PATICCASAMUPPADA or DEPENDENT ORIGINATION
By Dr. Victor Bradford, Dharma Teacher
The teaching on Paticcasamuppada, sometimes translated as Conditioned Co-Arising or Dependent Origination, is close to the peak of the Dhammic pyramid and perhaps one of the Dhamma’s two or three most important and rewarding teachings. Any teacher should have a good basic understanding, because it permeates the Dharma through and through.
It’s also a notably challenging teaching, although I think you can get a pretty good and accurate non-comprehensive view pretty quickly, as (I hope) we will see below. Dependent Origination conditions so much of the Dhamma (pun intended) that practitioners would benefit by understanding and applying it to nearly any other element in Buddhism. Conditioned Co-Arising reconciles the apparent permanence of our experience and our self with their completely impermanent nature, explains the interconnection of the present moment with the past and future along with all the other elements of the present moment, and explains how we can skillfully use causal relationships to end suffering. It also explains how we can have continuity in an environment which is neither deterministic nor random. Nearly all Buddhist schools accept it, it’s one of the elements which make Buddhism distinct from other philosophies or religions, it applies to elements within our control as well as ones outside it, it forms the foundation of “karma,” and some Buddhist schools consider it the only unconditioned element in our existence because it underlies every element of our experience. Incidentally, by “condition,” I mean “something essential for the occurrence of an entity or activity.”
Just as there are two kinds of Relativity theory, there are two levels of Conditioned Co-Arising — the specific and the general.
The specific teaching is found in the links below, and is commonly summarized as a twelve-fold causal connection we can experience in our own practice (it’s often shown as a twelve-spoked wheel). It’s nice to memorize the twelve links, but not to get too attached to them because it is sometimes expressed as eight links, or nine, or in reverse order. The Abhidhamma also uses another classification, and you can find a Transcendental Conditioned Co-Arising as well! Some instructors use the causal chain to explain rebirth, while others emphasize how the chain operates in the present lifetime. Andrew Olendzki, one of the foremost American Dhamma teachers, wrote his PhD thesis on the multiple formats, and he found several. One author (C. Feldman, below) compares the 12-fold causal connection to a snowstorm – you have a conglomeration of events such as the snow, the temperature, the wind, the sense organs, and so forth which come together into a unified encounter but which can productively be examined separately. It can be confusing, but the point is, perhaps, to understand that our entire experience – yes, the whole enchilada —is made of many connected, interacting, and discretely transient entities which interact throughout our lives.
The general teaching is (perhaps) more versatile and useful, and can be expressed as “when these conditions arise, these results arise, and when they cease, so do the results.”
So … our experience is neither random nor determined, but rises and falls with conditions; as conditions change, so do our experiences (including our self-experiences). Conditioned Co-Arising implies experience is like a river –if we are in a raft, we know a river is ever-changing and not the same from one moment to the next. We cannot step into the same river even once, let alone twice. Still, a geologist legitimately speaks of the river as having a persistent, meaningful identity. A river rafting guide also knows rivers behave according to predictable principles. Yes, a river changes constantly and we can’t eliminate an occasional flipped raft, but we can plan for obstacles like rapids or rocks and can compensate for unpredictable behavior in a way that minimizes risks. A fluid physicist will also say that even the seemingly random motion of the droplets and currents in a river are subject to the laws of probability and to fluid dynamics. After all, rivers don’t appear and disappear out of and into nowhere – sure, chaos and randomness seem to occur, but rivers flow coherently from one moment to the next. So does our self-experience, and so do our relationships with others. This coherence means that whatever we call “a river” or “a self” or a “relationship” or “boundaries” depends on prior and current conditions. So – just because something is continuous and persistent and causally connected from one moment to the next does not mean it is permanent, and vice versa – just because something is impermanent does not mean it cannot be connected and persistent, with a causally connected flow. It’s also kind of like writing a poem – when certain conditions arise, you can write the poem even though it’s both an inexpressible flow as well as a series of discrete steps which can be taught and explained to others, with varying degrees of success. Even the rarefied experience of the jhanas were subject to Conditioned Co-Arising – when the conditions for them were present, they were present, and when those conditions ceased, so did the jhanic experience. Obviously, this is complicated, but once you have this basic understanding that our self-experience is impermanent but flows coherently from one moment to the next as it interacts with the rest of experience, set it aside – you know what you need, and beyond this, the Buddha was silent. He never thought a metaphysic of the self-experience worth pursuing, although Conditioned Co-Arising was expanded beyond experience to encompass all existence in the Emptiness of later Buddhist schools.
