How should dependent origination be viewed?

I’d like to clarify something about dependent origination. I understand the Buddha taught dependent origination in order to explain how the rebirth process works without a self, but…

It seems to me that monks who primarily rely on the commentaries, say that the whole chain of dependent origination is run through every concious moment. I remember even Ajahn Chah saying that in one talk, but I gather he wasn’t a big reader of the suttas and was more influenced by the later commentaries (and of course his own personal experience).

Now the other extreme I’ve heard, is that dependent origination describes a process that runs through three lives, with steps 1 and 2 in our previous life, steps 3 - 9 in our current life and steps 10, 11 and 12 in a future life.

After reading a lot of NDE descriptions, I’ve started to think that maybe steps 1 - 9 or even 1 - 10 might describe what happens in the inbetween state (the search for a suitable new house, if you will), and then the rest of the steps would describe the next life. I guess the 3 life model could also be adapted so that the middle life would actually be the state between two consecutive lives.

Or perhaps there really is no way to look at dependent origination as a single process or draw the different steps in a co-dependent sequencial order on paper and we should just use different parts of it to explain different situations (like how we become attached to things or how we seek out contact through the senses) and accept that there are smaller and bigger gaps between the steps…

Any thoughts or links to papers on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

With metta,


Not really, in fact the commentaries explain DO in terms of a process through three lives, an explanation which is also the dominant paradigm for DO in other schools of Buddhism. The one-life interpretation is essentially a modern innovation, popularized by Ajahn Buddhadasa, and to some extent some others. It is, I believe, from Ajahn Buddhadasa that Ajahn Chah got this explanation; however I have never seen anywhere that Ajahn Chah discusses it in any detail, it’s just some passing remarks IIRC.

Again, not really: viññāṇa, for example, is quite explicitly spoken of as pertaining to the time of physical rebirth.

How that is so, Ānanda, should be understood in this way: If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mentality-materiality take shape in the womb?”

The whole one-life thing has zero support in the suttas, and to be honest it would be better to just ignore it! Approach DO as a complex web of interrelations and things will start to fall into place…


Thank you very much for your reply, I just realized that I’ve never read this sutta.

When I heard about a year ago (I think it might have been in one of your talks) that the Digha Nikaya has the most corruptions, I stopped reading it and concentrated more on the Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas (lots of MN suttas read by monks on the net). The texts in the DN did seem a bit different to me, so I didn’t want to corrupt my understanding with possible corruptions I wasn’t aware of.

While the suttas dealing with DO in the other collections define the different steps of it pretty well, it seems that this longer text makes the connections between the steps much clearer, at least at first glance. Will delve into it deeper now.

Thanks again and may you be happy and well!

I wouldn’t say that DN has the most corruptions; but it does seem that on the whole it includes a fairly large portion of later material. DN15, indeed, is part of that, in that certain passages are not found in the Chinese parallels.


Well, this sutta made several points that I’ve been wondering about much clearer, both about DO and anatta (lately I’ve been thinking exactly along the lines of ‘okay, so I’m not any feeling, but I do feel’).

It’s really wonderful to be a part of this community and not have to go at it alone, like I’ve been doing thus far. Reading the suttas, listening to talks on the internet and trying to figure out things for myself is great, but sometimes you just don’t know where to look or what to look for. Also, because I’ve been able to share some of my insights with others, the feeling of joy has been much more prominent in me lately, so I’ve had some really nice meditation sessions.

With metta,


We hear several variations from the suttas of dependent origination (pitacca-sam-uppada). By that name, it begins by answering the problem of aging and death. Before enlightenment, Bodhisatta Gotama asked himself “what are aging and death dependent upon?” Obviously birth.

He worked out a chain of dependencies down and up “with the cessation of what, ceases this?” Sometimes he stops/begins at birth (jati), or thirst (tanha), or name-form/consciousness, or the ultimate origin: ignorance (a-vijja). Typically of the form:

avijja (ignorance) > sankhara > vinnana (consciousness) > nama-rupa > … tanha (thirst, craving) … > bhavo (becoming, existence) > jati (birth) > aging and death … and dukkha (pain, suffering, etc)

The Buddha does not say that one-to-one birth causes pain. Rather, the Buddha only asserts that pain is dependent upon birth. There must be at least one instance of birth for any amount of pain.

From what I remember, birth (jati) is always included in dependent origination by that name (pitacca-samuppada). However, the four noble truths are the preeminent diagnoses of the problem of pain (dukkha) dependent upon thirst (tanha) as its origin (sam-udaya) and answers the same question as the pitacca-samuppada: “with the cessation of tanha, ceases dukkha”. There are numerous individuals who, in a moment, without rebirth, cease ignorance (no-vision, a-vijja), cease sankhara, cease tanha, cease dukkha, and realizing nibbana, know with clear dustless vision that there is no further birth.

