What Is Dependent Arising?

| January 29, 2017 | 8 Comments

Sanskrit Page - Library of Congress imageI said that dependent arising is both very simple, and very complex, but always helpful, and worth the effort to understand. Let me start with the very simple.

It Really Is Simple

Dependent arising says that we come into the world with certain drives that cause us to build a view of the world and our place in it in a way that leads us into trouble.

That’s a succinct overview of the three parts of DA I mentioned briefly in the last post:

“The Givens” (that we all start out with these drives)
“The Rituals” (the habitual way we build up our views), and
“The Results” (dukkha).

It’s those three divisions that tend to get DA mistaken for being about three lives, because the first part describes how we come into the world, so its conditions can be mistaken as “the previous life, leading to this one”, while the detail in the middle, including contact and feeling, is clearly “this life”, and the resulting outcome, which contains the word for “birth”, is seen as “the next life”. That’s the easy overview, but that doesn’t provide enough detail to make it a useful lesson. For that, we need to go a little deeper.

The Buddha built this detailed lesson on a structure made of shared cultural knowledge about myths, the cosmic order, and the rituals related to them, that were part of the common heritage in his own time1. It isn’t in the least surprising that he did this. He certainly couldn’t describe what he saw using our terms, could he. He saw, very clearly, some very fundamental aspects of human nature, and how they cause us trouble. That we can still see those aspects as being exactly the same in us humans now is also not surprising2. We are talking about human nature and our nature can’t have changed much in two and a half thousand years, which is a blink of the eye in evolution’s time scale.

In our time, we would describe what he saw in us by using different language than he did — also not surprising. We also have more information about the Whys and Wherefores of the behavior than he did. He really didn’t express the Whys beyond using the structure of a long-popular creation myth, and commenting that the process he’s describing has no discernible beginning. But despite those limitations, he is describing something we moderns have come to realize for ourselves, the way our thinking gets us in trouble. But he does more than just point out the trouble. With dependent arising he offers insights that can help us learn how to notice and change that thinking.

If I had to pick one modern expression for what he’s talking about, I’d call it “cognitive bias”. He is describing the way we build up a worldview, and then cling to it, and use it to filter our perceptions in ways that fit our views, and how we defend those views, all in our mistaken belief that doing so is wholly to our benefit — when that is not necessarily so; all too often it is to our detriment. And he offers a fairly limited insight into where that process begins, and speaks a little to the why (we know more now), but he describes all this in a way that requires us to not spend a whole lot of time working on the theory. Instead, working from a general structure, he points out the direction in which we should look. Dependent arising asks us to do the work of seeing if we can see what’s being pointed out in our own lives. Because only if we can see it can we make use of it.

The whole lesson is designed to be a bit vague, not scientifically explicit (even if we would like it to be, even if we try to Make It So and call it a failure when it isn’t) because, as I say, theory is not the point: how to put it into practice and see it for ourselves, is.

A Little More Detail

Here “in brief” is the twelve-cause version of dependent arising. The first section, The Givens, is an overview of the process, with the “whys” supplied by the structure of a very common creation myth (more on this in a bit).

The Givens:

(1: avijjā) Given that we are ignorant of the way we cause our own suffering (the description of causes 2-12 is intended to cure that ignorance) and that this ignorance allows all that follows to happen unhindered

(2: saṅkhārā) we come into the world with certain drives (desires, volitions), among them a drive to discover who we are and how we fit into the world, with a special focus on what is beneficial to us and what is not — in other words, we are driven to know our selves so

(3: viññāṇa) our awareness is constantly driven (cause #2) to seek out information about ourselves and the world, and in the process of doing this

(4: nāmarūpa) we tend to give individual identities to ourselves and everything around us, to sort the world into categories of “like us” and “not like us”, “for us” and “against us”, “subject” and “object” (i.e. what is us, and what is not-us) or — to borrow the Buddha’s way of speaking — we take all this stuff and make it part of us, mistaking it for “self”3 and

(5: saḷāyatana) we do all this “seeking and sorting” beginning with our senses, which are just about always busy doing this work.

The Givens, above, end with the senses seeking what the drives compel us to find — information about our own “self” and its relationship to the world. This is something we can catch ourselves doing. Try looking for it.

The next section begins with those senses having found what they are looking for (an elegant hand-off between one section and the next). I call this middle portion “Rituals” to tie it to the underlying structure and the multi-layered word saṅkhārā, which can (and still does in Hindi) mean rituals. But what it’s really about is habits of mind — which are also rituals of a different sort. Often these habits are culturally driven, just as religious rituals are; we take on roles, and think within the worldview provided by our social situations.

