28 November 2008

The Unconditioned

I was discussing a previous post on the unborn, unmade, etc. with my friend Dhīvan the other day, and he mentioned that there are a series of suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya which are devoted to explaining the term unconditioned - asaṅkhata. The Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta chapter begins with a representative sutta (SN 43.1) and is short enough to quote in full.
At Sāvatthi: Bhihhkus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path going to the unconditioned. Hear this. And what is the unconditioned? The destruction of craving, aversion, and confusion: this is called unconditioned. And what is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness of the body. That is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

So, bhikkhus, I have taught you about the unconditioned, and the path leading to the unconditioned. I have done that which should be done by an empathetic teacher, out of empathy, desiring the welfare of his disciples. There are the feet of trees; there are the empty shelters: meditate bhikkhus, don't be intoxicated with the senses. Don't be regretful afterwards! This is our advice to you. (1)
Let's start by exploring the word asaṅkhata. It is a compound of a + saṃ + khata. Khata comes from the root kṛ which means "to do, make, perform". It is a past-participle which indicates something already done: "done, made, performed". The saṃ- prefix means "together" or "complete" - so the base meaning is "put together" and the applied meaning is "conditioned". It is contrasted to some extent by the word saṃkhārā which is more typically translated as compounded, or even confected. The a- prefix is a negative "un-, non-" so the word is unconditioned. Nyanatiloka defines saṅkhata as: 'the formed', i.e. anything originated or conditioned, comprises all phenomena of existence. (2)

There is a tendency amongst Western Buddhists to talk about "the unconditioned" as a state or a place - which inadvertently leads to it seeming like a place you can arrive, or a state you can achieve. I prefer to treat it as a function of experience, i.e. I am repeating my mantra that "it is experiences which arise in dependence on causes". One way of looking at it is that they arise in dependence on contact between a sense organ, a sense object, and a sense consciousness.

Here however the Buddha defines the unconditioned in terms of the kilesas: craving, aversion, confusion. Craving is craving for the continuance of experiences; aversion is the desire not to have an experience; and confusion is confusion about the nature of experiences. So what we are calling the unconditioned is an experience in which there is no attachment to, or attempt to hold onto the experience; nor is there any pushing away or denial of the experience; and one is clear that this is simply an experience not something more (i.e. real) or less (i.e. illusion, or unreal).

This reading is supported by what the Buddha says about the path leading to the unconditioned: it is mindfulness towards the body: kāyagatāsati. This word is used in two ways: as a general reference to body based meditation practices, and to the specific practice in which one analyses the body into its parts. However we know that the Buddha taught many ways to meditate, and in particular several other kinds of sati or anusati meditation, (3) we shouldn't read this too literally. If we allow for a general reading of this the Buddha is saying that it is sati that leads to the unconditioned. Sati comes from a root - smṛ - which means "to remember" or call to mind. In Vedic the equivalent word smṛti refers to commentaries on the the sacred texts as distinct from the Vedas themselves which are śruti or heard as divine revelations. So sati really means to bring to mind and reflect on - its not a concentration practice, but a reflection or insight practice. Specifically in this case one reflects on ones the experience of the body, sometimes by considering it as being made up of many different kinds of substances. So there is an additional metaphor here of the body being compounded (i.e. saṅkhata) from various substances. Personally I think this metaphor is secondary to reflecting on the experience, whereas it tends to be foregrounded in the received tradition - to me this reflects a somewhat materialistic attitude towards the notion of dhammas.

So this is all that an empathetic teacher would do for his disciple. I'm translating as empathy the wonderful Pāli word anukampa which is literally to shake or tremble with. There are a number of possible translations, Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as "compassion" although this word is more often used to translate karuṇā. Compassion is "to suffer with"; empathy is "feeling in(side)"; and sympathy is "feeling (together) with". The sense of this word relates to another Pāli idiom which is found in the Mettā Sutta: tasā vā thāvara meaning "fearful or fearless." Actually tasā can mean "trembling" as in trembling with fear, and the Buddha is one who is fearless, ie does not tremble (kampa). So one who trembles is unenlightened, but one who is enlightened, though not fearful themselves, is able to empathise with those who still do.

Note my translation of mā pamādattha - "don't be intoxicated with the senses", which I explain in my earlier post on the Buddha's Last Words. An examination of how appamāda (the opposite of pamāda) is used in the Canon reveals that it is always associated with the objects of the sense, and the root here is mada - intoxication. Translating as "mindfulness", or even "heedfulness" or "vigilance" miss this important connection. A contrast is being drawn here between our usual mode of experience and that in meditation. Usually we are swamped with huge amounts of sensory information (i.e. dhammas), and we are intoxicated and obsessed with it, lost in the play of the senses just as we might be if we suspended disbelief and became engrossed in a movie. In meditation though we attempt to extract ourself from this situation, we stay collected, or recollected, and we watch the play of dhammas without getting caught up. In samatha meditation we are developing the skills of staying focussed and calm; and in vipassanā or insight meditation we bring these skills to bear on our experience, usually through focus on a subject. One can do this with no subject, just watching the play of whatever experience one is having at the time, and this kind of meditation goes by many names: just sitting, Zazen, formless practice, and (if I understand correctly) also Dzogchen and Mahamudra.

I like the pragmatic tone of this text. The roots of trees and shelters (agāra) are the places where monks would have meditated, and having told them how to meditate, the Buddha points to the meditation seats and says "ok, I've told you what to do, now get on with it!". One gets the feeling that the audience were not novices or lay people. These were some serious, and probably quite experienced meditators, perhaps about to embark on a rainy season 3 month retreat. If I had the time I'd look up the commentary which often gives such details, but sadly I must leave it here. Note here too the simplicity: a single practice is taught in this case, probably to a single person or small group. Often in the Canon, under similar circumstances, monks are freed from the defilements in a very short period of time and become arahants. He also reminds them that opportunities are not infinite and if they don't take this one they may live to regret it (vippaṭisāra).

  1. My translation. Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation is on p.1372 of the single volume edition of Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom. Not available on Access to Insight.
  2. Nyanatiloka. 2004. Buddhist Dictionary. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society, 4th ed. (1980) p.194
  3. eg. in AN 6.10 the Mahānāma Sutta there is a six-fold list: buddhānussati, dhammānussati, saṅghānussati, sīlānussati , cāgānussati , devatānussati - recollection respectively of the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha, virtue, generosity, and the gods. Buddhaghosa (Vsm iii.105) adds maraṇasati, kāyagatāsati, ānāpānasati, upasamānussati - recollection of death, the body, the breath, and peace (aka nibbana). The recollection of the gods (devatānussati) focusses on the virtuous lives they must have lead for such a fortunate rebirth.
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