Article: Awakening with Dependent Origination

A person who was lost in the jungle may not have learned the way out if he or she accidentally stumbles out. Lost in the jungle again, the person may be no wiser about how to get free. On the other hand, if a lost person carefully studies the jungle and learns the way out, he or she may never become lost in that jungle again. The person may even become a guide helping others out.

The Buddha didn’t stumble out of the jungle of suffering; he learned the skills, signposts, and path that led out. He spent many years, in many ways, teaching the way to freedom. In contrast, he said little about what the experience of freedom actually is. He focused mostly on how one becomes free and what one becomes free from or what one no longer experiences. Perhaps freedom cannot be described as any particular experience. It is like two people who are lost in the jungle together for a long time. When they both find their way out, they both experience the same freedom from the jungle. However, what they do and experience once out of the jungle may be very different from each other. What they may have in common is knowing how to avoid getting lost again, and they may both have strong confidence in the path out of the jungle.

One of the useful descriptions the Buddha gave for the way out of suffering is the twelve steps of what is called “Liberative Dependent Origination” (LDO). These steps are successive mental states, each dependent on the presence of the preceding one, which create the conditions for not only becoming free, but for really knowing one is free. The Liberative Dependent Origination sequence is offered in contrast to the more commonly taught twelve-fold dependent origination sequence that describes the main causal conditions that lead to suffering.

Just as one must first know oneself to be lost in order to search for a way out of the jungle, so one must know one is suffering in order to start a process that frees one from that suffering. Because this recognition is so important, the sequence of Liberative Dependent Origination begins with an honest confrontation with our suffering. Many alternative descriptions other than ‘suffering’ can be used for what is understood in this first, underappreciated step. For some, it may take the form of know- ing oneself to be ignorant, that one doesn’t yet know what it takes to be liberated from one’s distress. For others it might be an understanding of how the way one has been living doesn’t really work.

Between knowing one is suffering and starting to walk a path to freedom there needs to be adequate confidence in the path and in one’s capacity to walk it. Ignorance or doubt about the path can lead to inaction or to other pursuits. While even a modest amount of confidence can be enough to start, the stronger the confidence, the greater resolve one can have for engaging in the process of liberation. Dependent on confidence, the second step in the LDO, there can arise delight, the third step.This is gladness in knowing there is a path one has the capacity to discover and follow.

The fourth step is a joy that depends on the delight of the previous step. It is a joy that arises in direct proportion to how enthusiastically absorbed one is in practices that are a part of the path to freedom. Particularly important is meditative joy, since the next four steps are usually developed most fully in meditation practice.

Confidence, delight, and joy, by dispelling anxiety and agitation, help a person become tranquil, which is the fifth step. When the excitation of meditative joy diminishes while its clarity and concentration remain, this tranquility becomes a pervasive calm and stillness. Since the exuberance of joy can be quite attractive and meaningful, it sometimes takes a long time before a person feels ready to move on to more tranquil states.

Tranquility makes possible the arising of happiness, the sixth step in the LDO. This happiness is a broad sense of well-being which is calmer and more satisfying than joy.

This well-being is important for the development of concentration, the seventh step. This is because concentration depends on lessening agitation while the mind becomes unified in its ability to stay focused. As tranquility reduces agitation, happiness supports the unification.

The eighth step is the ‘knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-are.’ This involves profound and direct insight into the transient and impersonal aspect of our experiences and how unsatisfactory it is to cling to any of it. It can also involve a clear realization of the Four Noble Truths. Sometimes at this stage there can be a complete, but temporary release of all grasping. This experience is quite important because it shows that liberation is possible and worthwhile. Perhaps it is like climbing a hill- top where, standing above the jungle, one can see the end of the jungle in the distance. Though one must descend again into the jungle, one is now certain about the direction to be taken. Experiencing a thorough, but temporary, release from clinging strengthens confidence, which in turn helps develop the succeeding steps of Liberative Dependent Origination.

Dependent on having seen things-as-they-are, there follows a grow- ing disillusionment with the idea that there is anything worth clinging to. This in turn encourages a gradual weakening of the tendency to cling. In the sequence of LDO this disillusionment is called ‘disenchantment’ and the weakening of clinging is called ‘dispassion.’ These two are the ninth and tenth steps in LDO. As the thinning of the trees indicates one is coming to the edge of the jungle, so with the weakening of clinging a practitioner can have a clear sense that freedom is near by.

When grasping has weakened enough, a time comes when it is fully dropped. This eleventh step in the twelve-fold sequence is what the Buddha called Liberation. Since suffering depends on clinging, with the cessation of clinging, one is liberated from both clinging and suffering.

The final step in LDO is to understand what forms of clinging have come to an end with the experience of liberation. For the Buddha, liberation is not enough. It is important to understand what has changed when one is liberated. In part, this is a safeguard against believing one is enlightened when one isn’t. The final step in the awakening process is not described as any particular state—and certainly not as some form of annihilation or void. Rather the sequence ends with knowledge. One knows through personal experience the path that led to this freedom. A person who walks a path without understanding this may not be able to teach it to others.

The twelve-fold steps of LDO are not so much a step-by-step approach to Buddhist practice as they are a description of how the fruits of the practice lead naturally all the way to liberation. It is a reminder that the path to liberation is a gradual progression that unfolds if one can use the recognition of suffering as an inspiration to develop confidence and skill in Dharma practice. Even more important, it teaches that liberation is not a mysterious process dependent on forces outside of our own heart and mind. The Buddhist path clearly depends on our own efforts to cultivate personal qualities that enable deep insight and release. While the right conditions have to be in place for liberation to occur, when one cultivates those conditions, a time comes when self-effort can fall away and the Dharma can flower in our hearts and minds.

— Gil Fronsdal

Suffering → Confidence → Delight → Joy → Tranquility → Happiness → Concentration → Seeing things as they are → Disenchantment → Dispassion → Liberation → Knowledge