Causes and conditions

In the Buddha’s teachings there is the notion that anything we observe is best understood by looking beneath the surface, beyond the appearances to see what is usually called “the causes and conditions” for the event or the behavior. Following this advice has always proved very helpful for me both in having compassion for individual actions and in understanding much of the social breakdown and chaos in the world.

The essay “All the Troubled People” gives probably the best short explanation I’ve seen of how that works. Though not from a Buddhist point of view, but rather from a scientific, psychological or behavioral science perspective, this essay reveals the underlying causes for so much of the pain, violence, degradation and suffering in our society.

Tony Biglan, author of the essay, says:

…children are unlikely to develop the ability to regulate their emotions or suppress impulsive reactions if they are constantly stressed.  Abuse, neglect, and even criticism can rewire a child’s brain so that they are chronically aroused and unable to calm themselves. Chronic stress makes people have a “hair trigger.”  They see threats where others don’t.  They are more likely to react with fear or aggression to things that other people don’t find threatening.  They do this for understandable evolutionary reasons.  In a dangerous world, having your physiology “set” on high alert makes it a little more likely you will survive.

Unfortunately, despite some budding efforts to take a different approach, the dominant way of dealing with behavior we don’t like is to punish it.  So very often people who have failed to develop the emotional and self-regulatory skills that they need simply get more stressful punishment from others.

Tony’s blog, “Nurturing Environments” presents the case for this approach in very convincing terms. [Full disclosure: his son Mike is married to my son’s cousin Jenny, which may explain how I found it!] He’s connected to the Oregon Research Institute and published a paper in “American Psychologist” in 2012 “The Critical Role of Nurturing Environments for Promoting Human Well-Being“, which I haven’t read but am working on reading now.

The end of war

Charles Eisenstein, my recently favorite author, articulates what is essentially, tho not explicitly, a Buddhist approach to the conflicts going on in the world today.

Eisenstein speaks of “interbeing” – a term most prominently used by Thich Nhat Hanh – and the general notion of interconnectedness as understandings that bring us to a new approach to dealing with all the issues that face us. He says:

…people who do evil things are not doing them because they are evil people; that therefore, tactics based on demonizing them are grounded in delusion and may be counterproductive; finally, that such an approach is an expression of the very same mentality of conquest and control that lies at the foundation of our civilization’s depredations.

… Deeply conditioned to view the world in terms of good versus evil, we seek to understand complicated social problems through the simplistic lens of perpetrators and victims. Who is the bad guy? Who can we fight?

He articulates this fully and in a very clear and easily comprehended form in his recent essay “The End of War.”

It challenges me to more fully understand how to bring the Buddhist principles I profess to bear on my own life.

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Avatar and the changes we need to see

All the recent insanity in the world has been pretty discouraging and depressing for most of us, and certainly things are reaching dismal levels of violence and intolerance in many places.

Charles Eisenstein – in a couple of his periodic newsletter posts – addresses these horrors and the despair they produce in us, and in his lovely way responds to these things in a way that helps me at least tolerate the insanity because I can understand it better.

Charles gives this example of a little thing that illustrates a source of much of it. He tells of walking with a group of children in a fancy development, and one of the kids grabs a low-hanging branch and swings upside down, as kids do.

Suddenly a car coming up the drive honks, pulls up and the woman inside, identifying herself as ‘a member of the board’, tells the girl to come down, as they “don’t allow this kind of behavior!”

This is Charles’ response:

“I don’t know why that petty incident should hurt more than the carnage around the world, but somehow it got under my skin. Maybe because it is not unrelated to the carnage. The mentality of control, the subduing of the wild, the emphasis on “security” at the expense of life, play, and freedom, the conquest of childhood, the “civilizing” of the Other… all of these threads wrap together into the big ball of earth’s dominant culture.

Maybe it is because the mentality that is disturbed by a child swinging from a tree branch is so far removed from the kind of world I want to live in that I felt that intense pang of hopelessness. What kind of miracle will it take for the kind of people exemplified by this woman (and there are many) to change? Probably it would take a severe shaking of the foundations of their world.”

In his comments this week, he uses the movie Avatar to illustrate how our worldview needs to change if we are to stop the wars and violence that plague us.

He relates that some indigenous people who were shown the movie responded in the same way he did – they thought the movie was beautiful and cool, but they didn’t like the essential message. Charles says they found it offensive “because it was resolved through overcoming the enemy by force and killing the evil person.”

In a recent book, Charles tells about an indigenous group in the Amazon, the Shuar, who are trying to stop mining there, relating their struggle to the movie Avatar as well:

….So for example, in the movie Avatar, which closely parallels the situation of the Shuar, the fictional Na’vi overcome the spaceships and artillery of the human invaders with spears, bows and arrows, and large animals. When the chief human general is killed, then the victory is complete. There is no other way, since he is depicted as irredeemable. Fortunately, the Shuar seem not to be infected with the virus of the ideology of “evil.” They are not fighting the mining companies. They are fighting the mining.

I would have liked to see a different ending to Avatar. I would have liked to see the planet infiltrate the nervous systems of the humans so that, when they destroyed its world-tree, they themselves felt the pain of it, erasing the us/them divide that enabled them to see the planet as a mere source of resources. That is precisely the change of perception that our civilization needs to undergo. Because I don’t think that the Shuar are going to overcome us with their spears.

Charles goes on to relate that some of his friends have encouraged the filmmaker (James Cameron) to make a sequel incorporating this idea. He says, “I can hardly imagine how powerful that movie could be if it added this extra element of the worldview of interbeing to its message of the sacredness and intelligence and interconnectedness of all life.”