Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Five Niyamas as Laws of Nature: An Assessment of Modern Western Interpretations of Theravada Buddhist Doctrine

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Five Niyamas as Laws of Nature: An Assessment of Modern Western Interpretations of Theravada Buddhist Doctrine

Article excerpt

In the first part of this article I will explore how the Theravadin commentarial list of fivefold niyama has been used by recent writers on Buddhism to present the law of karma within a scientific worldview. In the second part I will show that, although it misrepresents the commentaries, this very misrepresentation is nevertheless an example of a Western desire for Buddhist doctrine to be made compatible with modern science. In the third part of the article I will argue, however, that such a desire is better served simply by a close reading of the early Buddhist scriptures. (2)

The Doctrine of the Five Niyamas

Caroline Rhys Davids introduced the doctrine of the five niyamas to the English-speaking world in her 1912 book Buddhism: a Study of the Buddhist Norm. (3) In this slender volume she presents Dhamma--the "Norm" of her title--as the natural law immanent in the cosmos: eternal, omnipresent and necessary, whether or not a Buddha discerns it (33-35). She admits that this is not exactly how the Buddha put it, but says that it is implied in the suttas, which everywhere show a scientific habit of mind (48, 71, 103). She goes as far as to say that Dhamma as natural law represents the culmination of the Western quest for truth:

   But how had it been with us, if in olden time some prophet had
   arisen, who had seen, in a vision of universal natural law, not a
   philosophic theory only, nor a scientific induction, but a saving
   Truth, a Religion ... (101)

The Dhamma of the Buddha is, in Mrs. Rhys Davids's view, such a "vision of a universal natural law" and also a "saving Truth." This being the case, the Dhamma corresponds to the Western scientific enterprise of discovering the laws of nature, except that "nature" now includes not only the material world governed by physical and biological laws, but also the mind as well as the path to enlightenment, the lawful unfolding of which the Buddha discerned.

Moreover, Mrs. Rhys Davids explains how the Buddha's teaching of karma integrates the moral order into the natural order of the universe, without needing to posit a transcendent power or deity:

   Now the Pitakas do not assert, but they leave it clear enough,
   that, in the organic universe, right and wrong, and those
   consequences of actions which we call justice, retribution,
   compensation, are as truly and inevitably a part of the eternal
   natural or cosmic order as the flow of a river, the process of the
   seasons, the plant from the fertile seed. Going farther than the
   modern scientific standpoint, they substituted a cosmodicy for a
   theodicy, a natural moral order for the moral design of a creative
   deity. (118)

It is at this point that she introduces the five niyamas as a synthesis of the Buddha's teaching concerning different aspects of cosmic order and natural law:

   This order which Buddhism saw in the universe was called in Pali
   niyam'a, that is, going-on, process. In it five branches, strands,
   phases were discerned: kamma-niyama, order of act-and-result;
   utu-niyama, physical (inorganic) order; bvja-niyama, order of
   germs, or seeds (physical organic order); chitta-niyama, order of
   mind, or conscious life; dhamma-niyama, order of the norm, or the
   effort of nature to produce a perfect type. (118-119)

These five aspects of natural order, she explains, though taught individually in the pitakas, are not listed as fivefold niyama there: "In them we have the expressions niyamata, dhammata, abstract terms for normal orderly procedure" (119). The list of fivefold niyama is first found in the 5th century C.E. commentaries of Buddhaghosa:

   He brings it forward when he is commenting on a refrain in the
   Buddha-legend, the telling of it being put in the mouth of the
   Buddha himself. The refrain is: "This, in such a case, is the norm"
   (or order of events, dhammata). And he illustrates each of the five
   phases thus: (1) by the desirable and undesirable results following
   good and bad action, respectively; (2) by the phenomena of winds
   and rains; (3) by rice produced from rice-seed, or again, by sugary
   taste resulting from sugar-cane or honey; (4) by conscious
   processes, quoting from the AbhidhammaPitaka (Patthana):
   "Antecedent states of consciousness with their properties stand to
   posterior states with their properties in the relation of efficient
   cause. … 
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