yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyataṁ tāṁ pracakṣmahe /
sa prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā //
“What is dependent co-arising, that we call emptiness;
It is making-known-with-regard-to, it is just the Middle Way.”
—ven. Nāgārjuna (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV:18)
Buddhist philosophy, like any other major belief system, contains elements which are rather weird and difficult to understand. All of us believe things that we don’t fully understand, which is odd, but that’s just the way we are. Science teaches us that light can behave like a material particle or like an energy wave, and how it behaves depends upon how we observe it. Very few people, if any, really understand this, but we go ahead and believe it anyway. Even most people who think they understand it probably don’t. Buddhist philosophy is like this.
It’s not just a matter of some peripheral, unimportant parts being weird either—some of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism belong to the Weird and Difficult to Understand category. Anattā, or no self, is one of these; although it seems to me that although no self may not be fully comprehended intellectually, it can be realized intuitively, without thinking, without much difficulty…because, of course, “self” depends upon thought for its existence, regardless of whether that “self” is a subjective person, an objectified person, or an objectified object or “thing.” No thinking, no self. But no self is something we can at least sort of understand intellectually to the extent that there’s nobody really there. That much is straightforward.
There is another fundamental doctrine of Buddhist philosophy which is even weirder in its own way, and which almost nobody really understands, assuming for the sake of argument that anybody as a “self” exists to understand it anyway. This is the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda, or dependent co-arising. Unlike most Pali Buddhist philosophical and ethical terms, like sati (“mindfulness”), samādhi (“concentration”), mettā (“loving-kindness”), etc., paṭicca-samuppāda has no standardized, streamlined English equivalent. It goes by many names, including “conditioned genesis,” “dependent origination,” “causal genesis,” etc. This, I assume, is partly because it is not well understood by scholars. They don’t feel fully comfortable with this or that designation.
This points to one of the weirdest things about dependent co-arising: On the one hand it is considered to be essential to an understanding of phenomenal existence, and essential to an understanding of Dharma. On the other hand, hardly anyone really understands it. It’s like a paradox.
It is considered to be so essential to Dharma that the Buddha’s own enlightenment involved, radically, a realization of paṭicca-samuppāda. After his enlightenment, according to tradition, the Buddha sat for many more days in Bodh Gaya under various trees reviewing dependent co-arising in forwards order, then in backwards order, then forwards and backwards…reflecting upon the essence of Dharma itself. In the texts, like in the Great Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (M28), it is asserted that “He who sees dependent co-arising, sees Dhamma; he who sees Dhamma, sees dependent co-arising.” Also, in the Great Discourse on Origins (Mahā Nidāna Sutta, D15), a text presumably intended to be a definitive statement on the subject, the Buddha says this: “Profound, Ānanda, is this dependent co-arising, and profound it shows itself. It is from not understanding, not penetrating this Dhamma, Ānanda, that the human race is like a tangled snarl of thread, become like a tangled thicket of tall grass or rushes, and one does not pass beyond the realms of woe, misfortune, calamity, Samsara.” Thus dependent co-arising is considered to be Extremely Important.
But on the other hand, as was already mentioned, very few people, Buddhist or otherwise, really understand it. According to the legend, immediately after the Buddha’s enlightenment he considered just keeping his mouth shut and being a paccekabuddha, fully enlightened yet silent, because he felt that nobody would understand paṭicca-samuppāda, and he didn’t need the headache of trying to get the point across. It turns out that his initial feeling was not too far from the mark.
