A Commentary on the Shorter Māluṅkyāputta Sutta


This discourse from the Majjhima-Nikāya, or Middle-Length Discourses, shows us the Buddha in dialogue with a monk called Māluṅkyāputta, a person for whom metaphysical views are evidently important.[1] What the Buddha says to Māluṅkyaputta tells us exactly why speculative views are not relevant to the spiritual life, and it does so by means of a memorable simile. There are several discourses in the Pāli canon which feature him, and in one he appears as an old man who approaches the Buddha to get a pithy, direct teaching about the nature of reality. The Buddha gives him one, and the old monk soon reaches awakening.[2] So Māluṅkyāputta, we might say, was someone who was prone to take the wrong approach to the meaning of the Dharma, but who certainly got it in the end.

The discourse begins with Māluṅkyāputta on his own, in meditation, thinking about things. He comes to the conclusion that he needs to find out what the Buddha thinks about certain metaphysical issues that the Buddha appears to have left unexplained or undeclared (avkyākatāni), and he decides that if the Buddha does not engage in these issues to his satisfaction, he will leave the monastic order. He visits the Buddha and asks him whether:

  • the universe is eternal;
  • the universe is not eternal;
  • the universe is finite;
  • the universe is infinite;
  • the soul and the body are identical;
  • the soul and the body are different;
  • a sentient being exists after death;[3]
  • a sentient being does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being both exists and does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being neither exists nor does not exist after death.

 This is a standard list found in the Pāli discourses, and it presumably represents the kind of things speculative philosophers of the Buddha’s time thought about. These days our questions might be slightly different. We might wonder, for instance, whether:

  • the universe will keep on expanding for ever
  • the universe will at a certain point contract again
  • there is life elsewhere in the universe
  • there is life only on planet earth
  • the mind is produced by the brain
  • the mind is something apart from the brain
  • there is a God
  • there is no God
  • there anything about us that survives after death
  • nothing about us survives after death

Who could deny that such issues are not fascinating and difficult? Indeed, much academic research – perhaps the entire life-work of certain philosophers or theologians – is concerned with trying to make some progress with these issues. But when Māluṅkyāputta puts his case to the Buddha, the Buddha is very uncompromising. He calls Māluṅkyāputta a foolish man and gets him to admit that in fact he, the Buddha, had never promised to engage with such issues; Māluṅkyāputta might try to get the Buddha to explain these unexplained or undeclared (avyākatāni) issues, but he would die before the Buddha would explain them.

It might appear that the Buddha is himself taking up a philosophical position here, something like a Buddhist version of Kant’s critique of pure reason, which set limits to what we can know by thinking along. But I doubt that this is the case. To understand the Buddha’s strong metaphysical reticence, I suggest that we consider what Māluṅkyāputta was looking for. He was looking for certainty ­– for definite answers. For someone like Māluṅkyāputta, as for many people of a philosophical bent then and now, metaphysical certainty is associated with a kind of existential comfort, of knowing one’s place in the nature of things. Perhaps for other sorts of people, other sorts of fantasies provide comparable existential comfort. And a certain degree of progress in metaphysical certainty, and hence in existential comfort, is possible.

But this is not the point of the Dharma. The Buddha makes this point with one of his brilliant extended similes. This one is generally known as the simile of the poisoned arrow: 

Suppose, Māluṅkyāputta, that someone was shot by an arrow smeared with poison, and their friends and companions, family and relatives, had a surgeon attend, but that person were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, whether ruler, priest, trader or labourer.[4] Or they were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, what their name and what their clan… whether they are tall or short or medium height… whether they are black-skinned, dark-skinned or golden-skinned… in what village or town or city they live… until I know by which bow I was shot, whether a longbow or a crossbow… until I know by which bowstring I was shot, whether it was of plant-fibre, reed or milk-leaf… until I know by which arrow-shaft I was shot, whether it was of natural wood or of cultivated… whether the arrow-shaft was tipped with feathers from a vulture, a heron, a raven, a peacock or a stork… whether the sinews that bound the arrow-shaft were from a cow, a buffalo, a lion or a monkey… until I know by which arrow I was shot, whether its head was sharp-edged, barbed, made of iron, toothed or leaf-shaped.[5] Māluṅkyāputta, all this would remain unknown to that person, and they would die. Likewise, Māluṅkyāputta, anyone who says, I will not live the spiritual life under the Blessed One while he has not explained to me whether the universe is eternal or not [and the other metaphysical questions] – all this would remain unexplained by the Realised One, and that person would die.

