The Heart of Buddhism – Dependent Co-Arising as a View of Reality

The 12-link chain of causation in a mandela

The 12-link chain of causation in a mandela

I use the term dependent co-arising (co-origination) because I am familiar with Nagarjuna’s (150-250 AD) explication of causation, Pratītyasamutpāda, as co-arising (i.e. not just dependent arising). It is also the more correct translation, and I am not alone in using it.

Nagarjuna provided a logical articulation of dependent co-origination that pushed Buddhist thought into the Mahayana stratosphere. Thanks to him, we can think about dependent co-origination in fascinating ways that will not be obvious here. However, Nagarjuna did draw directly upon the early teachings of the Buddha, so the chain of causation, as the Buddha described it, is worth thinking about.

The chain of causation needs some tweaking. So, if some of this stuff looks like nonsense to you, know that you are not alone. I have tried to show how the links are interdependent without relying upon the intricate fabrications that have been written to explain it. I hope it’s OK for you. If not, let me know.

In his first sermons, the Buddha delivered the chain of causation as the insight he experienced on the third watch of his meditation in which he achieved enlightenment.  In combination with the 4 Noble Truths, it represents the heart of Buddhism.

From a Marxist perspective we could think of the chain of causation as the base upon which the entire Buddhist superstructure is developed. Unlike the 4 Noble Truths, it functions as cosmology, so it has physical implications for us in a way that the 4 Noble Truths do not. In plain language – it describes “life” or the process of becoming. You will notice its point of view is experiential or psychological.

It is grounded in ideas that were floating around India in roughly 600 BC, in particular, ideas on karma and rebirth.  The Buddha’s greatest concern was to escape the cycle of rebirth. His enlightenment was the answer to his problem. In simple terms, the way to escape the cycle of rebirth (samsara) is to stop producing karma, because it is karma that keeps us locked in the wheel of samsara.

Buddhism is one great root cause analysis of the problem of suffering. Its whole idea is that if one knows the cause of something, one can end that thing by ending its cause. Here, the Buddha provides an analysis of ignorance as the root cause of not only suffering, but also of samsara, because as soon as we act out of ignorance, we produce karma.

I will avoid a lot of the other ideas that come with the chain of causation, because some of them are as out of date as the 4 humours are in Western culture. Some of them I may talk about in other posts, because they were key to disputes that produced different schools of Buddhist thought.

The chain of causation has 12 links, and while the chain is laid out in linear fashion by way of explanation, it is not a linear chain of causation. All the links are interdependent and co-arising.

First Link – Ignorance

This is simply ignorance of the 4 Noble Truths. This ignorance is embodied, so awareness is not just a question of having read or heard about the 4 Noble Truths. Awareness is not an intellectual exercise. It is experiential – manifest, realized.

Buddhist moralist traditions will add all sorts of categories of delusional thinking to this list, however, if one has gotten to the root of all the trouble, delusion of any type will not be a problem. Full awareness of the 4 Noble Truths is not an easy thing though, so don’t be lulled into complacency.

In the chain of causation, ignorance leads to rebirth. So, until one eradicates ignorance at the mind’s deepest level, one will continue to be reborn, no matter how happy one may be. Ignorance also leads to the second link in the chain.

Second Link – Volitional Action

As we know, karma means action, or deed. The Buddha, however, distinguished himself in his understanding of karma. For him, it was not destiny or fate, it was something that could be worked with. The key in Buddhist karma is intention, or volition, or will. Buddhism is moral, so if one’s intentions are good, even if the outcomes are bad, the karmic effects are likely to be much weaker. Conversely, this also leads to being able to generate merit through positive actions.

Fundamentally issues of karma are related to one’s own path toward nirvana, so, while merit making is a huge part of some Buddhist traditions, until one is enlightened one is acting out of ignorance, and so will continue to produce karma. It is best to act from within the 8-fold path (the 4th Noble Truth), because this is the path that leads to enlightenment. In many traditions, the 8-fold path begins with morality: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Moral actions perse are a good thing, but not likely to be sufficient in themselves. Acting from awareness is where one wants to be. This means that the arising of the 8-fold path occurs with Wisdom: Right Understanding; Right View.

