The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Wheel of Life – Dharmachakra

A central teaching in traditional Buddhism is the principle of dependent arising, which states that all things happen through cause and conditions and that they are interdependent. No phenomenon, whether outer or inner, occurs except as a reaction to a previous cause, and all phenomenon will, in turn, condition the following results. So, in a nutshell, because of one thing something else arises. Nothing in this world arises from its own power. Everything comes through causes and conditions.

By looking at things in this way it avoids the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Here, eternalism is the view that there is an external god that shapes our fate. Nihilism is the view that there is no relation between action and result, therefore our fate is predetermined.

The Buddhist view asserts that while there is no godlike figure that controls our fate, there are causes and conditions that effect our lives. We are able to change our lives because these causes and conditions can be known and changed.

There are twelve links that constitute the cycle of existence that makes up samsara. This is the endless circle of dissatisfaction that constitutes an unawakened life. We can escape this cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and death by breaking these links. 

The links are not regarded as a linear path, but a cyclical one in which all links are connected to all other links.

Being able to escape from samsara can be initiated at any link in the chain, once any link is broken, the chain is forever broken.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the twelve links are depicted in the wheel of life (called the Dharmachakra) which represents the cycle of birth, rebirth, and existence in samsara.

Link One – Unawareness

Being unaware is the basis of all the other links. It is a lack of awareness of how things really are. Our belief in a true ‘self’ and thinking phenomena are permanent leads us to project things which do not exist. We become deluded and confused. It is also about not understanding and implementing the four noble truths. The first truth states that life brings about suffering. When we misunderstand this truth, we fail to realise the true nature of our lives. We believe we are seeing the world as it is, but in reality, we are mistaken. This is where our first sense of a self is starting to form. In the wheel of life this link is depicted by a blind person.

Link Two – Action

When we misunderstand the way life is it causes our minds to become poisoned by greed, anger, and delusion, known as the three poisons. These cause us to act in certain unskilful and negative ways. It is not just because of the three poisons we perform unhelpful acts. There are numerous causes, but these are three of the main ones. We need to remember here that any act we carry out through our body, speech or mind will have consequences. This is depicted by a potter making a pot.

Link Three – Experience

Because of our unawareness, the first link, we perform an action, which is the second link, and this plants a seed in our mind. This seed is just a potential at this point and may or may not come to fruition. That will depend on if we do the same action again. In the future, because of the seed we planted, we will have an experience. This is depicted by a monkey because that is how our minds operate. We jump from one thing to another, just like the monkey jumps from tree to tree.

Link Four – Name and Form

Name and form mean the five aggregates. Name refers to the last four aggregates – feelings, perception, actions, and consciousness. Form refers to the first aggregate. The way we experience the world is through the five aggregates. Firstly, there is a form, this can be an object, sound, taste, etc. and this is picked up by your consciousness. At this point the form has not been labelled, it is just an awareness. It gets labelled by your perceptions and conceptions. Once it is labelled it causes a feeling to arise. This feeling can be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. We then act on that feeling. You can read more about the aggregates by clicking on this link. This link is depicted by five people in a boat. The people represent the aggregates.

Link Five – Six Perceptual Entrances

All types of form – objects, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind – are pick up by our six sense faculties – eye, ear, nose, taste, touch, and mind (in Buddhism, the mind is also classed as a sense organ). These are all developed in the womb and will soon become our only means of perception of this world. Hence, they are called the six perceptual entrances. This link is depicted by a house with six windows.

Link Six – Contact

Link four is concerned with subject and link five is the object. This link is the contact between these two. It is the contact between the sense organs and the form, through the consciousness. Three things are happening here: the form, the faculties, and the linking consciousness. For example, an object, the eye faculty, and eye consciousness. There is a form, which is picked up by the faculty (eye, ear, nose, etc) and then linked to the corresponding consciousness, such as eye consciousness and so on. This is happening simultaneously. This link is depicted by a man and a woman embracing.

Link Seven – Feeling

When the sense organs encounter a form, they bring up feelings. These feelings can be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. One of these feelings will be present in every experience we have. This is depicted by a man with an arrow in his eye.

Link Eight – Desire

Contact, link six, leads to feelings, link seven, which in turn leads to link eight, desire. So, first, we make contact with a form. This leads to feelings, and these lead us to have desires. These can be desiring for good feelings to last, which they obviously won’t, or bad ones to end, which, because of impermanence, they will. This is depicted by a drunken man.

Link Nine – Grasping

In the last link, we craved and desired for things. In this link, we hold onto them. We get attached and grasp at the things we like and want. This attachment to things brings us untold mental suffering. It must be noted that at this stage the process is still only mental. A man picking fruit is how this is depicted in the wheel of life.

Link Ten – Becoming

This is where patterns of behaviour are formed. Up to now the things we have craved for were just on a mental level. At this point, the actions now become physical and verbal, and so it is known as ‘becoming.’ This is depicted by a pregnant lady.

Link Eleven – Birth

Because of the imprints from your patterns of behaviour created in the last link, you have a certain rebirth. This is depicted by someone giving birth.

Link Twelve – Decay and Death

Once we are born it is inevitable that we will age, get sick and finally die. This link contains all the physical and mental suffering of the human existence. It is depicted by a dying man.

Let’s try to break this down. Because of our unawareness or ignorance of how the world really works, we act in negative and unhelpful ways. This leads us to have experiences. These experiences can be broken down into the five aggregates, form, feelings, perception, actions, and consciousness. Form is picked up by our six sense organs, eye, ear, nose, taste, touch, and mind. This contact leads us to have feelings and desires, which lead us to start grasping and becoming attached. This in turn leads us to act, and the imprints of these actions are what cause us to take rebirth. Because we are reborn, we start the cycle of old age, sickness, and death all over again.   

By understanding the 12 links, we can begin to appreciate that things do not happen on their own. There are always going to be causes and conditions. One thing is inevitably going to lead to another.  

One of the best ways to break this cycle of an unsatisfactory life is to truly understand the way the world is. Not how we want it to be or wish it was, but how it actually is. To do this we really need to imbibe Buddha’s key teachings. These are:

  • Understand and implement the four noble truths
  • Understand impermanence, and not just at an intellectual level
  • Understand the dangers of attachment and believing in a permanent and autonomous self
  • Understand that things happen through causes and conditions

If we can understand and implement these teachings, we will be able to break the first link in the chain, which in turn will break the whole chain forever.

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A Sense of Self – The Buddha Dharma Series

In Buddhism, one of the most difficult teachings for people to understand is anatman or non-self. The doctrine states that in humans there is no permanent entity that can be called a self or a soul. This denial of “any Soul or Self” is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, and gives Buddhism its uniqueness.

The teaching is not only difficult, it is also controversial and one of the most poorly understood teachings in Buddhism. Many teachers believe it is more important to learn about karma and rebirth, but I would disagree. Most people usually misunderstand these teachings and they end up reinforcing a sense of self. They believe their karma gets attached to the self, and then this self is reborn. So, personally, I believe, if you want to reduce your suffering in this life, you should understand the teaching of non-self.

This sense of being a permanent, solid, autonomous self is an illusion. The problem is this illusion is so ingrained into our ordinary experience. We have a sense of a permanent, individual self, but that is all it is, a sense, a feeling. If I ask you, ‘Who are you?’ you may tell me about your job – I’m a lawyer, doctor, teacher and so on. But this is not who you are, this is your work. If you changed your job, would you stop being you? So, you are most defiantly not your job.

You may tell me about your family or nationality – I’m from a wealthy, middle-class, poor family. I’m Indian, British, African, and so on. Again, that is not who you are, it is just you in relation to others.

You may tell me you’re a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. But that is your religion and not who you are.

You may say you are your thoughts or feelings or emotions, but these are all impermanent, so they cannot be you. The same goes for your body or your experiences, they are also impermanent and cannot be you.

We can go on with this exercise forever, but everything we find will be impermanent and superficial. There really is nothing within us that is independent and never changing.

So, if you are thinking here that Buddhism is saying you don’t exist, it isn’t. What it’s saying is, you do not exist in the way you think you do. We are not permanent, individual, solid entities. Instead, we are changing moment to moment, like the water flowing down a mountain stream. Giving ourselves a fixed name or identity doesn’t make us permanent, it is just a convention we have come up with so we can talk about ourselves. If you took me apart and laid all of my bits and pieces on the floor, you would not find an inherently existing Yeshe.

So, a question everyone asks when they come across this teaching is, ‘If I am not who I think I am, who am I? Instead of a permanent self or soul the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing (See How we experience the world). These collection of five changing processes, known as the five aggregates, are: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all.


When we identify with the process of the physical body, we get attached to our physical form. When we identify with the process of our feelings, our perceptions, and our responses, we become attached to them. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at, or identify with, these patterns.

The sense of a self is perpetuated because we pay attention to only the surface of our experiences. We never take the time to delve deeper. We identify with what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, our dreams and beliefs. We think our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are a part of us, instead of seeing them as passing phenomena.

If we allow ourselves time to observe these processes come and go, we would be able to see them as just experiences that arise and fall away, and not a self. If we had a permanent self, we would never be able to change. So, if we want to grow and change, we need to let go of this idea that we have a self that defines us.

The next question people ask when they hear about non-self is, ‘So what? Why should I care if I have a self or not?’ This idea of a self produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism and other defilements, impurities, and problems. In fact, in Buddhism, it is said that the illusion of a self is the source of all our suffering.

When we identify with our physical, emotional, and mental experiences we become attached to them; the threat of losing any of these is deemed a threat to our very existence. But we are going to lose them because they are impermanent. This means the illusion of a self is setting ourselves up for failure.

When we observe the rising and falling away of all phenomena, we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing. This includes our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations. If we examine our experiences in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations are not a self. This allows us to let go of our attachment to them. This in turn releases us from our suffering.

So, you may still be thinking, ‘if this teaching of non-self is true, then who’s reading this? I would answer, a growing, changing being that is in constant flux, and not a solid, permanent, individual self or soul.

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This blog was first released in January 2018 and is being reposted as part of the Buddha Dharma Series.

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