Udumbara: An Introductory Essay On the General Theory of Interdependent Transformation (Pratityasamutpada) by Jim Wilson
An Introductory Essay On the General Theory of Interdependent Transformation (Pratityasamutpada)
by Jim Wilson
I dedicate this essay to my father, John Wilson, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
I wrote this essay as the first part of an extended inquiry into the teaching of what I have come to refer to as “Interdependent Transformation,” often referred to as “Dependent Origination.” As my study and practice of the Dharma deepened I became increasingly aware that this teaching is the heart of the Buddha’s awakening.
- All the Buddhas
- Appear in the worlds far away
- And are difficult to meet.
- Even if they appear in this world
- It is difficult to hear their teaching.
- Even in immeasurable, innumerable kalpas
- It is difficult to hear this Dharma,
- And those who are able to hear this Dharma
- Are also hard to find.
- They are just like the udumbara flower
- Which appears only once in a very long while
- And, beloved by all,
- Is considered a wonder among devas and humans.
- (The Lotus Sutra, translated from the Chinese of Kumaarajiiva by Kubo Tsugunari and Yuyama Akira, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Berkeley, 1993, page 49.)
On the night Shakyamuni became the Buddha, the night he attained enlightenment, he comprehended the true nature of existence. The Buddha not only comprehended the nature of existence, he directly perceived that nature. The Buddha would refer to this ultimate reality, this true nature, as Interdependent Transformation. The Buddha would spend the next forty years, all the remaining years of his life, teaching from the realization of Interdependent Transformation, the heart of the awakened understanding and the experience of awakening.
The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, to introduce the teaching of Interdependent Transformation in its most general form; what I refer to as the General Theory of Interdependent Transformation. Most often translated as “dependent origination”, I have decided to render the sanskrit of “pratityasamutpada” as Interdependent Transformation for reasons which, I think, will become clear.
Second, this specific essay has the purpose of showing how the teaching of Interdependent Transformation distinguishes the Buddha’s teaching from other forms of spirituality and philosophy. It is the basic stance of this essay that the Buddha’s teachings offers a unique insight into how the world works and how liberation can be achieved. Joanna Macy puts it this way:
- The Pali term paticca sammuppaada (Sanskrit: pratitya samutpada) denotes the doctrine of causal process which the Buddha taught. In the Dharma ... its chief emphasis is soteriological: It shows how suffering arises and how liberation from suffering can be won. As such this doctrine serves not only as explanation but as means for liberation: Its very realization, existentially and intuitively, is presented as transforming consciousness. Revealing itself as the fundamental character of reality, of the way things are, paticca sammuppaada colors the Buddhist apprehension of all phenomena. It underlies the Buddhist vision of the interdependence of life, and is basic to its understanding of the plight and the promise that are intrinsic to the human condition. As Louis de la Vallee Poussin, the French Buddhologist, put it,
- In scriptural accounts of the enlightenment, paticca samuppaada is the intellectual and expressible content of the insight to which Gotama awakened, the realization by which he became the Buddha.
- (Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, The Dharma of Natural Systems, by Joanna Macy, SUNY Press, Albany, 1991, page 26.)
Interdependent Transformation is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It is the most frequently discussed topic in the Sutras/Discourses. An entire collection of Discourses on this topic is found in the Discourses&mode=books Connected Discourses, as well as individual Discourses devoted to this view. Comprehending Interdependent Transformation clarifies the Buddha’s teaching in a way that no other investigation can. Once this view is clear, everything else in the Buddha’s teachings becomes clear.
The study of Interdependent Transformation is vast. This essay is confined to the presentation of the basic view of Interdependent Transformation, and how that basic view, or General Theory, distinguishes the teachings of the Buddha from other spiritual and philosophical traditions. I have titled this essay Udumbara. This refers to a flower which blooms only once in many thousands of years. As an image of Interdependent Transformation it is richly illustrative. Conditions have to be exactly right, and the Udambara blossoms. In terms of this essay, the Udambara symbolizes the teaching of Interdependent Transformation itself. For this teaching is rare, profound, fragile, and of great beauty. It is the teaching that both emerges from and leads to awakening and the cessation of sorrow.
1.1 The Morning Star
Early in the morning, after meditating at the foot of the tree of enlightenment for many days, the Buddha saw Venus, the morning star. After many years, decades, of searching, the Buddha looked up and saw the morning star shining in the clear early morning sky, a sky shifting from night to morning. Seeing the morning star, the Buddha said, “How wonderful. How marvelous. How perfect. How complete. Everything in existence is just like this.” In The Transmission Of The Lamp it says:
- ... At the moment of dawn, when the morning star arose, the Bodhisattva became a Buddha, a teacher of gods and men.
- (The Transmission Of The Lamp, compiled by Tao Yuan, translated by Sohaku Ogata, Longwood Academic, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, 1990, pg. 5)
At that moment he became the Buddha, the Awakened One. Now Shakyamuni had seen the morning start many times before, but this morning differed from previous mornings. What made seeing the morning star on this morning different? How did seeing the morning star on that morning thousands of years ago differ from all the other times he had seen the morning star? What did he see?
On that morning, thousands of years ago, the Buddha perceived the dependent nature of all phenomena. In addition, he perceived the interdependent nature of all phenomena. In addition, he perceived that the ultimate nature of all existing things is precisely that interdependency. When the Buddha saw the morning star, he saw Interdependent Transformation. Perceiving Interdependent Transformation, the Buddha saw the ultimate nature of all existing things. Perceiving the morning star in this way, the Buddha perceived that all things are in all things. Perceiving that all things exist in this way, suffering ceased, grasping vanished, clinging ended, serenity filled his heart, and peace of mind arose, suffering ceased.
2. Interdependent Transformation As The Dharma
In a number of discourses the Buddha equates the comprehension of Interdependent Transformation as equivalent to the Dharma, the teaching of Buddha. In these discourses the Buddha makes it clear that Interdependent Transformation is the basis, the core, the foundation for comprehending the Dharma and in a profound sense is the Dharma itself. Interdependent Transformation is also the basis for bringing about the cessation of suffering and the attainment of nirvana, the ultimate release from and cessation of suffering.
2.1 The Shorter Discourse to Sakuludaayin, from The Middle Length Discourses #79
In this discourse a disciple of the buddha, named Udaayin, expresses concern that he, Udaayin, has no occult powers. This represents a common misconception regarding the purpose of spiritual practice in general and Buddhist practice in particular. Udaayin complains that he lacks the ability, among others, to perceive his many past lives. The Buddha responds to Udaayin in this way:
- “Udaayin, if someone should recollect his manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, ... thus, with their aspects and particulars, should he recollect his manifold past lives, then either he might ask me a question about the past or I might ask him a question about the past, and he might satisfy his mind with my answer to his question. If someone with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, should see beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate ... and understand how beings pass on according to their actions, then either he might ask me a question about the future or I might ask him a question about the future, and he might satisfy my mind with his answer to my question or I might satisfy his mind with my answer to his question. But let be the past, Udaayin, let be the future. I shall teach you the Dharma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.”
- (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995, pg. 655.)
- When this exists, that comes to be
- With the arising of this, that arises.
- When this does not exist, that does not come to be.
- With the cessation of this, that ceases.
gives us in its most concise form, and at the same time most general form the teaching of Interdependent Transformation. This is the insight upon which the Buddha built his entire teaching. Out of this insight all of his other teachings emerge, like a great tree emerging from a small seed.
2.2 The Discourse On The Simile Of The Elephant’s Footprint (Greater)
- Now this has been said by the Blessed One: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dharma; one who sees the Dharma sees dependent origination.”
This discourse is an elucidation on how to bring about the cessation of suffering through non-clinging. I take this statement, placed in the middle of this discourse, to mean that non-clinging, and therefore the cessation of suffering, and therefore the realization of nirvana, is dependent upon seeing, comprehending, and realizing the teaching of Interdependent Transformation (or dependent origination, as the translators refer to it).
3. Interdependent Transformation As The Buddha
The Buddha extended the identification of his teaching, or Dharma, with Interdependent Transformation to an identification of the Buddha himself with Interdependent Transformation. I take this identification of Interdependent Transformation with the Buddha as meaning that “Buddha”, or “Awakened One” means someone who understands and lives in the reality of Interdependent Transformation.
3.1 The Rice Stalk Sutra
- Thus have I heard: At one time the Lord was staying at Raajg.rha on Vulture Peak Mountain with a large company of monks, 1,250 monks, and many Bodhisattvas, Mahasatvas. At that time, the Venerable Shariputra approached the place frequented by Maitreya Bodhisattva-mahaasattva. When he approached, they exchanged many kinds of good and joyful words, and sat down together on a flat stone.
- Then the Venerable Shaariputra spoke thus to Maitreya Bodhisattva Mahaasattva: “Maitreya, here, today, the Lord, looking upon a stalk of rice, spoke this aphorism to the monks: ‘Whoever, monks, sees conditioned arising sees Dharma, and whoever sees Dharma sees the Buddha.’ Having said this the Lord became silent. What, Maitreya, is the meaning of the aphorism spoken by the Lord? What is conditioned arising? What is Dharma? What is the Buddha? How is it that seeing conditioned arising one sees Dharma? How is it that seeing the Dharma one sees the Buddha?”
- When this was said, Maitreya Bodhisattva-mahaasattva spoke thus to the Venerable Shariputra: Reverend Shaariputra, regarding what was said by the Lord, the master of Dharma, the omniscient: “He monks, who sees conditioned arising, sees Dharma, and he who sees Dharma, sees the Buddha.” Therein, what is conditioned arising? The phrase “conditioned arising” means: this being, that occurs; from the arising of this, that arises.
- ([http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/8120811356/dharmajssutra-20 The Shaalistamba Suutra, translated by N. Ross Reat, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, India, 1993, Pages 26-28.)
The discourse then continues with a detailed elucidation of Interdependent Transformation, or Conditioned Arising, based on the twelve fold factor analysis, about which more will be said below. Here I want to focus on the equation of the Buddha with Interdependent Transformation. The identification of the Buddha, the Awakened One, with Interdependent Transformation shifts our focus of attention away from the personality of the Buddha, away from the identification of the Dharma with a particular person, to the core insight from which the teachings, or Dharma, of the Buddha flow. I understand this as saying that to be a Buddha means comprehending, realizing, and living from the reality of Interdependent Transformation. When someone comprehends Interdependent Transformation, they become a Buddha. When someone becomes a Buddha, they bring to the world the teaching of Interdependent Transformation.
This is highlighted in the Susiima Discourse. Susiima resembles Udaayin because Susiima has a strong interest in occult powers and has identified realization with the acquisition of these powers. In response to Susiima’s persistent questioning of both himself and his disciples, the Buddha says to Susiima, “First, Susiima, comes knowledge of the law of cause and effect, afterwards comes knowledge about Nirvana.” (Kindred Sayings Vol. II, translated by Mrs. Rhys Davids and F. H. Woodward, Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1997, page 88.)
I take this to mean that realization, Nirvana, depends upon, is conditioned by, the understanding of the law of cause and effect. For the Buddha the law of cause and effect means Interdependent Transformation. In other words, liberation depends upon understanding Interdependent Transformation. In other words, without understanding Interdependent Transformation, liberation is not possible.
3.2 The Three Bodies Of The Buddha
How do we understand the meaning of the Buddha equating his own existence with that of the Dharma, and with that of Interdependent Transformation? The Buddhist tradition has developed a way of looking at the Buddha which I think is helpful to apply in this context. It is called “The Three Bodies of the Buddha.”
The first body is called “Nirmanakaya”. This body refers to the existence of a particular person, Shakyamuni, who was born in India 2,500 years ago, had a history, a father and a mother, had disciples, and gave voice to the Dharma.
