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Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (The Dharma of Natural Systems)

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Item Code: NAE956
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Author: Joanna Macy
Language: English
Edition: 1995
ISBN: 8170304210
Pages: 254
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 402 gm
Book Description
About the Book

This book deals with a very important and contemporary topic-breaking out of casual patterns of a reductive sort into more holistic non-reductive ways of thinking and explanation. It also brings together Western and Eastern ideas combining a particularly important aspect of Buddhist thought with new Western conceptions. It belongs to Buddhist thought with new Western conceptions. It belongs to movements toward global integration”-Henry Le Roy Finch, Hunter college and Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

This book brings important new dimensions to the interface between contemporary Western science and accident Eastern wisdom. Here for the first time the concepts and insights of general systems theory are presented in tandem with those of the Buddha. Remarkable convergences appear between core Buddhist teachings and the systems view of reality, arising in our century from biology and extending into the social and cognitive sciences. Giving a cogent introduction to both bodies of thought, and a fresh interpretation of the Buddha’s core teaching of dependent co-arising, this book shows how their common perspective on causality can inform our lives. The interdependence of all beings provides the context for clarifying both the role of meditative practice and guideline for effective action on behalf of the common good.

About The Author

Joanna R. Macy is Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. She is the author of Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age; Dharma and Development; Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess); and World as Lover, World as Self.


Encounters between modern Western thought and ancient Asian philosophies figure among the more fruitful features of the twentieth century. Buddhism, with its reliance on direct experience and its sophisticated, psychological abalysis, offers particulars rewards to Western inquiry. It reveals remarkable relevance to a major shift occurring in contemporary thought and science-the shift toward a dynamic, systemic, process view of reality.

In my own encounter with Buddhism, which started a quarter century ago among Tibetans in India and continued with doctoral studies in the West, the teaching which I first found most compelling point to the process nature of the self. They reveal the self as a changing, fluid construct created by the dynamics of mind. Through attention to9 these dynamics, without recourse to supernatural entities, the traps we fabricate through fear and greed, and the possibility of liberation from them. I apprehended this at first through the doctrine of anatta (no-self), aided by instruction in Vipassana or insight meditation. Later, in my studies of the early texts, I realized the extent to which this perspective on the self arises within a more comprehensive view of reality.

The contingent nature of the self-and the consequent spaciousness and workability of experience-is, I soon learned, grounded in the radical interdependence of all phenomena, set or dependent co-arising. In this doctrine, which the Buddha equated with the Dharma, or saving teaching itself, everything arise through mutual conditioning in reciprocal interaction. Indeed the very word Dharma conveys not a substance or essence, but orderly process itself-the way things work.

This fact was initially obscured to me because of the tendency, evident in all major religions of the last two and a half millennia, to posit metaphysical absolute as source of value and goal of spiritual life. Even in Buddhism, at various points in its history and despite the original teaching of dependent co-arising, supprahenomenal levels of reality came to be postulated, with consequent value distinctions between the realms of mind and matter. Furthermore, perhaps because a hierarchical view of reality and its concomitant, a one-way linear view of causation, is endemic to mainstream Western thought, it led many Western scholars, as I point out in Chapter 3, to ignore of distort the distinctive meaning of paticca samuppada.

It took me a while, therefore, and some dogged study of early texts, to realize that such a hierarchical view of reality was not true of the early teachings of the Buddha. No aspect of reality, even nibbana, the cessation of suffering, is separate from dependent co-arising. Not only suffering but liberation from suffering unfolds according to the Dharma of mutual causality, without the necessity of supraphenomenal absolutes. I was struck by this radical departure from the one-way causal notions that imbue much of both Western thoughts and Hindu philosophy.

This recognition was aided by general systems theory, which I encountered some eight years after meeting Buddhism. The systems view of reality as process, its perception of self-organizing patterns of physical and mental events, and the principles it discerned in the dynamics of these natural systems struck me as remarkably consonant with the Buddha’s teachings. Like the doctrine of paticca samuppadda, systems theory sees causality as reciprocal, arising from interweaving circuits of contingency.

