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Everything Leans

"Deep is this dependent origination, and deep its appearance."

"Whoever sees dependent origination sees the Dharma;
whoever sees the Dharma sees dependent origination."

- Buddha [MN:28, DN:15]


We habitually view and, accordingly, live in a world of truly existent phenomena, whom relate with each other in ways which can define them as being causes and effects. But, as we investigate and examine how life appears, we see that the nature of phenomena and their relationships denies the possibility of cause and effect. It is illusionary, and this matters.

Sometimes the 2nd of the Buddha’s 4 noble truths are explained through the expression:

“What is the cause of dukkha (most commonly translated as suffering)? The proximate cause of dukkha is taṇhā (most commonly translated as craving or even clinging, literally meaning thirst, but having the feeling of demand for things to be otherwise).”

This seems to make sense and, actually, can be a very useful paradigm to interact with the teachings and build a practice from. We can examine our life for the dependency for dukkha, and if in all the places we find taṇhā we release it we will escape (a lot of) dukkha. All the demanding in the mind is a cause for dukkha in one sense. Yet, this isn’t what the Buddha is recorded to have said, it was closer to:

"Upon what does dukkha depend?"
“When there is dukkha there is taṇhā.”

This distinction matters, because it changes a linear path to a more radical one of co-arising. Furthermore, if we take the answer given here somewhat rhetorically, and explore for ourselves: when there is dukkha what else is there? And when dukkha fades what else fades? We will see either more expressions of taṇhā, or more aspects of the experience.

But for now, let's consider how a co-arising of dukkha and taṇhā change our life. Dukkha and taṇhā are mutually dependent; you don’t have taṇhā without also having dukkha, and you don’t have dukkha without also having taṇhā. If a practitioner gets rid of one of these then they get rid of both. It can appear to be linear; for when I stopped craving then dukkha disappeared. For actually the taṇhā was dukkha.

A potentially helpful sidebar here: The first noble truth also benefits from being refined, perhaps it is not best interpreted as “in life there is suffering”, but “clinging is suffering” See Thanisarro Bhikku

This is not an argument for redefining the teachings, but an invitation to explore what happens when we open out the deepest interpretation we can sense, and attune our practice to how we experience life through those teachings. How life appears is always more vibrant, intricate, and profound, if not more complex, than a teaching taken at its face value can allow for.

Mutual Dependencies

As we mentioned above, there may not be one answer to what does dukkha depend on? Dukkha is not in a monogamous mutual dependent relationship with taṇhā, it also has a mutually dependent relationship with contraction in the body. And the body tightness is also mutually dependent on tenseness of heart-mind: Is the tension in your heart-mind causing the contraction in your body sense? Or is the contraction in your body sense causing tension in your heart-mind? How would you know? Can you calm your heart-mind, or open your body without affecting the other? I don’t know of anyone who can.

We can also see that the sense of time is different in dukkha, and when it fades. Time pressure, urgency, is an aspect of stress, and a more free sense of time, is an indicator of freedom. Moreover, the sense of realness, solidity, importance of a phenomena we are craving for, or aversive towards in the process of taṇhā, is stronger in a moment dukkha. When the dukkha fades a transient lightness can come upon a thing: We may wonder "why did I get so frantic about that?".

One of the skilful additions to human understanding that the Buddha brings is a move, from a sense of the essence of things, to seeing appearances as actions. When we see dukkha as action, rather than as thing, we could say it is all this activity: contraction, tension, demand… Yet, the language of cause and effect is limited in its ability to describe such a multi-part process.

Going outside of the paradigm of cause and effect opens the lens of seeing. If I can deepen my breath so much that it begins to fill my body with ease. It will correspondingly open my heart-mind; slowing time; softening solidity; and opening freedom. In this more open peacefulness there will be less taṇhā and less dukkha. If we continue to let go in this way, as practice unfolds further subtler dukkha will be further lessened, as subtler levels of contraction/taṇhā/dukkha are resolved.

It is impossible to say that there is dukkha separate from the experience of dukkha's dependencies. They are the cause, only as much as they are the effect. Thus it seems an erroneous posture to talk of causes, or effects here––dependencies are really mutual––this is not a process in time even.

The independence necessary for cause and effect to be playing off each other becomes impossible to find. From the more obvious to the more subtle expressions of dukkha, it’s indicative of how all phenomena are empty of inherent or intrinsic existence. A thorough exploration of mutual dependencies, and what they reveal about experience, eases us further towards an understanding of all phenomena's empty, core-less, essence-less nature.

A Root Problem

Cause and effect would require a final root (radical) cause to get the whole thing moving, and that is not what life reveals. As we explored in Cause and Effect when there are multiple causes for any effect, what is the real cause? Additionally, as we see here, the effect is not separable from the cause. In actuality, if we really start picking our way through the interwoven web, there is almost nothing that is independent from the effect, and could not, to some degree, be called a cause. In this, we have to admit to having fabricated a line somewhere beneath which we demarcate that it is not a ‘direct’ cause and thereby not a cause in our thinking. We are thinking and acting in direct contravention of the conceptual truth of interdependence.

Furthermore, cause and effect are transient labels not actual states. Any effect must also be a cause. Within a traditional linear reading of the links of Dependent Origination, vedanā is an effect dependent on sensory contact, yet vedanā is also a cause for taṇhā.

But this too is not accurate nor complete for vedanā may arise and not lead to gross taṇhā and dukkha (which as we've just explored are not really two things: a kind of non-dual existence). It is only vedanā that is affected by avidya (ignorance or misunderstanding) that leads to gross dukkha. While vedanā imbued with wisdom can lead to states of profound well-being and ease (states with little to almost no dukkha-taṇhā). The vedanā of these states is certainly pleasant, thus, even though taṇhā (reactivty, craving, demands) depends on vedanā, the vedanā there depends on taṇhā!

All the links of dependent origination are appearing more and more unstable. As we deepen the lens beyond cause and effect, we may start to see how each link does not interlink to the next in a convenient linear way, but rather is mutually dependent on all the other links. Transform any link, resolve any ‘cause’ or any ’effect’ and the whole show of conscious perception fades, which can be surprising, but incredibly freeing.

Written by Nathan Glyde