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Dependent Origination: A Review and Exploration Toward Unification

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Wishing readers and the wider BDG community a meaningful new year. Here, we take a quick look back at past articles to gather a sense of what this column has covered.

The beginning of last year was initiated by the wishful thought that an appreciation of the Buddhadharma could lead to more enlightened and purposeful science, and that modern research could lead to new discoveries that may support or explain some of the beliefs held in wisdom traditions. This convergence has also been supported by increasing numbers of scientists and engineers taking an interest in the Dharma and intensifying exchanges between these two fields. 

More recently, a related seminar—the Ronin Institute Seminar, Against Method—concluded by exhorting us to let science be guided by the understanding that everything is connected and that science must remain in the service of humanity and not vice versa. 

The interplay between science, mind, and the Dharma has been proposed in many flavors in this column, all the way up to discussing omniscience in the very contemporary context of artificial intelligence. As we attempt to build omniscient technology, what should we learn from the wisdom traditions?

Finally, I addressed dependent origination as expounded in the The Sūtra on Dependent Arising (Pratītya­samutpāda­sūtra) and its potential usefulness and relevance to addressing open questions in science.

Dependent origination is also sometimes referred to as dependent co-arising, as it is central to the Buddhist worldview as well as to the most aspects of all Eastern philosophies.

According to dependent origination, which is an expansion and refinement by Shakyamuni Buddha and later Buddhists of ideas previously found in Vedic knowledge and the Upanishads, the 12 links forming the basis of causality constitute its most pragmatic formulation, encapsulating many levels of the central tenets of the Dharma.

These 12 links are objects of study and reflection for practitioners who take an interest in the path. Dependent origination has been embraced by countless Buddhists throughout time, who have had no problem with its understanding and application.

The links relate primarily to the subjective existential experiences of individuals embracing the Dharma, pointing to how some aspects of karma may evolve. Philosophically, they can also be used to formulate hypotheses about multiple aspects of the objective phenomenal world, such as causality and even maybe synchronicity. This may suggest that recurrence, connectedness, and perpetuation contained in links that constitute the basis for dependent origination, and also resonate with the underlying principles of certain laws of physics.

The understanding of the general principle of causality that underpins dependent origination, once accepted, can by extension become relevant to many aspects of worldly reality and human cognition. The core principles, literature, and teachings of dependent origination are simple yet vast and with many implications. Dependent origination is said to be of different kinds.

For example:

Dependent Arising in a Relative Sense

Dependent Arising from Fulfilling a Function

Dependent Arising in Terms of Cause and Effect

Dependent Arising of a Whole and Parts

• Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation

The Imputation, Mental Label and Designation

(Study Buddhism)

The interpretations and applications of the principles of interconnectedness expounded are virtually endless. Directly or indirectly, they have through the ages influenced other schools of thought not immediately related to Buddhism.

Joanna Macy was among the first authors to conduct research in the context of a Western-style inquiry into the interface between contemporary science and ancient Eastern wisdom several decades ago. She started a current that lasts to our days, and is continued in this column, of exploring the parallels between Buddhism and general systems theory.

Henry Leroy Finch, who taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College, wrote that Macy’s work “broke away from casual patterns of a reductive sort into more holistic non-reductive ways of thinking and explanation by bringing together Western and Eastern ideas. It belongs to movements toward global integration.” (Abe Books). 

It is through the pursuit of integration that science advances, especially in relation to foundational scientific issues such as general relativity and the grand theory of unification. The principles of dependent origination can facilitate the integration of philosophy of mind with more traditional branches of science.  

According to multiple realizability theory, for example, the same mental state can be realized by different brain states, and/or the same brain state can realize different mental states. Multiple realizability was first put forward by Hilary Putnam, a scientist and philosopher who introduced functionalism, which defines mental states in terms of their functional or causal roles relative to other mental states and behaviors, as the mind is characterized by its functions and functional organization. The notion of multiple realization prompts the question: how is it that multiple systems all exhibit the same phenomena despite their different underlying properties?

Aligning the subjective human experience based on personal consciousness with more objective and generally observable phenomena, it may be possible to increase the general understanding of the universe as a whole. The foundational view of this integration finds its roots and justification in the philosophy of dependent origination. Can science understand and explain the universe without taking into account consciousness? Currently, consciousness is not typically associated with physics.

Dependent origination can help to align traditional physics—which drives much of traditional science —with philosophy of mind and the study of consciousness. Ultimately, the search for unity of science—the advancement toward a unified theory—must integrate diverse aspects to account not only for physics of matter, but also for the mind as a form of conscious energy. This is where dependent origination can ultimately contribute to the general field.

So, while we approach dependent origination as a profound understanding of the Buddhist worldview, we can also consider its relevance to much contemporary Western thought and to the development of an integrated mind-science-technology field of study.

References

Di Maio, Paola. 2021. “Against Method, Ronin Institute Seminar” available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlQ6t2vzXDM

Macy, Joanna. 1991. Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory: The dharma of natural systems. New York: SUNY Press.

Jurewicz, Joanna. 2000. “Playing with Fire: The Pratītyasamutpāda from the Perspective of Vedic Thought,” Journal of the Pali Text Society 26: 77–103.

Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. “Early meanings of dependent-origination.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36, No. 2: 297–317.

See more

Ronin Institute Seminar: Paola Di Maio AGAINST METHOD Part 1 (YouTube)
Different Types of Dependent Arising (Study Buddhism)
Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Abe Books)
Functionalism (Britannica)
Multiple Realizability Revisited (UCSD)
What is Multiple Realizability? (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Mind and Multiple Realizability (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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