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Comments on Salient Points in the Mahanidana Sutta

U Myo Min


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         The doctrine that is expounded in the Mahanidana Sutta is the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, Paticca-samuppada. The following questions arise out of this statement:

1. What is the Doctrine of Dependent Origination?

2. Where else in the suttas is this doctrine expounded?

3. Is this doctrine expounded in the same way or in the same form in all the suttas in which it occurs?

4. What is the difference between this doctrine and the doctrine on which vipassana, Insight Meditation, is based?

5. Is the Doctrine of Dependent Origination the same as the Doctrine of the Four Noble Truths?

1. What is the Doctrine of Dependent Origination ?

         Put in barest terms, it is an exposition of causes of phenomena. It says if such and such a cause is present, such and such an effect will inevitably follow. If these causes are absent, these effects will not arise. The word "Doctrine" is used in the sense of "a natural law". Origination" means "arising" or "genesis". "Dependent" means this arising or genesis of a set of phenomena, a set of conditions or states, is due to or is conditioned by another set of phenomena, another set of conditions or states.

         What is to be noted is that the cause of a particular phenomenon or condition, or of a set of phenomena or conditions, is itself the effect of some other phenomenon or condition, or set of phenomena or conditions. The form in which this is set forth in the present Discourse might be described in this way: the evident presence of A in what is called this life is noted; then the statement is made that A arises because of B, B arises because of C, C arise because of D, and so on. Another way of saying this is A is due to B, is conditioned by B, B is due to C, is conditioned by C, C is due to D, is conditioned by D. Thus a chain with links is established, each link being dependent on the preceding link, and in turn being depended on by the succeeding link. In other words, cause and effect are linked successively.

         There is a less superficial way of looking at this Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Most people hold some kind of view regarding the nature of existence and reality. Some hold the view that there is an individual entity called a human being, a man, a woman, etc. and that this is reality. This implies the existence of a self, a soul; an ego-principle. Some have definite views that this individual entity or ego-entity goes on to the next existence, and to succeeding existences for ever. Others hold that this individual entity or ego-entity disappears or is annihilated when the present existence comes to an end.

         Buddhism regards these views as wrong views. In Buddhism, a human being, a man, a woman, or any other sentient being is not an individual entity but merely a term for a complex of mental and physical phenomena. This complex of mental and physical phenomena is always in flux, always changing, always arising and disappearing. A sentient being is a continuum of little births and little deaths every moment, and this process, this continuum is extended to the next existence when death occurs in this life and rebirth occurs in the next existence. There is no interruption of this process, and no transfer or transmigration of any individual entity or ego or self or soul, This is the underlying principle of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination.

         In this life there is no denying of the fact that there is old age and death. There is no escaping them. Why do they happen? They do as a result of birth, coming into new existence. And why does birth occur? It occurs as a result of the volitional actions in deed, word and thought of previous existence; these volitional actions are called the kammic causal process, because these actions (kamma) cause the occurrence of birth (i.e., rebirth) in a new existence, with its concomitants, grief, lamentation, pain, distress and despair, old age and death. Thus arises dukkha which is identified with the complex of physical and mental phenomena conveniently and conventionally known in everyday life as a sentient being, such as a human being, a man, a woman etc.

         Existence can be looked at from two points of view: firstly, as a continuing series of actions in deed, word and thought, which cause a new existence to arise, and secondly, as existence in visible or invisible forms, which is due to clinging to a desired object. And this clinging in turn arises because of strong desire or craving for all sorts of things. And this craving, this desire, this longing for this and that, or for a better kind of existence, or for an utter end to existence (in the belief that there is after death no further existence of one's Self or Ego), all this craving would not arise if there were no sensations, no feelings which give pleasure or satisfaction. And sensations or feelings are the result of contact between the sense-objects and sense-organs. And there would be no such contact if there were no continuum of the complex of mental and physical phenomena, which themselves are the result of birth-linking Consciousness. But this birth-linking Conscious ness itself could not by itself result in a new coming in to existence unless there is a simultaneous arising of a new complex of mental and physical phenomena to preserve the continuum in the next existence.

         The Doctrine of Dependent Origination thus presents an analysis of the nature of existence, an analysis which precludes the acceptance of the belief in individual entity, self, soul or Ego, called atta. Then, logically, the sutta goes on to delineate how atta is defined and considered by those who believe in it. Logically again, the sutta further describes the way out of this morass of wrong belief, by dealing with the realms of existence where Consciousness is or is not found, showing that for a person who sees things aright there is no atta there, nor anything to hanker after, to cling to. This realization of absence of atta, resulting from right practice of vipassana, Insight Meditation, leads to liberation and Magga Insight. A second way to such liberation is by the practice of jhanas and samapattis, through eight succeeding stages of (temporary) release from moral defilements, release which is turned into liberation from moral defilements, when topped with Insight Meditation. A person who achieves liberation through this second way is known as one who has become emancipated from the moral defilements, being free in both ways.

2. Where else in the suttas is this doctrine expounded?

         This doctrine is expounded also in the Maha Tanhasankhaya Sutta, Mula Pannasa Division, Majjhima Nikaya. During the lifetime of the Buddha, a bhikkhu known as Sati maintained that the Buddha had said that it is Consciousness which is reborn from existence to existence. To correct this wrong view, the Buddha expounded this Doctrine of Dependent Origination.

         In the Kacchhayana Gotta Sutta, Nidana Vagga Division, Samyutta Nikaya, it is related that the bhikkhu Channa, who had accompanied Prince Siddhattha (the Future Buddha) when he left his palace to embark on his Renunciation, and who could not attain any stage of Insight because of his clinging to ideas of "my Buddha, my Dhamma, my Order", ideas involving atta, had to be shown the right way to get rid of such ideas and to attain Insight, by the Venerable Ananda who expounded to him this Doctrine of Dependent Origination, after the Buddha had passed away.

         The principles of the doctrine, in one form or another, are to be found at various places in all the five Nikayas, in Digha Nikaya, (see Mahapadana Sutta), in Majjhima Nikaya, in Samyutta Nikaya, inAnguttara Nikaya, and in Khuddaka Nikaya.

3. Different ways and forms in which this doctrine is expounded.

         There is an exposition of this Doctrine of Dependent Origination in the Bodhi Sutta, Udana Pali Khuddaka Nikaya, in the form in which the doctrine is discovered and contemplated over by successive Buddhas.

         This is the sequence:

         Because of ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths, volitional actions (sahkhara) good or bad, in deed, word and thought, were done by beings in the past existences. Because of these actions, they become in the present existence human beings, devas and Brahmas (with Consciousness, vinnana, mind and Body, namarupa, six sense-bases, salayatana, contact of sense-organs with sense-objects, phassa, sensation or feeling, vedana). And there, beings take pleasure in, long for, crave for things or for existence itself (tanha); they cling to them (upadana). Because of this craving and clinging, they perform good or bad volitional actions again in their present existence (kamma bhava). Because of these actions they again will be reborn in the next existence (jati), will undergo old age and death (jara-marana), thus suffering the whole gamut of dukkha.

         In this sequence, past present and future existences are linked together by this doctrine, showing how the round of existences goes on and how through severing the cyclic chain, the round of existences can be escaped from.

         It can be seen that the above sequence is different from the sequence given in this Mahanidana Sutta of Digha Nikaya. The sequence here starts with the question what the cause of ageing (i.e., old age) and death is, (since it is a fact that there is in the world ageing and death). And so it goes on as given in the Sutta, up to the mutual cause and effect, mutual conditioning of namarupa and vinnana, with phassa arising because of namarupa.

         It can be seen that the two sequences are different. The first sequence is the better known form of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination.

4. Paticca-samuppdda and Vipassana.

         Vipassana bhavana is the contemplation, the meditation to gain insight into the true nature of mental and physical phenomena (nama and rupa). The fist difficulty a practitioner (a yogi) of vipassana meets with is the inability to gain this insight into mental and physical phenomena. This inability is due to the abiding belief in individual entity, belief that there in reality is "a human being", "a man" or "a woman", belief that this individual entity goes on after death to the next existence. It is hard to discard this kind of ingrained belief.

         To discard this kind of belief, one has to arrive at the conviction that what is called "a human being" is just a complex of mental and physical phenomena, Namarupa, and that these phenomena arise only because of certain causes. Without these causes, these phenomena will not arise, will not occur. This insight as to the true causes of mental and physical phenomena can be gained through the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. To speak in terms of stages of insight in Insight Meditation, the insight into the separate natures of mental phenomena (nama and of physical phenomena (rupa), called Namarupa Pariccheda Nana, and the insight into the causes of the arising, the appearance of mental and physical phenomena, called Paccayapariggaha are the two most important insights in the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Of course these two insights only do not constitute the whole of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. All the stages of insight in vipassana bhavana, right up to Magga Insight and Phala Insight, are implied in and are part of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination.

         That is why it is said in the Maha Hatthipadopama Sutta of Mula Pannasa, Majjhima Nikaya, that "Insight into the principles of Paticca-samuppada means Insight into Nibbana, and Insight into Nibbana implies Insight into the principles of Paticca-samuppada."

5. Paticca-samuppada and the Four Noble Truths.

         In the exposition on the Four Noble Truths also, the cause and effect principle of Paticca-samuppada is presented in brief by the dictum that the sum total of dukkha identified with Namarupa is entirely due to craving, tanha, and that if tanha, were absent the sum total of dukkha identified with will not arise at all. Therefore, just as it is said correctly that whatever doctrine is expounded by the Buddha is within the scope of the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, so also it can be said that any doctrine expounded by the Buddha is within the scope of the doctrine of Paticca-samuppada.


         After studying carefully the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, the following points will be appreciated by the reader:

         (i) how vinnana ( Consciousness ) and namarupa (mental and physical phenomena or mind-and- -body) are mutually conditioned or mutually caused

         (ii) why this mutually conditioned interaction of vinnana andnamarupa is taken to be individual entities called human beings, devas, Brahmas;

         (iii) what kind of people take it that these human beings, devas and Brahmas have atta or soul;

         (iv) what kind of people do not take it so;

         (v) how the doctrine of Paticca samuppada can counter and destroy the various kinds of belief in atta and

         (vi) how those who can discard the belief in atta can experience peace and tranquillity in this very life and can be liberated From all dukkha.

         These are the benefits to be derived from thoroughly understanding the Doctrine of Dependent Origination.


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