Dependent Origination, the Full Causal Chain of Suffering

by | Mar 17, 2024 | Buddhism for All

The place where the theme of cause and effect really shows up in a big way is in the teaching of dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda), in which the Buddha explains in detail how karma functions without a self.  This teaching has a general expression, and a detailed expression.  The general expression is these four lines:

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.[1]

The detailed expression of dependent origination is a causal chain with twelve items that presents a complete picture of what causes suffering and, therefore, how to resolve it.  The causal chain, where each item creates the conditions for the next, is:

  1. Ignorance (avijjā).
  2. Formations (saṅkhāra).
  3. Consciousness (viññāṇa)
  4. Name-and-form (nāmarūpa).
  5. Six senses (saḷāyatana).
  6. Contact (phassa)
  7. Sensation (vedanā).
  8. Craving (taṇhā).
  9. Grasping (upādāna).
  10. Becoming (bhava).
  11. Birth (jāti).
  12. Old age (jarā) and death (maraṇa).

If it does not make a lot of sense to you, fret not, the explanation turns out to be quite understandable.  The standard explanation extends the twelve items over three lifetimes: where (1) and (2) relates to the previous life, (3) to (10) relates to the present life, and (11) and (12) relates to the next life.

Here is how it works.  The narrative begins in the previous life, and it begins with (1) ignorance.  Ignorance is defined as “not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” [2]  In other words, ignorance is not knowing any part of the Four Noble Truths.  It can also be thought of as not seeing reality as it actually is, specifically not understanding that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, subject to suffering, and possess no essence of selfness.  Due to this ignorance, we continue creating (2) formations, defined here as things formed by body, speech or mind.  Doing so produces karma.

That leads us to the present life.  The karma produced in the previous life ripened as (3) consciousness for this life, starting as “rebirth consciousness” which arises at rebirth and continues as a process for a lifetime (like the lamp in the previous metaphor).  Consciousness must function with other mental and material aggregates as its objects/fuel/basis (take your pick) which together give us both body and mind.  Hence, consciousness conditions (4) name-and-form, sometimes translated as “mentality and materiality”, which includes other aspects of mind and a physical body.  With that, we gain (5) the six senses.  Those six senses allow us (6) contact with physical objects and thoughts, which gives us (7) sensations.  With that, we have desire for pleasant sensations and aversion for unpleasant sensations, which means we have (8) craving.  Craving conditions (9) grasping, specifically towards four things: sensual pleasures, views, rituals, and a doctrine of self.  Due to our grasping, we (10) become again when we die.

That brings us to the next life.  With the wanting to become, we take (11) birth.  And taking birth means, yeah, we are subject to (12) old age, death, and “this entire mass of suffering.”[3]

One really important feature about this chain is the existence of feedback loops.  One, for example, is the tight feedback loop between consciousness and name-and-form, they both depend on and condition each other.[4]  Birth, which the Buddha defines here as “the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases”[5], creates an obvious feedback loop with name-and-form and six senses.

Another major feedback loop is to be found between ignorance and craving.  When craving is strong, the five hindrances are also strong, and when the five hindrances are strong, you cannot clearly see things as they really are, you are hindered from the full understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and so ignorance is strong.  That is how craving conditions ignorance.  This feedback loop is the reason you can end suffering either by eliminating ignorance or craving: you weaken one, you weaken the other, you take one down, you take down the other. 

While dependent origination is usually presented as a chain, given feedback loops, it can be more accurately thought of as a web.[6]  One important implication is there is no “first cause”.  If you just think of it as a chain, you may mistakenly think ignorance is the “first cause”.  In reality, ignorance also has causes, the most direct ones being the five hindrances.[7]  Everything is just part of a beginningless web of cause and effect.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela: What is your understanding of dependent origination? Can you find examples of how this teaching is true for you?


[1] Majjhima Nikāya 115, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.

[2] The Buddha gave very useful short definitions for each chain on the link in Saṃyutta Nikaya 12.2, used in this section.

[3] Majjhima Nikāya 38.

[4] For example, in Dīgha Nikāya 15, the Buddha says that name-and-form conditions consciousness, while in Majjhima Nikāya 109, he says that consciousness conditions name-and-form.

[5] Saṃyutta Nikaya 12.2.

[6] An engineer would more accurately call it a directed graph with cycles.

[7] For example, in Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.61 and 10.62, where the Buddha calls the five hindrances “nutriment for ignorance.”

Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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