Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way

1. An Analysis of Conditions

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1. An Analysis of Conditions


THIS IS THE first of several chapters investigating the concept of causation. It is important to note at the outset that in classical Indian philosophy causation is usually understood as a relation between entities (“the seed, together with warm moist soil, is the cause of the sprout”) and not, as in modern science, between events (“the collision caused the motion of the ball”). It begins with a statement of the thesis: that existing things do not arise in any of the four logically possible ways that causation might be thought to involve. The Ābhidharmika opponent (i.e., a member of one of the Abhidharma schools) then introduces a conditions-based analysis of causation, which is a version of the second of the four possible views concerning causation. The remainder of the chapter consists of arguments against the details of this theory that entities arise in dependence on distinct conditions. In outline the chapter proceeds as follows:


             na svato nāpi parato na dvābhyāṃ nāpy ahetutaḥ |

             utpannā jātu vidyante bhāvāḥ kvacana kecana ||1||

         1. Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without cause:

             Never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen.

This is the overall conclusion for which Nāgārjuna will argue in this chapter: that existents do not come into existence as the result of causes and conditions. There are four possible ways in which this might be thought to happen, and he rejects all of them. According to the first, when an effect seems to arise, it does so because it was already in some sense present in its cause; its appearance is really just the manifestation of something that already existed. The second view claims instead that cause and effect are distinct entities. The third has it that cause and effect may be said to be both identical and distinct. The fourth claims that things originate without any cause; since there are thus no causes, an originating thing could not be said to originate either from itself or from something distinct—it does not originate from anything.

We follow Ye 2011 and accordingly diverge from translations that follow the La Vallée Poussin edition, in reversing the order of the second and third verses of this chapter. (This ordering is clearly attested to by the Akutobhayā and the commentaries of Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka.) On this reading, general arguments against all four views are given in the next verse. But in his comments on this verse Bhāviveka 19anticipates by giving arguments against the four views. He says, for instance, that the fourth view would mean that anything could be produced from anything at any time, something we know is false.

             na hi svabhāvo bhāvānāṃ pratyayādiṣu vidyate |

             avidyamāne svabhāve parabhāvo na vidyate ||2||

         2. The intrinsic nature of existents does not exist in the conditions, etc.

             The intrinsic nature not occurring, neither is extrinsic nature found.

According to the Akutobhayā, 2ab gives the argument against the first possibility mentioned in verse 1, that an existent arises from itself (the view known as satkāryavāda). The argument is that if that out of which the existent arose were really that existent itself, then it should have the intrinsic nature (svabhāva) of the existent. But this is simply not the case. Indeed as all the other commentators point out, if this were the case, then arising would be pointless. For instance we want to know the cause of fire because we want to produce something with its intrinsic nature, heat. If that nature were already present in its cause, then it would be pointless to produce fire. For then in order to feel heat we would only need to touch unignited fuel.

Again according to the Akutobhayā, 2cd gives the argument against the second possibility mentioned in verse 1, that an existent arises from something distinct from itself (asatkāryavāda). This would mean that the existent must borrow its nature from its cause, thus making its nature something that is extrinsic (parabhāva). The argument is that in the absence of the intrinsic nature of the existent in question, its extrinsic nature is likewise not to be found. This is because in order for something to exist, its intrinsic nature must occur: There is, for instance, no fire without the occurrence of heat. And something 20cannot be in the position of borrowing a nature from something else unless it exists. So an existent cannot arise from something distinct. (For more on satkāryavāda and asatkāryavāda see chapters 10 and 20.)

The third possibility is to be rejected on the grounds that it inherits all the faults of the first and second. And according to the Akutobhayā, the fourth is false because it is one of the extreme views rejected by the Buddha. (Other commentators give more philosophically respectable reasons to reject this view.)

             catvāraḥ pratyayā hetur ārambaṇam anantaram |

             tathaivādhipateyaṃ ca pratyayo nāsti pañcamaḥ ||3||

         3. [The opponent:] There are four conditions: the primary cause, the objective support, the proximate condition,

             and of course the dominant condition; there is no fifth condition.

The commentators represent this as the view of a Buddhist opponent, someone who holds the second of the four possible views about the relation between cause and effect mentioned in verse 1. Candrakīrti has this opponent begin by rehearsing the reasons for rejecting the first, third, and fourth views. On the first, origination would be pointless, since the desired effect would already exist. We seek knowledge of causes because we find ourselves wanting to produce something that does not currently exist. The third view is to be rejected because it is the conjunction of the first and second, and we already know that the first is false. The fourth view, that of causelessness, is one of the absurd extremes said to be false by the Buddha (M I.408, A I.173). But, the opponent claims, the second view was taught by the Buddha and so should not be rejected.

The classification of four kinds of condition is the Abhidharma elaboration of the Buddha’s teaching of origination. (See AKB 2.64a.) (1) The primary cause is that from which the effect is thought to have 21been produced—for example, the seed in the case of a sprout. (2) Only a cognition has an objective support, namely its intentional object, that of which it is conscious. A visual cognition has a color-and-shape dharma as its objective support, an auditory cognition has a sound, etc. (3) The proximate condition is that entity or event that immediately precedes the effect and that cedes its place to the effect. (4) The dominant condition is that without which the effect would not arise. After criticizing the basic notion of causation, Nāgārjuna will take up each of these four types in turn: primary cause in verse 7, objective support in verse 8, proximate condition in verse 9, and dominant condition in verse 10.

Candrakīrti sets the stage for verse 4 by having the opponent answer the question raised by 2cd as follows: “Then, given such a refutation of the view that origination is by means of conditions, the view will be entertained that origination is by means of an action (kriyā). The conditions such as vision and color-and-shape do not directly cause consciousness [as effect]. But conditions are so called because they result in a consciousness-producing action. And this action produces consciousness. Thus consciousness is produced by a condition-possessing, consciousness-producing action, not by conditions, as porridge [is produced] by the action of cooking” (LVP p. 79).

             kriyā na pratyayavatī nāpratyayavatī kriyā |

             pratyayā nākriyāvantaḥ kriyāvantaś ca santy uta ||4||

         4. An action does not possess conditions; nor is it devoid of conditions.

             Conditions are not devoid of an action; neither are they provided with an action.

This “action” is supposed to be the causal activity that makes the cause and conditions produce the right kind of effect. It is supposed to explain why only when a seed is planted in warm moist soil does a sprout appear (and why a sprout doesn’t arise from a stone). But if this 22action is the product of the co-occurrence of the conditions, and thus may be said to possess the conditions, then presumably it occurs when these conditions are assembled. But is this before or after the effect has arisen? If before, then it does not perform the producing activity that makes an event an action. If after, then since the effect has already been produced, the producing activity is no longer to be found. And, adds Candrakīrti, there is no third time when the effect is undergoing production, since that would require that the effect be simultaneously existent and nonexistent, which is a contradictory state.

If, on the other hand, one were to say that the action occurs independently of the conditions, then we would be unable to explain why the productive action takes place at one time and not at others. The action, being free of dependence on conditions, would be forever occurring, and all such undertakings as trying to make a fire would be pointless.

Given that one cannot specify a time when this action occurs, it follows that it does not ultimately exist. And from this it follows that it cannot be ultimately true that conditions either possess an action or do not possess an action.

             utpadyate pratītyemān itīme pratyayāḥ kila |

             yāvan notpadyata ime tāvan nāpratyayāḥ katham ||5||

         5. They are said to be conditions when something arises dependent on them.

             When something has not arisen, why then are they not nonconditions?

             naivāsato naiva sataḥ pratyayo ’rthasya yujyate |

             asataḥ pratyayaḥ kasya sataś ca pratyayena kim ||6||

         6. Something cannot be called a condition whether the object [that is the supposed effect] is not yet existent or already existent.


             If nonexistent, what is it the condition of? And if existent, what is the point of the condition?

These two verses explain in greater detail the argument of verse 4. The supposed conditions for the arising of a visual cognition—functioning eyes, presence of an object, light, and so on—cannot be said to be conditions at the time when the visual cognition does not yet exist, since they have not yet performed the productive activity required to make them be what are properly called “conditions.” But when the visual cognition does exist, no productive activity is to be found. We might think there must be a third time between these two, a time when the visual cognition is undergoing production. But while we could say this about a chariot, it could not hold of something ultimately real such as a cognition. A chariot might be thought of as something that gradually comes into existence when its parts are being assembled. But precisely because we would then have to say that during that process the chariot both exists and does not exist, we must admit that the chariot is not ultimately real. That we can say this about a chariot shows that it is a mere useful fiction.

