Is the list of the twelve nidanas late?

I personally haven’t seen that phrase used in Sanskrit or Chinese literature. What I have seen is dvādaśāṅga-pratītyasamutpāda, which in Pāli would be ‘dvādasaṅga-paṭiccasamuppāda.’ That is, “twelve factored dependent arising.”

And yes, the phrase does appear late. It never occurs in the Pāḷi sutta-piṭaka. I think something like it occurs at DĀ 13 in Chinese, but it seems pretty clear there that there is an elaboration from the original in the wording. Obviously this isn’t conclusive, but to me it seems extremely likely.

In the commentaries, we find “dvādasaṅgaṁ-paṭiccasamuppādaṁ” a few times, as well as “dvādasaṅgapaccayavaṭṭa” (the twelve-factored round of conditions" and “dvādasaṅgaṁ bhavacakkaṁ” (the twelve-factored wheel of existence").

It looks like there is a line in the Visuddhimagga which uses the phrase “dvādasa paṭiccasamuppādaṅgāni,” i.e. the twelve dependent arising factors. Same words, different order of compounding. There are a handful of occurrences in the commentarial literature using the phrase “paṭiccasamuppādaṅgāni,” and I see occasional use of “dvādasaṅgāni” as well.

I may be missing some cases.


Sometimes there are 12 DO factors, sometimes fewer. It seems impossible to say whether the Buddha taught multiple lists of factors to different audiences, or different versions of lists were added later, etc.
But ultimately, it’s the concept of DO, not the specific lists that’s important.

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.

Buddha has taught for 45 years. It is not inconceivable that he has modified his approach to teaching paṭiccasamuppāda over all those years to diverse people.

Later or not, IMHO is irrelevant. What is relevant is:

  1. if it is Dhamma
  2. if it personally helpful for YOU and at THIS time.
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Thank you.

What I was looking for was the earliest attested example of nidāna in the sense of a DO factor, and whether it appears as such in the suttas. We use it so frequently in that sense these days that I just took it for granted that it was canonical or even sutta-based. According to what you said, though–and it kind of feels a little more plausible–the traditional term was aṅga rather than nidāṅa.

Perhaps have a look at Digha Nikaya 15, the Mahā Nidāna Sutta. The word appears there quite a lot.

Also see Anguttara Nikaya book of 3s, ‘Nidāna sutta’, for instance.

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In Chinese, the term 十二因緣 is found in DA, SA, and EA a handful of times, and 十二緣起 occurs once in SA. 十二支緣起 is probably the most literal translation, which is found in Xuanzang’s translations. None of them are very common terms, though. The “twelves” are conspicuously missing from texts like the Sangiti Sutra, as I think we mentioned in the discussion a couple years ago, which is to me one of the main arguments against it being an early teaching. There’s an elevens section in AN and EA but no twelves. And texts like the Sangiti only go up to tens. Of course, that doesn’t make it illegitimate, just not the earliest teaching on dependent origination.

On the other hand, there was a tradition that AN/EA originally went all the way up to the hundreds, but most of it was subsequently lost. Even in 400 AD, Buddhists were aware of a loss of texts, apparently, or assumed that it had happened.


My first point would be: If it is true. Because if it is, the nidanas as teaching element can be replaced with another teaching element. The age of this particular teaching element is then without significance.

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Thank you.

Yes, but, unfortunately, nowhere in any of those texts you referred to me does the word nidāṅa carry the apparently more modern meaning of the factors of DO.

I’m looking specifically for that meaning, which doesn’t seem to exist in the early discourses.

Thank you @cdpatton.

My thoughts are that…

緣起 is surely the equivalent of paṭiccasamuppāda, so that 十二緣起, while communicating the same idea as *dvādasaṅgapaṭiccasamuppāda, does so without the operative “measure word,” so to speak.

And, while 十二因緣 probably could be argued for (i.e., as signifying dvādasa [十二] nidāna [因] paṭiccasamuppāda [緣 ]), it fails to convince, I fear. Moreover, I could think of several far more persuasive alternate readings just off the top of my head.

And, as you know better than I, 支 is, generally speaking, a translation for aṅga, as we can justifiably assume it to be here, I think.

No, alas, I have to face facts: nidāna does not derive from the discourse strata of the early texts (if that even has any real historical merit as a statement).

That should maybe not come as a surprise. Part of academic scholarship holds that the historical Buddha only taught the middle way plus the jhanas. Almost the entire canon of EBT would be later elaborations, then. Doctrine would have mainly be developed under pressure from the other Indian schools.

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Interesting. Pray tell.

(With sources!)

These are all from the same Wikipedia article.

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta [note 16] is regarded by the Buddhist tradition as the first discourse of the Buddha.[99] Scholars have noted some persistent problems with this view.[100] Originally the text may only have pointed at “the middle way” as being the core of the Buddha’s teaching,[99] which pointed to the practice of dhyana .[52] This basic term may have been extended with descriptions of the eightfold path,[52] itself a condensation of a longer sequence.[101] Some scholars believe that under pressure from developments in Indian religiosity, which began to see “liberating insight” as the essence of moksha ,[102] the four noble truths were then added as a description of the Buddha’s “liberating insight”.[99]

According to Tilmann Vetter, the description of the Buddhist path may initially have been as simple as the term “the middle way”.[52] In time, this short description was elaborated, resulting in the description of the eightfold path.[52] Vetter and Bucknell both note that longer descriptions of “the path” can be found, which can be condensed into the Noble Eightfold Path.[52][101]

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Hi knotty. Have you done a search on DPR or SuttaCentral? “Nidāna” is often used as a synonym of paccaya, hetu, etc. in the early texts. Here is one example from the Mahānidāna Sutta:

“That’s why this is the cause, source, origin, and reason of old age and death, namely rebirth. “Tasmātihānanda, eseva hetu etaṁ nidānaṁ esa samudayo esa paccayo jarāmaraṇassa, yadidaṁ jāti.

So here, jāti is said to be a nidāna. As are other links.

Certainly it’s not a major term though, because usually the discourses speak more through exact examples in these cases I think.

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Yes, I referred the poster to this sutta but was told there is a contemporary usage different from this.

(It’s not clear to me what the contemporary meaning is)

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No, I haven’t.

I’m actually not looking for the term nidāna itself, or to substantiate its meaning in any way, but rather for its earliest occurrence in what would be the equivalent of the compound term dvādaśāṅga-pratītyasamutpāda/dvādasaṅga-paṭiccasamuppāda. While, yes, I agree, the terms presented in parallel like that is evidence of their synonymity (which is, presumably, the origin of the term “twelve nidānas”), it’s not really what I’m looking for.

I may have found it, though, in T 184, which @cdpatton has kindly helped me identify as a translation of the Mahāvastu:


I have good reason to suspect that the 本 of 十二本 above is a translation of nidāna, which would make this an attested, pre-modern occurrence of the phrase, “twelve nidānas,” which is what I was looking for.

Thank you very much, @cdpatton and @Vaddha, and all others, for your assistance in this matter!

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