The Twelve Nidanas—the sequence of cyclic existence

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 15687)

The importance of mastering the doctrine of the Twelve Nidanas

The doctrine of the Twelve Nidanas is a key Buddhist thought. It mainly delineates how the past, present and future lives of human beings or other viviparous animals of the desire realm2 come about. In other words, it explains how we enter and leave this world.

Why do we need to understand our coming and going? The Twelve Nidanas, like the constantly moving wheel, take us into, out of and back into this world over and over again. We need to be prepared when this process restarts. What the Twelve Nidanas deal with is something that everyone has to face, and how to face it is a very important lesson for us all.

The Twelve Nidanas as presented in Ornament of Clear Realization are quite complicated. The intent of this discussion is, however, to focus only on the parts that are important for us to know.

We have all been through the cycle of the Twelve Nidanas innumerable times. It is still continuing today because we have not prepared to confront it so far. In fact, not knowing how to deal with it is the real reason. Unless we begin to tackle it now, the cycle of death and rebirth will never end on its own. This is obviously quite an important matter.

We neither came to nor will leave this world voluntarily. However unwilling, we all have to go when it is time, not by choice and certainly not on our terms. As well, we came in the same fashion. If there were free choices, no being would want to be born as an ox or a horse. But the reality is that we see these poor beings all the time. If free will were possible, all beings would naturally choose to be king in the human realm or someone like Indra, the King of the gods, instead of an ox or a horse. This clearly shows that beings cannot choose the timing or the form of birth. One just has to come when it is time. Why?

This is by no means God’s will. Buddhism does not acknowledge a personified God but respects all faiths, including the viewpoints of atheism and the non-Buddhist traditions. Some people may find this statement unacceptable since atheism rejects the ideas of samsara and causality. How can such nihilistic views be respected?

As a matter of fact, the sutras answered this question long time ago. The answer is that although atheism is incorrect, atheists at least have contemplated the question of life. In this respect, they are better than those who, like animals, only care about eating and drinking, and generally feel apathetic toward the issues of life and rebirth.

Although the nihilists have not found the truth, it is possible that with the right guidance their views may change gradually through meditation. Hence, Buddhism also respects nihilists’ right to their own views. As for eternalism, it certainly deserves some respect since practicing virtue is part of its doctrine as well. The way both exoteric and esoteric Buddhism regard non-Buddhist faiths is this: respect their views but do not acknowledge them.

What Buddhism does acknowledge is that sentient beings do not have free will over their cyclic existence, and that it is not without causes that we keep roaming about involuntarily in samsara. Yet causes and conditions can be changed and improved because they are compounded phenomena.

Fatalists think that everything is predestined and under no circumstances can it be changed. Buddhists do not acknowledge this viewpoint. Buddhism holds that even immutable karma can be changed with the attainment of realization of emptiness or true repentance. It is also owing to the view that compounded phenomena are not predestined, but can be improved, transformed and controlled, that we need to learn the Twelve Nidanas. It can be said that not knowing the Twelve Nidanas is in fact not to know ourselves.

Those who are deemed the greats by the world, such as the respectable Nobel Prize winners, are really only adepts in their respective field that in terms of scope is still somewhat limited. Many of them possibly do not even understand their own nature, much less the mystery of mind. It is simply out of need, not curiosity, to resolve the question of cyclic rebirth that we now proceed to learn the Twelve Nidanas.

First of all, we need to identify the origin of sentient beings’ endless and involuntary rebirths in the six realms of samsara. Once found, we must eradicate it. Only then will we have truly found the path out of samsara.

An overview of the Twelve Nidanas

Of Theravada and Mahayana, each holds its own standpoint on the Twelve Nidanas. Within Mahayana, there are the views of Yogachara (the Mind- Only school) and Madhyamaka (the Middle Way school). For Theravada, there are two views as well of Sarvastivada (the Realistic school) and Sautrantika (the Sutra school). Minor details apart, all these schools agree on the key points. Our discussion will just focus on their common grounds and ignore their differences.

In the scriptures, the Twelve Nidanas are divided into three phases: past life, present life, and future life.

