Monthly Archives: September 2012

Structural Analysis of the Tibetan MO Divination System

Manjushri  (lit. “Gentle Glory”) is a visualization representing the transcendent wisdom (prajna) aspect of enlightened mind/reality. He is thus both a psychological and an ontological symbol. Such visualizations are universal archetypal expressions of experiential spirituality and skilful means by which the mind may use the right-brain faculty of visualization, with its superlative data-processing capability, to enter into a higher state of consciousness characterized by intimate communion with the reality that they represent. They are often also associated with prayers, mantras, or vocalizations that serve the same function. Manjushri is the original Mahayana bodhisattva (lit. “enlightenment being”). He is associated with the East and has a Pure Land associated with him called Vimala, which is simply an imaginal world projected by him and those who commit themselves to his conceptualization.  Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, received his teachings from Manjushri. His female consort, with whom he is shown in intimate embrace, is Saraswati.

Manjushri is visualized as a male figure wielding a flaming sword in his right hand. In his left hand, he holds the Prajnaparamita Sutra. He may be depicted sitting on a blue lion or seated on a lion skin. The iconographies of the Catholic saints and Vodun loa are similar in principle. His Sanskrit mantra is oṃ arapacana dhīḥ, which may be separated into Om plus the six syllables, Ah Ra Pa Cha Na Dhi. In his wrathful form, he is Yamantaka, the Destroyer of Death. Mipham the Great, who authored the standard textbook on Tibetan MO divination, is considered a human emanation of Manjushri. In Japan, Manjushri is credited with the invention of male homosexual love. In Indonesia, Manjushri was portrayed as a youthful handsome man with the palm of his hands tattooed with the image of flower. His right hand lies down in open palm with his left hand holding an Utpala blue lotus. The Utpala is used as a medicinal plant in Ayurvedic medicine and has psychedelic properties. Manjushri also uses the necklace made of tiger canine teeth.

Astrologically, Manjushri is clearly a solar symbol associated with the astrological sign of Leo, the Lion. The universality of archetypal symbolism is clearly shown by the number of syllables that constitute his mantra, 6 in the Cabalistic Tree of Life being the number of the Sun. Tibetan Buddhist symbolism exhibits many similarities with the Western Esoteric Tradition. For example, the six sacred syllables of the mantra of Manjushri are equated with various types of activities, elements, parts of the body, objects of the senses, spheres of the world,  genders, directions, colours, shapes, etc., similar to the Cabalistic system of correspondences. These are shown below.

The constituent syllables of the mantra of Manushri are also associated with the numbers 1 to 6,  beginning with Ah, in the order 6, 2, 3, 5, 4, 1. If we resequence them in numerical order, they match perfectly with the first six spheres (sephiroth) of the Cabalistic Tree of Life, which are all joined by linear pathways with the first sephira, whereas the lowest four sephiroth (7-10), representing the four elements, have no such direct connection. This shows how accurately the Tibetan and the Cabalistic systems map onto each other. They also appear to map the chakra system too.

The sequence in which they appear in the mantra appears to represent a descending hierarchy from Spirit, through Fire, Water, Air, and Earth (from least to most material), to Semen, the quintessence or essential animal principle and the corollary of Spirit.

The  MO is based on the casting of dice. Thus, it is a system of divination or prognostication based on sampling chance, like the I Ching. C.G. Jung has discussed the concept of obtaining meaning from chance in his essay entitled “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” which he co-authored with his friend, quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli. Jung’s conception of synchronicity arose out of conversations he had with Albert Einstein prior to World War I. The fundamental conception underlying Jung’s concept of synchronicity is that events may be meaningfully correlated by relationships outside physical cause and effect, which Jung called “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” Jung’s concept of synchronicity is often misunderstood as coincidence, but this is actually a misunderstanding of the concept, since “meaningful correlation” implies that the correlation is ontologically given and not arbitrarily misinterpreted by the meaning-seeking mind. Synchronicity is not a “psychological error.” Such correlations may or may not be statistically demonstrable. They may be singular events that, as such, cannot be analyzed but are nonetheless valid. In other words, meaningfully related events tend to co-occur even if they are not mutually causally connected. Jung believed that the phenomenon of synchronicity demonstrated the significance of higher dynamics of meaning and order operating throughout the universe. The occurrence of synchronicities is often associated with altered, artistic-creative, and visionary states of consciousness, and are commonly reported by writers, artists, and mystics. In Buddhist thought, synchronicity attests to the truth of the doctrine of pratityasamutpada (Pali paticcasamuppada), the phenomenon of interdependent co-arising by which all phenomena appearing in the universe are mutually inter-involved to an infinite extent. This was proved by Bell’s Theorem in 1964. In such a worldview, consulting a chance event like throwing a die may actually reveal a deeper underlying meaning that is obscured by the causal relationships of physical events.

mo dieThe MO  may be consulted in different ways, all based on the idea of selecting two syllables of the mantra of Manjushri as discussed above, in order. One common method is tossing a single die that is inscribed either with the syllables themselves or numbers corresponding to them.

The die is tossed twice, one after the other, generating one of 36 possible combinations. This procedure is preceded by visualizing the image of Manjushri, invoking his assistance, reciting the mantra of Manjushri, and reciting the mantra of Interdependent Origination (pratityasamutpada). This is the statement that Shariputra heard from the monk Ashvajit when asking for a summary of the teachings of the Buddha. Shariputra passed the message onto his close friend Maudgalyayana and together they became followers of the Buddha, and went on to become his foremost disciples. When it is used as a mantra, oṃ is added at the beginning for auspiciousness and svāhā at the end for the sake of stability. One then formulates the question, breathes onto the die, and throws it twice.

The Dalai Lama uses the MO when faced with a difficult decision, including the selection of tulkus. One way that the MO may be used is to cast a MO for each possible course of action. If there is any ambiguity, additional MOs may be cast until the matter is clarified. The MO has a reputation in Tibet as being a very clear and decisive method for resolving confusion and making decisions. In my experience this is far clearer than the Chinese system of the I Ching, which suffers from obscurity and is so abstract that it can be interpreted in many different ways. Although the MO only generates 36 possible scenarios compared with the I Ching’s 64, many MO have double meanings in different circumstances, one positive, one negative, so in fact there are potentially 72 possible interpretations of the MO. The Shaivites have 36 tattvas, whereas the archetypal associations of 72 are too numerous to mention. It is one-fifth of the circle, and the number of stupas at Burubador, the world’s largest Buddhist temple.  In the MO, sequence matters so that a throw of 1, 2 is not the same as a throw of 2, 1, again exactly as in the I Ching.

In important questions two MO divinations should be performed in sequence, thus tossing the die four times. This generates a second MO, similar in principle to the “reversed” hexagram in I Ching divination. The second MO will be in one of three possible states:

  1. It may replicate the original MO. This means that the answer is strong.
  2. It may reverse the sequence of the original MO. This means that the answer is weak and is likely to be reversed or superseded in some way.
  3. If the second toss produces a different combination of syllables, then the answer is sound.

This is part of the procedure that the Dalai Lama uses when choosing a tulku. Another approach is to identify a series of alternatives and cast a MO for each one. One can also perform a MO for the present and one for the future. When casting a MO for two people, one can interpret the first syllable as representing oneself and the second as representing the other person, or you can cast two MO, one for yourself and one for the other person.  All of this must be very clear in the mind before casting the MO in order for there to be no confusion. For this purpose, a written form is useful. In addition, each syllable is believed to be intrinsically binary, having an inner and an outer meaning. If the two syllables are identical, the inner and the outer meaning is the same.

There are also idiosyncratic rules concerning the significance of the syllables in themselves and in different positions (i.e., first or second). Below are some of the qualities of the syllables:

  1. DHI. Excellence. Wisdom. Mind. Thought. Semen. In the first place, in combination with another DHI,  it indicates “increasing.”  With AH, it indicates equanimity. With RA, unimpeded continuity. With TSA, favour and likelihood of quick accomplishment.  With PA, marriage and engagements are indicated.
  2. RA. Power. Fire. Eye. Form. Heart. Desires of the mind. Voice and speech.
  3. PA. Peace. Water. Tongue. Joy of property.
  4. NA. Increasing. Earth and Air. Neighbourhood or country.
  5. TSA. Violence. Air and Earth. Body. Messages. Airs of the body. Breath.
  6. AH. All-Pervading. Space. Spirit. AH in the first place means that the answer is mediocre.  In the second place it means that there are no obstacles.

AH, DHI, RA, and TSA all share insight wisdom, violence, and the waning moon and are therefore negative or yin. NA and PA have concentration, gentleness, and the waxing moon in common and are therefore positive or yang.

