Conditioned vs Unconditioned or Fullness vs Emptiness

by Charles Day

Respones to Questions Asked by a Buddhist Meditator:

Q: Please explain your understanding of the conditioned and (or as opposed to) the unconditioned. I think I understand the two on a level that is not easily articulated.

A: The unconditioned is a term essentially synonymous with and referring to the unborn, deathless, birthless, formless, timeless, emptiness, pure awareness, pure consciousness, oneness, selflessness (in it's sense of formlessness), or ground of being (as I understand that term). Choose your favorite "word” or “concept" and don't get hung up on its "meaning" because the unconditioned is the essence of that ineffable experience which, as you note, can't be explained or articulated.

The unconditioned is to the conditioned as formlessness is to form or emptiness is to fullness. All physical forms, sensory experiences, and mental phenomena (thoughts, concepts, images, feelings, perceptions, mental formations) are the conditioned (i.e., subject to causes and conditions), impermanent, insubstantial, and interdependent manifestations, forms, or content of the unconditioned.

Note that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness constitute the conditioned manifestations of the unconditioned. And that the unconditioned and the conditioned are mental formations that can only be separated conceptually within the duality that we experience as relative reality.

Q: Can one exist in the unconditioned?

A: Everyone, everything, all mental and physical phenomena exist in the unconditioned. The conditioned (duality/manifestation/form) is the unconditioned (nonduality/emptiness/formless). It's the unified whole, as Robert Wolfe (“Living Nonduality: Enlightenment Teachings of Self-Realization,” Karina Library, 2009) would put it. It's the ground of being, which when the ego experiences being it or having experienced it - in the form of conscious thoughts, feelings, or images - is its conditioned dualistic manifestation. These, for example, are my thoughts, the “my” (delusion of self and ownership) and “thoughts” being “individuated” conditioned manifestations of the undivided, unconditioned whole.

Q: Clarify this sentence: "All physical forms, sensory experiences, and mental phenomena (thoughts, concepts, images, feelings, perceptions, mental formations) are the conditioned (i.e, subject to causes and conditions), impermanent, insubstantial, and interdependent manifestations, forms, or content of the unconditioned." Is your understanding of the unconditioned a single substance, or mass, which all phenomena are intrinsically part of? That would give the unconditioned form, a unified whole. Not very empty I must say!

A: There is nothing outside of or not part of the unified whole. Your concept of "empty" implies "nothing". In Buddhism, empty/emptiness are equivalent to full/fullness. You're making the fundamental error that Robert Wolfe emphasizes: Thinking you/ego and your discriminating thoughts are separate from the unified whole. Concepts of time and space are conditioned and lead to the illusions of past and presence, permanence and impermanence, and separateness and interdependence. There is only the now, the totality of experience, the unified whole.

Q: Explain further the manifestations of the unconditioned being the Four Foundations.

A: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutra, deals with all conceivable, experienced aspects of relative, dualistic reality. All Four Foundations, the body/form and three mental components of feelings, mental formations/consciousness, and mental objects - including the deluded sense of a separate, independent, and enduring self that arises from the Five Aggregates of Clinging - are simply conditioned manifestations of the unconditioned, or "individuated" parts of the unified whole.

More is available in my online article listed on the right: "Emptiness/Fullness and Nonduality/Duality": The following two paragraphs are from that article.

"Dualistic thinking and living is how the vast majority of us experience

conventional space/time relative reality. A proponent of dualism who claims never to have had an experience of nonduality - an experience that is characterized by mystics in all religious traditions as transcending the dualistic ego and its experiences of form, time, birth, and death – might contend that such is really just a unique form of dualistic experience. Dualistic thinkers can ask whether dualism is the illusion or is nondualism the illusion, are both illusions, or are neither illusions?”

“According to the mystic, until nonduality and egolessness are deeply, intuitively experienced, the person with the sense of a separate self or ego raises these issues and questions as debatable or unanswerable out of inexperience, misunderstanding, skepticism, or doubt. The nondualist mystic, on the other hand, who has transcended the sense of separateness, may participate in a discussion about emptiness/fullness and nonduality/duality, but it will be with the realization that the issues and those discussing them are merely individuated parts of an indivisible whole."

Remember that this entire discussion is just buddha-babble at the level of conceptualization. Buddha-babble is my term for attempts to concretize the abstract, to explain the ineffable, to conceptualize, intellectualize, or logically understand that which is beyond words or concepts. Such attempts are often likened to fingers pointing to the moon, useful when taken as such (the conditioned) but impediments when mistaken for or as separate from the goal (the unconditioned). Conceptualization must be transcended to experience and realize the unified whole, the oneness of the conditioned and the unconditioned, and the illusory paradox of separating them intellectually. Such realization, glimpsed or enduring, is enlightenment or realization of buddha-nature. Peace, Charlie