On Dependent Origination

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This chapter is from the book on the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon and/or the Agamas that I have been writing since college. This particular portion was begun in 1996 and finished in 2002. I am restricting myself to the Pali Canon and the Agamas in an effort to present only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. While this essay and the others which constitute this work in progress are informed by Mahayana and Theravada teachings, my main purpose was just to present what I perceive to be the most straightforward meaning of the canon. Also, I wanted to add that while I am using the recent Wisdom Publication translations of the Pali Canon, I am modifying them slightly by translating the word "bhikkhus" as "monks," and the link called "existence" in the original translation I have substituted for "becoming" which is a legitimate alternative and works better in the context in which I am using it.

In the future, I hope to cover the Mahayana canon in the same way. Ultimately, I hope to take all this material and show how it does or does not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

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Dependent Origination

The doctrine of dependent origination is the key insight upon which the entire teaching of the Buddha rests. The Buddha even went so far as to equate the Dharma itself with dependent origination. “Now this has been said by the Blessed One: ‘One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.’ ” (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 284) An understanding of dependent origination is integral to having a clear understanding of Buddhism.

Put simply, dependent origination means that all phenomena arise as the result of conditions and cease when those conditions change. The general theory of dependent origination was taught by the Buddha as follows: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” (Connected Discourses, p. 575) So nothing exists as a static, isolated entity. Everything arises and ceases depending on causes and conditions which themselves arise due to causes and conditions. There is no ultimate ground or primordial cause, but a network of causes and conditions. This undercuts the view of a metaphysical selfhood, fixed entity, or substance underlying the constant change which is life.

Dependent origination can be summarized in a few words, but truly understanding what it means and the profound implications of it is something else altogether. Ananda, who memorized all the discourses of the Buddha, once claimed that he clearly understood it and was quickly rebuked by the Buddha:
Thus have I heard. Once the Lord was staying among the Kurus. There is a market town there called Kammasa-dhamma. And the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, saluted him, sat down to one side, and said: ‘It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvelous how profound this dependent origination is, and how profound it appears! And yet it appears to me as clear as clear!’

‘Do not say that Ananda, do not say that! This dependent origination is profound and appears profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, covered as with a blight, tangled like coarse grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin and the round of birth-and-death. (Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 223 also see Connected Discourses, pp. 593-594)
According to this statement, it is ignorance of dependent origination which keeps people confused and bound up in views and actions which result in suffering for themselves and others. Dependent origination is the true nature of reality and this is so regardless of whether there is anyone who realizes it or not. Just as the law of gravity was true even before it’s “discovery” by Isaac Newton and irrespective of anyone’s opinions about it, dependent origination is the way things are and the buddhas simply realize it and declare it to others. In fact, it is by awakening and declaring dependent origination that buddhas, or tathagatas, can be said to be “awakened ones” in the first place.
“And what, monks, is dependent origination? ‘With birth as condition, aging-and-death [comes to be]’: whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. A Tathagata awakens to this and breaks through to it. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. And he says: ‘See! With birth as condition, monks, aging-and-death.’ (Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 551)
There are many ways in which the principle of dependent origination is applied to the specifics of human life, or life in general, in the Buddha’s teachings. The four noble truths are one such application. The first two of the four noble truths explains the origin of suffering dependent on selfish craving for its cause. The third and fourth of the four noble truths describe the cessation of suffering by eradicating the causes upon which it depends. So unlike the many forms of fatalism, theism, or materialism taught by the Buddha’s contemporaries, the Buddha taught there is a rational order of causes and conditions which we can awaken to and work with rather than against. Furthermore, the conditioned nature of all things is not something apart from who we are. Rather, conditionality is the way we are. Negatively, this means there is nothing permanent to grasp or cling to either outside of or within ourselves, but positively it means that we are not stuck or fixed in any one state and that we have the power to unbind ourselves from suffering and to experience the boundless joy of freedom from suffering and its causes. We may be the products of causality but we are also the producers of the very causes which will determine whether we perpetuate suffering or attain liberation. The Buddhist vision of dependent origination is a vision in which sentient beings are not determined by forces beyond their control, but rather are fully integrated in the co-arising of all things and as such are able to take responsibility for themselves and create better conditions for themselves and others by making better causes informed by an awareness of the way things arise in mutual dependence.

