The Decay of Decay, the Death of Death

Dependent Origination is the key to the Buddha’s teaching

In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (MN 26), the Buddha, soon after his enlightenment, reflected on the profundity of the Dhamma and was rather disinclined to preach it.

“I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, Dependent Origination. And it is hard to see this truth: the stilling of all fabrications, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving; dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me’.”

He saw two particular points in the Dhamma that are difficult for the world to see or grasp. One was paṭicca samuppāda:

duddasaṃ idaṃ ṭhānaṃ yadidaṃ idappaccayatā paṭiccasamuppādo

“It is hard to see this truth: Dependent Origination, this/that conditionality.”

And the second was Nibbāna:

idampi kho ṭhānaṃ duddasaṃ yadidaṃ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhakkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānaṃ

“And this truth, too, is difficult to see: the stilling of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all assets, the destruction of craving; detachment, cessation, extinction.”

Dependent Origination and Nibbāna are the two most difficult, yet essential points in the Buddha’s teaching. Nibbāna is the goal, and Dependent Origination is the engine of progress towards it. There is a deep correspondence between the process of Dependent Origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. We shall elucidate this relation as we proceed in this series.

If there is any term that accurately characterizes the principle of paṭicca samuppāda, it is idappaccayatā (specific conditionality). The Buddha described paṭicca samuppāda in this context as a causal relatedness of this to that. The basic principle of the noble norm of Dependent Origination is idappaccayatā. Let us now try to cognize its essential meaning by examining the teaching of paṭicca samuppāda.

In quite a number of contexts, such as the Bahudhātuka Sutta (MN 115) the Buddha explains the process of paṭicca samuppāda as follows:

“Thus: This being, that comes to be; With the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not come to be; With the cessation of this, that ceases.

“That is to say: dependent on ignorance, fabrications arise;
dependent on fabrications, consciousness arises;
dependent on consciousness, name-and-form arises;
dependent on name-and-form, the six sense-bases arise;
dependent on the six sense-bases, contact arise;
dependent on contact, feeling arises;
dependent on feeling, craving arises;
dependent on craving, clinging arises;
dependent on clinging, becoming arises;
dependent on becoming, birth arises;
dependent on birth, decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair arise. Thus is the arising of this entire mass of suffering.”

Thus Dependent Origination, the process of becoming, is the meaning of the Second Noble Truth, the origin of suffering. Nevertheless, its cessation is also the means of cessation of suffering, the Third Noble Truth:

“But with the complete fading away and cessation of ignorance, comes the cessation of fabrications;
with the cessation of fabrications, the cessation of consciousness;
with the cessation of consciousness, the cessation of name-and-form;
with the cessation of name-and-form, the cessation of the six sense-bases;
with the cessation of the six sense-bases, the cessation of contact;
with the cessation of contact, the cessation of feeling;
with the cessation of feeling, the cessation of craving;
with the cessation of craving, the cessation of clinging;
with the cessation of clinging, the cessation of becoming;
with the cessation of becoming, the cessation of birth;
with the cessation of birth, the cessation of decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease to be.
Thus is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering.”

The above is the thematic statement of the law of paṭicca samuppāda. It is first expressed as a fundamental principle resembling a mathematical formula:

“This being, that comes to be; With the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not come to be; With the cessation of this, that ceases.”

And then comes the conjunctive yadidaṃ: ‘namely this’ or ‘that is to say’, showing that the foregoing statement is axiomatic and what follows is an illustration. The twelve-step formula beginning ‘dependent on ignorance, fabrications arise’ is that illustration. The twelve-step formula is impressive; but the important thing here is the basic principle involved: the fourfold statement beginning with ‘This being…’.

This distinction is clearly made in the Paccaya Sutta (S II 25). There the Buddha addresses the monks and says:

At Savatthī. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you Dependent Origination and dependently arisen phenomena. Listen and attend closely, I will speak.”

Here the Buddha distinguishes between the principle of dependent arising and the things that are dependently arisen. To exemplify what is meant by Dependent Origination he takes up the last two links in the formula:

“And what, bhikkhus, is Dependent Origination? ‘With birth as condition, aging-and-death comes to be’: whether there is an arising of Tathāgatas or no arising of Tathāgatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. A Tathāgata awakens to this and breaks through to it. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. And he says: ‘See! With birth as condition, bhikkhus, aging-and-death’.”

The Buddha presents Dependent Origination as a universal law like gravity, that exists and persists regardless of whether anyone awakens to it. It is clear that the underlying principle could be understood even with the example of two links: birth and death.

But the commentary seems to have ignored this fact in its definition of the term idappaccayatā. It says:

imesaṃ jarāmaraṇādīnaṃ paccayā idappaccayā, idappaccayāva idappaccayatā

“The requisite conditions causing decay, old age, death and the rest are causally connected with all the foregoing.” (Spk II 40).

The pronoun imesaṃ (these) is plural, indicating that the commentator has taken the dependence in a collective sense. But it is because of the fact that even two links are sufficient to illustrate the law, that the Buddha follows it up with the declaration that “this is paṭicca samuppāda”. The Buddha goes on to ask:

“What, monks, are things dependently arisen?”

And then, taking up just one of the last links, he declares:

“Decay-and-death, monks, is impermanent, fabricated, dependently-arisen, of a nature to get destroyed, to pass away, fade away and cease.” — Paccaya Sutta (S II 25)

So according to the Buddha, decay-and-death themselves are impermanent; they are fabricated, compounded; they are dependently arisen. Decay-and-death themselves can get destroyed and pass away. They can fade away, ceasing without remainder, if the causal chain leading up to them is destroyed.

Then the Buddha takes up the preceding link jāti, or birth, and shows that it is also conditioned, dependently arisen. In the same manner he demonstrates the conditioned, dependently-arisen nature of each of the preceding links, up to and including ignorance, avijjā. It is significant that all of the twelve links, even ignorance, is dependently arisen.

Let us apply this reasoning to understand how decay-and-death themselves can get destroyed or pass away. Taking the Dependent Origination formula as a paradigm, instead of saying: this being, that comes to be (and so forth), now we can say:

Birth being, decay-and-death comes to be.
With the arising of birth, decay-and-death arises.
Birth not being, decay-and-death does not come to be.
With the cessation of birth, decay-and-death ceases.

Just as birth, an arising, itself arises due to dependently-originated causes, so also death, a passing away, itself passes away when its causes cease. And that, friends, is how implementing the Buddha’s teaching can cause the death of death.


Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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