Conversation with Chat GPT: Dependent Origination–Theravada vs Mahayana

Kenneth Leong
4 min readSep 21

Ken: Please explain the major difference between Theravada’s version of Dependent Origination and Mahayana’s version.

ChatGPT: The concept of dependent origination (Paticca Samuppada in Pali, Pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit) is fundamental to both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, but there are some key differences in how it is understood and interpreted in these two major Buddhist traditions. Here are the major differences between the Theravada and Mahayana versions of dependent origination:

A. Scope and Emphasis:

  1. Theravada: In Theravada Buddhism, dependent origination is primarily seen as a teaching on the arising and cessation of suffering (dukkha). It focuses on the individual’s cycle of birth and death (samsara) and provides a detailed explanation of how ignorance, craving, and clinging lead to suffering and rebirth. The emphasis is on personal liberation (nibbana/nirvana) from this cycle.
  2. Mahayana: In Mahayana Buddhism, dependent origination is often understood in a broader and more universal context. While it still addresses the nature of suffering and individual liberation, Mahayana teachings extend the concept to emphasize the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. Mahayana interpretations often emphasize the emptiness (shunyata) of all things, suggesting that nothing has inherent, independent existence. This broader perspective is closely linked with the bodhisattva ideal, which involves working for the liberation and welfare of all sentient beings.

B. Emptiness (Shunyata):

  1. Theravada: Theravada Buddhism acknowledges the concept of anatta (anatman), which means the absence of a permanent, unchanging self. However, it generally does not emphasize the concept of emptiness (shunyata) to the same extent as Mahayana. Instead, Theravada tends to focus on the anatta aspect by analyzing the individual’s aggregates (khandhas) to illustrate the absence of a self.
  2. Mahayana: Mahayana teachings place a strong emphasis on the concept of emptiness (shunyata). Dependent origination is seen as a way to understand the emptiness of all phenomena, suggesting that everything arises dependently and lacks inherent existence. The Heart Sutra, a central…
Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human