Thus have I read…

Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisatta, not yet fully enlightened … ‘When now will an escape be discerned from this suffering [headed by] aging-and-death?’

Then, bhikkhus, it occurred to me: ‘When what exists does aging-and-death come to be? By what is aging-and-death conditioned?’ Then, bhikkhus, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: ‘When there is birth, aging-and-death comes to be; aging-and-death has birth as its condition.’

– Nagaram SN.2.12.65 (trans Bhikkhu Bodhi)

“And what is dependent co-arising (paticca-samuppado)? From ignorance (avijja) as a requisite condition come fabrications (sankhara) … consciousness (vinnanam) … name-and-form (namarupam) … six sense media (salayatanam) … contact (phasso) … feeling (vedana) … craving (tanha) … sustenance (upadanam) … becoming (bhavo) … birth (jati) . From birth as a requisite condition, then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain (dukkha), distress, and despair ((originate)) (sam-bhavanti)… Such is the origination (sam-udayo) of this entire mass of stress and suffering (dukkha-kkhandhassa ) ((This, is co-arising)) (sam-uppado) … And what is birth (jati)? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, and acquisition of [sense] media of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth.”

– Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga SN.2.12.2 (trans Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

“If, Ananda, there were no being born at all of any sort, by any being of any sort, whatever, however; that is: of gods to godhood, … man to manhood, … snakes to snakehood, if there were no being born by any being of thus and such a sort at all, with the non-existence of all birth, with the eradication of birth, could there then be any discerning of aging and death?”

Such could not be, bhante…

“If, Ananda, consciousness having entered the mother’s womb, were to be revoked from there could named-form develop there in such and such a way so as to arrive at birth?”

Such could not be, bhante.

– Maha Nidana DN 15 (trans Michael Olds)

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering (dukkham ariya-saccam): birth is suffering (jati pi dukkha), aging … illness … death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

"Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering (dukkha-samudayo ariya-saccam): it is this craving (tanha) which leads to re-becoming (pono-bhavika), accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kama-tanha), craving for becoming (bhava-tanha), craving for disbecoming (vi-bhava-tanha).

"Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodho ariya-saccam): it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving (tanha-ya), the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it…

The knowledge and the vision arose in me: 'Unshakeable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth (jati). Now there is no more re-becoming (punab-bhavo)." …

And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondanna the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” (Yam kinci sam-udaya-dhammam sabbantam nirodha-dhamman ti)

– Dhammacakkappavattana SN 5.56.11 (trans Bhikkhu Bodhi)

From the PTS Pali-English Dictionary:

Sambhava [sa.m+bhava] 1. origin, birth, production; maataapettikas-sambhava born from father and mother; n’atthi sambhavaµ has not arisen; 2. semen virile; aaabraa-esin seeking birth.

Samudaya [sa.m+udaya] 1. rise, origin. dukkha- the origin of ill, the second ariya-sacca; (sam+u+aya); 2. bursting forth, effulgence (pabhaa); 3. produce, revenue.

Samuppaada [sa.m+uppaada] origin, arising, genesis, coming to be, production.


Certainly the Commentaries mostly discuss a three-life model. However,
Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s footnote to Visuddhimagga XV11.309, page 607-608 of the PDF from Access to Insight does point out that the Abhidhamma also contains an alternative “single mind moment” interpretation:

Just to clarify, the canonical Abhidhamma doesn’t contain the concept of a “mind-moment”.

The alternative version of dependent origination is found in the relevant chapter of the Vibhanga, which you can read here:

The key phrase in Nyanamoli’s comment above is “suitable modifications”. The variation on dependent origination in the Vibhanga is not the version taught in the Suttas, and is not presented as such. It is part of the Abhidhamma analysis, and it alters key terms in order to suit a different context. For example, saṅkhārā (plural) changes to saṅkhāro (singular).

This new variant appears to be spanning two lives, but this interpretation is a bit unclear because we have little context.

In any case it is clear that the compilers of the Vibhanga were well aware that if they wanted to apply the structure of Dependent Origination in a different context, they had to change the details.

1 Like

Thank you Bhante, that’s a very useful clarification.

Of course, I understand that Ven Nanamoli was referring to an Abhidhamma analysis, but I thought it was interesting in the context of whether “one life” models are purely 20th century inventions, or whether they have origins earlier in the Theravada.

