Notes on Co-dependent Origination
There has been some talk of Buddhist relationism on blogs recently (1,2,3), so I decided to resurrect, tear apart, edit and rearrange an old essay of mine on the topic, hoping to shed some light on these issues. Coming back to it after some 3 years I realize that I just scratched the surface and that I wish I had time to deal with them in more detail…
The idea of co-dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) is central to all Buddhist thought, and it has a history and an internal development. At first, in the early pali Sutras (a key source is here) the doctrine of co-dependent origination is a complement to the 4 noble truths as spelled out in the Buddha’s first sermon (particularly the second one, indicating the origin of suffering) and performs a fundamentally propedeutic role on the path towards liberation. Pratītyasamutpāda is indeed structured in 12 precise ‘steps’ starting with ‘ignorance’ (avidya) and ending with suffering/death. The message is clear: ignorance of the impermanence (anitya) of all leads to suffering. In the Abhidharma literature (the first written systematization of the Buddha’s teachings) this means that reality is seen as a constant process of arising and disappearing phenomena. The Buddhist emphasis on cognitive perception produced a number of fairly complex classifications (with long lists of 72 or 81) known as Dhamma theories, where dhammas are the smallest, impermanent (but real) unit of phenomenal appearance of an entity, fundamental but fleeting mental and physical events (only a small number -2 or 3- of so-called unconditioned dhammas –space and Nibbana– are not impermanent) Dhammas are peculiar instances of qualities dependent upon our cognitive action. It is all much more complex than this, but the basic point to bring home is that these event-like dhammas (in between the mental and the physical) are the smallest unit of reality, bundled together in phenomena.
Pratītyasamutpāda becomes a more nuanced, stand-alone metaphysical doctrine regarding reality as a whole only with successive developments of Buddhist thought, in particular with the philosophy of Nāgārjuna (I have never been –nor I plan to be—a practicing Buddhist or a ‘believer’ of any sort, but the encounter with Nāgārjuna’s philosophy was probably the most exciting intellectual encounter of my career) and the Madhyamaka school.
With Nāgārjuna’s pratītyasamutpāda, objects are dependent on a network of phenomena, are dependent on a set of internal relations and are dependent on their conceptual designation. Co-dependent origination becomes the real cornerstone of Buddhist metaphysics because of Nāgārjuna’s renewal of the idea of emptiness (śūnyatā). Briefly put, if for the earlier Buddhist philosophers things were impermanent and not-independent because emerging from assembled dhammas quickly coming and going out of existence (somehow like the frames of a movie), Nāgārjuna goes all the way and denies any form of reality even to these event-like dhammas.
For pre-Nāgārjuna Buddhism phenomena are empty (śūnya) because ephemerally unitary and existing through only in a composite, impermanent manner. The aim is to discourage clinging to avoid suffering: both the self (itself composed by 5 skhandas) and objects which the self might consider important are not permanent. Objects are mereologically dependent on impermanent dhammas. So stop craving the newest smartphone or your attractive co-worker.
For Nāgārjuna everything is empty because nothing ever possesses (not even for a small time) independent existence. Emptiness and pratītyasamutpāda are the same.
[The difference is very important in the contexts of discussions regarding relationism. For example, the relationist can be asked about the nature of change (what real qualities do change; what is there to be changed) or about the ‘substrate’ that keeps relations into being (‘plasma’ or what have you). Nāgārjuna bypasses these objections because he’s happy to admit that there is no change and that there is no substrate. He denies the existence of causes as well. This has nothing to do with impermanence through time: he writes a whole chapter explaining how time does not exist as well!]
Empiness is not nothingness nor mere non-existence. Emptiness is to be empty of svabhava, a technical Sanskrit term which unites in its meaning both essence and substance. More generally, svabhava is true/real nature and it is usually translated as ‘inherent existence’. To claim that all is empty means ‘everything and anything is empty of substance/essence/independent existence. (which is why I am not very convinced by Morton’s translation ‘empty=withdrawn’. There is nothing withdrawn in empty phenomena, any kind of reificationism is the enemy here).
To understand Nāgārjuna there are 3 concepts that must be kept in mind, pratītyasamutpāda, emptiness and the idea of the two truths. Indeed:
Those who don’t understand
The distinction between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha’s profound truth.
This is crucial: there are 2 levels of reality, a conventional one of ‘existing’ entities and an ultimate one of pure emptiness. Similarly, there are two kinds of ontological assertions, conventionally true and ultimately true. Nāgārjuna’s thought is based on the logical interaction of these three main concepts: dependant origination, two truths/two levels of existence and emptiness. To understand that there are no causes we must understand dependant origination. To understand dependant origination we must have clear the distinction between two truths as referring to two levels of existence. To explain the possibility of two truths/two levels of existence we must understand the emptiness of all things.
But wait: did we not say that empty=’empty of inherent existence’? And are we not claiming that the inherent existence of everything is -ultimately- emptiness? No, because –in a famous formulation—Nāgārjuna explains that emptiness is itself empty. The designation of empty depends upon co-dependently arisen entities. And yet, it is not that things are empty because dependently arisen, since co-dependent origination is conventionally true! Nothing is arising or perishing! So if pratītyasamutpāda is conventionally true, śūnyatā is itself empty. Emptiness is not a deeper truth, there is no negative theology here, śūnyatā is not an entity of any sort. Everything is immanently empty. Even the classic ideal of Nirvana, the state of absolute deliverance from suffering through pure knowledge of all causes becomes empty. Samsara (the normal state of existence) and Nirvana are the same.
There is not the slightest difference
Between cyclic existence and Nirvana.
This means that there is no mystic tension (in the western meaning of it): there is nothing wrong with conventional reality…as long as we know that it is conventionally real! Which is why Nāgārjuna’s school is the Madhyamaka, the middle path. Middle between reificationism (belief in any kind of svabhava) and nihilism, which Nāgārjuna always vehemently rejects. All that emptiness ‘claims’ is that conventional reality is conventional. But conventionally, things do exist! The ultimate truth is that conventional reality is conventionally true, that is, ultimately empty.
[Note: the opposition conventional/ultimate is NOT Kantian, do not let anyone convince you of that. There is nothing ‘noumenical’ about emptiness. And, forcing it a bit, there is nothing ‘phenomenic’ (in the sense of apparent, illusory) about conventional reality, because there is nothing behind this ‘illusion’. The conventional reality/ultimate reality double register, in my eyes, saves Nāgārjuna from antirealism. It is a realism of emptiness.]
[Even if excluding the existence of causes (hetu), Nāgārjuna nonetheless admits the existence of conditions (pratyaya). The differentiation is made on the ground of levels of existence. Causes do not exist (both conventionally and ultimately), which means that there is no causal activity, not even conventionally. Conditions, on the other hand have only a conventional existence and, thanks to this (conventional)existence, account for the observable apparent causal laws of the conventional, observable world. This means that conditions, on a conventional level are efficacious, but on an ultimate level they do not contain the effect nor any causal power that connects them to the effect. Conditions have an effect on a purely conventional level, on the level of our everyday existence which apparently tells me that my pressing the keys of this keyboard produces the effect of typing the letter, or that a seed gives rise to a sprout.
When he [Nāgārjuna] uses the term ‘condition’ […] he has in mind an event, a state or process that can be appealed to in explaining another event, state or process without any metaphysical commitment to any other occult connection between explanandum and explanans (Garfield 1995: 103-104).
Nāgārjuna, in an imaginary debate with an opponent, asks this question:
If the effect’s essence is in the conditions,
But the conditions don’t have their own essence,
How could an effect whose essence is in the conditions
Come from something that is essenceless?
The answer to this objection is this: the effect’s essence is not in the conditions. It is nowhere to be found. Its conventional reality is co-dependant on a series of conditions, but it in itself lacks inherent essence. Causes and effects are dependent upon each other, not only due to our cognitive act of identifying them as such, but ontologically dependent, and hence empty.]
The fact that ultimately phenomena are devoid of self, is not a reason for negating the world. On the contrary, pratītyasamutpāda, the law of co-dependant origination that regulates it, is possible because of the (conventional) existence of essenceless phenomena. The point here is that this coherence is a purely conventional one: the only possible frame of reference is one that recognizes the dynamic and unstable nature of things. Things, selfhood and words can acquire any meaning at all only if considered as a part of a conventionally existent, groundless, essenceless whole. Every effect refers back—and owes its (conventional) existence—to the totality of its conditions. There is no ultimate reality, no identifiable self-present ego, no absolute word. What exists (conventionally) is what is present, what is present is what is conditioned. There is no possibility to freeze-frame this flow to identify any singularity. Any attempt in this direction is misleading.
On the level of conventional reality, nothing escapes the law of co-dependant arising, because co-dependant arising is the conventional reality. No self can be an external observer, out of this network of nominally conventional entities. This means that pratītyasamutpāda is not a simple law of causality projected on reality by the individual self, in a quasi-Humean conception of causality as just deducted by the observation of two regularly consequent phenomena: the self is part of it, and in no way allowed to analyze it from a safe theoretical distance. At the same time, Pratītyasamutpāda is not a prison from which we need to escape, but simply the non-morally qualified law that governs all of conventional reality, the knowledge of which is necessary for salvation.
Salvation: let us not forget that the ultimate purpose of Buddhist metaphysics is a soteriological one, the main target here remains the ignorance and the clinging which produce suffering. Once we change the main existential concerns (the 4 Noble Truths) and replace them with a Greek vocabulary (theoria, eudaimonia, phronesis…) we could ask: was it really any different with western metaphysics? (and I do not only refer to the Ancient/Medieval world: to what extent did Whitehead have pressing soteriological concerns? Or Heidegger for that matter…)
This was a very rough and imprecise sketch of what Buddhist relationism means (I apologize if it looks confused) and once again, every time I deal with this I see endless potentialities for ‘comparative’ work. The article I wrote some time ago on Nāgārjuna, zero and Derrida will hopefully come out sometime soon, but that now looks to me very crude (reason for which I keep postponing it, unsure whether or not I want to publish it). Indeed, I wrote that before Hagglund’s book came out, and I think you can easily see the possible links which could be worked out between the logic of radical atheism and Nāgārjuna’s empty immanence. My plan is to do some work with pratītyasamutpāda/emptiness and hyper-chaos…