Ajahn Sumedho's quote about the Unconditioned


This is the problem of “first beginnings”, which the Buddha said is unknowable. See SN 15.1, etc.

Not getting into the tarpit of philosophy/theology on the “prime mover” is one of the most canny and powerful moves that the Buddha made. What matters is that suffering is real, and we can do something about it.

Adding an assumed “unconditioned” is a non-explanation. It’s like saying “God did it”. It’s just a word, a word that evokes a response, but which doesn’t really mean anything.

How could the unconditioned condition anything? Christian theologists have dug themselves into endless pits trying to explain how God, who is unconditioned, created a world that is conditioned. We don’t have that problem, thank goodness!

These are two separate questions. Memories of past lives are conditioned, an aspect of the larger process of the unfolding stream of consciousness. Knowing what a previous state of consciousness was does not require knowing what an assumed original state was.

Let’s say I wanted to figure out the route taken by a particular car, so I can see where it’s headed. If I see it coming down 4th Street, I can infer that it came from 3rd Street. And if I see its indicator on, I can infer that it’s turning right on 5th Street. It’s 7pm, and I know that 5th Street leads to a popular restaurant, so I can guess that maybe that’s where it’s heading.

But say I was to add to my information the place where the car was manufactured. If it was built in Korea or Japan or Germany, does that help me at all? It does not.

And what if it is my car, and I am sick of it, and want to step out of it and leave it behind: would it matter where it was made?

Knowledge of the ultimate origins of consciousness is a fascinating question, but it is futile. We will never know the answer, so speculation is merely a distraction from what is really relevant.

The question of how the process of rebirth occurs is explained in the suttas through dependent origination. It is a continual unfolding of conditions. By seeing how consciousness flows and changes in the present, we can understand how that works in the past and future. This is what’s important for spiritual progress.

In the various Abhidharma schools, refinements and elaborations of this theory were developed in various different ways. If someone wants to do a modern take on it in terms that a scientist could grapple with, then great. But it won’t change the path.


Sorry stef, I missed your question previously.

I don’t know. I never knew Ajahn Chah. Most of the monks he sent were quite junior, and didn’t have much experience or knowledge of Dhamma. Maybe he thought they’d learn and grow?

I do know that when pushed on this issue, he emphatically denied that there was anything there. He said that in Nibbana the mind was gone, finished, ceased. It’s only “original” because it’s the original place where mind was. But now there is nothing there.

I also know that when Ajahn Liem was asked about this by a friend of mine, he said, in his characteristically understated way, “It sounds a bit like a self, doesn’t it?”


Venerable Sujato,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I see now that you are essentially saying that the question is something that we should not spend our time on as I guess it is unknowable while we are still un-awakened. I think I remember seeing something in the suttas saying something similar. I guess I should really be spending my time developing mindfulness instead of trying to puzzle it out.



Ah ok thanks for the answer! Ajahn Brahm often talks of Ajahn Liem - e.g. in the wheel barrow story. :smile:
I remember asking a senior monk in Europe whether his teachings would not make consciousness into a self and his answer was something like: ‘Well, that wouldn’t be much of a self’, which makes an interesting contrast to the Ajahn Liem reply you quoted.


Hi @sujato
So are you saying here that Ajahn Sumedho’s teaching does not correlate with Ajahn Chah’s teaching? As I understand it Ajahn Chah did have a fairly special relationship with Ajahn Sumedho.

If we look at the teachings of Ajahn Chah (or most of the Thai forest Ajahns) I’m sure there are quotes we can find which possibly seem not to be in agreement with the EBT’s.



You won’t catch me that easily! I’m really not familiar enough with the teachings of either Ajahn Sumedho or Ajahn Chah to make any broad statements on this.

But I am familiar with the suttas, and I can say that not only is the idea of an unconditioned mind absent from them, it fundamentally contradicts the core principles of the teachings.

Sure. The various Thai Ajahns certainly did not always agree with each other, and many things that various teachers say at least seem to contradict the suttas. And it is, I think, a legitimate area of inquiry to consider whether such things are mere variations in the letter, or in fact represent a truly different understanding. Many within Thailand would criticize various aspects of forest teachings as contradicting the suttas. Others would say it’s just an eccentric way of putting things, a practical guide. Probably it’s a bit of both.

I would say, though, that in my experience the last thing that any Thai forest Ajahn wants to do is to propound a formal philosophical theory, still less one that contradicts the Buddha. They see themselves as teachers of practice for the realization of the Dhamma, not as theorists. I feel it’s a little insensitive to their values to press their sayings into a debate which they have quite consciously avoided.


Not at all. For many reasons but a lot because of this:

And where that sense of self is coming from or where it’s going is a classic definition of ayoniso manasikara (In the Sabbasava Sutta, MN2)
A lot of things are unknowable, and if we try to figure them out, it just ties us up in intellectual knots. It may be intellectual laziness, but I think sitting on the cushion is the best source of answer to all these questions…eventually.:wink:
As @sujato has so clearly and concisely said:


Yes. And I think the same would apply to Ajahn Sumedho.


And to add:

Authenticity is an interesting thing. I think for the Thai forest tradition authenticity was based on an idea of adherence to diligence in practice (kammaṭṭhāna) and vinaya (as taught), rather than what we might call doctrinal authenticity.


Authenticity is not meant merely for the sake of conformity but rather without it there is no enlightenment. It’s a bit like recipe without which the final result won’t turn out properly. It’s not like a litany.

With metta


I think it depends what is meant by an “unconditioned mind”. Thinking in terms of the 3rd frame of satipatthana, then presumably Nibbana is a mind unconditioned by the taints?


A mind can be freed from the defilements in this life, and to that extent it is free from certain kinds of conditions, i.e. the defilements. But there is nothing philosophically special about this: everything is conditioned by a specific set of conditions (idapaccayatā), and by inference is not conditioned by things outside this.

So the mind of an arahant is still conditioned by things other than defilements. It still operates according to the normal conditionality of the senses, the emotions, thoughts, ideas, and all the rest. It’s just that none of these conditions create the causes for being reborn in a future life. Only when an arahant passes away and the five aggregates cease do we call this Nibbana in the sense of “unconditioned”.


Isn’t “unconditioned” an epithet for Nibbana as a living experience? Possibly I’ve misunderstood the point you’re making here.


No, sorry, the mistake was mine. Asaṅkhata is used quite rarely in the suttas, and I mischaracterized it. The distinction between nibbana “in life” and nibbana upon the passing of the aggregates is not the point. In SN 43, asaṅkhata is described as the “ending” (khaya) of greed, hate, and delusion. In this sense it is ending or cessation itself that is unconditioned.

In AN 3.47, the “unconditioned” has three characteristics: no arising, passing, or change while persisting is evident. Clearly the mind of an arahant is conditioned, since it does change; only the absence of greed, hate, and delusion is unchanging and unconditioned.

In satipatthana cittanupassana there is no case for describing the mind as “unconditioned”, since arising and ceasing is spoken of; and indeed, the condition for the mind in this context is explicitly defined as nāmarūpa. The terms referring to exalted mind states here are references to jhana.


Yes, that makes sense.


Sorry to dig this up but had to say something. Ajahn Sumedho might be referring to some thing like the following, from the Maha niddesa attributed to sariputta thero.

From the unseen, [states] come and go,
Glimpsed only as they’re passing by;
Like lightning flashing in the sky
— They arise and then pass away.


Actually here is the full version. worth a read.

Life, personhood, pleasure and pain
— This is all that’s bound together
In a single mental event
— A moment that quickly takes place.

Even the spirits who endure
For eighty-four thousand aeons
— Even these do not live the same
For any two moments of mind.

What ceases for one who is dead,
Or for one who’s still standing here,
Are all just the same aggregates
— Gone, never to connect again.

The states which are vanishing now,
And those which will vanish some day,
Have characteristics no different
Than those which have vanished before.

With no production there’s no birth;
With becoming present, one lives.
When grasped with the highest meaning,
The world is dead when the mind stops.

There’s no hoarding what has vanished,
No piling up for the future;
Those who have been born are standing
Like a seed upon a needle.

The vanishing of all these states
That have become is not welcome,
Though dissolving phenomena stand
Uncombined from primordial time.

From the unseen, [states] come and go,
Glimpsed only as they’re passing by;
Like lightning flashing in the sky
— They arise and then pass away.