"Conditioned": what it means

In english, as a psychological or sociological term, “Conditioned” refers to learned expectation(s) or responses. In english, “Conditioned” also sometimes means, materially preparation for use or endurance, as in “conditioned leather” or “hair conditioner”.
In terms of the EBTs and Buddhism, what is Conditioned? What are distinctions between a mundane psychological definition and Buddhist teaching?

A starting point for discussion might be

“Mendicants, conditioned phenomena have these three characteristics. What three? Arising is evident, vanishing is evident, and change while persisting is evident. These are the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena.”

Characteristics of the Unconditioned

“Unconditioned phenomena have these three characteristics. What three? No arising is evident, no vanishing is evident, and no change while persisting is evident. These are the three characteristics of unconditioned phenomena.”

It seems, as one distinction, that Conditioned in a Buddhist sense does not entirely or exclusively apply to a psychological state. (Or does it?)

I am also reading SN 22.81.

Hoping discussion remains impersonal, dispassionate, skillful and beneficial for many. :wink:


I can’t quote from an EBT, but as this is the Watercooler I’ll risk it.

‘Conditioning’ in psychology implies/involves training. Skinner with his operant conditioning and all that. In Buddhism I take it to have ontological/existential implications that are outside of direct human control. From this perspective, to say that ‘X is conditioned by Y’ is equivalent to asserting that ‘Y is dependent on X’ (partially or wholly doesn’t matter) and both statements can have ontological status.

I happened to be listening to a very interesting podcast from a Tibetan tradition teacher this morning Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel: On Faith and Dependent Arising - The Wisdom Experience. They get into her understanding of dependent origination twenty minutes before the end. I find it too difficult to summarise what she says adequately, but I have to say it made me think about ‘conditioned’ and ‘depend’ in a new way.


This definition of sankhata might help. It seems to mean phonomena arising in dependence upon causes or conditions, and appears to have a broad scope. “Conditioned” also implies transience and instability.

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Perhaps within Buddhism, it is the inter-relationship of causality and conditioning that gives the Buddhas teachings their extraordinary power. This describes the mechanism that drives ‘the way things are’… Knowing this, one is able to practice skillfully, see beyond the conditioning, and work towards liberation.

MN60 Apannakasutta

Psychology just describes how mundane conditioning operates…


Closely related, there is idappaccayata, or this/that conditionality. “When this is, that is…”.
This principle underlies dependent origination, and is mentioned in several DO suttas.

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What generous responses from @Gillian @Martin @Viveka ! You’ve given me a lot to consider, so it might take some time for a full response. (In fact, MN60 alone might imo take a life or lifetimes; it’s full of goodness!)
An a non-secular Western Buddhist, with formal education in psychology, I am particularly interested in noting and deconstructing conditioned ideas or views about conditioning, causality, DO, attachment to form, etc. So thank you all!

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ok. I have reviewed all the suggestions; thank you.

The first spoke almost directly to how a western perspective might shift to something new, in Tibetan Buddhist terms. Examining the Stick, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel seems to me to perhaps have come up with something original (although I lack sufficient knowledge of works and teachers in her Tradition to know, or interest to learn that!). That purpose, even condition, is relative, perhaps unknowable, non static, perhaps a creative fabrication of particular perspectives… interesting. Not quite on the focus of my question, but I can see how this might open up vocabulary and thoughts related to causality. TY, @Gillian I’ll probably review it more later.

@Martin the pali definitions were useful, very on point. But my question regarding possible differences between contemporary psychological sociological even political definitions of conditioning and Buddhist understandings aren’t going to be in pali definitions - though they will perhaps guide my mind in a journey towards it. So I will be studying the pali, thank you, and I am hopeful.

@Viveka honestly I feel you have given me a friendly teasing.

Perhaps within Buddhism, it is the inter-relationship of causality and conditioning that gives the Buddhas teachings their extraordinary power. This describes the mechanism that drives ‘the way things are’… Knowing this, one is able to practice skillfully, see beyond the conditioning, and work towards liberation.

… would you care to expand on these, especially the interrelationship? It is for me a bit daunting. I understand some things, but I cannot be sure right now I perceive fully what I do and do not understand.
MN 60 has a lot of content. I went through nya by nya, taking notes; this was very helpful, thank you for inspiring it. I accept (had accepted) that there really is causality; in a biopsychosocial limited kamma way, I can see it directly. In a rebirth full kamma way, I have not directly seen that entirely, though I do see what I consider to be examples I don’t want to discuss right now. Really beautiful sutta, and I understand it as a demonstration (explicit account?) of Causality of /in the Path, especially as it might be understood by other seekers contemporaneous with the Buddha.

