In the core teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught that there is a cause for the dissatisfaction and suffering we so commonly experience. From ordinary discomfort to illness, mortality, the loss of those we love, and the fleeting nature of life’s pleasures, the distress we feel is rooted in craving—wanting things to be different than they are. This fundamental insight depends on the natural law of cause and effect, called “conditionality” in Buddhist philosophy. Though the details can get complex, the basic mechanism is straightforward: when one experience happens, a predictable subsequent one is right on its heels. The presence of the first is a necessary condition for the second.
The Buddha fleshed out the process of how suffering arises and is perpetuated in a model known as Dependent Origination (SN 12.1). He said that insight into this subtle process was central to his own awakening and to that of many previous Buddhas as well (SN 12.10). As we explore this beautiful Dharma model, we see how our own suffering and painful states are rooted in grasping at preferences and illusory security, and how uprooting the painful habits of craving and clinging leads to letting go, happiness, and freedom.
Dependent Origination is laid out in twelve linked steps, called nidāna. They form a circle, depicted like the face of a clock, with the last link (old age and death) conditioning the first (ignorance), which starts the cycle again. The model is traditionally understood as explaining both rebirth and moment-to-moment suffering. In any moment, with mindfulness, we can see how craving for comfort or contracting against discomfort lead to painful states of mind and heart, and a fixated sense of who we are. The model proposes that the rebirth process works the same way: that based on our actions and the intensity of our craving and ignorance, we are reborn continually until seeing with wisdom enables us to stop perpetuating suffering and thus end the rebirth cycle.
The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda)
Volitional formations (saṅkhāra)
Name and form (nāma-rūpa)
The six sense fields (saḷāyatana)
Feeling tone (vedanā)
Old age and death (jarā-maraṇa)
The first half of the sequence includes background factors that influence the present, including past conditions and the basic fact of having a body. At link six, feeling tone (vedanā), we enter the heart of the sequence, and the place where we can observe with mindfulness how reactivity and craving lead to contracted states of being that are difficult to escape from.
Though this is the longest of the traditional Dharma lists, it is one of the most important for understanding how to practice. Memorizing the list, even if we don’t fully understand it yet, can be a helpful start to bringing it into meditation and daily life. Once we have a sense of how Dependent Origination describes so much about our experience, we begin to see it everywhere, and it can be a powerful support for investigation and insight.
The Roots of Suffering: Ignorance & Kamma
As the rafters of a house, the Buddha said, depend on the roof beam, all unskillful qualities depend on ignorance (SN 20.1). When ignorance is demolished, all the rest of our unskillful qualities go as well, in the same way that when the roof beam of a house is broken, the rafters—and the entire structure—can no longer stand. The Buddha used this simile to describe his own awakening and freedom from subsequent rebirth.
Through many births
I have wandered on and on,
Searching for, but never finding,
The builder of [this] house.
To be born again and again is suffering.
House-builder, you are seen!
You will not build a house again!
All the rafters are broken,
The ridgepole destroyed;
The mind, gone to the Unconstructed,
Has reached the end of craving!
(Dhammapada 153-44, tr. Fronsdal)
The first two links in the sequence—ignorance (avijja) and volitional formations (saṅkhāra)—are traditionally understood to describe the conditions we inherit from past lives. Ignorance—literally “without knowledge”—is the condition of not having understood the Four Noble Truths and so not having insight into the causes of suffering. Because we don’t understand why we suffer, we continue to make unskillful choices trying to feel safe and fulfilled. “Volitional formations” (also called “kamma formations”) are the concepts and deep structures in the psyche that guide those choices and our subsequent actions, which together create kamma (Sanskrit: karma), the actions taken by us and others that shape our future.
In the teachings on rebirth, Dependent Origination explains why we have been reborn innumerable times into situations of relative ease or difficulty based on past conditions and our skillful and unskillful actions. Understanding this to describe moment-to-moment experience as well, we can see that when mindfulness and wisdom are not present, we make poor choices, with painful results. The unconscious forces that guide our lives come from family, ancestry, and cultural inheritance, along with the basic reality of being humans born into our particular bodies and ecosystems. When ignorance is present, we don’t understand who we are or why we’re here, and we tend to follow unconscious habitual patterns as we make our way through life.
Meeting the World: Consciousness, Name and Form, The Six Sense Fields, Contact
The next two links—sense consciousness (viññāṇa) and name and form (nāma-rūpa)—are intertwined, and describe the mental and emotional structures through which we understand the world. Along with our body we have a mind and heart that includes a vast complex of qualities including language, personality, social norms, and much more. Here we see how the deep karmic inheritance we receive from our families, ancestors, and the culture around us all contribute to who we feel like we are, and to the preferences and identities that form our personality.
“Consciousness” in Buddhism refers not to a permanent aspect of our subtle being like a soul or essential nature, but to the simple cognitive experience of being aware of what is arising in our sensory field. It is not a thing itself but a quality that indicates relationship: we are conscious of things. Consciousness is interwoven with the physical and mental aspects of our experience, called “name and form,” and the constantly fluctuating material that comes through our senses.
The Buddha described six senses, called “sense bases” or “sense fields” (āyatana) instead of our usual five. To the five physical senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, the Dharma adds a sixth: the mind. The insight in this, which we can observe directly in meditation, is that thoughts and feelings are not as much under our control as we may think, appearing and changing much as sounds and sights do. As we observe sensations, thoughts, and feelings with mindfulness, we find that they all behave similarly, arising and passing based on constantly shifting conditions.
The first five links are the subtle background to everything we experience, but are only observable through inference. The sixth link, contact (phassa), describes the moment when attention notices something through one of the senses. If we are awake and conscious, with functioning sense organs, contact is happening constantly. From here the list enters a more directly observable sequence of perception and reactivity, and it is in this section that we find the key to liberation.
Where we Practice: Feeling, Craving, Clinging, Becoming
The heart of Dependent Origination as an explanation for suffering can be seen in the central set of links that begins with the fundamental experiences of embodied life: pleasure and pain. When we make sensory contact with anything, we immediately feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This “feeling tone” (or “hedonic tone,” “charge,” or “affect”) is vedanā, the second foundation of mindfulness. Based on the feeling tone we experience, our instinct is to like or dislike the experience, and from there to crave for pleasant experiences to continue or for painful experiences to end. Craving (taṇhā, literally “thirst”) is the most direct cause of suffering (dukkha), spelled out in the second Noble Truth.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. (SN 56.11)
The rest of the sequence of Dependent Origination describes how suffering takes root and causes rebirth into ignorance, continuing the painful cycle of birth and death. The liberatory aspect of the model, however, is that it is possible to break the chain and no longer take birth into new moments of suffering. This breaking happens between links seven (vedanā) and eight (taṇhā). When we are mindful of feeling tone, and practice staying with feelings of pleasure and pain without reactivity—without giving in to the wish that things be other than they are—the tendency toward habitual craving is weakened. When enough equanimity is present, we can stop the cycle after vedanā and be with sensory contact and feelings without further reactivity. This non-reactive presence is the heart of both meditative tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassanā).
When we are unable to settle the heart and mind, the instinctual process of craving takes over, and as it grows strong in us, leads to the deeper contracted states of clinging (upādāna, literally “feeding”) in which we take unskillful action to try to preserve pleasure or prevent pain.
The final step in this central part of the sequence is becoming (bhava), in which habitual clinging has hardened into long-term patterns of preference and habit, manifesting as personality and identity. We become someone, and the identities that form at this moment in the sequence tend to be painful—based in ignorance, reactivity, craving, and clinging. As identity and personality take root, our actions tend to reinforce them, and our next moments—and next lives—arise naturally from the seeds planted in this one.
Around the Wheel: Birth, Aging, and Death
The final steps in the sequence describe both the physical process of being reborn into our next life and our metaphoric “birth” as we enter the next moment carrying all the unresolved kamma of the past. In the rebirth model, link eleven describes how our next birth is conditioned by the identities and skillful or unskillful actions we’ve done in this life (and other past lives). We may be born in any kind of body—human, animal, or spirit—into comfortable or painful conditions. With practice we can see how even the parts of ourselves that seem unchanging were actually born out of grasping at something in the past, whether from this lifetime or further in the past. Seeing with wisdom and interrupting the cycle of reactivity, we also interrupt the inevitability of “taking birth” as this or that specific person.
Birth is always followed by aging and death, and reflecting on the inevitability of death is one of the most powerful practices the Buddha taught. The final link, “aging and death” is shorthand for a long Pāli phrase that translates as “aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.” If we have gone this far in the cycle, it is difficult to not just flow right back into ignorance as the cycle continues. The process from craving (link 8) to death (link 12) is difficult to interrupt, though it is possible to pause and observe at almost any point in the sequence if mindfulness, compassion, and determination are strong enough.
As we practice seeing our preferences, personalities, and identities as conditioned phenomena, we become disillusioned with their persuasive stories. Seeing through them, we begin to trace them back to their flowering in moments of comfort or discomfort not seen with wisdom and grasped at. Breaking the sequence again and again through non-reactivity and skillful practice, we uproot the ignorance that keeps us turning on this ancient wheel.
After the Buddha’s awakening, he is said to have spent several weeks near the Bodhi tree meditating and reviewing his newfound knowledge. One of the subjects he contemplated at this time was Dependent Origination, which he praised as “deep and deep in implications” (SN 12.60). The model is so central to the Buddha’s teaching that he said “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination” (MN 28). Understanding Dependent Origination is synonymous with Right View, the first aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path (MN 9), and would become a foundation of the elaborate teachings on emptiness and interdependence that developed in later Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions.
The heart of practicing with Dependent Origination is the link between feeling tone and the grasping that so commonly follows it. The qualities we need to interrupt the cycle at this point are mindfulness, energy, and nonreactivity. As equanimity and patience grow, we see our patterns and habits more and more clearly, and the seeds of letting go and eventual liberation take root.
May our practice be for the benefit of all.
A Tibetan painting (thangka) shows the "Wheel of Becoming" (bhavacakra), in which Yama the god of death holds the world in his jaws. The outer ring of the wheel contains 12 cells with images for the 12 links of Dependent Origination.