Mahanidana Sutta (DN 15)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Great Discourse on Causality

Digha Nikaya 15

KuruThe Buddha is staying among the Kurus, a country in the northwest. The Kuru Kingdom was an ancient Vedic Aryan tribal kingdom, the first one to emerge as a state, around 1000 BCE. Here the Vedic hymns were arranged into collections. Here Vedic ritual life was born. The Kuru kingdom was also oppressive and warlike. The great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, is set here. By the time of the Buddha, however, Kuru was in decline, and had acquired a reputation as a backwater.

The Buddha was staying in the jungle outside a market town called Kammasadhamma. In the Majjhima Nikaya, we learn that the people of Kammasadhamma are good Buddhists.

Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada)

Here we have a sutta featuring a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant for the final twenty-five years of his life. Ananda famously informs the Buddha how profound and clear he finds the doctrine of dependent origination (patticcasamuppada). We have had occasion to refer to this doctrine in a recent talk.

Ananda is clearly very pleased with himself, but the Buddha chastises his disciple, reprimanding him for thinking that the paticcasamuppada is clear. “Do not say that, Ananda, do not say that. This dependent origination is profound and appears profound.” The Buddha declares that “it is through not understanding, not penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, covered as with a blight, tangled like coarse grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin and the round of birth and death.”

On the other hand, it is through understanding dependent origination, therefore, that one untangles the string of samsara and so achieves emancipation. The Buddha’s implication is clearly that Ananda has not yet achieved emancipation. In fact, according to tradition, Ananda would not become an arhant until after the Buddha’s death.

Although the metaphor of the ball of string is applied to “this generation,” tangled, blighted, trapped in samsara, the image clearly also applies to the doctrine of dependent origination itself, in which everything is infinitely intervolved based on the operation of the law of karma. The Buddha’s attitude to Ananda’s generation is suggestive of the attitude of Yeshua (Jesus) to his.

In his search for the ultimate solution of the problem of dissatisfaction, the Buddha begins with aging and death. Thus, the Buddha’s inquiry is rational, and it starts with the immediacy of lived experience, rather than with an abstract metaphysical system or postulate as other ancient systems, including Indian philosophy, did. In this respect, the Buddha is exquisitely modern.

Relentlessly, the Buddha pursues the chain of cause and effect: ageing and birth (1) is conditioned by birth (2). The connection seems incontrovertible. Birth is conditioned by becoming (3). Becoming is conditioned by clinging (4). Clinging is conditioned by craving (5). Craving is conditioned by feeling (6). Feeling is conditioned by contact (7). Contact is conditioned by mind and body (8). Mind and body is conditioned by consciousness (9).

The Buddha identifies four kinds of clinging: sensuous clinging; clinging to views, which we might term dogmatic sectarianism; clinging to rituals; and clinging to the personality, which we might call ego (another translation of atta or ‘self’).

Together, mind-body and consciousness condition each other. Thus, mind and body conditions consciousness and consciousness conditions mind and body. The arrow of time originating in the double dyad of mind-body-consciousness develops through the chain of dependent origination until it results in birth, ageing, and death, only to recur eternally until the cycle is broken and one achieves emancipation.

The chain of dependent origination takes different forms in different suttas. Sometimes consciousness is conditioned by mental formations (sanskaras), which are in turn conditioned by ignorance (avijja), which is declared to be the root of the chain despite its cyclical nature. In this variation, there are nine links, and the root is declared to be feeling, the sixth link in the chain, counting from ageing and death. Note that the six sense bases, given in the version of this diagram that we encountered in the last talk, are missing in this version.

In this version, the Buddha is focused on the problem of craving, and declares that if the feeling born of sensory contact were to cease, so would craving. This word, ‘feeling,’ is Pali vedana – feeling, perception, sensation, pain, suffering. The context suggests that the Buddha is referring to the craving for pleasure and its corollary, the aversion towards pain. If there were absolutely no feeling towards pleasure and pain, the absence and cessation of feeling will break the chain of cause and effect that leads to craving, thus effecting emancipation.

