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Issue #1131 - Tuesday, July 10, 2002
Illustration by Jennifer Ormerod/Salon
Samsara Divided by Zero
Copyright © 2000 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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The goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana, is said to be
totally uncaused, and right there is a paradox. If the
goal is uncaused, how can a path of practice -- which is
causal by nature -- bring it about? This is an ancient
question. The Milinda-pañha, a set of dialogues composed
near the start of the common era, reports an exchange
between King Milinda and a monk, Nagasena, in which the
king asks Nagasena precisely this question. Nagasena
answers with an analogy. The path of practice doesn't
cause nibbana, he says. It simply takes you there --
just as a road to a mountain doesn't cause the mountain
to be. It simply leads you to it.
Nagasena's response, though very apt, didn't really
settle the issue within the Buddhist tradition. Over the
years many schools of meditation have taught that mental
fabrications simply get in the way of a goal that's
uncaused and unfabricated. Only by doing nothing at all
and thus not fabricating anything in the mind, they say,
will the unfabricated appear.
This view is based on a very simplistic understanding of
fabricated reality, seeing causality as linear and
totally predictable: X causes Y which causes Z and so
on, with no effects turning around to condition their
causes, and no possible way of using causality to escape
from the causal network. One of the many things the
Buddha discovered in the course of his Awakening,
though, was that causality is not linear. The experience
of the present is shaped both by actions in the present
and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape
both the present and the future. The results of past and
present actions continually interact. Thus there is
always room for new input into the system, which gives
scope for free will. There is also room for the many
feedback loops that make experience so thoroughly
complex, and that are so intriguingly described in chaos
theory. Reality doesn't resemble a simple line or
circle. It's more like the bizarre trajectories of a
strange attractor or a Mandelbrot set.
Because there are many similarities between chaos theory
and Buddhist explanations of causality, it seems
legitimate to explore those similarities to see what
light chaos theory can throw on the issue of how a
causal path of practice can lead to an uncaused goal.
This is not to equate Buddhism with chaos theory, or to
engage in pseudo-science. It's simply a search for
similes to clear up an apparent conflict in the Buddha's
And it so happens that one of the discoveries of
non-linear math -- the basis for chaos theory -- throws
light on just this issue. Back in the 19th century, the
French mathematician Jules-Henri Poincaré discovered
that in any complex physical system there are points he
called resonances. If the forces governing the system
are described as mathematical equations, the resonances
are the points where the equations intersect in such a
way that one of the members is divided by zero. This, of
course, produces an undefined result, which means that
if an object within the system strayed into a resonance
point, it would no longer be defined by the causal
network determining the system. It would be set free.
In actual practice, it's very rare for an object to hit
a resonance point. The equations describing the points
immediately around a resonance tend to deflect any
incoming object from entering the resonance unless the
object is on a precise path to the resonance's very
heart. Still, it doesn't take too much complexity to
create resonances -- Poincaré discovered them while
calculating the gravitational interactions among three
bodies: the earth, the sun, and the moon -- and the more
complex the system, the greater the number of
resonances, and the greater the likelihood that objects
will stray into them. It's no wonder that meteors, on a
large scale, and electrons on a small scale,
occasionally wander right into a resonance in a
gravitational or electronic field, and thus to the
freedom of total unpredictability. This is why your
computer occasionally freezes for no apparent reason,
and why the same thing could happen someday to the
beating of your heart.
If we were to apply this analogy to the Buddhist path,
the system we're in is samsara, the round of rebirth.
Its resonances would be what the texts called
"non-fashioning," the opening to the uncaused: nibbana.
The wall of resistant forces around the resonances would
correspond to pain, stress, and attachment. To allow
yourself to be repelled by stress or deflected by
attachment, no matter how subtle, would be like
approaching a resonance but then veering off to another
part of the system. But to focus directly on analyzing
stress and attachment, and deconstructing their causes,
would be like getting on an undeflected trajectory right
into the resonance and finding total, undefined freedom.
This, of course, is simply an analogy. But it's a
fruitful one for showing that there is nothing illogical
in actively mastering the processes of mental
fabrication and causality for the sake of going beyond
cause and effect. At the same time, it gives a hint as
to why a path of total inaction would not lead to the
unfabricated. If you simply sit still within the system
of causality, you'll never get near the resonances where
true non-fashioning lies. You'll keep floating around in
samsara. But if you take aim at stress and clinging, and
work to take them apart, you'll be able to break through
to the point where the present moment gets divided by
zero in the mind.
The message is --- DIE!--- but its not the death of the
body which is asked for. To go beyond Life one must die
into Life. Not away from the ego but THROUGH it.
The funeral pyre is a nice metaphor, like the phoenix
arising from its ashes...
For "factual" nonduality, the sense of "i" dies out but
it doesn't have to feel like dying: when having 'passed'
the gates of Yama, what dies first are the feelings you
never asked for, like fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment,
ownership, greed: that is rather joyful.
Without the possibility to feel pain, what could convey
the sense of dying?
When considering the ego to be equivalent with
responsiveness, only physical death ends it. Without
the possibility to feel pain physical death is a
non-issue: the video (sight & sound) is unplugged from
The Buddha is one of the very few having known that even
love and compassion can die before the body ceases to
function. According to the dictum "less conditioning =
more bliss", something that dwarfs the "union of lover &
beloved" to a non-event, in the same sense the "union of
lover & beloved" dwarfs the "apperception" event...
Nirvana, when translated with "making cool by blowing",
hints at fire too: smouldering ashes will set to fire
any fuel thrown on them (and the thread goes on).
Blowing fiercely actually will intensify the fire first,
making it so hot that even the ashes burn out, leaving
from The Other Syntax list
Finding your openings into energetic reality
when you are able to use the quandaries of your life;
the personal stumbling blocks,
as edifice or doorway.
When you are unable to use those `problems',
you become the seeker of comfort and fall into a deadly sleep.
If you remain detached and at ease,
you enter the doorways without becoming morbid and obsessed.
The doorways seem oppressive and guarded by fears,
but they are
as open as the night skies.
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