wikiosophy has a good entry on the 12 Nidanas, which she refers to on occasion and comes into play right at the beginning of the SD Stanzas:

http://www.tswiki.net/mywiki/index.php?title=Nid%C4%81na

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Buddhist iconography has very vivid illustrations of this concept, using symbols in a wheel:

1. blind old woman (ignorance),

2. potter making a pot (formation),

3. monkey in a tree (consciousness),

4. three men in a boat (name and form),

5. house with 6 windows (the 6 senses),

6. couple making love (contact)

7. man with an arrow in his eye (feeling)

8. man drinking milk and honey (craving)

9. monkey gathering fruit (grasping)

10. pregnant woman (becoming)

11. woman giving birth (birth)

12. man carrying a corpse (death)

 

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From HPB's Theosophical Glossary, opposite order:

Nidâna (Sk.). The 12 causes of existence, or a chain of causation, “a concatenation of cause and effect in the whole range of existence through 12 links”. This is the fundamental dogma of Buddhist thought, “the understanding of which solves the riddle of life, revealing the insanity of existence and preparing the mind for Nirvâna”. (Eitel’s Sans. Chin. Dict.) The 12 links stand thus in their enumeration. (1) Jail, or birth, according to one of the four modes of entering the stream of life and reincarnation—or Chatur Yoni (q.v.), each mode placing the being born in one of the six Gâti (q.v.). (2) Jarârnarana, or decrepitude and death, following the maturity of the Skandhas (q.v.). (3) Bhava, the Karmic agent which leads every new sentient being to be born in this or another mode of existence in the Trailokya and Gâti. (4) Upâdâna, the creative cause of Bhava which thus becomes the cause of Jati which is the effect; and this creative cause is the clinging to life. ( 5) Trishnâ, love, whether pure or impure. (6) Vêdâna, or sensation; perception by the senses, it is the 5th Skandha. (7) Sparsa, the sense of touch. (8) Chadâyatana, the organs of sensation. (9) Nâmarûpa, personality, i.e., a form with a name to it, the symbol of the unreality of material phenomenal appearances. (10) Vijnâna, the perfect knowledge of every perceptible thing and of all objects in their concatenation and unity. (11) Samskâra, action on the plane of illusion. (12) Avidyâ, lack of true perception, or ignorance. The Nidânas belonging to the most subtle and abstruse doctrines of the Eastern metaphysical system, it is impossible to go into the subject at any greater length.

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Here's some Transactions commentary on 1.4:


  A. Nidana means the concatenation of cause and effect; the twelve Nidânas are the enumeration of the chief causes which produce the severest reaction or effects under the Karmic law. Although there is no connection between the terms Nidana and Maya in themselves, Maya being simply illusion, yet if we consider the universe as Maya or illusion, then certainly the Nidânas, as being moral agents in the universe, are included in Maya. It is Maya, illusion or ignorance, which awakens Nidânas; and the cause or causes having been produced, the effects follow according to Karmic law. To take an instance: we all regard ourselves as Units, although essentially we are one indivisible Unit, drops in the ocean of Being, not to be distinguished from other drops. Having then produced this cause, the whole discord of life follows immediately as an effect; in reality it is the endeavor of nature to restore harmony and maintain equilibrium. It is this sense of separateness which is the root of all evil. 

  Q. Perhaps it would therefore be better to separate the two terms, and state whether Maya is an aspect of the Absolute? 

  A. This can hardly be so, since Maya is the Cause, and at the same time an aspect, of differentiation, if of anything. Moreover, the Absolute can never be differentiated. Maya is a manifestation; the Absolute can have no manifestation, but only a reflection, a shadow which is radiated periodically from it—not by it.

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Thank you, Casady.  Many years ago I was asked to look at the nidanas and explain them to a small group I was participating in.  But I was just beginning to study ... I am going to revisit them.

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My pleasure - I'm glad you found it useful - I find it fits in well with the doctrines of karma and reincarnation...

