects, and the six forms of consciousness.


S. II. 146; see the entire section of S. II. 140-49.


D. III. 80-98.


D. III. 58-79.


M. II. 196; Sn. 115-23.


The expression ’Middle Teaching’ comes from the Pali: majjhena dhammaṃ deseti. This expression is found frequently in the Nidāna Vagga of the Saṁyutta Nikāya (S. II. 17-77).


Trans.: as mentioned earlier, there are many ways to describe dualistic or ’extreme’ views and practices. One of the most well-known pairs of extremes is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: the extreme of sensual indulgence (kāmasukhallikānuyoga) and the extreme of self-mortification (attakilamathānuyoga).


Alternatively: ārya-aṭṭhāṅgika-magga.


S. II. 105-106.


Trans.: a description of the Middle Way comprises the second section of Buddhadhamma.


S. II. 4-5.


S. V. 18-19.


This example appears only once in the Pali Canon.


See: SA. II. 18.


Virāga can also be translated as ’detachment’. Khaya-ñāṇa = the attainment of arahantship.


Nett. 65; Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, The Guide, P.T.S., 1962, p. 97.


Attha: ’purpose’, ’result’.


Alternatively, of an ’untroubled mind’.


The same passage occurs at A. V. 1-2, except that disenchantment and dispassion are combined as a single factor. Cf.: A. III. 19-20.


Restraint of the senses (indriya-saṁvara) does not mean sense deprivation – for example shutting ones eyes to the world. At early stages of practice, it implies a degree of caution and skill when receiving sense impressions, not allowing the mind to be overwhelmed by evil unwholesome states. At higher levels of realization, one can develop the sense bases and gain mastery over sense impressions; one has the ability to control one’s responses according to one’s wishes. See the Indriyabhāvanā Sutta: M. III. 298-302.


Trans.: or ’spiritual friend’. This term refers to moral or spiritual beauty.


Trans.: these subjects are discussed in chapters 13-15.


’Liberation’ and ’knowledge of the destruction of mental defilement’ are equivalent to ’knowledge and vision of liberation’.


Wisdom (paññā) = right view and right intention; moral conduct (sīla) = right speech, right action, and right livelihood; concentration (samādhi) = right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.


D. I. 100; M. I. 354; Nd. II. 47.


M. I. 480; M. II. 174. The Pali terms for these factors are: saddhā, upasaṅkamana, payirupāsanā, sotāvadhāna, dhamma-savana, dhamma-dhāraṇā, atthupaparikkhā, dhamma-nijjhānakkhanti, chanda, ussāha, tulanā, padhāna, aññārādhanā (or saccānubodhi).


M. I. 287-8.


E.g.: A. V. 266; alternatively, ’wholesome actions leading to a happy destination’.


A. V. 274; alternatively, ’qualities leading to nobility’.


Alternatively, ’humanizing qualities’. E.g.: MA. II. 21; SA. III. 101; AA. I. 58; VinṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhāgo, Paṭhamamahāsaṅgītikathāvaṇṇanā; VismṬ.: Iddhividhaniddesavaṇṇanā, Dasa-iddhikathāvaṇṇanā.


M. III. 71-78. [Trans.: the Eightfold Path may be divided into three parts, corresponding to the threefold training: factors 3, 4 and 5 comprise the training in higher morality, factors 6, 7 and 8 (including right effort and right mindfulness) comprise the training in higher mentality (as a group they are sometimes referred to simply as samādhi), and factors 1 and 2 comprise the training in higher wisdom.]


A. I. 269. On the classification of the wholesome courses of action (kusala-kammapatha), or the righteous ways of conduct (dhamma-cariyā), into the threefold training and the Eightfold Path, see the appendix in chapter 17 on virtuous conduct.


The teaching on ’righteous conduct’ emphasizes morality. An important Buddhist principle is that well-developed moral conduct is conducive to concentration. One attribute of coarse language is that it is an obstacle to concentration (asamādhi-saṁvattanikā), and an objective of polite speech is to act as a support for concentration. See: M. I. 286-7; M. III. 48; A. V. 265, 292-3; Dhs. 230; Vbh. 360.


Vbh.: Abhidhamma-bhājanīya: pp. 138-192; Sammohavinodanῑ: VbhA.: 199-213.


VbhA. 1. [Trans.: the Porāṇaṭṭhakathā used by Ven. Buddhaghosa to write the Sammohavinodanῑ has been lost.]


The explanation in the Visuddhimagga contains 69 pages (Vism. 517-86); the explanation in the Sammohavinodanῑ contains 70 pages (VbhA: 129-99).


Note that in the Burmese texts the section on Dependent Origination is called the Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga.


Vbh.: Suttanta-bhājanīya: pp. 134-8; Abhidhamma-bhājanīya: pp. 138-92.


VbhA.: Suttanta-bhājanīya: pp. 129-99; Abhidhamma-bhājanīya: pp. 199-213.


See: 16th volume of the Tipiṭaka: Saṁyutta Nikāya, Nidānavagga.


See: 20th volume of the Tipiṭaka: Aṅguttara Nikāya, Tikanipāta.


raggedright In the Thai language, dhammaṭṭhitatā is shortened to dhammaṭṭhiti and dhammāniyāmatā is shortened to dhamma-niyāma; moreover, this pair of terms is generally referred to by the single term dhamma-niyāma.


Ps. II. 179.


Paccayākāra-kusalā: Ap. 544-5; paccayākāra-govidā: Ap. 550.


Dhtk. 1.


S. II. 124-5.


S. II. 60.


Ps. I. 50.


E.g.: DA. III. 1062; SA. II. 68, 126; PsA. I. 128; VbhA. 422; Vism. 604-605; VismṬ.: Paṭipadāñāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā, Vuṭṭhānagāminīvipassanākathāvaṇṇanā.


Vin. I. 4-5. According to the sequence of events described in the Tipiṭaka, this occurs in the fifth week after the Buddha’s awakening, but according to the commentarial account, which inserts an additional three weeks to this period, it occurs at the beginning of the eighth week.


The term ’purified one’ is a translation of the Pali term brāhmaṇa, referring here to an arahant, one who is taint-free (khīṇāsava). The brahmins used this term brāhmaṇa to describe someone who is purified and has passed beyond sin.


E.g.: Pāsarāsi Sutta (also called the Ariyapariyesana Sutta): M. 163-4.


Vin. I. 10.


DA. II. 439; [DhsA. 408].


For examples of this group, see: Vin. I. 14; M. I. 40, 135-6, 185-9, 232-5, 421-2; M. III. 240, 271-2; S. II. 94, 124, 245-252; S. III. 18, 45, 67-8, 104, 182, 187, 204, 223; S. IV. 1-4, 24-5, 34-5, 43-5, 54-5, 58-9, 63-4, 105-6, 151-6, 382, 393; A. I. 284; A. II. 164-5, 171, 202; A. V. 187; etc. The passage that conveys the opposite meaning is: netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na eso me attā-ti.


This passage occurs in only a few places, e.g.: M. I. 185-9; S. IV. 197.


E.g.: M. I. 485; M. III. 19, 32-6; S. II. 252, 274-5; S. III. 79-81, 103, 136-7, 169-170, 235-8; S. IV. 40-41; A. I. 132; A. III. 444; A. IV. 52-3.


E.g.: S. II. 94; Sn. 22, 82, 152, 158-9, 184-5, 203; SA. II. 98; Nd1A. I. 16; VinA. II. 301.


E.g.: DhA. IV. 97; SnA. II. 407, 517; Nd1A. I. 160; MA. II. 308.


E.g.: Sn. 159, 170, 185; Thag. verse 717.


E.g.: Nd. I. 50, 121-2, 124-5, 128-9, 435, 440; Nd. II. 17.


See: Vbh. 383 and related material at Vbh. 345-6, 353-6.


E.g.: S. III. 128-31; A. III. 85.


E.g.: Vin. I. 3; D. III. 273; M. I. 139, 424-5; M. III. 115; S. III. 83-4, 156-7; S. IV. 180-81; A. I. 44; A. II. 41-2, 216; A. III. 85-6, 325; A. IV. 352, 358; Ud. 10, 37; Thag. verse 428; Nd. I. 224; Ps. I. 26; and see the definition at Vbh. 356.


Trans.: the author is here discussing the Thai expression dtua goo (ตัวกู – ’I’, ’me’), but similar observations can be made about the English expression ’I am’.


On the subject of attā and attaniya, see, e.g.: M. I. 138-41, 297-8, 388-9; S. III. 34, 128; S. IV. 82, 129, 168, 296-7; A. II. 165; Nd. I. 222-3, 438-9; Nd. II. 43; Ps. I. 109; Ps. II. 36.


E.g.: Nd. I. 280-1; DA. III. 721; SA. II. 269.


Commentarial explanations at, e.g.: MA. I. 182; MA. II. 110, 225, 279; SA. II. 213, 215; SA. II. 364; AA. II. 206, 380; AA. III. 152, 415; AA. IV. 31; VismṬ.: Maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhiniddesavaṇṇanā, Maggāmaggavatthānakathāvaṇṇanā.


There are many commentarial passages confirming an arahant’s abandonment of the conceit ’I am’, e.g.: MA. I. 87; SA. I. 271; SA. II. 282; SA. III. 75; AA. III. 348; UdA. 102; ItA. II. 15; PsA. 116.


For the similarity between diṭṭhi and māna, see: Ps. I. 139; PsA. I. 279; DhsA. 240. For an examination of māna and other defilements as found in individuals who have attained a higher level of awakening, see the story of Ven. Anuruddha at A. I. 281.


