An Outsider’s View—16 Paticca Samuppada Model Offers a Superb Approach to Analyze Universal Phenomena
Posted on May 15th, 2012

By Shelton Gunaratne, professor emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead

Recently, the Lankaweb published two essays on the doctrine of paticca samuppada (P.S.): one by Suwanda Sugunasiri on May 9, and the other by R. Chandrasoma on May 12.  P.S. is central to Buddhist philosophy because Buddha intended it as an aid to understand the operational mechanics of the Four Noble Truths. It is the cardinal doctrine of interdependence or dependent co-arising, also translated as dependent co-origination, conditioned genesis, or conditioned co-production. (Note the inability of English to translate Pali/Sanskrit terminology more economically.)

Both commentators have brought to our attention aspects of P.S. that Buddhist philosophers rarely discuss. I wish to point out some weaknesses in each of their essays pending further discussion by other readers. Because I am not conversant in Pali or Sanskrit, my knowledge of Buddhist philosophy comes from books written in English and Sinhala. My primary source for learning about the P.S. doctrine was Joanna Macy’s 1991 classic Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems. Sugunasiri refers to it while Chandrasoma ignores it.

Sugunasiri’s Vesak Speech

Sugunasiri, who identifies himself as a Buddhist scholar, creates the impression that he has ingeniously found “a novel perspective” in the abidhamma-inspired Nidanasamyutta version of P.S., which presents the interaction of 12 nidanas in sequential order:

  1. With AvidyƒÆ’-¾  (Ignorance) as condition, SaƒÆ’‚¡¹ƒ” -â„¢skƒÆ’-¾ra (Mental Formations) arise
  2. With SaƒÆ’‚¡¹ƒ” -â„¢skƒÆ’-¾ra as condition, VijƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾na (Consciousness) arises
  3. With VijƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾na as condition, NƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa (Mind and Matter) arise
  4. With NƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa as condition, ƒÆ’‚¡¹¢aƒÆ’‚¡¸ƒÆ’-¾yatana (Sense Gates) arise
  5. With ƒÆ’‚¡¹¢aƒÆ’‚¡¸ƒÆ’-¾yatana as condition, SparƒÆ’-¦”‚ºa ( Contact) arises
  6. With SparƒÆ’-¦”‚ºa as condition, VedanƒÆ’-¾ (Feeling) arises
  7. With VedanƒÆ’-¾ as condition, TƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚ºƒÆ’‚¡¹£ƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚¡ƒÆ’-¾ (Craving) arises
  8. With TƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚ºƒÆ’‚¡¹£ƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚¡ƒÆ’-¾ as condition, UpƒÆ’-¾dƒÆ’-¾na (Clinging) arises
  9. With UpƒÆ’-¾dƒÆ’-¾na as condition, Bhava (Becoming) arises
  10. With Bhava as condition, JƒÆ’-¾ti (Birth) arises
  11. With JƒÆ’-¾ti as condition, JarƒÆ’-¾maraƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚¡a (Aging and Dying) arise

Sugunasiri points out that this 12-nidana (links) version includes three additional links “”…”Avidya (ignorance), Samskara (mental formations) and Sadayatana (sense gates)””‚absent in the nine-nidana version of Mahanidana-sutta. The placement of Jati (birth) in the 11th sequence had puzzled many people. However, if one were to apply the 12-link P.S. model as a “heuristic device” to explain the stages of development and growth of the fetus (within the domain of one lifetime), the model serves the purpose with astonishing clarity.

But I sense a whiff of ingenuous self-congratulation on the part of Sugunasiri when he implicitly claims credit for revealing the relationship between the fetus and the 12-nidana P.S. model. In fact, a school of thought exists that claims that the P.S. model “is unambiguously an ancient tract that was originally written on the subject of the conception and development of the embryo, as a sequence of stages prior to birth.”

[Wikipedia] As a Buddhist scholar, Sugunasiri should have acknowledged it in the interest of academic integrity.

Eisel Mazard is a chief protagonist of this school. In an essay (titled “Unpopular facts about one of Buddhist philosophy’s most popular doctrines”) Mazard published in New Mandala (Jan. 27, 2011), he asserts:

“Contrary to the great bulk of English language interpretations, my thesis is simply that the 12-links formula concerns the development of the embryo, i.e., including the arising of consciousness in the womb.  Conversely, the text is expressly not about the arising of consciousness is [sic] any other sense of the term(s).  The consciousness described in this text indicates a stage of development that transpires inside the womb; this, too, may is [sic] stated (blatantly enough) within the MahƒÆ’-¾nidƒÆ’-¾na and may be affirmed from other contexts presenting the doctrine.”

Chandrasoma’s Challenge

Chandrasoma challenges Ven. Nyanatiloka’s claim that P.S. could explain all physical and psychic phenomena in the universe on the grounds that Buddha intended his Dhamma only for human beings. Although Buddha was only another human being, his enlightenment enabled him to use his psychic powers (sarwagnana) to analyze phenomena in universal terms even without help from quantum physics. Therefore, Buddha Dhamma relates to all living beings in the billions of galaxies constituting the universe. The bhavacakra/samsara (Wheel of Existence) covers the entire (multiple?) universe. The current level of advanced science is unable to test the complex interaction, interdependence and interconnection of all universal elements, both physical and psychic. This shows the limitation of science, not the abstruseness of Buddhist philosophy. As Karl Popper says, all science-based facts are subject to change (the law of anicca).

Samyutta Nikaya describes P.S. as a four-part formula:

This being, that becomes

From the arising of this, that arises

This not being, that becomes not

From the ceasing of this, that ceases

This is the Buddha word untarnished by abidhamma (commentaries). Although it sounds simple, its meaning is profound and complex so much so that Chandrasoma is valiantly nonplused to quiz how it is possible to link categorically different nidanas such as Avidya (ignorance) and Sparsa (contact) in the elongated more commonly cited 12-nidana version of P.S. reproduced earlier.

The profundity of the four-line version of P.S. lies in its consistency with the other fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy: e.g., the rejection of a First Cause and the acceptance of the samsara/bhavacakra as a phenomenon with no beginning or end. Sentient beings can escape the trap of samsara only through understanding of, and adherence to, the Four Noble Truths.

The abidhamma (commentaries) version of P.S., which implies Avidya (ignorance) as the first condition that co-arises with Samskara (mental formations), which gives rise to Vijnana (consciousness) and so on also fails to capture the Buddha word accurately because it violates the rejection of a First Cause. Only a P.S. model that recognizes the non-linear interactions of plausible nidanas (irrespective of the number involved) will be consistent with Buddhist philosophy, which rejects the existence of independent nidanas“”‚just as how atoms behave in quantum physics. As it stands, the 12-link PS model that both  Chandrasoma and Sugunasiri refer to is no better than a linear model like the Cartesian-Newtonian model.

Buddha broached the paticca samuppada (P.S.) doctrine to illustrate the operation of the Four Noble Truths: that dukkha (suffering/, discontent/unhappiness) is coterminous with existence; that the samudaya (origin/source) of dukkha is tanha (desire/attachment); and that nirodha (cessation of dukkha) is possible by following the magga (Noble Eightfold Path).

Buddha was an extraordinary philosopher who was born in the era of other great philosophers like Laozi, Confucius and Heraclitus. He was not a scientist though his philosophy provided irrefutable truths that science cannot disprove: Nothing in the universe is autonomous; everything is dependent on everything else. This philosophy was the precursor to modern general systems theory.

The soundness of Buddhist philosophy lies in its ability to assay any world problem (e.g., global warming, international economic order, turmoil in the Middle East, the unwinnable economic war between capitalism and socialism, etc.) by applying systems thinking embedded in the PS model.

More of our contemporary scholars and journalists could apply Buddha’s systems thinking to analyze the problems affecting the contemporary world and find solutions of benefit to all. Qualitative analysis based on the P.S. model can be more helpful than science-based quantitative analyses.

2 Responses to “An Outsider’s View—16 Paticca Samuppada Model Offers a Superb Approach to Analyze Universal Phenomena”

  1. herman Says:


    I shall not dwell nor enage you on Paticca Samuppada for reasons as outlined in my earlier post but i wish that you had not referred to the “Buddha was only another human being” this is totally not acceptable nor proper. Yes, Siddhattha Gotama was born as a human being but once he achieved “Buddhahood” he was no longer a “human being”. A more respectable term could be Super “human being” or an Extraordinary “human being”.

  2. Dham Says:

    Don’t undersatnd these debates. There is nothing to analyse.
    “because of ignorance one add fuel to the wheel of samsara” simple as that.

    Venerable Achan Chah said ” people collect chicken waste rather than collecting the eggs” refering to those who analyse too hard. This is a simple dhamma.
    If you are convinced there is suffering more than enjoyment, go on the path. If not keep enjoying.
    Buddh’s show the path only.

    But Chandrasomas and Ben Silvas have hidden agendas. They are fooled by the “marvel of the west”. Don’t understand the own mother. Fools ! what can we do to help ?

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