Sangharakshita's Version of Conditionality

What is it that delays the Bodhisattva, the great being?  
It is the conviction that 'form is permanent’ or ‘form is impermanent’...  
That is what delays the Bodhisattva, the great being.
The Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines

This article explores how and why Sangharakshita’s unique understanding of “conditionality” (in the Pali language, paṭicca-samuppāda, “puh-TITCH-uh-sum-uh-PAH-duh”) was a profound misunderstanding of the Dharma.  The term paṭicca-samuppāda is also variously translated as “dependent origination” or “conditioned coproduction”.

Sangharakshita believed that conditionality, defined as the universal principle of cause and condition, was the primary conceptual expression of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and may therefore be regarded as his view of existence as a whole.  Whatever arises - whatever comes into existence - must pass away.  As he challenged the reader, it is “so simple, so straightforward, you might think you knew it already, but do you, in fact, know?” Along with the three characteristics (lakkhaṇas) of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality, he taught that this comprised a realisation of “the way things really are”.  To awaken, he suggested, you need not just a theoretical knowledge of the “fact” of universal impermanence or transitoriness, but a deep spiritual Insight into it, a real understanding; in essence, according to Sangharakshita, one must awaken to conditionality.

The Buddha actually taught paṭicca-samuppāda in a much more specific way, using it only to describe how we “condition” our experience by seeing everything through the lens of ignorance.  For the Buddha, paṭicca-samuppāda therefore had nothing to do with how things rise and fall in conventional terms, other than the fact that the perception of such conventionally-arisen phenomena is what we condition with ignorance.  The three characteristics were taught as reminders that we will not find what we seek, regardless of what conditions we seek to impose; in fact, Buddhist traditional literature clarifies that seeking to realise the three characteristics as ‘the way things really are’ is a counterfeit path.  The Buddha thus taught that there is an escape from such “conditionality”; in essence, according to the Buddha, one must awaken from conditionality

As a result, there is much in Sangharakshita’s body of teaching, which appears to be largely a restatement of Romanticism, which points the practitioner in a decidedly different direction than the Buddha intended, and which people must at some point unlearn if they wish to tread the Buddhist path.  Presented below are key aspects of Sangharakshita’s understanding of paṭicca-samuppāda, drawn primarily from A Survey of Buddhism, The Three Jewels and other foundational writings, an exploration of how these compare with what the Buddha taught, and a discussion of  some implications of adopting Sangharakshita’s misunderstanding of conditionality.  

1. Sangharakshita’s Version of Conditionality

Sangharakshita became convinced early in his studies in the 1940’s that paṭicca-samuppāda or conditionality explains ‘the way things really are’ and is thus the primary expression of the Buddha’s awakened experience.  What he subsequently taught was an expression of that initial conviction, from which he never wavered.  Sangharakshita observed that no phenomenon arises without a cause, and that things exist not in isolation but are connected with every other thing in the universe, so that each influences and acts upon everything else.  He concluded that this version of conditionality is what is meant by paṭicca-samuppāda, and further that it is the cardinal principle of Buddhism.   

Sangharakshita further believed that the enlightenment the Buddha attained consisted in knowledge and insight into this principle as it applies to all phenomena.  Phenomena being innumerable, the applications of that formula, which as a universal law, is equally true of all such “conditioned” things (i.e., that rise and fall based on conditions), which are in theory innumerable too.  According to Sangharakshita, paṭicca-samuppāda as the general principle of conditionality is therefore not limited to any specific sequence of conditions associated with this or that phenomenon; indeed, the factors conditioning the life of a human being at any given moment are innumerable.  Sangharakshita suggested that once we understand the conditioned nature of one set of phenomena, we can proceed to an understanding of conditionality as a universal law, and then from an understanding of this law to a realization of what he presumed was a “supra-logical Truth” which it represents or points to.

Sangharakshita also concluded that, because such conditionality is universal, the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality) describe reality, in that they are “the eternal and immutable truths of the painful, impermanent, and insubstantial nature of all phenomena”.  The Enlightened mind, according to Sangharakshita, therefore sees impermanence as a descriptor of ‘the way things really are’, and all phenomena as liable to dukkha or suffering.

