The Buddhist Concepts of the Self and Dependent Arising


This article is the result of a long-term dialogue between Alexander Berzin and Catherine Ducommun-Nagy, a psychiatrist and family therapist internationally known for her work on contextual therapy. The traditional Buddhist teachings address how best to relate to others, for instance with compassion, understanding, patience, generosity, concentration and so on. But they rarely address the dynamics of relationships established based on these qualities. This article explores these dynamics as part of the ongoing process of providing a bridge between modern Western thought and Buddhism. 

Contextual therapy was founded by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, one of the pioneers of family therapy. As a movement, family therapy departed from individual psychotherapy by postulating that our behavior toward others does not depend only on our individual characteristics, but also on the dynamics that are created between us and the social systems to which we belong – our families, our communities and so on. Contextual therapy adds two unique elements: it is an integrative approach that takes into account all the variables that can affect us, whether individual or systemic, including ethical determinants of our relationships. Boszormenyi-Nagy presents relational ethics as a form of ethics, whereby people treat each other in accordance with an understanding of the direct impact of their behavior on others, not in accordance with preset moral or religious guidelines. He proposes that both individual fulfillment and relational health are directly connected to our capacity for fairness and generosity. He also proposes a dialectic theory of the personality based on the work of existential philosophers, especially Martin Buber (The I and Thou). 

According to Boszormenyi-Nagy, the Self cannot exist outside of a relationship with its counterpart, a Non-Self (an Other), and vice-versa. He described this interdependence as an “ontic” dependence, meaning that this dependence is an integral, intrinsic part of the definition of the Self. This notion is very close to the notion of dependent origination in Buddhism. 

In its current formulation, contextual therapy describes five dimensions of relational reality. This model can supplement the Buddhist analysis of dependent arising and help us to understand that the mutual arising of self, other and a relationship between the two depends not only on the variables Buddhism enumerates, but also on all the variables listed in each of these five dimensions. 

The Self According to Buddhism

As in all systems of psychology, Buddhism asserts a self, which it calls the “conventionally existent self.” The self is the person, the individual, what everyone calls, by convention, “me.” As with each system, Buddhism defines the self very specifically and accepts that a self, defined in this way, is the agent of actions and the one that experiences its effects. 

Just as there is a conventionally existent “me” that Buddhism does not refute, there is also a conventionally existent “you.” The two of them enter into conventionally existent relationships. The existence of the conventional “me,” “you” and “our relationship” is established merely in dependence on other factors, not by their own powers. These other factors include causes, parts and the concepts, definitions and words “me,” “you” and “relationship.” Arising in dependence on other factors is known in Buddhist jargon as “dependent arising.”
A further example of dependent arising identified by Buddhism is that an action, the agent of that action and the object of that action – for instance, an action of hugging, a self (“me”) that is doing the hugging and the other person (“you”) being hugged – are devoid of existing independently of each other. The three arise dependently on and simultaneously with each other. There cannot be an action of hugging without a “me” doing the hugging and a “you” being hugged, and so forth. In other words, none of the three can be established, simply by itself, as being a hugger, a “huggee” or a hugging, independently of the others. In Buddhist jargon, none of them have “self-established existence.”

A self that lacks any of the specified defining factors or any of the aspects of dependent arising is referred to as the “false self,” the “false ‘me,’” the “self to be refuted.” According to Buddhism, such a self does not exist; there is no such thing. Nevertheless, because we all experience what seems like a voice talking in our heads, we imagine that we exist as an autonomous, self-established entity, “me,” the speaker of our thoughts, findable somewhere in our brain or mind. But this does not correspond to reality; there is no such thing established as some findable entity inside our heads, there either by its own power or created by the power of some external agent or agents.
The total absence of any actual referent corresponding to our misconception is known as “voidness,” often translated as “emptiness.” Buddhism, then, does not negate the conventionally existent self; it negates merely the false self. We mistakenly conceptualize that we exist as this false self and, identifying with it, we develop disturbing emotions and attitudes to defend or assert this “self.” This leads to compulsive behavior and various problems as the result. We create even more problems in our relationships with others when we misconceive both ourselves and the others as being false selves. We compound the confusion when we imagine that our relationships are also solidly established, findable entities.  

