The Rice Seedling Sutra

The Rice Seedling Sutra is one of the most important Buddhist sutras on the topic of dependent arising, the basic Buddhist doctrine that everything depends on something else for its existence. Spoken by the bodhisattva Maitreya, it recounts a teaching that the Buddha had given while gazing at a rice seedling. “Whoever sees dependent arising…

By Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay, 84000
“Gyre,” 2014. Painting by Fred Tomaselli. Copyright Fred Tomaselli 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York.

The Rice Seedling Sutra is one of the most important Buddhist sutras on the topic of dependent arising, the basic Buddhist doctrine that everything depends on something else for its existence. Spoken by the bodhisattva Maitreya, it recounts a teaching that the Buddha had given while gazing at a rice seedling. “Whoever sees dependent arising sees the dharma,” the Buddha states, which means that understanding dependent arising is essential to our knowledge of his teachings. In other words, if the goal is to overcome suffering, then any hope of attaining this goal hinges on recognizing the profound interrelations that make up our world.

A sutra of this scope can be read in many ways, including taking it as a teaching on the environment and our place in it. The Rice Seedling’s descriptions of the connections between seed, sprout, flower, and fruit, and of earth, water, fire, wind, space, and season, point directly to the natural processes of our world. “If there is no seed,” Maitreya tells us, “the sprout cannot arise and so on, until finally, without the flower, the fruit cannot arise.” Pull one element from the chain and the rest will give way; target insects with pesticides and an entire ecosystem begins to fail. Our capacity to destabilize the climate comes very clearly into focus when viewed from the standpoint of dependent arising.

The Rice Seedling Sutra also describes “inner dependent arising”—the psychological processes that generate self-clinging. Ideas of a concrete self, it argues, stem from a basic ignorance of dependent arising. This ignorance—and the negative karma it generates—drive the illusory processes of birth, aging, and death. Maitreya explains that, in reality, “there is nothing whatsoever that transmigrates from this existence to the next.” Yet appearances march on until we come to know better.

One message in this sutra is clear: self-orientation is dangerous. When we act out of self-interest and to the detriment of others—ignoring the realities of dependent arising—we cause suffering. In light of the current climate crisis, we might consider the implications of these insights. What role might our own self-orientation play in the unfolding of this crisis? How might we act differently if we take this sutra’s insights to heart?

—Rory Lindsay

The following passages are from The Rice Seedling, translated by the Dharmasagara Translation Group and made possible by 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. Subheadings have been added for the purposes of this excerpt.

The Natural Interdependence of Our Environment

What is the causal relation in outer dependent arising? It is as follows. From a seed comes a sprout, from a sprout a leaf, from a leaf a stem, from a stem a pedicel, from a pedicel a pistil, from a pistil a flower, and from a flower comes a fruit. If there is no seed, the sprout cannot arise and so on, until finally, without the flower, the fruit cannot arise. If there is a seed, the sprout will form and so on, until finally, if there is a flower, then the fruit will form.

In that process, the seed does not think, “I form the sprout.” Nor does the sprout think, “I am formed by the seed.” Likewise, the flower does not think, “I form the fruit.” Nor does the fruit think, “I am formed by the flower.” Yet, if there is a seed, the sprout will take form and arise, and so on, until finally, likewise, if there is a flower, the fruit will take form and arise. Thus is the causal relation in outer dependent arising to be seen.

So how is the conditional relation in outer dependent arising to be seen? As due to the coming together of six elements. As due to the coming together of what six elements? Namely, conditional dependent arising is to be seen as due to the coming together of the elements of earth, water, fire, wind, space, and season. The earth element functions as the support for the seed. The water element moistens the seed. The fire element ripens the seed. The wind element opens the seed. The space element performs the function of not obstructing the seed. And season transforms the seed. Without these conditions a sprout cannot form from a seed. But when the outer element of earth is not deficient, and likewise water, fire, wind, space, and season are not deficient, then from the coming together of all these factors, a sprout forms as the seed is ceasing.

The earth element does not think, “I support the seed.” Nor does the water element think, “I moisten the seed.” Nor does the fire element think, “I ripen the seed.” Nor does the wind element think, “I open the seed.” Nor does the space element think, “I make sure the seed is not obstructed.” Nor does the season think, “I transform the seed.” Nor does the seed think, “I form the sprout.” Nor does the sprout think, “I am formed by these conditions.” Yet when these conditions are present and the seed is ceasing, the sprout forms. Likewise, when finally there is a flower, the fruit forms.

The sprout is not created by itself, not created by another, not created by both, not created by Isvara, not transformed by time, not derived from prakrti, and not born without any cause. Nevertheless, through the coming together of the elements of earth, water, fire, wind, space, and season, the sprout forms as the seed is ceasing.

Thus is the conditional relation in outer dependent arising to be seen.

Here, outer dependent arising is to be seen in terms of five aspects. What five aspects? As not permanent, as not discontinuous, as not involving transmigration, as the production of a large result from a small cause, and as a continuity of similar type.

How is it not permanent? It is not permanent because the sprout and the seed are different. The sprout is not the seed. The sprout does not come from the seed after it has ceased, nor does it come from the seed while it has not yet ceased. Rather, the sprout is born precisely as the seed ceases.

How is it not discontinuous? It is not discontinuous because a sprout is not born from a seed that has already ceased, nor from a seed that has not yet ceased. Rather, like the beam of a scale tilting from up to down, a sprout is born precisely when the seed has ceased.

How does it not involve transmigration? It does not involve transmigration because the sprout and the seed are different; that which is the sprout is not the seed.

How does it entail the producing of a large result from a small cause? A large fruit is produced from the planting of a small seed. Therefore, it entails the producing of a large result from a small cause.

Lastly, fruit is produced precisely according to the type of seed planted. Therefore, it involves a continuity of similar type.

Thus is outer dependent arising to be seen in terms of five aspects.

Ignorance and the Production of Self-Identity

Similarly, inner dependent arising also arises from two principles. From what two principles? From a causal relation and a conditional relation.

What, then, is the causal relation in inner dependent arising? It starts with ignorance causing formations and so on, until finally, birth causes aging and death. If ignorance does not arise, then formations do not manifest and so on, until finally, if birth does not arise, then aging and death do not manifest. Likewise, from the existence of ignorance, formations occur and so on, until finally, from the existence of birth, comes aging and death.

Ignorance does not think, “I produce formations.” Nor do formations think, “We are produced by ignorance,” and so on. Finally, birth does not think, “I produce aging and death.” Nor do aging and death think, “I am produced by birth.” Nevertheless, formations take form and arise through the existence of ignorance and so on, until finally aging and death take form and arise through the existence of birth.

Thus is the causal relation in inner dependent arising to be seen. 

Death and the Illusion of Self

Here, there is nothing whatsoever that transmigrates from this existence to the next. And yet, because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the result of karma nonetheless manifests. It is like the appearance of the reflection of a face on the surface of a well-polished mirror. The face has not shifted onto the surface of the mirror, but because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the face nonetheless appears there.

Similarly, there is nobody at all who transmigrates from here after death and is born elsewhere. And yet, because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the result of karma nonetheless manifests. It is like how the orb of the moon travels at a distance of forty-two thousand yojanas above earth, and yet its reflection nonetheless appears in small vessels filled with water. It is not that the moon moves from its position and enters the small vessels filled with water. Yet, because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the orb of the moon nonetheless appears there.

Likewise, that there is nobody at all who transmigrates from here after death and is born elsewhere, and yet, because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the result of karma nonetheless manifests, is like how a fire ignites from the assemblage of its requisite causes and conditions, and not when deficient of its requisite causes and conditions.

In the same way, although things are devoid of owner, devoid of ownership, ungraspable, space-like, and their nature is the mark of illusion, because there is no deficiency of requisite causes and conditions, the seed of consciousness born of karma and afflictions will nonetheless produce the sprout of name and form within whichever mother’s womb one will take rebirth through.

Thus is the conditional relation in inner dependent arising to be seen.

Freedom through Interdependence

Venerable Shariputra, whoever sees with perfect wisdom this dependent arising, perfectly taught by the Bhagavan, as it actually is—as always and forever without life force, devoid of life force, true, unmistaken, unborn, not arisen, uncreated, uncompounded, unobstructed, imperceptible, tranquil, fearless, incontrovertible, inexhaustible, and by nature never stilled—whoever fully and truly sees it as unreal, vain, hollow, unsubstantial, as a sickness, a boil, a thorn, as miserable, impermanent, painful, empty, and self-less, such a person does not reflect on the past thinking, “Did I exist in the past, or not? What was I in the past? How was I in the past?” Nor does such a person reflect on the future thinking, “Will I exist in the future, or not? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future?” Nor does such a person reflect on the present thinking, “What is this? How is this? Being what, what will we become? Where does this being come from? Where will it go when transmigrating from here at death?”

Whichever dogmas mendicants and brahmins hold throughout the world, whether they involve belief in a self, belief in a being, belief in a life force, belief in a person, or belief in ceremonies and festivities, such dogmas, prone to agitation and dullness, are all abandoned at that time. Fully understood as false, these dogmas are severed at the root and wither like the head of a palm tree, never to arise or cease in the future.

Venerable Shariputra, whoever is endowed with such acceptance of the dharma and thus perfectly understands dependent arising is prophesied for unexcelled, perfect, and complete awakening by the Tathagata, the Arhat, the perfectly and completely awakened one, the one with perfect knowledge and conduct, the Sugata, the knower of the world, the incomparable charioteer of those who need taming, the teacher of gods and humans, the Bhagavan, the Buddha, in this way: “Such a person will become a perfect and complete buddha!”

For the complete sutra and related works published freely online, visit 84000.co

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay is an editor at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara, where he lectures on Tibetan religions. He is also the Inner Asia area editor for the Religious Studies Review. He received his doctorate in Tibetan studies from Harvard University, and was Buddhadharma’s reviews editor from 2013–18. His new book, Agency and the Afterlife in Tibetan Buddhism, is forthcoming in 2021.
Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay is an editor at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara, where he lectures on Tibetan religions. He is also the Inner Asia area editor for the Religious Studies Review. He received his doctorate in Tibetan studies from Harvard University, and was Buddhadharma’s reviews editor from 2013–18. His new book, Agency and the Afterlife in Tibetan Buddhism, is forthcoming in 2021.
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84000 is a non-profit global initiative to translate the words of the Buddha and make them available to everyone.