Different Types of Dependent Arising

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We’ve been speaking about dependent arising, and we’ve seen that it fits together with the topic of voidness – there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature that, by its own power, establishes the existence of conventional objects and what they conventionally are. Their existence and what they conventionally are arise dependently on factors other than themselves.

Just as things are not established by something findable inside them, these other factors that they dependently arise from also are devoid of self-establishing natures. We need to look at dependent arising in a much broader sense, with a much broader understanding.

Dependent Arising in a Relative Sense

Dependent arising is a fact on many, many different levels. We’ve discussed how things are relative, that short and long, good and bad, and so on, can only be established relatively, in comparison to something. Something is not just long or short on its own, like our ring finger. We’ve seen that teacher and student are dependent on each other, we can’t be a teacher without students, nor can we be a parent without children – these things arise dependently on each other.

The absolutist extreme here would be to consider ourselves short in an absolute sense, regardless of the fact that there are people shorter than we are. The nihilist extreme would be not to accept the fact that we are too short to qualify for the military forces. Another set of examples would be to consider ourselves a teacher when we have no students or not to accept the responsibilities of being a parent when we have a child.

Dependent Arising from Fulfilling a Function

We’ve also seen that being a teacher is dependent on teaching. In other words, to be something is dependent on fulfilling the function of that something. To be a student is dependent on studying and learning something. A picture of a computer is not a computer, because it can’t function and operate as a computer.

The absolutist extreme would be to consider ourselves an accomplished Buddhist practitioner when we still can’t get along with our parents. The nihilist extreme would be to deny that we were wrong when we made a mistake.

Dependent Arising in Terms of Cause and Effect

Cause and effect are also dependent on each other. A bad mood can’t arise independently of causes. Something is not a cause unless it produces an effect.

The absolutist extreme would be to think that using artificial no-calorie sweeter in our coffee when we have coffee and cake every coffee break at work will make us lose weight. The nihilist extreme would be to smoke and think it will not affect our health.

Dependent Arising of a Whole and Parts

Also, although we haven’t gone into any detail about it, a whole can’t exist independently of parts. A bad mood, as a whole, is dependent on many parts, many mental factors, such as unhappiness, lack of attention, mental dullness and so on. It also extends over time, and each moment we don’t feel exactly the same. A whole, then, is dependent on parts.

The absolutist extreme would be to still consider ourselves as part of a married couple after our spouse has died and so we don’t want to meet other singles. The nihilist extreme would be to not take seriously being a member of a team at work and acting independently without consulting the other team members.

Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation

Another level of dependent arising that I’d like to discuss is dependent arising in terms of mental labeling, but first we need to understand what mental labeling is.

Mental labeling is something that involves categories. We have a category of “a teacher,” or we have a category of “a bad mood.” In the West, we would say that we have an idea of what a teacher is, or what a bad mood is. Now, that idea is defined in a certain way: what a teacher is and what a bad mood is. We designate that category, or idea, with a word, which is just a combination of sounds that some society has agreed upon to call that category.

Then, as we experience various things in our lives, we mentally label them as being a member of this or that category. Here’s this person, and we fit them into the category of “a teacher.” And the word, or name, that we’ve given to the category is “teacher,” and now we designate the person with that name.

To differentiate these two processes, I think it’s helpful to use different terms for them: “mental labeling” is with categories, “designation” is with words. Being with categories, mental labeling is with a concept of what constitutes those categories – our concept of what a teacher is, our concept of what “good” is or what “bad” is. These are fixed ideas of what that category means. Our fixed ideas of what they mean could be replaced with other fixed ideas about them but ideas don’t grow organically like flowers do. They’re static entities, from the point of view of Buddhist analysis. Both mental labeling, with an idea or a concept or category of something, and designation with a word, then, are conceptual processes.

Just so that we are clear – because often this differentiation is not mentioned – I use the term “imputation” for something else. For instance, we impute a whole on parts; we impute motion on seeing an object progressively located in slightly different consecutive places. These sorts of things that are imputed can be known non-conceptually, not just conceptually. We can see a whole table or think of one; and we can see the motion of a thrown ball and remember it. But a category or an idea of something can only be known conceptually. And a word designated on a category can also only be known conceptually. We can hear non-conceptually the sound of someone saying a word. But we only know that sound to be the sound of a word by fitting it into the audio category that encompasses the sound of every voice saying the word in every accent and every level of volume and the meaning category of what it signifies.

In Sanskrit and Tibetan, there is only one word that encompasses these three meanings: mental labeling, designation and imputation. This is because what the three have in common, from the non-Prasangika point of view, is the assertion that the defining characteristic of what is mentally labeled, designated, or imputed is findable on the side of its basis for labeling, basis for designation or basis for imputation. According to the Prasangika view, this is an absolutist extreme: the defining characteristic is not findable on the side of the basis in all three cases. Despite this shared point, it is important to distinguish them from each other to avoid misunderstanding.

The Imputation, Mental Label and Designation “Me”

Consider, for instance, a person, me. A person, me, is an imputation on all the different moments of what makes my experience. When I look at a photo of myself, I can say, “That’s me.” I can see that that’s me, it’s not just conceptual. But, having some idea of myself, of who I am – that’s mental labeling of a concept or an idea. Or we look at different pictures of ourselves at different times of our life, they all look very different; but with each one we can say, “That’s me.” How is that possible? It’s possible because we have some category, some fixed idea, some concept of “me” and we’re fitting all these pictures into that category. That’s mental labeling, and calling them all “me” is designation. But “me” is an imputation on the form of the person that we see there – the body.

These are very fine distinctions, but unless we understand them, we can get terribly confused with the whole topic of mental labeling. “Me” as a person is quite different from the fixed idea of “me” that I or anyone who knows me has. It’s also different from the word “me.”

The Analogy of Seeing Only Part of a Room to Be Seeing the Room

Conventionally, I exist as an individual person. There’s “me,” but that “me” arises dependently in relation to a body, mind emotions and so on. No one needs to impute “me” on this body, mind and emotions for “me” to exist and be validly knowable as an imputation on the basis of them. The relation of “me” with a body, mind and emotions, though not precisely the same, is quite similar to the relation between a whole and the parts.

When you look in front of yourself, what do you see? You would have to say you see a room. Do you see the whole room? No, you don’t see what’s behind you. You see part of a room. A part of a room is not the same as the whole room. But, the imputation of a room on its parts extends over all its parts as the basis for imputation. So, it extends over the part of the room that you see.

When we see just this part of the room, we conventionally say that we see the room. We are fitting the part that we see into the concept or idea of the whole room – or, in technical language, we are mentally labeling it with the category “room.” And because we designate that category with the word “room,” we designate the part of the room we see as “I see the room.” This is conventionally valid. It’s not that we’re seeing nothing – that would be a nihilist position. We’re seeing a room. But a room is different from the category or concept of a room and likewise different from the word “room.”

Similarly, “me” is an imputation on a body, mind, emotions and so on, and it extends over time. But when we see a picture of our body, we can validly mentally label it with the category “me” and validly call it a picture of “me.” “Me” as the imputation of a whole person on the continuum of a body, mind and emotions extends over this representation of one moment of my body as well. So, this imputation “me” is a valid member of the category “me.”

When I look at the picture and recognize it as “me,” I am certainly not seeing the totality of myself as a person. Yet, like the example of the room and part of a room, I recognize it as “me” because I fit it into the concept or category “me” that I have of myself. And because I designate that idea of myself with the word “me,” I can validly say when I look at the photo, “That’s me.” Do you see the difference?

When I see a part of a room, I can validly say I am seeing the room, even though I’m only seeing part of it. That’s because the whole room is an imputation on the parts and the part is one of the members of the set that fits in the category “this room.” Likewise, when we’re speaking to somebody on our smartphone, all we’re hearing is a sound. Nevertheless, it’s valid to say that we are speaking with the person, because a person is an imputation of a person based on parts and what we hear is one of the parts that fits in the category “this person.” And it’s not actually even their voice that we hear, it’s some electronic representation, and still we validly call that “I’m speaking to this person, I’m hearing them.” It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Then, we have a fixed idea of the person and all the associations and all the emotions that go with it, and so on. That’s mental labeling, with an idea, a concept, a category. It’s quite different from who am I listening to? I’m listening to Denis, I’m not listening to Mary. Conventionally it is Denis, it’s not Mary. That’s quite different from my idea of Denis, and all the emotional associations I have with that. Every time I see him, I mentally label him with that fixed idea, that concept.

Let’s think about that for a few more minutes. This is terribly subtle, but really very important. It’s going a bit outside of our topic, but that distinction between imputation, mental labeling and designation is not often made. There is “me.” I’m a person, not just the concept of a person. There is me and the concept of “me,” me and my idea of myself, me and what other people’s ideas are of “me.” They’re quite different. But the question we’ll be asking is, is there a true me, findable inside me, making “me” me and not you?

Let’s take a few moments to think about all this.


Dependent Arising in Terms of Mental Labeling

With this as a background, now we can get to the heart of the matter. Let me use the analogy of a cookie cutter. Do you know the word cookie cutter? You have dough and, with a cookie cutter, you cut out a piece to make a cookie. That’s the analogy.

Now consider the fact that there are so many different things that we are doing as a person and they’re changing all the time. These are like the dough. Then we have the conceptual cookie cutter of mental labeling. From all these different things that we’re doing, we cut out a cookie and give it a definition and a name, for instance “learning” or “teaching.” But really, they’re just cut out and isolated from all the different things that we’re doing, aren’t they? Conventionally, you are learning and conventionally I am teaching. To deny that would be the nihilist extreme. To imagine that that’s all that we’re doing this moment – and that we’re not also sitting and breathing, etc. – or that learning and teaching are all that we do would be the absolutist extreme. Okay?

Now, what establishes that we’re studying or teaching? Well, it’s this mental cookie cutter of a concept. The existence of what you’re doing as “learning” arises dependently on the mental label of the category “learning” labeled on what you’re doing. If there were no such thing as a category that people defined and assigned the word “learning” to, you would still be learning here. To deny that would be the nihilist extreme. You’re not doing nothing; you’re doing something: you’re learning.