Dependent Origination as the Middle Way

Dependent origination is the Middle Way between the extremes of existence and non-existence. The view of existence, or “eternalism,” imagines that fixed entities, independent of conditions and immune from change, can be found underlying the phenomena which do change. The view of non-existence, or “annihilationism,” imagines there is no continuity at all within change and the entities which do arise will eventually vanish completely without a trace. Dependent origination is the Middle Way which cuts through those views by pointing out the ceaseless interplay of causes and conditions, which is the process of becoming, rather than the eternalism of being or the nihilism of non-being. The Middle Way points out that while there are no fixed entities, there is a flow of continuity within the process of change. In the following sermon, the Buddha expounds the teaching of the Middle Way to Kaccana:
“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality -- upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

“This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’ He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view.

“‘All exists’: Kaccana, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle.” (Ibid, p. 544)
The extreme of existence is an attempt to attribute intrinsic entities to the flow of causes and conditions. It does not see the interdependence, flux and relativity of all phenomena. In the end it results in an absolutism which fixes things in rigid categories in defiance of the actual contingency of life. From this rigidity springs all kinds of evils, such as classism, racism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Compassion is effectively banished through the projection of fixed boundaries of self and other upon the dynamic flow and interdependence of the life process. Finally, the eternalistic view assumes that there is a self which is immutable and therefore immune to the law of cause and effect.

The extreme of non-existence is a refusal to accept any kind of meaning or value, since it assumes there are no entities of any kind to have any regard for. Life is reduced to chaos, absurdity or illusion. Ultimately, it is the negation of life itself; which is very different from the Buddha's liberation from the illusion of self. According to the Buddha, selfish craving is the cause of suffering, not life itself. In Buddhism, the goal is to become liberated from the delusion of self through the cultivation of the eightfold path. Nihilism only leads to irresponsible despair and the denial of the truth and meaning of causality. It assumes that there is no continuity at all within the flow of conditions and therefore negates the law of cause and effect.

Dependent origination, then, is the teaching that things do have a provisional (though not intrinsic) existence based on causes and conditions. Therefore, one who is following the Middle Way will think in terms of causes and conditions, and not existence or non-existence. For the follower of the Middle Way there are no longer any immutable categories or boundaries, nor is there any question of absolute identity or absolute difference between entities. Dependent origination is the awareness of cause and effect and the interdependence of all things which gives rise to an authentic sense of responsibility, genuine love and compassion. The following discussion with the ascetic Kassapa shows how the Buddha directed his inquirers away from the assumption that there is or is not a self or person and towards the process of dependent origination.
“How is it, Master Gotama: is suffering created by oneself?”

“Not so, Kassapa,” the Blessed One said.

“Then, Master Gotama, is suffering created by another?”

“Not so, Kassapa,” the Blessed One said.

“How is it then, Master Gotama: is suffering created both by oneself and by another?”

“Not so, Kassapa,” the Blessed One said.

“Then, Master Gotama, has suffering arisen fortuitously, being created neither by oneself nor by another”

“Not so, Kassapa,” the Blessed One said.

“How is it then, Master Gotama: is there no suffering?”

“It is not that there is no suffering, Kassapa; there is suffering.”

“Then is it that Master Gotama does not know and see suffering?”

“It is not that I do not know and see suffering, Kassapa. I know suffering, I see suffering.”

[Kassapa then reiterates his questions and the Buddha’s responses by way of review and finally asks:] “Venerable sir, let the Blessed One explain suffering to me. Let the Blessed One teach me about suffering.”

“Kassapa, [if one thinks,] ‘The one who acts is the same as the one who experiences [the result],’ [then one asserts] with reference to one existing from the beginning: ‘Suffering is created by oneself.’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to eternalism. But, Kassapa, [if one thinks,] ‘The one who acts is one, the one who experiences [the result] is another,’ [then one asserts] with reference to one stricken by feeling: ‘Suffering is created by another.’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to annihilationism. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches Dhamma by the middle: ‘With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as conditions, consciousness.... Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness.... Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.” (Ibid, pp. 546-547)
This discussion shows how the Buddha’s contemporaries typically set up their arguments in the form of a tetralemma, which proposes two alternatives, their combination, and the negation of both alternatives. The tetralemma supposedly exhausts all the possible solutions to a question, in this case the relationship between the one who acts and the one who experiences the karmic fruition of that act either within the same lifetime or in some future lifetime. All four alternatives, however, contain an assumption which the Buddha did not share: that there is a substantial entity which can be separated from its actions and their consequences and is either identical to or different from itself at another point in time. Without that assumption, none of the proposals makes any sense.

