“Like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”

It’s been said that pratitya-samutpada is the foundation for all Buddhist concepts. One Buddhist scholar, Jeffrey Hopkins has called it the “king of reasons.” In Majjhima-nikaya I, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “Whoever sees pratitya-samutpada sees the dhamma and whoever sees the dhamma sees pratitya-samutpada.”

This term is known by many names: dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, and so on. I often prefer to use interdependency or interconnectedness. All of these renderings taken individually fail to capture pratitya-samutpada precisely, and actually, a precise, literal definition is hard to come by.

In general, it means, “the arising of things in dependence of causes and conditions” (Chandrakiirti). In Mahayana, pratitya-samutpada includes interconnectedness, the multiplicity or diversity of forms, emptiness, compassion, and the Middle Way.

Because all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, they are interconnected, and while all things have a reality, it is a transient one as none posses independent existence. By reason of the emptiness of both self and phenomena, everything is equalized, thereby eliminating any foundation for preference, prejudice and hatred. However, if we are all fundamentally one, there is a foundation for compassion. The Indian scholar Dr. Krishniah Venkata Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sastra, writes,

Comprehension has its dimensions of depth and width and to the farer on the Great Way this means, on one hand, the penetration into the deeper nature of things which culminates in the realization that the ultimate nature of the conditioned is itself the unconditioned reality. On the other hand, comprehension stands also for the realization of the essential relatedness of determinate entities . . . with regard to the human individual it has the all-important bearing of one’s essential relatedness with the rest of the world. It is the insight into the true nature of things that is the basis of the universal compassion of the wise.

This is the same message the Heart Sutra imparts, and it’s the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

Sufferings arise from causes. The Buddha’s method is to try to trace back the causes and reverse them. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. Here, ignorance is different from our ordinary understanding of the word. It means un-knowing or mis-knowing, a deluded state of mind based on the idea of svabhava or self-being, the notion that we possess an inherent essential nature that is unconditioned, self-contained, self-supporting, and permanent.

Self-being is rejected because such an essence or nature would have to come into being on its own, without causes and conditions, it would have to stand on its own side as an entity independent from other things, and it would need to be able to persist indefinitely in an unchanged state. This is considered untenable. It’s a delusion.

In Mahayana, the general view is that ignorance is dispelled through a deep understanding of emptiness. In turn, emptiness is the ground of pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising, the foundation for this diverse world. Buddhapalita, the great master of the Prasangika tradition, said that to understand emptiness, you must understand dependent arising.

Sunyata (emptiness) is often discussed in terms of “relativity”, “relatedness”, “interconnectedness”, and “interdependency.” Even to take this holistic aspect of the term for its entire meaning is insufficient. In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, Frederick J. Streng states,

Sunyata is both relatedness and emptiness; it stands ‘between’ the absolute and the conditioned phenomena . . . If we use the symbolism of a circle, with its center and circumference, we would suggest that ‘emptiness’ is represented neither by the center (from which all points on the circumference radiate) nor by the points at the end of the radius. Nor is it even the relationship between the center and the circumference; but it is the recognition that ‘center,’ ‘circumference,’ and ‘radius’ are mutually interdependent ‘things’ which has no reality in themselves – only in dependence on the other factors.”

This, I believe, leads us to the true spirit of renunciation, which ultimately must mean leaving behind the idea of self-being. As Streng states, “The alleviation of suffering could not apply only to some single individual entity, since such an ‘entity’ could not come into existence or change. Release from the bonds of karma [is] feasible for ‘one’ only if it involve[s] a relationship to ‘all’.”

I feel true renunciation is a state of mind and it does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. That’s not my contention because it’s a more modern or Western point of view, or because I’m picking and choosing and trying to bypass practicing austerities, it’s because I think it is a deeper view that goes right to the heart of the matter. It stands to reason that the highest form of renunciation is to let go of our attachment to the notion that things, including living beings, have an independent self or soul, a delusion that lies at the very heart of suffering. Renunciation is the genuine desire to transcend suffering for the sake of others.

You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our Zazen [meditation]. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between [Buddhist] practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish,

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The title of today’s post comes from the English lyrics to “The Windmills of Your Mind” (“Les moulins de mon cœur”) by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, from the 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair


2 thoughts on ““Like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”

  1. David –

    Of the many descriptions of dependent co-origination, I find Thich Nhat Hanh’s among the most helpful: “This is because that is.”

    Thanks for an engaging discussion.


    1. You’re welcome, Ben, and thanks for leaving your comment.

      One of the things I have always admired about Thich Nhat Hanh is his ability to restate complex concepts in extremely simple terms. Of course, in this case, he’s merely restating the tradition formula of “because of this, that arises; because of that, this arises” found several places in the Pali suttas.

      BTW, I enjoyed your last post, too. I left you a comment on Facebook regarding your remark about Pabst, but it disappeared. Facebook eats all my comments. I don’t think it likes me.

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