Why is there Dhamma (rather than chaos), and on the nature of the Buddha's insight

In Buddhism there’s no god who created the universe, and yet the latter is not chaotic: even though it is full of suffering it is structured according to some natural laws (from the 4 Noble truths to Dependent origination etc) which allow for an escape from suffering.

If you think about it this is quite amazing, because if the universe exists by chance (as opposed to having been created by a benevolent god) the most common sense world view would seem to be nihilistic, because why should there be ethical laws and more generally Dhamma structuring the world?

In a way this sense of wonder at Dhamma is quite similar to the one I have as a scientist when I am amazed by the fact that the external world can be described by laws which can be expressed mathematically. That is not at all obvious at priori, and indeed it is wonderful (in the literal sense of the term). I mean why does mathematics describe external physical reality so accurately? Many great scientists had a sense of awe in the face of this, for example Dirac spoke of God as a great mathematician (probably methophorically). Kant gave an answer to this question in the Critique of the Pure reason, though the cathegories he relied upon are no longer valid.

So I was wondering whether you have also been wondering at the fact that there is Dhamma and that there is order in the universe in spite of it not having been created by some kind of intelligent or benevolent being.


It’s because of how similar minds conceptually label experience IMO.

"“Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.”

—Anguttara Nikaya 4.77

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If you haven’t already read it, you may wish to read MN63.

Here’s an excerpt:
" So, Māluṅkyaputta, you should remember what I have not declared as undeclared, and what I have declared as declared. And what have I not declared? I have not declared the following: ‘the cosmos is eternal,’ ‘the cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘the world is finite,’ ‘the world is infinite,’ ‘the soul and the body are the same thing,’ ‘the soul and the body are different things,’ ‘a Realized One still exists after death,’ ‘A Realized One no longer exists after death,’ ‘a Realized One both still exists and no longer exists after death,’ ‘a Realized One neither still exists nor no longer exists after death.’

And why haven’t I declared these things? Because they aren’t beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. They don’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t declared them.

And what have I declared? I have declared the following: ‘this is suffering,’ ‘this is the origin of suffering,’ ‘this is the cessation of suffering,’ ‘this is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.’

And why have I declared these things? Because they are beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life."

Your question about order is not exactly the same as the questions/issues the Buddha spoke about in this sutta, but it’s the same in principle.
There is no way, even theoretically, to answer it since no one and no thing, including the physical universe itself, can “step outside” of themselves for another perspective.

In either case, this was not of concern to the Buddha and his teachings of the Dhamma, as noted in the sutta.
Fortunately, what can be be known are the 4NTs and DO, and what can be realized is freedom from dukkha. :slightly_smiling_face:

But look, I know what you mean about how these kinds of questions can be attractive to the intellect. And we’re free to pursue them if we wish.
But spending time and energy on them won’t lead out of birth, illness, death and the whole mass of suffering. Said the Buddha.

All best :pray:


Your question about order is not exactly the same as the questions/issues the Buddha spoke about in this sutta, but it’s the same in principle

Yes I see your point but I think these questions are relevant also to the nature of the Buddha’s insight. For example I have seen people often claim that the Buddha made only empirical statements based on his experience; however no amount of empirical observations, strictly speaking, can prove causality (which is one of the things that the Buddha taught). Observation can provide empirical descriptions like “when A arises then B arises” but no amount of observations, by themselves, can generalize this to a law of the type “IF A arises then B arises”. That’s why I mentioned Kant who in the Critique of the pure reason tried to prove that causality is true a priory.
So anyway for example the principle of dependent origination assumes that the world is structured in such a way that it’s governed by causality and this philosophically speaking can never be proved only by observation.


