Buddhist Philosophy based on the Rice-Seedling Sutra

(Salistamba Sutra)

device width goes here

Topga Rinpoche

Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Buddha statue

Part 1, Introduction

The teaching is concerned with the sutra called the rice-seedling sutra, which is one of the first teachings given by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. This sutra can, therefore be considered to be the basis of all Buddha's teachings.

Many of you who have come to this course are already familiar with Buddhist teachings but some of you are new. In either case the teachings of this sutra will be very beneficial.

For both the teacher and the students it is very important to have a good motivation during the teachings. For the teacher it is very important to bring to mind the kindness of the Buddha himself who originally gave the teachings and to apply his intelligence to comprehend the sense of the teachings. For the students it is essential to take the teachings without trying to compete with one another, being jealous of the progress of others or proud of ones own progress. It is important that one does not involve oneself in these negative emotions. The Buddha himself is a perfect being who has attained enlightenment; therefore the teachings he has given are words of truth. In that sense they are ultimate and both teacher and student should keep this in mind. As a result, the influence of these words of truth will enter ones mind so that it becomes free of obscurations.

Buddha gave different cycles of teachings. The first was about the Four Noble Truths.[1] today's sutra belongs to the second cycle of teachings which is mainly concerned with presenting emptiness, the fact that all phenomena are essenceless, insubstantial and unreal.[2]

[1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths ]

[2. The vast body of instructions is generally known these days as "the three cycles" or "the three Dharmachakras." The first cycle, which was the initial formulation of the Buddha's experience, is concerned with the Four Noble Truths. The second cycle is known as "the teachings of no characteristics," and the third cycle ... is known alternatively as "complete differentiation," "perfect delineation" or, probably more familiarly, "the teachings of the Buddha nature." - Karma Lodro Chokyi Senge: www.rinpoche.com ]

The name of the sutra is The rice-seedling sutra. From among the Theravada and Mahayana traditions it belongs to the Mahayana tradition. Buddha himself was an individual who had complete and perfect realisation of emptiness; however, in terms of other beings their capacities to understand and realise this vary. There are some who are able to relate to these teachings on emptiness and some who are not able to relate to them.

In order to make these teachings comprehensible, the Buddha used the analogy of a rice seedling when attempting to explain emptiness. Looking at a rice field nearby the Buddha spoke of the growth of a rice seedling and the associated process as an example to illustrate what is called dependent occurrence. He used this analogy in order to make the teachings easily comprehensible for different kinds of people who might otherwise, due to their inferior intelligence, have difficulties to understand these teachings. The Buddha pointed out that when one sows a seed in a rice field, that seed will grow into a rice seedling in a process involving different steps. However, in essence all the different elements of that process are empty of reality.

The Sutra goes on saying: To all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas I bow down.

This is related to the translation of the sutra. The person involved in translating the sutra would pay homage in the beginning to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The sutra says: Once I heard these words told to me. The point made here is that one of the main disciples of the Buddha, in this case Sariputra,[3] received these teachings directly from the Buddha. He experienced or came to an understanding through studying the teachings and its meaning, so this indicates that the teachings have an authentic source.

[3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sariputta ]

Then follows information on the place where the sutra was given, the people who were present and the time the sutra was given.

The Buddha, the Bhagawan had been staying at Vulture Peak in Rajgir;[4] that is to say Rajgir Vulture peak is the place where the Buddha gave this teaching. "with a great assembly consisting of 1,250 fully ordained monks and a vast number of Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas.

[4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulture_Peak ]

Those who were present belonged both to the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions. There were Shravakas,[5] there were Bodhisattvas who belong to the Theravada tradition, and there were Mahasattvas who belong to the Mahayana tradition.

[5. Disciples.]

At that time, the noble Sariputra went to the place where the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Maitreya [6] had been staying during the days.

[6. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

At that time one of the main students of the Buddha, Sariputra, went to see another main student of the Buddha, Maitreya, in order to clarify the meaning of what he had heard. The sutra says that the two of them were sitting down on a flat rock and talking with animation on various subjects of interest.

Now, when people who are developed in the way which Sariputra and Maitreya were, sat down and talked together they would speak about the Dharma, they would have discussions in terms of understanding different teachings and these discussions such people would find very joyful and interesting. It is also mentioned that they sat down on a flat rock, so these people who were very developed and had attained a very high level of realisation would remain in very humble surroundings; they would sit down on a flat rock to discuss the Dharma together. They had given up all attachment to the five sensual pleasures and so on. Their sitting down together did not require any elaborate environment with thrones covered in brocade etc.; they would simply sit down on a flat rock.

The sutra then goes on as follows: The noble Sariputra said to the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Maitreya (who is called a Mahasattva because he has entered the Mahayana): Maitreya, today while looking at a seedling of rice, the Buddha, the Bhagawan said to the monks, O monks, he who completely understands the process of dependent occurrence, understands what is the dharma. He who understands what is the dharma, understands what is Buddha, the enlightened state. Having spoken thus, the Buddha, the Bhagawan fell silent. Sariputra wanted Maitreya to clarify the meaning of what the Buddha had said while looking at a seedling of rice.

This sums up the subject matter of the sutra:

If one looks how a rice seed grows into a rice seedling there are different components and steps in that process. In dependence upon there being a rice seed, a rice seedling will come into existence. If one plants a rice seed it will without fail grow into a rice seedling, provided that the various causes and conditions necessary for that process are present.

One may ask the question - if the reason for the seed growing into a seedling is that the seedling is potentially present at the time of the seed, and if cause and effect coexist or not - whether they are separate entities or not. The Buddha, by using the analogy of how a rice seed grows into a rice seedling showed that neither of these possibilities hold true; in fact, this is a process of dependent occurrence where each and every component is necessary, where the different components depend on one another in terms of coming into existence. The Buddha then said that an individual who understands the process of dependent occurrence understands what is the dharma.

The implications of that is that one will not believe that phenomena have been produced by some sort of inherent potential or that they have been produced by a creator, a supreme being such as Ishvara or another god-like being. By pointing out that all phenomena are the outcome of this process of dependent occurrence, one avoids these mistaken notions and one will understand what is Buddha, the enlightened state.

When Buddha uses this analogy of how a seed develops into a seedling his point is not to explain agriculture or farming; his point is to explain that phenomena, are merely the outcome of the coming together of causes and conditions in a process of dependent occurrence.

* * *

Having heard the Buddha saying this, Sariputra had a lot of questions with respect to what the process of dependent occurrence is, because he had never heard of that process before. He understood that the teaching was very important, because the Buddha said that the one who understands this process of dependent occurrence understands what is the dharma. Sariputra also wanted to know what kind of dharma one comes to understand by understanding the process of dependent occurrence; and what is Buddha the enlightened state which one understands as a result of having understood the dharma. So he went to Maitreya to clarify his questions.

In the following paragraph the three first questions relate to what it is that one is to understand. Sariputra asks: Maitreya what is the meaning of the Sugata's [7]words? What is the process of dependent occurrence? What is dharma? What is Buddha, the enlightened state?

[7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugata ]

Then he goes on asking three more questions that relate to having questions about what methods would bring about that understanding. He asks Maitreya: How is it that, by completely understanding the process of dependent occurrence, one understands what is the dharma? How is it that if one understands what is the dharma, one completely understands what is Buddha, the enlightened state?

The Bodhisattva-Mahasattva replied: Noble Sariputra, concerning this, the Buddha, the Bhagawan, who is the master of dharma, who is omniscient, did say this. Then he goes on to clarify this to Sariputra. O monks, he who completely understands the process of dependent occurrence, understands what is the dharma. He who understands what is the dharma, completely understands what is Buddha, the enlightened state.

What is the process of dependent occurrence?

That question involves defining what is meant by the process of dependent occurrence.

The answer is: It is like this: something is present; something else comes from it; from that, something else comes. At first there is a cause which produces an effect; that effect in turn will produce something else. There is a process in which the different elements occur in dependence upon one another. The presence of causes and conditions produce an effect and that effect will produce something else.

The process of dependent occurrence is defined by the master Vasubhandu [7] in a treatise he composed which expounds on the process of dependent occurrence. He says: Something is present; from that, something else is produced. Something is present that will produce something else, which again in return will produce yet another result. (The meaning of both statements is the same.) One may wonder why this process is explained repeatedly if the meaning is not different. The point of repeating something is to clarify the point that one wants to make.

[7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasubandhu ]

Another reason for there being two definitions is that at that time in India there was a non-Buddhist school of thought which asserted that a supreme self, referred to as "The Inner Gnostic Being", is naturally present within each and every individual. The definition says that "something is present and something else comes from that" does not refer to the Inner Gnostic Being as the source of phenomena. That the presence of something will produce something else, points to a process of dependent occurrence, rather than the Inner Gnostic Being being the source of phenomena.

A commentary was written to this treatise of Vasubhandu by an Indian Master called Gunamati,[8] who explained the definitions as follows. The first of the two, according to Gunamati, points to there being a direct connection between cause and effect. The second definition implies that there is a connection which goes through a number of elements before giving rise to an effect.

[8. A monk of the Consciousness-Only school who lived in southern India around the sixth century, revered as one of the ten great scholars of the school.

