Friday, May 20, 2011

Dependent Origination - An Introduction (Part 1 of 5)

With so much being written about Buddhism these days, it would seem difficult to find someone who doesn’t have at least a passing familiarity with such concepts as impermanence and emptiness. The teaching that undergirds these two, however – namely, dependent origination – is far less well known and almost certainly less well understood. In the most general sense, dependent origination conveys the reality that absolutely every “thing” that comes into being owes its existence to myriad causes and conditions, constantly in flux, that form the ground from which and the environment into which that “thing” arises. A number of Buddhist teachings expound upon this reality within the context of helping us understand the process by which suffering arises – thereby helping us understand its cessation. The so-called twelve-fold chain of dependent origination is a detailed description of this process. I’ll be exploring this chain in greater detail in a future post. For now, though, I’m merely aiming to whet your appetite. Dependent origination can make for quite a heavy meal. Consider this the appetizer, then!

 Dependent Origination in a Nutshell

As dense as the teachings related to dependent origination might be, it can be communicated (with varying success depending upon the depth of insight of the reader) with a surprising modicum of words:
            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. (Anguttara Nikaya 10.92)
Even in the space of these four lines one can infer those Buddhist teachings about which volumes have been written: 1) that all things are impermanent; i.e., things come into existence when certain other conditions arise and they change or cease to exist when those conditions change or cease to be; and 2) that all things are empty of independent existence; i.e., if everything owes its very existence to something else, then it is arbitrary (and incorrect in the ultimate sense) to think of that thing as being separate or distinct or independent in the first place. If something depends so completely on something else, then why not consider the two together to be separate, distinct, and independent? Well, because there are other things upon which those “two” depend, and other things upon which those things depend, and so on, ad infinitum. Thus, the very concept of things being separate and distinct is just that, a concept. Indeed, it is a concept upon which our entire conventional world is structured, but that need not stand in the way of our understanding of ultimate truth. All things are impermanent and empty of independent identity and existence. Now, at the risk of making this appetizer a little heavier than you might expect one to be, that means you.

Statement of Gratitude

At this point I’d like to take a moment to convey my indebtedness to my teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, whose reflection, scholarship, and teaching on matters of dependent origination, and Buddhism in general, have allowed me to attain whatever level of understanding I might have on such matters. Specifically, Yoshida roshi’s 1994 text, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, has formed the basis of and provided guidance for my own exploration of the subject of dependent origination. For instance, it was Yoshida roshi’s book that pointed me to the source material from which the above four line quote came. It is also Yoshida roshi’s scholarship that allows me to realize that I risk leading readers astray in the very first paragraph of this post by referring to things ‘coming into being.’

Becoming vs. Being

To speak of things ‘coming into being’ tends to imply the attainment of or arrival into some stable state wherein – voila! – independent existence has arisen. Being implies a static situation, whereas becoming implies a continuous process. The Pali word pertinent to the discussion here is bhava – becoming – one of the links in the aforementioned twelve-fold chain. Says Yoshida (1994): “Existence is understood in terms of becoming (bhava) through incessant dynamic ‘dependent origination or becoming’ (paticca-sam-bhava), and not static ‘being’ (sat) or ‘non-being’ (asat)” (p. 26). Well, I’m certainly guilty of an overreliance on the word ‘being.’ Please don’t feel the need to go back and count all the times that I’ve used it, though! And, yes, I’m sure to use it again for the sake of expediency. I suppose it’s just the nature of my being. Oops! I suppose it’s just a pattern of communication temporarily persisting in conjunction with the process of “my” becoming. Seriously, this distinction between being and becoming really does take us to the very heart of dependent origination – and all of Buddhism for that matter. Perhaps that is a good lesson right there as to how our choice of a single word can have drastic ramifications for whatever discussion might ensue.

Understanding Dependent Origination with Your Heart

There will be plenty of time (and necessity) for the introduction of additional Pali words as this series of posts proceeds. For now, though, I’d like to veer away from a more intellectual discussion of dependent origination in order to tell a story that I hope will allow you to feel its truth in your heart, or your gut, as the case may be. If you read my second post, What’s in a Name, you know that much of the inspiration for this blog comes from a cross-country bicycle journey that I embarked upon some years ago. After making my way across Oregon, with its many mountain ranges and gorgeous valleys in between, I rolled into Boise, Idaho with a decision to make. Should I continue heading eastward along the dry, flat Snake River plain or should I detour up into the Boise Mountains and head for the heart of the rugged Sawtooth Range? Now, if your goal is simply to ride across the country, then meandering up into the Sawtooth Range is certainly not the most efficient route to take. Looking back, though, I can see that my journey wasn’t about riding across the country at all. It was about crossing Nebraska; and you just can’t cross Nebraska without first having your fill of the mountains.

It took three days of climbing to make it up into the Sawtooth Range. The first one actually wasn’t that tough – inspired as I was by the beauty of the mountains. The second one, however, with its relentlessly steep switchbacks, pretty much broke me in every way that a human can be broken. Ah, but being broken really isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it has many advantages. Being broken forces us to jettison all of those inane expectations that we carry around with us most of the time. Being broken pushes us toward an economy of existence that we probably wouldn’t choose to experience otherwise. Being broken, by its very nature, pries loose our grip on all of our petty conceits. After all, what is there to be conceited about when you’re broken? Hmmm. Perhaps that ride was a little like sitting sesshin! And as I crested the ridge separating the valley from whence I’d come and the valley of my evening destination…, well…, that was just a little bit like that last period of zazen after a whole day of being broken down by zazen after zazen after zazen. Things get very still when you’re up that high – especially after being broken. The sounds of chirping birds and rippling streams are far below, and nobody builds much of anything way up there – least of all any silly ideas. There’s just this kind of sound that the wind makes when there’s not a whole lot of anything for it to blow against. It’s kind of a peaceful, steady, yawning sound that let’s you know that you’re getting really, really close to absolute and utter stillness.

The valley of my destination was still recovering from a massive forest fire that had swept through in the late 1980s, and after cresting that final rise I was soon afforded unobstructed views of its fire-ravaged expanse. Down and down I sped through the destruction – dodging rocks that had washed across the road now that little of the forest remained to hold them in place – coasting nearly all the way to my destination along the banks of the South Fork of the Payette River. It was there beside the river absolutely gushing with roiling white water that I pitched my tent in a little campground adjoining a natural hot spring. The water gurgles up out of the hillside there and trickles down over the rocks – steaming in the cool mountain air for a time before cascading into a little pool sitting right next to the rushing river. And, oh, how sublime that hot spring felt after two solid days of climbing! Time and time again I soaked in that steaming water and then emerged to recover in the cool evening air. I even dunked myself in the roiling white water – ice cold and swift enough to sweep me away should my handhold fail or my toehold falter for even an instant. And as the sun sank low – painting the fuzzy new pine growth on the eastern wall of the valley in glowing shades of emerald and jade – I realized in my gut the truth of dependent origination.

This tiny pool of water rests briefly in the cupped hands of the earth – one reaching up from its fiery bowels, the other reaching down from the snowmelt of mountain valleys high above. If anything at all were different it would simply cease to be. The intensity of the fire burning down below and the abundance of water seeping down from above – together they give rise to a calm eddy in a raging river – a place of refuge balanced between two opposing forces, each with its own innate power to destroy. And the deep, dark forest of countless trees that once filled this valley from one end to the other – it, too, existed like a calm eddy in a raging river. For years the trees here rose into existence and fell away again to become the soil of their offspring. And for years bear and elk and owls and eagles and countless other beings found refuge in this valley. But then a lightning bolt and an abundance of dry, dead wood accumulated after years of fire suppression combined in an instant to send forth the inferno that swept away everything in its path – caring not a whit for all that had made that valley its home. And this glorious earth, spinning, spinning, spinning – just far enough away from an exploding ball of fire, but not too far, not too far. And me, an endless string of beads rising out of it all – out of every nook and cranny – from the depths of space and the molten core of the earth; me, an endless string of beads of life after life after life rising up from some warm tidal basin to swim and then crawl and then climb into the trees, only to descend again and rise up on my hind legs and stay there – to look around, and peer over the horizon, and out into space, and wonder – What am I? Why am I here? – and not know, and not ever, ever know. Because when this is, that is; and from the arising of this comes the arising of that; and when this isn’t, that isn’t; and from the cessation of this comes the cessation of that, and on and on and on. Yes, I’m just a tiny pool of water cupped for a fleeting instant of time within the tissue of this body – this body that draws in one leg and then the other to sit in a position called zazen, that I might let this thing called mind become as still as a raging forest fire – as still as a bolt of lightning finding its way across the heavens – as still as the sun exploding into the blackness of empty space – as still as all the universe from which it has arisen.


Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Wow. I am at loss for words. But I will try. This is such beautiful writing/story telling. I was transported to the land and events you describe. I feel very fortunate to have had dependent origination occur in such a way to have found MZC and your blog.
    PS. I'm glad you decided to tackle this subject much sooner than I expected after our little chat. I can't wait for more.

  2. Wow, I don't know what to say. Let me attempt to express my gratitude. I am so grateful that I know you, and that you decided to start writing this blog. Thank you.

    PS: Waiting somewhat impatiently (for me, anyway) for your next post. :)

  3. Stacey, K, thank you so much! It is a pleasure knowing that this has resonated with you both. Stacey, it's a huge topic but I guess I decided to just dive in and see where it all headed!

  4. Thanks for writing this Maku! Very well written and clear indeed. I especially appreciate your emphasis that all of these views and ideas we can have are, at their heart, just concepts, and simply replacing a concept with which we interpret a given phenomenon can have an immense effect on our lives.

    It's interesting that the Buddhist concept of dependent origination pretty much exists in Western philosophy, but in comparatively un-unified form. Dependent origination always brings to my mind the Ship of Theseus, the classic paradox that asks whether a ship that has had all of its constituent parts replaced over time is still the same ship. Also, Heraclitus, who would have been a contemporary of the Buddha, said, "Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow" and "One cannot step into the same river twice". The ship idea incorrectly (in our view) presupposes a stable state can exist, but the river concept approaches the idea of bhava quite closely. I find it fascinating how tantalizingly close Heraclitus's ideas were to the Buddha's on this matter, especially considering they lived at the same time. It's a pity we only know his work from fragments.

  5. Hello, Samsara. Can I call you Sam? ;D I always enjoy it whenever East and West seem to have a meeting of the minds, so to speak. The 'Ship of Theseus' paradox that you mention sounds a lot like the conversation between Nagasena and King Milinda in the Milindapanha. I touch on the Milindapanha in Part 4 of this series but I don't get into how Nagasena goes on to question Milinda about his chariot and what its parts amount to when disassembled, etc. In fact, the Milinda/Nagasena conversation may actually be an East meets West conversation. Milinda is thought to be the Bactrian Greek King, Menander. I love that quote from Heraclitus. I do think it gets at the fluidity that is conveyed by dependent origination, as long as it is understood that the 'one doing the stepping' is just as fluid as 'that which is stepped into'. Thank you, Samsara, for reading and commenting!