Momentariness and Paṭiccasamuppāda in the Early Abhidhamma

Continuing the discussion from History Question: Interpretations of Dependent Arising:

Venerable @Brahmali kindly brought attention to the Abhidhamma analysis of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) in the Theravādin Vibhaṅga. Thank you, Ajahn, for taking the time to respond and look at this issue. Instead of responding in the previous thread, I thought it may be good to start a separate one for this topic. Here are some humble thoughts on my part to continue the discussion. I must make the disclaimer that I am very ignorant of the Abhidhamma system and I do not have much exposure to it in general.

If this is not something the venerable is interested in pursuing further for the time being, that is perfectly reasonable! :pray: It may be of interest or benefit to others.

These are the texts I will refer to here along with the abbreviations I will use:

  1. Vibhaṅga — canonical Theravādin Abhidhamma-Piṭaka — (Vbh)
  2. Dharmaskandha — canonical Sarvāstivādin Abhidhamma-Piṭaka — (Dhs)
  3. Śāriputrābhidharma — canonical Dharmaguptaka Abhidhamma-Piṭaka — (Spa)
  4. Jñānaprasthāna — canonical Sarvāstivādin Abhidhamma-Piṭaka — (Jnp)

To be clear, the main question is:

Does the canonical Abhidhamma lend support to the idea that dependent arising can be interpreted as a momentary sequence occurring many times within one lifetime?

Ven. @Brahmali has made a case that the Vbh can be read without referring to a momentary sequence, but instead as referring to the rebirth process from the perspective of impersonal dhammas, not referring to ‘beings’ and other things deemed ‘conventional’ in the larger Abhidhamma project. Ven. @Sunyo has provided some counterarguments in the previous thread.

First, we must be clear that the Vbh analyzes dependent arising in two ways. One is in the analysis of the “sutta,” that is, the definitions and explanations intended within the early canonical discourses. The other is the analysis in terms of the “Abhidhamma,” that is, using the Abhidhamma method to define and provide exegesis on the 12 links. The first section, which covers the sutta-analysis, is clearly referring about rebirth. Jāti and jarāmaraṇa are defined as the birth, aging, and death of sentient beings. Bhava is defined in two ways: rebirth-bhava (being reborn in a state of existence) and action-bhava (performing intentional actions that lead to a state of existence).

Before moving on to the Abhidhamma-anlysis in the Vbh, I thought it may be helpful to contribute some amateur research I did on other early Abhidhamma collections. To be very concise, Erich Frauwallner, in his classic study of early Abhidhamma literature, looked at the similarities and connections between (1) the Theravāda Vbh, (2) Sarvāstivādin Dhs, and (3) Dharmaguptaka Spa. The latter two can be read in Chinese translation (T1548 — Spa section on dependent arising; and T1537 — Dhs). He concluded that all of these works have a certain common stock of material that would have likely been shared in common before the texts were split by geography and the different schools developed their own elaborations around them.

I recommend having a look at the sections on dependent arising. They are quite similar in many ways to the Vbh analysis. They are a bit more engaging, as both cite suttas and give more explanations and examples of the individual links. The Vbh limits itself to simple analyses of the links individually without citing suttas or giving examples of how these things connect or look like in practice. Generally, the definitions correspond pretty well, and the structure is quite similar. For example, the Vbh defines viññāṇa as the six classes of consciousness, one for each sense. The other systems seem to do the same, but they explain how saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ refers to the karmic effect on consciousness which re-arises in new existences accordingly and continues developing from there. These are just my impressions through rough machine translation and very limited knowledge of Chinese terminology.

As far as I saw — and I did not look in too much detail — these texts do not offer the style of Abhidhamma-analysis that we find in the Vbh. They stayed with the part that corresponds to the Sutta-Analysis, but it had a bit more elaboration. This means that there does not really seem to be any room for a momentary interpretation in the Dhs and Spa. Where we do find a momentary explanation is in the Sarvāstivādin Jnp. This text is also part of the school’s canonical Abhidharma-Piṭaka, but it is more of a cap-stone text that seems to have been compiled later. The Dharmaskandha is an earlier work with a structure that has common roots with the other early Abhidharma treatises.

In Alex Wayman’s Buddhist Dependent Arising you can read a translation of the passage from the Jñānaprasthāna which is clearly sequential within one life. It takes one intentional action, and breaks it up into the ignorance that initiates it (avijjā), the intentions involved (saṅkhārā), the cognizance occurring (viññāṇa) and so on, up to the karma generated (bhava), and the execution of the action which is linked with jāti. Clearly then we have an explicit example of ancient, traditional Buddhist schools providing an exegesis on the 12 links that is a small-scale sequence occurring within this life. What is important to note, as I did in the original post before, is that these texts also offer the traditional interpretation that is about literal rebirth, and they do not replace the rebirth model with the momentary one. They simply supplement the understanding of the links with these more moment-by-moment sequences.

This would mean that it would not be unheard of for a canonical Abhidharma text to provide a sequential, small-scale, one-lifetime analysis of the links in dependent arising. If the Vbh were to do this, we should not be shocked. From there, we can look at what the Vbh says in its Abhidhamma-Analysis:

Personally, I think it is quite clear what the Vbh is doing. It gives examples of wholesome roots giving rise to wholesome cittas, or consciousness mind-states, and it explains how this unfolds in terms of the 12 links. It does the same with unwholesome, neutral, etc. One clear give away of this is that “saṅkhāra” is given in singular:

Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhāro, saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmaṁ, nāmapaccayā chaṭṭhāyatanaṁ

With ignorance as condition, there is a volition. With the volition as condition, consciousness. with consciousness as condition, name (mental aspects). With mental aspects as condition, the sixth sense domain (the mind).

This is at the very beginning of the analysis. It then goes on to give a series of examples and detailed variations. We can look at just a few to get a pretty clear idea. There is the section on “Akusala-citta,” or “unwholesome mind-states.” Keeping in mind that cittas in the Abhidhamma are short-lasting mind states occurring temporarily.

Katame dhammā akusalā?
Yasmiṁ samaye akusalaṁ cittaṁ uppannaṁ hoti somanassasahagataṁ diṭṭhigatasampayuttaṁ rūpārammaṇaṁ vā saddārammaṇaṁ vā gandhārammaṇaṁ vā rasārammaṇaṁ vā phoṭṭhabbārammaṇaṁ vā dhammārammaṇaṁ vā yaṁ yaṁ vā panārabbha, tasmiṁ samaye avijjāpaccayā saṅkhāro, saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmaṁ, nāmapaccayā chaṭṭhāyatanaṁ, chaṭṭhāyatanapaccayā phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā, taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṁ, upādānapaccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti, jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ.
Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

What are unwholesome dhammas?
On the occassion when there has arisen an unwholesome mind-state(citta) together with mental happiness(somanassa) together with [wrong] view, based on a visible form, or a sound, or a smell, or a taste, or a touch, or a thought, or whatever object as support, at that time there is a volition dependent on ignorance, consciousness dependent on the volition, mental aspects dependent on consciousness, the sixth-sense-domain dependent on the mental aspects, contact dependent on the sixth-sense-domain, feeling dependent on contact, craving dependent on feeling, grasping dependent on craving, existence dependent on grasping, birth dependent on existence, and decay-and-death dependent on birth. That is how this entire mass of suffering arises.

Tattha katamā avijjā? Yaṁ aññāṇaṁ adassanaṁ …pe… avijjālaṅgī moho akusalamūlaṁ— ayaṁ vuccati “avijjā”. Tattha katamo avijjāpaccayā saṅkhāro? Yā cetanā sañcetanā sañcetayitattaṁ— ayaṁ vuccati “avijjāpaccayā saṅkhāro”. Tattha katamaṁ saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ? Yaṁ cittaṁ mano mānasaṁ hadayaṁ paṇḍaraṁ mano manāyatanaṁ manindriyaṁ viññāṇaṁ viññāṇakkhandho tajjāmanoviññāṇadhātu— idaṁ vuccati “saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ”.

What is the ignorance there? That unknowing, not seeing … barrier of ignorance, the unwholesome root of delusion. That is called “ignorance”
What is the “dependent on ignorance, there is a volition” there? That which is intention, intentionality, willing, that is called “dependent on ignorance, there is a volition.”
What is the “dependent on volition, consciousness” there? That mind-state (citta), mind (mano), mentality, heart, cognizing, the mind, the mind-domain, the mind-faculty, consciousness, the heap of consciousness, the element of mind consciousness arising from that—that is called “dependent on a volition, there is consciousness.”

I will stop there for now. The chain continues on like this, saying that the contact is mental, the feeling is mental, etc. It seems to me that this is describing something relatively similar to the Jnp, but going into more detail. It describes the arising of purely mental states with the 12 links, but it also seems to go on to give examples where the body is involved as well. As I said, one of the give-aways for me is the emphasis on how this occurs with “cittas” that are kusala/akusala/avyākatā, how saṅkhārā is changed to singular, alongside the clear emphasis on the mind.

I believe the sections that add in rūpa and define it would be including, say, acting out on an intention / volition with the body or speech.

I believe that in some ways we can also tie this back into the Dhs and Spa, which seem to refer to karmic-resultant consciousnesses that arise due to volitions in this life, and how that process carries on after death where consciousness re-arises according to one’s kamma and continues in a stream of wholesome or unwholesome shaped by those choices. I do not feel comfortable providing translations of these passages, because I do not read enough Chinese and I would need to rely on computer translations. But this is a potential thread of investigation here if anyone is willing and able to look more into how the other early Abhidharma texts treat the links of saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. The difference I saw was, as I mentioned before, that they did not give detailed analyses of the links occurring all in one life, but simply gave examples of how certain links apply in this life. I have seen similar analyses in the Vsm discussion of dependent arising and consciousness.

It could be useful to know also: What does the Theravādin commentary say about these passages?

That’s all for now. Just moving the thread over and giving a response to the venerable. This is open to feedback, more information, or other ideas :slight_smile:


Not a complete answer, but here is a summary from Ven Anandajoti’s site:

Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhāro,
With ignorance as condition there is a (volitional) process,
Footnote: The comm. explains that, unlike in the discourse teaching, here we are only dealing with single mind moments, so only a single (volitional) process is mentioned.

See also Ven Analyo’s comments at the beginning of Lecture 4 (12 May) on Nibbana: The Mind Stilled:
Starting at about 2:00 minutes, there is a discussion about the diagram at the beginning of the Transcript, which suggests that DO is not necessarily linear.

Starting about 7:30 minutes, there is an illustration of time vs timelessness in DO, using Ven Analayo’s cup and ruler (so you need to watch the video, not just listen to the audio). He points out that the later links (contact, feeling, craving, clinging, etc…) can be interpreted as a temporal sequence, but the early parts are hard to interpret temporally.

Ven Analayo points out that Theravada and other sects had both a three-lives and a one-mind-moment interpretation co-existing in their texts (including the Vibanga commentary example we are discussing here - he also has some comments about other schools). He also relates to the Vedic sequence, as discussed by Jurewicz and others.

According to the Sammohavinodani that section is talking about momentary arising in one moment of conciousness. You can find the Sammohavinodani online.

Thanks so much for this analysis! Saṅkhāra occurring in the singular is an important clue, as is the use of citta, presumably in the Abhidhamma sense of mind moment. The commentary seems to support your view. Here is the Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the commentary’s first paragraph relating to the Abhidhamma method:

The Master, who has unobstructed knowledge regarding all states, has thus shown in the Suttanta Division by way of plurality of consciousness the structure of conditions freed from knots and tangles, as though spreading out the great earth and as though extending space; and now, because this structure of conditions exists |200| not only in a plurality of consciousnesses but also in a single consciousness, he said avijjäpaccayä sahkhäro (“with ignorance as condition, a formation [arises J”) and so on, thus setting forth the schedule in order to teach, as to its various aspects, the structure of conditions of a single conscious moment by means of the Abhidhamma Division.

This is an important corrective to what I suggested in the other thread. However, important questions remain. First, is this really about DO in the sutta sense, or is it about conditionality in a broader sense? The Chaṭṭasaṅgāyana Tipiṭaka (the official Burmese version) has the heading Paṭiccasamuppāda-vibhaṅga for the relevant chapter, but other versions (PTS and Thai) have Paccayäkära-vibhaṅga, “Analysis of the structure of conditions”. My immediate guess is that the latter is more likely to be original, simply because it is less intuitive. If this is correct, then the Abhidhamma Analysis may be about using the structure of DO to elucidate a different area, and should not be seen as an alternative understanding of DO. This would mean that the modern tendency to see DO as a moment to moment phenomenon is still a recent development.

Inexpert personal opinion.

I think in order to interpret any scripture correctly, it is important to consider the desana naya. It’s like someone trying to borrow my short notes for the exams. I recommend consulting an Abhidhamma teacher.

In the twelve link expositions of the suttas Paccayäkära of certain dhammas are expressed considering, agati(coming here) and gati(going from here). coming here, especially interms avijja (avijja mulika vasena) and going from here, especially interms of tanha(tanha mulika vasena). Hence the so called three lives model( there is more to it than that, such as dvimula, tisandhi, catusankhepa etc).

In the shared Abhidhamma quotes, Paccayäkära of certain dhammas are expressed considering a single cittuppada.

I think reading Nanavira’s take on the subject could be useful as I find it particularly refreshing and useful :

Yes, as well as Ven Nanamoli’s (O Moore) writings posted recently to help understand a non-sequential interpretation.