Considering the formulation of Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent arising)

When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn't, that isn't. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Is this essentially the same as the mundane understanding of cause and effect e.g. I hit a ball and the ball moves? If it isn't (as I strongly suspect) then what is it about the formulation that makes it more than this. In fact so much more than this, Pratītyasamutpāda being one of the central teachings of Buddhism.


4 Answers 4


One must be quite careful with this formula. In fact it never mentions causation and in general early Buddhist texts do not. Even if it purported to be a theory of causation, it tells us nothing at all about causation. It simply tells us that one thing arises in the presence of another and ceases in its absence.

Causality is a very tricky subject. As David Hume pointed out in the 1700s one never sees "causation" one only ever sees sequence. We assume that when one event follows another in close proximity in space and time. But the assumption is impossible to prove one way or another, and we a frequently wrong about it. Immanuel Kant argued that the idea of "causation" is something that we humans bring to the interpretation of sense experience, a preconceived notion that we use to make sense of experience. So "causation" is still not something we can observe, but something we assume must be present because we cannot conceive of the world any other way.

The formula of conditionality specifically refers to the arising of the items on the list of twelve nidānas. Although I think we can better understand it as applying to experience arising from the contact between sense-object, sense-faculty, and sense-cognition. One image for understanding it is that it's like relationship between the foundations, walls and roof of a house. The foundations must be in place for the walls to stand, but the foundations certainly don't cause the walls. And similarly for the walls and roof.

So the short answer is that imassmim sati idaṃ hoti formula is emphatically not intended as a theory of cause and effect. The early Buddhists were interested in the conditions that contributed to the arising of experience, which they also called "dukkha".

That said, later Buddhists tried to apply this idea conditionality to many things besides experience, creating huge unresolved philosophical problems. And at the same time it is often presented these days as a theory of causation - even by quite clever people who should know better. So modern Buddhists are often quite confused about what the imassmim sati idaṃ hoti relates to and attempts to describe.


As per my understanding, Pratityasamutpada is not about simple cause-and-effect chaining.

Starting from a name: pratitya means "based on", "in dependence on", sam- means "co-" or "together" and utpada means "arising" or "coming forth". Together Pratityasamutpada means "arising in dependence on each other" or "dependent co-arising" or "interdependent origination".

Dependent co-arising is closely related with Idaṃpratyayatā (Pali Idappaccayatā) or "this/that conditionality":

                                  AN 10.92

And what is the noble method that is rightly seen and rightly ferreted out by discernment? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones notices:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

As I explained in "What exactly is the logical relation between the links in the twelvefold chain of Pratītyasamutpāda?", the relationship is that of mutual implication.

Mutual implication means one of the categories serves as context for the other and the other way around. When affirmation takes place, the implicitly negated complement simultaneously arises. Top is defined against bottom and vice verse. This (upclose) is defined against That (far). Subjective is defined against Objective. Nirvana is defined against Samsara.

As (Buddha's Chinese near-contemporary) Lao-Tzu beautifully puts it:

                              Tao Te Ching #2

When beauty is recognized as beauty, therein is ugliness.
When goodness is affirmed as goodness, therein is evil.
Therefore, being and non-being are mutually posited in their emergence.
Difficult and easy are mutually posited in their complementariness.
High and low create each other in their positions.
Long and short formulate each other in their contradiction.

As Nanavira Thera rightly assumes in his "Notes on Dhamma" and Buddhadasa correctly postulates in his lectures, the twelve nidanas are meant to explain how the problem of Life-and-Death and indeed the very Enlightenment hinges on the notion of Substantial Independent "I", and how this "I" itself comes forth as a result of an atemporal chain of logical implication.

Indeed, if we think about Death not in terms of its natural causes, but in context of its emergence from non-duality, it will become clear that Death and Birth indeed depend on each other in their juxtaposition. In this sense the notion of Birth could be seen as the cause of the notion of Death. Following the same principle, Birth is not just something that happens for natural reasons, it is a phenomena that depends on delineation of a separate living being, etc.

This way, Pratityasamutpada goes on defining Separate Being by implication from clinging/sustaining (basically, acting out of craving), defining the clinging/sustaining by implication from craving etc. all the way until Ignorance (of Pratityasamutpada) as the root.


In short this is the chain of cause and effect which keeps up in misery or Samsara. This is in direct relation to our cognitive process.

The motivation is to understand this and break the chains in the vicious circle of misery, thus coming out of misery.

There may be other cause and effect relationships which do not directly relate to misery (cognitive process) and the way out of it thus not covered in the dependent origination. In the ball analogy there is no misery involved unless you are hitting the ball as part of a sport. In 1st case it is pure physics. If it is as a part of a game the effects of this is our happiness or misery due to our attachment to the outcome as we evaluate it thus effecting our cognitive process. (E.g. the ball go hit into the goal, the goal was missed, a 6 was hit, the ball got hit in the air and was caught, etc. All this relate to the cognitive process which causes misery in Samsara)

Also I think Dependent Origination generalised outside the Cognitive Process (Nama Rupa Process), as the general context of it is in this aspect.


There is different level of depth and scientifical strictness in understanding of even mundane causal relations. One of main differences of pratityasamutpada from causality in general is its phenomenological context. Pratityasamutpada work between the dharmas.

Meaning of teaching of pratitaysamutpada according to Asanga:

"The real meaning of conditioned production is the fact that there is no creator (niḥkartṛkārtha), the fact of causality (sahetukārtha), the fact that there is no being (niḥsatvārtha), the fact of dependency [relativity] (paratantrārtha), the fact that there is no directing mover (nirīhakārtha), the fact of impermanence (anityārtha), the fact that everything is momentary (kṣaṇikārtha), the fact that there is an uninterrupted continuity of causes and effects (hetuphalaprabandhānu-pacchedārtha), the fact that there is a correspondence between cause and effect (anurūpahetuphalārtha), the fact of the variety of causes and effects (vichitrahetuphalārtha) and the fact of the regularity of causes and effects (pratiniyatahetuphalārtha)." (Abhidharmasamuccaya)

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