More on cause-and-effect

In the weeks since my last post, the world has continued to flow from event to event to event—you’ve probably noticed.  Our cat Cosmo has recovered well from his dangerous adventure, though he’s been treating the other cats in the neighborhood like kind of a jerk; I caught him snarling and clawing at one in the driveway yesterday.  The family of Rafael Garcia, the man who was murdered around the corner, has moved a bunch of belongings away in a truck.  I haven’t seen anyone there lately—I can’t tell if the apartment is still occupied or not.  And I’ve continued to think about causes and effects, the Buddhist tradition’s teachings on karma and time, the various ways I might hold and practice with the fact that one thing leads to another, inexorably, forever.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about the way that any event is both effect and cause, both end and beginning, and playing with the different practice-feeling of stressing one side or the other.

So on the one hand it’s possible to take an event, an experience, as a karmic resultant, to frame it as the end of an infinite series of causes.  Pure result.  I think the Diamond Sutra points to this in the bit about scorn and revilement—and the fact that the line is presented as a koan in both the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity seems to me to underscore its importance.  Here’s Cleary’s version, from case 58 of the Book of Serenity:

The Diamond-Cutter Scripture says, “If someone is reviled by others, this person has done wicked acts in previous ages and should fall into evil ways, but because of the scorn and revilement of people in the present age, the wicked deeds of past ages are dissolved.”

I might respond to this differently as a koan in the interview room, but as wise advice from the tradition, I find it a beautiful way to hold and transform difficulty.  It moves me towards gratitude, towards acceptance.  How lucky I am to experience this difficulty, I might think.  How lucky to have the opportunity to face this difficulty in the context of practice, and how clarifying to see that this difficulty is at the very end of a long and mysterious set of causes—those old wicked deeds from past ages.

On the other hand, it’s possible to take an event, an experience, as the beginning of a series—as a setting into motion, a knocking over of a first domino.  I think of the Dhammapada on this point:

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a corrupted mind,

And suffering follows

As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a peaceful mind,

And happiness follows

Like a never-departing shadow.

As I say, I’ve been playing with this—considering the act of writing these words as the end result of a universe of causes, or considering the act of writing these words as the beginning cause of a universe of effects.  For me each has a very different feeling, a different resonance in my body and mind and it’s lovely and powerful to toggle between them, to play.  Finally, though, both of these stories about karma—past causes leading to present effects or present causes leading to future effects—are stories about time, and in some ways simple-minded stories about time, as if time only moved from past to future in a straightforward way, separate from events.

It’s here on the topic of time, after all, that Dogen’s teaching, for me, is most profound, most life-altering, most expressive.  Time doesn’t only move in one direction.  Time doesn’t separate out from being.  Events don’t unroll in time—events are time.  Unrolling is time.  Causes are time; effects are time.  From Uji:

The time-being has the quality of flowing.  So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today.  And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

More and more it seems to me that the study of karma, of cause and effect, is most basically the study of time—and this takes me back smack-dab into Uji, for which all I can feel is gratitude.


3 thoughts on “More on cause-and-effect

  1. Thanks, Dave, for these elegant and tantalizing thoughts — tantalizing because I, for one, would like to hear a whole lot more about how Uji fits together with linear notions of karma. (“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” comes to mind.) Such linear notions seem to collide with the more holistic (less dualistic) “causes and conditions.” I mean, how much stock are we to put in the idea that our present suffering is caused by our past ‘wickedness’? To consider history in this way would require a primal “fall” for the whole human race, wouldn’t it? Otherwise we assign blame (responsibility) to persecuted populations rather than to the persecutors. For me, karma is only metaphoric rather than philosophic. And, by the same token, “causes and conditions” is so general as to have no prescriptive power, but it’s helpful because it moves us away from the egoism of linear causality. In the end, it seems to me that living a playful, unburdened life is mostly about ethics, which is to say, the Golden Rule — the cornerstone of all religions. Like the man said, even a child knows it’s the truth but an adult has a damned hard time doing it.

  2. Thank you Hondo! This is a very provocative text for me. I still wonder what does the concept “mind” means, if it´s a psychological or ontological expression for something.

  3. Hi, Merrill–thanks so much for the comment. I love your phrase “a playful, unburdened life.” That’s really nice. And your insight that a life like that is a deeply ethical life. As far as the various conceptions of karma go–linear, holistic, metaphorical, through many lifetimes, etc.–I was really interested at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference in Oregon a few weeks ago to hear a long, lively, wide-ranging discussion about exactly these points in the Q & A after one of the talks. We just talked and talked and talked. It seems that sorting out what to do with this teaching of karma–how we hold it, how we practice with it, understand it–is right at the heart of what we’re doing on the Way. I’m continuing to think about karma and time–I’m sure I’ll come back to this in future posts. Hope you’ll continue to weigh in as well!

    And Andres, that question about Mind is rich enough to explore for a lifetime! For Dogen, I’m pretty sure, it has both psychological and ontological dimensions. Probably other dimensions as well . . .

    Bowing, bowing,

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