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Sankharas, Nidanas and rebiths of the partially enlightened

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  • Sankharas, Nidanas and rebiths of the partially enlightened

    Dear Ajahn,

    I have been reading over and contemplating some of the wikipedia articles related to Buddhism, and have some questions. In particular I have been reading about Sankharas and the twelve nidanas. I'm not sure how best to word my questions, but I'm essentially just looking to further understanding in these areas. It's difficult to form a concise and skillful question in words, when I feel that this all comes up as more of a blob of feelings and understandings. Hopefully these questions make sense, at least in so far as providing insight into the general areas that I'm seeking to investigate further.

    I suppose most of my confusion at the moment comes from not understanding the first 3 nidanas, more specifically how they work, and how they relate to each other.
    How does ignorance lead to formations and then to consciousness?
    Could this be understood as something like "not understanding something as it is eventually leads to a manifestation of consciousness related to that ignorance until it has been fully understood?"

    Does the rebirth(s) of a being who has attained one of the first 3 stages of enlightenment hold any particular significance? I have read that a stream enterer will not be reborn in a hell realm. Is there a reason(s) for this? Does it relate to the twelve nidanas? How do the twelve nidanas relate to kamma?

    I'm not sure if I am simply making needless connections based on a misunderstanding, or if there is a truth to the workings of things which I may find by looking deeper and asking questions.

    Thank you very much for reading. May peace be with you.

  • #2
    Dear Andria,

    How does ignorance lead to formations and then to consciousness?
    The ignorance at the root of dependent origination is defined as a lack of insight into the four noble truths (SN12:2). An important aspect of this is a lack of understandoing of the true depth and extent of suffering. As long as one hasn't seen dukkha fully - and please keep in mind that this can only be seen through deep insight - one will tend to crave for those aspects of existence one still regards as pleasurable. Craving is a creative force that ensures that the process of existence continues. At AN3:76 (scroll down to sutta 77) craving is likened to the sap that keeps plants alive.

    A being that has ignorance and craving (and these two always go together) does rebirth-producing volitional actions. This, volitional actions, is the meaning of saṅkhāra in dependent origination. The volitional actions colour the mind - positively, negatively, or neutrally - and this colour of the mind is what decides one's rebirth. A dark mind will tend to a dark rebirth, a bright mind to a bright one. The level of rebirth is what is meant by consciousness. Once rebirth has happened the parameters for what sort of experiences you can expect have largely been fixed. So the saṅkhāra are responsible for the sort of experiences - in particular, the pleasure and pain - that you can expect in your next life, or even in lives beyond that.

    You can see from this that the nexus ignorance/volitional activities/consciousness is the same as the nexus craving/attachment/existence/rebirth. The difference is only one of emphasis, each showing the same process in slightly different ways.

    There are those who have argue that dependent origination need not be understood in terms of rebirth. This argument has its origin in the Abhidhamma, specifically the Vibhaṅga. But it is important to realize that the Vibhaṅga's method is divided into a sutta analysis and an Abhidhamma analysis. It is only the Abhidhamma analysis that does not understand dependent origination in terms of rebirth. This means that this understanding quite specifically does not relate to the suttas. Essentially the Abhidhamma is using the framework of dependent origination to elucidate its own post-canonical theories on the momentariness of phenomena. This has nothing to do with dependent origination as explained in the suttas, and the two frameworks need to be kept strictly apart.

    I have read that a stream enterer will not be reborn in a hell realm. Is there a reason(s) for this? Does it relate to the twelve nidanas?
    The stream-enterer cannot be reborn in any destination lower than the human realm. The reason for this is that they have understood the four noble truths. This understanding, which includes knowing the path out of saṃsāra, makes the stream-enterer incapable of producing the sort of harm that leads to the lower realms. In other words, once you understand the consequences of your actions, you get a natural restraint that stops you form doing really silly things. So a reduction in ignorance leads to a narrowing down of the range of volitional actions that a person is capable of doing. This in turn eliminates certain destinations for consciousness in the next life, or indeed any future life. This, then, is the connection between dependent origination and the rebirth of stream-enterers. The explanation for the limitations on rebirth for once-returners and non-returners is similar.

    How do the twelve nidanas relate to kamma?
    From the above you probably also get an idea of how kamma relates to dependent origination. To see this more clearly, it is useful to understand that the five hindrances are what fuels ignorance (AN10:61). This means that the stronger the hindrances are, the greater the ignorance. Thus the level of ignorance may vary greatly from person to person. The level of ignorance in turn affects the sort of volitional activities a person undertakes: a good person with a clear mind and good intentions will normally do good, whereas one who is oppressed by the five hindrances will often do bad things. In this way volitional activities conditioned by ignorance decide the future destination of consciousness or, if you like, rebirth. The workings of kamma can equally be seen in the nexus craving/attachment/existence/rebirth. So although the word kamma does not occur in dependent origination, the workings of kamma are clearly implied.

    I hope this makes sense. You may also wish to read this article, if you haven't done so already.

    With metta.


    • #3
      Dear Ajahn Brahmali,
      Thank you for the response. This does make sense. I found your answer to be very clear, and answered precisely what I was wondering about.
      Is a more direct and full understanding of dependent origination, kamma, and rebirth something that comes with deeper meditation?

      This also helped me further realize how important restraint is with regard to not acting upon defilements. Admittedly I have been occasionally getting into things which I already know to be suffering. I'd rather be cooled off and at peace in meditation, than to go seeking what is fire. The desire to end rebirth continues to grow in strength.

      Thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions here.


      • #4
        Dear Andria,

        The direct and full insight into dependent origination, according to the suttas, only comes with stream-entry.

        With metta.



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