Agnosticism About Rebirth

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Should western Buddhists believe in rebirth? Some thinkers, epitomised by Stephen Batchelor,[1] have come out as not believing in rebirth. For these thinkers, rebirth is part of the traditional Indian belief system that the Buddha inherited, and not essential to the Dharma. Many other western Buddhists argue that a belief in rebirth is a crucial part of being a Buddhist. They make various points in support of this traditional belief, for instance, that the Buddha taught rebirth, that the whole structure of Buddhist thought depends on rebirth, that Buddhist teachers through history have accepted rebirth, and that there is some evidence that rebirth is the case. The position I’ve come to on this matter is a principled agnosticism.

I personally would not say that I believe in rebirth, but this very idea of ‘not believing in rebirth’ is ambiguous. It can mean, to believe there is no rebirth (which is denial of rebirth), or to not be sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty about rebirth). The former equates with annihilationism, which the Buddha always describes as a wrong view, while the latter does not. The problem with annihilationism is that it tends to engender emotional nihilism, since death will be totally the end of you. So although it is unlikely that western Buddhists who have decided that they do not believe in rebirth could be be persuaded to start believing in it, they might be open to thinking about the advantages of agnosticism.

If we are agnostic about rebirth, we can fully engage with Buddhist scriptures as literature. When we read Greek myths like those in the Odyssey, we do not need to believe that Zeus, Hera and Athena are really living on Olympus in order to appreciate the stories. Instead we open ourselves to Homer’s imaginative world and enjoy Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca. Likewise, we can read about the Buddha remembering his previous abodes, and enjoy for instance how this idea allowed the early Buddhists to come up with the Jatakas, those edifying stories of the Buddha’s past lives.

I think it is important to consider what it means that rebirth was a commonly-held belief in the Buddha’s day. The Buddha clearly accepted the idea of the rebirth and often made it part of his teaching. However, he gave the cultural teaching of rebirth a new twist.[2] He said that rebirth happens in accordance with the ethical quality of one’s actions, not in accordance with one’s sons doing certain rituals, as the Brahmans believed. This ethicisation of karma is the Buddha’s real contribution. We are responsible for our own destinies. That is the important point, in my view, as it infuses our worldview with an ethical orientation.

Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth. The Buddha talked about enlightenment in terms of the ‘deathless’ or ‘undying’ but also as the ‘unborn’, ‘unageing’, ‘unmade’, ‘unconditioned’. But these terms all signify the state of enlightenment in this life. They do not imply anything about what happens after death. The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body. I think it is possible to over-emphasise the role of karma and rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching. It is certainly present, but in some suttas, such as that to the Kālāmas,[3] the Buddha explains that whether or not the noble disciple believes in rebirth he or she finds reassurance in the practise of ethics. A noble disciple is someone with right view, and the most common way of describing right view is in terms of the four noble truths, which is an expression of conditionality – that there is suffering, that it has a cause, and an ending, and there is a path that leads to its ending. One can make a lot of progress towards enlightenment with such right view, while remaining agnostic about rebirth.

From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness (viññāṇa) arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease.[4] It does not continue the same after death. So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the ‘mental continuum’ (citta-santāna) or the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (ālaya-vijñāna), but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.

To be agnostic about rebirth is not necessarily ‘Buddhism-lite’ but is part of an authentic western Buddhism. For me as a western Buddhist the problem is not rebirth according to karma, which, if it were literally true, would be logical, ethical and consistent. The problem is our inability to say anything objectively valid about what happens after death. Scientific knowledge is a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge. Personally I think the real task for western Buddhists is to hold to a genuine agnosticism, avoiding annihilationism on the one hand, and religious metaphysics on the other. Such agnosticism can appreciate everything about traditional teachings of rebirth but relates to them as stories or metaphors about the mystery of existence. Such agnosticism can also engage fully in trying to understand mind and brain, and we can keep reminding annihilationists that scientific materialism is just a belief and is not necessarily the whole truth. For me agnosticism is a positive emotional attitude, connected with wonder as well as dismay, like the way we feel truth in poetry.

In conclusion, I wanted to explain what I mean when I say I do not believe in rebirth. It is not because I believe that there is no rebirth (denial and annihilationism) but because I am not sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty and agnosticism). However, such agnosticism does not mean that I cannot relate to the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali canon. On the contrary, I will be reading it as literature, which will inform my imaginative engagement with the mystery of existence.