2. The Buddha’s Version of Conditionality

The Buddha used two distinct ways to talk about causality.  The first way was to describe how, in everyday experience, things follow from one another in ways that we can visibly see or at least infer, using conventional terms which anyone would also use.  The second type of causality was his discovery how, based on ignorance, we delude ourselves as to the nature of what we perceive.  This latter, more limited mode of causality, is what the Buddha referred to as paṭicca-samuppāda, and is rather the opposite of the way things really are.  

a. Everyday Causality (upanisā)

To describe the conventional, everyday and even abstract way in which one thing follows another, the Buddha used various terms, including the word upanisā (as well as the etymologically-related nissaya).  The meaning of upanisā is “cause” or “means”, as well as pointing to something that is a likeness or a counterfeit.  Putting these together, it can be seen as describing what appears to be part of a causal relation or progression but isn’t necessarily so in the final analysis.  The Buddha used it in just that way, describing things that, at least in conventional terms, were related in a causal way, such as lending an ear to the Dharma by which the mind might be eventually emancipated, and concentration arising in dependence on virtuous behavior.

A notable use of upanisā as "in dependence on" occurred shortly after the Buddha fully awoke, in the Gārava Sutta:  

“Bhikkhus, once I was dwelling at Uruvelā, just after I had attained full enlightenment. Then, while I was alone in seclusion, a course of thought arose in my mind thus: ‘It is suffering to dwell without reverence and deference. Now what ascetic or brahmin can I honor, respect, and dwell in dependence on?”  
Anguttaranikaya 4.21

At first glance, it might seem that the Buddha did not in fact overcome suffering, but was still dependent upon reverence and deference to someone else.  If true, that would throw into doubt the Buddha’s oft-recurring statement that he had in fact transcended suffering.  It is likely, though, that the Buddha assumed that he would always seek to revere someone, and in the immediate aftermath of awakening still wondered if that would be the case.  However, the need for reverence and deference is never again featured in the Buddha’s teaching, indicating that it was but a previous assumption that he had such a need, but was subsequently dropped. Indeed, in the disorientation of awakening, the Buddha also made the assumption (see below) that he would not be able to teach anyone what he had just realised; fortunately for us, this assumption was also proven wrong!

b. Causality Based on Ignorance (paṭicca-samuppāda)

The other mode of causality, paṭicca-samuppāda, is based on seeing things through the lens of ignorance.  The term paṭicca-samuppāda occurs rather infrequently in the Pali Canon, with almost half of the approximately 176 total mentions of the term being found in just two suttas or discourses.  The most common illustration of paṭicca-samuppāda that the Buddha used was the twelve links (nidānas) which describe how, if we try to find a version of what is happening that isn’t possible (for example, that it will or always should be pleasing to us), suffering arises in our lives.  Put another way, because we ignore the fact that we cannot have exactly what we want, and instead we place unrealistic conditions on what we perceive, we suffer.  

The Buddha introduced this twelvefold chain of causation with the phrase “this being that becomes”, and then proceeded to enumerate each of the links:

When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. That is, with ignorance as condition, conditionings (saṅkhāra) come to be; with conditionings as condition, consciousness comes to be… such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.  
Samyutta Nikaya 12.37

It is important to understand that the Buddha didn't use paṭicca-samuppāda to describe either the “way things really are” and/or the everyday sense of causality that we recognise in our daily lives. Instead, he used it when describing a chain of causation based on ignorance, by which we distort how we perceive everything.  For example, reflecting on how mobile phones are made from various parts, the ingenuity of its designers and so forth is perfectly valid as a conventional truth, but is not what the Buddha intended when using the specific term paṭicca-samuppāda.  Instead, when we place expectations on mobile phones that cannot be met, such as always working the way we want them to work (as if they could or should always work that way!), seeking to place those conditions on a mobile phone leads to suffering.  Therefore, in the phrase “this being that becomes”, the term “this” refers solely to ignorance, while “that” refers to subsequent misinterpretations and delusions, and the unnecessary push and pull at life that causes so much suffering.   

Within Triratna, however, the phrase “this being, that becomes” is seen as a universal principle, therefore used to describe everyday causation as well, such as how plants sprout from seeds.  This is because Sangharakshita speculated that this broader type of causation is what the Buddha was referring to and, as above, that there is a “supra-logical Truth” to which such everyday causality points.  In reality, Sangharakshita simply read that into what the Buddha taught, whereby everyday causality was ostensibly the Buddha’s core teaching and ultimate experience.  However, whenever the phrase “this being, that becomes” is used, it shouldn’t be used in an everyday spatio-temporal sense, but rather only when describing how it is we delude ourselves and cause ourselves to suffer (and ultimately, “this ignorance being, that suffering becomes”).  

c. Differentiating the Two Types of Causality

Conventional or everyday causality can always be understood, even after awakening.  The Buddha could obviously appreciate that people, trees and many other things he saw in daily life arose, changed and ultimately passed out of existence as that is conventionally understood.  It is important that any spiritual path thus allow for the understanding of everyday experience to continue, rather than leading to a nihilistic or alienated dead end.  In other words, everyday causality is to be affirmed, but not as some principle of the spiritual path: instead, it is simply a fundamental mental skill of interpreting what is happening in sensory experience that we all have.

