Discourse Scholarship

Parsing Paṭiccasamuppāda (Dependent Origination)


Preparing for Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 6 I started in to my dictation software, “Today we’ll be talking about Paṭiccasamuppāda, sometimes translated ‘Dependent Origination’. Paṭiccasamuppāda is…”


“Wait. What is Paṭiccasamupāda?”

This is why it takes so long to produce a podcast episode.

Wikipedia says Paṭiccasamupāda “is a key doctrine in Buddhism … It states that all dharmas (phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas: ‘if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist’. The basic principle is that all things (dharmas, phenomena, principles) arise in dependence upon other things.”

I imagined my cohost’s face, blinking and bemused. For the purposes of our podcast, this would be insufficient explanation.

I read on. I returned to what Peacock says in Part 4 and earlier in the series; I reviewed what I know of Stephen Batchelor’s work on the topic, Leigh Brasington, Judson Brewer, Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro.

What came together was a sense, not of what Paṭiccasamuppāda is, but rather the frameworks in which we talk about and practice P. In Critical Theory, you might say “Problematizing” P. What I came up with is that the ways people talk about and practice P seem to fall into two big buckets with a handful of sub-buckets.

The Two Big Buckets

It seems to me that talk about and practice of Paṭiccasamuppāda can be divided into two big buckets: Experiential and Metaphysical.

The experiential bucket is from the twelve Nidānas (the links of Dependent Origination); but it is really only the links from [[ep23-hedonic-tone-1)), the arising of Taṇhā (craving) thence to Upādāna (clinging), this is something we can actually witness with more or less granularity in our own experience.

The metaphysical bucket is everything else. This one has several (a plethora of?) sub-buckets. Metaphysical ideas, because they are not dependent on experience, are free to proliferate.

Because it’s come up recently in conversation, I’ll briefly aside here to offer my definition of this word “Metaphysics”. I’m satisfied with what Wikipedia’s has to say:

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, causality, necessity and possibility. It includes questions about the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter. The word “metaphysics” comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean “after or behind or among [the study of] the natural”. …

Metaphysics studies questions related to what it is for something to exist and what types of existence there are.

Metaphysics seeks to answer, in an abstract and fully general manner, the questions:
What is there?
What is it like?”

Metaphysical ideas about Paṭiccasamuppāda include alllll the other stuff. All the stuff about what the world is like, for example, the claim that all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena. It includes basically everything in the Wikipedia article on P. It includes the ideas about the arising and cessation of Dukkha, the Four Noble Truths… this is a big bucket.

Bucket 1, Experiential

As I said, I am thinking of the experiential bucket as primarily Phassa through Upādāna.

This is how I was first taught Paṭiccasamuppāda, by Marc Akincano Weber and Judson Brewer at a retreat in 2019. At the time Akincano had said that the teachings around P differ across traditions, but this is the heart of the teaching and it is consistent across various canons. I’m taking his word on that for now.

If you are a follower of Stephen Batchelor, he said in his recent course “After Buddhism and Beyond” (hosted by Bodhi College) that this core part of the links of Paṭiccasamuppāda is a description of the process of reactivity.

And this experiential bucket is where Judson Brewer is when he links Paṭiccasamuppāda to the theory of operant conditioning and Reward based learning in his work on mindfulness based habit change. (See Feeling is Believing and The Craving Mind, among others.)

Bucket 2, Metaphysical

Because metaphysical theories are not bound by a correlation with direct experience, they can and do proliferate. I’ve so far come up with nine sub-buckets in which discussions of Paṭiccasamuppāda seem to fit. I bet there are more.

(1) Twelve Nidānas (12 links of DO)
Here are the links of Dependent Origination outside the direct experience of Phassa through Upādāna. So Avijjā through Nāmarūpa or maybe Saḷāyatana and maybe Bhava and Jāti through Jarāmaraṇa.

This is not to say that each of these concepts independently is outside of our experience. In Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 5 we talked about how we can experience Avijjā as not knowing how our minds work and how we can experience Saṅkhāras when we get caught up in unconscious behavioral patterning, what I called running “scripts”. And we can certainly experience Jarāmaraṇa, old age, decay, and death. The point here is that the claim that Avijjā (not knowing how our minds work) is a condition for the arising of Viññāṇa (consciousness) is a metaphysical claim and is not something that we can directly discern in our experience.

(2) Idappaccayatā, This/That Conditionality
A confession here: it’s not yet clear to me how this concept of [[that conditionality) is linked to the concept of Paṭiccasamuppāda. I often hear them mentioned together but their relationship is not yet clear to me. What I can say is that making a claim that all dhammas, all phenomena, are dependent on all other dhammas/phenomena, that is a metaphysical claim. It makes a claim about what the world is like and it is not something that we can directly experience. We may be able to reason it out, we may believe it, but my understanding is that it’s not something we directly experience.

(3) Interconnectedness
Also called “Inter-being”, this is the theory that all beings are interconnected. Think Indra’s Net. Think Tich Nhat Hahn. It’s similar to Idappaccayatā (this/that conditionality), but it’s not a concept that shows up in the suttas. It’s an extrapolation. If all dhammas are dependent on other dhammas, then all beings and their actions affect other beings and their actions. Again, this makes a ton of sense and is easy to reason oneself into. Renee Descartes’ writings on the Cogito have significantly impacted the culture in which I was born and are part of the reason I need Gotama’s teachings to help untangle the philosophical underpinnings of my experience.

(4) Verb-ing
The first time I remember hearing about this concept was Alan Watts talking about a candle flame. He frequently used this metaphor, pointing out that we use nouns such as “the flame of the candle”. But what is this noun “flame”? A flame is a burning stream of gas. It’s a pattern of behavior. It’s a verb. It might be more correctly called “the flaming of the candle”. Watts says that in “Eastern” languages many words can be used as either a noun or a verb depending on context. So it’s more clear when thinking in those languages that the relationship between noun and verb is fluid.

I like the way Leigh Brasington puts it, “Nouns are just verbs moving very slowly.”

If you’d like more philosophical language, Eric Van Horn on The Noble Eightfold Blog says, “We live in a world of processes and phenomena, not solid things. Nothing exists, everything happens.”

Again, though I believe it to be true, we’re talking metaphysics.

(5) Cessation of Phenomena
This one, I think, can straddle the two big buckets. From an experiential standpoint we can say, if there is a Phenomena A that is dependent on Phenomena B and I get rid of Phenomena B, then Phenomena A goes away. Using one of Brasington’s analogies, if the kitchen light is illuminated (Phenomena A), and let’s assume here that the kitchen light being illuminated is dependent on the kitchen light switch being on (Phenomena B), if I want the kitchen light to extinguish, all I have to do is turn the light switch to the off position. Phenomena B is changed, Phenomena A ceases. That’s experiential.

Where it gets into metaphysics is when we extend this experience metaphorically and make claims about, for instance, the ceasing of Taṇhā leading to the ceasing of Dukkha. Think Nirodha here. Think Third Noble Truth. The base metaphor may be experiential, but the way that ceasing is talked about is usually metaphysical.

(6) Arising of Phenomena
Same same. Yes, turning on the light switch illuminates the light bulb, all other dependent conditions being in place. However once we extend this metaphorically into, say, Dukkha (think Second Noble Truth) we get into metaphysics.

This is the philosophical theory we spend the most time discussing in Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 6. I actually think this is super helpful, learning to create environments (Phenomena B) that encourage desirable behavior or mental/emotional states (Phenomena A). This is hugely practical and useful in every day life.

But much of the time the rhetoric in Buddhist circles is about Dukkha arising dependent on Taṇhā. And that is a metaphysical claim.

(7) Emptiness
See number 4. In Mahāyāna Buddhism there is also the tenet: all things are empty of intrinsic nature. This “all things are”… tells you right away, metaphysical. Again, I’m a believer. But I have not experienced the emptiness of phenomena. The way my brain is structured, I experience myself-noun sitting on a chair-noun, typing on a laptop-noun.

(8) Buddhist Hell
This one surprised me. I had never heard of it until two weeks ago. In a conversation with some Kalyana Mitta (is the plural Mittas or Mitti?) they spoke about Paṭiccasamuppāda, Dependent Origination, in a way which surprised me. Peacock and S. Batchelor allude to this when they talk about about P as a description of “The Mess” or a description of the process of Reactivity. But what I hadn’t heard, or thought of, is that this Paṭiccasamuppāda supporting Sansara can be construed as a sort of Buddhist Hell. Or, if we want to callback to number 4 again, Buddhist Hell-ing.

(9) Free Will Vs Determinism
I spent an entire semester of my philosophy degree working on this idea. The broadest gist of the argument: if all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena, doesn’t that mean our actions are completely determined? How can free will exist within this framework?

Okay. That’s a lot. What’s the point?

On the one hand, what you’re looking at is the process of Learning in Public. This is what it’s like to pursue an Independent PhD. Masticating these ideas, metabolizing them, incorporating them into my philosophical framework.

On the other hand, I also think it’s helpful to Problematize Buddhist Doctrines in this way. There are many different personalities; mine often benefits from taking things apart, seeing how the pieces work, then putting them back together to see the interplay of parts, thereby better understanding the whole. I’ve not gotten there yet with Paṭiccasamuppāda; the leap from base experience (Phassa to Upādāna) to the Mahāyāna concept of Emptiness seems to me rather a stretch. Still, I’m developing a better understanding of how these concepts relate and I have way more confidence understanding what a particular teacher is talking about in a given moment.

This is all background work I did in preparation for Dharma PhD (the podcast) Episode 6. In that episode, Co-Host and I talk about how we can use Sub-Bucket 6, Arising of Phenomena, to increase the flourish-quotient in our lives. We’d love to hear your what you think!

5 replies on “Parsing Paṭiccasamuppāda (Dependent Origination)”


Thank you, again, for pointing me to JP’s 6-part series on Audio Dharma. I’m still replaying Part 3 – I enjoy it so much.

I notice that your mindmap deals with monasticism. Coincidentally, that topic arose several times this week in email exchanges. I thought I had a position on that topic, but now I’m re-evaluating. I’m reminded that Buddha was robed, as were his disciples who received the teachings directly. Hmmmm.

Thank you, again, for being a great communicator.

Hugs and smiles, Sharon

Sharon Reuler


Dear Sharon, Hello! Lovely to hear from you.

I’m not sure if this is exactly your point, but I’ll hazard to offer: I do believe there is a place in modern Dharma for monasticism/mendicantism. There are days I’m tempted myself to shave my head and walk off into the forest. It’s only that I agree with Batchelor’s position that, for me, this is not the goal of my practice. If I were to make a big renunciate move like that, it would be for the sake of some day “Returning to the Marketplace with Helping Hands”. That is, the renunciation as training for a more skillful engagement.

Also, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to edit your comment to remove your personal info (email, etc) in the signature line. Just in case. :)

Again, so lovely to hear from you. And seeing you every other Sunday is a treat! I hope I get a breakout room with you.

With friendliness!


PS: Are other people calling you “Shannon” on these Zoom calls? Because they are calling me “Sharon”. XD


What? You don’t know? LOL! People no longer read every letter in a word. They count on braincheck to correct their reading mistakes. I wonder if it would make a difference if you wrote your name as ShaNNon. No, I haven’t been called Shannon – YET. My experience is that people usually substitute “Karen” for Sharon. I answer to almost anything. =)

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