Dependent Origination and the Teaching of No Self (Part 2 of 5)

My previous post closed with a story that I hope conveys reasonably well a couple of things: that truth is accessible to all of us every moment of every day, and that we often need to step out of our respective comfort zones and habitual ways of seeing in order to recognize it. I suspect that each of you can relate similar circumstances under which you found yourself spontaneously experiencing a state of wonder, transcendence, and unity – where you felt most deeply your connection with the earth, your sense of kinship with all life, and your absolute certainty of being an integral part of a vast and mysterious universe. Such experiences – ineffable as, in large part, they are – often leave us grasping for words borrowed from whatever religious tradition that we are most familiar with. Thus, an experience that one person might consider marked by the unmistakable presence of God, another might describe as an instance of finally seeing the world through the eyes of their true self. While one person might look for context within the teachings of dependent origination, another might site the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow and conclude that they’d had a peak experience – one whose richness will help guide them along their unique path of self-actualization. Such experiences, whether described in religious or psychological terms, are periods of transcendence – of going beyond conventional ideas of reality and moving toward a more deeply realized truth. But why – if these experiences are indeed glimpses of truth – are they so very, very fleeting? Why don’t we just stay there in that place of more deeply realized truth? Well, from the Buddhist standpoint we say that it is our karma that draws us back again and again into our mundane way of looking at the world. Our karma, our habit energy, is like a massive gyroscope spinning and moving us along on our conditioned path – not amenable to redirection without appreciable effort.

Religious Roadmaps

The purest and (in my opinion) most important function of religion is to provide a template of sorts with which to make sense of such ineffable experiences as I’ve described. So, as you read on and things get a little more wordy and theoretical, please realize that what the Buddha and his disciples did in formulating the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination, and what every teacher since the Buddha has done, is try to make the roadmap of ultimate reality as accurate as it can be made with the imperfect tools of pictures and language. Ultimately, though, it is up to us to pay attention to our experiences and use them as landmarks that we synch up with our chosen roadmap. For a Buddhist, this means following the Path – often referred to as The Noble Eight-Fold Path. Keep in mind, however, that after we’ve really gotten to know the terrain we can dispense with the map. You don’t use a map to find your way around your home, do you? No, you’ve internalized every square centimeter of it such that no matter where you might need to go you start moving without a moment’s contemplation. Finding our way out in the broader world can be likewise. Before delving further into dependent origination, then, let’s orient ourselves with the roadmap that the Buddha left behind.

The Four Noble Truths

The most common and succinct restatement of The Four Noble Truths can be found in, for instance, the Dalai Lama’s 1997 book The Four Noble Truths:
  1. The Truth of Suffering
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
  3. The Truth of Cessation
  4. The Truth of the Path
Consider this our large-scale map.

The Nature of Suffering

So, let’s not lose track of our destination. The Buddhist roadmap does not direct us to some omniscient state wherein we know all the answers to all of our questions; the Buddhist roadmap does, however, lead to the cessation of suffering. More precisely the roadmap leads to the cessation of dukkhadukkha being a Pali word that, according to Rahula (1959), carries with it “deeper ideas such as ‘imperfection’, ‘impermanence’, ‘emptiness’, [and] ‘insubstantiality’” (p. 17). The Dalai Lama (1997) says that “dukkha is the ground or basis of painful experience, and refers generally to our state of existence as conditioned by karma, delusions and afflictive emotions” (p. 43). The rich meaning of this word dukkha leads us to consider three different aspects of suffering: 1) the suffering of pain itself; 2) the suffering related to impermanence; and 3) the suffering brought on by our conditioning. Now, as long as we are living beings with working sense organs we will not be able to escape the pain of existence. Whether due to accident, childbirth, disease, or just plain growing old we will have our share of this type of pain. Likewise, we will not be able to escape the reality that everything is changing all of the time, that everyone we love will eventually pass away, and that everything that we love will eventually cease to be. These are quite simply the cold, hard facts of existence. The other type of suffering, however – the suffering brought on by our conditioning – is indeed within our power to alleviate.

Dependent Origination, Suffering, and the Self

The key to remember is that most of the suffering that we will ever experience stems from our conditioning. I am even willing to defer to those who will say that all of our suffering stems from our conditioning. Pain, after all, does not so much cause our suffering as does our reaction to the pain: our wishing that it would end, our worrying that it won’t, our concern that it will get worse, our longing for how things were before the pain began, our ‘why me’ sort of wonderment about our circumstances and the ‘woe is me’ lamentation that follows close behind. These are all conditioned responses.

The twelve-fold chain of dependent origination gives us a more finely detailed roadmap of the process by which our conditioning causes suffering. If we understand this process, if we become intimately aware of it as it unfolds from moment to moment, then we can begin to redirect our karma away from the suffering that is so easy to find and toward a deeper truth that – while accessible to us all every moment of every day – often seems so very elusive. And what is the most deeply entrenched conditioning of all? Well, that would be our belief in a self that is separate, distinct, independent, and permanent.

No Self
Suffering is ultimately rooted in our sense of self as separate, distinct, independent, and permanent. You may have heard this referred to as the ‘small self’ – the self that is attached to its own ideas and self-importance. Understanding the falseness of this self (and then acting on that understanding) is the key to the cessation of suffering – your own and that of all other beings inhabiting this universe.

Let me try to make this more concrete. A few years ago when I was going through a divorce I felt all of the suffering that I mentioned above: the wishing that it would end, the worrying that it wouldn’t, the concern that it would get worse, the longing for how things were, the ‘why me’ and the ‘woe is me’ and on and on and on. And that is why I made the statement in an earlier post related to hanging onto practice for dear life. Sometimes during zazen we can be so besieged with our small-self concerns that it’s like we’re sitting in the middle of a tornado with the imagined debris of our life swirling all around us. What helped me, though, was the conscious practice of looking beyond the concerns of my small self to the reality of the broader world. And so, when the cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar, I realized that their uprootedness was mine as well. And when the economy came crashing down, I felt even more deeply the fear of everyone around me. And whenever I'd see lovers sitting in cafes or enjoying a sunny day in the park together, I felt their happiness and sense of connectedness along with them. And when I went out into the garden or to the park or into the woods, I felt that sense that everything is connected and unified at a level far deeper than my fleeting pain. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I'm not talking about dismissing your own suffering because it pales in the face of the suffering of others. I'm not talking about repression, either. I'm not talking about stuffing your emotions under your mattress and going through life with a ‘la la la la la’ everything-is-just-fine sort of attitude. No, it’s not an either/or proposition. We can feel our pain and feel the beauty of existence. We can feel the pain of others and the wondrous beauty of the world around us. We just have to be willing to have our hard shells cracked wide open.

Yoshida roshi often speaks of ultimate reality in terms of it being like a great ocean – and we are like bubbles in that ocean. When we cling to our small selves we are clinging to our “bubblehood” – fearing that we will burst, doing anything to protect ourselves from bursting. But if we would just let all of that go we would realize that we are part of a seamless and unified whole; we would begin orienting our thoughts and actions toward the wellbeing of that unified whole. The unified whole, after all, is what we really are. Bubbles come and go – rising up and bursting, rising up and bursting. While clinging to our small selves we die over and over again. By realizing our oneness with the unified whole of the universe, however, we never have to die. And on that note, let’s unfold our more finely detailed roadmap and begin exploring the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination.

The Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination

Okay, perhaps I only have enough time and space right now to introduce the links of the chain and point out some issues relating to them.  Please get a feel for the Pali words and their translations and begin to reflect, if you will, on how the various links might relate to one another.

  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will. Yoshida (1994) points out that in an earlier sutra, the Theragatha, this link was actually kamma (karma) and not sankhara. The import of this will be explored.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
  4. nama-rupa – name and form. Yoshida (1994) points out that nama-rupa is sometimes taken to mean mind-body instead of name-form. The ramifications of such an interpretation will, likewise, be explored.
  5. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  6. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  7. vedana – feeling.
  8. tanha – craving.
  9. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  10. bhava – becoming.
  11. jati – birth.
  12. jaramarana – aging and death.

Some questions for consideration:
  1. Should we interpret these links as one following the other or should we consider a more integrated and systemic relationship amongst them?
  2. Does this chain describe a single lifetime, does it encompass multiple lifetimes, or does this chain get cycled through multiple times in a single lifetime?
  3. What are we to make of such issues as ignorance and volition arising before there is even a mind-body to contain them or give rise to them?
  4. Why is birth so far down in the chain?
  5. How exactly did the twelve-fold chain come to exist in this form? Did the Buddha actually teach it in this form or was it cobbled together from various teachings?
Thank you! See you in a week or so!


Dalai Lama (1997) The Four Noble Truths – Fundamentals of the Buddhist teachings. Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.
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. Succinct and thorough, Maku! I look forward to the next installment.

  2. Thanks, Robert! And thank you for helping me edit!

  3. Thank you Maku. I must say the chain still leaves me scratching my head. It seems clear to me that an interpretation of it as being linear would not be plausible. How is one to have will before consciousness? I look forward to your next installment and hope that you tackle the questions you left us pondering . . . .I am sure you can clear this all up for me.;) ( No pressure )

  4. Thanks, Stacey, for reflecting on the chain. It is a dense topic. It seems that pulling on any single thread of it has you unraveling all of Buddhism before you've reached "the end." I will, indeed, tackle the questions I've raised. However, whether "the ball" ends up squirting into hands of yet another question remains to be seen. I'll leave it up to you to decide! Regardless, though, I think the picture will become just a little bit clearer. Thank you and I hope you have a great weekend. Maku


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