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On dependent origination, grasping, and developmental psychology

Let’s look at a subtle aspect of dependent origination: how it encapsulates a nascent theory of developmental psychology.

We’re going to be focusing on two main suttas: DN 15 Mahānidāna “The Great Discourse on Causation”, and MN 38 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya “The Longer Discourse on the Ending of Craving”. In addition, we’ll glance at the standard analysis of the 12 factors found in SN 12.2 Vibhaṅga.

These texts introduce a more detailed and organic depiction of dependent origination, especially the sequence around birth, compared to the more abstract presentation commonly found.

MN 38 describes the process of conception in terms borrowed from the brahmins. Conception here is gabbhassāvakkanti, where avakkanti indicates the “conception” of the baby. Avakkanti, alternatively spelled okkanti, is one of the stock synonyms for jāti i.e. “rebirth” in SN 12.2.

Conception is held to take place with three factors, two of which are physical—sexual intercourse and the woman being in her fertile cycle—as well as the presence of the somewhat mysterious gandhabba. This is an interesting usage here, but I’ll pass over it for now. In the Buddhist traditions it is always explained as equivalent to “consciousness”, i.e. viññāṇa.

The text then speaks of the pain endured by the mother as she bears her child for nine or ten months, followed by the pain of giving birth, all of which is very risky. The word for “giving birth” is vijāti.

DN 15 describes the same process in a slightly different way. There it speaks of consciousness being conceived (again okkanti) in the mother’s womb, and the “coagulation” of name and form. I think the unusual word samuccissatha arises from the ancient view that the embryo is formed from the “coagulation” of the semen and the menstrual blood. Lacking knowledge of sperm and ovum, this isn’t too inaccurate a description.

Again the risks of pregnancy are emphasized, as DN 15 speaks of the possibility of a miscarriage (vokkamati) after conception. Were this to take place there would be no birth, here described as abhinibbatti, which is another of the stock synonyms for rebirth in SN 12.2. The arrival into “this state of existence” (itthatta) uses the same term commonly applied to the arahant, who will not be reborn into “this state of existence”.

So in these different accounts, we see a number of shared features. Linguistically, there is a common vocabulary. That’s hardly unusual, since they are talking about the same thing. What is more significant is the emphasis on the mother’s burden, and the dangers of the process of childbirth. Obviously this was, and remains, a sad reality for women today.

The dangers do not stop at birth, for DN 15 goes on to say that it is also possible that the boy (kumāra) or girl (kumārikā) might die (vocchijjati, “be cut off”) while still young (dahara), before growing up (vuddhiṁ virūḷhiṁ vepullaṁ āpajjati). In both cases—miscarriage and death of an infant—it says that “name and form” will not continue, i.e. the cycle of dependent origination is cut off there.

This shows us that the full process of dependent origination need not be complete in a single life. In the case of one who dies too young, the process is cut short. In such a case, since the infant is too young to have made any significant kamma in this life, their rebirth will be determined by their kamma from past lives.

But what happens if the baby survives pregnancy and infancy? This is taken up in MN 38. The boy—while DN 15 speaks of boys and girls, in MN 38 only boys are mentioned—grows up and his sense faculties mature. The word for “growing up” (vuddhi) is applied to the “boy” here just as it was applied to “name and form” in DN 15: obviously they are talking about the same thing.

What’s interesting is that at this point, the child plays “childish games” with toys, including such things as toy carts and toy boys. The thing about such games is that they’re not real. If you shoot a toy bow, you don’t harm anyone. A child playing is not making kamma in the same way that an adult does when they use the real thing. So at this point the process is still incomplete.

The boy then grows further, and their sense faculties mature further, until they enjoy themselves with the five kinds of sensual stimulation. The text isn’t clear about the exact time frame here, but clearly the individual is becoming an adult. The text is marking out a couple of signposts in the developmental process. In any case, now their six senses (saḷāyatana) are mature. This is the factor that arises after “name and form” in dependent origination.

Next they are said to experience sensual stimulation through these senses, starting with sight. This is “contact” (phassa), which arises after the six senses. Experiencing “contact” with sensual stimuli gives rise to pleasant and unpleasant feelings (vedanā) which, being unmindful, they desire and relish, which is equivalent to craving (taṇhā). This then gives rise to “grasping” (upādāna) and the rest of dependent origination follows as normal.

