Yes, Dependent Origination Can Be Saved

| January 28, 2017 | 6 Comments

This post is going to get personal. It can’t be helped. I’ve looked for some other way to write it, but there isn’t one in which I can be straightforward and tell the truth. I’m not going to attack anyone. I might — oh, okay, I will — argue against methods and conclusions, though. But what I intend to do is what any good Buddhist does: speak from my own personal experience, in this case about methods of trying to understand both what the Buddha taught, and why he taught it the way he did.

A little earlier on this blog, Doug Smith asked a question about an aspect of Buddhism I particularly focus on. He asked if dependent origination (which I call dependent arising — DA) can be saved. My answer is: Yes, it certainly can. But explaining why that is so is going to take a bit of effort, and maybe some patience on your part. It will take me more than one post to explain it because, as Doug points out, DA is a big, complex subject, hard to deal with in just one post. So first I’m going to talk about how the way Doug looks at it is different from the way I do, and in another post I’ll talk about what the way I see it reveals in terms of practice, as well as reveals of the Buddha’s methods.

The Critic’s Mirror

Of the methods of those who “exercise secular apologetics”, Doug says:

“To put it another way, to interpret all twelve links in the chain as occurring solely within a single lifetime would seem to be an exercise in secular apologetics. It would seem to start from the premise that the formula of dependent origination must be true, and work from there to figure out how it could be so, consistent with a rejection of literal rebirth. If instead we start by questioning whether dependent origination is true, whether all twelve links in the chain are really valid, we may end up with a different answer.”

My first question about the above would be to ask how one can know what dependent arising is saying, in order to find out if it is true or not. Unless the ancient texts explain dependent arising in plain-as-day modern style — and anyone who has read any suttas will know that’s not what we find — some assumption has to be made about what it is saying first, right?

Have you ever noticed how often it is the case that when someone criticizes something, that they are doing the very thing they find fault with? It surprises me how often this is the case, and it seems to me we have an example of that here. Doug is suggesting that some people — he names no names — start by assuming the Buddha got it right in dependent arising (whatever it was he will turn out to be saying), and since “right” to them is that they reject rebirth, they figure that must be what the Buddha was saying, and then they try to (as Jean Luc Picard might say) “Make it so.” He doesn’t say what’s wrong with this, but I think we can all easily figure out that the result would have to distort the Buddha’s message, in order to make it fit a predetermined “answer” to the “question” of “What is it the Buddha meant by this?”

It would seem to me fairly obvious that a close examination of the supposed results of such a backward method would reveal lots of flaws — in the Buddha’s talks, it would be hard to find support for “the answer” that came, cart-before-horse-like, first. There would be plenty of evidence that refuted both the supposition and its twisted support. It would tend to result in continued — if not more — confusion, instead of making the lesson clearer. The answer to the question about this one limited area of the Buddha’s dispensation would very likely not fit well into the larger whole of the dharma. It should not be too hard to see, from all that, that an error was made in the original assumption of what DA was about.

Now, I know of no one else but myself who suggests anything like DA being “a rejection of literal rebirth”. I would be very glad if Doug would point out to me who does say that, because I’d love to discuss it with them. But, though my work has been characterized that way, I know of nowhere I’ve said that the Buddha was rejecting literal rebirth — that would be in contradiction to what I believe the Buddha was actually doing (something much more subtle and skillful than that). That being the case, it’s clear to me that Doug can’t be talking about my work. Still, I am the only person doing work on dependent arising whose methods I’m intimately familiar with, and whose work might be misunderstood as saying the Buddha had constructed a lesson that was “a rejection of literal rebirth”, so I’m going to be the example I offer you of the honesty of an approach that gives results similar to those Doug seems to think must be predetermined and reasoned from the conclusion back to (presumably distorted) evidence, though my approach doesn’t, in fact, start from a conclusion. I’ll try to show that.

