Here is a growing list of links to some classic discussions of Dependent Arising (Paticcasamuppada), each followed by a sample quote from the page.
A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination. A series of posts I wrote on the meaning of dependent arising in a modern context, based on a more likely structure underlying the 12-links. A paper that explains the reasons for seeing the structure in this new way was originally published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies; the paper is in Volume II (May 2012), or it can be downloaded at Academia.edu along with two other papers focusing on particular suttas that deal with dependent origination.
A Basic Buddhism Guide: A Table On Dependent Origination lays out the terms and quick definitions for easy reference. Representative art included on a separate page.
“Avijja (Avidya) Ignorance: Lack of wisdom, which is the root of all evils. Obscuration as to self of persons and self of phenomena.”
Notes on Dhamma by Nanavira Thera Mind-bendingly challenging read. I got the book form and wrote translations for all the Pali terms between the lines, and notes to myself in the margins (something I rarely do, writing in books, but worthwhile in this case). Well argued and deep discussion of how the pieces fit. Nanavira was a British man who became a Theravadan monk, living out the end of his life in Sri Lanka. Though he is clearly supporting Dependent Arising being about rebirth, by going directly to the suttas, his insights into the pieces have helped me understand what’s been said more than any other source.
“…though paticcasamuppāda is a structural principle, the Buddha’s Teaching is concerned with a particular problem, and therefore with a particular application of this principle. The problem is suffering and its cessation; the sphere in which this problem arises is the sphere of experience, of sentient existence or being; and the particular items, viññāna, nāmarūpa, and the rest, are the fundamental categories of this sphere. In consequence of this, the series, nāmarūpapaccayā viññānam, viññānapaccayā nāmarūpam, nāmarūpapaccayā salāyatanam, salāyatanapaccayā phasso, and so forth, is the fundamental exemplification of paticcasamuppāda in the Buddha’s Teaching, and the particular items are the basic sankhārā. “
Paticcasamuppada: Dependent Origination, Paticca Samuppada by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa sees DA’s “birth” as being the birth of the ego. At the end of the piece he regrets having taught the three-lives model in the past. Buddhadasa perceives the language used in terms of “everyday language” and “dhamma language” (what I might call “conventional” vs “metaphorical”). Buddhadasa was a Thai (Theravadan) monk.
“The doctrine of dependent origination is an Absolute Truth; therefore, the Dhamma language must be used to explain it. It is contrary to the teaching of morality (about worldly goodness, which supports the concept of an ego).” ALSO “Dependent arising is a phenomenon that lasts an instant; it is impermanent. Therefore, Birth and Death must be explained as phenomena within the process of dependent arising in everyday life of ordinary people. Right Mindfulness is lost during contacts of the Roots and surroundings. Thereafter, when vexation due to greed, anger, and ignorance is experienced, the ego has already been born.”
The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination by Lama Zopa Rinpoche describes each step along with its symbol in the “Wheel of Life“. This description comes from a Mahayana teacher, and describes the cycle as covering “two or three lifetimes”.
“I do not desire suffering, so I must stop circling in samsara. To do so I must overcome delusion and karma. Ignorance leads to action, which leaves impressions on the consciousness. The results of those may appear in this lifetime, the next, or in subsequent lives.”
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination by Thrangu Rinpoche comes from the Tibetan (Vajrayana) school of Buddhism.
“The teachings on Mahamudra are mainly concerned with discovering the essence of mind, which is emptiness (Skt. shunyata) or “the way things really are” (Tib. nge lug) on the ultimate level. The teachings on interdependent origination (Tib. tendrel) are complementary to the Mahamudra teachings because they deal with “the way things appear”(Tib. khri lug). Although on the ultimate level things really are emptiness or the undifferentiated pure nature, on the conventional or relative level things manifest because of each other; they depend upon each other, they originate one from another.”
Dependent Origination Through A Microscope by Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy describes a view of a moment-to-moment view of paticca samuppada, though he is not saying this is the only way to see it. He talks about chocolate, so naturally I like his take.
…like many aspects of the Dharma, Dependent Origination can also be studied at other levels. I sometimes find it useful to view the twelve steps of Dependent Origination through a microscope, looking for signs of its operation in the split seconds between moments of thought in daily life.”
Dependent Origination by Christina Feldman talks about how we are all interdependent.
“What the pañicca-samuppàda actually describes is a vision of life or an understanding in which we see the way everything is interconnected—that there is nothing separate, nothing standing alone.”
On Dependent Origination by Ryuei Michael McCormick discusses “existence and non-existence” at some length and the Buddha’s Middle Way between them.
Dependent origination is the Middle Way between the extremes of existence and non-existence. The view of existence, or “eternalism,” imagines that fixed entities, independent of conditions and immune from change, can be found underlying the phenomena which do change. The view of non-existence, or “annihilationism,” imagines there is no continuity at all within change and the entities which do arise will eventually vanish completely without a trace. Dependent origination is the Middle Way which cuts through those views by pointing out the ceaseless interplay of causes and conditions, which is the process of becoming, rather than the eternalism of being or the nihilism of non-being. The Middle Way points out that while there are no fixed entities, there is a flow of continuity within the process of change.”
Transcendental Dependent Arising by Bhikkhu Bodhi covers the “liberative” formula for Dependent Arising, a sort of extended version in which the traditional last step (aging and death) is replaced with dukkha, and dukkha is the supporting condition for faith, which leads onward and upward to freedom.
“Dependent arising (paticcasamuppada) is the central principle of the Buddha’s teaching, constituting both the objective content of its liberating insight and the germinative source for its vast network of doctrines and disciplines. As the frame behind the four noble truths, the key to the perspective of the middle way, and the conduit to the realization of selflessness, it is the unifying theme running through the teaching’s multifarious expressions, binding them together as diversified formulations of a single coherent vision.”
The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination by Barbara O’Brien has a succinct description of each of the steps in plain language.
“Avidya means lack of light or lack of understanding. In Buddhism, ‘ignorance’ usually refers to ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, in particular that life is dukkha (unsatisfactory; stressful) … Ignorance also refers to ignorance of anatman, a teaching that there is no ‘self’ in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality and ego, are temporary creations of the skandhas.”
The Shape of Suffering by Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a book-length treatise by an American Theravadan translator.
“I was especially struck by the need for apt analogies to explain how dependent co-arising works as an explanation both for the arising of dukkha—stress or suffering—and for the fact that dukkha can be ended through a path of practice. The two most prominent analogies offered by the post-canonical Buddhist tradition—depicting dependent co-arising as a wheel or as a circle of mirrors—are inadequate to this task. The wheel is too deterministic in its implications; the circle of mirrors, too static.”
Unpopular facts about one of Buddhist philosophy’s most popular doctrines This paper by Eisel Mazard (writer of the first comment below) posits that all dependent arising is about is birth. Given that the Buddha said that to see DA is to see his dhamma, this would make the thousands of suttas he left us merely a discussion of conception and birth, which seems a little unlikely. The paper is useful, though, in the questions it asks. I deal with the holes in the theory in my own blog post.
“Contrary to the great bulk of English language interpretations my thesis is simply that the 12-links formula concerns the development of the embryo, i.e., including the arising of consciousness in the womb. Conversely, the text is expressly not about the arising of consciousness [in] any other sense of the term(s). The consciousness described in this text indicates a stage of development that transpires inside the womb; this, too, […] is stated (blatantly enough) within the Mahānidāna and may be affirmed from other contexts presenting the doctrine (if the terse wording of the formula itself leaves any doubt).”