Pratityasamutpada or pratītyasamutpāda (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद, pratītyasamutpāda; पटिच्चसमुप्पाद, paṭiccasamuppāda), commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine of Buddhist philosophy, which states that all dharmas (“phenomena”) arise in dependence upon other dharmas:

“if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist”.

The principle is expressed in the links of dependent origination (dvādasanidānāni, dvādaśanidānāni) in Buddhism, a linear list of twelve elements from the Buddhist teachings which arise depending on the preceding link. Traditionally the list is interpreted as describing the conditional arising of rebirth in saṃsāra, and the resultant duḥkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). An alternative Theravada interpretation regards the list as describing the arising of mental formations and the resultant notion of “I” and “mine,” which are the source of suffering. Traditionally, the reversal of the causal chain is explained as leading to the annihilation of mental formations and rebirth. 

Scholars have noted inconsistencies in the list, and regard it to be a later synthesis of several older lists. The first four links may be a mockery of the Vedic-Brahmanic cosmogony, as described in the Hymn of Creation of Veda X, 129 and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. These were integrated with a branched list which describe the conditioning of mental processes, akin to the five skandhas. Eventually, this branched list developed into the standard twelvefold chain as a linear list. While this list describes the processes which give rise to rebirth, it also analyzes the arising of dukkha as a psychological process, without the involvement of an atman.

The twelve nidanas explain the rebirth / reincarnation mechanism in Buddhism. Starting with Avidya (ignorance, misconception) as first. The 12 nidanas are often shown in wheel of life’s outer rim (above) in the traditional bhavachakra.

Etymology and meaning


Pratityasamutpada (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद) consists of two terms:

  • pratitya: “having depended”; it appears in various Vedas and Upanishads, such as hymns 4.5.14, 7.68.6 of the Rigveda and 19.49.8 of Atharvaveda, in the sense of “confirmation, dependence, acknowledge origin”. The Sanskrit root of the word is prati* whose forms appear more extensively in the Vedic literature, and it means “to go towards, go back, come back, to approach” with the connotation of “observe, learn, convince oneself of the truth of anything, be certain of, believe, give credence, recognize”. In other contexts, a related term pratiti* means “going towards, approaching, insight into anything”.
  • samutpada: “arising”, “rise, production, origin” In Vedic literature, it means “spring up together, arise, come to pass, occur, effect, form, produce, originate”.

The term has been translated into English variously as dependent originationdependent arisinginterdependent co-arisingconditioned arising, and conditioned genesis.

The term may also refer to the twelve nidānas, dvādasanidānāni, dvādaśanidānāni, from dvāvaśa (“twelve”) + nidānāni (plural of “nidāna“, “cause, motivation, link”). Generally speaking, in the Mahayana tradition, pratityasamutpada (Sanskrit) is used to refer to the general principle of interdependent causation, whereas in the Theravada tradition, paticcasamuppāda (Pali) is used to refer to the twelve nidānas.

The twelve nidanas explain the rebirth / reincarnation mechanism in Buddhism. Starting with Avidya (ignorance, misconception) as first. The 12 nidanas are often shown in wheel of life's outer rim (above) in the traditional bhavachakra. This is a derivative work on File:Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out.jpg available on wikimedia, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Please see that file for attributions and any special restrictions.

The twelve nidanas explain the rebirth / reincarnation mechanism in Buddhism. Starting with Avidya (ignorance, misconception) as first. The 12 nidanas are often shown in wheel of life’s outer rim (above) in the traditional bhavachakra. This is a derivative work on File:Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out.jpg available on wikimedia, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Please see that file for attributions and any special restrictions.



The Pratityasamutpada teachings asserts neither direct Newtonian-like causality nor a single causality. Rather, it asserts an indirect conditioned causality and a plural causality. The “causal link” propositions in Buddhism is very different from the idea of causality that developed in Europe. Instead, the concept of causality in Buddhism is referring to conditions created by a plurality of causes that necessarily co-originate phenomena within and across lifetimes, such as karma in one life creating conditions that lead to rebirth in a certain realm of existence for another lifetime. The Pratītyasamutpāda principle asserts that the dependent origination is a necessary condition. This is expressed in Majjhima Nikaya as “When this is, that is; This arising, that arises; When this is not, that is not; This ceasing, that ceases.”

