This sutta records a time when the Buddha was staying in the Kuru Kingdom - India’s earliest state - in a town named Kammāsadamma. Ānanda approached the Buddha and remarked how clearly he understood the doctrine of Dependent Arising, despite its depth and complexity. The Buddha rebuked him and insisted that he should neither underestimate the difficulty of the doctrine nor overestimate his comprehension of it. “Because people fail to understand dependent arising,” he explained, “they get trapped in the cycle of samsāra, tangled in the unfortunate realms.” As Sujato notes in his translation, this statement demonstrates the ultimate concern of the doctrine: explaining the cycle which perpetuates rebirth, and demonstrating how we may break that cycle in order to stop the process of birth, death, and suffering.
The Buddha proceeded to explain to Ānanda how he should answer if anyone were to ask him about the factors of Dependent Arising. Throughout the Buddha's sermons, he presented this teaching using different formulas, the most famous being the 12-factor formula. In this sermon, the Buddha used a 9-factor formula.3 He first went through the formula in reverse order:4
"If someone asks 'Is there a specific condition which leads to old age and death?' you should respond, 'There is: rebirth is a condition for old age and death.'5 Because we have been reborn, we must necessarily grow older and perish. Immediately, we are confronted with an existential concern that Buddhism treats as the fundamental dilemma facing every living being, no matter their station: to be born is to suffer. There is a point here which must not be overlooked: as Sujato notes in his translation, this declaration means that there is no chance of escaping old age and death by being born in some immortal body in some heavenly realm. However, as Bodhi notes, once we come to terms with this reality we are not left without hope. "Whatever suffering there is, all that is conditioned; it occurs in dependence on birth. If birth also is dependent on some condition, and that condition can be removed, then it would be possible to end all suffering."6
The Buddha then proceeded to trace the chain of causation backwards, factor-by-factor. He declared that rebirth does have a cause, and that the cause for rebirth itself has a cause, and so on, leading to a root cause for the whole process: the mutual conditioning of two factors: "consciousness" and "name-and-form." Afterwards, he summmarized the chain by listing each of the 9 factors in the "forward cycle," from those root factors of consciousness and name-and-form, up to the existential problem of "old age and death." Finally, he explained each of the factors in more detail, once again working through the list in reverse. Within this explanation, the Buddha made a brief diversion from the primary formula, demonstrating how broad societal problems can also be explained through Dependent Arising. This demonstrates how Dependent Arising can be used to address the dilemma of individual suffering as well as problems which we experience collectively as a social people.
For the sake of brevity, as well as for clarity, I will condense all of these sections and simply present the list in the "forward cycle," while adding extra details from the Buddha's explanation during the second reverse cycle.
"I declared that name-and-form are conditions for consciousness. Here is how you may understand this: if consciousness did not become established in name-and-form, there would be no arising of suffering - no future rebirth, old age, and death."7
The first link in this formula of Dependent Arising involves the factor of "name-and-form" conditioning "consciousness," although it should be understood that in a practical sense the first and second link occur simultaneously. For that reason, let's treat them together.
"I declared that consciousness is a condition for name-and-form. Here is how you may understand this: if consciousness did not enter the mother's womb, name-and-form would not arise there; if consciousness, after having entered the womb, were to depart, name-and-form would not be born in this state of existence; if the consciousness of a little boy or a little girl were to be cut off, name-and-form would not increase, grow, and fully develop."
The Mutual Conditioning of the First Two Factors
The mutual conditioning of these two factors represents the conception of a new life - which, again, necessarily entails "the arising of suffering," since birth inevitably brings old age, death, and all the miseries which we must endure in between. Before analyzing this idea, we must briefly discuss both consciousness and "name-and-form." I have explored this in more detail in my essay about rebirth.
Consciousness (viññāna), in Buddhism, is best understood as a process of impermanent mental activities, and not one enduring "thing" which a person possesses. This is probably why the enlightened monk Sāriputta sometimes used the term "stream of consciousness" (viññānasota) instead (ex: DN 28). Specifically, these mental activities are related to the engagement of the senses - when one of our "sense-gates," such as the eye, meets a corresponding sense-object, such a visible form, the appropriate type of consciousness arises - eye-consciousness, in this case - and serves to make us aware of that activity. The other forms of consciousness involve the other physical senses - those of the ear, the nose, the tongue, and the tactile body = as well as the sixth sense-gate, the mind itself, which cognizes various "mental objects" (dhammā) as well as the sense-data gathered from the physical senses. (SN 12.2).
Bodhi explains that consciousness "constantly arises and falls," with "each new arising" occuring through those conditions mentioned above: the meeting of a sense-gate with a sense-object.8 Elsewhere in the suttas, the Buddha used fire imagery to explain this (MN 38): fire exists in dependence on some source which sustains it. A "grass fire" can only exist dependently on the grass which is burning; if the grass runs out, the grass fire disappears. If cow-dung is set alight, we cannot call the resultant fire a "grass fire." Instead, it must be considered a "dung fire." Likewise, consciousness arises only because of the conditions which produce and sustain it. The "stream-like" behavior of this mental activity allows us to imagine an enduring continuity underlying this process. We are constantly experiencing some sort of sensory contact, then reckoning that contact, thinking about it, and drawing connections between those instances and others, but in truth this is simply a causal process, a series of activities produced by conditions.
"Name-and-form" (nāmarūpa) represents the other components and activities which enable an individual's subjective existence. The compound term can be broken into its two components: "name" (nāma), representing the mental aspects of existence (excluding consciousness), and "form" (rūpa) representing the material aspects. For our purposes, we may simply say that "form" is the body. "Name" refers to a collection of five mental processes: feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa), and attention (manasikāra). The reason this collection is called "name" is complicated, rooted in pre-Buddhist ideas, but we may rely on an explanation given by Anālayo to help understand how they function: these mental activities are involved in the formation of concepts and the interpretation of sensory input, "for quite literally giving something a name."9
The meeting of a sense-gate and a sense-object gives rise to sense-consciousness; this phenomena is called "contact" (phassa). This sutta deals with this particular aspect of "name" in more detail later. For now, we may simply say that "contact" marks the beginning of every instance of the subjective experience. From there, "feeling" (vedanā) arises, a phenomena wherein we "feel" an experience as either pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Bodhi points out that this mental phenomena is "prominent at the first moment of contact," and as such, it can be understood as the moment we have "received" an experience, and this reception is either welcome, unwelcome, or neither. Bodhi also points out that this prominence means feeling "tends to impact and reverberate through whatever happens subsequently." The ways in which we reflect upon and respond to any experience are usually shaped by what feeling that experience stirred in us.
Any experience that has been "felt" is also "perceived," bringing us to "perception" (saññā). Perception works in two ways: first, it takes in information from a sensory experience by interpreting certain "signs" (nimitta) of whatever sense-object is involved; second, it interprets this object by "marrying the information that has become available through the sense with whatever seems relevant in the mind's store of memories." In this way, any sense-object we have "felt" is recognized by certain qualities and features which can be identified, and the mind conjures up thoughts, memories, and associations based on previous experiences, allowing us to interpret the sense-object in a more detailed way.10
This is not an objective process, of course - two people may "contact" the same exact sense-object and have two radically different experiences. "Attention" (manasikāra) "determines which aspect of experience is being attended to... singling out what is of interest."11 If a person pays attention to qualities of a sense-object they find unpleasant, they will experience that object much differently to someone who pays attention to pleasing qualities.
The way in which we deliberately respond to the sensory experience is represented by "volition" (cetanā). This mental phenomena is so important that the Buddha equated it with kamma; it is due to volition that we act with our bodies, our speech, and our minds (AN 6.63).
Altogether, these various factors work with consciousness moment after moment to produce our subjective experience. Let's demonstrate this activity with an example: Little Miss Muffet's body (form) was sat down on a tuffet as she ate curds and whey. Along came a spider, who sat down beside her; Little Miss Muffet saw this spider, giving rise to eye-consciousness (contact). How unpleasant (feeling)! She noticed its frightening appearance, its unnerving movement, its spindly, hairy legs (attention & perception). This experience made her jump up and run away (volition).
Consciousness and Name-and-Form in Rebirth
Of crucial importance to this sutta - truly, to Buddhism at large - is the fact that this process does not simply come to an end when you die. When Sāriputta discussed the stream of consciousness, he mentioned that it is "established in both this world and the next." In other words, instances of consciousness flow throughout one's life, and continue to flow onward through death, during the conception of a new life, and throughout that subsequent lifetime as well. This continuity of the stream of consciousness is how rebirth is possible.
As discussed above, consciousness arises as a result of sensory activity. At death, consciousness is instead caused to arise by the remnants of mental forces, primarily "craving" (tanhā), which will be discussed in more detail later in this sutta.12 Expanding upon the fire metaphor, the Buddha described this like a flame being carried by a gust of wind (SN 44.9). In this way, consciousness is allowed to persist in what is called is called the "intermediate existence" (antara bhāva), or as I like to call it, the "liminal state." This is the period of time after one has died, but before rebirth has occurred.