Indeterminate (abyākata) state of mind = ’kamma-resultant mind’ (vipāka-citta) and ’functional mind’ (kiriyā-citta); see below.


Vbh. 135-92.


This alternative grouping occurs in the ’causeless wholesome kamma-resultant mind states’ (ahetukakusalavipāka-citta) #6, #7, and #8, in the wholesome kamma-resultant mind states #6 and #7, and in the three ’causeless functional states of mind’ (ahetukakiriyā-citta).


This grouping occurs in all the following mind states: kāmāvacara-vipāka-citta, rūpāvacara-vipāka-citta, arūpāvacara-vipāka-citta, kāmāvacara-kiriyā-citta, rūpāvacara-kiriyā-citta, and arūpāvacara-kiriyā-citta.


Trans.: the author here is discussing the Thai term dap (ดับ), but the same observations are relevant to the English translation for nirodha: ’cessation’.


S. IV. 214. Imā kho bhikkhave tisso vedanā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā khayadhammā vayadhammā virāgadhammā nirodhadhammā.


Vism. 494-5.


VismṬ.: Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Saccavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā.


Vin. I. 10; S. V. 421.


D. III. 215-6, 275.


Vibhavaṃ abhinandanti; [ItA. 233] interprets vibhava as uccheda – ’extinction’.


’The state of being’ = bhūta; the commentaries say this refers to the five aggregates. ’Sees the state of being as the state of being’ = ’sees things as they really are’.


Bhavāya vibhavāya vā taṇhā = the yearning to exist or to cease to exist.


Nd. I. 245-6.


ItA. II. 19.


ItA. I. 180.


ItA. 437.


SnA. II. 550; Nd1A. II. 348.


PsA. I. 116.


Dhs. 227; Vbh. 358.


Vbh. 365.


DA. III. 988.


VbhA. 111. In contemporary Thai editions some parts of this passage have gone missing; the passage is not complete like in the commentary to the Paṭisambhidāmagga.


Cf.: VismṬ.: Indriyasaccaniddesavaṇṇanā, Saccavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā; VismṬ.: Paññābhūminiddesavaṇṇanā, Vedanāpaccayātaṇhāpadavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā. See also MA. I. 219 and SA. II. 15, which give a similar explanation but use different terminology.


And see the following scriptural passages on this subject, e.g.: M. I. 426-32, 484-6; S. II. 222; A. IV. 67-8; A. V. 193-8.

The Law of Kamma

The Law of Kamma


All of the Buddhist teachings, regardless of their name or title, are interrelated and part of a whole. They all point to the same truth and they all lead to the same goal. They are given different names in order to point out specific aspects of truth, or else they refer to the same thing but look at it from different angles, depending on the particular aim of the teaching. For this reason, certain Dhamma teachings or principles are subsidiary to a larger teaching, whereas others are equally important and cover the same subject material, but have unique formats and objectives.

The teaching of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) describes the entire process of human existence, and it encompasses all the other Dhamma teachings in a comprehensive way. It is a complete teaching. If one comprehends Dependent Origination, one understands the essence of existence or the entirety of Buddhism, as confirmed by the Buddha:

One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma.

M. I. 190-91.

In any case, it is generally acknowledged that Dependent Origination is profound and extremely difficult to understand. Even explaining it is very difficult. For this reason there are almost no texts dedicated solely to explaining Dependent Origination. It is much more common to find texts that explain other divisions or principles of the Dhamma, which are part of the teaching on Dependent Origination.

Of these subsidiary teachings, perhaps the most frequently explained is that on kamma.1 The reason for this is twofold: first, this is a subject that is of vital interest to people, and second, an understanding of kamma acts as a bridge to understanding Dependent Origination. Indeed, a thorough explanation of kamma is one method for making the task of explaining Dependent Origination somewhat easier.

Kamma is only one part of the process outlined in Dependent Origination, which can be divided into three distinct cycles (vaṭṭa): defilement (kilesa), kamma, and the fruits of kamma (vipāka). Dependent Origination describes the entire sequence of performing volitional actions (kamma) and receiving the consequences of those actions, beginning with mental defilement, which is the source of kamma, and culminating in the fruits of kamma (vipāka).

Having described the law of Dependent Origination, along with its component factors, it may seem unnecessary to present a separate explanation on kamma. One may claim that by understanding Dependent Origination one also gains a clear understanding of kamma. {235}

The exposition of Dependent Origination focuses on phenomena in a pure, absolute sense, and it provides a broad, comprehensive perspective of a natural process. It does not emphasize one specific aspect of this process. From a practical, everyday point of view, however, the part of Dependent Origination that is most pronounced, directly pertains to human behaviour, and is connected to human responsibility, is kamma. From this perspective, one can say that kamma is the chief factor or theme in Dependent Origination, and that the other factors simply support investigation.

If one chooses this approach of analysis, Dependent Origination appears in the form known as the ’law of kamma’.2 And because there are many other crucial factors related to this subject, in later texts the law of kamma became the focus of study more than Dependent Origination. The discussion of kamma deals with human behaviour, which is relatively coarse, easily apparent, pertains to each immediate moment, and is suitable as the starting point of study.

Moreover, the explanation of kamma can be done at many different levels. One can explain it on a superficial level, describing cause and effect to an ordinary lay audience; one can describe unique human circumstances or activities in relation to kamma; or one can delve deeper into various mental processes and explain kamma in the context of Dependent Origination in its complete format.

It is for these reasons that a separate chapter has been dedicated to the subject of kamma.

Basic Understanding of Kamma

Kamma as a Law of Nature

Buddhism teaches the truth that all things, both animate and inanimate, both material and immaterial, both physical and mental, both internal and external – that is, all conditioned things (saṅkhata-dhamma) – exist according to causes and conditions; they are subject to mutual conditionality. This is a law of nature. The Pali term for such a law of nature is niyāma, which literally translates as ’fixed with certainty’, ’mode of certainty’, ’rule of certainty’, or ’possessed of a certain orderliness’. When specific causes and conditions are present, things must proceed in a certain fashion.

Although this law of nature possesses the uniform characteristic of mutual conditionality, it can be divided according to distinct attributes, which express various patterns or aspects of interrelationship and facilitate understanding. Based on a Buddhist line of thinking, the commentaries describe five distinct laws of nature (niyāma):3 {236}

  1. Utu-niyāma: law of energy; law of physical phenomena; physical inorganic order; physical laws. This refers in particular to the external environment and to alterations in physical matter. E.g.: the weather and seasons; the fact that water, soil, and fertilizer assist the growth of plants; the fact that lotus blossoms open during the day and close up at night; the process of sneezing and coughing; and the fact that all things are subject to corrosion and decay. The focus by the commentaries here is on alterations induced by heat and temperature.

  2. Bīja-niyāma: genetic laws; law of heredity; laws of reproduction; physical organic order; biological laws. For example: the fact that a specific plant will produce a specific fruit; a mango tree, for instance, will always bear mangos.

  3. Citta-niyāma: psychic law; psychological laws; the laws of nature pertaining to the functioning of the mind. For example: when a sense stimulus contacts a sense base, cognition arises – the passive state of mind (bhavaṅga-citta) is shaken and interrupted, there is adverting of the mind (āvajjana), seeing, hearing, etc., acceptance (sampaṭicchanna), judgement (santīraṇa), etc.; specific mind states may be accompanied by certain mental concomitants (cetasika), whereas they may not be accompanied by others.

  4. Kamma-niyāma: law of kamma; order of act and result; kammic laws; moral laws. Natural laws pertaining to human behaviour. More specifically, this refers to the process of intention and the process of conceptualization, along with corresponding results of these mental activities. For example: if one performs good actions, one reaps good results; if one performs bad actions, one reaps bad results.

  5. Dhamma-niyāma: general law of cause and effect; order of the norm. The law of nature pertaining to the interrelationship and mutual conditionality of all things. For example: all things arise, are sustained, and come to an end; it is the norm that human beings are born, age, fall ill, and die; the normal lifespan of human beings at this time era is roughly one hundred years; regardless of whether a Buddha appears or not, it is part of the natural order that all things are impermanent, dukkha (’subject to pressure’), and nonself (anattā).

The first four kinds of laws are in fact included in the fifth law, of dhamma-niyāma, or one can say that they are divisions stemming from this law. The definition of dhamma-niyāma encompasses all five kinds of laws.

It is accurate to say that dhamma-niyāma is the chief, over-arching law. In this case, some people may argue that if one is going to list subsidiary laws in detail, then this list should be exhaustive. Why does dhamma-niyāma remain along with these four subsidiary laws?

This can be answered with a simple analogy. When the entire human population of a country is described, it may be divided say into ’government leaders, civil servants, merchants, and the general populace’, or ’soldiers, police, civil servants, students, and the general public’. Indeed, the terms ’general populace’ and ’general public’ can refer to all individuals in society. Civil servants, businessmen, soldiers, and students are all part of the general population. The reason why these individuals may be distinguished from the rest is because they have unique attributes, which the person making the division wishes to emphasize, depending on his or her objective. {237} On each occasion, the term ’general populace’, or a similar term, is used to incorporate all the remaining individuals. The description of the five natural laws can be viewed in the same way.

