Conditioned Arising of Suffering

Ven. Dhammavuddho Mahathera

The core of the Buddha’s teaching is the Four Ariyan (Noble) Truths, namely, Suffering (dukkha), Origin of Suffering, Ceasing of Suffering, Path to the Cessation of Suffering. All beings experience suffering, the degree depending on the realm of existence. Heavenly beings and humans reside in happy realms (sugati), and so experience little suffering generally. Beings in the woeful realms (dugati), namely, ghosts, animals, hell beings, experience much suffering. Suffering as the First Ariyan Truth refers more to the round of rebirths (samsara).
To be liberated from suffering and the round of rebirths, we need to understand the Four Ariyan Truths. One important way leading to this is to understand Paticca Samuppada (Conditioned Arising) of Suffering. The Buddha enumerated twelve links in this chain of the Conditioned Arising of Suffering. Most of the Buddha’s discourses on this subject are found in the Nidana Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya.
The traditional interpretation according to the Abhidhamma and Commentaries is three lifetimes, while some monks favour the moment-to-moment interpretation of the twelve links. One could also use two lifetimes, or one lifetime, for the twelve links. Let us examine these twelve links and then you decide which way you want to interpret them. The definition of each of the links are as given in Samyutta Nikaya, Sutta 12.2.

Birth ageing sickness death

This is the first link in the chain leading to the arising of suffering. Ignorance here is defined as “Not understanding suffering, not understanding the origin of suffering, not understanding the cessation of suffering, not understanding the path to the cessation of suffering”, i.e. not understanding the Four Ariyan Truths.
The ordinary worldling (puthujjana) is ignorant of the Dhamma, and so does not understand the Four Ariyan Truths. The ariyan disciple learns the Dhamma, and understands the Four Noble Truths, thereby eliminating Ignorance. Elimination of Ignorance is in stages.
When one gains a basic understanding of the Four Ariyan Truths, one is said to have attained the “vision of the Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu), and Right View, which is synonymous with “stream entry”, i.e. First Path Ariya attainment. When the understanding is deeper, one attains the Second Path; when even deeper, the Third Path. The Path attainments become Fruit attainments later in the same lifetime (see Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 25.1). When one understand fully the Four Noble Truths, one becomes an Arahant, totally liberated. Listening to the Buddha’s discourses (Sutta), and elimination of the five hindrances (panca nivarana) through meditation, are necessary to attain the understanding of the Four Ariyan Truths. Understanding the Four Ariyan Truths also means understanding these twelve links of the Conditioned Arising of Suffering.

Ignorance of the Dhamma conditions the second link Sankhara (volition). Sankhara is defined as follows: “There are these three sankhara – kaya sankhara (body volition), vaci sankhara (speech volition), citta sankhara (mind volition).” The suttas do not explain further. Hence there is some confusion as to the meaning of sankhara. It is variously translated as formations, activities, volition, etc. However in the Samyutta Nikaya Suttas 22.56 and 22.57, it is clear that sankhara means intention or volition.
To enable us to understand better this set of three sankhara, we need to look into all the suttas where this set of three occur. When we examine the suttas we find that there are two sets of three sankharas. The two sets are:
(i) Kaya sankhara, vaci sankhara, citta sankhara also found in Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 44 (Culavedalla Sutta), and Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 41.6 (Kamabhu Sutta). Kaya sankhara is defined as in and out breaths; vaci sankhara as initial and sustained thoughts (vitakka-vicara); citta sankhara as perception and feeling.
Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 36.11 says: “The ceasing of the sankharas is gradual. In the First Jhana (state of meditative absorption), speech ceases; in the Second Jhana, thoughts (vitakka-vicara) cease; in the Third Jhana, delight (piti) ceases; in the Fourth Jhana, breathing ceases; …. In the Cessation of Perception and Feeling, perception and feeling ceases.”
Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 44 says: “When a monk is attaining the cessation of Perception and Feeling (i.e. the Cessation of Consciousness), first the speech volition ceases, then the body volition, then the mind volition…. When a monk is emerging from the attainment of Cessation of Perception and Feeling, first the mind volition arises, then the body volition, then the speech volition.”

