Pratītyasamutpāda

One of the most important concepts in all schools of Buddhism is pratītyasamutpāda (in Sanskrit–the Pali form is paṭiccasamuppāda).  The word is a very long one in either of the classical languages of Buddhism, but it is not only a key philosophical notion in Buddhist thought, it has a much wider applicability, particularly in the modern, industrial, interconnected world in which we live.  I have referenced it here and there in different places on this blog, and in various comments I’ve made on other blogs I frequent.  Despite this, I’ve not spoken about the term in and of itself at any length.  That’s an omission that needs to be rectified, since pratītyasamutpāda easily deserves a post of its own, particularly as a resource for future reference in discussion in which it turns up.

The first step in discussing pratītyasamutpāda is to translate it–what the heck does it mean?  Edward Conze, one of the most important Western scholars of Buddhism in the mid-20th Century, delightfully translates the Sanskrit mouthful as an English mouthful:  “conditioned co-production”.  This is actually a petty good root-by-root rendering of the Sanskrit, but it is, as noted, quite a mouthful and perhaps not so delightful to the general reader.  Other renderings include “conditioned arising” and “dependent arising”.  The most common rendering I’ve seen is “dependent origination”, so this is what I’m going to use for now.  So, we have a translation; but still, what does it mean?

The basic idea is that everything in the cosmos is a complex web of interacting causes.  The simplest Buddhist statement of this is from Assutavā Sutta (available here), part of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the “Connected Discourses of the Buddha”:

The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully & appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:

When this is, that is.

From the arising of this comes the arising of that.

When this isn’t, that isn’t.

From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Simply put, every phenomenon arises as a result of the existence and action of other phenomena (“When this is, that is”) and passes out of existence as a result of other phenomena.  Nothing comes into being, exists, or passes out of being of itself, but as a result of phenomena.

In Buddhist texts this is sometimes described schematically as the chain of nidānas (“causes”) which can be seen in the image at the top of this post; i.e. ignorance leads to mental formations which lead to consciousness, and so on, until one reaches birth, which results in death, at which point the whole cycle starts over again.  This chain of causation, which gives rise to samsāra, the Wheel of Existence, is commonly illustrated in a much more dramatic form in traditional Tibetan art:

In any case, viewing pratītyasamutpāda as a simplistic chain in the sense of A leads to B which leads to C which leads to D and so on, is quite misleading.  The exact listing of the nidānas, the links in the chain, varies in early Buddhist literature; and in any interpretation of them, it is incorrect to think of them as a one-way string of dominoes, falling in a nice linear path.  Rather, all the factors involved in every aspect of everything in the entire universe are all at work simultaneously.  Things are coming into being, passing out of being, growing, decaying, causing other things, and interacting with each other in mind-numbingly complex ways at each instant.

A very simple example:  When a grade-school or middle-school child learns about the water cycle, she learns something like this:  Water in lakes and rivers and oceans and so on evaporates, the vapor rises into the sky, once there it forms clouds, the clouds eventually rain, and the water returns to the lakes and rivers and oceans.  True enough; but all of these happen at once.  It’s always raining somewhere, just as water is always evaporating somewhere and there are always clouds somewhere.  Right at this very moment as I type these words, I can see the results of a light rain that ended just a few minutes ago outside my window.  In the sky I can see the remnants of clouds, from which more rain may come later; and in my sink, some of the water in which dishes are soaking is evaporating as I type.  Evaporation, clouds, and rain are all happening at once.

Likewise, I was not merely born, to exist for such-and-such a length of time, then to merely die.  “I” am a complex, interconnected process every instant.  With each in-breath I take in oxygen and moisture and heat from the surrounding air.  With each out-breath I expel carbon dioxide and moisture and heat.  My body is receiving heat from and radiating it to the environment.  Every cell of my body is breaking down previously eaten food, or burning the glucose that resulted from earlier meals.  Meanwhile, hairs and skin cells are constantly sloughing off into the environment, old cells die inside my body and are absorbed, and new ones come into being.  Even before my birth, the sperm and egg whence I originate were parts of similarly complex processes in my parents; as were theirs in their parents; and onward in a chain reaching back before mankind itself to the first life on Earth.  Likewise, my cellular and genetic legacy live on in my daughter and any children she may someday have; and after I die, the components of my body will be off again into myriads of other forms.