It is not our task here to examine whether other subsidiary laws should be added to this list. The commentators selected these five in accord with their own personal objectives. Moreover, the four subsidiary laws are all incorporated in the factor of dhamma-niyāma, as just explained. The point of interest here is to examine the true significance and purpose of describing these five laws. Here are a few points to consider:

First, this presentation provides a cogent view of the Buddhist way of thought, describing the causal nature of everything in the world. Although these five natural laws are distinguished from one another, the primary emphasis is on mutual conditionality. This provides Dhamma practitioners with a clearly defined principle for study, practice, and understanding. They need not get caught up in the debate whether a Creator God alters the natural flow of conditions, deviating from the norm (unless one considers that God simply participates like other conditions in the natural process).

Some people may object here and voice the opinion: without a Creator of these laws, surely they could not have come into existence? One need not get caught up in such questions, which only mislead and beguile people. If one accepts that things exist according to their own nature, then they must proceed in a certain way. Things have always proceeded in conformity with their naturally dictated course. It is impossible for them to proceed other than by mutual conditionality. Human beings observe and understand these patterns and proceedings and refer to them as natural laws. But whether they are distinguished and labelled as laws or not, they exist all the same.

If one insists that someone must have created the laws of nature, then one is faced with all sorts of troubling questions, like: ’What laws dictate the actions of the Creator?’ and ’Who supervises the Creator?’ If in reply one claims that the Creator acts entirely by his own will, then surely he is able to change the laws according to his whim. Some day, he may alter the laws and create chaos for human beings. (Indeed, if such a Creator of natural laws were to exit, and he is endowed with compassion, he would change some laws in order to assist people. For example, he would prevent the birth of handicapped, crippled, or mentally impaired people.)

Second, when one divides the law of causality into subsidiary laws, it is important not to attribute resultant phenomena as belonging exclusively and categorically to one particular law. In fact, a single result may arise from various causes or pertain to several laws in combination. The fact that a lotus blooms only during the day, for example, is not solely due to physical laws, but it is also due to biological laws. The reason why a person is crying may be due to psychological laws, say of being sad or elated, or it may occur due to physical laws, say of getting smoke in the eyes. Someone may be sweating due to physical laws, say because it is hot, or due to psychological and kammic laws, say because he is afraid or recalls doing something wrong. One may have a headache due to physical laws, say from muggy weather, a stuffy room, or a lack of oxygen, or due to biological laws, say from some defect in one’s body, or due to a combination of kammic laws and psychic laws, say from anxiety and distress.

Third, and most important, the commentaries reveal how the law of kamma is incorporated among these natural laws. {238}

In relation to human beings, kamma-niyāma is the most important of these subsidiary laws, because it is a matter that affects everyone directly. Human beings create kamma, which in turn determines their destiny.

Modern people tend to divide the various forces in the world, by setting nature in contrast with human beings. Following this division, kammic laws belong to the scope of activities belonging to human beings. All of the other subsidiary laws pertain to the sphere of nature.

Human beings are children of nature and are part of nature. But human beings possess a unique capacity, of operating under moral or kammic laws (kamma-niyāma). They form communities and invent things by way of their volitional actions, almost creating a separate or parallel world to that of the natural world.

Within the sphere of kamma-niyāma, the essence or core of kamma is intention or volition. The law of kamma embraces the entire world of intention or the world of creativity (and destruction) arising from human beings’ ingenuity and innovation. Kamma-niyāma is the prevailing law for human beings, regardless of whether they engage with other laws or not. Indeed the very engagement with other laws depends on the law of kamma.

The domain of volitional activity enables human beings to influence, alter, and create things. More accurately, the participation by people as one cause and condition within natural processes, to the extent that they claim to be able to control or defeat nature, is dependent on the law of kamma. People intentionally engage with other laws existing within the sphere of nature, studying them and acting accordingly, or deriving benefit from them. For this reason it is said that intention determines and shapes the natural world. Furthermore, human intention determines social interactions.

Besides shaping social interactions and behaviour in relation to external things, the environment, and nature in general, human beings, or more accurately, human intentions, have an effect on people themselves, shaping their personalities and determining their fate.

The law of kamma encompasses the world of intention and all forms of human creativity. It is the key factor in moulding each individual’s life. It determines the course of human society and all human creative and destructive activities. It is the basis on which people engage with other laws, in order to control the natural world. For this reason, great emphasis is given in Buddhism to the principle of kamma. The Buddha said: ’The world exists according to kamma’ (kammunā vattatī loko).4 Kamma is thus a vital teaching in Buddhism.

The inclusion of kamma-niyāma in the group of five laws also indicates that the law of kamma is simply one of several laws of nature. Therefore, when a phenomenon occurs, or when someone experiences some form of affliction, do not wrongly presume that it is solely due to kamma.5 {239}

The Buddha’s quote (above), ’The world exists according to kamma,’ refers to the world of living beings, or to the world of human beings. In other words, kamma governs and determines human society.

In sum, kamma-niyāma is a subsidiary law of nature, but it is the most important law for human beings.

Apart from the five aforementioned laws, there exists another law pertaining exclusively to human beings. It is not inherent in nature nor is it directly connected to nature. This refers to those laws and conventions set down by human beings themselves, in order to regulate social behaviour and to promote social wellbeing. These social prescriptions include policies, rules, pacts, legislation, traditions, customs, disciplinary codes, etc. One may affix this sixth law as an appendix to the five laws of nature mentioned above.

For the sake of convenience, one may designate a similar heading for this group of social prescriptions to those laws of nature. Yet one needs to be aware that this so-called ’sixth law’ lies outside and apart from the group of five natural laws. There are many such headings to choose from, including: saṅgama-niyāma (’social law’), saṅgama-niyamana (’social practice’), sammati-niyāma (’conventional law’), and paññatti-niyāma (’prescribed law’).6

All four of these example headings make it clear that they are referring to human laws rather than to natural laws. The first two terms refer to social prescriptions. The third term refers to human conventions, to those mutual agreements established in society. The fourth term refers to human prescriptions and stipulations.

Here, in this text, the term ’conventional law’ (sammati-niyāma) is used to refer to these human-made laws.

These social criteria and guidelines are fashioned by human beings. They thus result from intentional actions and are related to the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma). Yet they are supplementary to the law of kamma – they do not constitute kamma-niyāma per se. They are not characterized by mutual conditionality, nor are they aspects of natural truth in the way that kamma-niyāma is. Because they overlap with the law of kamma, the difference between the two tends to cause confusion, which in turn leads to numerous debates and misunderstandings among people.

Because these two kinds of laws – the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma) and conventional laws (sammati-niyāma) – have the greatest bearing on human beings, it is important to point out their distinctive attributes.

First, kamma-niyāma is a law of nature dealing with human actions. Conventional or social laws are established by people themselves. They are related to the laws of nature only to the extent of being a result of human intentional activity. Second, by way of the law of kamma, human beings are accountable to their actions according to the dynamics of nature. In the context of social laws, however, people must take responsibility for their actions according to the decrees formulated by people themselves.

These aspects of kamma will be discussed at more length in later sections of this chapter, on questions of good and evil, and on matters concerning the reaping of results stemming from intentional actions. {240}

Definition of Kamma

The term ’kamma’ literally means ’action’ or ’work’. In the context of Dhamma teachings, however, the definition is restricted to mean ’actions accompanied by intention’ or ’volitional actions’.7 Actions that occur without intention are not classified as kamma in this context.

This definition of kamma, however, is very broad. To truly understand the meaning of this term, its definition should be examined from different angles or presented as different layers of meaning:

  • A. A direct or precise examination of kamma reveals that its essence or source is cetanā: intention, volition, deliberation; a determination to act; the force or agent behind action. Intention is chief, defining a person’s aims and purposes, and determining the direction of all human actions. It initiates action and all forms of conceptual and creative activity. It thus lies at the heart of kamma. This is confirmed by the Buddha’s words: ’It is intention, bhikkhus, that I call kamma’ (cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi). With intention, people then act by way of body, speech, and mind.8

  • B. A broader perspective, taking into account other factors within the dynamics of human activity, reveals that volitional action (’kamma’) acts as the leading agent in creating the structure and pathway of people’s lives. Kamma in this sense is equivalent to, or is referred to as, ’volitional formations’ (saṅkhāra), which can also be translated as ’fashioners of the mind’. This interpretation is found for instance as one of the twelve links in Dependent Origination. The term saṅkhāra refers to those mental factors or properties, with intention (cetanā) as leader, that shape the mind as wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. They determine people’s thoughts, speech, and physical actions, resulting in various kinds of intentional action. In brief, saṅkhāra may be described as ’mental conceptualization’, yet even here intention is considered the principal factor. Indeed, the Buddha occasionally defined saṅkhāra simply as intention (cetanā).9

  • C. An even wider perspective examines human beings as a whole, conventionally referred to as individual persons, who engage with the external world and have responsibility for their own actions. Kamma in this context refers to thoughts, speech, and physical actions – behaviour for which people must reap results, regardless of whether these results occur in the immediate present or further removed in the past and future.

    This aspect of kamma is the most frequently mentioned in the texts, appearing in teachings addressed to specific individuals. Such teachings encourage people to take responsibility for their personal actions and to perform wholesome deeds, as is confirmed by these words of the Buddha: {241}

Monks, there are these two things that cause distress. Which two? There is the case of the person who has not done what is good, has not done what is wholesome, and has not performed meritorious deeds, which counteract fear. Instead he has done what is evil, savage and cruel. Thinking, ’I have not done what is wholesome; I have done what is evil’, he is distressed.

It. 25-6.

It is noteworthy that in the modern time this is the most common interpretation of kamma, especially in reference to past actions.

