12 Links of Dependent Arising

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Dependent-arising (in Sanskrit, pratitya-samutpada) is the process by which beings are bound to the Wheel of Rebirth.  This 12-step sequence (see, the Nidanas) plays an essential role in the view of all Buddhist schools even though the elucidation or clarification can vary to some degree.  

The following extracts are from His Holiness Dalai Lama's The Meaning of Life: Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect (Jeffrey Hopkins, trans., Wisdom Publications, 2000.)

The word pratitya has three different meanings -- meeting, relying, and depending -- but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence.  Samutpada means arising. Hence, the meaning of [this Sanskrit term] 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.

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 [that is] 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."

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"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 Sutra. As in other discourses, the Buddha teaches by responding to questions. In this sutra, 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; [and]

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.

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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:

1. an un-produced, permanent phenomenon such as the general nature

2. propounded by the Samkhya system

3 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.

With regard to the twelve links of dependent-arising, there are basically two modes of explanation, one in terms of thoroughly afflicted phenomena and the other in terms of pure phenomena.

In the Buddha's root teaching of the four noble truths ...  there are two sets of cause and effect: one set for the afflicted class of phenomena and another for the pure class.  Just so, here in the twelve links of dependent-arising there are procedures in terms of both afflicted phenomena and pure phenomena.

Among the four noble truths, true sufferings- the first truth- are effects in the afflicted class of phenomena, and true sources- the second truth- are their causes. In the pure class of phenomena, true cessations, the third truth, are effects in the pure class, and true paths, the fourth truth, are their causes.

Similarly, when it is explained in the twelve links of dependent-arising that action is produced, and so forth, due to the condition of ignorance, the explanation is in terms of the afflicted procedure; when it is explained that action ceases and so forth due to the cessation of ignorance, it is in terms of the procedure of the pure class.  The first is the procedure of the production of suffering, and the second is the procedure of the cessation of suffering.

The twelve links of dependent-arising are thus laid out in terms of a process of affliction and in terms of a process of purification, and each of these is presented in forward and reverse orders. Thus, in the forward process, it is explained that:

due to the condition of ignorance, action arises;
due to the condition of action, consciousness arises;
due to the condition of consciousness, name and form arise;
due to the condition of name and form, the six sense spheres arise;
due to the condition of the six sense spheres, contact arises;
due to the condition of contact, feeling arises;
due to the condition of feeling, attachment arises;
due to the condition of attachment, grasping arises;
due to the condition of grasping, the potentialized level of karma called existence arises;
due to the condition of existence, birth arises;
due to the condition of birth, aging and death arise.

Because this mode describes how suffering is produced, it is an explanation of the sources that produce suffering. In reverse order it is explained that:

the unwanted sufferings of aging and death are produced in dependence upon birth;

birth is produced in dependence upon the potentialized level of action called "existence";

existence is produced in dependence upon grasping;

grasping is produced in dependence upon attachment;

attachment is produced in dependence upon feeling;

feeling is produced in dependence upon contact;

contact is produced in dependence upon the six sense spheres;

the six sense spheres are produced in dependence upon name and form;

name and form are produced in dependence upon consciousness;

consciousness is produced in dependence upon action;

action is produced in dependence upon ignorance.

Here emphasis is on the first of the four noble truths, true sufferings themselves, which are the effects. Then, in terms of the process of purification, it is explained that: 

when ignorance ceases, action ceases;

when action ceases, consciousness ceases;

when consciousness ceases, name and form cease;

when name and form cease, the six sense spheres cease;

when the six sense spheres cease, contact ceases;

when contact ceases, feeling ceases;

when feeling ceases, attachment ceases;

when attachment ceases, grasping ceases;

when grasping ceases, the potentialized level of karma called "existence" ceases;

when the potentialized level of karma called "existence" ceases, birth ceases;
when birth ceases, aging and death cease.

This explanation is given in terms of the purified class of phenomena with
emphasis on the causes, the true paths, second among the four noble truths

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In reverse order, it is explained that:

the cessation of aging and death arises in dependence upon the cessation of birth;

the cessation of birth arises in dependence upon the cessation of the potentialized level of karma called "existence";

the cessation of the potentialized level of karma called "existence" arises in dependence upon the cessation of grasping;

the cessation of grasping arises in dependence upon the cessation of attachment;

the cessation of attachment arises in dependence upon the cessation of feeling;

the cessation of feeling arises in dependence upon the cessation of contact;

the cessation of contact arises in dependence upon the cessation of the six sense spheres;

the cessation of the six sense spheres arises in dependence upon the cessation of name and form;

the cessation of name and form arises in dependence upon the cessation of consciousness;

the cessation of consciousness arises in dependence upon the cessation of action;

the cessation of action arises in dependence upon the cessation of ignorance.

