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Dependent Origination – The Paticca Samuppada Vibhanga Sutta
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This Dhamma article is an excerpt from my book Becoming Buddha. A preview of this book is available here: Becoming Buddha Preview
From ignorance of Four Noble Truths, all manner of suffering arises
As has been shown in the Nagara Sutta , the Buddha “awakened” to the profound understanding that the common human problem of the underlying unsatisfactory nature of life is rooted in ignorance. In the ancient language of the Pali Canon this unsatisfactory experience is known as Dukkha. The origination of Dukkha is explained in the Buddha’s teaching of Dependent Origination. Dependent Origination shows that it is ignorance of Four Noble Truths, through twelve observable causative links, that all manner of confusion, delusion, and suffering, in a word, Dukkha, arises.
Dependent Origination is the Buddha’s teaching on how personal phenomena arises within the environment of anicca, impermanence. The entirety of the Dhamma is to bring understanding of Four Noble Truths. It is within the context of Four Noble Truths that understanding of Dependent Origination develops. Understanding Dependent Origination brings awareness of the relationship between the Five Clinging-Aggregates and the impermanent phenomenal world.
The Four Noble Truths is explained further on.
The Five Clinging-Aggregates are physical and mental factors that through individual intentional clinging a personality is formed. This self-created ego-personality perceives that it is a permanent, substantial, and sustainable self. Once formed the ego-self tenaciously insists on establishing it’s “self” in every object, event, view, and idea that occurs.
Dependent Origination directly shows the 12 causative links that determine the experiences of a self-referential ego-personality. In the Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta the Buddha presents the 12 causative links of Dependent Origination. Each of these 12 links are required, or “dependent” on the prior condition in order to give rise to a “self” that will experience dukkha. Rooted in ignorance, (of Four Noble Truths) it is through a continued confused and deluded “wrong view” that “anatta” continues to establish itself in every object, event, view, or idea that occurs. This is known as continued “I-making,” or simply, conceit.
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 Dependent Origination is clearly understood, seeking understanding through magical, mystical or esoteric teachings will be seen as distraction and continued I-making.
Once Dependent Origination is clearly understood, the futility of rituals, precepts, and practices rooted in ignorance are abandoned.
Attempts to attract the attention of gods and devas, or to establish the self in a “higher” or more pleasant realm, will be seen as rooted in ignorance and abandoned.
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 individual craving and clinging as the origination of a personal experience of dukkha.
The Third Noble Truth states that cessation of individual contributions to 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 clinging to ignorant views, ends dukkha, and brings awakening.
Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana) is a Pali word, that describes the awakened mind state. Nibbana means extinguished or unbound. Cessation of dukkha is the extinguishing of all wrong views that initiate craving, and the unbinding of all clinging attachments.
As seen in the previous section The Buddha taught three linked characteristics of life in the phenomenal world, or “Three Marks of Existence. 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.
The Buddha avoided any attempt to define a self in any manner. He simply and directly taught that wrong views rooted in ignorance that establishes a self were “Anatta,” Not-Self. The Buddha left unanswered any questions that would seek to make permanent and substantial that which is inherently impermanent and insubstantial.
As shown earlier in the Panha Sutta, (from the Introduction) 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.”
The Buddha 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: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts and practices.” (Majjhima Nikaya 1)
Grasping at precepts and practices refers to assuming an inherent “ground of being.” From this assumed fabrication preserving the self through engaging in ritualistic or ideological practices becomes reasonable.
If engaging or following popular doctrines, teachers, or rituals develops 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 views rooted in ignorance brings liberation.
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 path leading to 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 nearly as accurately stated “I teach the origination of distraction and the cessation of distraction.” It is the ongoing preoccupation with Dukkha that distracts from life as life occurs. It is the self-referential preoccupation with stress and unhappiness that distracts 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 predetermined 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, events, 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 confining craving and 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 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 – an ego-personality. Dependent Origination explains the 12 causative links that determine the experiences of the ego-personality.
The Five Clinging-Aggregates are the personal experience of confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointment.
In the Paticca-Samuppada-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 Dukkha.
Notice the direct teaching here on how confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointment – Dukkha – originates in ignorance. From this initial ignorance – of Four Noble Truths – the feedback loop of self-referential views maintained by confused thinking continues. Also notice there is nothing in this sutta that could be seen as a creation myth or to suggest a doctrine of interdependence, inter-connectedness, or inter-being.
It is from a misunderstanding, misapplication, or complete dismissal of this fundamental sutta that resulted in contradictory and confusing alterations and adaptations to the Buddha’s Dhamma.
The Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta
Samyutta Nikaya 12.2
The Buddha was at Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. There he addressed those assembled: “Friends, I will describe in detail Dependent Origination. Listen carefully. And what is Dependent Origination?
- 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 -ense-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.”
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.”
This is explaining that the belief in a self is reinforced by sensory contact and is proliferated by believing in an individual sustainable personality being born, i.e.: becoming a permanent form. This belief is rooted in ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha is explaining becoming the personal experience of suffering – Five Clinging-Aggregates.
Becoming is further explained in the next chapter.
It is also ignorance of The Four Noble Truths to hold the belief that an 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 karma.
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.”
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 to be recognized as rooted in ignorance and abandoned.
The Buddha here has taken a methodical route from the ultimate result of ignorance, suffering, back to the Second Noble Truth or the origination of individual contributions to 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 framed by ignorance 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 define and maintain an 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 simply abandoned.
