The Interdependent World Buddhist Concept of Mutual Causality

R. Chari gives us a peep into Buddhist theory of causality.

R. Chari gives us a peep into Buddhist theory of causality.

Buddhism has made profound contributions in fields as far away from religion as neuroscience and psychiatry. Its contributions to Indian philosophy, logic, ontology and epistemology are well known. The subject of this article is the path breaking theory of causation that Buddha enunciated and was later refined by Buddhist scholars.

Most religio-philosophical traditions of the world fall (for our purposes) into two major camps. On one side are the religions where there is an immutable, eternal, Supreme Being. On the other is Buddhism which starts with the fundamental premise that everything is changing and dynamic and that there is nothing eternal.
It is not our purpose to go into Buddhism as a religion. However in order to provide some perspective on Buddhist philosophy it is necessary to briefly review its basic underpinnings called

The Four Noble Truths (catvari aryasatyani). It starts by asserting that existence is dukkha or dissatisfaction. The origin of this suffering is a manifold network of twelve conditional factors, known as nidanas that include tanha or craving or attachment to transient things (annica) and the ignorance of this (avidya). Finally it offers a practical (if difficult) path to ending this suffering. The cessation of suffering is possible through nirodha i.e. extinguishing all forms of clinging and attachment. The way to achieve this is through the Eightfold Path, which among other things involves training the mind to be in the moment and observing our own thoughts as they come and go.

It is in the process of developing a detailed map of how suffering arises that the Buddha elaborates his thesis on causation called “the theory of dependent origination” (paticcasamuppada). As the story goes, it is the theory of dependent origination that Buddha discovered on the night of his enlightenment. Buddha considered a true understanding of paticca-samuppada critical to being on the spiritual path. “Whoever sees paticca-samuppada sees the dhamma, whoever sees the dhamma sees the paticca-samuppada”.

Theory of Dependent Origination
In the early Pali canons the theory of dependent origination is presented very tersely as This being, that becomes Imasmim sati, idam hoti. From the arising of this, comes the arising of that. Imassuppada idam uppajjati. This not being, that becomes not Imasmim asati, idam na hoti. From the ceasing of this, that ceases.
Imassa nirodha, idham nirujjhati. So ingrained is our tendency to think in terms of linear causality, where A causes B, that it is easy to fall into the trap of interpreting paticca-samuppada in those terms and distort Buddha’s theory. In fact, Buddha himself fretted that his discovery was “against the stream of common thought, deep, subtle, difficult, delicate…”

Notice the careful choice of words in the four-part formula. It does not say A causes B, produces B or emerges from B – only that in the happening of A, B happens and in the ceasing of A, B ceases. Instead of the linear “A because B”, it is closer to “A when B”.

Secondly, note that the second and fourth parts of the formula include the verbs “arising” and “ceasing” that allow for the possibility of the new arising and the ceasing of the old. Buddha initially used this causal law to illustrate how suffering arises when any of the twelve conditioning factors (nidanas) are present.

More importantly he makes clear that when any of these factors are present the others are as well. In other words there is no first cause that leads to the others. There is no linear causality – each affects the others. In order to clarify this, one of Buddha’s disciples compares these causal factors to two sheaves of reeds leaning against each other. “If friend, I were to pull towards me one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall; if I were to pull towards me the other, the former would fall.”

Buddha also makes clear that this causal law is objective and not dependent on perception. “Whether, brethren, there be an arising of Tathagathas, or whether there be no such arising, this nature of things just stands, this causal status, this causal orderliness.”

One of the consequences of mutual causality is that everything is in constant flux affecting and affected by everything. This in turn means that nothing is permanent. As the early Buddhist scriptures put it succinctly – sabbe annica; all is  impermanent. This is where Buddhist philosophy departs radically from other philosophies of its time. Indeed, according to Buddhist worldview it is our hankering for permanence, epitomized by the ending of all fairy tales with “happily ever after” that sets up the conditions for our suffering.

The Buddhist view of causality is that of a reciprocal process – the emphasis being on relations rather than substance. All causes are interrelated and no one factor is seen to be the cause of anything. The early Pali texts give many examples to illustrate this. “From the adjusted friction of two sticks, heat is born, a spark is brought forth, but from the separating and withdrawing of just those two sticks, the heat which as consequent, that ceases, that is quenched.”

Linear causality leads to problems of what the first cause is. So if A caused B, you could ask what caused A and lead to an infinite regress. What came first – the chicken or the egg? From the perspective of Dependent Origination when the conditions were right in the primordial soup, the chicken sprang forth and endless speculative metaphysics bring us no closer to ending the suffering that is human existence. After Buddha’s death his teachings were codified and systemized.

Later scholars took a very scholastic approach to his teachings. Nagarjuna refined Buddha’s negative dialectic into a central pillar of the “Middle Way” (madhyamika) school of Buddhist philosophy. In this later Indian phase of Buddhism, Buddhist scholars started expanding the scope of Dependent Origination to explain not just how the human mind works but also how the world operates. Thus in the Lankavatara-sutra, Buddha’s insight of the origins of suffering through Dependent Origination is made into a particular case in a bigger picture of cosmic causality. Causal relations are now divided into new categories – prominently into external (objective) and internal (subjective, psychological) factors.

It is interesting that the interdisciplinary fields of Systems Theory and Emergent Phenomena take as starting points, axioms that are very similar to Dependent Origination. These fields try to explain the behavior of complex systems from a set of simple axioms. In this spirit, the time may be right to apply the Theory of Dependent Origination to issues facing modern India. As an example we could ask what would Buddha have answered if he were asked what the causal factors are that lead to communal violence?

Here is a short list of books for a determined beginner to get his bearings on Buddhist philosophy:
1. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism by T.R.V. Murti
2. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General System Theory by Joanna Marcy
3. Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara-sutra by Florin Giripescu Sutton
4. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Jay Garfield
5. Nagarjuna’s “Seventy Stanzas” by David Ross Komito
6. Nonduality; A Study in Comparative philosophy. by David Loy
7. Nagarjuna in Context. By Joseph Walser
8. The Heart of Buddhist Philosophy: Dignaga and Dharmakirti by Amar Singh

Dr. R. Chari is a statistical analyst working in Wall Street

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *