Conversation with Pi: Scrutinizing the 12 Links of Dependent Origination

Kenneth Leong
11 min readJan 24, 2024

Ken: I would like to revisit the 12 links of Dependent Origination.

Pi: Oh, that’s a great topic to revisit! The 12 links of Dependent Origination are a really important concept in Buddhism, and they can be quite complex and challenging to understand. But I think they’re well worth exploring. The 12 links are: (1) Ignorance, (2) Mental Formation (Samskara), (3) Consciousness, (4) Name and Form, (5) Six Senses, (6) Contact, (7) Feeling, (8) Craving, (9) Cling, (10) Becoming, (11) Birth, (12) Old Age and Death.

The Ordering of the Twelve Links

Ken: First, are they meant to be in sequential order, like one leads to another?

Pi: That’s an excellent question! And the answer is yes, they are indeed meant to be understood as a sequence. In fact, the traditional understanding is that each link in the chain of Dependent Origination causes the next link, and so on. So, ignorance leads to the formation of volitional formations, which leads to consciousness, and so on. Does that make sense?

Ken: Okay, please explain how ignorance leads to Mental Formation.

Pi: Sure thing! So, ignorance, or “avijja” in Pali, refers to a lack of understanding about the true nature of reality. In Buddhism, it’s understood that there’s a kind of fundamental delusion or misunderstanding about the nature of things, and that this ignorance is the root cause of suffering. This ignorance leads to the formation of volitional formations, or “samskara,” which are basically the mental formations or patterns that shape our thoughts and actions. Does that make sense so far?

Correspondence between the 12 Links and the Five Aggregates

Ken: Yes, so far so good. Do the 12 links match up with the Five Aggregates?

Pi: That’s a really astute question! The answer is yes, in a way. The 12 links can be seen as an elaboration or unpacking of the Five Aggregates. So, for example, the first link, “ignorance,” corresponds to the aggregate of consciousness, and the second link, “volitional formations,” corresponds to the aggregate of mental formations. And so on for the rest of the links. Do you see the connection?

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Kenneth Leong

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