- Dependent Origination
- The Buddhist Law of Conditionality
- P. A. Payutto
- Translated from the Thai by Bruce Evans
An Overview of
The principle of Dependent Origination is one of Buddhism's most important and unique
teachings. In numerous passages of the Pali Canon, it was described by the Buddha as a
natural law, a fundamental truth which exists independently of the arising of enlightened
"Whether a Tathagata appears or not, this condition exists and is a
natural fact, a natural law; that is, the principle of conditionality.
"The Tathagata, enlightened to and awakened to that principle, teaches it, shows
it, formulates it, declares it, reveals it, makes it known, clarifies it and points it
"'See here, conditioned by ignorance are volitional impulses.'
"This suchness, monks, this invariability, this irreversibility, that is to say,
this law of conditionality, I call the principle of Dependent Origination." [S.II.25]
The following excerpts indicate the importance which the Buddha
ascribed to the principle of Dependent Origination:
"Whoever sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees
Dependent Origination." [M.I.191]
* * *
"Truly, monks, a noble disciple who is learned and has understood for himself,
independent of faith in others, that 'When there is this, then there is that; with the
arising of this, that arises ...'
"When a noble disciple thus fully sees the arising and cessation of the world as
it is, he is said to be endowed with perfect view, with perfect vision; to have attained
the true Dhamma, to possess the initiate's knowledge and skill, to have entered the stream
of Dhamma, to be a noble disciple replete with the purifying knowledge, one who is at the
very door of the Deathless." [S.II.79]
* * *
"Whichever recluse or Brahmin knows these conditions, knows the cause of these
conditions, knows the cessation of these conditions, and knows the way leading to the
cessation of these conditions, that recluse or Brahmin is worthy of the name 'a recluse
among recluses' and is worthy of the name 'a Brahmin among Brahmins', and of him it can be
said, 'He has attained to the goal of the recluse's life and the goal of the Brahmin life
due to his own higher wisdom.'" [S.II.15,45,129]
In the following exchange with Venerable Ananda, the Buddha cautions
against underestimating the profundity of the principle of Dependent Origination:
"How amazing! Never before has it occurred to me, Lord. This principle of
Dependent Origination, although so profound and hard to see, yet appears to me to be so
"Say not so, Ananda, say not so. This principle of Dependent Origination is a
profound teaching, hard to see. It is through not knowing, not understanding and not
thoroughly realizing this teaching that beings are confused like a tangled thread, thrown
together like bundles of threads, caught as in a net, and cannot escape hell, the nether
worlds and the wheel of samsara." [S.II.92]
Those who have studied the life of the Buddha may recall his
reflections shortly after the Enlightenment, when he had not yet begun to expound the
teaching. At that time, the Buddha was reluctant to teach, as is related in the
"Monks, the thought arose in me thus: 'This truth which I have realized is
profound, difficult to see, abstruse, calming, subtle, not attainable through mere
"'But beings revel in attachment, take pleasure in attachment and delight in
attachment. For beings who thus revel, take pleasure and delight in attachment, this is an
extremely difficult thing to see: that is, the law of conditionality, the principle of
Dependent Origination. Moreover, this also is an extremely difficult thing to see: the
calming of all conditioning, the casting off of all clinging, the abandoning of desire,
dispassion, cessation, Nibbana. If I were to give this teaching and my words were
not understood, that would simply make for weariness and difficulty.'" [Vin.I.4;
This passage mentions two teachings, the principle of Dependent Origination and
Nibbana, stressing both their profundity and also their importance within the Buddha's
enlightenment and teaching.
Types of Dependent Origination found in
The textual references dealing with the principle of Dependent Origination can be
divided into two main categories. Firstly, those which describe the general principle, and
secondly, those which specify constituent factors linked together in a chain. The former
format is often used to precede the latter as a general outline. The latter, more
frequently encountered, is mostly expressed on its own. This latter description may be
regarded as the practical manifestation of the principle of Dependent Origination, showing
as it does how the natural process follows the general principle.
Each of these two main categories can further be divided into two
limbs, the first showing the process of origination, the second, the process of cessation.
The first limb, showing the process of origination, is called the samudayavara.
It is the sequence in its forward mode, and corresponds to the second of the Four Noble
Truths, the cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya). The second limb, showing the
process of cessation, is called the nirodhavara. It is the sequence in its
reverse mode and corresponds to the third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering (dukkha
1. The general principle
In essence, this general principle corresponds to what is known in Pali as idappaccayata,
the principle of conditionality.
|A. Imasmim sati idam hoti:
Imasuppada idam upajjati:
|When there is this, that is.
