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  • Writer's pictureMarc Moss

The Heart of Dependent Origination

Buddhas arise in the world because of the sufferings of birth, old age, and death. Every being that exists in these suffering realms of existence experience these sufferings at a minimum, and it is the sole purpose of the Buddha’s enlightenment to penetrate into their root causes. How this wheel of life, death and rebirth continues rolling on is perhaps the most profound part of the Buddha’s teaching. The Law of Dependent Origination is his insight into these links in the chain of existence.

There are twelve links in this Law of Dependent Origination. The first two have to do with causes in the last life which condition birth in this one. The first of these links is ignorance. Ignorance means not knowing the truth, not understanding the Dharma, ignorance of the four noble truths.

Volitional activity is conditioned by ignorance; because we don’t understand the truth, we are involved in all kinds of actions. And the karmic force of these actions conditions the third link in the chain. Because we do not perceive things clearly, because we do not perceive the fact of suffering and its cause and the way out, that force of ignorance conditions the next link in the chain: volitional actions of body, speech, and mind motivated by wholesome or unwholesome mental factors.

The third link is rebirth consciousness; that is, the first moment of consciousness in this life. Because ignorance conditioned the energy of karmic activity in our last life, rebirth consciousness arises at the moment of conception. Volition or intention is like the seed; rebirth consciousness, like the sprouting of that seed—a cause and—effect conditioned relationship. Because of ignorance there were all kinds of actions, all kinds of karmic formations. And because of karmic formations arises rebirth consciousness, the beginning of this life. Because of the first moment of consciousness in this life arise the whole mind-body phenomena, all the elements of matter, all the factors of mind. Finally, because of the mind-body phenomena arising, the sense spheres develop. This is during development of the embryo before birth.

Rebirth consciousness at the moment of conception conditions the arising of mind-body phenomena. Because of that arise all the six spheres of the senses, the five physical senses and the mind, which in turn conditions the arising of contact, contact between the sense organ and its appropriate object: the eye and color, the car and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste, body and sensation, mind and thoughts or ideas. Contact involves the coming together of an object through its appropriate sense door and the consciousness of either seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking.

Conditioned by the senses, contact comes into being. Because of the contact between the eye and color, the ear and sound, and the other senses and their objects, there arises feeling. Feeling means the quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neither pleasantness nor unpleasantness involved in every mind moment, in every moment of contact. Whether it is contact through the five physical sense doors or through the mind, feeling is always present, and is called, therefore, a common mental factor. Conditioned by contact, there arises feeling; that is, the quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality.

Because of feeling arises craving. Craving means desiring, hankering after objects. What is it that we desire? We desire pleasant sights and sounds, pleasant tastes and smells, pleasant touch sensations and thoughts, or we desire to get rid of unpleasant objects. Desire arises because of feelings. We start hankering after, or wishing to avoid, these six different objects in the world. Feeling conditions desire. Desire conditions grasping. Because we have a desire for the objects of the six senses, mind included, we grasp, we latch on to, we become attached.

Grasping is conditioned by desire. Because of grasping, again we get involved in karmic formations, repeating the kinds of volitions which, in our past life, produced the rebirth consciousness of this life.

Feeling conditions desire, desire conditions grasping, and grasping conditions the continual actions of becoming, creating the energy which is the seed for rebirth consciousness in the next life. Because of these karmic actions resulting from grasping, again there is birth.

Because there is birth, there is disease, there is sorrow. There is decay, pain, suffering, and death. And so, the wheel goes on and on, an impersonal chain of causality.

The Buddha’s problem, and the problem for us all, is to discover the way out of this cycle of conditioning. It is said that on the night of his enlightenment he worked backward through the Law of Dependent Origination, seeking the place of release. Why is there old age, disease, and death? Because of birth. Why is there birth? Because of all the actions of becoming, all the volitional activities motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion. Why are we involved in these kinds of activities? Because of grasping. Why is there grasping? Because of desire in the mind. Why is there desire? Because of feeling. Because the quality of pleasantness or unpleasantness arises. Why is there feeling? Because of contact. Why is there contact? Because of the sense-spheres and the whole mind-body phenomena.

But there’s nothing we can do now about being a mind-body process. That is conditioned by past ignorance and having taken birth. So, there is no way to avoid contact. There’s no possible way of closing off all the sense organs even if that were desirable. If there’s contact, there’s no way of preventing feeling from arising. Because of contact, feeling will be there. It’s a common factor of mind. But it is right at this point that the chain can be broken.

Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, how due one thing something else arises, we can begin to break the chain of conditioning. When pleasant things arise, we don’t cling. When unpleasant things arise, we don’t condemn. And when neutral things arise, we’re not forgetful. The Buddha said that the way of forgetfulness is the way of death. And that the way of wisdom and awareness is the path to the deathless. We are free to break this chain, to free ourselves from conditioned reactions. It takes a powerful degree of mindfulness in every moment not to allow feelings to generate desire.

When there’s ignorance in the mind, feeling conditions desire. If there’s something pleasant, we want it; something unpleasant, we desire to get rid of it. But if instead of ignorance in the mind there is wisdom and awareness, then we experience feeling but don’t compulsively or habitually grasp or push away. If the feelings are pleasant, we experience them mindfully without clinging. If unpleasant, we experience them mindfully without condemning. No longer do feelings condition desire; instead, there is mindfulness, detachment, letting go. When there is no desire, there’s no grasping; without grasping, there’s no volitional activity of becoming. If we are not generating that energy, there’s no rebirth, no disease, no old age, no death. We become free. No longer driven on by ignorance and desire, the whole mass of suffering is brought to an end.

Every moment of awareness is a hammer stroke on this chain of conditioning. Striking it with the force of wisdom and awareness, the chain gets weaker and weaker until it breaks. What we are doing here is penetrating into the truth of the Law of Dependent Origination and freeing our minds from it.

༄༅། ། རྟེན་ཅིང་འབྲེལ་བར་འབྱུང་བའི་སྙིང་པོའི་ཚིག་ལེའུར་བྱས་པ།

The Heart of Dependent Origination

by Ārya Nāgārjuna

རྒྱ་གར་སྐད་དུ། པྲ་ཏི་ཟ་ས་མུ་ཚ་ད་ཧྲྀ་ད་ཡ་ཀཱ་རི་ཀཱ༌།

In the language of India: pratītyasamutpāda hṛdaya kārikā

བོད་སྐད་དུ། རྟེན་ཅིང་འབྲེལ་བར་འབྱུང་བའི་སྙིང་པོའི་ཚིག་ལེའུར་བྱས་པ།

In the language of Tibet: /rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba'i snying po tshig le'ur byas pa/


Homage to Mañjuśrī, the Youthful!






These different links, twelve in number,

Which Buddha taught as dependent origination,

Can be summarized in three categories:

Mental afflictions, karma and suffering.






The first, eighth and ninth are afflictions,

The second and tenth are karma,

The remaining seven are suffering.

Thus, the twelve links are grouped in three.






From the three the two originate,

And from the two the seven come,

From seven the three come once again—

Thus, the wheel of existence turns and turns.






All beings consist of causes and effects,

In which there is no ‘sentient being’ at all.

From phenomena which are exclusively empty,

There arise only empty phenomena.







All things are devoid of any ‘I’ or ‘mine’.

Like a recitation, a candle, a mirror, a seal,

A magnifying glass, a seed, sourness, or a sound,

So also, with the continuation of the aggregates—

The wise should know they are not transferred.



།གང་གི་ཆད་པར་རྣམ་བརྟགས་པ༑ །



Then, as for extremely subtle entities,

Those who regard them with nihilism,

Lacking precise and thorough knowledge,

Will not see the actuality of conditioned arising.






In this, there is not a thing to be removed,

Nor the slightest thing to be added.

It is looking perfectly into reality itself,

And when reality is seen, complete liberation.

།རྟེན་ཅིང་འབྲེལ་པར་འབྱུང་བའི་སྙིང་པོའི་ཚིག ལེའུར་བྱས་པ།


This concludes the verses on ‘The Heart of Dependent Origination’ composed by the teacher Ārya Nāgārjuna.

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