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Paticca Samuppada : Dependent Co-arising

Joanna Macy, in World As Lover, World As Self , made this concept clear to me. It's not a common idea in Western religious talk, because it makes a divine Authority unnecessary for a moral imperative. She comes to it from systems theory, where it does have a Western parallel.

From page 54, here's a taste:

According to Western religious thought, ethical values derive from divine commandment. A supernatural source is necessary to provide moral sanction. Without the ontological security of belief in an absolute, everything seems awash, with no clear guidelines, and it's every man for himself. This assumption is so pervasive in the West that many noted scholars judged Buddhism's moral teachings to be weak, since they do not issue from belief in any God. It is true that the Way the Buddha taught is freed from the necessity to believe in any supernatural authority. Indeed when he was asked by what authority he spoke, he cited again and again the law of dependent co-arising; not any entity ruling our world, but the dynamics at work within our world. He cited the interdependence of all phenomena. What did he mean by that? How can radical relativity serve as a moral grounding?

Her answer to that question, a description of the vigil under the Bodhi tree, takes too much space to quote at length here, but it begins (p. 540) with...

With fascination I studied the early Buddhist texts. I read how the perception of paticca samuppada dawned on the Buddha the night of his enlightenment, and featured in his discourses. I saw how it underlay everything he taught about self, suffering, and liberation from suffering. I noted how it knocked down the dichotomies bred by hierarchical thinking, the old polarities between mind and matter, self and world, that had exasperated me as a spiritual seeker and activist, and as a woman.

...and includes, on p. 56...

Tracing thus the sources of suffering, he did not find a first cause or prime mover, but beheld instead patterns or circuits of contingency. The factors were sustained by their own interdependence.

...and on p. 58...

According to this apparently simple set of assertions, things do not produce each other or make each other happen, as in linear causality; they help each other happen by providing occasion or locus or context, and in so doing, they in turn are affected. There is a mutuality here, a reciprocal dynamic.

I left out the narrative parts and the quotations from original sources. The argument hangs together better with them, and is more interesting. When I read it I felt I'd been given a great gift: how to understand morality as implicit in the basic nature of the universe, without pinning it on divinity. Instead of being subject to a top-down authority structure, we participate in an interdependent web of being which enfolds us, dancing with the endless exchange of energy which is our dependent co-arising, our giving and receiving of the life force, of compassion and service, of the dharma.

25 November 1998