Dependent Origination without any Pali
October 31, 2022
This essay contains a practical guide to using the moment-by-moment interpretation of a central Buddhist doctrine to end disturbances in everyday life.
I’ve tried to write it for someone with little or no knowledge of Buddhism. As with all the Buddha’s teachings that I’ve encountered, it’s not about belief, dogma, or metaphysical claims. It’s a practical technique which should benefit anyone regardless of beliefs. My explanation is an invitation to investigation. The only requirement is curiosity, but for the main benefit (no less than the end of all disturbances), meditation experience is helpful. To get good at the practice, diligence and determination will be needed.
I can recommend Tasshin’s Introduction to Buddhism as a place to start if you’d like some background on Buddhism. I wrote this article as a submission for his Share Your Knowledge! Essay Contest.
In late 2016, I was deeply depressed. I had hit one of my rock bottoms, and it was touch-and-go whether I’d make it through. My partner said that I had to get help — if not for my sake, then for hers. This reframed the problem for me. I told her I was willing to try anything.
I was lucky enough to be able to see a psychiatrist. She made several helpful suggestions, and she also asked whether I had ever tried meditation. I said no. I knew nothing about meditation; so little, in fact, that her suggestion surprised me a little. It had never occurred to me that meditation had anything to do with happiness. I asked her how it worked.
She said I could try any of the apps. She mentioned a few, including Headspace, so I downloaded it and began to meditate. Just ten minutes of meditation per day made an immediate difference in my ability to cope with life. I found it soothing, enjoyable, and easy to follow, and it calmed me down a lot.
Because I was curious about (and, I’ll admit, a little suspicious of) Buddhism, I took Robert Wright’s Buddhism and modern psychology course. I found I could immediately relate to several of the Buddha’s core assertions. In particular, I readily assented to the notion that life is suffering, and that suffering causes desire.1 I had always had an extremely strong desire for things to be other than they were, and I knew that non-acceptance was related to my unhappiness. I just had no idea what to do with that knowledge.
I didn’t go nuts with the meditation at first. I stuck to 10-20 minutes per day. But over time, I read several books on meditation, and I had increasingly intense positive experiences. I became more interested in the practice. Eventually I went on meditation retreats. First, in March 2017, I did a 3 day retreat with periods of silence at Vajrasana in Suffolk (UK). In January 2018, I attended a 10 day silent retreat at Dhamma Vaddhana, in the High Desert in California, near Joshua Tree.
Those retreats and the experiences I had on them seemed to make a permanent improvement to my outlook on life. Or at least I can say that I’m still never as unhappy as I was before I did those retreats, now four years ago.
For the past few years my still-daily practice had not progressed a great deal from what I was doing 2017–2019.2 But in the past few months, I’ve been learning a Buddhist analytical technique which has drastically improved my life. I’m still deeply imperfect but I thought I would share what I’ve learned. The technique has also changed my understanding of how the mind works.
As a disclaimer, I have no formal training in meditation within a Buddhist tradition, nor do I have any academic background in the study of Buddhism. I’ve just read a lot of books and done a lot of meditation. I did have the chance to discuss the topic with an extremely friendly monk at Dhamma Center, to whom I’m very grateful. In that conversation he corrected things I had wrong. Any remaining errors are, of course, my own.
What is dependent origination?
Dependent origination is an explanation from the Buddha detailing what is required for a disturbance in our experience to occur. These kinds of disturbances are wide ranging: they include everything from a minor inconvenience to the death of a loved one.
Without insight into how this process works, we experience disturbances every day: a post on social media annoys us, the store doesn’t have the thing we wanted, we miss a bus, someone slights us, and so on. But dependent origination describes larger forms of dissatisfaction with life as well, from workplace malaise to the deep depression I described. A conceptual understanding of the requirements common to all such disturbances can provide us with a practical strategy for avoiding them before they start — or ending them once they’ve arisen.
The promise is no less than the option to end all such disturbances.
The teaching is called dependent origination because any such disturbance can only arise (“originate”) from a web of dependencies or conditions. Once these dependencies are met, the disturbance appears to arise instantaneously, and fully-formed. Usually we only notice such a disturbance once we are already fully disturbed and enmeshed in a story about why. By understanding the mechanisms behind these disturbances, we can sense when they are arising, and prevent them from coming to full fruition.
When we find ourselves enraged, disappointed, or acting out, we know that something has happened, but if we take the story at face value, we’ve actually misunderstood what has happened. Dependent origination describes a process for understanding exactly what must have happened in detail.
Imagine coming home to find that the house has burned down. Something has clearly happened, but what? Detective work is required. The same goes for states of disturbance, and dependent origination describes how to run the investigation.
Several things result from a cycle of dependent origination. The disturbance is what alerts us after the fact. So as a first step, it’s good practice to try to notice when we are disturbed. But the same cycle often produces sensations, feelings, a form of self-centeredness, and a narrative involving that self.
Dependent origination is one of the core doctrines in all schools of Buddhism. Sometimes dependent origination is translated as dependent arising, or as dependent co-arising. These terms all refer to the same thing. The way that I’m describing it is not the multiple lifetimes view you may have learned (see below); this is a practical guide for how to use this otherwise puzzling teaching within everyday life.
Dependent origination is fast and persuasive
The whole cycle of dependent origination is lightning fast. Without training, it seems to be a single event. The view that emerges from it is persuasive, and seems real, correct, and indisputable.
Some small examples
Imagine we’re looking forward to eating a dessert we’ve left in the fridge. We open the door, and it’s not there. By the time we are angry at our housemate, a full cycle of dependent origination has taken place. And it’s not only fast, but also persuasive. We now have a story: “He ate my dessert.” Notice the mine quality, as there will always be self-view. In fact, we can’t know what has happened. Maybe someone else ate it, or maybe we ate it and forgot.
I suspect if we get to the next inference (“He always does that”) then another cycle may have taken place, with the view from the first cycle as the mental source of another cycle.
Or imagine we touch a hot tray we’ve just taken out of the oven. We feel the burning sensation, but that is not dependent origination; that’s just pain. But if we feel anger at ourselves, and think, “How could I be so stupid, I knew it was hot” then a round of dependent origination has taken place.
Here are two analogies which might help us understand what dependent origination is at a high level.
If you know how to code
Feel free to ignore this analogy if it’s not helpful.
One way we could understand dependent origination is as a programming script:
disturbance.py. This may seem an odd script to keep on our computer, but maybe think of it as a piece of malware: when it runs properly, we become disturbed. When it doesn’t run, we remain tranquil.
At the top of the script, we import a bunch of libraries or modules. These are dependencies for the script to run successfully — and some of these dependencies depend on each other. If we have all the dependencies installed on the operating system, then under the right conditions, almost anything can trigger the running of the script. The script runs quickly, and causes us to be disturbed.
However, if any of the dependencies are missing, the script won’t run, and we’ll stay calm. Moreover, the better we understand each of the modules, the easier it is to spot when the script is in the process of running or about to run. We might be able to put pauses into these modules. This gives us time to intervene, and stop ourselves from becoming disturbed.
A chemical reaction
Another way to think of dependent origination might be a chemical reaction. When all the reagents are present, the reaction will take place immediately. But if we remove one of them, it won’t happen at all.
This is a less good analogy because the ingredients don’t depend on each other in the way that they may in computer code, but it still gives us some idea. Dependent origination is about understanding the reagents needed to set off an explosion, so that we can remove reagents or keep them separate from each other.
So how can we use it?
First, we must understand the concepts. In the most common formulation found in the Buddhist texts, dependent origination has twelve conditions.
The remainder of this article will explain the dependencies and how to pick them apart skilfully.
Selfhood as a pyramid
A cycle of dependent origination describes in detail the web of dependencies that are required for unsatisfactoriness to arise. In this view, if you are dissatisfied or suffering, then one of these cycles must have occurred. Under normal conditions, they occur very quickly, and unconsciously, hence the sense of “must have.”
As I’ve said, it’s not helpful to think of these as twelve links in a causal chain. One way to think about them is more like a stack of 12 cups, with the disturbance at the top. If you knock one out, the top one must fall. But some are more structural than others, and some are harder to reach.
What are the twelve conditions?
The most common version of the teaching lists twelve conditions.
Here’s the list, provided in the forward order of conditionality. I’ve provided links so you can get a wider sense of each term, but I wouldn’t recommend going too deeply into the Wikipedia explanations. If you want to go deeper, I’ll recommend some readings at the end.
- concoctions or fabrications (sometimes called “formations”)
- divided consciousness
- name and form (or “mind and body,” or “mentality and materiality”)
- open sense bases
- sense contact
- feeling tone, sensation, or “valence”
- craving, thirst, or desire
- clinging, grasping, attachment
- the urge to become
- old age, sickness, and death
Confused? You should be. It’s not easy to know what’s going on here.
These are not best thought of as links in a causal chain, but each condition is necessary for the next link to arise. As an analogy, you need to have a phone in order to call someone, but having a phone doesn’t cause you to call someone. It’s a necessary condition but not a cause. The same is true in dependent origination. If birth doesn’t occur, then death can’t occur, but birth does not really cause death. It can only “set the stage.”
There are also some complex dependencies among the links. In this essay, I won’t go into detail about how all of them connect to each other, so we can just list them in order and understand that for #12 to exist, #11 must exist, and so on, from sickness back to ignorance.
Working through an example
Say I am upset at having received an aggressive text message from a friend. My reaction is: “I can’t believe she’d send that to me.” Notice that it has to have an “I” or a “me” in it. This is a sign that a cycle has completed.
This can sometimes be implicit: “Your behaviour is unacceptable” rather than explicit: “…to me.” It can be helpful to rephrase it to make it clearer: “I find your behaviour unacceptable.” But the exact words aren’t too important, and it is not at all important what specifically has happened. It just may make it easier to frame the problem in terms of an “I” or a “me” in order to do the detective work.
I’ve said that the conditions are not necessarily best thought of as being in a linear order. However, it’s easier to memorize them this way, so that we can use the list like a checklist. In fact, it is often easier to run the investigation starting at the end.
So we work backwards. This means we work in this order: death, birth, the urge to become, clinging, craving, feeling tone, sense contact, sense bases, name and form, consciousness, concoction, ignorance. This is the reverse order of conditionality.
The way I think about this is like detective work after an explosion. Let’s say we’re outside our empty house, and it suddenly explodes. We know that something has happened, but we start from a point of ignorance. We now have to dig through the rubble and figure out how this could have happened.
Dependent origination is like that. When the twelve conditions arise in tandem, they can cause immediate suffering. The suffering also tends to hide evidence of its origins; we can’t easily see what has happened, and this is probably adaptive, from the point of view of the suffering self that has just been born. If it were obviously false or easy to see through, it couldn’t “take over.” So when suffering arises strongly, it is like a form of persuasion or temptation. We feel a sense that it’s irresistible to see what has happened in a certain way.
In this example, I’m suffering “because” a friend sent me a text. As we’ll see, this ordering events is probably not correct, but it’s useful to think of it in these terms at the start. I’m not just angry, but I’m indignant, and it’s because of what the friend said to me.
Note that this is a postmortem. The point of working through an example in detail is to get familiar with what went wrong. It is not exactly about solving this particular problem, but becoming more sensitive to the process. The point of going through this is to improve your life. It’s like practicing scales; the benefit comes when you play the music.
The conscious part (12–6)
The Buddhist terms can be confusing if they’re taken too literally. We’re not talking about “birth” or “old age, sickness, and death” in terms of an individual’s lifetime. These are metaphors for the way a self (part of the mind) feels as it is born, decays, and eventually dies.
So the first step is straightforward: sickness, old age and death. We can understand this simply as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. In this case, it takes the form of anger at the friend who has sent the text.
