Moments and Causality

CAUSAL MOMENTS

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The whole of the human experience is a sequence of causal moments. Some of those moments pass without notice, others never seem to pass. Each moment, no matter the span of time is causally conditioned by the moments before and by the conditions in that very moment. Then that moment conditions the ones beyond that experience. It is up to each of us that walk the Noble Path to be mindful that each moment presents us with an opportunity to take action intended to have wholesome causal effects on others and ourselves. It is up to each of us that walk the Noble Path to take firm hold of this responsibility.

“Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.” This verse is from the intentional practice of Sharing the Merit that is recited at the close of meditation and sangha sessions. It is a ritual of intent meant to remind us that the journey from birth-to-death is short and that we must make the most of each moment. The human life span, on average is 80 years. At age 20 that seems a long way off; at 60 the view shortens considerably. The appropriate view isn’t how many years are ahead, it is how do we make each moment count in the pursuit of liberation and human flourishing.

Zen Master Eihei Dogen is revered for the transformation he brought to Japanese Buddhist meditation practices. He also spoke of the utter continuity between being and time; that time is interconnected to, but not interdependent on all phenomena, animate and inanimate. Experiential examples of that interconnectedness is found in human aging, the effects of erosion on earth, and global warming all due in part to the passage of time. Along with time though there is another factor, causal conditioning or dependent origination.

A Zen practitioner is instructed to “be in the moment” in meditation practice and in the course of daily life. They train themselves to engage mindfulness and awareness in every moment so that appropriate choices can made in the variety of situations that life encompasses. There is great value in doing so no matter the Buddhist path being walked. What must first be clear is what is a moment anyway. Master Dogen offered a view in order to define “in the moment”. He determined that in each day there are 6,400,099,180 moments, moments that happen in 1/75th of a second. A quick math exercise reveals that an hour equals 266,670,799 moments, a minute equals 4,444,510 moments, a second equals 7407 moments, the time it takes to snap your fingers equals 60 moments. Moments come and go very quickly.

There are 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, and 180 moments in each day and Zen practitioners are meant to “be in” each and every one, to maintain a high level of mindfulness and awareness in order to do so. Dogen likely wasn’t expecting others to memorize these numbers be he must have thought that knowing them would bring about the realization that time does swiftly pass by. One could find themselves disconnected from experiences if moments were allowed to pass without one being mindful and aware of their passage. Things change, impermanence happens in each moment. This can be intimidating, the ideal that being in the moment requires mindfulness and awareness 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in each of the daily 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, 180 moments.

Buddhaghosa, an Indian Buddhist scholar of the 5th century CE is most famous for writing the Visuddimagga, a Theravada based commentary on the Tripitaka (the Three Baskets). It included his own ‘theory of moments’ in which he used the textual components of Buddhism to make his point. He wrote, “Herein, the flowing present finds mention in the commentaries, the enduring present in the sutras (discourses). Some say that the thought existing in the momentary present becomes the object of insight.” Buddhaghosa offers that when studying or writing about Buddhist texts that commentaries are the lessons being engaged in the moment they are written so culture, context and experience shape the thoughts of the writer. The discourses or sutras, whether recited from memory or written down are the foundational moments those thoughts arise from; they endure before and beyond the writer. The reader’s thought, dependent on culture, context and time arises in the present moment of that individual and can provide a view of that immediate experience. A past moment transforms into a present moment, and is an immediate moment. How can this theory of moments have value in a contemporary Buddhist practice? With a touch of creative re-description.

The enduring present is the experience itself that is viewed without delusion or perception. It is what is actually happening, the reality or dharma. This is what must be appropriately responded to. What we tell ourselves in the midst of a momentary experience, with or without delusion is the flowing present. Language based in reality is more likely to lead to a wholesome response than language intended to sooth the ego or avoid the issue. The thoughts that arise during a momentary experience should be remembered if they lead to wholesome effects, or they can be allowed to fall away when unwholesome effects are the result. This is the insight that Buddhaghosa wrote of. The practitioner must learn from each experience no matter how long the moment lasts. The whole of any experience or moment is causally conditioned by the past and present and conditions the present and the future.

Eihei Dogen offers the 1/75th of a second suddenness of a moment. Buddhaghosa offers three aspects of each moment. Two paths arise from these views. One of a minute span of time and another of such complexity in each moment that it would be extremely difficult for the human mind to process a momentary experience within it. A third path can be blazed to engaging moments in a contemporary Buddhist practice.

Moments become a more accessible ideal when the reality that a moment isn’t a span of time is engaged. Instead it is viewed as a span of experience that is dependent on moments before it. Sure a moment can happen in the “snap of finger”. The suddenness of an enlightened moment, of satori, when all hindrances fall away and Buddha-element is revealed is such a moment. The gradual training of meditation, character building, practicing of Buddhist ideals such as generosity of spirit and acceptance that may take decades to affect the practitioner and others is also a moment. View moments not as chunks of time, instead as the whole of experiences keeping the insight that within each gradual moment there will be sudden moments.

With the acceptance that each moment causally conditions the following moments a practitioner more fully realizes the value of moral thought and ethical action. The thought or action we engage in each moment matters. What we do matters. Cease to do harm so no harm is done. Do good so good is done. Do good for others so they will do good for others.

The practice of the bodymind being in each of the 6 billion, 400 million, 99 thousand, and 180 moments that Master Dogen offers is in each day isn’t a pragmatic goal. It is more valuable and useful to practice being mindful and aware of each experience, each situation we find ourselves having to respond to during the day. It isn’t the quantity of moments that is the reality of the lives of human beings; it is the quality of each experience in which we engage the ideals of our practice.

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