As the Dhammapada (24; 338) states,
“Just as a tree, though cut down,
Sprouts up again if its roots remain uncut and firm,
even so, until the thirsting that lies dormant is rooted out,
suffering springs up again and again.”
Conditioned Co-Arising can be a useful tool for meditation. For example, the meditator can examine mental conditions as meditation begins – the mood, tension in various parts of the body, stressors of the day, etc. – and observe how they affect the quality of the meditation. One may also examine the conditions in one’s mind while making decisions during meditation (such as staying with the breath, or resolving to maintain metta), and this examination of conditions can be applied to the decisions one makes off the cushion as well. We can also examine what happens as we “set different conditions” for our practice – increasing metta, decreasing sense desire, etc.—and we can notice what happens to us as we occasionally glimpse the “peak experiences” we find while meditating. These skills must be cultivated over an extended period of time, but they are useful ones.
Developing an accurate working view of Conditioned Co-Arising is important but using it for our benefit, and that of others, is more important. If – as the Buddha taught — we are always going to be conditioned by our actions and intentions, then why not set the best possible conditions for the present and the future? To be nice to ourselves, why not have less Greed, Hatred, or Delusion and more honesty, compassion, friendliness, and what the Buddha termed the Wholesome Qualities? Why not, as much as we can, view our obstacles as opportunities and introduce a certain amount of compassion and understanding? Insofar as we are able, if we approach any situation, including meditation, with more consistent honesty, joy, friendliness, mindfulness, etc. we will be happier in all the unexpected conditions we meet in the present moment as well as all the unexpected conditions which unfold in the future. The Buddha was quite clear and consistent that just as our present is interconnected in a horizontal dimension at any given moment, it is also conditioned temporally as well, including our past habits – we become what we have done and intended in the past. Our future character traits, if we have a future, will be conditioned by the choices we make in the present. If we are going to be compassionate to ourselves and others, to whom we are now, and whom we will become in the future – we have to set the right conditions. If we can’t do this perfectly, we can do it better and more frequently, keeping in mind how difficult it can be to change habits.
A Selected Bibliography
Part of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Wings to Awakening, giving a classical interpretation.
Buddhadasa interpreted Paticcasamuppada as taking place over one lifetime, not over several.
This link provides an explanation of the classic twelve links.
A longer essay on Transcendent Dependent Origination by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Dependent Origination by Piyadassi Thera (Wheel Publication #15). A 40-page essay which should be available through Pariyatti Publishing
A good essay summarizing the topic by Christina Feldman.
Another longer essay, on Dependent Origination
If you can find any of his works these days, David Kalupahana gives some excellent philosophical views of Paticcasamuppada.
For Rocky Mountain Insight 2/25/15
The Body Scan: A Mindfulness Meditation of the Body
By Patricia Komarow
This guided meditation, which will be taught Wed. Feb. 25, 2015 at RMI is based in the traditional Buddhist teaching of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness or the Satipatthana Sutta. Within this sutta, the first of the foundations is “Contemplation of the Body” and offers a variety of meditations based in the body, the Body Scan being one of them. The Buddha knew in his wisdom that focusing our awareness in the body is one of the most effective ways to stay grounded in the present moment.
This meditation cultivates the “observer” versus trying to change your experience. You are merely trying to be with whatever your experience is, not judge it as good or bad or analyze it in terms of problem-solving. Yes, you will be informed by it but you can use this information later for any decision-making regarding remedies or even insights into your experience. It is similar to mindful breathing of not changing the breath but rather “watching” it as it is in all its impermanence.
Begin in an upright but relaxed sitting posture, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath, a simple “in” and “out” at the level of the chest. Take full breaths. Feel your heart beating.
