Author Barry Ku San

This paper is not intended to be definitive in its treatment of the concept of Dependent Arising. Much of what you will find here comes from my own experiences during meditation and I have written this paper to help people new to Zen to begin to understand how they are trapped in their conditioning.

Dependent Arising or Dependent Origination.

“When this is, that comes to be, With the arising of this, that arises,

When this is not, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.”

The Buddha’s reply to Sakuludayi, (Majjhima ii.32) (Kearney, P.2001)


“Any given experience or phenomenon is supported by something other than itself and…..coming into existence through phenomena other than itself, and going out of existence through phenomena other than itself.” In the words of the Buddha, “When this is, that is; because this arises, that arises. When this is not, that is not; because, this ceases, that ceases.” (S2.28 in Kearney, P 2001).  This article has been designed to help unpack some of the complicated concepts surrounding “Dependent Arising“ and to bring into relevance one of the Buddha’s great discoveries and to bring this to the attention of the 21st century non Buddhist or beginner practitioner. “Everyday”, examples are used to clarify how dependent arising is working in our life. These examples will help practitioners see how they are bound in suffering and this teaching will help the practitioner escape from the habits and conditioning that has bound them in the past. There is great deal of information available elsewhere once you have a working knowledge of “Dependent Arising”.


Dependent Arising—Paticca Samuppada—is a basic teaching of the Buddha-dharma. Students of Buddhism need to understand and penetrate this teaching to untangle the cycle of existence and go beyond samsara. This doctrine is not a mechanical law of causality. The Buddha does not speak of a first cause in the world but speaks of conditionality where the world is subject to cause and effect. Dependent arising teaches that everything is conditioned and that everything comes into existence because of a cause or causes. (Piyadassi Thera, 1959) When Siddhattha discovered Dependent Arising he became the Buddha. (One who knows and is awake).

The Buddha discovered that ceaseless change is the only thing that is permanent and he showed that things change according to conditions. Kearney, P. (2001) suggests that we need to live a life without interfering with this natural arising and cessation of phenomena and it is this life that brings about the ending of suffering. He goes on to declare that Dependent arising is central to the Buddha’s teaching. The total understanding brings about the final goal of Buddhism and our awakening.  We learn to let go of things.

          “Of those dhammas produced by a cause, the Tathagata has taught their arising

           And also their cessation. This is the teaching of the Great Philosopher.”      (Vin. 1.40). (Kearney, P. 2001)

Kearney, P (2001) helps unpack this concept further by suggesting other useful ways of understanding dependent arising.  He defines Paticca: “as on account of “or “grounded on”; Samuppada as “arising together” or “co-arising” and “Paticcasamuppada: as “dependent arising”, “dependent co- arising”, “interdependent arising”, “dependent origination”, “conditioned genesis” and “conditioned co-production”. He goes on to define how in a “lived experience” that a single result is not from a single cause. He further relates that the world is not an independent existing entity, but “our world is our experience of the world”.     

Dependent Arising is one of the oldest and most important teachings of the Buddha. The doctrine defines how all physical and psychological phenomena mutually condition each other. This process entangles sentient beings in samsara. “The crux of the Buddha’s awakening is the discovery of Dependent Arising: everything and every process arise in dependence upon countless other things and processes.” (Smith, H. & Novak, P. 2003).It is usually described as a twelve step process and starts with; 1) Ignorance, which is lack of recognition of the Four Noble truths which is the understanding of suffering and the nature of existence which leads to 2) impulses which precede actions which are related to (good or bad) and they in turn condition, 3) consciousness. And this instigates the arising of, 4) name and form, (psychological and physical) consisting of the five Skandhas ( form, sensations, perceptions, mental reactions and then consciousness),  which leads to, 5) the six bases arise, (seeing , hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking) which conditions, 6) contact with the environment  and this invokes,7) sensations, for people who are ignorant, and 8) craving develops and leads to, 9) clinging and, 10) a new state of being is set in motion which is followed  by, 11) birth of a new state which comes to an end in, 12) old age and death.

This process or sequence could be interpreted as successive rebirths or it could be describing conditions that arise and pass away. These conditions could be seen as arising and passing away of perceptions and emotional states in a person’s life which perpetuates duhkha (suffering). When one accepts the Four Noble Truths and studies mindfulness meditation and applies awareness one begins to understand “Dependent Arising” (Melbourne Zen group 2010).

When we look with insight we find that the world out “there” and the world in “here” are seen in the same way. We see the “self” and the “world” as a series of experiences. We manifest our experiences according to patterns of perceived cause and effect

This is the traditional view of the teaching of Dependent Arising, which is usually presented as links as above. I want to take this discussion a little further and reposition this concept and remove the idea of a links or a linear process for the purpose, of making plain, the dynamics of Dependent Arising. There is a sequential event that does give the effect of a linear process. What we see, is something that looks linear; one thing leading to another and then leading to another and to the next, but the process of dependent arising is much more complicated. However, what you experience seems to make you aware of these sequences. You hear a sound and you are aware of hearing a sound and having a certain reaction to the sound or that you have a thought and come up with a judgement about that thought or you sense that there is a sequence of feelings and thoughts one after another. When you look at this as a sequence you miss how all this really relates to each other.

You might think that you hear a sound and are irritated by it, and then you think that it is in hearing the sound that makes you irritated. But if you just stay with your experience long enough you will find that hearing and irritation come up together. Hearing the sound, the irritation and wanting to not hear the sound or wanting to do something about it are all together. There are these things arising together and when you stay with your experience you begin to see this more clearly and you see this in your experience. There are these things being together in your experience. Take the experience of hearing a roaring wind while sitting on top of a mountain. At first you are fascinated then you begin to experience fear or agitation.

The Buddha saw that people do not have a clear or correct perspective of their experiences. You do not see correctly what is happening inside you.  He taught that people think things are caused in them, by another person or event. He also found that people think feelings are there because they are caused by other people. This is something outside you. People also “think” things are caused inside “By a Self.”  By “oneself”, as if there is a “being” inside you that creates these things. People interpret their experiences as being accidental and that their moods, feelings and their actions just come about accidently or come about spontaneously; or because of duty or destiny. Thus, people don’t have to take personal responsibility.

What the Buddha saw “going on” in us is caused by conditions. It’s happening not because there is a self or because someone causes it, or by accident, but because of these conditions. The conditions are; when there is one thing there is another thing present. The Buddha taught that this process of dependent arising is running on in you, out of control, and you really can’t do a thing about it. You are stuck, and you are then stuck as the “obsessive observer”. It just kind of starts to burn and that’s Dependent Arising. What really is going on in us, are the various perceptions and habits that have formed inside us. It is not us controlling it, but it is just coming up on its own. When you begin to meditate you will start to see your experience as part of this kind of interplay with your senses and what’s going on inside you. 

This looking at your experiences n a new way, allows you to see how things are much more together and related and you start to see things not in a linear way. This simplistic view is; if we stop the sequence at a point between: 7) sensations and 8), where cravings develop, the sequence won’t develop further. This approach suggests that you need to develop a certain awareness or equanimity. This is more difficult in practice to achieve as it is not always what really happens or how we often experience things. Unfortunately, in “dependent arising” your mind can get stuck and you will get habitually upset or irritated. For example, it’s hard to have the pain in the legs and not have anger or aversion regarding it and you are going to get irritated at certain noises and you are going to feel frightened when certain things come up.

Often when some things come up you might feel full blown fear and/or anxiety and depression. This reaction is “full blown” and you have fused with it. Over time you might see how it vanishes and then you start to see how experiences arise and pass and a whole variety of experiences arise, and how a variety of things hold all this together and sustain this structure and how this may diminish and vanish and that is Seeing DEPENDENT ARISING in your own experience. You see how things can diminish and dissolve away. You begin to see things coming together and you may develop more awareness and you can diffuse more quickly and you are able to allow things to come up together and maybe you don’t notice each thing that’s happening. 

When we break things down into parts this becomes an abstraction around an experience and you start to think things are separate. For example, when we hear sounds and then we get irritated and we think it is a separate thing, that we must do something about it. You become “abstract” in your thinking and you are not seeing how things come together. The important thing about dependent arising is that it helps you understand yourself. You learn how you get disconnected from certain aspects of yourself. You start to notice the process and you notice how dependent arising makes phenomena and mental states appear solid. The process that you are looking at may have already changed and shifted and you just need to notice the process. You need to understand it and how it functions. You begin to notice the narrative or story you tell yourself. This is what surrounds the experience.

So how do you become less embedded or not so enmeshed or fused in parts of your experience? How do you “not become” the depressed person when you feel some sadness come over you or how do you not become anxious? How do you move from a place of being completely embedded and fused in your experience, to being able to see into your experience and to become much more aware of what’s really going on. Zen meditation allows you to see clearly what is happening. You see what is really happening as you meditate.

Seeing into Dependent Arising “is starting to sense a coming together”, but not coming together as a “self”, or a “strong solid identity” or “solid substantial being”. You often harden parts of yourself and parts of your experience. This “hardening process”, is your way of avoiding seeing what is really happening and is your way of protecting yourselves.  Seeing the dependent arising experience of hardening, is the beginning of seeing things as “not needing to harden”, instead it is seeing factors as shifting in combinations. This is a kind of softening that seems to make more sense, and it tends to be more subtlety understood at some level. This process has a sense of cohesion but not hardness. This becomes partly freeing and you notice that as you sit, this process is a dynamic changing process.

When you sit like this in this way you let your experience unfold and you are letting things unfold, and you are not putting much effort in doing something to change or avoid. Your “self “is not so much in the picture or dominant, and you may find as you allow yourself to be free, that you see there are conditions working in this or that experience.  There may be many factors going on inside you. You start to see that you are picking out things and you are choosing and you start to see you are choosing. The way you look at your mental experiences determines how you will keep putting yourself together. Self is really “self-constructed” and “put together”. You start to get glimpses of this as you watch your experiences in meditation.

Meditation can become a way of seeing into this process of Dependent Arising and a way of beginning to see the cause of suffering. Sitting in meditation is to start to watch and become aware that many of your decisions are made from a point of view of “self”. You begin to see that you are grabbing hold of bits of this process that is going on inside yourself and you begin to see that you are choosing which bits to grab. This “made self” looks like your real self. But if you continue to meditate you may start to get glimpses of how you create habits as you just watch your experience in meditation (Siff, J.2009).


Dependent Arising is happening in you even when you don’t know that it is “happening” and you can’t see it happening. During mindfulness meditation you begin to see how you are trapped by your conditioning. You slowly begin to see how you are really picking and choosing what parts of your-self you want to bring into consciousness. When you begin your meditation practice you are often striving to achieve peace and calm at any cost. In-fact you are grasping the bits that you think will make you happy. You often have aversions to seeing into your meditation and discovering how dependent arising is working in your life. You do make some progress and often feel deep peace and calm. Yet there is something still “missing”. Some types of practice keep you so bound to the technique you have learned, and you never see what is before your eyes. The meditation processes keeps you from advancing to awakening. You often spend years trapped in blissful states or states of striving to be the perfect meditator.


Kearney, P (2001), When This Is, That Is…., Kalyana mitta seminar, 15-16 September 2001

Melbourne Zen Group (Unpublished): An Introductory Diamond Sangha Glossary.

Siff, J, (2009) Dependent Arising: Dharma Talk on Dependent Arising, Skilful Meditation Project.

Smith, H & Novak, P (2003) Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, Harper Collins, New York.

Piyadassi Thera, (1959) Dependent Origination (Paticca Samuppada). The Wheel Publication, Kandy