The Rituals:

(6: phassa) Our seeking senses make contact with some object that will provide us with

(7: vedanā) an experience that will satisfy our drives, one that we categorize through the way it feels to us (good, bad, or indifferent — or as the Buddha puts it, pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of those) which brings up

(8: taṇhā) a reaction in us which is that craving that can be seen on either a gross level (kāma) when dealing with the comforts of sensuality, or of material greed for more of the good stuff and less of the bad; or on a finer level as desiring more support for our beliefs (bhava, vibhava), or any of many reactions to being confronted with an experience that undermines our beliefs (here is where cognitive bias begins to arise) all of which hardens into

(9: upādāna) clinging to opinions which are fuel for the fire of our self-concepts. In the texts, examples of these were given in terms of sensuality (kāma again), or views (ditthi), with two specific examples of the actions resulting from such views given (rules and vows, silabbata, which dominated Brahminical practice), and holding to the particularly pernicious “doctrine of self” (attavada).

These habits of thought, driven by the desire we have from the start to know and understand ourselves and the world we live in, and our relationship to it, often have a detrimental result4. And the Buddha is pointing out that when it does, the cause of the trouble can always be traced back to what he’s trying to get us to see in this fundamental lesson. It may seem to us as though, when we look at our own lives and the world we live in, it’s a billion individual problems, each with so many varied conditions going into it that it couldn’t possibly have one underlying cause but yes — he’s saying — it does, if only we can see it. Even when he divides DA up into two parallel issues — sensual craving (kāma), and (as he puts it) “craving for existence” (i.e. craving for a lasting self — bhava) — there is behind them both only the one drive, to have and know a self and its place in the world in order to better survive in the world.

It’s important to recognize — and here I will use a modern explanation that he doesn’t address because he didn’t know as much as we do now — that the Buddha is talking about something we do that isn’t always wrong. That is, this whole chain of events starts with us coming into the world with a desire to know who we are and our place in the world, and there is nothing wrong with that, by itself. We need to be able to figure out who we are and our place in the world in order to be able to take care of ourselves, don’t we. We need to sort out what’s good for us, and what’s bad for us — there is nothing wrong with that5.

It can be seen as the survival instinct, as traits that evolved to keep us alive and breeding and successfully passing on our genes. The Buddha didn’t know that — he wasn’t a 21st century naturalist — but he could see the effects in action, as we all can when we pay attention, when we are shown where to look. And it is this “being shown where to look” that is what the entire lesson of DA is trying to do. Each link provides detail on where to look.

We have this instinct for self-preservation, and, again, there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But we tend to take it a little too far. To have self-preservation, we have to have a self to preserve, and — in the Buddha’s way of looking at it6 — since we don’t have one, we create one. The problem is that we don’t do this in a slow, thoughtful way, but in a driven way, without conscious thought, and we end up overdoing this self-preservation (and self creation) to the point that we have gotten so good at defending not just our bodies but our ideas — refusing to accept evidence that undermines our beliefs, taking action that harms “the other” in order to ensure our own survival, starting wars to kill off those holding competing views — that we do ourselves and others a great deal of harm. Just look at the world we live in, in this moment, and you will see this all around you.

With dependent arising, the Buddha is describing with great accuracy — using a different model, but observing the same thing we can observe — how it is that our ignorance of this process leads us into trouble, with the hope that if we can see what he is pointing to (in its myriad manifestations in our own lives) we can break the habits, stop performing the rituals/habitual patterns of thinking that instinct generates in us and society supports (as society seems to have its own “self” that it perpetuates through us).

The Results:

(10: bhava) As a result of the way we think about our experiences, beginning with that moment when we feel something nice, or encounter a concept that supports our existing views — or the opposite, something negative — our sense of who we are becomes more solid and eventually our “selves” are

(11: jāti) born in the world, which we see through the filter of our preconceptions as being the world as we understand it (not necessarily as it actually is) which results in us experiencing the world we expect, in which

(12: jarāmaraṇa) aging and death cause a great deal of suffering.

When we are literally born into this world, we become visible to others. What makes the non-physical self we have created visible to others? The Buddha doesn’t come out and tell us the answers, he simply poses the question, and it is up to us to look where he is pointing and see what we can see. Whatever answer you come up with, can you see how that visible self, born of opinion, leads to dukkha?

The Buddha’s Truth In Layers, Revisted

There is so much to be said about the way all the pieces described in those twelve causes fit together and work together that I know I cannot do justice to it in a blog post. But just to describe a few . . .

Saṅkhārā, as I mentioned, is a word for a ritual. The prefix indicates “together” and the root “making”. In Vedic society, rituals were an act of making, together, many things, among them the self, and shaping the cosmic order, as well as making bonds between the participants, and between gods and participants. The myth that gives structure to the first five links is, itself, modeled on procreation – a different sort of “making together” — and in that myth saṅkhārā is often described as kāma, “desire” — which is what drives conception, of course. Desire to create a new life is a form of desire for eternal existence, through one’s children. The desire that is saṅkhārā is the driving force behind every link in the chain. As “ritual” it can and in some suttas does stand in for all or any part of the middle of the chain (contact/phassa through clinging/upādāna), but most easily for the last two links (clinging and craving) because of its representation of desire on at least two levels7. This explains some of the variations we find in what gets taken as “misordered” chains, and in several shortened versions. It is quite true that the whole of DA can be reduced down to desire being the cause of suffering. The rest is just details.

