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Should we always use the 12 nidānas backward?
May 6th, 2017

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Should we always use the 12 nidānas backward?

The 12 nidānas ( can be seen as pretty depressing, since they go from "ignorance" to "suffering", and stop there. It looks pretty much one-way… and down-hill !

The classic use of that chain is to reverse it : If you want to avoid suffering, regress the causes and 'fix' (any) one of the links !
Classically (and in relation to the 2nd of the "4 noble truths"), one might try to fix e.g. the "clinging" step… or, in order to prevent any future / new clinging, one might try to fix "ignorance" itself.

This participates in presenting Buddhism as a "restraint only" approach: avoid this, refrain from doing that… This will echo most of the classic "precepts" or "rules of training".

But causality in Buddhism is never one-to-one but many-to-many. The Buddha might well mention a prerequisite or a condition, it never means it's the only one, because the context plays a part! Idem with consequences.
Thus I previously wrote about two versions of "dependent origination" from the Mahā-nidāna sutta (DN 15): one being the classic, though partial, chain —from "name-and-form" to "ageing and death" — and one being more social / societal —from "feeling" to "various evil, unskillful phenomena (the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies)". Cf., the 2 chains share a transition but differ regarding cause and consequence.

Many times one can find shortened versions of the 12 links in the suttas… but the Upanisā sutta (SN 12.23) also mentions an extended version (
ignorance ⟹ kamma / fabrications ⟹ consciousness ⟹ name&form ⟹ six sense bases ⟹ contact ⟹ feeling ⟹ craving ⟹ clinging ⟹ becoming / existence ⟹ birth ⟹ unsatisfactoriness and then ⟹ conviction / faith (in the Dharma) ⟹ joy ⟹ rapture ⟹ serenity / tranquility ⟹ pleasure / happiness ⟹ concentration ⟹ knowledge & vision of things as they are ⟹ disenchantment ⟹ dispassion ⟹ liberation / release / emancipation ⟹ knowledge of destruction of the cankers (arahantship).

Hence, there's more than one way to use the classic, exemplary 12 links of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda,, it's not always about reversing it…

"Suffering ⟹ lessons learnt ⟹ behavioural change / purification / progress ⟹ prevention of suffering" works too…

It might sound a bit more like "embracing life"… a bit less "avoiding" / "refraining" / "restraining". It might sound, in a way, like the premises of Mahāyāna (and its numberless Dharma gates)… if this helps !

image: a large gilt-lacquered bronze figure of Buddha (16th c.)