top of page
Pink Lotus 2.png
  • Thong Tri Temple

The Second Noble Truth, Part II: The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

Updated: May 30, 2022

July 26, 2021 | Compassion {Karuṇā}


The first two Noble Truths discuss suffering and the causes of suffering, while the last two Noble Truths examine the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. The only way to end suffering is to understand the cause of suffering.


The Second Noble Truth explores the cause or the arising of suffering through the lens of the Law of Dependent Origination (12 links), while the Third Noble Truth teaches that suffering can be overcome and happiness attained. The Third Noble Truth is perhaps the most important of the Four Noble Truths, because here, the Buddha reassures us that true happiness and contentment are possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the end of suffering. This Path is called the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths and the Law of Dependent Origination are centered around a common principle - the principle of Causality and the Law of Cause and Effect, of action and consequence.


In the following blog, we will discuss the Law of Dependent Origination and how it applies to human existence and all worldly phenomena.


The Law of Dependent Origination is the central pillar of the Buddha’s teachings. At the same time, this law is a difficult concept to understand.


The Buddha has said, “Profound, Ananda, is this Dependent Origination, and profound does it appear. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this subtle law that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird’s nest, a thicket of grass or reed… Any person, who does not understand this, does neither escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of pain, misery and suffering, from this round of rebirth.” ~ Digha Nikaya 15


Nevertheless, the Buddha’s teachings become exceedingly evident once you understand the Law of Dependent Origination.


“Whoever understands the Dependent Origination understands the Dharma.”

“Whoever understands the Dharma understands the Dependent Origination.”

~ Majjhima Nikaya, Sutra 28


The Buddha teaches that there are twelve links in the Law of Dependent Origination. These links appear in chronological order, and they are taking place over three lifetimes: past, present and future.

  • Past: Ignorance and Mental Formations represent the conditions which are responsible for the occurrence of the present life.

  • Present: Consciousness, Name & Form, Six Internal Senses, Contact, Feelings & Sensations, Craving, Clinging/Attachment and Becoming constitute the process of evolution within the present life.

  • Future: Birth/Rebirth, Aging & Death including sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair represent the conditions for a future existence, which cycles us back into another life.

This twelve stage process gives rise to one directly after it. [Please see the 12 Links chart below]

  • Past: The first two links occur in a past life. The actions of a previous life set in motion the resulting causes in a new life.

  • Present: The next eight links represent the effects in the present life, which starts with the appearance of a new being in the mother’s womb, the physical body and the mind. In the present life, there are six internal senses and the resulting sensations of pain and pleasure. This leads to craving and clinging, which in turn, leads to the creation of habits and energy.

  • Future: The last two links occur in a future life. The actions of the present life will determine whether there will be future births, aging & death.

The cycle of links are also described in terms of the following groups:

  • Defilements: Ignorance, Craving, and Clinging/Attachment

  • Actions (karma): Mental Formations and Becoming

  • Suffering: Consciousness, Name & Form, Six Internal Senses, Contact, Feelings & Sensations, Birth/Rebirth, Aging & Death.

The 12 links are grouped into Past, Present, and Future when we’re talking about TIME. They are grouped into Defilements, Actions, and Suffering when we talk about KARMA.


DEFILEMENTS:

Defilements are the impurities of the mind (thoughts) that lead to ACTIONS. Ignorance is the main cause of suffering. Because of ignorance, we CRAVE the pleasures of the senses (Six Internal Senses). As a result, we CLING (Attachment):


a) to sensual pleasant experiences,

b) to personal beliefs and desires,

c) to the delusion of our permanent self.


Ignorance is the CAUSE of ACTIONS.

ACTIONS:

There are three kinds of Mental Formations: BODY, SPEECH AND MIND (Mental/Thought). Mental Formations are also the HABITS that we form in our conscious moments by repeated actions. These habits become our PERSONALITY. We will take these habits with us from life to life in the form of HABITS ENERGY. Becoming is the actions that we perform in this life. Habits, combined with new actions performed in this life, result in endless REBIRTH and SUFFERING.

SUFFERING:

Consciousness, Name & Form, Six Internal Senses, Contact, Feelings & Sensations, Birth/Rebirth, Age & Death are all links to DEFILEMENTS and ACTIONS.

Please see the two types of groupings below:


At the first watch of the night,

….the Buddha realized the Law of Dependent Origination in forward order. He saw the Law of Cause and Effect and how it applied to human beings. Everything has been caused into existence; nothing exists on its own. People generate Karma when they are alive, and it does not simply disappear at death. Everything is a consequence of an action. The CAUSE is the primary force that produces an EFFECT. The CONDITION is a secondary force and something that is indispensable to the production of effect. In the cause, there is the effect and in the effect there is the cause. Cause and effect never conflict with each other. We shall reap what we have sown. From the present cause we can see the future effect; from the present effect we have discerned the past cause. It is necessary, however, to have some specific conditions to produce an effect. Cause combined with condition gives effect.



For example, if we grow apples, we will harvest apples. With fertilizer, sunlight, rain, watering, and care, the apple seed will grow and become a plant and finally produce apples. The apple seed is the cause. The soil, water, sunlight, and care are the conditions. The apples are the effect.





The root cause of Suffering is Ignorance. Without Ignorance there would be no craving, desire and unwholesomeness. Ignorance is a preliminary for the arising of Suffering. Without Ignorance the cycle of the Law of Dependent Origination could not be completed; it could not even begin. Without the right wisdom, the ignorant person engages in many kinds of Mental Formations* (body, speech, and mind), thus producing Karmic results. If our present actions in this life are still governed by Ignorance, due to the Law of Causality, we have to be reborn again and again. This process will stop only when we have developed sufficient wisdom to see things as they are and perform Karmic neutral actions that do not lead to another rebirth.


The Buddha saw the twelve causes and their effects in people’s lives and how they are linked together in a circular chain. None of these Twelve Links has its own independence. They are all interdependent and the chronological sequence from Ignorance is as follows:

  • The cause, Ignorance results in the effect, Mental Formations.

  • The cause, Mental Formations results in the effect, Consciousness.

  • The cause, Consciousness results in the effect, Name & Form.

  • The cause, Name & Form results in the effect, Six Internal Senses (the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).

  • The cause, Six Internal Senses results in the effect, Contact.

  • The cause, Contact results in the effect, Feelings & Sensations.

  • The cause, Feeling & Sensations results in the effect, Craving.

  • The cause, Craving results in the effect, Clinging or Attachment.

  • The cause, Clinging/Attachment results in the effect, Becoming.

  • The cause, Becoming results in the effect, Birth/Rebirth.

  • The cause, Birth/Rebirth results in the effect, Aging & Death.

  • The cause, Aging & Death results in the effect of that identity with its attendant suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.

At the second watch of the night,


….the Buddha saw the twelve causal conditions in reverse order. The Sutra stated:


“Because this is absent, that does not exist.

Because this ceases, that ceases.

If ignorance ceases, mental formations cease.

If mental formations cease, consciousness ceases etc.

Thus, the suffering aggregate ceases.”

~ Bahudhatuka Sutta

  • If Ignorance ceases, Mental Formations cease.

  • If Mental Formations cease, Consciousness ceases.

  • If Consciousness ceases, Name & Form cease.

  • If Name & Form cease, Six Internal Senses cease.

  • If Six Internal Senses cease, Contact ceases.

  • If Contact ceases, Feelings & Sensations cease.

  • If Feelings & Sensations cease, Craving ceases.

  • If Craving ceases, Clinging/Attachment ceases.

  • If Clinging/Attachment ceases, Becoming ceases.

  • If Becoming ceases, Birth ceases.

  • If Birth ceases, then Aging & Death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease.

In other words, if ignorance ceases, then suffering also ceases, as well as the cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death. The twelfth link from the Law of Dependent Origination circles back to the first link in reverse order:

  • Aging & Death, with its attendant suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair

  • Birth/Rebirth

  • Becoming

  • Clinging/Attachment

  • Craving

  • Feelings & Sensations

  • Contact

  • Six Internal Senses (the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind)

  • Name & Form

  • Consciousness

  • Mental Formations

  • Ignorance


At the third watch of the night,

….the Buddha saw the Law of Dependent Origination in both forward and reverse orders:

“Because this is present, that exists.

Because this is born, that is born.

Because this is absent, that does not exist.

Because this ceases, that ceases.

Therefore, ignorance causes mental formations.

Mental formations cause consciousness, etc.

This is how this suffering aggregate is formed.

When ignorance ceases completely, all mental formations cease.

When mental formations cease, consciousness ceases etc.

This is how this suffering aggregate is terminated.”