  • D. The broadest perspective is to examine general human activities evident in human society. Here, kamma refers to earning a livelihood, conducting one’s life, and engaging in various activities, which result from intention and conceptualization. This interpretation is described by the Buddha in the Vāseṭṭha Sutta:

You should know, Vāseṭṭha, that whoever makes his living among men by cattle herding is called a farmer; he is not a brahmin … whoever makes his living by varied crafts is called a craftsman … whoever makes his living by trade is called a merchant … he who makes his living by serving others is called a servant … whoever makes his living by stealing is called a robber … whoever makes his living by arrows and swords is called a soldier … whoever makes his living by priestly craft is called a chaplain … whoever governs among men the town and realm is called a king; he is not a brahmin…. One who has no mental impurities lingering in the mind, who clings no more, he is the one I call a brahmin….

One is not a brahmin by birth, nor by birth a non-brahmin. By action (kamma) is one a brahmin, by action is one a non-brahmin. By their acts (kamma: work, occupation, behaviour, lifestyle) are men farmers, craftsmen, merchants, servants, robbers, soldiers, chaplains, and even kings. This is how the wise see action as it really is, seers of Dependent Origination, skilled in action and its results. Action makes the world go round; action makes this generation of beings wander on.

M. II. 196; Sn. 117-23.

Similarly, in the Aggañña Sutta:

Then those beings who were elders met together and confided their troubles with one another: ’Sirs, various evils have arisen among us, giving rise to theft, accusations, lying, and the taking up of clubs and batons. Let this not be so. Suppose we were to appoint (sammati: ’consent to’) a certain being who would admonish where admonishment was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment. And in return we would grant him a share of the grain.’

So they went to the one among them who was the most dignified, the most attractive, the most charismatic and awe-inspiring, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the grain, and he agreed…. {242} Because he was chosen by the people, the first regular title of Mahā Sammata (’Great Authority’) came to be.10

D. III. 92-3.

Similarly, in the Cakkavatti Sutta:

Monks, when the king did not furnish property to the needy, poverty became rife; from the growth of poverty, stealing increased; from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased; from the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increased – and from the increase of killing, lying increased … divisive speech … adultery … offensive speech and trivial talk … covetousness and ill-will … wrong view increased.11

D. III. 70-71.

Although one may define kamma into these four distinct categories, one should remember that in each case intention (cetanā) lies at the heart of such actions. Intention leads people to engage with things and determines the manner of such engagement. It determines how people respond to things and how they alter or improve things. It determines whether one makes oneself a channel for expressing unwholesome qualities of greed, hatred, and delusion, or instead for expressing wholesome qualities in order to foster true wellbeing. All this is under the power of intention.

Actions free from intention do not effect results within the domain of the law of kamma – they are not classified as kamma. Rather, they are matters pertaining to other laws of nature, in particular to physical laws (utu-niyāma). They are seen as equivalent to landslides or to a branch falling from a tree.

Kinds of Kamma

From the perspective of its quality or source, kamma is divided into two factors:12

  1. Unwholesome actions (akusala-kamma): unskilful actions; bad actions. This refers to those actions stemming from unwholesome roots, i.e. greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha).

  2. Wholesome actions (kusala-kamma): skilful actions; good actions. This refers to those actions stemming from wholesome roots, i.e. non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa), and non-delusion (amoha). {243}

If one divides kamma according to the ’doorway’ (dvāra) by which actions are performed – the pathways of expression – the classification is threefold:13

  1. Physical actions (kāya-kamma): actions by way of the body.

  2. Verbal actions (vacī-kamma): actions by way of speech.

  3. Mental actions (mano-kamma): actions by way of the mind.

Combining the two aforementioned classifications results in six kinds of kamma: unwholesome physical, verbal, and mental actions, and wholesome physical, verbal, and mental actions.14

Another classification divides kamma into four factors according to the relationship actions have to their results (vipāka):15

  1. Dark actions with dark results: this refers to physical, verbal, and mental volitional formations (kāya-saṅkhāra, vacī-saṅkhāra, and mano-saṅkhāra) that are harmful and oppressive. Basic examples include: injuring other creatures (pāṇātipāta), stealing (adinnādāna), sexual misconduct (kāmesu-micchācāra), lying (musāvādā), and heedlessly indulging in alcoholic beverages.

  2. Bright actions with bright results: this refers to physical, verbal, and mental volitional formations that are neither harmful nor oppressive. An example is upholding the ten wholesome courses of action (kusala-kammapathā).

  3. Bright and dark actions with bright and dark results: this refers to physical, verbal, and mental volitional formations that are partly harmful and partly non-harmful. Most human behaviour falls under this category.

  4. Neither bright-nor-dark actions with neither bright-nor-dark results: this refers to those actions performed in order to bring an end to kamma, i.e. intention aimed at abandoning the three aforementioned kinds of kamma. In terms of spiritual qualities, this refers to the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga) or to the Noble Eightfold Path.

The commentaries contain another classification of kamma, into twelve factors, i.e. into three groups of four factors. This classification was favoured by later generations of Buddhist scholars, as is seen by the description in the Visuddhimagga. To prevent confusion, however, it will not be presented here.16

Of the three kinds of kamma mentioned above, i.e. physical, verbal, and mental kamma, mental kamma is of the greatest importance and has the most widespread and major consequences, as confirmed by the Buddha:

Of these three kinds of action, Tapassī, thus analyzed and distinguished, I describe mental action as the most harmful in the performance of evil action, in the perpetration of evil action, and not bodily action or verbal action.

M. I. 373.

Mental kamma is the most important because it is the point of origin. People think before they speak or act; they think before they express themselves by way of speech or physical actions. Verbal kamma and physical kamma are thus extensions of mental kamma. Moreover, mental kamma encompasses beliefs, opinions, doctrines, ways of thinking, and values, which are collectively referred to as ’view’ (diṭṭhi).

View (diṭṭhi) determines people’s general conduct and lifestyle, as well as the direction of society. People’s thoughts, speech, teachings, instructions, actions, etc. all spring from their beliefs, viewpoints, and values. {244} If people harbour wrong view (micchā-diṭṭhi), their thoughts, speech, and actions will also be incorrect (micchā); if they harbour right view (sammā-diṭṭhi), their thoughts, speech, and actions will be correct (sammā).17 For example, if a society believes that material affluence is of utmost value and truly desirable, people will pursue material wealth, and they will use wealth as the yardstick for measuring progress, prestige, and dignity. People’s lifestyles and the direction of society will follow a particular mode or format. Another society, which considers spiritual peace and happiness to be the highest goal will follow another mode of behaviour.

There are many teachings by the Buddha expressing the significance of wrong view and right view, for example:

Monks, I do not see even a single thing on account of which unarisen unwholesome states arise and arisen unwholesome states increase and expand so much as wrong view….

Monks, I do not see even a single thing on account of which unarisen wholesome states arise and arisen wholesome states increase and expand so much as right view.

A. I. 30.

Monks, for a person of wrong view, whatever bodily kamma, verbal kamma, and mental kamma he maintains and undertakes in accord with that view, and whatever his intention, yearning, inclination, and volitional activities, they all lead to what is unwished for, undesired, and disagreeable, to harm and suffering. For what reason? Because the view is bad. Suppose a seed of neem, snake gourd, or bitter gourd were planted in moist soil. Whatever nutrients it takes up from the soil and from the water would all lead to its bitter, pungent, and distasteful flavour. For what reason? Because the seed is bad….

Monks, for a person of right view, whatever bodily kamma, verbal kamma, and mental kamma he maintains and undertakes in accord with that view, and whatever his intention, yearning, inclination, and volitional activities, they all lead to what is wished for, desired, and agreeable, to wellbeing and happiness. For what reason? Because the view is good. Suppose a seed of sugarcane, hulled wheat, or gold apple were planted in moist soil. Whatever nutrients it takes up from the soil and from the water would all lead to its sweet, agreeable, and delectable flavour. For what reason? Because the seed is good.

A. I. 32; cf.: A. V. 212.

Monks, there is one person who arises in the world for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. Who is that one person? It is one who holds wrong view and has a perverted perspective. He draws many people away from the true Dhamma and establishes them in an untrue Dhamma…. {245}

Monks, there is one person who arises in the world for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. Who is that one person? It is one who holds right view and has a correct perspective. He draws many people away from an untrue Dhamma and establishes them in the true Dhamma….

Monks, I do not see even a single thing so harmful as wrong view. Wrong view is the worst of things that are harmful.18

A. I. 33.

Mind is chief and master of all states; they are all accomplished by way of mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering will follow, even as the wheel of the cart follows the draught-ox…. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness will follow, even as one’s radiance that never leaves.19

Dh. verses 1 and 2.

Criteria for Good and Evil

Good and Evil

The subject of kamma is directly related to the subject of good and evil. To understand kamma more clearly it is thus important to touch upon the subject of good and evil.

The concept of good and evil (or good and bad) poses a difficulty on account of the meanings of these words in English and the criteria for evaluation.20 What determines something to be ’good’ or ’evil’?

This dilemma, however, is primarily confined to English. The Pali terms dealing with these concepts are clearly defined, as will be discussed below.

