The Twelve-linked Chain of Causation


Lectures on Basic Study Materials
from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 372

The Twelve-linked Chain of Causation

The Central Buddhist Idea of Interdependent Manifestation
The Meaning of “Engi” (Relationship of Manifestation)
The twelve-linked chain of causation is known as the principle of
interdependent manifestation. We often say such things as, “I have a
premonition”, but at such times, we use the word “premonition” to
mean “an indication of things to come” or “an omen”. The word for
“omen” in Japanese is “Engi”. But “Engi” can also mean “origin”, as in
“the origin of such and such temple”. In this case, “Engi” connotes “the
origin of coming into existence” or “source”. In both of these usages of
the word “Engi”, the nuances are slightly different from the word’s
original meaning, but in either case, it would not be wrong to say
that their usages come from Buddhist terminology.
This word “Engi” represents a central idea in Buddhism, and is an
original tenet that differs from those of other religions and
philosophies. “Engi” refers to “occurrence based on…”; and while
“based on” connotes “depending on circumstances”, “an occurrence”
means “reason for an occurrence”. Therefore, “Engi” means, “the
principle of the way in which occurring phenomena come into being
through various circumstances” and indicates the relationship of the
mutual dependence of all phenomena.
In short, all phenomena are impermanent, constantly coming into
existence, changing and becoming extinct. This flux is not erratic.
“Engi” is the law whereby things change in a fixed manner due to a
fixed set of circumstances.

Illusion, Action and Suffering: A Causal Relationship
Where do the causes of our unhappiness come from? Unhappiness
begins with illusion, which is based on earthly desire. Through the
thoughts and actions that result from illusion, we create karma, and
as a result of that karma, we experience suffering. The twelve-linked
chain of causation is an explanation of how this three-tiered causal
relationship (illusion, karma and suffering) applies to the reality of
our lives through the aforementioned law of “Engi” (relationship of
In other words, the twelve-linked chain of causation is an
observation: it is an awakening to the fact that the fundamental
cause of suffering is ignorance and, that with the eradication of
ignorance, suffering will also be eradicated. This relationship is
explained in texts such as the Kusha Ron, and is sometimes referred
to as the “Twelve Clauses of the Relationship of Manifestation” or the
“Twelve Causes for Birth”. At the beginning of his preaching career,
Shakyamuni expounded the law of the Four Noble Truths to the
people of learning, and the law of the Twelve-linked Chain of
Causation to the people of realization. It can be said that this Twelve-
linked Chain of Causation is a detailed expression of the Four Noble

Explanation of the Twelve-linked Chain of Causation
Here, we would like to give an outline of the twelve clauses of this
chain of causation.
1. Mumyo (ignorance, stupidity): refers both to earthly desire and
accompanying illusion possessed since the remotest past, and to
ignorance of the truth of the Four Noble Truths and the Relationship
of Manifestation.
2. Gyo (behavior, the three actions of thought, word and deed –
synonymous with the three types of karma): refers to the three
types of erroneous mental, verbal and physical actions, which
manifest because of the influence of ignorance and stupidity. After a
time, the energy reserves from these actions become a part of
habitual powers, become karma, and exert further influence.
3. Shiki (consciousness): refers to the six consciousnesses or senses
of subjective and operative cognition; (1) sight, (2) hearing, (3)
smell, (4) taste, (5) touch and, (6) mentality, or the function of the
4. Myoshiki (designation of form) refers to the six objective
categories that can be perceived (environment) through cognitive
sensation; (1) physical form, (2) sound, (3) odor or fragrance, (4)
flavor, (5) tactile objects and (6) information perceivable by the
5. Rokunyu (the six organ groups through which sensation and
perception are possible): refers to the (1) eyes, (2) ears, (3) nose, (4)
tongue, (5) physical body, and (6) mind.
6. Soku (contact, the harmonization of the organs, environment and
consciousness): refers to the condition of recognition by the six
consciousnesses that is established through the six senses’ perception
of the six environments.
7. Ju (reception): refers to the mind’s receptivity, or the senses’
internalization of impressions resulting from external stimuli. The
impressions from these external stimuli are felt as either painful or
8. Ai (want): refers to awareness of feelings of fierce craving that
result from pain and pleasure, as when a thirsty person craves
water. When pain is sensed, one experiences a strong craving to try
to avoid the hateful feeling, and when pleasure is felt, the experience
creates an intense desire to try to maintain the sensation.
9. Shu (taking): refers to the act of physically or verbally choosing to
take or reject something. While the previous clause referred to the
heart’s burning desires of love and hatred, “taking” refers to real
actions that are taken in response to such emotions. Plundering what
one wants, and getting rid of, wounding or killing what one hates, are
examples of such actual conduct.
10. U (existence): refers to everything in existence, which results
from the previous clause’s actual conduct based on choices of
acceptance or rejection. It is the accumulation of the habitual
energies of past conduct, which then regulates future actions.
11. Sho (birth, the phenomenon of being born): refers to the new life
which manifests as a result of the temperament of the existence in
the preceding clause.
12. Roshi (aging and death): all sufferings are represented by
growing old and dying.

