My current understanding of dependent origination is that things cause other things to arise and cease and ultimately it a big interconnected web of influences. If that's reasonably correct (on a provisional level) then what meaning does right effort or just effort generally have in that context.

If I arise and cease dependent on other things then where does my own effort come into it? If I decide to practice the Dharma how does that come about? Isn't my decision to practice just the interplay of causes in a big interconnected web?

I appreciate that this kind of questioning can be (rightly) criticised as metaphysical nitpicking. However when I meditate (or even just sit around and reflect) this kind of question comes up for me. It's like a little personal koan that keeps nagging at me so I would appreciate any input - even if it is just a reminder not to worry and get practicing.

  • See also other topics tagged 'free-will' ... I think you might be asking about the connection between 'self' and 'will' (i.e. intent or effort).
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 9:47
  • @ChrisW it does have a strong element of free will. I didn't want to use that term as I didn't want to influence any answerers. Also I don't really want the question to go onto free will in the western tradition which I feared it might. However the tag is a good idea. I shall retag Commented May 7, 2015 at 10:03
  • Although not strictly a Buddhist perspective, Ramana Maharishi used to say - the only freedom we have is how we choose to respond. Victor Frankl also mentioned "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." I think the stimulus is caused by dependent origination, but the response is our free will and right effort.
    – Parag
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 5:21

11 Answers 11


"Is there a conflict between dependent origination and right effort?"

I'm not sure I understand...but I think one conflict is in the word "causes", and also with how to interpret (and make use of) dependent origination. For example, one could express the following idea: "because of his effort, Gotama reached nibbāna". Does that mean that nibbāna was conditioned by his efforts? And yet, where is the "effort" link in dependent origination formulation? Also, in that case, would it be proper to conclude that nibbāna is conditioned?

When dependent origination is taught in the suttas, often what seems to be stressed are, literally, conditions, not causes as we often understand them (eg. agents that actively produce or directly contribute to a result).

When this, 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.
-- Ud. 1:3

For example, we see in a sutta:

with the six sense bases as condition, contact;

-- SN 12:1

And yet, we cannot say from above that the six sense bases cause (or produce) contact; contact is the "meeting of the three" (which is detailed elsewhere). If a contact is present, it means the corresponding sense base is present.

"If I decide to practice the Dharma how does that come about? Isn't my decision to practice just the interplay of causes in a big interconnected web?"

Answering "yes" to "decision is just interplay of causes" could open to a deterministic view, depending on what these causes are. But here's a nice sutta that this reminds me of:

"Faith, monks, also has a supporting condition, I say, it does not lack a supporting condition. And what is the supporting condition for faith? 'Suffering' should be the reply.

SN 12.23

Finally, always good to have in mind:

"Lord, who craves?"

"Not a valid question," the Blessed One said.

-- SN 12.12


Where we don't have a choice:

  • stop, maintain or prolong, create phenomena and influence, control arising and passing of phenomena. Even at a grosser level the influence is limited.

Where we have a choice:

  • not being reactive to sense stimulus but proactive to it
  • influence and regulate your mind towards skillful states and away from unwholesome states

Exercising the latter help you to fabricate better existence or stop fabrications altogether.

There are two places to work on breaking the cycle of Dependent Origination (DO).

  • To keep your mind free from delusion focus on arising and passing of phenomena.
  • Keep your mind equanimous and devoid of craving and clinging thus not reacting to sense stimulus with unwholesome mental states

Like any other processes DO needs it's fuel to continue. The fuel is an untamed mind influenced by craving. So you can extinguish this process by not feeding it with it's fuel, i.e. be equanimous without clinging and craving towards sensations and being mindful of arising and passing of phenomena of the aggregates. The existing fuel will burn out and DO will collapse. You can catalyse this process by actively calming the fabrications, i. e. do some fire fighting.


Your question basically boils down to "is there anything called free will?". There is 'will'. But it is not necessarily free. Even when you get a decision made in the courts, if the jury or the judge is influenced by politicians or corporates, can you call it a free judgment? But it's a judgement nonetheless. Likewise, our will is influenced by greed, hatred and ignorance. So we can't really call it free.

The Citta section of the Abhidhamma explains 17 thought moments of a thought. The 8th is the one responsible for decision making. But that doesn't mean the 8th cittakhana is uncaused. The only uncaused Nama Dhamma is Nibbana and it has nothing to do with decision making.

Speaking of the right effort, it is of four kinds:

The effort

(1) to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states;

(2) to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen;

(3) to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen;

(4) to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

But this effort is not uncaused. It has multiple causes. Why would you want to make such an effort, if you didn't realise that it's important? How would you realise that it is important if you are deluded or if the Budhha did not preach the Dhamma or if there's no suffering in the world or if you were not born as a human etc.?


"If I arise and cease dependent on other things then where does my own effort come into it? If I decide to practice the Dharma how does that come about? Isn't my decision to practice just the interplay of causes in a big interconnected web?

A lot, for the flapping of a butterfly's wings can result in a drastic change in a system's later state (see the Butterfly effect). Also it's a mistaken view to believe that one has no freedom of choice. The Buddha refuted this view in MN 101. Therefore one's decision to practice or not practice the Dhamma now can result in 2 very different futures in this life and the many to come.


In short i would say do not worry that much about such matters. The thing is that intellectual knowledge will not get one to enlightenment or allow a deeper understanding of the dhamma. Like the onion-simile. By using the intellect one can only penetrate the top layers. By using the method of insight meditation one can penetrate into the core of the onion.

It can be beneficial to try to contemplate such matters intellectually and to a certain extent it is helpful to try and grapple with these concepts but one should know the limit of the intellect. Intellectual knowledge also called "book knowledge" because it has no reference point to reality, will not set one free from samsara.

For liberation to happen insight knowledge into how reality functions is needed. That can be gained through insight meditation practice. The experiental knowledge that is gained here is also called wisdom/insight and that knowledge will create understanding of reality.

This understanding of reality will allow one to see clearly, also called clear comprehension of phenomena. One will come to see that both beings and non-beings consist of mental and physical phenomena that arise and cease on their own accord. These mental and physical phenomena consists of a configuration of the 5 aggregates. As we know from the Buddhas teachings then when these 5 aggregates come together and create a biophysio-psychological machine - a being - then there arises the false notion of an I, a Me, a Self.

This false idea of a Self is merely a mental formation belonging to the 4th aggregate of mental formations.

For references to the texts please see MN 28: Mahahatthipadopama Sutta. In here its talked about the 5 aggregates and how they are not a Self. I am here quoting from "The chapter of The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint on p. 281, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi"*:

  1. Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: "This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self".
  2. "Now there comes a time when the water element is disturbed and then the external earth element vanishes. When even this external earth element, great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance, and change, what of this body, which is clung to by craving and lasts but a while? There can be no considering that as "I" or "mine" or "I am".

The above quotes are concerning the earth and water element out of the four great elements which belongs to the 1st aggregate of form. The above words of course is the same for all the aggregates.

So regarding your question; if you take out the I, Me, Self is there then a problem?

Everything becomes problematic and confusing when a Self is added to the equation. It reminds me of a story told by Ajahn Punnadhammo. The story is from Zen buddhism and involves a man looking for the owner of an empty house and not finding him. Then who is doing the looking? Ajahn Punnadhammo then explains that no one is doing the looking. There is nobody home.

When one does insight meditation and come to see that all phenomena are impermanent and unsatisfactory one will then come to understand and realize not-self.

So in short. Its useful to contemplate such questions as you ask but only to a certain extent. One should not get obsessed with such matters since intellectual knowledge will not get one far. Insight practice is the way to go. Direct investigation and examinination of reality. That produces wisdom which will grant one access to understanding reality by realizing the drops of pure insight.

I hope this might be of some help. On purpose i did not answer the relation between Dependent Origination and Right Effort because as i understand it the combining factor was "an experiencing I, Me, Self and when that is added to the equation the question becomes meaningless. Like when the Buddha was asked questions about e.g. the infinite/finite universe i.e. The Four Imponderables and The Ten Indeterminate Questions.

Here the Buddha remained silent. Why? Because he knew that the question was framed in the wrong way. The question was already flawed from the beginning impliying something that is not there.

Through practice you will get an answer to your question but it might be an answer much different that what you think or expect. You might realize that there wasnt a question to begin with.



First a brief answer: DO is in operation all the time and the reason we do not yet see it is because we have the wrong view that there is a self (me) doing all this things.

Then the question is: if "not I" is doing all these things even though I have the wrong view that all this things are done by me, how then does things get done by "not me"?

Here DO comes in (I use because instead of depending just to make it clearer): Because there is contact, feeling arises, because of feeling craving( or its lesser form desire arises). At this point desire(craving) is a past conditioning, habit if you like, and conditioning takes over when mindfulness is weak.

Question: what conditioning takes over when "not me" choose an orange instead of an apple?

Is it because "not me" like an orange over an apple? No, because there is "not me" there cannot be like and dislike. So what conditioning then?

The answer is that there are 24 types of conditioning it could be: Dominance condition, habitual condition, proximity condition, etc..

The subject of causal relationship is complex it is in the 7th book of Abhidhamma called the patthana (contains summary of conditions)

For the book Patthana Dhamma is practically unreadable even for those who have some mastery of Abhidhamma.

It is said of the "Patthana", or "Causal Conditions and Relations". ... And while he contemplated the contents of the "Dhammasangani" (the first book) , his body did not emit rays; and similarly with the contemplation of the next five books. But when, coming to the "Great Book" (the seventh book) , he began to contemplate the twenty-four universal causal relations of condition, of presentation, and so on, his omniscience certainly found its opportunity therein. For as the great fish "Timirati-pingala" (a giant fish) finds room only in the great ocean, so his omniscience truly finds room only in the Great Book. Rays of six colours- indigo, golden, red, white, tawny, and dazzling- emitted from the Teacher's body, as he was contemplating the subtle and abstruse Dhamma by his omniscience which had found such opportunity....


In a bit more detail of the conditions that leads to one practising or not:

“If I arise and cease dependent on other things then where does my own effort come into it? If I decide to practice the Dharma how does that come about? Isn't my decision to practice just the interplay of causes in a big interconnected web?”

It is not only our effort which gets us to continue our practice, there are lots of skilful/unskilful conditions that conditioned us.

I’ve listed them down with their conditions. It is not exhaustive but just an indication of how complex are these interplay of conditions. There is also the repetition (habit) condition (Asevana paccayo) when we do our practice daily.

i. There are six Roots Condition (Hetu paccayo):

  1. Greed,
  2. Aversion,
  3. Delusion,
  4. Non-attachment,
  5. Goodwill,
  6. and Wisdom.

ii. There are twelve constituents of the Path Condition (Magga paccayo) :

  1. Right Understanding,
  2. Right Thoughts,
  3. Right Speech,
  4. Right Action,
  5. Right Livelihood,
  6. Right Effort,
  7. Right Mindfulness,
  8. Right Concentration,
  9. Wrong Views,
  10. Wrong Thoughts,
  11. Wrong Effort,
  12. Wrong one-pointedness.

Some Faculty condition (Indriya paccyo):

  1. Happiness,
  2. Pain,
  3. Pleasure,
  4. Displeasure,
  5. Equanimity,
  6. Confidence,
  7. Effort,
  8. Mindfulness,
  9. Concentration,
  10. Wisdom,

There are four Dominating conditions (Upanissaya paccayo) :

  1. Intention (or Wish-to-do),
  2. Energy (or Effort),
  3. Mind (or Thought) ,
  4. and Reason (or Intellect).


  • Hello Samadhi. Thank you for your contributions to the site. Just noticing that multiple accounts seem to be started under the same name for your contributions. There may be an advantage to sticking to one account and having points accumulate as at certain point levels different functions such as the ability to edit the site become available. Just a suggestion though. Be well. :)
    – Robin111
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 11:50
  • I couldn't sign into my first account because I didn't register so had to use re-sign. Shame about the points unless you can tell me a way of merging the 2 accounts.
    – Samadhi
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 12:07
  • Ah, I see. That would be a good question to ask on meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com. Our moderators might be able to assist.
    – Robin111
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 12:09

You can analyse this with the following analogy:

Say I have a ball in my hand and I'm going to throw it for you to catch it. From an objective point of view, we know with absolute certainty that the trajectory of the ball is subject to gravity, the wind, and depends on the initial push given to the ball. In fact, it is totaly determined by these factors. However, even though we are absolutelly sure of this, this doesn't help us a lot when we try to catch the ball. Subjectivelly, you have to decide intuitivelly where you're going to put your hands to catch the ball. And the reason is simple: there's simply too much detailed information to take in so that you can calculate the trajectory with perfect precision. Instead you make an intuitive best decision.

The same is true when you're in a situation where you have to make an effort to choose the best action. Objectivelly, we can be absolutelly sure that the situation at hand is entirely subject to causes. But there is just too much detailed information for us to take in and "calculate" the absolute best action with perfect precision. Therefore, subjectivelly, you have to apply effort to make the best decision with the limited information you can grasp.


The word "I" is simply mentioned too many times in the question and this is what the "conflict" is.

If the "I" itself was seen as "dependently originated" then no special effort would be required for practice because that insight itself would be the culmination of practice.

SN 12.12 makes it clear that the "I" does not practise meditation (i.e., observe dependently arisen sense objects). Instead, the "I" arises at a later time from the process of "becoming".


My simple vision on this is that, while you being on an intrincate Web, you are part of this Web.

Furthermore, even though you couldn't change the inputs you receive, it's your decision how to react to them, or whether not to react.



Dependent Origination, or as I have heard it expressed slightly differently, "Interdependent Co-Emergence", is a philosophical point to be studied. It is an idea to be explored.

Right Effort is a Practice.

There is no conflict, as they are different Kayas, as it were :-)

  • Other terms I know of: Dependent Arising, Dependent Co-arising, Connected Causes (my favorite).
    – user2341
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:19

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