Dependent Arising and the Doctrine of the Middle Way

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

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.

Identify A Causal Pattern

What the Buddha wanted to point out was, that in the observed world there are things and occurrences, which exhibit this relationship. It is an observable fact about the world. Things in the world do not happen merely by chance. There is a causal order or pattern, which could be discovered. When this order or pattern of events is discovered it is possible to explain happenings, to solve practical problems of life, and to predict the future course of events.

Having understood the general pattern of events, the Buddha applied this understanding to solve the problem of unsatisfactoriness in human life. The Buddha’s principle of dependent arising may apply to many occurrences in the physical universe as well. But the Buddha was not interested in the appication of the principle to make discoveries about the nature of the physical universe. With the development of the scientific method physical scientists have made use of a similar principle to understand, explain, and control the events of the physical world. The Buddha sometimes took examples from the physical world to illustrate the principle but did not use it to explain the world of physical nature. His main application of this principle was to understand and explain the nature of human existance.

This application of the principle has produced the standard formula of dependent arising consisting of the following twelve factors:

Depending on ignorance (avijja) arise formations (sankhara),
Depending on formations arises consciousness (vinnanam),
Depending on consciousness arises the psychophysical organism (namarupam),
Depending on the psychophysical organism arise the six sense spheres (salayatanam),
Depending on the six sense spheres (salayatanam),
Depending on the six sense spheres arises sense impingement (phassa), Depending on sense impingement arises sensation (vedana),
Depending on sensation arises craving (tanha),
Depending on craving arises clinging (upadanam),
Depending on clinging arises becoming (bhavo),
Depending on becoming arises birth (jati) and depending on birth arise old age, death, suffering, depression, and anxieties (jaramaranadukkhadomanassupayasa)

These twelve factors are often given in the Suttas in a sequential order. However, is should not be taken as chain with ignorance as the first link. It cannot be conceived as a linear process. It is a cyclic process and the factors mentioned could co-exist without one preceding the other. It is also a mistake to conceive of the relationships between the factors as a one-to-one relationship. In dependent arising, a multiplicity of factors come together resulting in the production of something.

In the Suttas there are instances in which the Buddha applies the principle to show how the inner mental conflict in the individual depend-ently arises from the contact between the senses and sense stimuli. The inner mental conflict then spreads into the outside world or the larger society in the from of contentions, strife, disputes and wars. The Buddha explained the origins of social unrest and even social catastrophes in terms of dependent arising. However, the most important application of the principle is for gaining insight into the workings of the inner experience of the individual. It is through that insight that one becomes enligtened and liberated. Through insight into the dependent arising of inner experience, one understands the transient nature of things. One penetrates into the conditions that create misery. One also understands that clinging to an ego is one big mistake, which results in all our conflicts and miseries.

The Buddha makes use of the concept of dependent arising in order to explain the nature of the world in terms of the philosophical way. According to the middle way doctrine of the Buddha, there is no absolute essence to which everything in the world could be reduced. There are no eternal souls. The notions of both the macrocosmic soul as well the microcosmic soul have been rejected. The whole universe is conceived as one gigantic activity without any actors behind it. The notion of static agents is rejected. The universe is seen as empty of self-existence. Everything that exists is dependent on something else. There is only interdependent existence. This is an important truth, which dissolves all notions of the ego. One becomes part of the network of existence. One does not have independent being. One gets absorbed into the vast network of nature. There is nothing to be owned as one’s own. The attempt to cling to things as one’s own only produces misery. It conditions samsara and an illussory identity which is the cause of suffering.

The Nidana Samyutta shows that there were four types of explanation offered regarding the production of things. One explanation was that things were produced by themselves (sayam katam). This position is identified in Buddhism with eternalism. The second theory is usually attributed to the annihilationists. That is the theory that everything is unrelated. There is no dependence between things. It is in terms of this view that they denied the continuity of individuated life. The eternalists believed in a soul essence that had eternal existence. That soul was considered to be wholly separable from the body. So they believed that the body is one thing and the life principle is another (annam jivam annam sariram). According to the annihilationists the soul is identical with the body and therefore there is no continuity of individual life. All beings are annihilated at the disintegration of their bodies (kayassa bheda ucchijjanti vinassanti na hoti parammarana).

The third alternative which was combination of the two was also rejected in Buddhism. The Buddha’s position was that both views are wrong. It is pointed out that the very dichotomy between self and other does not exist in reality. It is a division made by imagination and convention. The fourth alternative was that things are produced by chance. This is to deny any causal pattern in the universe. This view makes all intentions futile. No one could then be in a position to exercise one’s free will.

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.