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...


It is not by mere chance that we are born in planes of existence where we can experience objects through the senses and that we are equipped with sense-organs through which we can experience such objects. During previous lives as well we experienced colours, sounds and other sense objects. We were clinging to these objects in the past and we are clinging to them at present again and again, so that attachment has become a deep-rooted tendency. Attachment does not arise with each moment of consciousness, citta, but the tendency to attachment is "carried on" from one moment to the next moment, from life to life. Each citta which arises falls away completely, but it is succeeded by the next citta. In the uninterrupted series of cittas which flow on continuously, inclinations to both good and evil are carried on. When there are the right conditions wholesome moments of consciousness, kusala cittas, and unwholesome moments of consciousness, akusala cittas, arise, and thus there can be new accumulations of wholesome and unwholesome qualities which will bear again on the future.

We all have accumulated attachment. For instance, as soon as a morsel of delicious food is on our tongue, attachment to flavour has an opportunity to arise. In the human plane of existence there are many opportunities for attachment to sense objects. There were wise people, also before the Buddha's time, who saw the disadvantage of the experience of sense objects. They cultivated tranquil meditation to the stage of absorption, jhana, in order to temporarily suppress the clinging to sense objects. Jhanacittas of the different stages of jhana can produce results in the form of rebirth in higher planes of existence where there are fewer kinds of sense impressions or none at all. In these planes one does not have to take food in order to stay alive, there are no conditions for the enjoyment of flavours. Through the cultivation of jhana, however, clinging is not eradicated. So long as clinging has not been eradicated there will be rebirth. When the lifespan in a higher plane is terminated there may be rebirth in a plane where one will cling again to sense objects and accumulate more clinging unless one develops the wisdom which can eradicate clinging.

The fact that we are born in the human plane where we can enjoy flavours and all the other sense objects and also the fact that we have clinging to them is conditioned. When we use the word "condition" we should realize that there is not just one kind of condition which brings about one kind of effect. There are many types of conditions for the phenomena which arise and it is important to study these different types. We may be inclined to put off the study of this subject because we think it too difficult. However, we should remember that conditions are real in daily life and that they are not merely textbook terms.

We may have learnt that there are different types of mental phenomena, namas, and different types of physical phenomena, rupas, and that these are only conditioned phenomena, not self. By being aware of nama and rupa when they appear they can be gradually known as they are.{GL_NOTE::} In spite of our study of nama and rupa we may still find that awareness, sati, arises very seldom. One of the causes of lack of sati may be the fact that we did not yet sufficiently study in detail nama and rupa and their different conditions. If we study the conditions for nama and rupa we will have more understanding of the meaning of "no self". Intellectual understanding of the truth is a condition for the arising of awareness and this is the way to eradicate the wrong view of self.

What we consider as our life is actually conditioned phenomena (sankhara dhammas), that is, citta (consciousness), cetasikas (mental factors accompanying citta), and rupa (physical phenomena). What arises because of conditions does not last, it has to fall away again. Thus, citta, cetasika and rupa are impermanent. Nibbana is the unconditioned dhamma, it does not arise and it does not fall away.

Citta experiences something, it cognizes an object. The five senses and the mind are the doorways through which citta can cognize the different objects which present themselves. Citta does not arise singly, it is always accompanied by cetasikas. Cetasikas have each their own function and assist citta in cognizing an object. There are many ways of classifying cittas and one of these is by way of four "jatis" or classes (jati literally means birth or nature). There are four jatis by which the different nature of cittas is shown and they are:

  1. kusala (wholesome) akusala (unwholesome)
  2. vipaka (result which may be pleasant or unpleasant)
  3. kiriya (neither cause nor result, inoperative)

Cetasikas are of the same jati as the citta they accompany. There are seven cetasikas, the "universals" (sabba-citta-sadharana) which accompany every citta.{GL_NOTE::} There are six cetasikas, the "particulars" (pakinnaka) which arise with cittas of the four jatis but not with every citta.{GL_NOTE::} Furthermore, there are akusala cetasikas which arise only with akusala cittas and there are sobhana (beautiful) cetasikas which arise only with sobhana cittas. Citta and the accompaying cetasikas have, in the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa, the same physical base (vatthu),{GL_NOTE::} they experience the same object and they fall away together. Citta and cetasikas are of the same plane of consciousness:{GL_NOTE::} they can be of the sense-sphere, they can be jhanacitta which is rupavacara or arupavacara, or they can be lokuttara (supramundane), experiencing nibbana. Citta and cetasikas condition one another in several ways, as we shall see.

Rupas, physical phenomena, do not arise singly, but in groups, which can be produced by kamma, by citta, by heat or by nutrition.{GL_NOTE::} Thus we see that there is no reality which arises singly. Realities do not arise by their own power, they are dependant on other phenomena which make them arise. Moreover, there is not any reality which arises from a single cause, there is a concurrence of several conditions through which realities arise. When we, for example, taste delicious cheese, there are several conditions for tasting-consciousness. Tasting-consciousness is vipakacitta, result, produced by kamma. It is also conditioned by the rupa which is tasting-sense and which is also produced by kamma. Tasting-sense is the physical place of origin or base (vatthu) for tasting-consciousness as well as the doorway (dvara) through which tasting-consciousness experiences the flavour. The rupa which is flavour is a condition for tasting-consciousness by being its object. Contact, phassa, which is a cetasika accompanying every citta, "contacts" the flavour so that tasting-consciousness can experience it. If phassa would not contact the object citta could not experience it.

