Dependent Origination

Once again, thanks to livelysceptic for posing the question that led to this post.


Buddhism has something called Dependent Origination.  Dependent Origination is causality or the interdependence of things.  This seems so obvious as to be banal, but it gets interesting when applied to people. In fact, the implications of doing so are rarely appreciated by many Buddhists and end up revealing that many Buddhists harbor closet beliefs in the very self Buddhism denies.

The most common formulation of Dependent Origination is the 12-Point Chain.  This is a chain that is said to operate over 3 lifetimes. Since I avoid the supernatural in my analyses of Buddhism,  and since the complexity and divisions on the chain do not allow any obvious, workable, non-supernatural interpretation, I will instead focus on the implications of the general outline of Dependent Origination.

Dependent Origination of Persons

When interdependence or causality — depending on how you view it — is applied to the self, it reveals the self as nothing more than the environment.  Let’s do this by examining the common candidates for the self: body, mind (thoughts & emotions) and the controller.

Body. My body exists because two people had sex long ago and brought me to term.  My body’s condition is due to genes, nutrition, accidents and illnesses that befell me.  What’s more, it is not totally under my control: my stomach can growl, my muscles can spasm, certain motions are unavailable to me, and it will age.  It will end due to illness, age, or the actions of other people.  My body is a product of the environment.

Mind. My mind arose from my brain (body), and since my body is causally determined, so is my mind.  Additionally, my mental state is the result of all my experiences:  parents, TV, books, interactions, etc… This in turn interprets subsequent experience which leads to a new mental state which…   My decisions, quality of my life, and so on are all determined by this (determined) mental state and the (determined) environment. For instance, if I see a cake, this will trigger thoughts of craving or mindfulness depending on my mental state.  The cake is a (determined) part of the environment and the mental state is a (determined) trajectory of all past experiences.  Even not responding at all to the cake (outside of the neurological fact that registering it is a change in my mental state) is in itself a function of my mental state, which was due to past experiences.

Controller. Am I mind + body, or is there something above that, something that controls both? I have a “sense of self” but this can’t be it; after all, if it this thing chooses among senses, how can the senses it chooses from reveal it? Also, this self serves no purpose: all my decisions can be explained by my mental state and environment. In fact, drugs which alter brain functions also alter behavior, strongly implying the brain is in control.  An independent controller must choose independently of mental state.  Arguing that the controller can be affected by mental state constrains it so it is function of the environment and is no longer free.  Hence, this controller either does not exist or does not freely choose/control. Either way it’s the same thing: there is no free will.

Free Will: The Last Bastion of Self

Free Will is the existence of an independent controller. Buddhism denies the existence of an independent self.  The similar phrasings reveal the same thing is being referred to. No Self = No Free Will. Despite this, many Buddhists believe in Free Will and even defend Dependent Origination while simultaneously defending Free Will.

Whenever people say things like “in the same situation, I would have done differently” they are implying this Self/Will for that statement assumes an entity can exist in the same mental state and situation and choose differently.  Yet the person IS the mental state and IS the situation and therefore the same decision would be made by definition.

The lack of Free Will makes more sense as it not only implies much of Buddhist practice, but also helps prevent some subtle mistakes.

What it Means for Practice

Unconditional compassion and forgiveness.  With no agent who freely chose to do the wrong thing, being angry at someone for doing wrong is like being angry at a tree limb for falling.  What’s more, doing right is also as determined and therefore, one can take no pride in having the “moral high ground”. We still try to do what’s right, but without blame, we are more free to be compassionate to all those involved, including those who do wrong.

How No-Self Affects Happiness.  Most of our pain is due to a vain attempt to be separate from the world.  Even trying to maintain equanimity is an attempt to separate.  This separation fails because the world determines us, down to our most cherished thought.  There is no “out there” and no “in here” and hence nothing to defend.  Events don’t get in our heads, our heads are repositories for events.  People don’t affect us, we are the product of interactions with others and vice versa.  And so on.  Realizing this, we stop fighting and fully accept everything (this implies no clinging).  The result is that we are much happier and equanimity naturally arises.

