Dependent Origination

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The other week while my wife and I were out jogging we watched a couple in front of us walk across the street against a red light, blissfully unconcerned as two cars had to screech to a halt in front of them.  To our amazement, the couple continued on without even a break in their conversation, as if the cars had somehow forfeited their right of way because the couple had decided they wished to cross the street at that exact moment.

I was appalled.  I saw in their action no acknowledgment or understanding whatsoever that they shared the road with others, no concern about the effects of their actions on anyone else or even with the potential consequences the actions of others held for them.  Such an attitude seemed to me at that moment to spring from what seemed to me a willful disregard for the Buddhist concept of dependent origination.


Dependent origination means that all phenomena arise only in relation to other phenomena; that everything is mutually dependent on everything else for its existence.  “Phenomena” here therefore means people, places, and things; energy and matter; ideas and beliefs.  Or put more simply, as John Donne said, “No man is an island.”

Many have taken this to mean no one can live happily in emotional isolation, but this principle doesn’t limit itself merely to our emotional lives.  We get so accustomed to the conveniences we enjoy in everyday life that we forget how many centuries of progress, how many branches of government, how many different industries, how many resources, how many different companies, and how many different people must all interact harmoniously even to provide us toothpaste.  Or we forget, as did that couple crossing the street, that our right—at least in democratic nations—to fling out our fist ends at the tip of another person’s nose.

If none of us respect and support the freedoms given to others, none of us will be able to enjoy our own.  If all pedestrians, for example, crossed against red lights, traffic would snarl to a halt.  Or hospitals and morgues would swell with new occupants.  Or both.


Recognizing our basic interconnectedness, however, means more than merely acknowledging we enjoy the lives we do only at the pleasure of those who contribute to our ability to do so.  It means being able to imagine ourselves in the positions of others and empathizing with the obstacles they face.  It means stopping at an intersection not just because the light is red but because it’s someone else’s turn to proceed.  Someone else who has their own important business to transact and needs to pass through the same intersection as we in order to transact it.

Even more than that, dependent origination means no one can be truly happy if even one person in their environment remains miserable.  This isn’t just because happiness and suffering spread from person to person like viruses; it’s also because all men and women are brothers and sisters, and a full recognition of the significance of dependent origination births the one thing that makes us common mortals divine:  concern for others.

So the next time you cut someone off in traffic, find yourself exasperated and speaking to someone rudely on the phone, walk past a homeless person lying motionless on the ground without bothering to see if they’re all right, take secret pleasure in someone else’s misfortune simply because it didn’t fall on you, or just inconvenience someone by crossing against a red light directly in front of them, remember that your perception of yourself as a wholly independent entity, as a fully self-sustaining organism, and as someone to whom bad things won’t happen is a delusion.  Dependent origination may be both a physical and metaphysical law, but it only lives and breathes in the hearts of people who allow themselves to feel what’s in the hearts of others.  When even one of us falls, all of us are threatened.

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  • Your general point is sound, but the example illustrates a problem: decency and consideration in the presence of tyranny can be a kind of collaboration. In your example: if we all made a point of stepping out in front of cars wherever possible, perhaps vehicular tyranny could be diminished somewhat. On a grand scale, the wealthy minority of car owners in the world (I think about 8%) are literally destroying the world; on a local scale, they make our birthright of locomotion all but impossible in many cities. Cars promote freedom for some, at the expense of doing violence to others.

    In a really quite literal sense, every car journey taken is a vote for the deaths of Pacific Islanders and Bangladeshis, at least in the likely first wave of GW killings. So anything we can do to make driving uncomfortable might be seen as a compassionate act, viewed from a wide enough angle to take in all humanity, and not just wealthy first world city dwellers.

    (Not that I’m seriously suggesting that your couple’s walk was intended as a political act).

    More generally, what do you think to the notion that the real effects of “dependent origination” may be obscured by too narrow a view, and that apparent “niceness” in the face of various tyrannies may actually be destructive?

    CB: People in cars thinking they have the right of way, who fail to yield to pedestrians, are just as guilty as the couple I described in the post of failing to appreciate we’re all sharing the same space. I don’t disagree that being nice to those who tyrannize is a mistake, but I do that cars tyrannize people. People tyrannize people, whatever mode of transportation they happen to be taking.


  • How do you know that couple was not sleepwalking? Had they been injured, the car owner’s insurance company would have settled for a sum that the couple could not earn by following traffic rules. The jury always has more compassion.

  • Alex: the more general worry I have about this way of viewing ethics is that I doubt that concepts such as compassion and decency really provide a useful guide to consequences of acts, at least in a mass society (they may have served well when people lived amongst 10s of others rather than millions).

    And as such “nice” values tend towards complaisant and amiable behavior, their value will be in proportion to how well the societies that benefit from such niceness are functioning. Given that our mass societies are functioning so badly right now (to such an extent that wealthy westerners are essentially engaged in permanent war against the developing world, and certainly against most nonhuman species), isn’t complaisance at risk of being a sort of pleasant, lazy support for the truly dreadful consequences that we know are on the way?

    CB: I’m afraid I don’t agree. Certainly people are often motivated by self-interest—probably even mostly—but examples of people motivated by compassion abound. Even though society is now huge, most of us have a small circle of friends with whom we live intimately (perhaps the 10 or so you mention) and with whom I’ve observed most try to act compassionately and with empathy. Nor do I agree compassion necessarily leads to complaisant and amiable behavior. Many people do have the view that compassion means being nice to everyone but tough love, for example, is usually quite compassionate but anything but amiable. I wrote about this in an earlier post you might find interesting, What Compassion Is.


  • Thanks Alex. I get this. In the last week I have managed to involve myself in two situations where I was either inadvertently placed in the middle or was somehow foisted there because of circumstance. In the first incident, I feel responsible for another’s discomfort even though I did not create the dynamic that led to the dis-ease. I was affected because it eventually rippled my way and so I stood my ground against its continuance. The end result in that was hurt feelings and the severance of the relationship. In the second situation I was involved by simply witnessing events. Today I was verbally abused and threatened in front of my children and spouse by a person who was related to but not involved with the second situation. Instead of reacting according to the laws of physics, I nullified the hostility and passed compassion onto the person in the second situation because I believe 2 things: 1) if I hurt the person in the first situation, my hurt was coming back to me (karma) and I was ready to accept it even though I know I didn’t deserve the attack of the second person and because of that confidence I was able to let it roll off me (but my kids are scared) and 2) that compassion will come back to me and my children can see that peace works; or possibly that compassion already has come to me and I need to replenish what I’ve been given. We are not alone.

  • I have been wondering lately about the lack of empathy I see in the world. The pendulum has swung pretty far in the direction of “it’s all about me.” I hear incredibly foul language in public; it’s especially bothersome when I’m with my young son. People talk loudly on their cell phones. People butt in line and take parking spaces that should go to someone who’s been waiting patiently. I figure all I can do is strive to be the person I want to be, as conscious as possible, and therefore be a good example to my son who’s going to have to grow up and live in whatever the world will look like in the future.

  • I have to chime in on behalf of CB’s point, Alex. In a society as large as ours has become, those with great wealth and privilege (relative to the vast majority of people in the world) can dull themselves to the extended consequences of their consumption. In small societies—at least those that aren’t very mobile—consequences of destructive behavior are more immediate and can be addressed by punishment, ostracism, or development of a cultural norm that channels the behavior in a different direction.

    It seems to me that CB is correct when he notes “that the real effects of ‘dependent origination’ may be obscured by too narrow a view, and that apparent ‘niceness’ in the face of various tyrannies may actually be destructive.” My experience suggests that the compassion exercised by privileged people most often relies on maintaining their own privilege. When their own privilege is the price for extending compassion to others, people tend to make another calculation. I kind of hate to say it, but I suspect many people use “nice” behavior as a kind of alibi. Their “niceness” exempts them from having to take rigorous inventory of the consequences of their lifestyles.

    This topic harkens back to another exchange we had, prompted by a previous post (“What Compassion Is”). I would argue that those of us living in wealthy societies have to enlarge the scope of what we see when we evaluate what we do. When power inequities are too great, resistance to norms may be more “compassionate” than acquiescence.

  • This is a most excellent explanation of Dependent Origination, Alex! It’s a doctrine that tends to be ignored in Buddhist study because, as it appears in the texts (and in many commentaries), it’s a list of concepts, many of which are just too hard to wrap the mind around. (I let the first half of the concepts go a long time ago and start in the middle of the list when I work on it.) You’ve shown me the forest through the trees with this post though: the essence of Dependent Origination is compassion because we’re all in this together.

    Toni: That’s exactly it.


  • I always find it interesting that people pit “wealthier” people/nations against “struggling” people/nations. Firstly, they assume the less affluent are unhappy. Secondly, they don’t look at the UNcompassionate leaders/tyrants MOST of the world (population) lives under. I also find it interesting that the “wealthy” car manufacturers for example provide millions and millions of jobs for people—jobs that allow people to take care of their families and proper—giving them the ability to be charitable to others.

    I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-interest. When we take care of ourselves, we are in a much better position to be compassionate to others. When a society has FAITH they have their freedom to prosper, HOPE for their future, they feel more likely to be CHARITABLE. They go hand in hand.

    Alex, I really liked this Buddhist concept and you gave me lots to think of here.

    Denise: I very much agree with your statement that in taking care of ourselves we’re in a much better position to be compassionate to others (a subject I discussed in a previous post, The Caregiver’s Manifesto). I also must agree that wealthier certainly doesn’t mean happier. Good evidence exists that people who focus on the pursuit of wealth are in fact unhappier than those who pursue more people-oriented goals, i.e., altruistic action, having good relationships with others.


  • Alex, at your suggestion I’ve gone back to read your “What Compassion Is” post. It’s a most interesting and candid exploration of the topic. I can see that I’m guilty of caricature in writing of compassion in terms of “niceness” etc, and certainly agree that it can be more than that.

    But I still wonder if compassion is an adequate guide to behavior towards others in an age where the consequences of actions are made so hard to calculate because of the complexity and scale of our societies. I suspect that (1) knowledge is needed in addition to compassion, and that (2) a compassionate attitude towards immediately-present others may have a tendency to obscure wider ramifications of acts. Put crudely: to be nice to (present) motorists here in rich countries is, in the end, part of a conspiracy of acts of violence to most (absent) denizens (human and nonhuman) of our planet.

    Or to put it another way: you could think of two varieties of compassion. One, directed towards immediately present others, gives an intuitively available guide to how to behave, here and now. The other needs the addition of knowledge of causal consequences to understand the effects of one’s actions as they spread out and affect others not present (and perhaps not yet even born).

    The trouble is, the courses of actions determined by the two varieties will often not coincide. And, I suspect, the more the first “immediate” type is emphasized by a person, the less they will have access to the second. There is, to some extent, a choice available between the soft heart and the hard head. And the scale and complexity of the contemporary world may make the latter more relevant to where we are in history, right now.

    CB: I wholeheartedly agree knowledge (or what I’d call wisdom) is a necessary element in our attempts to behave compassionately toward one another. If we have all the intent in the world to act compassionately but lack the wisdom to know what that action means, we’re at great risk for causing more harm than good. I disagree, however, that by allowing motorists in this country the right of way when it’s theirs that we contribute to abuse of people in poorer countries. If we’re to believe our use of automobiles directly contributes to the harm of people in those countries, the answer isn’t to inconvenience motorists here but to strike at the heart of the problem by becoming active in the fight to develop alternative energy supplies (as an example). Certainly, I can imagine a scenario in which to behave compassionately toward a person in front of you might, in some way, result in harm to another, but life rarely presents us with black and white options. Choices are usually between to evils, rarely between evil and good.


  • Denise: the point about cars is that they are a prime contributor (about 30% in most countries) to global warming. Global warming is already causing evacuation of low-lying parts of some Pacific Islands, and will result in hundreds of millions of people to become forced off their lands in countries such as Bangladesh in the very near future. The issue isn’t that wealthy people are happier, it’s that they’re (we’re) inflicting the consequences of our irresponsible growth on the majority of the world (and not just homo sapiens: we are quickly destroying most non-humans too).

    So every time we make a car journey, we’re making the statement that our convenience/comfort is worth more than others’ existence. How compassionate do you think that is?

    CB: I’d counsel caution here: whether cars contribute that much to global warming remains controversial. It’s an easy bandwagon on which to jump, but the science, as I understand, remains murky.


  • Denise: I can’t be sure if your comment was, in part, in response to my post, but I want to make sure there is no misunderstanding of the point I was trying to make. When I referred to “those with great wealth and privilege (relative to the vast majority of people in the world),” it wasn’t because I think the problem is wealth, per se.

    I do not think most people are able to see consequences they don’t have to live with, regardless of whether they are privileged or not. But when someone living a subsistence-level life chooses to be wasteful or to do something for convenience, the consequences for the world and the people in it are slight. Citizens of consumer countries, on the other hand, cause great damage in their habit of buying (unnecessary) things to make their lives easier or more pleasant. Look at what has happened in the oceans because of our use of plastics. (Look at what has happened in the oceans because of our insatiable need for oil). How many people refused to drink water in plastic bottles because they were concerned about the consequences down the line? This is what I mean when I say being “nice” works as a kind of alibi for our failure to see beyond the bubble we live in. If we’re only “nice” to the people in our own bubble, are we really nice?

    As far as the car companies are concerned, to be sure they employed many people. But maybe those people would have been better employed making streetcars or trains. Many are the occupations and pastimes that produce more ill than good.

    Alex: I can’t quite believe I understood your recent response to CB correctly. When you say “If we’re to believe our use of automobiles directly contributes to the harm of people in those countries, the answer isn’t to inconvenience motorists here but to strike at the heart of the problem by becoming active in the fight to develop alternative energy supplies (as an example),” you seem to be invalidating passive resistance as a tool for advancing human society. Was Rosa Parks rude for not giving up her seat? Certainly, she discomfited many white people who were in the bus when she was. Should the black men at the lunch counter in Greensboro have followed the rules and gotten their food in the back? Should they have just written a petition? Nonviolent resistance is used when power inequities are too great—or systemic—because following the rules benefits whatever agency is in power. Finding alternative energy sources, for example, does not address the root problem: failure to consider consequences for others BEFORE we do something. I do agree that wisdom is required for true compassionate behavior; I would suggest that most people are not in a position to judge what that is without effortful attempts to see beyond their immediate circumstances. For me, the idea that we are all in this together goes without saying. The question is how do we do the most good and the least harm.

    rdp: I didn’t mean to imply I thought passive resistance is a poor tool for advancing human rights. But I hadn’t considered the use of cars as a violation of human rights per se (though perhaps that argument could be made—I’ll have to think about it). I certainly agree, however, that their use causes harm to society in numerous ways (pollution being only one) and agree with your point that people tend to ignore the harm their actions cause if it seems distant to themselves when the benefit seems near. I just don’t believe the passive resistance embodied in the idea of pedestrians everywhere deliberately standing in front of automobiles everywhere would likely be the best strategy to get us all to stop using them.


  • Even if I am aware of “dependent origination,” I do fail at times in the practice. Being reminded of its importance in our daily living and actions is a blessing. Thank you.


  • I love your posts and look forward to them every week. This one gives me much to think about. I live in a wealthy suburb and see this happen all the time. It amazes me when I see it. Why would someone do such a thing? Living among such wealth, I see the attitude that their time is more important than others. Could it be also a small act of defiance? That without worries about putting food on the table or a roof over their heads, that having everything provided for them, they need to act out some form of rebellion? Or maybe they are so skillful at manipulating rules to their advantage, they feel they don’t have to obey common rules of courtesy?

    Maxine: Glad you’re enjoying my blog. I don’t think this attitude is found only among the rich. I wasn’t even thinking about the couple’s socioeconomic status when I wrote the post. I’ve seen the same behavior on the south side of Chicago among the indigent. I think it’s core source is as I wrote: a lack of empathy and willful ignorance of the truth of dependent origination.


  • Alex,

    You’re article provided me an interesting insight into the failure of my marriage. My former spouse, whom I continue to respect and love and recognize my “dependent origination” obligations to her, was the type of individual, for a variety of deep-rooted and unfortunate reasons, was largely miserable, suspicious, unforgiving, and discontent with life for our many years together.

    While I tried to ignore her negativity and remain positive myself, after many years, I realized I could not be positive and allowed our marriage to end when she suggested it. I am now involved with a very positive individual whose time a relish instead of dread!

    Truer words have not been spoken about my experience of life on this planet as when you wrote: “Even more than that, dependent origination means no one can be truly happy if even one person ‘in their environment’ remains miserable.”

    While I am not advocating divorce as a solution (far from it—all other options should be tried first including counseling), I do recognize that my “Happiness in this World” and my ability to be charitable with my kids, neighbors, and the world around me, was severely diminished in my last marriage, and is greatly enhanced in my new relationship! This may be controversial so I’d be curious on your thoughts, Alex?

    Thank you for your article and for the introspection you always foster!

    Craig: Living in an intimate space with someone whose inner narrative about life produces mostly negativity is extremely difficult when you are by nature a positive person or wish to be. We all influence one another’s ability to be happy by our mere presence, to say nothing of our attitudes. In a previous post, Marriage As A Business Proposal, I touched on this subject a little. If there is too much disparity in two partners’ approach to life, the relationship in the end cannot stand. I can think of no more important a dimension to be evenly matched than the attitude people take toward difficult times in order for both partners to be happy. I’m glad you found someone more your speed.


  • You are probably right! And I don’t want to turn this conversation into a discussion of what forms of resistance are most effective against what ills. I do believe the way actions look depends on how far out of the bubble you live in you are able to see, however, and thus agree with CB “that the real effects of ‘dependent origination’ may be obscured by too narrow a view.”

    rdp: With that I certainly agree!


  • Alex and rdp: neither did I exactly mean to hijack the thread entirely towards the evils-of-cars or means of resistance. What interests me is how one balances the intuitive aspects of ethics (including compassion, etc) with the intellectual (or wisdom, Alex, if you prefer). I’ve certainly often found there to be a conflict in daily situations. But I don’t have an answer.

  • Alex,
    A wonderful post. Thx.

    I have read a few posts so far and I must compliment you that you make some difficult concepts seem simple and contemporary. In fact, quite by coincidence I was reading about the concept of dependent origination 2 days back and the truth of the matter struck me when I looked back to incidents in my own life. I won’t go into the details of that but the example and explanation provided by you is adequate.

    There could be several reasons for the couple on the road to behave the way they did. But it doesn’t justify their behavior. Howsoever we are engrossed in our lives we must be aware of our surroundings. Unless we understand the inter-connectedness such mistakes will repeat themselves in our lives..sometimes with dire consequences.

    I wonder why people think its impractical to understand and execute the concept. It just starts with us. If one person realizes this it sets off a chain of events/positive consequences inconspicuous to us. If more people do…the world will be a wonderful place in sync with the universe.

  • Hi Alex,

    Great post!

    I am a true believer in interconnectedness—and also a believer that everything happens for a reason…even if we don’t understand that reason right away. I’m not a fatalist or an acceptor of the status quo but I am always looking for the *story behind the story* in our day to day lives.

    I love to believe that everything aligned itself that morning so that you and your wife just happened to be in the right moment and witness the self absorbed couple—and how interesting that you just happen to follow Buddhist principles and that their actions immediately made you refer to dependent origination. You probably began creating the post in your head at that very moment.

    I bet the rest of us would have seen *yet another* person walk against the light and probably not given it another thought.

    But now were all going to be thinking about this today. We’re all going to be paying a bit more attention today about how our actions effect others…we will probably be more mindful of others…might give that homeless guy an extra dollar…might say *yes* more than *no* today…might talk to a stranger in the elevator.

    Good job!

    Jill: You’re exactly right. I began the post in my head at the moment I saw them crossing the street!


  • I love reading your blog, it gives me much to ponder, and this entry made me chuckle ruefully; I see events like this every day, but didn’t know the concept had a name. Every time someone changes lanes on the freeway without signaling first (which in my metro area is 90% of the time), he/she is denying that others have a right to proceed as they do and ignoring the interconnectedness that is essential for a civilized flow of traffic. And the hand gestures that result are definitely not Buddhist!

    I ran my own experiment on D.O. without realizing it the other day; I was on an 8hr car trip, and decided not just to go the speed limit, but 5mph under it. It had occurred to me that when drivers see posted speed limit signs, they unconsciously speed up to go that fast, as if the sign were saying “you MUST go this speed”; enough times doing that, and you start to assume you have the right to go that fast. But what the signs really say is, go no faster than 55, 65, 70 mph, and actually, drive slower than that limit. There is no minimum speed. Even driving in the furthest-right lanes, always giving others room to pass me, I was either actively tailgated by other drivers or they blew past in the left lane(s). It was eye-opening, and I wondered how many times I had been guilty of assuming I was unconnected from other drivers, and that the road—the space around me—was wholly mine.

    Thanks, Tess

  • Tess:

    As a matter of fact often highways do have posted minimum speed limit too, usually 40 MPH.

    It is equally irresponsible to drive much slower than what the traffic flow. It is much worse if you suddenly slow down in moving traffic without any reason.

  • There is an African ethics philosophy that sounds like this. It’s called Ubuntu.

    Quote from Tutu:
    This is the truth taught to us in an old South African principle, Ubuntu, or “A person is a person through other persons.”

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