Thus, the concept of dependent origination ties in to three other important Buddhist concepts.  The first is anātman, “no-soul” or “no-self”.  This doctrine, present in all forms of Buddhism, asserts that nothing has inherent being in and of itself.  Note well:  The assertion is not that any given thing does not exist or is unreal.  Rather, it takes its being from a web of interconnected things, having no “self-existence” of its own.  Without every single ancestor of mine from the beginning of time, I don’t exist.  I also don’t exist without every plant or animal I’ve eaten throughout my life; or those eaten by every single one of my ancestors; or the water I drink, and thus, of the rivers, lakes,  and reservoirs from which that water has come; the clouds that rained into those bodies of water; and so on.  Even at this very instant, as I breathe in and out, as various microbes live in and on my body, and as old cells fall off, there isn’t even an unambiguously clear boundary between what even is “myself” and the so-called outside world.

Every example I’ve given so far is dynamic, and thus leads to anitya, or “impermanence”, the Buddhist doctrine that everything is in a state of constant flux, with nothing remaining eternally unchanged.  Livings thing are born and grow old and die, obviously.  Seasons change.  Over long enough time periods, even the seemingly eternal changes:  the mightiest mountains erode to nothing, continents collide, driving up new mountains, rivers dig canyons out of the ground.  Ultimately the sun will be destroyed in a nova, the Earth will be consumed by it, and after untold billions of years, the universe itself will die of “heat death” or collapse back into a super-hot ball of matter, to explode into a new cosmos (depending on one’s cosmic model).

The third concept is specific to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism:  the concept of śūnyatā, literally, “emptiness”.  “Emptiness” (or “void”, as is sometimes used) is not to be understood as “nothingness” or as some form of nihilism in this case.  Shunyata (here I dispense with the diacritics and italics) is not nothingness, but the lack of any type of independent or intrinsic self-existence of any given thing or even of the totality of everything.  A typical Buddhist analogy is the chariot.  The Buddha notes that “chariot” is merely a conventional term we use for a particular pattern in which wheels, an axle, a platform, a bridle, and so on, are connected together.  There is no such thing as a “chariot” as an independent separate thing–it’s just a pattern of other things.  Take apart the pieces, no more chariot.  Even the pieces are empty–“wheel” just means a rim connected to spokes and a hub; the platform is pieces of wood or metal connected together; and so on.  Human beings are also analyzed this way in Buddhist texts.  The body is a combination of organs systems, organs, cells, material taken in from food, and so on; the mind is a bundle of thoughts, sensations, feelings, beliefs, and so on.  Both combinations are in a state of constant change–cells die and are renewed, thoughts come and go; but there is no permanent “person” there.  That which I call “myself” is not the same as the “I” of fifty years, fifty days, fifty hours, or even fifty minutes ago.

Shunyata goes beyond even this, though–it is not merely the lack of intrinsic, self-being by phenomena, but it is also the fertile ground out of which all phenomena spring.  After all, if things were fixed with eternal essences, there would be no possibility of change.  If the universe were a conglomeration of static, unrelated entities 1, 2, 3 up to n (if I may indulge in mathematical jargon), then n + 1, n + 2 and so on would not be possible, since the previous entities could not mix, match, combine, or change in order to produce the latter entities.  To put it in another, seemingly paradoxical way, the fact that I don’t have to exist is the only reason that I’m able to exist in the first place.  It is the lack of individual, self-existence by any given thing and the interconnectedness of each thing with everything else in the cosmos that allow the vast panoply of existence we observe.

