Dependent Arising

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Khenchen Ngawang Palzang

The Wheel of Existence

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Dependent Arising[1]

by Khenpo Ngawang Palzang

In the words of Noble Nāgārjuna: “There is nothing whatsoever that is not dependently arisen.”[2] He said this because anything that can be known within the realms of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa comes about unerringly and undeniably as the result of a preceding cause. If something arises in dependence on something else, it necessarily follows that it must be empty. Therefore, Nāgārjuna continued by saying, “There is nothing whatsoever that is not empty.”

Elaborating on the topic of dependent arising, the Great Omniscient One (Longchen Rabjam) has said that there is (1) the dependent arising of the fundamental character of reality (gshis) [or ground (gzhi)],[3] (2) the dependent arising of saṃsāra, and (3) the dependent arising of nirvāṇa.[4]  

1. The Dependent Arising of the Ground

The first of these three is called the ground (gzhi). It is also given names like “saṃsāra and nirvāṇa’s natural condition (tathātva; gnas lugs),” “the very nature of things” (dharmatā), “the expanse of things” (dharmadhātu), “suchness,” and so forth. Therefore, it means pristine cognition (ye shes) of the unity of appearances and emptiness, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa’s natural condition that is the ultimate truth.

There is a way in which it arises or manifests: saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are two, and the dyad of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is the display of their essence, the very nature of things (dharmatā). Saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are not separate, and it is their indistinguishability that is the key point of the decisive experience of transcending distinctions (la zla ba).[5]

This natural condition is like the source or cause of the dyad of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. To quote In Praise of Dharmadhātu:

This basic element (dhātu), which is the seed,
Is held to be the basis of all dharmas.[6]

Therefore, the heart of the matter is saṃsāra and nirvāṇa’s seed, cause, gene, or element. An oral instruction of Abu’s (Patrul Rinpoche)[7] says that this is the indispensable cause.[8] This does not refer to an ordinary causal process involving something that is produced and something that produces. Rather, it is the indispensable cause in the sense that if there were no pristine cognition as the natural condition, there would be no source for the dyad of saṃsāra or nirvāṇa. It is analogous to how without space, there would be no arising of the environment and its inhabitants; without the ocean, there would be no waves; and in the absence of valuable objects, needs and wants do not arise. Likewise, if the ultimate truth—the natural condition—were absent, there would be no source for any of the phenomena of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. Therefore, it is called the indispensable cause.

In dependence on saṃsāra and nirvāṇa’s gene (rigs; gotra) or cause, the dyad of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa comes about. This is ground dependent-arising.[9]

Thus, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa have their cause, seed, or natural condition. Since it is not initially generated in a causal process, it simply abides. As it does not arise in the beginning and is not initially produced in a causal process, it does not ultimately cease. It does not stop in any way.[10] As it is said, “In the beginning and in the end, unsullied.”[11]

To explain the meaning further, this pristine cognition, which is the natural condition, abides as the primordially pure essence. It is, what’s more, the truth of cessation. It is, what’s more, non-analytical cessation.[12] Even though pristine cognition is present in the mindstreams of sentient beings, this does not make them buddhas. While they may be obscured by distortions, since distortions have, primordially, never found their way into the fundamental character, things are absent in their own place. This is non-analytical cessation. Analogously, space is a non-analytical cessation. Space is where animate and inanimate things do not form. Animate and inanimate things have, primordially, never shrouded space. This is non-analytical cessation.

To put it simply, the non-application of rejection and remedy is non-analytical cessation.[13] It is like when in places of solitude, you do not encounter the objects of attachment and aversion, so you have no need for antidotes to the afflictive emotions. This is what is meant by things being absent in their own place.

Analytical cessation is sustaining a train of thought to apply antidotes and gradually discard anything undesirable.  

2. The Dependent Arising of Saṃsāra

 What about the dependent arising of saṃsāra? Our unseeing (ma rig pa) that fails to recognize our naturally present, pristine cognition is the unseeing that is the first of the twelve links of inner dependent arising—unseeing through formatives (saṃskāras; 'du byed) and so forth up to old age and death. The external appearance of that [process], like its glow, is outer dependent arising, passing through the stages of seeds, shoots, and so forth on their way to becoming a harvest.[14]

3. The Dependent Arising of Nirvāṇa

What about the dependent arising of nirvāṇa? This refers to all the paths and results on the paths, from the understanding and experience of that naturally abiding pristine cognition on the paths of accumulation and joining, to the first moment of realization on the path of seeing, on to the attainment of the ultimate fruition of buddhahood.