Each possible combination of the MO is associated with a name and a visual image. The names allude to a many phenomena, including astronomical phenomena (sky, sun, moon, star); nature (ground, tree, pool, ocean, lotus, mountain, conch, fish); objects (knot, wheel, lamp, vase, weapon, vessel, streamer, banner); supernatural beings (no less than four combinations are associated with demons); and other things (tone, king of power, vision, medicine, house, mansion, treasury). Only one combination refers to an action (adding butter to the burning flames). Several are abstractions or qualities (visions, good fortune, ignorance). Several refer to ritual objects or practices (ground, vajra, knot, wheel, lamp, vase, streamer, banner, medicine). These provide a general indication of the tenor of the divination, but must also be interpreted in the context of the general area of life to which the divination pertains, which should be decided on when the question is asked. This is similar to geomantic astrology, in which the question is attributed to one of the houses of the horoscope. In addition to the foregoing, the final section of the MO provides guidelines for acts that, through the twin agencies of the law of karma and the power of truth, can neutralize a negative conclusion or enhance a positive one. These include various ritual acts including offerings, building and artistic projects, the use of symbols and symbolic objects, reading and reciting mantras and sutras, and various yoga practices, including dedication to a deity or a guru.

In the MO, the areas of life are:

  1. Family, property, and life;
  2. Intentions and aims;
  3. Friends and wealth;
  4. Enemies;
  5. Guests;
  6. Illness;
  7. Evil spirits;
  8. Spiritual practice;
  9. Lost articles;
  10. Will they come, and will the task be accomplished;
  11. All remaining matters.

Sometimes one question may pertain to different areas of life.

In summary, then, the following is the synthetic procedure of the MO:

  1. Resolve on the question. Make it simple, direct, and unambiguous. Write it down. Include alternative courses of action, persons, or times if appropriate.
  2. Decide which area(s) of life the question pertains to.
  3. Visualize Manjushri. If you have difficulty visualizing, gaze at a picture of Manjushri. It is good to perform this practice before an image of Manjushri in any case.
  4. Recite the incantation (see below).
  5. Recite the mantra of Manjushri at least three times.
  6. Recite the pratityasamutpada mantra at least once.
  7. Repeat the question.
  8. Blow on the die.
  9. Cast the die and record the result.
  10. Repeat 9. If the divination is concerning an important matter, toss the die two more times.
  11. Examine the first and second syllables of the first throw individually and note any relevant indications or correspondences.
  12. Examine the combination in general, including the image, interpretation, sign, and prediction.
  13. Examine the answer in the context of the area of life.
  14. If a second throw was done, examine the relationship of the syllables of the second throw to those of the first throw with reference to the three possible outcomes.
  15. Formulate a conclusion. If the conclusion is unclear, reformulate the question more explicitly, perhaps with multiple alternatives, and repeat until a clear conclusion emerges. Ask follow-up questions if appropriate. Record the entire proceeding in writing.

MO divination might be described as a kind of Tibetan Tarot. The images of the combinations (the Flaming Rays of the Sun, the Bright Star, the Demon of Death, the King of Power, the Pool Without a Source of Water, the House of Good Tidings, the Golden Wheel) are very Tarot-like. Like the Tarot, the MO is also  spiritual. It is not merely a calculus of material interests, but brings the  sense of the numinous into the process of formulating the will and situates it in the context of interdependent origination: everything is interconnected. There are no coincidences.

The Incantation of Manjushri

OM! O you glorious Manjushri, you who possess the Eye of Transcendent Wisdom, you who see past, present and future without limit, please hear me! By the Power of the Truth of the real, interdependently arising Three Jewels and Three Roots, please clarify what should be accepted and what discarded.

The Mantra of Manjushri

oṃ a ra pa ca na dhīḥ

Pratityasamutpada Hridaya Dharani


ye dhaṃmā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha
tesaṃca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahā samaṇo[1]


Further Reading:

“The Art of Mo”

Dorjee Tseten, “Tibetan Art of Divination” 

Evan Osnos, “The Next Incarnation,” The New Yorker

Interview with Yogi Walpo Kalsang in Ireland

Jamgon Mipham, MO: Tibetan Divination System 

“Mo Divination,” Wikipedia

“Tips on Mo Divination,” Buddha and Me

Review of MO: Tibetan Divination System

As the Western world is exposed to increasing numbers of English translations of Tibetan books – endangered in their own country due to the consequences of the Chinese invasion of Tibet – the deep spiritual connection between Tibetan culture and the shadow side of Western civilization becomes increasingly apparent. I say the “shadow” of Western civilization because this aspect of Western history has been largely suppressed by the Christian church and then by the capitalist establishment as we make the transition to what is to all appearances the brave new world of technocracy. However, beneath the surface Western civilization presents another aspect, dark, mystical, introverted, and profound. I refer to a whole succession of intellectual developments that originated with the Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, and Hermeticists and developed into Cabala, Alchemy, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism and on through the Renaissance into our own time in the form of the magical and occult revival and finally the psychedelic revolution and the transpersonal movement, based on the belief in intuition, imagination, symbolism, and personal spiritual experience. Thus, one finds when one read this great Tibetan classic as though one has been transported to an hermetic court of the European Renaissance. MO is no counting of entrails or the flight of birds, however, but rather an expression of a profound underlying philosophical worldview based on profound philosophical doctrines like the universal interconnectedness of things – something that has only come into its own in Western philosophy in the past hundred years. The MO “samples chance” with very much the same assumptions as the I Ching, that one is thereby accessing the underlying mathematical and probabilistic character of existence. This view of existence became scientific with the advent of quantum physics. The concept of the binary pervades the MO: two dice, two throws, two types of throw (waning moon, waxing moon, yin, yang), two aspects (inner and outer), two significations (positive and negative), four elements (2+2), and six itself as the reification of two in three dimensions (the six sides of the cube). The Dalai Lama has used the MO for six decades, and, like C.G. Jung vis a vis the I Ching or Arthur M. Young vis a vis astrology, became convinced of its efficacy. The MO is an expression of a profound spiritual philosophy that surprisingly perhaps gives us immediate access to a lost aspect of our own civilization, which is also the universal primordial inheritance of humanity that is now beginning to reemerge, faced with the twin challenges of communism and militant secularism that are threatening to annihilate the human spirit as predicted by Aldous Huxley.


Table of Mo Results Showing Major and Minor Auguries Divided into Positive, Negative, Mixed, and Neutral Biases

Mo Number Name Major Minor
1 Stainless Sky Positive Neutral
2 Flowing Rays of the Sun Positive Mixed
3 Nectar Rays of the Moon Positive Mixed
4 Bright Star Positive Mixed
5 Ground of Gold Positive Mixed
6 Tone of Vajra Positive Positive
7 Bright Lamp Positive Positive
8 Adding Butter to the Burning Flames Positive Mixed
9 Demon of Death Negative Mixed
10 King of Power Positive Mixed
11 Dried Up Tree Negative Negative
12 Door of Auspicious Visions Positive Positive
13 Vase of Nectar Positive Mixed
14 Pool Without a Source of Water Negative Negative
15 Ocean of Nectar Positive Mixed
16 Demon of Afflictions Negative Negative
17 Golden Lotus Positive Mixed
18 Nectar-Like Medicine Positive Positive
19 White Umbrella of Good Fortune Positive Positive
20 Great Fiery Weapon Positive Mixed
21 Empty of Intelligence Negative Negative
22 Streamer of Fame Positive Mixed
23 Mara Demon of the Aggregates Negative Mixed
24 House of Good Tidings Positive Positive
25 Golden Mountain Positive Mixed
26 Demon of the Heavenly Son Negative Mixed
27 Overflowing Jewelled Vessel Positive Positive
28 Scattered Mountain of Sand Negative Mixed
29 Mansion of Gold Positive Mixed
30 Treasury of Jewels Positive Positive
31 Manjushri Appears Positive Positive
32 Endless Auspicious Knot Positive Positive
33 Golden Female Fish Positive Positive
34 White Conch Positive Positive
35 Golden Wheel Positive Positive
36 Jewelled Banner of Victory Positive Positive

Table Showing Relative Proportions of Four Biases – Unweighted

Type Major Minor Total
Positive 28 14 42
Negative 8 4 12
Mixed 0 17 17
Neutral 0 1 1


Table Showing Relative Proportions of Two Biases – Weighted

Type Major Minor Total
Positive 28 7 35
Negative 8 2 10

“Minor” refers to the “All remaining matters” category, whereas Major refers to the remaining ten categories. Meanings can often be reversed if the question is contrary to the main signification in some sense. In this way 72 potential meanings emerge – more than the I Ching!


1. This popular Buddhist mantra explains the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (“patticcyasamuppada“). The Sanskrit version is called “Pratityasamutpada Hridaya Dharani” [The Heart Dharani of Dependant Origination]. Om is added to the beginning of the verse, and Svaha added at the end, turning the passage into a mantra based on the power of truth (satyagraha).

Of things that proceed from a cause

their cause the Tathagatha has told 

and also their cessation 

Thus teaches the great ascetic

Four Questions for the Buddha

Why Ontology Is Important

Many religious Buddhists, especially Theravadins, disdain ontology. Based on certain statements of the Buddha reported in the Pali Canon, they regard  Buddhism as a system of psychology only. Thus, they assert that the Buddha’s empirical observations concerning suffering, desire, and attachment are a sufficient basis for a soteriology of absolute renunciation. Even they, however, position their soteriology ontologically as the renunciation of all subsequent rebirths and the end of samsara itself. Thus, the religious Buddhist is involved in a paradox if not an explicit self-contradiction. However, such an approach leaves Buddhist soteriology open to criticism. For example, in the absence of ontology all one can assert is that emotional detachment eliminates the experience of suffering in this life. Such a Buddhism becomes little more than a system of psychotherapy.

The hedonist might retort that since the ego does not survive death, why should anyone care about subsequent rebirths? In this context, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is just as rational an ethic as Buddhist renunciation. One might even argue that moderate pleasure-seeking in combination with a moderate work ethic that benefits future generations is more truly altruistic than absolute detachment. One might even deride the Buddhist view as a kind of selfishness, even parasitism (this would probably correspond to the mainstream Western view of religious Buddhism). The religious Buddhist who disdains ontology has no real reply to this other than sullen belief. Thus, they put Buddhism in the same position as any other religion.

I would argue that this type of religious ethical Buddhism is actually adharmic. It undermines its own position in a variety of ways. I would also argue that religious Buddhism of this type falls into nihilism. It also incurs the charges of being incomplete as well as being a system of faith rather than knowledge. These objections become even more persuasive as technology moves us closer and closer to a society where many forms of suffering, both emotional and physical, are increasingly marginalized because of technological and pharmacological advances. For all these reasons, I reject the religious perspective that ontology is not an essential component of the Buddhadharma as anachronistic.

If  the dharma is to be regarded as a system of truth and not merely as an historical phase of human development or an academic divertissement, questions of ontology must be seriously asked and seriously answered. I can do little more in this blog than articulate the issues and perhaps indicate possible future avenues of inquiry that might lead to a solution, if not for me than for others who may have the knowledge and the bravado to break free of the consensus of the past as we are dragged, nolens volens, into the future.

Once one accepts the premise that Buddhist ontology is important, one is then required to articulate it. This is not hard to do, pace the religionists and their academic sycophants. The Buddhist scriptures, including the Pali Canon, provide ample evidence that the early Buddhists thought ontologically. Nevertheless, the more one studies Buddhist ontology the more difficult its study becomes. In particular, four fundamental questions arise. The early Buddhists themselves recognized this. The Mahayana scriptures also address these questions, not always satisfactorily. These questions are:

  1. If ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering, what is the ultimate cause of ignorance?
  2. If samsara is a mirage, what is the reality to which it attests?
  3. If all phenomena are caused by karma, how can samsara be transcended?
  4. If samsara is beginningless, how can it have an end?

We will address these questions in the following.

Four Questions for the Buddha

1. If ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering, what is the ultimate cause of ignorance?

According to the Second Noble Truth, the cause of universal suffering (duhkha) is desire (tanha). By tanha something closer to emotional attachment is meant. This item reappears in the doctrine of codetermination (paticcasmupdda). Here craving (tanha) and clinging appear as the eighth link in the chain of causation (nidana) in direct chronological or causal sequence and the third nidana in reverse order.

The chain of causation proceeds to analyze the sequence of causal factors. Based on the law of karma, these underlie the later stages of becoming, birth, aging, and dying, viz., feeling, contact, the gates of the senses, mind and matter (namarupa), consciousness, the mental formations (samskaras), and, finally, ignorance (avidya). The Digha Nikaya also identifies the “tendency to proliferation” as a factor prior to ignorance. This is not a truly metaphysical factor, however since it can also be eliminated by yoga.

So far, all of this is perfectly sound and self-consistent. All of the factors identified accord with the law of karma. Since the essence of samsara is change (anicca), as samsaric productions, they are essentially temporal and therefore potentially able to be eliminated. However, since samsara is non-self-identical and inherently temporal, this begs the question of their ground, i.e., the self-identical and the permanent. Samsara is merely one polarity that necessarily posits its corollary, nibbana, which together constitute transdual reality. The ontological status of nibbana is clearly stated even in the Pali Canon.

I actually received a note from a Buddhist professor of some notoriety who claimed that because samsara is illusory it does not exist. Therefore, this question is meaningless. It did not occur to him that his line of argument destroys the entire Buddhist project as well. If samsara is non-existent, then ignorance, desire, and suffering are equally illusory. I will be discussing this further in the context of the mirage of samsara, below. For now I’d simply like to refer to the fact that, no matter how many factors one analyzes the continuum of cause and effect into, the real itself is by definition the ultimate factor in any process or continuum. You cannot get rid of samsara by calling it illusory. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Mahāvaipulya pūrabuddha-sūtra prasannārtha-sūtra), for example, recognizes this with perfect clarity. It asserts that the real is both ignorant and enlightened, and neither, i.e., it is transdual. In other words, ignorance itself is necessary in some sense. This is paradoxical.

This problem of Buddhist ontology is exactly paralleled in Christianity. Christianity has a similar problem of explaining the origin of Satan (evil) in God (good), where the latter is posited to be primary and all-powerful. Both Christianity and Buddhism locate this issue in human volition. Thus, they beg the question of why a perfect being would choose to suffer. This problem afflicts any soteriology that upholds renunciation as its essential principle.

No matter how you slice and dice it, in the final analysis ignorance, desire, and suffering are all given by the real. This is a real problem for Buddhism. The closest solution I know of is the transdual view of reality. Teleology does not seem to apply here. Reality, lacking nothing, cannot really have a teleology. Or can it? Clearly, reality is essentially kinetic or dynamic in some sense; otherwise, we would not exist in any sense. This too is paradoxical. Nevertheless, I suspect that the solution lies along these lines. Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently well read in Mahayana scriptures to identify its basis in tradition. To my knowledge, Dzogchen comes closest to solving this issue, however.

2. If samsara is a mirage, what is the reality to which it attests?

Indian metaphysics put great philosophical stock – in my judgement, too much – in the temporal, transitory, ephemeral, and essentially illusory nature of phenomenal appearances. The Buddha took this tendency to its logical conclusion in his brilliant doctrine of non-self-identity (anicca). Taken to its extreme, the particular dissolves “back” into the non-local, which precisely describes the relationship between samsara and nibbana. This view of the world has been confirmed by quantum physics (confer David Bohm’s doctrine of the explicate and implicate orders).

However, one cannot use this doctrine either to negate the real, as our esteemed professor above would have us do, or to negate samsara itself. Even a mirage posits an original of which it is an eidolon. The Pali Canon itself makes this clear. The Buddha refers constantly to “the deathless” to which the attainment of nibbana attests. The Buddha also specifically repudiates nihilism. Thus, the attainment of nibbana does not imply nonexistence. Rather, it implies some sort of supreme existence. It is a state that transcends conceptualization. In this context, the problem of suffering becomes even more acute.

3. If all phenomena are caused by karma, how can samsara be transcended?

In addition to its changeable, non-self-identical, and suffering nature, two primary characteristics of samsara are that it has no beginning – a beginning would introduce the paradoxical and self-contradictory problem of creation, i.e., theism – and that it is driven by the law of cause and effect (karma). Buddhism makes no distinction between mind and matter. In fact, the samskaras are more fundamental than either of these, so nothing – no thought, no word, and no action – is unaffected by karma. Everything is infinitely interconnected. This is the essence of the doctrine of codetermination. Yet, the soteriological telos is the transcendence of samsara.

According to the mechanistic, rule-bound perspective of religious Buddhism, samsara itself overcomes itself through the experience of dissatisfaction: i.e., as sentient beings become aware of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of existence within samsara, this awareness itself generates the intention to transcend it. This intention becomes more and more dominant over millions and billions of rebirths. Thus, the will to renunication becomes increasingly influential until it becomes completely established. Then the whole will of the samsaric being is directed towards the progressive eradication of the obscurations through a progressive (and essentially negative) process of self-purification.

