Future of Buddhism
Dialogue: The Dynamic Link to Dependent Origination
By Vinessa Shaw
Now that we've almost completed the first decade of the new millennium, it's amazing to see how we have advanced technologically in society. The world is truly at our fingertips with the average American owning a television (99%, csun.edu), a cell phone (90%, nytimes), and a computer (76%, 2007 Pew Research Center). How much time does the average American watch TV? Thirty-seven hours per week (Television Bureau of Advertising -- TVB). How many hours do Americans talk on their cell phones? Two hours and forty-five minutes per week (CTIA). How many hours a week do Americans use the internet? Eighteen hours (TVB). We are indeed speeding down the information superhighway!
But have we actually advanced in communication as human beings? One recent study shows that an American parent on average has a meaningful conversation with their child for only three and a half minutes a week! (csun.edu) Figures like this show that we are definitely searching for connection, but is it the right connection we are finding? We are spending more time connecting electronically, but are we connecting life-to-life?
Gandhi said that, "Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being." This interdependence that Gandhi speaks of is akin to the Buddhist concept of "dependent origination." The Buddha described this concept by using an example of two bundles of reeds leaning against each other. If you take away one bundle the other one falls. His point was to express the interdependent nature of life itself. If this exists, then so must that. If that exists, so must this. Nothing exists in isolation.
When one imagines the Buddha, an image that is sometimes conjured up is of a man in the state of nirvana, detached from the turmoil of society in blissful meditation. I think that this is a misconception of who the Buddha was and what the Buddha intended. The definition of Buddha is "enlightened" or "awakened one," meaning one who is aware of how to live life in all of its complexities. And the Buddha did not keep his enlightenment to himself. He and his disciples engaged with every kind of person -- from wise men to grieving mothers to prostitutes, sharing their discovery of enlightenment, reinforcing the interconnectedness of all beings.
The Lotus Sutra tells the story of "Bodhisattva Never Disparaging," who would bow reverently to each person he met regardless of gender or status and declare his reverence for them because they were "certain to attain Buddhahood" (provoking unkind and arrogant responses from many!). It was through this path that he was able to achieve the most profound transformation. We learn that this bodhisattva was none other than the Buddha himself in a past lifetime.
The lesson for those of us practicing today may be that awakening to the truth of dependent origination cannot be done solely on the meditative cushion. We need instead to rise from our profound contemplation and engage compassionately with a wide range of people just as the Buddha did. I believe that the real link to dependent origination is a dynamic one that involves dialogue as much as contemplation and courage as much as wisdom.