Analysis and Meaning

An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Buddha’s View of "Pratityasamutpada"

by Jim Wilson

1. The Meaning Of This Key Term

The key term that designates the Buddha’s core realization in sanskrit is “pratityasamutpada”. Focusing on how this term is used in the discourses and how it is used in various Buddhist contexts will help one to comprehend the meaning intended for this term. A great deal has been written on just this topic, and at first it may sound very dry and scholastic to examine in detail the meaning of a single term. However, there are parallel examples which may help us to understand the purpose of such an examination.

In law it is often necessary to define terms clearly, so that people can understand when they have broken a law, and if they do break a law, what the consequences of that action may be. Anyone familiar with law knows how difficult this project can be. Yet the project serves a useful purpose and societies consider it well worth the effort to establish this kind of clarity. A law which is unclear is felt to be arbitrary and capricious and not a good thing.

Similarly, clarity as to the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” helps one to understand just what it is that I am dealing with, and therefore the consequences of such a study, and to a degree, what I can expect from such a study. If I lack clarity as to the meaning of this term, I have no way to gain clarity as to my own understanding; my own claims may become capricious or irrelevant to the subject. In addition, I will lack the ability to comprehend whether or not someone else’s understanding is relevant to the subject at hand.

Or becoming clear about the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” resembles a mathematician becoming clear about an axiom in a geometrical system. As long as the mathematician remains unclear, the mathematician will probably draw incorrect and/or irrelevant inferences from the axiom, due to the misunderstanding.

Or becoming clear about the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” resembles learning a basic stitch in knitting. Knowing this basic stitch is foundational for further development and the knitter will continue using the stitch throughout their knitting career.

1.1 Sanskrit Etymologies

One classic way of discerning the meaning of a term is to derive the meaning through an etymological analysis. In India this is often invoked, particularly in the case of Sanskrit, because Sanskrit is understood as a sacred language. Understanding sanskrit as a sacred language leads to elevation of the grammarian’s status as someone who not only can elucidate the structure of language, but also can find the deep and hidden meaning of complex terms. New terms in sanskrit are usually created by combining existing terms into a single new term or word. This contrasts with languages like English and Japanese which have a tendency to borrow words from other cultures when they want to create a new term. The way Sanskrit combines existing terms to create new terms/words is regulated by a complex set of rules. An etymological analysis, therefore, consists of parsing an existing complex term into its original components and explaining how they were combined to form the term under consideration. For example:

... (T)he meaning of pratiityasamutpaada is the arising of things dependent on causes. For prati is a prefix meaning ‘meeting’, and i is the root for going, i.n, but -- with the continuative ending and modified by the prefix prati -- pratiitya is used for ‘meeting’ and ‘relying’. Also, paada with samut before it is used for ‘arising’ and at other times is also explained as ‘existing’ (sat) and ‘established’ (siddha). Chandrakiirti’s Clear Words says:

Prati has the meaning of meeting (praapti, phard pa). [The verbal root] i has the meaning of going. Here the term pratiitya, a continuative, is used for ‘meeting’ or ‘relying’ because of the modification of the meaning of the verbal root by the modifier [prefix]. It is explained, ‘The meaning of the verbal root is led forcefully elsewhere by a modifier [prefix], like the sweetness of the waters of the Ganges [being changed] by ocean water.’ [The root] pad preceded by samut means ‘arise’ (praadurbhaava, ‘byung ba); therefore, the term samutpaada is used for ‘arising’. Hence, the meaning of pratiityasamutpaada is ‘the arising of things in reliance on causes and conditions’.

( Meditation on Emptiness, by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom, revised edition, 1996, pgs. 664 & 665.)

Hopkins’ analysis is based on Chandrakiirti’s analysis of the term from his Prasannapadaa:

The root i means motion; the preposition prati means arrival or attainment. But the addition of a preposition alters the meaning of the root. ‘A verbal root is forced, by the addition of a preposition, to alter its meaning even as the sweet waters of the Ganges on emptying into the ocean.’ So, in this case, the word pratiitya, as gerund, means ‘attained’ in the sense of ‘dependent’ or ‘relative’. Again, the verbal root pad [to go, to fall] preceded by the preposition samut [out of] means to arise or to become manifest. Samutpada, then, has the meaning ‘to arise’ or ‘to become manifest’. The full meaning of the term pratiityasamutpaada is therefore the arising, or becoming manifest of things (bhaava) in relation to or dependent on causal conditions.

(Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way, the Essential Chapters from the Prasannapadaa of Chandrakiirti, translated by Mervyn Sprung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979, page 33.)

1.2 Pali Etymologies

The commentators who base their understanding of this core realization of the Buddha on the Pali canon use a similar approach of etymological analysis to comprehend the meaning of the core term. Pali and Sanskrit are very closely related, but they also have significant divergences, and this manifests as differences in emphasis of meaning when commentators on the Pali term use an etymological analysis to derive meaning. To begin with, it seems quite common to divide the term into two words, pa.ticca samuppaada, instead of one word, which in itself produces a different emphasis. Joanna Macy does this in her etymological analysis of the Pali:

A concise and literal English rendering of this Pali term is difficult. Uppaada, the substantive form of the verb uppajjati, means “arising”; sam-uppaada, “arising together.” Pa.ticca, as the gerund of pacceti (pati + i, to “come back to” or “fall back on”), is used to denote “grounded on” or “on account of.” Literally, then, the compound would mean “on account of arising together,” or, since it is used as a substantive, “the being-on-account-of-arising-together.” Buddhaghosa defines pa.ticca samuppaada as “that according to which co-ordinate phenomena are produced mutually.” ... Another Pali compound used in the canonical texts to refer to the Buddha’s view of causality is idapaccayataa, literally “this-conditionality.” Sometimes translated as “the relatedness of this to that” and as “relativity,” it is used synonymously with pa.ticca-samuppaada.

(Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, Joanna Macy, Suny, 1991, pg. 34.)

Macy’s analysis is rooted in the Theravada tradition. Here is Buddhaghosa’s analysis of the Pali:

Here is the word meaning: idappaccayaa (lit. that-conditions) = imesa.m paccayaa (conditions for those); idappaccayaa (that-conditions) = idappaccayataa (that-conditionality, conditionality for those, specific conditionality). Or alternatively, idappaccayataa (that-conditionality) = idappaccayaana.m samuuho (the total of that-conditions, total specific conditionality).

(The Path of Purification, by Bhadantaacariya Buddhaghosa, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli, Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Edition, 1975 & 1991, page 526.)

1.3 Etymologies As Unreliable

With the weight of tradition behind this kind of analysis, I find myself wanting to accept this approach as adequate for comprehending the meaning of this core term. However, I find this kind of analysis more bewildering than helpful. Notice that the quoted etymologies give slightly different emphases; Chandrakirti’s analysis has a strong emphasis on dependence upon causes while Macy’s analysis highlights mutuality as central. This may seem like a small difference, however from this slight difference major sectarian divergencies grow. Macy’s entire book comprehends the mutuality of appearances as the definitive meaning of this core understanding. Chandrakirti and the subsequent traditions based on his analysis give only passing reference to mutuality, instead focusing on the dependent nature of all things and integrating that dependent nature with their comprehension of emptiness.

These two interpretations are not contradictory, exactly, but they generate different perspectives and I can not find any good reason to choose one over the other, based on etymology alone. There is no historical reason to choose the Sanskrit over the Pali or vice versa, as the singular linguistic source. Not that I am advocating choosing one over the other (either the languages or the interpretations); I think of both interpretations as valuable. But both of those interpretations have meaning even if their etymologies turn out to be incorrect. The importance of the interpretation does not reside in the validity of the etymological analysis.

On another level, it has been my experience that new terms arise spontaneously in a language. Only very rarely do people sit down and consciously create a new term. New terms more often arise based on metaphor, or sonic considerations such as rhyme, rhythm, and those kinds of associations. It might be useful, for example, for a Sanskrit scholar to research what kinds of words were widely in use at the time of the Buddha that had a similar sound and/or rhythm to this core term. Or, it might be useful to find out how Brahmanical and Jain cultures used similar sounding terms.

