When people confuse Dependent Origination

There are 2 things that people confuse when they are learning dependent origination in Buddhism:

  1. A generalized observation of conditionality
  2. 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:

  1. Ignorance, delusion and confusion as to how things really are – conditions formations
  2. Formations condition consciousness…
  3. Consciousness conditions the ordinary mind and body
  4. Having a body with a mind conditions the 6 sense bases/gates
  5. 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
  6. 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.
  7. Once sensations arise, desire arises for the pleasant ones – craving – you want to get them to enjoy the good things of this world
  8. Once you crave for something, you want to go out and get them and hold on to them (grasping, clinging)
  9. Once you grasp it, and then the principle of becoming is involved
  10. Once the principle of becoming is involved – birth takes place
  11. With all births, there also comes old age, sickness and death
  12. 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.

So the key distinction here is that:
  • 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!


7 thoughts on “When people confuse Dependent Origination

  1. Very clear! I still don’t quite get why DO is a Dharma gate to enlightenment, however. Is it that by reflection on the truth of links of dependent origination that lead to inevitable suffering one is more likely to relinquish craving? — i.e. move from the 2nd to the 3rd Noble Truth?

  2. Dependent Origination is just the 2nd and 3rd Noble Truths in more detail:
    – The 2nd Noble Truth is the arising of suffering, starting from ignorance according to the 12 links.
    – The 3rd Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering using the exact same links.

    What is Dependent Origination?

    It is the process by which we are born into the world of the senses with the machinery of our ordinary mind and body to seek and experience the pleasures of the senses (and in the process avoid sensory pain).

    Every pleasure we experience in the sensory world, we experience through living it through our body, as the body is the physical base of the 6 senses. The body is the gate of the 6 senses. But this world of the senses is impermanent – so everything in the sensory realm is unstable – all the happiness we can get within this realm is subject to change, separation, decay and death.

    That’s the fundamental problem with this realm of our senses – things don’t last. It is the realm of the not-self. To enjoy it, we have to get something external (i.e., not self) to satisfy us. We will lose whatever we get in this realm at some point in time. And when we lose our most cherished possessions, both physical and mental suffering comes along with it.

    How’s that for trying to explain Dependent Origination in 3 paragraphs?!

  3. Good, but I still don’t see how understanding this alone can lead to enlightenment. Is it because a full understanding and realization of dependent origination so clearly points to ignorance as THE root cause?

  4. See in the Pali Suttas, avijja – ignorance is defined as not knowing the 4 Noble Truths. But what does that mean? – especially if people don’t understand the 4 Noble Truths properly?

    So your question of “How does understanding Dependent Origination lead to enlightenment?” – I think this is a FUNDAMENTAL question – the same thing goes for understanding the 4 Noble Truths.

    First of all, I don’t think a mere intellectual understanding suffices. If you have a superficial understanding of these things on an intellectual level – when suffering comes, you won’t know how to use it, as it’s all book knowledge. It has to be understood on deep, experiential level to the point that we know how to use them in our own cultivation.

    Personally, I think that these things can be used as a framework for meditation and seeing our fundamental nature. Ignorance just means mistaking “what we perceive” to be our selves – in other words, mistaking “other” (i.e., what is not self) to be our “self”.

    So once you realize that, you can detach yourself from the world of the senses – allow your sensory perceptions to flow off without having grasped them – sights, sounds, thoughts and even your body is a perception in the mind – so you let all of these go for the time being in your meditation. Let the objects of sense flow off (in general, I like to have a mantra as base whilst doing this), e.g., sound – let it flow off without grasping it. So you reflect, “These are just externals, they are not me, not mine, nothing to do with me” – so you let these unessentials go.

    Why do you let them go? Because you realize that the world through the 6 sense gates – all the phenomena that we experience that we think is an external reality – they all have a birth and a death. And anything that leads to death is beset with suffering. So if you can drop that off – there’s that link cut off for you already.

    Then you continue your journey inward to find that which does not change (and so, does not die), what is independent (what does not have to rely on anything?) and that which is not not-self. This is the “Who?” question that Zen students learn. For the detailed explanation, I guess you gotta read through the whole Shurangama Sutra! lol That will explain it better than I can ;).

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