 It is important to notice that the various questions are not in principle unanswerable, but that they are not the right questions to be asking. Likewise, what the Buddha does explain and make known, as he goes on to say, is the conditions whereby suffering and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arise, and how these conditions can be brought to an end. Metaphysical questions are in this sense just irrelevant to the spiritual life as taught by the Buddha.

I notice from this discourse that the Buddha does not tell Māluṅkyāputta what to think. Māluṅkyāputta, being someone who likes to think about things, would probably not appreciate being told what to think. Instead, the Buddha gives Māluṅkyāputta direct guidance on how to think. He points Māluṅkyāputta away from the search for certainty to the possibility of living with metaphysical uncertainty. Such a strategy is counter-intuitive for many of us. It means putting aside questions and issues which are self-evidently connected with a knowledge of the true nature of things. The reason for this strategy is that by doing so we come to a better understanding of the situation we are in, the situation which has prompted our questioning and our longing for certainty. We might say that the Buddha recommends to Māluṅkyāputta that he cultivate what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, which is ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[6]

Negative capability is that capacity which makes conscious our longing for certainty and our desire for existential comfort, and turns it around. Instead of putting effort into finding the answers to metaphysical questions, we put our effort into understanding our present experience, with its uncertainties and its sufferings, which have their causes and conditions, and which the Buddha’s teaching is concerned with coming to know. The Buddha summarises all this to Māluṅkyāputta in the conclusion to the discourse:

Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained. And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I not explained? Whether the world is eternal [or not eternal, whether infinite or not infinite, whether the soul and body and different or identical, and whether a sentient being exists, or does not exist, or both, or neither] has not been explained by me. And why have I not explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is not profitable, it is not a starting point for the spiritual life, because it does not conduce to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have not explained it.

And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I explained? That here there is suffering, Māluṅkyāputta – this I have explained. That there is an origin of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is cessation of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is a practice leading to the cessation of this suffering – this I have explained.[7] And why have I explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is profitable, it is a starting point for the spiritual life, because it conduces to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have explained it. Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained.

In this way, the Buddha explains how Māluṅkyāputta should bear in mind the teachings of suffering (dukkha), its origin and its cessation, and the path to its cessation, as a way of thinking about things; a way that is OK with uncertainty, that bears with what is actually happening, that looks into present experience for the secret of what really matters.

 Based on a talk at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 25 April 2013

[1] The discourse is no.63 in the Majjhima-Nikāya; its full name is Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta; a full translation by myself can be found at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/76092054/M%2063%20Short%20Malunkyaputta.pdf, and an alternative translation by Ven. Thanissaro at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html.

[2] This final discourse is found in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya 35:95, and I discuss it in my book This Being, That Becomes, on pp.50–2. The other discourses featuring Māluṅkyāputta are Majjhima-Nikāya 64 and Anguttara-Nikāya 4:254. There are also some verses attributed to him in the Theragāthā.

[3] The phrase ‘a sentient being’ is a translation of tathāgata, literally, ‘one who has become thus’. While this word usually refers to a Buddha, and is used by Gotama to refer to himself, the commentaries always explain tathāgata in the context of the avyākatāni as satta, ‘creature’, ‘sentient being’, or even as atta, ‘self’. See A Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, p.286.

[4] That is, to which among the four varṇas or castes the person belonged.

[5] It is not certain what some of the Pāli words for these items mean, though the gist is clear enough.

[6] From a letter to his brothers of 21 December 1817.

