by Geshe Sonam Rinchen
If things were not empty of inherent existence, nothing could function and neither actions nor the agents of those actions would be feasible. It is their emptiness of inherent existence that allows everything to operate satisfactorily. When we understand the dependently arising nature of things properly, we will also understand the four noble truths: suffering, the sources of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the paths of insight that lead to this freedom from suffering. So dependent arising is crucial.
We first need to know what dependent arising or dependent existence means in general. The Tibetan expression ten ching drel war jung wa (rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba) is used as a translation of the Sanskrit prat¦ t yasamutp› da. In English the words “arising” or “origination” are often used to translate the Tibetan jung wa (’byung ba). This can be misleading because it seems to refer to an event or occurrence with implications that something is produced, but this is not necessarily so. “Dependent arising” refers to dependence on causes and conditions but also to dependence on parts and on attribution. Everything that exists is dependently existent. If anything exists, it does so dependently.
When we think about the spiritual traditions in which we have been brought up, does this idea fit comfortably with them? Or do we believe there is something that does not rely on other factors but is independent? In fact this emphasis on the dependent nature of everything that exists is unique to the Buddha’s teachings. There have been many excellent teachers who have said many excellent and helpful things, but the Buddha is praised as an incomparable teacher because of his unsurpassable explanation of reality in terms of dependent existence.
There are two kinds of dependently arising phenomena — products and non-products. Products fit into one of two categories — they are either with or without form. Those with form are easier to identify than those without. Science is mainly concerned with investigating what, from a Buddhist point of view, is form in varying degrees of subtlety. Products without form are different kinds of awareness and non-associated compositional factors, namely those things that are neither awareness nor matter, such as persons, time, birth, ageing, duration, and impermanence.
Some assert that when we reach a very subtle level of these products, for instance particles or infinitesimal moments of time, there exist things that are functional in as much as they are produced by causes and conditions and themselves produce results, which are nevertheless unchanging. But could such things actually exist? If anything is a product and produces other phenomena, it must undergo change itself.
It is difficult for us to conceive of anything that is unchanging. Is anything that we perceive through our five senses unchanging? If not, then permanent or unchanging phenomena must appear to the sixth kind of awareness, mental consciousness, and mainly to conceptual awareness. Shut your eyes and think of your home, of something in your home or of someone close to you. An image appears. To what kind of awareness does it appear? Not to visual or auditory perception but to mental awareness. Does the image that appears in this way undergo change or not? Perhaps you left a book on the left side of the table in your room. In the meantime someone has moved it, but the image of the book on the left side of the table still appears to your mind. It is considered to be a non-product since it does not undergo change moment by moment. Mental images constantly appear to us, so it’s worth exploring what kind of phenomena they are.
In the twenty-fourth chapter of his Treatise on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says:
Whatever arises dependently Is explained as empty. Thus dependent attribution Is the middle way. Since there is nothing whatever That is not dependently existent, For that reason there is nothing Whatsoever that is not empty.
Here Nagarjuna states the Madhyamika or middle way position. Everything that exists does so dependently and everything that is dependently existent necessarily lacks independent objective existence.
What are dependently arising non-products? They are phenomena that do not come into existence through causes and conditions and thus do not undergo constant change. They are dependent on parts and on attribution. Emptiness or lack of true existence is a non-product because it does not come into being through causes and conditions and does not undergo change. Emptiness is the fundamental nature of anything that exists but is nevertheless also dependently existent because, for instance, it depends on the phenomenon whose fundamental nature it is.
It is difficult for us to gain a clear concept of non-products since they are more subtle than the things that appear to our sense perceptions. It is essential, however, to understand that both products and non-products are dependently existent.