Question about Dependent Origination

What you are describing is an older interpretation. A better translation is offered by Bhikkhu K. Ñāṇananda - the pdf can be found here:

The three lifetime view of the 12 links is a later interpretation. If you look at the early teachings from the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha talks about two main patterns. One is intention/emotion arising from body sensation that leads to action and result. Another is movement within awareness leading to identifying with conditioned phenomena. Both interact and cause birth and death. The 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing systematically deals with both patterns. In terms of practice with dying, I think it is good to focus on body sensations as the four elements to let go of reactive intention/emotion that arises from sensation and to let go of identifying with the body.

Here is an anthology of discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya that will give you a good sense of the early teachings on the 12 links and how they fit with the other early teachings.

Here is a manual from Ledi Sayadaw that gets into four elements meditation.


Can you map this out? :pray:


This is true in the sense that no sutta specifically mentions three lifetimes regarding DO.
However, there is strong evidence that a single lifetime explanation of DO is also untenable. I’m not saying you’re taking this position, but your post didn’t say otherwise.

SN12.64 teaches about consciousness not establishing itself on anything, leading to the end of rebirth.
But that consciousness arose from the prior life via the first two links: ignorance and sankhāra, leading to the combining of consciousness and nāma-rūpa to create a new life/being, leading to the senses, etc. as in DN15.
How can there be consciousness after sankhāra? Not possible in a single lifetime view of DO.

Also see Bhikkhu Bodhi’s " A Critical Examination of Nanavira Thera; Critique of A’ Note on Paticcasamuppada’" in Buddhist Studies Review, 1998.

1 Like

I submit that this entire debate around DO rests on one support. I submit that the Buddha would have treated the debate this way:

  1. Can you find the self of this life as equivalent to the five aggregates?


  1. Can you find the self of this life as distinct from the five aggregates?


  1. Can you find the self of this life in the five aggregates?


  1. Can you find the five aggregates in the self of this life?


  1. Can you posit the self of this life without depending on the five aggregates?


Very good. Well then, if you cannot even find the self of this very life, is it proper to think there is some foundational distinguishing characteristic delimiting the self of this life from the self of subsequent lives? Is it proper to think this life has some intrinsic distinguishing characteristic setting it apart from subsequent lives?


Very good. Well then, if you cannot find some distinguishing characteristic between this life and subsequent lives, then is it proper to think “DO must be understood in terms of just this life” or “DO must be understood in terms of just three lives”?


Yes I agree that the Buddha definitely taught that the links were about the process of becoming during one’s present lifetime and past and future lifetimes.

1 Like

The issue in not the particular model, such as three lives, it is the importance of seeing it in the context of rebirth, which a one-life model does not necessarily include.

Right, you are objecting to: “DO must be understood in terms of just this life” which I think is a proper objection. In other words, it is not proper to say “DO must be understood in terms of just this life.”

The purpose of my post was to lend an argument for why this is so. I’ve amended it to hopefully clarify. :pray:


Exercises 1-8 in the 16 work with body sensation and the fabrications (sankharas) that arise from them. The first 4 deal with gross level sensations. 5-8 deal with subtle body sensations in the 4 jhanas. So 1-8 are about the links of contact (phassa), sensation (vedana), craving (tanha), grasping (upadana), becoming (bhava). In more neutral terms one could say contact, sensation, intention/emotion (sankhara), action (kamma), and becoming (bhava).

9-12 deal with the heart-mind (citta) and liberating it from identifying with conditioned phenomena. So this gets into the links of ignorance (avijja), volition (sankhara), consciousness (vinnana), mind/body (nama-rupa), and the sense fields (salayatana). The Buddha talks about these links as how consciousness lands on a body and mind to be reborn and how it continues to identify with a body and mind once it has been reborn. In meditation practice this has to do with being aware of awareness in the heart-mind (cittanupasana) and letting go of any volition (sankhara) that arises from the heart-mind.

Exercisres 13-16 are about being aware of the impermanence of becoming via the 12 links in order to cultivate dispassion for becoming and trigger an experience of nibbana in which the deep habit energies that cause rebirth are uprooted. The path of practice is a multi-lifetime project.

Here is a talk I gave that gets into this.

Here are the slides from that talk.

