Dependent Origination: The Origination and Cessation of Suffering

An Excerpt from Noble Truths, Noble Path

Bhikkhu Bodhi

“The suttas in this anthology have all been taken from the Saṃyutta Nikāya. I originally chose the Saṃyutta as the basis for my Pāli reader to ensure that the suttas to be studied from a linguistic angle display the fairly uniform terminology and highly structured mode of presentation typical of that collection. But there was another reason I chose the Saṃyutta as the basis for the course and for this book, a reason that pertains to the doctrinal rather than the linguistic side of the Buddhist canon. It seems that the major chapters of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, if rearranged, provide a systematic overview of the Dhamma that mirrors the pattern of the four noble truths. An anthology from this collection can thus enable the student of Early Buddhism to see into the heart of the Buddha’s teachings as directly and clearly as possible.”—Bhikkhu Bodhi, taken from the introduction to Noble Truths, Noble Path


The teaching of dependent origination offers a more detailed perspective on the causal dynamics maintaining saṃsāra, the round of rebirths. The Pāli term paṭiccasamuppāda is a compound of paṭicca, the absolutive of pacceti, “comes back to, falls back on, relies on,” and the noun samuppāda, “origination.” The common translation of paṭiccasamuppāda as “interdependent co-arising” (and its variants) is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. While certain pairs of factors in the formula may be mutually dependent, the word paṭicca itself does not imply mutuality but the dependence of one factor upon the other. Again, samuppāda does not mean simultaneous arising. While certain factors may arise simultaneously (for instance, contact and feeling), others, such as feeling and craving, may be separated by a temporal gap, and others, such as birth and old-age-and-death, are necessarily separated by a temporal gap.

The formula for dependent origination is founded upon an abstract “structural principle” stipulating the general law that things arise through conditions. As stated in 4.6, 4.7, and 4.10, the principle runs thus: “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.” In the suttas, this principle is applied in a variety of ways, but the main application is to a sequence of twelve factors, each of which arises in dependence on its predecessor and ceases with the ceasing of its predecessor. The teaching can thus be seen as an expanded version of the second and third noble truths, showing in finer detail the chain of conditions responsible for the origination and cessation of dukkha.

The diagnosis of dukkha offered by this formula probes more deeply into the issue of origins than the standard statement of the second noble truth, for it reveals, lying at the very base of repeated existence, a more fundamental condition than craving. This more fundamental condition is avijjā, ignorance. Though defined narrowly in the suttas as “not knowing suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path,” ignorance represents more broadly the lack of awareness of all the principles that illuminate the true nature of phenomena. These include not only the four truths but the three characteristics and dependent origination itself. Ignorance sustains the round of dukkha, and when ignorance comes to an end, the entire network of conditions also ends, culminating in “the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

The individual factors that constitute the formula of dependent origination are formally defined in 4.1, but the suttas leave us only with these definitions, without demonstrating precisely how the factors hang together as an integral whole. This ambiguity has led to the emergence of different, sometimes competing interpretations of the formula. However, virtually all the ancient Indian Buddhist schools concur that the formula shows the sequence of causal factors that sustain the round of rebirths as extended over a series of lives. Some modern interpreters have challenged this interpretation, holding that the entire sequence of twelve factors pertains to a single life. The Vibhaṅga (of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka) does have a section showing how dependent origination operates at the level of individual mind-moments, but to suit its purpose this version alters the definitions of some of the factors, especially “existence,” “birth,” “old age,” and “death.” Apart from this special application, it seems clear enough that, as originally intended, the twelve terms of the formula are spread out over multiple lives.

The traditional explanation, stated simply and concisely, goes like this: Because of fundamental ignorance, one engages in various volitional activities—wholesome and unwholesome bodily, verbal, or purely mental actions—that generate kamma with the potential to produce a new existence. These karmic activities, at death, propel consciousness into a new existence. The new existence begins when consciousness arrives at a new embodiment, bringing forth a fresh assemblage of bodily and mental phenomena, which are collectively designated name-and-form. As name-and-form matures, the six sense bases take shape and begin to function. When the sense bases encounter their corresponding objects, contact occurs. Contact gives rise to feeling through the six bases—pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings, which trigger corresponding responses. In an untrained person, feeling arouses craving, a desire to obtain pleasant objects and avoid situations that cause pain. When one obtains the objects of desire, one relishes them and holds to them tightly; this is clinging, an intensification of craving, which may also find expression in views that justify one’s craving for more pleasure and continued existence. Through clinging, one engages in a fresh round of volitional activities that create the potential for a new existence—an existence that may occur in any of the three realms recognized by Buddhist cosmology: the desire realm, the realm of subtle form, and the formless realm. That new existence begins with birth, and once birth takes place, there follows old-age-and-death and all the other manifestations of dukkha encountered in the course of existence.

"This more fundamental condition is avijjā, ignorance."

The three-life interpretation of dependent origination has sometimes been branded a commentarial invention on the ground that the suttas themselves do not divide the terms up into different lifetimes. However, while it is true that we do not find in the suttas an explicit distribution of the factors into three lives, close examination of the variants on the standard formula lends strong support to the three-life interpretation. One example is SN 12:19 (at II 23–25), where it is said that both the fool and the sage have acquired a body through the ignorance and craving of the past. The fool does not eliminate ignorance and craving and so, following the breakup of the present body, the fool moves on to a new embodied existence, once again subject to birth, old age, and death. The sage eliminates present ignorance and craving and is thus freed from any future embodied existence, no longer bound to birth, old age, and death. This statement clearly assigns certain factors to
the past, their results to the present, and the results of present activity to the future.

The twelve-factored formula was never intended to be exclusively linear but to serve as a simplified representation of a complex process that involves overlapping and intersecting lines of conditionality. The extraction of twelve conditions and their configuration in the familiar sequence might be considered an expository device intended to show the causal dynamics underlying the round of rebirths. To convey a clearer understanding of the relationships among the twelve factors, the commentarial tradition explains that the factors can be assigned to four groups, each with five factors.

(1) When ignorance and volitional activities were present in the past life, craving, clinging, and the karmically active phase of existence were also present. These five constitute the causal group of the past existence.

(2) These five “propulsive” causes functioned in unison to bring forth consciousness and name-and-form, which arise at the initial moment of the present existence and continue to evolve in uninterrupted interplay through the entire course of life. From their interplay, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling emerge. These five constitute the resultant group of the present existence.

(3) These five in turn serve as the grounds for a new round of craving, clinging, and karmic activities tending toward a new existence. When these arise, ignorance necessarily underlies them, and what is referred to as karmic existence is essentially identical with volitional activities. These are the five causal factors of the present existence.

(4) These five as causes bring forth a new fivefold set of resultant factors in the future—namely, consciousness, name-and-form, the six sense bases, contact, and feeling. These make up the resultant group of the future existence.

The five factors making up each resultant group necessarily undergo the stages of physiological development and decline, and thus birth along with old-age-and-death—the last two factors in the twelvefold series—are implicitly contained within the resultant groups.

Looked at from another angle, ignorance and craving jointly function as the roots of the entire process of saṃsāra. Along with clinging, these three constitute the round of defilements. Two factors, volitional activities and the karmically active phase of existence, constitute the round of kamma. And the resultant phase of existence, along with all the remaining factors, constitute the round of results.


3 periods 12 factors 20 modes in 4 groups
Past 1. Ignorance

 2. Volitional activities

Past causes 5:

 1, 2, 8, 9, 10

Present 3. Consciousness

 4. Name-and-form

 5. Six sense bases

 6. Contact

 7. Feeling

Present effects 5:


8. Craving

 9. Clinging

 10. Existence

Present causes 5:

 8, 9, 10, 1, 2

Future 11. Birth

 12. Old-age-and-death

Future effects 5:



The suttas do not offer such a detailed account of dependent origination, but provide instead different perspectives on this teaching. The chain of conditions is said at 4.5 to be a natural law that remains valid whether or not buddhas arise in the world. This sequence of conditions—called “specific conditionality” (idappaccayatā)—persists as a fixed principle, stable and invariable through all time, said to be “real, not unreal, not otherwise.” The task of a buddha is to penetrate this law and fully comprehend it, and then to elucidate it for others.

Several suttas in this collection show the realization of dependent origination to have been the great discovery the Buddha made on the night of his enlightenment. One text included here, 4.2, states this with respect to the present buddha, Gotama. The preceding suttas in that series relate the same narrative about his six predecessors. He begins his investigation seeking an outlet from the suffering inherent in old age and death. His inquiry takes him back through the sequence until he arrives at the most fundamental condition behind the whole series—namely, ignorance. The discernment of each link binding conditions together is here said to have come about through the application of “thorough attention,” culminating in “a breakthrough by wisdom.” The discernment of the entire chain, in the orders of both origination and cessation, marked the gaining of the eye of knowledge. In 4.11, we find a different take on the same line of inquiry, with the series ending in the mutual conditioning of consciousness and name-and-form. In this version the Buddha declares that after seeing how consciousness and name-and-form are mutually dependent and how each ceases with the ceasing of the other, he had discovered the path to enlightenment.

Dependent origination offers a dynamic perspective on nonself that complements the analytic approach provided by the critical examination of the five aggregates. The formula shows how the process of rebirth and the working of karmic causation occur without an underlying subject, a substantial self, passing through the successive stages of life and migrating from one existence to the next. In the Buddha’s time, philosophers and contemplatives were divided into two opposed camps. One camp, the eternalists, held that at the core of every person there is an immortal self—substantial and autonomous—that persists through the cycle of rebirths and attains liberation, preserving its unchanging essence. The other camp, the annihilationists, denied the existence of a permanent self that survives bodily death. They held that with the breakup of the body, personal existence comes to an absolute end and thus at death the living being is utterly annihilated. Dependent origination, as 4.4 demonstrates, served the Buddha as a “teaching by the middle” that avoids these two extremes. It avoids the extreme that “all exists,” a statement of eternalism, by showing how personal continuity is possible without a self that persists through the process. And it avoids the extreme that “all does not exist,” the claim of the annihilationists, by showing that so long as the conditions that drive the process of becoming remain intact, the conditions will continue to operate, stitching together one life to the next.

The suttas selected here are noteworthy not only for the various angles they present on dependent origination but also for their rich variety of similes. Thus 4.8 uses the simile of the clay pot to illustrate the arahant’s attainment of final nibbāna. The simile in 4.9 illustrates the two sides of dependent origination with the sustenance and destruction of the tree. In 4.10 the Buddha compares the ever-fickle mind to a monkey that roams through a forest by grabbing and releasing one branch after another. In 4.11 he compares his discovery of the noble eightfold path to a man wandering through a forest who comes across an ancient path leading to an ancient city, which he has the king restore to its previous glory. And in 4.12 he uses the simile of the cup of poisoned beverage to demonstrate how those ascetics who nurture craving remain bound to the round of birth and death, while those who abandon craving win liberation from suffering, like the person who rejects the poisoned beverage and thereby preserves his life.

"Dependent origination . . . served the Buddha as a “teaching by the middle” that avoids these two extremes."

1. Vibhaṅgasutta
Analysis (SN 12:2; II 2–4)

“I will teach you, monks, dependent origination and I will analyze it for you. Listen and attend well. I will speak.”—“Yes, Bhante,” those monks replied. The Blessed One said this:
“And what, monks, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, monks, volitional activities [come to be]; with volitional activities as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, old-age-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and misery come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
“And what, monks, is old-age-and-death? The aging of the various beings in the various orders of beings, their growing old, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of vitality, degeneration of the faculties: this is called old age. The passing away of the various beings from the various orders of beings, their perishing, breakup, disappearance, mortality, death, completion of time, the breakup of the aggregates, the laying down of the carcass: this is called death. Thus this old age and this death are together called old-age-and-death.
“And what, monks, is birth? The birth of the various beings into the various orders of beings, their being born, descent, production, the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases. This is called birth.
“And what, monks, is existence? There are these three kinds of existence: desire-realm existence, form-realm existence, formless-realm existence. This is called existence.
“And what, monks, is clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to precepts and observances, clinging to a doctrine of self. This is called clinging.
“And what, monks, is craving? There are these six classes of craving: craving for forms, craving for sounds, craving for odors, craving for tastes, craving for tactile objects, craving for mental objects. This is called craving.
“And what, monks, is feeling? There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact. This is called feeling.
“And what, monks, is contact? There are these six classes of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. This is called contact.
“And what, monks, are the six sense bases? The eye-base, the ear-base, the nose-base, the tongue-base, the body-base, the mind-base. These are called the six sense bases.
“And what, monks, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form. Thus this name and this form are together called name-and-form.
“And what, monks, is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This is called consciousness.
“And what, monks, are volitional activities? There are these three kinds of volitional activities: bodily volitional activity, verbal volitional activity, mental volitional activity. These are called volitional activities.
“And what, monks, is ignorance? 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. This is called ignorance.
“Thus, monks, with ignorance as condition, volitional activities come to be; with volitional activities as condition, consciousness. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
“But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance there is cessation of volitional activities; with the cessation of volitional activities, cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, old-age-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and misery cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, those monks delighted in the Blessed One’s statement.


Noble Truths, Noble Path
The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings
Bhikkhu Bodhi
Pages 87–95

"There are these three kinds of existence: desire-realm existence, form-realm existence, formless-realm existence."

Brilliantly translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, this anthology of suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya takes us straight to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching on liberation through the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path—the two mainstays of Buddhist doctrine that illuminate the nature of things by generating direct insight into the teachings. These suttas all pertain to the ultimate good, the attainment of nibbāna or liberation. They illuminate the Buddha’s radical diagnosis of the human condition—and more broadly, the condition of all sentient existence—in light of the four noble truths. They underscore the pervasive flaws inherent in the round of rebirths, trace our existential predicament to its deepest roots, and lay out the path to unraveling our bondage and winning irreversible release. Ven. Bodhi arranged the chapters, each with its own introduction, to provide an overview of the Dhamma that mirrors the four noble truths, thus enabling students of Early Buddhism to see into the heart of the Buddha’s teachings as directly and clearly as possible.


“Once again, with inimitable grace and accuracy Bhikkhu Bodhi has compiled a collection of teachings of the Buddha with a specific aim in mind. In this volume he explores and elucidates the four noble truths, which, as the implicit framework of the whole teaching, means this humble volume maps the terrain that forms the context for the entire Buddhadhamma. It is thus a precious and reliable guide to a vast spiritual domain, and I cannot recommend it too highly.”—Ven. Ajahn Amaro, Abbot, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK


There are no products in your cart.