The English word ’good’, in particular, has a very broad range of meaning. Someone who behaves virtuously is called a ’good person’; when people eat delicious, agreeable food, they call the food or the restaurant where it is served ’good’; an engine that runs efficiently or smoothly is called ’good’; a wooden mallet that serves its purpose is called ’good’; a movie that is fun and enjoyable is called ’good’; a painting beautiful from an artistic point of view is called ’good’, or if it fetches a high price it is called ’good’; likewise, a successful, well-managed school with clever students is called ’good’. The same table may be called ’good’ by three different people, but for various reasons. One person says it is good because he considers it beautifully crafted; the second says it is good because it serves his purpose for writing; and the third says it is good because he can sell it for a high profit.

Similarly, the same object called good by one person may be called bad by others. Some things seen from one perspective are good, while seen from another perspective are bad. Some behaviour in one country or society may be considered good, while in other countries or societies it is considered bad. There are no conclusive answers or completely clear guidelines. One may have to distinguish between ’morally good’, ’aesthetically good’, and ’economically good’. {246}

The reason for this confusion is that these are matters having to do with a sense of value. The terms ’good’ and ’bad’ can be used across the entire spectrum when referring to a sense of value. Therefore, these terms’ definitions are so broad and diverse.

To avoid this confusion, we need not use these English terms ’good’ and ’bad’ in this context. This way we need not discuss the relative merits or value of things as they appear to different people.

There are a few points to bear in mind regarding this subject of good and evil in relation to kamma:

  • In this context of good and evil, the specific Pali terms kusala (’wholesome’) and akusala (’unwholesome’) are used, respectively. These two terms have clearly prescribed definitions and principles for evaluation.

  • The analysis of good and evil here is directly related to the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma). In the study of Buddhist ethics, the concepts of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness are thus viewed as natural phenomena (sabhāva). They are not viewed in light of a relative sense of value.21 The study of relative value pertains to the level of conventional truth (sammati-niyāma) or of social prescriptions (saṅgama-paññatti), whose perimeters are clearly distinguished from the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma).

  • The law of kamma is connected to other laws. The connections of particular importance include: internally, i.e. within an individual person, the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma) is based on psychological laws (citta-niyāma); and externally, the law of nature is connected to conventional laws (sammati-niyāma). In regard to this latter relationship, it is important to clearly separate the boundaries between the law of kamma and conventional laws, although there is a link between them.

The Wholesome and the Unwholesome

Although the Pali terms kusala and akusala are frequently translated as ’good’ and ’bad’ respectively, this is not a truly accurate definition. Some things may be wholesome (kusala) yet in English they may not be called ’good’; likewise, some things may be unwholesome (akusala) but in English they may not be referred to as ’bad’.

Wholesomeness and unwholesomeness arise in the mind, and they begin by producing effects on the mind and by influencing a person’s personality; these effects are then expressed outwardly. The meaning of these two terms – kusala and akusala – thus focuses on the essential basis for wholesome and unwholesome action: the principal emphasis is on the internal workings of the mind.

The term kusala literally means ’skilful’, ’skilled’, ’proficient’, ’dextrous’, ’easeful’, ’favourable’, ’supportive’, ’appropriate’, ’virtuous’, ’meritorious’, ’the elimination of base, repellent qualities’, or ’the dispelling of illness’.

The term akusala refers to those conditions that are foes of kusala or stand in opposition to kusala, for example a lack of skill or a lack of ease.

In the scriptures, there are four principal definitions for the term kusala:

  1. Ārogya: freedom from illness: the state of mind free from illness; a state of mental health. This refers to those conditions and factors that are conducive to mental health and help to ward off mental illness. When these factors are present, the mind is not distressed, agitated, impaired, or weak; rather, it is robust, nimble, pliable, and at ease.

  2. Anavajja: harmless; blameless. This refers to a mind that is non-defective, non-corrupted, unblemished, and undisturbed. The mind is complete, pure, clear, and bright. {247}

  3. Kosalla-sambhūta: springing from wisdom; stemming from intelligence. The mind is endowed with wisdom or with those attributes resulting from understanding. The mind is luminous, seeing into the truth. This is consistent with the principle stating that wholesome qualities have wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) as proximate cause (padaṭṭhāna).

  4. Sukha-vipāka: possessing happiness as fruition; leading to happiness. When wholesome qualities are present in the mind, happiness and contentment arise immediately; one need not wait for a reward or compensation from outside. Similarly, when the body is strong and healthy (aroga), when one is free of all harmful, impure, or toxic elements (anavajja), and one has the knowledge that one is in a safe and suitable place (kosalla-sambhūta), although one may not experience any exceptional states of mind, one is inherently happy and at ease.

Some texts mention three more definitions for kusala: ’intelligent’ (cheka; ’clever’); ’safe’ (khema; ’secure’); and ’free from anxiety’ (niddaratha). These three definitions, however, are already included in the four definitions mentioned above.22 Note also that the third definition above – kosalla-sambhūta – is the primary definition for kusala.

The meaning of akusala can be interpreted as opposite to those definitions of kusala above. This term refers to an unsound state of mind, to a lack of mental health. Unwholesome qualities are detrimental, reproachable, and faulty; they stem from ignorance (avijjā) and bear fruit as suffering. In sum, they weaken and impair the mind. This stands in contrast to wholesome qualities, which support and strengthen the mind.

To clarify this matter, one can describe the various attributes of a mind that is wholesome, healthy, pure, etc. Wholesome qualities (kusala-dhamma) engender these attributes or these states of mind. Conversely, unwholesome qualities (akusala-dhamma) impair or corrupt the mind.

The following wholesome attributes are drawn from various passages in the Pali Canon. They range from attributes present in the minds of ordinary human beings, up to those attributes present in the minds of fully awakened beings – the arahants.

Group #1: passaddha: relaxed, tranquil, calm; lahu: lightness of mind; mudu: gentle, tender, mild; kamañña: wieldy, ready for work; paguṇa: adroit; uju: upright, not crooked, not distorted.23

Group #2: mudu: gentle, mild; kammanīya: wieldy, suitable for work; pabhas-sara: brilliant, clear; apabhaṅgu: robust, not frail; samāhita: steadfast; anāvaraṇa: unimpeded, unconfined; anivaraṇa: unhindered, unobstructed, unconstrained; anupakkiliṭṭha: untarnished, unmuddied; anajjhārūḷha: unconstricted, unoppressed; avighāta: untroubled, unafflicted.24 {248}

Group #3: samāhita: steadfast, balanced, even; parisuddha: pure, impeccable; pariyodāta: pristine, bright; anaṅgaṇa: unblemished, clear; vigatūpakkilesa: unstained; mudubhūta: gentle, tender; kammanīya: wieldy; ṭhita and āneñjappatta: steady, grounded, composed, stable, unshakeable, non-wavering.25

The next two groups are primarily comprised of attributes belonging to arahants:

Group #4: akiñcana: nothing lingering in the mind, free from latent anxiety; santa: peaceful, satisfied; asoka: sorrowless; viraja: free from dust; khema: safe, secure, free from danger; nicchāta: sated, free from hankering; sītabhūta: cooled, deeply at peace; nibbuta: cooled, calmed; serī: released, able to wander freely; sayaṁvasī: self-mastery, self-reliant; sukhī: happy.26

Group #5: anallīna: unentangled, unobsessed; anajjhosita: unintimidated; anūpalitta: unsoiled, unpolluted; anissita: independent, not dependent on anything; visaññuta: unfettered; vippamutta: liberated; vimariyādikata-citta: with an unbounded, limitless mind.27

For ease of memory, these attributes may be divided into various main headings:

  1. Stability: e.g.: steadfast, steady, even, unshakeable, unwavering, non-agitated, non-vacillating.

  2. Purity: e.g.: untainted, unmuddied, unstained, unblemished, clear, bright, brilliant.

  3. Freedom: e.g.: unentangled, unconfined, unrestricted, unbound, unafflicted, expansive.

  4. Suitability for work: e.g.: gentle, soft, light, at ease, adroit, supple, robust, upright, not frail, unbiased, not crooked, non-deviating, not distorted.

  5. Peace: relaxed, calm, content, not stressed, not lacking, not hankering, not agitated, untroubled, undisturbed.

When one is familiar with the attributes of a healthy, unblemished mind, one can examine those qualities that are defined as either wholesome or unwholesome. How do wholesome qualities support and strengthen the mind, and how to unwholesome qualities plague and spoil, weaken and afflict the mind? {249}

Here are examples of wholesome qualities: sati: mindfulness, the ability to sustain attention; mettā: lovingkindness, goodwill, the wish for others to be happy; alobha: non-greed, absence of craving, the inclination to be generous; paññā: wisdom, penetrative insight; passaddhi: tranquillity, physical repose and mental calm, an absence of stress and restlessness; kusala-chanda: wholesome enthusiasm, love of goodness, aspiration for truth, a wish to harmonize with causes and conditions; muditā: delight and rejoicing when others succeed or are happy.

Here are examples of unwholesome qualities: kāma-chanda: greed, covetousness, hankering (see Note Wholesome and Unwholesome Desire); byāpāda: ill-will, indignation, resentment; thīna-middha: despondency, discouragement, apathy, listlessness, lethargy; uddhacca-kukkucca: restlessness, mental agitation, mental disturbance, moodiness, worry, anxiety; vicikicchā: doubt, indecisiveness; kodha: anger; issā: envy; macchariya: stinginess, jealousy, a wish to obstruct others.

Wholesome and Unwholesome Desire

The difference between kusala-chanda and kāma-chanda (or lobha) is discussed at length in chapter 10 on desire and motivation. In brief, greed (lobha) is an attachment to sense objects that offer instant gratification, but do not lead anywhere beyond this. Greed focuses on indulging in sense objects and it reinforces a sense of self, which acquires or consumes these objects. Wholesome enthusiasm (chanda), on the other hand, takes hold of things that are in a beginning stage of development. The mind embraces and harmonizes with things, assisting them to reach completion. It does not involve a wish for personal gratification, nor does it lead to a sense of an isolated self that acquires or consumes things.

