Paṭiccasamuppāda - What's the point?

If you ask me what the main idea of Buddhism is, it’s that (almost) all states arise due to conditions. There are conditions for discomfort, fear, depression and pain - and there are conditions for well-being, joy and happiness. The Buddha’s teaching has conditionality written all over it, especially in the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. And the best portions of the dhamma are practical!

But then we have this strange paṭiccasamuppāda, mostly in its 12-step formula. It is what the Buddha supposedly realized with his enlightenment. But let me dare to ask: so what?

Does this formula have any practical application? If not then it’s a kind of philosophical information I don’t need to worry about. I don’t think I’m smarter than Ananda who got reprimanded for saying that he understood it. There is no meditation connected to the formula, it is not properly explained, we don’t know if it’s meant on the level of the universe or the experience of men. In short: it doesn’t look like the kind of teaching I subscribed to following the dhamma.

Either really central aspects about it totally went lost (but why would they when so many other details have remained?), or it’s a botched up formula that somehow got canonized (like Nakamura for example argued), or I’m missing something.

Again, conditionality is all over the place in the dhamma, and it’s fantastic. I just wonder about the practical value of the paṭiccasamuppāda specifically (except for the occasional philosophical head ache it gives me). Am I alone with this?


It’s kind of cool that you wrote this, @Gabriel. DO has always been a sticky wicket to study and absorb, for me, and I assume, many. One reason it seems to take prominence, it seems to me, is that it was an awakened concept that the Buddha taught to dramatically distinguish his Dhamma from the Vedic rites and rituals of the time that focused on ritual acts that lead to outcomes in this, and the next, life. So, DO seems to me the Buddha’s brilliant quantum mechanics tinged hypothesis as to how life and its forms are caused, conditioned and created. For the time, DO was heresy and revolutionary, I’m guessing.

Today, it seems sometimes like a theory out of left field, that we kind of understand, but leave on the sidelines, kind of the way “the rule against perpetuities” was a key concept in law when I was in school, though no one really knew what it meant, and every professor that taught it explained it differently and confusingly. I used to watch youtubes explaining DO by various teachers (none of our present SC Ajahns, though) and the more I watched, the more confused I was. One Tibetan lama had a diagram wheel chart that made my head spin. It wasn’t until I watched an Ajahn Brahmali DO video that it began to sink into my brain, a little. With DO, I do feel as though I have a “tiny piece of brain lodged in my head.”

So, your question is a good one. I do think DO is important, and important in today’s world in founding and underpinning concepts like dukkha, not-self and impermanence. But, like the Rule Against Perpetuities, I still can’t explain it so that anyone could understand it.

While we’re on the subject, is it a one life explanation, or does it involve three lives and rebirth? No one seems to know, and I am still confused. @Gabriel, thanks for this awesome and brave post, and giving me a chance to comment.

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Nice topic!

In my practice, the dependent arising that matters is the one pointed by the Buddha at its transcendental end / mode, as seen in the SN12.23 and other suttas here and there. It seems to me Nakamura makes no mention of it.

It is as well rephrased in almost poetic and very concisely practical way in the AN10.2:

“Bhikkhus, for a virtuous person, one whose behavior is virtuous, no volition need be exerted: ‘Let non-regret arise in me.’ It is natural that non-regret arises in a virtuous person, one whose behavior is virtuous.

“For one without regret no volition need be exerted: ‘Let joy arise in me.’ It is natural that joy arises in one without regret.

“For one who is joyful no volition need be exerted: ‘Let rapture arise in me.’ It is natural that rapture arises in one who is joyful.

“For one with a rapturous mind no volition need be exerted: ‘Let my body be tranquil.’ It is natural that the body of one with a rapturous mind is tranquil.

“For one tranquil in body no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me feel pleasure.’ It is natural that one tranquil in body feels pleasure.

“For one feeling pleasure no volition need be exerted: ‘Let my mind be concentrated.’ It is natural that the mind of one feeling pleasure is concentrated.

“For one who is concentrated no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me know and see things as they really are.’ It is natural that one who is concentrated knows and sees things as they really are.

“For one who knows and sees things as they really are no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me be disenchanted and dispassionate.’ It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate.

“For one who is disenchanted and dispassionate no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me realize the knowledge and vision of liberation.’ It is natural that one who is disenchanted and dispassionate realizes the knowledge and vision of liberation.

This is what I always bring with me to a stillness / quietness “sessions” or retreats.

Last but not least, on the mundane - or suffering sustaining/perpetuating - mode of origination, I would like to share Jayarava’s very helpful mind maps on this same topic:

Hope it helps!


at the very least it explains the samsara and the origination of “the whole mass of suffering” from craving, as an elucidation of the 2nd Noble Truth, and from ignorance, and so casts a spotlight on the qualities and tendencies to be uprooted for liberation to ensue as is delineated by dependent cessation formula

maybe certain people are satisfied and immediately convinced with a simple statement that this, that and the third should be done away with for the sake of emancipation, but it always nice to have some logical argumentation in support of the affirmative statement as an answer to a question ‘why?’

Asuttava sutta (SN 12.61) implicitly connects 5 aggregates with DO and states that through seeing their conditionality for a person the so called transcendental DO unfolds, only listing its 2 steps

Seeing thus [i.e. DO], the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released.

SN 22.5 too refers back to DO speaking of detachment from 5 aggregates

I’ve read that the most primitive form of DO is this-that conditionality (idappaccayatā)…
when this is — that is
(from the arising of this, comes the arising of that)
when this is not — that is not
(from the cessation of this, comes the cessation of that)

When there is taṇhā there is dukkha
when taṇhā ceases, so too does dukkha cease.

So all the different “chains” formulations of DO are extensions of this basic principle.


Some time ago I created this topic to ask the same question:

While the three life model seems to be the dominant way of explaining it, perhaps the one life explanation isn’t wrong either. I mean, the process that drives us from one life to the next seems to be pretty similar to the one that drives us from one place to the next, from one job to the next, from one relationship to the next etc.

We believe doing something will make us happier so we pursue it and because of that end up in a certain situation experiencing certain pleasant and unpleasant feelings. We want to re-experience the pleasant feelings and avoid the unpleasant feelings in the future, so we start grasping and holding on to some things. This in turn moulds us into who we are, how we define ourself - we are what we “own”. But because everything we “own” eventually disintegrates, we’re left with only suffering. And then…well THIS didn’t make me happy, but I bet THAT will…and here we go again :stuck_out_tongue:

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I see your point, and there were times when I thought it useful to contemplate the limbs of DO. But they are just so unsatisfying in the way they are put. If the Buddha for example admitted to Ananda that the DO is a tough cookie, couldn’t he have put just a little bit more effort into explaining it to help poor Ananda (and us) to understand it, instead of just going the chain up and down in basically the same way?

Some scholars argue that there are several proto-DOs in the suttas, e.g. the four truths. Frauwallner said the DO was originally two lists, Gombrich (e.g. in ‘What the Buddha thought’) agrees and sees the original list going back only to thirst. Following his reasoning the DO in the 12-parts would have satisfied much more brahmins and their cosmogony than the buddhist practitioner looking for salvation.

Where else do you have the Buddha basically saying “Here is food for thought… But don’t bother figuring it out, you don’t get it anyway”?

In Nidānasamyutta you will find much more than “just going the chain up and down” :blush: The suttas there are very rich, beautiful and inspiring!

With metta,


My understanding is idappaccayatā refers to all conditionality (e.g., how two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen are the conditions that result in water). This makes D.O. a subset or type of idappaccayatā, namely, which explains 12 conditions that result in suffering (sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair). In other words, for me, idappaccayatā is not a form of D.O. but D.O. is a form of idappaccayatā.

It all depends on how an individual defines each of the twelve conditions. If ignorance is understood as in MN 9 and if the ‘sankhara’ are defined as in MN 44, then there will be a connection already to MN 118, since the ‘sankhara’ will be the same in D.O. as in MN 118. Also, ‘nama-rupa’ is best regarded as ‘mind-body’ rather than ‘name-form’, which will provide a foundation for meditation, as found in MN 118 & also MN 149.