The Interdependence of Craving, Territoriality, Property, Money, and War

At this point in the sutta, the Buddha segues into another application of the doctrine of the paticcasamuppada, commencing from the faculty of craving. “And so, Ananda, feeling conditions craving.” Now the Buddha creates a new paticcasamuppada, showing that the doctrine is not the diagram but the principle or method, and that many paticcasamuppada sequences are theoretically possible. In this segue, craving, therefore, conditions seeking, seeking conditions acquisition, acquisition conditions decision- making, decision-making conditions lust, lust conditions attachment, attachment conditions appropriation, appropriation conditions avarice, avarice conditions possessiveness, and because of possessiveness there arise violence, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying, and other evil unskilled states” (emphasis added). In a remarkable anticipation of communism, the Buddha identifies property as the root cause of all of the rest.

In this way, the Buddha applies the doctrine of the paticcasamuppada to the problem of the origin and development of human society and social organization. In the Buddha’s analysis, property, money, and war are interconnected, and are negative factors, connected to the factor of craving, which is in turn the cause of bondage to samsara. We have discussed the Buddha’s politics in previous talks as well, where I have identified the Buddhist political position with what we would today call social democracy. The Dalai Lama, as I have also mentioned before, calls himself a Marxist. Although the Buddha positions himself in relation to the mercantile economy of his time, there are also favourable references to communism in the Pali Canon, but Marxist materialism is inconsistent with the Buddhist point of view.

The Buddha’s analysis is suggestive of that of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, for example:

If there were no rulers, there would be no wars.
If there were no treasures, the people would not commit crimes.
If there were nothing to excite desire, the heart of the people would be content.
Truly, in order for the sage to heal, he makes his heart empty,
Fills the belly, weakens the will, strengthens the bones.
If the people are ignorant, they will not covet.
It would not be wise to oppose this:
Acting without action, ruling without rule.
(author’s translation)

Craving, moreover, has two aspects: craving in itself, which serves as the basis of rebirth, and craving in action, or craving-seeking (samudacara-tanha).

The Interdependence of Namarupa and Vijnana

We have discussed the duality of the psychosomatic complex, consisting of nama (mind or ‘name’; cf. Laozi) and rupa (‘matter,’ ‘form,’ or ‘image’) and vijnana (‘consciousness,’ ‘life force,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘discernment’). PED refers to namarupa as a dyadic unity, so that the duality of namarupa and vijana becomes a second or “double” dyad, and therefore a kind of quaternary.  In this complex, which Bhikkhu Bodhi describes as a “vortex,” nama and vijnana both refer to the mental aspect, which together constitute the nama-kaya (lit. ‘name-body’). Similarly, the physical aspect is the rupa-kaya (lit. ‘form-body’). In both of these constructions, ‘body’ has the connotation of an aggregate or assemblage. The Buddha observes that in the absence of mental “properties, features, signs, or indications,” the mind does not grasp at body, nor does the body grasp at sensory reaction by the “mind-factor.” In his concept of “properties, features, signs, or indications,” the Buddha is getting at the same concept as Laozi’s ming:

The speech that can be spoken is not the true speech.
The name (
ming) that can be named is not the true name.
The nameless creates heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, he who desires not sees the subtle,
Whereas he who desires much sees the commonplace
. (author’s translation)

The Buddha implies that it is the vijnana that “enters into” the mother’s womb, whereas the psychosomatic complex (namarupa) develops there. Thus, vijnana or consciousness is the originating non-corporeal principle, whereas the psychosomatic complex is associated with the body. Thus, vijnana is the psychic element, whereas nama is akin to what we ordinarily call bodily consciousness or mind immersed in the somatic element. “Thus far then, Ananda, can we trace birth and decay, death and  falling into other states and being reborn, thus far extends the way of designation, of concepts, thus far is the sphere of understanding, thus far the round goes as far as can be discerned in this life, namely to body and mind together with consciousness.”

The Self (Atta)

From consciousness, the Buddha segues to various conceptions of the self: as material and limited, material and unlimited, immaterial and limited, or immaterial and unlimited, thus defining the self in terms of the two axes of materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. The Buddha then adds a third axis: time. Either the self is now or will be in the future. The Buddha contrasts all of these theories with the negative form of the same propositions, thus positing a sort of tetralemma, the logical quaternary formulation that we discussed in connection with the first sutta.

But what, asks the Buddha, is the self? What are its specific characteristics? Here the Buddha explores various identifications of the self, as feeling or not feeling. With respect to feeling, he points out that feelings – pleasant, painful, or neutral – are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen. This transitoriness (anicca) is incompatible with the idea of “self” as a permanent identity, so it is not proper to say that feeling is the self.

On the other hand, the view that the self is not feeling is self-contradictory because in such a state there is no idea of “I am.” Similarly, if the self is asserted to feel but not be identical with feeling, in the absence of feeling there is no idea of “I am this.” Therefore, it is not proper to say that the self is not feeling (“impercipient” in Walshe’s translation).

Thus, “when a monk no longer regards feeling as the self, or the self as being impercipient, or as being percipient and of a nature to feel, by not so regarding, he clings to nothing in the world; not clinging, he is not excited by anything, and not being excited he gains personal liberation.” That is to say, he gains liberation for himself alone. There is no salvation of others, no “vicarious atonement.”

The Post-mortem Status of the Tathagata

One question that arose in early Buddhist thought is of course the post-mortem status of a Tathagata, a perfectly enlightened Buddha who will never again be reborn. Thus the Buddha says, “if anyone were to say to a monk whose mind was thus freed, ‘The Tathagata exists after death,’ that would be seen by him as a wrong opinion and unfitting.” Thus, it appears at first that there is no post-mortem state for a Tathagata, despite the Buddha’s persistent references throughout the Pali Canon to “the deathless.” Thus, this passage appears to affirm a form of nihilism, except that the Buddha continues, “likewise, ‘The Tathagata does not exist … both exists and does not exist … neither exists nor does not exist.” Thus, the Buddha sets up a tetralemma, refuting every logical variation concerning the Tathagata’s existence or non-existence after death, including the statement that “the Tathagata does not exist,” which is equally declared to be false. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that this is because the premise of the question, that there is a self, is mistaken, which raises a whole host of different problems (and is probably false). However, right after this statement the Buddha explains why all logical variations of this axiom are false, viz., “As far, Ananda, as designation and the range of designation reaches, as far as language and the range of language reaches, as far as concepts and the range of concepts reaches, as far as understanding and the range of understanding reaches, as far as the cycle reaches and revolves – that monk is liberated from all that by super-knowledge.”

Thus, the Buddha makes it clear that the inscrutability of the Tathagata’s post-mortem state is neither because he does not exist nor because of the non-existence of a self, but rather due to the limitations of rational linguistic understanding. Clearly, “super-knowledge” (abhinna) is beyond designations, language, concepts, and (rational) understanding, which is based on static and dualistic conceptualizations of existence, non-existence, both existence and non-existence, and neither existence nor non-existence. The post-mortem status of a Tathagata, therefore, can only be known non-dualistically and trans-dualistically, and therefore no rational, dualistic statement concerning it can be true.  Similarly, the Buddha rejected static, finite, dualistic conceptions of the self. There is, moreover, a fundamental difference between conceptualization and experience. In the words of Alfred Korzybki, the founder of General Semantics, “the map is not the territory.”

 Seven Stations of Consciousness

The seven “stations” of consciousness correspond to the planes of existence classified according to body and perception. In previous talks, we have discussed the thirty-one planes of existence, of which the seven stations are a simplification.

The Seven Stations of Consciousness

Station Deva(s)
Body Perception
1 Human beings, some devas, some in states of woe N/A Different Different
2 Brahma’s retinue 1 Different Alike
3 Abhassara (Streaming Radiance) 2 Alike Different
4 Subhakinna (Radiant Glory) 3 Alike Alike
5 Infinite Space N/A N/A Transcendence of the perception of matter, vanishing of perception of sense reactions, non-attention to the perception of variety
6 Infinite Consciousness N/A N/A N/A
7 “No-thingness” N/A N/A N/A

In addition to the seven stations, the Buddha identifies two “realms” or spheres (ayatanani), consisting of the Unconscious Beings and the inhabitants of the plane of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception, the latter being the highest plane of samsara, above the seventh station of “No-thingness.”  The Unconscious Beings refers to the Mindless Devas, one of the deva realms corresponding to the fourth jhana, corresponding to a realm of beings that have bodies without consciousness. Rebirth in this plane results from a meditation in which consciousness is suppressed, based on the mistake that the suppression of consciousness is equivalent to liberation. Inhabitants of the plane of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception have consciousness but no body and are unable to hear dharma. I assume that these two are grouped together because they represent different kinds of non-perception.

Eight Liberations

Finally, the Buddha identifies eight “liberations.” The translator notes that these represent a sequence of steps that are necessary in order to attain final liberation.

  1. Possessing form, one sees forms.
  2. Not perceiving material forms in oneself, one seems them outside.
  3. Thinking, “it is beautiful,” one becomes intent on it.
  4. Completely transcending all perception of matter, by the vanishing of the perception of sense-reactions, and by non-attention to the perception of variety, thinking, “space is infinite,” one enters into and abides in the sphere of infinite space. This corresponds to the fifth station.
  5. Thinking “consciousness is infinite,” one enters and abides in the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness. This corresponds to the sixth station.
  6. Thinking, “there is no thing,” one enters and abides in the sphere of “no-thingness.” This corresponds to the seventh station.
  7. Transcending the Sphere of “No-thingness,” one reaches and abides in the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception. This corresponds to the first “realm” in Walshe’s translation.
  8. Transcending the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception, one enters into and abides in the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. This is nirodha-samapatti (lit. ‘attainment of annihilation’), a synonym for nirvana, from which it is possible to “break through” (Padmasambhava refers to a “leap”) to the state of a non-returner or an arhant.

Concerning this, the Buddha says, “when once a monk attains these eight liberations in forward order, in reverse order, and in forward and reverse order, entering them and emerging from them as and when, and for as long as he wishes, and has gained by his own super-knowledge here and now both the destruction of the corruptions (the asavas, consisting of sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and ignorance), and the uncorrupted liberation of heart and liberation by wisdom, that monk is called ‘both ways liberated’ … there is no other way of ‘both ways liberation’ that is more excellent or perfect than this.” Similarly, as we shall see in connection with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which we will be discussing next week, when the Buddha died he “rose” through the planes and descended them again, then re-ascended to achieve the ultimate state of parinibbana. Similarly, the paticcasamuppada has two “directions.” The “natural” order is that from ignorance or, in the variation presented in this sutta, consciousness, to birth, old age, and death, which is the cycle of samsara, whereas the order that is “against the current,” leading from birth, old age, and death to ignorance/consciousness, leads to liberation. We would call these entropy and negentropy respectively. I would also point out the emphasis on the “here and now,” the present moment, which alone is real, as I have discussed in my series of talks called Fundamental View in connection with the problem of past and future in the context of samsara.

The liberation of heart refers to dispassion, based on the factor of desire. The liberation by wisdom refers to the antithesis of ignorance, the root factor of the paticcasamuppada in the complete, 12° variation previously discussed. The former refers to the liberation of the arhant, whereas the latter refers to the liberation of a bodhisattva. Together, they constitute the liberation of an Arhant Buddha, which is the perfect liberation. As the correspondence with the thirty-one planes of existence, the basis of Buddhist ontology, clearly shows, these attainments are not merely psychological; they are also ontological.


Bodhi. Great Discourse on Causation.: Mahanidana Sutta and Its Commentaries. 2nd ed. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1998.