Looking at the last section of DA, we can see the results as, simply, dukkha in all the ways it manifests, but I find it fascinating to notice the difference in the way the Buddha expresses something we can still see now. Though we express it differently, either way it is still true. Nowadays, when we think about cognitive biases, when we notice them in ourselves and others, we can vividly see the way our thinking makes us perceive the world in a certain way, in the way we expect to see it, and this makes it extremely difficult to see it any other way. We can easily see this in the two polar opposites of voters in the recent American election. The Buddha described this phenomenon in terms of being born into the world constructed from the rituals performed in his day, whichever world folks perceived they were working with.

The descriptive words Sariputta uses in SN 38.10-.13 answering questions about craving, clinging, and existence are all descriptions of dominant ways people saw the world in the Buddha’s day, with the two general lines — of sensuality (kāma) and concerns about “existence” (bhava) of “the eternal self” and where it goes after death. With the latter, the Buddha is saying that all our convictions about who we are and life after death do lead us to be reborn in the world we believe in, the world as we have, effectively, made it by refusing (or being unable) to see it any other way. We can take that literally if we wish and hear him saying that there are other worlds and our actions will lead us to be reborn there (a metaphor he uses in some suttas, e.g. the one about the dog-duty ascetic) or we can see how perfectly it applies to our thinking about ourselves and the world — not just as regards religion, but in all things. The way we think about the world leads us to perceive that the world actually is just exactly as we think it is, and those who disagree with us are just plain wrong. Cognitive bias does make it appear that we live in the world we believe in — until it doesn’t, until our preconceptions cause us to crash into reality, with an instance of dukkha born as the result. What is “born” in dependent arising is actually dukkha, and “aging and death” is just a metonym (a so-many-layered metonym that I’d need a third post just to describe it) for dukkha.

I can understand how one’s first impression, on reading the suttas, could be that he is being literal about being born into some “other world”, but I don’t understand how anyone who actually puts what the Buddha is teaching into practice can fail to see, in that perfect fit between the literal interpretation and the way our thinking shapes our perceptions, that he’s pointing out something much subtler and more significant, deeper. To people of his own time, he is suggesting that their beliefs about “the self” and rebirth (or union with Brahman) cause them to see the world a certain way, but those who practiced well and had any ability to loosen their grip on their beliefs will have been able to recognize the lesson and use it as it was intended.

Less Confusion

Because the Buddha was using the methods of his predecessors to teach, rather than ours, his lessons have been hard for us to sort out because we — with our preconceptions of what it means to teach — expect him to be speaking more or less the way we do. Certainly his talks are more straightforward than the poems of the ancient RgVeda, so progress was being made toward our style of speaking. But he was clearly making use of variations on the methods of those who came before him. If we try to sort out his teachings expecting, for example, there to be one version of dependent arising in which there are X many links, and that’s the definitive answer, resulting in us thinking there is something wrong with every other version, we’re going to get lost.

Because the first five links — with their order and sense provided by the Prajāpati myth of creation — are a sort of overview of what we do, which is then described in detail in the middle section, the various pieces can easily be swapped with each other. When the hungry-for-self awareness (aka “consciousness”) in step three of The Givens is seen in terms of what underlies the myth — procreation — its description will sound just like “birth” in the final section — a conscious being is born. The Buddha is playing with these ideas, and in each talk he gives, he is using just the particular parts he finds necessary to that talk, and that audience. This is what the most skilled teachers of his time did, as Tatyana Elizarenkova explains in her book “Language and Style of the Vedic Ṛṣis”. The many different layers of meaning that were attached to words allowed innovative thinkers to call into the mind of their listeners several different lines of thought at once, all of which had value, all of which bore thinking about when trying to understand the new concepts being pointed out. Those used most often were most significant.8

In our culture, we want our sentences to intend just one meaning out of the many for each word, and we want those twelve links to be a linear and literal explanation of what’s going on. But in his culture, the words were intended to recall several meanings, the links aren’t intended to be precisely linear, and the teaching method in general is totally unfamiliar to us, in that it rarely says anything in a direct way, but is instead intended to call up a variety of images that provide patterns for action, and indications of where to look to be able to apply those patterns to something else entirely than what’s supplying the template for the action.

If dependent arising seems confusing, it is in large part because we aren’t understanding how the lesson is structured, and that the way it is taught is not the way of a 21st century scientist, or philosopher, or really anyone in our times. It makes no sense to expect that the Buddha would be teaching the way we do. For one thing, he is relying on shared knowledge of the culture of his time, and we don’t share that knowledge. However, once we get past the difficulty involved in understanding the — to us — unique method of the Buddha’s teaching, including the many levels of concepts being touched on, and the non-linear nature of the whole thing, when we just get down to the actual lesson, the lesson itself is both simple and clear (as stated in the opening lines of this post).

