Dependent Origination and the expectancy effect
The theory of dependent origination is central to the practice of Buddhism. In its simplest form it elaborates on the interdependence of all things. It is epitomised by the saying that even the smallest particle of dust penetrates the rest of the entire universe and that each action gives rise to another action and so forth.
With today’s technology ever advancing and awareness increasing, there is much evidence for the validity of this concept in science. By now we are all aware how the many ecosystems are working together to facilitate life on earth. It is evident that when we deplete the rain forest in Brazil it has global consequences on the climate. We know that when we pollute the oceans it destroys the coral reefs and thus important fish breeding grounds that provided a once plentiful resource, which in turn influences our ability to get tourists into the country who will spend money with the local baker, who in turn pays his taxes to support the building of new roads, etc.
The list of interconnection goes on into infinity. The exact effects of our doing (action=karma) are too plentiful to comprehend. Nichiren Daishonin knew already in the 13th century that a limited understanding of the concept of dependent origination would lead people to the three lower life conditions of hell, hunger and animality, which are expressed as greed, anger and stupidity within the self, the society and the natural environment.
Either way we look at it, our actions have universal implications even if we are mostly unaware of this in our daily lives.
In fact, we technically know that even far away phenomena, such as the perfect balance between interstellar constellations such as the moon and earth, the distance of the sun to the earth or any other star therefore are of great importance to sustain life as we know it.
All has a certain balance but that balance is constantly challenged through not only our actions as human beings, but the actions of the environment in general, may that be through microbes, insects, animals, comets, the moon or the sun or any other aspect of the universe – life is truly dynamic.
For example, if a sizable comet hits the earth, life will be very different from what it is now. This can be perceived as a good or a bad thing (i.e. we know that we have to thank the comet that hit our earth a few million years ago for our current existence).
We observe stars and whole galaxies being born and dying in the universe. We also know that the sun has a life expectancy of 10 billion years, and as such is already 5 billion years old. As the sun continues to age, it will increase steadily in luminosity. Towards the end of its lifespan, when the hydrogen in the sun’s core is mostly exhausted, the core will collapse, the temperature will rise until the sun starts fusing helium into carbon.
This releases more energy causing the outer layer of the sun to swell. By the time this process is completed, the sun will be a lot cooler than it is now and have extended out to the current orbit of Earth and Mars. By then the sun will have the appearance of a cool deep red giant. But we don’t have to go to the largest to understand the interconnection of all things.
Bacteria too are just as influential. They are extremely flexible, and have a great capacity for rapid growth and reproduction. The oldest fossils known, nearly 3.5 billion years old, are fossils of bacteria-like organisms. We know that the life we live is impossible without micro-organisms as they play an essential role in the cycling of nutrients and energy. They break down dead organic matter to make the resources available again to other living organisms like ourselves. This process happens right inside of us when we digesting our food.
Thus, without the support of the smallest, we wouldn’t be able to be here and see the sun. We can undoubtedly say that the smallest is just as important as the largest for life to exist. One phenomenon gives rise to next and not one day is like another, everything is constantly changing even though it appears to us that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west just like the day before. The universe is interdependent and dynamic and change is the only constant.
The Buddha Shakyamuni understood this interconnection of all things already more than 2500 years ago when he expounded the concept of dependent origination.
He knew that even the smallest action of an individual has global, in fact universal consequences. The ‘snowball effect’ of our actions has been the subject of many Hollywood movies but I will elaborate here once again as many of us tend to think about ourselves as powerless to influence change on a large scale.
How we facilitate change, knowingly or unknowingly
For instance, let’s imagine one comes across an ‘ant’ crawling on the ground and stops to observe the insect for a little while when on the way to the bus stop. Let’s assume that person watching the ant is you. As you have to write an assignment on the life of ants, you take a deep interest in what the insect is doing and come to forget the time, thus missing the bus.
This will have changed everything for everyone. Now…you may want to ask yourself, how could this single, to the naked eye insignificant event have changed the rest of the world and indeed the universe? Do you really have that much power and influence? Yes you do, according to Buddhism.
Impossible as it is, let’s analyse and consider the sum total of effects of you having stopped to observe the ant and consequently missing the bus. This is of course only possible in hypothetical format, our conscious mind could never comprehend all the complex interactions that take place but let’s give it a go.
But, for the purpose of simplicity, let’s assume you would normally have been on that bus, and for that to have happened the bus would have needed to stop at your hand signal. The bus driver would have taken your money and all passengers would have waited for a minute as this process went on. You would have then taken a seat, perhaps talking to the person next to you, and so on it goes.
Let’s furthermore assume for a moment that because of the short stop it took for the bus driver to take your money, the bus did not enter the freeway at a certain time just when the driver of another large vehicle lost control while looking out of the window to see whether he could turn into another lane. Therefore, an accident was avoided as the bus wasn’t there due to your earlier action/interaction (i.e. karma). Of course, the same could have happened in reverse, i.e. you may have had an accident because of it.
Either way, because of your action all people on the bus come a little earlier into their offices or wherever they think they have to be at the time, and thus influence their environment based on these (by you) changed circumstances. This will affect the people they meet, and the people they meet, etc. the list of causes and effects goes on through society, the environment until the effects are again felt by you, at which stage you in turn will react once again to these perceived external effects.
This is how it keeps going round and round in constant exchanges between cause and effect, between the self and the external environment. There is no doubt that we cannot possibly fathom how our action of not attending the bus ride leads eventually to us hitting ourselves with a hammer on the finger or any other effect therefore. But according to the principle of dependent origination this is exactly what happens when we experience what we are experiencing right NOW. Even while you are reading this, you are impacting the rest of the entire universe. In other words, you are influencing me and I am influencing you in equal fashion.
Now is the moment where we experiencing the accumulated effects of our past doing and NOW is the time where we can change the future.
This shows that our future potentially holds ANY outcome all depending and determined by our current action. In other words action based on the deepest wisdom is the greatest determinant of well intended outcomes.