Dependent Origination

While sitting underneath the bodhi tree, the Buddha gazed up at the stars and attained awakening. The truth that he awakened to was the universal truth of dependent origination, one of the central teachings of Buddhism. Dependent origination is also the most significant characteristic that distinguishes Buddhism from other philosophies and religions.

What is dependent origination? “Dependent origination” states that no phenomena can arise from nothing, nor can they exist by themselves independently. Phenomena come into existence when the causes and conditions are right. The Commentary on the Surangama Sutra states, “All teachings, from the simplest to the most profound, say that phenomena do not exist outside of causes and conditions.”

Dependent Origination and Causes and Conditions

Everything in this world comes into being because of causes and conditions. Without the proper causes and conditions, no phenomena would arise, and nothing could exist.

Stated simply like this, the truth of dependent origination may seem obvious or trivial, yet it has far-reaching consequences, for it means that nothing has an independent existence of its own. There is no “self” that exists separately from others. It also means that there is no absolute phenomenon anywhere in the universe. Since all phenomena are interdependent, if the causes and conditions that produce or sustain a phenomenon are removed, that phenomenon will cease to exist.

The Buddha said, “All phenomena arise from causes and conditions. All phenomena disappear due to causes and conditions.” But what are “causes and conditions”? Where do they come from? Causes and conditions themselves are phenomena, and they arise from other causes and conditions.

Some phenomena are labeled “causes” and others are labeled “conditions” to help us understand how phenomena arise and cease. But these terms only mean something in relationship to one another. What is considered a “cause” in one instance may be considered a “condition” in another. It all depends on from what angle these phenomena are observed.

Cause and condition are the two basic factors that produce or underlie each and every phenomenon in the universe. The more powerful primary factor that leads to the arising of the phenomenon is called the “cause,” while the secondary factors are called “conditions.”

For example, a seed that is planted in the soil needs water, fertilizer, air, and sunlight to grow. The seed is the cause. The soil, water, fertilizer, air, and sunlight are conditions. Only when all of the right causes and conditions are present will there be the result of a healthy plant. Without a cause, there could be no effect. With a cause but no conditions, there would also be no effect. When both the cause and conditions come together, that will produce an effect.

Dependent origination is not something invented by the Buddha. It is a universal principle underlying all phenomena in the universe. When the Buddha attained awakening, he realized this principle. After his awakening, the Buddha taught others what he had come to understand. He taught that if we contemplate the concept of causes and conditions from the perspective of sentient beings trapped within the cycle of birth and death, we should be able to see that our lives have not been created by some god that stands outside of the universe, but rather that our lives are the result of a complex interaction of causes and conditions.

Dependent Origination and Cause and Effect

In the section above, we moved toward an understanding of dependent origination by focusing on the causes and conditions that produce all phenomena in the universe. In this section, we will deepen our understanding of dependent origination by focusing on the interactions of cause and effect. Cause and effect is a fundamental principle that underlies all phenomena. Every phenomenon is caused by other phenomena and every phenomenon also produces effects.

The Samyukta Agama says, “This exists, therefore, that exists. This arises, therefore, that arises. This is absent, therefore, that is absent. This is extinguished, therefore, that is extinguished.”

The “this” and “that” mentioned above refer to cause and effect. This quote implies that neither cause nor effect has an independent nature. They both exist together in a state of dynamic interaction. Without one, the other could not be. Just as the words “cause” and “condition” are relative terms, so are the words “cause” and “effect.” In reality, this universe is an extremely intricate and complicated web of dynamically interrelated phenomena. The Buddha used the words “cause,” “condition,” “effect,” and “result” to help us understand some of the general features of this web of phenomena. It is important for each one of us to try to understand this universe because this is where we live. We are a part of it, and what we think about it has great influence both on ourselves and on other sentient beings.

When it comes to cause and effect, there is no “first cause” and no “last effect.” This is because the present cause contains many previous causes. Following this logic, there is no beginning. Likewise, after the present effect, more effects will follow. Because of this, there is no ultimate “end.”

Cause and effect are related, but the roles they play are not absolute. Causes produce effects, but those effects in turn produce other effects, and in doing so, become causes. Causes and effects are really interlocking parts of an endless chain of events. Something may be a cause from one point of view, but an effect from another.

Cause and effect are spread across the past, present, and future. Sometimes it is hard for us to understand and accept that all our intentional behavior produces effects. We cannot hide from the consequence of our own actions. We may wait ten million years, but one day, when the conditions are right, the effects of our choices can still manifest.

Cause and effect are always joined, like two sides of the same coin. Every cause contains effects just as every effect contains a cause. If you plant a bean, you will not harvest a melon. If you intentionally perform a bad deed, you will not reap a reward.

To arrive at a better understanding of dependent origination, let us examine six of its key principles one at a time:

  1. Effects Arise from Causes

    Dependent origination first depends on the presence of a cause and then on the right conditions before the effect can manifest. If there is no cause, there can be no effect. If there is a cause, but conditions are not right, then there also will be no effect. A “cause” phenomenon is a primary, direct requirement to produce an effect. A “condition” phenomena is an external, indirect requirement to help a cause to produce an effect.

    For example, all human beings have the “seed,” the necessary cause, to become Buddhas within them. But if this is not supported by good conditions like studying the Dharma, upholding the precepts, and so forth, then the effect of Buddhahood will not arise. Similarly, a person who has the latent cause of anger within him may be able to control his anger for many years. However, if the conditions are right, such a person may suddenly explode seemingly without reason. As you can see, the cause is the primary requirement for an effect, while conditions are secondary requirements.

    All phenomena in the universe are governed by causes and conditions. Nothing exists outside of this relationship.

  2. Phenomena Are Temporary

    From the above principle, we know that all phenomena do not arise by themselves, but arise due to causes and conditions. In the same way, all phenomena cease due to causes and conditions. Because of this, all phenomena merely appear temporarily, and do not have any substantial existence of their own. As they have no substantial existence, phenomena appear when the right conditions arise, and disappear when the right conditions cease. This is the meaning of the Buddhist saying, “All things arise from dependent origination, all things’ nature is emptiness.”

  3. Events Depend on Principles

    Phenomena arise due to causes and conditions, but they also do so in a way that is consistent with principles. For example, if you plant a pumpkin seed, you will not reap a tomato. Causes of a certain type produce effects that are consistent with that type. This is a certain truth, and there is no event that occurs outside of principles.

  4. Many Come from One

    To most people, “one” is “one,” and “many” is “many.” But in Buddhism, “one” is “many” and “many” is “one,” and furthermore, “many” come from “one.” Most people do not look at the world in this way, and as such they do not reap the benefits of Buddhist practice. Such people cannot see the potential that lies within things, especially the potential within the human mind. A seed may grow into a tree that produces many fruits, so one can say that much fruit can come from a single seed. Likewise, a single small act of kindness may create many ripples that change the world for the better, and one small act of intentional cruelty may cause many destructive results that could last for a long time.

  5. Existence Relies on Emptiness

    The principles that have been previously discussed, such as “effects arise from causes” and “events depend on principles” have to do with existing phenomena. In Buddhism, existence itself is said to be dependent on “emptiness,” which means that no phenomena has an independent existence. Since all things are interconnected, not one of them can be said to have a permanent, substantial existence. All things have this emptiness as their nature, and their very existence depends on this emptiness.

    An example that is commonly used to explain this point is that of the wooden table. A table comes from a tree, and the tree depends on the conditions of soil, water, and sunshine to grow. Even though a table appears to have some substantial existence, it actually relies on many different conditions coming together so that it may arise temporarily. Aside from the external conditions that gave rise to the tree, someone had to cut the tree, move it, make the table, and put it in your room. As soon as we begin to investigate the causes and conditions on which the table depends for its existence, we find that ultimately there is no “table nature.” Rather, what makes the table is an endlessly complex web of interconnectedness, impermanence, and change. If even one element is removed from that web, there might not be a table at all.

    None of this says that the table does not exist. It means that the nature of a table is empty. If the nature of phenomena were not empty, then it would have no value. This is what emptiness does: it gives things value and purpose. The value and function of a table belongs to conventional reality. The “emptiness” of the table belongs to ultimate reality.

    Understanding emptiness requires that we understand the impermanence and interconnectedness of all things. When we understand that all things are impermanent and interconnected, then we can understand that not one of them has its own substantial existence.

    The great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, said, “Because there is emptiness, all phenomena exist. Without emptiness, all phenomena could not be.” This is to say, all things rely on emptiness for their very existence.

