the foundation of buddhist thought is the idea of oneness. it’s so central, it’s often just called “the truth” or “the law” and it’s been described in various ways by myriad teachers. the heart sutra, when poorly-translated to english (as it usually is) calls it “emptiness” and makes everyone confused. the lotus sutra calls it the “fundamental law” then goes on to explain it in detail for several chapters talking about the movement of the air and symbiotic relationships. star wars even gets into the show as it talks about the force that lives in us all and starts to explain its nature with midichlorians floating in the blood of all living things — not actually too far from the truth but a bit of a shock to diehard fans, i am told. but what all the thousands of explanations have in common, if not necessarily in how they’re told but the basis for their truth, is the principle of universal causality.
universal causality is a good way to translate the sanskrit word “karma” — you can also call it “cause and effect” or “consequences of actions” and those are perfectly-good translations. but i think “universal causality” tells a much larger story and is more useful for understanding the depth of the concept.
simply put, what you do has consequences. some you know. if you skip breakfast this morning, you will have less energy until lunch. you will possibly lose weight. you might be more tense and angry as a result of the lack of food. these are direct and obvious results, things you know you have to be responsible for. but what about the other impacts that change in your day has on the world around you? perhaps you leave early and instead of taking your car you walk. the world has less pollution — only a very small amount less but less. perhaps you see a small cat trapped in a pipe on your way to work and because you’re walking and have more time you save the cat’s life. perhaps you help an elderly person cross the street safely and avoid a potential accident. or perhaps you walk under scaffolding and it collapses on you, sending you to hospital with a broken femur and changing the next six months of your life. the consequences of your actions are rarely predictable. the only thing you know for sure is that each action you take will have more than you can possibly count. with every moment since you made a choice, the effects of that tiny change in action create ripples into the world.
the next piece of this puzzle is that all things are the result of previous actions — they are caused, at least in part, by them. your decisions are influenced by your past actions and those of people around you. perhaps you skip breakfast this morning because your neighbors were partying last night and you couldn’t get to sleep because of the loud music — now you’d rather have an extra half-hour in bed than get up and cook. perhaps your best-friend is getting in better shape and you’d be healthier if you lost a few kilos so you’re trying this as a way to burn extra fat (it’s not generally a good way to do it but wisdom isn’t necessarily a motivator, especially when we’re talking about health-related choices for most people). maybe you just don’t feel like it. or you didn’t bother to go to the store and you’ve run out of breakfast food. the cause doesn’t have to be complex. it can be. but it can be extremely simple — a choice because you have no other option. those choices still have consequences. it’s just important to remember they are the result of other choices.
at this point, if you’ve studied buddhist teachings in the past, you may realize you’ve come across this by a very technical name — “dependent-arising”. and people will tell you that’s a good name for it. it’s not. it’s overly-complex and there’s no need for specialist technical jargon. the buddha didn’t use such silly teaching methods. neither should we. making up terms in english for things that weren’t complex in the first place is shameful gatekeeping and does nothing other than confuse those who wish to know more. all it means is that everything has a cause — everything happens for a reason even if we don’t know what the reason is. and that cause is usually many things acting together. that cat you saved after your theoretical post-non-breakfast-walk? you didn’t cause it to be there. perhaps there was a mouse. perhaps there was food. perhaps it was just scared and hid there. but the cause isn’t just you not having breakfast or deciding to take a walk. you can think of it this way — everything that happens has millions of tiny causes working together and everything you do has millions of tiny effects as its results.
the third piece is a bit more obvious when you think about it but catches everyone off-guard the first time. there is a rather odd story that’s often told about the beating of a butterfly’s wings causing a tsunami on the other side of the world. and it’s both absolutely true and immensely ridiculous at the same time. this is the idea of compound-causality. everything has many causes and, just because something is a tiny part of the cause, doesn’t mean it’s not part of the reason something happened.
let’s use another on-the-way-to-work example. you decided to walk across the bridge on your way rather than through the river. a very sensible choice, i suspect. i don’t like getting my feet wet. you probably don’t either — especially not in your nice work-shoes. in ten years the bridge will collapse. this was caused by you walking across the bridge in exactly the same way the tsunami was caused by the butterfly flapping its wings. it’s a tiny part of the cause. yes, eventually the bridge will fall down because people walk over it. every time someone walks over it, it gets one more person closer to the point where it can’t hold itself together. but you’re not “the” cause, only “a” cause. and this is a very significant distinction to make. nothing has a single cause. everything that happens is for many reasons mixed together to make it both possible and necessary in that moment. there’s no central plan or architect drawing the future. it happens when it happens, not before. it can’t be predicted with any accuracy — yes, you can say the bridge will eventually fall down and you might even be able to give a pretty-reasonable guess of how many people will walk over it before it does. but you can’t say exactly when it will fail — there are simply too many variables. if you could predict the future like that, we wouldn’t need insurance. and we wouldn’t need to take precautions. we have immune systems but we might get sick. we know how to walk but we might slip and fall. potential futures are everywhere.
what does this have to do with oneness, though, i suspect you’re wondering at this point. and that’s because we haven’t discussed what oneness actually means — it’s traditional to give definitions before you talk about something but i’ve specifically avoided it in this case because without the explanation of causality the definition is meaningless.
oneness is that all life, the environment, the world is inseparable, interconnected. there are no individual lives independent of each other. each choice made and action taken has an impact on the rest of that cohesive single reality.
and because you have now understood that all actions have impacts (the future) and all choices are influenced by other choices and actions that have already happened (the past) to create a single moment in time we can live (the present). the whole equation suddenly comes together and we can see exactly what was being said all those thousands of years ago — the great moment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree when the buddha discovered the single truth of the world, that everything is simply one and we must accept that and live from there.
what does this mean for us as humans living our daily lives, though? it’s not just an abstraction, that the world is us and we are the world, is it? not at all.
it means we have to be aware of those causal links and we can live far better lives if we can both see them and accept them as they are. i’ll give you a few tangible examples that might make it a bit easier to understand how this applies in practice.
i am not a fan of mice. when i was a child, i lived in a house in the suburbs that used to be a huge district of forest and farmland. every fall, mice tried to invade our house and our neighbors’. sometimes they were successful despite our best efforts. my mother, not just not in the mickey-and-minnie-fan-club model but absolutely terrified of them (and nothing else, oddly-enough, my mother being the least fearful person i’ve ever known with this singular exception), when she saw a mouse, screamed. this wasn’t a frequent part of my childhood but it happened enough times i learned mice were to be either feared or hated. even seeing one outside made me cringe. squirrels and chipmunks? close enough to mice. what was the cause of this fear? my mother? my general dislike? them being in the house and it making things dirty? was it rational or silly? was my behavior predictable? programmed? memorized? learned? logical? i suspect it was a little of all these things. we experience the world around us and learn from it. it’s what makes us humans. but another way to look at it is to say we are caused by our environments. what was the cause of this morning’s startled jumping when seeing a mouse run across the room? my mother, my childhood, my thoughts, my fears, my history, my experience and more things i can’t possibly imagine. it’s a bit of a silly example, i know. but everything that happens to us is like this — innumerable causes. but look at the future results. what was the result? it caused new thoughts, changed where i was walking, distracted me from what i was about to do, even made an entire paragraph in this article appear. the mouse was certainly unaware of the effect of running across the room. so was i at the time. but i’m aware of at least some of those effects now. will telling the story have an impact on your life? perhaps not. but it’s changed at least the last few seconds of your day — another causal link.
i am adopted. my parents made a conscious choice to have children and, as they were biologically incapable, went down the road of adoption and acquired two children — me and my younger sister. i think it was an incredibly-selfless thing to do and it’s cost them dearly over the years to take care of us. that’s what parents do, of course. they sacrifice. but it still touches me in an emotional way to think this wasn’t potentially an accident — they made conscious decisions, not in the heat of lust or hormonal confusion, to spend decades taking care of us. but what caused that? my mother’s parents were incredibly loving. they devoted themselves to caring for others realistically their entire lives. my mother grew up in that environment. is that why she was so committed to having children to the point she wanted to adopt me? she worked in a building whose water supply became contaminated and she became incredibly sick as a result, likely leading to her inability to biologically procreate. is this single decision — to take that job or, perhaps, just to drink water at work that day — the greatest deciding factor in my life, something that happened years before i was born? these are certainly all causes impacting my life. and they are merged with countless others. and my life has an impact on the world around me.
i live here so nobody else can live where i am — who would live in my home if i wasn’t here? i bought the last bag of rice at the store last week. did that mean someone else couldn’t or was there more on the shelf before anyone else tried to pick one up? i crossed a bridge — will that mean someone, years from now, will suddenly walk across it as it collapses and die? or will it mean it will fall down before someone steps on it because my weight was the deciding factor in its future and they will be saved from the potential of falling? impossible to tell.
why is this so important? a few reasons. one is about selfishness.
if you think you have a right to make decisions about your life and your body because you’re an individual, you’re either being incredibly stupid or you’re being unimaginably selfish. what you do with your body, the decisions you make and the actions to take have incomprehensible impacts on the lives of those around you. if you don’t pay attention to what those impacts might be, you’re shamefully neglecting your responsibility to keep those around you safe and encourage their happiness. as humans, we all have that duty to community safety and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it any less hateful.
