Pratityasamutpada (Dependent Origination)

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The theory of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda; Pāli: paticcasamuppāda), which literally means "arising on the ground of a preceding cause," could well be considered the common denominator of all Buddhist traditions throughout the world, whether TheravĀda, MahĀyĀna, or VajrayĀna. The canonical texts of the Theravāda tradition portray ŚĀriputra (the Buddha's disciple) as saying that "whoever understands dependent origination understands the teaching of the Buddha, and whoever understands the teaching of the Buddha understands dependent origination" (M. i, 190–191). In the Vajrayāna tradition, a similar view is expressed by the fourteenth Dalai Lama (1935–) who stated in his 1990 book, Freedom in Exile, that the fundamental precept of Buddhism is this law of dependent origination. No matter what the tradition, one can clearly see the importance attributed to the theory: It renders it a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, indispensable for realizing and understanding the implications of Buddhist philosophy.

The theory of dependent origination is usually divided into twelve links (nidāna), each of which conditions the following link. The order presented in Table 1 is traditionally refered to as the normal order (anuloma), which illustrates the process of the development of saṂsĀra. The pratītyasamutpāda is also often presented soteriologically in reverse order (pratiloma), which simply indicates that if one link is eradicated, the next is also eradicated.

The chain of dependent origination is often approached as a causal theory. One usually speaks of


The twelve links of the chain of dependent origination
1. IgnorancePAST
2. Karmic activities

3. ConsciousnessPRESENT
4. Mind and matter
5. Six sense-doors
6. Contact
7. Sensation
8. Craving
9. Attachment
10. Becoming

11. Birth; rebirthFUTURE
12. Old age, death

causality when one says "there being this, that appears." Yet it is necessary to stress that a substantial "cause" from which the "effect" was generated cannot be deduced from dependent origination. The Saṃyuttanikāya (Connected Discourses; S.ii.87–88) explains that fertile soil, water, and light are necessary conditions for the growth of a sapling, but none of these factors alone will yield the expected result. Similarly, each of the links of the chain of dependent origination is necessary for the production of the next element, yet none can definitely be perceived as sufficient on its own.

Since this complex chain of causation is always said to give rise to suffering, the deactivation of any of the twelve links of this chain is bound to break the causal process and to eliminate suffering. According to the Pāli canon, both the chain of dependent origination and the five skandha (aggregate) are responsible for suffering. The Buddha stated repeatedly that the root of all suffering lies in the five aggregates, which represent the psychophysical constituents of the individual. This is further evidenced by the Mahāvagga of the Aṅguttaranikāya (Discourses Increasing by One), where an intimate relation between the five aggregates and the theory of dependent origination is established. In this specific discourse, a description of the four noble truths is offered in terms of dependent origination. Therein, the first noble truth follows the standard canonical rendering and ends with the following phrase: "in short, the five aggregates are suffering" (A. i, 177). Yet the description of the two following truths does not comply with the paradigmatic rendition.

Instead, they are depicted in terms of the theory of dependent origination. The noble truth concerned with the arising of suffering is simply explained by the pratītyasamutpāda in normal order (anuloma), while the noble truth of cessation of suffering is defined by dependent origination in reverse order (pratiloma). It is clear then that dependent origination, traditionally seen as an explanation for the arising and the eradication of suffering, is intimately related to the theory of the five aggregates.

The Theravāda tradition holds that certain links of the chain of causation are limited either to the past, present, or future. In other words, and as illustrated in Table 1, different links constitute different temporal divisions. Although this chronological division is not expressed explicitly in the Pāli canonical literature itself, it is supported by the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha (Compendium of Philosophy) of Anuruddha, a South Indian Buddhist philosopher (ca. eleventh–twelfth century c.e.). What is unclear, however, is the delineation and theoretical distinction among these three divisions. Since the past is nothing but the aging of the present, and the present the actualization of the future, each temporal division has to be seen as the paraphrasing of, or a different perspective on, the two other divisions. Since these divisions are merely arbitrary, the links of dependent origination that were classified under a certain time period could have been easily classified under another. What comes under "past" could have been under "future" or "present," and vice versa. Therefore, it becomes evident that elements belonging to a specific time period represent a process similar to the one reflected by the elements belonging to another. Ignorance and karmic activities operate on the same principles as birth and old age and death, and as the eight middle links. The physical and psychological elements at work in the individual remain the same whether in the past, present, or future. Stated differently, the theory of dependent origination could run thus: Within one life span (links 11–12; birth and old age and death), one keeps generating karmic activities (link 2) because of ignorance (link 1), and this generation of karmic activities due to ignorance is more easily understandable by examining the process described by the eight middle links.

Equally striking is that the division of the chain of causation into three time periods implies the presence of the five aggregates in each of these periods, since an "individual" (composed of the five aggregates) must experience this process within each of the periods; this is the perspective put forth by Vasubandhu (fourth century c.e.) in his AbhidharmakÓsabhāūya (AbhK. iii, 20). This suggests that the theory of dependent origination is not merely a soteriological tool, indicating how the individual ought to proceed in order to attain liberation from the causal process of saṃsāra, but also a psychological chart mapping the working of the mind.

See also:Duhkḥa (Suffering)


Dalai Lama XIV. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Lamotte, Étienne. "Conditioned Co-Production and Supreme Enlightenment." In Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula, ed. Somaratna Balasooriya et al. London: Gordon Fraser, 1980.

Macy, Joanna. "Dependent Co-Arising: The Distinctiveness of Buddhist Ethics." Journal of Religious Ethics 7, no. 1 (1979): 38–52.

Silburn, Lilian. Instant et cause: Le discontinu dans la pensée philosophique de l'Inde. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1955.

Tanaka, Kenneth K. "Simultaneous Relation (sahabhū-hetu): A Study in Buddhist Theory of Causation." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 8, no. 1 (1985): 91–111.

Mathieu Boisvert

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Pratityasamutpada (Dependent Origination)

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