Causes And Effects - Things And No-Things
As further groundwork for exploring Tao as a potential candidate for “first cause,” let’s be clear about what a cause-and-effect paradigm requires: namely, identifiable “things” which then play the roles of identifiable “causes” and their identifiable “effects.” While such a paradigm -- as a kind of collective projection -- has validity within limited (say, Newtonian) frameworks, it does not stand up to a deeper analysis. Excerpting from my review of David Loy’s Nonduality:
“The category conflict between Parmenidean Being and Heraclitean Becoming is resolved by a double dialectic that first dissolves all things into temporal flux and then turns that flux back upon itself, leaving an Eternal Now that is not incompatible with change when we realize that it is always now.”
The two steps of this “double dialectic” -- spelled out in a bit more detail -- are as follows:
Step one: “Things” are shown to be none other than their causes and conditions (i.e. to be wholly determined by their parts, contexts, and conceptual designations -- without any “essence” or fixed “identity” as an identifiable “thing”). So: what’s left is a temporal flux, seemingly defined by the mechanism of cause-and-effect (aka karma).
Step two: The mechanism of cause-and-effect (the supposed driving force, in Newtonian space/time, of this continuous temporal flux) is seen to depend for its own existence upon the existence of identifiable “things” with which to function (via causes and effects). However, since any such “things” have, in the previous step, been dissolved -- shown to be nonexistent, as such -- the space/time cause-and-effect mechanism no longer has a ground upon which to function, so itself is dissolved.
In other words: “things” and “cause-and-effect” are mutually dependent; you can’t have one without the other.
So: since ultimately there are no “things,” ultimately there is no “cause and effect” .... so ultimately the “problem” of a first-cause is not a problem.
The Buck Stops Here
Having realized the illusory nature of a Newtonian cause-and-effect paradigm, what becomes of our search for a “first cause” -- say from a more nondual, Taoist point of view? A story relayed in The Island by Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro may offer a clue ....
By way of introduction: In Buddhist practice, attention is given not so much to looking for a “first cause” (something which the Buddha actively discouraged) as to seeking a “final dissolution”: the “place” in which the elements “cease without remainder.” Arriving at this “final dissolution” equates to a transcendence of nama/rupa i.e. subject/object duality, which, in Buddhism, is understood to be the origin of all suffering and dis-ease.[Paradoxically, this “final dissolution” turns out to be equivalent to the (Buddhist version of an ontological) “first cause” -- for the “place” out of which all phenomena arise, is none other than the “place” into which they dissolve -- but once again we’re getting ahead of ourselves ...]
The story relayed here, by Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro, recounts an episode recorded in the Kevaddha Sutta of the Pali Canon, and -- as you’ll see -- is quite resonant with our “infinite regress” theme:
“[The Buddha] tells of a monk in the mind of whom the question arises: ‘I wonder where it is that the four great elements -- Earth, Water, Fire and Wind -- cease without remainder?’ Being a skilled meditator, the bhikkhu in question enters a state of absorption and ‘the path to the gods becomes open to him.’ He begins putting his question to the first gods he meets ....
Onward and upward through successive heavens he travels, continually being met with the same reply: ‘We do not know but you should try asking ...’ “
Up & up the celestial hierarchy this inquisitive monk climbs, each time meeting with the proverbial passing-of-the-buck: one god after the next unable to answer his question. Eventually, he finds himself in the presence of none other than the Great Brahma Himself (the CEO of the Hindu pantheon) who -- after hemming and hawing and in all variety of ways attempting to change the subject, admits that he also has no idea of the answer to the monk’s question. At this point Brahma suggests -- in a whisper, so as not to compromise, among those close to him, his status as all-knowing -- a consultation with the Blessed Lord (aka the Buddha), and advises that whatever answer Buddha offers, the monk should accept as true. In other words, the top-God of Hinduism is (at least according to this Buddhist scripture) admitting to the greater wisdom of Shakyamuni Buddha.
So then, in the Sutta, the story continues, with Buddha reporting:
“So that monk, as swiftly as a strong man might flex or unflex his arm, vanished from the brahma world and appeared in my presence. He prostrated himself before me, and sat down to one side and said: ‘Lord, where do the four great elements -- the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element -- cease without remainder?’
I replied: ‘... But monk, you should not ask your question in this way: ‘Where do the four great elements -- the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element -- cease without remainder?’ Instead, this is how the question should have been put:
‘Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?
Where are long and short, small and great, fair and foul --
Where are ‘name and form’ wholly destroyed?’
And the answer is: [drum-roll ....]
‘Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
That’s where earth, water, fire and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and large, fair and foul --
There ‘name and form’ are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of [limited] consciousness this is all destroyed.’
Thus the Lord spoke, and the householder Kevaddha, delighted, rejoiced at his words.”