Dependent Origination

The Buddhist Law of Conditionality



P. A. Payutto

Translated from the Thai by Bruce Evans






1. An Overview of Dependent Origination
    Types of Dependent Origination found in the texts
        1. The general principle
        2. The principle in effect

2. Interpreting Dependent Origination
    The essential meaning

3. Man and Nature

4. The Standard Format
    The main factors
        1. Ignorance and craving-clinging
        2. Volitional impulses and becoming
        3. Consciousness to feeling, and birth, aging and death

5. Other Interpretations
    Preliminary definition
    How the links connect
    An example of Dependent Origination in everyday life

6. The Nature of Defilements

7. Dependent Origination in Society

8. The Middle Teaching

9. Breaking the Cycle

    A note on interpreting the principle of Dependent Origination
    Birth and death in the present moment
    Dependent Origination in the Abhidhamma
    A problem with the word "nirodha"





The teaching of causal interdependence is the most important of Buddhist principles. It describes the law of nature, which exists as the natural course of things. The Buddha was no emissary of heavenly commandments, but the discoverer of this principle of the natural order, and the proclaimer of its truth to the world.

    The progression of causes and conditions is the reality which applies to all things, from the natural environment, which is an external, physical condition, to the events of human society, ethical principles, life events and the happiness and suffering which manifest in our own minds. These systems of causal relationship are part of the one natural truth. Our happiness within this natural system depends on having some knowledge of how it works and practicing correctly within it, through addressing problems on the personal, social, and environmental levels. Given that all things are interconnected, and all are affecting each other, success in dealing with the world lies in creating harmony within it.

    The sciences which have evolved with human civilization, and which are influencing our lives so profoundly today, are said to be based on reason and rationality. Their storehouse of knowledge has been amassed through interacting with these natural laws of conditionality. But the human search for knowledge in modern scientific fields has three notable features: Firstly, the search for knowledge in these sciences, and the application of that knowledge, is separated into distinct categories. Each branch of science is distinct from the others. Secondly, human beings in this present civilization are of the belief that the law of conditionality applies only to the physical world, not to the mental world, or to abstract values such as ethics. This can be seen even in the study of psychology, which tends to look at the cause and effect process only in relation to physical phenomena. Thirdly, the application of scientific knowledge (of the laws of conditionality) is applied solely to serve self interests. Our relationship with the natural environment, for instance, is centered around trying to derive as much resources from it as we can with little or no regard for the consequences.

    Underneath it all, we tend to interpret such concepts as happiness, freedom, rights, liberty, and peace in ways that preserve self interests and encroach on others. Even when controlling other people comes to be seen as a blameworthy act, this aggressive tendency is then turned in other directions, such as the natural environment. Now that we are beginning to realize that it is impossible to really control other people or other things, the only meaning left in life is to preserve self interests and protect territorial rights. Living as we do with this faulty knowledge and these mistaken beliefs, the natural environment is thrown out of skew, society is in turmoil, and human life, both physically and mentally, is disoriented. The world seems to be full of conflict and suffering.

    All facets of the natural order -- the physical world and the human world, the world of conditions (dhamma) and the world of actions (kamma), the material world and the mental world -- are connected and interrelated, they cannot be separated. Disorder and aberration in one sector will affect other sectors. If we want to live in peace, we must learn how to live in harmony with all spheres of the natural environment, both the internal and the external, the individual and the social, the physical and the mental, the material and the immaterial.

    To create true happiness it is of utmost importance that we not only reflect on the interrelationship of all things in the natural order, but also see ourselves clearly as one system of causal relationships within that natural order, becoming aware first of the internal mental factors, then those in our life experiences, in society, and ultimately in the world around us. This is why, of all the systems of causal relationship based on the law "because there is this, that arises; when this ceases that ceases," the teachings of Buddhism begin with, and stress throughout, the factors involved in the creation of suffering in individual awareness -- "because there is ignorance, there are volitional formations." Once this system of causal relationship is understood on the inner level, we are then in a position to see the connections between these inner factors and the causal relationships in society and the natural environment. This is the approach adopted in this book.

    I would like to express my appreciation to the Buddhadhamma Foundation, to Khun Yongyuth Thanapura, who has undertaken the responsibility of having this book translated into English, and also Bruce Evans, who has translated it with heart as well as mind, making a number of adjustments to it in order to turn one chapter of a larger book into a comprehensive whole.

    May the good intentions involved in the production of this book serve to play some small part in creating well-being, both individual and social, in the world at large.


P. A. Payutto   


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