The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order

laws of nature

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

[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.

9 thoughts on “The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order

  1. A valiant attempt at rehabilitating the niyamas. But you lost me at “so we could perhaps speak of various grades in an ordered structure of paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā”. We could perhaps, but I still don’t see what purpose it serves to do so, except that membership of the Order becomes a bit tenuous if we reject what has become Sangharakshita’s central teaching.

    Sangharakshita and Subhuti seem to want to create a Theory of Everything which subsumes even physics and the natural sciences under Buddhism. I’m quite unsympathetic to this. In Pāli we so often see the Buddha insistent about only teaching dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga. The general response to systems of speculative metaphysics is “moghapurisa”. The whole endeavour is suspect. It’s philosophy in the modern sense of abstract speculation about the nature of reality, rather than part of a systematic attempt to decide how to live. We must be careful in citing paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā not to take the road of the Sarvāstivādins. Dhammas are the objects of the mind sense (my revelation from the Gombrich Numata lectures still echoing through my mind!) not “things” in general – which very strongly suggests that paṭicca-samuppāda is not intended to be a Theory of Everything but only concerned with the arising of dukkha:

    Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
    Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti (SN i.136)

    We also have the problem of squeezing Sangharakshita’s teleological thinking (of a universe evolving towards perfection) into this scheme – this is what he means by Dharma-niyama I gather. He has abstracted and generalised the idea of the Spiral Path into a cosmic order in which all arising gradually nudges us towards perfection. This is an entirely new Buddhist cosmology isn’t it? In which saṃsāra becomes finite and self-liberating in the long term?

    ” first, that ethical judgements can be objective,” I think we might avoid the problematic term ‘objective’ and just say that ethical judgements can be empirical or based on experience. Ethics emerges as regularities in our experience of relating to other people; or we could just consult the knowing elders (viññu) who have spent a lifetime learning how to get on with people.

    “second, that we can reach these ethical judgements as part of our reflection on natural order.” This is the second time in a week I’ve seen a Buddhist philosophy portray Buddhist ethics as essentially intellectual and as emerging from thinking. Ironically, as I pointed out to Padmadīpa recently, the one thing that no one in the Kālāma Sutta does is “think about ethics”, and indeed the Buddha tells them that the basic forms of logic ought to be avoided (mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu) when approaching ethics. Rather one relies on one’s experience of relating to people. This points to non-conceptual empathy as the source of ethics rather than conscious reflection. Though of course we learn from our mistakes through reflection, I would say that it is by paying attention to the feelings that we learn the lessons of ethics. As much as I hate Romanticism the idea that morality involves “imaginative identification with other beings” does seem to be about right from an evolutionary perspective.

    Karma is no different from other metaphysical group oversight mechanisms, except it is not personified. Recently I read that someone pasted two eyes on the wall near an honesty box and takings increased by 40%. Karma is basically Santa – he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake – but depersonalised. A way of ensuring conformity to group norms in circumstances where private actions are unlikely to be witnessed by other group members – extended to include private thoughts. Surveillance and control. All of these systems (except Santa) feature post-mortem accounting in order to make sure that the most obvious loophole (i.e. death) is closed. Certainly this places limits on us, but this is not what Sangharakshita has in mind.

    I know you don’t entirely agree with me on this but my reading of Kaccānagotta is that if existence (atthitā) and non-existence (nātthitā) don’t apply to the world (loka) then neither do pairs like real/unreal. Reality is therefore *not* what we are talking about. And as experience arises on the basis of sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition, it is neither objective nor subjective. Experience arises from the interplay of subject and object and at best must be always both subjective and objective, though for my money it’s best to leave both terms out of it.

    I’m thus in a difficult position because, unlike you, I find it very difficult to see how to positively engage with this new Sangharakshitavāda. When Order weekends have themes like “The karma niyama in the service of the Dharma niyama” I can only cringe and make other plans.

    Arguments aside I think these blog posts are stimulating and well written and I do hope you’ll keep it up. Really intelligent blogging on Buddhism is quite rare. I’m linking from various places in the hopes that you’ll get a good audience.


  2. Hi Jayarava, thanks for your lengthy reply and for the positive comments at the end. Unfortunately I disagree with or have strong reservations about much of you write here. First, let me say that I am not attempting to ‘rehabilitate the niyamas’. The idea was more to re-interpret what Subhuti and Sangharakshita say about the ‘five niyamas’ in a more philosophically-nuanced language, specifically in terms of Buddhism as a form of naturalism. The ‘five niyamas’ certainly don’t need ‘rehabilitating’ – they are alive and well in the Triratna movement, whether we like it or not!

    You say that Subhuti and Sangharakshita want to create a ‘theory of everything’. I know that you have previously written about paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory of everything, or rather, as not being that. However, I don’t believe that either paṭicca-samuppāda or what is called the ‘five niyamas’ could be a theory of everything. Such a theory would need to have some explanatory power, so that it successfully explained everything in a unified way. But paṭicca-samuppāda is a descriptive principle, not an explanatory theory. The principle of universal conditionality is compatible with any number of explanatory theories about reality. What is called the ‘five niyamas’ is similarly a descriptive schema, not an explanatory theory.