Twelve-linked Chain of Causation: Constant Mutation – Return to
The above were explanations of each clause of the twelve-linked
chain of causation. None of them exists independently. According to
the law of the relationship (influence) of manifestation, the chain of
causation flows in conformity. It is important that we ascertain what
the source of our present suffering is, and cut it off.
“The Constant Mutation of the Twelve-linked Chain of Causation” and
“The Eradication of the Twelve-linked Chain of Causation” are
explained from this point of view. In other words, ignorance causes
the manifestation of behavior, and that behavior results in
consciousness. In due course, this establishes the sufferings of birth,
old age and death. The observance of this is “The Constant Mutation
of the Twelve-linked Chain of Causation,” which reveals the law
through which our sufferings originate, and illuminates the condition
of illusion.
In contrast, “The Eradication of the Twelve-linked Chain of Causation”
teaches that in the same way that ignorance is eradicated, so is
behavior, and in the same way that behavior is eradicated, so is
consciousness, with the result that in the sequence of eradication, the
sufferings of birth, old age and death are finally brought to an end.
The fourth of the Noble Truths – the Path – explains the specific way
in which one can become free from suffering.

Double Layering of Past, Present and Future Causes and Effects
The theory of the “Double Layering of Past, Present and Future
Causes and Effects” elucidates the relationship between the twelve
clauses of the links of causation as they span the three existences of
the past, present and future.
In short, this theory explains that the two clauses of ignorance and
behavior are the two causes made in one’s past existence, while the
five clauses of consciousness, designation of form, the six organ
groups, contact and reception indicate the five effects that are
manifested in one’s present life. These make up the first layer of past
and present cause and effect. Next, the theory shows that the three
clauses of want, taking and existence are the three causes which
result in the final two clauses of birth, and old age and death. These
comprise the present and future layer of causality, and the totality
shown then, is the double-layered causal relationship that spans the
three existences.
When we observe this twelve-linked chain of causation, the causal
truth of each of our lives becomes clear, and we can perceive that the
reasons for our sufferings are to be found in our ignorance of that
It is said in Shakyamuni’s Buddhism that people of realization
achieved enlightenment through this teaching of the twelve-linked
chain of causation. But that enlightenment was no more than a
Hinayana state of enlightenment. It was not true Buddhahood. It is
all the more true, then, that the attainment of Buddhahood would be
impossible if we were to practice Buddhism according to the twelve-
linked chain of causation in the Latter Day of the Law. In the Ongi
Kuden, the Daishonin declares: “The single word ‘faith’ is the priceless
sword that will cut through our fundamental ignorance.” In the
Latter Day of the Law, there is no other way for us to conquer our
fundamental ignorance, which is the source of our suffering, and
attain Buddhahood, than through Buddhist practice based on absolute
faith in the Gohonzon.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly