Buddhist Analysis: Application of the Causality Scheme

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Suffering and Rebirth

The Buddhist teachings teach us methods for overcoming various types of suffering. We have the general suffering of unhappiness, which can accompany either our sensory experiences or also our mental experiences. We also have a problem with our ordinary type of happiness, because it never satisfies, we never have enough, and we soon get bored with it and it turns into unhappiness. If we eat too much of our favorite food, in the beginning we might be happy with that, but then after a while, if we eat too much we become very unhappy. This up and down of our lives, with which we sometimes feel unhappy, sometimes we feel happy – these are things that occur in every rebirth that we have – uncontrollably recurring rebirth, regardless of what life for we might have. The proportion and intensity of happiness and unhappiness of course will vary; that is according to the life form we have, and more deeply according the various karmic potentials which have led to that rebirth. But on a deeper level, we have what’s known as the all-pervasive suffering; it is the suffering of having that uncontrollably recurring rebirth that acts as the basis for experiencing unhappiness and what’s called tainted happiness.

Confusion and the Importance of Deconstruction and Correct Understanding

So, we need to understand this whole detailed presentation of the two truths and the self and the detailed explanation of cause and effect – all in terms of helping us to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth, gain liberation, and then to go beyond to gain enlightenment. We are confused about how we exist, how others exist – the Prasangika view – and we’re also confused about all of reality, the two truths. Also, we are confused about what we are experiencing in terms of all the various causes that go into bringing about the various components of the aggregates of each moment of our experience. Because we are confused about this – either we don’t know or understand in an incorrect way – then that is the deeper source of all our problems. So it’s very important to deconstruct the deceptive appearances that we have of anything that we’re experiencing in each moment. That means:

  • deconstructing the appearances themselves – for that we need to understand the two truths
  • deconstructing the deceptive appearance of ourselves who are experiencing the two truths
  • deconstructing, in terms of causality, how these appearances are arising – what are various causes for them
  • understanding as well how all of this together dependently arises based on these causes, conditions and parts
  • integrating all this together to establishing how we exist.

All these topics fit together in a very practical way, although when we look at some point by point we find that it can be quite intellectually challenging. But it’s always important when approaching this type of material to understand the purpose of it. The purpose, as I said, for Buddha’s teaching is not to bore people or to confuse people, but to help them to overcome suffering. So, when studying this material and going deeper into it, it’s is very important always to approach it from the point of view of how can this help myself and others to overcome various types of suffering, and on the deepest level to overcome this all-pervasive suffering of taking uncontrollable rebirth with more unhappiness and more problems and more tainted happiness and more dissatisfaction and so on. How can I help others to obtain liberation from this as well?

How long is it going to take? When we hear that it’s going to take three zillion eons of buildup of positive force, this helps us to not get discouraged. We might think that it would make you discouraged but actually it’s to help us not to get discouraged. Why do we get discouraged? We get discouraged when we expect instant results. When we don’t get instant results or results after one or two years, then we get discouraged. This teaching of how long it’s going to take helps us to develop the heroic strength and effort to just go on and on and on, no matter how long it takes.

This heroic effort is the Sanskrit term virya, which is sometimes translated as “joyful perseverance,” and I used that translation as well. But it’s slightly incomplete translation. If we look at the Sanskrit word, it is related to the word “vira,” which is the word for “hero.” This is related to the Latin word “vir,” which means “man,” and in English we have the word “virile,” which means “manly.” So, the connotation here is a heroic, manly effort, which women of course can do as well – it has nothing to do with gender – but this strong heroic effort that, they say, is like a suit of armor that is going to protect us from discouragement. So, we need a lot of courage to embark on the path to liberation and enlightenment – that is the connotation of this term. Of course, we have to persevere and of course we have to take joy in what we’re doing; not find it to be terrible, like a nasty task that we have to do. So, let’s all put on our suit of armors and return to the rest of this presentation of cause and effect.

The Different Pieces That Make Up Our Experience

What we are trying to describe here is the way in which all the various components within the five aggregates that made up each moment of our experience – how did they come about? In other words, we have a moment of experience. The critical point in that, if we think in terms of rebirth and generating more and more problems, is the level of happiness or unhappiness that we’re experiencing in that moment. We have to watch out not to develop this thirst, and then this strong thinking in terms of “me” and identifying with what’s going on. “I have to get rid of this” – making it into a big “me, me, me” trip – “My happiness,” “I have to be happy,” “I have to get my way,” “Everybody has to pay attention to me” – this type of experience.

