Law of the Twelve Causes

This law, also called The Doctrine of the Twelve-Link Chain of Dependent Origination, teaches that all phenomena in this world constantly change, appearing and disappearing, and that all changes are based on an established rule. Though all things change, this rule is immutable. We know it as the “Law of the Twelve Causes” because we divide the rule into twelve stages. However, it is easier for us to understanding this law by limiting it to man than by trying to apply it to all phenomena.

The Buddha perched the “Law of the Twelve Causes” in detail to Ananda in the Dirgha-agama (Long Discourses) Sutra. This law rules the growth of the human body as well as the changes in people’s mind. The former is called the “outer causation” and the latter the “inner causation”. It explains the process through which a human being is born, grows, ages, and dies in light of the three temporal states of existence, the past, present, and future. In connection with this, it shows how people’s minds change and the fundamental method of purifying and of removing illusions from them.

The twelve links or stages are (1) Ignorance, (2) Actions, (3) Consciousness, (4) Name and Form, (5) the Six Entrances (the five sense organs and the mind), (6) Contact, (7) Sensation,(8) Desire, (9) Clinging, (10) Existence, (11) Birth, and (12) Old Age and Death. First we will explain the growth and changes of the human body, the outer causation.

The first link of the Twelve Causes is Ignorance. Prior to our conception, nothing is known or sensed. When the ignorant spirit is conceived in the mother’s womb through the Action of sexual intercourse, Consciousness is produced. Consciousness means “something living”. Here something like a human being (a fetus) is produced, although it is still incomplete. As the incomplete consciousness is gradually taking shape, it grows into name and form (mental functions and matter). “Name” means an immaterial being, spirit or soul, and “Form” indicates a material being, that is, the human body. “Name and Form” mean the human body with a soul.
As “Name and Form” (mind and body) grow, they develop the “Six Entrance” such as the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body) and the mind by which we perceive the existence of things. At this time, we are still in the mother’s womb and incomplete. This stage is called the “Six Entrances” because the functions of our minds and bodies are on the point of dividing into six different senses. We are born into this world at the stage of the Six Entrances. When we grow to the age of two or three, the Six Entrances are completed and sensibility is developed. That is, we become able to discern shapes, colors, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and so on. This stage is called “Contact.” When this sensibility is further developed, feelings of like and dislike naturally develop. This state is called “Sensation.” When such feelings appear, “Desire” for things arises spontaneously. The Desire referred to here, means attachment, whose meaning is a little different for that of love as this word is commonly used. In other words, this is a state of mind that has preferences and that clings to what it likes. When we have Desire for something, we try to hold on to it. (Conversely, we try to avoid what we consider unpleasant or undesirable.) This is called “Clinging.” “Clinging” leads to various feelings, ideas, and assertions. This is called “Existence”, which means the discriminating mind. Due to this discriminating mind, opposition and struggle occur among people, and human life as suffering unfolds. Such human life is called “Birth”. Leading such a life of suffering. “Old Age” comes before one knows it, and finally one encounters “Death”.

In short, the “Law of the Twelve Causes” teaches that you are born as an ordinary human being because of your ignorance in a previous life. The Law also teaches that if you eradicate your ignorance in the present world, the essential form of your life as it was meant to be will be revealed in your future life. Here we should not limit the meaning of “future life” to life when we are reborn after death but should regard it rather as the life before us in the future. If we abandon (fundamental) ignorance and set our minds in the direction of the Law, a bright and serene future life will open up before us.

The Law of the Twelve Causes


Ignorance – Fundamental cause of suffering.

Actions – Deed (KARMA) Based on Ignorance.

Consciousness – Moment of conception/ memory.

Name and Form – Growth of mind and physical body in the womb.

Six Entrances – Birth after growth of sense organs and the mind.

Contact – Development of distinguish function/contact with external objects.

Sensibility (Sensation) – Function of sensibility/feelings.

Desire of Affection – Psychological growth of youth/desire for pleasure/cravings.

Clinging – Psychological growth of youth/grasping what one desires.

Existence – The discriminating mind with its various feelings, ideas and assertions that arise from clinging.

Birth of Life – Birth of child or appearance of matter in life/rebirth.

Old age and death – Grief, lamentation, suffering & distress.