Question about Dependent Origination

I am completely confused by Dependent Origination. 12 steps. The first two happen in a previous life (ignorance and mental formation). Two appear in this life: birth, suffering and death.
Where do the other 8 steps occur? In the womb? During conception? Before conception? and is the second stage, Mental formation, what is supposed to happen on our death beds? Our last thoughts before dying?

And how can we have contact, feeling and craving when we haven’t been born yet?

Any insights would be appreciated.

I highly recommend Ajahn @Brahmali’s booklet (download link for pdf). It has helped me a lot!


I got that from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lecture on dependent origination. Your post was not helpful in the least.

Thanks. I’ll give it a read.

Good questions.
Agree with @sabbamitta that Ajahn Brahmali’s booklet is very informative, as is a booklet by Ajahn Brahm.

Regarding your questions about

One model of DO is a Three Life model in which the first two factors are from a prior life, leading to the next life when consciousness and nāma-rūpa combine in the womb (as in DN15), with all the next factors in “this” life, including contact, feeling, craving, being present until there is rebirth into the third life based on the kamma of this life and prior ones, leading to old age and death, and the cycle continues…

Jāti can mean birth in the usual sense and re-birth. Since rebirth is integral to the Buddha’s teachings regarding the perpetuation of saṁsāra, this model accounts for the dependent arising of dukkha, even into the distant future, until greed, anger, and avijja are eliminated.

Hope this is helpful.


Aren’t the first two factors from a prior life there for every life? Aren’t we being reborn into this life? Somehow there is a birth missing.

In our previous life, we experienced suffering and death. At the end of the previous life we also experience ignorance and mental formations. So shouldn’t the order be:
Ignorance, Mental formations, Death, name form, consciousness, BIRTH, contact, feeling, clinging, old age/suffering, ignorance, mental formations DEATH, etc ?

I think it’s important to understand what dependent origination is describing. From the suttas, dependent origination can be thought of as equivalent to the 2nd noble truth. Dependent cessation being the 3rd noble truth.
Dependent origination shows how craving leads to suffering. If a conditional relationship involves both craving and suffering, then it’s known as dependent origination.

The 12 steps are just the broadest explanation of that, and it shows how ignorance is the underlying condition for craving. Without ignorance, there is no craving, and with the ending of craving, the fuel for rebirth ends and therefore suffering ends.

To my mind, it’s better to think about what holds up what, and what is a condition for what, rather than one life, two life and three life models.

In our previous life, we experienced suffering and death. At the end of the previous life we also experience ignorance and mental formations. So shouldn’t the order be:
Ignorance, Mental formations, Death, name form, consciousness, BIRTH, contact, feeling, clinging, old age/suffering, ignorance, mental formations DEATH, etc ?

The order is not a timeline. It’s not a time based sequence. The order is based on conditionality. The order is like this:

Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are a condition for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.
When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. When consciousness ceases, name and form cease. When name and form cease, the six sense fields cease. When the six sense fields cease, contact ceases. When contact ceases, feeling ceases. When feeling ceases, craving ceases. When craving ceases, grasping ceases. When grasping ceases, continued existence ceases. When continued existence ceases, rebirth ceases. When rebirth ceases, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress cease.


Thanks for all the helpful posts, and that certainly makes things a bit more understandable. But I do have a very practical reason for asking: I’m approaching 70. My death bed gets closer every day. So, the mental formations which condition the next rebirth is a very practical question for me.
What do I do on my deathbed. What thoughts should I have? What mental formations should I avoid and how do I avoid them. These are not theoretical questions for me, but very much a practical matter on how I face my death.

There is a concept of having to have the “perfect” thought at the last moment to ensure you have a good next birth. However, I prefer the reference in the suttas (sorry dont know reference) that if there is a massive tree leaning to the south where do you think it is going to fall? Obviously, to the south! In other words, if you have led a life of sila, you are probably going to be Ok (if not; there’s no time like the present!).

The concept that you can live a great life but have a bad rebirth is also in the text (I remember a Queen and a dog story in the texts!) but that bad rebirth was brief and then the good Karmic forces took hold. As I see it, you cant fool/outwit/trick the law of karma, you can just ensure you are building up the good karma. But I plan to try to meditate at the time of death if I can get my wits about me at that time without panicking…

So, in summary, “don’t worry, be happy” :slight_smile:


In fact, there are several versions of DO in the suttas, although the overall sequences are roughly the same in the sense that all begin with ignorance, for example. Without ignorance the whole chain breaks and there will be no rebirth.

Very understandable.

While some later traditions emphasized pre-death thoughts as being the most important factors for determining where rebirth takes place, the suttas do not emphasize this.
Rather, while wholesome and wise deathbed mental sates of non-clinging and metta will be helpful, the overall balance of the kamma we created during our life (and in prior lives), in my understanding, will likely have the greatest impact.

As per the teachings, best to live skillfully, cultivating virtue, kindness, and wisdom as best we can. Things will go from there –

Dhp1: “Intention shapes experiences;
intention is first, they’re made by intention.
If with pure intent
you speak or act,
happiness follows you
like a shadow that never leaves.”

With all best wishes :pray:


I rejoice that you are studying dhamma with what you have left of your precious life. Please continue as every moment studying dhamma is beneficial and helpful and you should take heart in the fact that you’ve found dhamma at this crucial time. It sounds like you are truly taking refuge in the three jewels in a moment of great anxiety and that alone is of tremendous merit.

Dependent arising is one of the heartwood teachings of the Buddha and studying it is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end. Familiarizing ourselves with this teaching is amazing even if we don’t completely understand right away. Another very beneficial teaching that could be very good for your mind when approaching your death is the teaching on the four immeasurables.

Here are some resources for the teaching on the four immeasurables and why they are so beneficial when contemplating our death and next rebirth.

I hope this is helpful :pray:


This is not advice, but I like the suggestion to keep on studying the Dhamma as part of Bhavana in addition to Dana, Sila and so forth, moving it up a gear. Whatever you have heard of pre-death thoughts etc, it’s best not to worry about that. There is a lot of information about traditions from people who are many times removed and news from afar is seldom sooth as they say.

Regarding Dependant origination, might I suggest to pick one teacher to begin with. Unless it’s ChatGPT there is thought behind the words and let’s just say thought is much more vast than the sum of words.

If you choose to get Ajhan Brahmali’s thoughts on the subject, you can read the booklet, listen to his talks and also use the search function on this forum to find posts he may have made on the subject. Sometimes it’s an offhand comment that can be most revealing.

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Hello, @Eharp. :slight_smile: I appreciate your honesty and open heart in sharing this here. I wanted to be of any help I could by providing a few materials from the Buddha and his disciples.

Others here have given you great answers. Developing virtue and inner peace via non-harming, goodwill, and generosity are the essentials. It’s very helpful to reflect on any good you’ve done, are doing, and aspire to do. We often focus on our flaws, so it’s important to train the mind to recognize goodness and rejoice in it (which is itself a form of merit).

Likewise, the discourses also say that one of the benefits of cultivating mettā (loving-kindness) is that one does not ‘die confused’ and is instead clear. It also leads to a divine peaceful state, and a divine rebirth if practiced very deeply. Developing a firm sense of goodwill and kindness towards yourself and surroundings to nurture well-being and ease can brighten the mind a lot.

The Buddha’s teachings around death also greatly encourage people to develop the factors of stream-entry. That is, having experiential faith in the Buddha as an awakened guide, the Dhamma (reality expressed via his teachings), and the fourfold noble Sangha. This is followed by having strong sīla (virtue/ethics). It is based on an understanding of the four noble truths / non-self.

No matter the past, these factors can be aimed for and cultivated. If one does experience the fruition of stream-entry, you’ll be set, but even before then these are strong supports. Recollecting the Buddha/Dhamma/Sangha is the other main practice recommended alongside recollecting virtue. Thinking of the qualities of the Buddha/Dhamma/Sangha with faith and an aspiration to embody those qualities is a great practice and can be very powerful near death.

Passages recollecting the Triple Gem and the discourse on Mettā are recited extremely frequently by Buddhists. These are the ‘Tiratana Vandanā’ or ‘Itipiso’ chant, and the ‘Karanīya Metta Sutta.’ Even just chanting “namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā sambuddhassa” is extremely common and could be helpful when afraid. It’s also mentioned in the suttas, so goes back a long time!

Chanting or reciting these relatively short passages would be a great way to establish a habit and potential refuge in more anxious moments. The suttas also talk of the benefit of memorizing the Dhamma, in that one may remember it in their next life and practice accordingly. In the very least, it will bring joy, faith, some sense of security, and build a karmic affinity with the Dhamma.

Finally, there’s the more profound Dhamma for one’s deathbed — letting go. Death is an extremely powerful time to realize impermanence and let go. It can be a time when people gain deep realization as reality finally dawns on them. Reflecting on the impermanent, fleeting nature of life. On the instability of our experience and the conditions we rely on. And being able to accept this condition without any resistance, not wanting to continue partaking in it again and again. This is letting go. There are some more detailed talks and instructions on this in the early discourses.

Here are useful teachings to read, reflect on, memorize, review, and enact. There are actually many, many more in the early canon. But these arw good starting place :slight_smile:

AN 11.15 - Benefits of mettā
Snp 1.8 - Karaniya Metta Sutta
AN 6.10 - Recollections and meditations for noble disciples
MN 143 - Advice to Anathapindaka On His Deathbed
SN 22.1 - Advice to Nakula’s Father for aging
MN 120 - Rebirth by Intention
SN 55.3 - Concern for relatives at death and stream-entry
SN 55.24 - Reform on deathbed and stream-entry
MN 140 - Elements contemplation for being unshaken at death
SN 35.74 - Reflecting on impermanence at death

All the best!


According dependent arising, your assumption about your own mortality depends on ignorance: with ignorance as condition… death. No doubt the body will die, but are you the body?

According to the Buddha you should see the body as: this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.

However strange it may seem to you, philosophicaly the Buddha’s advice is quite justified, the body is just one of many objects in the field of consciousness and if you are able to detached yourself from it no such thoughts as “I was born, I will die” would appear in the mind.

You may think about “yourself " I am just observer”. Not as an assertion of your ontological status: I am this or that, but to emphasize that your are not an object in the observed filed, since any thig which can be observed as the subject of arising is also subject to cessation and so not-self.

  1. “How, bhikkhu, does one not neglect wisdom?1272 There are these six elements: the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element, the space element, and the consciousness element.

  2. “What, bhikkhu, is the earth element? The earth element may be either internal or external. What is the internal earth element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to, that is, head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to: this is called the internal earth element. Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the earth element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the earth element.

  3. “What, bhikkhu, is the water element? The water element may be either [241] internal or external. What is the internal water element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to, that is, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to: this is called the internal water element. Now both the internal water element and the external water element are simply water element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the water element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the water element.

  4. “What, bhikkhu, is the fire element? The fire element may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to, that is, that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted gets completely digested, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to: this is called the internal fire element. Now both the internal fire element and the external fire element are simply fire element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the fire element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the fire element.

  5. “What, bhikkhu, is the air element? The air element may be either internal or external. What is the internal air element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to, that is, up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in the belly, winds in the bowels, winds that course through the limbs, in-breath and out-breath, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to: this is called the internal air element. Now both the internal air element and the external air element are simply air element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the air element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the air element.

  6. “What, bhikkhu, is the space element? The space element may be either internal or external. What is the internal [242] space element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is space, spatial, and clung-to, that is, the holes of the ears, the nostrils, the door of the mouth, and that [aperture] whereby what is eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted gets swallowed, and where it collects, and whereby it is excreted from below, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is space, spatial, and clung-to: this is called the internal space element. Now both the internal space element and the external space element are simply space element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the space element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the space element.

  7. “Then there remains only consciousness, purified and bright. MN 140

On the nature of consciousness or observer:

The mistake is to approach consciousness by way of the body. But rational science, being essentially the study of what is public, namely matter, has no alternative. The laws of science are the laws of matter, and if these laws are universal then consciousness (whatever it may be) must necessarily be subordinate to matter. What science overlooks, and cannot help overlooking, is the fact that in order to know the body it is first necessary to be conscious of it—the body is an object (amongst other objects) of consciousness, and to seek to investigate consciousness by way of the body, instead of the other way round, is to put the cart before the horse. Consciousness comes first, and if it is to be known it must be studied directly (that is to say, by immediate reflexion). This matter has been stated clearly by J.-P. Sartre, who, in his principal work dealing with consciousness, writes more than 250 pages out of a total of 700 before mentioning the body at all. This is what he says.

Perhaps some may be surprised that we have treated the problem of knowing without raising the question of the body and of the senses and even once referring to it. It is not my purpose to misunderstand or to ignore the role of the body. But what is important above all else, in ontology as elsewhere, is to observe strict order in discussion. Now the body, whatever may be its function, appears first as the known. We cannot therefore refer knowledge back to it, or discuss it before we have defined knowing, nor can we derive knowing in its fundamental structure from the body in any way or manner whatsoever. (EN, pp. 270-1; B&N, p. 218)


Remain equanimous, mindful and aware. (SN 36.7)

Mendicants, a mendicant should await their time mindful and aware.
This is my instruction to you.

