The Fundamentals of Buddhism
In this chapter, I take up a very important topic in Buddhist
studies: the teaching of interdependent origination. I am aware of the fact that many people
believe that interdependent origination is a very difficult subject, and I would
not say that there is no truth in that belief. When Ananda once remarked that, despite its
apparent difficulty, the teaching of interdependent origination is actually quite simple, the
Buddha rebuked him, saying that in fact this teaching is very deep.
The teaching of interdependent origination is certainly one of the
most important and profound teachings in Buddhism. Yet I sometimes feel that our fear of
interdependent origination is to some extent unwarranted. To begin with, there is
nothing particularly difficult about the term itself. After all, we all know what
"interdependence" means, and what "birth," "origination," or
"arising" means. Only when we begin to examine the function and contents of interdependent origination do we recognize
the fact that it is a very profound and significant teaching.
Some indication of this can be gained from the Buddha's own
statements. The Buddha very frequently expressed his experience of enlightenment in one of
two ways: either in terms of having understood the Four Noble Truths, or in terms of
having understood interdependent origination. Conversely, he often said that, in order
to attain enlightenment, one has to understand the meaning of these truths.
On the basis of the Buddha's own statements, we can see a very close
relation between the Four Noble Truths and interdependent origination. What is it that
these two formulas have in common? The principle they have in common is the principle of
causality--the law of cause and effect, of action and consequence. In Chapters 4 and
7, I mentioned that the Four Noble Truths are divided into two groups--the first two
(suffering and the cause of suffering) and the last two (the end of suffering and the path to
the end of suffering). In both these groups, it is the law of cause and effect that governs the
relationship. In other words, suffering is the effect of the cause of suffering, and the end
of suffering is the effect of the path to the end of suffering.
Here, too, with interdependent origination, the fundamental principle
at work is that of cause and effect. In interdependent origination, we have a more
detailed description of what actually takes place in the causal process. Let us take a few
examples that illustrate the nature of interdependent origination used by the
The Buddha said the flame in an oil lamp burns dependent on the oil and the wick:
when the oil and wick are present, the flame burns, but if either is absent, the flame will
cease to burn. Let us also take the example of the sprout: dependent on the seed, earth,
water, air, and sunlight, the sprout arises.
There are innumerable examples of interdependent origination because
there is no existing phenomenon that is not the effect of interdependent
origination. All these phenomena arise dependent on a number of causal factors. Very simply,
this is the principle of interdependent origination.
Of course, we are particularly interested in the principle of
interdependent origination insofar as it concerns the problem of suffering and rebirth. We are
interested in how interdependent origination explains the situation in which we find
ourselves here and now. In this sense, it is important to remember that interdependent
origination is essentially and primarily a teaching that has to do with the problem
of suffering and how to free ourselves from suffering, and not a description of the
evolution of the universe. Let me briefly list the twelve components, or links, that make up
interdependent origination: (1) ignorance, (2) volition, (3) consciousness, (4) name
and form, (5) the six sense spheres, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) clinging,
(10) becoming, (11) birth, and (12) old age and death.
There are two principal ways we can understand these twelve
components. One way to understand them is sequentially, over the course of three
lifetimes--the past life, the present life, and the future life. In this case, ignorance and
volition belong to the past life. They represent the conditions responsible for the occurrence of this
life. The eight components of consciousness, name and form, the six sense spheres,
contact, feeling, craving, clinging, and becoming belong to this life. In brief, these
eight components constitute the process of evolution within this lifetime. The last
two components, birth and old age and death, belong to the future life.
With the help of this first scheme, we can see how the twelve
components of interdependent origination are distributed over the three
lifetimes--how the first two, ignorance and volition, result in the emergence of this life, with
its psycho physical personality from the past, and how, in turn, the actions performed in
this life result in rebirth in a future life. This is one popular and authoritative way
of interpreting the twelve components of interdependent origination.