Perhaps I need to set this aside and tackle the mechanics of rebirth, which I strongly suspect would clear the fog between a biopsychosocial view of kamma, and my not fully articulated belief in kamma and rebirth.

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2 posts were split to a new topic: Texts about the unconditioned

Continuing thoughts:
One difference between modern psychological and Dhamma -based understandings regarding Conditioned might be revealed in differing understanding of Delusion. In modern psychology, a delusion is a specific technical term for a particular pathological symptom or condition. It is exceptional; it is not considered a default condition of a human life, but as a heavily weighted label, to be applied sparingly. It is a-typical.
But from a Dhamma -based perspective, it is typical; ordinary worldlings experience dukkha because of craving, ill will, and delusion. Delusion /ignorance seems to be a natural state in samsara, which only can be escaped by the disciplined training of the Noble 8 Fold Path. It might be the most pernicious of the three poisons.
If, in “english, as a psychological or sociological term, “Conditioned” refers to learned expectation(s) or responses”, then perceiving delusion as atypical or as typical suggests significantly differing remedies or approaches.

@Ryan I saw your question; can’t answer it at the moment, but it might be a broader question than what I was raising, unless you saw a specific connection.

Note for reading: modern Buddhist philosophers, K. N. Jayatilleke and … his student David Kalupahana

Ajahn Brahmali 10 Jan 2020 at Dhammaloka, Perth AU (BSWA) Dhamma talk about Buddhism as religion, spirituality, philosophy, and psychology. Starts about 10 minutes in, then has delightfully diverse announcements, then 30 minutes gently guided meditation, then Dhamma talk. :grinning::pray:

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I think the difference between the two is of emphasis. In Buddhism especially DO, the ultimate reliability of conditioned phenomena in brought into question, while modern psychology focuses on understanding the conditions in order to provide reliable solutions.

If we take death as an example:

1- If we use deductive reasoning, it is not impossible for a phenomena to arise and not o pass away.
2- If we use inductive reasoning, we have not witnessed all phenomena to conclude with certainty that death is inevitable.

Hence the human obsession with eternity. Now, we have businesses who preserve the body waiting for a scientific solution for the problem of death.

A Buddhist would ask: assuming we find a scientific solution to the problem of death, whats next? have we eliminated suffering by eliminating death? hence both death and rebirth are equally suffering.

It seems modern psychology and modern science in general have no understanding of what suffering really means. By understanding suffering and its causes, meaningful distinctions between modern psychology and Buddhism becomes clearer.

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I think the English term “conditioned” when used as a translation for sankhata and similar words is far broader than a modern psychological use of the term. It just means that something is contingent, arises in dependence on other things/processes. It’s a simple abstract concept meant to apply universally to all things, whether psychological phenomena or material. It is the broad structure underlying impermanence.


Regarding Delusion and Conditioning (used in the Buddhist context)…

During the clinical interview, most Physicians will elicit a history of tobacco use.
I like to go a bit further and ask receptive patients just why do they smoke. The typical smoker will give vague answers or rehearsed justifications… rare is the person who will admit that they are addicted, rarer still is the person who can see how it occurred and why it sustains.

Next, I draw their attention to what is written on the pack and ask them to explain why do they think that this is untrue or doesn’t apply to them :

Observing the subsequent behavior is a clear indicator of the levels of Delusion operative within the person.:grimacing:

Those ‘with little dust in their eyes’ who are receptive and willing to discuss these two questions further can often be made to see how Avijja and subsequent distortions of Sankhara, Vinnana, Vedana, Sanna and Tanha have conditioned their choices… and will invariably lead to much Dukkha in the future. In that understanding lies the seed of possibly changing the behavior pattern for the better.

My apologies to smokers who read this and aren’t yet ready to examine further… please forgive me. This is just an example to illustrate how DO can be understood by applying the principles to this mundane habit. :pray::pray::pray:


@faujidoc1 Thank you for this. I think it’s an approach which might be helpful in many circumstances.

It reminds me for example of self examination which led me to give up most social media and most news; for now, these are toxic for me, so I avoid them. (Speaking generally to thread readers, If those are not toxic for you, perhaps other examples come to mind?)

I think ending bad habits can start with interruptions of bad habits, and the questions, why am I doing this (again)? What impulses or circumstances led me here (again)? What causes, and what has tended to result,…

Positively, cultivating good habits can require same sort of process, I think.


Strongly agree.

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“Conditioned” might be an unsuitable translation of a word that might actually mean “conditional,” in the sense of “dependent on conditions.”