But before we get into that, I want to point out that in his piece, Doug did do the very thing he accuses secular apologists of doing: putting the cart (the answer) before the horse (the question), when he said:

“While the three lifetimes interpretation may not be explicit nor consistent in the Nikāyas, it appears at least to be reasonably implicit in the twelve link formula. And while, for example, the Mahānidāna Sutta omits three of the links in its discussion, that ends up having no particular bearing on whether it nevertheless affirms rebirth. It clearly does.”

Doug is starting from the premise that the Buddha was affirming rebirth with DA. He makes this clear from the very start of his post, when he says that DA “is a deeply problematic attempt to reconcile kammic rebirth with a potential awakening into non-self.” At the outset of an attempt to sort it all out, he has started from the assumption that, through dependent arising, the Buddha is trying to show us how karmic rebirth can fit with a worldview in which there is no lasting self in evidence.

I’m actually being a little imprecise there. I don’t believe Doug originally started from that conclusion. I know him to be a smart fellow, and an honest scholar. It seems pretty clear to me that he has examined the texts in light of the possibility that the Buddha wasn’t talking about rebirth over three lives, and gave an honest effort to trying to see it any other way. And when he didn’t see it — when the three lives model seemed the best fit for what he read — he went with it. But that still leaves us with an article written from the start with the conclusion that DA is describing rebirth over (minimally) three lives — and then proceeding to try to work out what was being said in the links on that basis, by questioning whether what he believes dependent origination to be about is true. If ‘DA is about rebirth’ was not the conclusion he started with, then when he pointed out in the quote above that that interpretation was neither “explicit nor consistent” in the discourses we have, that should have been enough to motivate a continued effort to find an explanation that is consistent, if not explicit, as it did in my studies.

Holding up the mirror to his criticism that secular apologists seem to be starting from the premise that the Buddha’s lesson on dependent arising has to be consistent with a rejection of rebirth — with its implication that starting with the conclusion is bad methodology (we all agree on that, right?) — we find, with his own statement that DA affirms rebirth, and all the discussion that follows, that he is doing the very same thing.

If not, then when he says, “Therefore when the Buddha identifies dependent origination with the dhamma it’s not clear that he is talking about much more than the conditioned nature of the self, and the second and third Noble Truths,” that might ring an alarm that points out that the three lives model, and rebirth, isn’t what’s being discussed.

Or when he notes that “There are several apparent repetitions implicit within the chain,” allowing that, since in any example of a life, that life will be a past life for the next, or the next life for the previous, that repetition is to be expected but “it makes a hash of certain of the links”, and then suggests that maybe — “possibly inappropriately” — “surreptitious modifications” need to be made to make sense of it — wouldn’t that give enough pause to question the assumption about DA being about rebirth?

Those are only a few examples of clues being ignored in order to stick to the conviction that the Buddha is talking about literal rebirth. Doug also points out that there are problems with how many links there really are: maybe it’s a five-link chain, maybe it’s just two (“the Buddha does describe dependent origination as having two links: suffering arising from desire.”) and his solution doesn’t attempt to explain this. Instead his conclusion is that what’s needed to make it fit our lives, is that it needs to be snipped and glued back together and, ironically, the last portion — the part that has the so-literal description of birth, and aging-and-death that he uses as one basis of the certainty that DA is about literal rebirth — needs to be taken metaphorically!

His conclusion is that DA “is in fact broken, at least by the light of contemporary belief and practice.” But I will maintain — and try to show in this and a following post — that the reason he comes to this conclusion is that he started from a mistaken premise: that the lesson is about karma and rebirth. When dependent arising is interpreted within the context of the Buddha’s own time — reaching outside the suttas to scholarship in a related field, that of Vedic studies — the result is exactly what the Buddha promises us, lessons that, while difficult to see at first, are visible to any practitioner, then and now.

