Law of Dependent Origination | Early Buddhism 2


1. Law of Dependent Origination
2. The Rival Philosophies of the Time
3. The Twelve Links of Moral Causation

Twelve Links of Moral Causation:

1. avidya (ignorance),
2. saṁskāra (conformations),
3. vijñāna (consciousness),
4. nāma-rūpa (name and form),
5. ṣaḍāyatana (6 fields of sense-organs),
6. sparśa (contact),
7. vedanā (sensation),
8. tṛṣṇā (desire or craving),
9. upādāna (attachment),
10. bhāva (existence),
11. Jāti (birth), and
12. jarā-maraṇa (old age and death).

1. Law of Dependent Origination

The flourish with which the discovery of dependent origination or causal concatenation is announced in the Pali canon,

i.e. that it was the final phase of the Buddha's enlightenment, that there were twelve convul­sions in ten thousand worlds as he recounted the twelve links of the causal chain in different ways,

that there was universal jubilation over his insight and that under the Bodhi-tree night after night for seven days after the attainment of enlightenment he repeated the series to himself to fix it in his mind and that he did not leave the locality for seven weeks,

shows the importance the Buddhist monks and schoolmen attached to the formula which has caused no end of trouble to commentators and expositors down to our own times.

It has been suggested that a rather recondite formula like the law of serial causation could not have been a proper message for the masses.

Seeing, however, that many wanderers with their divergent philosophies of life were getting an attentive hearing in the Buddha's time, this objection does not seem to be a strong one.

The real point is whether the rule of law governing the destinies of sentient existence was couched in the language of the dependent origination formula by the Buddha himself or some follower of his.

That our fates are self-created and not due to the whimsies of the gods and that, as such, they are controllable by proper endeavour must have been a part of the Buddha's original teaching, whatever might have been the elaboration made in the Community in later times.

If the Brāhmaṇas had extolled the automatic fruition of mantras without reference to the favour of the gods whose names were invoked in a sacrifice, and the Upaniṣads had belittled the importance of the heavenly beings,

the Buddha felt justified in elimi­nating the divine factor altogether and preaching the self-sufficiency of the causal law, later known as the law of karma, at least in so far as it related to human destiny.

The problem of a free-will naturally attained a greater importance in the dissenting creeds of the time in which the divine element was excluded from philosophy and life,

and so also did the origin, nature, function and destiny of the finite without assuming extraneous trans­cendental factors.

As is the Sophistic and Humanistic movements of Europe, man became the centre of religious and philosophical interest in the Buddha's time,

only that the interest centred not round his intellectual capacity, but round the transcendental heights to which he might rise by moral perfection and rigorous spiritual discipline,

the insights and powers that he might obtain by mental and physical training,

and the control that he might gain over body and mind by cultivating a habit of dispassion towards the ills of life and keeping out theistic intrusions into the realm of personal spiritual advancement.

The Buddha asked people to test his spiritual prescription by personal experience (ehipassika, come and see), before adopting it and to accept his message not out of respect for him but because of its rationality,

though, it must be admitted, the necessity of faith in the omniscience of the Buddha is repeatedly empha­sized in the Scripture.

2. The Rival Philosophies of the Time

The formula that came to be associated with the Buddha's name appears in two forms—one simple and direct and the other recondite and learned.

The simple truth that the Buddha derived from his personal experience was, as Aristotle discovered later, that the correct code of life is the pursuit of the mean and the avoidance of extremes.

A life of indulgence does not befit those whom nature has endowed with the capacity of self-control: man is not brutish by nature and so he has no excuse to be a creature of impulses, lured away by passing fancies and driven by gusts of sudden passion.

The materialists of the time—king Pāyāsi, Ajita-keśa-kambalin and others, came in for criticism in Buddhist Scriptures because they advocated this-worldliness and a consequent moral irresponsibility due to want of faith in the ultimate distinction between good and bad, merit and demerit.

They virtually taught annihilation-ism (uccheda-vāda), inasmuch as they did not believe in the transcendental or future life, or in present karma determining future human destiny.

Some like Gosāla believed in chance causation (adhicca-samuppāda), fortuitous origination (yadṛcchā -vāda), automatic perfectibility of man without reference to his personal moral action—

a kind of fatalistic creed (niyati-vāda) which left nothing to human initiative and left no room for moral responsibility.

Others like Pūraṇa-Kassapa were indifferent to moral distinctions and thought that actions had no moral significance as the soul was inactive by nature.

A few others like Sañjaya-Belaṭṭhaputta were sceptical in their philosophical views, while some others like Pakudha-Kaccāyana, who believed in the reality of material and spiritual elements (sāssata-vāda),

thought that the relation between the two was not intimate enough to justify linking up physical actions like murder with psychic responsibility like moral guilt.

Nigaṇṭha-Nātaputta(Mahāvīra), who shared with the Buddha the largest following in later times, laid greater stress on self-restraint,

and a section of the Buddha's own followers, either out of honest belief or as a matter of policy (e.g. Devadatta), advocated similar harder ascetic practices (the dhūtāṅgas of later times) than the Buddha would recommend for his reli­gious fraternity as a whole,

though permitting individuals to accept more rigid rules of self-discipline regarding food, raiment, residence and medica­tion (the four nissayas or supports) if they so desired,

the Buddha coun­selled moderation here also and rightly preached that self-control and right knowledge constituted better spiritual disciplines than mortification of the flesh.

He stressed the necessity of recognizing the importance of morality in the context of human destiny by propounding a theory of causation which took, perhaps gradually, the shape of the recondite law of dependent origination in his Community,

though, as mentioned above, a very early tradition credits the Buddha with revolving the formula in his mind backwards and forwards, in the days following his enlightenment.

3. The Twelve Links of Moral Causation

This law tries to cover the three dimensions of time (which, by the way, raised acute philosophical problems at a later time), by conceiving of man in his present life as a creature of the past and an agent of the future.

The invisible thread that joins embodiments of the past, the present and the future is moral will working in concert with the intellectual factor which, if defective, contributes to rebirth and, if perfect, leads to salvation or drying up of the stream of embodiment,

both saṁsāra and nirvana being dependent upon the operation of the intellect—ignorance being responsible for the will to live and pain and insight for emancipation, and the path thereto.

This chain of causation is constituted by twelve links (dvādaśa-nidāna), to use a later terminology, each preceding one being responsible for ushering in the next one in order (pratītya-samutpāda).

These links are:

1. avidya (ignorance),
2. saṁskāra (conformations),
3. vijñāna (consciousness),
4. nāma-rūpa (name and form),
5. ṣaḍāyatana (six fields of sense-organs),
6. sparśa (contact),
7. vedanā (sensation),
8. tṛṣṇā (desire or craving),
9. upādāna (attachment),
10. bhāva (existence),
11. Jāti (birth), and
12. jarā-maraṇa (old age and death).

If a being in any of the realms of desire (kāma-loka), form (rūpa-loka), and formlessness (a-rūpa-loka) had acted in the past life under the influence of ignorance,

he must have piled up a stock of impressions or conformations, which operates to bring about a renewal of existence, which is the present embodiment.

The connecting link between the past and the present life is supplied by a vague consciousness or impulse to find embodiment in the maternal womb, the nature of which obviously depends upon the desires and deserts of the last embodiment.

Gradually the embryo begins to assume both a mental (nāman) and a physical (rūpa) constitution by slow stages of growth till it develops into a child in the womb,

fully equipped with the six organs of sense—the five external ones of vision, audition, smell, taste and touch and the one internal organ, mind or understanding.

With birth the senses begin their function of contact with the world and this generates sensation or perception of the qualities of objects, tinged with a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral affective tone.

Thirst or craving soon makes its appearance as a result of pleasurable experience and the child begins to covet things and feel desires of the flesh.

Attachment begins to function when desires are not only produced in the mind but are sought to be fulfilled by a kind of grasping or clinging.

In addition to these two, a third element, existence or becoming or a fresh longing for rebirth, is produced by the accumulation of the merits and demerits which are generated by karma prompted by attachment.

This fresh saṁskāra is responsible for the next embodiment or birth, and the inevitable effect of birth is old age and death together with other evils like grief and lamentation, suffering and anxiety, dejection and despair, from which no being is free.

The ignorance (avidya) that is ultimately responsible for the whole, series of causes and effects is ignorance of the four noble truths, specially the delusion that life is not suffering but a process of pleasure.

In the Buddha's thought there was no idea of regarding it as equivalent to the cosmic illusion or māyā, or as the failure to recognize the identity of the finite and the absolute, or as an illusory projection of a world created by the mind on the canvas of nothing.

The saṁskāras refer to the action of the individual in thought, word and deed, stored up in the form of merit and demerit, which takes shape in a new body, especially when reinforced by the desire for future life.

Until the saṁskāras are completely rooted out, a fresh sprouting forth of life is inevitable, and this can be stopped only when the impermanent and transitory character of the body and its pleasures is realized and the saṁskāras are killed by gaining right know­ledge.

"Impermanent truly are the saṁskāras, liable to origination and decease; as they rose so they pass away, their disappearance is happiness."

But this causal law operates not only without reference to a law-giver but also without a substantial basis.

Like the Vedic ṛita and the Brāhmanic mantra-śakti and apūrva, the karma order operates autonomously and not according to the prescription of an ordering mind, the imperishable, as conceived by Yājñyavalkya for cosmic phenomena in the Brihadāraṇyaka- Upaniṣad.

So formations are succeeded by other formations in an unbroken series till ignorance is dispelled and automatically the saṁskāras are destroyed as a consequence and fail to generate a new aggregation of elements through the operation of the impulse towards embodiment.

The causal law holds sway not only without but also within; and so man is not only made what he is by antecedent mental conditions, but he can also become what he wants to be by controlling his present thoughts and volitions in a proper manner.

It is very rarely that the steps to the knowledge that burns up the saṁskāras are traced.

But in the Sañyutta-Nikāya the positive path from suffering to knowledge is given as the succession of suffering, faith, joy, rapture, serenity, happiness, concentration, knowledge and insight into things as they really are.

Thus, if ignorance ultimately leads to suffering, suffering itself may prompt a search for remedy

which is found ultimately in knowledge and insight, the opposite of ignorance which is responsible for ills (Kleṣa) through the veiling (Āvaraṇa) of the proper object of knowledge (jñeya).