DEPENDENT ORIGINATION by Hammalawa Saddhatissa M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt 1989, The Sayagyi U Ba
M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt
1989, The Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K.
Heddington, near Calne, Great Britain
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Dotesios (Printers) Ltd.
Dhammadana Series 15
When a sacred structure like a pagoda or Buddhist shrine is
consecrated it is customary, in the //Theravada// countries for monks to
recite the //Paticca samuppada//, the Dependent Origination. The reason is
that the Dependent Origination was realised by the Buddha with his
enlightenment. When the Buddha, being fully awakened, was staying on the
bank of the river Neranjara at the foot of the Bodhi tree (ficus
religiosa) for seven days experiencing the bliss of release (//vimutti
sukha//), during the first, second and third watches of that night of
Vesakha full-moon day he reflected on the Dependent Origination (//Paticca
samuppada), in direct and reverse order.
Then, having understood the matter, he uttered these solemn
"//Truly, when things grow plain to the ardent meditating noble one,
his doubts all vanish in that he comprehends things with cause.//"
"//Truly, when things grow plain to the ardent meditating noble one,
his doubts all vanish in that he discerns the destruction of
"//Truly, when things grow plain to the ardent meditating noble one,
routing the host of Mara does he stand like as the sun when lighting
up the sky.//"
This publication was prepared to mark the Consecration and Opening of
the Dhamma Yaung Chi Ceti at the International Meditation Centre, Splatts
House, Heddington, on Abhidhamma Day, 14th October 1989.
The doctrine of //Paticca Samuppada// is the real foundation on which
the entire philosophy of Buddhism is built. The Buddha himself said, "O
bhikkhus, one who understands this doctrine of Dependent Origination
understands the Dhamma; one who understands the //Dhamma//, understands
this doctrine of Dependent Origination" Santaraksita, in his
encyclopedic philosophical treatise, the //Tattvasangraha//, offers his
adoration to the Buddha as "The Great Sage who has preached the doctrine
of //Paticca Samuppada//." The three fundamental principles of
Buddhism -- 1) all is impermanent, 2) unsatisfactory and 3) insubstantial
-- are really derivative forms of this very doctrine.
The central point in this Buddhist doctrine is: there is nothing that
is not dependent on something else. Nothing can arise on its own accord,
independently. For example, the lamp remains burning because of the wick
and this in turn is dependent upon oxygen, temperature, etc. Likewise, the
wick is the result of twining strands of cotton together and the oxygen is
a combination of elements.
'Dependent Origination' means, dependent on that, this becomes.
Simple examples are: there being clouds, rain falls; there being rain, the
road becomes slippery; there being a slippery road, a man falls; due to
his falling, he is injured. Conversely, if there were no clouds, there
would be no rain; if there were no rain there would be no slippery road;
if there were no slippery road, there would be no accident arising from
someone falling on it. All the known sciences are concerned with the
process of thought; they only trace events backwards and forwards in the
causal chain. In botany for instance, a growing plant depends upon
suitable manure, etc. In physics, an engine depends on fuel, e.g. oxygen
There can be no first cause, because each cause becomes an effect and
each effect a cause. Hence a first cause is quite inconceivable. As
Bertrand Russell said, "There is no need to suppose a first cause at all
which is due to the poverty of our imagination." The life stream flows on
//ad infinitum// so long as it is fed by the muddy waters of craving,
hatred and delusion. It is therefore difficult to see a beginning of
things, but it is even more difficult to see an end to all things and
eternity is a concept which virtually defies human imagination. Knowledge
grows in proportion to our understanding correctly such causal processes.
And where our scientific knowledge fails us, we often have recourse to
superstition. The primitive people saw the wonders of nature and became
curious to get a satisfactory explanation of them. They could not explain
them scientifically, i.e. by the Law of Dependent Origination, therefore
they naturally tried to explain them by some superstitious superhuman
agent or agents -- gods or goddesses. But history shows that any such
belief in a superstitious explanation is inimical to the advancement of
knowledge. The primitive man believed that the wind blew because the Wind
God was going in procession to be married. If science had accepted this
belief and had not tried to trace the phenomenon according to the Law of
Dependent Origination, we could never have known that the movement of the
wind is due to the difference of atmospheric pressure. A theistic or
superstitious explanation puts an end to all further inquiry. We cannot
ask "Who created God?", or depending on what God originates. Here there is
an absolute check in the advancement of knowledge.