The Buddha mentioned that consciousness "arrives" in the womb - the Pali word for this is "okkamisattha." When translated literally, this means that consciousness "descends" into the womb, but as Bodhi explains, this term shouldn't be taken literally. The term can also describe a figurative "entrance" into something, such as "falling asleep" (niddam okkamati, AN 7.61), "entering the religious life" (AN 3.22) or "entering meditation" (SN 51.22).
Two Bundles of Reeds Supporting One Another
Once consciousness "enters" the womb in this way, the factors of name-and-form arise, and consciousness "becomes established" in them, beginning the relationship of mutual conditioning that creates the subjective experience of one's existence. Consciousness, then, acts as the "spark" of life which allows the mental and material components of an individual to form and grow. Without the presence of this arisen consciousness, no conception may take place. This is how consciousness is a condition for name-and-form. Just the same, consciousness requires those mental and material components to "take root." Sāriputta described the mutual relationship of consciousness and name-and-form as being like two bundles of reeds that stand upright, one leaning agaisnt the other. They both require one another. Without consciousness, there is no life; without name-and-form, consciousness cannot operate. After having been born, the cooperative interplay of consciousness and name-and-form produces one's subjective experience. The heart of this sutta is analyzing this relationship and the role it plays in producing suffering for the individual and society more broadly.
"I declared that name-and-form is a condition for contact. Here is how you may understand this: if there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which the set of mental factors known as 'name' is made known, 'labeling-contact' regarding form would not be found. If there were none of the features, attributes, signs, and details by which the set of physical factors known as 'form' is made known, 'impingement-contact' regarding name would not be found. Without name-and-form, there would be no contact."13
Sujato points out an important piece of information conveyed in the Buddha's statement: in referring to "the sets of mental/physical factors known as name/form" (nāmakāya/rūpakāya) as things which are "made known" by "features, attributes, signs, and details," the Buddha established that we are not discussing "things" in an ontological sense. Instead, the analysis here is a phenomenological one. We are discussing processes, activities, and impermanent phenomena within a theoretical framework which helps us understand the nature of suffering.
In this third point of the formula, the Buddha explained that sensory contact can be understood as functioning in a dualistic manner: outwardly and inwardly, dependent primarily on the mind and the body respectively. However, these two functions may involve both the mind and the body, and this is why the unified compound of name-and-form is said to be the condition for contact.
Labeling-Contact (Adhivacanasamphassa) - Outward, Dependent Primarily on the Mind
Labeling-contact is how the mind attaches labels to that which we experience. In this way, we may understand it as an "outward" movement from the mind to the outside world.14 This activity requires the mental factors of "name," but it operates "regarding form" since the mind is what ultimately reckons with the sensory experiences of the physical sense-gates. It is through the material body that we experience tactile sensations, flavors, smells, sounds, and sights, but it is the mind which processes this data.
Impingement-Contact (Patigahasamphassa) - Inward, Dependent Primarily on the Body
Impingement-contact refers to the meeting of an external sense-object with an internal sense-gate, and may be understood as an "inward" movement from the outside world inward towards the mind. The term "impingement" (patigahas) literally means "collision," illustrating the physicality of this sensory activity - an outside object colliding with an internal sense-gate. As Bodhi explains, this contact, by definition, occurs "through the physical sense faculties, and thus it requires the material body to provide the internal bases for its arising."15 This activity, then, requires physical form, but again, it operates "regarding name" since the mental sense-gate ultimately receives all sense-activity, and it is through the mental factors of "name" that we react to material sense-data.
Sujato sums up this idea succinctly: the mental factors of "name" process sensory experience, and the physical "form" enables awareness of the outside world.16 In this way, "name-and-form" act as the condition for "contact" in the causal chain of Dependent Arising.
"I declared that contact is a condition for feeling. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no contact - whether that be through the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mind - 'feeling' would not be found." This point in the chain is simple: once contact has occured, "feeling" arises. Again, this is the mental activity wherein we interpret sensory activity as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
"I declared that feeling is a condition for craving. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no feeling produced by contact at the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mind, 'craving' would not be found." Craving, or more literally "thirst," is typically discussed as the core cause for suffering - for example, in discussions of the Four Noble Truths. Bodhi points out that craving may manifest in relation to the various tones of feeling: we yearn for pleasant feeling, we flee from unpleasant feelings. We might even crave the inoffensive comfort of neutral feelings.17 Elsewhere in the suttas, the Buddha discussed our tendency to react ignorantly to neutral feelings by simply not noticing them, causing us to fail to see them for what they are: impermanent, dissatisfactory phenomena. However, it is most often the craving for pleasant feeling which drives us onward through the cycle of suffering, moving us to further entrench ourselves in the cycle of rebirth and death.
Bodhi and Holder alike identify this link in the chain as the pivotal point where we may begin redirecting our trajectory along the path18: if we continue to allow craving to arise unchecked, we dig our heels deeper into the round which has left us unsatisfied lifetime after lifetime. However, with deliberate effort (outlined elsewhere in the teachings), we can work towards ending this cycle once and for all.
Up to this point, the formula of Dependent Arising which is mapped out in this sutta, despite its unique features, corresponds with other versions: it serves as a map of the causal chain which produces suffering on an existential level. In other words, it analyzes and explains rebirth. At the link of "craving," however, the Buddha here took a detour, where he demonstrated how "craving," usually discussed as the source of an individual's suffering, is also the root of societal suffering more broadly. It also contains nine links, making it a complementary "side chain" to the primary formula. The Buddha first listed each item in forward order, then explained each link in reverse order. Once again, I have condensed this in my own presentation.19
"I declared that that craving is a condition for pursuit. Here is how you may understand this: without craving for sensual pleasure, craving for existence, or craving for non-existence, 'pursuit' would not be found." Sujato notes that here we see the second definition of "craving," this one being more common throughout the suttas. Previously, craving was defined relative to the six sense-objects. Here, craving is expanded to include the thirst to continue existing and the thirst to cease existing. This may seem confusing, since this "side chain" deals with the worldly concern of societal problems, making these abstract cravings the less obvious choice. Sujato's explanation clears up this issue: the ways in which sensual cravings motivate us to pursue sense-objects is obvious, but these abstract cravings can also move us in similar ways. For example, Sujato points out that the craving for a heavenly afterlife moves people to pursue - and fight over - holy grounds, sacred objects, etc. The craving to escape suffering through non-existence likewise moves people to seek things like intoxicants for escapism.
"I declared that pursuit is a condition for gain..." This term, "lābha," strongly implies that what is acquired is material in nature; in fact, Sujato translates this as "gaining material possessions."
"I declared that gain is a condition for evaluation..." Sujato explains that this term, "vinicchaya," involves "weighing up" the objects we pursue, assessing them relative to other options, imagining how they may be better or worse. He explains that this results from "gain" because this indulgence in "picking and choosing" is only of concern to those who have accumulated the things they have desired. Bodhi instead translates this term as "decision-making," though the idea is similar: after acquiring what one has pursued, one makes decisions about it in light of considerations of value and disposability.20
"I declared that evaluation is a condition for 'exciting desire'..." The Pali term "chandarāga" is a compound word combining "chanda" and "rāga." It is often translated as "desire and lust" or something similar, but "exciting desire" is a more literal translation that conveys the important implication of the term "chanda," which suggests a stirring of impulse or motivation to action. Evaluating objects as greater or lesser than other things, more or less beneficial to us, gives rise to a desire which can move us to action.
"I declared that 'exciting desire' is a condition for attachment..." As Sujato notes, "attachment" is an English word which is often given as a translation for a number of different Pali terms. This can be quite confusing for the student of Buddhism relying on translations, as technical terms which appear in different contexts may be given the same name in English. This isn't terribly problematic regarding the terms translated as "attachment," since there is a great degree of overlap between the different words. Here, "ajjhosāna" is an unhealthy relationship to the objects we experience as pleasurable, a "relishing" of that object as a source of enjoyment in a way that does not acknowledge the reality of that object's nature: impermanent, and ultimately dissatisfactory.
"I declared that attachment is a condition for possessiveness..." "Pariggaha" involves "taking up" an object as something which one owns; it is no longer a thing, it is my thing.
"I declared that possessiveness is a condition for avarice..." The termn "macchariya" may also be translated as "stinginess" or "miserliness," but it should be understood that the word carries a considerable amount of gravity throughout the suttas. AN 5.254 identifies five different types of avarice, some abstract and some material. Two of these types seem most relevant to the present context: avarice for dwelling-places (āvāsamacchariya) and avarice for (material) gains (lābhamacchariya). Since the sutta is concerned with monastics, the avarice for dwelling-places is more strictly related to monastic lodgings, but in the present context we may expand the idea to include land and property more broadly. Once we consider things as our possessions, we become hesitant or resistant to sharing them with others. It's not simply that this thing is mine - it's also not yours. This may also manifest as a preference for "having" something instead of using it, leading to the hoarding of belongings. We may imagine someone who gets a cake and then keeps keeps it hidden away, since one can't "have" their cake and eat it too. This illogical behavior is avarice at work.
