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. Nonetheless, 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 (dharmas), 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’) almost always has a strong moral sense in Buddhism — “[It is] that kind of activity which has an ethical charge and which must give rise to a ‘retributionary’ reverberation at a later time” (Anacker, Works of Vasubandhu). To be karmic an act must first of all be deliberate and, secondly, must be the result of an intent to harm another sentient being, or the result of an intent to relieve suffering. Although the Buddha categorically affirmed freedom of will, Buddhist psychology, known as Abhidharma, naturally accepted that most of our daily actions such as eating, sleeping and so on are ‘quasi-automatic’ and do not bring about either reward or punishment in this or a future life. But this concentration on moral acts and their consequences merely underlines the whole aim and approach of Buddhism as a religion/philosophy which is to bring to an end the suffering that is an inevitable part of human (and animal) existence. It would thus seem perfectly legitimate to extend the sense of karma to causal processes in general — “the law of karma,….is only a special case of causality” (Stcherbatsky, BL).  Had the Buddhist thinkers wished to develop a physical as opposed to a spiritual/psychological belief system, they would most likely have made karma (in this extended sense) a prominent feature of such a system.  But not only did they abstain from doing so but they would have regarded excessive interest in the physical world as altogether undesirable since it did not further enlightenment but on the contrary tended to obstruct it.
     For (Hinayana) Buddhist thinkers of the time 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 (see Note)

                      Just elements exist, there is no world”

     Although the subsequent Mahayana (‘Greater Vehicle’) Buddhist thinkers denied the ‘absolute reality’ of the ‘dharma(s)’, the Hinayana thinkers of this era (Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmottara &c.) emphatically affirmed their reality — but with the proviso that our ‘normal’ perceptions are hopelessly distorted by irrelevant intellectual additions that are delusory. The dharma(s) have sometimes been compared to the noumena or ‘Things-in-themselves’ of Kant, but they are in fact what Kant would have called phenomena, but phenomena purified by a (usually) long and painful process of demystification and deintoxication. The Hinayana philosophical approach is all on its own in claiming that knowledge of what is ‘really real’ does not at all entail fleeing from the physical world into a transcendent Neverneverland but on the contrary recovering the pristine world of ‘direct sensation’ — “in pure reality there is not the slightest bit of imaginative construction” (Stcherbatsky, BL).

   All this is all very well, but what exactly are the dharma(s) and to what extent can they be made to form the basis of a physical theory?  (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 the dharma(s)y 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. are subject to a causal force which makes them ‘co-operate’ with one another.
5. are in a perpetual state of commotion.

    I draw certain far-reaching, possibly fanciful, conclusions from (1-5) above — or, if you like, I interpret them in accord with my own independent thought-experience.
    (1) to my mind implies that there are gaps between dharma(s) and thus that there are no continuous entities whatsoever — with the exception of nirvana which one could (perhaps) just conceivably equate with the quantum vacuum.
    (1) in combination with (2) means that there is incessant change (replacement of one dharma by another) but strictly speaking no motion, no continuous motion that is. What we call motion is nothing but consecutive dharma(s) which are so close to each other that the mind merges them together just as it does the separate images on a cinema screen. “Momentary things” writes Kamalasila, “cannot displace themselves because they disappear at the very place at which they appeared”.
    (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 ‘co-operating’ — tendencies of the dharma(s).
    (4) recognizes that what has occurrence is subject to certain formal ‘laws’, i.e. 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’).
    It is difficult to know what to make of (5), the claim that the dharma are ‘turbulent‘, ‘agitated‘ — though this is perhaps the most important characteristic of the dharma(s). (The Buddha was doubtless thinking of the great difficulty of ‘quietening’ the mind during meditation and, for that matter, during all conscious states.)  Now, 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 what we loosely call ‘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’ —  though, according to contemporary science, the molecules of a fluid are still moving about randomly even when the fluid is ‘in equilibrium’ (albeit less violently). There is, interestingly, no mention in Buddhist literature of the dharma(s) actually colliding with one another even when they are collected into bundles (‘skandhas‘). So the ‘turbulence’ should perhaps be interpreted as the tendency of these ‘elements‘ to reform, or rather to bring into momentary existence other similar dharma(s) until, eventually, when finally pacified, they cease altogether to conglomerate in space or to persist in time Vasubandhu’s “condition of rest from which they never shall arise again”.
    Although the following conception 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(s) are specks of turbulence on the surface of a sort of cosmic fluid, foam on an invisible ocean. When the turbulence dies away, the ocean returns to its original state of quiet — until the next cycle commences. Where have the dharma(s) gone to? Nowhere. What we call ‘matter’ and ‘life’ are nothing more (nor less) than a temporary surface film on this enduring ‘sub-stance’. The universe is a knot tied in a (non-material) string : it is pointless to ask where the knot has gone to when the knot is finally untied.

S.H. 4/10/19

Abbreviations:     BL  refers to Buddhist Logic Vol. I by Stcherbatsky (Dover Publications 1962, an “unabridged republication of the work first published by the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., Leningrad, circa 1930”).

Note  The full version is:

Just elements exist, there is no world,
Events emerge from nowhere, blossom, fall,
just elements exist, there is no world,

Events emerge from nowhere, blossom, fall,
Like hail upon the earth or glistening froth,
Just elements exist, there is no world.

 Like hail upon the earth or glistening froth,
The dharma form and open, scatter, burst,
Each moment brings forth others, vanishes.

The dharma form and open, scatter, burst,
Glistening the froth appears and thunderous the hail,
Just elements exist, there is no world.

Glistening the froth appears and thunderous the hail,
As ceaselessly the living dharma form,
Each moment brings forth others and then vanishes.

from Origins by Sebastian Hayes