Disorderly, Not Systematized”

The other fundamental error I see being made — not just by Doug, but by many scholars, and not just within Buddhism, but within Vedic studies as well — is giving up too soon. An example of it in Buddhist studies is beautifully outlined in Doug’s post, when he describes how Hajime Nakamura looked at what may be the oldest sutta on dependent arising, the Kalahavivāda Sutta, “Quarrels and Disputes”, and came to the conclusion that, while some of DA’s links appeared, though often differently-named, “their explanations are disorderly, not systematized.”

It seems so clear and obvious to me that if we look at something like, say, a natural system (for example, the plethora of different species on the planet), or something else, like one human’s attempt to convey something to another, and we just can’t make sense of it no matter how hard we try, the answer probably isn’t that it has no inherent sense to it. It is far, far more likely that we just haven’t understood what is going on, or what is being said. We need more information in order to see the pattern. We need to not give up until we get that information. We clearly need to look beyond the resources we’ve been using so that we will get more information.

In the case of “Quarrels and Disputes”, Leigh Brasington1 pointed that sutta out to me a few years back (all thanks to him for doing so). He seemed fairly certain that, while it was an early form of DA that contained some depths not found in “later” suttas, its discussion of clinging was about clinging to “family, friends, possessions, ideal, etc.” and it was not about “the self”. I saw the potential for it to be saying something more as well as what he saw, even in its simple descriptions of the way we cling to that which is “dear” (piya). Though it wasn’t clear from the many translations I read, my understanding of what was “dear” in the Buddha’s language ran deeper — it’s a word that carries freight from the Upanishads — and so I spent several days pulling the Pali apart. This resulted in the laying-bare of the beautiful, clockwork bone structure in the sutta, that revealed not the six links that Doug sees, or the seven that Leigh does, but easily nine, some of them running in two parallel and interwoven lines that describe how our clinging to that which is outside us (our possessions) *and* that which is inside us (our beliefs) are both problems being described, simultaneously, via dependent arising. It is an elegant lesson showing how the same underlying mechanism applies to both the obvious greed for sensuality and objects, and the far subtler possessiveness over our ideas, particularly those about life after death. That bone structure is what I’m talking about when I titled my paper on it “The Anatomy of Quarrels and Disputes”2.

It isn’t surprising that Nakamura came to the conclusion that the sutta was not systematized, and was therefore early. It does not have the familiar structure of the classic twelve-link version (which is probably a teaching from somewhat later in the Buddha’s career) and its intricate weaving of two parallel lines of argument seems to be unique. No one would expect that — I certainly didn’t when I decided to take a look at the Pali. But we need to not get so comfortable in our assumptions about what the Buddha is saying, or how he says it, that, when what we encounter doesn’t fit with what we already know, we assume something is wrong with it, rather than something is wrong with our understanding.

It is far too easy to decide that what we have before us is just too broken (as Doug puts his conclusion about DA) to be worth the trouble of further efforts in sorting it out. Passed on for generations orally, translated into what is often (inaccurately) described as a different language from the one the Buddha spoke, compiled by monastics with their own opinions about what was being said, possibly corrupted some during this process, or modified — or even originally written — by later followers with their own agendas, it is way too easy, when we have trouble understanding the texts, to decide that what we have before us is too chaotic to ever sort out. The belief that all those negative, confusion-adding influences are the problem too often stops us cold. I’m here, in part, to ask that we don’t cling to the idea that the suttas are too corrupted. Deep investigation indicates to me that they are not bad at all. In fact, once we use DA to unlock what’s going on, they are remarkably — astoundingly — consistent, despite all those possible bad conditions that could have messed them up.

Miller’s Law

When it comes to understanding what someone else is trying to explain to us — whether right now or in the ancient past — it always helps to remember Miller’s Law, which says that

“To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”3

What is important about the above rule is that it recognizes that other people may have beliefs that don’t align with ours, but which have an internal consistency of their own. To be able to understand what someone whose thinking isn’t just like ours is saying, we have to be willing to allow the possibility that what they are saying makes good sense to them, and we have to try to understand what they are saying from the position of that sense, not of our own. And I agree with that proposition wholeheartedly, and have for a long, long time.

