The analysis of the problem of bondage and release in terms of concepts derives its validity from the fact that the possibility of liberation here and now is essentially dependent on our success in breaking down the vital nexus of egoistic attachment between the mutually interdependent consciousness on the one hand and name-and-form on the other. We are told that their interdependence is similar to that of two standing bundles of reeds which are mutually supported at the top, so that should one be drawn the other must necessarily fall down. This mutual dependence, as well as their relevance to the problem of concepts, will be borne out by the following Sutta passages:
“Just as if, friend, two bundles of reeds were to stand one supporting the other, even so, friend, consciousness is dependent on name-and-form, and name-and-form is dependent on consciousness, and the six spheres of sense on name-and-form, contact on the six spheres, feeling on contact, craving on feeling, grasping on craving, becoming on grasping, birth on becoming, and old-age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and despair are dependent on birth. Thus is the arising of this entire mass of suffering. But, friend, if one of those two bundles of reeds is drawn out, the other one would fall down, and if the latter is drawn, the former one will fall down. Even so, friend, with the cessation of name-and-form, consciousness ceases, with the cessation of consciousness, name-and-form ceases, with the cessation of name-and-form, the six sense-spheres cease… Thus comes to be the cessation of this entire mass of suffering.” — Naḷakalāpa Sutta (SN 12.67)
“This consciousness turns back from name-and-form, it does not go beyond. In so far can one be born or grow old or die or pass away or reappear, in so far as this is, to wit, consciousness is dependent on name-and-form, name-and-form on consciousness, the six sense spheres on name-and-form… Thus comes to be the arising of this entire mass of suffering.” — Mahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14)
“Insofar only, Ananda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, pass away or reappear, insofar only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, insofar only is there any pathway for designations, insofar only is there any sphere of knowledge, insofar only is the round (of saṃsāric life) kept going for there to be any designation of the conditions of this existence.” — Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15)
The commentary glosses over the key terms in this passage, with little attempt to draw out their deeper implications. T. W. and C. A. F. Rhys Davids, however, have sensed the importance of this passage when they remark: “The little paragraph contains a great part of modern psychology in the germ state.” — D. B., Il. 61 fn. 2
The interdependence between viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa in the case of the worldling is such that one turns back from the other (paccudāvattati) refusing to go further (nāparaṃ gacchati). This is the vortex proper of all saṃsāric currents which sooner or later engulfed all pre-Buddhist attempts at crossing the fourfold flood: kāma (sense-desire), bhava (becoming), diṭṭhi (view) and avijjā (ignorance). Hence a permanent solution had to be effected at this very vortex, and an approach to the seething mass was rendered possible by the fact that all pathways of concepts and designations converged on it, providing sufficient scope for wisdom to work its way through (ettāvatā paññāvacaraṃ—Mahā-nidāna Sutta). Perfect Wisdom, however, could not be ushered in until all tendrils of saṅkhārā feeding on ignorance (avijjā) have been torn asunder. This difficult feat the Buddha accomplished, thereby extirpating all craving, and thus there broke upon his enlightened mind the relevance of the two links avijjā and saṅkhārā to the vicious cycle of rebirth. The almost inseparable nexus of attachment between consciousness and name-and-form was severed and the sage found refuge in that anidassana viññāṇa wherefrom all currents turn back, and wherein the vortex holds no sway.
“He cast out reckoning, no measuring he found, Craving he cut off, in his name-and-form. That bond-free one, from blemish and longing free, Him, no gods or men in their search could ken, Here or in worlds beyond, in heavens or in all abodes. “Wherefrom do currents turn back? Where whirls no more the whirlpool? Wherein are name-and-form held in check with no trace left? And where do earth and water, fire and air, no footing find? Hence do all currents turn back—here whirls no more the whirlpool. Here it is that name-and-form are held in check with no trace left.” — Nasanti Sutta (SN 1.34)
The above-mentioned interdependence between viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa is a corollary of the mutual dependence between nāma and rūpa in their Buddhistic sense:
“Those modes, features, characters, exponents by which the aggregate called name is designated — if all these were absent would there be any manifestation of a corresponding verbal impression in the aggregate called ‘(bodily) form’?”
