Pratityasmutpaad (dependent origination) and modern perspectives

Quantum mechanics
The Mahayana presentation of pratītyasamutpāda (and shunyata) has been compared to the scientific theory of quantum mechanics (also known as quantum physics)—the contemporary branch of physics that examines matter on atomic and subatomic levels. For example, contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche states:[1]
In my conversations with modern scientists, I’ve been struck by a number of similarities between the principles of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist understanding of the relationship between emptiness and appearance. Because the words we used were different, it took me quite a while to recognize that we were talking about the same thing—phenomena unfolding moment by moment, caused and conditioned by an almost infinite number and variety of events.
Contemporary Western philosopher Christian Thomas Kohl (in Biddhism and Quantum Physics) states:
There is a surprising parallelism between the philosophical concept of reality articulated by Nagarjuna and the physical concept of reality implied by quantum physics. For neither is there a fundamental core to reality, rather reality consists of systems of interacting objects. Such concepts of reality cannot be reconciled with the substantial, subjective, holistic or instrumentalistic concepts of reality which underlie modern modes of thought. Systems theory
The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda has been compared to modern systems theory. For example, in her text Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, contemporary scholar Joanna Macy states:[2]
The systems view of reality as process, its perception of self-organizing patterns of physical and mental events, and the principals it discerned in the dynamics of these natural systems struck me as remarkably consonant with the Buddha’s teachings. Like the doctrine of paticca samuppāda, systems theory sees causality as reciprocal, arising from interweaving circuits of contingency. […] Despite the obvious contrasts in their origins and purposes, each of them—early Buddhism and contemporary systems theory—can clarify what the other is saying. Western theories of the origin of the universe
The principle of pratītyasamutpāda is the basis for the Buddhist view that it is not possible to identify a beginning or origin of the world or universe. According to the Buddhist view, since all phenomena are dependent upon multiple causes and conditions, it can not be said that there was a first cause or event that sparked the creation of the universe. Thus Buddhist philosophy refutes the concepts of either a creator god or an initial event as posited in the “big bang theory”. Dhammananda Maha Thera explains:[3]
Modern science says that some millions of years ago, the newly cooled earth was lifeless and that life originated in the ocean. Buddhism never claimed that the world, sun, moon, stars, wind, water, days and nights were created by a powerful god or by a Buddha. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break away by itself. According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe. Western philosophy
Jay Garfield points out the similarities between pratītyasamutpāda and the philosophies of Hume, Kant, and others. Garfield states:[4]
The analysis of causation can often look like a highly technical aside in philosophy. It might not seem at first glance to be one of the really “big” questions, like those concerning what entities there are, what the nature of mind is, what the highest good is. By contrast, causation often appears to the outsider or to the beginner like one of those recherche corners of philosophy that one has to work one’s way into. But of course even in the history of Western metaphysics and epistemology it has always been central. One has only to think of the role of a theory of causation for Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein to see this. This study of the Mulamadhyamikakarika shows why: a clear understanding of the nature of the causal relation is the key to understanding the nature of reality itself and of our relation to it. For causation is, as Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer as well as Nagarjuna emphasize, at the heart of our individuation of objects, of our ordering of our experience of the world, and of our understanding of our own agency in the world. Without a clear view of causation, we can have no clear view of anything. Relation to metaphysics.
The concept of pratītyasamutpāda has also been compared to the Western philosophy of metaphysics (the study of the nature of being and the world). Bhikkhu Thanissaro explains that the Buddha did not intend to put forth a system of metaphysics:[5]
The Buddha was very clear on the point that he did not mean for his teachings to become a metaphysical system or for them to be adhered to simply for the sake of their truth value. He discussed metaphysical topics only when they could play a role in skillful behavior. Many metaphysical questions—such as whether or not there is a soul or self, whether or not the world is eternal, whether or not it is infinite, etc.—he refused to answer, on the grounds that they were either counterproductive or irrelevant to the task at hand: that of gaining escape from the stress and suffering inherent in time and the present
However, scholars have noted the similarities between pratītyasamutpāda and metaphysics.[6] One source (Hoffman, 1996) asserts that pratītyasamutpāda should not be considered a metaphysical doctrine in the strictest sense, since it does confirm or deny specific entities or realities.[6][7] Noa Ronkin notes that while the Buddha suspends all views regarding certain metaphysical questions, he does not deny the significance of the questions.[8] Radical phenomenology
Bhikkhu Thanissaro relates the Buddhist concept of karma to the modern philosophy of radical phenomenology; he sates:[9]
To avoid the drawbacks of the narrative and cosmological mind-sets, the Buddha pursued an entirely different tack—what he called “entry into emptiness,” and what modern philosophy calls radical phenomenology: a focus on the events of present consciousness, in and of themselves, without reference to questions of whether there are any entities underlying those events. In the Buddha’s case, he focused simply on the process of kammic cause and result as it played itself out in the immediate present, in the process of developing the skillfulness of the mind, without reference to who or what lay behind those processes. On the most basic level of this mode of awareness, there was no sense even of “existence” or “nonexistence”…, but simply the events of stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation, arising and passing away. References:
1. Mingyur Rinpoche (2007), The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, Harmony Kindle Edition, p. 67.
2.‬ Macy, Joanna (1991), Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems, SUNY, p. xii.
‪3.‬ Dhammananda Maha Thera (2010), “The Origin of the World”, What Buddhists Believe (, retrieved July 24, 2010.
4.‬ Garfield, Jay L. (1994), Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness: Why did Nagarjuna start with Causation?, Philosophy East and West, Volume 44, Number 2 April 1994
‪5.‬ Bhikkhu Thanissaro (2010), Wings to Awakening: Part I, Metta Forest Monastery, Valley Center, CA, p. 29.
‪6.‬ Schilbrack, Kevin (2002), Thinking through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-25461-2. 7.‬ Hoffman, Frank J., et al (1996), Pāli Buddhism, Routledge, p. 177.
‪8.‬ Ronkin, Noa (2009), “Theravada Metaphysics and Ontology”, Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings (Edelglass, et al, editors)[1] (Oxford University Press), ISBN 978-0-19-532817-2.
9.‬ Bhikkhu Thanissaro (2010), Wings to Awakening: Part I, Metta Forest Monastery, Valley Center, CA, p. 45.


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