First, let’s get an ‘official’ source:
Francisca Fremantle worked with Chogyam Trungpa, a recently-arrived Tibetan lama in England in the 1960’s, and is one of the better translators, so this is a far more understandable treatment then if we went back to the Encyclopedia cited in the Three Marks of Existence Article. I emboldened the part that specifically links back to the Three Marks. Here goes:
“Interdependent origination (Sanskrit, pratityasamutpada) is the law of causality, which the Buddha discovered at his awakening. It revealed to him the whole truth of existence, and in penetrating it he became the Awakened One. What he saw was a total vision of how and why all beings throughout space and time are entangled in samsara for countless lives, as well as his own past lives in his progress toward liberation. This was the extraordinary insight that distinguished his teaching from others, so it is said, “whoever sees interdependent origination sees the dharma, whoever sees the dharma sees the Buddha.” When Assaji, one of the Buddha’s first disciples, was asked by Shariputra about his master’s teaching, his reply was a summary of interdependent origination, which became famous as the fundamental doctrine of buddhadharma:
Whatever things are cause-produced, the Tathagata has told their cause; and what their cessation is, thus the great ascetic teaches.
According to this law, nothing has independent, permanent, or absolute existence. Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections and undergoes a continual process of transformation. Every appearance arises from complex causes and conditions, and in turn combines with others to produce countless effects. By interrupting the causal chain at certain key points, the course of existence can be altered and effects prevented by eliminating their causes.”
There are two aspects in this introduction which we are going to ignore in this Article, namely the notion of Samsara and also ‘interrupting the causal chain at certain key points.’ Not because they are not interesting but because they concern Path matters, i.e. a spiritual method or journey. Here, we are just examining the basic notion of interdependency in a direct contemplative way.
There are nine traditional levels of Buddhist practitioner, the second of which is called a Pratekyabuddha or Rhinoceros type Buddha. A Pratekyabuddha tends to live alone and be a very deep meditator with above average insight, so not only has he or she tamed whatever needs to be tamed and able to sustain long periods of quiescence in body and mind but also in so doing they have activated the faculty of vipashana, sometimes translated as ‘insight meditation.’ Watching the endless parade of thoughts and feelings hour after hour, year after year one begins to observe various patterns, styles and qualities rather than being vortexed into any particular content and in so doing develops awareness of what is underneath it all, true penetrating insight into the nature of experiential reality which is the dawning of ultimate wakefulness. The word ‘Buddha’ simply means ‘he who is awake’ though the inference here is that of being spiritually awake not just awake as opposed to asleep in bed as in mundane usage.
It is said about Pratekyabuddhas that they can examine anything and deduce its entire history of causes and conditions, the classic example being that of a bone. So let us take a bone, say a simple femur from a cow carcass that we encounter on a walk through a country field. Let us consider the concomitant causes and conditions that led to this bone being here today in front of us.
At first glance, it’s just an ordinary old bleached bone fragment. But let’s take a closer look into what causes and conditions are right now going into our being able to see this bone. We can also speculate about some previous causes and conditions that went into it having been created some time in the past, though as the Dream Time article has suggested, notions like past, present and future aren’t all they are cracked up to be, helpful as they are in our narrative-based ways of navigating the terrain of ordinary ‘reality.’
Let’s just make a list in no particular order rather than any sort of narrative or argument, a list of all the things that are part of the bone being there in front of us, things without which this event, and this bone, could not exist. It’s actually very simple but rarely do we pause long enough, Pratekyabuddha style, to reflect on all that goes into any single given event or phenomenon. Take a good look at the picture again and now consider:
Earth Plants Soil Bacteria making soil Air Planet Water Sky Earth’s magnetic core rotating around Sun The sun Blades of grass A cow Many generations of cows before her Calcium Minerals Blood Genes Space with galaxies Sentient intelligence Desire of Bulls to mate with cows Complex living organisms Rocks Sunshine Moonlight Cows chewing grasses Cows with five stomachs Entire web of living creatures Man making field on which cow lived and ate Days and years in which bone separated from original carcass and became bleached The country in which this property is determined The millions of people in this country that came before The millions of plants, insects, microbes, days and nights which together created the situation we find ourselves in right now today Myself witnessing this bone My conception, birth, aging up to this present moment The position of the sun right now after millenia of constant motion The infinite causes and conditions involved in each particular blade of grass next to this bone The infinite microbes in the soil busy microbing right now and part of the continual journey of this bone into ultimate dissolving into nothingness one day in the future My eyes All my sense faculties All my organs All my human ancestors All other living creatures And so on and so on ad infinitum.
In this way we can reflect on all the components simultaneously present for any given event or experience to be arising right now. In each case, the number of simultaneous causes essentially is infinite. Not only infinite but in a state of constant flux if for no other reason than the planet is continuously moving so nothing is ever in exactly the same place with the same conditions twice. Ever. Each moment and situation is brand new and different just like each moment the river is different from the moment before. And of course there are no such ‘moments’ really only continuous change involving infinite numbers of ‘codependently’ arising causes and conditions.
Because the number of contributory causes is infinite so also is it impossible to posit any particular thing as having any solid, permanent or truly independent existence. We are all part of a matrix including infinite particularities. In this way the One is many and the many are One, just like all waves on the ocean are unique and ever-changing but equally all are just part of the one ocean. So it is not true to say that they have an independent existence but also it is not true to say that they don’t have particular qualities. So the One has many particularities.
In any case, it’s helpful every once in a while to look around you and consider how much went into it all. I find this especially fun indoors. You can take almost any object or situation and consider where all the materials came from, what was involved in bringing them together, the mining, processing, transportation, work, inherited skills over generations, bringing different elements together and so forth to create things we often take for granted like tables, chairs, walls, refrigerators, propane gas, electricity and smaller things like knives, forks and spoons.
You can do this with a story or literature: all the interdependent associations from past and present that any given word, sentence or speech involves. Shakespeare distills thousands of years of constant post-flood human culture into each and every one of his plays, as do all authors (albeit some better than others!). And you can do it with any thought or experience as well for that matter – with anything.
This sort of contemplation is what is taken for granted in the original definition at the beginning of this Article though most readers will not pick up on it because the authors fail to spell it out clearly – as is so often the case with these traditional presentations. But it’s there in the language if you look; again:
“Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections and undergoes a continual process of transformation. Every appearance arises from complex causes and conditions, and in turn combines with others to produce countless effects.”
Indeed, hopefully this slightly playful treatment has ‘opened up’ the original text a little. It’s something I like to do to bring these traditional teachings, or insights, into the light of contemporary day. This is usually called ‘commentary’ but I also think of it as translating from one cultural context and time period into another one – our own.
Be that as it may, the infinitely beyond-number swirl of co-dependent originating causes and conditions resembles the infinitely swirling galaxies beyond number each with stars beyond number each with particularities beyond number and on our planet with beings beyond number each with microbiomes and other microbial and subatomic processes beyond number and so on ad infinitum.
We do not exist as independent entities. And yet we do have particular qualities and experiences.
The reason pratekya Buddhas tend to avoid people and spend long hours seemingly doing very little is because they are contemplating the nature of reality 24/7 and paying attention to what is going down around them – which every second of every day is really quite a lot!
Finally, a poet’s playful rendering of some of this material:
Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum
1733 Swift Poems II