I am reading into and thinking about https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Twelve_links_of_dependent_origination and the first 3 in particular, which basically is a derivation of consciousness from nothing!

A few questions about this:

  1. The first one, "Ignorance", is said of an individual misinterpreting reality, unaware of its true nature. So it acts out of ignorance. But there are two things in there (at least): the individuals, actions, and awareness. Where does the individual come from? As well, where can I find more information on what Buddhism says about the origin of action itself? Because the cycle assumes action and individuals as preexisting, where do they come from?
  2. The second one, "Formations", is where the individual performs actions (mental or physical), avoiding the negative and desiring the positive, with an ignorance about true nature. This leads to a flow of experiences which leads to consciousness? How exactly does consciousness arise out of "unconsciousness" (or whatever the opposite of consciousness is)? I can imagine like a magnet repelling some things and being attracted to others. This slowly accumulates weight around the magnet, which is consciousness? I dunno, doesn't quite click with me yet.
  3. The third is "Consciousness", the result of the actions compelling the individual into existence. Can you explain that more? I can kind of see it, but how does consciousness not exist earlier, during steps one or two?

Thank you for your help.

  • It is as if you are watching a television but the television has engulfed you inside. Utterly unbelievable. There might be some truth in it because I remember I had similar experiences of fading out of consciousness and then back again inside the television. What's strange is how the world seems to be created out of thin air :P just like in a video game.
    – ukh
    Commented Mar 13 at 6:57
  • 1

6 Answers 6


The first one, "Ignorance", is said of an individual misinterpreting reality.

You got it correctly, that is not the right definition of Ignorance for the purposes of D.O. When we discuss D.O. we are speaking outside of a context of an individuum. Instead, in the impersonal context where D.O. takes place, Ignorance is a primordial lack of representational differentiation. Nothing is represented, nothing is differentiated, nothing is known. You can imagine it as a primordial soup of randomly fluctuating energy currents, forming some shapes bouncing against each other and falling apart.

The second one, "Formations", is where the individual performs actions [...] How exactly does consciousness arise out of "unconsciousness"?

Once again, there is no individual yet, no one to perform actions. Instead, as those random energy currents fluctuate, some of the shapes they form end up getting "dynamically persistent" - meaning they are not strictly static and yet they tend to get cyclically reproduced due to being parts of the causal loops. This does not happen everywhere, only in the pockets of low entropy that can fuel the dynamically persistent shapes.

These shapes or Formations bear imprints of the forces that shaped them, carrying information about them, thus being the first very primitive instances of Representation. Over time, after many, many, many cycles, many iterations of the causal loops that shape them, these dynamically persistent formations get combined into clusters of dynamically persistent formations of the higher order, giving rise to more complex Representation.

Eventually it gets to the point where these Meta-Formations grow capable of a kind of mechanical response to certain patterns in the stimuli of the energetic fluctuations they interact with. These mechanical responses are the ontological substratum of Recognition of Signs, the basis of Semiosis. Over time these stimuli-response pairs get combined into chains, that get more and more complex, until there it becomes what we can call a very primitive kind of Consciousness, an advanced kind of pattern recognition.

All this is to say that, in its basic essence, Consciousness is nothing but an emergent property of Formations being carriers of Representation.

So far our discussion was taking place in some abstract cosmological space, before the primordial soup of energies has developed anything we can call life, let alone sentient life. In our segment of the Universe that is clearly not the case. Instead, on this planet we have a booming ecosystem of various causal loops forming dynamically persistent entities known as biological processes and life forms. As I pointed out above, all of these fall in the category of what Buddhism calls Formations. And, as I explained, these Formations inherently carry Representations of energies that shape them. I hope this makes it clear why these Formations should be considered inherently conscious in the very abstract, very rudimentary sense of the word.

Now, as you can imagine, some of these formations evolve to be capable of more complex and more cohesive Representation than others. At some point this Representation enables the level of Pattern Recognition or Semiosis that can itself act as a positive factor of causal loops -- that is to say, a positive factor of natural selection. In other words, the Formations capable of Pattern Recognition receive evolutionary advantage. They no longer randomly bounce around, they tend to gravitate towards desirable causal situations, by taking advantage of Pattern Recognition. They avoid negative causal influences and seek positive causal influences. In other words, it's almost like they (the Formations) act with greed towards the desirable and avoidance of the undesirable. Although, strictly speaking, Formations and their Actions are not subjects and verbs - remember, Formations themselves are dynamically persistent causal loops (and meta-loops of many levels). So all of it is just activity upon activity, causal loops, also known as the karmic tendencies.

To summarize what we covered so far, the primordial soup characterized by Ignorance gives rise to Formations, the Formations give rise to representation, desire, aversion, and consequently, Formations end up gravitating towards what to them are desirable states and avoiding undesirable states. The causal consequences (karma!) born from this pursuit and avoidance feed back to this overall process, creating evolutionary pressure towards more and more capable Formations with stronger capacity for Representation and Pattern Recognition.

In other words, the karma created by the afflictions of ignorance, craving, pursuit, and avoidance, causes the seed of Representation to grow into more and more capable Consciousness. This consciousness is said to dwell in the impressions produced by karma, which are then deposited within it as representations of patterns or "objects".

The above may seem like it describes the evolution of Consciousness during the early part of Earth History. However, it is important to understand that sentient beings, including humans, are themselves causal loops of dynamically persistent entities, and as such every iteration of the loop repeats the key steps of the evolution, thereby reproducing itself. In other words, every sentient being goes through the same process where it starts from Ignorance and develops capacity for Representation and Pattern Recognition by growing certain Formations supported by its body and brain.

Consciousness, thus originating, has the role of delineating individual objects, the nama-rupa. The rest of D.O. describes how this ongoing process leads to the representation of "outer" vs "inner" and the eventual delineation of Self.

I think this should be enough. I hope this will make sense to someone.


These are just my two cents from what I gathered.

Consciousness arises out of mind's capacity to contrast against the properties of things like shape, size, color, etc. When the mind is in deep meditation, the mind thinks, okay this is peaceful than the normal experience of consciousness and it's desire to contrast against things diminishes. At some point, even the awareness of things also disappears because of how relaxing it is. Then, as all the tendency to measure vanishes consciousness also vanishes.

Whatever the Buddha nature might be, I can already see it's ceasing of all sorts of measurement. Which means from the perspective of NIRVANA, everything that is possible to experience by a conscious being is stress, papanca, etc.

Some checkpoints along the path to nirvana,

  1. Utter relaxation
  2. Sound becomes the mind(it's as if the world disappears and stuffs are happening inside), non-duality, non dual awareness, etc. It's as if the mind has become like a transparent glass or something.
  3. Cessation of awareness

What happens at step 4 is yet to be seen. But reality is already feeling a lot strange to me, it's as if I am talking to myself by writing this answer. Anyways, I assume there's SOMEONE out there apart from my imagination who is reading this.


The quote in the question is merely an (erroneous) interpretation.

In early Buddhism, consciousness cannot arise without a sense object (MN 38); without the other aggregates of materiality, feeling, perception & thought (SN 22.53); without perception & feeling (MN 43).

Therefore, what happens in Dependent Origination is the impulses/fermentation ('asava') of ignorance (MN 9) cause non-volitional ('monkey-mind') thoughts based in perceptions & feelings to arise (called vaci & citta sankhara) and also causes the breathing (called kaya sankhara) to become agitated. The agitated breathing or otherwise non-volitional thoughts cause consciousness of those 'formations' to arise/occur.

For example, due to ignorance, the thought arises: "I wish to ask a question on Buddhism Stack Exchange". With the arising of that thought there then is also the arising of consciousness of that thought.

This is all that is occurring. No rebirth or no reincarnation involved.

Similar, the ignorant mind worries, causing the breathing to become agitated. Then consciousness of that agitated breathing occurs. In summary, first there is the agitated breathing and then soon after there is consciousness of the agitated breathing. The agitated breathing occurs first. The consciousness of the breathing occurs second.