Here, within the process of purification the emphasis is on the effects -- true
cessations, the third of the four noble truths.

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These processes are depicted in a painting called the wheel of cyclic existence with five sectors.  Within cyclic existence, gods and demigods are combined in one sector; then there is a sector of humans; these three are known as the happy transmigrations, depicted in the top half of the wheel.

The three sectors in the bottom half are bad or low transmigrations -- those of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings.  All of these sectors represent the levels of suffering in terms of types of birth.

Due to what conditions do these forms of suffering arise? The circle just inside the five sectors of beings indicates that these levels of suffering are produced by karma -- by actions. It is in two halves.

The half on the right, which has a white base with people looking and moving upward,
symbolizes virtuous actions, these being of two types, meritorious and unfluctuating; such actions are the means of attaining lives as humans, demigods, and gods. 

The left half, which has a dark base with people facing downward, symbolizes non-virtuous actions, which impel beings toward lifetimes in the lower realms.

From what do these karmas that are the sources of suffering arise? 

They stem from a further source of suffering --  the afflictive emotions of desire, hatred, and ignorance- indicated by the innermost circle where a pig, a snake, and a rooster are depicted.  The pig symbolizes ignorance; the snake, hatred; and the rooster, desire. In some versions of the painting, the pig grasps the tails of the rooster and the snake in its mouth, thereby indicating that desire and hatred have ignorance as their root. Also, the rooster and the snake grasp the tail of the pig in their mouths to indicate that each of them acts to assist and further the other.

Symbolically these three circles, moving from the center outward, show that the three afflictive emotions of desire, hatred, and ignorance give rise to virtuous and non-virtuous actions, which, in turn, give rise to the various levels of suffering in cyclic existence.

The outer rim symbolizing the twelve links of dependent-arising indicates how the sources of suffering- actions and afflictive emotions- produce lives within cyclic existence.

The fierce being holding the wheel symbolizes impermanence, which is why the being is a wrathful monster, though there is no need for it to be drawn with ornaments and so forth as it is here. Once I had such a painting drawn with a skeleton rather than a monster, in order to symbolize impermanence more clearly.

The moon on the far right side indicates liberation. The Buddha on the left is pointing to the moon, indicating that the liberation that causes one to cross the ocean of suffering of cyclic existence should be actualized.

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With regard to the history of this painting, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, a[n] king [of outlying] Udayana made a present of a jeweled robe to the king of Magadha, Bimbisara, who did not have anything of equivalent worth to give in return. Bimbisara was worried about this and asked the Buddha what he should give. The Buddha indicated that he should have a wheel of cyclic existence with five sectors drawn accompanied by the following:

Undertaking this and leaving that,
Enter into the teaching of the Buddha.
Like an elephant in a thatch house,
Destroy the forces of the Lord of Death.

Those who with thorough conscientiousness
Practice this disciplinary doctrine
Will forsake the wheel of birth,
Bringing suffering to an end.

The Buddha told Bimbisara to send this to [the] King [of] Udayana. It is said that
when the king received the picture and studied it, he attained realization.   

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The twelve links of dependent-arising are symbolized by the twelve pictures around the outside. The first, at the top- an old person, blind and hobbling with a cane- symbolizes ignorance, the first link. In this context, ignorance is obscuration with respect to the actual mode of being of phenomena.

Since within the Buddhist philosophical schools there are four main systems of tenets and, within those schools, there are many different divisions, there are many interpretations of what ignorance is. Not only do we not have time to discuss all of these, I do not even remember all of them!

One type of ignorance is the mere non-knowing of how things actually exist, a factor of mere obscuration. However, here in the twelve links of dependent-arising, ignorance is explained as a wrong consciousness that conceives the opposite of how things actually do exist.

Ignorance is the chief of the afflictive emotions that we are seeking to abandon.  Each afflictive emotion is of two types: innate and intellectually acquired.  Intellectually acquired afflictive emotions are based on inadequate systems of tenets, such that the mind imputes or fosters new afflictive emotions through conceptuality. These are not afflictive emotions that all
sentient beings have and cannot be the ones that are at the root of the ruination of beings.

As Nagarjuna says in his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness:

That consciousness that conceives things
Which are produced in dependence upon
Causes and conditions

To ultimately exist
Was said by the Teacher to be ignorance.
From it the twelve links arise.   

This is a consciousness that innately misapprehends, or misconceives, phenomena as existing under their own power, as not dependent.  Because this consciousness has different types of objects, ignorance is divided into two types: one that conceives inherent existence upon observing persons and another type that conceives inherent existence upon observing other phenomena. These are called consciousnesses that conceive, respectively, a self of persons and a self of phenomena. 

The conception of a self of persons is of two types: the first is to take cognizance of one's own person, one's own I, and consider oneself to be inherently existent.  The second, coarser type of conception of a self of persons is where one misapprehends other persons as being substantially existent in the sense of being self-sufficient.  The former is called "the false view of the transitory collection."                                                        

In the stanza cited above, Nagarjuna indicates that the innate false view of the transitory collection, which is the root of cyclic existence, is the conception of one's own self as inherently existent and that it arises in dependence upon the conception of those mental and physical aggregates that are the bases of designation of oneself- one's mind, body, and so forth-  as inherently existent.

In this way, the conception of a self of phenomena acts as a basis for the innate false view of the transitory collection that is a conception of the person as inherently existent, even though both types are ignorant consciousnesses that conceive inherent existence.

When we reflect on our own desire and hatred, we see that they are generated within a conception of oneself as very solid, due to which there arises a strong distinction between oneself and others, and consequently, attachment to one's self and hatred for others. 

Attitudes of desire and hatred are all based on an exaggerated sense of I, are they not?

There is indeed a conventionally posited, valid I- a self that is the doer of actions, that is the accumulator of karma, and that is the person undergoing the pleasure and pain that are the fruit of those actions.

However, when we examine the mode of apprehension of the mind when the I becomes a troublemaker, we find that we are conceiving a self-instituting I that is an exaggeration beyond what actually exists.

When this I appears to the mind, it does not appear to be designated in dependence upon the aggregates of mind and body; rather, it seems almost as if it is its own separate entity.

If it were to exist in such a solid, independent way, then when one investigates it with the Middle Way reasoning, it should become clearer and clearer, but in fact the opposite happens, such that it becomes less and less clear until it cannot be found. If it were so concrete and independent, it would be findable under analysis.

The fact that it cannot be found indicates that, except for its mere designation in dependence upon the coming together of certain circumstances, it does not exist.

Still, it appears to our minds to be something that can be indicated concretely, but when we assent to this false appearance, we get into trouble.  The conflict between the concrete appearance of the I and the fact that, when analyzed, it cannot be found indicates a discrepancy between its appearance and how it actually exists.

Physicists make a similar distinction between what appears and what actually exists.

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In our own experience, we can identify types or levels of desire. When we see a certain article in a store and have a desire for it, that constitutes an initial type of desire, but after we buy it and feel, "This is mine," this is a different level.

They are similar in both being attitudes of desire, but they differ in strength.

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It is important to distinguish three levels of appearance and apprehension.
In the first level, when mere appearance and mere recognition of the object
occur, the object merely appears, without generating desire.

Then, when we feel, "Oh, this is really good," and desire has been generated, this is another level of appearance and apprehension of the object.

Upon deciding to buy the article and making it our own, cherishing it as our own, there is a third level of appearance and apprehension.

On the first level, which consists of the mere appearance of the object, the object does seem to exist inherently; however, the mind is not strongly involved with the object.

On the second level, desire for the object is induced by ignorance that apprehends it as existing inherently. There is a subtle level of desire that can exist at the same time as this consciousness that conceives the object to exist inherently, but when desire becomes stronger, the conception of inherent existence acts as its cause, inducing still more desire, but does not exist at exactly the same time as desire. It is crucial to realize from your own experience that: 

. on the first level there is the appearance of the object as inherently existent;

on the second level there is a consciousness that assents to this appearance, apprehending the object as inherently existent and thus giving rise to desire;

on the third level, when we have bought such an inherently pleasing object and made it our own, the object becomes involved with a strong conception of ownership in which we consider it to be extremely valuable.

At the end of this process two very powerful streams of adherence- attachment for the inherently pleasant object and attachment for oneself- have come together, making the desire even greater than before.

Reflect on whether or not this is so.

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The same is true of hatred.  There is an initial experience involving a conventionally valid perception of the qualities of an object-for instance, seeing something bad and identifying it as bad.

Then one produces hatred upon thinking, "Oh, this is really bad," this is a second level. When the hatred is related to oneself, it is stronger, and when it is seen as potentially bringing harm to oneself, even stronger hatred develops.  Thus, the ignorance that is the conception of inherent existence acts to assist both desire and hatred. In this way, the cause of all this trouble is the pig!

And in the Tibetan calendar the year of my birth is the Year of the Pig!

This is the way obscuration-ignorance serves as the root of the other afflictive emotions. This ignorant consciousness is obscured with respect to the mode of being of phenomena, and hence it is symbolized in the painting by a blind person. Also, since ignorance is weak in the sense that it is not founded upon valid cognition, the person hobbles using a cane. More properly, ignorance should be depicted at the bottom of the painting, but it is often put at the top.

In dependence upon such ignorance, the second of the twelve links of dependent-arising, action, occurs. It is called compositional action because actions serve to compose or bring about pleasurable and painful effects. It is symbolized by a potter. A potter takes clay and forms it into a new article, and similarly an action begins a sequence that leads to new consequences.

Also, once the potter spins the wheel, it will keep turning as long as is needed without further striving and exertion; similarly, when an action has been done by a sentient being, it establishes a predisposition in the mind- or as is said in the Consequence School, it produces a state of destructedness [sic] of that action- and this predisposition or state of destructedness has the potential to continue unhindered until it produces its effect.

Considering the effects of actions in terms of consequent rebirths in the desire, form, and formless realms, there are virtuous actions and non-virtuous actions, and within virtuous actions there are meritorious actions and non-fluctuating actions.

In terms of the way in which they are performed, there are actions of body, speech, and mind.

In terms of their own entities, there are actions of intention and intended actions.
There are also definite and indefinite actions indicating whether or not the effect is defnitely to be experienced.

With regard to the former, the effects can be experienced in this lifetime, the next, or a later one.  Also, taking a human lifetime as an example, there are actions that impel or project one's bodily life in a general way and there are other types of actions that fill in the picture, so to speak, which are called completing actions.

These fill in the specific details- for instance, causing one's body to be beautiful, ugly, and so forth. Consider a human who undergoes many illnesses; as in the case of all other humans, the projecting or impelling karma was a virtuous action, as can be determined by the mere fact that the person was born as a human. The completing actions that fill in the picture by creating a propensity for disease are non-virtuous actions.

The opposite occurs when the impelling karma is non-virtuous and the completing actions filling in the picture are virtuous, as in the case of an animal with a good, healthy body. There are also cases in which both the impelling and completing actions are virtuous, as well as the opposite case in which both are non-virtuous.

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Another division of actions distinguishes those done deliberately, those deliberated but not done, those done but not deliberately, and those neither deliberated nor done.    

 Also, there are actions in which

(1) the thought is wholesome but the execution of the action is unwholesome,

(2) the thought is unwholesome but the execution of it is wholesome,

(3) both the thought and the execution are unwholesome, or

(4) both the thought and the execution are wholesome.

Again, there are actions whose effects are experienced in common by a number of beings and actions whose effects are experienced only by one individual.

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How are karmas accumulated? For example, one particular motivation may lead
to certain physical and verbal actions. Good motivation leads to nice words
and gentle physical actions, whereby good karma is accumulated. An immediate result is felt in the creation of a peaceful, friendly atmosphere. However, anger motivates rude words and harsh physical and verbal actions, immediately creating an unpleasant atmosphere. In both cases an action is produced with ignorance of the final nature of phenomena as the background; this is the first stage of a karma.

When the action ceases, it imprints a potency, a predisposition, into the consciousness, and the continuum of the consciousness carries this potency to the time of the fruition of that karma. In this way, an action creates both an immediate result and a potential that eventually brings about either a pleasant or a painful experience in the future.

This is how the first link, ignorance, motivates the second link, action, which establishes a potency for future experience in the third link, consciousness.

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Consciousness is symbolized by a picture of a monkey.

Within Buddhism there are several interpretations of the number of consciousnesses; one system posits only one; others posit six; another posits eight; and another, nine.

Although most Buddhist systems posit six types of consciousness, the picture is often one of a monkey going from window to window in a house; it probably has its origins in the positing of only one consciousness.

When this single consciousness perceives by way of the eye, it seems to be an eye-consciousness, and when it perceives by way of the ear, nose, tongue, and body, it seems respectively to be an ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, and body-consciousness; but it, like the single monkey at many windows, is only one. In any case, a monkey is a clever and active animal and thus can symbolize these qualities of consciousness.

A problem is that between an action and its fruition there can be a considerable period of time, yet all Buddhist systems assert that karmas are not lost or wasted; between the cause and the effect there must be something that connects the two.

Many different assertions are presented within the Buddhist systems regarding what connects an action with its long-range effect. The best solution is offered in the Consequence School, as follows: All systems posit that there is a person at the time an action is performed and at the time its effect is experienced. Thus there must be a continuum of a dependently imputed I- which provides the basis for the infusion of the predisposition created by an action.

As long as a system is unable to present such a basis for infusion of predispositions, it has to find an independently identifiable basis for infusion of those potencies; this is why the Mind Only School posits a mind-basis-of-all as the basis for infusion of predispositions. However, the highest system, the Consequence School, has no such difficulty since it holds that the continual basis of infusion of predispositions is the mere I, the mere person, and that the temporary basis for infusion of predispositions is conscious [action.]

                                                         ~  text is courtesy E. Judd at nbnbooks.com

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