What do you see?
If you are like most people, you see a checker board with a green cylinder. Would it surprise you to know that the squares A and B are the same color – or more accurately the same shade of grey? Don’t believe me? print out this page and cut out the squares and line them up side by side.
Advances in neuroscience have shown that everything we experience is actually a figment of our imagination. Yet, our sensations feel accurate and truthful, so how can that be? As it turns out, our sensations cannot reproduce the physical reality of the outside world, they are simply representations. Of course, many experiences in daily life reflect the physical stimuli that enter the brain. But the same neural machinery that interprets actual sensory inputs is also responsible for our dreams, delusions and failings of memory.
In other words, the real and the imagined share a physical source in the brain. Enter Buddhism’s concept of Pratītyasamutpāda. Pratītyasamutpādais a Sanskrit term that has been translated into English in a variety of ways. The most common translations are dependent origination or dependent arising. But the term is also translated as interdependent co-arising, conditioned arising, conditioned genesis, etc. The term could be translated somewhat more literally as arising in dependence upon conditions.
In his 1992 book “The Meaning of Life,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote:
In Sanskrit the word for dependent-arising is pratītyasamutpāda. The word pratitya has three different meanings–meeting, relying, and depending–but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence. Samutpada means arising. Hence, the meaning of pratītyasamutpāda is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions.
In the picture above, the color you see is dependent on your brains desire to make the external world fit into a neat little box. After all, from an evolutionary point of view quick assimilation and integration of external information ( like external threats ) would be rewarded with longevity. So what has all this got to do with happiness?
If something as straightforward as a picture can be so misinterpreted by our brains, – as the addage goes “seeing is believing” and as has just been shown this is demonstrably false - how then can we trust our reaction to other sensory input? I think the question is a lot less interesting than the practical implications on our own personal happiness. Happiness is something that each of us is capable of, and is a byproduct of how we assimilate and integrate the flow of external sensory inputs.
I think we can all agree that living beings have the same basic wish to be happy and avoid suffering. In general most people tend to believe that external material conditions generate a sense of happiness, and as a result we devote a good deal of our time and energy trying to satisfy our material urges. Superficially it seems that these things can make us happy, but, like the illusion above, if we look more deeply we shall see that they also bring us a lot of suffering and problems.
Happiness and suffering are (for most sentient beings) opposites. It stands to reason, therefore, if something is a real cause of happiness it should not give rise to suffering. If external material conditions really are causes of happiness, they can never be causes of suffering; yet we know from our own experience that they often do cause suffering. Stop and consider that Happiness and suffering are both states of mind, and so their main causes cannot be found outside the mind.
This is a very liberating idea.
The real source of happiness is found as a result of inner peace. If we take steps to ensure that our minds are peaceful, we shall be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions. Inner peace allows us to more carefully assimilate and integrate external sensory input from the world around us. By being present in the moment of assimilation and integration we can make a conscious choice about how best to “react” to these inputs. Our care will give rise to more evenness of mind, especially under stress, and this is known as equanimity.
If we can deal with all of the people in our lives, family, friends, strangers, and yes enemies with loving kindness and compassion we will be creating a better world. Love is the wish that all beings be happy, and compassion is the wish that all beings be free from suffering. Now that you know your perception of the world is a dependent arising that you share with all other sentient beings, show others the love and compassion you would hope for yourself.