That which is conditional (dependent on conditions) is changeable, sad (not happy/unhappy), and impersonal (not personal).

Western psychological definition of “conditioned” seems fundamentally distinct and different from the Buddhist definition of “conditional,” which seems more similar to the general scientific definition of conditional, as it phenomena occur due to causes and conditions, and investigating the causes and conditions that lead to phenomena can help understand how to make a certain phenomena arise (e.g. some favorable engineering or medical outcome) or cease (e.g. disease).

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I agree but see this possible problem: in english, “conditional” seems to suggest optional, as if a result is purely a choice and thus rather easily escaped. And the conditional is not easily escaped!
Perhaps this relates to why in the sutta AN3.47 quoted in the original post the translators (both Bhante @sujato and Bhante Bhikkhu Bodhi) chose “conditioned” rather than “conditional”? Don’t know but now intrigued.

There is a fundamental difference in View which needs to become understood, and that does not occur without examination. I appreciate very much your comments for this purpose; thank you.

edit Now I am thinking a bit about Opt Out and Opt In defaults, as not-exclusive perspectives on behaviors, especially mental behaviors. TY again, for contrasting “conditioned” and “conditional”.

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How does “conditional” seem to suggest optional? Can you give an example?

Three examples that come to mind are:
conditional offer of admission: given on the condition that certain education requirements are met
conditional love: given based on certain conditions which if not met the love is withheld
conditional job offer: given with the understanding that certain professional requirements are met

The emphasis seems to be on the conditions on which the thing is based.

In contrast, the emphasis of the word “conditioned” seems to be on the “potent stimulus” that becomes associated with a “previously neutral stimulus” or an “elicited response to a potent stimulus” becomes associated with a “previously neutral stimulus.”

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning ) refers to a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell).
It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response (e.g. salivation) that is usually similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus.

Both of these seem to be referring to a type of mental event or learning happening within the minds of beings.

In contrast, the Buddhist view seems to be referring to more than just a mental event or learning, but a certain property of phenomena in general.

Conditioned: mentally association between “previously neutral neutral stimulus” and “potent stimulus/response elicited by potent stimulus.”
Conditional: dependent on conditions

I think that the latter translation seems to be more fitting in the context of Dhamma-Vinaya.

Though I value both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Sujato and their translation abilities (extremely) highly, as examples to be followed and learned from, this seems to be one particular translation that I would respectfully disagree with them on.

You are very welcome and thank you for raising this important issue! :pray:

I can go beyond vocabulary to english grammar; 2 of 3 forms of conditional verb forms indicate unlikely or untrue-at-the-present states; 1 of the 3 indicates a “likely” or possible state. “Conditioned” has perhaps an advantage in appearing to be a past (unmutable) tense, while “conditional” has perhaps a weakness in appearing to be hypothetical or an abstraction. Abstractions are personally fabricated, possibly arbitrarily; that suggestion imo creates difficulty in understanding what we refer to as either conditioned or conditional in Buddhism.

Not a linguist; just one native speaker and writer of english wrestling with nuances; certainly, other opinions on effective communication are possible. (If curious, read [grammar - Explaining the Second Conditional and the Third Conditional in a "logical" way - English Language Learners Stack Exchange]

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has rendered AN3.47 as

"Monks, these three are fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated. Which three? Arising is discernible, passing away is discernible, alteration (literally, other-ness) while staying is discernible.

"These are three fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated.

"Now these three are unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated. Which three? No arising is discernible, no passing away is discernible, no alteration while staying is discernible.

“These are three unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated.”

In your opinion, is “conditional” a better translation than “conditioned” (or Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “fabricated”) in all cases?

Pavlov used and created terminology to describe his research and theory; these include “unconditioned stimuli” and “unconditioned responses”; as Buddhists, can we agree these are nonsensical as descriptions of reality or general human experience, though understandable as technical jargon with specific meanings within Pavlov’s theories? But rather than the POV of a somewhat disreputable researcher/experimenter on children or the niche psychology lately most associated with promotion of consumerism or sociopolitical manipulation, I’d really prefer to talk about the EBTs and Buddhism!

We seem to have some agreement on what’s interesting about conditioned/conditional; I particularly appreciate you spelling out in some detail this: [a] “Buddhist definition of “conditional,” which seems more similar to the general scientific definition of conditional, as it phenomena occur due to causes and conditions”.

My focus on psychological has to do with interest in the “journey” individuals make, towards a personal understanding on the Noble 8 Fold Path and the impersonal 4 Noble Truths.

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