When one is endowed with lovingkindness (mettā), the mind is happy, peaceful, and expansive. Kindness supports and strengthens the mind. And mindfulness helps to sustain attention on those things with which one is engaged. It is aware of appropriate action in specific circumstances, wards against unwholesome qualities, and prepares the mind for work. These two qualities are thus classified as wholesome.

Jealousy constricts, agitates, and oppresses the mind; it clearly weakens and impairs the mind. Anger burns from within, causing mental distress, and it can quickly damage one’s physical health. Craving, or just ordinary greed, entangles, distorts, and beclouds the mind, making it fretful and anxious. These qualities are thus unwholesome.

Although despondency, apathy, listlessness, and restlessness, etc., are unwholesome, in English it is not fully accurate to say that these qualities are ’bad’. Similarly, some wholesome qualities like tranquillity are not necessarily referred to as ’good’. This demonstrates how the terms ’wholesome’ and ’unwholesome’ are not identical to the terms ’good’ and ’bad’.

By understanding the meanings of kusala and akusala, one also gains an understanding of good kamma and bad kamma, that is, of wholesome kamma (kusala-kamma) and unwholesome kamma (akusala-kamma).

As mentioned earlier, intention (cetanā) is the essential factor for volitional action (kamma). Therefore, wholesome intentions (kusala-cetanā) are defined as wholesome kamma, and unwholesome intentions (akusala-cetanā) are defined as unwholesome kamma.

When wholesome and unwholesome intentions are expressed by way of body, speech, or mind, they are referred to as wholesome and unwholesome physical actions (kāya-kamma), verbal actions (vacī-kamma), and mental actions (mano-kamma), respectively. {250}

Special Points on Wholesomeness and Unwholesomeness

The Wholesome and the Unwholesome Can Be Interconnected

Some people are endowed with faith, practise generosity, keep moral precepts, or possess aspects of wisdom, all of which are wholesome qualities or activities, yet they become conceited or arrogant as a consequence of this virtuous behaviour. Conceit and arrogance are unwholesome qualities. This is an example of the wholesome acting as a condition for the unwholesome.

Some people develop concentration and attain the jhānas, yet become captivated by these refined states. Some people develop lovingkindness and goodwill, yet when they encounter an attractive sense object, their love facilitates the arising of lust, which may then be followed by other unwholesome qualities like prejudice. These are more examples of the wholesome acting as a condition for the unwholesome.

Faith is a wholesome quality, uplifting and focusing the mind. But if one relates to faith unskilfully, it may lead to wrong view (diṭṭhi) and conceit (māna). One is convinced that one’s own views are correct, while others’ views are false, which may be a cause for quarrelling, disputing, and abuse. This too is an example of the wholesome acting as a condition for the unwholesome.

Some people long to be born in heaven and thus determine to act virtuously. Some yearn for peace and thus practise concentration until they reach the concentrative attainments. Some children wish to be admired by adults and thus try to behave in a well-disciplined way. Some students desire good grades and thus strive to study and seek knowledge.28 Some people feel the burning influence of anger, which then leads them to clearly understand the harmful effects of anger. Some people become offended by an adversary, yet this experience leads them to feel compassion for others. Others may feel anxious or depressed and as a result they gain faith in the Dhamma. These are examples of the unwholesome acting as a condition for the wholesome.

A teenager is warned by his parents to take great care over whom he associates with, but he does not listen. Later, he is duped by a bad character into drug addiction. When he is aware of what has happened, he is both angry at himself and depressed. He understands his parents’ warning and is deeply moved by their care for him (the unwholesome conditioning the wholesome), which in turn makes him even more angry at himself (the wholesome conditioning the unwholesome).

During this exchange between the wholesome and the unwholesome, when wholesome qualities are present the mind is in a state of wellbeing, while when unwholesome qualities are present the mind is impaired. The wholesome and the unwholesome may alternate rapidly, and for this reason it is important to distinguish between different mind moments.

Good and Evil, and the Wholesome and the Unwholesome

In some cases these two pairs of terms – puñña and pāpa and kusala and akusala – can be used interchangeably, while in other cases they cannot. The distinction between these terms can thus cause confusion. Here, only a brief explanation of this distinction is given. {251}

In a literal sense, the term puñña (’merit’, ’goodness’) is defined in two ways: factors for purifying the underlying disposition of mind, and factors leading to the fruition of a meritorious state of existence. Other definitions include: factors leading to holiness, and factors bringing one’s wishes to fulfilment.

The term pāpa is literally defined as factors leading to the round of suffering (vaṭṭa-dukkha), or factors leading to a bad destination (duggati). Common definitions for pāpa include ’filthy’, ’indecent’, ’wicked’, ’evil’, and ’base’. Occasionally, pāpa is used as a qualifying adjective for the fruit of volitional action (vipāka); in this context it means ’miserable’ (dukkha) or ’undesirable’ (aniṭṭha).29

Note that these definitions have been established by linguists and only reveal certain aspects of the meanings of these terms. It is essential to also understand their true meanings within the context of Dhamma teachings.

In the broadest sense, puñña is equivalent to kusala, and pāpa is equivalent to akusala. Yet in the actual application of these terms, puñña and pāpa are normally used in a more restricted sense than kusala and akusala.

Generally speaking, pāpa is used as an equivalent for akusala more often than puñña is used as an equivalent for kusala. The reverse scenario, however, of kusala being used as an equivalent for puñña, is common.

An important instance of pāpa being used as an equivalent for akusala is in the first and second factors in the teaching of the four right efforts (sammappadhāna), in which these two terms are used in conjunction: one strives to protect against unarisen ’evil unwholesome’ (pāpa-akusala) qualities, and one strives to abandon those evil unwholesome qualities already arisen. In the third and fourth factors, however, puñña is not used together with kusala. Here only kusala is mentioned: one strives to cultivate those wholesome qualities not yet arisen, and one strives to preserve those arisen wholesome factors and bring them to perfection.30

In brief, the definitions of puñña and kusala are not identical. If one divides kusala into two levels, as mundane wholesomeness (lokiya-kusala) and transcendent wholesomeness (lokuttara-kusala), the term puñña applies to the former. In the case that puñña refers to transcendent wholesomeness, a modifier is added, for example: lokuttara-puñña (’transcendent goodness’). This term, however, is uncommon (it is only found in one passage of the commentaries, along with the corresponding passage in the sub-commentaries.)31

In the Pali Canon, the Buddha frequently mentions the term opadhika-puñña: ’merit yielding fruit as the five aggregates’, which is a form of mundane goodness. This implies that the term anopadhika-puñña (or nirūpadhi-puñña) – ’transcendent goodness’ – should appear as a pair, but these two terms do not appear anywhere in the scriptures.32

Instead, in one sutta of the Pali Canon one finds the term nirūpadhi-kusala (’transcendent wholesomeness’) paired with opadhika-puñña (’mundane goodness’):

By way of body, speech, and mind, cultivate transcendent, boundless wholesomeness. Having cultivated mundane goodness through generosity, [develop the gift of the Dhamma], encouraging others to be established in the true Dhamma, in the sublime life. {252}

It. 77-8.

Generally speaking, the Buddha used the term puñña in the sense of mundane goodness (opadhika-puñña). Although the term opadhika is not added, it is implied. The meaning is thus equivalent to mundane wholesomeness (lokiya-kusala). Puñña is thus only one part of kusala, which also encompasses the transcendent. Only very few commentarial passages fully equate puñña and kusala.33

The commentaries explain the various nuances of the term puñña. The Paramatthadīpanī (the commentary to the Itivuttaka) for instance, provides five definitions for this term:34

  1. The fruit derived from wholesome actions, for example in the passage: ’Due to undertaking various wholesome things, merit increases.’35

  2. Virtuous behaviour in the sense sphere (kāmāvacara) and the fine-material sphere (rūpāvacara), e.g.: ’One is subject to ignorance if one proliferates over meritorious activities (puññābhisaṅkhāra).’36

  3. Distinctively happy destinations of birth, e.g.: ’Consciousness arriving at a state of goodness (puñña).’37

  4. Wholesome intention, for example in the term puññakiriyā-vatthu (’bases of meritorious action’; this is equivalent to wholesome action – kusala-kamma).38

  5. Wholesome actions in the three planes of existence, e.g.: ’Bhikkhus, do not fear goodness (puñña).’39 (This is equivalent to mundane wholesomeness.)

The fifth definition is the principal one, corresponding to the explanation in the Mahāniddesa:

Whatever wholesome formation (kusalābhisaṅkhāra) in the three states of being (dhātu: kāma-dhātu, rūpa-dhātu, and arūpa-dhātu) is called ’goodness’ (puñña). All unwholesomeness is called ’non-goodness’ (apuñña = pāpa – ’evil’).

Nd. I. 90; explaining: Sn. 155; expanded upon at NdA. I. 219; cf.: Dh. verses 39, 267, 412.

