I am having difficulty understanding the idea of interdependent origination within the following text. It is from The Essence of Buddhism by Traleg Kyabgon. I am finding this book very useful as a refresher on the basic philosophy of Buddhism, especially because it includes Tibetan Buddhism. However this section, which talks about one of the two main ideas in Buddhism, seems to rely on terminology that gives me the impression of circular reasoning.

"How, then, do things come into being? They come into being because of what is called interdependent origination, or pratitya-samutpada—that is, due to causes and conditions. This implies that things do not have inherent existence, because if they had any kind of essence or independent existence there would be no need for the whole idea of causality. Nagarjuna says: “The origination of inherent existence from causes and conditions is illogical, since if inherent existence originated from causes and conditions, all things would thereby become contingent. How could there be contingent inherent existence? For inherent existence is not contingent; nor is it dependent on another being. So the very idea of causality involves the notion that things are contingent. There is no being that can exist on its own without depending on anything else; no self-sufficient being. Everything is interdependent. Everything that exists on both the physical and mental plane involves the idea of interdependence, or pratitya-samutpada.”

I would very much appreciate an explanation, in clear English and without reliance on terminology (because it appears to be explaining by self referencing concepts and terms) of this basic idea. My guess is that the author is assuming that I already know something which I do not. References to online sources would be appreciated, if you can explain it yourself that would be terrific, and most of all if you can refer me to a clear, translation of the Buddha's original words about this that would be splendid.

Many thanks.

6 Answers 6


The Wikipedia entry on dependent origination is pretty good and simple. Similarly there is a good essay called Dependent Arising by Piya Tan.

In simple terms this is as follows:

  • When the cause is present, the effect arising from the cause is present as well
  • When the cause arises, the effect arising from the cause arises as well
  • When the cause is not present, the effect arising from the cause is not present as well
  • When the cause ceases, the effect arising from the cause ceases as well

The 12 links dependent origination (found in numerous Suttas like (Avijjā) Paccaya Sutta) you fill in specific cases and their resulting effects and how these affects in turn become a cause to create more effects.

The most elaborate of specific cause and effect relationships are found in the Theory of Conditional Relations. This maybe above the head for many.

Another rendering of this is the 4 Noble Truths.

  • 1
    Thank you for your response and your earnest effort in understanding the teachings. It did not occur to me to look to Wikipedia for help, good catch. I will definitely follow up on that and the other sources that you refer me to. Answering the question in simple terms does not help me yet, because that seems so self-evident.I think I have run into something which is both simple and profound. Lucky me. Apr 14, 2016 at 19:13

In our day to day perception, we see objects as "things-in-themselves" and this is useful to make those practical decisions we all have to make at every moment.

Car (=object) is coming at me -> Threat -> Better get out of the way.

However when we start to look deeper we see that these objects are actually constructs, without independent reality.

It is useful to think of objects as "systems".

A system has components and processes inside of it. The system depends on these processes. The processes inside this system in turn depend on the system as a whole.

Our body is a great example. The liver is a subsystem upon which we (as a system) depend. In turn, the liver depends on the whole system. The Liver would also not have existed without us, nor would we exist without one.

We in turn live in a larger system to which we contribute and in turn we are sustained by the system.

In other words: An object only arises when the right conditions are present.

That car has no independent reality, but I must admit I'll still get out of the way.

  • Thank you for your response. It resonates with a meditation that I started doing, impromptu, and have returned to. It typically began, "Focused attention shifts to the body. It is incorrect to say that 'I am this body,' or 'This is my body.' It is more correct to say 'There is a body, which contains hands, eyes, etc.' This having been witnessed, the body drops away from awareness and attention turns to emotions." ... (concrete mind, abstract mind, etc.) I had seen "my self" as a thing-in-itself, which has definite utility in this realm, but it is not correct and it is limited. Apr 14, 2016 at 19:52

I think it's similar to the theory of cause-and-effect: if A causes B, then the origination of B depends on A.

It may be a little vaguer than cause-and-effect (and for that reason I think it may be more useful or more true than a simplistic view of cause and effect): sometimes I find it difficult to answer, "which is the cause and which is the effect?" For example, is fire caused by heat, or is heat caused by fire? IMO "inter-dependent" avoids committing itself to a specific distinction between cause and effect, and lets you say that "the origination of fire depends on heat" as well as "the origination of heat depends on fire". Heat and fire can be said to "co-arise" i.e. they arise or occur together, or depend on each other.