This is one of the greatest topics in existence, in my opinion, if not the greatest: why is reality intelligible at all? Why does it follows specific patterns and organizes itself in specific structures? Why these structures (the ones we can perceive and measure and calculate, and even predict!) and not any other? Would any other structure be even possible to reality? In short, why is there Logos in the Cosmos?
We could talk at length about “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, maybe changing it to “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Dhamma in Human Life”, but why does the Dhamma work? At all?
My hypothesis is that everything in the known universe is organized on something ulterior, something that “lies behind” it or “allows it to become”.
For example, the famous ‘degrees of complexity’ mentioned by Sir Martin Rees (and many other great scientists throughout the ages): biology is based on chemistry - without chemistry, biology could not exist; chemistry is based on physics - without physics, chemistry could not exist;
But what is physics based on? Why does physics work as such, and not as something else? Why do we get the values we get? Why are things stable? Why do we have constants, for crying out loud? And why dimensionless numbers? Why the Fine Structure Constant? Why are things the way they are?
Of course, the Buddha himself has a very direct answer to my questions: the Cūḷamālukyasutta.
But the questions are interesting nevertheless. And of course, it is possible I only find them interesting because I have not yet reached full awakening, but that’s another discussion.
After this long digression, my working hypothesis is this: since everything in the known universe is based on a previous, ulterior structure, so is the human mind. The difference being that the physical universe - objective reality - is based on itself up to the level of physics - then it becomes virtual. The human mind, on the other hand, is a virtual existence - something that exists on a different ‘dimension’ of reality (much like these words you are now reading are actually an intelligible representation of electrical impulses happening in hardware).
And why does the Dhamma work so well? Because the mind, just like everything else in the cosmos, requires structure and organization. The Dhamma provides that - in spades.
But why is the Dhamma so effective when compared to everything else? I believe that it’s because the Dhamma ‘invites verification’, and doesn’t require blind faith. So, the mind, when constructing itself, doesn’t have to rely on virtualizations of virtualizations, but on its direct experience of reality.
Then there’s the question: can you trust your direct experience of reality?
My answer is: it depends. It depends on what for. Can you trust your direct experience of reality if you want to understand quantum mechanics or relativity? Not really, no.
Can I trust my direct experience of reality to know whether I am happy or miserable?
Well, what else would I trust? Nobody can be happy for me. Nobody can be miserable for me, either.
So, the Dhamma works so well because it is a ‘crutch’ the mind can use the structure itself solidly for a good while - and then you reach full awakening, and you finally see how even the Dhamma itself is crude when compared to the real deal. You finally see it as a means to an end - and a rough one, too.
Or maybe not. Who knows?


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Thanks for the many interesting reflections :pray: on this point I would say however that one could also argue that the Buddha mentioned that what is happiness for the noble ones is considered suffering by ordinary people and vice versa. For example I have heard monks describe sex as suffering implying that those who consider it a pleasure are deceiving themselves.
Anyway having said that I think that only human beings weather enlightened or not can recognize pure pleasures so yeah I would agree with what you say.


I agree that, strictly speaking, causality cannot be proven. The nuance in the Buddha’s teachings like DO are more about, imo, dependency.
If there’s no water, then there can’t be ice, for example. Does water cause ice. Not exactly, but ice is dependent on water’s presence. Same as in DO. If there’s no birth can there be death?

Also, the Buddha didn’t teach about the “outside” world in the same way that scientists and some philosophers look at it.
The fundamental purpose of his teachings, he said, was dukkha and its utter cessation → nibbāna.
The world and the All the Buddha taught about with respect to Dhamma practice is close to the phenomonlogists like Husserl. That is, the “world” and the “All” are what can be directly known and worked with as the “data” of the aggregates and the senses.

As in SN35.23:
"And what is the all? It’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts. This is called the all.

Mendicants, suppose someone was to say: ‘I’ll reject this all and describe another all.’ They’d have no grounds for that, they’d be stumped by questions, and, in addition, they’d get frustrated. Why is that? Because they’re out of their element.”

SN12.44, SN35.82, and Ud3.10 also illustrate this frame of reference with respect to the Teachings.