In sum, ’goodness’ (puñña) refers to mundane wholesomeness (kusala); ’evil’ (pāpa) refers to all unwholesomeness (akusala). Kusala is divided into mundane and transcendent wholesomeness, while akusala is exclusively mundane. Both goodness (puñña) and evil (pāpa) refer to mundane phenomena.40

These definitions help to understand such phrases as ’free from good and evil’, ’abandoning good and evil’, and ’rising above good and evil’, which refer to attributes of an arahant’s mind.41

Note that such freedom from good and evil implies a freedom from or an abandonment of mundane wholesomeness; it does not mean that arahants have abandoned transcendent wholesomeness. {253}

When the terms puñña and kusala appear in tandem, kusala takes on the definition of puñña; its meaning is thus narrowed, referring to mundane wholesomeness.42 An important attribute of mundane goodness, or mundane wholesomeness, is that a person is still concerned with material or sensual results. The focus here is not deliverance of mind or on the complete removal of mental defilement.

Here are two examples in the Pali Canon of how these terms are applied: when a bhikkhu is thinking of giving up the training, he often says that he will disrobe in order to spend wealth and make merit;43 and a virtuous householder’s life is marked by spending wealth and making merit.44 The term ’merit’ here refers to various virtuous actions, like being charitable, offering gifts, upholding moral standards, etc., corresponding to the term ’wholesome action’ (kusala-kamma).45 The same meaning applies in the passage: ’Merit is favourable for devas, for human beings, and for renunciants.’46 In the Buddha’s statement that ’merit is a name for happiness’, puñña here refers to the desirable fruits of wholesome actions.47 The expression ’death due to the end of merit’ (puññakhaya-maraṇa) refers to having used up the fruits of meritorious actions which conditioned that particular birth.48

In a similar vein, the definition of the term dhamma, whereby it corresponds to the term puñña, is related to going to heaven, just like the term adhamma, corresponding to pāpa, is related to going to hell.49

Although puñña and kusala are synonyms, in the general application of these terms, the meaning of kusala is broader than the meaning of puñña. These terms can be used interchangeably in some contexts, but not in others. The definitions of pāpa and akusala are closer to one another, and thus these two terms are more frequently used interchangeably. They are most often used to portray attributes in opposition to puñña. Here are a few more points pertaining to these terms:

  • The term kusala may be used in reference to intentional actions (kamma) or in reference to natural phenomena. Puñña, on the other hand, is usually used only in reference to intentional actions. The terms ’wholesome action’ (kusala-kamma) and ’wholesome state’ (kusala-dhamma) are common. The term ’meritorious action’ (puñña-kamma) is also found, but the term ’meritorious state’ (puñña-dhamma) sounds unusual and does not appear to be used in Dhamma teachings. The terms ’unwholesome action’ (akusala-kamma), ’unwholesome state’ (akusala-dhamma), ’evil action’ (pāpa-kamma), and ’evil state’ (pāpa-dhamma) are all found in the scriptures.

  • In special circumstances, puñña refers to the fruit of wholesome actions. Even in those cases where it does not refer to the fruit of goodness directly, puñña is used in relation to the effects of actions, or it seems to focus on external or sensual rewards, in particular to happiness and to being born in good destinations.

  • For these reasons, puñña is usually only used in reference to mundane goodness and wholesomeness. It is very rare that this term is used to encompass the meaning of transcendent wholesomeness. {254}

Here are two more points that may be of interest to scholars:

  • The terms puñña and pāpa were commonly used before the Buddha’s time, and their meanings were tied up with the concepts of fate and the sacred. The Buddha used these terms to the extent that they fit with Buddhist principles. The terms kusala and akusala were also used before the Buddha’s time, but in the sense of ’skilled’, ’clever’, ’proficient’, ’easeful’, or ’healthy’ (and the opposite meanings). The Buddha used these terms, but defined them to correspond with desired nuances of meaning.

  • For this reason, the terms kusala and akusala have truly Buddhist connotations, and are used in a technical sense. In contrast, the Buddha tended to use the terms puñña and pāpa when teaching householders and when referring to everyday life.50

Criteria for Good and Bad Action

As mentioned earlier the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma) is most closely linked to psychological laws (citta-niyāma) and to conventional laws (sammati-niyāma). This close relationship between the three can cause confusion for people. Therefore, in order to clearly understand the subject of kamma, and of good and evil, it is important to distinguish the boundaries between these three laws.

The law of kamma overlaps psychological laws, yet there is also a clear point of separation. Intention (cetanā), which is the essence and primary agent within the law of kamma, makes this law independent from other laws, or it provides people with a role independent of other laws. Intention enables a personal sphere of deliberation and design, to the extent that people claim to be equal to or to compete with nature, and distinguish their own world of creations from the domain of nature.

Intention relies on the mechanisms of psychological laws51 in order to function, and when a person performs intentional actions, the fruition of these actions rely on psychological laws in order to be maintained. This is similar to someone driving a motorboat. The driver is like intention, which pertains to the law of kamma. The boat’s engine is like the mechanisms and various factors of the mind, which pertain to psychological laws. The driver must rely on the engine, but the direction which the boat (i.e. a person’s life along with his or her body) goes, is determined by the driver. The driver relies on and derives benefit from the engine, yet he is ultimately responsible for where the boat goes. This is similar to how the law of kamma relies on and derives benefit from psychological laws. Intentional action, however, is responsible for the direction life goes, including the consequences one’s decisions have for the mind and body.

The relationship between the law of kamma and psychological laws generally causes no problems, because people tend not to give it much attention. Regardless of the level of interest people have in it, or even whether people are aware of it or not, this relationship functions automatically, generally out of sight from people.

On the contrary, the relationship between the law of kamma and conventional laws causes much confusion for people. Many people have doubts about good and evil; they question what is good and evil, what is the true validity behind marking an action as good or evil, and what are the criteria for determining good and evil. {255}

Many people claim that good and evil are concepts exclusively determined and assigned by people and by society. The same action may be labelled good in one society or by one generation, but labelled bad in another society or at another point in history. The same action may be endorsed by one society and forbidden by another. For example, some tribal cultures may decree that killing members of another tribe is good, while more developed cultures will recognize that the killing of all human beings is wrong. Some religions teach that killing animals for food is blameless, while other religions teach that injuring any living creature is unskilful. Some cultures say that it is good for a woman to have several husbands, while others say that a woman should have only one – they may even prescribe that a woman should jump into her husband’s funeral pyre. Some societies declare that children should honour and obey their elders, without dispute, while others declare that mutual respect and honour is independent of age and that everyone should engage in reasoned debate.

The claim that concepts of good and evil are conventional designations created by people and by society is largely true. Having said this, such conventional designations have no bearing on the law of kamma, and one should be careful not to confuse the two.

Conventional designations of good and evil pertain to conventional laws (sammati-niyāma). They are distinct from matters of good and evil (matters of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness) pertaining to the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma). Although these two laws are related, they have a clear point of separation. Confusion arises because people are often unable to distinguish between the two.

The factor that acts as a bridge between these two laws, and also acts to separate them, is the same as the distinguishing factor between the law of kamma and psychological laws, i.e. intention (cetanā). This will be examined in more detail, below.

In relation to the law of kamma, there are several important aspects to social prescriptions:

Social prescriptions are not directly connected to the wholesome and unwholesome as dictated by the law of kamma. They are established by society for a particular objective, say for social harmony and peace. They manifest as a form of mutual agreement or commitment. These prescriptions may lead to social peace and wellbeing or they may not; they may be beneficial or even harmful. This depends on how comprehensive the knowledge is of those who enact these prescriptions, or on these people’s level of sincerity. These prescriptions come in many forms, from various customs and traditions, up to a body of laws.

Here, good and evil is determined by these conventional laws (sammati-niyāma). The concepts of good and evil in this case are varied and variable. Their variation and changeability, however, do not pertain to the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma). The two sets of laws should not be confused. When someone transgresses these prescriptions, this is a matter pertaining to conventional laws, not to the law of kamma. {256}

Now we can examine how these social conventions enter into the domain of the law of kamma. When someone accepts these prescriptions, regardless of whether these prescriptions are virtuous and beneficial or not, yet he or she decides to disobey them, at that moment there is an intention to disobey or to transgress them.52 Moreover, the person will be aware of these intentions, without being able to ignore or deny them.

Intention here is connected directly to the law of kamma. Some societies may try to include the factor of intention when passing judgement on people, in order to determine whether the infringement of a law was performed intentionally or not. But this is still a matter pertaining to social conventions; it simply indicates that this society is intelligent and knows how to benefit from the law of kamma.

In terms of the law of kamma, regardless of whether a society examines whether a person acted intentionally or not, or whether it determines if a law has been transgressed or not, the kammic process has begun the moment a person has an intention to infringe on a socially accepted prescription and acts upon this intention. The process of bearing kammic fruit (vipāka) has been set in motion, and the person begins to experience the results of his or her volitional actions.

The goodness or badness of an action in such a case must be considered from the perspective of conventional laws. It is not directly related to the law of kamma (it is linked to the law of kamma when one takes into account the intention and level of wisdom of those people who have enacted these prescriptions.) In regard to observing and upholding these prescriptions, the law of kamma is only related in the area of acknowledging and accepting these socially prescribed terms, and then acting intentionally, in some way or another, in response to them.

Technically speaking, the dynamics discussed so far are part of virtuous conduct (sīla). They reveal the connection between human laws and the laws of nature, which must be clearly distinguished.

There are situations where conventional designations of good and bad are indirectly related to the law of kamma. For example, a society may prescribe a particular action as good and correct, to be observed by everyone. Later, someone endowed with wisdom recognizes that in fact this action is neither good nor beneficial, and may even be harmful to society. That person may try to explain this to other members of society, try to revise their ways of conduct, and perhaps even refuse to observe this custom.

