By Khempo Ringu Tulku


The dependant origination is one of the basic and most important teachings of the Buddha.

Since it is regarded as part of what we call "the first Turning of the Wheel of Dharma",
it is accepted and discussed in the same way in all the different schools of Buddhism.


In this first “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma”, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths,
and the Twelve Dependant Originations are interlinked with these Four Noble Truths.



The Buddha said that there could be persons, who are not Buddhas, who were not taught by Buddhas, but who nevertheless are able to find out by themselves about the Twelve Links. If such persons meditate or practice accordingly, they can become Arhats on their own. They are what we call the Pratyeka Buddhas, or "Buddha for themselves".


These twelve links are not only a description of the Buddhist philosophy of how the beings originate and evolve in samsara, but it also gives the way, the path to be liberated from this circling in the wheel of Samsara.


We will base our explanation on a painting representing the Wheel of Existence, and we will explain the twelve links one by one.


This painting has a very long history.

It is said that about 2,500 years ago two kings ruled in India, in the area where the Buddha lived. King Bimbissara rules over the Magada Kingdom whereas King Utrayana lived a little further. These two kings were friends, and used to send gifts to one another. King Utrayana once sent a very costly armour to King Bimbissara. It was covered with so many precious stones that it was almost invaluable.

King Bimbissara was very much disturbed because he could not think of anything precious enough to send back in return. One of his ministers suggested then that he sent some portrait or teachings of a most holy and revered person who happened to live in his kingdom : the Buddha. King Bimbissara went accordingly to ask the Buddha for permission to have his a portrait drawn and sent to King Utrayana.

The Buddha agreed , adding that not only his portrait, but also other paintings and writings should be sent to King Utrayana. It is told that the artist was first unable to draw the portrait, because the Buddha was too glorious, producing rays of light impossible to catch on canvas. Asking the Buddha what was to be done, He answered that he would put his shadow on the canvas, from which the artist would draw the portrait. It is said to have been the first image of the Buddha.



He also gave instruction for the other painting, explaining that the artist should draw circle with five divisions, in which the five different realms of existence should be depicted. It should be encircled by the Twelve Links of Interdependant Origination, and the whole circle should be placed in the hands of Yama Raja, the Lord of Death. He then gave two stanzas that should be written under the drawing.

The present of King Bimbissara was received with the greatest reverence by King Utrayana, who was so impressed that he came to pay homage to the Buddha and followed his teachings.


In the centre of the wheel, we find three animals : a snake, a cock and a pig.

The pig bites the tail of the cock, which was originally a pigeon, the cock bites the tail of the snake that bites the tail of the pig.

These three animals represent the three basic mind poisons, which are attachment, aversion and stupidity. It is believed that the snake is an animal full of hatred and aversion. The bird, and especially the pigeon, is regarded as the animal with the greatest sexual attachment. The pig was considered as one of the most stupid animals, which is why he represents ignorance.

Though they are all linked together, it is believed that hatred or aversion comes from attachment, and that attachment comes from ignorance. The starting point is thus ignorance, generating attachment and aversion. These three are placed at the centre, they are the core of the painting to denote that the whole world, the whole universe, is controlled, caused by these three basic emotions.


Around this core, there is another circle, with two parts, one half white, the other black. These two refer to the deeds, the actions we perform that can be either virtuous or non virtuous.

The virtuous actions, which are less under control of the three basic poisons, are called "white deeds", whereas actions performed with a stronger influence of the three poisons are called the "black deeds". It is said that if our actions are black, we will be reborn in the lower half of this realm, whereas if our actions are white, we will be reborn in the upper part of the 6 or sometimes 5 realms of the world that are depicted in the next circle.


The upper part starts with the world of heavens, or the world of gods.

The world of gods is believed to be of three different categories : what is called the "world of desire", the "world of Form", and the "world of the Formless". It is believed that those who have done very virtuous deeds in this world will thereafter go to the Heaven of Desire. Those who not only did virtuous deeds, but also realised a stability of mind in meditation, will go to the Heaven of Form. Those who have gone deeper in the stability of meditation but kept certain subtle misconceptions in their minds will be reborn in the Formless Heaven.



Then comes the world of the semi-gods.

The persons who have more or less performed the causes that would have led to the world of gods, but remained jealous, will be reborn in the realm of the semi-gods, where they will have to guard it and fight a lot.


Then comes the realm of the human beings.

It is attained after lots of virtuous, meritorious deeds, but is overpowered by desire.


The three lower realms are the animal world, the world of hungry ghosts, and the hells.

