Dependent Arising

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by Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen

At the end of your analysis it may seem as though no conventional realities or phenomena exist, including the law of karmic actions and results. However, they do exist—they just don’t exist in the way that you thought they did. They exist dependently, that is, their existence depends upon certain causes and conditions. Therefore, we say that phenomena are “dependently arising.” All the teachings of Buddha are based upon the principle of the view of dependent arising. As Lama Tsong Khapa states in his Three Principal Paths, “it eliminates the extreme of eternalism.” This means that because things appear to your perceptions to exist only conventionally or nominally, their true, or inherent, existence is eliminated. The next line says, “…it eliminates the extreme of nihilism.” So, when you understand emptiness you will be able to eliminate the idea of complete non- existence. You will understand that it is not that things are completely non-existent, it is just that they exist dependently. They are dependent arisings.

 

In Arya Nagarjuna’s Root Wisdom Treatise, he says that there isn’t any phenomenon that is not dependently existent, therefore there isn’t any phenomenon that is not empty of independent, or inherent, existence. Dependent arising is what we use to establish emptiness. Everything exists by depending upon something else, therefore everything is empty of inherent existence. When we use the valid reasoning of dependent arising we can find the emptiness of everything that exists. For example, by understanding that the self is dependently arising, we establish the selflessness of a person.

An example we could use is the reflection of our own face in the mirror. We all know that the reflection is not the real face, but how is it produced? Does it come just from the glass, the light, the face? Our face has to be there, but there also has to be a mirror, enough light for us to see and so on. Therefore, we see the reflection of our face in the mirror as a result of several things interacting with one another. We can investigate the appearance of our self to our perception in the same way. The self appears to us, but where does this appearance come from? Just like the reflection of the face in a mirror, it is an example of dependent arising.

This is quite clear in the case of functional things such as produced, or composite, phe- nomena, but there are other phenomena that are not produced by causes and conditions. However, they too exist dependently, that is, through mutual dependence upon other factors. For example, in the Precious Garland, Nagarjuna talks about how the descriptive terms of “long” and “short” are established through mutual comparison. “If there exists something that is long, then there would be something that is short.” This kind of existence is dependently arising, but it is not dependent upon causes and conditions. So, dependent arising can mean several things. As we practice analytical meditation on emptiness we need to bring these different meanings into our meditation.

Photo by Simon Paterson

Photo by Simon Paterson

 

Dependent Arising Also refers to how everything is imputed by terms and concepts. Everything is labeled by a conceptual thought onto a certain basis of imputation. There is the label, there is that which labels things and then there is the basis upon which the label is given. So, phenomena exist as a result of all these things and the interaction between them. In his Four Hundred Stanzas, Aryadeva says, “If there is no imputation by thought, even desire and so forth have no existence. Then who with intelligence would maintain that a real object is produced dependent on thought?” In the commentary, Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun, we read, “Undoubtedly, those that exist only through the existence of thought and those that do not exist when there is no thought are to be understood as not existing by way of their own entities, just as a snake is imputed onto a coiled rope.” The example I gave earlier is how perceiving snow as yellow is a dis- torted perception. The example of distorted perception given here is mistaking a coiled rope for a snake.

Several conditions and factors need to come together for a person to misapprehend a coiled rope as a snake. It’s not enough just to have a coiled rope in a corner on a bright day. No one is going to be fooled by that. There has to be some obscuration or darkness and distorted perception in the mind as well. Only then can the misapprehension take place. Even if we analyze every inch of that coiled rope we will not find a snake. In the same way, even if we analyze every aspect of self or phenomena we will not find inherent existence.

 

In The Mind Training Text we find the following explanation. “An easier way of reaching a conviction about the way the innate misconception of self within our mind-stream gives rise to the misconception of self of persons and phenomena is that, as explained before, when a rope is mistaken for a snake, both the snake and the appearance of a snake in relation to the basis are merely projected by the force of a mistaken mind. Besides this, from the point of view of the rope, there is not the slightest trace of the existence of such an object [as a snake], which is merely projected by the mind. Similarly, when a face appears to be inside a mirror, even a canny old man knows that the appearance in the mirror of the eyes, nose and so forth and the reflection is merely a projection. Taking these as examples it is easy to discern, easy to understand and easy to realize that there is not the slightest trace of existence from the side of the object itself.” The moment that a person thinks that there is a snake where the coiled rope lies, the appearance of a snake arises in that person’s mind. That appearance, however, is nothing but a projection.

Similarly, although there isn’t a self that exists independently and objectively, our grasping misapprehends the self to exist in that way. So then how does the self exist? Like any other phenomenon, the self exists imputedly. It exists by labeling, or imputation, by terms and concepts projected onto a valid basis of imputation. We must be able to clearly distinguish between the imputed self that is the basis for performing karmic actions and experiencing their results, and the inherently existent self that is the object that needs co be negated. When we consider our own sense of self, we don’t really get the sense of an imputed self. The feeling we have is more as if the self were existing inherently. Let me explain how the labeling, or imputation, works.

People use names for one another but those names aren’t the person. The words “John” and “Francis” are merely labels for a person. Just as the reflection of a face in a mirror does not exist from the side of the face, in the same way, the names John and Francis don’t exist independently. The names are applied to a valid basis of imputation—that is, the person. When you apply a label onto any base of any phenomenon, it works to define that thing’s existence—a vase, a pillar, a shoe and so forth. They are merely labels applied to their respective valid bases of imputation.

 

There Is A Common conceptual process involved in labeling things. Things don’t exist from their own side, but they are labeled from our subjective point of view and that’s how they exist. Let’s take the example of a vase that we used earlier. In order to understand the selflessness, or emptiness, of the vase, we need to refute its inherent true or independent existence, just as we have to refute the inherent, true, existence of a person in order to understand the selflessness of a person. We must also be able to establish what a vase is conventionally or nominally because we cannot annihilate the conventional reality of a vase.

Conventionally, a vase exists. It is made out of whatever materials were used to create it. It has hundreds and thousands of atoms and then there is its design, the influence of the potter and so forth. All these factors contribute to the production of a vase. So, a vase exists as a mere labeling, or imputation, onto the various factors that form its conventional existence, that is, its valid basis of imputation. If we look for what is being imputed, if we look for “vase,” we cannot find it. Just as we cannot find the imputed vase through ultimate analysis, we cannot find the imputed person through ultimate analysis.

The person, self, or I is neither the continuity nor the continuum of a person, nor his or her collection or assembly of aggregates. So, what is a person? Chandrakirti gives the example of how the existence of a chariot depends upon the collection of its various parts. In today’s terms we could use the example of a car. When we examine a car we discover that no single part is “car.” The front wheels are not the car, the back wheels are not the car, neither is the steering wheel or any other part of it; there is no car that is not dependent upon these individual parts. Therefore, a car is nothing but a mere imputation onto its assembled parts, which constitutes its valid basis of imputation. Once the various parts of a car have been put together, the term “car” is imputed onto it. Just as a car is dependent upon its parts, so too is everything else.

Chandrakirti continues, “In the same way, we speak of a sentient being conventionally, in dependence upon its aggregates.” So, we should understand that a person also depends upon his or her collection of aggregates. No one aggregate is the person, self, or I, yet there isn’t a person who is not dependent upon their aggregates. A person or sentient being is nothing but a label projected onto his or her valid basis. As we find stated in the mind training text, “Such a technique for determining the selflessness of the person is one of the best methods for cognizing the reality of things quickly. The same reasoning should be applied to all phenomena, from form up to omniscient mind.”


Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen (1922-2009) was a Tibetan lama, human rights activist, and founder of the Thubten Dhargye Ling Buddhist center in Long Beach, California.

From Mirror of Wisdom: Teaching on Emptiness. Copyright ©2000 by Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen. Reprinted with permission by the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive for Thubten Dhargye Ling Publications.

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