ONE OF THE SIMPLEST yet most profound things attributed to the Buddha in the Pali canon is the general statement of interdependent origination:

When there is this, there is that,
When there is not this, there is not that.
When this arises, that arises.
When this ceases, that ceases. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.37)

View 7, Nancy Berlin. 2000, oilstick and graphite on paper 8 x6 inches. © Nancy Berlin, courtesy of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, MARKELFINEARTS.COM
View 7, Nancy Berlin. 2000, oilstick and graphite on paper 8 x6 inches. © Nancy Berlin, courtesy of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, MARKELFINEARTS.COM

First and foremost, this statement expresses the importance of causation for the Buddha, who states very clearly that everything happens in causal, and therefore understandable, patterns. Nothing happens by chance. Nothing happens simply because a deity wills it. A famous short summary of this teaching is a verse that brought the Buddha’s two chief disciples to the dhamma: “Whatever things develop from a cause, the Buddha has declared both their cause and their cessation.” (Mahavagga 1.23)

Moreover, the general statement of causation is a formula that can be applied to almost anything. The demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that” stand for variables. We might just as well say, “When there is X, there is Y.” And this is just what the early texts go on to do. They state the formula with different words taking the place of the variables, yielding chains of related statements. These chains have been misinterpreted by modern readers to be linear causal sequences or “chains of events,” but the whole point of the doctrine is that multiple factors co-arise in each moment while mutually conditioning one another. The Pali term for this doctrine, paticca-samuppada, can be understood as referring to phenomena arising together (samuppada) while depending on one another (paticca,literally, “going back toward”). One image used in the text is of sheaths of reeds leaning against each other in a pile — every one depends upon or is conditioned by the others.

No doubt such a universal formula for understanding relationships can be applied to almost any field of inquiry including natural systems, social interactions, political dynamics, and historical events. The most important matter for the Buddha, however, was the field of human experience. He put the doctrine of interdependent origination to work to transform his understanding of four major things: mind and body, the self, suffering, and liberation.

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