The Conditioned and the Unconditioned

From The Mind And The Way by Ajahn Sumedho

The teaching of the Buddha is a very simple teaching, because it comprehends things in terms of the conditioned and the unconditioned. Conditioned phenomena are those which arise and pass away. They include everything that we perceive and know through our senses, through the body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. They are conditions; they begin and they end. The Pali term for the conditioned is sankhara. Sankhara includes all that arises and passes away, whether it is mental or physical. We are not quibbling about whether it is out there or in here, whether something arises and passes away in an instant or in an aeon. It does not make any difference as far as this way of meditating goes, because the conditioned includes all time-bound things.

The unconditioned is something that most people never realize because they are mesmerized by conditioned phenomena. To realize the unconditioned we have to let go of our constant attachment to conditioned phenomena.

The unconditioned is like the space in a room. When you come into a room, do you notice the space, or is your attention drawn to the objects in the room? You see the walls, the windows, the people, the furniture, the colors, and the decorations. But the space in the room is not noticeable, even though it is there all the time. And when we're busy watching all the people and the objects in the room, we don't notice the space at all. It is only when we let go of thinking, talking, considering, and imagining, that we become aware and we notice the space in the room. When we attend to it, we see that space is peaceful and boundless. Even the walls of the room do not limit space.

It's the same with the mind. The mind is unlimited and has no boundaries; it can contain everything. Yet we bind ourselves to the limited conditions of the mind -- our ideas, views, and opinions.

There is room enough in space for every theory, opinion, and view; they all arise and pass away, and there is no permanent condition. So there is room enough for everybody and everything, for every religion, every political view, every thought, every type of human being. And yet, humanity always wants to control and limit and say: "Only these we allow, and those do not have any right to be here." Trying to possess and hold on, we bind ourselves to conditions, which always take us to death and despair.

Whatever we hope and expect will cause us to feel disillusionment and despair, if we attach to it. This is because whatever we attach to arises and has to pass away. There is nothing that arises which keeps on arising; it can only arise for so long, and then it passes away. So when you bind yourself to any condition that is arising, it can only take you along with it as it passes away. When you attach to anything that is arising, such as your own physical body or any condition in nature, it will take you to death. And so death is the end of that which was born, and despair is the other side of hope and expectation.

As soon as anything becomes unpleasant or unsatisfactory, we tend to jump into some other condition, into something that is arising. This makes life a constant search for pleasure, romance, and adventure. People are always running after that which is interesting or fascinating and running away from the opposite. We run from boredom, despair, old age, sickness, and death because these are conditions that we do not want to be with. We want to get away from them, forget them, not notice them.

But in meditation, the attitude is to be infinitely patient with conditions, even when they become unpleasant or boring. If we're always running off to find something more interesting, we just keep going round in circles. This is called the cycle of Samsara.

When we notice that the conditions of body and mind are just the way conditions are, it's a simple recognition. It's not an analysis, and it's not anything special. It's just a bare recognition, a direct knowing that whatever arises passes away. Knowing in this way demands a certain amount of patience; otherwise, as soon as any fear, anger, or unpleasantness arises, we will run away from it. So meditation is also the ability to endure, and bear with, the unpleasant. We don't seek it out; we are not ascetics looking for painful things to endure so that we can prove ourselves. We're simply recognizing the way it is right now.

Whenever we recognize desire -- whether it is good or bad -- we are using wisdom. Only wisdom can see desire; desire cannot see wisdom. So when you are trying to find wisdom, just know desire. Watching the movement of desire lets us see its nature as a changing condition. And we see that it is not self.

Buddha-wisdom is something that we use in our meditation, not something we attain. It's a humbling kind of wisdom; it's not fantastic. It's the simple wisdom of knowing that whatever arises passes away and is not self. It is knowing that the desires going through our minds are just that -- they are desires, and they are not us.

Buddha-wisdom is that which knows the conditioned as the conditioned and the unconditioned as the unconditioned. It's as simple as that. You just have to know two things: the conditioned and the unconditioned. When you are meditating, don't try to attain, but just open up to your intention for meditating. When you suddenly awaken to the fact that you are trying to get something out of it, that is a moment of enlightenment.

Rebirth Based on Desire


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