To be able to understand his lessons as we read them in the suttas, though, requires understanding the context, but it’s worth doing both for the elegance of the construction and the clarity of the lesson once understood. Understanding the context results in much less confusion, and will keep us from getting side-tracked down mistaken avenues (like the assumption that DA is the Buddha trying to reconcile rebirth with not-self).

Myth Direction

An example of how the context of the times can help is found in the perfect match of the first five links to the Prajāpati myth. Most people in his time would have recognized that. In the myth:

(1) Before there was anything, there was neither something nor nothing (avijjā, ignorance — we don’t know what there was).

(2) Then there was desire (for existence) (saṅkhārā, drive/lust for existence)

(3) Which brought into being something which was everything, the All, the Cosmic principle, that was really only that hungry desire, and which could only be fulfilled by knowing it existed. This hungry awareness (viññāṇa/consciousness) had nothing to observe (being as it was, you see, the only One, the sole subject with no object) nor anything to observe with (no sense organs) so it divided itself/the universe/the All, into

(4) Individual forms with separate identities (nāmarūpa, name-and-form), each a little slice of the great All but each piece unaware of its true nature as part of something larger — much less that all those other pieces are part of the same thing. Now the world is divided into subject and object, and all these apparently separate beings have the job of figuring out their nature, and which of the other bits are “them” and which are “not them”. This they do through gaining

(5) The senses (saḷāyatana, the six senses — the usual five plus “thought”) which are then driven to seek the knowledge that will satisfy the drive in the second link.

This well-known creation story is the early basis for modern Hindu beliefs about how each of us is connected by having that slice of Brahman within us. In DA, it is what provides not just the order and even name of those first five links, but the shape of the movement between them, which is never explicitly explained in the suttas. Much of our confusion about what dependent arising is, is caused by the lack of description of what is going on from one link to the next. What is given is often a fairly literal definition of what the title for the link is as pertains to the myth, or its source in procreation, or the Buddha’s meaning, depending on what he finds useful to his audience in that particular talk. The definitions are all of nouns. But the relationships between the links — the action, the verbs — aren’t described. Because of our tendency toward the literal, we expect that whatever is the obvious tie between, say, “birth” and “aging-and-death” is the whole of what is meant. But because of the many-layered nature of the words used, and the very different teaching methods of those times, sticking to the literal is going to cause trouble because that is not what is intended. We have to loosen our grip on the certainty our first impression gives us in order to understand what’s actually going on here — and isn’t that a very Buddhist thing to have to do?

Along with the myth-named links providing the action (the way the desire for existence in saṅkhārā pushes our awareness to sort the world into what’s like us, what’s not, what feels good, what feels bad, separating ourselves as subject and everything else into objects, with information coming in to us through our senses), those names and their descriptions in the suttas are intended as pointers to what to look at to see the action. They tell us where to look.

Look at our desire for continued existence to see how it directs our awareness. Look at what we are paying attention to and follow it to see how we sort it according to categories, how we identify things by the form they take, how we name (define) them, how that separates them from us, or alternatively how it causes us to define them as part of us that we cannot afford to lose. Notice how our senses, left to their own, never stop seeking, never stop noticing what feels good (even thoughts which, if they match our own, give us “ahhh”s of pleasure).

Each link provides an object for meditation in the broadest sense, of “meditating on” something. Pay attention to moments of contact, and note the way we notice what feels good and what doesn’t. Note the desire that arises as a result — craving for our existence to be one in which we feel pleasure, avoid discomfort. Notice where that takes us, into opinions (nowadays often described as “storytelling”) about what’s going on, notice how that leads us into the birth of our visible self in the world — the actions we take as a result — and where that leads.

Work the chain backwards (which is easiest) — starting with the dukkha that comes from living life (aging-and-death), and ask where the dukkha came from. What action that made “the self” visible in the world provoked it? What views of the world were the source of that birth of action?

Still Less Confusion

When dependent arising is seen through the context of the Buddha’s teaching methods — non-linear, multi-leveled — and within the context of his time, there really is far too much depth, and there are far too many connections that get made to discuss them all in a blog post. But I will point out one more way it reduces confusion: when understood, it ends all the concerns about how consciousness comes before birth (in the “one life” model), or how liberation can come from “the cessation of consciousness” as well as of “contact” and “feeling” (in any model). In the suttas, the being we are told is the fullest example of liberation — the Buddha — was clearly conscious, made contact, and felt the pain in his back as he aged.

Part of the answer to those oft-asked questions, is that what is being described is a set of events that are narrowly defined as starting with a certain kind of ignorance, and a literally selfish drive, and end in dukkha. Though some traditional forms of Buddhism like to portray every moment of our lives up to the instant of liberation as suffering — even simple pleasures like watching a sunset or laughing along with a stranger’s baby are suffering — understanding this model indicates that isn’t so. It’s only the things we cling to that are, and it doesn’t take someone who is particularly wise to enjoy a sunset because it’s transient, with no desire to have it last forever. Not every moment of consciousness is a problem, and not every feeling has to end to experience liberation – only the ones that start with ignorance and result in dukkha.

The monk Nanavira Thera9 pointed out that the Buddha says his dharma is visible, and (as Nanavira puts it) timeless — though I would translate the word akāliko10 which literally means not-timeness as meaning “not having to do with (or governed) by time” — and I agree with him that what is meant is that it (and here he is speaking of dependent arising specifically) “is not the description of a process” at least in the literal sense. I would say it describes a process but not in the linear way we tend to think of processes as being described. Nanavira goes on to point out that there is going to be confusion about three lives and the necessity of belief in rebirth (or, I’d say, belief that the Buddha was teaching that there is rebirth) as long as DA “is thought to involve temporal succession”. It really doesn’t. We can think of it more-or-less linearly, as I’ve described it in this post, but it really isn’t tied to time. It isn’t limited to the moment-to-moment flicker of consciousness over events that is currently a popular interpretation, but it is useful to think of it on many time scales, for example as being about habits of thought introduced by our culture long ago that don’t get an instant-karmic payback, but that haunt us repeatedly over time.

It also isn’t as inevitable a progression as linear interpretations make it seem. With skill and practice, we can “break the chain of events” at any point, and avoid the not-inevitable dukkha.

It Fits

Not only does this interpretation straighten out a lot of confusion about the order of the links and the meaning of the terms used, but it also fits perfectly into the larger whole of what the Buddha is saying. Buddhists have described the way we build our worldview and then live in the world of our own creation for quite a long time — it’s saṃsāra. We have long recognized that what is being talked about in the whole of the Buddha’s teaching is that it is the way we cling to our beliefs about what is important and necessary to us that causes us trouble — whether that’s that we must have our sensual pleasures, or that our understanding of The Truth is the one correct one.

What this model of DA describes says nothing that goes against what we have long known the Buddha to be teaching. That alone is reason to see this as a much better interpretation than it being a failed attempt to reconcile karma and rebirth with not-self. This explanation of DA says that it isn’t denying that karma and rebirth are the cosmic order, it just isn’t talking about their reality at all. It does speak of the effect belief has on us, though. And instead of telling us what to think about karma and rebirth, it asks us to look closely at where our beliefs lead.

Even if it isn’t an argument either for or against, it does make sense of his so-frequent discussions of karma and rebirth. We can map the tales he tells about karma and rebirth onto the mythic and ritual structure used in DA. He speaks first, in The Givens, about how we come into this world, second, in The Rituals of the things we do to give ourselves a better future, and finally, in The Results, of what we become in that future. These three, on that mythic and ritual level, describe the source story for the rituals, the rituals that modify the self in preparation for the next life, and then the transition through the funeral pyre into the next world shaped by those rituals.

When we see the structure as simultaneously describing that, and pointing to what we are actually doing – as covering The Givens which are what drives our behavior, The Rituals as our socially-constructed habits of thought, and The Results as visible actions leading to unhappy consequences – then when he speaks of “the breakup of the body after death” he is talking about the experience of the funeral pyre, and transition (bhava) from a world in the making through our rituals, to one hardened into reality when one is born into it. At that point one’s experiences are hardening into convictions about who we are and how the world is, and what it takes to get what we want out of the world, and if we’ve done that very well and understood the reality well enough, we find ourselves “born” into the world we made – we see the world just as we thought it would be — and if we’ve misunderstood or done it badly, it’s hell.11 The mapping needn’t be perfect: loosen the grip of certainty when reading these tales, and let them speak to you in their metaphors. If we understand the many lessons the Buddha teaches in this way, there is no need to throw out huge amounts of his talks as not applicable to those who don’t believe in literal rebirth — instead they are (as I believe he intended) totally consistent with everything else he teaches about the self we create and how it leads to trouble.

He is not saying, with DA, that there is rebirth; he is using rebirth as a model to convey ideas. Nowhere in it is there a denial of anything other than that bliss can be achieved by believing, opinionating, and acting on beliefs and opinions that more-or-less follow the pattern described in DA. The habitual, ritual ways we have of thinking can never lead to bliss. They lead to dukkha.

It would be totally out of character for the Buddha to deny that there is such a thing as rebirth. Throughout the suttas he refused to answer the Big Questions, and he repeatedly says he doesn’t argue with the world (the world argues with him, he says). Avoiding quarrels and disputes is absolutely central to his teaching. And that is the final point I would make about the beauty of this structure he built — karma and rebirth as metaphors — it allows him to teach his lessons from a perspective that does not get in the face of believers and tell them they are wrong about karma, wrong about rebirth (if he ever thought so — and I have no evidence to say he would say it was wrong, I don’t find evidence that he held any views on the matter at all). He can tell a believer stories about his past and future lives, he can give advice to believers from their perspective, and have it all be perfectly consistent with everything else he teaches, so that when (and if) that believer finally comes to understand DA, they will see that he was telling them a truth, in the way teachers of those times often did, all along.

