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PRATĪTYA-SAMUTPĀDA . The term pratītya-samutpāda (Pali, paicca-samuppāda ), "dependent origination" or "dependent arising," was first used by the Buddha to characterize the understanding of the nature of human existence that he had attained at his enlightenment. Essentially a doctrine of causality, this notion is so central to Buddhist thought that a proper understanding of pratītya-samutpāda is often declared tantamount to enlightenment itself. In it, an entire complex of notions about moral responsibility, human freedom, the process of rebirth, and the path to liberation coalesce.

Pratītya-samutpāda was promulgated against a background of four contemporary theories of causality. These were (1) self-causation (svaya kta ), advocated by the traditional Brahmanic philosophers; (2) external causation (parakta ), upheld by the materialist thinkers; (3) a combination of self-causation and external causation, advocated by the Jains; and (4) a denial of both self and external causation, probably championed by certain skeptical thinkers who refused to recognize any form of causation. While all four of these theories were explicitly rejected by the Buddha, the brunt of his analysis was directed against the former two.

According to the Buddha, a theory of self-causation leads to the belief in permanence (śāśvata ), that is, the recognition of a permanent and eternal "self" (ātman ), which the Buddha found to be an unverifiable entity. External causation, on the other hand, implies the existence of an inexorable physical law of nature (svabhāva ) that would render the human being a mere automaton with no power to determine the nature of his own existence. Ultimately, such a position divests beings of all bases for personal continuity and hence, moral responsibility. This he referred to as the theory of annihilation (uccheda ). Pratītya-samutpāda, on the other hand, is presented as the "middle (madhyama ) position" between these two extremes. This middle position is explained in great detail in the Discourse to Kātyāyana, which serves as the locus classicus of all subsequent interpretations of the Buddha's "middle path." Following is the text of the discourse in the Pali version:

Thus have I heard. The Blessed One was once living in Savatthi. At that time the venerable Kaccāyana of that clan came to visit him, and saluting him, sat down at one side. So seated, he questioned the Exalted One: "Sir, [people] speak of 'right view, right view.' To what extent is there right view?" This world, Kaccāyana, is generally inclined toward two [views]: existence and nonexistence. For him who perceives, with right knowledge, the uprising of the world as it has come to be, whatever view there is in the world about nonexistence will not be acceptable. Kaccāyana, for him who perceives, with right knowledge, the ceasing of the world as it has come to be, whatever view there is in the world about existence will not be acceptable. "The world, for the most part, Kaccāyana, is bound by approach, grasping and inclination. Yet, a person who does not follow that approach and grasping, that determination of mind, the inclination and disposition, who does not cling to or adhere to a view: 'This is my self,' who thinks [instead]: 'suffering that is subject to arising arises; suffering that is subject to ceasing ceases,' such a person does not doubt, is not perplexed. Herein, his knowledge is not other-dependent. Thus far, Kaccāyana, there is 'right view.'

'Everything exists'this, Kaccāyana, is one extreme.

'Everything does not exist'this, Kaccāyana, is the second extreme. Kaccāyana, without approaching either extreme, the Tathāgata teaches you a doctrine in the middle.

Dependent upon ignorance [avidyā ] arise dispositions [saskāra ]; dependent upon dispositions arises consciousness [vijñāna ]; dependent upon consciousness arises the psychophysical personality [nāma-rūpa ]; dependent upon the psychophysical personality arise the six senses [aāyatana ]; dependent upon the six senses arises contact [sparśa ]; dependent upon contact arises feeling [vedanā ]; dependent upon feeling arises craving [tā]; dependent upon craving arises grasping [upādāna ]; dependent upon grasping arises becoming [bhava ]; dependent upon becoming arises birth [jāti ]; dependent upon birth arises old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair. Thus arises this entire mass of suffering. However, from the utter fading away and ceasing of ignorance, there is cessation of dispositions from the ceasing of birth, there is ceasing of old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair." (Sayutta Nikāya 2.1617)

