Is the list of the twelve nidanas late?

I’ve just been reading Choong’s The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism (2000) and he says:

In both versions, discourses that list twelve factors are far more frequent than ones listing other numbers of factors, and they are widely distributed. Clearly, for the teaching of arising by causal condition, the form with twelve factors is the representative formulation. It can therefore justifiably be called the “usual” or “full” sequence. p. 169

Here’s the note that accompanies this sentence

The following are just a few examples: SN 12. 1-2: SN ii, pp. 1-4, and their counterpart SA 298: T 2, p. 85a-b (CSA ii, pp. 38-39); SN 12. 20: SN ii, pp. 25-26, and its counterpart SA 296 (cf. SA 299): T 2, pp. 84b, 85b (CSA ii, pp. 35, 40); SN 12. 15: SN ii, p. 17, and its counterpart SA 301: T 2, pp. 85c-86a (CSA ii, p. 41); SN 12. 16: SN ii, p. 18, and its counterparts SA 363-365: T 2, pp. 100c-101a (CSA ii, pp. 80-81).

Ouch, he’s mostly just citing SN 12. But surely he can’t be totally wrong that the 12 nidana sequence is the most widespread? (I say this because I’ve read others make the same claim as well)

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Thanks. I found a link to it on the Wikipedia page.

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Indeed, but there are other passages cited by Bucknell to support his thesis. I suggest taking a look at that essay (even if it is a bit…dense).

IMO it’s a nice effort, but it’s a bit too contrived for my tastes.

The way i see it, I suspect that even if the 12 links are composite, the lists and ideas found in them are all early. There’s no indication they aren’t. Passages describing dependent origination and consciousness entering into the womb or being reborn are all found in the different canons.

There’s also no indication that dependent origination wasn’t closely tied to rebirth from the beginning (despite all modern protestations and theorizing). It’s pretty clear rebirth and suffering are deeply intertwined ideas that were always part of early Buddhism.

Regarding namarupa, i just don’t know for sure. It’s certainly a multivalent term. Maybe it meant different things.


You might want to check that wiki page again, I just made some pretty substantive edits.

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All of his Pali examples are from SN 12. I think it’s certainly true that numerically the 12-DO is the most frequent one, but personally I wouldn’t make much of it if the majority of them is in SN 12. There are many variations, and maybe it was more about the principle of ‘Y happens based on X’ than about a fixed series of limbs. Who knows. If we exclude the first limbs and start for example with nama-rupa and end with upadana we probably cover the vast majority of variants.

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Yes I agree it’s just one of many versions, and what matters most is the basic principle. But I still think that since it’s the most common overall and since it was seen as the most important by all later traditions, that has to count for something vis a vis it’s authenticity.

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I love your edits to the Wiki page on namarupa. It was pretty bad before and now it reflects what the suttas say. With one exception I think left over from the original entry:

"Namarupa are also referred to as the five skandhas, “the psycho-physical organism”, “mind-and-matter,” and “mentality-and-materiality”.

This cannot be. to quote Analayo in Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research:

"In the context of dependent arising, an understanding of name as including consciousness, such as found in later tradition, would not work. On such a reading, the reciprocal conditional relationship between consciousness and name-and-form would result in presenting consciousness as self-conditioning.

Still working on that article. It’s hard getting things published without a revert on certain articles, and this is one of them. I’m kind of going through a back and forth with other editors on it. It’s pretty frustrating! But that’s Wikipedia.

According to Bucknell, the Samyukta Agama has a different definition for nama:

  • feeling/vedana
  • perception/sañña
  • activities/sankhara
  • consciousness/vinnana

I get the sense that early Buddhists (post the Buddha) were unsure what “nama” was in this context, but felt the need to define it as something.

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Thanks for doing that. I hadn’t actually read the page — just searched for the Bucknell reference. But I’ll look it over when I have a chance. Probably next week, since I’m leading a workshop this weekend.

