How We Enter Into Samsara

Lama Zopa Rinpoche hands2


Many of you might already know about this topic, but it is important, especially for those who haven’t heard much Dharma. The reason we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha is to be free from all the oceans of suffering of each realm, together with the general sufferings of saṃsāra and their cause: karma and delusion. The more we understand the wheel of life the more we understand the need to practice Dharma.

Because it becomes the basis of relying on Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha and practicing the refuge vows, it is foundational and so very important.

So how does one enter saṃsāra?[1]

That is explained by the twelve links that are drawn around the edge of the wheel of life. They are ignorance, karmic formation, consciousness, name and form, six sense bases, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming, birth and ageing and death.


wheel links illustration use    To follow sequence, start top outer circle and proceed clockwise



The old blind man walking with a stick signifies ignorance, the root of saṃsāra. This ignorance is the concept holding the I and the aggregates to be truly existent. It believes what appears to the hallucinated mind—but which is not there—to be true.



Next is a person making many pots. This shows how we create karma from ignorance. Anger, attachment, ignorance of karma and so forth arise from this root ignorance.[2] These karmas are various: negative, virtuous and immovable. Immovable karma (which is included within virtue) causes rebirth within the four levels of firm contemplation in the form realm that I described earlier. In Tibetan we call them bsam gtan bzhi. Bsam means contemplation and gtan – firm. It is like closing a door in Tibet or Solu Khumbu. Traveling with my uncle-teacher from place to place in Solo Khumbu, when we closed a door there were huge beams behind it to keep it firm. Likewise, that which causes rebirth in the first firm concentration prevents rebirth in the second, third and fourth. It is in that sense that the karma is said to be immovable. So anyway, the potter throwing pots represents the three kinds of karma.[3]



After the karma is created it leaves an imprint on the mental consciousness. Not all consciousnesses go from one lifetime to the next.[4] So consciousness in this context refers to the one that has continuity from life to life. This is signified by a monkey jumping from tree to tree, just as we jump from life to life.



Next is shown a boat that is traveling. This represents name and form: the fertilized egg in the mother’s womb, following conception. Just as the boat is something that we use only temporarily, so it is with the aggregates. Name refers to mental factors and form to the body.[5]



Following name and form, the six sense bases or sources are actualized. These are represented by an empty house.[6]



An embracing couple represents contact, referring to the contact of the senses with the objects of the senses: forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tangle objects.


shotineye12links detail

A person with an arrow shot through his eye depicts feeling. Craving and grasping follow.[7]


drinking group 12 links detail

Craving is illustrated by a group of people drinking wine, which they are probably enjoying with strong attachment.


monkey grabbing fruit 12 lnks detail

A monkey grabbing fruit from a tree represents grasping.[8]


pregnant woman 12 lnks detail

Existence or becoming, the tenth link, is shown as pregnant woman.


giving birth 2 12 links detail

Birth, the eleventh link, is represented by a mother giving birth.


deadman 12 links

Old age and death, counted as one, are depicted as an old person carrying a dead body.


According to one set of twelve links, in this life, motivated by ignorance, we create karma that then leaves an imprint on our consciousness. At the time of death, craving and grasping arise, which makes the karmic imprint stronger and leads to becoming.[9] At birth-time, there’s name and form,[10] name referring to all the mental factors and form to the body, or physical part. Then come sense bases, contact, feeling and aging and death. So this is how one enters and circles in saṃsāra.


Usually we describe how the twelve links work in terms of three lives.[11] The evolution starts with ignorance—the root of saṃsāra. This leads to karmic formation which is the imprint left on the mental continuum and which throws the future rebirth. Then, near death, craving, grasping and becoming [existence] arise. These three links were established in a previous life—not the current one. Likewise, the ignorance and karma that threw this present life were created before, maybe even billions, trillions or zillions of eons ago. The craving and grasping relating to the throwing of our current life however, occurred at the very end of our previous life, whether that be a human, animal or other existence. We then experience the seven results in our current life: consciousness taking place on the fertilized egg, name and form, the six sense bases, contact, feeling, birth and old age and death. So we must understand how these seven are experienced in this life. [12]

This is a very brief explanation.[13] Much more detail can be given on each of the links. However, in essence, what it shows is the four noble truths: true suffering, true causes of suffering, true cessation of suffering and true path, the method to cease suffering.

