Few comments on the pratityasamutpada concept

“The word ‘interdependence’ is a translation of the Sanskrit pratityasamutpada, which means ‘to be by co-emergence’ and is usually translated as ‘dependent origination.’ The saying can be interpreted in two complementary ways. The first is ‘this arises because that is’, which comes down to saying that things do exist in some way, but nothing exists on its own. The second is ‘this, having been produced, produces that,’ which means that nothing can be its own cause. or we could say that everything is in some way interdependent with the world. We do not deny that phenomena really do occur, but we argue that they are ‘dependent’ that they don’t exist in an autonomous way. Any given thing in our world can appear only because it is connected, conditioned and in turn conditioning, co-present and co-operating in constant transformation. Their way of ‘being’ is simply in relation to one another, never in and of themselves. We tend to cling to the notion that ‘things’ must precede relationships. This is not the case here. The characteristics of phenomena are defined only through relationships.” – (from the bookThe Quantum and the Lotus” by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan)

The Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada has attracted the attention of atheists in modern times. Atheists are interested in this concept   because pratityasamutpada  seems to get rid of the “first cause.”

I treat the pratityasamutpada concept with great respect and try to understand it sincerely. My goal is to humbly suggest a different interpretation than the ones atheists provide.

I think that interdependence and co-emergence refer to two separate concepts. It may be clever to combine them under the pratityasamutpada umbrealla but this causes confusion. I will distinguish interdependence and co-emergence.

Even though the word “relativity” is not mentioned in the quote from Ricard and Thuan above it is clear that the pratityasamutpada umbrealla also covers the subject of relativity. The concepts of interdependence, co-emergence and relativity are related but they should not be conflated. I will be careful with these distinctions.

Stating the obvious

The pratityasamutpada hypothesis does not deny the all-pervading pure being. We don’t have words to describe the pure existence. Some refer to it as Consciousness, some call it Absolute Being or Nirguna Brahma yet others refer to it as Godhead.

Words are very limiting. We use the word “absolute” as a contrast to the word “relative.” We understand the “relative” because we live in it and we try to get a glimpse of the “absolute” by transcending the “relative” through meditation, poetry and music.

I don’t think Buddhists disagree when we say Cosmos emanates from Consciousness. I don’t think Buddhists disagree when we say Cosmos is the Relative Truth. There are differences of course. We talk about the Cosmic Soul (Parama Purusha or God) but they don’t. We talk about the Cosmic Mind (Mind of God) but they prefer to be silent about that subject as well. Regardless, we agree on the fact that Consciousness is the base, the ground, the all-pervading field of pure existence. What does “pure existence” mean? Pure existence means “all possibilities.” Consciousness is the source of all possibilities.

The pratityasamutpada hypothesis is not a commentary on pure Consciousness. Pratityasamutpada is a commentary on the relativity of Cosmos which is derived from Consciousness.

Regarding “co-present” and “co-operating” terminology

I love Matthieu Ricard’s terminology of “co-present” and “co-operating.” He uses this terminology in the context of Relative Truth. I suggest we use this terminology when we refer to the cognitive and operative aspects of pure Consciousness as well. The cognitive and operative (creative) aspects of Consciousness are co-present and co-operating.

Let’s ignore the problem of “first cause” for the sake of argument

No one will ever prove or disprove the “first cause.” Let’s not waste our time with a philosophical discussion of the “first cause.” Instead, let’s examine what is required for pratityasamutpada to work. If everything depends on everything else to have relative existence then there must be a mechanism connecting everything to everything else. We know that in the physical universe influences (information, signal, force, interaction) cannot travel faster than a certain speed limit. This speed limit is the speed of light in vacuum. Even the gravitational waves (distortions of space-time) move at this maximum speed. Physical limitations pose great difficulties for the all-connectedness hypothesis,

I strongly believe in the all-connectedness hypothesis but I don’t think the mechanism of all-connectedness is physical. Something more mysterious is involved here.

I argue that the all-connectedness requires a special type of connection. I have been referring to this special type of connection as ‘reference.’ Whole-connectedness through a cosmic ‘reference’ is the only way all-connectedness can manifest. In other words, I cannot explain interdependence without a cosmic ‘reference’.

If you replace the word “cosmic” with the word “common” the meaning of my statement would not change.  You can ignore the problem of the “first cause” but you cannot ignore the necessity for a common reference for all-connectedness to be true.

We can state the “common (cosmic) reference” idea in many ways. For example, we can say that the whole is reflected in the unit. Another way would be to say that the whole is inverted to form the unit. Another popular saying is “all in one, one in all.”

We cannot use a particular interpretation of QM as evidence for pratityasamutpada 

There are many interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. Why so many interpretations? That’s a major problem too but let’s not get into it now. According to one particular interpretation physical properties come into existence only when they are measured/observed? Despite propaganda most physicists understand that this is just a conjecture. As I explain below, this conjecture cannot be generalized to all physical properties therefore cannot be used to defend the pratityasamutpada conjecture.

People conflate the pratityasamutpada claim with the “physical properties come into existence only when they are measured/observed” claim. These are separate conjectures.

Physics experiments demonstrating that “objects cannot have certain properties until we measure them” apply to spin direction. Yes, it is true that the spin direction (direction of the magnetic moment of electron) is not known (indeterminate) until measured but we also know that the elementary particle in question has a definite spin which is 1/2. Electron is a spin=1/2 particle when measured and it is a spin=1/2 particle when not measured as well. When not measured, electron is never in a superposition of a spin=1/2 and a spin=1 particle. It cannot be both spin=1/2 and spin=1. Otherwise, electrons would not obey the Pauli exclusion principle.

I repeat, spin direction is a different story than spin itself. One cannot make generalizations about physical properties based on experiments designed to measure particle spin directions.

Difference between “coming into scope” and “coming into existence”

One might argue that the so-called intrinsic physical properties such as spin and charge come into scope based on physics experiments. Without the measuring apparatus we would not know about them. This is true but there is a difference between “coming into scope” and “coming into existence.” It is clear to me that the intrinsic physical properties (spin, charge) are ontic not epistemic. These intrinsic properties are ontic as part of elementary particle’s existence. The intrinsic properties are ontic because elementary particles are ontic. Certain Quantum Mechanics enthusiasts might argue that there is particle-wave duality therefore particles are not ontic. Don’t forget that waves are ontic too. If waves are ontic then particles are ontic as well because of wave-particle duality. You can replace the word “wave” with “quantum field” and claim that particles are ripples in the quantum field. The conclusion does not change. Quantum fields are ontic, ripples in the quantum field are ontic as well.

Few more words on ontic vs. epistemic

In metaphysics the term “ontic” refers to what is real. Physicists use the term “ontic” in a limited sense.

We can never know the physical reality directly. It is clear to all physicists that physics does not describe the physical reality per se. Physics theories are models of the physical reality. No theory, mathematical or not, can describe reality directly because direct perception of reality is not possible. We perceive the physical reality around us through the nervous system. The physical interaction is translated into electrical pulses in our sensory nerves. These pulses are then converted into an information package by the brain and finally the information package is interpreted by the mind. We don’t know what mind is but we know that the incoming information has to be interpreted by the mind otherwise there is no perception.  Physics theories are interpreting the perception. If we call perception a model, a physics theory is a model of a model. Physics theories are removed from reality by at least 2 levels of abstraction.

With this in mind, it is clear that all theories are epistemological but even within this knowledge system we still have to differentiate between “ontic” and “epistemic.”

Cosmos is the Relative Truth (emphasis on the “relative”). Within this fundamental relativity there are degrees of relativity. Ontic properties are less relative compared to epistemic properties.

Intrinsic properties create conceptual difficulties for pratityasamutpada 

The invariant mass of a particle does not change when we change the frame of reference or when we accelerate the particle. Same is true for charge and spin. Even as the electron approaches the speed of light it still has -1 charge, it still has spin=1/2 and its invariant mass is still the same.

The intrinsic properties of elementary particles are sometimes described as quantum numbers. This terminology is very misleading. Quantum Mechanics does not explain particle spin, charge or invariant mass. Quantum Mechanics takes these intrinsic physical properties as inputs. In parenthesis, the more advanced version of Quantum Mechanics, QFT (Quantum Field Theory) does not explain the intrinsic properties either.

Cumulative evidence from all physics experiments show that the intrinsic properties of elementary particles exist independent of the frame of reference and independent of the measuring apparatus.  This poses a difficulty in the interpretations of pratityasamutpada.

