Interpretations of Dependent Origination

Interpretations of Dependent Origination

The teach­ing of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion may be sum­ma­rized as follows:

An expla­na­tion describ­ing the evo­lu­tion of the world and the cycle of all life, by inter­pret­ing some of the Buddha’s words in a more lit­er­al way, for exam­ple the Buddha’s teach­ing on the ‘ori­gin of the world’ (loka-samu­daya).1

An expla­na­tion describ­ing the birth and death of human beings and the ori­gin and ces­sa­tion of human suf­fer­ing. This expla­na­tion can be sub-divid­ed into two fur­ther categories:

A broad descrip­tion of one life to anoth­er: the pass­ing from one realm of exis­tence to anoth­er. This is also a lit­er­al expla­na­tion and it is com­mon­ly found in the com­men­taries, where it is sys­tem­atized and described in great, and some­times intim­i­dat­ing, detail.

A descrip­tion of a cycle present at each moment of life. This descrip­tion offers an inter­pre­ta­tion of this teach­ing implic­it in the pre­vi­ous descrip­tion (2A), but it focus­es on a deep­er mean­ing of spe­cif­ic Pali terms, or on their prac­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance. This inter­pre­ta­tion explains the whole cycle of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion in terms of present expe­ri­ence, which is con­sid­ered to be in line with the Buddha’s inten­tion and the real objec­tive of this teach­ing, as evi­denced by many dis­cours­es of the Bud­dha, includ­ing the Cetanā Sutta,2 the Dukkhanirod­ha Sutta,3 and the Lokanirod­ha Sutta.4 In the Abhid­ham­ma an entire sec­tion is ded­i­cat­ed to the com­plete sequence of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion aris­ing in a sin­gle mind moment.5

In ref­er­ence to expla­na­tion #1, some peo­ple inter­pret Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as a the­o­ry of the ori­gin (‘gen­e­sis’) of the uni­verse, declar­ing igno­rance as a ‘first cause’6 in a process fol­lowed and com­plet­ed by the remain­ing eleven fac­tors. This inter­pre­ta­tion leads to the view that Bud­dhism resem­bles oth­er reli­gions and philoso­phies that posit a prime agent, for exam­ple a cre­ator God, who is the source of all beings and all things. Accord­ing to this inter­pre­ta­tion, the only dif­fer­ence is that these the­is­tic doc­trines por­tray the cre­ation and gov­ern­ing of the world by a force out­side and above nature, while Bud­dhism describes a causal, nat­ur­al process.

This inter­pre­ta­tion, how­ev­er, is inac­cu­rate, because any teach­ing that pro­fess­es a first cause or prime agent con­tra­dicts the teach­ing of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion or of spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty. The teach­ing of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion offers an objec­tive account of causal­i­ty, that all con­di­tioned things are inter­re­lat­ed and inter­de­pen­dent. They arise in a suc­ces­sive, causal process with­out begin­ning or end. A first cause, either a cre­ator God or oth­er agent, is impos­si­ble. There­fore, the expla­na­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as describ­ing the evo­lu­tion of the world is only suit­able in the con­text of explain­ing a nat­ur­al, causal process of con­tin­u­al growth and dis­in­te­gra­tion, with­out begin­ning and with­out end.

One way of deter­min­ing whether an inter­pre­ta­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion is cor­rect or not is to con­sid­er the Buddha’s inten­tion in teach­ing the Dham­ma. The Bud­dha focused on things that can be applied to bring about well­be­ing, that are rel­e­vant to every­day life, and that solve real life prob­lems. He con­sid­ered attempts to reach the truth through meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tion and debate to be fruit­less. Deter­min­ing what is tru­ly Bud­dha-Dham­ma thus requires a con­sid­er­a­tion of a teaching’s eth­i­cal and prac­ti­cal value.

The world­view that stems from expla­na­tion #1 of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion, above, is suit­able and accords with the aims of Bud­dha-Dham­ma. It pro­vides a broad per­spec­tive that things pro­ceed accord­ing to cause and effect, that they depend on nat­ur­al con­di­tions, and that they nei­ther orig­i­nate from a cre­ator God nor do they arise ran­dom­ly or by acci­dent. More­over, it is con­ducive to bring­ing about the fol­low­ing three prac­ti­cal benefits:

First, one real­izes that to find suc­cess and ful­fil­ment, one can­not rely on hope, desire, fate, divine inter­ven­tion, or super­nat­ur­al pow­ers. One only reach­es suc­cess through con­cert­ed action; one must be self-reliant and gen­er­ate the con­di­tions that lead to success.

Sec­ond, to gen­er­ate these con­di­tions, one must prop­er­ly under­stand each fac­tor with­in the dynam­ic of nature in which one is engaged, as well as under­stand­ing the mutu­al rela­tion­ship between fac­tors; wis­dom is there­fore an essen­tial ele­ment in the process.

Third, the knowl­edge of causal con­nec­tions reduces or elim­i­nates the mis­tak­en iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with things as a fixed ‘self.’ This knowl­edge pro­motes an appro­pri­ate rela­tion­ship to things and leads to inner freedom.

Although the expla­na­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as describ­ing a begin­ning­less and end­less evo­lu­tion of the world is accept­able, its prac­ti­cal val­ue is lim­it­ed. It is not yet suf­fi­cient­ly cogent or inte­grat­ed to guar­an­tee the three ben­e­fits men­tioned above (espe­cial­ly the third ben­e­fit of pro­mot­ing freedom).

To tru­ly prof­it from this broad inter­pre­ta­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion, one must refine one’s inves­ti­ga­tion by dis­cern­ing the causal, inter­de­pen­dent nature of all con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na. When one devel­ops this clar­i­ty in every moment of one’s life, the three attrib­ut­es men­tioned ear­li­er are com­plete, and at the same time one reach­es the true objec­tive of the inter­pre­ta­tion relat­ed to the evo­lu­tion of the world.

The expla­na­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as the evo­lu­tion of the world, either in its broad­est sense or in a more refined way, is a con­tem­pla­tion of exter­nal phe­nom­e­na. The sec­ond expla­na­tion, on the oth­er hand, empha­sizes the inter­nal life of human beings, includ­ing the dynam­ic of human suffering.

The first sub-divi­sion (2A) is favoured by the com­men­taries, where it is explained in great detail.7 The com­men­taries coin many new descrip­tive terms for this process in order to con­struct a clear, orga­nized sys­tem. The dis­ad­van­tage, how­ev­er, is that this sys­tem can appear inflex­i­ble, and to stu­dents new to Bud­dhism, rather arcane. The sec­ond sub-divi­sion (2B) is direct­ly linked to the first (2A), as will be described below.


1 E.g.: S. II. 73.

2 S. II. 65.

3 S. II. 72–3.

4 S. II. 73.

5 The Abhid­ham­ma-Bhā­janīya of the Pac­cayākāra-Vibaṅ­ga: Vbh. 138–92.

6 [A form of ‘cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment’ or ‘argu­ment from first cause.’] Some pro­po­nents of this argu­ment define avi­jjā as an ‘unknow­ing enti­ty,’ which refers to mate­ri­al­i­ty as the ori­gin of life. Oth­ers trans­late avi­jjā as the ‘unknow­able’ or the ‘unfath­omable,’ equat­ing avi­jjā with God. And the term saṅkhārā (the sec­ond fac­tor) is occa­sion­al­ly mis­de­fined as ‘all con­di­tioned phenomena.’

7 See: Vism. 517–86; VbhA. 129–213 (pages 199–213 illus­trate the com­plete process of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion in a sin­gle mind moment.)