The twelve links of dependent arising or dependent origination form a fundamental presentation of causation within the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha explained the world and its inhabitants as dependent, and part of a process. He encouraged his followers to examine the world around them, as well as their notion of self, to discover this fact. In the code of conduct for monks, the Vinaya, he advised his followers to paint a picture of the Wheel of Life on monastery porches as a vivid reminder of the truth of dependency. In Mahayana sutras and commentaries true seeing of dependent arising was said to lead to perfect realization:
Venerable Śāriputra, whoever is endowed with such acceptance of the Dharma and thus perfectly understands dependent arising is prophesied for unexcelled, perfect, and complete awakening by the Tathāgata, the Arhat, the perfectly and completely awakened one, the one with perfect knowledge and conduct, the Sugata, the knower of the world, the incomparable charioteer of those who need taming, the teacher of gods and humans, the Bhagavān, the Buddha, in this way: ‘Such a person will become a perfect and complete buddha!’The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra “The Rice Seedling”, Āryaśālistambanāmamahāyānasūtra
In the classic sutra “Teaching the Fundamental Exposition and Detailed Analysis of Dependent Arising” (Pratītyasamutpādādivibhaṅganirdeśanāmasūtra), the Buddha sets forth this explanation.
Monks, I shall teach you the fundamental exposition and detailed analysis of dependent arising. Listen very well and bear this in mind as I explain. What is the fundamental exposition of dependent arising? It is thus: if this exists, that arises; by this having been produced, that is produced.
It is thus: through the condition of ignorance, formations arise; through the condition of formations, consciousness arises; through the condition of consciousness, name-and-form arises; through the condition of name-and-form, the six sense sources arise; through the condition of the six sense sources, contact arises; through the condition of contact, feeling arises; through the condition of feeling, craving arises; through the condition of craving, grasping arises; through the condition of grasping, existence arises; through the condition of existence, birth arises; through the condition of birth, aging and death—as well as sorrow, lamentation, suffering, unhappiness, and strife—arise. In this way, this sole great heap of suffering arises. This is the fundamental exposition of dependent arising.The Sūtra “Teaching the Fundamental Exposition and Detailed Analysis of Dependent Arising”, translated by Annie Bien.
The Buddha also used the metaphor of a rice seedling (in the Rice Sprout Sutra) to explain how everything, both external and internal arises. Outer cause and effect, for example, the fact that sprouts arise from seeds, although not a unique Buddhist tenet, serves as an example to investigate the more personal question of self-existence. This position avoids the two extremes of attributing causation to an external creator as well as the extreme of materialism.
The twelve links of dependent arising are the focus of practice for Pratyekabuddhas (self-realized buddhas). These twelve processes describe the coming into being and eventual destruction of all external and internal objects.
The twelve links are:
- Ignorance (Skt. avidyā; Tib. མ་རིག་པ་, ma rigpa). Literally this translates as “not seeing”. In the Buddhist view, sentient beings have basic ignorance about the essential nature of things and identify with the five aggregates as a permanent and solid self.
- Formation (Skt. saṁskāra; Tib. འདུ་བྱེད་, duje). Under the influence of ignorance, sentient beings begin to form virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral karmic activity. This formation is the basis for rebirth in the six realms.
- Consciousness (Skt. vijñāna; Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་, nampar shepa). Based upon formation, the consciousness of the next existence develops.
- Name-and-form (Skt. nāma-rūpa; Tib. མིང་དང་གཟུགས, ming dang zuk་) describes the moment of conception. “Name” includes the four aggregates of feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness, while “form” refers to the physical embryo. The entity of the being has come into existence, after which development takes place. This link includes the form of the body itself and the other four aggregates, sensation, perception, formation, and consciousness.
- The six sense faculties (ayatanas) (Skt. ṣaḍāyatana; Tib. སྐྱེ་མཆེད་དྲུག་, kyemche druk). The six inner faculties of the sense faculties then arise.
- Contact (Skt. sparśa; Tib. རེག་པ་, rekpa). When the external object, sense faculty, and consciousness meet– this is contact.
- Sensation (Skt. vedanā; Tib. ཚོར་བ་, tsorwa). Once contact has occurred, sensations arise that are categorized into: pleasurable, painful, and neutral.
- Craving or Thirst (Skt. tṛṣṇā; Tib. སྲེད་པ་, sepa). Sensation intensifies; there is the desire to continue pleasurable sensations and to push away painful sensations.
- Grasping (Skt. upādāna; Tib. ལེན་པ་, lenpa). Craving further unfolds into the determination to hold on to what is pleasurable and to avoid what is painful.
- Becoming (Skt. bhava; Tib. སྲིད་པ་, sipa). Through this grasping one takes action (karma) with body, speech, and mind, which propels one to another existence.
- Birth (Skt. jāti; Tib. སྐྱེ་བ་, kyewa). Through the power of becoming, one takes birth in a particular situation when a variety of conditions come together.
- Old age and death (Skt. jarā-maraṇa; Tib. རྒ་ཤི་, ga shi). Beginning immediately at birth, the aging process begins. This continues for whatever life span the karma determines, and then is followed by death, the cessation of the aggregates.
Phakchok Rinpoche has encouraged all students to develop a clear understanding of this teaching. He comments:
The twelve links are an extremely profound teaching, something that all of us practitioners need to reflect on repeatedly. These twelve links are explained in great detail by Buddha Shakyamuni in sutras such as the Rice Sprout Sutra (Śālistamba Sūtra) which I would recommend you all to study and contemplate. In particular, we should understand the benefits of understanding the twelve links, which in short are as follows:
By gaining an understanding of the twelve links of dependent arising, automatically you will become very skilled in practicing the dharma because you now see and know that samsara and your suffering are in fact created by your own ignorance, nothing and no one else. Having understood that you will also know that the ability to relinquish samsara and gain liberation lies in your own hand;
You will naturally gain compassion, and not just superficial compassion but an authentic, grounded compassion towards all sentient beings who are trapped and suffering in this cycle of samsara because of not realizing the process and function of the twelve links;
You will gain deep-felt trust in the Buddha’s teaching which reveals to us so clearly the path to liberation; andYou will gain an understanding of capacity, how causes and conditions give rise to results; for example, how performing certain actions of body and speech (for example, practices such as prostrations, offerings, and supplication) can lead to profound changes in your own mind.Phakchok Rinpoche, The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising