Nagarjuna’s Examination of Conditions

Mercifully Brief Introduction

Because the idea of conditions and conditioned arising is such a fundamental concept to the dharma we need to devote time and space to understanding it, to the suggestions and implications Nagarjuna is making in the opening chapter of his magnum opus, the Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK), or Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way ( The Ultimate Guide to a Better Life (PDF) ). We’ve organized it with bullet points, but these are profound philosophic concepts, and bear in mind that this is just a short, deep dharma summary of the key points.

This is a commentary on Nagarjuna’s first chapter of the MMK, Examination of Conditions. There are also practice notes to help with the implementation of these ideas into our daily lives. This is partly based on Jay Garfield’s exceptionally clear and accessible explanations ( The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (PDF) )

Note that there are other Buddhist schemas for explaining conditionality, some simpler than Nagarjuna’s, some even hinted at in the MMK, some more complex, but here we are only addressing Nagarjuna’s take on conditions.


Commentary on Examination of Conditions

  • Defining Conditions –When Nagarjuna uses the term “condition,” he has in mind a person, place, thing, event, state, or process that can be appealed to in explaining another person, place, thing, event, state, or process. Conditions are stories or narratives we create to explain how things happen, how things appear to arise. In other words, we make up stories to explain other stories! (No wonder we are so deluded!) But none of these conditions, these stories, alone or in and of themselves, can make anything happen. The big leap here is that conditions, which are simply narratives created by us as the perceiver to explain something in the conventional world, hopefully with an affinity or aversion added to them, are “empty” and the event that arises as a result of their association is also empty. Since being empty means lacking permanence, lacking an inherent definition, meaning, function, or value, this means that conditions arise only in an association with other conditions, all of which are in a continuous interrelated flux. Nothing in that flux can be autonomously and permanently existent from its side, and where we start and end that “story” determines, amazingly, a false internal world and external world to match it. 

    Nagarjuna notes that there are only and exactly four categories of conditions that can be appealed to in the explanation and prediction of phenomena. The four are (1) an initiating condition, (2) a supporting condition, (3) a background condition, and (4) a final condition.Let’s use turning on the hall light as an example. The (1) initiating condition is flicking the light switch, flicking the switch gets things going, (2) the supporting condition is that the hardware is in place and in order: the wires, fixture and bulb are in place and working, (3) the background condition is the availability of electricity flowing into the building and being available to flow through the switch to the bulb, and (4) the final condition, seeing the light. Using the elevator in an office building as an example, (1) pushing the button is the initiating condition, (2) the elevator car and cables and other hardware being in place and in order is the supporting condition, (3) the computer algorithm that controls the cabs movement and current to operate the elevator are the background condition, and (4) seeing the door open when the elevator arrives is the final condition. So, (1) the initiating condition starts the process which is concluded in the (4) final condition, when the event that was started is seen to occur. In the examples above, (2) the supporting condition can be compared to the hardware necessary for the event to occur, (3) the background condition can be compared to the software needed to operate the hardware. Note that one could substitute different conditions in each of these categories to change the story.

    Nagarjuna wants us to realize that no condition has any inherent potentiality. The wires, the supporting condition in both of the examples above, don’t have any ability or potential, in and of themselves, to create light or make an elevator move. They are just wires. This also means, for Nagarjuna, that if we were to examine all four conditions together, we would not see any event somehow contained within or necessitated by those conditions, they simply add up to a conventionally plausible description of how something happened. So all of the conditions, and even the association or connection of the four, are all empty.

    Our desire for something to happen does not exert some magical or mystical or occult force that makes it happen. We can “will” a parking place to open up just as we arrive at a downtown restaurant, but it can’t make a parking space open up just as we arrive. If that worked, if we could exert an occult force through sheer will power, that would be cause-and-effect, and again, according to Nagarjuna’s reasoning, there is no cause-and-effect. Nagarjuna emphasizes that when we choose a person, place, thing, event, etc., as a condition, we should remember not to allow ourselves to think it is causal in any way. Our desire for light does not exert some occult force on the lights. Nor is there some synchronistic force at play, nor is there some propelling evolutionary force at work, nor is there anything to be found in the flicking of the switch other than the plastic, metal, movement, and connections visible to the naked eye. Occult or metaphysical causal forces and powers are totally absent, and appealing to them to explain how things happen is dangerous and deluded.

