Or: how come I keep getting into arguments in the supermarket?
Most of the time, the approach taken in early Buddhism is pretty straightforward. Want to learn to focus your mind? Practise paying attention - and here's how you do that. Want to learn more about who and what you really are? Investigate your sense of self and how you relate to the world - and here's a technique for that. Want to open your heart? Practise generating emotions like love and compassion - and here's the method. And so on.
It isn't all plain sailing, though. There's a teaching at the heart of early Buddhism called 'dependent origination' which is considered fundamental enough that the Buddha is reported to have said 'One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma (the truth of the Buddhist teachings); one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination'. Sounds promising, but what's it all about? Well, it's often presented in the form of the 'twelve links' - a sequence of things, many of which are rather mysterious, and which don't always obviously connect to one another. It's tricky to understand, and you can find many lengthy books which attempt to unpack the subject - mostly disagreeing with each other.
In this article, we'll follow the approach set out by my teacher Leigh Brasington and his free book Dependent Origination and Emptiness, which offers an unusually clear way to get started with the concept. Then we'll see why this is something we might want to explore after all!
Dependent origination in a nutshell
One of the simplest ways of getting into dependent origination is through a story found in one of the earliest collections of Buddhist discourses, Sutta Nipata 4.11, titled 'Quarrels and Disputes'.
An unnamed student asks the Buddha 'Where do quarrels and disputes come from?' In other words, how come people are arguing and fighting all the time? (Take a look at Twitter if you don't believe me...)
The Buddha replies 'Quarrels and disputes come from what we hold dear.'
So why do we hold things dear? Because of desire, the Buddha replies.
And where does desire come from? From pleasure and pain.
And where do pleasure and pain come from? From sense contact - that is, from one or more of our sense organs (the eye, the ear etc.) encountering a sense object (a pleasing or displeasing sight, sound etc.).
The discourse goes on one step further - more on that later - but this has already given us enough to get a handle on what's happening here. Suppose I walk into Tesco, and I see a bag of cookies. My eye (the sense organ) encounters the sense object (the bag of cookies) - and right away, that's a pleasant experience, because I like cookies. I mean I really like them - a little too much, to be honest. I like them enough that, having seen them, and experienced the pleasure of that, I'm pretty soon going to be desiring to eat those cookies. Those cookies are dear to me, and soon they're going to be in my belly. ...And so, if you swoop in front of me and grab the last bag just as I'm about to get there, we're doing to have a quarrel and/or dispute.
Stepping back a bit, what's happened here is that we started with a question - how come I keep getting into fights in Tesco? - and walked back through a sequence of causes and conditions. At each step, we were able to identify a factor which contributed to the arising of the next step - in other words, 'because this arises, that arises'. And that's the basic principle of dependent origination - whatever we look at, no matter what it is, we discover that it depends on other things for its existence.
OK, so things depend on other things - so what?
Why is it interesting to know this? What difference does it make whether things depend on other things or stand alone, totally independent?
These are good questions - I had these questions too when I first encountered dependent origination, and I suspect most people do, even if they don't want to admit it while the rest of the group is nodding along with wise expressions on their faces.
It turns out that it's actually really, really interesting to spend some time exploring this chain of cause and effect - and, if we're willing to take the exploration far enough, it can really change the way we see the world.
Going right back to our early years, many of us were raised in what's sometimes called the 'entity' model of education. (I certainly was.) This is the idea that children are 'clever' or 'stupid', 'sporty' or 'weedy', 'good at maths' or 'bad at maths' and so on. A child produces a nice piece of work, an adult says 'Ooh, aren't you clever?', and boom, we have the makings of 'a clever child'. If it happens enough times in a row, we come to expect that the child will always produce good work, because the child is clever - so if the child produces a bad piece of work, or doesn't understand something, that means that something has gone wrong - because, after all, the child is supposed to be clever, right? If this attitude is taken on board by the child, it can lead to all kinds of problems - arrogance ('I'm clever, you're stupid'), fear of failure ('if I can't do this people won't think I'm clever any more') and so on. These problems can persist well into adult life, and warp our behaviour and views for many years.
It's widely recognised now that the 'process' model of education is much healthier. In this view, the outcome of a particular task is seen as the product of a process rather than a fixed attribute. In a process, many factors come together to produce the final outcome. Change one or more factors, change the outcome. If you study hard for a test, you're more likely to get a positive result than if you don't. And conversely, if you get a bad result on a test, the implication is that more work is needed in that area of your studies, rather than 'you failed because you suck at this and you always will'. The process model recognises the potential for growth and change in a way that the entity model doesn't, and so it's empowering where the entity model is fatalistic.
It turns out that this 'entity view' vs 'process view' applies much more broadly than just in education. Actually, everything is like this - no exceptions. Take anything you like, explore it deeply enough, and you'll find a web of relationships, causes and conditions, with no fixed centre or 'entity' to be found.
Seeing the world in this way can really help us to get past our personal sticking points in life. Have you ever found yourself in a difficult situation, wondering how it could possibly have happened - because this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen? Our minds love to make assumptions and take shortcuts, because it makes the world easier to understand, and so we freeze 'how things are' into a static entity - but then, from time to time, something will happen that violates that model, and we'll find ourselves in that unpleasant moment of frozen horror, unable to understand what just happened, caught in the gap between what's actually happening and what our understanding of the world says should be happening.
Looking at these situations in terms of dependent origination can help us to identify and uproot the fixed ideas which give rise to those moments where our mental gears grind together. It can be very instructive to take an incident where we thought to ourselves 'It isn't supposed to be that way!' and dig into it - OK, what's going on there? Why do I think it isn't supposed to be that way? What assumptions am I making about how things are supposed to be, and which ones were violated here? What combination of conditions came together to give rise to this unexpected, unpleasant situation?
Going through this exercise doesn't necessarily mean that we end up happy about what happened - often the situations that cause us the most pain are still unpleasant whether or not they violate our world view - but at least we don't have to deal with the additional pain of the damage to our mental gearbox.
Going further into dependent origination
More generally, we don't have to limit this kind of exploration just to the unpleasant stuff in life. It can be very instructive, and at times quite beautiful, to take any phenomenon and unpack it in this way. When looking at what gave rise to a situation, we can go both 'sideways' and 'backwards'.
By 'sideways', I mean looking at all the different conditions which feed into this particular event. Right now, I'm writing an article for my website. That's made possible because, earlier today, it occurred to me that I hadn't done a class on dependent origination in quite some time. But it's also possible because I finished work early today so that I'd have time to write this article - I have a day retreat coming up on Sunday so I wasn't actually expecting to have time to prepare a new class for Wednesday as well. And it's also possible because my computer, monitor, keyboard and internet connection are all in good working order - if any of those were broken, I'd be out of luck. And it's also possible because enough people continue to come to my Wednesday night class that I keep teaching it, and enough people come to my website that it's worth publishing an article each week for people to read, and there are enough people interested in Buddhist meditation practices that I have an audience at all, and...
By 'backwards', I mean tracking back through time step by step, much like we did in the example of quarrels and disputes at the top of the article. So, again, I'm writing an article for my website. Well, I have something to say about dependent origination because I've sat multiple retreats with my teacher Leigh Brasington and heard him speak on the subject many times. I started doing retreats with Leigh because I heard of him through another teacher, and because I was looking for a retreat with a strong focus on concentration practices, after struggling to get into Zen in the early years of my formal practice. I did that first Zen retreat because I was curious about Zen, I read a book called 'Ten Zen Questions' by Susan Blackmore, and in that book she wrote extensively about the value of going on retreat. I got into that because, when I was a kid, I was interested in martial arts, and eventually I read enough martial arts books to run into some weird stuff about the role of meditation and qigong in high-level martial arts, and...
In both cases, all of these factors have combined to bring me to my home office at 5.35pm on a Friday evening, banging away at the keyboard trying to produce an article on dependent origination that might be useful to however many people read these things each week. If any factor in the chain - either sideways or backwards - had been different, who knows how my life would have played out, and what I would be doing right now? And the examples I've given above are only a tiny fraction of all of the causes and conditions which have to come together to make this moment what it is - actually, sooner or later, it turns out that it takes the whole universe coming together in each moment to make anything at all possible. But don't just take my word for it - check it out for yourself!
Going back to the discourse
Earlier, I mentioned that there's one more step in the discourse on quarrels and disputes that I mentioned above. So far, we've followed the chain of dependencies as follows:
The next step given in the discourse is 'name and form'. On one level, name and form represents the physical objects of the world (the 'forms') and the names we give those objects. If we didn't live in a world composed of recognisable objects, we wouldn't have sense contacts involving those objects, and so all the rest of the sequence would be impossible.
OK, but again, so what - we do live in a world of objects, right?
Well, if you take your exploration of dependent origination far enough, you'll find that the answer is 'er... sorta?' Once again, this is the 'entity' view of what's going on, as opposed to the 'process' view - and, like I said, if we check things out carefully enough, all we find is processes. The 'forms' of our experience are really processes temporarily coming together, rather than solid 'things', and the 'names' of our experience are actually just temporary labels attached to processes for the time being because it's convenient. When our view changes in this way, a lot of the 'sticking points' in our lives melt away - because there's nothing fixed to get stuck on any more. As we come to see ourselves as a process in a world of processes, rather than a thing in a world of things, our lives become much easier, taking on a quality of flow rather than fixation and collision.
Like the Buddha said, one who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma. If you go deeply enough into this exploration, your world will change too - for the better.
Give it a try!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!