In other words, when a monk is attaining the Cessation of Perception and Feeling, the following occurs sequentially:
(a) Speech volition, i.e. thinking (vitakka vicara), ceases – this is the Second Jhana.
(b) Body volition, i.e. breathing, ceases – this is the Fourth Jhana
(c) Mind volition, i.e. perception and feeling, ceases – this is cessation of Perception and Feeling, which includes the cessation of all the six consciousnesses.
Thus we see that when the Buddha entered parinibbana (Digha Nikaya, Sutta 16) which is the Cessation of all the six consciousnesses, he did so after attaining the Fourth Jhana. Cessation of Perception and Feeling is the complete shutdown of a living being.
Conversely, to emerge from the attainment of Cessation of Perception and Feeling, first the mind volition is activated, then the body volition, followed by speech volition.
(ii) Kaya sankhara, vaci sankhara, mano sankhara is found in Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 12.25 (repeated in Anguttara Nikaya Sutta 4.171) and Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 57.
In Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 12.25 the Buddha said “With ignorance as condition, either by oneself, Ananda, one wills bodily intentions (kaya sankhara), following which arises internally pleasure and pain; or, because of others one wills bodily intentions, following which arises internally, pleasure and pain.” (Similarly for vaci sankhara and mano sankhara)
In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 57 the Buddha said “And what, Punna, is dark action with dark result? Here someone generates an afflictive body volition (kaya sankhara), an afflictive speech volition (vaci sankhara), an afflictive mind volition (mano sankhara), …..”
The Buddha said that kamma (intentional action) is intention or volition. So in these two suttas the Buddha is talking about unskillful or dark kamma. So this second set of sankharas, i.e. kaya sankhara, vaci sankhara, mano sankhara, refers to the creation of kamma, which is very different from the first set.

We find that the suttas that discuss Paticca Samuppada (Conditioned Arising) always refer to sankhara as kaya sankhara, vaci sankhara, citta sankhara. The suttas that discuss kamma always refer to sankhara as kaya sankhara, vaci sankhara, mano sankhara. So how do we explain sankhara in Paticca Samuppada?
A living being functions through the body, speech, and mind. In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 44 we saw that when a monk attains Cessation of Perception and Feeling (which includes cessation of the six consciousnesses) which is the complete shutdown of a living being, first speech volition ceases, then body volition, and finally mind volition. When a monk emerges from the attainment of Cessation of Perception and Feeling, first the mind volition is activated, followed by body volition, and speech volition. This is the ‘coming alive’ of a monk whose six consciousnesses had totally ceased. Thus volition (sankhara) here is connected with the will-to-live which must be activated for the being to come back to life. Similarly in Paticca Samuppada sankhara (volition) should refer to the will-to-live so that the three ways in which a being functions (through mind, body, speech) ‘comes alive’, i.e. mind volition (citta sankhara), body volition (kaya sankhara), speech volition (vaci sankhara).
We note here that consciousness, the next link, is not continuous from birth to death, as many people think. The Buddha says that consciousness arises momentarily every time an external sense object (sight, sound, odour, flavor, touch, or thought) impinges on a sense organ. In one second of time many many times does consciousness arise and pass away. Every time consciousness ceases, it is this ‘will-to-live’ (sankhara) that conditions its arising.

As mentioned above, Sankhara (Volition) is the will or volition that Conditions Vinnana (Consciousness) to arise again every time it ceases. Consciousness is explained as “There are these six classes of Consciousness: eye-Consciousness, ear-Consciousness, nose-Consciousness, tongue-Consciousness, body-Consciousness, mind-Consciousness.”
As mentioned above, each of these Consciousness arise when there is a corresponding sense object present (Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 35.93). Without an object consciousness cannot arise because consciousness means being conscious or cognizant of something. The important point to reiterate here is that consciousness is not an unending stream from birth to death, but arises and passes away so fast that in one second, hundreds or thousands of consciousness arise and pass away. Every time it ceases it is Volition (Sankhara – connected with the will-to-live) that conditions its arising.
Whenever consciousness ceases, the living being dies. Hence a Christian saint is reported to have remarked “Every moment I die!”