"I declared that stinginess is a condition for safeguarding..." The term "ārakkha" evokes the image of someone standing guard, keeping a vigilant watch in hopes of preventing something undesirable from happening. Avarice inspires us to imagine the things we feel possessive of must be protected. At this point, one may feel justified in protecting their possessions no matter the cost. The final point in this chain demonstrates the harm which comes from this behavior.
"I declared that, because of safeguarding, people engage in many bad, unwholesome activities - the wielding of weapons, quarreling, arguing, disputation, accusation, speaking divisively, and lying..." Here, the problems produced by craving which afflict society at large come to a head: intoxicated by avarice, driven by the urge to safeguard or secure possessions, people take up weapons against one another, they fight, they become divided, and they tell lies.
"And so, Ānanda, since craving - that is, craving for sense-pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence - is the cause of pursuit, these two things are united by the two aspects of feeling." Craving, then, is the source of suffering in two respects: on the one hand, it binds the individual to the cycle of rebirth and death; on the other, it motivates violence, it divides us from our peers, and seduces us to speak falsehoods. These troubles move beyond the individual and inflict suffering upon all of us who must coexist with one another.
Returning to the main sequence, the Buddha resumed explaining the dependent arising of individual suffering by discussing the way craving functions in the cycle of birth and rebirth.
"I declared that craving is a condition for a grasping. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no craving - whether that be craving for visual forms, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, or mental objects - 'feeling' would not be found." This term, "upādāna," can be quite confusing. It is usually translated as "attachment" or "clinging." These translations can be useful, but they don't fully convey the function of upādāna. The term has two primary senses: first, as a "fuel" or "cause" for something - that which keeps a process ongoing; second, as the activity of "taking up" or "taking hold of" something. The first sense makes more sense in the next link, so here, let us focus on the second sense: grasping as an action.
The relationship between "craving" and "grasping" is so direct that Bodhi defines the latter as an intensification of the former21 ; this interpretation is supported by the commentaries. If craving is the initial desire for sense-pleasure, grasping takes place after one has experienced an object of desire, recognized it as a source of pleasure, and repeatedly indulged in that desire through continuing to engage with that object.22 In other suttas, the Buddha elaborated on the nature of grasping. In the Upādāna Sutta (SN 12.52), the Buddha said that there are "things that are prone to being grasped" (upādāniya dhammā) - in the present context, this would be the "visual forms, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, or mental objects" mentioned above. If we experience an object as pleasant and enticing, we may have an unskillful response to it. Three verbs we see used in the suttas (ex: SN 35.118) are "abhinandati," or "approving of" the object; "abhivadati," or "welcoming" the object; and "ajjhosati" or "clinging to/relishing" the object. The latter of these terms can also be translated as "being bent on" or "indulging in" the object. These responses towards sense-objects cause one's consciousness to "remain dependent on them, grasping them."
In SN 22.5, the Buddha said that these attitudes give rise to "nandī," or "finding delight in" those sense-objects; this is explicitly equated with "grasping." Grasping, then, involves identifying the object of a pleasurable sense-experience as a source of satisfaction, which leads us to continue engaging with that object in an attempt to satisfy our craving. We may imagine ourselves "grasping" the object of a sense-experience, taking it and holding it up before our minds, and thinking about how enticing it is. This is how craving is the condition for grasping. SN 12.52 illustrates the cyclical nature of this relationship between craving and grasping: when we "concentrate on the gratification provided" by "things that are prone to being grasped," it ultimately makes our cravings all the more powerful, which of course, would lead to further grasping.
"I declared that grasping is a condition for continued existence. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no grasping - whether that be grasping sensual pleasures, views, precepts & observances, or theories of a self - there would be no continued existence." Here, the Buddha expanded the discussion of "things prone to being grasped" to include more abstract things: views, precepts & observances, and theories of a self.23
Grasping Views (Ditthupādāna)
Let's begin with a discussion of "views," because the grasping of "precepts & observances" and "theories of a self" is rooted in the grasping of views. In Buddhism, "views" are, to quote Sujato, "intellectual theories and arguments" which "come about in attempts to sate cravings and fears."24 DN 1 contains a list of 62 such views, which include speculative theories about topics like the nature of time, the scope of the cosmos, or the fate of the individual after death. The fact that the grasping of these views is rooted in craving, just like the grasping of pleasurable sense-objects, is central to this link in the chain of Dependent Arising. Sujato explains that these views "are not the objective descriptions of the world, but responses to our innermost needs."
Let's return to the threefold division of craving given above in the "Side Chain" formula; in addition to craving the six kinds of pleasurable sense-objects, one may crave for existence or for non-existence. As Bodhi explains, the craving for existence may manifest as grasping views related to eternal life, while craving for non-existence may lead to the grasping of atheist views of death as the final extinction of the individual. Furthermore, craving for sense-pleasures may give rise to views of extreme hedonism due to the belief that "you only live once," or it may inspire one to spend the entirety of their present life in austerity, preparing for an afterlife of heavenly pleasure.25 In the same way that we grasp the objects of pleasant sense-experiences, delighting in them as sources of pleasure despite their impermanent and dissatisfactory natures, we also grasp views as ways to find comfort in an existence which is by its very nature uncomfortable. We adopt these beliefs and positions in an attempt to find happiness and soothe our anxieties.
Grasping Precepts & Observances (Sīlabbatupādāna)
Grasping precepts & observances (sīlabbatupādāna) comes from the view that the mere performance of certain rituals or following certain ethical guidelines can make one purified, lead to the end of suffering, or in some way produce desireable results beyond what is truly possible through such things alone. Here, it must be understood that the Buddha coexisted with many teachers who proclaimed these sorts of views, and these teachers convinced many students to adopt their wrong views. The most obvious example would be the Brahmins of the Buddha's time, who believed that the performance of their elaborate Vedic rituals, or the recitation of their hymns and prayers - rites which the Brahmins alone were allowed to conduct - held the key to escaping suffering and being reborn in heaven. A more amusing example can be found in MN 57, where we see two men who had taken vows to behave like animals for the rest of their lives - one a dog, the other a cow. They foolishly believed that this would purify them and lead to a heavenly afterlife.
Grasping Theories About the Self (Attavādupādāna)
Grasping theories about the “Self” (attā) means subscribing to one of several different beliefs about what a person ultimately “is,” the essence of an individual. This would be the aspect of a person which is the “agent” behind all experience; the self would be the decision-maker, the thinker of thoughts, the thing which feels. In the Buddha’s time, a common point of debate was to argue about the nature of the self. Is it permanent, or is it impermanent? Does it remain conscious after death, or does it become unconscious? Perhaps, instead, the self is simply the fleshly body, and upon death an individual completely ceases to exist, never to return. On the other hand, perhaps the self is some ineffable spiritual entity, untouched by death, migrating from one body to another. Many such views were held by the Buddha’s contemporaries; the Buddha rejected all of them.
Any such view about the self which can be grasped stems from an insidious, underlying view: the “identity-view” (sakkāyaditthi).26 Identity-view, itself, results from overthinking about the subjective experience. The Buddha discussed 20 possible manifestations of this overthinking, all of which involve speculation about the elements which work together to form that subjective experience: form, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness—the five aggregates subject to being grasped (as the self) (pañcupādānakkhandhā).27
If a person singles out one of these aggregates, and imagines it to either: 1) be the self; 2) be possessed by the self; 3) exist within the self; or 4) contain the self, that person becomes deluded as to the true nature of the subjective experience, which will in turn lead to the grasping of all sorts of deluded views.
Having been misguided by identity-view, one arrives at a theory about the self by engaging in a further round of overthinking. This involves a person wondering: whether or not they existed in the past; what they may have been in a past existence; whether or not they will exist in the future; whether or not they truly exist in the present; where they came from; or where they will go hereafter.28
"Grasping" as a "Fuel" for Continued Existence
Above, I mentioned the term "upādāna" can also mean "fuel." The term, used in this way, can be found in similies involving fire (e.g. SN 3.1, SN 12.52), which is only able to persist so long as it has fuel that sustains it. This demonstrates how continued existence is able to persist through being "fueled" by the activity of "grasping." Bodhi explains that "grasping induces motivated action... and sustains the rebirth process whereby the accumulated kamma fructifies and thus it becomes a condition for rebirth-existence."29
In Buddhism, it is taught that volitional actions (kamma) produce results (vipāka), including results that may manifest in future rebirths. To elaborate on this specific doctrine here would be excessive; for more information, see my essay on rebirth. Here, let it suffice to say that when we grasp sensual pleasures, deluded beliefs, or a sense of self in an attempt to experience gratification through them, we will continue to stoke the fires of craving - the mental factor which serves to sustain consciousness after death - as well as perform actions that accumulate kamma capable of determining the nature of future rebirths. In this way, grasping is said to be a condition - a fuel, even - for "continued existence" in the cycle of suffering.
