It is not clear if my brother’s gift extends to hot chocolate purchases, but I took a chance. Sujiva, Megan and I took the ferry across Auckland harbour (the north one) to Rangitoto island. This landmass was formed only 600 years ago during a volcanic eruption. Much of the surface consists of loose scoria, which is a kind of light loose rock that falls out of the sky. We walked through a lava tunnel – a tunnel in the rock made by still-flowing lava. But life has moved in. The island is quickly turning into forest. Once the pohutakawa trees get their roots in the scoria, little protected ecosystems spring up beneath their leaves – ferns and shrubs then other trees. At the summit, little silvereyes, small birds, ate lunch out of our hands. After the ferry-ride home, Sujiva insisted on hot chocolate at The Chocolate Boutique in the suburb of Parnell. It is extremely dark, thick and sweet. Like certain kinds of love.
A good thing about Five Rhythms dancing is that it happens all over the world. Ratnavyuha and I went dancing on a rainy Sunday morning in Auckland, and afterwards went to Kokako café in the suburb of Grey Lynn. My brother is right: New Zealand café culture is so vibrant. And the pancakes were excellent too. Today we popped into a café in Titirangi, en route to the Waitakere ranges for a hike, and the place was buzzing with local people, enjoying café life. And good coffee. Walking in New Zealand bush – sub-tropical rain forest – was such a treat. It is so not like Cambridgeshire. But then again, you only get bluebell woods in Britain.
Midway through our road trip through the North Island, we had lunch at the Fine Fettle Café in Taupo. See that organic wholefood goodness. We had driven down from Tongariro National Park – Mount Doom and all that – where it had been snowing and we’d not been able to see a thing. But the area around Taupo is full of thermal springs, and we warmed up in a natural hot tub. Lake Taupo is grand, and the town of Taupo is at its north end. It is the childhood home of a well-known Buddhist blogger. A childhood friend from my home village in England died near here recently. The tangled unfolding of conditions. We scooted on to more thermal springs. A steaming lake, skimmed by hundreds of swallows and fantails. Boiling mud, flopping and splattering. We ended up in another hot pool in Rotorua. The coffee in Taupo was great.
The Café Astoria is on Lambton Quay in the business district. It is like a run-down French place, with wooden tables and chairs, and a chatty buzz. The coffee was good and strong and that passionfruit and white chocolate brioche certainly hit the spot. Ratnavyuha and I had admired some contemporary NZ art in Te Papa museum gallery, and I was about to visit the NZ parliament building and the old Cathedral – made entirely of wood – the kind of church that hobbits might go to. We had spent the weekend leading a retreat. And later today I gave a talk at the Wellington Buddhist Centre. I explained the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality by means of the example of myself, having been asked to write a book on this topic, on condition of which I find myself invited to New Zealand, somewhere I never imagined I would visit. The unfolding of conditions can be unexpected and mysterious, and yet part of the natural order.
Ratnavyuha and I went to Olive café on Cuba Street, Wellington. Posh. Antiques. High ceilings. Classy. Ratnavyuha got into conversation with a lady, who, it turns out, knows the people at Wellington Buddhist Centre, including Suryagita, who teaches singing, and who I know from her days in Brighton, singing. The peach tart was fantastic, and the coffee very classy. Outside, the rain came and went. Midwinter rain in a rainy place. We had been to Te Papa (‘Our Place’) museum, and I’d learned about the changes wrought to New Zealand’s ecology by both Maori and European settlers. A European blackbird is sitting outside the window where I write. But there are tuis singing sometimes too. Now off to lead a retreat – on how everything arises on conditions.
My brother has given me £150 to spend on coffee while I am in New Zealand. So after I arrived yesterday, Ratnavyuha and I went to One-2-One Café in Ponsonby, Auckland, and drank coffee and ate cake. The cafe reminded me of the Boston Tea Party in Bristol, with its garden seating. But it’s winter here in NZ, and slightly too cool to sit outside. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon. In the park where we had been walking there were many Pakeka – the Maori name for what in Europe we call the Purple Gallinule – garish great rails, with red beaks, purple bibs and silly big feet. And in the lake were slithering eels in meshed tangles. Like the feel of my thoughts at certain moments, like on solitary retreats, and after a very long flight.
This post might be mainly of interest to people in the Triratna Buddhist Order and community as it assumes some prior knowledge about Sangharakhita’s teaching about the ‘five niyamas’. Sangharakshita’s teaching was presented by Subhuti in a new way in his 2010 paper, ‘Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma’.[i] However, according to my understanding of the Pāli language and the Theravādin commentarial tradition, the word niyama does not mean what Sangharakshita or Subhuti take it to mean, and Sangharakshita’s list of five niyamas is a creative re-interpretation of Mrs Rhys-Davids’ creative mis-interpretation of what the commentators say.[ii] I have explored all this in an article on ‘The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature’, published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, but I will not repeat anything of that here.[iii] In this post I want instead to engage in a philosophical re-interpretation of Sangharakshita’s ideas about the ‘five niyamas’ in terms of natural order. My aim is to clarify some of the philosophical and metaphysical claims implied by the Buddhist teaching of conditionality.