A simple example might be, as Suminda mentioned, in the four noble truths: the second noble truth says that the origination of suffering is craving, which means that suffering has craving as its condition (the existence of suffering implies the existence of craving, or perhaps they co-arise). The third and fourth noble truths state the converse of that relation, i.e. cessation of craving and of suffering.

I think it's meant to be a useful theory: for example fire depends on fuel, so you can extinguish fire by removing it from its fuel. Understanding the cause[s] of existence (e.g. of suffering or of non-suffering) is a kind of science.

I think it also relates to ideas of "impermanence" and of "emptiness" and "non-self". A theory of self might say that there's a "me" that's not only permanent but also independent of other things (e.g. if I had an eternal soul then that soul might presumably be independent of impermanent or transient things). But the theory of dependent origination might disagree and say that the body depends on various things (birth, food, etc.) and that various aspects of the mind depend on things (things, senses, contact between things and senses, consciousness of that contact), and that things which arise dependent of some condition do the opposite of arising (i.e. they cease) when those conditions are no longer applicable, hence "all put-together things are subject to decay".

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    Thank you, this reminded me that my focus is practical. Yesterday I went back to Houston Smith's book, "A concise introduction to Buddhism." He has remarkable clarity. He states, "Human actions vectored by ignorant desire tend to yield only more of the same. If the trend is unchecked, the wheel of dependent arising only tightens our bondage. Conversely, however, actions vectored by the intention to win spiritual freedom yield their kin. If this trend is cultivated, the wheel of dependent arising starts turning in the other direction, uncoiling our bonds. This is the life of awakening." Apr 14, 2016 at 20:11

Just a quick answer to try and clarify the terminology:

  1. if X originated from conditions, it is not / does not have inherent existence; it's dependent [on the conditions that originated it]
  2. if X has inherent existence (meaning: it exists independently), then it did not become (i.e. "it wasn't born") due to some conditions; it does not depend on any condition.


“The origination of inherent existence from causes and conditions is illogical

That is, something cannot be independent and at the same time arise because of (be dependent on) conditions -- it's a contradiction, a fallacy. Either it s (1) or (2).

since if inherent existence originated from causes and conditions, all things would thereby become contingent.

In other words, if (a) that which is conditioned is conditioned, and (b) that which is not conditioned is also conditioned, than all things would be conditioned.

How could there be contingent inherent existence? For inherent existence is not contingent; nor is it dependent on another being.

In other words: this can't be. So inherent existence is not dependent on anything.

Thus, apart from the vocabulary, that Nagarjuna quote is just a logical analysis with the intent to show that something independent is, indeed, independent from everything.

  • Thank you for your response. Indeed the Buddha was more logical than anyone of whom I have heard. Unfortunately an if – then – else understanding is beyond me at this time. And it is the terminology and jargon which is creating difficulties. It would be very helpful for me to have a much more simple, direct explanation if you have it. Apr 14, 2016 at 19:56

I too had a problem with this concept when I first began my studies. It was helpful to substitute "fixed" for "inherent" (after consulting the dictionary). If phenomena are fixed, then there can be no cause or condition that can change any object, concept, or emotion. An examination of life tells us this is not true. Nothing is independent of the influence of something else. Everything is dependent upon a cause that originates an effect.


For the Buddha, the term paticcasamuppada is only used for the causality (iddapaccayata) that leads to the origination of suffering. The causality of material things, for example, is called iddapaccayata rather than paticcasamuppada. All iddapaccayata (causality) is not paticcasamuppada. However, paticcasamuppada is a subset of iddapaccayata.

The Buddha was primarily concerned with how suffering arises & ends so the Buddha was primarily concerned with paticcasamuppada.

Paticcasamuppada is about how ignorance of the impermanence & selflessness of phenomena results in the mind craving for & clinging to impermanent phenomena as "self" & "belonging to self". When impermanence occurs to those objects of clinging, "aging-&-death" occurs, resulting in suffering.

In short, paticcasamuppada simply explains how, due to ignorance & craving, the mind suffers over change & loss.

The Nakulapita Sutta provides an easy to understand example of how the last four conditions of paticcasamuppada result in suffering (sorrow).

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