What is dependent origination?

dependent origination

A Buddha statue in Langza, India | Photo by Yash Raut https://tricy.cl/3cg3SpI

Why do we suffer? Understanding this is of prime importance to Buddhist practice. One answer to this question lies in the links, or chain, of dependent origination.

Dependent origination (Skt: pratityasamutpada, Pali: paticca-samuppada) is also known as conditioned co-arising and several other terms. Buddhism teaches that everything that exists is conditioned—dependent on something else. This applies to thoughts as well as objects, to the individual as well as the entire universe. Nothing exists independently. Everything is conditioned.

This concept is illustrated in the Buddhist teachings of the chain of dependent origination, which describes the factors that perpetuate the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The twelve links in the chain are sequential, each factor causing the following one: Because of this, that arises. When this ceases, that also ceases. 

The links form a never-ending cycle that binds us to suffering, and the goal of Buddhist practice is to escape from this vicious cycle. Though there is more than one version of the sequence of links, they commonly run this way:

  1.   Ignorance 
  2.   Mental formations 
  3.   Consciousness 
  4.   Name and form 
  5.   The senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and mind 
  6.   Contact 
  7.   Feeling 
  8.   Craving 
  9.   Clinging 
  10.   Becoming 
  11.   Birth
  12.   Aging and death.

Many of these terms are familiar (though their precise meaning in a Buddhist context may differ slightly from their use in Western philosophy), but a few require some explanation. The second link of the chain, mental formations (also called fabrications, volitions, or compounds), refers to impulses and actions—any activity that leads to the accumulation of karma. The fourth link, name and form, refers to the labeling of objects, including the mental and physical parts of an individual. Contact, the sixth link, occurs when the six senses (Buddhists consider the mind the sixth sense) meet a sense object, such as a sight or sound.

The tenth link, becoming, means the formation of an identity or self. This stage gives its name to the Wheel of Life (bhavachakra), a visual depiction of samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Birth, link eleven, and aging and death, link twelve, speak to the unsatisfactory condition (dukkha) of living beings.

Dependent origination developed into the concepts of interdependence and the interconnectedness of all things in later Buddhist thought. The idea that every action has a “butterfly effect” on every other being, is influential in many streams of Buddhist thought, including Engaged Buddhism, which applies Buddhist teachings to social and ecological issues.


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