Dependent Arising (paṭicca samuppāda, also known as Dependent Origination, Interdependent Arising, &c) is of special interest to me. The other day while I was browsing various online forums, I found a monk expressing amazement that anyone could think it was about — well, I’m not going to say what he was amazed by, but suffice to say it was just exactly what I think it’s about. And I was equally amazed that anyone could think that was not what it was about.

This piqued my curiosity, so I would like to ask you, gentle reader, to add one or two sentences (really no need for more) saying what you think Dependent Arising describes. There are many theories out there, and I’m not looking for a debate over those. Just think of this as an informal survey, in which, in as few words as possible, you tell us what your current understanding of this core principal is about.

I will also note, by way of allaying everyone’s nerves about expressing ignorance in public, that as far as I can tell when reading the literature and listening to talks, no one has a really good understanding of what the steps of Dependent Arising are about. When I listen to descriptions of the teaching, it always reminds me of that Harris cartoon with the two mathematicians at the chalk board, only instead of just problems with “Step 2” there are problems with numerous other steps as well.

Anyway, please tell me: What does paṭicca samuppāda describe? What is the point of the lesson?

No Comments

  1. poep sa frank jude on August 2, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    “When this is, that is.
    This arises because that arises.
    When this is not, that is not.
    This ceasing that ceases.”

    This formula, repeated often throughout the suttas, is succinct and free of some of the confusion created by the various ‘nidana’ models (and though the most frequently cited is the 12-link model, the fact is there are others models featuring 6 and 9 and other numbers of links). I think that the fact that there ARE more than one lay-out of ‘links’ should lead us back to the simplicity of the above formula, remembering that all the models are simply just that: models to explicate various concepts the Buddha found helpful in enumerating to different audiences.

    Ultimately, it is the teaching that points away from essentialist thinking; all phenomena, constructed or compounded by various causes and conditions, are empty of self-nature. They dependently arise upon said causes and conditions, and cease when said causes and conditions change.

  2. RLB on August 2, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Thus I heard…
    Everything is connected to everything else.

  3. Dana Nourie on August 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Linda, you posted my favorite cartoon! It’s awesome on many levels.

    Peop, I agree, that is a brilliant, simple formula.

    The way I understand dependent arising is that nothing exists in and of itself. Everything forms out of previous conditions, and because “birth” emerges from conditions, whatever arises is impermanent, empty of ‘self’ or thingness, and therefore to cling to it will ultimately result in suffering.

    If we see that everything arises out of conditions, and everything is dependent and impermanent, we are less likely to cling. This also helps us see that everything is inter-related. I don’t mean in the new-agey everything is one, but everything is dependent on a lot of other factors that may be seen or not.

    So, dependent origination also points back at consequences of actions.

    Basically: conditions > birth of something > aging and breakdown > death

    We can see this clearly with how the mind works. Something outside ourselves occurs based on conditions. We react to that event, possibly by the birth of thoughts and emotions, all of which last a short time, then die away. Quite possibly in that reaction we gave birth to a feeling of self, and if not clung to, that feeling can simply die away. If we try to cling, we create more conditions, and it end up cycling until we finally let go.

  4. Michael Cluff on August 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    I’m not sure I’m adding to the work of the last two commenters, but here goes:

    People talk of “the interconnectedness of all things,” but the notion of dependent arising characterizes the interconnectedness of *events* instead. By understanding this, not only are we less likely to cling, we’re more likely to understand events more fully, and perhaps appreciate the motivations of oneself and others.

  5. Jayarava on August 3, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Paṭiccasamuppāda is a general principle which describes the arising and passing away of mental phenomena, which we experience as dukkha (disappointment, dissatisfaction). “Only dukkha arises, only dukkha passes away” (S i.136 etc) Paṭiccasamuppāda is not a Theory of Everything, but applies within the domain of human perceptions. Which is not to say that “things” are not conditioned, or that there is not cause and effect; only that paṭiccasamuppāda is not a description of Reality (whatever that means) but has this more specific applicability. (Science provides better descriptions of Reality, but this is not very relevant to Buddhism on the whole). Buddhists applying the principle beyond this domain produce paradoxes and other philosophical problems.

    In particular the theory describes how when three conditions – sense object, sense faculty, and sense consciousness – are simultaneously present then “contact” (phassa) arises in dependence on them, and from this we become aware of having an experience (we know that we are in contact with something – vedanā), etc. Everyday experience is thus saṅkhāta (constructed). Other formulations draw out different aspects of the principle in practice, but this seems to me to be the most important and coherent of the applications we have inherited, and the one with the most profound practical implications.

    The theory suggests that we experience dukkha (disappointment, dissatisfaction) because we fail to correctly understand and relate to vedanā (what we experience) – spinning off into associations and fantasies, and taking our perceptions to be real; instead of remaining equanimous and understanding that experiences are fleeting and insubstantial (like a bubble, or lightening etc). Experience is always like this, even when the object of experience is not. Objects are often unchanging to the naked eye, over many human lifetimes, e.g. a diamond may not perceptibly change for millions of years. In other words the three lakkhanas are characteristics of experiences, not of Reality: experience is straightforwardly fleeting, disappointing, and lack inherent or independent existence.

    Similarly this is the natural domain of the idea that dichotomies like existent & non-existent do not apply; in the world of objects this suggests a third mystical state of being, and leads to speculative theories. In the domain of experience it is a simple and straightforward observation: feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas do not exist in the way that, say, a brick does, and yet because we experience them we cannot say they do not exist. In the realm of dhammas (objects of the manas) concepts like existence & non-existence (or real & unreal) do not apply.

  6. earl on August 3, 2011 at 8:23 am

    yes, Linda for the purposes of the quiz, my understanding is that this concept relates to the interdependent causality of all phenomena, and their emergence dynamically in the moment, with implications for the illusions of consistency, object, and category which our perceptual systems create.

  7. Marcello Spinella on August 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Short and sweet:

    1. “Idappaccayata ” refers to causality, or “this/that conditionality” as Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls it.

    When this is present, this happens,
    when this arises, this arises.
    When this is not present, this does not happen,
    when this ceases, this ceases”
    (from: MN 115, “The discourse on many elements”).

    The interpretation of this depends on Theravada vs. Mahayana. Mahayana (e.g. Nagarjuna, Madhamaka) more heavily emphasizes that because everything exists dependent on conditions, it’s all empty of inherent existence. Nothing exists the way that it appears. All of this depends on the mind that perceives and conceptualizes experience. Thich Nhat Hanh gives the cloud in a book example to illustrate interbeing.

    2. Paticca-samuppada refers more specifically to the wheel of dependent origination:

    I could never grasp this until I read Christina Feldman’s clear explanation:

    In short, we come to a situation with ignorance/misunderstanding & conditioned habits so that when we experience present events (consciousness -> feeling), we react with craving & clinging/attachment. This creates a temporary & illusory sense of self (birth), which is bound to suffer as things change (aging & death). This further feeds into ignorance & conditioned habits, ad nauseum (ad dukkham?).

    The really short version:
    1. Clinging to something temporarily creates a sense of self based on that clinging.
    2. Sets you up for suffering, more misunderstanding & habits.
    3. Repeat

    Or as Gil Fronsdal says it, when you cling, you suffer, dependent on that clinging. When you reduce or stop clinging you suffer less or stop suffering.

  8. Greg on August 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    General model: this-that conditionality

    12-link: the phenomenological psychological preconditions necessary for suffering.

  9. mknick on August 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    The phenomenal world is one of contingent processes, rather than fixed identities.

  10. Ratanadhammo on August 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Dependent arising explains how self relates to conditioned phenomena, i.e. how by failing to recognize self as an impermanent and entirely conditioned phenomenon, sentient beings become and unknowingly remain attached to conditioned phenomena, which inevitably leads to problems!

  11. Dhivajri on August 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    [Tried not to look at anyone else’s answers!] I defer to Jayarava, but here is what I would say if asked (short-ish version):

    Dependent arising [the term I use]: Everything that we perceive and experience arises out of a constantly changing web of causes and conditions, and everything that arises in turn becomes part of that web. If conditions for a particular thing cease or change, then that thing will cease or change as well.