The second body is called “Samboghakaya”. This body refers to our image and concept of the Buddha. The importance of the Samboghakaya is brought forth when we realize that all images of the Buddha are Samboghakaya manifestations. We actually do not know what the historical Buddha looked like, what he sounded like, how he walked, etc. Every statue of a Buddha, every painting, and even every Discourse, is a Samboghakaya manifestation.
Once one realizes this, it becomes clearer how Buddhism was able to incorporate many other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas into its teachings; as Samboghakaya manifestations they are simply an extension of this second body of the Buddha. It is also at this level that the Dharma continues to grow, develop, expand, and take on new forms and new interpretations. In other words, the Samboghakaya is the living presence of the Buddha in the world right now.
The third body is referred to as the “Dharmakaya” and it is the eternal, deathless, and unborn nature. It is the presence of nirvana. Without the Dharmakaya, the other bodies of the Buddha would not be possible. Because the Dharmakaya is present in all existing things, it is present in all people as their Buddha Nature. It is this Buddha Nature, present in all people, which makes it possible for people to awaken to the eternal, to the deathless, to the unborn, to the presence of nirvana, permeating all time and space.
When the Buddha identifies himself with Interdependent Transformation, I take this is an identification with the Dharmakaya aspect of existence. It is in this sense that one can say that the Buddha is eternal, that the Buddha is deathless and unborn. It is in this sense that the Buddha is always present, never not existing, and constantly liberating sentient beings.
4 Interdependent Transformation As The Sangha
The Buddha formed a community which is referred to as the sangha. But the term sangha does not mean any community, it means specifically that community which is on the path to liberation according to the understanding of the Buddha. I understand this to mean that the sangha is a community steeped in the understanding of Interdependent Transformation. Sangha means those dedicated to realizing Interdependent Transformation and it is just this focus which distinguishes this community from all other communities.
4.1 The Mahaniddana Sutra
- Thus have I heard. Once the Lord was staying among the Kurus. There is a market town there called Kammaasadhamma. And the Venerable Aananda came to the Lord, saluted him, sat down to one side, and said: ‘It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvelous how profound this dependent origination is, and how profound it appears! And yet it appears to me as clear as clear!’
- ‘Do not say that Ananda, do not say that! This dependent origination is profound and appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, covered as with a blight, tangled like coarse grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin and the round of birth-and-death.’
- (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1987, Pg. 223.)
This introduction to the discourse is very rich in meaning. Here I want to highlight that the Buddha attributes the suffering of most people, of “this generation” to their lack of understanding, and specifically their lack of understanding Interdependent Transformation (or as the translator renders it, dependent origination). There does exist, however, a community of people who are dedicated to understanding Interdependent Transformation. That community is the Sangha.
An analogy may help here. A society dedicated to understanding particle physics means a community the members of which have the focus of comprehending the nature of sub-atomic particles. A society of musicians dedicated to chamber music is a community the members of which have the focus of comprehending, performing, perhaps publishing and recording, a specific kind of music. Similarly, the Buddhist community means that community which is dedicated to comprehending and realizing and actualizing Interdependent Transformation. The specific name for this community centered on Interdependent Transformation is the Sangha. The Buddhist Sangha means the community of practitioners dedicated to realizing the meaning of Interdependent Transformation.
This Sangha is dedicated not only to understanding Interdependent Transformation, but also to functioning in the world according to that understanding. The first aspect, that of understanding Interdependent Transformation, is the wisdom aspect of the Dharma. The second aspect, that of functioning in the world according to that understanding, is the compassion aspect of the Dharma. Both wisdom and compassion emerge from the core realization of Interdependent Transformation.
This is what unites the monastic Sangha and the lay Sangha. Both are Buddhist Sanghas because both are dedicated to the understanding and realization of Interdependent Transformation. In a sense, the two communities are one community, united in the core realization upon which they remain centered and which is the reason for the existence of the Sangha.
The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the three treasures of the way to liberation, all have as their basis the reality of Interdependent Transformation. Liberation itself depends upon the comprehension of Interdependent Transformation.
The core Buddhist practice is called “Taking Refuge” and refers to taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge is done daily at countless home altars around the world and is a part of every Buddhist ceremony. This taking refuge unites the various strands and interpretations of the Buddhadharma, providing all of them with a common base and focus. David Kalupahana puts it this way:
- Despite occasional quibbling over details of philosophical interpretation, it is possible to observe an unbroken continuity in philosophical standpoint, which is reflected in the popular and elaborate religious rituals of both the Theravaada and Mahaayaana traditions. The same is true of the most basic ritual performed by every Buddhist layman and laywoman, whatever their sectarian differences. This basic ritual is generally referred to as “taking refuge” in the Three Gems: the Buddha, the doctrine, and the community.
- (A History Of Buddhist Philosophy, by David J. Kalupahana, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1992, pg. 111.)
Whenever I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in Interdependent Transformation, because the Buddha means the realization of Interdependent Transformation. When I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in Interdependent Transformation, because the teaching of the Buddha, the Dharma, all flows from that core understanding. When I take refuge in the Sangha, I take refuge in a community of like-minded people whose life has become centered on comprehending, realizing, and functioning in the world from the reality of Interdependent Transformation. In a sense, then, the core ritual and practice of the Buddhist world is simply the practice of comprehending, at many levels, from cognitive to experiential, the reality of Interdependent Transformation. In other words, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha means taking refuge in Interdependent Transformation.
6. Distinguishing The Teaching Of The Buddha
The teaching of the Buddha is unique. The uniqueness of the Buddha’s teaching is based on the core understanding and realization of Interdependent Transformation. Other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching are shared with other forms of spirituality and philosophy. For example, the idea of reincarnation is widely held by many spiritual and philosophical traditions. Though, even here, because of Interdependent Transformation, the Buddha has a unique take on reincarnation and for this reason many Buddhists prefer to use the word rebirth instead of reincarnation. Another example, ethical principles, as embodied in the precepts, are also shared by many other spiritual and philosophical traditions. These kinds of overlapping understandings, however, do not mean that there is no difference among spiritual traditions. For example, a rose and a tulip might both be red, and they might both be beautiful, but they also have their differences. Or, a string quartet and a symphony might both serve useful functions in the realm of music, still a string quartet and a symphony have their differences.
Similarly, the overlappings between the Buddha’s teachings and those of many other spiritual traditions do not imply that the Buddha’s teachings do not have their unique contribution to make. There is a tendency among some to assume that that which all spiritual traditions share constitutes some kind of core understanding which is the heart of spirituality. But I consider that a hasty conclusion, one not borne out by a serious study within a particular tradition.
This does not imply that other spiritual traditions have no value. It simply means that what the Buddha taught, the core of his teaching, differs from the core teachings of other spiritual traditions. There exists a strong tendency to interpret differences hierarchically, and in particular, to interpret differences ethically, in terms of better and worse. But that does not follow. Using again the garden metaphor above, different flowers all have their beauty, a rose is not better than a crocus, a tulip is not superior to a chrysanthemum. However, a chrysanthemum does differ from a crocus, and the core teaching of the Buddha does differ from that of other spiritual traditions.
There is a common metaphor in use regarding spirituality; that there are many paths up a single mountain. I have a different way of looking at it. I think of the realm of spirituality as an entire mountain range with many paths up many mountains. It may be the case that those who dwell on the mountain peaks have roughly the same view; but it is not exactly the same view. There remain differences in perspective.
I also have the view that it is wonderful that there are many different spiritual traditions teaching different understandings. Just as a garden of a single flower would soon become dull, the garden of the spirit has many blossoms. Just as an entire mountain range has a beauty and grandeur which surpasses that of a single hill, so also the realm of the spirit has a grandeur which surpasses that of any single tradition.
I comprehend that the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, the heart of his realization, is the reality of Interdependent Transformation. I further comprehend that this Interdependent Transformation is the unique, wonderful, and marvelous gift that the Buddha has given us, freely given us, compassionately blessed us with. I consider this Interdependent Transformation the key to liberation. It is Interdependent Transformation which makes enlightenment possible.
6.1 An Introduction To The General Theory
- When this exists, that exists.
- This arising, that arises.
- When this does not exist, that does not exist.
- When this ceases, that ceases.
It is good to keep this general theory in mind, to memorize it, to take it to heart. It is this General Theory of Interdependent Transformation, this simple truth, which distinguishes the Buddha’s teachings from all others, constitutes his unique gift to sentient existence, and forms the basis for liberation.
I would suggest keeping two core understandings in mind, derived from this general theory. First, the general theory of Interdependent Transformation is thoroughly relational. Things exist due to other things. That is their nature, the ultimate reality of things and of existence as such. This thoroughly relational view has broad and important implications.
Second, the general theory of Interdependent Transformation is thoroughly processual. The theory addresses specifically the becoming and begoning of all things as their ultimate nature. Things appear due to causes. Things cease due to causes. Thus the relational nature of things manifests as the appearing and ceasing of things. And the appearing and ceasing of things is due to their relational nature.
6.2 Distinguishing Buddhism From Brahmanism
At the time of the Buddha there existed many spiritual teachers in India, teaching many different doctrines and approaches to the ultimate. The Buddha faced the task of distinguishing his teaching from that of other spiritual teachers and from the assumptions of the culture at large. This was not done in a competitive spirit, but rather for the purposes of clarity, so that those who wished to follow the Buddha would understand with precision the nature of the Buddhist path.
The surrounding culture was primarily Brahman, which today we call Hindu. The Brahman point of view expressed itself primarily in two forms. The first was that there exists a primal substance which constantly generates the world of appearances. The metaphor in common use here is waves and water. The ocean constantly generates waves, but all the waves have the nature of water. Similarly, the primal nature of existence constantly generates forms, but the real nature of these forms is this primal nature. This view is the basis for the idea that the world of appearances is illusory, a delusion. What is really real is the primal nature. Spirituality consists of becoming one with this primal nature, the really real. This primal nature, sometimes called Brahma, is self-sufficient, independent, and uncaused, and that is what makes it really real, as opposed to those things which exist interdependently, causally, and conditionally.
Against this view the Buddha had the understanding and realization of Interdependent Transformation. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, there is no primal substance nature. The ultimate nature of things is thoroughly non-substantial. Nothing exists separately or self-sufficiently. Rather all things arise solely due to causes and conditions. The ultimate nature of things is, therefore, as previously stated, through and through relational; things and existence as such, have no other ultimate nature than their nature as Interdependent Transformations.
The second view widely held by Brahmanical culture was that the ultimate nature of existence resided in a deity; usually identified as Brahma or Ishvara. This deity created existence but this ultimate deity itself is self-sufficient and in some way exists separately from the created existence.
Against this view the Buddha, grounded in the realization of Interdependent Transformation, denied that deities exist self-sufficiently or independently. The Buddha did not deny the existence of deities or celestial realms (or hell realms). However, the Buddha argued that to exist means to exist Interdependently. The Buddha extended this insight even to deities and to the realms that the deities occupy themselves. From this perspective, deities have the same ultimate nature as anything else; deities arise due to causes and conditions and are examples of Interdependent Transformation, just like rocks and clouds and cars and toast.
It is for this reason that the Buddha argued that liberation was not attained by ascending into a celestial dimension. Ultimate liberation meant the transcending of all realms. How does one transcend all realms? One transcends all realms by releasing all clinging into the modality of interdependence. One releases all clinging into the modality of interdependence by realizing the ultimate nature of existence as Interdependent Transformation.
In addition, the Buddha would distinguish his teaching, based on Interdependent Transformation, by stating that there did not exist any moment of creation, no moment where time begins. The Interdependent nature of all existing things recedes back into an infinitely long past, shall proceed into an infinitely long future. This is vividly depicted in the Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning. Each of these Discourses contains the sentence, “This samsaara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” This endlessness is then illustrated by a simile that vividly illustrated the vastness of existence both in time and in space. (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Volume 1, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, Boston, 2000, pages 651 through 661.)
This vision of vastness both in terms of time and space is breathtaking. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation there is no need to posit creation at some point in time, or from some primal source. Rather, the ultimate source of all existing things is simply all existing things.
6.2.1 The Twilight Of The Gods
I have found it helpful to compare the Buddha’s relationship to deities and celestial realms with something that was happening in the west at just about the same time; the emergence of philosophical discourse. One of the things which distinguished the emergence of philosophy in the west from traditional religious discourse was that philosophy shifted the location of the divine from deities and celestial realms to something else, something more vague, less formed, more imageless.
- It was the opinion of Anaximander that the gods come into existence and perish, rising and setting at long intervals; and that there are countless worlds.
- (The Presocratics, by Philip Wheelwright, translating from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, or The Nature of the Gods, Odyssey Press, Indianapolis, 1960, pg. 59.)
- This is in point of form Heraclitus’ masterpiece, the most perfectly symmetrical of all the fragments. The first two clauses of two words each (with copula unexpressed in Greek) are mirror images, identical but for the word order: a-b-b-a. The third and fourth clauses involve more complex inversions....
- ... (A) strict equivalence between the two classes (mortals and immortals) is strongly suggested by the formal reversibility of the first four words, where it makes no difference which term we take as subject, which as predicate. If we take the first pair of terms as affirming that mortals are immortal, the second will affirm that immortals are mortal, and conversely....
- For the ordinary Greek view of the gods these claims are extraordinarily shocking ... In early poetry and myth, freedom from death is the essential characteristic of the gods: mortality is what separates the human condition from the divine. By asserting the mortality of the gods, Heraclitus breaks completely with traditional Greek piety.
- (The Art And Thought Of Heraclitus, by Charles H. Kahn, Cambridge, New York, 1979, pgs. 217-218.)
Another famous fragment of Heraclitus reads:
- This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be -- an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures.
- (Heraclitus, by Philip Wheelwright, Atheneum, Forge Village, 1959, pg. 37.)
This fragment, combined with the previous one, clearly and directly undermines the idea of a supreme being or deity. It is remarkably similar to the Buddha’s point of view in terms of the endlessness of existence; in fact it is so similar it is almost spooky. No supreme being brought existence into existence and therefore there is no deity who bears moral responsibility for existence or functions as the final cause for existence as such.
- The school of Hesiod and all the mythologists thought only of what was plausible to themselves, and had no regard to us (philosophers). For asserting the first principles to be gods and born of gods, they say that the beings which did not taste of nectar and ambrosia became mortal; and clearly they are using words which are familiar to themselves, yet what they have said, even about the very application of these causes is above our comprehension. For if the gods taste nectar and ambrosia for their pleasure, those are in no wise the causes of their existence; and if they taste them to maintain their existence, how can gods who need food be eternal?
Here Aristotle focuses on what he considers a pivotal point regarding the nature of deities; if they depend for their existence upon causes and conditions, such as nectar, then that implies their impermanence and therefore their mortality. This is exactly the kind of reasoning that Buddhists would use when referring to the nature of deities and the fact the ultimacy does not lie in a deity or celestial dimension.
An ultimate means that which always endures; in other words, the eternal. An ultimate analysis is an analysis which reveals the nature of the eternal, the constant, the always present. My view is that in order to access the eternal, one must comprehend that which all things have in common; the term “things” understood in its widest possible application. I believe this is consistent with the Buddha’s realization based on Interdependent Transformation. In other words, all things have in common their Interdependent and Transfomative nature and for this reason Interdependent Transformation constitutes the eternal, or an aspect of the eternal.
Returning to early philosophy and the Buddha’s view of the nature of deities; I think it is difficult for many of us, growing up in secular households, to realize what a profound shift was taking place here both in India and in the West (and possibly, also in China). We can recapture some of the drama of this moment in history by thinking what it would be like to tell a congregation of fundamentalists (of any kind, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or whatever), that their Deity is mortal; that one day there will come a time when that Deity no longer exists. I think one can imagine the reaction. Depending on the ideology of the fundamentalism, such a statement could provoke even a violent reaction.
And, in fact, this is exactly what happened in the west at the dawn of philosophy. The hostility provoked by these kinds of speculations culminated in the execution of Socrates on the charge of atheism. Now the interesting thing is that from our perspective Socrates was a pious man who not only worshipped the Gods but also followed their commands as received by oracles. Why, then, was he charged with atheism?
Because even though Socrates believed that the Gods existed, he questioned whether or not ultimacy, the eternal, was a deity. From the perspective of the civic religion of his time, this was blasphemy.
The Buddha engaged in the same kind of questioning, but the Buddha and his followers did not earn the wrath of the culture at large for this kind of inquiry into the nature of the Gods. I find it interesting to speculate as to why such questioning in the west has led to a violent response, whereas in India it did not. This is highly speculative, but I think the key to the divergent responses centers on cosmology. The Buddha was disinclined towards cosmological speculation. The Buddha simply accepted the cosmology of his culture, including the various heavens and hells and the numerous deities that filled these realms. I get the impression that cosmology just didn’t interest him very much. For this reason I like to say that Buddhism has a weak cosmological commitment. The focus of the Buddha’s teaching was the cessation of suffering and it was to that end that the Buddha directed his energies.
In contrast, many of the early western philosophers speculated in detail about cosmology. Cosmological speculations have a way of more blatantly undermining a civic religion than do questions about first principles, ultimacy, and the nature of the eternal, which many people find hard to follow and seems for many to be very abstract and somewhat remote from their daily lives. By offering alternative cosmologies, the early western philosophers were hacking away at an entire world in which people dwelled within their minds and in which they deeply believed. The Buddha may have said that ultimate nature was not a deity; but he left intact the cosmological structure upon which many people leaned and gained solace from.
This conflict of cosmologies can become very emotional, even down to the present day. For example, the ongoing conflict between the scientific view of evolution and those who believe in creationism is, in a way, a repeat performance of what was going on in early western philosophy.
This has wandered somewhat from the topic at hand; the meaning of Interdependent Transformation. However, I find it instructive that the Buddha’s central focus on Interdependent Transformation did not lead him to place a great emphasis on cosmology. In contrast, the speculations of the early western philosophers, which are an attempt to discover the ultimate as a separately existing base, do lead to such cosmological speculations.
Mahavira was a prominent spiritual teacher who lived at the same time and in the same place as the Buddha. In the Buddhist discourses followers of Mahavira, whom today we call Jains, appear fairly often to question the Buddha regarding his understanding. I have been told by Jains that in their discourses followers of the Buddha appear to ask Mahavira about the nature of his teaching. Thus there appears to have been an ebb and flow of those interested in spirituality from one teacher to another.
Both Mahavira and the Buddha are, from the Brahmanical point of view, heterodox teachers. Heterodox in this context means non-Brahman, or what today we would refer to as non-Hindu. I think there would have been a tendency for people to therefore lump the two teachers and their teachings together. There exist some striking similarities in the two teachings. For example, both of them reject the caste system. Both of them reject the authority of the Vedas. Both of them believe in reincarnation and karma; though they have different understandings as to how these function. Both of them have very similar ethical views, as expressed in the ethical precepts, which they regard as foundational for the path to realization. Both of them structured their communities into lay and monastic organizations.
How, then, do they differ? Mahavira taught, and the Jain tradition accepts, the idea of a separately existing soul. This soul exists within and it is absolutely pure, untainted by the world, completely immaterial, and it is this separately existing soul which is the source of liberation. From this perspective, the world is the source of that which keeps us from liberation. The Jain tradition therefore rejects the world and seeks release by contacting and becoming one with the immortal and separately existing soul.
The Buddha’s understanding was based on his primal insight into Interdependent Transformation. From this perspective, there is no separately existing soul. This is the origin of the famous Buddhist doctrine of no soul; which, I think, should be glossed as the doctrine of “no separately existing soul”. I believe this view has its origin in the Buddha’s early interaction with the Jain tradition, and his attempt to clarify wherein the two teachings differ. This very subtle, and important, understanding has been widely misunderstood. The view of no-soul means no separately existing soul. The view of no-soul does not mean that we do not have an interior life, that we lack consciousness and awareness. The term soul, or atman, for the Jains as well as for the Brahmans, meant a separately existing nature. The Buddha denies that anything exists separately. However, denying that anything exists separately does not mean denying that things exist at all.
In the case of soul, the Buddha taught no-soul because at the time of his teaching the term soul meant the isolated and separately existing interior reality. Against this teaching, and as a particular application of the understanding of Interdependent Transformation, the Buddha taught that our interior reality, our consciousness and our awareness, are connected to the rest of existence, just like everything else. Our psyche, our feelings, our emotions, our awareness, and our consciousness itself are interdependent, causally connected, thoroughly relational and thoroughly processual realities. There is no separately existing self to liberate. Liberation means realizing the non-separate nature of all existing things.
6.4 Unpacking The Meaning Of Interdependent Transformation
In a sense the General Theory could not be more simple. The General Theory means that things exist due to causes and conditions. Or put even more simply, things exist because other things exist. Logically, I might look at it this way; the reason a particular thing exists is because other things exist. Or, if other things did not exist, no particular thing could exist.
Put in this way, the General Theory sounds not only simple, it may even sound simplistic. However, there is an additional element to the General Theory which gives the General Theory its power and is the basis for the unique vision of the Buddha. The General Theory not only says that things exist because other things exist, the General Theory states that every single aspect of a thing, without exception, exists due to other things. Negatively, this means that no thing exists separately, or independently, or by itself. If something exists, that something exists due to the presence of other things. This has a number of implications I would like to explore. Above, I used the view of Interdependent Transformation, in its General Theory form, to distinguish Buddhism from Jainism and Brahmanism. By unpacking the meaning of the General Theory, we can extend this investigation and extend the meaning of the General Theory. Unpacking the meaning of the General Theory means to draw out the implications of the General Theory. Some of the implications I want to explore are that the General Theory implies that the nature of things is such that they are: thoroughly dependent, thoroughly interdependent, thoroughly relational, thoroughly conditioned, thoroughly contingent, thoroughly processual, thoroughly caused, and thoroughly creative.
6.4.1 Thoroughly Dependent
It was the specific genius of the Buddha that he followed through on the General Theory and elucidated the implications of Interdependent Transformation. It is not unusual for spiritual teachers and philosophers to emphasize the nature of causality, dependence, and relationship as part of their teaching. However, the Buddha’s teaching is that the ultimate nature of all things is precisely their dependent nature, that no aspect of the existence of any existing thing escapes from this dependence.
To exist dependently means that without the existence of those things upon which X depends, X would simply not exist. Or, given that X exists, if the conditions upon which X depends cease to exist, then X will cease to exist. To say that things are thoroughly dependent means that X can not exist unless certain conditions also exist. To say that things are thoroughly dependent means that there does not exist any aspect of a given thing X such that that aspect exists without supporting conditions which allow for that aspect to exist. In short, to exist means to exist dependently.
The above is abstract. Applying this insight to everyday experience helps me to understand the meaning of the above. For example; the existence of a musical tone depends upon a number of factors for its existence. These factors include: air, a musical instrument, a musician, and the intention on the part of the musician to produce the tone. If any of these conditions are removed, the musical tone simply does not appear. There is no aspect of the musical tone that does not have this relationship of dependence upon these conditions for its existence. By aspect of a musical tone I mean, for example, the tone’s timbre, pitch, loudness, duration. All of these aspects or factors of a musical tone are equally and thoroughly dependent upon conditions.
