There’s Nowhere To Go ~ On Dependent Origination
by Eve Livingston
My funny, bright father (still ticking along marvelously, with a well-worn mile or two under his belt) has always been fond of saying, “Not ‘when’ I die, but ‘IF’ I die….”
He’s outlived his mother, which makes his longevity amazing, because she had niceness on her side. I’m beginning to believe he really did make a deal with the devil that he every now and then wonders whether he can still back out of. Only when he’s very cranky, though. Otherwise he never seems the least bit tired.
This same guy who probably got in good with the devil early on never seemed afraid to die. Still doesn’t. He’s actually incredibly good-humored about the whole subject. Uncharacteristically equanimous about it, in fact; even if cantankerously so.
This did and still does fascinate me greatly. I always studied him for signs that he was bluffing, but overall I tend to think somehow he might have had something really figured out. More than once during my chatty childhood career I asked him about this.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he’d insist.
Calmly, believably, impressively confident. Simply clear that something made total sense to him, though he wasn’t going to have a fit if you didn’t agree. Of my father’s many moods, this has always been my favorite.
“Nuthin’ to it. It’s just death. It’s natural.” After which he’d wander off in whatever direction he was already heading. I would typically follow him, trying not to pepper him with too many questions and out myself as a pest. He saw right through me. But about certain particularly weighty topics, more often than not, he would be kind enough to try to answer at least a question or two.
Personally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think the problem was with my asking too many questions. I think the people I asked just didn’t have especially good answers. Maybe I was easy to confuse.
My father brokered a deal:
“You pipe down a little bit about your questions, and go along nicely from time to time, with your mouth shut, even if you’re thinking very obstinate, curious thoughts. In exchange, they’ll let you stay in school. How’s that? And I won’t have to worry about what the hell to do with you while I’m home trying to work for a living at my desk, since you distract me with all those damned questions you ask. Hmm?….How’s that sound?”
Without giving me a chance to even get one foot in the door of the questioning wormhole, he quickly added, “…Now, in the meantime, go to classes, learn as much as you can, and be a stealth questioner. That’s fine by me. Not that I’m exactly saying come to me with all of your questions…(because what the HELL am I paying the public schools for!?…Rant, rant rant).”
“(End of Rant)…I’m just saying get a clue about who has the answers and who doesn’t, and don’t arrive at any conclusions–I repeat, any–until you’ve undergone an exhaustively thorough investigation. Until you’ve learned about what all sorts of people think, and whether their opinions make enough sense to you to be useful as answers to your questions.”
Intellectual Daddy Zen Koan. As is usually the case with him, I was mentally ambushed.
“Sounds good,” I said. “What’s for dinner?”
And I meant it, sort of. He’d sold me on the idea of the stealth curiosity part.
I failed at the keeping my mouth shut part, predictably. But I did begin to practice, at the ripe old age of 6, how to watch for signs that people might know what they’re talking about. A lot of time has gone into this particular aspect of my expertise as a question-asker in life. Well more than the requisite hours Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, very smartly and convincingly said it takes to become an expert in something.
So, now that reasonable disclaimers have been filed, and Curiosity-Curriculum-Vitae has been offered up, I’d love to see if I can explain the tiniest bit about Dependent Origination. Or think of this as Dependent Origination 101A. Then I’ll have time to do the dishes tonight.
My father is the farthest thing from a Buddhist, believe me. But oddly enough, in a way, the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination is along the lines of what he was talking about, when he sang his reprise on dying. I had no idea then. He still has no idea now.
Maybe his talking about it made me go asking questions from the Buddhism teachers, I’m not sure. I guess until that point (the point where I was driven into the arms of Buddhism by this stubborn curiosity of mine), I hadn’t felt satisfied in my understanding about a fair number of things. Among them prominently was the matter of death, and how to know how afraid of it to be (that’s not a typo). Or whether my father might be entirely right with his sincerely cavalier attitude. Cavalier as in both the noun and the verb.
As it turns out (surprise, surprise), I think he was right.
It took me understanding Dependent Origination to be certain of this, and, me being who I am, it took me needing the Dalai Lama to explain it to me. I’d exhausted all the others along the way with my incessant and infernal lines of inquiry. At least in his audience I was not alone, and I could fly under the radar as a curiosity addict.
