Pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit: प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद; Pali: पटिच्चसमुप्पादpaṭiccasamuppāda), commonly translated as dependent origination or dependent arising, states that all dharmas ("things") arise in dependence upon other dharmas: "if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist." It is a pragmatic teaching, which is applied to dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.
The term is also used to refer to the twelve links of dependent origination, which describes the chain of causes which result in rebirth. By reverting the chain, liberation from rebirth can be attained.
The term has been translated into English variously as dependent origination, dependent arising, interdependent co-arising, conditioned arising, and conditioned genesis. The term could be translated somewhat more literally as arising in dependence upon conditions.[note 1][quote 1]
The term may also refer to the Twelve Nidānas, the twelvefold chain that describes the chain of rebirth.[quote 2] Generally speaking, in the Mahayana tradition, pratityasamutpada (Sanskrit) is used to refer to the general principle of interdependent causation, whereas in the Theravada tradition, paticcasamuppāda (Pali) is used to refer to the twelve nidanas.
The Four Noble Truths are an expression of the principle of dependent origination. The Four Noble Truths explain the arising of dukkha, which is dependently originated, and the cessation of dukkha, by removing the "causes."[quote 5]
The principle of dependent origination underpins the concept of karma, the individual actions and their fruition.[quote 6] Every fruition is said to depend upon multiple causes and conditions.[quote 7]
The Twelve Nidanas are a series of causal links that describe the process of samsaric rebirth and the arising of dukkha. In reverse order they also describe the way to liberation from samsara.[note 2] When certain conditions are present, they give rise to subsequent conditions, which in turn give rise to other conditions, resulting in the cyclical nature of life in Samsara.
Understanding within the Buddhist traditions
In the Theravada-tradition, Pratityasamutpada implies that "several causes give rise to several results:"
The Theravāda tradition records [...] as a fundamental axiom the principle that a single cause does not give rise to either a single result or several results; nor do several causes give rise to just one result; but rather several causes give rise to several results.[note 3][quote 8]
Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the twelve nidanas are considered to be the most significant application of the principle of dependent origination.[quote 9]
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.
Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.
In his analysis, any enduring essential nature (svabhāva) would prevent the process of dependent origination, would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been and will always continue to be, i.e. as existents (bhāva). Madhyamaka suggests that impermanent collections of causes and conditions are designated by mere conceptual labels, which also applies to the causes and conditions themselves and even the principle of causality itself since everything is dependently originated (i.e. empty). If unaware of this, things may seem to arise as existents, remain for a time and then subsequently perish.
In the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of dependent origination is considered to be complementary to the concept of emptiness. Specifically, this tradition emphasizes the indivisibility of appearance and emptiness—also known as the relative and absolute aspects of reality:
Appearance (relative truth) refers to the concept that all appearances are dependently originated;
Emptiness (absolute or ultimate truth) refers to the concept that the ‘’nature" of all phenomena is emptiness—lacking inherent existence.
In Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty, this relationship is explained using the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water. According to this metaphor:
The nature of all phenomena is like the reflection of the moon in water—completely lacking inherent existence. However,
The appearance of the moon in the water is an expression of dependent origination—the appearance is completely dependent upon causes and conditions.
One of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava, emphasized his respect for this relationship as follows:
Though my View is as spacious as the sky,
My actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour.
The Huayan school taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena, as expressed in Indra's net. One thing contains all other existing things, and all existing things contain that one thing. This philosophy is based in the tradition of the great Madhyamaka scholar Nagarjuna and, more specifically, on the Avatamsaka Sutra. Regarded by D.T. Suzuki as the crowning achievement of Buddhist philosophy, the Avatamsaka Sutra elaborates in great detail on the principal of dependent origination. This sutra describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing one another.
Jay Garfield points out the similarities between pratītyasamutpāda and the philosophies of Hume, Kant, and others.[quote 13]
The concept of pratītyasamutpāda has also been compared to the Western philosophy of metaphysics (the study of the nature of being and the world). Bhikkhu Thanissaro explains that the Buddha did not intend to put forth a system of metaphysics,[quote 14] yet, scholars have noted the similarities between pratītyasamutpāda and metaphysics.[quote 15] One source (Hoffman, 1996) asserts that pratītyasamutpāda should not be considered a metaphysical doctrine in the strictest sense, since it does not confirm nor deny specific entities or realities.[quote 16][note 4] Noa Ronkin notes that while the Buddha suspends all views regarding certain metaphysical questions, he does not deny the significance of the questions.[quote 17]
Bhikkhu Thanissaro relates the Buddhist concept of karma to the modern philosophy of radical phenomenology.[quote 18]
One of the basic ideas behind the Buddha's teaching of mutual interdependence is that ultimately there is no demarcation between what appears to be an individual creature and its environment. Pratityasamutpada has been applied to explain the interconnectedness of all being,[quote 19] as expressed in the metaphor of Indra's net, or Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing".[note 5]
Harming the environment (the nexus of living beings of which one forms but a part) is thus, in a nontrivial sense, harming oneself. This philosophical position lies at the heart of modern-day deep ecology and some representatives of this movement (e.g. Joanna Macy) have shown that Buddhist philosophy provides a basis for deep ecological thinking.