“There would not, Lord.”
“Those modes, features, characters, exponents by which the aggregate called ‘(bodily) form’ is designated — if all these were absent would there be any manifestation of an impression of sense-reaction in the aggregate called ‘name’?”
“There would not, Lord.”
“And if all those modes… of both kinds were absent would there be any manifestation of either verbal or sensory impression?”
“There would not, Lord.” — Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15)
Form (rūpa) can secure a basis in consciousness only in collaboration with name (nāma) and this is where the concept comes in. Though matter, in its gross conventional sense, cannot be completely transcended so long as one’s physical body is there, name-and-form as the concept of matter can be dissolved or melted away through wisdom, as was done by the Buddha and the Arahants. The nature of the concept is some kind of crystallization or fabrication, and this is brought about by the fermenting agent: the āsavas (influxes, cankers). The darkness of ignorance (avijjā) is leavened, as it were, by this ferment (āsava).
“Feeling, perception, conation, contact, attention—these, brethren, are called ‘name’. The four great elements and the matter derived from them—these, brethren, are called ‘form’... “With the arising of cankers there is the arising of ignorance, with the cessation of cankers there is the cessation of ignorance.” — Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (MN 9)
Now, one of the most regular phrases that accompany the declaration of the attainment of emancipation is: “Having seen through wisdom, his cankers are made extinct” (paññāya c’assa disvā āsavā parikkhīnā honti). Once the fermenting agent is thus destroyed, concepts in the strict sense of the term cannot occur in the emancipated mind, though he may think and speak with the help of worldly concepts. Since the cankers which agglutinate the concept are no more, the Arahant can render concepts non-manifest (anidassana) in his jhānic consciousness with as much ease as (to use the relevant canonical simile) a man whose hands and feet are cut off, reflects and knows that he has lost his limbs (Sandaka Sutta, MN 76).
It may also be added that it is this fermenting agent which—in its dynamic manifestations as saṅkhāras—is instrumental in graphically presenting before the consciousness of a dying individual that concept or percept which serves as a footing for his rebirth—any sign or symbol, not necessarily a linguistic one. Even the bare latency (anusaya) is sufficient. See Tatiyacetanā Sutta (SN 12.40). The process of crystallization that follows is not essentially different from the process whereby an idea becomes an artifact at the hands of a craftsman, due to grasping and moulding. The traditional simile of the potter is not yet obsolete.
Compare the simile of the painter in Gaddula Sutta (SN 22.100).
His grasping and moulding of the raw-material is but the outward manifestation of his grasp on the concept of a pot. Once he loses his grasp on the latter—that is, once the concept loses its reality for him—he will automatically lose interest in the moulding of that idea and no pot will result. Similarly, when concepts have lost their fecundity for an individual, they will never fertilize or proliferate into any kind of rebirth. As we saw above, the consciousness of the Buddha and Arahants manifests nothing (anidassana) and is devoid of that dynamic ferment (khīṇabīja; visaṃkhāragataṃ cittaṃ). Hence it is that they pass away with a consciousness which is unestablished (appatiṭṭhita-viññāṇa — Atthirāga Sutta, SN 12.64). In other words, their consciousness comes to an end (viññāṇaṃ attham agamā — Paṭhamadabba Sutta (Ud 93).
