Dependent Origination

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Baby goats by the roadside, Bodh Gaya, India

I went to the bookshelf to pull out a copy of The Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s magnum opus which basically functions as the central text for the Kwan Um School of Zen. I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover, but I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years, and my intention was to chip away a few more bits when a small Kwan Um pamphlet titled “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines” fell out from between the pages. The year before last, I participated in a precepts ceremony at Providence Zen Center in which I formally vowed to keep the second five Buddhist precepts, namely, to refrain from gossip, to refrain from praising self at the expense of others, to cultivate generosity, to refrain from indulging in anger, and to refrain from slandering the Three Treasures of Buddhism. In the Kwan Um School, the adoption of these precepts marks a member as a Dharma Teacher in Training, meaning that one is taking an active role in leading group practice and moving toward becoming a teacher in the school.

I feel as though I’ve been pretty diligent about pitching in and helping with group practice, but I’ve never been really big on studying the formal tenets of Buddhism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the school’s guiding teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang puts it in the “Training Guidelines” introduction, “it is not a coincidence that the sutras and other suggested readings are in the last section.  This rich tradition insists on live speech, direct understanding: ‘a special transmission outside the sutras.” In other words, practice is far more important than study, but there does come a time in a student’s development where study can inform practice, particularly the practice of helping others. It is in this spirit that a list of suggested topics for study is included at the end of “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines.”

“Dependent origination” heads the list of topics, and with good reason. This concept represents the core of the Buddhist understanding of the human dilemma, though I’ve never quite understood it. I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, content as I’ve been to assume that the term “dependent origination” refers simply to the fact that nothing exists as a completely independent entity, but rather is dependent upon everything that it is not for its very existence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, air, water, soil, fungi and insects in order to live. Everything in the universe is like that. This, however is a description of “interdependence,” which isn’t unrelated to dependent origination… it just isn’t the whole picture. The whole picture is a view of phenomena as process of interdependence between subject and object.

Spoiler Alert!!! I’m about to answer the most classically unanswerable koan in pop zendom. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” “No.” It does not. If a tree falls in the forest, it emits waves of energy at a certain frequency. The thing that we call “sound,” however, is the process of those waves striking an eardrum and being interpreted by a brain. No ear, no sound.

You’re welcome.

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The good news here is that I’m a koan-answering genius (oxymoron intended). The bad news is that I’m still just barely scratching the surface of the phenomenon of dependent origination. Reading up on this doctrine a bit led me further down the rabbit hole. Or, more accurately further out of the rabbit hole, as the dharma has a way of guiding us out of the Darkness of Reason and into the Light of Reality…

In his discourse on Dependent Origination, the Buddha shed the Light of Reality on the fact that mind creates the separation between subject and object, and, in doing so, sows the seed of suffering. All phenomena must arise through a process of interdependence between subject and object because it can’t possibly be otherwise; “phenomena,” “subject,” and “object” were never separate to begin with. Before that pesky tree ever fell in the forest (or, more accurately,as it fell), mind created “tree,” “ear,” and “sound.” It is simply a function of our consciousness that we perceive ourselves as individual entities apart from all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This consciousness is born of a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. There’s absolutely nothing linear about reality, yet we insist on believing beyond a reasonable doubt that all that we survey is “real,” that everything begins, persists for a while, then ends. This ignorance, according to the Buddha, is the first link in a chain of bondage that leads through sensory experience, feelings, and desire all the way to death. So strong have we forged the links of this chain that it’s existence is noted as the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering. Bad news. The good news? That would be the Third Noble Truth: there’s a way out.

I’m well aware from my own experience that to attempt to read and interpret a text on my own, will avail me little. “A special transmission outside the sutras,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang reminds us, is necessary. As such, I welcome any and all comments regarding the readers’ understanding of Dependent Origination, as the last 900 words or so speak a little louder of my own confusion than perhaps I’d like them to.

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Leaving Lexington

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“Leaving Lexington…” I’ve texted this phrase a hundred times if I’ve texted it once, but on New Year’s Eve, I sent this message for what will likely be the last time. Packing the last of my belongings out of my bachelor pad and into my car, I headed a couple of towns west to move into my wife’s home. It isn’t a far move, but the distance isn’t the point. In a small way that’s significant to no one but me, it’s the end of an era. I am the last member of my family to inhabit the town that my grandfather immigrated to from Ireland in 1915. As he put it in “The Girl From Donegal,” a poem legendary to a dozen or so surviving family members, “I hit the road for Lexington, that place of great renown; no brass band played and no parade did welcome me to town.” I can honestly attest to a similar lack of fanfare upon my humble departure 100 years later. But it isn’t simply family history that makes this move interesting. It’s something more than that… something deeper. Buddhist Stuff. Namely, attachment and impermanence.

I like to think of myself as someone without strong material attachments, but the process of sifting through the detritus of my past sketched a slightly different picture. It’s a curious experience indeed to physically handle every single object that one owns. I was faced with artifacts of life phases gone by that have survived move after move after move. Books. I’m speaking primarily about books here. I’ve tried to travel light, and over the years I’ve instigated periodic purges, donating or selling books to try to lessen the load, but some are more difficult to part with. Spiritual books, mainly, books by teachers who have told me what I’ve needed to hear when I’ve been ready to hear it; Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, Steve Hagen, Joseph Goldstein… the usual suspects, really, for American spiritual seekers of my generation.

I’ve read and reread all these books and would likely read them again, but in contemplating the prospect of moving hundreds of pounds of paper yet another time, I had to consider what I was really clinging to. I had an interesting conversation once with a young person who grew up downloading all his music. He suggested that the reason we oldsters are so into our albums is that we feel a need to somehow “own” the music rather than to simply experience it as it plays. There might be something to this theory. Perhaps I subconsciously want to own the teachings contained in the dozens of books on my shelf, to display them like trophies, or like souvenirs from far off places I’ve visited. Ram Dass reminds us in Grist for the Mill that “the Dharma belongs to no one.” He found this point so important that it’s the first line of the book… before the page with the table of contents… so I sold all his books to a metaphysical bookstore in Cambridge.

Interestingly, however, I hung onto my albums. I’ll probably get rid of them eventually, but not today. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan… the usual suspects for American spiritual seekers of my generation. I haven’t actually owned a turntable in close to twenty years, but these old records fall into a category of belongings that is so common, so legitimate, that it was recognized in print by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: stuff that I can’t let go of YET. Although Bill Wilson was referring specifically to “defects of character” or mental habits when he wrote that “even the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet,'” the psychological mechanism of mental attachment is very similar to that of physical clinging.[1] Hence the tremendous power and effectiveness of ritual.

Ram Dass speaks of an Indian fire ceremony in which participants ritualistically place whatever they want to get rid of inside a coconut and toss it into a fire.[2] In 12 Step Recovery parlance, this is known as “letting go of old ideas.”[3] In my case, the process also involved letting go of old relationships, or at least loosening my grip on them to let them slide into their proper place in the past. It occurred to me as I looked over all of my stuff that, just as I’ve clung to books and albums that are physical artifacts of my life, I’ve dragged along physical artifacts of other people’s lives, as well. People who are no longer alive. A father, a brother, a past girlfriend… It occurred to me also that these things are more than just mementos; they, like gravestones and monuments, represent a desperately futile attempt to create permanence. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but eventually, everything must go. Ourselves included. I thanked each one of those departed individuals as I dropped their stuff off at the thrift store, placed it in a donation bin, or simply threw it in the trash.

Attachment involves a lack of acceptance of impermanence. Throughout the process of downsizing my belongings, not only have I come to accept the impermanence of loved ones, I’ve come a little bit closer to accepting my own impermanence. I am not these hundreds of items that I possess, nor am I this body. What am I? Don’t know. I do know, however, that at some point in the not so distant future, someone will be sifting through my stuff after I’ve died. Maybe they’ll grab a memento or two, or pick up a piece of my writing, smile and say, “I’ll probably get rid of this eventually, but not today.”

REFERENCES
[1] Anon., (1952). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 66

[2] Ram Dass, (1976). Grist for the Mill, Harper Collins, p. 53.

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