History Question: Interpretations of Dependent Arising

Dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda; ‘DA’) is a core teaching common to all Buddhist schools tracing back to our earliest sources. Here, by DA, I am referring specifically to the 12-factor chain which explains in detail the conditional arising of suffering found in the four noble truths. As far as I can tell, all ancient schools of Buddhism had the same general interpretation of DA, setting aside secondary philosophical nuances. This carried over into all of the mainstream living Buddhist traditions, which again, seem to all have the same standard teaching on the twelve links broadly speaking.

In modern times, it has become extremely common to hear radically different interpretations of DA from different commentators. While the ancient/modern schools of traditional Buddhism did offer unique twists and teaching expositions on the twelve links that differed from the standard explanation, they never denied the standard, common Buddhist understanding, but simply applied a teaching device to the links as an additional contemplation. For example, the Sarvāstivādin text Jñānaprasthāna gives an example of each of the twelve links occurring in one intentional action. This same text contains the standard interpretation common to all Buddhist schools; it uses the “micro-scale” example only as an expository device.

What is unique about most of the modern interpretations is that they tend to reject — either completely or for the most part — the standard Buddhist explanation. They often reinterpret particular conditions and links in the chain in new, unique ways. There also tends to be an emphasis on the arising of the subjective sense of self or mental identification, setting aside the emphasis on the cycle of rebirth in the ancient explanations.

My question is two-fold:

  1. Does anyone have insight into when these modern re-interpretations arose? As far as I can tell, there is no precedent for this in the ancient Buddhist schools, discounting later Tantric sūtras which gave esoteric explanations of the links. What is the first attestation of this, and how did it evolve?
  2. Is there any counter-example to the idea that all ancient schools of Buddhism and traditional Buddhist thinkers had a separate interpretation that denied the others? It seems that all of the Sthavira as well as the Mahāsaṁghika schools had the same understanding, including later Buddhist authors like Nāgārjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Buddhaghosa, etc.



Hello @Vaddha, this Q & A could be considerably strengthened if you had links to the modern interpretations you have in mind that so reject the standard interpretation you have in mind. Just to keep everyone on the same page otherwise I fear misunderstanding arising. :pray:

I personally think on the same lines. And I think the modern ideas began with Venerable Buddhagosa’s Visuddhimagga but I may be wrong.
BTW, would you mind direct me to the explanation of the twelve links according to Jñānaprasthāna?
With Metta

I have understood that Abhidhamma of the Pali Canon describes different PS cycles. Not just one. It is said that Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle refers to PS in this very life.

In explaining these different PS cyclus the nidana’s have different meanings, indeed. I think that is normal. The PS cycle here and now describes development in this very moment. It does also describe how the mind can grasp an existence in this very life in the moment, and be born in that temporary existence. I find this very truthful and elegant. It also helps to understand Dhamma, i feel.

My impression is that some feel that this all introduces an esoteric understanding that they do not like.
They do not seem comfortable with the fact that mind under influence of avijja and tanha s also grasps existences in this very life and takes birth in this very life in spheres of existence. But i do not see nany problem with this interpretation of PS. It helps to understand Dhamma because the same sphere of existence the mind tends to easily in this very life, probably also becomes the sphere after death.
So it is important to prevent that mind inclines in this very life to dark evil or low spheres of existence.

I always find it very weird that people resist to see PS cycle in this very life, as if avijja and tanha has no effect on the development of mind in this very life and very moment? Ofcourse it has. In Dhamma PS in this very life is closely connected to what can happen at the death moment. A sutta that also describes this is MN57. In which Buddha explains PS in this very life and how this relates to rebirth.

He says that if one in this very life practices like one is an animal, lives like one exist as animal, and practices animals views, habits, inclinations, then this same practicing of this sphere of existence (animal bhava) becomes ones bhava after death.

Dhamma Friends:
This thread is in a Q&A format, because I am looking for references to specific works, dates, names, etc. The purpose here is not to discuss practical applications or pass value judgements on particular ideas. All that was asked are the two questions in the post. It would be best if we stick to that here. :slight_smile:

Alex Wayman’s ‘Buddhist Dependent Origination’ cites the case I mentioned. But apart from the side-examples like that one, the Jñānaprasthāna has the traditional understanding of the twelve links common to all mainstream Buddhist schools, ancient and modern. As I understand it, the other expositions are tools for getting an idea of the links and applying the principle to other things to broaden the scope to be more universal. This is a common trait of Abhidhamma literature as it developed.

The main, standard explanation is considered to be what is meant in the discourses and what the Buddha gained insight into. That is, two parallel sequences each containing one of the two roots for the round of rebirths and suffering. The two defilements/roots (avijjā and tanhā) produce a kind of karmic force or fuel (sankhārā and upādāna) that steer consciousness into a new life accordingly (viññāna and bhava) where one takes rebirth and develops the body and sense faculties (nāmarūpa-salāyatana and jāti) to then experience suffering through contacting the world and mentally suffering, aging, falling sick, until dying. (phassa-vedanā and jarāmarana-sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā). It is traditionally broken up in many ways, but a major thread is dividing the chain into the three times (past/present/future). This is not strictly linear and the nuances are broken down in the texts. But the basic idea is how defilement and kamma lead to rebirth, but these defilements/volitions arose within the residue of the results from the past life, forming a kind of feed-back loop with no discoverable beginning for the first life this all started.

Each school had their own philosophical ideas and subtleties of interpretation, but this is the general thing I am talking about. So this should help with @yeshe.tenley ’s question on what I mean. The interpretations of DA that deny, reject, or alter the above in significant ways would be the examples of the modern reinterpretations. There are too many to cite or quote, because basically every individual in this trend has their own ideas alongside a few major teachers with followers of that interpretation.

I did find one possible thread. Ven. Nyanatiloka has a book published in 1938 called Guide through the Abhidhamma Pitaka. In the Appendix, he has an essay on dependent arising. There, the Venerable says:

None of all the teachings of Buddhism has given rise to greater misunderstandings, to more contradictory and more absurd speculations and interpretations than the paṭiccasamuppāda … this short exposition of the paṭiccasamuppāda … must certainly be regarded as the first real explanation of the paṭiccasamuppāda in a Western tongue.

He cites several scholars’ interpretations of the links that deviate from the common Buddhist understanding. Because he claims that his essay is the first in a Western language that does not present the un-conventional reinterpretations means that at least before 1938 these already existed as Buddhism became more popular in the West. I feel that maybe Ven. @Dhammanando would have more information. The venerable seems to be a treasure-trove of this kind of history.


The most basic structure of PS is describes in the sutta’s as:

-When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. (SN12.61, and others)

One can apply this on many situations and things, over many lifes, this very life etc.

Seeing PS, i believe does not mean that one in an intelletual way understands how this cycle works but it means, i believe, that one has validated for oneself in a practical experienced way how the body arises, how feelings arise…how vinnana’s arise, how they cease and what is the Path to their cessation.
Likewise for the world.

I do not think then when the texts say that if one sees PS one sees the Dhamma refers to intellectual understanding of PS.

Regarding Q1, I am only aware of 2 major contemporary re-interpretations of DA within the Theravāda. The first, of which you seem to already be aware, could be characterized as simply a more “intimate” extension of the traditional metaphysical/sequential/causal interpretation of DA, wherein the links of DA are said to unfold not just across lifetimes as was traditional, but to also occur in very rapid succession on very small time-scales, possibly even within the span of a single mind-moment (insofar as such a thing as a mind-moment is even a coherent concept, which it is not). Ajahn Geoff gives perhaps the most sophisticated elaboration of this modern interpretation in his book The Shape of Suffering, describing DA is a non-linear complex system whose behavior has fractal/scale-invariant properties. Describing DA as scale-invariant allows the links to apply both at micro and macro time-scales, bringing DA “closer to home” without denying the traditional interpretation. Of course, one could omit such scale-invariant language and take this genus of an interpretation in the direction of outright rejecting the traditional interpretation as Ajahn Buddhadasa seems to have done. There are also quotes of Ajahn Chah—(“The mind passes through the chain of the Paticcasamuppada so rapidly that we can’t keep up. It’s like falling from a tree. Before we can realize what’s happening - thud! - we’ve already hit the ground.”)—that seem to indicate that he was sympathetic to a more immediate interpretation of DA as well. So those are three big names: Ajahn Geoff, Ajahn Buddhadasa, and Ajahn Chah, and I am sure there are many others besides, both before and contemporary with these teachers. I imagine it would be very difficult to find a first example of this kind interpretation because it is so intuitive. And to the extent that the overwhelming majority of “heretical” DA interpretations deviate from tradition, they very likely do so by leaning on the micro side of things as Buddhadasa did and simply denying the extension of their notion of DA as a causal chain into past and future lives.

