The Dharma of Natural Systems: Mutual Causality...

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I was trying to organize a reading plan about the convergence of consciousness and ecology but decided to reread Joanna Macys The Dharma of Natural Systems: Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. This was her dissertation and its actually a lot of fun to read, and I cant remember any significant departures from what an orthodox Taoist would say about interdependency and non-duality.

The following is part of the preface of the book. If it inspires anyone to join me in a reading, send me a PM.




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 analysis, offers particular 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 teachings 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 to these dynamics, without recourse to supernatural entities or absolutes, these teachings explain the suffering we create, 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 forth in the Buddhas central doctrine of causality, paticca samuppada, or dependent co-arising. In this doctrine, which the Buddha equated with the Dharma, or saving teaching itself, everything arises 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 half millennia, to posit metaphysical absolutes 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, supraphenomenal 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 or 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 thought 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 Buddhas teachings. Like the doctrine of paticca samuppada, systems theory sees causality as reciprocal, arising from interweaving circuits of contingency.


Furthermore, because general systems 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 samuppada. Systems theory cast light on the Buddha’s distinctive teachings about the relation of mind to 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.

Edited by Blasto

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Yes, I've even posted this preface as a note on my FB. I'll have to get to this book at some point. It might even over-arch the importance of previously considered chronology of books to be read.

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