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...... ... .  . .  .  .
Dependent Origination
The Buddhist Law of Conditionality
P. A. Payutto
Translated from the Thai by Bruce Evans


Other Interpretations

The description of Dependent Origination given in the previous chapter is that most often found in the scriptures and commentaries. It seeks to explain Dependent Origination in terms of the samsaravatta, the round of rebirth, showing the connections between three lifetimes -- the past, the present and the future.

    Those who do not agree with this interpretation, or who would prefer something more immediate, can find alternatives not only in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, where the principle of Dependent Origination is shown occurring in its entirety in one mind moment, but can also interpret the very same words of the Buddha used to support the standard model in a different light, giving a very different picture of the principle of Dependent Origination, one which is supported by teachings and scriptural references from other sources.

    The arguments used to support such an interpretation are many. For instance, the immediacy of the end of suffering and the sorrowless life of the Arahant are states which can arise in this present life. It is not necessary to die before realizing the cessation of birth, aging and death, and thus sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. Those things can be overcome in this very lifetime. The whole of the Dependent Origination cycle, both in the arising of suffering and in its cessation, is concerned with this present life. If the cycle can be clearly understood as it operates in the present, it follows that the past and the future will also be clearly understood, because they are all part of the one cycle.

    For reference, consider these words of the Buddha:

"Udayi, whosoever can recall the khandhas he has previously occupied in great number, of such a person would it be fitting to question me about past lives, or I could so question him; that person could satisfy me with an answer thereof, or I him. Whosoever sees the passing away of beings and their subsequent arisings, of such a person would it be fitting to ask me about future lives, or I could so question him; that person could satisfy me with an answer thereof, and I him.

"Enough, Udayi, of former times and future times. I will teach you the essence of the Dhamma: When there is this, there is that. With the arising of this, that arises. When there is not this, that cannot be; when this ceases, so does that." [M.II.31]

*  *  *

The householder, Gandhabhaga, having sat down at a respectful distance, addressed the Blessed One thus, "May the Blessed One teach me the origin and the cessation of suffering."

The Blessed One replied, "Householder, if I were to teach you the origin and the cessation of suffering by referring to the past thus, 'In the past there was this,' doubt and perplexity would arise in you thereof. If I were to teach you the origin and the cessation of suffering by referring to the future thus, 'In the future there will be this,' doubt and perplexity would arise in you thereof. Householder, I, here and now, shall teach you, here and now, the origin and the cessation of suffering." [S.IV.327]

*  *  *

"Sivaka, some feelings arise on account of irregularities in the bile ... some on account of irregularities in the phlegm ... some on account of wind ... some on account of the confluence of numerous factors ... some on account of changes in the weather ... some on account of irregular exercise ... some on account of external dangers ... some on account of kamma results. That feelings arise dependent on these different causes is something you can see for yourself and that people everywhere acknowledge. On this account, any recluse or holy man who claims that 'All feelings that arise, be they pleasant or unpleasant, are entirely the result of previous kamma,' can be rightly said to have spoken in excess of what is obvious to people everywhere, and I say that such views are wrong." [S.IV.230]

*  *  *

"Monks, when there is intentional, fixed and steady deliberation on any theme, that theme becomes an object for sustaining consciousness. Where there is an object, consciousness has an abiding. When consciousness is so firmly established and developed, birth in a new sphere (bhava) ensues. When there is arising into a new sphere of existence, birth, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair follow. Thus is there the arising of this whole mass of suffering." [S.II.65]


Although this interpretation of the principle of Dependent Origination must be understood in its own right, we nevertheless do not discard the pattern established by the standard model. Therefore, before going into its meaning, we should first reiterate the standard model, adapting the definitions in keeping with this interpretation.


Preliminary Definition 

1. Ignorance -- ignorance of the truth, or things as they are; being deluded by nominal realities; the ignorance behind beliefs; lack of wisdom; failure to understand cause and effect.

2. Volitional Impulses -- mental activities, willful intent, intention and decision, and their generation of actions; the organization of the thinking process in accordance with accumulated habits, abilities, preferences, and beliefs; the conditioning of the mind and the thinking process.

3. Consciousness -- the awareness of sensations, namely: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and cognizing; the basic climate of the mind from moment to moment.

4. Body and mind (the animated organism) -- the presence of corporeality and mentality within awareness; the state of coordination between the body and the mind to function in line with the stream of consciousness; the bodily and mental changes as a result of mental states.

5. The six sense bases -- the functioning of the sense bases.

6. Contact -- the point of contact between awareness and the outside world.

7. Feeling -- of pleasure, pain or indifference.

8. Craving -- the desire to seek pleasurable sense objects and to escape the unpleasant. Craving is of three kinds: wanting to have and enjoy, wanting to be, and wanting to destroy or be rid of.

9. Clinging -- attachment and grasping to either pleasant or unpleasant feelings, to the conditions of life which precipitate such feelings, and the evaluation of and attitudes toward those things in terms of their potential to satisfy desires.

10. Becoming -- the entire process of behavior generated to serve craving and clinging (kammabhava -- the active process); also the conditions of life resulting from such forces (upapattibhava --the passive process).[14]

11. Birth -- clear recognition of emergence in a state of existence; identification with states of life or modes of conduct, and the resulting sense of one who enjoys, occupies or experiences them.

12. Aging and death -- the awareness of separation, or deprivation of the self from a state of existence or identity; the feeling or threat of annihilation or separation from such states of being; from there, the resulting experience of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (even in their most subtle forms).


How the links connect

1 => 2. Ignorance as a determinant for volitional impulses: With no knowledge or awareness of the truth, no clear understanding or wise reflection on experiences, the result is confused thinking based on conjecture and imagination, and conditioned by beliefs, fears and accumulated character traits. These consequently condition any decisions to act, speak or think.

2 => 3. Volitional impulses as determinants for consciousness: With intention, consciousness is conditioned accordingly. We have a tendency (or are conditioned) to see, hear and cognize what our background intentions influence us to. Moreover, the context within which we see, hear or cognize will also be conditioned by those intentions. Intention will lead the consciousness to repeatedly recollect and proliferate about certain events. It will also condition the basic state of mind, or consciousness, to assume either fine and good or base and evil qualities; consciousness is conditioned in conformity with good or evil intentions.

3 => 4. Consciousness as a determinant for body and mind: Cognition, sight, hearing and so on, entail physical properties (rupadhamma) and mental properties (namadhamma) that we know and see. In addition, when consciousness operates, the relevant physical and mental properties (these being the 'cohorts' of consciousness -- the khandhas of form, feeling, perception and volitional impulses), must also function accordingly and in coordination with the nature of that consciousness. For instance, when consciousness is fashioned by anger, perceptions arising as a result will be correspondingly negative. The body will take on features in conformity with the hostile intention, such as aggressive facial expressions, tensing of the muscles, and high blood pressure. Feelings will be unpleasant. When consciousness takes on any particular feature repeatedly and habitually, the subsequent mental and physical properties will become the corresponding bodily and mental traits of bearing and character.

4 => 5. Body and mind as determinants for the six sense bases: When body and mind function the relevant sense bases will be activated to meet their demand (in seeking relevant information or in enjoying sensations). Those sense doors will function in accordance with the bodily and mental states conditioning them.

5 => 6. The six sense bases as determinants for contact: With the functioning of the various sense doors, contact (phassa), the impingement on them, or full awareness of sensations, arises, dependent on the sense door functioning at the time.

6 => 7. Contact as a determinant for feeling: Together with the awareness of sensations there must also be feelings of one kind or another: if not pleasant or unpleasant, then neutral.

7 => 8. Feeling as a determinant for craving: With the experience of pleasant sensations there follows liking and attachment. This is sense craving (kamatanha). Sometimes desire is for a position from which it will be possible to control and indulge in those pleasant feelings. This is craving for being or for states of being (bhavatanha). Experiences which produce feelings of discomfort or suffering usually cause thoughts of aversion and the desire to be rid of the source of those feelings. This is craving for non-being (vibhavatanha). Within neutral feelings, such as indifference or dullness, there is a subtle attachment, so that indifference is regarded as a subtle form of pleasant feeling, liable to evolve into desire for more overt forms of pleasure at any time.

8 => 9. Craving as a determinant for clinging: As desire becomes stronger it develops into clinging, a kind of mental preoccupation, creating an attitude toward and evaluation of the object of desire (with vibhavatanha, a negative evaluation will be formed). A fixed position is adopted towards things: if there is attraction it precipitates a binding effect, an identification with the object of attraction. Whatever is connected with that object seems to be good. When there is repulsion, the object of that repulsion seems to affront the self. Any adopted position towards these things tends to reinforce clinging, which will be directed toward, and in turn reinforce the value of:

  • Sense objects (kama)
  • Ideas and beliefs (ditthi)
  • Systems, models, practices and so on (silavatta)
  • The belief in a self (attavada) to either attain or be thwarted from its desires.

9 => 10. Clinging as a determinant for becoming: Clinging conditions bhava, life states, both on the level of behavior (kammabhava), and as regards character and the physical and mental properties (upapattibhava). These could, for example, be the pattern of behavior (kammabhava) and character traits (upapattibhava) of one who aspires to be rich, or who desires power, fame, beauty, or who hates society, and so on.

10 => 11. Becoming as a determinant for birth: Given a life state to be occupied and possessed, a being arises to fill it as enjoyer or experiencer. This is the distinct feeling of occupation or possession of that life state. There is a perception of one who acts and one who reaps the fruits of actions, one who succeeds and one who fails, one who gains and one who loses.

11 => 12. Birth as a determinant for aging and death: Birth into a life state necessarily entails the experiences of prosperity and decline within it. These include the imminent degeneration of that state, the experiences of adversity and ruin within it, and the separation from and destruction of it. There is a constant threat of danger, and a constant need to protect and maintain the self. The inevitability of decline and dissolution, together with the constant anxiety and effort to protect that state from them, combine to cause sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, or suffering.



1 => 2. Ignorance ... volitional impulses: Not knowing the truth, the mind proliferates and imagines accordingly, like a man who, believing in ghosts (ignorance), is frightened (volitional impulse) by the light reflected from the eyes of an animal at night; or like a person speculating about something held in another's closed fist; or like a person who believes that celestial beings can create anything they wish, and devises ceremonies or mystic phrases to supplicate them; or like one who, unaware of the true nature of conditioned things as unstable and subject to determinants, sees them as attractive and desirable, and aspires to obtain and control them. As long as any trace of ignorance is still present, volitional impulses or proliferation will be produced.

2 => 3. Volitional impulses ... consciousness: With cetana, intention, along with mental coloration, consciousness, as seeing, hearing and so on, is conditioned accordingly. Without intention or interest, consciousness may not arise, even in a situation where it is possible for it to do so. For example, when we are reading an absorbing book, our attention does not wander, but acknowledges only the matter being read into consciousness. Even a loud sound or bites from mosquitoes may go unnoticed. When we are intent on searching for a particular object, we may not notice other objects.

    One and the same object looked at in different circumstances, with different intentions, may be seen differently, depending on the context of the intention. For example, a vacant plot of land to a child may appear as a great playground; to a man intending to build a house it may seem like a prospective retirement home; to a farmer, different features again will seem important, while to an industrialist, still different features will be prominent.

    If we look at the same object at different times, in the context of different thoughts, different features will appear prominent. When thinking wholesome thoughts, the mind is influenced by those thoughts, and interprets the object of awareness in their context. Thinking in a harsh and injurious way, the mind takes note of, turns toward and interprets the meaning of its associated objects of awareness in the light of those destructive thoughts. For example, amidst a collection of objects placed together might be a knife and some flowers. A flower lover might notice only the flowers and none of the other objects placed nearby. The more intense the interest and attraction to those flowers, the more intense will be the awareness of them to the exclusion of everything else. Another person in need of a weapon might notice only the knife. In the case of a number of people seeing the same knife, for one there might be the perception of a weapon, while for another there might be the perception of a kitchen utensil, while yet another might see it as a piece of scrap metal, all depending on the background and intention of the observer.

3 => 4. Consciousness ... body and mind: Consciousness and body and mind are interdependent, as Venerable Sariputta said:

"Like two sheaves of reeds standing, supporting each other, with body and mind as condition there is consciousness; with consciousness as condition, body and mind. If we remove the first of those sheaves of reeds, the other falls down. If we remove the other sheaf, the first will tumble. In the same way, with the cessation of body and mind, consciousness ceases; with the cessation of consciousness, body and mind cease." [S.II.114]

    In this context, with the arising of consciousness, body and mind will arise, and must arise. As volitional impulses condition consciousness, they also condition body and mind, but because body and mind depend on consciousness for their existence, being properties of consciousness, it is thus said: "volitional impulses condition consciousness, and consciousness conditions body and mind." Thus, we could analyze the way consciousness conditions body and mind in the following way:

    1. When the mind is said to cognize any particular sensation, such as in seeing or hearing, in fact it is simply the cognition of body and mind (specifically, the khandhas of form, feeling, perception and volitional impulses). All that exists on an experiential level is what is cognized by consciousness from moment to moment, the physical and mental properties apparent to the senses. When there is cognition there are relative mental and physical properties that are experienced. The existence of a rose, for example, is the cognition by the visual or cognitive sense at that time. Apart from this, there is no 'rose' as such, other than as a concept in the mind. The 'rose' is not independent of the feelings, perceptions and concepts occurring at that time. Thus, when there is consciousness, body and mind will simultaneously and independently be there.

    2. Body and mind, especially mental qualities, dependent on any instant of consciousness will assume qualities harmonious with that consciousness. Whenever mental activities, or volitional impulses, are wholesome, the consciousness resultant on them will be subsequently cheerful and clear, and bodily gestures will be buoyant. When volitional impulses are unwholesome they lead to the cognition of sensations from a harsh and harmful perspective. The mental state will be negative, and bodily gestures and behavior will be influenced accordingly. In this state, the constituent factors, both mental and physical, are in a state of readiness to act in conformity with the volitional impulses that condition consciousness. When there is a feeling of love and affection (volitional impulse) there arises the cognition of pleasing sensations (consciousness), the mind (nama) is cheerful and bright, as are facial features (rupa). With anger there is the cognition of unpleasant sensations, the mind is depressed and facial features are sullen and aggressive.

    On the sports field, the footballer focuses his attention and interest on the game being played. His awareness arises and ceases with an intensity proportional to the strength of his interest in the game. All the necessary components of body and mind are primed to function and perform their duties as directed. The interrelationship in this case refers to and includes the successive arising and ceasing of body and mind (or physical and mental properties). The active properties of body and mind converge to form the overall state of being as it is directed by consciousness and volitional impulses (note the similarity to bhava).

    All the events taking place at this stage are important steps in the generation of kamma and its results. The cycle, or vatta, has completed one small revolution (ignorance is defilement, or kilesa; volitional impulses are kamma; consciousness and body and mind are kamma-results, or vipaka) and is preparing to begin a new cycle. This is a significant stage in the building of habits and character-traits.

4 => 5. Body and mind ... six sense bases: Body and mind must function through awareness of the outside world, which, together with previously acquired experience, is in turn used to serve the intention or volitional impulses. Thus the components of body and mind which serve as transmitters and receivers of sensations (the sense bases) are in a state of alertness to function in conformity with their determinants. For instance, in the case of the football player on the field, the sense organs responsible for receiving the sensations directly concerned with the sport being played, such as eye and ear, will be primed to receive those sensations. At the same time, those senses not immediately concerned, such as taste or smell, will be dormant, or in a state of suspended activity.

5 => 6. The six sense bases ... contact: Awareness arises through the sense bases, based on the coordination of three factors: internal sense bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), external sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily feelings and mental impressions), and consciousness (through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind). Awareness arises in conformity with each particular sense base.

6 => 7. Contact ... feeling: Wherever there is contact there must be the experience of one of the three kinds of feelings: comfort or happiness (sukhavedana), discomfort or pain (dukkhavedana), or indifference, neither happiness nor pain (upekkha or adukkham-asukhavedana).

    The third link to the seventh, that is, from consciousness to feeling, is known as the vipaka, or kamma-resultant, section of the Dependent Origination cycle. Links 5, 6 and 7, in particular, are neither wholesome nor unwholesome in themselves, but can be catalysts for the arising of wholesome and unwholesome thoughts and actions.

7 => 8. Feeling ... craving: When pleasant feeling is experienced, desire usually follows. With unpleasant feeling, the reaction is one of stress, a desire to have the unpleasant object removed or annihilated. There is also a desire to seek distraction in pleasant feeling. Neutral feelings, or indifference, induce a condition of dullness or complacency. Both are subtle and deluding forms of pleasant feeling which the mind tends to attach to. They can also act as catalysts for the generation of desire for further pleasant feeling.

    Craving can be divided into three distinct kinds, thus:

        1. Kamatanha -- Craving for desirable sense objects.

        2. Bhavatanha -- 'Craving for being,' craving for particular life situations; on a deeper level, this includes the life instinct and the desire to maintain a particular condition or identity.

        3. Vibhavatanha -- 'Craving for non-being,' the craving to escape from or be free of disliked objects or situations; this kind of craving usually expresses itself in feelings such as despair, depression, self-hatred and self-pity.[15]

    Craving thus appears in three main forms: as craving for sense objects, craving for life situations, and craving to be free of unpleasant situations. This last form of craving is particularly noticeable when desires are thwarted or opposed, and expresses itself in resentment, anger and aggression.

8 => 9. Craving ... clinging: Objects of desire become objects of attachment, the more intense the desire, the more intense the attachment. Craving develops into specific attitudes and values. With unpleasant feeling, clinging manifests as an obsessive aversion to the object of that feeling and an obsessive desire to seek escape from it. In this way, there is clinging to objects of the senses, to the life situations which can provide them, to identities, opinions, theories, and methods for procuring them and to the concept or image of a self to enjoy or suffer from those situations.

9 => 10. Clinging ... becoming: Clinging naturally affects life situations in one way or another, and its effects occur on two levels. Firstly, clinging ties the self to, or causes it to identify with, particular life situations which are believed to either fulfill desires or provide the means to escape from things not desired. If there are desired situations, there will naturally be situations not desired. Such grasped-at life situations are called upapattibhava.

    Attachment to any life situation will produce thoughts or intentions to either become or avoid it. These thoughts will include the machinations to invent ways and means of effectuating those desires. All of this thinking and activity is molded by the direction and mode of clinging. That is, they operate under the influence of accumulated attitudes, beliefs, understandings, values and likes or dislikes. Some simple illustrations:

  • Desire for rebirth in a heavenly realm will cause clinging to teachings, belief systems or practices which are believed to effectuate such a rebirth, and behavior will be conditioned accordingly.
  • Desire for fame will produce clinging to those values and the relevant behavior assumed to be required to attain fame, and to the self which is going to attain it. Behavior which results is conditioned by that clinging.
  • Desire to acquire possessions belonging to another will condition the thought processes accordingly. Clinging habitualizes the thought pattern, which may eventually, for one lacking circumspection and moral conscience, lead to theft. The original aim of becoming an owner becomes the actuality of being a thief. In this way, through seeking to attain objects of desire, people will either create unskillful actions and develop bad habits, or create skillful actions and develop virtue, depending on the nature of their beliefs and understanding.

    The specific pattern of behavior resulting from the influence of clinging, including the nature of events so conditioned, is called kammabhava (actions conditioning rebirth). The life situations resulting from such modes of behavior, be they desired or not, are called upapattibhava (states of rebirth).

    This stage of the Dependent Origination cycle is pivotal in the creation of kamma and its results, and on a long term basis plays a crucial role in the development of habit and character traits.

10 => 11. Becoming ... birth: At this point there arises the distinct feeling of a self, an identification with a certain situation or condition, either desired or undesired. In Dhamma language we might say that a being has arisen within that state (bhava), resulting in the feeling of one who is a thief, an owner, a success, a failure, a nobody and so on. In the case of the ordinary person, birth, or the arising of the sense of self, can be most easily observed in times of discord, when clinging tends to arise in very extreme ways. In arguments, even intellectual debates, if defilements are used instead of wisdom, a distinct sense of self will arise in the form of such thoughts as 'I am superior,' 'I am the boss,' 'he is my subordinate,' 'he is inferior,' 'this is my view,' 'my view is being contested,' 'my authority is being questioned' and so on. These are all instances where the identity is being discredited or threatened. Birth is therefore most obvious at times of jaramarana, decay and death.

11=> 12. Birth ... aging and death: Given a self which occupies or assumes a certain position, it follows that this self will sooner or later be deprived of or separated from that position. The self is threatened by alienation, frustration, misfortune, conflict and failure. Although it seeks to maintain its position indefinitely, all that arises must inevitably experience decay and dissolution. Even before dissolution sets in, the self is surrounded by the threat of impending doom. This intensifies clinging to life situations. Fear of death arises from the awareness of danger. The fear of death and dissolution is embedded deeply within the mind and is always influencing human behavior, causing neuroses, insecurity, the intense and desperate struggle for desired life situations, and despair in the face of suffering and loss. Thus for the ordinary person, the fear of death haunts all happiness.

    In this context, when the self appears in any undesired life situation, is deprived of a desired situation, or is threatened with the possibility thereof, it is left with disappointment and frustration, or, in the Pali language, soka (sorrow), parideva (lamentation), dukkha (pain), domanassa (grief) and upayasa (despair). Surrounded by all this suffering, the result is distraction and confusion, which are functions of ignorance. Most efforts to relieve suffering are thus directed by ignorance, and so the cycle continues.

    A simple example: For the average person living in a competitive world, success does not stop at merely the social phenomenon of success, with all its trappings, but includes clinging to the identity of being a successful person, which is a 'becoming,' or life state (bhava). Occasionally the feeling of self will manifest as thoughts of "I am a success," which in effect means "I have been born (jati) as a successful person." However, such success, in its fullest sense, is dependent on external conditions, such as fame, praise, attainment of special privileges, admiration and recognition. Birth as a "success," or "being successful," depends not only on recognition and admiration from others, but the presence of a loser, someone to succeed over. As soon as a successful being is born, he or she is threatened with fading, obscurity and loss. In this situation, all the feelings of depression, worry and disappointment which have not been properly dealt with by mindfulness and clear comprehension will become accumulated in the subconscious, and they will exert an influence on subsequent behavior in accordance with the Dependent Origination cycle.

    Whenever there is the arising of the self-concept, there is an occupation of space; when there is occupation of space, there must be a boundary or limitation; when there is limitation, there must be separation; when there is separation there must be the dualism of 'self' and 'not self.' The self will grow and extend outwards through the desire to attain, to act and to impress others. However, it is not possible for self to grow indefinitely according to its desires. The expanding self will inevitably meet with obstruction in some form or other, and desires will be thwarted, if not externally then from within. If one has any sensitivity to the esteem of others, opposition will arise in the form of one's own sense of conscience. If there is no suppression of these desires and they are allowed to express themselves fully, opposition will appear from external sources. Even if it were possible to indulge every desire to the full, such activity is weakening. It only serves to increase the power of craving itself, together with its attendant feeling of lack. Not only does it increase dependence on externals, but it increases internal conflict. When desires are unfulfilled, tension, conflict and despair are the natural result.


An example of Dependent Origination in everyday life

Let us take a simple example of how the principle of Dependent Origination operates in everyday life. Suppose there are two school chums, named 'John' and 'Ian.' Whenever they meet at school they smile and say "Hello" to each other. One day John sees Ian, and approaches him with a friendly greeting ready, only to be answered with silence and a sour expression. John is peeved by this, and stops talking to Ian. In this case, the chain of reactions might proceed in the following way:

    1. Ignorance (avijja): John is ignorant of the true reason for Ian's grim face and sullenness. He fails to reflect on the matter wisely and to ascertain the real reasons for Ian's behavior, which may have nothing at all to do with his feelings for John.

    2. Volitional Impulses (sankhara): As a result, John proceeds to think and formulate theories in his mind, conditioned by his temperament, and these give rise to doubt, anger, and resentment, once again dependent on his particular temperament.

    3. Consciousness (vi˝˝ana): Under the influence of these defilements, John broods. He takes note of and interprets Ian's behavior and actions in accordance with those previous impressions; the more he thinks about it, the surer he gets; Ian's every gesture seems offensive.

    4. Body and mind (namarupa): John's feelings, thoughts, moods, facial expressions and gestures, that is, the body and mind together, begin to take on the overall features of an angry or offended person, primed to function in accordance with that consciousness.

    5. Sense bases (salayatana): John's sense organs are primed to receive information that is related to and conditioned by the body-mind organism's state of anger or hurt.

    6. Contact (phassa): The impingement on the sense organs will be of the activities or attributes of Ian which seem particularly relative to the case, such as frowning expressions, unfriendly gestures, and so on.

    7. Feeling (vedana): Feelings, conditioned by sense contact, are of the unpleasant kind.

    8. Craving (tanha): Vibhavatanha, craving for non-being, arises, the dislike or aversion for that offensive image, the desire for it to go away or to be destroyed.

    9. Clinging (upadana): Clinging and obsessive thinking in relation to Ian's behavior follows. Ian's behavior is interpreted as a direct challenge; he is seen as a disputant, and the whole situation demands some kind of remedial action.

    10. Becoming (bhava): John's subsequent behavior falls under the influence of clinging and his actions become those of an antagonist.

    11. Birth (jati): As the feeling of enmity becomes more distinct, it is assumed as an identity. The distinction between 'me' and 'him' becomes more distinct, and there is a self which is obliged to somehow respond to the situation.

    12. Aging and death (jaramarana): This 'self,' or condition of enmity, exists and flourishes dependent on certain conditions, such as the desire to appear tough, to preserve honor and pride, and to be the victor, which all have their respective opposites, such as feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and failure. As soon as that self arises, it is confronted with the absence of any guarantee of victory. Even if he does attain the victory he desires, there is no guarantee that John will be able to preserve his supremacy for any length of time. He may not, in fact, be the 'tough victor' he wants to be, but rather the loser, the weakling, the one who loses face. These possibilities of suffering play with John's moods and produce stress, insecurity, and worry. They in turn feed ignorance, thus beginning a new round of the cycle. Such negative states are like festering wounds which have not been treated, and so continue to release their 'poisoning' effect on John's consciousness, influencing all of his behavior, and causing problems both for himself and for others. In John's case, he may feel unhappy for the whole of that day, speaking gruffly to whoever he comes into contact with, and so increasing the likelihood of more unpleasant incidents.

    In this case, if John were to practice correctly he would be advised to start off on the right foot. Seeing his friend's sullenness, he could use his intelligence (yoniso-manasikara: considering in accordance with causes and conditions) and reflect that Ian may have some problem on his mind -- he may have been scolded by his mother, he may be in need of money, or he may simply be depressed. If John reflected in this way no incident would arise, his mind would be untroubled, and he might even be moved toward compassionate action and understanding.

    Once the negative chain of events has been set in motion, however, it can still be cut off with mindfulness at any point. For instance, if it had continued on up to sense contact, where Ian's actions were perceived in a negative way, John could still set up mindfulness right there: instead of falling under the power of craving for non-being, he could instead consider the facts of the situation and thereby gain a fresh understanding of Ian's behavior. He could then reflect wisely in regard to both his own and his friend's actions, so that his mind would no longer be weighed down by negative emotional reactions, but instead respond in a clearer and more positive way. Such reflection, in addition to causing no problems for himself, could also serve to encourage the arising of compassion.

    Before leaving this example, it might be useful to reiterate some salient points:

  • In real life, the complete cycles or chains of events, such as that mentioned in this example, take place very rapidly. A student finding out that he has failed an exam, someone receiving bad news, such as the death of a loved one, or a man who sees his wife with a lover, for example, may all feel intense sorrow or shock, even going weak at the knees, screaming or fainting. The more intense the attachment and clinging, the more intense the reaction will be.
  • It should be stressed once again that the inter-determination within this chain of events does not necessarily have to be in sequential order, just as chalk, a blackboard, and writing are all indispensable determinants for the white letters on a blackboard's surface, but do not have to appear in sequential order.
  • The teaching of Dependent Origination attempts to clarify the workings of nature, to analyze the unfolding of events as they actually occur, so that the causes can be more easily identified and corrected. As for the details of how that correction can be effectuated, they are not the concern of the teaching of Dependent Origination, but are rather the domain of magga (the Path), or the Middle Way.

    In any case, the examples given here are very simplified and may seem somewhat superficial. They are not sufficiently detailed to convey the full subtlety of the principle of Dependent Origination, especially such sections as ignorance as a determinant for volitional impulses, and sorrow, lamentation and despair conditioning the further turning of the cycle. Looking at our example, it may appear that the cycle only arises occasionally, that ignorance is a sporadic phenomena, and that the ordinary person may spend large periods of his or her life without the arising of ignorance at all. In fact, for the unenlightened being, ignorance of varying degrees is behind every thought, action and word. The most basic level of this ignorance is simply the perception that there is a self which is thinking, speaking and acting. If this is not borne in mind, the true relevance of the teaching to everyday life may be overlooked. For this reason some of the more profound aspects of this chain of events will now be examined in more detail.


14. The term upapattibhava comes from the Abhidhamma. In the later Suttas, the term is patisandhipunnabhava (see Nd2 569). [Back to text]

15. Scholars are divided over interpretations of bhavatanha and vibhavatanha. Two or three groups of definitions of the term are given in the Tipitaka and Comentaries (Vbh.365; Vism.567) Some scholars compare bhavatanha with Freud's life instinct or life wish, and vibhavatanha to the death instinct or death wish. (See M. O'c. Walshe, Buddhism for Today, Allen and Unwin, London, 1962, pp. 37-40.) There is a particularly lucid definition in the Itivuttaka (It.43-44). [Back to text]

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Updated: 3-6-2000

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