15. Mahanidana Sutta

Buddha and Ananda talk about the Interdependent Origin of Suffering

One day, Ananda said to the Buddha that although the doctrine of the Nidanas (the links in the chain of the interdependent origin of suffering) is deep and difficult, but he, Ananda, understands it as clearly as possible. In response, the Buddha warns Ananda: you should not say that, because misunderstanding of this doctrine makes the minds of people entangled and restless (one should not become flattered by the understanding he has reached, he must strive to penetrate the thought even deeper). Then the Buddha instructs Ananda in depth about the teachings of Nidanas:

Aging and death

If there were no birth in the bodies of the gods, spirits, demons, people, or animals, then it would not be possible to find aging and death anywhere. Therefore, birth is the cause of aging and death.


If there was no desire for existence in any of the worlds: neither in the world of Feelings, nor in the world of Forms, nor in the World of no-Forms, there would be no birth. Therefore, the desire for existence is the cause of birth.

Desire for existence

If there was no excitation of consciousness of any kind: neither the excitation of feelings, nor the excitation from delusions, nor the excited (by desire) following rituals and ceremonies, nor the excitation of consciousness by the belief in “I”, where would the desire for existence come from? Therefore, the excitation of consciousness is the cause of the desire for existence (in explaining the reason of the desire for existence, the term “upadana” is used, the translation of which raises a number of questions. The usual translation – “attachment”, “clinging” – to some extent contradicts the literal meaning – “fuel”. In this text, we treat upadana as “excitation of consciousness” (“ignition by desires”)).

Excitation of consciousness

If there were no Triple Thirst, where would the excitation of consciousness come from? Without thirst for sensual experiences, and without thirst for their extension, and without thirst for oblivion, there would not be any of the types of excitation of consciousness. Therefore, the Triple Thirst is the cause of the excitation of consciousness.

Triple Thirst

If there were no immersion (of consciousness) in the perception of the eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and intellect, then where the Triple Thirst would be drawn from? Therefore, immersion in perception is the cause of thirst.

Another chain of thought that describes the consequences of thirst

The Buddha tells Ananda about another chain of thought, the study of which also leads to an understanding of the depravity of immersion in perception. This description is remarkable because the Buddha shows how the essence of the doctrine of the Interdependent Origin of Suffering can be expressed in completely different chains of thought. We can see that the doctrine of the Interdependent Origin of Suffering is an extraordinarily flexible analytical method, not limited to the basic chain of contemplating about the Twelve Nidanas.

For this additional chain, the Buddha begins the study from bad behavior, when people pick up sticks and knives, experience hostility, start quarrels and arguments, inflict insults, slander and lie. The described (aggressive) behavior would not arise, if there were no fear of losses and possessive feelings. Fear of loss as well as possessive feelings arise based on attachment and passion. Attachment and passion arise as a result of false certainty (in the necessity of possession). This false certainty arises from the desire to possess and gain the experience of possession. The desire to possess and the desire for experience of possession arise from the Triple Thirst and immersion in the activity of senses.

After reviewing this chain, the Buddha again leads Ananda to the conclusion that the dependence of consciousness on feelings is the cause of suffering. If in the first chain, the effects of dependence on the senses are aging and death, then in the second, it is bad behavior leading to degeneration in the lower spheres.

Limits of analytical research

Returning to the main chain of Nidanas, the Buddha explains: the dependence of consciousness on the senses is due to the contact of the senses with the objects of perception, and that contact depends on the union of name and form. The union of name and form depends on the awareness of the “I”, and the awareness of the “I”, in turn, depends on the name-form.

Yet another surprise awaits Ananda, who at the beginning of the conversation believed himself already possessing the doctrine of the Nidanas: the Buddha explains to him that the interdependent emergence of the name-form and the consciousness of the “I” are the limits of analytical research. To this extent, one can distinguish how someone was born, aged, died and reborn. And to this extent, there is a way of describing the whole revolving of the wheel of Samsara, consisting of the name-form along with the consciousness of the “I”.

