Last night I listened to a podcast that stirred up the depths of me. It was a forty-minute teaching from Buddhist Monk Ajahn Viradhammo recorded at a monastery outside of Ottawa.
The topic was on dependent origination. It’s this idea that everything that emerges in our experience is causally dependent on that which precedes it.
Blind to us at any time is a multitude of causal factors that push reality precisely in a particular direction. As conscious agents, however, we have this felt sense that we choose what to think, how to feel, and what to do–thereby manufacturing reality as we experience it. When something embarrassing happens–like last week when I spent the duration of my workout with chalk dust on my ass– we regret that we didn’t act differently. As if we could have acted differently.
But the reality is, causality would have it the same way infinity times over.
And that’s the essence of the teaching. We are every bit a part of the universe as a rock, flower or ham sandwich. After all, we are made of the same basic building blocks. Yet for some reason, we feel above the laws of causality. We feel the push of absolute agency as the supposed curators of a reality we know almost nothing about.
What we can know, however, is that everything is dependently originated. On the level of the cosmos and on the level of your felt experience of the world.
Ajahn Viradhammo offers the following thought experiment.Imagine you’re on a vast grass expanse and you spot two deer fawns in the distance. They chase each other up and down the treeline, jumping and darting in a natural show of play. Unless you’re a psychopath, this is likely to bring delight. But this experience you’re having of delight–this being that comes to be, you as a delighted person–is an objective occurrence. With this, there is that. A human perceiving fawns at play creates a moment of delight. Choice never enters into the equation.
You begin walking towards the fawns to get a closer view when a deerfly bites you on the neck. This being that comes to be–you as an agitated person–again is an objective state of affairs. With this (sting on the neck), there is that (abrupt agitation).
These reactions are a fundamental truth about reality. Just as the thoughts are that arise in our heads. What we do once the truth is delivered, however, makes all the difference. A theologian may think the fawns are a gift from God. This way of construing the events puts the self on centre stage. The fawns are indirectly a result of a string of good choices he has made. He deserves them.
But what happens when the deerfly strikes? Why does God punish him in this way? Why this sudden dose of misfortune?
You might think such a take on events is supremely self centred and out of touch with how things are. But void of religious attribution, we still fall victim to the same fallacy of thought. We constantly put ourselves at the center of the universe.
Your friend says she’ll pick you up at 8:30. Be ready, she insists, by the door with your bags. So come 8:25, there you are, packed at the door. Five minutes pass, and there’s no sign of your friend. Another ten pass and you begin to feel aggravated. You’re thinking: how could she tell me to be ready, then be late herself? She’s done this to me so many times. Doesn’t she know I’m just standing here waiting?
These thoughts may sound totally pedestrian–justified even. But take a moment to consider what a selfish string of thought this is. Moment after moment, you taint the facts with this sense of selfWe have this unskillful tendency to translate emotion into a self-serving narrative
But what’s really going on here? Are you standing at the door or are you engaging in a self indulgent narrative about why your worth has been slighted? It’s safe to say you’re doing both yet thi Was resentment inevitable or was it a product of our thinking mind–continually self-aggrandizing as the moments went on? It’s important to remember that this being that comes to be–annoyance, resentment–is not a self. It is merely an emotion, a physical manifestation, cued up by universal causality.
Ajahn Viradhammo reminds us: with this, there is that. With lateness, there is annoyance. It’s objective. There’s no need to introduce “self view” and remanufacture negative feelings on a moment to moment basis. Instead, we’re encouraged to feel the negative emotion as it arises–this being that comes to be–and treat it like the objective microcosm it is. This way, the feeling will naturally pass away much sooner, and with far less effort, than if we engaged it with stories about what happened.
After listening to the teaching, I’ve begun observing my experience. How often do I experience reality as it is? How much of it is misconstrued? Can I really change the cosmic dance or is agency an illusion?