(from the original Dhamma article Vedanā in Paṭiccasamuppāda, Vipassana Newsletter, Vipassana Research Institute)
Paṭiccasamuppāda, or the Law of Dependent Origination, is fundamental to the teaching of the Buddha. Emphasizing its importance, the Buddha said:
Yo paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passati,
so dhammaṃ passati;
Yo dhammaṃ passati,
so paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passati.1
One who sees the paṭiccasamuppāda sees the Dhamma.
One who sees the Dhamma sees the paṭiccasamuppāda.
Paṭiccasamuppāda explains that saṃsāra, the process of repeated existences, is perpetuated by a chain of interconnected links of cause and effect; it also reveals the method of breaking this chain and putting an end to the process. The Buddha said:
The man with craving as his companion has been flowing in the stream of repeated existences from time immemorial. He comes into being, experiences various types of miseries, dies again and again, and does not put an end to this unbroken process of becoming.
This is saṃsāra, the world of suffering, as explained by the Buddha. He further said:
Etaṃ ādīnavaṃ ñatvā,
taṇhaṃ dukkhassa sambhavaṃ;
sato bhikkhu paribbaje.3
Rightly understanding the perils of this process,
Fully realizing craving as its cause,
Becoming free from craving and attachment,
One should mindfully lead the life of detachment.
Such an approach, he said, will have great benefit-
nibbānaṃ iti vuccati.4
Pleasure is the binding force in the world.
Rolling thought processes are its ever-changing base.
With the complete eradication of craving,
The state called nibbāna is attained.
These statements made by the Buddha describe the nature of saṃsāra, the state of suffering, and the nature of nibbāna, the state of final emancipation. But how can detachment be developed, and craving eradicated?
This is the practical aspect of Dhamma discovered by Siddhattha Gotama through practice of Vipassana, the realization that made him a Buddha. Out of infinite compassion, he shared this practical knowledge of liberation through the teaching of paṭiccasamuppāda.
According to this law of nature, twelve links form the wheel of becoming (bhava-cakka). They are:
- avijjā (ignorance)
- saṇkhāra (volitional activities)
- viññāṇa (consciousness)
- nāma-rūpa (mind and matter)
- saḷāyatana (six sense doors)
- phassa (contact)
- vedanā (sensation)
- taṇhā (craving)
- upādāna (clinging)
- bhava (becoming)
- jāti (birth)
- jarā-maraṇa (decay and death)
dependent on saṇkhāra arises viññāṇa;
dependent on viññāṇa arise nāma-rūpa;
dependent on nāma-rūpa arise saḷāyatana;
dependent on saḷāyatana arises phassa;
dependent on phassa arises vedanā;
dependent on vedanā arises taṇhā;
dependent on taṇhā arises upādāna.
Thus, this vicious circle of misery rolls on. In other words, the origin of each link depends upon the preceding one. As long as this chain of twelve causal relations operates, the wheel of becoming (bhava-cakka) keeps turning, bringing nothing but suffering. This process of cause and effect is called anuloma-paṭiccasamuppāda (direct Law of Dependent Origination).
Every link of anuloma results in dukkha, suffering, as a result of avijjā, which is at the base of every link. Thus, the process of anuloma clarifies the first two Noble Truths: dukkha-sacca, suffering, and samudaya-sacca, its origination and multiplication.
Our task is to emerge from the bhava-cakka of dukkha - through the practice of Vipassana meditation.
Explaining how to do so, the Buddha said that when any one of the links of the chain is broken, the wheel of becoming comes to an end, resulting in the cessation of suffering. This is called paṭiloma-paṭiccasamuppāda (the Law of Dependent Origination in reverse order) which clarifies the third and fourth Noble Truths, nirodha-sacca the cessation of suffering and nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā-sacca, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
How can that be achieved? At which link can the chain be broken? Through deep insight, the Buddha discovered that the crucial link is vedanā. In the anuloma-paṭiccasamuppāda, he says 'Vedanā-paccayā-taṇhā'.