Furthermore, because general system theory draws its data from contemporary physical and life sciences, it reveals this kind of causality at play throughout the observable universe. This helped me discern in the early Buddhist scriptures the breadth and import of paticca samuppadda. Systems theory cast light on the body, the relation of past actions to present choices, and the relation of the self to society and nature. Conversely, I also found Buddhist teachings illuminating the import of systems concepts.

I found myself engaged, therefore, in a mutual hermeneutic between these two bodies of thought as I used each to interpret the other. Despite the obvious contrasts in their origins and purpose, each of them-early Buddhism and contemporary systems theory-can clarify what the other is saying.

Through this reciprocal hermeneutic, intricate and overarching patterns and principles of order emerge. They constitute a Dharma of Natural Systems, which I perceive as a philosophic basis and moral grounding for the ecological worldwide emerging in our era. This emerging dharma discloses moral value that do not stem from divine commandments nor human nobility alone but instead inhere in the fundamental causal interconnectedness of all phenomena. This interdependence sets the limits and provides the scope for our conscious participation in reality.

I wrote this book out of religious and philosophic concerns made urgent by the global crisis of our time. The progressive destruction of our biosphere, the acceleration of human need and desperation, and the risks of deliberate or accidental use of nuclear weaponry are the context for this work. These developments overshadow all our lives. My own active engagement with these issues over the past three decades, as researcher and organizer in the U.S. and overseas, ran parallel to my scholarly work on this book and posed some of the questions I sought to clarify.

How is reality organized? I wanted to know, so as the allow effective action for the healing of our world. How are we connected with each other and all beings? Are the dynamics which can free us from egocentricity- and which I glimpsed in Buddhist practice-reflected in patterns of nature and society as well? What do these systemic patterns tell us about our power to act and our resilience in the face of severe political and economic dislocations?

My pursuit of these question was shaped by certain moral and philosophic biases concerning the source of values and the locus of power. In a hierarchical view of reality, and in the linear, one-way view of causality to which it leads, both value and power are attributed to an absolute or entity or essence, unaffected by the play of phenomena. I describe this in Chapter 1 where I also show that even when belief in an absolute erodes, habits of thought bred by the one-way view persist in the assumption that power works from the top down. This notion becomes particularly dangerous in a time of increasing planetary disruptions and scarcities. It temple people to assume that personal freedom is inimical to collective survival, and that order must be imposed from above. Indeed the political fanaticisms and religious fundamentalisms of our time give voice to the belief that common will and coordinated action require subservience to a particular leader or deity.

While exploring both Buddhism and general systems theory, I uncovered a radically different perspective on the source and nature of power. As both these bodies of thought make clear, order is not imposed from above, by mind exerting its will on dumb material forces; it is intrinsic to the self-organizing nature of the phenomenal world itself. When we recognize our participation in its co-arising patterns, we can claim our power to act. We can then, through our choices, give expression and efficacy to the coordination at play in all life-forms. The political implications of this view, in terms of the free flow of information and the welcoming of diversity, are elaborated in this book in both Buddhist and systems theoretical terms.

To act for the healing of our world, we must move beyond the fear and hatred of matter that we have inherited from hierarchical views of reality and the unidirectional causal paradigm. My own bias in this regard helped me discern how both Buddhism and general system theory revalorize the material realm. Indeed, they present it no longer as a separate realm from mind, but as causally co-arising with mental events or inseparably correlative to them. The relief and spaciousness that this perspective allows to human consciousness is I hope, conveyed in this book.

The dharma of living systems presented here focuses on its most distinctive feature: the mutual causality of all phenomena. It does this in scholarly terms, drawing from the two bodies of thought which most clearly articulate this causal paradigm. I take this academic approach for three reasons. I want to present the case for academic approach for three reasons. I want to present the case for mutual causality in the broadest philosophical terms. I want to correct and enhance scholarly understanding of the Buddha’s teaching of paticca samuppada. And I want to show the philosophic and moral implication of general system theory.

