"Reality doesn't resemble a simple line or circle. It's more like the bizarre trajectories of a Mandelbrot set" (Left) "Blue Mandelbrot Set" (Right) "Mandelbrot Set" © Homer Smith/Art Matrix
“Reality doesn’t resemble a simple line or circle. It’s more like the bizarre trajectories of a Mandelbrot set” (Left) “Blue Mandelbrot Set” (Right) “Mandelbrot Set” © Homer Smith/Art Matrix

The goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana, is said to be totally uncaused, and right there is a paradox. If the goal is uncaused, how can a path of practice—which is causal by nature—bring it about? This is an ancient question. The Milinda-pañha, a set of dialogues composed near the start of the common era, reports an exchange in which King Milinda challenges a monk, Nagasena, with precisely this question. Nagasena replies with an analogy. The path of practice doesn’t cause nibbana, he says. It simply takes you there, just as a road to a mountain doesn’t cause the mountain to come into being, but simply leads you to where it is.

Nagasena’s reply, though apt, didn’t really settle the issue within the Buddhist tradition. Over the years, many schools of meditation have taught that mental fabrications simply get in the way of a goal that’s uncaused and unfabricated. Only by doing nothing at all and thus not fabricating anything in the mind, they say, will the unfabricated shine forth.

This view is based on a very simplistic understanding of fabricated reality, seeing causality as linear and totally predictable: X causes Y, which causes Z, and so on, with no effects turning around to condition their causes, and no possible way of using causality to escape from the causal network. However, one of the many things the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening was that causality is not linear. The experience of the present is shaped both by actions in the present and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape both the present and the future. The results of past and present actions continually interact. Thus there is always room for new input into the system, which gives scope for free will. There is also room for the many feedback loops that make experience so thoroughly complex, and that are so intriguingly described in chaos theory. Reality doesn’t resemble a simple line or circle. It’s more like the bizarre trajectories of a Mandelbrot set.

Because there are many similarities between chaos theory and Buddhist explanations of causality, it seems legitimate to explore those similarities to see what light chaos theory can throw on the issue of how a causal path of practice can lead to an uncaused goal. This is not to equate Buddhism with chaos theory, or to engage in pseudo-science. It’s simply a search for similes to clear up an apparent conflict in the Buddha’s teaching.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.