This is from a chapter in my book Clearing the Way (digital version free at https://dhammavinaya.com), where I posit a new approach to theoretically understand paticcasamuppāda based on the early suttas. In my view, it resolves most if not all the issues of existing interpretations. I’ve only included the text here with no references or diagrams. Any feedback welcome!
A Pragmatic Approach Through the Three Ways of Vision
“Deep is this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It’s because of not understanding & not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes & reeds, and does not go beyond the cycle of the planes of deprivation, woe, & bad destinations.”
Dependent co-arising (paṭiccasamuppāda), or dependent origination, as it is more popularly known, is arguably the most complex concept in the Pāli Canon. Scholars and practitioners have proposed various interpretations in their attempts at understanding its intricacies. These include the traditional, three-lifetime interpretation expounded by Buddhaghosa Thera in the Visuddhimagga, and more contemporary ideas by commentators like Ñāṇavīra Thera, Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda Thera and Ajahn Ṭhānissaro.
All the existing interpretations point to the discourses as evidence, but—as I will explain—fail to reconcile the many variations of dependent co-arising renditions found in the Canon. They also lack a clear and pragmatic framework that practitioners can apply in their meditation to not only understand dependent co-arising from a theoretical standpoint, but also to ‘see’ it in the here-and-now (sanditṭhika).
Ignorance is the first factor in a majority of instances where the dependent co-arising formula is found in the Pāli Canon. However, there is still a considerable number split between those starting with the six sense bases and with name-and-form as well. Therefore, a framework of dependent co-arising based on the Pāli Canon must give a satisfactory explanation for the variant ways it is defined. None of the existing popular interpretations do so.
It is with this in mind that I propose a framework that gives a coherent explanation for the variant versions of dependent co-arising and provides a clear path of practice derived from that. This framework, which I call the three ways of vision, demonstrates how dependent co-arising is far from some obscure concept in Buddhist theory, but is in fact central to the strategies we need to develop in our meditation to see the Dhamma.
These three ways of vision—as a framework for understanding how dependent co-arising connects to our meditation practice—are principally derived from the Riddle-Tree discourse (kiṃsuka sutta) in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In it, a monk asks his peers how one’s vision is purified, and each monk gives him a different reply:
A certain monk went to another monk and, on arrival, said to him, “To what extent, my friend, is a monk’s vision said to be well-purified?”
“When a monk discerns, as it has come to be, the origination & passing away of the six media of sensory contact … ”
The first monk, dissatisfied with the… answer to his question, went to still another monk and, on arrival, said to him, “To what extent, my friend, is a monk’s vision said to be well-purified?”
“When a monk discerns, as it has come to be, the origination & passing away of the five clinging-aggregates … ”
The first monk, dissatisfied …
“When a monk discerns, as it has come to be, the origination & passing away of the four great elements [earth, water, wind, & fire] … ”
The inquiring monk, confused by the different replies, goes to see the Buddha. The Buddha uses the simile of the riddle tree—a tree that can be described differently even though it is the same tree—to illustrate how each monk talked of different means of purifying one’s vision.
It is these three themes—discerning the origination and passing away of 1) the six media of sensory contact (phassāyatana, or saḷāyatana); 2) the five clinging-aggregates (upādānakkhandha, or khandha); and 3) the four great elements (mahābhuta, or dhātu—properties)—that I refer to as the three ways of vision. This differentiation of methods is also found elsewhere in the Canon, with each presented as a separate mode of investigation.
As for what it means to purify one’s vision, the Buddha equated that with seeing the Dhamma and the attainment of stream-entry (sotāpanna)—the first stage of spiritual awakening. Elsewhere, he says “whoever sees dependent co-arising sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees dependent co-arising.” So the three ways of vision can be thought of as not only three themes for attaining stream-entry—but also three frameworks for understanding dependent co-arising.
As we will see, these ways of vision have an even deeper relationship to dependent co-arising. We will find evidence that every practitioner has a specific method that is most appropriate to them based on the comparative strength of their samatha (tranquility) and vipassanā (insight) skills. But before we do this, we will first delve deeper into the various links of the dependent co-arising process and the centrality of one in particular: contact.
