Have you ever gone on a Scavenger Hunt? This one has a big reward, a treasure beyond measure — definitely worth doing! Most scavenger hunts have you go about town looking for things, but for this scavenger hunt we will stay seated and use our imaginations.
Scavenger Hunt Instructions
Close your eyes and think about objects right where you are or in other places in your life — whatever comes to mind. Bring one to mind. Got it? Okay, now see if it depends on anything else to exist. If so, move on to another object. You are looking for something that came into the world completely of its own accord.
When you find something that doesn’t depend on anything else — or if you just give up — open your eyes. But really give it a try before going on. After all, there is a big reward!
Okay, did you find anything? If you did, look more closely. Ask more questions: Did anyone make this object? What material is it made of and where did that come from? What about the chemical composition of the object or even an element, in case you thought of something elemental?
If you couldn’t find anything that didn’t depend on anything else for its existence, then congratulations! You win the big reward. Your reward is a powerful realization with many benefits that I will explore here. But know that you have discovered for yourself a central point of awakening, one that the Buddha discovered for himself one time when he was staring at a leaf.
In his contemplation of the leaf suddenly he saw within it the presence of the sun and the stars. This was not a hallucination but a realization about the nature of being. Without the sun’s light and warmth the leaf could not exist. He recognized how the leaf manifested from a myriad of causes and conditions. Without those causes and conditions, the leaf would not exist. He realized that what was true for the leaf was true for everything and everyone: This is like this because that was like that. And if there was not that, then there would not be this.
He shared his realization and called it dependent co-arising. Nothing exists alone. Everything is because something else was. Let’s just stay with that for a moment. Think of your own being and what it depends on. You are as you are because of all the natural phenomena that has formed you and sustained you physically: to start let’s acknowledge the whole ongoing coming together of legions of ancestors so that eventually here you are, the result of innumerable causes and conditions being just so at particular moments in time. Think if your mother had had a headache that night! Or one of all those string of couplings throughout all those generations never occurred because they never met, etc. etc. You get the picture: This miracle of being you is nothing to take for granted, clearly! You might say it’s a total fluke that you are here. But it’s not a fluke really. The manifestation of your existence in this form at this time is an intrinsic part of the whole ongoing process of life unfolding, the interplay of all those causes and conditions.
It’s so easy to see this once we take a moment to think about it. Just on your person in this moment are the products of all manner of plants, perhaps animals and minerals and human labor, as well as the sun, soil and rain that sustained them all! Just think about that! Your clothing, whatever you have in your pockets or your purse, maybe your eyeglasses — all of it exists because of the existence of something or someone else. So that on your person right now, the whole universe is represented.
This is not just the product of living in society, though it may be easier to see it there. But even if you lived on a mountainside in a cave, you would still be dependent on the elements and the berry bushes and the mountain stream. You would still be someone’s child, even if estranged. There is no way to cut ourselves off from all that is, because we are each inseparable parts of all that is. There is no way to exist in complete isolation for anyone. There is dependent co-arising, and there is this ongoing interdependency of all life.
Maybe think about that the next time you pride yourself on being independent. Or maybe gently mention that the next time someone claims they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps — whatever the heck that means! Recognizing our interdependence can soften harsh judgments, soften hearts and clarify thinking. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is all us, all of us, without anything that is not us from here to infinity. Knowing this to be true, we naturally become more compassionate, more generous, more loving. Understanding this, can we see more clearly the actions of other? Can we see how unskillfulness in actions and words, while not necessarily inevitable, are certainly understandable given causes and conditions?
Now thinking about that leaf that the Buddha held in his hand, we come to a second aspect to contemplate in this dependent co-arising. We can ask when was this leaf born? Most of us have at one time or another noticed a leafing forth on a plant. But none of us would ever be able to pinpoint the very moment when the leaf suddenly exists. Because the leaf was inherent in the tree, the tree inherent in the seed and its relationship with the soil, the rain, the sun, and perhaps the hand of a person who purposely planted it there or the bird who deposited it there.
Think of the leaf. Is the leaf’s death when it falls off the tree? But it still exists, doesn’t it? We know that full well if we are tasked with raking or sweeping leaves. The leaf is still involved in the cycles of cause and effect. It dries up, it disintegrates, interacting with the sun, the rain, the wind it breaks down to become a part the soil, nourishing new life. So there is no moment when the leaf dies nor a moment when it was born. It is in an ongoing interaction of elements, manifesting in different forms.
Why is this important? Because when we look at our own human lives, we typically get caught up in a very constricted idea of life. We define it with a clear beginning and ending: birth and death. And then we struggle with that finite definition, especially with death. It doesn’t sit well with us. And there’s a reason it doesn’t sit well: Because it isn’t true. There is a moment when we take our first breath. Did we not exist already in the womb? And before conception were we not inherent in the bodies of our parents, and the gleam in our father’s eye?
