Dependent-Arising and Interconnectedness

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In my book This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality,[1] I make a connection between the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising, paṭicca-samuppāda, and what I claim to be the Buddha’s vision of reality as an interconnected whole. In my book I also invoke the name of Joanna Macy as someone who has written of paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of ‘interdependence’ and ‘mutual co-arising’.[2] Some Buddhist friends, however, have let me know that they do not believe that the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality can be rightly articulated in terms of interconnectedness and mutual arising, and they disapprove of Macy’s approach. In this essay I want to explain why I disagree.

However, I am not claiming that the Buddha taught interconnectedness. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is not recorded as saying anything at all about interconnectedness, nor much about the world of nature, because his emphasis is so overwhelmingly pragmatic and spiritual. Nevertheless, I think Joanna Macy’s discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising as implying ‘mutual arising’ and ‘interdependence’ is very useful for modern westerners. If we have had a scientific education, we might have unconsciously internalised a mechanistic view of how everything works. Talk of ‘causation’ and ‘cause and effect’ are likely to produce in our minds the idea of linear causal mechanisms, like billiard balls causing movement in other billiard balls. This conception of causality is culturally conditioned, being the result of the European scientific revolution. The idea of conditionality working in a much more complex, interconnected way suggests a more holistic and organic conception of causality in terms of complex non-linear causal processes. Such thinking is closer to the Buddha’s pre-scientific mode of thought. It certainly brings us closer to the workings of nature, and perhaps of reality too.

Beyond the idea of interdependence as a way of characterising causality, I believe that that the vision of reality as an interconnected whole is a particularly important implication of the teaching of dependent-arising. I would agree with anyone who says that the Buddha did not teach interconnectedness in that sense, but I do not think interconnectedness is at odds with the Dharma.

It seems to me that the emphasis (in the discourses that have come down to us in the Pāli canon) is on the implications of dependent-arising for existence through time, rather than for connectedness across space. That is to say, dependent-arising is generally expressed in the Pāli canon in terms of temporal relationships, and has the implication that all dependently-arisen things, just because they are dependently-arisen, are impermanent. They arise, they remain for a certain time, and then they pass away. Nothing is permanent, all is change. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all process, without fixed self (anattā).

The temporal implications of dependent-arising became the paradigm for the arising of insight, which is the goal of Buddhist practice. We see this in the story of the conversions of Sāriputta and his friend Mogallāna, who were to become the Buddha’s chief disciples. Sāriputta became a follower of the Buddha having heard a formulation of dependent-arising from a disciple of the Buddha called Assaji. Having been asked by Sāriputta for the essence of the Dharma, Assaji tells him:

‘Those things conditionally arisen – the Realized One has told their cause,
and the ceasing of them too; this is the great renouncer’s teaching.’[3]

Then – and this is the important point here – ‘Hearing this formulation of the Dharma, the spotless, stainless vision of Dharma arose in Sāriputta the wanderer, that whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease.’ We read this quite often in the Pāli canon. Someone hears the Dharma, and then they have a vision of the temporal instability of phenomena, and this is a vision of reality which is the beginning of the path of transformation and awakening.

My suggestion is that modern western Buddhists are, generally speaking, less fixated on the possibility of temporal stability, that is, on the possibility of immortality or the attainment of eternity, and more concerned about our identities in relation to a world of people and things. This means that we might experience our ignorance and our clinging more in terms of representations of spatial relationships then in terms of temporal durations. We might be more anxious what we have than how long we will have it. The teaching of dependent-arising, as well as implying that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease’, will also imply that people and things all depend on other people and things. In such a network of conditions, where can we find a reliable identity, and what might it be it by itself? Hearing the Dharma, one might have a vision of the interconnectness of all phenomena, and it might be this vision of reality which for us is the beginning of the path of transformation.

With this in mind, here are ‘Four Theses on Interconnectedness’. I should say that I am using the term ‘interconnectedness’ here to mean paṭicca-samuppāda, and you could equally use the terms ‘interdependence’, ‘mutual co-arising’ or conditionality.

  1. Reality (or nature) is an interconnected whole.
  2. Reality (or nature) is patterned by many kinds of laws.
  3. Particular things are connected to other particular things.
  4. Interconnected things do not exist independently.

