Twelve links of dependent origination

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A traditional Tibetan thangka showing the Wheel of Life (bhavacakra). The twelve links are shown in the outer rim.

The twelve links of dependent origination, also called the twelve nidānas (Sanskrit; Pali), are a specific example of the principle of dependent origination. The thrust of the formula is such that when certain conditions are present, they give rise to subsequent conditions, which in turn give rise to other conditions; thus illustrating the cyclical nature of life in samsara.

The twelve links can be understood on different levels. For example:

  • as causal links in the moment to moment creation of karma
  • as causal links in the process of rebirth within cyclic existence (samsara)[lower-alpha 1]

In either case, the relationship between the links (nidanas) is not considered to be a linear causal process, in which each link automatically gives rise to the next link. Rather, each link in the process arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions.[2] For example, in order for ice to be created, water is a necessary condition. But the presence of water does not automatically create ice. Other conditions, such as a cold temperature, are required. In the same way, within the context of the twelve links, it is possble to prevent certain links in the chain from arising, by changing the conditions from which they arise.

For example, by developing wisdom in place of ignorance (the first link), a link is removed from the chain, thus breaking the chain that keeps us bound in the repetitive cylce of birth and death. Thus, it is said, one can become liberated from suffering.

Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the twelve links are considered to be the most significant application of the principle of dependent origination. Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the twelve links are graphically illustrated in the Wheel of Life.


The twelve links are an example of how dependent origination and karma function within our lives. According to the view of dependent origination, nothing arises that is not based on causes and conditions. This view avoids the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism, in this context, is the view that there is an external agent (e.g. a god-figure) that shapes or determines our fate. Nihilism is the view that there is no relation between action and result, therefore our fate is predetermined and all action is fruitless.

The Buddhist view asserts that while there is no external agent that controls our fate, there are causes and conditions that effect our lives. And these causes and conditions can be known and changed. Thus we have the capacity to change the course of our lives.

Ajahn Sucitto states:

[The twelve links of] dependent origination is a profound teaching on how consciousness operates. It presents a series of twelve linked factors that shape and drive the heart, and thereby push us “unconsciously” into suffering. With the aid of this analysis, we can become conscious of this process and break the links in the sequence. It’s almost like cutting an electrical circuit. Anywhere we break it will cut the current and bring about release...

The current that propels the mind into suffering is made of two interconnected forces: ignorance and craving. In dependent origination, these forces act as the necessary conditions that support each of the twelve factors. However, the connection between the factors is not one of an inevitable causal sequence. For example, water is a condition for ice, but by itself doesn’t cause ice—that also depends on temperature. Then again having ears is one condition for enjoying Bach fugues, but it’s not inevitable that having ears will bring a Bach fugue into your mind. In a similar way, the conditionality of dependent origination carries the potential for dukkha or its cessation. The essential point in this notion is that not all of these conditions in the sequence are inevitable; they can be changed, or not given a basis for arising, and will thereby bring around a release from suffering.[3]

Thubten Chodron states:

The purpose of this teaching is to put us in touch with our own experience, to help us look at our lives in a very different way than we’ve ever done before, to see that what we’re experiencing now is part of a cycle of many, many lifetimes.

Explicitly, it’s taught to help us generate a sense of disgust and boredom for being in a dysfunctional situation. It’s taught so that we overcome our denial and recognize that we’re capable of a higher level of happiness; that the happiness that’s found within cyclic existence is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and problems. What’s the use of hankering after it when it just becomes a disaster eventually?

So this teaching is really helping us to generate a very strong wish to free ourselves from cyclic existence, or the determination to be free. Sometimes it’s translated as “renunciation,” which I don’t like, because it gives you the feeling of, “I’m renouncing the world and moving to the cave!” This isn’t what it means. What you’re doing is you’re determining to free yourself. You realize you have the capability to experience a higher, more lasting level of happiness than the present happiness. You’re determining to be free from all the confusion of this life and future lives, and to attain liberation.

And then by extension, when we look at other beings, we see them as also caught in similar cycles of existence, and that’s when compassion arises for them, wanting them to be free and to attain liberation. It’s a much deeper meaning of compassion. It’s not just about all the people who don’t have food and clothes. It’s also looking at this basic situation of getting born, getting sick, getting old and dying. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, you’re still in that situation and it’s not fun for anybody.[web 4]

Detailed description

This section describes how the the twelve links operate in relation to each other. Note that many of the terms (avidya, etc.) used to identify these links might have different meanings in different contexts. The explanations given here are in the context of the twelve links.

Note also that "the manner in which the twelve links function and interact is not clear in sutras...and so different interpretations have arisen over the course of Buddhist history. Some interpret the links as unfolding in a single instant, while others see them as representing stages of life."[4] This section attempts to present a general description for how the links function on two different levels:

  • moment to moment, and
  • lifetime to lifetime (or over the course of several lifetimes)

Avidya (ignorance)

Avidya, in the context of the twelve links, is a fundamental ignorance of the four noble truths and the delusion of mistakenly perceiving the skandhas as a self.


  • a blind person groping their way with a cane

Avidya: moment to moment

Ajahn Sucitto states:

The sequence of dependent origination begins with the condition of unknowing or ignorance (avijjā), which in Buddhist iconography is depicted as either a blind man or someone wearing a blindfold. This is the driver of the bus to dukkha [i.e. suffering]. If you have to choose the one determining factor for suffering, it’s this ignorance. People tend to take “ignorance” as pejorative, but it more precisely refers to a lack of gnosis or insightful seeing. It is summarized as “not understanding the four noble truths”—or, perhaps more accurately, not understanding their implications. That is, as long as there is the condition of ignorance, the mind still expects to find an experience that is completely satisfying and feels disappointed when things “go wrong.” There is a parable of a man eating a bag of chili peppers one by one, weeping at their fiery taste as he does so. When asked why he continues to eat the peppers, he replies, “I’m looking for the sweet one.” This is ignorance.[5]

Avidya: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffrey Hopkins states:

Here in the twelve links of dependent-arising, ignorance refers to the misconception of the person, specifically oneself, as inherently existent, and to the misconception that phenomena that are part of one’s continuum, such as mind and body, inherently exist. The person is actually only designated in dependence upon a collection of mind and body; he or she is understood to be merely nominally existent. Still, this view of a nominally existent person does not make the person as if dead or turn the person into the body on which a surgeon operates. When a surgeon cuts open the body and doesn’t find any I, any person, he or she might think there is only matter. Obviously, this is not the Buddhist position, even if Buddhists say that persons only nominally exist. Why would we develop compassion for others if they were just dead wood?

The basic form of ignorance is a consciousness that conceives a nominally existent person—a person who actually exists only as designated in dependence upon mind and body—to inherently exist, to occupy a spot in a concrete way, and then conceives of mind and body as inherently existent mine—things owned by the understanding that if a certain action is performed, a certain result will follow, and developing misconceptions such as that only pleasure will arise from theft. This means that if we really knew what it would be like to undergo the future effects of a nonvirtuous action, we wouldn’t do it. We wouldn’t commit murder, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, talk divisively, speak harshly, chatter senselessly, and so forth.[6]

Samskara (formations)

The formation of karma: positive, negative and neutral; this forms the rebirths in the various realms.


