Dependent Co-Arising and the Four Noble Truths

In continuing to read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s “The Shape of Suffering“, I came across a small quote from one of the Buddha’s Suttras that captures the cause of suffering more succinctly than I’ve seen it before:

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure… a feeling of pain… a feeling of neither- pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, & death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering & stress.” -Saayutta Nik›ya 36:6

The way I read it, the immediacy of any feeling (pleasure, pain, or even neutral feeling), being misunderstood (through ignorance) as part of one’s self (i.e.. as joined with it) causes one to be immediately ‘joined’ with the entire process of dependent co-arising and therefore each of it’s elements. In one fell swoop.. we’re trapped in a cycle that by it’s very nature produces suffering.

The whole point of Thanissaro’s work here is to point out that the factors of dependent co-arising work in two directions. When ignorance is present, the factors lead to suffering. When the 4 noble truths are brought to bear on one’s experience, ignorance is replaced by knowledge — and the skillful use of each of the factors of dependent co-arising lead one to view experience not “as though joined with it” but rather as impersonal phenomena, dependent upon causes and conditions, arising and passing, impermanent, empty of self, and ultimately not a cause for suffering. There is an “unbinding”, which is equated with liberation itself.

From The Shape of Suffering:

Ignorance is the primary cause of suffering; knowledge, the primary factor leading to its cessation. … ignorance here means not seeing events in terms of the four noble truths: stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice leading to its cessation.

So if bringing the Four Noble Truths to bear on our experience is the key to developing this knowledge — how do we do that?  It seems quite unwieldy to have to stop and remember the definition of the four truths prior to each sensation, perception, feeling, etc., which are constantly occurring at a very high rate. This is the edge of my practice at the moment. I’m experimenting with shortcuts. Might it be possible to study the Four Truths and soak in them, but then also to find a shortcut that might be more easily kept in mind? I’ve been working with a few:

Shortcuts to stand in for the Four Noble Truths:

  • “All things are impermanent – they arise and pass away – to be in harmony with this truth brings great happiness.” (great when chanted)
  • “Do not cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’.”
  • “____ is being known.”
  • “Let go.”

Does anyone else have a single phrase or simple teaching they like to bring to mind that would serve this same purpose of orienting the mind towards liberation and non-clinging so that the process of dependent co-arising might lead towards liberation instead of suffering?

A look at dependent co-arising in “The Shape of Suffering”

Dependent Co-Arising is one of those buddhist topics that I know exists, but isn’t typically central to (or even acknowledged within) my understanding of buddhism. That is changing.

I’m knee deep in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book “The Shape of Suffering“. The main theme is the 12 factors of Dependent Co-Arising. The analysis is very instructive — not only describing the complexities of the interactions between these twelve factors, but also placing dependent co-arising in context with the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. Much like his book, “Right Mindfulness”, the whole of the dharma seems to be laid out, encompassing both a broad overview and delving into practical, practice-based details that point inevitably towards absolute freedom.

Early on in this book, the explanation centers around how the 12 factors create “cycles of suffering” or cycles that lead to suffering, so that going through cycle after cycle– suffering arises. In any case, one can see by his illustrations that these cycles happen on multiple levels – microscopic and nearly instantaneous as well as macroscopic, lasting lifetimes!! This alone is illuminating as one ponders the dharma. I often get caught up thinking about how the dharma functions — and on what scale — and this makes it very clear that there is no one right answer to that question. The dharma is functioning on every scale simultaneously!!

The 4 noble truths are like the 4 cornerstones that make up the foundation of buddhism — they are the bedrock. Dependent Co-arising is a functional look at Suffering – the first of these cornerstones. In fact, the second, Clinging is also one of the factors of dependent co-arising — and seeing it function in this way can give some real insight into how important and central it is – and how it works!! The whole cycle of dependent co-arising — which produces suffering so long as it is occurring in ignorance — does just the opposite if it occurs in the presence of awareness and knowledge of the 4 noble truths. In this way, it is a formula for how to “abandon the craving” that causes suffering. This IS the 3rd noble truth! Dependent co-arising, then, allows one to explore 3 of the 4 noble truths in a very experiential way.

Reading Thanissaro’s work feels like it is it’s own form of practice. It exposes the very heart of Theravada.