Dependence and Attachment in Buddhism

In reading chapter two of Buddhist Philosophy, I was not surprised to learn that the concept that “all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of Buddhist ontological theory.” While this theory was not the focus of Garfield’s piece on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, it is one of the complex pieces of background information he gives. He explains that there are three ways that this dependency shows itself in the Mahāyāna tradition. Firstly, “all phenomena are dependent for their existence on complex networks of causes and conditions…” Secondly, he says, “All wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts on the wholes they help to make up.” And lastly, “all phenomena are dependent for their identities on conceptual imputation.” This interdependency of phenomena ensures that all phenomena are without essence, which explains the Buddhist concept of the not-self: a self cannot originate if one has no essence due to her dependency on the phenomena surrounding her.

In order to try to see how dependency plays out, I referred back to the Verses of the Elder Monks. Looking at these poems, it appears at a glance that monks have mastered the art of living independently. Here is an example:           

                                  My hut is roofed, comfortable,

                                             free of drafts;

                                 my mind, well-centered,

                                              set free.

                                 I remain ardent.

                                              So, rain-deva.

                                             Go ahead & rain.   –Thag 1.1


The monk doesn’t need anything from anyone. He is free and determined. He is ardent. Along with these traits, one might characterize him as independent. The very writing of this poem, however, implies dependence on the part of the monk. Without dependence, he could not have written, “So, rain-deva, Go ahead and rain.” His mind’s freeness depends on the comfortableness of his hut, which depends on the hut’s roof. All is intertwined.

On top of the notion of interdependency in Buddhism are the notions of existence and emptiness. These concepts are complex and I will not try to analyze them now, as I am not sure that I fully understand their breadth. However, at the bare minimum, Nāgārjuna asserted, these phenomena are in themselves examples of dependency.

Knowing about the importance of interdependency in Buddhism, as portrayed by the monk and as explained by Nāgārjuna, I wonder how the concept of attachment relates. Are dependency and attachment interlocked? Surely, if one is attached to something one depends on it, but does dependency always imply attachment? If the monk in the poem above has not freed himself from dependency, it seems that he would be speaking of attachment when he says, “my mind, well-centered, set free.” Therefore it is possible for dependency to exist without attachment. His mind unattached, not independent. But does one try to rid oneself of dependency as one does attachment?

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One Response to Dependence and Attachment in Buddhism

  1. scm13 says:

    To put thoughts out there regarding your question, “Are dependency and attachment interlocked?” From what I have gathered from the readings, it seems that dependency is innate to existence, and attachment is initiated. One can be attached to something but not actually depend on it! For example I can be attached to going out to see my favorite movie, but when the theatre closes unexpectedly, I wont die, I will only me disappointed, because of the attachment I had. Where as, for the things I am dependent on, I can’t stop being dependent on them because I never choose to be dependent on them, dependance means things that are innate, that bring you into existence, without them there is no “you.” Hope this might help

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