Thus, naturally abiding pristine cognition, for as long as the range of adventitious stains has not been purified, is all the things of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa—relative truth.

Ārya Nāgārjuna has said that the relative arises from the karmic activity of the afflictions (kleśa; nyon mongs). Such karmic activity is amassed by the mind.[15] If the relative is both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, then of those, saṃsāra [comes about through] formational karma, non-meritorious karma, and unwavering karma.[16] It is through these three that coarse dependent arising occurs from unseeing through old age and death. This is what is abandoned for nirvāṇa. It amounts to unseeing and the instinctual view of the transitory collection [as permanent].[17] The antidotes to that are the three trainings[18] and the essence of the truth of the path: the insight (prajñā; shes rab) that realizes selflessness. By training in the three trainings of the paths of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, the fruition one attains is arhatship. This is unseeing devoid of afflictions—that is, a state of dormant unseeing. From the two lower approaches of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas until the ultimate fruition of buddhahood, there are subtle and gross forms of unseeing. Therefore, these [fruitions] are the relative truth.[19]

When it comes to karma, that which accumulates mental karma is the mind. In the lower approaches, this refers to volition (cetanā; sems pa), whereas on the higher approach of the Mahāyāna, this is taken to be the main mental consciousness (citta; gtso sems) with its attendant mentation.[20] These are classified as the eight modes of ordinary consciousness.

| Translated by Joseph McClellan with editorial assistance from Lowell Cook, 2023.


Tibetan Sources

klong chen rab 'byams. chos dbyings mdzod kyi 'grel pa. a 'dzom chos sgar BDRC W1PD8.

______. "shing rta chen po". In gsung 'bum/_dri med 'od zer/ dpal brtsegs/ mes po'i shul bzhag. Vol. 21 Beijing: krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2009. BDRC W1KG4884.

ngag dbang dpal bzang. "rten 'brel". In gsung 'bum. Vol. 7, pp. 549–554. BDRC W22946.

sA lu’i ljang pa (Śālistamba). Toh 210, Degé Kangyur vol. 62 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 116.a–123.b. English translation in Dharmasāgara Translation Group (2018).

Secondary Sources

Duff, Tony. The Illuminator Dictionary.

Gamble, Ruth. The Third Karmapa: Master of Mahāmudrā. Boulder: Shambhala, 2020.

Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Higgins, David and Martina Draszczyk. Mahāmudrā and the Middle Way: Post-Classical Kagyu Discourses on Mind, Emptiness, and Buddha Nature. Wien: Arbeitskreis Für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2016, Heft 90.1

Jigme Lingpa and Longchen Yeshe Dorje. Treasury of Precious Qualities. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.

Kelley, Christopher Donald. Toward a Buddhist Philosophy and Practice of Human Rights. PhD diss. Columbia University, 2015.

Kongtrul, Jamgön. The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Three: Frameworks of Buddhist Philosophy: A Systemic Presentation of the Cause-Based Philosophical Vehicles. Translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan. Boulder: Snow Lion, 2007.

______. The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Parts One and Two: Indo-Tibetan Classical Learning and Buddhist Phenomenology. Translated by Gyurme Dorje. Boston & London: Snow Lion, 2012.

Lang, Karen. “Why Doubt Emptiness? Tibetan commentaries on Āryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses (bZhi brgya pa, Catuḥśataka) VIII: 5” abstract, International Association for Tibetan Studies. Panel 35: Tibetan Developments in Buddhist Philosophy in the Early Centuries of the Later Diffusion. Saturday 27 July, no year given:

Lindtner, Christian. Master of Wisdom: Writing of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1986.

Lindsay, Rory. “The Rice Seedling Sutra,” Lion’s Roar online, April 6, 2020.

Lobel, Adam S. Allowing Spontaneity: Practice, Theory, and Ethical Cultivation in Longchenpa’s Great Perfection Philosophy of Action. PhD diss. Harvard University, 2018.

Longchen Rabjam. The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City: Padma, 1998.

______. A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission: A Commentary on the Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City: Padma Publishing , 2001.   

Nāgārjuna. In Praise of Dharmadhātu. Translated by Karl Brunnholzl.  Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2007.

Ngawang Palzang, Khenpo. Wondrous Dance of Illusion: The Autobiography of Khenpo Ngawang Palzang. Translated by Heidi Nevin and Jakob Leschly. Boulder: Shambhala, 2013.

Pettit, John Whitney. Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom, 1999.

Ruegg, David Seyfort. Three Studies in the History of Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Philosophy. Wien: Arbeitskreis Für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2000, Heft 50.   

Sodargye, Khenpo. The Commentary on Lama Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of Dependent Origination: Prepared from Khenpo Sodargye’s Oral Teaching in 2010. Wisdom and Compassion Dharma University, 2010.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Tony Duff. Ground, Path, and Fruition. A Manual of the Teachings of Tsoknyi Rinpoche on Mind and Mind Essence. Kathmandu: Padma Karpo Translation Committee, 2010. 

Wangchuk, Dorji. The Resolve to Become a Buddha: A Study of the Bodhicitta Concept in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series, 2007.

Wikisource. Kun tu bzang po klong drug pa'i rgyud.

Version: 1.0-20231023

  1. The text is catalogued with the simple title, rten ‘brel—interdependence, relativity, or dependent arising. Among other things, the brevity of the title suggests that it was an informal composition. More often than not, even brief works are given a proper, more informative title. Rten ‘brel merely gives us the general topic at hand, but it tells us nothing of the text’s methodology or the position defended therein. Compare it, for example, to the similar-length title from volume eight of his Collected Works: gzhi lam ‘bras bu’i rnam par bzhag pa (“A Detailed Exposition of the Ground, Path, and Fruition”). While the rten ‘brel text here could be categorized in the genre of a rnam bzhag (“detailed exposition”), it is not so labeled. Another element significantly missing from the text is a colophon where we would find the year and circumstances of the composition, as well as the author’s motivations. The text ends abruptly, providing no context. We might reasonably speculate, therefore, that the text was essentially a kind of lecture notes prepared either by the Khenpo himself, or by his students or teaching assistant. Furthermore, its terse and dense style, which requires a good deal of unpacking, militates against the likelihood that this text was composed as a personal instruction for a favored student.  ↩

  2. As Ngaga’s audience would have the root text of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā memorized, his quotations of Nāgārjuna in this section are truncated as “Other than dependently originated, etc.” and “Other than empty, etc.”  Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV:19. Sanskrit: apratītyasamutpanno dharmaḥ kaścin na vidyate / yasmāt, tasmādaśūnyo hi dharmaḥ kaścin na vidyate. Tibetan: gang zhig rten ’brel ma yin pa’i / / chos ’ga’ yod pa ma yin no / / de phyir stong nyid ma yin pa’i / / chos ’ga’ yod pa ma yin no/ / (verses from Karma Phuntsho [2005], p. 230n37. See also Garfield 1995, XXIV:19). Karma Phuntsho translates this stanza as “There is nothing whatsoever that is not dependently originated, therefore there is nothing whatsoever that is not empty” (32). Nāgārjuna makes this same key point in his Vigrahavyāvartanī: “That thing which is dependently originated is known as empty” [Sanskrit: yaś ca pratītyabhāvo bhāvānāṃ. śūnyateti sāproktā; Tibetan: rten nas 'byung ba’i dngos rnams gang// de ni stong nyid ces brjod de//] (Karma Phuntsho [2005], p. 230 n. 38).  ↩

  3. If we assume that this instance of gshis ("fundamental character") is not a scribal error, here the subtle relationship between the near homophones of gshis and gzhi seems to be emphasized, which is not uncommon in Longchenpa’s writings. Gzhi is the more general term for “ground [of reality],” the fundamental truth of appearances and emptiness being primordially unified and empty of inherent existence. Out of this impersonal basal matrix arise mind, saṃsāra, nirvāṇa, everything (See Tsoknyi & Duff 2010). Gshis refers to a more personal basal matrix in the sense of “character,” “disposition,” “make up,” or “dispositif.” It highlights the pregnancy of the basal matrix of reality, its readiness to manifest. Longchenpa translator Richard Barron translates this term as “fundamentally unconditioned nature,” which slightly mutes the expressive connotation of the term, but it is spelled out in a passage of his translation of Longchenpa’s A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission: “The Six Expanses states: Therefore, one's fundamentally unconditioned nature is present in such a way that there is its very essence, as well as the manifestations of its nature and its responsiveness, appearing to those with ordinary consciousness. While the essence has never existed as anything, the nature manifests as the clearly apparent aspect of things (Longchen Rabjam [2001], 409). This is Barron’s rendering of “/klong drug pa las/ de phyir rang gzhis 'dug tshul la/ /ngo bo nyid dang rang bzhin dang/ /thugs rje yi ni snang ba bdag /blo can rnams la snang ba'o/ /ngo bo gang du ma grub pas/ /rang bzhin snang cha gsal bar snang/” (chos dbyings mdzod kyi grel pa, F.195b).  ↩