The focus on scholarly goals excludes discussion of the political and social activities that accompanied and encourages my study of mutual causality. During the years this book has been in preparation, I undertook work in the U.S. and overseas which let me see the dynamics of mutual causality in practical terms. The forms of this work have been described in three books, but I refer to them now to convey some of the wider context of my thought and experience and some of the particular applications of mutual causality.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I studied and participated in a Buddhist-inspired community development movement in Sri Lanka called Sarvodaya Shramadana. With the support of a Ford Foundation grant I researched this movement’s use of Buddhist teachings to motivate local villagers in self-help projects differing from the dominant Western model of centralized, mechanized, capital-intensive development. I took part in training programs for rural organizers, cut roads and dug latrines in Sarvodaya work camps, and sat in on countless meetings with villagers and local Sarvodaya monks and organizers. My findings from this rewarding experience are detailed in my book Dharma and Development. As it describes, I found that the movement applied Buddhist teachings more pervasively and explicitly than I had expected. In particular, I saw how the Buddha’s teaching of paticca samuppadda was conveyed in ways that empowered villagers to take charge of their lives.

The teaching of dependent co-arising is painted on the walls of Sarvodaya village centers, with the four Noble Truths portrayed as wheels of causation. These wheels illustrate the interdependence of phenomena. Interlinked factors of disease, illteracy, poverty and conflict portray the co-arising causes of degeneration. On the positives side, causal wheels showing the mutual interaction of health workers, teachers, and the cooperating groups of mothers, farmers, and youth reveal how they can mutually reinforce each other, and how the process of awakening can begin at any point. Sarvodaya’s modes of organizing, through collaborative work camps and self-help projects, provide the practical, persuasive basis for this understanding. I repeatedly saw in action what the movement’s president, A.T. Ariyaratne expressed in words: “A Sarvodaya workers learns to understand and to experience the interrelationship that exists between different manifestations of the living world.”

A quote from Dharma and Development conveys some of the terms they use: “Because reality is seen as dependently co-arising, or systemic in nature, each and every act is understood to have an effect on the larger web of life, and the process of development is perceived as multidimensional. One’s personal awakening (purushodaya) is integral to the awakening of one’s village (gramodaya) and both play intergral roles in deshodaya and vishvodaya, the awakening of one’s country and one’s world. Being interdependent, these developments do not occur sequentially, in a linear fashion, but synchronously, each abetting and reinforcing the other through multiplicities of contacts and currents, each subtly altering the context in which other events occur.”

Tragedy has overtaken Sri Lanka since the years of my local participation in the Sarvodaya movement. Tragedy and civil war, fostered by extremists in the conflicting ethnic populations of Tamils and Sinhalese, and aggravated by external interventions and supplies of arms, rip the society apart. The fact that the Sarvodaya movement has survived as a major force for reconciliation and rehabilitation is in large part due, I believe, to its understanding and teaching of interdependence. Work for social change in the West provide and equally instructive arena for perceiving and applying the dynamics of mutual causality. Alarmed by the health effects of nuclear power plants, I engaged over the years in efforts to organize fellow citizens to take action for a sage environment. In this process I became increasingly aware of the psychological factors which impede people from responding to the massive dangers of our time, even when they suffer sponding to the massive dangers of our time, even when they suffer from them in their own lives. Clearest among these are avoidance, dential, and psychic numbering.

Buddhist experience led me to understand these phenomena, and the powerlessness to which they give rise, in terms of dysfunctional notions of separate selfhood. Drawing from both Buddhist practice and the perspectives of general systems theory I developed an approach which took from in group processes and training and came to be known as “despair and empowerment work.” This approach helps people to overcome denial by acknowledging their pain for the world, to experience this pain as healthy evidence of their interconnectedness in the web of life, and to recognize this systemic interdependence as the source of their power to take effective action. The theory and methods of this work are described in my book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age.

That book sets forth “the psychological and spiritual work of dealing with our knowledge and feelings about the present planetary crisis in ways that release energy and vision for creative response… This work helps us to increase our awareness of [this crisis] without feeling overwhelmed by the dread, grief, anger and sense of powerlessness that it arouses in us.”

As our pain for the world is rooted in our pain for the world is rooted inour interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power. But the kind of power at work in the web of life, in and through open systems, is quite different from our customary notions of power.” To elaborate that kind of power, and to offer group methods for perceiving it, I draw directly from the considerations of mutual causality decribed in this present book.

Working with many thousands of individuals in hundreds of workshops in this and other countries, I learned a lot about our dependent co-arising. I saw how the acknowledgement of pain for our world, when understood as evidence of our interconnectedness, can shift people to an awareness of their profound mutual belonging, and how that awareness in turn helps them instigate creative, collaborative projects for social change.

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term deep ecology for this mutual belonging that extends beyond the individual or family or even species. I found this term to be an appropriate, secular referent for dependent co-arising-and it is easier to say. I began to use it increasingly in connection with the methods that I and my colleagues developing to free people for constructive social action. These methods continue to draw from Buddhist practice and general systems theory, and they provide personal experience of deep ecology- in accordance with Naess’s call for forms of community therapy-appropriate to our planetary crisis. Deep ecology work, as it has come to be known, seeks to expand the notion of self beyond the confines of ego and personal history, and to extend concepts of self-interest to include the welfare of all begins.

A popular approach to this work with group processes, is offered in the book I co-authored with Arne Naess and rainforest activists John Seed and Pat Fleming called Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of all Begins. Since its publications, the methods this book describes have spread widely, especially among environmental activists in North America, Australasia, and the countries of Eastern and Western Europe.

“Once we have experienced the fierce joy of life that attends extending our identity into nature, once we realize that the nature within and the nature without are continuous, then we too may share in the exquisite beauty and effortless grace associated with the natural world.” These words of John Seed become more real for me each time I facilitate deep ecology work, and see the healing and empowerment that occur as people open to the dynamic interconnectedness that links them to each other and their world.

These three areas of action-Sarvodaya, despair and empowermentwork, and deep ecology work-have provided me fresh perspectives on mutual causality. Yet, reflecting particular political and social concerns, they are tangential to the philosophic purposes of this book. My aim here is more fundamental: to explore the nature and causal implication of the systemic co-arising of phenomena. This dharma of natural systems is offered in the hope that it will serve not only systems is offered in the hope that it will serve not only systems is offered in the hope that it will serve not only systems theory and Buddhist scholarship, but also our common welfare.


Causality, usually defined as the interrelation of cause and effect, is about how things happen, how change occurs, how events relate. The Buddhist term Dharma carries the same meaning. It also refers to the Buddha’s teachings as a whole, stemming as they do from his central doctrine of causality; for the ways that life is understood and lived are rooted in causal assumptions.

A major shift is occurring on our time from notions of linear, unidirectional causality to perceptions of dynamic interdependence where phenomena affect each other in a reciprocal or mutual fashion. A mutual causal paradigm emerges. And the conceptual tools for understanding it can be found in general systems view of causal process also reveals striking convergences with the Buddha’s teaching of causality, called paticca samuppada, or dependent co-arising. These convergences are illuminating, although they arise between bodies of thought that are distant from each other in time, culture, data and methods.

The purpose of this book is to use these two bodies of thought-general systems theory and Buddhism-to illuminate the character of mutual causality and to let a Dharma of Natural Systems emerge. It examines the causal processes at work in a dynamically interdependent world; it studies their implications for our notion of the self and its experience; and it explores the ethical imperatives inherent in a world view where no absolute exists to constitute an ultimate locus of power and moral sanction.

Early Buddhist teachings and contemporary systems theory provide the basis for this book because I find that they yield the clearest and fullest articulations of mutual causal process that are available. In addition to providing complementary perspectives on mutual causality, one from the ancient East and one from the modern West, these two bodies of thought also offer tools for understanding and interpreting each other. Despite their differences in origins, methods and goals, a useful, reciprocal hermeneutic can function between them.

