Dependent Arising Is Not Interdependent

November 4th, 2011

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.


  1. SN 12.67 pts S ii 114 (p 608 in Wisdom Pubs edition)
  2. MN 109.9 pts M iii 17 (p 888)
  3. Dukkha being that all-encompassing word describing the many ways in which we are less than content with our experience of our lives.
  4. As shown in my post on MN 136.
  5. For example AN 3.101.

8 Responses to “Dependent Arising Is Not Interdependent”

  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for the pingback, Linda! Nice post. I think the interdependence of everything is one of those awe-inspiring concepts that seems true and give one a sense of transcendence. But Gotama never parses conditioned arising except in the context of the aggregates — to do otherwise would be to engage in metaphysical speculation, which in many suttas he is at pains to avoid. One thing, though — in the Honeyball Sutta, Kaccapa says that the combination of, say, eye, form, and eye consiousness is contact. Would this make these three elements of contact interdependent, since all three have to occur together?

  2. star says:

    Not really. “There is the viable seed, water, sunlight and soil, and the convergence of the four is growth.” Really that should read “…is required for growth” but that isn’t the way the folks then tended to speak.

    The seed, water, sunlight and soil are not dependent on each other (interdependent), since any of them can exist without being affected by the other(s). They are just multiple conditions of primary importance — the ones we are most concerned with for the sake of understanding the process of growth — that are needed for it to happen.

    At MN 28.37 Sariputta speaks of the same triad but in a different order (with a different choice of words but the same general meaning) so that what results is not “contact” but “consciousness”, where (1) is the ‘working sense organ’, (2) is the object of the sense, (3) is contact, and (4) is the sense-consciousness.

    “Now if internally the intellect is intact(1) but externally ideas(2) do not come into range, nor is there a corresponding engagement(3), then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness(4). If internally the intellect is intact and externally ideas come into range, but there is no corresponding engagement, then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness. But when internally the intellect is intact and externally ideas come into range, and there is a corresponding engagement, then there is the appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness.”

    Without soil, sunlight, water and growth, we would not have a viable seed.

    It’s just different ways of expressing the same thing, but the soil and sunlight and water aren’t dependent on the viability of the seed or the growth, they still exist unaffected by their results. We could almost say that viability and growth are the same thing, just like we could say consciousness and contact are the same thing — they happen so close together that they seem inseparable, but they are not quite the same thing.

  3. star says:

    Of course, my simile of seed and sunlight and soil only goes so far. We know from science that the seed and sunlight and aspects of the soil *are* transformed by the growth/viability into the tree.

    But when applied to object of the senses, the sense organ, and the consciousness that arises at the meeting of the two, the object is not directly affected by the process. The sense organ at the moment of contact is not affected, but in the next moment it is — because we start a new little activity loop, directing our awareness as a result of the contact that has just occurred. In the same way the object of our attention *might* be affected by our having engaged with it, but it is not necessarily so — not a foregone conclusion that there will be reciprocity.

  4. Dana Nourie says:

    Linda, thank you for this post. The word interdependence has collected a lot of meanings in various circles. I have heard people mention it as we are all one, the non duality concept. But in my inspection interdependence is important to study to see we don’t live in a vacuum, that our food, our clothes, and everything we do relies on many other people and conditions.

    I agree Dependent Arising is different, though I had not stop to actually think about it until I read this blog. I completely agree with you. I used to really struggle with consciousness having an object (I don’t know why), but I really like this paragraph you wrote:

    But when applied to object of the senses, the sense organ, and the consciousness that arises at the meeting of the two, the object is not directly affected by the process. The sense organ at the moment of contact is not affected, but in the next moment it is — because we start a new little activity loop, directing our awareness as a result of the contact that has just occurred. In the same way the object of our attention *might* be affected by our having engaged with it, but it is not necessarily so — not a foregone conclusion that there will be reciprocity.

    A lot of meat and meaning in that paragraph! It makes sense of the processes, and that we can assume a conclusion but can only be mindful as events occur and we respond.

  5. […] Dependent Arising Is Not Interdependent […]

  6. Kyung Bon says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and other writings on this website.

    My take on the relationship between dependent arising and interdependence is this. Dependent arising, as you all of course know, is the basic structure of the Buddha’s message in the Nikayas. The Buddha said that he only taught about suffering and the cessation of suffering. Both of these, suffering, and its complete cessation, expressed positively as liberation, or ‘knowledge and vision of liberation’, arise through the process of dependent arising. Thus, dependent arising in the Nikayas is the basic formula, or structure, connecting all of the Buddha’s insights–from how suffering arises from igorance, and how, with faith, ethical disciplline, meditation and wisdom, suffering can be transformed and liberation attained.

    It is my understanding that interdepence, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is based on the Mahayana teachings of the Avatamsaka, Flower Garland Sutra. The concept there is called “Dharma-world dependent origination” (法界緣起), and is used to describe the interenetration of all phenomena throughout time and space. Though I have never heard Thich Nhat Hanh reference it directly, that is the basic source for the Mahayana notion of the dependent origination of dharmas.

    So, to summarize, I would say that dependent arising in the Nikayas is focused on how our mind, or our life, comes to be experienced as suffering (from ignorance to dukkha) and how we can go from dukkha to liberation (dukkha, faith, silla, samadhi, prajna–“transcendental dependent arising). Interdependence, on the other hand, is trying to show the reality of the Dharma realm– the interconnectedness of all dharmas in time and space.

    Thanks for all the interesting discussion !

  7. Many thanks Linda for all your study and work that has resulted in your book Dependent Arising. If I had the resources I would finance it’s distribution worldwide to all Dharma centres. I sit with a group in Totnes, Devon, UK. We are loosely affiliated to Gaia House. We have been using the book in our study of Dependent Arising and found it invaluable. Best wishes Will

  8. star says:

    What a kind thing to say. Thanks, Will, you’ve made my day.

RSS feed for comments on this post. And trackBack URL.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.