Buddhist Dependent Origination – The Twelve Links
The Buddhist teaching of “dependent origination” describes how things thing arise, are, and pass away. According to this teaching no phenomena or beings exist independently of any others. Which is to say that nothing, not even our egos have any inherent self-existence.
If things did have an inherent existence, everything would exist in isolation in relation to everything else and change as well as life would be impossible.
We know from our experience that this is not the case since we can see that everything changes from moment to moment. Things arise, stay for a while, then pass away in one form or another.
The Twelve Links (or Nidanas) of the Buddhist Dependent Origination teachings describes the processes involved in the arising of beings and phenomena. Keep in mind that each of these is not meant to be in sequence, but rather around a circle as seen in the Wheel of Life.
In Tibetan Buddhist iconography, a picture depicting a specific scene is associated with each one of the twelve links.
- Ignorance (Avidya): The term “avidya” is translated as “mis-seeing” or “incorrect seeing” which refers to mis-knowledge or ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, as well as of the teachings of Karma, Anatman (No-Self), the Three Marks of Existence, and the Five Skandhas.
When someone thinks in pride they know everything about the nature of reality, thinking that they have a concrete self, they close their minds to how things really are and dwell in ignorance (avidya).Therefore “mis-seeing” or “mis-knowing” is the very foundation of the arising of suffering. On the Wheel of Life, this link (or Nidana) is symbolized by the blind man (or woman).
- Formation (Samskara): Samskara is translated as “volitional action, formation, impulse, motivation”. When Ignorance (avidya) is present, then the Samskaras are the impulses that precede actions such as thoughts and words that give rise to actions which then generates karma.You can view this as the structuring forces of our being and forms the basis of our character. It is the quick, grasping tendency of the mind. On the Wheel of Life, samskara is represented by a potter making a pot.
- Consciousness (Vijnana): Vijnana can be translated as “consciousness”, or what happens when one of the senses reacts to external phenomena. Consciousness arises from the interaction between ignorance and mental formations. On the Wheel of Life, vijnana is represented by a monkey.
- Name and Form (Nama-rupa): Nama translates to “name” in the Sanskrit language and rupa translates to “body, form”. This is the energy of consciousness (vijnana) oscillating between sensory objects and objects of the imagination that give rise to mental functions.
Nama-rupa is, simply put, the joining of the five aggregates (or skandhas) into an individual existence.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by people in a boat as they travel the choppy waters of samsara.
- Faculties and Objects (Shadayatana): These are the six senses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch, and mind which correspond to sight, hearing, smell, taste, tangible objects, and thoughts.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by a house or building with six windows.
- Contact (Sparsha): Simply, sparsha is contact with environment or the actual contact (sparsha) between sense faculties and sense objects which set up the conditions for sensation.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by an embracing (or kissing) couple.
- Sensation (Vedana): This is the experience of feeling. These are generally pleasurable or painful feelings that we experience in our day to day interactions.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by an arrow piercing an eye, symbolizing the fact that we are driven by and conditioned by our sensations or feelings.
- Craving (Trishna): As we have already seen in the Second Noble Truth, craving (trishna) is the principal cause of suffering (dukkha). This craving takes the form of either desire or aversion depending on what we want or don’t want.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by a man holding a beer bottle and surrounded by empty bottles.
- Clinging/Grasping (Upadana): The word “upadana” can be translated as “clinging, grasping” or “attachment”. You can view this the grasping or clinging mind that clings to sensual pleasures, incorrect views of the nature of reality, and external forms.
But what we cling to the most is to the ego, or our sense of self which is reinforced by our desires and aversions.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by a monkey reaching for a fruit.
- Becoming (Bhava): This is the arising of new becoming which is the result of the interaction with all of the other links.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by a woman in late pregnancy.
- Birth (Jati): Birth is the next step in the process of arising of a situation or being and sets up the conditions for the next link in the chain of dependent origination.On the Wheel of Life is represented by a woman in childbirth.
- Old Age and Death (Jara-maranam): The chain of dependent origination culminates in dissolution/disintegration or passing away. This manifests as old age and death in the case of human existence.On the Wheel of Life, this is represented by a corpse.
The twelve links of dependent origination are better visualized when you look at them in a circle or you can view them as links in a chain.
In summary, the Buddha taught the following teaching of dependent origination:
“Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or karma-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 (sensory and mental) contact.
Through sensory 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.”
Thanks for reading this article on teaching of Buddhist dependent origination, please feel free to leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below.