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The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination

The Buddhist Wheel of Life: 

The Law of Causality And How To Work With It


Ignorance (Unawareness), Conditioning, Consciousness, Name and form, the Six Senses,

Contact, Feeling, Craving, Grasping, Becoming, Rebirth, Aging and Death


From Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Francesca Fremantle 


"The Buddha described all worldly phenomena as having three characteristics: impermanence, suffering and non-self. 

We suffer because we imagine what is not self to be self, what is impermanent to be permanent, and what, 

from an ultimate viewpoint, is pain to be pleasure. Existence with these three characteristics is called samsara, which means 

we are continually flowing, moving on, from one moment to the next moment, and from one life to the next life. 

Samsara is not the actual external world or life itself, but the way we interpret them.


Samsara is life as we live it under the influence of ignorance, the subjective world each of us creates for ourselves. 

This world contains good and evil, joy and pain, but they are relative, not absolute; they can be defined only in relationship 

to each other and are continually changing into their opposites. Although samsara seems to be all-powerful and all-pervading, 

it is created by our own state of mind, like the world of a dream, and it can be dissolved into nothingness just like awakening 

from a dream. When someone awakens to reality, even for a moment, the world does not disappear 

but is experienced in its true nature: pure, brilliant, sacred and indestructible.

The key to the Buddha's realization and teaching is the understanding of causality, because it is only when we know the cause of 

something that we can truly bring it to an end and prevent it from arising again. In his search for the origin of suffering, 

he found that he had to go right back to the very beginning, to the very first flicker of individual self-awareness. 

In his spiritual practice, too, he always went further and further, never satisfied with the states of knowledge, peace and bliss 

that he attained under the guidance of his teachers. He always wanted to know their cause and to see what lay beyond. 

In this way, he surpassed his teachers and eventually attained his great awakening.


The Buddha awoke to a state of perfect enlightenment, which he described as deathless, unborn and unchanging. 

If it were not for that, he said, there could be no escape from birth and death, impermanence and suffering. 

There is indeed a condition of ultimate peace, bliss, knowledge and freedom, but to reach it, we must first understand the

cycle of conditioned existence in which we are imprisoned. Samsara is like a sickness; the Buddha, who was called the

Great Physician, offers a cure; but the patient must recognize the illness, with its causes, its symptoms,

and its effects, before the cure can begin.


Interdependent origination (Skt., pratityasamutpada) is the law of causality, which Shakyamuni discovered at his awakening. 

It revealed to him the whole truth of existence, and in penetrating it he became the Awakened One.

What he saw was a total vision of how and why all beings throughout space and time are entangled in samsara for countless lives,

as well as his own past lives in his progress toward liberation. This was the extraordinary insight that

distinguished his teaching from others, so it is said, 

“whoever sees interdependent origination sees the dharma, whoever sees the dharma sees the Buddha.”


According to this law, nothing has independent, permanent, or Absolute Existence. Everything is part of a limitless web of 

interconnections and undergoes a continual process of transformation. Every appearance arises from complex

causes and conditions,  and in turn combines with others to produce countless effects.

By interrupting the causal chain at certain key points, 

the course of existence can be altered and effects prevented by eliminating their causes.


This law embraces all the basic principles of Buddhism. (The late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said that the whole

range of teachings, from the shravakayana to dzogchen, has only the meaning of interdependent origination.)

It demonstrates the doctrines of karma and rebirth. The three marks of existence are inherent within it:

there is no unchanging self in this process, and it is characterized 

by impermanence and suffering, since whatever comes into being must change and pass away.


The four noble truths flow from it: 

the first truth is the recognition of inherent suffering; the second truth, the cause of suffering, is shown by the law; 

understanding the cause of suffering leads to its cessation, the third truth;

therefore, there is a path to liberation, the fourth truth.


Its best known formulation is the twelve causal links, which has been called the karmic chain reaction. 

In the traditional image of the Wheel of Life, it depicts the life, death and rebirth of sentient beings,

but it can also be understood as the life cycle of appearances, actions, thoughts or any phenomenon whatever. 

Essentially it analyzes the process of an illusion crystallizing out of emptiness and being taken for reality.

The twelve links are: (1) ignorance or unawareness, which imagines self and the world to have intrinsic existence; 

(2) conditioning, the karmic forces that ripen in the ground of ignorance from seeds sown in previous lives and form

the conditioning factors of the next life; (3) consciousness, arising from conditioning, which carries the sense of self

and operates through the mind and senses; (4) name and form, the totality of an individual’s mental and physical constituents; 

(5) the six senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mental faculty;

(6) contact, the meeting of the senses with their objects; 

(7) feeling, the positive or negative sensations aroused by contact; (8) thirst, the desire to possess or avoid these sensations; 

(9) grasping, the physical, verbal or mental action that follows thirst;

(10) existence or becoming, the coming into existence that results from grasping;

(11) birth, manifesting in one of the six realms; (12) decay and death, the process of aging and 

passing away that inevitably follows birth.


The circle of the twelvefold chain is continuous, a self-contained system without beginning or end. At death we fall back into 

ignorance and start all over again. The whole cycle can be contemplated in reverse order,

starting with death and tracing its causes back to ignorance. Although the links appear sequentially,

they may also be seen as interconnected, simultaneous, and mutually

dependent. The wheel is a schematic picture, designed to demonstrate the conditioned and

relative nature of apparent existence, 

while exposing sentient beings’ intense attachment and habituation to the causes of suffering.


For significant as life and death may seem, genuine as suffering is, and seriously as we must regard the law of karma, 

as long as we remain within samsara, nothing produced by interdependent origination has ultimate reality. 

It is an illusion appearing from ignorance, whose nature is the error of belief in self. 

Since it has never existed it cannot be destroyed. 

It is dispelled only by the wisdom of non-self. Transcending both existence and nonexistence, 

it is self-liberated into emptiness, the vast openness of space beyond conceptual thought."



Everything is conditioned, relative, and interdependent. This is the Buddhist understanding of Emptiness.

On this principle of conditionality, relativity and interdependence - the whole existence and continuity of karma, life, 

and its cessation are explained in The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination.


To understand The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination  

The "five skandhas" (groups) refer to the physical and mental elements that determine the characteristics of a person.

The skandhas are: form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness. 

In The Heart Sutra, The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara told Shariputra that the five skandhas are just Emptiness 

(i.e., experienced in daily Relative Reality but non-existent in Absolute Reality).

Emptiness refers to the nature or characteristics of the five skandhas, etc. 


The 12 Links are also Emptiness. 

Although they do exist in our Relative Reality and daily experience, they do not exist in Absolute Reality.


"Suffering, the Cause, the Cessation, and the Path to Cessation" are called the Four Noble Truths.


In Buddhism, it is deemed that sufferings of human beings stem from attachments or desires (cause).

To get rid of sufferings, it is necessary to get rid of attachments or desires (cessation); 

and to get rid of causes, it is necessary to follow the right path (Noble Eightfold Path,

the Essence of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, 

Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Meditation and Right Concentration). 


By following the right path with right intent, it is possible to achieve Enlightenment and Liberation.


see also The Heart Sutra [Prajna Paramita] of Buddha Shakyamuni


Regarding the Buddhist Concept of Non-Attachment:

Avalokitesvara Perceived That All Skandas Are Empty


Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, meditating deeply on Perfection of Wisdom, 

saw clearly that the five aspects of human existence are empty, and so released himself from suffering.

His enlightenment is summarized in the Heart of the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, also called Heart Sutra;

which is the shortest and the most popular sutra in Buddhism.


During his practice of contemplation and illumination the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara attained Truth. 

By means of his minutely subtle Dharma practice he penetrated the five skandhas, perceiving them as empty.

The five skandhas, namely form, feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness continually provide 

five occasions for craving and clinging. Two types of craving and clinging characterize the human mind:


 1) Craving and clinging to form and 

2) Craving and clinging to mind. 

Clinging to form is the domain of the form skandha; the remaining four skandhas constitute the domain

 of the mind and the clinging to mind is generated in those four realms. 


All our grasping, manifested in our attachments and aversions, is generated and developed due to the activity of these four skandhas. Craving and clinging emerge at birth, and the Buddha-dharma aims to sever them.


The initial clinging is ego bound. Ego is the anchor of our volition to grasp and to possess, the root of our 

attachments and aversions, and via these, the root of our suffering. Clinging to the body as the true self begins 

to manifest in the early childhood: Normally, the six organs produce six types of data, six kinds of consciousness 

and the four skandhas along with them; jointly these constitute the delusory ego. Craving and clinging is 

spontaneous at birth; at that time, ego is formulated simultaneously with the form skandha. The rest of our

 existence is built up by our countless ego-affirming acts involving all the skandhas, but most prominently 

the skandha of feeling; its domain contains pleasant, unpleasant and neutral or indifferent types of feelings.


The body depends on the mind to be provided with pleasant occasions and protected from discomfort. 

There must be thinking, i.e., perceptions, followed by action, and action means volition. They, in turn, 

require established bases of knowledge, and that is the role of the consciousness skandha. Children are sent

to school to learn, to acquire knowledge that prepares them for the future. When there is sufficient knowledge, 

there is action, invariably preceded by thinking as planning, imagining, remembering and so on. The body 

then receives the support it needs. There is ego--grasping, and confusion is generated by the five skandhas as

 the ego-notion imposes itself on the process of experience.


Once it has become clear beyond any doubt that this present body is not the self, that one can only say "mine",

 or "my body", all delusion regarding the five skandhas is broken off, and ignorance along with it. What a pity 

that worldlings get so deeply confused and completely fail to understand this brilliant doctrine; grasping 

the skandhas and the ego-notion, they twist the data to fit their own picture as to how reality should be. Actually, 

the body is not the self; it is like a house that I might call mine all right, but to consider it to be myself would be 

a ridiculous error. In the same way, I can't say "this body is myself' but I can say "this body is mine."


What is the real self? Our Original Nature is our real self. It depends on the body temporarily; the body is not

 different from a house. A house is completed and then gradually deteriorates; similarly, the body has birth and

 death and the part in between. Our True Nature (real self), on the other hand, has neither birth nor death. 

It is enduring and unchanging. The teaching of Real Self and of illusory ego is basic to all Buddhadharma. 

When it is understood, clinging is easily broken off.

'On Compassion' from The Dalai Lama, from his book Stages of Meditation

What do we mean when we speak of a truly compassionate kindness? Compassion is essentially concern for

others' welfare -- their happiness and their suffering. Others wish to avoid misery as much as we do.

So a compassionate person feels concerned when others are miserable and develops a positive intention to free

them from it. As ordinary beings, our feeling of closeness to our friends and relatives is little more than

 an expression of clinging desire. It needs to be tempered, not enhanced. 

It is important not to confuse attachment and compassion.... 

A compassionate thought is motivated by a wish to help release beings from their misery.


Instructions for Spiritual Practice by Shakyamuni Buddha

from the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya Vol. 1, 188-193 P.T.S. Ed.)

   Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason

and it is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all –

then accept it and live up to it.







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