Study Guide - 9. Shining the Light of Wisdom

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The texts cited in the last chapter treated meditation as a discipline of mental training aimed at a twofold task: stilling the mind and generating insight. The still mind, calm and collected, is the foundation for insight. The still mind observes phenomena as they arise and pass away, and from sustained observation and probing exploration arises “the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena” (adhipaññādhammavipassanā). As wisdom gathers momentum, it penetrates more and more deeply into the nature of things, culminating in the full and comprehensive understanding called enlightenment (sambodhi).

The Pāli word translated here as “wisdom” is paññā, the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit prajñā, which gives its name to the voluminous prajñāpāramitā sūtras of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The idea of paññā/prajñā as the principal tool on the path to enlightenment, however, did not originate with the prajñāpāramitā literature but is already deeply embedded in the teachings of Early Buddhism. The Nikāyas take paññā not only as a point of doctrine but as a rich theme for imagery. Thus, Texts 9.1(1)–(2) speak of paññā respectively as a light and a knife. It is the supreme light because it illuminates the true nature of things and dispels the darkness of ignorance. It is a knife—a sharp butcher’s knife—because it cuts through the tangled mass of the defilements and thereby opens the way to liberation.

The Pāli word paññā is derived from the verbal root ñā (Skt: jñā), meaning “to know,” preceded by the prefix pa (Skt: pra), which merely gives the root meaning a more dynamic nuance. So paññā/prajñā means knowing or understanding, not as a possession, but as an action: the act of knowing, the act of understanding, the act of discerning. In Pāli, the verb pajānāti: “one understands,” conveys this sense more effectively than the correlative noun paññā. What is meant by paññā, however, is a type of understanding superior to that which occurs when one understands, for instance, a difficult passage in an economics textbook or the implications of a legal argument. Paññā signifies the understanding that arises through spiritual training, illuminates the real nature of things, and culminates in the mind’s purification and liberation. For this reason, despite its drawbacks, I continue to use the familiar “wisdom.”

Contemporary Buddhist literature commonly conveys two ideas about paññā that have become almost axioms in the popular understanding of Buddhism. The first is that paññā is exclusively nonconceptual and nondiscursive, a type of cognition that defies all the laws of logical thought; the second, that paññā arises spontaneously, through an act of pure intuition as sudden and instantaneous as a brilliant flash of lightning. These two ideas about paññā are closely connected. If paññā defies all the laws of thought, it cannot be approached by any type of conceptual activity but can arise only when the rational, discriminative, conceptual activity of the mind has been stultified. And this stopping of conceptualization, somewhat like the demolition of a building, must be a rapid one, an undermining of thought not previously prepared for by any gradual maturation of understanding. Thus, in the popular understanding of Buddhism, paññā defies rationality and easily slides off into “crazy wisdom,” an incomprehensible, mindboggling way of relating to the world that dances at the thin edge between super-rationality and madness.

Such ideas about paññā receive no support at all from the teachings of the Nikāyas, which are consistently sane, lucid, and sober. To take the two points in reverse order: First, far from arising spontaneously, paññā in the Nikāyas is emphatically conditioned, arisen from an underlying matrix of causes and conditions. And second, paññā is not bare intuition, but a careful, discriminative understanding that at certain stages involves precise conceptual operations. Paññā is directed to specific domains of understanding. These domains, known in the Pāli commentaries as “the soil of wisdom” (paññābhūmi), must be thoroughly investigated and mastered through conceptual understanding before direct, nonconceptual insight can effectively accomplish its work. To master them requires analysis, discrimination, and discernment. One must be able to abstract from the overwhelming mass of facts certain basic patterns fundamental to all experience and use these patterns as templates for close contemplation of one’s own experience. I will have more to say about this as we go along.

The conditional basis for wisdom is laid down in the three-tier structure of the Buddhist training. As we have seen, in the three divisions of the Buddhist path, moral discipline functions as the basis for concentration and concentration as the basis for wisdom. Thus the immediate condition for the arising of wisdom is concentration. As the Buddha often says: “Develop concentration, monks. One who is concentrated sees things as they really are.” To “see things as they really are” is the work of wisdom; the immediate basis for this correct seeing is concentration. Since concentration depends on proper bodily and verbal conduct, moral discipline too is a condition for wisdom.

Text 9.2 gives a fuller list of eight causes and conditions for obtaining “the wisdom fundamental to the spiritual life” and for bringing such wisdom to maturity. Of particular interest is the fifth condition. which not only emphasizes the contribution that study of the Dhamma makes to the development of wisdom but also prescribes a sequential program of education. First one “learns much” of those “teachings that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” Then one memorizes them; then recites them aloud; then investigates them with the mind; and finally “penetrates them well by view.” The last step can be equated with direct insight, but such insight is prepared for by the preceding steps, which provide the “information” necessary for thorough penetration to occur. From this, we can see that wisdom does not arise automatically on the basis of concentration but depends upon a clear and precise conceptual understanding of the Dhamma induced by study, reflection, and deep contemplation of the teachings.

