Dependent Origination



The principle of Dependent Origination has been interpreted in a number of ways, which can be broadly summarized as follows:

    1. As a demonstration of life- or world-evolution, based on a literal definition of such phrases as loka-samudaya (arising of the world) [as in S.II.73].

    2. As a demonstration of the arising and cessation of individual life, or individual suffering.

    This second division can further be divided into two subcategories:

       2.1 Demonstrating the process over a very long period of time, from lifetime to lifetime. This is the more literal interpretation; it is also the explanation most often found in the commentarial texts, where the subject is expanded on in such minute detail that the newcomer is likely to be confused by the plethora of technical terms.

       2.2 Demonstrating a process which is continually occurring. Although related to 2.1, this interpretation gives a more profound and practical definition of the terms with emphasis on the present moment, which is considered to be the real objective of the teaching. This kind of interpretation is supported by teachings in numerous Suttas, and in the Abhidhamma Pitaka there are passages which describe the entire Dependent Origination process in one mind moment.[1]


In the first interpretation given above, there are attempts to interpret the principle of Dependent Origination as a world-origin theory, treating ignorance (avijja) as the First Cause and tracing evolution through the whole twelve links. This kind of interpretation makes the teaching of Buddhism seem very similar to other religious teachings and philosophies, which postulate an origination principle, such as God. The interpretations differ only in that the latter teachings describe the birth and existence of the world as the workings of some supernatural force, whereas the teachings of Buddhism, as seen in this interpretation, would explain things as simply a form of evolution proceeding according to the natural laws of cause and effect.

    However, this interpretation certainly contradicts the Buddha's teaching, because any teaching or school of thought which shows a world originating from a First Cause is contrary to the principle of conditionality, or Dependent Origination, which clearly states that all things are interdependent, arising continually through the influences of causes and conditions. Any First Cause, be it a Creator God or anything else, is impossible. Interpreting the Dependent Origination cycle as a description of life- or world-evolution can only be feasible when it presents a picture of the universe functioning according to the natural processes of growth and decline, ceaselessly unfolding at the dictates of cause and effect.

    When assessing the plausibility of these interpretations, we must bear in mind the Buddha's objective in teaching Dependent Origination. In his teachings, the Buddha aimed to present only that which could be used to address the problems of life on a practical basis. He did not encourage trying to understand reality through conjecture, debate, or analysis of metaphysical problems, which he saw as impossible. For this reason, any assessment of a teaching as authentically Buddhist should involve an assessment of its value in terms of ethical principles.

    A definition of the principle of Dependent Origination as a beginningless and endless process of evolution, although seemingly valid, can still be seen to have limited ethical value. What may be gained from it is:

    (1) A broader view of the world, as proceeding according to the flow of causes and effects and bound to the conditions found in the natural process. There is no Creator or Appointer, nor is the world a series of aimless accidents. Objectives cannot be realized through merely wishing, supplicating the gods, or luck, but must be effectuated through self-reliant effort based on an understanding of causes and conditions.

    (2) Creating the right causes for desired results can only be done when there is an understanding of those causes and the way they connect with their respective results. This necessitates the presence of an understanding (paa) which is capable of discerning these complexities; life must be dealt with and related to with wisdom.

    (3) An understanding of the natural process as subject to the cause and effect continuum can be effective for reducing the delusion which causes clinging to, and identification with, things as self. Such a perspective enables a sounder and more independent relationship with things as they are.

    The view of the principle of Dependent Origination as a world-evolution theory, although harmonious with the teachings of the Buddha, is nevertheless somewhat superficial. It lacks a profound, detailed, moment-by-moment analysis of physical and mental components. It is not strong enough or clear enough to unequivocally bring about the three results mentioned above, especially the third. In order to delve deeper into the truth, it is necessary to examine the unfolding of natural events in more detail, on a personal basis, clearly seeing the truth of this process as it actually occurs in our lives, even in very brief instances. With such a clear awareness, the three benefits mentioned above will be more likely to occur. Incidentally, this more immediate interpretation does not preclude the interpretation of the process as evolution on a long-term basis.

    Any explanation of the principle of Dependent Origination as a world-evolution theory, whether in a basic or a more subtle sense, will lack depth. The second interpretation, which concerns personal life, and particularly the process of the continuation of personal suffering, is much more profound.

    Of the descriptions of the Dependent Origination cycle as a personal process, the interpretation which covers several lifetimes (given in 2.1) is that which is most accepted and expanded on in the Commentaries.[2] There it is treated in minute detail and greatly elaborated on, systematized and illustrated. However, at the same time this systematization tends to be rather rigid, and it tends to mystify the subject for the newcomer. Here it will be given its own chapter, followed by the partially related interpretation of Dependent Origination as occurring in a matter of mind moments (rendition 2.2).


