Eight worldly conditions

In the Arugattara Nikaya, an early Pali text, the Buddha comments on the eight vicissitudes of life, the eight worldly conditions that afflict the average person. They are:

  • gain & loss;
  • fame & disrepute;
  • praise & blame;
  • pleasure & pain.

These conditions are opposites or reverses, the other side of one another, existing as poles or extremes on a spectrum, extremes on a pendulum of feelings. They cannot be extracted from one another without the inevitable presence of the other to point back to the character of the original or counterpart. The individual flees one and fights for the other, round and round indefinitely.

Nor are these eight (or four) conditions only experienced by the worldly. These conditions are human conditions of mind and body, core conditions which require a thorough mindfulness on the part of the self.

The argument to the arhat in this little tract is that these worldly conditions are impermanent, such that no credence or assent of mind should be given to them. This is a primitive treatment of a complex psychological topic. While seasoned arhats might be dismissive, the fundamental place of these conditions in the mind and heart require more elaboration.

For when we gain by property, possessions, friendships, achievements at work or social circle or business and professional life, we immediately experience — after the flush of elation — the fear of loss, the tentative nature of gain. The only gain is a like-mindedness to our social efforts, the creation of a viable community, what Buddhism originally meant by sangha — and what the historical Jesus would have meant by community, the Taoist by the “village.” But for the average person, always within is the nagging possibility that even these can be undone, taken away. That does not gainsay the attempt to understand others. It only affirms that the understanding must be ours, independent of the status of the world and other people. And even then, life may take turns that will make our understanding seem hollow and emptied out by sorrow, reversal of fortune, collapse of friendship — in short, loss.

Gain and loss are intimately associated with pleasure and pain. The latter conditions are not merely epicurean or sensual in nature. But they are particularly oriented to the vulnerabilities of the body and the emotions. The gain and loss can be health or sickness, joy or sorrow. Our primordial instinct for survival seeks to protect ourselves from the extreme of pain and loss not with the extreme of gain and pleasure but with the stasis of balance and moderation. Yet moderation, too, may leave us in a vulnerable weakness of will, a lethargy akin to depression. The stasis must be of strength and forbearance, not mere avoidance of extremes. Too many fear stasis means numbness and death. The solitary is usually misinterpreted as fearful of hurt. To become cold-hearted is not the goal of solitude. The goal of solitude is both repair and construction, of self-awareness and understanding. Ultimately, to transcend the impermanence — or the emotional instinct of fear –an identification with larger cycles of reality must follow.

Fame and disrepute seem far from the solitary. That chase of the tail is worse than mere gain and loss, than mere provocations of pleasure and fear. Fame thrusts the self before a world that measures the person not even in terms of the physical (gain and loss) or the sensual (pleasure and pain) but in terms of emotion, feeling, psychological dependence on the external. Praise and blame accompany fame and disrepute. They are the sufferings of one already jostling within the world, already doomed to fail in negotiating with the world. Unwittingly or instinctively, or by vagaries of personality, solitaries have less acquaintance with fame or praise, to their benefits. These conditions level the ambitious quickly and humiliatingly. The chief mistake of the average person is to persist in recovering fame after dispute, praise after blame. The heart of the world is deep within these conditions, deep within the whole cycle of these conditions. There can be no “victory” over these conditions, for they overcome both the mind and heart as soon as engagement begins. Thus, these conditions have been of particular focus in traditions of solitude, where the twin extremes are rejected thoroughly for humility and self-effacement.

The little Pali essay does not present specifics. It presents the Buddha’s admonition to arhats to avoid these worldly conditions because they are impermanent. And while that is true, it is also true that these worldly conditions entwine people to a greater degree than they did 2,000+ years ago. Philosophies of individualism, the material conditions of profit and alienation, the power of institutions, and the technology of both self-containment and socially-networked narcissism are at historical peaks. The worldly conditions outlined by the Buddha are now larger than the impermanence of the individual. Yet these conditions remain at the core of the human psyche, and the resources for addressing them are more scarce than in the historical past.