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The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit: प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद; Pali: paticcasamuppāda; Tibetan: rten.cing.''; Chinese: 緣起), often translated as "dependent arising," is a cardinal doctrine within Buddhist Philosophy.[1][2][3] Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as "dependent origination", "conditioned genesis", "dependent co-arising", "interdependent arising", or "contingency".

Dependent origination

The enlightenment (or bodhi, a word that means "to awaken") of the Buddha was simultaneously his liberation from suffering (dukkha) and his insight into the nature of the Universe – particularly the nature of the lives of sentient beings (principally humans and animals). What the Buddha awakened to was the truth of dependent origination.

This is the understanding that any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in an incredibly complex web of cause and effect covering time past, time present and time future. This concept of a web is symbolized by Indra's net, a multidimensional spider's web on which lies an infinite amount of dew drops or jewels, and in these are reflected the reflections of all the other drops of dew ad infinitum.

Stated in another way, everything depends on everything else. A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being. Everything in the Universe is interconnected through the web of cause and effect such that the whole and the parts are mutually interdependent. The character and condition of entities at any given time are intimately connected with the character and condition of all other entities that superficially may appear to be unconnected or unrelated.

Because all things are thus conditioned and transient (anicca), they have no real independent identity (anatta) and thus do not truly exist, though to ordinary minds this appears to be the case. All phenomena are therefore fundamentally insubstantial and empty (sunya).

Wise human beings, those who "see things as they are" (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana), renounce attachment and clinging, transform the energy of desire into awareness and understanding, and eventually transcend the conditioned realm of form becoming Buddhas or Arhats.

General formulation

A general formulation of this concept, found in over a dozen canonical discourses, is (in English and Pali):[4]

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.[5]

Imasmiṃ sati, idaṃ hoti.
Imass’ uppādā, idaṃ uppajjati.
Imasmiṃ asati, idaṃ na hoti.
Imassa nirodhā, idhaṃ nirujjhati.


The general formulation has two well-known applications, one to the Buddhist conception of suffering, and the other to that of rebirth.

The Four Noble Truths

The application of pratītyasamutpāda to suffering is known as the Four Noble Truths:

1. Dukkha: There is suffering. Suffering is an intrinsic part of life also experienced as dissatisfaction, discontent, unhappiness, impermanence.
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. Magga: The path that leads out of suffering is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

Twelve Nidanas

The application of pratītyasamutpāda to the process of rebirth is known as the Twelve Nidanas or the Twelve Links of Conditioned Existence. The nikayas themselves do not give a systematic explanation of the nidana series.[6] As an expository device, the commentarial tradition presented the factors as a linear sequence spanning over three lives; this does not mean that the "past", "present", and "future" factors are mutually exclusive, and in fact as many suttas show, they are not.[7] The twelve nidanas categorized in this way are:

Former Life

  • ignorance
  • volitional formations (activities which produce karma)

Current Life

  • consciousness
  • mind and body (personality or identity)
  • the six sense bases (five physical senses and the mind)
  • contact (between objects and the senses)
  • feeling (registering the contact)
  • craving (for continued contact)
  • clinging
  • becoming (similar to volitional formations)

Future Life

  • birth
  • old age and death

This twelve-factor formula is the most familiar presentation, though a number of early suttas introduce less-known variants which make it clear that the sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through a simple reaction. The relationship among factors is always complex, involving several woven strands of conditionality.[8] For example, whenever there is ignorance, craving and clinging invariably follow, and craving and clinging themselves indicate ignorance.[7]

