Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 34-35

Kaimoku-shō or Liberation from Blindness, pp. 13-14

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 224

In the Buddha’s Words, pp. 353, 356-357

Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 534-536

Dependent origination is a teaching whose importance cannot be overstated. The Buddha even went so far as to equate the Dharma itself with dependent origination. “Now this has been said by the Blessed One: ‘One who sees dependent origination sees the Dharma; one who sees the Dharma sees dependent origination.’” (Nanamoli & Bodhi 1995, p. 284) An understanding of dependent origination is integral to having a clear understanding of Buddhism.

Put simply, dependent origination means that all phenomena arise as the result of conditions and cease when those conditions change. The Buddha taught the general theory of dependent origination as follows: “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.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 575) So there are no static isolated entities in existence. Everything arises and ceases depending on causes and conditions that arise due to yet other causes and conditions. There is no ultimate ground or primordial cause, but a network of causes and conditions. This undercuts the view of a metaphysical selfhood, fixed entity, or substance underlying the constant change that is life.

There are many ways in which the principle of dependent origination is applied to the specifics of human life, or life in general, in the Buddha’s teachings. The four noble truths are one such application. The first two of the four noble truths explains the origin of suffering dependent on selfish craving for its cause. The third and fourth of the four noble truths describe the cessation of suffering by eradicating the causes upon which it depends. So unlike the many forms of fatalism, theism, or materialism taught by the Buddha’s contemporaries, the Buddha taught there is a rational order of causes and conditions that we can awaken to and work with rather than against. Furthermore, the conditioned nature of all things is not something apart from who we are. Rather, conditionality is the way we are. Negatively, this means there is nothing permanent to grasp or cling to either outside of or within ourselves, but positively it means that we are not stuck or fixed in any one state and that we have the power to unbind ourselves from suffering and to experience the boundless joy of freedom from suffering and its causes. We may be the products of causality but we are also the producers of the very causes that will determine whether we perpetuate suffering or attain liberation. The Buddhist vision of dependent origination is a vision in which sentient beings are not determined by forces beyond their control, but rather are fully integrated in the co-arising of all things and as such are able to take responsibility for themselves and create better conditions for themselves and others by making better causes informed by an awareness of the way things arise in mutual dependence.

Dependent origination is the Middle Way between the extremes of existence and non-existence. The view of existence, or “eternalism,” imagines that fixed entities, independent of conditions and immune from change, can be found underlying the phenomena that do change. The view of non-existence, or “annihilationism,” imagines there is no continuity at all within change and the entities that do arise will eventually vanish completely without a trace. Dependent origination is the Middle Way which cuts through those views by pointing out the ceaseless interplay of causes and conditions, which is the process of becoming, rather than the eternalism of being or the nihilism of non-being. The Middle Way points out that while there are no fixed entities there is a flow of continuity within the process of change. In the following sermon, the Buddha expounds the teaching of the Middle Way to Kātyāyana:

“This world, Kātyāyana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.

“This world, Kātyāyana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’ He has no perplex ity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kātyāyana, that there is right view.

“‘All exists’: Kātyāyana, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dharma by the middle.” (Bodhi 2005, p. 356-357)

The extreme of existence is an attempt to attribute intrinsic entities to the flow of causes and conditions. It does not see the interdependence, flux and relativity of all phenomena. In the end it results in an absolutism that fixes things in rigid categories in defiance of the actual contingency of life. From this rigidity springs all kinds of evils, such as classism, racism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Compassion is effectively banished through the projection of fixed boundaries of self and other upon the dynamic flow and interdependence of the life process. Finally, the eternalist view assumes that there is a self that is immutable and therefore immune to the law of cause and effect.

The extreme of non-existence is a refusal to accept any kind of meaning or value, since it assumes there are no entities of any kind to have any regard for. Life is reduced to chaos, absurdity or illusion. Ultimately, it is the negation of life itself; which is very different from the Buddha’s liberation from the illusion of self. According to the Buddha, selfish craving is the cause of suffering, not life itself. In Buddhism, the goal is to become liberated from the delusion of self through the cultivation of the eightfold path. Nihilism only leads to irresponsible despair and the denial of the truth and meaning of causality. It assumes that there is no continuity at all within the flow of conditions and therefore negates the law of cause and effect.

Dependent origination, then, is the teaching that things do have a provisional (though not intrinsic) existence based on causes and conditions. Therefore, one who is following the Middle Way will think in terms of causes and conditions, and not existence or non-existence. For the follower of the Middle Way there are no immutable categories or boundaries, nor is there any question of absolute identity or absolute difference between entities. Dependent origination is the awareness of cause and effect and the interdependence of all things that gives rise to an authentic sense of responsibility, genuine love and compassion.

Dependent origination applies to all phenomena, but the Buddha was specifically concerned with applying it to the human predicament. He wished to show the specific causes and conditions that bind people to an existence of suffering, and through understanding those causes, how to change them. To this end, the Buddha expounded the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination.

“With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations 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, becoming; with becoming as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, monks, is called dependent origination.” (Ibid, p. 353)

Admittedly, this formula may seem a little obscure. Nevertheless, it is the foundation upon which the Buddha’s teachings rest and so deserves careful study. Through the ages Buddhists have understood and taught the twelve-fold chain in a variety of ways depending upon the social and historical context. The following explanation is based upon the Buddha’s expanded analysis of this formula from another discourse, and also the traditional understanding derived from the abhidharma, the phenomenological treatises written by the early Buddhist monks in India as a systematic explanation of the sūtras.

In the traditional understanding, ignorance and volitional formations refer to past causes inherited from one’s past life or lives. The cycle begins with ignorance of the true nature of reality. Specifically, the Buddha states that this link in the twelve-fold chain refers to ignorance of the four noble truths.

“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.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 535)

Due to ignorance, one is disposed to perform acts of thought, word and deed based upon the most selfish and short sighted of motives. These are the volitional formations.

“And what, monks, are the volitional formations? There are these three kinds of volitional formations: the bodily volitional formation, the verbal volitional formation, the mental volitional formation. These are called the volitional formations.” (Ibid, p. 535)

These actions are also called “karma” which is not destiny or fate, but intentional activity motivated by ignorance, and to the consequences of those actions upon the future life or lives of the one who performs them. Volitional formations are also a subset of the mental formations that are the fourth of the five aggregates that constitute human life. They are habit-patterns that condition both ourselves and our environment in accordance with the nature of our motivations.

The next five links of the chain spell out the consequences of past karma in terms of one’s present life. They are the present effects of past causes. The first link is consciousness, which is the same as the fifth of the five aggregates.

“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.” (Ibid, p. 535)

According to Buddhism, the kind of person we are in this life is not simply the result of heredity and environment, but is the outcome of karma. In other words, the kind of person that we are now has been determined by our own choices and the habits or dispositions that we have built up over many previous lives. These predispositions give rise to and condition conscious experience of various kinds (consciousness of the external world and the internal awareness of thoughts and feelings). According to the abhidharma, the perpetuation of consciousness carries over from the expiration of one sentient being to the conception of a new sentient being. At some point, whether instantaneously or after an “intermediate existence” (depending on which version of abhidharma one gives credence to), consciousness finds itself drawn to the most appropriate womb and environment wherein it’s karmic inheritance can unfold. This transmigration of consciousness as a gandharva or “being to be reborn” is explained by the Buddha as follows:

“Monks, the conception of an embryo in a womb takes place through the union of three things. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, but it is not the mother’s season, and the being to be reborn is not present – in this case there is no conception of an embryo in a womb. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, and it is the mother’s season, but the being to be reborn is not present – in this case too there is no conception of an embryo in a womb. But when there is the union of the mother and father, and it is the mother’s season, and the being to be reborn is present, through the union of these three things the conception of an embryo in a womb takes place.” (Nanamoli & Bodhi 1995, p. 358)

Some might be mislead into thinking that consciousness is a kind of self that transmigrates from one lifetime to another. This was the mistaken view of a monk named Sati, who believed that the same consciousness “runs and wanders through the round of rebirths.” (Ibid, p. 349) The Buddha admonished Sati and in no uncertain terms stated that consciousness is not a fixed entity that transmigrates but is itself something that arises in accordance with conditions. Consciousness is more of a recurring pattern, like a wave, than a thing. In another discourse, the Buddha even says that the mutability and impermanence of consciousness is even more drastic than that of the body, and therefore one would be better off identifying the body as a self.

“It would be better, monks, for the uninstructed worldling to take as self this body composed of the four great elements rather than the mind. For what reason? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, or ten years, for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years, for a hundred years, or even longer. But that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night. Just as a monkey roaming through the forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 595)

Consciousness, then, is constantly changing to reflect the conditions that brought it about. As the Buddha explains to Sati, sometimes it is consciousness of something visual, or something auditory, or something tangible, or of some other sense. From moment to moment consciousness changes its focus and composition as often as a monkey jumping from branch to branch. Each moment of consciousness is therefore unique, dependent on conditions, impermanent, and not a candidate for any kind of permanent unchanging self.

Consciousness in turn gives rise to and is supported by the aggregates that make up name-and-form, the psychophysical personality.

“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.” (Ibid, p. 535)

Name-and-form in this case, encompasses four of the five aggregates – form, feeling, perception, and mental formations. “Name” is applied to feeling, perception, and mental formations as well as to contact and attention. These five always accompany consciousness as supportive functions that are involved in the recognition, or “naming,” of experience. “Form” is constituted by the four great elements that are elsewhere listed as earth, air, fire, and water. These four elements do not simply refer to earth, air, fire, and water as we commonly relate to them. Rather, the four great elements are emblematic of our experience of the physical world – solidity, movement, temperature, and cohesion respectively.

When dependent origination is explained within the boundaries of a single lifetime, then the links of name-and-form and consciousness are shown to be mutually conditioning. Instead of consciousness arising due to the ignorance and volitional formations attributed to a previous lifetime, consciousness is said to arise depending on name-and-form and to in turn give rise to name-and-form. In another discourse, Shariputra explains this through the simile of two sheaves of reeds that are able to stand up by leaning up against one another, thus providing mutual support (Ibid, pp. 608 – 609).

Upon birth, the psychophysical personality begins to utilize the six sense bases consisting of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and cognition.

“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.” (Ibid, p. 535)

These six senses bring one into contact with the world. They are sometimes called the six doors because through them the world enters into our awareness. They are also referred to as the six roots because through them we are rooted in the world.

“And what, monks, is contact? These are the six classes of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. This is called contact.” (Ibid, p. 535)

Contact naturally results in feelings based on that contact.

“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.” (Ibid, p. 535)

These feelings constitute the second of the five aggregates. Again, these last five links describe what one experiences in the present life; they are all givens that are the fruits of one’s own actions.

The next three links describe one’s present actions in relation to the circumstances that one experiences. They are the present causes that will have future effects. The first is the craving that arises based upon feeling.

“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 tangibles, craving for mental objects. This is called craving.” (Ibid, p. 535)

One wishes to experience only pleasant feelings while avoiding the unpleasant at all costs. This craving leads to clinging to particular things, people, ideas and circumstances.

“And what, monks, is clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and vows, clinging to a doctrine of self. This is called clinging.” (Ibid, p. 535)

This results in “becoming,” which is a way of summarizing the way in which we “become” hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and heavenly beings in the three realms. The three realms consist of the realms of desire (which takes in all existence from the hells up to the lower six heavens), form (the more refined heavens), and the formless (the most refined heavens). “Becoming” refers to the constant struggle for identity and happiness that characterizes the day-to-day life of most people.

“And what, monks, is becoming? There are these three kinds of becoming: sense-realm becoming, form-realm becoming, formless-realm becoming. This is called becoming. (Ibid, p. 535)

The last two links of the chain explain the future effects of the present causes. In the Buddhist view, this constant struggle for a happy existence or even for a peaceful annihilation can never be achieved because life is characterized by the three marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self. One’s desperate strivings and unrequited desires can only lead to a future birth.

“And what, monks, is birth? The birth of the various beings into the various orders of beings, their being born, descent [into the womb], production, the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases. This is called birth.” (Ibid, p. 534)

Birth will then lead to another round of old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair.

“And what, monks, is aging-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 the skin, decline of vitality, degeneration of the faculties: this is called aging. 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 aging and this death are together called aging-and-death.” (Ibid, p. 534)

In short, the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination shows that human life is the outcome of a vicious circle of desire, karma and suffering. The only escape is to abolish ignorance and recognize the vicious circle for what it is. Once the chain is broken, liberation is at hand.

“But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, 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 becoming; with the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, cessation of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.” (Ibid, p. 534)

Who has achieved liberation? As discussed earlier, the twelve-fold chain is not concerned with the preservation or eradication of an individual person or entity. It is concerned with the way in which suffering is perpetuated and the way in which the conditions that give rise to suffering can be unraveled. The important thing is that suffering has ended and liberation has been achieved.

There is another way of understanding the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination, however, that does not need to assume the literal existence of many lifetimes. It can be said that from moment-to-moment we are renewing ourselves and enacting the cycle of birth and death, with all the suffering that it entails. From this point of view, ignorance and volitional formations refer to our inability to accept the life process on its own terms. We desperately search for some form of stability and lasting happiness and refuse to acknowledge the dynamic flow and interrelations that is the true reality of our lives.

Due to this misguided activity, we fall out of sync with the true rhythm of life and end up feeling self-conscious and threatened. We never see reality itself because it is clouded over with our expectations, regrets, frustration and all other manner of projection. At this point, the psychophysical personality, name-and-form, is consolidated and immediately begins interpreting the world encountered through the senses in terms of self and other. The contact between this self and the world outside it from moment-to-moment gives rise to the feelings that constitute our self-referential experience of the world.

At this point we begin craving for what is pleasant and constantly strive to be in the situations we do want. In this way, every moment becomes a new experience of transitory pleasure and pain.

Birth, then, refers not to an actual rebirth, but to the birth of a new self-concept or identity based on what we are experiencing in that single moment. Thus, from moment-to-moment we have a new idea about who we are in relation to our environment. We see ourselves variously as competent, kind, gentle, harsh, admirable, pitiable, uncertain, loving, loved, hateful, hated, indifferent, fascinated and so on as each moment arises. However, no matter how comfortable we are with these ideas of ourselves, they will all fade away as the next moment comes and the cycle renews itself. This is the momentary meaning of aging and death.

Looked at in this way, the abolishing of ignorance means that we cease living life in terms of self-reference. By not projecting our desires and expectations onto reality or bifurcating it into self and other, the actions and self-consciousness that lead to so much suffering ceases. Free of the chain, life can take on entirely new qualities that are no longer characterized by ignorance, craving, grasping or the myriad forms of suffering. The moment-to-moment unfolding of the life process continues, but now it is free of our erroneous and fearful interpretations, such as the idea of birth and death. Dependent origination teaches that since all entities are actually phases and configurations of the continuous unfolding of causes and conditions, there are no clear cut lines that can be drawn between self and other, birth and death. Without such self-oriented projections, dependent origination can be seen just as it is – a dynamically relational unfolding of reality wherein every part contains the whole and is embraced by the whole.

The Lotus Sūtra states that the Buddha taught the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination for the sake of the pratyekabuddhas. “To those who were seeking Pratyekabuddhahood, he expounded the teaching of the twelve causes, a teaching suitable for them.” (Murano 1991, p. 14) As with the four noble truths this would indicate that the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination is a Hīnayāna teaching, but once again Chih-i, taught that the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination could be understood on increasingly profounder levels up to and including the perspective of the Lotus Sūtra. Just as the voice-hearers and privately awakened ones enter into the One Vehicle that takes them to buddhahood, so do the teachings associated with them blossom into the teaching of the One Vehicle.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

_____________, ed., In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.

Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.

Murano, Senchu, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 1991.

_____________. Kaimokusho or Liberation from Blindness. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000.

Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications, 1995.