The first three nidanas - what does it all mean?!

Can anyone clearly explain what process is being described by the conditionality of the first three nidanas of dependent origination? I have never understood it! While ignorance is present we make choices, and somehow the choices lead to consciousness…?:roll_eyes:

“With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…”

Ajahn @Brahmali is very skillful when it comes to making sense of how we live the links of dependent origination.

I recommend you check some of his dhamma talks on the topic, especially those recorded in sutta study retreats! Maybe @musiko could help pointing us some?

Ignorance = Not knowing Nobele Eightfold Path. Specially not comprehending Dukkha
Sankhara = Avtivities (choices) by body, mind and speach due to ignorance. Wholsome or unwholesome.
Vinnana = Rebirth making mind due to Sankhara

Say you go to a party (ignorance) and they gave you a nice cake.
You eat this cake with attachment (Sankhara)
You wish to eat the same cake again (Vinnana)

I hope you mean “does anyone have a plausible interpretation…?” - because that’s all we have, and there are several of them.

See also here: Books – Samita ASBL


You’re right, of course. I meant can anyone clearly explain what they think it means. :yum:

What I don’t get here is how ignorance could lead to wholesome choices/acts? Wouldn’t ignorance automatically lead to unwholesome choices/acts?

The first thing to keep in mind is the 12ps formula, as is often the case with oral tradition, is just a short formula easy to remember because of brevity and easy pattern. It doesn’t make much sense, isn’t very specific if you just try to interpret that short cryptic verse.

  1. avijja paccaya sankhara
  2. sankhara paccaya vinnanam
  3. vinnanam paccaya nama rupa …
  4. jati paccaya jara marana soka parideva…dukkha…

So to make sense of this short cryptic formula, you have to plug in more than just the words there:

  1. avijja paccaya sankhara : (with) avijja (as) condition, (there are) fabrications

It’s not saying avijjja can automatically cause fabrications to arise in an unqualified way, and logically it couldn’t be saying that any kind of sankhara/fabrication must have had avijja as a dependent condition. So we have to infer, what this short formula actually expands out to, is:

  1. with avijja as requisite condition, sankharas based on avijja are possible to arise.
  2. with sankharas based on avijja as a requisite conditions, vinnanam which are based on sankharas (based on avijja) are possible to arise.

    Etc. Now it makes sense. So when you have the cessation of #1 avijja, it doesn’t mean ALL types of #2 sankhara cease, only the the sankharas driven with and having avijja as requisite condition cease. An arahant would still have sankharas, vinannam, etc. arising, but they would be based on vijja, not avijja.

Apologies for a very brief answer, I’m on a very limited access to internet right now:

All publicly available sutta retreats by Ajahn Brahmali are available right here on D&D and are—with the kind help from community members—annotated with the sutta reference IDs (some are even titled as Dependent origination retreat or something similar, e.g. 2016 January retreat).

I believe there was a thread listing all the suttas dealing with dependent origination but I can’t find it right now (maybe someone can help) that can be used for cross referencing and identifying the retreats focused on dependent origination.

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Possibly, but in the sutta passages describing dependent origination in reverse order, it appears that one nidana ceases when the previous nidana ceases - in other words it looks like a straightforward cessation, not a “conversion” of nidanas from avijja to vijja.
Also you seem to be saying that DO continues, but without avijja. This might work for the nidanas from sankhara through to vedana, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that the nidanas from tanha onwards continue as before - those nidanas must cease. But that would mean a partial cessation of dependent origination, which is not the suttas appear to describe.

Is there any support in the suttas for a the idea of a distinction between “ignorant nidanas” and “wise nidanas”?

Yes, check the Upanisa Sutta, SN12.23:

Ignorant or suffering-perpetuating nidana:

"So ignorance is a vital condition for choices.
Choices are a vital condition for consciousness.
Consciousness is a vital condition for name and form.
Name and form are vital conditions for the six sense fields.
The six sense fields are vital conditions for contact.
Contact is a vital condition for feeling.
Feeling is a vital condition for craving.
Craving is a vital condition for grasping.
Grasping is a vital condition for continued existence.
Continued existence is a vital condition for rebirth.
Rebirth is a vital condition for suffering.
Suffering is a vital condition for faith.

Wise or suffering-cessating nidana:

Faith is a vital condition for joy.
Joy is a vital condition for rapture.
Rapture is a vital condition for tranquility.
Tranquility is a vital condition for bliss.
Bliss is a vital condition for immersion.
Immersion is a vital condition for truly knowing and seeing.
Truly knowing and seeing is a vital condition for disillusionment.
Disillusionment is a vital condition for dispassion.
Dispassion is a vital condition for freedom.
Freedom is a vital condition for the knowledge of ending."



You might want to read Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought, by Joanna Jurewicz

The whole volume of the PTS Journal is also available for free from the Pali Text Society itself:

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Thanks, but that wasn’t what I meant. You seemed to be suggesting that the nidanas above could be either ignorant or wise, rather than just ceasing? So for example consciousness could be ignorant or wise, rather than just ceasing?

I am just following the twofold reading of the dependent origination made possible by SN12.23.

This is not something I came up with but can be traced to the traditional exegesis of this EBT.

If you are interested in learning more about I would suggest checking Bhikkhu Bodhi’s beautiful essay on the Upanisa Sutta and the topic: "Transcendental Dependent Arising - A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta"

On your specific question, I infer from the suttas that once the threshold of awakening is crossed by an arahant the process of suffering perpetuating dependent origination is fully ceased. I don’t think however EBTs provide us a clear cut ontology of what exactly is going on beyond that breakthrough.

And maybe even the Buddha would not be much interested in approaching it from that end - mind yourself that the third enobbling truth’s specific ennobling task is for us to verify that ending ourselves. And, of course, that verification comes about with the full development of the path.

There are however hints that in between the liberation and death what supports the fruition of an arahant is the knowledge of destruction of the defilements (khayeñāṇaṃ), as that in turn assures no future birth will come about.

To that point, note that in Nibbānadhātu Sutta (Iti44) the Buddha gives us some hint on how an arahant may “spin” beyond fruition:

“Here a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, the holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge.
However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain.
It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbāna-element with residue left.”

And I understand that the Nibbāna-element with no residue left (anupādisesā nibbānadhātu) found in the Nibbānadhātu Sutta (Iti44) corresponds to what in the Sandiṭṭhikanibbāna Sutta (AN9.47) is termed definitive nibbana (nippariyāyenā nibbānaṃ).

In AN9.47 (and its parallels) we learn that the definitive nibbana is what is known by those who “go totally beyond the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enters and remains in the cessation of perception and feeling. And, having seen with wisdom, their defilements come to an end.

PS: A related discussion which may be of your interest is found at the link below:

Ignorance leads to fabrication(Sakkara).
Samkhara leads to suffering.
Suffering leads to wisdom.

Are we saying that an Arahant doesn’t “have” ignorance, fabrications and consciousness any more?

Though the Arahant is still subject to aging and death, which suggests that DO doesn’t fully cease until the Arahant dies.

I am not sure if you can say an arahant dies in the same sense an unawakened being dies.

Also, mind that death in the suffering-perpetuating dependent origination represents above all the starting point for a next birth.

It is worth reminding that dependent origination is not a framework for ontological analysis of things. It is in fact a framework for epistemological analysis and understanding of one’s own experience of suffering as the first ennobling task is undertaken.

To me, this is the reason the Buddha gave teachings such as the one found in AN7.54

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Well Sir, this looks like westerner view in Buddhist forums. An eastern Buddhist will see both.
Circularity (vi-pratisara), comes from unknowledge that khandhas are what lives and die. Ontology is in khandhas; not self. Epistemology is knowing fact that ontology (existence) is in khandhas. Epistemology is knowing that view of self existing like khandhas, is wrong.


All perfected ones are without ignorance/delusion. SN 48.4 & SN 48.5/SA 645 say that a perfected one has utterly ended the fetters of rebirth (SA 645’s exact words are: “there is no return to any state of existence”). Ending of rebirth can be accomplished by either the ceasing of ignorance/delusion according to SN 12.35/SA 297, or it can be done by giving up lust, anger, and confusion according to AN 10.76/SA 346. As you can see here, if perfected ones still had ignorance/delusion, they wouldn’t be able to eradicate the fetters of rebirth.

The reality that a perfected one is still subject to old age and death can be explained by both DN 11/DA 24. DN 11/DA 24 say that the four elements; long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly; name and form cease with nothing left over with the cessation of consciousness. This means that when consciousness is still intact, other things won’t cease to be. Any living perfected one’s consciousness is obviously still intact, so natural things like old age, sickness, and death can still occur to them. However, since all perfected ones have eradicated rebirth, when they pass away, their consciousness will find no footing, and their consciousness will cease to be, along with suffering.

There’s Itivuttaka 44 (Iti 44) which talks about two kinds of extinguishment. If you’re interested, you should check it out as well.