9.1 What is the Law of Dependent Origination?

The Law of Dependent Origination is one of the important laws of the universe discovered by Shakyamuni Buddha (through enlightenment). It simply states that

It is an elaboration of the Principle of Cause and Effect, highlighting the concept of inter-dependency of existence, and also the duality/non-duality. It looks simple. But in fact, it is very deep and profound, especially when it is applied to our daily life.

Basically, we can understand the Law of Dependent Origination in three ways:

related to the cause and effect.
related to inter-dependency
related to profundity

9.1.1 Related to Cause and Effect

One reaps what one sows. It is very simple, and is agreed upon and accepted by most people. Every effect has its cause. However, if we talk about cause and effect without considering the condition, we are a fatalist. Buddhism rejects it. An effect can only arise depending on condition(s). Cause is primary while condition is secondary. In other words, a wholesome deed at present can be a cause of a good retribution/effect in future. However, a wholesome deed at present can also be a condition for preventing the bad retribution (evil effect due to the evil cause in the past), as a bad retribution usually comes in effect under adverse/unwholesome conditions. Even if it really comes, the effect is generally less severe, particularly if we sincerely repent of our evil deed in the past. Moreover, since cause cannot come in effect without condition(s), it is important to note that although one cannot change the cause and effect, one can change the conditions. This is why Buddhism emphasizes to change our fate by changing the condition.

If we cultivate the wholesome causes, we have good retribution. Thus, we should have a strong belief and deep understanding of the law and act in accordance with it, in order to have a better living with happiness and blessings.

9.1.2 Related to Inter-dependency

Literally, interdependency means one cannot exist without the other. Its existence depends on the other. In other words, "it" and "the other" are co-existent, for instance, up and down, right and wrong, good and evil, bright and dark, subject and object, you and I, etc. There is no independent existence. Nothing has its own nature of existence. It deduces the non-existence of an independent "I". By definition, the existence of an independent "I" is (1) independent (2) permanent (3) self-sovereign. Buddhism does not reject a convenient designation named "I", but rejects the belief in a real, independent and permanent entity ! Buddhism also rejects the belief of the Creator of Universe as there is no exception to the law. This will be further elaborated in The Three Universal Truths in the next section.

9.1.3 Related to Profundity

This is a very profound way to understand the Law of Dependent Origination. It reveals the reality of the nature. Dependent origination is further described to be the momentary inter-dependent existence. That means, for all phenomena, their existence are inter-dependent (dependent upon a number of causal factors), and also impermanent (transient, ever-changing and momentary). Again, this will be further elaborated in The Three Universal Truths in the next section.

9.2 Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

There is no existing phenomenon that is not the effect of dependent origination. All phenomena arise dependent upon a number of casual factors, called conditions. This is a very simple way to express the Law of Dependent Origination.

Dependent origination is essentially and primarily a teaching to understand suffering and cessation of suffering. It is not a description of the evolution of universe.

The twelve links of dependent origination provide a detailed description on the problem of suffering and rebirth. They are: ignorance, mental formation, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, aging and death.

1. Ignorance is the condition for mental formation.
2. Mental formation is the condition for consciousness.
3. Consciousness is the condition for name and form.
4. Name and form is the condition for the six senses.
5. The six senses are the conditions for contact.
6. Contact is the condition for feeling.
7. Feeling is the condition for craving.
8. Craving is the condition for clinging.
9. Clinging is the condition for becoming.
10. Becoming is the condition for birth.
11. Birth is the condition for aging and death.
12. Aging and death is the condition for ignorance.

All twelve links are inter-related and dependent on each other. Each one does not have its own nature. Thus there is no starting point nor ending point. They are cyclic phenomena. Each link is a cause on one hand, and an effect on the other. The occurrence of cause and effect may come about in a moment or over a period of three life-times.

There are two main ways to interpret the twelve links.

9.2.1 Sequential Interpretation

Over a period of three life-times, i.e. past life, present life and future life.

1. Past life - ignorance, mental formation represent the conditions that are responsible for the occurrence of this life.

2. Present life - The eight links, consciousness, name and form, six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging and becoming constitute the process of evolution within this life.

3. Future life - birth, old age and death belong to the conditions for the future life.

According to this interpretation, ignorance and mental formation result in the emergence of this life within its psycho-physical personality. In turn, the action performed in this life result in rebirth in the future life.

9.2.2 Cyclical Interpretation

Dividing the twelve links into three groups:

1. Defilement (Klesha) - ignorance, craving and clinging.

Ignorance is the main cause of suffering. It is because ignorance that we crave for pleasures of the senses, for existence and for non-existence. We also cling to pleasant experience, to ideas, and most significantly, to the idea of an independent and permanent self. Ignorance is the cause of actions. Defilement is the impurities of mind, resulting in actions.

2. Action (Karma) - mental formation and becoming

Mental formation refers to the impressions or habits that we have formed in our stream of conscious moments. They are formed by repeated actions, just like the formation of river by repeated flows of water in the streams. In the same way, our actions become habitual. These habits become part of our personality and we take these habits with us from life to life in the form of habitual energy. Becoming is the actions that we perform in this life. In other words, the habits developed over countless lives combined with new actions performed in this life result in rebirth and suffering.

3. Suffering (Duhkha) - consciousness, name form, the six senses, contact, feeling, birth, old age and death

All these links are the effects of defilement and actions.

9.3 The Twelve Links

9.3.1 Ignorance

Ignorance means the lack of right understanding. In our world, one is ignorant to take Five Desirous Pleasures (wealth, sex, fame, eating, sleep) as the ultimate happiness. One is also ignorant to take oneself as a real, independent, permanent entity of "I". We do not really understand what our lives are and what the universe is. That is why we are in trouble, in anger, in illusion, in anxiety, in fear, etc. If we understand more about the universe and our lives, then we will live in accordance with the way it goes (not against it). Then we will be happy, free and comfortable.

Many people live, act and behave in accordance with their traditions, customs and habits, without knowing what they really are (just like the Five Desirous Pleasures). It is the ignorance which leads them to suffer. Many people are born and then die without understanding what they really are. That is why they undergo rebirth from life to life. In Samsara, ignorance can be regarded as the blockage to our own Buddha's nature which is yet to be developed and enlightened. Ignorance is an incomplete and imperfect understanding, illusion and unconsciousness, defilement and impurities of the mind. It is the primary cause of suffering and rebirth. Ignorance is a condition for mental formation.

9.3.2 Mental Formation

Mental formation arises from ignorance. The mental impurities (the result of actions done in the previous lives) have resulted in the formulation of habitual energy and actions done in the present life which are generally liable to conform to the patterns established in previous lives. All are governed by the Law of Karma. That is why some people live better than the others in this world.

Mental formation is a condition for consciousness.

9.3.3 Consciousness

Consciousness arises from mental formation. Literally, it means perceiving, comprehending, recognizing, differentiating etc. Usually it is interpreted to be our mind.

In the twelve links, mental formation is then condition for consciousness, as our personalities belong to our internal mind.

Our personalities can only be realized upon (1) the subjective differentiating mind (consciousness) and (2) the objective matter (name and form).

Consciousness is a condition for name and form.

9.3.4 Name and Form

It is the combination of spirit and matter, mind and body. It refers to Five Skandhas, i.e. form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness. Form has its colour and shape, and the other four do not. Therefore, they are called "name". Name and form is a condition for the six senses.

9.3.5 The Six Senses

The six senses arise from name and form. They are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. These six organs are the tools used to get in contact with the external objects and to be aware of the existence of an objective matter. They are also organs to express our characters and personalities. The six senses are the conditions for contact.

9.3.6 Contact

Contact arises from the six senses. It is the psychological process created by the six senses, the objects and the consciousness. Therefore contact is the condition for feeling. Without contact, we will have no feeling. It is the very first link where suffering begins.

9.3.7 Feeling

Feeling arises from contact. It is the feeling towards a matter. There are three kinds of feeling, namely, suffering, pleasure, no-suffering-no-pleasure.

Feeling is a condition for craving.

9.3.8 Craving

Craving arises from contact. It is the sensuous desire, pursuit for pleasures, attachment to gain and fear of loss.

Craving is a condition for clinging.

9.3.9 Clinging

Cling arises from craving. It is an attachment to a matter. We have the desire to keep it and possess it permanently. However, all phenomena are impermanent. We are bound to suffer because of our ignorance. Clinging is a condition for becoming.

9.3.10 Becoming

Becoming arises from clinging. It means to give birth, create and exist. Since we are so attached to all phenomena, including matter and self, we assume that there is an existence. However, the existence is void because it is not real. It is conditioned, impermanent and transient.

Becoming is a condition for birth.

9.3.11 Birth

Birth arises from becoming. Birth implies life. It is an effect of all mental activities, which make the life to happen.

Birth is a condition for old age and death.

9.3.12 Old Age and Death

Old age and death arises from birth. It is a life "cycle". Death is one of the greatest affliction and fear of the layman beings, but none of them is exempted from old age and dying.

Only Arhats and Bodhisattva who are enlightened, have liberated themselves from the fundamental errors that imprison them within the cycle of birth and death in Samsara.

Ordinary beings die, leaving with the ignorance, which carries to next life, i.e. rebirth, so on and so forth. Old age and death is a condition for ignorance.