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I came across this article by a long time contributor of this forum. In particular, the article mentioned a definition of paticca samuppada (PS) in Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary

'dependent origination', is the doctrine of the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena,

The article proceeded to attempt to position this as a general theory explaining the basis for all phenomena.

Qn 1: Is there anything inherently wrong with generalizing dependent origination or PS into a theory of conditionality?

FYI, there is a post regarding the appropriateness of treating PS as a law of conditionality. Note that in science, a law is a description of a phenomena (that is scientifically proven) while the article mentioned above is attempting for a general theory of conditionality i.e. to explain the why. (Although the article mentioned principle but I think we can forget it; I don’t think there is anyway to prove it scientifically).

My question is not on the appropriateness as a law but instead as a general theory. Reason for my uncertainty is as follows:

  1. PS was taught by the Buddha in the context of explaining the arising of suffering.
  2. In general, physical phenomena have a certain range of possible outcomes. For example, a sapling may or may not grow into a tree or a forecasted rain may or may not occur. In fact, probability is the way to describe the quantum world. But the way PS is explained traditionally, When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises indicates a certainty in outcome, therefore:

Qn 2: How can the certainty alluded in PS be reconciled with the probabilities in outcomes we see in reality?

Personally, I am neither for nor against this generalization of PS into a theory of conditionality. Thanks for sharing of any insights.

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  • @Jayarava I wonder if you would be kind to give your thoughts on my question since you are the author of the above blog article. It will be enlightening to all readers to have your insights. Thanks so much!
    – Desmon
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:32

5 Answers 5

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In Mahayana understanding, Paṭiccasamuppāda is a teaching about the automatic development of the materialistic (entity-obsessed, reifying) mind, culminating in the emergence of the notion of self.

Whoever tries to present Paṭiccasamuppāda and indeed the entire Buddhism as the teaching of causality completely misses the point. Buddhism is a teaching of liberation through practical transcendence of the conceptual framework of the subjective reality arising as a result of Paṭiccasamuppāda.

Causality plays a methodological role in Buddhism because attaining the liberation requires undoing effects of certain causes, and it depends on beneficial influence of other causes, that's why the teaching on karma and cyclic tendencies must be understood and implemented, sure.

But the core of the Realization has nothing to do with causality, otherwise Nirvana would still be subordinate to Samsara, while in fact Nirvana is famously unconditioned which is to say it transcends causality.

So, no, Paṭiccasamuppāda cannot be generalized like that.

Idappaccayatā though is a different animal altogether. It is indeed a more abstract and more generic teaching focusing on the relationship between this and that. Once again, people studying Buddhism assume this refers to causality just because it says when this comes to be that comes to be and so on.

However I still think it misses the point. In my understanding, the relationship between this and that it describes is the relationship of implication. When the concept of beauty comes to be, it implies the notion of ugliness -- that kind of relationship. Why? Because this relationship is the key to how in the course of Paṭiccasamuppāda the notion of external and internal, or objective and subjective, evolve in lockstep thanks to the mechanism of idappaccayatā.

So here, once again, I regret that so many people miss the mark and misinterpret what I see as the most insightful, most wonderful part of Buddha's discovery.

I hope this explanation answers Part 2 of your question as well. The reasonI idappaccayatā is formulated with certainty is because it does not speak about causality, it speaks about relativity of mental constructs which is in the domain of information theory or logic, not physics!

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  • Entire teaching of Buddha isnt certainly causality but it is a very important part in the network of teachings. Its importance cannot be uderstated. Oct 7, 2023 at 4:53
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The Buddha's focus was empirical and soteriological, not ontological or metaphysical, as evidenced by the following sutta quotes.

The Buddha was only interested in what would end suffering permanently.

Dependent origination is not meant to be generalized.

The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow:

"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

"In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.
Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta

"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.
Acintita Sutta

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."
Sabba Sutta

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Earth , water , fire, air and space are the physical components of reality. They have conscious representatives. In the sutta ,root of all things ,Buddha refuses to identify with Earth , water ,fire , air and space. Dhamma was clear to him. Whether physical or psychical ,dependent origination applies to all ,that is why it is not good to identify with them. Dependent origin is not a theory , it is a Dhamma or undisputeable Truth or a reality. If this happens then that happens.

In physical world many things are determined probabilistically but in dependent origination there is certainty because it does not deal with probabilistic ideas in the first place. If there is ignorance then volitional formations are bound to come. Dependent origination talks only about origin and cessation of suffering and nothing else.

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Dependent origination (or dependent arising or any other relevant translation) of the pali and sanskrit equivalents is already itself generalizing principle about the conventional reality. Since the focus in Buddha's teachings is on removal of suffering, the particular case of 12 links is used to demonstrate how dependent origination works. Thats a particular case. The principle of dependent origination is held to be the law of conventional reality- as such it is a generalized law.

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  • What is conventional reality ? Oct 7, 2023 at 5:21
  • How do you explain why as a generalized law it fails to account for the probabilities in outcomes that we see in reality. From earthquakes to gene expression, the observations don't match up.
    – Desmon
    Oct 7, 2023 at 5:37
  • @Desmon Probabilities in outcome- a range of possibilities- isnt real. The actual which happens that is real. Probability and probabilities arent real. They are theoretical constructs of a very different system. Even in that system, laws govern and restrict - nothing happens out of anything. The generalized law does not fail to account for reality. But your hunt for probabilities in realities is like forcing football to talk about wickets. Two different things. Terminologies of two different systems which you are conflating. Oct 7, 2023 at 7:19
  • @DheerajVerma I would suggest readings on Two-Truths. That would be better help then me explaining a very big thing in comments. Oct 7, 2023 at 7:21
  • Although the actual outcome is what matters but probabilities and risks have direct effects on people’s behaviour. It’s the reason why people are encouraged to fasten their seat belts or discouraged from drinking and driving. I am upvoting your answer as I believe we are on the same page that the law does account for reality....it’s a question of explaining the mechanism.
    – Desmon
    Oct 7, 2023 at 12:08
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"There is no need to know the entire sequence of factors [in dependent co-arising] in order to put an end to suffering and stress. A person merely needs to focus on a particular factor or relationship within the sequence — whichever is easiest to focus on — and to apply knowledge in terms of the four noble truths to that spot. This is why the Buddha, in teaching the way to the end of suffering and stress, did not have to explain the entire sequence every time to every student. He could focus simply on whichever factor or set of factors was most transparent to the student, recommend a relevant meditative practice, and that would be enough for the student to bring suffering to an end."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "The Shape of Suffering: A Study of Dependent Co-arising" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/ShapeOfSuffering/Section0005.html

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