~ Bahudhatuka Sutta

After penetrating the Law of Dependent Origination, the Buddha attained ultimate enlightenment. He saw that worldly phenomena - from the smallest object, like a dust particle, to the largest, like the moon - arise and exist due to many specific causal conditions. With sufficient wisdom and awareness, the fundamental principle of the Law of Dependent Origination can be simple. The Buddha summarizes the specific conditionality of worldly phenomena in four verses:

“Because this is, that is.

Because the arising of this, that arises.

Because this is not, that is not.

Because the cessation of this, that ceases.”

~ Gotama, MN115, Bahudhatuka Sutta

The Buddha confirms that the Law of Dependent Origination is an immutable law that applies to human beings and all worldly phenomena:

“And now, monks, what is the law of dependent origination? … Whether the Tathāgata has appeared or not, the law stands, directs and regulates worldly phenomena…”

~ (Samyutta Nikāya, Nidāna Vagga “Section of Causation” #12, s ii 25)



The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

It is important to understand that in this sequence of the twelve links, each link builds on the previous one and is dependent on the previous one for its existence. In order to ultimately end suffering and the chronic cycle of death and rebirth, one must work on breaking through any one of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The whole chain ceases to exist when one link is severed. This can be done by reversing the causes and changing the conditions. One must not be guided by ignorance; instead, practice awareness and cultivate wisdom. One should be aware of impermanence and act accordingly. Do not cling and crave.


Causality is a universal law centered around the principle of cause and effect. All things come into being through the Law of Causality, which usually transpires over three lives. Over half of the happenings in our present life are caused by the former life’s Karmic actions. Most of the actions in our present life will bear fruit in the next life. If we truly understand and apply this mechanism of Cause and Effect, we will strive to accomplish good deeds, which can reduce and lessen the effects of bad Karma. Realizing the value of the Law of Causality, we will always be cautious and intentionally do good deeds through body, speech or mind. We will not become superstitious or confused and rely passively on heavenly authorities. If we continue to live a good life, devoting our time and effort to practicing Buddhist Teachings, we can eliminate bad Karma.



Life depends on Karma. The word Karma means “Action” and refers to our intentional mental actions. The person we are now is determined by how we have thought and acted in the past. Likewise, how we think and act now will influence how we will be in the future.


When this physical body is no longer able to function, the energy will not die with it, but continue to take on a different shape or form, which we call another life. The Karmic forces that manifest itself in the form of a human being also manifest itself in the form of an animal. The force called Craving, Desire, Mental Formations or longing to live does not end with Death, but continues to manifest itself in another form, producing re-existence which is called Rebirth.

There are six realms in which one can be reborn. Some people can be reborn in HEAVEN (the concept of Heaven in Buddhism is called "sagga" or "deva-loka"), some can be reborn in HELL, and some can be reborn as HUNGRY GHOSTS. Heaven is not a place; it is a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences tranquility and peace. Heavenly existence is also impermanent. When one’s life span is finished there, one can be reborn again as a human. The same thing with Hell; it is not a place but a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences distress, anxiety and suffering. Being a hungry ghost is a state of existence where the body is subtle and where the mind is continually disturbed by dissatisfaction, craving and desire.

Heavenly beings experience pleasure. Beings in Hell and Hungry Ghosts experience pain. Human beings experience a mixture of both. The main difference between the human realm and other realms is the body type and the quality of experience.


The Law of Causality governs everything including all worldly phenomena and the relationship between Cause and Effect through time and reincarnation.

  • Causality in inanimate objects: Too much rain causes floods and strong winds develop into a storm. Prolonged dryness turns into a drought. When we boil water, it becomes hot.

  • Causality in plants: An apple seed produces an apple tree and fruit. Lemon seeds produce lemon fruit, which are sour and orange seeds produce orange fruit, which are sweet.

  • Causality in the animals: Birds lay eggs (Cause), the eggs hatch to become birds (Effect). Animals give birth to offspring (Effect) who will become adult animals (Cause) ready to bear offspring.

  • Causality in human beings:

    • From the physical aspects: The parent (Cause) gives birth to a child (Effect) who will grow up, get married, and become a parent. The same process applies indefinitely.

    • From metaphysical aspects: Thoughts and actions (Cause) in the past, whether good or bad, generate good or bad thoughts and actions in the present or in the future (Effect).

