Buddhist Causality: Dependant Origination

If we are to address our suffering, we need to address the causes of that suffering. It leads to an important idea in Buddhism, that of PratityasamutpadaDependent Arising, or Dependent Origination. It says that all dharmas or phenomena (Including suffering) arise depending on causes and conditions, other dharmas. No dharma or thing is separate from existence; all dharmas are connected to other dharmas.

From early Buddhism it’s stated as

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

From the Assutava Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12.2, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.

The most important point here is that causes and conditions give rise to our suffering. These are called the 12 links of dependant origination. The links together form the cycle of Samsara, or suffering that is the conditioned life. It refers to everything, all the objects ideas, people, even the universe as a whole.

The 12 links often listed as such

  1. Fundamental ignorance (Pali: avidya)
  2. Formation (sankhara)
  3. Consciousness (vinnana)
  4. Name and form (namarupa) 
  5. Sense faculties (salayatana)
  6. Contact (phassa)
  7. Feeling or sensation (vedana)
  8. Craving or thirst (tanha)
  9. Clinging or grasping (upadana)
  10. Becoming or worldly existence (bhava)
  11. Birth or becoming (jati)
  12. Old age and death (jaramarana)

Consider a cube, where does the volume arise? It is the height, breadth, depth? The question makes no sense because there is no first or single cause. Instead, volume is dependent on three causes.

Think of the idiom ‘the straw that broke the camels back’. The final straw is placed, and we can say that straw was the cause. But if you rewind and place the straws in a different order, a different straw will be the last straw: All the straws break the back of this poor camel. Another example is the cause of say, a hurricane, is it the air currents, the moisture, or heat? Answer: it’s all of them.

In later Buddhism, this develops into ideas of interconnectedness and interdependence, more an image of a web or net.

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