If we understand that there is a multiplicity of conditions we will be less inclined to think that pain and pleasure can be controlled by a self. Or do we still think so? When we have unpleasant experiences, for example, when someone hits us, we are inclined to think that we can create pleasant feeling again when we go out in order to eat in a nice restaurant. It depends on conditions whether we have money to go to a restaurant and while we are going out there are many moments of pleasure and pain, each brought about by their own conditions. It may not be the right time for the experience of pleasant flavours, the food may be spoilt or the service may be inadequate. The more we learn in detail about conditions, the more will we understand that whatever we experience is beyond control.

Nama conditions rupa and rupa conditions nama. We read in the Visuddhimagga (XVIII, 32) about the interdependence of nama and rupa:

... For just as when two sheaves of reeds are propped up one against the other, each one gives the other consolidating support, and when one falls the other falls, so too, in the five-constituent (five khandhas){GL_NOTE::} becoming, mentality-materiality occurs as an interdependent state, each of its components giving the other consolidating support, and when one falls owing to death, the other falls too. Hence the Ancients said:

The mental and material
 Are twins and each supports the other;
When one breaks up they both break up
Through interconditionality.

And just as when sound occurs having as its support a drum that is beaten by the stick, then the drum is one and the sound is another, the drum and the sound are not mixed up together, the drum is void of the sound and the sound is void of the drum, so too, when mentality occurs having as its support the materiality called the physical base, the door and the object, then the materiality is one and the mentality is another, the mentality and the materiality are not mixed up together, the mentality is void of the materiality and the materiality is void of the mentality; yet the mentality occurs due to the materiality as the sound occurs due to the drum....

In being mindful of nama and rupa we will learn to distinguish their different characteristics, thus, we will not confuse nama and rupa, and we will also know them as conditioned realities, not self. The Visuddhimagga (XVII, 68) defines condition, paccaya, as follows:

... When a state is indispensable to another state's presence or arising, the former is a condition for the latter. But as to characteristic, a condition has the characteristic of assisting; for any given state that assists the presence or arising of a given state is called the latter's condition. The words, condition, cause, reason, source, originator, producer, etc., are one in meaning though different in letter....

Thus, there are conditioning phenomena, paccaya-dhammas, and conditioned phenomena, paccayupanna-dhammas. In the "Patthana" there is a tripartite division of realities, which can also be found elsewhere in the Abhidhamma. Realities can be: kusala (here translated as faultless), akusala (faulty) and avyakata (indeterminate). We should remember that avyakata comprises citta and cetasikas which are vipaka, accompanied or unaccompanied by hetus (roots){GL_NOTE::}, kiriyacittas, accompanied or unaccompanied by hetus, rupa and nibbana.

The "Patthana" deals with twenty-four classes of conditions and it teaches in detail about the phenomena which condition other phenomena by way of these different conditions. One may wonder whether so many details are necessary. We read in "The Guide"{GL_NOTE::} (Netti-Ppakaranan, Part III, 16 Modes of Conveying, VII, Knowledge of the Disposition of Creatures' Faculties, §587):

Herein, the Blessed One advises one of keen faculties with advice in brief; the Blessed One advises one of medium faculties with advice in brief and detail; the Blessed One advises one of blunt faculties with advice in detail.

The Buddha taught Dhamma in detail to those who could not grasp the truth quickly. People today are different from people at the Buddha's time who could attain enlightenment quickly, even during a discourse. The "Patthana" does not consist of empty formulas, we have to verify the truth of conditions in our own life. If we merely learn the theory about the different conditions we will have the wrong grasp of the Abhidhamma and this leads to mental derangement, to madness. We read in the "Expositor" (I, Introductory Discourse, 24):

...The bhikkhu, who is ill trained in the Abhidhamma, makes his mind run to excess in metaphysical abstractions and thinks of the unthinkable. Consequently he gets mental distraction...

We read in the Visuddhimagga (XX, 19) that the five khandhas (conditioned namas and rupas) are "as a disease, because of having to be maintained by conditions, and because of being the root of disease". The khandhas arise because of conditions and what arises because of a concurrence of conditions is not eternal, it has to fall away. Therefore, the khandhas cannot be a real refuge, they are dukkha, unsatisfactory. Further on we read that they are a calamity, an affliction, a plague, no protection, no shelter, as murderous, because of breaking faith like an enemy posing as a friend.

We cling to the khandhas, we want their arising again; we wish life to continue. So long as we have not eradicated defilements there will be the arising of the khandhas at birth. We perform kamma which produces rebirth. We still run the risk of an unhappy rebirth produced by akusala kamma.{GL_NOTE::} Kamma is accumulated and thus it is capable of producing result later on. Not only kamma, but also defilements are accumulated. Since there are many more akusala cittas arising than kusala cittas, we accumulate defilements again and again, and these cause sorrow. Akusala cittas which arose in the past condition the arising of akusala cittas later on, at present and in the future. The latent tendencies of akusala are like microbes infesting the body and they can become active at any time when the conditions are favourable. So long as the khandhas have not been fully understood by insight defilements have soil to grow in; they are not abandoned and thus the cycle of birth and death continues. In order eventually fully to understand the khandhas we should learn what the conditions are for the phenomena which arise. Therefore, it is beneficial to study the twenty-four conditions which are treated in the "Patthana".

13 June 2004

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