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 Four Noble Truths. Dependent Origination explains the process of how all personal phenomena arises so that understanding of the distraction of dukkha is understood. Dependent Origination teaches Right View while pointing out that holding wrong (ignorant) views is the cause of all confusion and suffering.
The establishment of anatta, an ego-personality, within an environment of anicca, resulting in the unsatisfactoriness and confusion of dukkha, is not an arbitrary or chaotic development from which there is no liberation.
There is no substantive difference between impermanence, individual confusion, and resulting individual 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 karmic entanglements caused by the desire to maintain an ego-self.
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.
- Craving for ideas.
“And what is feeling?
“Feeling has six classes as well:
- Feeling arising from eye-contact.
- Feeling arising from ear-contact.
- Feeling arising from nose-contact.
- Feeling arising from taste-contact.
- Feeling arising from body-contact.
- Feeling arising from intellect-contact.
“This is called feeling.
“And what is contact?
- Phenomena contacting the eye.
- Phenomena contacting the ear.
- Phenomena contacting the nose.
- Phenomena contacting the tongue.
- Phenomena contacting the body.
- Phenomena contacting the intellect.
“This is contact with the six sense-base.
“And what is name and form? Feeling.
- Attention (all mental aspects)
“Discriminating self-referential consciousness is name. The elements of water, fire, earth, and wind, that which makes up physical forms is called form.
“Name-and-form is discriminating consciousness bound to or clinging to physical form.
“And what is consciousness?
“There are six classes of consciousness:
Through the six-sense base contact with the world is made and mental fabrications, including objectifying a self-referential ego-self, is formed.
“And what are fabrications?
“There are three fabrications:
- Bodily fabrications.
- Verbal fabrications.
- 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.
All confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointment and suffering – Dukkha – arise from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha relates Dependent Origination back to his first teaching, on Four Noble Truths, and teaches that from ignorance of 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 a permanent, substantial, and sustainable self.
When all ignorance is abandoned awakening arises.
The Buddha continues:
“Now from the remainderless 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.
End of Sutta
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 through the guidance and framework of the Eightfold Path creates the conditions for the cessation of ignorance.
Dependent Origination describes the ongoing process rooted in ignorance that fabricates an ego-personality and how an 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. These modern 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. On an elemental level, all things in the universe share common characteristics.
All things are impermanent, insubstantial, and unsustainable – including whatever may be interconnected. Creating something more of this simple fact such as doctrines of universal interdependence, interconnectedness, and inter-being leads to contradictory and confusing doctrines that perpetuates clinging and furthers “I-making.”
Notice that there is no actual beginning in time or birth of a “soul” or any individual entity. Dependent Origination is not a creation myth. 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.
The single issue is ignorance. What occurred prior to ignorance is speculative distraction. What might occur post ignorance is speculative distraction. This type of speculative distraction arises from “Inappropriate views not fit for attention. These views will continue to generate confusion and suffering.”
Much of the mystical aspects and contradictions of modern Buddhism developed to provide establishment for this type of speculation and resulting distraction.
Wrong views are formed and deluded beliefs created to provide substance to what is inherently insubstantial. Having arisen from ignorance, only continued ignorance can sustain ignorance and perpetuate Dukkha.
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 and sensory-sustained consciousness arises. Here stress arises as consciousness continually struggles to maintain a permanent and substantial view of self. 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 continually established then becomes the sole purpose for existence.
Maintaining wrong views is continual distraction. Maintaining wrong views is continual dukkha.
From clinging and maintaining as a requisite condition comes becoming (ignorant).
From the cessation of clinging and maintaining comes the cessation of becoming (ignorant).
The Eightfold Path provides the framework and Right View for observing and interrupting Dependent Origination. In order to see this process clearly any notion of “I” or “me” of being the ignorant individual that begins Dependent Origination must be abandoned.
This is another convenient form of self-establishment, of “I-making.”
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 or the products of ignorance can never give rise to wisdom, to understanding.
Awakening occurs when ignorance of Four Noble Truths is supplanted by the profound knowledge of origination of Dukkha and the experience of cessation of 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 (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 utter 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 – Five Clinging-Aggregates – are abandoned.
There is nothing in the Buddha’s teachings that support the notion of an inner Buddha-Nature or doctrinal “inter-being.” 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.
All human beings have the potential to awaken, to develop full human maturity. This does not imply an inherent Buddha-Nature. It does show that awakening is possible to anyone who can recognize and abandon all self-referential views including that establish an inherent Buddha-Nature or Buddhahood.
This is what the Buddha taught. Being free of all clinging views is lasting peace and contentment. 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”
Any establishment of a self in any inner or exterior realm including clinging to the notion of an inner Buddha-Nature or Buddhahood is clinging to a mirage.
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. This is how one Becomes Buddha.
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 skillful concentration. As distraction lessens and non-distraction develops it becomes possible to observe Dependent Origination as it occurs.
Useful insight is insight into the formation of self-referential, impermanent, 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 are included in the chapter on Hindrances. Hindrances arise from the ego-personality’s need to continually establish and maintain its existence in every object, event, view, and idea that occurs.
Hindrances are also an important aspect of the Satipatthana Sutta, the sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness presented further on. The Buddha recognized the tendency of an ignorant mind to develop strategies to avoid his Dhamma and substitute anything that allows for continuation of ignorant wrong views.
Ignoring hindrances to the Buddha’s Dhamma continues ignorance. The refined mindfulness taught by the Buddha brings recognition of all hindrances. The refined mindfulness taught by the Buddha brings recognition of the confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing suffering that originates in, and is dependent on, ignorance.
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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, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, 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.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.