These four theses constitute a metaphysical worldview that is a platform for Buddhist insight practice. They are logically independent but are themselves interconnected as to what they mean. The fourth thesis is a way of putting Nāgārjuna’s conception of śūnyatā, or emptiness, which states that all dharmas are without svabhāva or own-being.[4] Nāgārjuna himself believed that his conception of emptiness was a restatement of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way between existence and non-existence, especially as found in the Kaccāyana Sutta.[5] The third thesis is another way of putting the general formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda, (‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises,’ and so on) and warns us against understanding interconnectedness as some vague all-is-one kind of view. The second thesis, as well as being the basic assumption of the scientific worldview, is a paraphrase of the Buddha’s definition of paṭicca-samuppāda as ‘this stability of reality, this fixed course of things (dharma-niyāmatā)’.[6] The first thesis, that nature (or reality) is an interconnected whole, is not an explicit part of the traditional Buddhist world-view, but would appear to be implied by it.

Things are interconnected, they do not exist in themselves. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all network, without fixed self (anattā).


[1] Published by Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2011, especially in ch.8.

[2] In Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1991, and also in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, Rider: London, 1993, part 2.

[3] Vinaya-piṭaka i.40. A full translation of this incident is in my book on pp.36–8.

[4] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.1.

[5] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.15. The Kaccāyana Sutta is in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:15.

[6] Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:20.

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9 thoughts on “Dependent-Arising and Interconnectedness

  1. Hi Dhivan,

    I basically agree with the proposition that it can be useful to see things as interconnected. Our actions have consequences for the planet as well as for each other and ourself. And we are suffering a great deal from ignoring the consequences. This would appear to be another case of “the need for doctrine”.

    I’m not sure I agree that a scientific education leads to mechanistic thinking. What is meant by “a scientific education” anyway – to what level and in what science? The billiard ball example sounds like something from high-school science. Most of the breakthroughs of the 20th century pointed away from simple cause and effect, and towards complexity and indeterminacy. Einstein, for instance, introduced the idea that time is relative in 1905. The idea that what one experiences is relative to one’s frame of reference dates from then. Then once quantum mechanics began to take off cause and effect was never simple again – the “observer effect” is central to the critique of objectivity. So to lay mechanistic thinking at the door of a (modern) scientific education seems unfair.

    That said the point about us being more concerned with spatial rather than temporal matters is intriguing. It rings true. And it works well as a justification for the innovation of interconnectedness. Although interconnectedness seems to have been a medieval Indian innovation – your assertion begs the question of what changed in India to bring about this change in emphasis from temporal to spatial? What doctrinal need was being served back then. The question is all the more interesting since it involves assimilating what seem to me to be Brahmanical ideas – with the prime symbol of interconnectedness being the Indrajala or ‘net of Indra’.

  2. Pingback: Interconnected Consciousness (Omniverse Part 3) | Something More

  3. Hey Dhivan, great piece. I have been struggling with understanding how interconnectedness fits with what the Buddha taught ever since I began to understand the shape of dependent arising. It seemed to me the Buddha was denying the interconnectedness suggested by the Vedic view of self=world, atman=brahman, and yet, as you point out, interdependence does make sense within the context of Buddhism.

    It was when you said, “The first thesis, that nature (or reality) is an interconnected whole, is not an explicit part of the traditional Buddhist world-view, but would appear to be implied by it,” and then “Things are interconnected, they do not exist in themselves. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all network, without fixed self (anattā),” that I think I finally see what he’s saying.

    Let me ask you this: Given all that you know of the teachings of the Buddha, both what he says directly and what you understand him to be saying from your own practice — and in the plainest of English speaking, if you will, put into pragmatic terms — if it is true that we are connected, but we ourselves are without inherent existence, through what would you say we are connected?

  4. Hello Linda, and thanks for your thoughtful ideas. I think you have answered a question for me here: I have often wondered why the Buddha did not teach paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of interconnectedness. The answer might be that such a concept would have been too reminiscent, in Brahmanical culture of the time, of the interconnectedness of self and world, of ātman and brahman. For us, now, however, there is little chance of us supposing that interconnectedness implies self=world or that ātman=brahman. Or at least it is quite easy to explain that interconnectedness does not imply these things, or, in other words, does not imply monism.
    So now I will try to answer your question: if it is true that we are connected, but that we ourselves are without inherent existence, through what are we connected? But before I answer the question, can I slightly change the wording. I am not sure it is exactly appropriate to ask ‘through what’ are we connected. This implies a medium or intermediary by which distinct entities are linked, but there is no such medium or intermediary.
    Now, firstly, we are interconnected physically. To use the poetic analysis of matter (rūpa) employed by the Buddha, each of us is composed of earth, water, fire and air. The earth in us comes from outside, and is the same earth in all of us. In fact, it moves between us. What is my body today may be excreted or may fall off, may become part of some vegetable, and become part of your body later. (Sounds disgusting, huh?!). All of us constantly breathe in millions of air molecules that that have been breathed by everyone else. So we are interconnected physically by each of us being composed of elements that are not-self and shared.
    Secondly, we are interconnected on the level of speech. In order to think and to speak we use language, but language is constantly co-created by language-users. It is a pre-eminently social and impersonal phenomenon which is nevertheless real and which determines individuals in what they are. You and I are distinct as individuals, of course, but all of our thoughts and words, by which we can express what makes us who we are, belong to a common language which does not belong to us.
    Thirdly, we are interconnected on the level of consciousness. This is not easy to express, and I might be wrong, or at least people will probably disagree with me, but in my view consciousness (viññāṇa) is not ‘mine’ but is a characteristic connected with complex living forms, notably, human beings. It is perhaps a result of meditation practice (or contemplating the Buddha’s teaching) that I understand the characteristic of being conscious, of being a self-aware subject of experience, as being distinct from the characteristic of being a self, an individual person who is separate from other people, even from my mother and closest friend. I understand the latter – being a self, a person – as being possible only because of consciousness, and as occurring ‘within’ consciousness. Consciousness itself – the very capacity which right now I am enjoying as I construct thoughts to communicate with you in Texas – is a characteristic which is somehow neither mine nor yours yet is not different in either case, in my experience and in your experience. This consciousness is not the same but not different for all human beings (who are conscious). It is like the same light by which things becomes visible, the same essential characteristic which makes us what we are.
    So there is my answer – that it is possible to describe us as interconnected physically, through language, and as conscious beings. I would appreciate your response to this sketch.

  5. My response is that I think you nailed it, though you used a slightly different approach than I would have. Yes, there is a material connection but that connection is nothing if the material is inert, just layin’ there, right? Your answer is that we are connected, via matter, and the words you use to describe that connection are action-words: “the earth in us comes… it moves… may be excreted or may fall off, may become part of… breathe…”

    And then: “we are interconnected on the level of speech…” more action — certainly speech is defined as action by the Buddha. And then: “we are interconnected on the level of consciousness…” more action, as thoughts. With the material, speech, and thought I think you’ve covered “action in body, speech and mind”. Karma.

    So I will disagree when you say there may be no “through what” that is inherent in the connection — I am pretty sure there is an inherent connection, and it is action, it just isn’t a *fixed* connection, it’s fluid, and one of the factors of its fluidity is choice. It seems to me that the Buddha was telling us this again and again and again, that it is through action that we are connected, and that what we most need to understand is that connection between us and others. For me, that is my understanding of where the interconnectedness lies, it is all in activity (and choice), and I’ve found this view very helpful in examining the terms of dependent arising. If I stop seeing each of the links as “things” and see them as activities, what’s going on becomes much clearer. Sankhara is a drive that proceeds because ignorance allows it to, conciousness is a process that takes place because sankhara is driving it in a certain direction, the defining we do in namarupa starts up and continues because our busy minds are seeking, seeking. And so on.

    One of the ways I interpret terms in the canon somewhat differently than most do (though I confess I didn’t originate this idea, but encountered it in my reading somewhere along the way) is in recognizing that (for example) bhava and vibhava aren’t about “desire for existence vs desire for annihilation” but instead represent two (then competing) views of life (which later became entwined): bhava being a belief in karma and rebirth, and vibhava being a belief in atman-brahman (self=world). In that view of things the bhava “becoming” (rebirth) view finds that all things have an inherent and fixed reality and connections between certain things: father to son, earth to heaven, ritual to the order of the universe. Things are individual, separate, but have interconnectedness, literally by definition (often by something like puns! — through the sound of the words).

