Introduction to Dependent Origination


General Presentation:

A. When this exists, that comes to be;

With the aris­ing of this, that aris­es.

B. When this does not exist, that does not come to be;

With the ces­sa­tion of this, that ceases.1

The Bud­dha pre­sent­ed the teach­ing of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion (paṭic­casamup­pā­da) in two ways: gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tions, which do not spec­i­fy each fac­tor of the process, and detailed pre­sen­ta­tions list­ing each fac­tor in a con­nect­ed sequence. The first pre­sen­ta­tion usu­al­ly occurs pre­ced­ing the detailed pre­sen­ta­tion. The detailed pre­sen­ta­tion is found fre­quent­ly in the scrip­tures, usu­al­ly alone, with­out the gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion; it expands on the gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion, describ­ing and ana­lyz­ing each fac­tor of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion.

Detailed (or ‘Applied’) Presentation:

A. With igno­rance as con­di­tion, there are voli­tion­al for­ma­tions (avi­jjā­pac­cayā saṅkhārā).

With voli­tion­al for­ma­tions as con­di­tion, there is con­scious­ness (saṅkhāra­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ).

With con­scious­ness as con­di­tion, there is mind-and-body (viññāṇa­pac­cayā nāmarū­paṃ).

With mind-and-body as con­di­tion, there are the six sense bases (nāmarū­pa­pac­cayā saḷāy­atanaṃ).

With the six sense bases as con­di­tion, there is con­tact (saḷāy­atana­pac­cayā phas­so).

With con­tact as con­di­tion, there is feel­ing (phas­s­apac­cayā vedanā).

With feel­ing as con­di­tion, there is crav­ing (vedanā­pac­cayā taṇhā).

With crav­ing as con­di­tion, there is cling­ing (taṇhā­pac­cayā upādā­naṃ).

With cling­ing as con­di­tion, there is becom­ing (upādā­na­pac­cayā bha­vo).

With becom­ing as con­di­tion, there is birth (bhava­pac­cayā jāti).

With birth as con­di­tion, there is aging-and-death (jāti­pac­cayā jarā­maraṇaṃ).

Sor­row, lamen­ta­tion, pain, grief and despair thus come to be (soka-paride­va-dukkha-domanas­supāyāsā samb­ha­van­ti).

Such is the ori­gin of this whole mass of suf­fer­ing (evametas­sa kevalas­sa dukkhakkhand­has­sa samu­dayo hoti).

B. With the remain­der­less aban­don­ment and ces­sa­tion of igno­rance comes the ces­sa­tion of voli­tion­al for­ma­tions (avi­jjāya tve­va asesavirā­ganirod­hā saṅkhāranirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of voli­tion­al for­ma­tions, ces­sa­tion of con­scious­ness (saṅkhāranirod­hā viññāṇanirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of con­scious­ness, ces­sa­tion of mind-and-body (viññāṇanirod­hā nāmarū­panirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of mind-and-body, ces­sa­tion of the six sense bases (nāmarū­panirod­hā saḷāy­atananirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of the six sense bases, ces­sa­tion of con­tact (saḷāy­atananirod­hā phas­sanirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of con­tact, ces­sa­tion of feel­ing (phas­sanirod­hā vedanānirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of feel­ing, ces­sa­tion of crav­ing (vedanānirod­hā taṇhānirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of crav­ing, ces­sa­tion of cling­ing (taṇhānirod­hā upādā­nanirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of cling­ing, ces­sa­tion of becom­ing (upādā­nanirod­hā bha­vanirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of becom­ing, ces­sa­tion of birth (bha­vanirod­hā jātinirod­ho).

With the ces­sa­tion of birth, (ces­sa­tion of) aging-and-death (jātinirod­hā jarā­maraṇaṃ).

Sor­row, lamen­ta­tion, pain, grief and despair cease (soka-paride­va-dukkha-domanas­supāyāsā niru­jjhan­ti).

Such is the ces­sa­tion of this whole mass of suf­fer­ing (evametas­sa kevalas­sa dukkhakkhand­has­sa nirod­ho hoti).2

Both of these for­mats can be divid­ed into two parts—the process of orig­i­na­tion and the process of ces­sa­tion. The first sequence, the process of orig­i­na­tion, is called the ‘cycle of orig­i­na­tion’ (samu­daya-vāra). It is also known as the ‘for­ward sequence’ (anu­lo­ma-paṭic­casamup­pā­da) and is equiv­a­lent to the sec­ond noble truth: the ‘ori­gin of suf­fer­ing’ (dukkha-samu­daya). The lat­ter sequence is called the ‘cycle of ces­sa­tion’ (nirod­ha-vāra) or the ‘reverse sequence’ (paṭilo­ma-paṭic­casamup­pā­da); it cor­re­sponds to the third noble truth: the ‘ces­sa­tion of suf­fer­ing’ (dukkha-nirod­ha).

The clos­ing state­ments of the detailed pre­sen­ta­tion indi­cate that Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion deals with the ori­gin and ces­sa­tion of suf­fer­ing. Most of the scrip­tur­al ref­er­ences to depen­dent orig­i­na­tion end with these state­ments. There are, how­ev­er, pas­sages that end with the ori­gin and ces­sa­tion of the ‘world’:

This, bhikkhus, is the ori­gin of the world; this, bhikkhus, is the pass­ing away of the world.3

In such a way the world orig­i­nates, in such a way the world ceas­es.4

Here the words ‘suf­fer­ing’ and the ‘world’ are inter­change­able, which will explained below.

The detailed pre­sen­ta­tion of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion con­tains twelve fac­tors, which are part of an inter­con­nect­ed cycle, with­out a begin­ning or an end. There is no ‘first cause’ (mūla-kāraṇa). For con­ve­nience of expo­si­tion, the Bud­dha chose igno­rance (avi­jjā) as the most suit­able can­di­date to place at the start of the list of fac­tors, but this is not intend­ed to imply that igno­rance is the first cause. Occa­sion­al­ly, to pre­vent the mis­un­der­stand­ing that igno­rance is the ‘first cause,’ he insert­ed the fol­low­ing state­ment:

With the aris­ing of the taints, igno­rance aris­es; with the ces­sa­tion of the taints, igno­rance ceas­es.5

The twelve fac­tors of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion, begin­ning with igno­rance and end­ing with aging-and-death, are as fol­lows:

Avi­jjā (igno­rance) → saṅkhārā (voli­tion­al for­ma­tions) → viññāṇa (con­scious­ness) → nāma-rūpa (mind-and-body) → saḷāy­atana (six sense bases) → phas­sa (con­tact) → vedanā (feel­ing) → taṇhā (crav­ing) → upādā­na (cling­ing) → bha­va (becom­ing) → jāti (birth) → jarā­maraṇa (aging-and-death).

Sor­row, lamen­ta­tion, pain, grief and despair are results of the cycle of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion, aris­ing in the minds of those who have men­tal impu­ri­ties (āsa­va & kile­sa) when they are faced with aging and death. These results, how­ev­er, take an active role by lead­ing to a fur­ther increase of men­tal taints (āsa­va), which are in turn the con­di­tions for igno­rance and a con­tin­ued rota­tion of the cycle.

In gen­er­al, when pre­sent­ing this detailed or ‘applied’ for­mat of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion (com­pris­ing the entire twelve fac­tors), the Bud­dha men­tioned the for­ward sequence only as an intro­duc­tion. When he wished to empha­size the direct human expe­ri­ence of suf­fer­ing, he most often pre­sent­ed depen­dent orig­i­na­tion in the reverse sequence:


On some occa­sions, when he wished to high­light a par­tic­u­lar fac­tor, the Bud­dha began the detailed pre­sen­ta­tion with one of the inter­me­di­ate fac­tors. The pre­sen­ta­tion may begin with birth (jāti),7 feel­ing (vedanā),8 or con­scious­ness (viññāṇa),9 and then be linked with the sub­se­quent fac­tors until the process reach­es aging-and-death (for the for­ward sequence), or traced back to igno­rance (for the reverse sequence). Occa­sion­al­ly, the process begins with a fac­tor or prob­lem not includ­ed in the group of twelve, and is then con­nect­ed to the process of depen­dent origination.10 In sum­ma­ry, the pre­sen­ta­tion of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion is not fixed and does not have to men­tion all twelve fac­tors.

Although the twelve fac­tors are said to be inter­de­pen­dent and act as con­di­tions for one anoth­er, this is not the same as say­ing they are ‘caus­es’ for one anoth­er. As a com­par­i­son, there are more con­di­tions oth­er than the seed itself that per­mit a plant to grow: soil, water, fer­til­iz­er, weath­er, and tem­per­a­ture all play a part. And these inter­re­lat­ed con­di­tions do not need to fol­low a set tem­po­ral sequence. Sim­i­lar­ly, a floor acts as a con­di­tion for the sta­bil­i­ty or posi­tion­ing of a table.11


1 E.g.: S. II. 28, 65. (Imas­miṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imas­sup­pādā idaṃ uppa­j­jati. Imas­miṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imas­miṃ nirod­hā idaṃ niru­jjhati.) Vis­mṬ.: Paññāb­hū­mi-nid­de­sa-vaṇṇanā, Paṭic­casamup­pā­da-kathā-vaṇṇanā states that this gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion is some­times applied to a sin­gle fac­tor of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion (e.g., ‘con­tact’ at S. II. 96–7); in this case it is called ‘sin­gle top­ic depen­dent orig­i­na­tion’ (ekaṅ­ga-paṭic­casamup­pā­da). This gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion cor­re­sponds to the term ‘spe­cif­ic con­di­tion­al­i­ty’ (idap­pac­cay­atā).

2 E.g.: Vin. I. 1–2; S. II. 1–2, 65.

3 S. II. 73. (Ayaṃ kho bhikkhave lokas­sa samu­dayo; ayaṃ kho bhikkhave lokas­sa atthaṅg­amo.)

4 S. II. 78. (Eva­mayaṃ loko samu­day­ati; eva­mayaṃ loko niru­jjhati.)

5 M. I. 55. (Āsa­va samu­dayā avi­jjā samu­dayo, āsa­va nirod­hā avi­jjā nirod­ho.)

6 See, e.g.: S. II. 5–11, 81.

7 E.g.: S. II. 52.

8 E.g.: M. I. 266–7.

9 E.g.: S. II. 77–8.

10 E.g.: S. II. 11, 101.

11 The Abhid­ham­ma men­tions twen­ty-four modes of con­di­tion­al­i­ty; see the Paṭṭhā­na.