    The dependently-arisen world we inhabit can also be described as conditioned existence (or samsara), and it is characterized by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstaniality. Insubstantiality is more accurately translated as no-self, although this does not negate the empirical self. Rather everything is empty of any permanent, inherent self-existence.

  12. James Hegarty on August 5, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    The rain and I arise together.

    That is the short version. There are philosophical versions which I believe, at best, attempt to explain the essentially non-conceptual experience.

  13. Sam on August 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    A tree exists because of the soil to grow in, the rain to drink, the carbon dioxide to breathe, the light to grow towards, the gravity to hold it, the atomic structure that forms it, etc.

    This applies to all things from the deepest inner mind to the outer limits.

    (Yes. I just did that. ;))

  14. Dana Nourie on August 6, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Linda, when I reread this blog, I wondered what “steps” you are referring to. I never thought of dependent origination as being in steps. When I took the Tibetan Buddhist course, they talks about the circle of dependent origination, and had this drawing they referred to that started with ignorance, leading to birth, and on and on around, ending with death, back to ignorance, etc. They referred to it as the cycle of rebirth, but I always looked it that as metaphorical.

    Are there suttas that refer to *steps*????

  15. star on August 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    No suttas I know of refer to “steps”, but neither is there any sutta in which Dependent Arising goes in a circle. It goes 1 to 12, and 12 to 1, and 2 arising from 1, 3 arising from 2, and 12 not arising from 11 because it’s absent, and 11 not arising from 10, and, well, there are many combinations. But it never ever ever ever goes from 12 to 1. To me that makes it quite clear the Buddha was not describing a cycle. But then I’m a maverick. ; )

    I hear them described as “nidanas” — as “causes”, but have not gone out of my way to look for suttas in which the Buddha talks about them as causes. I’m confident that the “This being, that arises” phrasing is a reference to Dependent Arising, and that, in fact, the Buddha’s causality is (as Jayarava says) not a generalized “Theory of Everything” (as he puts it). Rather, it is a very specific example of the same sort of causality we can see elsewhere in the world, but it’s not physics the Buddha was discussing.

    I’ve also heard them called “links” in a chain, but I don’t recall ever seeing the Buddha refer to them that way. Links in a chain of events is a familiar concept, and though it sounds like it should be totally linear — link 1 followed by link 2 — when we are talking about chains of events we generally understand that they might not always be perfectly ordered, depending on what’s going on or what’s being described.

    I think that any of those — “steps” or “causes” or “links” — is accurate enough.

    • Jayarava Attwood on September 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      nidāna means ‘basis, condition’ rather than ’cause’, or ‘step’. So nidāna is describing the relationship between things, not the things themselves. The individual items that are the basis for the next item are referred to as ‘dhammas’ in the general sense of ‘thing, item’.

      • star on September 1, 2011 at 11:30 pm

        My PDR shows nidana: “source; cause; origin”. You’re saying that’s incorrect? Isn’t a “basis” or a “condition” for something a “cause”?

        I used “step” to match the cartoon, but it does seem to me that when in general discussion of the dharma (rather than quoting suttas) we needn’t be pedantic. Though I do understand that there are those who can’t help it. Myself, possibly, among those.

  16. Sabio Lantz on August 9, 2011 at 6:07 am

    I will write down my limited understanding before I see the comments:

    “Dependent Arising[DA] is the simple position that everything has a cause — stuff don’t pop out of nowhere.”

    Now, on to the comments:

    You didn’t ask about the particular causation links in Pali scripture — that is another story altogether! (correct?)

    Jude: I agree, DA points away from essentialism.

    Dana: I think you took the question a step further. And I don’t know what you mean by

    nothing exists in and of itself.

    I get “everything has a cause” , but once it does, can’t it exist in and of itself?

    RLB: I don’t think everything is connected to everything else — in any meaningful way. Instead, if you are talking about causal links, perhaps, but not active links. I think this “we are all connected” is a romantic mysticism that snuck into Buddhism.

    Jayarave: Your definition corrects mine. Put simply, does it say:

    DA is shorthand for Our perceptions are caused by our subjective interaction with an object. We construct our worlds.

