Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy


In this essay, I will explore how the core Buddhist teaching of dependent-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) is a form of naturalism, meaning that everything arises from natural causes and conditions, including everything in human experience. This naturalism is fundamentally akin to early Greek science, to early Taoism, and to the Norse concept of wyrd, and hence we can characterise dependent-arising as a form of pagan philosophy, understanding the term ‘paganism’ to encompass all kinds of non-theistic religion, not just those traditions traditionally called ‘pagan’. Such a broad characterisation of dependent-arising allows us to appreciate the framework of thought in which the Buddha’s teaching works.

Pagan philosophising arises out of its own cultural context of myth, ritual and speculation. In the background of the Buddha’s teaching is the Vedic religion of India, in which even the gods were subject to cosmic order (ṛta, and later dharma), and sacrificial ritual became the technology for manipulating natural order. In ancient Greek myth, in Homer for instance, even all-powerful Zeus must obey Necessity (ananke), and this conception of a non-divine natural order led to the Greek philosophers’ quest for rational principles.

Philosophy sifts principles from the turbid play of the mind. The core principle of the Buddha’s teaching, called the Dharma (or dhamma), is paṭicca-samuppāda, dependent-arising, which the Buddha expressed in a terse formula:[1]

This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.

This formulation of the Dharma is an entirely abstract formula, awaiting application and content, but already implies two things about the nature of reality:

(i) universal conditionality, that is, that everything arises on conditions, and

(ii) the contingency of the divine, that is, that the gods also arise on conditions.

We see these implications borne out in other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. In Buddhist cosmology, for instance, which seems originally to have taken the form of edifying story rather than seriously-held belief, the periodic evolution and involution of the cosmos is total – nothing is left over. And we find parody of the supreme deity, Brahmā, who believes himself immortal, yet really is deluded, since he too has come into existence as a result of his past actions.[2]

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that ‘Who sees dependent-arising sees the Dharma, and who sees the Dharma sees dependent-arising’.[3] This saying relies on word-play, since the word Dharma means both the nature of reality and the teaching of the Buddha. So someone who ‘sees’, that is, understands, dependent-arising understands the teaching of the Buddha, and who understands the nature of reality understands this formulation of dependent-arising. But this saying also implies another, more philosophical, distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature. This distinction parallels Spinoza’s distinction of two aspects of reality:[4]

(i) natura naturans – ‘nature naturing’, nature as an active principle of order, and

(ii) natura naturata – ‘nature natured’, nature as the effect of natural order.

We might hence understand dependent-arising as a formulation of the principle of order in nature – which is one meaning of Dharma – and we might understand Dharma to also signify the whole world (including the world of experience) of nature or becoming, which is dependently-arisen, arising according to this principle.

Dependent-arising is therefore the formulation of Dharma as the principle of natural order. This formulation encompasses all particular principles of natural order by which the world of nature comes to be. The distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature is abstract, existing only in thought. In reality, there are only dependently-arisen phenomena, arising and passing away in accordance with an immanent principle of order. Hence the Buddhist worldview is a kind of naturalism, since it posits no power or principle beyond nature itself. This is a non-theistic worldview, in the sense that the powers and divinities that may exist are themselves subject to dependent-arising.

Early Greek science was similarly naturalistic in outlook. The first philosophers sought to identify some fundamental principle (arche) which governs the working of nature, rather than seeking supernatural causes. Thales of Miletus, for instance, identified the principle of nature (physis – physical nature) as water,[5] while Heraclitus identified it as fire.[6] Heraclitus also wrote of a principle of order (logos) according to which all of nature comes into being,[7] a conception much like that of Dharma as dependent-arising. Modern science, since the 17th c., is also naturalistic, seeking the laws and principles that govern nature, but in a methodological rather than metaphysical sense. When it gets metaphysical it tends merely to a sterile materialism, but that is another story.

Early Taoism is naturalistic too. Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things have all emerged from tao or ‘the Way’, which is that mysterious creative principle underlying nature.[8] The Tao Te Ching teaches that wisdom means turning inwards and knowing tao.[9] For Heraclitus, too, wisdom consists in coming to true knowledge of ‘how all things are steered through all’.[10] For the Buddha, it is by not understanding paṭicca-samuppāda that ‘people have become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from samsara with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies’.[11] For religious naturalists, much of the difficulty of life is due to our not comprehending the principles of nature to which we are subject, whereas relief and enlightenment arises from insight into them.

Hence we can characterise the Buddha’s teaching as a form of naturalistic or pagan philosophy, as rational reflection on the principles of nature, for the sake of enlightening insight. However, this insight in no way implies a transcendence of nature, for nature is all that there is. It implies instead a turning towards nature, a re-evaluation, and a letting go. What this means and how it is to be done is the stuff of study, reflection and meditation: of philosophy as a way of life. The different traditions of philosophy have, of course, different methods and practices for treading this way. The Buddha’s way (marga) consists in ethics, meditation and wisdom.

