'dependent origination', is the doctrine of the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena, a doctrine which, together with that of impersonality (anattā), forms the indispensable condition for the real understanding and realization of the teaching of the Buddha. It shows the conditionality and dependent nature of that uninterrupted flux of manifold physical and psychical phenomena of existence conventionally called the ego, or man, or animal, etc.


Whereas the doctrine of impersonality, or anattā, proceeds analytically, by splitting existence up into the ultimate constituent parts, into mere empty, unsubstantial phenomena or elements, the doctrine of dependent origination, on the other hand, proceeds synthetically, by showing that all these phenomena are, in some way or other, conditionally related with each other. In fact, the entire Abhidhamma Pitaka, as a whole, treats really of nothing but just these two doctrines: phenomenality - implying impersonality and conditionality of all existence. The former or analytical method is applied in Dhammasangani, the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka; the latter or synthetical method, in Patthāna, the last book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. For a synopsis of these two works, s. Guide I and VII.


Though this subject has been very frequently treated by Western authors, by far most of them have completely misunderstood the true meaning and purpose of the doctrine of dependent origination, and even the 12 terms themselves have often been rendered wrongly.


The formula of dependent origination runs as follows:


The following diagram shows the relationship of dependence between three successive lives:


  • 1 Ignorance (avijjā)
  • 2 Karma-formations (sankhārā)
Karma-Process (kammabhava)
5 causes: 1,2,8,9,10


  • 3 Consciousness (viññāna)
  • 4 Mind & Matter (nāma-rūpa)
  • 5 Six Bases (āyatana)
  • 6 Impression (phassa)
  • 7 Feeling (vedanā)

Rebirth-Process (upapattibhava)

5 results: 3-7

  • 8 Craving (tanhā)
  • 9. Clincing (upādāna)
  • 10 Process of Becoming (bhava)
Karma-Process (kammabhava)
5 causes: 1,2,8,9,10


  • 11 Rebirth (jāti)
  • 12 Old Age and Death (jarā-marana)
Rebirth-Process (upapattibhava)
5 results: 3-7


Before taking up the study of the following exposition, it is suggested that the reader first goes thoroughly through the article on the 24 conditions (s. paccaya). For a thorough understanding of the paticcasamuppāda he should know the main modes of conditioning, as decisive support, co-nascence, pre-nascence, etc.

For a closer study of the subject should be consulted:

(1.) "Through ignorance are conditioned the karma-formations" (avijjā-paccayā sankhārā), i.e. all wholesome and unwholesome actions (karma) of body, speech and mind, are conditioned through ignorance. By 'karma-formations' are meant karmically wholesome and unwholesome volitions (cetanā), or volitional activities, in short karma (q.v., and Fund. II).

In view of the many misconceptions current in the West, it is necessary to repeat here that karma, as a technical term, never signifies anything but moral or immoral action, i.e. the above mentioned volitional activities, or karma-formations, as either causing results in the present life or being the causes of future destiny and rebirth. Thus karma, as a philosophical term, never means the result of action, as often wrongly conceived by Western authors.

Now, in what way are the karma-formations conditioned through ignorance? As concerns the unwholesome karma-formations associated with greed, hate or delusion (lobha, dosa, moha), these are always and in all circumstances, conditioned through the simultaneous ignorance inseparably associated therewith. Thus, ignorance is for the unwholesome karma-formations a condition by way of conascence (sahajāta-paccaya), association (sampayutta-paccaya), presence (atthi-paccaya), etc. Ignorance further may be for them a condition by way of decisive support or inducement (upanissaya-paccaya), if, for instance, ignorance coupled with greed induces a man to commit evil deeds, such as killing, stealing, unlawful sexual intercourse, etc. In these cases, therefore, ignorance is a 'natural decisive suppport' or 'direct inducement' (pakati-upanissaya-paccaya). It also may become an indirect inducement, by way of object (ārammanūpanissaya-paccaya) of our thinking. This takes place, if, for example, someone remembers a former state of ignorance combined with sensual enjoyment, and in doing so karmically unwholesome states spring up, such as sensual desire, grief, etc.

For the wholesome (kusala) karma-formations, ignorance can only be a condition by way of decisive support (upanissaya), never by way of co-nascence (sahajāta), etc., since wholesome consciousness at that very moment, of course, cannot be associated with any unwholesome phenomenon, such as ignorance. Ignorance is a 'natural decisive support' or 'direct inducement' (pakatupanissaya), for example, if, induced by ignorance and vanity, one exerts oneself to attain the absorptions, and thus finally, through perseverance, reaches these wholesome states of mind. Ignorance may also be for wholesome karma-formations a 'decisive support' or 'inducement by way of object' (ārammanūpanissaya), if, for example, one reflects on ignorance as the root of all misery in the world, and thus finally attains insight and entrance into one of the 4 supermundane paths of holiness.

For ignorance, s. avijjā; for karma-formations, s. sankhāra.

(2.) "Through the karma-formations is conditioned consciousness" (sankhāra-paccayā viññānam). This proposition teaches that the wholesome and unwholesome karma-formations are the causes of future rebirth in an appropriate sphere (gati). The karma-formations of the previous life condition the budding in a new mother's womb of a fresh psycho-physical aggregation of the 5 groups of existence (s. khandha), which here are represented by consciousness (viññāna). All such karma-resultant (vipāka) consciousness, however, such as eye-consciousness (seeing), etc., as well as all the mental phenomena associated therewith (feeling, etc.), are karmically neutral. It should be understood that already from the very first moment of conception in the mother's womb, this karma resultant consciousness of the embryonic being is functioning.

Against Dr. Paul Dahlke's misconception of the paticcasamuppāda as "one single karmical moment of personal experience," and of the 'simultaneity' of all the 12 links of this formula, I should like to state here distinctly that the interpretation of the p. given here as comprising 3 successive lives not only agrees with all the different schools of Buddhism and all the ancient commentaries, but also is fully identical with the explanations given already in the canonical suttas. Thus, for example, it is said verbatim in Nidāna-Samyutta (S. XII, 51): "Once ignorance (1) and clinging (9) are extinguished, neither karmically meritorious, nor demeritorious, nor imperturbable karma-formations (2=10) are produced, and thus no consciousness (3=11) will spring up again in a new mother's womb." And further: "For, if consciousness were not to appear in the mother's womb, would in that case mentality and corporeality (4) arise?" Cf. above diagram.

The purpose of the Buddha in teaching the p. was to show to suffering mankind how, depending on ignorance and delusion, this present existence and suffering has come about, and how through extinction of ignorance, and of the craving and clinging conditioned thereby, no more rebirth will follow, and thus the standstill of the process of existence will have been realized and therewith the extinction of all suffering.

(3.) "Through consciousness are conditioned corporeality and mentality" (viññāna-paccayā nāma-rūpani). This proposition implies that without consciousness there can be no mental and physical process of existence. By mentality (nāma) is here to be understood the karma-resultant (vipāka) mental phenomena, such as feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā: non-karmical volition is here meant), consciousness-impression (phassa), advertence (manasikāra) (M. 9; S. XII, 2). For the basic 7 mental phenomena inseparably associated with every state of consciousness, s. nāma. By corporeality (rūpa) is meant the 4 physical elements (s. dhātu) and the corporeality dependent thereon (s. khandha, I).

Mentality is always conditioned through consciousness; i.e. consciousness (viññāna) is for mentality (nāma) a condition by way of conascence (sahajāta), mutuality (aññamañña), association (sampayutta), etc., since the 4 mental groups at all times form an inseparable unit.

Consciousness (viññāna) is for corporeality (rūpa) a condition by way of co-nascence only at the moment of conception, thereafter a condition by way of post-nascence (pacchājāta-paccaya; paccaya 11) and nutriment (āhāra), i.e. as a support. Just as the repeatedly arising hunger is a condition and support for the pre-arisen body, so is the consciousness arising afterwards a condition and support for the maintenance of this pre-arisen body.