To better appreciate the above solution of the Buddha to the problem of suffering, we may briefly contrast it with the pre-Buddhistic attempts at release. These attempts, as a rule, were inspired by a false dichotomy between mind and matter. In search of a way out, they either pitted mind against matter (self-mortification, attakilamathānuyoga) or set matter against mind (self-indulgence, kāmasukhallikānuyoga). In the former case, the yogins found themselves in a spiritual cul-de-sac with the dilemma, ‘to be conscious or not to be conscious,’ and the most they could do was to develop the jhāna of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. In the latter case, it was simply a question of ‘to be or not to be.’ The former could not extricate themselves out of even the most subtle jhānic experience possible at the worldly level because they developed an attachment to it, and hence they found themselves reappearing in the formless realms (arūpa-loka). The latter, due to their materialistic disregard for all ethics in their gross indulgence, found themselves repeatedly shackled to lower realms of sensuality (kāmaloka). The first ‘lagged behind,’ obsessed with the concept of a metaphysical soul, whereas the other ‘over-reached’ himself owing to his narcissistic attachment to his body.
“Obsessed by two views, O monks, do some gods and men lag behind (oliyanti) while yet others over-reach themselves (atidhāvanti). Only they do see that have eyes to see.” — Diṭṭhigata Sutta (Iti 49)
In either case whither they inclined thither they fell, yet what they sought,that they did not find. The reason was that they were led by inclinations amassed through their bodily,verbal and mental preparations (kāya-vacī-mano-saṃkhāra) in their ethical manifestations as the meritorious, the demeritorious and the imperturbable (puñña-apuñña-āneñjābhi saṃkhāra). With their triple papañca they created their own worlds, and found themselves thrown into them.
When viewed against this background, we see that the Buddha’s solution to the problem of ‘escape from the world of suffering’ was based on a restatement of the whole problem. His vision into the universal law of Dependent Arising, with its three corollaries of impermanence, suffering and not-self, exposed the fallacy of the rigid dichotomy between mind and matter. He realized the conditioned phenomenal nature of the world, which necessitated a redefinition of the concept of the world. Thus he declared that in the terminology (lit. discipline) of the Noble Ones (ariyassa vinaye) the ‘world’ is indistinguishable from the concept thereof:
“That by which one is conscious of the world, by which one has conceit of the world — that is called ‘world’ in the Noble Ones’ discipline. And through what is one conscious of the world? Through what has one conceit of the world? Through the eye, friends, through the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind…” — Lokantagamana Sutta (SN 35.116)
“That end of the world wherein one is not born, does not grow old or die, pass away or reappear, that I declare, is impossible to be known, seen or reached by traveling. But, friend, I do not declare that one can make an end of suffering without reaching the end of the world. Friend, I do proclaim that in this very fathom-long body, with its perceptions and consciousness, is the world, the world’s arising, the world’s cessation and the path leading to the world’s cessation.” — Rohitassa Sutta (AN 4.45)
“‘The world, the world,’ O Lord, they call it. In what sense, O Lord, is there a world or a concept of a world?”
“Wherever, Samiddhi, there is the eye, the visible forms, the visual consciousness and the things perceptible with the visual consciousness, there is the world or the concept of it. Wherever there is the ear… nose… tongue… body… mind.
“Wherever, Samiddhi, there is no eye, no visible forms, no visual consciousness and nothing perceptible with the visual consciousness, there is neither a world nor a concept of a world… Wherever there is the ear… nose… tongue… body… mind.” — Samiddhi Sutta (SN 35.68)
See also Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)
Thus the world is what our senses present it to us to be. However, the world is not purely a projection of the mind in the sense of a thoroughgoing idealism; only, it is a phenomenon which the empirical consciousness cannot get behind, as it is itself committed to it. One might, of course, transcend the empirical consciousness and see the world objectively in the light of paññā only to find that it is void (suñña) of the very characteristics that made it a ‘world’ for oneself.