In summary, formations do not "create" consciousness. Instead, formations simply prompt consciousness to become "established" upon those formations.

For example, consciousness is established on watching TV. Then there is a loud explosion causing consciousness to stop being established on the TV and to start being established on the sound of the explosion. Then ignorance worries about the explosion and consciousness then becomes established upon those worrisome thoughts. In merely a few seconds, consciousness has moved from watching TV, to hearing an explosion, then moved to thoughts "I am going to die from terrorists".

That is all that is occurring. Formations causes consciousness to become established/focused on those formations. Its not rocket science.

For example, the ignorant thought arises: "I want to watch TV". This causes consciousness of that thought to arise. Then this causes the body-mind (nama-rupa) to decide/intend to watch TV. Therefore, consciousness of this intention occurs. Then the body & mind act to turn on the TV and consciousness of the TV arises. Consciousness of each thought, then action, then sense object is continuously arising & passing. Consciousness is just leaping upon object after object. The Buddha explained:

Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.

SN 12.61

  • For someone so knowledgeable in Buddhism, I always find it strange that you don't believe in karma or rebirth. I hope you will encounter one of those supernatural experiences. Reality is really stranger than what is seen by the eyes.
    – Desmon
    Commented Mar 14 at 12:51
  • The suttas literally say it is ignoble speech to speak of things not directly experienced (AN 4.250). The suttas literally say the Dhamma Refuge is only that directly experienced. Commented Mar 15 at 1:50

I think the consciousness that we normally associated with, is a higher-level construct and aggregation of awareness established with the support of a body (either physical as in humans/animals or otherwise as in devas/hungry ghosts). This higher-level consciousness is something relatively stable and is not the same as the consciousness referred in the 12 links of dependent origination (DO). (A sidenote: perhaps there could be a different and/or better term. Consciousness has a conventional usage which can be confusing).

The DO consciousness is more akin to a consciousness-awareness that is tainted by the pull or push towards what is being experienced (there is a third reaction which is neutrality towards an experience. This neutrality contributes to a constant search that results in an eventual pull or push but this shall be mostly ignored in our discussion). Being pulled when what is experienced is pleasant or pushing away when it is an unpleasant experience appears to be a very rudimentary habitual reaction (I believed shaped by our mind’s inclinations and habitual tendencies). At this level, the pleasantness or unpleasantness that is experienced is largely a result of our karma. Here, the effects of karma are even more direct, immediate and impactful (i.e. scary in my opinion).

This pull and push (formation in DO) is embedded within the awareness. Upon contact (being aware), the choice is already made to like (pull towards) or dislike (push away). It is too late to be even aware of these preferences when a being is already in such low state of consciousness-awareness (e.g. in a coma or near-death experience) to try to effect changes to anything. There just isn’t any high-level consciousness (characterised in those who are living, awake and fully functional) to debate, decide or choose. At this level, the concept of self (i.e. I or me) and the associated ownership (i.e. this is mine, my thoughts, my feelings, my consciousness and so on) does not exists; everything is reactionary and habitual. So, the being does not understand that it is an individual. This concept would require a higher level of consciousness in order to grasp. I believe either the being survives and return to its old body or this pull and push eventually find an opening in the form of a new body and rebirth takes place.

But why is there such a habitual reaction (like/dislike/neutral) that seems embedded within mere awareness? My understanding is, from Buddhism’s point of view, this delusion (i.e. ignorance of the nature of reality) had been cultivated and habitualized since time immemorable, its origin is unknown. With Metta.


The standard formula of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) is given in SN 12.1. The definition of every nidana is given in SN 12.2.

In the standard formula of dependent origination, every nidana that comes after, depends on the one that comes before, as the condition for arising. When the nidana before ceases, the nidana after ceases too.

Ignorance or avijja is the force of nature that gives rise to the mind-body phenomena, and also gives rise to the underlying tendencies that drive us towards craving. It's the natural or evolutionary instinct that drives us towards survival, sensual enjoyment and individual existence.

Dependent on ignorance, volitional formations (sankhara) arises. These are the physical and mental processes. The physical processes here refers to breathing and the rest of the processes like heart beating etc. (i.e. kaya sankhara). Mental processes are of two types. One is the "input path" which processes inputs (the six types of feelings) and produces mental states or cittas (i.e. citta sankhara), while the other is the "output path" which produces actions and words (i.e. vaci sankhara). This is based on MN 44.

Dependent on volitional formations, consciousness (vinnana) arises. SN 35.93 tells us that dependent on eyes and form, eye-consciousness arises. The six types of consciousness are related to the six sense media.

The way I see it, consciousness is the mind-body connection (where mind is "name" and body is "form"), and it's supported by:

Name, reverends, is one end. Form is the second end. Consciousness is the middle. And craving is the seamstress, for craving weaves one to being reborn in one state of existence or another.
AN 6.61

Dependent on consciousness, name-and-form (namarupa) arises. Name-and-form represents a mind-body system that operates together, like software-and-hardware. And if you read the definitions of "name" (feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention) and "form" (form made up of four great elements), they read like definitions of parts of mind and body respectively.

The body is called "form" because it is the form-sensor, that senses external forms. The mind is called "name" because it is the name-assigner, that assigns names to the forms sensed by the body. So the terms name(-assigner) and form(-sensor) describe functions of the mind and the body in the combination of namarupa.

Name-and-form (mind-body) has a mutually dependent relationship with the six types of consciousness according to SN 12.67, like two sheaves of reed leaning on each other.

To put it another way, the mind-body system (name-and-form) depends on the mind-body connection (consciousness) and the mind-body connection (consciousness) depends on the mind-body system (name-and-form).

The nidana of sankhara that comes before consciousness, is defined as bodily formations, verbal formations and mental formations. These represent the basic functioning or basic operations of the body and the mind, as separated or independent operations. Then when body and mind connects, we get consciousness which gives rise to the mind-body system and the mind-body system in turn sustains consciousness.

Please see this answer for further details.


Dependent Origination clearly explains origin of all kinds of suffering(not Self). I will answer your questions.

You spoke :

Where does the individual come from? As well, where can I find more information on what Buddhism says about the origin of action itself? Because the cycle assumes action and individuals as preexisting, where do they come from?

Dependent Origination does not talk about any individual or Self. It begins with Ignorance. What is ignorance? Not knowing that birth , ageing and death are suffering. Not knowing that craving is the root cause of suffering. Not knowing the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Or knowing that birth , ageing and death are the sources of blissfulness. Here it should be noted that no individual is referred because all conditioned and unconditioned phenomena are not self. Ignorance is a phenomena which is over and above consciousness.

How exactly does consciousness arise out of "unconsciousness" (or whatever the opposite of consciousness is)?

Opposite of consciousness is unconsciousness. Something like stone. However no self can be found here. Consciousness is impermanent. Consciousness arises if right conditions are met. Consciousness changes if right conditions are met. Consciousness vanishes if right conditions are met. Condition for consciousness is Sanskhara(conditioning). Conditioning for bodily forms , conditioning for feelings , conditioning for self , conditioning for food , conditioning for perceptions , conditioning to hear , conditioning to see , conditioning to taste , conditioning to smell , conditioning to touch , conditioning for some mental phenomena etc. Some kind of conditioning is always there to fuel the related consciousness. For example:- If sanskhara is of a mathematician ( mental conditioning) then due to that sanskhara along with ignorance, gives rise to math consciousness.

The third is "Consciousness", the result of the actions compelling the individual into existence. Can you explain that more? I can kind of see it, but how does consciousness not exist earlier, during steps one or two?

As I said dependent origination does not talk about self except for the wrong conditioning of mind to recognise sanskhara as self. Dependent origination does not talk about absolute beginning. Absolute beginning is inscrutable. If you notice the mathematician’s Sankhara was due to previous births. Sankhara is just conditioning. Conditioning comes first then related consciousness. Similarly ignorance comes first then the volitions dependent on sanskhara.

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