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Samsara, Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) and the Wheel of Life

thangka painting of Vajrasattva

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Whilst the three laksanas provide the basic Buddhist thought behind the First Noble Truth, the teaching behind the Second can be explained through the teaching of Paticcasamuppada (variously translated as 'Dependent Origination', 'Conditioned Genesis' and 'Conditioned Co-production' - Paticcasamuppada is the Pali term (stress on the second syllable), Sanskrit is Pratityasamutpada). This teaching provides an explanation for how the three laksanas come into being, and how samsara (unenlightened existence) is continually re-created.

Some of the basic principles of Paticcasamuppada and views around it are as follows:

  • Paticcasamuppada is most basically a principle of conditionality in the universe, stating that all unenlightened things are conditioned by previous events.
  • The twelve nidanas (twelve links around the outside of the Wheel of Life) are a specific application of this broad principle of conditionality.
  • Traditionally, the twelve nidanas are seen as an inevitable process which follows from the choice made at only one possible point in the cycle, the junction between feeling and craving.
  • Ñanavira Thera, an English Theravada monk, has disputed this and claimed that choice is possible at any point during the cycle.
  • Joanna Macy, a modern American Buddhist writer, suggests that paticcasamuppada should be understood as mutual causality between all the systems in the universe. All systems are mutually interdependent and mutually conditioning.

Look in more detail at each of the twelve links and look at the debate about the relationship between paticcasamuppada and karma.

The twelve nidanas

Look again at the Wheel of Life on the next page, especially at the twelve links which make up the outer circle. Going clockwise from the top, you should be able to identify the following twelve pictures:

  1. Blind man
  2. Potter making pots
  3. Monkey
  4. Boat containing four people
  5. House with five windows and one door
  6. Embracing couple
  7. Man with arrow in his eye
  8. Woman offering man a drink
  9. Woman picking fruit
  10. Pregnant woman
  11. Woman giving birth
  12. Corpse

Each of these pictures symbolises a stage in the process of conditioning whereby craving gives rise to karmic effects, which in turn set up the conditions for craving again. These twelve links are not the only possible way of representing the process (there are also alternative sets of nine and ten links in the Pali Canon), however, they have become established by tradition in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as the accepted way of explaining the process of samsara.

Each symbol represents a stage in three successive cycles of conditioning (which the twelve links are divided up into). These three cycles are usually understood as 'Past Life', 'Current Life' and 'Future Life'. Generally the twelve links are divided up and interpreted as shown below this image.

line drawing of Tibetan Wheel of Life

Past Life: the first five pictures represent the way in which past ignorance has led to the current situation

1st link

Blind man :
Ignorance. The blind man doesn’t see ahead just as people in samsara don’t.
After death (previous picture) we are reborn without understanding of our situation.

2nd link

Potter making pots:
Karmic formations. We make our karma just as a potter makes pots.
Due to our ignorance we make continuing choices based on greed and hatred, building up future effects that keep us in samsara.

3rd link

Monkey :
Sentience or consciousness. The monkey moves restlessly from tree to tree just as our mind moves between objects.
In dependence on our karmic formations or choices we build up a habitual awareness moving from object to object.

4th link

Four people in a boat :
The five skandhas.The boat here represents the body and the passengers sensations, perceptions, karmic formations and consciousness:
In dependence on our karmic formations and consciousness we seek out a new body with further sensations and perceptions

5th link

House with five windows and one door:
The six senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and mind. Each window or door represents a sense.
In dependence on the five skandhas arise the six senses, which all interact with each other.

Present life: once the conditions for new craving have been set up by past actions, the next four pictures show how this results in karmic formations

6th link

Couple embracing :
Sensation. The couple are having particularly strong sensations in their embrace!
Having five senses sets up the conditions for sensations of new things.

7th link

Man with arrow in his eye :
Feeling. This man is having a particularly strong (and painful) feeling!
Sensations set up the conditions for pleasant, painful or neutral feelings.