The Centrality of Contact
All phenomena (dhamma) are said to originate through contact (phassa), and so it is an obvious choice to focus on when trying to discern the origination and passing away of the sense bases, the aggregates, or the properties. This centrality of contact is also evident when you consider how it is the prerequisite for feeling, intention (cetanā) and perception (saññā), with consciousness (viññāna) being conjoined with the others:
“Contacted, one feels. Contacted, one intends. Contacted, one perceives …
“Feeling, perception, & consciousness are conjoined… For what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one cognizes.”
It follows that the presence of any of the above phenomena means that the others are also present, and the absence of one means the others are not present either. This is the principle called “this/that conditionality” (iddapaccayatā in Pāli, “When this is, that is… when this isn’t, that isn’t.”), which is how dependent co-arising functions. The centrality of contact has further support when you consider how it underlies the origination of all the aggregates:
“From the origination of nutriment comes the origination of form …
… From the origination of contact comes the origination of feeling …
… From the origination of contact comes the origination of perception …
… From the origination of contact comes the origination of fabrications …
… From the origination of name-&-form comes the origination of consciousness …
Contact is a type of nutriment, and name—defined below—also includes contact. This shows why we must pay attention to the point of contact to understand dependent co-arising. And so it makes sense why phenomena “come into play through attention.”
Now we will look at the typical formulation of dependent co-arising including the definitions given for name-&-form (nāmarūpa), consciousness, fabrications (saṅkhārā), and ignorance (avijjā):
From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications … comes consciousness. From consciousness … comes name-&-form. From name-&-form … come the six sense media. From the six sense media … comes contact. From contact … comes feeling. From feeling … comes craving. From craving … comes birth. … then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.
“And which name-&-form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements, and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are called name-&-form.
“And which consciousness? These six are classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, intellect-consciousness. This is called consciousness.
“And which fabrications? These three are fabrications: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications. These are called fabrications.
“And which ignorance? Not knowing stress, not knowing the origination of stress, not knowing the cessation of stress, not knowing the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called ignorance.
The constituents of bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications are mentioned elsewhere:
“But what are bodily fabrications? What are verbal fabrications? What are mental fabrications?”
“In-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications. Directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications. Perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.”
Feeling (vedanā) precedes craving (tanhā) and follows contact in the formula, but also appears within name-&-form as well as fabrications (as a mental fabrication). Attention (manasikāra), which is a constituent of name, is also connected to ignorance. This is because ignorance is effectively the same as inappropriate attention (ayoniso manasikāra)—the opposite of attending to experience appropriately (“He attends appropriately, This is stress … the origination of stress … the cessation of stress … the way leading to the cessation of stress.”)
Also consider the etymological roots of the Pāli term for appropriate attention. ‘Yoni’ means the place of origin or birth. Yoniso manasikāra would then literally mean ‘attention at the place of origin.’ This would be attention at the point of contact itself—where all phenomena originate.
These are crucial points to remember since there are multiple cases in the dependent co-arising formula where one or more phenomena are missing while others are explicitly mentioned. In those cases, the missing factors must therefore be implicit. This is because as we have seen, there is evidence in the Canon that certain phenomena arise simultaneously. This is the case at the fabrications factor—where consciousness, contact, and intention are implicit—and between the contact and feeling factors—where attention, consciousness, intention, and perception are implicit.
By recognizing the three locations where contact is present in dependent co-arising, we can identify three distinct “ways of vision.” Contact under name-&-form would correspond to the “way of the properties,” since name-&-form is the only link in the formula where the properties (dhātu) are explicitly mentioned. Similarly, contact adjacent to the six sense media corresponds to the “way of the senses.” Lastly, as will be explained later, fabrications include each of the aggregates, implying the presence of contact and corresponding to the “way of the aggregates.”
This correspondence between the ways of vision and specific locations in dependent co-arising is significant because it simplifies the practical process of breaking free from it. This is done by separating the factors in the process prior to the craving factor into the three aforementioned ways of evaluating experience.
In other words, to eradicate craving and unravel the process of dependent co-arising, there are three different options. These are:
The way of the aggregates (khandha), which could be listed as:
Ignorance → fabrications → consciousness → … → craving → … → suffering.
The way of the properties (dhātu), or:
Consciousness ←→ name-&-form → craving → … → suffering.
And the way of the senses (saḷāyatana):
Six sense media → contact → feeling → craving → … → suffering.
Each way of vision explicitly or implicitly includes attention, consciousness, contact, feeling, perception, and intention. Now we will dig deeper into each in more detail, using sources from the Canon for support.
The Way of the Senses: Samatha & Vipassanā In Tandem
The traditional interpretation of dependent co-arising separates the factors of the typical formulation into three lives—past, present, and future. Ignorance and fabrications are said to be karma—intentional action—of the previous life that results in consciousness, name-&-form, six sense media, contact, and feeling in the present life. Craving, clinging (upādāna), and becoming (bhava) are the karma of the present life, which results in birth (jāti) in the next life.
Ignorance → … → Six Sense Media → Contact → … → Becoming → Birth → … → Suffering
Fabrications—through an alternative definition found in some places—are defined as being meritorious (puññābhi), demeritorious (apuññābhi) or imperturbable (āneñjābhi). These correspond to the quality of a person’s karma that results in consciousness at that level. Karma and consciousness hindered by ignorance —the first factor—are described elsewhere as prerequisites for renewed becoming in the future, so fabrications can be regarded as the previous life’s karma.
In the Great Causes discourse (mahānidāna sutta), there is an explicit mention of consciousness descending into a mother’s womb as a condition for name-&-form to take shape. Elsewhere, the six-sense media are described as old karma and actions tied with craving called new karma, suggesting that the traditional interpretation effectively takes the way of the senses as the only method to unravel dependent co-arising in the present life. While it is useful to familiarize ourselves with how dependent co-arising shows how rebirth occurs, since the Dhamma is realized in the present moment, that will be our focus here.
The most common formulation of dependent co-arising in the discourses describes its unraveling starting from ignorance. This is impossible to do in the present moment if the traditional understanding is adopted, since ignorance represents action done in a past life. Instead, a less common variation of the formula which begins with six sense media would apply for the way of the senses:
Six Sense Media → Contact → Feeling → Craving → … → Suffering
The Great Six Sense Media discourse (mahāsaḷāyatanika sutta) mentions that the way of the senses involves insight and tranquility developed together (“for him these two qualities occur in tandem: tranquility & insight.”) This is a key point since this is one of three ways—the other two corresponding to the remaining ways of vision as we will see—in which insight and tranquility can be developed according to the only other discourse that mentions this in the Canon:
Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility in tandem with insight. As he develops tranquility in tandem with insight, the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it—his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
Sense restraint (indriya saṃvara) is a precursor to insight at the level of the six-sense media and is clearly a relevant practice for this method:
On seeing a form with the eye, do not grasp at any theme or variations by which—if you were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the eye—evil, unskillful qualities such as greed or distress might assail you …
“‘On hearing a sound with the ear …
“‘On smelling an aroma with the nose …
“‘On tasting a flavor with the tongue …
“‘On feeling a tactile sensation with the body …
“‘On cognizing an idea with the intellect …”
Considering how sense restraint is a stepping stone for deeper practice in the gradual path (anupubbapaṭipadā), however, this practice is clearly not exclusive to the way of the senses. This is confirmed by how mindfulness immersed in the body (kāyagatāsati)—which is common to all the ways of vision—is described as a prerequisite for stable sense restraint.
The way of the senses distinguishes itself by how the practice of sense restraint is pushed to its limits. Attaining stream-entry with this method involves applying the perception of not-self (anatta) with reference to the six-sense media, which leads to the cessation of self-identification., Through this, the origination and passing-away of contact at the six sense bases is experienced, resulting in the first stage of awakening:
Six Sense Media → Contact → Feeling → Craving → … → Suffering
While concentration is necessary for this insight, scant detail is given in the Canon on the level required. Because of this, whether concentration at the level of jhāna is required for the first stage of awakening with this method is unclear.
For full awakening, it can be inferred that this practice is developed to a level where the perception of not-self is applied at sensory contact immediately, bypassing any possibility of unskillful mental states:
In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two.”
Eradicating ignorance results in the cessation of the six-sense media, which is the experience of Unbinding (nibbāna) that lies outside of the six senses:
“Now from the remainderless fading & cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling … the cessation of craving … the cessation of clinging/sustenance … the cessation of becoming … the cessation of birth … then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress & suffering.”
Six Sense Media → Contact → … → Suffering
Note that practitioners who attain Unbinding with the way of the senses still retain the six sense bases that are the results of past life actions even though they have severed any attachment to them. These are only abandoned completely at death.
The way of the senses is the path to follow for those with similar levels of skill in both tranquility and insight practice. Since what the six sense bases refer to is immediately apparent even to the uninitiated, this might be the most accessible method for the average practitioner. However, sense restraint requires the insight to recognize which mental qualities are skillful, so this is by no means an easier route to follow.
The Way of the Aggregates: Samatha Preceding Vipassanā
Ignorance → Fabrications → Consciousness → … → Suffering
The way of the aggregates corresponds to the most frequently found formulation of dependent co-arising in the Pāli Canon. By evaluating the advanced states of mental stillness called jhāna, it is possible to understand how this method can be followed.
The sequence goes from the four form jhānas then the four formless attainments, before culminating in the cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha). There is an obvious connection of this progression of jhāna to fabrications in dependent co-arising when you consider what ceases at each step of this process:
“But when a monk is attaining the cessation of perception & feeling, which things cease first: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, or mental fabrications?”
“When a monk is attaining the cessation of perception & feeling, friend Visakha, verbal fabrications cease first, then bodily fabrications, then mental fabrications.”
Passing through the jhāna sequence involves the sequential cessation of each group of fabrications. Verbal fabrications (vacī-saṅkhārā) cease upon entering the second jhāna, bodily fabrications (kāya-saṅkhārā) on entering the fourth jhāna, and mental fabrications (citta-saṅkhārā) on entering the cessation of perception and feeling.
This cessation-attainment (nirodha-samāpatti)—another term used for the cessation of perception and feeling—corresponds to experiencing the passing away of the five clinging-aggregates. Of these, the fabrication aggregate is defined in terms of intention (“These six bodies of intention—intention with regard to form, … sound, … smell, … taste, … tactile sensation, … ideas: these are called fabrications.”) Elsewhere, intention is divided into its bodily, verbal and intellectual aspects, each corresponding to bodily, verbal and mental fabrication (synonymous with intellectual fabrication—mano-saṅkhārā).
The meditator who is skilled enough in concentration practice to reach the cessation-attainment experiences the passing away of the clinging-aggregates. When returning from that meditative state, the origination of the clinging-aggregates that had previously ceased is experienced. This way, the practitioner can discern their origination and passing-away—achieving the first stage of awakening:
Ignorance → Fabrications → Consciousness → … → Suffering
Since it involves reaching jhāna—strong states of mental stillness—the way of the aggregates corresponds to the method where tranquility (samatha) precedes insight (vipassanā), and so would be appropriate for those who are more skilled at calming and concentrating the mind than investigating the nature of fabrications. That concentration is the preliminary focus for the method finds some support in the discourses:
“Develop concentration, monks. A concentrated monk discerns in line with what has come into being. And what does he discern in line with what has come into being? The origination & disappearance of form. The origination & disappearance of feeling… perception… fabrications. The origination & disappearance of consciousness.
The question arises whether such an advanced level of concentration—which is beyond even the subtlest jhāna state—is necessary to achieve the first stage of awakening when following the way of the aggregates. If that were true, this method would be inaccessible to the typical practitioner. This is in fact not the case, with even concentration at the level of the first jhāna deemed sufficient to evaluate experience in terms of the aggregates:
There is the case where a monk, quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters & remains in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, … not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness …
“Staying right there, he reaches the ending of the effluents.
This suggests that the level of absorption required is dependent on the discernment (paññā—commonly translated as wisdom) of the meditator, with a less subtle state of concentration sufficient with a higher degree of discernment. If both are present, the ignorance that makes the meditator cling to the aggregates is eradicated, resulting in a dimension outside body, speech, and intellect:
“Now, ignorance is bound up in these things. From the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance, there no longer exists (the sense of) the body on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise. There no longer exists the speech … the intellect on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise. There no longer exists the field, the site, the dimension, or the issue on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise.”
Ignorance → Fabrications → Consciousness → … → Suffering
There are hints in the discourses that the way of the aggregates has a connection with mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati). Aside from the instances we have already seen related to dependent co-arising and jhāna, the popular rendering of the breath meditation method is one of the few other instances where bodily and mental fabrications are mentioned in the Canon. Here these fabrications are said to be progressively calmed (passambhi), aligning with their cessation (nirodha) at distinct levels of jhāna. This is confirmed elsewhere where calming bodily fabrication is equated with entering the fourth jhāna. All the stages of concentration including the cessation-attainment are accessible with breath meditation, with the Buddha himself stating that he used this method:
He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’
… He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.’
“I myself, monks, before my awakening, when I was still an unawakened bodhisatta, often dwelt in this (meditative) dwelling. While I was dwelling in this (meditative) dwelling, neither my body nor my eyes were fatigued, and the mind—through lack of clinging/sustenance—was released from effluents.
Elsewhere, the Buddha states that he attained full awakening after first entering the cessation-attainment. Consider also that his first two sermons: the discourse on Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion (dhammacakkappavattana sutta), and the discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic (anattalakkhana sutta) are both given in the context of the five clinging-aggregates. All this evidence points to the Buddha himself following the way of the aggregates to achieve release.
In the Buddha’s time, there were already contemplatives—like his early teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta—that lived in forest settings and achieved higher levels of jhāna through tranquility (samatha) practice. This might be why his first and most common formulation for dependent co-arising starts with the two factors—ignorance and fabrications—pivotal to this method.
All this is compelling evidence: the way of the aggregates is most appropriate for those who have an affinity towards calming the mind through samatha practice.
The Way of the Properties: Vipassanā Preceding Samatha
Consciousness ←→ Name-&-Form → Six Sense Media → … → Suffering
There is an alternative version of the dependent co-arising formula described in multiple locations in the Canon that starts with name-&-form and consciousness dependent on each other. In some cases this version also omits six sense media:
“From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form.
From name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. … If consciousness were not to gain a foothold in name-&-form, would a coming-into-play of the origination of birth, aging, death, and stress in the future be discerned?”
The prominence given to name-&-form and consciousness suggests that this formulation has a connection to the way of the properties (dhātu). Form in name-&-form is the only place in dependent co-arising where the properties are explicitly mentioned. Also, unraveling the interplay between consciousness and name-&-form is the crux of the method detailed in the Analysis of Properties discourse (dhātuvibhaṅga sutta).
It details a training in discernment where each of the properties (earth—paṭavi, water—āpo, fire—tejo, wind—vāyo, space—ākāsa) are evaluated in terms of their associated body parts and felt sense. For instance, the earth property is sensed as whatever is hard, solid, and sustained. Next, they are contemplated as being unworthy of taking up as one’s own (“This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.”) This results in them being discarded from the mind, allowing the practitioner to arrive at consciousness itself (“There remains only consciousness: pure & bright.”)
Discarding the properties from the mind is equivalent to experiencing their “passing away,” and when returning from that you would experience their origination. This aligns with the properties method for awakening suggested in the Riddle Tree discourse.
Once the meditator discards the properties from the mind, the physical sense of the body is relinquished, and as a result physical feeling is abandoned as well. What remains is mental feeling (“And which are the two feelings? Physical & mental.”), experienced through contact at the intellect.
After discarding the properties from the mind, the fourth jhāna is reached: “There remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous.” This is clear because the fourth jhāna is equated with “purity of equanimity” and is a stepping stone to the formless attainments as is the case in the discourse. Therefore the way of the properties corresponds to the method where insight precedes tranquility, since the earlier discernment practice of perceiving the properties as not-self leads to this state of concentration.
Consciousness ←→ Name-&-Form → Craving → … → Suffering
With the obstacle of form absent, this stage provides the necessary platform to drop passion for intellectual intention (mano-sañcetanā) and unravel dependent co-arising altogether.
Now it is possible to visualize the process involved in the way of the properties in more detail:
The practitioner then reaches “consciousness without surface” (viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ) which is independent of name-&-form, outside of the consciousness aggregate, and equivalent to full-awakening:
“‘Consciousness without surface,
luminous all around:
Here water, earth, fire, & wind
have no footing.
Here long & short
coarse & fine
fair & foul
name & form
are all brought to an end.
With the cessation of consciousness
each is here brought to an end.’”
Consciousness ←→ Name-&-Form → Six Sense Media → … → Suffering
Those who are relatively unskilled in tranquility meditation have the option of achieving the concentration required for awakening by focusing on contemplating the body and its corresponding properties. However, this requires the skill to visualize and mentally isolate the body as its constituent parts, which is then understood to be unworthy of ownership, leading to relinquishment, calm, and clarity.
Comparisons and Conclusions
That dependent co-arising can be viewed in three separate ways involving the present moment and multiple lives shows why the Buddha described it as a deep teaching. It might be hard to fathom how such varied frameworks can all point to the same goal. How are we to reconcile the differences between the ways of vision?
We do this by understanding that each approach is valid within its appropriate context—at its relevant level of experience. For instance, analyzing experience in terms of the aggregates is accessible upon reaching “jhānic” levels of concentration, while perceiving the body as its constituent parts with insight is the basis for the framework of properties.
It is important to note that “seeing” the process in action is different from analyzing it theoretically. Experientially understanding how a single link leads to the next in the causal chain through meditation practice is how the entire process is unraveled altogether. So then why focus on theoretical understanding at all? Because there is confusion among practitioners about how to conceptually understand dependent co-arising. As a result, some end up getting tied up in conflicting interpretations, while others ignore the subject altogether thinking it overly complicated or irrelevant. My hope is that by conceptually understanding the three ways of vision, practitioners will be able to focus on the theme that best suits them—sense bases, aggregates, or properties. By doing so they can avoid unnecessary confusion and find clarity in the direction to proceed in the path.
A question that might arise is whether focusing on a specific method means that you can ignore practices recommended in other methods. For example, if you are pursuing the way of the aggregates, can you focus exclusively on mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati) and ignore the contemplation of the unattractive (asubha) which is the focus of the way of the properties? What if you are following the way of the properties—can you ignore breath meditation altogether? Evidence from the Canon suggests that the ways of vision are a means to prioritize your practice on a primary theme, with the other themes kept in hand as tools to be used when necessary:
“ … He should develop (contemplation of) the unattractive so as to abandon lust. He should develop goodwill so as to abandon ill will. He should develop mindfulness of in-&-out breathing so as to cut off distractive thinking. He should develop the perception of inconstancy so as to uproot the conceit, ‘I am.’
Therefore, instead of reducing the number of meditation themes you focus on, the clarity afforded by following a specific way of vision is that when relating to your experience, you can focus on just one of the frameworks: the sense bases, aggregates, or properties. This way, you avoid overcomplicating your practice by unnecessarily combining different frameworks when evaluating your experience.
All ways of vision have aspects in common with each other. Mindfulness immersed in the body (kāyagatāsati) is essential for all three, with the difference lying in the emphasis given to different techniques within its domain. For instance, there seems to be a connection between mindfulness of breathing and the way of the aggregates. Similarly, attending to body parts and properties is emphasized in the way of the properties. Jhāna is required for full awakening with all methods. That said, it seems not to be required for the first stage of awakening for the way of the properties. It is necessary with the way of the aggregates, and it is unclear if it is for the way of the senses.
By acquiring a nuanced understanding of dependent co-arising and how it ties in with the gradual path in this way, practitioners can free up their mental resources and focus on developing what is most relevant for their progress along the path.