I am suggesting that the Buddha did not sit down and perform a conscious synthesis in order to create this new word. It is remotely possible that he did so; but I have not run across any reference in the discourses to him engaging in that kind of activity. It seems very remote from his interests. I think it more likely that the term arose spontaneously, even in the middle of a conversation, and not out of these kinds of etymological considerations. I don’t mean to dismiss out of hand the tradition of etymological analysis. Such analysis can be helpful, particularly when it is related to other terms. But I find myself unwilling to regard such analysis as definitive. To focus on the core meaning, I believe I need to look elsewhere.

1.3.1 Conflicting Sanskrit Etymologies

In addition to differing Sanskrit and Pali etymologies, the Buddhist traditions based on Sanskrit do not all agree on the correct etymological analysis of this key term. For example, Buddhapaalita and Bhaavaviveka say:

The term prati has a distributive meaning like ‘diversely’ or ‘this and that’. [The verbal root] i or i.n has the meaning of ‘going’, or ‘departing and disintegrating’. Itya, which is the affix ya added to the verbal root, means ‘that which goes’. Taking itya as a secondary derivative noun, [pratiityasamutpaada means] the arising of what possesses departing or disintegrating diversely, diversely.

(Meditation on Emptiness, by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom, revised edition, 1996, pgs. 667-668.)

Here is Chandrakirit’s comment on conflicting analyses:

There are others who hold that the term means the arising of things which vanish in the moment. This is bad etymology and cannot explain all uses of the term in the sutras and in the Abhidharma. Bhaavaviveka attacks both this interpretation and our own. If, he says, ‘to be dependent on’ or ‘to be relative to’ means there are two separate things, then there can be no origination, because the one thing must already have arisen before it can be dependent on, or relative to, the second. This, however, is agreed to, and so is no objection to our view. Bhaavaviveka adds that the term pratiityasamutpaada consists of two parts because it refers to the conditional statement ‘if this exists, that will arise’. This is erroneous: the term is a mere conventional expression, a metaphor. But Naagaarjuna insists that the meaning of the entire term ‘dependent origination’ derives from its parts: ‘whatever arises in dependence on something else does not arise in truth’. Bhaavaviveka, however, gives an account which is the same as our own, in saying ‘the long exists in dependence on the short, so far as there is the short, relative to the long’. Thus he accepts what he had criticized as false, which does not make sense. But enough of this disputation.

(Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way, by Chadrakirti, translated by Mervyn Sprung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979, page 34.)

Chadrakirti’s analysis emphasizes dependence upon causes and their appearing in this manner. The other analysis, in contrast, emphasizes the departing nature of things due to their diverse, or I would say aggregate, nature. Once again these two interpretations are not logically incompatible, though diverse traditions have certainly acted as if they were. However, there is no way I know of to establish a criteria which would choose one etymological analysis over another. Given these diverse analyses, the entire procedure seems weakly grounded to me.

1.3.2 Conflicting Pali Etymologies

The Theravada tradition also has a history of disputes regarding the meaning of this key term. Here is Buddhaghosa’s comment on alternative analyses:

The characteristic must be sought from grammar. Some, in fact, [say that the expression pa.ticca samuppaada (dependent origination) is characterized thus:] ‘having depended (pa.ticca), a right (sammaa) arising (uppaada), [depending on causes rightly by] disregarding such causes conjectured by sectarians as the Primordial Essence (Prakriti), World Soul (Purusha), and so on’. So what they call dependent origination (pa.ticca samuppaada) is a simple arising (uppaada) [for they equate the prefix sa.m only with sammaa (rightly) and ignore sa.m (with, con-)]. That is untenable. Why? (1) There is no such sutta; (2) it contradicts suttas; (3) it admits of no profound treatment; and (4) it is ungrammatical.

(The Path of Purification, by Buddhaghosa, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli, Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Edition, Seattle, 1975 & 1991, page 527.)