Birth is not the beginning. It is entwined completely with all that came before that moment.
There will be a moment when we take our last breath. At that moment do we suddenly disappear? No! That moment is not the end, neither for our bodies nor for our being and the impact we have made on all around us and continue to make even though we may no longer have form, consciousness or volition. Existence is not so cut and dried.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of paring down, and one project that loomed large but turned out to be not a big deal, was taking all the old family home movies and videos and converting them to digital so that they would take up less space and be able to be shared with everyone, because no one in the family has an 8 mm projector, and few have DVRs. Some of these recordings I hadn’t seen since I was a child or a young mother, and they were fun to watch. But there was one I just wasn’t ready to see.
My mother died in 1989, and although of course her photos have been around and enjoyed all these years, I just had never worked up the courage to watch a videotaped interview of her that I discovered among her things. I was afraid it would just be too difficult for me to see her gestures and hear her voice so I managed to put it off for coming up on three decades. But her two beloved granddaughters were visiting, and the three of us decided we would watch it. And there she was, and there we were, her offspring still resonating, still feeling the presence of her being, while we watched her mannerisms and listened to her voice. Yes she was gone and we missed her, but we each of us had some part of her that has been with us every day in little ways, and in the fact, clearly we would not be who we are without her. Even if she never had children, nieces, nephews and friends also have been touched by her. She made a big difference in many people’s lives. So death may be the last breath, but it is not the last of any of us. We all go on and on, continuing to make an impact on all whose lives we have touched, and those whose lives they have touched, etc. etc. Rippling out and out and on and on.
Have you ever noticed on a clear blue day, maybe you’re out hiking, and suddenly a small cloud appears, as if out of nowhere? Was the cloud born? No, it existed as moisture in the atmosphere, but because of the wind or other elements, it coalesced and became visible to our eyes. But it was already there, inherent in the sky.
The cloud like everything else manifested out of transforming causes and conditions. This is like this because that was like that. Clouds are not born and they do not die. And neither do we!
We are like this because that was like that. When the Buddha recognized this he found it very freeing, this seeing our inherent ongoing nature of dependent co-arising. One student of mine said she felt much lighter. And that made me recognize that this insight does lighten the burden of being that we tend to carry, when we could be dancing with the brilliant patterns of being! See what effect this insight has on you.
For long time students of Buddhism who are familiar with the term ‘dependent co-arising’ there can be a habit of seeing this only as dogma, a dry doctrine, something to grasp philosophically, as if there’s going to be a test. But there is no test. And the Buddha was very much against anything he taught being received as some doctrine to be learned. He taught how to be joyful through mindfulness. So let go of any struggle around grasping at this dependent co-arising. There is only the joy of discovery that’s possible when we see the truth of it. Choose any object and see how it is like this because that was like that. There is no thing that exists on its own.
The next reward of recognizing dependent co-arising is realizing that it can only happen because there is impermanence. How we humans struggle with impermanence! Oh, things used to be better back in the day. Oh, look another wrinkle. But impermanence is not a necessary inconvenience that we must accept. It is imperative to life. We fear change so much, and yet it is the inherent nature that creates everything in our experience! Yay, impermanence! We would never exist without it!
And when we see this, then we see that there truly is no separate self, that we are ongoing ever evolving patterns of being, coming together, manifesting in one form or another, falling apart, transforming, always in a state of becoming, always dependent on what has been and co-creating what will be.
Why does this matter? Because, as the Buddha defined it, denying the value of impermanence and believing ourselves to be separate from all being, are the root causes of suffering. All our clinging to youth, all our fear of death, all our grasping for recognition and love and security, all come from the denial of the basis of all life: because that exists, this exists. Dependent co-arising.
This is as it is because that was as it was. Throughout this coming week, you could return to that idea, and check it out this dependent co-arising for yourself. Standing in line at the grocery line, instead of being impatient to get somewhere else, take that moment to notice how everything on the counter being scanned exists because of many other things. Include every element, every aspect and every person who contributed to that product and you will discover the sun and the stars at the checkout stand. And you won’t be hallucinating!
Understanding how nothing exists independently, how everything is interdependent, can we set the intention to co-create a world of joy, peace, love and kindness? Can we cultivate lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, then radiate it out in ripples to all beings everywhere? This is not some grand scheme. This is a simple choice to practice meditation, self-inquiry, awareness, spaciousness and compassion. This is wise intention! And if we make a wise effort to live with loving awareness in all our interactions, we ripple out in all directions and down through generations to come. If we stay unawakened, what are we sending out? The static of fear, dense and destructive.
We have the capacity to choose how this manifestation evolves, how we can radiate the joy that is manifested in our practice for the benefit of all beings. As our understanding deepens, our ability to manifest joy grows exponentially.
Now wasn’t that rewarding?