We exist in dependence upon causes and conditions

May 13, 2021



Everything exists in dependence upon other things. It’s just the way things are. If we understand it properly, we’ll understand the ultimate way that things exist: their lack of independence.


The first way in which things exist is in dependence upon causes and conditions; they come into existence in dependence upon countless causes and conditions. And when it comes to the thing called a person, that’s called karma, isn’t it? 


When I first learned this from Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok, who was the abbot of Sera Je monastery for seven years, he was the abbot of our monastery in France for ten years and my philosophy teacher in England in the late 70s. He used the example of the object called “Robina.” He said that it can be said, that everything in the universe up to the first moment of Robina is validly a cause and condition for the existence of Robina.


I’ll never forget it, and at the time it sounded pretty cosmic. But let’s look at the logic of it. It’s scientifically true for everything. You can start anywhere you like. Let’s discuss this cup here. Let’s say Mrs. Smith was the designer of this nice cup. We can say, obviously, one of the first causes of this cup is Mrs. Smith, isn’t it? Her mind imagining, conjuring up this design. We can say that, can’t we? Very clear. We know it didn’t fall out of a tree like this. A human mind created it. So, Mrs. Smith had a mother, didn’t she? And if Mrs. Smith didn’t have a mother, there could not be Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith’s mother had a mother, and then you can’t help but say Mrs. Smith’s mother had a mother, and where can you find the first mother? Because as soon as you posit one, you’ve got to posit the previous one, which is the simple logic of cause and effect. That’s the simplest level of dependent arising. As soon as you posit a thing, it has to have a cause. 


Then you’ve got another angle – you think of the clay. Well, clay came from a mountain and that came from previous something and that turned into something else. Then you think of the paint. Everything you look at about this cup – once you start, you cannot do anything but keep going back and back. Of course, we are desperate to find the first cause – but logically, given cause and effect, such a thing cannot exist. It’s fascinating: we always want a first cause. As His Holiness said one time in his conversations with scientists: “Big bang? No problem! Just not the first big bang, that’s all!”


This is a result of having in the depths of our mind the view of self-existence. This is the view that is actually manifesting in the philosophies that assert a creator – that there is a “first cause” and it’s called “God.” Buddha says it’s irrational and illogical. If you posit a law of cause and effect you cannot have an effect without a cause. There is nothing we can point to, that exists, that didn’t come from something a moment before. (But you can have a cause without an effect: if you have an egg, you don’t have to get a chicken, you can break the egg any time you like. But of course, if there’s a chicken, it has to have come from an egg; and you know that that egg has to have come from a chicken, and so forth.)


If there is an effect – and everything that exists at this moment is itself an effect, isn’t it? – it assumes a previous cause, so you will never find a first one. But we frantically want there to be a first cause. “But, but, but there must be,” we’ll say. We ask the question: “When did it begin? When did delusions begin? When did suffering begin? When did karma begin? When did everything begin?” 


We’ve got this view because we cling to self-existence, because we have this misconception deep in the bones of our being. We assume there has to be a first cause, because grasping at self-existent me, grasping at “self-existent anything” is the opposite to cause and effect. 



Karma is a marvelous example of this. Let’s look at the phenomenon called me or self or I. So, right now, we can see we cling to a sense of self that’s very vivid, that’s very solid, separate, lonely, bereft, self-pity, self-conscious, angry, depressed, fearful – all the drama. We live in the bubble of this sense of a separate, lonely me, don’t we? There’s me, and there’s everyone else. This is the biggest lie. This is the experiential, emotional consequence of believing in an inherent me.


Like I said, we don’t think we believe in such an I. we don’t even know what it means. But this is the experiential consequence of it. Fear, drama, anxiety, anger, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, poor me – these are the experiential consequences of this primordial mistake. 


The deepest assumption about this me is that there are no causes coming from me; I didn’t ask to get born, it’s not my fault, everything is done to me, things seem to happen randomly, unfairly. There’s this deepest, pervasive feeling of being an innocent victim, that whatever happens to me has nothing to do with me – including the good things! (But we don’t mind them, we don’t mind if there are no causes: just give me more please!)


We don’t want the ugly things done to me, so we have huge aversion and anger and push it away, and we do crave the lovely things so we have attachment. Attachment and aversion are the consequences of this ignorance, the natural outcropping of ignorance, because we assume an I to have things for. We assume an I that doesn’t want suffering. It’s an assumption deep in the bones of our being. This is the experiential consequence of this mistake that our ignorance makes. 


But thinking about how I am the result of past karma, I’m the result of past actions – you hit me because I hit you before, you’re generous to me because I must have been generous to you before – it loosens the grip of this lonely, bereft self-pity me. We can begin to realize that I am in fact an interdependent scenario, not some lump of poor me plonked on this earth by someone else. That’s why to talk about karma, to think about karma is the most marvelous way to loosen the grip of the “self-pity me,” to loosen the grip of the ego, of the ignorance. It takes time, of course. 


As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “Everything we experience is our own karmic appearance.” There is nothing about us, our life, our experiences, that isn’t the result of past actions. As His Holiness calls it, “self-creation.”


When we can own the good and the bad, we’re transformed: it lessens attachment and anger, make us accountable, lessens fear, makes us courageous. We’re become the boss of our own lives. So powerful.


More blog posts

The buddhas and bodhisattvas come where they’re needed

A question came up recently: Since Lama Zopa passed away and there have been prayers for his swift return, is that to be taken in a literal sense? Will he only reincarnate if there's prayer? It’s a really good question, and the answer is completely logical and simple...

Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung's model of the mind, or Freud's. And you don't get attachment from your...

Share this article