My approach to the problem of physical invariants is similar to my general approach: whole-connectedness through a common (cosmic) ‘reference’. I am thinking that the intrinsic properties are subjectivated references to all-pervading fields.

In Quantum Field Theory (QFT) there are all-pervading fields too. Elementary particles are said to be ripples in these fields. In my opinion, elementary particles are more than ripples. Besides, where do all-pervading fields come from? What causes them? A simplistic pratityasamutpada argument would be: this field exists because the other fields exists. A more sophisticated pratityasamutpada argument would be: fields emerge simultaneously while determining each others characteristics.


We all agree on the impermanence of forms within the Cosmos. Even the intrinsic properties of elementary particles are subject to change. The caveat here is that this happens when there is either a violent interaction between elementary particles or when a rare event takes place.

All elementary particles can be transformed. Even the most stable elementary particle – electron – is impermanent. Electrons annihilate when they collide with anti-electrons (positrons).  This is a rare event, however.

No disagreement on impermanence. I am not claiming permanent status for the intrinsic properties. I am saying that the claim “objects cannot have certain properties until we measure them” is vacuous.  Objects can have ontic properties during their lifetime even in the absence of measuring apparatus/observer. Please see how I defined the term “ontic” in the previous sections.

On measurement and observer

To the “measurement” enthusiasts I suggest this: expand your definition of “measurement” to include all particle interactions (decays, annihilations, violent inelastic scatters, etc.) and expand your definition of “observer” as well.

On the question of “observer” my answer is clear: the common (cosmic) ‘reference’ is the true observer and it is always present.


I strongly suspect that electric charge, spin, invariant mass and the ‘time effect” come into (relative) existence simultaneously. The word “simultaneously” is meaningless because “time effect” is also co-emerging in the process. The same process (transformation) is the cause of simultaneous emergence of electric charge, spin, invariant mass and the ‘time effect”.

So, if I were a Buddhist I would emphasize the co-emergence aspect of pratityasamutpada over the interdependence aspect because the interdependence requires all-connectedness and Buddhists don’t seem to accept the notion of a common (cosmic) reference in all entities. I think this is why some Buddhists prefer the English translation “dependent origination” over “interdependence” for the Sanskrit term pratityasamutpada.

Atheist interpretations of pratityasamutpada emphasize the interdependence aspect because interdependence hides the “first cause.” Like Buddhists, atheists deny the all-connectedness through a common (cosmic) reference. This is a contradiction. You cannot have interdependence without the common (cosmic) reference in all entities.

Few comments on anatta

During my readings on pratityasamutpada I came across the other Buddhist concept of anatta (anatman in Sanksrit) which is typically translated as “no soul.” As you can imagine this phrase “no soul” creates a tremendous reaction in my mind. I am an open-minded person and I am very sincere about finding the commonalities among the world’s great spiritual teachings but I am troubled by the “no soul” doctrine.

I understand anatta as “no independent soul” rather than “no soul.” Let me explain.

First of all, I think that most spiritual teachings are spiritual practice oriented. For example if someone teaches “no ego” I understand the teaching perfectly. The spiritual goal is to transform ego into a transparent form to receive the Divine Light then eventually surrendering ego to the Divine Grace to attain Mukti (merging with Divine Life). Similarly, most probably, the anatta teaching was designed to encourage the spiritual aspirant to seek Moksha.

The central Buddhist teaching is that no entity in this Cosmos has independent and permanent existence. I think all spiritual teachings agree on this. So, when anatta teaching considers the “soul” as an entity and claims “no soul” it is trying to say that like all entities “soul” does not have an independent and permanent existence.

Ego is different than the soul. I was curious if the ancient Buddhist teachers actually meant “no ego” when they articulated the “no soul” doctrine. But, no. It seems that they actually denied the existence of the soul. As I articulated in this article and other articles, I cannot comprehend a Cosmos without its entities being connected through a common (cosmic) reference. This ‘reference’ is the soul. Ego is different. We cannot deny the reality of the soul because we cannot deny the special role of the common (cosmic) reference.

If the anatta doctrine is interpreted  as “no independent soul” then I understand it better. There is a singular Cosmic Soul. The individual souls are mysterious reflections of the singular Cosmic Soul. Individual souls are not independent.





About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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