Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelve-Fold Chain (Part 3 of 5)

Okay, we can put it off no longer. It’s time to work our way through the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination link by link. This would seem to be a straightforward process, but as I stated in a comment following the previous post, as soon as you pull on one thread all of Buddhism follows! Immediately upon considering the first link, avijja, we can’t help but wonder: where do nescience, ignorance, and delusion come from? And just what is it that is deluded, anyway – an existing physical being, a soul about to be reborn? For the time being, please hold loosely in mind the possibility that the twelve-fold chain encompasses multiple cycles of physical birth and death. At the same time, though, please keep in mind the possibility that the twelve-fold chain acts within a single physical human lifetime multiple times as we continue “our” process of becoming. Regardless of the way you choose to think about what constitutes ‘past life’, the following list displays the common lines of demarcation:

Past Life
  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
Present Life
  1. nama-rupa – name and form.
  2. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  3. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  4. vedana – feeling.
  5. tanha – craving.
  6. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  7. bhava – becoming.
Future Life
  1. jati – birth.
  2. jaramarana – aging and death.

 So, Where Does It All Begin?

Avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion. If Buddhism has anything resembling Catholicism’s concept of original sin, I suppose it is evident in the Verse of Repentance. The Verse of Repentance as recited at the Missouri Zen Center is as follows (translated by Yoshida roshi):

All the wrong karmas made by me
Were created from beginningless
Attachment, aversion and delusion
Born of the body, mouth and mind.
I now repent all of them wholeheartedly.

Actually, we can pretty much blame it all on delusion given the fact that attachment and aversion themselves arise from it. The expression “be careful what you wish for” reflects our common recognition that quite often we don’t really know what would be good for us. Likewise, the expression “swallowing a bitter pill” reflects the insight that that which we find aversive might actually end up being good for us. We just don’t know, do we?

What are we to make of that word ‘beginningless’? Did the universe come into existence with an explosive burst of nescience? Did the very first organic molecule arise due to a lightning bolt of delusion bringing intense charge to the primordial soup of our birth? Just how far back does this chain extend? Mind you, I’m not being facetious in asking these questions. I’m merely pointing out that if we go back far enough our questions start to become metaphysical in nature and, as such, their contemplation ceases to be conducive to the cessation of suffering (recall the story of Malunkyaputta related in a previous post). But even by going back only as far as our previous lifetime we find ourselves veering into the realm of the metaphysical. It depends upon your definition of lifetime. And that is why I say that pulling a single thread causes all of Buddhism to follow.

If you are inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of reincarnation, you cannot find a more profoundly beautiful description of the process of its unfolding than in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes how something akin to the Christian concept of a soul departs the body and begins to navigate the Bardo Realm. In the Bardo Realm the “soul” of the newly deceased individual encounters various manifestations of what might be known on an intellectual level to be a unified whole, but which will appear as either beautiful or terrifying depending upon the karma that the individual has accumulated over the course of his or her physical lifetime. This process results in the individual actually choosing a subsequent birth that is perfectly tuned to the spiritual progress that they have yet to make – a birth that is commensurate with the nature of their attachment, aversion, and delusion.

Some readers, then, will think that it makes perfect sense to begin the twelve-fold chain with avijja, for it is our nescience, ignorance, and delusion that leads us to interpret the unified whole of reality as something terrible and frightening – thereby prompting us to begin the process of choosing the precise nature of our future birth. Of course, in order for this process to unfold there must be some soul or soul-like essence that leaves one physical body and enters into another. But what if you don’t believe in reincarnation – the transmigration of the soul? Does it still make sense to begin the twelve-fold chain with avijja?

Avijja is the Pali variant of the Sanskrit word avidya, a word with rich meaning rooted in Hinduism – the predominant religion of the culture into which the Buddha was born. In Hinduism, avidya has both cosmic and individual connotations. At the cosmic level, avidya encompasses what is sometimes referred to as the ‘veil of maya’. At the individual level, avidya refers to our inherent “inability to distinguish between the transient and intransient, between the real and the unreal” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 25-26). In Buddhism, the word avijja takes on somewhat greater specificity in referring to our ignorance of, for instance, the Four Noble Truths and the nature of kamma (karma) and the nature of the self. Note that Yoshida (1994) refers to nescience (avijja) as “the misidentification of the five aggregates as ‘the self’” (p.59). The five aggregates will be addressed later on. For now, though, please just think of them as the ever-changing components that make up this mind/body existence.

I’ll close discussion of this first link (for now) with a description of avijja as interpreted by the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism founded by the Buddhist disciple, Nagarjuna. Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) state that in the Madhyamaka school “ignorance refers to the determination of the mind through a priori ideas and concepts that permit beings to construct an ideal world, that confer upon the everyday world its forms and manifold quality, and thus block vision of reality” (p. 26). I actually think that this description corresponds quite well with a more scientific view of the twelve-fold chain in that what we know about neurology and the evolution of the human brain points to our being predisposed to see the world through the dualistic lens of this and that, of self and other.
Are We Ready For That Next Big Step?

Sankhara – formation, volition, will. Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note that “formations include all volitional impulses or intentions that precede an action.” Furthermore, “if they [formations] are absent, no karma [whether physical,verbal, or mental] is produced, and no further rebirths take place” (p.298-299). Now, if you are inclined to believe in reincarnation, this seems like a logical next link in the chain. Using the description of what takes place in the Bardo Realm, for example, the newly deceased individual (due to nescience) incorrectly interprets what he or she is experiencing and thus begins the process of choosing his or her subsequent birth. This choosing is, of course, volitional.

However, Yoshida (1994, p. 48) points out a sutra, the Theragatha, in which this second link is actually kamma (karma) and not sankhara. This brings up a couple of points. First of all, it is evidence that the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination did not necessarily spring forth from the Buddha’s mouth fully formed but, rather, may have arisen and evolved over time as the Buddha’s oral teachings began to be written down. This process took place over the course of perhaps hundreds of years – long enough for divergence in teachings to have occurred or misinterpretations to have become manifest.  Secondly, it points to the possibility that this idea of a multi-fold chain was not originally intended to accommodate metaphysical concepts such as reincarnation and the transmigration souls but was, instead, intended to explicate how suffering arises and is perpetuated in an already physically formed individual. Yoshida (1994) states that sankhara has a more comprehensive meaning than kamma (karma), though both of them are derived from the same root – to create (p. 117). He notes that “kamma retains more concrete and limited sense of (physical) action, even though kamma can include three functions (bodily, verbal and mental)” (p.117). Furthermore, Yoshida (1994) points out that “action causes ‘the origination of consciousness,’ and turns the becoming wheel” (p.116). The ‘becoming wheel’ refers to the process of cycling through subsequent links in the twelve-fold chain.

Please note how important this word choice is. The word kamma (karma) leads us to focus on a physically existing body/mind, whereas the use of the more comprehensive word sankhara leaves the door open for us to focus on volition and will – concepts that are more easily theorized as being possible for some soul-like essence existing in a hypothetical spirit realm. Likewise, the next link, vinnana (consciousness), can be imagined as occurring in that same spirit realm. What is a soul, after all, if not some form of consciousness? The difficulty is that Buddhism describes very clearly how consciousness arises. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s that pulling-one-thread-and-having-all-of-Buddhism-follow phenomenon.

A Bridge Between Lives?

Vinnana – consciousness. When we begin to think about what it must be like to exist in the spirit realm, the closest description has to be that it is like having consciousness without form. And so, for readers inclined to think in terms of reincarnation, we have arrived at a point where consciousness may enter a physical body and begin life anew. For readers inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of the previous moment of existence, we have now arrived at the present moment of consciousness. Either way you choose to think about it, consciousness brings us into the present moment where we are actually in a position to do something to impact our circumstances, i.e., bring an end to suffering.

But I simply can’t bring this discussion of vinnana (consciousness) to a close without discussing the problem that I alluded to above. In Buddhism, consciousness requires and results from contact (see the link referring to phassa) between a sense organ and its associated sense object. Yes, and that includes thought, as well, for in this schema mind is the sense organ and mind-object (thought, etc.) the sense object. (See, for instance, the Samyutta Nikaya 35.93.) So just how is it, then, that consciousness leaves one body and enters another? Do we need to expand our definition of consciousness in order to include some other form that is available to a soul-like essence in a hypothetical spirit realm? Do we need to accept this apparent inconsistency in the twelve-fold chain? Perhaps we just don’t see the whole picture just yet. Remember, we’re holding these ideas loosely, right?

Well, it’s time for me to sign off. Let’s hold these ideas loosely for yet another week. In the next post I’ll be covering the so-called becoming wheel, the section of the twelve-fold chain most pertinent to our understanding of suffering and its cessation – regardless of how we got here.


Anguttara Nikaya 35.93. Dvaya sutta: a pair (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010,
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Hi Maku,
    Upon reading this post, it was clear that I did not consider past lives (moment or incarnation) in the chain. Putting this into consideration clears things up tremendously. Thank you.


  2. Is it possible that there is more than one way to interpret the order of the chain links? For instance, could it begin with consciousness? It seems to me that there are many possibilities.

    I also like the accompanying artwork - is it one of your original creations?

  3. Stacey and Kristen, you guys are awesome for following along so closely! Yes, you can probably intuit from the tone of the posts that we might need to get non-linear in our thinking. Once again, I appreciate you hanging with me on this long series. Have a great weekend!

  4. I hope you plan on compiling these blog posts into a book. If so, I want one, signed :). Thank you.

  5. I second what Stacey says. :D A signed book would be a fabulous addition to my ever-expanding library.

  6. Stacey, thank you very much for thinking these posts worthy of compilation someday, and, Kristen, thank you for agreeing! We'll see what happens. I'm really enjoying writing these posts and I'm so encouraged that people are reading them. I guess in a year or so, if it looks like there is a cohesive subset of posts crying out to be treated as a whole, it will fall into place. I would be greatly honored to sign your copies if that should come to pass. Thank you, again! Maku


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