Is there an interpretation of the 12 nidanas (shown on the outside of the wheel below) that is compatible with a lack of belief in rebirth. For instance in the 12 nidanas there are the links

Becoming -> Birth -> Aging and Death

So even though this explicitly names rebirth is there an interpretation of the cycle that occurs just over one lifetime (or reoccurs many times over one life). Or are the concepts of the nidanas so bound up with rebirth that they have no value or sense to practioners who are more agnostic about this.

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3 Answers 3


All factors of the pratityasamutpada occurs in this lifetime. Just from different causal rounds of it. And of course, there is much more relations between the nidanas than just sequential enumeration of 12 states.

Or are the concepts of the nidanas so bound up with rebirth that they have no value or sense to practioners who are more agnostic about this.

If you deny just one link, that should not make other 10 links of no value even for you.

In Sarvastivada school there is also instantaneous (ksanika) interpretation of pratityasamutpada. Quoting Abhidharmakosa-bhasya:

[Question:] – How is dependent origination momentary? [Answer:] – When persons who are a victim of the defilements commit murder, the twelve members are realized in the same moment: 1. their delusion (moha) is ignorance (avidyā); 2. their intention (cetanā) is the formations (saṃskāra); 3. their distinct perception of a certain object [vastuprativijñapti] is consciousness (vijñāna); 4. the four aggregates co-arisen with the consciousness are name-and-form (nāmarūpa); 5. the sense-faculties abiding in name-and-form are the six sense-spheres (ṣaḍāyatana); 6. the functioning [abhinipāta] of the six sense-spheres is contact (sparśa); 7. to experience [anubhava] contact is sensation (vedanā); 8. greed (lobha; LVP: attachment [rāga]) is craving (tṛṣṇā); 9. the envelopments (paryavasthāna) associated with craving are grasping (upādāna); 10. bodily or vocal action [kāyavākkarma] that proceeds [from sensation or craving] is existence (bhava); 11. the emergence (utsarjana; LVP: unmajjana = utpāda = arising) of all these factors is birth (jāti); 12. the maturity (paripāka) of these factors is old age (jarā); and the breaking down (bhaṅga) of these factors is death (maraṇa).


There's no single accepted one-lifetime interpretation of pratityasamutpada in modern Buddhism. There have been multiple attempts to come up with such an explanation though.

1) A decent summary of this question and the various approaches to it is Dhivan Thomas Jones' "New Light On The Twelve Nidanas", published in Contemporary Buddhism journal in 2009.

Jones discusses Nanavira Thera and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu both of whom independently came up with their slightly different this-lifetime interpretations of the Twelve Nidanas of Pratityasamutpada. He also summarizes Bhikkhu Bodhi's polemics with the two, defending the 3-lifetimes interpretation from the traditionalist point of view.

2) Bhikkhu Analayo in his study of Goenka meditation, "The Development of Insight – A Study of the U Ba Khin Vipassanā Meditation Tradition as Taught by S.N. Goenka in Comparison with Insight Teachings in the Early Discourses", touches upon the topic of 12 nidanas.

There he says:

In the Pāli canon, the Paisambhidā-magga has as its predecessor the Vibhanga, the second and perhaps earliest book in the canonical Abhidharma collection of the Theravāda tradition. Regarding the topic of dependent arising, the Vibhanga presents an alternative mode of interpretation, which applies each of the twelve links of dependent arising to a single mind-moment. The Vibhanga explains that, when considered from this viewpoint, the reference to 'birth' in the context of the twelve links can be understood to refer to the arising of mental states. A similar interpretation can be found in the Mahāvibhāsā of the Sarvāstivāda tradition.

In addition to Vibhanga, Analayo also quotes Abhidharmakosa-bhasya 3.25 proclaiming that "all twelve links can be found in a single moment".

3) The Shambhala tradition founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche follows his (Tantric) interpretation of 12 nidanas as describing the process of psychological development of the feeling of "otherness", solidification of "thingness" that culminates in the I-making. Trungpa says:

Ignorance ... symbolizes old generation giving birth to further generations, while remaining fundamentally blind. [Perpetuating the] concepts and ideas about how the world should be... [Ignorance is] the basic intelligence that stirs endless clusters of solidified thought and crowded energy. ... The energy begins to see itself. [Ignorance is] the clumsy discrimination ... with its quality of thingness, or solidified space. ... It is the beginning of self-consciousness, which is based on clinging to intangible qualities as if they were solid.

Samskaras represent the process of impulsive accumulation ... again and again shaping ... conceptual mind, forming itself into certain patterns. It is the point at which karmic creation begins. ... That activity takes place constantly. Basically, karma is created by ... the sense of I-ness and the sense of other. By means of [action based on these two] we make ourselves into something. As [the cycle] goes on and on, it produces further speed.

Things slowly escalate that way. ... When an object has a conceptualized name, it becomes significant. ... Names and forms serve as ... philosophical reinforcement. For instance ... you think that the title should fit the person.

[Contact] At this point, you can no longer simply exist alone without relating with the rest of the world. ... [You have] made your situation very solid and clear ... you ... make it into a solid thing, you develop personality ... self-respect ... foreign relationships.

[Vedana] is the first real perception of "this" [- the self] and "that" - the world outside. ... It is like feeling alive, feeling that you are really living in this world.

At the same time, you experience a natural self-indulgence, a craving for more milk and honey.

[Upadana]. With this nidana, there is a tendency to do whatever you feel like doing. [Objects of desire] are very definite, lumpy, and satisfying.

[Becoming]. In this nidana, you have finally been caught. ... Instead of dancing around ... you have been captured by this life. ... You are taking life more seriously, adopting a somewhat more defined form.

[Death]. Having had so much fun playing with phenomena ... that was exhilarating, but that excitement has become questionable. The many objects you have created ... the situation of having too many things to manage ... becomes [an image of] the charnel ground.

From my perspective based on years of studying and practicing this stuff... Trungpa's explanation is definitely the right one (even if a bit unclear & incomplete). It seems clear to me that this is what Buddha had in mind when he originally taught it.


Yes very much - the circle operates very quickly - interpret it as thoughts arising - creating structures that prop up the ego and provide further thought. Kant, Wittgenstein and Castaneda have plenty to say on this. 'If my gasping of life involves me in a viscious circle, how am I to learn not to grasp?'

  • If one removes the second sentence of this answer as irrelevant (i.e. off-topic to Buddhism, and incomprehensible to those who haven't read Kant et. al.), then there's little left to this answer: i.e. the question asks, "is there an interpretation?" and you're only answering "yes". Maybe it would be good to explain the interpretation; or to cite a (Buddhist) reference to an interpretation. I think the OP might belong to Triratna: and is wondering whether the doctrine of the nidanas can have value or make sense to him or to them. Or how does the doctrine help to "learn not to grasp" as you say?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 10:50
  • That was my first post, I didn't realise long answers (rather than pointers) were required. My interpretation of the four noble truths, and therefore all Buddhism, is psychological - avidya, trishna, maya and karma are thought processes that happen in seconds, though they are also 'structures' that take over all perception and thought. Once the 12 causes are seen to be happening all the time thay can be observed and the 'grasping' taken note of, the mind in action observed, This is the 'mind only' doctrine of the Yogacara in which there is nothing to grasp and no-one to grasp it.
    – Peter Hill
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:25
  • Welcome to the site. Yes, pointers too (e.g. citations or references, to Buddhist literature or dharma talks) are welcome. Long answers aren't "required", and the lengths of answers varies; but an answer which only replies "Yes" is unusually short. It's said that good answers tend to be based on references, and/or based on personal experience. If this were a discussion forum then "yes" might be a good beginning to a longer conversation or dialog; but this is meant to be a site for getting answers.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 22:33

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