As a factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, wisdom is known as right view (sammādiṭṭhi). Text 9.3, a slightly abridged version of the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta, the Discourse on Right View (MN 9), gives an excellent overview of the “soil of wisdom.” The Venerable Sāriputta, the Buddha’s disciple who excelled in wisdom, spoke the discourse to a group of his fellow monks. Since ancient times, the text has served as a primer of Buddhist studies in the monasteries of southern Asia. According to the classical commentary on this sutta, right view is twofold: conceptual right view, a clear intellectual grasp of the Dhamma; and experiential right view, the wisdom that directly penetrates the Dhamma. Conceptual right view, called “right view in conformity with the truths” (saccānulomika-sammādiṭṭhi), is a correct understanding of the Dhamma arrived at by studying and examining the Buddha’s teachings in depth. Such understanding, though conceptual rather than experiential, is by no means dry and sterile. When rooted in faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment and driven by a strong determination to realize the truth of the Dhamma, it serves as the germ from which experiential right view evolves and thus becomes a critical step in the growth of wisdom.

Experiential right view is the realization of the truth of the Dhamma—above all, of the Four Noble Truths—in one’s own immediate experience. For this reason it is called “right view that penetrates the truths” (saccapaṭivedha-sammādiṭṭhi). To arrive at direct penetration, one begins with correct conceptual understanding of the teaching and, by practice, transforms this understanding into direct perception. If conceptual right view is compared to a hand—a hand that grasps the truth with the aid of concepts—then experiential right view might be compared to an eye. It is the eye of wisdom, the vision of the Dhamma, that sees directly into the ultimate truth, hidden from us for so long by our greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Discourse on Right View is intended to elucidate the principles that should be comprehended by conceptual right view and penetrated by experiential right view. Sāriputta expounds these principles under sixteen headings: the wholesome and the unwholesome, the four nutriments of life, the Four Noble Truths, the twelve factors of dependent origination, and the taints. It should be noted that from the second section to the end of the sutta, he frames all his expositions in accordance with the same pattern, a pattern that reveals the principle of conditionality to be the scaffolding for the entire teaching. Whatever phenomenon he takes up, he expounds by bringing to light its individual nature, its arising, its cessation, and the way to its cessation. Since this is the pattern that underlies the Four Noble Truths, I shall call it “the fourtruth pattern.” This pattern recurs throughout the Nikāyas as one of the major templates through which phenomena are to be viewed to arrive at true wisdom. Its application makes it clear that no entity is isolated and self-enclosed but is, rather, inherently linked to other things in a complex web of dependently originated processes. The key to liberation lies in understanding the causes that sustain this web and bringing them to an end within oneself. This is done by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path, the way to extinguish those causes.

The world-transcending right view, arrived at by penetrating any of the sixteen subjects expounded in the sutta, occurs in two main stages. The first stage is the right view of the trainee (sekha), the disciple who has entered irreversibly upon the path to liberation but has not yet reached its end. This stage is indicated by the words that open each section: “(one) who has perfect confidence in the Dhamma and has arrived at this true Dhamma.” These words signify right view as a vision of true principles, an insight that has initiated a radical transformation in the disciple but has not yet reached completion. The second stage is the world-transcending right view of the arahant, described by the closing words of each section. These words indicate that the disciple has used right view to eradicate the remaining defilements and has attained complete emancipation.

In section 4 we arrive at what I call “the domain of wisdom,” the areas to be explored and penetrated by insight. Many of the texts in this section come from the Saṁyutta Nikāya, whose major chapters are devoted to the principal doctrines of Early Buddhism. I include selections here on the five aggregates; the six sense bases; the elements (in different numerical sets); dependent origination; and the Four Noble Truths. As we survey these selections we will notice certain recurrent patterns.

9,4(1) The Five Aggregates. The five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) are the main categories the Nikāyas use to analyze human experience. The five are: (1) form (rūpa), the physical component of experience; (2) feeling (vedanā), the “affective tone” of experience—either pleasant, painful, or neutral; (3) perception (saññā), the identification of things through their distinctive marks and features; (4) volitional formations (saṅkhārā), a term for the multifarious mental factors involving volition, choice, and intention; and (5) consciousness (viññāṇa), cognition arisen through any of the six sense faculties—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Examination of the five aggregates, the topic of the Khandhasaṁyutta (Saṁyutta Nikāya, chapter 22), is critical to the Buddha’s teaching for at least four reasons. First, the five aggregates are the ultimate referent of the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering (see the exposition of the first truth in Text 2.5) and since all four truths revolve around suffering, understanding the aggregates is essential for understanding the Four Noble Truths as a whole. Second, the five aggregates are the objective domain of clinging and as such contribute to the causal origination of future suffering. Third, clinging to the five aggregates must be removed to attain liberation. And fourth, the kind of wisdom needed to remove clinging is precisely clear insight into the true nature of the aggregates. The Buddha himself declares that so long as he did not understand the five aggregates in terms of their individual nature, arising, cessation, and the way to their cessation, he did not claim to have attained perfect enlightenment. The full understanding of the five aggregates is a task he likewise enjoins on his disciples. The five aggregates, he says, are the things that must be fully understood; their full understanding brings the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion (SN 22:23).

