The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

How Life Arises, Exists, Continues and Ceases

Central to Buddhist philosophy and practice is the principle of dependent origination, sometimes called dependent arising. In essence, this principle says that all things happen through cause and effect and that they are interdependent. No phenomenon, whether outer or inner, occurs except as a reaction to a previous cause, and all phenomenon will, in turn, condition the following results. 

Classic Buddhist doctrine carefully enumerated categories, or links, of phenomena that constitute the cycle of existence that makes up samsara--the endless circle of dissatisfaction that constitutes the unenlightened life. Escaping samsara and achieving enlightenment is the result of breaking these links. 

The Twelve Links is an explanation of how Dependent Origination works according to classical Buddhist doctrine. This is not regarded as a linear path, but a cyclical one in which all links are connected to all other links. Escape from samsara can be initiated at any link in the chain, as once any link is broken, a chain is useless. 

Different schools of Buddhism interpret the links of dependent origination differently--sometimes quite literally and sometimes metaphorically--and even without the same school, different teachers will have different methods of teaching the principle. These are difficult concepts to grasp since we are attempting to understand them from a linear perspective of our samsaric existence. 

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Ignorance: Avidya

Monk at Wat Tamphaden Temple
Nicky Almasy / Getty Images

Ignorance is this context means not understanding the basic truths. In Buddhism, "ignorance" usually refers to ignorance of the Four Noble Truths--in particular that life is dukkha which means unsatisfactory or stressful.

Ignorance also refers to ignorance of anatman--the teaching that there is no "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality and ego, are for Buddhists regarded as temporary assemblies of the skandhas. Failure to understand this is a major form of ignorance. 

The twelve links are illustrated in the outer ring of the Bhavachakra, also known as the Wheel of Life. In this iconic representation, Ignorance is depicted as a blind man or woman.

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Volitional Action: Samskara

Ignorance produces samskara, which can be translated as volitional action, formation, impulse or motivation. Because we don't understand the truth, we have impulses that lead to actions that continue us along a path of samsaric existence, which sew the seeds of karma

In the outer ring of the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life), samskara usually is illustrated as potters making pots.

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Conditioned Consiousness: Vijnana

Vijnana usually is translated to mean "consciousness," defined here not as "thinking," but rather as the basic awareness faculties of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind). There are therefore six different types of consciousness in the Buddhist system: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, smell-consciousness, taste-consciousness, touch-consciousness, and thought-consciousness. 

In the outer ring of the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life), vijnana is represented by a monkey. A monkey leaps thoughtlessly from one thing to another, easily tempted and distracted by sensations. Monkey energy pulls us away from ourselves and away from the dharma.

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Name-and-Form: Nama-rupa

Nama-rupa is the moment when matter (rupa) joins mind (nama). It represents the artificial assembly of the five skandhas to form the illusion of an individual, independent existence.  

In the outer ring of the Bhavachakra, nama-rupa is represented by people in a boat, traveling through samsara.

Nama-rupa works together with the next link, the six bases, to condition other links.

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The Six Senses: Sadayatana

Upon the assembly of the skandhas into the illusion of an independent individual, the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) arise, which will lead onward to the next links. 

The Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life) illustrates shadayatana as a house with six windows.​

Shadayatana relates directly to the next link,-- contact between faculties and objects to form sense impressions. 

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Sense Impressions: Sparsha

Sparsha is contact between the individual sense faculties and the outer environment. The Wheel of Life illustrates sparsha as an embracing couple.

The contact between faculties and objects leads to the experience of feeling, which is the next link.

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Feelings: Vedana

Vedana is the recognition and experience of the preceding sense impressions as subjective feelings. For Buddhists, there are only three possible feelings: pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutral feelings, all of which can be experienced in various degrees, from mild to intense.  The feelings are the precursor to desire and aversion--the clinging to pleasant feeling or the rejection of unpleasant feelings

The Wheel of Life illustrates vedana as an arrow piercing an eye to represent sense data piercing the senses.

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Desire or Craving: Trishna

The Second Noble Truth teaches that Trishna--thirst, desire or craving--is the cause of stress or suffering (dukkha).

If we are not mindful, we are perpetually being pulled around by desire for what we want and pushed by an aversion to what we don't want. In this state, we heedlessly stay entangled in the cycle of rebirth.

The Wheel of Life illustrates Trishna as a man drinking beer, usually surrounded by empty bottles.

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Attachment: Upadana

Upadana is the attached and clinging mind. We are attached to sensual pleasures, mistaken views, external forms, and appearances. Most of all, we cling to the illusion of ego and a sense of an individual self--a sense reinforced moment-to-moment by our cravings and aversions. Upadana also represents clinging to a womb and thus represents the beginning of rebirth.

The Wheel of Life illustrates Upadana as a monkey, or sometimes a person, reaching for a fruit.

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Becoming: Bhava

Bhava is new becoming, set in motion by the other links. In the Buddhist system, the force of attachment keeps us bonded to the life of samsara to which we are familiar, so long as we are unable and unwilling to surrender our chains. The force of bhava is what continues to propel us along the cycle of endless rebirth. 

The Wheel of Life illustrates bhava by picturing a couple making love or a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy.

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Birth: Jati

The cycle of rebirth naturally includes birth into a samsaric life or Jati. It is an inevitable stage of the Wheel of Life, and Buddhists believe that unless the chain of dependent origination is broken, we will continue to experience birth into the same cycle. 

In the Wheel of Life, a woman in childbirth illustrates jati.

Birth inevitably leads to old age and death.

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Old Age and Death: Jara-maranam

The chain inevitably leads to old age and death--the dissolution of what came to be. The karma of one life sets in motion another life, rooted in ignorance (avidya). A circle that closes is one that also continues. 

In the Wheel of Life, Jara-maranam is illustrated with a corpse.

The Four Noble Truths teach us that release from the cycle of samsara is possible. Through the resolution of ignorance, volitional formations, craving and grasping there is liberation from birth and death and the peace of nirvana.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).