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Mahatma letter 10 gives the nidanas, using a basic Buddhist text:

If it is objected that we too have temples, we too have priests and that our lamas also live on charity . . . let them know that the objects above named have in common with their Western equivalents, but the name. Thus in our temples there is neither a god nor gods worshipped, only the thrice sacred memory of the greatest as the holiest man that ever lived. If our lamas to honour the fraternity of the Bhikkhusestablished by our blessed master himself, go out to be fed by the laity, the latter often to the number of 5 to 25,000 is fed and taken care of by the Samgha (the fraternity of lamaic monks) the lamassery providing for the wants of the poor, the sick, the afflicted. Our lamas accept food, never money, and it is in those temples that the origin of evil is preached and impressed upon the people. There they are taught the four noble truths — ariya sakka, and the chain of causation, (the 12 nid[ci]anas) gives them a solution of the problem of the origin and destruction of suffering.

Read the Mahavagga and try to understand not with the prejudiced Western mind but the spirit of intuition and truth what the Fully Enlightened one says in the 1st Khandhaka. Allow me to translate it for you.

"At the time the blessed Buddha was at Uruvella on the shores of the river Nerovigara as he rested under the Boddhi tree of wisdom after he had become Sambuddha, at the end of the seventh day having his mind fixed on the chain of causation he spake thus: 'from Ignorance spring the samkharas of threefold nature — productions of body, of speech, of thought. From the samkharas springs consciousness, from consciousness springs name and form, from this spring the six regions (of the six senses the seventh being the property of but the enlightened); from these springs contact from this sensation; from this springs thirst (or desire, Kama, tanha) from thirst attachment, existence, birth, old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair. Again by the destruction of ignorance, the Sankharas are destroyed, and their consciousness name and form, the six regions, contact, sensation, thirst, attachment (selfishness), existence, birth, old age, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair are destroyed. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering."

Knowing this the blessed one uttered this solemn utterance. "When the real nature of things becomes clear to the meditating Bikshu, then all his doubts fade away since he has learned what is that nature and what its cause. From ignorance spring all the evils. From knowledge comes the cessation of this mass of misery, and then the meditating Brahmana stands dispelling the hosts of Mara like the sun that illuminates the sky."

Meditation here means the superhuman (not supernatural) qualities, or arhatship in its highest of spiritual powers.

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Since Tsong Khapa puts it so eloquently, it would seem wise to continue this thread:

Here's a brief listing, compiled from Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press. He references mainly to the Nidana Samyutta and the Maha-Nidana Sutta.

1- Avidyā - Spiritual ignorance – the root of suffering conditions – chief of the four cankers – sense-desire, desire for existence, views, spiritual ignorance.

2- Saṃskāra - Constructing activities – actions of being, speech, mind – will, auspicious, inauspicious – There are three are fabrications: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications. 

3- Vijñāna - Discriminative Consciousness – evolving consciousness crucial for rebirth – the form of one’s consciousness depends on objects one pursues – volition and tendencies.

4- Nâmarûpa - Mind and body – feeling, cognition, will, stimulation and attention – begins once consciousness descends into womb – consciousness + mind/body= skandhas, four elements.

5- Ṣaḍâyatana - Six sense bases – memory, thought, imagination.

6- Sparśa - Sensory stimulation – Sense-base, object as consciousness.

7- Vedanâ -Feelings.

8- Tanhâ - Cravings – enjoy, prolong or rid – modifiable, undercutting craving – moral discipline + meditative calming There are these six forms of cravings: cravings with respect to forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch (massage, sex, pain), and ideas. 

9- Upâdâna - Graspings – clinging, active involvement in object of craving. These four are clingings: sensual clinging, view clinging, practice clinging, and self clinging.

10- Bhava - Existence – Continuation of change, process of karma, exist, auspicious, inauspicious volitions. These three are becoming: sensual becoming, form becoming, formless becoming.

11- Jâti - Birth – State of rebirth, conception/ re-arising process of 5 skandhas.

