The Twelve Nidanas (preconditions)

The Buddha became enlightened when he was able to figure out the causal chain responsible for rebirth.   The Buddhist term for this causal chain, pratityasamutpada ("Interdependent Origination"), points to the way that various elements are linked, with one step laying the groundwork for others in the chain.  According to one account, the Buddha started at the end, contemplating suffering and death (which he wanted to find a way to avoid), and worked his way backward to see what they depended on. 

There are twelve nidanas (literally "fetters," but more broadly preconditions) in this chain, and although the picture depicts them in linear fashion, Buddhist scholars take pains to point out multiple possible feedback loops (with one element leading to the next in linear fashion, but also reinforcing other off the elements, and one common metaphor for this process is of water rushing from trickles to streams to rivers to oceans (getting more volume all the time).    For example, breaking one's leg in an accident could affect one at multiple levels: the samskaras (number two, since one might avoid that place or situation in the future), name and form (number 4, since one's form had been altered), feeling (number 7, since one would be feeling pain), and craving (number 8, since one would seek to avoid it in the future). 

From a religious perspective, the two most important steps are the first (ignorance), and the seventh (craving), since these are the two points at which human beings can consciously act to disrupt this causal chain, and thus bring it to an end.  Each of the twelve nidanas is traditionally associated with an image, which means that this teaching would have been accessible to illiterate people.



Nidana number, Symbol, and Meaning

1.  Ignorance (avidya)

A blind old woman.

Avidya is the lack of wisdom (vidya)--it is not just that people haven't learned some fact that they need to know, but rather rather that their habitual ways of perceiving the world are fundamentally mistaken, and thus they are "blinded" (by greed, desire, lust, etc.). 

2.  Karmic formations (samskaras)

A potter making pots.

In Indian philosophy, pots are common images--they come into being when they are made, get broken, and in between are useful everyday items.   These karmic formations (particularly the deeply embedded idea of having a "Self," the activity of body, speech and mind, as well as more individual tendencies and predispositions) are important factors in forming a personality (and like pots, they are subject to change over time).


3.  Consciousness (vijnana)

A monkey scampering across a rooftop.

The monkey is one of the traditional images for human consciousness--just as monkeys run here and there (sometimes seemingly aimlessly), in the same way human consciousness wanders as the objects of perception (physical and mental) change. 

Connecting a consciousness (of something) with ideas of a Self is the work of the samskaras.


4.  Name and Form (nama-rupa)

Two Men in a Boat

"Form" refers to the physical component of a person's experience (the body), and "Name" to the non-physical components (sensation, feeling, samskaras, and consciousness).  Both of these elements exist in one personality, just as the two separate men are both in the boat.  For Buddhists, the error is in supposing that Name and Form are components of some  unchanging, continuous personal Self (which Buddhists deny exists, since all components of personality are changeable).

5.  The Six Senses (shadayatana)

A house with six windows.

The six senses are sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and the mind (which perceives and processes mental objects).  As our source of sense data, they are clearly involved with our interactions with the world.

6.  Contact (sparsha)

A couple making love.

The activity of the sense organs brings one into contact with the objects in the world (if there were no sense organs, or one was deficient, this would be impossible). 

7.  Feeling (vedana)

A man with an arrow in his eye.

Contact gives rise to feelings of attachment and aversion, depending on the nature of the contact (this particular example gives me the creeps). 


8.  Craving (trshna)

A picnic (eating and drinking)

When one has generated mental feelings based on the sensations given by the sense organs, one will desire to obtain the pleasant ones, and to avoid the unpleasant ones.  This then can become reinforced into habitual patterns of attachment and aversion.

9.  Grasping (upadana)

A monkey picking fruit.

Once one has developed desires to obtain something (or to avoid something), one takes concrete steps to try to get it.

10.  Becoming (bhava)

A pregnant woman (this is the traditional explanation for the image for this stage, because this woman doesn't look very pregnant to me).

Once one purposefully strives to gain (or to avoid) things, this pattern of intentional activity sets up the operation of karma, which lays down causes whose effects become manifest in the present and future lives.


11.  Birth (jati)

A woman giving birth.

One's karmic activities lead to rebirth in a state that reflects the quality of that karma.

12.  Old Age and Death (jara-marana)

A corpse being carried away (and bodies on the ground).

Once one is born, death is inevitable.  Old age can be avoided by dying young, but few people are hot to do this.  Old age, illness, and death are a shorthand rendition of the problems that afflict human existence, and to which the Buddha was trying to find an answer. 

Note: Background information for the explanations on this page was taken from Richard Robinson and Willard Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997, pp. 25-27.

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Last modified 11 September 2005