    But doesn’t DA itself proceed this application?

    How would you translate:
    (1) Idappaccayata
    (2) Paticca-samuppada
    I was confused which was DA or if you are saying both are sometimes translated at DA.

    Dhivajre: I wonder if thinking about a web (as if it itself is an entity with some sort of consistecy) is not also mistaken.

    • Dana Nourie on August 9, 2011 at 9:21 am

      Sabio, what I meant by nothing exists in and of itself is that there isn’t anything that has an inherent self. We label a cup a cup, but *cup* is a label we apply to that collection of parts. It’s a convenient label to be sure, and a label that is very important to communication.

      But we also do not have an inherent self, and instead are dynamic, changing, and impermanent. What we view as self is a mental and emotional construct, and the more we solidify that in our minds, the more we give birth to an ego that is ultimately going to create a lot of suffering for ourselves.

      • Jayarava Attwood on September 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm

        Hi Dana,

        The Buddha of the Pāli Canon does use images like the cup, but only ever as metaphors for how the mind works. He is not interested in applying his theory to things, only applying it to the mind.

        I almost agree with your second paragraph. You can’t solidify something which doesn’t exist, but you can develop habits of thinking. In order to practice the Dharma we must, according to tradition, be human – bodhi is not possible from any other realm. But in order to be human we must have a strong sense of self. Without it we are crippled, as people with severe autism or schizophrenia demonstrate every day – as you say the labels are useful, and ‘I’ is extremely useful. But yes we develop habits of thought with respect to our first person perspective that are unhealthy and relate to others in ways which cause suffering. Why we do this is a fascinating question that modern thinkers, especially Thomas Metzinger. are starting to throw light on.

    • Jayarava Attwood on September 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm

      @Sabio: “But doesn’t DA itself proceed this application?” Precede? Proceed does make sense. If you are saying that the idea that we construct our worlds presupposes the idea of paṭicca-samuppāda, then I suggest you read Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger. Neither show any sign of apply Buddhist theory (and Metzinger is clearly woefully ignorant of it) and yet they have come to the same conclusion via neuroscience.

      • Sabio Lantz on September 2, 2011 at 4:34 am

        Yes, Jayarava, “proceed” was a mistake — very good.

        Reading my comment to you now, I don’t understand my own question, but then I don’t understand your reply either. I have read both Damasio and Metzinger, btw. Love them both.
        I don’t think we disagree — boy, but communication can be tough, eh. 🙂

  17. faberglas on August 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    I seem to be a verb – Buckminster Fuller

    • Jayarava Attwood on September 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm

      ‘I’ is a pronoun, not a verb; ‘seem’ is an adverb, ‘to be’ a verb, and ‘verb’ is a noun. 😉 Fuller is no longer a verb, is he? He’s a noun: ‘dead’.

      • Bruce Carleton on April 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm

        Since we’re parsing, it should be noted that “seem” is the main verb in that sentence – it’s not an adverb.

  18. lenorelambert on September 20, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Some people have struggled with the ‘few words’ thing.

    Here’s mine (similar to some others): everything relies on other things, both to come into existence and to continue to exist.

  19. […] we start on the first link, I will finally add my answer to the earlier Pop Quiz about Dependent Origination and just say this about what dependent arising is: it describes the arising of the parts of our […]

  20. Michael Finley on November 20, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    If paṭicca samuppāda refers specifically to the formula of 12 or 8 or howmanyever links, then I think it is about the creation of the self and the origin of dukkha — or perhaps better, is about indivualization and the pain that entails.

    Rhys-Davids, more than a century ago, got it nearky right, I think. The quote below was written in connection with the 4NT, but applies equally to paṭicca samuppāda:

    “One can express that in more modern language by saying that the conditions that make an individual are precisely the conditions that also give rise to pain. No sooner has an individual arisen, become separate, than disease and decay begin to act upon it. Individuality involves limitation, limitation involves ignorance, ignorance ends in sorrow. All the sorts and sources of pain here specified — birth, decay, death, union with the pleasant, separation from the pleasant, unsatisfied longings — are each simply a result of individuality.”

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