A Psychological take on Dependent Origination

In this article I offer a psychological interpretation of Dependent Origination. Basically I try to show how a largely unconscious cognitive structure develops into the human mind as we know it. And I suggest that the historical Buddha could have had something similar in mind with the DO. I also suggest how psychology and psychotherapy can benefit from the Buddhist concepts.

I’m not claiming that I cracked the original code, and it’s only partly based on the suttas, but the open-minded reader might get something out of it.Dependent Origination as Emergence of the Subject 2.0.pdf (341.3 KB)


Interesting… I am reminded of Ven Buddhadasa who switched from teaching DO from the traditional 3 life model to a radical Present life/ 1 mind moment model. Do read his treatise on DO, you might find it helpful!


We need to tread carefully here, because so much of immense value is at stake if we get it wrong.

The psychological angle on Buddhism is certainly not invalid. Far from it, I think it is very valuable and a core aspect that should inform Buddhist practice. There is so much to be gained if we can deal with our psychological content in a skilful way, including great strides towards awakening itself. But—and it’s a big but—we should not call it dependent origination, because it does not fit with how the Buddha taught this doctrine. Rather, we should see it as part of the Buddha’s teaching on how to train our thinking and perceptions. It is absolutely crucial that we make this distinction, otherwise we might put a big obstacle across the path and make the true goal of Buddhism unreachable.

I am glad you have added this caveat. Perhaps our difference is only one of nomenclature.

In any case, I feel this is a good opportunity to summarise a few reasons why dependent origination (DO) does include rebirth. This is not meant as a response to your article, which I haven’t actually read. I apologise for not doing so; perhaps I will find the time later. I am just taking the opportunity to discuss an issue I consider fundamentally important.

(1) DO shows why there is suffering. The overarching definition of suffering is saṃsāric existence, which includes rebirth and redeath. At AN10.65 we find this nicely summarised as follows:

  • “Rebirth is suffering, no rebirth is happiness.”

(2) There are a few real-life examples of DO in the suttas. They invariably include rebirth.

  • DN15: “If consciousness did not move into the mother’s womb, would name and form take shape there?”
  • MN38: “If the spirit being reborn is present, then the embryo is conceived.”

(3) If DO is a psychological process, then the moment ignorance comes to an end, consciousness would cease. Here is the standard sequence of dependent cessation:

  • “When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, willed actions cease. When willed actions cease, consciousness ceases.”

If DO were a psychological process, beings would cease to exist the moment they became arahants.

(4) According to AN3.61, DO is an expansion of the second noble truth. The second noble truth shows how suffering is perpetuated via rebirth.

(5) The vocabulary of rebirth is used with DO everywhere. Here are a few examples from the Nidāna Saṃyutta, all of whose suttas deal with DO.

  • SN12.19: “When the body breaks up, one goes to a body.”
  • SN12.38: “When that consciousness has become established and come to growth, there is renewed existence in the future.”
  • SN12.59: “Consciousness moves in.”

And this is just scratching the surface.

(6) Since it was first formulated by the Buddha, all schools of Buddhism have had rebirth as part of DO.

(7) Even in the vast commentarial literature you won’t find any explanation of DO without rebirth.

(8) People who advocate a psychological interpretation of DO cannot agree on how to understand it. Some call DO a structural principle. Some say it is an explanation of moment to moment psychological experience. Some say it extends over a period of time within the same life. The reason they cannot agree is quite obvious. The suttas do not provide information that can settle this question. And the reason for this is that they do not describe DO in this way.

(9) The eleventh and twelfth link of DO—jāti and jarā-maraṇa—are consistently defined as ordinary birth and old-age and death:

  • SN12.2: “And what is jāti? The rebirth, inception, conception, reincarnation, manifestation of the aggregates, and acquisition of the sense fields of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.”
  • DN15: “There were no rebirth of sentient beings into their various realms—of gods, fairies, spirits, creatures, humans, quadrupeds, birds, or reptiles, each into their own realm.”
  • SN12.2: “And what is jarā-maraṇa? The old age, decrepitude, broken teeth, grey hair, wrinkly skin, diminished vitality, and failing faculties of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings. This is called old age. The passing away, perishing, disintegration, demise, mortality, death, decease, breaking up of the aggregates, and laying to rest of the corpse of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings. This is called death.

I completely agree with this Ajahn!

The issue perhaps, is that the underlying principle viz Idappaccayata being a fractal, universal law can be used to explain everything… from the origin of the Self- delusion to Rebirth to the nature of things in a non recurrent cyclical universe. We really need to be careful with our nomenclature. :smiley: :sunflower:

So perhaps, @Gabriel… a better title might be “Psychological aspects of the Buddhist Law of Specific Conditionality” ?

Yes, Buddhadasa’s interpretation was interesting - and is still controversial to say the least. I think I offer a different perspective than previous interpretations though.


I will read this evening or tomorrow. Looks interesting! Thank you!