Friday, December 18, 2009

Mutual Causality

Causality is about how things happen; it's about causes. Much of philosophy, religion, and science view cause and effect in a linear pattern. A causes B which in turn causes C.

As I began a recent, deeper study of Buddhist thinking, I ran into something called 'dependent origination'. The Dalai Lama, for example, claims that it is very important to be aware of dependent origination in order to develop compassion. I read people who claim this is one of the key concepts in Buddhist teachings. I couldn't figure out what it meant. I need to thank my friend Robert, both for loaning me the book that I am reviewing here--Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory by Joanna Macy--as well as giving me some of his own writings on a variety of Buddhist topics, including dependent origination, which he refers to as 'Interdependent Co-arising'. Robert's choice of words was influenced by Joanna Macy's book. She, herself, uses the term 'dependent co-arising'. All these terms--dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, and dependent co-arising--relate to Buddha's view of the 'self' and of the world.

One of the traditional Indian views is that none of these really exist; they are all illusion, Maya. This is different from Western views that either claim only the self exists, or that the material world exists and is solid and studiable. Buddha, in early teachings, claims that none of these are true. Things, and the self, exist, but only in relationship. There is nothing solid, there is only process. Dependent origination/interdependent co-arising is the belief that everything is made of other stuff and nothing exists on its own. Two sheaves of reeds leaning against each other and a tripod of three sticks are a couple of the metaphors used to explain this. Remove any one of the sheaves or sticks and the rest fall down. They are dependent on each other. Similarly, the 'Self' does not exist on its own. There would be no self without a mind and there would be no self without a body. (And there would be no mind without a brain, but the mind is not the brain; just as there would be no body without cells, but the body is more than just a collection of cells.) The claim is that if you examine anything to see what it is, the thing disappears into a web of relationships. And the same is true of cause and effect. Nothing is caused by one thing, it is caused by a combination of factors, which it then influences. This is mutual causality.

This sounds a lot like what I learned as 'co-evolution' and it is. Joanna Macy goes on to point out that General System Theory (aka cybernetics, complexity theory, etc--see my last post) sees everything as connected to everything else and everything influencing everything else. In a systemic viewpoint, no one thing causes another thing, rather everything 'emerges' from relationships. (If you take everything down to the smallest level that we have been able to understand--subatomic 'particles'--everything is composed of quarks and leptons, which seem to be more like energy relationships than 'particles'.) Everything is a system in which 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts'. Joanna Macy uses Arthur Koesler's term holon (both a whole and a part) to explain this--seeing systems as 'nested boxes' or an "inverted tree... where systems branch downward into subsystems". Macy also mentions the metaphors of Heraclitus's 'ever-changing river' and of fire and flame (Buddha was supposed to have said "Everything... is burning...") to illustrate the continually-in-process (as opposed to solid and stable) nature of reality.

The language of this book is dry and academic. Joanna Macy's other writings are anything but dry; however here she is writing for an academic audience. (The book was originally published by the State University of New York.) But the ideas in this book make it worth reading. Macy ties the critiques of Buddhism and General Systems Theory together to totally undercut linear views of causality. In successive chapters, she looks at the Co-Arising of 'Knower and Known', 'Body and Mind', and 'Doer and Deed'. But it is in the last three chapters of Mutual Causality that she focuses on social change. The first of these chapters is entitled "The Co-Arising of Self and Society". She points out that we only exist in relation to others and society only exists in relation to each of us. This leads to her chapter on "Mutual Morality"--as I pointed out in one of my earliest posts ('Two Basic Principles', 6/30/08) if we really believe that everything is connected, then our self interest lies in helping others and making sure that the social and natural worlds function well. She ends the book with a chapter on "The Dialectics of Personal and Social Transformation": in changing ourselves we change our world, and in changing our world we change ourselves. There is what I see as a large feminist core here--one I can relate to Cris Williamson's "'re flowing like a river, the changer and the changed..." and Shekinah Mountainwater's "We are the weavers, we are the web..."

Of course each of us is small and Society is big--so individually it changes us more than we change it. But I am reminded also of Holly Near's lyrics to "The Rock will Wear Away": "Can we be like drops of water, Falling on the stone, Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air, Weaker than the stone by far but be aware, That, As time goes by, The rock will wear away..."

Quote of the Day: "From the cybernetic perspective, then, ends are open-ended. Their value for us is not as states we much [sic] achieve, come what may, or blueprints by virtue of which we manipulate persons and objects, but as ever-unfolding visions of what is valuable. The means we employ to realize the vision are steps taken in consequence of it. And each step expands or alters this vision, for what is realized, made real, are the acts themselves. ... For in mutual causality, whether viewed religiously or scientifically, the views we hold are ... present realities, unfolding out of the core of our existence and capable of transforming it in the present moment." - Joanna Macy

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