Is the list of the twelve nidanas late?

I was recently looking through the wikipedia article for paṭiccasamuppāda. There’s a lot of content in there about how certain scholars think that the famous 12 nidanas are late. For example:

According to Frauwallner, the twelvefold chain is a combination of two lists. Originally, the Buddha explained the appearance of dukkha from tanha, “thirst,” craving. This is explained and described in the second part, from tanha on forwards. Later on, under influence of concurring systems, the Buddha incorporated avijja, “ignorance,” as a cause of suffering into his system. This is described in the first part, which describes the entry of vijnana into the womb, where the embryo develops.[6] Frauwallner notes that “the purely mechanical mixing of both the two parts of the causal chain is remarkable and enigmatical.” Noting that “contradictory thoughts stand directly near one another in the oldest Buddhistic ideas” many times, Frauwallner explains this as a “deficiency in systematization, the inability to mix different views and principles into a great unity.”[90]

According to Schumann, the twelvefold chain is a later composition by monks, consisting of three shorter lists. These lists may have encompassed nidana 1–4, 5–8, and 8-12. The progress of this composition can be traced in various steps in the canon.[91]

Lambert Schmitthausen argues that the twelve-fold list is a synthesis from three previous lists, arguing that the three lifetimes-interpretation is an unintended consequence of this synthesis.[92][note 31]

Roderick S. Bucknell analysed four versions of the twelve nidanas, to explain the existence of various versions of the pratitya-samutpada sequence. The twevefold version is the “standard version,” in which vijnana refers to sensual consciousness.[note 32] According to Bucknell, the “standard version” of the twelve nidanas developed out of an ancestor version, which in turn was derived from two different versions, in which vijnana is differently explained.[8]

According to Gombrich, following Frauwallner,[note 35] the twelve-fold list is a combination of two previous lists, the second list beginning with tanha, “thirst,” the cause of suffering as described in the second Noble Truth".[16] The first list consists of the first four nidanas, which parody the Vedic-Brahmanic cosmogony, as described by Jurewicz.[note 36] According to Gombrich, the two lists were combined, resulting in contradictions in its negative version.[16][note 37]

The article doesn’t list any particular reasons why these authors think these things, it just states their opinions. I haven’t gone down the rabbit hole (yet) of reading all the sources that are cited here. I was just wondering what folks here thought about this. I have never thought of the 12 links as particularly late, and they are all over the place. I of course was aware of the alternative versions which are shorter, but I just thought they were alternative presentations given because these shorter versions were useful.

But apparently a lot of well known scholars think that the shorter lists indicate an evolution of a shorter ancient list to the 12 links.

Also, I was wondering if anyone knows of any publications that discuss this and argue against the idea that the 12 links are a late composite list. Wiki does not list any sources that have disagreed with this thesis. As such, anyone who reads this article will come away with the idea that the list is late and that’s that.


These discussions might be of interest. I particularly liked Ven Anālayo’s discussion of different possible interpretations linked to here:
Here’s an old discussion based on Gombrich’s book and Jurewicz’s paper:


According to the Pali and Chinese versions of Nidana Samyutta, Choong Mun-keat presents his findings regarding different accounts and the teaching of arising by causal condition (paṭiccasamuppāda):

Pages 204-205 from the Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (118.5 KB)


I don’t have any academic arguments about it on hand, but I do wonder whether there was a practical limit to how long these lists could be during the oral tradition, and that limit was alleviated when writing became common. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, for instance, only goes to the elevens even though there’s a couple different twelves that can be found among the sutras as they exist today. The mātṛka sutras only go up to ten-item lists. It’d stand to reason that if a book of elevens could be constructed of non-standard lists, a book of twelves could have been added, too, but it wasn’t. These long lists that hit 10+ items often make sense as later compilations or composites of smaller ones since we can often find them in other sutras.


What are the “mātṛka sutras”?

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They are the sutras that contain compilations of lists like the Dasuttara Sutta (DN 34) and Sangiti Sutta (DN 33). They are generally considered the early beginnings of Abhidhamma.


I would add Hajime Nakamura’s 'The Theory of ‘Dependent Originationi n its Incipient Stage’ (1980). He bases his proto-DO on the Suttanipata.


These long lists that hit 10+ items often make sense as later compilations or composites of smaller ones since we can often find them in other sutras.

Maybe? But its also likely that you could have a longer list as the original that split off into smaller ones (which appear in a smaller number of suttas than the 12 nidana list). I mean, 12 is not significantly much larger than 11 (and indeed, the last two factors, birth and death, form a pair, indicating dukkha, and so its not that hard to remember them together as “birth-and-death”). Maybe it was originally eleven, but then later birth and death was seen as two separate elements.

Also, maybe the 12 nidana list is a composite, but this does not necessarily mean it is a late composite. After all, the Buddha seems to have played around with lists and their expansion all the time. The four noble truths, if expanded, includes way more elements than the 12 nidanas. Same with the 37 aids to awakening.

It just sounds highly speculative to say it is late given how common the list is across the early sources.


Has anyone looked into how common the 12-DO actually is?

  • In the whole Anguttara for example only twice: AN 3.61, AN 10.92
  • In the Majjhima thrice: MN 9, MN 38, MN 115
  • And in the Samyutta I haven’t found a single case outside of SN 12
  • Also in the Digha I couldn’t find an example for the “whole” DO with 12 limbs

Please check again if I missed any, which is quite possible. If not, then the 12 DO is a doctrine of SN 12, and not much more.


Hmm. It’s interesting to look into things we take for granted. I’ve never really thought about it, either. However, doing a little follow-up on Gabriel’s search, I’m seeing a pattern: There are more occurrences in the Agamas for the twelve links, but not many of them have any parallels in Pali.

  • DA 1 (DN 14) has it in verses that don’t occur in Pali.
  • MA 55, 62, 148, and 222 have it, but either the sutras don’t have Pali parallels, or the list doesn’t occur in the Pali version. MA 181 and 201 are the only two that match the Pali occurrences of the list.
  • EA has five sutras (EA 37.7, 38.4, 46.3, 49.5, and 51.8) with the list. Four of them are parallels with suttas in SN 12.
  • SA 3 is parallel with SN 12. There’s a couple other occurrences outside of SA 3, but they don’t have Pali parallels

So, overall, this does look like something that grew in popularity at least after the canons had diverged, given the lack of parallels outside of SA 3/SN 12 and a couple MA/MN sutras.


Interesting, what are your thoughts on what the earliest version may have looked like?

Woah, I definitely thought it was way more than this. What were you searching for exactly? Analayo states in his recent essay on Dependent origination (2020) that 12 link formula is the most common in the canon. I’ll have to look further into this …

I took a limb which I thought is found mostly in the DO, and not much outside. I chose namarupa, which otherwise is not an important concept in the suttas. Then I just did a detailed search in the nikayas with the according translation, i.e. ‘mentality-materiality’ (MN Bodhi), ‘name-and-form’ (AN & SN Bodhi), and ‘name and form’ (DN Sujato).

So it’s not as precise as I would usually do a full pali search, but I think a decent quick approximation.


If you count the Śālistamba Sūtra as early then you can count that one too. Also, seeing as how dependent origination is an expansion of the 4 noble truths shouldn’t they also be counted?

I don’t know. I haven’t studied it closely. It’d obviously take more time to look at all the variations. It’s not uncommon for the Agamas to have many permutations of related lists that get combined into a bigger one. Which is older? I don’t know. It seems very similar to the case of the ten powers of the Tathagata. There’s many permutations in the Agamas and Nikayas, but the ten powers became the one everyone cites by the time Mahayana sutras were translated to Chinese. The twelve links look like that, too.

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Counting the 4NT suttas would, of course, drastically lower the ratio of suttas with 12 nidanas to suttas with less than 12…

A very popular work those years was the paper you quoted , “Playing With Fire: The pratiyasamutpada from the perspective of Vedic Thought” from Joanna Jurewicz.

The author pointed to interesting parallelisms or synchrony between classifications from the Vedic thought and the Buddhist formulation. And from here it could be understood like a more underlying direct influence or also like a comfortable cognitive inheritance to structure a real new thing. As happens with The Seven Sages of Greece, The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and etcetera.

Thanks, I think that’s the way I’m beginning to see the 12 links too, as just one explanation of DO that may or may not be late, but definitely was not as central as it later became.

However, Choong Mun-keat in The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (1999) states that the five factors (from (1) “craving” to (5) the dukkha) of the twelve nidanas are the “most concise formula corresponds directly to two of the four noble truths”:

“conditioned genesis does not always have twelve factors in early Buddhist texts. There also exist accounts of it which list five factors, eight, nine, ten, or eleven factors, as well as the usual twelve factors. The statement of conditioned genesis with just five factors runs: (1) craving, (2) attachment, (3) becoming, (4) birth, and (5) “aging-and­ death, along with grief, lamentation, pain, depression and despair.” This most concise formula corresponds directly to two of the four noble truths, since (5) “aging-and-death, along with grief, lamentation, pain, depression and despair” is suffering (first truth), and (1) craving (taṇhā) is the origin of suffering (second truth). Since craving is itself a conditioned phenomenon, the series of causes can be extended to as many as twelve factors.” (pp. 18-19).
Pages 18-19 from The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (1.0 MB)


Ultimately, we need to understand all teachings of the Buddha within ourselves (The ‘Samditthiko’ nature of the dhamma). The following book helped me understand the process of dependent origination (as going through the 12 links – rather, than as three lifetimes):