Buddha himself said ( Khantipalo , 1998 ); ); “Whoever sees dependent arising, sees dharma. Whoever sees dharma, sees dependent arising.” And let’s face it, seeing dharma is no easy thing, so we can assume that dependent arising itself is going to be a challenge. The reason for the seeming absence of a more concise explanation of this Buddhist concept can be pretty accurately attributed to the fact that it is so hard to understand, and that there are multiple interpretations. Just as Christians take certain parts of the bible figuratively and just as equally devout believers take it literally, the same is true of the interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Dependent arising can take two directions; a more pragmatic, Zen interpretation that eliminates the reincarnation aspect, and a more traditional interpretation with that aspect re-implemented. I’ll try my best to provide both perspectives equally as I go through.
Samsara is the cyclic current of life that recreates itself and is hard to escape, especially when we don’t realize we are in it in the first place. Dharma is all about mainly realizing the workings of Dependent Arising, and thus freeing ourselves from its grip. (An example of how objectivity can free us from subjectivity is apparent in our basic dealings. If somebody comes up to us and insults us, we can choose to be subject to this insult and laugh, yell, or retort accordingly. But why should the insult elicit any response? What part of “insult” entails “reaction”? It’s this sort of thinking that Buddhism upholds.) In this way, if we know Samsara (Dependent Arising) thoroughly, we know Dharma by default.
Also, it is important to distinguish the terms Dependent Arising and Samsara, since this may get confusing. Dependent Arising, thus referred to in the traditional context, is the nature and components of Samsara; samsara itself is the actual living out of all the steps.
The Thirteen Steps
Dependent arising is based on the principle of causality, that everything has a cause. However, the thorough realization of this concept which seems like a given is what Buddha focused on. We may think, “Ah, everything has a cause-that’s common sense,” In fact, most of us do think in that way; but when something horrible happens to us, we seem to forget this and resort to thinking that the world is chaotic and cold. Here, Buddha shows how everything has a previous cause, even though at first glance it may not seem to. Keep in mind that though each step fuels its successor, it is cyclic, so thus the successor comes around to eventually fuel its predecessor.
Firstly, ignorance, the first step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Inevitably, our past lives have created the possibility for there to even be a present life. But the only fact that there have even been any past lives is we have continued to live the samsara lifestyle, continually embracing the idea of Self, and thus creating karma which is only possible in the context of the Self.
The amount of good karma and bad karma results in the state of our current lives. Currently, we are human, but our accumulated karma could lead us to other life-forms.
Alternative: First, we must always at one point live in ignorance, to have the realization that there is a samsara. At one point in our lives, we must be completely subject to samsara, not realizing it is there, controlling our actions. (In this context, samsara would deal less with reincarnation, but an idea more similar to the traditional Wheel of Fortune, which is the idea that good and bad will happen and our folly is in thinking we can control it. For example, hypothetically getting a high paying job that you studied hard for so you can give your children a great life, ruins somebody else’s life because all the studying they did to get that job went to waste when you got it. You will get good karma for what you did for your children, but you will also get bad karma for what you did to them. Inevitably, good and bad will happen. That’s the basic idea.)
Then, Volitional Formation, the Second Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Not knowing of Dependent Arising, we indulge in creating karma. It is this presence of intentional action, which is basically the definition of the Sanskrit word karma (also, kamma), that perpetuates Samsara. We create good karma, and bad karma. This eventually determines what our next life will be. Volition obviously means will, and so we are doing things in context of the will of the Self. When we have the realization, there is no Self with a will, we begin to set upon the course of Dharma.
Alternative: Similar to the traditional interpretation, minus any reincarnation aspects.
Then, consciousness, the Third Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: The karma you accumulate creates the state of your consciousness. Intentional bad karma degrades us, but intentional good karma can’t get us any higher than fundamental humanity. To be a boddhavista, and possibly even a Buddha, we must first realize Dependent Arising and thus escape samsara. In this interpretation, consciousness is equivalent to the basic state of our pure perception. We also inherit to some extent the tendencies and previous attitudes of our past selves and these affect the basic inherent nature of our consciousness.
Alternative: The best way I have ever heard this explained was that volitional formations were like small raindrops into a stream. Eventually, they form a powerful current that carves the banks out. It is the patterns that these singular actions (the raindrops) form that create our constant consciousness (the current). In this interpretation, consciousness is equivalent to the paradigms and attitudes that run constant in our life created by the patterns in our actions.
Then, mind-body, The Fourth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: When the state of our consciousness is defined, so is the mind-body relationship. We will always have our reasoning aspect that is responsible for will, thought, and eventually dharma which we define as “mind”. However, this mind-body relationship is often likened to a ship and the people within it. Our body is the ship and inevitably carries us wherever we go, and we could not travel without it. However, the terms of the boat-people relationship is defined by the people. They can be carried by the boat, or control the sails and thus the direction. They can even jump out, but then they will drown. In the same way, we can let our body define us and that is the essence of samsara. Or we can control the sails, which is equivalent to dharma. Or we can jump out, which can often be confused with denying the self, but is in reality the foolish act of denying factuality. (We will always have a body, but that does not entail a Self.) The amount of mind we have (humans have the most) leads to the level of ease at which Dharma is achieved. The amount of mind we have is dependent on the state of our consciousness.
Alternative: Alternative interpretation relates consciousness to the mind-body relationship by saying that this is the philosophical realization towards Dharma that happens after we fully understand consciousness, volitional action, and ignorance. However, in essence it is again the same as traditional, sans reincarnation aspects.
