Dependent Arising In Context Teaching Cards

April 5th, 2017

Craving, Original art by Annie.

My sister has created a set of 12 post-card-sized cards with her art from the book on the front, along with a quote from a sutta detailing each link in dependent arising. On the back are key portions of text from the various chapters of my book, that act as reminders for what each one is about. You can find the set at here.

The Importance of How We Translate: The End of Suffering

July 18th, 2016

This post first appeared December 2015 on the Secular Buddhist Association website. You’ll find some interesting discussion in the comments there.


Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress." -- The Buddha, translation from MN 22 by Thanissaro Bhikkhu


How readers understand Buddhism depends a great deal on how it is presented to us. This should be obvious. Though Buddhism teaches us to see for ourselves whether what we learn applies to our lives, how we practice, and what we look for when we practice is going to be affected by how we are told to practice, and what we are told to look for. Ironically, this is largely the point of what the Buddha taught: that our perceptions affect what we believe about what we have seen first-hand. This makes for a practical conundrum, a conceptual Catch-22.

One of the biggest factors in how we understand Buddhism is the language used to describe it. This is why I decided, years ago, to follow the commonly-heard advice to apply myself to learning to translate the texts that are the oldest sources used to figure out what the Buddha was actually saying. And, as it turns out, the words used to translate the Pali language in those ancient texts are slanted toward a particular understanding of what the texts are thought to mean, which is why, when we read English translations, it seems so clear that the Buddha was championing a certain view of the cosmic order that includes a justice system run, not by God or any deities, but one that just ticks along by itself: karma and rebirth.

The general outline of this system, as seen from the point of view of the Four Noble Truths, is that the life we lead is full of suffering (dukkha) — that’s Truth Number One. Further, suffering has something that causes it to arise (samudaya) — Truth Number Two. But suffering can cease (nirodha) — Truth Number Three. It can cease because there are things we can do to bring about that cessation, things that are described as a path (magga) — Truth Number Four.

There is, of course, much more to it than the above, but those are the introductory basics. These four truths actually come in two sets, and each set begins at the end of a process because that is how not just the practice of Buddhism works, but how our lives work. In order to understand what’s going on, we first see results, and then we look back in time to try to figure out what brought the situation about.

The pairs, then, are, first, the experience of dukkha, and then the recognition that something made the pain we feel happen. This is often — accurately — described as being very like why we visit a doctor: first there’s the ouch! and then the doctor looks for what caused it. The second pair represents a cure for dukkha (its cessation), followed by a description of the course of practice — the treatment — that brings about relief, and health. In both cases, we discuss the results first, and what brought on the results second.

All of this is quite logical, and karma and rebirth don’t really need to come into it at all at such a simple level. However, each of these four truths require understanding much more in order to be effective. For example, just being told that there is a cause that brings about dukkha leaves us no information about what that cause is. And being told there is a path of practice doesn’t give us any detail, either. And it is once we get into what the cause is, and what the details of the practice are that we need to begin to care about the meaning of the words being used.

What is dukkha, after all? And what does it mean for it to cease? It is not just the second and fourth truths that need more explanation, but the first and third as well.

In the most literal, traditional understanding dukkha is all forms of suffering, both mental and physical. In this view, dukkha happens because of things done in the past, and every immoral or moral act we commit will have a karmic result. All experiences of pain and pleasure are the result of karma, and if we do something in the last moments of our lives that requires such a result, it has to be punished or rewarded, so there will be a next life. In this traditional view, the point of becoming a practicing Buddhist is to escape from the endless rounds of samsara — the woeful cycles of life. First, we learn to stop producing bad karma so that we use up all the accumulated bad results without making more, meanwhile learning how to generate good karma through meritorious acts (like generosity to monastics). This is the Buddhist practice that will lead to good future rebirths, which lead us toward the possibility that we can get to the point where we do not produce karma that is either bad or good, but only the karma-that-ends-karma. In the last lifetime, the one in which liberation is reached, all old karma is resolved so that when we die, we will have escaped from all forms of suffering.

This view explains why the fully awakened Buddha still had backaches and illnesses and experienced death, though he had reached a state known as “the deathless” and though he says he has experienced “the end of suffering” (dukkha-nirodha). There was still a bit of unresolved karma from his path that would work itself out in his post-awakening life, so there was still some ouch! left.

It also explains why we find it so hard, in our secular practice, to imagine how there could be an end of suffering. It’s not only that we are certain that, however enlightened we might be, we will still experience the dukkha-of-physical pain – accidents and illnesses – but we find it hard to conceive of how life would be without any emotional pain either. Is that even possible? Would it be a good way to live one’s life, so detached from everything that we never feel the loss of a loved-one? This is because (in the traditional way of looking at it) we are still caught up in samsara.

The traditional view has its own, quite consistent, internal logic that seems to make perfect sense. At least it does until those of us who aren’t believers in rebirth and the cosmic justice system of karma try applying that view to our own lives.

But the Buddha is justifiably famous for redefining terms in common use in his day, giving them a new slant that makes them fit his own unique system. He did this with karma — which means “action” and was previously used primarily to mean the sort of action performed during rituals that would bring about an effect on one’s future. Then the Buddha redefined it as “intention” and thereby fit it neatly into a moral system unheard of before. In his way of seeing karma, it was not about how good one’s knowledge of the old texts was and how well one performed the rituals, but it was about how we treated each other. It was about not killing, not taking what has not been freely given, about the qualities of our speech, and our livelihoods. His karma was all about actions that would bring future results, yes, but the results came largely through social interactions. This made his karma similar to the original meaning — it was about actions that would bring results — but it totally redefined the basis for understanding not only what actions were of concern, but why they were important: because the intention behind the action was critical. Karma “action” was no longer tied purely to actions!