  • a potter shaping a vase

Translations of samskara (Sanskit; Pali: sankhara):

  • formations
  • action (Jeffrey Hopkins)
  • formative action
  • activities and programs (Ajahn Sucitto)

Samskara: moment to moment

Ajahn Sucitto states:

As long as there is ignorance, actions tend to become automatic, compulsive, idiosyncratic, related to “my way of seeing things” rather than to the needs of a situation. So ignorance colors our consciousness with programs, or habitual drives that orient around self. These habitual drives, or programs, are called sankhāra. Just like any computer program, sankhāra can be active or latent. And in much the same way, they sit in our “hard drive” as potentials for action. They are energies that carry the codes of action (kamma), and which generate activities of body, speech, or mind. When they are active, they support thoughts and emotions and bodily reflexes; having done so in accordance with love or fear or determination, they are then stored as latent programs ready to fire off again. So sankhāra are headed by volition, the impulse to do. We’re always creating. When we speak, we create words and concepts. And the result is we create ourselves in our own or another person’s mind, and so it is with our actions.[7]

Samskara: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffrey Hopkins states:

If we take our present lifetime as an example, the first link, “ignorance,” refers to the ignorance in a former lifetime that motivated the one action serving as the main karma projecting this rebirth. It does not refer to the ignorance that occurs throughout a lifetime, but to the one period—even just a few moments—that motivates a single significant action leading to another lifetime.

For example, if we were in a bad transmigration (that is, if we were not in a human lifetime, which is considered a happy transmigration) the action that mainly generated it could have been an act of murder. In that case, the period of ignorance would be the time in which the murder was planned, carried out, and completed. This period of misconception and obscuration would be the ignorance motivating that particular action. The conceptions of oneself as an inherently existent I and of one’s own mind and body as inherently existently mine are a cluster, a continuum, of ignorant consciousnesses involved with one action. That action may take only a few minutes; if one is planning a murder, it may take longer. Also, there would be additional ignorance in the form of lack of knowledge of and misapprehension of the effects of murder.

The main action projecting rebirth as a human has to be a virtuous action—restraining oneself from misconduct. Since this action establishes an entire lifetime in a happy transmigration—that is, as a god, demigod, or human—the action must be meritorious because, as Chandrakırti says: “A cause of high status / Is none other than proper ethics.” Although there are also causes other than ethics, in order to achieve a lifetime in one of the three happy transmigrations, called “high status,” it is necessary that the projecting cause of that lifetime be an action of ethics. As the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Tibetan scholar-yogi‚ Tsongkhapa explains: “This means that…a definite relation with ethics is necessary. If ethics are forsaken, there is no way that these can be accomplished.” Nevertheless, ignorance is involved in that one has the misconceptions that:

  • oneself, the forsaker of misconduct, inherently exists
  • the forsaking inherently exists
  • the sentient being in relation to whom that misconduct is enacted inherently exists.

Although the action is virtuous, it is involved with ignorance that superimposes on these factors a sense that they exist from their own side.

To be a complete “path of action” capable of impelling one toward a good or a bad transmigration, an action must have five factors:

  • intention
  • thought that identifies the object properly
  • preparation for the enactment
  • successful completion
  • nonreversal of intention before the action is completed.

If you planned to kill one person but killed another, that action would be nonvirtuous, and its effects would be negative, but it would not serve as a complete path of action leading to a whole life. What’s missing is the actual carrying out of the action with respect to the person you intended to kill. Further, the action must be completed without reversal of the original intention. For example, if the person did not die immediately, and you thought, “This is terrible; I shouldn’t have done it,” there would not be a complete path of action even if the person died later. Still, the deed would have horrible consequences.[8]

Vijnana (consciousness)

The consciousness which propels one towards the next existence.


  • a monkey swinging from a tree.

Translations of vijnana:

  • consciousness
  • loaded consciousness (Alexander Berzin)
  • sixfold sense consciousness (Ajahn Sucitto)

Vijnana: moment to moment

Ajahn Sucitto states:

The sense consciousness, based upon the six sense organs, is the agent through which mental formations manifest, though it is also shaped and directed by them. Dependent upon habits, reflexes, and viewpoints that have been created by action and experience in the past, our mind’s consciousness jumps like a monkey through seeing, hearing, thinking, tasting, smelling, and touching—running around this way or that. Consciousness can also be defined in terms of how it is propelled.[9]

Vijnana: lifetime to lifetime - brief explanation

Alexander Berzin states:

The third link of dependent arising I call not just simply "consciousness," but "loaded consciousness" (rnam-shes), to make it clearer. This link is divided into two parts. The first part is, literally, loaded consciousness at the time of the cause (rgyu-dus-kyi rnam-shes). It refers to our mental continuum – our moment-to-moment individual, subjective experiencing of things – that is loaded with the karmic aftermath of throwing karma,[lower-alpha 2] which can act as a cause for a future rebirth. It is the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, not the throwing karma itself, that throws us into our next rebirth. Technically, the karmic aftermath of throwing karma "ripens" (smin-pa) to bring about the five aggregates of our next rebirth state and our experiences in that state.[11]

Vijnana: lifetime to lifetime - detailed explanation

Jeffrey Hopkins states:

In the twelve links of dependent-arising, consciousness is of two types— cause and effect.

Cause-consciousness. When the action has been completed, its potencyinfuses the consciousness that exists at that time. This brief period of mind, the cause-consciousness, occurs immediately upon the completion of the action. This consciousness is a neutral entity capable of being infused with virtuous or nonvirtuous predispositions; because it is neutral, it can be stained with any type of predisposition. If one mixes together two strong-smelling substances, such as garlic and sandalwood, the two odors will affect each other, producing a garlic-sandalwood mixture. However, if one places something with a strong odor next to something neutral—for example, sesame seed— the neutral substance picks up the odor of the strong one. In this way, the action leaves its own imprint on the consciousness.

The predisposition is a potency, a power, that has been imprinted in a certain fashion (virtuous or nonvirtuous, meritorious or nonmeritorious) and will lead to a future lifetime. In accordance with the strength of this potency, people die at various ages—some people live a long time, and some do not. The potency that mainly led to this lifetime may have been established in any previous lifetime—any lifetime, even a million lifetimes or a million eons ago. Then, at the end of the lifetime just previous, the potency for this lifetime was nourished by certain factors (to be discussed later), such as our wishes for the type of life we would like. As a sign that we nourish such potencies, consider the fact that when someone asks, “If there is another lifetime, what would you like to be?” we immediately say, “I’d like to be a…” This shows that we are already nourishing certain kinds of potencies.

Effect-consciousness. The potency nourished in this way is fully activated at the end of the previous lifetime. Between any two lifetimes there is an intermediate state, which can be as short as one moment or as long as forty-nine days. Still, any one life in the intermediate state lasts only seven days; thus, if you remain in the intermediate state for forty-nine days, you take seven different births in the intermediate state.