1.3.3 The Example Of The Term ‘Tathagata’

Etymological analysis can produce surprising results. Take, for example, the central Buddhist term, ‘Tathagata’. Subjected to etymological parsing, according to the rules of sanskrit grammar and combination of terms, two divergent renderings have emerged. One analysis considers the meanings to be “The Thus Come One”, while another analysis yields the rendering “Thus Gone One”. Robert Thurman translates the term as “Transcendent Lord”, probably relying on Tibetan analyses of the term (see The Central Philosophy of Tibet, pg. 152). Once again, I can not comprehend any good reason for choosing one rendering over another. For this reason, I tend to translate the term as “The One Of Thusness”, in an attempt to include both interpretations under a single rendering. However, given such variance in interpretation, I find it doubtful that relying on etymological analysis will yield genuinely fruitful results.

1.4 English Versions

There exist a large number of Enlgish language variants for this core term. Some of them include:

Dependent Origination
Dependent Co-arising
Dependent Co-origination
Co-dependent Origination
Conditioned Genesis
Conditioned Production
Conditioned Co-production
Mutual Causality

All of these translations have their value. It is not clear why I should choose one version over another. Partly this is due to the newness of Buddhism in the west. Because the core idea of pratityasamutpada is very new, and because Buddhism is very new in the west, there does not exist as yet any strongly established tradition of interpretation of core Buddhist ideas. The situation is very fluid and lack of familiarity with these ideas leaves me in a situation where I can not come up with good reasons, or present a good case, for one version as opposed to another.

1.5 Returning To Usage

I would like to suggest that instead of relying on etymologies that I return to usage. By returning to usage, I mean to look once again at how the Buddha presents the General Theory. I focus on the General Theory because specific theories of this view, that is, the application of the General Theory to specific cases, will tend to create a focus that might not necessarily apply to all existing things. It is my understanding that the Buddha meant this view to apply to all existing things.

When the Buddha says to Sakuludaayin, “I shall teach you Dharma,” the Buddha then gives Sakuludaayin a formula for the General Theory. Once again, this General Theory states:

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.)

This is what I mean by usage; that when the Buddha wants to illustrate Dharma, he offers this kind of explanation. I come to the concluion, therefore, that an accurate rendering of the term ‘pratityasamutpada’ into English must be consistent with this kind of usage, with this basic kind of explanation of the General Theory.

2. Interdependent Transformation

After much investigation, and trying out various renderings, I would like to suggest the translation ‘Interdependent Transformation’ for the term ‘pratityasamutpada’, and also for the Pali equivalent. My view is that other renderings do not fully encompass the General Theory of this view as the Buddha explains it in the discourses.

For example, consider the translation ‘Dependent Origination’. The term dependent does not clearly designate the meaning of this view because it is possible for something to exist dependently upon another thing which does not exist dependently. But the view of the General Theory is that this view applies to all existing things, that there are no exceptions, that to exist means to exist dependently, and that therefore there is no final ground upon which things depend, or no ultimate source from which all things emerge and/or return to.

This may seem at first seem an abstruse point. However, by refering to the theory by the term “Dependent” it subtly tilts the theory into a kind of theistic or pantheistic view. This makes it more difficult to access the unique vision of the Buddha and also makes it more difficult to engage in what I refer to as unpacking the meaning of this view.

Also consider the use of the term ‘origination’ in the phrase “Dependent Origination”. The term origination refers to the appearing of things, that things appear dependently, that things appear due to causes and conditions. However, origination is only one part of the General Theory. The General Theory also specifically refers to cessation. The General Theory also refers to causes which hinder the appearance, or origination. Thus the term “origination” constitutes a truncated version of the full scope of the General Theory. In addition, when applied to the great Buddhist task of bringing about the cessation of suffering, it is difficult to connect the term “origination” to the third noble truth, which is about cessation. This is unfortunate because there is an intimate connection between the two; namely that if things cease to exist due to causes and conditions, and that this truth applies to all phenomena, then it follows that it is possible to bring about the cessation of suffering, if I understand what constitutes the causes of suffering, and by removing those causes. However, if I think of the General Theory solely in terms of origination, this connection will not be clear.

There does exist in English a term which encompasses both origination and cessation; that term is ‘transformation’. When something appears, comes into existence, originates, that constitutes a transformation. When something ceases, that also constitutes a transformation.

For these reasons, I offer the rendering Interdependent Transformation as a possible translation which is consistent with explanatory usage as displayed in the discourses.

2.1 The First Half Of The General Theory As Origination

Returning to the statement of the General Theory in the Discourse to Skauludaayin, it says, “When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises.” This refers to the origination aspect of the general theory. It means that everything that exists has its origin in the existence of other things. The plant has its origin in seed, earth, and water. The house has its origin in wood, plans, and mortar. Everything that exists has this nature of existing because of other things. In other words, to exist means to exist because other things exist.

This first half of the General Theory is a rich source for contemplation. Just by itself it can change how we view things. Normally our perception of things is that things are sort of “just there”, almost magically present. This is because I do not normally perceive an object’s process of origination. For example, when I look at the chair in my room, I do not perceive, directly perceive, with my eyes, the tree that the wood came from, the factory that put the wood together, the truck that delivered the chair, etc. What I perceive is a chair-there; the chair does not inform me of its origination, of its dependent nature.

For this reason I have to infer that the chair has this nature; the nature of existing because other things exist. Inference, therefore, plays an important part in broadening and deepening my understanding of this core understanding of the Buddha. The contemplation takes the form of deliberately taking the time when observing an object to draw the inference that leads to the understanding that the origin of the thing has its basis in the existence of other things. By doing this regularly, I develop a habit of mind that begins to routinely comprehend things as there because of the existence of other things. This habit of mind begins to permeate my perception, and effect my relationships with the things of this world, including other people.

2.2 The Second Half Of The General Theory As Cessation

The second half of the General Theory states, “When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.” This refers to the cessation aspect of the General Theory. The importance of this is that the General Theory is not only a theory of origination, it is also a theory of cessation. The General Theory is simultaneously a theory of both origination and cessation, due to causation.

As in the first half, this second half of the General Theory is also a rich source for contemplation. For this General Theory states that all things have this nature as functioning as factors, or a factor, in the cessation of other things. So, while things arise due to the existence of other things, those other things simultaneously function to block the existence of different things or to bring about the cessation of things which currently exist. This richly adds to the complexity of the General Theory, considerably broadening its scope and application.

However, when this General Theory is referred to as someting like “dependent origination”, such terminology only refers to the first half of the General Theory, that half which designates origination due to causation. It is primarily for this reason that I think the term “origination” misleads by unjustifiably narrowing the scope of what is actually under consideration; the origination of things due to causes and conditions, as well as the cessation of things due to causes and conditions.

2.3 The First Half Of The General Theory Illuminates The Second Noble Truth

The first half of the General Theory, “When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises,” helps me to comprehend the Second Noble Truth and place it within the context of the primal enlightenment of the Buddha. The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused. This constitutes a specific application of the General Theory to a specific appearance; the appearance of suffering. The General Theory states that all things appear due to the existence of other things; that to exist means to exist dependently upon those other things. Applying this to suffering, and considering suffering as a thing, as an appearance, the General Theory illuminates the nature of suffering by pointing out that suffering is not causeless, that suffering does not just magically appear. Rather, suffering exists in this world because the conditions which give rise to suffering are adequately present.

This is a good example of how the General Theory gives rise to other Buddhist understandings which the tradition has considered central.

2.4 The Second Half of the General Theory Illuminates The Third Noble Truth

The second half of the General Theory, “When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessaton of this, that ceases,” helps me to understand the Third Noble Truth and place it within the context of the primal enlightenment of the Buddha. The Third Noble Truth is referred to as the truth of cessation and in terms of the General Theory this means that all things cease to exist due to causes and conditions. Things do not simply magically disappear. Rather things cease due to specific conditions which are incompatible with their continued existence. Applying this insight from the General Theory to the specific appearance of suffering, and comprehending suffering as a thing, as an appearance, this means that suffering disappears when the causal conditions which give rise to suffering are not present (“When the conditions which give rise to suffering do not exist, suffering does not come to be.”), or when the presence of the factors which constitute suffering cease, then suffering ceases (“With the cessation of that which feeds suffering, suffering ceases.”). Here I begin to comprehend how the great liberation, the cessation of suffering and freedom from sorrow, that the Buddha discovered is embedded in, grows out of, and has its roots in, the realm of his core realization of Interdependent Transformation.