“Contact, feeling, perception, consideration, intention, are called mentality (nama). The four great elements (earth, water, fire, wind) and the materiality derived from the four great elements are called materiality (rupa)”.
Digha Nikaya Sutta 15 says “… with mentality-materiality as condition there is consciousness; with consciousness as condition there is mentality-materiality.” Thus mentality-materiality conditions consciousness, and consciousness conditions mentality-materiality.
In Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 12.67, consciousness and mentality-materiality are likened to two bundles of reeds standing leaning against each other, supporting each other. They are said to arise together, and cease together.
So consciousness and mentality-materiality are dependent on each other. One cannot exist without the other. Thus mentality-materiality must be the object of consciousness, i.e. phenomena, or what is perceived by consciousness, since consciousness must have an object. Mentality refers to the mental world perceived, and materiality to the physical world, i.e. mentality-materiality is the whole world perceived by consciousness.
Mentality, or the mental world, is quite clear as to its meaning. Materiality or the physical world is defined by the four great elements. We often think that the physical world is solid and very different from the mental world. The element earth refers to hardness (or softness), water to cohesion or fluidity, fire to heat, wind to motion. When we examine these four elements closely, we find that hardness, fluidity, heat, motion, are all perceptions in the mind. For example a brick wall may be hard to an ordinary person but not to an Arahant with psychic power because he can pass through it. Thus we see that even the physical world is a perception in the mind created by consciousness. It is because our mental and physical world are both perceptions in the mind that the Buddha taught that we need to cultivate our mind so we create a happy world for ourselves.

The physical world also refers to sights, sounds, odours, flavours, tangibles. In Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 22.95 the Buddha likened Consciousness to a magician who conjures up a magical illusion to fool people. That magical illusion is the world, namely, nama-rupa.

Consciousness and Mentality-Materiality together condition the Six Sense Bases which are defined as “There are these six bases: eye base, ear base, nose base, tongue base, body base, mind base”. These are also called the six internal sense bases. The six external sense bases that correspond to them are respectively sights, sounds, odours, flavours, tangibles, thoughts. The first five refers to the external world, and thoughts the internal world.
In the normal waking state the six external sense objects keep impinging on the six internal sense bases and our attention keeps shifting from one object to another. This the Buddha calls the normal unrestrained uncontrolled mind in Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 35.247. To restrain and bring it under control we have to train it to pay attention to only one object continuously, eg. using mindfulness of the breath. When we are able to do this the mind becomes focused, one-pointed, and the Five Hindrances (panca nivarana), which are the cause of a blurred mind, are eliminated, causing Yatha-bhuta-nana-dassana (seeing and knowing things as they truly are) to arise. Being eliminated means they are reduced to such a low level that they do not obsess and enslave the mind anymore, and are thus not considered a hindrance.

Contact is explained as “There are these six classes of contact: eye contact, ear contact, nose contact, tongue contact, body contact, mind contact”.
Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 35.93 says “Owing to the eye and sights arises eye consciousness… Now the meeting together, the encounter, the concurrence of these three things – this, monk, is called eye contact.” Similarly for the other sense bases.
From the above it would appear that the six sense bases (internal and external bases) cause the six consciousnesses to arise. But earlier we saw that the six consciousnesses cause mentality-materiality to arise which in turn conditions the six sense bases. Thus we have to conclude that consciousness, mentality-materiality, and the six sense bases, condition each other. This is natural because consciousness must arise at a sense base. In Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 22.53 the Buddha said that there is no coming or going of consciousness without the five aggregates.
As we shall see later Contact conditions Feeling which can lead to Craving etc. . Hence we have to be very careful about Contact. For this purpose the Buddha instructed his disciples to “Guard the door of the six sense faculties… having seen a sight with the eye, a monk does not grasp at its marks and features… (similarly for the other sense bases)” see Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 35.120. We need to exercise restraint of our senses, and pay more attention inwards into the mind rather than outwards into the external world.

“There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of eye contact, feeling born of ear contact, feeling born of nose contact, feeling born of tongue contact, feeling born of body contact, feeling born of mind contact.”
Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 36.22 says that feelings can be considered as 2, 3, 5, 6, etc types. By two types of feeling is meant bodily feeling and mental feeling. Bodily feeling is explained as arising from bodily contact (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch) while mental feeling arises from mental contact (thinking). Three types of feeling are: pleasant (sukha), painful (dukkha), neutral or equanimous (adukkha-masukha).
The five types of feeling are explained in Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 48.36 as
(i) sukha (kayika sukha vedana) – pleasant bodily feeling
(ii) dukkha (kayika dukkha vedana) – painful bodily feeling
(iii) somanassa (cetasika sukha vedana) – pleasant mental feeling
(iv) domanassa (cetasika dukkha vedana) – painful mental feeling
(v) upekkha (adukkha-masukha vedana) – neutral or equanimous, i.e. neither painful nor pleasant feeling
Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 36.6 says that the ordinary worldling suffers bodily and mental dukkha but the Ariya (noble person) suffers only bodily dukkha.
Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 44 says that pleasant feeling brings with it an underlying tendency to lust for it. This is true for all sensual pleasures but not the bliss of jhana (meditative absorption). Painful feeling brings along with it an underlying tendency to aversion, except the longing (grief) for the supreme liberation.

Samyutta Nikaya Sutta 22.56 states that contact gives rise to feeling, perception, volition or intention.
Since sensual pleasures brings along with it the underlying tendency to lust or craving, it is natural that most beings will exercise their volition in a way to satisfy that lust, often in unwholesome actions. This is the danger of sensual pleasures. Also since most beings experience suffering, it is natural that they will want to divert themselves from that suffering by indulging in sensual pleasures. Only when a person experiences the higher bliss of jhana will he/she be able to let go of that craving for sensual pleasures – see Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 14.

“There are these six kinds of craving: craving for sights, craving for sounds, craving for odours, craving for flavours, craving for touch/tangibles, craving for mind-objects.”
In Digha Nikaya Sutta 22 the Buddha said “What, monks, is the Ariyan Truth of the origin of suffering? It is that craving which gives rise to rebirth, bound up with pleasure and lust, finding fresh delight now here, now there, that is to say, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence…..
And where does this craving arise and establish itself? Wherever in the world there is anything agreeable and pleasurable, there this craving arises and establishes itself….. Sights, sounds, odours, flavours, tangibles, mind-objects in the world are agreeable and pleasurable, and there this craving arises and establishes itself…..
And what, monks, is the Ariyan Truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation from it, detachment from it.”
The six external sense objects contacting the six internal sense bases give rise to feeling. Pleasurable feelings come with the underlying tendency to lust or crave, and craving for sensual pleasures and existence leads to prolonging the round of rebirths (samsara). Painful feelings bring along the underlying tendency to aversion, and thus craving for non-existence. This in turn leads to suicide (for the ignorant ordinary worldling) or the longing for the supreme liberation from samsara.
According to Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 14, it is only by attaining the higher bliss of jhana that we can surmount this natural tendency to crave for sensual pleasures. To surmount the craving for existence, we need the knowledge of the Dhamma as well, to make us see that the happiness we get in existence is not worth the suffering we experience. Also the Dhamma teaches us that the highest or supreme happiness is Nibbana.
So this Link no. 8 is the crucial link to break to end suffering. We have to forsake, abandon, detach ourselves from craving for pleasurable feelings. Painful feelings are good for the intelligent person as it leads him on a spiritual search for liberation from suffering. However it does not benefit the unintelligent ordinary worldling who commits suicide and is reborn in a woeful plane of rebirth.