Defining the “I” and avoidance of defining the “I”

Those people who speak of their “I” always define it on two grounds: 1) the presence or absence of form; 2) finiteness or infinity. So, one can speak of his “I” as having a form and being finite; having a form and being infinite; not having a form and being finite; not having a form and being infinite. In addition, this person may think that he already has such “I”, or will, under certain conditions, possess it in the future. All these definitions and thoughts are based on attachment to the name-form; they, affirming or denying, point to the name-form and do not go beyond the bounds of the Samsara wheel. How can you avoid the defining of the “I”? You can avoid defining the “I” if you do not associate yourself with the definitions of it, as having a form or not having a form, and also if you do not bind yourself with a finite or infinite representation – neither in the present, nor in the future.

“I” as a feeling

If someone says that “I” is a feeling, then this question should be asked: “There are three kinds of feelings: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Which of them is the true “I”? If any of them were “I”, then this “I” would disappear with the emergence of a new feeling. So there is no constant “I”-feeling.”

If we assume that the “I” is not a feeling, then this question should be asked: when there is nothing to feel, can the idea of “I am” arise in this state? And since this is impossible, the idea of a certain “I” that is not a feeling is erroneous (assuming that “I” is not a feeling but one who feels, then there must be a part in it that perceives the feeling, and part in it , which is a non-feeling. Then for each of the alleged parts of this “I” you can make a conclusion about the impossibility of their permanence and independent existence).

Therefore, – explains Buddha to Ananda, not clinging to such representations and substantiations of the “I”, the contemplator does not become agitated. Without becoming agitated, he attains nibbana.

Such a contemplator knows and sees (the truth about the destruction of suffering), but does not say either: “The Tathagata exists after death”; nor: “The Tathagata does not exist after death”; neither “Tathagata exists and does not exist after death”; neither “Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist.” This contemplator knows the limits of language and notation, the limits of the rotating wheel of Samsara.

Types of comprehension

Ananda also receives an explanation of the seven kinds and two (additional) spheres of comprehension:

  • The comprehension of beings whose bodies and perceptions are different from each other; such beings are people, some gods and inhabitants of the lower spheres;
  • The comprehension of beings that are different in bodies, but are similar in perceptions; these are the deities of the first Jhāna, from the Brahma retinue;
  • The comprehension of beings similar in bodies, but different in perceptions; these are the deities of radiant effulgence;
  • The comprehension of beings with similar qualities of the body and similar qualities of perceptions; such are beautiful deities;
  • The comprehension of beings who completely overcame the perceptions of forms; in their perceptions there is no opposition and separation; they dwell in the boundlessness of space;
  • The comprehension of beings completely absorbed in comprehension itself; they dwell in unlimited comprehension;
  • The comprehension of beings who have completely exhausted the belief in the reality of anything; they dwell in the void.

In addition to these seven types of comprehension, two spheres are distinguished: the comprehension of non-existence and the comprehension of neither existence nor non-existence (the seven kinds of comprehension can be attributed to the two missing spheres: 1st-4th kinds of comprehension – to the sphere of existence, 5th-7th kinds of comprehension – to the sphere of both existence and non-existence).

Liberation by inference and through direct experience

The Buddha explains to Ananda that an experienced and sophisticated contemplator understands the dangers and qualities of each kind of comprehension; he avoids attachment to the pleasures of each of the spheres. Such a contemplator is called liberated due to inference.

When a contemplator, free of mental bounds, enters into this or that sphere or kind of comprehension (in any order), remains in them as much as he sees fit, and leaves them whenever he wants, he, having destroyed all the spots of excitation (contamination) of his own mind, is called the one who achieved liberation through direct experience.

There is no way of liberation beyond the unity of these two paths, says the Buddha. Ananda rejoices at this profound instruction, for he sees something that was hidden from him earlier in the Doctrine of the Nidanas: the liberation of the mind, which lies beyond the definition of the “I” and fixation on certain experiences of comprehension.

Vladimir Pyatsky and Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler