What are “conditioned things”?

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A Buddhist friend is concerned about the mistranslations of the Pali words in the Pali Canon. For example, the Pali word “asaṅkhata” is often translated as “unconditioned.” He insists that the proper translation is “unfabricated.” According to one Buddhist dictionary, “asaṅkhata” refers to the “Unformed, Unoriginated, Unconditioned. It is a name for Nibbāna (same as Nirvana), the beyond of all becoming and conditionality.”

I have done some translation work myself. I can see where my friend is coming from. It is important to have accurate translations. But the translation of a word from one culture into an equivalent word in an entirely different culture is not always possible. The notion of “conditioned things” is a case in point. It is a term in the Buddhist literature that has no equivalent in the English language. The Dhammapada says that ‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ (Sabbe SAṂKHĀRĀ aniccā), and ‘All conditioned things are dukkha’ (Sabbe SAṂKHĀRĀ dukkhā).

Saṅkhāra is often translated as “conditioned things.” It is one of the Five Aggregates. It refers to thoughts, opinions, ideas, habits, mental processes, etc. According to Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology), these are all mental objects, and all mental objects are considered “mental fabrications”(i.e. things which are invented by the mind). What are the things invented by the mind? I would say that most things in the human world. Many of them are social constructs. I recently read Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari pointed out that many of the things we consider as “real” are actually “useful fictions.” Yuval Harari said in his book: “There are no gods, no nations, no money, and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.” Where does the value of a $100 bill come from? Its value cannot be based on the piece of paper on which the bill is printed. Rather, it is based on our collective imagination and our agreement on its value. In this sense, money is socially constructed. We can say the same about the notion of a corporation. Harari called a corporation an example of “legal fiction.” A corporation can move its headquarter, completely change over its staff, management, manufacturing equipment and facilities, and still be called by the same name. In this sense, the “corporation” is essentially a name. By the same token, Harvard University is also essentially a name. It can change its address and mission, have a complete turnover of its staff and faculty, and still retain its name. Can we say the same about ourselves? The cells and blood in our bodies are constantly turning over. Our minds can change too. We can change from being a conservative to being a progressive, and vice versa. We can have organ transplants. Still, we retain our names. Isn’t our “selves” also useful fiction? It is for this reason that Buddha taught a doctrine of Anatta (no-self).

It would therefore be correct to say that “conditioned things” are mental fabrications. How do things arise anyway? Can there be anything whose existence does not depend on the mind? The Dhammapada opens with this profound statement: “All (mental) states have the mind as the forerunner. The mind is their chief; they are mind-wrought.” Note that, as humans, our experience of all things — the trees, the sun, the moon, the rivers — has to be mediated through the mind. Is there anything that is not mind-wrought? Very unlikely. For this reason, we can also say that “All things have the mind as the forerunner. The mind is their chief; they are mind-wrought.”

A famous philosophical question, attributed to philosopher George Berkeley, asks: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer ought to be “No.” In order for a sound to be made, there has to be an observer. If there is no observer, the tree may still fall, but there is no sensory organ to hear it. The world appears to us as a myriad of things. What many of us don’t realize is that the appearance of the world varies, depending on the observer. Certainly, the world looks different, depending on whether the observer is a man, a caterpillar, a bird, or a frog. The different species of animals all have different sensory organs. So, what they can perceive and what they cannot perceive depends on what kind of animal they are. In this sense, there is no “objective reality.” Reality is observer-dependent. It is conditioned on the mind or consciousness.

To me, the translation of Saṅkhāra as “conditioned” is alright. The alternative translation of “fabricated” can also be right. But the latter would require additional Buddhist theories of perception and epistemology. Even within Buddhism, these theories vary, depending on which Buddhist school we are talking about. Personally, I prefer the translation of “conditioned.” This is because the central tenet of Buddhism is Dependent Origination. The things in the world are all mutually dependent and interconnected in order for them to exist. This is a basic fact of life that can be verified by scientists. All the living organisms, for example, form an ecosystem and a food chain. Should a predator or prey disappear from the system, all the other members of that ecosystem will be affected. This is Dependent Origination applied to the biological world.

All things are conditioned that way as far as I know. This is also consistent with Buddha’s teaching of Anatta. Anatta says that there is no independent existence. It is just another way of saying that everything is linked with the rest, hence its existence is conditioned. But according to Buddhist doctrine, there are also unconditioned things. One example is Nibanna (same as Nirvana). Buddha taught that there is the Unborn, Ungrown, and Unconditioned. How can this be? Wouldn’t this contradict the Three Marks of Existence?

The only way I can resolve this dilemma is to associate Nirvana with the Tao. The Tao Te Ching opens with the statement that “The Tao that can be stated is not the eternal Tao.” Is it so difficult to imagine that our limited human mind would fail to grasp the Infinite? Can we accept that we are just a tiny part of the universe and hence there are secrets of the universe that we cannot comprehend? I’d say that it is not difficult at all. As I said earlier, different animals perceive different things in the world — they all see a different world. We, humans, are also a member of the animal kingdom. Our perception system is also limited and will not be able to perceive everything in the universe. We can therefore imagine that there is a reality that is not mind-made (i.e. not a fabrication or product of the human mind). I personally don’t worry about it. The universe has offered enough beauty to me. There is more than enough for me to observe and enjoy. The Zen approach to life is to live in the present and accept what is. Happiness is to be content with what we have. Why should we ask for more?

To sum up, to worry or argue about the meaning of Nibanna is essentially futile. It is a kind of storm in a teacup. Nothing can be said about Nibanna or the Tao. Even the name, “Tao” or “Nibanna” is a fake name. How can we talk about the Absolute? It is just word games.

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