One who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma;
One who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising.
(Majjhima Nikaya 28, Tripitaka)
Recently, I’ve been drawn to reflecting on the important Buddhist teaching of paticca-samuppada, variously translated as ‘dependent origination’, ‘conditioned genesis’, ‘conditioned co-arising’, or ‘dependent arising’. It explains the conditioned nature of the self, without reference to a permanent soul or essence. It also explains life without recourse to a creator god, describing how various factors combine to influence present circumstances. A typical description of paticca-samuppada can be found in Anguttara Nikaya 3:61:
It is with ignorance (avijja) as a condition that formations (sankhara) come to be;
with formations as a condition, consciousness (vinnana) comes to be;
with consciousness as a condition, name and form (nama-rupa) come to be;
with name and form as a condition, the six bases (salayatana) come to be;
with the six bases as a condition, contact (phassa) comes to be;
with contact as a condition, feeling (vedana) comes to be;
with feeling as a condition, desire (tanha) comes to be;
with desire as a condition, clinging (upadana) comes to be;
with clinging as a condition, being (bhava) comes to be;
with being as a condition, birth (jati) comes to be;
with birth as a condition, aging and death (jara-marana) come to be,
and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair;
that is how there is an origin to this whole mass of suffering (dukkha).
This is called the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering.
We are conditioned beings. Looking at myself as an example, I can see that my thoughts and reactions to certain events are conditioned by my responses to similar previous situations. I respond to the world from the conditioning of my past, influenced by others, but grounded in my habitual responses. Even my being Buddhist is a conditioned state, dependent upon my personality, personal history, intellect, books, and some wonderful teachers, the first of which was the Buddha. Physically, I am conditioned by my parents, by my diet, exercise (or lack of it), and my species. Extending this insight to others, I can see that my dogs are conditioned by their genes, too, and by the relationships that they have with human beings, as well as other animals. They have been trained, for instance, to stand on their hind legs and do a little dance when they want to eat a treat. This is a kind of conditioning. They have been conditioned to go for a walk and heed the call of nature around six-thirty in the morning, which caused a minor mishap this weekend when my wife and I had a lie in until past seven-thirty – one of them excreted on the kitchen floor!
Looking further afield and casting my gaze at a figure like Barak Obama, I can see that he too is a conditioned being; conditioned by birth, life experiences and beliefs to be an American, a Democrat, and to fear Islamic terrorism to the point of continuing the ‘war on terror’ instigated by his predecessor. In a sense, we can’t condemn President Obama for being himself – he was made that way. So too Osmana bin Laden, but he was conditioned very differently from the American President – born in a conservative Islamic state, with very different genes to the President Obama, and influenced by what he saw as the aggressive acts of foreign (‘infidel’) governments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Both men could be said to be doing what they’ve been conditioned to think is best for their respective peoples – yet look at the results! Mixed in with all this conditioning is the will (cetana in Pali). It too is conditioned, of course, but does retain an element of individual choice. After all, you could have two identical twins with near-identical histories but one will decide to eat strawberry ice cream, while the other has chocolate ice cream. Of the will, the Buddha said:
Will (cetana) I call action (karma).
(Anguttara Nikaya 6:63)
Karma always has a result, whether it be positive, negative or neutral. Our actions, whether mental, verbal or physical, will have future consequences for us, the nature of which will be dependent on the type of act and the state of the mind, of the will, when we did them. If one is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, the results of one’s actions will no doubt hurt others, but it will also (eventually) hurt oneself. As many Buddhists chant daily: I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir. So, dependent arising doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for our actions, but it does explain much about why we are predisposed to this and not that, preferring this response to any given situation and not another. I am the way I am because of conditions, one of which is being influenced by some great forest teachers – thankfully! Barak Obama is conditioned by his previous circumstances and actions, as is his nemesis Osmana bin Laden. My pet dogs are conditioned by their canine genes and the training they have received from my wife and I. And you, my dear reader, are conditioned by so many, many things and events, all of which together go to make up the person you are.
The choice that we face now, in the knowledge of all this conditioning, is how we respond to this knowledge. We might become fatalistic, like many Buddhists do, and think that it’s all been decided and that there’s nothing we can do to alter how things pan out. But this is belief in predestination, and the Buddha taught against this kind of fatalism, classifying it as niyativada (‘the doctrine of fate’), which was a teaching that existed in
“This Dependent Arising, Ananda, is deep and it appears deep. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this teaching that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird’s nest, a thicket of sedge or reed, and that people do not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of woe and perdition, suffering from the round of rebirth.”
(The Buddha to his cousin Venerable Ananda, Digha Nikaya 15)
The popular British bhikkhu Ajahn Brahmavamso (‘Brahm’ for short) excels at explaining paticca-samuppada. He has explained that Dependent Arising is only thoroughly known by a Noble Person (ariya-puggala), someone who has reached one of the four stages of enlightenment. This is why, he says, there is so much misunderstanding regarding paticca-samuppada - and why so few contemporary Western and Eastern Buddhist ‘masters’ teach it! Ajahn Brahm is often asked how there is rebirth when Buddhism teaches that there is no soul to be reborn. He replies to this question by stating that the answer is Dependent Arising, for it is an empty process which flows from life to life, conditioned by the twelve forces that direct a life this way and that. In sequence, the twelve links of paticca-samuppada are: delusion (avijja), volitional formations (sankhara), consciousness (vinnana), name-and-form (nama-rupa), the six sense bases (salayatana), contact (phassa), feeling (vedana), desire (tanha), clinging (upadana), existence (bhava), birth (jati), aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair (jara-maranam-soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa).
The venerable forest monk has explained that it is deluded karma (actions) and tanha (craving) that supply the ‘fuel’ for existence and rebirth in the form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ entering a new life. The Buddha explained this process in the following way:
“Karma is like a field, craving like moisture, and the stream of consciousness like the seed. When beings are blinded by delusion and fettered with craving, the stream of consciousness becomes established, and rebirth of a new seed takes place in the future.”
(Anguttara Nikaya III, 76)
Ajahn Brahm teaches that when one’s mindfulness is empowered by jhana (deep meditative concentration), the stream of conscious is revealed as ‘granular’, as tiny moments of consciousness, that like grains of sand are very close together but not actually touching. It is karma and craving that produce the impersonal forces that direct the journey of consciousness, much like the autopilot in an aircraft. Insight into this process enables one to see with certainty that consciousness is independent of the body and therefore can survive upon its demise, in the impersonal and soulless progression of paticca-samuppada. This is how rebirth occurs without a soul. But what exactly is the process by which awakening to the way things are (the Dharma) is achieved? As Ajahn Brahm is keen to point out, it is not by the various methods and philosophies that many modern teachers like to espouse each according to their own personal (and personality-dependent) opinions. It is in the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Arising that we find the answer to this question. According to Buddhist tradition, he taught that it is with the ending of delusion that volitional formations cease, and that with the ending of the latter that consciousness ceases, all the way down the chain of twelve links to the ending of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. This ‘ending’ (nirodha) is also known as Nirvana (Extinction), and Bodhi (Enlightenment, or Awakening) along with many other synonyms. To end this very brief description of Dependent Arising, a quotation from the classic Visuddhimagga:
“Mere suffering exists, but no one that suffers;
The deed is done, but no doer of the deed;
Nirvana is, but no one that enters it;
The Path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”
The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.