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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

Law of Dependent Origination

"No God, no Brahma can be found
No matter of this wheel of life
Just bare phenomena roll
Depend on conditions all.(Visuddhi Magga)"

The Law of Dependent Origination is one of the most important teachings of the Buddha, and it is also very profound. The Buddha has often expressed His experience of Enlightenment in one of two ways, either in terms of having understood the Four Noble Truths, or in terms of having understood the nature of the dependent origination. However, more people have heard about the Four Noble Truths and can discuss it than the Law of Dependent Origination, which is just as important.

Although the actual insight into dependent origination arises with spiritual maturity, it is still possible for us to understand the principle involved. The basis of dependent origination is that life or the world is built on a set of relations, in which the arising and cessation of factors depend on some other factors which condition them. This principle can be given in a short formula of four lines:

When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

On this principle of interdependence and relativity rests the arising, continuity and cessation of existence. This principle is known as the Law of Dependent Origination in Pali, Paticca-samuppada. This law emphasizes an important principle that all phenomena in this universe are relative, conditioned states and do not arise independently of supportive conditions. A phenomenon arises because of a combination of conditions which are present to support its arising. And the phenomenon will cease when the conditions and components supporting its arising change and no longer sustain it. The presence of these supportive conditions, in turn, depend on other factors for their arising, sustenance and disappearance.

The Law of Dependence Origination is a realistic way of understanding the universe and is the Buddhist equivalent of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The fact that everything is nothing more than a set of relations is consistent with the modern scientific view of the material world. Since everything is conditioned, relative, and interdependent, there is nothing in this world which could be regarded as a permanent entity, variously regarded as an ego or an eternal soul, which many people believe in.

The phenomenal world is built on a set of relations, but is this the way we would normally understand the world to be? We create fictions of its permanency in our minds because of our desires. It is almost natural for human beings to cling to what they consider as beautiful or desirable, and to reject what is ugly or undesirable. Being subjected to the forces of greed and hatred, they are misled by delusion, clouded by the illusion of the permanency of the object they cling to or reject. Therefore, it is hard for us to realize that the world is like a bubble or mirage, and is not the kind of reality we believe it to be. We do not realize that it is unreal in actuality. It is like a ball of fire, which when whirled around rapidly, can for a time, create the illusion of a circle.

The fundamental principle at work in dependent origination is that of cause and effect. In dependent origination, what actually takes place in the causal process is described in detail. To illustrate the nature of dependent origination of the things around us, let us consider an oil lamp. The flame in an oil lamp burns dependent upon the oil and the wick. When the oil and the wick are present, the flame in an oil lamp burns. If either of these is absent, the flame will cease to burn. This example illustrates the principle of dependent origination with respect to a flame in an oil lamp. Or in an example of a plant, it is dependent upon the seed, earth, moisture, air and sunlight for the plant to grow. All these phenomena arise dependent upon a number of causal factors, and not independently. This is the principle of dependent origination.

In the Dhamma, we are interested to know how the principle of dependent origination is applied to the problem of suffering and rebirth. The issue is how dependent origination can explain why we are still going round in Samsara, or explain the problem of suffering and how we can be free from suffering. It is not meant to be a description of the origin or evolution of the universe. Therefore, one must not be mistaken into assuming that ignorance, the first factor mentioned in the dependent origination, is the first cause. Since everything arises because of some preceding causes, there can be no first cause.

According to the Law of Dependent Origination, there are twelve factors which account for the continuity of existence birth after birth. The factors are as follows:

Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or kamma-formations.
Through volitional actions is conditioned consciousness.
Through consciousness are conditioned mental and physical phenomena.
Through mental and physical phenomena are conditioned the six faculties(i.e., five physical sense-organs and mind).
Through the six faculties is conditioned (sensorial and mental) contact.
Through (sensorial and mental)contact is conditioned sensation.
Through sensation is conditioned desire, 'thirst".
Through desire ('thirst') is conditioned clinging.
Through clinging is conditioned the process of becoming.
Through the process of becoming is conditioned birth.
Through birth are conditioned decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.

This is how life arises, exists and continues, and how suffering arises. These factors may be understood as sequentially spanning over a period of three life-times; the past life, the present life, and the future life. In the dependent origination, ignorance and mental formation belong to the past life, and represent the conditions that are responsible for the occurrence of this life. The following factors, namely, consciousness, mental and physical phenomena, the six senses, contact, sensation, desire, clinging and becoming, are factors involved in the present life. The last two factors, birth and decay and death, belong to the future life.

In this law, the first factor of Ignorance gives rise to Volitional Activities (or kamma). Ignorance means not knowing or understanding the true nature of our existence. Through Ignorance, good or evil deeds are performed which will lead a person to be reborn. Rebirth can occur in various planes of existence: the human world, the celestial or higher planes, or even suffering planes depending of the quality of a person's kamma. When a person dies, his Volitional Activities will condition the arising of Consciousness, in this case to mean the re-linking Consciousness which arises as the first spark of a new life in the process of re-becoming.

Once the re-linking Consciousness has taken place, life starts once again. Dependent on the Consciousness, there arise Mind and Matter, that is, a new 'being' is born. Because there are Mind and Matter, there arise the six Sense-organs (the sixth sense is the mind itself). With the arising of the Sense-organs, there arises Contact. Contact with what? Contact with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental objects.

These sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental objects can be beautiful, pleasing and enticing. On the other hand, they can be ugly and distasteful. Therefore, dependent on Contact arises Sensations: feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Because of these feelings, the laws of attraction (greed)and repulsion (aversion) are now set in motion. Beings are naturally attracted to pleasant objects and repelled by unpleasant objects. As a result of Sensation, Desire arises. A person desires and thirsts for forms that are beautiful and enticing; sounds that are beautiful and enticing; tastes, smells, touch, and objects which the mind regards as beautiful and enticing. From these Desires, he develops very strong Clinging to the beautiful object (or strongly rejects the repulsive object). Now because of this Clinging and attachment, the next life is conditioned and there arises Becoming. In other words, the processes of Becoming are set in motion by Clinging.

The next link in this chain of Dependent Origination is that Becoming conditions the arising of Birth. And finally, dependence on Birth arise Decay and Death, followed by Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair.

The process can be ceased if the formula is taken in the reverse order: Through the complete cessation of ignorance(through the cultivation of Insight), volitional activities or kamma-formations cease; through the cessation of volitional activities, consciousness ceases; ‚ through the cessation of birth, the other factors of decay, death, sorrow, etc., cease. Therefore, one can be free from the rounds of rebirth through the eradication of ignorance.

To re-iterate what was mentioned earlier, this doctrine of Dependent Origination merely explains the processes of Birth and Death, and is not a theory of the evolution of the world. It deals with the Cause of re-birth and Suffering, but in no way attempts to show the absolute Origin of Life. Ignorance in Dependent Origination is the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. It is very important for us to understand the Four Noble Truths because it is the ignorance of these Truths that has trapped us all in the endless cycle of birth and death.

According to the Buddha, while He was speaking to Ananda: It is by their not being able to comprehend the Dependent Origination, that people are entangled like a ball of cotton, and not being able to see the Truth, are always afflicted by Sorrow, --born often into conditions that are dismal and dreary, where confusion and prolonged suffering prevail. And, they do not know how to disentangle themselves to get out.


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Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/

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