Is There a Common Ground-Denominator Time?

Formulation of the Topic for Analysis

We’ve seen that a temporal interval is what we’re speaking about in Buddhism when we speak about time, an interval between the occurrence of a cause and the occurrence of an effect. And what is most common that everybody accepts is that this is measured in terms of an individual person’s mental continuum – the occurrence of a cause until the occurrence of an effect. And we also saw the units with which it is measured; a period of time is dependent on parts, so you need to have units for the parts. Also it varies – years vary, months vary, days vary, and hours, and so on. There are so many different systems, so many different conventions for how we measure that interval (in other words, how we label it).

But then the question is: Is there a common-denominator (gzhi-mthun) temporal interval that serves as the basis for labeling by different persons and with many different labels of temporal units? It’s like this projection screen: Is there some sort of blank thing which is there, a temporal unit – let’s say a year – which could be labeled by different people traveling at different speeds in different ways? Actually it would seem as though that common-denominator period of time would probably have to be that period on the absolute grid in the background of space-time that things were measured on. I think it’s only really within that framework that you can have a common-denominator period of time that is labeled or experienced differently by different people.

But what does Buddhism say about all of this? This gets into the discussion of external phenomena (phyi-don) and the way that external phenomena exist or don’t exist. And that’s a topic which is discussed very much in the Chittamatra and Prasangika schools of Indian Buddhist tenet systems. And here let’s speak just in terms of the Gelugpa interpretation of these. As we’ve seen in other courses, the other Tibetan traditions – Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, etc. – each are going to have their own individual interpretations of these different Indian systems, and even within one system there’s going to be differences in interpretation. And as we’ll shortly see, even within Gelugpa, even within one author – Tsongkhapa – he had different opinions in the early part of his life and later part of his life. So that doesn’t help us very much if we are clinging to “But what is it really like? What is the real point?”

I mean, this is interesting. This came up when I was in India a few weeks ago. Why are there all these different views and all these different points, and so on, that are mentioned? This had to do with some questions I was asking about karma to Serkong Rinpoche’s teacher. Actually it was to Ling Rinpoche’s teacher, Geshe Wangchen. And he said the main point of it was to make you think that “Here are several different positions, but then how do you gain liberation?” You gain liberation not by somebody giving you the answer and then you just memorize the answer and give it back on a test. You gain liberation by gaining understanding yourself through analyzing: “Does this system make sense? Does that system make sense? What aspect of the system makes more sense than other aspects?” And by going through this internal debate – or it can also be an external debate, with other students or teachers – then you gain understanding. And so for internal investigation it’s very important to have several points of view (all of which perhaps make a great deal of sense). So we have these different views.

The Chittamatra Position According to Tsongkhapa’s Earlier View

So let’s look at Chittamatra. In Chittamatra according to Tsongkhapa’s interpretation that he had during the earlier part of his life – he had a different one in the later part of his life, which we’ll come to in a moment – he says that there is a conventionally existent common-denominator clay pot involved when several people all validly see a clay pot at the same time but each from a different angle and distance. They’re all seeing the same clay pot. And so the same would be true of two different people traveling at different speeds and observing a temporal interval, such as the year 2006.

Remember we used to analyze this question. I challenged you to prove that we were all in the same room. How do you prove we’re in the same room?

You can’t.

Right, You can’t. You can’t prove it, because if each of us takes a picture with a Polaroid camera, it’ll be something else. I mean, we’ll see something different. And so is there a common-denominator room that we all actually are in at the same time? Or how is that actually working? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. But Tsongkhapa in the earlier part of his life said: Despite the fact that what appears to them is going to be different, depending on what is ripening from their mental continuum (karmic seeds or tendencies or however we want to call them), so that what appears is a slightly different view, a different angle, and so on, you’ve got to say it’s the same thing. Otherwise it’s very difficult to put common experiences and so on together.

This is his earlier view that he had. And although that discussion is usually made in terms of objects like the clay pot sitting in the middle of the floor, or us being in this room, we can also apply that to an interval of time, let’s say the year 2006 (now we’re in the year 2007). So that year 2006 – each person would experience a year 2006, and although their experience would be different, conventionally it would be the year 2006 for all of them. Okay?

But here’s the distinction that Tsongkhapa makes here in Chittamatra. Conventionally there is an existent one, but ultimately there’s no common-denominator clay pot or year 2006 coming from a different natal source (rdzas) than someone’s cognition of it. Remember when we think of voidness in the Chittamatra system, we have to put it into the Chittamatra formulation of voidness. So it’s impossible that there is a year 2006 coming from its own natal source. A natal source, you remember, was like the oven out of which a bread comes or something like that. So it’s not that there is this grid of time out there and from there pops out a year 2006, that little temporal space on it or temporal interval on it, and we all experience it. It’s not like that. It’s coming from – the natal source – a seed of karma, or a karmic tendency, on each person’s mental continuum. So it’s devoid of coming from a different natal source than your experience of it, your cognition of it. Nevertheless we’re all experiencing the same year; there is conventionally a common denominator that we’re all experiencing.

And he says that a common-denominator clay pot or year 2006 could not be an object cognized by an arya’s total absorption. So an arya, somebody with nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths, wouldn’t perceive this type of year 2006 coming off an absolute temporal-spatial grid.

What class of phenomenon would this common-denominator object be?

Well, this is a very interesting question. Which type of phenomenon would that common denominator be? I was thinking about that. In Chittamatra we have thoroughly established phenomena (yongs-grub), so it can’t be that (that’s voidness). We have what is called a dependent phenomenon or other-powered phenomenon (gzhan-dbang); it’s a nonstatic phenomenon that arises dependent on various causes. And we have totally conceptional phenomena (kun-btags), which are like categories and things like that. Now, I don’t think it would be totally conceptional.

I think it would dependently arise. Because it certainly dependently arises on its parts, on months, and would dependently arise within somebody’s experience of what they would observe of the passage of the earth around the sun (or the sun around the earth or however they conceptualize it).

In Chittamatra, space is totally conceptional. But what is space? Is that location? I don’t think it’s location here. Location is not totally conceptional, because within your perception there is relative location of different objects. So location is one of these nonstatic phenomena that’s neither a way of being aware or a physical phenomenon. So when they say that space is totally conceptional, it’s a static phenomenon that is the lack of something that would impede motion or that could be contacted that would prevent the object from occupying three dimensions. I mean, are there three dimensions (or four dimensions) within the Chittamatra system? Yes, within your perception. Are they forms of physical phenomena or things that are in this neither category? Yes. Just because it is the object of a perception doesn’t make it a way of being aware of something. From a Chittamatra point of view, when I see the table, it’s an appearance, of course – I mean, it’s a mental hologram – but it’s an appearance of a form of a physical phenomenon: a sight, physical sensation if I touch it, and so on.

So I would think that similarly a common denominator would not be conceptually constructed from everybody’s experience and then you make a concept of a common one that everybody is seeing. I don’t think it would be that. But I’ve never seen a discussion of that, and I’ve never asked actually.

The word common is a bit stretched in this case. I mean, if everybody has their own common version of it…

If everybody has their own common version… But is it the same? Okay, now we have to get a little bit more precise here, so let’s change our level of discussion.

What is a common denominator? It’s shitun (gzhi-mthun) in Tibetan; shi (gzhi) means a “basis” and tun (mthun) means “shared.” Now, what are they talking about? Remember the Chittamatra says that there are findable defining characteristics on the side of dependent phenomena; you don’t have them on the side of totally conceptional ones, but on the side of dependent phenomena there are findable defining characteristics. So is there the same findable defining characteristic on the side of the year 2006, or the clay pot, in each person’s perception of it? And they would say yes for a common denominator. Is it identical? No, it’s not identical, because what I perceive is not the same as what you perceive. But there is the same type of defining characteristic, and it’s not a category, and that’s what’s being labeled – I mean that’s the basis not for labeling, but that’s the basis for the year 2006 being the year 2006 independently of labeling. That’s the Chittamatra system.

Okay? Do you follow that? Does that make any sense to those who have not studied Chittamatra? Chittamatra means “mind only.” It’s one of the Mahayana schools of Buddhist philosophy.

So if we use the example of the room, although each of our perceptions of the room is different, nevertheless the defining characteristics of the room – four walls, and located here on this street, and this color, and this furniture in it, and so on – whatever the defining characteristics are, they will be the same in everybody’s perception unless we have defective cognitive sensors or defective mental faculty. Defective cognitive sensors would be: I take my glasses off, and I believe that I am in a blurred thing, the room, and that the room actually exists as a blur, out of focus. Well, that’s not correct. There’s something wrong with my eye sensors. So that’s not what’s in common with everybody else. Or perhaps I’m having a hallucination or on a drug, and the room seems to be flashing with psychedelic colors, or something like that.

So discounting those causes for deceptive cognition, then the defining characteristics… I mean, this is the interesting point, because Chittamatra says defining characteristics are findable on the side of the object. From its own power, it makes the object what it is. It establishes its existence. So the same findable defining characteristics on the side of everybody’s perception of the year 2006 makes it the year 2006. What would those defining characteristics be? Well, it’s after the year 2005. It’s before the year 2007. It’s a certain number of revolutions of the sun past the birth of Christ or the death of Christ, whatever that measures, etc. And that would be a dependent phenomenon, an other-powered phenomenon, these findable defining characteristics. Okay?

I could endlessly ask more questions.

You could endlessly ask more questions. Well, endless is very time dependent, isn’t it? Time consuming, yes. Well, that of course gets into a whole other question: Can time have no end? Is it an open-ended interval? Which is an interesting question actually. And does time have a beginning? And this gets into our whole relativity thing of what we are measuring, I suppose. Does it have a beginning? Well, if you consider the interval between the Big Bang and now, then it has a beginning; that interval has a beginning. But is there some sort of abstract thing called time in the background and so on? This becomes quite interesting. We’ll get to that, but let’s go on.

The Chittamatra Position According to Tsongkhapa’s Later View

Okay, so that was Tsongkhapa’s early interpretation. One would assume that his later understanding was an improvement on his earlier understanding. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case – he could have given another interpretation later in order to help others or whatever – but this seems to be certainly going closer to the Prasangika viewpoint. And this is that Tsongkhapa interprets Chittamatra as asserting that there’s no common-denominator clay pot, or no common-denominator year 2006, even conventionally existent. Not only from the deepest point of view but also from the conventional point of view, there is no common-denominator pot or year. This is the generally accepted Gelug Chittamatra view now. When two people validly see a clay pot at the same time, or experience the interval they label the year 2006, each person is experiencing the ripening of tendencies of collective karma (thun-mong-gi las) on his or her own mental continuum. It’s not that each person is validly seeing a common-denominator clay pot or experiencing a common-denominator year 2006.

So Tsongkhapa in his later writings is interpreting these shared experiences as coming from what’s called collective karma, and so it’s from that point of view that these experiences are similar (my collective karma isn’t the same as your collective karma). But nevertheless, according to Chittamatra, the clay pot or the year 2006 is findable – findable defining characteristics on its own side. What does that mean? If we had a clay pot sitting in the middle of the floor, all of us could point to the clay pot in terms of what each of us validly sees. In fact, when all of us are asked to point to a clay pot we see in the middle of the floor, each of us would validly see everybody else pointing to the same clay pot that we see sitting there. All right? But conventionally there isn’t… I mean, it’s just coming from our collective karma of each of us.