Vedanā is the cause of taṇhā, which gives rise to dukkha. In order to remove the cause of dukkha or taṇhā, one must not allow vedanā to give rise to taṇhā; in other words, one must practice Vipassana meditation at this crucial juncture so that avijjā becomes vijjā or paññā (wisdom). One has to observe vedanā, to experience and to comprehend the truth of its arising and passing away, anicca.
By Vipassana meditation, as one experiences vedanā in the proper way, one comes out of the delusion of nicca-saññā (perception of permanence) by the development of anicca-bodha or anicca-vijjā (the wisdom of impermanence) towards vedanā.
This is practiced by observing with equanimity the arising and passing away of vedanā. With anicca-bodha, the habit pattern of the mind changes. Instead of the earlier pattern of vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, through anicca-vijjā it becomes vedanā-paccayā paññā. As paññā becomes stronger and stronger, naturally saññā, and with it, taṇhā, becomes weaker and weaker.
The process of multiplication of suffering with the base of avijjā then becomes the process of the cessation of suffering, with vijjā as the base. As this process continues, a time comes when there is the complete cessation of vedanā as well as taṇhā-'Vedanā-nirodhā, taṇhā-nirodho.
This state of liberation is a state beyond mind and matter, where both vedanā and saññā cease. One can experience this for a few seconds, minutes, hours, or days when, according to one's own capacity, one becomes established in nirodha-samāpatti by practising Vipassana.
After the period of nirodha-samāpatti, when one comes back to the sensuous field of mind and matter, one again experiences vedanā. But now the whole habit pattern of the mind has changed, and continued practice leads to the stage where one does not generate aversion or craving at all because anusaya and āsava (the deep-rooted mental impurities) are eradicated. In this way, by the breaking of one link-vedanā, the whole process is shattered and the wheel of repeated existence is completely broken.
To progress on the path of Dhamma, one has to work at the level of vedanā because it is at this junction one changes the direction of the wheel of misery.
With vedanā starts the turning of the bhava-cakka, leading (because of avijjā) to vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, which causes suffering. This is the path, which ignorant persons (puthujjana) follow, since they react to vedanā and generate taṇhā.
However, from vedanā, the dhamma-cakka, or the wheel of cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā) can start to rotate, leading to vedanā-nirodhā, taṇhā-nirodho-the end of craving, as a result of anicca-vijjā or paññā, leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the path which wise persons (sapañña) follow by not reacting to vedanā, because they have developed anicca-bodha by the practice of Vipassana.
Many of the contemporaries of the Buddha held the view that craving causes suffering and that to remove suffering one has to abstain from the objects of craving. But this was only an apparent truth. The Buddha went to the root cause of suffering, at the depth of the mind. He realized that between the external worldly object and mental conditioning of craving is a missing link-vedanā (the impermanent bodily sensation).
Whenever we encounter an object through the five physical senses or the mind, a sensation arises; and based on the sensation, taṇhā arises. If the sensation is pleasant we crave to prolong it, and if it is unpleasant we crave to be rid of it. It is in the chain of Dependent Origination that the Buddha expressed his unique, immeasurably beneficial discovery:
Dependent on contact, sensation arises.
Dependent on sensation, craving arises.
Therefore, the immediate cause for the arising of craving and suffering is not something outside of us but rather the sensations that occur within us. To free ourselves from suffering we must deal with this inner reality of sensations through Vipassana practice - i.e by maintaining perfect equanimity to sensations, instead of the earlier habit pattern of reacting to them with craving or aversion. This is the practical way to emerge from suffering.
By developing anicca-vijjā (the wisdom of experiencing impermanence at level of sensations) through Vipassana practice, we cut the knots of our misery and experience the true nature of Dhamma. Therefore, vedanā is the cause of our bondage when not properly observed; it is also the means of liberation when properly observed - by experiential understanding of the Dhamma, the law of paṭiccasamuppāda.
Notes: (All references are from VRI edition)
1. Majjhima Nikāya 1.306
2. Suttanipāta 745
3. Ibid. 746
4. Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.1.64
5. Mahāvagga (Vinaya Piṭaka) 1