    The way I see it, the Buddha is denying that there is that kinds of connection.

    On the other hand, the vibhava “beyond becoming” (atman-brahman) view of the world sees the cosmos as formless, all one, no actual individuality at all, and our interconnectedness is in all ways, all the time.

    I see the Buddha as denying that that is the case, also.

    We are not interconnected in either of those ways, but we are interconnected through the links of causal chains of action.

    • Thanks for this Linda. I appreciate getting a better sense of your point of view. I would say that, while I discussed interconnectedness in a static way, your account in terms of ‘actions’ is a dynamic one. This is a bit like the difference between the Buddha’s discussion of experience in terms of the five khandhas and in terms of the twelve links of dependent arising. When I was thinking about your account of interconnectedness, the English word ‘activities’ worked better in my mind. Activities of body, speech and mind certainly connect us with others, and are that through which we are connected.

      I was very interested in your interpretation of bhava-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā. This interpretation throws a lot of light on the importance of the Buddha’s list of three types of taṅhā. As for the idea that vibhava-taṇhā means a longing for going beyond becoming, a longing for union with Brahmā or Brahman, Anālayo writes about this in his recent book ‘Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses’, under ‘taṇhā’. I would be interested to hear who has come up with the idea of bhava-taṅhā as longing for further existence through rebirth. I suppose it is obvious but still it is thought provoking to see it put like that.

      All the best with your thinking. I will try to read more of your blog posts.

      • Wow. I mean !WOW! Thanks so much for the pointer to Anālayo’s book. I bought it for my Kindle (at a very reasonable price I might add) and have just read through that whole first chapter and Wow! If he keeps up at this pace this may turn out to be the book I recommend to those wanting to get a deeper understanding of Buddhism through the suttas. I absolutely love books that gather in one place so many relevant sutta references to any one subject (Fuller’s book on views does this) and this one does it for so many topics, and so succinctly. I really admire that.

        But my wowing is actually for him coming to conclusions he did about vibhava. He actually came to pretty much the same as I did but from an entirely different direction, and I love that. It adds so much to my understanding of why the Buddha says what he says the way he says it. And having someone so well-versed in the suttas see the same thing I saw, working from different evidence, makes me that much more confident we’re on the right track here.

        I’m really grateful to you.

        I realized after I last wrote that I probably gave the wrong impression with my parenthetical thought about my insight into bhava-vibhava not being original. I have seen, elsewhere, someone recognize that it was likely to be about differing doctrines of the day but I had never seen anyone else come up with any insight into what those doctrines were, till you pointed out Anālayo’s book. I find the pairing reflected again in the next step, clinging, where the detail moves from three up to four. With “views” being generic, and “sensual pleasure” matching kama in tanha, we’re left with “rites and rituals” and “self-view” and the way I understand this is that “rites and rituals” matches up to the usual methods of Brahmins who are into rituals that they believe bring about a good rebirth, and that self-view is actual the atman-brahman believers*. This gets reflected again in “becoming” when we go back down to three worlds for becoming — the sensual plane (again), the world of form (rebirth), and the formless (atman-brahman). I believe he’s talking about the same two major belief systems over and over and over, just using different words at different points: eternalism vs annihilationism, diversity vs unity.

        I first got insight into this when I began to recognize in the classic “wrong view” of “nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed” phrases I found in Yajnavalkya’s pieces in the BrU. I have a paper on it I need to rewrite and see if anyone would dare publish.

        Meanwhile, I have a paper that should be coming out in the next JOCBS on a Sutta Nipata rendition of DA called “Quarrels & Disputes” that I think helps to show how the Buddha was using vibhava.

        * This relates to my insight into the origins of wrong view, through the denial of the efficacy of ritual. I believe this is a mark of the atman-brahman doctrine, sneering at traditional Brahmins — “all that gift-giving and funeral-pyre stuff is for fools, fools and the wise alike are gone at death, etc etc”.

      • Great, thanks for this Linda. You are brimming with ideas and interpretations. Analayo is an extraordinary scholar. If you get in touch with him he might put you on his mailing list. He sends out his newly published work from time to time.

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