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.

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