- What Is Dependent Origination?jh
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We habitually operate in a world of truly existent phenomena relating in ways which defines them as causes and effects. But as we investigate life we see that the nature of both phenomena and their relationships means that cause and effect are illusionary, and this matters.
Sometimes 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 tanha (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. Yet this isn’t what the Buddha is recorded to have said, it was closer to:
“When there is dukkha there is tanha.”
This distinction matters, because it changes a linear path to a more radical one. If a practitioner gets rid of one of these then they get rid of both. Dukkha and tanha are mutually dependent; you don’t have tanha without also having dukkha, and you don’t have dukkha without also having tanha. It can appear to be linear; for when I stopped craving then dukkha disappeared. But actually the tanha was the dukkha. The first noble truth also needs to be refined and it is not “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 attune our practice to how we experience life. And life is always more complex than a teaching can allow for.
Tanha is not in a monogamous mutual dependent relationship with dukkha, 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. So the language of cause and effect is limited in its ability to describe the 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. In this openness there will be less tanha and less dukkha. As this process unfolds dukkha will be further lessened, as subtler levels of contraction/tanha/dukkha are resolved.
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 examples it’s indicative of how all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. A thorough exploration of mutual dependencies and what they reveal eases us further towards emptiness of all phenomena.
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 there are multiple causes for any effect. In actuality there is nothing that is independent from the effect and could not, to some degree, be called a cause. In this we have to admit that we have 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.
Further more cause and effect are transient labels not actual states. Any effect must also be a cause. Within the links of Dependent Origination vedana is an effect caused by sensory contact, but vedana is also the cause of tanha.
But this too is not accurate nor complete for sometimes vedana is there and it doesn’t lead to tanha. It is vedana that is affected by avidya (ignorance or blindness) that leads to tanha. While vedana imbued with wisdom does not cause tanha, but leads to wellbeing and ease. All the links of dependent origination are really unstable, they are mutually dependent on all the other links. Transform any link, resolve any ‘cause’ or any ’effect’ and the whole show fades; rather literally in the area of perception which can be surprising.
Written by Nathan Glyde