The other interpretation of the relations among the twelve components
of interdependent origination is also authoritative and has the support of recognized
Buddhist masters and saints. It might be called a cyclical interpretation because it does
not distribute the twelve components over the course of three lifetimes. Rather, it divides the
twelve components into three categories: (1) afflictions, (2) actions and (3)
sufferings. In this second scheme, the three components of ignorance, craving,
and clinging are viewed as belonging to the group of afflictions; volition and
becoming, to the group of actions; and the remaining seven components--consciousness, name and
form, the six sense spheres, contact, feeling, birth, and old age and death--to the
group of sufferings. By means of this interpretation, we can see both how the teaching of
the Four Noble Truths--and particularly the teaching of the second truth, that of
the cause of suffering-- is conjoined with the teaching of karma and rebirth, and how these
two important teachings together explain, in a more complete way, the process of
rebirth and the origination of suffering.
You may recall that, in the context of discussing the Four
Truths, we said that ignorance, attachment, and ill-will are the causes of suffering. Now,
if we look here at the three components of interdependent origination that are included in
the group of afflictions, we find ignorance, craving, and clinging. Here, too,
ignorance is the most basic. It is because of ignorance that we crave pleasures of the
senses, existence, and nonexistence. Similarly, it is because of ignorance that we cling to
pleasures of the senses, to pleasant experiences, to ideas, and most significantly, to
the idea of an independent, permanent self. Thus ignorance, craving, and clinging
are the cause of actions.
The two components of interdependent origination that are included in
the group of actions are volition and becoming. Volition refers to the
impressions, or habits, that we have formed in our stream of conscious moments, or conscious
continuum. These impressions are formed by repeated actions. We can illustrate this
with an example from geology. We know that a river forms its course by a process of
repeated erosion. As rain falls on a hillside, that rain gathers into a rivulet, which
gradually creates a channel for itself and grows into a stream. Eventually, as the channel of the
stream is deepened and widened by repeated flows of water, the stream becomes a river, with
well-defined banks and a definite course.
In the same way, our actions become habitual. These habits become
part of our personality, and we take these habits with us from life to life in
the form of what we call volition, mental formation, or "habit energy." Our actions
in this life are conditioned by the habits we have formed over countless previous lifetimes.
To return to the analogy of the channel of a river and the water in
it, we might say that mental formations are the channel of the river, while the actions
that we perform in this life are the fresh water that flows through the eroded channel
created by previous actions. The actions that we perform in this life are represented by the
component known as becoming. Hence we have the habits that we have developed over the
course of countless lives, combined with new actions performed in this life, and these
two together result in rebirth and suffering.
To summarize, we have the afflictions, which may be described as
impurities of the mind--namely, ignorance, craving, and clinging. These mental
impurities result in actions--both actions done in previous lives, which result in the
formation of habit energy, or volition, and actions done in the present life, which
correspond to the component known as becoming and which are liable to conform to the
patterns established in previous lives.
Together, these impurities of the mind and these actions result in
rebirth. In other words, they result in consciousness, in name and form, in the six sense
spheres, in contact between the six senses and the objects of the six senses, in feeling,
which is born of that contact, in birth, and in old age and death. In this interpretation,
the five components of interdependent origination included in the groups of afflictions and
actions--ignorance, craving, clinging, volition, and becoming--are the causes of rebirth
and suffering. The other seven components--consciousness, name and form, the six sense
spheres, contact, feeling, birth, and old age and death--are the effects of the
afflictions and actions. Together, the afflictions and actions explain the origin of suffering
and the particular circumstances in which each of us finds him- or herself, the
circumstances in which we are born. You may recall that, in Chapter 8, I referred to the fact
that, whereas the afflictions are common to all living beings, karma differs from
person to person. In other words, although the afflictions account for the fact that all of us
are prisoners within samsara, our actions account for the fact that some are born as human
beings, others as gods, and still others as animals. In this sense, the twelve
components of interdependent origination present a picture of samsara with its causes and its
There would be no point in painting this picture of samsara if we did
not intend to use it to change our situation, to get out of the round of birth and death.
Recognizing the circularity of samsara, the circularity of interdependent
origination, is the beginning of liberation. How is this so? As long as afflictions and actions are
present, rebirth and suffering will occur. When we see that ignorance, craving, clinging,
and actions repeatedly lead to rebirth and suffering, we will recognize the need
to break this vicious circle.
