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Analysis of Conditionality
Dr. Peter Della Santina

The analysis of relations, or conditionality, is as important as the analysis of consciousness and the other aspects of psycho-physical experience we have considered in the last few chapters. This analysis has often been neglected in studies of the Abhidharma, which is paradoxical if you remember that, of the seven books of the Abhidharma Pitaka, the Book of Causal Relations (Patthana), which deals with conditionality, is one of the largest. It is only by devoting sufficient attention to the analysis of conditionality that we can avoid some of the pitfalls of an overly analytical view of reality. I alluded to this in Chapter 32, when I devoted some time to examination and comparison of the analytical and the relational methods of investigation, which together make up the comprehensive approach of Abhidharma philosophy.

Perhaps because the analytical approach of the Abhidharma has received more attention than the relational, we find Abhidharma philosophy categorized as 'realistic pluralism' by some scholars. This kind of categorization awakens all kinds of associations with movements of modern western philosophy, such as positivism and the work of Bertrand Russell. It implies that the result of Buddhist analysis is a universe in which numerous individual, separate, and self-existing entities exist in their own right and ultimately. While this may have been the view of some early schools of Buddhism in India, it is certainly not the view of mainstream Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana.

The only way we can avoid this pluralistic, fragmentary view of reality is by taking due account of the relational approach outlined in the Patthana and also developed in the Compendium of Relations (Abhidhammattha Sangaha). By doing so, we will achieve a correct and balanced view of Buddhist philosophy, a view that takes into account the static and analytical aspect of experience as well as the dynamic and relational aspect. The importance of understanding relations, or conditionality, is clearly indicated in the Buddha's own words. On a number of occasions the Buddha specifically associated the understanding of conditionality, or interdependent origination, with the attainment of liberation. He said that it is because of the failure to understand interdependent origination that we have so long wandered in this round of repeated rebirth. The Buddha's enlightenment is frequently described as consisting of his penetrating the knowledge of interdependent origination. This very close connection between the knowledge of interdependent origination and enlightenment is further illustrated by the fact that ignorance is most frequently defined, both in the sutras and in the Abhidharma, as either ignorance of the Four Noble Truths or ignorance of interdependent origination. Now, the theme underlying both the Four Noble Truths and interdependent origination is conditionality or causality, the relation between cause and effect. Thus the knowledge of conditionality is equivalent to the destruction of ignorance and the attainment of enlightenment.

The analysis of conditionality in the Abhidharma tradition is treated under two headings: (1) the analysis of interdependent origination, and (2) the analysis of the twenty-four conditions. We will look at them separately and then together, to see how they interact, support, and inform each other. I will not explain each of the twelve components of interdependent origination here, since they are described in Chapter 10. I would, however, like to briefly mention the three fundamental schemes of interpretation of the twelve components: (a) the scheme that divides and distributes the twelve components over the course of three lifetimes--past, present, and future; (b) the scheme that divides the components into afflictions, actions, and sufferings; and (c) the scheme that divides the components into active (or causal) and reactive (or resultant) categories. In this third scheme, ignorance, mental formation or volition, craving, clinging, and becoming belong to the causal category and can belong to either the past life or the present life, while consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, birth and old age and death belong to the effect category and can belong to either the present life or the future life. Thus there is an analysis of cause and effect, or conditionality, in the formula of interdependent origination.

The twenty-four conditions are not mutually exclusive. Many of them are partly or entirely identifiable with one another. The only explanation for several instances of almost (if not completely) identical factors is the desire of the authors' to be absolutely comprehensive, so as to avoid the slightest possibility of neglecting a mode of conditionality.

Let us look at each of the twenty-four conditions in turn: (1) cause, (2) objective condition, (3) predominance, (4) contiguity, (5) immediacy, (6) simultaneous origination, (7) reciprocity, (8) support, (9) decisive support, (10) preexistence, (11) post-existence, (12) repetition, (13) karma, (14) effect, (15) nutriment, (16) control, (17) absorption, (18) path, (19) association, (20) disassociation, (21) presence, (22) absence, (23) separation, and (24) non-separation.

A distinction must be made between cause, or root cause, and condition. We need to look at the Abhidharma literature if we want to distinguish cause from condition, because in the Sutra literature the two terms seem to be used interchangeably. Generally, we can understand the distinction by recourse to an analogy taken from the physical world: while the seed is the cause of the sprout, factors like water, earth, and sunlight are the conditions of the sprout. In the Abhidharmic treatment of conditionality, cause operates in the mental sphere and refers to the six wholesome or unwholesome roots--non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion and their opposites, greed, hatred, and delusion. Objective condition refers generally to the object which conditions experience. For example, a visual object is the objective condition of visual consciousness. Predominance refers to four categories of mental or volitional activities--wish, thought, effort, and reason--which have an overriding influence on factors of experience.

Contiguity and immediacy are virtually synonymous and refer to the conditioning of a thought-moment by the immediately preceding thought-moment. Contiguity and immediacy also refer to the conditioning of a given state of mind or matter by the immediately preceding state of mind or matter. We can perhaps understand this better if we think of contiguity and immediacy in the sense of immediate proximity in time and space, respectively.

Simultaneous origination can be seen in the case of the mental aggregates of consciousness, volition, perception, and feeling, and also in the case of the four essentials of matter (earth, water, fire, and air). Reciprocity or mutuality refers to the mutual dependence and support of factors, as in the case of the legs of a tripod that depend on and support one another. Support means the basis of any particular factor, in the way that the earth is the support of trees or canvas is the support of a painting. But when simple support becomes decisive support, it should be understood in the sense of inducement in a particular direction. This will become clearer when we examine how the twenty-four modes of conditionality function in relation to the twelve components of interdependent origination.

Preexistence or antecedence refers to the preexistence of factors that continue to exist after subsequent factors come into being. This is illustrated by the preexistence of the sense organs and objects of the senses, which continue to exist and thereby condition subsequent physical and mental experience. Post-existence complements preexistence and refers to the existence of subsequent factors such as mental and physical experience that condition preexisting factors like the sense organs and objects. Repetition is important in the sphere of mental life and leads to skill or familiarity. This is exemplified in the seven moments of impulse consciousness (see Chapter 37). Repetition is particularly important in the sphere of wholesome and unwholesome action because it increases the force of wholesome or unwholesome thought-moments. Karma is volitional action of a wholesome or unwholesome variety. Effect or result indicates that the reactive aspect of previous karma has an influence and serves to condition coexisting phenomena. It is interesting to note that even effects do, to a limited extent, function as conditions or as causes. This will become clear if we remember that we are considering the functional rather than the essentialistic definitions of such factors.

Nutriment refers to not only physical food, which is one of the conditions of the physical body, but also to mental food, such as impressions, which are the mental food of the aggregate of feeling. Control refers to confidence, mindfulness, and so forth, which master or control their opposites. Absorption refers not only to meditative absorption but also to absorption in a more general sense, which encompasses both wholesome and unwholesome absorptions. You may remember that the factors of absorption (jhananga) are not necessarily wholesome and pertain not only to the states of meditative absorption but also to a general condition of intensification of consciousness, whether wholesome or unwholesome (see Chapter 34).

Path refers to the path leading to unhappy states encompassing wrong views, wrong effort, and so forth, and also to the Noble Eightfold Path. Association refers to the conditioning of a factor by a similar factor, whereas disassociation is the conditioning by a dissimilar factor, such as the way sweetness and bitterness, light and darkness condition each other. Thus conditionality is not only positive but also negative. In other words, a particular factor of experience is conditioned not only by factors that are similar but also by factors that are dissimilar.

Presence refers to the necessary existence of certain conditions in order that other phenomena occur. For instance, light must be present for the experience of a visible form to arise. Absence is, like disassociation, a negative form of conditionality. For example, the disappearance of light is a condition for the arising of darkness. Separation and non-separation are identical to disassociation and association, respectively.

The twenty-four modes of conditionality operate in conjunction with the twelve components of interdependent origination. For example, ignorance, the first of the twelve components, conditions volition, the second component, by way of two modes of conditionality: objective condition and decisive support. This can be understood as follows: Volition can be meritorious or demeritorious, and ignorance functions as the decisive support of both. Ignorance functions as the decisive support conditioning meritorious volition if it is made the object of your meditation, in that the desire to free yourself from ignorance induces you to practice meditation and so forth. Conversely, if an unwholesome state of mind, such as greed (which is born of ignorance), becomes the object of your absorption, then ignorance functions as the decisive support of demeritorious volition. If you then commit an unwholesome action (steal a cookie, say), it is because ignorance has functioned as a decisive supporting condition inducing you to create the unwholesome volition on which the unwholesome action was based. Ignorance can also condition volition by way of contiguity, repetition, and so forth.

Volition (the second component of interdependent origination) conditions rebirth consciousness (the third component) by means of karma and decisive support, while consciousness conditions name and form (the fourth component) through reciprocity and also by means of support. Thus each of the twelve components conditions the subsequent component in a particular way identifiable in terms of the twenty-four conditions. We could cite more examples, but they would only reiterate how these twenty-four modes of conditionality condition the twelve components of interdependent origination.

The idea at the heart of the teaching of interdependent origination and the teaching of conditionality is the avoidance of the two extremes, the erroneous views of eternalism and nihilism. The Buddha said that seeing the doer of an action and the one who experiences the fruit of that action as identical is one extreme, while seeing them as different is another extreme. He taught the avoidance of these two extremes when he taught the Middle Way, which emerges from an understanding of interdependent origination and conditionality.

If we examine the twelve factors of interdependent origination in the light of the twenty-four modes of conditionality, we find that in all twelve factors there is no self, but only processes conditioned by other processes--processes that are, in their actual nature, empty of self and substance. This understanding of the emptiness of self and substance is achieved through an understanding of conditionality. It is in this sense that the consciousness belonging to this life and the consciousness belonging to the next life are neither identical nor different. When we understand the relationship between this life and the next--between the doer of an action and the experiencer of an action--as one that cannot be described in terms of either identity or difference, we arrive at an understanding of the Middle Way.

The relationship between this life and the next is one of cause and effect, and the relation of cause and effect is one of neither identity nor difference. In this way we can successfully avoid both the extreme of belief in an eternal self and the extreme of rejection of the law of moral responsibility, or karma. We can perhaps make this conditioned relationship between cause and effect clearer by looking at examples from daily life. Take the case of the seed and the sprout. The sprout originates dependent on the seed, but the sprout and the seed are neither identical nor different. They are obviously not identical, but by the same token, neither are they altogether different. Similarly, when a sound produces an echo, the two are not identical but neither are they altogether different. In the same way, this life and the next life are neither identical nor different; rather, the next life arises dependent on this life, volition, and ignorance.

In this process of conditioned arising, there is no persistent, permanent, and identical self, but neither is there an annihilation of the continuity of the process of cause and effect. If we can understand the relation between cause (or condition) and effect (or result) as a relation that cannot be described in terms of identity and difference, permanence and annihilation, we will understand emptiness, the Middle Way, and how not-self and insubstantiality are compatible with moral responsibility and rebirth.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 333-340].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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