The Twelve Links

Three Impressions of The Twelve Links

The “Twelve Links” is a description of how conscious experience and, hence, the Self is created. Our ignorance of how things really are conditions us to the basic act of the mind, which is to cognize things with which we have sense contact by concocting stories about them. These stories allow us to develop consciousness.

Buddhism carefully enumerates categories, or links, of phenomena that constitute how this happens as a cyclic event:

Here are three different takes on the Twelve Links for you to study to deepen your practice:

The first is a description of the link by Ajahn Buddhadasa, with commentarial notes (in bold):

This is a description from the early Pali canon (the collected philosophical, mystical and practical writings from the early period after the death of the historical Buddha) which explains how we perceive and experience our Self and our world. It starts by asserting the everything begins from our ignorance, from our mistaken understanding that things are real and autonomous in the way we are perceiving them. Our ignorance, then, leads us to concoct stories about what is and how to respond to it, and our mind sends these stories to our consciousness where we become conscious of them.

Consciousness makes it possible for there to be mind-body (a sentient being). Once mind-body arises as an ignorant active structure, sense organs arise in the person and become active. Active sense organs make it possible for there to be contact with external objects (sights, smells, sounds, etc), leaving a meaningful impression on the mind, an experience that is both physical and of which we are conscious. Without contact, nothing would exist for sentient beings, not even the world.

Once we become conscious we become aware of our mind-body, of ourselves as thinking beings. With that understanding comes the arising in our minds of us having sense organs, and that those sense organs are contacting sense objects, as listed in the “Eighteen Realms” (an early Buddhist classification of the types of sense experience).

Because there has been contact, a feeling arises about the experience of the contact. Because feelings are dependent upon contact, which arises from senses which exist because there is mind-body–all of which is just a fabrication, a concoction, a story that arose from ignorance, the feeling is false and foolish.

Once there is contact, our mind divides the contact into two categories: affinities and aversions. Every contact is assigned with a positive or a negative affective value. These arise from our ignorance.

Ignorant feelings lead to foolish desires for more of what we like and less of what we dislike. This craving–deeply desiring and wanting–leads to clinging and attaching. The stronger the feeling and craving, the greater the clinging and attachment.

These ignorant feelings lead to cravings for more of what we have an affinity for, and to wanting less of those phenomena we have assigned an aversion to. These affinities and aversion are the lens through which we concoct our stories, and it is to our stories about what we like, for example, that we attach, not to the object we find attractive. That means we are clinging to Self. And clinging to Self is the source of our suffering.

Clinging is the attachment to self. Which is why there is dukkha.

If there were no clinging, there would be no suffering. But with clinging, everything and anything is grasped as me and mine, self and of-self. This thing we are grasping has arisen because ignorant mind clings to something that arose through conditions a moment ago and is now gone.

Once attachment occurs, existence (becoming) arises. Meaning once there is clinging there is a basis for something, whatever is clung to now exists as I, somehow, somewhere. So clinging causes something to arise in the realm of our existence. Thus there is both a being and an environment for that being created, solidifying both a false inner world and outer world.

Attachment to our stories of Self and what Self want leads to a perception that we want to continue becoming in this existence.

With existence there is (re)birth. Even though it was previously just clinging to a concept, the Self has grown and developed and a new even more self-centered I has been born. (Re)birth happens every time there is craving or desire, every time there is a thought. For every time there is a thought, the sense of I-me-my-mine grows and develops.

Break the cycle by no clinging to I and mine.

(Re)birth, and here we mean rebirth from moment to moment (not life to life) then arises from our desire for existence, from our making up stories that are the basis for our suffering The way out of is stop the cycle.

So dukkha is the result of birth, ego is born from ignorant craving. We are created in dukkha (born out of craving), from dukkha and by dukkha.

Rebirth, of course, is the condition that leads us to suffering, to aging and death.

