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. Read the rest of this entry »

Possibilities: Karma, Merit and Vipaka

August 5th, 2011

In my last post, I described a different way of looking at “truth” that divided up what we experience into things that are “necessarily real” — objects and other phenomenon that are independent of individuals, usually measurable in some way — and those that are “unnecessarily real” — that is, we really experience these things, but we can do without them (they are unnecessary). The “unnecessarily real” usually aren’t measurable by any scientific method, and they may or may not be desirable (a smile is unnecessarily real, because it comes and goes, but it’s worth keeping around). The focus of that post was on dukkha, and how we add layers of meaning to our experiences, and in that way we create unnecessary dukkha — but it’s important to recognize that dukkha is real in this sense, not a delusion; people do genuinely suffer.

In just the way that dukkha is unnecessarily real — it is something we create that we can learn to stop creating, and live without — karma, too, is unnecessarily real. We know that both fit in the category of “unnecessarily real” because the Buddha’s system is all about the ending of karma, and through that, the ending of dukkha.


The Buddha talks about four kinds of karma: the good stuff, the bad stuff, the neutral stuff, and the karma that ends karma Read the rest of this entry »

Not Necessarily Real: Absolute Truth vs Samsaric Truth

July 20th, 2011

Possibilities: Truth

I have recently been working on a different way of looking at the classical Buddhist division of “truth” into higher and lower realities, or “absolute truth” and “delusion”. The Buddha didn’t make these divisions in his discourses, and I find those ways of looking at things unhelpful, if not downright harmful since they lead people to be dismissive of others’ suffering as “delusion”. This is why I’ve been looking for a different way of explaining what the Buddha may have seen, and the phrase I have come up with is that some things are “necessarily real” and some things are not.

Those phenomena which are “necessarily real” — solid objects are the easiest example of these things — are things that have an existence apart from the momentary whims of humans, things that are generally measurable by science (though there are undoubtedly things that are “necessarily real” but that we have yet to figure out how to measure); and there are things that are “unnecessarily real” — things which *may* be measurable by science, but that are optional; for example, a smile. That last category is of things we create on the fly, whether consciously or not (like the smile), things that are *ours* because no one else can take them away from us without our cooperation. Someone can have an effect on us that plays a part in us ceasing to smile, but it is still our choice to smile or not — no one can actually lift the smile off our faces because it’s not just *in* our faces.

Read the rest of this entry »

Possibilities: Causation

July 15th, 2011

This post and the next few step away from my usual anchor of discussing “What the Buddha Taught” as (very precisely) stated in texts found in the Pali canon. Instead it is a look at what’s stated in the canon a bit vaguely, with the intent to then examine what we can see for ourselves in our lives, and to try to match the canon with the what we can see. It’s an attempt to take the Buddha’s statements and ask if we are correctly interpreting them or if, perhaps, we sometimes over-extend our definitions of the concepts to say more than they are meant to say.

The posts will cover:

(1) That the Buddha’s “causation” is not “cause and effect” but “effect and cause”.

(2) That the division of truth into “Absolute” and “Delusion” is harmful; a more useful view would be of “necessary” and “unnecessary”.

(3) That karma is real but, in my own way of putting it, it is “not necessarily real”, but is a little more real than some things.

(4) That “interdependence” is not what Dependent Arising describes. Nor is it the arising of “this” from “that” in every case. 


When this is, that is.

From the arising of this comes the arising of that.

When this isn’t, that isn’t.

From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

[Udana 1.3 translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

In his book on Dependent Arising, “The Shape of Suffering” Thanissaro Bhikkhu states of the above that:

“The Arising of A will, at some point in time, cause the arising of B. The ceasing of A will, at some point in time, cause the ceasing of B.”

While I agree with the latter statement — because if condition A is required for condition B to come into existence, then removing condition A means B cannot come about — the earlier statement makes for a deterministic universe, and it is not consistently observable in the complex universe in which we live. Also, it seems it was not what the Buddha meant.

Some of my recent explorations in Pali (see for example “Where One Becomes One’s Natural Self“) have led me to look at the ways in which the Buddha says that action A does not always lead to result B. Much as we might wish (because the thought is comforting) that the universe always squares things up in the end or, at least, that the cosmos is predictable, it isn’t — though we often reason as if it was.

To use a purely mechanical example of this sort of causation we could say:

From the arising of a seed, comes the arising of a new tree.

From the cessation of seeds, comes the cessation of new trees.

But it does not follow that with the arising of a seed there is *always* a tree. Read the rest of this entry »

Revisiting Dona the Brahmin

July 10th, 2011

Gandharan birchbark scroll
In 1994, the British Library obtained several decaying birch-bark scrolls with writing in an ancient Gandharan script. They contained a variety of Buddhist texts, and were dated back to the middle of the first century — to about the year 50 C.E. Though no one knows exactly where and how they were found, the evidence points to these texts having been buried in clay pots, probably in lieu of throwing them away, after they had been recopied for a library in what is now far eastern Afghanistan, somewhere around the area between Jalalabad and Peshawar, in what was a thriving and cultured area known as Gandhara. The texts are still partly readable, and cover a range of Buddhist works, and include a sutta (AN 4.36) recently discussed, in the post “I Am Not A Man.

The story as laid out on the Gandharan scrolls is not letter-for-letter the same, or word-for-word, or even phrase-for-phrase. The vocabulary is quite similar, spelling is somewhat modified — and there are small bits missing, as well as the traditional opening lines. The book Three Gāndhārī Ekottarikāgama-type sūtras: British Library Kharoṣṭhī” has a thorough reconstruction that can be examined through Google Books, but below I offer a somewhat smoothed version that should be enough to let us look at the differences between the readily-available Pali version, and the older Gandharan.


The Bhagavat, traveling between cities, stepped off the road. Seating himself near the root of a tree, he spent the day.

At about the same time a brahmin named Dhona had started out on the same road. Dhona noticed the wheel-marks on the footprints of the Bhagavat on the road before him, thousand-spoked, with all parts complete, sharp, resplendent. Following the footprints of the Bhagavat, he saw him who had traveled on the road. He had stepped off the road and sat near the root of a tree. His appearance was fair, pleasing, his faculties calm, his mind calm, having attained the highest training and calm. . . a protector, trained, controlled, with faculties restrained, like a clear, translucent, serene pond.

Having seen him, he approached the Bhagavat. Having approached, he said this to the Bhagavat.

“Venerable sir, will you be (bhaviśasi) a deva?”

“Brahmin, I will not be (bhaviśe) a deva.”

“Venerable sir, will you be a gandharva?”

“Brahmin, I will not be a gandharva.”

“Venerable sir, will you be a yaksa?”

“Brahmin, I will not be a yaksa.”

“Sir, will you be (bhaviśasi) a human (maosu)?”

“Brahmin, I will not be (bhaviśe) a human.”

“Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a deva?’ you say this, ‘Brahmin, I will not be a deva.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a gandharva?’ you say this, ‘Brahman, I will not be a gandharva.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a yaksa?’ you say this, ‘Brahmin, I will not be a yaksa.’ Being asked thus, ‘Sir, will you be a human?’ you say this, ‘Brahman, I will not be a human.’ Who, then, sir, will you be?” (ku re bhu bhaviśasi)

“Brahmin, I am the Awakened One. I am the Awakened One.” (budho mi brahmaa budho mi)


The core story is very much the same as the Pali version. The opening lines and the ending of the sutta, however, are quite different. Read the rest of this entry »

Where One Becomes One’s Natural Self

June 14th, 2011

In chasing down the suttas in which the phrase upapajja vā apare vā pariyāye appears, I’ve come across a sutta (AN 3.34 The Nidana Sutta) in which the Buddha talks about the results of kamma using a phrase I have not encountered before, “yatthassa attabhāvo nibbattati“:

  • yatthassa – reality, true nature
  • attabhāvo – personality; individuality (literally self-becoming)
  • nibbattati – is born; results; arises

so we find him speaking of the consequences of actions that are inspired by greed, aversion, and delusion coming to fruition where there is the arising of our natural self, that self being “attabhāvo” — the sense-of-self that arises out of the process described in Dependent Arising as “becoming”. It isn’t surprising to hear the Buddha saying that the results of actions are experienced where there is the arising of that sense of a lasting self — since it’s quite clear that the opposite is true, that when we are rid of that sense of a lasting self, we stop doing those sorts of actions, and so there will be no new “results” created — but I have never found it stated more clearly.

This turn of phrase in this context could almost (but I think not quite) be read as saying that the arising of attabhāvo *is* the result of those actions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Diṭṭheva Dhamme As The Way We See Things For Ourselves

May 27th, 2011

I have often said that words are tricky, but I have never come across as clear an example of this as I found in the phrase diṭṭheva dhamme which appears more than four hundred times in the suttas compiled in the Pali canon. I first encountered it in AN 10.208 where it is used to describe the first possible experience of the results of kamma as being (in traditional translations) in the “here & now”. That seems to be its most popular translation in the suttas, along with “immediately” and “in this present life” though I have also seen it translated as “realized” (DN 6.13 by Walshe) — which is closer to the truth of the Pali — and even in a compromise: “realized in this very life” (DN 8.15 also by Walshe).

The Pali at its most literal means “having definitely seen into the truth” with the emphatic “definitely” being provided by the “eva” that is blended onto the end of the word “diṭṭhe“. “Diṭṭhe” is a past participle, a word formed from a verb by using its past tense, but which can be applied to the past, present, or future in the shape of an adjective or an adverb. That it is a past participle makes it a very flexible word in use, so for example we might have:

  • has seen
  • has been seen
  • having been seen
  • is seen
  • can be seen
  • will be seen
  • should be seen
  • could be seen

as possibilities, depending on the needs of the speaker.

The word “dhamme“, on the other hand, being locative, is something we are putting something into — apparently putting our vision into reality; Read the rest of this entry »

The Causes Of Three Kinds of Results of Karma

May 7th, 2011

((This post is actually about diṭṭheva dhamme upapajje vā apare vā pariyāye though it won’t look that way when you head into it because it’s in disguise.))

In MN 136(1) the Buddha spends a fair amount of time trying to make one thing very clear to us: that when it comes to karma, it is not the action that bears fruit, it is the type of action that bears fruit. This is a very fine distinction, and to me it seems like a bit of circular logic, but it is of enough importance to him that he got quite annoyed at a couple of his disciples for not grasping the point and at one fellow in particular who gave a bad answer to a question on the subject to a wanderer who was misrepresenting the Buddha’s views.

First let’s take a look at the circular logic and why it matters, and then we can look at the sutta.

The Buddha says that when we are speaking of sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ, “intentional actions”, whether they are performed by body, speech, or mind, they are of three types.

There is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ sukhavedanīyaṃ sukhaṃvedayati

intentional action to be felt as pleasant that is to be felt as pleasant

There is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ dukkhavedanīyaṃ dukkhaṃ vedayati

intentional action to be felt as painful that is to be felt as painful

And there is:

sañcetanikaṃ kammaṃ adukkhamasukhavedanīyaṃ adukkhamasukhaṃ vedayatī

intentional action to be felt as neither that is to be felt as neither

You can probably see that defining “intentional action that is of the type that results in X” as “that which results in X” is pretty darned circular, but here’s his point: We can’t, ourselves, tell by looking at an action what type it is. We can’t put actions in set categories and say “All generous acts will result in sukha (pleasure).” Doing that, making sweeping, dogmatic statements that particular acts are in and of themselves the sort of evil that lands one in hell or kindness that gets one to heaven (1) misses the point of suññata “emptiness” Read the rest of this entry »

No Escape

April 23rd, 2011

And speaking of bad translations by Woodward (which I was, in the comments two posts back) and how they sometimes lead me to see things I wouldn’t otherwise, I was out looking for some fresh insight into the Brahma Vihara, when I came across one in the Angutarra Nikaya’s “Tens” (AN 10.208) that I read in the old Pali Text Society version first published in 1936, translated by R.L. Woodward, which led me to discover something I think is quite interesting.

The first few lines were what caught my attention because they were so muddy that I couldn’t understand what was being said:

Monks, I declare that of intentional deeds done and accumulated there can be no wiping out without experiencing the result thereof, and that too whenever arising, either in this same visible state or in some other state hereafter.

I declare, monks, that there is no ending of Ill as regards intentional deeds done and accumulated without experiencing the results thereof.

and in comparing that to two other translations, I found none of them quite agreed on what was being said. Here is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s:

“Monks, I don’t speak of the wiping out of intentional acts that have been done & accumulated without [their results] having been experienced, either in the here & now or in a further state hereafter. Nor do I speak of the act of putting an end to suffering and stress without having experienced [the results of] intentional acts that have been done & accumulated.”

and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s:

“I declare, monks, that actions willed, performed and accumulated will not become extinct as long as their results have not been experienced, be it in this life, in the next life or in subsequent future lives. As long as these results of actions willed, performed and accumulated have not been experienced, there will be no making an end to suffering, I declare.


What we have here are three pieces:

  1. A first phrase in which the Buddha says something about kamma (“actions”) and their results
  2. A second phrase referring back to the first (muddled in Woodward’s version; mistranslated and misunderstood, I believe, in all three)
  3. A third phrase that is an almost exact duplication of the first, with the only differences being that this last sentence opens with an emphatic negation (“na tvevāhaṃ“) instead of the original mild one, and the word translated as “extinct” or “wiped out” in the first sentence is replaced with “dukkhassantakiriyaṃ” (“ending of Ill” or “end to suffering”) in this third.

The problems I found are in the middle phrase, which traditionally is being interpreted as talking about when one will experience suffering, which, if you think about it, isn’t a particularly significant thing to talk about: of course if we are going to experience the fruits of kamma it will either be experienced now or in the future — what would be the significance of pointing this out? Bhikkhu Bodhi’s answer seems to be that it’s telling us it will either be in our lives now or in a future life, but the Pali has nothing about lives in it at all.

Read the rest of this entry »

Addendum to “I am not a man,” the Buddha said.

April 14th, 2011

In his comments on the Dona Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu supports the contention that Dona’s questions to the Buddha, though grammatically in a future tense, have the intention of asking, in a wondering tone, about the present (“Would you be a deva, then?” being the sense of it) with the statement that:

His earlier statement — “These are not the footprints of a human being” — is also phrased in the future tense, and the mood of wonder extends throughout his conversation with the Buddha.

This would be a fine explanation, if what Dona said in wonderment as he followed those footprints, and when he questioned the Buddha, were as simple as the translations make it appear. The Pali and translations are:

“… na vatimāni manussabhūtassa padāni bhavissantī”ti!

“… These are not the footprints of a human being!”

“… devo no bhavaṃ bhavissatī”ti?

“…are you a deva?”

The problem with these translations is that both of the Pali questions have two words derived from “bhu” in them. The first has “bhūtassa” and “bhavissantī” and the second has “bhavaṃ” and “bhavissatī” and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation doesn’t account for these. Both are about becoming.

To take a quick look at the first sentence, there is a becoming for the footprints (“What will I discover when I get to the end of them?”) and a becoming of a man.

In my rough word-for-word translation

“Surely these will not turn out to be the footprints of the becoming of a human being”

we can see that Dona is not only concerned with what the footprints will lead to (“become”), but whether they were left by someone who will “become” a human. If he were simply concerned with whether those were a human’s footprints, there would be no need for the “bhūtassa” (becoming) in the “manussabhūtassa” (human-becoming).

This is made even clearer in the following phrases, where there is a “bhu” noun representing a “state of existence”.

I cannot work out a way in which a question framed as

“Will you not come to be a deva?”

can have the wondering lilt provided by the future tense, but meaning the present, that Thanissaro Bhikkhu says it does. “Would you not be a deva?” might have worked, but “Will you not come to be a deva?” is pretty clear.

Read the rest of this entry »