[1] First in Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead, 1997, and more recently in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

[2] Richard Gombrich discusses this in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, 2009.

[3] Discourse to the Kālāmas, Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:65. See my blog on this at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/a-commentary-on-the-kalama-sutta/.

[4] In the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’, Majjhima-nikāya 38. Online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html

Approaching the Middle Way

A review of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakārikā, trans. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA, 2013, 351pp., $28.95 pback, also in ebook

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This is a very welcome new translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhayamakakārikā. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, two seasoned scholars of Indian philosophy, explain in their preface that they have been working on their translation since 1999, and the book comes across as carefully considered. They provide a short introduction that puts Nāgārjuna’s philosophy into its intellectual context. They usefully include the Sanskrit verses, in clear roman script, with a few carefully chosen text-critical notes. Each verse is translated into intelligible English, with explanation of translation issues where required. They also include a short commentary on each verse, with some exploration of the concerns and presuppositions being made, and highlights from four Indian commentaries on the text (the Akutobhayā and those by Candrakīrti, Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka). It seemed to this reviewer, as someone who has some knowledge of Sanskrit, that the translation is an ideal combination of clarity in English and closeness to the original, with enough of a commentary to allow the reader to have some sense of the concern with which Nāgārjuna’s verses are grappling. The book is altogether to be recommended as a reliable translation of a central text of the Buddhist philosophical tradition.

And perhaps this is all that a review needs to say. But the very success of Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation brings to the fore a rather important question: just what does one make of the philosophical content of Nāgārjuna’s work? Oddly – or perhaps deliberately – this new translation does not try to answer that question. It does not try to interpret Nāgārjuna or make his work intelligible to readers educated in western philosophy. For a reader new to Nāgārjuna, and wishing to make the acquaintance of a philosophical work reputed to be of some importance to the Buddhist tradition, this book may prove not a little frustrating or even opaque.

However, this may be deliberate, in that the translators perhaps decided not to put their own interpretation on the text but to try to let it speak for itself. The trouble is that the text does speak very clearly. Not much is known about Nāgārjuna, except that he probably lived in south India in about the 2nd c. ce. Quite a number of works have been attributed to him, though scholars dispute which are authentic. The one thing for sure is that his name is attached to the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and that its 447 Sanskrit verses (kārikā) are at the root (mūla) of the middle way school of Buddhist philosophy (madhayamaka). This school was highly influential in India, was transmitted to Tibet, and continues to flourish among Tibetan Buddhists. Nāgārjuna’s work is therefore not just of historical value, but continues to be central to the philosophical side of Tibetan Buddhist culture.[1] The Sanskrit verses, however, are not self-explanatory. They pack their philosophical content into a metrical form, and rarely unpack any of the philosophical details. Indian philosophical texts were put into verse so that they could be memorised by students, and the arguments and issues would later have been explained orally. We do not have Nāgārjuna’s own commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, as we do with another of his works, the Vigrahavyāvartanī.[2] Instead we have several commentaries by Indian thinkers of some centuries later, who, although broadly agreeing about the main thrust of Nāgārjuna’s thought, engaged in dispute about how exactly to interpret it.

Apart from deciding how exactly to understand Nāgārjuna within the Buddhist philosophical context, there is the issue of how a westerner might relate to any of his philosophical concerns. Let us take as an example the concept of śūnyatā or emptiness, which, everyone agrees, Nāgārjuna wishes to establish as the ultimate truth. Emptiness is not anything in itself but is a concept that refers to how everything is empty of svabhāva or intrinsic existence. Hence to understand the meaning of śūnyatā, just as a concept, it is necessary to understand the meaning of svabhāva as a concept. But in the western philosophical tradition, there is not really any equivalent concept. And even in the Indian philosophical tradition, it is not entirely clear whether Nāgārjuna is setting up his concept of svabhāva as a kind of straw man, or whether any Abhidharma tradition really did suppose that some things had svabhāva in the way that Nāgārjuna says that they do not.[3]

All in all, most western readers of Nāgārjuna need guidance about how exactly to read and interpret his verses. In this sense, the new translation by Siderits and Katsura is not very helpful. By contrast, the 1995 translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Jay Garfield is better.[4] Garfield has not only studied the verses and the traditional Indian and Tibetan commentaries on them, but also engages with them both in terms of western philosophical parallels and Indian Buddhist soteriological concerns. Reading Garfield, one has a sense of why Nāgārjuna might be worth studying. However, and this is an important qualification, Garfield’s translation is based on the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit verses ­– it is a translation of a translation, and this shows in the relative lack of clarity and precision in language.[5] Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation is simply superior in this regard.

Garfield also offers a running commentary on how previous western translators and interpreters of Nāgārjuna have fared: while Murti read Nāgārjuna as an absolutist, positing a reality behind appearances, Kalupahana read him as a pragmatist, and Wood as a nihilist.[6] Garfield disagrees with these previous translators, and takes them to have unnecessarily read western philosophical positions into a work which ought to be understood in its own context. I think that it is here that we may find an explanation of why Siderits and Katsura have elected to provide a rather bare translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. They perhaps want readers to encounter Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without the imposition of any kind of western thought structure onto a very Indian Buddhist way of looking at things. Jan Westerhoff, in his recent book on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, offers something of a justification of this approach.[7] He notes that western interpretation of Nāgārjuna has gone from one that makes him a kind of Kantian, to one that makes him a kind of Wittgenstein, to one that makes him a kind of William James. However, it is now possible to approach the study of Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without presenting him in terms of supposed western parallels to his thought. In this regard, even Garfield sometimes interprets Nāgārjuna as a kind of sceptic, in the philosophical tradition that culminates in David Hume. Taking Westerhoff seriously, then, we might suppose that Siderits and Katsura intend their readers to engage with Nāgārjuna on his own terms, and they do so as part of a maturing of the western philosophical encounter with Indian Buddhism. Although they do not say as much, this would at least explain why in their commentaries on individual verses they often refrain from putting forward their own interpretation even when it might have been helpful for the reader for them to have done so. If this is correct, then perhaps the hope is that readers of this new translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā will themselves be drawn into the task of a mature encounter with Nāgārjuna. Such a reader might, however, have to prepare themselves with the older interpretations of Nāgārjuna, which, even if flawed, do provide some orientation. And they might have to read around a bit, in works like Westerhoff’s introduction to Nāgārjuna. Whatever they make of it, this excellent new translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Siderits and Katsura is a starting point for philosophical reflection, while the bareness of its commentaries, while not exactly helpful, is perhaps a sign of how seriously the translators take Nāgārjuna as an original philosopher.

This review is reposted from http://www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview

 


[1] As evident in a recent translation of some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: The Dalai Lama, The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, trans. Thubten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009.

[2] For which, see for instance another welcome new translation and commentary: Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] This is the place to mention that some western readers of Nāgārjuna have concluded that his philosophy has been over-rated: see, for instance, Richard Hayes, ‘Nāgārjuna’s Appeal’, in The Journal of Indian Philosophy, 22 (1994), 299–378.

[4] Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[5] And this is the place to mention Stephen Batchelor’s translation from the Tibetan, Verses From the Centre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000; it is a kind of poetical re-working of Nāgārjuna, but of no help for engaging with what Nāgārjuna actually wrote.

[6] See T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1955; David Kalupahana, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1991; Thomas E. Wood, Nāgārjunian Disputations, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994.

[7] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp.9–12.

The Universe Is Waking Up

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A review of Thomas Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp.

Thomas Nagel is an American professor of philosophy, perhaps best known for his 1974 article, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, in which he argued that consciousness, as is occurs in creatures like bats and human beings, means having a point of view on things.[1] There is something it is like to have conscious experience, even if we cannot imagine exactly what it is like, as in the case of bats, which use echo-location to find their way around and to catch their food. Hence there are facts about the world, that there is something it is like to be a bat, which we cannot even imagine. This point leads to Nagel’s conclusion, which is to highlight the difficulty of supposing that we could explain the subjective nature of conscious experience in terms of objective properties, like brains and neurons. Such an attempt to explain the mind in terms of the brain would be reductionist in the sense that it would involve a reduction of mental properties to physical properties. But such a reduction is not possible in this case. Following Nagel, the mind–body problem in philosophy gained new significance. David Chalmers has argued that consciousness constitutes a ‘hard problem’ for philosophy.[2] Colin McGinn has argued that, because of human cognitive limitations, we are not able to understand how subjective experience is related to objective properties, and that consciousness will remain a mystery.[3] Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennet, believe on the contrary that consciousness can be accommodated within a materialistic world-view.