E.g., if one looks at basic unawareness that produces karma, basic unawareness produces actions and the karma actions accrue.[9] These two are directly related to one another. If one then looks at consciousness, which is the next of the 12 phases in the process of independent occurrence, that consciousness is produced by basic unawareness; however, it is through the medium of actions and the karma that actions accrue as the middling link. Therefore it is not a direct connection in terms of basic unawareness producing consciousness, it is more indirect.

[9. See: /buddhism/twelve-links-of-dependent-arising.htm ]

Gunamati also gives different characteristics related to the process of dependent occurrence. When it is said: something is present, something else comes from that, the mere presence of something produces an effect or result. So it is the presence itself which is the main condition in terms of producing an effect. There is no other condition. That is the first characteristic.

Then we have the second characteristic of the process of dependent occurrence in relation to how something produces something else. As we saw there was a second statement: when something has been produced that will in turn produce something else. This relates to a process of change, impermanence, so this process of dependent occurrence involves a process of change. The moment something has come into existence it is subject to change, namely that in turn produces something else.

The third characteristic relates to that each element of this process has the capacity to produce something else. Basic unawareness produces actions and the karma that actions accrue. Actions in turn produce consciousness and so on. Each of the elements in this process has the capacity to produce the next element in the process.

In terms of Gunamati's definition of the process of dependent occurrence, the main point is that each of the elements of this process produce the next, so it is in dependence on the previous that the latter is produced. In this way all 12 phases of this process arise in dependence on one another.

When saying that each of these 12 phases in the process of dependent occurrence arise in dependence on one another, it means that as the previous phase comes to an end the following comes into existence; so it is not the case that the cause, namely the previous phase, comes to an end and then there is an interruption and then the next phase is produced. As the previous phase comes to an end that turns into the coming into existence of the following. There is no interruption in between the different phases.

In the next paragraph the different phases of the process of dependent occurrence is presented. This process is as follows:

Based on the presence of basic unawareness, actions occur and karma accrues. Due to actions and their accrued karma, the formation of tendencies which colour consciousness come about. Due to the formation of these tendencies which colour consciousness, the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus are produced. Due to the presence of the four non-material skandhas and the physical form of the fetus, the six sensory/cognitive faculties come into play. On the basis of the six sensory/cognitive faculties comes contact. From contact come sensations. From sensations comes wanting. From wanting comes actions with the aim of taking hold of what one wants. From taking hold comes impulsion into the next phase of existence. From impulsion into the next phases of existence comes rebirth. From rebirth comes ageing and death and also agony, despair, physical and mental suffering, and psychological turmoil. In this way, nothing beyond massive suffering comes to pass.[10]

[10. Enumeration of the 12 links of dependent arising.]

As we saw before, this process of dependent occurrence was defined as follows: When something is present, that presence produces something else. In terms of the different phases of dependent occurrence, that means that when basic unawareness is present that produces actions which accrue karma. When actions which accrue karma are present, that in turn produce tendencies which produce consciousness. There is a continuous uninterrupted process where each element produces the following.

In this sutra the Buddha merely said, he who completely understands the process of dependent occurrence understands what is the dharma. Then the Buddha fell silent, which is to say that he rested in a state of evenness, a state of meditation, through which he influenced Maitreya in so that Maitreya was able to comprehend the meaning of what the Buddha had spoken. The Buddha had this capacity to influence his disciples so that they would comprehend what he had said and then explain the meaning of that to other students.

There are also other Buddhist teachings written by followers of Buddhism, such as those who have written treatises and commentaries that clarify the meaning of the words of the Buddha. In Buddhism you have these different divisions, the actual words of the Buddha himself and the explanations by his close disciples, as well as treatises and commentaries by later Buddhist masters.

Maitreya is a great Bodhisattva dwelling on what is called the Bodhisattva levels, where an individual has great insight. He has attained such a level of wisdom that the Buddha was able to influence him so that he understood what the Buddha meant when stating that he who completely understands the process of dependent occurrence understands what is the dharma and so on.

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni had the power to influence the minds of others so that they were able to comprehend the teachings that he gave. It is said that the words of the Buddha when heard by different individuals who had developed to different degrees would understand according to their degree of development. Maitreya was developed to the extent where he was able to comprehend the meaning of what the Buddha had said.

Therefore this text that we are studying is referred to as a sutra rather than a treatise or a commentary written by a Buddhist master. Since the Buddha was able to influence Maitreya in this way and Maitreya was developed enough to comprehend what the Buddha taught it is regarded as a sutra, as a direct teaching of the Buddha.

Part 1 Q and A: topga-rinpoche-course-part-01-q-and-a.htm

top of page