V. The Law of Dependent Origination (or Paticca Samuppada)

At the CemeteryThere is another angle from which we can study death and that is from the angle of law of conditionality which is closely akin to the law of anicca or Change. Not only are sankharas made up of several things, but they are also conditioned by several factors, and when these conditioning factors cease to exist, the conditioned thing also ceases to exist. This is the law of conditionality and has been thus expressed in very general terms: Imasmim sati, idam hoti — when this exists, that exists, Imassa uppada, idam uppajjati — when this arises, that arises. Imasmim asati, idam na hoti — when this is not, that is not. Imassa nirodha, idam nirujjhanti — when this ceases that ceases.

As this principle is of universal applicability, the working of the process of life and death also comes within its operation. The chain of life-conditioning factors consists of twelve links or nidanas which together are known as the paticca samuppada or Law of Dependent Origination. A knowledge of this law is most necessary. In the Maha-nidana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, Buddha addressing Ananda said, “It is through not understanding, through not penetrating this doctrine, that these beings have become entangled like a ball of thread.”

The formula of Dependent Origination runs as follows:

Conditioned by ignorance, activities arise. Conditioned by activities, consciousness arises. Conditioned by consciousness, mentality and corporeality arise. Conditioned by mentality and corporeality, the six faculties arise. Conditioned by the six faculties, contact arises. Conditioned by contact, sensation arises. Conditioned by sensation, craving arises. Conditioned by craving, grasping arises. Conditioned by grasping, becoming arises. Conditioned by becoming, rebirth arises. Conditioned by re-birth, old age and death arise.

This is the process that goes on and on ad infinitum. Hence has it been said:

“Again and again the slow wits seek re-birth, Again and again comes birth and dying comes, Again and again men bear us to the grave.”

This important law is easier told than understood. This is one of the profoundest doctrines preached by the Buddha. It is only frequent and hard thinking on it that will bring out its deepest meanings.

This is not the place to explain these twelve links in full, but in order to dispel some of the misconception surrounding the notion of death, it is necessary to make some observations on the first link — avijja, or Ignorance, and thereafter on the second and third links, viz. activities and consciousness, because it is these two links that involve death and re-birth.

These twelve links, it must be understood, do not represent a pure succession of cause and effect, a straight line of action and reaction. It is wrong to call this a causal series, as it is not a chain of causes in strict sequence of time. Some of the links (though not all) arise simultaneously, and the next is of condition rather than cause. There are 24 modes of conditioning (paccaya) which may operate in the relation of one factor to another. Each factor is both conditioning (paccaya dhamma) and conditioned (paccayuppanna dhamma). Many of these factors are both simultaneously and interdependently working.

A few observations now, on the first link of avijja or ignorance. When it is said the Ignorance is the first link, it does not mean that Ignorance is the first cause of existence. The Buddha has definitely said that the first cause, the ultimate origin of things is unthinkable, Anamataggayam sansaro, pubba-koit na paññayati, “Beginningless, O monks, is this course of existence. A starting point is not to be found.” Bertrand Russell has stated, “There is no reason to suppose that this world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.”

Ignorance, then, is not the primary origin of things but is the originating factor of suffering in the process of life and death, so far as man is concerned. All the twelve factors are continuing factors. It is only if we ponder deeply that we will be convinced of this truth, namely, that there can be no beginning to a process that has no end.

What is meant by Ignorance as being the first link in the series? By Ignorance is here meant the Ignorance of the essentially fundamental facts of existence, namely, the fact of suffering or disharmony, the fact of the cessation of suffering or disharmony, and the fact of the way leading to the cessation of suffering or disharmony. In other words, it is the ignorance of that which the Buddha has called the Four Noble Truths. Ignorance is always a dangerous condition. In such a condition you are at the mercy of everyone and everything.

“‘Tis Ignorance that entails the dreary round Now here now there — of countless births and deaths. But no hereafter waits for him who knows.”

The second link is Activities. By Activities is here meant volitional activities, called in Pali sankhara. The formula states — “Dependent upon Ignorance arise activities.”

This means that ignorance of the essentially fundamental facts of life becomes a conditioning factor for the volitional activities of humans. It is only a knowledge and a realization of the Four Noble Truths that, according to the Buddha, enables a person to see things as they actually are. In the state of ignorance of these Truths, a person, prevented as they are from seeing things as they actually are, adopts various courses of action.

