Significance of Dependent Origination

The Bud­dha pre­sent­ed the prin­ci­ple of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as a law of nature, which does not rely on the emer­gence of a Bud­dha for its exis­tence. The Bud­dha pre­sent­ed Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion as a nat­ur­al truth in the fol­low­ing way:

Whether Tathā­gatas arise or not, that prin­ci­ple of spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty1 is con­stant, cer­tain, and a law of nature. Hav­ing ful­ly awak­ened to and pen­e­trat­ed to this truth, a Tathā­ga­ta announces it, teach­es it, clar­i­fies it, for­mu­lates it, reveals it, and ana­lyzes it. And he says: ‘See! With igno­rance as con­di­tion, there are voli­tion­al for­ma­tions….

Thus, bhikkhus, this actu­al­i­ty (tathatā), this inerran­cy (avi­tathatā), this invari­abil­i­ty (anaññathatā)—this spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty (idap­pac­cay­atā)—this is called Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion.2

The cen­tral impor­tance of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion is evi­dent from the Buddha’s words:

One who sees Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion sees the Dham­ma; one who sees the Dham­ma sees Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion.3

Bhikkhus, the instruct­ed noble dis­ci­ple has a knowl­edge about this that is inde­pen­dent of oth­ers: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the aris­ing of this, that aris­es’…. When a noble dis­ci­ple thus under­stands as they real­ly are the ori­gin and the pass­ing away of the world, he is then called a noble dis­ci­ple per­fect­ed in view, per­fect­ed in vision, who has arrived at this true Dham­ma, who pos­sess­es a trainee’s knowl­edge, a trainee’s true knowl­edge, who has entered the stream of the Dham­ma, a noble one with pen­e­tra­tive wis­dom, one who stands square­ly before the door to the Death­less.4

Those ascetics and brah­mans who under­stand these things (i.e., the fac­tors of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion), the ori­gin of these things, the ces­sa­tion of these things, and the way lead­ing to ces­sa­tion of these things … those ascetics and brah­mans are deserv­ing of the acknowl­edge­ment as ascetics among ascetics and brah­mans among brah­mans. By real­iz­ing it for them­selves with direct knowl­edge, they are rec­og­nized as in this very life reach­ing and abid­ing in the goal of asceti­cism and the goal of brah­man­hood.5

On one occa­sion, the Bud­dha warned Ven. Ānan­da not to mis­judge the com­plex­i­ty of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion:

Ānan­da: ‘It is won­der­ful, ven­er­a­ble sir! It is mar­vel­lous, ven­er­a­ble sir! This Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion is so deep and appears so deep, yet to me it seems clear and easy to under­stand.’

Bud­dha: ‘Not so, Ānan­da! Not so, Ānan­da! This Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion is deep and appears deep. It is because of not under­stand­ing and not pen­e­trat­ing this truth (Dham­ma) that this gen­er­a­tion is afflict­ed and become like a tan­gled skein, like a knot­ted ball of thread, like mat­ted reeds and rush­es, and is unable to tran­scend the plane of mis­ery, the bad des­ti­na­tions, the low­er worlds, and the round of rebirth (saṁsāra).6

Read­ers who are famil­iar with the Buddha’s life sto­ry will remem­ber his reluc­tance soon after his awak­en­ing to pro­claim the teach­ing (Dham­ma):

Bhikkhus, this thought arose in me: ‘This Dham­ma that I have attained is pro­found, dif­fi­cult to see, dif­fi­cult to real­ize, peace­ful, excel­lent, not acces­si­ble by rea­son­ing, to be known by the wise. But this gen­er­a­tion delights in attach­ment, takes plea­sure in attach­ment, rejoic­es in attach­ment.7 It is hard for such a gen­er­a­tion delight­ing in attach­ment to see this truth, name­ly, spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty, Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion. And it is hard to see this truth, name­ly, the still­ing of all for­ma­tions, the aban­don­ment of all foun­da­tions for suf­fer­ing (upad­hi), the end of crav­ing, dis­pas­sion, ces­sa­tion, Nib­bā­na. If I were to teach the Dham­ma and oth­ers would not tru­ly under­stand me, that would be weary­ing and trou­ble­some for me.8

This pas­sage men­tions both Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion and Nib­bā­na, empha­siz­ing both the impor­tance of these two truths and also the dif­fi­cul­ty in real­iz­ing them. The Bud­dha awak­ened to these truths and explained them to oth­ers.

*****

1 ‘Spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty’ = idap­pac­cay­atā. This is anoth­er name for Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion. It can also be trans­lat­ed as the ‘con­ver­gence of con­di­tion­al fac­tors.’ In the lat­er texts of the Tip­iṭa­ka, Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion is some­times referred to as ‘mode of con­di­tion­al­i­ty’ (pac­cayākāra). The com­men­taries and sub-com­men­taries use this term pac­cayākāra more fre­quent­ly than the term idap­pac­cay­atā. 

2 S. II. 25–6. ‘Prin­ci­ple’ = dhā­tu: lit­er­al­ly, ‘ele­ment.’ This is an almost iden­ti­cal pre­sen­ta­tion to the Buddha’s teach­ing on the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics (tilakkhaṇa). [See: ‘The Three Signs,’ a trans­la­tion of chap­ter 3 of Bud­dhad­ham­ma, trans­lat­ed by Robin Moore © 2007.]

3 M. I. 190–91.

4 E.g.: S. II. 78–9.

5 S. II. 16, 45–6, 129.

6 S. II. 92.

7 Ālaya: attach­ment, obses­sion, depen­den­cy; a reliance on exter­nal con­di­tions.

8 Vin. I. 4–5; M. I. 167–8.