I'm struggling hard to make final sense of the chain of "dependent origination". In the oldest texts in Pali and Sanskrit, already, there are different explanations.

The Mahānidānasutta, where the chain has just nine links, the general formula is

x-paccayā y


through the condition of x, y (is).

Now the question arises, what kind of condition this is thought to be: a sufficient condition? A necessary condition? Or both of them?

The second part, states quite clearly, that if x is not there, then y is also not there, implying necessity of x for y.

Now, a general rule (e.g. Majjhima Nikaya 38, 19) states:

imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati

which translates as:

If that is, this is, through arising of that, this arises

This is also consistent with a parallel in the Sanskrit Catuṣpariṣatsūtra but not with the view, that we are dealing with mere necessary conditions. They need to be sufficient, for this general statement to apply.

Now here things become even more complicated, since another general rule, actually a seemingly extended version of the former states (MN 79, 7, also in SN and Udana)

imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati; imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati

which now means

When that is, this is, through arising of that, this arises; when that is not, this is not, with cessation of that, this ceases.

implying biconditionality.

How are the different versions explained? What is, in the end, the relation between the links? What can be thought to be the Buddha's original version and intention?

  • Actually, looking again at the quotes I realized, that a correct translation would be "If this is, this is (also); through arising of this, this (also) arises", since imassa and imasmim are just inflected forms of the very same idam. The same applies for the Skt. parallel asmin sati...
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 16:38
  • Great content. Looking forward to more Q&A from you. Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 4:55

6 Answers 6


As I understand, the relationship is that of mutual implication. This meaning is reflected in the name pratitya-samutpada, that is often translated as "dependent co-arising" and such.

Mutual implication means one of the categories serves as context for the other and the other way around. Top is defined against bottom and vice verse. Life is defined against death and vice verse. This (upclose) is defined against That (far). Subjective is defined against Objective.

The twelve nidanas are meant to explain the emergence of the notion of Death by implication from Birth, of Birth by implication from Identifying with Separate Being, of Identifying with Separate Being by implication from Goal-making, of Goal-making by implication from Temporal Projection, of Temporal Projection by implication from Sensation as Result, of Sensation as Result by implication from Contact, of Contact by implication from Doors onto the world, of Doors onto the world by implication from Objects, of Objects by implication from Recognition, of Recognition by implication from Imprints, of Imprints by implication from Ignorance.

  • Actually this is the only interpretation which is consistent with logic and all the quoted statements. The problem here is, that in Pali Abhidhamma it is held - as in Dhammayutta's answer - that there is always a multitude of conditions. If there is a mutual implication of single conditions, then there can't be any other conditions.
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 14:08

In pratityasamutpada there are actually eleven links, as each causal link occurs between one of twelve states.

The relation is described as "yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā"—“that wherein is reality (tathatā), not unreality (avitathatā), not otherness (anaññathatā), specific conditionality: [that is called dependent origination]”, and in detail is explained as this:

Because particular states are produced by particular conditions, neither less nor more, it is called reality (suchness, tathata). Because once the conditions have met in combination there is no non-producing, even for an instant, of the states they generate, it is called not unreality (not unsuchness). Because there is no arising of one state with another state’s conditions, it is called not otherness. Because there is a condition, or because there is a total of conditions, for these states beginning with ageing-and-death as already stated, it is called specific conditionality. (Visuddhimagga)

So, this is both sufficient and necessary conditions. But, it's important to know that pratityasamutpada is a brief explanation, almost enumeration, and not all conditions are named, only so-called representative cause and fruit. The most detailed explanation of the paticcasamuppada you can read in Visuddhimagga (pdf).

  • Whence did you get the information, that these are only representative cause and fruits?
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 19:57
  • @zwiebel Visiddhimagga, I have linked pdf in the answer.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:09
  • I guessed so far. Can you give page and paragraph number?
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:25
  • Just open pdf and search for: representative. Thanks for the edit.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:29
  • 1
    note, btw, that the quote "yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā" is from the canon, to be found at SN XII.20.5
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 11:14

According to Theravada, the actual conditionality is more complicated even than is explained by PS. For a true understanding of conditionality (apart from attaining Buddhahood), a study of the Mahapatthana is probably more enlightening, intellectually speaking, since it outlines 24 types of conditionality:

Hetupaccayo , ārammaṇapaccayo, adhipatipaccayo, anantarapaccayo, samanantarapaccayo, sahajātapaccayo, aññamaññapaccayo, nissayapaccayo, upanissayapaccayo, purejātapaccayo, pacchājātapaccayo, āsevanapaccayo, kammapaccayo, vipākapaccayo, āhārapaccayo, indriyapaccayo, jhānapaccayo, maggapaccayo, sampayuttapaccayo, vippayuttapaccayo, atthipaccayo, natthipaccayo, vigatapaccayo, avigatapaccayoti.

Reading the Paccayaniddeso, it seems clear that the type of conditionality depends on the link in question. For example,

rūpāyatanaṃ cakkhuviññāṇadhātuyā taṃsampayuttakānañca dhammānaṃ ārammaṇapaccayena paccayo.

Basically, forms share conditionality with the eye by virtue of being their object, etc.

I'm not an expert in Theravada Abhidhamma by any means, but it certainly doesn't seem like one can give a categorical answer or take PS as a strictly literal chain of linear causation; it seems much more an exegetical teaching meant to summarize the nature of samsara. In Theravada it is further complicated by the idea of relating to three lives. Read the article by P.A. Payutta for explanation of that concept (and for more insight into PS in general):


EDIT: Here's a source that compares PS and Patthana:


It points out the difference in style between PS and Patthana; as I said, PS is conventional and Patthana is dealing with ultimate realities. It also states that Patthana:

examines in greater detail cause and effect, as PS does not explain how the cause becomes the effect, or the relationships between cause and effect. For example, no single cause can produce an effect and a cause does not produce only a single effect. Therefore, it is a collection of causes which produces a collection of effects. PS looks at the chief causeand the prominent effect only

Seems like the article is worth reading, but I just found it on Google, so no assurances :)

  • Thanissaro wrote a short book on the subject, and he makes it out to be quite complex but very clear at the same time. This book was an important reference on a paper I wrote for an Asian Philosophy class: accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/…
    – Anthony
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 3:44

The conditional relation of the links of dependent origination are necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions. This is clear when we compare the links in dependent origination with other teachings. For example, according to the twelve links, the sixfold sense-base is a condition for the arising of contact. But in many places in the Suttas it is taught that:

Dependent on the eye & forms there arises consciousness at the eye. The meeting of the three is contact. (Similarly with the other senses)

which indicates that the sense base isn't sufficient because contact also depends on an object and on the arising of consciousness.

Also I don't see how

When that is, this is, through arising of that, this arises; when that is not, this is not, with cessation of that, this ceases.

Implies biconditionality. It sounds like straightforward necessary causation to me.


As I see it some of the links are bidirectional while some links like between sensations and craving (the place you can break the cycle) unidirectional.

If craving there should be sensations but in a liberated person thought he experiences sensations there is no craving.


The Pratītyasamutpāda theory can be applied for different conceptual levels of life. The relation of the chain also differ accordingly. Life can be defined as

  1. a physical process.
  2. a mental process.
  3. a hybrid of both above.
  4. a conceptual phenomenon.
  5. a combination of all these.
  6. as three life -- past, present and future.
  7. a moment of thought. Etc.

The original meaning is not as sufficient, necessary, or bi conditions. Pratītyasamutpāda is ‘THE RELATION’ that lord Buddha use to explain the worldly phenomena.

  • You're welcome. Is there anything you can add especially to the first two parts (i.e. the parts which answer the question, not the comments on other people's answers)? For example you said, Life can be defined as 1. a physical process. 2. a mental process. 3. a hybrid of both etc. What is your reason for saying that: is that a quote from somewhere, and if so then from where? And in the second part, you quote yasmin sathi idam hothi: where is that from, and would you add a translation?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 9:12
  • I didn't understand the word "pasting" when you wrote, ...not eating (pasting) both physical and mental foods. Can you clarify that word? Also, you wrote not eating: but maybe "not eating (at all)" is too extreme, see for example Apocarteresis in Buddhism.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 9:16
  • Your comment on catpnosis' answer was that there are 12 links, because it's like a circle with the last linked to the first etc. In the next sentence (Pratītyasamutpāda explain if avidya etc.) you start to talk about the four noble truths. Should that next sentence be a new paragraph: i.e. is it unrelated to the previous sentence, or if it is related what's the connection between that sentence and the previous one (or between that sentence and catpnosis' answer?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 9:20
  • Yes, there is a mistake, it should be "imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati; imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati" as in the question.
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:48
  • Ahara sutta -( SN 1.2.1 ) state 4 type of foods relate to samsara.
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 15:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .