The Buddha’s Doctrine of Paṭiccasamuppāda, or Dependent Origination, holds a special place among his teachings. During his long career over many lifetimes as a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-in-training so to speak, Siddhartha Gautama honed his mindfulness practice and perfected the pāramitās, those spiritual capacities characteristic of a Buddha. But it wasn’t until the very night of his own enlightenment and his days under the Bodhi Tree that followed that he came to fully understand in his own direct experience the truth of Dependent Origination, this profound insight into the way things happen.
And what the Buddha discovered during this time of his full awakening became, in a sense, the crown jewel of his teaching. In describing the centrality of Paṭiccasamuppāda in his message to us, the Buddha put it this way: “One who sees the Dharma sees Dependent Origination, one who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dharma.” For the Buddha, this term Dharma was like the Truth with a capital “T”. So you can see the importance he placed on this area of insight.
And yet, when it comes to Dependent Origination as this Truth with a capital “T,” the Buddha was not just referring to this doctrinal truth. The Buddha also said that one who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha. So in a way, we could say that this capital “T” Truth of Dependent Origination is who the Buddha is, or, more accurately, how the Buddha is, the very way that he appeared in the world we know, this world of sights, sounds, bodies and bodily sensations, smells, tastes, emotions, thoughts, visions, dreams, etc. As such, this teaching strikes right to the core of each of us, of who and how we are, of our original nature, of the Buddha-nature that appears as each of us. And I suggest that each of us can find the reality of this teaching in the way our own lives are unfolding moment to moment, if we look deeply enough.
My own interest in Dependent Origination first arose in the early years of my practice when I began to have momentary experiences of the sense-of-self completely falling away. I noticed that it always came back quickly. I began to wonder how it is that out of the underlying ground of our experience, in which the sense-of-self is utterly absent, this feeling of “I” or “me,” persisting in time and discrete in space, continued to re-emerge. How did that happen? That curiosity and the inquiry it evoked led me to the experiential exploration of Dependent Origination.
Based on that experiential inquiry, the view I’ll be presenting in the class I’ll be teaching at Spirit Rock this summer sees Dependent Origination as a description of the steps that occur in the arising of the human sense of self. In this process perspective, the twelve links of Dependent Origination are a series of events, all of which happen in quick succession each time the sense of self forms. As such, they can all be experienced in this present lifetime.
From this perspective, the links of the chain of Dependent Origination describe the patterns of energy activity which create the apparent structure, our human sense of self, established in this process. It’s a quantum-like progression in which layers of energy in patterns are added one on top of the other, resulting in an increasingly complex and opaque experience of self.
Over the course of my years of practice I’ve come to understand that Dharma has both a universal and a personal element. The Truths we discover are ultimately universal. But the paths we take to our discoveries, the experiential insights we have along the way, have a personal dimension in that the journey is a unique odyssey for each of us.
This class will be taught to a significant extent from the perspective of my own personal path of exploration of this topic. I’ll be presenting some perspectives on Dependent Origination that I haven’t found anywhere in my readings or in studies with other teachers. My hope is that by sharing from my own experience I will be able to excite you about taking your own personal journey through this territory. To this end, I will be suggesting ways of exploring that have been helpful to me. But the bottom line is that if you feel inspired, you will find your own path through this material, your own understanding, your own avenues of investigation, your own lived experience, your personal path into the very heart of this Truth with a capital “T.” And as is always true in Dharma, it’s what you experience directly yourself that has the potential to transform, to liberate.
More recently, as a psychologist and psychotherapist, I've found that this experiential understanding of Dependent Origination provides a valuable framework for the breadth and depth, the full scope, of human experience. This framework offers a way to understand how a wide range of psychotherapeutic perspectives and practices interact with different layers of our experience of being human and how they relate to and complement each other, as well.