Saturday, February 27, 2010

The 12 Nidanas

At the heart of the psychology of the Buddha are the "12 Nidanas". There is no exact translation for the word "nidana". It has sometimes been translated as "causal links" or "interdependent originations". The idea of the nidanas is that there are 12 factors that mutually influence each other. This type of causation is behind Jung's idea of synchronicity and behind some ideas in Quantum physics which are moving beyond linear causation. I prefer to think of it as "circular causation" because it is a little bit like nonlinear mutual influence and a little bit linear. Instead of A causes B causes C, there is A causes B causes C causes A. Sometimes each of these causes is part of more than one circle of causation, like A causes B1 causes C1 causes A and A causes B2 causes C2 causes A2. This can explain the "ripple effect" that eventually "everything causes everything". Perhaps nidanas can be defined as "factors in open ended circular causation".

The first nidana is "avidya" which is sometimes translated as ignorance. It is better translated as "unconsciousness" or "unconscious ignorance". The word has the literal meaning of not (a-) seeing (vidya as in "video") something. We are not aware of what we are doing and usually running on habit (vashana) and our habit is driven by craving (tanha or asava).

The second nidana is "samskara" which is sometimes translated as "mental formations". It does not have a good translation into English and represents a fairly developed psychology of the unconscious or subconscious mind (alaya storehouse consciousness). It is an imprint within the subconscious mind which can be activated by sensory experience and turns on "craving, resistance, or apathy". We either want what our senses pick up on and move towards possessing it, do not want what our senses pick up on and move towards resisting it or pushing it out of our experience, or we are apathetic, neutral, or dull about it (unconsciousness).

The third nidana is "vijnana" which is translated as "consciousness". This is, again, a poor translation. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have many different words for mind and consciousness that are more precise than the English terms. As psychology evolves, I think there will be more precise matches possible. This is the activation of a conditioned response, streams of thought and emotion arising from the samskara. It is a conditioned consciousness with a lot of content reacting to the sensory stimulus. This content can have contradictory responses, both wishing to grasp and wishing to resist. The reaction can be intense, mild, or dull.

The fourth nidana is "nama and rupa" which literally means "name and form". The more generalized condition reaction starts crystalizing into a mental interpretation, a level of tension and relaxation, a posture (asana), and a body activity (mudra).

The fifth nidana is "sadayatana" which refers to the six sense gates, the five usual senses of eye, nose, ear, tongue, and skin, and the sixth sense which is the mind. Again, there are more precise terms in Buddhism and Hinduism for "mind" and "consciousness" which gets overused when translating. I call the aspect of mind that gets activated here "the summarizer". It takes all our five sense information and unifies it into a coherent multimedia experience with audio and visual, among others, being completely synchronized. In some disease states, the summarizer is impaired and we experience the five senses not coordinating as well. The summarizer can also be trained to pick up subtle impressions and develop psychic powers. This is because the points that it interfaces with the five senses have something in common with each of the five senses. These interface points can unplug from the organic base and extend in through mental space to tune into other layers of universal activity and operate in a larger subtle sensory field. This usually happens to some extend in meditation training. Almost always people who meditate develop some degree of psychic ability or at least have a few paranormal experiences. This is usually downplayed in meditation training, because when we are young in our experience, we do not know how we are creating our karma and we can unwittingly increase our karma through misuse of our newly found psychic abilities. If we let them grow quietly in our meditation practice, we will eventually know how to use them compassionately to help others. It is also wise to not let other people know how psychic we become through meditation, though eventually people will find out if they hang around us long enough. The reason why is that people will either want us to prove that we are psychic and be skeptical or they will think that we are special and become either afraid or devoted or want to study us or some such thing (none of it helpful, meditators tend to just want to live in peace). Sometimes I hear a question about why advanced meditation masters do not prove the psychic abilities to scientists so that these can be understood better. The answer is that some advanced meditators have occasionally consented to scientific study and some of the results have been interesting. But those scientific studies do not conclusively prove the abilities as much as people would want them to. Advanced stage magicians often fool scientists and stage magic is at such a high level of technology that it can duplicate paranormal phenomena sometimes even better than the actual abilities. The real abilities go through a phase of being as reliable as children who are first learning to walk and who often stumble. The second is thing is that it is not always desirable to have people think you are psychic. In fact, it is rarely desirable. In one blog site, there was a documentary about a Buddhist meditation master who apparently ate little food and drank little water for two years, and even set fire some of his clothes by generating "psychic heat". One person commented and said he must be a fallen angel (a Christian interpretation based on the idea that any miracle must come from a true Christian following Jesus or be demonic and an attempt to seduce people away from the one true religion of Christianity). You get stuff like that when you do occasionally demonstrate a "siddhi". It seems that it can create a lot of fear in people too. So it is better to keep it under raps until it can serve an occasional good purpose, like using telepathy to sense what samskaric thought impression is binding a person and creating a thought remedy to release it.

The sixth nidana is "sparsa" which means "contact". It is where the sense organ comes in contact with a sense object and produces a "sense consciousness". It is a moment when sensory stimuli activates a sensory experience.

The seventh nidana is "vedana" which means "sensation". This is similar to the sensory activation that has just happened, but has moved to a response, to a feeling that it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It is an basic interpretation of the experience.

The eighth nidana is "trishna" or "tanha" (pali). This is a craving. The eighth nidana can be a craving to have (leading to clinging) or to not have (leading to resistance). It can also be a kind of neutral craving of dullness or boredom, a kind of delusion (moha). This is like a heavy cloud that numbs us and can be a basic kind of unconsciousness. These are the three poisons of the mind that causes sorrow and obscure our natural enlightened mind. Nirvana is the cessation of the activity of these three poisons and an overcoming, at least temporarily, of the habit force of all the karmas. This nidana is one that Buddha talked much about. In his Fire Sermon, he talked of humans burning with the fire of craving, with the fire of negativity, and with the fire of delusion. The fire was the painful tension sorrow we feel under their grip. Another word that is used for craving is "asava" which literally means "outflow". The word suggests two meanings that are both valid. One is that our energy is flowing out of us and reaching out to pull in what we crave. There is an aggression to this process. Even in seduction, there is an outflowing energy trying to hook something in. It is not merely passive attraction. When one becomes sensitized to energy fields, you can see this energy pouring out of a person, like pouring out the eyes, or becoming tentacles extending out the body to connect with others and with things. There are some people who know how to take in these outflows and feed on them. They can develop a kind of charismatic glow from this energy and attract even more. The second meaning of "outflow" is that these cravings drain us of energy and exhaust us. Energy flows out of us and we lose it, sometimes very rapidly.

The ninth nidana is "upadana". This is attachment. The craving leads us to cling to something, hold on to something, defend and fight for something. Jealousy is trying to fight for, possess, and control a romantic partner. Manipulation revolves around an attachment to a person and attempt to get them to be something for us. Seduction is a kind of passive magnetizing craving that tries to suck someone into our energy field and hold them in our sway. Battles can be fought over attachments. Psychologically, attachments are addictions which need a lot of energy to maintain. The transitoriness of life, its endless change, feels like a threat to all our attachments and all our control dramas. We learn to let go of them and allow life to flow again, then a certain kind of psychological fear ends, anger ends, and sadness eventually ends too.

The tenth nidana is "bhava" which literally means "becoming". It is what the Sufis call "identification". We form our identity around what we are attached to and try to maintain our identity. Fighting certain things that we deem "not self" and defending things we deem "self". Fear of death emerges here as a result of self clinging. This is the most subtle root of our sorrow. This self clinging forms an ego personality around it in the next nidana.

