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Interdependent Arising: Meanings for Buddhism and for the Individual

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This is an essay for one of my uni subjects. It fits the theme of the writings on this site. The prompt was to explain the Buddhist concept that ‘you are nothing more than a collection of ever-changing parts’, its validity and its problems

The Buddhist idea that you are nothing more than a collection of ever-changing parts is difficult to disprove. The idea reveals a fundamental property of existence, however, the conclusions reached about its implications for the actual living of life conflict even within Buddhism itself. I will argue that the most intelligent objection to the idea is not based on its validity per se but on its potentially destructive effect upon the development of the mature individual when too narrowly considered. However, the deepest conceptions of Buddhist ideas are so numinous and life-affirming that even these objections are revealed as probably misinterpretations.

The idea of interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada) is a central teaching of Buddhism. Briefly stated, it is the idea that “human life is a continuous process of change, rising and falling through interdependence with numerous other processes” (Koller, 153). All that we see around us is conditioned by interconnected and fluctuating processes; nothing is either permanent or separate (Koller, 157). Ignorance of this leads to duhkha, the dissatisfaction, suffering and anguish of life. By considering anything in life as permanent and separate, one generates trishna, futile desires and attachments to people, things and ideas that are ultimately devoid of any absolute reality. The idea of the self which most people consider largely continuous and unchanging is also a fiction. The person is only an aggregate of mental and bodily processes, of sensation, perception, volition, consciousness and physicality (Koller, 157). Pursuit of self leads to futile suffering and ultimately death, rebirth and the continuance of this vain struggle in future lives. The Buddhist aim is to extinguish trishna by experiencing the reality of interdependent arising thereby reaching the state of nirvana (literally, ‘extinguished’).

Firstly, interdependent arising is not a difficult idea to marry with modern science. Our bodies are impermanent (we die) and made entirely of foreign elements; the living organism is supported solely by fresh supplies of water, oxygen and food. The impermanent nature of reality is well supported by modern scientific understandings of matter as dynamic and active (Jinpa, 873). The concepts of the relativity of space and of quantum mechanics (Yong, 53) marry with the Buddhist rejection of absolute notions of time, matter and consciousness (Jinpa, 873). And no matter how much we may delve into the complexities of neuroscience, the discovery of a verifiable (not to mention separate) ‘self’ is not likely.

And yet how we react to and emphasize the reality of impermanence makes a world of difference both in terms of how we experience life and of how we view Buddhist ideals. For instance, as per Joseph Campbell: “It is extremely difficult for an Occidental mind to realize how deep the impersonality of the Oriental lies” (276).[1] The concept of no-self could not be more averse to the view of the Western individual; as Susan E. Donner states: “the self [in the West] is… treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics” (217).

It is tempting to see this individualistic view as deluded, a reflection of the ‘materialistic’ West, yet it may be more sophisticated that the Buddhist view in some respects. The idea of the id in the psychology of Freud and Jung – the selfish ‘pleasure principle’ constantly demanding, ‘I want it!’ – is an exact match for the Buddhist concept of trishna. Yet in Western thinking, the selfish id motivations are to be sublimated under the rational guidance of the ego, which is the centre of the mature personality. In Buddhist thinking, we are to give up ego altogether, but what is meant by ego in Buddhism is actually what is meant by just the id in Western thought. In other words, the Buddhist system does not acknowledge the possibility of a balanced, rational human ego at all – the individual psyche is either deluded (in the grip of the id) or it has been dissolved away into the impersonal bliss of nirvana (Campbell, 14-15).

Thus, the primary objection to Buddhist interdependent arising is that, while it is apparently true, it is too narrow-sighted by itself and not conducive to the maturation of a personality. This personality provides the impetus for development in society, in the arts, in technology; for adventure and achievement within the world, and for the formation of moral values. Without social institutions advocating expressly human ethical values, there are few means of protesting on the socio-political level – hence the weak resistance to inhuman acts of violence such as those perpetrated by the “maniac” Chinese despot Wuzung (Campbell, 452) or by the Chinese Communists when invading peaceful Buddhist Tibet (Campbell, 505-516). Similarly, P. T. Raju argues against the Buddhism tendency toward asceticism and the resulting collapse of society, the huge ascetic population no longer favouring work or defence (269-270).

Even if an idea, such as interdependent arising, is apparently true, its value is reflected in its position within the entire framework of conception. The Therevada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions provide a good example of differing frameworks. Interdependent arising suggests the apparent solidity of life is an illusion. The Therevada conclusion: reject the world, purge oneself of illusion, board the ferryboat built solely for the mendicant life (hence the derisive designation ‘small ferryboat’ (hinayana) by the Mahayana) and struggle toward the yonder shore of nirvana (Campbell, 279). But, the Mahayana Buddhist asks: where do you think you are going? If the world and the self is really ‘empty’ then from where are you voyaging to reach which yonder shore? The universe itself is a ‘great ferryboat’ (mahayana) going absolutely nowhere, since we all are already ‘empty’. There is no need to retire to the woods, nirvana is everywhere; it is a state of mind that but needs realisation (Campbell, 280).

Both schools use the same terminology but reach two different conclusions from the original idea of interdependent arising. I would argue that the Mahayana conception is the deeper and more complex reading as it recognises the psychological and experiential nature of nirvana. After all, the experience of enlightenment is repeatedly emphasized by the Buddha (Dwivedi, 206). I would argue that this idea of nirvana as pure experience comes closest to the spiritual truth of interdependent arising and coincidentally it is also the most conducive to Western thinking – since the vital experience is non-dual, nirvana can be achieved just as well through the performance as through the cessation of acts.

Therefore the Buddhist conception of the Western individual as the ‘little self’ – “an arbitrary, somewhat idiosyncratic aggregate of processes that come and go” (Donner, 222) – is to my mind an error of judgement. Individual attachment versus collective extinction is just another pair of opposites that the experience of nirvana should go beyond. Like the Bodhisattva, we should realise the truth of interdependent arising, that nothing is really there, but then venture back into the world of exciting illusions to play the game while still experiencing this truth inside. The criticism of individualism is, I suspect, based on the assumption that the Western individual is not experiencing the blissful joy of the non-dual experience. Indeed, with the post-modern conception of the self as merely “a cultural construction subjectively experienced… overstimulated and bombarded [with] shifting values” (Donner, 225), it is indeed difficult to achieve. But this does not mean a spiritual centring is impossible, in fact the post-modern deconstruction of the self “offers a great deal in disarming the destructive force of uncontemplated power dynamics” (Donner, 226) which, it could be said, is the aim of the Buddhist ideal too.

The modern Western concept of interdependent arising rests within a different, more challenging framework than the Buddhist idea – the Western aim is not to reject but to solidify ego, to nurture and refine a balanced, mature, yet unique self that can sublimate the sometimes destructive urges of the id and convert the impersonal maelstrom of a fluctuating ‘interdependent reality’ into numinous personal meaning. The Western idea of ego is as a unique arbiter between challenging inner and outer processes; the apparent emotional instability of ‘capitalist’ daily life may properly reflect an unrealised, often dangerous yet humbling, nearness to the numinous (nirvana).

Word count: 1,350 (including citations).

Works Cited:

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1962.

Donner, Susan E. “Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context.” Smith College Studies in Social Work. 80 (2010): 215-27.

Dwivedi, Kedar Nath. “An Eastern Perspective on Change.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 11 (2006): 205-12

Jinpa, Thupten. “Buddhism and Science: How Far Can the Dialogue Proceed?” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science. 45 (2010): 871-82.

Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Raju, P. T. “The Concept of Man in Indian Thought.” Concept of Man. Ed. S. Radhakrishnan and P. T. Raju. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960. 158-206.

Yong, Amos. “Mind and Life, Religion and Science: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Buddhism-Christianity-Science Trialogue.” Buddhist-Christian Studies. 28 (2008): 43-63.

[1] As my assessor remarked, the use of the word “Oriental” is dated but Campbell does not use the word in the pejorative, exoticist, repressive Western-empirical sense. One could substitute “Asian” as per modern scholarship. Indeed, the subject-recommended Koller text, “Asian Philosophies”, has a note inside its cover stating that the earlier editions of the book were similarly entitled, “Oriental Philosophies.”


Written by tomtomrant

5 November 2011 at 10:08 am