Noble Truths, Noble Path

Read a brief of the new book of the Buddha’s original teachings from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Wisdom Publications.

By Bhikkhu Bodhi

Constance Kassor’s review from the Spring 2024 Buddhadharma:

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings developed out of one of his previous books, Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pāli, compiled for his students in a three-year language course. Several students suggested that he compile his translations of sutras in that book without their linguistic explanations, in order to benefit a wider audience. Noble Truths, Noble Path is a compilation of works from the Samyutta Nikya, arranged into six different categories that “take us straight to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, summed up in two interrelated structures: the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.” Each section of the translated sutras is prefaced by a substantial introduction, which serves to orient readers to key components of Buddhist doctrine and training.

Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of footnotes; these are not represented in this excerpt.

The Excerpt: “Chapter 4. Dependent Origination

The Origination and Cessation of Suffering


The teaching of dependent origination offers a more detailed perspective on the causal dynamics maintaining samsara, the round of rebirths. The Pāli term paticcasamuppada is a compound of paticca, the absolutive of pacceti, “comes back to, falls back on, relies on,” and the noun samuppada, “origination.” The common translation of paticcasamuppada as “interdependent co-arising” (and its variants) is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. While certain pairs of factors in the formula may be mutually dependent, the word paticca itself does not imply mutuality but the dependence of one factor upon the other. Again, samuppada does not mean simultaneous arising. While certain factors may arise simultaneously (for instance, contact and feeling), others, such as feeling and craving, may be separated by a temporal gap, and others, such as birth and old-age-and-death, are necessarily separated by a temporal gap.

The formula for dependent origination is founded upon an abstract “structural principle” stipulating the general law that things arise through conditions. As stated in 4.6, 4.7, and 4.10, the principle runs thus: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” In the suttas, this principle is applied in a variety of ways, but the main application is to a sequence of twelve factors, each of which arises in dependence on its predecessor and ceases with the ceasing of its predecessor. The teaching can thus be seen as an expanded version of the second and third noble truths, showing in finer detail the chain of conditions responsible for the origination and cessation of dukkha.

The diagnosis of dukkha offered by this formula probes more deeply into the issue of origins than the standard statement of the second noble truth, for it reveals, lying at the very base of repeated existence, a more fundamental condition than craving. This more fundamental condition is avijja, ignorance. Though defined narrowly in the suttas as “not knowing suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path,” ignorance rep- resents more broadly the lack of awareness of all the principles that illuminate the true nature of phenomena. These include not only the four truths but the three characteristics and dependent origination itself. Ignorance sustains the round of dukkha, and when ignorance comes to an end, the entire network of conditions also ends, culminating in “the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

The individual factors that constitute the formula of depen- dent origination are formally defined in 4.1, but the suttas leave us only with these definitions, without demonstrating precisely how the factors hang together as an integral whole. This ambiguity has led to the emergence of different, some- times competing interpretations of the formula. However, virtually all the ancient Indian Buddhist schools concur that the formula shows the sequence of causal factors that sustain the round of rebirths as extended over a series of lives. Some modern interpreters have challenged this interpretation, holding that the entire sequence of twelve factors pertains to a single life. The Vibhanga (of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka) does have a section showing how dependent origination operates at the level of individual mind-moments, but to suit its purpose this version alters the definitions of some of the factors, especially “existence,” “birth,” “old age,” and “death.” Apart from this special application, it seems clear enough that, as originally intended, the twelve terms of the formula are spread out over multiple lives.

The traditional explanation, stated simply and concisely, goes like this: Because of fundamental ignorance, one engages in various volitional activities—wholesome and unwholesome bodily, verbal, or purely mental actions—that generate kamma with the potential to produce a new existence. These karmic activities, at death, propel consciousness into a new existence. The new existence begins when consciousness arrives at a new embodiment, bringing forth a fresh assemblage of bodily and mental phenomena, which are collectively designated name- and-form. As name-and-form matures, the six sense bases take shape and begin to function. When the sense bases encounter their corresponding objects, contact occurs. Contact gives rise to feeling through the six bases—pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings, which trigger corresponding responses. In an untrained person, feeling arouses craving, a desire to obtain pleasant objects and avoid situations that cause pain. When one obtains the objects of desire, one relishes them and holds to them tightly; this is clinging, an intensification of craving, which may also find expression in views that justify one’s craving for more pleasure and continued existence. Through clinging, one engages in a fresh round of volitional activities that create the potential for a new existence—an existence that may occur in any of the three realms recognized by Buddhist cosmology: the desire realm, the realm of subtle form, and the formless realm. That new existence begins with birth, and once birth takes place, there follows old-age-and-death and all the other manifestations of dukkha encountered in the course of existence.

The three-life interpretation of dependent origination has sometimes been branded a commentarial invention on the ground that the suttas themselves do not divide the terms up into different lifetimes. However, while it is true that we do not find in the suttas an explicit distribution of the factors into three lives, close examination of the variants on the standard formula lends strong support to the three-life interpretation. One example is SN 12:19 (at II 23–25), where it is said that both the fool and the sage have acquired a body through the ignorance and craving of the past. The fool does not eliminate ignorance and craving and so, following the breakup of the present body, the fool moves on to a new embodied existence, once again subject to birth, old age, and death. The sage eliminates present ignorance and craving and is thus freed from any future embodied existence, no longer bound to birth, old age, and death. This statement clearly assigns certain factors to the past, their results to the present, and the results of present activity to the future.