Existence (atthitā; Skt., astitva ) and nonexistence (nʾatthitā; Skt., nāstitva ) referred to here are not simple notions of empirical existence or nonexistence. In the Indian context, existence implies permanence; hence the Buddha's appeal to the empirical fact of cessation of phenomena to reject the notion of existence. Nonexistence refers to complete annihilation without any form of continuity, hence the Buddha's appeal to the empirical fact of arising of phenomena. Thus, the fundamental philosophical problem involved here is how to account for continuity in human experience without either having to posit permanence of some sort or accept absolute discontinuity.

Linguistic conventions of his day did not provide the Buddha with a term to express his ideas, hence it was necessary to coin an entirely different compound term: pratītya-samutpāda. Samutpāda literally means "arising in combination," or "co-arising." But when compounded with the term pratītya (a gerund from the root i, "to move," with prefix prati meaning "toward"), implying "moving" or "leaning toward," the term means "dependence." Pratītya-samutpāda may, therefore, be translated as "dependent arising." Formulating his experience in this way, the Buddha was able to avoid several metaphysical issues that have plagued most discussions of the principle of causation in the East as well as in the West.

Attempts to understand how a cause produces an effect have led philosophers to adopt a reductionist perspective and look for an "essence," or "substance" in the cause that gives rise to the effect. Such a perspective is also motivated by a desire to predict with absolute certainty the manner of the emergence of the effect from the cause. By speaking of the dependence of the effect on the cause, which is what the term pratītya-samutpāda is intended to express, both the reductionist or essentialist perspective and the impossible task of predicting an event with absolute certainty are avoided.

Thus, the Buddha spoke not of self-sufficient things or substances but of "dependently arisen phenomena" (pratītyasamutpanna-dharma ). These refer to phenomena that have already occurred. There is no implication here that individual and discrete phenomena (dharma ) are experienced and that their "dependence" upon one another is imagined (as was understood by the Humeans) or is the result of transcendental categories of understanding (as the Kantians believed). On the contrary, both phenomena and the manner of their dependence are part of human experience. However, this "dependence" is then stretched out, by means of an inductive inference, to explain the events of the dim past as well as of the future. This is the manner in which the Buddha arrived at the uniformity of the principle of dependence. When he claimed that this "dependent arising" has remained as such despite either the arising of the Tathāgatas or the nonarising of the Tathāgatas he was hinting at the universality of that experience. The uniform and universal principle of dependence is expressed in a most abstract way in the oft-recurring statement: "When that exists, this comes to be; on the arising of that, this arises. When that does not exist, this does not come to be; on the cessation of that, this ceases" (Majjhima Nikāya 1.262264).

In the Discourse to Kātyāyana this principle of dependence is utilized to explain the processes of human bondage as well as of freedom. The positive statement of the twelvefold formula, beginning with the statement "Depending upon ignorance arise dispositions," explains the human personality in bondage, avoiding both eternalistic and nihilistic views. The human person is here referred to as nāma-rūpa (the psychophysical personality). The nature of that person is conditioned mostly by his or her consciousness (vijñāna ), which, in its turn, is determined by the person's understanding (and in the case of the person in bondage, by his or her lack of understandingavidyā ) and the dispositions (saskāra ) formed on the basis of that understanding. Conditioned by such understanding and dispositions, a person comes to experience (sparśa, vedanā ) the world through the six sense faculties (aāyatana ) and to respond by being attracted to it (tā ). Thus, the person's behavior (karman ) comes to be dominated not only by the world he or she experiences but also by the way in which the person experiences it. If one is attracted by that world one tends to cling to it (upādāna ). One's whole personality, what he or she wants to be or achieve, will be determined by that craving and grasping. Such would be this person's becoming (bhava ), not only in this life, but also in a future life (jāti ). Involved in such a process of becoming (bhava ), the person will be pleased and satisfied when obtaining what is craved and unhappy and frustrated when he or she does not. Yet even these satisfactions, which are temporary at best, turn out to be dissatisfactions as the craving and grasping continue to increase. Such is the mass of suffering the person will experience through successive stages of life and in subsequent births.

A proper understanding of phenomena as impermanent (anitya ) and nonsubstantial (anātman ) would enable a person to pacify his or her dispositional tendencies (saskāropasama ). Pacification of dispositions leads to a better understanding of one's own personality as well as the world of experience. Perceiving phenomena as being nonsubstantial, one will neither assume the existence of an inexorable law nor believe in complete lawlessness. When one responds to that world of experience with an understanding of conditionality one's responses will not be rigidly predetermined (asamskta ). Abandoning passion or craving (tā ), one's actions will be dominated by dispassion (vairāgya ), and more positively, by compassion (karuā ) for one's self as well as others. Thirsting for nothing, with few wants, the person will be freed from most of the "constraints" and lead a happy and contented life until death. With no grasping, there will be no more becoming (bhava ) and hence the cessation of any possible future births (jātikaya ). The recognition of the possibility of replacing ignorance (avidyā ) with wisdom (jñāna, vidyā ) and craving and grasping with dispassion and compassion leaves the individual with the capacity to attain freedom. Thus, the principle of dependent arising avoids both strict determinism and absolute indeterminism; it is neither an absolutely inviolable law nor a chaotic lawlessness.

The explanation of the human personality, both in bondage and in freedom, was of paramount importance for the Buddha. Hence the discussion of the principle of dependence is confined to these two aspects in the Discourse to Kātyāyana. Elsewhere, however, he applies this principle to explain most other aspects of human existence. For example, without positing a first cause or any primordial substance he applied the principle of dependence to explain the evolution and dissolution of the world process. This principle is also utilized in the explanation of the process by which one comes to have knowledge of the world through sensory as well as extrasensory means. Moral behavior, social life, and religious and spiritual phenomena are given causal explanations as well. For this reason, the Buddha did not hesitate to declare, "He who sees dependent arising sees the doctrine (dharma )" (Majjhima Nikāya 1.190191).

The Abhidharma period was the most active and highly vibrant epoch of scholastic activity in Buddhist history. During this period the contents of the discourses were carefully analyzed and presented in nondiscursive form. In the process, the "dependently arisen phenomena" referred to by the Buddha came to be listed and classified, together with an analysis of the various types of causal relations (pratyaya ) that obtain among them. However, a few centuries later, metaphysical speculations began to emerge in the Buddhist tradition. Two schools of Buddhism, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika, speculating on the concepts of time and space, produced theories of momentariness and atomism, thereby engendering insoluble problems such as the metaphysical notions of absolute identity and absolute difference. Contradicting the Buddha's notion of nonsubstantiality, the Sarvāstivādins accepted an underlying "substance" (svabhāva ) in phenomena, while the Sautrāntikas surreptitiously introduced a metaphysical notion of a transmigrating personality (pudgala ).

The Pali Abhidharma work Kathāvatthu criticized and rejected these views. In spite of this criticism, these views continued to survive. The early Mahāyāna sūtra s represent another attempt to get rid of the substantialist metaphysics of these two schools by emphasizing a negative approach to the problem of reality, one based upon the notion of "emptiness" (śūnyatā ). For example, one of the early Mahāyāna sūtra sthe Kāśyapaparivarta continued to describe the "middle path" in negative terms, while at the same time retaining the positive version discussed in the Discourse to Kātyāyana.

Nāgārjuna's famous treatise, the Mūlamadhyama-kakārikā, considered by many as the most sophisticated philosophical justification of Mahāyāna, is a determined attempt to return to the original message of the Buddha by criticizing the substantialist views of the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas. Restatement of the principle of "dependent arising" without having to posit a substantial connection (svabhāva ) between a cause and an effect (as the Sarvāstivādins did), or to emphasize their difference (as the Sautrāntikas did), seems to be the foremost concern of Nāgārjuna. "Emptiness" here becomes a synonym for "nonsubstantiality" (anātman ).