(4.) "Through mentality and corporeality are conditioned the 6 bases (nāma-rūpa paccayā salāyatanam). The 6 bases are a name for the 5 physical sense-organs and, as 6th, the mind-base (manāyatana), i.e. consciousness.

Mentality (nāma; s. 3) is for the 5 physical bases (āyatana), or sense-organs, a condition by way of post-nascence. Cf. end of 3.

Mentality (nāma), i.e. feeling. etc., is for the 6th base, or consciousness - as being always inseparably associated therewith a condition by way of co-nascence. etc.

Corporeality (rūpa), here the 4 elements, are for the 5 physical bases (āyatana), or sense-organs, a condition by way of support (nissaya).

Corporeality (rūpa), here the 5 physical sense-organs, are for the 6th base (āyatana), i.e. consciousness, a condition by way of support and pre-nascence (purejāta-paccaya).

(5.) "Through the 6 bases is conditioned the (sensorial and mental) impression" (salāyatana-paccayā phasso), for without the 5 physical bases, or sense-organs, there can be no sense-impressions; and without the 6th base, or consciousness, there can be no mental impression.

Thus, the 5 physical bases, eye, etc., are for the corresponding 5 sense-impressions (visual impression, etc.) a condition by way of support (nissaya) and pre-nascence (purejāta), whereas the 6th, the mind-base (consciousness), is for the mental impression a condition by way of co-nascence, association, mutuality, etc.

(6.) "Through impression is conditioned feeling" (phassa-paccayā vedanā), i.e. the sensorial and the mental impressions are for the feeling associated therewith a condition by way of co-nascence, association, mutuality, etc.

(7.) "Through feeling is conditioned craving" (vedanā-paccayā tanhā). Any (karma-resultant) feeling, whether agreeable, disagreeable or neutral, bodily or mental, past or expected, may become for craving a condition of decisive support by way of object (ārammanūpanissaya). Even physically and mentally painful feeling may, through the desire to be released there from, become for craving a condition of decisive support by way of object (ārammanupanissaya).

(8.) "Through craving is conditioned clinging" (tanhā-paccayā upādānam). 'Clinging' is explained as an intensified form of craving. It is of 4 kinds:

Sensuous craving is to (1) a condition of natural decisive support (pakatupanissaya). For (2-4), craving is a condition by way of co-nascence, mutuality, root (hetu), etc. It also may be a condition of natural decisive support. For example, through craving for heavenly rebirth, etc. people often may be induced to cling to certain rules and rituals, with the hope of reaching thereby the object of their desires.

(9.) "Through clinging is conditioned the process of becoming" (upādāna-paccayā bhavo), i.e. the wholesome and unwholesome active karma-process of becoming (kamma-bhava), as well as the karma-resultant (vipāka) passive process, the so-called 'rebirth-process' (upapatti-bhava). The karma-process (kammabhava) comprises the 5 karmical causes: ignorance, karma-formations, craving, clinging, karma-process (s. 1, 2, 8, 9, 10, of the diagram); the rebirth-process (upapatti-bhava) comprises the 5 karma-results (s. 3-7 of the diagram).

The karma-process is here, correctly speaking, a collective name for generative karmic volition (kamma-cetanā) and all the mental phenomena associated therewith, whilst the 2nd link (karma-formations) designates only karmic volition (s. āyūhana). Both, however, i.e. the 2nd and 10th proposition, practically state one and the same thing, namely, that karma is the cause of rebirth, as we shall see under 10.

Clinging (upādāna) may be an inducement of decisive support (upanissaya) to many kinds of wholesome and unwholesome karma. Sensuous clinging (kāmūpādāna), i.e. clinging to sensuous objects, for example, may be a direct inducement to murder, theft, unlawful intercourse with the other sex, evil words and thoughts, etc. Clinging to rules and ritual (sīlabbatūpādāna) may lead to self-complacency, fanaticism, cruelty, etc. Clinging is also for the evil karma associated therewith, a condition by way of co-nascence, association, etc.

(10.) "Through the process of becoming is conditioned rebirth" (bhava-paccayā jāti), i.e. through the wholesome and unwholesome karma-process (kamma-bhava) is conditioned the rebirth-process (upapatti-bhava). The 2nd and 10th propositions, as already pointed out, practically teach one and the same thing, namely, that karma is the cause of rebirth; in other words, that the karmical volition (cetanā) is the seed out of which springs the new life, just as from the mango-seed is generated the new mango-tree.

Hence, the 5 karmical causes (ignorance, etc.) of the past birth are the condition for the karma-results of the present birth; and the 5 karmical causes of the present birth are the condition for the 5 karma-results of the next birth (s. diagram). As it is said in Vis.M. XVII:

"Five causes were there in the past,
Five fruits we find in present life;
Five causes do we now produce,
Five fruits we reap in future life."

Now, just as in this process of continually changing mental and bodily phenomena, nothing can be found that would pass from one moment to the next moment, so also there is no enduring entity, ego, or personality, within this process of existence that would transmigrate from one life to the next (s. nāma-rūpa, anattā, patisandhi, khandha). "No being and no living soul passed from the former life to this life, and yet this present embryo could not have entered into existence without the preceding causes" (Vis.M. XVII). "Many things may serve to illustrate this fact, as for example the echo, the light of a lamp, the impression of a seal, or the image produced by a mirror" (ib.).

"Whosoever is in the dark with regard to the conditionally arisen things, and does not understand that karma originates from ignorance, etc., he thinks that it must be his ego that knows or does not know, acts and causes to act, and that arises at rebirth. Or he thinks that the atoms, or a creator, with the help of this embryonic process, must have formed this body, or that it is the ego endowed with faculties that has impressions, feels, desires, clings, continues and enters again into existence in a new birth. Or he thinks that all beings have been born through fate, or fortuitously" (Vis.M. XVII).

Now, on hearing that Buddhism teaches that everything whatever in the world is determined by conditions some might come to the conclusion that Buddhism teaches some sort of fatalism, and that man has no free will, or that will is not free.

The problem 'whether man has a free will' does not exist for, the Buddhist, since he knows that, apart from these ever-changing mental and physical phenomena, no such entity as 'man' can be found, and that 'man' is merely a name not relating to any reality. And the question, 'whether will is free', must be rejected for the reason that 'will', or volition, is a mental phenomenon flashing forth only for a moment, and that as such it had not any existence at the preceding moment. For of a thing which is not, or is not yet, one cannot, properly speaking, ask whether it is free or un-free. The only admissible question would be whether the arising of 'will' is independent of conditions, or whether it is conditioned. But the same question would equally apply also to all the other mental phenomena, as well as to all physical phenomena, in other words: to everything and every occurrence whatever. And the answer would be: whether will arises, or whether feeling arises, or whether any other mental or any physical phenomenon arises, the arising of anything whatsoever is dependent on conditions, and without conditions nothing ever can arise or enter into existence.

According to Buddhism, everything mental or physical happens in accordance with laws and conditions; and if it were otherwise, chaos and blind chance would reign. But such a thing is impossible and contradicts all laws of thinking. Cf. Fund. III (end).

(11.) "Through rebirth are conditioned old age and death" (jātipaccayā jarā-maranam). Without birth there can be no old age and death, no suffering and misery. Thus rebirth is to old age and death, etc. a condition by way of decisive support (upanissaya).

The Buddha has said (D.15): "Profound, Ananda. is this dependent origination, and profound does it appear. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this law that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird's nest, a thicket of sedge or reed, and that man does not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of woe and perdition, suffering from the round of rebirth." And further (M. 28): 'Whoso understands the dependent origination understands the Dhamma; and whoso understands the Dhamma understands the dependent origination."

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