However, while one will always be able to engage in everyday life, the causality described by paṭicca-samuppāda can and will cease.  In fact, if one is a Buddhist, one must anticipate that it will cease, since that is the entire purpose of the Buddhist path: to overcome the suffering that living our lives based on ignorance inevitably produces.  It might be said that, because of paṭicca-samuppāda, we create a particular version of whatever we see, one that is overlain by our unrealistic expectations (e.g., that it will be pleasing, predictable, etc.).  Upon awakening, though, one cannot, even if they want to, superimpose paṭicca-samuppāda onto their lives, because spiritual ignorance is no longer available as the required starting point.  In sum, ignorant causality (paṭicca-samuppāda) is to be abandoned, since it is the antithesis of the spiritual path.

In Sangharakshita’s thinking and teaching, however, he conflated and confused these two modes of causality into a single, ostensibly universal version of “conditionality”.  In that version, everyday causality was not just affirmed, it was elevated to the basis of transcendental insight, and also confused with the separate term paṭicca-samuppāda by which something that is supposed to be abandoned is now to be pursued with the intent of fully realising it.  Not only does this completely skew the practitioner’s perspective when reading canonical literature, it sets one out on a path that is dramatically different than the Buddha intended.

As a key underpinning for his version of conditionality, Sangharakshita pointed to a passage where the Buddha was at first reluctant to teach since, in the immediate wake of his enlightenment, he doubted that anyone would be able to understand it or realise it for themselves:

This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise; however, this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight in worldliness, rejoices in worldliness. 
It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely “this being, that becomes” causality, (which is) paṭicca-samuppāda. 
And it is especially hard to see the stilling of all conditionings (saṅkhāras), the relinquishment of all causal foundations, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna. 
Majjhima Nikaya 26

However, Sangharakshita only considered the first two lines, and concluded that the Buddha had discovered “this being, that becomes” as a fundamental spiritual principle about ‘the way things really are’.  Not only did Sangharakshita fail to recognise that the Buddha always used paṭicca-samuppāda to mean “this ignorance being, that conditioning becomes”, Sangharakshita also failed to consider the entire passage, in that the third line makes clear that conditioning, and the operation of paṭicca-samuppāda, ceases.

It’s not that everyday causality does not occur, at the conventional level; it’s just that it is not of ultimate spiritual value.  Also, we do have to understand paṭicca-samuppāda as a way in to the Dharma, to know why we suffer; however, it is the cessation of paṭicca-samuppāda (not its full realisation) that is the way out of suffering.

3. The Conditioned

The Pali term translated as “conditioned” (saṅkhata) generally means anything that is created, formed, or originated.  The present-tense of the word, saṅkhāra (Sanskrit saṃskāra), mentioned twice above, literally means “what it is we do with” something.   For purposes of treading the Buddhist path, it can be understood as how we “condition” or predispose ourselves to perceive and react to what (and who) is happening in our lives in a particular way: in other words, what we do with what we perceive.  Specifically, we create a “conditioned” version of it: this was the narrow sense in which the Buddha used the term.  For example, if we imagine one of our least-favourite politicians, we may have a certain idea as to who and what they are, based on our expectations and desires: this version we create of them in our minds is conditioned by those expectations and desires, and condition show we respond and react to them.

As above, this causal link is the second of the twelve “links”.  In practical terms, because we are ignorant of (or ignore) the fact that what we want is not available or even possible, we set up conditionings by which we will respond and react to what is happening in predictable ways, such as when our mobile phone isn’t working properly.  Everything we are then conscious of (the third link) will be a ‘conditioned’ version of whatever (or whoever) it is.  By this we see that nothing is inherently conditioned - rather, we make it so. 

