The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dalai Lama on Dependent-Arising

by The Dalai Lama
January 27, 2016
Wed, 01/27/2016 - 09:00 -- The Dalai Lama

Excerpt from The Wheel of Life by the Dalai Lama.


Dependent-arising is the general philosophy of all Buddhist systems even though many different interpretations are found among those systems. in Sanskrit the word for dependent-arising is pratītyasamutpāda. The word pratītya has three different meanings— meeting, relying, and depending—but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence. Samutpāda means arising. Hence, the meaning of pratītyasamutpāda is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions. On a subtle level, it is explained as the main reason why phenomena are empty of inherent existence.

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In order to reflect on the fact that things—the subjects upon which a meditator reflects—are empty of inherent existence because dependently arisen, it is necessary to identify the subjects of this reflection: the phenomena that produce pleasure and pain, help and harm, and so forth. If one does not understand cause and effect well, it is extremely difficult to realize that these phenomena are empty of inherent existence due to being dependently arisen. One must develop an understanding of cause and effect—that certain causes help and harm in certain ways. Hence, the Buddha set forth a presentation of dependent-arising in connection with the cause and effect of actions in the process of life in cyclic existence so that penetrating understanding of the process of cause and effect could be gained.

Thus, there is one level of dependent-arising that is concerned with causality, in this case the twelve branches, or links, of dependent- arising of life in cyclic existence: ignorance, action consciousness, name and form, the six sense spheres, contact, feeling, attachment, grasping, existence, birth, and aging and death. Then there is a second, deeper level of dependent-arising that applies to all objects; this is the establishment of phenomena dependent upon their parts. There is no phenomenon that does not have parts, and thus every phenomenon is imputed dependent upon its parts.

There is a third, even deeper level, which is the fact that phenomena are merely imputed by terms and conceptuality in dependence upon their bases of imputation. When objects are sought among their bases of imputation, nothing can be found to be the imputed object itself, and thus phenomena are merely dependently arisen—merely imputed in dependence upon bases of imputation. While the first level of dependent-arising refers to the arising of compounded phenomena in dependence upon causes and conditions and thus applies only to impermanent, caused phenomena, the other two levels apply to both permanent and impermanent phenomena.

When the Buddha set forth the twelve links of dependent-arising, he spoke from a vast perspective and with great import. He taught the twelve links in detail in the Rice Seedling Sūtra. As in other discourses, the Buddha teaches by responding to questions. In this sūtra, the Buddha speaks of dependent-arising in three ways:

  1. Due to the existence of this, that arises.
  2. Due to the production of this, that is produced.
  3. It is thus: due to ignorance there is compositional action; due to compositional action there is consciousness; due to consciousness there is name and form; due to name and form there are the six sense spheres; due to the six sense spheres there is contact; due to contact there is feeling; due to feeling there is attachment; due to attachment there is grasping; due to grasping there is the potentialized level of karma called “existence”; due to existence there is birth; and due to birth there is aging and death.

When the Buddha says, “Due to the existence of this, that arises,” he indicates that the phenomena of cyclic existence arise not through the force of supervision by a permanent deity but due to specific conditions. Merely due to the presence of certain causes and conditions, specific effects arise.

When the Buddha says, “Due to the production of this, that is produced,” he indicates that an unproduced, permanent phenomenon such as the general nature propounded by the Sāṃkhya system cannot create effects. Rather, the phenomena of cyclic existence arise from conditions that are impermanent by nature.

Then the question arises: if the phenomena of cyclic existence are produced from impermanent conditions, could they be produced from just any impermanent conditions? No. Thus, in the third phase, the Buddha indicates that the phenomena of cyclic existence are not produced from just any impermanent causes and conditions but rather from specific ones that have the potential to give rise to specific phenomena.

Setting forth the dependent-arising of suffering, Buddha shows that suffering has ignorance—obscuration—as its root cause. This impure, faulty seed produces an activity that deposits in the mind a potency that will generate suffering by producing a new life in cyclic existence. It eventually has as its fruit the last link of dependent-arising, the suffering of aging and death.


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Photograph of Dalai Lama by Olivier Adam.

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