^This suggests that pratītyasamutpāda might be considered a metaphysic of volitions (or karma). A small part of metaphysics deals with the apparent contradiction, or paradox, between free will, and the position that worldly phenomena are solely a consequence of natural causal factors. Determinists argue that everything is completely deterministic, based on natural causal laws that can never be changed; Libertarians argue that everything is totally up to one's free will, and compatibilists posit a compatibility of these two positions.
^Thich Nhat Hanh: "Pratitya samutpada is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions... In the sutras, this image is given: "Three cut reeds can stand only by leaning on one another. If you take one away, the other two will fall." For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we'll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one. One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else. Cause and effect inter-are. The idea of first and only cause, something that does not itself need a cause, cannot be applied."
^The Dalai Lama explains: "In Sanskrit the word for dependent-arising is pratityasamutpada. The word pratitya has three different meanings–meeting, relying, and depending–but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence. Samutpada means arising. Hence, the meaning of pratityasamutpada is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions."
^Pratītyasamutpāda has a general and specific meaning:
Donald Lopez states: "Dependent origination has two meanings in Buddhist thought. The first refers to the twelvefold sequence of causation... The second meaning of dependent origination is a more general one, the notion that everything comes into existence in dependence on something else. It is this second meaning that Nagarjuna equates with emptiness and the middle way."
Peter Harvey states: "This [doctrine] states the principle of conditionality, that all things, mental and physical, arise and exist due to the presence of certain conditions, and cease once their conditions are removed: nothing (except Nibbana) is independent. The doctrine thus compliments the teaching that no permanent, independent self can be found. The main concrete application of the abstract principle is in the form of a series of conditioned links (nidanas), culminating in the arising of dukkha. A standard formula of twelve nidanas is most common..."
The Nalanda Translation Committee states: "Pratitya-samutpada is the technical name for the Buddha’s teaching on cause and effect, in which he demonstrated how all situations arise through the coming together of various factors. In the hinayana, it refers in particular to the twelve nidanas, or links in the chain of samsaric becoming."[web 5]
Paul Williams: "In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta the Buddha [stresses] that things originate in dependence upon causal conditioning, and this emphasis on causality describes the central feature of Buddhist ontology. All elements of samsara exist in some sense or another relative to their causes and conditions.
^A simple formulation of the principle of pratityasamutpada that is repeated hundreds of times throughout the sutras:
Thich Nhat Hanh states: "The Buddha expressed interdependent Co-Arising very simply: "This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be." These sentences occur hundreds of times in both the Northern and Southern transmissions. They are the Buddhist genesis."
Peter Harvey states: In its abstract form, the doctrine states: 'That being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases.' (S.II.28) This states the principle of conditionality, that all things, mental and physical, arise and exist due to the presence of certain conditions, and cease once their conditions are removed: nothing (except Nibbana) is independent.
Christina Feldman states: "The basic principle of dependent origination is simplicity itself. The Buddha described it by saying: 'When there is this, that is. / With the arising of this, that arises. / When this is not, neither is that. / With the cessation of this, that ceases.' When all of these cycles of feeling, thought, bodily sensation, all of these cycles of mind and body, action, and movement, are taking place upon a foundation of ignorance—that’s called samsara.[web 2]
Rupert Gethin: "Another succinct formula states the principle of causality (idaṃpratyayatā) as ‘this existing, that exists; this arising, that arises; this not existing, that does not exist; this ceasing, that ceases’. (Majjhima Nikāya iii. 63; Samyutta Nikāya v. 387; etc.) ...the succinct formula state[s] baldly that the secret of the universe lies in the nature of causality—the way one thing leads to another.
^The Four Noble Truths, in particular the Second Noble Truth, is an expression of the doctrine of dependent origination is closely related to :
Peter D. Santina states: "On the basis of the Buddha’s own statements, we can see a very close relationship between the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination. What is it that the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination have in common? The principle that both have in common is the principle of causality—the law of cause and effect, of action and consequence."[web 3]
Christina Feldman states: "In the Buddha’s teachings, the second noble truth is not a theory about what happens to somebody else, but is a process which is going on over and over again in our own lives—through all our days, and countless times every single day. This process in Pali is called pañicca-samuppàda, sometimes translated as "dependent origination" or "co-dependent origination" or "causal interdependence.""[web 2]
Bhikkhu Thanissaro relates pañicca-samuppàda to the second and third noble truths; he states: "...dependent co-arising works as an explanation both for the arising of dukkha—stress or suffering—and for the fact that dukkha can be ended through a path of practice."
Rupert Gethin explains: "Dependent arising is to be understood as in certain respects an elaboration of the truth of the origin of suffering..."
The Dalai Lama states: "In the Buddha's root teaching on the four noble truths, there are two sets of cause and effect: one set for the afflicted class of phenomena [suffering and its causes] and another for the pure class [cessation and its causes]."
Chogyam Trungpa states: "The four noble truths are divided into two sections. The first two truths—the truth of suffering and the origin of suffering—are studies of the samsaric version of ourselves and the reasons we arrived in certain situations or came to particular conclusions about ourselves. The second two truths—the truth of cessation and the truth of the path—are studies of how we could go beyond or overcome it. [...] Suffering is regarded as the result of samsara, and the origin of suffering is regarded as the cause of samsara. The path is regarded as the cause of nirvana, and cessation of suffering as the result.
The Dalai Lama explains the relation between dependent origination and karma as follows: "Karma is one particular instance of the natural causal laws that operate throughout the universe where, according to Buddhism, things and events come into being purely as a result of the combination of causes and conditions.
Karma, then, is an instance of the general law of causality. What makes karma unique is that it involves intentional action, and therefore an agent. The natural causal processes operating in the world cannot be termed karmic where there is no agent involved. In order for a causal process to be a karmic one, it must involve an individual whose intention would lead to a particular action. It is this specific type of causal mechanism which is known as karma.
Sogyal Rinpoche explains the subtleties of karmic action and results: "In simple terms, what does karma mean? It means that whatever we do, with our body, speech, or mind, will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with its consequences. It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death and even a tiny seed can become a huge tree. And as Buddha said: "Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain." Similarly he said: "Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel." Karma does not decay like external things, or ever become inoperative. It cannot be destroyed "by time, fire, or water." Its power will never disappear, until it is ripened. Although the results of our actions may not have matured yet, they will inevitably ripen, given the right conditions."
Sogyal Rinpoche explains: "The results of our actions are often delayed, even into future lifetimes; we cannot pin down one cause, because any event can be an extremely complicated mixture of many karmas ripening together."
Bhikkhu Thanissaro emphasizes the same point; he states:
...one of the many things the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening was that causality is not linear. The experience of the present is shaped both by actions in the present and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape both the present and the future. The results of past and present actions continually interact. Thus there is always room for new input into the system, which gives scope for free will.[a]
^Gethin also explains: "I said above that the formula of dependent arising is intended to reveal the actual pattern and structure of causality. Buddhist thought does not understand causality in terms similar to, say, Newtonian mechanics, where billiard balls rebound off each other in an entirely predictable manner once the relevant information is gathered."
^The twelve nidandas are the most significant application in the Theravada tradition:
Rupert Gethin states: "But the most important statement of the Buddhist understanding of how causality operates is in terms of the twelve links (nidāna) of the chain of ‘dependent arising’ (pratītya-samutpāda/paṭicca-samuppāda)."
^Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche states: "In my conversations with modern scientists, I’ve been struck by a number of similarities between the principles of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist understanding of the relationship between emptiness and appearance. Because the words we used were different, it took me quite a while to recognize that we were talking about the same thing—phenomena unfolding moment by moment, caused and conditioned by an almost infinite number and variety of events."
Contemporary Western philosopher Christian Thomas Kohl states: "There is a surprising parallelism between the philosophical concept of reality articulated by Nagarjuna and the physical concept of reality implied by quantum physics. For neither is there a fundamental core to reality, rather reality consists of systems of interacting objects. Such concepts of reality cannot be reconciled with the substantial, subjective, holistic or instrumentalistic concepts of reality which underlie modern modes of thought."[web 7]
^For example, in her text Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, contemporary scholar Joanna Macy states: "The systems view of reality as process, its perception of self-organizing patterns of physical and mental events, and the principals it discerned in the dynamics of these natural systems struck me as remarkably consonant with the Buddha's teachings. Like the doctrine of paticca samuppāda, systems theory sees causality as reciprocal, arising from interweaving circuits of contingency. [...] Despite the obvious contrasts in their origins and purposes, each of them—early Buddhism and contemporary systems theory—can clarify what the other is saying."