[7] That is, the Buddha has explained the four noble truths.


Dependent-Arising and Interconnectedness


In my book This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality,[1] I make a connection between the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising, paṭicca-samuppāda, and what I claim to be the Buddha’s vision of reality as an interconnected whole. In my book I also invoke the name of Joanna Macy as someone who has written of paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of ‘interdependence’ and ‘mutual co-arising’.[2] Some Buddhist friends, however, have let me know that they do not believe that the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality can be rightly articulated in terms of interconnectedness and mutual arising, and they disapprove of Macy’s approach. In this essay I want to explain why I disagree.

However, I am not claiming that the Buddha taught interconnectedness. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is not recorded as saying anything at all about interconnectedness, nor much about the world of nature, because his emphasis is so overwhelmingly pragmatic and spiritual. Nevertheless, I think Joanna Macy’s discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising as implying ‘mutual arising’ and ‘interdependence’ is very useful for modern westerners. If we have had a scientific education, we might have unconsciously internalised a mechanistic view of how everything works. Talk of ‘causation’ and ‘cause and effect’ are likely to produce in our minds the idea of linear causal mechanisms, like billiard balls causing movement in other billiard balls. This conception of causality is culturally conditioned, being the result of the European scientific revolution. The idea of conditionality working in a much more complex, interconnected way suggests a more holistic and organic conception of causality in terms of complex non-linear causal processes. Such thinking is closer to the Buddha’s pre-scientific mode of thought. It certainly brings us closer to the workings of nature, and perhaps of reality too.

Beyond the idea of interdependence as a way of characterising causality, I believe that that the vision of reality as an interconnected whole is a particularly important implication of the teaching of dependent-arising. I would agree with anyone who says that the Buddha did not teach interconnectedness in that sense, but I do not think interconnectedness is at odds with the Dharma.

It seems to me that the emphasis (in the discourses that have come down to us in the Pāli canon) is on the implications of dependent-arising for existence through time, rather than for connectedness across space. That is to say, dependent-arising is generally expressed in the Pāli canon in terms of temporal relationships, and has the implication that all dependently-arisen things, just because they are dependently-arisen, are impermanent. They arise, they remain for a certain time, and then they pass away. Nothing is permanent, all is change. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all process, without fixed self (anattā).

The temporal implications of dependent-arising became the paradigm for the arising of insight, which is the goal of Buddhist practice. We see this in the story of the conversions of Sāriputta and his friend Mogallāna, who were to become the Buddha’s chief disciples. Sāriputta became a follower of the Buddha having heard a formulation of dependent-arising from a disciple of the Buddha called Assaji. Having been asked by Sāriputta for the essence of the Dharma, Assaji tells him:

‘Those things conditionally arisen – the Realized One has told their cause,
and the ceasing of them too; this is the great renouncer’s teaching.’[3]

Then – and this is the important point here – ‘Hearing this formulation of the Dharma, the spotless, stainless vision of Dharma arose in Sāriputta the wanderer, that whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease.’ We read this quite often in the Pāli canon. Someone hears the Dharma, and then they have a vision of the temporal instability of phenomena, and this is a vision of reality which is the beginning of the path of transformation and awakening.

My suggestion is that modern western Buddhists are, generally speaking, less fixated on the possibility of temporal stability, that is, on the possibility of immortality or the attainment of eternity, and more concerned about our identities in relation to a world of people and things. This means that we might experience our ignorance and our clinging more in terms of representations of spatial relationships then in terms of temporal durations. We might be more anxious what we have than how long we will have it. The teaching of dependent-arising, as well as implying that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease’, will also imply that people and things all depend on other people and things. In such a network of conditions, where can we find a reliable identity, and what might it be it by itself? Hearing the Dharma, one might have a vision of the interconnectness of all phenomena, and it might be this vision of reality which for us is the beginning of the path of transformation.

With this in mind, here are ‘Four Theses on Interconnectedness’. I should say that I am using the term ‘interconnectedness’ here to mean paṭicca-samuppāda, and you could equally use the terms ‘interdependence’, ‘mutual co-arising’ or conditionality.

  1. Reality (or nature) is an interconnected whole.
  2. Reality (or nature) is patterned by many kinds of laws.
  3. Particular things are connected to other particular things.
  4. Interconnected things do not exist independently.

These four theses constitute a metaphysical worldview that is a platform for Buddhist insight practice. They are logically independent but are themselves interconnected as to what they mean. The fourth thesis is a way of putting Nāgārjuna’s conception of śūnyatā, or emptiness, which states that all dharmas are without svabhāva or own-being.[4] Nāgārjuna himself believed that his conception of emptiness was a restatement of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way between existence and non-existence, especially as found in the Kaccāyana Sutta.[5] The third thesis is another way of putting the general formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda, (‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises,’ and so on) and warns us against understanding interconnectedness as some vague all-is-one kind of view. The second thesis, as well as being the basic assumption of the scientific worldview, is a paraphrase of the Buddha’s definition of paṭicca-samuppāda as ‘this stability of reality, this fixed course of things (dharma-niyāmatā)’.[6] The first thesis, that nature (or reality) is an interconnected whole, is not an explicit part of the traditional Buddhist world-view, but would appear to be implied by it.

Things are interconnected, they do not exist in themselves. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all network, without fixed self (anattā).

[1] Published by Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2011, especially in ch.8.

[2] In Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1991, and also in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, Rider: London, 1993, part 2.

[3] Vinaya-piṭaka i.40. A full translation of this incident is in my book on pp.36–8.

[4] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.1.

[5] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.15. The Kaccāyana Sutta is in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:15.

[6] Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:20.

A Commentary on the Kālāma-Sutta

country folk

In this well-known discourse from the Pāli canon,[1] the Buddha is asked by the Kālāmas how to tell true from false spiritual teachings. Rather than answer them directly, the Buddha leads them through a way of judging what is wholesome and unwholesome in their own experience. The discourse demonstrates the Buddha’s practical, non-speculative approach to spiritual life, and does so in the course of a charming narrative of encounter.

The Kālāmas are a gotra or clan, who live in a nigama or market town called Kesaputta in the region of northern India called Kosala[2]. We get the impression of a close-knit group of country bumpkins, not part of mainstream Brahmanical religious culture, who are nevertheless concerned as a community to know what religious teachings are correct. The Buddha, on tour with a group of his monks, stops near Kesaputta. The Kālāmas discuss the Buddha’s good reputation, in terms of a formula found elsewhere in the suttas, and decide to visit him. They greet him, take their places as they feel inclined, then ask which teachings (vāda) are true and which false, since rival teachers recommend their own teachings but criticise those of others. The Buddha replies:

‘No wonder you’re uncertain, Kālāmas, no wonder you’re doubtful; being uncertain, doubt has arisen for you. But, Kālāmas, you should not go by oral or inherited traditions, by opinions, or by the authority of scripture; or by reason, inference, analogy or metaphysical speculation; or by someone’s apparent competence, or because you regard an ascetic as your teacher. Kālāmas, when you yourselves know that something is unwholesome, culpable and criticized by the wise; that something, when taken up and carried through, leads to harm and pain; then, Kālāmas, you should give it up.’[3]

 ‘Oral or inherited traditions’ (anassavā or paraṃparā), ‘opinions’ (itikirā) and ‘the authority of scripture’ (piṭikasampadāna) are religious reasons for believing teachings. It is perhaps easy to understand why we should not believe religious teachings without some further justification, but the Buddha goes much further, in recommending that the Kālāmas do not believe teachings established by philosophical reasoning, by ‘reason (takkahetu), inference (nayahetu), analogy (ākāraparivitakka) or metaphysical speculation (diṭṭhinijjhānakhanti)’. And he then undercuts any tendency the Kālāmas might have to believe even someone like himself, recommending that they do not go by ‘someone’s apparent competence’ (bhabbarūpatā), or out of respect for someone as a teacher.

All this is just as relevant today, as we hear the teachings of various gurus concerning diet, exercise, lifestyle and enlightenment, with their appeals to traditions and authorities, with their use of logical arguments, equipped with their PhDs and their celebrity endorsements. But we know that all this persuasion could be merely blurb. In the spiritual market place your purchase never comes with a  guarantee. For this reason the Buddha shifts the whole debate to what he regards as more important, which is, what it is that does people good, and what it is that does people bad.

The Buddha recommends that the Kālāmas look to their own experience to judge what leads is unwholesome and (later in the sutta) to what is wholesome in experience, but he also recommends they listen to their conscience and to the opinion of the wise. The word ‘wise’ here translates viññū, which refers to the mature elders of the community rather than to religious specialists. The Buddha’s approach appeals to the experience of the community, not just of the individual. He asks, what leads to harm and benefit in your individual and communal experience?

The Buddha then leads the Kālāmas in a Socratic kind of dialogue, to the conclusion that mental states characterised by greed (lobha) or hate (dosa) or confusion (moha) tend to result in actions like harming, stealing, sexual misconduct and lying – the opposite of the actions enjoined by the Buddhist precepts – whereas mental states characterised by the opposite, by contentment (alobha), love (adosa) and wisdom (amoha), tend to result in actions that are in accordance with the precepts, and which lead to well-being and happiness.

The Buddha does not leave his teaching to the Kālāmas there, but goes on to give them a spiritual practice, which builds on the approach now established towards what is important in life. This spiritual practice is a set of well-known Buddhist meditations usually called the brahma-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, that consist in the cultivation of loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā), and the pervading of the entire world and all beings with these ‘extravagant, magnificent, boundless’ qualities. These practices require no special beliefs or initiations; they are a practical means to gain the benefits for oneself and others that religious teachings are supposed to deliver.

To end the discourse, the Buddha gives the Kālāmas four encouragements (assāsā, or ‘easy-breathings’) for continuing to work on their mental states in this way. First, if it is true that there is an afterlife, then they will go to a heavenly world after death. Second, if it turns out that there is no afterlife, then they will have looked after themselves as well as possible in this life. Third, if actions have consquences, then because of not doing evil, no pain will touch them (although this seems a little optimistic). And fourth, if actions do not have consquences, then those who do not do evil can regard themselves as pure. Although the Buddha certainly did teach that actions have consequences, and that there is rebirth according to actions, he does not want the Kālāmas to accept such ideas just as ideas. He wants them to understand the benefit of acting ethically in their present experience. In this way, the Kālāmas are equipped with the practical tools to decide for themselves what teachings to accept or reject, what is true and false. This is what we would call today an entirely secular form of spirituality, a teaching about ethics and the best way to live which works whatever you believe about the hereafter.

The discourse concludes with another formula common in the Pāli canon, which expresses how someone who has heard the Buddha’s words gains faith and decides to become a follower. The Kālāmas say:

‘Wonderful, Lord, wonderful! It’s as if someone were to set upright something overturned, or explain something that was obscure, or show the way to someone lost, or carry a lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. In the same way, Venerable Gotama has made the Dharma known in many ways. We go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dharma and to the Sangha of monks. May the Venerable Gotama remember us as lay-followers who have gone for refuge from this day onward for as long as life lasts.’

We hear no more of the Kālāmas in the early Buddhist scriptures, so there is no saying what happened to them after the Buddha left and continued on tour. Perhaps they were still confused, or perhaps they forgot the Buddha and collectively joined some cult. But the Kālāma-sutta remains as a testament to an experiential approach to finding what is wholesome in experience, an approach still basic to Buddhism to this day.

 Based on a talk at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 18 April 2013

[1] The discourse is from Anguttara-Nikāya, 3.65. Full translations are available on the Access to Insight website 

[2] This kind of information is available in the amazing Dictionary of Pali Proper Names.

[3] This is my translation. My full translation of this discourse can be downloaded from here

Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy


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.