So similarly all the people could point to the change in their bodies due to aging that occurred over the year 2006 and which they validly experience, and they could validly label that the change occurred in the interval called year 2006. Right? You see the change that happened in your body – maybe you didn’t cut your hair during that year, maybe you grew a little bit taller if you were still a growing child, maybe you dyed your hair, or you gained weight or lost weight, or your hair started to turn gray, whatever it is – and each person would point to that change, and they would validly label that that change occurred in the interval called the year 2006.

Now, if the person who was traveling near the speed of light and who experienced the change in his body over the year 2006 were to meet the person who experienced the year 2006 while traveling at a much slower speed (and who somehow was still alive), what would happen? The slower speed person could also point to the change that occurred on the faster speed person’s body and correctly label that change as having occurred in the interval called year 2006 of the faster speed person. He wouldn’t label it as the interval called year 2006 measured in terms of the changes in his own body. So there’s no absolute year 2006. But just as I would see everybody pointing to what appears to me as the same clay pot I’m pointing to, likewise I could see that this person experienced this year 2006 in terms of what they’re doing.

Does that make any sense? So in any case, we all have a collective karma to experience a year 2006 (if we’re alive – I mean, if we’re not alive, then it’s in the next lifetime that we’re experiencing a year 2006).


Collective Karma

What do you mean by collective karma?

Collective karma, that’s a difficult thing. Well, first of all the word karma is a little bit vague here because we have karmic impulses and then karmic actions and then a karmic aftermath and then a karmic result. When they talk about collective karma, they’re really talking about a karmic tendency or habit. That’s what’s collective. So when different people do something together, then there would be an aftermath of that, a collective thing that would ripen into something that both of them share similarly. Shared karma is also what it is sometimes called.

Let’s use just a simple example: It could be shared with just one other person. We had a strong relationship with each other in a previous lifetime, and so there is the shared karma to meet each other again – the shared tendency or latency or potential to meet each other again – that could ripen in a future lifetime. And it would have to ripen on both mental continuums – that I meet you, and you meet me.

So similarly there could be a shared karmic tendency to experience being in this room together. How is it that all of us are here together, engaged in this activity? So there has to be some sort of shared event. Now this starts to become pretty weird, but if you have beginningless time, then it’s okay. What is the shared karma of everybody being in the airplane that has an accident or in the bus that has an accident (or to be anywhere together, even when nothing happens)? For each of those, there needs to be some sort of shared karma. As I said, that starts to become mathematically very, very wild. Does that mean that for every possible combination of different sentient beings, there is a shared karma to be together with every possible combination of every possible number of beings and doing every possible thing? Then that becomes quite amazing, doesn’t it? And then that gets into the whole discussion of what influences what ripens, which is not an easy topic actually. When there are so many karmic possibilities, karmic tendencies, what actually ripens?

So, anyway, there could also be a shared one for everybody to be born at a certain time and to experience a year 2006, to be alive in this… Well, it’s interesting. If we’re in a different galaxy, is it also the year 2006? Is it the year 2006 measured by revolutions of the earth around the sun in that far-off galaxy over there that this person is measuring their lifespan by? This I always find so unprofessional in Star Trek, that species from different galaxies say, “I’ll give you two hours to answer, or we will shoot your ship.”  

In any case, to experience a year 2006 would be a shared karma by everybody who experiences it, and they would have the karma to be born in this particular solar system, this particular planet, at this particular… Well, then that’s difficult to say, that it’s at this particular time. What is it? I mean, in this particular background grid of time, at that point? Or what? This becomes very difficult, doesn’t it? That’s why they’re saying, “It’s all coming from a collective karma.” They will experience it by the conventions of the world in which they are born. All right? If your planet is orbiting the sun at a much faster speed, then what are your years? 

Even if you cannot talk about this absolute time that you will be reborn in, and even if relativity is smashing all these concepts of absolute time, you can still talk about causality.

Right, we can still talk about causality because time is a measurement of change. And also of course in abhidharma it does explain that – I forget the exact figures, but one year of a god’s life is equivalent to thousands of years of a human life, and they live a certain number of lives of that lifetime, and it’s different in each realm, and so on. So there it’s quite clear that there are different concepts of time.

Is collective karma chance?

No, nothing happens by chance. For things to happen by chance, then that means anything could happen, and so there would be no relation between cause and effect. Then there would be no time.

For the people who ride on the airplane that has an accident, what is the cause of the accident? Is it the mechanical failure (which has all these causes) or is it the shared karma that creates the accident?

The shared karma doesn’t create the accident. Now, again you have to differentiate a Chittamatra from a Prasangika explanation of this. Prasangika does say there are external phenomena. Well, accepting external phenomena, you would say that everybody has the shared karma to be killed in an accident or to survive the accident. That they have; but that doesn’t create the accident. What creates the accident are all the external circumstances. That creates the accident. They just have the karma to be there and to be killed by it. To ripen, karma needs to have circumstances. If the circumstances aren’t there, it won’t ripen.

So they come together by chance?

No. Or bad luck? Or the gods weren’t smiling on them? Or it was the wrath of the creator, the omnipotent creator? Buddhism says no, that this is a shared karma that they had.

The example that’s always given is: There was a queen with five hundred maid servants, and they were in a palace, and the palace caught on fire, and all of them were burned to death except for one little maid servant, who was able to crawl out through some water drain or something like that. And why? Because – this is the classic example – if you haven’t built up the karmic cause, you won’t experience a result of it. And they say, “Well, in a previous lifetime all the others together had set on fire some bush that had a whole bunch of birds or something like that in it. But this little maid servant in the previous life didn’t do that.”

Isn’t this just a rationalization to explain, after it happened, why they died? Could you predict it beforehand?

Oh, now you’re getting into a very nasty point here, I must say – that isn’t this just a rationalization to explain why all of them died, or was it actually a fact? I mean, could you predict it beforehand? So could you predict it beforehand? This will get into a topic that hopefully we’ll have enough time tomorrow to discuss, which is: When a Buddha sees the future, what does a Buddha see? Is it determined? Or is it something where there’s this possibility (but it could of course be purified so that they don’t experience this)? Well, anyway, we’ll get to that tomorrow; and if we have to have an afternoon session to get to it, if people are agreeable, I’m agreeable.

Nothing happens by chance, from a Buddhist point of view. This gets into the whole topic of probability. Chance means no cause. A probability function? This I’m sure will be touched on when we get into quantum time and so on. Well, all these possibilities are happening (or are they really happening) at the same time. What causes one quantum possibility to actually occur? Etc. It gets very complicated. But Buddhism certainly doesn’t say that things happen from no cause (by chance), or good luck (as if luck were some sort of thing that existed), or good fortune (the goddess Fortuna smiled on me – this is the Roman view – and it happened).

An airplane is very clearly a mechanical device, and it operates under the laws of mechanics, but it has components that, when you analyze, look stochastic or statistical. It looks like they operate on probabilities, like probabilities of malfunctioning and things like this. But that’s only something you impute from the outside. Their microscopic operation is just following mechanistic laws.

Buddhism would say – subtle impermanence – that it is from moment to moment going closer to the point when it will break. It has to break at some point because it’s assembled from mechanical parts. Anything that’s affected by causes and conditions will come to an end, so every moment it’s going closer to it. Is it foretold when it will end? I mean, that gets into another thing. Well, it depends on how much you use the plane. It depends on whether or not it’s bombed by somebody. I mean, it depends on many things. This gets very, very complex.

There’s the external circumstances of the mechanics and so on, and then there’s the factor of the people who come on the plane.

There’s also the karma of the people who might shoot down the plane. There are many, many factors which are involved for what are all the causes and conditions for something to be experienced on your mental continuum. But let’s not get too diverted from this, because I’d like to give the Prasangika point of view.