The eleventh nidana is "jati" which literally means "birth". This is the birth of an ego identity. This ego can be different than one which was a moment ago. Every thought with the word "I" that we believe is a root of the ego state. There are many potential egos inside our samskaras. In jati, the ego is a full blown activity, interacts with the world, and plays out a particular karmaic pattern until it is transcended. The Buddha once said, "Unless the teaching of no self is understood, there is no end to sorrow." The no self teaching is an antidote to the activation and birth of a constructed false self.

The twelfth nidana is "jaramarana" which is sickness, old age, and death. The ego formation, being created by causes and conditions is subject to forces which eventually cause it to cease to exist. The ego is created by karma and is destroyed by karma. It gets replaced by other ego formations which undergo the same fate. The ego is empty of solid existence, arises, abides, changes, and passes away. When this happens, we suffer change. We cling to things in an attempt to find permanent security and suffer when what we attach to changes and ends. This nidana is called the "result nidana", the effect of the activity of the other nidanas, but it is also a cause that sets up the new activites of the ego. Once a clinging fails, we try to replace it with a new object of craving that promises to do what the last object failed to do. The whole process is so stressful that it causes our bodies to literally get sick, age, and die. In the Medicine Buddha Sutras, the three poisons of the mind are considered the roots of all diseases, though outer causes can join with inner causes to produce the diseases. Pathogens can invade our bodies and make us sick, but our immune system may not operate as well when emotional stress compromises its functioning. Anger can fragment our pranic flows in our bodies and exhaust our adrenals. Paradoxically, Buddha did conquer aging, disease, and death in his body by completely transcending the ego. He could only die by tonglen and phowa (taking on the karma of others and deliberately ejecting his consciousness from his physical body). This higher process would take some time to explain and is beyond the scope of this post.

In discourse, the Buddha often talked about how the 12 nidanas function from the start of a sensory input in the sixth nidana and how it develops from there. But any nidana can be seen as a starting point for the circular causation. The nidanas operate very rapidly so that there is a feeling of simultaneousness to them. By the time we notice that a samskara has been activated, we are already in pain. It takes a kind of mature intuitive awareness to feel all the links unfold inside us. It takes a fair amount of time being aware of our process to notice all these things happening one after the other and rippling across the mind. For instance, the conditioned consciousness can be a subtle sensory input for more samskaras to be activated until we are overwhelmed and burned out. This is called by the Tibetans "the spreading out of thought". Part of Samatha practice is to "tighten the mind" so that thought somewhat contained. It leads to the practice of "simple attention" or "bare attention" where we do not think or analyze what is happening, but simply look, because of we analyze, we think, and then these thoughts are picked up by our summarizer and become a subtle experience that causes samskaras to activate and our conditioned mind to flow and react to more and more things, until we have a "storm of thoughts and emotions" whirling around inside us. If we "remain with the sensation" and "not do anything", then the whole storm can calm down. We can also learn to use our mind to actively pacify our conditioned consciousness.

The goal of reducing karma through meditation is to remove the samskaras from our subconscious mind. This is done by being present as awareness and learning not to fall into identification with anything and hence not form a "self illusion". Without this identification, the samskara does not reload and dissolves into "emptiness". There is still some "momentum karma" that needs to wind down to zero. For instance, I insult someone and they are angry with me. I may have remorse about the insult and burn away the motivation to do it again, but the person may still be angry with me and retaliate back, arguing with me and causing some sorrow for both of us. If I accept this as karma balancing itself and completing itself, then it can be finished with. I can lovingly allow the person to be angry and finish with what he or she feels that he or she needs to do. It is also possible, sometimes, to have such deep remorse that it sends out a telepathic emanation that allows the other person to release his or her issue with us. Emptying the subconscious mind of the samskaras can be done rapidly through "telepathic link yoga" and even burn away the "seeds" in subtle form, before they get activated by external events. When we go within to dissolve them, they are not merely dormant seeds waiting for sensory quickening. They have a subtle motion and magnetism that is actively pulling experiences toward us and us toward experiences. They feel like a whirling energy that creates a vibration and magnetism around itself. We can feed their energy by indulging in them, by nursing them, by wanting them to happen, by dreaming about how to fulfill them, and by thinking thoughts that inspire us to follow the energy to its fulfillment. For instance, I could have some resentment about how a boss treated me. I could be arguing in my mind with him and subtly rehearsing for my next encounter and programming what will happen. It is "setting up the energy" of the next meeting. I might not be aware of what I am doing with my own mind. It is sometimes easy to predict the future by noticing what a person is daydreaming in his or her thoughts or randomly talking about. Samskaras are accidents waiting to happen with the participants making a thousand choices in thought that lead toward the accident without realizing it. This is the unconscious activity that one notices. When people have an event happen, they yet "victim" even though they were all "karma locked" to meet in the accident and suffer.