These three are mainly attributed to the three mind poisons, the animal world to ignorance, the preta world to attachment and hell to hatred or aversion.

It is also said sometimes that if we have performed any action very strongly motivated by any of these three poisons, we will be reborn in hell. A lesser motivation will lead us to the realm of hungry ghosts, and a lighter motivation would cause rebirth in the animal realm.


Around this circle, we find depicted the Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination..


The first Link is ignorance represented by an blind old woman.

Ignorance is the basic, original cause of Samsara. It is represented as an old woman because it is said that our ignorance is very old, going back to beginningless times. And the nature of this ignorance is that we cannot see, we cannot understand, which is why the old woman is blind.


The second link is volition , represented by a man making clay pottery. Volition is actually the force that leads to action. It is more or less like karma, the desire that makes us work, do things. Here it is depicted like this, because volition originating from ignorance makes us perform certain actions, so that we are born into different places and realms. What we will become depends on what kind of actions we do, like a potter himself designs what he makes.


The third link is consciousness represented by a monkey. The monkey is one of the most mobile, active kind of animals, and likewise, our consciousness cannot stay anywhere for long..


The fourth link is what we call "nama rupa", or name and form, depicted as a man crossing a river with a boat. Name and form mean the five skandhas or aggregates that constitute a being, at the initial stage.

This stage comes actually just after consciousness. It is the process of becoming. Consciousness enters the form, which is just about to be born. It is depicted in such a way because name and form serve the consciousness in order to constitute a being, just like the boat is used by the man to cross the river.


The fifth link represents the five or six senses, illustrated by empty houses. The senses are like an empty village that the traveller can cross. Wherever he finds an empty house, he can stop and rest. In this way, the senses give the consciousness a place to rest, to stay for a moment before going on. This is why they are depicted as empty houses. The six senses are the abode, the base of the six consciousnesses.


The sixth link is touching, the contact between the object and the senses coming together, depicted as a couple kissing.

The seventh is the feeling generated by the contact, depicted as a person with his eyes pierced by an arrow.


The eighth one is attachment illustrated by a man drinking. It is said that when you drink, you can never be fully satisfied. Attachment can never be fulfilled. It is produced by feeling.


The ninth link is the grasping depicted by a man plucking fruits from a tree. The next stage after attachment is grasping, which forges the final kind of impression for your next birth.


In consequence, the tenth stage is what we call becoming, represented by a pregnant woman. At this stage, we have experienced the grasping, and the force is such that there is no other way but to take a new birth, all the relevant effects and causes have been gathered.


The eleventh stage is birth, a woman giving birth to a child, which needs no further explanation.


The last twelfth link is means old age and death, an old man carrying a dead body. As soon as one is born, one is carrying the burden of one's own death.


All these things are placed in the mouth of Yama Raja, the Lord of Death, because nothing in Samsara, nothing in the world can be permanent, it is all impermanent.


There is a moon drawn in the right upper corner which depicts Nirvana. If we practice or meditate upon these twelve links in reverse order, we can attain Nirvana. On the left side Lord Buddha is pointing to the moon, which represents the teachings of the Buddha, that indicate the way to reach Nirvana.


In the original drawing, , the two stanzas written at the bottom said :

"Take this up and give this up, enter the Buddha's teachings as an elephant in a lotus pond, destroy the forces of the Lord of Death. He who mindfully engages in this way of discipline will bring the end of suffering."


This is the description of the painting we call " the Wheel of Life".


We will now explain each one of the twelve links in more details.


Actually, the dependant originations are not just confined to these twelve links. It can be anything that is caused by something, which is a product of a cause. In other words, if this causes that, that is the result of this, therefore, it is called a "dependent origination".

This is the basic teaching of the Buddha, the basic difference between Buddhism and other schools of Indian teachings.


You must have heard of Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, who were the chief disciples of the Buddha. They were very intelligent. When they were very young, they learned with the Brahmins, but were not satisfied with what those teachings. They decided to go in search of some better teachings, some higher truths. They each went in different directions, and told one another that whoever would find a true teaching would inform the other.

Shariputra met one of the first five disciples of the Buddha - who looked very disciplined, venerable and noble - and asked him who was his teacher, and what did he teach. The disciple answered by these stanzas :

"All things, all entities come from causes, and those causes are taught by my teacher. The cessation of those causes is also taught by the one who is a great teacher."

Shariputra understood immediately the meaning of this. He informed his friend Maudgalyayana and they went together to the Buddha. They both became the best disciples of Lord Buddha. Since then, these stanzas have become a mantra, and are also regarded as the core of the Buddhist philosophy.

The point behind it is that the Buddha did neither believe in a Creator, a being or something having created the universe, nor did he believe that everything comes just like that, naturally or incidentally, without any cause. He believed that everything created is produced due to its causes.

The Twelve Links or Interdependent Origination are the formula or the teachings the Buddha gave on how we, beings, are created and come to be in Samasara.


The first thing the Buddha said is that there is suffering in this world, lots of sufferings. Everybody suffers. He also explained the causes of these sufferings : there is suffering because of illness, old age and death, and most important of all, because of birth. Why is there birth?

There is birth because all the ingredients, the required causes that make birth inevitable are present as a power. This is what we call "Sipa", becoming, or what is sometimes translated as "mature karma".

This mature karma is created because there is grasping, a strong desire, which is called "Lengpa" in Tibetan.


This strong desire comes from an initial desire.

There is an initial desire because there is feeling.

Feeling is there because there is contact.

Contact exists because there are senses.

There are senses, because there are sense doors.

Sense doors exist because of names and forms.

Names and forms are there because of consciousness.

Consciousness is there because there is an initial volition or immature karma.

Immature karma is there because of ignorance.

Going back to the root, we come to the conclusion that everything originates from ignorance.


We will now explain each step one by one.


What is ignorance? Ignorance is described in two ways, divided in two parts.

The first is inborn ignorance: the mind that does not see the truth, that is dull, unilluminated.

The second type of ignorance is described as the concept of ego, or the misconception "this is me".

The origin of everything is that very ignorance. We can apprehend it like this. The original consciousness is the same as the Buddha consciousness. Then suddenly, there is a slight movement, a slight feeling of fear. With this fear comes a stronger consciousness of "this is me and this is other". This is described as the origin of the cycle.

The other explanation is as follows: the cycle of existence we are in now is based on a misconception. As long as that misconception is present, it always goes on and on, and in that cycle of twelve links, there is no beginning, no end. In a circle, you cannot say where something starts and when it ends, but when the circle is broken, then there is no circle left.

As long as the misconception exists, the circle is there. As soon as we get rid of it, the circle is no longer there. Actually, it has never been there, and therefore, we cannot say either that it began at this or that time. It is more or less like if we see a rope on the road, and we believe it is a snake. As long as we think it is a snake, we are afraid, but as soon as we realise it is a rope, the fear disappears, we know the snake has never been there, and it becomes meaningless to wonder when the snake arrived on the road. I mean, we cannot pinpoint the moment the snake started being there, because the snake was never there in the first place, it was an illusion.


Because of this ignorance - the first and most important misconception that "I" and "others" exist - appears a feeling of "this is good, I desire it, this is not good, I hate it, this is unimportant, I do not care about it." These three basic reactions perform karma. This is the second link, the volition, or immature karma.

This gives birth to what we call consciousness.

This is the third link, which can be divided into two : the consciousness on which the karma makes the impression, called the "cause consciousness", and when this cause ripens, it gives birth to the consciousness of the new birth, or "result consciousness".

For instance, in this life, you do something which will be the cause for you to be reborn as a being in heaven. The consciousness on which this karma is imprinted is the "cause consciousness". The first moment of consciousness you experience as a being born in heaven is the second consciousness, the "result consciousness".

After this consciousness has been implanted, we are about to be born. From the moment we are being created in the womb of a mother, from that stage onwards, we are beginning to take form, the creation of the aggregates takes place. This is the link called "Nama/Rupa", "Name and Form".

After this starts the formation of the sense organs. The ability to perceive with the sense organs is called the fifth link, or "Sense doors".

"Contacts" means that the sense organs give us the ability to have the sense organs, the objects and the consciousness coming together. This is "Contact", or the sixth link.


With contact, the feelings start : this is good, this is comfortable, this is bad, warm, cold, ...This is the seventh link.

Out of feeling comes desire to have comfortable, good, pleasant feelings, and to avoid sufferings and bad things. This is what we call the "Initial Desire", the eighth link.

This initial desire becomes more intense, and we then act to get hold of what we desire. That stage is called "Grasping".

Because of desire and of this strong grasping, we will create such a strong karma that there is no other way but to go on and get another birth. This is what we call mature karma, or becoming, "sipa" in Tibetan, which leads to physical birth, starting in strict terms is at the time of conception.

Since the very moment we are conceived, we start being, and consequently, we start ageing. Ageing and death start from the moment we are conceived.


