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On
[DN 15]
Digha Nikaya Sutta 15:

Maha-Nidana Sutta

With special reference to:
The Great Downbinding Spell,
Translated from the Pali by Michael Olds

 

This translation is entirely without abbreviation and is interlinked at each section to the Pali, the Pali Text Society Rhys Davids translation, the Wisdom Publications Walshe Translation, and Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation.

This translation uses the vocabulary suggested on this site — a vocabulary intended to break away from the "causes" and "dependance" ideas of other translations. ... what we are striving for is the idea of result, consequence, repercussion, outcome without digging more deeply (by implication of our word choice) into the process than is necessary to understand it. We say 'pain is a repercussion of birth' or 'without birth there would be no pain'; we do not say that birth causes pain because the idea of 'cause' itself asks the question of 'how?' And we do not need to know 'how' to escape the fact.

In the sections which 'digress' from the main line of the sutta, the term "recognition" has been introduced for viññāṇa. This is also intended to break the sleepy acceptance of the idea of "consciousness" which is blinding us in our attempts to get at the root of this system. The idea is to make it clear that the meaning of this term is "individualized consciousness," personal consciousness, self-awareness, consciousness by way of the senses...something that needs to be clearly understood when it comes to trying to figure out what the goal of this system really is. [see n6]

Asside from the fact that I felt it was important to make a stab at translating this very highly considered sutta, working at it was "like pulling teeth" for me. I have no confidence that this was a genuine sutta as delivered and resented every minute I had to spend on it. That is not to say that the various sections in it are not Dhamma. I think they are Dhamma. I just think that the sutta is an anthology, and without that fact being stated, and with the fact that it looks to me to have been carelessly put together, the magic is missing for me.

 


 

BA: Finished my read of the Maha-Nidana. I could see what you meant when you say that we are seeing a synthesis of a few suttas.

I think that the whole of the Digha is a collection of synthetic suttas. They were generally done well and do not contradict the suttas as far as I can see, but there are only two ways for the magic to come through: either with the original as given, even if mangled through time if the effort to preserve it intact is made the magic will come through or be "findable", or with the various parts of Dhamma being spun as a new sutta, issued spontaneously by someone who knows at least enough to correctly use the parts to answer a question. The Digha (or much of it) was done using neither of those two methods, so lacks the "thrilling" aspect of Dhamma found in the other 3 Nikayas.

BA: In footnote 9 you brought to light the curiousness of only sense experience being talked about as opposed to the usual 5 shitpiles. The line preceeding the sense experience comment is "And what is it, Ananda, that is percieved and regarded in mind as self?" Possibly the Buddha is referring to the point in the chain of conditioned existence — of one who has already been born — where "I" chooses to rebound... that is, the point between sense experience and wanting. I understand this point to be the weak link, the loophole, the way outta'it'all in the chain of causality.

A clue as to the fact that this was a compilation at a later time...that the compiler may have been lost in the argument as it is developed in the sections that follow and it never occured to him that he needed to loop back and use the same arguments for the other kkhandhas. Just a guess. It is not a "requirement" that all five be used every time, and this sutta does revolve around the sense experiences.

What I hear you saying is that this is a sutta that was delivered to (or constructed for) a more or less ordinary person and that sense experience is the most noticable point of take off for wanting which leads to "going after getting" (upadana) where the chain can be broken (by not going after getting, and by letting the wanting fade out...if you can stop the wanting before it arises off of sense experience, more power to you, but the general rule will be that a person stops acting on the wanting first, then as a result of not feeding the wanting with new experiences, insight into the true outcome becomes possible. The cycle is usually masked before completion with additional side-wantings, further-wantings, etc.; without complications, the cycle is seen through to the end. With insight comes the natural defense against further-wanting of having seen the conclusion. This seems reasonable, especially considering the digression into what is clearly worldly concerns.

BA: Could you explain to me why the chain loops back at recognition with nama/rupa?

'Loops back' is probably not a good way of thinking about this; it is a straight-line evolution. First, being conscious of sense experience arises off contact of consciousness with nama/rupa; then this consciousness is the basis for the process of creating new nama/rupa.

The importance of this is seen in the statement:

To this extent only, Ananda, is there birth, aging, death, disappearance and reappearance; to this extent is there verbal expression; to this extent is there getting to the root; to this extent is there knowing; to this extent is there scope for discriminating and drawing distinctions; to this extent is there this run'n round showing up as some sort of being this at some place of being at...that is to say: only just as far as mentality/materiality [nama/rupa] with recognition [vinnana].

This is what is called 'contact'.

The idea is: How does contact occur? Contact occurs through the mental awareness of bodily sensory reaction. If there were no mental side, there could be no mental awareness of the bodily reaction; if there were no bodily side there could be no bodily reaction for the mental side to be aware of. If the mental side and the bodily side were both absent there could be no consciousness of either mental awaremess or bodily reaction.

Our difficulty is in fuzzy ideas concerning mental awareness (nama) and bodily processes (rupa); the Pali is very straight-forward: mental awareness (nama) is recollection of named things, the work of the body (rupa) is reacting, consciousness is consciousness of the recollected names of the reactions of the body.

Take the simile of the computer: the work of the hardware is processing keystrokes into recognizable units of energy; the work of the software is the identification, labling and retention for possible further processing in short-term-memory (RAM) of these units of energy. Contact is when the computer operator becomes conscious of (reflects) the result of the software-processed hardware input.

This far we have 'Off nama/rupa rebounds consciousness.

The choice made at this point by the computer operator to do or not to do something further is 'Off consciousness rebounds nama/rupa.'

The mirror simile is also helpful. Imagine two mirrors facing one another. One side is a pure mirror (that is consciousness); the other side is split down the middle, one half showing forms, the other side is yacking away describing what it sees on it's own other side.

What is being said is that it is only under this arrangement that we can say that a being exists. Remove the pure mirror or the nama/rupa mirror and there is nothing there that 'exists,' hence nothing that can age or die.

It is easier to picture if you begin with an already identified with/created (sankaramed) world. There the already conscious individual's eye comes into contact with visible object and consciousness of seeing that object results. This is the second consciousness: off nama/rupa rebounds consciousness. Then, conscious of seeing a sight, feeling pleasure thereat, one acts to re-create the experience of that sight. Acting to re-create that sight is 'downbound blindness rebounds bound up in own-making'. That is the first consciousness.

So we can see here that the main difficulty for us is that we have inadequate words to describe the various sorts of "consciousness."

The Buddhist understanding is reflected in the Pali word: vi-nana (re-know-know), in other words, consciousness is mind aware of mind.

Again with the mirrors: It's like a person looking at his own reflection in two facing mirrors and mistaking one, say ten reflections deep, as "himself" looking at the others, when, in fact, there is nothing there but reflections (no real person standing there being reflected...just ripples on the surface of an oil slick...

Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy
Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy

or sometimes I use the image of a man with a hand-puppet pretending to talk back and forth with the puppet as though it understood what was being said and was giving thoughtful answers; sometimes the puppeteer mistakes himself for the puppet... who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?)...anyway...So the point here is to describe the nature of emerging from the process of individualized consciousness creating individualized consciousness by becoming aware of and separating the mental and physical aspects of individuality from consciousness of such.

BA: In terms of the 5 shitpiles, what definition do you give to formations?

"Formations" is the way Bhk Bodhi and Ms. Horner translate "sankhara" (see Glossology: Paticca Samuppada )

"Sankhara" gives all the translators trouble because they always look only at one end or the other. "Sankhara" is like "kamma", it has two ends: it is the identification with an Intent (cap I a la Castaneda), or act, and it is the identification with the results of that act. It means forming and formations, confounding and the confounded, fabrication and the fabricated, confecting and confections, etc: san = con = with or co, but also 'own' and 'self'; kara = make. The other translators want to ignore the 'self' part of the word and stick with the make, so they are always getting stuck when the word is used for the result and consequently have difficulty figuring out how we come to identify with "this."

 


 

The reader interested in the MahaNidana might also find this sutta interesting:

The Lost Citadel, Olds translation of SN 2.12.65 with links to the Pali Text Society C.A.F. Rhys Davids translation, the Wisdom Publications Walshe translation, and the Access to Insight, Bhk. Thanissaro translation.


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