At the end of this life, having already experienced six results, the only link left to undergo is death. You must remember this fact as part of your meditation on reality. You even experienced some of the seven results while you were still in your mother’s womb. So while you are experiencing these results in this present rebirth you must think how, in one day, in one hour, and even in one minute, there is ignorance that is the root of saṃsāra. This is true except for those times when you meditate and don’t hold onto the I and the aggregates as what is not merely labeled by mind and that don’t exist as they appear to your hallucinated mind. But what we normally do is hold onto the I and the aggregates as existing in the total opposite way: we constantly believe them to be something that is not there and we do this because we have been habituated to it during beginningless rebirths.


Only when meditating on emptiness do you think in the totally opposite way. Only then do you see that the way the I and the aggregates appear to the hallucinated mind is totally false, totally nonexistent. The other way to meditate here is to think that the I is a dependent arising, existing in mere name, merely imputed by the mind because there are the aggregates. Considering I as a dependent arising in this manner makes you think that the I is empty, empty of existing from its own side. Realizing I as merely mentally imputed brings in your heart the understanding that it doesn’t exist from its own side. And, as mentioned, when meditating upon this, due to this understanding, this realization, your actions do not become the cause of saṃsāra. This is the case whatever you are doing—visualizing the deity in tantric practice,[14] eating, walking, sitting, speaking, playing golf or soccer or hang-gliding! If we are not aware of emptiness and do not practice renunciation, good heart and bodhicitta, we create instead, through ignorance, many sets of twelve links every day. We create many saṃsāras.


However, in some depictions of the wheel of life we see the Buddha standing outside the wheel on the upper right, holding a white circle that represents the cessation of suffering we can achieve.[15] On the other side, there is a teaching in one stanza:

Gather up and cast away.
Engage in the Buddha’s teaching.
Like a great elephant in a house of mud,
Conquer the Lord of Death’s battalions.
Whoever with great conscientiousness
Practices this discipline of the Dharma,
Abandoning the wheel of births,
Will make an end to suffering.[16]

The correct position for this verse is not down below but on the side like this.[17] Many wheels of life don’t have this verse but instead include, in that position, a drawing of the Amitabha pure land. This indicates that the artist has not read the sūtra in which the Buddha explains the wheel of life. Nor have they understood the significance of being reborn in such a pure land. Although one is not reborn there due to the gross delusions, one is reborn there due to the effort [motivation] of the subtle defilements together with the power of prayer.[18] And of course, once so reborn, one doesn’t have delusions or all the negative, emotional sufferings arise. Indeed, there’s not even the name “suffering.” Your body is a spiritual body, and everything, including the trees, are wish-fulfilling. But without the verse saying more or less [in paraphrase]

With the foundation of morality, attempt the path.
Renounce delusion and karma;
Don’t be like an elephant drowning in the mud

(an example the Buddha often gives to illustrate the way we are stuck in saṃsāra);

Abandon death; the one who is extremely conscientious
in engaging in this vinaya practice will abandon the saṃsāra
where they have been reborn.
All the suffering of saṃsāra will be ended;
This will be the last.

we will fail to understand how the twelve links are actually related to the four noble truths. Why? Because what this verse reveals is the meaning of true path. By practicing the true path, you can achieve the true cessation of suffering (represented by the moon in the Buddha’s hand). This is why the verse is so significant.

mara detail 12 links


Yama holding the wheel of life shows that for as long as you are not free of karma and delusion you are stuck in saṃsāra and subject to impermanence and death. You are living in the mouth of a shark whose jaws can close at any time. As long as we are in saṃsāra we are in the jaws of Yama, the Lord of Death. That is the interpretive meaning. The actual meaning is that we are subject to impermanence and death. Buddha is showing the true cessation of suffering while the verse reveals the path that is the way to cease saṃsāra and the answer to all problems.


buddha showing way 12 links

Usually represented in top right of Wheel of Life illustration

As Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explained, until we break the continuity of circling from life to life, it’s as if we’re carrying on our back a thorn bush or a big load of barbed wire tied with ropes. We are stuck with this wherever we go, whether it’s to the snow mountains, the beach, the countryside or the city—wherever we go, East or West, we’re constantly undergoing pain and suffering. Another example is carrying a big burning log of wood on our back bound by the ropes of karma and delusion. Until we put an end to our karma and delusion we’re stuck with this saṃsāra: the negative [afflicted or contaminated] aggregates that are totally in the nature of suffering. Wherever we reincarnate, from the tip of saṃsāra to the depths of the lowest hell, we have to undergo suffering without even a second’s break and cannot experience pure happiness for even one second.[19]






Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Geshe Doga gives a concise account of what is meant by saṃsāra (and we are not referring to a luxury Eau De Parfum featuring top notes of bergamont, lemon, ylang-ylang and peach and base notes of sandalwood vanilla, Tongka bean, amber and musk):  

What is samsara? It is a state of being born again and again through the force of ignorance and karma. Using the analogy of a man bound to a tree with ropes, we are like the tree, ignorance and karma are the ropes that bind us, and liberation is freedom from the bondage of these ropes. This freedom from the bondage of ignorance and karma is called liberation, or nirvana.

From beginningless time we have accumulated many deeds that keep us in samsara and thus hinder achievement of liberation. All beings are alike in wanting liberation from samsara, and to fulfil this wish we have to know how we are born again and again in this cyclic existence. What binds us to cyclic existence, like the rope, is the force of mental delusions and karma or previous actions. Just like a person bound to a tree, we are bound to the contaminated aggregates, our form body in this human life, which has the nature of true suffering, and which, as a result of our mental delusions and karma, also serves as a cause for future suffering.

When our destiny is determined by mental delusions and karma we find no samsaric freedom. On the other hand, it is said that if we are able to completely remove mental delusions and karma from our continuum then we will achieve the everlasting state of liberation or freedom from samsara.

All beings are alike in wanting liberation from samsara. To fulfil this wish we have to know how we are born again and again in this cyclic existence. From beginningless time we have accumulated many deeds that keep us in samsara, thus hindering the achievement of liberation. So we have to start with changing our focus to achieving liberation and abandoning samsaric things. Only then can we achieve something. To do otherwise would not be effective, even though we engage in Dharma practices.

In order to generate the thought of seeking liberation we have to see that we need to free ourselves from mental delusions and karma. We have to see that for as long as we are not free from these then we are inescapably bound to this cyclic existence and to continuous rebirth in the contaminated aggregates, where it is impossible to find lasting happiness.

Furthermore, these delusions, and the actions they influence, are the cause of all of our problems in this immediate life. We have to really understand how we are controlled by these mental delusions. When you are controlled by something you have no choice, and the reason we don’t have many options and why we cannot arrange life the way that we want, is because we are controlled by these mental delusions.

This is an extract from Geshe Doga’s forthcoming book  called The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Tara Institute Publishing. It will be released in early 2018. Details forthcoming. 

[2] Geshe Doga details, in deep psychological terms, how this self-grasping performs as  root of saṃsāra: 

Because we have grasped at this self from beginningless time, self-grasping arises spontaneously, and it is this sense of ‘I’ that leads to attachment to the self. This, in turn, results in a desire for happiness, so the ‘I’ then searches for the causes and conditions for that happiness, believing that they lie in external objects. This leads to the generation of attachment to various objects in the belief that they will bring such happiness.

Because of this deep sense of ‘I’ we have this tendency to like those who we consider as friends, and view them strong attachment, and we also have a tendency to dislike those whom we consider as enemies, and view them with hatred. Influenced by this strong attachment and hatred we create positive and negative actions, which we call karma. We may accumulate merit and purify our negativities by engaging in spiritual practice or virtuous actions, or motivated by thoughts of desire or hatred we may also engage in non-virtuous or negative actions.

Ignorance, attachment, and anger or hatred are called the three poisonous minds. Ignorance lies at the root of both attachment and hatred, and they in turn support ignorance like friends. Through actions motivated by ignorance supported by other delusions like attachment and hatred, we create the karma that is capable of throwing us into our next rebirth.

It is quite obvious that all our actions are fundamentally motivated by this ignorance that grasps at a self, which is why sentient beings are tormented with suffering. That is why this conception of the inherent existence of the self is considered to be the root of samsara – the root of all our faults, and why it is so important to understand it.

As mentioned earlier, actions or karmas arise from the causal motivation, which is this ignorance of self-grasping, and they also arise from a timely motivation which is the ignorance of the law of cause and effect.

Only ordinary beings experience the dependent arising of ignorance. It is not found in the continuum of superior or arya beings, because such superior beings have realised emptiness very clearly. Therefore, there is no chance of them producing throwing karma or creating compositional actions, or the second link of dependent arising.