The essential meaning

In essence, the principle of Dependent Origination is a description of the process of the arising and cessation of suffering. The word 'suffering' (dukkha) is a very important term in Buddhism. It figures in several of its most important teachings, such as the Three Characteristics (tilakkhana) and the Four Noble Truths (ariyasacca). In order to more clearly understand the principle of Dependent Origination, it is essential to first understand this word dukkha, or suffering.

    The term 'dukkha' in the Buddha's teaching is used in a much broader sense than is its English equivalent, 'suffering'. It is therefore necessary to discard the narrow meaning of the word as it occurs in the English language and reconsider it in the light of the very broad meaning of the Buddha's words, which divide suffering into three types [D.III.216; S.IV.259; S.V.56]. Together with their commentarial explanations [Vism.499; Vbh.A.93], they are:

    1. Dukkha-dukkhata: the suffering which is a feeling. This includes both physical and mental suffering -- aches, pains, sadness and so on -- much as is usually understood by the English word 'suffering'. This corresponds to the Pali word 'dukkhavedana' ('the feeling of suffering' which ordinarily arises whenever a disagreeable sensation is experienced).

    2. Viparinama-dukkhata: the suffering which is inherent in change; the suffering concealed within the inconstancy of happiness. This is the suffering which is caused by the changes within, and the cessation of, happiness. This can be observed on a hot day when you have been working outside: you may not notice the heat if you are accustomed to it, but once you go into an air-conditioned room, the resulting pleasant feeling may cause an unpleasant reaction to take place when you go back outside -- the heat feels unbearable. The original neutral feeling of heat turns into an uncomfortable one because of the pleasantness of the air-conditioned coolness. The pleasantness of the air-conditioning causes the subsequent feeling of heat to seem unpleasant. It's almost as if the suffering is dormant, only to reveal itself when the pleasant feeling fades. The more intense the pleasant feeling is, the more intensely does it change into suffering, and the suffering seems to expand in proportion to the intensity of the pleasant feeling. If the pleasant feeling had not arisen, the suffering dependent on it would likewise not have arisen. If pleasant feeling is accompanied by an awareness of its fickle nature, fear, worry and anxiety tend to shadow it. When the pleasant feeling in time passes away, it is followed by the longing, "I used to have such happiness, now it is gone."

    3. Sankhara dukkhata: the suffering which is inherent within all sankhara, all things which arise from determinants; specifically, the five khandhas. This refers to the subjection of all conditioned things to the contrary forces of birth and dissolution, how they are not perfect within themselves but exist only as part of the cause and effect continuum. As such, they are likely to cause suffering (that is, the feeling of suffering, or dukkha-dukkhata) whenever there is inflexible craving and clinging to them through ignorance (avijja-tanha-upadana).

    The most important kind of suffering is the third kind, which describes the nature inherent to all conditions, both physical and mental. Sankhara-dukkhata as a natural attribute assumes a psychological significance when it is recognized that conditions are incapable of producing any perfect contentment, and as such will cause suffering for anybody who tries to cling to them.


The principle of Dependent Origination shows the interdependence and interrelation of all things in the form of a continuum. As a continuum, it can be analyzed from a number of different perspectives:

    All things are interrelated and interdependent; all things exist in relation to each other; all things exist dependent on determinants; all things have no enduring existence, not even for a moment; all things have no intrinsic entity; all things are without First Cause, or Genesis.

    To put it another way, the fact that all things appear in their diverse forms of growth and decline shows their true nature to be one of a continuum or process. Being a continuum shows them to be compounded of numerous determinants. The form of a continuum arises because the various determinants are interrelated. The continuum moves and changes form because the various factors concerned cannot endure, even for a moment. Things cannot endure, even for a moment, because they have no intrinsic entity. Because they have no intrinsic entity they are entirely dependent on determinants. Because the determinants are interrelated and interdependent, they maintain the form of a continuum, and being so interrelated and interdependent indicates that they have no First Cause.

    To render it in a negative form: if things had any intrinsic entity they would have to possess some stability; if they could be stable, even for a moment, they could not be truly interrelated; if they were not interrelated they could not be formed into a continuum; if there were no continuum of cause and effect, the workings of nature would be impossible; and if there were some real intrinsic self within that continuum there could be no true interdependent cause and effect process. The continuum of cause and effect which enables all things to exist as they do can only operate because such things are transient, ephemeral, constantly arising and ceasing and having no intrinsic entity of their own.