With the arising of this, that arises.
|B. Imasmim asati idam na hoti:
Imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati:
|When this is not, neither is that.
With the cessation of this, that ceases. [S.II.28,65]
2. The principle in effect
A) Avijja-paccaya sankhara
With Ignorance as condition, there are
With Volitional Impulses as condition,
With Consciousness as condition, Body and Mind.
With Body and Mind as condition, the Six Sense
With the Six Sense Bases as condition, (sense)
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, Grief and Despair.
Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa
Thus is the arising of this whole mass of
B) Avijjaya tveva asesa-viraga nirodha sankhara-nirodho
With the complete abandoning of Ignorance,
Volitional Impulses cease.
With the cessation of Volitional Impulses,
With the cessation of Consciousness, Body and
With the cessation of Body and Mind, the Six
Sense Bases cease.
With the cessation of the Six Sense Bases,
With the cessation of Contact, Feeling ceases.
With the cessation of Feeling, Craving ceases.
With the cessation of Craving, Clinging ceases.
With the cessation of Clinging, Becoming
With the cessation of Becoming, Birth ceases.
With the cessation of Birth, Aging and Death,
Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair
Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa
Thus is there a cessation to this whole mass of
suffering. [Vin.I.1-3; S.II.1,65]
Note that this format treats the principle of Dependent Origination
as a process of the arising and cessation of suffering. This is the wording most commonly
found in the texts. In some places, it is given as the arising and cessation of the world,
using the Pali words ayam kho bhikkhave lokassa samudayo -- "Thus, monks, is
the arising of the world," and ayam kho bhikkhave lokassa atthangamo --
"Thus, monks, is the dissolution of the world" [S.II.73]; or emamayam loko
samudayati -- "Thus does this world arise," and emamayam loko
nirujjhati -- "Thus does this world cease" [S.II.78]. Both of these
wordings in fact have the same meaning, which will become clear once our terms are
In the Abhidhamma texts and Commentaries the principle of Dependent
Origination is also known as paccayakara, referring to the interdependent nature
The extended form given above contains twelve factors,
interdependently linked in the form of a cycle. It has no beginning or ending. Putting
ignorance at the beginning does not imply that it is the First Cause, or Genesis, of all
things. Ignorance is put at the beginning for the sake of clarity, by intercepting the
cycle and establishing a starting point where it is considered most practical. We are in
fact cautioned against assuming ignorance to be a First Cause with the following
description of the conditioned arising of ignorance -- Asava-samudaya avijja-samudayo,
asava-nirodha avijja-nirodho -- ignorance arises with the arising of the outflows,
and ceases with their cessation. [M.I.55]
The twelve links of the standard principle of Dependent Origination
format are counted from ignorance to aging and death only. As for 'sorrow, lamentation,
pain, grief and despair', these are actually by-products of aging and death for one with
outflows (asava) and defilement, becoming 'fertilizer' for the further arising of
outflows, and consequently ignorance, which turns the cycle once more.
The Buddha did not always describe the Dependent Origination cycle
in one fixed form (from beginning to end). The extended format was used in cases where he
was explaining the principle in general, but when he was addressing a particular problem,
he often applied it in reverse order, thus: aging and death <= birth <= becoming
<= clinging <= craving <= feeling <= contact <= six sense bases <= body
and mind <= consciousness <= volitional impulses <= ignorance [see S.II.5-11,81].
In other descriptions he may have begun at one of the intermediate factors, depending on
the problem in question. For example, he might have started at birth (jati) [as
in S.II.52], feeling (vedana) [as in M.I.266], or at consciousness (vi˝˝ana)
[as in S.II.77], following the steps forward up to aging and death (jaramarana),
or tracing backwards to arrive at ignorance (avijja). Or he may have begun with
some factor altogether different from the twelve links, which was then worked into the
Dependent Origination chain.
Another point worthy of note is that the dependent origination of
these links does not have the same meaning as 'to be caused by' as such. The determinants
which make a tree grow, for instance, include not just the seed, but also the soil,
moisture, fertilizer, air temperature and so on. These are all 'determinants.' Moreover,
being a determinant does not necessarily imply any sequential order in time. For instance,
in the example of the tree, the various determinants, such as moisture, temperature, soil
and so on, must exist together, not sequentially, for the tree to benefit. Moreover, some
kinds of determinants are interdependent, each conditioning the existence of the other,
as, for example, an egg is a condition for a chicken, while a chicken is a condition for
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