Buddha nature, the unconditioned


 “At Savatthi. ‘Monks, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned.…”

“And what, monks, is the unconditioned?  The ending of desire, the ending of hatred, the ending of delusion: this is called the unconditioned.

 “And what, monks, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned…” 

“When greed, hatred and delusion have been abandoned [a person] does not experience in his mind suffering and grief.  In this way … nirvana is directly visible, immediate, … to be personally experienced….” (Extracts from the Samyutta Nikaya Sutra, Pali Canon – translated by Stephen Batchelor – available on his website – these sutras written down at the 4th Buddhist Council, 29 BCE)

The term ‘unconditioned’ refers to a state in which there is freedom from suffering and disturbance caused by attachment to an incorrect understanding of the actual nature of existence. In other words, when we live in clear awareness of, and in harmony with, the transience and impermanence of all things, we become free of disturbance and suffering, and thus experience peace and tranquillity.

To be mindful is to see clearly how things are (dharma) – this means observing what arises in our consciousness – attending to thoughts, feelings, sensations and other experiences; and observing the interrelationships between these ever-changing phenomena. To be mindful in this way is to take notice of the habitual patterns of thought and feeling that characterise much of our chattering mind. By seeing into these habits and interactions we become aware of the conditioning that affects us – conditioning that arises from the various contexts in which we live (family, education, culture, society). To be able to recognise these conditioned reactions and responses, is a significant part of the process of freeing ourselves from such conditioning.

When we fully realise the interdependence of all things we are paradoxically no longer dependent on anything! When we fully realise that all things, including ourselves, have no independent existence, we paradoxically experience a state of peace or enlightenment – we feel less burdened by the weight of our ‘selves’, things, beliefs, past and future. Instead we feel a lightness of being and a deep connectedness with other beings and with all things (accompanied by tranquillity this is nirvana). In this sense we are no longer ‘conditioned’ by our surroundings, because our surroundings are no longer felt to be separate and external. We are inseparable from the flow of all that exists.

The terms, Buddha Nature, Original Nature and the Unborn, are often used in a similar way to the Unconditioned – to denote our impermanent, interdependent, empty nature or mind – often contrasted with the ‘dualistic mind’, the ‘ego-self’, the grasping or clinging mind, the deluded mind/self.

The term ‘unconditioned’ does not refer to a state in which the laws of causality (karma) do not operate, rather it refers to a state in which we are aware (mindful) of the causal forces that affect us, and in that sense can act in ways that are less constrained by such forces.