Once awake, nothing is conditioned whatsoever, because spiritual ignorance has been completely eradicated; the Buddha was “awake” because what he perceived was free of all such mental conditionings.  Thus, by definition, there is no such thing as a “conditioned reality” as Sangharakshita suggested, nor does conditionality describe “the way things really are”.  It is in fact just the opposite: that which has been conditioned by us is an unreal version, and definitely not “the way it really is”.  After awakening, when one looks, hears, etc., the first and most obvious thing is that “it is no longer conditioned”. Concepts such as a “world”, rise and fall on physical conditions, and phenomena as composites no longer appear to explain what is happening, nor are they needed as other than still-usable verbal conventions.  This is the basic insight about experience from the standpoint of awakening.

Sangharakshita, on the other hand, taught that when the Enlightened mind looks out at the whole of "existence" and the phenomenal universe, the first and most obvious thing that strikes it is that “it is conditioned”, in that it arises in dependence on conditions, and when those conditions cease it disappears. This, he speculated, is the basic insight about the "world" from the standpoint of Enlightenment. As a result, in Triratna, “conditionality” and “the conditioned” are thus habitually seen in terms of the causes and conditions by which phenomena arise as composite phenomena within a spatial and temporal framework.  As above, though, this spatio-temporal causality is really only everyday causality, which has nothing to do with whether or not something is “conditioned” in terms of what the Buddha taught (i.e., conditioned by ignorance).  Though the Buddha emphasised that “all conditioned phenomena are impermanent”, since Sangharakshita conflated everyday and ignorant causality into a single and universal version of “conditionality”, he naturally concluded that “all phenomena are impermanent”. 

As a result, it is quite difficult for someone in Triratna to hear the term “conditioned” or “paṭicca-samuppāda” and not immediately think of everyday causality and that there is a "supra-logical Truth" to which such causality surely points.  This automatic conflation is perhaps the most difficult, yet the most important, aspect of Sangharakshita’s ‘particular presentation’ to unlearn, since for many it likely has become such an ingrained habit.  It is also a vivid illustration of 'conditionality' and how we can become 'conditioned'. 

Another aspect of Sangharakshita’s version of conditionality is the misleading concept of "the Unconditioned”, which he taught was something different from "the conditioned", therefore something or somewhere else than what is happening here and now.  According to Sangharakshita, what is happening here and now will always be a source of suffering while, in contrast, the Unconditioned will meet our unrealistic expectations, and the conditions we seek to place on what is happening:

Piercing through the impermanence of the conditioned, you see the permanence of the Unconditioned; piercing through the unsatisfactoriness of the conditioned, you see the perfectly satisfying nature of the Unconditioned; and piercing through the insubstantial, the unreal, you see that which is eternally and everlastingly real.
Sangharakshita, from ‘What Is The Dharma?’

What many in Triratna have realised (by non-Triratna means) is that, when ignorance ceases, so does perception of the three characteristics, by which there are no universal characteristics to pierce, and no complementary “Unconditioned” waiting for us out the other end.  A mobile phone can still be described as being composed of all that went into making it.  However, this is not pointing to some deep or supra-logical spiritual truth; what changes about the mobile phone is how we perceive it - it is no longer conditioned (i.e., it is now ‘unconditioned’) by our unrealistic expectations of it.  The end of suffering is really that simple.

For example, the Buddha could be in front of people that wanted to kill him, or experience great pain in his body, but that was not an occasion for suffering, because he no longer supposed or insisted that what was happening could or should be any different than it was.  That didn’t mean that he simply allowed himself to be killed, or that he ignored his body; however, in the course of taking care of himself, he didn’t undergo the mental anguish by which most people would experience suffering, or dukkha (literally, “hey, this isn’t going like it’s supposed to!”).  This had nothing to do with realising the conventional truth that everything and everyone is the result of the causes and conditions that went into them, and also had nothing to do with focusing on a “Unconditioned” sphere of reality that was more to his liking.  He simply didn’t suffer, regardless of what was happening.

To avoid the confusion that Sangharakshita’s teachings introduce, it may be helpful to clarify that, whenever the terms “conditioned” or “unconditioned” are used, they mean “conditioned by ignorance” or “not conditioned by ignorance”.  And as above, care can be taken to clarify that “conditionality” does not refer to the everyday way in which composite phenomena rise and fall based on causes and conditions: perhaps “everyday causality” or similar would be helpful, in order that this is kept separate from "ignorant causality" and the conditioning by ignorance of the conventional phenomena that “everyday causality” results in.
4.  The Three Characteristics

