By John Pendall
Over a decade ago, a close friend and I were walking down a back road that we call, “Butterfly Lane.”
Its legal name is a nonsensical string of apparently random numbers. Walking home beneath a warm summer sky, a peacock feather seemed to collapse out of nowhere. It landed on the road before us, and we both just stopped and waited.
For a few seconds, the feather sat there, motionless. Then, the breeze picked up, and it fluttered into the air again. It soared over the bean fields, and then dove back to the road, rolling end over end before reaching back up to the sky. It trembled and weaved and shimmered in the sunlight. We watched for a few minutes, silently transfixed by this perfectly ordinary sight.
What we were witnessing was dependent arising. The wind blows, and the feather flies; the wind dies, and the feather falls. It moves here and there, dependent not only on the wind but on its own features as well; its size, shape, texture, and density. Really, there is no feather apart from these features. The pause that I fell into—that moment of subtle sublimity—was caused by the nonverbal realization that, “Everything is just like this.”
That feather was an ambassador of reality.
Each thought, word, and action; each feeling, perception, and volition; each object, each life, each atom and each universe; each moment of consciousness; suffering, its cause, and its cessation; even this article on dependent arising: all of these are moments of dependent arising.
The B-Man stresses the importance of dependent arising by saying, “Profound, Ananda, is this dependent arising, and it appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this law that the world resembles a tangled skein of thread,” and that, “One who sees dependent arising, sees the Dharma.”
In the Buddha’s simplest explanation, dependent arising means that, “This being, that exists; through the arising of this that arises. This not being, that does not exist; through the ceasing of this that ceases.” When the weather gets cold, I put on a coat. When the weather gets warm, I take off that coat. If there was no such thing as cold weather, there’d be no coats.
Simple, right? Not at all.
Everything is dependently arisen in just a whole bunch of different ways. I could probably rant on for several thousand words describing dependent arising from various angles as it made its rounds through the Three Turnings of the Wheel.
Dependent arising is deceptively unassuming on the surface. When we practice with it a little, we start to see that it actually slams a dagger way down into our guts because it challenges something that we hold dear: our identities and the identities of our loved ones. It calls into question our sense of control, continuity, and independence. The realization that everything is just like that feather on the wind means that I am just like that feather on the wind, moving about by way of my karma.
“Did he seriously just mention karma?” Yes, outraged hypothetical person, he did. At this point, karma is pretty much a swear word in Western Buddhism. I still think it’s a vital part of practice that shouldn’t be sloughed off as, “Eastern superstition,” without carefully checking it against firsthand experience. Dependent arising shows us how little control we have over our lives (especially considering that the “I” is just another dependent arising, twisting and swaying whenever the things it depends on twist and sway), so I think it’s silly to ignore the one teaching in Buddhism that allows us to exercise some degree control of ourselves and our world.
Karma, in this metaphor, is like the characteristics of the feather. These characteristics determine how the wind will blow it, and what twists and turns it’ll take as it waltzes through the air. Wholesome karma makes for a beautiful waltz; unwholesome karma, a writhing tumult. Karma is mental, and it’s directly linked to our intentions.
Skillful intentions (intentions full of Bodhicitta and free of affliction) generate wholesome karma; unskillful intentions (afflicted, materialistic intentions) generate unwholesome karma. Intention isn’t enough on its own; it has to be coupled with a thought, word, or action. Now, there isn’t some kind of karma points system built into the cosmos and there isn’t some all-powerful being watching everything we do; it’s just us watching ourselves. That’s scarier in some way, isn’t it?
We watch everything we do throughout our lives. Our thoughts, words, and actions leave traces in our minds. These traces are called karmic seeds. When the conditions are right, these seeds ripen into karmic fruits. i.e. afflictions or wholesome factors. Karma didn’t make me stub my toe, karma is what determines how I feel about stubbing my toe, whether I’m aggravated, indifferent, or amused by it. How I react to that feeling influences how I’ll feel the next time I stub my toe.
Each time I respond to pain with anger, I strengthen the bond between the two so that anger naturally arises dependent on pain. As I get older and I feel more and more pain as my body goes on strike one cell at a time, I gradually become an angry person. Scratch that and reverse it if I respond with humor or equanimity.
This is dependent arising from a practical perspective and spotting our afflictions and replacing them with enlightened qualities is the path to nibbana—freedom from suffering.
If we want to change how we flutter in the wind, we have to change our characteristics. The easiest method is to be mindful of the afflictions: craving, ill-will, pride, ignorance, doubt, and unskillful views. When we spot one of these afflictions rising up, we cut it off before it influences our thoughts, words and actions. This weakens its association with whatever event gave rise to it until, eventually, the association goes extinct.
Another antidote involves introducing the opposite. If I get angry, I can pause and then remember the teachings on loving-kindness. If I’m worried, I can remember the teachings on emptiness or Buddha-nature. If I’m craving something, I can remember that satisfaction is transient; I can redirect my self-serving actions and instead do something that benefits others.
There’s a pattern to all of this. First, we learn to monitor ourselves so that we can spot the afflictions when they arise. “Monitoring” is actually decent synonym for “meditation.” We learn to monitor our minds. When an affliction or wholesome factor arises, we don’t need to do anything with them at first; just accept them and watch them pass on by. Once we’ve gotten comfortable with all of this, we can start interrupting the afflictions so that they don’t transform into behavior. Then, we can cultivate wholesome factors by introducing the opposite of each affliction.
It’s a straightforward path that anyone can do amid day-to-day activity without extensive guidance, and the whole thing is built on an understanding of dependent arising.
I don’t get angry when I stub my toe anymore because I stopped acting out the anger. Instead, I forced myself to see my anger for what it was: a fleeting moment dependent on pain. I forced myself to see my pain for what it really was: a fleeting moment dependent on physical contact.
Now, I laugh, and this feather flutters just a little bit smoother.
Editor: Dana Gornall