The Noble Eightfold Blog

Dependent Co-arising

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


Here, Ānanda, a bhikkhu knows thus: ‘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. - [MN 115.11]

The Buddha's most complicated teaching is on causation (Pāli: paṭiccasamuppāda;  Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpāda). "Paṭiccasamuppāda" is translated as "dependent origination", "dependent co-origination", "dependent arising", or "dependent co-arising".

In the Pāli canon, the Buddha gives different formulations of the causation process. The simplest one is shown above. It is called "this-that" conditionality. It is reflective of his teaching on right effort:

And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort. - [SN 45.8]

In "this-that conditionality", the way he expresses this same idea is to prevent the arising of the causes and conditions of unwholesome mind states ("When this does not exist, that does not come to be"), abandon arisen unwholesome mind states ("...with the cessation of this, that ceases."), and cultivate the causes and conditions for wholesome mind states ("When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.").

In the most detailed discourses on dependent co-arising, the Buddha describes 12 steps in the causal chain:

With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be];

with volitional formations as condition, consciousness;

with consciousness as condition, name-and-form;

with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases;

with the six sense bases as condition, contact;

with contact as condition, feeling;

with feeling as condition, craving;

with craving as condition, clinging;

with clinging as condition, existence;

with existence as condition, birth;

with birth as condition, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. - [MN 115.11]

Other suttas describe slightly different versions of the chain. In the "Mahâpadāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lineage" [DN 14.2.18] there are ten links instead of twelve, and the "Mahānidāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on Origination" [DN 15.2] also leaves out the six sense-bases, for a total of nine links. However, the two versions that are most commonly taught are "this-that conditionality" and the "12 links".

Later Interpretations

In the centuries that followed the Buddha's death, there were many different interpretations of the Buddha's teachings on causation. One of them is here, where the links in the chain are a circle, or wheel. In Indian philosophy, a wheel symbolizes completeness, so the implication may be that this teaching is whole and complete:

dependent arising Figure: Traditional Theravada Representation of the Chain of Dependent Co-arising

In another formulation, the 12 steps play out over three lifetimes:

One way to understand [the links] is sequentially, over a period of three lifetimes: the past life, the present life and the future life. In this case, ignorance and mental formation belong to the past life. They represent the conditions that are responsible for the occurrence of this life. The following components of dependent origination - consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging and becoming - belong to this life. In brief, these eight components constitute the process of evolution within this life. The last two components - birth and old age and death - belong to the future life. According to this scheme, we can see how the twelve components of dependent origination are distributed over the period of three lifetimes, and how the first two - ignorance and mental formation result in the emergence of this life with its psycho-physical personality and how in turn, the actions performed in this life result in rebirth in the future life. This is one popular and authoritative way of interpreting the twelve components of dependent origination. - ["Fundamentals of Buddhism: Dependent Origination"]

However, both of these interpretations are largely discredited. I mention them because they still linger in the Buddhist world. 2,000 years creates a lot of inertia.

There is still no consensus about the meaning of dependent co-arising. Ajahn Punnadhammo says that when he was at the monastery in Thailand, the hottest debate topics were a) dependent co-arising and b) whether you can eat cheese after noon. (This is an in-joke. Monks are not allowed to eat solid food after noon, so the issue is whether cheese is a solid food.)

So dependent co-arising is like the joke about Israeli politics, where you have two Jews and three opinions.

Even in the Buddha's time, this was not a trivial topic. In this conversation, the Buddha cautions his attendant Ānanda not to underestimate how difficult it is to fully comprehend:

Ven. Ānanda approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "It's amazing, lord, it's astounding, how deep this dependent co-arising is, and how deep its appearance, and yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be."

[The Buddha:] "Don't say that, Ānanda. Don't say that. Deep is this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It's because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations." - [DN 15.1]

And in another sutta, Sāriputta quotes the Buddha as equating the understanding of dependent co-arising with Awakening - enlightenment - itself:

Now this has been said by the Blessed One: “One who sees dependent co-arising sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent co-arising.” - [MN 28.28]

This is not to scare you off, simply to make the points that a) there are different interpretations of dependent co-arising and b) if you want to understand it, you are going to have to work at it. When the Buddha had the above conversation with Ānanda, Ānanda was a stream-enterer. He had attained the first stage of Awakening. Ānanda had a brilliant mind and was an advanced and skilled practitioner. So this is not a trivial topic.

I also have a personal history with dependent co-arising. Over the years I listened to many, many Dharma talks and read many books on the subject. None of them made sense to me. It all sounded like a lot of hand waving. In my career as an engineer, I learned to be sensitive to sloppy thinking. The physical universe is coldly indifferent to your opinions about it. The devil is always in the details. And I was never convinced that anyone who was teaching dependent co-arising understood it.

Then one day I was talking to a dear Dharma sister about my frustration with this Dharmic hand waving, and she pointed me to the one source that does make sense to me. (This is why there is nothing like good friends in the Dharma.) The name of the book is The Shape of Suffering, by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. Ṭhānissaro also has a shorter explanation in his book The Wings to Awakening (in the section on kamma). If you want a thorough explanation of dependent co-arising, these are the places to look. Here I will summarize the main points.

Modern Models

The use of "co-" in the English terms for Buddhist causality shows that it is not like a row of dominoes, one knocking down the next in a linear fashion. This is the flaw in the wheel model. Dependent co-arising is the more complex causation found in non-linear systems, such as the weather and climate change.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have a language with which to discuss the Buddha's teachings on causation. We have physical and philosophical models on which to draw. This puts our ancestors at something of a disadvantage. I think this is one of the reasons why teachings on causality that came after the Buddha's death are often off the mark.

One of those modern models is "the butterfly effect", the term famously coined by Edward Lorenz. It refers to how the flapping of a butterfly's wings can affect a hurricane several weeks later. Minute changes in non-linear systems can have dramatic and greatly amplified effects in the output.

Another model is quantum physics. When I was growing up (even though we knew better by then) I learned that the elements in the periodic table make up everything in the universe. They are the basic building blocks. But quantum physics describes the world underlying those elements. The elements exist only as long as the proper causes and conditions make them exist:

And so, having studied the atom, I am telling you that there is no matter as such. All matter arises and persists only due to a force that causes the atomic particles to vibrate, holding them together in the tiniest of solar systems, the atom. - [Max Planck]

(This is not to say that quantum physics and the butterfly effect are the same as Buddhist causality, only that they are analogous.)

Planck's idea of "particles vibrating" has a Buddhist corollary. I once heard a monk talk about the different realms in the Buddhist cosmology (a later topic), and he suggested that these different realms exist in the same physical space as our realm; they are just at a different vibrational frequency. We know that most of the physical world is empty space. We usually think of heaven as being above us, and hell as being below us. He was saying that heaven is right next door - vibrationally speaking - as is hell. And one reason that we can occasionally see beings like ghosts, is that their vibrational frequency is close to ours.

The Buddha describes life in a similar way to quantum physics. There are causes and conditions, and they give rise to results, and those results become causes and conditions for other results. We don't live in a world of things; we live in a world of processes, a world of phenomena. The modern term for this is "radical phenomenology". It's a world where "nothing exists, everything happens."

When Darwinists - who had been so castigated in the West for their theory of evolution - went to Japan in the 19th century, they were shocked that their ideas were embraced and celebrated. The Japanese are heavily influenced by Buddhism, and Buddhists used Darwinism as proof that what they had said all along was true, that everything changes all the time. Rather than running counter to the accepted norm in religious thinking, it gave it credence.

When you turn your attention from the physical world to the mind, you see the same process. Your mind is not the same from moment to moment. Your mind is not now where it was even a second ago. Of course, we have habits and tendencies and temperaments. But changing the underlying causes and conditions also changes the results. Our minds are like weather systems, and that makes it possible for us to change. It is actually good news.