So what is the importance of this?  Obviously, quite a bit for Buddhists; but I want to go beyond that here.  I will state unequivocally that I consider pratītyasamutpāda not just a religious or philosophical doctrine, but an accurate description of observed reality.  This is important:  We tend too often to view religious doctrines or philosophical ideas as just a bunch of excessively complex opinions cooked up by people with way too much time on their hands.  Even if one takes a less derogatory view, it is indeed true that many dogmas, both religious and philosophical, are not demonstrable.  One cannot prove the Trinity, or the prophethood of Muhammad, or reincarnation, or Platonic Forms.  Those things must be, on some level, taken on faith, or as corollaries from other beliefs.  Some such ideas, though, do indeed accord with the world as we see it.  The Abrahamic religions teach that the world came into being at a certain point; and so it is–the Big Bang is almost universally accepted as the origin of the cosmos.  Aristotle’s philosophy makes certain statements about necessary truths and logical contradictions; and, at least within the parameters of ordinary phenomenal world, these statements must be true.

Likewise, the interconnectedness of the world is not only clearly evident upon even casual analysis, it is firmly supported by contemporary science.  All phenomena of the physical universe can be shown to derive from interactions of four basic forces and a number of elementary particles.  These particles themselves seem to have no “essence” or “interior” in the ordinary way of conceptualizing those terms, but seem defined only by their interactions with other particles.  For example, it is a commonplace that electrons have negative electrical charge and protons have positive electrical charge.  However, if one digs deeper and asks, “What is electrical charge, actually?” the only answer that can be given is, “That force which is exhibited by electrons and protons.”  If one asks, “What does ‘negative’ charge mean?” all one can answer is, “What an electron has,” or “The opposite of what a proton has.”  Everything can be understood only in relationship to everything else.

More importantly even than the physical sciences, though, pratītyasamutpāda has immense implications for ordinary life in many ways and on many levels.  I have written a fair amount about infrastructure in the past, and it is a very good example of what I have in mind.  Practically everything we do in the modern world depends on vast webs of interconnected actions.  I am typing–a skill I was taught by my father, who was taught by others, etc. years ago–on a computer keyboard.  The keyboard and computer were made in a factory from designs developed by hundreds of computer scientists and engineers over the decades, using plastic made from petrochemicals dug or pumped from the ground in many places, metal mined from various places, various rare-earth minerals from all over the world, and so on.  The electricity that makes the computer (and the light beside me) work is flowing through lines built and maintained by hundreds of linemen, carrying power generated in a power plant employing dozens or hundreds, made from coal or natural gas–you get the point.  Driving a car down a paved road, buying bananas at a store, watching Neflix and chilling–all of these seemingly simple, everyday activities can happen only because of the efforts of thousands, perhaps millions of people moment to moment, and stretching back for years, decades, even centuries.

A recent meme making the rounds that gives a humorous example of such interconnectedness is this:

An equally astonishing, but more serious instance of interconnection, is this extended example from Quora.

A longstanding assertion of mine is that it’s not possible to understand anything about modern civilization without some understanding of interconnectedness–not even necessarily in its Buddhist form of pratītyasamutpāda.  I further assert that moderns, but most particularly Americans, have great difficulty understanding interconnectedness, and thus are not capable of a good understanding of the modern world in general.  This, I think, is largely a result of the tendency of American culture to cast off old traditions and customs–after all, being a place where one can remake oneself is practically written in to the collective American DNA–as well the fact that America came into existence at the cusp of a period of huge change.  These factors make it hard for us to grasp big pictures.

Thus, people gripe about taxes or the cost of utilities while turning around to gripe about potholes or electric outages during storms, seeming not to realize that taxes and utility fees pay for fixing potholes and maintaining electrical lines.  A very typically American attitude is conveyed in the name of the old song, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”.  Of course, it is somebody’s business, even if indirectly, somewhere.  The cell phone sitting next to me may have been assembled in a Chinese or other Asian factory under conditions of near slavery for the workers.  A teenage boy watching pornography on a similar phone may not realize that many of the people involved in making it are exploited horribly, often on drugs, sometimes physically abused, and so on–and the money generated by his watching, even if indirectly through ad sales, supports that.  The U. S. alone, with about five percent of Earth’s population uses about twenty-five percent of planetary resources; and yet we think somehow the world’s entire populace will someday be able to rise to our level, too.

One of the more trivial and yet very telling examples of this obliviousness is post-apocalyptic movies, a genre popular on and off for over thirty years now.  Typically ruined cities, bleak landscapes, and funky clothing will be used to paint a picture of societal collapse.  Somehow, though, despite all this, the people seem to get on remarkably well.  I mean, where the hell is the gasoline necessary to run the vehicles in The Road Warrior and the following Mad Max movies (in the original, society has not collapsed yet) coming from?  Society has collapsed, so nobody’s pumping up petroleum any more; no one is taking tankers to distribute the petroleum; with societal collapse, the power plants will fall into disrepair quickly, so no functional pumps to pump the oil along pipelines; and there will be no one to refine the crude oil into gasoline at the end of its journey.  Yeah, there will be some gasoline left in storage or in the underground tanks of service stations; but with no electricity to pump it out from there through the pumps, how do you get to it?  And even if you do get gas, Max and company seem to be…somewhat hard…on the vehicles.  Where do you get the parts to repair them?

Now I get that post-apocalyptic films are science fiction, with the emphasis on fiction.  Still, pretty much every post-apocalyptic movie I’ve seen has certain things still somehow magically functioning in the post-catastrophe society when they shouldn’t be.  From what I’ve heard of it, The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel of the same name, is more accurate on this score than almost all other such movies; but not having seen it, I can’t confirm that.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome uncharacteristically at least makes some nods to how things would work in the real world.  In this movie, technology seems to have declined since the previous movie in the franchise (The Road Warrior), and the Tina Turner character, Aunty Entity, explicitly says that her settlement is using pig dung to generate methane.  Thus, there is at least a technologically appropriate explanation for some of the energy issues in the movie.  Finally, in the coda to the movie, in which the children whom Max has rescued are telling the tale of Max, who is now legendary, the indication is that society has sunk to a stone-age level.

The point is that, pop culture though such movies may be, they clearly demonstrate our inability to grasp the complexities and, yes, interconnectedness necessitated by any complex society.  Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  His point was that super-advanced aliens might seem to us to be magic (this is also reflected in the first Marvel Thor film, where Thor tells Jane Foster that he comes from a culture where science and magic are the same thing).  Ironically, for most of us these days, it is our own technology that seems to be magic!

So what is the point of all this?  With every passing year, we live in a world that is more and more technologically complex.  Information technology, of which social media are but a part, have connected us to each other and to the world at large in ways none of us could have imagined even a few decades ago.  Citizens of democracies are more and more called upon to make electoral, political, and policy decisions that depend upon an understanding of increasingly large amounts of information.  Despite all this, and the ways in which pratītyasamutpāda seems more and more to be staring us in the face, our understanding of it–our very awareness that it even exists–seems to be shrinking day by day.

What is the solution to this lack of understanding?  I wish I knew.  Those of us who are parents or teachers can try to get at least some of the concept–not necessarily expressed in Buddhist terms–across to our young people.  All of us can try to educate ourselves more on the complexities of modern life.  Certainly, regardless of one’s faith tradition, one can always benefit from this aspect of Buddhist philosophy.  Whether we grasp it or not, though, everything is indeed connected; and we forget that to our own peril.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Also part of the series “Buddhism

Posted on 13/06/2020, in Buddhism, metaphysics, philosophy, pratityasamutpada, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Very good. I’ve always held to pratītyasamutpāda. I usually just called it Newton’s Third Law. But the Buddhist concept is far more subtle. Buddhism has always seemed eminently attractive and sensible to me but the multisyllabic nomenclature I could never remember – same with Greek, always had to keep a dictionary handy.

    Maybe I will try harder. I certainly could use a spiritual/psychological discipline from going nuts these days since politics has become such a deep “occasion of sin”.

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