But in your thing of the mechanical causes for the plane to fall apart, likewise from a Chittamatra point of view you would say that – this is very important for understanding Chittamatra – what ripens is your experience from a seed of karma, from a tendency. So your experience (the cognition and the mental hologram appearance that you cognize). Now, you will have karmic tendencies to experience many, many, many, many moments sequentially. And so findable within those moments would be all the mechanical causes, and it being built – even if you didn’t actually see it, you heard about it or you inferred it, that it was built – and it was made from things. And Chittamatra accepts mechanical causes and results – Abhidharma-samuccaya has an unbelievably huge list of different types of causes – things aren’t caused just by your karma. And even Chittamatra would have to accept the existence of other sentient beings and their karma and circumstances, together with your own karma, that causes something to happen. But nevertheless the hologram that you experience and the mind experiencing it are both going to come from the seed of karma, the same seed of karma. That’s Chittamatra. It gets very difficult to understand.

But within what you perceive, cause and effect is working – mechanical cause and effect is working. And it’s not that you created it. You have the karma to exist in a universe in which these laws of mechanics and physics operate. So there is a common karma, and everybody is experiencing that in what they perceive. And we do interact with each other; otherwise how could it be Mahayana? But the only thing that you can base your claim of the existence of anything on is what you experience, what you perceive, and that’s coming from karma, from a karmic tendency that ripens into “Now I perceive this. Now I perceive that. That is what appears to me.”


Does that mean that in the Chittamatra school, the Mind-Only school, the mind is the center of all these karmic conditions and only from the mind can you experience it?

Mind plays a very important role. That’s why it’s called the Mind-Only school. And what kind of existence does mind have? Within Chittamatra itself, mind isn’t something which exists separately from what it’s doing. It’s not that there’s an entity called mind – all Buddhism says that – it’s not that there’s some thing called mind that’s doing it. It’s talking about mental activity which is occurring. So that mental activity. And it is very central, but how does it exist? The Chittamatra school says that all these dependent phenomena – mind, cognition, appearances – all these things have true findable existence, unimputed existence. They’re sort of there, in a sense, by themselves, establishing themselves. So in that sense, mind doesn’t have any special way of existing that’s more solid than anything else that arises dependent on causes.

But the Madhyamaka school says: Hey, you’re making mind too central here. And it’s not that there’s something wrong with the objects – not something wrong, but something confusing about the objects (you think that they’re coming from outside, but they’re not coming from outside). That’s not the only problem here. The problem is how does your mind exist as well, plus these objects.

So yes, mind is very central in the Chittamatra system. And the Madhyamaka schools, the more sophisticated schools, are saying: Hey, in order to gain liberation it’s not sufficient just to understand that there’s something confusing about the objects you perceive. There’s also something confusing about how your mind exists. So you’d better address that too; otherwise you’re not going to get liberation. Just to realize that “Well, everything that I’m experiencing is due to my karma. I’m experiencing you being very nasty to me, or being very nice to me, but that is the result of karma and karma appearances, and I can change that,” that’s something that’s very helpful. It’s not coming from an external you out there who’s sitting and plotting to harm me or planning to be nice to me. That can be very helpful for liberation, but that’s not enough.

That sounds more “mind only” than Chittamatra, when the Madhyamaka schools say that you’d better start working on your mind more because the problem is not the external objects.

Well, this is a good point. Doesn’t it seem, though, that Madhyamaka is more “mind only” because you have to understand the way in which the mind exists in order to gain liberation? Well, not just that, because an impossible way of existing for the mind is also impossible for everything else. But what Madhyamaka is saying is that we have to understand the relationship between mental activity (mind) and everything. And although Chittamatra is helpful in teaching us that appearances, these mental holograms, are dependent on the mind, what is more significant, what is deeper, further reaching, is how do you establish the existence of anything. It’s only in relation to mental labeling, which has to do with the mind. It’s not that the mind makes things exist; it’s how do you prove that anything exists.

How do you prove anything exists? What proves that anything exists? So some would say, “Well, that it’s there and everybody can see it.” Does that prove that it exists? “It produces a function. It changes.” Does that prove that it exists? And Madhyamaka, especially Prasangika, is saying: Well, when you search really deeply, you can’t find anything. This is made of parts, and that part is made of parts, and that’s made of parts, and that’s made of parts. You can never come down to a smallest solid thing that’s there. So what proves that it exists? Well, we have a word for it. I mean, sure, it functions, etc. We have a word for it. It’s what the word refers to. So it’s related to the mind, but the mind doesn’t create it.

So yes, the emphasis in Madhyamaka is – I wouldn’t say it’s even more on the mind. I would say it’s on a deeper level concerning the mind. Chittamatra’s going in the right direction. It’s a step for understanding Madhyamaka, and a very important step, but you have to fine-tune it, and that’s what Madhyamaka does. And this is why I always say that to just jump immediately to the most sophisticated Madhyamaka view without really giving a great deal of thought about Chittamatra and the other views, usually you miss the point of Madhyamaka; you don’t get it really in full depth. And often it just becomes trivialized in your mind, Madhyamaka. Where is your mind? Well, it’s not up my nose. It doesn’t have a color. At the end you say, “So what? That’s obvious.” But it’s much, much deeper than that, much deeper than that. And if you have the background, then this questioning about the mind – like you get in Kagyu – you understand that actually that’s very, very profound. But you have to have the background to understand what it is based on. 

Getting back to Chittamatra, it’s very important to really understand that Chittamatra (Mind-Only) doesn’t negate cause and effect, and it doesn’t negate that we interact with each other. It just negates cause and effect in external objects. 

But what does it mean by external objects? External objects are things coming from their own natal source independently of our perception of them. And how do we know that they exist? We only could know that they exist by observing them. How do I know that the Big Bang existed? Well, I didn’t observe it, but I infer it from data. So you know that something exists either if you talk about it, if you think about it, if you see it, if you infer it – it’s in relation to a mind. You can’t say, “You can’t talk about it,” without talking about it. But within what you perceive, there are objects that are forms of physical phenomena – sights and sounds – and they are changing according to cause and effect, laws of cause and effect. So there definitely are still laws of cause and effect. These objects appear to be external, coming from externally, but actually all you can talk about is when there’s an appearance of them, a mental appearance of them. Now, within that, there are of course cause and effect and mechanical laws.

The common denominator is that there exists cause and effect?

There is an experience of things according to laws of cause and effect, which is a shared karma? Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a shared karma. I’m thinking of the laws of karma itself. If you experience unhappiness, it’s a result of suffering. If you experience happiness, it’s a result of constructive behavior. Is that a collective karma? Is that an absolute? It’s usually described as “Well, that’s just the way it is” (it doesn’t give us a very nice explanation). But there are certain things that are “that’s just the way it is.” Why does everybody want to be happy? It feels good? I mean, that’s not a very good explanation. But everybody wants to be happy. That’s sort of a general law.

So could there be universes in which those laws don’t operate? Well, I don’t think so. You could theorize. I mean, then this gets into this big discussion of the laws of physics allowing for life to exist. I read this somewhere: If Planck’s constant, or any of these sort of things, was slightly, slightly different, life couldn’t exist and the universe couldn’t exist. So then the question is: Does it exist that way on purpose to support us? Or this is the only way it could possibly be? Could there be universes – this gets into the whole quantum stuff – could there be universes that operate differently but just don’t work?

So is it a collective, shared karma? It is a defining characteristic, that’s true. Why is it there? I don’t know that it’s there because of karmic actions on our part. I don’t know. Buddhism does get into some really strange stuff with different planes of existence – the plane of ethereal forms, the plane of formless beings, and all that – and what are the laws of physics there? No idea. The abhidharma texts inform us that there's no taste or smell in this realm or that realm. There are no gross objects. There’s no happiness or unhappiness, just neutral feeling. So there are laws there, but these have to do with the experience of the beings in them. I don’t know that they have to do with laws of physics. In other words, I don’t know.