Dependent Origination & The Five Clinging Aggregates

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Related Talks

Above is a recording of two talks that introduce the eighth week’s study on Dependent Origination and The Five Clinging-Aggregates from The Truth of Happiness Dhamma Study and a recording of our sangha Q&A and discussion on this topic. The Truth Of Happiness Dhamma talks and recordings of our Sangha Discussion from our winter 2015 – 2016 Dhamma Study is here.

The Following is an excerpt from The Truth Of Happiness book. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and ten-week Dhamma study is here.

“As worldly phenomena is understood, the wise disciple, ever ardent and aware, resting in non-distraction, all their doubts vanish, when the cause of phenomena is rightly discerned.” (Bodhi Sutta, Udana 1.1)

This week the teachings on Dependent Origination and The Five Clinging-Aggregates is presented. These are key understandings to develop and there is much information to absorb. You may want to take more than one week to study and begin to integrate these teachings. Please feel free to do so.

The Five Clinging-Aggregates are the Buddha’s teachings on what constitutes the mental/physical form that appears to be the self. The Five Clinging-Aggregates are the impermanent components that, through clinging, cause the appearance of an individual form.

Dependent Origination (Dependent Co-arising) teaches understanding of the ongoing process of 12 causative links that establish and maintain delusion, confusion, and the underlying unsatisfactory experience of life.

The origination of delusion, confusion, and unsatisfactoriness that is experienced by a “self” is rooted in ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. Each individual link in the 12-link chain of dependencies is an observable component of the Five Clinging-Aggregates. The Five-Clinging-Aggregates are “dependent” on ignorance for the establishment of confusion and stress that results in the experience of craving and clinging. Developing understanding of The Four Noble Truths develops the wisdom that ends ignorance.

The importance of these teachings is to understand that the origination of all clinging views of an ego-self are rooted in ignorance. Once understood, craving and clinging can be abandoned and the 12 causative links in the chain of dependencies unbound. The process of ongoing confusion and stress comes to an end.

Once understood seeking understanding through magical, mystical or esoteric teachings will be clearly seen as distraction and continued I-making.

Once understood the futility of rituals, precepts, and practices rooted in ignorance, that are performed to attract the attention of gods and devas, or to establish the self in a “higher” or more pleasant realm, will clearly be seen and abandoned.

As all dukkha originates from the 12 links of Dependent Origination, we will start there.

The Buddha awakened to the profound understanding that from ignorance, through twelve observable causative conditions the ongoing process of stress and suffering is formed. He summarized this understanding when he presented his first teaching.

The Buddha’s first discourse was the foundational teachings of The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths summarize the entire Dhamma. The first noble truth describes the condition caused by ignorance, the noble truth of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, stress, unhappiness, disenchantment). The second noble truth describes the truth of craving and clinging as the origination of dukkha. The third noble truth states that cessation of dukkha is possible. The fourth noble truth is the truth of the Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

It is the development of The Eightfold Path that unbinds attachment, ends dukkha and brings awakening.

Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana) is a Pali word, that describes the awakened mind state. Nibbana means extinguished or unbinding. Cessation of dukkha is the extinguishing of all wrong views that initiate craving and the unbinding of all clinging attachments.

As explained in the previous chapter, the Buddha taught three linked characteristics of life in the phenomenal world. These three characteristics are Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha – impermanence, not-self, and stress.

All things in the phenomenal world are subject to impermanence, including what appears as self. All things in the phenomenal world arise and fade away WITHIN the phenomenal world. Nothing is permanent and nothing arises of its own accord.

All things that arise in the phenomenal world are dependent on an infinite number of other impermanent phenomena for existence. This includes what appears to be an individual and eternal self.

The Buddha avoided any attempts to define a self that was contrary to the observable Not-Self characteristic. The Buddha left unanswered any questions that would seek to make permanent and substantial that which is inherently impermanent and insubstantial.

The Buddha never addressed questions directly that would not lead to  ending craving and clinging and cessation of dukkha. Answering questions about the nature of self originating from a deluded belief (in self) would only reinforce delusion and lead to more delusion, confusion suffering. These questions were consistently left unanswered as they were improper questions rooted in ignorance.

The Buddha described these questions as arising from “Inappropriate views not fit for attention. These views will continue to generate confusion and suffering.”