The key elements in this nidanic understanding of individual consciousness is that all the contents of our inner world and outer world is in motion, undergoing many changes that are in their turn causing other changes. There is a feeling of a chain reaction going on very rapidly with one state replacing another in succession. Even the body is undergoing vast changes moment to moment, being a single cell in the beginning, becoming a cell colony floating in a female womb, becoming a fetus, undergoing birth, breathing, crawling, growing, walking, talking, listening, and multiplying its cells into full biological adulthood, having accidents, having sex and birthing other bodies, diseases, joys, and accomplishments, and then wearing down, aging, and dying (unless a person chooses a regenerative lifestyle). Transitoriness karma, and interdependence are key elements in the Buddhist view of the world. Karma is how our choice interacts with universal law to produce our experience. The model is very dynamic and very scientific.

The wave pattern of karma is roughly sensory stimuli activates a sensory experience, we react with a sense of that experience being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensation, our conditioning then activates clinging, resistance, or apathy in response to the sensation, and then further evolve a complex response of thoughts, emotions, and impulses to do, we identify with this personality reaction and live out an ego identity, undergo the consequenes in terms of stress and joy, health and illness, regeneration and aging, life and death. The causal nexus or sentient being flowing within its life continuum moves from lifetime to lifetime, carrying the samskaras with it, to form its basic tendancies in each lifetime. These samskaras do not remain the same, but undergo their own changes over time, even though there is a basic sense of repetition and habit within them. Until we learn to live consciously and intentionally, sorrow is usually how they change.

The karmas are stored in the subconscious mind as samskaras, felt as addictive cravings, chronic negativity, and dull apathy. They crystallize into a system of attachments, resistances, and conditioning which is the basis of our personality. Our Buddha nature, radiant awareness, is below the surface of all this, taking in all this experience and living through whatever is happening to us. It is usually asleep as a kind of silent witness to everything. It is unborn, unchanging, and undying, as old as this infinite universe that never had a beginning and will never have an end. The individual sentient being is like a sensory motor nerve junction of an infinite psychophysical organism that is the universe itself, a part of this infinity, but not yet awake to who or what it is, still bound by karma, addiction, attachment, and sorrow, doomed to repetition admidst change, until it wakes up and takes a more active part in the unity. Its main sorrow is to have what it does not want or to want what it does not have. Ending this addictive consciousness and waking up to a deeper identity that does not have to self reference itself through thought, but which can peacefully abide in awareness as awareness. This deeper identity is like a wise child that never becomes a conditioned personality and which can experience the wonder of life moment to moment, and therefore always exists in "nirvana", the highest pleasure, and experience the purpose of life which is celebration itself (survival, healing, growth, and celebration to be precise). To end karma, there is remorse, ethical idealism, letting go of attachments, weakening addictions, and dissolving unconscious conditioning. The blessing energy of a luminious being, already fully awakened, can accelerate this process. This is the purpose of telepathic link yoga.