The Buddha's conception of karmic continuity and moral responsibility also had to be rescued from the substantialist interpretations of the Buddhist metaphysicians. Nāgārjuna seems to have been aware of a statement popular among the Buddhists relating to the doctrine of karman that read: "Karma s do not perish (na praaśyanti ) even after a hundred myriads of aeons. Having attained the harmony of conditions (sāmagrī) and the proper time (kāla ), they bear fruit for the human beings" (La Vallée Poussin, 1903, p. 324). Inspired probably by this verse, Nāgārjuna (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 17.14) upheld the notion of a nonperishable (avipraaśa) karman, comparing it with the unacceptable interpretations offered by the substantialists. After denying a "self" (ātman ), he proceeded to compile chapters on the "harmony of conditions" (sāmagrī ) and on time (kāla ), giving a nonsubstantialist interpretation of these.

Having devoted twenty-five chapters to recasting the full range of Buddhist ideas in terms of the doctrine of "emptiness," Nāgārjuna returns to the conclusion of the Discourse to Kātyāyana in chapter 26, where he analyzes the twelvefold factors describing the human personality in bondage as well as freedom. Thus, Nāgārjuna's treatise should more appropriately be considered a grand commentary on the Discourse to Kātyāyana, this being the only discourse referred to by name in the text.

Nāgārjuna's exposition of the twelvefold formula in chapter 26 (which incidentally consists of twelve verses) focuses on the positive statement of the Buddha regarding the human life process, that is, how a human being conditioned by ignorance suffers in bondage. The negative statement of the Buddha explaining freedom is briefly outlined in the last two verses of this chapter.

Nāgārjuna begins the chapter explaining how the destiny (gati ) of a human being, as he continues with his life-process, is determined by ignorance and dispositions. Taking a cue from the Mahānidāna Suttanta, where the Buddha speaks about consciousness (viññāa; Skt., vijñāna ) entering the mother's womb in order to influence the psychophysical personality formed therein, Nāgārjuna explains the psychophysical personality (nāma-rūpa ) as being infused (niicyate ) by consciousness that is dispositionally conditioned. The most interesting addition to the formula appears in the explanation of the three links: the psychophysical personality (nāma-rūpa ), the six spheres of sense (aāyatana ) and contact (sparśa ). At this point Nāgārjuna introduces the contents of a passage explaining the process of sense experience occurring in the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta that, though implied, is not specifically stated in the twelvefold formula. This passage refers to the various conditions needed for sense experience, namely, the existence of the unimpaired sense organ, the object that has come into focus, and the availability of attention arising in such a context. The rest of the formula is then briefly presented without explanations. Verse 10 introduces the idea of the perception of truth (tattva-darśana ) in place of the cessation of ignorance (avidyā-nirodha ). Nāgārjuna did not have to specify what this conception of truth is, for he has already compiled twenty-five chapters in its explanation. It is the perception that all (experienced) phenomena are empty (sarvam idam sunyam ) of substance (svabhavato ).


For a detailed study of pratītya-samutpāda, see my Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Honolulu, 1975). My translation and annotation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Nāgārjuna, the Philosophy of the Middle Way (Albany, N.Y., 1986) gives further elaboration to the view that Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is in essence a commentary on the Discourse to Kātyāyana. See also Alex Wayman's detailed treatment, "Buddhist Dependent Origination," History of Religions 10 (1971): 185203. The passage on the imperishability of karmas quoted above can be found in Louis de La Vallée Poussin's Mūlamadhyamakakārikās de Nāgārjuna avec la Prasannapadā commentaire de Candrakirti (Saint Petersburg, 1903), p. 324.

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Revised Bibliography

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