Dependent origination, writes Leigh Brasington in Dependent Origination and Emptiness, was the Buddha’s best attempt to describe what happened on the night of his enlightenment. But the great teacher’s list of twelve links, which the British scholar Caroline Rhys Davids called a “mysterious old rune,” can be confounding, to say the least.
Dependent origination is so much richer than a linear list that needs to be memorized, says Brasington, especially when you can grasp the holographic nature of everything in the universe happening based on everything else happening.
Brasington, a retired computer programmer, began meditating in 1985 and was a senior student of the Theravada teacher Ven. Ayya Khema (1923–1997). He regularly teaches retreats on the jhanas, dependent origination, and insight meditation, and is the author of Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas. His latest work, Dependent Origination and Emptiness, was self-published in 2021 and is available free to download from Brasington’s website (with dana accepted). Below, he speaks with Tricycle about some of the book’s main takeaways.
The book can be very in-depth at times, especially when you’re talking about specific suttas. Can you tell me who your audience is? My target audience was my students while I was writing it, but I think anyone who wants to know more about dependent origination other than “It’s a confusing list of twelve items” will find helpful information in this book.
Examining dependent origination is the richest vein I’ve mined in all of Buddhism. I mean, there are lots of other wonderful topics. But within the first five years of my practice, dependent origination seemed to be the most interesting, the one that had the most depth to it, and the more I explored it, the more interesting I found it to be.
The book was also written to get my thoughts organized in a better way, because every residential or long-term Zoom retreat I’ve taught has had at least one talk on dependent origination—sometimes in the course of the retreat period maybe two or three talks. And if I’m teaching, that’s something I want to share. So it’s also written for people who are interested in a more advanced approach to Buddhism than just the basics, for people who have a little bit of background and want to take it to a deeper level.
“The dukkha arises because you want the world to be different than it is.”
Can you give me your elevator pitch for dependent origination? Dependent origination is the primary teaching that the Buddha gave on how the world works, and in particular how it works in relationship to the arising of dukkha, suffering. In general terms: This arises dependent on that. If that doesn’t happen, this doesn’t happen. It’s this-that conditionality. Dependent origination doctrine gets elaborated quite a bit beyond that, with the most famous elaboration being the twelve links of dependent origination. But the twelve links are an example, not the doctrine: the doctrine is about how things arise dependent on other things.
The Buddha’s quest was: How can I deal with dukkha? He very brilliantly didn’t try to figure out why there is dukkha; what he looked for was the necessary condition for the arising of dukkha. And he found one: craving. And so if it’s a necessary condition, and you can turn it off, then the downstream thing doesn’t happen. So if you don’t want dukkha to happen, turn off the craving.
But I want to emphasize that it’s not so much about cause as conditions—craving doesn’t cause dukkha, even though it’s a necessary condition for the arising of dukkha. If someone you love is dying, it’s not your craving that they do not die that causes the dukkha. The dukkha arises because you want the world to be different than it is. And craving causes your mind to be in a state that’s not in harmony with the way reality is.
You write that the order of the links can be reversed. Can you clarify? The most important thing to do for any decent understanding of dependent origination is to read the twelve links in the reverse order. Dukkha arising is dependent on being born. If you don’t get born, you don’t experience dukkha. If you work that way, you don’t fall into the mistake of trying to see causality, and by working in the reverse you’re more likely to look at conditionality.
You caution readers a few times throughout the book against confusing Buddhism with metaphysics, which makes me think people must do this a lot. Most spiritual traditions are very metaphysically based, explaining how the world is: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. There’s all sorts of stuff like that. And when people come to a spiritual tradition, they’re expecting metaphysical explanations. But the Buddha wasn’t doing metaphysics; he was a phenomenologist. And basically, what he was saying was, Pay attention to the phenomena you’re experiencing, and in particular how you’re reacting to the phenomena that you’re experiencing. It’s a different orientation.
I think a lot of people come in looking for metaphysical answers rather than for the end of dukkha. I mean, they definitely like the end of dukkha!
From a practitioner’s standpoint, that sounds like a big relief. You don’t have to figure out why things are the way they are. It takes a little bit of the pressure off. Yes. It narrows the scope of what we need to focus on if we really want to deal with dukkha. What we need to focus on are our reactions to our sensory input, as opposed to understanding why the universe is like it is.
Old age, sickness, and death. Those are big problems. If you ask somebody for a short definition of what dukkha is they might point to the five daily recollections [old age, sickness, death, being separated from everything one holds dear, and responsibility for one’s actions]. But a lot of what drives our lives as well is the minor irritations. And we need to realize, “Oh, yeah, that’s also dukkha.” Everything that goes wrong in life has the same necessary conditions that we can work with, and it’s probably much easier to work with the simple things than the really big things. If someone you love is dying, it’s going to be really hard to jump in and start working with your craving that they not die. But if you practice with the twelve links along the way, you can have acceptance of the fact that this person has died and not experience mental anguish to the same degree. If you can manage to get the day-to-day irritations to be less irritating, you’ll be left with much better bandwidth for dealing with them and dealing with the bigger ones when they come along.
So we are sweating the small stuff, but we can work on it. You don’t have to sweat it; you just have to deal with it. The Buddha says when there’s dukkha, name it: it’s arising dependent on craving. Now, can you find the craving? Usually we can: we don’t want it to be like it is. Then comes a really tricky one: Can we drop the craving? And sometimes you can, but sometimes you absolutely can’t because it’s too big.
You write in the book about having an insight about dependent origination while eating lettuce. Buddhist teacher Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel has a teaching on dependent origination that quotes the astronomer Carl Sagan, who said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the entire universe.” Is there something particularly about the food environment that lends itself to explaining dependent origination, or is this just a coincidence? I think eating is a rich environment for learning a lot of things. The lettuce actually comes from an insight I had on a retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, I think in 1994. It was a gorgeous day in Northern California, and I went outside to eat my lunch. In my mind—not visually—I could see that I’m eating this lettuce because some poor guy was sweating in the heat to pick it. And the lettuce got put on a truck and eventually got to the store, and somebody bought it and somebody chopped it up. And there it was for me to put in my salad. So I saw the dependently originated nature of the lettuce right there. And I saw the interdependent nature of me and the farmworkers; that was the most profound part. When you can examine what you’re eating and realize all that it took to get that food in front of you, whether it’s an apple pie or a salad or anything else, you start seeing that we’re not independent; we’re vastly dependent on hundreds of millions of other people—unless you’re living off the grid and growing all your own food.
And how does a realization like this chip away at the idea of ourselves? There’s a quote from Nagarjuna:
You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them—
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.
—Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime, trans. Stephen Batchelor
I am not the same as all these conditions that I depend on: the lettuce, electricity, a house. But I’m not different from any of that either; it’s all this stuff coming together that makes me who I am. This leads to the subtitle of the book, Stream of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting. And at this point where the interacting takes place, I use the name “me,” “myself”—it’s just a designation for a bunch of streams that are interacting at this point. This point of interaction has produced what we could call an entity. And it’s being mistaken for something more than it is, because we’re aware of the locus of all these interactions, because we have a sensing mechanism that senses itself.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every living creature. But our own self-view is perhaps a little bit out of whack, especially in Western culture, and especially in the United States. The other thing to remember about the intersection is that it’s not the end, because every action I do, whether it’s writing a book or buying lettuce in the store, is made up of more streams of dependently arising processes going out there to interact with others to make themselves whatever they become.