Ibid. As Geshe Doga notes above (and this might go against many of our presumptions regarding how karma works),  both positive and negative actions, if accompanied by the causal motivation of self-grasping ignorance, are causes of cyclic existence. Geshe Sopa similarly observes: 

All the sentient beings at this [path of seeing or ārya] level or below are ordinary individuals who accumulate projecting karma, the karma that projects samsaric life. They are operating under the power of afflicted ignorance and the view of the transitory collections, holding the I as real, substantial, and permanent. When they perform nonvirtuous actions, such as killing, it creates demeritorious karma, which will cause them to be born in the lower realms. When they perform virtuous actions of the desire realm–such as the practice of giving or keeping ethical conduct–they create meritorious karma. And when they cultivate meditative states such as single-pointed concentration–which are included on the levels of the form or formless realms–they create immoveable karma. All of these are contaminated karma. They are actions rooted in ignorance and satisfy the immediate needs of a self that does not exist the way it is conceived to exist.

See Sopa, Steps on the Path, Volume 2, 296-7.

[3] It is necessary to remember, while engaged in this discussion, that karma in the context of the next (third) link, refers not to karma in general, but specifically to throwing karma: 

Because the next rebirth will be the manifestation of the karmic seeds, in the sense of the potential that is stored in the consciousness, the link of compositional action is also called the propulsive or throwing branch. Using the example of a seed, it has a potential to produce a sprout but it can only do so when the necessary conditions such as heat, moisture, and so forth are met. In this way, it sprouts and its potential to be a sprout (not just a seed) can be fulfilled. In the same way throwing karma has the potential to throw one into another cycle of life.

Geshe Doga, The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, forthcoming publication. The meaning, in other words, is that while karma of the second link is a karma (and thus a member of the general classification “karma,” not every example of a karma is an example of a throwing karma. Moreover, in terms of production, just as there are countless examples of throwing (or projecting) karmas, there are countless examples of non-throwing (or non-projective) karmas. The point remains: if the two are not accurately distinguished, confusion can arise. For example, there is karma (intention; Tib. sems pa) that is one of the five omnipresent mental factors (which always operate together enabling apprehension of an object) but it is not an example of throwing karma as it not motivated by ignorance (of the first link) and thus capable of tossing us into another suffering rebirth. It therefore does not fit throwing karma’s precise definition. However, as a distinct mental factor (or secondary mind), it does have capacity to impel/direct the primary mind (just as a magnet draws iron) to move towards various objects.  Another distinction: a throwing karma is that which ripens at the time of death to propel us into another rebirth whereas karma (intention) that is one of the five omnipresent mental factors is active also at other times. Otherwise, how could it be omnipresent?  These topics are explored in great detail in the famous Abhidharma (Treasury of Knowledge) literature which is studied intensively as essential part of the Buddhist monastic curriculum. For details on omnipresent mental factors see Lati Rinpoche, Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, 144; Geshe Rabten, The Mind and Its Functions, 110-115.

[4] The statement “Not all consciousnesses go from one lifetime to the next” is not as mysterious or perplexing as it might initially appear. The reason why some consciousnesses do not proceed or flow into the next life is due to their dependency on the physical body of this lifetime which is all-too impermanent and, apart from the macabre example of  cryogenic freezing,  naturally disintegrates at or after death. When, for politeness’s and also expediency’s  sake, our body is consigned to the  gas furnace of the local suburban crematorium,  more likely than not  accompanied by the plush sounds of Pachabel’s Canon, the physical sources that house our six sense powers that formerly enabled our eye, ear, nose, tongue, tangible and mental sense consciousness to perform, are destroyed along with it. Thus these sense consciousnesses cannot have continuity into the next life. That is a simple fact. Such continuity is the preserve of the most subtle mind: the clear light together with its subtle energy base (or wind). At the time of death this  clear light mind becomes suitable to be labelled the “clear light of death’ and ‘the all-empty’ because it is found, at that time, in the case of even ordinary unenlightened individuals, “devoid of the eighty conceptions, and of appearance, increase, and near-attainment, as well as the winds that serve as their mounts.” See Lati Rinpochay and Jeffrey Hopkins, Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, 45. In other words, all gross layers of conscious operation have been entirely shorn away, due to the propulsive effect of the systematically more-subtle death dissolutions themselves.  Such a subtle clear light mind, though it might naturally appear nakedly, starkly at death (due to the systematic dissolutions of the aggregates, constituents, sources, and their objects such as visible forms, sounds, then the conceptual minds of eighty indicative appearances etc.) is nonetheless always present as a substrate to consciousness and in this sense is stable though not permanent as it changes from moment to moment. As Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche next says, it is this mind that provides continuity from lifetime to lifetime. Consider, on the contrary: if such continuity was not possible, the person could not reincarnate; they would be totally expunged/annihilated at death. This, of course, is an enduring (but not unassailable)  tenet/fallacy of  contemporary scientific materialism which its insistence that  life cannot exist apart from the physical body;  to destroy one is to necessarily destroy the other. It is in this way that science can arrive at the idea that suspending a corpse upright in a vat of liquid nitrogen might potentially preserve/conserve life. And charge exorbitantly for the liberty/privilege of doing so. 

[5] According to the Buddhist presentation, “In the case of the child in the womb, mental consciousness and the mental faculty are present from the outset, and the moment of preceding mental activity, which occurs before visual perception can arise for the first time, is a moment of attention accompanying mental consciousness.” See Geshe Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works, 70. Furthermore, “[w]hen rebirth in the desire realm or form realm occurs, all five aggregates are present from the very beginning.” Ibid., 66. 

There are significant differences to the Western medical model which, perhaps due to its focus on the organic molecular evolution of the brain from the initial primordial embryonic germ cells, does not  give a clear account of how consciousness or any capacity for sentience, “arises.” The Buddhist account, on the other hand, focuses upon the sheer unbroken continuity clear light consciousness that is evident at its fundamental subtle level at three key junctures: dying, the intermediate state [bardo] and conception: “This is precisely the continuity of the very subtle mind. The major occasions are the times of dying, the bardo, and then conception. These are junctures, if you like, The subtlest clear light manifests at the time of death, which is one of these junctures. These three occasions of death, bardo, and conception are analogous to the states of falling asleep, the dream state, and then waking.” See The Dalai Lama, Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying, edited and narrated by Francisco J. Varela, Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1997, 109-10. In terms of the fourth link of name and form, “form” refers to the physical embryonic body at the time of conception: “Conception takes place with the initial formation of the gross body and energies.” ibid,. 126. Geshe Sonam elaborates:

Also, “[t]he end of the intermediate existence and the beginning of the human existence are simultaneous…[t]he fourth link, name and form, describes the moment of conception. “Name” refers to the four aggregates of feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness, while “form” refers to the physical embryo. The entity of the being has come into existence after which development takes place.”

How Karma Works, 67. Hence, the Buddhist account is fully compatible with a detailed scientific physiological account of the growth of the embryo from zygote (fertilized egg cell) onwards. 

[6] The Dalai Lama explains, “The fifth link is the six sources, depicted by an empty house, because these are the inner sources of consciousness—the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body sense, and mind—and although the organs are developing at this time, they are not functioning.” End of Suffering, 218. It follows that at this stage, though the physical sense organs are present, they do not operate to enable us to engage with objects of perception and thus experience feelings of pleasure or unhappiness. 

[7] Geshe Sonam Rinchen interestingly notes that “For those who understand the emptiness of all existent things and have familiarized themselves with it, craving related to feelings does not arise because they perceive the true nature of those feelings. The grasping, since it is intensified craving, cannot arise either, thereby preventing the occurrence of the tenth link.” How Karma Works, 75. Speaking from a meditational or experiential viewpoint, Khetsun Sangpo similarly explains:

Even though nothing is truly established, even though there is nothing there to hold, we grasp. This is how we operate, There is not one iota’s worth of something that you could actually point to, if you analyzed carefully, you could actually find. In other words, nothing truly exists. Nonetheless, our experience of things as truly existent does exist. This means there is a great difference between how things are and how they appear to us. Likewise, in dreams things appear, even though there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact nothing like that object is really there at all. If you close your eyes you may temporarily see some sort of appearance. But if you actually try to point it out, you can’t find it. Despite this, we hold very strongly to things as permanent and we develop great attachment to things we conceive of as true. Based on that holding, the six realms and the beings in them arise throughout our beginningless time as sentient beings. We have grown accustomed to apprehending things in this way. We have endless familiarity with our misconstrued sense that these things are real…It is clear that we develop great attachment to what we conceive as true. Since time without beginning we have been accustomed to this mistaken way of regarding everything. All six realms and all the beings in them will arise because of this. It is not that what we see does not exist at all. But we don’t know its reality. Such is the mistaken path of all ordinary beings.

See Khetsun Sangpo, Strand of Jewels: My Teachers’ Essential Guide on Dzogchen, text and oral commentary by Khetsun Sangpo. translated, introduced and compiled by Anne Carolyn Klein, Snow LionBoston, 2015, 126-7. 