  1. I wanted to add this piece to the discussion on what Buddhism is, because the 12 Nidanas, or Interdependent Causes of Sorrow, is at the heart of Buddhist psychology (along with the teaching of the different kinds and levels of consciousness). There are some formulations which define "essential Buddhism", like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Triple Refuge. The first precept of the Eightfold Path is "right understanding" and this usually means understanding the 12 Nidanas, though sometimes "right understanding" is taught in a more general way of life being transitory and ever changing, and if you cling to anything for security and peace, like money, a career, or a relationship, then you will suffer when it changes, is threatened, or is lost. The implication is to let go and relax into the unfoldment of life. I found that I already composed a write up about the 12 Nidanas that appears on my own blog at this URL:

    There is also an excellent Wikipedia entry on the subject and even touches on some of the subtleties of this teaching, usually elaborated in the Abhidharma commentaries:

    The main experience that needs to be seen, understood, and verified in human experience is the "activation of a samskara". A samskara is an embedded impression that when stimulated by sensory experience causes an internal reaction of addictive craving, judgmental negativity, or obscuring delusion. For instance, an alcoholic is walking down a road noticing a beautiful sunrise. He or she is for the most part relatively peaceful, but then he or she walks past a pub. Noticing the sign of the pub is a sensory experience and this activates the craving for alcohol. The alcoholic then follows the craving and ends up following a karmaic line of experiences leading to puking over a tiolet the next morning with a headache and inflamed cellular tissues all over body which accelerate the process of aging and dying. The repeated pattern causes the person's romantic partner to eventually decide to leave the relationship. The defense of the pattern by unconscious ignorance and judgmental negativity reinforces and protects the samskara (replanting the seed of karma) so it can be activated again in the future, even in another lifetime.

  2. The activation of samskaras happens constantly in human life, even on a moment to moment basis. They are usually activated in a "chain reaction" sequence and can trigger each other in a kind of "ripple effect" moving over consciousness. For instance, the mythical alcoholic mentioned above, he sees the sign of the pub, feels the craving for alcohol get activated, the activation of the craving, activates thoughts of how good it will feel to get rip roaring drunk, but then these thoughts will activate a samskara about his relationship, memories of how she begged and pleaded with him to stop drinking, and memories of arguments and ultimatums that if he does not stop that she would leave. These, in turn, may activate memories of the loss of another relationship, the loss of friends, and maybe even getting fired from a job because of being too drunk to come to work on time.

  3. While the alcoholic samskara is an obvious and extreme example, milder samskaras are getting activated all the time, on a moment to moment basis. Noticing in real time how samskaras activate and the 12 stages of this process that are always going on allows one to see where the "samskaras of sorrow" can stop. They can stop at three points, the key one being "remaining at the sensation (stimulus)" and containing our reaction, letting it fade away. We can also contemplate the entire pattern of sorrow, noticing how there is a delusion that the short term pleasure reward will not have its inevitable painful outcomes, and then let the pattern drop by not adding our willful assent to the pattern (this is where the law of karma comes in to the equation). We can also learn, through meditation, to uproot the samskara directly, through application of divine grace in the form of purifying fire (tariki). This releases the entire pattern so deeply and thoroughly that it cannot be activated ever again. The result of this uprooting is that we have greater compassion on anyone who has ever had this same samskaric weakness. The one sure sign that one has uprooted a vast array of samskaras is that one has a forgiving attitude toward everyone and their sins. This is because of how the "grace fire" burns away the samskara. It illuminates its details as it dissolves the samskara, showing sometimes the pattern as it played out in other lifetimes and requiring forgiveness of everyone, including oneself and others, for having lived this pattern. The phrase in the prayer of Jesus, "forgive us our trepasses and we forgive those who trepass against us" seems to key into the heart of the very same process. It seems that when enough samskaras are cleared that the human body does have "light episodes" where it will suddenly surge and shine a radiant light through itself. Obscuring samskaras, those marked by sorrow, block the radiant true nature of our being from shining into and through our mind, heart, and body.


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