The word khandha (Skt: skandha) means, among other things, a heap or mass (rāsi). The five aggregates are so called because they each unite under one label a multiplicity of phenomena that share the same defining characteristic. Thus whatever form there is: “past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near,” is incorporated into the form aggregate; whatever feeling there is: “past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near,” is incorporated into the feeling aggregate; and so for each of the other aggregates. Text 9.4(1)(a) enumerates in simple terms the constituents of each aggregate and shows that each aggregate arises and ceases in correlation with its own specific condition; the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to bring each aggregate to an end. Here we find the “four-truth pattern” applied to the five aggregates, an application that follows quite logically from the role that the five aggregates play in representing the first noble truth.

This sutta makes a distinction between trainees and arahants similar to that made by the Discourse on Right View. Trainees have directly known the five aggregates by way of the four-truth pattern and are practicing for their fading away and cessation; they have thereby “gained a foothold (gādhanti) in this Dhamma and Discipline.” Arahants too have directly known the five aggregates by way of the fourtruth pattern, but they have gone further than the trainees. They have extirpated all attachment to the aggregates and are liberated by nonclinging; thus they are called “consummate ones” (kevalino) who cannot be described by way of the round of rebirths.

A detailed catechism on the aggregates, treating them from diverse angles, can be found in Text 9.4(1)(b). Because the five aggregates that make up our ordinary experience are the objective domain of clinging (upādāna), they are commonly called the five aggregates subject to clinging (pañc’upādānakkhandhā). Clinging to the five aggregates occurs in two principal modes, which we might call appropriation and identification. One either grasps them and takes possession of them, that is, one appropriates them; or one uses them as the basis for views about one’s self or for conceit (“I am better than, as good as, inferior to others”), that is, one identifies with them. As the Nikāyas put it, we are prone to think of the aggregates thus: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self” (etaṁ mama, eso ’ham asmi, eso me attā). In this phrase, the notion “This is mine” represents the act of appropriation, a function of craving (taṇhā). The notions “This I am” and “This is my self” represent two types of identification, the former expressing conceit (māna), the latter views (diṭṭhi). Giving up craving is so difficult because craving is reinforced by views, which rationalize our identification with the aggregates and thus equip craving with a protective shield. The type of view that lies at the bottom of all affirmation of selfhood is called identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). The suttas often mention twenty types of identity view, obtained by considering one’s self to stand in any of four relations to each of the five aggregates: either as identical with it, as possessing it, as containing it, or as contained within it. The “uninstructed worldling” holds some kind of identity view; “the instructed noble disciple,” having seen with wisdom the selfless nature of the aggregates, no longer regards the aggregates as a self or the belongings of a self. Adopting any of these views is a cause of anxiety and distress. It is also a leash that keeps us bound to the round of rebirths—see above, Text 1.2(3) and Text 1.4(5).

The Five Aggregates

Aggregate Content Condition Simile
form four great elements and form derived from them nutriment a lump of foam
feeling six classes of feeling: born of contact through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind contact a water bubble
perception six classes of perception: of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental phenomena contact a mirage
volitional formations six classes of volition: regarding forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental phenomena contact a banana-tree trunk
consciousness six classes of consciousness: eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, mind-consciousness name-and-form a magical illusion


All the defilements ultimately stem from ignorance, which thus lies at the bottom of all suffering and bondage. Ignorance weaves a net of three delusions around the aggregates. These delusions are the notions that the five aggregates are permanent, a source of true happiness, and a self. The wisdom needed to break the spell of these delusions is the insight into the five aggregates as impermanent (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and nonself (anattā). This is called the direct knowledge of the three characteristics of existence (tilakkhaṇa).

Some suttas seem to make insight into one or another of the three characteristics alone sufficient for reaching the goal. However, the three characteristics are closely interwoven, and thus the most common formula found in the Nikāyas builds upon their internal relationship. First enunciated in the Buddha’s second discourse at Bārāṇasī—Text 9.4(1)(c)—the formula uses the characteristic of impermanence to reveal the characteristic of suffering, and both together to reveal the characteristic of nonself. The suttas take this indirect route to the characteristic of nonself because the selfless nature of things is so subtle that often it cannot be seen except when pointed to by the other two characteristics. When we recognize that the things we identify as our self are impermanent and bound up with suffering, we realize that they lack the essential marks of authentic selfhood and we thereby stop identifying with them.