The Conventionally Existent Self

The conventional self, then, arises dependently on other factors. This means that the conventional self is affected by many variables and thus continues to develop and grow throughout our lives. But, as there is nothing findable on the side of the conventional self that has the power to establish its own existence, it is not that there is a findable entity, “me,” inside our heads that is affected by many variables. Nor is it the case that we can project a conception of a false self onto a findable conventional self. As is the case with the false self, a conventionally existent, continually developing “me” is not a findable entity either. Nevertheless, the conventional self – the conventionally existent person – is the one who acts, speaks and thinks, the one who experiences happiness and unhappiness, and the one who relates to others.  

The Three Types of Dependent Arising Discussed by Nagarjuna

The conventional self, then, is a dependently arising object. In general, there are three types of dependent arising, as defined by the second-century Indian Buddhist master, Nagarjuna:

  1. Causal dependence – the fact that all non-static phenomena arise dependently on appropriate causes and conditions, for instance a sprout arises dependently on a seed, water, soil and sunlight, and problems arise dependently on unawareness or confusion about reality, disturbing emotions and attitudes deriving from it, and compulsive behavior driven by them. This is asserted in common by all Buddhist tenet systems.
  2. Mutual dependence – the fact that all phenomena arise dependently on being in relation to something else, for instance a whole and parts arise dependently on and simultaneously with each other. The same is the case with parent and child, a football and the game of football, short and long. Included here is the mutual dependent arising of an imputation and a basis for imputation. For example, a football game is an imputation on teams, players, rules, moves, a score, a football and a field as its basis for imputation. This is asserted by all Mahayana tenet systems.
  3. Dependent arising in terms of mere designation by names and labeling by concepts – all phenomena arise dependently merely on being what a name or concept, given a specific definition and designated or labeled on a basis, refers to. For instance, a football is only established as a football by the power of convention – the name and concept “football,” with its specific definition, labeled on a certain shaped object. Because of different conventions, the name “football” is even validly labeled on two different shaped objects in America and in the rest of the world, and thus even convention is a variable. This is asserted only by the Gelug variant of the Prasangika tenet system.

The Three Types of Dependent Arising of the Self (“Me”)

The three types of dependent arising apply to the conventionally existent self.

  1. Causal dependence – the conventional self arises dependently on previous moments of the continuum of itself as its obtaining cause. An “obtaining cause” is that from which something arises in the next moment of its stream of continuity. Although the body is a continuum of parts of the bodies of the parents, namely their sperm and egg, the conventional self of someone is not a continuum of the conventional selves of the parents. Because of this, Buddhism asserts that the continuum of each individual self or person has no beginning and no end.
  2. Mutual dependence – the conventional self arises dependently as an imputation on an individual continuum of ever-changing five aggregate factors of experience as its basis for imputation. These factors make up each moment of experience and include a body, perceptions, actions, a mind, thoughts, emotions, feelings of happiness, unhappiness, etc. A self cannot exist independently of these factors, nor can it be known separately from at least one of them, for instance a name or what their body looks like. Just as the parts of the basis for imputation for a self arise dependently on causes and conditions that affect them – the mind, emotions and body are affected, for instance, by what others say and do, the environment, the weather and so on – likewise the self is affected by those causes.
  3. Dependent arising in terms of mere labeling by concepts and designation by names – the conventional self arises and is established dependently on being what the concept and name “self,” defined specifically as in Buddhism, refers to, labeled and designated on an individual continuum of five ever-changing aggregates. 

The understanding that the conventional self arises dependently through a combination of these three manners counters and negates the belief that we exist as a false “me,” self-established by its own power, independently of anything or anyone else. To dispel that belief, however, we need to habituate ourselves with the non-existence of the false “me” through repeated analysis of the factors through which the conventionally existent “me” dependently arises. If the self arises dependently on so many changing factors, it cannot possibly be a rigid entity, unaffected by anything. Seeing the absurd conclusions that would follow if we, as a person, were self-established – even from infancy we could never have interacted with anyone and grown as a person – we slowly stop identifying ourselves with a false “me.” Our understanding of dependent arising, then, opens us to the flexibility of healthy relations with others. 

