What is dependent origination?

I was visiting some friends recently when one of them used the term “dependent origination”. I had never heard of the term and struggled to understand my friend’s attempt to explain it. It is an English translation for the Sanskrit word pratītyasamutpāda which is fundamental to Buddhist belief.

One explanation is as follows:

“No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist. Things and beings perpetually arise and perpetually cease because other things and beings perpetually arise and perpetually cease. All this arising and being and ceasing go on in one vast field or nexus of beingness. And there we are.”

The Wikipedia page is very comprehensive if rather obscure.

Can any reader shed some light?


  • Andy

    Roughly speaking the Buddha’s teaching on Dependant Origination analyses the process by which suffering arises and how it can cease. At its most practical it provides guidance on how we can suffer less in our own lives. If this is of interest, I can dig out some suitable material for you, Roger. (It’s quite a deep subject, and I’m no expert. However it can be used, as I mentioned, at a very pragmatic level regarding day-to-day living. A bit like you can use a car without fully understanding the inner workings of its mechanisms.)

  • Linda B

    For me, dependent origination’s 12 links are most easily understood broken down into three parts.

    The first five links talk about what I think of as “the givens”: Given that we come into the world ignorant of the ways in which we create our own suffering, given the way our nature drives us to create a sense of self, given that our minds will constantly seek information about that self and its place in the world, given that the preceding links cause us to categorize everything we encounter in terms of “self/advantageous” “unlike self/disadvantageous” (usually translated as “pleasant vs unpleasant” in Buddhist lingo), and given that our senses are driven to seek out information that supports our growing beliefs about self and the world…

    Then we have the middle section which details the things we do over and over and over because of those givens: information comes in to us and we sort it in terms of how it affects us, and how well it matches up to beliefs we are developing. (In modern terms this could be more-or-less described using definitions of “confirmation bias”.) Experiences harden into opinions. Opinions into dogma.

    The final section describes the results of the what we did in the middle section: our beliefs result in us being (behaving) in the world in a way that is consistent with what we have come to believe about ourselves and the world. It is in this sense that we “live in samsara” — an illusory world we have created ourselves.

    I define “dukkha” (the word that gets translated as “suffering”) as what happens when our image of the self and the world bumps into the actual world.

    If you’d find a description of dependent origination written for the here-and-now useful, I did a series of articles on it which you can find here:



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