In an earlier post,[iv] I made the claim that Buddhism is a form of naturalism. The Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching, but the word also refers to immanent natural order in the universe and in human life.[v] The basic principle of this natural order is, according to the Buddha, paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent-arising, the principle that things arise on conditions and cease with the cessation of those conditions. We can talk about paṭicca-samuppāda simply as ‘conditionality’.
Now I would like to rectify some terms. When we say that conditionality is a principle of natural order, the word ‘order’ refers to the regulated condition, the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things, in nature.[vi] However, when Sangharakshita writes about the ‘five niyamas’ as ‘five orders of conditionality’, he is using the word ‘order’ to mean grades in an ordered or hierarchical structure, characterized by sequence.[vii] But this ambiguous use of the word ‘order’ covers up an important point, which is that conditionality as such, that is, the principle of natural order, is not characterized by grades or any hierarchical structure; rather, it is simply the principle that characterizes reality. There is just one principle of conditionality, metaphysically speaking. However, this principle describes the arising and ceasing of conditioned things, and so we could perhaps speak of various grades in an ordered structure of paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā, or ‘dependently-arisen phenomena’. So the ‘five orders of conditionality’ might more accurately be understood to mean ‘five orders or grades of conditioned phenomena’, all equally subject to the one principle of conditionality or natural order.
However, the idea of ‘five orders of conditioned phenomena’ itself creates a philosophical problem. It ought to mean that there are five kinds of dependently-arisen things, five domains of reality. But reality is not like this. Reality, as far as we know anything about it, is not divisible into five parts but is a whole which consists in a seamless web of everything. Of course there are different kinds of things – stars, mangoes, Buddhists, words – but the categorical distinctions between things are made by human minds as they try to categorise what they perceive and think about. The ‘five orders of conditionality’, then, are more like five kinds of natural law, five different sets of laws used to describe the observable regularities within the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena. Laws are products of thought, so if the ‘five orders of conditionality’ are really five kinds of natural law, the important implication follows that the distinction of five kinds of law is a conventional rather than absolute distinction, the creation of human thought rather than being part of nature. It is probably possible to have a list of three kinds of law, or six, or ten. But Sangharakshita’s list of five has a certain integrity that is satisfying to the mind.
What are these five kinds of natural law? The first is physical law, describing matter and forces and so on. The second is biological law, describing living organisms. The third is psychological law, describing non-deliberate mental processes such as perception and identity. We might consider psychological and biological laws in some sense to be reducible to physics; or we might prefer to understand biological and psychological laws to be irreducible, and to view them as emergent properties of the working-out of increasingly complex physical laws. These are large philosophical issues. In either case, the stage is set for the remaining two kinds of law, which are both distinctive productions of the Buddhist experience: the law of karma, and finally the Dharma itself, understanding the word ‘Dharma’ here in the particular sense of those teachings concerning the way to liberation.[viii]
So the so-called ‘five niyamas’ turn out to be five kinds of laws which describe the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena comprehended within the principle of conditionality. Since natural laws as such are human productions of thought, there being five kinds of law is simply a convention, a way of putting things. On the other hand, there being a law of karma and there being a Dharma in the sense of a teaching of the way beyond the world of experience, reveals the full scope of natural order in the Buddhist world view. This world view includes, under the idea of a law of karma, a conception of ethical recompense integral to the workings of nature. I am aware that the traditional Buddhist teachings on the law of karma are far from intelligible within a scientific world view. However, we can reduce the religious teachings on karma to two ideas which are highly intelligible: first, that ethical judgements can be objective, and, second, that we can reach these ethical judgements as part of our reflection on natural order. That is to say, good and bad, right and wrong, are neither subjective and relative, nor transcendent and absolute, but emerge as natural properties of reality. Finally, the Buddhist world view includes a soteriology or doctrine of salvation, under the idea of the dharma as the teaching of the way leading beyond ordinary experience to liberation and nirvana, which is yet comprehended within the idea of nature as a whole. That is to say, liberation is neither a matter of non-natural grace nor of chance mysticism. Hence, the Buddhist conception of a natural order, that is, its conception of Dharma as immannent natural order in the universe, includes physical, biological and psychological descriptions of a dependently-arisen reality, as well as ethical and soteriological teachings concerning the possibilities of human experience as part of nature. This is the full scope of Buddhist naturalism.
[ii] All the Pāli source texts pertaining to the ‘five niyamas’ have been usefully translated by Jayarava at http://www.jayarava.org/texts/the-five-Fold-niyama.pdf
[iv] ‘Dependent Arising as Pagan Philosophy’, at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/dependent-arising-as-pagan-philosophy/
[v] See Margaret Cone, The Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, dhamma, 3(i), q.v.
[vi] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘III. Sequence, disposition, or arrangement; arranged or regulated condition’, especially ‘15. the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things; a natural, moral, spiritual, or social system in which things proceed according to definite, established, or constituted laws.’
[vii] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘I. Any of the grades or ranks in an ordered or hierarchical structure (characterized by sequence)’, especially ‘3. A rank, row, or series.’ The OED lists a remaining meaning of ‘order’, viz.: ‘II. A rank or class of people or things’, as in the Triratna Buddhist Order.
[viii] See The Dictionary of Pāli, vol. II, dhamma, 1(ii), (iii), (iv), q.v.