2.5 The Term “Transformation” Embraces Both Halves Of The General Theory

The problem with those translations which use the term “origination” or “airising” is that they only alude to half the story; and in some ways not the most important half. This way of rendering the core insight of the Buddha makes it difficult for people to connect this core insight to the Third Noble Truth, thus increasing the tendency to view the study of this core insight as abstract, or remote. Actually, the Four Noble Truths have their roots in the core insight that we are discussing and to fully comprehend the Four Noble Truths, I need to first have a clear understanding of this core insight.

I do not mean to suggest substituting “dependent cessation”, as that would also constitute only half the story, only half the insight of the Buddha. Instead, I suggest the use of the term “Transformation” for designating that reality to which the Buddha refers. Origination constitutes a transformation; the acorn transforms into the oak, water and fire and tea leaves transform into a cup of tea, clouds turn to rain, etc.. Cessation constitutes a transformation; fire turns to ash, the last note of a song brings silence, etc. Both origination and cessation are embraced in the single term “Transformation”. So after much inner reflection and study of the various renderings of this key term, I offer the reader an interpretation that, I think, is adequate to the General Theory as a whole.

2.6 Dependence And Interdependence

We are not yet finished with a determination of designation for the meaning of this key sanskrit term. The term “Transformation” is a good start, but there is also the aspect of causal dependence which needs to be taken into consideration. For the General Theory is not just a theory of transformation; but it is also a theory that Transformation happens due to causes, not causelessly, not magically.

Translators have tended to use the word “Dependent”; it is the most frequent designator for this aspect of the General Theory. I am going to suggest, however, that in a crucial way, such a rendering is inadquate; I don’t think that it is exactly wrong, but i think it is on the edge of the target, definitely not a bullseye.

2.6.1 Things Appear And Cease Due To Causes And Conditions

The General Theory points to things as leaning on, relying on, having the basis of their existence on, other things. Things depend upon other things for their existence. The General Theory, however, extends this observation much further than most analyses of causation. By further claiming that there does not exist any aspect of any existing thing, the General Theory asserts that the dependent nature of things is thorough, or through and through. By thorough I mean that I can take any aspect of an existing thing, and that aspect will also reveal itself as dependent upon other things for its appearance as an existing thing at this time.

This nature of things leaning on other things for their support is the key to the General Theory as also a theory of cessation. Think of a rake leaning against a fence. The particular appearance of that rake at this time requires the existence of the fence. If I remove the fence, the rake falls down and takes on a different appearance. Using such an analogy, when I say that things lean on other things in order to exist, I begin to comprehend that this support is itself contingent; that the supporting conditions which allow for a particular thing to exist also constitute things which in turn lean on other things in order for the supporting conditions to exist to support the particular things that I am interested in. In this manner, the web of connections and dependencies which generate the existence of a particular thing quickly becomes mind boggling in complexity and beauty.

If any of these supporting conditions upon which a particular thing leans in order for it to exist, ceases, then the particular thing also ceases. The rake falls down if the fence falls down. Or take another example, a cup and saucer placed on a table. If, for some reason, the table leg breaks, the table falls, the cub and saucer slide to the floor, and break. The supporting conditions for the cup and saucer are no longer present and so the cup and saucer are no longer present.

Or take another example: suffering. One supporting condition for suffering is clinging. As long as clinging is present, suffering is present. Suffering leans on clinging in order for suffering to exist. If I cease to cling, suffering falls away, like a cup sliding off a table, and shattering.

2.6.2 Things Function As Causes And Conditions For Other Things

If there were no things, there would be no things. Talk about a tautology. But, by this statement, I mean that it is things which function as the creative source and generator for other things. I do not have to go beyond the things of this world, to some outside agency or source, in order to access the creative matrix which constantly generates the things of existence. The General Theory is not only a theory of how things come into existence, the General Theory also points to things as the locus of creativity in existence; though, because this applies to all things, this locus has no specific location but, rather, constitutes an aspect of the nature of all existing things.

When I look at things as simply dependent upon other things for their existence, my tendency is to regard the particular thing I am looking at as in some way inert, as the passive recipient of the complex causal matrix upon which that particular thing leans. But that is only half the view of the General Theory. When I look at things as interdependent, then I begin to comprehend that every existing thing also functions as the generator and progenitor of numerous, innumerable, other things. In a sense, each existing thing acts as a transformer, receiving the beneficence of support from many other things, taking that energy, matter, form, etc., and then transforming what it has received into potentialities for other things, allowing for the birth of other things.

From this perspective, nothing in existence is inert or passive. This applies equally to rocks, plants, clouds, streets, songs, and people. From this perspective, there is no such thing as the inanimate.

2.6.3 Every “This” Is A “That”

Take a particular thing. I’ll call it X. The first statement of the General Theory says, “When this exists, that comes to be.” Or, substituting our particular thing, it would read, “When this exists, X comes to be.” This means that X relies upon the existence of “this” in order for X to exist.

But X simultaneously functions as a “this”, so I can also read this first statement as, “When X exists, that comes to be.” Depending upon how I focus on X, I perceive X as the recipient of supporting conditions or I perceive X as a supporting condition for other things. The point is, X is both of these at one and the same time. To exist means to function in both of these ways at all times.

The second statement reads, “With the arising of this, that arises.” Focusing once again on a particular thing I would read the statement as, “With the arising of this, X arises.” Once again, switching perspective, I can also read the statement as, “With the arising of X, that arises.”

The third statement reads, “When this does not exist, that does not come to be.” Focusing once again on a particular thing I read the statement as, “When this does not exist, X does not come to be.” Following through on my understanding that every this is a that, I can also place X in this statement, “When X does not exist, that does not come to be.” This means that X ceases due to causes and conditions and simultaneously functions as the cause for the cessation of other things, or the non-appearance of other things.

The fourth statement reads, “With the cessation of this, that ceases.” Performing the above substitutions for the particular thing X, I get, “With the cessation of this, X ceases.” I also get, “With the cessation of X, that ceases.”

This and that resemble the concepts here and there. My here is your there. Your there is my here. Similarly, a “this” in the General Theory is the causal generator for other existing things. When seen from this perspective it has a creative nature. When comprehended as a that, I comprehend a thing as the recipient of this causal matrix. But in actuality, any particular thing, X, continuously functions and displays both natures, which thoroughly permeate every aspect of X.

This and that, in this General Theory, also resemble I and you. My I is your you. Your I is my you. I do not mean to imply that here and there, I and you, are non-existent; but that they are conceptually distinguishable dependent upon the perspective of the observer. By perspective of the observer I mean the mind of the observer. Similarly, it is the mind of the observer which determines whether or not, while comprehending the nature of an existing particular thing, X, teases out the this or the that aspects of X. This kind of distinction between X as the recipient of causal conditions, and therefore dependent in its nature, and therefore passive, and X as the generator of causal conditions for other existing things, and therefore creative, is solely mind dependent. X itself, and this applies to all existing things, manifests as a transformative creative matrix, a conduit of possibilities and potentialities which effortlessly embraces both the this and the that of its existence.

2.6.4 Distinguishing Dependence And Interdependence

The distinction between dependence and interdependence is subtle, but crucial to my understanding, clearly the central teaching of the Buddha. To say that things exist interdependently means that they exist dependently; but to say that things exist dependently does not necessarily mean that they exist interdependently.

The question is whether or not the view of pratityasamutpada, the General Theory I am discussing, infers a final cause, or source, either logically or temporally, or both, from which emerge all phenomena. If the General Theory does infer this, then rendering the General Theory with the term “dependent” would be accurate. I say this because in the monotheistic traditions, as well as in the platonic traditions, all things exist dependently; but what the monotheistic tradition means by this is that all things exist by the grace of an ultimate source, and that source is God.

On the other hand, if the General Theory does not infer such a final source or ground, then I need to ask the location of that which brings forth the appearances of this world. When I contemplate the General Theory I do not observe any inference for a final cause or source of existing things, and to which existing things return. The General Theory simply points to other things as the source for any particular thing. “When this exists, that comes to be,” draws our attention to other existing things. Once again, I see no reason, given the General Theory, to infer that the Buddha meant to imply the existence of a final source.