I’ve certainly not seen anything to suggest that the ancient commentaries rejected the multi-life interpretation, but it seems that coexistence of “long term” and “short term” models might have a long history. A number of modern teachers seem to present both, e.g.
Dependent Origination, The Buddhist Law of Conditionality, P. A. Payutto

1 Like

Funny how these things come around. In the mid 90s, the translator sent a copy of that book to Bodhinyana, and he wrote a critique of the interpretation of DO found in it. It was in this research that he noticed the variant used in the Vibhanga, which had been cited by Payutto. Ajahn Brahm later received a stern dressing down from the Ajahns from Amaravati, as it is not the done thing to disagree with a senior monk!

Payutto tries to present Buddhadasa’s interpretation in a more palatable form, but I agree with Ajahn Brahm, he doesn’t succeed. It is true, though, that there are some different interpretations through history. I believe that in the Sarvāstivāda tradition, possibly the Abhidharmakośa, has some different models, but I haven’t studied this in detail.

1 Like

Any chance Ajahn Brahm’s critique is available? I would be very interested in reading it. Or alternately, if you could summarize it, that would be great.

1 Like

There is this article, which contains a critique of one-life interpretations in general terms, but I thought that it was aimed mainly at Buddhadassa and Nanavira.

On the Meaning of Sanditthika and Akalika

Some modern writers have suggested that the effect must arise simultaneously with its cause, or arise just one moment after, for this to qualify as a Dhamma which can be ‘seen here and now’ and be ‘immediate’. They argue that since the Dhamma is sanditthika and akalika, and Dependent Origination is one of the central features of the Dhamma, therefore Dependent Origination must be sanditthika and akalika. But does ‘sanditthika’ mean ‘seen here and now’? Does ‘akalika’ mean ‘immediate’? As I will now show, these translations can be misleading.


@sujato @mikenz66 Thanks for posting this!

Re: "If he plans a demeritorious sankhara (apunnam sankharam abhisankaroti), his consciousness goes to an apunna place, a demeritorious place. If he plans an anenja sankhara (anenja being something in-between), then his consciousness goes to that place accordingly. "

Question: Do you have any idea how/why does Ajahn Brahm translates āneñja as “something in-between” meritorious and demeritorious? I always though it meant ‘imperturbable’, so I don’t see how this fits? Am I missing something here?


Dear Mikenz66,

Kataññu for providing the link. Awesome essay for the lack of words :thumbsup:
I like the similes Ajahn Brahm uses.

with añjali and mettā,


an interesting article, and depending on Ajahn Brahm personal standing there’s either irony or a bold statement about himself in his phrase

Therefore it is fair to say that the correct understanding of Dependent Origination can only be known by the Enlightened Ones, that is by the Streamwinners, Once Returners, Non Returners and Arahants.

Thanks I haven’t seen this essay before. It covers much of the same ground as the critique, but doesn’t specifically talk about the Vibhanga’s so-called 1-life variant (which Ajahn Brahm argued was a 2-life variant). The critique was a hand-written letter, I’m not sure if it has been digitized. Perhaps @Brahmali knows more.

Incidentally, the Vibhanga passages are discussed in the postscript to our interview with Ven Bodhi for the Kamma and Rebirth course:

I don’t think “in-between” is correct; anenja typically refers to the 4th jhana and beyond. So yes, it is associated with neutral feeling, but in the sense of being more subtle than mere pleasure.

I always understood it in terms of kamma. Puñña has pleasure as its outcome. So you can’t really call 4th jhana and higher puñña, as they result in neutral feeling, not pleasure. Ananja is the term for this kind of kamma. I don’t know how we should translate it, though; “imperturbable” is not exactly ordinary English. Perhaps “still”?

1 Like

Thanks Bhante, yes that’s how I understand it too, and that’s why I couldn’t really see it as “something in-between”.

I agree imperturbable isn’t a great translation, but I don’t think ‘still’ captures it either as ‘still’, as used in ordinary language, could also refer to the first three jhanas too (or I guess one could argue also 2 & 3, if not the first). So with ‘still’ for anenja you’d have to explain ‘still without rapture or happiness’, and then explain those words too… I think even in ordinary English, saying something is imperturbable, albeit not a very common word, suggests a deeper state than stillness. Maybe imperturbable stillness (I’m kidding) :slight_smile:

Oh my, this just shows the difficulty of translating. I wish you all the best in your project, as it sure isn’t easy… May you have much inspiration!!!

Also, can you or someone tell me why my typing @sujato isn’t showing up correctly on top right, but rather in the beginning of the message? What am I doing incorrectly?

1 Like

You’re probably right. :pensive:

I’m not sure what you mean by this.

I am not able to find a digital version of this. I suspect it is too old. Perhaps it could be scanned …