Third Link – Consciousness

Take this to mean any and all sentience in the world. Various Buddhist traditions interpret sentience differently. For instance, Japanese Buddhism comes from an animist tradition (Shinto), and ideas about how the material world is infused with spirits have affected how the Japanese interpreted Buddhist ideas as they were transmitted into their culture.

Sentience also includes predisposition, which is a function of ignorance, and all the various forms of delusional thinking that get carried forward through volitional (and non-volitional) action. Predisposition is inherited through karma, i.e. it carries across the cycles of rebirth.

Fourth Link – Name & Form

This means the distinctions that sentience and predisposition produce. This includes various forms of analysis (i.e. categorical), but it also includes emotional and other autonomic responses.

A certain stage of enlightenment breaks through all distinctions, with the outcome being “pure” consciousness. Accounts of enlightenment in the Rinzai Zen tradition often involve a psychic rupture (what we might call a state of psychosis). However, this is not necessary. Insight meditation, as opposed to reliance upon koans, teaches one how to observe one’s mind in its processes of creating distinctions, and how to develop a sense of equanimity in making those observations. Buddhism does not advocate for, or train one how to shut off one’s emotions. Life is to be experienced, not denied.

Working back from the eradication of distinctions, one still must grapple with the problem of volitional action. As you will see below, the point is not to grasp onto your experiences (which are a product of your state of mind), not to attach and not to crave. You will still have some kind of decisions to make,  but your actions will be guided from a place of peace, truth, and compassion for all sentient beings. You will no longer produce karma, and thus can transcend the cycle of rebirth. Living out one’s vestigal karma in a state of pure consciousness is akin to having successfully cut at the root of suffering.

Once again, this is not an intellectual exercise. Moreover, the dispute over how one can achieve nirvana drove a rift between Buddhist thinkers several hundred years after the death of the Buddha. This rift produced the basic streams of Buddhism as we understand them today: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, or Tantra (which is Mahayanist, of a fashion). Nagarjuna’s thinking on dependent co-arising sits at the core of this rift.

Many people have argued that Chinese Huayen and Chan (or Zen) resolved the intractable paradox involved in having to work with a mind that produces distinctions in order to overcome its own processes.

Fifth Link – 6 Sense Spheres

Obviously we need our senses in order to go about processing distinctions. The idea here is that some type of interpellation (call and answer) occurs between any type of sentience its sensory organs.

The realm of the senses is the human realm, because the 6th sense in Buddhism is mind. Notice that Buddhism draws a distinction between consciousness and mind. Buddha is talking about the human mind as an organ here, and not some abstract ideal. Being a human puts us in the best position for enlightenment, because through our minds we can become aware of, and follow, the 4 Noble Truths. As a result, enlightenment is possible for every human no matter how evil.

On the other hand, living in the realm of the senses is not a good place to be, because by the time we are functioning at this level, we are in already in a fog. Our senses are conditioned on many different levels. Buddha is providing commentary here upon epistemology – how can we go about determining what is true. I think it’s fair to say that relying upon the senses is fraught with difficulty. Epistemology is a huge area for discussion in Buddhist philosophy.

Sixth Link – Contact

Obviously we sense something when we come into contact with it. What is important here is that sentience would not be aware of its own senses without them coming into contact with something. So the senses arise with contact. There is interpellation.

The nature of that contact is premised upon the nature of our senses (on an individual level) and the distinctions created by the sentient mind (on an individual level) at work in them. This means there is no way to independently the “essence” or true reality of anything we come into contact with, nor even our own senses, since both depend upon each other for distinction.

Again, another huge area for epistemology, and for ontology (ideas on being) as well.

Seventh Link – Feeling

That’s right, emotional connection, which is generated by one’s existence, i.e. up and down the whole chain of causation.

Eighth Link –Attachment

Take this to mean identity formation. Again generated by one’s existence, i.e. up and down the whole chain of causation.

Ninth Link –Grasping

Aversion and craving.  According to the 4 Noble Truths, suffering is caused by craving (and aversion), which is most obviously caused by creating distinctions.  Now you know how craving is caused.

Tenth Link –Existence

Existence is living in a state of ignorance, and everything else as a consequence of that ignorance. Suffering. Even if one achieves enlightenment, one must live out vestigal karma – like the Buddha, who lived into his 60s, despite having found enlightenment in his 30s. That means one must suffer aging and death as a part of existence.

Eleventh Link – Birth

Perhaps if you are nasty you will be born as a fish, or maybe in some hell. No guarantee you’ll come back to the optimal spot of the realm of the senses. Or, you could come back as a bodhisattva by choice to help out other people.

Twelfth Link – Aging and Death

Could be worse, you could be stabbed in the gut over and over by a million demons. Obviously if you are reborn, you are ignorant, so the twelfth link leads back to the first link and all the rest, unless you can break the chain at points of craving, emotion, distinctions, and ignorance.

So. Wow! Fascinating!

According to the Buddha that’s how it works. Reality and the human predicament arises all at once, and are profoundly intertwined.

The way out is, of course, the 8-fold path. And it too, when it arises, arises all at once.  I’ll turn to that at some other time. Meanwhile, check it out for yourself.

Excerpts from Kobo daishi ikkan no sho (Kobo Daishi’s Book)

Kobo Daishi


Monju, the holy one, first opened this path; Kobo of Kongo then revived it. Without male and female, its pleasures are like an endless circle; men shout with pleasure when they attain entrance (Ikkyu, 1394-1481)


Kukai brought the esoteric tradition of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism to Japan after returning from an Imperial Mission to China in 806. In China, he studied for two years under the Chinese master Hui-ko (764-805), who transmitted its mysteries to Kukai orally. Once Kukai returned to Japan, he opened the famous temple complex Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture, and gained an immense following. He also opened a Shingon temple in the Inner Palace (the private living quarters of the Imperial family) in Kyoto under Emperor Nimmyo, just before his death in 835.

In 921, the Emperor conferred the title Kobo Daishi (Great Teacher Transmitting the Dharma) on him in recognition of his great contributions to Japanese culture and the immense spiritual influence he held over the Japanese. Kukai is the stuff of legend and today ranks among one of the great divine beings (kami sama) who protect Japan.

Kobo Daishi’s Book, written in 1598, claims to reveal Shingon’s secret teachings regarding the love of boys. Part one describes hand positions, or mudras, used by young acolytes to communicate their feelings to priests. Part two advises priests how to evaluate an acolyte’s emotions, and part three describes methods of anal sex.

Part One

1) If an acolyte clenches his fingers, from the index finger to the little finger, it means “You are the only one I love.”

2) If an acolyte clenches both hands completely except for one thumb, it means “I acknowledge your love and will make myself yours to do with as you please.”

3) If an acolyte touches the index and middle finger to his thumb, it means he wants to see you.

4) If an acolyte flips the tassle of his fan, it is an invitation to visit.

5) If an acolyte forms the a circle with the index finger and thumb on both hands, it means “Tonight.” If he uses the middle finger, it means “Tomorrow night.” And if he uses the ring finger, it means “Some other time.”

Mt Koya

Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture

Part Two 

1. After an acolyte has spoken, observe him carefully. The acolyte who speaks quietly is sensitive to love. To such a boy, show your sincerity by being somewhat shy. Make your interest in him clear by leaning against his lap. When you remove his robes, calm him by explaining exactly what you will be doing.

White snow on a mountain peak turns to pure water on the rocks and finally flows down.

As the poem illustrates, snow on even the highest mountain peak is destined to melt and flow downward. Likewise, no matter how lacking in sensitivity to the mysteries of love an acolyte may be, he can be made yours if you approach him right.

Part Three

1) There is a method called skylark rising. The ass is raised in the air like a skylark rising in the sky. Insertion is painless.

2) Always keep ‘cut plums’ on hand in case you want to attempt insertion without saliva.

(This information was taken from Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon)