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Jun 20th
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Home Teachings Dependant Originations What is Dependant Origination

What is Dependant Origination

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Article Index
What is Dependant Origination
Ignorance to Formations
Formations to Consciousness
Consciousness to Mind-and-Body
Mind-and-Body to Six Bases
Six Bases to Contact
Contact to Feeling
Feeling to Craving
Craving to Clinging
Clinging to Becoming
Becoming to Birth
Birth to Suffering
The Three Periods
Other Aspects
All Pages


The doctrine of Paticcasamuppada or Dependent Origination is very important in Buddhism. The bodhisatta began with dependent origination when he reflected deeply on the nature of existence and attained Enlightenment. He first pondered old age and death, as did every other bodhisatta when he was about to become the Buddha in his last existence. For it was only after seeing the old, the sick and the dead that the bodhisatta saw the ascetic (samana) and renounced the world in search of the ageless and the deathless Dhamma. He had seen the evils of life in old age, sickness and death.

Every living being wants to avoid these evils of life but there is no end to these evils which follow him in one existence after another. In view of this endless process of life all living beings appear to be in bondage and subject to suffering. Life is in fact an infinite process of births and deaths. The fate of fowls and ducks is terrible indeed. Some are eaten up while still in the eggs. If they emerge from the eggs they do not live long but are killed when they grow up a little. They are born only to be killed for human consumption. If the fate of a living being is thus to be repeatedly killed it is gloomy and frightful indeed.

But the fowls and ducks appear to be well content with their lot in life. They apparently enjoy life, quacking, crowing, eating and fighting with one another. They may think that they have a lot of time to live although in fact they have little time to be happy, their life being a matter of days or months, with each of them coming into existence and then dying after a short time.

The span of human life, too, is not very long. For the man in his fifties or sixties the past seems in retrospect as recent as yesterday. Sixty or seventy years on earth is a day in the life of a deva which is, however, very short in the eyes of a Brahma who may live as long as the duration of the worlds (kappa). But even the Brahma who outlives hundreds of worlds is insignificant and his life is short in the context of samsaric eternity. Devas and Brahmas, too, have to age and die eventually. Although they are not subject to sickness and marked dotage, age tells on them invisibly in due course of time. So every living being has to face old age and death and nobody can escape from these evils of life.


Reflecting on the origin of old age, the bodhisatta traced back the chain of dependent origination from the end to the beginning. Old age and death have their origin in rebirth which in turn is due to kamma bhava (condition or kamma for renewed existence.) kammabhava stems from grasping or attachment (upadana) which is caused by craving (tanha) Craving arises from feeling (vedana) which is produced by sense-bases (ayatana) such as eye, visual form, etc. Sense-bases are the product of nama-rupa (consciousness and corporeality) which results from viññana (consciousness) which is again caused by namarupa.

The full Pali texts about Paticcasamuppada attribute viññana to sankhara (kammaformations) and sankhara to avijja (ignorance). But the bodhisatta's reflection is confined to the interdependence of namarupa and viññana in the present life. In other words, he reflected on the correlation between viññana and namarupa, leaving out of account the former's relation to past existence. We may assume therefore that for the meditators reflection on the present life will suffice to ensure the successful practice of vipassana.


The bodhisatta reasoned about the correlation between viññana and namarupa thus: "This viññana has no cause other than nämarüpa. From namarupa there results viññanas; from viññana there arises namarupa. Hence from the correlation between viññäna and namarupa there arise birth, old age and death; there may be successive births or successive deaths." Moreover viññana causes namarupa: namarupa causes sense-bases (ayatana). From sensebases there arises contact; contact leads to feeling, feeling gives rise to craving, craving to grasping, and grasping results in rebirth which in turn leads to old age, death, anxiety, grief and other kinds of mental and physical suffering.

Then the bodhisatta reflected on dependent origination negatively. If there were no viññana there could be no namarupa; if no namarupa, then no ayatana and so on. The negation of the first link in the cha in of causation leads to the extinction of suffering that has be set us ceaselessly in the infinite series of samsaric existences. After this reflection on dependent origination in its positive and negative aspects, the bodhisatta contemplated the nature of the aggregates of grasping. Then he attained the successive insights and fruitions (maggaphala) on the Ariyan holy path and finally became the all-Enlightened Buddha.

Every bodhisatta attained supreme Enlightenment after such contemplation. They did not learn what and how to contemplate from others but owing to cumulative potential (parami) that they had acquired through innumerable lifetimes, they contemplated as mentioned before and attained Enlightenment.


Then when it was time to preach the Buddha thought thus: This dhamma which I know is very profound. It is hard to understand; it is so sublime and so conducive to inner peace. It is not accessible to intellect and logic (atakkavacaro). It is subtle and it is to be realized only by the wise. All over the world philosophers have racked their brains about freedom from old age, sickness and death. But freedom from these evils means nibbāna and nibbāna is beyond the reach of reason and intellect. It is to be realized only through the practice of the middle way and vipassana.

Most philosophers rely on intellect and logic and there are various doctrines which they have conceived for the welfare of all living beings. But these doctrines are based on speculations that do not help anyone to attain vipassana insight, let alone the supreme goal of nibbāna. Even the lowest stage of vipassana insight, viz., insight into the distinction between nama and rupa does not admit of intellectual approach. The insight dawns on the meditator only when, with the development of concentration, and in accordance with Satipatthana method he watches the namarupa process and distinguished between consciousness and corporeality, e.g. the desire to bend the hand and bent hand, the ear and the sound on the one hand and the consciousness of hearing on the other and so forth. Such knowledge is not vague and speculative; it is vivid and empirical. It is said on the authority of scriptures that namarupas are in a constant flux and that we should watch their arising and passing away. But for the beginner this is easier said then done.

The beginner has to exert strenuous effort to overcome hindrances (nivarana). Even freedom from nivarana helps him only to distinguish between nama and rupa. It does not ensure insight into their arising and passing away. This insight is attained only after concentration has been developed and perception has become keen with the practice of mindfulness. Constant mindfulness of arising and vanishing leads to insight into anicca, dukkha and anatta of all phenomena. But as merely the beginning of lower vipassana, this insight is a far cry from the path and its fruition. Hence the description of the dhamma as something beyond logic and speculation.


The dhamma is subtle (nipuno); it is to be realized only by the wise (panditavedaniyo). Here the wise means only those who have wisdom (pañña) relating to vipassana and the path and its goal. The dhamma has nothing to do with the secular knowledge per se possessed by world philosophers, religious founders, writers or great scientists who can split atoms. But it can be realized by any one irrespective of sex, age or education, anyone who contemplates namarupa at the moment of their arising, passes through vipassana insights progressively and attains the Ariyan path and its goal.

Taking stock of the nature of all living beings, the Buddha found that most of them were mired in sensual pleasure. There were of course a few exceptions like the five companions of Siddhattha in the forest retreat or the two brahmins who were later to become the two chief disciples of the Buddha. But the majority of mankind regard the enjoyment of pleasure as the summum bonum of life. They are like children who delight in playing with their toys the whole day. The child's toys and games make no sense to adults but grown-up people too derive pleasure from the toys of the sensual world, that is, from the company of their children and grand children. Such sensual pleasure has no appeal for Buddhas and Arahats. It is highly esteemed by ordinary men and devas because they have no sense of higher values such as jhana, vipassana and nibbāna.

A person who is thus fond of sensual pleasure ma y be likened to a peasant living in out-ofthe- way rural areas. To the urbanites those places are wholly devoid of the amenities of life, what with poor food, poor clothes, dirty dwellings, muddy foot-paths, and so forth. But the villagers are happy and they never think of leaving their native place. Likewise, common people and devas delight in their sensual objects. Whatever the teaching of Buddha and the Arahats, they love pleasure and spend all their time indulging in it. They feel ill at ease in the absence of sensual objects. They are so much pleased with their families, attendants and possessions that they cannot think of anything higher than sensual pleasure. Because of their deep-rooted love of pleasure, it is hard for them to understand or appreciate the subtle, profound Paticcasamuppada and nibbāna.


The Buddha-dhamma makes little appeal to the masses since it is diametrically opposed to their sensual desire. People do not like even an ordinary sermon, let alone a discourse on nibbāna, if it has no sensual touch. They do not seem interested in our teaching and no wonder, since it is devoid of melodious recitation, sentimental stories and hilarious jokes and other attractions. It is acceptable only to those who have practised vipassana or who seek the dhamma on which they can rely for methods of meditation and extinction of defilements. But it is a mistake to deprecate, as some do, the sermons containing stories, jokes, etc as sutta sermons. Suttas differ basically from popular sermons in that they are profound, as witness Anattalakkhana sutta, Satipatthana sutta and so forth.

The doctrine of Dependent Origination too belongs to Sutta Pitaka. It is to be labelled Abhidhamma only because it is preached in the fashion of Abhidhamma Pitaka. Since our teaching is unadulterated dhamma, some people confuse it with Abhidhamma and cannot follow it, much less grasp the Path and nibbāna which it emphasizes. Paticcasamupada is hard to understand because it concerns the correlations between causes and effects. There is no ego entity that exists independently of the law of causation. It was hard to accept this fact before the Buddha proclaimed the dhamma. The commentaries also points out the abstruse character of the doctrine. According to them there are four dhammas which defy understanding, viz., the four noble truths, the nature of a living being, the nature of rebirth and dependent origination.

It is hard to understand and accept the truth of suffering, the truth about its cause, the truth about its cessation and the truth about the way to its extinction. It is hard to appreciate these truths, still harder to teach them to other people. Secondly, it is hard to understand that a living being is a nama-rupa process without any separate self, that the namarupa complex is subject to the law of kamma that determines a man's future life according to his good or bad deeds. In the third place, it is hard to see how rebirth takes place as a result of defilement and kamma without the transfer of nama-rupa from a previous life.

Lastly it is equally hard to understand Paticcasamuppada. It involves the above three abstruse dhammas. Its negative aspect concerns the first two noble truths as well as the nature of a living being and rebirth while its positive aspect involves the other two truths. Hence it is most difficult to grasp or teach this doctrine. It may be easy to explain it to one who has attained the path and nibbāna or one who has studied the pitaka but it will mean little to one who has neither the illumination nor scriptural knowledge. The writer of the commentary on the doctrine was qualified to explain it because he might have attained the lower stages of the path or he might have a thorough knowledge of the Pitaka.

He refers to its difficulty probably in order that its exposition might be seriously studied by posterity. He likens the difficulty to the plight of a man who has jumped into the sea and cannot get to the bottom. He admits that he has written the exegesis on the basis of the Pitaka and the old commentaries handed down by oral tradition. The same may be said of our teaching. Since it is hard to explain the doctrine, the meditator sho uld pay special attention to it. If he follows the teaching superficially, he will understand nothing and without a fair knowledge of the doctrine, he is bound to suffer in the wilderness of samsaric existence.

The substance of the Paticcasamuppada teaching is as follows.

From ignorance there arises sankhara (effort or kamma-formation.) From kamma-formation there arises consciousness of the new existence. Consciousness gives rise to psycho-physical phenomena or nama-rupa. Nama-rupa leads to ayatana (six bases). From ayatana arises the phassa (impression). Phassa causes feeling; feeling leads to craving. From craving there results clinging (upadana). Because of clinging there is the process of becoming (kamma-bhava), from the process of becoming there arises rebirth (jati) and rebirth leads to old age, death, sorrow, grief, and lamentation. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering.


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The Dhammapada

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