I recently had the opportunity to read Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s The Shape of Suffering: A Study of Dependent Co-Arising, which began as a brief study guide on paticca samuppada, dependent co-arising: the most detailed explanation in the early Buddhist teachings on the arising and cessation of dukkha, stress or suffering.
As Than Geoff writes, “This detailed summary of the causal factors leading up to stress shows why the experience of suffering and stress can be so bewildering, for the interaction among these factors can be very complex.”
Further, “The two most prominent analogies offered by the post-canonical Buddhist tradition — depicting dependent co-arising as a wheel or as a circle of mirrors — are inadequate to this task. The wheel is too deterministic in its implications; the circle of mirrors, too static. Thus I felt the need to search elsewhere for appropriate analogies, and I came across two.”
Of the two analogies preferred by Thanissaro, the second compares “the effects of dependent co-arising to a tangled skein.”
This image inspired me to look for parallels in modern scientific studies of tangled skeins: i.e., complex nonlinear systems, such as the weather, the behavior of financial markets, and the forces interacting within physical structures, such as bridges. Studies of these systems have helped to explain how complex systems can behave in unexpected ways: containing the seeds for a radical reconfiguring of their behavior — as when the factors of dependent co-arising can be converted to a path to the end of suffering — and for their total collapse — as when the path leads to a goal totally undefined in causal terms.
The Shape of Suffering requries some determination (and tolerance for numerous excerpts from the sutta) to read beyond the introduction, prompting me to wonder if there was a way in which this important teaching could be conveyed more succinctly and intuitively. Isn’t there a way to show the complex and dynamic relationships between the twelve factors of co-dependent arising?
I recall an intriguing Web project I came across some years ago called the Virtual Thesaurus. The VT is “an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words. Its innovative display encourages exploration and learning. You’ll understand language in a powerful new way.”
Say you have a meaning in mind, like “happy.” The VT helps you find related words, from “cheerful” to “euphoric.” The best part is the VT works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. You’ll want to explore just to see what might happen. You’ll discover — and learn — naturally and intuitively. You’ll find the right word, write more descriptively, free associate — and gain a more precise understanding of the English language.
VT utilizes a proprietary software technology called Thinkmap to give users the ability to retrieve a result set from large data sets.
Through a series of task-specific visualization mechanisms, users can navigate, organize and visualize that result set within graphical user interfaces. In addition to helping users find information, the visualization mechanisms help them understand the composition and structure of the data being examined.
To me this sounds like just the thing for exploring the complexities and relationships of the factors of co-dependent arising, truly bringing the teachings of the Buddha into the digital age, and giving greater clarity to how we picture the shape of suffering.
(You can try out some other examples of Thinkmap technology here.)