The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dalai Lama on dependent origination

by The Dalai Lama
October 15, 2014
Wed, 10/15/2014 - 14:29 -- The Dalai Lama

Dependent Origination

In the Dependent Origination Sutra Buddha states:

If there is this, that ensues;
Because this came into being, that came into being.
It is thus: Due to ignorance volition arises…

In other words, in order for a particular event or experience to take place, there must be a cause, and the cause itself must be existent. That cause will also be an effect of a preceding cause, because if it is not itself a product, then it will lack the potential or capacity to produce any results. So the cause itself has to be a product of another cause. Therefore, the Buddha said that because this cause arises, the effect is produced. And not only must the cause have a cause, the cause must also correlate to the effect. It is not true that just anything can produce everything; rather, only certain causes can lead to certain types of effects.

Following on from this, Buddha stated that the presence of fundamental ignorance leads to karma, or action. Our undesirable experiences of suffering, such as pain, fear, and death, are all basically effects produced by corresponding causes. So in order to put an end to these sufferings, we have to put an end to the relevant sequence of causes and effects. Buddha explained how, within the framework of the twelve links of dependent origination, the earlier elements in the causal sequence give rise to the later elements. He also explained the process of reversing the twelve links of dependent origination. In other words, by putting an end to the earlier elements, we can eliminate the later elements. So, by completely cutting the causal root—eliminating our fundamental ignorance—we will finally come to experience total freedom from all suffering and its origin.

In the twelve links of dependent origination, ignorance is listed as the first cause. This, I feel, reflects the basic truth that we all instinctively desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering. No one needs to teach us this innate desire. However, although we possess this natural aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering, we nonetheless find ourselves without lasting happiness and enmeshed in suffering. This indicates that there is something wrong in our way of being. We are ignorant of the means to fulfill our basic aspiration for happiness. So the insight that we gain from the teachings of the twelve links of dependent origination—that ignorance is the root cause of our suffering— is indeed true.

There are of course differing interpretations among Buddhist thinkers, such as Asanga and Dharmakirti, about the nature of this fundamental ignorance. Predominately this ignorance is thought of not simply as a state of not knowing, but rather as a state of active misunderstanding, meaning we think we have understood when we haven’t. It is a distorted way of understanding reality where we experience the things and events of the world as if each one had some kind of independent, intrinsic existence.


The term ignorance, used generally, may refer to both negative and neutral states of mind. By fundamental ignorance, however, we mean that which is the root cause of our cyclic existence. We are referring to a state of mind that is distorted. Because it is distorted, misapprehending the nature of reality, it follows that the way to eliminate this ignorance is to generate insight into the true nature of reality, to see through the deception created by the ignorance. Such an insight can be gained only by experiencing the utter groundlessness of the viewpoint created by this distorted state of mind. Merely praying, “May I be rid of this fundamental ignorance” will not bring the desired goal. We need to cultivate insight.

It is only through generating such an insight and penetrating into the nature of reality that we will be able to dispel this fundamental misperception. By this insight, or wisdom, I am referring to what is known in Buddhist terminology as the understanding of emptiness or no-self. There are diverse interpretations of what is meant by the terms emptiness, no-self, selflessness, and identitylessness in the Buddhist teachings. However, here I am using these terms to refer to the emptiness of intrinsic existence. Grasping at the opposite—that things and events possess some kind of intrinsic or independent existence—is the fundamental ignorance. The profound insight that arises with the realization of the absence of any such intrinsic existence is known as the true path.

In the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, mainly in the perfection of wisdom sutras, the Buddha states that our ignorance lies at the root of all our afflictions and confusion—our negative thoughts and emotions and the suffering they cause. He states that our fundamental ignorance and the afflictions it causes are not the essential nature of the mind. These afflictions are fundamentally separate from the essential character of mind, which is defined as “luminous and knowing.” The essential nature of mind is pure, and the capacity to perceive things and events is a natural function of the mind. This description of the mind’s natural purity and its capacity for cognition are emphasized in the perfection of wisdom sutras, which present the essential nature of mind as having the character of clear light.

The Basis of Success

For a practicing Buddhist the final spiritual objective is nirvana, the state of the mind that has been cleansed of all its distressed and deluded states. This is possible through a gradual process of practicing, and it requires time. If we are to possess the vital faculties necessary to pursue our spiritual journey, then right from the initial stages of this path to nirvana, or liberation, we have to ensure that our form of existence and our lifestyle are fully conducive to Dharma practice.

In his Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way (Chatuhshatakashastra), Aryadeva presents a specific procedure for proceeding on the path to enlightenment.8 This suggests that it is important to psursue the path in a systematic order, beginning by refraining from negative actions and maintaining an ethically sound way of life. This is to ensure the attainment of a favorable rebirth so that we will be able to continue to pursue our spiritual path in the future. Aryadeva states that the first phase of the path is to avert the effects of negative and troublesome states of mind as they manifest in our behavior, because this safeguards us against taking unfavorable rebirth in the next life. In the next phase, the emphasis is placed on generating insight into the nature of no-self or emptiness. The final phase of the path is the total elimination of all distorted views and the overcoming of even the most subtle obstructions to knowledge.

It is on the basis of understanding the four noble truths that we will be able to develop a real understanding of the nature of the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Through deeply understanding the four noble truths, we will be able to genuinely recognize the possibility of attaining nirvana, or true liberation. When we understand that our afflicted and negative states of mind can be removed, we will then be able to recognize the real possibility of attaining true liberation—not just in general, but in relation to one’s own self. We will sense, as individuals, that this freedom is actually within reach through our own realization. Once we gain such conviction, we will understand that we can also overcome the habitual patterns formed by our deluded states of mind. In this way we generate a conviction in the possibility of attaining full enlightenment. And once we develop such a conviction, we will then be able to appreciate the true value of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Our first expression of going for refuge in the Three Jewels—our first commitment—is to lead our life in accordance with karma, the law of cause and effect. This entails living an ethically disciplined life where we restrain from the ten negative actions— the three physical misdeeds of killing, stealing, and engaging in sexual misconduct, the four verbal misdeeds of lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and gossip, and the three mental misdeeds of covetousness, ill will, and harboring wrong views. The second step is to overcome grasping at self, or intrinsic existence. This stage primarily involves the practice of the three higher trainings—ethical discipline, meditation, and wisdom. In the third and final phase, we need to overcome not only our afflictive and negative states of mind, but we must overcome even the predispositions and habits formed by these deluded states.           

This final stage is achieved through combining insight into emptiness—the ultimate nature of reality—with universal compassion. In order for that to be achieved, our realization of emptiness must be complemented with the skillful methods of attainment, including such factors as the altruistic aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, universal compassion, and loving-kindness. It is only through complementing our wisdom realizing emptiness with these factors of skillful means that we will actually be able to develop wisdom powerful enough to eliminate all the predispositions and habits formed by our deluded mental and emotional states. This will then lead to the realization of the final state, buddhahood.

When our realization of emptiness arises on the basis of the complete preliminaries, it becomes an antidote powerful enough to eliminate all the obscurations to full enlightenment. Right at the beginning of the ninth chapter, Shantideva states that all the other aspects of Dharma practice have been taught by the Buddha for the sake of generating wisdom. Therefore, if your objective is to bring about an end to suffering, then you must develop the wisdom of emptiness.


Meditate here on the understanding of the four noble truths as we have discussed them so far. In particular, reflect how fundamental ignorance keeps us locked in a cycle of suffering and how insight into the true nature of reality allows us to eradicate the negative thoughts and emotions from our mind. Reflect how insight into emptiness combined with the skillful means of compassion and the altruistic intention can even eliminate the subtle predispositions toward negative actions.


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