The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

The Twelve Conditioned Causes


And no ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death.


This passage mentions the twelve conditioned causes (pratityasamutpada), which those of the Condition-Enlightened Vehicle (pratyekabuddhas) cultivate. The twelve conditioned causes help people be born and die and be reborn again. The Condition-

Enlightened cultivate the twelve dharmas of conditioned cause, and, understanding the principles of human life, they become enlightened and are certified as having attained the fruition of Pratyekabuddhahood. They are called those of the middle vehicle. Hearers (shravakas) are the small vehicle, Pratyekabuddhas are the middle vehicle, and Bodhisattvas are the great vehicle.

What is ignorance?

1) Ignorance is the lack of understanding. In everyday language it is called being mixed-up. It means that you have not understood the principle.

2) Because you are so mixed up and you do not understand, your behavior is mixed up, your actions are false. By false activity is meant doing what you shouldn’t do. The false activity leads to…

3) Empty and false recognition, that is, consciousness.

4) Mixed-up name and form follow.

5) Then there are mixed-up entrances; the six entrances come into being. From mixed-up entrances there arises,

6) Mixed-up contact. When there is mixed-up contact, one thinks of,

7) Mixed-up enjoyment. From such mixed-up feeling comes,

8) Mixed-up love, that is, craving. From mixed-up love there then arises,

9) Mixed-up seeking and grasping, which is followed by,

10) Mixed-up having – that is, existence. To have is to obtain. From mixed-up having, one can then obtain,

11) Future birth. And from rebirth comes,

12) Old age and death.

These are the twelve conditioned causes, and they all begin with being mixed up. Because they are mixed up in the beginning, they are mixed up at the conclusion. You pass through one mixed-up life to the next, and that next life is also mixed up. The twelve conditioned causes are all mixed up, and mixed-up conditioned causes are exactly what ordinary people are unable to understand.

From the very beginning, the twelve conditioned causes are mixed up. The desires that people give rise to, whether for food or for sex, are all produced from ignorance, the first of the conditioned causes. Ignorance is just another name for being mixed up. When thoughts arise, there follows a desire to act, to go and do it – the second of the conditioned causes. In this way, the twelve conditioned causes explain the principles of how we are born and how we die.

Because there is ignorance, there is sexual behavior. The mixed-up sexual behavior is produced from the state of being mixed up. When the mixed-up behavior exists, there arises a mixed-up recognition, a mixed-up discrimination, a consciousness, the third conditioned cause. This is the body of the intermediate skandha-consciousness (antarabhava). When a man and woman indulge in sexual behavior, if an intermediate skandha-consciousness has an appropriate interpersonal causal connection with that mother and father, then even if it is a thousand or ten thousand miles away, and even if only the tiniest thread of light is emitted, it sees the light and goes there to become a foetus.

When the foetus comes into being, there is name and form, the fourth conditioned cause. Name refers to the four skandhas of feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness, while form refers to the form-skandha. Four kinds of awareness – feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness – exist in the mother’s belly in name only; they have not yet actually come into being.

Once name and form come to exist, there are then six entrances, the fifth conditioned cause. These are six perceptual faculties as they give rise to the seeing-nature, the hearing-nature, the smelling-nature, the tasting-nature, the touching-nature, and the knowing-nature. Those six natures are called the six entrances. Once the six entrances exist, the child becomes aware of contact, the sixth conditioned cause.

Therefore, it is said, “The six entrances lead to contact.” Having awareness of contact, the child becomes receptive to feelings, the seventh conditioned cause, and from that the eighth, love, is produced in the heart. Only after love is born does the child wish to seek and grasp; this is the ninth conditioned cause.

Therefore, “love leads to grasping,” seeking and grasping for what one loves. Thereupon one wants to have, to get for oneself; this is the tenth conditioned cause. Because of thinking and getting, there is rebirth in the next life; after rebirth comes old age and death, the twelfth and last conditioned cause.

If there were no ignorance, there would be no activity. This is the extinguishing cycle of the twelve conditioned causes.

When ignorance is ended, activity is ended.
When activity is ended, consciousness is ended.
When consciousness is ended, name and form are ended.
When name and form are ended, the six entrances are ended.
When the six entrances are ended, contact is ended.
When contact is ended, then enjoyment – that is, feeling – is ended.
When enjoyment is ended, love is ended.
When love is ended, grasping is ended.
When grasping is ended, having is also ended.
When having is ended, birth, old age, and death are ended.


No ending of ignorance – its basic nature is empty.
False activity, discrimination, followed by name and form;
The six entrances, contact, feeling, love, grasping, having;
Rebirth, and old age and death are each that way too.
For ten thousand miles the sky is clear, without a cloud or a shadow;
Still water fills a deep pool and reveals the light of the moon.
Like people who drink when thirsty and know the hot from the cold,
Talking about food, and helping it grow: the work is always wanting.


No ending of ignorance – its basic nature is empty. That is, ignorance does not exist.

False activity, discrimination, followed by name and form. The verse says that after discrimination comes name and form; after name and form come the six entrances; after the six entrances, contact; after contact, enjoyment. Enjoyment, then love; love, then grasping; grasping, then having; from having come rebirth and old age and death.

Therefore, the verse says, The six entrances, contact, feeling, love, grasping, having; / Rebirth, and old age and death are each that way too. They are all connected together in the twelve conditioned causes. When the time comes that they all do not exist, it is like a cloudless sky. For ten thousand miles the sky is clear, without a cloud or a shadow.

Still water fills a deep pool and reveals the light of the moon. It is also like the bright moon appearing as a reflection in clear water.

Like people who drink when thirsty and know the hot from the cold. Having the spiritual skill, the gong fu, of knowing and being enlightened to the twelve dharmas of conditioned cause is compared to drinking water, because when you are thirsty and drink, you yourself know whether the water is cold or warm.

Talking about food and helping it grow: the work is always wanting. If you yourself don’t actually cultivate, if you don’t look into the twelve conditioned causes and become enlightened to them and say, “Oh, the twelve conditioned causes are empty, empty, empty!” – if you haven’t done these things but you talk endlessly about emptiness without having genuinely obtained its real meaning and principle for yourself, then it is a case of merely “talking about food” but not eating it.

As it says in the Shurangama Sutra, “In the end, talking about food cannot make you full.” “Helping it grow” refers to the extremely stupid people of the country of Song in ancient China. In those days, when you wanted to refer to a country where the people were stupid, you said, “Like the people of Song,” since they were the stupidest. Just how stupid were they?

Among the men of Song there was someone who felt sorry for his plants and pulled them up.

He was worried that the grain he had planted wouldn’t grow, so, saying, “Ah, my seedlings are growing so slowly,” he pulled them up to help them grow. He pulled them up so they were one or two inches taller and said, “You see, they grew two inches today.”

Having arrived in a dull hurry.

He was muddled and confused, and had the appearance of great weariness. He arrived home panting and exclaimed, “Too much bitter suffering, too much bitter suffering!” and he said to his family,

“Today I am very tired.”

“Today I feel so tired that I’m sick, because I did so much work. I helped the plants to grow.” His son went running to see them. His son said, “Ah, my father has such great ability, so much divine psychic power that he can help the plants grow. Heaven and earth help the plants grow, but the amount they help in any one day is infinitesimal. What mantra did he recite to help the plants grow?” And he ran off to the fields to look.

As to the plants, they had withered.
They’d all dried up; they were dead.

This is just to say that in cultivating the Way you should not think, “Ah, I have become enlightened! I have become enlightened! I have become enlightened!” Or, “Ah, how is it that I have still not become enlightened. How should I be so that I will get enlightened? This way I don’t get enlightened, and that way I don’t get enlightened. I go forward several steps and haven’t been enlightened yet; I retreat several steps and have not been enlightened either. I jump several jumps and don’t get enlightened. I sat for one whole hour and still have not become enlightened. After all, how do you get enlightened?”

If you have a mind like that, you will never be able to become enlightened. Why? Because in your mind your thoughts of wanting to become enlightened press down on your potential for enlightenment in much the same way as the man from Song who helped his Explanation of the Meaning of 90 the Text plants to grow. Therefore, the verse says, “Talking about food, and helping things grow: the work is always wanting.” In short, there is never any merit in it.

You yourself must cultivate with energy and with a level mind. You must put your feet down diligently on the actual ground. You should not say, “Will I be able to get enlightened tomorrow? Will I be able to get enlightened the day after? When will I be able to become enlightened?” Don’t cherish such thoughts, because the false-thinking mind is precisely what will cause your enlightenment to run away in fright. Your enlightenment is afraid of false thinking. So when you have false thinking, enlightenment just runs away.

Why does your heart jump? Because it is afraid of your false thinking. It is also afraid of becoming enlightened. Since you want to become enlightened, your heart jumps and thumps, “Incredible! He wants to become enlightened!” So when your heart starts pounding, your karmic obstacles become afraid and imperceptibly think, “If he becomes enlightened, what will we do?” There won’t be anything they can do.

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