A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising: Table of Contents

| June 7, 2012 | 22 Comments

Americans seem to use “dependent origination” as the most common translation of paticca samuppada, but I don’t think we’re talking about “origination” so much as about what is arising, so I prefer “dependent arising”. (For the sake of search engines, I used “dependent origination” in the title of each blogpost, but a rose by any other name is still useful to learn about, right?)

The Buddha says of the ignorance that begins this lesson, that it has no discoverable beginning. I take this to mean that in his view, it may have had an origin but it’s not one he could see from his perspective.

(AN 10.61:) “A first beginning of ignorance cannot be conceived, (of which it can be said), ‘Before that, there was no ignorance and it came to be after that.’ Though this is so, monks, yet a specific condition of ignorance can be conceived. Ignorance, too, has its nutriment, I declare; and it is not without a nutriment.– translated by Nyanaponika Thera

Nowadays science offers us some reasonable explanations of where the process began, which would have been in improvements in survival mechanisms over aeons. What arises in the process of dependent arising is a mechanism that has served our species well over the course of its evolution: the instinct to see ourselves as distinct and valuable individuals whose lives are worthy of preservation. This system has worked well in creating a creature who will defend itself and its ideas — for both of these (our bodies and our inventions) are key to the success of humankind. But it’s quite common for the things that serve us well to also have a dark side, and there is this about our tendency to self-protection: we perhaps take it a little too far. It seems that the instinct that served us well in our primitive days may not serve as well when applied to the increasing complexities of human interactions.

This series of posts is a *secular* understanding of dependent arising in the sense that it describes what’s going on in each link in terms of things we can see for ourselves — it is secular because it is confined to the here and now, the mundane, the pragmatic. The focus remains on what is happening in this life, and no reference is made to karma or rebirth.

A quick glance at the terms used for each link of dependent arising make it apparent that the Buddha was talking about a birth that follows a life described in terms of our actions (starting with contact with the world and what we feel in response to that contact) . Until fairly recently, it has been assumed that because the links were named with reference to rebirth, the only logical explanation was that what was being discussed was the fact of rebirth — and that paticca samuppada was effectively an endorsement of the Buddha’s belief in rebirth as the cosmic moral order. However, a new way of looking at the teaching recognizes that the Buddha used the structure of common concepts of the day about rebirth, to deny that what people thought was happening actually was, and to simultaneously point out what he saw was actually going on. This series focuses on the “actually going on” portion; the denial is not covered in these posts, but can be found in a paper called “Burning Yourself” recently published in the Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies which can be found using a search like this one.


  • Ignorance (avijja): Answers the question “Ignorance of what?”
  • Sankhara: Why is this word so darned hard to translate?
  • Consciousness/awareness (vinnana): Is liberation the end of consciousness? How could that be?
  • Name-and-form/identification (namarupa): Is “namarupa” really the Buddha saying “We have this duality: mind and body”?
  • Six Senses (salayatana): Sure, we have six senses. This is news?
  • Contact (phassa): And our senses make contact with the world; why bother even mentioning this?
  • Feeling/experience (vedana): Is liberation the end of feeling? Doesn’t that make it about disconnecting ourselves from life?
  • Craving: (tanha) It is craving that is named as the cause of dukkha — craving for what, exactly?
  • Clinging: (upadana) And then the next question is: clinging to what?
  • Becoming: (bhava) A moment of transition between certainties and action.
  • Birth: (jati) When we are looking for evidence of this “birth” in our own lives, where do we look to find it?
  • Aging-and-death: (jaramarana) What is it about aging and death that’s the problem, exactly? Can we end these?
  • The Taints: (asava) The chain of causation described in dependent arising is usually listed as twelve links, but it goes one step back further, with “the taints” being the cause of ignorance.


See also: Food and Fire in Dependent Origination (on the subject of the importance of understanding the term ‘nutriment’ because it is assumed to be understood  in definitions of Dependent Arising).

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About the Author ()

After 20-odd years of trying to figure out what Buddhism was about, Linda Blanchard founded the Skeptical Buddhists’ Sangha in Second Life in 2007 to get her questions answered, and there discovered friends and community, along with a better understanding of the dharma. She is -- very slowly -- learning Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist literature. As a result, she's written a few papers (on Dependent Arising) for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Links to these can be found on the About page of her blog.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #7 Feeling » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  2. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #6 Contact » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  3. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #5 Use of the Six Senses » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  4. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #4 Name and Form » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  5. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #3 Consciousness » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  6. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #2 Sankhara » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  7. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #1 Ignorance » Secular Buddhist Association | June 7, 2012
  8. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #8 Craving » Secular Buddhist Association | June 11, 2012
  9. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #9 Clinging » Secular Buddhist Association | June 14, 2012
  10. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #11 Birth » Secular Buddhist Association | June 22, 2012
  11. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #12 Aging and Death » Secular Buddhist Association | June 24, 2012
  12. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #10 Becoming » Secular Buddhist Association | June 24, 2012
  13. A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #0 The Taints » Secular Buddhist Association | June 26, 2012
  14. If Not-Self Then What? » Secular Buddhist Association | July 14, 2012
  15. The Practice of Buddhist Meditation is Not for the Fainthearted » Secular Buddhist Association | July 31, 2012
  16. The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara « Just A Little Dust | August 14, 2012
  17. Dependent Arising In Context « Just A Little Dust | January 12, 2013
  18. The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara | buddhistcountry.org | February 8, 2014
  19. The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara | Buddhist Country | July 25, 2014
  1. Richard Blumberg rblumberg says:

    Linda, I’ve written a short essay on what I’ve translated as “Dependent Emergence”. I’ve delivered this as a Dharma talk at our local Buddhist Dharma center, and I’ve used it in the classes I’ve taught at our local university’s continuing ed program. My approach is totally secular. You might find it interesting, and if you have a chance to look at it, I’d be interested in your comments,

    With regard, Richard Blumberg

  2. Linda Linda says:

    I’ll have a look at it first chance I get, Richard.

  3. Linda Linda says:


    While Noah Ronkin’s observation that we Westerns tend to put objects first, whereas Buddhists put process first is a valuable one, I am certain the Buddha wasn’t actually talking about something as grand-scaled and generic as “process metaphysics” with paticca samuppada, but was being much more specific than that.

    That “all phenomena—all processes and events, including those perceptual and experiential events that we reify as ‘objects’—emerge as they are from the entire complex of phenomena that preceded them” is true (though I don’t think this was Buddha’s point). “In some cases, one or a few phenomena so dominate that emergence that we identify those as ’causes’ of the emergent phenomena.” This is also true, and something that needs to be recognized to understand what the Buddha is saying. “In many cases, however … it would have been impossible, prior to the fact, to predict the exact nature of the event that would emerge from a particular set of preceding conditions. While the phenomenon depends on the preceding conditions, it cannot be said to have been ’caused’ by them in the simple sense that a well-placed cue stroke causes a particular set of collisions among the perfectly round balls on a perfectly smooth and level billiards table.” Yes, exactly. And the reason the Buddha often works the chain backwards is because he wants us to be quite clear that *without the preceding condition, what followed could not have followed*. But the reverse is not true: just because all conditions up to any given point are met, does not mean that the next step is inevitable. (I detailed this on a post on my own blog: http://justalittledust.com/blog/?p=808 )

    Thinking that dependent arising is “a theory of everything” is what leads to thinking that Buddhism concerns itself with Absolute Realities, as in: “Nagarjuna argued that, since all phenomena emerge dependent on preceding conditions, all phenomena (including emptiness itself) must be empty of inherent existence.” What I see being said by the Buddha is not that “phenomena is empty of inherent existence” but that they are empty of inherent *meaning* — that the bonds between things and our names (definitions) for them are created by us — imaginary in that sense. Whether *things* are real or not isn’t really significant to our experience — our experience is real to us, and so it’s the experience that we need to examine.

    While it’s true that the general formula that begins “This existing, that comes into existence” is clearly in reference to DA — and it is also clear that it is stating an obvious principal that can apply to all things, in general — this isn’t because DA is a theory of all things — it is, rather, another example of the Buddha stating what’s obvious to all of us (that causality is something we can all see and we should be familiar with how it plays out) so that we’ll be clear on how the same process is central to the specific instance he is trying to get us to see; he can then short-hand the formula for causality when he wants to make reference to the specific causality he’s talking about.

    I’m not sure that ignorance can be equated with “wrong view”. Though wrong view is caused by ignorance, not all of the ignorance the Buddha is talking about falls under “wrong view”.

    “Constructions” is a fair enough translation for sankhara, but the question is what is it that’s being constructed? I think confusion enters because, in the Vedic view of things (a view that serves as the reference for sankhara), the self and the world are one and the same — and what is being constructed is the self and the world simultaneously, but what the Buddha is saying with sankhara is that we *think* we are constructing the self and the world, but we are ignorant of what we’re actually creating. So when “sabbe sankhara anicca” gets translated with the Vedic view in mind, it comes out as “all the phenomenal world is impermanent” (because in the Vedic view one *is* creating these things), but in the Buddha’s take, what’s being said is, “What you are constructing — which you think is the self and the phenomenal world — *that* construction is impermanent.” That the world and self are impermanent is not what’s important, it’s that what we construct is impermanent that is the key (because therein lies our escape from the dukkha-production; if what we created were not impermanent, there would be no escape).