With respect to the destinies of human beings and animals, dependent origination has a more specific meaning, as it describes the process by which such sentient beings incarnate into any given realm and pursue their various worldly projects and activities with all concomitant suffering. Among these sufferings are aging and death. Aging and death are experienced by us because birth and youth have been experienced. Without birth there is no death. One conditions the other in a mutually dependent relationship. Our becoming in the world, the process of what we call "life", is conditioned by the attachment and clinging to ideas and projects. This attachment and clinging in turn cannot exist without craving as its condition. The Buddha understood that craving comes into being because there is sensation in the body which we experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When we crave something, it is the sensation induced by contact with the desired object that we crave rather than the object itself. Sensation is caused by contact with such objects of the senses. The contact or impression made upon the senses (manifesting as sensation) is itself dependent upon the six sense organs which themselves are dependent upon the psychophysical entity that a human being is. The whole process is summarized by the Buddha as follows:

English Terms Sanskrit Terms
With Ignorance as condition, Mental Formations arise With Avidyā as condition, Saṃskāra arises
With Mental Formations as condition, Consciousness arises With Saṃskāra as condition, Vijñāna arises
With Consciousness as condition, Name and Form arise With Vijñāna as condition, Nāmarūpa arises
With Name & Form as condition, Sense Gates arise With Nāmarūpa as condition, Ṣaḍāyatana arises
With Sense Gates as condition, Contact arises With Ṣaḍāyatana as condition, Sparśa arises
With Contact as condition, Feeling arises With Sparśa as condition, Vedanā arises
With Feeling as condition, Craving arises With Vedanā as condition, Tṛṣṇā arises
With Craving as condition, Clinging arises With Tṛṣṇā as condition, Upādāna arises
With Clinging as condition, Becoming arises With Upādāna as condition, Bhava arises
With Becoming as a condition, Birth arises With Bhava as condition, Jāti arises
With Birth as condition, Aging and Dying arise With Jāti as condition, Jarāmaraṇa arises

The thrust of the formula is such that when certain conditions are present, they give rise to subsequent conditions, which in turn give rise to other conditions and the cyclical nature of life in Samsara can be seen. This is graphically illustrated in the Bhavacakra (wheel of life).

Contemporary teachers often teach that it can also be seen as a daily cycle occurring from moment to moment throughout each day. 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":.[9]

For example, in the case of avidyā, the first condition, it is necessary to refer to the three marks of existence for a full understanding of its relation to pratityasamutpada. It is also necessary to understand the Three Fires and how they fit into the scheme. 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.

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.

Madhyamaka and Pratityasamutpada

Though the formulations above appear might seem to imply that pratityasamutpada is a straightforward causal model, in the hands of the Madhyamaka school, pratityasamutpada is used to demonstrate the very lack of inherent causality, in a manner that appears somewhat similar to the ideas of David Hume. Many scholars have agreed that the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is one of the earliest interpretations of Buddha's teaching on paramartha originated from Pratītyasamutpāda [10][clarification needed] , [11][clarification needed].

The conclusion of the Madhyamikas 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 Madhyamika, true causality depends upon the intrinsic existence of the elements of the causal process (causes and effects), which would violate the principle of anatman, but pratītyasamutpāda does not imply that the apparent participants in arising are essentially real.

Because of the interdependence of causes and effects (because a cause depends on its effect to be a cause, as effect depends on cause to be an effect), 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 dualistic accounts of causation are rejected.

Therefore, Nāgārjuna explains that the śūnyatā (or emptiness) of causality is demonstrated by the interdependence of cause and effect, and likewise that the interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda) 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."

Pratityasamutpada in Dzogchen

In Dzogchen tradition the interdependent origination is considered illusory:[12]

[One says], "all these (configurations of events and meanings) come about and disappear according to dependent origination." But, like a burnt seed, since a nonexistent (result) does not come about from a nonexistent (cause), cause and effect do not exist.

What appears as a world of apparently external phenomena, is the play of energy of sentient beings. There is nothing external or separate from the individual. Everything that manifests in the individual's field of experience is a continuum. This is the Great Perfection that is discovered in the Dzogchen practice.

"Being obsessed with entities, one's experiencing itself [sems, citta], which discriminates each cause and effect, appears as if it were cause and condition." [13]

Dependent arising of enlightenment

The early discourses present nirvana as "unconditioned by dispositions", but it is never considered to be independent, or uncaused.[14]

Pratityasamutpada 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 application of the principle of dependent arising is referred to in Theravada exegetical literature as "transcendental dependent arising".[15] The chain in this case is:

  1. suffering (dukkha)
  2. faith (saddhā)
  3. joy (pāmojja, pāmujja)
  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[16])
  12. knowledge of destruction of the cankers (āsava-khaye-ñāna)

Interbeing and Deep Ecology

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, a follower of the Vietnamese Zen tradition, has coined the term Interbeing as a synonym of pratityasamutpada. This phrase expresses the reality of mutual interdependence in human relationship both in the sense of relating one to another and in the wider sense of humanity's relationship to the natural world as a whole. The Sramanic religious traditions of India (Theravada Buddhism and Jainism) have been characterised by an unusual sensitivity to living beings. Monks of both traditions are strictly forbidden from harming any life form, including even the smallest insects and vegetation. One of the basic ideas behind the Buddha's teaching of mutual interdependence is that ultimately there is no demarcation between what appears to be an individual creature and its environment. Harming the environment (the nexus of living beings of which one forms but a part) is thus, in a nontrivial sense, harming oneself. This philosophical position lies at the heart of modern-day deep ecology and some representatives of this movement (e.g. Joanna Macy) have shown that Buddhist philosophy provides a rational basis for deep ecological thinking.

Notes and references

  1. "Is the doctrine of interdependent origination a metaphysical teaching? The answer depends on one's definition of metaphysics. In this paper, metaphysics describes the character that anything has insofar as it is anything at all. Interdependent origination seems to fit this description." Thinking through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives, by Kevin Schilbrack. Routledge: 2002. ISBN 0415254612[1]
  2. "Suffice it to emphasize that the doctrine of dependent origination is not a metaphysical doctrine, in the sense that it does not affirm or deny some super-sensible entities or realities; rather, it is a proposition arrived at through an examination and analysis of the world of phenomena ..." Frank J. Hoffman, Deegalle Mahinda, Pāli Buddhism. Routledge, 1996, page 177. [2].
  3. Garfield, Jay L. "Dependent Arising and the Emptiness:Why did Nagarjuna start with Causation? Philosophy East and West Volume 44, Number 2 April 1994
  4. The general formula can be found in the following discourses in the Pali Canon: MN 79, MN 115, SN 12.21, SN 12.22, SN 12.37, SN 12.41, SN 12.49, SN 12.50, SN 12.61, SN 12.62, SN 55.28, AN 10.92, Ud. 1.1 (first two lines), Ud. 1.2 (last two lines), Ud. 1.3, Nd2, Patis.
  5. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2005). Assutava Sutta: Uninstructed (SN 12.61). Retrieved 2008-01-20 from "Access to Insight" at
  6. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 313.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 314.
  8. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 316.
  9. Abhidharmakosa, by Vasubandhu. Translated by Leo Pruden, Vol. II, pgs 404-405.
  10. Magiliola, Robert (2004). "Nagarjuna and Chi-Tsang on the Value of This World: A Reply to Kuang-Ming Wu's Critique of indian and Chinese Madhyamika Buddhism". Journal of Chinese Philosophy (John Wiley & Sons) 31 (4): 505–516. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6253.2004.00168.x. 
  11. Chinn, Ewing (2001). "Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda". Philosophy East and West (University of Hawai'i Press) 51 (1): 54–72. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  12. Norbu (1999), pp. 99, 101
  13. From byang chub sems bsgom pa, by Mañjusrîmitra. Primordial experience. An Introduction to rDzogs-chen Meditation, pp. 60, 61
  14. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, pages 41, 160.
  15. Bhikkhu Bodhi, "Transcendental Dependent Arising: A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta." [3].
  16. Paul Williams, Buddhism: The early Buddhist schools and doctrinal history ; Theravāda doctrine. Taylor & Francis, 2005, page 147.

See also

External links

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