Monday, March 7, 2011

The Dominoes of Dependent Origination

The Law of Dependent Origination is an important Buddhist concept and generally considered fairly difficult. Heck it even sounds difficult (what do all those words strung together actually mean?). But as I was reading Joseph Goldstein's, "The Experience of Insight, I was struck by his clear and simple explanation. I am not going to list the 12 links of dependent origination but I will offer up his basic simple description of it and why it is so helpful for us to "get":

"Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, how because of one thing, something else arises, we can begin to break the chain of conditioning. When pleasant things arise, we don't cling. When unpleasant things arise, we don't condemn. When neutral things arise, we're not forgetful.... We are free to break this chain, to free ourselves from conditioned reactions. It takes a powerful mindfulness in every moment not to allow feelings to generate desire. When there's ignorance in the mind, feeling conditions desire. If there's something pleasant, we want it; something unpleasant, we desire to get rid of it. But if instead of ignorance in the mind there is wisdom and awareness, then we experience feeling but don't compulsively or habitually grasp or push away.... No longer driven on by ignorance and desire, the whole mass of suffering is brought to an end."

For me this is a lovely practical way of looking at dependent origination which can seem long and cumbersome in some people's hands. But here Goldstein manages to offer us the short course (the chapter is longer) by giving us a powerful view of our everyday behaviour, which consists of a lot of habitual grasping and pushing away. Need comfort, I'll have a latte. Fear might make me neglect making a doctor's appointment to attend to a nagging health issue. I might feel dislike for someone because they remind me of my third grade teacher who never warmed to me (reactions like this often float below our own personal radar and feel unexplained). I might feel depressed because it's been cloudy and rainy for so long.

It's often hard to see how these moment by moment feelings and thoughts add up to the subtle flavour of the day, one of minor (or major) dissatisfaction. And while it is fine to have preferences it is the strength of our clinging to them ,the feeling sense associated with them and our unconsciousness of them, that colour our world in ways we don't even notice most of the time and add up to suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

Maybe this is a simplistic way of thinking about dependent origination but if it moves us in the direction of true understanding, then it can only be helpful. When there is a large glass of water to drink, it's best to do it one sip at a time. Otherwise a lot of coughing and sputtering can ensue.


  1. I can easily be a puppet of my feelings. The dependent origination concept is a great way to check and question our reactions to our environment.

    Love your words at the end about one sip at a time.

  2. Lovely post . . and reminder . . that neither pushing away or grasping is useful. Words that come to mind are patience, being with, witnessing . . the grasping or pushing away . . coming to the spot between . . one sip at a time.

  3. One of the few positive things I've noticed in my aging is that all this thinking about thinking and why is more than my mind can deal with anymore. I get confused. Better to focus on my art and I forget about everything else.

  4. Beautiful post - very helpful. Will have to drink it in, one sip at a time :) Am also intrigued by your painting this morning... Both are good "meditative" pieces... Thank you. Christine

  5. I agree, lovely 'reflective' work. Isn't Dependent Origination somewhat akin to living in the moment? I question the value of unemotional evaluation of each second. For me, emotion is what feeds my art practice.

  6. Wonderful post, and it couldn't be more helpful and timely for me. Your analysis and insights are very helpful. It's so true that if we over-indulge our desires, there is little room for awareness and understanding.

  7. Gallery Juana - yes, feelings are so tricky, they arise in a blink of an eye.

    Jann- "being with", that's it, isn't it, keeping it all company. And it does take patience to build this skill. It seems our lives we have been following our feelings around like little puppies.

    Eva - I agree, to much thinking makes the head hurt. Didn't Monty Python's say "my brain hurts" Very helpful to use skillful means to direct that energy toward wonderful tasks like our art.

    Jo - It's not that we won't have emotions, they will always arise. It's just we won't be tossed around by them as much. It can be pretty draining to always be following the energy of emotions like anger and fear or even extreme elation. I think the aim of the teaching is to show us how to be more balanced and free.

    Spirit - It is so easy to go down those old, well worn paths! As we go on I think we catch ourselves more. Our awareness helps us so much, that's how we catch ourselves and of course our understanding helps us to try a different trail.

  8. I think I understand what you mean by Dependent Origination- you did simplify the concept-- but I also can see how difficult it would be to stay aware of it during our waking moments- as we are so conditioned to react to stimuli in predictable ways-- we do want to avoid unpleasant things and so on... but I do see the benefits in the studio- to be more thoughtful and focused and not react so quickly.