Kīṭāgiri Sutta (MN 70), Gaṇakamoggallāna Sutta (MN 107)
To those who are complacently perched on their cosy conceptual superstructures regarding the world, there is no more staggering a revelation than to be told that the world is a void. They might recoil from the thought of being plunged into the abysmal depths of a void where concepts are no more. But one need not panic, for the descent to those depths is gradual and collateral with rewarding personal experience. Hence the three significant terms in Buddhist ethics: anupubbasikkhā, anupubbakiriyā, anupubbapañipadā: gradual training, gradual doing, gradual practice. (Apaṇṇaka Sutta, MN 60)
One can, therefore, without inhibition, make use of the conceptual tools at his command in his spiritual endeavors—only he must sharpen them, and continue to sharpen them, until they wear themselves out in the process of use. He has to be guided by the twin principles of relativity and pragmatism. The spiritual training in Buddhism is broad-based on the most elementary fact of experience: dukkha. It proceeds on and culminates in experience. Experience is itself the ultimate criterion of truth and not its predicability. Yet, from the worldling’s point of view, predicability is of the very essence of truth.
“Men, aware alone of what is told by names,
Take up their stands on what is expressed.
If this, they have not rightly understood,
They go their ways under the yoke of Death.
He who has understood what is expressed,
He fancies not, as to ‘one who speaks’.
Unto him such things do not occur,
And that by which others may know him
That, for him, exists not.” — Samiddhi Sutta (SN 1.20)
“Name has conquered everything—higher than name there’s none; To name—to this one thing—is subject everyone." — Nāma Sutta (SN 1.61)
Thus the worldling is at the mercy of concepts, but still the Buddha shows how he can make the best out of a bad situation. He can make use of the concepts themselves to develop insight into the emptiness of concepts. What is necessary is a Middle Path between the extreme views of existence and non-existence. According to the Buddha, the worldling, for the most part, rests on the verbal dichotomy of existence and non-existence. In the light of wisdom both these extremes are proved false:
“This world, Kaccāyana, usually bases (its views) on two things, on existence and non-existence.
“Now he who with right insight sees the arising of the world as it really is, does not hold with the non-existence of the world. And he who with right insight sees the passing away of the world as it really is, does not hold with the existence of the world.
“The world, for the most part, is given to approaching, grasping, entering into and getting entangled (as regards views). Whoever does not approach, grasp, and take his stand upon that proclivity towards clinging, approaching and grasping, that mental standpoint, namely the thought: ‘This is my soul’; he knows that what arises is just Ill and what ceases is just Ill. Thus he is not in doubt, is not perplexed and herein he has knowledge that is not merely another’s. Thus far, Kaccāyana, he has right view.
“‘Everything exists’—this is one extreme. ‘Nothing exists’—this is the other extreme. Not approaching either of those extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma of the middle way. Conditioned by ignorance, preparations come to pass…” — Kaccanagotta Sutta (SN 12.15)
In conceptual terms this Middle Path would mean that there is an arising (uppāda), a passing away (vaya) and an otherwiseness in persistence (ṭhitassa aññathatta) of phenomena. It might even be summed up in paradoxical terms as a series of intermittent ‘arisings’ and ‘passings away’, with nothing that arises and passes away—a flux of becoming (bhavasota). But this is as far as concepts go, and the rest has to be accomplished through intuitive wisdom. The primary significance of the formula of Dependent Arising lies here. Lists of phenomena, both mental and material, are linked together with the term paccaya or any of its equivalents (such as hetu, nidāna, samudaya, pabhava, upanisā), and the fact of their conditionality and insubstantiality is emphasized with the help of analysis and synthesis. Apart from serving the immediate purpose of their specific application, these formulas help us to attune our minds in order to gain paññā. Neither the words in these formulas, nor the formulas as such, are to be regarded as ultimate categories. We have to look not so much at them, as through them. We must not miss the wood for the trees by dogmatically clinging to the words in the formulas as being ultimate categories. As concepts, they are merely the modes in which the flux of material and mental life has been arrested and split up in the realm of ideation, as for instance in the case of milk, curd, butter and ghee.