Let us take a practical example. Suppose you are looking for the home
of an acquaintance you have never visited before. Suppose you have been driving about
for half an hour and have failed to find the home of your friend, and suppose suddenly you
recognize a landmark and it dawns on you that you passed it half an hour ago. At
that moment it will also dawn on you that you have been going around in circles, and you
will stop and look at your road map, or inquire the way from a passerby so as to stop
going around in circles and reach your destination.
This is why the Buddha said that he who sees interdependent
origination sees the Dharma, and he who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha. This is also why
he said that understanding interdependent origination is the key to liberation.
Once we see the functioning of interdependent origination, we can set about breaking
its vicious circle. We can do this by removing the impurities of the mind--ignorance,
craving, and clinging. Once these impurities are eliminated, actions will not be
performed and habit energy will not be produced. Once actions cease, rebirth and
suffering will also cease. I would like to spend a little time on another important meaning of
interdependent origination--namely, interdependent origination as an expression of
the Middle Way. In Chapters 3 and 4, we had occasion to refer to the Middle Way, but
confined ourselves to only the most basic meaning of the term. We said that the Middle Way
means avoiding the extreme of indulgence in pleasures of the senses and also the
extreme of self- mortification. In that context, the Middle Way is synonymous with
moderation.In the context of interdependent origination, the Middle Way has
another meaning, which is related to its basic meaning, but deeper. In this context, the
Middle Way means avoiding the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. How is this so? The
flame in an oil lamp exists dependent on the oil and the wick. When either of these
is absent, the flame will be extinguished. Therefore, the flame is neither permanent nor
independent. Similarly, this personality of ours depends on a combination of
conditions: the afflictions and karma. It is neither permanent nor independent.
Recognizing the conditioned nature of our personalities, we avoid the
extreme of eternalism, that is, of affirming the existence of an independent,
permanent self. Alternatively, recognizing that this personality, this life, does not
arise by accident or mere chance but is conditioned by corresponding causes, we avoid the
extreme of nihilism, that is, of denying the relation between actions and their
consequences. Although nihilism is the primary cause of rebirth in states of woe
and is to be rejected, eternalism, too, is not conducive to liberation. One who clings to
the extreme of eternalism will perform wholesome actions and be reborn in states of
happiness, as a human being or even as a god, but he will never attain liberation.
Through avoiding these two extremes--through understanding the Middle Way--we can achieve
happiness in this life and in future lives by performing wholesome actions and
avoiding unwholesome actions, and eventually achieve liberation as well.
The Buddha constructed his teachings with infinite care.
way he taught is sometimes likened to the behavior of a tigress toward her young. When
a tigress carries her young in her teeth, she is most careful to see that her grip is
neither too tight nor too loose. If her grip is too tight, it will injure or kill her cub; if
it is too loose, the cub will fall and will also be hurt. Similarly, the Buddha was careful to see
that we avoid the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
Because he saw that clinging to the extreme of eternalism would bind
us in samsara, the Buddha was careful to teach us to avoid belief in an independent,
permanent self; seeing that the possibility of freedom could be destroyed by the sharp teeth
of belief in a self, he therefore asked us to avoid the extreme of eternalism. Understanding
that clinging to the extreme of nihilism would lead to catastrophe and rebirth in the
states of woe, the Buddha was also careful to teach the reality of the law of cause and effect,
or moral responsibility; seeing that we would fall into the misery of the lower realms should
we deny this law, he therefore taught us to avoid the extreme of nihilism. This dual
objective is admirably achieved through the teaching of interdependent origination, which
safeguards not only our understanding of the conditioned and impermanent nature of the
personality, but also our understanding of the reality of the law of cause and effect.
In the context of interdependent origination, we have established the conditioned and
impermanent nature of the personality, or self, by exposing its
dependent nature. In the chapters that follow, we will arrive at the impermanence and
impersonality of the self through examining its composite nature and analyzing it into its
constituent parts. By these means, we will elucidate the truth of not-self that opens the
door to enlightenment.