The Twelve Links Maintained by the Doctrine of Dependent Origination

Read this article to learn about the twelve links maintained by the doctrine of dependent origination!

The twelve links in the wheel of causation, maintained by the doctrine of dependent origination, have been divided in three classes viz., the past, the future, and the present.

Thus, the twelve links may be presented as in the following order:-

(1) Those due to the past life:


(a) Avidya or ignorance.

(b) Samskaras or predisositions.

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(2) Those due to the present life:


(c) Vijnana or consciousness of self.

(d) Nama Rupa or name of form.

(e) Sadayatana or the six provinces of the six sense organs.

(f) Sparsa or contact.


(g) Vedana or feeling.

(h) Tanha or craving.

(i) Upadana or clinging or attachment.

(3) Those of the future life:

(j) Bhava or coming to be.

(k) Jati or re-birth.

(l) Jaramarana or old age and death.

In Buddha’s teaching, these links are not always twelve, but the above description is considered to be the most valid. These twelve links are present in this chain from the beginning to the end. The cause of the present life is the past life, while the future depends upon the present. Avidya and samskara are included in the second Noble Truth. Similarly, the Pratityasamutpada can be found in the second and the third Noble Truths. Leaving the first link, ignorance, and the last link, old age and death, the remaining ten links are also called ten karmas. Now these twelve links can be discussed in detail:

1. Ignorance (Avidya):

Avidya is the basis of the Jivahood or ego. It is the substratum of action. Together with Karma, it forms the Jiva. It is due to it that the suffering of the world are conceived. Ignorance causes ego-sense and the individual thinks himself separate from the remaining world. This results in attachment to life which is the root cause of all suffering.

2. Predispositions (Samskaras):

Predisposition means a disposition preced­ing to or preparing for a certain activity. Samskara has been taken both in the sense of origination and the originating activity. It also means actions with purity and impurity, dharma and adharma. Taken in the wider sense, it means that power of ignorance which creates new experiences. As are the predispositions, so are the results. The predisposition of attachment to riches, etc., causes birth in a rich family and the predisposition to get freedom from Samskaras takes one towards liberation.

3. Consciousness (vijnana):

After cessation of the body, the senses and perceptions, etc., as a result of death, the consciousness remains and causes new birth unless as a result of liberation it is completely annihilated. Thus consciousness of self is the real causes of transmigration.

4. Name and form (Namarup):

From consciousness spring name and form. Without the subject, the object is meaningless. Thus, the name and form and consciousness are mutually interdependent.

5. Sense organs (Sada atana):

From name and form arid consciousness are born the six sense organs viz., eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and mind.

6. Contact (Sparsa):

From the six sense organs are born the external organs which make for contact with the external world. Thus seeing is not due to eye, but the eye is due to seeing and similarly, ears are due to hearing. Thus, the external world is created by the form and the idea, etc.

7. Feeling (Vedana):

Contact with external objects creates different feelings. Thus due to contact with the different types of objects one has different feelings of pleasure, pain, attachment, aversion, etc., which bind him to the world.

8. Craving (Tanha):

The craving born out of feelings is the root cause of suffering in this world. It is this craving which takes the vijnana from birth to birth. It is again due to this that man runs after worldly power and self like a blind person. The craving goes on ever increasing and if the craving is overcome the suffering disappears like drops of water from the lotus flower.

9. Attachment or clinging (Upadan):

The fire of the craving is due to the fuel of clinging or attachment. Where there is fire, there must be fuel and so where there is craving there must be clinging or attachment. It is the attachment with worldly objects that causes bondage of the Jiva with the world. It is only after getting liberation from this clinging that nirvana is possible.

10. Coming to be (Bhava):

According to Chandrakirti, bhava includes thoughts and actions which are responsible for re-birth. Coming to be is due to clinging or attachment. Bhava results in birth and birth leads to the sufferings of old age, disease, death, etc.

11. Re-birth (Jati):

Bhava creates re-birth and so the jiva is caught in the wheel of the world and remains in it till liberation is attained.

12. Old age and death (Jara and Marana):

Rebirth causes the whole chain of worldly suffering. After a man is caught in the wheel of the world, diseases old age, suffering, death, etc., recur again and again.

The above mentioned doctrine of dependent origination has been subjects to various types of criticisms. Of these an important criticism is as follows: Avidya or ignorance is the first cause in the doctrine of dependent origination. It is from ignorance that the cycle of world begins.

But if every fact must have its cause then what is the cause of ignorance? The Buddha has not given any explicit answer to this question. As a matter of fact, from the psychological standpoint, this chain of cause and effect cannot be very much doubt and other Indian philosophers have also admitted ignorance to be the root cause of all sufferings. It is not difficult to understand why the Buddha has not mentioned the cause of ignorance. His problems were rather empirical and pragmatic than philosophical. That ignorance exists is empirically proved and hence the questions as to why it is there, becomes meaningless. The main question is not why there is ignorance but how it can removed.

The Buddha was busy in finding an answer to this very question. But it should not be forgotten that the philosophical enquiry into the cause of ignorance has also its own importance. In the philosophy of the Buddha, metaphysics has been subordinated to ethics. The former is secondary while the latter is primary. But the philosophical problems have been always arising inhuman mind and reason demands their solution, however imperfect it may be. It should be noted that the Buddha did not give much importance to philosophical problems and has remained silent on them.

His silence, however, does not mean ignorance. As a matter of fact, ignorance is indescribable, eternal and inherent in the nature of the world. The later Buddhist philosophers like Aswaghosa, etc., have-discussed the cause of ignorance – and stated that it has its origin in Tathata. The cause of ignorance can be discussed only after admitting a cosmic Reality. Ignorance is one of the powers of that cosmic existence.

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