"I declared that continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no continued existence in the plane of sense-desire (kāmabhava), no continued existence in the plane of form (rūpabhava), or no continued existence in the plane of formlessness (arūpabhava), rebirth would not be found."
The words "bhava" and "jāti" both warrant elaboration, so once again, let's discuss both of these links together.
"I declared that rebirth is a condition for old age & death. Here is how you may understand this: if there were no rebirth of sentient beings into their various stations - of gods into the state of godhood; of gandhabbas into the state of being a gandhabba30 ; of yakkhas...31 ; of bhūtas...32 ; of humans...; of four-footed creatures...; of birds...; of reptiles...; if there were no rebirth of sentient beings into any such state, old age & death would not be found."
Bhava - Continued Existence
With link #8, the Buddha made reference to the three planes of Buddhist cosmology. The plane of sense-desire is where most beings are born: those suffering in hell, animals, humans, ghosts, and lesser gods. It is so-called because rebirth into the worlds of this plane is conditioned by kamma pertaining to sensuality of the six sense-gates, and the beings of these worlds are “under the sway of sense-pleasures” (DN 33). The plane of form, sometimes translated (somewhat liberally, but also helpfully) as “luminous form.” This is because the “form” possessed by the beings in these worlds is a subtle, perhaps even divine type of body, often invisible to those in the plane of sense-desire. These beings are the lesser Brahmās, a more refined class of god than those who exist in the heavens of the sense-desire plane. Rebirth here is conditioned by the kamma of attaining meditative states known as “jhānas.” Finally, there is the plane of formlessness, where the highest Brahmās exist without any form whatsoever. Rebirth here is conditioned by the kamma of achieving meditative states known as “arūpa-āyatanas,” or “formless fields,” more commonly translated as "formless attainments."33
"Bhava," then, means "existence," and all existence takes place in one of these three realms. A nuance that must be made explicit is that, in the context of Dependent Arising (and in the majority of its appearances in the suttas broadly), "bhava" is concerned with the process of rebirth into one of the three planes. For example34 , let us look at AN 3.76, when Ānanda asked the Buddha to explain "bhava." The Buddha replied that "bhava" is a result of kamma coming to fruition in one of the three planes, and that in the future the consciousness of a sentient being, when hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, will become established in a "renewed existence" (punabbhava). Similarly, in MN 127 we see the compound word "bhavūpapatti," or "coming into an existence," which is said to occur “when the body breaks up, after death.” The Venerable Anuruddha composed verses about his ability to see beings dying and being reborn "in this existence or that existence" (itthabhāvaññathābhāva) (Thag 16.9).
Linguistically, bhava is a "count noun," a type of word which can be quantified - one existence, two existences, three existences... In the Ratana Sutta (Snp 2.1), we see the declaration that one who understands the Four Noble Truths "will not take an eighth existence," meaning they will be reborn no more than seven times before attaining enlightenment and ending the cycle of birth & death.35 Similarly, in the Dutiya Sikkhā Sutta (AN 3.87), a type of person called "One-Seeded" (Ekabījī) is defined as someone who will "produce one more human existence" (ekaṁyeva mānusakaṁ bhavaṁ nibbattetvā) before attaining enlightenment.
It is clear that this is no mere "existence" in the way we would say a pen "exists." Bhava is the existence of a sentient being within the cosmological framework of rebirth, and for this reason, some translators (such as Sujato) render the term as continued existence. When the Buddha spoke of bhava, he referred to an existence that is a continuation of past lives. This existence will continue into future lifetimes so long as we have not overcome ignorance and craving. This is described as "flowing along the stream of continued existence" (bhavasot’ānusārisu) in SN 1.28.
Jāti - Rebirth
With link #9, the Buddha made reference to various living beings in different "states" of rebirth. However, the term "jāti" does not receive a proper definition here; for that, we may turn to the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta (DN 22). "For various beings, various groups of beings, there is rebirth, coming-to-be, appearance (in the womb), production, the manifestation of the aggregates, and the attainment of the sense-fields" (yā tesam tesam sattānam tamhi tamhi sattanikāye jāti sañjāti okkantiabhinibbatti khandhānaṁ pātubhāvo āyatanānaṁ patilābho).
In this definition, a key detail is revealed: rebirth, in Buddhism, begins with conception, signified by the term "okkanti," which literally means "descent." As we discussed above, this pertains to the appearance of consciousness in the womb as it becomes established in name-and-form.36 In other words, rebirth occurs before pregnancy proper, and certainly before delivery. After death in the previous lifetime, consciousness - sustained by the mental force of craving - persists through the liminal state until it takes hold in a new "station of rebirth" at the moment of conception, becoming established in name-and-form, leading to the manifestation of the five aggregates and the attainment of the sense-fields through which that being will participate in the subjective experience of life.
Continued Existence Without Rebirth
The two terms "bhava" and "jāti" are both concerned with rebirth. They are so closely related that in the Lakkhana Sutta (DN 30), we see them function essentially as synonyms: the Buddha is described as being reborn as a human in "past lives, past existences" (purimaṁ jātiṁ purimaṁ bhavaṁ). It is possible to see a certain redundancy here: at first glance, the Dependent Arising formula seems to be saying "without rebirth in the three planes, there would be no rebirth of the various beings in their various stations." The solution to this lies in a doctrinal nuance found elsewhere in the suttas:
In the context of the continuation of consciousness after death, "continued existence" may occur without rebirth. In the Samyojana Sutta (AN 4.131), we see a discussion of four levels of religious development within the Buddhist path. Each of these levels is defined by which "fetters" (samyojana) a person has "given up." There are three classes of such fetters: the "lower fetters" (orambhāgiya samyojana) which bind one to rebirth in the lower realms; the "fetters which lead to rebirth" (upapattipatilābhiya samyojana) as any of the types of beings in the other realms; and finally, the "fetters which lead to continued existence" (bhavapaṭilābhiya samyojana).
A person who has freed themselves from the lower fetters and the fetters of rebirth, but is still bound by the fetters of continued existence, is called "One Who Attains Nibbāna In-Between" (Antarāparinibbāyi). This term, "antara," refers to the "in-between existence" or "liminal state" (antarābhava), the existence of consciousness after death in the previous life, but before proper rebirth in another state. An Antarāparinibbāyi will die unenlightened, but during the liminal state, they will abandon craving. As such, with nothing to sustain the stream of consciousness, they will attain enlightenment before rebirth takes place.37
Rebirth cannot occur unless the "stream of existence" continues after death. This continued existence, however, can come to an end before a subsequent rebirth occurs. It is for this reason that continued existence is the condition for rebirth. This nuance shows that these two links are not, in fact, redundant.
When listing the links of Dependent Arising in the "forward cycle," the Buddha elaborated the last link by saying that "rebirth" is the condition for "old age and death, for the arising of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. That is how this mass of suffering (dukkha) originates." In the reverse order, where the first link was presented last, an important point was made about Dependent Arising: when consciousness becomes established in name-and-form, there is rebirth, old age, and death. The relationship of mutual conditioning between consciousness & name-and-form is "the extent to which one may be reborn, grow old, die, pass away, or reappear." This is the existential dilemma acknowledged by the Buddhist, the ultimate problem which we must seek to overcome through ending the cycle of rebirth.
Before ending his discussion of this 9-point formula of Dependent Arising, the Buddha made a brief statement that warrants explanation here: name-and-form, together with consciousness, is "how far the pathway of labeling (adhivacanapatha), the pathway of terminology (niruttipatha), and the pathway of description (paññattipatha) extend; how far the sphere of wisdom extends; and how far the cycle of rebirth proceeds so that this state of existence may be be found."
The meaning of this statement, according to Bodhi, is concerning "the relation between concepts, language, and reality," and how the interplay of consciousness & name-and-form forges this relationship.38
Labeling, Terminology, and Description
The subcommentary to DN 15 states that the three terms "labeling," "terminology," and "description" function as synonyms here39 , signifying the language we use to ascribe and derive meaning to and from the phenomena we experience. The subcommentary identifies these "pathways" as the five aggregates, which in Dependent Arising, are essentially the same as "consciousness & name-and-form." This identification of the "pathways" is supported by SN 22.62, where the association is made explicit.40
In other words, it is through the activity of consciousness & name-and-form - those conditions that give rise to the subjective experience - that we experience reality and engage with it by applying labels to phenomena, interpreting things through concepts and ideas. To quote Bodhi, "all concepts, words, and linguistic expressions emerge from [the phenomena comprised in dependent arising] and all ultimately refer back to them."41
Here, we have a problem: so long as we have not achieved insight into the true nature of Dependent Arising, we are not experiencing reality as it truly is. Instead, we are navigating through a distorted reflection of reality, colored by our own misconceptions. As will be explored in the next section of this sutta, the most insidious of these misconceptions is the idea of an enduring "self" somewhere within this shifting landscape of internal and external phenomena, that "thing" which we imagine is the one that experiences all of this - that "thing" which, ultimately, is what we are. When we see with wisdom, no such self can be discovered.
