The Buddhist Doctrines of Impermanence, No-self and Rebirth

The Doctrine of Dependent Origination

Adopted from Piyadassi's Spectrum of Buddhism

Graphics and their descriptions adopted from H.H. The Dalai Lama's The Meaning of Life, a Wisdom publication


Introduction to The Twelve Nidannas
1 - IGNORANCE (Avijja)
2 -VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS (Sankhara) - actions that produce results
3 -CONSCIOUSNESS (Vinnana) - the rebirth consciousness or "consciousness that links on"
4 -MENTALITY-MATERIALITY (Nama-Rupa) - mind and form
5 -THE SIXFOLD BASE (Salayatana) - the senses
6 -CONTACT (Phassa)
7 -FEELING (Vedana)
8 -CRAVING (Tanha)
9 -CLINGING (Upadana) - attachment
10-BECOMING (Bhava) - existence
11-BIRTH (Jati)

Introduction to The Twelve Nidannas

Dependent arising is a basic teaching of Buddhism. The doctrine is so deep and profound it is not possible within the limited scope of this essay to make an extensive survey of the subject.

Those who fail to understand the real significance of this doctrine mistake it for a mechanical law of causality, a beginning of all things. Be it remembered that there is no First Cause in Buddhist thought and dependent arising does not attempt to dig out or even investigate a first cause. Buddhism states that things are neither due to one cause, nor are they causeless. The twelve factors of the Paticca-Samuppada and twenty-four conditioning relatiuons (paccaya) shown in the Parrhana, the seventh book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, clearly demonstrate how things are "multiple-caused" In stating this, Buddhism antedated modern science by twenty-five centuries.

We see a reign of natural law - beginningless causes and effects and naught else ruling the universe. It is useless and meaningless to go in search of a beginning in a beginningless past. It is a flux of psychological and physiological changes, a conflux of mind and body (nama-rupa). The Buddha stated, "There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination."

Instead of a first cause, the Buddha speaks of conditionality. The whole world is subject to the law of cause and effect. We cannot think of anything in this cosmos that is causeless and unconditioned. Buddhism teaches that all compounded things come into being, exist and cease dependent on conditions and causes. The conditionality goes on forever, uninterrupted and uncontrolled by an external agency or power of any sort. The Buddha discovered this eternal truth, solved the riddle of life, by comprehending, in all its fullness, the Paticca-Samuppada, and expounded it, without keeping back aught that is essential, to those who yet have sufficient intelligence to wish for light.

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  • I. IGNORANCE (Avijja)

    Represented by an old person, blind and hobbling with a cane.
    Avija is the non-knowledge of the Supreme Enlightenment - not knowing the Four Noble Truths and dependent arising. Further, avija is the non-perception of the five agregates, or mind and body. Owing to this nescience, the uninstructed person entertains wrong views, regarding the impermanent as permanent, the painful as pleasure, the soulless as soul, the godless as god, and the unreal as real.

    Ignorance or delusion is one of the root causes of all unwholesome actions and so is enumerated as the first link of the chain of the twelvefold Paticca-Samuppada. Nevertheless, it should not be regarded as a prima causa, an ultimate origin of things. The doctrine of Paticca-Samuppada can be illustrated as a circle, for it is a cycle of existence, and in a circle, any given point may be taken as the starting point. No factor of the Paticca-Samuppada can stand by itself or function independently of the rest, just as a tripod stands upright because of the interdependence of the legs.

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  • II. VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS (Sankhara) - actions that produce results

    Represented by a potter. Just as a potter forms clay into something new, an action begins a sequence that leads to new consequences. Once put into motion, the potter's wheel continues to spin without much effort. Likewise, an action creates a predisposition in the mind.
    In the Paticca-sumuppada, sankhara means all good and evil actions - all actions, physical, verbal and mental which will produce reactions. Let us understand it as rebirth-producing volitional activiies or simply as karma.

    Ignorance is the blindness that prevents a person from seeing his actions as they really are, and so allows craving to drive him too further actions. Ignorance and voliotional formations belong to the previous birth. Wholesome sankharas are capable of bringing about a good rebirth and unwholesome ones, a bad rebirth. All sankharas, all good and evil actions have ignorance as condition. Here the question may be raised as to how actions conditioned by ignorance could bring about good rebirth.

    It is not possible, except for the perfect ones, to act from complete insight or detachment. Although man is capable of performing good actions unsoiled by strong desire for rewards in this life, there may be in him, unconsciously working, tender longing for good rebirth, or a reward in the hereafter. Again, though he may be doing an action out of compassion and without any ulterior motives, he may still be lacking in full awareness of the real nature of life - its being impermanent, sorrow-stricken and void of an abiding entity or soul. This non-knowledge of the real nature of life, though not so gross and strong as the delusion that induces a heinous act, can yet induce karmically wholesome action leading to a good rebirth. A good rebirth even in the heavens,is, however, temporary, and may be followed immediately by an unhappy rebirth.

    Such non-knowledge motivates and colors the good act. Only the actions of a man who has entirely eradicated all the latent tendencies (anusaya) and all the varied ramifications of sorrow’s cause, are incapable of producing rebirth. He is the Consummate One, whose clarity of vision and depth of insight penetrates to the deepest resources of life, in whom craving has quite ceased through cognizing the true nature that underlies all appearance has transcended all appearance. He is, therefore, released from ignorance and his actions no more bring about rebirth.

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  • III. CONSCIOUSNESS (Vinnana) - the rebirth consciousness or "consciousness that links on"

    Represented by a monkey going from window to window. This reprensents a single consciousness percieving through the various sense organs.
    Dependent on the karma or good and evil actions of the past is conditioned the conscious life in this present birth. Consciousness is the first of the conditioning links belonging to the present existence.

    As this is the first of the stream of consciousness belonging to one single existence, it is also known as patisandhi vinnana, relinking or reuniting consciousness. When it is said, "the consciousness that links on", it does not mean that this consciousness abides unchanged, continues in the same state without perishing throughout the cycle of existence. Consciousness is also conditioned, and, therefore, is not permanent. It comes into being and passes away yielding place to new consciousness. Thus this perpetual stream of consciousness goes on until existence ends. In the absence of consciousness, no "being" exists in this sentient world.

    It should be clearly understood that this relinking consciousness is not a "self" or soul or an ego entity that experiences the fruits of good and evil deeds.

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  • IV. MENTALITY-MATERIALITY (Nama-Rupa) - mind and form

    Depicted by people in a boat. The boat symbolizes form, and its occupants, the mental aggregates.
    The term nama, mentality here stands for the three mental groups: namely, feeling, perception, and volitional or mental formations or disposition. The so-called "being" is composed of five aggregates or groups; namely, physical body, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. If consciousness is taken as the mind, then feeling, perceptions and volitional formations are the concomitants or factors of that mind. Consciousness and its factors are always related and interdependent. Consciousness cannot arise and function independently of its factors, nor can its factors arise and function without it. Materiality means the physical body, its organs, faculties and functions.

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  • V. THE SIXFOLD BASE (Salayatana) - the senses

    Depicted by an empty house. This represents the physical organs required for functioning sense consiousnesses.
    The sixfold base is the five physical sense organs and the mind base (manayatana), consciousness. But here, different types of consciousness are meant. It should be borne in mind that consciousness is not something that is permanent and everlasting; it undergoes change, not remaining the same for two consecutive moments; it comes into being and immediately passes away yielding way to a new consciousness. Because of rupa, the physical sense organs, eye, ear, etc. Appear, and because of the mind-base (different types of consciousness) the physical organs function.

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  • VI. CONTACT (Phassa)

    Symbolized by a kiss. This indicates that there is a meeting with an object and a distinguishing of it prior to the production of feeling.
    The sixfold base are internal bases. External to one’s material body, there are the corresponding five objects, form, sound, smell, taste, and tactile object and further, the mental objects. When eye and forms are both present, visual consciousness arises dependent on them. Similarly with ear and sounds and so on, down to mind and mental objects (ideas).

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  • VII. FEELING (Vedana)

    Symbolized by an eye pierced by an arrow. Even a very small condition causes a great deal of feeling in the eye. Likewise, no matter what kind of feeling we experience, painful or pleasurable, we are driven by it and cannot keep still.
    With the arising of contact, simultaneously, there arises feeling,pleasurable, painful, or neutral, and it can never be stopped by any power or force. The experiencing of desirable or undesirable karma -results of good or evil actions is one of the prior conditions due to which feeling can arise. Feeling may differ in accordance with circumstances. A sense object which once evoked unpleasant feelings in us may possibly produce pleasant feelings under different circumstances. Ths we learn how feeling is conditioned by contact.