The twelve-factored formula was never intended to be exclusively linear but to serve as a simplified representation of a complex process that involves overlapping and intersecting lines of conditionality. The extraction of twelve conditions and their configuration in the familiar sequence might be considered an expository device intended to show the causal dynamics underlying the round of rebirths. To convey a clearer understanding of the relationships among the twelve factors, the commentarial tradition explains that the factors can be assigned to four groups, each with five factors.

  1. When ignorance and volitional activities were present in the past life, craving, clinging, and the karmically active phase of existence were also present. These five constitute the causal group of the past existence.
  2. These five “propulsive” causes functioned in unison to bring forth consciousness and name-and-form, which arise at the initial moment of the present existence and continue to evolve in uninterrupted interplay through the entire course of life. From their interplay, the six sense bases, contact, and feel- ing emerge. These five constitute the resultant group of the present existence.
  3. These five in turn serve as the grounds for a new round of craving, clinging, and karmic activities tending toward a new existence. When these arise, ignorance necessarily underlies them, and what is referred to as karmic existence is essentially identical with volitional activities. These are the five causal factors of the present existence.
  4. These five as causes bring forth a new fivefold set of resultant factors in the future—namely, consciousness, name-and- form, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling. These make up the resultant group of the future existence.

The five factors making up each resultant group necessarily undergo the stages of physiological development and decline, and thus birth along with old-age-and-death—the last two factors in the twelvefold series—are implicitly contained within the resultant groups.

Looked at from another angle, ignorance and craving jointly function as the roots of the entire process of samsara. Along with clinging, these three constitute the round of defilements. Two factors, volitional activities and the karmically active phase of existence, constitute the round of kamma. And the resultant phase of existence, along with all the remaining factors, constitute the round of results.

3 periods12 factors20 modes in 4 groups
PastIgnoranceVolitional activitiesPast causes 5:1, 2, 8, 9, 10
PresentConsciousnessName-and-formSix sense basesContactFeelingPresent effects 5:3–7
CravingClingingExistencePresent causes 5:8, 9, 10, 1, 2
FutureBirthOld-age-and-deathFuture effects 5:3–7

The suttas do not offer such a detailed account of dependent origination, but provide instead different perspectives on this teaching. The chain of conditions is said at 4.5 to be a natural law that remains valid whether or not buddhas arise in the world. This sequence of conditions—called “specific conditionality” (idappaccayata)—persists as a fixed principle, stable and invariable through all time, said to be “real, not unreal, not otherwise.” The task of a buddha is to penetrate this law and fully comprehend it, and then to elucidate it for others.

Several suttas in this collection show the realization of dependent origination to have been the great discovery the Buddha made on the night of his enlightenment. One text included here, 4.2, states this with respect to the present buddha, Gotama. The preceding suttas in that series relate the same narrative about his six predecessors. He begins his investigation seeking an outlet from the suffering inherent in old age and death. His inquiry takes him back through the sequence until he arrives at the most fundamental condition behind the whole series—namely, ignorance. The discernment of each link binding conditions together is here said to have come about through the application of “thorough attention,” culminating in “a breakthrough by wisdom.” The discernment of the entire chain, in the orders of both origination and cessation, marked the gaining of the eye of knowledge. In 4.11, we find a different take on the same line of inquiry, with the series ending in the mutual conditioning of consciousness and name-and-form. In this version the Buddha declares that after seeing how consciousness and name-and-form are mutually dependent and how each ceases with the ceasing of the other, he had discovered the path to enlightenment.

Dependent origination offers a dynamic perspective on non- self that complements the analytic approach provided by the critical examination of the five aggregates. The formula shows how the process of rebirth and the working of karmic causation occur without an underlying subject, a substantial self, pass- ing through the successive stages of life and migrating from one existence to the next. In the Buddha’s time, philosophers and contemplatives were divided into two opposed camps. One camp, the eternalists, held that at the core of every person there is an immortal self—substantial and autonomous—that persists through the cycle of rebirths and attains liberation, preserving its unchanging essence. The other camp, the annihilationists, denied the existence of a permanent self that sur- vives bodily death. They held that with the breakup of the body, personal existence comes to an absolute end and thus at death the living being is utterly annihilated. Dependent origination, as 4.4 demonstrates, served the Buddha as a “teaching by the middle” that avoids these two extremes. It avoids the extreme that “all exists,” a statement of eternalism, by showing how personal continuity is possible without a self that persists through the process. And it avoids the extreme that “all does not exist,” the claim of the annihilationists, by showing that so long as the conditions that drive the process of becoming remain intact, the conditions will continue to operate, stitching together one life to the next.

The suttas selected here are noteworthy not only for the various angles they present on dependent origination but also for their rich variety of similes. Thus 4.8 uses the simile of the clay pot to illustrate the arahant’s attainment of final nibbana. The simile in 4.9 illustrates the two sides of dependent origination with the sustenance and destruction of the tree. In 4.10 the Buddha compares the ever-fickle mind to a monkey that roams through a forest by grabbing and releasing one branch after another. In 4.11 he compares his discovery of the noble eightfold path to a man wandering through a forest who comes across an ancient path leading to an ancient city, which he has the king restore to its previous glory. And in 4.12 he uses the simile of the cup of poisoned beverage to demonstrate how those ascetics who nurture craving remain bound to the round of birth and death, while those who abandon craving win liberation from suffering, like the person who rejects the poisoned beverage and thereby preserves his life.

From Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. We thank Wisdom Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Bhikkhu Bodhi

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk, president of the Buddhist Association of the United States, and the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief, as well as the former editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka. His extensive translations of the Pali canon have informed dharma practice in the English-speaking world for decades.