Thus have I heard:
The end of the world can never
Be reached by walking. However,
Without having reached the world’s end
There is no release from suffering.

I declare that it is in this fathom—
long carcass, with its perceptions
and thoughts, that there is the world, the
origin of the world, the cessation of the
world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.

(Anguttara Nikaya 4:45)

This radical statement, attributed to the Buddha in the Pali canon, constitutes no less than a Copernican revolution in thought, with far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the human condition. It redefines “the world” in a way that flies in the face of both the scientific and the religious traditions of the West, but is remarkably well suited to the postmodern views emerging along the cutting edges of the new cognitive and neurological sciences.

We are used to hearing from scientists that “the world” is made of material substances that have coalesced into clumps following their creation and dispersal by the Big Bang. These have gradually become more heavy and diverse, and, on this planet at least, have evolved into living organisms of increasing complexity. Neural systems then develop among some of these organisms, generating patterns of electrical and chemical activity that manifest in the phenomenon we call consciousness. This unique physical process generates a node of subjective experience, allowing each conscious creature to be “aware” of the material environment it inhabits.

The religious view, on the other hand, shared by most of the Western traditions, comes at the matter from the other direction. Consciousness is an essential attribute of spirit or soul, the immaculate creation of an omnipotent maker, and is given to each individual as a precious gift. The material world, of lesser ontological importance, is provided as an environment for the soul to inhabit and in which it is tested.

The Buddha of the early Pali texts found difficulties in both of these positions. His critique was that both constitute edifices of conceptual construction, neither of which is verifiable in immediate experience. The scientific model posits a four-dimensional world, extended in time and space, and looks at most issues from this “objective” perspective. The spiritual view takes for granted the soul as an essential entity, outside the matrix of cause and effect, and the sole authority for this tends to be ancient traditions whose authors are unknown. In each case, says the Buddha, one builds up a “view,” either of the world or of the soul, that is ultimately based upon a series of assumptions, beliefs, or speculations, rather than on direct personal experience.

The perspective articulated by the Buddha was something very different from either materialism or spiritualism, and might be called something like “phenomenology.” The “world” is a virtual construction of the human mind and body, woven of moments of consciousness arising and falling away in an ongoing stream. It is a world of appearances (phenomena—hence the label “phenomenology”), constructed and imbued with meaning locally by each individual according to patterns learned from and passed on to others.

The Buddha seems to accept both the material and the spiritual elements of the other positions, but refuses to put either in a place of primacy. Matter is a condition for the manifestation of consciousness, and consciousness is a condition for any experience of matter. Posing the issue as a choice between whether the world “really exists” out there or is “merely created by the mind” is just too clumsy.  It is the interaction of the two that yields the world as we know it, a world consisting of moments of knowing. Here is how it works:

Our senses depend upon material phenomena for their form and for their sustenance, as do the objects that impinge on these senses. But a moment of experience of these objects by means of the senses can only occur when consciousness enters the relationship. Consciousness manifests as the knowing of an object by a sense, a process we refer to as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. It can also generate mental objects from its own memories, perceptions, and symbol-creation capabilities, in which case we can also say we are “thinking” (in the broadest sense of the term). What is unique about the Buddha’s model is that consciousness is not something apart from or independent of a specific moment of knowing—it is conditioned like everything else.

At the level of direct experience, manifesting in the immediate moment (which is the only perspective the ascetics, yogins, and meditators of ancient India were concerned with), the mind and body are working together to produce a virtual world. Much of the project of Buddhism has to do with understanding the dynamics and the qualities of this constructed world. It turns out that the enterprise can unfold in skillful or unskillful ways, yielding a world beset by suffering or free from suffering. Stories about the properties of material phenomena, or about the history and purpose of consciousness, are largely irrelevant to the task of understanding the nature of the world—as it appears—and of using that knowledge to skillfully transform our experience.

So let’s look again at the Buddha’s teaching in the quoted passage. By saying the end of the world cannot be reached by walking, he is referring to the concept of the material world extended in space. (This is the world the deva Rohitassa tried to traverse in his lifetime of running.) But one can never understand the nature of suffering, its arising and ceasing, without fully exploring and “reaching the end” of the virtual world constructed by consciousness and the senses, by perceptions and by feeling. This is an enterprise only accomplished by meditation, by the thorough investigation of phenomena, and by treading the Buddhist path—the inner, virtual path—to awakening.