Wednesday March 15, 2006
The last couple of days I have been under the weather; and although this has been frustrating, it has also afforded the opportunity to reflect upon some questions that have been preoccupying me for some time. In particular, it has given me the opportunity to spend some time thinking about pratitya samutpada, which might be called the central teaching of Buddhism. Pratitya-samutpada is alternatively translated as conditionality, dependent origination, dependent co-arising, and so on. And although the language seems rather technical, at the outset, the idea of conditionality appears to be pretty straightforward. It accords with our experience. It doesn’t take a leap of faith or of imagination to understand it.
With this as condition (a),
That arises. (b)
With this NOT as condition (~a),
That does NOT arise (~b)
Where the little symbol ”~” means a logical NOT. We can readily find an application in our experience for this seemingly innocuous form of argument.
If you have enough money (a)
You will be permitted on the bus (b)
If you do NOT have enough money (~a)
You will NOT be permitted on the bus (~b)
That Buddhism is rooted in claims not about God or gods, nor in claims about supernatural realms, but merely in claims about the nature of conditionality, gives weight, I think, to those who would argue that to seek to understand Buddhism in the way that we understand “faiths” or “religions” might be a mistaken enterprise. At first, this idea of conditionality seems a rather simple matter. Indeed, Ananda, the Buddha’s disciple and cousin, apparently once suggested this to the Buddha, and the Buddha reprimanded him saying that, on the contrary, it was a deep and difficult doctrine to fathom. Why might this be?
A little reflection upon the case above shows that things are a little more complex than we might first have thought. For example, there may be a number of conditions that give rise to a particular event. And a little more reflection will show that there simply must be a large number of conditions that give rise to any particular event or arising. So it is not so much a case of:
a → b
and more a case of:
a 1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 … + a n → b
Here we come up against another question: now many conditions are sufficient to give rise to any particular event: what value for n will give us a complete set of conditions? To return to our example above: being permitted upon the bus does not only depend upon having sufficient money, but also on, for example: the bus being a passenger vehicle; waiting at an appropriate place for the bus to stop; the passenger wearing clothes (your average bus will refuse entry to naked passengers…); the bus driver being in a good mood (in Birmingham, if they are not in a good mood, they don’t stop)… and the list could go on. We could ask, in turn, what are the conditions that lead to the arising of a good-tempered bus driver, or to having sufficient money, or to being suitably clad, or to knowing where the bus stop is? And what are the conditions that lead to these conditions? We could go on for ever, tracing the thread of this endless web of conditions, this Indra’s net.
So it seems that only n = ∞ will give us a complete set of conditions for any particular arising. No wonder that the Buddha claimed, in response to Ananda, that this was a deep and profound matter: we will never know the complete set of conditions that gives rise to anything at all. And it goes deeper still than this: if everything arises in dependence upon conditions, and the conditions that give rise to any particular thing are themselves particular, then no two arisings can be exactly the same. We know this in experience: this bus journey is not the same as that bus journey, this cake is not the same as that cake; the book that we thought was unreadable last year we find engrossing this year, the “me” who woke up this morning is different from the “me” who woke up yesterday. A true understanding of conditionality leads to a recognition that ultimately no event or arising is the same as any other event or arising.
As the conditions giving rise to any particular thing are infinite, in everyday practical terms we must exclude all kinds of conditions from our thinking. We know that most of the time we can rely on a fairly small set of conditions to get a good cake: a hot oven, a good recipe, nice fresh ingredients, and sufficient care in the cooking. But occasionally the other conditions – which are always there – intrude upon our cosy world, and we find our cake is burned (perhaps a friend calls in distress half way through the cooking and we forget the cake), or that it does not rise (we find that what was advertised as self-raising flour was, in fact, mislabelled plain flour), or that we do not get the chance to eat our cake (the dog gets it first). Then we feel aggrieved and upset. Indeed, it is in part precisely because we don’t fully appreciate conditionality – and hence the fragility of our current state – that we risk suffering so much anguish and frustration in the world. We may not be able to fully know the depth of conditionality, in fact it is almost certain that we could not fully know conditionality in all its depth; but we can certainly know that conditionality is deep. This may be the force of the Buddha’s response to Ananda: if we think we have penetrated conditionality, that we can know the conditions in play, then we are risking anguish and disappointment; it is only when we admit that we don’t know, and open ourselves to the fragile spiderweb nature of things that we can find a way to forestall such anguish and disappointment.
This leads us to the matter of the most famous application of this principle of conditionality: the four noble truths.
The four noble truths are often set out along the following lines:
Dukkha: There is suffering/discontent/dissatisfaction (b)
Samudaya: There is a cause of dukkha, which is attachment or desire ( tanha ) (a)
Nirodha: There is a cessation of dukkha. (~b)
Magga: There is a path that leads to this cessation (~a)
So we begin in experience: there is discontent, the world is troubled and troubling. Then we see that this must arise in dependence upon conditions. We identify a condition: tanha, or attachment. Then we see that, being conditioned, there must an end to this discontent. The fourth truth sets out a way of living that prevents the arising of discontent, that way being the noble eightfold path.
But the translation “four noble truths” and the usual interpretation of these truths as claims about existence, whilst perhaps of some value, nevertheless seems to me to be often a pretty blunt instrument for understanding our lives. When seen as claims about existence in general, the truths become abstractions – suffering, attachment, cessation, path. But the sore throat from which I am currently suffering is anything but an abstraction. Similarly it seems as if we have somehow, in considering these four things as “truths” lost the subtlety of the understanding of conditionality in which conditions are profoundly deep. Is there another way of thinking about them?
As it happens, there is; and it comes from the Tibetan traditions. In Tibet, it is customary to think not of the “Four Noble Truths” but of “four truths of the superiors”, and to see the formulation not as a setting out of abstract principles about existence, but rather as a way of classifying experiences. And here – according to Joe Wilson’s excellent Translating Buddhism from Tibetan – “truth” applies to phenomena that are seen to exist. This may seem a bit esoteric, but really it is simple. It is a way of dividing up our experience. Instead of applying to the world in the abstract, we are looking at our experience, and there we see that there are
phenomena seen to exist that are unsatisfactory (b)
phenomena seen to exist that are sources of this unsatisfactoriness (a)
phenomena seen to exist that are the cessation of this unsatisfactoriness (~b)
phenomena seen to exist that are paths to this cessation (~a)
Intead of a claim about the world, this becomes a way of looking into the heart of our experience. Which of the phenomena appearing just now are sources of suffering and misery? Which are paths that might lead me out of this misery? Which are miserable? Which are free from suffering? This view of the noble truths recognises that sufferings, paths, causes and cessations are themselves multiple and can even co-exist. This suffering is not the same as that suffering, this path not the same as that path, this cessation not the same as that cessation, this cause not the same as that cause. It is the work of practice to distinguish between all of these, with attentiveness and care, and to move accordingly.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Can Yogis Fly?: Monday August 1, 2005
Can yogis fly? And how are we to deal with accounts from Buddhist biographies of the past that detail ‘miraculous’ events.
On Holy Books: Thursday October 12, 2006
Richard Dawkins on ethics and religious texts.
Philosophy and Practice: Saturday January 26, 2008
Stoicism, Foucault and philosophy as a practical pursuit.
Out of sight of land: Sunday August 8, 2010
Does travel broaden the mind?
Turning off the Lights: Friday October 6, 2006
The sad loss of the night sky…
Nothing but...?: Sunday October 22, 2006
The world is enough…
Buddhist Soldiers?: Wednesday October 19, 2005
The MoD has just appointed an army chaplain? But should Buddhists be involved in the business of warfare?
Oi! Are You Looking at My Triangle?: Tuesday March 6, 2007
Attachment to triangles.
Dragons and Levitating Monks: Tuesday October 21, 2008
On the elusiveness of the miraculous.
Fixing It.: Thursday November 3, 2005
The world is beyond fixing, and perfection forever out of reach. Why should such a thought be liberating?
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.