In such a circumstance, the person’s actions do not spring from defiled intention, as is the case for someone who breaks a law for unwholesome reasons. Instead, it springs from intention accompanied by wisdom, aiming to improve the wellbeing of others. The gist of the kammic process in these individual cases is not the same, as it depends on the quality of intention.

In any case, whatever the quality of intention, the perpetrator of such an act is aware of the specific intention and must receive the fruit of it according to the law of kamma. He may be able to hide from or deceive society, but he cannot hide from his own mind, nor can he deceive the laws of nature. In a nutshell, the determining factor in regard to the law of kamma is whether intention is wholesome or unwholesome. {257}

Generally speaking, there is no transgression, or intent to transgress, when society agrees unanimously to repeal or amend a law or prescription. In such a case, the transgressor has not compromised his integrity or betrayed a social contract.

This can be illustrated by some simple examples. Imagine two people live together. In order for both people to live at ease, they lay down certain regulations. Say they work at different locations and return home at different times, but they agree to eat supper together. They cannot wait for the other person forever, so they each agree not to eat supper alone before seven in the evening. One of them likes cats and dislikes dogs; the other likes dogs and dislikes cats. They therefore agree not to have any pets in the house.

If either of them decides not to honour one of these agreements, the intention to breach it arises and things proceed according to the law of kamma. This is so even though, in truth, eating before seven in the evening or bringing a pet into the house is neither inherently good nor bad. Another two people may lay down an opposite set of regulations. If one of the two persons recognizes that the regulations in fact are unconducive to their communal wellbeing, they must discuss whether to revoke or to change them. Neglecting to follow these regulations then does not entail an intention to transgress them.

The Vinaya – the monastic set of training rules – is linked to intention as part of a person’s conduct, culminating in his or her moral integrity (sīla). Here one can see both the relationship and the distinction between uncertain, indefinite matters of good and evil, of right and wrong, prescribed by a society, and certain, definite matters of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness pertaining to the law of kamma.

There exists a relationship between social prescriptions and the law of kamma. Having said this, regardless of whether a society defines good and evil with an understanding of what is truly wholesome and unwholesome – of what is favourable and what is harmful to people – or whether it lacks this understanding, the dynamics of the law of kamma proceed naturally, unaltered by the social prescriptions.

A society may endorse the taking of intoxicants, believing that they make people happy; it may advocate violent emotions; it may believe that one should incite and stimulate people, increasing their desires and competitiveness, in order for them to be more productive; it may claim that killing other groups of people is good or that killing animals is blameless. In such cases, the so-called goodness of social prescriptions conflicts with wholesomeness within the law of kamma.

From a social perspective, these prescriptions or beliefs may have both positive and negative consequences. The endorsement of intoxicants, for example, may greatly increase the state’s income by way of excise tax. But at the same time many members of society may end up dull and idle, or debilitated, and crime may be rampant. The belief that people should be frenetically productive may lead to rapid advancements in the material wellbeing of society, but it may also lead to an increase in heart disease, mental illness, suicide, and an abnormal number of other problems. {258} Similarly, in a society that condones the killing of other human beings, its members will be viewed by outsiders as cruel and untrustworthy.

Many of these consequences manifesting in society may also spring from dynamics within the law of kamma. At beginning stages, however, to avoid confusion, one should distinguish between results occurring from social prescriptions and results occurring from the law of kamma. Later, one can examine how these two dynamics are linked.

In regard to the law of kamma, there are two levels of intention: first, there is intention accompanied by an adherence to a social prescription, which manifests for example as beliefs or values; second, there is the intention to either observe or to disobey a prescription at a particular moment in time. In any case, the reaping of kammic fruit begins immediately once one has established an intention.

Take for example a person who revels in drinking alcohol; while drinking, his intention will be accompanied by a dimwitted form of delight. If he drinks regularly he will develop this state of mind as an habitual disposition.

When someone who is frantically vying to obtain things is engaged in work, his intention will be accompanied by stress and desperation, which will become habitual features of his mind.

Although someone who is determined to kill others may be praised and rewarded by his society, at the time of killing his intention is accompanied by malice and cruelty, or by wild ambition. If he frequently indulges in such killing, these states of mind may develop to form his entire personality. The quality of his mind will become coarser and will lose its refinement, subtlety, and tenderness.

Here, the term cetanā (’intention’) should be inspected more closely. In the Pali Canon, the meaning of the term cetanā is more subtle and refined than the meaning of ’intention’ in English. Generally speaking, the term ’intention’ in English is used when one wishes to link internal deliberations with external actions. For example, people may say: ’He had a slip of the tongue; he didn’t intend to say that,’ or ’she acted intentionally.’ In Dhamma teachings – i.e. according to the principle of kamma – however, deliberate speech, physical actions, and thoughts, memories and recollections, and emotional responses to things received by way of the five senses, no matter how minor or temporary, are all accompanied by intention.

Cetanā thus refers to volition, purpose, and deliberation, to selecting the objects for attention. Intention is the principal factor for steering and activating the mind, which then inclines towards or turns away from things, or pursues a specific direction. It is the leader, director, and governor of the mind, determining how one relates to various things. It shapes the course of the mind and in the end it conditions one’s particular state of mind.

When intention arises, kamma manifests. When kamma manifests, it produces immediate effects, because with the arising of intention the mind becomes active – there is mental activity. Even in the case of minor, fleeting thoughts, which do not bear any significant fruit, they still have an effect. At the very least they constitute a form of fine kammic ’dust’ that accumulates in the mind and affects its properties. When it increases, for instance when the mind resorts to these thoughts frequently, or when they intensify and are expressed as outward actions, their effects become more pronounced, developing into a person’s habits and personality. {259}

Take the example of harmful deeds. One need not examine an action as dire as killing another person; even damaging something of very little value, if performed with malicious intent or a mind of anger, say tearing up a piece of useless paper out of irritation, has an effect on the quality of the mind. It is not the same as someone tearing up unneeded paper with an ordinary state of mind.

When one performs a volitional action repeatedly, the effects of this kammic accumulation become more obvious and may gradually magnify in scope. This is similar to dust settling in a room, in a way unnoticed by the person living there. All volitional actions bears some kind of fruit. Apart from the amount and the potency of the kammic effects accumulated, the level of their importance is also related to the specific quality and function of the mind.

There needs to be plenty of dust on a road before it is considered to be filthy. A lesser amount of dust on the floor of a living room is considered to be dirty. An amount less than that on the surface of a desk is considered unclean and may disturb the person working there. A small amount of dust on a mirror soils it and diminishes its usefulness. And a minuscule amount of dust on a pair of glasses is noticeable and blurs one’s vision. A similar analogy is that of using a knife to scrape a road surface, a floor in a house, or a pair of glasses, respectively. Reverse similes also apply: compare using a small velvet cloth or wad of cotton wool to wipe a floor, in contrast to using it to clean a pair of glasses.

No intentional action is fruitless, which is summed up by these Buddhist sayings:

All accumulated deeds, both good and bad, bear fruit. Actions marked as kamma, even trifling ones, are not void of result.53

J. IV. 394.

Neither good nor bad deeds are performed in vain.

J. VI. 239.

People tend to overlook the importance of the subtle effects of volitional action at the level of the mind. Here are two more similes to help clarify this matter:

  • There are many different degrees of clean and dirty water, e.g.: marsh water, river water, tap water, and distilled water. Marsh water may be used as a habitat for various creatures, but it is not suitable for bathing, drinking, or other more refined purposes. River water is suitable for bathing and for washing cloths, but perhaps not suitable for drinking. Tap water may be used for drinking, but not for intravenous injections. For ordinary purposes, tap water is adequate for people’s overall needs, but if one is faced with special circumstances it is insufficient.

    This is similar to differences in the quality of mind, in terms of varying degrees of coarseness and subtlety, turbidity and brightness, due to actions performed and accumulated. During much of one’s life, one may not feel there is a problem with mediocre or relatively coarse states of mind, but later on one may be faced with a situation calling for more refined states of mind. One’s accumulated actions in the past may cause problems and one’s habitual state of mind may be inadequate for the circumstances; indeed, it may even be completely dysfunctional.

  • Water may exist in various degrees of undulation or stillness, e.g.: surging ocean swells, small waves on a river due to the passing of a motorboat, a trickling stream, a tranquil pond, and utterly still water in a vessel. In some cases, one may be able to make use of undulating water, but in other cases one may need the water to be so still that one is able to float a needle on the surface. {260}

    This is similar to the quality of the mind, either coarse or refined, which is relevant to one’s specific mental application and to arriving at exceptional states attainable by human beings.

Conventional laws (sammati-niyāma) and the law of kamma (kamma-niyāma) are distinct from one another. The kammic process follows its own nature, independent of any social prescriptions which may run counter to it. But because there is a relationship between these two sets of laws, a person who acts appropriately vis-à-vis the law of kamma (i.e. adheres to wholesome principles) may face problems from conflicting social prescriptions. For example, those people who live in a society that endorses the taking of intoxicants, but wish not to partake of these themselves, receive some effects from their actions. Although their clear and bright states of mind are not sullied by intoxicants, they may be ridiculed by others for being weak or looked down on in other ways. Even within the domain of kamma, they may experience difficulties from resisting these social customs and norms, leading to some degree of conflict in the mind, depending on their level of wisdom, which dispels any sense of dis-ease.

In a developed and wise society, people draw upon the experiences from past generations to determine what is truly beneficial to human beings and what is not. They then establish conventional laws and regulati