8th link

Woman offering man a drink :
Craving (tanha). The man craves the drink, and perhaps the woman as well. Tanha literally means 'thirst'.
This is the point of control and responsibility, where we respond to a pleasant feeling with craving or a painful one with hatred.

9th link

Woman picking fruit :
Grasping (upadana): the woman reaches out to grasp the tempting fruit and collect it.
Once we have given way to craving, this is likely to lead to the physical action of taking or using the thing we crave.

Future life: the final three pictures show the effects of karmic activity in the form of death and rebirth

10th link

Pregnant woman :
Becoming: in traditional Buddhist belief rebirth begins at fertilisation following entry of the karmic formations.
Grasping leads to rebirth as we continue the habit of relating to the things we want. We grasp at a new rebirth after death.

11th link

Woman giving birth :
Birth :Re-becoming (rebirth into one’s mother’s womb) leads inevitably to birth into the world again.

12th link

Corpse :
Birth leads inevitably to the further suffering associated with death, and thus back to ignorance.

As you will see, each of the three 'lives' is a complete craving-karma cycle in itself, so each could be taken by itself as a complete representation of samsara. However, the twelve links together show the relationship between different ways of seeing the same basic cycle:

  • Firstly as maintaining the interrelationship between the different parts of our assumed selves (past life)
  • Secondly in close focus, as the cycle of sensation-feeling-craving-grasping which could happen every few seconds (present life)
  • Thirdly panning out into the biggest perspective, as a cycle of births and deaths (future life).

There are various different ways of explaining the twelve links used by different Buddhist teachers, but one way might be to see them as different TV monitors linked to cameras trained on the same thing from different angles.

Paticcasamuppada and karma

The twelve nidanas give the impression that the whole of our experience is formed by karma. For example in the 'past life' phase, consciousness, the six senses and the five skandhas all arise in dependence on karmic formations (the potter). The belief that karma creates all our experience is widely accepted in traditional Buddhism, including most Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism. In Western philosophical terms this would make Buddhism a type of idealism, in which the world is constructed by the activity of our minds and there is nothing real beyond the mind and independent of its karma.

However, this interpretation is a matter of dispute within Buddhism, for it raises many difficulties by implying that we must in some way deserve everything that happens to us. If you get run over by a dangerous drunk driver, is this really your fault? If you get killed by an earthquake, is it anybody’s fault? Another problem is that of how we make progress towards enlightenment. How do we ever wriggle free of karma if all our experience is constantly formed by karma?

The alternative is to see the effects of our actions as contributing to our subsequent experience, but not being entirely responsible for it. On this alternative interpretation we could account for the way we contribute to our future lives through our actions, but also explain how things happen to us which we did not bring about ourselves. One strand of Buddhist tradition allows for this possibility by identifying four other forms of conditionality apart from karma. This analysis of different forms of conditionality is found in a commentary by Buddhaghosha, the great second-century monk-scholar who lived in Sri Lanka.

Buddhaghosha identifies five niyamas, or forms of conditionality:

  • Inorganic, where non-living things affect one another and affect living things.
  • Biological, where living organisms affect each other and non-living things.
  • Psychological, where areas of the mind not subject to choice create effects.
  • Karmic, where our ignorant choices motivated by greed and hatred create effects.
  • Dharmic, where our choices free of greed and hatred help to move us and others towards enlightenment.

The use of Buddhaghosha’s scheme allows us to account for movement towards enlightenment as well as undeserved experiences (whether these are pleasant or unpleasant). For example, a sudden generous impulse may be due to the dharmic order of conditionality, and an earthquake which destroys your house may simply be due to an inorganic level of conditionality, not to your previoius actions at all (unless you built it badly).

Supposing you have a headache. There are many possible causes for this at the different levels of conditionality using Buddhaghosha’s account. See if you can find an explanation at each level.

  • Inorganic
  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Karmic
  • Dharmic

Only a minority of Buddhists use Buddhaghosha’s account: one reason for this may be that it is not found in a canonical scripture. Another difficulty it raises is that of how it can be reconciled with rebirth: for if rebirth occurs then the whole life you are reborn into is karmically selected for karmic reasons. You do deserve the life you are born into, whatever other kinds of conditionality may be working in it. It’s like the question of whether you are responsible for the climate at your holiday destination: you didn’t choose the climate or make it occur, but you did choose the holiday, making the whole experience in some ways your responsibility.

Do you think Buddhaghosha’s view or the mainstream Buddhist view makes more sense?

The positive nidanas

If the idea of a dharmic order of conditionality gives one hint of how we can get out of the cycle of karmic conditionality, another is provided by the idea of an alternative, positive set of twelve nidanas which show the way in which progress towards enlightenment can gradually build up through a series of dependencies. Unlike the twelve nidanas of the Wheel of Life, the positive nidanas are not cyclic, but rather work up gradually towards enlightenment in a spiral.

The positive nidanas are found at several points in the Pali Canon, but are not emphasised much in the Theravada or Mahayana. In modern times their use has been revived by Sangharakshita, who is responsible for the idea of representing them in a Spiral. The twelve positive links are as follows:

  1. Dukkha: we have to realise imperfection to begin progress on the path. Without realising there is anything wrong, we have no motivation to improve.
  2. Faith: realising imperfection can give rise to faith that there is a positive alternative. This doesn’t always happen, for often when people feel discontented they do not see any possibility of improvement. However, when they see the possibility of improvement they are more firmly on the Path.
  3. Delight: practising with confidence allows a sense of well-being and happiness to arise.
  4. Ecstasy: this happiness becomes more acute and exciting as we make further progress.
  5. Peace: this is the deeper contentment which is found by progressing beyond the initial excitement.
  6. Bliss: this peace allows a still deeper contentment to arise, creating a supremely calm and happy experience.
  7. Absorption: all this positive emotion creates a supreme level of concentration. One is now ready for a breakthrough in wisdom.
  8. Knowledge and vision of things as they really are: overcoming illusion one has attained the stage known as stream-entry, where progress towards nirvana has become irreversible.
  9. Disentanglement: because of this new wisdom, attachments to things in samsara simply fall away.
  10. Dispassion: one then gains an equal love for all things.
  11. Liberation: all the most subtle remnants of greed, hatred, and ignorance are now lost.
  12. Recognition of destruction of the poisons: finally, the basic craving for sense-experience and for existence dries up, with the last vestiges of ignorance. One is now fully enlightened and aware of this fact.

Like the Noble Eightfold Path, these twelve positive nidanas are often presented as sequential, but are only roughly so. Although the Path always starts with recognition of dukkha and arising of faith, and ends with the destruction of the poisons, in between, one naturally does not follow the steps given quite as neatly as this. Morality, meditation, and wisdom are developed alongside each other, even if stages 3-7 concentrate on meditation and 8-12 on wisdom.

Progress on the Path up to stage 8 is also not at all inevitable, at any point up to that one may fall back. This means that the positive emotional states described in stages 3-6 may arise in meditation, or temporarily in other circumstances, but will quickly disappear again when the conditions which allowed them to appear are gone. Only wisdom can make these changes permanent and help one stay in these positive states continually.

So, the karmic order of conditionality continues to exert its influence until stage 8, when one finally pulls free. Sangharakshita compares this to a journey from the earth to the sun. There will come a point when one gets beyond the gravitational pull of the earth and ceases to need to make a continual effort to pull away from it. One can then coast in towards nirvana, the sun, increasingly attracted by its gravity.

Draw a spiral illustrating these twelve positive nidanas, and including the point of no return in the middle.

Past exam questions
Explain Buddhist teachings about samsara and paticcasamuppada

Further Reading
Cush p.29-31
Kulananda The Wheel of Life chs. 11 & 12
Williams Buddhist Thought p.62-72