It is said that during the intermediate state you are seeking a place to take rebirth, wandering in places where beings are copulating, but if you do not have a particular impetus, a potency to take a certain kind of rebirth, there is no way that you can enter a specific female’s womb. For example, you may be in an area in which dogs are copulating, but if you do not have an activated potency to be born as a dog, you cannot go into the dog’s womb; if the potency that has been activated is of this type, you are forced to enter whether you want to or not. If you are to be reborn as a male, you are strongly attracted to the female, the mother, and feel hatred for the father. However, it is said that someone who is to be born as a male enters the father’s mouth or top of the head and emerges from his phallus into the womb.If you are to be born as a female, you are attracted to the father and merge with the mother.

Leaving the intermediate state, you enter the womb of your new mother (if you are taking womb birth). That is the first moment of the new lifetime. It is called the “effect-consciousness”; the term refers to that one moment of consciousness—the beginning of the new life.

In this presentation of the twelve links of dependent-arising (see Figure 4 ), the first two and a half links—these being ignorance, action, and cause-consciousness—can occur in any lifetime in the past and are called “projecting causes” because they provide the main impetus for an entire lifetime.

Effect-consciousness and the fourth through tenth links—from name and form through existence—occur in this lifetime; they are called “projected effects ”because they constitute the lifetime established by the projecting causes. The creation of a particular life is due to karma, and ignorance underlies the entire process. This being the case, the way to improve lives in cyclic existence is to learn about the relationships between actions and their effects so that we can create more productive situations. The way to gain liberation is to develop wisdom that realizes the actual status of phenomena so that the afflictive emotions that drive cyclic existence cannot get started.

The twelve links, considered in order, produce three lifetimes.

In life A, a specific occasion of ignorance motivates an action establishing a predisposition in the consciousness; that consciousness is the cause-consciousness. It produces a new lifetime, life B, consisting of the effect-consciousness, name and form (that is, mind and body), the sense spheres (the development of the sense organs), contact, feeling, attachment, grasping, and existence. Existence is the final moment of life B, when a predisposition formerly established in the consciousness has reached maturity and is fully capable of producing a next birth, life C, which has birth and aging and death. The first two-and-a-half links are called projecting causes. They impel a lifetime; the predisposition established by the original action motivated by ignorance impels it. What it projects are the next four-anda-half links, which are called projected effects. The next three links are called actualizing causes. They nourish another predisposition to the point where another life, indicated by the last two links called actualized effects, will appear.[12]

Nama-rupa (name and form)

Nama-rupa (name and form) refers to the psycho-physical aggregates that are the basis for self-grasping:

  • nāma (name) refers to psychological aggregates of a human being
  • rūpa (form) refers to the physical aggregates


  • two men afloat in a boat


  • name and form

Nama-rupa: moment to moment

Ajahn Sucitto states:

So how does consciousness happen? Consciousness always works in terms of name-and-form (nāma-rūpa). Something only has presence (that is, gets established as a conscious experience) because there is the sense of contact. Contact depends on something being contacted, like food contacting our tongue. From that contact with form (rūpa), all sorts of feelings, and perceptions (or impressions) arise. These form a heart-definition of what a thing “is”: “Oh, yum, candy!” What it is, is actually what it is to us—we might present an Amazonian tribesman with a computer and he would see a box. So as feelings and impressions designate something, they—together with contact, volition, and attention—make up what’s called name, or nāma. Nāma, therefore, is a composite of feeling, perception, contact, volition, and attention—the factors that pick up, define, locate, and react to the data of consciousness.
Our entire world is made up of name-and-form... the world of form only has presence for us because of consciousness, and how we perceive it is very much affected by the mind-states, attitudes, and feelings that we have. When an architect or a builder sees a house, a different set of perceptions arises than when a homeless person sees it, or a burglar, or an animal. In a way, we build our own world—and our world builds us. What we are conscious of molds and determines the perceptions and attitudes we have... So out of consciousness and name-and-form, the sense of self arises.[13]

Nama-rupa: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

Name refers to the mental consciousness and the mental factors that accompany it, and form refers to the body—both of these are located at the point of rebirth, conception. Form, at the first moment of conception, is the egg of the mother and sperm of the father, described in Buddhist texts as the blood of the mother and the semen of the father. The body at that time is extremely small, like a bit of thin jelly. Then it begins to elongate and turns into a substance like yogurt; it continues to elongate, forms the rudiments of a head, and develops bumps that turn into limbs. We are used to our present body, and it seems as though we will always be as we are, but in a short time we will once again have this squishy kind of body. Also, we had such a body not very long ago, but are unable to remember.[14]

Six ayatanas (six sense bases)

The six sense bases or sense spheres by which the outer world is perceived.

The six ayatanas are:

  • eye base (Skt. cakṣur-āyatana)
  • ear base (Skt. śrotra-āyatana)
  • nose base (Skt. ghrāṇa-āyatana)
  • tongue base (Skt. jihva-āyatana)
  • body base (Skt. kāya-āyatana)
  • mind base (Skt. mano-āyatana)

These internal sense bases are not the gross organs themselves (e.g., the eye, ear, etc.), but subtle matter within them.[15]


  • a house with six windows


  • six sense bases (Ajahn Sucitto, Steven Goodman)
  • six sense spheres (Jeffrey Hopkins)
  • six inner ayatanas (Pali: ajjhattikāni āyatanāni)
  • six internal sense bases (Buswell)[16]
  • six organs (Buswell)[17]
  • six sense faculties (Rigpa wiki)
  • six inner sources (Rigpa wiki)
  • the six cognitive sensors (Alexander Berzin)

Six ayatanas: moment to moment

"The close working of bodily and mental functioning is further differentiated into the six-fold bases of awareness."[18] These 'sense bases' (ayatanas) are said to further the birth or arising of all sensations which make up our experience.[18]

Six ayatanas: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffrey Hopkins writes:

The next picture, an empty house with six windows, symbolizes the six internal sense spheres—the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mental “sense powers,” which open the way for the production of the six consciousnesses, giving them power with respect to their respective objects. Here, the term mainly refers to the different moments of the initial completion of the internal sense spheres in the womb; they do not come to full development at the same time. Through the growth of the body in the mother’s womb, the senses develop. At a certain point, the capacity to touch develops; at other points the capacity to taste, to smell, to hear, and to see develop.

In general, there are twelve sense spheres—six internal and six external, which are the six sense powers and the six types of objects.

Here in the twelve links, reference is made only to the six internal sense spheres and their serial development in the womb, since the six objects are always present. The internal sense spheres are not the gross organs themselves, but subtle matter within them. For instance, the faculty of taste is not just the tongue, but the subtle matter within the tongue that allows you to taste, since there are people with tongues who cannot taste and others with eyes who cannot see. Thus, there is subtle matter in the eye and the other sense organs, which, upon maturation, allows us to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Through the development of each of these, there is sensation in the womb. The child moves and kicks, and if the child is experiencing pain, the mother often knows.[19]

Sparsa (contact)

The coming together of three factors: the internal sense base, the sense object, and sense consciousness. For example, sparsa (contact) is said to occur at the coming together of the eye sense base, a visual object, and the visual sense consciousness.


  • lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined

Sparsa: moment to moment

Geshe Tashi Tsering states:

Contact is the first occurrence in a mental process. It is the simple act of mind meeting object. When you consider this, it is logical. How can a mind know an object without contact? To phone a friend you need to pick up the phone and dial a number. This mental factor is like the phone--its only function is to contact the object. Once contact is made, the next mental factor can note the characteristics of that object.[20]

Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

The word phassa is derived from the verb phusati, meaning “to touch,” but contact should not be understood as the mere physical impact of the object on the bodily faculty. It is, rather, the mental factor by which consciousness mentally “touches” the object that has appeared, thereby initiating the entire cognitive event.[21]

Sparsa: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

The next link, “contact,” is depicted by a man and woman touching or kissing. Roughly speaking, the picture symbolizes the coming together of an object, a sense organ, and a moment of consciousness. Hence contact, in the twelve links, refers to contact with a sense-object and the subsequent discrimination of the object as attractive, unattractive, or neutral. Sense-objects are always present, and thus when a sense organ—the subtle matter that allows you to see, hear, and so forth— develops, an eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, or body consciousness will be produced.

There are three factors that cause a consciousness:

A former moment of consciousness makes an eye consciousness, for instance, into an experiential entity. It is called “the immediately preceding condition.”

The eye sense power allows an eye consciousness to experience and know color and shape. A person can have consciousness but, without a functioning eye sense power, cannot see color and shape. The sense power is called “the dominant condition.”

The object does not produce the experiential entity itself, but affects consciousness, and in that sense it is a cause of consciousness. Without a patch of blue presented to your eye consciousness, it would not see blue. Thus, an eye consciousness perceives a particular object through the object’s role as a cause of the eye consciousness; the object is called an “observed-object condition.”

Not even the sense organ can act as the substantial cause of mind. It affects mind greatly, but the experiential entity depends upon a former experiential entity. When a meditator looks into his or her own mind and feels its continuum, he or she develops a strong realization that mind comes from mind, not from matter.

Mind also does not come from an eternal being; the eternal is permanent and cannot act. Furthermore, mind does not come from nothing, because nothing cannot do anything either. Mind comes from mind. The present mind comes from a former continuum of mind; even when we are in deep sleep or knocked unconscious, there still is a subtle consciousness working.

Though mind comes from mind, there is a long period in the womb when there is no eye consciousness because the eye sense power has not developed. The first moment of eye consciousness of this lifetime cannot come from the last moment of consciousness of the last lifetime since even before the person died the eye consciousness ceased. Moreover, the ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness disappeared, but the person was still alive. The external breath ceased, but the internal breath had not ceased yet.

A certain yogi who had died during one of my trips to India would have been pronounced dead had he died in the States; still, he remained in the mind of clear light for thirteen days, staying warm at the heart center—the center of consciousness—for those thirteen days. Then, some blood or mucus came out of his nose and ears and the position of his body changed. For ordinary people who die without ravaging illness, the period of clear light is said to be three days. In the United States, however, people are carted off to the funeral parlor before (in the Buddhist view) they have fully died. To be moved during this period is said to be harmful to a yogi, who can remain longer in the clear light, but for ordinary people it is said that it does not make much difference because their minds are out of control.

Following the end of a person’s previous lifetime, a mental consciousness travels in the intermediate state; it then takes rebirth in the mother’s womb, and, after the visual sense organ develops, acts as the former moment of the first eye consciousness. Thus, the experiential entity of any consciousness comes from a former moment of consciousness.

Where does the first moment of the mental consciousness of this lifetime come from? It comes from the mental consciousness of the intermediate state. Where does that come from? It comes from the mind of death. With that mind of death travel all the potencies that have been accumulated in former lifetimes. This deep mind is a repository for everything we have done. It carries these potencies until they are activated; it is the ground of all the predispositions deposited by our actions—none is lost.[22]

Vedana (sensation)

The pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations that occur when our internal sense bases come into contact with external sense objects and the associated consciousness.


  • a person with an arrow in their eye.


  • sensation
  • feeling
  • feeling-tone

Vedana: moment to moment

Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

Feeling is the mental factor which feels the object. It is the effective mode in which the object is experienced. The Pali word vedanā does not signify emotion (which appears to be a complex phenomenon involving a variety of concomitant mental factors), but the bare affective quality of an experience, which may be either pleasant, painful or neutral....[23]

Alexander Berzin describes vedana as "feeling...some level of happiness". He states:

When we hear the word “feeling” in a Buddhist context, it’s only referring to this: feeling some level of happy or unhappy, somewhere on the spectrum. So, on the basis of pleasant contacting awareness—it comes easily to mind—we feel happy. Happiness is: we would like it to continue. And, on the basis of unpleasant contacting awareness—it doesn’t come easily to the mind, we basically want to get rid of it—we feel unhappiness. “Unhappiness” is the same word as “suffering” (mi-bde-ba, Skt. duhkha). Unhappiness is: I don’t want to continue this; I want to be parted from this.
And neutral contacting awareness. We feel neutral about it—neither want to continue it nor to discontinue it...[web 5]

Vedana: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

The seventh link, feeling, is depicted as an arrow or stick in the eye, a dramatic picture of the centrality of feeling in our daily life. The intensity indicates how pleasure and pain control our activities. While I was staying in a Tibetan and Mongolian monastery in New Jersey in the mid-sixties, a professor of philosophy visited with a small group of students. He asked the abbot, “What do you think students are more interested in, sex or philosophy?” The lama thought about it for a moment and responded, “Sex.”

As mentioned above, during the development of the fetus, we gradually develop the impression, through contact, that objects are attractive, unattractive, or neutral. From these discriminations arise feelings of pleasure, pain, or neutrality as the individual internal sense spheres develop. Here in the twelve links of dependent-arising, “feeling” ranges from the first moments of pleasurable, painful, and neutral feeling in the womb to the development of the capacity for orgasm, but it also refers to periods of feeling throughout the lifetime that serve as objects of the next link.[24]

Trishna (thirst)

The craving to hold onto pleasurable sensations, to be separated from painful or unpleasant sensations, and for neutral sensations not to decline.

In the context of the twelve links, the emphasis is on the types of craving "that nourish the karmic potency that will produce the next lifetime."[25]


  • a person receiving a drink

Trishna: moment to moment

Ajan Sucitto writes:

When there is ignorance or unknowing, we don’t accurately assess what we are feeling. Much of the time we are in contact with our perceptions because they can create images in accordance with desire, and they can trigger such powerful volition that we become carried away. So this takes us to the next linked factor, craving—which is taṇhā in its fully conscious form. Feeling [i.e. vedana] links to craving. We mainly perceive this as craving for something desirable. If what is felt through the senses is not desirable, or if it brings up aversion, the unawakened instinct then creates a fantasy that is attractive. One of the most bitter aspects of the unawakened life is that when you have enough physically, your mind creates fantasies to crave. Nowadays in Western culture, our normal reality is composed of fantasies vividly portrayed on television, in movies, novels, theater, and advertisements. The pervasive fantasies of mass media and popular culture may seem harmless enough, but the contact with them and the feelings they induce unconsciously affect our values. People end up voting for a fantasy, being governed by a fantasy, using fantasy money, having fantasy enemies, and chasing fantasy goals. The only real element left is suffering, but that is repressed or not acknowledged because it doesn’t fit into the fantasy. In the brave new world, everybody’s happy; ignore the rest.

