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Monk practicing calligraphy in Qixia si

Monk practicing calligraphy in Qixia si, near Nanjing

One of the foundation principles of Buddhism is the conditioned origination of all phenomena and our misperception of this principle that underlies all existence. This is the essence of the first two Noble Truths and at the heart of the pratityatsamutpada, the doctrine of Dependent Origination and so it can be seen that it is fundamental to Buddhism.

Cause and Conditions, the basic factors

Conditioned Existence states that all phenomena, such as an event, a person, a thing, originate from a cause that, when the right conditions are present, will come into being.Once one or more of those conditions changes or is no longer present, the phenomenon will change or cease to exist.  Conditions will, in the natural course of events, themselves become causes and causes in their turn will become conditions.

Cause and Effect, the shared characteristic

All phenomena share the same appearance of ‘cause and effect’ which says that due to causes and conditions, a particular effect is produced. Cause and effect are seen differently according to the point of view and are thus relative to one another.Therefore, all causes contain an effect and all effects contain a cause, thus forming a continuous and endless chain of events that is our impression of change over time. Because of this cyclic nature, there has never been a remote time when there was a effect that was not a result of a cause or a point in time in the future when an effect will not become a cause. As a result, all phenomena are dependent on one another for their existence and do not possess an independent nature.

Relative truth of phenomena

When we state that that something ‘comes into existence’ and ‘ceases to exist’, this is not strictly true. We understand through science that matter is never lost but is ultimately transformed into energy and then back into matter again in an endless cycle, often on a timescale that the human mind cannot encompass. In Buddhism also, through the practice of removing the impurities that hide our original nature in order to restore equanimity, it is realised that nothing is either gained or lost.The Vimalakirtinirdesa sutra says, ‘All things are fundamentally above creation and destruction’.When the terms ‘comes into existence’ and ‘ceases to exit’ are used, these are relative or provisional terms, ‘true’ when viewed from a particular standpoint. For example, we understand that a bicycle does not exist when various metals are locked in their parent rock, nor when the frame has been discarded without its chain and wheels.A bicycle ‘comes into existence’ only when the many individual metal parts have been formed and assembled into a functioning two-wheeled vehicle. The reality of this viewpoint is provisional or ‘conditioned’. It is conditioned by other dharmas such as:

  1. The dharma of ‘the bicycle’ in a specific cultural context.By ‘culture’ we refer to the interactive culture of a people, a geo-political region, a country, a province, a town, a clan or family: The dharma of the economic motive that enables the bicycle to continue to be manufactured and sold.This has changed over time with the introduction of the motor car.In societies such as Mainland China, the popularity of the bicycle in urban areas has had a sharp downturn in the last 20 years, while in the west they have been largely seen as recreational vehicles although now they are once again being seen more as transportation.
    1. How it is used – a bicycle could be seen as purely for recreation, for racing (professionally or amateur), for work hauling goods, for transportation to and from work, or a thing never seen before and of no use.
    2. Its accepted shape over time – the development from the Penny Farthing through to the lightest, most sophisticated racing bikes and including the many trends such in gear assemblies, handlebar straight, then curved and now straight again.Mountain bikes, children’s bikes with or without stabilisers.Reclining bicycles and also tricycles and unicycles are part of the same family of pedal vehicles.
    3. Language – the words applied to the bicycle in the world’s languages is often a reflection of its cultural origins in that society.  The subtlety of connotations of these terms means that the bicycle has a slightly different cultural placement within each country.
  2. These factors combine to bring about the right conditions that will ensure that the ’cause’, that is the purpose for a bicycle, ‘comes into existence’, that it is identified as the right effect – an object called a bicycle over time that, in due course, will pass out of existence as something else. There are two components of the phenomenon of bicycle, the material and the conceptual. The former refers to the invention and continuing development while the conceptual refers to the evolving idea of the bicycle in the minds of people.


Today we use the word ‘phenomenon’ or ‘factor’, but in the Buddha’s day this idea was covered by the term ‘dharma’. A dharma can be anything material that is combined with others to form an ‘object’ either in nature or man-made.  But dharmas encompass much more in that they also refer to mental processes or conceptual understanding of the material world and universe, that is, how a phenomenon is perceived by an observer as opposed to what it is.  In this capacity, it refers also to ideas, opinions and their combination to form teachings, both practical and abstract, that have been in use since the world began.In this latter capacity ‘Dharma’ refers to Buddhadharma, the teachings spoken by Shakyamui Buddha, the teachings that were transmitted throughout India and what today is Pakistan and Afghanistan, through Central Asia to China.The distinction made between dharmas and the Buddhadharma is that dharmas are conditioned and provisional; Buddhadharma is unconditioned and Real, it is beyond religion and beyond words. To approach an understanding of what is Real, however, dharmas are required.

How can the unknowable be gained? The answer is that it cannot.You cannot gain what is already possessed. The Buddhadharma is not around us but a part of us or, more accurately, we are a part of the Buddhadharma.It is only through delusion that we fail to see this.Most have experienced flying when, on an overcast, gray, dark day, the plane takes off and ascends through the cloud layer to an open, clear, blue sky bathed in sunshine.Below you can see the clouds and understand that the ground beneath is in shadow, but above the cloud the sun’s light pervades all places evenly. What is ‘Real’ is similar to this, although the delusions may cover it in ourselves, it is still there waiting to be uncovered, to be ‘realised’.

The two realms are one

We can see that all dharmas are conditioned through the unbroken chain of cause and conditions leading to an effect and that this process is behind the first two Noble Truths about suffering and the origin of suffering and also the Doctrine of the Twelve-fold Links of Dependent origination.   This is the way things are in our realm of the conditioned dharmas, samverti-satya.  The realm of the unconditioned Dharma, the Buddhadharma, paramartha-satya, is the goal of the bodhisattva.  They undertake a journey that is no journey to reach the goal that is no goal.   It is a journey of realisation where through their actions that are no actions, the two realms are realised as one.