The different expositions of the three characteristics all thus eventually converge on the eradication of clinging. They do so by showing, with regard to each aggregate: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” This makes the insight into nonself the culmination and consummation of the contemplation of the three characteristics. While the characteristic of nonself is usually approached through the other two characteristics, as in Text 9.4(1)(d), it is sometimes disclosed directly. An example of the direct approach to nonself is Text 9.4(1)(e), the discourse on “the lump of foam,” which uses five memorable similes to reveal the empty nature of the five aggregates. According to the standard formula, insight into the five aggregates as impermanent, suffering, and nonself induces disenchantment (nibbidā), dispassion (virāga), and liberation (vimutti). One who attains liberation subsequently wins “the knowledge and vision of liberation,” the assurance that the round of rebirths has indeed been stopped and nothing more remains to be done.

Another pattern that the suttas often apply to the five aggregates, and to the other groups of phenomena, is the triad of gratification, danger, and escape. Texts 6,2(1)–(3), from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, apply this triad to the world as a whole. The Saṁyutta Nikāya applies the same scheme individually to the aggregates, sense bases, and elements. The pleasure and joy each aggregate, sense base, and element offers is its gratification; its impermanence, pervasion by suffering, and nature to change is its danger; and the abandoning of desire and lust for it is the escape from it.

9,4(2) The Six Sense Bases. The Saḷāyatanasaṁyutta, the Connected Discourses on the Six Sense Bases (Saṁyutta Nikāya, chapter 35), contains over two hundred short suttas on the sense bases. The six internal and external sense bases provide a perspective on the totality of experience different from, but complementary to, the perspective provided by the aggregates. The six pairs of bases are the sense faculties and their corresponding objects, which support the arising of the respective type of consciousness. Because they mediate between consciousness and its objects, the internal sense bases are spoken of as the “bases for contact” (phassāyatana): “contact” (phassa) being the coming together of sense faculty, object, and consciousness.

The Six Internal and External Sense Bases

Internal sense bases External sense bases Types of consciousness arisen from the sense bases
eye forms eye-consciousness
ear sounds ear-consciousness
nose smells nose-consciousness
tongue tastes tongue-consciousness
body tactile objects body-consciousness
mind mental phenomena mind-consciousness


What the first five sense bases and their objects signify is obvious enough, but the sixth pair, mind (mano) and phenomena (dhammā), presents some difficulty. If we treat the two terms as parallel to the other internal and external bases, we would understand the mind base to be the support for the arising of mind-consciousness (manoviññāṇa) and the phenomena base to be the objective sphere of mind-consciousness. On this interpretation: “mind” might be taken as the passive flow of consciousness from which active conceptual consciousness emerges, and “phenomena” as purely mental objects such as those apprehended by introspection, imagination, and reflection. The Abhidhamma and the Pāli commentaries, however, interpret the two terms differently. They hold that the mind base comprises all classes of consciousness, that is, they include within it all six types of consciousness. They also hold that all actual entities not comprised in the other sense bases constitute the phenomena base. The phenomena base, then, includes the other three mental aggregates—feeling, perception, and volitional formations—as well as types of subtle material form not implicated in experience through the physical senses. Whether this interpretation conforms to the meaning intended in the oldest Buddhist texts is an open question.

Text 9.4(2)(a) testifies that for Early Buddhism, liberation requires direct knowledge and full understanding of the internal and external sense bases and all the phenomena that arise from them. This seems to establish an apparent correspondence between Buddhism and empirical science, but the type of knowledge sought by the two disciplines differs. Whereas the scientist seeks impersonal: “objective” information, the Buddhist practitioner seeks direct insight into the nature of these phenomena as components of lived experience.

The Nikāyas suggest an interesting difference between the treatment given to the aggregates and the sense bases. Both serve as the soil where clinging takes root and grows, but while the aggregates are primarily the soil for views about a self, the sense bases are primarily the soil for craving. A necessary step in the conquest of craving is therefore restraint of the senses. Monks and nuns in particular must be vigilant in their encounters with desirable and undesirable sense objects. When one is negligent, experience through the senses invariably becomes a trigger for craving: lust for pleasant objects, aversion toward disagreeable objects (and a craving for pleasant escape routes), and a dull attachment to neutral objects.

In one of his earliest discourses popularly known as “The Fire Sermon”—Text 9.4(2)(b)—the Buddha declared that “all is burning.” The “all” is just the six senses, their objects, the types of consciousness arisen from them, and the related contacts and feelings. The way to liberation is to see that this “all” is burning with the fires of defilements and suffering. The Saḷāyatanasaṁyutta repeatedly states that to dispel ignorance and generate true knowledge, we must contemplate all the sense bases and the feelings that arise through them as impermanent, suffering, and nonself. This, according to Text 9.4(2)(c), is the direct way to the attainment of Nibbāna. An alternative route, commended by Text 9.4(2)(d), is to see that the six senses are empty— empty of a self or of anything belonging to a self. Since consciousness arises via the six sense bases, it too is devoid of self—Text 9.4(2)(e).

9,4(3) The Elements. The elements are the subject of the Dhātusaṁyutta (Saṁyutta Nikāya, chapter 14). The word “elements” (dhātu) is applied to several quite disparate groups of phenomena, and thus the suttas in this chapter fall into separate clusters with little in common but their concern with entities called elements. The most important groups consist of eighteen, four, and six elements.

