copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 5 (The trouble with conditionality) part b

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The general principle of dependent origination


The general principle of dependent origination is found in several places in the Pali Canon:

This being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises; this not becoming, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases[1].


In other words, things cause and condition one another into existing in the form they take. If the conditions on which a thing depends cease, then so does that thing. This is supposed to be the nearest to ultimate truth one can get in verbal form, described, for example by Sangharakshita, as “the essence of enlightenment”[2].


It is certainly hard to contradict. In claims that seem obvious, though, it is hard not to suspect pseudo-profundity. So it is with this statement. Buddhists say that it is easy to understand in theory, but hard to really accept in practice. However, when one looks more closely at not just what it means in theory, but what it might mean in practice, it turns out not to mean very much.


We observe things conditioning each other all around us all the time. Caterpillars turn into chrysalises then butterflies: without the caterpillar there would be no butterfly. Without adding milk, your coffee will taste bitter. If you keep eating lots of fast food you will put on weight. It could hardly be claimed that even small children do not appreciate the existence of conditionality. In fact, according to the philosopher Kant, we can’t really make sense of things without it. We see the world through the spectacles of causes and conditions, so we can hardly help drawing causal and conditional conclusions about things all the time.


However, if dependent origination means this, then it can hardly be a difficult truth which is hard to put into practice. We are all putting it into practice all the time regardless of our degree of enlightenment or otherwise. So we must dismiss this interpretation.


If dependent origination is not something we take for granted already, then perhaps it must refer to a standpoint only accessible to the enlightened. Perhaps it is talking about things that really are, and thus are beyond our experience. Such claims about ultimate reality raise hosts of philosophical problems, but we do not need to tackle them yet (see chapter 7), because this interpretation of dependent origination just wouldn’t make sense in any case. Ultimately real things are by definition not conditioned, and in any case the Buddha would be talking about something entirely beyond our experience that we could never grasp.


There’s one other possibility: that the principle is not a general principle at all, but is actually referring to some specific conditions which we need to grasp and understand in order to make spiritual progress. Obviously some of these would be ones spelled out in the twelve links, such as the relationship between feeling and craving. If that’s what Buddhism really means by this teaching, though, it’s being put in an extremely confusing and unhelpful way. We don’t need to know about general conditions at all, only about specific ones. We don’t generally have a problem with acknowledging the existence of conditions in general, only specific conditions that we might have a problem with, such as the bad effects of habits we don’t want to give up.


So, once more, Buddhism is its own worst enemy. It is claimed that we are confused and unenlightened through not understanding this law of conditionality: but actually it seems that we do not understand it for the more prosaic reason that it is not clear. There may well be conditions that we need to understand, but they are not in any way expressed by this. Presumably it is the urge to metaphysics which is again getting in our way. The Buddha had some very useful practical instructions about specific conditionings to offer to his disciples, but either he or they couldn’t resist turning this into a metaphysical “truth” about the nature of the universe.

[1] For example, this is found in the Culasakuludayi Sutta (section 7), Sutta 79 of the Majjhima Nikaya