Practice. Since our sense of separation is a mental state, we work on changing this mental state so that this separation is naturally eroded, rather than trying to impose unity by an act of will.  Imposing unity by an act of will may ironically be the very same separation we are trying to avoid.  This is where small things like mindfulness practice, forgiveness, and deconstructing experience are continuously and unconditionally applied to alter our foundational mental state so that unity is the natural reaction.


In its most general form, Dependent Origination is interdependence applied to ourselves to undermine the belief in a self.  Yet this undermining cuts close to home, to a place many Buddhists may not want to go: Free Will.  Yet fully embracing determinism, understanding that I am no more than a conscious subset of the environment is a key to embracing all experience rather than fleeing it, an embracing which leads to a more joyful life.  I can think I don’t believe in a self, but to really contemplate that I’m no different from a rock (except in that I’m conscious) can really open my eyes to what no-self really means, in a way no other Buddhist teaching can.


17 thoughts on “Dependent Origination

  1. Thank you, again! What a brilliant article….This might actually lead to more questions 😉
    I fully agree that no self means no free will. The more (modern) philosophy I read, the more I’m becoming convinced of that. And I like the way you keep the whole article close to personal experience. In a way, that’s all that matters. It’s all we can know. I also think the supernatural part of buddhism often leads to unnecessary confusion.
    My (current) favourite sentence is this: “Even trying to maintain equanimity is an attempt to separate.” I know there are many people who use their ideas about buddhism and meditation to reach a state of equanimity. And it can be done. But it is just a step in a much longer process.
    I also think compassion and forgiveness stemming from the fact that there is no free will is a modern, logical approach. It takes us away from trying to be a saint or overcoming one’s own base intentions. It’s a rational thing: If I don’t have free will, neither do you. (And if there’s no ‘me’ there’s no ‘you’ either.) I think I will read this again, tomorrow…

    1. Thanks, and don’t be shy about asking any questions!

      Yes, personal experience is all that matters.

      Buddhism can get complex. I mean when reading it, two sources of complexity pop up. The first is in the various doctrines themselves. The second is in how they connect (or seem to fail to connect) together. I mean you start from the easily understood premise that pain is a function of desire, and pretty soon you’re going through 12 point origination, 5 Skandhas, 75 Dharmas… I don’t believe for a moment that reducing our pain is in any way dependent on mastering these complexities — or even becoming aware of them. They can be useful tools, but necessary? I don’t think so.

      I’m glad you liked that sentence about equanimity; this is one of those things that I thought was key, as it is another illustration in the paradox of the philosophy and reveals how the path itself can become an enemy. I think trying to maintain equanimity can work (doing anything that doesn’t require chasing our senses is generally a step up), but its effectiveness can be limited and it can end up being a source of pain.

  2. I’m not sure I understood: it seems to me at some point you claim that free will equals no self. Is that so? I can see how it goes one way (no self -> no free will) but I fail to see how it goes the other. I’d be really interested in reading a more detailed explanation!
    I have another question: you think accepting there’s no free will should make us more compassionate and forgiving, with which I agree. But does that mean you wouldn’t put a psychopath in jail? I have no problem passing no judgement towards the psychopath (after all, there’s just stuff that happens) but I’d still want him (or her) to be locked up, if only to prevent further bloodshed. But that doesn’t seem a very compassionate thing to do… at least not toward the psychopath.

    1. For all practical purposes, I think many people equate the two. Many people when asked, will say they do not identify with their bodies or mind, but feel both are things “under their control”. What is this controller that they think controls the mind or body?

      This is an independent agent; call it a soul or something that is supposed to be pulling the strings. However, a key feature of this independent agent is its freedom to choose what to do regardless of what the mind or body decides. Free Will seems to be a necessary (if not sufficient) property of this agent. Erode free will and this agent is eroded, both by taking away its defining feature, and by taking away any role it could play as the erosion of free will implies all acts, decisions, choices, etc… can be implied by the body, mental state, and environmental triggers.