The eighteen elements are an elaboration of the twelve sense bases. They consist of the six sense faculties, the six sense objects, and the six types of sense consciousness. Since six types of consciousness have been extracted from the mind base, the mind element that remains must be a simpler type of cognitive event. The Nikāyas do not specify its precise function. The Abhidhamma identifies it with a type of consciousness that fulfills more rudimentary roles in the process of cognition than the more discriminative mind-consciousness element. 9,4(3)(a) contains a simple enumeration of the eighteen elements. Contemplation of these elements helps to dispel the notion that an abiding subject underlies the changing contents of experience. It shows how experience consists of different types of consciousness, each of which is conditioned, arisen in dependence on its own specific sense faculty and object. Thus to ascertain the composite, diversified, conditioned nature of experience dispels the illusion of unity and solidity that ordinarily obscures correct cognition.

The four elements are earth, water, heat, and air. These represent four “behavioral modes” of matter: solidity, fluidity, energy, and distension. The four are inseparably united in any unit of matter, from the smallest to the largest and most complex. The elements are not merely properties of the external world, however, but also of one’s own body. Thus one must contemplate them in relation to one’s body, as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta teaches (see Text 8.8 §12). The three suttas combined in Text 9.4(3)(b) show that these elements can be viewed: as impermanent and conditioned; from the triple standpoint of gratification, danger, and escape; and by way of the four-truth pattern.

The six elements include the four physical elements, the space element, and the element of consciousness. Text 9.4(3)(c), a long excerpt from MN 140, explains in detail how to contemplate the six elements in relation to the physical body, the external world, and conscious experience.

9,4(4) Dependent Origination. Dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) is so central to the Buddha’s teaching that the Buddha said: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma, and one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination” (MN 28; I 190–91). The ulitmate purpose of the teaching on dependent origination is to reveal the conditions that sustain the round of rebirths and thereby to show what must be done to gain release from the round. To win deliverance is a matter of unraveling the causal pattern that underlies our bondage, and this process begins with understanding the causal pattern itself. It is dependent origination that defines this causal pattern.

An entire chapter of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Nidānasaṁyutta (chapter 12), is devoted to dependent origination. The doctrine is usually expounded as a sequence of twelve factors joined into a chain of eleven propositions; see Text 9.4(4)(a). A Buddha discovers this chain of conditions; after his enlightenment, his mission is to explain it to the world. Text 9.4(4)(b) declares the sequence of conditions to be a fixed principle, a stable law, the nature of things. The series is expounded in two ways: by way of origination (called anuloma or forward order), and by way of cessation (called paṭiloma or reverse order). Sometimes the presentation proceeds from the first factor to the last; sometimes it begins at the end and traces the chain of conditions back to the first. Other suttas pick up the chain somewhere in the middle and work either backward to the end or forward to the front.

The Nikāyas themselves do not give any systematic explanation of dependent origination in the way one might expect a college textbook to do. Thus, for a clear explanation, we must rely on the commentaries and expository treatises that have come down from the Early Buddhist schools. Despite minor differences in details, these concur on the general meaning of this ancient formula, which might be briefly summarized as follows: Because of (1) ignorance (avijjā), lack of direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, we engage in wholesome and unwholesome activities of body, speech, and mind; these are (2) volitional formations (saṅkhārā), in other words, kamma. Volitional formations sustain consciousness from one life to the next and determine where it re-arises; in this way volitional formations condition (3) consciousness (viññāṇa). Along with consciousness, beginning from the moment of conception, comes (4) “name-andform” (nāmarūpa), the sentient organism with its physical form (rūpa) and its sensitive and cognitive capacities (nāma). The sentient organism is equipped with (5) six sense bases (saḷāyatana), the five physical sense faculties and the mind as organ of cognition. The sense bases allow (6) contact (phassa) to occur between consciousness and its objects, and contact conditions (7) feeling (vedanā). Called into play by feeling, (8) craving (taṇhā) arises, and when craving intensifies it gives rise to (9) clinging (upādāna), tight attachment to the objects of desire through sensuality and wrong views. Impelled by our attachments, we again engage in volitional actions pregnant with (10) a new existence (bhava). At death this potential for new existence is actualized in a new life beginning with (11) birth (jāti) and ending in (12)  aging-and-death  (jarāmaraṇa). From the above, we can see that the commentarial interpretation treats the twelve factors as spread out over a span of three lives, with ignorance and volitional formations pertaining to the past, birth and aging-and-death to the future, and the intermediate factors to the present. The segment from consciousness through feeling is the resultant phase of the present, the phase resulting from past ignorance and kamma; the segment from craving through existence is the karmically creative phase of the present, leading to renewed existence in the future. But existence is distinguished into two phases: one, called kamma-existence (kammabhava), constitutes the active side of existence and belongs to the causal phase of the present life; the other, called rebirth-existence (upapattibhava), constitutes the passive side of existence and belongs to the resultant phase of the future life. The twelve factors are also distributed into three “rounds”: the round of defilements (kilesavaṭṭa) includes ignorance, craving, and clinging; the round of action (kammavaṭṭa) includes volitional formations and kamma-existence; and all the other factors belong to the round of results (vipākavaṭṭa). Defilements give rise to defiled actions, actions bring forth results, and results serve as the soil for more defilements. In this way the round of rebirths revolves without discernible beginning.

