Dependent origination

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The Wheel of Life

Dependent origination (Skt. pratītyasamutpāda; Tib. རྟེན་འབྲེལ་, tendrel du jungwa, Wyl. rten 'brel du 'bjung ba) means that all phenomena, outer and inner, do not appear without any causes. Nor are they caused by a causeless and permanent creator such as the self, time or God. In fact, they arise through the coming together of their own particular causes and conditions.

As the Buddha said:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.[1]

More specifically:

  • All outer phenomena (ཕྱིའི་ཆོས་, Wyl. phyi'i chos) arise through dependent origination, in the manner of a seed developing into a sprout, for example.
  • And all inner phenomena (ནང་གི་ཆོས་, Wyl. nang gi chos)—the aggregates of supreme, intermediate or lesser beings—arise through dependent origination in the manner of the twelve links.

Outer Phenomena—The Example of a Seed

So the dependent origination of all outer phenomena can be understood through the example of a seed developing into a sprout, with seven related causes and six related conditions:
The following seven are the perpetuating causes, the stages of development:

  1. seed
  2. sprout
  3. leaves
  4. stamen
  5. stalk
  6. bud
  7. flower

The six related conditions are:

  1. the earth element which supports
  2. the water element which binds
  3. the fire element which ripens
  4. the wind element which expands
  5. the space element which accommodates
  6. time which gradually changes

These six act as cooperating conditions and assist in the growth from seed to flower.

Inner Phenomena—The Twelve Links

In the case of inner phenomena, the related causes are the twelve links:

  1. Ignorance (Skt. avidyā; Tib. མ་རིག་པ་, ma rigpa, Wyl. ma rig pa): Fundamental ignorance of the truths and the delusion of mistakenly perceiving the skandhas as a self.
  2. Formation (Skt. saṁskāra; Tib. འདུ་བྱེད་, duje, Wyl. 'du byed): As long as there is ignorance there is the formation of karma: positive, negative and neutral. This forms the rebirths in the various realms.
  3. Consciousness (Skt. vijñāna; Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་, nampar shepa, Wyl. rnam par shes pa): Formations cause the consciousness of the next existence. The consciousness which propels one towards the next existence is called the impelling consciousness. And the consciousness that is led to that particular state, once the conditions have come together, is known as the consciousness of the impelled result. These two aspects of consciousness are counted as a single link since together they establish the link between two lives.
  4. Name-and-form (Skt. nāma-rūpa; Tib. མིང་དང་གཟུགས་, ming dang zuk, Wyl. ming dang gzugs): The five skandhas. By the power of consciousness one is linked to a womb, and there the body develops: the form and the four ‘name’ skandhas of sensation, perception, formation and consciousness.
  5. The six ayatanas (Skt. ṣaḍāyatana; Tib. སྐྱེ་མཆེད་དྲུག་, kyemche druk, Wyl. skye mched drug): The six inner ayatanas of the sense faculties then arise.
  6. Contact (Skt. sparśa; Tib. རེག་པ་, rekpa, Wyl. reg pa): The coming together of objects, sense faculty and consciousness is contact.
  7. Sensation (Skt. vedanā; Tib. ཚོར་བ་, tsorwa, Wyl. tshor ba): From contact arises sensation: pleasurable, painful and neutral.
  8. Craving (Skt. tṛṣṇā; Tib. སྲེད་པ་, sepa, Wyl. sred pa): There then develops a desire not to be separated from pleasurable sensations and to be free from painful sensations.
  9. Grasping (Skt. upādāna; Tib. ལེན་པ་, lenpa, Wyl. len pa): As craving increases, it develops into grasping, i.e. actively striving never to be separated from what is pleasurable and to avoid what is painful.
  10. Becoming (Skt. bhava; Tib. སྲིད་པ་, sipa, Wyl. srid pa): Through this grasping one acts with body, speech and mind, and creates the karma that determines one’s next existence.
  11. Rebirth (Skt. jāti; Tib. སྐྱེ་བ་, kyewa, Wyl. skye ba): Through the power of this becoming, one is reborn in a particular birthplace whenever the necessary conditions are assembled.
  12. Old age and death (Skt. jarā-maraṇa; Tib. རྒ་ཤི་, ga shi, Wyl. rga shi): Following rebirth there is a continual process of aging as the aggregates change and develop; and eventually there is death when the aggregates finally cease.

There are several related conditions:

Ignorance, craving and grasping—the three links that are disturbing emotions—arise with the co-operating conditions of the six faculties and their respective objects.

The same conditions assist in the arising of the two links of karma—formations and becoming.

The other seven links, which are known as the ‘bases of suffering’, arise with the assistance of the six elements as co-operating conditions:

  1. earth element which is solidity
  2. water element of liquids
  3. fire element through which digestion occurs
  4. wind element of the respiratory system
  5. space element of the body’s cavities
  6. consciousness

For a consciousness, such as eye consciousness, to occur, five things must come together:

  1. the support which is the particular sense faculty
  2. the object
  3. its actual presence
  4. unobstructed space
  5. the intention of apprehension

Five Special Features

The Dependent Origination of causes and effects has five special features:

  1. The sprout, for example, arises after the seed has ceased and not while the seed is present unceasingly. Phenomena, therefore, are not permanent.
  2. The sprout does not arise from discontinuance, the seed having ceased completely. The cessation of the seed and the growth of the sprout occur simultaneously like the two sides of a set of scales, or a see-saw: one goes up as the other goes down. Since there is not interruption of the continuum, there is no discontinuance.
  3. The seed and the sprout are not one in terms of their identity or their function, so the former is not transferred into the latter.
  4. Tiny seeds can grow into enormous trees, so therefore small causes can produce large effects.
  5. Wheat seeds produce wheat crops and virtue produces happiness, so there is a correlation between cause and effect: they are of a similar continuum.

How the Links Occur Over Lifetimes

The twelve links can be explained as a process occurring over three lifetimes:

(i) The past cause of ignorance and karmic formations lead to the result of (ii) one’s consciousness of the present life and the links up until becoming, through which one accumulates the karma through the negative emotions of craving and attachment, that will lead to (iii) a future rebirth. One takes birth according to one’s karma and experiences the sufferings of old age and death and so one.

Or over two lifetimes:

(i) The ignorance of one’s previous incarnation, and the karma created through the power of craving and attachment, cause (ii) one to take another birth, and in that present life there arise the links from consciousness through to becoming and old age and death.

The Twelve Links in Actions

It is also shown how the twelve links are complete in a given act:

In the case of killing, for example:

  1. Ignorance is the ignorance through which one engages in the act.
  2. The action itself is the karmic formation.
  3. Then there is the consciousness of that particular time.
  4. The name-and-form
  5. And six sense-sources
  6. Produce the contact with the weapon.
  7. One’s own pleasure and the pain of the other are sensations.
  8. Joyfully engaging in that is craving.
  9. From this comes grasping, which is enthusiasm for similar acts in future.
  10. The aggregates at the time of the act are becoming.
  11. Their present and future aspects are birth.
  12. Their changing is “aging” and conclusion is “death”.

Fourfold Classification

  1. The three links of ignorance, formation and consciousness are the propelling links.
  2. The four from name-and-form to sensation are the propelled result.
  3. The three links of craving, grasping and becoming are the fully establishing links.
  4. Birth and old age and death are the fully established links.

Karma, Disturbing Emotions and the Bases of Suffering

  • The links of formations and becoming are karma.
  • The links of ignorance, craving and attachment are disturbing emotions.
  • The remaining seven links are the bases of suffering.

Crop Analogy

From the three links of disturbing emotions, the two links of karma arise. And from them, the seven bases of suffering arise. From these seven, further disturbing emotions and karma are created forming a continuous cycle.

From among the twelve links, the two links of karma and the three of disturbing emotions, in addition to consciousness, are the causes that bring about the other links:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Karma (including formations and becoming)
  3. Craving (includes both craving and grasping)
  4. Consciousness

Consciousness is like a seed. Karma is like a field. Craving is like moisture. Ignorance is like the act of planting and the fertilizer. Through these four the fresh shoots of name-and-form develop in the various states of existence.

Related to the Four Noble Truths

In progressive order, the two links of karma and three of disturbing emotions are included under the truth of origin. And the seven bases of suffering fall under the truth of suffering.

In reverse order, the reversal of the links of karma and disturbing emotions is the truth of the path. And the ceasing of the seven bases of suffering is the truth of cessation.

Canonical Literature

Alternative Translations

  • conditioned arising
  • conditional co-production (Philippe Cornu)
  • conditioned genesis
  • dependent arising
  • interdependent co-arising (Thich Nhat Hanh)
  • interdependent origination
  • mutual causality (Joanna Macey)


  1. Samyutta Nikaya 12.61, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Teachings Given to the Rigpa Sangha

Further Reading

  • Philippe Cornu, Manuel de bouddhisme — Philosophie, pratique et histoire. Tome I, Bouddhisme ancien et Theravāda (Editions Rangdröl, 2019), pages 100-110.
  • The Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000 (Revised edition)
  • Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, The Logic of Faith: the Buddhist Path to Finding Certainty Beyond Belief and Doubt (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2018)
  • Joanna Macey, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural System, State University of New York Press (1991)
  • Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, vol. I (Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1997), Ch. 4 Dependent Origination

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