Practising with Dependent Origination: A Practical Overview

Forest City Zen Group,

London, Ontario


Kuden Paul Boyle


I would like to talk about staying in the present moment as a way of cutting off or “short circuiting” suffering. The Buddha noticed that what was experienced as suffering could be looked at several different ways, and he developed a number of tools to help us analyze and break free from our suffering. If you have heard of the skandhas, that is one tool. However, the tool I would like to talk about today is called “dependent origination”. There are a variety of formulations of dependent origination in the sutras, but the one that is most well known is the so-called 12-fold chain of dependent origination. I won’t have the time to talk about all twelve links and how they work together, so I’ll just concentrate on the links that are most important in derailing our tendency to suffer in a given moment.


General Overview

In general, the way to understand this 12-fold chain is to see that one link is a necessary condition for the next link to manifest. For example, suppose someone shines a bright light in your eye, and it is an unpleasant sensation. What were the necessary conditions for that unpleasant feeling to arise? There needs to be a source of light, a functioning eye, and you need to be conscious. When the eye, the light, and consciousness “meet”, this meeting is called contact. According to the Buddha, contact is a condition for sensation to arise. Similarly, if you are craving something, the condition for craving to arise is sensation. In the same way, craving acts as a condition for attachment, and it is our attachment that most directly gives rise to suffering.


Six fold Consciousness

That is the broad-brush description, and now we can go into a little more detail. In early Buddhism the model for consciousness was considered to have six aspects, and was referred to as “six fold consciousness”. These aspects were intimately related to the six sense faculties, eye, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Notice that this is quite different from the view of consciousness in our culture, which is thought to be a property solely of mind (whatever “mind” is). In the Buddhist view, “consciousness” meant consciousness of something. Or, in other words, consciousness always has an object. The sense faculties supply these “objects”, and so, these six aspects of consciousness were termed “sense consciousness” and were given names, “eye consciousness”, “ear consciousness”, “nose consciousness”, “tongue consciousness”, “body consciousness”, and “mind consciousness”.


Sense Gates

According to Buddhist models of perception, when we receive sensory input, the mind bifurcates into two parts, the “internal sense gate” and the “external sense gate”. You can think of the internal sense gate as “the perceiver” and the external sense gate as “the perceived”. When an internal sense gate “meets” the corresponding external sense gate, then the corresponding sense consciousness is produced. When all three are present, this is called “contact” (sparsha). The whole idea of there being an internal and external sense gates is analogous to a lock and key mechanism. You have to have the right key for the right lock, or else nothing happens. For example, if someone shines a flashlight in your ear, there is no production of a sense consciousness. This is because the internal and external sense gates are not matching up. If you shine a flashlight in your eye something happens, the key and lock match, and the corresponding moment of visual consciousness is produced.


Contact and Sensation

The Buddha talks about there being six classes of contact, one for each of the corresponding sense faculties. These six classes of contact are conditions for the six classes of “feelings” or “sensations” to arise. It is important to note that “feeling” or “sensation” is how the Sanskrit word vedana is often translated. In North American English we often use the word “feelings” to mean “emotions”. For example, “My feelings were hurt.” This is not what vedana means. Vedana is a low level and preverbal sensation or response to sensory input, so the Buddha explicated six classes of sensation, “eye sensation”, “ear sensation”, “nose sensation”, “tongue sensation”, “body sensation”, and “mind sensation”. The Buddha described there being only three types of sensations, pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant (also known as neutral sensations). You should understand that this isn’t necessarily a physical sensation in the particular sense organ, but rather, a sensation that has its origination due to some sensory input through that sense faculty.


Underlying Tendencies

These three types of sensations are accompanied by the corresponding three “underlying tendencies.” The underlying tendency to lust accompanies pleasant sensations, that is, when a pleasant feeling arises, you usually would like to have more of that sensation. The underlying tendency to aversion accompanies unpleasant sensations. Most people want to avoid unpleasant sensations. The underlying tendency associated with neutral sensation is the tendency toward ignorance. Although, this “ignorance” is not what in Buddhism is called “fundamental ignorance” (avidya). Rather, this ignorance (Sanskrit moha) means ignorance or unawareness of cause and effect.



If you recall the first part of this talk, sensation is the condition for craving to arise, and as you might expect, if there are six classes of sensation, there are consequently six classes of craving, “eye craving”, ”ear craving”, ”nose craving”, ”tongue craving”, “body craving”, and “mind craving”. As with sensation, think of this in terms of a craving that has its root in some particular senses input. For example, if you smell some delicious food like brownies or apple pie baking, you might start to have a craving that would be termed a “nose craving” because the sensory input which acted as a condition for the craving to arise came through or originated in the nose.



