An outline of the 24 Conditions as taught in the Abhidhamma

by Nina van Gorkom | 2003 | 56,782 words

Conditionality of Life in the Buddhist Teachings An outline of the 24 Conditions as taught in the Abhidhamma...


The Buddha's teaching on the conditions for the phenomena of our life has been laid down in the last of the seven books of the Abhidhamma, the "Patthana", or "Conditional Relations". The Buddha, in the night he attained enlightenment, penetrated all the different conditions for the phenomena which arise and he contemplated the "Dependant Origination" (Paticca Samuppada), the conditions for being in the cycle of birth and death, and the way leading to the elimination of these causes. We read in the Introduction of the Atthasalini (The Expositor, the commentary to the Dhammasangani, the first book of the Abhidhamma) that the Buddha, during the fourth week after his enlightenment, sat in the "Jewel House", in the north west direction, and contemplated the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma was laid down later on in seven books. We read:

... And while he contemplated the contents of the "Dhammasangani", his body did not emit rays; and similarly with the contemplation of the next five books. But when, coming to the "Great Book", he began to contemplate the twenty-four universal causal relations of condition, of presentation, and so on, his omniscience certainly found its opportunity therein. For as the great fish Timirati-pingala finds room only in the great ocean eighty-four thousand yojanas in depth, so his omniscience truly finds room only in the Great Book. Rays of six colours- indigo, golden, red, white, tawny, and dazzling- issued from the Teacher's body, as he was contemplating the subtle and abstruse Dhamma by his omniscience which had found such opportunity....

The teaching of the conditional relations is deep and it is not easy to read the "Patthana", but we could at least begin to study different conditions and verify them in daily life. Before we knew the Buddha's teachings we used to think of cause and effect in a speculative way. We may have reflected on the origin of life, on the origin of the world, we may have thought about causes and effects with regard to the events of life, but we did not penetrate the real conditions for the phenomena of life. The Buddha taught the way to develop understanding of what is true in the absolute or ultimate sense. We cannot understand the "Patthana" if we do not know the difference between what is real in conventional sense and what is real in the ultimate sense. Body and mind are real in conventional sense, they are not real in the ultimate sense. What we call body and mind are temporary combinations of different realities which arise because of conditioning factors and then fall away immediately. They are succeeded by new realities which fall away again, and thus the flux of life goes on. Body, mind, person or being do not exist in the ultimate sense. Mental phenomena, nama, and physical phenomena, rupa, which constitute what we call a "person" are real in the ultimate sense, but they are merely passing phenomena. Ultimate truth is not abstract. Ultimate realities, in Pali: paramattha dhammas, have each their own characteristic which cannot be changed. We may change the name, but the characteristic remains the same. Seeing is an ultimate reality, it experiences visible object which appears through the eyes; it is real for everyone, it has its own unalterable characteristic. Anger has its own characteristic, it is real for everyone, no matter how we name it. Ultimate realities can be directly experienced when they appear through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense or mind. They arise because of their appropriate conditions.

There are twenty-four classes of conditions enumerated in the "Patthana". In order to understand these it is essential to have a precise knowledge of the realities which are involved in these conditional relations. The Dhammasangani, the first book of the Abhidhamma, is an analytical exposition of all classes of consciousness, cittas, and their accompanying mental factors, cetasikas, and all physical phenomena, rupas. The Dhammasangani explains which cetasikas accompany which cittas and it deals with conditions which operate in one moment of consciousness.[1] It explains which rupas arise together in a group and the factors which produce rupas, namely, kamma, citta, nutrition and temperature. However, it does not describe in detail the different types of conditions. The Patthana describes in detail all possible relations between phenomena. Each reality in our life can only occur because of a concurrence of different conditions which operate in a very intricate way. Hearing is conditioned by sound which impinges on the earsense. Both sound and earsense are rupas which also arise because of their own conditions and therefore, they have to fall away. Thus, the reality they condition, hearing, cannot last either, it also has to fall away. Each conditioned reality can exist just for an extremely short moment. When we understand this it will be easier to see that there is no self who can exert control over realities. How could we control what falls away immediately? When we move our hands, when we walk, when we laugh or cry, when we are attached or worried, there are conditions for such moments. The Patthana helps us to understand the deep underlying motives for our behaviour and the conditions for our defilements. It explains, for example, that kusala can be the object of akusala citta. For instance, on account of generosity which is wholesome, attachment, wrong view or conceit, which are unwholesome realities, can arise. The Patthana also explains that akusala can be the object of kusala, for example, when akusala is considered with insight. This is an essential point which is often overlooked. If one thinks that akusala cannot be object of awareness and right understanding, the right Path cannot be developed.