Ontological principle

According to Peter Harvey, Pratityasamutpada is an ontological principle; that is, a theory to explain the nature and relations of being, becoming, existence and ultimate reality. Buddhism asserts that there is nothing independent, except nirvana. All physical and mental states depend on and arise from other pre-existing states, and in turn from them arise other dependent states while they cease. The ‘dependent arisings’ have a causal conditioning, and thus Pratityasamutpada is the Buddhist belief that causality is the basis of ontology, not a creator God nor the ontological Vedic concept called universal Self (Brahman) nor any other ‘transcendent creative principle’.

The Pratītyasamutpāda ontological principle in Buddhism is applied not only to explain the nature and existence of matter and empirically observed phenomenon, but also to the nature and existence of life. In abstract form, according to Peter Harvey, “the doctrine states: ‘That being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases’.” There is no ‘first cause’ from which all beings arose.

Workings of the mind

Against Harvey’s ontological interpretation, Eviatar Shulman argues that

dependent-origination addresses the workings of the mind alone. Dependent-origination should be understood to be no more than an inquiry into the nature of the self (or better, the lack of a self). Viewing pratitya-samutpada as a description of the nature of reality in general means investing the words of the earlier teachings with meanings derived from later Buddhist discourse.”

Shulman grants that there are some ontological implications that may be gleaned from dependent origination, but that at its core it is concerned with “identifying the different processes of mental conditioning and describing their relations”.

Noa Ronkin states that while Buddha suspends all views regarding certain metaphysical questions, he is not an anti-metaphysician: nothing in the texts suggests that metaphysical questions are completely meaningless, instead Buddha taught that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned, impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood.

Epistemological principle

He who sees the Paṭiccasamuppāda sees the Dhamma;
He who sees the Dhamma sees the Paṭiccasamuppāda.

— Majjhima Nikaya 1.190, Translated by David Williams

According to Stephen Laumakis, pratītyasamutpāda is also an epistemological principle; that is, a theory about how we gain correct and incorrect knowledge about being, becoming, existence and reality. The ‘dependent origination’ doctrine, states Peter Harvey, “highlights the Buddhist notion that all apparently substantial entities within the world are in fact wrongly perceived. We live under the illusion that terms such as ‘I’, self, mountain, tree, etc. denote permanent and stable things. The doctrine teaches this is not so.” There is nothing permanent (anicca), nothing substantial, no unique individual self in the nature of becoming and existence (anatta), because everything is a result of “dependent origination”. There are no independent objects and independent subjects; according to the Pratītyasamutpāda doctrine, there is fundamental emptiness in all phenomena and experiences.

Twelve Nidanas

The 12 Nidānas

The 12 Nidānas

The twelve nidānas (dvādasanidānāni, dvādaśanidānāni) is a linear list of twelve elements from the Buddhist teachings which are pratītyasamutpāda, arising depending on the previous link. According to Shulman, “the 12 links are paticcasamuppada“; in the suttas, dependent origination refers to nothing else but the process of mental conditioning as described by the twelve nidanas. 

Traditionally the standard-list is interpreted as describing the conditional arising of rebirth in saṃsāra, and the resultant duḥkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). An alternative interpretation regards the list as describing the causal arising of mental formations and the resultant duḥkha. Traditionally, the reversal of the causal chain is explained as leading to the annihilation of mental formations and rebirth. Scholars have noted inconsistencies in the list, and regard it to be a later synthesis of several older lists.

Several series

There are various Nidana lists throughout the Early Buddhist Texts and collections such as the Pali Nikayas, the most common of which is a list of Twelve Nidānas which appears in both Pali texts and Mahayana sutras such as the Salistamba Sutra. The ‘dependent origination’ doctrine is presented in Vinaya Pitaka 1.1–2, in abbreviated form in Samyutta Nikaya 2.1, 2.19 and 2.76.

Dīgha Nikāya Sutta 1, the Brahmajala Sutta, verse 3.71 describes six Nidānas:

[…] [T]hey experience these feelings by repeated contact through the six sense-bases; feeling conditions craving; craving conditions clinging; clinging conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, sadness and distress.

Dīgha Nikāya, Sutta 14 describes ten links, and in Sutta 15 nine links are described, but without the six sense‑bases:

…they experience these feelings by repeated contact through the six sense-bases; feeling conditions craving; craving conditions clinging; clinging conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, sadness and distress.

