Bertrand Russell bewails the passing of the scientific spirit with the Greeks and notes that from Plotinus (A.D. 204-70) onwards “men were encouraged to look within rather than to look without“. But there is much to be gained from looking within : the only thing is that the insights to be gained have not yet been turned into science and technology. Maybe their time has come or is coming.
India is a strange civilization since its leading thinkers seem not only to have considered what I call the Unmanifest as more important than the everyday physical world (the Manifest) but to have actually been more at home there. Lost within the dense thickets of abstruse Hindu and Buddhist speculation, there are ideas which may yet find their application, in particular the concept of dharma.
We think of Buddhism today as a philosophical religion that recommends non-violence and compassion but, admirable though such aims may be, they do not appear to have been at all the Buddha’s main concern, to judge by the development of the religion he founded during the six or seven centuries after his supposed life.

“The formula of the Buddhist Credo — which professedly contains the shortest statement of the essence and spirit of Buddhism — declares that Buddha discovered the elements of existence (dharma), their causal connection, and a method to suppress their efficiency for ever. Vasubandhu makes a similar statement about the essence of the doctrine : it is a method of converting the elements of existence into a condition of rest, out of which they never will arise again.”
Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism

The (Hinayana) Buddhist equivalent of Democritus’ terse statement “Nothing exists except atoms and void” would thus be something like
“Nothing exists except Nirvana, Karma and Dharma”.

    Nirvana is the state of absolute quiescence which is the end and origin of everything; karma (literally ‘activity’, ‘action’) usually has a moral sense but can legitimately be taken to  signify ‘causal connection’ in general; dharma(s) are the ephemeral but constantly reappearing ‘elements’ which make up absolutely everything we think of as real, material or immaterial. All alleged ‘entities’ such as Matter, Soul, the universe, individual objects, persons  &c. &c. are not true entities but merely bundles (skandhas) or sequences (santanas) of dharmas. Hence the first line of my poem

Just elements exist, there is no world”

What, then, are the dharma(s) ?  (Although the plural of dharma is made by adding an s I cannot quite accustom myself to doing this.) Being irreducibles, there is nothing more elementary in terms of which they can be defined. However, what can be said, summarizing the conclusion of Stcherbatsky’s excellent book and other sources, is that dharma(s) are

1. entirely separate one from another;
2. have no duration;
3. tend to congregate in bundles;
4. subject to a causal force which makes them ‘co-operate’ with one another. 5. in a state of commotion.

In Buddhism, since it is a doctrine of ‘salvation’, the  description of the dharma(s) is immediately followed by additional assumptions and comments. The dharma are ‘bitter’, i.e. cause suffering, and are steering towards extinction. A Buddha is a (pseudo) person who has quieted the dharma that compose his (pseudo) personality; he does not stop there but strives to contribute by his example and teachings to the complete stoppage of the entire  world process, something which will eventually come about anyway but only after an unimaginably long period of time by our reckoning.
I shall, however, not be at all concerned with this aspect of dharma theory — or at any rate not in the present context — but only with features which can be conceivably incorporated  into an eventual ‘physical theory’ (‘reality theory’ would be a more suitable term).
Certain far-reaching conclusions can be drawn immediately from (1-5) above.  (1) implies that there are gaps between dharma(s) and thus that there are no continuous entities whatsoever (with the exception of nirvana). (1) in combination with (2) means that there is incessant change but strictly speaking no motion, no continuous motion that is. What we call motion is nothing but consecutive dharmas which are so close to each other that the mind merges them together just as it does separate images on a cinema screen. “Momentary things” writes Kamalasila, “cannot displace themselves because they disappear at the very place at which they appeared” (quotes Stcherbatsky).
(3) explains, or rather describes, the appearance of what we consider to be matter : it is the result of the ‘combining’ — the Indian sources say ‘cooperating’ — tendencies of the dharma.
(4) recognizes that what has occurrence is subject to certain formal ‘laws’ : events do not usually occur at random and certain events are invariably followed by similar different events with which they are regularly associated (‘This being, that arises’). Buddhism, as a religion, is more concerned with chains of causality in the moral sphere and distinguishes between acts which are productive of karma and those which are not.
It is difficult to know what to make of (5), the claim that the dharma are ‘turbulent’, ‘agitated’ — though this is probably the most important characteristic of the dharma. Air or water can be turbulent — what does this mean?   Physically, if we are to believe the current scientific world view, it means that the microscopic molecules that make up air or water are rushing about in a random manner, colliding violently with each other. This state of commotion is to be contrasted with the state of affairs when everything is ‘still’ —  in reality, according to science, the molecules remain in motion but their movements are less violent and less haphazard. The dharma, however, never collide with one another even when they are collected into bundles. So the ‘turbulence’ can only be interpreted as the tendency of these ‘elements’ to reform, or to bring into momentary existence other dharma, for,  when finally pacified, they do not reform and do not give rise to other dharma.
Although what follows is much more Hindu than Buddhist in spirit, and would have been strenuously rejected by the Buddhists who developed the dharma theory, I personally envisage the ‘turbulence’ as pertaining to an invisible, all-pervasive substratum : the dharma are specks of turbulence on the surface of a sort of cosmic fluid, foam on the ocean. When the turbulence dies away, the ocean returns to its original state of quiet — until the next cycle commences. Where have the dharma gone to ? Nowhere. What we call ‘matter’ and ‘life’ are nothing more (nor less) than a temporary state of this enduring ‘substance’ or entity. The universe is like a knot tied in a string : we do not ask where the knot has gone to when it is finally untied.

I am indebted to the men of penetrating intellect who developed the dharma theory and who lived in the first two or three centuries of our era, often in and around the monastery/university of Nalanda in Northern India (also to their brilliant modern interpreter, Stcherbatsky). However, I do not feel any necessity to follow them into all the byways of their speculations and deductions : their concern was almost entirely with ‘salvation’ and not with the creation of a consistent ‘reality theory’ that could be tested and perhaps eventually turned into a new kind of technology. They created an impressive system of Logic simply in order to be able to argue their case more skilfully in public, likewise a highly complex form of psychology (abhidharma) the better to understand their own thought-processes and self-deceptions. But they did not attempt to create a physics or a chemistry since such subjects had no relevance to ‘salvation’, rather the reverse. They would have completely disapproved of any scientific or technological developments based on dharma theory because any such developments, like the current applications of  Western physics and chemistry, would, in their eyes, merely represent more dazzling and thus more dangerous ‘illusions’ binding human beings all the more firmly to the wheel of birth and rebirth and thus perpetuating suffering.       S.H.

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