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The Incestuous Fabric of Reality

In the Dependent Origination (DO) we have a progressive development of how our perceived reality comes to be. In its stereotypical form we have 12 elements that are connected in exactly the same way, e.g. in SN 12.1:

Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā, saṅ­khā­ra­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ…
Dependent on not-knowing formations, dependent on formations (sense-)consciousness…

The 12 elements being:

  1. not-knowing 2.formations 3.(sense-)consciousness 4.nāmarūpa 5.six-fold base 6.touch/contact 7.feelings 8.thirst/craving 9.grasping/appropriating 10.bhava 11.birth 12.aging-and-death

The uniform linking of the 12 limbs implies a logical connection of exactly the same kind - which surely is a gross simplification. E.g. the intuitive way in which 5./6.sense-perceptions and 7.feelings are connected is different than the connection of 9.grasping and 10.bhava, etc.

Besides the problem of the different logical realms in which the universal drama of the 12 DO plays out, we deal with an unclear process of creation: Usually we either need two distinct elements to create another (woman + man --> child), or one element completely transforms into another (caterpillar --> butterfly). But in the DO we have one element that gives rise to another, and continues to exist - like a mother which alone creates a son.

So nāmarūpa doesn’t disappear after giving rise to the senses. Feelings don’t disappear after giving rise to grasping, etc.

Notable exception is 6.contact that is sometimes defined as a ‘proper’ creation of ‘parents’:

In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. (SN 12.43)
There is this body and external name-and-form: thus this dyad. Dependent on the dyad there is contact. (SN 12.19)

Strangely though the ‘single parents’ and the ‘children’ continue a fruitful interaction and create more offspring:

When the uninstructed worldling is (6) contacted by a (7) feeling born of (1)ignorance-(6)contact, ‘I am’ occurs to him (SN 22.47)

Logically this poses a difficult problem, for it is pretty much an incestuous creation. We encounter similar problems in most cosmogonies with a single creator. Where Hesiod knows at least the creator-couple Gaia and Okeanos other mono-causal or monotheistic religions are in tension with the logical paradox of how a formerly singular being can be responsible for creating something that it is not - how can Jehovah create humans which are maybe partly divine, but also something else?

Again we find a good example in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (BU), e.g. BU 1.2:

In the beginning there was nothing here at all. Death alone covered this completely… Then death made up his mind: “Let me equip myself with an atman.” So he undertook a liturgical recitation, and as he was engaged in liturgical recitation water sprang from him… Then the foam that had gathered on the water solidified and became the earth. Death toiled upon her. When he had become worn out by toil and hot with exertion his heat—his essence—turned into fire. He divided this atman of his into three—one third became the sun and another the wind. He is also breath divided into three…

The semantic similarities between the DO and the BU are described elsewhere. But here I want to point out that there is also a syntactic similarity. The reader is presented in both cases a cosmogony that is pseudo-logical - a mysterious factual line of events, descriptive rather than traceable. And not at all predictable. If we didn’t already know, who would predict that sense-perception should give rise to feelings? (It doesn’t happen with robots for example…)

There is still a lot to clarify, but my personal impression for now is that the DO is shaped by its soteriological function, not as a psycho-scientific description of reality.

[Btw for a logical system that is a bare-bone equivalent to the DO I can recommend George Spencer-Brown ‘The Laws of Form’]

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Do you mean soteriological function?

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it reveals dependent arising to be the key to the unity and coherence of the Buddha’s teaching. When the Buddha declares, “I teach only suffering and the cessation of suffering,”[6] the bond which unites these two terminals of the doctrine as complementary sides of a single, internally consistent system is simply the law of dependent arising.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html

thanks, corrected!

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Good observation. It is more like an engine or computer than like baby creation or butterfly creation.

Logically this poses a difficult problem, for it is pretty much an incestuous creation.

Why ? Does your car or computer function illogically ? For example the fuel is required to start the engine. The engine then produces electricity. This electricity then is required for the car computer who then controls the parameters of the engine, etc. A modern car can not function without electricity at all. The car parts can be described in a sequential manner based on what that particular part depends upon. And yet, they all need to be present and work together for the car to work. The way a living organism functions is the same as a car or computer.

The reader is presented in both cases a cosmogony that is pseudo-logical - a mysterious factual line of events, descriptive rather than traceable. And not at all predictable.

