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.

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A Squirrel and the Dharma: Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pragmatism is not a modern phenomena. It is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. There is thee realization that pragmatism did not begin with Pierce’s labeling it, that other philosophers and teachers practiced it before it was named. Big names like Socrates, Aristotle and Hume . . . and Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method. It was a method of thought without a label.

William James, an early American pragmatic philosopher used an anecdote to explain the pragmatic method. Some years before he had been on a camping trip with a group of friends. Returning from a solitary hike in the surrounding woods he found a hot dispute going on among the men gathered around the camp fire. At the center of the argument was a squirrel – a live squirrel clinging to a nearby tree trunk. A human trying to get a glimpse of the squirrel would move around the tree in a clockwise direction. With each step around the squirrel would also move keeping the trunk between it and its pursuer. No matter how fast the man moved, the squirrel moved in the same direction always keeping the trunk between them. The dispute involved this question, “Does the man go round the squirrel or not?”

It was agreed by all that the man does go round the tree. The squirrel is on the tree. Does the man go round the squirrel, or only around the tree? Opinions were equally split. His friends looked to him to break the tie.

James’ response began with, “Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel.” He went on to illustrate. One view is of the man moving north to east to south to west, and then north again as the squirrel circles the tree south to west to north to east, and then south again. In this the man is going around. A view that going around the squirrel means to first be in front of, to the right of, behind, to the left of, and finally in front again means that the man did not go round the animal because as it circles the tree it’s belly is always toward the man. The answer lies in the practical perception of the concept of going around.

This is James’ example of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method, when applied to Buddhist philosophy and practice is to view each purposed thought through a lens of its probably causal consequences. James’ focus for the pragmatic method was its application to philosophical disputes. He experienced that those disputes became insignificant the moment they were subjected to the simple act of tracing the possible concrete consequences.

Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method whenever he remained silent regarding metaphysical questions. The realization that any answer would be theoretical meant it would have no practical value in moment-to-moment engagement with the world.

Siddhartha practiced pragmatism. He set aside the habitual reactivities of the Hindu faith and beliefs of his culture. He set aside any metaphysical questions, dogmatic principles, the closed caste system, the concept of absolutes, and the search for how it all began. Instead he turned toward what thoughts and actions could make a positive concrete difference in how human beings engaged themselves and the world around them. He applied the pragmatic method to action, not only to thought.

The pragmatic method arises in the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River”.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.” He engaged the pragmatic method. The senior monk set aside the dogma that declared “no touching women” and I can imagine the sequences of thoughts he processed. ‘The rule says no touching women’ but the Three Pure Precepts tell me to do good. Leaving the woman in fear on the bank of the river, with the possibility she might drown trying to cross on her own would do nothing to alleviate suffering. Assisting her in crossing will have the consequence of alleviating some of her suffering and will become a lesson for the younger monk. Considering the possible karmic consequences I choose to carry her across. I choose an appropriate view of the situation, a view that reveals the probable concrete consequences. I choose practical application of the ‘rule’ rather than a dogmatic one.

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.

Buddhist philosophy and American Pragmatic philosophy places a high degree of importance on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it focuses is “what we can do right now to make things better”. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

 

The story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening shows that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever practical method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

The Eightfold Path is an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a dogmatic blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and practically valuable. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.

 

Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most practical response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.

 

Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin, gilt or shame involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

 

The pragmatic method, both in thought or action requires a practitioner to be situational. There is practical value in developing an appropriate view of each situation and taking actions appropriate to the promotion of human flourishing. Whether one is ‘going around a squirrel’ or ‘carrying a woman across a river’ a Buddhist practitioner must always strive to take whatever action will have the most practical value, whatever action leads to the most positive causal consequences.

Why Am I A Buddhist . . . Why Are You A Buddhist?

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In St. Louis, Missouri a common question gets asked whenever strangers meet, “What high school did you graduate from?” The answer can make or break a possible friendship if one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day. The answer is important. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you reading this would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism the same you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.

Recently someone asked me, “Why are you a Buddhist?” Granted I’ve been asked this question before but it suddenly occurred to me that the reply that starts, “I found Buddhism because . . . your story goes here”, isn’t answering the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. Legitimate question, but having a legitimate answer requires me to listen deeply to myself, to be honest about why am I a Buddhist.

My response begins, “I practice Buddhism because . . .” and within those four words is a major reason why I am a Buddhist. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being and Buddhism offers me that opportunity through the guide offered by the Four Ennobling Truths and through how I choose to engage that guide in practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.

My response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause and effect of suffering – and that what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering and add impermanence and not-self are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of dependent origination – what we do matters – we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.

“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders personal and social positive effects. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters and that is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others. This is all about karmic consequences.

Acting pluralistically is the I and We. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters. It is engaging in thought and action that promote human flourishing that matters. What we do matters.

Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transition in the world.

The two words in the middle have their significance. I am a unique factor in dependent origination, and ‘because’ is causality, think ‘be causal’ . . . in a positive way. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew. Each moment, each experience and situation are also unique factors so I’m mindful of the WHAT. What is the reality of the situation and what would be the most harmonious action to take NOW.

