Buddhism: Karma, Dukkha and Dependent Origination Contextualised


The Buddha’s system of analysis is premised upon the existence of ‘matter’ (rupa), even if matter as the Buddha conceived it, is defined as impermanent and insubstantial. The Buddha also stated that the reality as human-beings experience it is also premised upon the agency of ‘mind’ (citta), which is also an organ of perception (manas), and a means through which humans are ‘consciously’ aware (vijnana) . The Buddha defines reality as an ‘entanglement’ or ‘integration’ of physical and psychological processes. This means that for the Buddha’s system to remain philosophically coherent and logical, he has to reject what might be termed ‘hard’ materialism (ucchedavada), whereby a physical universe is believed to exist forever in an unchanged state, and the school of thought that taught that a theistic entity (atma), rather like the Christian soul theory, existed permanently outside the world of matter – linking the realm of materiality to an imagined ‘heaven’ or some other post-mortem and disembodied paradise (sasvatavada). For the Buddha the material world exists (but not in the manner conceived by a certain school of materialists in his day) and any notion of a soul theory was replaced with a schematic of clearly defined psychological processes. Therefore, reality as defined by the Buddha is a plurality of insubstantiality that involves the organic functioning of mind and body within the external, material world. The mind (like matter) is impermanent, and is clearly the consequence of conditions extending from material existence.  This suggests that the Buddha’s conception of the mind is that it is a temporary extension of matter, but as both mind and material circumstances are impermanent, and given that the human mind is prone – through a changeable body – to interpret the world through greed, hatred and delusion, existence as experienced by ordinary human-beings (through its full range of pleasant, neutral and painful sensations), is termed ‘dukkha’ by the Buddha. Until the mind is cleared of its delusion, and the body disciplined away from destructive modes of behaviour, the entirety of non-enlightened existence is considered ‘dukkha’. This is not just ‘suffering’ in the conventional sense, but includes all modes of pleasurable living in the deluded state, and would apply equally to a opulent life-style, as it does a destitute life-style. Dukkha, strictly speaking, refers more specifically to a profoundly inadequate and non-satisfying mode of existence which includes the entirety of existence and its experience in the unenlightened state. Defining ‘dukkha’ as ‘suffering’ is therefore describing only half of its meaning, and is incomplete. The Buddha is defining existence in the deluded state as being highly ‘unstable’ (dukkha) and not conducive to inner or outer peace and tranquillity.

The Buddha defined the tiniest specks of matter (paramanu) [synonymous with ‘atoms’] to be occupying (and moving about within) time and space, whilst flickering in and out of existence. This is how the Buddha redefines matter (rupa) as being both ‘existant’, and ‘insubstantial’ (or non-existant). This means that with regard to the ‘chain of dependent origination’ (pratitya-samutpada), the conditionality that the Buddha teaches, cannot be properly associated with the cause and effect of modern Western science, as the latter assumes a closed system of events. Within science it is understood that the ‘effects’ of an event lie dormant in the ’cause’ in a never ending and predictable chain of unfolding events. However, as the Buddha teaches that each atom is flickering in and out of existence all the time, creating a false world of apparent material stability, it is not the case that he is employing the ‘closed system’ of Western science. The Buddha states that it is is the human capacity to generate ‘willed’ or ‘volitional’ actions in the mind (vedana-samna-samskara) that ‘projects’ moral (or ethical) meaning upon a morally neutral world of matter. It is this agency of ‘willed’ actions that divert the world of matter into directions of manifestation that might be termed positive, neutral or negative – it is not the material realm itself that is inherently positive, neutral or negative. The Buddha’s notion of cause and effect’ (karma) is not a closed material system that allows for one cause to lead to one effect, but is rather the product of a dynamic interaction of mind, body and environment. There is the ‘willed’ direction in the mind, the consequential bodily application of that willed direction in the environment (i.e. ‘action’), and the eventual consequences (i.e. ‘re-action’) of that ‘willed’ action, experienced through the body and mind. As ‘volition’ is the product of a deluded mind, the Buddha advocates its control, limiting of function and eventual uprooting through meditation. When there is a ‘cessation’ of volition premised upon greed, hatred and delusion, then the mind becomes calm and all delusion is extinct. In this enlightened state all volitional action ceases and karma is nolonger produced. As reality is understood in its correct formulation, there is nolonger any attachment to an impermanent world and all ‘dissatisfaction’  (dukkha) ceases. In this rarefied state, material reality is clearly reflected by a permanently peaceful and tranquil mind.

Finally, the Buddha’s understanding of reality as mind-matter, action-re-action conditionality, is very suggestive of certain philosophical speculations surrounding the subject of quantum mechanics – namely the assumption that human observation influences the material processes being observed. Furthermore, although the chain of dependent origination is not strictly speaking a ‘closed system’ of material cause and effect (as it is mediated through the agency of ‘mind’), the Buddha did teach elsewhere that not all experiences in the world are related to ‘willed’ or ‘volitional’ actions-re-actions (i.e. ‘karma’), but are in fact the product of ‘natural causes’. An example of this thinking could include the analysis of a cancerous cell in the human-body. This cancer could be considered the karmic product of a destructive and highly negative life-style (i.e. part of the chain of dependent origination), but equally it could just be the product of a malfunctioning body-cell – or the natural product of ’cause and effect’ within the material environment (the experience of which lies outside of the ‘willed’ action-re-action nexus). In this respect, it seems that the Buddha does allow for the type of cause and effect found within mainstream (modern) Western science – albeit in a natural format, not controlled or mediated through a ‘closed system’ of laboratory-oriented observation. The Buddha, therefore, allows for two distinct types of cause and effect, a) occurring through the mind and the matter it observes (i.e. utilising the operating principles of ‘volition’ and ‘karma’), and b) manifesting independently (of the mind’s conditioning influence) within the material realm. An individual is subject to both kinds of cause and effect – but is only personally responsible for the mind-body nexus manifestation (as defined in example ‘a’). Through meditation (bhavana) and behaviour modification (sila), the mind’s conditioning capability is brought under control and eventually uprooted (thus ending all karma-producing thought patterns and actions). Beyond this state there is no further conditionality – but the mind and its rarefied states of awareness (dhyana) remain firmly with the realm of matter – which according to the Buddha is comprised of existence and non-existence – or emptiness and structure. Although these two states seem to alternate continuously without end, it is also clear that the Buddha’s analysis suggests that both emptiness and form also occur simultaneously (rather suggestive of Schroedinger’s cat), This means that ‘sunya’ does not refer to a dead ‘void’ or vague ‘nothingness’, but rather suggests a ‘relative’ state of non-substantiality (i.e. a material condition ’empty’ of permanency and yet subject to change). Sunya is then that realised state of being that acknowledges that all material reality arises within a sea of emptiness – free of any eternal (and unchanging) material substance, or theistic conceptualisation.

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