Dependent Origination

Joseph Goldstein

IT IS BECAUSE of the mystery of birth, old age and death that Buddhas arise in the world. There is no realm of existence in which these realities do not exist, and it is the sole purpose of the Buddha's enlightenment to penetrate into their root causes. Perhaps the most profound part of the Buddha's teaching is the description of how this wheel of life, death and rebirth continues rolling on. The insight into all the links of the chain of existence is expressed in what is called the Law of Dependent Origination.

There are twelve links in this Law of Dependent Origination. The first two have to do with causes in the last life which condition birth in this one. The first of these links is ignorance. Ignorance means not knowing the truth, not understanding the Dharma, ignorance of the four noble truths. Because we do not perceive things clearly, because we do not perceive the fact of suffering and its cause and the way out, that force of ignorance conditions the next link in the chain: volitional actions of body, speech, and mind motivated by wholesome or unwholesome mental factors. Volitional activity is conditioned by ignorance; because we don't understand the truth, we are involved in all kinds of actions. And the karmic force of these actions conditions the third link in the chain.

The third link is rebirth consciousness; that is, the first moment of consciousness in this life. Because ignorance conditioned the energy of karmic activity in our last life, rebirth consciousness arises at the moment of conception. Volition or intention is like the seed; rebirth consciousness, like the sprouting of that seed - a cause and - effect conditioned relationship. Because of ignorance there were all kinds of actions, all kinds of karmic formations. Because of karmic formations arises rebirth consciousness, the beginning of this life. Because of the first moment of consciousness in this life arise the whole mind-body phenomena, all the elements of matter, all the factors of mind. Because of the mind-body phenomena arising, the sense spheres develop. This is during development of the embryo, before birth.

Rebirth consciousness at the moment of conception conditions the arising of mind-body phenomena. Because of that arise all the six spheres of the senses, the five physical senses and the mind, which in turn conditions the arising of contact, contact between the sense organ and its appropriate object: the eye and color, the car and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste, body and sensation, mind and thoughts or ideas. Contact involves the coming together of an object through its appropriate sense door and the consciousness of either seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking. Conditioned by the senses, contact comes into being. Because of the contact between the eye and color, the ear and sound, and the other senses and their objects, there arises feeling. Feeling means the quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neither pleasantness nor unpleasantness involved in every mind moment, in every moment of contact. Whether it is contact through the five physical sense doors or through the mind, feeling is always present, and is called, therefore, a common mental factor. Conditioned by contact, there arises feeling; that is, the quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality.

Because of feeling arises craving. Craving means desiring, hankering after objects. What is it that we desire? We desire pleasant sights and sounds, pleasant tastes and smells, pleasant touch sensations and thoughts, or we desire to get rid of unpleasant objects. Desire arises because of feelings. We start hankering after, or wishing to avoid, these six different objects in the world. Feeling conditions desire. Desire conditions grasping. Because we have a desire for the objects of the six senses, mind included, we grasp, we latch on to, we become attached. Grasping is conditioned by desire.

Because of grasping, again we get involved in karmic formations, repeating the kinds of volitions which, in our past life, produced the rebirth consciousness of this life. Feeling conditions desire, desire conditions grasping, and grasping conditions the continual actions of becoming, creating the energy which is the seed for rebirth consciousness in the next life. Because of these karmic actions resulting from grasping, again there is birth.

Because there is birth, there is disease, there is sorrow. There is decay, there is pain. There is suffering. There is death. And so the wheel goes on and on, an impersonal chain of causality.

The Buddha's problem, and the problem of us all, is to discover the way out of this cycle of conditioning. It is said that on the night of his enlightenment he worked backward through the Law of Dependent Origination, seeking the place of release. Why is there old age, disease and death? Because of birth. Why is there birth? Because of all the actions of becoming, all the volitional activities motivated by greed, hatred and delusion. Why are we involved in these kinds of activities? Because of grasping. Why is there grasping? Because of desire in the mind. Why is there desire? Because of feeling, because the quality of pleasantness or unpleasantness arises. Why is there feeling? Because of contact. Why is there contact? Because of the sense-spheres and the whole mind-body phenomena.

But there's nothing we can do now about being a mind-body process. That is conditioned by past ignorance and having taken birth. So there is no way to avoid contact. There's no possible way of closing off all the sense organs even if that were desirable. If there's contact, there's no way of preventing feeling from arising. Because of contact, feeling will be there. It's a common factor of mind. But, it is right at this point that the chain can be broken.

Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, how because of one thing something else arises, we can begin to break the chain of conditioning. When pleasant things arise, we don't cling. When unpleasant things arise, we don't condemn. When neutral things arise, we're not forgetful. The Buddha said that the way of forgetfulness is the way of death. And that the way of wisdom and awareness is the path to the deathless. We are free to break this chain, to free ourselves from conditioned reactions. It takes a powerful mindfulness in every moment not to allow feelings to generate desire.

When there's ignorance in the mind, feeling conditions desire. If there's something pleasant, we want it; something unpleasant, we desire to get rid of it. But if instead of ignorance in the mind there is wisdom and awareness, then we experience feeling but don't compulsively or habitually grasp or push away. If the feelings are pleasant, we experience them mindfully without clinging. If unpleasant, we experience them mindfully without condemning. No longer do feelings condition desire; instead, there is mindfulness, detachment, letting go. When there is no desire, there's no grasping; without grasping, there's no volitional activity of becoming. If we are not generating that energy, there's no rebirth, no disease, no old age, no death. We become free. No longer driven on by ignorance and desire, the whole mass of suffering is brought to an end.

Every moment of awareness is a hammer stroke on this chain of conditioning. Striking it with the force of wisdom and awareness, the chain gets weaker and weaker until it breaks. What we are doing here is penetrating into the truth of the Law of Dependent Origination, and freeing our minds from it.

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

This article seems based in "belief" in rebirth after death. Since I have no sense of any sort of life after this one, does that mean I am stuck in ignorance?

safwan's picture

From one point of view, our personality in this life time is unique and relevant to birth circumstances and childhood development - factors which can never repeat in the same exact way. So it is true that this "unique personality" is impermanent, and will not repeat.

On the other hand, Life (and the whole universe we live in) is extremely sophisticated and all its "individual parts" are interconnected with others accoding to natural laws. There are laws in nature. There is no such thing as randomness or chaos in life, and this applies to one's birth in this lifetime. Birth is not a random phenomenon.

The great diversity - one has to admit - of newborns is also not the result of "chance". Diversity manifests certain trends and tendencies of the newborn even within the same family. Why newborn differ?

It is their karmic tendencies accumulated in previous lives which materialises in a new rebirth. (This is different from reincarnation of a fixed soul or spirit as taught in Hinduism).

Being born as a completely new person but with the tendencies created in previous lives is a teaching of freedom and creating value. This is because it tells us about the Law of Cause and Effect, and that what we are doing now, our actions and development is recorded in the {Alaya} subconsciousness which is not erased by death but carried over to a new life. This teaching immeadiately assures us that our valuable and humanistic behaviou and tendencies of respecting others life - is a great treasure that is accumulated as "Good Fortune", and this karmic essence, (or Good Fortune) is what we carry with us - having effect on our future, whether in this life or future lives.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The next step would be "casting off the transient and revealing the true". One's impermanent identitiy is perceived as such and one's greater self (buddha nature) increasingly becomes the basis of one's activities in daily life.

fishman.ellen's picture

Because my experiences have included little in rebirth after life, I take the teachings to mean, that literally every moment is a rebirth. A rebirth of what I can take action on. Awareness and attention help bring the turning of the wheel into a experience that I can work with in removing ignorance. Just a little different view, perhaps that might help CJ.

shantit's picture

It does help.
I have trouble with "past lives" because it's irrational and one chooses to believe and the past lives are a black box with dark shadows. Thinking of rebirth on a moment to moment basis is freeing and empowering.
Thank you for that.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One moment being clinical death. Think of Spring's new leaves budding from what appeared just a month ago to be dead branches.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It helps to remember that the eternal cycle of life and death is a cornerstone of much Eastern philosophy. Buddhism takes this into account in dependent origination. If the belief system you were born and raised with does not include such a tenet then it's natural for you to have difficulty applying it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Absolutely not! Just because I can't recall what I did at 10:38 am six Fridays ago doesn't mean I'm stuck in ignorance.

esr41's picture

The article really focuses on the moment to moment rising and falling of conditioning and rebirth of samsara which differs from reincarnation.


phathed's picture

The article actually directly talks about reincarnation. "The third link is rebirth consciousness; that is, the first moment of consciousness in this life. Because ignorance conditioned the energy of karmic activity in our last life, rebirth consciousness arises at the moment of conception."

I think many Western Buddhists deny the entire concept of karma and reincarnation though it is a central tenet in most traditions.

Speaking of moment to moment rebirth and karma is a healthy concept, but not a proper substitute for the true teachings. He is clearly speaking about the endless cycles of death and rebirth in different bodies and different lives.