Because I am suffering (death), a birth must have occurred. This is the birth of self. In other words, it’s not about a mother giving birth to a child. It’s more like my mind giving birth to a me; a self that can suffer, which requires a self-centered view of a situation. This is the “I” and “me” in “I can’t believe she would say that to me!”
If a birth has happened, there must have been an urge to become. The way I understand this is as the need to “make something of it.” It’s a spur to action, to respond to the text, or to show the text to someone else, to block the friend, or whatever else. It does not necessarily need to lead to action, but there’s a feeling of impulse, or in this case, perhaps the sense of “How dare she…”
If there’s an urge to become, there must have been some kind of attachment. Perhaps I was attached to a view of this friend as an ally; the sort of person who wouldn’t say this kind of thing to me. Or perhaps I feel that they’ve accused me of something, and this accusation conflicts with a view of myself that I’m attached to. “I didn’t think she was like that” or “I’m not that kind of person.” Often I notice identity in this stage, but it might also be attachment to a certain desired outcome (or to avoid an undesired outcome).
It can also be clinging to a not-suffering self: we’d be happy if everything were the same, but this one thing hadn’t happened. Notice how obviously illusory that feeling is: when that one thing dissipates, then something else takes its place. Clinging often produces distortions: think of the clinging of infatuation. We can only see a person’s positives; we idealize. Or the opposite, the view of our enemies: we only see negatives; we demonize.
If there’s attachment, there must have been craving. Let’s say the text is mean, and I take it as a rejection. I might have a craving for acceptance, and this text has prevented the fulfilment of this craving. Maybe I wish the friend hadn’t sent the text; that would also be a form of craving. Craving is just wanting things to be other than they are.
For there to be a craving, there must have been a feeling tone. This can be negative, neutral, or positive. In the text-from-a-friend example, reading the text had a negative valence. And probably most feelings that lead to suffering are negative. But it’s important to know that positive feelings can also lead to suffering. Let’s say I really love a notebook I bought recently (true story). If I lose that notebook, it will lead to suffering, because the craving for the notebook led to a clinging to the notebook, and the clinging has the potential to lead to suffering (whether the suffering emerges later or not).
If there’s a negative or positive feeling, there must have been sense contact: I read the text message, so the contact was through vision. If, instead, the friend had said something to me, then the sense contact would have been through hearing. It’s important to identify this first sensory source, without which the feeling response could not have arisen. This is because the whole subsequent story often hinges on a fairly minor piece of sense information. It can be helpful to inspect the actual sensory input to see whether it’s commensurate with the fiction that emerges afterwards. For example, it might help to carefully re-read the text in a different tone, offering the benefit of the doubt or even asking for clarification.
Typically, sense contact is the last part that’s conscious and reasonably easy to introspect. But with practice, earlier parts may sometimes become perceptible. It’s also important to remember that commonly all 12 conditions are unconscious, because the process is so fast.
The unconscious part (5–1)
For the sense contact to occur, the sense bases must be open. In this example, my eyes must be open; if they weren’t, or if I weren’t looking at my phone, then sense contact couldn’t have occurred. Remembering this can remind us how contingent the whole affair is. But it’s more than just having our eyes open, it’s something like attunement. We see (and don’t see) a virtually infinite amount of stuff all the time. I might see the same words written on a billboard, but because my sense bases weren’t open to that as directed at me, it’s not something I “noticed” or “took personally,” whereas I did notice the text from my friend.
For the sense bases to be opened, there must be name and form present. Sometimes this is interpreted as me having a mind and a body joined up and doing stuff in the world. But it might be better to think of it in terms of a mental concept being instantiated. It is sometimes translated as mentality and materiality. It’s having a conceptual notion of what is going on, and then having an instance of that happening. In this sense, it involves having concepts, and maybe also expectations (or predictions, or priors). So with the friend, I have a notion of “insult” and an instance of that insult; this text message is an instantiation of a known concept. It’s the co-arising of the name of a form, and the form that is named. Notice this depends on past learning which is itself contingent.
For name and form to arise, there must be a divided consciousness. This is a kind of directed energy, like energy accumulating around an irritation. It is not as sophisticated as the self-view that I described in “birth,” but a more basic version of “self and other.” For example, a baby might have a sense of toy and lost toy without having much sense of identity. In this example, there’s me and the text message; something conscious of something else (the concoction). I tend to think of it as the most basic division between subject and object, without any conceptual stuff (yet).
For divided consciousness to arise, there must be a concoction, fabrication, or formation in the sense of “the action of forming.” There is a sense of creation in this step, and of fiction. The mind is ready to tell a tale, and it is happy to use anything as its “once upon a time.” From doing this kind of meditation, I can sometime sense that my mind is in concocting mode. This is the feeling that “anything could set me off.” If we observe someone else in a very bad mood all day, where nothing is good enough or everything seems to annoy them, we might say that this is in a state of rapid concoction.
For concoctions to arise, ignorance must have been present. In Buddhism, ignorance means something specific. It is the illusory inversion of the three characteristics. Ignorance means belief in three illusions: permanence, self, and pleasure.
In other words, three assumptions permeate and support every part of the process:
- “I definitely am a stable self,”
- “this self can definitely be satisfied if certain conditions are met,”
- “this state of affairs will definitely last.”
This will not happen if we’re mindfully aware of the present, seeing the three characteristics: emptiness, unsatisfactoriness, and impermanence. When we keep these three characteristics in view, the cycle can’t get off the ground. This is because self-view, permanence-view, and the promise of pleasure are foundations for each step; these illusion both support and fuel each of the twelve conditions.
We’ve just worked through a single example. But note that the indignant self which results from this process can become part of the trigger for another cycle to begin. This is because what we’ve called “sense contact” includes not just the five senses, but also the mind. In short, a feeling or thought can (and often does) trigger this cycle, and it’s common for cycles to repeat. “I can’t believe he did this to me” leads to “He always does this” and “I should have known he was like this,” and so forth. I plan to write more about this later; I think it may be related to conceptual proliferation.
I’ll give an example of the difference between mindfulness and ignorance. I’m quite sensitive to loud noises. They often seem to put me in a bad mood immediately. But if I’m in the middle of a meditation session, focusing on the impermanence of sensations, then I notice the effect the noise has on my body as well as the noise itself, and then the feeling dissipates. I’m aware of impermanence, essencelessness, and unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena, so the noise as phenomenon cannot trigger anything. The exact same noise might lead to nothing, rather than the cycle leading to an angry self. In the ignorant condition, it’s easy for the unpleasant sound to kick off a round of dependent origination. “Who made that noise? Don’t they know I am trying to concentrate? Why are they doing this to me?” is what comes up when I’m reading and I hear the noise.
This sounds hard
It is! But it’s a big promise after all: the end of all psychological suffering. And it gets easier to practice as you go along.
But also know that you don’t really need to get each condition “right.” They are more like frames for introspection. Once again, they are an invitation to investigation. It is more like cross-examination of a witness we suspect is lying than it is like an exam with right and wrong answers.
My current view is that the process would not work if it were not persuasive. If something is persuasive, it is hard to see it another way. Dependent origination, because it happens so quickly and appears so persuasive, is hard to perceive. If it were easy to perceive, it would not be able to cause so much suffering; the story wouldn’t be able to “take us over” as it were.
Note that what is hard to perceive is the pattern of dependencies. The resulting sense of self, the “story” that comes out of the process, is easy to see: more than that, it seems self-evidently true. It’s just that such a story rewrites the past to hide its own origins.
Understanding the concepts, however, even partially, can reduce disturbances or suffering, so in my opinion it is well worth a bit of difficulty at the start. Of course, this will depend on how bad our suffering is. It’s also practical; it can be used in daily life, and it shouldn’t seem like an abstract theory with no real-world consequences.
Although concepts are required at the start, the technique will only pay off if it’s practiced. Meditation practice should normally be done without concepts. It’s a bit like reading a recipe versus learning to cook. We need to know all the ingredients before we begin, but if we never start cooking, having that knowledge doesn’t really matter. We need practice, and we improve with practice. As with cooking, we get better over time, but it’s not the kind of thing we can ever really “finish.” If we want to continue to enjoy the results of our efforts, we have to keep at it.