Attachment in the Buddhist sense means a strong adherence or desire, a fixation for something that is perceived to be outside of oneself. Maybe you know that feeling of being “locked on” to something or someone. That is attachment. You might expect, given the six-fold nature of everything we have talked about so far, that attachment would also be six fold as well. However, this is not the case. According to the Buddha, there are four types of attachment. There is attachment to sensual (i.e. sense) pleasures, attachment to rules and rituals, attachment to views, and attachment to views of self. The attachment to views of self has its own special category because these attachments are so strong and deep-seated.


The change of going from six fold phenomena like craving, sensation, and contact to four fold attachment is significant. The six fold quantities, if you think about them, are all referring to preverbal, non-conceptual states, whereas the four fold attachments are rooted in conceptions. A “view” is a concept. So in moving from craving to attachment we go from a primarily bodily, preverbal, non-conceptual experience to a conceptualized experience. We move from the realm of reality as it actually is to a realm of how we think or wish reality should be. Once we get into our concepts about something, then we begin to suffer.


Practising with Dependent Origination

The point of studying dependent origination is to provide us with a way to understand the true nature of our own experience and knowing where the links in the chain dragging us toward suffering are most easily broken. It turns out that this weak links are at contact and/or sensation. We can talk about abiding in contact or abiding in sensation, that is, staying at the point of contact or sensation and not letting our minds jump toward conceptualizing our experience. It is extremely difficult to abide in contact, because if something feels pleasant or unpleasant to us, we know almost instantaneously it feels pleasant or unpleasant without having to think about it. So, for the rest of this talk I will talk about vedana or sensation and the underlying tendencies and how we can abide in vedana during meditation.


When one meditates for a longer period of time, say, for example, in a meditation retreat, most people inevitably experience unpleasant sensations in the legs, particularly the knees. This, in fact, is a very valuable experience because it illustrates Buddha’s teaching in our own lives, right now, in this moment.


The first thing many people notice when having this sort of experience is that there is the physical discomfort and there is the mental narrative about the physical discomfort, and they are two different things. The Buddha identifies that when an untrained person experiences a painful sensation, there are actually two unpleasant sensations, a physical one and a mental one. The Buddha compares this to a person who is struck by a dart, then immediately struck by a second dart. This person feels the pain from both darts. Whereas a meditator with some experience experiences only the physical discomfort. This corresponds to my early experience in sesshins, I noticed that the narrative, which, by the way, I had no conscious control over, actually made the pain that much worse. As my experience as a meditator increased, I noticed that the narrative has tended to attenuate or cease completely at times.


The next thing I was able to notice in sitting meditation retreats is my tendency to want to avoid these unpleasant sensations. This is the underlying tendency toward aversion. When the Buddha talks about the underlying tendencies, he always says that they should be abandoned. How do we abandon them? In short, we abandon them by not acting on them. Following our underlying tendencies with regard to lust, aversion or ignorance are a habituated actions for most of us. The more we practise a habit the more difficult it is to break. When we refrain from habituated actions, the habit’s hold begins to loosen. This is why in Zen, the traditional advice for sitting zazen is “don’t move”. If your face begins to itch, you don’t scratch it. And, unless you are experiencing a sharp shooting, or electrical pain in your legs, it is best not to move until the period of zazen is over.


I think you can see how giving in to acting on our underlying tendencies sets us up for sliding into craving. Once we are craving, it is very easy to attach to some conceptualization of our experience. When we get that short-term relief by acting on our underlying tendencies it builds our desire for more short-term relief. You scratch that itch on your face once, but then a little while later, your face begins to itch more at multiple places. Now resisting scratching is a lot more difficult. Similarly, I’ve never been able to relieve leg or knee pain by fidgeting. Usually, it just made it worse, and then I fidgeted more. So when we have unpleasant sensations during zazen, we want to practise not reacting to them, and this weakens the habit of giving into underlying tendencies.


Abandoning our underlying tendencies has other, more profound, benefits as well. When we allow our experience to be as it is, we can then observe directly the impermanence of phenomena in meditation. Our face itches, and we can just observe how mind changes, how our narrative about the itch changes. We can observe that eventually the itch goes away by itself. When our legs hurt, and we really observe the physical sensations, we can see that the so-called “pain” is not monolithic, but that it moves and undulates like one of those lava lamps from the 1970’s. When our bodies directly experience impermanence in this way, our strong belief in substantiality and permanence of self and other begin to weaken. We find over time that our need to act out on our impulses lessens because our bodies have tasted impermanence.


One point related to this, which my teacher makes, and I have found to be true as well, is that when we become more open to experiencing physical discomfort, it also makes us more open to experiencing painful emotions as well. We are then less likely to suppress unpleasant emotional states. When we are not repressing or suppressing emotions, it is easier for us to process them and move past them. This can only make us happier, healthier individuals.


I hope I have shared with you how I’ve tried to understand the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination by examining my own experience, and its practicality as a tool for understanding various states that arise in meditation. Thank-you for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you.


Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2017