Dependent Origination
in Society



The longest Sutta dealing with Dependent Origination in the Pali Canon is the Mahanidana Sutta [D.II.55-71]. There the Buddha explains the principle of conditionality both on an individual basis, as it occurs within the mind, and also in a social context, as it occurs in human relationships. So far we have dealt exclusively with the principle of Dependent Origination as it occurs in individual human consciousness. Before passing on from this subject it would therefore seem appropriate to mention briefly how Dependent Origination works on the social scale.

    The Dependent Origination cycle describes the arising of social ills along the same lines as the arising of personal suffering, but from craving onwards it diverges in to a description of external events:

"In this way, Ananda, conditioned by feeling is craving, conditioned by craving is seeking, conditioned by seeking is gain, conditioned by gain is valuation, conditioned by valuation is fondness, conditioned by fondness is possessiveness, conditioned by possessiveness is ownership, conditioned by ownership is avarice, conditioned by avarice is guarding,[*] conditioned by guarding and resulting from guarding are the taking up of the stick, the knife, contention, dispute, arguments, abuse, slander, and lying. Evil and unskillful actions of many kinds thus appear in profusion."[19]

    Below is a comparison of the way the principle of Dependent Origination works on the personal and the community levels.


personal and community


    To study the above chain of events more clearly, let us look at some of the examples described by the Buddha elsewhere, such as the cycle of nanatta (variation), which can be briefly summarized thus:

    Dhatunanatta (variations within the elements) => phassananatta (variations of impingement) => vedanananatta (variations of feeling) => sa˝˝ananatta (variations of perception) => sankappananatta (variations of thought) => chandananatta (variations of desire) => parilahananatta (variations of agitation) => pariyesananatta (variations of seeking) => labhananatta (variations of gain).[20]

    The first section, from dhatu to sa˝˝a, can be simply rephrased thus: because of the manifold proliferation of elements, there arises the manifold proliferation of perceptions. In another place in the Pali the following sequence of events is described:

    Dhatunanatta (variations of the elements) => sa˝˝ananatta (variations of perception) => sankappananatta (variations of thought) => phassananatta (variations of impingement) => vedanananatta (variations of feeling) => chandananatta (variations of desire) => parilahananatta (variations of agitation) => pariyesananatta (variations of seeking) => labhananatta (variations of gain). [S.II.140-149]

    This sequence illustrates a process connecting individual mind experience with external events, showing how the origin of social problems and suffering lies within human defilements. The sequence is very basic, showing only an outline of the unfolding of events. More detailed explanations, emphasizing more specific situations, appear in other Suttas, such as the Agga˝˝a [D.III.80-98], the Cakkavatti [D.III.58-79] and the Vasettha [Sn.594-656] Suttas. These Suttas are the working models of the principle of Dependent Origination on the social level. They explain the development of events in human society, such as the arising of class structures, as the result of the interaction between people and the environment around them. In other words, these phenomena are a result of an interaction between three levels: human beings, human society and the whole of the natural environment.

    The feelings that we experience depend on sense impingement, which, in addition to existing internal factors such as perception, depends on social and environmental factors. Dependent on feeling, craving arises, resulting in the variations of human behavior towards both other people and the world around them, within the restrictions specified by social or natural circumstances. Results of those actions further affect all other factors. Human beings are not the only determinants in social or environmental development, and the natural environment is not the only determinant in conditioning human beings or society. Rather they all constitute an interdependent process of relationship.

    One section of the Agga˝˝a Sutta illustrates the sequence of social evolution according to cause and effect thus:

    People become lazy and begin to hoard rice (previously rice was plentiful and there was no need to hoard it) and this becomes the preferred practice => people begin to hoard private supplies => unscrupulous people steal other's shares to enlarge their own => censure, lying, punishment, and contention result => responsible people, seeing the need for authority, appoint a king => some of the people, being disillusioned with society, decide to do away with evil actions and cultivate meditation practice. Some of these live close to the city and study and write scriptures; they become the Brahmins. Those who remain with their families continue to earn their living by various professions; they becoming the artisans. The remaining people, being vulgar and inept, become the plebeians. From among these four groups a smaller group breaks off, renouncing tradition and household life and taking to the 'homeless life.' These become the samanas.

    The aim of this Sutta is to explain the arising of the various classes as a matter of natural development based on related causes, not as commandments from an almighty God. All people are equally capable of good and evil behavior, and all receive results according to the natural law; it follows that all beings are equally capable of attaining enlightenment if they practice the Dhamma correctly.

    The Cakkavatti Sutta shows the arising of crime and social ills according to the following cause and effect sequence:

    (The ruler) does not share wealth among the poor => poverty abounds => theft abounds => the use of weapons abounds => killing and maiming abound => lying abounds => slander ... sexual infidelity ... abusive and frivolous speech ... greed and hatred ... wrong view => lust for what is wrong, greed, wrong teachings, disrespect for parents, elders and religious persons, disrespect for position abound => longevity and appearance degenerate.

    It is interesting to note that in modern times, attempts to resolve social problems are rarely attuned to their real causes. They seek to provide stopgap solutions, such as establishing counseling for drug addicts and delinquents, but they do not delve deeply into the social conditions which affect the emergence of such problems in the first place, such as consumerism and mass media. In this respect, the Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination on the social scale offers an invaluable precedent for intelligent and truly effective social analysis and reform.


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[*] The Pali words here are: pariyesana, labha, vinicchaya, chandaraga, ajjhosana, pariggaha, macchariya and arakkha respectively. [Back to text]

19. D.II.58; these nine conditions occur elsewhere under the title of the nine conditions rooted in craving (tanhamulakadhamma), such as in D.III.289; A.IV.400; Vbh.390. [Back to text]

20. D.III.289; Ps.I.187; the word "elements" (dhatu) here refers to the eighteen elements: six internal sense bases (sense organs), six external sense bases (sense objects) and six consciousnesses. [Back to text]