A student of mine was talking to a group of fellow meditators about dependent origination and a question came up about free will, so I wanted to take today to talk about what dependent origination is and isn't.
The Buddha laid out his concept of dependent origination very simply: "When this occurs, that arises. In the absence of this, that does not arise.". I can see how this might be read as a denial of free will - until we ask the question, "What is this and what is that?". The Buddha is not pushing a theory of predetermination because he is not seeing 'this' and 'that' as simple on to one cause and effect. He is definitely a determinist, but he doesn't let people use this as an excuse - because our actions, intentions and beliefs are also part of the great 'this' that causes 'that' to arise. Let's look at an example.
It is well understood that childhood abuse often leads to an adult who abuses their own children - often but not always. Do these exceptions disprove the causal relationship between abuse and abusing? No. What they show is that childhood abuse is not the only 'this' in the environment leading to he 'that' of an adult. Perhaps if I grow up isolated in an abusive household, with few if any friends, no mentors I can trust, little education or worldly experience outside this abuse I will be much more likely to grow into an abusive adult myself; but even here there could be factors about my own personality - whether caused by genetic or epigentic factors or small shifts in environmental influences - that may lead me to turn my back on abuse and embrace compassion instead. Perhaps I encounter - even later in life - a teacher, or coach, or friend, or even monk who is able to reach me and turn me from the path of abuse to the path of campassion. In this case dependent origination is stil lin play but there are many more factors in the 'this' that is leading me to the 'that' of my adult self.
The example above should show how dangerous it is to look back from and effect - a 'that' - to determine what cause or causes - 'this' - gave rise to it. Dependent oigination is never an excuse - or a justification or affirmation - for our current actions or situation. It does not remove our own responsibility for who we are today - it simply adds them into the great bucket of causes that have given rise to the us of today. You are in fact predetermined to be who you are today - it's just that this predetermination wasn't taking place without your input. You are part of your own predetermination.
A far more pragmatic use for dependent origination is to look forward - to evaluate our actions in terms of what effects are they likely to bring about. We are not only effects of the causes in our own lives but we contribute to the effects that will arise in the lives of both ourselves and others. This is what Interconnection and Interdependence are all about - Karma too. As our practice leads us toward a more mindful life we will start to look forward more and more - not to dream or fantasize about the future but - to see how our actions in any situation will affect us and others both now and in time to come.
The one time that I see real value in looking back on dependent origination is as a comfort in mourning. Dependent origination is an amazing way to feel in our lives those who have died. All we have to do is to look at who we are and our current circumstance and meditate on all those who have died whose actions were links in the causal chain that led to us. Noone is truly gone when their effects remain.
May the effects that you give rise to always be filled with compassion and altruism.