Law of Dependent Origination

Law of Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination


1. What is the Law of Dependent Origination?

According to this law, every phenomenon owes its origin to another phenomenon prior to it. It may simply be expressed as “depending on this, this originates”. An example of Dependent Origination in nature is given below:

There being clouds in the sky it rains.
It having rained, the road becomes slippery.
The road becoming slippery, a man falls down.
The man having fallen down becomes injured.

Here a shower of rain depends on the clouds in the sky.
The road becoming slippery depends on the rain.
The fall of the man depends on the road becoming slippery.
The injury of the man depends upon his fall:


If there were no clouds in the sky, it would not have rained.
Then the road would not have become slippery.
Then the man would not have fallen.
Then he would not have become injured.

2. Dependent Origination to explain Origin of Suffering

Of all the Teachings of Buddhism, none has given rise to greater misunderstanding, to more contradictory and absurd interpretations, than the doctrine of Dependent Origination.

In many cases, there were attempts to present Dependent Origination as an explanation of the primeval beginning of all things and one saw in ‘Ignorance’, the first cause out of which in the course of time, all conscious and physical life had evolved.

All that in spite of the Buddha’s repeated and definite declaration that an absolute first beginning of existence is something unthinkable, that all such speculation may lead to insanity and that one could never imagine a time when there was no Ignorance and Craving for existence.

Why then did the Buddha teach the doctrine of Dependent Origination?

It was to show through which causes and conditions, suffering comes into being, now and hereafter. It is only through knowing the origin or cause of suffering, that suffering can be removed.

The Buddha meditated over the cause of death, decay and misery as He traced them upstream in the chain of Dependent Origination.

I. What do Decay (Jarā) and Death (Marana) depend on?

They depend on Rebirth:

After a person is born (jāti), decay (jarā), death (maraṇa) will follow as a consequence. This is because every ultimate reality has the characteristics of arising (uppada), existing (thiti) and dissolving (bhanga).

After arising, existing and dissolving must inevitably follow: Arising is birth, existing is decay and dissolving is death. So decay and death must inevitably follow rebirth. They are the primary effects of rebirth.

As a consequence of rebirth, sorrow (soka), lamentation (parideva), pain (dukkha), grief (domanassa) and despair (upayasa) may also arise.

These five types of suffering are not primary or inevitable consequences of rebirth. They are secondary effects and may or may not arise depending on conditions. They are absent in brahma-loka and may also be unknown to the embryo, which dies in the womb or in an egg.

II. What does Rebirth (Jāti) depend on?

Rebirth depends on Becoming.

The Process of Becoming is of 2 kinds:

1) Kamma-Process (kamma-bhava) being the active side of existence, and
2) Rebirth Process (uppatti-bhava), being the passive kamma-resultant side of existence.

Here ‘Becoming’ means kamma-bhava, the Kamma Process that conditions rebirth. The Buddha describes it as:

1) unwholesome actions that lead to rebirth in the woeful states,
2) wholesome actions that lead to rebirth in the happy sensual and material planes, and
3) imperturbable actions (anenjhabi) that lead to rebirth in the formless planes.

According to the Buddha, all beings are born of their kamma.

Although volition is present whenever there is bodily, verbal or mental action, in the case of an Arahant that volition is not accompanied by craving at the end of each impulsive moment, and it completely disappears without leaving any trace and without transforming it into kamma. Hence there is no rebirth for the Arahant.

In this sense we should understand that kamma-bhava is the condition for rebirth. In the ever-repeated rounds of rebirth, no ego-entity or soul is to be found except these conditionally arising and passing away phenomena.

III. What does the Process of Becoming (Bhava) depend on?

The Process of Becoming depends on Clinging (Upadana).

All beings except the Arahant cling to existence and sensual pleasures.

There are 4 kinds of Clinging, namely:

(1) sensuous clinging (kamupadana),
(2) clinging to wrong views (ditthupadana),
(3) clinging to rites and rituals (silabbatupadana) that do not lead to the end of suffering
(4) clinging to ego-belief (attupadana).

Clinging cannot condition the rebirth process directly. It can only condition new kamma-processes of becoming. When one is clinging to something due to strong attachment, he will act in one way or another to hold on to the object. In doing so, new kamma-processes of becoming are performed.

IV. What does Clinging (Upādāna) depend on?

Clinging depends on Craving (Taṇhā).

There are 3 kinds of craving, namely:

(1) sensuous craving,
(2) craving for existence and
(3) craving for non-existence.

The first kind of craving (kāma- tanḥā) is tied to 6 kinds of sensual objects.

The craving for existence (bhava-tanḥā) is craving for sensuous pleasures associated with the view of eternalism.

The craving for non-existence (Vibhava- tanḥā) is craving for sensuous pleasures associated with the view that nothing remains after death, only complete annihilation.

Thus tanḥā refers to the 6 types of craving for the six sense objects.

Taṇhā is essentially the desire to get an object while the strong attachment or clinging, which develops after getting the object is upādāna.

All the four types of clinging arise as a result of craving:

- Sensuous clinging arises as a result of craving for sensuous objects.

- The clinging to wrong view of the personality or of the self arises due to attachment (tanḥā) to oneself.

- The clinging to rites and rituals arises from the desire to better oneself out of attachment to the self.

Thus the causal relation that craving conditions clinging is well justified.

V. What does Craving (Taṇhā) depend on?

Craving depends on Feeling.

When there is pleasant feeling, there is craving to enjoy it.

Even painful feeling may be a condition to craving, as dependent on painful feeling there may arise the desire and craving for the pain to go away and be replaced by pleasant or even neutral feeling.

Neutral feeling (upekkhā vedanā) is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It is not an absence of feeling, but a kind of subtle pleasure that implies only the absence of unbearable pain.

VI. What does Feeling (Vedanā) depend on?

Feeling depends on Contact (Phassa):

Whenever the 6 sense objects (visible object, sound, taste, smell, touch, thought) impinge on the six sense organs (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body, mind) there arise the six types of consciousness (seeing, hearing, etc.).

The conjunction of the three is Contact (Phassa) and this gives rise to feeling (vedanā). Phassa and vedanā arise simultaneously in the same consciousness. However, phassa is regarded as the cause and vedanā the result.

In accordance with the six types of consciousness, there are six types of contact and six types of feeling.

The impact on the sense organs leads to feeling that may be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent depending on the nature of the sense-object:

If the object is agreeable, there arises pleasant feeling; if disagreeable, unpleasant feeling; if neither agreeable nor disagreeable, the feeling is neutral.

VII. What does Contact (Phassa) depend on?

Contact depends on the Six Bases (Saḷāyatana), namely:

eye and visual object, ear and sound, nose and odour, tongue and taste, body and tactile object, mind and mind-object, without which there would not be any consciousness of the external objects and mental-contact.

Again the cause-effect relationship is evident, without a being, soul, creator or chance happening being involved.

VIII. What do the Six Bases (Saḷāyatana) depend on?

The Six Bases depend on Mentality and Materiality (nāma-rūpa).

The Six Bases are a name for the five pairs of physical sense organs and sense objects and one pair of mind and mind-object, the mind being a collective term for the 89 or 101 kinds of consciousness (citta) enumerated in the Abhidhamma or Higher Philosophy.

The 5 physical sense bases are derived from Materiality while the mind base consists of Mentality.

IX. What do Mentality and Materiality (Nāma-rūpa) depend on?

Mentality and Materiality depend on Consciousness (Viññāṇa).

The arising of a being consisting of mentality and matter depends on the Rebirth Consciousness, for if this consciousness were not to arise, mentality and matter would not arise in the womb (for mammals), egg (for reptiles, birds, fishes) or in beings of spontaneous birth (hell beings, ghosts, demons, deities, brahmas).

There is no ego-entity or soul to be found except these conditionally arising and passing away phenomena.

X. What does Consciousness (Viññāṇa) depend on?

Consciousness depends on Volitional Activities (saṅkhāra).

Here consciousness means those classes of consciousness (including the rebirth consciousness) that are the results of volitional or intentional actions done in a former existence.

It is very important, but hard to understand how Volitional Activities gives rise to rebirth consciousness:

According to the Buddha, on the extinction of the last consciousness together with all mentality and matter, it is kamma that causes the arising of the rebirth consciousness (as result or vipāka), together with the new mentality and matter in beings who have not eradicated all the defilements.

Lack of this understanding usually leads to wrong views, namely: the belief in the reincarnation of souls or the belief in annihilation after death.

XI. What do Volitional Activities (Saṅkhāra) depend on?

Volitional Activities depend upon Ignorance (Avijjā):

According to the Suttanta method, ignorance is unknowing of the Four Noble Truths.

According to the Abhidhamma method, there are 8 important objects, which are covered or veiled by avijjā so that their true nature is not known, namely:

the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the way leading to the cessation of suffering, and unknowing about the past, unknowing about the future, unknowing about the past and future, unknowing about dependent origination.

Volitional Activities are those, either moral or immoral, which are rooted in Ignorance. They are also called kamma-formations and provide the kammic cause for rebirth, thereby prolonging the cycle of birth and death or samsara.

Saṅkhāra is the same as kamma- bhava described in the second chain, in the sense that both condition the rebirth process. The only difference is that saṅkhāra pertains to the past while kamma-bhava pertains to the present.

Because of ignorance of kamma and its results, people perform all sorts of unwholesome activities for immediate self-benefit.

Because of delusion thinking that sensual pleasures and jhānic ecstasy are real forms of happiness, people perform dāna, śīla and bhāvanā so that they can attain such happiness in this life or in future lives through rebirth as men, devas or brahmas. Thus people accumulate both moral and immoral kamma (saṅkhāra) as a result of ignorance.

This is how the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering is explained by the formula of Dependent Origination. When the Four Noble Truths are fully comprehended, Ignorance is completely eradicated.

Concerning the cause of Ignorance, the Buddha has stated that the origin of Ignorance cannot be found in this endless cycle of rebirths.

3. Reverse Order of Dependent Origination
to explain the Cessation of Suffering

1) Without Ignorance, there are no Volitional Activities.
2) Without Volitional Activities, there is no Consciousness.
3) Without Consciousness, there are no Mentality and Matter.
4) Without Mentality and Matter, there are no Six Sense Bases.
5) Without the Six Sense Bases, there is no Contact.
6) Without Contact, there is no Feeling.
7) Without Feeling, there is no Craving.
8) Without Craving, there is no Clinging.
9) Without Clinging, there is no Becoming.
10) Without Becoming, there is no Birth.
11) Without Birth, there is no Decay, Death and Suffering.

This is how the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering is explained by the formula of Dependent Origination.

When a person fully comprehends the Four Noble Truth, he becomes an Arahant.

For the Arahant who has completely eradicated Ignorance, the chain of Dependent Origination, also called the Wheel of Existence is broken and there is no more rebirth and suffering.

4. Explanatory Notes

Note 1:

The traditional sequence for the formula of Dependent Origination (Paṭicca Samuppāda) is as follows:

1) Through Ignorance conditioned are the Mental Formations (Avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra)

2) Through the Mental Formations conditioned is Consciousness (Saṅkhāra paccaya viññāṇa)

3) Through Consciousness conditioned are Mentality and Materiality (Viññāṇa paccaya nāma-rūpam)

4) Through Mentality and Materiality conditioned are the Six Sense Bases (Nāma-rūpa paccaya Saḷāyatana)

5) Through the Six Sense Bases conditioned is Contact (Saḷāyatana paccaya Phasso)

6) Through Contact conditioned is Feeling (Phassa paccaya Vedanā)

7) Through Feeling conditioned is Craving (Vedanā paccaya Taṇhā)

8) Through Craving conditioned is Clinging (Taṇhā paccaya Upādāna)

9) Through Clinging is conditioned the Process of Becoming (Upādāna paccaya Bhavo)

10) Through the Process of Becoming conditioned is Rebirth (Bhava paccaya Jāti)

11) Through Rebirth conditioned are Decay and Death (Jāti paccaya Jarā-maraṇa)

Note 2:

Saṅkhāra means rebirth-producing volitions (cetana) or kamma-formations. It is of three types, namely:

a) Punnabhi-saṅkhāra: Wholesome kamma-formations of the sense sphere and rūpa jhānas that lead to rebirth in the happy sensual planes of man and devas and the form planes of brahmas respectively..

b) Apunnabhi-saṅkhāra: Unwholesome kamma-formations that lead to rebirth in the four woeful planes.

c) Anenjabhi-saṅkhāra: Imperturbable kamma-formations of the four arūpa jhānas that lead to rebirth in the formless planes.

In Abhidhamma, saṅkhāra represents the 29 types of kamma associated with:

8 moral consciousness of the sense sphere,
5 jhānas of the form sphere,
12 immoral consciousness and
4 jhānas of the formless sphere.

Thus saṅkhāra and kamma-bhāva are the same except that saṅkhāra pertains to the past life while kamma-bhava pertains to the present life.