Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dependent Origination - A Structural Interpretation (Part 5 of 5)

As of the close of the previous post we’d made it all the way through the twelve links of what is generally considered to be the standard representation of the teaching of dependent origination. I’m sure that questions still remain, and I expect that some of them will linger for quite some time. I do hope, however, that there is no question in anybody’s mind that there is something important being conveyed within these links with respect to how we can live our lives with greater awareness.

Perhaps many of the questions that remain relate in some way to the linear presentation of the concepts. “Just how exactly is it that this arises from that?” you might be asking. Perhaps other questions relate to the expectation that this twelve-fold chain should be able to answer far more than it actually does – as if it were a blueprint of metaphysical reality, for instance. I hope that the remainder of this post helps with questions of the first variety. However, as far as those of the second variety are concerned, I think we just need to stay focused on the fact that the twelve-fold chain was intended to explain how suffering arises. Questions of a more metaphysical nature simply cannot be answered by it, no matter how powerful a microscope we might place it under.

Rosan Yoshida’s Structural Interpretation of Dependent Origination

Yoshida roshi’s 1994 book, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, makes a strong case for a non-linear interpretation of twelve-fold dependent origination. In it he examines various representations of dependent origination within Buddhist scripture having anywhere from eight to twelve links (p. 166). Yoshida (1994) explains why this might be so:
[It] is not correct to think that 12 D.O. [twelve-fold dependent origination] was given by the Buddha as a rigid and sole form of Dependent Origination. He must have taught people freely with his insight, less concerned about formulation. Imagine that his teaching was given to all walks of people in different situations according to their personalities and capacities during 45 years [his teaching career]. Formulations might have been done by people such as Sariputta, a legendary proponent famous for his expounding of the dharmas, and those producing the Abhidamma Pitaka, and others. (p.57)
Yoshida (1994) goes on to describe the Buddha’s teaching style as “more like midwifery with flexible dialogue suited to each person and occasion” (p. 68).

Now, once the Sangha – the community of Buddhist monastics – set about formalizing and standardizing the Buddha’s teachings, the focus changed. Says Yoshida (1994): “The Sangha, in teaching and learning, needed a single comprehensive and convenient formula, a representative one out of different D.O. types, which includes essential ideas of the dependent origination of consciousness, samsara and suffering” (p. 49). The linear structure arose from the simple fact that the Sangha at that time still relied largely on an oral teaching tradition – making a sequential presentation of links all but necessity (pp. 43, 49). Yoshida (1994) goes on to say that “12 D.O. is not [a] linear succession of phenomena, but simply a linear expression of a structural form” (p.56).

With the constraint of linearity removed, we are free to examine relationships amongst the various links as we would the components of any dynamic system. And so, without further ado, let me introduce Yoshida roshi’s structural interpretation of dependent origination:

Let’s orient ourselves to this new way of looking at the twelve-fold chain. First of all, it is not a model that encompasses multiple physical lifetimes, i.e. reincarnation. The model presupposes the existence of a physical mind-body interacting with the world of nama-rupa, name and form, the seamless reality subdivided into an environment consisting of a multitude of sense objects. The activity of a physical being within this world of sense objects leads to contact between the sense bases and sense objects, prompting consciousness and feelings to arise.

And this brings us to the most dynamic part of the model. How we interpret feelings as they arise – as good, bad, or neutral – largely depends upon what we’ve brought to the present moment as a result of our previously lived experience. For instance, what is the nature of our nescience? How accurate is our view of the nature of reality? What comprises this self that we have thus far appropriated? What exists in our accumulated storehouse of karmic formations? All of these play a role in determining whether that feeling that just arose will be followed by craving or equanimity, whether it will prompt us to appropriate something new into our conception of self or whether we will continue on, unmoved, realizing the essential insubstantial nature of arising phenomenon. Act without awareness and the end result will, of course, be one of suffering. Engage in further appropriation and, of course, the process of birth, aging and death commences. In this model, however, birth, aging and death are interpreted as moment-to-moment as opposed to lifetime-to-lifetime.

I’ll include the traditional interpretation here for comparison’s sake:

Past Life
  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
Present Life
  1. nama-rupa – name and form.
  2. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  3. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  4. vedana – feeling.
  5. tanha – craving.
  6. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  7. bhava – becoming.
Future Life
  1. jati – birth.
  2. jaramarana – aging and death.

One Final Walk-Through

At this point I’d like to bring to a close this series of posts on dependent origination by looking at the twelve-fold chain in light of our modern understanding of evolution and human development and human behavior.

Avijja and Kamma – It’s In Our Genes:
Human beings, like all animals, have evolved certain attributes and capabilities necessary to our surviving long enough to reproduce. Having greater functionality than is required for survival is, generally speaking, a “luxury” that does not get passed on to successive generations. As such, our vision is confined to a fairly narrow band of electromagnetic radiation – the spectrum of light that is most useful to us; and our hearing, as well, occurs only within a fairly narrow range of acoustic wave frequencies. Interestingly, I recently heard that birdsongs fall within the area of the audible spectrum where our perception is most acute. That certainly makes sense. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine how our ability to tune in to the birds of the forest would have allowed us to better sense when danger was in our midst.

In addition to our sense of sight and sound being very localized on their respective spectra, our sense of time is also. We readily think in terms of days and months and lifetimes, but when it comes to the vast expanses of geological or astrological time we find them virtually unimaginable. We simply have no frame of reference with which to understand them. And so it is with very small increments of time, as well. There is so much information bombarding us during even the smallest increment of time that we simply can’t be conscious of it all. Norretranders (1991) discusses this reality in The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size:
The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. (p. 125)
So, rather than actually experiencing the microsecond by microsecond rollercoaster of our subconscious attention being drawn here, there, and everywhere as “we” go about processing our environment, our brains have become very adept at editing the raw footage down to a very smoothly perceived conscious existence. This is referred to as the bandwidth of consciousness.

It seems safe to conclude, then, that the very structure of our being keeps us from experiencing the true nature of reality. In other words, the human body is constructed in a way that precludes us from consciously experiencing all but a very narrow range of the vast and seamless reality that I keep referring to. Science, in large part, endeavors to expand that range – affording us greater knowledge in the process. By seeing far into space and deep into molecular structure, by speeding things up and slowing things down, by turning that which we can’t see, the phenomenon itself, into something that we can, data, we expand the realm of human experience. One particularly fascinating way that we can expand our perception of the world is through stop-action photography. With it we can witness a bullet exiting the barrel of a gun or the still wings of a hummingbird photographed in mid-flight. In fact, we are so used to seeing the world via such techniques that perhaps we don’t even wonder how someone like the Japanese Zen monk, Dogen, could have written a poem such as this in the 13th century (as translated by Yoshida, 1999, p. 77):

To what is the world compared?
It’s the moon dwelling
In the dewdrops strewn
From the beak of a water fowl.

Nearly 800 years have elapsed since Dogen wrote that poem, and even though our powers of observation have been greatly artificially enhanced since then, our innate ability to interpret what we see in all but the most mundane ways has not. Dogen was writing about impermanence. But even as our ability to experience impermanence has increased many times over as we’ve expanded our range of experience, we still cling as tightly as ever to the idea that we are independent individuals, separate from our environments, lasting forever, with identities that span lifetimes. Apparently even with our expanded sensory capabilities we still end up processing the input in the same old way as we always have – through the lens of self and other, subject and object, this and that. We are still fundamentally processing the world in the way that our forebears did – as a function of our innate drive to perpetuate “our” genes.

Of course, what I’m talking about is avijja (avidya) – an inherent inability to discern the nature of reality. “So what?” you might ask. “Isn’t that the natural order of things?” “Didn’t this beautiful world of myriad living things come into existence via the process of competition between the individual beings of your so-called seamless reality?” Hmmm... Response #1: Are we sure that what we’re seeing as individual competition is not systemic cooperation instead? Response #2: Yes, and so it is that disease and starvation and death are quite natural for populations that are too successful – that overwhelm and devastate their habitat – that tip the balance too far in favor of their own short term self interests.

This is the shared human kamma (karma) that we have all been born with. Karma, as Yoshida roshi often describes it, is “habit energy”. Habit energy has been passed down in an unbroken chain via our DNA since the time when those first single-celled organisms arose in the primordial swamp of our birth. Habit energy dictates what we see, and habit energy dictates how we see it. In this way of looking at the first links of the twelve-fold chain, then, avijja (avidya) is perpetuated by the karma passed on from generation to generation within the DNA of our existence.

Consciousness – A Child is Born:
An infant lying in his or her crib – without ever entertaining a single thought, without ever having done a “bad” deed (or any deed, for that matter) – embodies the billions of years of struggle and strife and suffering that it took to prevail, or simply to survive, or merely to abide through the howling night in order to greet the glorious light of a brand new day. Consciousness exists for this newborn – though not consciousness as we adults perceive it. Freud coined the term ‘oceanic state’ to define the experiential world of the infant prior to individuation – prior to any conceptualization of self and other. In the oceanic state the infant and caregiver and environment are an, as yet, undifferentiated whole. Over time, the child’s sense organs will have come into contact with its environment often enough for patterns to become apparent. Figure begins to emerge from ground, so to speak, and nama-rupa begins to arise within the child’s realm of experience. The wheel of becoming is turning. At this point, Yoshida roshi’s structural interpretation of the twelve-fold chain becomes directly applicable.

Craving and Appropriation – What Complex Creatures We Become:
One way to really see how this process of craving works is to focus on some extreme responses to it – responses that could, in fact, require clinical attention. For instance, an individual might so crave release from their experience of loneliness that they binge eat – momentarily alleviating those feelings that they are averse to, but ultimately increasing their suffering in the long term by deflating their sense of self-worth and further increasing their feelings of isolation. Another example would be an individual whose strategy for dealing with their experience of anxiety or feelings of emptiness (not the Buddhist kind of emptiness, mind you) is to engage in cutting or some other self-mutilating behavior that, while calming in the short term, only leads to an even greater experience of anxiety and emptiness in the long term.

Whether we are talking about an overreliance on or an overvaluation of substances or sex, chaos or order, work or power, exercise or excitement, we are not lacking for examples of cravings leading to suffering when inappropriately addressed. All of them are instances wherein craving, coupled with a fundamental lack of awareness as to how to wisely deal with them (nescience), ends up creating negative karma (formations) that leads to further suffering. Now, some readers might think that these examples of how some individuals deal with their cravings are too extreme to be applicable to their own garden-variety cravings. Well, all I can say is please just keep paying attention to those cravings as they arise until you are certain for yourself.

Perhaps, in an individual’s attempt to fulfill their craving for esteem, security, or stability (or simply to make their parents happy), they end up choosing a highly compensated, highly regarded profession that, despite its rewards, ends up making them miserable. This could be an example of how an individual’s lack of awareness (nescience) as to what kind of work they might best be suited for, or might best suit them, leads them to appropriate a professional identity as their self, thereby causing them suffering in the process. Or perhaps we could take that a step further and consider that our craving for esteem, security, and stability might lead us to appropriate a nationalistic self-identity – one that makes it seem very rational and reasonable to go to war in order to protect our self-interests.

This past week I went on a long-distance run like I haven’t done in a long, long, time. For years now one injury after another has kept me from putting together more than a couple of months of decent running at a stretch. But as I was in the middle of this long and beautiful workout – just running, just being, thoroughly enjoying the pure physicality of my existence – I realized that I was beginning once again to appropriate ‘distance-runner’ into my conception of self. And what harm is there in that? Well, on one hand there is what economists refer to as ‘opportunity cost’ – the cost of foregoing X because of being engaged in Y.  If I’m spending such-and-such amount of time running, then I’m not doing something else that may, in fact, be more valuable to the world. Within the context of our current discussion, though, there is the little fact that my becoming a distance-runner sets the process of birth, aging and death in motion yet again. Someday, somehow, whether because of injury or old age, I will have to say goodbye to my distance-running self once again, and I will suffer for it – that is, unless I start working on cultivating equanimity with regards to it! Speaking of opportunity cost... perhaps from a Buddhist standpoint the opportunity cost of appropriating the self is the loss to the entire world whenever an individual acts purely in the interest of their ‘small self’ as opposed to acting on behalf of all beings.   

Well, I’m going to have to bring this discussion of dependent origination to a close. To those of you who’ve made it all the way through these five posts: Thank you for your dedication! I hope you’ve found them interesting and rewarding, and I hope that you’ve gleaned just a little something along the way that will help alleviate some of the suffering in the world somehow.


I want to thank Rosan Yoshida roshi for permission to include here his visual image of the structural interpretation of dependent origination. This image is a revised version of the one that first appeared in the text that I have referenced numerous times throughout these posts. And, once again, thank you for making available to the world your analysis of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination as it appears in No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, the text that I have relied on so much during this series of posts.


Norretranders, T. (1991). The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size (Sydenham, J., Tr.). Viking – Published by Penguin Group.
Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center.
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. Great end to a series - thanks for posting! I guess now the only thing to do is to keep applying what I'm learning in my day to day life.

    Hope you're well!

  2. Nice blog Mark. When you mentioned the name of your blog to me in Northwest coffee this afternoon I had the idea it would be about Nebraska, somehow.

  3. Hello Jonathan! Thanks for taking the time to check it out. I'm glad you like it. Crossing Nebraska is a metaphor for that which must be navigated, crossed, gotten through or beyond, accepted, etc. It doesn't come up in every post but it's a theme that I expected (and still expect) to be quite common. Thanks again!

  4. Thanks again for your posts! This series was very helpful to me. Will be awaiting your next post.

  5. Maku, as usual, a very intriguing post. I agree with your (and Rosan's) interpretation of the twelve-fold chain as representing the moment-to-moment rather than the reincarnation viewpoint. true agnostic fashion...I would argue that it doesn't contradict reincarnation.In other words, both viewpoints could be correct, right? On a separate note, I have been unable to locate the quote I told you about at Barnes and Noble's a few evenings ago. I did, however, find this article about E.M. Cioran in "The Hindu" newspaper ( One last point I can't help making is about your appropriation of long-distance running. I would say it could set the process of birth, aging and death in motion again, but it doesn't have to. I guess you allude to this in the next sentence where you say "...unless I start working on cultivating equanimity with regards to it!"

  6. Thanks, Stacey. I'm glad you've found this series helpful. I'm in the process of proofing my next post. I hope to have it online tomorrow - God willing and the creek don't rise, as a friend often says!

    Bob, you can put me squarely in the agnostic Buddhist camp with respect to reincarnation. I'll know when I know - or else I won't! Belief intrigues me, though, as you can surely tell. Sometimes belief provides the structure necessary for some people. In my own life, however, I've seen how giving up my belief in reincarnation has opened me up to spiritual growth in ways I perhaps couldn't have grown otherwise. It's not necessarily easy, though... Hence, the title of this blog!

    Regarding running: Yes, I've been working on that - equanimity, that is. Or maybe at the present it's more like an appreciation of being able to run long distances knowing that each one could be my last.

    Thanks for the link! And thanks for reading and responding!