Someone may promise to expound the perfection of wisdom, but in fact will expound the counterfeit perfection of wisdom. And what they explain is that form, and everything else, is impermanent, ill, not-self... and that those who will course in this (insight) course in the perfection of wisdom. As a result those to whom this has been explained will strive to win these insights.  But in fact a counterfeit of wisdom has been explained and practised.
The Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines

As this passage from the Buddhist canonical tradition makes clear, the three characteristics are not ways of describing “reality”, nor are they something to attempt to fully realise.  Instead, they were intended as reminders that what we seek out of ignorance isn’t possible or available.  While we may want everything (and everyone) to be permanent, reliable and predictable, that is not the case.  While we may assume that everything is substantial, real, and “is what it is” by which we know what is happening, that is not the case.  And while we may believe that everything should be pleasant by which we always feel good, that is not the case.  The three characteristics simply remind us that what we seek (permanence, satisfactoriness and substantiality) are not possible or available; the “goal” is not to affirm these labels are true, but to no longer need to be reminded by them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the opposites of these three qualities are true; for example, rather than finding ‘permanence’, it’s not that we find ‘impermanence’: we just don’t find ‘permanence’.  Dualities such as “permanence and impermanence” are opposite extremes: mutually-defined artifices of the mind which, though they may be helpful concepts, are neither deep spiritual truths nor what we wake up to.  For example, once we stop believing in the mental constructs of ‘space’ and ‘time’ as the supposed context in which a supposed ‘reality’ transpires, we will also stop perceiving that things rise and fall in time and space as “the way they really are” - neither ‘permanence’ nor ‘impermanence’ will thereafter apply, because we have de-conditioned experience to be one or the other.  In other words, if we stop looking for ‘permanence’, the mutually-defined ‘impermanence’ won’t be found either, and the reminder that “there’s no such thing as permanence” will have done its job.  By this, a more suitable translation for this characteristic might simply be "there's no such thing as permanence".

Similarly, when we stop supposing that what is happening could or should always be satisfying by which we might always feel good, we will no longer be disappointed, and the opposite (the conclusion that things aren’t going as they should, or ‘dukkha’) no longer arises either.  This characteristic is therefore perhaps best translated as “you won’t always feel good”, rather than a descriptive term such as "all is suffering".  Finally, 'insubstantiality' or anatta might best be translated as "nothing has any thing-ness to it", to avoid the potentially misleading idea that things "exist" but in an insubstantial way. 

It is not that phenomena themselves are inherently impermanent, conducive to suffering or insubstantial; rather, it is only the version we have in our minds, filtered through the lens of ignorance, which makes them appear that way.  In other words, one has to be ignorant to perceive and experience impermanence, suffering or insubstantiality; upon fully awakening, none of these descriptors, which are the opposite of what we once longed for, have any real meaning, nor are we compelled to use such dualistic labels.  As trite as the saying may be, “things just are”, once they are free of the conditions we once sought to impose on them; or, as the Buddha described things in the Bahiya Sutta, “in the seen, there is simply the seen”.

This of course connects to what Buddhism is all about: the cessation of suffering.  If instead we were to attempt to wake up to how everything is “conditioned” and liable to suffering as Sangharakshita suggested, suffering would never cease.  As Sangharakshita’s chief disciple Subhuti speculates, dukkha or suffering cannot be escaped; instead, one can but temporarily escape to a higher state of consciousness in meditation, where for a time one feels free from the pressure of longing and is blissfully at rest.  This, he erroneously concludes, “is the state that Buddhists aim ultimately to realise as the end of their own suffering”.  By this, one realises the three characteristics as “the way things really are”, and resign themselves to what is happening in and around them to always being a source of suffering, unless they happen to be in that higher “state”.  The Dharma is thereby relegated to being a coping mechanism, rather than a path by which suffering can no longer arise.

If we confuse and conflate everyday or conventional causality with ignorant causality, we will lose track of the fact that the former is simply what we perceive as conventional rise, change and fall, whereas the latter is the cause of delusions and suffering.  Of course, we cannot dispense with conventional reality - we cannot fix dinner or get across the street without it!  However, by seeking to deepen the way we see things now, in terms of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality, we will simply further validate paṭicca-samuppāda, because it is only through ignorance that these three characteristics apply.  We will be unable to see that it is we who condition what we perceive, and instead assume that everything is inherently conditioned and that we can see things "as they really are".  According to Sangharakshita, rather than seeing things differently, we simply need to see things as we see things today, only more deeply, and await the revolutionary transformation that such deep seeing will supposedly bring.

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