The Shape of Suffering: A Study of Dependent Co-arising


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This book started as a handful of readings from the Pali Canon that I have used to teach dependent co-arising at various centers in the United States. I planned to turn the readings into a brief study guide, but the project quickly grew in size as I came to realize how much explanation the readings needed in order to be useful and clear.

I was especially struck by the need for apt analogies to explain how dependent co-arising works as an explanation both for the arising of dukkha — stress, or suffering — and for the fact that dukkha can be ended through a path of practice. The two most prominent analogies offered by the postcanonical Buddhist tradition — depicting dependent co-arising as a wheel or as a circle of mirrors — are inadequate to this task. The wheel is too deterministic in its implications; the circle of mirrors, too static. Thus I felt the need to search elsewhere for appropriate analogies, and I came across two.

The first analogy is in the Pali Canon itself, where the Buddha compares causality as a whole — and dependent co-arising in particular — to the process of eating. Eating entails suffering because it requires hunger and yet cannot put an end to hunger, which the Buddha described as the foremost illness (Dhp 203). However, the path of practice to the end of suffering depends on eating both physical and mental food.

The second analogy was inspired by another canonical image, comparing the effects of dependent co-arising to a tangled skein. This image inspired me to look for parallels in modern scientific studies of tangled skeins, i.e., complex nonlinear systems, such as the weather, the behavior of financial markets, and the forces interacting within physical structures, such as bridges. Studies of these systems have helped to explain how complex systems can behave in unexpected ways, containing the seeds for a radical reconfiguring of their behavior — as when the factors of dependent coarising can be converted to a path to the end of suffering — and for their total collapse — as when the path leads to a goal totally undefined in causal terms.

I want to make it clear that in using this latter analogy I am not trying to equate Buddhist teachings with the science of complex nonlinear systems or to engage in pseudo-science. Fashions in science change so rapidly that we do the Buddha’s teachings no favor by trying to “prove” them in light of current scientific theories. I am simply pointing out similarities as a way of helping to make those teachings intelligible in modern terms. The study of complex nonlinear systems is one of the few modern bodies of knowledge that have worked out a vocabulary for the patterns of behavior described in Buddhist explanations of causality, and so it seems a natural source to draw on, both to describe those patterns and to point out some of their less obvious implications.

In doing so, I realize that I run the risk of alienating non-scientists who feel intimidated by scientific terminology, as well as scientists who resent the application of terminology from their disciplines to “non-scientific” fields. To both groups I can say only that the terms in and of themselves are not “scientific.” Much of our current everyday terminology for explaining causal relations is derived from the science of the eighteenth century; I expect that it will only be a matter of time before the terminology of more recent science will percolate into everyday language. Ultimately, of course, science will never be able to prove or disprove the truth of the Buddha’s claims. That proof can be found only within the awareness of the person who puts those claims to the test in the way the Buddha recommended: by developing the factors of the noble eightfold path.

One final point: This is a book primarily about dukkha, but as you may have already noticed, I do not translate this word in a consistent way. “Suffering” is a traditional equivalent, but it has many weaknesses; “stress” is an equivalent I tend to prefer — it can apply to many subtle levels of dukkha that “suffering” misses, and it helps to de-romanticize the issue — but it has its weaknesses as well. In particular, it is too mild to convey the more blatant and overwhelming forms that dukkha can take. Thus, where it seems appropriate, I have alternated between the two renderings, and have also combined them as a phrase, suffering and stress. I hope that this will not prove confusing.

I would like to express my gratitude for those who have helped in the writing of this book. This includes all those who have taken the courses I have taught on this topic at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City, California, at New York Insight, in New York City, at Laguna Beach, California, and at Bellingham, Washington. Your questions have helped sharpen the presentation here in many important ways. I would also like to thank those who have looked over the manuscript and offered suggestions for improvements. In addition to the monks here at the monastery, this includes Peter Doobinin, Gil Fronsdal, Bok Lim Kim, Nathaniel Osgood, and Michael Zoll. Ruby Grad has kindly provided the index. Any mistakes, of course, are my own responsibility.

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