What is: The 12 links of dependent origination (2 of 3)


1. IGNORANCE (ma-rigpa).

The belief in ‘I’ gives rise to ‘mine’ and ‘others’

Ignorance is the main cause of misconception, which is the root of samsara. We do not see or know the ultimate nature of phenomena and exaggerate the way things exist.

There are 4 kinds of misconceptions:

  • Holding impure phenomena as pure.
  • Holding empty phenomena as truly existing.
  • Holding suffering as happiness.
  • Holding impermanent phenomena as permanent.

Because of ignorance, sentient beings accumulate positive, negative and neutral (or immovable) karma which produces cyclic existence.

  • Accumulation of positive karma produces birth in a higher realm.
  • Accumulation of negative karma produces rebirth in a lower realm.
  • Accumulation of neutral karma produces rebirth in the form or formless realms.

The belief in ‘I’ gives rise to ‘mine’ and ‘others’ and from there arises the negative emotions of desire – attachment and anger – aversion. This I that is produced by ignorance is also the cause of negative emotions, karmic action and cyclic existence.

The five aggregates (form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness) are the base of imputation for the I. As long as we believe in the existence of the 5 aggregates, we are grasping at the I, thus producing karma and subsequently samsara. We need to develop the wisdom to realise the selflessness of self which will free us from samsara (liberation / Arhat.) And the selflessness of phenomena, which will remove the veils of ignorance from the ultimate nature of reality (Omniscience / Buddha).


The mind stream goes continuously from life to life.

The results of karmic actions are stored in the consciousness in the form of imprints. When they meet with the right conditions they will ripen and produce results according to their causes (good actions will bring about happiness and bad actions suffering).

Among humans, some are working towards temporary happiness in this life, looking for happiness outwardly (through external objects) and not accepting the law of cause and effect. They do not concern themselves with the importance of accumulating virtuous karma and avoiding non–virtuous karma. Others are working towards the happiness of future lives, by looking inwardly (through meditation) and do accept this law as valid. But they are only interested in obtaining a high rebirth in their next lives through virtuous actions. And some beings practice meditation and thereby attains rebirth in the form or formless realms through the accumulation of neutral (immutable/unchangeable) karma.

These 3 kinds of karma are all contaminated karmas (the negative, positive and neutral karmas) which are the cause of cyclic existence. Uncontaminated karma is the result of all actions based upon the wish to achieve liberation from samsara combined with the insight into the empty nature of things. In the 12 links, we speak of contaminated karma only.

3. CONSCIOUSNESS (mam-shes).

Consciousness is defined as that which is clear and knowing (aware.)

There are 6 different kinds of consciousness:

  • Eye (visual)
  • Ear (auditory)
  • Nose (olfactory)
  • Taste (gustatory)
  • Body (tactile)
  • Mental / Mind.

Sometimes two additional types of consciousness are described: the affected consciousness and the mind basis of all.

Karmic imprints are stored in the subtle consciousness which goes from life to life and remains stored in the consciousness like seeds planted in a field. According to the Mind-Only Schools, they reside in the mind basis of all. In Svatantrika / Madhyamika it is said they reside within the continuity of the six consciousness, and the Prasangika /Madhyamika in the continuity of consciousness that grasps the existence of an “I”.

This subtle consciousness is of two types:

  • The projecting consciousness: This is active at the time of the creation of karmic imprints, and stores the accumulated karmic imprints (seeds) until the necessary conditions arise.
  • The projected consciousness: This is the ripening of past karmic imprints.

4. NAME AND FORM (ming-dang gzugs).

 Name and form refer to the five aggregates, which mutually support each other like the poles that support a tent.

  • NAME: Consists of the four aggregates of feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness.
  • FORM: Consists of the aggregate of appearance.

All sentient beings have the five aggregates except those in the formless realm, who in the intermediate state, are constituted of name without form.

When a consciousness (name) enters a human womb and merges with the white and red essences from the parents, it takes a form (body). At death, the coarse consciousness dissolves into the subtle one and the last moment in this life is the cause for the first moment in the intermediate state where we have name without form. After remaining in the bardo for generally 49 days, the consciousness enters between the red and white drops and grows, the five elements become coarser, giving rise to name and form. Ordinary beings take rebirth under the influence of their karma but there is the possibility of gaining ultimate freedom through liberation which is definitive independence.

There is a mutual dependence between cause and effect. The cause must be consistent with the effect and the effect is dependent on the cause. It is not that the aggregates of previous life go on to the next, but they are interdependent.

So how do we describe the continuity between lives if there is no transfer of the aggregates? There is the continuity of moments being the causes and effects of each other. This is the continuity of the consciousness that is the link between lives. When in past lives we accumulated positive imprints (karma), happy consequences will arise in future lives and the same for negative imprints and suffering. This is made possible by the on going continuum. For example, the passage in life between child-adult -old age is a coarse continuity made of newly arisen states.

The first three links (with the first consciousnesses) are the cause for birth in a womb (name and form) from which sense sources arise.

5. SIX SENSE SOURCE (skye-mched).

To hold and grow – When the consciousness is projected to an object, it holds onto it.

  • Six outer sources: form, sound, tangible objects smell, taste, and phenomena.
  • Six inner sources: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body/skin and mind sense powers. The first five are based on subtle physical elements.
  • The eye-consciousness is composed of the eye sense power and form. In the eye, there is the substance which can perceive form.
  • The ear-consciousness is ear sense power and sound. The ear contains a physical base for sound.
  • The nose consciousness has receptors to sense smells.
  • The tongue consciousness has receptors for different tastes.
  • The body sense power has receptors on the skin to convey sensory impulses.
  • The mind sense power is not physical but based on the continuity of discrete moments of consciousness (sense consciousness).

The coarse continuity of a person allows the arising of the next link – contact.

6. CONTACT (eg-pa).

The object of the mental consciousness is phenomena, and the mental faculty is awareness and has no shape.

This is the meeting between the sense consciousness, the sense faculty and the object. Because there are 6 senses, there are 6 types of contact.

Now the aggregates of distinguishing and significant parts of the aggregates of other affecting variables are functioning. They are no longer merely nameable mental faculties.

Contact usually gives the impression that it is the physical action of contacting an object. It is not that. It is a way of being aware of an object that, because it is distinguished, is contacted. Contacting awareness differentiates such an object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. For example, from within a field of physical sensations, the fetus is now able to distinguish experiences of hot or cold, or bouncing up and down that it cognitively contacts. It is aware of the physical sensations of bouncing up and down, such as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

What determines that?

Karma. Here, karmic results start to ripen that are similar to their cause. Because we created pleasant, unpleasant situations in past lives, we encounter things that we are aware of as pleasant or unpleasant at this stage of development. Although the distinguishing aggregates and other affecting variables, such as contacting awareness are functioning, the feeling aggregate is not yet functioning. It is present, but still in an undifferentiated form as a nameable mental faculty. In other words, we are aware of objects that we contact as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, but we do not yet feel happy, unhappy, or neutral in response.

Thank you for reading my understanding of the first 6 links of dependent origination, back soon with the finale 6.

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