More on contingency & time

Buddha: ‘He who sees the Dharma, sees dependent co-arising.’

In Buddhism a lot of emphasis is placed on pratitya-samutpada, that is: ‘dependent co-arising’ – what we might translate as causality, interdependence and contingency. The way in which each apparent thing/event is dependent upon on all other thing/events in mutual relationship. When we sit in mindful meditation, we are observing causality at work – noticing the web of relationships that binds the universe together into a cohesive whole – spatially and in time.

But how can we be mindful in this way, aware of time and change, if we are also being urged to be in the present, to be awake to the here and now, letting go of past and future? This seems like a contradiction: how can we be both in the present, yet observing the passing of time? In my view, being present is to be alert to, and to engage with, the flux of experience – the arising and decaying of events, the process of living, breathing, experiencing. It is about paying attention to what is happening – how one event is followed by another. It is not about developing, or entering, a rarefied state of suspension, timelessness or transcendence. Awakening, being mindful, is a process – a realisation of the process of being alive. And process involves time, change, the comings and goings of things – the procession of experiences that constitute who we are, and how we are, in the world.

In this way we can observe relationships, mutual dependencies, causality as they occur from moment to moment. We then become aware of how one action, thought or feeling gives rise to another. How our actions, thoughts and feelings give rise to actions, thoughts and feelings in others – which, in turn, effect yet others. This is the web of causality and interdependence of which we, other beings and the whole universe, are composed.

This experience of causality, interdependence and contingency gives rise to questions about how should we act, think and feel, if we are to co-exist with others, and the world, in peace and harmony, with care and understanding? That is, how to minimise conflict, misunderstanding, pain, harm and suffering in its many forms? These questions, articulated and addressed by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, are still central to contemporary Buddhist ethics.