The Buddha dismisses the first alternative as representing the extreme of eternalism. This is because it assumes that the one who did the deed can be completely identified with the person who will experience the result. In other words, the person stays the same throughout the whole process of cause and effect, as though they were untouched by it. The second alternative is dismissed as representative of the extreme of annihilationism, because it assumes that the one who committed the initial deed will be entirely gone by the time it comes to fruition and that there is no connection at all with the person who will have to suffer the result. In other words, there is no personal continuity of any kind within the process of cause and effect. The third alternative states that the person both remains unchanged and has no personal continuity throughout the process of cause and effect. This alternative is dismissed because it tries to bring together both extremes which is not only contradictory but contains the liabilities of both. The fourth alternative denies both eternalism and annihilationism but proposes that the process of cause and effect is arbitrary and a matter of luck or fate with no responsible parties. In denying all four alternatives, the Buddha seems to be denying any possible way of explaining the connection between the individual and the process of cause and effect. The Buddha does have an explanation, but it is one that Kassapa had not considered: dependent origination, the Middle Way between eternalism and annihilationism.

In his answer to Kassapa, the Buddha states that he teaches the “Dhamma by the middle,” in other words the Middle Way, and then proceeds to expound the twelvefold chain of dependent origination (abridged in the translation cited). The twelvefold chain of dependent origination will be explained in detail below. The important thing to know at this point is that dependent origination puts forth the view that one can not abstract an unchanging person or discontinuous persons from the process of cause and effect. The person is the process and changes along with it. So there is no unchanging entity which suffers the effects of its own deeds, nor is there a disconnection between the one who acts and the one who experiences the result. In fact, there is no entity except in a provisional sense, there is simply the process wherein one thing leads to another. This is the Middle Way because it shows that there is change, as opposed to eternalism; and that within that change there is continuity, as opposed to annihilationism. The Middle Way also steers clear of an unsatisfactory combination of the extremes or the equally unsatisfactory denial of any connection between persons and the process of cause and effect. In the Middle Way, which is dependent origination, there is no question of identity or lack of identity between fixed entities or persons at different stages of the process of cause and effect, because the process of cause and effect itself accounts for both the change and continuity of personal experience. Change and continuity within the process itself maintains the subjectivity of individual experience and personal responsibility for actions and their consequences.

In another discourse, the Buddha expands the Middle Way to take in not only the way between the extreme views of existence and non-existence, but also the way between the extremes of monism and pluralism.
At Savatthi. Then a brahmin who was a cosmologist approached the Blessed One ... and said to him:

“How is it, Master Gotama: does all exist?”

“’All exists’: this, brahmin, is the oldest cosmology.”

“Then, Master Gotama, does all not exist?”

“’All does not exist’: this, brahmin, is the second cosmology.”

“How is it, Master Gotama: is all a unity?”

“’All is a unity’: this, brahmin, is the third cosmology.”

“Then, Master Gotama, is all a plurality?”

“’All is a plurality’: this, brahmin, is the fourth cosmology. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle...” (Ibid, pp. 584 - 585)
The view that “all is a unity” is often called “monism.” Monism can be seen as a variety of the extreme of existence in that it supposes that all phenomena can be identified with one immutable substance or essential being that underlies all difference and change. The fourth view that “all is a plurality” can be seen as a variety of the extreme of non-existence. Pluralism in the view of the brahmin cosmologist presupposes that all phenomena are separate and distinct from one another. They have no common existence or connection and each arises in isolation and vanishes without a trace. In this view, only non-existence is the common denominator. The Middle Way of dependent origination, however, does not presume a single eternal existence or multiple disconnected existent things. Rather, phenomena are the interplay of causes and conditions, and apart from causes and conditions one can not speak of anything. The causes and conditions are themselves caused and conditioned. The view of dependent origination does not point to any metaphysical substance or any kind of ultimate building blocks of reality. The Middle Way simply points to the conditioned nature of life as we actually experience it, so that we can disentangle ourselves from the conditioned in order to awaken to the unconditioned.

The Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Origination

Dependent origination applies to all phenomena, but the Buddha was specifically concerned with applying it to the human predicament. He wished to show the specific causes and conditions which bind people to an existence of suffering, and through understanding those causes, how to change them. To this end, the Buddha expounded the twelvefold chain of dependent origination.
“With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, becoming; with becoming as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, monks, is called dependent origination.” (Ibid, p. 533)
Admittedly, this formula may seem a little obscure. Nevertheless, it is the foundation upon which the Buddha's teachings rest and so deserves careful study. Through the ages, Buddhists have understood and taught the twelvefold chain in a variety of ways depending upon the social and historical context. The following explanation is based upon the Buddha’s expanded analysis of this formula from another discourse, and also the traditional understanding derived from the Abhidharma, the phenomenological treatises written by the early Buddhist monks in India as a systematic explanation of the sutras.

In the traditional understanding, ignorance and volitional formations refer to past causes inherited from one's past life or lives. The cycle begins with ignorance of the true nature of reality. Specifically, the Buddha states that this link in the twelvefold chain refers to ignorance of the four noble truths.
“And what, monks, is ignorance? Not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called ignorance.” (Ibid, p. 535)
Due to ignorance, one is disposed to perform acts of thought, word and deed based upon the most selfish and short sighted of motives. These are the volitional formations.
“And what, monks, are the volitional formations? There are these three kinds of volitional formations: the bodily volitional formation, the verbal volitional formation, the mental volitional formation. These are called the volitional formations.” (Ibid, p. 535)
These actions are also called “karma” which is not destiny or fate, but intentional activity motivated by ignorance, and to the consequences of those actions upon the future life or lives of the one who performs them. Volitional formations are also the same as the volitions which are the fourth of the five aggregates which constitute human life. They are habit-patterns which condition both ourselves and our environment in accordance with the nature of our motivations.

The next five links of the chain spell out the consequences of past karma in terms of one's present life. They are the present effects of past causes. The first link is consciousness, which is the same as the fifth of the five aggregates.
“And what, monks, is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This is called consciousness.” (Ibid, p. 535)
According to Buddhism, the kind of person we are in this life is not simply the result of heredity and environment, but is the outcome of karma. In other words, the kind of person that we are now has been determined by our own choices and the habits or dispositions that we have built up over many previous lives. These predispositions give rise to and condition conscious experience of various kinds (consciousness of the external world and the internal awareness of thoughts and feelings). According to the Abhidharma, the perpetuation of consciousness carries over from the expiration of one sentient being to the conception of a new sentient being. At some point, whether instantaneously or after an “intermediate existence” (depending on which version of Abhidharma one gives credence to), consciousness finds itself drawn to the most appropriate womb and environment wherein it's karmic inheritance can unfold. This transmigration of consciousness as a gandhabba or “being to be reborn” is explained by the Buddha as follows:
“Monks, the conception of an embryo in a womb takes place through the union of three things. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, but it is not the mother’s season, and the being to be reborn is not present - in this case there is no conception of an embryo in a womb. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, and it is the mother’s season, but the being to be reborn is not present - in this case too there is no conception of an embryo in a womb. But when there is the union of the mother and father, and it is the mother’s season, and the being to be reborn is present, through the union of these three things the conception of an embryo in a womb takes place.” (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 358)
Some might be mislead into thinking that consciousness is a kind of self which transmigrates from one lifetime to another. This was the mistaken view of a monk named Sati, who believed that the same consciousness “runs and wanders through the round of rebirths.” (Ibid, p.349) The Buddha admonished Sati and in no uncertain terms stated that consciousness is not a fixed entity that transmigrates but is itself something that arises in accordance with conditions. Consciousness is more of a recurring pattern, like a wave-form, than a thing. In another discourse, the Buddha even says that the mutability and impermanence of consciousness is even more drastic than that of the body, and therefore one would be better off identifying the body as a self.
“It would be better, monks, for the uninstructed worldling to take as self this body composed of the four great elements rather than the mind. For what reason? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, or ten years, for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years, for a hundred years, or even longer. But that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night. Just as a monkey roaming through the forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.” (Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 595)
Consciousness, then, is constantly changing to reflect the conditions which brought it about. As the Buddha explains to Sati, sometimes it is consciousness of something visual, or something auditory, or something tangible, or of some other sense. From moment to moment consciousness changes its focus and composition as often as a monkey jumping from branch to branch. Each moment of consciousness is therefore unique, dependent on conditions, impermanent, and not a candidate for any kind of permanent unchanging self.

Consciousness in turn gives rise to and is supported by the aggregates which make up name-and-form, the psychophysical personality.
“And what, monks, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form. Thus this name and this form are together called name-and-form.” (Ibid, p. 535)
Name-and-form in this case, encompasses four of the five aggregates - form, feeling, perception, and volition. “Name” is applied to feeling, perception, and volition as well as contact and attention. These five always accompany consciousness as supportive functions which are involved in the recognition, or “naming,” of experience. “Form” is constituted by the four great elements which are elsewhere listed as earth, air, fire, and water. These four elements do not simply refer to earth, air, fire, and water as we commonly relate to them. Rather, the four great elements are emblematic of our experience of the physical world - solidity, movement, temperature, and cohesion respectively.
When dependent origination is explained within the boundaries of a single lifetime, then the links of name-and-form and consciousness are shown to be mutually conditioning. Instead of consciousness arising due to the ignorance and volitional formations attributed to a previous lifetime, consciousness is said to arise depending on name-and-form and to in turn give rise to name-and-form. In another discourse, Shariputra explains this through the simile of two sheaves of reeds which are able to stand up by leaning up against one another, thus providing mutual support (Ibid, pp. 608 - 609).
Upon birth, the psychophysical personality begins to utilize the six senses consisting of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and mentation.
“And what, monks, are the six sense bases? The eye base, the ear base, the nose base, the tongue base, the body base, the mind base. These are called the six sense bases.” (Ibid, p. 535)
These six senses bring one into contact with the world. They are sometimes called the six doors because through them the world enters into our awareness. They are also referred to as the six roots because through them we are rooted in the world.
“And what, monks, is contact? These are the six classes of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. This is called contact.” (Ibid, p. 535)
Contact naturally results in feelings based on that contact.
“And what, monks, is feeling? There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact. This is called feeling.” (Ibid, p. 535)
These feelings constitute the second of the five aggregates. Everything up to this point describes what one experiences in the present life; they are all givens which are the fruits of one's own actions.

The next three links describe one's present actions in relation to the circumstances that one experiences. They are the present causes which will have future effects. The first is the craving which arises based upon feeling.
“And what, monks, is craving? There are these six classes of craving: craving for forms, craving for sounds, craving for odours, craving for tastes, craving for tactile objects, craving for mental phenomena. This is called craving.” (Ibid, p. 535)
One wishes to experience only pleasant feelings while avoiding the unpleasant at all costs. This craving leads to clinging to particular things, people, ideas and circumstances.
“And what, monks, is clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and vows, clinging to a doctrine of self. This is called clinging.” (Ibid, p. 535)
This results in “becoming,” which is a way of summarizing the way in which we “become” hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and heavenly beings in the three realms. The three realms consist of the realms of desire (which takes in all existence up to the lower six heavens), form (the more refined heavens), and the formless (the most refined heavens). “Becoming” refers to the constant struggle for identity and happiness which characterizes the day to day life of most people.
“And what, monks, is becoming? There are these three kinds of becoming: sense-realm becoming, form-realm becoming, formless-realm becoming. This is called becoming. (Ibid, p. 535)
The last two links of the chain explain the future effects of the present causes. In the Buddhist view, this constant struggle for a happy existence or even for a peaceful annihilation can never be achieved because life is characterized by the three marks of impermanence, suffering and selflessness. One's desperate strivings and unrequited desires can only lead to a future birth.
“And what, monks, is birth? The birth of the various beings into the various orders of beings, their being born, descent [into the womb], production, the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases. This is called birth.” (Ibid, p. 534)
Birth will then lead to another round of old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair.
“And what, monks, is aging-and-death? The aging of the various beings in the various orders of beings, their growing old, brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of the skin, decline of vitality, degeneration of the faculties: this is called aging. The passing away of the various beings from the various orders of beings, their perishing, breakup, disappearance, mortality, death, completion of time, the breakup of the aggregates, the laying down of the carcass: this is called death. Thus this aging and this death are together called aging-and-death.” (Ibid, p. 534)
In short, the twelvefold chain of dependent origination shows that human life is the outcome of a vicious circle of desire, karma and suffering. The only escape is to abolish ignorance and recognize the vicious circle for what it is. Once the chain is broken, liberation is at hand.
“But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of becoming; with the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, cessation of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.” (Ibid, p. 534)
Who has achieved liberation? As discussed earlier, the twelvefold chain is not concerned with the preservation or eradication of an individual person or entity. It is concerned with the way in which suffering is perpetuated and the way in which the conditions which give rise to suffering can be unraveled. The important things is that suffering has ended and liberation has been achieved.

There is another way of understanding the twelvefold chain of dependent origination, however, which does not need to assume the literal existence of many lifetimes. It can be said that from moment-to-moment we are renewing ourselves and enacting the cycle of birth and death, with all the suffering that it entails. From this point of view, ignorance and volitional formations refer to our inability to accept the life process on its own terms. We desperately search for some form of stability and lasting happiness and refuse to acknowledge the dynamic flow and relationality that is the true reality of our lives.

Due to this misguided activity, we fall out of sync with the true rhythm of life and end up feeling self-conscious and threatened. We never see reality itself because it is clouded over with our expectations, regrets, frustration and all other manner of projection. At this point, the psychophysical personality, name-and-form, is consolidated and immediately begins interpreting the world encountered through the senses in terms of self and other. The contact between this self and the world outside it from moment-to-moment gives rise to the feelings which constitute our self-referential experience of the world.

At this point we begin craving for what is pleasant and constantly strive to be in the situations we do want. In this way, every moment becomes a new experience of transitory pleasure and pain.

Birth, then, refers not to an actual rebirth, but to the birth of a new self-concept or identity based on what we are experiencing in that single moment. Thus, from moment-to-moment we have a new idea about who we are in relation to our environment. We see ourselves variously as competent, kind, gentle, harsh, admirable, pitiable, uncertain, loving, loved, hateful, hated, indifferent, fascinated and so on as each moment arises. However, no matter how comfortable we are with these ideas of ourselves, they will all fade away as the next moment comes and the cycle renews itself. This is the momentary meaning of old age and death.

Looked at in this way, the abolishing of ignorance means that we cease living life in terms of self-reference. By not projecting our desires and expectations onto reality or bifurcating it into self and other, the actions and self consciousness which lead to so much suffering ceases. Free of the chain, life can take on entirely new qualities which are no longer characterized by ignorance, craving, grasping or the myriad forms of suffering. The moment-to-moment unfolding of the life process continues, but now it is free of our erroneous and fearful interpretations, such as the idea of birth and death. Dependent origination teaches that since all entities are actually phases and configurations of the continuous unfolding of causes and conditions, there are no clear cut lines that can be drawn between self and other, birth and death. Without such self-oriented projections, dependent origination can be seen just as it is - a dynamically relational unfolding of reality wherein every part contains the whole and is embraced by the whole.

Twelve Stages of Transcendent Dependent Origination

Ultimately, the Buddha taught that beyond the perpetuation of conditioned phenomena there is the state of liberation wherein clinging to and chasing after contingent phenomena ceases. This state defies any kind of descriptions which would simply reduce it to just another type of conditioned phenomena. It is most often indicated by all the conditioned states that it is free from, and most commonly by the term “nirvana” which refers to the extinction of the delusions and selfish craving which perpetuate suffering. Dependent origination as a teaching at once reveals the ephemeral nature of conditioned phenomena but also the way in which one can be deconditioned and thereby free of them. This deconditioning process begins once one awakens to the suffering inherent in the twelvefold chain of dependent origination. The deconditioning itself unfolds in an orderly process which has been called the “twelve stages of transcendent dependent origination.” These stages are described by the Buddha in the following discourse:
“Thus, monks, with ignorance as proximate cause, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as proximate cause, consciousness; with consciousness as proximate cause, name-and-form; with name-and-form as proximate cause, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as proximate cause, contact; with contact as proximate cause, feeling; with feeling as proximate cause, craving; with craving as proximate cause, clinging; with clinging as proximate cause, becoming; with becoming as proximate cause, birth; with birth as proximate cause, suffering; with suffering as proximate cause, faith; with faith as proximate cause, gladness; with gladness as proximate cause, rapture; with rapture as proximate cause, tranquility; with tranquility as proximate cause, happiness; with happiness as proximate cause, concentration; with concentration as proximate cause, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; with the knowledge and vision of things as they really are as proximate cause, revulsion; with revulsion as proximate cause, dispassion; with dispassion as proximate cause, liberation; with liberation as proximate cause, the knowledge of destruction.

