Everyday Language and Dhamma Language
The Buddha uses two kinds of language to teach his doctrines. One is everyday language, which he uses to teach preliminary moral lessons to people deluded by the concept of a continuing existence. These people (puthujjanas) experience an ego. They are possessive because of their deep-rooted mental clinging. On the other hand, Dhamma language is used to teach people with a sharp mind who were only mildly deluded. A different language is necessary for them to understand the Absolute Truth (paramatthasacca), and to stop them from embracing the concept of a continuing existence.
Dependent Origination is an Absolute Truth—it applies uniformly to all beings and in all times and places—therefore, Dhamma language must be used to explain it. It is contrary to teachings of morality about worldly goodness, which supports the concept of an ego. Everyday language cannot be used to discuss Dependent Origination without distorting it. However if Dhamma language is used, people do not understand it, and try to interpret it using everyday language. Ultimately, they misunderstand Dependent Origination.
This is the basic difficulty in teaching Dependent Origination. It is also why, upon his enlightenment, the Buddha initially hesitated to teach. Teaching morality assumes the presence of a person, sentient beings, the self and the Tathāgata (the Buddha). Teaching people to perform meritorious deeds entails the assumption of enjoying blessings later on in this life or after their death. In the case of Absolute Truth, however, sentient beings, the person, and the Tathāgata are absent. There are only successive instants of occurrences due to dependent conditions.
These occurrences are a process of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppanna-dhamma). These occurrences link together to form a continuous chain. Here the ego is absent in every instant; therefore, no entity is born, no entity has died, and nobody is receiving karmic results according to the concept of a continuing existence. This is not nihilism because no person has died. In every instant, there is only Dependent Origination. This is in accord with the Eightfold Noble Path or the Middle Path, which is applicable in moral teaching.
If the causal conditions of goodness exist, ordinary people adhere to morality and seek peace of mind through meritorious deeds. When the causal conditions change, they suffer because they cling to the past and experience impermanence. If they can understand the teaching of the Buddha, they will understand that morality is not the ultimate refuge. They must see that religious morality is only the preliminary qualification for the Eightfold Noble Path. Then they seek an Absolute Truth, such as Dependent Origination, to get free of suffering.
When a person transcends the concept of a ‘self’, he also transcends ego possession, goodness and evil, good and bad, bitterness and pleasure. Then he will no longer experience suffering. The teaching of Dependent Origination illustrates the Buddha’s principle in preaching the Dhamma—to help people totally abandon any concept of an ego, ‘I’ or ‘self’. For this reason, Dependent Origination does not involve morality; because morality, in any situation, is based on the ego. Morality assumes a continuing existence, which is not found in the Buddha’s teaching of Dependent Origination.
At present, two kinds of teaching of Dependent Origination exist. One distorts the Buddha Dhamma, and it has existed for more than a thousand years. It is based on secondary and tertiary sources, such as commentaries on the original Theravāda Suttas. The other is in accord with the Buddha Dhamma, and it teaches the practice of awareness of Contact at the Six Sense Bases to prevent Feeling from advancing to Craving. Dependent Origination can be practiced to reap the results at once. If you practice this, you can significantly reduce your suffering, even without understanding Dependent Origination.
A serious practitioner should be wary of the confusion of these two versions of Dependent Origination, and ensure that his cultivation is in accord with Buddha Dhamma. Dependent Origination as taught by the Buddha does not support nihilism—for instance, encouraging people to abstain from performing meritorious deeds, to be irresponsible, troublesome and reckless. Nor does it support the concept of a continuing existence—advocating people to be egotists, to be deluded with the concept of an eternally-existing ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or any forms of ego or possessiveness, ‘I’ or ‘mine’. Dependent Origination entails rigorous cultivation such that when there is Contact in the Six Sense Bases, Right Mindfulness is applied to subjugate Feeling, thus preventing its advance to Craving, Clinging, Becoming and Birth. In actual practice under proper guidance, deep knowledge of the technical terminology of Dependent Origination is unnecessary.
We must not confuse ordinary language—language based on the assumption of continuing existence of a ‘self’ and used for teaching morality—with the teaching of Dependent Origination. The Buddha uses only Dhamma language (language from Right View) to teach Dependent Origination. Practicing in accordance with the law of Dependent Origination is the true Middle Path. The Suttas say that in knowing Dependent Origination one achieves supreme or supra-mundane Right View. Such a Right View is polluted neither by nihilism nor the concept of continuing existence of a ‘self’.
Dependent Origination stays in the Middle Path (majjhima patipada) that neither substantiates nor negates the ego. It does not support either the concept of a continuing existence or nihilism. Its law follows the principle of this/that conditionality:
When this exists that exists… when this ceases to be, that ceases to be.” — Mahātaṇhasaṇkhāyā Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 38)
This principle prevents us from embracing either nihilism or the concept of a continuing existence.
We must be careful not to let our understanding of Dependent Origination devolve into one that disagrees with Buddha Dhamma, or become similar to Hinduism or Brahmanism. It is impossible for one who embraces the concept of a continuing existence of a ‘self’ to understand Dependent Origination, because the two are contradictory.
There are two divisions in the Buddha’s teaching in the original Pāli Suttas. Principles of morality are taught using ordinary language to people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence. More intelligent students are taught Absolute Truth, abolishing the concept of continuing existence without nihilism, using Dhamma language. This the original teaching of the Buddha in the Pāli Suttas. Later works such as Abhidhamma and Visuddhimāgga use the concept of continuing existence to explain Absolute Truth and Dependent Origination. This is a very common deviation.
Therefore, the original Pāli Suttas must be used as basis in studying Dependent Origination. Do not blindly follow the commentators such as the Visuddhimāgga. The original Pāli Suttas give the correct understanding, and there is no need for other interpretations. We must use the principle of the Four Criteria (mahapadesa) in the Kalama Sutta and Mahāparinibbāna Sutta to safeguard, and apply our autonomy to protect ourselves from becoming victims of books, essays, or canons that are prone to the concept of a continuing existence.
Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” — Kalama Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.65)
“Bhikkhus, whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it conforms with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
“Whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it conforms with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you.
“And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it conforms with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
“And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it conforms with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you.”—Mv.VI.40.1
If we use the Kalama Sutta and the Four Criteria, we can strictly apply the Buddha’s principle to distinguish the original, correct teachings from later, useless ideas. This is not to say that all of the essays, commentaries and canons are wrong, but that the Buddha’s principle must be strictly applied to find the correct teachings. According to the Four Criteria, anything that is not in accord with the Doctrine [dhamma] and Discipline [vināya] should be considered as erroneous hearing, memory, speech and teaching. Dependent Origination is primarily intended to abolish concepts of both continuing existence and nihilism. Therefore according to the Four Criteria, any version of Dependent Origination involving transmigration of a ‘self’ in three lifetimes is unacceptable.