Again, our mind can be developed in terms of calm and discernment in order to witness and cut the current of craving. This link between feeling and craving is the easiest to break because here the craving is conscious. So we can witness and understand that pull; it is something that we can watch in order to know its ethical quality. We can switch on the light of wisdom. We can act on skillful desires with clarity; we can respond to the signals of bodily need; and we can let go of desires that are born from greed, hatred, or delusion. Then we are operating from wisdom rather than ignorance, and we can turn the energy of desire toward investigating our mind and bringing goodness into our world.[26]

Trishna: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

Attachment is symbolized by a group of persons partying. This image refers to our desire to hold onto pleasure, to separate ourselves from pain, and our desire for neutral feeling not to diminish. Although we feel attachment even in the womb, the emphasis in the twelve links is on the specific acts of attachment that nourish the karmic potency that will produce the next lifetime. For example, perhaps you frequently thought that you would like to be a certain type of dog, cat, or bird; this attachment activates predispositions for this type of rebirth. (I also wonder whether particularly strong dislike of a person or a group can cause one to be reborn like that person or in that group; one can imagine a situation where, for example, one is reborn in the country of one’s enemies from a previous lifetime and even develops hatred for one’s previous compatriots due to the attachment involved in excessive discrimination.)[27]

Upadana (grasping)

If the object of one's desires comes to fruition, then these cravings of trishna (tanha) may solidify and manifest as the quality of upadana (grasping).

Image: a man or a monkey picking fruit


  • grasping
  • clinging
  • fuel
  • firm grasping (Goodman)
  • overt clinging (Goodman)

Upadana: moment to moment

Steven Goodman writes:

The very nature of craving tends to result in a firm grasping or overt clinging (upadana). An analogy is commonly used to point up the differences between the motifs of craving and firm grasping: Trishna is that which remains unachieved, like a thief groping for goods in the dark. Upadana, however, is the fruition of this groping, when the thief finally lays hands on the object of searching.[28]

Ajahn Sucitto writes:

Craving to have—or to annihilate—links up to grasping or clinging (upādāna). Like volition, clinging is a function of natural bodily life—babies do it with good reason—but with ignorance it becomes a compulsive mental activity. And clinging to the wrong things is a frustrating, stressful, and dangerous experience: clinging to sensory experience with ignorance is always going to let us down, because there’s no having enough, and all sensory experience is unreliable. It changes and ends. If we hang our life expectations on the sensory world, it will take us to despair; it’s like climbing a mountain clinging to a fraying rope. Holding on in itself is not categorically without value. For instance, those who wish to awaken hold on to the teachings and the practices that lead to liberation. The actual problem with holding on is ignorance—clinging blindly. When there is no ignorance, we can hold on to things as physical necessities or hold on mentally to workable conventions, responsibilities, or commitments. However, a blanket “no holding on” statement is something that could be used to authorize opportunist shifts of loyalties and the dismissal of rules and precepts. Loyalty becomes clinging when it is based on self-view: my team, my country—no matter what. But when there is clear and steady discernment into nonself and nonownership, that basis drops away and clinging ceases.[26]

Upadana: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

The picture depicting the ninth link, grasping, shows a person grabbing at a piece of fruit on a tree. Grasping is an increase of attachment [i.e. trishna, the preceding link] and includes strong clinging to pleasant forms, sounds, odors, tastes, and touches as well as to bad views and systems of behavior associated with those views.

It is possible, at any point in one’s life, to have attachment and grasping that serve to potentialize a karma from the past, but near the end of a lifetime these two links are particularly influential in shaping the next lifetime. Therefore, it is said that our attitude near the time of death is very important. If you are lying in bed and everyone around you is moaning and weeping, or if, as they come in to shake your hand, they bend over to kiss you with tears in their eyes, you can develop strong attachment, wishing to hold onto a situation you cannot hold on to. How much better it would be if people were honest and said, “You are going to die. We wanted to come in and say goodbye to you. No matter how close we have been, lives are lived as in bus stations; we meet people for a while but can’t stay with them forever, and now we are going to separate. I wanted to say good-bye. Best wishes to you.” If a person could take it, how wonderful! Otherwise, the dying person develops tremendous desire to stay where she or he cannot stay, and this can result in being reborn as a hungry ghost.

As we are dying, we may think, “I’d like to be born as a great general”; “I’d like to be born as an opera singer”; “I’d like to be born as a monastic”; “I’d like to be born as someone who can help other sentient beings.” The last two are marvelous![29]

Bhava (becoming)

Through this grasping one acts with body, speech and mind, and creates the karma that determines one’s next existence.

Image: a couple engaged in intercourse or a pregnant woman

Alternate translations of bhava:

  • Becoming
  • Existence (Hopkins)

Bhava: moment to moment

The formation of the karma that determines your next experience or situation.

Steven Goodman writes:

Once the direction of situational patterning has proceeded to the point of overt clinging, a process of becoming, termed bhava, is initiated. It refers to the new formation of karmic tendencies. It differs from samskara in its temporal reference. Samskara refers to tendencies from past situational patternings (lives) which act on the present situation. Bhava, however, refers to the creation of new habits and tendencies which will have their fruition in future experiences.[28]

Bhava: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

“Existence” refers to a fully activated karmic potency, ready to give rise to the next lifetime. It occurs during the last moment of the present lifetime. It is depicted by a couple copulating or by a pregnant woman, symbolizing that the karma nourished by attachment and grasping is fully potentialized and ready to produce the next lifetime.

Existence, the tenth link, is the fully potentialized karmic potency in a person’s last moment that will produce yet another lifetime. The cause, the potency, is given the name of the effect, the existence of the new life; the effect is the existence of the new lifetime; and the fully nourished potency—the cause—is given the name “existence.”[30]

Jati (being born)

Through the power of this becoming, one is reborn in a particular birthplace whenever the necessary conditions are assembled.

Image: a woman giving birth

Translations of jati:

  • Being born
  • Birth

Jati: moment to moment

A new situation or experience is born out of grasping (upadana) and becoming (bhava).

Steven Goodman writes:

This motif refers to the fruition of the last motif. It is the first appearance of new patternings, which may be seen in two ways. It refers to being-in-a-new-situation. It also refers to that which finds itself in a new situation.[28]

Jati: lifetime to lifetime

Steven Goodman writes:

In a psycho-biological model, jati refers to the birth or emergence of a newborn being, appearing, according to the specific history of patterning, in one of six lifestyles.[28]

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

New life is called “birth,” the eleventh link. The picture shows a woman giving birth, even though the eleventh link refers to the point of conception, not emergence from the womb.[31]

Jara-marana (old age and death)

Following rebirth there is a continual process of aging as the aggregates change and develop; and eventually there is death when the aggregates finally cease.

Image: a corpse being carried.

Translations for jaramarana

  • Old age and death
  • Aging and death (Hopkins)

Jara-marana: moment to moment

The new situation will inevitably decay and cease to exist.

Steven Goodman writes:

Once a new situation or a new being has emerged, it is inevitable that the conditions which brought about its appearance will change. This, the last of the twelve motifs, points to the inevitability of decay and death. Decay affects all structures, which are but fleeting stabilizations fed by the energy flow of habitual patterning. When the cessation of the continuity of experience occurs, we speak of death. It is the total breakdown and dissolution of experience and experiencer.

The process of disintegration, destructuring, and entropic scattering yields a nexus of vibratory murkiness which is the condition of avidyā, the first motif. Thus the entire structure of patterning feeds back on itself, and is often pictured as a circle of twelve sections, called the Wheel of Life.[28]

Jara-marana: lifetime to lifetime

Jeffery Hopkins writes:

The last link, aging and death, is symbolized by adults carrying burdens. One type of aging begins from the moment of conception, and the other begins with physical deterioration.[32]

Contemplating the twelve links

Joseph Goldstein writes:

Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, how because of one thing something else arises, we can begin to break the chain of conditioning. When pleasant things arise, we don’t cling. When unpleasant things arise, we don’t condemn. And when neutral things arise, we’re not forgetful. The Buddha said that the way of forgetfulness is the way of death. And that the way of wisdom and awareness is the path to the deathless. We are free to break this chain, to free ourselves from conditioned reactions. It takes a powerful mindfulness in every moment not to allow feelings to generate desire.[33]

Ajahn Sucitto writes:

The analysis in terms of dependent origination shows us that the origin of this suffering process is compounded out of craving and ignorance. There’s a blind driver with his foot on the gas pedal. And the remedy that the Buddha points out begins right here, in the knowing. In the context of the second noble truth, we are knowing craving—not craving to know. Cessation is not destruction or annihilation of any actual “thing”; it is the “arrest” of an activity so that it is seen clearly and ignorance does not condition volition into kamma-forming and identity-forming activities of body, speech, and mind. This takes some doing as we will see. However, the promise is that thoughts, feelings, desires, attachments, and suffering can be held in that knowing until they are, as the Buddha said,

Headed by mindfulness, surmounted by wisdom, have deliverance as essence, merge in the Deathless, and terminate in Nibbāna. (AN 10: 107) [26]

Relation to the Four Noble Truths

The twelve links can be used to examine cause and effect with the context of the four noble truths. Geshe Tashi Tsering states:

We can understand how the truth of the origin of suffering works to produce the truth of suffering through the teaching called the twelve links of dependent origination. This teaching explains the mechanism that produces the two sets of cause and effect (suffering and origin, cessation and path).
The twelve links are links in a chain, a closed circle, which represents cyclic existence. This is symbolized in the traditional illustration of the wheel of life. Here you see the six realms of existence determined by the three poisons at the hub of the wheel: the pig representing ignorance, the cock desire, and the snake aversion. The rim of the wheel shows the twelve links, starting with the blind man (representing ignorance) at the top and moving clockwise around to the last link, the corpse (representing aging and death). All this is held in the jaws and claws of Yama, the Lord of Death.
Our fundamental ignorance produces the volition to act (karma) that becomes the cause for suffering. A causal state produces a resultant state, which itself is a cause that produces a result—and so it goes on endlessly. The teachings on the twelve links are very helpful to help us clearly understand how we are circling in endless suffering. As long as we are under the power of karma and delusions in this process, there is no end to the cycle.[34]

Contemplating the chain in forward and reverse order

The links can be examined in forward and reverse order. Geshe Tashi Tsering states:

[In order to understand suffering and its causes], we examine the twelve links in forward order, seeing how the first link (ignorance) leads to the second (karma), and so on up to the twelfth (aging and death). Then to understand...cessation and path—and how the truth of the path cuts cyclic existence and so is the cause of cessation, we can actually reverse the order of the twelve links, putting the last link (aging and death) first. If we do not want aging and death, we need to eliminate the eleventh link (birth), and in order to do that we need to eliminate the tenth (existence), and so on.[34]

Forward order

In forward order, the causal chain of twelve links is expressed as follows:

Conditioned by (1) ignorance are (2) formations,
conditioned by formations is (3) consciousness,
conditioned by consciousness is (4) mind-and-body,
conditioned by mind-and-body are (5) the six senses,
conditioned by the six senses is (6) sense-contact,
conditioned by sense-contact is (7) feeling,
conditioned by feeling is (8) craving,
conditioned by craving is (9) grasping,
conditioned by grasping is (10) becoming,
conditioned by becoming is (11) birth,
conditioned by birth is (12) old-age and death—grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair come into being.
Thus is the arising of this whole mass of suffering.
- Connected Discourses, ii, 20 [35]

Reverse order

Contemplating the chain in reverse shows the way to put an end to suffering:

From the remainderless fading and cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of (volitional) fabrications.
From the cessation of (volitional) fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness.
From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-and-form.
From the cessation of name-and-form comes the cessation of the six sense media.
From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact.
From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling.
From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving.
From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance.
From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming.
From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth.
From the cessation of birth, then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair all cease.
Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

Tibetan tradition

Within the Tibetan tradition, the twelve nidanas are typically presented within the context of the Wheel of Life (Sanskrit: bhavacakra). In the Wheel of Life, the three inner layers of the wheel show that the three poisons lead to karma, which leads to the suffering of the six realms. The twelve links of the outer rim show how this happens—how the three poisons lead to rebirth in samsara—by presenting the process of cause and effect in detail. Thus, the outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the twelve nidanas.[36][37]

In the Tibetan tradition, these twelve links can be understood to operate on an outer or inner level.[38]

  • On the outer level, the twelve links can be seen to operate over several lifetimes; in this case, these links show how our past lives influence our current lifetime, and how our actions in this lifetime influence our future lifetimes.[38]
  • On the inner level, the twelve links can be understood to operate in every moment of existence in an interdependent manner.[39] On this level, the twelve links can be applied to show the effects of one particular action.[38]

By contemplating on the twelve links, one gains greater insight into the workings of karma; this insight enables us to begin to unravel our habitual way of thinking and reacting.[38][40][41]

Rice Seedling Sutra

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Rice Seedling Sutra is a key source for a detailed description of the twelve links.[42][43]

Asanga's interpretation in three stages

Tibetan scholar Tenzin Gache writes:

The manner in which the twelve links function and interact is not clear in sutras such as the one quoted above, and so different interpretations have arisen over the course of Buddhist history. Some interpret the links as unfolding in a single instant, while others see them as representing stages of life."[4]

The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism follows an interpretation formulated by Tsongkhapa based on a persentation by Asanga. Tenzin Gache writes:

According to Asanga, the progression of the first to the twelfth link, as described in the sutra above, is meant to give a general picture of cause and effect (I will explain how later on), but does not actually illustrate how the process unfolds for a particular action creating a particular result. Instead, a complete cycle of the twelve links unfolds as follows:


Ignorance (1) leads to compounding factors (strong karmic actions) (2), which make an imprint on consciousness (3). Then, craving (8) and grasping (9) ripen that imprint, which then resurfaces in conscious awareness at the time of death as existence (10). The substantial continuum of that mind becomes the first moment of the next rebirth, which is both name and form (4) and birth (11)—these two are simultaneous. From the second moment of that new birth, aging and death (12) begin. During subsequent stages of fetal development, six sense-spheres (5), contact (6), and feeling arise (7), consecutively, and aging and death continue.

