An Overview of
Dependent Origination



The principle of Dependent Origination is one of Buddhism's most important and unique teachings. In numerous passages of the Pali Canon, it was described by the Buddha as a natural law, a fundamental truth which exists independently of the arising of enlightened beings:

"Whether a Tathagata appears or not, this condition exists and is a natural fact, a natural law; that is, the principle of conditionality.

"The Tathagata, enlightened to and awakened to that principle, teaches it, shows it, formulates it, declares it, reveals it, makes it known, clarifies it and points it out, saying,

"'See here, conditioned by ignorance are volitional impulses.'

"This suchness, monks, this invariability, this irreversibility, that is to say, this law of conditionality, I call the principle of Dependent Origination." [S.II.25]

    The following excerpts indicate the importance which the Buddha ascribed to the principle of Dependent Origination:

"Whoever sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Origination." [M.I.191]

*  *  *

"Truly, monks, a noble disciple who is learned and has understood for himself, independent of faith in others, that 'When there is this, then there is that; with the arising of this, that arises ...'

"When a noble disciple thus fully sees the arising and cessation of the world as it is, he is said to be endowed with perfect view, with perfect vision; to have attained the true Dhamma, to possess the initiate's knowledge and skill, to have entered the stream of Dhamma, to be a noble disciple replete with the purifying knowledge, one who is at the very door of the Deathless." [S.II.79]

*  *  *

"Whichever recluse or Brahmin knows these conditions, knows the cause of these conditions, knows the cessation of these conditions, and knows the way leading to the cessation of these conditions, that recluse or Brahmin is worthy of the name 'a recluse among recluses' and is worthy of the name 'a Brahmin among Brahmins', and of him it can be said, 'He has attained to the goal of the recluse's life and the goal of the Brahmin life due to his own higher wisdom.'" [S.II.15,45,129]

    In the following exchange with Venerable Ananda, the Buddha cautions against underestimating the profundity of the principle of Dependent Origination:

"How amazing! Never before has it occurred to me, Lord. This principle of Dependent Origination, although so profound and hard to see, yet appears to me to be so simple!"

"Say not so, Ananda, say not so. This principle of Dependent Origination is a profound teaching, hard to see. It is through not knowing, not understanding and not thoroughly realizing this teaching that beings are confused like a tangled thread, thrown together like bundles of threads, caught as in a net, and cannot escape hell, the nether worlds and the wheel of samsara." [S.II.92]

    Those who have studied the life of the Buddha may recall his reflections shortly after the Enlightenment, when he had not yet begun to expound the teaching. At that time, the Buddha was reluctant to teach, as is related in the Scriptures:

"Monks, the thought arose in me thus: 'This truth which I have realized is profound, difficult to see, abstruse, calming, subtle, not attainable through mere sophisticated logic.

"'But beings revel in attachment, take pleasure in attachment and delight in attachment. For beings who thus revel, take pleasure and delight in attachment, this is an extremely difficult thing to see: that is, the law of conditionality, the principle of Dependent Origination. Moreover, this also is an extremely difficult thing to see: the calming of all conditioning, the casting off of all clinging, the abandoning of desire, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana. If I were to give this teaching and my words were not understood, that would simply make for weariness and difficulty.'" [Vin.I.4; M.I.167]

This passage mentions two teachings, the principle of Dependent Origination and Nibbana, stressing both their profundity and also their importance within the Buddha's enlightenment and teaching.


Types of Dependent Origination found in the texts

The textual references dealing with the principle of Dependent Origination can be divided into two main categories. Firstly, those which describe the general principle, and secondly, those which specify constituent factors linked together in a chain. The former format is often used to precede the latter as a general outline. The latter, more frequently encountered, is mostly expressed on its own. This latter description may be regarded as the practical manifestation of the principle of Dependent Origination, showing as it does how the natural process follows the general principle.

    Each of these two main categories can further be divided into two limbs, the first showing the process of origination, the second, the process of cessation. The first limb, showing the process of origination, is called the samudayavara. It is the sequence in its forward mode, and corresponds to the second of the Four Noble Truths, the cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya). The second limb, showing the process of cessation, is called the nirodhavara. It is the sequence in its reverse mode and corresponds to the third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodha).


1. The general principle

In essence, this general principle corresponds to what is known in Pali as idappaccayata, the principle of conditionality.

A. Imasmim sati idam hoti:
    Imasuppada idam upajjati:
When there is this, that is.
With the arising of this, that arises.
B. Imasmim asati idam na hoti:
    Imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati:
When this is not, neither is that.
With the cessation of this, that ceases. [S.II.28,65]


2. The principle in effect

A)    Avijja-paccaya sankhara
        With Ignorance as condition, there are Volitional Impulses. 

        Sankhara-paccaya vi˝˝anam
        With Volitional Impulses as condition, Consciousness. 

        Vi˝˝ana-paccaya namarupam
        With Consciousness as condition, Body and Mind.

        Namarupa-paccaya salayatanam
        With Body and Mind as condition, the Six Sense Bases.