The Sphere of Wisdom
The Buddha's inclusion of "the sphere of wisdom" in his declaration about the extent of consciousness & name-and-form reveals an inspiring fact: the mutual relationship of these two factors, the very activity that produces our delusional subjective experience and the entire cycle of suffering, can also be the basis for the development of wisdom. To quote Bodhi again, "wisdom works with the same set of referents as deluded conceptualization – the five aggregates, etc. – but exhibits them from a new point of view, one which leads to the abolition of all conceivings."42
Before we can see things clearly, though, we must first see through the illusory nature of the self we imagine within the subjective experience - this brings us to the next section of the sutta.
"How do those who describe a self do so?" With this, the Buddha discussed various formulations of theories regarding the self, each composed of two of four qualities: a self that is either material or immaterial, and either finite or infinite. This gives four possibilities, and in each case, there are three further variationhs which may be proclaimed: the self is declared to already exist as described in the present; or, the self is declared to not yet exist as described, but will become that way "in some other place," meaning in another realm or in the afterlife; or the theorist may declare instead that the self does not yet exist as described, but they "will convert it to that state." Bodhi notes that this third variation is puzzling even in the Pali text, but makes an educated guess as to its meaning: it possibly indidcates a belief in the ability for one to transmute the self into some ideal state through the exertion of effort.43
For each of the four possibilities - the theories of a material/immaterial, finite/infinite self - after acknowledging the three variations, the Buddha said that, no matter which of the three variations a person believed, the bottom line in all thre cases was that they held the self to be either material or immaterial, and either finite or infinite. Sujato explains that the Buddha's point in saying this was that these variations "rest on the same underlying assumption, so if the assumption is disproved there is no need to refute each individual theory."
Before refuting any of these ideas, however, the Buddha discussed "Those Who Don't Describe a Self" - or, in other words, he and his disciples. In this section, he simply repeated the material from the previous section, only in the negative: those who don't describe a self do not declare that it is material/immaterial, finite/infinite; they do not declare any of the three variations of these possible theories. Bodhi explains that the take-away here is that the Buddha and his disciples "keep their descriptions [of phenomena] well within the range of the describable... they do not overstep the limits by ascribing to real things an unreal significance, such as selfhood, eternal existence, or annihilation."44 Instead, they simply understand phenomena as they really are: impermanent products, and components, of Dependent Arising.
Next, the Buddha moved from discussing the act of "describing" a self to the act of "regarding" one. Bodhi explains that this is "a more rudimentary" stage of self-view, since "descriptions" involve a higher degree of reflection and theoretical speculation.45 The act of "regarding a self," then, is more subtle, more common, and in moving to this topic, the Buddha sought to cut deeper at the root of this delusion.
"How do those who regard the self do so?" In this discussion, the Buddha used the mental phenomenon of "feeling" - which arises after sensory contact, and through which we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral - as an example "point of reference" used to define the self.
"They may regard feeling as the self; or, they may regard feeling as something which is not the self, and as something which is not experienced by the self - feeling and the self are entirely separate; or, they may regard feeling as something which is not the self, but is instead an activity belonging to the self - the self is that which feels."
The Buddha proceeded to advise Ānanda on how to properly debunk these views about the self. "If someone declares that feeling is the self, you should ask them: 'Which feeling is the self? Is it pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling, or neutral feeling?' You see, Ānanda, in a moment when pleasant feeling has arisen, there is not unpleasant or neutral feeling." The Buddha repeated this for the other two types of feeling. "All feelings are impermanent, conditioned, arise dependent on causes; they must come to an end, disappear, fade away, and cease.
"When experiencing one sort of feeling, they think, 'This is my self.' When that feeling comes to cessation, they think, 'My self has disappeared.' They take the self to be something which is obviously impermanent; something which is sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant; something which arises and passes away. This is nonsensical."
"If someone declares that feeling is neither the self nor is experienced by the self, you should ask them: 'If there were nothing felt, how could the thought 'I am' even occur?' This is nonsensical."
We should remind ourselves of the role that the mental phenomenon of "feeling" plays in cognition. After any sort of sensory contact occurs - including mental contact, effectively covering the entire gamut of the subjective experience - "feeling" is the mind's reception of that event. Perception and volition both follow after the arising of "feeling." Here, the Buddha is saying that, without the arising of feeling, the thought 'I am' would not even be possible. Therefore, it is absurd to declare that there could be a self that is unrelated to feeling.
"If someone declares that feeling is an activity of the self, you should ask them: 'When there is no feeling at all, when feeling has ceased entirely, how could the thought 'I am this' even occur?' This is nonsensical."
The Buddha's refutation of this view is similar to that of the previous view. Feeling, Sujato notes, "is deeply wound into the structure of consciousness, so if feeling were to be utterly absent, no other mental phenomena could continue, and there would therefore be no possibility of forming a theory of self."
Bodhi points out that this part of the Buddha's discussion with Ānanda demonstrates the critical flaw of any theory of self: one cannot identify or put forward the notion of a self without making reference to phenomena which are impermanent, which arise and pass away as a result of conditions.46 Such things cannot suffice as points of reference for that which would supposedly be the irreducible essence of an individual.
The Buddha began to conclude his discussion with Ānanda by discussing the attainment of enlightenment in several different contexts, introducing the topic by contrasting an enlightened person with the sort of person who "regards a self."
"One who does not regard anything in that way does not grasp anything in the world. Due to not grasping, they do not experience anxious longing47 . Due to this, they achieve complete cessation48 . They know: 'Rebirth has been destroyed, the religious path has been perfected, what needed to be done has been completed, and there will be no return to any state. Such a monk, liberated in that way, cannot be said to hold these views: 'A Tathāgata continues to exist after death'; 'a Tathāgata does not exist after death'; 'a Tathāgata both exists and does not exist after death'; 'a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist after death.'
Why is that? A monk is freed by directly knowing: the extent of labeling, of the pathway of labeling; the extent of terminology, of the pathway of terminology; the extent of description, of the pathway of description; the extent of wisdom, of the sphere of wisdom; and the extent of the cycle of rebirth. Such a monk cannot be said to hold this view: 'There is no such thing as directly knowing and seeing.'"
After having discussed Dependent Arising - that process by which we are reborn - the Buddha saw fit to discuss rebirth a bit more granularly by discussing the variations of rebirth one may take. Various schemes for this sort of discussion appear throughout the suttas; here, we see a ninefold division composed of seven "stations of consciousness" (viññānatthiti) followed by two "dimensions" or "spheres" (āyatanāna).49
"The first station of consciousness includes beings who have bodies of different natures, and likewise have perceptions of different natures; this includes humans, some gods, and some beings in the underworld."
"The second station of consciousness includes beings who have bodies of different natures, but have perceptions of a unified nature; this includes the gods born among Brahma's Host (Brahmakāyika Devas) as a result of the first jhāna."
"The third station of consciousness includes beings who have bodies of a unified nature, but have perceptions of different natures; this includes the Gods of Streaming Radiance (Ābhassarā Devas)." Rebirth here occurs as a result of attaining the second jhāna.
"The fourth station of consciousness includes beings who have bodies and perceptions of a unified nature; this includes the Gods Replete With Glory (Subhakinhā Devas)." Rebirth here occurs as a result of attaining the third jhāna.
For some reason, a type of god corresponding to the fourth jhāna, the "Gods of Abundant Fruits" (Vehapphala Devas), are skipped over in this scheme.50 Instead, after the fourth station of consciousness, we move into various classes of formless beings - high gods born with no material body whatsoever. One achieves rebirth here through reaching meditative states called "the formless attainments."
"The fifth station of consciousness consists of beings who have gone totally beyond perceptions of form; with the ending of perceptions of impingement(-contact), not focusing on perceptions of diversity, aware that 'space is infinite,' they have reached the dimension of infinite space (ākāsānañcāyatana)."
"The sixth station of consciousness consists of beings that have gone totally beyond the dimension of infinite space; aware that 'consciousness is infinite,' they have reached the dimension of infinite consciousness (viññānañcāyatana)."
"The seventh station of consciousness consists of beings that have gone totally beyond the dimension of infinite consciousness; aware that 'there is nothing at all,' they have reached the dimension of nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana)."
Finally, there are two types of being that are unique in Buddhist cosmology. Sujato points out that existence in either of these realms is not called a "station of consciousness," because in these realms consciousness does not seem to operate in the way it does elsewhere in the cosmos.
"There is the dimension of non-percipient beings (asaññasattāyatana), and secondly, the dimension of neither perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana)." The non-percipient beings occupy a curious place in Buddhist cosmology. In fact, the suttas do not contain much information about them at all. The commentarial tradition claims they exist within an exalted portion of the fourth jhāna realm where the Gods of Abundant Fruits are reborn. They are said to have material bodies, and - as suggested by their name - they do not experience the arising of perception, effectively meaning they are unconscious for the duration of their lives. Rebirth here is described as being a result of "outsiders" (bāhirakas) reaching the fourth jhāna, and coming away from the experience with the mistaken conclusion that suffering is a result of thinking and being conscious, and thus, to end suffering one must become unthinking and unconscious.51
The second of these beings, those in the dimension of neither perception-nor-non-perception, achieve rebirth here through the most subtle of the formless attainments, wherein one does not engage in the activity of perception, but does not resign themselves to the opposite extreme of non-perception. As such, they have no bodies, existing only as a mental entity whose activity is so subtle, it cannot be described as "perceptive," and yet it is still active in such a way which precludes the description of "non-perceptive."