Thus, (1), (2), (3), (8), (9), and (10) are the causes, and (4), (5), (6), (7), (11), and (12) are the results. Specifically, (1), (2), and (3) are the impelling causes that leave an imprint on the mind, and (8), (9), and (10) are the actualizing causes that ripen that imprint and lead to a new suffering rebirth. Although this process can appear confusing at first, through habituation we can start to see the logic involved. Also, the non-linear progression highlights that these are twelve links of interdependent origination: although it is possible to trace a particular pattern of cause and effect, all the links should be understood to be mutually reinforcing and interpenetrating. Ignorance causes karmic action, but the imprints of karmic action lead to more ignorance. In a single progression, craving leads eventually to feeling, but feeling itself becomes the main cause for more craving in the future (more on that later). The conceptual structure gives us a microscope to pick out patterns in our own psychology and make sense of what often can seem to be a chaotic, non-linear process.[4]

Situational patterning

Contemporary Buddhist scholar Steven Goodman presents descriptions of the twelve links as part of a process of situational patterning.

Theravada tradition

Editor's note: this section needs attention. Review-icon.png

Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the twelve nidanas are considered to be the most significant application of the principle of dependent origination.

Pali terms for the twelve links

The terms for the twelve links in the Pali language are as follows:

English Pali
1. Ignorance Avijjā
2. Mental formations/volitions Saṅkhāra
3. Status consciousness Viññāṇa
4. "Name" and "Form" Nāmarūpa
5. The six senses Saḷāyatana
6. Contact Phassa
7. Feelings Vedanā
8. Cravings/longings/desires Taṇhā
9. Clinging to Upādāna
10. Generation of factors for rebirth Bhava
11. Birth Jāti
12. All the sufferings Jarāmaraṇa

Three lives and five skandhas

The nikayas themselves do not give a systematic explanation of the nidana series.[44] As an expository device, the commentarial tradition presented the factors as a linear sequence spanning over three lives,[45] thus shifting the theme from a single conception (and birth) to a sequence of "incarnations" (roughly speaking).[lower-alpha 3]

According to Schumann the Nidanas are a later synthesis of Buddhist teachings, meant to make them more comprehensible. Comparison with the five skhandhas shows that the chain contains logical inconsistencies, which can be explained when the chain is considered to be a later elaboration.[47] This way it is explainable that nama-rupa en consciousness in the 9-fold are the beginning or start, while in the 12-fold chain they are preceded by ignorance and formations. Those can only exist when nama-rupa en consciousness are present. Schumann also proposes that the 12-fold is extended over three existences, and illustrate the succession of rebirths. while Buddhaghosa en Vasubandhu maintain a 2-8-2 schema, Schumann maintains a 3-6-3 scheme, putting the five skandhas aside the twelve nidanas.[47]

Commentarial tradition
Former life
Formations (conditioned things/ volitional activities)
Current life
Consciousness (Rebirth consciousness)
Mind and body (Mentality and Corporeality)
The six sense bases (five physical senses and the mind)
Contact (between objects and the senses)
Feeling (Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations)
Craving (for continued contact and feeling)
Becoming (Karmic force)
Future life
Old age and death
The 12-fold chain the 5 skhandhas
First existence
1. Body
2. Sensation
3. Perception
1. Ignorance
2. Formations 4. Formations
3. Consciousness 5. Consciousness
Second existence
4. Nama-rupa 1. Body
5. The six senses
6. Touch
7. Sensation 2. Sensation
3. Perception
4. Formations
5. Consciousness
8. Craving
9. Clinging
Third existence
10. Becoming
1. Body
11. Birth
2. Sensation
3. Perception
4. Formations
5. Consciousness
12. Old age and death

Within Theravāda literature

Pali Canon

In the Pali Canon, the first (partial) exposition of the twelve nidānas appears in the Dīgha Nikāya (Long Discourses), Brahmajāla Sutta, verse 3.71.[48] The reference is partial because it does not cover all twelve links:[49]" In this same Nikāya, Sutta 14 describes ten links instead of twelve, and in Sutta 15 the links are described, but without the six sense-bases (for a total of nine links in that Sutta).[50]

...they experience these feelings by repeated contact through the six sense-bases; feeling conditions craving; craving conditions clinging; clinging conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, sadness and distress.

Descriptions of the full sequence of twelve links can be found elsewhere in the Pali canon, for instance in section 12 of the Samyutta Nikaya:

Now from the remainderless fading and cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications ... From the cessation of birth, then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

Buddhaghosa: interpretation over three lives

The twelve links are explained in detail in the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. In this text, the twelve links are interpreted over a sequence of three lives, thus shifting the theme from a single conception (and birth) to a sequence of "incarnations" (roughly speaking).

Buddhaghosa: four methods of contemplation

Buddhaghosa recounts four methods to contemplate the Twelve Nidanas:

  1. Working from "bottom to top",
  2. Working from the "middle to the top",
  3. Working from "top to bottom",
  4. Working from the "middle to the source".[lower-alpha 4]

The first method begins with ignorance and proceeds to sickness, old age, and death. The second method begins with attachment and proceeds to birth. The third method begins with birth and proceeds back to ignorance. The fourth method begins with attachment and proceeds to ignorance.[citation needed]

Visuddhimagga: "Round of defilements"

12 Factors   3 Rounds
aging-death   aspects of
becoming   kamma
clinging   kilesa
feeling   vipāka
sense bases  
formations   kamma
ignorance   kilesa
Figure: The "three rounds" of
Dependent Origination (Vsm. XVII, 298).

The Visuddhimagga presents different methods for understanding the twelve links. One method (Vsm. XVII, 298) divides the twelve factors into three "rounds" (vaṭṭa):

  • the "round of defilements" (kilesa-vaṭṭa)
  • the "round of kamma" (kamma-vaṭṭa)
  • the "round of results" (vipāka-vaṭṭa).[52][53]

In this framework (see Figure to the right, starting from the bottom of the Figure), kilesa ("ignorance") conditions kamma ("formations") which conditions results ("consciousness" through "feelings") which in turn condition kilesa ("craving" and "clinging") which condition kamma ("becoming") and so on.[51] Buddhaghosa (Vsm. XVII, 298) concludes:

So this Wheel of Becoming, having a triple round with these three rounds, should be understood to spin, revolving again and again, forever; for the conditions are not cut off as long as the round of defilements is not cut off.[52]

As can be seen, in this framework, the round of defilements consists of:

Alternate sets of nidanas

Several series of Nidanas are described in the suttas.

Dīgha Nikāya Sutta 1, the Brahmajala Sutta, verse 3.71 describes six Nidanas:

[...] [T]hey experience these feelings by repeated contact through the six sense-bases; feeling conditions craving; craving conditions clinging; clinging conditions becoming; becoming conditions birth; birth conditions aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, sadness and distress.[54][55][lower-alpha 5]

Dīgha Nikāya, Sutta 14 describes ten links, and in Sutta 15 nine links are described, but without the six sense‑bases.[56]

Modern academic research on the origin of the doctrine

Some modern scholars have noted inconsistencies in the list, and regard it to be a later synthesis of several older lists.[57][58][59]

Contemporary scholar Joanna Jurewicz has suggested the Buddha was referencing Vedic cosmology when he spoke of the links.[60][57][59]

Dhivan Thomas Jones (2009) states:

Recent work by Vedic scholar Joanna Jurewicz, however, suggests that originally the twelve nidānas were a parody of Vedic cosmogony. This scholarship opens the way for renewed exegesis of paṭiccasamuppāda liberated from Indian Buddhist metaphysics.[59]

Richard Gombrich (2003) states:

Without denying the mainstream interpretation, she has shown that the links are in the order that they are and are the specific links that they are, because again, the Buddha was taking off from Vedic cosmology.[61]


  1. The twelve links explain the process of rebirth and the arising of dukkha.[web 1][web 2][web 3][1]
  2. Berzin defines throwing karma as follows: "Throwing karma (‘phen-byed-kyi las) is an urge that will throw us to a future life. To be more specific, it is an urge to do something that is so strong that its karmic aftermath can throw us to a future life. It can shape the type of rebirth that we take, for instance as a dog or as a human."[10]
  3. "Nyanatiloka, for his part in this controversy, sets himself up as the defender of the commentarial tradition that extends the 12-links from a description of a single incarnation into a description of the causes and effects of reincarnation in three separate lifetimes. [...] While I regard the three-lifetimes interpretation (supported by Nyanatiloka) as incorrect, it deserves some credit for remaining thematically related to the original meaning of the primary source text (whereas many modern interpretations have digressed wildly from it). In a lecture on this subject, Nyanatiloka repeatedly refers to the subject-matter of the 12-links discussed as something transpiring inside the womb, also using the term “prenatal”.[46]
  4. Buddhaghosa compares the teaching of the Twelve Nidānas to a creeper vine that is seized and removed in one of four different ways.
  5. Brahmajala Sutta, verse 3.71. This is identified as the first reference in the Canon in footnote 88 for Sutta 1, verse 3.71's footnotes.


  1. Bhikkhu Thanissaro 2008.
  2. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2005, p. 316.
  3. Sucitto 2010, Chapter 5.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Personalizing the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination (FPMT)
  5. Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 65.
  6. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  7. Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 66.
  8. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  9. Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 68.
  10. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Main points about karma, StudyBuddhism
  11. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png The Twelve links, StudyBuddhism
  12. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  13. Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 69.
  14. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  15. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  16. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana
  17. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana
  18. 18.0 18.1 Goodman 1992, p. 228.
  19. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  20. Geshe Tashi Tsering 2006, p. 31.
  21. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Section II, Compendium of Mental Factors.
  22. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  23. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2003), p. 80
  24. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  25. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, Chapter 5.
  27. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 Goodman 1992, Situational Patterning.
  29. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  30. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  31. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  32. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  33. Dependent Origination: The Twelve Links Explained (Joseph Goldstein)
  34. 34.0 34.1 Geshe Tashi Tsering (2005), chap. 3
  35. Gethin 2000, Kindle Locations 2568-2573.
  36. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 8 (from the Introduction by Jeffrey Hopkins)
  37. Sonam Rinchen (2006), p. 9.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 Thrangu Rinpoche (2001), pp. 3, 32
  39. Simmer-Brown (1987), p. 24
  40. Goodman, Location 1492 (Kindel edition)
  41. Simmer-Brown (1987), p. 28
  42. Dalai Lama 1992, p. 36.
  43. Geshe Sonam Rinchen 2006, p. 26.
  44. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 313.
  45. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 314.
  46. Unpopular facts about one of buddhist philosophys most popular doctrines
  47. 47.0 47.1 Schumann 1974.
  48. Walshe, Maurice (1996). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (3. [Aufl.]. ed.). Boston: Wisdom Publications. p. 656. ISBN 978-0-86171-103-1. . This is identified as the first reference in the Canon in footnote 88 for Sutta 1, verse 3.71's footnotes.
  49. Walsh 1996, page 497.
  50. Walsh 1996, page 202.
  51. 51.0 51.1 Strictly speaking, in this framework the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XVII, 298) does not explicitly identify "birth" (jāti) and "aging-death" (jarāmaraa) with results (vipāka). Nonetheless, in the preceding paragraph (Vsm. XVII, 297), Buddhaghosa writes: "And in the future fivefold fruit: the five beginning with consciousness. These are expressed by the term 'birth'. But 'ageing-and-death' is the ageing and the death of these [five] themselves" (Ñāamoli, 1991, p. 599, v. 297; square-brackets in original). Thus, "birth" and "ageing and death" become correlates or expressions of the five-fold "results" sequence.
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 Ñāamoli (1991), p. 599, v. 298.
  53. Cf. the paracanonical Nettipakaraa's "round of suffering, round of action, round of defilements" (dukkhavaṭṭo kammavaṭṭo kilesavaṭṭo) (Nett. i.95).[1]
  54. Walshe (1996), page 497.
  55. Walshe, Maurice (1996). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (3. [Aufl.] ed.). Boston: Wisdom Publications. p. 656. ISBN 978-0-86171-103-1. 
  56. Walshe 1996, page 202.
  57. 57.0 57.1 Gombrich 2009.
  58. Shulman 2008.
  59. 59.0 59.1 59.2 Jones 2009.
  60. Jurewicz 2000.
  61. Gombrich (b), Richard, "Interview by Kathleen Gregory", 


  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Buddhism (religion)," Accessed 25 February 2011.
  2. Peter D. Santina, Buddha Dharma Education Association. "Dependent Origination," Accessed 25 February 2011.
  3. Feldman, Christina. "Dependent Origination," Accessed 25 February 2011.
  4. Thubten Chodron, The 12 links: Part 3 of 5
  5. Alexander Berzin, Developing the Mind Based on Buddha-Nature, Session Two: Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors


  • Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching, Shambhala 
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005), In the Buddha's Words, Wisdom Publications 
  • Buddhaghosa (1999), The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga, Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, Seattle: Pariyatti Publishing (Buddhist Publication Society), ISBN 1-928706-01-0 
  • Dalai Lama (1992), The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom 
  • Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006), How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion 
  • Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Wisdom 
  • Gombrich, Richard (2009), "Chaper 9. Causation and non-random process", What the Buddha Thought, Equinox 
  • Goodman, Steven D. (1992), "Situational Patterning: Pratītyasamutpāda", Footsteps on the Diamond Path (Crystal Mirror Series; v. 1-3), Dharma Publishing 
  • Jones, Dhivan Thomas (2009), "New Light on the Twelve Nidanas", Contemporary Buddhism, 10 (2), 10 (2): 241–259, doi:10.1080/14639940903239793 
  • Jurewicz, Joanna (2000), "Playing with Fire: The pratityasamutpada from the perspective of Vedic thought" (PDF), Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26: 77–103 
  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhi (1991), The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga, Seattle: BPS Pariyatti 
  • Shulman, Eviatar (2008), "Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36: 297–317 
  • Book icoline.svg Tenzin Gyatso; Hopkins, Jeffrey (2015), "Introduction", The Wheel of Life, Wisdom Publications 

Further reading

Theravada sources:

  • Ajahn Sucitto (2010). Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching. Shambhala. (pages 61–76)

Tibetan Buddhist sources:

  • Chogyam Trungpa (1972). "Karma and Rebirth: The Twelve Nidanas, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche." Karma and the Twelve Nidanas, A Sourcebook for the Shambhala School of Buddhist Studies. Vajradhatu Publications.
  • Dalai Lama (1992). The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom.
  • Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006). How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion.
  • Steven D. Goodman, 'Situational Patterning', in Crystal Mirror III, Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1974, pp. 93-101

External links

Tibetan Buddhist teachers:

Theravada and other teachers:

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