1. The Meaning Of This Key Term
The key term that designates the Buddha’s core realization in sanskrit
is “pratityasamutpada”. Focusing on how this term is used in the discourses
and how it is used in various Buddhist contexts will help one to comprehend
the meaning intended for this term. A great deal has been written on just
this topic, and at first it may sound very dry and scholastic to examine
in detail the meaning of a single term. However, there are parallel examples
which may help us to understand the purpose of such an examination.
In law it is often necessary to define terms clearly, so that people can
understand when they have broken a law, and if they do break a law, what
the consequences of that action may be. Anyone familiar with law knows
how difficult this project can be. Yet the project serves a useful purpose
and societies consider it well worth the effort to establish this kind
of clarity. A law which is unclear is felt to be arbitrary and capricious
and not a good thing.
Similarly, clarity as to the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” helps one to
understand just what it is that I am dealing with, and therefore the consequences
of such a study, and to a degree, what I can expect from such a study.
If I lack clarity as to the meaning of this term, I have no way to gain
clarity as to my own understanding; my own claims may become capricious
or irrelevant to the subject. In addition, I will lack the ability to comprehend
whether or not someone else’s understanding is relevant to the subject
Or becoming clear about the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” resembles a
mathematician becoming clear about an axiom in a geometrical system. As
long as the mathematician remains unclear, the mathematician will probably
draw incorrect and/or irrelevant inferences from the axiom, due to the
Or becoming clear about the meaning of “pratityasamutpada” resembles learning
a basic stitch in knitting. Knowing this basic stitch is foundational for
further development and the knitter will continue using the stitch throughout
their knitting career.
1.1 Sanskrit Etymologies
One classic way of discerning the meaning of a term is to derive the meaning
through an etymological analysis. In India this is often invoked, particularly
in the case of Sanskrit, because Sanskrit is understood as a sacred language.
Understanding sanskrit as a sacred language leads to elevation of the grammarian’s
status as someone who not only can elucidate the structure of language,
but also can find the deep and hidden meaning of complex terms. New terms
in sanskrit are usually created by combining existing terms into a single
new term or word. This contrasts with languages like English and Japanese
which have a tendency to borrow words from other cultures when they want
to create a new term. The way Sanskrit combines existing terms to create
new terms/words is regulated by a complex set of rules. An etymological
analysis, therefore, consists of parsing an existing complex term into
its original components and explaining how they were combined to form the
term under consideration. For example:
... (T)he meaning of pratiityasamutpaada is the arising of things
dependent on causes. For prati is a prefix meaning ‘meeting’, and
is the root for going, i.n, but -- with the continuative ending
and modified by the prefix prati -- pratiitya is used for ‘meeting’
and ‘relying’. Also, paada with samut before it is used for
‘arising’ and at other times is also explained as ‘existing’ (sat)
and ‘established’ (siddha). Chandrakiirti’s Clear Words says:
Prati has the meaning of meeting (praapti, phard pa). [The verbal
root] i has the meaning of going. Here the term pratiitya,
a continuative, is used for ‘meeting’ or ‘relying’ because of the modification
of the meaning of the verbal root by the modifier [prefix]. It is explained,
‘The meaning of the verbal root is led forcefully elsewhere by a modifier
[prefix], like the sweetness of the waters of the Ganges [being changed]
by ocean water.’ [The root] pad preceded by samut means ‘arise’
(praadurbhaava, ‘byung ba); therefore, the term samutpaada
is used for ‘arising’. Hence, the meaning of pratiityasamutpaada
is ‘the arising of things in reliance on causes and conditions’.
Meditation on Emptiness, by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom, revised edition,
1996, pgs. 664 & 665.)