Most Westerners, as far as I have seen, are willing to admit that they don’t understand it. Many of them seem to feel a bit uncomfortable around the idea of dependent co-arising, largely because people feel uncomfortable in the presence of the unknown. The Burmese, on the other hand, memorize a stock formula consisting of twelve links, the so-called “twelve nidāna theory,” and then memorize a few definitions and brief explanations, and then believe that they understand it. What the Buddha himself allegedly felt that nobody would understand, now is supposedly understood by millions of Burmese Buddhists, with most of them, including most monks, not practicing or penetrating very deeply at all. They memorize a few dogmas and think they’ve got it. Nowadays I am reluctant to suggest that American Buddhism is superior in any way to the traditional Burmese version; but still it does appear that Westerners have the advantage over the Burmese in this case, to the extent that they freely admit they don’t understand dependent co-arising, whereas the Burmese can be quite smug in their belief that they can understand Dhamma by memorizing stock formulas.
The stock formula in question, which is the usual form dependent co-arising takes on paper, is a kind of linear causative sequence beginning with avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, “conditioned by ignorance are constructs,” and ending with jāti paccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsa sambhavanti, or “conditioned by birth there come to being aging and death, grief, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair.” The formula in its full glory looks something like this:
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo? Avijjāpaccayā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ; viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ; nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ; saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso; phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā; taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ; upādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti. Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo.
This is not the only form that the doctrine assumes. Another, less elaborate formula may be translated into English somewhat like this:
In the existence of this, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; in the nonexistence of this, that does not become; in the cessation of this, that ceases. (Imasmiṁ sati, idaṁ hoti; imass’uppādā, idaṁ uppajjati; imasmiṁ asati, idaṁ na hoti; imassa nirodhā, idaṁ nirujjhati.)
This version of the doctrine is less common than the twelve-nidāna theory, but it is still a common stock formula, encountered repeatedly in the suttas. Yet even the standardized twelve-nidāna version has many variations in the texts, with more and less than twelve links. Even the aforementioned Mahā Nidāna Sutta itself, the Great Discourse on Origins, which is the most elaborate canonical explanation of dependent co-arising found in a single discourse, and which presumably was intended in ancient times to be definitive, endorses a formula similar to, but not the same as, the standardized stock form. And there are some suttas, such as the Sakkapañha Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya and the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, which contain similar longish sequences of “this arises from that” without being officially acknowledged as being forms of dependent co-arising. Below is a comparison of four different versions of the sequential cause of all our suffering:
Four slightly blurry versions of Dependent Co-Arising
The facts that the sequence takes many forms, that some of them are not explicitly stated to represent dependent co-arising, and that even the largest, supposedly definitive text on the subject shows a somewhat deviant form of the standard, suggest that ancient monks were having difficulty grappling with the idea of paṭicca-samuppāda, and that while the Pali Canon was evolving over time the doctrine itself evolved, appearing in different forms in different suttas. It may even be that the longish sequential “this causes that” formulas were originally not intended to be formal explanations of dependent co-arising (although at the least they were probably intended to be examples of it).
Furthermore, even the standardized, finalized twelve nidāna theory is not without controversy. The official, commentarial party line for Theravada is that the twelve links occur over the span of three lifetimes: Ignorance and karma conditions conducive to rebirth occurred in a previous life, which resulted in rebirth-linking consciousness and the formation of a present, living mind and body, which in time experience stimuli which inspire craving, “uptake,” and new karma conducive to continued existence…which then results in birth, old age, death, grief, and all the rest in a future life. But over the centuries some Buddhist philosophers, and I believe at least one major school, preferred to interpret the sequence as occurring within a single lifetime (which does, however, result in a kind of short circuit of the system if saṅkhārā and bhavo are both interpreted to mean karma). And some, including the famous and influential English monk Ñāṇavīra, have preferred to understand it all as totally simultaneous. As ven. Ñāṇavīra used to say, the text goes “This arising, that arises,” not “This ceasing, that arises.” Even the weak link where the chain is broken, thereby allowing one off the wheel of Samsara, is somewhat controversial. It is my understanding that the position of orthodox Theravada is that the sequence is broken between feeling and craving—feeling experienced with concentrated mindfulness and insight is neutralized and loses its power of inducing craving—yet I have been informed that other interpretations, including Ñāṇavīra’s, place the weak link elsewhere.
Partly because of all this, and partly because I intuit that an enlightened being describing the nature of samsaric reality would probably not give complicated, elaborate explanations which assume as a given a pluralistic universe, I assume that the simpler, This Being, That Is version comes closer to what the Buddha originally had in mind, and that the twelve-nidāna stock theory is a later ecclesiastical artifact. And if that is the case, then dependent co-arising could be more a kind of logical, conditional if/then system than an empirical cause-and-effect sequence describing real causes producing real effects. Consequently I have been of the opinion for many years that as a general rule Theravada Buddhists, including venerables Buddhaghosa and Ñāṇavīra, do not understand dependent co-arising very well. And consequently, if we can accept the quote from M28, they don’t understand Dhamma. Oh well. The Buddha allegedly thought nobody would understand it anyway.
One of the many reasons why Mahayana Buddhism came into existence was as a reaction to the trend toward dogmatic, formulaic, intellectual analysis found in the older “Hinayana” schools. The rigid, word-laden approach to “understanding” dependent co-arising was one of the targets of the new movement; and in my opinion the proto-Mahayanist philosopher Nāgārjuna comes about as close as anybody to really explaining paṭicca-samuppāda, or, as it is known in Buddhist Sanskrit, pratītya-samutpāda. The Madhyamaka philosophy associated with Nāgārjuna is directed primarily toward dependent co-arising as the essence of Dharma, and endeavors to interpret everything phenomenal in accordance with it. Nāgārjuna was a genius, revered by Mahayana Buddhists almost like a second Buddha; and it is my impression that he really did understand dependent co-arising better than did ven. Buddhaghosa (“the St. Paul of Theravada”). But this is not intended to be an essay on Nāgārjuna or Madhyamaka, so I won’t dwell upon him much.
I will mention, however, that Nāgārjuna identified dependent co-arising with Emptiness, and thus also with No Self, as well as with the Middle Path itself. His most important work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, is a radical account of dependent co-arising, but dedicates only one short chapter to the stock twelve-nidāna theory which was prevalent in probably all of the early schools and couldn’t easily be rejected; his account in that chapter, number 26, the second-to-last chapter, is not so different from how a Theravadin would explain it. The main difference is that an orthodox Theravadin considers each of the twelve links to be real; whereas Nāgārjuna considers anything dependently co-arisen to be empty, lacking in any self-essence or authentic individuality—it is only relatively real. Each link exists, or seems to exist, only in relation to something else. The whole system is devoid of ultimate reality, and depends for its existence upon the system itself, in a kind of recursive, self-perpetuating illusion. But enough about Madhyamaka. If you are interested you can read the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā yourself. There are a number of translations of it.
What I would like to do now is give a very fundamental example of how this works. It involves possibly the most fundamental of all discernible qualities: sameness and difference.
First of all, sameness and difference are relations; they do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relation to something. That is, they are relative. There is no pure sameness or pure difference, since they exist only relatively with regard to something else, as attributed conditions, not as self-existent essences. Pure, abstract sameness or difference without any particular thing being the same or different would be practically meaningless.
Furthermore, sameness and difference cannot exist independently of each other; there can be no sameness without difference, or vice versa. One way of demonstrating this is by attempting to imagine one without the other. Try to picture a universe that is absolutely uniform throughout: We can imagine a space that is a uniform white, for example—but the only way to imagine it is by ourselves not being members of that universe, and being different from everything else. Like modern science tries to do also, we try to sneak an invisible observer in through the back door. On the other hand, if we try to imagine a universe that is absolutely non-uniform, things get much weirder. How could there be an entire universe in which everything was completely different from everything else? Each point, each pixel on the screen, would have to be different. In order to avoid two adjacent points/pixels being similar, the resolution would have to be infinitesimally fine…so that, to an observer, it would be totally uniform! Random static refined down to infinity becomes total uniformity, a perfect, uniform grey. (It just occurred to me that in a universe in which everything was different from everything else, each unique individual entity would be similar in sharing the same attribute of uniqueness. So a universe of complete difference would have to be uninterpreted, without generalities, and thus just as empty of meaning as its opposite.)
