Dependent Origination

Tonight, at the request of some longtime practitioners in our sangha, I will address the Buddhist philosophical tenet of Dependent Origination. In the fifteenth of the Long Discourses, the Buddha is recorded as teaching:

Deep indeed is this dependent origination.

It is through not understanding and penetrating it that

people become entangled like a tangled ball of threads.

During the process of illumination, the Buddha’s mind became still and he dropped all attachments, attaining liberation and comprehending Dependent Origination. This insight is the foundation of all that he taught for the next 45 years.

For tonight’s discussion about the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination, I draw on an article by Gil Fronsdal in the May, 2016 issue of the Spirit Rock News. The principle of dependent origination is that when anything arises dependent on particular conditions, it ceases when those conditions cease. For example, rain is dependent on clouds; when clouds vanish, rain stops. The Buddha used the principle to understand human suffering and how to bring it to an end. According to this principle, if what leads to suffering is eliminated, suffering stops. With his awakening, the Buddha understood the causes and conditions of suffering and how to remove them. This insight empowered him to teach the path to liberation.

According to an ancient saying, “One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Origination.” The Buddha began by teaching the Four Noble Truths, which explain the cause of suffering and the conditions required for its cessation. The first truth entails knowing when suffering is happening. The second truth points to craving as the cause of suffering. The third states that it is possible to end suffering, and the fourth truth lays out the Noble Eightfold Path to do so.

To further illuminate the principle, the Buddha taught the “Twelve-fold Dependent Origination.” This teaching lists a sequence of twelve psycho-physical processes, each one linked as a necessary condition for the arising of the next. When the final link (suffering) is seen as a condition for the first link (ignorance), the twelve links can be depicted as a circle. If the processes are not interrupted, we loop around and around in cycles of suffering.

The twelve processes, however, seldom operate in a neat 12-step sequence. Often they interact and shape one another in complex ways. Instead of visualizing a circle, it is more useful to envision twelve threads intertwined in a matted ball. Mindful investigation allows us to discover some of the individual threads and the connections among them. Then it is possible to unravel the tangled ball of suffering. Loosening any one thread helps to loosen the rest.

Starting with ignorance, the first seven processes in the twelve-fold list are conditions that lead to craving, which is listed eighth, as well as being the second Noble Truth. The ninth and eleventh processes depend on craving to create the necessary conditions for suffering, which is twelfth in the sequence of Dependent Origination and also the first Noble Truth.

  1. IGNORANCE, the 1st step in the sequence, refers specifically to “ignoring” or not understanding our experiences through the lens of the Four Noble Truths. When we are ignorant of our suffering or its cause, we tend to seek happiness and peace in the wrong places. We often mistake pleasure for happiness, we assume that clinging and aversion are helpful strategies, and we rely on a sense of self-identity. Our greatest mistake is to believe that our psychological suffering is caused by external events. The Buddhas’s teaching about Dependent Origination points instead to the role that our inner mental life plays in suffering. As the first process, ignorance runs through the other eleven processes. By applying the Four Noble Truths to any of the twelve processes, we can unravel the ball of suffering.
  1. FORMATION, is formed by ignorance. Intentions and dispositions that arise as formations include mental reactions such as anger when a desire is frustrated or anxiety when attachment to a particular form of self-identity is threatened. While some formations are momentary intentions, others are pervasive motivations that shape both personality and our way of experiencing the world.
  1. CONSCIOUSNESS, the third step, consists of the mental processes or awareness that enable us to pay attention to things. Our intentions and dispositions shape how we pay attention and what we attend to. Colored by ignorant dispositions, our awareness is selective and usually biased.
  1. BODY AND MIND are experienced according to how we pay attention. For example, angry reactions activate the body and mind in particular ways: the heart pounds, muscles tense, the face flushes, and the hands clench. When attention is focused on what we dislike in body and mind, we suffer.
  1. SENSES are activated according to conditions set by the first four processes. If the first four links are shaped by selfishness, we may use our senses to notice only what affects our self-centeredness. Likewise, anger can filter how we see, hear, smell, taste and touch the external world or how we experience the inner world.
  1. CONTACT, or our direct experience of the world, is sixth in the sequence and is influenced by the way we direct our senses. We tend to assume that the world we experience through the senses is how the world actually is. But the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Origination suggests that when we suffer, our perceptions are not accurate and the way our senses connect to the world is biased.
  1. FEELING TONE, the seventh link, refers to the seemingly impartial process of experiencing things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But since feeling tone is associated with sense contact or perception and with all the preceding links, it is not necessarily objective.
  1. CRAVING, the eighth link, is a reaction to feeling tone. It can be humbling to realize that many of our desires, even apparently sophistocated ones, are responses to feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness.
  1. GRASPING, the ninth process, stems from the condition of craving.
  1. BECOMING is the tenth step and refers to creating states of being or states of mind that are based on grasping. It is an ongoing process of coming into being. For instance, if we grasp onto anger, a passing reaction can become a habitual response or even a pervasive, enduring mood.
  1. BIRTH, the eleventh process, entails giving birth to an identity, such as, “I am an angry person.” A fixed self-identity is a significant condition for suffering because of the expectations, assertions, disappointments, and fearful or angry reactions that are triggered when we try to support or defend ideas that we hold about ourselves.
  1. SUFFERING, the final process in the sequence, is dependent on the combined working of all the prior links. The abstract concept of “suffering” is associated specifically with particular experiences such as “aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.”

Each link is dependent on all the preceding links.  If a particular step is removed, the subsequent links cannot occur.  If one of the links is occurring, it will cease when any of the earlier processes stop. Remembering the Four Noble Truths facilitates untangling ignorance; insight into how our dispositions shape experience helps us to see more clearly; learning not to react to feeling tones lessens craving; and not acting on craving lessens grasping, which in turn lessens becoming. When the ball of suffering is tightly tangled, we may need all these approaches. As the threads loosen, a gentle tug on one strand may be sufficient to unravel the entire ball. Once suffering is untangled, what remains is profoundly peaceful and not dependent on anything. The mind is left in a state of open awareness.