"(1) When this is, that is.
(2) From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
(3) When this isn't, that isn't.
(4) From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that."
A X 92
There are many possible ways of interpreting this formula, but only one does justice both to the way the formula is worded and to the complex, fluid manner in which specific examples of causal relationships are described in the texts. That way is to view the formula as the interplay of two causal principles: one diachronic, acting over time; and the other synchronic, acting in a single instant of time. The two principles combine to form a non-linear pattern. The diachronic principle -- taking (2) and (4) as a pair -- connects events, rather than objects, over time; the synchronic principle -- (1) and (3) -- connects objects and events in the present moment. The two principles intersect, so that any given event is influenced by two sets of conditions: input acting from the past and input acting from the present.
Although each principle seems simple, the fact that they interact makes their consequences very complex. To begin with, every act has repercussions in the present moment together with reverberations extending into the future. Depending on the intensity of the act, these reverberations can last for a very short or a very long time. Thus every event takes place in a context determined by the combined effects of past events coming from a wide range in time, together with the effects of present acts. These effects can intensify one another, can coexist with little interaction, or can cancel one another out. Thus, even though it is possible to predict that a certain type of act will tend to give a certain type of result -- for example, acting on anger will lead to pain -- there is no way to predict when or where that result will make itself felt.
The complexity of the system is further enhanced by the fact that both causal principles meet at the mind. Through its views and intentions, the mind takes a causal role in keeping both principles in action. Through its sensory powers, it is affected by the results of the causes it has set in motion. This creates the possibility for the causal principles to feed back into themselves, as the mind reacts to the results of its own actions. These reactions can take the form of positive feedback loops, intensifying the original input and its results, much like the howl in a speaker placed next to the microphone feeding into it. They can also create negative feedback loops, counteracting the original input, much like the action of a thermostat that turns off a heater when the temperature in a room is too high, and turns it on again when it gets too low. Because the results of actions can be immediate, and the mind can then react to them immediately, these feedback loops can at times quickly spin out of control; at other times, they may act as skillful checks on one's behavior. For example, a man may act out of anger, which gives him an immediate sense of dis-ease to which he may react with further anger, thus creating a snowballing effect. On the other hand, he may come to understand that the anger is causing his dis-ease, and so immediately does what he can to stop it. However, there can also be times when the results of his past actions may obscure the dis-ease he is causing himself in the present, so that he does not immediately react to it one way or another. This means that, although there are general patterns relating habitual acts to corresponding results, there is no set one-for-one, tit-for-tat, relationship between a particular action and its results. Instead, the results are determined by the context of the act, both in terms of actions that preceded or followed it and in terms one's state of mind at the time of acting or experiencing the result.
In this way, the combination of two causal principles -- influences from the past interacting with those in the immediate present -- accounts for the complexity of causal relationships as they function on the level of immediate experience. However, the combination of the two principles also opens the possibility for finding a systematic way to break the causal web. If causes and effects were entirely linear, the cosmos would be totally deterministic, and nothing could be done to escape from the machinations of the causal process. If they were entirely synchronic, there would be no relationship from one moment to the next, and all events would be arbitrary. The web could break down totally or reform spontaneously for no reason at all. However, with the two modes working together, one can learn from causal patterns observed from the past and apply one's insights to disentangling the same causal patterns acting in the present. If one's insights are true, one can then gain freedom from those patterns. This allowance opens the possibility for escape from the cycle of kamma altogether by means of a fourth type of kamma, in addition to good, bad, and a mixture of good and bad. This fourth type of kamma leads to the ending of kamma by developing heightened skillfulness through the pursuit of the noble eightfold path.
In addition, the non-linearity of this/that conditionality explains why heightened skillfulness, when focused on the present moment, can succeed in leading to the end of the kamma that has formed the experience of the entire cosmos. All non-linear processes exhibit what is called scale invariance, which means that the behavior of the process on any one scale is similar to its behavior on smaller or larger scales. To understand, say, the large-scale pattern of a particular non-linear process, one need only focus on its behavior on a smaller scale that is easier to observe, and one will see the same pattern at work. In the case of kamma, one need only focus on the process of kamma in the immediate present, in the course of developing heightened skillfulness, and the large-scale issues over the expanses of space and time will become clear as one gains release from them.
The teaching on dependent co-arising helps to provide more detailed instructions on this point, showing precisely where the cycle of kamma provides openings for more skillful present input. In doing so, it both explains the importance of the act of attention in developing the fourth type of kamma, and acts as a guide for focusing attention on present experience in appropriate ways.
Dependent co-arising shows how the cosmos, when viewed in the context of how it is directly experienced by a person developing skillfulness, is subsumed entirely under factors that are immediately present to awareness: the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, and consciousness, and the six sense media. The standard list of causal factors runs as follows: the suffering and stress of aging, illness, and death depend on birth; birth in turn depends on becoming; and so on down through clinging, craving, feeling, sensory contact, the six senses (counting ideation as the sixth), name and form (mental and physical phenomena), sensory consciousness, mental fabrications, and ignorance. Although the list reads like a linear pattern, the precise definitions of the terms shows that it is filled with many feedback loops. Because it is non-linear, it thus functions on several scales: "birth," for instance, refers both to the birth of a physical organism and to the birth of a sense of being in the mind.
Included in this list is the Buddha's ultimate analysis of kamma and rebirth. For instance, the nexus of kamma, clinging, becoming, and birth accounts for the realm in which birth takes place. Kamma (covered under the factors of name and form) gives rise to the five aggregates, which form the objects for craving and clinging. Once there is clinging, there is a "coming-into-being" in any of three realms: the sensual realm, the realm of form, and the formless realm. These realms refer not only to levels of being on the cosmic scale, but also to levels of mental states. Some mental states are concerned with sensual images, others with forms, and still others with formless abstractions. The relationship between birth and becoming can be compared to the process of falling asleep and dreaming. As drowsiness makes the mind lose contact with waking reality, a dream image of another place and time will appear in it. The appearance of this image is called becoming. The act of entering into this image and taking on a role or identity within it -- and thus entering the world of the dream and falling asleep -- is birth. The commentaries to the Pali texts maintain that precisely the same process is what enables rebirth to follow the death of the body. At the same time, the analogy between falling asleep and taking birth explains why release from the cycle of becoming is called Awakening.
Once there is birth in a particular realm, the nexus of name-and-form with consciousness accounts for the arising and survival of the active organism within that realm. Without consciousness, the mental and physical organism would die. Without the mental and physical organism, consciousness would have no place to land and develop. This nexus also explains the feedback loops that can lead to skillful action. "Name" includes the sub-factors of attention, intention, feeling, perception, and contact, which are precisely the factors at work in the process of kamma and its result. The first lesson of skillfulness is that the essence of an action lies in the intention motivating it: an act motivated by the intention for greater skillfulness will give results different from those of an act motivated by greed, aversion, or delusion. Intention, in turn, is influenced by the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the act of attention to one's circumstances. The less an act of attention is clouded by delusion, the more clearly it will see things in appropriate terms. The combination of attention and intention in turn determines the quality of the feeling and the physical events ("form") that result from the act. The more skilled the action, the more refined these results will be. Perceptions arise with regard to those results, some more appropriate than others. The act of attention selects which ones to focus on, thus feeding back into another round in the cycle of action. Underlying the entire cycle is the fact that all its factors are in contact with consciousness.
This interplay of name, form, and consciousness provides an answer to the quandary of how the stress and suffering inherent in the cycle of action can be ended. If one tried simply to stop the cycle through a direct intention, the intention itself would count as kamma, and thus as a factor to keep the cycle going. This double bind can be dissolved, however, if one can watch as the contact between consciousness and the cycle naturally falls away. This requires, not inaction, but more and more appropriate attention to the process of kamma itself. When one's attention to and mastery of the process becomes fully complete, there occurs a point of equipoise called "non-fashioning" (atammayata), in which the contact between the processes of kamma and consciousness -- still fully conscious -- naturally becomes disengaged. One modern teacher has compared this disengagement to that of a fruit naturally falling, when fully ripened, from the tree. This is how the cycle of action comes to an end in the moment of Awakening.
As this analysis shows, the most important obstacle to release is the element of ignorance that keeps the act of attention from being fully perceptive. As the Buddha traced the element of ignorance that underlay the processes of mental fabrication that kept the cycle of kamma going, he found that it came down to ignorance of the four noble truths: the identity of the truths, the duties appropriate to each, and the mastery of those duties. When this ignorance is fully overcome, the craving that keeps the cycle going will have nothing to fasten on, for all the possible objects that it might fasten on are seen for what they are: suffering and stress. With no place to land, craving disappears, and the cycle can come to an end.