“Just as, monks, when rain pours down in thick droplets on a mountain top, the water flows down along the slope and fills the cleft, gullies, and creeks; these being full fill up the pools; these being full fill up the lakes; these being full fill up the streams; these being full fill up the rivers; and these being full fill up the great ocean; so too, with ignorance as proximate cause, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as proximate cause, consciousness ... with liberation as proximate cause, the knowledge of destruction.” (Ibid, pp. 555 - 556)
The twelve stages of transcendent dependent origination consist of:
(1) suffering which gives rise to
(2) faith which gives rise to
(3) gladness (or joy) which gives rise to
(4) rapture which gives rise to
(5) tranquility which gives rise to
(6) happiness which gives rise to
(7) concentration which gives rise to
(8) the knowledge and vision of things as they really are which gives rise to
(9) revulsion (or disenchantment) which gives rise to
(10) dispassion which gives rise to
(11) liberation (or emancipation) which gives rise to
(12) the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements.
Transcendent dependent origination begins with suffering because it is the pervasive nature of suffering which the twelvefold chain of dependent origination is attempting to point out. When caught up in the chain, the link of feeling seems to hold out the promise of acquiring pleasurable experiences and avoiding unpleasurable experiences. This false promise keeps us entangled in the process of endless birth and death, which is so full of suffering. The vicious circle of suffering can be broken, however, once the link of feeling can be discerned for what it truly is, either as outright suffering or as another moment of subtle disquiet, agitation or outright distraction which keeps us from discerning the truth about life. When we see through the illusion of satisfaction in transient sensations and cease to seek outside ourselves for answers, we have entered the spiritual path in which we seek a more profound truth.

At this point, faith arises. Whereas the link of feeling in the twelvefold chain led to the response of craving, the response to suffering is to take faith in the means to escape suffering. It is important to note that in Buddhism faith does not imply blind belief. Instead, it means confidence in the Buddha Dharma. In other words, instead of ignoring suffering or giving up in despair or apathy, we trust that there is a way to put an end to suffering. In this way, we liberate ourselves and others from the suffering to which we have awakened.

Through genuine faith, we are able to reorient our lives away from anxiety, suffering, and despair. Faith gives a renewed sense of hope, energy, and enthusiasm. This is the stage of joy, the initial response that we feel upon encountering the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Joy based on faith becomes the motivation for wholehearted practice which in turn leads to rapture. Rapture in this sense is a state of heightened enthusiasm and exaltation. It is one of the factors which are said to be present in the initial stages of meditation. The other factors which follow from this one are also involved in the cultivation of “tranquility and insight” meditation practice. Calm follows rapture as one becomes more stable and focused on the subject of meditation, whether it is the breath, visualization practice, mindfulness of the transcendent qualities of the Buddha, or some other subject among the many the Buddha taught as conducive to mental cultivation. Peaceful reflection then gives rise to happiness or bliss, which in turn leads to a state of “samadhi” or deep unshakeable concentration.

With concentration, the cognitive and emotional factors fall away and the mind is in a state of clear undistracted awareness. At this point, the mind is a sharp tool that can be directed towards the attainment of genuine insight. This clear awareness makes possible the knowledge and vision of things as they really are. Without the usual distraction, confusion, and projections of the uncultivated mind, one is able to finally discern the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and contingent nature of all things. Once all phenomena are revealed for what they are in the light of clear awareness, one becomes disenchanted or even revolted by them. One no longer sees any objects or things worth clinging to, because one has awakened to their inability to bring lasting satisfaction. Dispassion follows this realization, and with dispassion one becomes free of all compulsion, frustration, anxiety, and confusion. With that freedom comes the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements, as one knows that the greed, anger, and ignorance have all been rooted out for good.

Dependent origination has many sides, and innumerable implications. It is at the heart of what the Buddha awakened to beneath the Bodhi Tree. It is the Middle Way which was at the core of the Buddha’s lifelong teachings. It is a way of helping people to recognize and appreciate the contingent nature of things, and also the way in which actions and their consequences form the very fabric of our lives. Finally, it is a way whereby those bound up in the suffering of conditioned existence can attain to the unconditioned and discover true freedom.

CLICK HERE to see an enlarged image of the WHEEL OF BECOMING (Bhavachakra)
The Wheel of Becoming (Skt. Bhavachakra; view enlargement)


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

Buddhaghosa, Bhadantacariya. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Srti Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1991.

Kalupahana, David J. Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1975.

Kalupahana, David J. Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Macy, Joanna. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Sangharakshita. A Guide to the Buddhist Path. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 1990.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1996, 2002.
Bhavacakra artwork copyright by Ryuei. 2000

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