    The property of being transient, ephemeral, arising and ceasing, is called aniccata. The property of being subject to birth and dissolution, of inherently involving stress and conflict, and of being intrinsically imperfect, is called dukkhata. The quality of voidness of any real self is called anattata. The principle of Dependent Origination illustrates these three properties in all things and shows the interrelatedness and inter-reaction of all things to produce the diverse events in nature.

    The functioning of the principle of Dependent Origination applies to all things, both physical and mental, and expresses itself through a number of natural laws. These are:

    It is worth noting that kamma, as with all other cause and effect relationships, can only function because things are transient (anicca) and are void of intrinsic entity (anatta). If things were permanent and had intrinsic being in themselves none of the natural laws, including the law of kamma, could operate. Moreover, these laws support the truth that there is no First Cause, or Genesis.

    Things have no intrinsic entity because they arise dependent on causes and are interrelated. A simple illustration: What we know as a 'bed' comes from the collection of numerous components to assume a known form. A 'bed' other than these components does not exist. When all the components are dismantled, no 'bed' remains. All that is left is the concept of 'bed.' Even that concept is without independent existence, but must relate to other concepts, such as 'sleeping,' a plane surface, a base, an empty space and so on.

    Concepts are formed in the mind through the association of relationships. For most people, once a set of relationships is formed into a concept, the habit of clinging to things through craving (tanha) and clinging (upadana) attaches to those concepts as fixed entities. Such clinging isolates the concept from its relationship with other things, and stains perceptions with notions of 'me' and 'mine,' leading to identification with them and thus preventing any true understanding.

    Things have no root cause or first arising. Tracing back along the stream of causes ad infinitum, no root cause can be found for anything. Yet there is a tendency for people to try to find some kind of original cause; this kind of thinking conflicts with the way of nature and causes perceptions which are at variance with the truth. It is a form of self-deception, caused by the human habit of stopping any inquiry into causes at the immediate one and going no further. Thus the usual understanding of cause and effect, believing in an original cause for things, is inaccurate and contrary to the laws of nature. Considering how things are, it is necessary to search further back by asking, "What is the cause of that so-called Original Cause?" and so on. None can be found. The question should rather be asked, "Why should things have a root cause anyway?"

    Another kind of reasoning which contradicts nature and is related to the idea of a root cause is the belief that in the beginning there was nothing. This kind of idea arises from attachment to the concept of self (atta), which in turn is derived from attachment to concepts. From there, the deduction is that previously this did not exist, but then it became extant. This kind of false reasoning is the human habit of 'clinging to concepts,' or 'not knowing the truth of concepts,' which in turn is not knowing things as they are. This causes the attempt to find something eternal, a First Cause, Mover of All Things, or Creator, which in turn gives rise to a number of contradictions, such as: "How can that which is eternal create that which is non-eternal?" In fact, within the dynamic stream of cause and effect there is no need for a position either supporting or denying any static existence at all, whether 'in the beginning' or right now, except within the realm of spoken concepts. We should rather encourage fresh consideration with the question "Why must existence be preceded by nonexistence?"

    The common belief that all things have a Creator is another idea which contradicts reality. Such a belief is a result of deductive thinking, based on the observation of man's ability to create things and produce artifacts of various kinds, such as the arts and so on. The deduction follows that therefore all things in the world must have a creator. In this case, we are deceived when we isolate the concept 'building' or 'creating' from the normal cause and effect continuum, thus taking a falsehood as our basic premise. In fact, 'building' is only one phase of the Dependent Origination process. That we are capable of creating anything at all is through becoming determinants in the process of relationship which produces the desired result. We differ from the purely physical factors concerned only in that in our case there are some mental factors, involving intention, also present. Even so, those factors remain part of a totality of factors and must also proceed according to the cause and effect process. For instance, when we wish to build a skyscraper, we must become part of the stream of determinants, manipulating other determinants in the process to completion. If the thought of creation was capable of bringing things into existence independent of the cause and effect process, then we could create skyscrapers anywhere simply by thinking them into existence, which is impossible. Thus, the word 'creation' has no meaning beyond a description of part of a process. Moreover, when things proceed smoothly along the cause and effect process, the question of a creator is no longer relevant at any point along the way.

    In any case, searching for the facts regarding the question of a First Cause, a Creator God, and such, have little value in the Buddhist view, because they are not essential to a meaningful life. And even though reflecting on these matters can provide a wider world view as mentioned above, such reflection can still be passed over, as the value of the teaching of Dependent Origination in terms of life fulfillment already covers the benefits desired. We should therefore direct our attention more toward that.


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1.  Abhidhammabhajaniya of the Paccayakara-vibhanga: Vbh.138ff. [Back to text]

2. See Visuddhimagga, Vism.517-586; Vbh.A.130-213 (approx.) (pp. 199-213 (approx.) describe the one-mind-moment process). [Back to text]