Thus, we can say several things about causation:

  1. Causation is non-linear.
  2. Feedback loops can accelerate internal "sub-chains".
  3. Small changes can have greatly amplified results.
  4. We live in a world of processes and phenomena, not solid things. Nothing exists, everything happens.

The Twelve Link Chain of Dependent Co-arising

And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, bhikkhus, is called dependent origination. - [SN 12.1]

The chain starts with ignorance. In this case "ignorance" means ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, but it includes all the wisdom teachings that we are discussing. It is a lack of right view. But this is not intellectual knowledge; it is an inability to penetrate right view through direct experience. We cannot just read about it and be free from our suffering.

Next we see that with ignorance as a condition, volitional formations arise. The term "volitional" indicates that these are willful actions. There is an intention behind them. Ṭhānissaro calls them "fabrications". (The Pāli term is the famously enigmatic word "saṅkhāra".) We are actually fabricating our experience, and those fabrications arise out of ignorance.

These fabrications are of three kinds: bodily, verbal, and mental. The latter are mainly thoughts, but includes any mental activity. More subtly, behind every action is the intention, a slight stirring that precedes every action. This intention is also a fabrication. We are constantly engaged in actions of some type. And it isn't that ignorance causes them; it is simply that they arise with ignorance as a condition. Where there is a volitional formation/fabrication there is also ignorance, i.e., the earth does not cause a seed to sprout, but it is a necessary condition.

This is how volitional formations play out during a lifetime. But there is also a transcendent aspect to these phenomena. There is a mundane or worldly mode in which causality operates, and a transcendent mode. The latter has to do with rebirth and cosmology. The volitional formations are what continue from lifetime to lifetime. It is karmic momentum.

With these volitional formations as a condition, consciousness arises. The word "consciousness" gets used in a number of different contexts in Buddhism. In this case, in the worldly sense, consciousness means awareness, i.e., you are conscious of your actions.

In the transcendent sense, consciousness is what enters a new being at conception. This is "rebirth consciousness".

Once consciousness has arisen, it gives rise to name-and-form. "Name" is a mental response to your awareness. This can be a feeling, a perception, thought, etc. Likewise there may be a physical - "form" - response. Your blood pressure may go up, you may feel flushed, etc.

On the transcendent level, name-and-form refers to the mind and body of a being. This is sometimes called "mentality-materiality", or more simply, "mind and body". Thus the rebirth consciousness is a condition for the mind and body of the being that is reborn.

The "mind and body", then, are necessary conditions for the six senses. You cannot have senses without a mind-and-body. Remember that in Buddhism there are six senses, the sixth being the mind. The mind is a sense because it has a sense organ (eye, ear, nose, etc.), a sense object (something you see, hear, a smell, etc.), and "sense consciousness". Without sense consciousness, there cannot be a sense. A dead person has sense organs and there are sense objects, but there is no sense consciousness.

In the case of the mind sense the sense organ is the brain, the sense object is mental formations (thoughts, perceptions, etc.), and mind consciousness is the awareness of mental formations.

In the transcendent case I think you can see where this is all headed. The new human being develops senses as it grows into a material being.

With the senses as a condition, there is contact. An eye sees a form, an ear hears a sound, etc.

Contact gives rise to "feeling". This is not an emotion, the way we usually think of it. Feeling is the "feeling tone" of the sense experience: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. (This corresponds to the reptile brain, which can only distinguish between friend, foe, and harmless.)

Once a feeling has arisen, craving arises. (This is also the Second Noble Truth.) "Craving" is shorthand for how we respond to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences. Craving is a response to pleasant feelings. We want them. Aversion is our response to unpleasant feelings. We don't want them. And with neutral feelings we are ambivalent. As Sharon Salzberg says, we space out.

This is how we spend our lives. We are living in a constant stream of wanting this, not wanting that, and spacing out. One of the things toward which we are working is the ability to "be in the midst of our own experience". [Sharon Salzberg] You can develop your concentration so that when feelings arise you skip the craving, aversion, and spacing out. This is equanimity, and it is incredibly liberating. It is a taste of final liberation, nirvāṇa.

Equanimity may sound like a rather banal, neutral state, but it is not. It is highly charged. Usually the push and pull of craving and aversion weighs us down. Once we are free from that, the mind is free. There is a sense of lightness and buoyancy. Equanimity is a state free of stress.

This is one reason we are developing concentration, so we can see this happening. The untrained mind is not strong enough to see it. It is like trying to look at the moon through an unfocused and wobbling telescope. We have to get the mind calm and steady. Then you can catch yourself in cycles of craving, aversion, and spacing out. A concentrated mind is also more stable. It is not as easily seduced by craving.

Craving can be abandoned, along with the stress it causes, and most people have experienced that. You feel hungry, and you want to eat. But then you get wrapped up in something else, and you forget about your hunger. It may be hours later that you remember that you felt hungry, but by then you no longer feel hungry. The craving is gone. And in fact you can train yourself not to react to feelings of hunger. You can simply watch them arise and pass away until they are gone. You can even stop them from arising at all. There will  just be a slight stirring, a slight sensation, then nothing.

The Buddha's describes three types of craving. There is sense craving. Then there is "craving for existence". This plays out in our inability to attain final liberation, which ends the rounds of rebirth. You cannot end rebirth if you are attached to material existence. And there is "craving for non-existence". People who commit suicide and nihilists are sniffing around this territory, as are philosophical materialists.

Next in the chain comes clinging. Craving is something we want but don't have. Clinging is something we have, and we want to hold on to. We have a new car and it gets stolen. Our distress is from clinging.

The Buddha defines four types of clinging: sense clinging, clinging to views, clinging to rites and rituals, and clinging to a doctrine of self.

Clinging to views is the characteristic of people who are very opinionated. When I worked as an engineer I called this "falling in love with your own ideas". One of the fruitful side affects of life as an engineer is it loosens your grip on opinions. The physical world - in my case the computer - doesn't really care about your opinions. If something doesn't work, it doesn't work (i.e., the bridge falls down).

The Buddha said this about clinging to views:

When a bhikkhu adheres to his own views, holds to them tenaciously, and relinquishes them with difficulty, he dwells without respect and deference toward the Teacher, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha, and he does not fulfill the training. Such a bhikkhu creates a dispute in the Saṅgha that leads to the harm of many people, to the unhappiness of many people, to the ruin, harm, and suffering of devas and humans. - [AN 6.36]

I heard a teacher once paraphrase this as "opinionated people just go around annoying each other." They also annoy everyone else.

Clinging to rites and rituals had particular meaning during the Buddha's lifetime because the Vedic religion - Brahmanism - centered on rituals. (Apparently it didn't occur to the kṣatriyas - who were about to lose their place at the top of the social food chain - that it was the Brahmin priests who made their livings from those rituals.) Of course, there are plenty of people who believe in rites and rituals today.

And finally there is clinging to a doctrine of self. This would be a permanent, unchanging self. We will discuss this subject in detail later.

In the first stage of Awakening, two types of clinging are overcome: clinging to rights and rituals and clinging to a doctrine of self. (The third one is eliminating doubt in the Buddha's teaching.) We will also discuss this subject in detail later.

The next step is translated here as "existence". I prefer the word "becoming". In the worldly sense, becoming is taking on a role. This happens a lot in families. You are the youngest child, and even when you are 70 years old you take on that role as the youngest child. You go to law school and take the bar. Working as an attorney is something you do. But then you self-identify as a lawyer. It is who you think you are. You say something like "I am a lawyer" and not "I work as a lawyer".

Someone cuts you off in traffic. Where it becomes suffering is when it happens to "me". That person cut "me" off. It's not just an event, but something that happened to "me". You "become" the person who was cut off. Abandoning "becoming" eliminates a great deal of suffering. You see how you turn causes and conditions and events into something they are not, and that is that they happen to "me".

(Note: This is not to suggest that you become reckless. It is wisdom that keeps you safe. The trick is to tease out the wisdom from the aversion.)