Past life In this phase, the first is ignorance, and the second is volitional actions. What do volitional actions mean? Out of ignorance and defilements come the actions of body, speech and mind which produce either virtuous or evil karma. Volitional actions are such karma. The third is consciousness, which can fall under the past life or the present life. As it is usually included in the present life, there leaves only ignorance and volitional actions in the phase of past life.

Present life Consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact and feeling belong to this phase.

In addition, there are craving—the desire of ordinary beings, grasping—the deeds performed to satisfy craving, and becoming—the cause of samsara, that is, positive and negative karma, with the three kinds of existence (desire, form and formlessness) the effect of karma. Although these three are assigned to the present life, they are the causes of the future life. Altogether eight states, the previous five plus these three, are in the phase of present life.

Future life There are only birth and old age/death in this phase. Old age and death are combined into one because some people get old before they die and others may die before they get old. It is hard to tell which comes first and hence the arrangement.

In total, twelve linking states are divided into three phases.

The key to breaking off the Twelve Nidanas

Ignorance gives rise to volitional actions, volitional actions to consciousness and ultimately birth to old age and death. Each preceding cause gives rise to the subsequent effect which in turn gives rise to the next cause and so on. This is dependent origination. The same also applies in reverse. That is, when ignorance stops, volitional actions stop as well, then consciousness, name and form….until birth stops, finally aging and death stop. Dependent origination thus ceases. The continuation of dependent origination is samsara, its ceasing liberation from samsara.

What we are experiencing now is the continuation of dependent origination, the ceasing of which is what we need to accomplish. The key for continuing or ceasing dependent origination is ignorance, the first of the Twelve Nidanas. As long as ignorance remains, the subsequent phenomena will not stop. For instance, when the locomotive is running, the rest of the carriage will move along. If it stops or if there is no engine, the rest of the train will not move either. Similarly, if the first link of the chain does not stop, the rest will not stop; once ignorance stops, the rest cannot continue and hence liberation from samsara. All in all, the primary solution still rests with the eradication of ignorance.

As an example, in a nightmare we would experience pain and fear as real as we do in daytime. Why is that? When we sleep, we dream. However, it is not the dream that is affecting us and causing us pain but our clinging to the dream being solid and real. If we do not take it for real, it cannot cause fear and pain even though scenes of the dream do appear.

Likewise, the reason we experience suffering in samsara is also due to clinging—we take what is illusory as real and solid, so we suffer as a result. If we can turn around and realize the insubstantial, illusory nature of samsara, all fear and suffering will vanish as if waking up from a dream. Though samsara may not stop instantly, it will begin to fade. As in a nightmare, when we are aware that it is a dream, all the fear and pain associated with that dream will vanish immediately, even though the dream has not ended. Realizing the dream is unreal while dreaming stops all emotional reactions to it. We are now in the long dream of samsara. If we can wake up from it, that is, realize the empty nature of all phenomena, so can the cycle of rebirth ends.

The key point is ignorance. Ignorance is delusion. That means we mistakenly regard all we see and hear as real. It is this strong clinging to the illusion of reality that makes us endure much suffering. The bodhisattvas, having attained realization and thus comprehended perfectly the void nature of all phenomena, suffer no more. The fact that they are free of clinging and suffering enables them to remain in samsara until all sentient beings have been liberated. If instead they still cling to that illusion like ordinary people do, they cannot but experience suffering as well and would not be able to remain in samsara forever to liberate sentient beings. Therefore, the first step is to eradicate ignorance.

Simply put, the way to eradicate ignorance is first to cultivate renunciation, arouse bodhicitta and lastly to realize emptiness which is of course the most crucial. The specific and essential method to attain realization of emptiness is to practice anatta (not-self)—neither beings nor the external phenomena have an inherently existing self. There are no other ways. Theoretically speaking, emptiness can be determined by deduction, but the practice of anatta is specifically intended for this purpose. It can serve as the foundation for practicing the Great Perfection later. In the end, we still need to practice the Great Perfection itself to find the way out of cyclic existence as the Great Perfection is indeed the best, fastest and easiest way for us to succeed in this endeavor. So first, ignorance must go. That means adherence to the independent reality of self and phenomena must stop.

The three phases and the twofold causality

The Twelve Nidanas have twofold cause and effect, but they are divided into three phases rather than just past and future life.

Regarding the twofold cause and effect, the first is termed that which “causes” and “to be caused.” Here, “cause” refers to inducing the five aggregates of the future life. In other words, without the preceding cause and condition, the subsequent cause and condition or the next link will not come about. The latter, the one “to be caused,” is the cause and condition brought by the one that “causes.”

The second is termed that which “generates” and “to be generated.” It means that if there was nothing to generate, the five aggregates of the future life would never be formed or generated. The cause is the one “generates” and the effect is the one “to be generated”.

The way that the Buddha classified the Twelve Nidanas is very thorough and comprehensive, backed by sufficient evidence and endowed with special meaning. But we will only discuss briefly why they are divided into three phases, and why only two are assigned to each of the past and the future life. Actually, all Twelve Nidanas exist in each of the three phases of life. However, there is certain significance as to why they are divided as such.

First phase: past life From ignorance comes clinging to an inherently existing self; from clinging to a real self comes the desire to find happiness for oneself. To satisfy that desire, one needs many objects that can bring happiness. In the process of obtaining these objects, one may affect others, sometimes negatively, resulting in either virtuous or evil karma being committed. Volitional actions, the second of the Twelve Nidanas, are such karma.

The eight states such as becoming, name and form, contact and so forth that belong to the phase of the present life also exist in the past life. Their exclusion is because they are not that important for this phase as opposed to ignorance and volitional actions. Among the eight states, craving, grasping and becoming are in fact ignorance and volitional actions as well, just named differently. The other five are not so crucial at this stage. The reason why we are what we are today is not due to consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact and feeling in the past life but ignorance which in turn gives rise to karma. It is exactly these two that cause all the suffering in this life and hence their designation in the phase of the past life.

When we take rebirth, the eight states will also be present in the future life. Why is it that only birth and old age/death have been designated for the future life? It is because old age and death are birth’s suffering. Pointing out old age and death specifically would help us understand the woes of cyclic rebirth.

Second phase: present life The first state of the present life is consciousness. When the mind of a bardo being merges with a zygote from the parents, what emerged at the very first instant is consciousness.

It only lasts one instant, not two or three. From the second instant onward, name and form begins.

Another interpretation of consciousness is that, if alaya consciousness is acknowledged, it itself is the alaya consciousness. However, the Theravada tradition does not acknowledge alaya consciousness. To Theravada, this is mind consciousness. Either way, the mind emerged at the first instant of conception is called consciousness.

The second is name and form, which begins from the second instant of conception. In the beginning stage of gestation, there is just the shape of an embryo, not yet a full body. It can only be deemed a cause for the manifestation of a human body. This is form. What is name then? According to the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra, “name” is sensation, perception and mental formations associated with consciousness in the early period of gestation. In fact, all six consciousnesses are inseparable from sensation, perception and mental formations. Why are they called name? For instance, a name of a person or an object is not like matter which has mass that can block the passage of other substances. An object can have three or four names, but they would not interfere with one another. Likewise, neither would sensation, perception and mental formation obstruct one another as they are non-material, a process of mind and hence the term “name”.

Buddhism enumerates five stages of gestation that are described in both the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra and the tantras of Great Perfection. The descriptions are very detailed particularly in the tantras of Great Perfection. Despite the fact that the word “cell” was not used in these texts, the writing actually delineated the complex process of cell division (reproduction). Those with a medical background would be very surprised to discover that the depiction is in accord with that of modern medicine. The gestation period between the second instant of conception and right before the development of the six sense organs is designated name and form, which lasts quite a long time.

The third is the six sense bases. It refers to the early development period of the five sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. Though growing gradually, the eyes can yet see and the ears yet hear. The state before the six sense organs can establish contact with the six sense objects is named the six sense bases.

The fourth is contact (coming together). That is when the five sense organs are fully developed and able to make contact with external objects. Why is it named contact? For example, in this state when all three conditions—the ear, the sound and ear consciousness—are present, the ear can hear the sound outside or within the uterus and can tell the volume of the sound. Contact indicates the ability to distinguish the external world, which is also a rather long process.

The fifth is sensation. It is the pleasant or unpleasant feelings that arise after having made contact. Sensation refers to the state beginning with the ability to distinguish between pain and joy, which serves as the cause, and grows gradually to the point before karma is committed. Although children may also generate karma, it is comparatively less common for them to commit karma in the same way as adults would for their own benefit. This state lasts more than ten years.

Of the twofold cause and effect, the above seven states belong to the first. Ignorance and volitional actions are the ones that “cause”—they cause consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact and sensation of the present life to arise. Consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact and sensation are the ones “to be caused”—they are caused by ignorance and volitional actions of the past life.

Next is craving, which essentially means desire for temporal fulfillment.

Grasping follows craving. Grasping is to engage in activities that sustain one’s livelihood, whereby karma is committed and the cause of rebirth is being set once again. Nowadays what most adults do every day would be defined as grasping. For instance, during the course of conducting business, people may cheat others of their money, tell lies and engage in all sorts of competitions. When competing with others, harms may be done either intentionally or unintentionally. All these are creating karma.

What follows is the state of becoming, which can be understood as samsara or the cause of samsara. Here, it means the latter, the same as volitional actions. Just the wording is different. Volitional action is karma committed in the past life and the cause of the present life. Becoming is karma committed in the present life and the cause of the next life. In other words, becoming is virtuous and evil karma.

Craving gives rise to grasping and becoming. And karma is thus committed. By then, the causes of rebirth are complete: craving, grasping and becoming. How can there not be an effect (rebirth) when all the causes are already present? Rebirth is inevitable. These three describe the course that starts when one is able to perform karmic actions to the end of one’s life.

Above is the summary of the eight linking states of the present life.

Third phase: future life Then comes birth of the next life. Here, birth means the same as afore-mentioned consciousness, the first instant of conception, only in different word.

Next is old age/death, which includes the whole process from the arising of name and form to sensation.

These are the Twelve Nidanas. Craving, grasping and becoming of the present life are what “generate”; birth and old age/death of the future life are that “to be generated.” This is the second of the twofold cause and effect.

The significance of distinguishing the twofold causality

There are proximate and distant causes as well as effects of samsara. The distant causes are ignorance and virtuous and evil karma (volitional actions) committed in the past life. The proximate causes are craving, grasping and becoming of the present life. The distant effects refer to birth and old age/death of the next life. The proximate effects refer to the five states of the present life from consciousness to sensation.

Even when the distant causes are present, no rebirth will take place if the proximate causes are absent. In other words, although ignorance and volitional actions, the causes from the past life, are already committed, it is still possible that we should not have to come back to samsara if we can completely eradicate craving, the desire for samsara, through the attainment of spiritual realization, notwithstanding all past negative karma have yet been purified. It is said in the sutras that a cart with two wheels will be unable to move if one of the wheels is missing. By the same token, absent craving, there will be no rebirth despite the presence of all the past causes. Ordinary craving can be resolved by cultivating renunciation, but subtler craving must be extinguished through the practice of not-self.

For someone to attain arhathood, the distant causes are needed but not the proximate cause—craving. Being an arhat, one must have eliminated all defilements and craving is a kind of defilement. Still, arhats have to bear the karmic fruits of this life resulting from the causes formed in the past life, as many such stories are told in One Hundred Stories about Karma and other scriptures. Even so, they will not be reborn in samsara again as they have cut off all worldly desires. It is to help us understand this causality that the Twelve Nidanas are divided into the twofold cause and effect.

One may question, “Many accomplished masters have attained extraordinary realization. Why do they still encounter obstacles or become ill?”

There are two possibilities. One of them can be explained by way of the Twelve Nidanas. Accomplished practitioners may have eradicated all defilements in this life, but they were once ordinary beings in the past. Even Shakyamuni Buddha was an ordinary being before attaining Buddhahood, not to mention the lesser known practitioners. As an ordinary being, one cannot but commit karma and karma is infallible. Consequently, even accomplished masters must still go through suffering in this life due to some distant causes not yet resolved. Nonetheless, this will be the last time they have to experience suffering again in their cyclic existence sinceprimordial time.

We all know the story of Nagarjuna. The prince of King Lexin went to him demanding his head. Nagarjuna said, “You cut it off yourself.” The prince, no matter how expertly he used his sword, could not cut the head off; it was almost like cutting through air. Nagarjuna then said, “I purified all the heterogeneous effects resulting from cutting others with weapons five hundred lifetimes ago, except the one of killing insects while cutting kusha grass. So, you may use kusha grass to cut off my head.” The prince then cut his head off with one kusha grass. This story tells us that even someone as accomplished as Nagarjuna cannot avoid any karmic effect when it ripens. Therefore, it is a possibility that some of these respectable practitioners still have residual karmic effects left to be resolved.

Another possibility can be inferred from the following example. Having attained Buddhahood, Shakyamuni Buddha was forever free from the influence of causality. However, he manifested illness to show sentient beings the infallibility of karma. For instance, the evil king of Sravasti attacked the hometown of the Buddha and killed seventy-seven thousand of the Shakya clan. The streets were all blood red because the king had ordered that only when all the streets were covered with blood could the killing stop. Finally, to satisfy the king, his people had to mix red dye with water and poured on the streets to make it look like blood was running everywhere. At that point, the Buddha started getting a headache. The reason is that in his past life, the Buddha and the slaughtered clansmen had done something bad together. The Buddha himself also said, “Because of that negative karma, I have to endure a headache even though I have attained supreme enlightenment. If it were not for the perfect merit I have thus gathered, I too would have been killed today.” The fact is that the negative effect could never have happened to the Buddha. He manifested a headache only to help beings believe the truth of causality.

Moreover, according to the Vinaya Pitaka, in ancient India over two thousand years ago, with winter being so cold as to split open bamboos by its bitter cold winds, many bhikshus got sick due to the lack of shoes and caps to keep warm. The Buddha also got sick and had to take medicine. One time, he had a backache and asked Bhikshu Kasyapa to chant some sutras to ease the pain. But the truth is that the Buddha would never have sustained any real pain. These incidents were all just manifestations.

Because of these questions, the Buddha divided the Twelve Nidanas into the twofold cause and effect. On the subject of cause and effect, many Buddhists are either confused or simply do not understand, let alone non-Buddhists. Although not knowing what causality is, many of them still dare to refute and criticize the existence of cause and effect. It makes one wonder what they could possibly refute and criticize something that they do not have any inkling about. Nonetheless, when the karmic force is in play, people will have this inexplicable impetus and nerve to act. Under certain circumstances, demons and demonic hindrances can also bestow fearlessness on people.

With the twofold cause and effect, the workings of karma and samsara are thus revealed: that which “generates” is primarily craving. When craving ends, so does rebirth.

Use the Twelve Nidanas to introspect and practice diligently

Now let us see if we miss any part of the Twelve Nidanas. None is missed. That means we are ready for the next cycle of samsara, and we will definitely return. But where we will be reborn depends on the magnitude of our virtuous and evil karma. If more evil than good have been done, we will come back to the lower realms; vice versa, with more virtuous than evil deeds, the celestial or human realm will be our next destination, but they do not last long. After a short period of bliss and good fortune, we eventually will fall again to the lower realms. In the long run, it does not seem so meaningful to be reborn repeatedly either as humans or celestial beings. As the danger of falling to the lower realms is always there, we cannot be completely safe until we succeed in transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. This is not like the doctrine of the Last Judgment or the end of the world as some other faiths believe, nor a scare tactic. It is simply the reality of samsara.

Basically we do not know much about what happens before and after life. Through the Twelve Nidanas, we can understand how we came to and leave this world, which affords us a better idea about the two ends of life. Although we have no clue as to what we were in the previous life, we know there were ignorance and karmic force; nor do we know where we will be in the next life, but there will be birth, old age and death. This much we know for sure.