Not Explicit, But Consistent

The Buddha was sometimes fairly explicit in things he said — that the dharma he taught was visible, that the way we behave matters — but even some of those things he said in the style of his time, not ours. Explicit as we understand it was not the dominant style of the day, and we shouldn’t expect it. But consistency is critical, and the understanding of dependent arising I’ve been describing is thoroughly consistent. There are rare pieces of suttas that don’t fit but they are very rare. I welcome anyone to point out to me any sutta they find inconsistent with what I’m describing — I’d really like to examine any. It is from those bits that I usually learn something new.

Using this way of looking at some of Doug’s problems with trying to see if DA is true in the sense of “does it succeed in reconciling not-self with karma and rebirth”, we come up with different answers, too.

The problem he cites of DA seeming to only be about the second and third noble truths is quite true — it is describing the origin of dukkha and providing the insights needed to experience its cessation. He’s right, it’s not about much more than the conditioned nature of the self. It is the conditioned self that is the origin of dukkha.

He cites MN 28 where Sariputta quotes the Buddha as saying DA = the dharma, and where Sariputta goes on to describe “these five aggregates affected by clinging” as being dependently arisen, and “The removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for these five aggregates affected by clinging is the cessation of suffering.”, yet he does not find them in descriptions of DA. But they are all there. Desire and lust are there as kāma — lust for what’s outside us — found in descriptions of craving and clinging in The Rituals. The five aggregates appear: form in name-and-form, feeling as a link, perception in definitions of the nāma part of name-and-form, saṅkhārā as a link, and consciousness (viññāṇa, which I translate as “attention”) as a link. He says the passage points out three things he does not see ( “at least explicitly”). One is the arising of the psychophysical self — which is implicit in the Prajāpati myth, and the rituals based on it that give DA its shape. Another is that suffering is dependent on desire — but saṅkhārā is the essence of desire, and aging-and-death a mere stand-in for dukkha12 — so they are both there, with one leading to the other. And finally, that suffering ceases when we abandon desire is what’s being shown — forward how dukkha comes about, allowed by our ignorance and driven by desire, and backward, how it ceases. Everything is there.

I’m fully with Doug when he wants to take aging-and-death as semi-metaphorical. It’s what the Buddha meant. Its literal description is where we need to look to see how dukkha arises, and in its representation of impermanence, it can be understood as a root cause of dukkha — which is why aging and death (mostly death) effectively is dukkha in the more poetic passages where the Buddha tells people that if they have really understood and live the dharma, the god of death (Mara) will not be able to see them, because they will not be experiencing the aging-and-death he is talking about: dukkha, suffering due to impermanence.

Doug says that we must “distinguish apologetics from scholarship” and that “So long as we do not insist on reading contemporary metaphors back into the texts we are on firm ground.” But his method denies the Buddha the use of metaphors and methods of teaching that were in use in his area of the world at the time he lived, and instead attempts to substitute an entirely literal and unsophisticated reading, as if the Buddha had little skill and no subtlety at all. He takes away the Buddha’s use of metaphors and credits us moderns with adapting the teaching to our needs by adding metaphor to it. Is that not apologetics of a different kind? And doesn’t it result in leaving dependent arising a confusing mess?

The Buddha had his own set of metaphors — the Prajāpati myth and its perfect fit to dependent arising, and the points Vedic scholars make about multivalent meanings usually focusing on myth, cosmology and ritual indicate that no one here is pushing contemporary myths anachronistically back into the Buddha’s time. And the way the structure fits so smoothly into the whole of the dhamma makes it clear that something like metaphor was the Buddha’s method of choice. We need only take the time to study his times to better understand what he was teaching. And to my mind, at least, this one lesson — though it is framed in contexts unfamiliar to us — does a wonderful job of describing human nature that remains as visible today as it was then, and through that description gives us knowledge we can use constructively toward living a better life.

Dependent arising doesn’t need saving from anything but misunderstandings of what it is about. And once understood, and judged on its own merits, it seems quite true enough, and useful.

1 This is the way the teachers before him, and of his time, and even afterward, spoke. In her book, “Language and Style of the Vedic Ṛṣis”, Tatyana Elizarenkova discusses the difficulty of interpreting the texts of ancient India not just because of their obscure references, but because those references are intentionally touching on three different levels of meaning: myth, cosmology, and ritual. This is why it was entirely natural to the Buddha to do the same. “But the study of the speech-act contexts and their concretized demarcation is often impeded or made well-nigh impossible by the intentional obscurity of the hymns. Their contents refer simultaneously to several levels: mythological, cosmological, and ritual.” — Tatyana J. Elizarenkova, “Language and Style of the Vedic Ṛṣis” (1995) p. 10

2 Though some mistake the Buddha’s ability to see the same things we see, for us moderns pushing our ideas back in time and inserting them into our interpretations of the ancient texts, either we agree that he had keen insights into our behaviors that were as valid then as now, or we don’t think he did, in which case there’s little point in studying the texts or trying to figure them out, as he cannot have anything useful to say to us.

If we agree that he had such keen insights into our unchanged nature, recognizing them in the texts is not an incorrect tendency to attribute anachronistic thinking to him, to see him as a 21st century naturalist in the fifth century BCE (this with reference to an earlier forum post of Doug’s).

Instead it’s the understanding that he could see many of the same things we can; he simply explained them differently than we do. It’s not foolish to find the Buddha pointing out problems modern science is also pointing out; it’s not misreading the texts. What is absurd is to think that when we find the Buddha seeing what we can see, we have to be deluding ourselves — because, what, he couldn’t have been that smart? — when in fact, it’s the way that he saw something anyone can see for themselves, then or now, that gives what he taught so great a power in our lives.

3 “Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” SN 22.59 [pts S iii 67] translated by N.K.G. Mendis

4 See versions of suttas on dependent arising in which the chain leads forward, not to “birth” and “aging-and-death” but to argument and violence. In DN 15, the Buddha describes the chain, backwards from aging-and-death as far as craving and feeling, and then goes forward again, here in Thanissaro’s translation:

“Now, craving is dependent on feeling, seeking is dependent on craving, acquisition is dependent on seeking, ascertainment is dependent on acquisition, desire and passion is dependent on ascertainment, attachment is dependent on desire and passion, possessiveness is dependent on attachment, stinginess is dependent on possessiveness, defensiveness is dependent on stinginess, and because of defensiveness, dependent on defensiveness, various evil, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies.” [pts D ii 58]

This is an example of the intentional fuzziness of the lesson being taught. It isn’t about any one thing (e.g. if it was ever intended as a reconciliation of karma and rebirth with there being no lasting self — and I am confident that isn’t what it’s saying, but if it were — it would not be solely about that). However, it is often described in the oldest texts (like Quarrels and Disputes) as being about how we behave toward each other right here and now.

5 I believe, though, that the Buddha does acknowledge the truth of the basic survival instinct being fine, being harmless, when he allows each monastic “the requisites” of food, water, shelter, clothing, and medicines. He does frequently point out that there should be no excessive clinging to even those, though.

6 “The self” that we don’t have to start with, in the Buddha’s view, is not “the self” modern psychology tells us about. This is another place in which what he is saying is fundamentally different from ideas a 21st century thinker is working with. Our sciences tell us it is important that we have a self identity. That is no doubt true, as is the further caveat that what we need is a healthy self, not an unhealthy one. What underlies the idea of healthy/unhealthy is that we have the ability to modify that self. With that idea, we are starting from a very different position than the one the Buddha had to work with. In his day, “the self” was eternal and changeless, and it is that self he was arguing against, not exactly the self we Buddhists tend to be considering in our times. We are, so to speak, working in a post-eternal-self society, psychologically at least.

That people in his time did not see the self as we see it is significant in two ways. One, it is indicative of these being his ideas, built for his culture, not ideas pushed back in time anachronistically. Two, that his denial is of an eternal, changeless self, not of a healthy, changing self, means that we need to examine what’s being said in the light of modern understanding. For myself, in doing so, I find the Buddha of the Pali suttas to never be saying “there is no self” only “there is no eternal, changeless self in evidence”. Neither does he say “but there is a self” meaning to convey that we have an impermanent, changing self — even if he saw it that way, he couldn’t say so without confusing his audience (who will keep hearing “we have a self” as it being eternal and changeless, the way people generally do when they just cannot grasp a new concept and keep interpreting in terms of what’s familiar to them). But it seems to me he recognized that when we think we have a self — by any definition — there is something going on worth examining there, and so he leaves it open, neither denying nor acknowledging what, exactly it is. This fits with my understanding of what he is doing as not intended to be taken as rigid science, but as a very general “pointing toward” that leaves it open for us to decide how we want to explain what we are seeing.

7 As lust in the myth’s basis in procreation, and as desire for existence in the myth itself – representing the two manifestations of the drive the Buddha describes throughout his talks, one for what is dear to us externally, and the other for what is dear to us internally, in our thoughts.

8 “An essential characteristic of the vocabulary of this text is polysemy; the most multivalent words denote the basic concepts of the Vedic model of the universe. The peculiarity of this polysemy consists of a word’s semantics being correlated with denotates of different levels, usually of the myth and ritual; this becomes the basis for stylistic play.” — Tatyana J Elizarenkova in “Language and Style of the Vedic Ṛṣis” — p. 285

9 “Clearing The Path” p. 80

10 The breakdown of akāliko is akālaiko where a– is “not” the –kal(a)- is the base word for “time” and the –iko ending makes it into an adjective.

