Articles September 18, 2009

Dependent Origination

Gil Fronsdal

“Deep indeed is this dependent origination. It is through not understanding and penetrating it that people become entangled like a tangled ball of threads.” —The Buddha (Long Discourse No. 15)

When the Buddha awakened, he awakened to something. With the stilling of his mind and the dropping of his attachments, he awoke to dependent origination and attained liberation. This insight is the foundation of everything else he subsequently taught.

The principle of dependent origination is that when anything arises dependent on particular conditions, it ceases with the ceasing of those conditions. So, for example, rain is dependent on clouds; when the clouds vanish, the rain stops. The Buddha used the principle of dependent origination to understand human suffering and how to bring that suffering to an end. According to the principle, if suffering depends on something, and that thing is eliminated, the suffering will come to an end. With his awakening, the Buddha understood the causes and conditions of suffering and how to remove them. It is with this insight that the Buddha could then teach a path to liberation.

By understanding the concept of dependent origination, the Buddha’s teachings become clear. By personally seeing dependent origination, the Buddha’s teachings become liberating. The importance of this insight is emphasized in the ancient saying, “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma, sees dependent origination.”

The Buddha’s first, succinct way of teaching dependent origination was with the Four Noble Truths, which explain the cause of suffering and the conditions required for the ceasing of this cause. The first truth concerns knowing when suffering is occurring. The second truth is understanding craving as the cause of suffering. The third points to the possibility of ending that suffering. And the fourth truth describes the path to do this.

When suffering seems impenetrable and the Four Noble Truths seem too simple for penetrating the complex tangle that gives rise to the suffering, it can be useful to investigate further with the Buddha’s teaching known as the twelve-fold dependent origination. This teaching lists a sequence of 12 psychophysical processes wherein each process is presented as a necessary condition for the arising of the next process. When suffering (the final link) is seen as a condition for ignorance (the first link), the 12 links are often depicted as a circle. The image of a circle is useful in that it suggests that when the processes are not interrupted, people can all too easily loop around and around in cycles of suffering.

However, all 12 processes seldom operate in a neat 12-step sequence. More often, they all also interact and shape one another in complicated ways. Instead of a circle, it might be useful to see each as different threads of a matted ball of threads. The task of mindful investigation is to discover some of the individual threads and the connections between them. It then becomes possible to begin unraveling the tangled ball of suffering. Because of the way they are all intertwined, loosening any one thread loosens the rest.

Beginning with ignorance, the first seven processes in the twelve-fold list are the conditions that give rise to craving, which is the eighth item on the list as well as the second Noble Truth. The ninth to eleventh processes are those that build on craving to create the necessary conditions for suffering, which is the twelfth process in the sequence of dependent origination and the first of the Noble Truths.

1. Ignorance

Ignorance, as the first step in the sequence, refers specifically to "ignoring," or at least not understanding, our experience through the framework of the Four Noble Truths. When we are ignorant of our suffering or its cause, it is easy to look for happiness and peace in the wrong places. For example, pleasure can be mistaken for happiness; clinging and aversion can be assumed to be helpful strategies; and depending on a self identity
can be seen as important. One of the most significant symptoms of ignorance is believing that our psychological suffering is caused by external events. The teaching on Dependent Origination acts as a corrective to this by pointing to the role that our inner mental life has in suffering. Because ignorance is the first process in the twelve-fold dependent origination, all the subsequent processes are dependent on it. In other words, ignorance runs through the other 11 processes. It is said, therefore, that applying the Four Noble Truths to any of the 12 processes can untangle the ball of suffering.

2. Formation

Ignorance has consequences when it is the basis for how we react to the world. Ignorant reactions shape or "form" us, and this is why the second step in the twelve-fold cycle is called "formations." Most prominent are the array of intentions and dispositions that arise dependent on ignorance. They can include such mental reactions as anger when a craving is frustrated, or anxiety when we are attached to a particular self-identity. Some of these may be momentary intentions; others may be pervasive motivations that shape both our personality and how we experience the world.

3. Consciousness

The third step, usually called "consciousness," consists of the mental processes by which we cognize or pay attention to things—processes influenced by our dispositions and conditioning. How we are mentally disposed can shape how we pay attention and what we pay attention to. Our awareness is seldom unbiased. When connected to suffering, our awareness is selective and colored by our ignorant dispositions.

4. Body & Mind

How we pay attention has an influence on how we experience our "body and mind," which is the fourth step. So, for example, if I get angry at my suffering, this anger activates my body and mind in particular ways: I tense up, get hot and become impatient. In addition, I might focus my attention so that I mostly notice what I don’t like about my body and mind.

5. Senses

The first four processes are powerful conditions for how we use our "senses," which is the fifth step in the sequence. For example, if the first four links are shaped by selfishness, then we may use our senses to notice only things that have an impact on our self-centeredness. If they are shaped by anger, then that may filter how we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the external world or how we "perceive" our inner world.

6. Contact

How the senses are directed conditions how we directly experience the world. Sixth in the sequence is "contact," the meeting of our senses with the outside world or with thoughts and feelings. People often assume that the world they experience through the senses is how the world actually is. The teaching on dependent origination suggests that when we suffer, we do not perceive accurately and the way our senses connect to the world is biased.

7. Feeling Tone

The seventh link is the "feeling tone" associated with any sense contact or perception. It is the seemingly impartial way in which we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. However, the feeling tones that are part of the twelve-fold sequence are influenced by the preceding six links and are therefore not necessarily objective.

8. Craving

Feeling tone is a condition for the arising of "craving," the eighth link in the dependent origination of suffering. In other words, craving is a reaction to feeling tone. It can be quite humbling to discover how many of our desires, even seemingly sophisticated ones, are responses to feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness.

9. Grasping

Craving is a necessary condition for "grasping," the ninth process. We are not going to cling to something unless we crave it.

10. Becoming

The tenth step, "becoming," refers to the creation of states of being or states of mind based on grasping. It is called "becoming" because it is an ongoing process of coming into being. If I grasp onto anger, it is more than a passing reaction, it can become a habitual response or even a pervasive and enduring mood.

11. Birth

Based on my ongoing anger, I may define myself by it: "I am an angry person." Giving birth to an identity based on our state of being is the eleventh process of dependent origination, and is called "birth." A fixed identity is a very significant condition for suffering because of all the expectation, assertion, disappointment, fear, and anger that can be triggered as we try to support or defend ideas we hold about ourselves.

12. Suffering

The combined working of the first 11 processes is the dependent condition for suffering, the final process in the sequence. In looking carefully at suffering, it is important to remember we are always investigating the particular form it is taking. The word "suffering" is an abstraction and abstractions are difficult to explore. As a reminder to look into the particular expressions, the twelfth link has a long name: "aging, death, sorrow,
lamentation, pain, grief, and despair."

Each link is dependent on all the preceding links. This means that 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 are stopped. As we explore the tangled ball of our suffering, some threads are easier to discover than others and some can be addressed more directly. Using the framework of the Four Noble Truths helps untangle ignorance; insight into how our dispositions shape our experience can help us see more clearly; learning to not react to the feeling tones of experience lessens craving; not acting on cravings lessens grasping, which, in turn, lessens becoming. When the tangle of suffering is tightly woven, all these approaches may be needed. When the threads have become loose enough, a gentle tug on one strand may be all that is needed for the whole ball to unravel. And when suffering is untangled, what’s left is profound and peaceful. What’s left is not dependent on anything.