There are 2 things that people confuse when they are learning dependent origination in Buddhism:
- A generalized observation of conditionality
- Dependent Origination
“Everything is dependent upon something else and that in turn is dependent upon something else. And then this is dependent upon something else – in an infinite regression back in time” – people call this dependent origination all the time. That is a generalized conditionality but is NOT the proper understanding of dependent origination as the Buddha taught it.
So the mistake is taking the conditionality of anything and regressing it back infinitely and saying that that is what Dependent Origination is. How the Buddha taught the principle of conditionality with respect to Dependent Origination is like like this and limiting it to 12 links:
- When this arises, that arises
- With this ceasing, that will also cease.
So what the Buddha meant was that suffering arises in a domino effect of 12 very specific things happening, with the last domino being suffering arising. If we can stop the 1st domino from falling – the rest of the dominoes won’t be touched – and suffering won’t arise.
Dependent Origination, if you really understand it, allow you to get enough insights to open enlightenment. But somewhere along the line, dependent origination has just been watered down to non-specific general conditionality of, “Everything is dependent on something else and this goes back in time infinitely – this is dependent origination”.Specifically, Dependent Origination is these 12 links:
- Ignorance, delusion and confusion as to how things really are – conditions formations
- Formations condition consciousness…
- Consciousness conditions the ordinary mind and body
- Having a body with a mind conditions the 6 sense bases/gates
- The 6 sense gates, enables you to go out and touch/contact the objects in the sense world – which we mistake to be an external reality
- Once you contact the sense world, once you “touch” sensory objects – sensations arise once contact is made – some are pleasurable, some are painful, some are neutral.
- Once sensations arise, desire arises for the pleasant ones – craving – you want to get them to enjoy the good things of this world
- Once you crave for something, you want to go out and get them and hold on to them (grasping, clinging)
- Once you grasp it, and then the principle of becoming is involved
- Once the principle of becoming is involved – birth takes place
- With all births, there also comes old age, sickness and death
- And with old age, sickness and death comes sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, i.e., suffering.
So Dependent Origination starts with ignorance and ends with suffering. So the process of the arising of suffering starts with ignorance. How do you overcome ignorance? With wisdom.
Can you see how simplistic it is to think that Dependent Origination is just “Everything is dependent upon something else” going back in time indefinitely – all this describes is a pattern within samsara with its endless transformations of phenomena. It does not tell you how suffering specifically arises within samsara, which is what Dependent Origination does tell you.
Sure the conditionality of “When this arises, that arises” operates within each link of Dependent Origination, but Dependent Origination is the entire 12 specific links of how suffering arises with a definite starting point and a definite end point. It’s not an infinitely regressing pattern of conditionality.
Now phenomena that we experience in the external world are only known through our senses. Knowing without depending on the senses is no longer phenomena. It is noumena.
- Phenomena are dependent BUT
- Noumena is not.
So you can ask yourself a question – is it better to be dependent on something or to be independent?
The Buddha taught that dependency is a weakness. Of course it is! Why? Because:
- If that which you depend upon doesn’t come through for you, you can’t do what you need to do.
- If you rely on something for support – if that support fails in some way – you’re going to be in trouble.
Much better to find something that does not need support – this is much stronger.
To show that:
- The Buddha NEVER taught that absolutely EVERYTHING was dependent
- That the Buddha said that dependency was a weakness
The Buddha said this:
- One who is Independent does not tremble.
- One who is dependent clutches, grasps existence one way or another and thus is unable to escape samsara.
Consider this dark consequence:
- There is danger in dependence.
- Therefore, relying on nothing, the mindful bhikkhu travels on free from clinging
Source: Samyutta Nikaya 752-3
After reading that, how can people keep saying that the Buddha taught that absolutely everything is dependent on something else?! Obviously he didn’t say that here.
How can people say that the Buddha considered an absolute, endless dependence as some sort of great insight that leads to enlightenment? The Buddha considered dependence a weakness!