If we do not wish to continue like this, we will need to stop the chain effect of the Twelve Nidanas. How can we do that? Can burning incense, performing prostrations and reciting mantras stop the interlinking effect? They can perhaps serve as one of the causes and conditions leading to that outcome, but not the key solution. What then is the most effective? Is it to cultivate compassion or to contemplate the impurities of the human body? Unfortunately, neither provides the solution to the task at hand which ultimately can only be dealt with via realization of emptiness. If such realization can be attained, all distant and proximate causes will cease, so will all distant and proximate effects. For example, if the foundation of a high-rise is shaky, the whole building will collapse. Likewise, once ignorance is eradicated, the building of ignorance-based samsara will also collapse.

There is only the Buddha who knows the truth unlocking the secrets of cyclic existence. Not only that the non-Buddhist practitioners of ancient times could not grasp the truth of life and death, of samsara, karma and the nature of consciousness, modern scientists and philosophers are also at a loss. They are not the ones with definitive knowledge in this field. So, how can they give a credible criticism under the circumstances?

It is practically impossible to verify or fathom the inner world of humans with modern instruments. A video camera can capture the sound and the tears of a crying person for all to see, but it cannot record that person’s mental activity: whether the crying is out of joy or sadness. This cannot be discerned from the image alone. Thus, the inner feelings or the mental aspect of a person is not observable directly through any devices. Sometimes, a more advanced scanner can pinpoint the location in a brain where irregular brain waves are detected when a person feels happy or distressed. But there is no way to know why the waves appear unless the person says, “I was very happy at that moment.” Then we will know that the irregular brain waves are the reaction of a happy mood, and confirm thence the appearance in the brain of such phenomenon when people are happy. If no one ever tells how he or she feels, can any device know the moods of a person by itself? No. That means the most essential part of human life, its mental aspect, is not to be captured or scanned by instruments. Some people may think they have expertise in this field, but they don’t. Even psychologists today are forced to admit that this area is where they still know very little about.

With regard to the mental aspect of human life, we can only rely on the teachings of the Buddha because only he knows the truth completely. How do we know this? The fact that many practitioners have gained extraordinary accomplishment by following the Buddha’s instructions validates the teachings being the right view and the right path.

So what should we do now? Our very first task should be to destroy ignorance. Before that is done, doing prostrations, reciting sutras and performing virtuous deeds can at best allow us to enjoy certain worldly benefits. But ignorance cannot be destroyed this way as these good actions are not its antidote. If we do not want to continue roaming about in samsara, we need to find a tool that can exert a sharp and counteracting force on ignorance so as to be able to eradicate it. That tool is realization of emptiness. This is a very important point to note..

In any case, actual practice should always be undertaken in three stages: cultivating renunciation, arousing bodhicitta and finally contemplating emptiness. Just practicing these three accordingly would be enough to eradicate ignorance. No more, no less. Once ignorance stops, the chain of causation will be dismantled as well. So, do make the best use of your time and practice diligently.

For lay practitioners, the minimum is to take one hour each morning and evening to practice. Everyone should be able to manage at least this much in a day. The practice should begin with the cultivation of renunciation. Once that has reached some stability, go on to practice bodhicitta. After both renunciation and bodhicitta have been generated, move on to contemplate emptiness using the method of the Middle Way as a preliminary. The last is the actual practice of emptiness of which one may choose to go with the Vajrayana tradition if so wished, as Vajrayana practice may bring faster results. However, to practice Vajrayana entails empowerment and observance of the precepts. If unsure of keeping the Vajrayana vows, one can choose the exoteric practices instead, which may also lead to liberation but will take longer time to achieve.

These are the necessary and important tasks for every practitioner. It would be a great loss to anyone who has acquired the knowledge and the methods of these practices in this lifetime yet does nothing. By comparison, to lose tens of thousands of dollars is considered a big loss by many. Money lost may be earned back, but not spiritual practice. Missing the chance this time, it will be hard to say whether one gets to practice again in the next life.

Actually, I have kept reiterating these key points many times in recent years. Many people should have known quite well the practice methods by now. But one should not only appreciate the knowledge gained so far but also put them into actual practice. Only then can rebirth end, can others and oneself be liberated.

1 The chain of twelve states of dependent origination

2 All sentient beings reside in the Triple Realms of the universe, i.e., the realms of desire (our world), form (lesser deities) and formlessness (higher deities).