Dependent Arising

This teaching by the Buddha describes how our experience is quite different than how we usually understand it. For instance, if I’m in a meeting and someone criticizes my work, I will probably become upset at the person. Or if I’m driving my car, trying to make a left turn out of a driveway in heavy traffic, and the person behind me starts honking her horn, I will have a reaction to that person–sometimes expressed with my finger. These kinds of experiences occur many times during a lifetime. The point is, usually when I am upset I am angry at someone else, something else outside of me. I don’t see how my conditions or conditioning are contributing, and in fact causing, my anger.

One of the main points of  this teaching is in the phrase itself: dependent arising. Things arise on account of something else—and it is these conditions which lead to other conditions: when this arises, that arises. So far, this does not seem terribly novel or even particularly interesting.  Most of us can agree with the premises.

But the Buddha encourages us to see very closely what makes up our experience. And it is looking closely that we see that only ourselves can be responsible, not events or persons outside of us. For instance, not everyone gets hurt or angry when someone criticizes their work. But what is it about me that is causing this experience?

As taught by the Buddha, if we look closely at our experience we’ll see it involves a number of factors. For instance, there is my previous life experience and ideas about the person, the setting, the day in general. All of these have occurred to me before the incident (volitional formations, sankhara ). When the incident occurs I may have a visual experience as well as auditory. I see the person’s expression, I hear his words (six sense bases, salayatana and contact phassa.)The body is receiving the initial experience.  Based on this, a feeling, in this case negative, is produced (vedana). And then additional negative thoughts amplify the experience and cause attachment (craving tanha, and clinging upadana).

The point here is to see the complexity and origin of our experience. It is not a simple case of someone else causing my anger, as is usually thought–it’s a case of seeing how I generate it within myself. However, it can be difficult to see my experience in this way, and that is where the practice of meditation can allow us to see more clearly what it is we are creating and how we can see things more clearly.

For instance, perhaps in meditation I look more closely at how I was feeling prior to the meeting. I may realize that I had generated many conditions making it likely I would experience anger: I may have allowed myself to think about qualities that I dislike about the person, or perhaps I did not get enough sleep the night before, or maybe I was already angry about something else. Also, at the “clinging” stage I may have expectations of entitlement: this criticism shouldn’t happen to me, or believing that I know more than him about this subject, he should show more respect for me. (Notice the “me,” in these thoughts.) In other words we begin to defend ourselves, and cling to strong ideas about the self, in this instance. This creates a situation where I am rigid, narrow minded, and likely to experience further negativity.

The Buddha believed the teaching of dependent origination was of such importance that to practice it was to experience the “cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”[1] That is no small claim. I think the best many of us will do is to have moments of this. It is still worth the effort.


[1] Bodhi, Bhikkhu,  The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, (Wisdom Publications, 2000) p. 534.