  6. A Buddha Comes from a Human Being

    When Sakyamuni Buddha awakened, he said, “All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.” The Buddha said time and again that all of us have Buddha nature and that anyone who works long and hard enough at purifying his or her mind will eventually become a Buddha as well. Our attachments are like dark clouds that conceal the brightness of the moon or like mud that obscures a pond’s clear water.

In our study of Buddhism, we must understand the cycle of birth and death and the truth that “This is absent, therefore, that is absent. This ceases, therefore that ceases,” so we can put an end to our ignorance and reveal our Buddha nature. In this way we can attain the state of non-duality, the state without the limitations of space and time, or birth and death. This is awakening.

There is a saying in Buddhism, “A Buddha is an awakened sentient being. Sentient beings are unawakened Buddhas.” The Sutra on the Principles of the Six Perfections says, “All sentient beings enter the wisdom of the Buddha by purifying the mind. The nature of a Buddha is no different from that of any other sentient being.”

Four Kinds of Conditions

Dependent origination is the interplay between causes, conditions, and effects. Although causes are primary, conditions are also very important. Rather than have a single dominant cause, effects can be generated by the coming together of many conditions. There are four basic kinds of conditions that are related to our discussion of dependent origination. They are as follows:

  1. Causal Conditions

    This refers to those conditions which most directly act as causes to produce an effect. For example, the seed that produces a seedling is considered to be the causal condition for that seed.

  2. Comparable Uninterrupted Conditions

    Comparable uninterrupted conditions refer to a string of conditions where each condition acts as the seed of the next condition. As each condition arises and ceases, another similar condition is created in a constant series without gap or interruption. Comparable uninterrupted conditions can be seen most clearly in the mind. When the mind encounters an object, it produces thought. Previous thought creates present thought, and present thought creates future thought. Each thought conditions the next in conjunction with other conditions to create a thought that is similar, but different. All of these thoughts also interact with other conditions.

  3. Object Conditions

    All external objects which influence the mind are called object conditions. For example, forms seen by the eye create eye-consciousness, which acts as an object condition upon the mind. Object conditions also interact with the stream of comparable uninterrupted conditions described above. Past, present, and future phenomena are also object conditions which act upon the mind.

  4. Advancing Conditions

    All other conditions that help or do not hinder the arising of phenomena are called advancing conditions.

The four kinds of conditions discussed above can also be thought of as being either “direct” or “indirect.” All causal conditions operate directly on phenomena, while the other three kinds of conditions operate indirectly.

When looking more deeply into the four kinds of conditions, we see that matter only requires causal conditions and advancing conditions to function. The mind, in contrast, requires all four conditions to operate.

Dependent Origination and Human Life

Dependent origination shows us the relationship between the arising, changing, and ceasing of phenomena, as well as the origin of human suffering. If we ignore or discount the fact that all things are impermanent and change due to causes and conditions, we are setting ourselves up to suffer. Whenever we ignore the reality of dependent origination and are attached to the delusion of permanence, we bring suffering onto ourselves. In contrast, when we are mindful of the forces that affect the phenomenal world, we prepare ourselves to deal with them in a positive and productive manner. If we understand that many are born from one and that all conditions are caused, then we will understand how to bring about good conditions in our own lives and in the world.

A true understanding of dependent origination will bring us joy, for it teaches us that the future lies in our own hands. Future conditions depend on causal seeds that we plant today. Liberation is achieved through practicing and understanding this truth, and for the benefit of all sentient beings. A clear understanding of dependent origination strengthens the mind because it teaches us how to understand what is most valuable in life and how to turn negative circumstances into positive ones.

Dependent origination teaches us that nothing in the world is permanent and explains why this is so. To understand dependent origination is to understand that all phenomena are conditioned by other phenomena and that all of them “rely on emptiness.” Nothing has a substantial existence, including us. Ultimately, we too are empty. Clear understanding of this truth leads to liberation into a reality that lies beyond greed, anger, ignorance, attachment, suffering, and all delusions of duality.

Frequent contemplation of dependent origination can inspire us to be grateful for the things we have and the world we live in. It can teach us how to flow with life in a way that benefits both ourselves and others. Dependent origination gives us hope as it shows us how to understand the deepest meaning of life. The Rice Stalk Sutra says, “To see dependent origination is to see the Dharma. To see the Dharma is to see the Buddha.”