Pseudo-logical ? If feelings would not exist, could such a thing as craving exist ? Most of the links are directly observable through simple logical deduction. The only links that are not directly observable through logical deduction from DO taken alone are the ones dealing with rebirth.

If we didn’t already know, who would predict that sense-perception should give rise to feelings? (It doesn’t happen with robots for example…)

Feeling is dependent on contact, not on sense perception. The reason it does not happen with robots is because there is no contact. We need sense perception + consciousness to produce contact and therefore produce feeling. This is the difference between humans are cars.

A primitive creature with 10 neurons like a worm does have feeling, perception and volition because of the presence of contact. While very complex computers or machines or plants do not poses feeling, perception, volition because of the absence of consciousness (and therefore contact). They are made entirely out of form.

In discussions about the DO we encounter an interesting phenomenon: On the one hand people say that the DO is genius and only an enlightened being like the Buddha could have seen it. On the other people say at the same time that it’s absolutely logical and makes total sense. I don’t think we can have it both ways.

So if I understand correctly, you think that every rather smart introspective person could have come up with most of the DO. I’d say this is historically disproved. In all smart ancient independent cultures, Greek, Roman and Mediterranean philosophies etc. we have no equivalent of it, even though there were loads of very smart people dealing with philosophy and psychology. To say after the Buddhist formulation that it’s clear and logical is, well, a bit too easy.

Even with the Buddhist background a very sensible DO could have been: avijja - tanha - upadana - dukkha.
If that was the DO we would say today that it is totally genius. Or why is it tanha, why not raga? why upadana and not ahamkara?

You bring the example of a car with fuel. Again, I don’t think this is compatible because in your example you have two elements: machine + fuel. Whereas in the DO we have only one leading to another.

Of course we have the four nutriments as another dhamma - and indeed we have alternative DOs connected with the nutriments (e.g. in SN 12.64) but nowhere is it said that while the process of the normal 12-DO is running there is a continuous flow of nutriments to maintain the process. It makes a lot of sense to assume that, but our DO formulas are just too stereotypical and have relatively little variation. We don’t even know if it’s a continuous process (as Ajahn Chah sometimes suggested) or a cosmogony, or both, or spanning three lives, etc.

Just with the jhanas and the ‘noble tenfold path’ we’d like to have more practical explanations - that’s partly why the visuddhimagga is so popular, because it provides (a version of) those missing links.

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On the one hand, a car works perfectly logical. Or for example a steam engine is something that even a kid can understand. But on the other hand, we don’t have cars or steam engines in ancient Rome.

You bring the example of a car with fuel. Again, I don’t think this is compatible because in your example you have two elements: machine + fuel. Whereas in the DO we have only one leading to another.

The thing that is missing from your understanding of DO is that the 5 aggregates exist assembled like that since forever. There is no starting point where one thing lead to another, then it lead to another etc. DO is describing how an already built engine works, just like an already built car works. We have fuel, the engine, electricity, the computer, the sensors etc. From a sequential point of view, electricity depends on the engine, the engine depends on the fuel etc. But as a whole, all parts are required for the car to function so you can say that the engine depends on electricity or on the computer of the car.

DO is describing how the engine parts interact in a sequential manner, just as how electricity sequentially depends on the engine, despite the fact that for the engine to work in the first place you need electricity, computer of the car, etc. to exist in the first place. You need the car parts assembled in that way in the first place to work as a whole.

I understand that you assume that, but it would be nice to see a sutta reference for a no-starting-point of the khandhas. As far as I remember (but I might have forgotten something) the only places that mention a no-starting-point in time is when the Buddha recalls his night of awakening and how he retraced birth by birth and saw no end to it.

The sutta about DO is the most well known from chapter 2 of SN, “Book of causation”. But the chapter is much longer than that sutta. Just after the subchapters dealing with DO, nutriments and elements, we have this:

Chapter IV
15 Anamataggasa˙yutta
Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning
I. The First Subchapter (Grass and Wood)
1 (1) Grass and Wood 651
2 (2) The Earth 652
3 (3) Tears 652
4 (4) Mother’s Milk 653
5 (5) The Mountain 654
6 (6) The Mustard Seed 654
7 (7) Disciples 655
8 (8) The River Ganges 655
9 (9) The Stick 656
10 (10) Person 656
II. The Second Subchapter (Unfortunate)
11 (1) Unfortunate 657
12 (2) Happy 658
13 (3) Thirty Bhikkhus 658
14 (4)–19 (9) Mother, Etc. 659
20 (10) Mount Vepulla 659

DO would indeed not make sense without the aggregates existing like that since forever. And also it is a great fortune that they exist like that since forever and therefore then can exist an escape. There is no benevolent god, no idealism in the way the universe functions. It would be entirely possible for the aggregates to not exist like that since forever and to be no escape from samsara. When Buddha started his quest, I am certain he did not know if there exist and escape or not. It would be very possible to not exist an escape. But thankfully there is.

Thanks, I forgot about this Samyutta! But can you find a passage that states the no-beginning with the khandhas? The repeated passage is

this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings (satta) roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance (avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­na) and fettered by craving (taṇhā­saṃ­yoja­nā­na)

followed by different metaphors. I at least couldn’t find the aggregates there. As far as I can see it states repeatedly that the round of rebirths is endless. Also I don’t see the DO there - avijja & tanha are a proto-DO, but cannot really be taken as to represent the whole 12-DO.

Yes there are a couple of times in those 20 suttas where it is said that the 5 aggregates are assembled like that since forever. And as you too had noticed, it says that about ignorance and craving too. I’ll search to find some explicit passages.

EDIT: I have not even started searching and from the first sutta it is explicitly said that individual beings exist since forever and that implies that every other being has at one point been our mother or father, cause those are the implications of infinity.

If the 5 aggregates would not be assembled like that since forever, then there would be no escape from samsara.

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I’ve finished browsing them. All contain similes about how long the person has experienced suffering and all end with:

“For a long time, bhikkhus, you have experienced the death of a father … the death of a brother … the death of a sister … the death of a son … the death of a daughter … the loss of relatives … the loss of wealth … loss through illness; as you have experienced this, weeping and wailing because of being united with the disagreeable and separated from the agreeable, the stream of tears that you have shed is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this sa˙s›ra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to experience revulsion towards all formations, enough to become dispassionate towards them, enough to be liberated from them.”

It is quite clear that the Buddha is doing his best to explain them how they as an individual being exist since forever. There are things in the teachings that should be inferred. It should be read as a normal book where you need to infere certain things, not in a ultra-literalist way where nothing is inferred at all. Those who don’t do this are slandering the tathagata.

“Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”
(AN 2.25)

In this case there is not even too much inference needed, the discourse is already explained very well. In my opinion it is clear it is referring to samsara in an individual sense and to each individual being existing since forever, not to samsara as a whole existing since forever and craving existing since forever in the samsara as a whole. If that would be the case, there would be no need to use the similes, and the introduction + conclusions of this series of suttas would be different.

This link from between the simile and the conclusion is quite clear:

For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this sa˙s›ra is without discoverable beginning….

Here is one even clearer, SN 56.35

35 (5) A Hundred Spears
“Bhikkhus, suppose there were a man with a life span of a hundred years, who could live a hundred years. Someone would say to him: ‘Come, good man, in the morning they will strike you with a hundred spears; at noon they will strike you with a hundred spears; in the evening they will strike you with a hundred spears. And you, good man, being struck day after day by three hundred spears will have a life span of a hundred years, will live a hundred years; and then, after a hundred years have passed, you will make the breakthrough to the Four Noble Truths, to which you had not broken through earlier.’ “It is fitting, bhikkhus, for a clansman intent on his good to accept the offer. For what reason? Because this samsara is without discoverable beginning; a first point cannot be discerned of blows by spears, blows by swords, blows by axes.
[…]

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[quote=“Maiev, post:12, topic:4746”]
It should be read as a normal book where you need to infere certain things, not in a ultra-literalist way where nothing is inferred at all. [/quote]

The problem is, the Buddha dhamma is precisely not a book but a collection of teachings, transmitted by different individuals and at some point given a final redaction. Hence to me personally it’s very important to establish what is written and what is inferred.

Isn’t it interesting that you had the distinct feeling that you read that the aggregates were there forever, but then couldn’t find the text?

Strange as it is, we’re still in the process to do clear readings of the dhamma, because we easily jump to conclusions, or because we find a definition in one sutta and spread its meaning over all the 1.000s of suttas, or we rely on the readings of other authorities.

Fact is, some dhamma frameworks don’t mix, in spite of plausible connections: e.g. DO and khandhas, which largely overlap semantically anyway: 4.[?] rupa - 7.vedana . [6.? sanna] - 2.sankhara - 3.vinnana.

Also, DO and meditation levels don’t mix: e.g. when people are in the arupas, have they ‘climbed up the DO ladder’ and ‘experience’ 3.vinnana or even 2.sankhara directly? maybe, but it’s written no-where, nor is it refuted anywhere.

Because the DO is similar to pre-Buddhist cosmogonies it is possible that the Buddha used it when he referred to the shortcomings of the brahmin models. The khandhas on the other hand are original Buddhist teaching, so maybe that’s why those contexts are not mixed.

I’m not against inferring at all, I do it wildly myself. But I’d like to establish first what can be actually found in the texts.

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This is similar to the “Buddha never said there is no-self” argument. Such misunderstandings can only arise if we try to read the teachings without doing any inferring at all.

The problems with the positive version of ultra-literalism are well known. For example “Jesus is a door” - is he a wooden door ? a metal door ?

But the problems of negative ultra-literalism are even worse. One can argue out any teaching one does not like based on this literalism. For example Buddha never said we should abstain from crack cocaine. Isn’t it strange that we can’t find a single passage where Buddha tells us to avoid crack cocaine ?

I’m not against inferring at all, I do it wildly myself. But I’d like to establish first what can be actually found in the texts.

I’ve never heard of interpretation problems regarding this particular question. The suttas, as I have shown, are very clear about Buddha position on the problem. Is somebody has a different opinion about the aggregates, then he is free to do so but that is his own personal opinion.

Fact is, some dhamma frameworks don’t mix, in spite of plausible connections: e.g. DO and khandhas, which largely overlap semantically anyway: 4.[?] rupa - 7.vedana . [6.? sanna] - 2.sankhara - 3.vinnana.

The DO, aggregates and sense base models overlap. They are different ways of explaining the same thing from different angles. Same as the 37 aids of enlightenment overlap. There are many suttas where Buddha explains himself that there are different “modes of exposition” that he had used to explain the dhamma. There is also a suttas where a monk asks other monks about how they made “the breakthrough to the dhamma” and all give different answers. The monk then goes to the Buddha who explains how some have made the “breakthrough to the dhamma” by the way of exposition of the aggregates, another by the sense bases, etc.

Also, DO and meditation levels don’t mix: e.g. when people are in the arupas, have they ‘climbed up the DO ladder’ and ‘experience’ 3.vinnana or even 2.sankhara directly? maybe, but it’s written no-where, nor is it refuted anywhere.

Good observation. There also exists a realm where beings do not possess consciousness (and therefore, no feeling, volition, perception) and are made entirely out of form. There also exists a realm where beings do not posses form.

In the case of formless jhanas, the situation is the same as in these realms. That is why beings that get reborn into these strange realms are those who had achieved the formless jhanas. While a particular aggregate is temporarily suppressed, the seeds for it’s re-appearance are there. Similar to how most animals and babies do not have a sense of self. A baby does not have a sense of self, does not have greed or hatred but the seeds for their appearance are there. In order to escape samsara, it is not enough to just temporarily suppress the hidrances or suppress a particular aggregate, otherwise all that would be required would be the formless jhanas.

DO is kept running by 2 things: ignorance and craving. While craving can be absent temporarily, such as in the case of babies, there will still be ignorance. That is why enlightenment is described as “liberation through wisdom”. If ignorance is not “cut at the root, made like a palm stump”, craving will always re-appear.

Old topic, but in case you’re unfamiliar with this sutta:

At Savatthi. "Monks, any brahmans or contemplatives who recollect their manifold past lives all recollect the five clinging-aggregates, or one among them. Which five? When recollecting, ‘I was one with such a form in the past,’ one is recollecting just form. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a feeling in the past,’ one is recollecting just feeling. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a perception in the past,’ one is recollecting just perception. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such mental fabrications in the past,’ one is recollecting just mental fabrications. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a consciousness in the past,’ one is recollecting just consciousness. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.079.than.html

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