Is the list of the twelve nidanas late?

Javier - The legend here is that the Buddha drew this ‘Wheel of Life’ schematic into the sand to simplify this teaching. Judging by your question and the nature of the replies, it seems that you are hell bent on turning this central teaching into yet another scholastic debacle!

Well, I think that’s a pretty unfair and uncharitable assessment of what is just one person’s attempt to understand something.


I just realized that this might not work because a lot of suttas with the formula have an abbreviated version of it.

For example SN 12.15 has just "‘Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness. … That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. "


That’s possible, but I assume the translators abbreviate when they refer to suttas which are immediately preceding - which is likely in SN 12. If you find a few examples outside of SN 12 I will gladly do a more detailed search.

Do you need to study astronomy and its history to know that it is hot standing out in the midday sun? What I am reacting to is the academic’s approach to the Buddha’s Dhamma; whereas it is the PRACTICE that matters. Isn’t Dependent Origination as laid out in the Suttas enough? Isn’t that all you need to know so that your life will benefit from the Buddha’s great insight? Launching a ‘History of Ideas’ type investigation will never help you to become a better person which - after all - is the correct yardstick by means of which one can assess the true value of the Buddha Dhamma.

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Dear venerable @Phraalan please understand this forum exists exactly for, among other things, these things to be discussed.

No one is saying that practice doesn’t matter so be mindful of straw men.

If the discussion is to you useless or simply unpleasant you can mute it (I do it all the time!).

And if you want to encourage people to maybe not give too much thought to speculative doubts then patience, kindness and compassion is the way to get that message across.

With reverence and respect :anjal:


It sounds like you have great devotion the the Triple Gem and that’s wonderful. Others here do too. Many of the efforts on this site are careful considerations to carefully sort out what the Buddha most likely actually said and what might have been added to the canon by later traditions. But just because something may have come later doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true or valuable and certainly nobody here is saying that. We owe tremendous gratitude to the Buddhist scholars who investigate and discuss these delicate matters. They do it because the Dhamma is priceless to them too.

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The versions of the nidanas that I find most interesting are those in which it’s said that namarupa gives rise to vinnana and vinnana gives rise to namarupa. For example in DN14: “Name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form.” The list then continues with “The six sense fields are conditions for contact…” and so on, as usual.

Elsewhere namarupa and vinnana are described as being like two bundles of reeds supporting each other.

It seems more likely to me that this is an earlier version of the nidanas, that was later expanded.

I interpret this closed loop of namarupa-vinnana in the following way:

  • vinnana is not “consciousness” as an ethically neutral term. It’s discriminating consciousness. It separates and divides. One of the primary separations is into self and other, which is where our problems begin. (PED: "Vi (indecl.) [prefix, resting on Idg. ṷi “two,” as connotation of duality or separation.)

  • Namarupa has the pre-Buddhist meaning of our experience of the world divided into supposedly separate entities (rupa), which are named (nama).

  • This pair (namarupa and vinnana) supports and reinforces each other, because the mind that separates and discriminates, especially into self and other, is continually experiencing self and other, and so it naturally continues its separating and discriminating activities.

  • We’re told (also in DN 14) that “This consciousness turns back from name and form, and doesn’t go beyond that.” In other words this is a closed loop. Vinnana sees a world of namarupa and, living within it, can’t conceive of anything else.

The rest of the list — the six sense fields, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age and death — follows from this. I suspect, like Javier, that birth, old age, and death, were originally one item, standing for “dukkha” — “this entire mass of suffering” — so that the list was not originally about death and rebirth, but was simply laying out how suffering comes to be.

I take the rest of the list to be an elaboration or a working out of how suffering comes to arise in a mind that functions dualistically.

So perhaps the nidanas had originally nothing to do explicitly with rebirth, but were a teaching on how we’re trapped in an illusory sense of duality, and how living in that illusory sense of duality causes us suffering.

And perhaps this list just happened to lend itself to being seen in terms of rebirth. Just stick a couple of extra nidanas at the beginning to represent a previous life, separate out examples of dukkha (birth and death) and see birth as being a future birth, and you now have the standard 12-step model explaining the cycle of birth and death over three lives. Perhaps there were social and religious reasons for why monks needed a fuller explanation of rebirth. I don’t know. I’m just trying to make sense of things in the scriptures that don’t entirely satisfy me.


I’ve always considered namarupa/vinnana to really stand out in the 12 nidanas.

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It’s that way in Chinese Agamas, too. I searched for the standard translation of ignorance and looked at each passage quickly. It was luckily not too large of a dataset. There’s definitely an art to text search, finding the right expression that isn’t prohibitively common and yet captures all the cases that’s being searched for.


A few things strike me about this. One is that the 12 nidanas are typically seen as forming a cycle (as in the image of the Wheel of Life). And yet namarupa-vinnana is itself is described as a cycle (explained further, in terms of the origination of suffering in the rest of the nidanas).

Also, the traditional interpretation of namarupa meaning “body and mind” just isn’t at all satisfying to me. There are plenty of words for “mind” in Buddhism, and “nama” is not typically used that way. The term namarupa isn’t one the Buddha invented, and its existing use at that time was to point to the differentiation of a nondual world into dualities (this v. that).

If vinnana is not neutral but is a mental tendency to separate and discriminate, then what it means for vinnana to cease to exist is very different compared to when we think of vinnana as a neutral process (simply the faculty by which we are conscious).

(Also I realized I’d been typing Skt. vijnana above so I corrected that!)


Here’s an interesting sutta on nama:

“What oppresses everything?
What is nothing bigger than?
What is the one thing
that has everything under its sway?”

“Name oppresses everything.
Nothing’s bigger than name.
Name is the one thing
that has everything under its sway.”


Thank you Gabriel. Please understand that during my more than 30 years in Thailand I have watched as the Sangha has drifted away from the practice of the Buddha’s Dhamma to concerning itself with Pali study and other purely academic matters. In fact following the death of my own Dhamma Father a couple of years ago, there is now no competent meditation teacher still alive up here in the North. When I first came here we were spoiled for choice; but now academic study has become the vogue. Perhaps my strength of feeling on this issue moves me to come across rather bluntly. No offence is meant; but I do regret seeing the essence of the Dhamma reduced to theoretical or historical speculation and opinion.


Neither “body and mind” or “materiality and mentality” are acceptable translations to me. I’ve understood namarupa to be a Vedic term that the Buddha redefined to shine light on the conditioning of the aggregate vinnana and it’s receprocal conditioning of the 5 aspects of namarupa, a loop which strengthens the clinging to a permanent self.

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Have you read Roderick Bucknell’s essay on the development of DO? He argues (and cites others who have done this as well) that namarupa originally referred to the six sense objects, not to “mind and body”.

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If I’m understanding you correctly, that’s how I see things too.

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SN 12.2 reads: “And what are name and form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention. This is called name. The four primary elements, and form derived from the four primary elements. This is called form. Such is name and such is form. These are called name and form.”

MN 9 reads: “Might there be another way to describe a noble disciple?”

“There might, reverends. A noble disciple understands name and form, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation … But what are name and form? What is their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention—this is called name. The four primary elements, and form derived from the four primary elements—this is called form. Such is name and such is form. This is called name and form. Name and form originate from consciousness. Name and form cease when consciousness ceases. The practice that leads to the cessation of name and form is simply this noble eightfold path …”


I haven’t, but I’ll definitely work on tracking it down. Thanks.

I think it is this one: (PDF) Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine | Roderick S Bucknell -


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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