The Three Types of Dependent Arising of Relationships

In order to have healthy relationships with others, we need to understand not only the dependent arising of me and you as individual persons, but also the dependent arising of our relationship. None of the three exists as a rigid, unchanging, monolithic entity. As in the case of me and you, we need also to differentiate a conventionally existent relationship from the type of relationship that can’t possibly exist at all. When we imagine that our relationship exists as some static, partless, findable entity, as if it had existence all on its own, and we believe it corresponds to reality, we create serious obstacles in the relationship. By conceiving of “our relationship” as some sort of concrete thing, we accuse the other person, for instance, of not relating to “our relationship” in the way in which we want them to. We question their commitment to both “me” and “our relationship.”
A conventionally existent relationship is not some sort of concrete, rigid entity. It dependently arises in the three ways that Nagarjuna explained:

  1. Causal dependency – our relationship arises dependently on us meeting each other, the circumstances that brought us together, and the circumstances that allow the relationship to continue. Moreover, our manner of relating to the other person and their manner of relating to us are  our manners of relating to others in our present and previous relationships. From the Buddhist viewpoint, the other person and we have been in a wide assortment of relationships with each other in previous lives and our present relationship is both affected by and a continuum of them.
  2. Mutual dependency – our relationship as a whole depends on its parts and aspects, such as the various times, interests and activities that we share, our stages in life, our locations and so on.
  3. Dependent arising in terms of mere labeling by concepts and designation by names – a relationship is merely an imputation on all its parts and aspects and is established as a “relationship” merely as what the concept of a relationship and the word “relationship,” as defined by convention, refer to when applied to all those parts and aspects.

The Mutual Dependent Arising of Self and Other

We can broaden the Buddhist understanding of dependent arising by using the five dimensional model of relational reality proposed in contextual therapy, especially the fifth dimension, labeled the “ontic dimension,” or for the purpose of this article, the “dimension of relational Self-Other establishment.” It refers to the mutual establishment of self and other in the context of a relationship between the two. This fits in with the mutual dependence type of dependent arising discussed in Buddhism, like a whole and parts or long and short arising together in mutual dependence on each other.

In extending to the Buddhist context this mutual dependent arising of self and other in relation to each other, we need to remain within the context of the Gelug Prasangika assertions. Self and other mutually establish each other in the Prasangika sense of both being established merely in terms of designations by names and labels by concepts. They are not two self-established “me”s that then mutually establish each other as self and other in a relationship. Buddhist texts refer to this point as the “non-duality of self and other.”  

The Five Dimensions of Relational Reality

Dimension I: Factual Variables

This dimension accounts for all the variables that pertain to the givens in the life of the two persons in a relationship, their factual profile.

  • Biological – sex, age, biology (good health, bad health, disabilities, etc.)
  • Family of origin – birth order (oldest child, youngest), child of a single parent, divorced parents, loss of a parent or sibling
  • Couple status – single, committed relationship, same sex, married, divorced, with or without children
  • Social history – well-established in society, immigrant, refugee, immigrant or refugee parent
  • Languages spoken
  • Historical events – wars, natural disasters, famine
  • Economic situation – level of wealth or poverty, availability of education or work
  • Geographical constraints – place of residence, location of education or work, accessibility of location, ability to travel.

Dimension II: Psychological Variables

The variables here concern the individual cognitive and emotional manners of functioning (conscious and unconscious) of both persons in a relationship. 

  • Psychological characteristics according to Western models of individual psychotherapy – Freud, Jung, Piaget, Gestalt
  • Psychological manifestations of mental illnesses and personality disorders – depression, anxiety, delusions, narcissism
  • Cognitive abilities (learning, memory, perception, and problem solving) and cognitive disorders (cognitive decline, dementia) 
  • Intellectual abilities – limited, average, gifted 
  • Gender identity and sexual preferences 
  • Emotional factors described in Western systems – emotional maturity, style of attachment, level of dependency, extroversion/introversion, optimism/pessimism, rational/irrational, practical/impractical, aggressiveness, shyness, insecurity, anxiety, blaming oneself as not being good enough/blaming others
  • Emotional factors described in Buddhism – love, compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, anger, fear, lust, greed, selfishness, naivety, arrogance, envy, jealousy
  • Level of sensitivity – insensitive, oversensitive, strong prejudices, capacity for empathy, balanced sensitivity.