But the Law of Dependent Origination does not investigate into the
First Cause, for the very conception of a First Cause means a total check
in the progress of knowledge.
//Paticca Samuppada// is not, as some people erroneously suppose, the
Law of Causation as understood by medieval logicians who followed
Aristotle, which considers the cause and effect as two quite different
events, one of which produces the other.
When examined carefully, this seems untenable. According to the Law
of //Paticca Samuppada//, two events cannot be considered as quite
distinct from each other for they are links of the same process, which
admits of no break. No single event in the world is ever isolated. A
cause, therefore, cannot stand by itself as such.
Clay is the cause of the pot, the medieval logicians would assert.
Yes, the clay is certainly the cause of the pot. But it is not, by itself,
sufficient for the production of the pot. If there were no water, no
wheel, no potter, no effort on the part of the potter, the pot would not
have been produced. All these factors are indispensable for the production
of the pot. What right have we to say, therefore, that the clay is the
cause of the pot? It is simply arbitrary to select one of several
circumstances and call it the cause. It is not right, then, to say that
clay is the cause of the pot. A better way of expressing it is: "The pot
was produced depending on clay." Thus, the most scientific and rational
explanation of a thing is possible only according to the Law of //Paticca
The great Buddhist commentator, Buddhaghosa, wrote, "Dependent
Origination is so deep it is as if I had fallen into the middle of the
ocean when I am trying to explain it."
It explains the cycle of lives and how man accumulates kamma and is
reborn through the round of existence as depicted in the 'Wheel of
Becoming' -- a wheel of twelve spokes denoting the twelve links of the
1-2. Dependent on ignorance, intentional activities arise.
3. Dependent on intentional activities, consciousness arises.
4. Dependent on consciousness, mental and physical phenomena arise.
5. Dependent on mental and physical phenomena, the six senses arise.
6. Dependent on the six senses, contact arises.
7. Dependent on contact, feeling arises.
8. Dependent on feeling, craving arises.
9. Dependent on craving, clinging arises.
10. Dependent on clinging, the process of becoming arises.
11. Dependent on becoming, birth arises.
12. Dependent on birth, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain,
grief and despair arise.
Thus arises this whole mass of suffering.
Thus is explained the phenomena of past, present and future lives.
Every kind of mixed action performed in a previous life may be termed an
'active life.' Due to this a 'relinking' takes place between the past life
and the present one resulting in consciousness, mental and physical
phenomena, the six senses and contact, which, with its relevant objects
results in pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feelings. After birth,
subsequent feelings lead to attachment which in turn paves the way for
future birth. This sequence may be divided into three sections: past
action and present effect, present action and present effect, and present
action and future effect.
All phenomena which we are capable of observing, together with many
we may not be able to observe, hang together and interact as part and
parcel of one larger phenomenon, of which our observations are only
partial impressions. That is why we experience them as separate and
attribute to them false notions of time and space. Our own sense
capacities put together those things that we regard as units. When we
speak of a city or a nation or a race, there are no definite outlines of
the concepts which we must use in order to formulate our thoughts! The
boundaries of a city are purely arbitrary and can be changed by
proclamation. The units comprising a nation are separate individuals that
need have no ethnological interrelations, whilst those belonging to a race
may or may not be 'pure' stock. So too with childhood, youth and
adulthood. Who can say at what day and hour one passes to the next stage?
We have a general notion whether a person is a child or an adult but the
periods of transition are indefinable. All things are in a state of flux,
of motion, of adjustment, of response. It is our mind that creates the
outlines and the limitations. We cannot say that the child is the cause of
the youth and the youth that of the adult. They are interconnected states
of the same set of circumstances. We attribute qualities, characteristics,
notions to the various parts of the set, and then falsely treat those
parts as independent units, calling one the cause of the other!
What there is, then, is not so much cause and effect as interrelation
and interaction. The various parts interact, call forth a reaction one
from the other. They are all there simultaneously, like the pages of a
book or the frames of a film, but as they appear before our mind's eye so
do we see them in succession. Not only this but we ourselves are part of
the film, so to speak, not merely onlookers. We take part in the process
of reaction: in fact, it is our reaction which creates our world for us.
We have the faculty of controlling our response, both by suppression and
by stimulation. Buddhism might be called the science of Response Control.
Right Effort is to suppress the undesirable, the grosser response, and
substitute the desirable, the more refined, for it. That kind of response
is undesirable which is inextricably interrelated with suffering and pain:
we say for brevity's sake, which causes suffering and pain, though what we
really mean is that it is part of that set of circumstances. We have a
similar verbal inaccuracy when we speak of the rising and setting of the
sun or the moon. Our way of speaking does not deceive anyone with even the
slightest degree of education. Likewise, when the Buddha speaks of cause
and effect, it does not deceive anyone with the slightest amount of Right
Understanding; it is a convenient way of expressing himself in familiar
terms. We know that sets of circumstances of which pain and suffering are
part, further entangle us; they are related with sensations of desire and
indulgence in craving. Craving alone produces evil, pain, suffering and
misery. This is the whole secret of Buddhism. Detachment is the keyword to
the solution of the problem. Detachment alone leads to disentanglement;
not because it is the cause of disentanglement, but because it is part and
parcel of the set of circumstances of which disentanglement is one!
Detachment is the avoidance of craving!
But if we cannot speak of cause and effect in this way, how is it
that we have to wait after one phenomenon for the next one belonging to
the same set to take place? Why do they not occur simultaneously? The
answer is that we are so constituted that we cannot survey the entire
field of experience at one glance. It is like reading a book or travelling
a road. The entire road is there; though, on account of our particular
mode of locomotion and our short range of vision, we can only be aware of
a small portion of it at one time. But as we travel along, the remainder
of the road enters our consciousness, little by little until, when we come
to the end, we say we have travelled the road. But our travelling is not
the cause of the road, nor is any part of the road on which we find
ourselves at any one time the cause of the next part. Nor even is our
travelling the cause of our seeing the road, since we see but a little of
it at any one time: the one is coincident with the other, not the cause of
the other. It is all part and parcel of the same set of circumstances and
we have the option to travel the road quickly or slowly, on foot or on
horseback, on a bicycle or in a car, to look sideways or forwards. The set
of circumstances is there; how shall we respond? With regard to Dependent
Origination, therefore, with one link present, the remaining eleven links
must also be present; the 'Chain of Causation' being just a convenient
expression. But just as a real wheel touches the ground at one point, so
too *this* 'Wheel' with its twelve spokes impinges on our life stream at
just one stage. Each link is necessary for ensuring the continuity of the
whole structure, just as a broken or missing spoke in a real wheel would
tend to weaken and eventually cause the collapse of the whole.
And what we should try and do is to cause the collapse of this Wheel
of Becoming. This can be done by severing any of its links. The easiest
links where this can be achieved are either the first one, that of
ignorance, or the seventh, that of feeling.
We cannot therefore say that we produce kamma as much as that we
are kamma maintaining itself, adding to itself, enlarging itself and
entangling itself. Ceasing to crave and to be attached is equivalent to
ceasing to make any further kamma and putting an end to already existent
kamma. And when existing kamma has become exhausted and no new kamma is
engendered, there is an end to suffering, and nibbana will have been
Thus we must understand that the illusory self is a reactive
principle which, for its very existence, requires the exercise of constant
adaptation. This self is kamma, this exercise is kamma. If the adaptation
can be made without undue strain the kamma involved is pleasant. If there
is conflict involved the kamma is unpleasant or even painful. It is wise,
therefore, to make ourselves so utterly adaptable, physically, mentally
and emotionally, that, without attachment, we shall be able to respond
immediately to any circumstances so we will never react at all to those
sets of circumstances that are inherently undesirable. Buddhism provides
us with a training that makes it possible to attain such a state.
This Dependent Origination is one of the most important factors in
Buddhist philosophy. It is repeatedly discussed in the suttas, frequently
with special reference to other opposing views of life. In this connection
a passage from the //Anguttara Nikaya// may be of interest.
"There are, O monks, three views held by the heretics which when
followed by the learned, are calculated to land them in moral
irresponsibility in spite of the perfection which they have attained. What
are these three views? Some samanas and Brahmins maintain that whatever a
man has in this life of pain or pleasure is purely due to predestination;
others say that it is due to the will of God; others that it is due to
"Now, O monks, when I find samanas and Brahmins holding or preaching
such views I enquire of them whether they really believe in them. And when
they answer in the affirmative I say to them, 'So, then, you must
acknowledge that men become murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars, etc. on
account of fate, God's will or blind chance. Accordingly, all attempts at
improvement or distinction between right and wrong becomes of no avail.
Such being the case, the moral regeneration of the fallen becomes
impossible.' This sort of reasoning must silence those who hold any of the
three views mentioned above.'
