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The Chain of Causality

The cycle of suffering is explained clearly in the Buddhist tradition by a formula which is called Pratityasamutpada.

  • pratitya: meeting, relying, depending
  • samutpada: arising

Pratityasamutpada is otherwise known as the Twelve Nidanas, the Twelvefold Chain of Causality, or Dependent Origination. There are many translations for the original terms, and all of them are correct. This is a very deep, very profound teaching, and it is not something your intellectual mind will ever fully grasp. Even when the Buddha’s primary disciple Ananda claimed to understand it, the Buddha corrected him, saying:

“Profound Ananda, this is Pratityasamutpada and profound does it appear. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this law, that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread... and that a man does not escape... suffering from the round of rebirth.”

On another occasion he said:

“Who so understands the Pratityasamutpada understands the Dharma [the path to liberation], and who so understands the Dharma understands the Pratityasamutpada.”

Many people disregard this formula, fearing it is too complicated or too intellectual. Truthfully, any teaching can become too intellectual if we make it that. It is necessary for us to understand the teachings in a very profound way; these structures and laws were not explained in order for us to fill our minds with intellectual complications: they were given for us to use in a practical way so that we may escape suffering. That is their sole purpose. If we take the teachings in an intellectual way, that is our problem; it does not mean the teachings themselves are intellectual.

It is necessary for us to learn how to understand the teachings consciously, in all three brains: in the intellect, in the heart, and in our actions. Typically, we learn through the intellect first. That is why you are reading this book.

When you understand it, when you grasp how it relates to your life, you enter into comprehension in the heart.

When you change your behaviors and act in a different manner, then you are beginning to grasp it in your motor-instinctive-sexual brain.

But your comprehension moves into levels beyond this when you have these three in equilibrium, and your every moment is filled with the awareness and respect for the laws expressed in these teachings: it becomes intuitive, spontaneous, without thought or concept. At that point, you are living the teaching. It is then that you truly become conscious of the teachings.

So we should treat this knowledge with a lot of respect and without any preconceptions, and with the understanding that this teaching will need to be revisited again and again in order for there to be any real conscious understanding of it.

Remember always that we are beginners in this knowledge, and as children, as beginners, it takes patience and practice to learn. Reading something once does not mean we know it. As children in early schooling, we had to work slowly and consistently in order to learn what then may have seemed overwhelming to us: how to read, how to add, how to speak. The same is true of this knowledge for us now: we are children.

Returning to our theme, the whole formula of the twelve-fold chain of causality could be boiled down to a simple statement:

This being present, that arises;

Without this, that does not occur.

One example that you may have heard is that if fuel, air and ignition are all brought together, fire occurs. But if any of these elements are missing, there will be no fire. This is pretty simple, but this formula takes us into matters that are far from simple, and may even seem to some of us as being downright unacceptable.

In basic terms, the chain of causality teaches us that everything that is existent is dependent on something else. Nothing exists independently. This can lead us straight back to how the universe was created and what about a creator god, etc, but will not go into those questions in this book. Our purpose here is to focus on our lives and see the chain of causality in our own activities.

bhavachakra nepal

This twelve-fold chain is illustrated in the Tibetan “Bhava Chakra,” the Wheel of Becoming, otherwise known as the Wheel of Samsara or the Wheel of Life. Images like this one are used as teaching and meditation aids. They are not meant to be literal in any sense: they are meant to aid the practitioner in visualizing concepts so that the imagination and the consciousness can be utilized, rather than the intellectual mind.

Traditionally, the wheel is represented as a vast panorama in the grip of Yama, the Lord of Death, who represents delusion, ignorance, and the impermanence of all things that supports the whole mechanism of samsara, or the round of life and death.

In the center are three animals, eating one another, sustaining themselves on one another. They are the hub of the wheel, the central axis:

  • a bird symbolizing craving and greed; desire
  • a snake symbolizing anger, passion, hatred, aversion, or self-centeredness
  • a pig or dog symbolizing ignorance and delusion

These three animals represent the process we have discussed until now: our unconscious state (ignorance, delusion) is sustained by desire (craving, greed, gluttony, lust) and aversion (hate, fear, etc). When we feed a craving we make it stronger; when we act on our aversions we strengthen them. This combination causes deeper lack of self-knowledge and the repetition of the entire cycle.

This process is the center of all suffering, and thus it is the center of the Wheel of Samsara. It is because of this process of selfish, unconscious desire that our life is what it is.

Everyone, manipulated by the subconscious elements in the mind, acts selfishly over and over again, under the influence of the urges of anger, greed, vanity, envy, laziness, pride, fear... Because of this, tremendous energies are put into motion, creating what we now experience as life, and we see as our modern world.

Unconscious thinking and feeling lead to unconscious action. The results are what you see in life: suicide, discontentment, brutality, rampant illness and physical suffering, disease, disability, accidents, disasters, rape, adultery, divorce, poverty, homelessness, anxiety, loneliness... Everything has been created by particular actions. Everything.

How does this manifest? The outer ring of the wheel has twelve pictures, twelve interlocking parts that illustrate how energy moves: it is by this interlocking chain that the wheel has structure, and it is upon this that the wheel moves.

1. Ignorance

We lack cognizant knowledge of cause and effect. Indeed, because none of us fully comprehend karma and the effects we generate from moment to moment, we are ignorant (represented in the painting by a blind man); we ignore the truth of our actions, and we act selfishly. We believe that our sense of self is true, that the mind is real, that the mind is our true identity. That is ignorance, because it is directly opposed to the truth, and from that place we unknowingly act out of balance, and create results.

2. Fashioning

Because of the condition of ignorance (1), our perceptions are inaccurate, thus transforming the energy of our perceptions into formations in our mind: memories, impulses, desires, fears, etc. The vast majority of these formations are below our ability to perceive them directly. Every tradition has names for these formations in our mind: egos, aggregates, samskaras, sins, etc. This step is called Fashioning and is represented by a potter. These are formations or crystallizations of energy, and they produce effects.

Because we have built a mass of formations in the mind, the energy of those formations is pure potentiality; that energy must produce effects: thus the condition is set for the next link.

3. Consciousness

The stored impressions in the mind are trapped energies that emerge when the conditions are right. These energies present a constant pressure towards expression, relative to their stored energy. The stored energy is trapped consciousness. Every enlightened being reached that state by freeing their consciousness from these submerged forms.

Effects we have put into motion must be completed. Energies must complete their cycle of manifestation, reaching balance. That is, our mind is in disharmony with nature.

Furthermore, the energy that we have locked in our mind—in the form of desires, fears, impulses, memories, cravings, etc.—causes the mind to remain in existence. Thus, when we die physically, these formations continue to exist in their level of nature (not physically), and create pressure to manifest themselves again. Thus, driven by those trapped energies, we are born in accordance to the nature of their energy. Our past actions determine our rebirth.

Consciousness (Sanskrit: vijnana) in this case is the necessity for existence. In our case, we had to be born because the energetic results of our past actions have not yet been fulfilled.

Thus, the energy trapped in our mental formations demands conditions for them to express themselves.

4. Name and Form

Both our free consciousness and the trapped consciousness work through our name (personality) and form (body).

From moment to moment, a confusing array of impulses is struggling to gain control of our “name and form” in order for them to manifest. Only very rarely do we consciously utilize name and form, unless we have been trained to self-observe.

This stage is usually represented in paintings by two men in a boat.

5. The Six Faculties

Consciousness (3) is the root of our perception, and perceives through the senses (5), which are in our “name and form” (4). The physical body has the senses of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and the sixth is the brain (and personality) that coordinates them all. These are represented in the painting as six empty houses.

6. Sensual Contact

The physical senses transmit the energy of the contact between the internal and external worlds. This is the boundary between senses and sense objects. Life is received by the senses as impressions before being received by the consciousness (whether trapped or free).

7. Feeling

Sensations are received and are interpreted as pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. This is where past effects begin to manifest in our lives, and are interpreted and reacted to. The reception of sensations, and the evaluation that occurs set up the next link:

8. Craving or Thirst

As we label incoming sensations, we experience delight, desire, and we crave for pleasant experiences to be repeated over and over. This craving reactivates all our past cravings and passions. More and more passion is stimulated, more and more craving, which calls up more and more latent tendencies: thus by craving, we generate more craving, and by craving one thing we also crave other things, and desire grows and grows. This is the condition for the next link:

9. Grasping and Clinging

We, in our delusion, constantly chase pleasure, not realizing that everything is impermanent. We ignore the impermanence of all things, and chase after pleasure. We suffer because we are not content. Believing sensation will give us contentment, we chase sensations, but because sensations are impermanent, any contentment we find is short-lived, leaving us again in suffering. The pendulum always corrects its balance: the more we push toward pleasure, the more the pendulum pushes towards pain... As we grasp more and more after pleasure, we set the stage for...

10. Becoming

From the impulse of desire and in a state of ignorance, we seek more and more pleasure, acting out of balance with the reality of impermanence, and thus face more and more sensations we do not like, and want to avoid, and we seek more and more pleasure, all of which creates more and more thrust in the overall motion of the wheel...

In this stage, there is a massive energy propelling the arising of conditions that promote the arising of more and more latent formations, which in turn brings on the creation of further effects. All of this energy, this motion, must find fulfillment, because energy cannot be destroyed: it must manifest. This stage is usually depicted in the paintings as a pregnant woman who must give birth...

11. Birth

Because of the pressure created by past actions and their indelible effects, the whole sum of formations in the mind must re-appear... Thus, there is a constant manifestation of effects that must occur, and there is a tremendous impulse toward existence, toward manifestation... So, birth must continue...


12. Decline and Death

All things are impermanent: they arise, and they pass away. It is this way with plants, animals, lakes, continents, worlds, and it is this way with us, and with our actions. Every action brings its effect, and then passes away. Everything has its cycle.

During our life, we are propelled by the effects of our previous existences, and we add the actions of our new existence. Some debts are paid, others accrued. We enjoy the fruit of previous beneficial actions, or not. But inevitably, life ends, and without the balance of the scales being achieved. Death arrives, and since we did not clear up all of our energetic debts, we continue to carry the weight of our past actions, and thus must be reborn again in order to satisfy those debts...

“Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.” —Jesus of Nazareth, from Matthew 5

Thus, the whole cycle repeats. After death we are reborn, returned to the process of the wheel of cause and effect, propelled by past actions, by energies placed in the mind by unconscious, selfish, hateful, desirous action.

“Series do not exist for the Self-realized and diamantine Spirit; only the eternal present exists for him; he lives from instant to instant; he has freed himself from the Twelve Nidanas [pratityasamutpada].” —Samael Aun Weor