For the purposes of this essay, the distinction between the terms causes and conditions is as follows. A cause is a factor which is a thing, that gives rise to, or brings about, the existence of another thing that is not the cause itself. A condition is an aspect of a thing such that if that aspect were removed, or did not exist, the thing would not exist. I’ll illustrate the difference using a musical tone.
The causes that give rise to a musical tone, as mentioned, are things like air, the intention of the performer, the musical instrument. If all these causes are brought together, then this gives rise to a musical tone. The conditions of a musical tone are the aspects of the tone itself. The conditions are: pitch, timbre, duration, vibrato, envelope, location. If any of these are removed, the tone simply ceases to exist. So, thoroughly dependent means that given any particular thing, that thing exists solely due to the presence of causes and conditions which give rise to and allow for the presence of that particular thing.
Another example: a cup of tea depends upon a number of causes for its existence. Among these causes I would include: heat, tea leaves, a cup, a kettle to boil the water, water itself, and my intention to brew a cup of tea. If any of these factors are not present, the cup of tea will simply not appear. The cup of tea itself consists of factors, or conditions, e.g., the cup, the person drinking, etc. Thus the cup of tea, like the musical tone, consists of causes and conditions, which if any one of them are not present, then the cup of tea will either not manifest or it will cease. Thus making a cup of tea also depends upon conditions and so tea is a thoroughly conditioned thing. In addition, each condition of the cup of tea, such as the taste, warmth, pungency, etc., are all equally and thoroughly dependent upon causes and conditions for their existence. There does not exist any aspect of the cup of tea which escapes from this thoroughly dependent nature.
This, in general, is a way of comprehending just what thoroughly dependent means; take a specific thing, X, and then ask what does the existence of X depend upon? The analysis is two fold. First, what causes bring about the appearance of X?, and second, what factors/ conditions does X consist of? Together, the causes and conditions constitute the entirety of X and for this reason X is thoroughly dependent. The important thing is to discover that there does not exist any aspect of any given thing X which does not depend upon other aspects, which are also things, for their existence. This is the meaning of “thoroughly”: through and through, without exception, permeatingly, always applicable.
It helps to also examine what the term “thing” means in this context. For the General Theory of Interdependent Transformation asserts that it is applicable, true for, all existing things. I have discussed elsewhere, in The Presence Of Eternity, the meaning of the term thing, and I won’t repeat the entire analysis here. But what I want to clarify is that the term thing is very broad in its reference and also refers to events, processes, relations, functions, ideas, emotions, etc., existants that normal usage would not include in the category thing. In normal, everyday, usage, the word thing is contrasted with events and processes. In this kind of contrast, things exist and events happen. Though the term thing as used in this discussion includes all existants normally falling under the usage of that term, the meaning of thing is extended to embrace all existants which have a function and either influence other things or are influenced by other things. From this perspective, ideas, emotions, relations, mathematical functions, etc., are also things, because they have a function (or purpose), and influence and are influenced by other things.
So the kind of analysis regarding dependence also applies to, for example, emotions, ideas, mathematical functions, dream things, imaginary things, and any and all existants. It is important to keep this in mind as we proceed in this discussion, that the range of the term thing as used herein embraces much more than normally conceived.
In a sense, the General Theory means that to exist means to exist dependently. That nothing can exist unless it exists dependent upon other things which are causes and conditions for the thing under consideration. Given that all existing things exist, what does “to exist” mean? One answer from the Buddhist tradition would be that “to exist” means to depend upon other things.
6.4.2 Thoroughly Interdependent
At first to say that things are thoroughly interdependent after saying that things are thoroughly dependent may strike some as redundant. However, interdependence is a particular kind of dependence. By saying that things are interdependent I narrow the focus of the General Theory, making it more specific and clearer.
To say that things are interdependent infers that things are dependent. However, to say that things are dependent does not entail that things are interdependent. To understand this clearly, I use an analytical tool developed in medieval philosophy which I call the ontological grid. A good example of its use appears in The Periphyseon: On The Division Of Nature, by John the Scot:
- The division of nature seems to me to admit of four species through four differentiae. The first is the division into what creates and is not created; the second into what is created and creates; the third into what is created and does not create; the fourth, into what neither creates nor is created. Of these four, two pairs consist of opposites. The third is the opposite of the first, the fourth of the second. But the fourth is among the things which are impossible, and its differentia is its inability to be.
I find it helpful to put the four categories, or divisions, in list form:
- 1. That which creates but is not created.
- 2. That which creates and is created.
- 3. That which does not create and is created.
- 4. That which does not create and is not created.
The fourth category is nothingness and need not concern us, because, as John the Scot says, its characteristic is its inability to be or exist. The first category, in the monotheistic tradition, is God. In Platonism and neo-Platonism, the first category would be being, or the One. In the monotheistic tradition, from which John the Scot wrote, God is viewed as the creator of all existence, but God himself is not created. God himself is eternal and exists before existence exists. From this perspective, everything exists dependently upon God as the ultimate source of all existing things.
From a Buddhist perspective of Interdependent Transformation, however, things only exist as category 2: Buddhism would deny the existence of categories 1, 3, and 4. Everything in existence is both created and creates; and that is what I mean by interdependence. In other words, though the monotheistic and Buddhist traditions agree that all things exist dependently, they diverge as to the nature of that dependence. The monotheistic tradition comprehends dependence as located in a particular source, whereas the Buddhist tradition comprehends dependence as unlocated and spread out over all of existence. It is for this reason that I have decided to use the word "Interdependent Transformation" instead of "Dependent Transformation"; because the particular theory that the Buddha communicates to us stresses the interconnectedness of all things and that is what the Buddha means when he offers this view. To refer to this core idea as “Dependent Origination” makes it more difficult to comprehend the specific nature of the dependence which the Buddha comprehends as the nature of existing things. The term “interdependence” more accurately reflects the view of the General Theory.
6.4.3 Thoroughly Relational
To say that things are thoroughly relational means that to exist as a thing means to exist in relation to other things. The primary mode of existence, then, is not existence as a separate individual. Rather the primary mode of existence is to exist as a relation to other things. This is what Buddhism means when it stresses that there are not beings, no being as such, and no essence or substance. The Diamond Sutra is a particularly clear and extensive elaboration of this point:
- The Lord said: Here, Subhuti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a Bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: ‘As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term “beings” -- egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception, -- as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived: all these I must lead to Nirvana, into that Realm of Nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to Nirvana, no being at all has been led to Nirvana.’ And why? If in a Bodhisattva the notion of a ‘being’ should take place, he could not be called a ‘Bodhi-being’. ‘And why? He is not to be called a Bodhi-being, in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person.’
The idea of a being, self, soul, and person are all, in a Buddhist context, indicative of the idea of a separately existing thing. Because ordinary usage of these terms does not necessarily imply that kind of separation, I have found it helpful to gloss these terms when they appear in Buddhist works as follows; “separately existing being”, “separately existing soul”, “separately existing person”, “separately existing self”, etc.. The Buddhist choice of terminology becomes clear when I comprehend that the terminological usage is deliberately constructed to subvert the idea of something that exists outside of the network of relationships that form Interdependent Transformation. Without that basis, however, the use of terminology in a Buddhist context is often confusing.
For example, the shift from the use of the word “soul” to the word “consciousness” may, at first, seem just a matter of establishing jargon. However, at the time of the Buddha, the term we translate as soul, “atman”, really did mean something that exists separately and independently; hence the terminological shift. Another example is the appearance in a Buddhist context of the term “tathata” which is often translated as “thusness” or “suchness” and is a Buddhist term for the ultimate nature of things. I think that the Buddhists developed this term in order to steer clear of terms which already carried with them being-based implications or essentialist trappings. The reason Buddhism wanted to avoid these implications is that both being and essence imply something which exists outside of the network of relationships. Having the primal view that to exist means to exist in relationship, due to the Interdependent Transformation character of things, leads to these specific usages which seek to avoid being-based and essentialist understandings.
To say that things are thoroughly relational means that any given thing depends for its existence on having a relation to other things. This also applies to any aspect or factor of a given thing. For example, a coffee mug as a whole exists because of its relationship to other things; the factory in which it was made, the store in which it was sold, etc. This applies equally to the glaze of the coffee mug, the shape of the mug, the weight of the mug, etc. Engaging in this kind of analysis, we discover that things are through and through relational.
6.4.4 Thoroughly Conditioned
By thoroughly conditioned I mean primarily that things are influenced, modified, changed and impinged upon by other things. To exist means to be influenced. This runs counter to our feeling of existing as a separate individual. The feeling of existing as a separate individual is very strong. For this reason it is worthwhile examining if the view of thorough conditionality has validity.
The way to examine this is to take any aspect of ourselves and to observe whether or not that aspect exists separately, whether in fact that feeling of existing as a separate individual has any specific basis. Starting with the body, I observe that the body must consume food, air, conversation, and interaction with others in order to exist. For this reason I conclude that the body does not prove a basis for existing separately. If I examine my ideas, I discover that all my ideas are traceable to other people; I received my ideas from others. For this reason the ideas I hold do not prove a basis for existing separately. I can continue this kind of examination on any aspect of my existence and through this process I discover that I exist in a thoroughly conditioned manner. This thorough conditionality derives from Interdependent Transformation, constitutes an aspect of the meaning of this core view.
But it is not only my own existence which exists in a thoroughly conditioned manner. All things exist conditionally. I can perform the same kind of observation on any existing thing, from the smallest particle to the immensity of the universe itself, and observe the same conditionality. Due to the Interdependent Transformation matrix of things, things are also thoroughly conditioned, influenced, modified, changed, and impinged upon by other things.
6.4.5 Thoroughly Contingent
When I say that things are thoroughly contingent I mean that, given a particular thing X, if certain conditions had not existed, then X would never have appeared. I mean that X continues to exist in this world if and only if certain conditions which sustain the existence of X are also present. I mean that X ceases to exist as X if and only if certain conditions appear which bring about the cessation of X, either by removing sustaining conditions or by creating conditions incompatible with the existence of X.
Interdependent Transformation places an “if” at the heart of existence. Something will come to pass “if”, our plans will work “if”, something will cease “if”. The number of ifs that I can consider is innumerable and weave its way throughout existence. The presence of “if” at the heart of existence means that at the heart of existence I find an unknowable quality to existence, a quality that surpasses my capacities for understanding. The “if” at the heart of existence resembles a vast cavern whose details I can’t quite make out. No matter how far I explore, I never reach the end of the realm of if.
6.4.6 Thoroughly Processual
When I say that things are thoroughly processual I mean that things are always in process, always in a state of becoming and begoning, that things are never static, that things more closely resemble a flowing river than a state or condition, that the core of existence is change and process itself. This probably represents the most controversial assertion in this essay. For I am not only asserting that things are thoroughly in process, I am also asserting that the ultimate nature of things embraces process, is change itself. This runs counter to some interpretation of the Buddhadharma and the core doctrine of Interdependent Transformation. For example, a work like the Uttara Tantra definitely regards Buddha Nature, or the nature of ultimacy, as unchanging. So I think it is good to spend some time considering this aspect.
Buddhism uses many names for ultimacy, e.g., Nirvana, Buddha Nature, Tathagatagarbha, Thusness, etc.. Ultimate nature is also described in many ways. Consistently, however, ultimate nature is described as both the unborn and the deathless or undying. That which is unborn and deathless always exists. I prefer to use the term “the eternal”, or “eternity” to designate this ultimate reality.
However, there exist two ways of interpreting the eternal. The first way is to contrast the eternal with the ephemeral and the impermanent and therefore to consider the eternal as the unchanging. The second way is to interpret the eternal as the constant. One can find both interpretations throughout Buddhist history. A good example of the second interpretation is in the works of Master Dogen&mode=books Zen Master Dogen.
If I take the second interpretation of the eternal, the eternal as constant, then change no longer opposes eternity. Rather change manifests as the eternal itself, because of the constant presence of change and process. This is how, I think, that the logic works out so that one eventually reaches the point where nirvana and samsara do not differ; because change and impermanence are themselves liberation.
From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, which interpretation of the eternal makes more sense? Keeping in mind the basic General Theory, this General Theory depicts all phenomena as in process. The General Theory depicts things as thoroughly processual by illuminating three aspects of each existing thing; their mode of appearing due to causes and conditions, their mode of sustained existence due to causes and conditions, and finally their mode of cessation due to causes and conditions. I think that the reason the General Theory covers all three modes is to point out the core processual nature of ultimacy itself.
In terms of permanence, and Nirvana is said to be permanent, it is precisely this becoming and begoning nature which permanently abides; permanently abides because of the constant presence of becoming and begoning. The delusion which the path of the Buddha seeks to overcome is not the delusion of change. Rather the delusion which the path of the Buddha seeks to overcome is the delusion that anything exists in an unchanging manner. Stasis is the delusion and it is stasis, or the belief in the unchanging at any level, which gives rise to suffering, is the root of suffering.
From the perspective of the path, of the fourth noble truth, liberation would not be possible if change were not ultimate. I say this for several reasons. To begin with, it would not be possible for people to grow in wisdom and compassion if change was not at the heart of wisdom and compassion, which the Buddhadharma regards as the ultimate nature of existence. The entire structure of the path assumes the reality, the ultimate reality, of change. To cultivate wisdom requires change. To cultivate compassion requires change.
This also applies to those interpretations of the Buddhadharma which argue for sudden realization, as opposed to gradual cultivation. Whether the change is sudden or gradual, the same reasoning still applies. Namely, that change and process need to partake of ultimate reality, of Nirvana itself, if realization is to occur, if there is any movement at all from ignorance to awakening.
If Nirvana means the changeless, then it follows that Nirvana must have no connection with ordinary existence. If Nirvana has any connection with ordinary existence, any connection at all, then Nirvana changes. If Nirvana is changelessness, then there is no way to enter Nirvana, realize Nirvana, or to manifest that wisdom and compassion which are the aspects of Nirvana. The path would make no sense, cultivation would be useless, the Dharma would be pointless.
However, from our own experience, we realize that it is possible to cultivate wisdom and compassion, that wisdom and compassion can grow, flourish and blossom. The process resembles becoming a musician. As we practice our inborn capacity for musicianship grows, takes root and eventually flourishes. That capacity for musicianship itself changes as we develop and cultivate that capacity.
This process resembles cultivating a garden. I prepare the soil, nourish the sprouts of wisdom and compassion, weed from the garden the growths of hatred, greed, and delusion. Eventually, wisdom and compassion flourish in the garden of the Dharma.
Similarly, our capacity to reside in Nirvana, the realization of the non-separate nature of all existing things, which manifests as wisdom and compassion, can be cultivated. If it can be cultivated, it changes.
But more than that; I would suggest that change itself is Nirvana and that is why the discourses say that Nirvana is Samsara and Samsara is Nirvana. My reason for saying this is based on passages such as the following:
- “Here, Ananda, a bhikkhu is practising thus: ‘If it were not, it would not be mine; it will not be and it will not be mine. What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.’ Thus he obtains equanimity. He does not delight in that equanimity, welcome it, or remain holding to it. Since he does not do so, his consciousness does not become dependent upon it and does not cling to it. A bhikkhu, Ananda, who is without clinging attains Nirvana.”
- “It is indeed wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvelous! The Blessed One, indeed, has explained to us the crossing of the flood in dependence upon one support or another. But, venerable sir, what is noble liberation?”
- “Here, Ananda, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures here and now and sensual pleasures in lives to come, sensual perceptions here and now and sensual perceptions in lives to come, perceptions of forms here and now and perceptions of forms in live to come, perceptions of the imperturbable, perceptions of the base of nothingness, and perceptions of the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception -- this is personality as far as personality extends. This is the Deathless, namely, the liberation of the mind through not clinging.”
- (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Discourse 106, The Way to the Imperturbable, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, 1995, pg. 873.)
Non-clinging is the liberation of the mind and heart because clinging seeks the changeless, seeks to manufacture the changeless, seeks to find the changeless, seeks futilely for that which does not change. Equanimity arises through non-clinging because the mind, through non-clinging, becomes one with the absolute; because the Absolute and Change are two names for the same reality.
Liberation occurs when we shift our attention and awareness from the circumstantial appearances of existence to that which always exists. Change and process always exist, but it is difficult for us to realize this. It is difficult to realize this because of the tendency of the mind to cling. By practicing non-clinging we become one with the rivering world and transcend circumstantial appearances. Liberation dawns. Clinging and suffering are extinguished. Nirvana is realized.
Once again, this is why some of the discourses, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, can say that Nirvana and Samsara are one and the same. They are one and the same provided, and this is a big proviso, that we enter into the non-clinging nature of existence. As long as we cling at any level, ignorance dominates our consciousness and liberation remains elusive.
I comprehend the teaching of Interdependent Transformation as a direct pointing to this ultimate nature of process. By uncovering that all phenomena, in all their modes, are through and through processual, and that this applies to everything perceived, even to formless things, the Buddha starts us out on the path to realization. For this teaching, this Interdependent Transformation, is itself Nirvana, the ultimate, that brings about the cessation of suffering. To attain Nirvana, then, we need go no further than the full comprehension, realization, manifestation, and functioning of Interdependent Transformation. From this perspective the path is more like a circle, or, better, a spiral. As we proceed on the path we always circle back to the primal process nature of Interdependent Transformation. But each time that we circle back, our understanding has deepened, broadened, become more embracing. It is an endless spiral of realization, without beginning or ending; unborn and deathless, like Nirvana itself. Interdependent Transformation is itself Nirvana.
6.4.7 Thoroughly Caused
When I say that things are thoroughly caused I mean that the General Theory regards things as having a reason for their existence. There is an odd sense that we humans have that things are “just there”. For example, when I look at the furniture in my room, I do not perceive the causes that form the basis for the existence of the furniture. Looking at a chair, I do not perceive the tree that the chair came from, I do not perceive the factory or workshop in which the chair was made. Similarly for all the items of furniture in my room. From the perspective of bare perception, they seem to have just appeared here. Intellectually, I infer that they have a history, I infer that causes brought them into existence, but I do not perceive directly this causal matrix.
I can apply a similar analysis to the ideas of my mind. The ideas of my mind seem to just be there. Like the furniture in my room, the ideas of my mind do not display to my perception their history. If I examine the ideas of my mind, I can discover where these ideas came from; that in all cases these ideas originated from other people. Once again, though, this is an inferential process, not one of direct perception. I can infer that the ideas of my mind exist in my mind due to causes, but for the most part I do not directly perceive the mental causal matrix.
I think it is for this reason that the Buddha would so strongly emphasize that things have causes, factors which bring them about; because we do not normally perceive this aspect of existence, we need to have it brought to our attention repeatedly before it becomes a permeating aspect of the way and of our understanding. I think this also helps us to understand how the scientific view of causation and the Buddhist understanding of causation, though they overlap, have different emphases. Edward Conze puts it this way:
- The first thing to remember is ... the law of the ‘multiplicity of conditions’. No event has one single cause, but invariably the co-operation of a multitude of conditions is involved. What is necessary for an effect to take place is that the ‘full complement’ (saamagrii) of the conditions must be present. ‘The effect itself, indeed, is nothing but the presence of the totality of its causes. If the seed and the necessary quanta of air, soil, heat and moisture are present in it, all the other elements not interfering, the sprout is already there. The effect is nothing over and above the presence of the totality of its causes.’ If the totality of antecedents is incomplete, if one only is missing, the effect cannot come about. Therefore, until the very last moment some obstacle may still intervene, some contrary force which will prevent the effect. The future is never quite certain, one should not count on it too much, and it can be predicted with certainty only by an omniscient being. For us ‘the accomplishment of the result can always be jeopardized by some unpredictable event’. By contrast, the modern idea of causality is governed by the ideal of prediction. The concrete totality of events is set aside, certain sectors are ‘isolated’ and observed on their own, with the intention of ‘controlling’ events. Buddhists pursue a different path. The same unwillingness to face events in their concrete individuality which causes such difficulties to modern Europeans in relation to the Buddhist conception of impermanence also makes it hard for them to grasp what is here meant by ‘causality’. When they speak of a cause they mean general cause of this kind of event, taken in the abstract, whereas Buddhists are interested in the concrete conditions of this particular concrete event. Once this is understood, the Buddhist theory becomes self-evident.
- (Buddhist Thought In India, by Edward Conze, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, University of Michigan Press, 1962, pgs. 148 and 149.)
Well, I don’t know about self-evident; if it were self-evident, Conze wouldn’t need to explain it. But it does, I think, become clearer. The distinction between scientific causation and Buddhist causation is, I think, a matter of emphasis and where one chooses to observe. The scientific methodology wants to isolate particular factors to come to a general formula about a causal relationship. To do this, scientific causation stipulates that other factors “remain equal”, meaning that they do not change over the duration of the event observed. From a Buddhist perspective, however, those factors which are not observed in scientific causation still constitute causal factors, or supporting conditions, and are equally interesting from the Buddhist point of view.
The purpose of scientific investigation into causality is intimately tied to acquisition of money, power, and fame, and the drive to manipulate the environment. The purpose of Buddhist investigation into causation is wisdom. The purpose of wisdom is to bring about the cessation of suffering, attain enlightenment, and dwell in Nirvana. In some ways, therefore, the difference in the two approaches to causation is more a matter of emphasis, and psychology, then anything else.
6.4.8 Thoroughly Creative
When I say that things are thoroughly creative I mean that things are the seed condition for other things. The entire General Theory applies to each existing thing. This means that things appear solely due to the existence of conditions that support the existence for a particular thing. But also, the same thing functions as a condition for the existence of other things. Thus, every existing thing has faces in two directions. In the first direction, a particular thing leans on other things for its existence and requires that support from other things. Simultaneously, however, every existing thing functions as a support for the existence of other things.
The first part of the General Theory states, “When this exists, that exists”. This illuminates this two-fold nature of the dependent and the creative; for each existing thing manifests simultaneously as a this and a that. This view of all existing things as thoroughly creative is the special province of tathagatagarbha theory. The term “tathagatagarbha” means “womb of thusness”, which means that existence is constantly creating new and unexpected things, that, in a sense, every existing thing functions as a cornucopia.
Different schools of Buddhism, and different commentators within the various traditions, tend to focus on one, or just a few, aspects of the General Theory. Then people tend to think of this as illuminating the entire meaning. Sometimes this can result in disputes between different schools of Buddhism. For example, one school might claim that Interdependent Transformation means the dependent nature of all existing things, which is emphasized by, for example, Buddhaghosha. Another school might emphasize the interdependent nature as the core meaning of Interdependent Transformation as is the case in Hua Yen Buddhism. Yet another school may emphasize the creative aspect of the General Theory, as in the case in the various tathagatagarbha discourses and their commentaries. But these various views are not logically contradictory or mutually exclusive. All of them add deeply to our understanding of the Buddha’s core experience, its meaning, its beauty, its wonder, its depth.
No doubt there are other implications and meanings embedded in the view of Interdependent Transformation. In the future new comprehensions based on this view will appear and continue to enrich our understanding of this marvelous reality.
7. Investigating Interdependent Transformation
The above constitutes an example of investigating Interdependent Transformation. Investigating Interdependent Transformation clarifies for us the teaching of the Buddha. Because Interdependent Transformation lies at the heart of the Buddha’s understanding and his realization, his enlightenment, investigating Interdependent Transformation through study and practice is the primary task for those who follow the Dharma, the path which leads to liberation. In a sense, to live a Buddhist life means to live a life dedicated to understanding and realizing Interdependent Transformation.
