Doctrine of Dependent Origination, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

The Buddha Discovered Dependent Arising

How did the doctrine of dependent origination originate? In the Samyutta-nikaya, the Buddha spoke of discovering dependent arising after six years of ascetic practice. Following are what the Buddha said in the Pali suttas:

Bhikkhus, before I became enlightened and was still a bodhisattva, I had already realized that all sentient beings experienced suffering in birth, old age, death, and rebirth. If the sentient beings do not know the method for the cessation of suffering, how are they supposed to be free of suffering?

Bhikkhus, I asked, “Why is there old age and death? What are the causal conditions for old age and death?” Because I skilfully endeavoured on mind training, I developed Wisdom sight.

Dipanker Buddha C7th, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixThe Doctrine of Dependent Origination is the Perfect Truth

Most people relate to the Four Noble Truths when the core of Buddhism is mentioned. The doctrine of dependent origination is the perfect and ultimate Truth; hence, it is called “maha-ariyasacca” [the Great Truth]. It must be discussed until it is fully understood. Dependent arising exists within us in almost every moment; yet, we are not aware of it. Anybody who is able to comprehend the doctrine of dependent origination has the capability to engage in his own cultivation and end his suffering. On the other hand, we must consider it our responsibility to understand it, and help others to understand it. Such is the Buddha’s wish. If we can do it, then the Buddha’s realization of dependent arising will not be in vain.

It is just like the Four Noble Truths. If nobody understands them, then the Buddha Dharma is useless. Essentially, the doctrine of dependent origination is more important than the Four Noble Truths. It is the perfect and ultimate Truth. We must help one another to comprehend it, and promote it to all Buddhists. This is the main reason why we are discussing the “maha-ariyasacca,” the doctrine of dependent origination.

Following are guide questions to help you understand the doctrine. What is dependent arising? Why do we have to know about dependent arising? What are the benefits of understanding dependent arising? What method do we use to end suffering?

What is Dependent Arising?

The doctrine of dependent origination explicitly points out how suffering begins and ends. It reveals that the beginning and ending of suffering are mutually dependent cyclic natural phenomena; that they are not attributable to ghosts, divinities, spiritual entities, or other things. Dependent arising is natural occurrences due to interdependent conditions. When each phase of the process comes about due to mutually supporting conditions suffering begins or stops. The “paticca” in paticcasamuppada means “mutually dependent,” while “samuppada” means “to occur simultaneously.” Dependent arising, therefore, occurs due to mutually dependent and cyclic causal conditions. The doctrine of dependent origination also explains that no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist, or no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” are successively transmigrating. Everything manifests, stays, and expires naturally. By comprehending the doctrine, one can see that the no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” with an ego exist. If people do not comprehend the doctrine, they will be dominated by ignorance, and will feel that a “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist.

The doctrine of dependent origination points out that how suffering begins and ends and the beginning and end of suffering are due to mutually dependent causal conditions. In this sense, the “person,” “self,” and “sentient beings” are superfluous. Furthermore, the mutually dependent cyclic phenomena start and end with great intensity and in a flash. Thoughts arise with great intensity and in a flash. Anger comes about with great intensity and in a flash. In everyday life, when a mind action occurs in a flash and generates suffering, it becomes a dependent arising instantaneously. One feels horrified if he can perceive such phenomena. If one cannot, then he will be oblivious to them.

Dependent arising, to put it in ordinary language, is intense and lightning-speed mind action, which generates suffering, in our everyday life.

Monkey with biscuit, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixWhy Do We Have to Know About Dependent Arising?

For the purpose of learning and cultivation, we must know dependent arising. Because nobody understands it, it has become a fallacy. The ordinary people’s fallacy is similar to Bhikkhu Sati’s belief: “Only the consciousness is going around in samsara.” This bhikkhu insisted that there was a “person,” “self,” or “sentient being” in the consciousness, which dwelled in samsara from one lifetime to the next. Believing that the consciousness has a “person,” “self” or “sentient being” that is perpetually going around in samsara is a fallacy resulting from ignorance of the nature of dependent arising. All the bhikkhus tried to convince Bhikkhu Sati to abandon the fallacy, but Bhikkhu Sati was adamant about his view. The bhikkhus then told the Buddha about it, and the Buddha talked to Bhikkhu Sati.

The Buddha asked him, “Do you really have such a concept?” Bhikkhu Sati said, “There is only the consciousness that is going around in samsara.” The Buddha then asked, “What is this consciousness that you speak of?” Bhikkhu Sati replied, “Esteemed Buddha, the consciousness is the entity that can talk, feel, or receive all the karmic repercussions.” His was a very serious fallacy: a consciousness that facilitates talking, feeling, and receiving of all karmic repercussions.

Ordinary people do not know why it is a fallacy because they believe, as Bhikkhu Sati did, that the consciousness exists perpetually. Since they are used to the idea, they do not consider it a fallacy. It is false to believe that the consciousness is perpetual, that it exists and acts on its own, and that it is not dependent arising.

Consciousness, a manner of dependent arising, is devoid of ego. It manifests in an instant because of the interaction of mutually dependent conditions, and it advances to successive stages. Bhikkhu Sati maintained that there was an ego or a consciousness with an ego that went around in samsara. This consciousness did not only exist in the instant but also persisted to the next life. He called the ego that could talk, feel, or receive karmic repercussions consciousness. The common view prevents people from seeing the fallacy. Consciousness is devoid of ego. If consciousness exists, then it is dependent arising. It is a natural phenomenon manifested from successive occurrences due to mutually dependent conditions. It is not an entity.

Buddha, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixWhat are the Benefits of Understanding Dependent Arising?

Understanding dependent arising enables us to reject fallacy and possess the Right View to be totally free from suffering. It is false to believe that a “person” is present and reincarnates into a certain sentient being due to kamma. If one erroneously believes consciousness is ego, then he will experience suffering, and will be unable to free himself from suffering. Therefore, one must know the nature of consciousness, which is dependent arising. In this way, one can totally eliminate suffering using the Right View, the right understanding.

According to the Pali suttas, “Consciousness is dependent arising. It is a phenomenon arising due to mutually dependent conditions. Without these causal conditions, there is no consciousness.” If consciousness has a main body, then it can manifest on its own initiative, and does not have to depend on causal conditions.

The truth is consciousness cannot exist independently. Nevertheless, it is so infinitesimal that we find ourselves thinking, feeling, and allowing the Name & Form (body and mind) to perform work. Hence, we mistakenly think that there is a main body in us, and we call it consciousness. The doctrine of dependent arising helps us abandon such a fallacy for the cessation of suffering.

Extract from Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
Translated excerpts from the Chinese version by Johnson Sumpio.

Photographs: Mustang. © Lisa Daix

Categories: Foundations of Buddhism


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