The following twelve links of dependent origination are the Buddha’s explanation of the process by which beings live, die, and are reborn again:
1. Ignorance: This is the sower of the seed—being ignorant of the Law of Cause and Effect and being ignorant of the mode of existence of things. It is usually illustrated with an old blind person with a stick who cannot find his way who symbolizes our unenlightened state of existence.
2. Compositional Factors: These are the karmic actions of body, speech, and mind, motivated by ignorance that are like the seeds that create meritorious and unmeritorious karma and results in rebirth in either the higher or lower realms. This is illustrated by a potter who molds his own fate by his karmic actions, as a potter molds his clay.
3. Consciousness: This can be seen in two parts. The first is the consciousness at the time of the cause that occurs immediately after the instinct or latency of the compositional factor (karma) has been imprinted by our actions, speech, and thoughts. This is like the earth into which the seed is planted. The second is the consciousness at the time of the result that occurs immediately after conception in the next incarnation. This is the link that carries over from birth to birth that is also known as the eight consciousness or the alaya vijnana. This is shown as a monkey swinging from branch to branch, totally unaware, like ordinary people who, ignorant of the Law of Cause and Effect and the nature of reality, lack control of consciousness and swing from one object to another, just as they swing from one lifetime to the next.
4. Name and Form: The form link is the blood (egg) and sperm in their first stage of development into which the consciousness has been placed, while the name link is the remaining four aggregates of feeling, perception, impulses or volition, and consciousness. In the Formless Sphere there is only the name link—there are no links of form. These two conditions are symbolized on the wheel by two people in a boat. Sometimes the boat has a third person who serves as a guide.
5. Six Senses: Since the physical and mental faculties are said to exist from the period of initial fetal development or conception, this link happens simultaneously with the “Name and Form” link. For miraculous or transformational births (the most common since hell beings and hungry ghosts as well as the heavenly beings are all born in this manner) the fourth and fifth links also occur simultaneously. In the Formless Sphere there is only consciousness (mind), none of the five physical sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body). This link is usually shown as a house with five windows and a door, symbolizing the five senses and the door of mind consciousness. Sometimes there are only six windows as shown here. This is how ordinary (unenlightened) beings perceive the outer world. Once the six sense faculties have formed, the link of the six senses only applies as long as one still cannot discriminate between objects. This link represents the development of the first six consciousnesses.
6. Contact: Without any contact of the sense organs with their objects there could be no feelings. As soon as the previous links are formed, then the potential object, the appropriate sense faculty and the related sense consciousness are present and can interact, then one can discriminate between pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral objects. The contact link provides the conditions for the development of one of the three types of feeling: happiness, suffering, or equanimity—we like what we feel, we don’t like it, or we are neutral. Here we see a man and woman embracing, demonstrating the most intimate of all contacts and one that most people can understand.
7. Feeling: This is the condition that generates our cravings—the feelings born of contact with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and intellect. Without feeling there would be no craving. Our feelings serve as a subsidiary cause for the development of craving if we still have ignorance and do not understand our original nature or the nature of reality. Craving occurs when we don’t want to be separated from what we like and want to avoid what we don’t like. We can even crave that our equanimity does not decline. This is aptly illustrated on the wheel by a man who has just been struck in the eye with an arrow. However, if we do not have ignorance and are enlightened, we may still have feelings, yet craving will not develop. Enlightened beings will not be moved by the so-called “eight winds” or common emotional states.
8. Craving: It is craving—that hankering after the world of the senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, mind consciousness) that create attachments, the condition of clinging. Without the initial craving there would be no clinging or attachments. The illustration for this link is a woman offering water to a man or a man drinking, symbolizing many of the cravings.
9. Clinging or Grasping: Without clinging to views, our sensual pleasures and dislikes, old habits or modes of behavior, and concepts of self, there would be no becoming. Here we have either a monkey or man picking fruit from a tree, symbolizing our grasping for that which we desire, but this also applies to clinging to our dislikes and notions of how things ought to be as well.
10. Becoming: In the past, our compositional factors implanted the instinct of some karmic action into the consciousness. Craving and grasping activate this instinct, which then becomes potent enough to throw one into a body in a future rebirth. This is becoming. Without becoming there would be no birth. A beautiful young bride, or a couple in bed, or a pregnant woman can symbolize the creation of a new life in this link. This and the following link are what happen in the “becoming” or “pregnancy bardo.”
11. Rebirth: This link extends from just after this activation until we are conceived in one of the four types of rebirth (womb, egg, miraculous, and transformational). It is this activated or potent karma that is responsible for our reincarnation. An obvious condition for old age and eventual death for without birth how could there be old age or death? A woman crouched in the primitive position of giving birth to a child is shown here to illustrate this link.
12. Old Age and Death: This link represents the maturing of the aggregates, the gradual changing of their condition that happens immediately after conception. To a Buddhist, this life begins at conception in the “becoming bardo,” not birth. This link is illustrated by someone carrying a corpse to be buried, cremated, or left for “sky” burial as was the custom in Tibet.