1 Like

Thank you for your reply. :pray:
I have not thought about the 16 steps in this way, so it is really useful.
I will listen to the talk very soon, so thanks also for sharing the slides.
I look forward to pondering. :slight_smile:

I posted it in some other topic, but since not so many people are aware about Ven Nanamoli Thera ideas, perhaps it is no harm to do it again.

According to Ven Nanamoli, regarding dependent arising, «To the question: “What are these sets of terms intended to describe?”

we may answer tentatively that they are intended to describe experience of any possible kind where ignorance (that is lack of personal realization of the Truths) is present. »

“The Buddha’s purpose is to describe enough of the world to be able to show how suffering can be ended, not to produce full and detailed elaborations, which would be endless and arrive nowhere.”

For him, one can equalise suffering and conceit “I am”, nibbana is the cessation of asmimāna (AN 9:1O one who perceives non-self eradicates the conceit ‘I am,’ [which is] nibbāna here and now.”) Since Suttas define also nibbana as the cessation of bhava (… I know this, I see this: ‘Nibbāna is the cessation of bhava.’” (bhavanirodho nibbānaṃ) SN 12: 68) Ven Nanamoli emphasis the necessity to translate bhava as being:

I argue, to translate (even to interpret to oneself) bhava by ‘becoming’ is an opiate that leaves the illusion of ‘being’ untreated.

According to Ven Nanamoli dependent arising «is not a logical proposition, nor is it a temporal cause-result chain. Such an approach makes an understanding of it impossible.»

As I understand him, he sees dependent arising as a kind of mirror where one can see one’s own ignorance, namely that what was previously taken for granted: one’s own being ( “I am” ) as impermanent, suffering, and dependently arisen upon ignorance. When paticcasamuppada is seen as a process, immediate dependence of one’s own being on ignorance disappears from the vision, so he says: “Such an approach makes an understanding of it impossible”.

As to details he suggests that the Buddha, by the way, has solved seemingly unsolvable philosophical problem:

«But this particular description (dependent arising) is aimed at including everything.

And here a difficulty arises. A description must be made in terms of something other than what it describes, or it is not a description. It has to reproduce in other material certain structures that are in what it describes. This fact makes it impossible for a description to be a description and complete at the same time. How is the D/O complete, then? Or is it not a description after all?
It is in fact both, but it attains that in a rather peculiar way. (…)

The right way of treating this fact is to take the D/O, not as an individual description, but as an integrated set of descriptions. Each member provides in fact a set of terms to describe the rest of the world. Together they cover the whole subjective/objective, positive/negative world.»

According to Ven Nanamoli the relationship between these descriptive items is that of sine qua non.

So for example “with feeling as a condition craving” is not description of temporal process where something is first felt, and than it leads to craving -at least as far as dependent arising goes- but that of dependence, structurally craving can arise only when feeling is present, without feeling there is no possibility of craving to arise. Such vision, unlike cause and effect interpretation makes possible to see now and here one’s own death as impermanent and dependently arisen: as unborn, I cannot die, and to see the body as “this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” should undermine one’s own certainty of being born.

In other words, Ven Nanamoli regards the death as merely certain event in the field of consciousness, which can be observed objectively, but not experienced subjectively. More or less in the same way as I cannot imagine my own death, however well I exercise my imagination, observing funeral, “my own” dead body and so on, I will always survive as the observer. So he says using so called indirect communication:

In a syllogism (1. All men are mortal. 2. Socrates is a man. 3.Therefore Socrates is mortal), the generalization (all men are mortal) must have been arrived at by induction. No inductive process is ever absolutely certain. There is always the leap, the assumption, of generalizing and therefore one of the premises of a syllogism must have an element of uncertainty. So it cannot prove anything with certainty.

A syllogism is therefore a signpost pointing where to look for direct experience, but can inherently never give information that is 100% certain. But a syllogism (on metaphysical subjects) can also point to what can, inherently, never be experienced; then it is an anomaly.

In other place he says: All the questions asked about death are wrongly put.

All informations provided here can be found in the Thinker’s Notebook, perhaps except an idea of sine qua non relationship between the items of dependent arising, which as far as I remember can be found somewhere in his translation of the Neti.

1 Like

I am new to this forum and a recent initiate into Paticcasamuppada. For me, it is a very difficult doctrine to grasp intellectually. I also have only a shaky understanding of what each link exactly means.

The three life explanation is not satisfactory because I do not know which of the the lives I am experiencing now. In addition, the three lives explanation seems incompatible with Anatta. My Instincts tell me that Paticcasamuppada is a continuous process happening all the time. Hence, the importance of uninterrupted mindfulness.

Ajahn Chah’s Key to Liberation helped me in understanding that Sankhara is movement of the mind. Avijja conditions the movement of the mind and so on. In summary, every moment we are becoming and being born as what we are due to conditions. With the ceasing of the conditions, we die as that person. The cycle of death as one person and rebirth as another keeps on happening incessantly as long as the links are intact. Thus, there is no enduring and constant thing that can be pointed to as I or me.

My apologies for responding with incomplete understanding.

Hi Teddy,

Welcome to the D&D forum! We hope you enjoy the various resources, FAQs, and previous threads. You can use the search function for topics and keywords you are interested in. Forum guidelines are here: Forum Guidelines. May some of these resources be of assistance along the path.

If you have any questions or need further clarification regarding anything, feel free to contact the moderators by including @moderators in your post or a PM.

Danny (on behalf of the moderators)

Hi and welcome to D&D. :slightly_smiling_face:

Actually, DO is a teaching that explicitly reveals how the arising and ceasing of “this” depends on the arising and ceasing of “that” through life after life. It’s about dependent processes without any reference to an enduring entity/self/essence.

You may be interested to read these very informative booklets by Ajahn Brahmali and Ajahn Brahm:

Ajahn Brahm, Dependent Origination (2002).pdf (163.7 KB)

All best wishes :pray:

1 Like

Seen from within it might seem one does not need a person, a being, to become aware, but in fact this is not how our experiences arise. It is because of the existence of a body, a unique living being consisting of senses, nerves, brain, that sunlight caught by the eye leads to visuals, molecules caught by the receptors in nose and tongue lead to smells, odours and soundwaves that hit the eardrum cause sounds to arise. Buddha did not really focus on this part, i feel.

DO does not really describe the dependend arising of sounds, smells, visuals from a total perspective (taking also into account those soundwaves, molecules, EM-waves) but more an introspective way of looking at thing.

It is, as it were, how we perceive things introspectively. If this, then that. A phenomenology. It does not pretent, i feel, more than that. There will always be things, i feel, we do not know and see, and still play a role in how things happen, go, arise. But i think the Buddha did not care because his teachings are about suffering and the end. It deals with our subjective world and how in this subjective world there are causes for suffering that also can cease.

No one said there is no being – just that a being is a particular combination of dependent and impermanent factors.

The question being addressed was about

Hence, the mention about selfless processes/factors and

Also the point of my prior post.

Just a short addendum to this. Regarding SN 12.19, Bhikkhu Bodhi has the note - This should also help establish the validity of the “three-life” interpretation of paticca-samuppāda and demonstrate that such an interpretation is not a commentarial innovation - in his translation of the Samyutta. In addition, I think this sutta also gives a nice example of how to use the links to reflect on life and the goal of practice.


You can try this post: It is trying to sketch DO in pictorial form:

…it’s part of a book you can download here:

Hi Sood,
Can you please explain how this Sutta demonstrates that dependent origination involves three lives.
With Metta

Hi Nimal,
I understand his comment to be referring to the origination of this body, its causes (fettered by ignorance and craving) in the past and future birth and death for the fool. These would be three lives.

That the present existence is dependent on past ignorance and choices is mentioned several times. In SN 12.37, it says

Mendicants, this body doesn’t belong to you or to anyone else. It’s old deeds, and should be seen as produced by choices and intentions, as something to be felt.

and in SN 12.51

Bhikkhus, if a person immersed in ignorance generates a meritorious volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the meritorious; if he generates a demeritorious volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the demeritorious; if he generates an imperturbable volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the imperturbable.

Of course, dependent origination doesn’t just describe 3 lives, it describes the origination of all lives since the principle - not making an end to craving in one life implies a future existence - is always true until ignorance is ended whereby

But when a bhikkhu has abandoned ignorance and aroused true knowledge, then, with the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge, he does not generate a meritorious volitional formation, or a demeritorious volitional formation, or an imperturbable volitional formation. Since he does not generate or fashion volitional formations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’

In any case, the three lives is an illustration of the method.