Inspired by this answer...

Is the specific formulation of Dependent Origination in the early buddhist texts an upaya and/or skillful means?

If so, how approximate is it? Are there other conceptual elaborations that improve upon it?

If it is an upaya, what is the purpose or motivation of teaching it originally thousands of years ago?

Is it different today?

Has our modern conception of physics and psychology led to the development of other upayas that may or may not share some of the motivation or benefits of the original?

There are parts of the early buddhist texts that include teachings on the Four Primary Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. Was this an upaya? Has modern physics provided an update to this upaya that has the same benefits as a better conceptual elaboration of the underlying truth? If not, in what way is the original better?

If you think the teaching on Four Primary Elements was an upaya or skillful means, but one that has been succeeded by a better modern version in physics and chemistry... do you think Dependent Origination is also something that could or should be updated... or one that even has been already been updated/replaced?

To be clear I am not indicating that skillful means involve intended deception.


  • Thanks for the reference. I provided another answer to that question. It may apply.
    – OyaMist
    Feb 7, 2020 at 18:20
  • It's taught in Tibetan Buddhism too, or isn't it? Tibetan illustrations of the Bhavacakra include the 12 Nidanas.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 8, 2020 at 14:28
  • Yes, for sure it is. But usually it is taught as the law of cause and effect and not so much the specific formula at least in my tradition/experience. Feb 8, 2020 at 14:39

5 Answers 5


Let's put it this way. Dependent origination is the noble Right View.

The noble Right View of dependent origination leads to liberation.

The wrong views of eternalism and annihilationism lead to suffering.

The Buddha was only concerned with soteriology and he did not teach metaphysics or ontology. Physics is not his concern.

“Sir, they speak of this thing called ‘right view’. How is right view defined?”

“Kaccāna, this world mostly relies on the dual notions of existence and non-existence.

But when you truly see the origin of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of non-existence regarding the world. And when you truly see the cessation of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of existence regarding the world.

The world is for the most part shackled by attraction, grasping, and insisting.

But if—when it comes to this attraction, grasping, mental fixation, insistence, and underlying tendency—you don’t get attracted, grasp, and commit to the notion ‘my self’, you’ll have no doubt or uncertainty that what arises is just suffering arising, and what ceases is just suffering ceasing. Your knowledge about this is independent of others.

This is how right view is defined.

‘All exists’: this is one extreme.

‘All doesn’t exist’: this is the second extreme.

Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One teaches by the middle way:

‘Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness. … That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. … That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.’”
SN 12.15

Thoughts about whether "I existed in the past" or "will I exist in the future" will lead to suffering. Dependent origination, when realized by the noble disciple, will lead to liberation.

When a noble disciple has clearly seen with right wisdom this dependent origination and these dependently originated phenomena as they are, it’s impossible for them to turn back to the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? After being what, what did I become in the past?’ Or to turn forward to the future, thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? After being what, what will I become in the future?’ Or to be undecided about the present, thinking: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? This sentient being—where did it come from? And where will it go?’ Why is that? Because that noble disciple has clearly seen with right wisdom this dependent origination and these dependently originated phenomena as they are.”
SN 12.20

Also, as seen in SN 12.4-10, past Buddhas all rediscovered the same dependent origination on their own. So it's not skillful means (upaya) but it is a law of nature.

  • 1
    Amazing answer. Thanks! Jul 9, 2021 at 14:35

MN 28 says:

Now this has been said by the Blessed One: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.

Obviously dependent origination is not skilful means.

SN 12.20 says dependent origination is the sabhava or sadhatu law of nature about how suffering arises, as follows:

Uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. Taṃ tathāgato abhisambujjhati abhisameti. Abhisambujjhitvā abhisametvā ācikkhati deseti paññāpeti paṭṭhapeti vivarati vibhajati uttānīkaroti.

Whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. A Tathagata awakens to this and breaks through to it. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it.

  • Thank you. This is an honest answer... do you have another answer on this forum that you think best explains how you understand D.O.? Feb 8, 2020 at 13:10

If so, how approximate is it?

If by "DO" you mean "the 12 nidanas", I found the exposition of that in the suttas barely intelligible -- little more than a dry list of the 12 items, saying that each depends on the previous.

So for that and other reasons I think of those as like chapter titles (without the text), or items on a powerpoint -- i.e. I expect they're the topic or outline of (innumerable) more-or-less detailed dhamma talks.

This site (for one) has many questions about what each nidana is and how it relates to others.

And doctrine about specific nidanas and their near neighbours, is of course important (e.g. the four noble truths).

I think though that the basic principle of DO is central and crucial -- i.e. that conditioned things arise, perpetuate, and cease depending on conditions.

If not, in what way is the original better?

I think of "earth" for example as representing "solidity".

Physics analyses that in more detail -- "why and when and how and to what extent is a substance solid?"

IIRC the context in which it's taught in Buddhism is to have some understanding of what form is -- just enough of an understanding to not get enchanted by it.

  • “ I think though that the basic principle of DO is central and crucial -- i.e. that conditioned things arise, perpetuate, and cease depending on conditions.” - I think this is more or less how I see it and think this is what Nagarjuna suggests as well. But it appears to me others disagree hence my question. Interestingly, I see a pair of Theravada and a Mahayana practitioner who see D.O. as more than this and not necessarily an upaya and I also see a different pair who more or less think it is upaya and that the point of it is the law of cause and effect. Feb 8, 2020 at 15:54
  • In other words, it would seem that the answers to this question do not break down neatly among various traditions including both the Theravada and Mahayana. Feb 8, 2020 at 15:57
  • conditioned things arise, perpetuate, and cease One of the "formulae" (i.e. stock phrases) in the suttas is, the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye arose within him, "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation." So I take it that, that is not a bad summary. I think SN 5.10 is a good summary too. practitioner who see D.O. as more than this I suppose people concentrate[d] sometimes, to see (have in mind, study) a more complicated/detailed doctrine: even the whole Bhavacakra. various traditions My answer might not be orthodox.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 8, 2020 at 18:20
  • Perhaps the "more than this" is to identify what a thing originates from, how it arises.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 8, 2020 at 18:59

In my opinion, it is Niyama Dhamma. I think it is the explanation of Citta Niyama.

  • Dhamma Niyama is not Citta Niyama. Dependent Origination is not Citta Niyama. To think Dependent Origination is Citta Niyama leads to rebirth in hell because the arising of dukkha and how to end dukkha is never understood. Regards Feb 8, 2020 at 12:27

The question wrongly states that skillful means is not true.

  • There are three vehicles, but there is also just one.
  • Similarly, dependent origination inevitably leads to rebirth, but no-one is reborn.

The former is more Mahayanist, the latter more Theravadin.

How that the true is different from the false will differ among people. Some can claim that there's no fact of the matter, others that the truth can be unpacked via language, others that any expression is deficient to reality, others that the apparent contradiction is reality itself. And so on!

  • I don't think I have stated this. Jul 8, 2021 at 22:53

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