^Bhikkhu Thanissaro states: "There are many parallels between Buddhist theories of causation and modern deterministic chaos theory. Examples and terminology drawn from the latter — such as feedback, scale invariance, resonance, and fluid turbulence — are very useful in explaining the former. Again, in using these parallels I am not trying to equate Buddhist teachings with chaos theory or to engage in pseudo-science. Fashions in science change so rapidly that we do the Buddha’s teachings no favor in trying to "prove" them in light of current scientific paradigms. Here I am simply pointing out similarities as a way of helping to make those teachings intelligible in modern terms. Deterministic chaos theory is the only modern body of knowledge that has worked out a vocabulary for the patterns of behavior described in Buddhist explanations of causality, and so it seems a natural source to draw on, both to describe those patterns and to point out some of their less obvious implications."
^Garfield states: "The analysis of causation can often look like a highly technical aside in philosophy. It might not seem at first glance to be one of the really "big" questions, like those concerning what entities there are, what the nature of mind is, what the highest good is. By contrast, causation often appears to the outsider or to the beginner like one of those recherché corners of philosophy that one has to work one's way into. But of course even in the history of Western metaphysics and epistemology it has always been central. One has only to think of the role of a theory of causation for Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein to see this. This study of the Mulamadhyamikakarika shows why: a clear understanding of the nature of the causal relation is the key to understanding the nature of reality itself and of our relation to it. For causation is, as Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer as well as Nagarjuna emphasize, at the heart of our individuation of objects, of our ordering of our experience of the world, and of our understanding of our own agency in the world. Without a clear view of causation, we can have no clear view of anything."
^Bhikkhu Thanissaro explains that the Buddha did not intend to put forth a system of metaphysics: "The Buddha was very clear on the point that he did not mean for his teachings to become a metaphysical system or for them to be adhered to simply for the sake of their truth value. He discussed metaphysical topics only when they could play a role in skillful behavior. Many metaphysical questions—such as whether or not there is a soul or self, whether or not the world is eternal, whether or not it is infinite, etc.—he refused to answer, on the grounds that they were either counterproductive or irrelevant to the task at hand: that of gaining escape from the stress and suffering inherent in time and the present."
^Schilbrack states: "Is the doctrine of interdependent origination a metaphysical teaching? The answer depends on one's definition of metaphysics. In this paper, metaphysics describes the character that anything has insofar as it is anything at all. Interdependent origination seems to fit this description."
^Hoffman states: "Suffice it to emphasize that the doctrine of dependent origination is not a metaphysical doctrine, in the sense that it does not affirm or deny some super-sensible entities or realities; rather, it is a proposition arrived at through an examination and analysis of the world of phenomena ..."
^Noa Ronkin states: "Nevertheless, while it is true that the Buddha suspends all views regarding certain metaphysical questions, he is not an antimetaphysician: nothing in the texts suggests that metaphysical questions are completely meaningless, or that the Buddha denies the soundness of metaphysics per se [...] A framework of thought that hinges on the idea that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned (sankhata), impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood"
^Bhikkhu Thanissaro: "To avoid the drawbacks of the narrative and cosmological mind-sets, the Buddha pursued an entirely different tack—what he called "entry into emptiness," and what modern philosophy calls radical phenomenology: a focus on the events of present consciousness, in and of themselves, without reference to questions of whether there are any entities underlying those events. In the Buddha’s case, he focused simply on the process of kammic cause and result as it played itself out in the immediate present, in the process of developing the skillfulness of the mind, without reference to who or what lay behind those processes. On the most basic level of this mode of awareness, there was no sense even of "existence" or "nonexistence"..., but simply the events of stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation, arising and passing away."
Christina Feldman explains: What the pañicca-samuppàda actually describes is a vision of life or an understanding in which we see the way everything is interconnected—that there is nothing separate, nothing standing alone. Everything effects everything else. We are part of this system. We are part of this process of dependent origination—causal relationships effected by everything that happens around us and, in turn, effecting the kind of world that we all live in inwardly and outwardly.[web 2]
Sogyal Rinpoche states: "...all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things. The Buddha compared the universe to a vast net woven of a countless variety of brilliant jewels, each with a countless number of facets. Each jewel reflects in itself every other jewel in the net and is, in fact, one with every other jewel... Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level...it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it, all the seasons and the weather, moonlight and starlight and sunlight—all form part of this tree. As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is; that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else; and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing. This is what we mean when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence."
^Bhikkhu Thanissaro emphasizes that causality is not a linear process.[web 6]