If pagan philosophy is not about transcendence, but about understanding the nature of the human condition, then we had better not suppose this can be done simply by rational thought. The Buddha conceptualised the human condition in terms of dependent-arising, but in practice his analyses of the situation, in the formula of the twelve nidānas, merges psychology with cosmology in a way hard to understand. What we seek to understand about life is perhaps more easily comprehended through myth and symbol, for it is only through the engagement of our entire being through the exercise of imagination that we can bring our rational insights to bear on our understanding of the whole.

Dependent-arising implies that human life is a process of becoming, and this becoming has been imagined by later Buddhist tradition as a wheel. The well-known bhavacakra or ‘wheel of becoming’ illustrates the destiny of beings as a result of action (karma) motivated by greed, hate and delusion. Here dependent-arising is represented as operating through time, the future manifestations of beings arising in dependence on past intentional actions. In another development, in the later Avataṃsaka Sūtra, dependent-arising is imagined in spatial terms, as Indra’s net, in which jewels mounted in a net each reflect the image of every other, all phenomena arising in dependence on other phenomena, in an interconnected universe. These symbols, the wheel and the net, illustrate the situation the philosopher seeks to comprehend.

In Greek myth the three Fates (moirae) are said to control the destiny of human beings. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis measures a span; Atropos cuts the thread. The Parcae in Roman mythology have a similar role. In these conceptions, the goddesses represent impersonal yet immanent powers controlling the lives of human beings, according to law-like processes which remain mysterious and ineluctable. In Norse mythology, the three Norns resemble the Fates. But the name of the first and oldest Norn, wyrd (perhaps familiar from the ‘weird sisters’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), takes us into a profounder myth. At the centre of the world is Yggdrasil, the Ash, the tree of life. At the foot of Yggdrasil is the well of wyrd. Flowing into the well is the dew of everything that happens in the world, up among the branches of Yggdrasil; liquid from the well waters the tree of life. To comprehend life means to learn the workings of the well of wyrd. But this wyrd is also imagined as a weaving or spinning, an active force that makes destiny. To learn about wyrd is to learn the weaving and unweaving of our becoming.[12]

This myth brings to my mind the Buddha, sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree in the days immediately after his awakening, when he was contemplating dependent-arising.[13] Taking this as myth and not as history, it means that he saw into the way we human beings weave our own becoming from the thread of intentional actions. He saw too the unweaving that is the hard path out of the suffering of becoming. In his meditation at the foot of the tree of life, he came to know the demon who clutches the wheel of becoming, in the later iconography of Buddhism; which is to say that he came to know the goddess who weaves the interconnected web or net of nature, and learned her secret. This secret, beyond words and concepts, is expressed in different ways by pagan philosophers: as tao, or logos, or Dharma, or wyrd. These conceptions are not the same, and their details vary greatly. Yet they have an underlying structure of meaning. There is an immanent natural order to the universe and human life, which though difficult and mysterious can be discovered and known, and this is what the wise have done, through a process that is both rational and imaginative.

[1] Udāna 1.1–3 etc.

[2] See for instance Brahmajāla Sutta, in Dīgha Nikāya 1, pts D i.17f.

[3] From the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta, in Majjhima Nikāya 28, pts M i.190–1.

[4] Ethics Book 1, Proposition 29, Schol.

[5] Quoted in Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.89.

[6] Fragments 30, 31 and 90. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.198.

[7] Fragment 1. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.187.

[8] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.25.

[9] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.41.

[10] Fragment 27. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.202.

[11] From the Mahānidāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, pts D ii.55.

[12] See Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

[13] Udāna 1.1–3 again.

6 thoughts on “Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy

  1. Hi Dhivan,
    Good to see you blogging interesting things. I think this a very well-written account of naturalism and the ways it links pagan and other traditions to Buddhism – and I thoroughly disagree with it.

    Let me try to just isolate what I’d see as the key point. If you avoid appeals to God or the transcendent and just appeal to “Nature” instead, all you have really done is relabel the psychological function that belief in God and the transcendent were previously associated with. That function is one of a dogmatic appeal to a belief beyond our experience. We can’t experience God as an infinite or perfect being (only finite experiences that we might label ‘God’) and similarly we can’t experience ‘Nature’ which as a whole is infinite, Protean and vague. Appeals to ‘Nature’ as a whole just function as labels by which we can give try to give dogmatic authority to particular interpretations of it.

