The Nidanas

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Steps in a Process

Because the Buddha's reasoning was completely logical, and very detailed so as to address a variety of philosophical and religious views, there have come down to us a number of ways of regarding the process by which we are bound to Existence.  Most of these analyses of the process of Becoming stand on their own, but through the centuries there have been a variety of attempts to integrate them into a single presentation.  

Existence is complex, and the system[s] get very elaborate.  To help explain views of the nature of existence (or, ontology,) Buddhism also developed a famous iconography -- a relatively coherent system of visual symbols.  Thus the Wheel of Existence is usually depicted with three concentric circles:  The hub with its three poisons or "defilements," the segments of the "realms," and the rim with its 12 Nidanas or "links" which are the steps in a process of relating to existence.

 Since conceptualization breeds more conceptualization, the 4 crucial experiences or "visions" of Shakyamuni Buddha have been correlated to the 4 gates of his home town, the 3 times (past, present, future) and also the 5 Buddha families.  

The 5 Skandhas also integrate into the Wheel, at the level of the Nidanas.

The Four Sights Relate to the "Noble Truths"



Sanskrit term

1. Old man existence is suffering Dukkha
2. Sick man desire makes suffering Trishna
3. Corpse to end it, annihilate ego  Nirodha
4. Ascetic or "sadhu" by the 8-fold Path  Marga

Furthermore, in a vain attempt to demonstrate that all so-called esoteric systems or Wisdom teachings are similar, or just from the simplistic tendency to conclude that all groups of 12 share an important characteristic -- namely that they consist of a dozen -- a parallel is sometimes drawn between the 12 Nidanas and the "12 labours of Hercules," or the 12 Signs of the Zodiac -- even the 12 days of Christmas!  But there is nothing "esoteric" or "mystical" about the Nidanas.  They are simply stages of a smooth unfolding that is viewed as a series of links in the chain of causality.  They are points on a "map" showing how it is that a person (or any other being) gets to be born, to live, to enjoy and also to suffer, and then to fade, die and eventually come into existence in one way or another, again and again.

  • Can YOU describe this movie as a series of 12 links?

"Chain, Chain, Chain ... "

If you had no computer, could you see the image? 

To describe the existence of the blooming image of the lotus, we need to be able to recognize two different kinds of conditions for its being there -- two categories of cause. 

Kinds of Conditions For Existence

The first is a basic or root circumstance called in Sanskrit, hetu (in the Western philosophical tradition, causa necessitans.) In this example, you have to live in this century, have electricity and  your computer must be on.  So in the Indian, Tibetan and related views, we have to be in an eon in which existence is possible -- a cosmic phase where universes emerge. 

The Sanskrit word, pratyaya or pratitya (Pali: paccaya) is a conditioning circumstance (in Western ontology it is called conditio causalis.)  This is the type of cause that favours existence and leaves room for "free will." 

In The Rice Seedling (Skt. Shalistamba Sutra) the Buddha explains the key teachings on causality, the theory of dependent origination or "dependent relatedness" (Tib: tendrel.) 

"Dependant and related arising is like this. Because this is present, that will arise, and because that was born, this is being born."   

"He, monks, who sees the Chain of Causality, sees the Teaching; he who sees the Teaching, sees the Buddha."

The 12 Nidanas (Sanskrit) comprise a Chain of Causality also known as "Dependent Origination."  It is important to see that the main reason for examining this chain is so that it can be broken!

Relative Time          Nida and Symbol  Sanskrit  Pali
    PAST 1. ignorance:  blind old woman avidya avijja
2. karma-formation: potter's wheel samskara sankhara
    PRESENT 3. consciousness:  monkey in mango tree vij˝ana vi˝˝ana
4. identity: passenger nama-rupa nama-rupa
5. senses: house of 6 windows sadayatana salayatana
6. contact, impulse: couple sparsha phassa
7. perception, feeling: arrow in eye vedana vedana
8. desire: sweet drink trishna tanha
9. attachment: gathering fruit upadana upadana
10. becoming: orgasmic copulation bhava bhava
    FUTURE 11. rebirth: child-bearing jati jati
12. decline: corpse jara-marana jara-marana

Nothingness and Being

The Source of Existence is not Nothing (though it is often called the Void) and it is not Self although many insist on "personifying" and worshiping it.  It is described as a luminous ground or matrix.  Its quality is that of Buddha-nature.

As the font of all existence -- past, present and future -- in Sanskrit it is called alaya. Viewed as the cosmic storehouse of traces and impressions, it is called alaya-vijnana.  The late Trungpa Rinpoche compared the emergence of alaya-vijnana from the alaya to the freezing of water.  It turns to ice, but that does not mean its nature is no longer that of water.   In other words, beings are alaya, alaya is Buddha-nature, so beings are Buddha-nature.

Three Marks

Existence has no beginning nor end.  We could say that it has three "flavours" of which Emptiness is one.  (In terms of its potential, it is called Buddha-nature.)  The others are Impermanence ("nothing is forever") and Suffering (anxiety, dissatisfaction.) 

The process of existence has been going on since "beginning-less time."  Any "exister" -- we usually say "being" -- tends to feel like an individual.  This misperception is usually termed Ignorance, but it is really a kind of delusion.  Ignorance readily gives rise to  Attraction or Desire (wanting, clinging, attachment) and its opposite, Repulsion or Aversion (rejection, hatred, aggression.)  These are the Three Poisons.  They are depicted at the hub of the Wheel as spinning forms because they feed on each other.  

When we look closely at the Poisons, it seems as if we can discern intermediate mental states. As a group of six they are called in Tibetan, the kleshas (stains, contaminating or clouding factors.) Pride, Greed and Jealousy are the three that, added to the Poisons, make up the 6 Kleshas. 

~ "Nidana Sutra" in Book of Threes, Anguttara-nikaya III, 33

Buddha Families

Buddha-nature finds expression in the Five Buddha families.  These five classes refer to all beings, and not only buddhas and bodhisattvas. That is because beings "precipitate" -- to continue the chemical analogy -- according to how they respond.  They tend to "favour" a particular klesha; that is, have a propensity [tendency] to one of five patterns in reaction formation.   In the Vajrayana, the types or ways of being  -- styles of karmic formation --  can be transmuted through various suitable kinds of practice.


Dependent Origination (Skt. pratitya samutpada, Pali paticca samuppada) is literally,
"co-origination of causal conditioning."  Conditioning can occur under many different circumstances.  It is rarely intentional but once we train to notice it, we can alter it.  Meditation is the best technique or training program for de-conditioning ourselves.


From a certain perspective, any action -- internal, external, conscious or not -- is a consequence of Ignorance (of the fundamental Buddha-nature.)  Also any and all actions or reactions produce consequences or results.  This fact is called in Sanskrit, the Law of Karma.  Therefore, even at the most unaware level, whenever we react we "produce" karma.  It is as incorrect to speak of good or bad karma as it is to say "good gravity" or "bad gravity."

Nevertheless, we also refer to the potential for future consequences by using the term "karma."  Hence all distinct beings and things can be said to have their "own karma," and we sometimes speak of the karma of a nation or group.   From a negative standpoint, a person or group may be subject to one predominating klesha and so respond in a way that repeatedly results in similar karmic consequences.  

We are especially responsible for consequences at a level at which we have some control.  This differs with the various realms of existence.  From point 4 in the Chain, people   begin to react according to their individual natures.  Around point 9, we can begin to be responsible for our reactions since with training and practice, it is possible to gain some control over unconscious actions.

In terms of evolutionary psychology, it is not at the levels of life-sustaining or instinctual functions, but at the cognitive level that an action has consequences for future rebirth.  In other words, human beings are especially subject to karma from acts that are conscious and deliberate. 

Some beings possess the karmic circumstances, determination, and ability to "purify" karma, or influence in a positive fashion their future existences. For example, arhats and Great Bodhisattvas can interrupt the Chain of Becoming.  In the Rice Seedling Sutra, the Buddha teaches that any action done with perfect insight into the true nature of the world, that is performed without attachment and for the good of others, does not lead to further rebirth.  He compares it to sewing seeds that have been fried.  Made barren, they cannot and do not bear new life.


From a Hinayana perspective, the ultimate goal is called Nirvana (Pali: nibbana.) The word means "no more going."  It is achieved when the final attainment is achieved without attachment.  That is, the objective of "purifying" one's karma to the extent that no further results ensue is accomplished.  From that standpoint, there is another analysis called the 10 Fetters

  • "A Quail Caught in a Snare," Ladukikopama, Majjhihma-nikaya, 66

Nirvana is not a heavenly state, but rather a release from the suffering of existence caused by the continual regeneration of desire.  It is a condition of non judgment and non-attachment, rather than of passive, non-being. 

Root Text and Commentaries

". . .  .  By and large, Kaccayana, this world is founded on a polarity: that of existence and non-existence.  But when one sees with right discernment the origin of the world as it actually is, [the term] 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one.  When one sees with right discernment the cessation of the world as it actually is, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one.

By and large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings
(sustenances), and biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases or latent tendencies; nor is he focused on 'my self.'  He has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only suffering is arising; and that when there is passing away, only suffering is passing away.  In this, his knowledge is independent of that of others. 

It is to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.  'Everything exists' is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist' is the second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches Dharma via the middle: 

From ignorance as a condition come karmic formations;
From karmic formations as a condition comes consciousness;
From consciousness as a condition comes personality;
From personality as a condition come the six senses;
From the six senses as a condition comes contact;
From contact as a condition comes perception;
From perception as a condition comes craving;
From craving as a condition comes attachment;
From attachment as a condition comes becoming;
From becoming as a condition comes birth;
From birth as a condition then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair come into play. 

Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress and suffering." 
~ Kaccayana-gotta Sutta, SN XII.15.

The catalogue of nidanas has no ordinary chronology -- it does not exist in linear time although it is a causal kind of explanation.  The 12 nidanas arise sequentially, simultaneously and/or can also overlap. 

Back to the Skandhas

Nagarjuna, the great mid-second century philosopher, sees #9 Upadana (attachment) as the root of our suffering in the becoming- birth- aging-death process.  That is because attachment is a product of the five skandhas, which supply the matrix for our  experience of suffering.  This also implies that the five skandhas not only compose our individuality
-- the object of attachment, but that by means of attachment the five aggregates give rise to a subject over and over again.  A corollary of this is that there can therefore be no permanent Self -- it's an illusory thing -- a product of neurosis.

"Whoever perceives dependent arising also perceives suffering, its arising, its
ceasing and the path [leading to its ceasing]."  ~ Nagarjuna (MMK XXIV, 40) 

The Role of Analytical Meditation

Once we have learned to be attentive to our mental state, and are stabilized through our own efforts through the practice of ordinary meditation (Skt. shamata) then we are better able to derive benefit from analysis or vipashyana (Pali vipassana.)  We will see, firsthand, that:

A self under its own power is non-existent
Because the aggregates are not the person.
The person is not other than, and 
The person is not the base of, the aggregates.
Also, the person does not depend on the aggregates,
The person does not possess the aggregates,
The shape is not the person, like a chariot [which is a conformation of the sum of its parts.] 

Apply [this analysis] to all phenomena.

This dependent-arising is the profound preciousness
Of the treasury of the Conqueror's speech.
Who sees this correctly sees the highest aspect
[Of the teaching] of Buddha, the Knower of Suchness.

From the ultimate perspective nothing is going on: 

The Heart Sutra 

When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was engaged in the practice of deep Prajnaparamita, he perceived that there are the five Skandhas; and he saw them in their nature to be empty.

"O Shariputra, form is here emptiness,[4] emptiness is form.  Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form.  That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form.  The same can be said for sensation, thought, confection, and consciousness.

"O Shariputra, all things here are characterized by Emptiness.  They are not born. They are not annihilated.  They are not tainted; they are not immaculate. They do not increase; they do not decrease. 

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no thought, no confection, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, colour, taste, touch, objects; no dhatu [source of, basis for] vision, till we come to [or, and so on down the line until] no dhatu of consciousness.  There is no knowledge, no ignorance, [and so on] until we get to no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death.  There is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path.  There is no knowledge, no attainment, [and] no realization, because there is no attainment. 

In the mind of the Bodhisattva who dwells depending on Prajnaparamita there are no obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final Nirvana.  All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, depending on the Prajnaparamita, attain the highest perfect enlightenment.

"Therefore, one ought to know that the Prajnaparamita is the great mantram --  the mantra of great wisdom, the highest mantra, the peerless mantra -- which is capable of assuaging all pain.  It is truth because it is not falsehood.  This is the mantra proclaimed in the Prajnaparamita: it goes, Ga-te, ga-te, para-ga-te, para-samga-te bodhi, svaha (Gone, gone,
gone beyond -- altogether gone beyond -- to Awakening, so there!)"


theory: This word is used in its scientific sense meaning a not-disproved idea.

"Chain, Chain, Chain ... ":  song Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin & later, Maria Carey. Another kind of chain is the chronological "chain of responsibility:"

In "A Drop of Honey," ( Three Apples Fell From Heaven a collection of Armenian folk tales Mischa Kudian, 1964)  when a peasant buys some honey, a drop spills onto the floor of the shop.  Then  a fly alights upon it, the shopkeeper's cat strikes the fly dead with its paw, and the peasant's dog strangles the cat. The shopkeeper bops the dog with his honey-ladle killing it, so the peasant swings his staff hitting the shopkeeper on the head and killing him.  When  a passer-by exclaims over what happened, villagers pounce upon the peasant killing him,  and then there is revenge from the inhabitants of the peasant's village, and everyone gets hurt.   Since each village is under the rule of a different king, the kings make war, and general mayhem ensues.  And after the war, a survivor asks, " How could this tragedy have happened?" 

There is also an old English litany that goes:

Because of the nail, the shoe was lost.
Because of the shoe, the horse was lost
Because of the horse, the rider was lost
Because of the rider, the battle was lost
Because of the battle, the kingdom was lost
And all because of a horseshoe nail!

It is usually traced to the 15th-century battle that ended the Wars of the Roses.  At the Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard III was killed (Shakespeare's Richard III, act iv: "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!") and Henry VII claimed the English crown.

The verse is also attributed to English churchman and poet, George Herbert, whose collected works were published after his death, in 1633. 

As The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes relates: "Thomas Adam, in one of his Sermons (collected 1629), said 'The Frenchmen have a military proverb: "The loss of a nail, the loss of an army" ',  and continued 'The want of a nail loseth the shoe, the loss of a shoe troubles the horse, the horse endangereth the rider, the rider breaking his rank molests the company so far as to hazard the whole army.' 

By 1640, when Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs was published, the sentiment had become formalized." 

 ~ "Responsiblity Stories," Story-Lovers.

luminous: This does not literally mean "shining" but the reference to light is as a metaphor for the attraction of this potential.

no beginning:  Texts such as the Kalachakra Tantra describe cycles of  Existence-Time.  According to current scientific views, our universe has been "here" for billions of years. 

ways of regarding the process:  The process is a continual unfolding, and the Buddha's teaching is clear and consistent, but from a relative perspective it can be analysed in various ways.  Consider the various ways we have of analyzing a painting or a movie, or even a chemical reaction. 

Etymology of the Nidanas:  Nidana derives from the root da (bind, constrict) and the preposition ni- (down.)  It is often translated as "fetter" or "band." As "constriction," it is also used to refer to an artery, a pulse or pressure point.  Nida means a "resting-place" as in the French word, nid (nest.)  

Avidya > a- (not) + vidya (knowledge.)  
Samskara>  root kri (to make) + preposition sam (together.) To assemble, construct.
Vijnana derives from the root vijna meaning "discern" or "distinguish." 
Nama-rupa is a compound> nama (name) + rupa (form) means "individual" or "personality." 
Shadayatana > shad (six) and root ayat (dwell.)  Ayatana (rests or stations.)
Sparsha >root sprig (contact, touch.)
Vedana> vid (know, perceive.)
Trishna >root trish (to thirst.)
Upadana >root upada (to acquire, grasp.)
Bhava > root bhu (become.)
Jati > root jan ( be born.)  Jati is also used for "hereditary occupation."  Jara-marana >root jri + root mri = (wither + die.)       

Emptiness or the Void (Skt. shunyata) does not mean "nothingness," but according to our Mahayana view it connotes the essential [>essence] Buddha-nature of all things -- the luminous ground of being.  It is unconditioned, beyond any determination, but also immanent, and inevitable.

6 senses: No eye, etc. refers to the six organs of perception -- 6 because in the Indian view there is a part of consciousness (Skt. manovijnana) for receiving impressions.   So it follows that there is no form, sound, etc.

Dhatu: There are 18 dhatu-s or stores of, or sources for, existence.  Besides the 6 senses (Skt. indriya) and 6 consciousnesses (vijnana) they also comprise 6 qualities (vishaya.)

Skandhas: Buddhist analysis is directed at disabusing people of a belief in Eternity, or any eternal soul or True Self and all similar and related notions.  Any idea of Eternal Being contributes to desire for, or a "clinging" to, any and all material aspects of existence.  The five skandhas (heaps or aggregates) are: form (Skt. rupam), sensation (vedana), apperception (samjna), conception or formation (samskara), and awareness (vijnana).  Vijnana is the product of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and attitude-formation.  They operate at a subliminal level contributing to repetitive psychological patterns we can call neuroses. 

Heart: Here the word refers to the essence or core of the Perfection of Wisdom [or, Ultimate Wisdom;] in Sanskrit, the Prajnaparamita.  The Tibetan text begins:

"Adoration to Prajnaparamita, which is beyond words, thought, and praise; whose nature is, like space, neither created nor destroyed, which is a state of wisdom and morality evident to our inner consciousness, and which is the Mother of all Excellent Ones of past, present, and future. 

Thus I heard:  At one time the World-honoured One [Buddha Shakyamuni] was at Vulture's Peak, Rajagriha, along with a large number of bhikshus and of bodhisattvas.  At the time [he] was absorbed in a samadhi [profound meditative absorption] called "deep enlightenment."   And at that same time, the great bodhisattva, noble Chenrezi, was himself practising the profound Prajnaparamita."

The Tibetan text ends with:

"O Shariputra, that is the way a bodhisattva should practise profound  Prajnaparamita. 

At that moment, the World-honoured One rose from samadhi and gave approval to the great bodhisattva, noble Avalokitesvara, saying, 'Well done, well done, noble son!  That's the way! That's how the practice of the deep Prajnaparamita should be conducted.  As preached by you, it is applauded by Tathagatas and Arhats.' 

Thus spoke the World-honoured One with joyful heart. [and] Venerable Shariputra and Great Bodhisattva Arya-avalokitesvara together with the whole assembly, along with the world of Gods, Men, Ashuras, and Gandharvas, all praised the World-honoured One's speech."

no knowledge:  The words, "There is no knowledge, no ignorance, etc." is an out-and-out  denial of the Twelve-fold Chain.  In other words, from the ultimate perspective it does not exist.  So why are you reading this?  

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