“This existing, that arises.”
The fact that I am writing these words and that you are reading these words involves all and everything. This very moment of your experience is the result of an unimaginable number of events, conditions and circumstances, converging and co-arising throughout all of space and time. For instance, this experience would probably not be happening if it hadn’t been for the Big Bang, which led to the creation of a universe, which would seem to be necessary in order for me to be writing and for you to be reading these words. We also needed an alphabet and some paper or a screen, which is a whole other story, but really the same story, which is this one about all and everything.
“This existing, that arises,” said the Buddha, and for you to be reading these words involved uncountable this’s and that’s, including the lives of all your ancestors, the long chain of begetting and begetting, all the way back to Africa. And even before that, back to the very first life forms, those single-celled beings who learned how to split into two and then how to join together to become multicelled beings, presumably to make the story more interesting.
This moment of your experience has its roots in the struggles of many distant ancestors who adapted to the whims of nature and in the process unconsciously shaped us all. It can’t have been easy for those early amphibians, escaping predators in the sea by holding on to the slippery rocks with half-formed hands and then growing legs in place of fins and lungs that take oxygen from air instead of water. Life moving onto land was a long, difficult process, and a necessary condition for me to be writing these words and for you to be reading them, unless, of course, we all lived in a yellow submarine.
Or consider the cascade of consequences that resulted from the shift of the Earth’s crust that created the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa millions of years ago, separating the jungle from the savannah. Suddenly, some of our hairy cousins found themselves without trees to live in or escape onto, and in order to survive in the tall grasses, they had to learn how to stand erect. Standing up, in turn, left their hands free to work with tools, and according to evolutionary scientists, that led directly to the growth of bigger brains and eventually to language. (These words are an act of nature!) Then the Buddha came along and figured out how the mind works and how we can free ourselves from our past conditioning, and here we are, using our big brains and language to write and read about the dharma.
“This existing, that arises,” said the Buddha, and most of this and that involved some kind of suffering. Go back just a few generations, right before the industrial revolution, and you might find your really-great-grandfathers and -grandmothers wandering around with a bunch of other people and a lot of goats, or slaving in the fields all day in the hot sun, having very little “fun” outside of learning a couple of folk songs—“Hey diddy diddy, bim bom bom.” Of course, they continued to have sex, which keeps happening no matter how tired and hungry the humans are, and so the genes kept reproducing themselves, destined to create you and this experience of reading these words.
The whole show is dependent on the elementary forces and particles being born out of the cosmic soup in just the right configurations. (Very well built, this universe. And without nails.) Perhaps we should pay more respect to the so-called “material” world, the stuff out of which our bodies are made. We might try chanting the table of basic elements: “Hydrogen, helium, lithium, berillium, boron, carbon.” It’s almost mantra quality, with all those –ens and –ums and –ons.
The story can go on and on, because it does go on and on, “this existing, that arises.” Of course, what is behind all phenomena remains a mystery, and the first cause stays well hidden. The Buddha did not speculate about the very beginning, and he said that our karma was an “imponderable,” too dense to completely unravel.
Even though it may be impossible to separate out the details, I find it liberating to reflect on the enormous number and complexity of events leading up to this moment of my experience. For me, the reflection becomes a skillful means, diminishing my self-fixation and revealing that all phenomena are conditioned and co-arising. With the help of modern scientific knowledge, I see that the stream of karma is deep and long and wide, and that it swells with the tributaries of physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology and history all mixing into the flow. When I consider all of the converging events that led to this moment, I realize that I don’t create my experience. Instead, I receive it, preassembled by all that came before.
It seems that the only choice I may have is how I react to what happens, or whether I react at all. In meditation, I find that I seem to have some degree of control over mindfulness and this unique human ability—discovered by the Buddha—to override, at least to some extent, the awesome force of karma. So, for whatever freedom and ease I may find in this life, I bow down in gratitude to the Buddha. I also give a nod to the great imponderable stream of causes and conditions that brought me to be acquainted with his genius—and to be writing these words that you are reading now.