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.
By Dr. Victor Bradford, Dharma Teacher