Dialogue: The Dynamic Link to Dependent Origination

Vinessa Shaw 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.

Read More from: The Future of Buddhism

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.

Buddhism can no longer be viewed as a practice that is separate from society. The future of Buddhism in society needs to be based on empowering and enriching the inner lives of ordinary human beings. Buddhists need to engage in teaching others about the dignity of their life, just as Shakyamuni did. I believe that dialogue is the key to breaking through our tendency to separate and isolate. Dialogue changes isolation and loneliness into connection and interdependence. This, I believe, is the essence of Buddhism.

The Soka Gakkai International (meaning "society of value creation") follows the practices of Nichiren, a 13th-century reformist priest in Japan. He saw in the Lotus Sutra the very heart of the Buddha's intent, i.e., "to make all people equal to me without any distinction between us." He crystallized this notion of the profound Buddha-dignity of the common mortal into the mantra-phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (I devote myself to the wonderful dharma of the Lotus Sutra), the recitation of which forms the basis of SGI members' practice. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is an act of conviction in the boundless dignity and potential of each and every life.