What if he also redefined dukkha, not as all forms of suffering, but limited it to the things we feel, that we would rather not feel, that are the results of our own behavior, things that are visible to us right here and now? And what if the cessation he speaks about is not complete cessation at all? What if — as turns out to be the case — the word nirodha doesn’t actually mean “cessation”?

A look at the Pali, and recent discussions on the internet, even by trained monastics1, shows that it may not mean “cessation” in the way we take it. The ni– means “without” or “the end of an action” and the rodha means “obstruction” or “a dam, a bank”. From our modern point of view, this might suggest that we are going to stop obstructing dukkha and let it run amok, without confining it — it could wash right over us, and that would be a bad thing. This doesn’t make sense in terms of our aims for or experience of practice, so what else might it mean?

Fortunately, our modern way of looking at the situation is quite different from the way folks saw things in the Buddha’s day. In order to understand what nirodha actually means, we need to understand their point of view.

We can see this by looking at the verb related to nirodha: rundhati can mean “prevents; obstructs; besieges; imprisons”. What would it mean for dukkha to be “without obstruction, without imprisonment”? This gives dukkha a relationship to an individual similar to the Vedic understanding of the relationship of fuel to fire: they cling to each other — they are both trapped, bound together2. Dukkha that has experienced nirodha is dukkha that is no longer bound to us. This doesn’t mean that dukkha no longer exists, no, because in the Vedic worldview it still does — it is just freed. I would suggest that what this means is that dukkha is no longer bound to “the self” (or, as the Buddha put it, to “a being”). The dukkha may still be there, and it could get stuck to us if we let it, but we don’t — we set it free. It is unbound, and so are we.

You may well ask what difference this makes. For me, it makes a significant difference to my practice. I am not reaching for a goal in which I expect that I will never see any kind of suffering again — no physical pain, no sorrow over a loss, and no regrets over stupid things I’ve done in the past. I no longer hear the Buddha setting such an unrealistic goal, the one we secular Buddhists are so fond of debating as impossible anyway. As I see it, an end to all suffering is not what the carefully-chosen word the Buddha used represents.

As I understand the Buddha’s message, my job is only to practice in a way that lets me notice dukkha when it arises, and look for its causes. If those causes are things beyond my control — if it is a physical pain that I cannot find a viable cure for — I will not cling to that pain in ways that make it something bigger than it is. If it is an emotional pain over the loss of “the dear” (the Buddha’s term) I will decide whether I find the pleasures of the dear worth the pain of those loses or not before I attach myself that way again. That choice is one each of us gets to make for ourselves. But either way, I’ll deal with the pain I am feeling in a way that doesn’t make it last longer than it needs to, in ways that don’t cause harm to others (for example, blaming them for my pain).

When dukkha comes my way, I will set it free by not attaching myself to it, and that way, over and over again, I can become free.


1“The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbana” Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro (2009) p. 135.

2“…fire, when burning, is in a state of agitation, dependence, attachment, & entrapment — both clinging & being stuck to its sustenance.” “The Mind like Fire Unbound” Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2010) see p. 36-38

Insights During The Three Watches of the Night

January 8th, 2016

I have recently gotten interested in the two versions of what happened during the night that the Buddha got describable insights, during or shortly after his moment of awakening. He speaks of what he saw during the three watches of the night.

The sutta-based versions describe “The Three Knowledges” but that title is clearly his using the Brahmins’ Three Knowledges (of the three Vedas) in the playful way he uses many words and phrases of his day, twisting them to have a very different meaning from the definitions the originators would use. Instead of knowledge of the Rg, Yajur, and Sama Vedas, he describes knowledge of his past lives, of the arising and passing away of beings according to their karma, and of the four noble truths, and the taints.

But in the Vinaya and Udana renditions of what he saw during the three watches, he describes dependent arising — first in a pattern in which something arises, secondly in a pattern in which it doesn’t arise, and finally both ways.

I am working on taking a detailed look at the language in both versions, because, though they sound quite different, I suspect they are actually two ways of describing the exact same insight.

Toward that end, I’ve just finished a translation of the first three suttas in the Udana, which describe the dependent arising variant in almost exactly the same words as the one found in the volumes of the monastic code, the Vinaya. It’s a first draft, so I may yet make changes to it, but I thought I’d offer it for your consideration, and (if you wish) comments. Because my translation of many terms are not the familiar ones, I’ve added footnotes to explain some of the differences. Also, this is not a word-for-word translation; instead I am aiming for a somewhat friendlier modernized version, almost as if the Buddha were speaking now.

Because of this, I have cut out some of the repetition when it describes action, and I have been quite liberal in one area: in the verses that follow each story, I have changed the singular male described (in another of the Buddha’s changes-of-meaning) as “a Brahmin” to the generic plural to cover all of us who do the work and gain the insight as “devoted practitioners”. He wasn’t using the term Brahmin to limit the insights to those of the Brahmin caste, but he had (elsewhere) redefined the term to mean one of any caste who had done the work and become one worthy of the elevated title.



Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the first watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the natural flow1 of dependent arising, thus: in this having come to be, this is; this arising, this arises.2


Out of dependence on ignorance, drives3;
out of dependence on drives, awareness4;
out of dependence on awareness, identity5;
out of dependence on identity, the extension of the six senses6;
out of dependence on the extension of the six senses, contact;
out of dependence on contact, experience7;
out of dependence on experience, thirst8;
out of dependence on thirst, clinging to fuel9;
out of dependence on clinging to fuel, becoming;
out of dependence on becoming, birth;
out of dependence on birth, old age and death, pain and distress, trouble come together.

Thus the arising together brings about this whole conglomeration of dukkha10.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties11 have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
then all doubt disappears
because they know clearly for the first time the cause of certainty.




Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the middle watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the ebb of dependent arising, thus: In this not having come to be, this is not; this released, this is released.