But what establishes it as learning is that we put a boundary around it by fitting it into the category “learning”; we cut it out of the dough of everything we do and call it with the sound of a word. It appears as though what we’re doing is self-established as “learning,” but really it only exists as learning dependent on mental labeling with a category and designation with a word that’s defined in a certain way, agreed upon by convention. And what is “learning?” It’s merely what the concept and word “learning” refers to on the basis of sitting here and listening to my words.

Again, it’s not that you’re doing nothing – you’re learning. And you don’t have to actively think, “I’m learning,” or say, “I’m learning” for it to be correct and valid that you’re learning something. Mentally labeling it doesn’t create the fact that you’re learning. The superficial essential nature of what you’re doing here is learning – it’s not playing football – and it seems to us that “learning” is an activity that is self-established as the activity “learning” all by its own power. It seems as if there were a boundary around this activity establishing it as a solid entity, encapsulated in plastic, and separating it from all other activities. But that doesn’t correspond to what actually establishes it as a specific activity and as “learning.” It arises as “learning” dependently only on the fact that there is a conventionally agreed-upon concept, a category, “learning,” which like a cookie cutter isolates something specific out of the entirety of what you’re doing. But that entirety is not sitting there like a big piece of dough, either.

When we have a concept of something, an idea of something, in a sense our minds isolate it from everything else. Because of that, it appears as though it’s self-established. That’s why we say a conventional nature appears to be self-established, but it’s not – it arises dependently on mental labeling, either with or without a name. This is valid even for a worm, though a worm doesn’t give anything a name. Out of all the things a worm sees, there’s a category food – mental labeling, but no word.

This is what we mean when we say that the existence of things can only be established as what a category, a concept, a mental label refers to on the basis of a “basis for labeling.”

Practical Application of Understanding Dependent Arising in Terms of Mental Labeling

Now we try to think of practical applications of this. One thing that comes to my mind is, can we be both a parent and a friend to our children? Or a boss and a friend with our employees? Out of every moment of every interaction that we have with our child, which parts of all those interactions are we going to cut out with our cookie cutter and call interacting as a “parent” and which are we going to cut out and call interacting as a “friend?” And are they totally separate from each other? Do they overlap? How does our child perceive it?

Now it becomes really very interesting. If I can be both a parent and a friend to my child, how to manage that without it being completely difficult and problematic for me and for the child? Do I have to be just one? And what does it actually mean to be a parent or to be a friend? A lot depends on how we define friend, doesn’t it? If we define friend as “both sides are equal” and “just as I will listen to the problems of my child, I can tell all my problems and difficulties to my child, because that’s my idea of what a friendship is,” then that’s inappropriate. But there could be parts of what friendship entails that could be appropriate, like playing ball together. All these issues are very relevant in terms of the roles that we play with each other. After all, it’s a role that we play, they’re just a cookie cutter thing.

If we have fixed ideas of “I’m a parent” and “this is truly how a parent is defined” and “I always have to be like this,” then we’re totally inflexible. We’re making a solid thing out of the concept, out of the category “parent.” There are all sorts of complications that come from misunderstanding this whole point about mental labeling, concepts and categories.

It becomes particularly complex and difficult when we play multiple roles with someone else. I know I have this in my experience with a few people. I’m their teacher, their boss (because I employ and pay them) and their friend. Well, sometimes I’m speaking as a friend, but from their side they’re mentally labeling me as a boss, and “Why is my boss talking me like a friend? He should act like a boss.” That becomes very tricky and difficult in an interpersonal relationship when we play multiple roles.

One solution is to just play one role. That’s the easy solution. But to play multiple roles in which both sides don’t get confused is much trickier. But in fact, in life, we have many different roles that we play with people. So, this idea of no role being self-established and just being established by convention is helpful. This is something to work with, not just something that we can solve in detail here. But we can get the tools to start thinking about it, to start analyzing. A role is a concept, it’s a category, like a cookie cutter. It appears as though it’s self-established, isolated from everything else – but it’s not.

I’ll just give one more example and then we need to stop – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he teaches, he says, “I’m just a human being like everybody else.” When he’s giving an initiation and he sits on a high throne, he says, “Now, please look at me as the tantric master” – and that’s a completely different role. So, he helps people in terms of saying which role now to regard him in. That’s a clue, if we’re playing multiple roles with someone and it’s getting confusing, we can sort of indicate, “Now I’m speaking to you as a friend” or “Now I’m speaking to you as a parent” or “Now I’m speaking to you as a woman” or “Now I’m speaking to you as a man.”

And the Dalai Lama is not truly established as one, or the other, but conventionally he can be this or that. So that gives us an idea of how to work with this material. By understanding dependent arising in terms of mental labeling, we can avoid the extreme of absolutism, that we just playing one role as our “true” role in life, and the extreme of nihilism, that conventionally we play no roles in anyone’s life.


Let’s end with a dedication. We think that whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to overcome their confusion about how things exist, how we account for things, and reach the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all. Thank you.