a quick example comes to mind because of our current world circumstances. let’s say you go to the store in the middle of a global outbreak of a new infectious disease but instead of wearing protection you decide, as you’re tired of wearing protection and you’re very healthy and not worried about getting the disease, not to wear anything. you walk into the store and breathe in infectious particles. they don’t do much to you but they’re in your body and, when you return home, you breathe them out. when your grandmother visits later that day, she breathes them in and two weeks later she is lying in a coma at a local hospital, you by her bedside wondering why life has been so horrible to put you in this position. life, however, hasn’t been anything. the world doesn’t have a will, a decision-making power or a design. the cause of her death was your decision, not random chance. everything has an impact. and we must take responsibility. everything, of course, has a complex set of causes and perhaps the suffering and death of those around us is not realistically caused by anything we did. but if we haven’t taken precautions to avoid our negligence harming those around us, how can we ever know if we are responsible?
the other reason is the future. we are building the future one decision at a time. do i walk or drive? do i eat healthy vegetables or put dead animals in my body that were tortured and killed and caused untold greenhouses gasses to escape? do i call the friend who might be feeling sad or wait until tomorrow? is tomorrow too late or is tomorrow actually a better time for them to hear my voice? decisions are rarely simple. but we make millions of them every day, many without really thinking. how much thought did you put into your clothes this morning? your breakfast? your mode of transportation? the speed you walked or the time you got out of bed? they all have impacts on your environment. and you haven’t likely thought about most of them.
of course, this can become paralyzing. it can become a complete obsession with seeking all potential ramifications of our actions and that’s nothing more than a fool’s errand. we must be careful not to let it torture our minds and focus only on the most likely, most direct results and causes or the whole exercise will be meaningless.
but the simple awareness that we are not separate from the world around us, that we are an integral part of it and we must be responsible for our choices, even when those choices are thoroughly impacted by our experiences and the general past, is vital.
the last line of the heart sutra is “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha”. the most relevant way to translate this is “i go beyond the realization all things are one”. (it actually says “realization of awareness” but the rest of the sutra talks about awareness of what so it’s contextual.) how can we go beyond it?
first we have to embrace it. stop pretending we are independent individuals and start working together in community. come together with others around you to make collective decisions that are better for everyone — in other words, while forgetting about what you want and what is good for you is never wise, being aware the best decision is one that is good for everyone is the only way forward not consumed by shame.
second we have to live aware that our actions have consequences. if we are good people, we care what those consequences are and don’t want to cause harm in the world around us. for example, eating dead animals is shameful and harmful to the world. there is no such thing as sustainable death. if anyone has convinced you this can be good, they are simply wrong. causing pain is never good so killing (or causing to be killed) is always evil. always. there is no exception even when it is unavoidable. natural death is part of life. intentional death, though? if the only real impact of your life today is that there was more death in the world, is that the legacy you want to leave between waking and sleeping? our consumption of fuel and products must be mindful — what i buy has an impact on the world around me both in its climate and its garbage, among other things. what did i buy? what did i throw away? what did i waste? what did i produce? what ended up in the ocean or the air as a result of the choices i made today? i can’t be perfect. but i can be better. we all can. but we can only be better if we are consciously aware and desire to change — then act on those desires and change. willingness is nothing if it stays in our heads, of course. but change comes from the causal links we create with our decisions.
finally we can live lives of accepting this connection. the next time you see someone without a place to live, remember they are not separate from you. their life is impacted by yours and you impact them. perhaps there is something you can do to make their life better. perhaps you can think about the society you live in that is fundamentally flawed to the point people lack food and shelter while others live with far more than they need. when you see someone from another place and suddenly have thoughts of judgment or disgust or hatred, remember they’re not separate from you. your life is theirs and theirs is yours — oneness. if you hate someone because of their race, where did that come from? did they hurt you? i doubt it. inspect your biases. we all have them. some are more disastrous than others but a human without bias is a human without experience — a newborn and even that’s a stretch. but being aware of those biases is an acceptance of the interconnected nature of life. instead of glaring at someone who is different, you could smile. instead of passing someone on the street because they’re from another culture and you think they’ve taken away all the good jobs in your city, you could offer to help them carry their groceries. you could be a good person. you want to be a good person, right? great. i’m glad to hear it.
looking back at what we’ve thought about, we’ve covered a huge amount of ground. all life is interconnected. all things have a cause. all actions have consequences. we can’t know what either is, at least not fully. but we can be aware of our actions and where they come from and where they’re going. we can be careful. we can cause happiness rather than harm and be conscious of the world around us not as separate but inherently an extension of ourselves.
i will leave you there, then. as you are part of me, i share this with you and hope you can be at peace today and smile now and later. thanks for sharing this time with me. be well.