The Four Noble Truths
Because knowledge in terms of the four noble truths is what ends ignorance and craving, the Buddha most often expressed transcendent right view in their terms. These truths focus the analysis of kamma directly on the question of stress and suffering: issues that tie in immediately with the narratives that people make of their own life experiences. As the Buddha noted in his second insight, his memory of previous lives included his experience of pleasure and pain in each life, and most people -- when recounting their own lives -- tend to focus on these issues as well. The four truths, however, do not stop simply with tales about stress: they approach it from the problem-solving perspective of a person engaged in developing a skill. What this means for the meditator trying to master the fourth type of kamma is that these truths cannot be fully comprehended by passive observation. Only by participating sensitively in the process of developing skillful powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment -- and gaining a practical feel for the relationship of cause and effect among the mental factors that shape that process -- can one eradicate the ignorance that obstructs the ending of kamma. Thus, only through developing skillfulness to the ultimate degree can the cycle be brought to equilibrium and, as a result, disband.
The Knowledge of Unbinding
The truth of the Buddha's understanding of the processes of kamma -- as informed by this/that conditionality, dependent co-arising, and the four noble truths -- was proven by the knowledge of Unbinding that followed immediately on his mastery of the fourth type of kamma. He found that when skillfulness is intentionally brought to a point of full consummation, as expressed in the direct awareness of this/that conditionality, it leads to a state of non-action, or non-fashioning, that forms the threshold to a level of consciousness in which all experience of the cosmos has fallen away. When one's experience of the cosmos resumes after the experience of Awakening, one sees clearly that it is composed entirely of the results of old kamma; with no new kamma being added to the process, all experience of the cosmos will eventually run out -- or, in the words of the texts, "will grow cold right here." This discovery proved the basic premise that kamma not only plays a role in shaping experience of the cosmos, it plays the primary role. If this were not so, then even when kamma was ended there would still remain the types of experience that came from other sources. But because none of the limitations of the cosmos remained when all present kamma disbanded, and none would resume after all old kamma ran out, kamma would have to be the necessary factor accounting for all experience of those limitations. This fact implies that even the limiting factors that one encounters in terms of sights, sounds, etc., are actually the fruit of past kamma in thought, word, and deed -- committed not only in this, but also in many preceding lifetimes. Thus, even though the Buddha's development of the fourth type of kamma focused on the present moment, the resulting Awakening gave insights that encompassed all of time.
Faith in the Principle of Kamma
From this discussion it should become clear why kamma, as an article of faith, is a necessary factor in the path of Buddhist practice. The teaching on kamma, in its narrative and cosmological forms, provides the context for the practice, giving it direction and urgency. Because the cosmos is governed by the laws of kamma, those laws provide the only mechanism by which happiness can be found. But because good and bad kamma, consisting of good and bad intentions, simply perpetuate the ups and downs of experience in the cosmos, a way must be found out of the mechanism of kamma by mastering it in a way that allows it to disband in an attentive state of non-intention. And, because there is no telling what sudden surprises the results of one's past kamma may still hold in store, one should try to develop that mastery as quickly as possible.
In its "empty" mode -- i.e., focusing on the process of action, without referring to questions of whether or not there is a self or a being behind the processes -- the teaching on kamma accounts for the focus and the terms of analysis used in the practice. It also accounts for the mental qualities needed to attain and maintain that level of focus and analysis. In terms of focus, the principle of scale invariance at work in the complexities of kamma means that their essential processes can be mastered by giving total attention to phenomena in and of themselves in the immediate present. These phenomena are then analyzed in terms of the four noble truths, the terms used in observing and directing the experience of developing the qualities of skillful action. The most immediate skillful kamma that can be observed on this level is the mastery of the very same mental qualities that are supporting this refined level of focus and analysis: mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, together with the more basic qualities on which they are based. Thus, these mental qualities act not only as supports to the focus and analysis, but also as their object. Ultimately, discernment becomes so refined that the focus and analysis take as their object the act of focusing and analyzing, in and of themselves. The cycle of action then short-circuits as it reaches culmination, and Unbinding occurs.