Is there an easier, softer way?
Let me know if you find one! I have found this one quite effective. There are ways you can apply the above directly without spending 20-30 minutes every day analyzing where stuff went wrong (which is what I’ve been doing).
Here are ways to start:
If you still normally have self-view or don’t find it easy to get into a mindful state, the best place to intervene is at condition 7, feeling tone. There’s lots of advice to guard the sense doors in Buddhism, but it’s pretty hard to do and live a normal life. So paying very close attention to what feels good and bad is a great place to start. If something feels good, notice the good feeling, and notice if it turns into a desire for more. If something feels bad, notice the bad feeling, and notice if it turns into a desire for less. Neutral feelings don’t seem to cause many problems, though I’d love to hear from you if you find that they do.
If you already know how to meditate, then you can focus on cultivating mindfulness of the three characteristics. After all, in this framing, suffering can only arise if mindfulness of these drops. It’s not just that you won’t suffer during the meditation, but the practice will begin to affect everyday life.
If you’ve seen through the illusion of self at least once, then, by focusing on the characteristics, it should be possible to do so again. From this state, you can meditate analytically on the conditions whenever suffering arises — without risking mental proliferation. So if you feel angry, sad, upset, etc, take it as an opportunity to navigate backwards through the suffering and see where it falls apart. This can’t often be done in the moment, but it can be done in your next meditation session.
With scrutiny, in my experience, stories often fall apart around feeling tone or contact, but they sometimes last all the way back to ignorance. In the end, awareness of ignorance trumps everything. I like to go nuts, and aim for dramatic levels of scepticism. If someone not present has really pissed me off, for example, I can navigate all the way back to ignorance and conclude that they may have since died, and then it wouldn’t make sense to be angry at them. Maybe someone stole the phone I received a text from. Or maybe this whole day has been a dream…
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, I can suggest a few sources, all free:
- Leigh Brasington, Dependent Origination and Emptiness: Streams of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting (Leigh Brasington, 2021). Available here.
- Buddhadasa Bhikku, Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination (Vuddhidhamma Fund, 1992). Available here.
- Ajahn Amaro’s Dhamma talks, available here or starting here (there are 9 lectures but they’re a bit hard to link to)
If you’re interested in meditation more generally, I can recommend The Mind Illuminated as a great place to start.
More to come
As a teaser, I also think that practicing dependent origination is important for having insights in other parts of life. I’m working on an argument that a similar commitment to practice, though not specifically this framing, has allowed thinkers like Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche to gain insights into life, evolution, and the self, which are hard to perceive in the same way that the origin of suffering is hard to perceive. These are not precisely the same as the Buddha’s insights, but I think they amount to observations along similar lines.
If you’re interested in that argument, or in keeping up with my work generally, please consider subscribing to my newsletter, where I make infrequent announcements of what I’m up to. If you’d like to support writing like this, which I give freely, you can do so, and also receive frequent updates of everything I’m up to on my Patreon.
I thought it was about multiple lifetimes
Dependent origination is a complicated topic, but it’s also a controversial one. Without getting into the details, there is a divide between some Buddhists who think that dependent origination is about how ignorance leads to suffering across multiple lifetimes. In this interpretation, ignorance in your parents’ generation results in your birth. This seems to come from the fact that the eleventh link is “birth,” which seems hard to explain in a single lifetime. This understanding is very old; it appears to have been pretty standard by the 5th Century AD.
The other side of this argument believes that the Buddha was actually talking about how suffering originates moment-to-moment. That is the view that I have taken in this article. For now, I’m leaving aside the question of whether this fractally relates to multigenerational trauma, and just give you a practical explanation of how to use this procedure to end suffering in your day-to-day life.