The idea of “impurities” itself raises several problems, however. First, what is the relationship between these reputed impurities and reality? This is really the same question as the question concerning suffering, discussed above. Second, is it really possible to rid oneself of all of the impurities?  Buddhism identifies the most significant impurities as killing, stealing, sex, lying, and drinking. These constitute the bases of ethical conduct. We have shown elsewhere in our writings that the objective elimination of these five behaviours, qua behaviours, let alone the hundreds of additional impurities that a monk or a nun is expected to expunge, is, objectively considered, impossible, even for a Buddha. The possibility of eliminating them in intention is left open. This is also problematic, however, since, as we have shown, karma does not discriminate between mental and material factors.

In fact, the Buddhist scriptures make clear that what is in fact eliminated is not the actions (this is Judaism, Islam, Jainism), but rather the intention, and that it is actually intention (i.e., mind) that drives karma. The latter is consistent with the Buddhist metaphysical worldview. However, it does not solve the problem of samsara. As I have mentioned, samsara is beginningless. Since samsara is beginningless, therefore, all samsaric beings have already passed through an infinite number of rebirths. This being so, all such beings should have already experienced the radical ontological dissatisfaction that is posited to underlie emancipation. Samsara, therefore, should not exist. Per contra, if we posit that individual beings have a discrete point of origin in samsara, i.e., are finite, then the problem of origination arises again in an even more perplexing form.

4. If samsara is beginningless, how can it have an end?

It is perfectly clear, as stated above, based on the Buddhist scriptures, that samsara must be beginningless. Its eschatology is less clear. Religious Buddhism implies that the Arahant, who has completely eradicated the impurities through the process of progressive renunciation described above, literally transcends rebirth. In the Mahayana, this intention is replaced by that of the bodhisattva. The immediate goal of the bodhisattva is to renounce emancipation until all other beings are liberated. Nevertheless, their ultimate goal is the same as that of the Arahant. When all other beings have transcended rebirth, then the bodhisattva will too. Thus, logically, samsara itself is ended.

Thus, samsara appears to be postulated as a temporary process that ultimately destroys the preconditions of its own continuation. This would, however, imply that it is a finite process. This is paradoxical for the same reasons as stated above. First, how can a process that has no beginning have an end? Second, such a process should already have eradicated itself. Psychology does not save us here either. One might argue that the causative factor of karma is intention, not action. Thus, by the “end of samsara” perhaps we are meant to understand the end of attachment. However, given its “beginninglessness,” the objection above still holds: samsara should no longer exist.


The foregoing considerations are certainly not intended to do any more than indicate a number of directions for further investigation of some of the problems underlying Buddhist metaphysics and ontology in the context of modern critical consciousness. It is, I believe, consistent with the Buddha’s demand that the dharma be rigorously scrutinized and submitted to criticism. This is not an approach that is popular amongst either religionists or academics, except for that tiny subset of creative and visionary scholars like Herbert Guenther who approach the subject philosophically. To his credit, the Dalai Lama has encouraged just this kind of approach. The Dalai Lama has declared quite unambiguously that anything in Buddhism that does not hold up to critical examination should be discarded. It does not matter how sacrosanct it is. Personally, I intend to continue my investigation of the Pali suttas as well as extend my reading of the Mahayana sutras with the objective of discovering whether Buddhist tradition somewhere indicates the solutions to these questions. My hope and belief is that it does.

The Book of the Right Way by Laozi – 16


Devotion to the absolute emptiness guards the unchanging truth.

Because I see everything as it is, I see its return.

Just as the artisan who creates form from mud, so does everything evolve out of its basis.

Truly, when I refer to the return to the unchanging basis, I refer to the return of life to its source.

When I refer to the return of life to its unchanging source, I speak with unfailing speech.

Not to abide in illusion is terrifying.

Therefore, to know perfectly appearances as appearances is to be perfectly venerable.

Therefore, to be perfectly venerable is to be perfectly spiritual.

Therefore, to be perfectly spiritual is the ancient way.

The transcendence of corporeal life is not problematic.

老 子:  「道 德 經」 :  第 十 六 章

致 虛 極 , 守 靜 篤。
萬 物 並 作 , 吾 以 觀 復。
夫 物 芸 芸 , 各 復 歸 其 根 。

歸 根 曰 靜 , 靜 曰 復 命 。

復 命 曰 常 , 知 常 曰 明 。

不 知 常 , 妄 作 凶 。
知 常 容 , 容 乃 公 ,

公 乃 全 , 全 乃 天 ,

天 乃 道 , 道 乃 久 , 沒 身 不 殆 。