Buddha’s teaching of dharma—the way things are—is built on certain key concepts, enumerated in the Eightfold Path. These work in concert with the teachings and practices presented elsewhere on this site. Each magnifies the other, creating a deeper, richer understanding as we study them. Together, they help us find clarity—and move us closer to true wisdom and enlightenment.
Dependent Origination and Impermanence
The corollary to interdependence is impermanence. All things change. Nothing is permanent. Everything is in a constant state of movement. We watch things grow and die in nature every day. Even seemingly immutable things like iron eventually break down. Western science has revealed through quantum physics that the smallest molecules of matter are in constant motion, and can even change their nature from particle to wave, depending on circumstances.
To make sense of this changing world around us, our mind assembles a structure of concepts; we label and explain everything. We make distinctions, see separations, and experience a world apart from ourselves. We forget that each concept, each thought arises as a result of a set of conditions. And our experience of those conditions may differ from other people’s experience of them, based on the filter we use for interpreting those conditions—the emotional, physical and psychological background we bring to the situation.
That is the heart of dependent origination: Our experience of reality is dependent on other factors just as everything around us depends on other factors to come into being. And it is all happening in a state of constant movement and change. Ultimately, dependent origination describes the progression that fuels this endless cycle of re-birth.
Karma is the law of cause and effect that is embedded in dependent origination.
Karma is a universal law, a truth of existence. Buddhism places specific emphasis on karma because every action, conscious or unconscious, leaves an imprint on the mind, a sort of forward momentum that influences all successive life events.
Being aware of the law of karma helps reinforce our practice. The teachings and their guidelines support each of us in creating the right conditions for enlightenment. And along the way, the teachings help modify our actions (karma) to promote happiness for ourselves and others.
Almost everyone feels they have a personal essence that is unchanging. But in fact, that self is impermanent; it is in a constant state of formation that depends on other factors.
These five factors, known as the Five Aggregates, combine in a continuous mental ballet to create a sense of continuity—a story and our place in it—that feels like a solid thing in relation to the rest of the world.
Metaphors are often helpful in Buddhist explanations. The mental process that we think of as our reality is like a torch being twirled around so quickly that the light looks like a solid ring of fire. In fact, the circle of fire only has the appearance of solidity.
In the same way, our apparent reality is made up of individual moments, but they move so fast that they seem to make a continuous, solid reality and self. There is, however, never any actual continuity; there is no single entity that passes from moment to moment. This is selflessness.
As selflessness is true for ourselves, then the corollary for all existence is emptiness. Emptiness is not nothingness. It is the ultimate description of the true relationship between our mind and our outer and inner experience; it is the ultimate insight.
The result is a transformational relationship with the world—a transformation that benefits all living things.