With birth as a condition, aging and death arise. Because we don’t realize this, we stay ignorant and keep being born. Further, the natural process of arising, running its course, and ceasing, the Self appropriates and identifies with: my birth, my aging, my death. So we have transformed a natural process into a static personal problem.

Summarily: all forms of suffering come from our clinging to I and mine; and every rebirth of self is a birth of suffering.


The second description is by another student of DeepDharma. As you will see when you peruse it, it leans deeply on Buddhadasa’s, a description that is hard to improve upon:

  • Ignorance
    • We begin unaware that our default worldview is incorrect. We perceive things and tell stories about them.
  • Consciousness
    • The act of telling stories about what we perceive creates a sense of self – a consciousness contemplating those stories. “I” consists of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Those stories are made up, and so is the consciousness we perceive as a result of telling them.
  • Mind-body
    • The combination of stories and interaction with our bodies yields the sense of a sentient being operating in a conventional world.
  • Sense organs
    • Sense organs are how the sentient being interacts with the world.
  • Contact
    • We receive sensory contacts through our sense organs.
  • Feeling
    • We assign an affinity or aversion to each sensory contact. That assigned feeling determines what stories we tell about it and how we interact with it going forward.
  • Craving
    • For sensory contacts with an affinity, we seek out more of that contact – we crave it. For sensory contacts with an aversion, we seek to avoid more of that contact – we crave its absence. We tell a story that we are the type of person who wants more (or less) of that contact. This reinforces the sense of self.
  • Clinging
    • We incorporate the things we crave into our sense of self. We want to hold on to me and mine – our sense of self, and our sense of what belongs to us, and is a part of our sense of self. We cling to possessions that we have attached value to, whether those possessions are physical or mental. Our happiness thus becomes conditional on the things we crave, but because craving is not limited, we suffer because we fear losing them, we are angry when we do lose them, and we suffer the discomfort of greedily wanting more even while we still have them. The things we cling to do not make us happy.
  • Existence (becoming)
    • What we are clinging to forms a foundation for our sense of self and of our place in the world. This is unfortunate as both senses are built upon foundations of greed, fear, and anger.
  • (Re)birth
    • Because the sense of self is an illusion created by this process and not a permanent, static entity, the ongoing process means that the sense of self is constantly changing. We reinvent ourselves each moment, with some sense of continuity based on our story about the previous story. This building upon, and reinforcement of, the prior stories is a process of rebirth, with the karma of our prior actions and stories informing that rebirth.
  • Aging
    • Aging can also be thought of as change. Everything changes. Nothing is permanent. This means that when our sense of self is reborn, it is going to change—or age—and quickly it will have changed enough to not be the same sense of self.
  • Death
    • That old self is dead. We do not mourn that old self as we do not actually perceive it has died. The day-to-day death and rebirth of our sense of self does not trouble us, but the same pattern, played out more slowly and more broadly, troubles us greatly. The thought of losing that sense of continuity causes us fear—we cling to that sense of continuity, we fear its loss, we want more of it. To understand that everything is interconnected, and empty, and not cling to it, is a path to peace.


The third description is succinct, yet shows a very deep understanding of the links:

We are ignorant of the absolute nature of the world around us, which is that it is empty,

so we create stories that help us navigate the conventional world around us;

And these narratives inform all of our current and future actions, leading to our dynamic, conditionally arising consciousness.

When we are conscious, we have awareness of our mind-body,

the ignorant, active structure that is primarily driven by sense contacts and

the feelings of affinity and aversion that accompany them.

Affinities and aversions lead to craving more or less of certain sense contacts,

and clinging to the Self identity that forms as an aggregate result of this sequence of events.

The attachment to this identity brings a sense of comfort with our conventional existence

that leads us to continually reaffirm/rebirth the Self-delusion with further supportive narratives so that we can continue to exist as we perceive ourselves to be.

With every rebirth of this identity, it ages and dies because there is no absolute or permanent condition in a conventional sense, necessitating the cycle to start again.

So this is how we create our Selfs and our suffering!