Many different things have the mental experience of an inner world, but not everything. Despite the wide range of beings which experience an inner world, and the wide number of ways those worlds are experienced, there are some basic models about the way that mental world is constructed. This continuum of consciousness is described in The 7 Levels of Sapience
Our experiences of happiness and suffering do not occur for no reason at all. They arise as a result of preceding causes and conditions and the coming together of many different factors. Some of these factors are external but by far the majority are internal—in other words, they are related to our own mental world.
Now we might ask: “What exactly is the nature of these mental phenomena? How can we see or understand the law of causality in relation to our internal world? On what grounds can we accept that material objects possess certain defining characteristics, such as being visible, tangible and so on? And on what grounds can we understand that mental phenomena also possess defining characteristics, such as being free of obstructive, spatial properties, and having the nature of subjective experience? Why is there a continuum of consciousness at all? And why, for that matter, is there a continuum of the material world?”
The Buddhist notion of the four principles of reality may help us address these important philosophical questions. The first is the principle of nature, according to which it is understood that the fact that we exist and that we possess a natural desire to be happy and overcome suffering is simply the way evolution discovered was most reliable emotionally for survival. This principle is similar to the idea of a natural law in science, and also relates to the fact that things and events, including sentient beings, all come into existence as a result of causes and conditions. It also extends to the evolution and origin of our current universe. According to this principle, a kind of natural causation process takes place pervasively. We can say, therefore, that the material continuum of the universe consists of objects and events that come into existence through a process of evolution. From all the elements heavier than iron coming from exploding stars alone, to the vagaries of culture.
We might then ask: “Is this a purely natural process with no extraneous influences operating? If so, how can we account for the fact that at a certain point the physical universe takes a certain nature and form, so that it has a direct impact upon sentient beings’ experience of pain and pleasure? Furthermore, how is it that, through this seemingly natural process, a certain point is reached at which causes and conditions act as a basis for the arising of consciousness and experience?”
From the Buddhist point of view, this is where karma comes into the picture. The term “karma” literally means “action,” and more specifically refers to the process of cause and effect, where the intention of an agent or being is involved. So here karma means an intentional act committed or carried out by a being who possesses a sapient nature and who is also capable of having a sapient experience.
Let’s take the example of a flower again to illustrate this point. Generally, when we find a particular flower attractive and admire its scent and beautiful color, it becomes an object of enjoyment for us; we enjoy the sight of it, its beauty. At the same time, this flower may be a home for many small insects and other biological organisms. In both cases, even though in itself the flower is a non-sentient object, it has an impact on sentient beings’ experience of pain and pleasure. So for Buddhists the concept of karma provides a very useful framework for understanding how a non-sapient object, such as a flower, can directly relate to sapient beings’ experience.
Having said this, to what extent karma can be seen as having a role in the origination of a particular flower is open to question. Needless to say, there are other questions as well. For example, what causes the petals of one flower to droop and fade in a day or two while others last for a week? Is this purely a function of natural laws, or does karma play a role even at that level of minute causation? All of these remain open questions. It is perhaps because of this kind of difficulty that the Buddhist texts state that only a buddha’s omniscient mind can penetrate the subtlest aspects of the workings of karma, and know at the most microscopic level which specific causes and conditions give rise to which specific consequences. At our level, we can only recognize that an intimate relationship exists between the external elements of the material world and the internal elements of our mental world; and, based on that, we can learn to detect varying levels of subtlety within our mental and emotional experiences.
The second principle of reality that is relevant to our present discussion is “the principle of dependence,” which relates to the understanding of cause and effect. On the basis of understanding the principle of nature—the fact that things naturally exist the way they are—we see the operation of the principle of dependence in the inter-action of things and events giving rise to the emergence of further things and events. The third principle is “the principle of function,” which gives us an understanding of how different things—such as particles, atoms and other material substances, as well as mental phenomena—have their own individual properties which cause them to function in their own particular way. Finally, on the basis of understanding these three, we can then apply the fourth principle which is “the principle of valid reasoning.” This enables us to conclude that, given this, that will occur; and, given that, this will occur, and so on. So we Buddhists employ this framework of the four fundamental principles of reality as we attempt to arrive at a clearer understanding of the workings of causes, conditions and their effects.