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Dependent Origination (Sanskrit: pratītya-samutpāda, Pali: paticca samuppada)

The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada is the Buddhism's primary contribution to metaphysics. Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that all phenomena are the result of mutually dependent existence. Rendered in English as "dependent origination," "conditioned genesis," "dependent co-arising," "interdependent arising," etc.; (Pali paṭicca-samuppāda; Tib. rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba).

Table of contents
1 General formulations
2 Applications
3 Madhyamaka and Pratitya-samutpada
4 Transcendental Dependent Arising
5 External links

General formulations

The most general formulation of this concept goes:

This being, that becomes
With the arising of this, that arises
This not being, that does not become
With the ceasing of this, that ceases.

Or again:

X causes Y
When X is present, so is Y
When X is unpresent, so is Y
When X ceases, so shall Y.

This draws attention to the constant flux of coming into being, and going out of being that is happening all the time. All phenomena are subject to this. And since all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena, then all phenomena are transient and unstable.


The general formulation has two very well known applications.

Four Noble Truths

The first application is to suffering, and is known as the Four Noble Truths:

Twelve Nidanas

The other application is to the rebirth process and is known as the Twelve Nidana's or the Twelve Links of Conditioned Existence. In this application of pratitya-samutpada, each link is conditioned by the preceding one, and itself conditions the succeeding one. These cover three lives:

Former Life

Current Life Future Life And then because in this life one has been ignorant, and acted in such a way as to produce karma, the cycle continues round again.

Nibbana (Skt Nirvana) is often conceived of as stopping this cycle. By removing the causes for craving, craving ceases. So with the ceasing of birth, death ceases. With the ceasing of becoming, birth ceases... and so on until with the ceasing of ignorance no karma is produced, and the whole process of death and rebirth ceases. In fact the opportunity for change comes between the stages of perception and desire, since as we saw above it is craving that drives the whole process. If one can simply perceive without desiring, then craving will not arise, and one can begin to be free from the cycle of birth and death.

Madhyamaka and Pratitya-samutpada

Though the formulations above appear might seem to imply that pratitya-samutpada is a straightforward causal model, in the hands of the Madhyamaka school, Pratitya-samutpada is used to demonstrate the very lack of inherent causality, in a manner that appears somewhat similar to the ideas of David Hume.

The conclusion of the Madhyamaka is that causation, like being, can only be regarded as a merely conventional truth (saṃvṛti), and that to take it as really existing would be both a logical error and a perceptual one, arising from ignorance and a lack of spiritual insight.

According to the analysis of Nāgārjuna, the most prominent Mādhyamika, causality depends upon the substantial existence of the elements of the causal process (causes and effects), which would violate the principle of anatta, but pratītya-samutpāda does not imply that the apparent participants in arising are actually real.

Because of the interdependence of causes and effects (i.e. causes depend on their effects in order to be causes, and effects likewise depend on their causes in order to be effects), it is quite meaningless to talk about them as existing separately (a feature of Dualism).

Therefore Nāgārjuna explains that the anatta (or emptiness) of causality is demonstrated by the interdependence of cause and effect, and likewise that the interdependence (pratītya-samutpāda) of causality itself is demonstrated by it's anatta.

See also: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

Transcendental Dependent Arising

The Buddha also taught another kind of Dependent Arising. One which we have already seen, that cycles around and another which is progressive. The other, called Transcendental Dependent Arising, is far less well known and is progressive and goes from positive state to positive state, each one a quantum leap above the preceding one, until finally at the stage of knowledge and vision of things as they really are it is no longer possible to fall back. Final liberation in this model is the stage of knowledge of destruction of the poisons (the poisons being greed, hatred and ignorance).

The main source for this model of Transcendental Dependent Arising, is the Upanisa Sutta.

External links