I assume that, with monastic training, the “pleasure of concentration” and the “pleasure of release” far outweigh the pleasure of sex and all other sensual pleasures as well. I think it must be akin to fine cuisine: when we’re used to regular food, fine dining seems unappetizing, to say the least. Then, as our taste improves (or deteriorates, depending on how you look at it), you learn to appreciate subtler tastes and experiences, and find that the “crude” taste of regular food is too much. Maybe in a type of sensory overload? This topic is really intriguing to me.


Causality exists, conventionally. It’s the same as the self.

Well, like everything in discussions like these it depends on the definition one is using.

My point is not that there isn’t causality in the general sense of the way its used in the Dhamma. But, at the same time, it’s not empirically possible to specify that “this thing” specifically caused “that.”
There are too many variables and other contributing factors to the arising and cessation of any phenomenon.
But this “thing” can be dependent on “that”, so when “that” is present, “this” (can) appear.

In line with what you wrote, the “self” has no exact, specifiable, causes. But the arising of this illusion can be said t be dependent on a large number of factors, some of which are necessary to its arising as a perception – such as the six senses, for example.

To me it’s mainly a question of sexual ‘pleasures’ not feeling pure and of craving being necessarily present (whereas say in meditation it’s more and more absent and it’s a kind of playful, pure and joyful pleasure).
Also, I think that one interprets sex as pleasurable because it ends a previous painful experience (say one of lack, incompleteness etc).
Having said that I must admit that I am basing all these reflections on pretty distant memories dating from many years ago :wink: :joy:


That “this” depends on “that” is just as conventional as causality, no?

Not exactly an answer to the question, but I really enjoyed Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Shape of Suffering which describes Dependent Origination as a chaotic, nonlinear system:

More directly towards the original question, perhaps we could take some inspiration from agent theory and the weak anthropic principle: namely, for there to be a universe at all there must be consciousness to observe it, and any consciousness must define itself contra its environment: an agent that senses and models its environment (while considering itself apart from it)…

And there you already have all the basics of D.O., namely, Ignorance, Agency, Consciousness, Name-and-Form, the Senses… All from “first principles” (or something like it, anyway)…


This may be true when we are third person observers, as in the case of a scientist, but not necessarily when we dealing with first person insight. The most important causal relationship expressed in the suttas is that between craving and rebirth. Craving, obviously, is a first person experience. We know that it has the power to motivate us in all sorts of ways. It is also possible to see the ending of craving, temporarily or permanently. This happens when you have the full insight into suffering, seeing that all experience - all five khandhas - is suffering. Because you cannot crave for suffering, you give up all craving, including the craving for existence. Once you have stepped out of the water so to speak - to use the old simile - you gain an entirely new perspective on craving. You see its inherent power to keep existence going. You become a stream-enterer, at least. Again, this is a first person experience and so is different in nature from the usual third person empirical observation.


For people who are unfamiliar with the use of the word Chaos as a technical scientific term, it’s worth pointing out that chaotic systems are not random, just complicated. The use of the word “chaos” in the OP seems to be the common use.

From Google:


Agree, from the standpoint of philosophy and empirical scientific inquiry.
Not from the standpoint of how “things” and experiences like greed, anger, and ignorance manifest and can cease in terms of Dhamma practice.

SN35.23 and DO are not anchored to post-modern or even classical perspectives of an “outside” reality.
They are accurate and useful teachings by which a being may cultivate insights leading to liberation.

Why is one more real than the other?

I think dhamma niyama describes a regularity rather than order. Arguments from design would equate regularity with order, purpose and beauty. The dhamma on the other hand teaches the regularity.

What is the regularity? whenever there is order, there must be chaos. Not particularly pleasant.

On the other hand, seeing persistence in a regularity turns it into a symmetry, which becomes an measure of beauty, and beauty becomes fuel for purposive activity, something to be sought.

This is why, seeing persistence in a regularity leads to proliferation of views. Ariyas who are free from proliferation upon the opening of the dhamma eye exclaim in the suttas: whatever is subject to arising is subject to ceasing - hence free from proliferation.