Doctrine of Dependent Origination, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

The Doctrine of Dependent Origination is the Perfect Truth Dipanker Buddha C7th, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixMost people relate to the Four Noble Truths when the core of Buddhism is mentioned. The doctrine of dependent origination is the perfect and ultimate Truth; hence, it is called “maha-ariyasacca” [the Great Truth]. It must be discussed until it is fully understood. Dependent arising exists within us in almost every moment; yet, we are not aware of it. Anybody who is able to comprehend the doctrine of dependent origination has the capability to engage in his own cultivation and end his suffering. On the other hand, we must consider it our responsibility to understand it, and help others to understand it. Such is the Buddha’s wish. If we can do it, then the Buddha’s realization of dependent arising will not be in vain.

It is just like the Four Noble Truths. If nobody understands them, then the Buddha Dharma is useless. Essentially, the doctrine of dependent origination is more important than the Four Noble Truths. It is the perfect and ultimate Truth. We must help one another to comprehend it, and promote it to all Buddhists. This is the main reason why we are discussing the “maha-ariyasacca,” the doctrine of dependent origination. Following are guide questions to help you understand the doctrine. What is dependent arising? Why do we have to know about dependent arising? What are the benefits of understanding dependent arising? What method do we use to end suffering?

What is Dependent Arising? The doctrine of dependent origination explicitly points out how suffering begins and ends. It reveals that the beginning and ending of suffering are mutually dependent cyclic natural phenomena; that they are not attributable to ghosts, divinities, spiritual entities, or other things. Dependent arising is natural occurrences due to interdependent conditions. When each phase of the process comes about due to mutually supporting conditions suffering begins or stops. The “paticca” in paticcasamuppada means “mutually dependent,” while “samuppada” means “to occur simultaneously.” Dependent arising, therefore, occurs due to mutually dependent and cyclic causal conditions. The doctrine of dependent origination also explains that no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist, or no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” are successively transmigrating. Everything manifests, stays, and expires naturally. By comprehending the doctrine, one can see that the no “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” with an ego exist. If people do not comprehend the doctrine, they will be dominated by ignorance, and will feel that a “person,” “self,” or “sentient beings” exist.

The doctrine of dependent origination points out that how suffering begins and ends and the beginning and end of suffering are due to mutually dependent causal conditions. In this sense, the “person,” “self,” and “sentient beings” are superfluous. Furthermore, the mutually dependent cyclic phenomena start and end with great intensity and in a flash. Thoughts arise with great intensity and in a flash. Anger comes about with great intensity and in a flash. In everyday life, when a mind action occurs in a flash and generates suffering, it becomes a dependent arising instantaneously. One feels horrified if he can perceive such phenomena. If one cannot, then he will be oblivious to them.

Dependent arising, to put it in ordinary language, is intense and lightning-speed mind action, which generates suffering, in our everyday life.

Why Do We Have to Know About Dependent Arising?Monkey with biscuit, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixFor the purpose of learning and cultivation, we must know dependent arising. Because nobody understands it, it has become a fallacy. The ordinary people’s fallacy is similar to Bhikkhu Sati’s belief: “Only the consciousness is going around in samsara.” This bhikkhu insisted that there was a “person,” “self,” or “sentient being” in the consciousness, which dwelled in samsara from one lifetime to the next. Believing that the consciousness has a “person,” “self” or “sentient being” that is perpetually going around in samsara is a fallacy resulting from ignorance of the nature of dependent arising. All the bhikkhus tried to convince Bhikkhu Sati to abandon the fallacy, but Bhikkhu Sati was adamant about his view. The bhikkhus then told the Buddha about it, and the Buddha talked to Bhikkhu Sati.

The Buddha asked him, “Do you really have such a concept?” Bhikkhu Sati said, “There is only the consciousness that is going around in samsara.” The Buddha then asked, “What is this consciousness that you speak of?” Bhikkhu Sati replied, “Esteemed Buddha, the consciousness is the entity that can talk, feel, or receive all the karmic repercussions.” His was a very serious fallacy: a consciousness that facilitates talking, feeling, and receiving of all karmic repercussions.

Ordinary people do not know why it is a fallacy because they believe, as Bhikkhu Sati did, that the consciousness exists perpetually. Since they are used to the idea, they do not consider it a fallacy. It is false to believe that the consciousness is perpetual, that it exists and acts on its own, and that it is not dependent arising.

Consciousness, a manner of dependent arising, is devoid of ego. It manifests in an instant because of the interaction of mutually dependent conditions, and it advances to successive stages. Bhikkhu Sati maintained that there was an ego or a consciousness with an ego that went around in samsara. This consciousness did not only exist in the instant but also persisted to the next life. He called the ego that could talk, feel, or receive karmic repercussions consciousness. The common view prevents people from seeing the fallacy. Consciousness is devoid of ego. If consciousness exists, then it is dependent arising. It is a natural phenomenon manifested from successive occurrences due to mutually dependent conditions. It is not an entity.

What are the Benefits of Understanding Dependent Arising?Buddha, Mustang. Photo © Lisa DaixUnderstanding dependent arising enables us to reject fallacy and possess the Right View to be totally free from suffering. It is false to believe that a “person” is present and reincarnates into a certain sentient being due to kamma. If one erroneously believes consciousness is ego, then he will experience suffering, and will be unable to free himself from suffering. Therefore, one must know the nature of consciousness, which is dependent arising. In this way, one can totally eliminate suffering using the Right View, the right understanding.

According to the Pali suttas, “Consciousness is dependent arising. It is a phenomenon arising due to mutually dependent conditions. Without these causal conditions, there is no consciousness.” If consciousness has a main body, then it can manifest on its own initiative, and does not have to depend on causal conditions.

The truth is consciousness cannot exist independently. Nevertheless, it is so infinitesimal that we find ourselves thinking, feeling, and allowing the Name & Form (body and mind) to perform work. Hence, we mistakenly think that there is a main body in us, and we call it consciousness. The doctrine of dependent arising helps us abandon such a fallacy for the cessation of suffering.

Extract from Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Translated excerpts from the Chinese version by Johnson Sumpio.

Categories: Beginners, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Encyclopedia, Foundations, Theravada

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5 replies

  1. Can consciousness be the product of matter? If not, as I think, then there has to be a previous moment of consciousness to produce / cause it. And one before, and so on. It’s not a self, a me. But without it how consciousness can come to be in this life?

  2. I understand all this, no flesh, no bone, no body ,no self no me actually no anything and have for many years. So what keeps ( I use the term me very regrettably ) me coming back ? , I have memory of times before ( but that was another name, another time and another person. All is dependant arising, so what is karma attaching to ? , it also begs the question of contaminated clairvoyance , why would ( my ) mind know without seeing. Everything ceases at death , and this me will also cease. So again the question, WHAT is remembering ? and Why ? and if nothing at all remains .. why should I carry Karma for what was never this self anyway ?. And finally what is stuck in Samsara then ?. I only ask this because some so called scholar in the U.S. ( I am told )studied Buddhism for over 40 years , even said people who remember past lives , were actually only picking up on other peoples past, which then begs the question why I should find SOME ONE else’s memories from 100 years or more ago so flipping scary and upsetting. In the end I end up back with the first witness …… ( my ) own experience of both memory and knowing at times without seeing. I would be interested in your point ( that I actually agree ) with ie no self no anything or NO THING

    • A lot in there Robin,

      What we call ‘Dependent Origination’, in Buddhism, is a discription of experience. When mindful we can view the arising and falling away of events and experience. This can easily be thought of as ‘me or mine’, it can also be thought of as ‘not me or mine’.

      Insight into the 12 links directly liberates use from views. Insights cut away the natural tendency to cling to views and opinions about ‘me and mine’.

      Being aware and awake cuts away the delusions. As the Buddha said, ‘those who see ‘Dependent Origination’ see me’.

      Good luck in your practice.


  3. A traditional model suggests 12 determinants or causes of suffering and the key is: eliminating any one of these elements of dependent conditions suffering can cease.


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