The enumerations and classifications in the Patthana may, at first sight, seem dry and cumbersome, but when they are carefully considered it can be seen that they deal with realities of daily life. The study of the Abhidhamma can become very lively and interesting if our knowledge is applied in our own situation. It can be understood more clearly that kusala citta and akusala citta arise because of different conditions. One may doubt whether it is helpful to know details about realities and their conditions. When we know that there isn't anything we can control, will that change our life? It is beneficial to have less ignorance about ourselves. Defilements cannot be eradicated immediately, there will still be sadness, worry and frustration. However, when it is more clearly understood that realities arise because of their own conditions there will be less inclination to try to do what is impossible: to change what has arisen because of conditions. When there is more understanding one will be less obsessed by one's experiences, there will be more patience. The Patthana clarifies how accumulations of good and bad qualities are conditions for the arising of kusala and akusala in the future. Thus, the study of the Patthana can encourage us to develop understanding together with all good qualities. Conditions can be accumulated which lead to direct understanding of realities and eventually to enlightenment.

The reader will find it complicated to study the duration of rupa which equals seventeen moments of citta. We could never count such moments, they pass too quickly. However, the knowledge about the duration of rupa helps us to see that rupa lasts longer than citta. Rupa is weak at its arising moment, but after its arising it can condition citta. One rupa can condition several cittas since it lasts longer than citta. For instance, the rupa which is sense object (colour, sound, etc.) can condition a series of cittas arising in a sense-door process by way of object-condition, that is to say, by being the object they experience. The rupas which are the sense-organs (eyesense, earsense, etc.) can condition citta by being its base, the place of origin. Thus, knowing about the duration of rupa and of citta clarifies their relationship.

The Abhidhamma, the Suttanta and the Vinaya all point to the same goal: the eradication of wrong view and all other defilements. Also when we study the Patthana we are reminded of this goal. Some people doubt whether the Buddha himself taught the twenty-four classes of conditions. They wonder why these have not been enumerated in the suttas. The nucleus of the teaching on conditions is to be found also in other parts of the teachings. In the suttas we read, for example, about jhana-factors and Path-factors, and about the factors which are predominance-condition[3] for the realities they accompany, and these are among the twenty-four classes of conditions which are described in the Patthana. The "Dependant Origination" (Paticcasamuppada), the Buddha's teaching on the factors which are the conditions for being in the cycle of birth and death and also those which condition freedom from the cycle, is found in all parts of the scriptures. The teaching of the "Dependant Origination" is closely connected with the teaching of the "Patthana", and the "Dependant Origination" cannot be understood without knowledge of the different types of conditions as taught in the "Patthana". Doubt will only disappear if we thoroughly consider the different types of conditions, because then we can see for ourselves whether the contents of the "Patthana" conform to the truth or not.

The conditions have also been explained by the great commentator Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification).[5] Buddhaghosa, who lived in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. in Sri Lanka, edited older commentarial work he found there.

I have used Pali terms next to the English translation of these terms for precision. In different English textbooks one and the same Pali term has been translated with different English words, and then there may be confusion as to which reality is represented by such or such English word. Only part of the "Patthana" has been translated into English by Ven. U Narada. This work, consisting of two volumes, is, under the title of "Conditional Relations", available at the Pali Text Society[7]. The "Guide to Conditional Relations", which the translator also wrote, is a helpful introduction to the reading of the "Patthana"[9]. All the texts from which I quoted are available at the Pali Text Society. Ms. Sujin Boriharnwanaket has, in the Bovoranives Temple in Bangkok, given most inspiring lectures on the conditional relations. She stressed time and again that conditions pertain to this very moment, in daily life. I used many of her lively illustrations and her quotations from the scriptures for this book on conditions.

I have added an appendix where I explain some notions of the Abhidhamma in order to facilitate the reading of this study on conditions.

It has been said in commentaries that Buddhism will decline and that the Buddhist scriptures will disappear. The Abhidhamma, and in particular the "Patthana", will be the first to be in oblivion. The "Patthana" is deep and difficult to understand. I hope I can contribute with this book to the arousing of interest in the "Patthana". May the Abhidhamma survive for an additional length of time. This will also insure the survival of the other parts of the scriptures, the Vinaya and the Suttanta. The "Patthana" helps us to have more understanding of the truth of non-self. It thereby encourages us to develop the eightfold Path, to develop direct understanding of all realities which appear through the five sense-doors and through the mind-door. Theoretical knowledge of conditions is not the purpose of the "Patthana". Through mere intellectual understanding conditions cannot be thoroughly grasped. When understanding of nama, mental phenomena, and rupa, physical phenomena, has been developed to the degree of the second stage of insight,[11] there will be direct understanding of the conditionality of realities. When conditions are understood more clearly, there will be less clinging to a self who could control awareness of nama and rupa. Thus, the "Patthana" can help us to follow the right practice. It is above all the right practice of the eightfold Path that can promote the survival of the Buddha's teachings. 

13 June 2004

Footnotes and references:


There is only one citta at a time but it is accompanied by several cetasikas which each perform their own function.


Awareness or mindfulness, sati, is a sobhana cetasika, beautiful mental factor, which arises with each sobhana citta. Sati is non-forgetful of what is wholesome, and there are many levels of sati. Sati in the development of insight, vipassana, is directly aware of the nama or rupa which appears. The study of the teachings and consideration of what one has learnt are important conditions for the arising of sati.


Later on I shall deal with these kinds of conditions.


They are contact, feeling, remembrance or perception (sanna), volition, concentration, life faculty and attention.


I have used the translation by Ven. Nyanamoli, Colombo, 1964.


They are: initial thinking, sustained thinking, decision, effort, rapture and wish-to-do.


73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX 37, 7AD, England.


In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa, cittas do not arise independently of the body, they have a physical base or place of origin, vatthu, which is rupa. For example, the rupa which is eyesense is the base for seeing-consciousness, and the other senses are the bases for the relevant sense-cognitions.


See also "Guide to the Abhidhamma Pitaka", Ch VII, by Ven. Nyanatiloka, B.P.S. Kandy, and "The Buddhist Philosophy of Relations", by Ven. Ledi Sayadaw, Department of Religious Affairs, Rangoon, Myanmar.


Plane of existence refers to the place where one is born, such as the human plane, a hell plane or a heavenly plane. Plane of consciousness refers to the nature of citta, namely cittas of the sense sphere which experience sense objects, jhanacittas which experience with absorption meditation subjects or lokuttara cittas which  experience nibbana, the unconditioned dhamma.


Insight, direct understanding of nama and rupa, is developed in several stages, until realities are seen as they are at the attainment of enlightenment. The second stage cannot be realised before the first stage: knowing the difference between the characteristic of nama and of rupa.


Different groups of rupas of the body are produced by one these four factors, and rupas which are not of the body are produced only by temperature.


The conditioned phenomena of our life can be classified as five khandhas or aggregates: rupa-kkhandha, vedana-kkhandha (feeling), sanna-kkhandha (perception or remembrance), sankhara-kkhandha (formations, all cetasikas except feeling and perception), and vinnana-kkhandha (consciousness).


There are three cetasikas which are unwholesome roots, akusala hetus, and these are: lobha, attachment, dosa, aversion, and moha, ignorance. They arise only with akusala cittas. There are three cetasikas which are sobhana, beautiful, hetus, and these are: alobha, non-attachment, adosa, non-aversion, and amoha, non-delusion or wisdom. These can arise with kusala cittas as well as with vipakacittas and kiriyacittas.


An ancient guide for commentators, from which also Buddhaghosa quoted. It is assumed that it came from India to Sri Lanka, between the 3rd century B.C. and the 5th century A.C.


Those who have attained one of the stages of enlightenment, the ariyans, have no conditions for an unhappy rebirth.

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