Canonical dependent origination

What is dependent origination?

It is said that to know the Buddha’s teachings is to know the Buddha and that to know the doctrine of dependent origination is to know the Buddha’s teachings. Every other teaching within the body of the Buddha’s teachings is connected in some way or another to this core idea that everything that arises is conditioned. In canonical texts there are two kinds of formulation of the doctrine of dependent origination, a general formulation and an applied formulation. The general formulation says simply “When this is present, that arises. When this is absent, that does not arise.” So far, this formulation seems like descriptions of what in modern terminology are called a sufficient condition (the presence of this is enough to bring about the arising of that) and a necessary condition (that does not arise without this). In other words, it sounds from this general description as though the teaching is that one thing X can be considered the cause or condition of another thing Y only in case Y arises if and only if X is present. When we look at the applied formulation of the doctrine, however, it is less clear that the doctrine is claiming that a cause is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the arising of an effect.

The applied formulation of dependent origination: the canonical account

The applied formulation of dependent origination, the one that describes how unhappiness or dissatisfaction arises, has three forms, but the most commonly cited has the form of one stated in the Saṃyutta-nikāya of the Pali canon.1

Mental factors have ignorance as their conditions. Awareness has mental factors as its condition. The body-mentality complex has awareness as its condition. The six sense faculties have the body-mentality complex as their condition. The sense faculties’ contact with their sensible objects has the six sense faculties as its condition. Evaluation has faculty-object contact as its condition. Desire has evaluation as its condition. Appropriation has desire as its condition. The will to survive has appropriation as its condition. Birth has the will to survive as its condition. Old age, death, sorrow, grief, unhappiness, depression and tribulation come into being with birth as their condition.

Before the passage can be analyzed philosophically, some of the terms must be clarified. Just following the passage cited above, the Saṃyutta-nikāya text explains all the key terms. Those most likely to cause confusion are the following:

  • “Ignorance” refers to the absence of knowledge of the nature of unhappiness, the root causes of unhappiness, the fact that unhappiness can be eradicated, and the methods to be used to achieve its eradication. Ignorance may also be understood as the presence of inferior understanding of all those things. For example, from a Buddhist perspective it shows an inferior understanding to say that not getting what one desires is a cause of frustration and that the best way to avoid frustration is to acquire the means of getting everything one desires. A better understanding would be to say that the best way to avoid frustration is to learn not to have desires.
  • “Mental factors” are various mental functions that accompany an act of bare awareness. The content of the awareness may be, for example, a patch of color. When the color is noticed, it is identified, evaluated as pleasant or unpleasant, associated with past experiences and categorized; all this usually happens so rapidly that one is barely conscious of the processes taking place. Finally, some decision is made about how to act toward the subject matter of the experience. Strictly speaking, the term “mental factors” refers to all the processes that go into making this decision.
  • “Awareness” refers to the seeing of colors, the hearing of sounds, the smelling of odors, the tasting of tastes and the tactile sensations of pressure and temperature on the skin and proprioception within the body. It also includes the sensation of such private sensations as pleasure, pain, happiness, sadness and boredom.
  • “The body-mentality complex” refers to the body that is the location of the sense faculties that make awareness possible, plus all the functions that attend awareness. Those functions are (a) the functions of recognition and categorization, (b) the function of evaluating the sensation as pleasant or unpleasant, and (c) the function of making a deliberate decision about how to respond to all that has come into awareness.
  • “The six sense faculties” are the four faculties that bring in information from sources external to the body, namely, vision, hearing, smelling and tasting; the faculty that provides sensations on the surface and within the body; and the faculty that makes awareness possible of emotions, moods and other psychological events.
  • “Evaluation,” often translated as “feeling,” refers to whether a particular episode of awareness feels pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.
  • “Appropriation,” often translated as “clinging,” refers to any of the four types of acquisition, namely, the acquisition of (a) pleasurable objects of sensation, (b) views and opinions, (c) habits and (d) a sense of self or personal identity.
  • “The will to survive” refers specifically to the desire to find oneself in the future in the midst of desirable sensations, or in a contemplative state.
  • A “condition” is that without which something cannot arise. This is made clear when the standard formula of dependent origination is discussed beginning with old age, death, sorrow, grief, unhappiness, depression and tribulation. Here it is said that if one wishes to avoid all these things, then the thing to avoid is the condition that makes them possible, namely, being born. If one wishes to avoid being born, then the condition to avoid cultivating is the will to survive. If one wishes to avoid the will to survive, then the condition to avoid is holding on to views and a sense of self. In other words, if you don’t want to die, don’t get born; if you don’t want to get born, stop cultivating the will to survive; and if you want to avoid the will to survive, then stop clinging to material possessions, narratives and a sense of self. That is the practical program of Buddhism in a nutshell.

Now about this canonical formula of dependent origination, there are several questions that can be raised. The first question is whether the items enumerated in this list of causes and conditions are to be understood as things or as events. Is ignorance a thing or a process? Is the unhappiness that ultimately results through this chain of conditions a thing or a process? When conditioned origination is applied to aspects of the world other than the experience of unhappiness, such as when it is said that a sprouting plant is conditioned by (is made possible by) seeds, soil, water, air and sunlight, is it better to think of the sprouting plant as a thing or as the name of an event or a process? If it is decided that when Buddhist philosophers talk of causes and conditions, they seem to be speaking of a complex of relations between events rather than things, then we should be prepared to ask what exactly an event is. A second question to ask about the canonical version of the applied formula of dependent origination is whether the claims made about the conditions said to be necessary to make effects arise are true. And before that question can be answered, we must ask exactly what kinds of claims are being made in the first place. With these questions in mind, it is now possible to begin an analysis of the canonical presentation of the doctrine of dependent origination.

As was noted above, the general description of dependent origination suggests that X can be considered a condition of Y when Y arises if and only if X is present. The way the notion of condition is described in the applied formulation of the doctrine, however, suggests that X is a condition of Y when X must be present for Y to arise. In other words, what are described in the applied formula are necessary conditions. Birth is necessary for old age and death, but it is not sufficient, because something further is required to bring old age about than merely being born. If birth were a sufficient condition for old age, then people would be elderly the minute they were born. In the later scholastic tradition of Indian Buddhism, the position was made explicit that nothing comes into being out of only one condition; rather, it always takes a cluster of conditions to bring something about. On this understanding, birth is but one of the many conditions that eventuates in old age; birth is necessary for old age, but it is not the only necessary condition.

Enough groundwork has now been laid to ask whether the claims made in the applied formula of dependent origination are true. Several of the claims pose little or no problem. The following claims seem relatively unproblematic:

  • “The six sense faculties have the body-mentality complex as their condition.” There could be no sense faculties located in the physical organs unless there were a living physical body endowed with cognitive functions.
  • “The sense faculties’ contact with their sensible objects has the six sense faculties as its condition.” It is obviously the case that contact between one thing and another requires that both things be present.
  • “Evaluation has faculty-object contact as its condition.” If there were no stimulus of a sense faculty by contact with a source of stimulation, there would be no experience to evaluate as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  • “Desire has evaluation as its condition.” If there were no experience felt as pleasant, there would be no desire to continue it or repeat it. Similarly, if there were no experience felt as unpleasant, there would be no desire to end it or avoid repeating it; and if no experience were felt as neutral, there would be no desire to sustain the equanimity that attends neutrality or to seek something more pleasurable.
  • “The will to survive has appropriation as its condition.” In order for there to be a desire to continue existing as something that one recognizes as a continuation of what one takes to be oneself, there must be a sense of self in the first place. Normally one’s sense of self is bound up in some way with material possessions, beliefs and habits. More about this will be said later.
  • “Old age, death, sorrow, grief, unhappiness, depression and tribulation come into being with birth as their condition.” It is safe to claim that one would not have had to face any of the difficulties of life if one had never been born.2

While those items in the applied formula of dependent origination discussed above seem relatively free of problems, there are other claims in that formula that are not so obviously true, or at least that pose some problems.

  • “Mental factors have ignorance as their conditions.” As we saw above, mental factors are aspects of the mentality involved in making decisions, such as whether to approach or to avoid an item of experience or whether to help or harm another sentient being. And we also saw above that ignorance refers to a lack of knowledge about the nature and causes of unhappiness. So it would appear that the claim being made here is that making a decision—any kind of decision—requires a lack of understanding of the nature and causes of unhappiness. That claim is, at the very least, puzzling.
  • “Awareness has mental factors as its condition.” Given how the key terms are explained, if this claim is unpacked, it seems to be that there could be no vision, hearing, smelling and so forth without a prior decision of some kind, perhaps a decision to be aware. What is not clear is how there could be a decision of any kind without awareness being there in the first place. So, on the face of the statement, it is not clear how it could be true.
  • “The body-mentality complex has awareness as its condition.” This seems to be saying that unless there is a prior awareness, then there can be no body. And yet what is said later is that awareness arises when the sense organs are contacted by a particular kind of stimulus and that the sense organs are housed in the body. It seems plain false to say that the body requires the existence of something that it turn requires the existence of the body.
  • “Appropriation has desire as its condition.” It was noted above that what is meant by appropriation is the taking on and holding of opinions and a sense of personal identity. So what is being said here is that having a sense of personal identity or self requires some degree of desire. It seems that the Buddhist wants to say more than that, however. What the passage cited above suggests is that desire plays a key role in the eventual production of unhappiness. It seems that the Buddhist position is not merely the weak claim that unhappiness requires desire but the stronger claim that if one has desires, then some degree of dissatisfaction is bound to be a consequence. So here, unlike the other conditions being discussed, all of which are necessary conditions, desire seems to be not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for appropriation. The same could be said of the claim that the will to survive has appropriation as its condition. It is not simply that the will to survive needs a prior sense of self, but also that having a sense of self leads inevitably to the will to survive, and that in turn leads inevitably to birth, which leads inevitably to turmoil. If desire were not seen as leading inevitably to these calamitous consequences, it is difficult to understand why the Buddhist tradition would take so many precautions to guard against having desires.

In summary, while the general formulation of dependent origination seems to speak of conditions that are both necessary and sufficient, the applied formulation seems to speak of some conditions as necessary and others as both necessary and sufficient. Moreover, some of the claims about conditions being necessary seem questionable. It is not surprising, then, that this fundamental doctrine of Buddhism preoccupied the minds of subsequent generations of commentators and scholastics. It is to one of the most important of those scholastics that we now turn.

Scholastic dependent origination


  1. The formulation translated here is found in the Pali canon in S ii.2, that is, the Saṃyuttanikāya, Nidānasaṃyuttam, Vibhaṅgasuttam. An English translation of the entire text can be found in (Bodhi, 2000). ↩︎
  2. Being born can be understood in traditional Buddhism either as rebirth into a new body after an old body dies or as simply moving into the future within the span of a single lifetime. ↩︎

Work cited

  • Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha: a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.