        Salayatana-paccaya phasso
        With the Six Sense Bases as condition, (sense) Contact.

        Phassa-paccaya vedana
        With Contact as condition, Feeling.

        Vedana-paccaya tanha
        With Feeling as condition, Craving.

        Tanha-paccaya upadanam
        With Craving as condition, Clinging.

        Upadana-paccaya bhavo
        With Clinging as condition, Becoming.

        Bhava-paccaya jati
        With Becoming as condition, Birth.

        Jati-paccaya jaramaranam
        With Birth as condition, Aging and Death,

        Soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa sambhavan'ti
        Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair.

        Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti
        Thus is the arising of this whole mass of suffering.


B)    Avijjaya tveva asesa-viraga nirodha sankhara-nirodho
        With the complete abandoning of Ignorance, Volitional Impulses cease.

        Sankhara-nirodha vi˝˝ana-nirodho
        With the cessation of Volitional Impulses, Consciousness ceases.

        Vi˝˝ana-nirodha namarupa-nirodho
        With the cessation of Consciousness, Body and Mind cease.

        Namarupa-nirodha salayatana-nirodho
        With the cessation of Body and Mind, the Six Sense Bases cease.

        Salayatana-nirodha phassa-nirodho
        With the cessation of the Six Sense Bases, Contact ceases.

        Phassa-nirodha vedana-nirodho
        With the cessation of Contact, Feeling ceases.

        Vedana-nirodha tanha-nirodho
        With the cessation of Feeling, Craving ceases.

        Tanha-nirodha upadana-nirodho
        With the cessation of Craving, Clinging ceases.

        Upadana-nirodha bhava-nirodho
        With the cessation of Clinging, Becoming ceases.

        Bhava-nirodha jati-nirodho
        With the cessation of Becoming, Birth ceases.

        Jati-nirodha jaramaranam
        With the cessation of Birth, Aging and Death,

        Soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa nirujjhan'ti
        Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair cease.

        Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti
        Thus is there a cessation to this whole mass of suffering. [Vin.I.1-3; S.II.1,65]

    Note that this format treats the principle of Dependent Origination as a process of the arising and cessation of suffering. This is the wording most commonly found in the texts. In some places, it is given as the arising and cessation of the world, using the Pali words ayam kho bhikkhave lokassa samudayo -- "Thus, monks, is the arising of the world," and ayam kho bhikkhave lokassa atthangamo -- "Thus, monks, is the dissolution of the world" [S.II.73]; or emamayam loko samudayati -- "Thus does this world arise," and emamayam loko nirujjhati -- "Thus does this world cease" [S.II.78]. Both of these wordings in fact have the same meaning, which will become clear once our terms are defined.

    In the Abhidhamma texts and Commentaries the principle of Dependent Origination is also known as paccayakara, referring to the interdependent nature of things.

    The extended form given above contains twelve factors, interdependently linked in the form of a cycle. It has no beginning or ending. Putting ignorance at the beginning does not imply that it is the First Cause, or Genesis, of all things. Ignorance is put at the beginning for the sake of clarity, by intercepting the cycle and establishing a starting point where it is considered most practical. We are in fact cautioned against assuming ignorance to be a First Cause with the following description of the conditioned arising of ignorance -- Asava-samudaya avijja-samudayo, asava-nirodha avijja-nirodho -- ignorance arises with the arising of the outflows, and ceases with their cessation. [M.I.55]

    The twelve links of the standard principle of Dependent Origination format are counted from ignorance to aging and death only. As for 'sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair', these are actually by-products of aging and death for one with outflows (asava) and defilement, becoming 'fertilizer' for the further arising of outflows, and consequently ignorance, which turns the cycle once more.

    The Buddha did not always describe the Dependent Origination cycle in one fixed form (from beginning to end). The extended format was used in cases where he was explaining the principle in general, but when he was addressing a particular problem, he often applied it in reverse order, thus: aging and death <= birth <= becoming <= clinging <= craving <= feeling <= contact <= six sense bases <= body and mind <= consciousness <= volitional impulses <= ignorance [see S.II.5-11,81]. In other descriptions he may have begun at one of the intermediate factors, depending on the problem in question. For example, he might have started at birth (jati) [as in S.II.52], feeling (vedana) [as in M.I.266], or at consciousness (vi˝˝ana) [as in S.II.77], following the steps forward up to aging and death (jaramarana), or tracing backwards to arrive at ignorance (avijja). Or he may have begun with some factor altogether different from the twelve links, which was then worked into the Dependent Origination chain.

    Another point worthy of note is that the dependent origination of these links does not have the same meaning as 'to be caused by' as such. The determinants which make a tree grow, for instance, include not just the seed, but also the soil, moisture, fertilizer, air temperature and so on. These are all 'determinants.' Moreover, being a determinant does not necessarily imply any sequential order in time. For instance, in the example of the tree, the various determinants, such as moisture, temperature, soil and so on, must exist together, not sequentially, for the tree to benefit. Moreover, some kinds of determinants are interdependent, each conditioning the existence of the other, as, for example, an egg is a condition for a chicken, while a chicken is a condition for an egg.


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