This method of dividing up the factors should not be misconstrued to mean that the past, present, and future factors are mutually exclusive. The distribution into three lives is only an expository device which, for the sake of concision, has to resort to some degree of abstraction. As many suttas in the Nidānasaṁyutta show, groups of factors separated in the formula are inevitably interwoven in their dynamic operation. Whenever there is ignorance, craving and clinging invariably accompany it; and whenever there is craving and clinging, ignorance stands behind them. The formula demonstrates how rebirth can take place without the presence of a substantial self that maintains its identity as it transmigrates from one life to the next. Without a self to hold the sequence together, what connects one life to the next is nothing other than the principle of conditionality. Conditions in one existence initiate the arising of the conditioned phenomena in the next existence; these serve as conditions for still other phenomena, which condition still other phenomena, and so on indefinitely into the future.

 The whole process ends only when its underlying springs—ignorance, craving, and clinging—are extirpated by wisdom.

Dependent origination is not a mere theory but a teaching that should be directly known by personal experience, a point clearly made by Text 9.4(4)(c). This sutta instructs the disciple to understand each factor by way of the four-truth pattern: one should understand the factor itself, its origin, its cessation, and the way to its cessation. First one understands this pattern in relation to one’s personal experience. Then, on this basis, one infers that all those who correctly understood these things in the past understood them in exactly the same way; then that all those who will correctly understand these things in the future will understand them in exactly the same way. In this way, dependent origination acquires a timeless and universal significance.

Several suttas hold up dependent origination as a “teaching by the middle” (majjhena tathāgato dhammaṁ deseti). It is a “teaching by the middle” because it transcends two extreme views that polarize philosophical reflection on the human condition. One extreme, the metaphysical thesis of eternalism (sassatavāda), asserts that the core of human identity is an indestructible and eternal self, whether individual or universal. It also asserts that the world is created and maintained by a permanent entity, a God or some other metaphysical reality. The other extreme, annihilationism (ucchedavāda), holds that at death the person is utterly annihilated. There is no spiritual dimension to human existence and thus no personal survival of any sort. For the Buddha, both extremes pose insuperable problems. Eternalism encourages an obstinate clinging to the five aggregates, which are really impermanent and devoid of a substantial self; annihilationism threatens to undermine ethics and to make suffering the product of chance.

Dependent origination offers a radically different perspective that transcends the two extremes. It shows that individual existence is constituted by a current of conditioned phenomena devoid of a metaphysical self yet continuing on from birth to birth as long as the causes that sustain it remain effective. Dependent origination thereby offers a cogent explanation of the problem of suffering that on the one hand avoids the philosophical dilemmas posed by the hypothesis of a permanent self, and on the other avoids the dangers of ethical anarchy to which annihilationism eventually leads. As long as ignorance and craving remain, the process of rebirth continues; kamma yields its pleasant and painful fruit, and the great mass of suffering accumulates. When ignorance and craving are destroyed, the inner mechanism of karmic causation is deactivated, and one reaches the end of suffering in saṁsāra. Perhaps the most elegant exposition of dependent origination as the “middle teaching” is the famous Kaccānagotta Sutta, included here as Text 9.4(4)(d).

Though the twelve-factor formula is the most familiar version of the doctrine of dependent origination, the Nidānasaṁyutta introduces a number of little-known variants that help to illuminate the standard version. One such variant, Text 9.4(4)(e), speaks about the conditions for “the continuance of consciousness” (viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā), in other words, how consciousness passes on to a new existence. The causes are said to be the underlying tendencies, namely, ignorance and craving, and “what one intends and plans,” namely, the volitional formations. Once consciousness becomes established, the production of a new existence begins; thus we here proceed directly from consciousness (the usual third factor) to existence (the usual tenth factor). Text 9.4(4)(f) says that from the six internal and external sense bases (the former being the usual fifth factor), consciousness (the third factor) arises, followed by contact, feeling, craving, and all the rest. These variants make it plain that the sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through the simple exercise of efficient causality. Far from being linear, the relationship among the factors is always complex, involving several interwoven strands of conditionality.

9,4(5) The Four Noble Truths. As we have seen in both the “gradual path to liberation” and in the “contemplation of phenomena” section of the Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness, the path to liberation culminates in the realization of the Four Noble Truths: see Text 7.4 §25 and Text 8.8 §44. These were the truths that the Buddha discovered on the night of his enlightenment and enunciated in his first discourse: see Text 2.3(2) §42 and Text 2.5. The First Discourse is tucked away almost inconspicuously in the Saccasaṁyutta (Saṁyutta Nikāya, chapter 56), the Connected Discourses on the Truths, a chapter replete with many other pithy and thought-provoking suttas.

