12. Two Conditions of Dharma

Having discussed epistemology, we focus on Buddha’s teachings on reality. Since their means of knowledge differ, one can expect that Buddha’s teachings on reality differ from the scientific ones.

Let’s start with the universe that science teaches.


In the scientific view, there is only one universe in the cosmos. Furthermore, the universe is bifurcated into a large “dark” slice occupying 95.4% and a smaller atomic slice occupying the remaining 4.6%. While the atomic slice is the equivalent of “the world we experience,” what is the dark slice consisting of dark energy and matter?

According to NASA, “dark matter and dark energy are mysterious substances that affect and shape the cosmos, and scientists are still trying to figure them out.” These enigmatic entities, “dark” to scientific discovery and investigations, continue to pique the curiosity of researchers.

Buddha’s cosmos, too, is bifurcated. However, unlike the scientific bifurcation, Buddha’s two realms are not integral because they exist separately under different conditions. None of these two realms is “dark” to human investigations. This unique setup highlights that the divergence between the Buddhist and the scientific cosmos starts from the most fundamental level.

In the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Buddha elucidates that all phenomena in the cosmos fall into one of two categories. One type of phenomenon exists unconditionally, while the other is conditional. The lone scientific universe is conditioned.

Sandhinirmocana Sutra (Chinese=解深密經) “is a Mahāyāna Buddhist text and the most important sutra of the Yogācāra school. It contains explanations of key Yogācāra concepts such as the basal-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the doctrine of appearance-only (vijñapti-mātra), and the “three own natures” (trisvabhāva). It is “one of the most important texts of the Yogācāra tradition…..The sūtra presents itself as a series of dialogues between Gautama Buddha and various bodhisattvas. During these dialogues, the Buddha attempts to clarify disputed meanings present in scriptures of the early Mahāyāna and the early Buddhist schools; thus, the title of the sūtra, which promises to expound a teaching that is “completely explicit” and requires no interpretation in order to be understood.

In the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Buddha teaches that “there are two types of dharma, one conditioned, and the other unconditioned (Chinese=一切法者,略有二種,一者有為,二者無為.)”

First, let’s begin by defining the meaning of dharma and condition.

Dharma (Chinese=法), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “factor,” or “element:” a polysemous term of wide import in Buddhism and therefore notoriously difficult to translate, a problem acknowledged in traditional sources; as many as ten meanings of the term are found in the literature.” However, “one of its most significant and common usages is to refer to “teachings” or “doctrines,” whether they be Buddhist or non-Buddhist.” “A second (and very different) principal denotation of dharma is a physical or mental “factor” or “fundamental” “constituent element,” or “simply phenomenon.” When discussing Buddhist reality, dharma means simply phenomena.

Condition (Romanized Sanskrit=pratyaya; Chinese=緣), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, refers “to the subsidiary factors whose concomitance results in the production of an effect from a cause.” “For example, in the production of a sprout from a seed, the seed would be the cause (Hetu), while such factors as heat and moisture would be conditions (pratyaya.).”

A) Conditioned Dharma (Sanskrit=samskrtadharma), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “a term that describes all impermanent phenomena, that is, “all phenomena that are produced through the concomitance of causes and conditions.” Furthermore, “Buddha is said to have taught: When this is present, that comes to be, / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”

Conditioned dharma applies to the universe where everything is epiphenomena. As discussed previously, from ripples in the quantum realm, as shown by Dr. David Tong’s image,


to giant galaxies in the sky, as shown by Dr. Tony Tyson’s image,

all phenomena are epiphenomena. Their existence as ripples is indeed impermanent and is “produced through the concomitance of causes and conditions” from the changes in the fluctuations.

B) Unconditioned Dharma (Romanized Sansrkrit=asamskrtadharma; (Chinese=無為法), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, “is “in Sanskrit, (also called) “uncompounded,” …. not conditioned and therefore perduring phenomena that are not subject to impermanence.”

Traditionally, unconditional dharma has belonged to the domains of religions or philosophical thoughts. Many deities in religions worldwide are deemed to exist unconditionally and permanently. In philosophy, philosopher Immanuel Kant postulated the realm of Noumenon, which exists unconditionally as a “thing-in-itself” outside of human perception, in contrast to the phenomenal world.

In Buddhism, however, the unconditioned dharma belongs to mentality.  

Given that all Buddhist realities are “Nothing but Mentality,” what separates the mentality of the unconditioned dharma from the mentality of the conditioned dharma?

They are separated by their different fluctuating statuses. The unconditioned mentality does not fluctuate, and it is known as Citta. On the other hand, the conditioned mentality fluctuates nonstop, and it is known as non-luminosity.

Since the quiescent and fluctuating mentality cannot coexist with each other in the same domain, Citta and non-luminosity exist separately as two realms in the cosmos.  

The mental nature of both Citta and non-luminosity is “dark” to the scientific method and inquiry. However, the “darkness” partially disappears with non-luminosity. While its mental nature is still “dark” to scientific investigations, its fluctuations cause epiphenomena to appear. All epiphenomena, from ripples in the quantum realm to the largest celestial bodies in the sky, can be investigated by the scientific method through energy. The unconditioned dharma, however, remains entirely “dark” to science. Not only can the scientific method not investigate pure mentality, it can also not study any phenomenon that cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or conceived.  

In the next post, we will discuss the eternal nature of these two realms and how Buddha’s cosmos is a three-body system.

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