The Tibetan term tendrel describes the nature of phenomena and how they relate to each other. Ten means ‘to depend’ and drel means ‘connection’ or ‘relationship.’ So tendrel points to the fact that all phenomena come into being through a dependent relationship with other phenomena. “Because this happened, that happened.” I spill a glass of water, so the table is wet. The table doesn’t just get wet for no reason.
If we look at tendrel in relationship to personal experience and karma, it’s easy to see, using the frame of the Twelve Interdependent Links, how our present thoughts, speech and actions set the stage for our future experience and proclivities. This is the mechanics of karma.
When we notice the dependent relationships in the occasional arising of challenging circumstances like loneliness or frustration, those temporary experiences become more maliable. We feel less stuck. We see that certain things happened to get us here. If we want to be somewhere else, we need only do different things. This is meant to be personal. We’re meant to ask ourselves what role we played in arriving where we are today. This is true when we like our status quo, and when we don’t.
When we now layer on the view of emptiness—the lack of inherent existence of all phenomena—the term tendrel is even more expressive. Precisely because each and every phenomenon is conceived through dependent relationship, no phenomenon exists in an independent, permanent fashion. Things are a process. They never stand still. We are an ever-evolving infinite matrix of conditions—time, place, experience, context, physiology and so forth. It’s so complex and so deeply interdependent that you literally cannot take it apart and find a ‘thing.’
Without this important concept in place, it’s easy to read Buddhist doctrine and feel like ‘emptiness’ means nothing exists. This is not at all true, and there is danger in concluding that phenomenon, including life, are nonexistent—and the logical consequence of engaging in that mistaken thinking is that they therefore have no meaning. You can guess where that might go.
The other end of the spectrum of mistaken thinking is ‘eternalism’…that they exist permanently and from their own side. Also not true.
So why is tendrel an important concept? On a day-to-day functional level, if something has come about by various causes and conditions—it can also be changed or eliminated by other causes and conditions. One can intervene. You might feel this as both good news and bad news. The conditions, experiences and events in our lives are impermanent and will always be subject to change. If you like them as they are, this might be bad news. If you’re sick or in some other adverse experience, this is great news. We have effect. We are capable of impact. In fact we are far more powerful on that score than we tend to give ourselves credit for.
Tendrel In the Vajrayana, tendrel also is used to think and speak about the efficacy of yidam practices. When we use our mind to visualize a deity like Chenrezig, for example, the qualities of that deity are an expression of mind. (compassion, for example) Through practice, those tendencies are enlivened through repeated exposure in a practice ritual. Where you put your mind matters, you could say. What you saturate it with has an impact. This is not so hard to understand.
The mystical orientation of Tibetan Buddhism also includes the communication or impact of ‘signs.’ Tibetan Buddhism acknowledges that our thoughts, speech and actions lay the ground for our future. If we are open to paying attention, we will see portents of what’s evolving along the way. This is not magic so much as it is the inclusion of ‘information’ not noticed and used in our dominant culture. Attention to those signs is acknowledgement of their expression of tendrel. Knowing this intellectually is not nearly as profound as experiencing it.
Tendrel also connotes good fortune or serendipity in colloquial Tibetan. Perhaps the real auspiciousness is that we see and begin to look for and experience the dependent arising of all all things—a life and mind changing shift in perception.