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Dependent Origination (Sanskrit: pratītya-samutpāda, Pali: paticca samuppada)

The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada is Buddhism's primary contribution to metaphysics. Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that all phenomena are the result of mutually dependent existence. Rendered in English as "dependent origination," "conditioned genesis," "dependent co-arising," "interdependent arising," etc.; (Pali paṭicca-samuppāda; Tib. rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba).


General formulations

The most general formulation of this concept goes:

This being, that becomes
With the arising of this, that arises
This not being, that does not become
With the ceasing of this, that ceases.

Or again:

X causes Y
When X is present, so is Y
When X is unpresent, so is Y
When X ceases, so shall Y.

This draws attention to the constant flux of coming into being, and going out of being that is happening all the time. All phenomena are subject to this kind of interaction. And since all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena, then all phenomena are transient and unstable.


The general formulation has two very well known applications.

Four Noble Truths

The first application is to suffering, and is known as the Four Noble Truths:

1. Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, suffering.
2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha).
3. Nirodha: There is a way out of suffering, which is to eliminate attachment and desire.
4. Marga: The path that leads out of suffering is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

Twelve Nidanas

Main article: Twelve Nidanas

The other application is to the rebirth process and is known as the Twelve Nidanas or the Twelve Links of Conditioned Existence. In this application of pratitya-samutpada, each link is conditioned by the preceding one, and itself conditions the succeeding one. These cover three lives:

Former Life

  • ignorance
  • activities which produce karma

Current Life

  • consciousness
  • name and form (personality or identity)
  • the twelve domains (5 physical senses + the mind + forms, sounds, ..., thoughts)
  • contact (between objects and the senses)
  • sensation (registering the contact)
  • desire (for continued contact)
  • attachment

Future Life

  • becoming (conception of a new life)
  • birth
  • old age and death.

To understand this, it is necessary to study different sorts of conditions, because only one of them is called "causal condition". Per exemple, ignorance can determines activities as an "object condition" if one... decide to reduce ignorance.
And then because in this life one has been ignorant, and acted in such a way as to produce karma, the cycle continues round again.

Nibbana (Skt Nirvana) is often conceived of as stopping this cycle. By removing the causes for craving, craving ceases. So with the ceasing of birth, death ceases. With the ceasing of becoming, birth ceases... and so on until with the ceasing of ignorance no karma is produced, and the whole process of death and rebirth ceases. In fact the opportunity for change comes between the stages of sensation and desire, since as we saw above it is craving that drives the whole process. If one can simply experience sensations without desiring, then craving will not arise, and one can begin to be free from the cycle of birth and death.

Madhyamaka and Pratitya-samutpada

Though the formulations above appear might seem to imply that pratitya-samutpada is a straightforward causal model, in the hands of the Madhyamaka school, Pratitya-samutpada is used to demonstrate the very lack of inherent causality, in a manner that appears somewhat similar to the ideas of David Hume.

The conclusion of the Mādhyamikas is that causation, like being, must be regarded as a merely conventional truth (saṃvṛti), and that to take it as really (or essentially) existing would be both a logical error and a perceptual one, arising from ignorance and a lack of spiritual insight.

According to the analysis of Nāgārjuna, the most prominent Mādhyamika, true causality depends upon the substantial existence of the elements of the causal process (causes and effects), which would violate the principle of anatta, but pratītya-samutpāda does not imply that the apparent participants in arising are actually real.

Because of the interdependence of causes and effects (i.e. causes depend on their effects in order to be causes, and effects likewise depend on their causes in order to be effects), it is quite meaningless to talk about them as existing separately. However, the strict identity of cause and effect is also refuted, since if the effect were the cause, the process of origination could not have occurred. Thus both monistic and a dualistic accounts of causation are rejected.

Therefore Nāgārjuna explains that the anatta (or emptiness) of causality is demonstrated by the interdependence of cause and effect, and likewise that the interdependence (pratītya-samutpāda) of causality itself is demonstrated by its anatta.

In his Entry to the middle way, Candrakirti asserts, "If a cause produces its requisite effect, then, on that very account, it is a cause. If no effect is produced, then, in the absence of that, the cause does not exist."

See also: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

The reversibility of dependent arising

Pratitya-samutpada is most commonly used to explain how suffering arises depending on certain conditions, the implication being that if one or more of the conditions are removed (if the "chain" is broken), suffering will cease.

There is also a text, the Upanisa Sutta ( in the Samyutta Nikaya, in which a discussion of the conditions not for suffering but for enlightenment are given. This is sometimes glossed as "transcendental" dependent arising. The chain in this case is:

  • Suffering [of the rounds of rebirth]
  • Faith
  • Gladness
  • Rapture
  • Tranquillity
  • Happiness
  • Concentration
  • Knowledge and vision of things as they really are
  • Revulsion
  • Dispassion
  • Liberation
  • Knowledge of destruction of the poisons

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