The Noble Truth of Dukkha Part Caught in the Causal Matrix

Master Karma

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We have so far considered two of the three aspects of Dukkha. First, life inevitably entails a great deal of suffering. This ranges from the acute (produced by wars, famines, disease, etc.) to the commonplace (feelings that frequently wash over us: grouchiness, fear, anger, boredom, depression, aches and pains, loneliness, etc.). Second, although suffering is frequently not experienced, it is always potential. The angel of suffering, so to speak, lurks about us even in the best of times.

The third aspect is perhaps the most subtle. There is a causal character throughout Hindu and Buddhist thinking. It is not uncommon to read metaphors like: "The person in this world of Dukkha is like a leaf blown by the wind." Or " like a cork bobbing in the ocean, pushed this way, now that, by the waves." We have already discussed the concept of Karma, which holds that our current suffering, circum-stances, and actions are the consequences of past lives. This is nicely illustrated in a scene from a Japanese film.1

A powerful warlord had, in his youth, attained to this power by ruthlessly destroying any person or family that had blocked his ambitions. On the palace grounds lived

'This scene occurs in a Japanese film that I saw several years ago. While I vividly remember the scene I have been unable to remember or to locate the film itself. A similar exchange, however, occurs in the film Ran by Kurasawa.

now a young woman, a Buddhist devotee, who was a daughter from one of these vanquished families. One day the two stopped to converse. The warlord said to her, "I did terrible deeds in my youth and many people now hate me. But you are different. I had your parents killed and your brothers exiled. Yet, you never show hatred or ill-will toward me." The Buddhist replied "How can I hate you? You only did what your Karma made you do."

This story illustrates the causal character of Karma. However, we may look ahead, and note another feature in this exchange. When one has the determinative sense of another, this sense of that person's actions arising from a matrix of forces, then one does not experience hatred.

Another example of the matrix of forces in which action occurs is seen in the concept of universal interdependence. A contemporary Buddhist monk from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, has described Siddhartha Gautama's life and the subsequent history of the Buddha in a clear poetic form. Thich Nhat Hanh (1991, p. 115) describes one of Siddhartha's insights as he was coming to enlightenment:

He looked up at a pippala leaf imprinted against the blue sky, its tail blowing back and forth as if calling him. Looking deeply at the leaf, he saw clearly the presence of the sun and stars—without the sun, without light and warmth, the leaf could not exist. This was like this, because that was like that (italics added). He also saw in the leaf the presence of clouds—without clouds, there could be no rain, and without rain, the leaf could not be. He saw the earth, time, space, and mind—all were present in the leaf. In fact, at that very moment, the entire universe existed in that leaf.

This interdependence applies, of course, to all life, including each human life. Siddhartha's meditating where and when he did was dependent on the four signs (chap. 3) he had experienced on that fateful ride with Channa. All of us can see how our present circumstance exquisitely depends on prior events.

I once had a friend who was relating the utter mismatch of his parents. Weary from hearing their perpetual squabbling, he intoned "They never should have married." I thought "And who would be standing here talking to me now?"

Note, incidentally, that the marriage of this couple, some 80 years ago in Russia, was affecting me then and is affecting you, the reader, right now.

There is, then, a sense of causality, of a matrix of forces, so long as we are in the world of Dukkha. In particular, our inner life is at the mercy of those forces. Someone insults us and we experience anger; someone cheats us and we brood for a day and a lose a night's sleep; we experience disgust, fear, fhistration as a result of various events. Thus, our inner life is like a leaf blown by the wind.

The complete conception of Dukkha, then, is as follows: We are each of us caught in a matrix, a universe of forces that frequently produces our unhappiness. That unhappiness can range from the acute (inconsolable grief, desperate hunger, excruciating pain, etc.) to the commonplace (feeling blue, grouchy, bored). Even in those times when the suffering is not directly experienced, its potentiality is inherent in that matrix.

This causal vision also brings the Buddhist conception closer to the western scientific world outlook. All of science (with the curious exception of parts of quantum theory) has as its foundation "this is like this because that was like that." For example, the gravitational pull of the moon causes the tides, a spirochete causes syphilis, and optic-nerve firing causes activity in occipital cortex. In the 20th century, psychological processes have also come within this deterministic framework. Thus, two of the world's most influential psychological theorists, Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, and B.F.Skinner, the Behaviorist, both characterize human activity as a product of specifiable dynamics. Both are self-described "determinists."

About 30 years ago, I was friendly with two people, a brother and sister, who were in their late 20s. They told me with bitterness about "Pop," their late father (he had been dead some 5 years), and about how much they hated him. He had tyrannized them. He had verbally and physically abused them. They described incidents of his throwing rocks at them and chasing them with knives. The son swore (the father, remember, was dead more than 5 years) "If Pop walked into this room, now I'd kill him." I later described this conversation to a colleague of mine, a clinical psychologist. He remarked, "I wonder what Pop's parents were like."

He was suggesting, of course, that Pop had not freely chosen to be a villainous child abuser. He had been molded by a set of conditions, including the way he himself had been raised, that stunted him. It left him with an uncontrollable temper and taught him only to use force with children.

Psychotherapists see patients with emotional problems. One of the standard concerns is what caused these problems. In short, modern psychology, like Buddhism, views the human as "caught" in a matrix of forces. These forces affect both the pain we experience and our actions.

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