(In MN 38 “grasping” is the point at which the “normal” dependent origination takes over. It may be just a coincidence, but in DN 15, too, the sequence is also presented in an unusual way until grasping. I’m not sure if this is significant.)

What is significant, however, is the way the definition of grasping changes. Let’s see an overview of the factors leading up to grasping from SN 12.2:

  • And what are the six sense fields? The sense fields of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
  • And what is contact? … Contact through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
  • And what is feeling? … Feeling born of contact through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
  • And what is craving? … Craving for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts.
  • And what is grasping? … Grasping at sensual pleasures, views, precepts and observances, and theories of a self.

One of these things is not like the other ones! from the time of birth, the factors are all expressed in terms of the six senses. This corresponds to the infant’s growth and gradual capacity to function. Crucially, a child will crave food or comfort or attention. This is a fundamental, even primal instinct, shared in common with animals. It’s very basic.

What is not so basic is having an attachment to views. Kids cry because they don’t get what they want. Adults argue because they have different political opinions. A child has to gradually learn to think, to create concepts, to grasp abstraction, and to form and maintain their own “views” of the world. Adults need this in order to function.

Furthermore, an adult adopts certain rules, moral precepts, religious observances, and the like. They go to church, recite sacred words, or in some way preform actions that align their lives with their own sense of a higher meaning. Even atheists find their own way to do something similar. A child has not yet developed a “world view” and cannot meaningfully do these things. Their parents might take them to the temple, but they have no inner grasp of the meaning of what is going on.

An adult, in addition, develops some kind of theory of self. Note that this is not what the animal psychologists mean when they debate whether a parrot has a theory of mind. This is a much more basic intuitive sense of self-awareness, which in Buddhism would be attasaññā, a “perception of self”. An animal or a small child can have an idea of themselves, they can recognize themselves in a mirror, and perform acts that show they have a coherent sense of themselves lasting through time and even being responsible for actions. But they can’t debate with each other on the merits of behaviorist or functionalist theories of self, or appreciate the different ways the “self” is used in Buddhism and in Jungian therapy. They don’t form articulated conceptions of the self. Adults do, and we can reflect on and discuss these things.

So the step from “craving” (taṇhā) to “grasping” (upādāna) is more than a mere intensification and diversification of craving. It is what happens to craving when it grows up. An adult continues and refines their desire for sensual stimulation. In some ways, their need for gratification is curbed and moderated—we no longer cry when we’re hungry—in other ways it is intensified or even corrupted by cruelty and immoderation. This is implied by the idea of “grasping at sensual pleasures”, no longer merely reacting to basic instincts, but building a life around gratification.

Sensual gratification, however, becomes increasingly bound up with ideas and a sense of self identity. A baby just knows whether they like a food or not; an adult is snobby because they like “better” things than someone else. This conceptual shaping of the world is necessary because an adult is making adult choices: choices to buy this brand of cereal or that; choices of voting for a political candidate who promises us a tax break, or one who promises to treat the vulnerable with decency.

Views and theories shape the way we see the world and the way we act in it. We have to have views; our minds don’t work without them. In spiritual circles it’s common to hear people saying that we shouldn’t have views. Of course that would be a view! What the “no-view” people are really saying is: bow to my views.

Since views affect almost everything we do, we should be careful about the views we have. Views are sticky; they are long-term, abstract structures in the mind. Thoughts come and go, intentions rise and pass, but views, once established, change with glacial slowness.

It is because it this persistent quality of views that they shape, not just this act or that, not just this choice or another, but the whole range of choices that we make through our lives. They direct our kammic choices in a certain flow, like a river directing countless drops of water.

And this persistence and shape of views is what creates the form of our next life, our bhava, the rebirth into a new state. Rebirth is typically not formed by some random act disconnected with one’s character, views, and way of life; it is the outcome of the acts that define your life and who you are.

In Buddhism, as in the law, it is normally understood that full moral responsibility is the domain of adulthood. We don’t treat children or animals as morally responsible agents in the same way. We treat children so that they can learn how to behave, while we treat adults under the assumption that they should have learned. Obviously it is not a black and white area. Children gradually learn a sense of moral responsibility, and within the animal realm, especially with the more intelligent animals, there is a clear sense of morality, of shame or kindness. But full moral responsibility takes an awareness of why one acts and what the consequences are. So while we may hold children or animals accountable for being naughty, we don’t treat them the same way we would an adult.

