The Whirlpool of Saṃsāra

Birth is an arising — not the birth of a particular being, but birth itself. In the context of Dependent Origination it is possible to say that birth is born. How is birth born? It arises dependent upon the previous causes in the chain of Dependent Origination. Similarly death is a passing away. In the context of Dependent Origination we can say that death itself also passes away. How can death pass away? When the specific causes of death — birth and its predecessor causes — cease, then death itself passes away.

Let’s look into this and see if we can understand these profound questions. During an exposition of the law of paṭicca samuppāda, Dependent Origination, the Buddha makes the following statement:

Ettāvatā kho, Ānanda, jāyetha vā jīyetha vā mīyetha vā cavetha vā upapajjetha vā. Ettāvatā adhivacanapatho, ettāvatā niruttipatho, ettāvatā paññattipatho, ettāvatā paññāvacaraṃ, ettāvatā vaṭṭaṃ vattati itthattaṃ paññāpanāya yadidaṃ nāmarūpaṃ saha viññāṇena.

“Ānanda, one can be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, only insofar as there any pathway for verbal expression, insofar only as there any pathway for terminology, insofar only as there any pathway for designation, insofar only as the range of wisdom; insofar only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” — Mahā-Nidāna Sutta (DN 15)

We have asserted on many occasions that the relation between consciousness and name-and-form is the fulcrum, the most powerful point of inflection in the process of becoming. Here the Buddha confirms it. In other words, the range of one’s wisdom — indeed, the limits of one’s possibilities of consciousness, action and experience — are determined by the relationship between name-and-form and consciousness. And between these two there is a feedback loop, a dynamic vortex that conjures up the perception of a this-ness, an object. In short, the secret of the entire saṃsāric existence is found in this vortex of name-and-form together with consciousness.

We render the Pāḷi itthatta as ‘this-ness’. In the above quote the word ettāvatā, which means ‘insofar only’, refers to the concluding phrase yadidaṃ nāmarūpaṃ saha viññāṇena: “that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness”.

The Buddha is saying that name-and-form together with consciousness is the focal point, the fulcrum that channels and leverages the energy for all subsequent manifestations of the chain of cause and effect. All pathways for verbal expression, terminology and designation converge on name-and-form with consciousness. All further manifestations in the chain of causality depend on name-and-form with consciousness, and without them there is no further manifestation. And between these two there is a feedback loop, a dynamic vortex that creates the perception of a this-ness, an object. In this way we create the ‘world’, the environment and embodiment that we live in.

Vaṭṭa and āvaṭṭa signify a whirlpool. Unfortunately, this direct meaning became obscured by the Commentaries. There is a lot of confusion in the Commentaries and modern translations about the meaning of vaṭṭaṃ vattati. In fact, one Sinhala translation renders it as ‘saṃsāric rain’. What rain has to do with saṃsāra is obscure; it seems quite conjectural. Vaṭṭaṃ vattati actually means a rotation, a vortex. And saṃsāra literally is portrayed as a wheel. The Buddha says there is a vortex between name-and-form and consciousness, and this saṃsāric whirlpool is the origin of all the subsequent levels of Dependent Origination.

In an earlier essay in this series (Name and Formwe showed that ‘name’ in name-and-form directly means names and concepts. Now from this Sutta it becomes clear that all pathways for verbal expression, terminology and designation converge into this whirlpool between name-and-form and consciousness. More than that, the vortex of name-and-form and consciousness is the motive source of the round of manifestation and rebirth.

Let’s try to understand how a vortex is formed. What are the natural laws underlying its formation?

A fabrication (saṅkhāra) is the assertion of the existence of a ‘thing’. Any such assertion immediately creates by implication its negation, the nonexistence of the same ‘thing’. First one side becomes prominent, then it withers and decays and its opposite comes to the fore. Birth and death, creation and destruction, inhalation and expiration, subject and object are all examples of cyclical relations between a thing and its opposite.

We can call such a mutually-dependent dynamic relationship of opposites a vortex. Each such relation consists of a movement of energy in one direction and a related countermovement, whirling around a common center. This is the definition of a vortex. Let us take a whirlpool as a familiar example of a vortex, and try to understand its formation according to natural law.

How does a whirlpool form? Suppose a river is flowing downstream. Flowing downward is the nature of water. But the current encounters an obstacle such as a rock and part of it thinks: “I can and must move upstream,” so it pushes up against the main stream. But then its progress is checked by the main stream and thrust aside, only to come around and make a fresh attempt, again and again. These obstinate and unsuccessful attempts gradually develop into a cyclical motion, the water whirling around. Soon the reverse current finds that it cannot move forward against the main stream. But it does not give up. It finds an alternative escape in moving towards the bottom. So it spirals downward, funnel-like, digging deeper and deeper until an abyss is formed. This conical flow of water around an emptiness is a whirlpool, a vortex.

The gap in the center of the whirlpool is a vacuum, exerting a force of attraction on the water around it. It attracts and grasps everything that comes within its reach and sends it whirling down its funnel into the chasm. The center whirls at tremendous speed, slowing as the circumference grows larger. At last the whirlpool becomes a place of tremendous activity, even though its center is a gap, a stillness and emptiness. The same is true of a hurricane or any other kind of vortex.

While this kind of activity is going on in a river or a sea, there is a possibility for us to point it out as ‘that vortex’ or ‘this whirlpool’. Why? Because there is an activity going on, the location becomes visible. In the world, the location of an activity is known as a ‘place’, a ‘center’ or an ‘organization’. Since the whirlpool is also a centre of activity, we may designate it as a ‘here’ or ‘there’. We may even personify it: ‘my whirlpool’. It has become a ‘this-ness’, a location. This opens up pathways for verbal designation, terminology and expression in reference to it.

But if we are to consider the form of activity that is going on here, what is it after all? It is only a perversion, a conflict. Water flows downward by nature. But that obstinate current thought to itself, out of delusion and ignorance: ‘I can and must move upstream’. And so it tried and failed, but turned around again and again to make the same vain attempt. Ironically enough, even its ‘progress’ towards the bottom is a failure, a stagnation.

So in life, in our being, we have ignorance on one side and craving on the other, ‘I’ on one side and ‘mine’ on the other, whirling around the abyss, the empty center of a vortex. To satisfy this craving there is a force of attraction: grasping, the power of the vacuum at the center. This is grasping or clinging (taṇha). Where there is grasping, there is existence, becoming, bhava. The entire whirlpool now appears as a center of constantly changing dynamic activity.

The same basic principle underlying the vortex is found in our bodies. What we call ‘breathing’ is a continuous process of emptying and filling up. So the ‘life-principle’, breathing or bodily fabrication is similar to the activity of a whirlpool. The functioning of the lungs and the heart is based on the same principle, and circulation is in fact a whirling round of blood through the arteries and veins. This kind of activity is very often known as ‘autonomic’, a word which has connotations of automaticity and self-sufficiency. But at the root of it there is a perversion, a conflict, as we saw in the case of the whirlpool. All vortexes are based on a conflict between two opposing forces.

In fact, existence in its entirety is quite similar to the conflict of that obstinate current of water with the main stream. This characteristic of conflict is so pervasive that it can be seen even in the basic laws governing the existence of a society. In our social life, rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. We can enjoy certain privileges, provided we fulfill our duties.

Even the basic principles of economics show the same weakness. Production is governed by laws of supply and demand. Supply depends on demand and vice-versa. The conflict between them leads to many complications. The price mechanism is precariously balanced, and that is why some wealthy countries are forced into the ridiculous extremity of dumping their surplus at sea. All this shows that existence is basically a vortex, a system of opposing forces in a precarious dynamic balance.

The most outstanding contribution made by the law of Dependent Origination to the ethical, psychological and philosophical enquiries of all times is the revelation that there is a vortex hidden behind the flux and turbulence of mental life. In any vortex, whether made of air like a tornado, of water like a whirlpool, or of storm clouds like a hurricane, the center is empty. The stages of ‘consciousness’ and ‘name-and-form’ are the axis, fabrication is the empty hub of the vortex of Dependent Origination. They perpetually support and revitalize each other in mutual rotation, an emptiness like the eye of a hurricane, around which orbits all existence.

We find the vortex in our own bodies in the form of respiration, blood circulation and so forth. What appears as the stability in the society and in the economy, is similarly precarious. It is because of this conflict, this unsatisfactoriness, that the Buddha concluded that the whole of existence is suffering.

All that there is, is bearing up with difficulty. And this in fact is the meaning of the word dukkha. Duḥ means difficulty and kha means bearing up. Even with difficulty one bears it up, and though one bears it up, it is difficult.

Now regarding the question of existence we happened to mention that because of a whirlpool’s activity, one can point out a ‘here’ with reference to it. We can now come back to the word itthattaṃ, which we left without comment in the quotation ettāvatā vaṭṭaṃ vattati itthattaṃ paññāpanāya: “insofar only does the whirlpool whirl for the designation of an itthatta.” Now what is this itthatta? Ittha means ‘this’, so itthattaṃ would mean ‘this-ness’. The whirling of a whirlpool qualifies itself for a designation as a ‘this’.

There are some verses that bring out the meaning of this word more clearly:

“They that go on again and again the round of birth and death, which is a this-ness and an otherwise-ness, or which is an alternation between a this-ness and an otherwise-ness, that going of them, that faring of them, is only a journey of ignorance.”

“The man with craving as his companion, faring on for a long time in saṃsāra, does not get away from the round which is a this-ness and an otherwise-ness, or which is an alternation between a this-ness and an otherwise-ness.” — Dvayatānupassanā Sutta (Sutta-nipāta 729 & 740)

The meaning again points to the round of saṃsāra caused by the vortex of consciousness and name-and-form. This analysis will be continued in the next article of the Ultimate Wisdom series.


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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