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Dependent Arising and
the Doctrine of the Middle Way

by Prof. P.D. Premasiri PhD
Courtesy : Vesak Lipi (2007 Edition)

A NOTE INTRODUCING THE WRITER
PROFESSOR P.D. PREMASIRI is Professor of Pali and Buddhist studies at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He holds a Master's Degree from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD. awarded by the University of Hawaii, USA.

The concept of Dependent Arising paticcasamuppada can be considered as the central philosophy of Buddhism. It expresses the content of the Buddha's enlightenment experience. It is the concept in terms of which the fundamental teachings of the Buddha can be explained. The Buddha himself emphasized its central importance when he said that he who sees dependent arising sees the dhamma. The Madhyamaka system of Buddhist thought developed its interpretation of the Buddha's teaching entirely on the principle of dependent arising. Upatissa who later became one of the chief disciples of the Buddha by the name of Sariputta was attracted to the Buddha's teaching when he heard from Assaji that the essence of the teaching is the causal dependence of things. Undestanding the dependent arising of things enables a person to seek a solution to what Buddhism considers to be life's main problem, i.e. the problem of interminable suffering.

The Buddha often used traditional terminology with new meanings in order to express his own vision into truth. But the term pat iccasamuppada is altogether a new term that was coined by the Buddha. There were certain causal theories of a rudimentary form in pre-Buddhist thought. The Buddha realized that all existing theories were inadequate to express the nature of reality. The unique contribution of the Buddha to Indian thought was his middle way doctrine, which avoided the two extremes of etemalism and annihilationism. The causal theories that were in existence at the time subscribed to one or the other of these two extreme philosophical positions. This is why the Buddha found it necessary to introduce a new term to express his vision into the nature of reality.


According to the Buddha, paticcasamuppada is not the product of metaphysical speculation. It is an order of nature to be discovered by intelligent beings. He says that whether Tathagatas are born or not this order of nature (dhammatthitata, dhammaniyamata) exists in the world. It is discovered by a Buddha and pointed out to others. It is not be taken as a subjective philosophical thesis, but as a principle that governs occurrences in the physical universe and the psychological processes of living beings. It is discovered by careful observation of nature.

Sometimes the Buddha presents a general definition of the principle of dependent arising. The literal translation of the formulation of the general principle as occuring in the Suttas is as follows:
When this exists that comes into being (imasmim satiidam hoti)
With the arising of this that arises (imassa uppada idam uppajjati) When this does not exist that does not come into being [imasmim asati, idam na hoti]

With the cessation of this that ceases to be [imassa nirodha
idam nirujjhati] The above could be reformulated as follows:
If there is any relation between any two things A and B such that when ever A exists, B comes into being and with the arising of A, B also arises, and when A does not exist B too does not come into being, and with the cessation of A, B also ceases to be, such a relation may be called a dependent arising relation. Next Page>

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