Tonight, at the request of some longtime practitioners in our sangha, I will address the Buddhist philosophical tenet of Dependent Origination. In the fifteenth of the Long Discourses, the Buddha is recorded as teaching:
Deep indeed is this dependent origination.
It is through not understanding and penetrating it that
people become entangled like a tangled ball of threads.
During the process of illumination, the Buddha’s mind became still and he dropped all attachments, attaining liberation and comprehending Dependent Origination. This insight is the foundation of all that he taught for the next 45 years.
For tonight’s discussion about the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination, I draw on an article by Gil Fronsdal in the May, 2016 issue of the Spirit Rock News. The principle of dependent origination is that when anything arises dependent on particular conditions, it ceases when those conditions cease. For example, rain is dependent on clouds; when clouds vanish, rain stops. The Buddha used the principle to understand human suffering and how to bring it to an end. According to this principle, if what leads to suffering is eliminated, suffering stops. With his awakening, the Buddha understood the causes and conditions of suffering and how to remove them. This insight empowered him to teach the path to liberation.
According to an ancient saying, “One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Origination.” The Buddha began by teaching the Four Noble Truths, which explain the cause of suffering and the conditions required for its cessation. The first truth entails knowing when suffering is happening. The second truth points to craving as the cause of suffering. The third states that it is possible to end suffering, and the fourth truth lays out the Noble Eightfold Path to do so.
To further illuminate the principle, the Buddha taught the “Twelve-fold Dependent Origination.” This teaching lists a sequence of twelve psycho-physical processes, each one linked as a necessary condition for the arising of the next. When the final link (suffering) is seen as a condition for the first link (ignorance), the twelve links can be depicted as a circle. If the processes are not interrupted, we loop around and around in cycles of suffering.
The twelve processes, however, seldom operate in a neat 12-step sequence. Often they interact and shape one another in complex ways. Instead of visualizing a circle, it is more useful to envision twelve threads intertwined in a matted ball. Mindful investigation allows us to discover some of the individual threads and the connections among them. Then it is possible to unravel the tangled ball of suffering. Loosening any one thread helps to loosen the rest.
Starting with ignorance, the first seven processes in the twelve-fold list are conditions that lead to craving, which is listed eighth, as well as being the second Noble Truth. The ninth and eleventh processes depend on craving to create the necessary conditions for suffering, which is twelfth in the sequence of Dependent Origination and also the first Noble Truth.
Each link is dependent on all the preceding links. If a particular step is removed, the subsequent links cannot occur. If one of the links is occurring, it will cease when any of the earlier processes stop. Remembering the Four Noble Truths facilitates untangling ignorance; insight into how our dispositions shape experience helps us to see more clearly; learning not to react to feeling tones lessens craving; and not acting on craving lessens grasping, which in turn lessens becoming. When the ball of suffering is tightly tangled, we may need all these approaches. As the threads loosen, a gentle tug on one strand may be sufficient to unravel the entire ball. Once suffering is untangled, what remains is profoundly peaceful and not dependent on anything. The mind is left in a state of open awareness.