The World Within and the World Without

by Victor Gunasekara

[Reproduced from Vima.msaa, April 1984]


What to the Buddhist constitutes the world (loko)? This is neither a rhetorical question, nor a semantic one, but one which to some extent helps us to define what the Buddhist attitude to, and relationship with, the rest of ' humanity and the universe in general should be. Exponents of the Dhamma have found different answers to this question in the discourses of the Buddha, and the interpretation, they give define to large extent the Buddhism they adoptr and advocate.

At the, broadest. possible level two alternative views have been proclaimed as constituting the "world" to the Buddhist One is an objective view of the world as one existing indepd of the observer, govermed by laws which also regulate the observer himself/herself and emphasising the reality of this world. The other is a completely internalised view of the world emphasising its subjectivity to the observer, and dominated by its characteristics of “emptyness", illusoryness and non-e.xistence in real; terms. Between these two extremes of interpretation alternative positions may be identified, but it is towards one or the other of these extremes. that most exponents of the Dhamma tend to gravitate.

Logically there is no problem in recognising an e,xternal world which is objective, and an internal perception of this external world, which is subjective; and it is only the poverty of language which leads,,people to use the same term for the two concepts, and to think that the use of the term to indicate one meaning must necessarily preclude the other usage. A careful reading of the Dhamma would lead one to arrive at this “commonsense” conclusion. Such an interpretation has to be defended against both the abtruse arguments advanced by some philosophers on the one hand,. and the claims of some “practioners” of the Dhamma, to whom the essence of the practice, is to retreat into an inner world.

The philosohical argument for the non-existence of the real world found its culmination in the doctrine of sunyata advanced by the Madhmayaka and the Yogacara schools of Mahayana Buddhism. This was for the most part an unwarranted extension of the concept of suñña used by the Buddha in connection with the anattaa doctrine to descrobe certain kinds of experience. This kind of argument has been carried, particularly by the Yogacarins to the extent that it is no longer dfistinguishable from pure idealism such as that of Berkeley. Some Theravada exponents while not accepting the doctrine of sunyaata as expounded by the Mahayanists, nonetheless advance a highly subjective view of the world, and it is this view that that needs investigation.

According to this view the “world” can be entirely encompassed within the experience of the reflecting (meditating) individual. Some statements made by the Buddha have been adduced to justify this interpretation, but on closer examination they do not bear the construction put on them. We shall consider here one of the better known instances. This comes from the Rohitassa-sutta in the Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6). Here the devaputta Rohito poses these questions to the Buddha: “Now where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one's sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world (lokassa anta.m), or to see it, or to get there?” Towards the end of the ensuing dialogue comes this statement by the Buddha:


“Na kho panaaham aavuso appatvaa lokassa anta.m dukkhassa antakiriyaa vadaami. api khvaaham aavuso imasmññeva.vyaamatte kalevare saññimhi samanake loka.m ca paññaapemi loka samudaya.m ca lokanirodha.m ca loka nirodhagaamini.m ca pa.tipadan”


“But neither do I say. friend, that by not having the end of the world is the end of ill to be accomplished. It is in this fathom-long carcass,friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and.the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”

When the context is examined it is clear that the Buddha is not here denying the reality of the external world,, but only speaking of a particular kind of world. Buddhaghosa in his commentary on this sutta was quite clear on this point when he insisted that the word “world” was used in this sutta in the sense of sattasankhaaraloka, i.e. the conditioned world as perceived by sentient beings. This is very much in line with the commonsense approach referred to earlier. However some exponents of the Dhamma wrench the phrase “in this fathom-long body lies the world” from its real context to foist on the Buddha a view that he does not hold. It is significant that throughout this dialogue there is reference to knowing the world “by walking” (gaamanena), i.e by a physical activity as against pure contemplation. It is clear that Rohito had in mind the physical world of Indian cosmology (cakkavaa1a), and when the Buddha utters the stanza

       gamanena na pattabo lokassa anta.m kudaacana.m

       na ca appatvaa lokantam dukkhaa atthi pamochana.m

       Never way world’s end be won by walking there

       Nor if ye win not are ye freed from ill

he is in fact refuting the notion of a finite universe (cakkavaala) that could be stridden by the devaputta’s magic boots. The idea expressed here is quite compatible with the notion of the existence of a finite Universe outside the observer, or of a space-time continuum which continually bends back on itself, so thyat no “end” could be found.

It is the practical implications of these abstract views about the world that are however of the utmost importance. The subjective view of the world tends to encourage an attitude of world negation, of renunciation from the world, while the opposite view would entail a greater involvement with the world, the sentient beings who comprise it, and the environment in which they operate. It is importatn that Buddhists do not lose touch with realisty, and are ever [prepared to apply the Dhamma creatively to devise practical solutions to the problems confronting the world. Whether these be political, economic, social, educations, environmental, technological or other matters, there is hardly an area where the insights of the Dhamma cannot fail to make a contribution.

The view of Buddhists as those who retreat into the simplicity of an inner world, leaving the turmoil of the world into the cares of others is one that is carefully propagated especially by the mass media. Unfortunately this view is not disowned in some “Buddhist” quarters; and it is very often those who misinterpret the Buddhist view of reality who take this position. It is this view that has to be combatted, and the .true Buddhist perspective on the matter proclaimed.

The world within way be the only one accessible to the recluse and the meditator. But the typical Buddhist in the modern world should neither be a recluse nor one engaged in passive meditation all the time. Buddhists should direct their attention to the problems around them; it is then that the world without comes into its own in a true Buddhist perspective.