Dependent Origination

An examination of one of the central concepts in the Buddha’s teaching.

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Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination


Dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda) is one of the most important aspects of the teaching of the Buddha. Essentially it is an expansion of the four noble truths in which the Buddha outlined his doctrine concerning the meaning the origin, the cessation of sorrow and conflict, together with the path leading to such cessation. It was this original outline which was expanded to cover the three stages of existence, in the past, the present and the future. Such existence, however, is not only the life-span from birth to death, depending on and conditioned by actions in a previous life, and then further projecting itself in a future life, but can be discerned also in the microscopic span of a single thought.

It should not be understood as a strict law of cause and effect, which would lead to an inexorable fixture of every action becoming a reaction and a cause, from which perpetual motion an escape would be impossible. It is rather a controlling influence of conditionality, which can not only condition the arising, the strengthening, the expanding spheres of influence, but which may also counteract such influence and even completely arrest its progress.

It is this teaching of conditionality and relativity which has placed the doctrine of the Buddha above the rigid authority of inspired and revealed religions. It is this moderation and absence of dogmatic views which has given to Buddhism a name and honoured place among the great philosophies of life. Here is shown, not only the way in of origination, but also the way out of cessation, both being dependent in their process on conditions which are fluid. It is this freely moving process that makes cessation possible without supernatural grace, without divine intervention, without salvation, and yet, with deliverance and emancipation.


There has always been, and quite naturally so, considerable speculation as to what caused the Buddha’s enlightenment. This kind of interest is mainly aroused by the fact or the manner in which the many founders of religions were affected at the outset of their new mission. It is usually a case of conversion from a worldly life to a spiritual outlook, conditioned by some sort of revelation or vision of the divine, which made an illiterate camel-driver into an inspired prophet, the son of a carpenter into a miracle worker, an unwilling man with a stammer into a leader of his nation out of slavery.

Such conversions have been witnessed by saints as Augustine of Hippo, by sinners as Mary of Magdalen, by intellectuals as Cardinal Newman, by mystics as John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi and Sri Ramakrishna, by reformers as Martin Luther, Calvin and Wesley, by men of vision as Krishnamurti and women of devotion as Mother Theresa, all of whom experienced a true conversion, that is a complete change of heart and mind, which made them renounce their worldly life and turn towards a “goal” of spiritual light, which some called God in many names, or truth, or love.

Such realisation often came in a sudden flash, as when Saul, on the way to Damascus to persecute the new Christian disciples, heard himself called by name, became physically blind, but attained a spiritual light which made him the apostle of Christianity for the gentiles. Not many have been able or have even tried, to put into words that supreme experience; for, words are no longer an experience, but are at most a vague memory and reflection. But the lasting change of such conversion was truly a change of attitude, a turning to godliness, not necessarily God, a change not of mode, but a complete substitution and revolution, in which the old had fallen away to make room for new insight.

Then, such revelation carries with it the urge to communicate, to share, to impart, to transmit to others what seems a new discovery. And then there is born that zeal and earnestness to render service, so that others too may benefit, the spirit of the missionary, which sometimes in so intense and fanatic that conversions are made at the point of the sword, killing the body so as to save the soul.

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