Then, the six senses, the Sixth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Once we have a body, and a mind to realize its input, we become subject to the input of the six senses. (Six senses? This isn’t the Western 5 Senses!) These senses include; touch, smell, taste, sound, sight, and mind. Why is mind part of it? As we can’t jump out of the boat, mind and body are inseparable. Thus, mind becomes part of the body because it can’t be separated. However, epitomized, it can master the rest of the body. Keep in mind (ha, ha) this is just pure sensory, without judgment and at this point mind is just imprinting patterns onto the sensory to make sense of it, such as cat, apple.
Alternative: Most alternative interpretations agree with this traditional interpretation thoroughly. However, the sixth sense is sometimes digressed to be the sense of No-Self, that is a constant that exists within us realized, or unrealized. Through meditation, we can experience this vast experience of No-Self that is free of all aspects of samsara, including the pattern-processes of mind! Those who argue this feel it’s not necessary to list mind as the sixth sense as it was already touched upon in mind-body, and the real sixth sense is No-Self. As far as which approach to take? Let’s take Buddha’s advice; “Believe nothing, no matter where you have read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.”
Again, remember; in the alternative view of things, each idea is interrelated only in the fact that in the thorough understanding of the predecessor, the realization of the next is initiated, and is thus dependent on whether we understand the previous first.
Then, contact, The Seventh Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Once we have the pure sensory of the six senses organized within our minds, we interact with and manipulate our environment. This is called contact. In this way, we relate it to us. This leads us from the objectivity of perception to the subjectivity of interrelatedness. However, we still are recognizing ourselves as separate from what is perceived. The idea of No-Self is that there is no boundary between it and us, just continuum of these and all things.
Alternative: Alternative is in agreement with traditional on this account.
Then, feeling, The Eighth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Miraculously, science has proven this ancient idea that feeling is a product of contact and interaction. This realization wouldn’t have been possible if Buddha hadn’t been able to step outside himself, figuratively, and realize that emotions are not us making active judgments, but simply pre-programmed reactions to certain sensory and perceptions. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are secreted in our brains creating the perceptions of pleasure, sadness, etc. (I find it amazing that philosophical thinking accurately out-stepped science by over 2,000 years.) Feelings are simply reactions to our manipulation of the world.
Alternative: Again, Alternative concedes the point.
Then, craving, The Ninth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Emotions create the push and pull system of punishment and reward. Happiness, contentment, physical pleasure, and joy push us towards things like sex, alcohol, and social interactions in general. In the same way, depression, sadness, physical pain, and anger pull us away from the absence of these things or negative social interactions, violence that defeats us, and poisons that get the best of us etc. This craving leads to dukkha, which inevitably leads to karma as a response to it, which perpetuates samsara. Understanding the relation of dukkha, karma, and samsara is key in understanding the whole Dependent Arising scheme.
Then, grasping the Tenth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: With our extensive memories, we remember what gave us the most pleasure and what gave us the most pain. We actively run towards or run from what our memory promises will lead away from dukkha and thus towards pleasure. Our cravings actively spur us into karma, or grasping in this context, which again perpetuates samsara.
Then, becoming, The Eleventh Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Traditional interpretation says that our desperate karma that strives away from dukkha is actively creating us, much like a fetus slowly being developed in the mother’s womb. The nature of our karma is determining our future life.
Alternative: Alternative interpretation says becoming is what happens when we have full grasp of all these ideas. We study them, and fit them to our minds in a hard and grueling process, until we fully understand them. This is likened to the boddhavista stage.
Then, birth The Twelfth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: This is one of the more confusing, and more ill-explained points of the traditional Dependent Arising. Birth means that at a certain point what our karma does do, will match with the preconditions of some being. For example, human beings, to continue in samsara as human beings, have to have never harmed any thing. At a certain point, our karma begins to follow patterns since living in samsara we haven’t unveiled the dharma yet. When our karma’s patterns are finally defined, we are as good as born into the thing we will next be. (“This stage of clear self-definition can be likened to the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”)
Alternative: Alternative says when we have finally grasped the nature of all these things, and fully understand the true undercurrent (which is the true feat) that everything has a cause (and all our doings reflect that realization) ; we are reborn, free from samsara, engaged in dharma. If we miss even one point, we are still subject to it. Buddha urges us to invest our efforts into a full inspection of Dependent Arising.
Finally, Ageing & Death, The Thirteenth Step of Dependent Arising
Traditional: Eventually, the current self dies, and passes onto what it was already born into. They are still within samsara, in this context ignorance. The present self becomes a past self. This past self contributes to the new present self ignorance and volitional formation.
Alternative: Factually, we will die. Tradition says a Buddha transcends human nature and thus does not die, but more alternative Buddhism realizes the nature of the body as mortal. The ultimate success, and proof of achieving of dharma is when this death means nothing. As everything has a cause, everything is an effect. Birth, is the cause of death. Death is the effect of birth. It means nothing. It is simply fact. The end of consciousness need not entail more (heaven, hell, continuous life), because to some extent that is still attachment to the Self. Self, or No-Self, the world will continue on. This is the Alternative perspective.
Final word on Dependent Arising
I hope this interpretation provides some clarity amidst more confusing references. I know when I first tackled Dependent Arising, I thoroughly craved a reference where Traditional was pitted against the more alternative viewpoints. Finally, if you are new to Buddhism, I highly suggest you study the basics in detail. This is in no way a sufficient explanation of the immense ideas of No-Self, the cause of dukkha, objectivity, and causality, and please do not take it as such.
Khantipalo , Bhikku. Dependent Arising. http://www.buddhanet.net/ 1998