These activities are not merely the outcome of ignorance once and for all, but ignorance continues to condition these volitional activities so long as existence continues. These volitional activities or mental energies are multifarious. In the context of the paticca samuppada, “Sankhara” can therefore be said to signify “Kamma” or “Kammic Volition.” The first link of Ignorance and the second link of Activities refer to the past birth. The next eight links refer to the present existence and the last two refer to the future existence.

The third link is viññana or Consciousness. The formula states — “Dependent upon Activities arises Consciousness.” By consciousness is here meant re-linking consciousness or re-birth consciousness. By this formula is therefore meant that the conscious life of a person in their present birth is conditioned by their volitional activities, their good and bad actions, their Kamma of the past life. To put it in another way, the consciousness of their present life is dependent on their past Kamma. This formula is highly important since it involves a linking of the past life with the present and thereby implies re-birth. Hence, this third link is called patisandhi viññana or re-linking consciousness or re-birth consciousness.

It may be wondered how activities of the past life can condition a present birth. Material sciences seek to explain birth on the premises of the present existence only. The biologist says that it is the union of father with mother that conditions birth. According to the Buddha, these two conditioning factors by themselves are insufficient to result in birth, otherwise every complete union of father with mother should result in birth. These two are purely physical factors and it is illogical to expect that a psycho-physical organism, a mind-body combination known as man could arise from two purely physical factors without the intervention of a psychical or mental factor. Therefore, says the Buddha, a third factor is also necessary in addition to the two purely physical factors of the sperm and the ovum.

This third factor is patisandhi-viññana or re-linking consciousness. The wick and the oil will not alone produce a flame. You may drown a wick in gallons of oil but there will never be a flame. You may use a wick of the most inflammable type but there will never be a flame. Not until a bright spark of light comes from elsewhere will the action of the oil and the wick produce a flame. We have considered that the activities of the past are certain energies — mental energies. The Kamma of the past releases these energies which are potent enough to create the condition for the being to be reborn in an appropriate place according to the nature of activities performed. These energies it is that produce the patisandhi viññana, the third factor.

It will thus be seen that these potential energies work in cooperation with the physical laws to condition the natural formation of the embryo in the mother’s womb. Just as sleep is no bar to the continuance of bodily operations in consequence of the principle of life continuing within it, even so death is no bar to the continuance of the operation of being which is only transformed to another suitable realm or plane there to be reborn and to re-live, in consequence of the will-to-live remaining alive and unabated at the moment of dissolution. The life-stream, the process of being thus continues, while the Kammic forces it generates give it shape and form in the appropriate sphere of existence, investing it with its new characteristics and securing for it “a local habitation and a name.”

A seed coming in contact with the soil produces a plant, but the plant is not born of the seed and the soil only. There are other factors drawn from unseen extraneous sources that come into play, such as light and air and moisture. It is the combined presence of all these factors that provide the opportunity for the birth of the plant. The unseen extraneous factor where the birth of a being is concerned is the terminating kammic energy of the dying human, or to express it in another way, the reproductive power of the will-to-live.

Is there any need to doubt the potency of the past Kamma to create a present existence? Do you doubt that the activities of one existence can condition consciousness in another existence? If so, calmly reflect on the incessant and multifarious nature of human activities, the one feature of human life, the unfailing characteristic of every moment of individual existence. When you have sufficiently grasped the fact of the incessant and multifarious nature of human activities, ask yourself the question who or what propels these activities? A little reflection will reveal that the activities of humans are propelled by a myriad of desires and cravings which ultimately spring from the desire to live. This will-to-live by whatever name you may call it, motivates all activities.

We eat, we earn, we acquire, we struggle, we advance, we hate, we love, we plot, we plan, we deceive — all in order that we may continue living. Even the desire to commit suicide, paradoxical as it may seem, arises from the desire to live — to live free from entanglements and disappointments. Just consider the cumulative effect of hundreds of desire-propelled activities performed by us, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute for a long period of years. These are all Kammas, these are all energies released. These are all strong creative forces that are generated.