He teaches what is fit for attention while maintaining the context of The Four Noble Truths: “Understanding Stress, Understanding the Origination of Stress, Understanding the Cessation of Stress, Understanding the path leading to the cessation of Stress. As one attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.” (Majjhima Nikaya 1)

Grasping at precepts and practices refers to assuming an inherent “ground of being” and engaging in ritualistic practices simply because of the popularity of the doctrine, teacher, or ritual. If engaging or following the doctrine, teacher, or ritual would develop further self-grasping, it should be recognized as deluded and abandoned.

The continued preoccupation with defining and maintaining a self creates ongoing confusion and suffering. Understanding what it is that is perceived to be a self brings liberation.

The Buddha’s second discourse, the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, or the Sutta on the Not-Self characteristic, teaches that the elements that make up a self are all impermanent. He further teaches that the arising and clinging of these elements all have a cause and that the cause can be recognized and abandoned. Enlightenment in the context of the Second Noble Truth means that the origination of stress and unhappiness, craving and clinging to objects, views, and ideas has been recognized and abandoned.

“Friends, the well-instructed one grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feelings, disenchanted with perceptions, disenchanted with fabrications, and disenchanted with thoughts. With disenchantment comes dispassion. With dispassion comes release. With release this one is free and knows ‘birth is exhausted, the well-integrated life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, ignorance has ended.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.59)

What is being described here is that as a result of whole-hearted engagement with the Eightfold Path disenchantment with the ego-self, with the Five Clinging-Aggregates is developed. From disenchantment with the Five Clinging-Aggregates comes the cessation of the compulsive need to continually establish an ego-personality. Once disenchantment is established the process of unbinding begins. The cessation of delusion, confusion, and continued unsatisfactoriness is now possible.

Dependent Origination

As one develops an understanding of the Dhamma, it is important to always be mindful of the context and intent of the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha consistently emphasized to be mindful of what he taught and why: “I teach the origination of Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha, nothing more.”

The Buddha avoided any issues that would prove to be a distraction to his stated purpose. In fact, The Buddha could have just as accurately stated “I teach the origination of distraction and the cessation of distraction.”

It is the self-referential preoccupation with stress and unhappiness that distracts one from a life of lasting peace and happiness. It is the distraction of dukkha that prevents awakening.

Life in the phenomenal world is often experienced as both arbitrary and personal, and pre-determined and unavoidable. Dependent Origination explains the process of the formation of an ego-personality, a “self,” and the personalization of impersonal worldly events. Holding the view that discrete impersonal objects, views and ideas are occurring to “you” or for your benefit or detriment is personalization of impersonal worldly events. This is “I-making.”

Recognizing and abandoning the ongoing process of I-making brings the refined mindfulness of an awakened human being. An awakened human being experiences life fully present with life as life occurs without the limiting craving, clinging conditioned mind that clouds perception and maintains confusion and unsatisfactoriness.

Understanding the process of “I-making” develops the heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration necessary to refine thinking and reverse the formation of the ego-personality.

Dependent Origination is the Buddha’s teaching on how (apparently) personal phenomena arises within the impersonal environment of impermanence.

The purpose of the Dhamma is to end ignorance through developing profound understanding of The Four Noble Truths. It is within the context of The Four Noble Truths that understanding Dependent Origination develops.

Understanding Dependent Origination brings awareness of the relationship between the five clinging-aggregates and the phenomenal world. The five clinging-aggregates are physical and mental factors that cling together to form a personality identified as self. Dependent Origination explains the 12 causative links that determine the experiences of the ego-personality.

In the Paticca-Samupadda-Vibhanga Sutta the Buddha presents the 12 causative links of dependent Origination. Each of these 12 links are required to cause the “self” to experience confusion, disappointment, sickness, old age, death and rebirth:

  • From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
  • From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
  • From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.
  • From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes the six sense-base.
  • From the six sense-base as a requisite condition comes contact.
  • From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.
  • From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.
  • From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging and maintaining.
  • From clinging and maintaining as a requisite condition comes becoming.
  • From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.
  • From birth as a requisite condition comes aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

Then the Buddha describes in slightly more detail, and in reverse order, each of the 12 links:

“Now what is aging and death? Aging is decrepitude, brokenness, graying, decline, weakening of faculties. Death is the passing away of the Five Clinging-Aggregates, the ending of time, the interruption in the life faculties.