12- Jarāmaraṇa - Ageing, death, sorrow, suffering, first noble truth.

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Here's a passage from a well-known letter of HPB:

Please let me explain myself for once so that you may all know what I mean. I will not speak of Theosophists of the London Lodge, in general, but will confine what I have to say to your own small group and let you draw yourselves your inferences and parallels therefrom. I just mentioned the Nidana (law of cause and effects) in the life of every Theosophist who is in dead earnest. I must add a few words to this. To begin with, none of you, sons of your generation and environments seem to have paid the smallest attention to that mysterious Nidana, none - even amongst the most earnest has ever thought of watching, studying and profiting by the lessons contained therein - the web of life ever woven round each of you, yet it is in that intangible, yet plainly visible web (to those who would see its workings), in that ever open book traced in the mystic light around you, that you could learn - aye, even those possessed of no clairvoyant powers.

http://www.helenablavatsky.org/2014/05/learning-from-each-and-every...

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Geoffrey Barborka, in his SD questions & answers series in the Canadian Theosophist, dishes on the Nidanas:

Question: Please explain the use of the word Nidana in The Secret Doctrine; it seems to be used in two different ways.

Answer. The word Nidana is first used in connection with the premanifestation stages relative to cosmogenesis. Then later in connection with man's activities. Therefore, it is simply a matter of making the proper relationship.

The word is first used in Stanza I, sloka 4: "The seven ways to bliss were not. The great causes of misery were not, for there was no one to produce and get ensnared by them."

H.P. Blavatsky explains that the great causes, in Tibetan, are Tenbrel chug-nyi, "the chief causes of existence, effects generated by a concatenation of causes produced." (S.D. I, 38; I,112 6 vol. ed.; I, 70 3rd ed.) The Tibetan term is equivalent to the Sanskrit Nidana. The latter is derived from the verbal root ni-da, to bind, to fasten. In Buddhism it is rendered a cause of existence. In Stanza I, sloka 7, Nidana is referred to in this manner: "The causes of existence had been done away with; the visible that was, and the invisible that is, rested in eternal non-being, the one being."

Further in regard to the Nidanas, H.P. Blavatsky has written:

"The Nidanas have a dual meaning. They are: 1. The twelve causes of sentient existence, through the twelve links of subjective with objective Nature, or between the subjective and objective Natures. 2. A concatenation of causes and effects. Every cause produces an effect, and this effect becomes in its turn a cause. Each of these has as Upadhi (basis), one of the subdivisions of one of the Nidanas, and also an effect or consequence." (S.D. V, 558, 6 vol. ed., The Inner Group Teachings of H.P. Blavatsky, pp. 104-105.)

- Vol. 49, No. 5

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Here's another one from Barborka:

Question. In this passage from The Secret Doctrine: "the teachings of esoteric philosophy in relation to the Nidanas and the Four Truths become of the greatest importance; but they are secret." (I, 45) Please explain the meaning of the Nidanas and the Four Truths, and the significance of the statement "but they are secret."

Answer. First as to the significance of the Four Truths. It was in his first sermon that the Buddha enunciated the Four Noble Truths in Sanskrit Chatvari arya-satyani. They are described in this manner:

The First Noble Truth is Duhkha - Pain or Suffering: for birth is pain, old age is pain, sickness is pain, death is pain. Union with the unpleasant is pain, separation from the pleasant is pain, not obtaining what one wishes is pain. In short, the five groups of clinging to existence is pain.

The Second Noble Truth of the Cause of Pain is Duhkham-samudaya (sam-ud-aya means rise-up together) - and is described as the craving that leads to rebirth, accompanied by delight and passion, rejoicing at finding delight here and there, namely, the craving for lust, for existence, for nonexistence.

The Third Noble Truth of the Causation of Pain is Duhkha-nirodha (ni-rodha means broken down): the complete cessation of that craving, its forsaking, relinquishment, release and detachment from it.

The Fourth Noble Truth of the Path is Duhkha-nirodha-marga (marga means path) - the path that leads to the cessation of pain and suffering.

So the First Truth teaches that all that is born of attachment is Pain.

The Second Truth teaches that the twelve Nidanas (Dvadasa-Nidanas) are the links in the chain of Karmic causation: they form the twelve spokes in the Wheel of Existence or Rebirth.

The Third Truth teaches in regard to Nirvana - the attainment of Moksha or Liberation.

The Fourth Noble Truth teaches in regard to the Arya-Ashtanga-Marga - meaning the Noble Eightfold Path, signifying the Path to Liberation by means of the eight steps, which are: Right view; Right speech; Right resolve; Right conduct; Right livelihood; Right effort; Right recollection; Right contemplation.

In regard to the Nidanas - the Causes of Existence in Buddhism. The passage quoted by the questioner from The Secret Doctrine is the final sentence in the exposition of Stanza I, sloka 7, the first phrase of which reads:

"The Causes of Existence had been done away with": upon which H.P. Blavatsky commented:

"'The Causes of Existence' mean not only the physical causes known to science, but the metaphysical causes, the chief of which is the desire to exist, an outcome of Nidana and Maya. This desire for a sentient life shows itself in everything, from an atom to a sun, and is a reflection of the Divine Thought propelled into objective existence, into a law that the Universe should exist." (S.D. I, 44; I, 117 6-vol. ed.; I, 75-6 3rd ed.)

Explaining the outcome of Nidana and Maya, H.P. Blavatsky wrote:

"Nidana means the concatenation of cause and effect; the twelve Nidanas are the enumeration of the chief causes which produce the severest reaction or effects under the Karmic law. Although there is no connection between the terms Nidana and Maya in themselves, Maya being simply illusion, yet if we consider the universe as Maya or illusion, then certainly the Nidanas, as being moral agents in the universe, are included in Maya. It is Maya, illusion or ignorance, which awakens Nidanas; and the cause or causes having been produced, the effects follow according to Karmic law." (H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, Vol. X, 326).

The Sanskrit word Nidana is derived from the verbal root nida, meaning to bind on, to fasten. The twelve Nidanas, as previously stated are described as forming the spokes of a wheel which bring about birth after birth. The twelve Causes of Existence are thus enumerated:

1. Avidya, literally non-knowledge; usually rendered ignorance, which thus is the fundamental root of evil. 2. Samskara (samkri, to fashion together) karmic formations. 3. Vijnana (vi-jna, to discern) discernment: cognition of causes set in motion. 4. Namarupa (nama, name; rupa, form) giving rise to the personality - a form with a name to it. 5. Shadayatana (shad, six; aya-tana, organs) the six sense organs. 6. Sparsa (sparsa, touch) touch; contact with objects. 7. Vedana (vid, to know) sensation; sense-perception. 8. Trishna (thirst; Tanha in Pali) longing or attachments. 9. Upadana (upada, to acquire) clinging or grasping for life. 10. Bhava (bhu, to become) becoming (in the sense of causing to be born). 11. Jati (jan, to be born) birth (on earth). 12. Jaramarana (jri, to grow old; mri, to die) old age and death.

Referring now to the questioner's query as to the significance of the statement that the Four Truths are secret, the explanation was provided by H.P. Blavatsky when she was asked the following question:

"Are the Four Truths of the Hinayana school the same as those mentioned by Sir Edwin Arnold in The Light of Asia; the first of which is the Path of Sorrow; the second of Sorrow's cause; the third of Sorrow's ceasing; and the fourth is the Way?" Here is H.P. Blavatsky's response:

"All this is theological and exoteric, and to be found in all the Buddhist scriptures; and the above seems to be taken from Singhalese or Southern Buddhism. The subject, however, is far more fully treated of in the Aryasangha School. Still even there the four truths have one meaning for the regular priest of the Yellow Robe, and quite another for the real Mystics." (H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, Vol. X, 326).

- Vol. 57, No. 4