7.1 Unpacking The Meaning Of Interdependent Transformation (Again)
I think of investigating Interdependent Transformation as unpacking the meaning of Interdependent Transformation. By unpacking I mean drawing out the implications of this core understanding. This constitutes an ongoing process, one that requires dedication, persistence, and some effort. The reason drawing out the implications requires dedication is that the view of Interdependent Transformation is not obvious. For example, it is not obvious that things exist interdependently and have no separately existing nature. It is not obvious that things exist interdependently and have no substantial base. It is not obvious that things have a transformative nature and what that implies. Furthermore, the implications of these views are also not obvious. The implications are not immediately apparent, and even after some study new implications may come to me as a surprise, as I extend the range of my understanding based on Interdependent Transformation.
This resembles someone studying mathematics. Studying a particular field of mathematics, the core understandings of that field may at first not appear with clarity. As the core understandings become clearer, the mathematician draws out the implications of these core understandings, applying them to larger and larger domains of the mathematical realm. As the process of extending the application of these core understandings continues, some of the implications may come to the mathematician as a surprise, even after many years of study.
This resemble learning knitting. At first I start with a simple stitch. As I become skilled in this simple stitch, I move on to other kinds of stitches. However, that first basic stitch remains foundational for the development of further skills in the realm of knitting.
This process of unpacking the meaning of Interdependent Transformation resembles an archaeologist discovering a crucially important artifact, some concrete evidence that a particular culture lived in a particular way. As the archaeologist proceeds, the full implications of this finding may take many years to draw out as the archaeologist applies the reality of the artifact to broader and broader areas. Sometimes such a process may take generations.
So we should be patient with ourselves, yet also steady and dedicated. We should be dedicated to this project of unpacking the meaning of Interdependent Transformation because this process constitutes the path to liberation, to enlightenment, to comprehending and realizing the ultimate nature of all existing things, including ourselves, and existence as such. Understanding and realizing this ultimate nature of Interdependent Transformation means attaining nirvana, the cessation of all sorrow.
7.1.1 Comparing Interdependent Transformation To Other Theories Of Ultimacy
One way of unpacking the meaning of Interdependent Transformation is to compare the understanding of Interdependent Transformation to other understandings of the ultimate. I began to do this above when I compared Interdependent Transformation to the views of Brahmanism and Jainism. The virtue of this process is that it brings into the foreground and highlights the unique vision of the Buddha.
This approach is what I find in the first discourse in the collection of the Long Discourses, titled the Brahmaajala Sutra, or the Supreme Net, or as one translator put it “The All Embracing Net of Views”. In this discourse the Buddha distinguishes sixty-two different views, and how his understanding differs from these views. It is a very interesting discourse. I have chosen to contrast the view of Interdependent Origination with views that I think of as more widespread in the contemporary world. This is done in Section 2 below.
7.1.2 Observing How Interdependent Transformation Gives Birth To Other Buddhist Understandings And Practices
Another way of unpacking the meaning of Interdependent Transformation is to connect Interdependent Transformation to other important teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Since the Buddha has equated Interdependent Transformation with the Dharma itself, how do the specific teachings of the Dharma relate to Interdependent Transformation? For example, how do the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path emerge from Interdependent Transformation? What is the connection between Interdependent Transformation and compassion? How is the teaching of emptiness related to Interdependent Transformation, etc.?
When I engage in this process I discover that all the other teachings of the Buddha emerge from the womb of Interdependent Transformation, that Interdependent Transformation gives birth to these understandings. As I previously noted, Interdependent Transformation is the seed of the Buddha’s understanding and realization and from that seed the entire living tree of the Dharma appears.
7.1.3 Webroads Of Meaning
Another method for gaining clarity regarding Interdependent Transformation lies in following out the conceptual connections which allow me to explore nuances of meaning. I refer to two ways of doing this:
188.8.131.52 The Dance Of The Synonyms
The first way to travel down the webroads of meaning is to explore the synonyms that I can use for Interdependent Transformation. By synonym I mean a word or term that I can use in place of the word under consideration. For example, the word dependence has synonyms such as contingent, conditional, etc.. By exploring each of these synonyms my understanding of the core term under consideration, such as dependence, deepens.
184.108.40.206 The Dance Of The Contrasts
The second way to travel down the webroads of meaning is to explore those terms and concepts which the word under consideration excludes. These resemble forks in a road. For example, if things exist interdependently then they do not exist inherently. So inherence is a contrast to dependence. Stating this contrast, I can then explore the implications.
7.1.4 Studying Elucidations
One excellent way of deepening my understanding of Interdependent Transformation is to study and contemplate how Buddhist Sages down through the centuries have understood this core teaching. Reading the ancient Sages proves wonderfully illuminating. It also helps us to not reinvent the wheel. This greatly facilitates my own understanding and, in addition, points to areas that still need exploration and development.
The other realm of study that proves helpful is to study the sutras. The sutras are the fountainhead of all schools of Buddhism. The sutras prove over and over again to be a true and secure guide in this, and many other, difficult areas. For this reason I recommend that sutra study become a part of one’s daily practice. (For a full explication of sutra study I refer the reader to my essay “The Way of the Scholar Sage”.)
7.1.5 Summary Of Methods Of Study
The above mentioned methods for studying Interdependent Transformation, combined into a total program, form a secure vessel to launch myself onto the sea of understanding this profound view. This investigation is an ongoing one; it has no limits. My teacher used to say to me, “Just keep practicing for 10,000 years non-stop, OK?” Similarly, the study of Interdependent Transformation can last a lifetime, should last a lifetime, should last many lifetimes.
I have personally found that I can always return to the study of Interdependent Transformation and uncover deeper and broader understandings, even in areas that I have investigated many times. The investigation of Interdependent Transformation leads us into the boundless realms of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and ultimately to complete liberation itself.
7.1.6 The Benefits Of Studying Interdependent Transformation
Studying Interdependent Transformation leads to an increased ability to teach others the Dharma. The Dharma is not something we own, some possession, some private property. The Dharma is something to pass on to others. Studying Interdependent Transformation enables us to communicate this unique teaching in an efficacious manner.
Studying Interdependent Transformation leads to the blossoming of compassion. Compassion has as its ground the non-separate nature of me and the rest of existence. This non-separate nature is most clearly comprehended in the context of Interdependent Transformation.
Studying Interdependent Transformation leads to perfect and complete enlightenment. Enlightenment means understanding the dependent and interdependent nature of all existing things, and then functioning in the world from that understanding. Enlightenment, therefore, has two intimately connected aspects. First, the aspect of wisdom; which is the comprehension of Interdependent Transformation and its implications. Second, the aspect of compassion; which means functioning in the world from the realization of Interdependent Transformation. Taken together, these two constitute the bliss and serenity of perfect and complete enlightenment.
8. Foundations For Investigating Interdependent Transformation
Above I discussed some analytical tools to use to investigate Interdependent Transformation. In order for such an investigation to bear fruit, however, one must have a secure foundation in certain mental attitudes or, as I like to put it, mental asanas, mental postures, that affect the manner in which I study and the possibility of studying the subject of Interdependent Transformation.
8.1 Great Doubt As A Tool For Investigating Interdependent Transformation
Investigating Interdependent Transformation requires that I have an attitude of what the tradition refers to as great doubt. There is a wonderful discourse called To The Kaalaamas, from the Theravada Book Of Threes that illuminates the central place that doubt has in the Buddhist tradition. In this discourse the Buddha visits a city called Kesaputta inhabited by a people known as the Kaalaamas. The Kaalaamas approach the Buddha with the following consideration:
- “There are, Lord, some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. But then some other ascetics and brahmins come to Kesaputta, and they too explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of the others. For us, Lord, there is perplexity and doubt as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood.”
- The Buddha responds:
- “It is fitting for you to be perplexed, O Kaalaamas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kaalaamas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering’, then you should abandon them.”
- (Numerical Discourses Of The Buddha, translated by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, 1999, pg. 65)
As this discourse points out, great doubt is not the same as cynicism. Great doubt is the middle way between blind acceptance and cynicism. Cynicism means the unwillingness to even consider a point of view, a swift rejection of a point of view without even considering it. If I am cynical, and I hear about Interdependent Transformation, I will simply reject it for whatever glib reasons I have come to rely upon. On the other hand, blind acceptance also sabotages understanding and realization. If I simply accept the teaching of Interdependent Transformation as a dogma, I will not have any reason for investigating this understanding. A dogma is a view that I accept even though there is no evidence for that view, and no evidence forthcoming. If I relegate Interdependent Transformation to a dogmatic status, I transform the liberative potential of Interdependent Transformation into the grounds for sectarianism and strife.
Great doubt means having a willingness to try on the understanding of Interdependent Transformation. I may not immediately understand this teaching, I may not clearly discern the implications, I may not at this time have experiences with this view, but I decide to give it a try, give it an honest hearing. I retain my critical apparatus, but I also remain open to the teaching. I remain open to the teaching in the sense that I try on the understanding of Interdependent Transformation because of the promise that this understanding will lead to liberation, to the cessation of suffering, to a clearer comprehension of existence, to wisdom and to compassion.
This process resembles learning anything that has some subtlety. For example, some of the laws of physics are not intuitively or immediately obvious. But, if I want to learn physics, I decide to give these ideas a fair hearing, to try them on, to consider them. If I have that willingness then I begin to comprehend how these basic ideas of physics work, how they develop, and their implications.
This process resembles learning music. At the beginning, I have no understanding of even the basics. I decide to slowly test the theories and practices that my teachers offer in the hope and belief that they will one day bear fruit. I retain an open mind regarding their suggestions.
This process resembles learning cooking. I try out the various procedures that chefs suggest. I give the suggestions a fair hearing. If a suggestion does not lead to the promised result, perhaps I have misunderstood something and need to try it again. Gradually, this process proves itself in my growing abilities to cook.
Similarly, great doubt with regard to Interdependent Transformation means having a mind that wants to comprehend this teaching to its fullest, but seeks to comprehend this teaching in the way that someone dedicated to physics seeks to comprehend the laws of physics, that someone dedicated to mathematics seeks to comprehend the realm of numbers, that someone dedicated to music seeks to comprehend the basics of musical structure, etc.
So neither cynicism nor blind acceptance will lead us to greater understanding of Interdependent Transformation. When I take the middle way of great doubt, my doubt blossoms into understanding and on the basis of this blossoming understanding a foundation of trust is built. The deeper the doubt, the greater the understanding, and the more trustworthy the foundation of the Dharma.
8.2 Great Trust As A Tool For Investigating Interdependent Transformation
Great trust goes hand in hand with great doubt. It may at first seem paradoxical to pair trust and doubt; but actually the two mutually nourish each other. Great trust has two aspects; trust in the tradition and trust in my self.
Trust in the tradition is necessary because if I lack all trust in the tradition, I will have no reason to continue with the investigation into Interdependent Transformation. I will actually convince myself that it is not worthwhile. Lack of great trust leads to cynicism and an inability to acquire any new understanding.
Trust in the Buddhist tradition means that I consider the Buddhist tradition a reliable source. This kind of trust does not differ from any other kind of understanding that I wish to acquire. For example, if I want to learn french cooking, I have to have a basic trust in the tradition of french cooking in order to consider it worthwhile to put in the effort to acquire the skill of french cooking. Or, if I want to learn swimming, I need to have a basic, core, trust that swimming, the tradition of swimming, is efficacious, holds some value for me, otherwise I will simply not bother. In the case of swimming, or some other sport, I need to have trust in the teacher and the institution of which the teacher is a part. Without this sense of trust, I will only feel a deep sense of anxiety when I enter the water. Trust in the coach overcomes this sense of anxiety and I soon learn how to swim.