I’ll try to explain to you why H.H.D.L. (as he is fondly referred to, among the sometimes-obsessively-curious crowd) opened my eyes to my father’s wisdom:
1.) “There’s nothing to it,” (my father’s words, not mine)…as in nothing to us, meaning no-thing to us, meaning no inherently meaningful, independently arising “us” (those words are mine). Dad is just a natural smartypants. He spouted off about a lot of things, and this was one of the good ones. My own words and wisdom came less like falling off a log. I had to ask a lot of questions to be able to say what I did just now.
2.) “It is natural.” Obvious enough, it seems to me, and this fact comforts me greatly. Again, dad scores a point. He is indeed right here. He was a stealth nature lover; I’m more up front about it. I have a lot of trust in nature…it’s never yet failed to impress. So this clarification was an easy one to comprehend.
3.) And the “Nuthin’ to be afraid of,” part, well, that made more sense to me also when I learned about the Buddhist notion of Dependent Origination. This is a foundational, key concept at the base of many other foundational concepts in Buddhism. When you hear about emptiness and want to understand it better (or Sunyata, or Dependent Arising), if you figure out the basics of Dependent Origination, you’re home free.
What are we empty of? Inherent meaning. Independent causation. Everything is.
Causation is simply the reason something happens, or comes to be. We didn’t sprout out of thin air; there are a multitude of natural factors that led to our being alive. In our individual lives, these causes are all related to one other. One effects the other which effects the other and so on. It’s a huge, huge web. And the web of our individual lives is inside the larger web of all living things. A very big pot of soup indeed.
Remember playing with dominoes as a kid to see how they fell? Think of it like that. Our actual, natural being results from a chain of events–a chain of causes + effects–and this chain of events is very elemental and natural. One element of it impacts the next. So we are not independent of causation in the natural world. It is also quite natural, given the way our brains work, that our sense of “self” is derived from a personal, subjective interpretation of our many experiences. Where it gets dicey is when we think those subjective interpretations are the right and real and exclusively true explanations of things.
These interpretations of ours get a bit calcified, especially as time goes on. But, in fact, we are not only what we think. We are also something natural. Something that exists empty of our (or anyone’s) interpretation. And everything natural has this in common: it changes.
When I say we are empty of “inherent meaning,” I’m talking about the meaning that our human minds–these perceptual apparatuses–assign to things. We weren’t born with definitions and labels, nor was anything else. We are a life force…a form of life among many forms of life. Study quantum physics and they’ll tell you there’s much more blurring of boundaries than you might think, but I won’t get into that right now.
The concept of Dependent Origination, to butcher the elegance of it, is an attempt at describing the natural world, and the nature of human cognition, vis-a-vis the natural world. Perhaps even more importantly, it describes the natural world as seen by human cognition. In doing so, it helps us see that we can have a much broader perspective of reality than we previously imagined.
This is very, very helpful stuff. Not easy, but helpful, ultimately.
This concept helps us distinguish our subjective experience of things from the actual reality of things. It helps us remember not to assume that our subjectivity is the only game in town. Our interpretation is one possibility among many. Our emotional reactions are one among many. They are often the result of a familiar story we tell ourselves (or have heard, or both) over and over. And as stories go, these are often our favorite parts of stories, or, conversely, our least favorite parts of stories.
Our human inclination (which is both fascinating and lovely), is a tendency to enter into animated, imagined narratives. As such–not always but often–our reactions to things can be quite colored by these imaginings. We don’t necessarily have to react the same emotional way, just because of how we’ve done it before. Bottom line is, controversial as this may sound, we actually have much more choice than we realize, when it comes to our options as to how to think, how to feel, how to react.
Subjective definitions have their place, don’t get me wrong:
What’s that? “A tree.” Oh. Good. “Don’t smack into it.”
How about that? “A car.” Ah. “Don’t run in front of it.”
And so on.
See? That’s what Tibetan Buddhists call conventional reality. You can think of it as subjective reality. We need to grasp conventional reality to remember to eat and brush our teeth and watch out for cars. But those “cars” and those “trees” and even our notion of the person perceiving them (i.e., “me,” “I,” “he/she/Bob/Sally”) are, without a human mind to contextualize them, just part of this giant cosmic soup. I know this is confusing; don’t worry about it…it takes a little time.
So while we mill about in cabs and subways and believe the guy next to us really is, maybe, out to get us, we are mindlessly cruising along on cognitive autopilot; believing that conventional reality (our typical, day to day, subjective view of reality) is the only reality there is.
However, this is not so. There is (you can find it, I assure you, but it might take a meditation lesson, or a lecture by the Dalai Lama), a de-contextualized, non-dualistic, non-defined-by-human-perception reality. Tibetan Buddhists call this “real” reality, or “ultimate” reality.
These realities (conventional and real) coexist continually. One is exclusively perceived and interpreted by us, by our human brains, and, of particular importance, through the lens of our subjective ideas about our world.
And guess what, folks?…We are the ones who give our personal realities meaning, which means we can also wrangle ourselves from the often-all-too-painful stranglehold of our assumptions.
To reiterate, our tightly defined, often myopic ideas about ourselves, others, the world around us, is actually in fact our experience of conventional reality. The other reality–real reality–just is. And we, as beings in it, just are. It is our thinking that takes over from there, and designates things (designates ourselves and others, as well) as “good” or “bad,” etc. As Shakespeare said, in Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I wonder if he was related to my father. Not likely…I’d probably have an easier time writing if that was the case.
In order for us to apprehend real reality, it takes us being willing to open our eyes and look, a good distance from the distorting lens of our typical, human, autopilot cognitive interpretation of experience. Emptiness as a mental state is “a mode of perception in which one neither adds anything to nor takes anything away from what is present, noting simply…” (Bhikku).
Noting simply…simply noting. Noticing, not naming. If you meditate on emptiness you meditate on being empty of names. You appreciate that you are part of the natural world, prone to the same conditions that every other natural thing is. Nothing changes about the physical world as a result of realizing this. You just have greater leeway to see your emotional options much more clearly. And this will sound silly but it isn’t: when you achieve a state of greater emptiness in your meditation, sometimes you don’t even remember quite what it was that you were so convinced you had to be terribly upset about, before you sat down.
Meditating on emptiness facilitates the ability to let go. It greatly eases suffering and angst. It clarifies things on many a level.
It’s easier than it sounds, but it’s a bit like riding a bike; you kind of know it when you feel it, and there are ebbs and flows with your proficiency. And typically you need someone to teach you. So keep practicing.
As far as these two realities–conventional and real–use one for brushing your teeth, and the other for easing your suffering.
The wonderful thing about this is it can help you realize how totally and utterly convinced you’ve been about something–I don’t know….take fear of death, for example…that’s an easy one to start with…or take being cranky–if you think about it enough, you realize that you don’t necessarily have to freak out about things you currently get pretty squirrely about. Especially if that something is a figment of your own imagination.
Don’t be silly…no, we don’t automatically melt into a pool of hair styling mousse once we really grasp this notion. Nothing external changes as a result of us realizing that we label things and name things and assume that they are the things we name them to be. Nothing about them changes. Nothing about real reality changes. Only our understanding of this fact changes. Only our realizing, perhaps a little bit more, that we are the ones who have the finger on the volume button of our own anger or fear, craving, aversion, disappointment, self-recrimination, criticism of others. That sort of thing. Our ability to see a big picture has gone deep into one more challenging yoga pose and survived, having come out calmer, clearer, wiser, stronger in our ability to balance.
Want more good news? This is all really, really freeing. Can shake you right out of the tree of an impending panic attack, if you get good at wrapping your mind around these rather scientific facts.
Takes practice, though, like many good things do.
I find myself having to be content with the benefits of this practice one breath at a time, one moment at a time…one step at a time…one walk at a time. One death at a time.
Let’s review, shall we?
There’s no “us” to die (no independently arising “us”), rather, there are beings part of the natural web of life. And when our bodies do what everything alive and natural does (change, shift, cycle, flow with time in the most natural way possible), (and about this, by the way, we have no choice), there’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to go.
There is, simply and merely, all together naturally, change.
Just change. Life is change.
Nowhere to go because there’s no “us” to go there, and there’s no “there” for us to go to. Wherever there is, we’ve already arrived. And here is where we always will be. Things change but that’s the worst it gets, and nature figured out that this is what is required for life. So she goes for it. It’s natural.
Life is change. This is simply a fact. Prove me wrong and I’ll be impressed.
We started this way, and this is the way we’re going out. Crap, I can’t use dramatic sayings like that to describe having nowhere to go. Well, maybe you get it: everything is constantly, continually changing. This is the deal nature brokered with us, and we agreed to it, believe it or not.
Which is good. Because it means that death might be a little different from what we fear. In fact (big secret: this is what I think…), we might fear it in the first place because nature had to figure out some way to motivate us to get as far in evolution as it managed to do. This is part of our incredibly cleverly designed cognitive machine. This helps us tremendously when we need to make fire, run from tigers, decide if the babe in the next village is worthy to be our mate.
Meaning, it’s the way our brains work, and it helps us get around, for sure, but that doesn’t mean our brains are the only source of “reality.” Stuff’s going on all over the place, all around us, and we’re mostly just gathering up into our perceptual field a variety of information, and shaping it into something that makes sense to us…that looks familiar to us. So we can make it all the way to the next village and get the babe.
(You too might have been hard-pressed to resist putting this picture here…)
“Blasphemer!! What do you mean our brains aren’t the only source of all truth (and especially my perspective, if I do say so myself…)?”
Listen, this is not a bad thing. Don’t get mad at me, either…it’s not my idea, even if I do think it’s a good idea. Decide for yourself after thinking about this for a while. And don’t think for a second I didn’t ask a hell of a lot of questions before I signed on to this way of seeing things, because I did. I’m a question-asking heat seeking missile.
We suffer quite a bit from our notions about loss and death. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that if we grasp Dependent Origination and Emptiness we miss people less, or would be missed less. Or that we should be any less sad about having to part. This is the beauty of our humanness; our emotional bonds can be extraordinarily breathtaking.
Missing people and being missed would be felt just as deeply but thought of differently. We, and those we love, are likely not going as far away as it might seem, when death changes our states. Why? Because there’s nowhere to go, and no us/them to go there. We are empty of inherent definition, inherent meaning. We are not independent of all the natural causation that brought us into being. We are part of a vastly expansive, natural network of life. Our subjective viewpoint is only one way of seeing; it is not the ultimate reality.
We, like every other natural thing in existence, change. Without change, life would not exist. It’s a good thing.
We suffer quite a bit from hating other people, or finding them frustrating. We suffer quite a bit from being convinced we should not ever be rejected because it’s too painful and frankly we’d rather not think about it all that much. We suffer greatly from chasing the dragon, as they say, in our attempt to make pain leave us, rather than working harder ourselves to see how we might choose to leave pain. These are not-uncommon reactions to our autopilot way of interpreting conventional reality.
If we really really want to, however, we can come to realize that we have more choice in this matter. We can notice and appreciate the ways we are inclined to have the same old emotional reactions–making the same old assumptions–which have always caused us suffering. And we can, in many instances, choose to react differently.
As humans we are more than a bit gravitationally pulled toward familiarity. This is totally natural. Conventional reality, remember, is perceived in only one way, and that is through our subjective human lens. If we stretch our minds enough, we can also realize that there is a concurrently existing reality, independent of our labeling it “this” or “that,” “good” or “bad,” “me” or “Ernie…(That Lowlife Jerk).”
There is. I swear.
If you think about this long enough, you’ll go around in circles and eventually work your way down to this beautiful, irrefutable fact. You can realize that it is your mind that is pulling on the strings of your own distressing or destructive emotions, and it is therefore your mind that can stop pulling on those same strings. This is an important revelation.
It doesn’t mean biochemical imbalances in brain chemistry are rendered myth. It means that most of the time we have a lot more choice in the matter of what we think, and yes, thus feel. Much more than we’ve been previously led to believe.
The “real” reality that you can find, quite emancipated from your own tumultuous emotional weather system, is this: It’s the here and now, this breath, this moment, this flow, absolutely regardless of what you might name any given part of it or what emotional value might be assigned to any slice of it.
You can think broadly enough about all this to have more freedom of choice as to how much suffering you’ll put yourself through.
This isn’t a magic cure. This is an emancipating concept, and an even more emancipating fact. But it really has to be puzzled over to be appreciated.
Life is one big pot of soup and you’re in it. It’s when you get hungry that naming onions and garlic and squash become very, very important. Between meals and on weekends it’s fine to go about experiencing life a different way; a non-verbal way. This is deeper than just piping down and asking less questions.
I know, I know…this is hard. It took me years to fully grasp this stuff and I’m trying to whittle it down to a single blog post. Bear with me.
Don’t be distracted by the linguistic translations here. They had to pick some word or another, and so “real,” vs. “conventional” was found to be useful enough. They’re not trying to be lofty. Just putting into words an idea. I for one appreciated the cleverness of it. It made me want to ask a lot of questions, and, so far, the answers I’ve found have been satisfactory enough to make me see light at the end of my question-asking tunnel. It’s hard to think about, but, in my experience, nothing has ever made so much logical sense.
I’m not trying to convince you, and I won’t have a fit if you don’t agree. Give it thought. See if this helps.
©Content copyright 2018. Eve Livingston, Ph.D. All rights reserved, for more information, see content page.