Buddhist philosophy and psychology

♦ Nāgārjuna on “cause” and “condition”: pars construens (1)

Let us consider the Pāli Canon (see also: A brief note on the distinction between “cause” and “condition” in early Buddhism). The kind of relation indicated by the term “condition” is in the canonical literature pointed out generally in two manners, a positive and a negative one. The (α) positive way runs as follows: imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imass’uppādā idaṃ uppajjati («Being this, there is that, from the origination of this, that originates»).1 Whereas (β) the negative way is: imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati («Not being this, there is not that, from the cessation of this, that ceases»).2 What is relevant, here, is that both the affirmative sentence and the negative one can be analyzed, in their turn, according to two conceptual groups: (αβ.1) the positive “existing this, that exists” and the negative “not existing this, that does not exist,” which refer to a kind of relation involving the aspect of existence and/or non-existence (P., S. sat-asat, T. yod-med) of the related elements; (αβ.2) the positive “when this originates, that originates” and the negative “when this ceases, that ceases,” which refer to another kind of relation, considered from the point of view of origination and/or cessation (P. uppādo-anuppādo, S. utpādaḥ-anutpādaḥ, T. ’byung ba-ma byung ba). From these brief considerations, it appears that the Pāli term paccayo conveys basically both the meaning of a relation seen from the point of view of the simple existence, and the meaning of a relation seen from the point of view of generation and destruction. But, if the relation based on existence can be easily understood (indeed, if A is condition of B, it follows that in the presence of A, there is the presence of B, and in the absence of A, there is the absence of B), the same thing cannot be said about the relation based on origination and dissolution. In fact, the sentence, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati, does not mean what it seems to mean, that is: with the cessation of the first element also the second ceases. A passage of the Sn helps us to find the right way for the interpretation of this formula. The Buddha, after having explained that pain (dukkhaṃ) is conditioned by ignorance (avijjā) – and, one by one, by all the other elements of the paṭicca-samuppādo listed in SN  I, 1 –, says: avijjāya tveva asesavirāganirodhā n’atthi dukkhassa sambhavo («But from the complete desireless extintion of ignorance there is not appearance of pain»).3 The term sambhavo («appearance»), here, can be conceptually put in equation with the term uppādo («origination») of the positive formula (α), so that a free translation of imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati in the light of this passage of the Sn could be: «the cessation of the conditioning element leads to a stoppage of the origination of the conditioned one». And this is also the interpretation given by Nāgārjuna, who writes: tasya tasya nirodhena tat tan nābhipravartate («By means of the cessation of this, that does not arise»).4 Thus, what the Sn says is simply that, with the elimination of the conditioning factor, there can not be any further origination of a conditioned one; in other words, this means that that elimination does not involve the cessation of whatever conditioned thing already originated.


(1) MN I, 262-263; SN II, 28; II, 70; II, 96. See ŚS 71ab: | ’di brten ’di ’byung zhes bya ba’i | | ’jig rten sgrub ’di ’gog mi mdzad | («It is not abolished [by the Buddha] the mundane principle “dependently from this, that originates”»).

(2) MN I, 264.

(3) Sn p. 141.

(4) MMK XXVI, 12ab. On Nāgārjuna’s criticism on the concepts of “cause” and “condition” as interpreted by other Buddhist schools see: Nāgārjuna on “cause” and “condition”: pars destruens (1), and Nāgārjuna on “cause” and “condition”: pars destruens (2).

References (texts):

MMK=(1) Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, de Jong, J.W. (ed. by), The Adyar Library and Research Center, Madras 1977; (2) Madhyamakaśāstram of Nāgārjuna. With the Commentaries Akutobhayā by Nāgārjuna, Madhyamakavṛtti by Buddhapālita, Prajñāpradīpavṛtti by Bhāvaviveka, Prasannapadāvṛtti by Candrakīrti, Critically Reconstructed (2 vols.), Pandeya, R. (ed. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1988; (3) Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, Kalupahana, D.J. (ed. and Engl. trans. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1996 rist.; (4) Candrakīrti Prasannapadā Madhyamakavrtti. Douze chapitres traduits du sanscrit et du tibétain, accompagnés d’une introduction, de notes, et d’une édition critique de la version tibétaine, May, J. (ed. and Franch trans. by), A. Maisonneuve, Paris 1959.

MN=(1) Majjhima Nikāya (3 vols.), Treckner, V., Chalmers, R. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1993-1994 (rep.); (2) Middle Length Sayings (3 vols.), Horner, I.B. (Engl. trans. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 2000 (rep.); (3) The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Bhikkhu Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu Bodhi (Engl. trans. by), Wisdom Publication, Boston 1995.

SN=(1) 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.

Sn=(1) Suttanipāta, Andersen, D., and Smith, H. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1990 (rep.); (2) The Group of Discourses, Norman, K.R. (Engl. trans. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 2001 (rep.)

ŚS=(1) Śūnyatāsaptatiḥ with Auto-Commentary of Ārya Nāgārjuna, Sempa Dorje (restored into Sanskrit, trans. into Hindi and ed. by), Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath (Varanasi) rist. 1996; (2) Nāgārjuna’s “Seventy Stanzas”. A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness, Komito, D.R. (Engl. trans. and comm. by), Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca (New York) 1987.

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