I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “You must understand dependent arising to understand emptiness.” (July 31, 1996)
Frankly, I don’t think many people want to understand emptiness. I have a feeling that most folks think it’s boring. Oh no, they groan, here comes that emptiness crap again.
Dependent arising, or dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada), on the other hand, is a concept that almost everyone can warm up to. That is, when it is presented as “interdependency.” People can easily get behind the notion that we are all linked together, fundamentally one, and that we need each other. No problem.
When pratitya-samutpada is presented as a twelve-link chain of causes and conditions, then we start to run into some resistance. You see, now we’re bringing in karma and rebirth which some people are agnostic about. You can’t blame them for that because you can’t really prove karma or rebirth.
Briefly, the causal chain goes like this:
Ignorance (1) is viewed as the primary cause for rebirth. Ignorance gives rise to consciousness (2), which is conditioned by karma (3), the imprints of causes from past lives. Karma conditions consciousness and is then joined to name and form (4) or the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb. Heredity, environment and a number of other factors also condition name and form, and when the psycho-physical entity is activated, the six-senses (5) are also activated. The senses come into contact (6) with objects, especially objects of desire, and this causes feeling (7), craving (8), and grasping (9) to arise.
All of these factors cause and condition the becoming of life (10), which means that life is then subject to future rebirth (11), and all that is born, and reborn, is subject to old age and death (12). After death, we begin the cycle again. Pratitya-samutpada is a three dimensional matrix consisting of the past, present and future; the “twelve-linked chain” is the cycle of birth and death through three successive lifetimes.
In Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama says,
Through the twelve links of dependent origination, Buddha teaches that all things and all events, including all elements of one’s individual experience, come into being merely as a result of the aggregation of causes and conditions. Understanding this, in turn, can lead us to see that all things are by nature interdependent, originating entirely as a result of other things and other factors.
Buddha teaches that the very fact that something is dependently originated means that it is necessarily devoid of an essential, or independent, reality. For is something is fundamentally dependent, by logical necessity it must be devoid of having a nature that is independent of other phenomena, of existing independently. Thus is it said that anything that is dependent, must also be, in actual fact, empty.
One might wonder why this is so important; why does it matter that all phenomena are empty of any inherent existence? It matters, Buddha teaches, because one who clearly understands the true nature of this emptiness will be liberated, released completely from all suffering.
Dependent origination and emptiness essentially point to the same thing, and another reason why they are important is because they signify the absolute equally of all things. We are all subject to the same causes and conditions. Because of this, there is that. Nothing can exist by itself; everything is inter-connected and since we are mutually dependent upon one another, we are all equal. Understanding things in such a way destroys any basis for justifying hate and prejudice.
As the Dalai Lama said above, whatever is dependently originated is in the nature of emptiness. This is why it is important to understand the former in order to understand the latter.
One facet of emptiness is non-duality, and there is a more scientific view of this aspect. A rather interesting explanation comes from all places, The Sopranos.
In an episode, entitled “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” there’s a short discussion along these lines.
The Scene: Tony Soprano is in the hospital recovering after being shot by his unlce. Paulie, one of his right hand men, is visiting, and they’re in the room of a famous rap star, along with another patient, John Schwinn (Hal Holbrook), watching a boxing match on TV.
Paulie: I tell ya, we each and every one of us are alone in the ring, fighting for our lives. Just like that poor prick. (Points to boxer.)
John: Well, that’s one way to look at it.
Paulie: You got a better one?
John: Don’t get me started. It’s complicated . . .
Paulie: Think I’m stupid?
John: Well, it . . . It’s actually an illusion those two boxers are separate entities.
Paulie: What the fuck?
John: “The separate entities” is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony: I didn’t choose nothin’ . . .
John: It’s . . . it’s physics. Schrödinger’s equation. The boxers, you, me . . . we’re all part of the same quantum field.
Rapper’s girlfriend: You ever substitute teach at Carlton middle school?
Tony: He’s a rocket scientist, fer chissakes. Bell labs. (Boxer beats on other boxer.) You were saying?
John: Well, think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air. Two tornadoes, say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things? But they’re not. The tornadoes are just wind, the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate. Everything is connected.
Rapper: Everything is everythang. (Raises cup.) I’m down with that.
Tony: Get the fuck outta here!
John: The universe is just a big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness. (TV picture goes out.)
Paulie: You’re so fuckin’ smart . . . fix that TV.
John: (Laughs.) Okay. . .