Descriptions of the full sequence of twelve links can be found elsewhere in the Pali canon, for instance in section 12 of the Samyutta Nikaya:

Now from the remainderless fading and cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications … From the cessation of birth, then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

Twelve-fold chain

Twelve NidanasTwelve Nidanas

Causal chain

“Nidanas” are co-dependent events or phenomena, which act as links on a chain, conditioning and depending on each other. When certain conditions are present, they give rise to subsequent conditions, which in turn give rise to other conditions. Phenomena are sustained only so long as their sustaining factors remain. This causal relationship is expressed in its most general form as follows: 

When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.
— Samyutta Nikaya 12.61

This natural law of this/that causality is independent of being discovered, just like the laws of physics. In particular, the Buddha applied this law of causality to determine the cause of dukkha. Understanding the relationships between the phenomena that sustain dukkha is said to lead to nibbana, complete freedom from samsara


Traditionally, the reversal of the causal chain is explained as leading to the annihilation of mental formations and rebirth: “From the remainderless fading and cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of (volitional) fabrications” et cetera. 

The Upanisa Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya describes the reversed order, in which the causes for enlightenment are given. This application of the principle of dependent arising is referred to in Theravada exegetical literature as “transcendental dependent arising”. The chain in this case is:

  1. suffering (dukkha)
  2. faith (saddhā)
  3. joy (pāmojjapāmujja)
  4. rapture (pīti)
  5. tranquillity (passaddhi)
  6. happiness (sukha)
  7. concentration (samādhi)
  8. knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathābhūta-ñāna-dassana)
  9. disenchantment with worldly life (nibbidā)
  10. dispassion (virāga)
  11. freedom, release, emancipation (vimutti, a synonym for nibbana)
  12. knowledge of destruction of the cankers (āsava-khaye-ñāna)

Interpretation of the twelve nidanas


Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the twelve nidanas are considered to be the most significant application of the principle of dependent origination.


The nikayas themselves do not give a systematic explanation of the nidana series. As an expository device, the commentarial tradition presented the factors as a linear sequence spanning over three lives, thus shifting the theme from a single conception (and birth) to a sequence of “incarnations” (roughly speaking). The twelve nidanas were interpreted by Buddhaghosa (c. fifth century CE) of the Sri Lankan Mahavihara tradition as encompassing three successive lives, as outlined in his influential Visuddhimagga. According to Buddhaghosa, the first two nidanas, namely ignorance (nescience) and motivation, relate to the previous life and forecast the destiny of the person. The third to the tenth nidanas relate to the present life, beginning with the descent of vijnana (consciousness, perception) into the womb. The last two nidanas (birth and death) represent the future lives conditioned by the present causes. Because of Buddhaghosa’s vast influence in the development of Theravada scholasticism, this model has been very influential in the Theravada school.

Arising of mental processes

Yet, the twelve nidanas have also been interpreted within the Theravada tradition as explaining the arising of psychological or phenomenological processes in the present moment. There is scriptural support for this as an explanation in the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, insofar as Vasubandu states that on occasion “the twelve parts are realized in one and the same moment”. Prayudh Payutto notes that in Buddhaghosa’s Sammohavinodani, a commentary to the Vibhanga of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the principle of Dependent Origination is explained as occurring entirely within the space of one mind moment. According to Prayudh Payutto there is material in the Vibhanga which discusses both models, the three lifetimes model and the phenomenological mind moment model. This thesis is also defended by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination. In this interpretation, Birth and Death refer not to physical birth and death, but to the birth and death of our self-concept, the “emergence of the ego”. According to Buddhadhasa,

…dependent arising is a phenomenon that lasts an instant; it is impermanent. Therefore, Birth and Death must be explained as phenomena within the process of dependent arising in everyday life of ordinary people. Right Mindfulness is lost during contacts of the Roots and surroundings. Thereafter, when vexation due to greed, anger, and ignorance is experienced, the ego has already been born. It is considered as one ‘birth'”.


According to Akira Hirakawa and Paul Groner, the three-lives model, with its “embryological” interpretation which links dependent origination with rebirth was also promoted by the Sarvastivadin school (a north Indian branch of the Sthavira nikāya) as evidenced by the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu (fl. 4th to 5th century CE).

The Abhidharmakosa also outlines three other models of the twelve nidanas, that were used by the Sarvastivada schools together with the three lifetimes model:

  1. Instantaneous – All 12 links are present in the same instant.
  2. Prolonged – The interdependence and causal relationship of dharmas or phenomenal events arising at different times.
  3. Serial – The causal relationship of the twelve links arising and ceasing in continuous series of moments.


Asanga (4th century CE) groups the twelve nidanas into four groups: 1-3 cause of dharmas; 4-7 dharmas; 8-10 cause of suffering; 11-12 suffering.

Tibetan Buddhism

The bhavachakra (bhavachakra; Tibetan: srid pa’i ‘khor lo) is a symbolic representation of saṃsāra (or cyclic existence). It is found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Indo-Tibetan region, to help ordinary people understand Buddhist teachings. The Three Fires sit at the very center of the schemata in the Bhavacakra and drive the whole edifice. In Himalayan iconographic representations of the Bhavacakra such as within Tibetan Buddhism, the Three Fires are known as the Three Poisons which are often represented as the Gankyil. The Gankyil is also often represented as the hub of the Dharmacakra.

Tsongkhapa, following Asanga, explains how the twelve nidanas can be applied to one life of a single person, two lives of a single person, and three lives of a single person.

Discussing the three lifetimes model, Alex Wayman states that the Theravada/Sarvāstivāda interpretation is different from the Vajrayana view, because the Vajrayana view places a bardo or an intermediate state between death and rebirth, which is denied by the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins. This denial necessitated placing the first two nidanas of the “dependent origination” chain into the past life. The Tibetan Buddhism tradition allocates the twelve nidanas differently between various lives.

Development of the twelve nidanas

Synthesis of older versions

Combination of older lists

According to Frauwallner, the twelvefold chain is a combination of two lists. Originally, the Buddha explained the appearance of dukkha from tanha, “thirst,” craving. This is explained and described in the second part, from tanha on forwards. Later on, under influence of concurring systems, the Buddha incorporated avijja, “ignorance,” as a cause of suffering into his system. This is described in the first part, which describes the entry of vijnana into the womb, where the embryo develops. Frauwallner notes that “the purely mechanical mixing of both the two parts of the causal chain is remarkable and enigmatical.” Noting that “contradictory thoughts stand directly near one another in the oldest Buddhistic ideas” many times, Frauwallner explains this as a “deficiency in systematization, the inability to mix different views and principles into a great unity.”

According to Schumann, the twelvefold chain is a later composition by monks, consisting of three shorter lists. These lists may have encompassed nidana 1-4, 5-8, and 8-12. The progress of this composition can be traced in various steps in the canon.

Lambert Schmitthausen argues that the twelve-fold list is a synthesis from three previous lists, arguing that the three lifetimes-interpretation is an unintended consequence of this synthesis.

Branched and looped version

Roderick S. Bucknell analysed four versions of the twelve nidanas, to explain the existence of various versions of the pratitya-samutpada sequence. The twevefold version is the “standard version,” in which vijnana refers to sensual consciousness. According to Bucknell, the “standard version” of the twelve nidanas developed out of an ancestor version, which in turn was derived from two different versions, in which vijnana is differently explained.

In the so-called “branched version”, which is not strictly linear, but connects a couple of branches, vijnana is derived from the coming together of the sense organs and the sense objects, a description which can also be found in other sutras. The three of them constitute phassa (“contact”). From there on, the list is linear. In the Sutta-nipata version, which is altogether linear, vijnana is derived from avijja (“ignorance”) and Saṅkhāra (“activities” (RSB); also translated as “volitional formations”).

The Mahanidana-sutta describes a “looped version,” which is also further linear, in which vijnana and nama-rupa condition each other. According to Bucknell, this “looped version” is derived from the “branched version.”  According to Bucknell, “some accounts of the looped version state explicitly that the chain of causation goes no further back than the loop. The Mahanidana further explains vijnana as “consciousness that descends into the mother’s womb at the moment of conception.” Waldron notes that vijnana here has two aspects, namely “samsaric vijnana” and “cognitive consciousness.” “Samsaric vijnana” is “consciousness per se, the basic sentience necessary for all animate life,” which descends into the womb at the time of conception. Cognitive consciousness is related to the senses and the sense objects. It is “samsaric vijnana” which forms, in Buddhist thought, the connection between two lives. While these two aspects were largely undifferentiated in early Buddhist thought, these two aspects and their relation was explicated in later Buddhist thought, giving rise to the concept of alaya-vijñana.

While the “branched version” refers directly to the six sense objects, the “looped version” and the standard version instead name it nama-rupa, which eventually was misinterpreted as “name-and-form” in the traditional sense. This created “new causal series,” which made it possible to interpret the beginning of the chain as referring to rebirth, just like the end of the chain. In line with this reinterpretation, vijnana “became the consciousness that descends into the mother’s womb at conception, while nama-rupa became the mind-body complex that […] experiences contact (phassa) and so on.”

Bucknell further notes that the “branched version,” in which nama-rupa refers to the six classes of sense-objects, corresponds with Buddhadasas psychological interpretation of the twelve nidanas. The “looped version,” in which vijnana corresponds with “rebirth consciousness,” corresponds with defenders of the traditional interpretation, such as Nyanatiloka. According to Bucknell, the linear list, with its distortions and changed meaning for nama-rupa and vinaya, may have developed when the list came to be recited in reverse order.

Commentary on Vedic cosmogeny

Alex Wayman has argued that the idea of “dependent origination” may precede the birth of the Buddha, noting that the first four causal links starting with Avidya in the Twelve Nidānas are found in the cosmic development theory of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and other older Vedic texts. Jeffrey Hopkins notes that terms synonymous to Pratītyasamutpāda are Apekṣhasamutpāda and Prāpyasamutpāda. According to Kalupahana, the concept of causality and causal efficacy where “cause produces an effect because a property or svadha (energy) is inherent in something”, appears extensively in the Indian thought in the Vedic literature of the 2nd millennium BCE, such as the 10th mandala of the Rigveda and the Brahmanas layer of the Vedas.

  1. sayam katam (attakatam, self causation): this theory posits that there is no external agent (God) necessary for a phenomenon, there is svadha (inner energy) in nature or beings that lead to creative evolution, the cause and the effect are in the essence of the evolute and inseparable (found in the Vedic and particularly Upanishadic proto-Hindu schools);
  2. param katam (external causation): posits that something external (God, fate, past karma or purely natural determinism) causes effects (found in materialistic schools like Charvaka, as well as fate-driven schools such as Ajivika);
  3. sayam-param katam (internal and external causation): combination of the first two theories of causation (found in some Jainism, theistic proto-Hindu schools);
  4. asayam-aparam katam (neither internal nor external causation): this theory denies direct determinism (ahetu) and posits fortuitous origination, asserting everything is a manifestation of a combination of chance (found in some proto-Hindu schools).

A similar resemblance has been noted by Jurewicz, who argues that the first four nidanas resemble the Hymn of Creation of RigVeda X, 129, in which avijja (ignorance) leads to kamma (desire), which is the seed of vijnana (“consciousness”). This consciousness is a “singular consciousness,” (Jurewicz) “non-dual consciousness,” (Gombrich) “reflexive, cognizing itself” (Gombrich). When the created world, name and form, evolves, pure consciousness manifests itself in the world. It mistakenly identifies itself with name and form, losing sight of its real identity. The Buddha mimicked this creation story, making clear how the entanglement with the world “drive a human being into deeper and deeper ignorance about himself.” According to Jurewicz, the Buddha may have picked the term nama-rupa, because “the division of consciousness into name and form has only the negative value of an act which hinders cognition.”

According to Gombrich, the Buddhist tradition soon lost sight of this connection with the Vedic worldview. It was aware that at this point there is the appearance of an individual person, which the Buddha referred to as the five skandhas, denying a self (atman) separate from these skandhas. The Buddhist tradition equated rupa with the first skandha, and nama with the other four. Yet, as Gombrich notes, samkharavijnana, and vedana also appear as separate links in the twelvefold list, so this equation can’t be correct for this nidana. According to Jurewizc, all twelve nidanas show similarities with the Vedic cosmogeny. They may have been invoked for educated listeners, to make the point that suffering arises in dependence on psychological processes without an atman, thereby rejecting the Vedic outlook.

According to Gombrich, following Frauwallner, the twelve-fold list is a combination of two previous lists, the second list beginning with tanha, “thirst,” the cause of suffering as described in the second Noble Truth”. The first list consists of the first four nidanas, which parody the Vedic-Brahmanic cosmogony, as described by Jurewicz. According to Gombrich, the two lists were combined, resulting in contradictions in its negative version. Gombrich further notes that

Jurewicz’s interpretation also makes it unnecessary to accept the complicated, indeed contorted, interpretation favoured by Buddhaghosa, that the chain covers three lives of the individual.

Five skandhas

Main article: Skandha

According to Mathieu Boisvert, nidana 3-10 correlate with the five skandhas. Boisvert notes that sanna, “perception,” is not part of the twelvefold chain, but does play a role in the prevention of the arising of the samkharas. Likewise, Waldron notes that the anusaya, “underlying tendencies, are the link between the cognitive processes of phassa (“contact”) and vedana (feeling), and the afflictive responses of tanha (“craving”) and upadana (“grasping”).

According to Schumann, the Nidanas are a later synthesis of Buddhist teachings, meant to make them more comprehensible. Comparison with the five skhandhas shows that the chain contains logical inconsistencies, which can be explained when the chain is considered to be a later elaboration. This way it is explainable that nama-rupa en consciousness in the 9-fold are the beginning or start, while in the 12-fold chain they are preceded by ignorance and formations. Those can only exist when nama-rupa en consciousness are present. Schumann also proposes that the 12-fold is extended over three existences, and illustrate the succession of rebirths. While Buddhaghosa and Vasubandhu maintain a 2-8-2 schema, Schumann maintains a 3-6-3 scheme, putting the five skandhas aside the twelve nidanas.

Four Noble Truths

The second and third truths in the Four Noble Truths are related to the principle of dependent origination, with dependent arising elaborating the arising of suffering. The second truth applies dependent origination in a direct order, while the third truth applies it in inverse order.

Comparison of lists

Altogether the various lists combine as follows:

Sequence of stages prior to birth

According to Eisel Mazard, the twelve Nidanas are a description of “a sequence of stages prior to birth,” as an “orthodox defense against any doctrine of a ‘supernal self’ or soul of any kind […] excluding an un-mentioned life-force (jīva) that followers could presume to be additional to the birth of the body, the arising of consciousness, and the other aspects mentioned in the 12-links formula.” According to Mazard, “many later sources have digressed from the basic theme and subject-matter of the original text, knowingly or unknowingly.”


The notion of karma is integrated into the list of twelve nidanas, and has been extensively commented on by ancient Buddhist scholars such as Nagarjuna. Karma consists of any intentional action, whether of body or speech or in mind, which can be either advantageous (merit) or disadvantageous (demerit). Both good and bad karma sustain the cycle of samsara (rebirth) and associated dukkha, and both prevent the attainment of nirvana.

According to Nagarjuna, the second causal link (sankhara, motivations) and the tenth causal link (bhava, gestation) are two karmas through which sentient beings trigger seven sufferings identified in the Twelve Nidanas, and from this arises the revolving rebirth cycles.

To be liberated from samsara and dukkha, asserts Buddhism, the ‘dependent origination’ doctrine implies that the karmic activity must cease. One aspect of this ‘causal link breaking’ is to destroy the “deeply seated propensities, festering predilections” (asavas) which are karmic causal flow because these lead to rebirth.

Sunyata (emptiness)

Sunyata or Śūnyatā (शून्यता, śūnyatā; suññatā) – pronounced in English as (shoon-ya-ta), translated most often as emptiness and sometimes voidness – is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.


Main article: Madhyamaka

In the Madhyamaka philosophy, to say that an object is “empty” is synonymous with saying that it is dependently originated. Nāgārjuna equates emptiness with dependent origination in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24.18-19;

Whatever arises dependently

Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.

Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing

Whatsoever that is not empty.

Shown in the image is Nagarjuna, known chiefly for his doctrine of the Madhyamaka (middle path). He wrote the medical works The Hundred Prescriptions and The Precious Collection, among others.[28]

Shown in the image is Nagarjuna, known chiefly for his doctrine of the Madhyamaka (middle path). He wrote the medical works The Hundred Prescriptions and The Precious Collection, among others.

