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I suspect that I am not alone in having a fuzzy understanding of precisely what the difference is between a ”cause” and a “condition” in the Buddha's teachings on Dependent Origination.

A concrete example illustrating the difference clearly and perhaps the interplay between the 2 would be helpful.

If that example were to be drawn exclusively from the Buddha’s teachings on “suffering and the end of suffering”, namely

  1. Twelve Links of Dependent Origination-Dependent Co-arising (Paticca-Samuppada)
  2. Twelve Links of Transcendental Dependent Arising

that would be even more helpful.

Finally, if the example were to focus on only “suffering and the end of suffering” in this life and to avoid the divisive topic of “rebirth” as "reincarnation", that too would be very helpful.

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The Pali word for 'cause' is 'hetu', which means direct cause, such as oxygen & hydrogen are the cause of water. An example of the use of 'hetu' is SN 22.82, which says the four elements of earth, wind, fire & water are the cause of the physical body aggregate:

The four great elements, bhikkhu, are the cause and condition for the manifestation of the form aggregate.

Cattāro kho, bhikkhu, mahābhūtā hetu, cattāro mahābhūtā paccayo rūpakkhandhassa paññāpanāya.

SN 22.82

SN 12.2 uses the word 'paccaya', which means "resting on, falling back on, foundational". For example, AN 10.61 says ignorance has no preceding cause (hetu) yet also says the five hindrances are a condition (paccaya) for the maintenance of ignorance. AN 10.61 clearly shows the words 'cause' ('hetu') and 'condition' ('paccaya') are not synonymous because the five hindrances are not the cause of ignorance. If the five hindrances were the cause of ignorance then when the five hindrances are absent during the 1st jhana or even lesser concentration, full enlightenment would occur via the absence of ignorance.

SN 12.23 uses the word 'upanisā', which appears to be from 'upa' ('close') and 'nissaya' ('support'). It appears 'upanisā' and 'paccaya' are synonymous.

In summary, ignorance is obviously not the cause of the three sankhara (breathing, thought and perception & feeling) in Dependent Origination because the three sankhara continue to exist in a Buddha. Similarly , the three sankhara are not the cause of consciousness because a Buddha remains consciousness depsite having no ignorance; just as consciousness is not the cause of nama-rupa because consciousness cannot cause the existence of 'rupa' ('physical matter').

In Dependent Origination, ignorance is merely something the pollutes or taints the sankhara, consciousness, mind-body, sense bases & sense contact. However, it can be said ignorance causes (hetu) craving, attachment, ego-becoming, ego-birth, ego-death, dukkha and any other unwholesome mental state.

In conclusion, it appears paccaya (condition) is a general and flexible word that can accommodate both a condition and a cause. This appears why the words 'paccaya' and 'upanisā' are used in Dependent Origination rather than the rigid 'hetu' ('cause').

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  • Am I understanding correctly that (1) “paccaya” (condition) is a more general word meaning something like: this is necessary but perhaps not sufficient for the arising of the new phenomenon. i.e. the arising of the new phenomenon is dependent upon this. e.g. the arising of water depends upon the condition of hydrogen gas being present, whereas (2) “hetu” (cause) is the word used to describe a situation in which ALL conditions are present and the arising of the new phenomenon can be observed, e.g. hydrogen gas + oxygen gas + heat => water.
    – Alex Ryan
    Feb 26 at 17:38
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    Mmmm.. you make me think more thoroughly. For now: (i) all conditions present is probably "samudaya"; (ii) an example of "cause" ("hetu") is an empty stomach & its painful feeling causing hunger & lust for food to arise; (iii) an example of "paccaya" ('condition") is an external object, such a pizza, influencing hunger & lust for food to arise. Pizza is not a cause (hetu) of physiological hunger because hunger is based in internal physical mechanisms & chemistry, hormones, amino acids, whatever.. Pizza is is merely a condition (paccaya) that indirectly stimulates the causes (hetu) of hunger. Feb 26 at 18:41
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When there are multiple causes it is difficult to say what causes what... however we can say what are the dependent things needed to make the outcome realize. For example in order to generate fire we must have fuel , we must have spark of fire .... fuel and spark both are necessary ... fuel and spark can be described as causes for fire... but a better word would be that fire depends on fuel and spark of fire... If both the conditions are met the fire gets generated...

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  • This is a fascinating perspective. It is akin to a “chemical reaction”. If a chemist creates the appropriate conditions by placing certain chemicals together, the chemical reaction just happens. The “cause”, from the perspective of the chemist, is creating the conditions.
    – Alex Ryan
    Feb 26 at 17:03
  • Re: fire. Condition 1: The belief that happiness depends upon the satiation of THIS desire for THIS sensory experience. Condition 2: undesired circumstance giving rise to the belief “I will never be happy”. When these 2 chemicals are placed together, a chemical reaction occurs: doubt > restlessness > ill will. i.e. the “cause” of suffering is the creation of the conditions.
    – Alex Ryan
    Feb 26 at 17:12

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