11 As in “The Dog-Duty Ascetic”, in Nanamoli’s translation:

“Here, Punna, someone develops the dog duty fully and unstintingly, he develops the dog-habit fully and unstintingly, he develops the dog mind fully and unstintingly, he develops dog behavior fully and unstintingly. Having done that, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in the company of dogs. But if his view is such as this: ‘By this virtue or duty or asceticism or religious life I shall become a (great) god or some (lesser) god,’ that is wrong view in his case. Now there are two destinations for one with wrong view, I say: hell or the animal womb. So, Punna, if his dog duty is perfected, it will lead him to the company of dogs; if it is not, it will lead him to hell.” — MN 57 [pts M i 387]

12 In SN 12.23 [pts S ii 31] dukkha stands exactly in the place of aging-and-death. This is because it is not literal aging-and-death being pointed to in dependent arising, instead, we are directed to examine what it is about aging and death that brings about dukkha that we have the power to end through this lesson. “Aging and death” — and indeed all of life — is the field in which the noxious weed of dukkha grows, and meditating on that field is what’s being described. Without aging and death, would there be dukkha? Without impermanence, would we suffer as we do? Impermanence not just of the people and things we love, but of our concepts, and of our selves?

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Linda

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 (8)

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  1. Carl H Carl H says:

    Nicely done Linda. This makes a lot of sense to me and I find your recontextualizing of DA so very helpful. So often the context of ancient texts has become invisible, the metaphors lost. I run into the same problem with the stories from the Blue Cliff Record or the Book of Serenity, as well as much of Dogen. John Dunne has stated that the is no such thing as non-contextual-truth. Thank you for your efforts in re-establishing a context for DA that clarifies the teaching and eliminates seeming contradictions. I’m not sure that all of the seeming contradictions in the Nikayas can be explained away as you have with DA. As usual, I need more study and will have to re-read your work multiple times, but again, this has been most helpful. Thanks for your hard work and dedication.

  2. Linda Linda says:

    Thanks, Carl. I really am sincerely interested in hearing about apparent contradictions anywhere in the suttas that don’t seem to be resolved by DA. The only one I am aware of is in MN 60, and where it contradicts, it also breaks the logic of the sutta itself (as Thanissaro points out on accesstoinsight.org) and so I’m pretty sure that bit is a later addition. And if that is the case, it is interesting that someone came along and felt the need to insert words into the Buddha’s mouth to have him saying, outright, “If you say there is no other world, you are wrong, because there is.” It would indicate a time in the sangha when there was disagreement over that point.

  3. Nick Nick says:

    Saṅkhārā is not drives. MN 9 includes drives (asava) within ignorance. Saṅkhārā is defined as the kaya, vaci & citta sankhara, which are defined in MN 44 as the breathing, thought and perception & feeling.

    Nāmarūpa is not giving individual identities to ourselves and everything around us. This occurs at jati (birth). ‘Jati’ is defined as the mental product of ‘beings’ (‘satta’).

  4. Nick Nick says:

    There are two uses of nāmarūpa: (i) when Buddha answers the questions of Brahmans, which is the old Brahmanistic meaning; and (ii) the Buddha’s redefintion in Dependent Arising, namely, ‘mentality-materiality’.

    MN 19 is about two kinds of thought. This sutta shows the human capacity of perceiving & reflecting upon ignorant internal thoughts & perceptions. The ignorant internal thoughts & perceptions and resultant disturbed breathing are ‘sankhara’. That which can objectively feel, perceive, reflect upon, pay attention to & make intentions towards the ignorant thoughts & perceptions is ‘nama’. ‘Nama’ observes the ‘sankhara’. However, when ‘nama’ is also overwhelmed with ignorance, ‘nama’ also becomes blind & heedless and the wheel continues to spin towards ‘dukkha’.

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Wiki may not be a definitive source, but in this case I think it nicely canvasses the wide connotations of “sankara:”

    “Sankhara (Pali; Sanskrit sanskara) is a term figuring prominently in Buddhism. The word means ‘that which has been put together’ and ‘that which puts together’.

    In the first (passive) sense, sankhara refers to conditioned phenomena generally but specifically to all mental “dispositions”.[1] These are called ‘volitional formations’ both because they are formed as a result of volition and because they are causes for the arising of future volitional actions.[2] English translations for sankhara in the first sense of the word include ‘conditioned things,'[3] ‘determinations,'[4] ‘fabrications'[5] and ‘formations’ (or, particularly when referring to mental processes, ‘volitional formations’).[6]

    In the second (active) sense of the word, sankhara refers to karma (sankhara-khandha) that leads to conditioned arising, dependent origination.[7][8]”

    Look up the references in Wiki‘s “Sankara” article if you want, or check various Pali dictionaries. This is a word of btoad, perhaps subtle, meaning.

    In the context of DA, I’d suggest that it points to the physical/mental factors (maybe better, biological factors) in the embodied human organism necessary for development of the sense of self, which thus ultimately produce or condition suffering. In this context, I’d suggest that “drives” is a useful translation into modern colloquial English.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Yes, exactly. In the sense of all of those, ‘that which has been put together’ can be described as ‘that which has been driven into existence’ by the causes outlined in DA. And as ‘that which puts together’ it is those drives themselves.

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