  • Cause-and-Effect — For Nagarjuna, for something to be a “cause” it would have to always produce its effect. By this definition, the cause-and-effect event would always have to happen in exactly the same way regardless of surrounding conditions because, as explained, cause and effect are, by definition, “permanent.” And nothing can be permanent, for there is no way, as Nagarjuna asserts, for something permanent to be created or made. To be created or made requires change, and things that change aren’t permanent. For example, if flicking the switch “caused” a light to go on (in a cause-and-effect relationship), then every time the switch was flicked a light would go on–even if the switch were broken or there was no electricity. This example makes clear that there are many other conditions to the light illuminating than simply flicking the switch. Here comes the rub.
  • Regularity — Regularity gives the illusion of cause and effect where there is none. Stand in the lobby of a large office building and watch what people do when there is a delay in the elevator arriving. They keep pushing the button, one after another, repeatedly. Why, because normally when you push the button you might expect the elevator to come in a few seconds. So regularity, when things happen in a repeated and predictable pattern, gives us the illusion of causality. But further, when things don’t happen in the predictable pattern, we become upset—if the elevator is “slow” in arriving, if traffic light doesn’t change fast enough, if the kids aren’t home from school by “the predicted” 3:15, and more complexly, if people we care about don’t die in a predictable way, on our schedule (usually meaning something like peacefully and at an old age), then we suffer.Our illusions of regularity even show up at a micro-scale where we learn in science class that a particular gene, say NF Kappa-B, causes inflammation. But it is not at all that simple. There has to be an initiating condition, like invading bacteria, for it to fire, and that bacteria has to meet certain conditions within the body to initiate an immune response, which could lead to NF Kappa-B firing. Further, the NF Kappa-B gene has to reside in a certain body environment, which is itself reliant on innumerable other conditions to exist (conditioned arising, often termed as dependent origination), and so on.
  • Explanatory Need or Interest and Language: What we are typically confronted with in nature is a vast network of interdependent and continuous processes, and carving out particular phenomena (person, place, thing, etc.) for explanation or for use in explanations depends more on our explanatory needs and interests, and language than on the nature of the conditions themselves. Simply put, what we choose to see and talk about has more to do with who we are, what we are interested in at the time, and the language we choose to express ourselves, than with the nature of what is “happening.” If we enter a well-lighted room, we don’t mention it; on the other hand, if the room is dimly lit, we might flick the switch or ask that the lamps be turned on so we can see better. So it is not about the light, per se, but about our need and interest in having more light. And the language we use to ask for more light reflects our mood (are we asking gently and politely, indicating we are being open and patient, or are we making a snide remark about this room always being too dark, indicating we are upset) rather than anything about the light or lack of light itself.Nagarjuna is embarking with us on a journey here that will provide the practical understanding and tools necessary to realize deeply that the ultimate nature of the universe is peacefulness, and that this peacefulness, and the attendant happiness that arises from it, is accessible to everyone.

    Practice Notes: Practicing with this first chapter has three key and several auxiliary aspects. First, we suggest practicing with the idea that nothing is permanent. Second, practicing with the idea that there is no cause-and-effect, and third, practicing with conditions.

Practice Notes

Practicing with nothing is permanent: We need to define a term first before we can look at how to do this practice. That term is “reify.” To reify something is regard it as if it had its own concrete, material existence, as if it were an independent and autonomous thing, or to regard something abstract, like an idea or concept, as a concrete permanent thing. As hinted at above, to let our minds make something seem permanently real and material is a deluded understanding. We think we exist in a concrete and material way, we reify ourselves, and believe, for example, that authors Andy and Carl somehow exist in an independent, material way that has traversed time and space: Andy remembers experiences when Andy was six years old as though it were the same Andy as the one who went fishing with his son yesterday; Carl remembers Carl, and a lot of other things he did when he was twenty, as though it were the same Carl who helped create this commentary. Reifying Andy or Carl is nonsense. We can’t be permanent entities, and we certainly aren’t the same selves that we were forty years ago, and this applies to all other objects interpreted by our minds as separate and independent.

Practicing with nothing being permanent is not practicing with the idea that everything is impermanent, for that would reify impermanence. Rather, it is practicing with a voice in our heads that questions any time we reify anything. Especially ourselves. Nagarjuna is particularly emphatic about applying a lack of permanence to the self, to who and what I think “I am.” This focus on not reifying the self is one of Nagarjuna’s (and Buddhism’s) biggest concerns, and this idea is continually explained and reinforced in the MMK: no permanent self, no soul.

Practicing with nothing being permanent in a serious situation, especially in the face of a major depression, post traumatic pain, or chronic pain can reduce, minimize, and sometimes even eliminate the problem. How? We set aside a specific amount of time each day, say 15 or 30 minutes, to examine the statements: I am depressed, or I am in pain. We stop reifying our selves, we stop identifying and appropriating the depression or pain as Me and Mine. How? In meditation, seeing how things that aren’t permanent appear to be permanent. See how what we have reified as depression is simply an ever-changing mix of ideas and sensations, not actually a permanent, autonomous event. We breath into the physical sensation, allowing them to dissipate, and then we repeat, out loud if we can, but in our heads if there are people around: “This is not Me, this is not Mine.” With no identification and appropriation of the sensations as Me and Mine, our clinging to them lessens. Over the weeks and months of practice, we can flood our minds with that quote, and, with patience, the depression or pain can be slowly weakened.

This gradual process happens at different rates for each of us, we do not want to give the impression that this practice is necessarily easy. Nevertheless, the more we practice with nothing being permanent, with “This is not Me; this is not Mine”, the less anything can exist (in a false permanent way), and the more peaceful we become. But in addition to doing this in meditation, it can be done anytime during the day when you are feeling anxious or a depressed heaviness in your chest, or pained, just breath into it and say to yourself, “This is not me, this is not mine.” This can be done even while you are sitting in an office meeting.

Also we study and meditate with the concept that there is no permanent, depressed, or pained self. We look at those descriptors carefully and intimately, over a period of week and months, until they lose their weightiness, their validity and intensity.

Practicing with no cause-and-effect: All of our understandings, our stories, about how things are happening involve a cause and effect belief and have a cause and effect story. When we look carefully at the stories, the narratives that we are operating on, they lose their sting and very often appear silly. Initially, however, this is not self-evident. Maybe when we hear ourselves saying, “the red light is making me late” we can see the silliness of blaming a hunk of yellow and red plastic for my not getting to the office on time. Similarly, when one of the authors’ mothers says, “If I don’t hear from you in the morning, it ruins my day,” we can see the need for empathy without adding elements to the story that needlessly increase our own suffering. When we are caught up in our own narratives, however, even complex stories that could not conceivably be causal, we see how they take hold, and this lessens their impact. For example we could hear ourselves saying (as someone did to Carl), “I knew if I went on vacation to the Amalfi coast, my (diabetic) daughter’s sugar would spike and she’d have to be hospitalized.” No, our experience of Italy’s Sorrentine coastline and adjacent sea cannot cause one’s daughter to need hospitalization.

When we realize that all our stories, all of our conceptualizations of what is happening, are written in a cause-and-effect structure when in fact, there is no cause-and-effect, we lessen their ability to make us suffer. We do this by lessening their import, and we begin to stop believing them as autonomously true. This moves us significantly in the direction away from the delusion that dominates our stories and thus our lives.

In the three examples above: We let ourselves laugh out loud for somehow believing that the algorithm which controls the local traffic pattern knows, and is attacking me personally, by making the light red (it should, after all adjust itself to me when I pull out of my driveway, right?) Then we take a deep breath, feel our feet on the floor and pedal, our hands on the steering wheel, and quietly follow our breath for the few remaining seconds before the light turns green. We bring ourselves back to a painless mindful condition—it’s just a traffic light, not something aversive. With Mom, we see the silliness of her statement, which allows us to be empathetic and compassionate, and explain that we will do our best to give her a buzz each morning, but that conditions at the office sometimes prevent it and so she isn’t to worry if we miss a day. Finally, we talk to the nurse at school so she knows (1) that we have talked to our 11-year old daughter about the importance of monitoring herself diligently while we are away, and (2) for the week we are away, her aunt will be watching her, so call the aunt instead of the parents if there is a problem.

Yes, the stories are, ultimately, false and foolish, nonetheless they are meaningful and useful. They are useful in arousing our sense of empathy and compassion, and leading us away from our suffering, from our deluded self. Understanding that there is no cause-and-effect even though it appears that way to us conventionally, means, when we practice with it, that blame and recrimination fall away and are replaced with an understanding that we should be open, curious, and accepting in learning to see conditions clearly and learning to “abide in conditions.” We no longer blame people and things, not for our perceptions of them, nor for our stories about them. We simply look at conditions and respond appropriately.