Hopkins’ analysis is based on Chandrakiirti’s analysis of the term from
The root i means motion; the preposition prati means arrival
or attainment. But the addition of a preposition alters the meaning of
the root. ‘A verbal root is forced, by the addition of a preposition, to
alter its meaning even as the sweet waters of the Ganges on emptying into
the ocean.’ So, in this case, the word pratiitya, as gerund, means
‘attained’ in the sense of ‘dependent’ or ‘relative’. Again, the verbal
root pad [to go, to fall] preceded by the preposition samut
[out of] means to arise or to become manifest. Samutpada, then,
has the meaning ‘to arise’ or ‘to become manifest’. The full meaning of
the term pratiityasamutpaada is therefore the arising, or becoming
manifest of things (bhaava) in relation to or dependent on causal
1.2 Pali Etymologies
The commentators who base their understanding of this core realization
of the Buddha on the Pali canon use a similar approach of etymological
analysis to comprehend the meaning of the core term. Pali and Sanskrit
are very closely related, but they also have significant divergences, and
this manifests as differences in emphasis of meaning when commentators
on the Pali term use an etymological analysis to derive meaning. To begin
with, it seems quite common to divide the term into two words, pa.ticca
samuppaada, instead of one word, which in itself produces a different
emphasis. Joanna Macy does this in her etymological analysis of the Pali:
A concise and literal English rendering of this Pali term is difficult. Uppaada,
the substantive form of the verb uppajjati, means “arising”; sam-uppaada,
“arising together.” Pa.ticca, as the gerund of pacceti (pati
+ i, to “come back to” or “fall back on”), is used to denote “grounded
on” or “on account of.” Literally, then, the compound would mean “on account
of arising together,” or, since it is used as a substantive, “the being-on-account-of-arising-together.” Buddhaghosa defines pa.ticca samuppaada as “that according to which
co-ordinate phenomena are produced mutually.” ... Another Pali compound
used in the canonical texts to refer to the Buddha’s view of causality
is idapaccayataa, literally “this-conditionality.” Sometimes translated
as “the relatedness of this to that” and as “relativity,” it is used synonymously
Macy’s analysis is rooted in the Theravada tradition. Here is Buddhaghosa’s
analysis of the Pali:
Here is the word meaning: idappaccayaa (lit. that-conditions) =
paccayaa (conditions for those); idappaccayaa (that-conditions)
= idappaccayataa (that-conditionality, conditionality for those,
specific conditionality). Or alternatively, idappaccayataa (that-conditionality)
= idappaccayaana.m samuuho (the total of that-conditions, total
(The Path of Purification, by Bhadantaacariya Buddhaghosa, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli, Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Edition,
1975 & 1991, page 526.)
1.3 Etymologies As Unreliable
With the weight of tradition behind this kind of analysis, I find myself
wanting to accept this approach as adequate for comprehending the meaning
of this core term. However, I find this kind of analysis more bewildering
than helpful. Notice that the quoted etymologies give slightly different
emphases; Chandrakirti’s analysis has a strong emphasis on dependence upon
causes while Macy’s analysis highlights mutuality as central. This may
seem like a small difference, however from this slight difference major
sectarian divergencies grow. Macy’s entire book comprehends the mutuality
of appearances as the definitive meaning of this core understanding. Chandrakirti
and the subsequent traditions based on his analysis give only passing reference
to mutuality, instead focusing on the dependent nature of all things and
integrating that dependent nature with their comprehension of emptiness.
These two interpretations are not contradictory, exactly, but they generate
different perspectives and I can not find any good reason to choose one
over the other, based on etymology alone. There is no historical reason
to choose the Sanskrit over the Pali or vice versa, as the singular linguistic
source. Not that I am advocating choosing one over the other (either the
languages or the interpretations); I think of both interpretations as valuable.
But both of those interpretations have meaning even if their etymologies
turn out to be incorrect. The importance of the interpretation does not
reside in the validity of the etymological analysis.
On another level, it has been my experience that new terms arise spontaneously
in a language. Only very rarely do people sit down and consciously create
a new term. New terms more often arise based on metaphor, or sonic considerations
such as rhyme, rhythm, and those kinds of associations. It might be useful,
for example, for a Sanskrit scholar to research what kinds of words were
widely in use at the time of the Buddha that had a similar sound and/or
rhythm to this core term. Or, it might be useful to find out how Brahmanical
and Jain cultures used similar sounding terms.
I am suggesting that the Buddha did not sit down and perform a conscious
synthesis in order to create this new word. It is remotely possible that
he did so; but I have not run across any reference in the discourses to
him engaging in that kind of activity. It seems very remote from his interests.
I think it more likely that the term arose spontaneously, even in the middle
of a conversation, and not out of these kinds of etymological considerations.
I don’t mean to dismiss out of hand the tradition of etymological analysis.
Such analysis can be helpful, particularly when it is related to other
terms. But I find myself unwilling to regard such analysis as definitive.
To focus on the core meaning, I believe I need to look elsewhere.
1.3.1 Conflicting Sanskrit Etymologies
In addition to differing Sanskrit and Pali etymologies, the Buddhist traditions
based on Sanskrit do not all agree on the correct etymological analysis
of this key term. For example, Buddhapaalita and Bhaavaviveka say:
The term prati has a distributive meaning like ‘diversely’ or ‘this
and that’. [The verbal root] i or i.n has the meaning of
‘going’, or ‘departing and disintegrating’. Itya, which is the affix
added to the verbal root, means ‘that which goes’. Taking itya as
a secondary derivative noun, [pratiityasamutpaada means] the arising
of what possesses departing or disintegrating diversely, diversely.
(Meditation on Emptiness, by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom, revised edition, 1996, pgs. 667-668.)
Here is Chandrakirit’s comment on conflicting analyses:
There are others who hold that the term means the arising of things which
vanish in the moment. This is bad etymology and cannot explain all uses
of the term in the sutras and in the Abhidharma. Bhaavaviveka attacks both
this interpretation and our own. If, he says, ‘to be dependent on’ or ‘to
be relative to’ means there are two separate things, then there can be
no origination, because the one thing must already have arisen before it
can be dependent on, or relative to, the second. This, however, is agreed
to, and so is no objection to our view. Bhaavaviveka adds that the term pratiityasamutpaada consists of two parts because it refers to the conditional statement ‘if
this exists, that will arise’. This is erroneous: the term is a mere conventional
expression, a metaphor. But Naagaarjuna insists that the meaning of the
entire term ‘dependent origination’ derives from its parts: ‘whatever arises
in dependence on something else does not arise in truth’. Bhaavaviveka,
however, gives an account which is the same as our own, in saying ‘the
long exists in dependence on the short, so far as there is the short, relative
to the long’. Thus he accepts what he had criticized as false, which does
not make sense. But enough of this disputation.
(Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way, by Chadrakirti, translated by Mervyn Sprung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979, page 34.)
Chadrakirti’s analysis emphasizes dependence upon causes and their appearing
in this manner. The other analysis, in contrast, emphasizes the departing
nature of things due to their diverse, or I would say aggregate, nature.
Once again these two interpretations are not logically incompatible, though
diverse traditions have certainly acted as if they were. However, there
is no way I know of to establish a criteria which would choose one etymological
analysis over another. Given these diverse analyses, the entire procedure
seems weakly grounded to me.
1.3.2 Conflicting Pali Etymologies
The Theravada tradition also has a history of disputes regarding the meaning
of this key term. Here is Buddhaghosa’s comment on alternative analyses:
The characteristic must be sought from grammar. Some, in fact, [say that
the expression pa.ticca samuppaada (dependent origination) is characterized
thus:] ‘having depended (pa.ticca), a right (sammaa) arising
(uppaada), [depending on causes rightly by] disregarding such causes
conjectured by sectarians as the Primordial Essence (Prakriti),
World Soul (Purusha), and so on’. So what they call dependent origination
(pa.ticca samuppaada) is a simple arising (uppaada) [for
they equate the prefix sa.m only with sammaa (rightly) and
ignore sa.m (with, con-)]. That is untenable. Why? (1) There is
no such sutta; (2) it contradicts suttas; (3) it admits of no profound
treatment; and (4) it is ungrammatical.
(The Path of Purification, by Buddhaghosa, translated by Bhikkhu Ñaa.namoli, Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Edition, Seattle, 1975 & 1991, page 527.)