About the nature of nāma-rūpa, and its relationship to consciousness and the six sense spheres, the following pages 184-188 (on SN 12.19 and SA 294) from Choong Mun-keat’s book may be useful for understanding, and for the Wikipedia website. Pages 184-188 from the-fundamental-teachings-of-early-buddhism_choong-mun-keat 2000.pdf (357.3 KB)

Also, I think it will be useful if the different numbers of factors of nidāna found particularly in SN 12 and its SA version (cf. pp. 169-192 in the above-mentioned book) are mentioned in the Wiki page. This is because the collection is mainly on Nidāna “Causal Condition” (which also has its historical importance in terms of the formation of EBTs; see pp. 7-11 in the above-mentioned book, and also Choong’s “Ācāriya Buddhaghosa and Master Yinshun 印順 on the Three-aṅga Structure of Early Buddhist Texts” in Research on the Saṃyukta-āgama (Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, Research Series 8; edited by Dhammadinnā), Taiwan: Dharma Drum Corporation, August 2020, pp. 883-932).


Hi there, I am not sure I understood the argument but wouldn’t it be expected that those who collected sutas for the 12th vagga of the SN would have as much as possible of the material related to 12 nidanas in it? :man_shrugging:t4:

I mean… it would have sounded as great idea and opportunity to help future students finding stuff related to these twelve aspects or elements of dependent origination in the twelveth book of the collection of the most doctrinal of the Nikayas. No? :thinking:

The Book of Causation

The Book of Causation (Nidānavagga) is the second of the five books of the Linked Discourses. It is named after the first and longest section, the Nidāna Saṁyutta. This deals with causation through the core Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, which explains how rebirth happens without a soul. The next three saṁyuttas can be seen as appendices to the Book of Causation, dealing with the elimination of the suffering of transmigration (SN 13), various sets of conditioned elements (SN 14), and the unknowability of the extent of transmigration (SN 15). The remaining six saṁyuttas are not related thematically. Instead, they are mostly grouped by person rather than subject.

The theme of causation runs through all the Buddha’s teaching. We find it in contexts such as meditation practice, societal ills, biological evolution, medicine, psychological stress, and many more. However, when we refer to dependent origination we are not speaking about a general principle of causality—although such a principle is presented at SN 12.21—but of a specific series of conditional links laying bare how suffering originates and how it ends. As such, it is an extended treatment of the second and third noble truths (SN 12.27). It integrates psychological and existential aspects of suffering, showing how, when bound by craving, we make choices that bind us to transmigrating into future lives (SN 12.38). The reason why we have not escaped the process of rebirth is that we do not understand dependent origination (SN 12.60). Thus one of the core purposes of the teaching is to explain how rebirth takes place without speaking in terms of “me” or “mine” (SN 12.37).

It is a deeply human need to want to understand how things came to be. Virtually every religious or spiritual path feels the need to offer some kind of explanation of where this world came from and what is our place in it. Such creation myths are found all over the world, and bear striking resemblances. They speak of a time when the world was formless, covered in a watery darkness, before light appeared and the world took shape. In the usual way of myths, these stories work at multiple levels, reflecting both the physical evolution of the planet (macrocosm) and the growth of an individual in the womb (microcosm).

Long before the Buddha, the Nasadiya Sukta of the Ṛg Veda (10.129) told the story of creation in a radically new way. It drew upon the motifs of the classic creation myth—water, darkness, formlessness—but showed their development with a new emphasis on desire and agency. Creation evolved not from divine decree, but due to the energies found within. And we cannot know what came before this process; even the highest God came afterwards.


Thank you for that. Does anyone know why SA294 doesn’t appear on SuttaCentral, whereas SA293 and 295, translated by Choong Mun-keat, do? SuttaCentral

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Yes. It’s the relative absence of the 12 nidana list elsewhere that’s interesting. It’s such a central teaching in later times, we’d expect it to be widespread in the Nikayas and Agamas like other central teachings like the four jhanas, but it’s not. Of course, there’s different ways to think about it. I think maybe it grew in popularity over time.

I looked closer at the parallel of [Edit: DN 15] in the Dirgha Agama today (I’m planning to translate it this month), and I discovered that it does have the standard 12 links rather than this non-standard list found in DN 14. Except for one detail: It has delusion as the first condition rather than ignorance (so it escaped the search criteria I used earlier in the thread).

Here’s an even more interesting thing: I looked at an alternate translation by Anshigao, who was one of the earliest translators of sutras to Chinese during the 2nd c. CE. His version of the sutra has a five link dependent origination of birth and death: Craving, clinging, existence, birth, and old age & death. That must be the “older” five link list the academics are referring to.

Now, there are two other versions of this sutra in Chinese: The Sarvastivadins have it in the Madhyama Agama rather than the Dirgha Agama, and we have an alternate translation of that sutra, too.

MA 97, which was translated a few centuries later during the 4th c. CE agrees with Anshigao’s version: It only goes back to craving and stops. it’s another five link dependent origination list. Now, it’s getting kind of interesting. We may be seeing a differences in sectarian canons, supposing that Anshigao was translating a Sarvastivada sutra.

Finally, we have an alternate translation of MA 97 from very late times: the 9th or 10th century. Seems uninteresting, being so late in date. Well it isn’t, because guess what? It reads just like the Theravada version of the Mahanidana sutra! It has the non-standard ending of namarupa > vijnana > namarupa.

Really, this stuff is enough to make a person shake their head, to be honest. There’s many ways to try to understand it: Sectarian differences could account for these three versions. But we could also imagine that the five links was the oldest list, since it’s in the oldest translation, and the list that has namarupa twice is a late corruption since it’s in the latest Chinese translation. That’d place the Theravada version as very late in date as well! Or, maybe the translators of that late version were translating the Theravada version?


As mentioned earlier, Choong in The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (pp. 18-9)considers the five is the “most concise formula corresponds directly to two of the four noble truths”, but not the “older”. Is the list of the twelve nidanas late? - #19 by thomaslaw

What does he cite in note 67 on the five item list? If he’s only working with SA, then that isn’t a way to date the different lists. I’ve just discussed versions of the same sutra that date between the 2nd c. CE and the 10th c. CE. But, as I said, it could also be that we’re seeing three different sectarian version. The uncertainty is created by the fact that Chinese translators don’t document which canon they are translating.


Fascinating discussions. But the 12-factor versions exist many times in parallel suttas in both SN and SA - and both SN / SA especially the doctrinal portions are probably among the earliest strata of Buddhist canon - so even if it is late, it can’t be too late.

Reading SN / SA, my impression (but also a wild speculation, since who knows?!) is that Buddha himself probably has taught multiple versions, and the 12-factor ones are probably he taught most towards his later years, and that maybe why SN12 includes multiple versions but more suttas refer to 12 factors.

E.g. in SN 12.65 with the “Old City” simile supposed to be discussed in Savatthi, the version of nidana has consciousness and name-and-form as mutual conditions.


Another idea: maybe DO was like a matika that could be expanded differently according to the inclination of the speaker. We discussed previously how the DO is not in the Anguttara in a 12-book.

Actually, we never find the number 12 associated with the DO at all, as in “There are twelve limbs, bhikkhus, to Dependent Origination. What twelve?..” (Bodhi mentions dvādasaṅga in his introduction, but the term appears not in the suttas and even only twice in the commentaries).

Since so much Dhamma was packed in those nice numbered boxes, maybe there wasn’t an ‘earliest’ version at all and it was a “From this that comes to be” which could be expanded by teachers to their own liking, without a fixed series but with an agreed-upon pool of possible limbs.


One argument that it isn’t late (the Theravada version) would be it seems to preserve a pre-Buddhist Upanishadic understanding of namarupa, namely as a shorthand for “that being over there”. My reading is that the 1st namarupa (designation contact) refers to the Buddha’s own definition of the term, whilst the other namarupa which “grows up” after the descent of consciousness merely means “that being” (in this case, literally name & form). If my reading is correct then the Theravadin one would seem to be older based on the archaic use of namarupa.

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Pre-modern people often counted with their fingers. In most parts of the world, the way of counting with one’s fingers was most commonly 1-5 and 1-5 on each hand. That limitation is also why we use base-10 numerals today.

There is a variation, though, that allows for counting up to 12. The thumb counts the knuckles of the four fingers. So it is a 4 x 3 sequence, just like the 4 truths x 3 turnings = 12 motions.

Later Indian Buddhist texts associate the pratyekabuddhas with the 12 nidanas. Pratyekabuddhas seem to have been popularized around the time of the DA / DN and EA / AN.

The usual formula associates (1) sravakas with the 4 Noble Truths, (2) pratyekabuddhas with the 12 Nidanas, and (3) bodhisattvas with the 6 Paramitas. If the 12 Nidanas are in fact later than the earliest materials, then that sequence would also be chronological.

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