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When the Buddha wanted to share his discoveries and understandings of living a liberated life with the world, he didn't initially expound a large complex cycle of dependent origination. Rather he kept it more simple. Maybe because his first listeners only had a speck of dust in their eyes, maybe because the foundations matter, maybe because this is the essential teachings. Whatever the reasons, the teachings did not begin with 12 links (and in actuality maybe the Buddha never went to twelve at all), but with four truths of dependent origination.
We seem to be born with a default setting that leads to dis-ease. We are preprogrammed to avoid discomfort, and to seek pleasant experiences, but we can’t escape from experiences we wouldn’t wish for. Nothing lasts for ever; all pleasant experiences eventually slip away, and that’s not nice. Uncontrollable circumstances mean sickness, ageing, and death come to us all; and loss is not easy to bear. In both of these ways, through pleasant and unpleasant arisings and passings, stress and distress contract the human experience. Certainly this calls for the cultivation of wisdom, patience, and skilful and compassionate responses, but the comings and goings of painful and unpleasant phenomena is certainly unavoidable.
In the four noble truths exposition of the Dharma, the first truth - in life there is suffering, is already an example of dependent origination. If you are alive you will eventually habitually evoke an experience which is to some degree 'dukkha' - being distressed by the unsatisfactory nature of life. Dependent origination says "If you're alive, you will suffer." But that isn't really a requisite that's easy to turn around; "If you were not alive, you wouldn't suffer." Thankfully, this isn't nihilism and it doesn't end there, there are three more truths to come.
In the early suttas (see SN 4.11) the Buddha calls this 'dukkha' by a more colloquial and relatable term; “quarrels and disputes”. This isn't just limited to an argument with another human being, but more usually a conflict with life itself. “And the sorrow, the grief and the selfishness, the pride, arrogance and slander that go with them” (Translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki).
Right in the heart of this sutta is the inquiry of the cause, the requisite link in the chain, for such lamentations. Which brings us to the second noble truth, and this is a dependent origination we can more clearly work with; 'dukkha'; the second negative arrow we shoot into ourselves causing distress is itself caused by 'tanha'; unskilful grasping and rejecting known as craving and clinging. Grasping after the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant is the source of the 'dukkha' we experience. This is an avoidable experience. Which is why it is referred to as the second arrow; ‘shit’ is going to happen (the 1st noble truth and 1st arrow), but how we respond to life, and to our reactions will make the difference (the 2nd arrows and remaining truths). If we don’t crave or cling; if we resist the urges and neither push away nor grasp hold of experience, this level of 'dukkha' will not affect us.
Again in the early sutta’s the Buddha expressed the meaning of the less common terms ‘craving and clinging’ as ‘taking things as dear and desirable’. Which implies taking other things as not dear and desirable, and therefore unwanted or ignored. If we are able to not take things as ‘dear and desirable’ we will not end up in ‘quarrels and disputes’.
Which implies the third noble truth; "there is an end to 'dukkha'." Because the other side of “when this is present that arises”, is “when this isn’t present, that doesn’t arise.” It is said that the Buddha was radical at his time for pointing out how dependencies actually work both ways. When one discovers a necessary requisite for a resultant phenomena, one has the key to unlock a different way. If the requisite is not present then any dependent phenomena will not arise. Dependent origination teaches a series of these requisite links, of which any link can be cut and the whole chain is broken. Just like with a real chain that is blocking a way or chaining something down, mostly one does not need to open all the links to break the effectiveness of the chain to contain or restrict, one will do. And it is just one that the 4 noble truths focus on; 'tanha'.
In many ways the dependent link between 'dukkha'; distress and 'tanha'; craving is the essential teaching: don't crave, don't thirst obsessively after things, don't grasp onto the enjoyable processes of life, don't fight against the troubling storms. Then check in with your experience see if you're still distressed or suffering. If 'dukkha' goes when you open around 'tanha' then you concur with the Buddha and you too have experienced the freedom of dropping a requisite condition. This is the whole point; dependent origination is not a theoretical idea, it's an instructive methodology of liberation.
This can be life changing to play with, but there is always more to explore with dependent origination. The link between 'dukkha' and 'tanha' when seen with greater refinement reveals they are not immediate neighbours. There are more links nested between them in dependent origination's fuller map of cyclical links. Between 'dukkha' and 'tanha' there is becoming’s urge, and the birth of separation and selfhood. There can't be grasping and rejection, nor distress, without a separate self to enact and experience it. Likewise there is a whole world of links prior to 'tanha'; the source of craving is vedana (the hedonic reaction - an impulsive response to "Is this pleasant?"); which is, of course, reliant on sense contact; which can’t happen without the senses themselves; which are nothing without some activity of mind; some consciousness to know them and some perception to determine them. Many links to play with or even break if one has the mind to.
But paring it back down to the essential dependent origination of the noble truths: In life there is suffering; this is caused by craving; but it can be ended; and the way to end it is through a path, specifically the 8 fold path. The path is the 4th truth. Unsurprisingly all parts of the 8 fold path are also tied up with Dependent Origination, but we will explore that elsewhere.
Written by Nathan Glyde