Becoming is the process of self-identifying. The Buddha spoke about the folly of self-identification, especially because everything that happens is impermanent. Here the Buddha is speaking to his son Rahula:

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“No, venerable sir.” - [SN 35.12]

Our thoughts, bodies, feelings, perceptions, everything that we experience arises and passes away. So when you self-identify with any of them, it is like equating yourself with an illusion. When that person cuts you off in traffic and you self-identify with the anger, where did you go when the anger passes? People usually say "I am angry". It is like an equation: I = angry. But then the anger passes. So then what does I =? Where did you go?

And this is where you see clinging as a condition for becoming. If we don't cling to our senses, our views, or a self, it is very hard to become, to self-identify.

The Buddha describes three types of becoming: sense becoming, form becoming, and formless becoming [AN 3.76]. In the transcendent model, the latter two are the easiest to understand. Form becoming is the desire to acquire a physical form. As for formless becoming, in the Buddhist cosmology there are formless realms in which one can be reborn. They correspond to the immaterial states in meditation. So it is possible to lose a desire for form rebirth, but still retain a desire for formless rebirth.

Becoming is the condition for birth. In the worldly sense, birth gives final, full expression to the act of becoming. "I am a lawyer". The urge to self-identify now takes on a life of its own.

And of course in the transcendent case, birth literally means birth, the taking of form into a new body.

All of this naturally ends in aging-and-death, or as the passage says, "aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering".

The Non-linear Nature of Dependent Co-arising

The previous section describes the links in the chain of dependent co-arising, and shows how each link is a precondition for the next link. But as noted, this is not a linear sequence. For example, a mental action - a thought - can lead to a verbal action - you say something - and that can lead to a physical action - you make a physical gesture. Or you have a perception - name-and-form - and consciousness arises in response to that.

Let's look at an expanded outline view of the chain. Note that the terminology here is slightly different from the previous translation:

  1. Ignorance: not seeing things in terms of the Four Noble Truths of stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation.
  2. Fabrication: the process of intentionally shaping states of body and mind. These processes are of three sorts:
    1. Bodily fabrication: the in-and-out-breath.
    2. Verbal fabrication: directed thought and evaluation.
    3. Mental fabrication: feeling (feeling tones of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain) and perception (the mental labels applied to the objects of the senses for the purpose of memory and recognition)
  3. Consciousness: at the six sense media: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and intellect.
  4. Name-and-form: mental and physical phenomena.
    Mental phenomena include:
    1. Feeling
    2. Perception
    3. Intention
    4. Contact
    5. Attention
    Physical phenomena include:
    1. Earth (solidity)
    2. Water (liquidity)
    3. Wind (energy and motion)
    4. Fire (warmth)
  5. The six internal sense media: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and intellect.
  6. Contact: at the six sense media. (Contact happens when a sense organ meets with a sense object - for example, the eye meets with a form - conditioning an act of consciousness at that sense organ. The meeting of all three - the sense organ, the object, and the act of consciousness - counts as contact.)
  7. Feeling: based on contact at the six sense media.
  8. Craving: for the objects of the six sense media. This craving can focus on any of the six sense media, and can take any of three forms:
    1. Sensuality-craving (craving for sensual plans and resolves).
    2. Becoming-craving (craving to assume an identity in a world of experience).
    3. Non-becoming-craving (craving for the end of an identity in a world of experience).
  9. Clinging: passion and delight focused on the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness. This clinging can take any of four forms:
    1. Sensuality-clinging
    2. View-clinging
    3. Habit-and-practice-clinging
    4. Doctrine-of-self-clinging
  10. Becoming: on any of three levels:
    1. The level of sensuality
    2. The level of form
    3. The level of formlessness
  11. Birth: the assumption of an identity on any of these three levels.
  12. The aging-and-death of that identity, with its attendant sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Shape of Suffering]

Ṭhānissaro gives this real world example:

As you walk to the door of your parents’ house, thinking about the situation (2b - verbal fabrication), you pull up memories of things your uncle has done in the past (2c - mental fabrication). This provokes anger, causing your breathing to become labored and tight (2a - bodily fabrication). This makes you uncomfortable (2c - mental fabrication), and you are aware of how uncomfortable you feel (3 - consciousness). Hormones are released into your bloodstream (4f through 4i - form). Without being fully aware that you are making a choice, you choose (4c - intention) to focus (4e - attention) on the perception (4b) of how trapped you feel in this situation. Your consciousness of this idea (5 and 6 - mental contact) feels oppressive (7 - feeling). You want to find a way out (8 - craving). At this point, you can think of a number of roles you could play in the upcoming dinner (9d and 10 - clinging and becoming). You might refuse to speak with your uncle, you might try to be as unobtrusive as possible to get through the dinner without incident, or you might be more aggressive and confront your uncle about his behavior. You mentally take on one of these roles (11 - birth), but unless you keep your imaginary role actively in mind, it falls away as soon as you think of it (12 - aging and death). So you keep thinking about it, evaluating how your parents will react to it, how you will feel about it, and so on (2b - verbal fabrication). Although the stress of step (12) in this case is not great, the fact that your role has to be kept in mind and repeatedly evaluated is stressful, and you can go through many sequences of stress in this way in the course of a few moments.

Here is a diagram of the example:

causality exampleFigure: Causality Example Diagram

To further complicate this picture, the factors within the sequence can feed back into one another before completing a full sequence. This is the meaning of the specific factors and sub-factors that occur in different positions within the sequence. Feeling, for instance , appears in at least four factors of the list (counting the suffering in factor 12 as a feeling as well). Consciousness, appears twice, as does perception. In each of these cases, a later appearance of the factor, instead of leading directly to the factor following it in the list, can be treated once more in the role it plays in an earlier appearance. (This fact accounts for the way in which the mind can spin through many cycles of thought before coming up with a definite decision to take action on a matter.) For example, a feeling of pain appearing in (7), instead of inevitably leading straight to craving, could be treated as a type of mental fabrication (2c) or as an event under name (4a). If, as a mental fabrication, it is subjected to further ignorance, that would simply compound the stress in the subsequent cycle through the causal change. A similar result would occur if, as an event under name, it is subjected to further inappropriate attention (4e ), which is equivalent to ignorance. In terms of Scenario A, this would correspond to the point at which you feel oppressed at the prospect of going to the dinner. If you keep focusing on this feeling in an ignorant or inappropriate way, you simply compound the stress of your situation, enflaming the sense of oppression until it becomes unmanageable.

However, if the feeling in (7) is treated with knowledge as a type of mental fabrication (2c) or with appropriate attention (4e) - another synonym for knowledge - as an instance of name, that would redirect the sequence in a skillful way, reducing the amount of suffering and stress produced. For example, if - when you start feeling oppressed at the prospect of the upcoming dinner - you reflect on the fact that your labored breathing is causing unnecessary stress, you can stop to adjust your breathing so that it feels more refreshed (2a). You can think about the situation in different ways, seeing the dinner as an opportunity to develop skillful qualities of the path, such as right resolve and right speech (2b). You can remember the positive things that your uncle has done in the past, and your own personal need to think in that way (2c). You can make up your mind to do or say whatever seems most skillful in the situation (4c). In this way, you can defuse the sense of oppression and abort the particular sufferings it would have caused.

In this way, although the reappearance of feeling at different points in dependent co-arising has the potential for compounding the problem of stress and suffering, it also opens the opportunity for a particular sequence of suffering to be alleviated. The fact that a long sequence of dependent co-arising requires the repeated occurrence of many short sequences - full or partial - similarly offers the opportunity for unraveling it at any time, simply by unraveling any one of the short sequences.

For these reasons, it is best not to view dependent co-arising as a circle, for such a simplistic image does not do justice to the many different time frames simultaneously at work in the production of suffering. Nor does it do justice to the ways in which the complexity of dependent co-arising provides an opening for suffering to be brought to an end. A better image would be to view dependent co-arising as a complex interplay of many feedback loops that, if approached with ignorance, can produce compounded suffering or, if approached with knowledge, create repeated opportunities to redirect the sequence and dampen the experience of suffering or stress.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Shape of Suffering]

There are three main points here:

  1. You see how the mind spins out of control. The untrained mind gets into a feedback loop, like the speaker that is too close to the microphone. You have had this experience with craving - where you really want something, and then you want it more and more, until it becomes an obsession - and clinging - where you hold dearly onto something - and aversive mind states like fear, anxiety, and depression. It is also true of confusion, where you don't know what to do about something, and become increasingly desperate.
  2. The antidote is to a) see what is happening and then b) break the cycle. The classic way to do this is to bring your attention back to the breath. This acts like a shock absorber for the spinning mind. It slows everything down, and dampens the cycle. Metta is the antidote for aversive mind states.
  3. It is important to remember this teaching - keep it in mind - so that you can see links in the chain when they manifest.

This is why the breath is such a good meditation object. It is always available. And using the 80-20 rule, where 20% of your attention is on the breath, you can use it while you are doing anything, even brain surgery.

This may seem overwhelming. It is a lot to remember, a lot to "keep in mind". I have two suggestions. The first suggestion is to determine which link in the chain you can see most easily, and work with that one. That might be becoming, or craving, or clinging, but it could be any one.

The other suggestion is to keep coming back to this topic. After a while you will remember most of the chain, at least the links that you can see most clearly.

The Reverse Chain of Dependent Co-arising

Thus, bhikkhus, with ignorance as proximate cause, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as proximate cause, consciousness; with consciousness as proximate cause, name-and-form; with name-and-form as proximate cause, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as proximate cause, contact; with contact as proximate cause, feeling; with feeling as proximate cause, craving; with craving as proximate cause, clinging; with clinging as proximate cause, existence; with existence as proximate cause, birth; with birth as proximate cause, suffering; with suffering as proximate cause, faith; with faith as proximate cause, gladness; with gladness as proximate cause, rapture; with rapture as proximate cause, tranquillity; with tranquillity as proximate cause, happiness; with happiness as proximate cause, concentration; with concentration as proximate cause, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; with the knowledge and vision of things as they really are as proximate cause, revulsion; with revulsion as proximate cause, dispassion; with dispassion as proximate cause, liberation; with liberation as proximate cause, the knowledge of destruction. - [SN 12.23]

In this rather dense quote, the Buddha offers us a way out of suffering. Usually suffering leads to confusion. But in this case suffering leads to faith:

  1. Suffering: One is conscious of suffering so the inevitable progression of birth, aging and death is not mindless. This awareness allows the emergence of a solution. This is the First Noble Truth, that suffering is to be understood.
  2. Faith: This is the first glimpse that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Faith is needed at this juncture because it is all you have to rely on.
  3. Joy: The first result of faith is an emotional lightening. This is the pure happiness that arises from devotional practice.
  4. Rapture: The intensification of that joy together with a deepening unification of mind gives rise to rapture experiences. This is counted a factor of the first two jhānas.
  5. Tranquility: This is the deep meditative peace that is on the other side of joy and rapture.
  6. Bliss: This is the subtle happiness of the calmed and purified mind, and the bliss of practicing the path.
  7. Concentration: This is the fully unified state of mind. This mind is wieldy and malleable, fit to do the work of insight.
  8. Knowledge and Vision of Things as They Are: This is the direct seeing that is the product of insight. Direct understanding of mind and body, rise and fall, and the three characteristics of suffering, impermanence and not-self.
  9. Disenchantment: Having seen things in their real nature one becomes dis-enchanted with conventional existence, like one awakening from a magic spell. Having seen reality clearly one is no longer fooled thereby.
  10. Dispassion: Having seen the reality of saṃsāra clearly in the previous stages, one loses interest in all objects of desire.
  11. Liberation: Without the motive force of desire for becoming, the wheel is broken and saṃsāra transcended. This is the realization of nibbana, the ultimate human experience.
  12. Knowledge of Destruction of the Cankers: This is the enjoyment of the fruit, an end to all suffering and defilement.

(Based on the exposition by Ajahn Punnadhammo, Arrow River Hermitage, Internet search: "dependent origination arrow river")

Here things begin to turn at suffering. Instead of continuing to chase after sense pleasures, we look for a better way. This is what the Buddha did. He examined his luxurious life, and saw that it was ultimately unsatisfying. That is when he left home to become a spiritual seeker. He didn't know that there was an answer, but he had faith that there was something better.

Notice how positive these five factors - joy, rapture, tranquility, bliss, and concentration - are. Meditation should be a pleasant undertaking. Of course, meditation requires effort, and it isn't always easy. But the effort should be cultivating positive mind states. This is the sense of well-being that we are trying to establish. This provides the foundation for insight. A concentrated, happy mind can be with difficult mind states more easily because it does not get wrapped up in them. The difficult mind states arise in a field of contentment.

Some teachers say that meditation is not about developing mind states. There is some truth in that, but most of the path is indeed about developing wholesome mind states, and abandoning unwholesome mind states. We have already seen the Buddha say this:

Again, Udāyin, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to develop the four right kinds of striving. Here a bhikkhu awakens zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. He awakens zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…He awakens zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…He awakens zeal for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and fulfillment by development of arisen wholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge. - [MN 77.16]

As your concentration improves, you see how unsatisfying it is to chase after sense pleasures. This leads to dispassion. You lose interest in sense pleasures. You see how sense pleasures are running your life. Once you see the futility of chasing after sense pleasures, they lose their grip on you. You've done these things - like eating - countless times, but you still get hungry. Eating never has an end that is satisfying. It is an addiction. How strong that addiction is depends on your mind state at the moment it arises.

You still have to eat, of course, and you may still have preferences. But not eating starts to become no big deal, and you lose interest in the optional sense pleasures. You can be happy with a good meal, happy with a bad meal, happy with no meal.

Attaining Final Liberation - Nirvāṇa

The teaching of dependent origination also shows how the round of existence can be broken. With the arising of true knowledge, full penetration of the Four Noble Truths, ignorance is eradicated. Consequently the mind no longer indulges in craving and clinging, action loses its potential to generate rebirth, and deprived thus of its fuel, the round comes to an end. This marks the goal of the teaching signaled by the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering.

- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Majjhima Nikāya, Introduction]

The ability to see dependent co-arising as dependent co-arising is a first step in developing the clear knowledge that brings ignorance to an end.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikku, The Shape of Suffering]

The links of dependent co-arising will appear in your meditation as your concentration improves. Strong concentration has two main effects. The first is that your meditation will become more pleasant, tranquil and serene. It will be more enjoyable.

The second is that you will see the process of dependent co-arising. Your concentration, bound with knowledge of right view, penetrates the chain. You see becoming; you see craving; you see clinging; you see feelings; you see the process of fabrication. And instead of these habitual patterns running amok, you begin picking them off at mid-stream.

When the skills appropriate to the noble eightfold path are consistently and masterfully applied to dependent co-arising, they can cause the entire system of suffering and its causes to collapse.

This is because this knowledge brings about a form of vision that inclines neither to becoming nor to non-becoming. This mode of vision functions as a resonance in that it causes the many feedback loops connected with becoming or non-becoming to become undefined. If applied consistently enough, this mode of vision can have a cascading effect, causing all the feedback loops in dependent co-arising to become undefined, thus bringing about the collapse of the entire system.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Shape of Suffering]


In this chapter we studied the Buddha's teachings on causality:

  1. Dependent co-arising is a complex, non-linear system.
  2. Being caught in the chain leads to suffering.
  3. The reverse chain of dependent co-arising, starting with faith, leads out of suffering.
  4. Concentration and insight develop dispassion for sense pleasures, and sharpen our ability to see the links in the chain when they arise.