This pattern of argumentation, which we might call the “argument of the three times,” will figure prominently in chapter 2. The point of the argument as applied to the present case of origination is that for those who hold that cause and effect are distinct (proponents of the view known as asatkāryavāda), the producing relation can only be a conceptual construction. According to asatkāryavāda, cause and conditions occur before the effect arises. To claim that the effect originates in dependence on the cause and conditions, we must take there to be a real relation between the two items. But that relation is not to be found in either of the two available times. As for the third time, it holds only with respect to conceptually constructed entities such as the chariot. It follows that the relation of production or causation must be conceptually constructed. It is something that we impute upon observing a regular succession of events, but it is not to be found in reality.


             na san nāsan na sadasan dharmo nirvartate yadā |

             kathaṃ nirvartako hetur evaṃ sati hi yujyate ||7||

         7. Since a dharma does not operate whether existent, nonexistent, or both existent and nonexistent,

             how in that case can something be called an operative cause?

Candrakīrti explains that by “operative cause” (nirvartakahetu) is meant primary cause, the first of the four kinds of conditions identified in verse 2. A dharma is an ultimately real entity, something with intrinsic nature. The argument is that in order for an entity to perform the operation of producing an effect, it must undergo change, going from the state of not yet having produced the effect to the state of having produced the effect. But an ultimately real entity, a dharma, cannot undergo change when it exists, since its existence just consists in the manifestation of its intrinsic nature. Nor can it undergo change when it does not exist, since at that time there is no “it” to serve as the subject of change. As for the third option, that the dharma is both existent and nonexistent, the commentators explain that this thesis inherits the defects of the first and second theses and that moreover the properties of being existent and being nonexistent are mutually incompatible.

             anārambaṇa evāyaṃ san dharma upadiśyate |

             athānārambaṇe dharme kuta ārambaṇaṃ punaḥ ||8||

         8. A dharma, being existent, is said to indeed be without objective support.

             Then why again posit an objective support in the case of a dharma without an objective support?

The object of a mental state such as a visual cognition is said to be the objective support (ālambana-pratyaya) of that cognition. To call this 25a kind of condition is to say that the cognition cannot arise without its object. The argument against there being such a condition is once again like that of verses 6–7. At the time when a cognition exists, its supposed objective support cannot be said to produce it. Only something that does not yet exist can be produced.

Note that this argument differs from the time-lag argument that Sautrāntikas use to support a representationalist theory of perception. Both arguments rely on the fact that the objective support exists before the cognition. But the Sautrāntika argument uses this fact to argue that the cognition cannot be directly aware of what is called its objective support. The argument here, by contrast, uses this fact to prove that what is called the objective support cannot be said to be a causal condition of the cognition.

             anutpanneṣu dharmeṣu nirodho nopapadyate |

             nānantaram ato yuktaṃ niruddhe pratyayaś ca kaḥ ||9||

         9. Destruction does not hold when dharmas have not yet originated.

             Thus nothing can be called a proximate condition; if it is destroyed, how can it be a condition?

The argument here is also similar to that of verses 4–7, only this time directed against the idea of a proximate condition (samanantara-pratyaya), the third of the four types of condition. The proximate condition can perform its function neither before nor after the arising of the effect. A proximate condition must undergo destruction in order to bring about its effect: It would not be the immediately preceding condition unless it went out of existence before the effect arose. But before the effect has arisen, it has not yet undergone destruction. And once it has undergone destruction, since it no longer exists, it cannot be said to be productive of an effect.


             bhāvānāṃ niḥsvabhāvānāṃ na sattā vidyate yataḥ |

             satīdam asmin bhavatīty etan naivopapadyate ||10||

      10. Since things devoid of intrinsic nature are not existent,

             “This existing, that comes to be” can never hold.

“This existing, that comes to be” is one standard formulation of dependent origination, the Buddha’s doctrine of causation. The “this” in the formula is identified by the Ābhidharmika as the dominant condition (adhipati-pratyaya), the fourth type of condition mentioned in verse 2. The claim here is that there can be no such dominant condition for things that are ultimately real. The argument is that anything that did originate in accordance with the formula would lack intrinsic nature. We saw it claimed in verses 4–7 that there is no third time when an ultimately real effect is undergoing production. This is because for something to be ultimately real, it must bear its own intrinsic nature and not borrow that nature from other things, in the way in which a chariot borrows its nature (e.g., its size, shape, and weight) from the natures of its parts. And this in turn means that something that is ultimately real must be simple in nature. Something simple in nature either does exist or does not exist; there is no third intermediate state when it is coming into existence. Only things that are not ultimately real, such as a chariot, could be said to undergo production. Hence the formula “This existing, that comes to be” cannot apply to things that are ultimately existent.

             na ca vyastasamasteṣu pratyayeṣv asti tat phalam |

             pratyayebhyaḥ kathaṃ tac ca bhaven na pratyayeṣu yat ||11||

      11. That product does not exist in the conditions whether they are taken separately or together.

             What does not exist in the conditions, how can that come from the conditions?


             athāsad api tat tebhyaḥ pratyayebhyaḥ pravartate |

             phalam apratyayebhyo ’pi kasmān nābhipravartate ||12||

      12. If that which does not exist [in them] is produced from those conditions,

             how is it that the product does not also come forth from nonconditions?

The argument so far has focused on the conditions. Now it turns to the effect but makes similar points. Here the view in question is that the effect is distinct from its cause and conditions. In verse 11 the difficulty is raised that there is then no explanation as to why this particular effect arises from these conditions. Candrakīrti gives the example of the cloth that is said to arise from the threads, loom, shuttle, pick, and so on. The cloth is not in these conditions taken separately, for the cloth is not found in the separate threads, the loom, etc., and if it were in each of them, then it would be many cloths, not one. Nor is the cloth in the conditions taken collectively or in the assembled state. For when the threads are assembled, the cloth as a whole is not found in each of the many threads that are its individual parts. Consequently the cloth and its conditions must be said to be utterly distinct. In verse 12 it is pointed out that it would then be equally sensible to expect the effect to arise from anything at all—that is, from what would ordinarily be identified as nonconditions with respect to that effect. (Cf. verse 3cd.) For as Bhāviveka points out, threads are just as distinct from curd as they would then be from cloth, so we should expect to be able to get curd from threads.

             phalaṃ ca pratyayamayaṃ pratyayāś cāsvayaṃmayāḥ |

             phalam asvamayebhyo yat tat pratyayamayaṃ katham ||13||

      13. The product consists of the conditions, but the conditions do not consist of themselves.


             How can that which is the product of things that do not consist of themselves consist of conditions?

Here the view in question is that the product or effect, while distinct from the cause and conditions, arises from them in that it consists in them or is composed of them. (The Nyāya school held this view.) It differs from the view in question in verses 11–12 in that it restricts the term “condition” to just those things that the effect can be said to be made of. The example used by the commentators is that of the threads and a piece of cloth. Now we can say that the cloth is made up of the threads. But it is not true that a thread is made up of itself. The thread is in turn made up of its parts, such as its two tips and the intermediate parts. But if something is composed of something else, the intrinsic nature of that thing should be found in what it is composed of. For instance the color of the cloth should be found in the threads. And the property of being composed of threads, while found in the cloth, is not to be found in the threads. A thread does not consist of itself; it consists of its tips and the other parts. So the view in question cannot be correct.

             tasmān na pratyayamayaṃ nāpratyayamayaṃ phalam |

             saṃvidyate phalābhāvāt pratyayāpratyayāḥ kutaḥ ||14||

      14. Therefore neither a product consisting of conditions nor one consisting of nonconditions

             exists; if the product does not exist, how can there be a condition or noncondition?

As verse 13 showed, the effect cannot be said to be made up of its conditions, since the effect could derive its nature only from things that do not in turn derive their nature from yet other things. The alternative would be to say that the effect is made up of nonconditions. If the cloth is not made up of threads, then perhaps it is made up of straw, which 29is the condition with respect to a mat but a noncondition with respect to cloth. But this is obviously absurd. So there is no plausible account of the origination of a real effect. And in the absence of a real effect, nothing can be said to be either a condition or a noncondition.

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Assertion: No entity arises in any of the four possible ways: (a) from itself, (b) from a distinct cause, (c) from both itself and something distinct, or (d) without cause.


General refutation of arising on possibilities a–d


Opponent: Entities arise (b) in dependence on distinct conditions of four kinds.


Refutation of relation between conditions and causal activity



Definition of “condition” and argument for the impossibility of anything meeting the definition


Refutations of each of the four conditions


Refutation of thesis that effect arises from conditions

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