Systems concepts provide explanations and analogies which can illuminate Buddhist ideas that are less accessible from a linear causal point of view, Systems theory also offers a broad range of data showing the operation throughout the phenomenal universe of the causal principle the Buddha taught. For its part, Buddhism reveals the existential, religious, and ethical implications of the systems view of process. It allows us to see, in the arising and interaction of self-organizing systems, causes of suffering and of liberation from suffering.

For my examination of the Buddha’s teaching of causality. I rely chiefly on the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas of the Pali Canon. Because these scripture are generally agreed to represent pre-Abhidharmist thought, I call them “ early Buddhist teachings.” In the long, vast multi-cultural Buddhist tradition, the texts are accepted as authoritative by all. I focus on them, furthermore, because their presentation of dependent co-arising differs from the Abhidharma in some subtle but significant ways, which, as I delineate in Chapter 3, have implications for our understanding of mutual causality. These differences are often overlooked since the Abhidharma has tended to influence later interpretations of the Pali texts as a whole, and paticca samuppada in particular. While the later concept of emptiness (sunyata) in Mahayana Buddhism renewed the emphasis on radical relaticity found in the early teachings, such similarities fall outside the focus of this book.

Since I draw from the Pali texts, Buddhist terms are generally given in their Pali form. An expectation is my usage of the words dharma and karma, whose later Sanskrit forms have become so prevalent in the West as to make their Pali forms (dharma and karma) seem unnecessarily specialized.

My exposition of general systems theory is based on the foundational works of its pioneering thinkers in the life sciences and systems cybernetic. For my discussion fo the wider implications of its causal premises, I draw as well from a wide range of systems theorists in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. Mathematical formulations and graphs of systems properties and circuits are, perhaps fortunately for the general reader, beyond the purview of this book.

In the course of a paradigm shift, terminology can be awkward, for the words at our disposal are stamped by previous usage. This is particularly true in the case of causality, which carries connotations accumulated in the linear, unidirectional paradigm, where to a large extent, as I show in Chapter 2, causation is linear by definition. In this paradigm, causality excludes the notion that the cause of an effect could be influenced in turn by the effect itself. From such a perspective, mutual causality is a contradiction in terms. I retain, however, as do many systems theorists, the term causality in it s widest sense to refer to the flow of influence between phenomena, how on thing affects another. I employ the terms causality, causation, determinacy, and determination synonymously. The expressions mutual causality, reciprocal causality, dependent co-arising, interdependence, and interdetermination are, for the purpose of this book, taken as roughly equivalent in meaning.

As to the term general systems theory, it is not a theory proper, in the sense of a single hypothesis about a given set of phenomena, so much as a coherent set of principles applying to all irreducible wholes. These wholes, be they molecule, cell organism, personality, or social body, reveal common principles and properties that are amenable to understanding when we view them as self-organizing system. What we have here is not a theory about a general systems, but rather a general theory (or set of principles) about systems, which allows their dynamics and characteristics to become intelligible. While it has been popularly identified largely with its application in computer science and organizational management, its relevance is much broader, as seen in such fields as psychology, political science, ecology, and philosophy.

Some thinkers prefer the term cybernetics for the concepts and processes pertaining to self-regulating systems. When I use the term in this book, I broaden it to system-cybernetics and use it interchangeably with general systems theory, which, deriving from the life sciences as well as information and computer science, is more inclusive.

The book is organized so as to permit the early Buddhist teaching of causality and the general systems view to emerge separately, in sequence, and then interact as their implications are explored. The initial chapters provide an overview of causal ideas, with emphasis on the origins and nature of the linear, one-way view of causality in the West. The main body of this work then falls into two sections. The first is devoted to expositions of mutual causality from the early Buddhist and systems perspectives.

The final portion of the book is concerned with implications of mutual causality for concerned with implications of mutual causality for considerations of epistemology, ontology, and value. Here the Buddhist and systems views interact more directly as we consider in turn the image of the self, the nature of its knowing, the relation of mind and body, the self organizing character of choice or karma, and in the final three chapters, the social ethics implicit in mutual causality.

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