Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Interdependent Co-Arising

One of the cornerstones of the Buddha's teachings is the concept of interdependent co-arising. The Buddha himself explained it very simply:
This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be. (From The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 221)
I look at my teacup, and I can see the countless causes and conditions that gave rise to it. There are the elements of earth (the clay), fire (the kiln in which the cup was baked), air (necessary to produce the fire), and water (needed to fashion the clay into its shape). For the earth to be created, there were infinite events that had to occur in the solar system. For the heat to be produced there were countless causes and conditions that gave rise to the fuel that made the fire. Clouds and air and sun produced the rain that gave us the water.

There is also the person who made the cup to be considered. Thousands of interconnecting events had to occur to bring together his or her parents so that this one being could be created, so that they could learn to become a potter, and so they could make this vessel. On and on it goes, and soon we realize that the entire universe is present in this one little cup.

If we were able to take away just one element from any of these interdependent causes and conditions - if you took the clay and returned it to the earth, returned the water to the clouds, or if the potter had not been born - this particular cup could not exist. But because all these things happened - and many, many more - the cup holding my tea sits next me right now.

The final element that must exist is my awareness of the cup, and so I, too, am part of this endless chain of interdependent co-arising. Just as the cup cannot exist independent of the causes and conditions that gave rise to it, neither can I exist without the interdependence of the events that gave rise to me.

In some ways, this teaching is like the time travel paradox from a science fiction story. Time travelers journey to the prehistoric past, and through some unskillful action (stepping on a single flower, for example), cause a chain reaction through time that results in an altering of the present day that they discover when they return.

Some time today, take a moment to reflect upon the miraculous nature of life, as viewed through the lens of interdependent co-arising. Look around you right now and contemplate a single object, or even just the words on your computer screen (remember a fellow named Gutenberg?). Everywhere you look you will find the dharma of interdependent co-arising at work.

From Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

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