Rebirth Consciousness in the Dependent Origination

Consciousness (viññāṇa) is one of factors in the dependent origination (paticcasamuppada). In the standar formulation of 12 nidanas, consciousness is conditioned by volitional formations (sankhara) and becomes the cause of name-and-form (namarupa). In SN 12.2 consciousness is defined as six classes of cognitive consciousness (i.e, five sense-consciousness and mind-consciousness).

But there is another aspect of consciousness, that is rebirth consciousness, which is indicated in DN 15 and SN 12.38 where DN 15 said this consciousness is “descending into the womb” when a being is being reborn.

My question is: If the rebirth consciousness is base for name-and-form, why is in the definition of SN 12.2 said it as six classes of cognitive consciousness? It is strange that the rebirth consciousness is also functioned as sense-consciousness when the five senses is not yet formed (we know that sense-consciousness is conditioned by sense-bases and its object, e.g from MN 148).


Five senses are a factor of latent tendencies. Even a beings in immaterial and fine material worlds have the latent desire of five mod of sensuality. There is no separate consciousness named rebirth consciousness. It is another name for a given status of one consciousness.

SN12.2 refer to various planes of existences, not only for the human realm.

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Hmmm… that’s the answer from Abhidhammic perspective. I’m not saying that the Abhidhammic perspective is wrong, but I think the concept of consciousness as rebirth consciousness is a late addition. In many early suttas, consciousness is always defined as cognitive consciousness and it depends on sense bases and its objects, whereas rebirth consciousness depends on volitional formations.

Or, perhaps there are two versions of consciousness in the dependent origination…

My understanding has always been that the ‘descent into the womb’ is just a figure of speech that should not be understood literally. The consciousness emerges as soon as there is a sufficient material base for it with a sufficient level of functional sophisticaton (namarupa). However, without consciousness this material base wouldn’t develop any further and would be just a lump of matter. I should emphasize this is just my opinion and it should not be in any way authoritative.

Another opinion I have about rebirth is that there is no single stream of consciousness in the strong sense of viññāṇa transmitted from one life into another: your viññāṇa aggregate dissolves at the end of your lifetime. What is transmitted is in my view rather sankharas. DN 15 says viññāṇa and namarupa are interdependent, and they both certainly depend on the sankharas. However, ‘the ways of descriptions’, i.e. linguistically viable descriptions relatable to our experience cannot go beyond the viññāṇa nidana. It can possibly mean that the way the sankharas work and even exist is not adequately describable with language. This is understandable since they precede both consciousness and functionally organized matter. This could explain why the Buddha warned us against musing too much about the exact workings of the kamma, this problem can not only be insolvable like the three-body problem, but also lack even a suitale apparatus to formulate it. Still, I feel that there is much to discuss on that topic and I will be happy to change my opinion given good argument, so any criticism or suggestions are very mucb appreciated :anjal:

This is a very contentious issue. According to what I have read and heard this is the issue that has polarized the people in to two camps, one saying that DO is a 3 lives interpretation and the other saying it is a one life interpretation. The first group takes “consciousness descends” to mean a beginning of a new life and hence the 3 lives interpretation while the other takes the “consciousness descends” to mean the strong connection between name & form and consciousness.
This has very clearly been explained by Ven K. Nanananda using the example of the two bundles of reeds one of which falls down if other is pulled. To me this explanation makes a lot of sense.
With Metta

I am afraid this is a simile given rather by Ven. Sariputta :grin: Other than that, I don’t really see how a descending consiousness is linguistically connected with the interdependece of consicousness and name-and-form :disappointed: That would be a pretty poor choice of words by the Buddha, if you ask me.

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According to Roderick S. Bucknell, in his Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in Textual Accounts of the Paticca-samuppada Doctrine, there are four versions of dependent origination formulations, i.e., the standard version of 12 nidanas, looped version of Mahanidana Sutta (DN 15 and it’s parallel in the Chinese Agamas), a Sutta-nipata version found in Snp 3.12, and branched version (origination of consciousness depends on sense-bases and its objects) in many other suttas (such as SN 12.43 = SN 35.106 and MN 148).

He said that the loop version is a faulty form of branched version because of oral transmission of the teaching (with assuming that nama-rupa is a totality of six sense objects). The Snp version is an earlier form of standard version which omitted nama-rupa and salayatana. Finally, he concluded that the early version of dependent origination is an ancestor formulation which includes consciousness as sense-consciousness depended on sense-bases and its objects (from branched version) as well as consciousness as rebirth consciousness depended on volitional activities (from Snp version):

In this postulated earlier form of the standard version the arising of vinnana is traced to two different sources: on one hand to the sense organs and their objects (salayatana and nama-rupa), and on the other hand to activities (sankhara), which in their turn are conditioned by ignorance (avijja). The branched version represents the former source, and the Sn version is now seen to represent the other source (activities and ignorance).


You probably know this, but just to clarify for anyone else interested, Ven Nananada is expounding on SN 12.67 the Nalakalapa sutta where the simile of the sheaves of reeds is used. He’s not saying it’s his simile.

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"Very well then, Kotthita my friend, I will give you an analogy; for there are cases where it is through the use of an analogy that intelligent people can understand the meaning of what is being said. It is as if two sheaves of reeds were to stand leaning against one another. In the same way, from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name & form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

“If one were to pull away one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall; if one were to pull away the other, the first one would fall. In the same way, from the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of consciousness, from the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form. From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.”


You are absolutely right. I should have been clearer. In Mahanidana Sutta, Buddha starts the exposition from consciousness and Avijja and Sanskara are omitted.

"“It was said: ‘With consciousness as condition there is mentality-materiality.’

How that is so, Ānanda, should be understood in this way: If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mentality-materiality take shape in the womb?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“If, after descending into the womb, consciousness were to depart, would mentality-materiality be generated into this present state of being?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would mentality-materiality grow up, develop, and reach maturity?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“Therefore, Ānanda, this is the cause, source, origin, and condition for mentality-materiality, namely, consciousness.

“It was said: ‘With mentality-materiality as condition there is consciousness.’ How that is so, Ānanda, should be understood in this way: If consciousness were not to gain a footing in mentality-materiality, would an origination of the mass of suffering—of future birth, aging, and death—be discerned?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“Therefore, Ānanda, this is the cause, source, origin, and condition for consciousness, namely, mentality-materiality.

“It is to this extent, Ānanda, that one can be born, age, and die, pass away and re-arise, to this extent that there is a pathway for designation, to this extent that there is a pathway for language, to this extent that there is a pathway for description, to this extent that there is a sphere for wisdom, to this extent that the round turns for describing this state of being, that is, when there is mentality-materiality together with consciousness"

From the above it should be clear that name & form and consciousness are interdependent and descending consciousness even though it is called relinking since it has a sort of father to son connection it is one of the six types. Here Buddha says “descending” not to indicate that consciousness is equivalent to birth as the 3 life interpretation takes it but to emphasize the dependency of name & form on consciousness and consciousness on name & form.


The key point is on the “nama-rupa” term. If we assume nama-rupa is a complexity of physical and psychological aspect of a being, then the consciousness here refers to rebirth consciousness (and we can apply three life interpretations of dependent origination). If we assume nama-rupa is a totality of six sense-objects (as postulated by Bucknell), then the consciousness here refers to sense-consciousness.

My problem is that I cannot see how in purely linguistic terms the word ‘descending’ emphasizes the interdependence between the namarupa and vinnana. Why is it not said that namarupa descends into the consciousness if this relationship is mutual? It is perfectly possible that the Pali equivalent of ‘descending’ has some cultural significance that I do not perceive, but right now my I am pretty puzzled why the Buddha should have made this rather misleading choice of words to turn our attention to the interdependence of two Nidanas. I mean, okay, it is quite possible you are correct, but what is the linguistic explanation?

Thanks for linking a very interesting work. I gave it a quick read and found it has much to ponder on and definitely deserves a more careful look when I have more time. The comparison with the Sutta Nipata version is especially interesting.

I find Bucknell’s argument about the corruption because of oral transmission a bit unconvincing. It is perfectly sound as it is in the paper, but it blatantly ignores the two-bundle metaphor that Nimal mentioned. This metaphor suits the looped version perfectly, and the looped version itself is pretty ancient as Bucknell notes, so not accounting for Ven. Sariputta’s simile given its close connections with the doctrinal contents of DN 15 devalues Bucknell’s arguments.

There is also a number of lesser issues with the paper that require explanation. So, if namarupa is a totality of six sense objects and not the body, where exactly is the body in the Dependent Origination formula, at which step does it emerge? If the ‘looping corruption’ is so ancient and the numbers of monks and nuns back at the time were not that high, how come no other reciters, scholastic specialists or other monastic communities objected to messing with an extremely important doctrinal formula? Why doesn’t Bucknell mention this citation from DN 15 that directly follows the ‘loop’?

… to this extent that there is a pathway for designation, to this extent that there is a pathway for language, to this extent that there is a pathway for description…

In fact, this citation, at least in my understanding, can provide some indirect evidence for Bucknell’s branching interpretation of the origin of vinnana, but it is surprising he doesn’t mention it at all.


Just to clarify, the term in question , okkanti or avakkanti is simply a term for “conception”. The translation “descent” is far too literal. Here are my current renderings for SN 12.2:

Yā tesaṃ tesaṃ sattānaṃ tamhi tamhi sattanikāye jāti sañjāti okkanti abhinibbatti khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo āyatanānaṃ paṭilābho.
The rebirth, inception, conception, reincarnation, manifestation of the aggregates, and acquisition of the sense fields of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.

AN 3.61:

Channaṃ, bhikkhave, dhātūnaṃ upādāya gabbhassāvakkanti hoti;
Supported by the six elements, an embryo is conceived.
okkantiyā sati nāmarūpaṃ, nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ …
When it is conceived, there is name and form. Name and form is a condition for the six sense fields. …


Well, that does make sense, thanks Bhante. Still, this word is a bit weird when referring to interdepence between something. How can conception, a pretty literal term on par with ‘birth’ refer to interdependance whereas there are so many nice technical expressions in the Buddha’s lexicon?

On the other hand, using the word ‘conception’ indirectly supports my pet theory there is an in-between state but it doesn’t feature consciousness. Anyway, it is nothing I consider to be hugely important for my personal spiritual practice and would defend till the last drop of my blood :grin:

It doesn’t. It means “conception”, which is, of course, an interdependent process, but that’s not what the word means.

The suttas talk about interdependent processes all the time, but they don’t have a term that explicitly means “interdependence”, so the Abhidhamma coined the term aññamaññapaccaya.

Well, that’s a relief!

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Nama consists of Feeling Perception Intention Contact and Attention and Rupa consists of the four great elements or Maha Bhutha and the form derived from the 4 maha bhutha. To cite an example take Gold. Gold is made up of nothing but the four maha bhutha but the ordinary person takes it to mean Gold in the sense of something valuable and so on. So the moment he sees gold he starts to feel perceive intend and attend to it unwisely because of the Nama which is Gold.

The Madhupindika Sutta MN 18 says this.

‘Friends, due to eye and to a visible object eye consciousness arises. The coincidence of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What a man feels that he perceives. What he perceives, he thinks about. What he thinks about, he diversifies (papañceti). Owing to his having diversified, the evaluation of diversifying perceptions besets a man with respect to past, future and present visible objects’ and so on."

This is an idea I come across quite often. Does it have any justifications in the text of the Suttas themselves? I am not asking this because I think this idea is not true, on the contrary, I suspect I may be a little bit ignorant on the matter :slight_smile:

It’s in SN 12.2

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That is interesting, because it makes the Dependent Origination circular in several more ways. If namarupa includes vedana, which it explicitly does in the suttas, then why does vedana appear as a separate nidana a bit earlier? If sankharas are volitional formations and thus, in effect, cetanas, why are they included once again in the namarupa if they precede it?

By the way, just note how absurd this translation is:

the bodily volitional formation, the verbal volitional formation, the mental volitional formation

They are equated in MN 44 with breathing, thinking and reflection and - ta-da! - perception and feeling (one more circularity here!).