1.3.3 The Example Of The Term ‘Tathagata’
Etymological analysis can produce surprising results. Take, for example,
the central Buddhist term, ‘Tathagata’. Subjected to etymological parsing,
according to the rules of sanskrit grammar and combination of terms, two
divergent renderings have emerged. One analysis considers the meanings
to be “The Thus Come One”, while another analysis yields the rendering
“Thus Gone One”. Robert Thurman translates the term as “Transcendent Lord”,
probably relying on Tibetan analyses of the term (see The Central Philosophy
of Tibet, pg. 152). Once again, I can not comprehend any good reason
for choosing one rendering over another. For this reason, I tend to translate
the term as “The One Of Thusness”, in an attempt to include both interpretations
under a single rendering. However, given such variance in interpretation,
I find it doubtful that relying on etymological analysis will yield genuinely
1.4 English Versions
There exist a large number of Enlgish language variants for this core term.
Some of them include:
All of these translations have their value. It is not clear why I should
choose one version over another. Partly this is due to the newness of Buddhism
in the west. Because the core idea of pratityasamutpada is very
new, and because Buddhism is very new in the west, there does not exist
as yet any strongly established tradition of interpretation of core Buddhist
ideas. The situation is very fluid and lack of familiarity with these ideas
leaves me in a situation where I can not come up with good reasons, or
present a good case, for one version as opposed to another.
1.5 Returning To Usage
I would like to suggest that instead of relying on etymologies that I return
to usage. By returning to usage, I mean to look once again at how the Buddha
presents the General Theory. I focus on the General Theory because specific
theories of this view, that is, the application of the General Theory to
specific cases, will tend to create a focus that might not necessarily
apply to all existing things. It is my understanding that the Buddha meant
this view to apply to all existing things.
When the Buddha says to Sakuludaayin, “I shall teach you Dharma,” the Buddha
then gives Sakuludaayin a formula for the General Theory. Once again, this
General Theory states:
When this exists, that comes to be.
With the arising of this, that arises.
When this does not exist, that does not come to be.
With the cessation of this, that ceases.
(The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha translated by Bhikkhu
Ñaa.namoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications: Boston. 1995.)
This is what I mean by usage; that when the Buddha wants to illustrate
Dharma, he offers this kind of explanation. I come to the concluion, therefore,
that an accurate rendering of the term ‘pratityasamutpada’ into English
must be consistent with this kind of usage, with this basic kind of explanation
of the General Theory.
2. Interdependent Transformation
After much investigation, and trying out various renderings, I would like
to suggest the translation ‘Interdependent Transformation’ for the term
‘pratityasamutpada’, and also for the Pali equivalent. My view is that
other renderings do not fully encompass the General Theory of this view
as the Buddha explains it in the discourses.
For example, consider the translation ‘Dependent Origination’. The term
dependent does not clearly designate the meaning of this view because it
is possible for something to exist dependently upon another thing which
does not exist dependently. But the view of the General Theory is that
this view applies to all existing things, that there are no exceptions,
that to exist means to exist dependently, and that therefore there is no
final ground upon which things depend, or no ultimate source from which
all things emerge and/or return to.
This may seem at first seem an abstruse point. However, by refering to
the theory by the term “Dependent” it subtly tilts the theory into a kind
of theistic or pantheistic view. This makes it more difficult to access
the unique vision of the Buddha and also makes it more difficult to engage
in what I refer to as unpacking the meaning of this view.
Also consider the use of the term ‘origination’ in the phrase “Dependent
Origination”. The term origination refers to the appearing of things, that
things appear dependently, that things appear due to causes and conditions.
However, origination is only one part of the General Theory. The General
Theory also specifically refers to cessation. The General Theory also refers
to causes which hinder the appearance, or origination. Thus the term “origination”
constitutes a truncated version of the full scope of the General Theory.
In addition, when applied to the great Buddhist task of bringing about
the cessation of suffering, it is difficult to connect the term “origination”
to the third noble truth, which is about cessation. This is unfortunate
because there is an intimate connection between the two; namely that if
things cease to exist due to causes and conditions, and that this truth
applies to all phenomena, then it follows that it is possible to bring
about the cessation of suffering, if I understand what constitutes the
causes of suffering, and by removing those causes. However, if I think
of the General Theory solely in terms of origination, this connection will
not be clear.
There does exist in English a term which encompasses both origination and
cessation; that term is ‘transformation’. When something appears, comes
into existence, originates, that constitutes a transformation. When something
ceases, that also constitutes a transformation.
For these reasons, I offer the rendering Interdependent Transformation
as a possible translation which is consistent with explanatory usage as
displayed in the discourses.
2.1 The First Half Of The General Theory As Origination
Returning to the statement of the General Theory in the Discourse to
Skauludaayin, it says, “When this exists, that comes to be. With the
arising of this, that arises.” This refers to the origination aspect of
the general theory. It means that everything that exists has its origin
in the existence of other things. The plant has its origin in seed, earth,
and water. The house has its origin in wood, plans, and mortar. Everything
that exists has this nature of existing because of other things. In other
words, to exist means to exist because other things exist.
This first half of the General Theory is a rich source for contemplation.
Just by itself it can change how we view things. Normally our perception
of things is that things are sort of “just there”, almost magically present.
This is because I do not normally perceive an object’s process of origination.
For example, when I look at the chair in my room, I do not perceive, directly
perceive, with my eyes, the tree that the wood came from, the factory that
put the wood together, the truck that delivered the chair, etc. What I
perceive is a chair-there; the chair does not inform me of its origination,
of its dependent nature.
For this reason I have to infer that the chair has this nature; the nature
of existing because other things exist. Inference, therefore, plays an
important part in broadening and deepening my understanding of this core
understanding of the Buddha. The contemplation takes the form of deliberately
taking the time when observing an object to draw the inference that leads
to the understanding that the origin of the thing has its basis in the
existence of other things. By doing this regularly, I develop a habit of
mind that begins to routinely comprehend things as there because of the
existence of other things. This habit of mind begins to permeate my perception,
and effect my relationships with the things of this world, including other
2.2 The Second Half Of The General Theory As Cessation
The second half of the General Theory states, “When this does not exist,
that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.” This
refers to the cessation aspect of the General Theory. The importance of
this is that the General Theory is not only a theory of origination, it
is also a theory of cessation. The General Theory is simultaneously a theory
of both origination and cessation, due to causation.
As in the first half, this second half of the General Theory is also a
rich source for contemplation. For this General Theory states that all
things have this nature as functioning as factors, or a factor, in the
cessation of other things. So, while things arise due to the existence
of other things, those other things simultaneously function to block the
existence of different things or to bring about the cessation of things
which currently exist. This richly adds to the complexity of the General
Theory, considerably broadening its scope and application.
However, when this General Theory is referred to as someting like “dependent
origination”, such terminology only refers to the first half of the General
Theory, that half which designates origination due to causation. It is
primarily for this reason that I think the term “origination” misleads
by unjustifiably narrowing the scope of what is actually under consideration;
the origination of things due to causes and conditions, as well as the
cessation of things due to causes and conditions.
2.3 The First Half Of The General Theory Illuminates The Second Noble Truth
The first half of the General Theory, “When this exists, that comes to
be. With the arising of this, that arises,” helps me to comprehend the
Second Noble Truth and place it within the context of the primal enlightenment
of the Buddha. The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused.
This constitutes a specific application of the General Theory to a specific
appearance; the appearance of suffering. The General Theory states that
all things appear due to the existence of other things; that to exist means
to exist dependently upon those other things. Applying this to suffering,
and considering suffering as a thing, as an appearance, the General Theory
illuminates the nature of suffering by pointing out that suffering is not
causeless, that suffering does not just magically appear. Rather, suffering
exists in this world because the conditions which give rise to suffering
are adequately present.
This is a good example of how the General Theory gives rise to other Buddhist
understandings which the tradition has considered central.
2.4 The Second Half of the General Theory Illuminates The Third Noble Truth
The second half of the General Theory, “When this does not exist, that
does not come to be. With the cessaton of this, that ceases,” helps me
to understand the Third Noble Truth and place it within the context of
the primal enlightenment of the Buddha. The Third Noble Truth is referred
to as the truth of cessation and in terms of the General Theory this means
that all things cease to exist due to causes and conditions. Things do
not simply magically disappear. Rather things cease due to specific conditions
which are incompatible with their continued existence. Applying this insight
from the General Theory to the specific appearance of suffering, and comprehending
suffering as a thing, as an appearance, this means that suffering disappears
when the causal conditions which give rise to suffering are not present
(“When the conditions which give rise to suffering do not exist, suffering
does not come to be.”), or when the presence of the factors which constitute
suffering cease, then suffering ceases (“With the cessation of that which
feeds suffering, suffering ceases.”). Here I begin to comprehend how the
great liberation, the cessation of suffering and freedom from sorrow, that
the Buddha discovered is embedded in, grows out of, and has its roots in,
the realm of his core realization of Interdependent Transformation.
2.5 The Term “Transformation” Embraces Both Halves Of The General Theory
The problem with those translations which use the term “origination” or
“airising” is that they only alude to half the story; and in some ways
not the most important half. This way of rendering the core insight of
the Buddha makes it difficult for people to connect this core insight to
the Third Noble Truth, thus increasing the tendency to view the study of
this core insight as abstract, or remote. Actually, the Four Noble Truths
have their roots in the core insight that we are discussing and to fully
comprehend the Four Noble Truths, I need to first have a clear understanding
of this core insight.
I do not mean to suggest substituting “dependent cessation”, as that would
also constitute only half the story, only half the insight of the Buddha.
Instead, I suggest the use of the term “Transformation” for designating
that reality to which the Buddha refers. Origination constitutes a transformation;
the acorn transforms into the oak, water and fire and tea leaves transform
into a cup of tea, clouds turn to rain, etc.. Cessation constitutes a transformation;
fire turns to ash, the last note of a song brings silence, etc. Both origination
and cessation are embraced in the single term “Transformation”. So after
much inner reflection and study of the various renderings of this key term,
I offer the reader an interpretation that, I think, is adequate to the
General Theory as a whole.
2.6 Dependence And Interdependence
We are not yet finished with a determination of designation for the meaning
of this key sanskrit term. The term “Transformation” is a good start, but
there is also the aspect of causal dependence which needs to be taken into
consideration. For the General Theory is not just a theory of transformation;
but it is also a theory that Transformation happens due to causes, not
causelessly, not magically.
Translators have tended to use the word “Dependent”; it is the most frequent
designator for this aspect of the General Theory. I am going to suggest,
however, that in a crucial way, such a rendering is inadquate; I don’t
think that it is exactly wrong, but i think it is on the edge of the target,
definitely not a bullseye.
2.6.1 Things Appear And Cease Due To Causes And Conditions
The General Theory points to things as leaning on, relying on, having the
basis of their existence on, other things. Things depend upon other things
for their existence. The General Theory, however, extends this observation
much further than most analyses of causation. By further claiming that
there does not exist any aspect of any existing thing, the General Theory
asserts that the dependent nature of things is thorough, or through and
through. By thorough I mean that I can take any aspect of an existing thing,
and that aspect will also reveal itself as dependent upon other things
for its appearance as an existing thing at this time.
This nature of things leaning on other things for their support is the
key to the General Theory as also a theory of cessation. Think of a rake
leaning against a fence. The particular appearance of that rake at this
time requires the existence of the fence. If I remove the fence, the rake
falls down and takes on a different appearance. Using such an analogy,
when I say that things lean on other things in order to exist, I begin
to comprehend that this support is itself contingent; that the supporting
conditions which allow for a particular thing to exist also constitute
things which in turn lean on other things in order for the supporting conditions
to exist to support the particular things that I am interested in. In this
manner, the web of connections and dependencies which generate the existence
of a particular thing quickly becomes mind boggling in complexity and beauty.
If any of these supporting conditions upon which a particular thing leans
in order for it to exist, ceases, then the particular thing also ceases.
The rake falls down if the fence falls down. Or take another example, a
cup and saucer placed on a table. If, for some reason, the table leg breaks,
the table falls, the cub and saucer slide to the floor, and break. The
supporting conditions for the cup and saucer are no longer present and
so the cup and saucer are no longer present.
Or take another example: suffering. One supporting condition for suffering
is clinging. As long as clinging is present, suffering is present. Suffering
leans on clinging in order for suffering to exist. If I cease to cling,
suffering falls away, like a cup sliding off a table, and shattering.
2.6.2 Things Function As Causes And Conditions For Other Things
If there were no things, there would be no things. Talk about a tautology.
But, by this statement, I mean that it is things which function as the
creative source and generator for other things. I do not have to go beyond
the things of this world, to some outside agency or source, in order to
access the creative matrix which constantly generates the things of existence.
The General Theory is not only a theory of how things come into existence,
the General Theory also points to things as the locus of creativity in
existence; though, because this applies to all things, this locus has no
specific location but, rather, constitutes an aspect of the nature of all
When I look at things as simply dependent upon other things for their existence,
my tendency is to regard the particular thing I am looking at as in some
way inert, as the passive recipient of the complex causal matrix upon which
that particular thing leans. But that is only half the view of the General
Theory. When I look at things as interdependent, then I begin to comprehend
that every existing thing also functions as the generator and progenitor
of numerous, innumerable, other things. In a sense, each existing thing
acts as a transformer, receiving the beneficence of support from many other
things, taking that energy, matter, form, etc., and then transforming what
it has received into potentialities for other things, allowing for the
birth of other things.
From this perspective, nothing in existence is inert or passive. This applies
equally to rocks, plants, clouds, streets, songs, and people. From this
perspective, there is no such thing as the inanimate.
2.6.3 Every “This” Is A “That”
Take a particular thing. I’ll call it X. The first statement of the General
Theory says, “When this exists, that comes to be.” Or, substituting our
particular thing, it would read, “When this exists, X comes to be.” This
means that X relies upon the existence of “this” in order for X to exist.
But X simultaneously functions as a “this”, so I can also read this first
statement as, “When X exists, that comes to be.” Depending upon how I focus
on X, I perceive X as the recipient of supporting conditions or I perceive
X as a supporting condition for other things. The point is, X is both of
these at one and the same time. To exist means to function in both of these
ways at all times.
The second statement reads, “With the arising of this, that arises.” Focusing
once again on a particular thing I would read the statement as, “With the
arising of this, X arises.” Once again, switching perspective, I can also
read the statement as, “With the arising of X, that arises.”
The third statement reads, “When this does not exist, that does not come
to be.” Focusing once again on a particular thing I read the statement
as, “When this does not exist, X does not come to be.” Following through
on my understanding that every this is a that, I can also place X in this
statement, “When X does not exist, that does not come to be.” This means
that X ceases due to causes and conditions and simultaneously functions
as the cause for the cessation of other things, or the non-appearance of
The fourth statement reads, “With the cessation of this, that ceases.”
Performing the above substitutions for the particular thing X, I get, “With
the cessation of this, X ceases.” I also get, “With the cessation of X,
This and that resemble the concepts here and there. My here is your there.
Your there is my here. Similarly, a “this” in the General Theory is the
causal generator for other existing things. When seen from this perspective
it has a creative nature. When comprehended as a that, I comprehend a thing
as the recipient of this causal matrix. But in actuality, any particular
thing, X, continuously functions and displays both natures, which thoroughly
permeate every aspect of X.
This and that, in this General Theory, also resemble I and you. My I is
your you. Your I is my you. I do not mean to imply that here and there,
I and you, are non-existent; but that they are conceptually distinguishable
dependent upon the perspective of the observer. By perspective of the observer
I mean the mind of the observer. Similarly, it is the mind of the observer
which determines whether or not, while comprehending the nature of an existing
particular thing, X, teases out the this or the that aspects of X. This
kind of distinction between X as the recipient of causal conditions, and
therefore dependent in its nature, and therefore passive, and X as the
generator of causal conditions for other existing things, and therefore
creative, is solely mind dependent. X itself, and this applies to all existing
things, manifests as a transformative creative matrix, a conduit of possibilities
and potentialities which effortlessly embraces both the this and the that
of its existence.
2.6.4 Distinguishing Dependence And Interdependence
The distinction between dependence and interdependence is subtle, but crucial
to my understanding, clearly the central teaching of the Buddha. To say
that things exist interdependently means that they exist dependently; but
to say that things exist dependently does not necessarily mean that they
The question is whether or not the view of pratityasamutpada, the
General Theory I am discussing, infers a final cause, or source, either
logically or temporally, or both, from which emerge all phenomena. If the
General Theory does infer this, then rendering the General Theory with
the term “dependent” would be accurate. I say this because in the monotheistic
traditions, as well as in the platonic traditions, all things exist dependently;
but what the monotheistic tradition means by this is that all things exist
by the grace of an ultimate source, and that source is God.
On the other hand, if the General Theory does not infer such a final source
or ground, then I need to ask the location of that which brings forth the
appearances of this world. When I contemplate the General Theory I do not
observe any inference for a final cause or source of existing things, and
to which existing things return. The General Theory simply points to other
things as the source for any particular thing. “When this exists, that
comes to be,” draws our attention to other existing things. Once again,
I see no reason, given the General Theory, to infer that the Buddha meant
to imply the existence of a final source.
In addition, there exist very good historical reasons for rejecting the
idea, in a Buddhist context, for an ultimate source interpretation of the
General Theory. For example, Buddhism never developed a creation myth or
story. Instead, Buddhism frequently refers to existence as beginningless
and endless. This lack of a creation mythos, from the perspective of the
various monotheisms, is quite distinctive. But this lack of a creation
mythos in Buddhism is consistent with the view of the General Theory; I
think I can infer that the lack of a creation mythos in Buddhism is directly
derived from the central role of the General Theory.
The lack of a creation mythos in Buddhism reflects the General Theory’s
focus on the appearance of things due to the existence of other things.
Those other things, in turn, exist due to the appearance of other things,
which are also existing due to other things, etc. This generates an infinite
regress, which is logically self-referentially consistent, and has no beginning
and no end. Notice also that the General Theory does not require the intercession
of an ouside agency in order for this river of relationships to begin.
Because the Buddha considered the General Theory as an elucidation of the
very nature of things and existence as such, no special catalyst for this
onward flowing is necessary. The location, therefore, of the source for
the appearance of things is simply other things, spread out over all of
existence, both in time and in space. In some of the ancient Indian exegeses
they refer to this as “unlocated nirvana”; unlocated because this
ultimate nature does not confine itself to any particular thing or corner
of existence, nirvana because it is precisely this ultimate nature
and its realization which brings about the peace of the cessation of all
To use the term “dependent” to describe the General Theory subtly distorts
the presentation of the General Theory. It does so by inferring that their
exists some particular entity, thing, or source which brings things into
existence; thus shifting the direction of the General Theory from the observation
of how other things are the ultimate cause of things, to looking for what,
from a Buddhist perspective, is a non-existent ultimate other.
I would suggest, instead, the use of the term “interdependent”. The term
interdependent, while retaining the meaning of dependent in the sense of
relying upon, points to things themselves as the ultimate source for the
existence of things. Things enthing existence. A non-thing simply does
not exist. In addition, the term interdependent is more consistent with
the usage of the General Theory because it points out how any particular
thing simultaneously functions as a dependent recipient of causal support,
and as a creative matrix for the appearance of other things. Thus each
existing thing participates in all aspects of the General Theory simultaneously,
and this is the “inter” of the “interdependence”.
2.6.5 Therefore “Interdependent Transformation”
For all of these reasons I have decided to adopt the translation “interdependent
transformation” for the sanskrit term “pratityasmutpada” and for the equivalent
pali term as well. After years of consideration, I think that this term
more accurately reflects the usage to which the Buddha puts this General
This may seem like a long digression and a minute affair. However, how
I comprehend a key term, particularly when I am going to relate how this
key term functions in relationship to other key understandings within the
Buddhist tradition, has implications which go very far. Bringing clarity
to usage, therefore, is an important task. It resembles taking a fork in
the road. The fork in the road symbolizes two different interpretations
of the same idea as reflected in two different translations. At first,
it may not seem that the choise of taking the left fork or the right fork
makes much difference, especially if the roads parallel each other for
some distance. Eventually, however, the roads diverge and very different
It resembles determining an axiom in mathematics. Clarity of meaning for
this central notion will significantly effect how the system interprets,
for example, space in many details.
A small decision can have large impacts. When it comes to Interdependent
Transformation and comprehending the Buddhadharma, a small shift
in my understanding can either illuminate, or cast into difficulties, whole
regions wisdom and compassion. It is my hope that the usage “Interdependent
Transformation” will function as an antidote to ignorance and help to free
all sentient existence from suffering.