What are “conditioned things”?

Kenneth Leong
5 min readDec 9, 2020

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…

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human