The Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality

What is the Buddha’s teaching on conditionality? Why is this teaching so important? Conditionality is the basic principle of understanding reality, according to the Buddha’s teaching.
This sounds very grand, but actually what it amounts to is something very practical: how suffering arises in human experience and how we can bring about the ceasing of that same suffering. Of course this is what the Buddha’s teachings are all about, but Conditionality addresses this issue so directly that it can be thought of as the most important Buddhist teaching.
The question whether the Buddha’s teaching on conditionality was primarily ontological or pragmatic in its emphasis is perplexing. If ontology is defined as the study of what really exists, then in a certain sense there does not seem much basis for regarding the Buddha’s teaching on conditionality as ontological because there are many passages in the Pali texts where the Buddha makes it clear that he is not interested in speculating about what really exists or doesn’t exist. The main emphasis of all his teachings is the practical context of the spiritual path, so his teachings on conditionality should, first and foremost, be understood in that very practical context. However one could also make an argument for saying that Buddhist teaching on conditionality is a kind of ontology because the Buddha makes the universal statement that ‘things arise on conditions and they cease when those conditions cease’. This clearly implies that conditionality is the way everything in the world works. Thus, to the extent that it is an ontology it is a process ontology – nothing can be pinned down as to its essence but there is still an underlying process to reality, the ‘nature of things’ to say.
Nature is a very multifaceted word in English and it can be said that the Buddha’s teaching is a kind of religious naturalism. This comes across in a number of natural metaphors which the Buddha uses to describe the idea of conditionality. Buddha firstly says that the path to the end of suffering can be compared to water falling as rain over a mountainside, which gathers in pools, which flows as streams into bigger pools, which flows as rivers into lakes and which flows as big rivers into the sea. The coming together of all these rivers, he compares to the attaining of nirvana. It could be deduce from this metaphor that the Buddhist path is just a matter of flowing along with the current, but the problem with that interpretation is that the Buddha also uses the same metaphor of flowing along for samsara, which is the whole business of continued suffering and continued existence based on craving and delusion. So there are two different metaphors for one complicated reality, which can be quite confusing. The Buddha doesn’t explain it like this, but perhaps we could make sense of these metaphors by imagining that dharma practice is like the sunshine which dries up the stream of craving and falls as rain on the mountaintop of happiness! So there’s a sort of recycling of streams going on.
It may be emphasised that development along the Buddhist path is ‘a progressive process that takes care of itself’ – that it unfolds according to the principle of conditionality. The idea that the Buddhist path is something that unfolds of its own accord is really encouraging. The passages in the Pali canon where these teachings are found are not very famous The Buddha uses a lovely homely metaphor of a chicken sitting on her eggs, for example, to illustrate this idea. As chicks will hatch out of their eggs when they are ready and the hen’s job is just to incubate them properly, as long as we live devoted to spiritual development, progress will inevitably come about.That might sound like one does not have to do anything, but of course the Buddha never said ‘just go with the flow’ because there is the powerful river of craving as well! So the point more appropriately is that rather than worrying about where one is going with the practice and trying to force the way towards nirvana through one’s egoic effort, all that is necessary is that one directs the energy to what is needed to do in the moment. This might be practicing ethics, it might be meditating, but the process of flowing along towards nirvana will just occur of its own accord. When the conditions are ripe – to use another natural metaphor – the path will unfold.
Such interpretation of or approach to the study of conditionality rather than emphasizing the theory in a philosophical or doctrinal context, takes a practice-orientated approach and presents conditionality as something which one can reflect on in one’s own life. It reconnects the idea of conditionality with one’s own experience in a way that makes the teaching more relevant and easily accessible for today’s modern people.
To suppose that conditionality is intrinsically ethical might be to suppose that the universe is intrinsically ethical – that if one acts in certain ways, certain outcomes happen of their own accord. Tthe principle of conditionality is a principle of justice in that sense because the universe seems neither just nor unjust but entirely neutral to human beings. At the same time, the universe is the only place in which we can become enlightened beings! So whilst conditionality itself is neutral as far as ethics are concerned, it does give us both the context and momentum for properly understanding and developing them..
Thomas Jones, author of ‘‘This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality’ is available from the Windhorse online store, £12.99


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