To highlight the wide-ranging significance of the Four Noble Truths, the Saccasaṁyutta casts them against a universal background. According to Text 9.4(5)(a), not only the Buddha Gotama, but all the Buddhas past, present, and future awaken to these same four truths. These four truths, says Text 9.4(5)(b), are truths because they are “actual, unerring, not otherwise.” According to Text 9.4(5)(c), the things the Buddha teaches are as few as a handful of leaves in the forest, and what he teaches are just these Four Noble Truths, taught precisely because they lead to enlightenment and Nibbāna.

Sentient beings roam and wander in saṁsāra because they have not understood and penetrated the Four Noble Truths—Text 9.4(5)(d). As the chain of dependent origination shows, what lies at the base of the causal genesis of suffering is ignorance (avijjā), and ignorance is unawareness of the Four Noble Truths. Thus those who fail to understand the four truths generate volitional formations and fall down the precipice of birth, aging, and death—Text 9.4(5)(e).

The antidote to ignorance is knowledge (vijjā), which accordingly is defined as knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. The first penetration of the Four Noble Truths occurs with the attainment of stream-entry, called the breakthrough to the Dhamma (dhammābhisamaya). To make this breakthrough is by no means easy, but without doing so it is impossible to put an end to suffering—Text 9.4(5)(f). Hence the Buddha again and again urges his disciples to “make an extraordinary effort” to achieve the breakthrough to the truths.

Once the disciple makes the breakthrough and sees the Four Noble Truths, more work still lies ahead, for each truth imposes a task that must be fulfilled in order to win the final fruit. The truth of suffering, which ultimately consists of the five aggregates, must be fully understood (pariññeyya). The truth of its origin, craving, must be abandoned (pahātabba). The truth of cessation, Nibbāna, must be realized (sacchikātabba). And the truth of the way, the Noble Eightfold Path, must be developed (bhāvetabba). Developing the path brings to completion all four tasks, at which point one reaches the destruction of the taints. This process begins with penetration of the same Four Noble Truths, and thus Text 9.4(5)(g) says that the destruction of the taints is for those who know and see the Four Noble Truths.

9,5 The Goal of Wisdom. The Four Noble Truths not only serve as the objective domain of wisdom but also define its purpose, which is enshrined in the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering. The cessation of suffering is Nibbāna, and thus the goal of wisdom, the end toward which the cultivation of wisdom moves, is the attainment of Nibbāna. But what exactly is meant by Nibbāna? The suttas explain Nibbāna in a number of ways. Some, such as Text 9.5(1), define Nibbāna simply as the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion. Others, such as the series comprised in Text 9.5(2), employ metaphors and images to convey a more concrete idea of the ultimate goal. Nibbāna is still the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion, but as such it is, among other things, peaceful, deathless, sublime, wonderful, and amazing. Such descriptions indicate that Nibbāna is a state of supreme happiness, peace, and freedom to be experienced in this present life.

A few suttas, most notably a pair in the Udāna—included here as Texts 9,5(3) and 9,5(4)—suggest that Nibbāna is not simply the destruction of defilements and an exalted feeling of psychological wellbeing. They speak of Nibbāna almost as if it were a transcendent state or dimension of being. Text 9.5(3) refers to Nibbāna as a “base” (āyatana) beyond the world of common experience where none of the physical elements or even the subtle formless dimensions of experience are present; it is a state completely quiescent, without arising, perishing, or change. Text 9.5(4) calls it the state that is “unborn, unmade, unbecome, [and] unconditioned” (ajātaṁ, akataṁ, abhūtaṁ, asaṅkhataṁ), the existence of which makes possible deliverance from all that is born, made, come-to-be, and conditioned.

How are we to correlate these two perspectives on Nibbāna found in the Nikāyas, one treating it as an experiential state of inward purity and sublime bliss, the other as an unconditioned state transcending the empirical world? Commentators, both Buddhists and outsiders, have tried to connect these two aspects of Nibbāna in different ways. Their interpretations generally reflect the proclivity of the interpreter as much as they do the texts themselves. The way that seems most faithful to both aspects of Nibbāna delineated in the texts is to regard the attainment of Nibbāna as a state of freedom and happiness attained by realizing, with profound wisdom, the unconditioned and transcendent element, the state that is intrinsically tranquil and forever beyond suffering. The penetration of this element brings the destruction of defilements, culminating in complete purification of mind. Such purification is accompanied by the experience of perfect peace and happiness in this present life. With the breakup of the body at physical death, it brings irreversible release from the beginningless round of rebirths.

 The suttas speak of two “elements of Nibbāna,” the Nibbāna element with residue remaining (sa-upādisesa-nibbānadhātu) and the Nibbāna element without residue remaining (anupādisesa-nibbānadhātu). Text 9.5(5) explains the Nibbāna element with residue remaining to be the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion attained by an arahant while still alive. The “residue” that remains is the composite of the five aggregates that was brought into being by the ignorance and craving of the past life and that must continue on until the end of the lifespan. As to the Nibbāna element without residue remaining, the same text says only that when the arahant passes away, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here. Since there is no more clinging to the five aggregates, and no more craving for fresh experience through a new set of aggregates, the occurrence of the aggregates comes to an end and cannot continue. The process of the five aggregates is “extinguished” (the literal meaning of Nibbāna). The Buddha says nothing at all, however, in terms either of existence or nonexistence, about the condition of the arahant after death. It might seem logical to suppose that since the five aggregates that constitute experience completely cease with the attainment of the Nibbāna element without residue, this element must itself be a state of complete nonexistence, a state of nothingness. Yet no text in the Nikāyas ever states this. To the contrary, the Nikāyas consistently refer to Nibbāna by terms that refer to actualities. It is an element (dhātu), a base (āyatana), a reality (dhamma), a state (pada), and so on. However, though so designated, it is qualified in ways that indicate this state ultimately lies beyond all familiar categories and concepts.

In Text 9.5(6), the wanderer Vacchagotta asks the Buddha whether the Tathāgata—here signifying one who has attained the supreme goal—is reborn (upapajjati) or not after death. The Buddha refuses to concede any of the four alternatives. To say that the Tathāgata is reborn, is not reborn, both is and is not reborn, neither is nor is not reborn— none of these is acceptable, for all accept the term Tathāgata as indicative of a real being, while from an internal point of view a Tathāgata has given up all clinging to notions of a real being. The Buddha illustrates this point with the simile of an extinguished fire. Just as a fire that has been extinguished cannot be said to have gone anywhere but must simply be said to have “gone out,” so with the breakup of the body the Tathāgata does not go anywhere but has simply “gone out.” The past participle nibbuta, used to describe a fire that has been extinguished, is related to the noun nibbāna, which literally means “extinguishing.” Yet, if this simile suggests a Buddhist version of the “annihilationist” view of the arahant’s fate after his demise, this impression would rest on a misunderstanding, on a wrong perception of the arahant as a “self” or “person” that is annihilated. Our problem in understanding the state of the Tathāgata after death is compounded by our difficulty in understanding the state of the Tathāgata even while alive. The simile of the great ocean underscores this difficulty. Since the Tathāgata no longer identifies with the five aggregates that constitute individual identity, he cannot be reckoned in terms of them, whether individually or collectively. Freed from reckoning in terms of the five aggregates, the Tathāgata transcends our understanding. Like the great ocean, he is “deep, immeasurable, [and] hard to fathom.” 


9. Shining the Light of Wisdom

9.1.Images of Wisdom

(1) Wisdom as a Light (AN 4.143)

(2) Wisdom as a Knife (MN 146)

9.2. The Conditions for Wisdom (AN 8.2)

9.3. A Discourse on Right View (MN 9)

9.4. The Domain of Wisdom

(1) By Way of the Five Aggregates

(a) Phases of the Aggregates (SN 22.56)

(b) A Catechism on the Aggregates (SN 22.82 or MN 109)

(c) The Characteristic of Nonself (SN 22.59)

(d) Impermanent, Suffering, Nonself (SN 22.45)

(e) A Lump of Foam (SN 22.95)

(2) By Way of the Six Sense Bases

(a) Full Understanding (SN 35.26)

(b) Burning (SN 35.28)

(c) Suitable for Attaining Nibbāna (SN 35.147, SN 35.148–149)

(d) Empty Is the World (SN 35.85)

(e) Conscious Too Is Nonself (SN 35.234)

(3) By Way of the Elements

(a) The Eighteen Elements (SN 14.1)

(b) The Four Elements (SN 14.37, SN 14.38, SN 14.39)

(c) The Six Elements (MN 140)

(4) By Way of Dependent Origination

(a) What Is Dependent Origination? (SN 12.1)

(b) The Stableness of the Dhamma (SN 12.20)

(c) Forty-Four Cases of Knowledge (SN 12.33)

(d) A Teaching by the Middle (SN 12.15)

(e) The Continuance of Consciousness (SN 12.38)

(f) The Origin and Passing of the World (SN 12.44)

(5) By Way of the Four Noble Truths

(a) The Truths of All Buddhas (SN 56.24)

(b) These Four Truths Are Actual (SN 56.20)

(c) A Handful of Leaves (SN 56.31)

(d) Because of Not Understanding (SN 56.21)

(e) The Precipice (SN 56.42)

(f) Making the Breakthrough (SN 56.32)

(g) The Destruction of the Taints (SN 56.25)

5. The Goal of Wisdom

(a) What is Nibbāna? (SN 38.1)

(b) Thirty-Three Synonyms for Nibbāna (SN 43.1– 44)

(c) There Is That Base (Ud 8.1)

(d) The Unborn (Ud 8.3)

(e) The Two Nibbāna Elements (It 44)

(f) The Fire and the Ocean (MN 72)


Next: 10. The Planes of Realization