One of the most fundamental concepts in Buddhism is interdependent co-arising, pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit and paṭiccasamuppāda in Pali.
It comes back to the earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali cannon, specifically the Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse.
This is teaching is fundamental in Buddhism because Buddha said that “one who understand interdependent co-arising understands the dharma, and one that understands the dharma understands interdependent co-arising“.
And while this is a catchy phrase it’s also very abstract and doesn’t leave anybody much wiser. Let’s look at what this actually means?
Thich Nhat Hanh, the zen buddhist teacher explains it in this book book The Heart of the Buddhist Teachings.
He writes, “For a table to exist we need wood, a carpenter, time, skilfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things in turn has to be brought about by other conditions. If we continue to look in this way we’ll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one.”
At the same time the carpenter has acquired skills on his path through life. A baby cannot make a table. The carpenter has been nudged by events to become a carpenter interested in making tables.
Another expression often used to explain interdependent co-arising is that all phenomena arise interdependent of other phenomena, or as often expressed in Buddhist teachings “”if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist”.
This leads us to the idea of Oneness. An ideas often discussed in the context of Buddhism, but is actually a misinterpretation of Buddha’s meaning of interdependent co-arising.
A brahman once asked him: “Is everything a Oneness? Is everything a Plurality?” The Buddha replied that both views are extremes to be avoided (Samyutta Nikaya 12.48).
If we where all one, then by me filling my stomach all beings would fill their stomach, but the opposite is the case, by me filling my stomach another being dies. There’s an endless cycle of deaths of beings in nature to sustain the eco-system.
Buddha says that we are related not by who we inherently are but by what we chose to do.
And this introduces the idea of karma which is another idea widely misunderstood in modern times. Today it has taken a fatalistic meaning and people say things like “It’s my karma” when they’re unlucky or we say “He/She has a lot of bad karma” of a person that has done bad things.
The original meaning of the word is simply deed, act or action and it points to that conscious beings determine their own destinies through the quality of their actions.
And through our actions, what we choose to do, are we interdependent.
So why is the doctrine of interdependent co-arising relevant in our lives?
Well, remember how Thich Nhat Hanh explained it with the table.
By recognising interdependent co-arising we avoid arrogance, we become humble, we come to realise that the reason we are here and now is not because of our own making. A multitude of events has put you here this evening, in this meditation group.
You parents has planted seeds in you that has taken you on a path through life where you at this very moment is curious about meditation and Buddhism. On that journey you’ve made choices and choices have been made for you that has led to you being here right now. Maybe some of those choices was many years ago and maybe some choices were an hour ago.
And in the laptop you are now looking at you can see the entire earth. Each little component of the laptop has arising interdependently. The metals formed eons ago, the workers in the mine, the transportation company that brought metal to the factory, the driver that of the truck, and on it goes.
The experience you’re having as you listen to my words as arising through the interdependent events, which as arisen through the interdependent events.
You are not here because of your own independent making, but because a multitude of karma has let you to act in this particular way in this very moment.
In a world that’s celebrating individual independence the doctrine of interdependent arising is more important than ever or we’ll continue down the path of our own destruction.
We need to celebrate interdependence: by recognising all the beautiful conditions that support this very moment.