    Similarly for “sabbe sankhara dukkha” — it’s not that the world is dukkha, it’s that what we are creating is/creates dukkha.

    You’re right that “consciousness” is not a great translation for “vinnana” — and the problem is, more or less as the PTS dictionary points out, that it is making reference to “old Buddhist points of view” but it’s actually “old Vedic points of view” in which consciousness was hungry for something in particular — driven by sankhara it is consciousness seeking a way to create self and world, and it does this by looking for (and paying attention to) whatever is going to satisfy that hunger,so you’re right, “minding” is a better translation than “mind”.

    It’s with name-and-form that I have the most problem with any of the traditional takes on DA. The usual thing is to interpret it as the Buddha either telling us that there *is* individuality of body and mind (this being consistent with all the link descriptions defining “what is true” in the Buddha’s system– there is ignorance, there are formations, consciousness does descend, etc.) or the Buddha telling us there is *no* division (that we are making a mistake in dividing the world up — when actually “we are all One”). The problem is that what he was telling us was on two levels: that the Vedic view that there *is no division* between us and the world — that in fact there is a bond of certain equivalence between us and every thing, (because we and everything else have a bit of atman in us) — “is wrong” (surprise! He’s saying “we are *not* all One”); AND he was telling us that the way we divide up the world in terms of “like me” and “not like me” is *also* wrong. He’s telling us that what we tend to think (that the world is all about us) is a mistake, and that the way we actually behave (the way we divide up the world) is also a mistake. I don’t see this as meaning “the world cannot be divided up in any way” because all he is saying is that this particular *one way* he points out that we divide it up is a mistake. I also don’t see this as saying “belief that we and the world are linked” is entirely wrong, either — only that the particular linkages the Vedic people tended to rely on were mistakes. Clearly, there are ways in which we are linked (and elsewhere, he describes them): when our actions play out in the world, those actions do have consequences for others, and the effect they have on others tends to bounce back to us — so we are linked, but the linkage is not as certain as the Vedic people believed it was — it’s not “inherent” linkages. This is, I believe, what the Buddha was trying to tell us. There are effects, and they are fairly predictable, but as with your statement earlier in the piece, where you mention that it’s not as certain as a billiard cue hitting a ball, the bond between us and others — evident in how our actions play out in the world — just is not one-to-one, inevitable, and predictable.

    Traditional takes on “the six sense bases” and “contact” aren’t chock-full of helpful insights, either, probably because the whole structure hasn’t been clear, so what’s going on in those steps wasn’t clear either, so their descriptions haven’t give really helpful information in most systems. But what’s being said is very clear from seeing the original structure: The senses are actively seeking information that supports our sense of who we are and how we fit in the world: we can notice this when we sit in meditation, or when we’re mindful out there in the world: the way we are seeking information that confirms our views. And with “contact” we have the moment when we find something that satisfies that seeking: we can notice the keen attention we pay to things that turn out to support our self-conceptions.

    Feelings as “pleasant, unpleasant, neutral” certainly do seem to arise in every contact with the world, and noticing the way we turn them around and make them part of ourselves as you suggest here — preferences for colors, tastes, attitudes, and cats — make for good examples of how we put things in categories about ourselves and in that sense make them part of ourselves. But I maintain that it’s not even every incidence of “like, dislike, don’t care” that is being described here. I am, for example, fully capable of liking the tea my grandmother made at my last visit, but not forming particular attachments around the pleasure, not making it “part of me” in any way that will create dukkha. It is only when it satisfies my hunger for certainties about my self that it’s of concern. And, really, while small examples like the ones you gave do fit, I’m pretty sure it’s larger issues that were the things the Buddha most wanted us to notice — issues around debates about who the self is, in particular. Your “intolerant attitude of many churchmen” might be in that category.

    Your take on craving is very good. The main thing I’d note is that this craving is “thirst” and so it is also a kind of “hunger” — and because of this, I tend to relate it to vinnana. The earlier hungriness was part of a discussion of an overview of who we are and what drives our behavior — whereas this particular craving is part of a specific example of that behavior, showing how it arises in daily processes.

    The same sort of thing is true of the next links, where clinging (upadana) or perhaps becoming (bhava) completes the cycle described with sankhara. Sankhara is a desire for creation of the self, and with the certainties about what’s going on that are well-described in your piece (about who we are, and what we deem is important in the world) we are completing the process of self-creation.

    Birth, then, is the visible manifestation of that self into the world, and in response to that, dukkha (as “aging-and-death”).

    You say that dukkha doesn’t emerge, but I’m not clear on how you’d make that distinction. If each link in the chain is the most significant condition that allows for the emergence of the next, I’d say that every link in the chain allows for the emergence of dukkha — it is a self-creation just as all the others are.

    I’d be interested in your comments, in return.

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