Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dependent Origination Revisited

In an online discussion forum, some one wrote: 

So for you Buddhists, could you please fill in the blank:

Humanity is dependently originated from the Earth.
The Earth is dependently originated from the Universe.
The Universe is dependently originated from _______________________.

I took issue with the phrasing, and wrote:  

Humanity is dependently originated with the Universe.
The Earth is dependently originated with the Universe.
The Universe is dependently originated with earth and humanity.
When asked to explain, I wrote:

The simplest phrasing of dependent origination is:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Imasmi sati, ida hoti.
Imass’ uppādā, ida uppajjati.
Imasmi asati, ida na hoti.
Imassa nirodhā, idha nirujjhati.

In simple terms:
When x arises, y arises.
When x does not arise, y does not arise.

What the Buddha is pointing to, in my opinion, is not that things cause one another, put that things arise together.  "Causation" is the tag we place between two events, x and y.   Now this is not a random arising, as you can see by the formulation: when there is no x, there is no y.  And when there is x, there is y.  Without this, the world would be random.   (One could say, this is because of the Tao!)

Second, there are no solid objects.  Boundaries are fuzzy.  We cannot draw a clear line between one thing and another.  So to say the earth is one thing, and the universe is another doesn’t make sense.  The earth is a part of the universe, and there is no clear dividing line. 

So let’s take a seed and a tree.  The seed arises, and the tree arises.  Without the seed, there is no tree.  But the seed did not cause the tree, did it?  No, there was also the sunshine, the soil, the water, the nutrients.  You also need space, time, a universe for all this to take place in.  And there is no clear distinction between the tree, the soil, and the sunshine.  The sunshine becomes the tree. The tree is linked to the sun.   Further, at what point does the seed stop being a seed, and become a tree?  With the first tendril?  The first part of the tendril? 

Likewise, with all things. 

Instead of earth and universe, let’s use finger and hand.  The finger is a part of the hand.  But it is wrong to say the hand causes the finger.  But without the hand, there is no finger.  However, the hand can exist without the finger.  But let’s say we take away all the fingers, is there still a hand?  At what point does it not become a hand?  They depend on one another. 

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