To me, this interpretation makes more sense when reading that the Buddha, in discussing the profundity of dependent origination, says that, because “this generation” does not understand dependent origination, it “cannot pass over … the cycle of birth-and-death.” This is an odd thing to say; how could a generation pass over the cycle of birth-and-death? One way of understanding this is that he means cycles of selfhood within a generation. But I may well have misunderstood this!
A tip to weaken stories
As I’ve mentioned, stories are persuasive. One thing I’ve observed in practice is that they’re also often reversible. (An insight also given by Byron Katie; see this worksheet.) So if my story is “She let me down,” then I can do a number of reversals on this:
- She let me down
- She didn’t let me down
- I let her down
- I let myself down
- She let herself down
Some of these may ring just as true as the persuasive story, which can weaken the story and make it easier to investigate. With enough practice, it can become clearer that “there is the feeling of letting down” and “there is another person,” and the rest is a fiction built on top of those blocks. Usually the self arises to “complete” such a story. In other words, pronouns and negations don’t seem to matter as much as they seem to from the naive self-view.
More on meditation
In Buddhism, there are two (mostly overlapping forms) of meditation, which differ in their object. The first is called concentration meditation. The point of this kind of meditation is to focus on an object, whether it’s the breath, a visualization, or a candle doesn’t matter. The trick, at least at first, is to stay observant, and keep bringing attention back to the object. It’s normal for attention to go away. A “rep” is to realize when attention has gone astray, and then bring it back. We should feel good when we realize we’ve lost concentration and bring it back, not bad. It’s like feeling sore after exercise; it’s a good sign that we remembered, not a bad sign that we forgot.
Dependent origination meditation is an analytical form of the second type, which is called insight meditation. In these practices, we take the concentrated mind, and focus it on experience. This is a shift in object, emphasis, and goal. A teacher of mine has compared it to comparing to sailing; we don’t get to control the conditions of the sea, we have to manage the boat regardless of weather. In this comparison, maybe concentration meditation would be like going in the pool: the conditions are more controlled.
Insight meditation can use any object of experience; it could use the breath, but we need to focus on the sensations of the breath as closely as possible. Eventually, we focus on the three characteristics.
The difference between concentration meditation and insight meditation is in the final product. The point of concentration meditation is to reach, explore, and master concentration states. The point of insight meditation is (1) to see clearly, and (2) to end all dissatisfaction.
The task of the first part, “seeing clearly,” is more specifically to see impermanence, not-self, and unsatisfactoriness in all experience. That part will lead to a temporary cessation of self. The task of the second part is to use this technique of ending self-view to interrupt patterns of disturbance as they arise — using dependent origination meditation. First we turn off the stove, then we take it apart.
The illusion of self is not a theoretical proposition, but a statement of experience, from those who possess experience to those who don’t yet possess experience. We could also think of it like a recipe. If we closely follow a recipe to bake a cake, especially with guidance from a baker, it doesn’t really matter if we believe it will work or not. This is not about beliefs; it’s about practice and experience.
It is easier to do dependent origination work we have seen through the illusion of self and can do so reliably, but I hope that an understanding of the technique is useful for anyone.
To do the practice and gain the experience, we need determination, persistence, and humility. So don’t take my word for it. I’m just a person on the internet who read books and meditated. Go out and try it for yourself.
On the decision to translate terms
In this guide I did not use any Pali or Sanskrit terminology, and instead substituted what seemed from my experience to be reasonable translations. This is itself a controversial decision. If you want a version using the Pali terms, please let me know. I may write a second version, using the Pali terms, to see which is more helpful.
In English, the traditional translation of what I’ve called a disturbance is “suffering,” or, more recently, “unsatisfactoriness.” A newer proposal is “a bummer;” or simply that “life sucks”.
A traditional list of what’s at stake may or may not help. It includes birth, ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, grief, despair, association with disliked things, separation from liked things, and not getting what one wants.
- Yes, I know that these are not quite correct, but they are what I first learned about Buddhism. Please keep reading as I try to address the translation “suffering” as well as causes versus necessary conditions in this article.↩
- This was mostly visualizations for bliss states, and noting practice for insight.↩
I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.