In both the material and spiritual domains, we always reap what we have sown.



Reincarnation of Things and Human Beings,

…All things in the Universe are controlled by the Law of Causality.

  • Earth: On the surface and inside of the earth, there are many kinds of materials such as clay, coal, granite, gravel, soil, etc. These materials undergo enormous transformation over time due to the action of wind, weather, water, or heat; the effects of which are discerned slowly.

  • Water: The ocean water is heated by the sun, evaporated and transformed into a cloud by cold air. It falls back to the earth and flows into the ocean again. It can also become an iceberg on the North and South Poles and undergo many transformations.

  • Wind: A natural flow of air moves parallel to the ground. As the air is heated by the sun, it rises and creates an empty space that will soon be filled by the surrounding air. The current air can be slow, fast, or very fast. In these cases we have a light wind, strong wind, or storm.

  • Fire: Heat is inside matter and cannot be seen. It is the energy associated with the motion of atoms or molecules in solids. For example, fire is a self-sustaining chemical reaction that releases light and heat when we rub together two pieces of rock. Therefore, fire is the manifestation of heat.

Human Beings

The human body is formed of the four elements (Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire). As the four elements experience the Law of Causality, the body of sentient beings must also experience it. When the body dies: https://www.thongtritemple.org/post/the-first-noble-truth-birth-aging-sickness-death

  • Earth: Its solid part (skin, muscle, bone) will be disintegrated and returned to the earth.

  • Water: Its liquid part (blood, fat, sweat) to water.

  • Wind: Its exhaled air to wind.

  • Fire: Its body heat to fire.

The human being's spiritual part is made up of feeling, thought, mental formations and consciousness. All of these disappear, after death, except the “Alaya-Consciousness,” which will determine the nature of the individual’s future existence. Alaya-Consciousness is the consciousness that undergoes the cycle of Birth and Death and determines the nature of individual existence.


According to Buddhism, life is a combination of Mind and Matter. The mind helps to set matter in motion and the matter helps the mind to function.

  • Mind consists of Sensations, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness.

  • Matter consists of the four elements of solidity, fluidity, air movement and heat energy.

    • Decay is the lack of coordination of mind and matter;

    • Death is the separation of mind and matter;

    • Rebirth is the recombination of the mind and matter.

      • After the physical body (matter) passes away, the mental forces (mind) recombine and assume a new combination in a different material form in another existence.


Impermanence


The Three Characteristics of Worldly Phenomena (Existence): Impermanence, Suffering and Non-self.


The Buddha reached enlightenment when he recognized the true characteristics of worldly phenomena and the energy behind the movement of Causal Conditions - that is the energy of Change and Transformation. The Law of Change and Transformation affects all worldly phenomena.


Beneath the Law of Cause and Effect is the Law of Change and Transformation, which is the energy driving changes in the shape, color, life, and death of worldly phenomena. The Buddha saw the cycle of Arise-Remain-Cease as applicable to all worldly phenomena. When an object appears, it is in the ARISE stage. When an object has existed for a while, it is in the REMAIN stage. When an object is no longer, it is in the CEASE stage.


All human beings including all worldly phenomena are subject to the Law of Change and Transformation and undergo changes moment to moment. It is not only our body that is changeable, but also our mind, which changes more rapidly than the body. It changes every second and minute according to the environment. It changes so fast that it appears to have no change. For instance, we are cheerful a few minutes before and sad a few minutes later. With this realization, the Buddha identified the Three Characteristics of Worldly Phenomena which are:

  • Impermanence or Change (Anicca) - our tendency to see things as permanent when in fact they are impermanent

  • Suffering and Disappointment (Dukkha) - to see happiness where in fact there is suffering

  • Non-self or Insubstantiality (Anatta) - to see things as self when in fact they are non-self

Worldly objects also change constantly. They are not permanent; they never last. Therefore, impermanence is one of their characteristics. People will endure suffering and sorrow when they refuse to accept the Law of Impermanence. In general, suffering becomes a conflict when we expect to see reality as permanent. Worldly phenomena do not have anything permanent that can be called their true identity. Therefore, they do not possess an identity or a “self.” This is the non-self characteristic.


The Three Laws of Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-self are also called the “Three Characteristics of Worldly Phenomena (Existence).


The Buddha said emptiness is the true nature of human beings. We see worldly objects as existing before our eyes; however, the essence of all existence is emptiness. The Buddha called this existence delusion. Existence changes every second and our senses do not perceive these changes. Therefore, what we see through our senses is a delusion like a shadow or mirage.