Scientists, it must be said, are more concerned about their research than these difficult philosophical problems. Nevertheless there are plenty of neuroscientists who also admit they have no idea how the brain ‘produces’ conscious experience. Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, starts from these familiar conundrums of the mind–body problem, and goes on to question the whole neo-Darwinian world-view, which tries to explain nature in terms of physical matter and forces interracting to produce the world of life and of human experience. The slightly sensational sub-title for this book, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is presumably the publisher’s way of grabbing attention, and shows that the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership. What Nagel really argues, however, is that the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is partial rather than false, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness. What would be false, in this view, would not be the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature but the metaphysical claim that materialism can completely explain everything.

Nagel’s basic argument is this. If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks. It is perhaps easy to suppose that we could fully explain the beginning of the universe in terms of matter and forces and so on. But if the arising of life and subsequently consciousness cannot be explained in terms of matter and forces – that is, that life and consciousness are not susceptible to reductionist explanations – then materialism has not explained the natural order. Life and consciousness must always have been possibilities within the natural order, even before the conditions for their actual arising were not fully present. Therefore materialism is not a complete theory. Nagel does not stop there. In a chapter on ‘Cognition’, he goes on to argue that the faculty of reason, by which he means the capacity (for a few of us) to intuit truths that are independent of the mind, such as mathematical or logical truths, cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone. Neo-Darwinian theory must explain the appearance of faculties such as reason as somehow adaptive, but we cannot explain the capacity for insight into the truth in terms of adaptation for survival. And in a chapter on ‘Value’ Nagel argues that our capacity to make correct moral judgements is based on the objectivity of good and bad, it being an objective matter that certain actions are good and certain bad, which is similarly inexplicable in terms of materialism alone. For each of these broad areas – consciousness, cognition and value – Nagel sketches what might count as more satisfactory explanatory theories. One such sort of theory would be intentional – that God has set up the natural order is such a way that there is consciousness, that we can intuit the truth and know good and bad. But Nagel does not explore intentional theories as he does not believe in God. He plays with panpsychism – the theory that mind is somehow in everything – but does not find this kind of metaphysical theory very useful. His preferred tentative solution is what he calls ‘teleological naturalism’, meaning the theory that the natural order is biased in some way towards the emergence of life and consciousness, as more-than-likely directions or potentials of development. He does not develop this theory but merely indicates that it might at least be along the right lines.

It has to be said that Nagel’s book has received some very critical reviews.[4] This is partly because of the polarised nature of debate in the US. Nagel’s denial of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory plays straight into the hands of Creationists, who seem to eagerly seize on any criticism of evolution. It has to be said that, although Nagel clearly states that he is an atheist, he also tells the reader how stimulating he finds the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Beyer, two prominent exponents of intelligent design theories for the origin of life.[5] Sometimes intellectual openness can be a political mistake. Professional scientists and philosophers have also criticised Nagel’s book in different ways, because it does not take into account the kinds of details which are important in the disciplines in which these people work. However, Nagel’s book is meant to be a readable book exploring big issues. Nevertheless, it must be said that Nagel does not make any attempt to present or answer quite reasonable philosophical objections to some of what he puts forward, perhaps especially in relation to the idea that moral values are objective.

Nevertheless, I think Nagel’s book is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.[6] Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.[7] Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.


[1] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in The Philosophical Review 83:4 (1974), pp.435–50.

[2] David Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2:3 (1995), pp.200–19.

[3] Colin McGinn, ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989), pp.349–66. McGinn has also written a work of popular philosophy on the problem of consciousness: The Mysterious Flame: conscious minds in a material world, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[5] Mind and Cosmos p.10, and see the footnote there for references to works by Behe and Beyer.

[6] Mind and Cosmos p.85.

[7] This point is important, however, for emphasising that consciousness depends on the body and brain, and ceases when they cease functioning. While the Buddhist tradition, in line with most non-scientific thinking, assumes the possibility of some sort of disembodied consciousness, the Buddha himself appeared to deny it, as I discuss in Dhivan Thomas Jones, This Being, That Becomes: the Budha’s teaching of conditionality, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2011, p.67f.