It is difficult to imagine that with the present life will end all the desire-forces it has brought into existence. There will always be at any given moment an outstanding balance of unexpected Kammic energies. These powers, energies or forces contain within themselves the potentialities of attracting for themselves the conditions for further existence. These energies or forces are potent enough to create the conditions for re-living when the body which sustained these forces ceases to live. These then will constitute the terminating Kammic energy of the dying human, or to express the same idea in another way, this is the reproductive power of the will-to-live. In short, the will-to-live makes it possible to relive. Now we see how the terminating Kammic energy of the dying human becomes the third factor, the psychical factor which along with the two physical factors of the sperm and the ovum, conditions future birth.

It is this relinking consciousness that becomes the nucleus of a new nama-rupa or mind-body combination. This is the resultant terminal energy generated by the volitional activities of the past. Science teaches us that energy is indestructible but that it can be transmuted into other forms of energy. Why then cannot these powerful energies of the past Kamma, impelled as they are by the pulsation of craving and motivated as they are by the will-to-live, continue to exert their potent influences albeit in some other manner and in some other sphere? What is it that travels from one existence to another, you may ask. Do activities (Kammic energies) travel or do their resultant forces travel? Or does consciousness itself travel?

The answer is an emphatic, “No.” None of these travel, but the Kammic energy of actions performed is a tremendous force or power which can make its influence felt and to effect this influence, distance is no bar. Distance is never a bar to Kammic energies making themselves felt. In the Maha-tanha-sankhaya Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha strongly reprimanded the bhikkhu Sati for declaring as the Buddha’s teachings that viññana or consciousness travels from existence to existence. “Foolish man,” said the Buddha, “has not consciousness generated by conditions been spoken of in many a figure of speech by me saying, ‘apart from conditions there is no origination of consciousness’?” No physical contact is necessary for mind to influence matter. Sir William Crooke, in his Edinburgh lectures on mental science has said, “It has also been proved by experiment that by an act of will the mind can cause objects such as metal levers to move.”

When the matter on which mental energies act is situated far away, in other planes and spheres of existence, we are only employing a figure of speech when we say that Kamma has traveled or that energy has traveled. Many a simile has been employed by the Buddha to show that nothing travels or transmigrates from one life to another. It is just a process of one condition influencing another.

The resultant Kammic energies of human activity, not yet expanded, are so powerful that they can condition the formation of an embryo in another world and give it consciousness.

One important point must not be overlooked. The patisandhi-viññana or re-linking consciousness arises only in the unborn child. In the pre-natal stage the re-linking consciousness may be said to exist only passively (in the bhavanga state) and not actively, since the child is still part of the body of the mother and has no separate, independent existence nor does it contact the external world. When however, the child is born and assumes a separate existence and begins to contact the external world, then it may be said that the bhavanga nature of the pre-natal state of mind gives way for the first time to a fully conscious mind process, the vithi-citta.

Distance is no bar to the sequence of cause and effect. Reference had already been made to the Buddha’s reprimand of a bhikkhu called Sati for declaring as having been taught by the Buddha that consciousness passes from existence to existence. In the re-linking consciousness arises the whole energy of the previous consciousness, and thus the embryo while inheriting the characteristics of the new parents inherits also the impressions of the past experiences of the dying human. How else can one explain characteristics not accounted for by heredity? How else can one account for different characteristics in twins born of the same parents and growing under the same environment?

We have now studied death from several angles. From whatever angle we look at death it is an integral part of the great process of life. Death is like the break up of an electric bulb. The light is extinguished but not the current, and when a fresh bulb is fixed the light re-appears. Similarly there is a continuity of life current, the break up of the present body does not extinguish the current of Kammic energy which will manifest itself in an appropriate fresh body.

The simile is not on all fours with life. Whereas there is nothing to bring the electric current and the fresh bulb together (a conjunction left to chance), the type of life led, the nature of thought entertained, the quality of deeds performed will be strong enough to cause an immediate re-linking consciousness of like nature to arise, on the principle that like attracts like. Thus the dying human is drawn to an environment, good or bad, which he has created for himself by his thought, word and deed, for on these depend the nature of our future life. Every moment we are creating our future. Every moment then we must be careful.

If we can visualize the immensity of the past and the immensity of the future, the present loses its seemingly compelling importance.

If we could but visualize the vistas of innumerable births and deaths through which we will pass in the future, we should not, we could not fear just this one death out of the endless series of birth and deaths, rises and falls, appearances and disappearances which constitute the ceaseless process of samsaric life.