The reasoning of the Buddha may be somewhat too pragmatic to please
the purely logical, but it serves to bring out quite clearly the theory
that things have their origin in cause and effect, and that so far as our
own destiny is concerned, we are responsible for the effects, inasmuch as
we are responsible for the causes.
The doctrine of causation, then, was, in the first place, associated
with the doctrine of moral responsibility, but the doctrine was also
connected with the Buddhist marks of impermanence and soullessness.
Nothing is permanent or self-existent. All things in the universe are the
ephemeral products of various causes and conditions.
But while the branches of Buddhism are in agreement as to the
validity of the causal law, on probably no point is there as much
divergence as regards the interpretation of the details. In the
//Nikayas// we find only such phrases as 'Because of the existence of
this, that exists; this arising, that also arises.' Nor is there any
specific word which covers all forms of the causal law. We find only such
words as '//ko hetu, ko paccaya//', for this cause, for this conditional
These two words were destined to have a curious history. In
//Sthaviravada// *hetu* came to have a very narrow significance, namely,
to indicate the conditioning of certain states of consciousness by the
three defilements: greed, hate and delusion. Hence those states of
consciousness which are affected by these are called *//sahetuka//*, or
possessed of cause (//hetu//). *//Paccaya//*, on the other hand, came to
signify any form of causal relationship, or the various ways in which one
thing could stand in relation to another. In fact the last book of the
//Abhidhamma// is concerned almost exclusively with the twenty-four
//paccayas// or possible relationships between different phenomena.
On the other hand, by both the //Sarvastivadins// and the
//Yogacarins//, the two terms were used in a very different way. Here
//hetu// means cause proper, or direct or primary cause; while //paccaya//
signifies general affecting conditions. In any particular causal nexus,
//paccaya// means not the proper cause (which is //hetu//) but the
additional circumstances under which a specified cause acted. //Hetu//
then is primary cause, //paccaya// is secondary cause, and the two
together bring about //phala// or the effect. Thus, for example, a seed is
planted in the ground (which is //hetu//); through the influence of the
earth, sun and rain (//paccaya//) it grows and the tree is the //phala//.
Thus in contradistinction to the twenty-four //paccayas// of the
//Theravada//, we find in the //Sarvastivada// a list of six //hetus//.
With all branches of Buddhism the doctrine of causation is closely
associated with the theory of kamma. Literally, kamma means action or
deed, and that is still its most important significance. Later it came to
have the added meaning of the result of action. It is in this sense we
frequently meet the expression 'he has good kamma awaiting him'. Finally,
it came to mean the whole law of causation when it has reference merely to
In the early days, and in //Sthaviravada//, general causality and
kamma were very sharply distinguished. Kamma was one of the many kinds of
causes that may bring about a certain result. Thus, Nagasena explains to
Milinda that although suffering may be caused by kamma, yet it may also
be due to other causes. Even the Buddha suffered pain and illness, due to
various external causes.
"Suppose, O king, a clod of earth were to be thrown up in the air,
and to fall again on the ground. Would it be in consequence of any act
that it had previously done that it would fall?"
"No, venerable sir, there is no reason in the broad earth by which it
could experience the result of either good or evil. It would be by reason
of the present cause, independent of kamma, that the clod would fall
"Well, O king, the Buddha should be regarded as the broad earth. As
the clod would fall upon it irrespective of any act done to it, so also
was it irrespective of any act done by him that the splinter of rock fell
upon his foot."
In like manner, though kamma may cause the death of a man, the
death may be due to one of several reasons. Milinda cites external causes
and kamma, while the //Abhidhammathasangaha// gives:
1. expiration of life;
2. expiration of kamma;
3. expiration of both;
4. destructive kamma.
It should be noted, however, that there was a constant tendency to
increase the scope of kamma. Thus in the //Kathavatthu//, one of the seven
//Abhidhamma// works of the //Sthaviravadins//, it is distinctly denied
that matter can be due to karmic causality, while in the
//Abhidhammatthasangaha//, the four things which are said to be the
origins of material phenomena are: 1) kamma, 2) mind, 3) physical change,
and 4) food.
In the //Sarvastivadin// works it is repeatedly said that the cause
of the re-creation of the universe is the aggregate effect of the kamma of
the sentient beings in the past, while in the later //Mahayana// schools,
where the basis of the whole universe is said to be mind, the appearance
of the whole universe is due to kamma and its corollaries. Buddhists
believe that the doctrine of cause and condition is universal as regards
1) place, 2) time, and 3) object.
1. Causal law applies uniformly to all portions of the universe, both
in the innumerable material worlds and in the various heavens and hells.
2. Causal law applies to the three periods of time: past, present and
future. To a Buddhist this means, moreover, that the circle of causality
is endless; that there never was a beginning and there will never be an
end. Hence they reject the belief in a first or ultimate cause.
//Vasubandhu// has a long and very interesting passage in the
//Abhidharmakosa// defining the Buddhist position on this point.
3. It applies to all objects. The only exceptions are the //Asankhata
dhammas//, which are eternal and uncaused. All the //Sankhata dhammas//,
however, whether //rupa, citta// or //ceta-sika// have only a dependent or
conditioned existence, and are without any substantial existence of their
own. Buddhism distinguishes itself from most other systems by applying the
doctrine of causality and non-substantiality to the mind as well as to the
We are told, moreover, that even the Buddhas are subject to
"Even the Buddhas of the three ages have not been and shall not be
able to alter this great law."
This is a very important point, inasmuch as it is a doctrine which
distinguishes Buddhism from practically every other religion. In most
other systems of thought, though the causal relationship is in some way
recognised, the higher powers, especially the Supreme Being, are
considered superior to this law, and are able, as shown by their miracles,
temporarily to abrogate it. Buddhism, though it accepts the possibility of
miracles, seeks to correlate them with causality. The favourite theory of
the higher law is introduced. Just as physical scientists are able, by
increased knowledge, to bring about results which to an ordinary man seem
marvelous, so too, according to Buddhism, do sages possess certain powers
gained through good kamma, which enable them to control the elements. To
the Buddhist, increase in the power of vision by means of the telescope is
neither more nor less miraculous than increase of vision (clairvoyance) by
means of the cultivation of the psychic faculties. Even in //Mahayana//
where the Buddhas accomplish the salvation of sentient beings, this
salvation must be effected through causal agencies.
One final point deserves attention -- all schools of Buddhism agree
that nothing can be produced by the action of a single cause; every dhamma
is the result of at least two causes. In the first instance this doctrine
was probably directed against the doctrine of //Isvara// or the creating
deity, but in later times it came to imply that to produce an effect a
cause requires adventitious aid from without. It is not, therefore, true
to say that every cause necessarily has an effect, because some single
causes, finding no favourable conditions, never come to fruition. It is
possible, moreover, for a strong cause to render a weak cause barren.
The Buddhists applied their theory of causality in two ways. The
first was from the point of view of the groups of //dhammas// taken as a
whole, more particularly the personality, human or otherwise. The second
was from the point of view of each of the //dhammas// taken separately.
The first, therefore, we may call synthetic, the second analytical.
The first aspect was prominent even in the early period of Buddhist
philosophy, and was merely the development of the theory of kamma, showing
how, for certain causal reasons a man would be reborn at death in a happy
or unhappy state. The later schools did little more than systematize or
formularize the older doctrines. This aspect of causality was largely
centered around the old formula, known as the //Paticca Samuppada//.
The second aspect only becomes prominent in the //Abhidhamma//. Here
an attempt was made to distinguish and define the fundamental types of
causes, and show how the various kinds of personalities and all other
combinations came into being by the action of these types of causes upon
various single dhammas.
 M. i. 190: "Yo paticcasamuppadam passati so dhammam passati, yo
dhammam passati so paticcasamuppadam passati.
 Tattvasangraha, vol. i.
 Vism. 522.
 S. ii. 1.
 Intentional activities or formations (sankhara) are called kamma.
Herein the three, namely: formations of merit, of demerit, and of the
imperturbable, and three, namely bodily, verbal and mental; which make
six, are formations with ignorance (avijja) as a condition. See Vism. 526.
 A. i. 173.
 Miln. 191.
 Cf. Phil. 149.
 Page 161.
 A.K. 7-6a.
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TITLE OF WORK: Dependent Origination
AUTHOR: Hammalawa Saddhatissa
AUTHOR'S ADDRESS: n/a
PUBLISHER'S ADDRESS: International Meditation Centre, Splatts House,
Heddington, Calne, Wiltshire SN11 OPE, England
COPYRIGHT HOLDER: The Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K.
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1989
DATE OF DHARMANET DISTRIBUTION: 1994
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