It’s been a long time since my last post and here’s the reason why: this has been a really difficult post to write. I knew what I wanted to say — it’s laid out in the pieces of my previous posts on “Possibilities” for ways to understand what the Buddha taught — but every time I tried to write it, I found that what I am certain of (that Dependent Arising doesn’t describe interdependence) ran into conflict with what I also know (that interdependence is a valid concept within Buddhism). I have been having trouble with these two facts for a year or more; what on earth made me think I could resolve that conflict in one short post? So I wrote, and rewrote, and wrote again, getting nowhere.
The resolution came by way of my friend Ian, whom I know enjoys the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn (TNH), who writes quite a bit about “interbeing” — a variant way of describing interdependence. I felt sure that what I understood TNH to be saying about how we are all interrelated was true, was observable in everyday life, and if it was true then it would have to be consistent with the Buddha’s dharma if what I see — that the Buddha was dead-accurate in his assessment of the human condition — was also true. Every time I tried to think about these two things — interdependence is true; dependent arising is not interdependence — my brain felt like it had the flu. Then I asked Ian to describe TNH’s interbeing, and it all became quite clear.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about why Dependent Arising is not about interdependence.
One way we can see and be certain that Dependent Arising (paticca samuppada aka “Dependent Origination”) is not “Interdependent” Arising is by looking at the way the Buddha and his disciple, Sariputta, describe the two links in the chain that *are* interdependent: namarupa (name and form) and vinnana (consciousness). Sariputta says that these two depend on each other, like two sheaves of reeds that lean up against each other1. While the Buddha’s long description of cause and effect always has vinnana as necessary for namarupa, he also gives namarupa as the cause and condition for vinnana2 — these two are interdependent. None of the rest of Dependent Arising is ever described as interdependent, and the teaching itself is not about interdependence in any way. It is not about how we are one with all things or there being no duality. If anything, Dependent Arising is a strict refutation of there being inherent bonds between us and anything else at all.
Dependent Arising does address how “this” arises from “that”, so without “that”, there would be no “this”. We see an effect (a strong emotion arising, for example), and we can look back to find a cause (we saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt or thought something). Had the event not occurred, the emotion would not have arisen. This is a dependency, but it is in no way an interdependency: the emotion we felt cannot have affected the event that engaged our senses. The effect depends on the cause, but the cause does not depend on the effect.
The belief that Dependent Arising describes a kind of interdependence probably comes from the expectation that the causes described must *always* lead to their effects. It seems that what’s being described in the Buddha’s teaching is the inevitability of dukkha3 arising from this process, with each step always leading to what follows.
Although it is self-evident that a seed does not always result in a tree, it seems almost as self-evident that whatever process is being described with Dependent Arising leads inevitably to dukkha. But it takes only a moment to realize that the seed of the process cannot always and inevitably lead on to a tree of dukkha, one step to the next, or the chain of events could not be broken — there would be no such thing as liberation from dukkha if the causes described in Dependent Arising always led to the same end result.
This means that either way we look for interdependence in Dependent Arising, it cannot be: an effect does not affect its cause, and a cause cannot always lead to an effect. And the only pairing ever described in the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Arising is that namarupa requires vinnana, and vinnana requires namarupa — the two feed each other — but none of the other pairings are described as interdependent.
The view of Dependent Arising as being about interdependence may come from a sense that karma is a cosmic scale in which all acts by each unliberated being must be repaid with a consequence. In this view, a cause has to have its particular effect, and this is why literal rebirth is necessary: do one last bad deed in the moments before you die and you have to have a next life in which that deed is punished. This was clearly a common belief system in the Buddha’s day, and when he was speaking to individuals or groups in a language they could understand — meaning “within their normal worldview” — he definitely did describe deeds and consequences just that simply. Yet in many of his deeper teachings he points out that it is not that simple, that we cannot tell what consequences will arise from what act4, and he says that such a deterministic universe would make living the holy life (brahmacariya) useless5. When he is addressing those he thinks will understand, he makes it clear that he’s not describing something that always plays out with perfect accuracy, balancing every act with a consequence. Still, it is evident when we look at the lessons he offers and at the world around us, that there is a pattern of acts having consequences — it’s just not consistent every time.
That Dependent Arising isn’t about interdependence is not the equivalent of saying there is no validity to the concept of interdependence in Buddhism. Though I have never found a sutta in which the Buddha succinctly states that there is interdependence on some level, the pattern of what he teaches makes it clear: the things we do have consequences, and the acts he describes — the ones that will have consequences — are primarily those that affect others. It is killing, and stealing, and lying, and abuse of sex; it’s disrespect for parents and teachers, it’s arguing over things that cannot be resolved through argument. As I pointed out in my discussion of karma, these acts do come back to us but the vehicle they are delivered in is (most often) other people, and there lies the aspect of interdependence the Buddha is always talking about, though indirectly. What we do affects others, and the effect we have will, quite often, come back to us. That is interdependence.
Ian’s description of TNH’s interbeing touches on the same point expressed in a slightly different way: that when we look within while trying to locate “self” what we find is a shifting matrix of aspects that — as Mark Knickelbine points out in a recent post — are the result of our interactions with the world.
Ian put it this way:
. . . when we slow down and become mindful and look deeply . . . we can see, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “the cloud in the cup of tea,” we can see the woodsman, the tree, the sun in the piece of paper….
We start to see that “I” am made up of completely “non I” elements.
Nothing exists independently.
. . . When you start seeing everything that makes up “you”, “you” starts to recede.
The person I am came into being as a result of many causes, most of those causes (the non-physical elements), the result of social interaction. Though it is still not strict interdependence (when you affect me, I don’t always affect you) it has that sort of fuzzy accuracy of an overall pattern which, when examined on a large scale — woven across the lives of many beings — becomes visible.
Dependent Arising isn’t about interdependence, but I think Buddhism is.