“Now what is Birth? Birth is the descent, the coming forth, the coming to be. Birth is the appearance of the six sense-bases and the five clinging-aggregates.

“Now what is becoming? Becoming is sensual becoming, form becoming and formless becoming.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

This is explaining that the belief in a self is reinforced by sensory contact and is proliferated by believing in an individual personality being born, i.e.: becoming form. This belief is rooted in ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.

It is also ignorance of The Four Noble Truths to hold the belief that the ego-personality becomes formless at death but survives physical death as the same personality, either in an eternal formless state or being reborn as the same “soul.”

Becoming, birth, sickness, old age, death and non-becoming is the environment of dukkha caused by ignorance. The links of clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six sense-base, name-and-form, consciousness and fabrications are all part of the process of a self arising from ignorance. This process is maintained by continued ignorance, furthering kamma.

Kamma and rebirth is explained in week nine.

The Buddha then describes how clinging to the notion of self maintains this feedback loop of the six-sense base establishing a self and maintaining the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

“And what is clinging and maintaining? There are four types of clinging: Clinging to sensory stimulus, clinging to views (conditioned thinking), clinging to precepts and practices, and clinging to a doctrine of self.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

The Buddha is cautioning against developing or maintaining practices that are given validity simply from the “positive” feeling developed or the “positive” or commonly accepted views reinforced. Engaging in rituals or practices that continue a doctrine of self in any realm, physical or otherwise are also to be abandoned.

The Buddha here has taken a methodical route from the ultimate unfolding of ignorance, suffering arising from birth (dukkha), back to the second noble truth or the origination of dukkha, craving and clinging. Along the way he describes what is clung to: a self that is dependent on continued craving and continued clinging to sensory stimulus to be maintained.

Profound understanding of any one of these links begins to unravel the entire causative chain.

For example, a profound understanding that phenomena contacting senses develops feelings, and that feeling develops craving (for more self-affirming contact with worldly phenomena) brings dispassion for constant sensory stimulation.

This develops the understanding that contact via sensory stimulus is the direct result of the belief in an ego-self, (name & form) and not an inevitable life experience.

Seeing this process clearly de-personalizes the life experience. From this understanding, life experience no longer will describe and maintain the ego-personality.

The implications of this realization can be unsettling at first if one is engaging the Dhamma to “fix” a flawed self. There is nothing substantial to fix, or to actualize. What is impermanent and insubstantial is to be seen as such, and released.

Remember that what is abandoned when this process of I-making is interrupted is only a fabricated ego-personality that is stuck in confusion and unsatisfactory experiences. Once understood, the release from the burden of an ego-personality brings the continual experience of lasting peace and happiness.

It is also important to remember that the teachings on Dependent Origination are given to develop understanding of The Four Noble Truths. Dependent Origination explains the process of how all personal phenomena arises so that understanding of the distraction of dukkha can be realized. It teaches Right View while pointing out that holding wrong (ignorant) view is the cause of all confusion and suffering.

The emergence of anatta, your ego-personality, within an environment of anicca, resulting in the unsatisfactoriness and confusion of dukkha, is not a personal, arbitrary or chaotic development from which there is no cessation. There is no substantive difference between individual confusion and suffering.

The Four Noble Truths are universal truths applicable to all human experience. Understanding Dependent Origination within the context of The Four Noble Truths is the key to unbinding from the endless kammic entanglements caused by the desire to maintain an ego-self.

Further on in the Paticca-Samupadda-Vibhanga Sutta the Buddha describes how craving arises from feeling, and how feeling is caused by contact.

“And what is craving? There are six classes of craving: craving for forms, craving for sounds, craving for smells, craving for tastes, craving for physical sensations, and craving for ideas.

“And what is feeling? Feeling has six classes as well: feeling arising from eye-contact, from ear-contact-from nose-contact, from taste contact, from body-contact, from intellect-contact. This is called feeling.

“And what is contact? Phenomenon contacting the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the intellect. This is contact with the six sense-base.

“And what is name and form? Feeling, perception, intention, attention (all mental aspects) and contact. Discriminating consciousness is name. The elements of water, fire, earth and wind, that which makes up physical forms is called forms. Name-and-form is discriminating consciousness bound to, or clinging to, physical form.

“And what is consciousness? There are six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, intellect-consciousness.

Through the six-sense base contact with the world is made and mental fabrications, including objectifying the self-referential ego-self, is formed.

“And what are fabrications? There are three fabrications: Bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, and mental fabrications.”

All three fabrications are caused by a wrong view of self. Fabrications result in a personality bound to physical form that is perceived as “I” or “me”.

The Buddha describes ignorance:

“And what is ignorance? Ignorance is not knowing stress, not knowing the origination of stress, not knowing the cessation of stress, not knowing the (Eightfold) path leading to the cessation of stress. This is called ignorance.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

The Buddha relates Dependent Origination back to his first teaching on The Four Noble Truths, and teaches that from ignorance of The Four Noble Truths comes all confusion and suffering.

Gaining understanding of The Four Noble Truths is wisdom. Wisdom brings an end to ignorance and an end to the distraction, confusion and suffering caused by ignorance. Wisdom brings an end to the delusion of an independently arisen self.

When all ignorance is abandoned awakening arises:

“Now from the remainder-less fading & cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications.

“From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness.

“From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-and-form.

“From the cessation of name-and-form comes the cessation of the six sense-base.

“From the cessation of the six sense-base comes the cessation of contact.

“From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling.

“From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving.

“From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging and maintaining.

“From the cessation of clinging and maintaining comes the cessation of becoming.

“From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth.

“From the cessation of birth comes the cessation of sickness, aging, death, sorrow, pain, distress, despair and confusion. Wisdom brings the cessation to the entire mass of stress and suffering.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

The Eightfold Path is a path that develops heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration. All three qualities of mind are requisite conditions to end ignorance. Developing these three qualities creates the condition for the cessation of ignorance.

Dependent Origination describes the ongoing process rooted in ignorance that fabricates the ego-personality and how the ego-personality, how anatta, is maintained by craving and clinging. This is perhaps the most significant difference between the Buddha’s teachings and religious and philosophical systems, including most later-developed Buddhist schools.

A modern example of this is the misunderstanding and misapplication of Dependent Origination used to develop a doctrine of interdependence, interconnectedness, and inter-being between individual and insubstantial ego-personality’s. As noted in the previous chapter these doctrines only encourage and maintain craving and clinging.

All human beings are connected through the common problem of delusion and suffering. This is described as The First Noble Truth. Creating something more of this simple fact leads to contradictory and confusing doctrines that perpetuate continued “I-making.”

Notice that there is no actual beginning in time nor birth of a “soul” or any individual entity. The process of becoming an ego-self begins in ignorance, produces delusion and suffering, and (the process) can be brought to cessation through wisdom and understanding.

Having arisen from ignorance, only continued ignorance can sustain ignorance and perpetuate dukkha. Wrong views are formed and deluded beliefs created to provide substance to what is inherently insubstantial.

Dependent Origination shows that from a wrong or ignorant view the manifestation of an ego-personality is fabricated. Fabricated, the process of continued fabrication can be brought to an end.

It is within an impermanent environment that a sense-based consciousness arises. Here stress arises as consciousness continually struggles to maintain a permanent and substantial view of self. With each passing moment, in every instant, all things pass away and all things are reborn.

It requires constant vigilance and continual fabrication to maintain the establishment of an ego-self. It is the stress of maintaining wrong views that distracts from recognizing the mirage-like nature of these views.

Through understanding Dependent Origination it is seen that clinging to a view of self occurs. Keeping this self comfortable, safe, engaged and most importantly continually established, then becomes the sole purpose for existence. This is continual distraction. This is dukkha.

The Eightfold Path provides the framework and Right View, or right perspective, for observing and interrupting Dependent Origination. In order to see this process clearly any notion if “I” or “me” being the cause of Dependent Origination, of being the ignorant individual that begins the process must be abandoned.

Here is a seeming paradox: The ongoing ignorance of an ego-self must be recognized and abandoned through the development of wisdom. It is also wrong view to conclude that it is an ego-self that is gaining wisdom. There is nothing substantial or sustainable to gain wisdom. The views of an ego-self are rooted in ignorance. Ignorance can never give rise to wisdom, to understanding. Wisdom arises when ignorance of the Four Noble Truths is supplanted by the profound knowledge of stress, and the experience of cessation of The Five Clinging-Aggregates.

The developed skills of concentration and mindfulness and the ongoing direction and guidance of the Eightfold Path diminishes “I-making” or conceit. It is from this perspective that Dependent Origination can be usefully and effectively understood.

The Buddha was asked on one occasion “is the one who acts the same one who experiences the result of an act?” (Notice the self-identification in the question)

The Buddha responds “To say the one who acts is the one who experiences is one extreme. To say the one who acts is someone other than the one who experiences is the other extreme.” (This is the belief in outside forces such as creation, reward, or punishment bringing individual experiences.)

The Buddha continues: “I teach the Dhamma from the middle, a middle way. I avoid those extreme views and teach that from (individual) ignorance brings all manner of delusion and suffering. Whoever declares that pleasure and pain are self made, whoever declares that pleasure and pain are other made, are deluded. All experiences are dependent on contact and contact is (initially) dependent on ignorance.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.46)

This brings up another contradictory teaching of later-developed Buddhist schools that misunderstand or misapply Dependent Origination. The ego-self, anatta, has no inherent nature. There is no Buddhahood or Buddha-nature for the ego-self to aspire to. This doctrine creates confusion and further establishment of the ego-self. If there is an inner Buddhahood or Buddha-nature how could it succumb to ignorance? These are simply deluded doctrines rooted in ignorance.

It is the ego-self that has no substantial nature. Developing understanding of what is perceived to be an ego-self is paramount so that all attempts at continuing to establish anatta are abandoned.

There is nothing in the Buddha’s teachings that support the notion of an inner Buddha-nature. Once awakened a human being is free of craving, clinging, delusion and ongoing suffering. This includes clinging the ego-self to an imaginary idea of an inner, obscure Buddha-nature.

This is what the Buddha taught. Being free of all clinging views is lasting peace and happiness. This is enough!

To reiterate, I am not disparaging later-developed teachings. I am providing clarity as to what the Buddha taught and in the context that he presented his Dhamma.

In the Simsapa Sutta the Buddha explains the refined purpose of the Dhamma: “And what have I taught? ‘I teach the nature of dukkha (stress). I teach the origination of dukkha (craving and clinging originate dukkha). I teach that cessation of dukkha is possible. I teach that The Eightfold Path is the path leading to the cessation of dukkha: This is what I have taught. “ (Samyutta Nikaya 56.31)

The Buddha describes the insubstantiality of the mental/physical form in the Dhammapada, v.46 as “Having known this body likened unto foam and understanding thoroughly its nature is mirage-like.”

Dependent Origination shows that continued confusion and suffering is dependent on continued ignorance. Dukkha originates in a series of 12 “dependencies” rooted in ignorance. Developing wisdom and understanding through the Eightfold Path brings an end to ignorance.

Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is very effective in interrupting the compulsion to continually maintain ignorance and the establishment of an ego-personality. Mindfulness of the breath settles the mind and develops deep and useful concentration. As distraction lessens and non-distraction develops it becomes possible to observe Dependent Origination as it occurs. True insight is insight into the formation of self-referential, ego-self-sustaining views, arising from ignorance.

Aversion to the Dhamma often arises as the Dhamma points directly to seeing clearly the insubstantial nature of self. All manner of adaptations and accommodations have been made to the Buddha’s original teachings to avoid this aversion. These general hindrances were discussed in chapter two. Hindrances arise from the ego-personality’s need to continually establish and maintain its existence in every object, view, and idea that occurs.

Hindrances to maintaining a Dhamma practice is explained in week ten.

Of course, it is the fabricated ego-personality’s obsession with maintaining views that is put aside through the Eightfold Path. This is often experienced like annihilation because it is. It is annihilation of all that would continue delusion, confusion, unsatisfactoriness, and suffering. Awakening is abandoning all views of self that have arisen from ignorance.

As seen through understanding Dependent Origination, clinging and craving are necessary if an ego-self is to be established and maintained. Clinging and craving subsides by remaining mindful of the Eightfold Path. As clinging and craving subside, concentration develops and deepens. As concentration deepens, the distraction caused by ignorance ends and wisdom arises.

Awakening occurs through developing a profound understanding of the underlying unsatisfactory nature of life within the moral, ethical and concentrative framework of The Eightfold Path.

Through ignorance as the cause, the conditions of distraction, confusion and suffering occur. Through wisdom as the cause, the condition of awakening occurs. The Eightfold Path is a path of virtue and concentration which develops perfect wisdom.

An article on The Five Clinging Aggregates from this excerpt is here: The Five Clinging Aggregates

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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