The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order

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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

[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.

Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy

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In this essay, I will explore how the core Buddhist teaching of dependent-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) is a form of naturalism, meaning that everything arises from natural causes and conditions, including everything in human experience. This naturalism is fundamentally akin to early Greek science, to early Taoism, and to the Norse concept of wyrd, and hence we can characterise dependent-arising as a form of pagan philosophy, understanding the term ‘paganism’ to encompass all kinds of non-theistic religion, not just those traditions traditionally called ‘pagan’. Such a broad characterisation of dependent-arising allows us to appreciate the framework of thought in which the Buddha’s teaching works.

Pagan philosophising arises out of its own cultural context of myth, ritual and speculation. In the background of the Buddha’s teaching is the Vedic religion of India, in which even the gods were subject to cosmic order (ṛta, and later dharma), and sacrificial ritual became the technology for manipulating natural order. In ancient Greek myth, in Homer for instance, even all-powerful Zeus must obey Necessity (ananke), and this conception of a non-divine natural order led to the Greek philosophers’ quest for rational principles.

Philosophy sifts principles from the turbid play of the mind. The core principle of the Buddha’s teaching, called the Dharma (or dhamma), is paṭicca-samuppāda, dependent-arising, which the Buddha expressed in a terse formula:[1]

This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.

This formulation of the Dharma is an entirely abstract formula, awaiting application and content, but already implies two things about the nature of reality:

(i) universal conditionality, that is, that everything arises on conditions, and

(ii) the contingency of the divine, that is, that the gods also arise on conditions.

We see these implications borne out in other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. In Buddhist cosmology, for instance, which seems originally to have taken the form of edifying story rather than seriously-held belief, the periodic evolution and involution of the cosmos is total – nothing is left over. And we find parody of the supreme deity, Brahmā, who believes himself immortal, yet really is deluded, since he too has come into existence as a result of his past actions.[2]

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that ‘Who sees dependent-arising sees the Dharma, and who sees the Dharma sees dependent-arising’.[3] This saying relies on word-play, since the word Dharma means both the nature of reality and the teaching of the Buddha. So someone who ‘sees’, that is, understands, dependent-arising understands the teaching of the Buddha, and who understands the nature of reality understands this formulation of dependent-arising. But this saying also implies another, more philosophical, distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature. This distinction parallels Spinoza’s distinction of two aspects of reality:[4]

(i) natura naturans – ‘nature naturing’, nature as an active principle of order, and

(ii) natura naturata – ‘nature natured’, nature as the effect of natural order.

We might hence understand dependent-arising as a formulation of the principle of order in nature – which is one meaning of Dharma – and we might understand Dharma to also signify the whole world (including the world of experience) of nature or becoming, which is dependently-arisen, arising according to this principle.

Dependent-arising is therefore the formulation of Dharma as the principle of natural order. This formulation encompasses all particular principles of natural order by which the world of nature comes to be. The distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature is abstract, existing only in thought. In reality, there are only dependently-arisen phenomena, arising and passing away in accordance with an immanent principle of order. Hence the Buddhist worldview is a kind of naturalism, since it posits no power or principle beyond nature itself. This is a non-theistic worldview, in the sense that the powers and divinities that may exist are themselves subject to dependent-arising.

Early Greek science was similarly naturalistic in outlook. The first philosophers sought to identify some fundamental principle (arche) which governs the working of nature, rather than seeking supernatural causes. Thales of Miletus, for instance, identified the principle of nature (physis – physical nature) as water,[5] while Heraclitus identified it as fire.[6] Heraclitus also wrote of a principle of order (logos) according to which all of nature comes into being,[7] a conception much like that of Dharma as dependent-arising. Modern science, since the 17th c., is also naturalistic, seeking the laws and principles that govern nature, but in a methodological rather than metaphysical sense. When it gets metaphysical it tends merely to a sterile materialism, but that is another story.

Early Taoism is naturalistic too. Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things have all emerged from tao or ‘the Way’, which is that mysterious creative principle underlying nature.[8] The Tao Te Ching teaches that wisdom means turning inwards and knowing tao.[9] For Heraclitus, too, wisdom consists in coming to true knowledge of ‘how all things are steered through all’.[10] For the Buddha, it is by not understanding paṭicca-samuppāda that ‘people have become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from samsara with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies’.[11] For religious naturalists, much of the difficulty of life is due to our not comprehending the principles of nature to which we are subject, whereas relief and enlightenment arises from insight into them.

Hence we can characterise the Buddha’s teaching as a form of naturalistic or pagan philosophy, as rational reflection on the principles of nature, for the sake of enlightening insight. However, this insight in no way implies a transcendence of nature, for nature is all that there is. It implies instead a turning towards nature, a re-evaluation, and a letting go. What this means and how it is to be done is the stuff of study, reflection and meditation: of philosophy as a way of life. The different traditions of philosophy have, of course, different methods and practices for treading this way. The Buddha’s way (marga) consists in ethics, meditation and wisdom.

If pagan philosophy is not about transcendence, but about understanding the nature of the human condition, then we had better not suppose this can be done simply by rational thought. The Buddha conceptualised the human condition in terms of dependent-arising, but in practice his analyses of the situation, in the formula of the twelve nidānas, merges psychology with cosmology in a way hard to understand. What we seek to understand about life is perhaps more easily comprehended through myth and symbol, for it is only through the engagement of our entire being through the exercise of imagination that we can bring our rational insights to bear on our understanding of the whole.

Dependent-arising implies that human life is a process of becoming, and this becoming has been imagined by later Buddhist tradition as a wheel. The well-known bhavacakra or ‘wheel of becoming’ illustrates the destiny of beings as a result of action (karma) motivated by greed, hate and delusion. Here dependent-arising is represented as operating through time, the future manifestations of beings arising in dependence on past intentional actions. In another development, in the later Avataṃsaka Sūtra, dependent-arising is imagined in spatial terms, as Indra’s net, in which jewels mounted in a net each reflect the image of every other, all phenomena arising in dependence on other phenomena, in an interconnected universe. These symbols, the wheel and the net, illustrate the situation the philosopher seeks to comprehend.

In Greek myth the three Fates (moirae) are said to control the destiny of human beings. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis measures a span; Atropos cuts the thread. The Parcae in Roman mythology have a similar role. In these conceptions, the goddesses represent impersonal yet immanent powers controlling the lives of human beings, according to law-like processes which remain mysterious and ineluctable. In Norse mythology, the three Norns resemble the Fates. But the name of the first and oldest Norn, wyrd (perhaps familiar from the ‘weird sisters’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), takes us into a profounder myth. At the centre of the world is Yggdrasil, the Ash, the tree of life. At the foot of Yggdrasil is the well of wyrd. Flowing into the well is the dew of everything that happens in the world, up among the branches of Yggdrasil; liquid from the well waters the tree of life. To comprehend life means to learn the workings of the well of wyrd. But this wyrd is also imagined as a weaving or spinning, an active force that makes destiny. To learn about wyrd is to learn the weaving and unweaving of our becoming.[12]

This myth brings to my mind the Buddha, sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree in the days immediately after his awakening, when he was contemplating dependent-arising.[13] Taking this as myth and not as history, it means that he saw into the way we human beings weave our own becoming from the thread of intentional actions. He saw too the unweaving that is the hard path out of the suffering of becoming. In his meditation at the foot of the tree of life, he came to know the demon who clutches the wheel of becoming, in the later iconography of Buddhism; which is to say that he came to know the goddess who weaves the interconnected web or net of nature, and learned her secret. This secret, beyond words and concepts, is expressed in different ways by pagan philosophers: as tao, or logos, or Dharma, or wyrd. These conceptions are not the same, and their details vary greatly. Yet they have an underlying structure of meaning. There is an immanent natural order to the universe and human life, which though difficult and mysterious can be discovered and known, and this is what the wise have done, through a process that is both rational and imaginative.

[1] Udāna 1.1–3 etc.

[2] See for instance Brahmajāla Sutta, in Dīgha Nikāya 1, pts D i.17f.

[3] From the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta, in Majjhima Nikāya 28, pts M i.190–1.

[4] Ethics Book 1, Proposition 29, Schol.

[5] Quoted in Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.89.

[6] Fragments 30, 31 and 90. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.198.

[7] Fragment 1. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.187.

[8] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.25.

[9] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.41.

[10] Fragment 27. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.202.

[11] From the Mahānidāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, pts D ii.55.

[12] See Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

[13] Udāna 1.1–3 again.