“Just, Citta, as from a cow comes milk, and from milk curds, and from curds butter, and from the butter ghee, and from the ghee junket; but when it is milk, it is not called curds or butter or ghee or junket — and when it is curds, it is not called by any of the other names and so on. “Just so Citta, when any one of the three modes of personality (i.e., the gross, the mental and the formless) is going on, it is not called by the names of the others. For these, Citta, are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world. And of these a Tathāgata (one who has won the truth) makes use indeed, but is not led astray by them.” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)
From the worldling’s point of view, they are infested with the problems of identity and difference, which tend to resolve themselves into extreme notions of absolute existence and nonexistence. The main purpose of the formula of Dependent Arising is to blaze the Middle Path of conditionality as summed up in the abstract principle:
“When this is, this comes to be; with the arising of this, this arises; when this is not, this does not come to be, with the stopping of this, this is stopped.” — Vera Sutta (AN 10.92)
All the formulas of paṭicca samuppāda are specific applications of this principle. When applied to the phenomena of our daily experience, this principle enables us to wean our minds from the tendency to rest on the concepts of existence and non-existence. As a preliminary step towards this end, those two concepts are replaced by the two terms uppāda (arising) and vaya (decay), These latter enable us to view the two extremes rightly (sammā diṭṭhi) as they are suggestive of conditionality. In developing samatha and vipassanā (calm and insight), the mind is made to oscillate between these two terms with ever-increasing momentum, spurred on by the three signata: anicca (transience), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (not-self). At the peak of intensity in this oscillation, the lingering notions of existence and non-existence wane into insignificance since the mind now hardly rests on them. The three signata involved in the oscillation have by now built up a powerful motive force of detachment. So the mind gets weary of (nibbidā) the extremes, and decides to step out (nissarana) of the process. Hence he cuts off the thread of selfhood—already made slender as at the stage of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana)—the thread by which his mind was oscillating under the artificial superstructure of concepts. As he lets go selfhood, he touches the realm of cessation (so nirodhaṃ phusati — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta). Thus the distressful tension abates (dukkhūpasama), the mental synergies are allayed (saṃkhārūpasama), and the triple process of conceptualization subsides (papañcavūpasama). Along with the concepts of the extremes, that of a middle also disappears. In short all concepts lose their significance for him (papañcasaṃkhā-pahāna). As for the relevance of the metaphor of mental pendulum that we have adopted in this connection, attention may now be drawn to the following passage of the Udāna dealing with the problem of Nibbāna:
“For him who clings, there is wavering, for him who clings not there is no wavering. Wavering not being, there is calm; calm being, there is no bending; bending not being, there is no coming and going; coming and going not being, there is no death and birth; death and birth not being, there is no ‘here’, no ‘yonder’, nor anything between the two. This indeed is the end of Ill.” — Catutthanibbānapaṭisaṃyutta Sutta (Ud 8.4)
The passage occurs also in the Otaraṇahāravibhaṅga (Ne 15), Channa Sutta (SN 35.87) and Channovāda Sutta (MN 144)
The word nissita (lit., resting on) is reminiscent of the Buddha’s sermon to Kaccāyana on the two extremes. This being so, the rest of the passage accords well with the metaphor. To one who rests on the verbal dichotomy,there is mental unsteadiness or irritability. Hence to him who does not rest on it, there is no such irritability. The absence of irritability brings about tranquility of mind. The tranquil mind has no inclination towards conceptual distinctions of two extremes or of any middle position. This release from the bondage of concepts is itself the end of suffering.
The commentaries try to give a concrete content to the dichotomous concepts occurring in this passage. It appears, however, that the expressions like agatī-gati and cutūpapāta as they are used here, do not refer to actual death and birth but merely stand for the abstract concepts of the same. This will be clear from the following passage where, cutūpapāta is taken as the causal antecedent of āyatiṃ-jāti-jarāmaraṇa (future birth, decay and death).