If we analyse these twelve links, two represent karma : "Marigpa" (ignorance, immature karma), and "sipa" (becoming, mature karma), and three are the mind poisons : ignorance, initial desire and grasping.

Ignorance and immature karma are the remote cause and effect that initially cause us to be born. The subsequent stages, the feeling, the desire, and the grasping , are the immediate causes of our being born.


For instance, now, at this very moment, I am in a state of ignorance. I think I am actually here. When I think like this, I produce immature karma, going on with 'this is good, this is bad, this is desirable'. That impression goes to my consciousness, and because of these three, I experience a strong feeling, a strong desire, a strong grasping. This creates such a strong karma that I am sure it will give birth to whatever will be.

This is what happens in this life, and when we are reborn in the next life, the whole process continues.


This whole process involving the twelve links is usually completed in two lifetimes, but if the karma that we have created is such that it should come to maturity in another life, then it can be completed in three lives. We can say that in less than three lives, the circle of the twelve links is completed.


But we can consider all twelve links as taking place in one moment also.

It is quite obvious. Ignorance is always there, and out of this ignorance, immature karma is created. This basis is always present and is imprinted on the consciousness and out of it, we have a basis for the five aggregates.

We have the sense organs or sense doors and consequently, the objects and the consciousness come into contact. Out of contact, we experience feelings of desire and pain. This perception gives rise to the desire for what is perceived as good and comfortable, and the repulsion towards painful perceptions. With desire becoming stronger, we start grasping and the strength of that grasping has an immediate effect on consciousness, which gives immediate birth to another consciousness: that is mature karma.

As soon as this new consciousness is born, the whole process goes on.



Q. Were you talking about five or six senses?


A. You can say both. The senses are : vision, hearing, smell, touch, taste and mind. Sometimes, mind is not counted.



Q. On this picture; in each of the realms, there seems to be a statue representing the Buddha. What does it mean?


A. Yes, but actually, this drawing is not the original one that describes what was in the Sutras. This drawing is a later production, we can say, of the Avalokiteshvara “production”. There, Avalokiteshvara appears in the six realms in the form of six Buddhas, in order to help beings in those states. These are the six Buddhas who are - we could say - directly responsible for the liberation of the beings in these six different realms.



Q. What stands on the head of the Lord of Death?


A. These are skulls, without flesh.



Q. What is the difference between "namshe" and "yéshé"?


A. Let us take an example. When the eye and the form come into contact, and

then you understand what it is, this is "namshé", the consciousness. And "Yé" is just before that, I mean, the sense reaching the object, the impression you get.


Q. What is the primary consciousness, what is the beginning of the dualistic consciousness, how do we come from "yeshe" to "namshe"?


A. You cannot exactly say that out of "Yeshe" consciousness arises. Consciousness is an image, a word. "Namshe" is a word, something that denotes the time when your consciousness is not "yeshe". You have not recognised the "yeshe" part of it, but you still have the consciousness which comes out of the contacts between organs and objects, and the consciousness that emerges out of this contact. If the nature of this awareness, "namshe", is understood, it turns to "Yeshe". When yeshe has been attained, there is no longer any dualistic feeling. The main distinction between yeshe and namshe is that in yeshe, there is no dualistic feeling, whereas in namshe there is a dualistic feeling. Does this satisfies you?


Q. No, I want to know how namshe comes out of yeshe, because if yeshe is the primary situation of existence, why does it produce the dualistic consciousness?


A. I do not think that yeshe makes namshe, ignorance is making namshe!


Q. Then what makes ignorance, where does it come from? It must come out of something!


A. Ignorance is not made, it comes, like when you do not know something : if you do not know how to read, did you create it?


Q. Yes, I create it, because if I do not know that others can read, there is no problem, but if I see others who can read, and I cannot, then only there is a problem.


A. I think you mean that ignorance is created out of non ignorance ... well, there is no answer to that. Because if you say that reading has created the ignorance of not knowing how to read, then you ask why reading has created illiteracy . Then why have you created reading? Just to make it a problem?



Q. What is the difference between judgement and the right kind of discrimination, what is the right way to react to any kind of event?


A. Judgement and discrimination, well, I do not know what to say ... Wrong or right judgement?...

It is difficult to say what is the difference between a right and a wrong judgement. Well, a right judgement is a right judgement, and a wrong judgement is a wrong judgement ... Maybe we can relate it to this drawing : if you act according to a judgement and you are confronted with one of these three (pointing at the lower realms), then clearly you made a wrong judgement.



 But to make a judgement on a judgement is very difficult. Everybody can make mistakes, even if we try to discern before judging.

© Ringu Tulku