The Buddha saw the true nature of worldly phenomena when he realized the Law of Dependent Origination. Delusion refers to the illusion of appearance that our senses perceive, whereas the true nature of worldly phenomena is emptiness. This inability to see things as they truly are and the basic delusion that we live under is the root of this entire chain of dependent origination. [Please see our explanation of Perception in the First Noble Truth]



“Suchness”

In Ancient Buddhist Scriptures, the Buddha recognized that the fullness of his own being was "immeasurable," and "hard to fathom." He often referred to himself as The Tathāgata - one who is the energetic process, beyond all coming-going-being of reality


By speaking this way, He avoided using the pronoun “I” which had limited meaning in the minds of the listener. Over time, Buddhist Philosophers began to define the essential quality of the tathāgata as tathāta which became translated into English as “Suchness.”

To understand the meaning of “Suchness,” let’s briefly trace back to the origins of the Buddhist word, Tathāgata. Tathāgata is defined as someone who "knows and sees reality as-it-is." Tathā means “thus” or “such” in Sanskrit and Pali. Ga from gaté refers to movement, coming, going, being, travelling. Ta is the ending suffix which indicates “ness.” “Thusness” or “Suchness” indicates reality as it is. In Buddhism, we use the words tathāgata or tathāta (Suchness) to refer to reality as it actually is, magnificent and splendid as it is.

  • “Thusness” or “Suchness” is the true nature and complete reality.

  • It does not change and it does not move. It is permanent and abiding.

  • There is no beginning and ending,

  • It cannot be divided (indivisible) and it is the same in all worldly phenomena (identical).

  • Worldly phenomena and human beings all possess the “Suchness” nature; therefore, they are all equal. There is nothing that can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it.

  • Suchness is also called an “unconditioned” phenomenon as it is not formed by causal conditions. Therefore, it does not change form or cease to exist.

  • It is difficult to use the terminologies related to Suchness. Only those who have attained enlightenment can perceive it. Suchness is the Buddha nature in action.


The Buddha later recounted his realization of the Law of Dependent Origination:


The Buddha has said, “And now, monks, I thought: This truth that I have realized is profound, hard to see, hard to understand, pure-peaceful, sublime, beyond the realm of reasoning, subtle and only the wise can experience it.” ~MN 26, Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search, and ~ Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 26: The Middle Length Discourses


As you can see the Law of Dependent Origination is extremely complicated with many related concepts, but if you seek to truly understand its main principle, you will begin to truly understand the DHARMA. We pray that we will all seek to follow the Dharma by moving past ignorance through mindful meditation. Meditation is a technique used to modify the habit patterns of the mind. One should speak or refrain from speaking, and act or refrain from acting in certain ways. Practice the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to the end of Suffering and to change our negative mental habits. The Noble Eightfold Path are the Right view, Right thinking (intention), Right speech, Right action, Right Livelihood, Right effort (diligence), Right mindfulness and Right concentration.


We will examine the Noble Eightfold Path in detail when discussing the Fourth Noble Truth.

May you all be free from suffering and all the causes of suffering!


Namo Shakyamuni Buddha.



References:


“Chơn Lý,” Tác Giả Đức Tổ Sư Minh Đăng Quang (Language in Vietnamese)


“Phật Học Phổ Thông,” Tác Giả Hòa Thượng Thích Thiện Hoa (Language in Vietnamese)


“The Seeker’s Glossary of BUDDHISM,” Edited by the Van Hien-Study Group, Sutra Translation Committee of the United States & Canada


“A Simple Path – Basic Buddhist Teachings,” by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama


"The Agendas of Mindfulness," by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/agendas.html.


“The Buddha and His Teachings,” by Venerable Narada Mahathera (Sri Lanka 1970), Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.


“Vipassana Research Institute,” by Mahasatipattha Sutta. India Apollo Printing Press (2006)


“Buddhism,” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism.


"Realbuddhaquotes.com"


"MN 26, Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search, and ~ Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 26: The Middle Length Discourses"


"Majjhima Nikaya, Sutra 28"


"Samyutta Nikāya, Nidāna Vagga “Section of Causation” #12, s ii 25"


"Gotama, MN115, Bahudhatuka Sutta"


"Digha Nikaya 15"


1,932 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page