And in dependent origination, the full cycle is not regenerated until the individual is mature enough to hold views and shape their actions accordingly. We have already seen that the process is not always complete even after birth, as a baby or young infant might die before being able to act as an agent. As a child grows up, they gradually learn to be responsible agents, and the moral and kammic weight of their actions grows accordingly.

This explains why the full weight of kamma takes effect in the human realm. It’s not that animals can’t do good or bad deeds, but generally speaking they are not responsible moral agents in the same way as an adult human.

It takes time and effort to learn how to be a moral agent. If that process is incomplete, the effects of choices in this life will be weak, and the effects of choices in past lives will usually predominate. From the perspective of samsara as a whole, the tragedy of a young death is not just the loss of a life, but the loss of a rare and precious opportunity to learn and grow to create good kamma, and to understand what life is and what it means. Once departed, who knows when that chance will come by again.

We are those creatures, those babies, those little animals, and we have been fortunate enough to make it this far. We get to choose how our view of the world is shaped, and to make our own choices that will shape our lives in the future, or take us beyond this altogether.

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So here’s a question:

If tendencies that produce kammic results (craving, grasping, views, etc etc) is the province of morally responsible agents (i.e normative human adults), how do sentient beings who are percieved as lacking moral agency ( animals, humans with severe mental difficulties, etc) generate enough kamma vipaka, either kusala or akusala, to progress/regress beyond their current birth? Or are they stuck in that realm/birth until the kamma that landed them there burns off?

I just started studying these subjects, so I am coming with tons of questions :).

Thank you for all you do, Bhante!

I would like to specify further the conditions for becoming an ‘agent’. A ‘view’ is obviously something that works in the background and guides actions. Why is it wrong to attribute to a bird the views of “building a nest = good”, “offspring eaten by a cat = bad”? Because the bird can’t go meta and report such a view explicitly? But it does so through patterns of repeaed activity!

And how is responsibility lacking in a child? Certainly little children are not ‘angels’. They are fully capable to lie, steal, hurt their baby sibling when nobody’s watching out of ‘jealousy’, etc.

I don’t think even adults can truly express ‘why they act’. Sure, we can superimpose reasons and motivations, but if our responsibility depended on the accuracy of these statements then there would be no real way to judge on an objective basis.

If we move, however, from an ethical to a legal framework, I feel it gets clearer. Then the question becomes “Did they have the possibility to act differently?” Without going much into details I would therefore propose that the full weight of kamma would derive not from moral agency but from the degrees of freedom an adult has developed and the choises (‘actions’) in this space of relative freedom. Is that compatible with what you have sketched out?

Nor are they devils. They’re children, they know not what they do.

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A two year old hits their sibling when nobody’s watching - that of course because of the previously experienced punishment after doing it in sight. They don’t have to ‘know’ what they’re doing (what does that mean anyway?). It must be sufficient that they behave as if they do.

There’s a difference between ‘I know my parents don’t like it if I do this’ and ‘I know this is wrong’. With little kids they’re trying to please their parents more than that they realise any wider moral context. The intentions behind a child’s actions are very different from a morally mature person’s.

The idea of a ‘morally mature person’ as such is quite simplistic. Good enough for a simplistic idea of Dependent Orignation, but not for a deeper investigation. What is that ‘maturity’ based on - the insight into a cosmic right and wrong? the application of a reciprocal golden rule? an internalized socially sanctioned ethics? These would imply different psychologies which would need different mappings onto DO.

I would say it’s even more primal than that. Just a loud screaming voice is enough to make a child cry. When I was around 4 years old, I’d constantly spin around on office chairs, until my angry aunt blasted me with her voice, I still remember it to this day.

Really no different than surprising a cat unexpectedly and seeing it bolt out in fear.

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Fantastic essay, Bhante! It’s illuminating to tease out and shine light on the intricacies of the Buddha’s teaching in SN 12.2 that could be easily passed over.

I might also add that we know a great deal about how human brain development actually takes place, from the brain stem forward. The limbic system is first online and the pre-frontal cortex is last, not fully maturing until about ages 18 to 26.

The pre-frontal cortex " has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes). The frontal cortex supports concrete rule learning, while more anterior regions along the rostro-caudal axis of the frontal cortex support rule learning at higher levels of abstraction."
(Quoted from Richard Hill)

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a wonderful essay, Bhante. :pray: Full of interesting points to reflect, in a space without enough explanations inside the teachings neither the world.

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For this passage in MN 38:

Mendicants, when three things come together an embryo is conceived. In a case where the mother and father come together, but the mother is not in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the spirit being reborn is not present, the embryo is not conceived. In a case where the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, but the spirit being reborn is not present, the embryo is not conceived. But when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the spirit being reborn is present—an embryo is conceived.

There is something of a parallel to this in the later Garbhavakranti Sutra 入胎經 (T 317). The title is usually rendered as the Sutra on Entering the Womb. It was originally associated with the Mulasarvastivadins. It’s addressed to the monk Nanda, and goes over the topics of conception, gestation, and birth. It likewise uses the concept of the gandharva. As with MN 38, it starts out with the conditions by which an embryo is not conceived.

It seems like some of these texts are almost proto-scientific, trying to probe the origins of life. The Mahavibhasa also goes into this in its section on mindfulness of breathing. It explains why the embryo does not breathe, despite there being the condition of coarse mental activity that is the basis for breathing. An implicit parallel is drawn between the non-breathing of the embryo and a meditator in the Fourth Dhyana (or above). Naturally, the physical and mental conditions of the two are different.

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Okay, right, so that tracks. Growth is complex!

Interesting! I believe there’s also something found in the Saddharmasmritupasthana Sutra, also of the Mula-sarv. years ago I read a summary of it, but never found the exact passage.

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Take the suttas on the dog-duty and ox-duty ascetic. Their practice in dog and ox behavior leads to rebirth among dogs and oxes. However, the wrong view that the practice will lead to godhood will lead to rebirth in the animal kingdom or in hell.

Going by MN 57, maybe a bird is practicing a bird’s ethics, mentality and behavior, fully and uninterruptedly. But since birds aren’t able to hold any complex moral theories, it’s extremely hard for them to generate kamma to take them up or down the rung of realms.

Perhaps view acts like a force multiplier for intention. It seems clear to me that children and animals are capable of generating both skillful and unskillful intentions and actions, but it doesn’t seem to be anchored in any particular ‘theory of how reality works’.

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Metta filled greeting,

My understanding from observation and ECE:
Children have a sense of morality if taught by their parents by about age seven. Children as young as years old are known to have empathy for other children and animals.

This sense of morality and empathy can be developed or abandoned depending on further learning and conditions. Views reinforce wholesome or unwholesome behaviors. Children can have views at an early age. Such as views about good and bad.

So I believe that volitional formation (sankhara) can come into the life stream in childhood around age six or seven. Some children are precocious.

I meant to say four years old for showing empathy.

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I once heard a story from a venerable monk on Sakka. I don’t wish to murder his rather long name with my clumsy memory.
Sakka favors a mistress in heaven. She is, tho, quite heedless in pleasure. Upon her death, Sakka saw she gonna be as a seagull(?). In wish for her back to heaven quickly, Sakka told her to eat only dead fish. If she can uphold this one precept, she would come back to heaven after being a seabird.
This seabird somehow remembered this & never killed a prey.
She got back to heaven before Sakka finishes his day(or alike).
Rather comforting story for pets owners.

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This diagram may adds more details

When I first heard the DN15 detour through assessing I was astounded. It was worth listening to again and again. And because of exactly that sequence, I’d like to memorize DN15 one day. But before that, I’m trying to memorize SN12.23 because that’s all that might fit into my sodden brain.

I understood this novel sequence through assessing as a key elaboration of “relishing is the root of suffering” with laity as the intended audience. For monks, that elaboration would be redundant since one gives that all up to be a monk. However, for a layperson, that elaboration is crucial to understanding the Four Noble Truths. In particular, it describes the journey from the truth of suffering to the truth of the origin of suffering. The sequence appears on the return recitation up from contact, not in the initial retrograde sequence from old age and death. The sequence therefore startles, which makes it memorable.

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Views are the past grasping at the future.

DN1:3.71.12: Now, when those ascetics and brahmins theorize about the past and the future on these sixty-two grounds, all of them experience this by repeated contact through the six fields of contact. Their feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.

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