The second strand of contemporary interpretations of which I am aware is the structural, ontological, trans-temporal, non-sequential, non-causal, non-metaphysical interpretation developed by Ven. Ñanavīra and described in his Notes on Dhamma, published in 1963. I can say with confidence that this interpretation is unprecedented, unique, and is a wholesale rejection of the traditional interpretation rather than a contemporary—(though you did provide what could be considered a much more ancient example in your OP)—adaptation like the previous. The fact that Sartre and Heidegger laid the theoretical foundation for such an interpretation in the 30s and 40s—only two decades prior—is what gives me such confidence that Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation is unprecedented and without any historical Buddhist antecedent.

To briefly describe the difference between Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation and all the others, Ven. Ñanavīra and his disciples hold that the links of DA are not events that unfold in an even partially sequential manner but are simultaneously-contextually-present existentio-phenomenological realities that permeate and structure any and every possible experience: past, present, and future. In this interpretation, thoughts regarding the metaphysical reality and objective historical timeline occurence of a person’s birth in the past are simply one of many experiential sub-images that, among countless others, together form the more fundamental ontological image of Birth as a necessary existential context that permeates every possible conscious experience whatsoever. To use Sartre’s words, a person’s birth is always present, as past.

Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation encompasses and surmounts the traditional metaphysical interpretation. The entire domain of causality and speculative—(always and forever completely speculative! qua Hume)—inductive metaphysics, so attractive to the scholastic, is rendered by Ven. Ñanavīra to be, on the most fundamental spiritual level, simply besides the point.


Thanks for the excellent, comprehensive answer.

These two (successive moment-by-moment vs. non-sequential structure) are certainly the main categories of modern interpretation. There’s definitely a broad range of diversity in the different explanations though. There are probably much less if any variations of the purely structural one’s like Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s, considering the density of his writings and, as you mentioned, the fact that there is no Buddhist precedent for the understanding; that line of thinking is less familiar. Most of his followers seem to just stick to what he said. I have seen/heard explanations that are closer to ‘structural’ in being more about the layers of the sense of self, from basic awareness up to a fully formed identity, but certainly the more small-scale sequential interpretations seem more prolific.

Thank you for this information. The fact that the thought of Sartre and Heidegger was a necessary condition for the arising of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s interpretation is informative. This builds a bit of a timeline around the Dhamma interpretations by other Buddhist thinkers strongly influenced by the (annihilationist) European existentialists. Ven. Ñāṇavīra being one of them, of course.

Without getting into the details, the traditional understanding of DA is not purely sequential. Birth is also considered present, as it is the current resultant (vipāka) of the ignorance, intentions, craving and acquiring. Although people often understood the multiple-lifetime exegesis as a kind of simple linear sequence, it is actually more like an infinite regression of the aggregates which has particular defilements underlying and perpetuating it. That would be for another thread though.

It seems the central argument of Ven. Nanavira’s PS explanation compared to the traditional 3-lives model is the stress placed on the simultaneous, non-temporal arising of the factors: when there is this there is also this other thing.
In other words, the Ven. explains that PS is not about events unfolding over time at all.

Your confidence: “I can say with confidence that this interpretation is unprecedented, unique” is not well grounded:

Nanamoli Thera writings precedes it. As far as written words goes. Because in fact dependent arising is the general formula, so any ariya sees it. All comes to one point, either one sees this or not:

Now this has been said by the Blessed One: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.” And these five aggregates affected by clinging are dependently arisen. The desire, indulgence, inclination, and holding based on these five aggregates affected by clinging is the origin of suffering. The removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for these five aggregates affected by clinging is the cessation of suffering.’
MN 28

And I think Ajhan Chah would give quite proper interpretation of this passage.

Edit [Quote from the book A Still Forest Pool

Those who speak of death are speaking the language of ignorant children. In the language of the heart, of Dharma, there’s no such thing.

“When we carry a burden, it’s heavy. When there’s no one to carry it, there’s not a problem in the world. Do not look for good or bad or for anything at all. Do not be anything. There’s nothing more; just this.”

A visiting Zen student asked Achaan Chah, “How old are you? Do you live here all year round?”
“I live nowhere,” he replied. “There is no place you can find me. I have no age. To have age, you must exist, and to think you exist is already a problem. Don’t make problems; then the world has none either.]

