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.

Rock in the Road – Uncovering Buddha-element

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A student asked, “Is Buddha-element easy to find?”

“No.”

“Then why should I put in the effort to find it?”

That led to a tale.

There was a road that led to a magnificent castle. The people of the kingdom used the road to get to that castle where they could sell their produce, their wares and get what they needed to live. It was a rough road made even more treacherous by a large rock directly in the middle of it.

Horses were made lame by stumbling on it. Wagon wheels shattered when they bumped against it. People who climbed over it would fall breaking legs, arms and sometimes heads. It made a trip to the market a challenge.

One day a family of farmers headed into the castle to sell their wagon load of vegetables stopped before the rock. Ahead of them a wagon had lost a wheel to the rock. The tipped over wagon had spilled melons across the ground, some cracked open and others bruised beyond use.

In the farmer’s wagon a young girl turned to her father and said, “Father, why is that rock allowed to remain there? It causes so much anger and loss, still no one tries to move it.”

Daughter, it has always been there and there it will remain.”

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All Phenomena is Causally Conditioned . . . Even You

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Causality, co-dependent arising, the causal chain, the arising and falling away of phenomena, causal conditioning, these are all labels for the causes and effects brought about by the reality of impermanence. Due to the dynamism of the Universe we inhabit there is always change, always room for change, always the potential for change. The reality of the arising and falling away of phenomena adds vitality to the Noble Path, the path of positive transformation. Impermanence is a dharma ideal. Causal conditioning is the reality that arises from that ideal.

In the Paccaya Sutta the Buddha says:

When this is present, that comes to be:

from the arising of this, that arises.

When this is absent, that does not come to be:

on the cessation of this, that ceases.

In causal conditioning there can be no ONE cause or ONE effect. All phenomena arise from a variety of causes and effects. No matter whether it is a thought, action, philosophy, material, food, theories, emotions, or ideas they are all subject to the actions of other phenomena though every causal event that contributed may be beyond our ability to comprehend or discover. This does not negate the reality of causal conditions, just our ability as human beings to recognize all the nuances of the causal Universe.

There is an aphorism that says you are the author of your own story. That is true given that you choose how you respond to each situation, still you are responding to causes and effects you are mindful and aware of . . . and not to those causes you have no awareness of. Your intent must be to engage with causal factors more likely to cause the arising of wholesome consequences, and to allow the falling away of those causal factors likely to cause unwholesome consequences. You must seek to take control of the causal conditions you can so that those you can’t control will have a lesser impact on your wholesome personal transformation.

In the Majjhima Nikayas, the Maha-hatthipadopama-sutta (36) the Buddha teaches that “He who sees causality (dependent origination, co-dependent arising) sees the dharma, and he who sees the dharma sees causality.” Without an understanding and recognition of dependent origination following the Eightfold Path or engaging in any other Buddhist practice can be an empty exercise. The potential is there but the realization of possibilities will not be. In another teaching (Itivuttaka, from the Kuddhaka Nikaya) the Buddha said, “A disciple sees the dharma, and seeing the dharma sees me.” The Buddha was speaking directly to a gathering of monks but the same holds true for anyone. Causality is the core of understanding the dharma, and of realizing how Buddhist practice can be effective in transforming our personal character and the world around us. Realizing the ideal of causality empowers us with the knowledge that we can make a difference through our engaged actions, whether they be within ourselves, or with others, or with the world around us. This is a powerful and liberating realization.

The Buddha talked about four characteristics of causal relationships:

  1. Objectivity: Dependent origination or causal conditioning is a fact no matter what angle it is viewed from. Metaphysics or science, human or animal, seen or not seen, there are causal results of actions taken, or not taken, recognized or not.

  1. Necessity: Nothing happens from “thin air”. The cause may not be discernible but there is a cause, and often a chain, or web of causes.

  1. Invariability: Even events that appear to have no cause, have a cause. While an action/result may have been unintentional, it wasn’t accidental, there was a cause. One may not have intended a particular outcome of their actions, yet they bear at least some responsibility for that outcome. This is why intent is critical in how we interact with the world around us. Whether we recognize it or not our actions are going to have consequences so we engage the world in such a way as to engender positive outcomes, positive karmic consequences.

  1. Conditionality: Events are situational due to the conditions under which they happen. Unconditional would imply determinism, that an event was pre-destined or was an arbitrary occurrence. All phenomena are causally conditioned; they arise, fall, change and interact as a result of being influenced by some other action or thought. In RL when the ching bell is struck the sound follows. That is its causally conditioned action. In SL that is not always so. I can ring the ching bell here by aligning the hand symbol on it and tapping the keyboard but it doesn’t always lead to the sound. In SL the ching bell might not ring due to a glitch in programming or in the transmission of my physical action to the virtual action. This is virtual causal conditioning.

All causal relationships are dependent on all four of the factors above. It is one of the Three Characteristics of Existence, along with not-self and impermanence, that the Buddha awakened to.

In the Paccaya Sutta (Discourse on Causal Relations – SN), the Buddha tells his disciples that the dharma is subject to causality and so would undergo changes in accordance with causal factors like environment, culture, context and level of need; the reality of causally conditioned phenomena. He offered that a realization of causal conditioning explains the existence of all phenomena and the complex interactions between them. A realization of causality empowers one with the knowledge that you can make a difference through your intentional actions, but also you make a difference through unintentional ones. It brings with the knowledge that internal and external phenomena mold HOW you are so effort and commitment made to be more mindful of those influences is valuable on the Noble Path or any other positively oriented path. It is a liberating realization.

Viewing how you interact with the Universe through a causal lens can change your perceptions, intent and actions. When you realize that every move, thought and word WILL become part of the web of causal conditioning the need and value of mindfulness and awareness becomes crystal clear.

Think before you speak or act is an age-old aphorism. What about think before you think? How you think leads to a causal chain of how you’ll continue to think unless you become the cause of your own transformation. How we think naturally leads to how we act. Through practice and study we may come to realize that some patterns of thought are negative and they are leading us to make even more bad decisions. Causality allows the opportunity to make positive changes along with the knowledge that intentional thought leads to good decisions and positively directed actions.

Viewing issues and problems through a causal lens improves your ability to enact lasting positive solutions. We are less likely to place blame on one individual or one vent as a cause by looking for weak strands in the causal web that connects cause to effect to cause to effect . . . Fixing or adjusting more than one strand of the web will enable you to spin more corrective and encompassing solutions to the unique situations you experience each moment.

Picture a spider’s web, yourself at the center. Whatever happens to, or on that web affects you. When the web “vibrates” then something caused it, and that vibration will effect something else. A strand of web doesn’t just snap . . . like your friend doesn’t get angry for nothing. Dew doesn’t just appear on the web . . . like that twenty dollar bill didn’t just appear on the sidewalk. It might have been the wind, an unusually strong moth, it hadn’t been properly attached, or a cause that can’t be clearly viewed that snapped the strand. No matter how you view a phenomena it has undergone its own unique set of circumstances; nothing arises “out of thin air”. You are responsible for developing mindfulness of self-caused effects, as well awareness of possible of outside causes. You are responsible for your intent and your actions because the center of your web is interlinked with all other webs.

Buddha Is Not Dharma

Buddha Is Not Dharma
David Xi-Ken Astor

“We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha”.   If we follow Buddhist thought, and not accept a duel state of being, we may come to realize that while we make distinctions of the Three Jewels in practice, in reality they are not separate phenomena.  They are interdependent and connected as one reality, and are components of the principle of Inter-dependent Origination.  So, we come to ask the question, “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?”   I would argue that if we strictly apply Buddhist logic, it isn’t.  It is a kind of paradox, and what is “ultimate reality” anyway?

We use the term “Buddha nature” rather freely sometimes without a clear notion of what we are talking about.  Yes, as human beings (and the historic Buddha was that) we are both Universal and unique expressions of the Universe at the same time.  Buddha nature is an expression that points to our inclusion in the Dharma; we manifest an image or reflection or intimation of that which can not be separate from all the other expression the Universe is.  Life as we know it can be considered as a large fabric woven of all the various expressions that in totality makes up what we know as reality.  Remember that science tells us that we have only identified about 8% of what makes up the Universe.  We have a long way to go yet in our exploration.  Dharma goes beyond this limited notion of reality to encompass both what we can know, and that which is unknown.

Some Buddhist traditions acknowledge the passing of the Buddha into nirvana, as an act of absolute deliverance from suffering as though it is a place or dimension somewhere.  They suggest some kind of termination of his manifestation in the human form to something “other”.  The danger in this belief is that it suggests a duel nature, something Siddhartha denies in his doctrine of not-self.  Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said, “For whatever can be named leads to dualism, and Buddhism is not dualistic.  To take hold of this notion of non-duality is the aim of Zen’.   Hui-neng’s teacher said, “One will not get rid of birth and death if one constantly thinks of other Buddha’s.  However, if one retains one’s mindfulness, one is sure to reach the further shore.”  In the Vajraccedika-parajnaparamita Sutra the Buddha states, “If any one wishes to see me in form, or to seek me in sound, this person is treading an evil path and he cannot see the Tathagata.”  His meaning here is only clearly understood if you also understand the term “further shore”.  Our practice must bring us to understanding and liberation from all attachments that act to distort our awakening to how the Universe is and we are in it, including the form of the Buddha too.  This recalls to mind the Zen expression “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

From a contemporary point of view, away from medieval logic, it can’t be said that the Buddha is revered and worshiped in either his human form or a Universal metaphysical expression.  Dharma is beyond all of these states of thinking.  So if we consider our human Buddha nature appropriating a specific definition, then it can not really be the Dharma.  On the other hand, if Buddha nature is given emptiness of definition and possession of absolute suchness, then we have an opportunity to awaken to Dharma.  Only from the Dharma we come to see the Buddha as he is, and not vice versa.