Here a bhikkhu… having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

He trains himself, ‘I will breathe calming the kaya sankhara’…

He trains himself, ‘I will breathe experiencing the citta sankhara’…

He trains himself, ‘I will breathe calming the citta sankhara’…

MN 118

He is sensitive both to bodily stress & mental stress.

He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of mind.

MN 149

These can be starting points for ‘inquirers’. However, DN 15 must be ignored since a here-&-now visible meditation cannot be done from DN 15 & nama-rupa wil be take to be ‘naming-forms’, which becomes confusing. Best to stick to the definitions found in SN 12.2, MN 9, etc & work from there until to the hard work in working out what ‘jati’ means. Begin with trying to work out how the first four conditions (ignorance, sankhara, consciousness & mind-body) relate to meditation.


The purpose of dependent origination is to explain how rebirth happens without a soul.


Yes, indeed, Bhante. In the MA 62 Discourse on King Bimbisara Meeting The Buddha (no Pali parallel, but there is an parallel of this discourse found in Mahavastu), when Magadha people asked if there is no self, what is reborn? Who is doing the actions? etc., the Buddha explained the formula of dependent origination.

In the Pali version, the same question is asked in MN 110 / SN 22.82 (Agama parallel: SA 58), but here the Buddha answered it with standard question and answer of the three characteristic (anicca, dukkha, and anatta) of five kandhas [the same as in the Anattalakkhana Sutta].


The purpose of DO is to realise Anatta. The ultimate teaching of Buddha.
The five clinging aggregates are not me, myself or mine.
The reverse DO shows the path to liberation.

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Another purpose of contemplating dependent origination and it’s cessation is to gain insight to the cause and liberation of dukkha, like Buddha Vipassi and other Buddhas of the past and Gotama have done before their enlightment (in DN 14/DA 1, SN 12.4 to SN 12.10)

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Which suttas discuss D.O. and anatta together (in the same sutta)? Thanks


I’m sorry to repeat myself, but to explain how rebirth happens without a soul has so much potential - why don’t we have it embedded in more substance? I at least would expect countless conversations like “Bhante, how is it then that humans are reborn in the deva realm?” “…how is rebirth in the arupa realm - is it just avijja - sankhara - vinnana?” as this always fascinated people (and obviously fed into the abdhidhamma). And then I would expect something like “Enough, bhikkhus, I taught you the path, now go and practice” :slight_smile:

To give at least some textual references: In DN, MN, and AN there is the expression of “buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā”, usually translated as “Dhamma teaching special/peculiar to the Buddhas”. Usually the Buddha gives a gradual exposition until the bhikkhu is ready, the mind pliant, rid of hindrances - and then teaches “suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path” (never the 12-DO!), followed by “the dustfree, stainless Dhamma-eye arose in me: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.’” There we have the core of DO, and nothing more.

DN 3, DN 5, DN, 14, MN 56, MN 91, AN 8.12, AN 8.21, AN 8.22,

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Maybe the best and most concise description I’ve ever read. I’ll take that to the bank.

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This is one of the most profound discourses in the Pali canon. It gives an extended treatment of the teachings of dependent co-arising (paticca samuppada) and not-self (anatta) in an outlined context of how these teachings function in practice.

The second part of the discourse, taking up the teaching of not-self, shows how dependent co-arising gives focus to this teaching in practice.

All I could find is it referred only to feeling (vedana) as ‘not-self’ because feeling is dependent on conditions, as follows:

Now, a feeling of pleasure is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation…a monk does not assume feeling to be the self,

As for consciousness, it sounds like a ‘self’ to me when I read it. To quote:

“If the consciousness of the young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form ripen, grow, and reach maturity?”

There are beings with diversity of body and diversity of perception, such as human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is the first station of consciousness.

Since I can’t understand DN 15, it must be ‘profound’. :worried:

AFAIK, there is no Pali sutta discuss D.O. and anatta in the same sutta, but you can find it on Chinese MA 62 as I have mention above. After the Buddha has explained there is not self which is reborn with using D.O. formula, he continued to give anatta topic to King Bimbisara by using the same question and answer found on Anattalakkhana Sutta. You can read the English from Bhante Analayo translation of MA.