Developing an academic understanding of Conditioned Arising necessarily also involves developing an academic understanding of the Four Noble Truths or what Peter Harvey has translated as the four True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled (Harvey, 2013, pp. 50-52). While the concept of Conditioned Arising most closely relates to the second Truth – the origin of dukkha, it does relate less directly to the other three Truths as well. Bearing this relationship in mind, understanding Conditioned Arising is the beginning of a process leading to the ending of ignorance and moving on to complete liberation from Saṃsāra. It is deemed only a beginning because academic understanding on its own is not complete. It provides the basis upon which we may form a viewpoint (correct or incorrect), but the goal is “to replace viewpoint with direct seeing (Harvey, p. 64).” With the exception of Nirvāṇa, everything is explained by Conditioned Arising. Academic pursuits fall within this domain and therefore offer no relief therefrom.
“Conditioned Arising, then, is a process which can only operate in ignorance of itself. Once a person fully understands it, it can be stopped. The ‘ignorance’ referred to is not lack of information, but a more deep-seated misperception of reality, which can only be destroyed by direct meditative insight (Harvey, p. 67).”
We see then that in addition to understanding the Dharma, we need meditation to develop true insight and wisdom.
Conditioned Arising can be explained by its most common teaching, namely the twelve nidānas. It should be noted however that other teachings on this topic and indeed variations of the twelve (or more, or fewer) nidānas exist as well (Gethin, 1998, p. 149). The twelve are however the most familiar and are represented visually on the outer circumference of the wheel of life (Bhavacakra). The Bhavacakra depicts saṃsāra in its entirety within the grips of Mara. The teaching itself leads to a middle way mode of practice, avoiding the extremes of eternalism/annihilationism and substantialism/nihilism (Harvey, p.72). Conditioned Arising is also directional, in that, as we follow it along in one direction one is lead to the origin of dukkha. Alternatively, moving through the links in the other direction leads one to the interruption and ultimately the termination thereof. (Gethin, p. 159)
To return to the Four Noble Truths, or more specifically the Noble Eightfold Path, we find a comprehensive means by which saṃsāra may be overcome. The Path includes right concentration as a necessary constituent. Through right concentration one develops wisdom which allows one to use skillful means to break the individual links and thereby overcome the causal conditions of saṃsāra. Without the prior knowledge of the twelve nidānas, meditation will still lead one to their understanding eventually, but knowledge without meditation will not lead to the development of the necessary wisdom. Combining both education and meditation offers the most expedient means of spiritual development.
Dharma Instructor Robert Rosinski
Gethin, Rupert (1998) The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harvey, Peter (2013) An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. 2nd Ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press