  4. Longchenpa uses these three categories to discuss dependent arising in his Great Chariot (shing rta chen po) commentary on sems nyid ngal gso. This text by Khenpo Ngaga would appear to be based on that section of the Great Chariot. Interestingly, Longchenpa uses both gshis and gzhi when referring to the first of the three categories: mdor na chos thams cad kyi rang bzhi ye nas dag pa ni gshis rten cing 'brel bar ‘byung ba'am gzhi rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba bshad par bya ste/ (dri med 'od zer. gsung 'bum/_dri med 'od zer/ dpal brtsegs/ mes po'i shul bzhag. 26 vols. Beijing: krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2009. (BDRC W1KG4884). vol. 21 p. 159).  ↩

  5. la zla’i gnad. Here again, Ngaga is pulling a thematic thread that runs through Longchenpa’s works, e.g.: “…The ground of being and the mode by which it arises as apparent phenomena/ are by nature beyond being identical or separate/ and are timelessly and spontaneously present, arising through the avenue of awareness./ As the dynamic energy of its display, the two modes—samsara and nirvana—manifest distinctly as impure and pure/ yet even in manifesting neither is better or worse, for they are of one basic space” (Longchen Rabjam [1998], 34-37). (gzhi dang gzhi snang ‘char tshul de dag kyang./ gcig dang tha dad bral ba’i rang bzhin du/ ye nas lhun grub rig pa’i sgo las shar/ rol pa’i rtsal du ‘khor ‘das rnam pa gnyis/ dag dang ma dag so sor snang na yang./ snang dus nyid nas dbyings gcig bzang ngan med/). Thanks to John Whitney Pettit and Adam Pearcey for helpful clarifications of the term la zla ba. For a discussion of Longchenpa’s views on this very issue of the nonduality of the ground and its manifestations, see Lobel, 2018, pp. 236–241.  ↩

  6. Dharmadhātustava, verse 17. Brunnholzl (trans.). In Praise of Dharmadhātu, (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2007), p. 119.  ↩

  7. Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887) with whom Khenpo Ngaga’s own root guru, Lungtok Tenpé Nyima (1829–1901), studied and trained for twenty-eight years. Lungtok passed on the complete lineage of Patrul Rinpoche’s oral instructions to Khenpo Ngaga. For the life and career of Patrul Rinpoche, see Ricard, Matthieu. Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche (Boulder: Shambhala, 2017). On the Khenpo’s own reflections on receiving this lineage, see Ngawang Palzang, Khenpo. Wondrous Dance of Illusion (Boulder: Shambhala, 2013), pp. 51–52.  ↩

  8. med na mi byung ba'i rgyu: Lit. "The cause without which nothing arises."  ↩

  9. A supporting passage from Longchenpa’s Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission reads: “Just as rays of sunlight are subsumed within the orb of the sun, all phenomena of the universe of appearances and possibilities are subsumed within their source, awakened mind. Suppose we then investigate this, examining the place from which samsara and nirvana (whose very essence is that of a dream) come, the place in which they abide, and the place to which they go. Since samsara and nirvana have never existed, they have never existed in any mode of coming, abiding, or going; or, conversely, since none of these three modes has ever existed, samsara and nirvana have never existed. And so, given that even what is termed ‘awakened mind as the supportive ground’ or ‘awakened mind as basic space’ has never existed as something with an identifiable essence, all things are none other than their true nature, which is like space; this is conventionally referred to as ‘things being subsumed within the true nature of phenomena.’ But it should be understood that subsuming and what is subsumed are without foundation or support” (Longchen Rabjam [2001], 123–124).  ↩

  10. “Does not cease” and “does not stop” translates the related phrases 'gags pa med pa and 'gag par 'gyur ma yin. Both highlight the inexorability of the ground expressing itself as things (dharmas; chos), that these expressions cannot be turned off, the basal matrix of reality can never be blank and barren.  ↩

  11. Likely a reference to or paraphrase of a Dzogchen tantra such as the Tantra of Samantabhadra's Six Expanses (kun tu bzang po klong drug pa'i rgyud) which contains the line, yod med mtha' yi dri ma med ("The unsulliedness of the limits of existence and non-existence" (Wikisource).  ↩

  12. Jamgön Kongtrul, in The Treasury of Knowledge (book six, part two) glosses this in the following way: “With regard to… cessation obtained through non-analytical means (apratisaṃkhyanirodha; so sor brtags min gyi ’gog pa), this refers to the [tem­porary] cessation [of phenomena] obtained on account of the insufficiency of the causes and conditions [for their arising]. Even so, the seeds or subcon­scious tendencies of these [phenomena] are, for the while, not destroyed and they are never disconnected because their rejection is not irreversible. This may be exemplified by the non-arising of other modes of consciousness when visual consciousness is distracted by visual forms” (536).  ↩

  13. Kongtrul glosses this in the following way: “With regard to… cessation obtained through analytical means (pratisaṃkhyānirodha, so sor brtags pa’i ’gog pa), this occurs when the [spiri­tual] path associated with any uncorrupted antidote is [consciously] cul­tivated in the mind, and all the corresponding [impurities] that are to be rejected cease, without exception. In this case, the dissonant mental states and their seeds or subconscious tendencies are thoroughly destroyed by means of the antidote in question, and the [impurities] which are to be rejected are perpetually disconnected because their rejection is irreversible” (536).  ↩

  14. Inner and outer dependent arising are famously discussed in the important sūtra, The Rice Seedling (Śālistamba). See sA lu’i ljang pa (Śālistamba). Toh 210, Degé Kangyur vol. 62 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 116.a–123.b. English translation in Dharmasāgara Translation Group (2018). Khenpo Sodargye succinctly glosses the two terms in the following way: “All phenomena can be further classified as to whether it is subject to outer or inner dependent arising. Inner dependent arising is illustrated by the twelve links of dependent origination, while outer dependent arising exists in relation to the natural laws of the external world, in which trees, plants and so on are produced by corresponding causes and conditions” (Sodargye 2010, p. 59). For a brief introduction to The Rice Seedling, see Lindsay 2020.  ↩

  15. Likely a paraphrase of verse 69 from Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Tib. byang chub sems kyi 'grel ba). See Lindtner, 1986. Khenpo Ngaga’s quote reads, “las ni sems kyis bsags pa yin.” Lindtner refers to the Peking and Narthang editions of the Tengyur, which read, “las ni sems las byung ba yin” (“karmic activity arises out of the mind”).  ↩

  16. Jamgön Kongtrul glosses unwavering or stable karma in the following way: “Stable [or unmoving] karma (mi g.yo ba’i las) is referred to as such because its maturation does not occur [or “move” to] anywhere but its originating states [which are the form and formless realms]… It is a state of equipoise and is not disturbed [or “moved”] by the faults of lower states. [Stable karma] is described as the special mental state of the main absorptions (snyoms 'jug dngos gzhi) of the four meditative concentrations and four formless states” (Kongtrul 2007, pp. 108–109). The list of three karmas is usually: (1) meritorious karma, (2) non-meritorious karma, and (3) unwavering karma, but in place of the first, meritorious karma, Ngaga uses the general term “formational activity” ('du byed pa’i las), the volitional actions that sculpt and pattern one’s existence.  ↩

  17. “Unseeing” here is the common general term for misknowledge (Skt. avidyā; Tib. ma rig pa), the first of the twelve links of dependent arising. “Instinctual view of the transitory collection [as permanent]” translates 'jig lta lhan skyes, our unconscious proclivity to impute continuity and singular metaphysical identity onto the swarms of conditions that appear as the five aggregates.   ↩

  18. The three training are in discipline (śīla; tshul khrims), meditation (samādhi; ting nge 'dzin), and insight (prajñā; shes rab).  ↩

  19. In the Tibetan exegetical traditions, there is debate over the completeness of arhats’ and pratyekabuddhas’ realization. Khenpo Ngaga seems to agree with his Nyingma elder, Mipham Rinpoche, who held that arhats and pratyekabuddhas have incomplete realization of the two kinds of emptiness. This topic is discussed in depth throughout Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty (See Pettit, 1999, p. 279).  ↩

  20. See Kelley 2015, p. 105 for a clear gloss of “main mind”: “Main mental consciousness, or ‘main mind,’ is basically just raw awareness, a non-propositional mental state that facilitates propositional ‘mental factors’ (caitta; sems byung). The relationship between main mind and mental factors is often described as being like that of the palm of one’s hand and its attendant fingers… Main mind is said to be ‘passive,’ while the attendant mental factors are ‘active.’”  ↩

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