What is: The 12 links of interdependent origination (1 of 3)


The 12 links of interdependent origination (dependent arising), are one of the basis of the Buddha’s teachings, which can be found in the ‘Rice Seeding Sutra’ and are recognised in both Sutra and Tantra. It states that all phenomena are related by interdependent origination and are depicted on the outer rim of the famous wheel of life. They represent the 12 causes for the existence of all phenomena that keep us trapped in samsara and how to reverse them to achieve liberation.

For example, the existence of the flower depends on the sprouting of the seed. The cause is the plant, producing the flower, which is the cause of the seed. This is the flower cycle. For the seed to sprout, it had to depend on the conditions

All phenomena depend on 6 conditions: earth, water, fire, wind, space and time. That means that any cause, to produce an effect, needs to rely on conditions. This is the law of dependent arising (or interdependent origination).

At the ultimate level, all phenomena are interdependent is the same as saying that all phenomena are empty of true existence. (The nature of phenomena is emptiness).

At the conventional level, everything exists by dependent arising. By investigation and analysis, we can understand the relation between the seed and the sprout – the seed (cause)vanishes when the sprout (result) appears. The cause disappeared but without the cause in the first place, no result can be obtained. This explains the relationship between emptiness and dependent arising.

Law of cause and effect.

The cause should not vanish before the effect is produced and it cannot subside after the result is produced. This refutes the extremes of externalism and nihilism. From that, we deduce that phenomena are not produced and are free of the four extremes of existing: Existing, non-existing, both, and none. They are empty – form is emptiness, emptiness is form etc (The heart sutra).

Space is infinite (endless,) where there is space, there is the universe, and where there is the universe there are sentient beings – sentient beings are endless.Shakyamuni Buddha.

There are 6 classes of beings:

  • 3 higher realms – Gods, humans. and demi-gods.
  • 3 lower realms – Animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings.

Each has its own type of suffering.

Sentient beings can also be classified into 3 realms: Desire, form and formless. They wander endlessly between those realms in dependence on their respective karma. Cyclic existence itself has no beginning and no end but a particular sentient being can uproot the ignorance that binds him to the cycle of rebirth and thus be liberated from cyclic existence.


  • 1.  Ignorance – The root of all samsaric suffering. 
  • 2.  Contaminated actions – The distorted actions of body, speech and mind that arise from ignorance
  • 3.  Consciousness – The continuity of the mind stream serves as the basis of the imprints of karma.
  • 4.  Name and form – is the moment when matter joins mind 
  • 5.  Six sense sources – This is like the construction of a building in which the finishing work, such as windows and doors, has been completed.
  • 6.  Contact – After the sense organs have evolved, they function through the sense consciousnesses to establish contact with outer sense objects, such as visible forms, sounds and so forth.
  • 7.  Feeling – Pleasant feelings arise from contact with pleasant objects, unpleasant feelings from unpleasant objects and so forth.
  • 8.  Craving – The attachment that evolves from ignorance helps condition the karmic seeds sown in our stream of consciousness.
  • 9.  Grasping – This has the special function of bringing karmic seeds to fulfilment. 
  • 10. Becoming – At the end of our life, a throwing karma arises and immediately directs us towards our future existence. 
  • 11. Birth – The moment the wind leaves the bardo body and enters the united cells of the parents
  • 12. Ageing and death –All this produces the ageing process, which eventually finishes with our death.

We go through the 12 links in an anti-clockwise order till the 2nd link, karma. We need to stop the accumulation of contaminated karma (positive and negative) and purify already accumulated karma. To understand how to do that, we have to look at the cause for the accumulation of karmic imprints which is ignorance.

The holding of phenomenon as truly existent.

The antidote is the wisdom to see the nature of reality by abandoning dualism. By suppressing ignorance, we eradicate karma and the succession of the 12 links in clockwise order stops altogether.

When the 12 links are going clockwise, they produce samsara. When they are reversed, they produce nirvana.

The 12 links can be condensed into four: Two causes and Two results.

  • The projecting causes are the 1st, 2nd and 3rd links (Ignorance, karma and consciousness.)
  • The projected effects are the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th links (name and form, six sources, contact and feeling,)
  • The achieving causes are the 8th, 9th and 10th links (craving, grasping and existence.)
  • The achieved results are the 11th and 12th links (birth, ageing and death.)

The 12 links can also be classified into three groups:

  • Delusion: Ignorance, desire, grasping (links 1,8,9).
  • Karma: Compounded karma, existence (links 2, 10).
  • Base of suffering: The other 7 links (3,4,5,6,7,11, and 12).

This categorisation goes according to the Four Noble Truths (The truth of suffering, The truth of the cause of suffering, The truth of the cessation of suffering, and The truth of the path.) It shows the first two of the Four Noble Truths, delusions and karma represent the true cause, and the base of suffering represents the true suffering.

By understanding the relationship between the Four Noble Truths and the 12 links of dependent arising, we can have a clear picture of how samsara is formed and how nirvana is achieved, and develop stable faith in the teachings which lead to nirvana.

Thank you to take the time to read my brief introduction to the 12 links of dependent origination. I’ll be back with a more detailed description of each link soon.

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