Nanamoli Thera on dependent arising

"According to Ven Nanamoli, regarding dependent arising, «To the question: “What are these sets of terms intended to describe?”

we may answer tentatively that they are intended to describe experience of any possible kind where ignorance (that is lack of personal realization of the Truths) is present. »

“The Buddha’s purpose is to describe enough of the world to be able to show how suffering can be ended, not to produce full and detailed elaborations, which would be endless and arrive nowhere.”

For him, one can equalise suffering and conceit “I am”, nibbana is the cessation of asmimāna (AN 9:1O one who perceives non-self eradicates the conceit ‘I am,’ [which is] nibbāna here and now.”) Since Suttas define also nibbana as the cessation of bhava (… I know this, I see this: ‘Nibbāna is the cessation of bhava.’” (bhavanirodho nibbānaṃ) SN 12: 68) Ven Nanamoli emphasis the necessity to translate bhava as being:

I argue, to translate (even to interpret to oneself) bhava by ‘becoming’ is an opiate that leaves the illusion of ‘being’ untreated.

According to Ven Nanamoli dependent arising «is not a logical proposition, nor is it a temporal cause-result chain. Such an approach makes an understanding of it impossible.»

As I understand him, he sees dependent arising as a kind of mirror where one can see one’s own ignorance, namely that what was previously taken for granted: one’s own being ( “I am” ) as impermanent, suffering, and dependently arisen upon ignorance. When paticcasamuppada is seen as a process, immediate dependence of one’s own being on ignorance disappears from the vision, so he says: “Such an approach makes an understanding of it impossible”.

As to details he suggests that the Buddha, by the way, has solved seemingly unsolvable philosophical problem:

«But this particular description (dependent arising) is aimed at including everything.

And here a difficulty arises. A description must be made in terms of something other than what it describes, or it is not a description. It has to reproduce in other material certain structures that are in what it describes. This fact makes it impossible for a description to be a description and complete at the same time. How is the D/O complete, then? Or is it not a description after all?
It is in fact both, but it attains that in a rather peculiar way. (…)

The right way of treating this fact is to take the D/O, not as an individual description, but as an integrated set of descriptions. Each member provides in fact a set of terms to describe the rest of the world. Together they cover the whole subjective/objective, positive/negative world.»

According to Ven Nanamoli the relationship between these descriptive items is that of sine qua non.

So for example “with feeling as a condition craving” is not description of temporal process where something is first felt, and than it leads to craving -at least as far as dependent arising goes- but that of dependence, structurally craving can arise only when feeling is present, without feeling there is no possibility of craving to arise. Such vision, unlike cause and effect interpretation makes possible to see now and here one’s own death as impermanent and dependently arisen: as unborn, I cannot die, and to see the body as “this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” should undermine one’s own certainty of being born.

In other words, Ven Nanamoli regards the death as merely certain event in the field of consciousness, which can be observed objectively, but not experienced subjectively. More or less in the same way as I cannot imagine my own death, however well I exercise my imagination, observing funeral, “my own” dead body and so on, I will always survive as the observer. So he says using so called indirect communication:

In a syllogism (1. All men are mortal. 2. Socrates is a man. 3.Therefore Socrates is mortal), the generalization (all men are mortal) must have been arrived at by induction. No inductive process is ever absolutely certain. There is always the leap, the assumption, of generalizing and therefore one of the premises of a syllogism must have an element of uncertainty. So it cannot prove anything with certainty.

A syllogism is therefore a signpost pointing where to look for direct experience, but can inherently never give information that is 100% certain. But a syllogism (on metaphysical subjects) can also point to what can, inherently, never be experienced; then it is an anomaly.

In other place he says: All the questions asked about death are wrongly put.

All informations provided here can be found in the Thinker’s Notebook, perhaps except an idea of sine qua non relationship between the items of dependent arising, which as far as I remember can be found somewhere in his translation of the Neti."

Are you talking about Nanamoli from the Hillside Hermitage?

No, this is the elder, British Ven. Nanamoli.

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The dependent origination, or structure of conditions, appears as a flexible formula with the intention of describing the ordinary human situation of a man in his world (or indeed any conscious event where ignorance and craving have not entirely ceased). That situation is always complex, since it is implicit that consciousness with no object, or being ( bhava— becoming, or however rendered) without consciousness (of it), is impossible except as an artificial abstraction. The dependent origination, being designed to portray the essentials of that situation in the limited dimensions of words and using only elements recognizable in experience, is not a logical proposition (Descartes’ cogito is not a logical proposition). Nor is it a temporal cause-and-effect chain: each member has to be examined as to its nature in order to determine what its relations to the others are (e.g. whether successive in time or conascent, positive or negative, etc., etc.). A purely cause-and-effect chain would not represent the pattern of a situation that is always complex, always subjective-objective, static-dynamic, positive-negative, and so on. Again, there is no evidence of any historical development in the various forms given within the limit of the Sutta Piþaka (leaving aside the Paþisambhidámagga), and historical treatment within that particular limit is likely to mislead, if it is hypothesis with no foundation.

Parallels with European thought have been avoided in this translation. But perhaps an exception can be made here, with due caution, in the case of Descartes. The revolution in European thought started by his formula cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is not yet ended. Now, it will perhaps not escape notice that the two elements, “I think” and “I am,” in what is not a logical proposition parallel to some extent the two members of the dependent origination, consciousness and being. In other words, consciousness activated by craving and clinging as the dynamic factory, guided and blinkered by ignorance (“I think” or “consciousness with the conceit ‘I am’”), conditions being (“therefore I am”) in a complex relationship with other factors relating subject and object (not accounted for by Descartes). The parallel should not be pushed too far. In fact it is only introduced because in Europe the dependent origination seems to be very largely misunderstood with many strange interpretations placed upon it, and because the cogito does seem to offer some sort of reasonable approach.

Nanamoli Thera

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The following verbal pattern will reflect something of this sort:

If we take individualization (uppāda) as the characteristics of being (bhava) displayed in the formula of Dependent Origination (paṭicca-samuppāda), then in the counter formula (paṭicca-nirodha) we have absence of structure (nirodha), such structure (rodha) appearing in the form of construction (anurodha), obstruction (paṭivirodha), and destruction (virodha).

In the Round (i.e., Paṭicca-samuppāda) as arising, ignorance must function, on the pre-logical level as forgetting and as infinite transcendence, and on the logical level as forgetting and the presence of the Assumption (i.e., the impersonal God/ Godlessness or the personal Absolutism/Relativism).

In the pre-logical, ignorance is omnipresent, i.e., as transcendence and as change (—forgetting); but in the logical, it can be pushed aside partly, because the possibility of right view appearing partially and intellectually and patchily, though what the realization of cessation of craving is, is a cataclysm.

Nanamoli Thera

It is interesting that he classified forgetting as an aspect of ignorance, while it should be obvious, for example from MN 49, usually this aspect of ignorance isn’t emphasised by contemporary teachers.