copyright Robert Ellis 2008

The Trouble with Buddhism chapter 5

This book is also available as a paperback or pdf download from

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

The trouble with conditionality

What I actually mean here is “the trouble with the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination or pratityasamutpada”. However, that would not exactly make a very catchy chapter heading. There is nothing wrong with conditionality in itself, but it’s the Buddhist view of it that needs unravelling.


Conditionality, dependent origination, or pratityasamutpada, is often put forward as the underlying philosophical principle of Buddhism. This chapter argues that, put in its most general terms, this principle is empty of specific guidance and thus practically useless. Buddhism is right to point out the value of recognising conditions, but it is specific conditions in our experience that we need to recognise. Universal claims about all conditions are merely dogmatic and unhelpful.


Click on the summaries below to view the full text of each section.


a) The twelve links


The most common traditional way of teaching the Buddhist doctrine of conditionality is through the twelve links or nidanas on the Wheel of Samsara ('Wheel of Life'). This has the advantage of drawing our attention to specific kinds of conditioning that we often tend to neglect. However, it is argued here that the emphasis on the link between feeling and craving as the only point of freedom is too narrow, and as often some helpful insights have been over-extended and turned into rigid dogmas by Buddhist tradition.


b) The general principle of dependent origination


The general principle of dependent origination is often offered as the ultimate insight of Buddhism, but it turns out either to be telling us what we already take for granted (that we assume all things are conditioned) or beyond our experience (telling us that when we're unconditioned we grasp some general truth about conditions). Either way the general principle is of no use to us at all, since what we need to understand are specific conditions that we need to address in our experience, not 'truths' about conditions in general.


c) Mutual causality and interdependency


Dependent origination has also been interpreted in terms of interdependency and mutual causality. This becomes effectively another way of presenting impermanence and insubstantiality (see chapter 1), and can be useful provided we take it to point to some specific conditions in our experience rather than to general truths about the universe. If we stop thinking in terms of metaphysical truths, it is not necessarily any more useful to recognise the interdependency of conditions than to recognise their independence, though we may have a tendency to neglect interdependency more often.



Continue to Chapter 6 'The trouble with Reality' index page

Return to 'Trouble with Buddhism' index page

Return to home page