The problem of “giving up too soon” that I discussed above can be seen as a side-effect of not living by Miller’s Law. When we try to understand something we start by trying to understand it from the perspective of our own experience, from our certainty about the way things work, and we have a strong tendency, when it can’t be readily understood from our view, to call it nonsensical and stop there.

This is, really, the basis of the approach Doug took with his “If instead we start by questioning whether dependent origination is true, whether all twelve links in the chain are really valid, we may end up with a different answer.” He started by asking “Does what I understand DA to be talking about match up with what I know of the world?” and he did, indeed, come up with a very different answer. But was it because he understood what the Buddha said, and that didn’t match up? Or because he had stopped asking whether he understood what the Buddha said, when — despite all the disparities between his answer to this question and the evidence — he assumed DA was about rebirth?

Where I started from in my questioning of pretty much everything the Buddha was saying — not just dependent arising, but everything — had nothing to do with fitting it into predetermined wishes for him to agree with me on anything at all, but simply to find out what he did say, and why he said it the way he did. What some guy 2.5 thousand years ago believed to be true in no way affects what I believe now. I don’t need the Buddha and I to be in agreement. But I love history, and I love a mystery — especially when solving it leans heavily on the use of language — and what I had been taught of the Buddha’s teachings seemed logical as far as I had gotten (not very far at that point) but beyond the little I already understood, there was so much disagreement about what he meant by what he said that I was very curious to know who was right. It wasn’t really going to be possible to decide whether to advance as “a Buddhist” if I didn’t know what the Buddha was actually saying if it got any more complicated than the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

And what the Buddha was saying could really only be sorted out by going back to the source — such as our record of it is — and seeing if it was even possible to get clarity out of it. I really didn’t (I still don’t) care what it was the Buddha turned out to be saying. If he turned out to be talking nonsense, then I could happily let go of it and go my own way, as I always have. But I really wanted to know what he was trying to convey. If it turned out to contain more wisdom, that would be gravy.

So my method has always been to first understand what the Buddha said, and only then to check whether what he was saying was something I could agree with. In that sense you could say that I started from the conviction that what the Buddha said was true, as Doug suggests secular apologists do, but there’s a difference: the assumption of “truth” I made was that what was being said would be true and consistent for the Buddha, not necessarily for me. I used Miller’s Law, and only afterward would I ask the question Doug starts from: is it true to my own reality, my own experience? I personally think that’s the only way to judge whether DA is “true” or not. We first have to understand what it is in the Buddha’s terms before we can see if it speaks to us now. The answer to the question of what the Buddha meant doesn’t have to match up to our perception at all, but if it turned out he was pointing out things we can still see now and benefit from, that would be an added bonus on top of solving the mystery of the history.

As a result of wanting to know what the Buddha’s truth was, I dug into the Pali texts, and one of the first things I noticed was how ambiguous the language was. It seemed like just about everything could be read two ways. How annoying. It seemed like my investigation was going to turn out to reveal what I’m told is true of so many religious texts — you can make them say whatever you want them to say. But no, that wasn’t what was going on.

The Buddha’s Truth In Layers

Oddly, the ambiguity began to seem very specific. It began to seem intentional. And — stranger still — the ambiguity slowly but surely began to sort itself into two separate lines of thinking. In one line, the subject was karma and rebirth, and the ordinary things we desire. But in the other, well, there was, for example, the word that gets translated as “rebirth” punabbhava, which literally means “again-becoming”. If the Buddha had meant rebirth he could have made a compound of puna with jāti, the word for “birth” but he didn’t. Why not? It seemed he was talking about something other than karma and rebirth with punabbhava, but what, exactly?

Then one day I was reading K.R. Norman’s “A Philological Approach To Buddhism”4 and tripped across this comment:

“We must never lose sight of the fact that in Indian literature multiple meanings are very often intended, so that it is not always possible to say that there is a single correct meaning.”

There was confirmation that what I thought I was seeing — some sort of purposeful ambiguity — might actually be there. But why?

Drawing meaning out of the suttas is difficult; I admit that. A lot of the problem, though, lies with our false expectation that the terms the Buddha used should be defined the way our similar words are, and that the way he and the people of his time talked should also be similar.

“Consciousness” is a big one that has this trouble — in the next post I talk a bit about that. But even with such a simple term as “birth”, it’s next to impossible to do anything other than take it literally when we read a translation that has the Buddha define jāti in DA as:

“The birth of beings in the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation [in a womb], generation, manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases for contact—this is called birth.”

And I am sure that is meant to be read as literal. But that’s not all that we are meant to understand through the description — “multiple meanings are intended”. My first clue to this was when I looked at the Pali and found “[in a womb]” does not appear — it was added by the translators, Bhikkhus Bodhi and/or Nanamoli. I wonder why? When I took a close look at the language, the whole paragraph was much more ambiguous than the translations lead us to believe.5

More years passed as I worked on trying to figure out what the Buddha was saying, and dependent arising was definitely the most confusing of all — largely because there was little help to be had from notes and commentaries and books. The confusion of interpretations is well-represented in Doug’s post. He did a fabulous job of pointing out the overwhelming number of problems and contradictions, both in the traditional understanding of it as three lives, or one, or in a more modern understanding of it as “mind states”. The confusion I found everywhere seemed to mean I was going to have to figure it out for myself but this felt a lot like Don Quixote confronting windmills. Realistically, I never expected to win such a battle.

I did start getting a feeling for the shape of DA, though. First a section of “givens”, starting with “Given that we are ignorant of the four noble truths, given that we have these volitions…”, followed by a very minutely-detailed middle section (contact with something results in feelings which results in craving, &c), ending in an outcome. That was quite clear to me, and some of what was going on was clear, but why he chose the terms he did, and their order was a mystery. Instead of giving up, I kept to the assumption that it made sense to the Buddha; I just hadn’t got enough information about his times to be able to see the reason. So I kept asking, “Why?” Why that order? Why choose those labels for each link?

At this point in my career as a serious student of the Buddha’s, I have to admit I was willing to search anywhere, and talk to anyone about my theories — I had absolutely no shame; I admit it. I pestered everyone. Mostly what I got back was some variant of the message Doug laid out, that the Traditional understanding of what the Buddha was saying was an accurate rendition of what he believed — that there was a Cosmic Justice System called karma, and rebirth was its manifestation — after all, hadn’t we known, for more than two thousand years, that that was what he was saying? And, I was told, anyone who saw something different in the texts has to be distorting them in order to make what the Buddha said seem to fit the modern view that rebirth isn’t in evidence. “You’re deluded,” was the message — a favorite word of Buddhists, that one, “delusion”. Anything that doesn’t fit with what we already believe must be someone else’s delusion. But despite that, I kept asking: why those labels? why that order? I kept ordering and reading books on the Vedic world.

About ten years before I asked the question, Joanna Jurewicz answered it. I discovered her paper, “Playing With Fire”6 in an edition of the Journal of the Pali Text Society. In it she explained that the terms and the order came from the Prajāpati myth. Not only did that make sense of what I had already understood, it made what I’d already understood make even more sense. In the realm of nirvana-like buzzes, this was one of the best. Until that point I had no outside confirmation that what I was seeing was there. Everything I saw thus far could have just been my imagination. But my imagination couldn’t make something I’d just imagined appear in a paper published ten years before. And the way the myth made what was being said in dependent arising light up with meaning — no, that wasn’t my doing. I’m not so full of insight into human nature that I could make the lesson work that well myself — that was a brilliant mind speaking across time.

The pattern that was revealed was, indeed, made up of layers of meaning, just as K.R. Norman suggested is often true in these ancient Indian texts. The Prajāpati myth itself has layers — it is modeled on human procreation — and the Buddha’s message touches that layer, and then uses the myth, and the understandings built from that myth, to point to a third layer, of something new that he was subtly pulling into the minds of his listeners, weaving patterns with those layers.

The question still remained, though: why would the Buddha not just come out and say “When I define birth this way, I want you to understand it first as literal, and then via the myth, and finally as applies to this other thing I’m pointing out?” Why would he not say, “See how this is shaped like the Prajāpati myth? What I’m saying with this is…” I was right back in the realm of “am I understanding this correctly, or am I deluding myself?” My new question was whether there was any past history of the Vedic teachers who came before the Buddha speaking so indirectly.

It was Joanna Jurewicz, again, who came to the rescue, with her (very dense, very scholarly) book “Fire and Cognition in the RgVeda”7. In it she uses the newish field of cognitive linguistics to show how the most ancient of works — like the Vedas — were not (as many a closed-minded Orientalist had assumed8) made up of fanciful works of bad word play and wishful thinking — basically: “nonsense” — but carefully crafted verses designed to use images of every-day concepts to conjure in the minds of their listeners new ideas that had no words invented, yet, to express them otherwise. The authors might seem to be talking about the coming of the dawn, or cows, or battle, but they were actually building up insights about how we think (has that possibility dawned?), or how we need to be fed the right concepts to think of new things (food for thought), or what a struggle it is to come up with answers to esoteric problems. They were speaking in layers. They made poems about cows but weren’t really talking about cows.

It turns out that speaking in this multi-leveled, less-than-explicit way was quite normal in the Buddha’s culture9. It seems as though the Buddha was effectively doing what the great masters before him did, although — as in everything — he repurposed their method and gave it his own, refined spin. In their day the Vedic poets used everyday experiences to build images in the mind that would help the listener conjure up new ideas that couldn’t otherwise be expressed in language. Some of these concepts had, by the Buddha’s time, been developed enough to have gotten their own vocabulary, ideas like karma and rebirth, atman and brahman, rituals (saṅkhārā), and individual identities (nāmarūpa), and transformation (bhava).

What the Buddha did was take these esoteric concepts, that could, by the time he lived, be discussed with their own vocabulary, and use them to point to something else, something mundane in its way. It seems he was reversing their process — using the esoteric to explain the mundane — but really that “mundane” was just as hard to verbalize as the then well-established concepts had once been. He used karma and rebirth, atman and brahman, and transformation of identity through rituals, as a pattern to point out something else entirely: how our actions (including thoughts) lead us to become someone different — and what the outcome of that process is (dukkha).

Miller’s Law Revisted

It is true that the Buddha is quoted as saying that dependent arising is the equivalent of his dharma. Yet in my initial attempt to understand just exactly what it was the Buddha was trying to say, it became clear to me that DA was not very well understood. It was time to give it a fresh look. Each time the fresh look revealed patterns that might actually be there, investigation outside the normal sources of writings on Buddhism, investigation into his times and culture, provided outside confirmation that what seemed possible is probable. He does, quite intentionally, speak on more than one level at a time. He is doing things — amazing and subtle things — with his style of teaching that we have missed because we have not understood his methods; they had been lost over time.

I have come to see that his use of words that create doubt about meaning is also intentional — we are being directed to question the accuracy of what we are hearing (nowadays often reading). Does he mean what our first impression tells us he means, or does he mean something else? Not only was this a common style of teaching in his day, it has the effect of causing us to practice the very thing he is trying to get us to learn to do: question, question, question. Even question the word of the Buddha himself. And isn’t that revealing of a brilliant mind, to find clever ways to get us to do that? We are taught to question what we hear and compare it to what we can see for ourselves. This is the very essence of the skill the Buddha talks about most often – direct seeing, accuracy.

I have no doubt his method of multi-leveled discussion worked well enough in his time, but he wasn’t omniscient enough to know that the subtlety and layering would be lost, and everything he said would be taken just at face value, and that, because of this, much of the meaning of his teaching — and the beauty of it — would get fuzzy and blow away like dandelion seeds.


Doug suggested that some of us might be secular apologists, who start from the premise that the Buddha was telling the truth in dependent arising, and that that truth couldn’t include literal rebirth. Questioning in that order would clearly be wrong. I’ve explained that what I have done is listen to what the Buddha is saying and come to a fresh understanding of DA through reading the suttas and researching the way teachers taught in his time. I’ve yet to address whether I think the Buddha was “right” or not (or to even detail what he was saying) but that will have to wait for the next post, because it requires covering what DA is actually about, when seen through the context of the Prajāpati myth and the method of teaching the Buddha employed.

Mostly what I am saying here is that if we start from a misunderstanding of what the Buddha was doing and saying, it will lead to contradictions, tangles, and confusion — which is, I believe, where Doug’s reasoning led. The right way to seek an answer to the question of whether dependent arising can be saved or not is to work from Miller’s Law first. We need to set aside whether we agree with the Buddha or not, and start from trying to understand, from the perspective of his time and place, what it was he was saying. We can tell if we’re getting close to an understanding of what he was saying by how well what we are hearing fits with the rest of the Buddha’s dharma, and whether its own pieces fit together smoothly. Only then should we start asking ourselves if we can apply it to modern life. Doing that results in discovering a lesson that is both very simple in one way, and very complex in others, but always helpful, and worth the effort to understand.



2 “Anatomy of Quarrels and Disputes”. Though, with all the Pali in the paper (all terms translated) it might seem like rough going, even a quick read-through should be enough to make the (stunningly constructed) structure clear.

4 K.R. Norman, “A Philological Approach To Buddhism” (1997), pp 21 in my 2008 edition.

5 You can read more about translating “What Is Birth?” on my blog.

6 “Playing With Fire: The pratītyasamutpada from the Perspective of Vedic Thought” (Joanna Jurewicz) Vol. XXVI (2000) of the Journal of the Pali Text Society — a wonderful volume in that it also contains an alternative theory about the cause of the Buddha’s death, and a piece on the establishment of the order of nuns. Available from Pariyatti.

7 Joanna Jurewicz, “Fire and Cognition in the Rg Veda” (2010)

8 “…a literature which for pedantry and downright absurdity can hardly be matched anywhere… marked by shallow and insipid grandiloquence…” which F. Max Müller (1823-1900) said of late Vedic works, and further called them “theological twaddle.” As quoted by Brian K. Smith in his book “Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual, and Religion” (1989)

9 It appears that referring to myths without actually explicitly naming them was a familiar technique from the time of the ṚgVeda onward, as pointed out by Vedic scholar Elizarenkova: “In most cases myths are not told but only indicated. Often they are mentioned by means of stereotyped phrases, short and frequently formulaic. Many of those myths are not retold in extenso in the later Old Indian literature (the Brāhmaṇas, Upaniṣads, the Epics and the Purāṇas)… The actual content of a myth, however, often remains obscure to us even if it is referred to in the Ṛg Veda quite frequently.” — Tatyana J. Elizarenkova, “Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis” (1995) p. 16

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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.

Comments (6)

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  1. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for your copious thoughts, Linda, I am sure you have spent a long time working on all of this. It’s an interesting piece, but forgive me for finding more about you and me in it than the Buddha.

    On one point we are in agreement, which is that dependent origination would have been a multivalent concept in early Buddhism. Doubtless this is part of what the Buddha meant by chiding Ānanda for not having understood it properly. And yes, part of its meaning involved processes occurring within a single lifetime, perhaps even for the reasons Jurewicz outlines, although they are more controversial than is often realized. So far as I can tell, several leading scholars (Gethin, Hinüber, Bronkhorst) do not think they are nearly as important as Gombrich does.

    But part of its meaning clearly involved processes occurring between lifetimes as well, as I outlined in my piece; this is not in dispute by any of the major scholars of early Buddhism. (Except perhaps Bronkhorst, who believes its 12-link formula postdates the Buddha entirely, but then I believe he would reject Jurewicz’s interpretation as well).

    I believe part of the role of someone in my position must be to analyze, interpret, and propound the best leading scholarship on these matters as best I can.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Thanks for responding. No forgiveness needed at all, Doug, as I stated at the outset of this piece that it was personal, your finding is that the piece is what I said it would be, though I wouldn’t say it’s about you or me, but our methods.

      As far as your role discussing the best leading scholarship on these matters, sure, but I would still like to know whose theory you were debunking — who says that dependent arising is a denial of rebirth? For that matter, I find myself wondering who proposes a theory that it is the Buddha’s attempt to reconcile karma and rebirth with not-self? It occurred to me after I clicked the Publish button that you don’t attribute that to anyone, either. Is it yours?

      Meanwhile, the post immediately following is the one that’s about the Buddha and his teachings, and it’s even longer, so that will perhaps make up for this one.

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        OK Linda. As for your two questions, (1) Re. dependent arising and the three-lifetime interpretation, I was explicitly reacting to a sentence in DT Jones’s book. (2) Re. kamma, rebirth, and non-self, I was explicitly reacting to a passage in Gethin.

        Both passages I was reacting to were cited in the piece, right when I mentioned them.

      • Linda Linda says:

        Thanks, Doug. I can see how that the chapter you cite in Gethin’s book has him saying DA is a reconciliation of not-self with karmic rebirth in the interpretations of various authors in the past. I take it you agree with with them, that that was what the Buddha was doing, and in your piece you were finding the attempt fails.

        But I didn’t ask who uses DA as a three-life interpretation (so many do!), or even who denies that it’s about three lives (your quote of Jones clearly has him saying so) but I was attempting to ask who says DA is “consistent with a rejection of literal rebirth”. That is someone I’d like to talk with.

  2. steve mareno says:

    Leaving aside the wordage (and someone should award me a medal for reading all this), as a Zen Buddhist, all I can say is “show me the money”. Is there any PROOF for any of this? It sounds like belief on top of belief on top of belief. Much of these rebirth ideas obviously come from pre-Buddhist Hinduism.

    Nothing that the Buddha said was written down until 100 to 200 years after he died, depending on which source you wish to go by, and I certainly would not trust an oral translation to capture all these little details over that length of time. The truth is that no one actually knows what the Buddha said no matter how many scriptures are around.

    In any case, the line that sticks in my head is “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it”. This would also mean don’t believe something simply because you have read it. Now whether or not the Buddha actually said this doesn’t even matter, it’s a sane, rational and enlightened way to live our lives.

    This all seems far off the mark, not in the spirit of the practice, and is a lot of legalese that has nothing to do w/ waking up to reality. Very dogmatic. I am speaking bluntly because on a website that purports to be secular, this is dangerously close to religious church dogma. We should only believe what we know from our experiences in the present moment.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I understand where you’re coming from. All I can suggest is reading the next post to see what I suggest the Buddha was teaching. Then try applying it to your practice. If it doesn’t illuminate even more for you than what you find useful so far, then you clearly don’t need it.

      I have found that what the Buddha says in the Pali suttas is so consistent that I have the direct experience of learning lessons from that consistent voice. You may think it’s not possible — for you it clearly won’t be because that’s what you believe — but I’ve been taught a lot through reading and putting into practice the DA lesson as I describe it in the next post. It’s not dogma, it’s practice.

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