    Although it is perfectly true that dhammā are ‘objects of the mind sense’, the word dhammā is also used more broadly to mean ‘things’ or ‘phenomena’. See DOP vol.II p.464, and for an example (one that I was looking at recently) Sutta-nipāta v.69. I agree that the Buddha’s teaching was concerned with the arising and ceasing of dukkha, but my understanding of paṭicca-samuppāda is that it is a universal principle. You mention Sangharakshita’s teleological thinking – I can appreciate that he does use teleological language sometimes, but I don’t recognise the other things you write.

    What I wrote about the objectivity of ethical judgements is part of a debate within ethical theory in western philosophy. Perhaps I was too terse at this point in my post. It’s quite important that our ethical judgements are objective, as the alternative is ethical subjectivism, that is, the view that the only ground of our ethical judgements is our own personal view. My understanding of Buddhist ethics is that it is objective, that is, the ground of the judgement that e.g. ‘it is wrong to harm living beings’ is objective, that is, grounded in features of the world and not grounded only in features of my view of the world. You are quite right to draw attention to non-conceptual empathy as a basis of Buddhist ethics. However, it’s not actually possible to ground objective ethical judgements on non-conceptual empathy alone. For instance, I could non-conceptually empathise with someone who absolutely hates the man who has killed his brother. He wants only to get revenge and kill this man. However, the ground of my ethical judgement that it would be wrong for this man to kill the killer of his brother in revenge is not my non-conceptual empathy but my understanding of the wrongness of killing. There is a large amount of philosophical debate about ethics in the background of what I am saying here, of course. You might enjoy looking at it.

    I am surprised at your reading of the Kālāma-sutta. The Buddha is certainly not telling the Kālāmas to avoid basic forms of logical thought when approaching ethics. This would produce a very misleading account of the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha recommends to the Kālāmas not to try to decide whether what a religious teacher tells them is true using reason (takka), inference, analogy or metaphysical speculation, among other things. He goes on to shift the subject of the debate to what he believes is more important, which is an appreciation of how dukkha arises in experience. You may disagree with my understanding here but it is based on a straightforward reading of the sutta.

    I think you and I have very different views of Santa.

    What you write about the Kaccānagotta-sutta was not entirely clear to me. When I use the word ‘real’ or ‘reality’ in a Buddhist context, I mean by it what the Buddha meant by ‘yathābhūta’, which is the content of experience known clearly for what it is, not clouded by intellectual mistakes or emotional distortion. Just a last point – I think this one is important for us as Order members – one reason I wanted to ponder what I think about the ‘five niyamas’ is so that I can attend Order events with titles like the one given for the weekend coming up in August, and have some way of engaging with the discourse, without getting in a totally bad mood. But I’m not sure if it will work.

  3. Hi guys, I won’t venture into this too fully as I will soon be out of my depth. But, my vote is with Dhivan, and thanks for the article, which I read as an effort to clarify the 5 niyama teaching philosophically. I agree with Jayarava that paticca samupada seems to concern the mind rather than offering an account of the everything, but it seems fairly harmless to extend it in this way – it is basically applicable to the world of physical phenomena – provided the focus on mental life is not obscured. However, I don’t recognise the mention of a teological agenda in Sangharakshita’s 5 niyamas teachings. It seems to me an effort to reconcile disparate strands in Buddhist discourse (not just Pali), and particular to include, under the heading ‘Dharma Niyama’ those contained in notions such as steam entry, the bodhicitta etc. I have been sorry to learn from your writing, Dhivan, that these aren’t traditional, but that leaves me wondering if Buddhist teachings have anything to offer in its place.

    • Thanks for this Vishvapani. A question that remains for me is how to formulate a general claim about notions of stream-entry, bodhicitta and so on in Buddhist teachings… Is the claim that there is an innate tendency within conscious experience towards ultimate reality? Towards truth and beauty? What Sangharakshita and Subhuti have put forward under the umbrella of ‘dharma niyama’ obviously has parallels in Buddhist teachings, but what is the connection exactly? I don’t think we can appeal to experience for these matters, because our experience of a universal telos, a higher power or a supra-personal forces will be inseparable from the concepts we use to articulate it. Perhaps we’re feeling our way towards a non-Indian form of Buddhist doctrine here.

    • Hi Rich, I guess you mean, ‘isn’t the 5th niyama as Sangharakshita interprets it essentially the Bodhicitta?’ To which I’d say, maybe, but as a claim it is a vague generalisation, so it’s hard to know how to answer. ‘Bodhicitta’ as quite a definite meaning in Mahayana Buddhism, and Bhante’s interpretation of the dharma-niyama is related. Maybe that’s all we can say without adding more detail.

  4. I Quite like the way you presented this article, however it looks as that you are writing something without understanding the subject matter properly. Let us say that I have asked someone to bake a cake, so I give him the recipe, the mixing instructions, baking instructions, and so on, but if the person did not read properly or listen and understood correctly, what do you think the outcome will be once the cake is baked?

  5. Utu, bija, kamma, citta and dhamma. Dhamma as nature or natural law is all of the above: utu, bija, kamma and citta. Perhaps, ahara (nutrient) should be considered too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s