If you have the habit of observing, you will certainly discover an interesting rule. What rule? You will not be able to find any material thing that exists independently, and you will not be able to find any happening that exists independently. In this world, there are no effects without causes and there are no causes without effects. Seeds that are buried in the ground perish prematurely, because they did not get the careful attention of the person doing the sowing. Those that died prematurely are no longer seeds, but become part of the nutrients in the soil.
The world constantly flows on like this, with one thing linked to another, endlessly cycling. Therefore, it is not as it superficially appears to be, composed of countless independent entities. Sometimes what seems to be an inadvertent choice may take the little boat of your life and lead it into a totally different harbor. People call this law “the domino effect” or“the butterfly effect.” Buddhists call it “causal conditioning.” The continuity of causal conditioning is the original causal basis of the continuous flowing changes of life: it is precisely this that creates each and every transformation.
There is a song lyric that says: “If there is a causal connection, they will come a thousand miles to meet. If there is no causal connection, they can be face to face and it will be hard to join hands.” This expresses the true character of the world very well. What true characteristic? Everything in the world, whether it is reasonable or it is unreasonable, is the result of the coming together of causal conditions. Without the coming together of causal conditions, then there would be no appearing of apparent forms. On the other hand, once causal conditions disintegrate, apparent forms disappear along with them. Moreover, this disappearing of an apparent form also implies the birth of another apparent form. This is because often it is the dissolution of one set of causal conditions that is the beginning of another set of causal conditions. This is the law of motion of the whole world. When we genuinely understand “causal conditions” then we understand what impermanence is.
Let me take a simple example. If you do not like rainy weather, then you will feel that when it rains it is troublesome, and it will bring you a lot of annoyances: your shoes will always get wet, and the clothes you have washed cannot get dry. But if every day you are sharing an umbrella with your girlfriend and strolling along together in the rain, enjoying the romance of the rain, then you will surely not regret that it is raining every day.
Thus we say that you should not care too much about anything in the world, because no matter whether you care about it or not, everything will change sometime. What stands out may decline, what is ordinary may become great, what succeeds may fail, and what fails may succeed. How can there be anything certain in this world? Our emotions are always like waves in the wind: this one rises and that one falls. Our view of other people also constantly changes according to what we see and hear. Is there anything that will not pass away? We must not twist and turn because we see adversity before us, and we must not be overjoyed because of some temporary favorable circumstances. Flowing changing causal conditions imply that there are too many possibilities in life. So we must go act, and what can act effectively is just lucidity and a sense of reverence.
You know that the result of every choice we make, of every action we take, becomes the causal basis for the next choice and the next action. The dewdrop evaporates in the sunshine, and turns into water vapor, and rises into the sky. On the original leaf of the tree, there is no trace of it, while in the sky there is one more little bit of moisture. When countless bits of moisture encounters the cold air, they may turn into clouds, and if they happen to encounter the right conditions, they turn into rain and return to the earth. This is the way it is. There is a momentary disjuncture in the cycling between cause and effect: this too is the basic reason why the movement of the world, the changes in the world never cease. Thus we have the illusory awareness of the passage of time and we have memories replacing each other.
On a certain afternoon at dusk, you are standing on a balcony lit by the afterglow of the setting sun, and you remember little things from the past. You might feel that everything in the past, all of the time, is like flowing water. Days and nights flow along without stopping and disappear. All things, all apparent forms, are like bubbles in water: those being born are being born, and those being extinguished are being extinguished. A batch of humans die off, and a batch of humans are born, birth and death, death and birth, like ripples of light on the surface of the water, ceaselessly shimmering.
In reality, the myriad things in the world are all this way. When you observe causal conditions, you must observe all kinds of apparent forms this way. If you are able to observe these apparent forms, it implies that you have developed a kind of wisdom. In Buddhism, there is the teaching of the “twelve links of causation.” It points out the twelve links from causal origination to causal extinction:
The first is ignorance: that is not knowing, stupidity; this is the basic reason that people get trapped in various kinds of causal conditions.
The second is action: that is whatever we say, whatever we do, whatever we think.
The third is consciousness: that is how we interpret external conditions; this is related to the mind of the individual person, and it feeds the seeds of action.
The fourth is name and form: that is, set concepts and viewpoints and so on not related to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conceptual mind.
Fifth is the six sense organs: that is, we get information about the external world through the six sense faculties eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conceptual mind, and we use this to know the world.
Sixth is contact: that is aware of contact and the feelings that take shape instantaneously from contact.
Seventh is a sensation: this is getting sensation, receiving certain feelings, or certain results.
Eighth is craving: this is greedy desire, becoming besotted with certain feelings or emotions, and being unwilling to let go of it.
Ninth is attachment: this is pursuing desires and seeking more and more.
The tenth is being: this is possessing or existing; this kind of possessing or existing is empty and illusory and impermanent and corresponds to the beginning of the operation of [causal conditions] coming together.
The eleventh is birth: this is empty, illusory, impermanent appearance, birth, production.
Twelfth is old age and death: this means the changes that happen to things and events and apparent forms when the causal conditions that created them dissolve and scatter.
It is said: “Ignorance conditions action, action conditions consciousness, consciousness conditions name and form, name and form condition the six sense organs, the six sense organs condition contact, contact conditions sensation, sensation conditions craving, craving conditions attachment, attachment conditions being, being conditions birth, and birth conditions old age and death.” This means that our ignorance brings about all sorts of actions, words, and states of consciousness, and these things form our understanding of the whole world. After a long time, this understanding becomes set concepts and biased perceptions. When you contact the world through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conceptual mind, then you will be under the influence of set concepts and biased perceptions, and you will generate biased perceptions of the world. Your biased perceptions will influence the feelings you get when you come in contact with things and events. When you crave these feelings, then you want to hold onto them, and you even want to get more of them. So then, you will be impelled by desires to make choices that bring along the biased perceptions, and these choices will produce a result. But at the same time, this result is produced, it also implies that it will change, following changes in the foregoing causal elements.
This process is like a cotton thread soaked in gasoline: once you light the end of the “cotton thread”, that is, use wisdom to see through ignorance, the flame will keep on spreading, and incinerate the whole thread till there is nothing left. At this point, your mind will be set free from endless cycling. As it is said: “When ignorance is extinguished, then action is extinguished; when action is extinguished, then consciousness is extinguished, when consciousness is extinguished, then name and form are extinguished; when name and form are extinguished, then the six sense organs are extinguished: when the six sense organs are extinguished, then contact is extinguished; when contact is extinguished, then the sensation is extinguished: when sensation is extinguished, then craving is extinguished; when the craving is extinguished, then the attachment is extinguished; when the attachment is extinguished, then being is extinguished; when being is extinguished, then birth is extinguished; when a birth is extinguished, then old age and death are extinguished.”