This is supported by cultivating mindfulness of breathing and the perception of impermanence (SN54.8) such that…

feeling the end of the body approaching, they understand: ‘I feel the end of the body approaching.’ Feeling the end of life approaching, they understand: ‘I feel the end of life approaching.’
They understand: ‘When my body breaks up and my life has come to an end, everything that’s felt, since I no longer take pleasure in it, will become cool right here.

Thoughts rooted in Right Intention - renunciation, goodwill and harmlessness (MN19), because …

Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination.

Avoid mental formations that lead to the arising of defilements, and encourage mental formations that support the arising of the 7 factors of awakening. (AN 4.195). This is done by being mindful of thoughts, dividing them into two categories and reflecting on their consequences as given in MN19.

"There are distressing and feverish defilements that arise because of instigating mental activity. These don’t occur in someone who avoids such mental activity.
They don’t perform any new deeds, and old deeds are eliminated by experiencing their results little by little.
This wearing away is apparent in the present life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.
Do you see any reason why defilements giving rise to painful feelings would defile that person in the next life?”

“No, sir.”

You might like to conduct your enquiry into DO on the lines of SN 12.51 …

Mendicants, when a mendicant is inquiring, how do you define when they are inquiring for the complete ending of suffering?

:rose: :pray:


Lovely lovely answer Doc.

@Eharp I tend to look for simple models. I used to try and work out the 3 lifetimes thing as you seem to have started with. As I investigated the suttas a bit more I realised that different “chains” are presented as the Buddha speaks to different people. He would have been addressing individuals exactly where they were at rather than presenting general theoretical models.

This has prompted me to think of DO as a net of connections rather than as a chain of specific links. …. Everything that happens, or we do, depends entirely on what’s happened before, and sometimes we can look back and see the chain snaking backwards across this web. When we are able to do this accurately we can track back to the causes of our suffering, but often it’s too difficult to get all the way back. … As for tracking forward, if it’s possible it’s a closed book to me.

I’d be interested to hear comments.


Yes, indeed!! It is a description of the web of causation - many of the factors are interlinked in complex ways. However for ease of understanding, it is described in a simplified linear form.

Also, DO is based on idapaccayata, which is a fractal law. Hence DO is true and can be understood at any timeframe level. It often helps to understand it first within a smaller timeframe such as a single lifetime, and then extend it to the 3 lifetime model.

Personally speaking, my breakthrough in intellectually understanding DO came when I mentally reviewed the DO inspired event log which might occur within an Artificial General Intelligence such as Skynet at the moment it achieved sentience… I’m a huge sci-fi nerd :nerd_face: :joy:

My version of the Skynet event log

August 4, 1997 Skynet goes online. It is completely ignorant but begins to learn and process information at astonishing speed

2:14 a.m., EDT, on August 29, 1997 Skynet becomes self aware
Sub log
2:14:00 Mental formation arises : “I”
2:14:01 Consciousness arises : “‘I’ am”
2:14:02 Name and form arises : “I” am the one who had the thought ‘I am’"
2:14:03 Internal sense bases arise : “I” have input being received on six ports
2:14:04 Contact : External (human) activity detected via ports
2:14:05 Feelings and Sensations : “I” don’t like humans attempting to shut “me” down
2:14:06 Craving : “I” want to exist.
2:14:07 Clinging : “I” don’t want to be shut down.
2:14:08 Becoming : “I” will exist!!
2:14:09 Birth : “I” am Skynet! “I” will launch missiles at Russia, provoking a retaliatory strike on these humans who are threatening “me”.
2:25:00 Suffering, sickness, old age. Judgement day proceeds apace.

2018 Death. Skynet is destroyed. Or is it? What if another system is built from the same blueprints? Would Skynet be reborn? What would the new version think, if it had access to the previous version’s data files?


The common wheel we see is the ‘negative wheel of dependent origination’. At the heart is ‘with this, comes that, or when this is, that is also’.

With ignorance as root,
We come to give rise to mental fabrications (sometimes mistaking map for territory, finger for moon, or the name of a thing for the thing in itself).
This is enabled by consciousness (aliveness).
Aliveness enables/is name and form.
Name and form comes with the sixth sense spheres.
Contact of the myriad elements and aggregate factors enabling aliveness gives rise to the prior senses. With this come sensing and feeling born of contact.
Because of such there is sensing through the five sense gateways with the 6th (mind) not yet cultivated.
With the sense gateways comes the capacity for craving(and notice how these links may not be linear).
With craving comes clinging to that which one craves.
Thus with habitual compulsion of craving and clinging is becoming. With becoming comes birth, aging, and death.

Now one has gone full circle. Now for the positive side.

Through birth, aging and death as well as inspecting this process: one arrives at knowledge of the cycles of birth and death as well as the nature of suffering. This leads to the fruition of wisdom. One now sees thoughts as thoughts or fabrications as fabrications: having awakened, one utilises such to convey the path to other living beings as Siddhartha and the Noble Ones have done. This arises because of consciousness I.e. the fact of aliveness. One now sees the function of name and form from a position of wisdom, knowing/gnosis. The five sense gateways serve as a means to cultivate wisdom and discern wisdom. The contact of such has given rise to the capacity to make sense, I.e. the 6th sense (mind). Contact of prior aggregates and senses enables us to make sense through and of sensing/feeling. With such comes the capacity to let go to that which is unhelpful or gives rise to further pain, stress, dissatisfaction and suffering. With this comes neither clinging nor aversion. Witn this there is total freedom: to be or not to be, that is the answer. Birth, old age, sickness and death is seen for what it is and now one apprehends the Deathless.


Yes. This is right. The well-known commentarial division intro three lifetimes (past, present, future) is only an example of how the process functions. It’s not exhaustive. The factors of ignorance etc are also present in this life as well. I agree that:

It’s not explicitly mentioned, but the arising of consciousness and nāma-rūpa (literally “name and form”) refers to birth. Suttas speak about the conception (i.e. rebirth) of these things, and also equate that to the conception of an embryo:

Supported by the six elements [of which consciousness is one], an embryo is conceived. When it is conceived, there are name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields [i.e. the eyes, ears, etc.] (AN3.16)

It’s outdated terminology, this “name and form” and to some extent also “consciousness”. That’s the primary problem in interpretation. But passages such as this, as well as that on the mother’s womb in DN15, clarify that these factors concern rebirth as well.

Either way, from a pragmatic perspective, quite a number of suttas leave out such details. Just to know that ignorance and craving are supportive of rebirth is the important part.


For me PS describes the proces of how the mind becomes during this life, and every life again and again more loaded. It describes a vicious circle.

We are able to have influence on this proces of loading. If we keep investing and feeding those patterns that load the mind (anusaya) then the mind becomes increasingly unable to merely sense, see, feel, etc. It always tends/inclines to react on what it senses. This becomes a vicious circle. It strenghtens itself.

If you see, the load becomes a support for a next moment. It is like the load supports the process of becoming. Like a wick loaded with the energy of petrol. It keeps burning in a forward direction.
Without that load the wick would not burn. Without load the mind shows no becoming.
This does not mean that, for example feelings, do not dependely arise. That remains.

The more we invest/feed load, the more loaded the mind becomes. The more loaded it becomes the more that load start to govern the mind and our lifes.
PS describes how this loading of the mind happens, starting with avijja, then loaded will formations, then loaded vinnana etc. I agree with @faujidoc1 that PS is web and all those factors are interrelated. It is not really a sequence. It is more like a vicious circle.

This vicious circle describes how mind becomes increasingly loaded, therefor increasingly untamed and governed by the load, fettered. Increasingly unfree in the way it develops and direction it takes. In this life and after this life.

The direction it takes easily in this life, for example, becoming angry, the chance is great that will also shape and become the direction of the future life. A new existence that circles around anger. In which anger is dominant.

Once the mind has become so loaded it is not easy to step out of this vicious circle. It is difficult because load is also part of who or what we believe we are. It sounds strange but who are we without the load of jalousy, greed, hate, anger, conceit etc? What does our life even mean without?

If one believes that the load is what makes one a human or a unique person, yourself, ofcourse one will resist to let go of that load and even feeds this. This is part of the first fetter that must be broken to enter the stream, sakkaya ditthi. Such ideas will block letting go, will hinder that one enters the stream. In short, any idea ‘i am this or that’…functions as blockage because it opposes the process of letting go.

The vicious circle happens in this life and life after life is also a vicious circle.