Dimension III: Systemic Variables

This dimension pertains to the description of the mode of transaction and communication that people establish with each other, the various systems they participate in, and the influence of these systems on their interactions.

  • Style of interaction – battle for power or control versus complementary; childlike versus adult-like interactions
  • Style of communication – expressive, reserved
  • Family – family structure, marital commitments or other forms of partnership, educational system and mode of interaction in it 
  • Business environment and mode of interaction in it 
  • Social systems and mode of interaction in it – social hierarchies, prejudices, gender issues 
  • Legal system ­– legal definition of justice, civil and penal laws 
  • Military – hierarchies, oath expectations
  • Religious and belief context – value ethics.

Dimension IV: Relational Ethics

Relational ethics are to be differentiated from value ethics. They refer to a form of ethics that is defined in accordance with an understanding of the direct impact of our behavior on others, and an understanding of others’ realistic needs, not necessarily in accordance with preset moral or religious values. It also describes that all of us have a certain degree of expectation of fairness and reciprocity in our close relationships, and that our past experiences of generosity, or conversely our past experiences of injustices, plays an important role in the manner in which we treat others. This is relevant to our practice of generosity. One of the most serious obstacles to caring and generosity toward others is what contextual therapists describe as “destructive entitlement.” If we have been exposed to unfair treatment by others or even by injustices for which no one is directly responsible, like a genetic illness, we may seek redress by expecting others to make up for our losses, which is destructive to our relationships, and can block us from practicing generosity toward them. The antidote to this situation is to discover that generous giving is also a source of inner benefits, described as “constructive entitlement” in contextual therapy or “positive potentials” (“merit”) in Buddhism. The main variables in this dimension are as follows. 

  • Balance of giving and receiving
  • Fairness – defined within a personal relationship through an actual dialogue between the parties involved: for instance, regarding expenses, workload 
  • Loyalty expectations and loyalty commitments – various forms of loyalty commitments (to parents, to spouses, to children, to teachers) and loyalty conflicts.

Dimension V: Dimension of Relational Self-Other Establishment

The term “dimension of relational Self-Other establishment” is used here in an attempt to better describe the content of this fifth dimension listed as the ontic dimension in contextual therapy. It refers to the intrinsic mutual dependence of the self and the other in order for each to exist as a Self, or in Buddhist terms to the dependent arising of self and other, how the self and other are established in relation to each other. Elaborating on Martin Buber’s description of the “I-Thou” and “I-It” dialogue, Boszormenyi-Nagy has proposed six modes of relating:

  • Intrasubject contraposition (no external Other and no internal Other) – the boundary is established by self/self-contraposition, like cutting oneself to feel something or talking to oneself, or possibly defining oneself in terms of a cause, a project, an ideology or an iconic religious figure  
  • Internal dialogue (no external Other, the internal Other can be either subject or object of an internal dialogue) – for instance, talking with our dead parent or partner, hearing voices giving orders, playing chess with an imaginary opponent, or negotiating with our conscience. The internal Other may be projected onto an external physical object, as in the movie “Castaway,” in which a shipwrecked man on a desert island relates to a football as the Other. 
  • Merger (merger of Self and Other) – a “We” transacts with a third party either as a subject or an object: for example, “We want him to do this” or “He wants us to do that.” The merger can be of an infant and mother as a unit.
  • Being the subject (Self as the subject, Other as the object with which we interact) – “I-It” interaction, for instance a relation in which the other fulfills a function for the subject, such as someone in a service industry or a child to whom a parent turns for emotional comfort and affection as if the child were an adult (parentification), the relationship with a pet to fulfill personal or emotional needs, a relation in which the subject takes the other as an object of study, for instance an anthropologist 
  • Being the object (Self as the object, Other as the subject) – “It-I” interaction, for instance a relation in which the subject fulfills a function for an object, such as a secretary with a boss
  • True “I-You” dialogue (Self and Other reversible positions) – self as subject or object, the other as subject or object, interchangeably; a two-way dialogue and interaction in which both sides are free of any projections, preconceptions or judgments of the other.

The features enumerated with the dimensions of factual variables and psychological variables pertain to the individual characteristics of each member of a relationship. The features described in the other three dimensions (systemic, relational ethics, relational self-other establishment) can only manifest themselves within a relationship.