In his analysis, svabhāva is somewhat redefined from the Sarvastivada-Vaibhāṣika interpretation to mean: inherent existence or self-characterization. Nagarjuna notably rejected the idea of dharmas containing svabhāva, meaning ‘a self-sustaining, permanent, or unchanging identity.’ If a dharma was inherently what-it-was from its own side, what need would there be for causes and conditions to bring that object into being? If any object was characterized by ‘being-itself,’ then it has no need to dependently rely on anything else. Further, such an identity or self-characterization would prevent the process of dependent origination. Inherence would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been, and things would always continue to be. Madhyamaka suggests that uncharacterized mere experiences—with no specific qualities—are designated by conceptual labels, and this brings them into being (See Prasaṅgika Merely Designated Causality). According to Nagarjuna, even the principle of causality itself is dependently originated, and hence it is empty.

Madhyamaka is interpreted in different ways by different traditions. In the Tibetan Gelug school, all dharmas are said to lack any inherent existence, according to the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa in his Ocean of Reasoning.

Tibetan Buddhism

In the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of dependent origination is considered to be complementary to the concept of emptiness. Specifically, this tradition emphasizes the indivisibility of appearance and emptiness—also known as the relative and absolute aspects of reality:

  • Appearance (relative truth) refers to the concept that all appearances are dependently originated;
  • Emptiness (absolute or ultimate truth) refers to the concept that the “nature” of all phenomena is emptiness—lacking inherent existence.

In Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty, this relationship is explained using the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water. According to this metaphor:

  • The nature of all phenomena is like the reflection of the moon in water—completely lacking inherent existence. However,
  • The appearance of the moon in the water is an expression of dependent origination—the appearance is completely dependent upon causes and conditions.

One of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava, emphasized his respect for this relationship as follows:

Though my View is as spacious as the sky,
My actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour.


Hua Yen school

The Huayan school taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena, as expressed in Indra’s net. One thing contains all other existing things, and all existing things contain that one thing. This philosophy is based in the tradition of the great Madhyamaka scholar Nagarjuna and, more specifically, on the Avatamsaka Sutra. Regarded by D.T. Suzuki as the crowning achievement of Buddhist philosophy, the Avatamsaka Sutra elaborates in great detail on the principal of dependent origination. This sutra describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing one another.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh states, “Pratitya samutpada is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions… In the sutras, this image is given: “Three cut reeds can stand only by leaning on one another. If you take one away, the other two will fall.” In Buddhist texts, one cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else. This is the basis, states Hanh, for the idea that there is no first and only cause, something that does not itself need a cause.

Tibetan Buddhism

Sogyal Rinpoche states all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things. A tree, for example, cannot be isolated from anything else. It has no independent existence, states Rinpoche.

Comparison with western philosophy

Jay L. Garfield states that Mulamadhyamikakarika uses the causal relation to understand the nature of reality, and of our relation to it. This attempt is similar to the use of causation by Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer as they present their arguments. Nagarjuna uses causation to present his arguments on how one individualizes objects, orders one’s experience of the world, and understands agency in the world.

The concept of pratītyasamutpāda has also been compared to Western metaphysics, the study of reality. Schilbrack states that the doctrine of interdependent origination seems to fit the definition of a metaphysical teaching, by questioning whether there is anything at all. Hoffman disagrees, and asserts that pratītyasamutpāda should not be considered a metaphysical doctrine in the strictest sense, since it does not confirm nor deny specific entities or realities.


Main article: Similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism

The Hellenistic philosophy of Pyrrhonism parallels the Buddhist view of dependent origination, as it does in many other matters. Aulus Gellius in Attic Nights described the Pyrrhonist view which corresponds with the Buddhist view of dependent origination as follows:

…[Pyrrhonists] say that appearances, which they call φαντασίαι, are produced from all objects, not according to the nature of the objects themselves, but according to the condition of mind or body of those to whom these appearances come. Therefore they call absolutely all things that affect men’s sense τὰ πρός τι (i.e., “things relative to something else.”) This expression means that there is nothing at all that is self-dependent or which has its own power and nature, but that absolutely all things have “reference to something else” and seem to be such as their is appearance is while they are seen, and such as they are formed by our senses, to whom they come, not by the things themselves, from which they have proceeded.

Similarly, the ancient Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Theaetetus says, with a notable parallel with the terms from the Heart Sutra (i.e., “in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no discrimination, no conditioning, and no awareness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, no phenomenon. There is no eye-element and so on up to no mind-element and also up to no element of mental awareness.”):

The Pyrrhonists say that everything is relative in a different sense, according to which nothing is in itself, but everything is viewed relative to other things. Neither colour nor shape nor sound nor taste nor smells nor textures nor any other object of perception has an intrinsic character….

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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