The Law of Dependent Origination

Lecture No. 11, 11th March 2000

Author: Venerable Dhammasami,
Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.


         The Law of Dependent Origination is very difficult for many people although the concept itself is not that complex. The piece of teaching is extremely important in Buddhism - or in all schools of Buddhism. Enlightenment means realization of this Law itself, that of course has to be through our own practice, not through theory or intellectualizing. This Law, the Buddha said, regardless whether we know it or not, exists naturally by itself. In other words, this Law is a natural law.

        The Principle

        This Law is the law of causality explaining how things exist or do not exist through their relationship of cause and effect. The principle is therefore " when the cause is there, the effect will be there; when the cause is not there, the effect will not be there".

        Things arise due to causes, more than one cause. They cease to exist as their causes exist no more. For something to arise, to exist or to go, there are causes for it to do so. Without causes, nothing arises and therefore nothing ceases. An obvious example is a plant. For it to grow, we need ,at least, seeds, fertile soil, water, oxygen and sunlight. When those essential conditions are not met, we simply do not have a plant. If or not we have a strong plant depends on the agreement of the causes. A flame exists due to fuel, wick and oxygen. When one of them is lacking we will not have a flame. Or if all were burnt out, the flame will go.

        Life exists in a way it does due to many causes. Say, happiness and unhappiness are there due to causes. They are conditioned by certain causes.

        Not One Single Cause

        The Law of Dependent Origination teaches that there is no single cause such as almighty being who is imagined to cause anything in this world according to his will. At the same time, this Law also explains that there is no primary cause. All causes and effects are conditioned and are therefore relative and impermanent. They are dynamic, not static. While the principle is universally true, the operation of the causes and effects are not eternal but are subject to change.

        Life is a process of cause and effect - together they are known as events. And life is a series of events in terms of the ultimate reality. This is to go beyond the conventional truth of "you" and "I", "Tom" and "Harry", " beautiful" and " ugly", "them" and "us". The process of events itself is devoid of a permanent entity we all like to have; as such it is known as "nothingness".

        In Daily Life

         When you have this Law as a force in your way of thinking, you will see things more objectively in daily experiences with people. Say, when a person called Jack is angry with you, you will try to see the operation of his psychological process, not his personality. You will come to think that because of attachment, there is anger. Because of anger, there are impolite words being spoken. You do not form an opinion of the person called Jack ( as an angry person), instead you will see that due to attachment, anger arises. When attachment ceases, anger will also go. When anger is gone, it is not appropriate any more to see Jack as a short-tempered man. He might be even more patient than others when there is no anger. Thus, you are inclined to think about the psychological elements, not the personality. This understand helps you to let go.

        A Chain

        The causes and effects are arising and ceasing at all time, just like the new cells replacing the old ones in our blood endlessly as long as we live. That is why, the process of cause and effect is actually like a chain with many links. The effect does not remain an effect all the time by nature but it may turn to be a cause for another effect. Just like a plant and a seed, they are going in a circle. You may apply this to three generations of human beings as well. A father is a son when being together with his own father, but he is a father when being with his son. Both are right depending on what is being related to. This is what is being called as relative reality.

        Twelve Links

         In the chain of life, when analyzed carefully, all the links can be summarized into 12. They are delusion, volition, rebirth-consciousness, mind and matter, six sense bases, contact, feeling, attachment, clinging, becoming, birth, old age and death (including sorrow, lamentation etc.). They are to show how suffering exists and is being created in this chain of events. If we realise how they are created, then we can stop them. This is the way to stop suffering.

        These 12 links need gradual and perspective explanation, which I would like to leave it for the next time. But for the moment, I wish to bring your attention to some of them - six sense bases, contact and feeling. They are the way we come across the world every day or they are what we call the world itself.

        Six sense bases are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. They have corresponding external objects, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought. When eyes and sight come into contact, there arises a consciousness of something which we call feeling. If we desire it, then attachment arises. If we are not aware of that attachment, it will grow stronger to become clinging. When clinging to something, we will make all the efforts to get it - this is a becoming process. So this is how six senses condition (cause) a process ( a chain) of psychological process to happen.


Related articles for further reading selected by the Course Organizer:

         A Fitting Introduction (The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma), by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon.

                The Law of Dependent Origination, Nibbana.com Website.

(Next Week: "Introduction to Abhidhamma")

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