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  • VIII. CRAVING (Tanha)

    Represented by a person drinking beer. Even though it harms you, no matter how much you drink, you justkeep on drinking. Also known as attachment, it is a mental factor that inreases desire without any satisfaction.
    All forms of apetite are included here. Greed, thirst, desire, lust, yearning, longing are some of the many terms that denote tanha, which, in the words of the Buddha, is the leader to becomming that manifests itself as dukkha, as suffering, frustration, painful excitement. The enemy of the whole world is craving through which all evils come to living beings.

    All mundane pleasures are fleeting; like sugar-coated pills of poison they deceive us, insidiously working harm. Craving is, namely, craving for sense pleasures, craving for continued existence (when it is associated with the belief in personal existence), for becoming (when associated with the belief in eternal personal existence) and craving for self-annihilation (known as nihilism). Craving when obstructed by some cause is transformed to wrath and frustration. "From craving arises grief, from craving arises fear. To one free from craving there is no grief. Whence then fear?"

    Craving is conditioned not only by pleasurable and agreeable feelings, but by unhappy and unpleasant feelings, too. A man in distress craves and thirsts to get rid of it, and longs for happiness and release. The poor, needy and sick, in brief, all sufferers, crave for happiness, security and solace. The rich and healthy who have not glimpsed the sufferings of the distressed, also crave for more and more pleasures. Thus craving is insatiable.

    "All is burning, all is in flames." And what is the "all" that is in flames, that is burning? The five sense organs and the five sense objects are burning. Mind and thoughts are burning. The five aggregates of grasping are burning. With what are they burning? With the fire of craving, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.

    A fire keeps burning so long as there is fuel. The more fuel we add, the more it burns. It is the same with the fire of life.

    It is only when suffering comes, as its consequence, and not before, that one realizes the viciousness of the poisonous creeper of craving which winds itself around all who are not the perfectly pure ones who have uprooted its root, ignorance.

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  • IX. CLINGING (Upadana) - attachment

    Represented by a monkey reaching for a fruit. Also known as grasping, it means mentally grabbing at an object one desires.
    This is the mental state that clings to or grasps the object. Because of this clinging which is described as craving in a high degree, man becomes a slave to passion.

    Upadana is fourfold: i. Attachment to sensual pleasures; ii. Attachment to wrong and evil views; iii. Attachment to mere external observances, rites and rituals; and iv. Attachment to self, an erroneous lasting soul entity. Man entertains thoughts of craving, and in proportion as he fails to ignore them, they grow till they get intensified to the degree of tenacious clinging.

    Of all the wrong views the clinging to a belief in a soul or an abiding ego entity is the strongest, foremost and most pernicious.

    It is not without reason that the Buddha rejected the notion of a self or soul (atta). In this conflux of mind and body which undergoes change without remaining he same for two consecutive moments, the Buddha could not see a lasting, indestructible soul. In other words, he could locate no abiding soul in this ever-changing "being".

    The doctrine of anatma is exclusively Buddhistic and is distinguishable from every other religion and philosophy. It is the heart and core of the Buddha’s teaching. It was the recognition of this self as an illusion, a mirage, that made the Buddha’s doctrine so singular and so revolutionary.

    In conventional usage we speak of a "being", "I", etc. But in the highest sense, tre exists no "being"; there is no "I" personality. Each one of us is the manifestation of his or her karmic-force, and a composition of nothing but an ever-changing conflux of mind and body. Unceasingly does the mind and its factors change; and just as unceasingly, though at a slower rate, the body alters from moment to moment. The conflux of mind and body goes on as incessantly as the waves of the sea, or as the Buddhists say, like a flowing stream. This the "being" or mnd and body, samsara or procession of events is utterly free of the notion of a jivatma or paramatma, microcosmic soul or macrocosmic soul.

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  • X. BECOMING (Bhava) - existence

    Represented by a woman in late pregnancy. Just as she is about to bring forth a fully developed child, the karma that will produce the next lifetime is fully potentialized though not yet manifest.
    Becoming is twofold and should be understood as two processes: karma-process: Kamma-bhava is the accumulated good and evil actions from the past lifetimes; Upatti-bhava signifies the karma-resultant rebirth process in the next life. The next life may be in any sphere or plane of sentient existence, that of form (rupa-bhava), or that of formless existence (arupa-bhava).

    In the second link of becoming, sankhara is explained as good and evil actions (karma). Is it not repetitive to say that kamma-bhava also means good and evil actions? Dependent Origination is concerned not just with the present life but with all the three lives - past, present and future. Karma, the good and evil actions mentioned in the second link belong to the past - and on those past actions, the present depends. The karma here belongs to the present life and that in turn causes future life. Clinging is the condition of the karma-process, or actions and the karma-resultant rebirth process.

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  • XI. BIRTH (Jati)

    Birth means the appearance of the five aggregates (material form, feeling, perception, formation and consciousness)in the mother’s womb.

    Represented by a woman giving birth.
    The present birth is brought about by the craving and clinging karma-volitions of the past births, and the caving and clinging acts of will of the present birth bring about future rebirth. It is this karma-volition that divides beings into high and low.

    "Beings are heirs of their deeds; bearers of their deeds, and their deeds are the womb out of which they spring," and through their deeds alone they must change for the better, remake themselves, and win liberation from ill.

    If karma is the cause of rebirth and if Buddhism emphatically denies a soul or a transcendental ego, how does this karmic process bring about rebirth? Well, no force is ever lost. It ever undergoes transformations. It is changing now, every moment of our lives. Nor is it lost at death. The vitalizing mind flux is merely reset in conditions harmonizing with itself, even as broadcast sounds reset in a receiver tuned to the particular wave length. It is the resetting of this vital flux, in fresh conditions, that is called rebirth. Each reborn being starts with a unique set of latent possibilities, the accumulated experiences of the past. That is why character differs, why each endows himself with what theists call "gifts", and infinite possibilities.

    There is nothing that passes or transmigrates from one life to another. Is it not possible to light one lamp from another and in this process does any flame pass from one to the other? DO you not see the continuity of the flame? It is neither the same flame nor totally a different one.

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    Represented by a dying person. Aging is both progressive, occurring every moment of our lifetime, and degenerative which leads to death.
    So long as man is attached to existence through his ignorance, craving and clinging, to him death is not the final end. He will continue his career of whirling along the wheel of existence, and will be twisted and torn between the spokes of agony. Looking around us in the world at different types of men and women, and at the differences in their varying fortunes, we know that these cannot be due to any mere chance.

    An External power or agency that punishes ill deeds and rewards the good deeds of beings has no place in Buddhist thought. Not even the supreme Buddha can redeem one from samsara’s bond. In ourselves lies the power to mold our lives.

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  • Conclusion

    The world seems to be imperfect and ill-balanced. We are too often confronted with many a difficulty and shortcomings. How is it that some of us are blessed with health, beauty and sincere friends while others are despicable weaklings, destitute and lonely? If we but pause for a moment and impartially investigate and intelligently inquire into things, we will find that we ourselves are responsible for our deeds whether good or ill and that we ourselves are the makers of our own karma.

    Man today is the result of millions of repetitions of thought and action. He is not ready-made; he becomes, and is still becoming. His character is predetermined by his own choice. The thought, the act which he chooses, that by habit be becomes.

    But when the causes and conditions of things are destroyed, automatically the effects will also cease to be. Sorrow will disappear if the varied rootlets of sorrow’s cause are eliminated. Referring to those enlightened ones who have conquered themselves through the uprooting of the defilements, the Buddha says in the Ratana Sutta:

    "Their past (karma) is sent, their new (karma) no more arises, their mind to future becoming is unatached. The germ (of rebirth-consciousness) has died; they have no more desire for re-living. Those wise ones fade out (of existence) as the flame of this lamp."

    The paticca-samuppada, with its twelve links starting with ignorance and ending in ageing and death, shows how man, being fettered, wanders in samsara birth after birth. But by getting rid of these twelve factors man can liberate himself from suffering and rebirth.

    To the genuine Buddhist the primary concern of life is not mere speculation, or vain voyages into the imaginary regions of high fantasy, but the gaining of true happiness and freedom from all suffering. Suffering and the cessation of suffering is the central concept of Buddhism, and represnts the finest flower of Indian thought.

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