When I am upset with something I have done, and I notice it happening, I use self-talk to tell myself to “Stop; stop it!” Then I ask myself, “What silly cause-and effect story did I just tell myself that is upsetting me?” I look at the story, chuckle, sometimes even laugh out loud, and remind myself there is no-cause-and effect, and the story lightens in weight or sometimes falls away completely. This self-talk that I do is a voice in my head that helps me regulate how I am choosing to interpret things and realizing, even when I am under duress, that there is no cause-and-effect can keep me on track to an easier life.

One last point is that knowing that there is no cause-and-effect means, and we must always remember this, we can never predict the outcome of an action. Having stage four cancer does not mean I will die of cancer. I could be struck by lightning or hit by a car or it could go into remission with proper treatment. Who knows? But having stage four cancer does not mean I will die of cancer any more than speeding on the highway means I will have an accident or get a ticket.

Practicing with conditions: Nagarjuna presents us with a model for understanding conditions in which there are four conditions: an initiating condition, a supporting condition, a background condition, and a final condition. We can use this model, say, to decide whether or not to buy a car, or we can simplify it, as we’ll explain in the examples below.

I am having trouble deciding if I should buy a new car. I start by asking, is there an initiating condition, or what is the initiating condition that is triggering this question. If it is that my neighbor bought a new car and so I need one to keep up my esteem, then there isn’t a initiating condition. Competing with my neighbor for who has the newest car or biggest house isn’t seeing conditions clearly. Conditions, by definition, aren’t self-centered understandings, but rather clear, unbiased evaluations. So, if it is that my car is getting old and needs significant repairs, repairs that are so expensive it would be better to buy a new car, there is both an initiating condition (dilapidated car) and a supporting condition (repairs too expensive to justify keeping the car). If there is money in the bank to buy a new car, the background condition is present and if there are dealerships where I can buy a car, then I do just that, buy a new car (the final condition). If any one of those four conditions is absent, there is no issue about buying a car. No money in the bank, for example, stops this from happening. Conditions don’t support it.

A neighbor, who is 85 years old and still safely driving, even if no longer at night, buys a new car every two years. There is never an initiating condition, there is not a “need” on any level for a new car, except as an unwholesome response to her car. Why does she do it? Because she has a belief, from the 1950s, that cars only have a two-year shelf life— after that they start to fall apart and are undependable. That was certainly a commonly held, and reasonable, belief 60 years ago, but it hasn’t been a clear read of conditions in several decades. Cars today comfortably last for many years without significant mechanical problems. There is no need to buy a new one every two years–no initiating condition. Again, this is an inappropriate read of the situation. Conditions don’t support it.

Let’s look at another simple example; one that doesn’t require using Nagarjuna’s model explicitly, but is present implicitly: being cut off in traffic. I am driving on the highway and a car cuts me off, cutting so sharply in front of me that I have to hit the brakes hard. I can feel the anger rising as I brake. “Who does he think he is cutting me off like that?” Well, let’s just ask, what is the condition? The condition is that another car switched lanes in front of me. Nothing else. And what is the appropriate response to the condition, it’s what any self-driving car would do: slow to increase the distance between my car and the one that just entered the lane and then resume a safe speed. That’s all conditions are suggesting; that’s what we do if we abide in conditions. No anger, just a calm, peaceful response. Interestingly, I have no reason to believe I was “cut off.” My car may have been in a blind spot for the other driver, and so they might not have even known my car was there. My anger has no effect on the unseen other driver, it only serves to further cloud my own perceptions. Road rage never arises when one abides in conditions! So here, rather than explicitly analyzing the situation from the four point model, we simply see the conditions as someone entered the lane in front of me and I need to give them space, not concoct an aversive narrative that I am being assaulted.

Also, we need to practice with the knowledge that there is no synchronicity (nothing metaphysical or occult happening, ever), and no coincidence. Things may seem to converge in crazy ways that lead us to that narrative, but they are just conditions arising when we supply a narrative that make it seem to us that the events are connected. Synchronicity and coincidence are just a product of a story we are telling ourselves. Carl gave a talk on mindfulness at a local public library on a Sunday afternoon. One of the attendees said she noticed its synchronicity with an article in the New York Times that day. No, the New York Times did not synchronize the publication of that article with Carl, nor was the Times article the reason Carl was talking on the same topic as Carl was not aware of the article. Neither condition arose because of the other; neither condition validated the other. Both were just empty conditions.

Practicing with a Cancer Diagnosis: Carl’s doctor called him and said (we’re abbreviating the story, it was actually a several minute, sensitive conversation), there is an abnormal growth in your blood cells. Carl was in a hurry, so he said, “Exactly what does that mean?” There was starting to be an edge in his voice. “Carl, you have leukemia.” Conditions have changed, Carl heard himself saying to himself. To his physician he said, “So I have cancer [in that instant he heard himself saying to himself, ‘I guess this is where people write the Cancer Story.’]. Guess you want me to see an oncologist. Email me some names and I will be go to one and have them copy you on whatever is decided. I have got to run now or I will be late for my gym class.”

Honestly, that is how it happened. After long practicing with using his self talk and abiding in conditions as they are, he was able to simply proceed to the gym. No cancer story: no “I Am Dying” story. He had lunch after the gym, then made an appointment with the oncologist. “Buying a new car or being cut off in traffic, though, aren’t ‘serious’ and so it seems easy to abide in conditions with them. But getting a cancer diagnosis is very different.” Students often say that, but it is no different, not for those who have practiced with conditions, who see conditions as conditions, and empty, who learn to abide in conditions as they are, without falsely embellishing them.

Understanding conditions, understanding everything as interdependent and in perpetual flux, provides us with a tool for navigating the conventional world that adds a non-stick coating to troublesome reactions and responses to people and events, preventing us from being able to stick (crave or cling) to them and so be uncomfortable or suffer. In a sense, knowing the emptiness of conditions changes the bias from creating one of perpetual discomfort and suffering to encouraging one of peacefulness and happiness, while at the same time allowing us to act appropriately.

Nagarjuna is trying to give us a jump start to understand and see the world in a reliable way, in the way it really is, which is lacking in permanence, meaning everything is changeable. This understanding, when we take refuge in it, makes everything easy and peaceful. When we realize, as Nagarjuna teaches so effectively, that there is no cause-and-effect, there are only conditions, life settles down.

So, whenever we feel anxious or panicky or stressed, it is a signal that we need to change our narrative. We need to reexamine the conditions with patience, compassion, and generosity; with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. It is a matter of noticing the discomfort early and then remembering to use an internal voice to ask: “If I were being patient, compassion and generous, right now, how would I see the conditions.” Or, “If I were being open, curious, and accepting, right now, how would I see the conditions.” The answer will be a new narrative that leaves us more peaceful.

Brief Concluding Remarks

  • Conditions are the raw material of, the pure data of stories without the embellishment of a hedonic affect, without the addition of an assigned positive or negative value, without added affinities or aversions. This is where understanding and realizing the 5 Aggregates enters the picture. (The Aggregates being the psycho-physical schema for explains how our narratives create our sense of self.) Using conditions, according to analysis using the five aggregates, our karma, our personality comes into play. It creates our narratives based solely on past experiences. Knowing this, we can practice transcending the intervention of past karma, and using free will we can direct our narratives to be less hedonic and our responses more appropriate. It is from this perspective that we abide in conditions and become content with our lives.
  • Stories are conditions with the added affect, with the embellishment of an affinity or aversion.For example, “It is snowing” or “there is snow” are conditions. “I hate the snow, it makes driving so difficult” or “I’m so happy it’s snowing as I’m going skiing in the morning” these are stories.When we project conditioning from our past onto the present, we turn a benign moment into a suffering event. Understanding and realizing subject/object duality helps us to get back to the benign, or “pacific” as Nagarjuna labels, state. Understanding the five aggregates can help us get back to the “singularity,” as Vasubandhu labels it. It is the model from which we learn to respond appropriately to conditions.
  • Abiding in conditions, being present without believing our dualistically constructed, affective stories, is seeing clearly and responding appropriately. Abiding in conditions is “radical acceptance.”It is calm abiding that can be said to give us the insights necessary for us to respond appropriately—it is calming the mind (the aim of mindfulness meditation) and then examining the nature of what arises that is the source of appropriateness. It is understanding emptiness, and non-duality, that makes the appropriate obvious.