The True Nature of Existence —
Dependent Arising

2 of 3

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Rebirth
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha
The Social Dimension of Buddha 's Teaching
Foundations of Buddhist Social Thought
The Dhamma and Economics
The Dhamma and Politics



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 usually represented in images as a by a blind old woman stumbling along with the help of a stick.

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 khamma, in the sense of volitional formations or acts of will which are expressed outwardly through the body and speech.

With volitional formations as condtion 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.

Depicted by ... <<pic>>

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.

Depicted by people sitting in a boat with one of them steering. The boat symbolises form, and its occupants, the mental aggregates. But it is in the mind that a change can be wrought instead of drifting through life at the mercy of the inherent instability of mind and body. So in the illustration, mind is doing the work of punting the boat of psycho-physical states on the river of cravings, while body is the passive passenger.  <<pic>>

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.

Depicted by a house with six windows and a door. The senses are the 'portals' whereby we gain our impression of the world. Each of the senses is the manifestation of our desire to experience things in a particular way. <<pic>>

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.

A couple embracing depicts the contact of the sense organs with there objects. With this link, the psychophysical organism begins to interact with the world. The sensuous impression is symbolised by a kiss. This indicates that there is a meeting with an object and a distinguishing of it prior to the production of feeling. <<pic>>

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.

Symbolised by an eye pierced by an arrow. The arrow represents sense data impinging on the sense organs, in this case the eye. In a very vivid way, the image suggests the strong feelings which sensory experience evokes - although only painful feeling is here implied, both painful and pleasant are intended. Even a very small condition causes a great deal of feeling in the eye. Likewise, no matter what kind of feeling we experience, painful or pleasurable, we are driven by it and conditioned by it.<<pic>>

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.

Represented by a person drinking beer. Even though it harms you, no matter how much you drink, you just keep on drinking. Also known as attachment, it is a mental factor that increases desire without any satisfaction.<<pic>>

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

Represented by a monkey reaching for a fruit. Also known as clinging, it means mentally grabbing at an object one desires. .<<pic>>

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 condtion 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.