Buddhist philosophy and psychology

♦ A brief note on the distinction between “cause” and “condition” in early Buddhism

Buddha eye

When we speak of “relation” in Buddhism, we mainly refer to what in Pāli language is called paṭicca-samuppādo, in Sanskrit pratītya-samutpādaḥ, and in Tibetan rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba (or, in short, rten ’brel). The term pratītya-samutpādaḥ litterally means «conditioned co-production» or «dependent co-origination», and indicates the particular nature of the relation existing among several factors, whose best-knowned list involves twelve elements, starting with avidyā («ignorance») and ending with jarā-maraṇaṃ («agedness and death»). This concatenation, it is said in Pāli Canonical texts, leads to pain (dukkhaṃ). In SN I, 1, every element of the list is linked to the subsequent one by a standard formula, as follows: avijjāpaccayā bhikkave saṅkhārā, saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇapaccayā nāma-rūpaṃ («Pre-forming impulses, o bhikkhus, are conditioned by ignorance, discriminating consciousness is conditioned by pre-forming impulses, name-and-form is conditioned by discriminating consciousness»), and so on. The Pāli term paccayā, in this passage, can be intended either as an adverb, having the sense of «by means of», «by reason of», etc. (in this case the translation of the “A-paccayā B” formula would be something like: «by means of A there is B»), or as the ablative of paccayo, a word whose meaning is «condition» (thus, “A-paccayā B” can also be translated, as I have done, with: «from the condition of A there is B»).1

Now, what is important to note, in SN I, 1, is the fact that the Buddha does not make use of the term «cause» (P. hetu, S. hetuḥ, T. rgyu), preferring the term «condition» (P. paccayo, S. pratyayaḥ, T. rkyen). According to Buddhist philosophy – at least from a certain moment onwards –,2 to say that “A is condition of B” appears to be not the same that to say that “A is cause of B”. A.K. Warder (1976:82-83), indeed, reminds us that: «in the Peṭakopadesa (1st century B.C.?) we find a discussion on cause (hetu) and condition (paccaya) with reference to the dharmas. The cause is the “own-nature”, the condition the “other-nature”, (parabhāva). The cause is “internal” (ajjhattika), the condition “external” (bāhira)».3 It is in the ŚS (around II century A.D.) that, although its typical Mahāyāna vocation – whereas the Peṭ is a Hīnayāna writing –, we can find a detailed explanation of the two concepts of cause and condition. According to the ŚS, indeed, the pratītya-samutpādaḥ would be of two kinds: external or objective (S. bāhyaḥ, T. phyi), and internal or subjective (S. adhyātmikaḥ, T. nang). In both cases, the text asserts that the conditioned co-production depends on two factors: cause (S. hetu-upanibandhataḥ, T. rgyu dang ’brel ba) and conditions (S. pratyaya-upanibandhataḥ, T. rkyen dang ’brel ba).4 The (internal) cause of the internal conditioned co-production is the ignorance (S. avidyā, T. ma rigs pa), which gives origin to the pre-forming impulses (S. saṃskārāḥ, T. ’du byed rnams), and so on, like in SN I, 1, up to jāra-maraṇaṃ. The (external) condition of the internal conditioned co-production is the coming together of earth (S. pṛthivī, T. sa), water (S. āpas, T. chu), heat (S. tejas, T. me), etc.5 The external conditioned co-production is exemplified by the states of existence which intervene between the seed and the fruit. In this case, the (internal) cause is the seed (S. bījaṃ, T. sa bon), from which the sprout (S. aṅkuraḥ, T. myu gu) originates – and from the sprout, in its turn, originates the leaf (S. pattraṃ, T. dab ma), and so on. The (external) condition is, still, the coming together of earth, water, heat, etc.6 The example of the seed is also referred to in Vasubandhu’s (IV-V century A.D.) AKB: sati kāraṇe kāraṇāntarasyābhāve kāryasyābhāvo dṛṣṭo bhāvo ca punarbhavaḥ tadyathā aṅkurasya («In the existence of the [external] cause, and in the absence of the internal cause, the presence of the effect is not manifested; in the presence [of the internal cause], however, the appearance [of the effect occurs], as in the case of the sprout»). This passage is explained by Yaśomitra (VI-VII century A.D.) in his AKBV in the following way: sati karaṇe kṣetrodakādike | karaṇāntarasya bijalakṣanasya bhāve | kāryasyāṅkurākhyasyābhavo dṛṣṭaḥ | bhāve ca tasya bijasya punarbhavo’ṅkurasya dṛṣṭaḥ («“In the existence of the [external] cause” [means] the field, water, etc.; “in the absence of the internal cause”, [that is to say,] of what is called seed, “of the effect”, [in other words] of what is named sprout, “the appearance is not manifested”; “in the presence” of this seed, “however, the appearance” of the sproud is manifested»).7 Here, it is clear that karaṇaṃ («[external] cause») stands for pratyayaḥ, whereas karaṇāntaraṃ («internal cause») stands for hetuḥ, and kāryaṃ («result») for phalaṃ (T. ’bras bu; «effect»).8 Thus, we can conclude that both for Hīnayāna (the Peṭakopadeso and the Abhidharma of Vasubandhu) and for some fringes of Mahāyāna (the ŚS) the concept of «conditionality» can be employed both in a physical process (the seed-fruit relation) and in a psychological – and moral – one (the avidyā-duḥkhaṃ relation). Moreover, this «conditionality» appears to involve in itself two distinct factors: an intrinsic power (P. sabhāvo, S. svabhāvaḥ, T. rang bzhin) to be a cause, existing in the cause, and an intrinsic disposition – always in the cause – to be modified by the intrinsic power of another element (P. parabhāvo, S. parabhāvaḥ, T. gzhan bzhin), which plays the role of the external condition. From the coming together of both cause and condition (of both svabhāvaḥ and parabhāvaḥ), the effect arises


(1) Watts (1982:408) reminds us that, alongwith the “philosophical” sense of «condition», paccayo: «can have such various meanings as “support,” “requisite,” “means,” “reason,” “grounds,” “motive”». For a clear exposition of the so-called paṭicca-samuppādo method see: Tin Mon (2002:297-363).

(2) See, for instance, the Mahānidāna-suttanto (DN II, 55-71), in which Gotama, making repeatedly use of the formula: es’eva hetu etaṃ nidānaṃ esa samudayo esa paccayo («Indeed, this is the cause, this is the source, this is the origin, this is the condition»), appears not to be interested in underlining a difference between «cause» and «condition». About this very passage, Watts (1982:422) properly argues that: «a precise philosophical distinction between “cause” and “condition” cannot be made on the basis of passages such as these alone».

(3) Peṭ 104: sabhāvo hetu parabhāvo paccayo […] ajjhattiko hetu bāhiro paccayo. On sabhāvo («intrinsic nature») see also Netti 79: aṅkurassa hi paṭhavī āpo ca paccayo sabhāvo hetu («Indeed, the earth and the water are the condition of the sprout, the intrinsic nature is the cause»). For other references of sabhāvo in the so-called para-Canonical texts see: Gal (2003:2).

(4) Ross-Reat (1998:34); Sastri (1950:4, 47).

(5) Ross-Reat (1998:43-45); Sastri (1950:7-8, 51-52).

(6) Ross-Reat (1998:35-37); Sastri (1950:4-5, 47-48). It is to be noted that the conditions are, in both cases, six in number but, the sixth among those which belong to the internal conditioned co-production is «discriminating consciousness» (S. vijñānaṃ, T. rnam par shes pa), whereas the sixth of the external conditioned co-production is «season» (S. ṛtuḥ, T. dus).

(7) Śāstrī (1998:923-924). Compare with Netti 79, quoted above, note 3.

(8) These equations appear better understandable by referring to the Tibetan version of our quotation of Vasubandhu’s work: rgyu yod kyang rgyu gzhan med na ’bras bu med par mthong la yod na ni yang yod par mthong ba ste | dper na myu gu lta bu’o || (sDe-dge, mNGon-pa, vol. 242: Ku, 82a4).

References 1 (texts):

– AKB(V)=Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣya(-vyākhyā)=(1) Abhidharmakośa & Bhāṣya of Ācārya Vasubandhu with Sphuṭārthā Commentary of Ācārya Yaśomitra (2 vols.), Śāstrī, D. (ed. by), Bauddha Bharati, Varanasi 1998; (2) L’Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu (5 vols.), de la Vallée Poussin, L. (traduction et annotation), nouvelle éd. anastatique présentée par É. Lamotte, Insitut Belge del Hautes Études Chinoises, Bruxelles 1971.

– Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭāka 4.0, Vipassana Research Institute, Dhammagiri. On-line downloadable edition: http://www.tipitaka.org/cst/cst4-2008-04-20-beta15.exe

– DN=Dīgha Nikāya (3 vols.), Rhys Davids, T.W., Carpenter, J.E. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1992-1995 (rep.); (2) Dialogues of the Buddha (3 vols.), Rhys Davids, T.W., Rhys Davids, C.A.F. (Engl. trans. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 2000.

– Nett=The Netti-pakaraṇa with Extract from Dhammapāla’s Commentary, Hardy, E. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, London 1961.

– Peṭ=The Peṭakopadesa, Barua, A. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, London 1949.

– SN=Saṃyutta Nikāya (5 vols.), Feer, L. (vols. 2-5 ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rist. 1975-1999 (rep.), Somaratne, G.A., (vol. 1 ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1998; (2) Rhys Davids, C.A.F., Woodward, F.L. (2005), The Book of the Kindred Sayings (5 voll.), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.; (3) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (2 vols.), Bhikkhu Bodhi (Engl. trans. by), Wisdom Publication, Boston 2000.

– ŚS=Śālistamba-sūtraṃ=(1) Ārya-Śālistamba-Sūtra, Pratītyasamutpāda-Vibhaṅga-Nirdeśa-Sūtra and Pratītyasamutpāda-Gāthā-Sūtra, Sastri, N.A. (ed. by), Adyar Library, Madras 1950; (2) The Śālistamba Sūtra, Ross Reat, N. (ed. and Engl. trans. by) , Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1998 (rep.).

References 2 (studies):

– Gal, N., The Rise of the Concept of “Own-Nature” (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga, 2003.

– Tin Mon, M., Introducing the Higher Teachings of the Buddha: Buddha Abhidhamma, the Ultimate Science, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc. 2002.

– Warder, A.K. (1973), “Is Nāgārjuna a Mahāyānist?”; in The Problem of the Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedānta, M. Sprung (ed. by), D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland / Boston-U.S.A., pp. 78-88.

– Watts, J.D., Necessity and Sufficiency in the Buddha’s Causal Schema, «Philosophy East and West» 32 (1982), pp. 407-423.

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