The Buddha tied everything together here by moving into a discussion of the type of person who has become disenchanted with all of these various types of existence - the arahant, one who has attained enlightenment. The arahant sees clearly the function of Dependent Arising and as such is not fooled by the allure of any type of existence, not even that of the highest gods.
"Someone who understands these seven stations of consciousness and these two dimensions - understands their origin, their cessation, the gratification which may be found therein, as well as the dangers, and the means of escape from them - such a person will not delight in these stations of consciousness or these dimensions. Not grasping, they become liberated. They are called 'A Monk Liberated by Wisdom' (Bhikkhu Paññāvimutto)." This is the first of two types of arahants which will be referenced in this sutta. I will go into more detail on these two types after the second is mentioned below.
The next section concerns "The 8 Liberations" (Atthavimokkha). Sujato explains that this list is an alternative formulation of the meditative states of jhāna, proceeded by the formless attainments and concluded with a unique meditative state which is even more refined. The first three liberations cover the first four jhānas. Liberations #4-7 correspond to the formless attainments. Details about these liberations come from Sujato's sidenotes.
"With the 1st Liberation, one with physical form sees form." This refers to mindfulness practice centered on perception of one's own body, such as breath meditation or close observation of particular body parts.
"With the 2nd Liberation, one does not perceive form internally; instead, they see forms externally." This refers to mindfulness practice grounded on an external point of focus, such as a light or the image of a corpse.52
"With the 3rd Liberation, one focuses exclusively on beauty." This refers to meditation on some "wholly pure and exalted" object, such as love, or a brilliant color.
"With the 4th Liberation, one goes completely beyond the perception of form, and with the ending of impingement(-contact), not focusing on perceptions of diversity, aware that 'space is infinite,' they enter and abide in the dimension of infinite space."
"With the 5th Liberation... they enter and abide in the dimension of infinite consciousness."
"With the 6th Liberation... they enter and abide in the dimension of nothingness."
"With the 7th Liberation... they enter and abide in the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception."
"With the 8th Liberation... they enter and remain in the cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha)." This is the first reference in the Dīgha Nikāya to the state of "cessation of perception and feeling," an incredibly subtle meditative state which can serve as a direct access point to enlightenment, or at the very least, rebirth as a Non-Returner (as noted by Walshe).
"A monk who is able to enter into and emerge from these eight liberations - in forward order, in reverse, and in both sequences back-to-back - wherever they are, whenever they wish, for whatever duration they please; a monk who destroys the defilemments (āsavas) and realizes the undefiled freedom of mind (cetovimutti) and freedom by wisdom (paññāvimutti) in this very life, through direct insight, is called 'A Monk Freed Both Ways' (bhikkhu ubhatobhāgavimutto). Ānanda, there is no liberation which is higher than this."
This ends the sutta proper, but there are a few ideas here that I think need to be unpacked.
In this sutta, we have seen the Buddha reference two types of arahant, clearly distinguished from one another - first, one "freed by wisdom" (paññāvimutti), and second, one who additionally realizes "freedom of mind" (cetovimutti) in addition to wisdom, making them "freed both ways" (ubhatobhāgavimutto). Let's discuss this in more detail, relying primarily on information from the Kītāgiri Sutta (MN 70).
First, it should be understood that both types of arahant are fully enlightened, in that they have achieved "direct insight into the ultimate truth" (paramasaccam sacchikaroti) and "see it with penetrating wisdom" (paññāya ca nam ativijjha passati). In the discourse presented here in DN 15, that "ultimate truth" is presented as the true nature of existence within any of the seven stations of consciousness and the two dimensions, and the role Dependent Arising plays in producing any such existence - as well as bringing the cycle to an end.
Both types of arahants, through that insight, have destroyed the mental forces called "defilements" (āsavas). These forces are subtle factors that affect our thoughts and actions, undermining our efforts to progress along the path. Thus, uprooting them is necessary for becoming enlightened, and the suttas discuss their destruction as equivalent to enlightenment. The suttas identify three defilements: the defilement of sensuality (kāmāsavā), the defilement of [desire for] existence (bhavāsavā), and the defilement of ignorance (avijjāsavā). Sometimes a fourth, the defilement of views/speculation (ditthāsava), is included, although this is less common and is likely a late addition to the doctrine.53 To go into further detail here would be tangential, so let it suffice to say that every arahant has freed themselves from these defilements. As such, every arahant is "freed by wisdom" and, upon dying, will not be reborn into the cycle of birth and death. Instead, they will attain complete emancipation (parinibbāna).
What Distinguishes the Arahant "Freed Both Ways"
The difference between the arahant "freed by wisdom" and the arahant "freed both ways" is that the latter has additionally mastered meditative states that the former has not - namely, the formless attainments. Exactly how many of the formless attainments one must master in order to become "freed both ways" is a matter of debate; here in DN 15, it seems to be the case that one must have mastered all four formless meditations and the additional state of "the cessation of perception and feeling" in order to be considered an arahant freed both ways. However, MN 70 only refers to the formless attainments generally - with no number specified and no explicit reference to that higher state of cessation - in defining the difference between the two types of arahants. Personally, I follow the description found here in DN 15, and believe that mastery of all 8 Liberations is necessary for this status, but I must admit that this is a contested issue and I possess no unique insight.54
It is important to understand that the additional experience of "cetovimutti," freedom of mind, does not make the arahant who is freed both ways "super enlightened" or anything; this type of arahant does not unlock some secret bonus version of nibbāna. Instead, "freedom of mind" simply indicates that thay have achieved mental liberation from the bounds of form-existence through their mastery of the formless meditations. In fact, "cetovimutti" need not imply enlightenment at all; for example, in AN 6.13 "cetovimutti" is associated with the practice of four meditation practices separate from any mentioned here in DN 15 - namely, the brahmavihāras - where it seems to connote a temporary liberation from certain unwholesome mental qualities. "Paññāvimutti" (freed by wisdom), on the other hand, always refers to enlightenment.
Remaining Unenlightened Despite Seeing With Wisdom & Experiencing the Formless Meditations
It should also be understood that "truly understanding" the ideas of freedom of mind and freedom by wisdom does not correspond to enlightenment, nor does experience of the formless meditations. As seen in the Migasālā Sutta (AN 10.75), it is possible to "truly understand" (yathābhūtam pajānāti) and "comprehend theoretically" (ditthiyāpi patividdham) while only "attaining temporary freedom" (sāmāyikampi vimuttim labhati). This is why the Buddha, in DN 15, specified that the arahant has "direct insight into the ultimate truth" (paramasaccam sacchikaroti) and "sees it with penetrating wisdom" (paññāya ca nam ativijjha passati). This goes beyond mere knowledge, instead being the result of a powerfully transformative experience rooted in wisdom.
Likewise, as stated in MN 70, it is possible that one can experience the formless meditations and "see with wisdom" (paññāya cassa disvā) while only having "destroyed some of the defilements" (ekacce āsavā parikkhīna), thus falling short of complete liberation. It is only when one has achieved perfect insight through wisdom cultivated to completion, whereupon they will have uprooted every defilement entirely, that one is liberated.
The Mahānidāna Sutta, then, stands as the Buddha's advice to Ānanda - and to us, 2,500 years later - not to underestimate the complexity of Dependent Arising, nor to overestimate our own insight into the topic. Because the factors at play in Dependent Arising are the cause for our wandering through the cycle of suffering, lifetime after lifetime, extending into the past for so many unfathomable eons, it is a doctrine that we must treat with a great deal of gravity.
However, it is not impenetrable; to understand it is difficult, but not impossible. The Buddha, out of compassion for us and with an earnest confidence in our ability to break free from the cycle, expounded the nature of dependent arising so that we may take it to heart and use it to resituate ourselves along the path we have taken in life. By understanding the way our mental and material components interact with external reality to build up our subjective experience, we may recognize the point at which we are able to take control and redirect our trajectory away from the well-worn roads which lead to birth, death, and suffering, sending us instead along the path to perfect enlightenment.
There are several versions of this discourse preserved in the Chinese canon. There are two primary parallels: in the Dīrghāgama, there is DA 13, "The Great Method of Origination." This version comes from the Dharmaguptaka sect. In the Madhyamāgama, there is MA 97, "The Great Discourse on Causality." This version likely comes from the Sarvāstivāda tradition. Furthermore, two other versions are found in other collections within the Chinese canon: one at T 14, translated by An Shigao in the late 2nd century CE, and another at T 52, translated by Shi Hu in the late 10th century CE. There are also Sanskrit fragments which correspond to this sermon.
In DN 15, the sermon is said to have taken place in "the land of the Kurus, near the Kuru town named Kammāsadamma," which Sujato says is identified with modern-day "Kumashpur in Haryana, about 40 km north of Delhi." However, in DA 13, the location is said to be "in Kuru at Kalmāsha’s Residence" (劫摩沙住處), which would seem to be the residence (住處) of an individual named Kalmāsha (劫摩沙). As noted in the definition of Kammāsadamma at WisdomLib, this term evolved significantly over time, with its meanings becoming more numerous and complicated; I suspect that, by the time of the Chinese translation, this complication had advanced to the point that what was once the name of a town was then understood as someone's name. I'm just talking out of my hat here, though, and it's entirely possible I'm wrong.
All texts seem to preserve the event of Ānanda approaching the Buddha and declaring how remarkable it was that he thoroughly understood Dependent Arising. Likewise, each version seems to corroborate that the Buddha admonished him for underestimating the subtleties of the doctrine. DN 15 alone presents the Buddha as having warned Ānanda that failing to understand these subtleties leads to rebirth in the lower realms. T 14, MĀ 97, and T 52 are similar, however, in that they record the Buddha making reference to one being subject to the cycle of rebirth generally as a result of not comprehending Dependent Arising - the lower realms in particular are not mentioned. The passage in these versions is shorter.55 In DA 13, it is said that the Buddha only commented on how difficult it is to understand the doctrine, saying that the doctrine "is unknown to the gods, Māra, Brahmā, ascetics, and priests. If they were to ponder, investigate, and discern its meaning, they would become confused, being unable to see it.” No reference to rebirth at all is found in this version's passage.
In DN 15, when the Buddha first goes over the links of Dependent Arising in the reverse cycle, he began with "old age & death" and worked backwards to the mutual conditioning of "consciousness" with "name-and-form." T 14, MA 97, and T 52 only go back to "craving," and thus, are considerably shorter.56 DA 13, however, goes back to include "volitional formations" and "ignorance," giving us the more common 12-Link formula - but only in this section. Later, when the Buddha expounded on each link, we only see the same factors discussed in DN 15. Charles Patton points out that four different versions of this introduction can be found in the parallel texts preserving this sermon, but the same shorter formula is found in the exposition of all versions. This strongly suggests that the introduction featuring the reverse cycle is a later addition to an older, common core sermon wherein the links were discussed in more detail.
In DN 15, when the Buddha introduced the "side chain" of Dependent Arising which explains the problems which affect society at large, he began with "feeling." All four parallel versions are shorter, beginning with "craving" instead. Furthermore, in DN 15, when the Buddha discussed how craving is the cause of pursuit, he specified that "craving" is threefold: the craving for sense-pleasures, for existence, and for non-existence. Immediately following this is a reference to "those two things" (ime dve dhammā) being united by feeling. It seems possible that this could be referring to the two models of Dependent Arising which follow craving - that which explains the arising of individual rebirth, and that which explains societal sufferings - but in T 14, MA 97, and T 52, this reference to "two things" instead follows a twofold description of craving: for sense-pleasures, and for existence. Furthermore, at this point in DA 13, "craving" is mentioned without elaboration, although earlier in the sutra the threefold explanation can be found. These details, supported by similar passages from Sanskrit fragments, are certainly suggestive of the possibility that the idea of craving for non-existence was a late addition to this sermon, and perhaps to wider Buddhist doctrine altogether, which were later inserted into the Mahāvihāravāsin and Dharmaguptaka versions of this text.57
In the passages where the Buddha discussed the various types of contact with Ānanda, and how they depend on the components of both name and form, DN 15 seems to have a redundancy. In DA 13, the Buddha simply discussed mental contact, which depends on name-and-form; followed by physical contact, which depends on physical form; and finally, contact in general, which also depends on name-and-form. DN 15, instead, shows the Buddha having discussed "labeling contact" (which would correspond to "mental contact"); then, "impingement contact"; then, before concluding with "contact in general," there is a clumsy passage which repeats "labeling contact" and "impingement contact" together.
The more straightforward version also seems to be preserved in T 14 and MA 97, whereas the passage is altogether missing from T 52. Tilman Vetter speculates that this omission was a deliberate choice on the part of a curator who found the passage to be confusing.58
In DN 15, we see discussions on the theories of the self, which has parallels in DA 13, T 14, and MA 97, but not T 52. In DA 13, the passage is awkward and is presented in an odd position of the text. In DA 13, after the sequence of Dependent Arising has been finished, following the reference to "the extent of language," etc., the text immediately moves to the discussion of "one liberated by wisdom," then stops to make reference to the various views of whether or not a Tathāgata exists after death, followed by a repetition of "the extent of language," etc., then concludes with another reference to "a liberated monk" who does not hold any of the misguided views regarding the fate of a Tathāgata. After this confusing passage comes the discussion of the theories of self, which itself seems muddled.
In DN 13, the possible theories are: 1) taking name-and-form as self, or feeling as self; 2) holding, instead, that "feeling is not self, but the self is feeling."; 3) holding, instead, that "feeling is not self, nor is the self feeling, but what feels is the self."; 4) holding, instead, that "feeling is not self, the self is not feeling, and neither is what feels self - only craving [for feeling] is the self." This latter theory seems to replace the one in DN 15 which holds that the self is entirely unrelated to feeling.
Like the Pali version, this section is followed by one where the Buddha presented counter-arguments to these theories. For the first two theories, the counter-argument is the same: feelings are impermanent and arise due to conditions. I'm not going to bother writing about the other counter-arguments because I don't understand the differences between the theories and I don't entirely see how the counter-arguments presented would be satisfactory arguments against the theories they are meant to address. In my opinion, these passages are much more sensible in DN 15.
After those counter-arguments, DA 13 repeats the line about "the extent of language," etc., and another reference to one "liberated by wisdom" who does not hold such views. This is followed by another discussion of theories of the self, this time focusing on the theories that a self is either "a little bit of form," "a large amount of form," "something which is small and formless," or "something which is large and formless." This gives way to the discussion of seven stations of consciousness and the two dimensions, which is tied together with the previous section by declarations in each case that one "liberated by wisdom" knows that no self is found in any of those states of existence. This is followed by the discussion of the eight liberations and the arahant "freed both ways," whereupon the sermon concludes.
All in all, the numerous versions of this sermon - which mostly agree with one another on doctrinal content - indicate that the "meat and potatoes" of this discourse are indeed a product of the early Buddhist tradition. Portions which seem to be late interpolations have found their way into different parts of the various versions, but nothing especially egregious stands out. Of particular note is the fact that the inclusion of ignorance and volitional formations in this sermon seems to be a late addition, supporting the idea that DN 15 indeed preserves an early form of this teaching - in part, if not in whole, given some of the other quirks which suggest later additions.
Some scholars speculate that this analysis regarding the 12-fold formula, which includes ignorance and volitional formations, should be extrapolated to wider Buddhist doctrine altogether, suggesting that the shorter formula is the original. This seems possible to me, but there's no definite evidence for this, and it certainly doesn't provide evidence that the doctrine was originally unrelated to rebirth, as the more bold of these scholars have tried to argue. There is nothing in any version of this sermon which suggests rebirth wasn't a central concern of these discussions, and all evidence points to the exact opposite - Dependent Arising is first and foremost a theoretical framework explaining the function of rebirth. There is no reason to believe this doctrine was not taught by the earliest Buddhist community.
 When we see a sutta whose title begins with Mahā, this sometimes means it is the longer of two versions preserved in the Canon. In this case, the sutta is usually translated as "The Greater (whatever) Sermon," and its counterpart will be called "The Lesser (Whatever) Sermon," with "lesser" being the English rendering of the word "Cūla." Some translators prefer "Longer" or "Shorter," respectively, to clearly convey that the terms are being used to denote length, and not the superiority of one version over another.
Other times, the presence of the word "Mahā" simply means that the sermon is "great" due to the gravity of its contents. This seems to be the case for DN 15, since there is no "Cūlanidāna Sutta." In fact, it may be more accurate to say that "great" is meant to modify the word "nidāna," and not "sermon" - "The Sermon on the Great Causation," as opposed to "The Great Sermon on Causation." This understanding is strengthened by the way the Buddha speaks about the doctrine of dependent arising in this sermon, as well as allusions to the doctrine's significance in other sermons. Either rendering demonstrates the importance of this discourse, however, so I don't think it's an important distinction to make.
 Some authors count 10 factors in this sutta, presumably taking what I call the "side chain" of craving leading to pursuit as the extra link. Personally, I don't think this makes sense; if you take this as part of the primary sequence, why wouldn't you count all of the links which follow pursuit as well?
 In the previous sutta, DN 14, Dependent Arising was discussed with a 10-factor formula. In that version as well as this one, the first two factors of the more famous formula - ignorance and volitional formations - are missing. Because these are usually interpreted as factors stemming from a past life, some authors have proposed that this shorter version is an older formula concerned only with one's present life. I have even seen authors suggest that this indicates the doctrine of rebirth is a late innovation.
This claim is misguided at best and maliciously dishonest at worst; the very texts that feature these shorter formulas clearly discuss rebirth, and the entire doctrine of Dependent Arising is necessarily nested in the framework of rebirth: if the entire process took place merely within one lifetime, learning to bring the cycle to cessation would be moot, because it would end with death. Bhikkhu Bodhi (ref. 7) has said "such suggestions remain purely conjectural, misleading, and objectionable on doctrinal and textual grounds" and "it might well be suspected, contrary to the thesis of historical development, that in the present sutta the Buddha has varied the usual exposition" in order to emphasize the function of causality in a more specific, specialized context. As Piya Tan points out, the unique concern of this formula is to demonstrate the way that two particular factors - "consciousness" and "name & form" - interact with one another. The mutual conditioning of these two factors lies at the heart of suffering on both an individual and societal level.
This 9-factor formula is missing an additional factor: that of "the six sense-gates."
 In addition to the different formulas which feature various numbers of factors, the Buddha sometimes varied his discussions of Dependent Arising by alternating between the "forward cycle" and the "reverse cycle." There is also the version of the formula sometimes called "Dependent Cessation," although no such term is used in the Pali sources. That formula may also be divided between its forward and reverse cycles. Broadly, this gives us four versions of the docrtine, though we can break these four into more granular divisions once we take into consideration the differences in the numbers of factors.
Studying these different versions of the doctrine can be confusing - not merely because of the sheer number of variations, but because different authors use different, sometimes overlapping, terms for each formulation of the process. I will make this as simple as possible:
"Dependent Arising" may be called the "standard process" (anuloma). This version is concerned with identifying how suffering is produced by analyzing the cycle of suffering and identifying the way one factor causes its subsequent effect, which itself becomes the cause for the next link in the chain. This manifests in statements to the effect of, "With this certain factor as a cause, its subsequent effect will arise." With the forward cycle of the anuloma process, we begin with a root cause - usually "ignorance," though in this sutta we have the two factors of "name & form" and "consciousness" kickstarting the process together - and trace the chain of events which lead to "old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and dukkha/suffering." Bodhi [CITE HIS BOOK] notes that this forward cycle represents the perspective of the Buddha's complete comprehension of the nature of suffering: here, the root cause of suffering is identified right away, and we are shown step=by-step how this leads to the existential problems we all experience.
The reverse order functions in the same way - demonstrating how suffering arises - but begins with the end result of "old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and dukkha/suffering" and traces it back sequentially to a root cause. Bodhi (ref. 7) explains that this order "at once confronts the auditor with the problem of his being, then takes him on a step-by-step descent down the chain of conditions that underlies that problem," which "recapitulates the process by which the Buddha himself discovered dependent arising, and thus tends to kindle a spark of the same enlightenment." For this reason, he declares that the reverse cycle is more effective at setting the listener moving towards the cessation of suffering (ibid).
In other words, the forward cycle stems from the Buddha explaining to us what he knows; the reverse cycle represents the method of analysis which may be used to attain that understanding, more immediately relatable to those of us presently in the throes of dukkha.
"Dependent Cessation" may be called the "counter process" (patiloma). This version is concerned with showing how the cycle of suffering is undone by stopping the cycle of causation. This manifests in statements to the effect of, "in the absence of a certain condition, its subsequent effect will not arise." The forward cycle begins with the absence of a root cause, and demonstrates how bringing this factor to cessation allows us to avoid producing the following series of factors which would have led to the end result of suffering. The reverse cycle begins with "the cessation of suffering," and explains how this is achieved with the cessation of the preceding series of factors which would have produced it.
 The word "rebirth" here is translated from the Pāli term "jāti," which literally means "birth," but in order to convey the necessary implications (which will be made clear later in this sutta), "rebirth" is a preferable translation. Discussions of "birth" in the context of Dependent Arising, and in Buddhism at large, necessarily imply the cyclical nature of birth and rebirth.
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 In the sutta, these explanations take the form of the Buddha quizzing Ānanda with a question about the functions of these factors, Ānanda answering correctly, and the Buddha confirming his answer. I have simplified this exchange by presenting the Buddha's explanations as statements and removing Ānanda's responses.
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Elsewhere, other mental forces are identified as causes for rebirth, though the model of Dependent Arising presented in this sutta doesn't explicitly reference these. See my essay on rebirth for a more detailed discussion.
 Sujato notes that this sequence is unique to this version of the Dependent Arising formula; usually, the six sense gates are given as the condition for contact.
 Sujato's sidenotes for DN 15
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Sujato's essay, cited by Piya Tan
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Bodhi, ref. 7 & Holder
 In his sidenotes, Sujato notes that this list of nine societal troubles appears in DN 34 and AN 9.23, where they are called "the nine activities rooted in craving" (nava tanhāmūlakā dhammā).
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Bodhi, ref. 6
 Bodhi, refs. 6 & 7
 Grasping sensual pleasures, in Pali, would be "kāmupādāna." I did not give it its own subheading in this analysis, as covering it in the seventh link would be redundant after having done so in the sixth link.
 Sujato's sidenotes for DN 1
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Bodhi, ref. 8
 Anālayo, ref. 3
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 Gandhabbas are a sort of celestial being, often depicted as musical nymphs in service to the gods.
 Yakkhas are perhaps best understood as wild spirits; some are depicted as being sympathetic to the Buddha and his order, while others are hostile, akin to demons or mischevious spirits.
 This is an obscure term. The term literally means "beings," as noted by Walshe, but it often carries the sense of some ghostly entity. They are generally regarded as malevolent.
 Later Buddhist traditions would come to view the formless meditations as jhānas; this isn't a particularly problematic innovation, but it isn't corroborated by the suttas themselves.
 Most of these examples were first pointed out by Bhikkhu Sunyo in his posts made on the Sutta Central forums.
 The term for such a person is "sotapanna," or "stream-enterer," signifying they have "entered the stream" of irreversible progress toward enlightenment.
 Some beings - such as those reborn in hell, or gods - are not conceived in a womb, and instead, are born spontaneously, fully-formed.
 For some reason, this doctrine of the liminal state is controversial, despite how clear the suttas are on the issue. The Theravāda tradition, for example, interpreted the "Antarāparinibbāyi" as someone who achieves enlightenment within the first half of their heavenly life in the Pure Abodes. There is nothing in the suttas to support this reading, and it seems to be a strained attempt to conform to a sectarian view which developed in that tradition: the belief that all rebirth occurs instantly.
 Bodhi, ref. 7
 To "experience anxious longing" is a rendering of the Pāli term "paritassati," which conveys a state of being excitable, worried, and desirous of something.
 To "achieve complete cessation" comes from the verb "nibbāyati," related to the word nibbāna, modified with the prefix "pari-" which means "total." It can be translated as "extinguuished," as well, complementing the fire imagery seen throughout the suttas. In other words, this refers to the total extinguishment of the fires that sustain rebirth; it signifies the complete cessation of birth and death.
 Piya Tan notes an omission in this scheme: the various types of non-returners, beings who are reborn in the Suddhāvāsa realms, or the "Pure Abodes," as a result of progressing to a point along the spiritual path that ensures they will never again be reborn in any realm lower than those of the Pure Abodes. I guess - and this is pure speculation on my own part - the reason for their omission is because the context of this sutta's discussion of rebirth is the cyclical nature of suffering, and those reborn in the Pure Abodes are at the very end of their subjection to that cycle - they are so close to enlightenment that they need not be discussed in this context.
 For example, see AN 4.123, where the Vehapphala Devas are mentioned in the wider context of the four jhāna rebirths. Punnadhammo Mahathero notes that this level of Buddhist cosmology is usually treated as something separate from the other Brahmā realms in the Pāli texts, which may explain why DN 15 neglects to mention it here.
 The details in this paragraph come from Punnadhammo Mahathero.
 This type of macabre meditation is recommended as a mindfulness practice to encourage understanding of impermanence and develop detachment to the body.
 Piya Tan
 Here, I implore you to remember that I'm just some guy with a website. If you're interested, look into this yourself and make up your own mind.
 Anālayo, ref. 2
 Vetter cited by Anālayo, ibid.
 Anālayo, Bhikkhu : "Consciousness and
 Anālayo, Bhikkhu : "Dīrgha-āgama Studies"
 Anālayo, Bhikkhu : "Sakkayaditthi" (Encyclopedia Entry)
 Anālayo, Bhikkhu : "The Five 'Fingers' of Name"
 Anālayo, Bhikkhu : "Upadana" (Encyclopedia Entry)
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu : "Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha's Original Teachings"
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu : "The Great Discourse on Causation: The Mahanidana Sutta and Its Commentaries"
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu : "In the Buddha's Words"
 Holder, John J. : "Early Buddhist Discourses"
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 5.17 - D 15/2.2 - Mahānidāna Sutta
 Walshe, Maurice : "The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya"