Realizing Dependence Through Thought and Action

by Ian Bartimole

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar

This summer living at home I grappled a lot with feeling like a leech, or some sort of parasite, totally dependent on my parents. Though I was working a painting job and making some money for the first time, that really only served to show me how little I had attempted any independence (at least financially) prior to this point. I struggled trying to reconcile this dependency with a certain view of myself. But one of the first few days at Sarah College I strolled into the library with a friend and we sat a while and read from some random books that had attracted us with enticing titles promising provocative new thoughts. Mine was entitled The Harmony Of Emptiness And Dependent-Arising. It is a commentary on a poem about the teachings of the Buddha, which focuses on dependent origination and emptiness as the greatest of his teachings. For me the most potent parts discussed how things appear to exist from their ‘own side,’ with inherent selves and concepts that can be intuited, when in fact each thing arises only due to outside causes and conditions. Thus everything is ’empty’ of inherent existence, nothing can exist from its own side because it arises due to something else.

Passang La explaining what it takes to make momo to Earlham students and their roommates, at Sarah College

Passang La explaining what it takes to make momo to Earlham students and their roommates, at Sarah College

Dependent-Arising or dependent origination, as it turns out, is one of the central concepts of Buddhist philosophy. As it sounds, this concept suggests that everything is created and exists dependently on or conditioned by innumerable factors outside the control of the thing in question. An easy and simple example could be like this: My existence is totally dependent on my parents having met and conceived me, and their existences were totally dependent on similar circumstances between their parents, and on and on endlessly, through countless generations of humans and if you want to trace back further, you can imagine the countless generations of evolving animals whose ancestors roam the earth today. And then it starts again with another causal chain: my existence is also totally dependent upon and conditioned by my access to food and water, sustenance and nourishment without which I would be unable to live. With these and other instances of my own dependence in mind, and there are countless other instances, forming a seemingly infinite chain of causality that has spit me and everyone else out into this current Here and Now only as products of a very particular set of causes and conditions. For me this has been an enlightening concept, and freeing in a lot of ways.

As I have explained to several of my classmates here, one of my goals (which is maybe less of a static goal off in the distance somewhere and more of a process I hope to engage in) after reading up on dependent arising is to gain a fuller realization of it. More and more in my interactions with people here, Earlham students and Tibetans alike, I am seeing that the ways we understand and accordingly act and react to the world around us are what we perceive as real. Normally I think of realization as something along the lines of epiphany, but to realize in the sense I want to use it here is ‘to make real.’ I want not only the thought, but the experience of dependent arising, to experience everything as a necessary part of a whole, completed puzzle constructed out of an impermanent array of infinitely divisible pieces, each in relation to and dependent upon all the others. I can think this way fairly easily, but in my experience applying the principle to my practice is the difficult part, internalizing it until if becomes a fundamental part of what I see and how I act.

Learning about 300 year old manuscripts at the Tibetan library in Gankyi, Dharamsala

Learning about 300 year old manuscripts at the Tibetan library in Gankyi, Dharamsala

One of the pieces of this journey to Dharamshala that we have discussed much as a group is this practical element; namely, the cultivation of a practice that aligns with what we are learning. The intent behind this is to make our learning experience not only thought provoking, but also paradigmatic in terms of how we are learning to act. This includes but is not limited to our meditation and yoga practices, but for me will be flavored by this attempt at realizing further these Buddhist principles. And though unsure yet as to what shape that practice will take or how it will develop in me, I am thoroughly excited by the prospect of processing and practicing around such a great community of Tibetans and Earlhamites, all of whom I am truly depending on to help me fill in the particulars of this awesome adventure.