Dependent Arising

From the Ashoka course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is
taught by Bhikkhu Bodhi


The doctrine of dependent arising, patticcasamuppada, is the dynamic counterpart of the doctrine of selflessness, anatta.

So profound and difficult to grasp, a simple exposition of dependent arising sparks off the liberating wisdom in the minds of his foremost disciples.

The Dhamma is the truth discovered by the Buddha. In his statement the Buddha makes an explicit equation between the profound truth he has realized and dependent arising. Again in describing his own quest for enlightenment, the Buddha says that immediately before his enlightenment, when he was sitting in meditation he began enquiring into the chain of conditioning,  seeking the causal origination of suffering, and this inquiry led him to the discovery of  dependent arising. So from one angle one can equate the discovery of dependent arising with the attainment of enlightenment itself.

Buddha meditated on dependent arising for several weeks. He concluded:

When Ananda, his attendant. told the Buddha that dependent arising appeared obvious, the Buddha answered:

Dependent arising is not only the content of the Buddha's enlightenment, not only a philosophical doctrine, but also the truth that has to be realized to gain liberation from suffering. So this is the key not only to the  intellectual understanding of the Dhamma, but to the attainment of liberation itself.

Conditionality — the fundamental law

The teaching of dependent arising has two aspects:

  •  an abstract principle or what we might call a structural principle
  •  the application of that principle to the problem of suffering

First we’ll briefly explore dependent arising as the most fundamental law underlying every process and all phenomena. This law is beginningless and endless. This structural principle that underlies all phenomena is the law of conditionality. That is, whatever  arises, arises in dependence on conditions; everything that exists, exists in dependence on conditions. And without the support of the appropriate conditions, the given phenomena  will not be able to remain in existence.

This is illustrated by a formula which explains the conditional arising and cessation of phenomena:

When there is this, that comes to be;
with the arising of this, that arises.
When there is not this, that does not come to be;
with the cessation of this, that ceases.

In order for any factor to come into existence its condition, A, must exist or be operative. B arises through the contribution of its condition, A. As an example, an apple tree exists in dependence on apple seeds. If there is an apple seed, an apple tree can come into existence. If an apple seed comes into being, the tree can come into being.

When A, the condition for the occurrence of B, does not exist, then the phenomenon B will not exist. But as B exists in dependence on A, then with the absence of A, B will not occur, and if A ceases, then B will cease. If there is no apple seed, then there can't be a tree, and if the seed is destroyed, then there can be no growth of the apple tree. For the tree depends on the seed. 


A web of events

This law of conditionality is not the creation of the Buddha. It is a law that is always operative whether enlightened ones arise or do not arise. All compounded things come into being in dependence on their conditions.


The apple, for example, does not arise only from the seed. While the seed is the main condition, it also requires soil, water, sunshine, fertilizer, etc. The apple tree in turn has many effects. It gives rise to many apples, and those many apples each contain  many seeds, and each of these seeds in turn can become the source for another apple tree which will give rise to more apples.

This whole complex interlocking web of events has no first cause. This is a significant difference between the Buddhist ideas of  conditionality and Western ways of thinking. Usually we think that the chain of cause and effect needs a first cause, but for Buddhism there is no original beginning. The succession of causes and conditions has been occurring without any conceivable beginning, without any bounds or limits.

The twelve factors of dependent arising — the law of causality in effect

The Buddha did not teach dependent arising merely as a theory. Rather it is central to the aim of Dhamma, deliverance from suffering.

The first point to the round of becoming, samsara, cannot be discovered. No matter how far we go back in time, we always find a possibility of going back further. However, though samsara does not have a distinct beginning in time, it does have a distinct causal structure. It is sustained, kept in motion, by a precise set of conditions.

These conditions — the twelve factors — make up the practical side of the Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising. These twelve factors are:

  • ignorance
  • volitional formations
  • consciousness
  • mentality/materiality,
  • six sense faculties
  • contact,
  • feeling
  • craving
  • clinging
  • existence
  • birth
  • ageing and death.

With the arising of this, that arises

The Buddha sets forth these twelve factors of dependent arising as a series of statements — "With A as condition, B arises:"

  • Dependent on ignorance, volitional formations arise.
  • Dependent on volitional formations, consciousness arises.
  • Dependent on consciousness, mentality-materiality  arises.
  • Dependent on mentality-materiality, the six sense faculties arise.
  • Dependent on the the six sense faculties, faculties contact arises.
  • Dependent on contact, feeling arises.
  • Dependent on feeling, craving arises.
  • Dependent on craving, clinging arises.
  • Dependent on clinging, existence arises.
  • Dependent on existence, birth arises.
  • Dependent on existence, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair arise.

These conditions are the twelve links the chain of causation. That is, they are the most prominent factors in the series of causes and results that make up our experience in samsara. To use another metaphor, they might also be called the twelve spokes in the wheel of existence, a wheel that turns from birth to death and from death back to new birth.

We’ll now explore each of the twelve factors and their conditional relationships.


The Buddha starts the sequence of factors with ignorance, avijja. What is ignorance?

Ignorance is not seeing the Four Noble Truths.

Ignorance, the Buddha says, is not knowing. Not ignorance in the sense of not knowing anything, but rather not seeing the Four Noble Truths — the truth of  suffering, its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation. Ignorance does not mean the mere lack of conceptual understanding of these, but spiritual blindness, not  understanding the Four Noble Truths in their full depth and range.

Ignorance is not the 'uncaused' first cause of things. It too arises through conditions. As a mental factor it depends on the minds and bodies of beings. Though it arises through conditions, ignorance is the most fundamental condition.  Therefore the Buddha takes this as a starting point for links on the chain of causation.

With ignorance as condition the volitional formations arise

Volitional formations

Dependent on our spiritual blindness we engage in actions grounded in our wrong views, in illusions. We activate our will.

Volitional formations are mental formations. The factor of sankhara is equivalent to kamma, in the sense of volitional formations or acts of will which are expressed outwardly through the body and speech.


With volitional formations as condition consciousness arises


From the Buddhist perspective, consciousness is not regarded as a single persisting entity, a self or a soul which continues unchanged. Consciousness is rather a series of acts of consciousness, each one arising and breaking up like the waves of the ocean. When death occurs the last act of consciousness in this life arises and passes away. But through the force of ignorance and volitional formations, the final act of consciousness generates a new act of consciousness and starts a new existence.

With consciousness as condition mentality-materiality arises


A living being is a compound of five aggregates, the material factor being form and four mental factors being feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. (See Lesson 6.) On the mental side, associated with consciousness, are the other three factors of feeling, perception and mental formations.  These five aggregates continue all the way to death dependent on each other.

With mentality-materiality as condition the six sense faculties arise

The six  sense faculties  

The six sense faculties are the five physical sense faculties — the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body — as well as the mind faculty. The mind, the organ of thought, coordinates the other sense data and also cognizes its own objects — ideas, images, concepts, etc.

These faculties serve as our means for gathering information about the world.  Each faculty can receive the type of sense data appropriate to itself. The eye receives  form, the ear sounds, nose smells etc. Thus we come to the next link.

With the six sense faculties as condition contact arises


Consciousness comes together with the sense objects through the sense faculty. For example, the eye consciousness contacts form through the eye.

With contact  as condition feeling arises


Feeling is the "effective tone" with which the mind experiences the object, the feeling being determined by the organ through which the feeling arises. For example, there is feeling born of eye contact, feeling born of ear contact, etc. By way of its effective quality, feelings are of three types: pleasant, painful and neutral feelings.

With feeling as condition craving arises


With this link we take a major step forward in the movement of the wheel of existence. All the factors we have mentioned so far — consciousness,  mentality-materiality, the six sense faculties, contact and feeling — arise from volitional formations.

But with the arising of craving, experience moves from the past to the causes operating in the present, those causes which generate a new existence in the future.

When we experience pleasant feelings we become attached to them.

When we experience pleasant feelings we become attached to them. We enjoy them, relish them, crave for a continuation of them. Thus craving arises. When we experience painful feeling, this pain awakens an aversion, a desire to eradicate its source, or to flee from them.


With craving as condition clinging arises


Clinging is the intensification of craving. Here we are dealing with the forward movement of the round.

There are four types of clinging:

  • clinging to sense pleasures
  • clinging to views, theories and beliefs
  • clinging to rituals, rules and observances
  • cling to the notion of a self within the five aggregates
With clinging as condition existence arises


Bhava is the "kammicly" accumulative side of existence, the phase of life in which we act and accumulate kamma, in which we generate more volitional formations, in which we build up these formations, accumulate them in the flow of consciousness. When these kammas are accumulated after death they bring about a new existence. (You will learn about kamma in the next lesson.)

With existence as condition birth arises

With birth as condition ageing, death, sorrow,  lamentation, pain, grief and despair arise

Because we take birth in the future, we pay the inevitable price with ageing and death and also sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.

Dependent arising in practice

With feeling as condition craving arises

The link between feeling and craving is critical. This is why Buddha singles out craving as the origin of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. In our own practice we have to prevent feeling from leading to craving. We have to be mindful and clearly aware of the feeling that arises and not delight in them, hold to them, and cling to them.

As we have noted before, reading about and speculating about the concepts presented by the Buddha and recounted here are a necessary first step to the end of suffering. But we must see dependent origination arising in our own life if we are to be free. This course introduces the teachings, other Ashoka courses will guide you on the path.


From the Ashoka online course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is.