In addition, there exist very good historical reasons for rejecting the idea, in a Buddhist context, for an ultimate source interpretation of the General Theory. For example, Buddhism never developed a creation myth or story. Instead, Buddhism frequently refers to existence as beginningless and endless. This lack of a creation mythos, from the perspective of the various monotheisms, is quite distinctive. But this lack of a creation mythos in Buddhism is consistent with the view of the General Theory; I think I can infer that the lack of a creation mythos in Buddhism is directly derived from the central role of the General Theory.

The lack of a creation mythos in Buddhism reflects the General Theory’s focus on the appearance of things due to the existence of other things. Those other things, in turn, exist due to the appearance of other things, which are also existing due to other things, etc. This generates an infinite regress, which is logically self-referentially consistent, and has no beginning and no end. Notice also that the General Theory does not require the intercession of an ouside agency in order for this river of relationships to begin. Because the Buddha considered the General Theory as an elucidation of the very nature of things and existence as such, no special catalyst for this onward flowing is necessary. The location, therefore, of the source for the appearance of things is simply other things, spread out over all of existence, both in time and in space. In some of the ancient Indian exegeses they refer to this as “unlocated nirvana”; unlocated because this ultimate nature does not confine itself to any particular thing or corner of existence, nirvana because it is precisely this ultimate nature and its realization which brings about the peace of the cessation of all sorrow.

To use the term “dependent” to describe the General Theory subtly distorts the presentation of the General Theory. It does so by inferring that their exists some particular entity, thing, or source which brings things into existence; thus shifting the direction of the General Theory from the observation of how other things are the ultimate cause of things, to looking for what, from a Buddhist perspective, is a non-existent ultimate other.

I would suggest, instead, the use of the term “interdependent”. The term interdependent, while retaining the meaning of dependent in the sense of relying upon, points to things themselves as the ultimate source for the existence of things. Things enthing existence. A non-thing simply does not exist. In addition, the term interdependent is more consistent with the usage of the General Theory because it points out how any particular thing simultaneously functions as a dependent recipient of causal support, and as a creative matrix for the appearance of other things. Thus each existing thing participates in all aspects of the General Theory simultaneously, and this is the “inter” of the “interdependence”.

2.6.5 Therefore “Interdependent Transformation”

For all of these reasons I have decided to adopt the translation “interdependent transformation” for the sanskrit term “pratityasmutpada” and for the equivalent pali term as well. After years of consideration, I think that this term more accurately reflects the usage to which the Buddha puts this General Theory.

This may seem like a long digression and a minute affair. However, how I comprehend a key term, particularly when I am going to relate how this key term functions in relationship to other key understandings within the Buddhist tradition, has implications which go very far. Bringing clarity to usage, therefore, is an important task. It resembles taking a fork in the road. The fork in the road symbolizes two different interpretations of the same idea as reflected in two different translations. At first, it may not seem that the choise of taking the left fork or the right fork makes much difference, especially if the roads parallel each other for some distance. Eventually, however, the roads diverge and very different sceneries emerge.

It resembles determining an axiom in mathematics. Clarity of meaning for this central notion will significantly effect how the system interprets, for example, space in many details.

A small decision can have large impacts. When it comes to Interdependent Transformation and comprehending the Buddhadharma, a small shift in my understanding can either illuminate, or cast into difficulties, whole regions wisdom and compassion. It is my hope that the usage “Interdependent Transformation” will function as an antidote to ignorance and help to free all sentient existence from suffering.

Notice: Copyright 2003 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.
Dharmajim hopes that you enjoy his Sutra Salon. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to post them at the Dharma House Blog.
Subscribe to Dharma-House!

Home | Buddhas | Discuss | Gohonzon | Gosho | Independent | Inmates | Lotus Sutra | Nichiren | Nichiren Shu | Pilgrimage | Queers | Dharmajim & Ryuei | Stupas | Sutra Library | Tales | Tantric | Tendai | Theravada | WebRings | Women | Zen | Misc. | What'sNew?

This website is designed & maintained by CampRoss for Dharmajim.