So, much as in the beginning of Hegel’s logical dialectic with absolute being and absolute non-being, “absolute” sameness and “absolute” difference merge into each other and become indistinguishable. The only way to keep them from melting together is to keep the two opposites distinct, and both present, in relation.
This is how we function psychologically in the phenomenal world. Consider stasis and change, a basic variation on the theme of sameness and difference. The only way that we are aware of something not changing is by comparing it to something, if only a clock, that has changed. The passage of time is marked by a sequence of changes. We note that time has passed by noting change, and then compare object X with our memory of it and perceive that it is essentially the same as before, despite the changes in other things, and so we say that it has stayed the same. Contrariwise with change: We are aware of change only in relation to what we consider to have remained the same, even if that unchanging yardstick is nothing more than our own “self.” If absolutely everything changed from our samsaric point of view (and Buddhist philosophy asserts that everything is changing every moment), then we wouldn’t be aware of anything meaningful at all, since nothing would have anything remotely resembling a stable and reliable meaning. At least the meanings have to remain the same. Even our memories would change, rendering what occurred just a moment ago to be totally different from what replaced it a moment later, or otherwise just totally forgotten. Thus sameness and difference necessarily coexist in a meaningful world; in other words, they dependently co-arise.
The philosopher F. H. Bradley, in his monumental metaphysics text Appearance and Reality, pointed out a similar co-dependence between qualities and the relations between them, thereby exposing the relativity of relativity itself. A quality, such as “blue,” has no meaning unless it is distinguished, and this distinction is a relation with other qualities. But there can be no relation of qualities without the existence of the qualities themselves. This produces a chicken and egg problem of how an entity X can exist at all: its qualities cannot exist unless they are in some relation, yet the relation cannot exist without qualities to relate. And this dual existence incidentally splits X into two distinct aspects anyhow, undermining its very entity-hood. F. H. Bradley discovered Madhyamaka-style dependent co-arising probably without ever hearing of it.
This same kind of paradoxical chicken and egg problem puzzled me years ago with regard to distinguishing an object perceptually and directing one’s attention toward it. We couldn’t perceive something as a distinct object without directing our attention to it, but we wouldn’t know to direct our attention to it in the first place unless we had already distinguished it somehow. It seems that a reasonable explanation is that a perception and the volition directing it dependently co-arise. The two are necessarily simultaneous.
Our entire world is created by this kind of paradoxical interrelatedness. It is a psychological and logical system and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any external reality. External reality is essentially a meaningless Void to the extent that it does not come ready-equipped with interrelated distinguished qualities.
It is interesting that, in early Buddhist philosophy, even existence and nonexistence were seen as a kind of dependently co-arising psychological phenomena. For example, in the proto-twelve-nidāna theory of paṭicca-samuppāda found in the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, mentioned above, there is a side branch involving this very duality (at the point marked by an “x” on the chart):
In what are founded pleasant and unpleasant?
In what not being do they not exist?
And nonexistence and existence too, whatever that means—
In what not being do they not exist?
And nonexistence and existence too, whatever that means—
Tell me that in which they are founded.
In stimulation (phassa) are founded pleasant and unpleasant;
In stimulation not being they do not exist.
Nonexistence and existence too, whatever it means—
I tell you that they are founded in this.
Again, absolute Being and absolute Non-being ultimately cannot be differentiated, and being and non-being without capital letters are relative, and psychological. They have to exist in order for a meaningful world to exist, and so we artificially create them. This helps me to feel a little less vertigo when coming upon Mahayana texts with words like:
Form is Emptiness; the very Emptiness is Form. (—Heart Sutra)
What is is the same as what is not; what is not is the same as what is. (—Hsin Hsin Ming)
There are no two such things as existence and nonexistence. (—Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation)
Such dependent co-arising exists everywhere; our entire subjective universe is pervaded by it and generated by it. Setting aside such crude examples as beauty depending upon ugliness, up depending upon down, good depending upon evil, etc., consider Dharma practice and wisdom. It is not strictly true that Dharma practice leads to wisdom as a cause leads to an effect, in linear fashion; one could say that the exact opposite is also true: The wiser we are, the more and better we practice. The two dependently co-arise (which causes me considerable skepticism over the Mahasi tradition’s assumption that after one becomes an Ariya one can sit back and take it easy, with the “Ariyas” at a Burmese Mahasi meditation center often being the most ostentatious slackers at the place).
And so, dependent co-arising, according to the hypothesis, is a kind of metaphilosophy similar to the philosophy of Kant: it does not describe reality, but rather describes the psychological genesis of unreality, of the samsaric world. A sentient mind, and also the world as we know it, are essentially consciousness filtered through a pattern; and the pattern is produced and stabilized by this very same dependent co-arising. So it’s no wonder almost nobody understands it. If some of you would like to answer that I don’t understand it either, I wouldn’t argue the point.
(A note on the illustration: For many years I have considered tensegrity structures to be a good analogy for dependent co-arising. The whole thing is held together in a stable configuration by mutual forces acting upon each other, with none of the sticks actually touching each other, and if a single piece is taken away, the stability collapses. So I finally managed to build the tensegrity truncated octahedron shown above, which conveniently contains twelve struts, so that in the model each strut represents a link in the standardized 12-nidāna version of the system. I hope someone can appreciate this, because it was a bitch to make. I'll probably make more, though, so it will very probably become easier with practice. Upon showing this to a certain devout Burmese Buddhist a few days ago, he looked at it like a cat looks at a lemon—i.e., totally unimpressed—and then warned me in all seriousness that it is wrong and "dangerous," because the links should all be in a linear, chain-like sequence. But I think for non-Burmese people it can serve as a useful analogy.)
APPENDIX: F. H. BRADLEY ON THE DEPENDENT CO-ARISING OF QUALITIES AND RELATIONS
Hence…the qualities [of a thing] must be, and must also be related. But there is hence a diversity which falls inside each quality. It has a double character, as both supporting and as being made by the relation. It may be taken as at once condition and result, and the question is as to how it can combine this variety. For it must combine the diversity, and yet it fails to do so. A is both made, and is not made, what it is by relation; and these different aspects are not each the other, nor again is either A. If we call its diverse aspects a and α, then A is partly each of these. As a it is the difference on which distinction is based, while as α it is the distinctness that results from connection. A is really both somehow together as A(a—α). But (as we saw in Chapter ii.) without the use of a relation it is impossible to predicate this variety of A. And, on the other hand, with an internal relation A’s unity disappears, and its contents are dissipated in an endless process of distinction. A at first becomes a in relation with α, but these terms themselves fall hopelessly asunder. We have got, against our will, not a mere aspect, but a new quality a, which itself stands in a relation; and hence (as we saw before with A) its content must be manifold. As going into the relation it itself is a², and as resulting from the relation it itself is α². And it combines, and yet cannot combine, these adjectives. We, in brief, are led by a principle of fission which conducts us to no end. Every quality in relation has, in consequence, a diversity within its own nature, and this diversity cannot immediately be asserted of the quality. Hence the quality must exchange its unity for an internal relation. But, thus set free, the diverse aspects, because each something in relation, must each be something also beyond. This diversity is fatal to the internal unity of each; and it demands a new relation, and so on without limit. In short, qualities in a relation have turned out as unintelligible as were qualities without one. The problem from both sides has baffled us. (—Appearance and Reality, 2nd edition, pp. 31-2)