[8] The Dalai Lama adds, “There are four different types of grasping. The first is grasping at desires, and the second is grasping at views of the self. The third is grasping at bad systems of ethics and conduct, and the fourth is grasping at the remaining types of bad views.” End of Suffering, 222. He further details how grasping serves to activate karmic potentials: “In dependence upon name and form, sources, contact, and feeling, one generates attachment—attachment to remaining with a pleasurable object or the attachment of seeking to be separate from a painful object. When this type of attachment [craving] is strongly produced over and over again, there is grasping of the desired object, and this attachment and grasping serve to active a karmic potency established by an action in the consciousness. The picture depicting this is a pregnant woman. Just as at this point the karma that would produce the next lifetime is fully potentialized, but not yet manifest, so the pregnant woman has an unborn child inside her womb. Existence [becoming] is a state of karma, or predisposition established in the consciousness that is fully potentialized” (ibid., 222–23). “Craving, grasping, and existence are the accomplishing causes.” See Geshe Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works, 71–74. Just as we had to distinguish between karma in general and karma of the second link, so here we have to distinguish between grasping in general and the specific grasping that is the ninth link. Geshe Doga elaborates:

Like general craving, general grasping also has different types. They are: grasping at sensual objects, e.g. beautiful form; and grasping at negative or bad ethics. The ninth link of grasping refers to: grasping at false moral ethics or extreme ascetic practices because of wrong view; and grasping at the self of person.

The ninth link of grasping is the stage where the potential of the second link of compositional actions, which is imprinted in the third link of consciousness, has been nourished by the eighth link of craving. When that potential has fully developed, the potency strengthens to the point of causing its result to manifest. It is a stage where our craving, which is a form of attachment, is so intense that the karmic potential is ready to produce its result.

Both links of craving and grasping arise when we are very close to the cessation of this life. At that time we will only have control if we have the karma not to be reborn in samsara, i.e. if we have created the karma to not take rebirth through the force of karma or affliction.

Geshe Doga, The Twelve Links, forthcoming publication. 

[9] The Dalai Lama specifies that becoming (or existence) “lasts from the time of the fully potentialized karma, up to the beginning of the next lifetime. Within it are two divisions of time. One level might be called ‘directional,’ as it is directed toward the next lifetime, and the other is ‘the level of having entered,’ or being in the process of actually entering. This refers to the potentialized karma in the intermediate state between two lifetimes.” End of Suffering, 223. Writes Geshe Sonam Rinchen, “Existence is the state where the imprint has been fully activated and is ready to yield the aggregates of the next rebirth.” How Karma Works, 75. Geshe Doga likewise explains:

The tenth link of existence, sometimes called ‘becoming’, refers to the karma itself. Unlike the previous stages where the nature of karma was a potential, here it has been fully nourished (like the water and warmth that help a plant to sprout and grow) as a result of the previous two links of craving and grasping.

Existence and compositional actions arise from the same seeds, but the dependent arising of existence is fully produce a result. Its name ’existence’ is the result of throwing karma or the compositional actions that will lead us to the next round of samsara.


[10] As Geshe Sonam Rinchen notes, “Sometimes birth, the eleventh link, is interpreted in the conventional way to mean the emergence of the baby from the womb. Usually, however, the consciousness of the living being at the moment of conception in the womb is defined as birth and is simultaneous with the fourth link, name and form” (ibid., 77). See note one. The Buddhist view creates some amusing conundrums, not least of which is how to honestly answer: how old are you? For when we emerge from the womb we are already nearly one!

[11] Details Tsongkhapa, “Even at the longest, completion of all twelve factors will be delayed no longer than three lifetimes, for the actualizers [craving, grasping, and existence], the two actualized factors [birth, and aging-and-death] and the three projecting factors [ignorance, compositional activity, and consciousness] all require their own lifetimes, while the projected factors [name-and-form, the six sources, contact, and feeling] are included in the lifetime of the actualized factors. Furthermore, though many lifetimes may intervene between the projectors and the actualizers, they are not lifetimes of their own particular cycle of dependent-arising, but are rather lifetimes of other cycles of dependent-arising. Among these calculations of two or three lifetimes, the lifetimes of the intermediate state have not been reckoned separately.” Great Treatise, Volume One, 322–23.

[12] Similarly, Sopa encapsulates,

It is due to your ignorance of the true nature of things that you grasp at a false conception of self. You hold the ‘I’ to be ultimately, substantially, independently real and you grasp at that ‘real thing’ as being your true self. Once you start holding tightly to that false, misperceived self, you naturally want to make that self happy. In order to accomplish that you engage in all sorts of actions of body, speech and mind—sometimes virtuous and sometimes not. All such action ripens into future experience and perpetuates the cycle of existence.” He then elaborates in terms of the twelve links: “Once again we see how the two karmic factors, karma and existence [the second and tenth links], arise from the three afflictions [ignorance, craving, and grasping], and in turn give rise to the seven factors of suffering [consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact, feeling, birth, and aging and death]. As you experience the pleasure and discomfort of those resultant factors, other afflictions, such as attachment and hostility, emerge in response. They in turn set in motion another round of actions—one set of results instigates yet another set of causes. Here again we see how the cause of all cyclic existence is karma and affliction. Again we see how the cycle—affliction causing karma, causing experience, causing affliction—perpetuates itself; cause and effect drives the wheel of life, turning it round and round in perpetual motion. As Nāgārjuna said in his Heart of Dependent Arising:

From the three arise the two,
From the two the seven arise,
And from the seven three arise—
That is the wheel of life, going around, and around, and around.

Steps, Volume 2, 348–49. See also Tsongkhapa, Great Treatise, Volume One, 322–24.

[13] The Dalai Lama introduces the reasons for inevitable further complexity:

We have explained the 12 links of dependent arising in terms of one round, starting from ignorance, with the remaining 11 members coming out of that. But you have to say that at the time this dependent arising operates, there’s another dependent arising operating with it. For when you have ignorance, action, and consciousness, between consciousness and name and form you have to have the attachment, grasping, and existence in order to activate the potency in the consciousness for it to produce the lifetime indicated by name and form. The level of fully potentialized karma leads to birth, and at the same time, there will be another set of name and form, sources, and contacts, operating. This is in terms of considering the 12 as one round.” He expands, “If attachment, grasping, and existence must come between consciousness and name and form, there’s another round involved even in their production. Once the first member is ignorance and the last member is aging and death, it might seem as if there were a beginning and end, but when you realize that in order to bring about this one round of the 12-member dependent arising there are other rounds operating at the same time, you realize that there isn’t a clean beginning and end. The root of all of it is ignorance, and as long as you have ignorance, there’s nothing you can do about getting rid of this process.

End of Suffering, 226. Geshe Doga details the completion of a cycle of the twelve links in two and then three lifetimes:


In this life we accumulate virtuous karma, which means that we have completed the first three links – ignorance, compositional actions and the consciousness – on which the potential of the karma is imprinted. Thus, the first three links are completed while the actions or karmas are being accumulated.

The karma that we accumulated in this lifetime, which will result in a future human rebirth in the next lifetime will, at the time of death, be nourished and come to maturity through the links of craving, grasping and existence.

Just before we leave this life the potential of the compositional action in our mind is nourished by the eighth link, craving, which takes the form of attachment that clings onto this human life, not wanting to leave it. This craving nourishes and intensifies the potential of the karma accumulated in this life. Then we grasp at the future human rebirth we desire in the next life. The link of existence then arises through the eighth and the ninth links which mature our karmic potential so that it is ready to produce its result.

This means six of the twelve links – the first three, (ignorance, karmic formation and the consciousness), along with the eighth, ninth and tenth dependent arising (respectively craving, grasping and existence) – are completed in this lifetime.

The remaining six links, beginning with name and form, the six senses, and up to the twelfth link of aging and death follow in the next rebirth. So, we need a minimum of two lifetimes to complete a complete cycle of the twelve links.


Now let us consider how a round of twelve links is finished in three lifetimes. Here we start with this life as the first life, the next rebirth is the second life, and a third rebirth follows.

We know that the first three links are always produced in the same lifetime. If the karma that we have created in the first lifetime has the nature to finish its result in three lifetimes, then the eighth, ninth, tenth links will occur in the middle life, and the remainder are finished in the third lifetime.

In the case of the present life there are the links of ignorance, compositional action, and consciousness. In the intermediate lifetime, there are the links of craving, grasping, and becoming, while in the last lifetime the links of rebirth, ageing and death, name and form, six sense sources, contact, and feeling are found.

The compositional actions to be reborn as a human being are created in this lifetime. If we are not reborn as a human in the next life then is clear that that the throwing karma of this life will be finished in three lifetimes. Even if we have created the compositional actions to be reborn as human, that result may not occur in the next lifetime. This is because the next lifetime will have been determined by the karma of a previous lifetime well before this current one.

In other words, the three lifetimes do not need to be consecutive, one after the other. For example, It is possible that one might create the first three in one lifetime, and if there is no occurrence of the eighth, ninth, tenth links in this lifetime, then the result of that karma will not come in following life. In fact, it might take hundreds of years to manifest itself. If the eighth, ninth and tenth links of a karma do occur, then following that life, the other six will naturally and inevitably follow. Once the eighth, ninth and tenth links are produced, all the other links will always be completed. There cannot be a gap between the eighth, ninth, tenth links, and the other six. However, there can be a gap between the first, second, and third and the eighth, ninth, and tenth links.

Just before taking an unhappy rebirth, this karmic potential has to be nourished by the eighth and the ninth links and then evolve the tenth link of existence. As this didn’t take place in the second life, it takes place in the third lifetime. Just before the end of the second lifetime, the potential of the karma to take the bad rebirth in the third life is nourished by the links of craving, grasping and then existence in the second lifetime. So, we take the unhappy rebirth in the third life.

We complete the first three links in the first lifetime, and the eighth, ninth and tenth in the second lifetime, and the remaining six in the third lifetime. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean this has to happen in three consecutive lifetimes. It is possible that there might be a gap of hundreds or even thousands of lifetimes before the karma created in this lifetime is nourished by the eighth, ninth and tenth links. Despite the gap, however, completing the twelve links of a particular rebirth has taken only three lifetimes.

Geshe Doga, The Twelve Links, forthcoming publication.

[14] The Dalai Lama explains, “The tantra in general explains that one generates the meditational deity out of the realization of emptiness. This is true in all four classes of tantra: (1) action (kriya) tantra, (2) performance (charya) tantra, (3) yoga tantra, and (4) highest yoga tantra.” Meditation on the Nature of Mind (Boston: Wisdom, 2011), 26.

[15 Sometimes just the full circle of the moon is shown in this position. Or in other cases the full moon is represented on the top left hand side of the Wheel of Life painting, corresponding to the direction of Lord Buddha’s pointing hand. 


[16] See Sopa, Steps, Volume 2, 356, where this verse is divided into two.

[17] Many thangkas or paintings depict the verse in this bottom position.

verse bottom 12 lnks

[18] The subtle (and perhaps from a worldly perspective, surprising or even counter-intuitive) point here (mentioned also in note 2 above) concerns how even positive actions, if and when accompanied by the mind of root ignorance, become the source of further saṃsāric suffering. Here resides also the key Buddhist proposition that virtue alone (and thus the method side of the path) cannot liberate us, although it will ensure higher rebirth. Writes Tsongkhapa,

Alternatively, motivated by ignorance about the meaning of selflessness, meritorious compositional activity— such as ethical discipline within the desire realm—or invariable compositional activity—such as cultivation of meditative serenity within the higher [deities’] realms—deposits latent propensities of good karma in the consciousness. This makes ready for actualization the group of factors beginning with resultant period consciousness and ending with feeling for, respectively, a happy rebirth in the desire realm or a rebirth as a deity in the higher realms. Through repeated nurturing by craving and grasping, these latent propensities are empowered, and subsequently birth and so forth will be actualized in those happy rebirths.

Great Treatise, Volume One, 321–22.

[19] Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo illustrates,

The contaminated aggregates are a case of the suffering that pervades all conditioned phenomena: the creation of these aggregates causes one to become a vessel for all suffering. You experience the sufferings of the heat and cold of the hells because you have received the aggregates of a hell being; you experience the sufferings of a hungry ghost’s hunger and thirst because you have received the aggregates of a hungry ghost; when you create for yourself the body of an animal—a donkey, say—you carry a load on your back, get whipped, and so on, because you have created for yourself the vessel in which to experience these sufferings. In short, even the unbearable pain of being pricked by a thorn happens because you are afflicted with a set of aggregates. Just as a man carrying a load of brambles on his naked back will never be without suffering until he puts his load down, you will never be without any type of suffering until you are free of the burden of the contaminated aggregates.” He then outlines three reasons why they are called “inflicted aggregates” and then concludes, “These aggregates are the suffering that pervades all conditioned phenomena, because the evil states of suffering and delusion are forever adhering to them….This is why it is correct to see the contaminated, inflicted aggregates themselves as saṃsāra. In order to weary of saṃsāra one must weary of the contaminated, inflicted aggregates. Until one wearies of the suffering that pervades conditioned phenomena, one will not truly weary of saṃsāra.

Liberation, 457–58.

Writes the First Paṇchen Lama,

As long as the appropriated aggregates exist, I have not transcended the nature of suffering. What need is there to consider the sufferings of the three lower realms? Having appropriated the aggregates of a human, I suffer hunger and thirst, constant seeking, separation from agreeable friends and relatives, encounters with loathsome enemies, not finding what I desire, having the undesired fall upon me, birth, aging, sickness, death, and so on.

Jampa, Easy Path, 130–31.





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