And this statement: The fact that Sartre and Heidegger laid the theoretical foundation for such an interpretation in the 30s and 40s—only two decades prior—is what gives me such confidence that Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation is unprecedented and without any historical Buddhist antecedent.

sorry to say, is just a nonsense. That four noble truths are descriptions, it should be quite obvious to any averagely intelligent man, you really do not need Heidegger, nor Sartre to understand this.

If the second noble truth is a description, it’s reformulation in the terms of dependent arising also must be description.


What I mean nobody in his senses interpretes the second noble truth in terms of three, two, one existence or existence from moment to moment. But when the second noble truth is reformulated in terms of dependent arising suddenly what is a atemporal description of the state of puthujjana, and his state is that of being, suddenly various temporal interpretations appear.

The reason for this that sine qua non relationship between items undermines the most fundamental puthujjana certainty: that of being. And there is absolutely no direct relation between Heidegger and Dhamma, that his philosophy was helpful for Ven Nanavira says more about ven Nanavira then about universal validity of Heidegger writings for all who aspire to understand Dhamma.

Ajahn Chach could manage to do it without Heidegger :smiling_face:

That quote of Ven. Ñanamoli is from A Thinker’s Notebook which was published in…1973—after Notes on Dhamma. But admittedly Ven. Ñanamoli died in 1960, so the words themselves must have been written prior to the publishing of Notes on Dhamma. Regardless, Ven. Ñanavīra and Ven. Ñanamoli were not only contemporaries but intimate friends who lived together in the same flat in London before coming to Ceylon, also together, to ordain at the Island Hermitage, also together. In light of that intimacy, to claim that Ven. Ñanamoli’s interpretation precedes Ven. Ñanavīra’s is…like claiming that the mother of an elder sibling is older than the mother of a junior sibling. It is overwhelmingly likely that we’re talking about one and the same woman here, and who is truly the elder sibling in this case is likely unverifiable and ultimately a rather trifling distinction. Ven. Ñanavīra and Ven. Ñanamoli were part of the same intellectual milleu and no doubt exchanged ideas with each other extensively.

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Well, it is like claiming who first seen dependent arising, and it obviously had some importantce to Ven Nanavira who according to some monk made a statement in the middle of Sangha: “I have nothing more to learn from my friend Nanamoli.”

But of course presently it doesn’t matter, and any way it would be difficult to find someone who thinks he can learn something from Ven Nanamoli.

This claim rests on assumptions that are at least disputable.

In order for it to work we have to take SN as the “earliest sources” and somehow sweep under the rug the fact that the silakandhavagga of DN has only a 7 link DA as in DN1;

Now, when those ascetics and brahmins theorize about the past and the future on these sixty-two grounds, all of them experience this by repeated contact through the six fields of contact. Their feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.

yepi te samaṇabrāhmaṇā pubbantakappikā ca aparantakappikā ca pubbantāparantakappikā ca pubbantāparantānudiṭṭhino pubbantāparantaṁ ārabbha anekavihitāni adhimuttipadāni abhivadanti dvāsaṭṭhiyā vatthūhi, sabbe te chahi phassāyatanehi phussa phussa paṭisaṁvedenti tesaṁ vedanāpaccayā taṇhā, taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṁ, upādānapaccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti, jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti.

and that DN in it’s entirety has not one single example of a 12DA, giving only a 10DA at DN14 and DN15 as in;

‘This consciousness turns back from name and form, and doesn’t go beyond that.’
‘paccudāvattati kho idaṁ viññāṇaṁ nāmarūpamhā, nāparaṁ gacchati.

It is to this extent that one may be reborn, grow old, die, pass away, or reappear. That is:
Ettāvatā jāyetha vā jiyyetha vā miyyetha vā cavetha vā upapajjetha vā, yadidaṁ

Name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.
nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṁ, nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṁ, saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā, taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṁ, upādānapaccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti, jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti.

That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.’
Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti’.

And that SN acknowledges the priority of 10DA at SN12.67.

All this is to say that unless you deny that DN is one of the earliest sources, you cannot claim that 12DA traces back to all the “earliest sources”.

Here again we have a sleight of hand whereby the scholastic abbhidhammic schools of the beginnings of the common era are uncritically asserted to simply explain what is “meant” in the discources and “what the buddha gained insight into.” This is simply false on it’s face. there is NOT ONE WORD in the actual sutta material tha states that DA is a temporal process metaphysics that occurs over 3 lifetimes, and NOT ONE WORD to the effect that there are “two parallel sequences each containing one of the two roots”.

In the actual sutta material, hundreds of years older than the abbhidhamma material that advances the 3 lives doctrine, something that even groups within the “ancient schools” recognised, the actual presentation is counterfactual, not temporal, as in ;

Then Vipassī thought,
Atha kho, bhikkhave, vipassissa bodhisattassa etadahosi:
‘When what doesn’t exist is there no old age and death? When what ceases do old age and death cease?’
‘kimhi nu kho asati jarāmaraṇaṁ na hoti, kissa nirodhā jarāmaraṇanirodho’ti?
Then, through rational application of mind, Vipassī comprehended with wisdom,
Atha kho, bhikkhave, vipassissa bodhisattassa yoniso manasikārā ahu paññāya abhisamayo:
‘When rebirth doesn’t exist there’s no old age and death. When rebirth ceases, old age and death cease.’
‘jātiyā kho asati jarāmaraṇaṁ na hoti, jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇanirodho’ti.


Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.
Jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, maraṇampi dukkhaṁ, sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsāpi dukkhā, appiyehi sampayogopi dukkho, piyehi vippayogopi dukkho, yampicchaṁ na labhati tampi dukkhaṁ, saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā—
This is called suffering.
idaṁ vuccatāvuso, dukkhaṁ.
And what is the origin of suffering?
Katamo cāvuso, dukkhasamudayo?
It’s the craving that leads to future lives, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure wherever it lands. That is,
Yāyaṁ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandīrāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṁ—
craving for sensual pleasures, craving for continued existence, and craving to end existence.
kāmataṇhā bhavataṇhā vibhavataṇhā—
This is called the origin of suffering.
ayaṁ vuccatāvuso, dukkhasamudayo.
And what is the cessation of suffering?
Katamo cāvuso, dukkhanirodho?
It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not clinging to it.
Yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo—
This is called the cessation of suffering.
ayaṁ vuccatāvuso, dukkhanirodho.
And what is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering?
Katamā cāvuso, dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā?
It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is:
Ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṁ—
right view … right immersion.
sammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi—
This is called the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.
ayaṁ vuccatāvuso, dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā.

The suttas never say that the craving occurs in the past, nor that the suffering occurs in the future rather that one depends on the other, leaving exactly how (or when) unexplained.

Then, hundreds of years later, the 3 lives model appears, to qoute wikipeadia:

The three life interpretation can first be seen in the Paṭisambhidāmagga (I.275, circa 2nd or 3rd c. BCE).[191] It is also defended by the Theravāda scholar Buddhaghosa (c. fifth century CE) in his influential Visuddhimagga (Vism.578–8I) and it became standard in Theravada.[192][193][194] The three-lives model, with its “embryological” interpretation which links dependent origination with rebirth was also promoted by the Sarvāstivāda school as evidenced by the Abhidharmakosa (AKB.III.21–4) of Vasubandhu (fl. 4th to 5th century CE) and the Jñanaprasthana.[194][3][76] Wayman notes that this model is also present in Asanga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya and is commented on by Nagarjuna.[76]


This occurs at the EXACT SAME TIME (i.e hundreds of years after the buddha) as the appearance of the “structural” or “single moment” interpretation, to qoute wikepedia again;

Prayudh Payutto notes that in Buddhaghosa’s Sammohavinodani, a commentary to the Vibhaṅga, the principle of dependent origination is explained as occurring entirely within the space of one mind moment.[25] Furthermore, according to Payutto, there is material in the Vibhaṅga which discusses both models, the three lifetimes model (at Vibh.147) and the one mind moment model.[3][25][199] Similarly, Cox notes that the Sarvastivadin Vijñānakāya contains two interpretations of dependent origination, one which explains the 12 nidanas as functioning in a single moment as a way to account for ordinary experience and another interpretation that understands the 12 nidanas as arising sequentially, emphasizing their role in the functioning of rebirth and karma.[74]

So first, DA is NOT explained as a 3 lifetime process metaphysics in the earliest sources, in fact it’s not even explained as having 12 links in all the earliest sources, and second when the 3 lifetime interpretation emerges in the later material it emerges alongside the mind moment and mind series interpretations, ALL of which have lengthy pre-modern histories so it is simply untrue to say:

And equally completely untrue to say that

since these have just as long a lineage as the 3 lives school of thought, going back centuries, but NOT to the suttas.

So in answer to your questions;

Answer: with the abhidhamma.

Answer: even a cursory examination of the basic Wikipedia article gives ample counter-examples, some of which are given above.

In summary the OP assumes something new is something old, i.e assumes that the 3 life interpretation of DA goes back to the suttas when it doesn’t and then assumes that something old is new i.e that “structural” or “momentary” interpretations of DA don’t go back to abhdhamma projects when in fact they do.

Hence the OP creates an illusory past where everyone agreed and is confused about an equally illusory modernity where people disagree.

Insofar as any previous “structural” interpretations were also momentary interpretations, they were not Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation because his interpretation is not a momentary one. The rejection of momentary-ness is a very important part of Sartre’s ontology of temporality, and Ven. Ñanavīra takes that rejection to an even more extreme and fine-grained level in the Dynamic Aspect subsection of the Fundamental Structure section of Notes on Dhamma. There’s a lot of Sartre-specific jargon in the following quote that I understand will sound like nonsense without any context, but here’s a bit of Sartre on the notion of the instant to give just a taste:

[The] totality [of temporalization] never is achieved; it is a totality which is refused and which flees from itself. It is the wrenching away from self within the unity of a single upsurge, an inapprehensible totality which at the moment when it gives itself is ready beyond this gift of self. Thus the time of consciousness is human reality which temporalizes itself as the totality which is to itself its own incompletion; it is nothingness slipping into a totality as a de-totalizing ferment. This totality which runs after itself and refuses itself at the same time, which can find in itself no limit to its surpassing because it is its own surpassing and because it surpasses itself toward itself, can under no circumstance exist within the limits of an instant. There is never an instant at which we can assert that the for-itself is, precisely because the for-itself never is. Temporality, on the contrary, temporalizes itself entirely as the refusal of the instant. (Being and Nothingness, p. 211)

This ecstatic, “always-beyond-itself” nature of temporality is why I referred to Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation as trans-temporal, rather than atemporal as Knigarian did. Though they may bear superficial resemblance by placing the links of DA “next to” each other rather than sequentially one after the other as in the causal interpretation, any pre-modern “structural” interpretations that remain bound within a single mind-moment differ significantly from Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation. This might sound like nit-picking, but the thoroughly non-instantaneous, ecstatic, “overflowing” nature of existential temporality is precisely what allows DA to be both universal across past, present, and future and also be akaliko, ehipasiko, opanayiko… etc. Jettisoning the mind-moment is the only way for DA to be a principle that covers all three times without requiring any form of induction (that would carry with it the Problem of induction) whatsoever.

So, again, I am quite sure that Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation is unprecedented. The resemblance between it and any previous “structural” interpretations are superficial, though I admit I was unaware of the ancient single-mind-moment interpretations and thank you for bringing them to our collective attention. Ven. Ñanavīra’s interpretation really very much required the work of the existential phenomenologists to build upon. Obviously I am not saying that no-one prior to the existentialists ever had an authentic intuition of the nature of temporality or of DA, but no such persons ever expressed that intuition in the context of DA with the level of rigor that Ven. Ñanavīra did, because the intellectual tools that enabled such rigor simply did not exist prior to the idea of existential temporality first expounded by Heidegger in his distinction between temporality and historicity, and later given even more detailed ontological elaboration by Sartre.

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Hi Venerable,

I’ve also been interested in the sources of the various interpretations of DO, especially the moment to moment interpretation. I’ve been puzzled by the claim that this interpretation can be traced to the Vibhaṅga of the Theravada Abhidhamma. Here is the passage that is sometimes referred to:

Tattha katamā bhavapaccayā jāti? Yā tesaṃ tesaṃ dhammānaṃ jāti sañjāti nibbatti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo – ayaṃ vuccati “bhavapaccayā jāti”.

In this case, what is “existence is the condition for birth”? That which is the birth, being born, coming forth, coming into being, manifestation of those various things: this is said to be “existence is the condition for birth”.

“Those various things”, tesaṁ tesaṁ dhammānaṁ, presumably refers back to the four mental aggreagtes (khandhas) mentioned in the immediately preceding definition of existence (bhava). Here is that definition:

Tattha katamo upādānapaccayā bhavo? Ṭhapetvā upādānaṃ, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṅkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho – ayaṃ vuccati “upādānapaccayā bhavo”.

In this case, what is “taking up is the condition for existence”? Apart for the taking up, it is the feeling aggregate, the perception aggregate, the will aggregate, the consciousness aggregate: this is said to be “taking up is the condition for existence”.

The moment to moment proponents then argued that because bhava is defined as the four mental khandhas this must refer to the moment by moment arising of mental phenomena.

It is interesting, of course, that the Abhidhamma leaves out rūpakkhandha, and this certainly needs to be explained. Yet the broader context suggests that this, too, is about rebirth. The words used in the Abhidhamma are essentially the same as those used for rebirth in the standard sutta explanation of DO. Here is a comparison of the two definitions of jāti, starting with the sutta definition:

Jāti sañjāti okkanti abhinibbatti, khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo, āyatanānaṃ paṭilābho.
Jāti sañjāti nibbatti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo.

The two are obviously closely related. If the sutta definition relates to rebirth, it is hard to see why the Abhidhamma definition would be seen differently. But again, the differences need to be explained.

So why might rūpakkhandha, “the form aggregate”, be missing from the Abhidhamma definition of bhava? We know that the Abhidhamma is essentially about classifying and relating the constituents of reality to each other. To make DO universally applicable is makes sense to take out rūpa (perhaps it should be regarded as subsumed under one of the other factors, such as saññā), thereby including all the realms of existence, also the arūpa realms, into its formulation. I think this is at least a plausible reason for the unusual formulation. There may also be others.

It’s important to note here that also the other factors of DO, as defined in the Abhidhamma, have had the rūpa element removed. So we find nāma instead of nāmarūpa and chaṭṭhāyatana (“the sixth sense base”, that is, the mind) instead of saḷāyatana (“the six sense bases”). And I think this is also the explanation for the difference in the definition of jāti. The Abhidhamma definition leaves out precisely those terms that involve rūpa, that is, okkanti, khandhānaṁ (pātubhāvo), āyatanānaṁ paṭilābho (In the suttas okkanti or avakkanti is often related to nāmarūpa.) And I think the same argument can be made for old age and death, for which, again, the rūpa aspect seems to be left out. (Indeed, this how the commentary explains it.)

In sum, without having delved into all the details, it seems to me that there is no particularly good reason to think that the Abhidhamma teaches some kind of moment to moment DO. If this is correct, it seems likely that this is entirely a modern phenomenon. This may not have been the question your were asking, @Vaddha, yet it may still be illuminating in its own way. It looks likely to me that the moment to moment interpretation is a modern projection onto the suttas. In other words, it is the result of a cultural bias coming from societies where the idea of rebirth is often questioned, if not outrightly dismissed. This gives a good foundation for understanding why such ideas have arisen. Moreover, it is a good reminder of how easy it is to backread our own biases into the suttas.


Hi, Joseph. Thanks for the contribution. It seems you’ve misread or misinterpreted about every line in my post that you’ve commented on. I don’t think it too necessary to go into the details, but for the sake of clarifying any misreadings from others, here are some reflections.

I said “common to all Buddhist schools” not ‘all earliest sources.’ Followed by ‘our earliest sources,’ by which I mean the major early Nikāyas as a whole. Of course it’s interesting to consider the historical layers within those books, but the fact remains that as of now, we know of no Buddhist school that did not have these Nikāyas in some form or another, and several Nikāyas do mention the 12 links (SN, AN, MN, Snp) with the Chinese Dīrghāgama also mentioning them in its parallel to DN 15. So even if there were passages among the four main nikāyas earlier than others that did not have the twelve links, the fact remains that as of now, the consensus is that we can only trace back the four nikāyas as the group of earliest sources. Everything else is speculative and tentative. Had I said:

then you may have had a point. But I did not say that.

Again, I did not claim this. I said that these Abhidhamma explanations “are considered [by their exponents]] to be…” I feel that is clear enough in the writing, as I was writing about what the traditional texts say, but now I’ll make it more explicit. There is no doubt that these treatises considered their exegesis to be accurate analyses of the suttas when they say as much. The momentary interpretations not so much, because even when explicit it seems—from what I can guess—that this is considered an expansion of Abhidhamma by the authors.

I did not claim there was. Rather, I said a common thread in the Abhidhamma literature of the schools is using the three time periods to discuss the chain. And this is an expository device for getting a grasp of the links. It’s simply a misunderstanding if people think this is what they limit the chain to mean. It is more significantly and quite commonly broken up into condition and resultant, mirroring kamma and vipāka. And as I said a bit above, the multiple lifetime model is more like an infinite regression stuck in place with defilements of the mind and dismantled with the end of craving.

Again, I was discussing the Abhidhamma exegesis. That said, and I’ll limit myself here, there is a common stock passage in the discourses that comes up in relation to dependent arising or samsāra. It goes:

Avijjānīvaraṇānaṃ sattānaṃ taṇhāsaṃyojanānaṃ sandhāvataṃ saṃsarataṃ.

Here, two roots are mentioned. One craving, the other ignorance. The image of craving being a ‘root’ is common in Early Buddhist poetry, and we also see ignorance or unknowing referred to as a ‘root.’ There are also several discourses where ignorance is said to have ‘no known beginning,’ and others were craving is said to have no known beginning. There have also been many scholars who believe that there are separate chains combined to form the 12 links total, and one of the main ideas is between 1-7 and and 8-12. The first starts with ignorance and goes up to contact/vedanā. The other starts with craving and goes up to aging-and-death. One reading is that the former sequence is essentially just filling in how contact, feeling, etc. arises to be a condition for craving in more detail, which is assumed when the discourses say craving is the condition for continued existence/rebirth. The idea being that feeling is a result of existing or being born, and craving emerges from it to continue the cycle. But that’s enough for now.

Joseph, I quoted a reference to momentary interpretations of the Jñānaprasthāna in the original post. I’ve already mentioned here that small-scale interpretations exist in the early schools. The difference, as I said before, is that these same texts and schools do not deny what they consider to be in the discourses, that is, a conditional chain for the process of rebirth. They present the other chains as additional analyses and tools, not alternatives that dispose of the rebirth explanation. This has all been made clear in my other posts here.

All of this was already covered, and not what I was referring to.

I was explicit not to claim this in the posts before. Though the parallel chains is more my rough summary of what I take the suttas to present that also fits generally with how the Abhidhamma schools later analyzed it, with room for details like ‘bhava’ being divided into two kinds or consciousness sometimes being seen as bridging both prior conditions and resultants.

And I was explicit that this did happen before.

I think we’ve discussed enough now and cleared this up sufficiently. I probably won’t be responding further.


Hi Ajahn,

That seems reasonable, indeed. The main question is what tesaṁ tesaṁ dhammānaṁ refers to. In support of your interpretation, the Abhidhamma (in its explanation of the sutta) speaks of catuvokārabhavo and pañcavokārabhavo: existence with four/five constituents, referring to the khandhas apparently. Then it explains the sutta interpretation with five khandhas, and the Ahidhamma interpretation with four.

But on the other hand… What made me interpret the Abhidhamma explanation as momentary (apart from just believing others who said so :smiley: ), is that it leaves out some parts of the sutta definitions. Compare the following:

First the sutta definition found in the Abhidhamma (Vb6), with the bold parts are unique to this sutta explanation, missing in the Abhidhamma explanation:

The Abhidhamma definition, with the bold parts unique to the Abhidhamma definition, missing in the Abhidhamma’s explanation of the sutta interpretation:

It seems like the Abhidhamma left out the factors that most explicitly refer to rebirth. For example, maccu (‘death’) and jīvitindriyassupacchedo (‘cutting off the life faculty’), as well as others. Is this just because it leaves out rūpa in its explanation of rebirth? Or does it leave them out because it doesn’t intend to teach rebirth?

It seems like death and cutting off of the life faculty will still occur in the formless realms. Since these are left out, clearly intentionally, that may be because the Abhidhamma explanation is not about rebirth. (?)

Also interesting is that the Abhidhamma explanation includes aniccatā, which may tend towards a momentary explanation too.

Still, the Abhidhamma does include āyuno saṁhāni (‘the dwindling life’) in its definition of ‘jarā’ (‘old age/decay(?)’), and I find it hard to interpret this as a momentary thing (though perhaps it is possible).

Either way, even if the Abhidhamma taught a momentary process, then it still does not neglect the rebirth interpretation, of course. Quit the contrary: it clarifies that this is the interpretation of the sutta. Not only does it effectively call it “the sutta interpretation”; also because of the inclusion of such terms as upapatti, which are not found in the sutta definition of bhava.

Same here. :slight_smile:


Excuse my cluelessness here, but could someone clarify what ‘momentary’ means here when describing the nidanas?

  1. Lasting for only a moment.
  2. Occurring or present at every moment




Hi Stephen. I believe it can be taken in both ways. It depends on the context. Here I think the question about the Abhidhamma is more broad, just asking if any kind of momentariness is relevant.

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