      I still think crimes need to be punished. As you point out, the purpose here is to prevent further people from being hurt, both by the psychopath and by others who would do the same without an example. Yes, it’s not very compassionate towards the person being punished, but this is where I’d lean back to utilitarianism and point out that it’s the choice of punishing one, vs. allowing more to come to a worse fate.

      I know this argument won’t hold up under close scrutiny, as is is subject to the usual attacks against utilitarianism.

    2. If I may put my thoughts in regarding the psychopath. I think the two are not necessarily related. Not judging a psychopath because he has no free will has nothing to do with letting him get on with seriously harming other people. Our not having free will does not mean to just let anything happen. From a perspective of protecting a group of people it might be reasonable to lock someone up. It would not be punishment. Sure, for said psychopath it doesn’t matter for what reason he gets locked up, in theory. But I think jails would look different if we did not build them with revenge as a motivation. And that might make a difference to our psychopath.

  3. Thank you for the article. I am always interested in reading people’s take on such things.
    I am extremely hesitant to agree with the ‘unconditional compassion and forgiveness’…it sounds very arrogant – and quite dangerous – , especially when no one (the one who has committed the ‘harm towards’) has requested nor said that they wanted/needed it.

    I am also hesitant because it puts the full responsibility onto the harmed and further allows the harmer to carry on with a knowledge that ‘he/she’ has a no free will pass

    Otherwise, thank you for your thoughts, I can see that you put quite a lot of effort into expressing your analysis and it is appreciated 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      You know, I used to hate the word “forgiveness” and even now I don’t like it much, because it makes it seem like I’m granting something to someone. Saying “I forgive you” almost sounds like I have the moral high ground and am doing someone a favor. Maybe “Letting Go” would have been a better choice of words.

      The thing about compassion and forgiveness is this: when I have compassion or forgive someone, it’s not for their sake, but mine. Not forgiving and holding on to hatred is painful for me. So really, the person didn’t ask for it, but then I never did it for them either. It’s kind of weird, right? I’m doing something “for” someone, but in reality it’s for me.

      Now being unconditionally compassionate and forgiving doesn’t mean I don’t try to stop things that I see are wrong. I still do that. I just don’t try to hurt others or take revenge. Punishment for the sake of punishment is what’s supposed to stop.

      If someone is abusing others, this person should be stopped of course. But this stopping should be done in a way that it doesn’t turn into an “eye for an eye” situation.

  4. Letting go…yes, this is perhaps, a more fitting term. But, with its problems also. Such as knowing within our human sphere that this is really never possible in its fullest sense. So kind of a pressure again, which can be used by those wishing to place responsibility elsewhere…however, I can fully see that you are working within our limited vocabulary to find a term that fully represents your idea.

    I do agree that holding on to hate is problematic, as is revenge and will effectively ruin the harmed. I can see, of course, why people do it and while I dont condone it – I would have a certain compassion as to why they did it…another catch 22 problem with this unconditional compassion and forgiving.

    Hate is something I do not practice, nor do I ask others to do. It is nothing more than another barricade to keeping on your truth path and in line with your soul (or however you wish to describe it). Revenge; At this moment in time, no, I would not do this and boy oh boy have I been tempted…however, again, revenge opportunity was always self base (i.e revenge against what has been done to me) and I deny it because its not worth it…is it not worth it because I still do not hold myself of worth, yet? or is it because I do not have it in me to act vengeful in its fullest degree? I would like to think the latter….again, this would only be proven should anything happen to someone I love with every fibre of my being and more than myself….and am just not sure which way it would go. So, yeh theory is great – practice turns out a whole different situation and further complicates your posit.

    ‘unconditional compassion and forgiveness is not for their sake but for mine’…sounds like you are very uncomfortable with human feelings – like you need to excuse them in case they become an eye for an eye….why not just accept that these feelings are present, why is there such a need to discover the reason behind their act and forgive their life path? We, in our quest to answer bigger questions can forget the little things, being that we are human and being human is why we are here…because we are limited but sometimes within that limitation we are at our most glorious

    I look forward to following your blog, you really do interest me (in the most non patronising way possible) and I like the way you write and think

    1. You make some good points…

      Whether or not letting go (or any other practice) is possible in its fullest sense is something I do not worry about because I treat it like any other perfection. It is something to be aimed at, but any measure we achieve leads to a corresponding increase in happiness.

      I do not understand where the catch 22 lies. One can strive for unconditional compassion while still understanding where people are coming from. Could you elaborate?

      Yes, it is easy to write and practice these things when we are not faced with incredible provocations. I think we can reduce our response threshold, but whether or not we can eliminate it is beyond me. Again, since it is not all or nothing, I generally do not worry about these things.

      What do you mean about being uncomfortable with human feelings? I definitely believe they can cause us pain and thus woukd like to deal with them, if that is what you mean. The idea is to try to live a happier life by dealing with our inner sources if pain.

      I would appreciate more information on that as well. I definitely think we should accept things (I see Letting Go and Acceptance as the same thing), and it is in the acceptance of these things that we can reduce our pain, in fact, I think our problem is that we do not accept these things — that we have these feelings, that we are determined, that things we hate will happen…

      I am glad you find these blogs interesting, and I appreciate your questions. They are probing and are forcing me to think more deeply. They also make me realize that I need to work in making myself more clear.

      Thank You!

  5. Hiya

    Thanks so much for your detailed explanation. Acceptance…yes, I understand now. I can accept that x,y,z happens/exists while still being allowed to acknowledge our human limitations of not being able to fully let it go (to my mind, letting it go in its fullest sense means it is no longer in our awareness which, – and this is the part that I found confusing – can only but set us up for more harm as you are like a fresh target over and over and over.

    Acceptance seems more like a positive learning stage…to be able to learn from and then blend it into our future self.

    Last night, I actually forgot about the over arching premise behind buddhist philosophy – that of perfected enlightenment! haha! god knows how I managed that…so with that now back in my mind, I can now see where you are coming from and how everything is measured success to the ultimate goal – buddhists (like myself) are goal orientated I suppose…and progression in a developed and positive manner is what I strive for also. However, I do not follow the philosophy of trying to do it for the attainment of a perfected self – so that is where buddhist philosophy and I part ways lol….I think this is the crux of where we seemed to be misunderstanding…apologies. I will leave the goal of perfection kind of creepy – I find perfection in things in this world everyday, faults and all. …I don’t need to wait fifty lifetimes to feel enlightened by the world I live in now (with all respect)

    The catch 22 – yeh it wasnt very clear…I just meant you would be perpetually stuck in a cycle of unconditional compassion and forgiveness (we have now agreed – acceptance) inbetween harmed, harmer, avenger, non avenger…seems like the worth of compassion becomes very diluted as it absolutely doesnt matter what happens, ‘you’ the unconditional one will understand and accept it. So while it is a good idea it, to me, seems also not loyal to other factors that I deem as important when dealing with ‘perfection’ – its like, a catch 22 of perfection and imperfection simultaneously…I hope that makes sense

    I think I just meant that it seemed like it was a kind of avoidance or eradiction as quickly as possible all the ‘negative’ aspects of humanity…I dont believe that any of our facets are negative, they just arent being used right..thats all I meant..

    i enjoy reading and learning about what works for other people and/or thoughts

    I think you explain very well…just a slight misunderstanding stemming from my oversight, I believe 🙂

    1. Thank you for clarifying. No apologies needed; these comments are exactly for this kind of clarification and discussion, and I appreciate you taking the time to write.

      I take Buddhism as something to practice and modify as I see fit. I do not think the teachings are perfect, and I think some elements were taken to such extremes as to be silly. So kudos to you!

  6. oh and ive just thought about something – sorry! what if perfection enlightenment had two sides? what would you say to the murderer if they said they were in the quest for perfection? to be the perfected ‘evil’? I mean, what if they were learning, as you are (as buddhist) but on the flip side and in fifty lifetimes they attain enlightenment of the perfected evil?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s