Out of the release of ignorance, drives are released;
out of the release of drives, awareness is released;
out of the release of awareness, identity is released;
out of the release of identity, the extension of the six senses is released;
out of the release of the extension of the six senses, contact is released;
out of the release of contact, experience is released;
out of the release of feeling, thirst is released;
out of the release of thirst, clinging to fuel is released;
out of the release of clinging to fuel, becoming is released;
out of the release of becoming, birth is released;
out of the release of birth, aging and death, pain and distress, trouble are released.

Thus the release of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
then all doubt disappears
because he has penetrated the destruction of causes.




Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the last watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the natural flow and the ebb of dependent arising, thus: in this having come to be, this is; out of this arising, this arises; in this not having come to be, this is not; this released, this is released.


Out of dependence on ignorance, drives;
out of dependence on drives, awareness;
out of dependence on awareness, identity;
out of dependence on identity, the extension of the six senses;
out of dependence on the extension of the six senses, contact;
out of dependence on contact, experience;
out of dependence on experience, thirst;
out of dependence on thirst, clinging to fuel;
out of dependence on clinging to fuel, becoming;
out of dependence on becoming, birth;
out of dependence on birth, old age and death, pain and distress, trouble come together.

Thus the arising together of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

From ignorance,
out of the complete, release beyond passion, drives are released;
out of the release of drives, awareness is released;
out of the release of awareness, identity is released;
out of the release of identity, the extension of the six senses is released;
out of the release of the extension of the six senses, contact is released;
out of the release of contact, experience is released;
out of the release of feeling, thirst is released;
out of the release of thirst, clinging to fuel is released;
out of the release of clinging to fuel, becoming is released;
out of the release of becoming, birth is released;
out of the release of birth, aging and death, pain and distress, trouble are released.

Thus the release of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
they abide, scattering Mara’s army
just as the sun lights the atmosphere.



1 The word translated as “natural flow” is anulomaṃ, which refers to the direction in which hair naturally lies, or it could be described as “with the grain”. It is matched in the next verse by paṭilomaṃ, which the Pali English Dictionary (PED) has as “’against the hair,’ in reverse order, opposite, contrary, backward”. This is often translated as “in reverse order”, as in Bhikkhu Ānandajoti’s version to be found here on Sutta Central. But because the first description of dependent arising (DA) starts with ignorance and ends with aging-and-death, “reverse order” would lead one to expect the second would start with aging-and-death and work back to ignorance, but that’s not what it does. The second starts with ignorance, just as the first does. It seems to me one might use the word “reversing” as in “undoing order” but I have, here, settled on another natural metaphor that seems to me similar enough to the idea of going with the grain of the hair and against it, calling on our familiarity with ocean tides, with their rising flow and subsiding ebb.

2 This short-hand for dependent arising is usually translated more along the lines of, “From this, that” but the pronoun used in both cases are forms of idaṃ which, as the PED explains in its first definition, “refers to what is immediately in front of the speaker (the subject in question) or before his eyes or in his present time & situation” – in other words, something right here now. There is no sense of the distance or separation that “that” implies when juxtaposed to “this”. This is an important clue to the close-at-hand nature of what is being described, which is all within us: from this within me, this arises. And in the following verse: if this within me does not arise, this won’t arise either.

3 The word I translate as “drives” is saṅkhāra, usually translated as “formations” or “fabrications” or “volitional processes”. See “The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara”

4 “Awareness” is viññāṇa, usually translated as “consciousness” but detailed as being fully in existence only when it is engaged with something – thus, “awareness”. More specifically it is, quite naturally, driven awareness because saṅkhāra drives it into existence.

5 “Identity” a.k.a nāmarūpa a.k.a “name-and-form”. When we name something according to its form, we are giving it an identity. When we recognize something by its form and recall its name and all the information we associate with it, we are identifying it.

6 Usually translated as just “the six senses” the six āyatana are not passive receptors, but active seekers, as they, too, are driven by saṅkhāra. PED has the first definition of āyatana as “1. stretch, extent, reach, compass region”; the second as “2. exertion, doing, working, practice performance”; and only with the third does it get to “3. sphere of perception or sense in general, object of thought, sense-organ & object”. I have tried to capture both the extent and activeness with “extension”.

7 “Experience” could perhaps be translated as “knowledge of contact” but that’s a bit redundant with contact as the previously-mentioned condition. The Pali word is vedanā, usually translated as “feeling” which is reasonable enough given its frequent definitions as one of three varieties of feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of those.

8 “Thirst” – the usual translation is “craving” – taṇhā is literally a thirst, and here calls to mind the thirst fire has for its fuel, or the thirst we have for what fuels our pleasures, or our sense of who we are.

9 The “fuel” – upādāna – that, in the previous condition, we thirst for. Usually translated as “clinging” which is also reasonable, though it misses the metaphor being created of fire-as-self. In the Vedic view, fire and fuel are stuck together, but if the fire were released from the fuel, it would still exist, and be free.

10 I leave dukkha untranslated – the usual translation is “suffering”, but there really is no word for what dukkha is, and “suffering” distorts its meaning. What the dukkha that the Buddha is telling us we can avoid is, is all unnecessary feelings that we’d rather do without that are within our control once we understand what’s going on and put the teachings into effect. But, like many words the Buddha uses, it has other meanings as well.

11 The word I translate as “certainties” is dhamma, and I know of no one else who translates it that way. But I do have good reason. When used in the phrase “The Buddha’s dhamma” it tends to be taken to mean either “The Truth” or “his teachings”, the latter in the sense of “what he’s teaching us to see” which is, effectively, the truth, reality. But dhamma also gets used to mean other people’s teachings, the things they hold as truth, natural law, reality. Seen from the Buddha’s point of view, though, all too often the other teachers’ dhamma isn’t actually true, or an expression of reality. However, “certainties” covers both. If we see dhamma as “the things we are certain of” then the Buddha’s dhamma is that which we become certain of by seeing it again and again, after close examination, applying his teachings to our lives. Others’ dhamma are things they are certain of, some of which they should not be so sure of. But in this clever verse, the valid certainties that have become apparent through ardent meditation are how invalid certainties are created, those being the ones that get us in trouble. That is precisely what dependent arising describes: how we create false certainties.

Arguing A New Theory (re: Mazel’s “Unpopular facts” about Dependent Arising)

May 7th, 2015

In the comments on my page of links about Dependent Arising, Eisel Mazard wrote:

“Or, we could directly read what the original Pali has to say, we could be honest about it, and we could be open about the history of the ‘European tradition’ of interpretation that has created so many strange assumptions about what the text is supposed to imply (but doesn’t, in fact, say)…

“If you can’t read primary sources (in Pali) it’s a sad fact that nobody playing the game makes it easy for you to know where the original text stops, and where ‘interpretation’ starts. If you have the time to read that article (linked to) you may well be shocked to learn that the diversity of these interpretations reflects a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty.”

In my answer to this comment, I said I didn’t believe what was going on was “intellectual dishonesty” but that “My expectation is that our translators believe they are translating what is actually meant. ” I had read the post the author linked to, and regretted that comments were not allowed, and left it at that.

However now, almost three years later, I have finally gotten around to locating and reading the paper Mazard wrote about Dependent Arising, that is referred to in the post I couldn’t comment on. I’ve even added a link to it on my DA links page, not because I think it has any chance of presenting what the Buddha actually was talking about, but because it demonstrates how easy it is to pick and choose what one looks at — ignoring or failing to notice anything that would undermine one’s theories — to come up with something that can be mistaken for a good argument. Is this apparent blindness to text that would disprove a theory “intellectual dishonesty”? Or is it just human nature at work? It would take greater familiarity with the author to know which is the cause, but I thought it might still be useful (to me, and maybe to others) to note where the arguments he makes might seem logical, and what he fails to notice that so readily undermines the whole point. I would love it if folks would take the time to do this for papers I publish; it can only help refine or strengthen an argument to know where its weaknesses are.

At the start of his paper, he notes that DA is known for its profundity, but then points out that “…it is rare to find a clear answer to the question of what this famous tract of text [is] supposed to be about: what is the thesis that the 12-links formula was meant to explain or support? I find the answer in the text itself…” and he almost builds a decent case for DA just being about how birth comes about, but he does this by using a limited set of the terms in the 12-link DA, and appearing to be completely blind to text in the same suttas he cites that give psychological definitions of terms he focuses on that occur “before birth”. He also entirely skips the middle section, in which the process of “contact”, “feeling”, “craving”, and “clinging” come into play — is the fetus doing that? — all of which come just prior to “becoming” and “birth”.

I do agree that a lot of what is written about DA is fuzzy — that’s why I started (years ago now) focusing on trying to understand it from the texts themselves — and I agree that we need to anchor what we think is being said with evidence from the texts. But because the Buddha’s way of speaking isn’t exactly like ours (not in the grammatical construction of sentences; and not even in his choice of overall rhetorical devices) it is not possible to be certain that we have understood, exactly, all of what he is trying to say, not in any given sentence, nor rephrasing of lessons, nor the whole of his dharma. I say “all of what he is trying to say” because it is my contention that he layers one or more levels of meaning onto much of what he says, and any given interpreter’s reading may make use of one level in support of their theory, while missing the other layers. This is one mistake I believe Mazel makes. He recognizes — correctly, I think — that the Buddha is naming and describing events that come prior to birth, but fails to understand why he is describing them, or how their description fits into the overall lessons the Buddha is trying to get across to us, because he has missed the other layers.

It takes reading the whole — or at least as much of the canon as one can get to — and trying to make sense of the pieces in terms of the overall points being made, to begin to put together a theory. And while it is wise to anchor our arguments in the texts, we would do well to remember that the talks presented in the text are framed in the context of a certain time and place, with much of that context simply assumed as background by the speakers, and as such unstated. Hints at this background might well be found in the texts, but in so large a volume of work as the collections of the Buddha’s talks, hints often go unnoticed. It seems to me almost easier to argue a theory from what we can see and to then assess it on how logical it is within the frame, than to expect every element to be readily visible. Interpretation is necessary. Then the best way to disprove an interpretation might well be to then find examples in the text that make that interpretation impossible.

Which is a little of what I’m doing here, starting with the mention, above, of the way the support for his theory that it’s all about what leads up to birth leaves out four central links that describe how we process experiences. This needed to be left out of his thesis because the detailed description of these links includes not only the activation of the senses, and recognizing that contact as pleasant or unpleasant (which could happen before birth) but then there is craving (tanha) for sensual pleasures, and for becoming (bhava) or what is not becoming (vibhava), which describe cravings far more complex — psychological — than a fetus will be capable of in the womb. The next step afterward is clinging (upadana) which is described as being about not just sensual pleasures but about views about the self, and about rites and rituals, none of which the fetus can even be aware of.

Mazel first defends the eleventh link (jati) as clearly describing the actual, physical process of being born, and I am sure he is right about the description being literal. He then uses a bit of DN 15 [pts D ii 63] on name-and form (namarupa) in which — he is also correct here — the Buddha is clearly talking about the moment when consciousness (link three — vinnana) comes into the mother’s womb, so this has to be about how we come to be born. Then he says:

“…however, the passage is wildly incongruent with attempts of many other interpreters to render the whole doctrine in more abstract terms (variously psychological or metaphysical).”

and somehow he seems to have missed the section just before the part he quotes, which is clearly about the psychological:

“‘From name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how, from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. If the qualities, traits, themes, & indicators by which there is a description of name-group (mental activity) were all absent, would designation-contact with regard to the form-group (the physical properties) be discerned?” [Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

Now, granted, it’s a bit tough to decipher the above. This is because the Buddha isn’t speaking to us now, but to the people of his own time who thoroughly understood the terms and the context. Basically it is the start of an argument that says that because we are already familiar with “qualities, traits, themes, & indicators” that allow us to have created definitions (“name-group”) we can tell when we contact something’s form (through any of our senses) what it is, and what it is good for — through its “form-group”. That may not be easy to understand, but even without clear understanding, the mention of mental processes involving “qualities, traits, themes, & indicators” alone has to make it clear that what’s being discussed are activities of a person out in the world, not a fetus in the womb. This is not metaphysical, I agree, but it definitely is psychological. And it is in the same sutta, right next to the portion Mazel quoted.

I am agreeing, then, that in this section, the Buddha is clearly talking about how consciousness appears in the womb, but at the same time I disagree that those who argue that he is talking about something psychological should be scoffed at the way Mazel does, because — clearly — the Buddha is talking about psychology. How can I both agree and disagree with Mazel? Simple: layering of meaning. Mazel is right that the Buddha is describing the obvious process of birth, but he doesn’t recognize that this is because seeing the mechanism of the process is necessary to understanding something else that is harder to see. The Buddha uses the way human beings are conceived and come into the world as a model to describe how something else, something very important, is conceived and comes into the world — and that is a psychological something.

Mazel next argues that the deity — a gandhabba— that is found in some descriptions of the process of conception, is there because it was believed the demi-god’s presence enabled fertility. This is in contrast to a traditional view that the gandhabba is some part of the being moving from a past life to the next. In my view, either possibility works as something the Buddha would be saying here — and in fact he may have designed the description with generic enough wording that the text would fit right into the worldview of believers in either way of looking at how conception happens. I propose that the Buddha’s mention of the gandhabba isn’t described so that we understand “how life begins as the Buddha has seen it to be” but rather is a very generalized model that serves one great purpose: to model the action being described in something subtler. A generic description makes the model accessible to more people. The details of the role the gandhabba plays aren’t actually important, which is why they are never described in any text.

Mazel again:

“This essay has for its purpose the simple but fundamental task of establishing what the 12-links formula is about (i.e., the subject matter broached in the canonical primary source texts). I would now contrast a few of the popular opinions on this matter, taking my motto from Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘False facts are highly injurious … for they often endure long; but false views… do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness…’.

“Many of the leading interpretations are pointedly vague. The influential translator Bhikkhu Bodhi remarks: ‘In its abstract form the principle of dependent arising is equivalent to the law of the conditioned genesis of phenomena.’ As anodyne as this may sound, I must repudiate it as a ‘false fact’: the subject of the doctrine is simply incarnation (inclusive of conception, the development of the embryo, and birth).”

False views can be built up from missing facts, and I commend Mazel on recognizing that they will be met with folks — like me — who will take, if not pleasure then at least education from working through them to try to understand where the falseness derives from.

I do agree that many explanations of Dependent Arising are vague; I believe this is because the writers haven’t fully understood the layering of meaning. As in the snippets of suttas quoted from DN 15 both above and in Mazel’s paper, two different layers may be discussed side-by-side, and if a translator is only working with one layer, while half-blind to the other, confusion (with a resulting vagueness) ensues.

“The conditioned genesis of phenomena” is pretty vague, but wouldn’t be entirely wrong as something discussed in DA if it was addressing the meta-model described by idappaccayatā, known as “this/that conditionality” but which more literally means “this is supported by that”. Understanding in general how “because this is, that can come to be” is critical to understanding what’s being pointed out in DA, and the Buddha does use examples on many levels to help us see what’s going on. “The conditioned genesis of [all] phenomena” is the most general of examples of what’s going on in DA, which is, perhaps, what Bodhi is talking about when he calls this “the most abstract form”. How we come into being (conception, gestation, birth) and come to suffer aging and death provides a more detailed example of the mechanism being pointed out. But neither the meta-model nor the detailed model are the ultimate point of DA; they just point to “the shape” of what’s going on, they model the action taking place in the hardest to see, critical layer of the lesson.

“The Pali canon contains many discourses concerning the function of the mind and perception, but this isn’t one of them. ” Mazel says. And yet, the Buddha has said that if we see Dependent Arising, we see the dhamma, so if his discourses on the dhamma often concern the mind and perception, ipso facto DA has to include them, too. And it does, in the DN 15 quote I cited, and in the four middle links Mazel doesn’t mention.

When he goes on to deny that there is any support for the three-lives model, he takes on Mahāsi Sayadaw, who is quoted as saying that the Buddha did not describe consciousness’s relationship to past existence. Mazel then says:

“This is, in fact, a confession that the three-lifetimes interpretation is not supported by the primary source texts: there is no discussion of a past (nor future) existence internal to the 12-links formula”

This is wrong — there is certainly quite clear mention of a life that follows birth, aging, and death. It is there, in DN 15 [pts D ii 63], in the description of how name-and-form supports consciousness, in the section immediately following the quote Mazel used to show that DA is definitely about conception taking place in a woman’s womb:

ettāvatā kho, ānanda, jāyetha vā jīyetha vā mīyetha vā cavetha vā upapajjetha vā.
“This is the extent to which there is birth, aging, death, passing away, and re-arising. ” [Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

It’s hard to imagine how he missed that.

“Or, we could directly read what the original Pali has to say, we could be honest about it,” he said in comments on this blog, and I would insert “all of the suttas on the subject in” after that “what”, meaning we need to read the whole sutta, and every one that deals substantively with subject, and be honest if we didn’t take the whole into account, for whatever reason.
That all dependent arising is about is how we come to be born makes no sense when it is viewed as part of the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, and, while Mazel’s paper proves that the Buddha does talk about how we come to be, it ignores evidence indicating that there is far more to it than that.

The “Many Views” View of Buddhism

May 1st, 2015

Goodness, where I have I been. It’s been too long — more than two years! — since I’ve updated this blog. I’ve had plenty of thoughts I felt suitable to blog about. I even, recently, wrote a draft of a post, but it came out to over 10k words, so I’ll have to figure out how best to break it up before putting it up here. I’ve started lots of other drafts, but have found them leading to incomplete lines of thinking. I’ve written and had a couple of papers published. Mostly, I’ve been working on a book that will serve to clarify my thinking enough to sort out the difference between what I see as well worked out, and where there are questions with answers I am still unsure of. There will always be questions with answers I am unsure of (as there should be) but what’s important is knowing which is which, as well as coming to recognize which answers I am quite sure of, or even relatively sure of, that I still need more evidence for, to support my ability to get the concepts across to others.

Looking at Buddhism from a fresh perspective is tricky enough on its own; trying to communicate what I find to others is even harder. A lot of the problem comes from the difference between traditional views of Buddhism being so similar — all of them to each other, and mine to all the rest. There seem to be a multitude of ways of interpreting what the Buddha was trying to convey, and there is a strong tendency, when I try to explain any one difference in the way I am seeing what was said from the way others do, of judging the newness in terms of whatever larger understanding the listener has of the whole — which is, really, the natural thing to do. Since the Buddha’s lessons worked together to create one whole understanding — one dharma — the teaching is perhaps best explained as a holographic image, in that any little piece we pick out actually contains information that significantly affects the whole picture. This is why any one small piece I try to describe won’t fit comfortably into someone else’s understanding of the dharma. And this is why the blogpost I wrote at 10k words still isn’t complete — because, to be fully understood, it has to be supported by all the other slightly-changed pieces that fit together to make a beautifully integrated understanding of the Buddha’s dharma.

One of the things I believe I am seeing in this new way of looking at the Buddha’s teaching is that he very intentionally provided multiple paths through his lessons to get to the heart of his dharma — different strokes for different folks, as we hippie-types have been known to say. The amazing thing to me is the skill with which the man made these multiple paths blend together — this is what that lengthy, unposted post discusses: one set of threads through the tapestry he wove.

His skills in presenting multiple ways through may have had the unfortunate effect of making it more likely that confusion would abound, as different people picked up different threads, and declared theirs the one and only “right view” of what the Buddha meant. Ironic, given that what the Buddha seems to me to be pointing out as key, is that we need to let go of dogmatism over views, not just of the Cosmic Order, but of what is the right way to grasp his teaching, as I pointed out some while back in my post on The Raft over on the Secular Buddhism blog.

A variation on this theme occurred to me today as I was reading a pamphlet called “The Faith of a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist”, by James Ishmael Ford. In this very well-written piece, the author says something I have heard many times before but rarely put as succinctly:

When asked what I meant by ‘Buddhism’, I briefly outlined my belief that the human condition is marked by dis-ease, dissatisfaction, angst. There is some fundamental sadness to our human condition.

The Buddha examined this apparently universal human experience closely. He came to believe this pervasive unrest occurs as a natural consequence of our human consciousness.

I think I understand this perspective, but whenever it is presented, I find I can’t actually relate to it. I would agree that in given instances I experience dis-ease and dissatisfaction, but angst, which the Urban Dictionary defines beginning with:

Angst, often confused with anxiety, is a transcendent emotion in that it combines the unbearable anguish of life with the hopes of overcoming this seemingly impossible situation.

sometimes in descriptions of the Buddha’s point described as “existential angst” — I can’t relate to at all. For me there is not now nor has there ever been any strong feeling of an “unbearable anguish of life”. Looking at what I experience, and what drives me, even now, after years of being a practicing Buddhist, I can find nothing deep within me that is even remotely like that. At the very base of my thinking about my particular life, what I always find, is great joy and pleasure in the richness and complexity, a feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to experience all that I do — both ups and downs — and, sure, there is the wish that I might go on enjoying the fullness of life for a long, long time, probably longer than the time I will have. I would not mind at all if this same consciousness of mine went on to other things after this body dies but I have no expectation that it will, nor any huge sadness facing the likelihood that “I” won’t exist after death.

I have long accepted that this is very likely my one and only existence, and this means for me that I had damned well better make the best of it. And if it is not? Without direct and convincing evidence of the ways in which my behavior now would affect my life after this death, I cannot know “the rules” for affecting that possible future. So I am left to do the best I can with this life, and I find nothing wrong with that, certainly nothing anguish-making.

What I find, in the first-quoted portions of the pamphlet above, is writing representative of people who do feel this underlying anguish that I don’t feel, accompanied by the assumption that since that is what they have found deep in their hearts, it must be what everyone will eventually find deep in theirs. I have spoken to people with this conviction who tell me that I haven’t found it because I haven’t “gone deep enough yet”. And I’m sure if I were surrounded by people who only saw the world that way — and if I were not so familiar with my glass-half-full way of looking at things — that I could convince myself if I tried hard enough.

But why would I want to?

I tend to think I am already (and have been fortunate to always be, by nature) at the place the Buddha wanted us to get to, where we stop worrying so much about what comes next — where, certainly, we stop fighting with each other about it — and just go with what we can see for ourselves, and let what will be, be. This is not by way of saying that I am already a fully enlightened being, just that in this one aspect — it being an attitude toward life that is one of underlying acceptance, maybe even satisfaction, with the overal situation — I am fortunate to have been born or to have acquired early an attitude of life that doesn’t incorporate that “fundamental sadness” but instead I have a fundamental happiness, with lots of situational confusion and attendant upsets to keep me busy practicing.

So what I wonder — back to the theme of this post — is whether the Buddha was addressing both kinds of people, those angst-ridden types, and glass-half-full types like myself.

When I debate with my friend Mark Knickelbine, about how the Buddha was defining dukkha, and what he was saying about it, in Mark’s writings I hear him describing existential angst as what the Buddha was talking about — inescapable suffering that we must learn to accept as part of life, but not cling to; there is no escape from the angst but we can lessen its effects through a change in attitude toward it. When I define what I believe the Buddha meant by dukkha when it gets translated as “the end of suffering”, it is that this dukkha (by definition) has to be escapable suffering (because he says it can end) — it *is* the attitude, or more exactly, dukkha is what results from a certain attitude toward the inescapable. It is not the painful events in our lives — loss of loved ones, loss of ability, the ultimate loss of our own lives — that are dukkha, but it is the attitudes we have towards these things that cause us to suffer in completely unnecessary and avoidable ways. I have often remarked, during these conversations, that Mark and I arrive at the same place: there are painful events we can not, while living, escape from, and what the Buddha is saying is we have to change our attitudes towards them; this will give us relief.

But what I am wondering about today, is whether the difference between Mark’s view and mine is based on two different attitudes towards life, the one that sees the world through the lens of existential angst, and the one, like mine, that doesn’t concern itself much at all with inevitable losses, doesn’t feel a deep and constant angst over the situation, but does recognize that individual situations could be handled better than they are. And if the two different views of dukkha are perceived through two fundamentally different views of life, could it be that both are woven into the Buddha’s teachings because he recognized that different sorts of people have these different views, so he wove both into his teachings, so that each of us could find a thread that matched our view, to pull us across — using the metaphor of the Raft — to “the other shore”?

The Passive Voice

January 24th, 2013

Today I was listening to a radio interview with Tracy Kidder (“The Soul of a New Machine”) talking about non-fiction writing as pertains to his newest book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction and he was asked whether using the passive voice was appropriate. I really liked his answer, which was that it was, “when the thing done is more important than the doer.”

The subject of the passive voice came up during the Intensive Pali Course taught by Professor Gombrich earlier this month. He had mentioned in the handout for the course that there seems to be a particular fondness for the use of the passive in the suttas, and prior to the course, I had wondered about this, so when the subject came up in class, I asked whether this was peculiar to the suttas, or a wider feature of much of the works we have from around this time (which are largely in Sanskrit). His answer was that it was part of a wider trend, not limited to the Pali canon. I remarked that I had wondered if perhaps the passive voice was used in Buddhist texts because of the understanding that there was no self to be the doer of the acts. His answer to this was an amused comment that I should not overthink things.

But that is, of course, what I do. I overthink. I suspect it’s necessary to come up with theories like these about why things were the way they were in order to see anything new. And while my first theory turns out not to be a good fit for the facts, that only means I need to broaden the concept and see where it gets me.

This is part of a long conversation I have been having with anyone who has the slightest interest in the subject of how the structure of our language shapes our view of the world, or conversely, how our view of the world shapes our language — that’s a chicken-and-egg sort of issue, really; the two no doubt go round and round. I have discussed this with Spanish teachers, wondering aloud if the classification of nouns into masculine and feminine affects how we see things, and how we see what is masculine or feminine about people, as a result, for example, of what ideas and characteristics we attach masculinity and femininity to. With my father-in-law, I rued the increasing loss of languages, like Welsh, because with them go the loss of particular points of view.

It seems to me that the pervasive use of the passive voice in which, as Tracy Kidder points out in the quote above, ” the thing done is more important than the doer” has to have an effect on the way people of the time saw the world. In some sense, it may have made it easier for the Buddha to come up with his understanding that it is our actions that are critical in our relationships with other, in the effects we have on those around us, which may have led to his asking himself what it was that caused any given individual to perform this action and not some other — with his answer being that it is our intention that is important. And then there arises the next question: what causes go into the formation of our intentions?

Two of the other three points he brings up as being distinctive in the Pali also support the same possibility: Read the rest of this entry »

Dependent Arising In Context

January 13th, 2013

I’ve put together a book that contains my paper “Burning Yourself” as published in the second volume of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, as well as the series of blog posts about a pragmatic understanding of each link in the chain that was published on the Secular Buddhist Association website earlier this year. It also includes the post just previous to this one (on sankhara) and a new and fairly lengthy introduction to the whole volume that outlines a hypothesis about what might have gone into the process of losing the context for dependent origination in the first place. This compilation is called “Dependent Arising In Context” and is available at createspace (where the royalty scheme is most favorable) as well as on


In a few months I plan to make it available on Kindle and hopefully in other ebook versions. This is all part of a learning process for me, an experiment in coming to understand where we are nowadays in the change from traditional publishing to the free-for-all system that seems to be taking over.


The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara

August 15th, 2012

aka “Everything you wanted to know about sankharas but were afraid to ask.”

Over on the blog at the Secular Buddhist Association website, I did a series on a secular approach to dependent arising, and in the comments for the second post, I was asked if I could give specific examples of sankharas, because the suttas we have — and the word choices used in the translations (“formations” “fabrications” “activities”) or lack of them (some translations just skip the word altogether) make it very difficult to understand what is being said. I said I’d give it a try, but in a brief survey of the many mentions of sankhara, I found that there aren’t “examples” as such, at least not in the way that one might have examples of something like vedana (feelings, experiences) which are described sometimes as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, and we are given stories that can be seen to illustrate these, like the one of the jealous guy who sees his woman talking to another man — the feelings that arise there are examples of vedana, and the thoughts that arise, and ideas for what to do about the situation afterward could be seen to express the tanha and upadana that follow.

But the sankharas don’t get treated that way, probably because they aren’t so much things that happen in our lives, rather, they are underlying tendencies or overall concepts that affect our lives. They get described in a variety of ways, some of which tell us what they look like when they become visible. They become visible as “the actions that are a result of their impact on us”, so we could say that the action the jealous man takes is a sankhara because it is a sankhara-made-visible. But his jealousy is also a sankhara, too, it’s a sankhara-keenly-felt.

Because sankhara is the second term in a conditional chain of events, really, every step afterward is a sankhara in that same sense: the consciousness that arises next is sankhara-consciousness, because sankhara drives it, and in just the same way, it drives every step thereafter.

In working on this, I came to see that what a sankhara is, is a drive. It has limitations on it, like ignorance does (as described in the blogpost just before this one). When I say it is “a drive” I don’t mean just any old drive. It is a very specific drive: a drive for the existence of and protection of and knowledge of the self, a very driven-drive, a slightly over-the-top drive on the best of days, and a very over-the-top drive on the worst of them.

It gets this meaning from the Prajapati myth that is embedded in the first five steps of dependent arising, where sankhara is the craving for existence that brings the universe into being. This leads me to believe that “drive” may be the best all-around translation of sankhara. We can also see the way in which the steps after sankharas are all sankharas, themselves: because every step drives the next.

To test this out, and since I’m not finding jealousy-level examples of sankhara-as-a-drive in the suttas, I figured the next best thing was to find suttas in which sankharas are discussed or described, and see if putting the word “drive” in there makes those sections easier to understand. Read the rest of this entry »

The Words of Dependent Arising: Ignorance

August 10th, 2012

This is the first in a series of articles in which I’d like to explore the language used in the ancient Pali texts to describe dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda aka interdependence, dependent co-arising, and so on, with dependent arising being my preferred translation). Perhaps I’ll go on to look at a few other words, too, because many of our modern translations need to be reconsidered.

My intention is not to tell anyone what words they should use, but through writing these posts, to engage in a dialog with the larger community of Buddhist practitioners, and scholars, in whatever media they communicate, about what the Pali words actually mean, how they are similar to, or different from the words we use to translate them, and to consider the issues that make translating them such a problem. I am hoping that a light discussion of the Pali words, and their context, will also be interesting enough to those who enjoy reading the Buddhist texts to encourage more people to explore the words used, and the Pali language, via some of the fanastic tools that are freely available on the internet (see “Tools for Translations” on the Buddhist links page). Talking about the words particular to dependent arising should also be a useful way of clarifying what each of the links are about, and how they fit together — and the more ways we have of describing what’s being said, the broader the access to the insights, since different people have different approaches to learning. Read the rest of this entry »

Jayarava’s “The World”

May 22nd, 2012

Over on his blog, Jayarava has a new post up on a subject dear to my heart: “the world” (loka in Pali). I had written a comment to send him before I discovered that he has closed the blog to all comments, so I am just going to post it here. It is not my expectation that Jayarava will actually read this or comment on it — when a person is tired of the blogosphere’s dialog, they deserve a break — it’s just here to put a pin in the word “loka” since I spent some time writing this up.

Hey Jayarava,

For a long time I assumed that when the Buddha spoke of “the world” (loka) he was actually talking about people; I supposed it was a sort of reference to samsara, and the way we create what we mistake for the actual world in more-or-less the same way we create what we mistake for a self. I still think this is the correct interpretation, but that the Buddha was being more specific than making references to samsara: he seems to be referring to Prajāpati’s story of creation, and the way that the First Man was the Cosmos, and when he split himself up into the individuality of name-and-form, each individual was, in a sense, the world. So when he talks (in, for example, SN 12.10) about his pre-enlightenment wondering about “This world, alas, has fallen into sore distress. There is being born, growing old, dying, passing over and being reborn…” he is clearly not talking about planet Earth as “this world” but about us as individuals — each and every one of us as bits of Prajāpati/the Cosmos. He’s actually talking about atta/anatta — that which we mistake for the self.

So in the Rohitassa sutta, when he talks about not being able to walk to the end of the world, he starts by answering the question as if it is meant literally, but when he says that we do have to reach the end of the cosmos, he is saying we have to put an end to that false sense of self. This is, I believe, a teensy-tiny model of dependent arising’s two levels: the literal (as conceived by folks back then) and what he is really talking about.

The reference was probably clearer to the people of the times than it is to us, because the word you mention, byama (‘an-arm-span’) is actually a reference to the measurement of the altar in sacrifices that used the model of the Prajāpati story. Joanna Jurewicz points this out in her year-2000 article “Playing With Fire” on p. 79 “A general example could be provided by the famous declaration of the Buddha that in this “fathom-long body” (vyāmamatte kalevara) is the world, its origin, its cessation, and the path which leads to its cessation. The Sanskrit term vyāmamāttra appears in SB denoting the measure of the altar. It has the shape of a man and is not only the counterpart of the sacrificer but also the manifested counterpart of the Creator (Prajāpati)…”

By this reasoning, Ananda’s answer is that when *we* talk about “the world” we are talking about how we perceive and conceive it as something that has to come to an end. Buddhaghosa is also right, since sankharas have everything to do with the way we construct (perceive) self and world. The Loka Sutta, too, is consistent with this understanding, in that the world that arises is our perception of the world as being ours/us/self/in reference to us (because the Prajāpati myth says it is), and of course what arises from those kinds of perceptions is dukkha. As an aside I’m going to toss out a postulate of my hypothesis, that the five khanda will turn out to refer to the five layers of the altar that is self / Prajāpati / the World (though I have yet to find any solid evidence for it, it would make sense). I also wonder if Buddhaghosa’s comment about “wood and grass” is a reference to what gets burned during sacrifices — the sacrificial objects also being equated to atta.

I believe the language of the world-as-self refers back to dependent arising, as you will probably gather if you read the paper I wrote on it just out in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. The structure I see in dependent arising speaks both to “rebirth as real” and “the world of experience” and in so doing explains why both can be found in the suttas.

As always, thanks for this and all the insightful articles you write.