A View of Dependent Arising
by Stephen K. Hayes
Dependent arising is often presented as a series of twelve links (nidāna) of causes and effects. It begins with ignorance and ends with the twelfth step of death.
OK, but how might that work? Let’s look at one interpretation of how that could begin at the start of a new life.
Ignorance leads to habitual action (“generating karma”). Habitual action (“karma”) leads to consciousness (of self). Not knowing the true nature of reality, we generate karma. Our karma pretty much determines how we understand things, how we react to things, how we interpret things.
Here is how we begin with ignorance. At the end of a life, we might have a shot at comprehending it all. Passing away, we might gain the final insights into the true nature of reality. We could find all the missed answers that fill in and complete an almost-there understanding of all that is. We could truly get it.
Yes, we could, but probably not. Old limited ways of seeing things, habitually skewed ways of regarding things, lopsided insistences on how things are, all these parts of our personality likely hold sway. These interpretations carry into the unfathomable beyond when we no longer have a body and yet our consciousness keeps going. This is the unfortunate state referred to at the beginning of the twelve links. This is what is meant by ignorance.
Ignorance is not a shaming word. It is not something to be haughtily attributed to only others. Ignorance simply means “ignoring” those parts it would take to have a complete picture. Most of us are trapped in ignorance simply because we have never been exposed to those aspects that would lead to a complete picture.
An old Tibetan theory holds that those last moments of life determine how we will will start the new life. If we choke on fluids and desperately but futilely gasp for air that does not make it, we end up seeing life as withholding. We are reborn in the hungry ghost realm. We come to suffer from “never enough”. If we suddenly have a longing sense of life not lived as fully as it could have been, we end up seeing life as uncontrollably slipping out of our control. We are reborn in the human realm. We come to suffer from “clinging hopefulness”. If we are suddenly grasped by a fierce resentment over the unhappy timing of our death, we can realize only anger. We are reborn in the hell realm. We end up suffering from “violent rage”. How we lived and died sets into motion how our new life will be.
Our ignorance – our not understanding the power of our perspective to set up what is experienced – leads to a way of relating to life. This is the second of the twelve links. This is karma. Actions create results. Results are only brought about by actions. No way around it. Karma is bound to happen.
Ignorance leads to karma. Alas. Then karma leads to consciousness, third in the series of twelve. Consciousness is the way we think about things, identify our self and regard the world. From an ignorant approach, where we lack full perspective, we cannot help but generate the karma that sets into motion a particular way of life. That way of life in turn generates a distinct identity, an approach to life, a way of regarding things, a way of going through life. This is the meaning of consciousness.
Gender, country of origin, race, economic situation, and birth order all are karmic determiners leading to a distinct identity in the world, and the viewpoint that supports it as consciousness. These are the external factors, the things of the environment.
There are also consciousness factors that are internal. These include which realm (of the six experiences of the “desire realm” – arrogant egotism, desperate greed, angry hatred, insecure jealousy, complacent ignorance, and clinging attachment) we see the world as being. Also included are a host of personality aspects – introverted or extroverted, generous or miserly, compassionate or self-concerned, adventurous or reserved, etc. – that lead to a natural way to identify the quality of life. Consciousness, though an extremely skewed and limited viewpoint, is indeed that quality that gives us an identification with our given life.
Consciousness leads to name and form, a distinct identity that other people as well can recognize. That leads to six senses that are oriented to experience the world in a way congruent with the given life. Six senses bring contact. Contact brings feelings of sensations, how things impact us. How things impact us conditions how we feel about things (as favorable or unfavorable to us). Feelings bring desire. How we feel about things makes us want (to have or avoid a given thing). Desire brings grasping. Wanting makes us cling to things (we believe to be in our best interest or will relieve suffering). Grasping brings becoming. Becoming brings birth. Birth brings sickness, aging, and death, anxiety over suffering anguish. Death brings an end to things.
And now we are back to that conditional ending of life that begins the whole process all over again.
In Buddhist thought, the term interdependence refers to what the Buddha taught on cause and effect. All phenomena arise and then disappear through the coming together of an infinite range of factors. Nothing exists on its own, by itself, untouched by other events. Get this, the Buddha taught, and you will grasp the Dharmadhatu.