In learning the Dharma, and the core teaching of Interdependent Transformation, I need to have this basic sense of trust in the Buddhist tradition, a sense that the teaching of the Buddha is efficacious. I build this sense of trust by becoming aware of how helpful this teaching has been for millions of people over many centuries, in many cultures. This explains why Dharma Teachers love to tell stories about past practitioners. Such stories help to build a foundation of trust in the tradition. Hearing such stories we began to realize that if others can accomplish this great task, then it is also possible for me to accomplish this great task. Hearing this kind of information builds a foundation of trust in the Buddhist tradition and I can then proceed with my studies, confident that they will bear fruit.
Trust also means to have a basic sense of trust in my own abilities. Basically, this is a sense of self confidence. If I have a very low self-esteem, or strong feelings of self loathing, it will be very difficult to study the Dharma, or anything else. For example, if I just know that numbers are beyond my capabilities, this will block any attempt to comprehend mathematics. No matter how skillful the teacher, no matter how supportive the institution, if I know ahead of time that numbers lie beyond my understanding, all the support from outside will be of no avail.
Similarly with the Dharma. If I know that realization, enlightenment, understanding, compassion are utterly beyond me, I simply will not bother to enter the Dharma realm. No matter how skillful the teacher, no matter how supportive the Dharma institution, if I lack this core trust in my self, all of the efforts on my behalf will not bear fruit.
I build up self trust, and self confidence, by comprehending all people as equal. I begin to comprehend all people as equal when I realize that those in the past who have reached understanding are not different from me and that what they accomplished I can also accomplish. Listening to Dharma stories about past students, sages, masters, and adepts is one of the best ways of building this basic sense of self trust.
8.2.3 Trust In The Meaning, Not In The Words
In order to explore a field like Interdependent Transformation, I have to have a sense of the difference between meaning and words, a sense of what words designate as opposed to what they may appear to mean. This is particularly important when we deal with highly abstract terms.
For example, if I am dealing with a concrete term, like “rock”, there is not much opportunity for confusion. If confusion arises I can point to the rock in order to explain what I mean by a “rock”, or a particular rock. This is what makes concrete terms concrete; I can ostensively reference, physically point to, their meaning.
With abstract terms, however, I can quickly run into serious misunderstandings which may prove very difficult to correct. Take, for example, the term “freedom”. People mean very different things by this term. A libertarian means by this term the complete absence of the existence of government and coercion. A socialist means a society in which no one goes hungry or lacks the basic necessities. Now, these two meanings actually have very little in common; though they are not necessarily contradictory, they are very different in their reference. A person with totalitarian inclinations might mean by freedom the opportunity to impose their will on the populace at large. And here we arrive at a serious divergence in the use of the term; so much so that the term begins to loose all precision.
This is where it becomes very important for people to understand the difference between words and meaning. Interdependent Transformation is a highly abstract idea. It is necessary, therefore, to inquire into the meaning of this term, and associated terms, in order to gain clarity as to its genuine meaning. Otherwise, we may simply talk past each other, without coming to any mutual understanding, unaware of why we don’t seem to understand each other.
A specific example of this kind of confusion relating to Interdependent Transformation appears when people uncritically compare two views of ultimacy and unthinkingly equate the two. It works like this: Tradition A regards X as the ultimate. Tradition B regards Y as the ultimate. Both traditions, A and B, have theories of what ultimate nature means. Therefore X and Y must have the same meaning.
It is surprising how often this happens. However, X and Y may stand for very different views, very different understandings, just as the meaning of the word freedom can vary from person to person over a wide range of meanings. For this reason it is necessary to retain a focus on meaning when discussing, comparing, and contrasting views of ultimate nature from different spiritual and philosophical traditions.
Trust in the teaching means that even though many of the teachings centered on Interdependent Transformation may appear counterintuitive, I have a basic enough sense as to the meaning that I will give some of the more difficult areas at least a fair hearing. There are many areas of knowledge where the initial encounter seems opaque. Most of us when we first encounter calculus, for example, find it very bewildering. If we trust the efficacy of the teaching of calculus, however, and we continue, we will discover that it fits, works well, and makes sense. Similarly, some of the conclusions drawn from a basic understanding of Interdependent Transformation require a period of testing on our part, a willingness to go through a trial period with them.
8.2.5 Trust The Full Meaning
Sometimes people will take a partial understanding and treat it as if that constituted all there is to it. For example, if I were studying the music of Beethoven, and I decided that the string quartets are the only worthy area of study; this would be an example of taking the partial for the whole. It is not that the string quartets are unworthy of study. It is that there is much more for a full understanding of Beethoven’s music.
Similarly, there may exist a tendency to think that one insight gained in the study of Interdependent Transformation means I have a complete understanding of the subject. This would be a mistake. Remembering that the subject of Interdependent Transformation is a lifetimes long endeavor helps to deflect this misconception.
Finding a good teacher is enormously helpful; I would almost say essential. “Almost” because if I am in a position, geographically or politically, for example, where there is no good teacher to be found, that should not deter me from pursuing this study. However, a good teacher will make such a study immensely more easy and comfortable. This is similar to finding a good teacher in music, sports, or science. Such a person is invaluable and a great gift.
The function of the teacher within a Buddhist context has recently, particularly in the west, become controversial. For this reason I would like to add a few words on this topic. It is sometimes put forth that a Dharma teacher is not necessary because we all have Buddha Nature. This is a misunderstanding. It is also the case that we all have the capacity to become musicians. In that sense, we all have musician nature. But that does not mean that we are all musicians. And the fact that we all have musician nature does not mean that a music teacher is not helpful, and for most of us, absolutely necessary.
The function of a Dharma teacher is to help us actualize, bring forth, wisdom and compassion. The function of a music teacher is to actualize our abilities as musicians. The function of a mathematics teacher is to actualize our abilities with numbers.
How does a Dharma teacher help us to actualize wisdom and compassion? By creating the proper conditions. That is the function of a teacher; to create conditions for the flourishing of that which is the focus of study. In the case of the Dharma, the focus of study is wisdom and compassion. Wisdom means the understanding of Interdependent Transformation. Compassion means functioning in the world on the basis of that understanding of Interdependent Transformation.
Does this mean that a Dharma teacher must be a perfectly realized Buddha? I would say no. Just as a music teacher does not have to be a perfect musician in order to transmit to a student valuable instruction, so also a Dharma teacher does not have to be a perfectly realized Buddha in order to transmit to Dharma students valuable instruction in the Dharma. It is my basic view that wisdom and compassion have degrees, that they are not all or nothing manifestations. In other words, Dharma teachers can possess wisdom to a degree, can function compassionately to a degree. But just as a mathematics teacher can make mistakes in the field of mathematics, so also a Dharma teacher can make mistakes in the understanding of Interdependent Transformation and in the functioning of Compassion.
Dharma teachers make it possible for people to enter the realm of the Dharma, but it is up to each student to realize the Dharma. In other words, a student should not just be passive in relationship to a Dharma teacher. A music student does not become a musician simply by listening to their teacher. The music student has to actually practice. A mathematics student does not become adept at mathematics by simply watching their teacher. The mathematics student has to actually practice mathematics to become skilled in that discipline. Similarly, a Dharma student has to actually study, has to actually engage in the pursuit of understanding wisdom and compassion. When this is done, the Dharma blossoms within them. The Dharma blossoms within the student because the teacher has created the conditions which make such blossoming possible.
8.2.7 Trust The Transcendent
By the transcendent I mean nirvana, or enlightenment, or Buddha Nature. By trust in the transcendent I mean that when we first begin our study and practice we do not have experience in this dimension. Eventually, we will. This experience may be brief, but even the smallest glimpse into the transcendent proves enormously worthwhile and makes life meaningful, serene, and purposeful. This presence of the transcendent will manifest to anyone who seriously engages in the study and the practice of the Dharma, as it has happened to countless millions of people down through the centuries. Comprehending this, a secure foundation of trust in the transcendent can be built from which we can pursue our studies.
I consider it important to realize that we live in a very cynical age. This cynicism has its foundations in the fact that there have existed numerous spiritual and religious teachers who have abused their position and caused great harm to many people. Some have used their position to acquire political power and from that position of political power and influence have attempted to force their view through political means on people in general. Others have used their position and prestige primarily for financial gain. Nevertheless, it is necessary to overcome this cynicism if I want to enter the way of liberation and bring an end to suffering. A cynical reaction to misconduct on the part of a few (and it has been only a few) spiritual teachers is, in my opinion, an over-reaction. For example, it sometimes happens that police officers abuse the power of their position. Yet people do not draw the conclusion that society does not need police officers at all. Sometimes professors abuse their position, yet we do not tend to draw the conclusion that society would be better off with no professors at all. Sometimes scientists abuse their position, yet, once again, we do not tend to draw the conclusion from these incidents that we should abandon science altogether.
I overcome cynicism regarding spirituality and the transcendent by study, meditation, and contemplation. I overcome this cynicism through study because study of the Dharma demonstrates to me that the possibility of liberation is coherent, clearly presented, and that possibility is comprehensible. I overcome this cynicism through meditation because meditation functions as the condition for both experiencing liberation and cultivating that experience so it becomes more and more a part of my life. I overcome this cynicism through contemplation when I contemplate in depth the meaning of Interdependent Transformation and the completely non-separate nature of all existing things.
8.3 Study and Realization
There exists an intimate connection between study and realization. This is a position, a point of view, not widely appreciated at this time. The idea of the scholar sage is not one appreciated, or even recognized, by the culture in which I dwell. To clarify this, consider that excellence in sports or business is widely admired. Excellence as a scholar is widely ignored.
Our society as a whole has lost the classical liberal view that education and study offer an opportunity for the cultivation of the ethical and spiritual dimensions of our lives. This has been displaced by an almost completely materialistic view of education. This makes it difficult to comprehend reading and study as means for, and manifestations of realization.
In order to appreciate the absence of this ideal, I have found it helpful to contrast the attitude towards the scholar sage in this culture with the attitude towards the scholar sage in three other cultures, widely spaced geographically and in point of view; I refer to Confucianism, Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism. These forms of spirituality have very different interpretations of the nature of existence. However, they all place a very high value on study and reading because these traditions comprehend that there exists an intimate connection between study, reading and realization. This is not the place to examine the connection between study and realization in these various traditions; it would take me too far from the main topic. For those interested, I recommend following up on what these traditions have to say regarding the liberative potential of study and reading. This broader view of the way that reading can function as a spiritual path, and as a meditation in itself, has proven profoundly helpful to me. Once again, for those interested, I have collected some of this material in my essay “The Way Of The Scholar Sage.”
8.3.1 Right View
At the head of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, the path which leads to enlightenment, the Buddha placed Right View. Right View is attained through study, reflection, and contemplation on the core teachings of the Buddha. Just as the path of geometry will be attained through study, reflection, and contemplation of the core teachings of geometry, the axioms of a geometric system, so also the way of the Buddha is accessed through deep study, reflection, and contemplation on the core understandings of the Buddhadharma. Just as the path of quilting will be attained through study, reflection, and contemplation on the core techniques of quilting, such as stitching, cutting, sewing, patterning, so also the way of the Buddha is accessed through deep study, reflection, and contemplation on the core understandings of the Buddhadharma. These include the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Emptiness, Compassion, and most profoundly, and most centrally, the understanding of Interdependent Transformation. Just as the path of music will be attained through study, reflection, and contemplation on the core structures of music, such as the major and minor scales, the basics of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, etc., so also the song of the Buddhadharma will be realized only by those who enter into serious study of the core understanding of that teaching.
220.127.116.11 How Thoughts Effect Us
The idea that dedicated study of the Buddhadharma is secondary or even irrelevant rests on the assumption that ideas have no effect upon us and how we interact with the world. I don’t think that view makes sense. The opening verse of the Dhammapada speaks directly to this:
- We are what we think.
- All that we are arises with our thoughts.
- With our thoughts we make the world.
- Speak or act with an impure mind
- And trouble will follow you
- As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
- We are what we think.
- All that we are arises with our thoughts.
- With our thoughts we make the world.
- Speak or act with a pure mind
- And happiness will follow you
- As your shadow, unshakable.
- (The Dhammapada, Thomas Byrom translation.)
This way of looking at our mind speaks of the intimate connection between our thoughts and our happiness, and how we effect the world. I think it is for this reason that Right View plays such an important part in the Buddhadharma.
18.104.22.168.1 A Gross Example
I don’t think it is really that difficult to comprehend the connection between our thoughts and our life. Take a very gross example; that of the racist bigot. The racist, whose mind seethes with ideas of hatred, superiority and inferiority, and judgment, is responsible for an enormous amount of unhappiness and suffering in this world. The consequences of this way of viewing existence are all too thoroughly well known. There is a direct connection between the view of these people and the suffering that arises in the world dependent upon that view.
22.214.171.124.2 Not So Gross Examples
What is true of the racist also applies to other, not so gross, examples. For example, if someone believes that the ultimate has nothing to do with existence as it manifests to us, that the ultimate is in some respect disconnected from the existence in which we dwell, this will inevitably lead to a devaluation of existence, with consequences for behavior and interaction with that existence. These consequences can have a wide range. For example, these consequences may manifest as exploitation, or as indifference to suffering, or as simply a sense of being isolated from that which really matters. This view will, however, have its effects.
Or another not so gross example; if I believe that the earth is flat, that belief, that view, will effect my interaction with the world, limiting my capacities for interaction in certain ways. If I make an effort to investigate that view, and I discover that the earth is not flat, my view changes, and my subsequent interaction with the world will be more efficacious.
Similarly, if I think that I exist as a separately existing, self-sufficient individual, I will interact with the world in certain ways that follow from having that view. If I make an effort and investigate this view, and I then discover that I do not exist as a separately existing and self-sufficient individual, this will change my view of my self and of the world in which I exist. Such a change of view will result in a more efficacious interaction with the world.
As I mentioned above, the idea that study has no connection to wisdom and realization assumes that thoughts have no connection to the rest of existence. This is clearly not the case, as our experience, and our observations of the experience of others, clearly demonstrates. Thoughts are part of the web of existence. As part of the web of existence, our thoughts intimately weave us into the rest of existence. It is for this reason that the transformation of thought is the golden road to wisdom, compassion and realization.
I do not mean that this is easily accomplished. Transforming our thoughts takes patience, persistence, and dedication. Just as a mathematician will patiently explore the realm of numbers, so also should someone dedicated to the Buddhadharma patiently study the realm of Interdependent Transformation. Just as a musician will persist in the practice of scales and musical exercises, so also should someone dedicated to the Buddhadharma persist in the comprehension of the meanings of Interdependent Transformation. Just as a gardener will dedicate many years to cultivating a garden, so that the garden will blossom in just the right way, so also should someone dedicated to the Buddhadharma dedicate many years, many decades, and many lives to the comprehension of Interdependent Transformation; understanding that the garden of wisdom will one day blossom into full realization.
8.3.2 Right Understanding
The second factor in the eightfold path is referred to as right understanding. I consider it significant that the first two factors in the eightfold path would emphasize the transformation of cognition. Generally, I think right view as referring to the core comprehension of the Buddha, while right understanding has to do with unpacking those comprehensions. By unpacking, I mean trying them on, following them out, investigating their implications and ramifications.
I also think that right understanding has to do with the process of investigation, a process which I refer to as Dialectic. I will have more to say about this in Part 2 below. But here I just want to say that there are various approaches that one can take to investigating a subject. For example, one can engage in debate, or one can dogmatically assert, or one can proceed in an always open, engaged investigation. I think of right understanding as focused on a method of investigation which is consistent with the rest of the Dharma, and is therefore in and of itself an expression of the Dharma.
126.96.36.199 Liberation Through Understanding
There exists an intimate connection between understanding and liberation. One of the clearest presentations of this is Spinoza’s On The Improvement Of The Understanding, where Spinoza eloquently speaks of how the development of the understanding leads to supreme and unending happiness.
In a Buddhist context, the Susima Sutra, from the Book Of The Kindred Sayings also demonstrates that liberation and enlightenment happen primarily through understanding. In this discourse Susima, who has just entered the monastic order, discovers that none of the Arhats, what I think of as the Saints of Buddhism, have occult powers. When Susima asks the Saints, they all clearly deny that they have attained any occult abilities. Susima, puzzled, then asks them the nature of their attainment. They respond by saying that they have become enlightened through understanding. The rest of the sutra is the Buddha’s clear explanation to Susima of what attainment through understanding means. Primarily, attainment through understanding means understanding Interdependent Transformation, the truth of causation. By comprehending this truth of Interdependent Transformation, step by step, slowly and gradually, deeper and deeper, enlightenment dawns.
Understanding is a gradual process. Enlightenment is a gradual process. In the context of the Buddhadharma, I would even say that enlightenment is glacial. Just as comprehending the realm of numbers happens gradually, step by step, so also the understanding of the Buddhadharma happens gradually, step by step. Just as the ability to paint watercolors happens step by step, as one’s brush stroke becomes more assured, as one’s technique develops, so also the ability to make the Buddhadharma a part of one’s life happens step by step, gradually. Just as a master carpenter must first learn how to pound nails, cut boards, and draw a straight line, so also those who wish to become Masters of the Buddhadharma must start with a clear understanding of the basics such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and, most importantly, Interdependent Transformation.
Enlightenment happens in degrees. Enlightenment is not an all or nothing condition. A Buddha, a perfectly enlightened one, a fully enlightened one, a One of Thusness, means someone who has completely merged with the understanding of Interdependent Transformation and comprehends all of existence, and continuously functions, from that understanding. Because many of the implications of Interdependent Transformation are counterintuitive, all of us who are not fully realized Buddhas have glimpses of enlightenment that are more or less deep, more or less wide ranging. But even a small understanding, even a small glimpse of Interdependent Transformation proves profoundly transformative so that the path arises, and we can proceed clearly in the direction of supreme and perfect enlightenment.
188.8.131.52 Understanding As Experience
There is often presented a dichotomy between thought and experience. I suggest, on the other hand, that thought is an experience, the experience of thought. The experience of thought is also an experience, just like experiencing sounds or tastes or colors. The experience of sound, say a wonderful piece of music, effects other areas of our lives, not just the sonic domain. The experience of thoughts, through understanding and view, also affects domains outside of the realm of thought. That is why right view and right understanding are so important; because the transformation that occurs in the realm of thought does not remain confined to the realm of thought. The transformation of our understanding leads to the transformation of our entire life.
8.3.3 The Unfinished Nature Of The Process
This comprehension of Interdependent Transformation through right view and right understanding has limitless ramifications. That is one of the things that makes it so wonderful, so fruitful, so vast, so profound. Just as a mathematician discovers that the realm of numbers is limitless and that investigating the realm of numbers has no limits, so also when I dedicate myself to the comprehension of the Buddhadharma through the comprehension of Interdependent Transformation I discover a limitless realm of meaning, a vast realm without edge or horizon. This is the realm of reality, of ultimate reality, of transcendent wisdom, of the unbounded heart.
For this reason, the study of Interdependent Transformation has no end, for Interdependent Transformation has no end, and no beginning. Interdependent Transformation is unborn and deathless, to use the terms the Buddha was fond of. On a practical level, this means that I can always fruitfully contemplate the reality of Interdependent Transformation, I can always return to Interdependent Transformation and deepen my understanding and my practice. I discover that I can return to topics that I had comprehended years ago, to good effect, because the later understandings now clarify the meanings of the earlier understandings. So nothing in this process of awakening to the realm of reality, the realm of Interdependent Transformation, gets left behind.
9. The Course Of Interdependent Transformation
Though I can always loop back to earlier understandings, still I would suggest systematically approaching Interdependent Transformation, starting with the simple and then working up to the more subtle. Not that the first steps are not subtle; I mean rather by simple in this context, simple in terms of relative ease of access. I comprehend four levels to the study of Interdependent Transformation.
9.1 The General Theory
Here I study what I refer to as the General Theory in its simplest formulation, namely:
- When this exists, that comes to be.
- With the arising of this, that arises.
- When this does not exist, that does not come to be.
- With the cessation of this, that ceases.
It is also at this level that I take the step of observing how Interdependent Transformation distinguishes the Buddhadharma from other spiritual, religious and philosophical views. It is also at this level that I take the first steps in understanding how Interdependent Transformation gives birth to all other understandings of the Buddhadharma.
9.2 The Specific Theory Of The Interdependent Transformation Of Suffering
The purpose of studying Interdependent Transformation is to bring us to the cessation of suffering, the end of sorrow, and the realization of liberation. To that end the Buddha detailed the Interdependent Transformation of suffering. This is referred to in the Buddhist Tradition as “Specific Origination.” The Specific Origination of Suffering is articulated as a series of twelve links, or twelve factors, which are a singular topic of study. Comprehending the Interdependent Transformation of suffering allows us to comprehend in detail, and with specificness, how to bring about its cessation.
9.3 Conditional Relations
The relationships between the factors of the specific theory of the Interdependent Transformation of suffering lead naturally to an investigation as to the types of conditionality among these various factors. Though the quality of dependence remains the same, the specific means by which that dependence manifests are highly varied. This may seem extremely abstract; so it is necessary to take these observations of conditional relations into our everyday life. When we take these observations on conditional relations into our everyday life, our understanding of Interdependent Transformation becomes clearer and broader, and at the same time more focused.
The area of Conditional Relations is worked out in detail in Abhidharma. In the Theravada Abhidhamma this is done in the treatise “Patthana”, which means “Conditional Relations.” The Sarvastivada Abhidharma also contains such a treatise, though the analysis of conditionality differs. In T’ien T’ai Buddhism the analysis of Conditional Relations was investigated in terms of a view referred to as “3,000 worlds in a single thought” (Japanese: Ichinen Sanzen). It is one of the most sophisticated and beautiful expressions of the Buddhadharma.
These three articulations of conditional relations, i.e. Theravada “Conditional Relations”, Sarvastivada “Conditional Relations”, and T’ien T’ai “3,000 Worlds in a Single Thought”, constitute the pinnacle of Buddhist thought. Study and contemplation of these will provide much insight.
The relationship between Interdependent Transformation and Nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddhadharma, is the final topic. This may seem extremely remote. However, the Buddha does articulate in the discourses the nature of Nirvana. Understanding the nature of Nirvana resembles seeing a great lake, far in the distance, which will alleviate my thirst. If I know that this is the lake I wish to travel to, my steps on the journey will be in the right direction. If I have no idea as to the nature of Nirvana, it resembles someone setting out on a journey without the slightest idea of where to go, how long the journey will take, what kind of terrain I may go through. In such a case it would only be dumb luck that would lead me in the correct direction.
10. Concluding Remarks For The First Part
So this is the four part course of study: 1) The General Theory of Interdependent Transformation, 2) Specific Origination of Suffering, 3) Conditional Relations, and 4) Nirvana. This is the course of awakening as set out by the Buddha. As it says in Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra:
- All the Buddhas, the Best of Humans,
- Know that all phenomena are ever without substance
- And that the Buddha-seeds germinate
- Through dependent origination.
Copyright 2002 by Jim Wilson, also known as Dharmajim. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby given to copy and download this document provided this notice remains a part of the document.