“There are these four kinds of clinging (or attachment):
(a) clinging to sensual pleasures (kamupadana)
(b) clinging to views (ditthupadana)
(c) clinging to rules and religious duties/observances (silabbatupadana)
(d) clinging to the self-doctrine (attavadupadana).”
(a) Clinging to sensual pleasures
When craving for sensual pleasures arise, it is natural to cling to them, i.e. to want them always, to prolong the enjoyment of them, to refuse to let go of them. This can be seen clearly in the clinging of a drug addict or an alcoholic. This is to be expected of an ordinary worldling with a weak undeveloped mind who knows not of any pleasure surpassing sensual pleasures. Since sensual pleasures are impermanent and cannot be satisfied, but will cease, clinging to them only brings suffering.
(b) Clinging to views
‘Views’ here refers to the many unbeneficial views which spring from the mind of an ordinary worldling. The ordinary worldling has a view of a self (atta), so he speculates about himself, about others, about the world, etc. The suttas mention views like “Was I in the past? What was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Self exists for me. No self exists for me. The world is eternal. The world is not eternal. The world is finite. The world is infinite. The soul and the body are the same. The soul and the body are different. After death the Tathagata (Buddha) exists. After death the Tathagata does not exist… etc. etc.”
In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 72, the Buddha remarked “ This field of views is the thicket of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, by vexation, by despair, by agitation, and it does not lead to dispassion, to fading out, to cessation, to stillness, to direct knowledge, to full enlightenment, to nibbana.”
So the ordinary worldling clings to his views, thinking, “Only this is right. Others are wrong,” and he looks down on others’ opinions, and/or debates and quarrels with them. So he continues to suffer.
(c) Clinging to rules and religious duties/observances
This refers to clinging to sila and vata (or bata). Sila refers to rules (precepts), habits, or moral conduct (virtue) according to the Pali-English Dictionary. Vata refers to religious duties, observances, practice, custom.
Here sila refers to the rules (precepts) or habits, and not to moral conduct. Rules or precepts are set up for the purpose of helping one progress on the spiritual path. We see in the Vinaya books that sometimes the Buddha modified the rules many times. Also when the Buddha was about to pass away (enter parinibbana), without being asked he instructed that the minor rules (precepts) could be abolished by the Sangha if it so wished, without specifying which minor rules. This shows that the Buddha was quite flexible with regard to the minor rules, so long as moral conduct (virtue) is not compromised.
Vata refers to religious duties and observances, eg. acariya vata, meaning the duties to one’s teacher. It also includes chanting of Buddhist chants, bowing to the Buddha statues, offering of flowers to the Buddha statues, and all other religious duties and observances.
In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 22, the Buddha said “… the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of clinging.” The Buddha gave the simile of a man making a raft to cross over to the other shore. After crossing over, it would be silly of him to carry the raft on his head or shoulders everywhere he went. He should haul it on to dry land or set it adrift in the water and go on his way. “Monks, when you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings.”
So we see that sila and vata have a purpose. We should know the purpose and objective of each and use them accordingly, but not cling to them. In other words the particular rule or observance can be abolished when deemed necessary. Clinging perpetuates suffering.
(d) Clinging to the self-doctrine
Atta refers to something permanent, unchanging, not subject to conditions. Anything that is permanent, unchanging, not subject to conditions, can be identified as a self, but no such thing exists in the universe. Some books translate atta as soul. The Christian concept of the soul is something inside us that is permanent (eternal), unchanging (undying), not subject to conditions, but no such thing exists in the Buddha’s teaching. In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 38 and Digha Nikaya Sutta 28 the Buddha said that there is a being that enters the womb. Also in Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 97 it is said that if a person’s evil kamma (deeds) are such that he is going to be reborn in hell, upon dying the hell beings will come to drag him (his soul) to hell. From these suttas we see that the soul is implied, which however like the human body is impermanent, changing (a flux), subject to conditions.
Vada means utterance, speech, but more specifically doctrine, theory. So attavada refers to the doctrine of a self which most religions believe in, but not Buddhism. The Buddha said that everything in the world or universe arises from conditions, and will cease through conditions. Everything is Conditionally Arisen.

“What is being (or existence)? There are three kinds of being: sensual desire being (kamabhava), form being (rupabhava), formless being (arupabhava).”
Bhava can be translated as being or existence. When there is Craving and Clinging, there is an object that is craved for, and clung to, i.e. sensual pleasures, etc. This naturally gives rise to a subject (I) that craves for and clings to the object, eg. “I must go to see the soccer match!”, “I’ll die if he does not marry me! “ Thus we see that a new born baby does not display much of an ego or self until it starts to enjoy its food or toys etc. But when it starts to crave and cling, then the ego or self becomes very evident. This ‘I’ gives rise to a living ‘being’, or we can say a ‘being’ comes into existence. Every time we crave and cling, every time we strengthen this perception of an ‘I’ or a ‘being’.
So this being that comes into existence perceives itself as a being in the sensual desire realm of existence or form realm or formless realm.

“What is birth? In the various classes of beings, the birth of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation (in the womb), generation, manifestation of aggregates, obtaining the bases of contact. This is brith.”
According to Digha Nikaya Sutta 28, some beings are aware and mindful when they enter the womb, when they stay in the womb, and even when they leave the womb. But not all beings are reborn into the womb, and the above definition applies to all beings. So Birth here should mean the knowledge or perception of being born.
Once a Being comes into existence (Link No. 10), it realises that it has been born into the world, as all of us do. Thus Being conditions Birth.

“What is ageing? In the various classes of beings, the ageing of beings, their old age, brokenness (of teeth), greyness (of hair), wrinkles, decline of life, and weakness of faculties. That is ageing.”
“What is death? In the various classes of beings, the decease, the deceasing, passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of aggregates. That is death.”
Ageing and death comes along with sickness, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair. This is the whole mass of suffering. Ageing and dying applies to all being, although the ageing described above may not be obvious in some beings, eg. heavenly beings.
Once a being perceives that it has been born into the world, it will slowly realize that it will age and die. It is not necessary to experience death or dying to experience suffering. The knowledge or realization that one will die one day is enough to make one suffer. For example, when one is told by a physician that one has cancer, that itself is enough to bring on intense grief. The desire to live is the greatest desire for all beings. Hence the realization that one will die soon, or death of a beloved one, naturally triggers the greatest grief, together with sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair.

So we see that Ignorance of the Dhamma conditions Volition, the will to live or to ‘come alive’. This Will conditions each moment of Consciousness that arises, which brings with it Mentality-Materiality (phenomena or the world) and the Six Sense Bases. This is followed by Contact at the sense bases, giving rise to Feeling. Pleasant feelings engender Craving, followed by Clinging, which in turn brings with it the perception of an I or Being in the world. This Being then realizes it has been born into an impermanent world filled with Birth, Ageing and Dying, i.e. Suffering.
The way to end this chain of Suffering is to train in the Dhamma and practice the Noble Eight-fold Path. Then we may be able to let go as taught in Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 38: “On seeing a form with the eye, he does not lust after it if it is pleasing, he has no aversion towards it if it is repulsive. He abides with recollection of the body established, with an immeasurable mind, and he understands as it actually is the liberation by mind and liberation by wisdom wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Having thus abandoned favouring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels, pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, he does not delight in that feeling, welcome it, or remain holding to it. As he does not do so, delight in feelings ceases in him. With the cessation of this delight comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of being, with the cessation of being, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, ageing and dying, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this whole mass of suffering. (Similarly for the other sense bases).”