    Naturalists generally like to emphasise the links between justification from experience and their idea of nature, whether this means the evidence of science, or (as you focus more on here) the archetypal or symbolic importance of the concept of nature. But if you want to avoid this just turning into a substitute for belief in God or other absolutes, I think you need to make the distinction very clear between archetypes and metaphysical beliefs. Far from helping either scientific investigation or our relationship to the environment, I think the appeal to ‘Nature’ hijacks the specfic and turns it into dogmatic abstraction. We can understand conditions much better just by investigating and appreciating conditions in their glorious specificity – we do not need an overarching belief in ‘Nature’, which will just distort that appreciation.
    Best wishes,

    • Well done Dhivan, I enjoyed reading this mini-essay, and feel that a lot more needs to be done in this field. The attempt to embrace Greek philosophy, Norse myth, Spinoza and Buddhism is ambitions to say the least!

      Technically, of course, Buddhism must be “pagan” in the sense that it is outside the ambit of Judaeio-Christian-Islamic belief – which by definition is the meaning of “pagan”. But such a designation says little, for instance, about Brahmanism which would also have to be classified as “pagan”, of which the Buddha was at great pains to differentiate his teaching. Similarly you do not distinguish between what might be called “philosophical paganism” from the popular beliefs of the time, which should more rightly be termed “superstitious paganism” with its tendency toward fatalism – which I see as the very opposite of the Buddhist emphasis on human freedom. Both Heraclitus and Xenophanes were very critical of the popular cult beliefs of their day. In this vein too, total confusion is added by the evangelist St John, when he throws in his three pence worth by equating this ancient pagan idea of the Logos with the Christian God! (Jn. 1.1-9) All this would have to be unpicked in any thorough examination of a parallel of Logos and Dharma.

      Unfortunately Robert’s objection fails, as it contains a massive hidden assumption that the only valid source of knowledge is empirical sense-experience. Accordingly, ideas contribute nothing! Such a view was perhaps plausible in Eighteenth Century Humeian Britain, when scientific ideas as independent forces of production were yet to take off. But such a view is completely unacceptable in today’s world. After all, one cannot directly experience atoms, but it would take a very brave person to argue against the reality of atomic weapons! Simply because infinity is, like wise, beyond the threshold of direct human experience, is no argument against the validity of the concept. No, the only argument here is whether the notion of “nature” as an open-ended infinite totality is coherent and rational. I would argue that it is; and hence accessible through a concept. Whereas the notion of the theistic creator God, I would argue, is incoherent: as it contains as an implicit belief in the subsidiary notion that such a God could exists above, beyond, behind, anterior or posterior to the universe itself, and hence such a notion is only accessible through the fancy of the imagination.

      Perhaps more could be made of the hidden assumptions in Buddhism itself. For instance in Spinoza’s “paganism” the infinity of the universe is explicitly stated, whereas in Buddhism it is just as explicitly denied (Malunkiaputta Sutta). But at least in any practical sense the whole soteriology of Buddhism points to the assumption (cheerfully, but unthinkingly, embraced by practicing Buddhists) that the universe is just going to go on and on.

      But these are really points of departure for future study rather than criticisms of the failings of the essay; and once again my congratulations on your attempt – I hope that we are going to be treated to more installments later on!

  2. Hello Robert, always good to have your clearly-articulated perspective. Let me clarify that, contrary to your approach, I am interested in developing a strategical metaphysical vision, based on my sense that this was exactly the Buddha’s intention in teaching dependent-arising. Nature as a whole might be Protean and vague in our experience, but the conceptual abstraction of dependent-arising is a way to organise experience, and pagan images and myths take the process deeper. By characterising this metaphysics as ‘pagan’ and ‘naturalistic’ I want to contrast it with a metaphysics involving a transcendent God or principle. The nature of reality is thus something we can investigate fully in our own experience. For me the appeal to immanent natural order is not primarily for the sake of scientific investigation or for our relationship to the environment but for the sake of establishing a basic platform of ‘right view’ to orient us in life and thought. This of course is highly compatible with both science and a respect for the natural environment.

    • “The nature of reality is thus something we can investigate fully in our own experience.”

      I’d have to disagree with this. What we investigate in our own experience is the nature of experience. What has reality got to do with it, unless one defines reality in such a way as to remove the “real” from it?

  3. Well, this is certainly a promising start. I enjoyed reading your first essay and thought you made some interesting points regarding naturalistic and pagan philosophy. I think you’ll find an audience for this kind of writing.

    My question relates to this statement: “for it is only through the engagement of our entire being through the exercise of imagination that we can bring our rational insights to bear on our understanding of the whole.”.

    This is simply stated as a fact and not justified. Is it so? Why do you think it is so? Something to explore in further essays? Indeed what is meant by “imagination” in this context? It can easily be associated with “imaginary” for example.

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