The eight word sentence is a mirror of what keeps me on the path. Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and We of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters. My personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.

Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep and engaged Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.

I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”

FAIRNESS IS A DELUSION

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Universe is not wise, it is not compassionate, and it is certainly not fair. The Universe only acts from the causal conditions that occur within it. You only have to view the Universe through a lens that strips away delusion and personal perceptions to recognize these truths. This not only leads to the realization that bad things happen to good people, but that good things happen to bad people. You can be the best Buddhist you can possibly be and you will still encounter moments of suffering in life the Awakened One fully realized in the Four Ennobling Truths. You can be the worst type of human being possible and still encounter moments of joy and wonder that doesn’t seem deserved. This too is an aspect of the first of the Four Ennobling Truths. Doesn’t hardly seem fair . . . does it?

Ryugen Fisher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long, over his lifetime (and this continues today with his students and their students) created a list of Life Lessons that arose from his own experiences, or the experiences of others. I often refer to the list for insight, inspiration and a dose of spiritual humor. Rule #11, The Rule of Expectations, offers a view of fairness: Expecting life to treat you “fairly” because you’re a good person is like expecting the bull NOT to charge at you because you’re a vegetarian. Like the bull the Universe doesn’t care WHAT you are, it responds only to HOW you are.

RYUGEN1

Not sure where this perception of a fair Universe arose but it is believed by many who’ve been acculturated to the notion that the world is supposed to be inherently fair. You only have to look around to prove this belief is a delusion. Students struggle for high GPAs in high school and college only to find themselves without job opportunities. Some business people engage in illegal and immoral activities and become unimaginable wealthy. People live lives of exemplary compassion only to be struck down by genetic diseases. Innocent children are abused and abandoned. The Universe rolls along with human beings evolving within it, but we aren’t steering it. We have our role as part of its motive power but it also needs the bad weather, steep hills and earthquakes because they are just as important to the workings of the machine. So what if those things make our lives difficult, the machine is just the machine. This means from our perspective that the ideal of fairness is a delusion.

There is no compassion, wisdom or fairness inherent in the Universe. There is also no vengeance, ignorance, or bad intent inherent in the Universe. The perception of the Universe meting out cosmic justice or punishment is the result of a misunderstanding of the reality of HOW it works. What happens is causally conditioned by all the phenomena taking place each moment. There is no doubt you can take actions that lead to unwholesome consequences . . . which is why a Buddhist looks to the Three Pure Precepts (cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others) to guide us way from such actions. You don’t have any control over unwholesome decisions made by others, the arising of new diseases, or what the rest of the causal process of the Universe is doing. When bad things do happen you must avoid attaching to them the perception that it was because of something you did, and focus on practicing ways to make situations better. By realizing that the “fair Universe” concept is a delusion, and that you are not 100% of the karmic consequences, you will come to realize . . . and here comes the good part . . . that you have the ability to engage in wholesome transformation of your self and the global society you are interconnected with, and interdependent on.

You are not 100% of the karmic consequences . . . still, what you do matters. Life’s circumstances can sneak up on you. When you develop an awareness of the conditions under which difficulties arise, and that chances are there was no intent to directly harm you, though is may feel so, you become better prepared to accept them and take appropriate actions. Your actions do play a significant role in future experiences but your’s are a part of them, not the whole of them. Not only what you do matters, but what you control over what you do.

You are part of a causal web and the rest of the Universe is too. The concept of “personal karma”, while it has its validity, is an ideal not encompassing enough to recognize the broader reality of karmic influence. Causality, what makes karma a reality, is how the Universe reveals its neutrality. The Universe doesn’t add a view, an intent, an action, or any effort to make things happen. You are not a target of it. It is egoistic for you to believe things happen TO us, or that they happen FOR us. They happen as a result of nonlinear consequences of causality and you just happen to have a role in a particular experience.

The realization that you are part, but not the whole of the karmic web is actually empowering. It is why you engage in becoming the best possible you, the best possible example of a wise and compassionate human being. The “small” role as one thread interdependent on the threads of others whose intent and actions mesh with your own is how incremental wholesome transformations happen. The web becomes larger and the probability of snaring positive consequences increases exponentially. Things may not happen TO us, or FOR us, but they do happen BECAUSE of us. We are each unique expressions of the Universe and our actions within it have unique consequences.

With the knowledge that you play a role, no matter how small, comes the responsibility for your actions. What you do matters . . . negative, positive or neutral . . . how you act, how you respond is what makes personal practice so important. It is through intent and action that a sense of fairness will arise. Fairness arises as a result of awareness, compassion, generosity and acceptance.

You occupy a part of the karmic web and so have a responsibility to the strand you control. You must develop both mindfulness and awareness so you can overlay the “personal” with the “global” karma and find ways to improve both. You accept that there will be situations that you can, and can’t control. You learn to take wise actions to be the cause and effect of positive transformation whenever, and where ever the causal Universe offers you the opportunity.