And you know how that can degenerate into “I’m unhappy because you’re not paying attention to me,” “You should pay attention to me,” “You should love me,” “Love me for myself, not for anything else” – and it just degenerates further and further. Then we are miserable, and it just perpetuates our problems, doesn’t it? “Love me for myself,” as if there could be a self that exists independently from our body, our mind, our personality, etc. – we get into that way of thinking. And then what comes about is all the compulsion, so you have to say something and so you say it to the other person – that’s karma. Karma is that compulsion that drives you to say something, and you’re not in control, so there’s a disturbing emotion that’s there. Then all sorts of trouble come from just saying something that really is causing the other person to just go further away.

When we are experiencing happy or unhappy, which we experience every moment – some level of that as part of the aggregates – we have to understand where that is coming from, what the cause of it is. We need to understand that we have this ripening cause that comes from destructive or tainted constructive behavior, which means that it’s behavior dominated by some disturbing emotion and disturbing attitude. Where did that come from?

There were omnipresent causes and equal status causes – well, there’s a whole tendency to be like that; there’s a tendency of the disturbing emotion that comes from previous instances of I’ve gotten into a bad habit. We understand how that has arisen.

There were those karmic tendencies from which the happiness or unhappiness arose – the natal source, the loaf of bread out of the oven – and the tendencies of the disturbing emotions out of which anger or attachment arose. That’s coming from these obtaining causes.

They’re all these simultaneously acting contributing conditions. “That other person came to me and they ignored me” and “They did this” or “They did that” – all of that fits into that other category of acting causes. This is a circumstance in which this incident, in which I said, “You don’t love me” and blah blah blah – that arose. So the acting causes – remember, that means everything other than the result that somehow contributed to what happened.

And, of course, there are the indirect antecedent causes as well, like that person’s mother. If that person’s mother hadn’t given birth to that person, that person would never have come and said this or that to me. So, we have all sorts of causes and conditions there.

And remember, we had these immediate causes and then we had the long-term causes. The immediate cause – and we can think in terms of conditions as well – the immediate cause was what this person said to me. But the longer-term cause was the whole history of our relationship, which is very important to remember. Often, we forget the whole scope of our relationship with somebody else and the whole history of it. We just take this immediate thing that happened right now and identify the whole relationship with that and forget about all the good things and positive things in that relationship, don’t we? That’s because we don’t understand immediate causes and long-term causes and whole circumstances and so on; we’re just too narrow in.

We also had congruent causes. In that moment in which we are unhappy with what that other person said, or that they ignored us, we tend to think of that moment as something really solid, as if it didn’t happen in parts. We have to go back to Vaibhashika now – of course it has parts, but it seems as though it doesn’t have parts. We’re referring here to parts of that moment of experience; we are identifying that whole moment just with unhappiness. Congruent causes – there’s the primary consciousness, there is a whole set, the whole network, of other mental factors that are contributing to that moment of experience. If we understand all the mental factors that are involved, then in that moment we don’t identify the whole moment just with the unhappiness. We’re paying attention to what the person said. Maybe I wasn’t paying such good attention and I didn’t hear correctly what they said. And there’s unawareness there – “This person ignored me,” for example, well I wasn’t aware of maybe they were busy with something else or maybe they had headache – I have no idea. So there’s unawareness in the moment as well; and naivety; and also perhaps the mood that I’m in, which is contributing to that unhappiness, and which is coming from what happened earlier in the day – I’m really tired or we had something that didn’t go the way that I wanted it to at work or whatever. So that contributes to unhappiness.

We deconstruct all the different pieces then make up that moment. So instead of looking at this moment so simplistically – “I’m unhappy, the cause of this is that you ignored me,” period – then we understand the much larger scope of the situation and we don’t make a big deal out of it, basically.

On Whose Side Are the Causes?

We might wonder if this analysis leads us to the conclusion that we are the cause of everything that happens to us. But this is not the case. Let’s go back to the tenet systems. Looking at this from the Chittamatra point of view, there are no externally established phenomena, so we’re just dealing with our minds. But even within the context of Chittamatra, the other person is truly established. We know it’s only in the context of our cognition of the person that we can speak about them. But even within Chittamatra, that other person, within the context of our cognition, has truly established existence, and the appearance of that person has come from all sorts of causes and conditions on their side. So still it’s not all my fault, their behavior; it’s not my karma that caused them to ignore me. Remember, my karma causes me to experience them ignoring me, but their karma causes them to ignore me.

And so, when we analyze we understand all the causes from my side and from the other person’s side, and how that has dependently arisen from this combination. When we understand all that, then we don’t become upset. We’re upset usually because we are naive – we do not know how we exist and project something impossible. But with correct understanding, we don’t develop a disturbing emotion. A disturbing emotion – remember, when it arises makes us lose peace of mind and lose self-control, so then compulsively we do something stupid. We keep our calmness in that situation, we keep our self-control, and then we’re able to handle it.

We may feel unhappy, but that’s because of previous karmic causes. As I said, so what that I’m unhappy. Sometimes I’m unhappy – nothing special. Don’t get thrown by it. In a calm state of mind, then deal with the situation – whatever is troubling you. Do whatever is appropriate and in that way you’re not acting compulsively.

Meditating on the Dependent Arising of Cause and Effect

It is important to know how to meditate on what we’ve been discussing. We have many different types of meditation in Buddhism. One division is called shamatha and another vipashyana. You might have heard these terms.

  • Shamatha is a stilled and settled the mind: it’s still and quieted of mental dullness and flightiness of mind, distraction – these sorts of things. It is settled, so it stays on the object and doesn’t move; it’s perfect concentration. The body and mind feel very light and flexible; they can be used for anything.
  • Vipashyana is in addition to that, within that state, to be able to discern fine details. Literally the term vipashyana means “an exceptionally perceptive state of mind.”

Those are what the final states of these two are; but we can practice now to achieve them. How do we meditate on everything that we have been discussing?

  • We need to hear about this analysis of causality and get the information correct.
  • Then we need to think about it and understand it correctly.
  • Moreover, we need to have not only understood it, but we need also to believe that it’s true, and that this is something that will be helpful; that I want to be able to master this system.
  • Then we practice analyzing. Like you were saying, in this particular moment we’ll analyze what it is made up of and so on. We can’t just do that on the spot when we’re interacting with somebody, but later, when in reflection we sit and we analyze what was going on and deconstruct it.
  • Once we have familiarized ourselves with that deconstruction, then shamata practice is that we focus on a particular situation and we focus on it with a certain understanding. That understanding is that it has arisen dependently on a tremendous amount of parts and causes.

When we speak of dependent arising, there are four levels of it. So, first, the level of the twelve links of dependent arising – this very complex system of the happiness and unhappiness, karma and so on. And then dependence on causes – so all the little parts of what we experienced have come from different causes, and depend on parts as well. And then it’s a “problem” in terms of mental labeling; the problem is what the label “problem” refers to. But there’s nothing on the side of all these parts and causes that has established it from its side as a problem.

So, we’ve understood that, and all that we do with shamatha is that we focus on that situation with that understanding that it has arisen dependently in terms of the twelve links and causes and parts and mental labeling, but without discerning any of the details; just that understanding that it has dependently arisen. It’s only once we’ve had that container of perfect concentration that we can discern all the details and not lose our concentration – that’s vipashyana. But if we have practiced over and over again and built up this beneficial habit through meditation – that’s the meaning of meditation – of shamatha on focusing on the problem in terms of it being dependently arisen, then in our daily life we can apply that understanding in a situation, even before we’ve attained the full state of shamatha and perfect concentration.

In other words, here’s a situation: I’m happy, but then I’m starting to get upset about something. At that point, we apply mindfulness. Mindfulness is the mental glue to remember what we developed in meditation. And we see, we focus, we understand that this situation has arisen based on the twelve links, causes, parts, and mental labeling. We don’t have to analyze the details of it; it doesn’t matter at this point. But we need understanding. Merely to say that it’s dependent arising doesn’t mean anything – that’s just an audio category; it’s just a word, but no meaning is associated to it. We need some correct understanding of what dependent arising means in that moment, even though we don’t discern all the details. We could discern some of them if we wanted to, but not at that moment; it’s not relevant. So then, just with that understanding, we can dissolve our difficulty and we get calm. And then, we use our intelligence to do what the intelligent thing to do is in that situation, not compulsively.

So, the real mindfulness meditation is to try to always keep this understanding in our minds, which means to remember it, which means the mental glue, so that in any situation, no matter what is happening, we understand that it has dependently arisen. And we if we wanted to, we could analyze it, but even without detailed analysis, we understand what it’s all about. If we get really highly evolved with vipashyana, then in each moment we’ll be able to discern all the causes as well, but that’s a super advanced level.

It’s the same thing in terms of understanding the self who is experiencing this moment. Again, if we have understood that, and the two truths that are involved – if we understood that and worked it with it, then in that moment, we’re able to keep mindfulness of that as well. That’s shamatha on voidness. We don’t have to actually discern all those details; we have to discern it before, but then in that moment we just – pah! – cut out all this confusion.

The danger of course is that we become sloppy and then we forget the meaning. So we have to familiarize ourselves with the meaning over and over again, which means we have to just continue to practice over and over again – make a heroic effort because of the habit of our confusion and compulsiveness. These habits are very, very strong, and they’ve been going on with no beginning, remember? The self and the mental continuum have no beginning, so they build up a tremendous force and that has to be overcome. That’s why we mentioned before: we have to build up this network of positive force through meditation and through actually doing things to help others. That builds up the counteracting positive force to overcome the negative force from our previous negative habits.


Dealing with Situations Pertaining to the Self

If you are in a situation that pertains to the self, is it perhaps helpful to distance yourself from the situation by imagining rather than the situation happening to me, it’s happening to a friend of mine?

If we have a false view, an incorrect view, of the self, then whether we’re analyzing the situation imagining it happening to me or happened to somebody else, it would be the same. But, of course, the strength of being upset will be less if it’s with somebody else than if it is with yourself. So, in a sense it might be easier to analyze, but still you need to analyze.

I find that a more conductive way in dealing with such things is rather than the variable of changing from “this happening to me or this happening to you,” to change it from taking it personally to analyzing it impersonally. We have to understand what “impersonal means.” There’s still a self involved, but you don’t take it personally in terms of “me, me, me,” – this false “me” and “Why is this happening to me?”

I’ll give an example: you are at work and your boss yells at you: “Work faster – we have all this work to do – why are you so slow?!” and so on. Don’t take it personally. In other words, don’t see it all as being focused on “me, me, me” and thinking of it only in the scope of “me.” That’s taking it personally – “Why is he yelling at me?” Rather, take it impersonally in terms of here’s the situation, and the boss is being affected by this condition and that condition and what happened to the boss in the morning with his family and economics and a million causes – all these acting causes. But also we analyze from our side: maybe I am doing something wrong, maybe I am working too slowly, maybe I was distracted by email or Facebook or Twitter or who knows what’s going on in our computer and screen at the same time. And so the self is still involved in the situation and you see what can I do to improve it and what’s going on with the boss, so I understand and then you deal with the situation intelligently. But this is what I mean by taking it impersonally. You’re still involved, but it’s not all revolving around “me.”

Conceptual Thought and Ideas

During our life we have certain concepts, for example the concept of a man or a woman, and these concepts are changing through our lifetime. Is it because I have these concepts, particularly at the time of death, that then these are the cause for first the thirst to receive a certain kind of rebirth and the thirst for not receiving some kind of rebirth, and that then produces the actual rebirth?

What you’re talking about is conceptual thought, and conceptual thought is, as we’ve seen, with categories. An idea is something that represents the category. That’s what an idea is. So, you have a category of man or a category of a woman and you have something that represents it – that’s your idea of what a man or a woman should be.

Is it changing?

You can change what represents the category. The idea will change; the category doesn’t – it’s still the category of “man” or “woman.” Do you see how Buddhism would analyze what you’re saying? There’s the category “man” or “woman,” and then there is your idea of what a man or a woman is, so that represents the category. And that representation can change over your lifetime; it can develop. So now the question is, what brings about thirsting and one of these obtainer attitudes? And if I have a particular attachment to a certain type of life – I’d like to be reborn as a man or a woman – how does that affect the whole process? That gets a little bit complicated.

You have an idea of a man or a woman – let’s say a woman. And you think of a woman. With that idea – what you have that represents a woman or womanhood – you exaggerate the good qualities of it, and you identify womanhood with those positive qualities and ignore the negative qualities, the shortcomings. On the basis of that, you develop attachment for being a woman. And on the basis of that, it affects your behavior, it affects how you speak and so on. That builds up karmic potentials, karmic tendencies.

Now, at the time of death, we have some feeling, happy or unhappy – we have thirst with respect to that – “I want this feeling” or “I don’t want this feeling”; and then the big emphasis on “me, me, me” – “I don’t want this” or “I want it,” “I don’t want to die” and similar thoughts that arise at the time of death for many people – it will activate a whole cluster of karmic tendencies. One of them that it could  activate is the karmic tendencies from your behavior based on attachment to being a woman. That will affect your type of rebirth that you have, if it is really dominant, and then you will be reborn as a woman.

Now, it doesn’t have to be a samsaric process. If you think of the account of Tara – this Buddha in a woman’s form – that without that attachment, without that exaggeration, in order to help women, she vowed, “May I always be born as a woman” to encourage women on their spiritual path – on the basis of that wish to be reborn as a woman, she was always reborn as a woman after that, but not in a samsaric type of way.

The important difference is whether we have an unrealistic view of being a woman or being a man, in which you only look at the positive side and ignore the shortcomings; or you have a realistic view. The realistic view is no problem; everything has positive aspects and shortcomings.