Slowly move your breath into your pelvis. Try to expand your breathing into this area, extending it below the diaphragm. Breathe into the belly and pelvis and feel this expansion. Breathing out from the pelvis, let your abdomen relax. Do you feel anything there? You may notice your belly, your genitals, your clothing touching your skin. Are the sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Can you stay with the unpleasant whenever it occurs for just a while, and not immediately turn away from it.
Next, move your awareness and breathe into your right hip and leg. Include the shape and length of your right thigh, knee, calf, and shin. Imagine that you can take your breath down the entire length of your leg from the thigh to the ankle and into the foot and toes. Practice this with several breaths. Notice what parts of your leg is producing sensations. Notice sensations in your foot and the different parts: top of foot, toes, arch, sole, and heel. As you are glide down your right leg, visualize the bones, muscles, tendons and flesh.
Shift your awareness over to the left foot and slowly glide up the left leg, again noting all the parts of the foot, calf and shin, knee, thigh and into the left hip, buttocks and low back. Breathe into this area and again visualize the shape and size of the bones, the muscles and tissue.
Then imagine the arch in the low back and where your pelvis connects to your sacrum below the base of your spine. Sweep up into your low back and all the side-body muscles including the intercostals between the ribs. Breathe up into the mid-back and rib cage and again imagine its shape.
Float your awareness up into the spine, mid-back, upper back and right shoulder, breathing into the wing of your shoulder. Imagine the shape and size and then glide down your right arm with both your awareness and breath: upper arm, elbow joint, lower arm, wrist, hands, fingers and thumb. Cross over to the left arm, now sweeping up to all its parts.
Shift your awareness to your mid torso, noting your belly again, sternum and chest, up into your neck and throat. Breathe into your face and notice the sensations in your cheeks and jaws, your mouth and tongue, your nose and eyes. Imagine the shape of your head and breathe into your scalp.
Allow your breath to flow out the top of your head, the crown chakra and surround your entire boy, expanding your inner vision out so that you are aware of your entire body just sitting. Feel the shape and sensations of your entire body and relax as much as you are able. Stay here for awhile.
Gradually come back to your breath at the diaphragm or the tip of your nose and just settle your focus there, again feeling the general movement of your body as you breathe. Stay here for a few minutes or longer.
As you gently end your meditation by bringing your senses back into the room, explore your experience.
Assess the Quality of Your Energy for your Individual Practice
Again begin with attention on your breath, a simple “in” and “out”. Feel it rise and fall in your chest and abdomen. Take full breaths. Feel your heart beating. Gently assess whether you are high energy or low energy in this moment. If you are high energy and you want to relax and settle down, you will start your Body Scan at the head and work down. If you are low energy and want to increase your energy, you will start at your feet and work up. This you will determine when individually working with this practice.
You may use this sequence to do the body scan or modify it to what makes sense to you. Take 2 to 3 minutes for each area.
How to Handle Pain Sensation Within the Meditation
When you feel pain in your body, there are two basic approaches for working with this pain: moving away from it and moving into it.
When moving away from pain, you take note of the pain and then return your attention to the guided body scan. By focusing your attention on the different parts of your body that aren’t in pain, you are distracting your attention away from the pain. This is an indirect way of relieving tension and relaxing.
On the other hand, if the pain is so distracting that you cannot keep your attention on the body scan, then move into it. Begin by breathing into the part of the body that hurts. On the in-breath, imagine that your breath is expanding the painful area. On the out-breath, imagine that you are breathing the pain out of your body. Relax and let go of the tension that pain creates in both the body and mind. If this approach significantly relieves your pain, you may return to the body scan.
A second approach to going into the pain is to explore different elements of the pain in that one body part. See if you can sense the size of the pain including its borders. Is there a shape to your pain? Does it have a color or many colors? What is the texture? Bumpy? Slippery? Jagged? What is the over-all sensation? Throbbing? Achy? Sharp? Dull?
Now, match all these elements of size, shape, color, texture, and sensation and then overlay this on top of the actual physical pain. An example of this type of overlay is like laying the palm of one hand on top of the other so they match exactly. Imagine this matching with all its elements and just focus on it. Relax your body as you stay focused.
You may notice these elements changing in the physical pain and the matched elements. Let that happen as you continue to focus on the changes. They may float in their change. Stay with them and explore. After a while, notice if the physical pain has dissipated somewhat or changed in some way. When it has, come first to your breath and then back to the body scan.
Sometimes, the pain may be too intense for formal meditation. Then, do what you need in order to take care of yourself and ease your pain. Toughing it out is not a healthy practice nor nourishing toward yourself.
Dear Noble Sangha,
This month Rocky Mountain Insight focused on Right Mindfulness, the seventh spoke of the Noble Eightfold Path and part of the section on meditation or concentration. Here are some quotes from the Buddha on Right Mindfulness:
Definition of Right Mindfulness
“And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness…
“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference.
-Maha-Satipatthana Sutta: The Great Frames of Reference Sutta
Abandoning Wrong Factors of the Path
“One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness…
“One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one’s right mindfulness…
“One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one’s right mindfulness…
“One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness…
“One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one’s right mindfulness…”
-Maha-Cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty
As usual, these quotes are taken from www.accesstoinsight.org.
Dear Noble Sangha,
This month’s theme at Rocky Mountain Insight is Right Effort, the first of the “Samadhi” or “Concentration” division of the path.
Here are some of the words of the Buddha on Right Effort. Again, these come from the wonderful resource of Access to Insight : www.accesstoinsight.org
The definition (the four Right Exertions):
“And what, monks, is right effort?
[i] “There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
[ii] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.
[iii] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
[iv] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.”
— SN 45.8
Abandon the unskillful, develop the skillful
“Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’
“Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.'”
— AN 2.19
Abandoning the wrong factors of the path
“One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort…
“One tries to abandon wrong resolve & to enter into right resolve: This is one’s right effort…
“One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one’s right effort…
“One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one’s right effort…
“One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one’s right effort.”
— MN 117
This month of June I invite all of you to reflect on Right Intention, also called Right Resolve (samma sankappo-Pali).
Here are some verses from the Buddha about Right Intention. You may wish to incorporate these into your practice by reciting them on one day, or reciting them daily for a week or even daily for the rest of the month. You may also bring these verses into your practice by meditating on them. Start by calming your mind with meditation on the breath for 5 or 10 minutes before slowly reciting the verse at least three times. Then allow your mind to analyze the verse for insight. Let your analysis connect with your own life and your own situation. If you become lost in thought or notice any of the hindrances arising, just come back to the breath.
“And what is right intention? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right intention.”
-Magga-vibhanga Sutta (An Analysis of the Path)
“One tries to abandon wrong intention & to enter into right intention: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong intention & to enter & remain in right intention: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right resolve.”
-Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (The Great Forty)
“Here, bhikkhus, a certain person abides with his heart imbued with loving-kindness extending over one quarter, likewise the second quarter, likewise the third quarter, likewise the fourth quarter, and so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all as to himself; he abides with his heart abundant, exalted, measureless in loving-kindness, without hostility or ill-will, extending over the all-encompassing world.”
-Metta Sutta (Loving-kindness)
“Of two people who practice the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma, having a sense of Dhamma, having a sense of meaning — one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others, and one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others — the one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others is to be criticized for that reason, the one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others is, for that reason, to be praised.”
-Dhammannu Sutta (One With a Sense of Dhamma)
All verses taken from www.accesstoinsight.org.
Dear Noble Sangha,
In May we move into examining each element of the eightfold-path. In this post you will find words of the Buddha regarding Right View, the first element of the eightfold-path and the first component of the category of panna (sanskrit: prajna) or wisdom.
What is Right View?:
“And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.”
-The Great Frames of Reference Sutta, the Digha Nikaya
What does one who has Right View understand?:
[Kaccayana:] “Lord, ‘Right view, right view,’ it is said. To what extent is there right view?”
[The Buddha:] “By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.
“By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on ‘my self.’ He has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only stress is arising; and that when there is passing away, only stress is passing away. In this, one’s knowledge is independent of others. It is to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.”
– To Kaccayana Gotta (On Right View), Samyutta Nikaya
What is the result of Right View?
“When a person has right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right knowledge, & right release, whatever bodily deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever verbal deeds… whatever mental deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever intentions, whatever vows, whatever determinations, whatever fabrications, all lead to what is agreeable, pleasing, charming, profitable, & easeful. Why is that? Because the view is auspicious.”
– The Seed Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya
How does Right View relate to the other factors of the Eightfold Path?
“One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view.”
– The Great Forty Sutta, Mahjjima Nikaya
What a statement, “I want.” It’s natural for all of us to want, to crave for things. We crave for family to still be alive, for memories, emotions, safety, and happiness.
However, I’ve noticed that my wanting is less about material things and more about me being right. For example, when I see a younger kid riding his bike without a helmet, I think to myself “He should be wearing a helmet.” I’m wanting for that child to do the right thing and wear a helmet (making me right), but in reality, I have no control over that situation. Even if I walked up to him and started yelling at him to wear a helmet, he probably wouldn’t do it anyways.
When we want, we experience dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word (Indian dialect) that doesn’t have any literal translation in English, and so most westerners translate dukkha as suffering. However, I prefer “dissatisfaction” or “unpleasentness.” Dukkha includes pain and sorrow, but also melancholy and those “bleh” days.
One reason we experience dukkha when we want, as the Buddha teaches, is because everything changes. We usually crave for things to last, whether that’s the company of an individual we really enjoy, a memory to stay fresh, or continue experiencing the same emotions. In reality, no moment is the same as the previous moment. You may stay still for eternity, or sleep for days, but the world will continue revolving and changing. This principle of constant change is called anicca.
Another reason we experience dukkha when we want is our unawareness of anatta, or the emptiness of the everything. Anatta a a “high-level” concept, but think of it like this: we, as people, are a result of everything around us. We were created by two other people, and everything we consumed to keep us alive and help us grow (food, minerals, water, air) were not “us.” Then what really makes me, “me?” The Buddha explains that every human has five “aggregates” or skandhas that create the world around us. We experience the world around us through our sense organs (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body) and the interpretation of what we are experiencing through our brain (considered the sixth sense organ in Buddhism). The skandhas are as follows: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness. Essentially, there is an object, the eye “senses” (sees) the object, the brain interprets the object and associates it with other familiar things, mental formations occur due to this, and consciousness arises.
This question is the pinnacle of Buddhism. Let me first address the two principles I just mentioned: anicca and anatta.
When we become mindful of anicca and realize that everything will change, we can start realizing the craving really doesn’t do us any good. We already know that craving causes us to experience dukkha and we now know that craving can’t keep anything here permanently – the universe will carry on and things will change, so why do we still crave? Stopping the wanting is a difficult process, because wanting isn’t just for material things – it can also be for situations to occur/not occur, for you to be right, etc.
This is because we fail to recognize anatta.
The inherent truth of reality is that it’s an illusion. If everything we feel and sense is simply an interpretation of our brains, then there isn’t really a “real” world – it’s a matter of interpretation. Everything we are is a creation of everything else, which means there is no distinct “me.” There isn’t an “I” or “me” in any which way, which does mean Buddhism fails to accept the Freudian principles of the id, superego, and ego.
Ben Mikolaj, a friend and teacher at Rocky Mountain Insight, said it best:
When we are ignorant of the illusion of reality, we start sorting our life into situations we want to have and not have, people we want to see and not see. Our ignorance breeds wanting, which breeds ill-will/hatred.
“Ignorance” is a very strong word, but it literally just means “not knowing.” We are unknowing or unmindful of the effects our wanting has on others.
However, the most important “cure” to craving is the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (listed in order as follows): inherent in life is dukkha, the reason we experience dukkha is our craving (tanha), we can cease experiencing dukkha if we cease our craving, and there is a path which leads to the cessation of dukkha.
The Eightfold Path is the literal “practice” of Buddhism. Read more about the Eightfold Path here »
The Buddha taught that there were three marks of conditioned existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatta. Craving causes dukkha and our unknowing of anicca and anatta causes us to crave.
In the words of the Buddha: “There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.”