Buddhism has developed into many forms with many teachings. However a close look at the suttas of the Pali Canon reveals the essential teachings of the Buddha.
The Buddha was not interested cosmology or describing how the universe works. He wasn't interested in promulgating a philosophy. He saw clearly that the existential problems of aging, sickness and death had the same "tone" as pain, sorrow, grief & despair, as not getting what one wants and getting what one doesn't want - dukkha. He saw that in order to have a happy life, a truly fulfilling life, dukkha has to be dealt with. This was his quest when he left his home in the foothills of the Himalayas and headed south towards the Ganges plain.
Very importantly, the Buddha also understood that dukkha isn't something "out there" - rather, it is an experience in the mind. He recognized that it was not possible to prevent the "out there" things like aging, sickness and death; that the only hope lay in controlling ones reaction to these unpleasant events.
The essence of Dependent Origination is "this that conditionality":
The Buddha wasn't interested in any ultimate reason why dukkha occurs; he wasn't interested in any sort of "complete explanation" as to why dukkha occurs. He was looking for an opening into which he could drive a wedge and thereby prevent dukkha. He sought to find something that was necessary in order for dukkha to arise. If he could find such a "necessary condition", this could provide him the lever needed to prevent dukkha from arising - prevent the necessary condition and dukkha is prevented.
This was a fairly radical departure from the spiritual teachings of his day. Both the mainstream and fringe spiritual teachings 2500 years ago looked to "ultimate causes" - e.g. the gods, chance, fate, etc. The Buddha ignored ultimate causes and sought simply a "necessary condition"; something far less grandeous, much simpler, less explanatory, simply something completely practical.
And he found a necessary condition that was capable of being worked with - craving (tanha). Craving isn't the only necessary condition for the arising of dukkha - others include being alive, being conscious, being thwarted. But these other necessary conditions were not workable - dying or being unconscious certainly are not useful ways of preventing dukkha, and life simply won't always unfold the way we want it to. So the Buddha had to work with craving. Notice that craving, like dukkha, is in the mind. This is another brilliant move on the part of the Buddha - it's a whole lot easier to reprogram your software than to rebuild the hardware of the universe.
Seeking a "necessary condition" for the arising of craving, the Buddha discovered that craving arises from vedana. But vedana - our pleasant, unpleasant, neutral initial reactions to sensory input are inevitable. Vedana arise from sense contacts which arise from the 6 senses that are part of having a conscious mind and body. So now the Buddha shifted to a new strategy - disenchantment (nibbida).
The trick is to clearly see that the senses and the sense objects that seem to promise such fulfillment with their pleasant vedana simply cannot fulfill that promise. Seeing the ultimately unsatisfying nature of all the things of creation is wisdom (pañña). But gaining such wisdom requires training the mind to see clearly what is really happening. This clear seeing (vipassana) requires both paying careful attention (sati) and not being distracted (samadhi). But both mindfulness and concentration (sati and samadhi) require a life of ethical conduct (sila) in order to be able generate these mind states.
This is the path: clean up your act, learn to concentrate, use your concentrated mind to gain wisdom by clearly seeing what is truly happening. When you truly understand the inconstant/impermanent nature of creation (anicca), that nothing gives lasting satisfaction (dukkha), and/or that no solid essence can be found for any phenomena (anatta), then the disenchantment can set in - the spell is broken, the enchantment is lifted. One becomes dispassionate (viraga) - ones mind is no longer colored (raga) by the allure of creation (sankara). Cessation (nirodha) of craving occurs - no craving, no dukkha. This is liberation; this is Nibbana.
Notice that the full 12 links of Dependent Origination are not required for the Buddha to discover the path to liberation; not even the 10 links are required. The only essential links needed are
Notice that this is not solely a linear unfolding - there is mutual dependency here in that the negative nature of dukkha will tend to lessen the likelihood of craving once the dependency is discovered. Furthermore this "reverse" linkage is propigated downstream to the vedana in that there is less enchantment associated with the vedana and with the objects that produce the vedana. Attempting to understand Dependent Origination in a solely linear fashion will miss many of the most important aspects.
There is certainly a larger set that has a linear explaination:
But is seems rather doubtful that the more complex 10 & 12 link recensions of Dependent Origination should be thought of as a linear explaination with regard to the Buddha's awakening - and given his single minded drive to present only the "handful of leaves" necessary for awakening, it is not even likely that the Buddha taught these more complex chains as a linear explaination. He was only interested in "the end of dukkha" and he never really attempted to present a coherent metaphysical explaination of anything.
Certainly the Buddha understood individual sections of the 10 & 12 link recensions in a linear fashion such as
But it seems doubtful the Buddha ever considered the entire complex linkage in the linear fashion that became such a critical part of the Abhidamma and the later commentaries. These 10 & 12 link recensions are a mnemonic device to aid one in remembering a collection of important necessary conditions. They are not a linear explaination of anything!
The really key element, the true breakthru, is "this that conditionality". The Buddha's genius was the recognition that seeking ultimate causes was fruitless but that finding necessary conditions could bear great fruit.
Dukkha is A Bummer
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